A thorn in my side

imageI think I have done all of my Christmas shopping, or at least all that I can do for now: there will be more later, when I have time; when the crowds have dwindled to the last few stragglers, or, perhaps, after… once the sales start. Now, though, I am free, and I feel lighter. Shopping daunts me: I worry too much. It’s not just what to get: it’s where to get it and how much to spend and whether the recipient (he, she, them…) will like it. No matter how hard I try, how much I think or how long I spend on the task: I always get it wrong; it’s the story of my life. I do it with haircuts, nail colour, food in restaurants and clothes. I do it with books and movies and magazines. I even do it with wool and beads. And when it comes to my art: invariably, I mess that up too – overworking or miss-selecting, using colours that clash, adding too much texture or weight. I did it last night on my autumn quilt and now my heart is sad. Poor rabbit… poor carrots… poor ladybird, leaf and branch…

The thorn in my side today, however, is more tangible and I am struggling to function as a result. Moving is painful; I feel broken; something isn’t right. But what do you do about the things you can’t see: can you fix a problem located beyond the reach of eyes? Massaging my side, swallowing painkillers, moving gently and slowly, trying not to touch it or anything else: I attempt to navigate through the waves of discomfort, crossing fingers that don’t believe over hands that are cynical.

The past few weeks have been tough. The past few months have been challenging. My body has suffered while my mind has endured. Standing in the middle of the road; watching cars and buses, bikes and taxis: I deliberate over how much more I can take. We are still living in limbo. We are still sleeping on the floor – if what we are doing can be described as that. I have a cold that won’t disappear and I am cold most of the time. I am also exhausted. I know this because I long to lie down for days, long to lie down and never wake, craving horizontal more than I desire any other position I could pick were any others on offer. I cannot speak. I cannot navigate. I confuse my left and right. Sticking to the tried and tested, clinging to familiar friends: I manage by keeping it simple and small.

But what will become of me next week? And how will I find the strength to pack and move on Tuesday when we are supposed to be leaving our home-sweet-hell in favour of a new apartment? And what will I do if tomorrow we find out we aren’t moving yet and have to stay where we are instead, abandoning all hopes of having a relaxed Christmas; accepting, instead, a poor substitute lacking furniture, belongings, decorations and love? There are too many things in the pot and I am no longer managing. Like a snail, I need my house. And I don’t care if it’s a temporary house or a borrowed house or a house that actually belongs to me: I just need a place to call home that I can return to and relax in when I need to stop. Take away all of my creature comforts, suspend me in between here and there; poke me, prod me, push me, punch me, and I unravel. As the tail of thread lengthens and the length knots and snags, I start to wonder if, when I finally come to catch it, it can be untangled and rewound .

by Rebecca L. Atherton

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I wish I may, I wish I might, have this wish I wish tonight

What is it about life and it’s determination to upend me? Why is it impossible for me to have more than one good day in a row; for a day that has been good thus far, maintaining a steady flow of status and quo throughout, to be ruined upon reaching the ending? And why must my morning be a mess today, when today is a day upon which I need to be happy, vibrant and alive? I am not impressed and I am not smiling. Can you tell?

Sitting in Starbucks, and a grotty one at that; hiding on a table to the side and towards the back: I lick freshly inflicted wounds – wondering why, how, what just happened happened; trying to figure out what it was all about and who the main antagonist was. My head buzzes: overly full. My heart hurts, exposed and bleeding. There is the familiar pain of a hole and a slice, right at the centre, and the sense of a part that should be but isn’t. Where did it go: the thing, the part? And when, if it was there at all, did it disappear? I wonder if it always been like this, since the beginning. Or if it is more recent, something that has happened as a result of my journeying across the intervening years?

I wrap my hands around a hot mug, sip overly sweet tea, berate myself softly for the number of sweeteners I felt the need to add for comfort, wishing I were stronger, better, more in control, more like other people. Just like I do not need to click, click, click until everything tastes like it came from a sweet factory in order to placate my insides; I do not need to stubbornly plant my feet like a defiant dog refusing a walk in order to convey my point, especially when said planting and conveying results in my own person sabotage.

I blow my nose, emptying out the tears that I refuse to let flow; trying for just one day not to ruin my face – or at least not until after sundown, when the dark will hide the marks and the smear of mascara. That she hasn’t called, hasn’t even emailed to make sure I am alright, to ask where I am and what happened: only makes it, the incident, worse. Now I feel twice attacked: once by them, the angry receptionists; and once by her, the professional I stood up.

What happened? Was I wrong in my decision to act? Why did they take offence to what I intended to be a polite exchange, a look at the situation from the other side of the double-edged blade? I run the script through my mind, attempting to analyse and dissect exactly what happened, picking at words and sentences, paragraphs and phrases, until I am sure, or almost, that it wasn’t my fault.

I could have kept quiet and swallowed the humiliation… I could have pretended to be unscathed… I could have acted hard and cold and passed the buck back onto her… But I didn’t. Why the need to explain, the desire to placate, the attempt to enlighten and sway a disinterested other; the aim to aid future arrivees, discerning individuals, from a similar plight? And why leave prior to reaching a satisfactory conclusion to the heated debate, thereby denying myself the aid which had led me to the wretched organisation in the first place? Why indeed..?

As I sit here, I am an hour down and an ear short and the offloading that I had anticipated, that I had needed, that I still need, is far away. I now – thanks to my stubborn feet, my disobedient mouth, my wonky pride – have two weeks to endure before anyone, anything, attempts to step in. Not that any of the aid or the stepping has made much of a difference to date of late. The only dent in the armour has been self-made. I long for my ears of yesteryear. Patient and loving, gentle and kind: these are the people who have given and held; people who, for whose help, I am always and always will be eternally grateful.

As I slowly return to myself, I thank God for their presence in my life and the changes they helped me to achieve. I am who I am because they were there to guide me, gently encouraging and pushing like parent, friend and sibling; taking on roles that I was lacking elsewhere, and determine to care more and act with greater responsibly in the future. Just because money is short or because certain people are located elsewhere (like abroad), does not mean that I need to be restricted. The last two years have rewound me. I have been hurt; I have been broken; I have been held back and pressed down. I am clawing my way back – up and out, slowly. I need to take this time, treat this experience, as a chance to return. And if it means borrowing from the bank or going into debt, then so be it. I am worth it. It’s about time I understood that. Who, if not me, is going to treat me right, love me enough, respect and push me in the way and ways that I currently need?

Matter resolved, I dip my spoon into my cappuccino, scooping out milk flavoured with cinnamon, vanilla and nutmeg. I have drunk my way through two teas already. I’ve been to the bathroom twice that many times. I’ve sent emails and checked Twitter and Facebook, visited Amazon and surfed online. It’s been a difficult morning but I am stronger now and a decision that ought to have been made at the beginning when the reason was obvious has been solidified. Feeling lighter, stronger, cleaner and more resolved, I slip on my coat; squashing my head into a hat that I knitted in another life, pushing hands into gloves that were born in comfort and in sunshine. It’s cold out. I don’t want to hurt things that are already damaged.

by Rebecca L. Atherton

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Star light, star bright, the first star I see tonight

It’s mild out and I’m sweating in my coat, softly cursing my heatgen underwear, wishing I had had the foresight to check the weather forecast before committing to clothes. I’m also wishing I had packed my umbrella, another reason for checking Thursday’s intentions in advance of entering into her orbit, but it’s too late now, so I unbutton my coat, shed my hat and gloves and thank God for his kindness. In December, 14 degrees is an unexpected gift: I’ll not be condemning the horse or speaking ill of the dead, even if it does mean juggling extra pieces. I wipe water from my nose with a tissue and close my handbag; it’s spitting slightly and threatening to rain and the sky looks positively angry. In truth, I’m slightly scared. Ominous and oppressive come to mind; vindictive, also. I walk fast, hoping to make it to the station unscathed.

I cross Leicester Square, dodging commuters and eager tourists. Continue on to Embankment, where I pull out my Oyster, tap the gate, scan the map, turn (as per instructed) and descend, stepping almost immediately onto a train. The doors close and for four stops I knit, the strip in my hands extending, bit by bit. Two weeks in, it has advanced from single brown square to autumn quilt, albeit a small one, housing a bunny rabbit, two carrots, a ladybird and a branch. Organic, in charge of me rather than me in charge of it, I have no idea what comes next: a flower, a moon, a person, a dog…? At the end, there will be a message; there always is. I am keen to read it. I used to check my horoscope and consult the cards, translating from a ‘how to’ book. I also analysed leaves, pulling shapes out of cups. But creativity is better: harder to decipher, perhaps, but more insightful and based in fact. My novels held messages about where I ought to go and where, as a result, I’ve travelled since. My poetry, too; warning and guiding, if only I had been open to seeing and obeying when it was relevant.

At Sloane Square, I finish my row and bag my needles. Then it’s up and off and through another barrier.

Outside it’s dry and quiet, a scattering of people queuing at a newsstand, several taxis speeding by, the odd bus… I take out my phone and check the time: if I’m quick, I can grab a coffee; I could use the pick-me-up as I’m feeling tired and the ‘no light’ does strange things to me. Fresh out of bed, I’m not yet sure what kind of a day today is, but if the last month and a half are anything to go by, it won’t be great; I don’t want to tempt fate by starting on a backfoot. It will also act as a shield against what’s to come if it turns into an ambush or becomes in any way uncomfortable: after Friday’s disaster, I’m on edge; I’m also nervous. In truth, I’d rather not be here but I made a commitment and a bad day or a bad day last week, isn’t enough of an excuse to deny myself a potential opportunity that, in the long run, I should appreciate. I’m dipping and dabbling, sampling and savouring, endeavouring to fix the broken and right the wrong. There will be mistakes. There will be disasters. There will be injuries and things that ache. But it is by being open and by doing, by absorbing and by experimenting, that we learn. Curl up small, attempt to shut it out, retreat and withdraw and reverse into relative silence: and it all stops: movement, action, improvement, progress, healing, happiness and health.

Coffee in hand slightly later than planned, I rush towards my destination; turning sharply onto a quiet street, slipping through a peeling gate, stumbling down mossy stairs. Nose running, coffee dripping from my coat, late: I’m flustered. Now I wish I’d carried on walking or bought camomile tea instead – it wouldn’t stain and there would be no frantic mopping up, later attempted washing, need to visit the dry cleaners… Cost aside: I’ve nothing else to wear in between. A dress and a cardigan; a skirt and a jumper, don’t quite suit. Even with gloves, a hat, a thick scarf, etc., I will be freezing.

But all of this is tissue paper and beside the point. What’s important is yesterday and how that made me feel and how I feel today, still, as a result: positive, alive, strong. Which, after everything I’ve endured, everything I’ve done, everything I’ve suffered and everything I’ve survived, is a miracle.

by Rebecca L. Atherton

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Bitter-sweet

imageLast night it rained and it’s damp out this morning but milder too, which is a relief: I take my pleasures wherever I can find them these days, giving thanks for things I ordinarily would have dismissed. It’s strange how the weather, usually my top concern, is so far down my list and it has not escaped me how ironic this is.

It’s not that dissimilar to our house being trashed when we were employing someone to look after it; or us having to move because, despite having payed over the odds to secure a brand new luxury apartment from a top end agency, we have inadvertently ended up living above a nightclub in an environment that defies sleep; or my partner coming here to set up and attend important meetings and work one-to-one with clients and having to improvise on the go, meeting them in cafés and falling back upon his phone; or his phone (iPhone; unreliable, useless), important to his livelihood, slowly breaking, missing calls, cutting out and failing to ring, refusing, without headphones, to transport his voice; or his having his card cloned and used in Cambodia and his bank accidentally cancelling the wrong card because the clerk was also based somewhere like Cambodia and didn’t understand English beyond the scope of his script; or that leaving us high and dry until a new card could be posted and not having an address to post anything to; or looking forward to Christmas and going overboard with the decorating, only to realise that by the time we move decorating will be irrelevant as it will most likely be January; or wanting light in the mornings and evenings but not being able to open the blinds because there are always people talking, smoking, working outside; or eagerly anticipating cooking again after a break of three years only to discover the kitchen has also taken a vacation from which it is yet to return, limiting, in the meantime, all culinary endeavours to cold, ready-to-serve bits; or missing people who, upon seeing, you remember you needed to dismiss; or selecting and provisionally committing to courses – in psychology, in expressive therapy, in writing and in art – and not, because of everything that has been going on, keeps going on (relentlessly, endlessly), being able to afford it.

It continues, on and on… the duration endless. But I think the point is that there is so much happening and so much that is different from the intended plan, the direction of desired action, that the smaller things – like the temperature and the weather, the state of my nails and hair, the cold that won’t budge no matter how much I shove it – become insignificant. They’re just there, like traffic and people and cafés and shops. If you care to notice them: they are willing to share. But if you don’t, they won’t beg you for change like the people sleeping in doorways and corners every- which-where.

So Bad Luck is following me like a black cloud, like a stupid suitcase, and Irony, it’s BFF, is trailing close behind. And these things: the black luck, the cosmic and situational irony… are things I am aware of and things I am, for the most part, managing to fend off. It’s the flat that’s getting to me, as well as how not having a place to rest affects my partner’s mood. I am not a fan of Mr Unapproachable And Sharp-Edged and that’s who I am living with; along with Mr Mad As Hell, Mr Drop Dead Exhausted, Mr Snore The House Down, and Mr Drink Until I Fall Over. As for me: I’m guessing I’m Ms Cry too Much, Ms Trip And Stumble, Ms Emotionally Unstable; Ms Can’t Sleep, Can’t Think, and Ms Come And Save Me: Anyone, Everyone… Or perhaps things aren’t so bad and I am just exaggerating? All I know is that I was so tired last night, I got lost again; which consequentially so overwhelmed me that I retreated into the first safe place I found, nursing a coffee until my partner (for once a different kind of Mr – Distracted instead of Dangerous) came to my aid. That’s not me. That’s not normal behaviour. That’s not how I want or intend to operate: not now, not anymore, not again.

Since we’ve been here, it’s been bittersweet: one step forwards, two steps back; to the extent that we are both emotionally and physically drained. We look a mess, sound a mess, inhabit a mess and, like a magnet, draw additional mess towards us: lots of it, in fact. If mess were a good thing to have and collecting it advisable: we would be doing great. As it is, we are running to keep up and gradually breaking in the process.

If there is a God; if there is a Universe; if Fate is real and Karma deserved… do we not deserve a break? We are good people. We are trying to be even better. We care and we help and we share and we give. Have we not suffered sufficiently, experienced enough, to know and remember what suffering and disaster and heartbreak and trauma are all about? I would like to think so but I am not in charge of the natural order or the current state of things. So I sit and I wait and I listen and I learn and I try, as best as I am able, to endure it all with grace.

by Rebecca L. Atherton

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Bah, humbug!

imageThis morning I am sitting in a cafe in Covent Garden trying to collect my thoughts, and as I sit here – struggling to filter out the noise of cutlery and people, to shut London out: I realise a change in my environment.

Last week was endless, dragging on and on – days extending, hours stalling, minutes giving birth. I was miserable too: a complete wreck. The smallest things penetrated my barrier: a sudden noise, a busy street, raised voices, the rain… It was hard to cope and I didn’t smile. Clinging to what meagre stability I had – familiar places, friendly faces; my partner and my dog – I muddled through but with minimal success. I stitched, I knitted, I read and I wrote; only there was little enjoyment, anywhere. Life went about its business, the world span on its axis, and the challenges continued to manifest, blocking and stopping all progress in an upwardly mobile direction. I managed to occupy myself with groups and appointments – discovering, uncovering, meeting and making – but – exhausted, cold, overwhelmed and ill – the enjoyment I sought was withheld.

Today, it’s different: although I don’t know why.

Perhaps it’s knowing that the house is being repaired and that we don’t have to continue to worry about it? Perhaps it’s being released from our contract and given the chance to look for a new place to live? Perhaps it’s the viewing we have later on today and the possible solution to the problem? Perhaps it’s my cold finally reducing, so that the inconvenience is mostly just a running nose? Or perhaps it’s me slowly adjusting and accepting my fate?

England was never going to be a barrel of laughs. I wasn’t going to fall in love or jump up and down and declare out loud that I was blissfully happy: not like France, not like Mallorca. But I was supposed to survive without rewinding, and it was supposed to be easier and smoother.

Kicking the chain around my ankles, I curse my stupid suitcase for always following me. Each time I get knocked back, I get back up again; each time I trip, I think more carefully about where I next place my feet; each time I experience a disappointment, a rejection, a heartbreak, I reframe it as best I can: why then, with this repeated good behaviour, this conscious cognitive thinking, this paint-by-numbers approach to the bumps and the barriers, the stones and the rocks, am I still so far-removed from the cure?

Focusing on the positive – I’m alive, I have a roof over my head, a person by my side and a dog who loves me; aspirations, hopes and dreams: I determine to try harder.

And in the meantime, there is coffee, comfort, carols and candles. By no means a magic remedy, but it works for now.

by Rebecca L. Atherton

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