Column #16 Motherland magazine

Clare Dwyer Hogg on working with – rather than against – the ebbs and flows of life

Rhythm. I’m using this word a lot recently. Not in the musical sense (singing is something I must do in a strictly private capacity). Rather, as a description for elements of my life. When I’m not happy about how I’m doing something (this happens a lot), I’ve heard myself say: “I still haven’t found the rhythm”. I’ve discovered this helps. It wards off constant self-beration. It negates the need to get something right first time. Finding a rhythm is about experimenting and adjusting and figuring out how things work best. Turns out, it’s much less pressurising approaching life in this way.

This mode of thought isn’t a tool to give myself a high-five every time I get something wrong. It isn’t a cunning ruse to ditch work, either: in fact, it promotes work. I’m trying to find something, and working until I find it. The work, though, is buffered by grace.  If I’m thinking that I’m searching for a rhythm, then I will afford myself some extra grace in the meantime while I’m still jarring along uncomfortably. I got it wrong. Fine. I wasn’t aware of a counter-current – now I am.

Thinking like this also allows time to bring wisdom. Otherwise, I’m inclined to force the processes of time through the very narrow neck of a dam hurriedly built to Try And Make Things Work. Less this, more Samuel Beckett (‘Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’) The creeping fear is that letting time help me figure it out is inefficient. That getting things wrong lots of times is a poor reflection of me. This is just a strange early-school hangover from believing that getting things right can be learned from a text-book. Finding rhythms in the threads of life is different from getting grammar right.

There is a buffer of grace that comes from knowing this. Similarly, accepting the presence of time rather than trying to beat it, helps. Acknowledging that time swirls around as I move through experiences, gives me the space to figure out when to walk, when to sprint, what moves worked, and what didn’t. This isn’t hippy-talk, it’s literalism.

Living like this is very different from trying to leap the high-jump and failing, taking another run and failing again. The process, when finding rhythms, is not as static. Like a river, life and what I must do within it, flows on. It isn’t a series of stop-start failures and successes. It is everything, together, flowing through me and around me. I can mentally section it off if I like. But I should be aware of the danger of becoming like an outsider, evaluating my life as a collection of wins and losses.

No, I’d prefer to learn to find the grace that takes more time, but is fully immersed. I think I’ll be less judgemental of my failures then, because I’m not divided – one part judging, one part trying. And if I’m less judgemental, I’ll be less regretful when things don’t work out the first or second or ninetieth time. I’ll know that I’ve waded in, and tried, and am fully committed to finding the best path through the water. I think to be immersed will give a clarity infused by grace. This is something that’s just not possible when I’m standing on the river bank making a list of what’s going wrong.

written for Motherland magazine, 13th January 2015

Advertisements

Column #16 Motherland magazine

Clare Dwyer Hogg on working with – rather than against – the ebbs and flows of life

Rhythm. I’m using this word a lot recently. Not in the musical sense (singing is something I must do in a strictly private capacity). Rather, as a description for elements of my life. When I’m not happy about how I’m doing something (this happens a lot), I’ve heard myself say: “I still haven’t found the rhythm”. I’ve discovered this helps. It wards off constant self-beration. It negates the need to get something right first time. Finding a rhythm is about experimenting and adjusting and figuring out how things work best. Turns out, it’s much less pressurising approaching life in this way.

This mode of thought isn’t a tool to give myself a high-five every time I get something wrong. It isn’t a cunning ruse to ditch work, either: in fact, it promotes work. I’m trying to find something, and working until I find it. The work, though, is buffered by grace.  If I’m thinking that I’m searching for a rhythm, then I will afford myself some extra grace in the meantime while I’m still jarring along uncomfortably. I got it wrong. Fine. I wasn’t aware of a counter-current – now I am.

Thinking like this also allows time to bring wisdom. Otherwise, I’m inclined to force the processes of time through the very narrow neck of a dam hurriedly built to Try And Make Things Work. Less this, more Samuel Beckett (‘Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’) The creeping fear is that letting time help me figure it out is inefficient. That getting things wrong lots of times is a poor reflection of me. This is just a strange early-school hangover from believing that getting things right can be learned from a text-book. Finding rhythms in the threads of life is different from getting grammar right.

There is a buffer of grace that comes from knowing this. Similarly, accepting the presence of time rather than trying to beat it, helps. Acknowledging that time swirls around as I move through experiences, gives me the space to figure out when to walk, when to sprint, what moves worked, and what didn’t. This isn’t hippy-talk, it’s literalism.

Living like this is very different from trying to leap the high-jump and failing, taking another run and failing again. The process, when finding rhythms, is not as static. Like a river, life and what I must do within it, flows on. It isn’t a series of stop-start failures and successes. It is everything, together, flowing through me and around me. I can mentally section it off if I like. But I should be aware of the danger of becoming like an outsider, evaluating my life as a collection of wins and losses.

No, I’d prefer to learn to find the grace that takes more time, but is fully immersed. I think I’ll be less judgemental of my failures then, because I’m not divided – one part judging, one part trying. And if I’m less judgemental, I’ll be less regretful when things don’t work out the first or second or ninetieth time. I’ll know that I’ve waded in, and tried, and am fully committed to finding the best path through the water. I think to be immersed will give a clarity infused by grace. This is something that’s just not possible when I’m standing on the river bank making a list of what’s going wrong.

written for Motherland magazine, 13th January 2015

Column #15 Motherland magazine

Clare Dwyer Hogg reconsiders the commitments she makes to others – and to herself

Is being flexible a positive thing? Of course it is. Of course. Except that someone pointed out to me that being pervasively flexible practically dictates that people interpret my requests similarly flexibly. It was thought-provoking. I can’t feel unhappy about not being understood if don’t make myself understood.

It is a natural progression from last week’s column about the foundations we constantly have to build. The space I share with others has to be very carefully thought about. What type of ground am I inviting people to walk on with me? If there’s a lot of give and take, it will be comfortable for others, but if there’s too much flexibility, it won’t be very comfortable for me. Equally, if my flooring is pure concrete, the people I’m in relationship with will have no doubt about what I need, but it may not be an entirely pleasant place for them to exist.

Some people (concrete flooring) have no problems articulating what they want or need. Their mission may well have to be how to temper their requests. They might have to think about how to articulate them in a way that doesn’t sandblast the needs of the hearer into non-existence. Yet despite its more benign appearance, I am thinking that my ultra-flexi approach has equally destructive tendencies. For a start, I’m not always communicating truthfully. If I shim-sham about being OK with something when I’m not, it gives a false impression. I can’t blame the hearer for believing what I say.

I’m not talking about very obvious “big” things here. I’m not flexible on dishonesty, or standing by when I think something is wrong. I mean the apparently small things, the little details that make up life. Saying how much time I really need to do something. What help I need in certain circumstances. Whether I mind doing a favour or not.

I believe that it is very important to put ourselves out for others, to sacrifice some time and effort, to swallow a sinking feeling and do something annoying if it helps the flow – I value those things highly. I really believe that life could be better if people ditched their concrete path and went with the organic nature of circumstance more. But there’s a difference between choosing to define the small important things that will make your life more bearable, and ignoring them.

It seems to me that these small important things are like the markings on a clock face. Time is a boundless entity and we have figured out a system to measure it – without the little markings, we’re lost. That’s what I’m beginning to wonder about the unarticulated things that really matter. If I don’t make them clear, then what I need in the middle of it all is lost. And that doesn’t fit with my plan to invest in the small things that make up the big picture.

Defining things properly would really help me, and I think it would help the people around me too. The markings on a clock aren’t rude – they’re just a fact. And flexibility is a state that isn’t eradicated by the existence of facts.

written for Motherland magazine, 6th January 2015

Column #14 Motherland magazine

Clare Dwyer Hogg’s resolution for 2015? Building internal foundations strong enough to weather personal storms

I am in no way a builder. I possess no skills in structural engineering. People who know me will grin widely even at the thought. But I’ve been thinking about foundations. My own personal foundations, and how I’ve built them.

The wisdom is to build foundations before the structure, but really things happen in a much more skew-whiff sort of way. Marriage, relationships, stepping into a new job or way of life – often the first thing you get is the fancy building for all to see, foundations not included. Once you’re through the doors, that’s when the work begins: that’s when you’re prising open the floorboards and digging down to create foundations to make the thing last.

It’s a strange perspectival shift. And I think it only works if, no matter what’s going on in life, you are always strengthening your own personal foundations. How? An ongoing process of digging down to find what anchors you in the surety of who you are. It goes deeper than what you like or don’t like about yourself, what decisions you made, or didn’t. Foundations reach the core, as you dig down to the very knowledge of how you want to live – what you will and won’t do, what your own boundaries are, what your deeply held rules are for living a life that is yours.

I don’t think I’ve been very good at this, because I haven’t until recent years been as conscious as I am now of the importance of cultivating my own inner life. The outside was too dazzling, and I was too open to offering myself as comparison. The priority was to invest in the thing, rather than figure out if the thing could take root in the core of me.

One thing to note: as I dig deeper into my own space, I often look at choices I made and think I probably wouldn’t have made them if I had been more sure of myself, had stronger foundations. But beware of the regret that will try to sidle in along with these realisations. Here’s the valuable conundrum in which regret has no room to breathe: without those choices, I wouldn’t be where I am now.

I am very happy to create a mindset that suffocates regret.

If my foundations are in the process of being firmly established, this means that when I open the floorboards of whatever new thing appears in my life, I am not starting from scratch. Instead, I’m digging down to meet the foundations that are already there. I’m joining the new enterprises with my own foundations. This means they won’t float away with the first storm, and neither will I, because I am my foundations, and they are not subject to the vagaries of weather fronts. Equally, if relationships, jobs or ideas I have taken on start to crumble – as they have been known to – my foundations will shake with the tremor of loss, but the deepest part of me won’t crumble with them.

It isn’t a scientific process, but it’s a heart-felt one. I think that nothing I’m involved with has much of a chance of meaningfully lasting unless it is connected to my own personal foundations. And there’s no point doing that, unless my own foundations are deep and considered, and true to what I want for my life.

Written for Motherland magazine, 30th December 2014

Column #13 Motherland magazine

What is true contentment?

I am all too aware of the irony. The subject this week is contentment. Except I’m writing with the gnaw of discontent in the pit of my stomach. This discontent is mostly because today I feel that I’m behind on time. It’s ironic, because my current thoughts are about how to be content despite whatever is happening around me.

So here I am, feeling far from content, even though about five hours ago (before I started to run late), I felt content. Does that mean contentment is a feeling? If so, then what I’m experiencing shouldn’t be a surprise. If contentment is a feeling, then I should expect it to ebb and flow, shift with the tides, adjust according to psychological weather fronts, waxing and waning moons, minor personal adjustments and situational comedies or tragedies beyond my control.

If contentment is a feeling.

I’m wondering if that’s a reductive view of being content.

I’m thinking that expecting contentment to be a temporary state as a result of something external, comes from a mode of thinking that has striving at its core. Striving to make things better, to be better, to do more, to do more well… regretting the times it didn’t work… I think that striving, while driving me forward, also hooked a claw into my soul with a note saying ‘let go of me and you’ll fail’. There’s a weird security in striving. As if it’s the only way to get things done. A little bit like the strange comfort in feeling that stress is a sign I am doing all I can in some given field.

Maybe we think like this because contentment is seen as a plateau. A final adios to ambition. Discontent, on the other hand, is the grit in the oyster that makes a pearl. I think this pretty much sums up my unconscious ideas. But how does that translate into real life living? Not a pretty sight. How can I enjoy where I am if I’m always being goaded to create content, while simultaneously relying on outer circumstances to determine how high or low the level is?

Look at the word: content. You can read it in two ways. First: what I am filled with. Second: the feeling of being at peace. I’m always looking for the second, but I think I have to get the first sorted out before that.

First: if I have a foundational level of content – what fills me – how does that change things? That is something that exists no matter what, and can’t be diminished. What fills me is the sum of all my parts, despite the world outside of me. If I am happy with that, then contentment could be a permanent state of being, because a being is what I am.

This is how I’m imagining it: if my essential being is the river bed, then external circumstances plus my own drive to change them, are the river. That means that one source of content in my life can ebb and flow, while another stays completely whole and complete.  It isn’t about not wanting to change things about myself  – that can still happen, as an organic process (with some processes being more conscious than others). A river-bed isn’t in stasis. It’s alive. It changes, grows, flourishes in some areas, dies in others, and can be consciously redirected if necessary – but is still, essentially, itself.

So how to be essentially content despite – not because of – extraneous circumstances? I think it only comes by separating achievements and actions and happenings from the river-bed over which they flow.

Truth is, I was stressed before writing this because my predicted schedule was off by a couple of hours, and events around me weren’t going how I’d imagined. If I was actually practicing what I’m preaching, I wouldn’t let the off-kilter-ness of the day spin me off into outer space along with it, because I wouldn’t be resting my own being on the success or not of my plans. My achievements or failures wouldn’t be elevated to the grand narrative of my life.  They’d just be the story of a day.

written for Motherland magazine on 24th December 2014

Column #12 Motherland magazine

In a life of constant demands, when to say ‘yes’ and when to say ‘no’? CDH on making choices that feed our goals

I’ve been thinking about when to say yes to things, and when to say no. It’s so simple to write. Harder in real life. But, I realise, only harder if I haven’t consciously made a decision about my core ‘yes’. Once I know that, it’s easier to say no.

In this way: I used to feel that I had to say yes to nearly everything. That if I didn’t do everything, I might miss out. I think I missed out on a lot because I did everything. Maybe taking every opportunity is a state of mind when emerging into adulthood. But well-worn paths in my brain are easy to slip into, even now that I’ve been an adult for quite some time. A wise friend said if I knew my ‘yes’, the ‘no’ would be easier. To do things differently, I had to think about what my ‘yes’ is. It makes sense: if I have a clear sense of what I want, I won’t need to do things that don’t align with it.

This may sound ruthless, but it isn’t. Rather than shutting things down, it’s just a case of not opening them up. It’s seeing the big picture, and acknowledging that the fine details of everyday make that picture exist.

I’m not going through all the doors that open in my sphere now, because I see that it isn’t always necessary. It’s partly to do with security – finding a security in the yes means not worrying about the no. Saying no can actually be a real relief. This fits for work, family, friends, everything. Even on demands that I might ordinarily make of myself. And I don’t have to feel bad about it, because I’ve decided the space that I’ve chosen to cultivate. It’s about honing my space, and being able to really dig in to choice aspects of every area of life. This kind of thinking feels different to before, when the nets were wide and attention was scattered.

The fear would be that this thinking bricks up doors of opportunity, or cuts people off. Unfounded. It’s much more like the land metaphor again. Realising that sometimes I’m the only one putting energies into watering a relationship (with a person or a project or an idea) that has little return. Stopping that. Making a manageable area fruitful, so it becomes really fruitful.

To my surprise, life like this isn’t pedestrian. In fact, it can be much scarier. Putting all my energy into certain things will really tell a tale. And the doors I say yes to? It seems to me that they are much more risky to go through. They really matter. What’s more, I’ve discovered that the paths leading from those doors are not at all well marked. This is unlike the other doors I’ve run through just because they were open. While there was nothing inherently wrong with them, their paths were often circular, leading me straight back out to where I’d come from – and with a little less energy than before.

No, these doors are different. Often, when I open them, delighted to find they aren’t locked, I find they lead right out into the sky. There’s no discernable path through the blue and cloud. And then, really looking, I see a hint of a rope-bridge, with just enough visibility ahead for one step. The way ahead is not clear at all, but I know (and hope) it’s in the right direction.

This isn’t a treatise on throwing planning to the wind – quite the opposite. It’s a description of how planning looks different than I thought it should. Now I’m thinking that planning isn’t about knowing the twists and turns of my path ahead. It’s knowing what is of central importance, and doing what develops and benefits that core. (While bearing in mind that sometimes the situations that develop and benefit don’t have the most attractive doors in the world).

On the surface, it’s a mental shift. Deep down, this risky stepping forward becomes much more fulfilling than my previous plan: covering all bases for surety, and having no sense of surety at all.

Motherland magazine

BBC London 20th December

Here’s all the info from today’s chat with Robert Elms…godspeed with ticking off those lists!

London designer James Ward with his brilliant ceramics (and 20% off for listeners if you go to his shop)
http://www.jimbobart.com

Halls of Wonder gallery in Stoke Newington, right where Edgar Allen Poe lived (with great wall art inspired by him) http://www.outline-editions.co.uk

The independent children’s shop Niddle Noddle, for presents you won’t have seen before. http://www.niddlenoddle.com

Buy a can from a deli provided by the Trussell Trust, and you’ll be donating £3 to a food bank. (Also find your local food bank to donate in kind.) http://www.trusselltrust.org

Go to the Southbank Centre to buy some interesting things from the main shop or pop up charity shop, and see the Winter Festival, too. http://www.southbankcentre.co.uk

Give someone you don’t know a present: Centrepoint, homeless charity for young people in London has a brilliant array of options from £5. http://www.centrepoint.org.uk

Column #11 Motherland magazine

I keep feeling that life is relentless. It’s relentless, but good. That’s what I say, when people ask. It is good. In my thought life, though, the word “relentless” has become a banner over me. And I’m starting to think I don’t like that. Yes, my life is full on. Like everyone reading this, I have a lot to do. It can feel relentless. But what do you think of when you imagine that word? Everything I see is driven forward without ceasing. Galloping horses at war. Rain so heavy it’s diagonal. Mao’s Long March.

Those are extreme images, but having articulated them to myself, they put my feelings about the day-to-day in a context. Which in turn lets me stand back and look at that context. It looks like there’s something comforting about thinking “it’s relentless!” because it absolves me of my own position in my own life. It’s as if a whip from some unseen hand is driving me ever-forward. When, really, it’s actually up to me to decide which context I put my life in.

I think that the unseen hand wielding the whip is anxiety. Turns out that relentlessness and anxiety are lovers, and I didn’t even know.

I genuinely try not to be anxious. Often that’s an aim rather than an achievement, and I see that very clearly when I gaze on the context of relentlessness. Anxiety makes things relentless because anxiety pushes. Even when things are going well, anxiety pushes. We know this. The feeling that things look good on the surface, but soon the truth will out… could do better… grip tightly or you’ll fall off… etc. If anxiety were a substance, it would be hailed as some kind of miracle product. As well as being able to destabilise foundations and push things along at an abnormal pace, it is also a psychological sponge that soaks up joy. Anxiety sucks up joy faster than the time it takes to discern it was there in the first place. And if I’m living my life in a context of relentlessness, there is very little time to discern anything anyway, aside from what’s the next thing.

Using a different word to describe my life doesn’t mean I have to stop doing all the things I have to do. Of course it doesn’t. But what happens if I stop thinking it is relentless, and instead just see my life as a globe, and everything I do is what fills it? That changes how I see my days. They aren’t a whipped-on half-run stumble through the rain, driven by a feeling that things could be done better. I’m doing the same things, but in a different mental framework.

I have explained before that I’m trying to live a life that is about digging in rather than trying to get to the next step. I’m supposed to be thinking about where I am and how best to do it, rather than blindly achieve. Relentless doesn’t fit with this philosophy at all. Neither does being anxious. Yet anxiety would have me believe that without it, I won’t be able to achieve. This is black ice, a slippery slope on which to exist. You can achieve with or without anxiety. You can also fail with or without it. It doesn’t really matter. Just that anxiety will bring you more misery. It will drive you forward in a way that doesn’t give you a chance to look around and really evaluate. Ditch anxiety and there will be space inbetween and around what you’re doing. Your mind will have more opportunity to percolate, mull, insulate, and time will relent more. It’s strange, but I think it’s true.

http://www.motherland.net

Column #10 Motherland magazine

I’m noticing shadows this week. Actual shadows. The delicate branches of trees silhouetted on the footpath. Iron fencing remade on bricks, elongated and askew. Shadows are beautiful. They seem other-worldly, a projection of something. Of course, they’re a projection of reality. I started to think about how I like some shadows better than the real thing. The iron fencing, for instance. Much nicer to look at in shadow-form.

There’s nothing wrong with that, in itself. But then I thought about Plato (please understand, this is not something I regularly do). He wrote a story called Allegory of a Cave. People lived in a cave, chained so they could only look directly at the wall. They saw shadows of people and animals passing by the entrance, but had never been able to turn around. For them, shadows were the real thing. And then one man escapes. He is nearly blinded by the sun.

Plato’s allegory, if I’m understanding it, is that we are conditioned to believe that what we see and touch is reality – but really, the material things are just shadows compared to how we think. If we change how we think, we can change how we see the world around us. That becomes the reality.

It is painful to stare at the sun. In Plato’s tale, the person who escaped had to adjust his eyes. First he managed to look at reflections, then the stars, the moon, and, finally, the sun. It is painful to look directly at what we know to be right: the philosophies, if you will, that cast the light by which we see.

The challenge: what am I regarding as reality that is just a shadow? For instance, I believe all people are equal. What does it look like if I really see that, and don’t just congratulate myself on gazing on a shadow? What would I do with my opinions, my finances, my time, my attitudes? Varying answers, but my environments would be influenced, that’s for sure.

The allegory ends with the escapee coming back to the cave to tell the others. He risks being killed, but also has a chance to change things. I hold with Emily Dickinson’s words: tell all the truth, but tell it slant. First, though, I have to get the seeing right. Then I can deal with the telling.

http://www.motherland.net

Column #9 Motherland magazine

Coincidences and hints. That’s what’s in the air for me this week. I’m keeping my eye out for them. It started with stepping on crushed berries from a Rowan tree. Just like a poem I read years ago. It was about someone standing next to a Rowan tree looking at a perfect world from afar. The berries fall into the image, shattering the illusion, leaving ugly shards of broken glass. It was about moving from childhood into adulthood. Understanding from experience that life is not the unblemished picture you thought. I noticed the crush of Rowan berries on the footpath and thought of this, years later. And I thought: that isn’t the full story.

I’ve lived in the imperfection as an adult for some time now. But I’m learning to see the wonder within it. Not in an airy-fairy sort of way. Just in the kind of way that tries to notice. I am thinking that signs and portents, symbols and markers are all around. I know that in a world where signs are billboards and markers are painted on roads, this is either considered quaint or mad, but I don’t care. I want to see something every day, even if I am trudging.

The berries led me to think about the things that defy imperfection, like the rotting leaves underfoot and their particular vibrant sort of beauty. How their smell was of autumn disappearing into the crisp of an air that belonged to winter. As I walked on concrete through leaves, avoiding puddles, I glanced to the side and there in the hedge was a book (really). It was a Keats compendium. I opened at random. Here is the verse I read:

And she forgot the stars, the moon, and sun,
And she forgot the blue above the trees,
And she forgot the dells where waters run,
And she forgot the chilly autumn breeze;
She had no knowledge when the day was done,
And the new morn she saw not…

It was a poem called Isabella, or the Pot of Basil (look it up for the full gruesome medieval tale). The pertinence for me was the forgetting. I don’t want to forget those things. How weird that the stars, the moon, and sun are somehow easy to forget. Why do I forget the blue above the trees in favour of ticker tape thoughts click clacking around my brain? How do I forget to see the magnificence of a chilly autumn breeze? Because it is magnificent. Being alive to these sensations is magnificent. Being alive. I know all too well I am living in imperfection, and I weep over those things that ache: the shards of glass, the ugly cuts and gashes delivered to humanity. The hopes of ideals crushed beneath feet. But still I do not want to forget the other things. I really want to remember.

http://www.motherland.net

%d bloggers like this: