As a child I hated opera. I’d never seen any of course but the singing sounded both pompous and horrible to my ears. And from a young age I’ve been aware of the importance of enunciation. My mum is from Essex and used to pick up on my brother and I’s accents when they drifted into the kind of voice that might suggest growing up in North Yorkshire made you allergic to pronouncing vowels. That combined with watching Australian soaps and American comedies threatened to make us grow up utterly incomprehensible. So I couldn’t understand the appeal of singing that made the words difficult to pick out.

My interest in opera emerged slowly. First was through Pretty Woman. When Edward says to Vivian ‘People's reactions to opera the first time they see it is very dramatic; they either love it or they hate it. If they love it, they will always love it. If they don't, they may learn to appreciate it, but it will never become part of their soul’ I felt a desire to be the kind of person who let opera into their soul. (In my defence I was only 13 when I first saw it). A couple of years later I went on a school trip to see the Phantom of the Opera. By this time I was passionate about the theatre and the story whispered of greater drama, of powerful leading ladies and monologues of the soul. Opera was where it was at.


So going to see an opera made it onto my list of 30 things I wanted to do before I was 30 (yes, I was a terribly practical and precocious 15 year old). But it wasn’t something I set out to do in the way I kept looking for the perfect tattoo and made it to Russia not once but twice. I even hesitated when checking dates with the fiancé to go and see The Haunting this month and saw there was a single night’s performance of The Marriage of Figaro. I just wasn’t convinced opera was going to be for me and I preferred the potential of my soul to confronting the possibility that I might be the kind of person that could only come to appreciate opera. (I know, I know, it’s just a movie!).



Still, I suggested it to the fiancé and he agreed and The Marriage of Figaro seemed to be a good choice. It is an opera buffa meaning it’s a comedy. This felt like training wheels. When the overture began it was oddly comforting. I like my classical music the way I like my sport, I love it live and abhor it on my stereo or screen but this piece was familiar even to me. And then the curtain lifted...



... It was brilliant! It was laugh out loud funny and in the context of the theatre your concentration means you pick up almost all of the words (and even if it hadn’t been in English I think I’d have get swept along with the story as I do with ballet). I’m not entirely sure I can count is as real opera though as isn’t opera supposed to be, well, more taxing?


Loosely related to opera (in as much as opera is fantastical and he clearly doesn’t live in the real world) was Lord Young this week with words that will forever now be associated with him, namely that we have “never had it so good.” It’s got to be bad when a Tory such as I physically flinches! I’m happy to say I support a number of current plans; I approve of limited tenancies for new social housing applicants so that if their conditions improve they have to enter the private sector and I think that everyone capable of work ought to work and have long believed a compulsory employment scheme for the long term unemployed should be brought in. I don’t think anyone should get more than the average (earning) family income in benefits and generally bemoan the fact that so few people seem to understand that money for benefits and funding needs to come from somewhere. 


However, and this is the important bit, it is a bloody horrible time right now. The reason such ideas are so daunting is because the moronic party that screwed things up made people believe in entitlement to the things the nation can no longer afford. Ok so it’s partly the fault of those stupid enough not to have voted Tory over Tony in 1997 but he was youthful and shiny and you are the X-Factor generation after all. You hardly stood a chance!


I apologise. I’ll let it go. Obviously I’m worried that those lacking intelligence and understanding will reactively vote Left at the next election but we are each responsible for our actions and really it’s down to David to demonstrate that his nastiness is in actuality, necessity. If he can’t convince the country then I can hardly complain can I?


Still, whilst I have my views, times are bad. I’ve several friends facing redundancy and others that simply cannot find employment. I count myself and the fiancé as fortunate to have jobs and we certainly don’t take that for granted. Never had it so good? Well we’re among the fortunate but trying to get a mortgage has been very difficult and surely low interest rates mean that our repayments have the potential to soar? So we’re struggling to get money now and as things improve we’ll get stung with repayments. Ah but properties are cheaper now surely? Someone tell that to the Cotswolds! And we’re among the lucky ones! (We go to the opera after all!)

To my eyes, the world today is as swirling in confusion as any plot by Beaumarchais and I’m torn between my politics that my mind says are right but my heart wavers on as those close to me are facing challenges. Well, I loved The Marriage of Figaro and so what I ought to do is clear to me. I’ve got my eye on tickets to see Madame Butterfly in the New Year and will endeavour to think less on these difficult subjects.

Choice

11/18/2010

1 Comment

 

It’s a common complaint in the modern age that we have too much choice. In the last week I have purchased a laptop and a cup of coffee and both came with a seemingly unending list of options. Still, this is not the choice I refer to. Instead I want to talk about choice on a larger scale, choice that many of us seem to forget or overlook.

A phrase I have long known to be true (and yet spent several years with my ex-husband trying to deny it) is that you have the relationship you deserve. If you are being treated in a way you don’t like and yet you stay then it really is that you are choosing to be treated in that way. In many ways this goes further, that you have the life you deserve.

This isn’t to deny the horrible things that happen, rather that there are always options, there are always choices. It’s easier to tell ourselves that there aren’t. So many of our options can be unappealing that choosing between them can feel as though there aren’t choices. My most recent unappealing choice was between continuing in a job that was making me miserable (the contract for which was coming to an end anyway) or quitting and losing the last month’s salary. I chose to leave and maintain my faith in being the master of my own destiny but I won’t pretend that this wasn’t made on the basis of only giving up the last month of a job. Had it been a permanent position I’m not sure I’d have made the same decision. It was a horrible choice

But if I had to name a single word that defined happiness for me, my answer would be autonomy. My definition originates from a negative; unhappiness for me is a lack of freedom, power and choice. When I surrender my sense of these things I surrender my capacity for joy. In the sphere of relationships this isn’t so revolutionary. Controlling partners stifle us and make us unhappy while supportive partners nurture us and make us happy. But rarely do we take the model into other aspects of our lives.

My grandfather made an astute observation this week. I commented that I was exhausted by the juggling of my work and family life, which being a stepmother took its toll on me in ways I had never imagined. My Grandfather’s rather gruff response was that I didn’t have to care for my partner’s kids. At the time I felt this hugely unfair; while admittedly I had made a choice to live with my partner, surely now the fact I have to cook for, clean up after and generally care for two small children was not a choice. But it is a choice. I could insist my partner did it all. It would be unreasonable and would make me a total bitch but I could. I choose to be a loving and involved stepmother and my choice to make nutritional food that the boys will enjoy is absolutely a choice. I could give them a ready meal; I choose to cook a full Sunday roast. If I’m stressed by this then that is my responsibility. If I blame the pressures of society then please slap me! I choose to be a good stepmother and not a crappy one. End of.

What then of work? You have to have a job don’t you? Well yes, unless you are significantly disabled, are retired or raising a family, not having a job makes you... well let’s just say I don’t like people who don’t work. I could choose to be the kind of person I don’t like but I’m not going to (obviously). Still, I choose to do a job that causes me stress. I could choose to return to retail which caused me no stress but I don’t want to. I like the fulfilment of my challenging job and yes, I like the money. Again, when I dig beneath the surface, I cannot avoid the fact that of my options, I’m taking the one I want.

Now stepmotherhood and a challenging job are one thing but what if rather than being a stressed twenty something that looks thirty something I was deeply unhappy. What if I felt my life was on a path heading nowhere I wanted to go? Then I should change it.

My mother has a friend who stayed in an unfulfilling marriage for 25 years longer than I did. It took her longer to leave because she felt she didn’t have a choice. When she realised she did, it was game over. Despite not staying as long, I stayed too long. The first six months of my relationship were great, the first year pretty good. It then went slowly downhill. I stayed four years longer than I should have. Why did I stall? Well, mostly because I loved my ex-husband. Even in our last weeks together there were good times. The problem was that these became rarer and rarer.

That is how it goes in reality. Rarely are there snap moments where things change. Instead our relationships slide (sometimes into abuse or dysfunction but sometimes they just slide), our careers start to shift in directions we don’t want (my ex-brother-in-law springs to mind as a designer that got promoted to the point at which he all but ceased designing) and we replace cars, book holidays and buy homes without truly engaging with our choices. Even comparatively snappy experiences such as unexpected pregnancies or redundancies rarely make us sit up and think as dealing with the fallout takes all of our financial and emotional resources.

I’ve been guilty in recent months of slipping into passivity and feeling that life had taken on a momentum of its own with me trying to keep up. This is daft; I chose my life in Gloucestershire and could just as easily choose change. As it happens, a few days away thinking about things made me realise how much I am happy in my relationship (I was excited to see the fiancé and his kids tonight), how much I like my job (sure I’m stressed about returning tomorrow but that sure beats being depressed or uninspired by my return) and how ready I am to sign up to the mortgage for the house we’re hopefully now in the process of buying. I am juggling a lot but I’m happier than I was when my life lacked these things I have chosen.

Part of the reason I’m such a fan of taking time out is that when you’re in the day to day it can be hard to see your options. Sometimes they’re hidden, sometimes we have blinkers of (often to protect ourselves) but try hard enough and you find them.

Choose.

Choose life.

 
Today is an important day. My only personal connection to the First World War is a story my Nana told me. She was a little girl during WWI and she was born and raised in London; born within the audible reach of Bow Bell if you care for details. One day she was walking to school with my Aunt Joan and a house they had passed every day they made that journey was no longer there. That was what war was. And it ended and she grew up and married my Grandad and had two kids and for the most part lived happily ever after. That that was the only story she told me about WWI or WWII makes it stand out all the more. The message I took from it is that unspeakably awful things happen but they pass.

My Nana had her share of tragedy and difficulty. She contracted Meningitis early into her marriage and was told she may never have children. This made my mother’s birth all the more special but she then lost a child before having my uncle. My grandfather uprooted the family and moved them from the South she knew so well and where her family were to Yorkshire, a county she found cold and frightening. But she made a home and ended up living out her days on the outskirts of the Dales. She raised her children and then in part my brother and I, for many of my childhood memories are set against the Yorkshire Dales with my Grandparents taking us on picnics by a certain stretch of river with their dog, our dog, Sophie.

My Nana had a certain way of pursing her lips when she disapproved of something. Ever the stoic, she bore her lost baby and difficult early years up North, but she gave herself away with a momentary pursing of lips before letting forth a generosity of spirit I have never seen rivalled (although my mother reminds me more of her every time I see her, something that gives me hope for my own personality over the coming years). Still, I wonder how she’d have reacted to the student demonstrations this week.

While I come from a privileged background, we do not have a history of wealth. When my Nana and Grandad were first married they didn’t have a bathroom. My Grandad would haul a tin bath from the yard up to their flat to be filled painstakingly with buckets of water. He was the eldest of four boys and a sister and was told in no uncertain terms that his father might possibly send one son to university but that it would not be him for he was not sufficiently intelligent. My Grandfather went on to enjoy great success in his career. He was a self made man. My father was born into a Lancashire farming family where money was tight until my early childhood where the farmland was sold for real estate. Notably bright, my father did well at his Grammar school and went on to do two degrees. He worked in sales for a number of years before starting his own company. He was a self made man.

Privileged I may be but I am very aware of that and have always experienced gratitude. I grew up with stories such as the one where my paternal grandparents’ calves inexplicably died one year. There was no governmental support, the calves all died and they were really really scared. Most of their money was tied up in those animals and they all died.

We don’t live like that today. We don’t see holes where our neighbours used to live. We don’t secretly slaughter a runty piglet so the family can eat meat (my paternal grandfather was in charge of stifling its squeal). We don’t start married life stockpiling jam as my Granny did under instruction from our mothers that this one’s going to be worse for rationing lass. We don’t join queues without knowing what they’re for but knowing if it’s food we’ll happily queue all day to feed our kids whilst our men are all at war.

I’m privileged not just because I grew up in big houses with riding lessons at the weekend and a foreign holiday every summer, I’m privileged because those that gave their lives at war allowed my family the chance to build their world. Today I appreciate that and I appreciate the service men and women still working for my freedom. I think it’s partly my Grandparents’ stories and partly my travelling experience (the landmines that are still in Cambodia break my heart) but mostly it’s because I take time to stop and appreciate how lucky we all are.

The fiancé and I are in the process of trying to buy a property that we’ll transform into a gorgeous five-bedroom home. We want to fill it with the noise and chaos of his boys and later add a baby of our own. We want dogs and cats and chickens and towering firs and juicy turkeys at Christmas and barbecues and fairy lit parties that stretch late into summer evenings. Friends and family and food. Music lessons and homework and teenage angst. While I may not agree with the governments that go to war, the people fighting for my chance to build my dream life humble me with gratitude.

The reason I’m so grateful is that I don’t feel that I’m entitled to any of this. I am not rolling my eyes at these students because I have had my heavily subsidised education. I’m rolling them because I know how blessed I was. There are men and women giving their lives for the idea of a world where people are safe and able to pursue freedom and happiness. If you have the chance to go to university you are so very lucky. Today I heard a man giving his opinion on plans to make the long term unemployed do community service. He argued we aren’t all cut out to move bricks. Actual disability aside, of course we are! That the fiancé and I are both managers that sit in front of computers for the most of each working day doesn’t negate the fact we’re healthy people capable of manual labour. Our skills may be best suited to accounting and marketing but we can both move bricks.

So remember. Not just the men and women that sacrifice their lives for us but that everything is a gift. Any kind of welfare state is a gift. Before complaining that your “entitlement” is being cut, think about what entitles you to such things and perhaps be a little less quick to complain and appreciate how good you have it.

And if you can’t do that then at least chuck a fiver in when you buy a poppy.
 
This week I have been reading The Age of Absurdity by Michael Foley. In it he makes an interesting observation on East and West:

'It is ironic that Christianity, the religion of the rational West, is, in fact, completely irrational, inconsistent and even absurd, whereas Buddism, the religion of the mystical East is completely rational, consistent an even practical – not a creed requiring a leap of faith into absurdity, but a method that can be shown to work.'

While there are exceptions and I’ve been given plenty of “advice” during my time in the Far East which was quite absurd (being refused ice in my water as it would cause early death stands out here), there was a great deal that made sense. Something I have particularly taken on board is that you see doctors in order to stay well and not wait until you are ill.

It’s like the example of your car. You service it in the hope of averting problems. Rather than rebuild your engine periodically, you keep the oil topped up. We should take a similar view to our health. I’m far from getting it right all the time but I know that Oil of Evening Primrose helps my eczema so I should take it daily to prevent flare-ups rather than wait until I need to medicate a flare-up. Similarly, I’ve been very stressed since starting my new job and my back still isn’t completely right from July’s car accident so I decided to tackle that before I developed a stress-related health problem.

Now I’m generally a pretty sceptical person, particularly when it comes to alternative therapies but my experiences have actually been positive. I used to think that acupuncture was pretty daft but a friend of my mum’s qualified as a practitioner and asked to treat my carpal tunnel syndrome. I don’t know how it worked and I went in rolling my eyes but it did work and the massage she taught me to follow up with has kept it mostly at bay for several years now. When I was in KL I went for reflexology on the recommendation of a friend and was not only amazed to see one leg turn red and the other white as my blood flow was energised (or something) but that when different parts of my foot were treated, I could feel the effects in different parts of my body. Including somewhere that surely counts as sexual assault, or at least a lack of professionalism!

So when I met Vicky at a tweet drinks I tried to keep an open mind when she told me about reiki (it helped that she dresses stylishly rather than like a hippy). And it while it was several months before I got around to making an appointment, once I decided I needed to address my stress levels she was still at the forefront of my mind. I had got a sense that she does what she does because it works and not because she’s looking for a belief system to give her life meaning. So far, so Buddhist.

I booked a head massage with reiki. The head massage eased the headache I didn’t know I had and relaxed me enough to try and lie back and give reiki a chance. Crystals are an area I particularly struggle with but Vicky was relatively relaxed about that. Rather than wanting to find the stones that I had an emotional connection with she seemed perfectly happy with me choosing the pretty ones.

I laid back and she asked me to imagine energy and toxins flowing out down my shoulders and through my feet which would feel numb. Ten minutes in I was feeling rather daft and was tempted to open my eyes to see whether she was moving her hands mystically over me or whether she’d popped out for a cup of tea.

Then suddenly it was as if my skull was being pulled apart; as though my head had been in a vice and then suddenly released. The feeling left almost immediately and I was again left with my thoughts until a weight was lifted from my chest and I actually started gasping. It was all getting rather weird. My stomach was another tension place like my head and Vicky actually laid her hands on me (a palm on my forehead and a palm on my stomach). She said later that she wanted to calm me from being so tense in those places. My feet were numb by this point and I tried to wriggle my toes to find that I appeared paralysed. When Vicky touched my toes it was as though the tension throughout my body had formed into a piece of string that she then pulled out through my toes. Utterly surreal!

My feedback was that I carry tension in my head (I think too much it seems) and my stomach and that I don’t breathe properly (hence the sudden ability to breathe once I was... um... opened up?).

Writing this up now, I find I’m already resorting to a degree of scepticism since I lack the language to frame the experience but there have been profound changes in me. I feel oddly depressed this week and am thinking things through that previously I’ve bottled but rather than fighting this I’ve been confiding in the fiancé and am taking a short road trip tomorrow to get some fresh perspective. I’ll be visiting the coast and staying in a gorgeous hotel. I’ll swim, jacuzzi, eat regional food (they are award winning on local produce) and drink cocktails by a log fire or wine in my room or a pint out in the star filled garden.

The point is that I have no real plan. I’m taking my camera and a notebook but no preconceptions. I’m not going to fight the change in me but embrace it. And I’m going back next Monday!

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