Column #8 Motherland magazine

I read the word expectation last week. It leapt from the page, very much alive, and embedded itself into my mind. So now, whether I like it or not, it’s the word of the week.

I’ve been looking at it. And its been looking at me. Arms crossed, staring me out. Turns out that expectation gets everywhere. Big revelation, eh? Shouldn’t be. But it feels big. Mind-blowing, even. As usual – annoyingly – it revealed I wasn’t as much off the hook with things as I thought.

Here’s what happens if I honestly evaluate why I feel disappointed or let down: I end up back at myself, and my unwitting expectations. When I’m not being honest, I just watch the side-shows. Other people and what they do (or don’t do) can be terribly distracting. I have a habit of dissolving myself on command. And when you’re in a state of dissolution, it’s amazing how everything comes down to the other person’s actions. Those sideshows! They’re so good. Watching people trying to juggle and dropping a ball. Or with squinted eyes, seeing a situation drift off, meld with the shadows, and grieving its departure.

It’s super easy to think you’re watching rather than playing a part. Yet your expectation sets the context for you. And context is all. Think of it like constructing a stage set in the vast horizon of human interaction. Only you can see it, but you expect everything that passes through to adhere to its boundaries, and follow your script. Chances of this working out? Highly unlikely.

There’s a mode of thinking that says not to expect anything so you won’t be disappointed: I am resolutely in the opposite team. Expectations are part of our individuality, our unique constructs for living. They provide unity too, with people and things whose needs and wants match up to ours. And the broad expectations we hope everyone shares – don’t murder someone, don’t steal, don’t cheat – are part of the fabric of society. I’m all for expectation. It has within it real hope. A hope for the very best outcome: therein lies the power for change.

So, don’t expect anything, but expect a great deal. Does that sound contradictory? The more I think about it, the more I think it isn’t. It’s complementary. One cannot be without the other. This is how I think it works: expect the best. Which translates as – imagine the other person, or the situation, has the highest potential possible. Believe in them or it. But believe wisely. Know that people have their own reasons for not meeting your expectations or needs. That works both ways. I’m not actually in a state of dissolution. I do things out of pain, insecurity, error, or just for the hell of it, too.

And when they disappoint? When things don’t meet your expectation? Here’s the plan: don’t translate your own disappointment into de facto permission to judge or feel wildly hurt. They probably have no idea. And, if it happens enough times? Either articulate, or choose to actively stop expecting. Not in the fire-safety blanket sort of way that snuffs everything out. More like a detangling, releasing my feelings from being intertwined in the cords of someone else’s actions. I don’t have to cut ties with them if I don’t want to. But internally? I’ve acknowledged their expectations don’t match mine. So I can stop expecting things they aren’t going to deliver.

I can’t say I’ve done this with a skip and a hop and a blithe grin. But I have discovered that it’s possible to form new expectations. To expect that this is just the way it is. To adjust the script a little. Mostly, rather than trying to direct the others in my life, to concentrate on what I say and do a bit more. Let’s see how that one goes.


Column #7 Motherland magazine

Recently, I had a very powerful dream. I was wiping excrement from my eyes. It was somehow coming from inside them, leaking. The content of the dream was, in theory, disturbing. I’m surprised to write that I didn’t find it disturbing. No, it made me think. I started to think about what kind of internal world would have to exist in order for that to happen. I know, I know. This isn’t particularly nice to imagine. But it makes perfect sense. Whatever is going on inside will influence how I see things. It will change my vision. This I knew, in theory. It’s pretty obvious, in theory. When accompanied by that image, though, it resonated with me much more. If this happened to you, would you change what you were eating?

Probably, yes. I don’t need to go into the niceties of how faeces is made: suffice to say, you don’t eat it to make it. You ingest all kinds of other things that are edible first. This has got to hold true for thought-life and emotions too: what you feed on will come out, and I think it will come out in how you see the world.

So here’s what I’m asking myself: in any given situation, am I ingesting jealousy? Am I chewing on a pejorative feeling towards someone? Do I identify negative incidents that seem to confirm my grudges, and suck on them like sweeties? Or am I just munching away on anything and everything, distracted, like when I’m zoned out in front of the TV eating crisps?

I had a thought around a year ago of taking the time to imagine myself eating whatever good experiences I was having. Whether it was just the momentary enjoyment of noticing a tree in sunlight, or an edifying time with people close to me, I was going to try to picture myself eating the good substance of it. Like making the intangible tangible. It was as if deliberately ingesting those things would make a difference to what I would then produce. I did it for a while, and then forgot. This idea now seems like the perfect counterbalance to my horror-show dream. It feels like two very clear choices, with two very clear consequences, for an everyday existence.

Column #6 Motherland magazine

You wouldn’t call it silence.
Not at first.
There’s a tinny plastic tune
And far,
The drone of spitting fume.
But close:
Not the silence of absence,
That bitter landscape
Where things like clocks
Sound loudest,
Each bark
A mark
On linear paths
Victorians called progress.
(They liked improvement too,
Forever fixing and altering:
Stone chipped into fountains,
Underground streams damned
For tinkling spray
From mouths of marble fish.)
No, not that kind of silence
Where empty is filled
With the march
It’s the fullness of space,
This silence.
The entirety of a moment
With everything
That has been and will be.
The flit of wind around a leaf,
Rock on mountain,
Soil beneath soil beneath soil.
The noise outside,
Lineage unknown –
Or this:
Silence imbued.

Like sea heard in the shell held close,
You have to imagine it
Into being
To find
It was there
All along.

Column #5 Motherland magazine

Memories have been in my mind this week. Of course they’re always there. But the idea of memories. What they mean. A trip to my childhood home in Ireland has augmented the thoughts. I can’t get away from the idea that all my experiences there have gone, yet still exist in my mind. They are as real as though happening as I write. The games that my sister and I concocted in the hall (too ludicrous to explain). Nights and days and seasons. Family friends at dinner. Candles on outside tables. All the variations of light and shadow. Gone. But still alive in me. And it strikes me as I visit with my children, that I’m in the present of something that will also be a memory. I can’t get away from the idea.

I can’t get away from the idea. Why would I want to? Because there’s a nagging tug with this thought that pulls me into an inevitable progression. One day, I’ll walk through the house and many of the people I’ve spent time with there will no longer be, other than in my recollection. I don’t want to think about that. But of course I am.

I will always remember digging with my mother one particular day. She was 27, I was three. Nothing spectacular happened, but she remembers it too. I know that long after my mother has gone, this memory will be alive. So what? Part of me says that. So what? It’s worth nothing without the person. But then I have a counter thought: the moments we live can’t be worth nothing. So if you think the time you put in to living is important, then memories have to be important too.

Dwelling in memories? No. Choosing them over engaging in the present isn’t the point. But acknowledging that the past is alive in the present is underrated, I think. As anyone knows, chewing over painful memories puts you right back in the moment. (OK, then, as I know: I’ve tried it out, quite a few times.) That’s destructive. But this is the crux: if replaying bad memories has such an effect, it’s evidence of their power. So the opposite must be true. Therefore if I live well now, I am also imbibing memories with life. A kind of present-into-the-future tense. And the pun works too, because it is a bit of a gift.

Morbidity is not my thing. I don’t want to drag the living into death. I don’t want my mind to project sepia tones onto the present, which doesn’t need any filter. I’m not imminently facing death, and perhaps I would think differently if I were. But this isn’t about dying (even though it strikes me as the opposite of morbidity to consider that living well is going to help dying well). Establishing memories that are life-giving can only help all the steps I take in between now and the end. There will be pain, and bad experiences. Sometimes life changes in a way I didn’t choose. There will be gaping holes. But living in the present with an eye to the future could make the changes from one stage of life to another less brutal. How I am in relationships, the things I invest in, how I work, whether I choose integrity or don’t, what I say, how I say it – I’ll carry these memories with me.

So here’s the question: if we think of this very present as a continuous line, a moment that, in some form, will forever exist, would that change how we act?

Column #4 Motherland magazine

Above the door to my kitchen there’s an iron sign that says ‘Dream’. I’ve been thinking about dreaming recently. Not the dream about pain au chocolate versus chocolate croissants (which I actually did have this week) or the dream that there were Mulberry handbags on sale in M&S for £25 (another real example). Rather, the conscious dreams: like, the kind of thing I would dream about doing or being or seeing or becoming.

I wrote them down recently, on paper, to see what I really wanted. When I considered writing about dreams here, I dismissed it, because people might think it’s too wishy-washy a subject. Which is why I finally decided to write it, because it’s not.

‘Dream’ has been taken by the culture in which we live, and had a little ‘TM’ tacked on to it. It’s become the word for wanting to be famous, I think. Really dreaming, though, is not an insubstantial thought process – head in the clouds type thing – but the creation of a space for something to happen. It doesn’t have to be escapism, or the fluffy shiny better model of what your life could be.

Dreaming is not incongruent with believing that where you are right now is important, even if it seems far away from the dream. How come? Well, I think of a dream as a sail. All the work you put in to your own life provides the strength for that sail to billow. Like this: while you’re working into all the pernickety details of where you are, and investing in all the small things that actually are the important things, and doing your utmost to be your best (I know – ideals), there is forming, above your head, a canopy of the things you dream about.

I think dream is another word for vision: dreaming is seeing the future. If I articulate the dream to myself, I have metaphysically staked out the places I want to go. Then I’m conscious of it, which will make a difference to how I think about things, and how I act: the opportunities I take (is this in line with my dream, or am I just saying yes because I’m insecure about saying no?), and my level of contentment (because I think making your dream come true requires work behind the scenes).

Like all the tiny stitches that go into the seams of a sail, so are the minutes and hours and days you invest in the small things that are part of the bigger picture. Even the mundanities that seem nothing to do with your dream. Experiences of living well in the small things are reinforcing, strengthening of character, of resolve.

Increasingly I feel it’s not ‘all or nothing’ – it’s everything. With hindsight, I see things I thought were dreams were actually puffs of angst that clouded my vision of the bounty that existed where I was. I couldn’t have lived inside those dreams because I hadn’t learned what was really important to me yet. If I had achieved my wishes, I dread to think where I’d be now.

Where I am is nowhere near wisdom, but I’ve got a bit more wisdom now than then, and I see that dreams are important, and digging into the present is too. They work together. Because wherever we go, there is soil and sky, and that isn’t incongruous, is it?

Column #3 for Motherland magazine

People can be difficult. They do annoying things. Their actions can be hurtful. I know this, because I’m a person. I can be difficult, annoying and hurtful. I can also, it seems, undertake great feats of mental agility. I realised this recently, and it’s not a talent I’d recommend. When a relationship – of any kind – is difficult, I have a real genius skill that picks out exactly what the other person is doing to make things difficult. Bravo, me. That is exactly the trap needed to crush any life out of the thing.

Because it is a trap. One of those ones hunters set up in the woods, covered with some autumn leaves, so the path looks perfectly in place and attractive, all those reds and yellows rotting in to each other. Until you step, and the iron jaws clench shut. And there I am, impaled in the middle, stuck in the bitterness and hurt of my own feelings. What makes it worse (yes, worse to come!) is that it’s a trap laid by none other than me.

When I was thinking about the difficulty of humans (conveniently placing myself momentarily out of that category), I suddenly had a picture of how my own heart looks when a relationship is tricky. And I realised this: if my heart becomes hardened to someone because of things I find difficult, then any life-giving seed they throw on to the patch won’t have a place to bed down and grow. I probably won’t even notice it, to be frank, because an expectation of them behaving in a certain way will have desensitised me. Also because, annoyingly, nature has it that life-giving seeds tend to be small and unobtrusive. And they don’t come with a Barbershop Quartet of emotions singing a jaunty alert, either (maybe to the tune of Happy Birthday: “Here’s a nice seed for you / Here’s a nice seed for you / Oh it looks like absolutely nothiiing… / But it’ll get big, it’s true”).

It’s much easier to spot stones, the destructive words or actions, because once they’re thrown your way, they just sit there, unless you clear them up. Which is why I’m thinking: if you don’t prepare the ground properly for a relationship, it won’t work very well. Obviously, some relationships aren’t going to work because of personality or circumstance, no matter how perfect either party is. But I’m talking about the ones we choose to invest in, the people we want to keep in our lives. Increasingly, then, I’m thinking that for relationships to work, I need to look at my own heart. It’s back to Digging In (Midweek Musings #1) – as if each relationship has a plot of land within me. If my heart becomes rough ground, if I don’t work hard to be receptive to the good, then I’m not giving the other person a chance to plant into the relationship. All I’ll see is the negative aspects.

If the soil isn’t tilled for my own weeds – you know, envy, pride, self-serving thoughts, insecurity – the seeds won’t have a place to land. If I’m not conscious of filtering out the negativity, of weeding out the stones, then there won’t be room for the good. When that happens, all I’ll end up with is a Stonehenge monument to what the other person’s failings are towards me. The irony of that? It confirms all the blame I can handily draw on as to why the relationship is dissatisfactory – without looking at my own hands and noting they haven’t done much work on the ground recently.

Keeping your heart ready for another’s good means that no matter how teeny that good thing is, you can appreciate it. No room for offence, so lob that stone out as fast as it arrives. And after a while, if you look at the relationship plot and see that despite digging and making it ready, nothing much is growing, then at least you can know truly that moving on from that person is a good step. That the direction you’re going in isn’t dictated by the shadow of ancient rubble that obscures the part you’re playing in this too. And it does cast a long shadow. So, between living under that, and being impaled in the jaws of contemplating the perceived failings of others, I’ve opted just to get on with weeding. Seems better, somehow.

Column #2 for Motherland magazine

Comparing yourself to others is like looking at your reflection in a mirror you think they’re holding. Instead of seeing them, you see yourself. If you measure your own being against someone else’s, here’s one thing that happens: you start to imagine yourself through their eyes. This is a work of fiction.

If I get into the groove of this kind of thinking, it inevitably makes me want to adjust myself. The problem with embracing that life is that it starts from an unstable and intangible premise – the imagined reflection – and it stays alive by stoking insecurity. Insecurity, it seems to me, is just the sly cousin of Schadenfreude. Insecurity spends a lot of time half-resenting others for its own perceived comparative inadequacy. It secretly waits for something to go wrong with someone else, to make it feel a bit better. It’s a shackle. And it comes from comparison.

Here’s another consequence: if you are always thinking of your own being in relation to others, then who you are – your talents and all that is good about you – starts to be worn away. It’s neglected. So instead of seeing yourself in your own right, investing in your uniqueness, you’re always viewing yourself in-relation, relative-to. If you want to diminish yourself into a poor reflection, that’s one speedy way to do it.

This isn’t a call for us all to become islands. It’s more about getting on with your own self. If I live in comparison, that’s when I really become isolationist. That’s when I’m only thinking about how things relate to me. Instead, if I shake off comparison, I can actually see the other person, the human. And then – there’s space. Space to allow what they do to be inspirational.

Space to feel contentment. To know that even if I have a lot of work to do, that’s what’s to be done.

Yes, I’m talking in idealistic terms. But my life can’t be an imagined figment of what I think someone else might think. That’s much too complicated. Separating ourselves from comparison is, I think, the key to a lot of things: contentment; appreciation for others; love. And those things give insecurity a good kick in the teeth, which is tremendously satisfying.

Column #1 for Motherland

Written for a new magazine called Motherland

What if where we are right now was – it? As in: that’s it, you’ve made it. Destination arrived. There’s your lot. Is that a frightening thought? It’s how I’m trying to think.

The temptation for me has been to look at my life as a series of stepping stones. There’s a problem with that, because it means I’m always looking to see what the next thing is. Which, by implication, makes where I’m currently standing slightly inferior. Inferior, by the way, to an unknown existence I’m imagining I might have next. It took me a while (let’s say, broadly, a couple of decades) to understand this is counterintuitive. So in recent months I’ve been trying something new. Digging in to where I am, as if this is all I’ve got. It’s like being in the moment, except with a shovel, breaking through the soil, seeing what can be rooted there, or if there’s room to plant.

This is it. And not in a depressing way, because of course, I will move on, there’s always a new season, I’ll get to the next stage – whatever that is. That’s living, which is predicated on change. But I don’t want to get to the next part without having plumbed in, dug down as deep as I can, in this part. I want to be present in the conversations I’m having, in being with my children at this age, in the work I’m doing. And what helps me do this is thinking – this is it. The fabled ‘it’ is now. Not in two years’ time, when I might have more money. Not in three weeks, or when I get an accolade for something. I’ve made it. I’m here. So, dig in, journey deeper.

This could be the moment to note that my life is not one long series of Instagram-filtered prints that, collated, create a Pinterest mood board for Happy Perfection. Often, I am completely rubbish at working out this theory. Instead of digging in to the moment, I hate it. You’ll find me standing on the moment figuring out how to use it to catapult me away. I imagine what things will be like when I’m outta here (brilliant, by the way: no troubles). But when, instead, I try to dig, I have honestly discovered that it works just as well for unhappy moments as for happy ones. Because if I’m there, really there, getting beneath the surface, I can weed out the thorny things, dig out the rocks. Sort stuff out.

That’s why I think digging in isn’t about ditching ambition or motivation. It is about getting the most from where you are. What happens if you look around today and think, this is it: this is my job, this is my family, these are my friends, this is my home? And instead of wishing they were improved, you dug in to all those things, invested time and heart to them – would things start to move and change in a deeper way? Would there be more satisfaction and contentment?

I think it’s about making the patch of soil you find yourself standing on, come alive. So when your borders spill out onto the next part of land, you can travel into that season knowing you’ve worked the land you stood on. And that this new piece of soil you happen to be standing on is – it.

Robert Elms 26th July 2014

So! Here are the FACTS from the show, without all of my chattering in between:


Stack Magazine

The brilliant idea that brings independent magazines to your door.

£66 every 12 issues, paid for by DD

£18 every 3 issues, paid for by DD

If you subscribe in next 5 days, you’ll get the August magazine.


Childrenswear pop up shop

It’s at 17 Floral Street, Covent Garden , WC2E 9DA. Open until 8pm tonight, and from 11am-4pm tomorrow.

Has three British brands: Ruff and Huddle, Toots a MacGinty, The Bright Company

Discounts of up to 70%, with refreshments and distractions for the children.

…and on Sunday at 1pm, Reading and workshop by Sarah Dyer, author of The Girl with the Bird’s Nest Hair.



Have an online sale – 10 percent off jewellery. Have to enter a code at checkout JEWELS10. Offer ends at midnight on 3rd August.

They also have a “sale on sale” promotion online where you get an extra 20 percent off sale items if you enter the code VASALE20

Also free delivery if you spend £100


Dandy Lion Market, Kentish Town

At the Oxford
256 Kentish Town Rd
London NW5 2AA

Next market 13th September, contact them if you want a stall.


Outline Editions 

Just announced that for the second year running, Transport For London has asked them to commission ten artists to each create a limited edition Oyster Card wallet design.


The Co-operative Food’s Pop-Up Restaurant:Tweet4aTable for the menu
Elys Yard, Truman Brewery

Fri 1st August – 4pm to 7pm
Sat 2nd August – 8am to 8pm
Sun 3rd Aug – 8am to 7pm

FREE, just  tweet for a chance to win a table.


Crepe City Sneaker Festival

Old Truman Brewery, Brick Lane, , opens 11am , £3 entry



Sally Greene interview for Porter


Sally Greene


The second issue of Porter Magazine, and my interview with Sally Greene, an extraordinary woman. She spoke candidly about dealing with illness – it’s not something she talks about much at all – and the story of how she brought the Old Vic theatre back to life was unfathomable. Someone who manages to translate seemingly unreachable ideas into tangible happenings: now there’s an ideal.

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