Monday, 2 February 2015

The Long and Winding, but ultimately confusing, road....

So long time, no write. To be honest I have not felt like writing. Things have been very up and down for me at the moment. I had a brilliant Christmas holiday, spent Christmas Day with my parents (just them and my husband) for the first time in 6 years. We ate, drank and were merry. I spent the whole 2 weeks off (2 weeks of annual leave in a continuous row – what a treat! What a luxury!), reading, watching old films while eating homemade cake, walking in Richmond Park, editing my photos, dancing on New Year’s eve to silly old 90s pop music and listening to Copland’s ‘Simple Gifts’ on Classic FM at the stroke of midnight. With time to spare and nothing to aggravate my mind I found myself to be pleasantly focussed. I cooked meals from scratch, I cleaned whole rooms of the flat efficiently and wrote letters and Christmas cards with care and love. I had no commute, no work, no stress to slow me down or overwhelm my senses and fill my head with little anxieties and busy thoughts.

Then I came back to work. I had such high hopes for 2015. And I still do, but after 4 weeks of continual stress and some unexpected changes in my career, I feel a little disillusioned about the whole ‘New Year, New Changes, Better Things!’ theme that comes with the beginning of every new calendar year. The interesting thing is that I am not the only one who feels this way. I have quite a few friends who are struggling to figure out where in life they are headed. Perhaps when you hit your late twenties, early thirties, you have some sort of life crisis? This morning I heard news that a woman who I once knew a few years ago is pregnant. I am very happy for this woman and I do not begrudge her exciting life change, but I am struck by the timing of this change. This woman once told me that she had a life plan, in fact she told  me in detail exactly what she was going to do when, down to the actual year. She explained her life plan to me after one too many glasses of wine, which I suspect contributed to the new found intimacy she felt in order to confide in me very personal details about her life. I was surprised that she had planned having a baby during a specific year. She had everything worked out, house, career, baby, holidays etc. And so when I heard today that she was pregnant, I was struck at how this was exactly the time she had planned to be pregnant. Her plan apparently seems to be working. I know that she owns at least one property and she has achieved a high position in her career. Perfect timing to have a baby I suppose. I must admit, I little in awe that everything worked out according to her time schedule. Of course, I have no idea what goes on behind closed doors and we should all be careful in assuming that everything is going well for people. We can’t see how they feel on the inside; we don’t know the problems individuals might face that they choose not to share with us. The wisest words someone once said to me were: ‘Don’t compare your ‘inside’ with someone else’s ‘outside.’ And it is true. I should not compare myself to this lady, no matter how fortunate she appears to be from a distance. But her happy news did get me thinking.

Why do we have life plans? Why do we feel that we need to be on a journey to some ultimate destination? In our careers? In our pursuit of property or wealth? Or in the course of a relationship? Most stories are love stories and they end with a wedding or a ‘they lived Happily Ever After.’ But what does ‘Happily Ever After’ entail? Very few stories continue on to show what happens after the wedding, to show the marriage, the cohabiting, the families, the joys and sorrows. I suppose we are on an ultimate journey from birth to death (or from the cradle to the grave), but between those two events (and if you’re lucky) are many many years during which you float with some sort of vague plan, but often you are just…well…’living.’ The problem is, that in today’s world, we are constantly sold this idea that life is a series of planned life stages. You grow up, you go to college/uni, you get a job, you climb the ladder, you get a partner, you get married, you buy a house, you buy a car, you have a baby, you get a dog, you get a promotion, you have another baby and so on….
Films, TV shows, books, social media, even reality TV shows and documentaries portray humans going through journeys that have a start, a middle and an end. At the end of many of these forms of media, characters and people are often irrevocably different than when they started off as if every experience is a journey with some sort of definite conclusion or life-change. There is very little portrayal of people just meandering through life, living in a much more fluid way through experiences that simply just happen to them, some they make happen, some that just appear to be fate. Characters often seem to have an idea of what to do, of how to do it and what to do next. Some of my best friends, who are stunningly clever and creative, exciting people still have no idea what they are doing in life half the time. My mum, a woman who I would be very lucky to turn out like, still questions what to do with her life and she is in her 60s! This is because there are no definite steps in life, no established goals in life that we all must meet, except for the ones that we personally give ourselves or that is dictated to us by society and our culture.

A good friend of mine said to me today that her life plans are all in disarray. She had thought she wanted one thing (to live in the USA) and then when she got it, it turned out not be what she wanted after-all (she moved back to the UK). After several big life changes and house moves, she now feels lost. This is a woman who I admire. She is courageous and brave and very very determined to whatever she sets her mind on, why should she feel constrained by the idea of a particular path she must follow? Perhaps she should be direction-less for a while and see what grabs hold of her by chance or what comes her way through some twist of fate. Another close friend of mine has expressed frustration that all her friends are getting married, buying houses and having babies and she feels stuck behind them in the established planned timeline of the life of a 30 something Londoner. But this woman does not want children yet and she is independent and adventurous and really very satisfied with who she is. Why should she feel like she is stages behind all her friends? We all do things at different times in our lives and sometimes we are just living not constantly striving or deciding.

Recently I got involved in a project to document the oral history of an organisation called WILPF (Women's International League for Peace and Freedom - WILPF was started in 1915 by feminist pacifists during the First World War. They wanted to to study, make known and eliminate the causes of war. They believed that women played an integral part in making war a thing of the past and eliminating conflict worldwide. My part in the oral history project is to interview WILPF members who have had a long involvement with the British arm of the organisation. In the last month I was sent to interview an 85 year old lady who has campaigned for women's rights and against violence, weapons and war for many years. Speaking to her and listening to her had a profound effect on me. Here was someone who lived through the history I studied at school, who had seen things I could only dream about. But also, it was inspiring and encouraging to hear how her life had twisted and turned and gone in one direction or another without her even realising. Her third child was born deaf and so she ended up become an expert in teaching deaf children and then eventually became a social worker who worked with deaf people in the community. At her workplace in social services she met some feminists, who influenced her in their thinking and she became a feminist and then she met some women in her feminist local group who campaigned against nuclear weapons and before you know it she was marching in London and organising international anti-war conferences. See! None of this was a big deliberate plan. But along the way life took hold of her and she was lead from one thing to another. Her story gave me great courage, it made me feel less scared about where I am now and how I have not achieved what I thought I would at 31 years of age, There is still time for me. Who knows where I will go and what I will see and who I will meet.

I have never been good at life planning. I have some sort of idea of what I might like for myself in my future. I would someday like to own my own home, have a baby (maybe two) and enjoy myself raising my children with my husband so that they become lovely young adults. I would like to have photography exhibition, maybe publish some poetry, master a full chin-up and learn to dance the Lindy Hop. I want to see the sunrise while sitting on a beach and mashing the sand between my toes. Doesn't really matter which beach, I just think it would be magical. Someday I would like to have a pet cat or a little dog that I can throw a ball for in the local park. I want to learn how to make my own pinhole camera and develop my own funny photos in a dark room. Someday I would like to plant flowers and veg in a communal garden or paint in an art studio. I would like to join a choir and sing silly cheerful songs and maybe someday make a difference to just one person’s life, to help them in some way, so that they are better after knowing me than they were before. I really want to make my husband proud to call me his wife.

All of these things are goals. But they are hazy goals, like a landscape viewed through steamed up glasses. More hopes and ideas. Dreams even. I am careful not to project too clearly and precisely on to the future, because that can lead to specific expectations and ultimately disappointment. We probably should all have some idea where we might be headed, but life does not come to us in a series of steps on that uphill climb of a staircase to justified success. The danger is, that if we expect that things, ‘should’ be a certain way, then we expect that our children ‘should’ be this or our partners ‘should’ be that. People change like Life does, they flow forward and back, up and down and your relationship with them is as much a winding road as your own life is.

So I don't have much of a plan and any plan I did have is kind of in flux at the moment anyway. I literally have no idea what the future holds and to be honest sometimes I wonder how I got here. I have a photo in a picture frame of my grandfather holding me as a baby in Japan and when I look at it I wonder how that happy chubby little baby with the big smile and the woollen onesie turned into me as I am now. Complicated, adult, anxious, always thinking. I guess that is what growing up is. And its not all that bad. I may not follow a specific plan, but I have had a good life. And all the little experiences along the way have been worth the time I took to focus on them, rather than how I had not reached some arbitrary goal or step that it was expected I should have reached at that point in my life. So I am throwing caution to the wind and in February, I am just going to see where life leads me on....