On Feeling Invisible

Today, I am having a low day, a sad day. Today is a day to remind myself that there is a rhythm to life, a rhythm to creativity. It is a day for me to be mindful of the fact that energy ebbs and flows. Today is simply a low day. It will pass; these days always pass, but I wanted to document this so that when this happens again I will be comforted by this reminder. Also, if anyone else ever feels like this, I want to say this: I hear you.

Invisible Woman, by Marija Smits

Invisible Woman, by Marija Smits

Today is a day when I’ve felt as though I’m invisible. A few tiny tiny things (in the grand scheme of things) have occurred to make me feel like the character Amos Hart from the movie ‘Chicago’ who memorably sang the heart-achingly sad ‘Mr Cellophane’. A friend I was conversing with this morning wandered off mid-conversation to chat with another group of people. My inbox is continuing to remain desolately free of meaningful emails, although I’ve sent off many emails in the past fortnight (both professional and personal). Friend requests via Facebook of people I admire and would like to get to know better (though not in a creepy way, of course!) are just not happening. A Twitter conversation I started the other day trailed off into nothingness… My blog stats tell me that no one (well, okay, few people) are reading my blog. I am also feeling to “see” my own work. It’s all rubbish, it’s all a waste of time. And most mothers can probably relate to this: all the cooking, cleaning, laundry, admin work, shopping, present-buying, birthday party-organizing, caring and loving that goes on unseen and unacknowledged by society (and sometimes friends and family too). Only a (work) rejection (for some funding) today made me feel something: Ouch!

I have to remind myself that other people have lots going on in their lives; to be patient, open-hearted. I have to remind myself that I am also guilty of forgetting to reply to friends’ emails (or social media exchanges) and that there’s no malice in my oversight – just an overstuffed schedule and a holey memory (and possibly also embarrassment when I realize how much time has passed since they first contacted me!). In short, we are all human. Forgive me. Forgive them.

The trouble with feeling invisible – for an HSP at least – is that a commonly offered solution is to: Speak out! Make yourself heard! All very well if you’re an extrovert and/or have enough energy to assert. But when I feel low this feeling invisible thing is self-reinforcing. I am invisible, ergo, I must hide away. Sometimes, hiding away (maybe with a large tub of ice-cream to watch a movie, or to play Minecraft, or whatever – at least the villagers interact with me!) is just the right thing to do. But there’s not always a chance to do this, and of course work, and household chores etc. etc. are an impediment to hiding away. And sometimes, hiding away can seem a bit scary, because there’s always the worry, Will I ever come out of this?

The answer is always, always this: YES. You will come out of this. There is a rhythm to life, a rhythm to creativity. Have trust in the rhythm of your body, the rhythm of the feminine wild. Do what you have to do in the “low” – hunker down, cry, make yourself heard – and then, when you are ready, come out once more to shine.

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All the Fun of the Fair – or Maybe Not?

A fortnight ago the funfair came to our small town and set up shop. This happens every year at the beginning of July and on the Saturday of the travelling fair’s four-day-long stay the village runs a show alongside the funfair. This means that the recreational field is full of stalls, there’s an area for music and dance performances, a dog show and tug-of-war; ice cream vans and tombolas. In addition, there is the local horticultural, arts and crafts show for townsfolk to get involved in.

I like to take part in the show (particularly the art categories) – although I do tend to forget about it until the very last minute – and as they have crafting & baking categories for children to enter it’s become a bit of a thing for us. Although every year I reiterate to my two kids – it’s about the taking part, not the winning!

As they’ve got older they’ve become more interested in the show, but still, the big highlight for them is the funfair. This year we had fine weather and came away from the arts and craft show with a few prizes. So we headed to the funfair with smiling faces… First stop was the candy floss seller.

 

Candy floss, by Marija Smits

Candy floss, by Marija Smits

 

However, I do have mixed feelings about funfairs. As an HSP (highly-sensitive person) the sheer number of people, the noise (sometimes screams) of the crowd, the pop songs blaring out of the speakers, the smell of the diesel-fuelled generators mixing with the smell of frying onions and burgers, hits me with a good old sensory wallop. I worry about the kids getting lost; I worry about where they’ve put their shoes when they go on a bouncy castle or ride that requires them to go barefoot; I worry about how much money I’m spending; how I’m going to carry all the stuff I’ve brought along with me and not lose any valuables in the process; I get hot and sweaty, and worry about the safety of the people on the fast, whizzy rides (look at all those mechanical parts… so much could go wrong!) and, in general, my patience runs out pretty quickly. I long to get home, to the quiet and cool of our comfy and non-sensory-overloading nest.

 

Kids water walking, photo by Marija Smits

Kids water walking, photo by Marija Smits

 

And yet… there is something rather wonderful about the funfair. I can see why travelling fairs have ended up in speculative books and TV shows (Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, along with Heroes, immediately spring to mind) because there is something thrillingly different, mysterious even, about the funfair and the lives of the people who run them. It also makes me think of my own childhood, and in particular my early teens, when the funfair coming to town was a much-anticipated event. Oh for the gut-churning thrill of the waltzer; the super-greasy fast food; the whiplash of the bumper cars; the chance of encountering boys from the local boys’ school…

Perhaps age, then, is the main factor in my no longer being able to fully enjoy funfairs; maybe they mainly appeal to teenagers who yearn for the promise of excitement. To a limerent girl-turning-woman, the funfair was a glimpse into the future – of night-life, of thrills, of the other sex. And given the number of groups of teenagers descending on the funfair I can’t see its appeal vanishing any time soon. I can envision my own children, when older, congregating at the funfair with their friends. No doubt I’ll worry about their safety, and exactly what they’re getting up to (!), but like most parental milestones, it’ll be something I’ll have to experience and learn to navigate, if not, exactly, embrace.

 

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Seeing Myself in My Parents; Seeing My Parents in Myself

Sometime last year I took my daughter to a friend’s birthday party. As I stood in the café area of our local swimming pool, chatting to one of the birthday girl’s grandparents, hands deep in the pockets of my bulky khaki-coloured parka, I suddenly had a moment of what can only be best described as déjà vu. Only it wasn’t that I’d experienced this moment before (because yes, I know, déjà vu is nothing uncanny, it’s just a memory short) it was that for a moment I was my dad and my dad was me. A memory of my dad had suddenly inhabited me. He was waiting for me in an equally unremarkable setting, hands deep in his pockets, rocking back and forth from the balls of his feet to his heels, effortlessly exchanging pleasantries with someone he’d only just met. I saw myself in him. And him in me.

And just the other day, driving my son to gymnastics, I saw him in the way I had splayed my fingers across the steering wheel. Another habit of my dad’s. My father also had a deep respect for science but, also, he loved an uncanny mystery. Erich von Däniken’s books fascinated him. One of the last ever conversations I had with him before he died was about the film Inner Space. He had picked me up from a friend’s house where I’d just seen it, and as we drove home we enthusiastically discussed the concept of miniaturization, whether it would ever be possible, and what its consequences would be for humans and whether or not it could play a role in medicine. (Something I explored in one of my short stories, which, one day, will hopefully be ‘out there’.)

I cherish these findings. Although of course they make me remember how much I miss him.

Because my dad died when I was pretty young (15) I never really went through the ‘I’m so embarrassed by my dad’ stage. However, I’m not sure whether or not I would have ever gone through this stage with him anyway. I’m pretty sure he was an HSP – though a ‘gregarious’ one, because he was adept at socializing – and so in public places he would keep a low profile. (Though this could’ve also been something to do with being an immigrant.) Anyway, he didn’t embarrass me. My mum, on the other hand, specialized in embarrassing me. (Although, interestingly, she is an immigrant too, and sensitive at heart. But she’s an off-the-scale extrovert. I guess that trumps all!)

For a start, she had a stint as a nude model. At a well-known private boys’ school. Then there was the Russian accent, flamboyant clothes, and a tendency to make everyone in a public place know that she was there. As an HSC (highly-sensitive child) tending towards introvertism this attention-grabbing (to my mind) behaviour made me cringe. All I wanted was to be ‘normal’ like the other kids. My mum was badly letting the side down.

 

An Important Lesson

However, from the one phrase that my dad said semi-regularly (the one thing that I didn’t like to hear him say, because of course, it meant I had a chore to do!): “Teika, sometimes in life, there are things that you don’t want to do. But you’ve still got to do them.” I must’ve subconsciously taken the following:

  1. Some things are out of our control. (Like having an embarrassing mum.)
  2. You have to find a way to get through them. (You keep your head down and promise yourself you’ll never embarrass your own kids in the future.)

Nowadays, I relish repeating his words to my kids. They groan and roll their eyes, but actually, it’s a wonderful thing to discuss, as it give us an opportunity to consider things like fairness, doing and sharing chores, and the importance of finishing tasks. It also leads on to bigger issues – must we like our work? If we don’t, do we stick with it, or not? – and other such things.

Now that I’m a lot older and understand more about my father’s background, and his home country, Latvia, which was besieged by both the Russians and the Germans in WWII, I can read far more into those words. In a wartorn homeland there will be difficult choices to make. Difficult things to do. I thank God that so far I haven’t had to make those kinds of difficult choices.

So when it comes to my childhood “suffering” as ‘being a bit embarrassed by my mum’ I see how trivial my apparent tribulations were. Still, as a child, fitting in seems to be so crucial, doesn’t it? We want our ‘tribe’ – our peers – to accept us, don’t we?

So I hope I’m getting the balance right for my kids. As an HSP my default is to keep my head down and keep quiet, not draw attention to myself. Yet there is a time and place to make a noise, kick up a fuss. My dad once spoke to me about making a fuss, going to the papers etc. if my school wouldn’t allow me to change one of my GCSEs (from Design to French) halfway through the first year of our GCSEs. The Head said it couldn’t be done; I’d be too far behind, I’d fail. When I asked him what he’d tell the school if they said ‘no’ he said that he’d threaten to chain himself to the radiators, and call in journalists. The headline would be ‘SCHOOL STOPS PUPIL FROM LEARNING!’. (We had it all figured out.) Thankfully, it never came to that. His diplomancy and quiet insistence won out. But still, his patient determination – being the discomforting stone in the Headteacher’s shoe – impressed on me. In many ways I’ve inherited this ‘rebellious’ streak, and my own ‘quiet’ acts of assertion on behalf of myself and my children when faced with ignorance, prejudice or baroque attitudes to education (or breastfeeding or whatever) have been bolstered by my memory of his fights on my behalf.

Oh, and by the way I got an A in GCSE French. (Take that, school!)

 

My Lovely Mum

I realize that this post has focussed more on my father than my mother (it can be easy to take a living loved one for granted, can’t it? I apologise Mum!) so I will remedy that now.

Portrait of Ludmila, by Marija Smits

Portrait of Ludmila, by Marija Smits

After all the “years of embarrassment” of having an extrovert mother, when I was sure that our differences were so great we couldn’t possibly be related (!) I grew up. Mellowed. Heck, today is my 41st birthday. I can finally see our similarities. Both of us find inaction abhorrent. She seems to either be cooking or washing up continuously. Or cleaning our greenhouse (only to have the kids mess it up within a few minutes…). I can’t not tidy or pick up after the kids; I can’t not be writing or planning something creative in my head. We’re both musical and emotional, cry in church or at films or at the theatre. Or well… virtually anything that even somewhat pulls at our heartstrings. We’re both pretty optimistic, and she is big-hearted and generous. We’ve both got green fingers, laugh too loud and too long at silly jokes, and as I age I have to admit that physically, I’m pretty much just a slightly younger version of her (though definitely far less attractive, as she is a genuinely beautiful woman, a bit like a Russian Marilyn Monroe). She also likes to tell me that people still knock 20 years off her age most days. I agree that she doesn’t look her age (she’ll be 71 soon) so I smile when she tells me. (Although sometimes the old teenager-me kicks in and I roll my eyes!)

Now that I’m older I sometimes look back at my much younger self and feel bad about all the times I wished away my “ugly” dumpy body or stupid name or strange foreign parents. Sitting here, in my home, surrounded by much much love, I feel incredibly blessed to have had two wonderful parents who gave me so much in the way of gifts. Most days I don’t feel as though I can live up to all that potential; I’ve certainly failed when it comes to that ‘list of things I plan to do’ which I made as a teenager. But sometimes, when I catch myself just going about my everyday life: working, writing, cooking, gardening, hugging my children, husband and loved ones (as well as our new cat) I think that actually, I’m doing okay.

 

I'm never going to behave like that cartoon, by Marija Smits

Cartoon by Marija Smits. The wonky fringe in the top picture is not a mistake.

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A Christmas argument… and cognitive dissonance

As some of you already know, as an HSP I’m slow to react to stuff. Which is why I’m not writing a new year’s resolutions post in January; I’m still thinking about stuff that happened in December.

Our Christmas was rather fraught and we’ll probably always remember it as the one where our youngest was ill (although, thankfully, it was only a bug that affected him mildly); it was also the Christmas where the veg was undercooked and the Christmas where my husband and I had an argument about wrapping paper on the 23rd December. Wrapping paper! I mean, for goodness sake!

Only it wasn’t really an argument about wrapping paper. It was an argument about parenting, our definitions of generosity and our own attitudes towards Christmas and our views on being environmentally-friendly. (And for clarity, I must elaborate: I am fed up of the amount of waste produced at Christmas – wrapping paper making up a large part of that – and so I wanted to use second-hand gift bags and pillows and old bits of ribbon etc. to wrap our presents with instead, to cut down on the waste and the time I spend peeling off bits of sellotape from the wrapping paper torn off the presents in an instant so that I can put it into the paper recycling rather than landfill. My husband found it difficult to see where I was coming from and we didn’t take the time to listen or try to understand each other’s position. There, I hope that clarifies things!)

It was a horrible argument – both of us were shouty (very unlike us!) and then very very quiet and withdrawn afterwards (both of us are HSPs so it took us a long time to merely process what was said in the heat of the argument). Anyway, thankfully, the next day, on Christmas Eve, we had the chance to talk it through and to apologise to each other. And thank goodness! Otherwise Christmas Day would have consisted of a poorly boy and undercooked veg as well as two very unhappy and sulky parents. 😦

Anyway… what this post is really about is the difficulty in admitting when one is wrong. When you have made a mistake and you know you have to own up to it. Because, boy is that challenging!

It is as though one’s own sense of self, one’s own sense of oneself as a “good” person will shatter and crumble under the admission of a mistake. And saying sorry is the thing that collapses oneself. It is a horrible, uncomfortable, shaky feeling to have. And it is something that can’t be experienced for long. Ego, that coward (who, I guess, is only trying to relieve us of that horrible, uncomfortable feeling) would prefer to rationalize away our mistakes and, through self-deceit, turn them into something far more palatable, like mere trifles caused by the stupidity of others.

But this feeling… it has a proper name. It is known as cognitive dissonance.

“Cognitive dissonance is a state of tension that occurs whenever a person holds two cognitions (ideas, attitudes, beliefs, opinions) that are psychologically inconsistent, such as “Smoking is a dumb thing to do because it could kill me” and “I smoke two packs a day.” Dissonance produces mental discomfort, ranging from minor pangs to deep anguish; people don’t rest easy until they find a way to reduce it. In this example, the most direct way for a smoker to reduce dissonance is by quitting. But if she has tried to quit and failed, now she must reduce dissonance by convincing herself that smoking isn’t really so harmful, or that smoking is worth the risk because it helps her relax or prevents her from gaining weight (and after all, obesity is a health risk too), and so on. Most smokers manage to reduce dissonance in many such ingenious, if self-deluding, ways.”

Mistakes Were Made (but not by me): Why we justify foolish beliefs, bad decisions and hurtful acts by Carol Tarvis and Elliot Aronson (Pinter & Martin 2013)

Mistakes were made, but not by me. By Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson

Mistakes were made, but not by me. By Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson

The difficulty both my husband and I felt in saying sorry after our argument reminded me of various instances in my life when I’d been in the wrong and found it difficult to say sorry. One particular instance was when I’d had a minor argument with my father (I can’t remember what the argument was about) and I knew that I was in the wrong. I was a teenager and probably hormonal, but I forced myself to go and say sorry.*

In this situation, my heightened conscience was a good thing. (It is not always – it usually causes me a lot of anguish because I can tie myself up in knots about what the “right” thing to do is, whether it be a small thing or big thing.)

Anyway, in this situation, it was a good thing. Because a few days later, my father died. I know that with my heightened sense of guilt, if I hadn’t said sorry, I would still be experiencing guilt today. (Although I do have to add that saying sorry solely to put off a future guilt isn’t probably the most healthy thing either – but more on that for another post, perhaps.)

This post isn’t really about saying sorry when it isn’t appropriate (I know that I can also fall into the trap of saying sorry when really I haven’t done anything wrong – and I’m not sure that’s very good for a healthy sense of self either), but I do want to highlight the uncomfortable feeling that cognitive dissonance can produce. It reminds me of this beautiful painting, by one of my favourite artists, Agnes-Cecile, which both discomforts and delights me:

 

I have a hypothesis that perhaps HSPs feel cognitive dissonance a little more keenly than others. I don’t know. And I’m not even sure that one is necessarily holding two very contradictory points of view; it’s just that there is one part of me that knows I acted meanly/without thinking/made a mistake and that doesn’t resonate with the image of myself that I have (as being generous, thoughtful, impervious to making mistakes etc.) and so that is why there is this horrible clash inside me. And it is this clash that thunders in my chest so noisily, so uncomfortably, that I wish for it to go away – by any means. My ego says: Wasn’t your fault. It was so and so’s fault. They’re an idiot. Don’t say sorry. (It wants to give me a quick-fix solution.) Thankfully, my heroic (but sometimes plain annoying) conscience comes along and says: Hey! I see that there’s a little noisy cognitive dissonance around here. Give it a while to quiet down and then go and do the right thing. It won’t break you. I promise. You’re still a good person. Just human. Just human.

So to acknowledge cognitive dissonance, and to name it for what it is, perhaps makes it that bit easier to act humbly if we are brave enough to do so. We then have the power to say sorry, knowing that it will not shatter us or make us any less worthwhile as humans, and it is then that we can move forwards with humility and grace and love.

 

*I think I probably mumbled something like: Sorry. Got a bit of PMT at the moment. I’m not entirely sure if I was experiencing PMT, but hey, I was fifteen and any apology was better than none. (See how that heightened sense of guilt would like me to keep worrying about this? Well I won’t let it! I’m only human for goodness sake!)

 

And… I did also want to say thank you to all the people who read and/or comment on my blog. I wish you a healthy and happy and creative 2016. 🙂

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