Finding sloppy

I have been seeing my (former? eternal? sometimes? on-off?) therapist over zoom for the past few weeks. I needed him again when quarintine began; those first few weeks my internal world collapsed and he responded to my claustrophobia and desperation by giving me some chewy interpretations, the kind that need gnawing before I can swallow them. One of his interventions was as tough as beef jerky: ‘It is all too neat,’ he said, referencing some of the relational moves I was recounting. His face froze on the screen, his voice lagged. I missed the smell of his consulting room, the joke we make as I come in and hang up my coat, the seat I always choose to sit in and the history it gestures to when I say, ‘I won’t be lying down on that thing,’ pointing at the couch. ‘There is trouble with my wi-fi,’ I say, apologetically. The silences are not quite so natural, but we find a rhythm.

It takes two hours for the five year old to fall asleep every night at bedtime; I am exhausted by the end of our tussling and often fall asleep next to him. He is wired, wild, screechy, tired. I get it, no school, he is adjusting too, but the fourteen hour day with no evening is getting to me. I call a good friend (who also dabbles in the dark arts of respectful parenting) for some advice, hoping for a magic bullet or a potion or some kind of easy to follow formula. Instead she gives me some wise words, riddles and some perspective, and then we hang up. Unwinding is a process, a set of skills maybe, and I do what I can to help: I put my half remembered baby massage knowledge into play, I light a candle and we listen to accousitc guitar ballads until he is sleepy. I read him stories and I offer to hold him. I bought him lavendar pillow spray in full knowldge it is probably a con, but hey, maybe it adds to the calming ceremony. It still takes about two hours for him to unwind. Result? Another confession: my yoga practice is erratic right now. In the honeymoon period, I used to wake up at 6 and do an hour a day, seven days a week. At the moment sometimes all I can coax myself into is a minute in mountain pose before I make coffee. Other mornings I manage half an hour after lounging in bed smelling the cats head and reading the same sentence over and over again. I was so proud of my routine before, my serenity, my ability to self-regulate with a forward bend and now I am humbled by how little I can manage most days.

My sisters jokingly call me, ‘guru Di,’ because I often step into the role of advice giving bossy older sister. When I was a kid I would make little mud huts for my miniature plastic dolls, lovely, neat little huts with carefully stacked piles of evenly snapped twigs and painstaingly lined pebble paths. I could spend hours forming thick little walls and pushing them into perfectly arranged squares and grids. The play was satisying. It was soothing, absorbing, numbing play. I guess it was my way of coping with the chaos of my childhood. But I think my old ways of coping: neat, tidy dogma, mud hut walls, tip-of-my-tongue advice, pat answers, are not enough now. They do not go deep enough into the relational mess of love and life. In psychoanalytic terms, they do not enter into the dyadic realm of ‘mis-attune, rupture, repair,’ the relational dynamics that make trust and growth possible. This is sacred ground and I hate it, I am uneasy here, I am challenged and I am scared. I don’t have the right sentences, I don’t have the right words to make it all better. ‘When you, I feel,’ only gets you so far.

‘Are there any good metaphors for therapy?’ I asked over zoom, we were both laughing. Over the years we have joked about how awful so many of the metaphors are: suitcases, mazes, balls of wool. We spent a few minutes critiquing them and then I ventured, ‘sloppy…’ I had been re-reading Daniel Stern’s gorgeous book on intersubjective consciousness and I loved his use of that word to describe moments of meeting between people. Maybe sloppy is a good metaphor for therapy, for relationships, espcially for those of us who can turn to rigid, formulaic ways of being-with in times of stress. ‘I don’t think it will get you any new clients,’ I add, just before our session ends. I like the frog plop, muddy sound of the word, the way it makes my skin crawl with shame and discomfort, the picture it conjures of something that isn’t quite right, the wrong shape, too loud, too invasive, too abject, badly made, risky, an image that doesn’t quite fit the diagram.

Copyright Diana Smith 2020

Daniel Stern, psychotherapist and infant researcher writes movingly and precisely about many of the subtle invisible processes of therapy in his book, The Present Moment

Love is not a victory march

I could feel the imaptience rising in my throat. We had been for a lovely long cycle ride after being cooped up in the flat all week. There is a quiet trail by the river we could take and R has just learned how to ride a bike. I thought it might relieve some of our claustrophobia. R loves his new bike but he is still learning how to look after it. We had stopped for a rest on a bench in the sunshine and he let it drop into the path just as someone was walking past. ‘I can’t let you do that,’ I said, calmly, picking up the bike and setting it next to him. This is the usual respectful parent style-limit setting, and I am comfortable in my role as adult-in-the-relationship who makes him feel safe, shows him where the edge is, stops him doing harm. He dropped it into the path again, just as someone was walking past. I picked up the bike again but I was fuming. Since social distancing and his school closing we had been talking allot about ‘being considerate’ of others. There are so many new routines and new rules and he has been doing his job of testing those limits beautifully. He wants to know the edges of his new world, where the cliffs and fences are, where there is room to wiggle under and how to walk the strange new bridges. This is all new territory and he learns by pushing. I know all of this. It does not change the fact that I was livid. All of my usual release valves are gone. I don’t have work to give me space to myself, to remember my not-mum identities. I can’t re-charge with my friends, giggling and sipping a glass of wine in the pub. I barely have time to read, I feel lucky when I can carve out a bit of time to do yoga and meditate in the mornings. My own world has totally collapsed in the last two weeks and my pantry of patience and generosity and goodwill are running low. I am finding it hard to self-regulate as quickly as I am sometimes able to.

I hate being frozen out. Of all the ways someone can show me they are angry at me, the silent treatment and stonewalling are the most painful for me. This kind treatment was a feature of my own childhood and in therapy I have come to recognise the interpersonal harm it does. I think shutting out a child, going cold on them and ignoring them does enormous harm. As kids we are reliant on our parents to ‘keep us mind’ as child psychoanalyst Winnicott would say, and going slack-jawed and flat-faced, we, as kids, can feel erased, dropped, confused, disorientated. It is agony not being able to read a parent’s psyche, not being able to access them, it is a kind of imprisonment. I know for myself the effect was that I became focused on trying to ‘reach’ them: through humour, talking, entreating, being ‘good,’ at the expense of my own emotional growth. You can’t focus on getting to know your internal world if you are focused on trying to get the attention of your caretakers.

The moment when he dropped the bike onto the ground for the second time I sensed a choice. I felt myself closing down, wanting to get on my bike and ride home in punishing silence. I was consumed with anger and fear-for him, for the safety of passers by- and I was not able to down-regulate back into neutral. My other option was to share, simply, my feelings with him. I do not do this very often, but sometimes, when I feel like he is in control enough of his behaviour to actually choose (i.e., if he is not acting impulsively) and I am in the throes of a big feeling, rather than leave him guessing I think it is useful to tell him how I feel and tell him what I need from him. I am a big fan of Non Violent Communication and I use the technique often in my own marriage. We are so used to thinking about feleings as either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ and using them to hold power over others that sharing a ‘negative’ emotion can sometimes feel like a risk. When we ‘view our feelings from a place of safety,’ as attachment researcher Peter Fongay says, we are free to see all emotion as part of human experience. Anger, regret, sadness all become something we can experience, own, and share with another human being, especially if we learn how to share them in a way which respects the other person’s autonomy and isn’t a ploy to manipulate them. It is vulnerable because it is owning our own feelings and speaking from ‘I’ rather than an accusative ‘you.’ It is telling the other person what you need from them, open handed and open heartedly asking if they can offer that to you. It honours our inter-dependance and acknowledges both our separateness and our intimacy. There is a possibility of connecting when we share these parts of ourselves in a boundaried, respectful way.

We were, by now, standing together, about to mount our bikes and go. He had been trying to chat to me and I was too preoccupied to respond. I dropped to my knees so I was on his level and faced him, ‘I am angry with you,’ I said, looking into his eyes. His face fell and he started crying. Sobbing. I continued, stating my need: ‘You dropped your bike into the path. I want to go for cycle rides with you but if we are going to cycle together I need to know I can trust you to be responsible for your own bicycle. I need to know you can take responsibility for your bike so we can be safe.’

He stopped crying and my anger fizzled out, which I think is what happens when a feeling is owned, whether it is shared or not. He said simply, ‘I am ready.’ We cycled home together, a little more tenderly. I felt close to him and I’m pretty sure he felt closer to me. It is difficult right now. Everything is slippery. We are trying to work out how to be together, how to share psychic space as well as physical space. How do we negociate cycling together and how do we respectfully, not violently, balance everyone’s needs for space and autonomy and safety in our family right now? How do we make space for all of our subjective expereinces, our own truths, our own psychic lives and needs. The process is kind of sloppy and imperfect and there are collisions. I keep thinking of Leonard Cohen’s hallelujah . Human connection is not easy, intimacy is laboured and skilled and takes practice especially when I am comitted to respectful, non violent ways of being in the world. So often when it goes right, I don’t feel triumphant, I don’t feel I can fly my ‘flag on the marble arch,’ I feel sore and tender, a little tear stained and softer, pedaling home slowly in the sunshine, trying to dig deep for more kindness and courage to face one another.

Copyright Diana Smith 2020

Janet Lansbury has taught me how to practice respectful parenting https://www.janetlansbury.com/

Marshall Rosenberg is the author of Non Violent Communication https://www.nonviolentcommunication.com/aboutnvc/parenting.htm

Regret practice

Sixteen year old me and my horse Agatha in Costa Rica

This lent I am taking up a regret practice. I am over gratitude practices; I need something that beckons me into the shadows, into the desert like god did, crossing it and fasting for forty days and nights. I feel like I have the emotional intelligence, the self compassion and the skills now to bear saying mea culpa.

I went to bed last night having read a little about how white people brought smallpox to the colonies I was born in and I understood that my own internalised white supremecy is still alive, transmitted to me down the generations, that the sins of my foremothers and forefathers are my own legacy and my task, in the words of the Ash Wednesday liturgy which was uttered as my forehead was marked, is to ‘turn away from sin.’

I have opened myself up to what regret might mean, and my psyche knows I am saying, here I am lord. I am grateful for the apocryphal dream I had on the third day of my pilgrimage. I woke up having dreamt of a demonic dog (it looked like the demadogs from Stranger Things which has clearly shaped my unconscious imagination!) tearing and bounding up to a small breezeblock house in the jungle where my sisters and I were holed up. We were all screaming and we tried to keep it out but it broke through, smashing the doors and windows, barking and drooling as it entered. I tried to wrestle it to the floor when it attacked me, but it overpowered me. One of my sisters reached up for a book (it looked suspiciously like the old King James Bible we used to read from at breakfast) and read it, saying, ‘This dog was sent to us because of the sins of our fathers.’ Having tried to keep it out and fight it, the only thing left was to be with it. The dog stopped attacking me as soon as I took it for a walk. It led me to a paddock where the horse I had as a teenager was stabled. Her name was Agatha and although I longed to ride her I also felt uneasy. I examined her hooves. The dog warned me she was not shod and I would have to wait before I could climb on and take her for a hack. In my memory Agatha is my saviour-horse and I associate her with freedom. When I was on her back I could roam- escape from the claustrophobia and dirt and loneliness of home.

For now, she has no shoes and I am not free. I need to stay here.

I am only at the start of this pilgrimage. I have played with regret practices before: I have joked about sausage regret, bike regret, not-buying-the-shoes-I-wanted regret, but I haven’t seriously invited it in. I know a little bit: I know that at the heart of regret for me I will find a paradox. That I could not have acted differently under the circumstances (I was not aware or awake) and yet I have caused harm. Regret is about remembering, not being let off the hook, of bearing witness to the harm that I have caused.

I will not be rewarded with absolution; I do not want to be good, I do not want to be innocent, I don’t want a washing of guilt or sin. Chasing that stuff only ends in obsession and shame and solipsistic self loathing. I am thirsty for something else. I am hungry for tenderness and justice. I hope I will emerge and know how to bear regret. Because only then will I be free.

Copyright Diana Smith 2020

Scrooge’s darkness is in me

I did not realise how Scrooge I am until I sat on the sofa, clutching my knees to my chest and sobbing at BBC adaptation of Dickens classic A Christmas Carol. I am Scrooge sometimes: Guy Pearce’s numb, ‘the most hard done by’ self-pitying, defensive, ‘I did no worse than any other businessman,’ version of the character. His portrayal swirls with depth, psychological complexity and sensitivity: I am simultaneously rooting for him to find his soul and face his (significant) demons (there are at least two harrowing scenes that gesture to his childhood trauma) and also I am repelled by his subtle dissociative behaviours of counting and intellectualising, by his inability to, as one spirit says, ‘only see what was done to you, not what was done for you.’ I did not know that Dickens’s hard-hitting Victorian moralising could be updated with some gorgeous writing, acting and cinematography but evidently it can be; Scrooge moved me to confront my own apathy and I found myself weeping with the conviction that I too, like him, do not seek absolution or redemption- those narratives that centre on restored innocence are beside the point, they side step the question of the pain and harm he has caused the Other. ‘Remember,’ the spirit of Christmas present says, sternly, kindly, ‘this is not about you.’ The moment of transformation is not situated in the erasure of Scrooge’s sins but in the realisation that it is possible to effect change, that actions matter, that it is better to be pricked by ‘pins and needles’ and feel connected to humanity than to be holed up in one’s head, that while his own suffering exists he has always had a choice: to use his suffering to connect him to his own tender heart and humanity or to wall himself in. The gut sobs came when the truth landed in me: that I have been complicit in various forms of oppression by my silence and apathy. I cannot be let off the hook any more than Scrooge can, and besides, that isn’t the point. ‘There is so much more work for you to do, spirit of Christmas past, present and future,’ the final words of the series haunt me, and I know they will do their work in my heart the same as they did in Scrooge.

It is time to unfurl

When a metaphor haunts me, I heed it. Alice came to me after work most days this autumn, smashing through the ceiling in her stripey stockings and hunching awkwardly in the rabbit hole she had outgrown. I would see her, like an apparition, all of the sudden too violently too big and unwieldly, uncomfortable in her ungangly positions, all knees and elbows. One Saturday morning I pulled down my copy of Alice in Wonderland from my bookshelf and squinted at the iconic illustration. Yes, that is exactly how I felt. Cramped and uneasy: I closed my eyes and imagined blowing up my life. I imagined bearing down with all my weight on those cartoon dynamite levers, the kind that blow tunnels through mountains and make holes. I needed a bigger hole to sit in. So I did it. I am leaving the education sector. Ten years ago, back in September 2009, I was so excited about equipping kids with the tools to change their lives and I am still excited about that but the changes in education mean I have been increasingly unable to use my hard-won skillset. I found myself cornered into more tick-box work that was pushing students towards attainment at the expense of teaching literacy and lifeskills they need to decode and access their world and flourish and build a life they want to live in. Alice haunted me and told me my soul was dying and I was in danger of suffocating here: I blew open my life and I am starting a different role in the social care sector in mid- January in a job that will enable me to do what I love doing, equipping people with the tools they need to forge a life they can flourish in. 

But I don’t think I am finished blowing up my life. I have so much to give, and, with joy, it occurs to me that no one is stopping me from giving it. I am not going to ‘shrink from touching my power,’ as Adrienne Rich chastises me, in her poem, Hunger. I call myself a writer, but that doesn’t mean I have to use my big, gorgeous voice to write a novel. I can use it for whatever the hell I want! It is my creative libido, and I want to wield it to create a world I want to live in, that is humane and just and gorgeous. I can write letters for Amnesty International #writeforrights or use it to write letters to my friends or use it to advocate or amplify concerns and voices and injustices. I can spend my privilege. I have so much to spend. I can take risks and protest and speak truth to power because I have leisure time now that my kid is older and I am able to choose not to have another one, I have an able body, a support network, emotional agility and pretty good mental health from years of expensive therapy, I have the credibility that white skin and a middle-class pattern of speech buys. I have a neurotypical mind. I have the anchor of a stable family life and I have enough financial stability to own a flat in London and buy nice vegetables. My right to remain in this country is no longer precarious. I need to spend this privilege. I do not want to live in a world where I am disconnected and helpless, watching greed strip the most marginalised and vulnerable of their fair share, their dignity, their breath and sanity because I am not free if I am silently complicit, if I stand by and watch it happen without putting up a fight. But I have more than fight in me. I have an opus in me. I want to join (I am late to the feast, I know) the great work that others have been doing. I want to add my voice, my time, my energy, my money, my power to everyone else who is already effecting change. 

Alice is no longer haunting me now that I have decided I refuse to be small and powerless. Instead, now I bring to mind the suffragette statue of Millicent Fawcette in Parliment Square. If there was ever a time to unfurl a banner, ‘Courage calls to courage everywhere,’ 2020 is the year to do it.

Hail Mary, hold the baby

The most recent walk began at Crossbones cemetery. There is a Mary grotto in the graveyard dedicated to the ‘Winchester Geese,’ the sex workers who are buried there, outside the boundaries of the city. Into the metal grating, for her, I tucked a cheap plastic baby Jesus I pinched from a nativity set. Hail Mary, please hold this baby for me so I can roam and feel free. I know in my bones, this thing. That someone always needs to hold the baby so I can experience release. There has to be someone who, sometimes for us, can hold psychic babies, the screaming infants who are all hunger and un-metabolised feeling, someone who can connect with us in the throes of our human struggles. (Sometimes I just need someone who can hold the real, literal baby so I can leave home. I guess historically women have done this for men). I imagine what it might be like to walk the city ‘like a boy,’ enjoying their privilege. I walked Maiden lane (now the primly named ‘Park Street’) and the old stews, imagined the brothels and playhouses. I wondered, as I stood in the the narrow cobbled alleyway still called Stew Lane, where you could get a boat to ‘The Clink’, what it might feel like to cross the river in search of adventure. No responsibility or ties, nobody’s mother or wife, anonymous. Just a ferry to the Southbank, and then another boat back home, crossing back again when I have gotten my fill of thrill.

Tentatively, I have started sharing with my husband the stuff that I don’t have answers for, the knots I have gotten myself into, telling him about my restless heart and all the stuff I can’t figure out by myself. When I am feeling restless and angry and claustrophobic or anxious or too crazy to think. I tell him when I need to roam. I call this telling surrender. It brings relief.

We can all do this labour of holding and witnessing for one another. It takes strength and an open heart but it is one of the kindest gestures I can think of offering and one I appreciate receiving. I grew up telling myself I had to have my shit together all the time. That was how I survived childhood and it is a good tactic. but I don’t want that identity anymore. I want to let go sometimes and be the person who doesn’t always have the right answer. I want permission to be a mess, to be all running mascara and claim the space to fall apart.

Last weekend I took some time to walk the city and (literally!) stumbled across a sign advertising the ruins of the old Rose theatre on Park Lane in dodgy Southwark. I took a photo of the dark, jauntily lit ruins. The Tudor playhouse smelled of Thames dirt and rust and damp muddy wood. I felt a little more human, a little more grounded after my roam. It felt good to claim the space for my soul.

I can seek holding when I feel the need for surrender welling up in me, but my son doesn’t have words for this need yet. I interpret his erratic behaviour as a bid for connection. When I do this labour for my son I call it, ‘containing his behaviour,’ when he squeals and leaps like a wild colt after a day at school and he can’t sleep or sit still or regulate himself, I try to offer him a little of what I have craved, the sense of letting go. Of letting someone else do the thinking and metabolising for a little while so he doesn’t have to be good all the time, so he can fall apart and know that I will be present for him. My deepest hope is that when he is older like me he can ask someone else for this labour without shame and that he will open heartedly offer it to people he loves without embarrassment. He sleeps most soundly after he has picked some fight with me and howled at my limit setting. Often, maybe he asks for something he knows I will say no to and I can tell he is on the edge of tears, he needs to get it off his chest, he needs me to say no so he can cry and wail and shout and be angry and have someone catch him. And then hold him close once all the sobs are out.

Today I instinctually said a Hail Mary under my breath and I said it feeling all the longing. I said all the words but I know she understood that I meant hail Mary, hold the baby because I need someone strong enough to catch me.

 Copyright Diana Smith 2019

Slipshod mountain over Blake

I discovered ‘mountain’ pose by accident, I landed into it, slipshod, when I fell out of ‘tree’ one morning and now it’s maybe my favourite position to pray or meditate in. It felt so delicious to stand like that, catching my breath after a series of haphazard warriors and a wobbly tree and some wonky downward facing dogs and I reckoned it must be a ‘real’ yoga pose it felt too good not to be- a quick google afterwards gave me the word for it. I am all lengthened spine and firm sole when I take my stand in it.

The last few weeks have been a whirlwind of endings and beginnings. I started work again full time for the first time since he was born and he started school. This is end-of-an-era stuff, I am not so needed, my identity is shifting again and I feel unsteady, shaky, a little tense and kind of exhausted. He is tossed at sea too: his SOS in a bottle washes up at bedtime and when I leave the flat and at the school gates and anywhere he can assert himself, anywhere there are limits or thresholds. Bathtimes, mealtimes, goodbyes. His instinct is to throw his weight around, push the (shifting) boundaries to find out where he still holds power. He has not chosen any of this and he is trying to find purchase, a grip, where does he exert control, where the limits of his autonomy begin and end. I respect his process: he is deft at thinking his way through problems in his play. After the tears, the superhero cape comes out and the plastic power tools and the boats get bombed in the bath, sink and then bob back up again. He plays at omnipotence and mending things and resurfacing after the blast and it looks so satisfying.

And my instinct is to play too. I find myself at Blake’s grave again, I offer him a single stem of crimson and sunlight petals that looks like one of his etchings. I find myself taking my stand in ‘mountain’, astonished by ground under my feet that is sacred ground of lunatic dissenters. In front of me, Blake, behind me, Defoe. There is a place here for the ones who don’t quite fit, the crazy misfits who wanted do their own thing, who were not cowed by convention or institution, who chose to stay uncomfortable. There is a place, it is called Bunhill fields and it is just outside the City of London, this is the place where they buried the ones who stood their ground. They did not like being told what to do or how to live. I said a prayer for the soul of my fierce son, wished him some dissenter’s courage, hoped he would keep a hold of his soul and assert his autonomy when faced with challenges that are not of his choosing. I breathed a few breaths for myself, prayed to keep touch with my soul during this transition. And standing there, I could breathe again, I could feel that ground under the soles of my feet and I feel it is my ground too, it connects us all.

Copyright Diana Smith 2019

The slinky of devotion

In an astonishing gesture of extravagance, we missed our flights. Or skipped them. Normally I can talk him down from his particular insanities and he from mine, we’re nicely codependent in that way. But when he remarked the night before our romantic getaway to Rome that he felt weird about leaving the four year old behind in a different country from us, the unease that had been politely coiled in my chest all week loosened and spiralled out. Once it gained momentum, my devotion collapsed over itself, moving haphazard down the steps like a stupid, bobbing slinky obeying some dumb force of inevitability. And this is what a fired up attachment system feels like when it gets going, an unhinged, out-of-control, runaway slinky. So we didn’t go to Rome in the end. We didn’t see the Colosseum or drink wine or watch the sunset together. Instead we left the kid in the flat with my sister (as planned) and booked some a cheap Premier Inn room in the same city as our kid and ate trashy snacks and read and napped and went to the pub. I’m not proud of our behaviour.

Devotion is costly. It is crazy. It runs its own course. It writes its own rules. I really wish I was not the sort of mother who has the urge to raid the laundry hamper and smell her kid’s clothes when he goes to nursery but I am. It’s weird and reeks of compulsion. I talk endlessly about needing more headspace and time to myself and then when I get it because the kid is finally being looked after by paid professionals, I walk into the silent flat, sit down on the sofa and do not write or read or do anything productive. I weep and open a bottle of prosecco, partly out of celebration and partly out of sorrow that he is growing up so quickly. In the same vein of over the top gestures of unhinged devotion I think I might have become vegan out of grief this week. He’s going to school the first week in September and it suddenly occurred to me that mother cows and baby cows are being torn apart all over the UK by industrial farming. Suddenly I can’t bring myself to eat cheese or put cream in my coffee. It feels wrong. In some kind of gut, panting -Labrador heart logic, the same limbic system that makes me sweat and pulse with cortisol and metallic tinged palpitations when I contemplate leaving the county without my kid is the same limbic system I share with all mammals. It’s weird to think the thing that I reckon makes me most human is the thing that paradoxically is my most animal self. I’m kind of in awe of it actually. I like how at odds with myself it makes me, what a stranger I become. My logical self that wants a romantic holiday with my husband to explore Rome is at odds with my devoted animal mother self who probably wants to curl up in the laundry hamper with some jam stained t shirts. I don’t know how to reconcile these parts of me so until then I’m just going to drink tinned cocktails in bed like the trashy mad bad sad lady I am with my husband in a hotel room no more than 3.5 miles away from my son and call that a romantic weekend away.

Copyright Diana Smith 2019

Not to shine in use

Rewind two or three weeks ago to Russel Square tube station, me fighting back tears as I accused my husband of a thought crime and he responded to my mad.bad.sad lashing out by generously offering to spend the afternoon with the kid so I could connect to myself. Sometimes his goodness kills me.

I said yes but I felt guilty for not checking in with myself before I took it out on him. I should have acknowledged how frazzled and crazy I felt. I have been doing allot of childcare (standard- it’s summertime) but I had also had allot of time for myself. I’ve recently started taking boxing classes which I adore and I have had quite allot of evenings of meeting friends for drinks and time to read in bed and nap and go wild swimming and do yoga and cook elaborate meals. I’m not running on fumes or living on scraps and yet I WAS STILL IN A BAD MOOD

But maybe one thing is missing from that list. Which is writing. I stopped writing for a few months because I wanted to goad myself into doing something with my psychegeographer content. I told myself I wasn’t allowed to write anymore essays till I’d done the slog montage of finding agents and carefully reading through and editing and writing cover letters. I thought maybe that would motivate me to slay the hydras I’m scared of: boring admin and critical editors and rejecting agents. All the usual monsters encountered when on personal Odyssey.

It turns out writing keeps me sane. When I don’t make time to write I suffer. I feel like a jammed photocopier. I feel like experience is souring inside me. I swallow life and then it just sits in me, unthought about and plugs/clogs/numbs/builds like residue. It’s gross, it’s ugly, more than once over the last few weeks I’ve mumbled to myself (pretentiously), ‘how dull it is to pause/to make an end/to rust unburnish’d not to shine in use.’ Rather than the narrative of artist as mad, I am finding evidence that I’m writer-as-sane. I shine in use. I am a better mother and lover and friend when I make time to write. When I finally let myself sit down and put some words onto a page a few weeks ago, I felt relief. So in addition to setting sail on a little publishing odyssey to see far away isles and discovering whether someone might want to bind and print my lunatic ravings about motherhood and psychoanalysis, I’m going to keep writing my essays and publishing them regularly on my blog. Maybe not once a week but often enough. I don’t want to make any money- I don’t need or want to make a living off my writing. I have a job I adore and a little flat in the ‘burbs and I have a room of my own and enough space and leisure time to think and I have a voice and lots to say- but what I do need is audience. Good readers make me into a better writer but mostly I love the intimacy of autobiographical essay writing, the way it opens me up and connects me to others, the way I shine in use.

Copyright Diana Smith 2019, Thameside PAUL London

The title of this post and the poem I’m quoting from is Tennyson’s Ulysses

The drama of birth: a subject fit for literature

I wish the drama of birth was a literary subject. A few days after giving birth, when I was stitched and bleeding and bruised and weeping at two pm on midwives who would come and peer at my wounds and talk in gentle, encouraging tones about my milk coming in, I googled famous birth scenes in literature. I found a few rants about the lack of serious, literary writing on the subject and a paltry list of authors who had attempted it. Hemingway, Dostoevsky, Atwood.

I understand all the omertàs. Birth stories are still something we joke about, that are often confined to typo-ridden confessional comment threads and forums. Our stories are fissured into tribes and corralled into the ghettos of the anecdotal. Not until we try and read universal truths into any birth story we come across- the way we generously read men’s stories of war and love and death, the way we step into their shoes and try and extract meaning about the human condition from their very particular, gendered experience, will we succeed in taking the subject of birth seriously enough to write good fiction about it. We have to get better at generosity. At dignifying every sort of birth with the sort of lavish attention that makes meaning-making possible. When there are hierarchies and moralities (and pregnancy and birth are absolutely structured by all sorts of dogma about natural birth and breast feeding and idealised madonnas instead of good enough mothers), then there are codes of silence and shame instead of a rich field of experience to write from. In psychoanalytic terms, until we collectively integrate all of our experience, the good, the bad and the ugly, we will be forced to write very one-dimensionally. As I write this, I am listening to a chorus of judgmental women in my mind: memories of voices who have dismissively told me birth wasn’t that bad, maybe I’ll forget it, that a c-section is a violent way for a baby to enter the world. As if all birth isn’t violent, as if it were possible to peacefully, innocently give birth. Not until every kind of birth is validated and we de-manacle our minds from high-horse madonnas looming over us and chiding us into giving birth ‘the right way’ will we be able to claim our own material.

One of my friends who had an elective C-section evocatively described her experience as feeling like she was a washing up bowl being reached into and rummaged around inside of. Such an extraordinary image. If we choose to pay attention- not to the manner of birth and how close or not is measures to some ideal notion of birth- instead, if we turned our focus to the quality of the woman’s experience, the descriptive possibility, the words she uses to describe the minutiae of felt, embodied experience, if we turned our focus away from the ethics and towards an acceptance of the drama of it all, I think we would be astonished. I think everyone would stop reading about war and death and love. I think no one would be able to tear themselves away from the drama of birth.

All the elements of great literature are available. The joy of waking up at midnight, soaked from my own waters breaking. The violence of my fractured tailbone, the agony of contractions, my inability to speak or make anything but gutterel, animal braying. The moment they all rushed in because his shoulder caught inside me and they weren’t sure he could breathe. The excruciating stitches after and the torturous fantasies of messy scarring and bulging organs and unhealed wounds. Passionately pumping every few hours so my milk would come in for him; weeping with the midwife as she reassured me that I WAS indeed breastfeeding if he was latched on, even if I had to supplement with formula. The strange, cancerous molar pregnancy I suffered before R came into being, when they scanned me and there was nothing but some sort of fertilised growth in my womb, not even an embryo but a kind of tissue that made pretty patterns on the sonographers screen but would need to be sucked and scraped out of me. This is such rich, fertile material, and so many of us are not free to draw on this as a proper literary subject. And it is a shame because there is so much to say, so many paradoxes and violences and euphoria to lay out and examine.

Copyright Diana Smith 2018

Reveries of a mum on the psychoanalytic couch