Category Archives: Arnfrid Beier Blog

A dialogue between an English scientist (ES) and a German linguist (GL)

ES: As you predicted, I didn’t understand your first paragraph, so I can’t respond to it directly.

GL: I have to admit to a perennial problem, it’s linguistic and cultural. If I don’t manage to put my explanation here, I’ll try again when I see you. I’ll stop trying the minute I see it’ll bore you!

In German we string words together to make one long word. It’s not common in English, but I’ve noticed there’s a tendency now, but on a minor scale.  When I first saw the word ‘fairytale’, it was still two words, then I noticed a hyphen creeping in and now I mainly see one word. But that’s where it ends.

In German any number of words can be strung together. And here’s the rub, when this happens two things are possible: The meaning of the new word can be the sum total of its parts or the new compound word can create a unique meaning over and above the component parts. In the first case, it’s relatively easy to translate the word into English, in the second it’s diabolical.

You only have to look at Rilke’s poetry to see what I mean or read some Heidegger in German and try to put some of his words into English. You are forced to use ‘of’ or ‘on’ or ‘at’ or hyphenated word groups, even breaking down and re-arranging the whole into different word groups or clauses.

The first two lines of a poem by Rilke are a typical example: Du im Voraus verlorne Geliebte, NimmergekommeneYou who never arrived in my arms, Beloved, who were lost from the start… Nimmergekommene is translated as Who Never Arrived (translated by Stephen Mitchell, 1913-1914)

The word Nimmergekommene in Rilke’s poem is the sum total of its individual parts nimmer (‘never’) and gekommene (past participle of ‘to come’, ‘to arrive’), with both parts retaining their basic lexical meaning.

Heidegger uses words that create a new meaning over and above the component parts, e.g. Lebenswelt or ‘life-world’ in English, a word that ‘stresses the solidness of the human encapsulation within reality.’ (Roy Hornsby, Internet) We can see that the two words ‘life’ and ‘world’ lose their basic lexical meanings to create a new concept.

There are words with many more composite parts in everyday usage, e.g. Haushaltskontrollausschuss, literally ‘budget-control-committee’, the official term is ‘committee on budgetary control.’ (Der Spiegel, 15/7/2017, p. 65)

Here’s a slightly longer one: Scheidungskreidekreisprobe, literally ‘divorce-chalk-circle-trial’ or ‘the distribution of friends after a divorce.’ One of the composite parts, the ‘chalk circle’, hints at ‘magic’, ‘protection’ and ‘witchcraft’, lifting the whole word into another dimension. (Ben Schott in Schottenfreude)

Finally, one where each composite part integrates into a new entity of meaning: Dreikäsehochregression, literally ‘three-cheeses-high-regression’, as sometimes a little child may be endearingly called a ‘threecheeseshigh’, the best description in English would be ‘small-child-regression’. (ibid.)

So, when I use one long word with its own unique inherent meaning, I am forced to write down all the separate parts and thereby destroy the core meaning of the whole. This makes German sometimes appear quite impenetrable and even nonsensical. It’s possible that Lewis Carroll made use of some of these seemingly gobbledegook elements in Alice in Wonderland, e.g. the poem ‘Jabberwocky’ in Through the Looking-Glass.

I could say more but no, only that in the heat of an argument, I forget I mustn’t use the second category of word formations for conveying complex thoughts or ideas in English, that’s when it sounds like galumping, frabjous, borogroves and bandersnatch.

ES: Any attempt to share the contents of our inner self, or consciousness, often seems to end in ambiguity and vagueness. The phenomenologists Husserl, Hegel, Brentano and others tried to make it scientific and precise, but the terminology they introduced is difficult to understand. Perhaps other languages such as German are clearer in this respect in spite of or perhaps because of long words?

GL: Takaaki Kajita and Arthur McDonald received the Nobel Prize for having discovered that ‘the mass of neutrinos is not nil but only as good as nil.’ That doesn’t sound very clear to me, let alone scientific and precise, but fascinating stuff all the same. It just shows us the questionability of ‘clarity’ and ‘scientific precision’. This is relatively new territory science is trying to grapple with and any translation from German to English in this area may well fall under the second category of long word formations in German, but no examples to date.

Within the framework of the traditional Newtonian physics, ‘clarity’ seems to be less of a problem. Just look at the stuff Karl is involved with. It all makes perfect sense, although some of the gadgets do not seem to display an immediately obvious useful function, but their mechanics can be understood by everybody, they can be demonstrated, replicated, measured, weighed, precisely calculated, the lot. Ergo, it fits perfectly into the ‘clarity’ box. And there would be no problem in translating the detailed processes involved here from German to English or vice versa, as it would fit beautifully into the first category of long word formations.  

ES: Perhaps we should consider applying Wittgenstein’s dictum: ‘Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.’ Maybe minds come in different types, and a mind of type A can never understand some of the utterances made by a mind of type B. It would be wonderful to discover that there is a ‘Periodic Table’ of The Self or Mind. 

GL: Yes, wouldn’t it be a wonderful thing!  I agree, minds are different types, like our unique ‘fingerprints’, we all have fingers, we all have minds, but that’s where it ends. I suspect though that a ‘Periodic Table’ of The Self or Mind would amount to us all being clones, ‘mass-re-produce-able’ machines, vaguely reminiscent of Huxley’s Brave New World. Don’t know whether I would like that.

As for Wittgenstein’s dictum, I always assumed it was about something like ‘God’, the human mind can only engage subjectively with an abstract concept so it can only be intuitively grasped. Realising the futility of philosophising about ‘God’, it would be logical to conclude as above.

But could there be a danger? For example, what to the contemporaries of Galileo and Giordano Bruno appeared to be contrary to the science and common sense then is now common knowledge and the basis of modern thinking. So, unless we try to look behind the veil of our ‘status quo’ ignorance, we won’t advance.

Can’t language in combination with our thinking be instrumental in directing us towards new horizons? I wonder could it be that Quantum Physics is such a new horizon, like an unexplored dark continent, where the Stanleys and the Livingstones of this world will one day shake hands in the middle of ‘nowhere’? Or will Wittgenstein wag his finger at me again?

ES: Some people say that art is the vehicle that allows us to share the contents of our consciousness: ‘art is the communication of that which cannot be told.’

GL: Yes, painting, music and poetry could be seen as such transcendent vehicles. When I read Rilke or Blake, I see other-worldly pictures and landscapes rise up in my mind’s eye like paintings, as if the poet was casting spells on my inner canvas, communicating with my soul, you might say, or fathoming the depths of my unconscious.

ES: What is refreshing for me about science is that it restricts itself to a more limited domain of phenomena where we can have more than one reason for believing what we believe, for example, a theoretical reason combined with a practical demonstration; and this makes it more precise, and less ambiguous. So we can achieve a greater measure of agreement.

GL: Yes, it is refreshing and so important, because what you describe in this paragraph is what society is based upon, what makes it function. The operative words are ‘restricts itself to a more limited domain…’ Here theory and practice go hand in hand towards the only goal: ‘more precise, and less ambiguous’.  It gives us more certainty in an uncertain world. The ‘greater measure of agreement’ has a twofold dimension, practical and existential.  Practical: a greater measure of agreement gives us a more reliable basis for practical cooperation to run our lives, to manage our world. Existential: a greater measure of agreement makes us feel less alone, makes us feel connected.

ES: Although babies have more ‘potentiality’ than adults, they can do less. Perhaps we can only interact with the world in meaningful ways by limiting our potentiality. Is this not what education does: it ‘brainwashes’ us, i.e. restricts our potentiality, but also frees us from the box we are in.

GL: Now I have to be careful if I don’t want to have Wittgenstein to answer to. What I mean by potentiality with regard to language rests on personal experience. My basic state of mind is neutral. I call this the potential state. When I rise up from the potential state and enter into the words, I am my words. When the words are shed, I drop back into my potential state.

When I’m in my words, my thinking mind is fully engaged in dialogue.  I never want to stay in this state, as I feel restricted by it. I want to drop back into the potential state, as there I feel everything is possible.  In the potentiality state nothing is formed yet, my words have to be born into the next dialogue. 

When I speak with you, for example, my words grow as I speak, helped along by your words. I’m drawing a simple picture here, because there are thoughts and feelings involved as well and many other factors that influence the relational dynamic. Again, more could be said, it’s a big field to plough.

ES: I would like to offer these few points, which you might find apposite.

Perhaps babies are an example of your intuitive simplicity, I mean where your mind is in the state of potentiality? After all, every human baby contains the potential to speak any language. The gurgling sounds of young babies include every phoneme of every language, so they say, I’ve never checked.

However there is research that shows that even babies are ‘pre-programmed’ in certain ways: they respond to certain facial expressions, tones of voice, etc; and they also come into the world with some understanding or, if you prefer, expectations of how the physical world works, this is called naive physics. And nobody has to teach a baby how to cry, suck, pee, defecate, open and close its eyes or breathe.

Other research shows that after about six months a baby’s gurgling noises start to show the influence of the language it has been hearing.

GL: I agree with what you say, though I would add this. As a baby, I am in a baby-like state of potentiality. As a grown-up, I have the use of thoughts and words. But when my breath has blown the thoughts and words away, I drop back into a baby-like state of potentiality.

 

 

 

 

Small talk vs. big talk

I want to share something haunting me. You might find it funny, perplexing, but it dogs me. I can’t do chit-chat. I can’t make small talk. I only seem to do big talk which can clear the room or cause a glazed expression in thirty seconds.

I’m an introvert for sure, and that means my inner world is my preference. But hey, I also live in the outer world, ineptly. I’m awkward at parties, ill at ease with smiling, nodding, winking and saying sentences with no meaning or significance to me.

I know what this small talk is about, it says ‘I’m friendly.’ ‘Are you friendly?’ But I can’t do it. When I’m in the middle of a social gathering I have the sensation that I’m surrounded by talking robots, nodding, eating, drinking, laughing.

How do I fit in? What can I say? Who would want to listen to me? I often eavesdrop in order to make more sense of people’s words and worlds. Hello! Good to see you. Are you still at the bank? What are you driving now? Going anywhere nice this summer?

One thing that amuses me is how frequently these apparently polite questions are mere portals so that you have to hear an endless stream about their lives, their jobs and friends, and I have been trapped many times with five hundred photographs on an Ipad of ‘our last holiday in Majorca, we found a private beach and…’ I can finish their sentence ‘…took photographs all day.’

I’m not English by birth so this habit of parties with quizzes is worse than jumping in nettles to me. It is an exquisite agony of the first degree. I wonder could I use Google as I’m not British? Why not use Google anyway? It would make things so much easier. And we could all go home.

The questions are so remote to me, the queen who had no living children, the year Henry VIII killed his 5th wife, the British ships lost in the battle of Trafalgar, the date when the Boer War ended.

I try to be open-minded and picture similar questions about German History. It wouldn’t happen, the open sore that was Hitler took away that playfulness with historical dates that is evident to me every time when I’m faced with a quiz.

A friend tells me to relax and not care, laugh terrors away, reminding me how much geographical knowledge I have and how useful I was in the quiz for Palestine. I was a bit cross though, with people not knowing about countries bordering the Baltic. Being cross was the only excitement I got, as if I needed any.

I feel surplus when I don’t know the answers. I can’t join in. My only resource at times like this lives in my head. It’s the voice of Sherlock Holmes, the old one from the B&W films, Basil Rathbone. Basil often points out the error of my ways.

I do feel like lobbing verbal hand grenades at parties and… Basil stops me. Look here old chap, he says, let’s start at the beginning. First we have to find an enemy before we can blow them up.

In all my years as a detective, he continues, I’ve never once investigated a suspicious death at a Christmas quiz, a garrotting round the dinner table or a spontaneous combustion at a cocktail party, have you, old chap?

My emotions change back into friendly feelings. I wish I could say how I feel. What would happen if I said to my dinner companion, I’m all at sea with small talk round the table, it’s so hard for me to be enthusiastic  about this starter. A hint of a nod, a distant smile, silence. We both look down at our brioche with something on it.

What if I made things clearer? You all seem to love lettuce, if you loved lettuce in Germany, it would be very strange, and if you hated lettuce it would be even stranger. What would you do with a human, if you already did it with lettuce? A lemony smile, radio silence.

Is it the words? Am I too precise? Would I like more form to these conversations, or are they not meant to be conversations? Is the Basil in my brain right when he says that everyone finds chit-chat hard or is he pulling my leg?

Is there a training course for people like me? One that doesn’t just make me survive talking about nothing to strangers but that has meaning for me. O these dratted words that I long to use with people, to engage, to have dialogue with.

I wonder why and when Sherlock got into my brain?  Is it okay to have an imaginary friend when you’ve got grey hair? My Basil is real to me, because he balances what’s in my head with what’s out there. The one goes with the other, he tells me.

Basil is cynical sometimes about people’s motives in choosing words. He claims that words are mere plastic that can be moulded and changed with a little heat. Are social gatherings hot so word plastic melts, and this and that becomes another?

Basil says that much of what goes on in small talk is a waste of time. It strokes, it soothes, it calms, it warms, it numbs and so it steals our time, our precious time for autonomous thinking and authentic feeling. I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Here’s what you could do, says Basil. When you’re faced with your social dilemmas try to remember that you’re two things, unique and the same. You’re connected to everyone and everything around you. I tried to do what Basil suggested but failed.

Failure is a trick of the mind, says he, success and failure, introvert and extravert, inner world and outer world, they are opposites that can’t exist apart from each other, and therefore they aren’t actually opposites but variations of the same theme.

And, he emphasises, they are mere preferences, old chap. But if we view these apparent opposites as separate entities, rating one higher than the other, like success over failure, we are in trouble.

Every plant needs the light of day as much as the darkness of night to encourage its growth, so we humans need success and failure to test and prepare us for our next leap forward. In the same way both our inner world and our outer world need each other like day and night.

Basil smiles lighting up every cognitive nerve cell in my brain and in his fruitiest manner tells me that there is no such thing as being normal and fitting in, people can’t be different, only what they are, why they are, how they are, when they are, where they are in themselves at any one moment in their lives.

I listen carefully and catch myself laughing at Basil’s words. I wouldn’t put it past him to be having a good laugh at me himself. Okay, people may just be where they are, perhaps because of their mental constructs, polarised thinking, using their words in a competitive and divisive way, but come on, Basil, what am I to do with that, eh?

Sitting comfortably in a cosy corner somewhere in my brain, what do you know about a table with six people round it and me having to think of something to say? How can I speak their language and stay with them? Not just saying the words but to feel as if they link me to my neighbour?

Trouble is when I try to do small talk I get myself into a big rant very quickly. For example, I am asked about my drive to the party, then there’s a silence and that glazed look and I suspect I’ve told the story about my naughty speeding course for long enough.

Basil laughs in my ear. You have improved a bit, at least you no longer think ‘How are you?’ is a question about your health. You’ve come a long way since that nice man went green while you gave him the details about your ear infection when he asked ‘How are you?’

I’ve tried to imagine everyone feels the same as me. I’ve tried choosing my words carefully. Acting upon instructions from Basil, I know what topics to avoid, my feet, my hernia operation, my ears, my penchant for existentialism, my pet word angst.

What I can do freely is, well not really freely at all, just chatting about nothing feels like spreading butter on toast, my children, their jobs, their pets, grandchildren, holidays, home improvements.

But hey, if I talk like them all the time I will disappear from my own here and now. Basil isn’t a bit worried. Remember, says he, you’re unique and the same. So you said, but where exactly does that leave me?

In a nutshell, you’ve got a small-talk persona like everybody else, and that’s where you are the same. You’ve also got your own self, as unique as your own fingerprints, raring to climb the highest mountain.

My small-talk persona, well what can I say, I have always looked down on the poor thing, but as a link to the world out there, as a sort of go-between, we could come to a meaningful working arrangement, I suppose.

Apart from that, I have to admit, listening to your words got me pretty confused again, Basil. So with your permission, I’m posting them to the universe and wishing them a good reception.

 

 

 

 

Dear Wife

It’s been a little hectic since you went to London. The window cleaner has broken his arm. He always comes when I haven’t got any cash. Anyway, Monday was quiet.

Tuesday took me out of it. I left at 6.20 hoping to avoid long traffic queues. But it was worse, everybody had the same idea. Who else needs to cross the Pennines?

The dawn showered piercing rays at my windscreen and I couldn’t see a thing. I’d never really noticed how dirty the windscreen was and turned into Speke Retail Park to dig out my sunglasses. The dirt was on the inside.

The direct sun on the windscreen was bad enough, you couldn’t see what was going on around you, but because of the filth I had to drive cautiously to Charnock Richard Service Station.

I rushed into the petrol station and bought a pack of windscreen wipes. They didn’t help, I couldn’t see anything at all through the smears. Should I ring the rescue team on my insurance policy? Ran back into shop, bought two bottles of water and some sponges.

I managed to force the dirt in an archipelago of islands all over the windscreen, leaving me enough spaces in between to see where I was going. It took me half an hour and I made it to Boundary Mill by 9. They only open at 10 and I didn’t find it funny to sit there waiting for a toilet.

The traffic looked heavy. I made it to McDonalds before the rains came. Then I worked my way through the Dales and across Blubberhouses Pass. On the Road down, there was fog as thick as cotton wool all the way to Harrogate.

I was happy to see Geoffrey and it infected him, he seemed happy to see me. He got me a bucket of water and cloth, a clean one, and I attacked the windscreen with renewed hope. This time the gunk vanished with the help of Geoffrey’s magic cloth and I felt a lot safer about driving the thing, being able to see.

Strong cups of coffee and a good exchange of words did us till early evening. Your Lasagne was a block of ice, even though it had been in that steaming hot car all the way from Liverpool, and it was a hot day.

Good job I dropped in at the Asda and picked up a couple of pizzas. Geoffrey put the large one in first and forgot to take it out until it was half its size looking like a charcoal sculpture with red dots stuck on. We thought it was delicious. The second pizza was smaller with meat balls sticking out but got the same treatment, except it was thicker and fought back the heat valiantly. We baptised it ‘the pudding’.

We shared the bottle of wine and enjoyed some of your cake which got funny pleasure sounds from Geoffrey’s munching jaws. His partner lives a safe distance away and always rings when he’s on the toilet. Then he comes rushing down and shouts guiltily ‘I was on the toilet and it’s Johannes.’ He likes cake.

She rang that evening and he handed me the phone. She switched from fortissimo to andante ma non troppo with a touch of allegro mixed in to lighten things up a bit. ‘He’s been quite difficult recently, you know.’ There was a pause. I didn’t have an opinion and after a few ‘ah’s’ and ‘oh’s’ handed the receiver back to Geoffrey.

‘She sometimes rings several times to drive me nuts.’ That was Geoffrey shaking his head; he is patient and understanding and gives vent to his feelings with a kind moan, muttering: ‘Us men, eh? You women, eh?’

I made up the bed and slept till about 4 in the morning. Then I tossed and turned for a couple of hours and went to the toilet. I took a shower and when I stepped out of it I thought I was still in it, the foot basin had expanded over the whole bathroom floor.

I soaked the water up with loo roll, well two loo rolls, but a lot of water was still there when Geoffrey took a look. He laughed and waved his right hand saying not to worry it’ll be dry soon. I could still see it on Thursday morning when I left but the ceiling below didn’t have a damp patch.

At 9.30, Geoffrey was going to chop up trees. He came down and made coffee. We talked till 9.28, shook hands and said goodbye. I drove over to the petrol station at Sainsbury’s and filled up, went inside and got a loaf of bread for later. And there they were, the inhabitants of Harrogate dressed up for the Truman Show, bread under arm I fled.

What happened with the experiments in Geoffrey’s garage and the combustion of the plum-pudding will be reported spontaneously when I’m back in Liverpool.

Take care, stay cheerful and see you when I see you, all things being equal.

Your Husband

 

 

 

How my life has changed since I’ve learned to say: ‘I’

‘I’ has always been a part of me, inhabiting my mind, following me around, yet making me uneasy. ‘I’ wanted out, but was locked up in ‘one’ and ‘you’ and making me ask: ‘Who is this ‘one’, this ‘you’, taking the place of ‘I’?’

However, since I’ve learned to say ‘I’, my life has changed. I’ve come into my own. I own what I say and I am responsible for my words. I cannot speak for anyone else. I can only speak for myself and it does wonders for my self-esteem.

I don’t care if others think I am ‘self-centred’, ‘ego-driven’ or ‘narcissistic’, because I know that I have stopped running away from that magical space inside me where I feel genuinely at home.

I’ve been running away for a long time even searched the Himalayas believing I’d find it there but in vain, I wasn’t t there. I listened to my false ‘I’s and put on their faces living in their amorphous lives.

Then something happened. It was in my first counselling class. I used the words ‘you’ and ‘one’ when I meant ‘I’. People turned round and asked: ‘Who is talking?’ Or: ‘Who is ‘you’?’ Or: ‘Who is ‘one’?’

I pointed at myself and said: ‘I am talking.’ They replied: ‘Why don’t you say ‘I’ if you mean ‘I’?’ They weren’t being facetious. It took me some time to get rid of my ersatz ‘I’s. It felt as if I suddenly had a new spine in my back.

With this experience came many insights. Authentic ‘I experience’ is the precondition for integrity and congruence, from which empathy, genuineness and unconditional positive regard may take their rise. (1)

Often the first step for clients is to connect with their ‘I’ so they can say: ‘If I feel pain, I get worried,’ rather than: ‘If people feel pain, they get worried, don’t they.’ Or: ‘If you feel pain, you get worried, don’t you.’

I realised that the ‘one’ and ‘you’ forms are actually a kind of displacement, in the sense that they make the speaker avoid being open and vulnerable within the frame of their own ‘I experience’.

I’ve been doing just that, running away from my own genuine ‘I’ and I wasn’t aware of it. As a result, everything around me felt random and rendered me powerless, so much so I felt adrift in my own life.

The ‘I-avoidance’ tactics I’ve been talking about here are general labels for much deeper issues. It was in my first counselling class where I realised ‘one’ and ‘you’ were just the tip of the iceberg.

How could I go deeper? I began to write things down. It started as a record of my thoughts, feelings and behaviours. Keeping a diary was mandatory on my counselling course. But it wasn’t enough for me.

I discovered journaling and took to it like a duck to water. I created Max, my ‘third person’ double. It was like turning the game the other way round, putting my face on another person. That was okay. I was in charge. (2)

Max became my alter ego, I saw myself in him like in a mirror. Over time, I saw patterns emerge from the deep, crystallised structures of the mind reflected in my thinking, suppressing my feelings and dictating my actions. Poor Max!

Yes, I felt empathy for Max. He was a real person, with my face on. It dawned on me that in my giving empathy to Max I was actually receiving him. I had never known that the two belong together.

In my counselling sessions I observed that this approach had a reciprocal effect on how my clients interacted with me. It was as if in receiving me they were giving themselves to me, trusting and allowing.

‘Healing is meaningless until it is shared,’ says Haven Trevino in ‘The Tao of Healing’. Sharing, where giving and receiving, receiving and giving blend together, is like a concentrated essence for healing the soul.

Paul Celan says it even more powerfully: ‘I am most I when I am you.’ Is that perhaps the ideal ‘I-Thou’ relationship between counsellor and client where Roger’s three core conditions fulfil their purest purpose? (3)

(1) Carl Roger’s three core conditions
(2) See Running Away – A Therapeutic Journal in: www.counsellingkit.com
(3) Buber M (2000) I AND THOU Scribner Classics

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Leaving Eggs Under Floor Mats or Getting there

I was sure I would be a counsellor one day, but there was no way I could see that. I felt a million miles from therapeutic anything. The impulse that propelled me to understand myself more so I could understand people’s pain was gone, well and truly gone.

What do Catholics say when they stop being nuns? ‘Lost their vocation.’ Was it a calling I had felt when I swapped careers mid-life? I must have felt, heard, imagined something, but it hadn’t come out as a meaningful ‘gestalt’ yet. I suppose at least I knew what ‘gestalt’ means.

Today, I am sitting opposite a soul in pain. I hold them with empathic interest. I want them to feel they can talk freely to me and I will receive their thoughts and feelings, expressed through their words, their silences and their gestures.

The amount of pain out there! Where does it come from? What is the purpose of such suffering? Well, for me the pain was a compass point, a direction finder, part of a map of a life. Where I am in myself when whatever I’ve been doing doesn’t work any more.

That’s what happened to me. I was a German lecturer being appraised as part of a new re-fit process at the university. At the question ‘So what kind of a lecturer are you?’ I saw red, or even crimson or maybe scarlet.

Something like a firework went off in me, some sort of live exasperation at a system that was as preposterous as it was useless, where human beings are seen as no more than resources, ‘factors of labour’.

I was offered counselling. I accepted. I turned up. I wanted to know: Was I there for my own sake? Or was it for the university? For my own sake! What a thing, to be listened to for my own sake, what an hour it became. I got hooked. I talked myself out of my misery and on to a counselling course.

Now I was sitting in an airless room with someone talking about their pain. I could let air in by opening the window, but I felt green, amateurish and awkward. What if my opening the window made my client feel they were boring me?

I thought I would develop an expertise and get there. But I didn’t, I didn’t get anywhere quickly. Inner pain isn’t something you ‘cure’ by being next to it. In treating chronic physical pain we know that people are asked to stretch and bend, sending messages down the nerve endings, through and round the pain. In my first sessions as a counsellor that’s how it felt, my mind being stretched to the point of wanting to give it all up. But slowly, it got better.

I began to see the usefulness of a structure for me, vaguely at first, getting a sense of where the client was in themselves, opening that place out and exposing it to light, trying to grasp where it had come from and why it had such power and then thinking about it a different way. If that could happen, my client would be in a different space. Maybe the pain was still there, but boy could they see the enemy.

I’d like to say that I worked ceaselessly to refine a framework that worked for me. That enabled me to sit for hours with no perceptible change occurring on the outside but scenes being shifted on a massive scale on the inside. But in reality, it happened naturally, of its own accord. That was the most important lesson of all; apparently things were the same, but those deep processes were beginning to drift to the surface.

As time went by the framework became clearer, a bit like a piece of music, because each element of my process overlapped, went backwards, changed order, but it didn’t matter because what was helpful to me was my very own counselling code, I listened, we explored, understanding was brought to the surface. What to do then? Where can you go when there’s no dark cave of despair to hide in like a welcome prison?

You face the changes you need to make, you prepare to move on. I wished there was a reference book with five sections in, Listening, Exploring, Understanding, Facing change, Moving on, interchangeable fluid sections that went together sometimes, maybe flowed if I was lucky but kept me on track, kept me clear-sighted as the counsellor, not only within the bounds of each counselling session, but also on a bigger scale, like in time-limited or even open-ended counselling.   

Just as you might remember the colours of the rainbow by Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain and there you have all the seven colours, my secret process for making counselling come alive for me with clients is: Leave Eggs Under Floor Mats. It looks facetious written like this, but I’ve found it a useful mnemonic allowing for a quick recall of the five different steps when under pressure in a counselling session.

Counselling is closely bound up with story-telling, the stories coming from your clients, multi-layered, complex, with constantly shifting perspectives. Stories you can hardly believe, stories that leave you gasping, stories of lives not lived. I can see how a five-step reference guide book could help new counsellors unravel their clients’ stories. I hope my ideas will stimulate, support and sustain them. I’ve written fifty stories or case studies, all within five sections, and there is ‘Running Away’, a therapeutic journal with integrated workbook. Have a look at www.counsellingkit.com.

If I have one message it’s that counselling is about us being human. Maybe we all need to become counsellors of sorts to live our best lives. Learning to put the other person first, seeing them for their own sake, yet doing things together with them, drawing on the interactive skills reflected in the five steps above and steadily growing into our own lived humanity.

As I became more experienced and more relaxed with my clients, I introduced writing into the mix. Just like mustard to certain foods, writing adds a kick to the ‘therapeutic nourishment’ received by the client. It adds value to counselling because it captures and preserves moments for later reflection. But above all, it can develop a meditative quality in us where our beginners’ fear, our clinging to what feels like the safe use of reliable skills, gives way to a freer, more intuitive human response to each moment in the counselling process.

What is my biggest hope? To carry our stories forward, work with them, becoming more human every day, because if we want to live our best lives we all have to be counsellors and clients at the same time. I write, my client writes, I read, I reflect, my client reads, my client reflects, the one inside me just the same as the one gazing into my eyes from across the room. Where do we meet? We meet in our story-telling, in our journaling, in our journeying to the centre of our personal universe.   

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When things really matter you can’t say it all in words

When I was 18, I decided to try England for a year, that year has never ended, it’s somehow rolled into a lifetime of fifty-four years and hopefully many more.

Sometimes people ask if, after all this time, I think or even dream in English, but I don’t dream in any language, my dreams are visual, wordless sequences of unrelated events.

Do I think in English? I did years of it when learning the language at school, but there was no poke, no swing, no tempo, no momentum in my school English; it felt like pedalling on a static bike.

You can think of language as a ‘vehicle’ for communication. To pass my ‘driving test’, I had to stay focused until I was unconsciously doing it, speaking, listening, reading, writing, and then it came together, things just happened, virtually overnight, or so it seemed.

I didn’t have to ‘think’ in English any more! The words came freely out of my German mouth. They knew the game and played it well. I still have the certificate, under my name the words that meant I was ‘unconsciously competent’. The thrill it gave me.

I had mastered English and this certificate was the proof. I could relax, and relax I did. My friends, the words, did all the talking; they oozed with my charm or exploded with my anger, whenever necessary, I couldn’t have done without them.

Watching TV or reading the papers was like being served meals on wheels. Every meal a feast, a feast of words, English words dancing in my German ears, English words jumping off the pages into my German eyes, my English loved it and my German felt put out.

When I got a rash around my eyes and a burning sensation in my ears, I had to ask myself if these ‘meals on wheels’ were such a good idea after all. It looked as if the way the ingredients were put together didn’t agree with me.

It became so bad I had to see a specialist. Not to worry, he said, you’ve moved from being ‘unconsciously incompetent’ to being ‘consciously incompetent’, it’s a shock to the system. I was shocked too and my English was at a loss for words. Did I have to start all over again?

You know the old learning circle idea, unconsciously incompetent, you don’t know what you don’t know; consciously incompetent, oh no, you know what you don’t know; consciously competent, I can drive very well but no one can speak to me in the car! Till you reach unconsciously competent, the place where you can do it without realising it.

I took the certificate with me to the next appointment. I’ve moved up from ‘consciously competent’ to ‘unconsciously competent’. The specialist smiled. You may be ‘unconsciously competent’ in English, because you use the English language like an Englishman, without thinking. But your itchy rash tells another story. Ah…

Another story, nothing to do with my English… The specialist laughed. It was my last session with him. Thought about those ‘meals on wheels’ a bit more? There’s something in the food that upsets my stomach, something I can do without if I have a choice. Wise words, but consider: it’s not about your English this time, it’s about the words of others.

Ah, the words of others: their meaning, their purpose, their punch, the TV, the papers, shaping my experience? English words, tumbling off my German tongue, my English words or maybe the words of others, the words of the specialist, spinning in my head. How can I be sure? What am I to do?

You’ve got to love us all, including the words of others. There’s nothing else you can do, you have no choice. After all, it was into the words of others that you were born. If it weren’t for us, there would be no TV, no papers, you could never have become fluent in English and this page would be empty.

You’re trilingual: you’ve got three tongues, your mother tongue, our tongue and the tongue in your mouth. Without us nothing moves. My English words again, filling the page in front of me: so many words encoded in my brain, ready on call, to tell the world I’m fluent in English. How technical they sound, how reassuring, how safe!

Maybe language is a vehicle we use to get about in the world. But what does the specialist mean: it’s not about your English this time, it’s about the words of others? Who are the others? The specialist, parents, teachers, TV, the papers? Where does it begin? Where does it end?

Wake up from the words of others: from your forgetfulness of being! The specialist again, in my head, using my English words and the tongue in my mouth. How can I wake up from the words of others? Does it mean I’m asleep?

Could it be that as ‘my’ English words pour out their meaning on this page, my brain is crashing out in wordy unconsciousness, that I’m actually in a dream, a word dream, believing I’m awake?

If this means I ‘dream in English’ after all, it’s with my eyes wide open, the words of others on my tongue and wondering how I can become fluent in shedding ‘my forgetfulness of being’.

Question is: is it as straightforward as learning a foreign language? Probably not, if Plato’s observation is anything to go by…

‘Language and word strive for the expression of pure being; but they never attain to it, because in them the designation of something other, of an accidental “attribute” of the object, is mixed with the designation of this pure being. Accordingly, what constitutes the characteristic power of language is also its characteristic weakness that makes it incapable of representing the supreme, truly philosophical content of cognition.’ (Seventh Epistle, 342c – 343a)

In: Cassirer E. (1955) The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms Vol. 1, ‘Language in the History of Philosophy’, p. 126, Yale University Press

 

Can words help our mental wellbeing?

The answer seems straightforward: It all depends on what we mean by our words. It’s up to us. We’re in control. But are we?

I had my doubts recently, when my head felt full of rabbits, ‘word’ rabbits. They could do everything I can do and even more: They drew me into their story and got to my feelings, as I found when reading Watership Down. I was in that warren with those rabbits.

Am I going on again about words and their power over us? After all, we know it’s the author who tells the tale. So who has the power? Yet whether author or reader, to believe we’re in control of the words could make us even more vulnerable to their power. It doesn’t take much for them to seize control, as my examples show.

The way they make us manage ambiguity! It’s known that Frankenstein and his creation, the monster, quickly established themselves as one and the same in the public imagination. So Frankenstein is now the monster, which shows how easy it is for a ‘word creation’ to assume a life of its own in people’s minds. Perhaps feeding the belief that a monster in a name-cage is safer?

The way words make us cope with impermanence: In the 19th century, it was reported that on his deathbed, Balzac called out for Bianchon (the doctor he created  in his Human Comedy), a ‘word creation’ come alive in the creator’s mind. Perhaps allaying his fear of death as no other doctor could?

Bianchon, Frankenstein: What’s in a name? Names are just words. True, but words make pictures in our heads, turning stuff into reality, their reality, as only words can. How do they get this power? Maybe when words no longer stand for something, but become something, they start living in our heads, feeding on our fears and desires until they’re more real than we are and more powerful.

They’re hard to catch by ear, because they use our voices so we don’t realise what’s happening. Let’s say I’ve made a mistake and shout ‘Stupid!’ I laugh about it, but even as I’m laughing, ‘Stupid’ has set to work on me. I forget about ‘Stupid’, but keep making the same mistake. ‘Stupid!’ shouts back at me. Why do I keep making the same mistake? Does ‘Stupid’ live in my head?

What other unkind word creatures live there, waiting to get to my feelings, my thinking, my behaviour? They’re quick, these words, vanishing with our breath. But they’re always in on the act, even if it’s loaded against them. When I want them to be quiet, it’s them that say: ‘Stop talking and make yourself useful!’ Or: ‘Actions speak louder than words.’

Can nothing lessen their power? What could do that? ‘Listen to what we say.’ ‘Explore what we mean.’ ‘Understand what we do.’ ‘Change what we’ve become.’ I can hear this as I’m writing. Where do these words come from? Do they live in my head, as well? What do they want?

It’s almost as if they’re inviting me into a therapeutic alliance with them, which makes me wonder: Could it be that it’s only when we enter into a reflective dialogue with our words that they can help our mental wellbeing?

I will have to write more to find out if it’s as absurd as it sounds.

 

Novels:

Adams, R. (1972) Watership Down, Rex Collings Ltd., London.

Shelley, M.W. (2006) Frankenstein: or ‘The Modern Prometheus’, H. Colburn & R. Bentley, London.

Balzac, H. de (1984) La Comédie Humaine, Editions Gallimard, Paris.

 

Notes:

Therapeutic Alliance: The relationship in which a collaborative, positive affective bond exists between therapist and client (Hovarth & Bedi, 2002).

 

Magazines:

Rizq, R. (2013) Therapy Today, Vol. 24/Issue 2, ‘The language of healthcare’ (‘the language we use to describe and report what we do can begin to dictate how we work with our clients’).

Williams, C. (6/4/2013) New Scientist, ‘Lost in translation’ (‘What your body language really says about you’).

 

Further reading:

Leader, D., Corfield, D. (2008) Why do people get ill?, Penguin, London, (‘Words can shape our experience of the body and of medicine, and certain physical symptoms may even be made from words encoded in the body’, p.6; see Chapter 5: Words and Beliefs).

Leader, D. (2013) Strictly Bipolar, Penguin, London (‘As one of my patients put it, The right words were just there, I didn’t have to think any more’, p.21).

Leader, D. (2012) What is Madness?, Penguin, London (‘We learn words through [our caregivers] and if we accept that thinking relies on verbal structures, our thought, at a certain level, derives from them too’, p.95).

 

 

Beyond word and thought

Once a week I go to two places at the same time. One is the Subud House in South Liverpool and the other is inside myself. I go to find what words can’t know. My upbringing made the spiritual stuff inside me go underground. The Latihan puts me in touch with it. Everything around me keeps changing, but inside me is a place to come home to, even if poorly lit and in need of rewiring.

I’ve tried to find my meaning in the world through words, but they’ve built me castles in the air. What I have is an inner power that I was born with. But where is it? The Latihan helps me unearth this lost treasure. At the Subud House, I leave worries, fears, desires at the door, step out of all that ‘I’, ‘me’, ‘my’, ‘mine’ and receive what words can’t know.

The Latihan takes me beyond religious traditions to where we all are the same. It’s for us all, no matter what our beliefs. Many Latihan people believe in a god. Religious beliefs are personal to individual Latihan receivers. All are at their own place of spiritual unfolding. Christians perhaps see the Latihan as a gift from ‘God’. Others with no religious leanings may see it as a de-cluttering and rewiring of their whole ‘being’.

I am careful about using the word ‘God’. Do I, by giving a name to what is beyond word and thought, morph it into a benign father-figure that will see to my every need? Isn’t this a ‘magical belief’? The sort that can bring us money or guarantee us good health? I do not pray to a god to do things for me. Can I ever know what I’m asking for is truly what I need? All I can do is live – make choices, make mistakes, receive the Latihan, notice a difference.

I’ve noticed that what turns up inside me often has a subtle effect on what turns up outside me. After a Latihan I feel a deep well-being, as if bathed from inside with light. The Latihan is not a science with results that can be measured or a new religion with churches and temples. If received without expecting anything it is like coming home. The Latihan seems to work randomly. I let it take its course. That’s all. No techniques, no rituals, no controls. It happens.

I’m saying it as it is for me. Except, what I’m saying somehow isn’t me; it feels like so many words wanting to be heard. As I’m listening to them, I feel I’m getting further away from the heart of the matter, as if what ‘trips off my tongue’  is not what ‘is’. Words say: ‘Subud is a spiritual movement’. Even if I could switch the sound off, it’d still be the words shaping my lips. Words say: ‘The Latihan is an inner awakening.’ Maybe a blank page would’ve been more to the point than words having a bash at what is beyond them. 

 

I’m trying to put life into words, or am I fooling myself?

Life and words, can they ever meet? Or are they really one, only I can’t see it? When I hear what others say I’m confused. What do people mean when they say such things as ‘I’m interested in what can be done with words’(1), ‘…trying to capture or clarify something in words’(2), or ‘…efforts to put life into language’(3)? How do I put life into language? Like air into a balloon?

Words are more than enough for me. But how can I capture and clarify something with words? And how can I put life into what I capture? By using ‘quiet techniques’, ‘subtle observations’, ‘linguistic felicity and surprise’?(4) Are words perhaps posing as life? Doing their tricks with poetry, where words always seem to have the final say?

‘Life works by a process of connotations, an evolving multisensory apprehension of a shifting world. We get impressions of things. They don’t have sharp edges: they have atmospheres.’(5) Who is saying this? I’m left wondering if it’s not words playing a wild game with ‘life’ in the land of our imagination. What are they capturing?

As for putting life into words, I’ve been trying to do it for a long time. Fact is I’ve been putting so much life into words I don’t know what ‘is’ without them. It’s become so bad, while watching the Boat Race I didn’t know they were boats without the commentator mentioning it. Fancy me thinking the commentator had any say in the matter.

I’ve stopped wondering if words have a life of their own and we get sucked in. It’s got to be that, for not a moment passes without words putting their ‘life’ into ‘it’, making the moment their own.

Does this mean if we have no words for something we cannot understand it and only words give us a sense of what’s real, what we enjoy, fear or don’t want to know? Could it be that words are actually telling us what to feel, how to feel? And that to understand something it has to have happened?

Words seem to imply that the future flows straight into the past with nothing in between. Is there no present? The wise say: ‘Every moment brings knowledge that we can’t label, store, add to or use again. If we try, the meaning is lost.’ But isn’t it lost, anyway? In the annals of words, the story-board called history?

Here I am, absent in my paragraphs, crammed full of remembered reality, but at the same time feeling pity, regret, a sense of loss, self-doubt, anxiety, fear of going mad, but also flickers of joy and happiness. Is that how I put life into words? Or am I creating an artificial ‘thing’ in my mind animated by ‘impressions’ and ‘atmospheres’?

‘I’m interested in what can be done with words, but I like to jazz things up a bit.’(6) Is that really possible? I don’t know. What I do know is words cannot step out of themselves. And if I get too close to them, they swallow me up, thoughts, feelings, the lot. Yet I carry on writing – talking their talk, walking their walk.

Could it be that be trying to put life into words, I am trying to jump over my shadow?

 

(1) ‘I’m interested in what can be done with words, but I like to jazz them up a bit’, Paul Muldoon, Interview by Nicholas Roe, Saturday Guardian Review, p.15 (30.03.13)

(2) In: ‘It is necessary to spell correctly’, Nick Laird, Saturday Guardian Review, p.16 (30.03.13)

(3) In: ‘It hurts exactly as much as it’s worth’, Julian Barnes, Interview by Emma Brockes about J.B.’s novel Levels of Life, Saturday Guardian Review, p.3 (30.03.13)

(4) Ibid. (2); (5) Ibid. (2); (6) Ibid. (1)

 

Further reading:

1. Cassirer, E. (1955) The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, Vol.1, Language, Yale University Press, New Haven & London.

2. Pinker, S. (1994) The Language Instinct, W. Morrow and Co., University of California.

Do words conspire to make us who we are?

‘What a miserable day,’ say the words and then it is. Words come and go, seizing every opportunity, not only the weather. Where do they come from, these words? They seem to be making up my life. Why can’t I stop them? ‘What a miserable day,’ and before I know it I feel miserable.

‘What’s on your mind,’ people say, when I look miserable. ‘Words are on my mind,’ I say, truthfully. The way they stare back at me speaks volumes: ‘puzzlement’, ‘alarm’, ‘pity’. Words disguised as body-language. You’d have to be a psychotherapist to figure out what they’re up to next.

They are good at building castles in the air, these words. ‘What’s on your mind?’ As if my mind was solid. And how can a cold and rainy day be more than cold and rainy? Maybe words are the fifth element? Just as our bodies need fire, air, earth and water, do our minds need words?

Could it be they use our minds like ‘Play-Do’, each word moulding bits of our minds in their own image and animating our thoughts and feelings with themselves? Oddly enough, it feels quite safe like that, even when the words play on the not-so-nice feelings like anger, frustration or worry. At least you know where you are.

Maybe the words even tell us who we are. Are our minds invisible journals where words are making up scripts for our lives? What if it is these words talking me into this pleasant state, making me feel I’m on safe ground, making me think I’m getting a bit closer to who I am? You never can tell.

Trouble is words aren’t safe. They’re suddenly there, out of nowhere, guns blazing. ‘Notice of Intended Prosecution,’ they shout, as I peel the A4-size letter from its envelope, and ‘That ring, where is it?’ ‘Offence Date.’ ‘They’ve found the body.’ ‘Offence Location.’ ‘Which body?’ ‘I never murdered anybody.’  ‘Offence Time.’ (1)

Words running amok… ‘Confusion.’ ‘Fear.’ ‘Terror.’ ‘The Cheshire Constabulary is after me,’ they shout with my voice, with my ‘me’. Head rattles, sinuses vibrate, heart pumps. (2)  ‘Don’t worry, it’s not important in the grand scheme of things,’ words say behind my back. I turn round and see a smile. She puts her arm round me.

These words give me no peace, not even for the length of a smile. A hug, a kiss, a moment of bliss, it all goes into their invisible journals, our minds, for making up our life-dramas mirroring back to us who we are page after page after page. They stamp meaning on every moment of our life and file it under past, present and future.

‘When I give the word, run!’ ‘I always keep my word.’ ‘I’ll put in a good word for you.’ ‘He’s as good as his word.’ ‘I’m a man of my word.’ A perfect camouflage! Until it hits me: It’s not me that runs the show but them. Could it be that ‘I’m a man of my word’ hides this equation: ‘my word’ equals ‘my lord and master’ and ‘I’m a man of’ equals ‘I’m a servant of’? My word!

I’ve always known words rule. What they say goes. They stick the label ‘miserable’ on me and miserable I am. They say ‘I’m happy, angry, worried, confused or even a thief and murderer’ and ‘I’ fall in line. How clever they are, these words, making me think without them I’m nothing. Until one day the penny drops.

I take a deep breath, feel the fear and do it anyway, that dreaded ‘Speed Awareness’ course. ‘Confusion’, ‘Fear’, ‘Terror’, going, going, gone… Ring, body, not seen or heard of again… Speed awareness: being considerate to each other as human beings, lovely day plus better driving skills. What can I say?

Feel the fear and do it anyway. Feel my fear and do it anyway. Maybe it works with all other words as well. Feel my terror, feel my anger, feel my happiness. Have I got new friends? Or has that mighty God of ‘Inference’ gone on holiday? So words aren’t just playing games on my brain page, they also have the cheek to imply, infer and suggest I mean something else.

 

Notes:

(1) A ‘Speed Awareness’ course was offered to me by the Cheshire Constabulary for speeding.

(2) Der Spiegel (11/10/10) ‘In Praise of Fear’. Translation of the beginning of an article on fear in the German magazine.

‘Fear can paralyse us and make us ill, but it can also inspire us and give us wings: Studies carried out by psychologists and brain specialists over a number of years show how fundamentally fear can shape our personality. Already in childhood there are unmistakable signs to what extent the behaviour of a human being will be dominated by fear throughout his adult life.’

 

Further reading:

Jeffers, S.J. (1988) Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway, Fawcett Columbine, New York.

Fromm, E. (2001) Fear of Freedom, Routledge, London.

Kierkegaard, S. (2005) Fear and Trembling, Penguin, London.

Do words hold a secret?

I’ve been wondering why words are so important. Could we manage without’em? This is an absurd question, but I’m still asking it. Even as I write this, gobbledegook or not, I’m aware it’s words that are making up these lines, not me. So where’s ‘me’ in all this?

Common sense tells me that words reflect our thoughts. But does it apply to me? As I look at these ‘reflections’, these words, I get a shock. What has it got to do with me? I mean the inner ‘me’ that doesn’t use words. Is it simply leaving words ‘nice and open’? Or even engaging in ‘Mindful Writing’? (1)

What is this: ‘Mindful Writing’? How can a full mind – full of words – be in tune with the inner ‘me’ that doesn’t have a word for anything? ‘Is it because you are a foreigner?’ I ask myself. But all I get is silence. Could it be that however ‘mindfully’ words go about their business, they can never be the ‘real thing’? So what is this elusive ‘real thing’?

When I wrote ‘LOVE LIES: A Journal’, I was hoping that writing things down would be therapeutic. I wanted to dig deep, crack the code that kept me in old patterns of thought and behaviour. But how can we crack the ‘code’ without knowing what it is all about? (2)

I hoped the main character André would help me break a template that I thought I had to live by. I was walking by André’s side imagining I saw myself in him with the eyes of a stranger. But was it really me and not just a ‘me’ assembled from a kit of words?

I couldn’t be sure. Life just went on as before. When I followed André from page to page, I thought I was doing ‘Mindful Writing’ or ‘Therapeutic Writing’ or something healing. True, writing things down helped and I found a few things out about myself. But something told me I hadn’t got to the bottom.

Then it hits me. Are these words really my thoughts on paper? Or are they the reflection of themselves on paper? Isn’t it words in our heads that put thoughts together? How else do we think if not with words? I dream in pictures, but I think with words. Or do I? I can’t help thinking it’s the words that make me think I think.

How can mindfulness work if words direct our thinking? What can we human beings do if ‘reality’ is merely a reflection of the way in which words arrange our perception? Isn’t this how words deny us freedom from their hold? Haven’t they colonised our minds since infancy and made us into subjects, predicates and objects?

‘I love you.’ ‘I hate salad.’ ‘I know what’s going through your mind as you read this.’ ‘I could write everything in inverted commas from now on.’ One example after another and what do you see? Words knitting into a pattern, always the same pattern, even when it doesn’t seem it. ‘I’m reading.’ ‘I’m feeling cold, happy, delighted.’ It’s ‘I’ and something else.

Does this mean everything we experience is split in two: ‘One side does something’ and ‘the other side receives it’? Because our thinking runs through the same grooves, it tends to make things on the other side of the split feel like opposites. Could it be that’s why we have witch-hunts, opposition parties and the opposite sex?

I can’t help thinking of ‘persecutor-victim’ or ‘rescuer-victim’ relationships, words from counselling that describe emotional dependency between two or three people locked in the pattern: ‘one side does something’ and ‘the other side receives it’. (3)

Is this how words rule our thinking? Or are they, too, caught in this pattern? The mind boggles. Still the words keep coming. They know their speed and timing. What is their purpose? Maybe I’ve got to do a bit more digging.

 

Notes:

(1) For me Mindful Writing comes from blending Mindfulness Meditation with Therapeutic Writing. Key Mindfulness Meditation aspects for me are: being in the moment, accepting myself as I am, not judging myself, seeing my thoughts and feelings as simply thoughts and feelings that will pass. Key aspects from Therapeutic Writing are: writing down what troubles me can help heal, putting on paper how I feel means I may be able to distance myself from the problem, the more I write the more troubles can dissipate.

(2) See my earlier blog with the title ‘Reflections in the mirror of Mindful Writing’.

(3) Reference to the Karpman Drama Triangle used as a model of human interaction in Transactional Analysis (TA).

 

Further reading:

Whorf, B.L. (1956) Language, Thought and Reality, The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.

Chase, S. (1959) The Tyranny of Words, Harcourt, Brace and World, New York.

Wittgenstein, L. ((2001) Philosophical Investigations, Blackwell, Oxford.

Flanagan, L.M. (2011) Inside Out and Outside In, See: ‘Object Relations’, Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham, Maryland.

Thompson, K., Adams, K. (2010) Therapeutic Journal Writing, Jessica Kingsley Publishers, London.

Gunaratana. B.H. (2002) Mindfulness in Plain English, Wisdom Publications, Somerville, MA.

Berne, E. (1996) Games People Play, The Basic Handbook of Transactional Analysis, Ballantine Books, New York.

Can words make truth?

A valid question as I feel words can do just that. The word ‘France’ makes us think of the good things of life, la cuisine franςaise, la joie de vivre, l’amour and of course la petite mort. The grand truths of life, these words seem to imply. But what if it’s just a wordy game?

How cleverly words make truth! They even make Vietnam sound like a tasty morsel, as they trip off the tongue of a reporter in the Sahara: ‘France has no appetite for another Vietnam.’ Isn’t the word ‘appetite’ here a subtle reminder of one of their ‘grand truths’? It doesn’t take much to spot how words are creating truth or at least an illusion of truth leading us up the garden path.

For me it is hard to know what truth, ‘the’ truth and ‘a’ truth is. Maybe ‘the’ truth is that truth takes its existence from a web of overlapping perceptions all firing each other as ‘a’ truth – a relativity theory of words? Where does that leave anything? Could it be there is an ultimate truth that isn’t as tricky? If it’s just a game the words are playing with us, fine, and funny too. But what if it’s a diversionary tactic?

Some words operate in a sinister way without it being noticed. Do they get away with it? ‘You are a bad boy!’ ‘You are a liar!’ So what? It’s commonly said. Ah, yes, but if these words batter a child long enough, they will organise themselves in the child’s mind so that they feel like a truth. This truth can undermine the child’s life.

Not washing his hands before eating doesn’t make him a bad boy. Kinder words would say ‘Wash your hands before eating.’ Or ‘Why don’t you put your toys away before going to bed?’ Words are quick to judge, criticise and blame, always finding a ready voice and yet remaining undetected. ‘You are inflexible’, they may say when you budget your energies. ‘You are obsessive’, when trying to do a job well.

I think words which ‘ascribe’ things to people tell them what they are. If people hear an idea long enough it lodges in their subconscious. Over time, it can become a fixed mental habit that may feel like the truth. We make informal appraisals of people all the time, even use stereotypes to make interaction easier. But could it be that ascribing observations about people to them as true character traits is a mirror game words play with the observer?

Words that ‘prescribe’ what to do don’t sound final and inevitable. They imply that things can change. They keep things loose and don’t harden them into apparent truths. Words that ‘prescribe’ what to do may in fact lead to a superior kind of truth, to inner truth. But I suspect words that create apparent truth are in greater demand though they cause much confusion. This is illustrated in Idries Shah’s story about how Nasrudin created truth, showing how words get the better of a despotic king.

The king decides to make everybody observe truth on pain of death. People who arrive at the city gates are told if they tell the truth they may enter, but if they lie their lives are forfeited. Nasrudin is asked where he is going. I’m going to be hanged, he replies. ‘We don’t believe you!’ ‘Very well, if I have told a lie, hang me.’ ‘But if we hang you for lying, we will have made what you said come true.’ ‘That’s right: now you know what truth is – YOUR truth.’*

Do we have any power over words we receive? If we do, is it developmental? Do we acquire that power along with height? So what’s my message? I suppose simply that it’s a good idea to leave words nice and open, especially to children in their formative years. Then words become wonderful flexible tools not sticks to beat us.

*Shah, I. (revised 2011) The Exploits of the Incomparable Mulla Nasrudin, ‘How Nasrudin Created Truth’, p. 7, Octagon Press, London.

Atkinson, R.L. et al. (1981) Introduction to Psychology, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, San Diego; See: Stereotypes – The Vividness Effect, The Primacy or Halo Effect, The Theory Effect.

Roberts, C. et al. (1992) Language and Discrimination, A Study of Communication in Multi-Ethnic Workplaces, Longman, London.

How words began to play a different role in my life

When I was training as a therapist I kept a ‘practice’ journal. I thought this would be a simple record of my developing communication skills.

I was wrong. I soon discovered something was going on inside me. Someone was talking and someone was listening at the same time, two people holding a dialogue in my head. When I stopped, there was also something else.

In the gaps between writing, talking and listening changed to reflecting. Now the paragraphs were like mirrors reflecting words at me, endlessly refracting their primary lexical meanings, made worse because English is not my mother tongue.

My mind was riddled with doubt and uncertainty. What are the words telling me? I felt vulnerable, realising that journal writing was more than record keeping. It was a therapeutic experience challenging my analytical and reflective abilities and unleashing my creativity.

This creativity brought new intensity, but also made me aware of the inaccuracies and ambiguities in the everyday use of words – a ‘semantic suspense’, full of uncertainty and vulnerability. This became easier over time and often internal dialogue and reflection seemed to change to insight and understanding about life. Especially that it cannot be sewn up easily.

It was as if through writing an inner ferment began, waking my psyche from its sleep or, to use Heidegger’s expression, from the ‘forgetfulness of existence’. Journaling became and still is a focused, meditative activity taking me beyond the written word to a deeper sense of self and a more intuitive experience of reality.

Some people experience music, art and dance as more directly spontaneous and intuitive, echoing the Zen wisdom that using words to describe experience is missing the mark. Of course, there is always the danger of getting bogged down in wordy descriptions and thereby missing the experience itself.

Chuang Tzu sees words in a different way: ‘Fishing baskets are employed to catch fish; but when the fish are got, men forget the baskets; snares are employed to catch hares; but when the hares are got, men forget the snares. Words are employed to convey ideas; but when the ideas are grasped, men forget the words.’*

I think journal writing can be useful as a means to examine how we let words unwittingly reinforce our learned attitudes and beliefs and how this shapes our behaviour and interaction with others and the way we treat ourselves.

In my experience, words help enrich our lives when we capture our ‘talking’, ‘listening’ and ‘reflecting’ on paper where, as Kate Thompson puts it: ‘Writing is speaking and reading is listening in the conversation  with the self.’**

*Chuang Tzu. (1971) Translated by James Legge, arranged by Clae Waltham. New York: Ace Books; chap. 26.

**Thompson, K. (2006) Coming out as Writing Therapists; Lapidus, Vol. 2, 20.

 

Do words have the final say?

We think we use words, yet could it be it’s the other way round, words use us? We listen and what happens? We agree or disagree or stay indifferent to what words say. Even looking at the world we see it as words present it. ‘What a beautiful tree!’ bursts out. And so it is.

It feels that words are staging a talk show and we fall for their charm. And do we go along with what they say? And if we didn’t, would we be lost? You don’t have to be a psychoanalyst to realise that words are full of their own opinions, filling all our waking moments. Otherwise what would there be?

Words ‘have’ feelings, too. They say ‘I love you’. And thoughts, they say ‘I think so’. They even say ‘I think, therefore I am’, or even ‘Cogito, ergo sum’. There isn’t much they can’t say, even things that don’t make sense, and then they have the last word. There wouldn’t be much without them.

Words can say ‘I’, ‘me’, ‘my’ and ‘mine’. Without words there’s no identity. They are our friends, to be relied on. They take care of us. We don’t need to worry about getting our identity mixed up. ‘I’, ‘me’, ‘my’ and ‘mine’ will never be ‘you’, ‘your’ or ‘yours’.

Words know exactly what they are doing, even creating a chain of events. If they say ‘I love you’ an echo might be heard saying ‘I love you too’ or ‘bugger off’. If they say ‘I hate you’ there might be a long silence – words unspoken are powerful words. But where hate is involved, words can force us to kill when they alter our mind states.

Indeed, words can play dangerous games with our minds. For example, our brains register only shapes and sounds. Then words play tricks with our sense of reality. They may say: ‘That’s a beautiful tree’ or ‘That’s a nice hen’. But they might equally say: ‘That’s firewood’ or ‘That bird looks good to eat’. Whatever meaning pleases them. And where does that leave us?

When written down, words can have a powerful hold on us. On paper, they take on an air of authority. Look at the policeman with his note pad writing down words as evidence. In a court of law these words have the power to give a particular slant to the verdict. Could it be that words on paper are a law unto themselves?

It feels as if we’re all actors on a word stage. Every word assumes a character that we enact. We wear the words like a theatrical costume and play the part. We don’t even have to learn the lines. The words come of their own accord and know when to make an entrance.

For me, you never really know where you are with words. For example, they don’t always mean what they say. Or they’re saying something to you without ‘saying’ it. Imagine you’re hearing the words but not what they’re saying, you feel it deep inside these words just don’t touch you.

The trickiest game words play is when you don’t hear them at all, when they use a sort of sign language encoded in human behaviour. Only in extreme cases will the words give voice to what they first say through a person’s behaviour, like: ‘Oh darling, I love you so’, or ‘If you lie again, I hit you’, or ‘I don’t care, do what you like’.

The best evidence that words are in control is when they seem to say things not intended by the speaker. ‘Sorry, I didn’t mean to say that! I don’t know what came over me. It just slipped out. Sorry if I hurt you. It wasn’t me talking. I was beside myself with worry.’ You could ask: ‘How can you say it wasn’t you, I saw your lips move? Are you implying we are mere mouthpieces for words?’ But most people are too polite and reply with a friendly ‘Oh, never mind, it happens to us all.’ Or is that just words playing at being polite?

Many books have been written about the power of words. We know that when words say something strongly enough over a time and then assume authority through the ‘printed word’, they have the power to make us believe we have the power. A delusion that prevents us from seeing that in the end the power is not really with us, which we might appreciate better when remembering that famous line: In the beginning was the Word…

What chance have we got in the face of such power?

 

 

How do we hear words?

It’s in the nature of words to have meaning. We don’t communicate ‘words’ but what they mean. Some words seem to have a ‘core’ meaning, others take their meaning from their contexts. And that’s really it. Or is it?

After watching Montalbano, I asked my partner to tell me the story. She did and then wanted to know where I was while watching. I must have been absorbed in the very ‘music’ of the words, Italian is such a beautifully musical language, so I missed the plot.

To me watching Montalbano is like being at the last night of the Proms, the playfulness, the razzle-dazzle, the drama, noise and laughter and, of course, the music. The music! Yes, I was there for the music. I watched and listened to a symphony, every actor a different instrument, real, romantic, fleeting like musical chords carrying me on waves of exquisite feelings. No time for subtitles, no time for story line and plot.

I was a child again. What can children hear – words? I can’t remember hearing any words. In fact, I’ve had to ask someone else to tell me the story of my childhood. There were words I apparently took more of a liking to than others. And that was it. So what did I hear? I did hear words, but only as sounds, as music. A symphony around me.

Out of all this life-music grew words, their meaning and their usage. Sole dictionary words flew into my soul as living beings, with all other sounds that gave me meaning. Even now, when I learn a new language, it’s always the music that wakes up the dictionary words from their hundred years’ sleep. Before I try to remember their meaning or study grammar, I ‘sing’ the music of the language first. Was I a Welshman in my last life?

Welsh! I don’t know what it is, but learn Welsh I must. I sit with my tutor, a lady from North Wales. She talks and reads Welsh and I repeat it. I don’t know or remember a word that comes out of my mouth, but I love listening, hearing, ‘feeling’ my way into the music of the language, a tonal delight. Then, without me noticing, the words begin to settle into my memory, with their meaning in tow and I feel as if the music I hear is an act of love, a union.

I often talk to my mother in Germany on the phone, for up to an hour and my partner asks what we were talking about. I can never remember. All I feel is it was wonderful ‘being with’ my mother. The lexical meaning of the words didn’t seem to matter. It was a nearness with each other just through the music of our words, our voices.

Every language has a musical body and soul. If we hear the words of a language like musical notes, freed from their score yet fading away as they’re played, we are alive and hear what people feel, not what they say they feel. There’s nearness, soul affinity, which people sense and which makes them say they like being with us but don’t know why.

But is it just me? I’m not one for small-talk or social chit-chat. I’m not sure if I would fit into the ‘chattering classes’ very easily. I like to play my tune with words one-to-one. Noise from crowds reminds me of instruments warming up before they play. However, speaking to one person from the crowd makes musical word-sense to me.

I wonder if we don’t let ourselves enjoy or even wallow in the ‘music’ of language, because it’s safer to live in the careful, ordered world of dictionary and lexical meanings.

What else can words do?

English isn’t my inner makeup, even after speaking it for more than fifty years I’m often puzzled or maybe charmed by its usage. When I first came to England, I was classed as an Alien, no one would call me that now, but when I hear the wild use of words floating through the air I do wonder if the authorities were right. I’ve got my ‘Alien’ ear picking up what words get up to.

When people brew tea they say ‘The kettle is boiling.’ I’m confused, what will they end up with? A cup full of liquid kettle with a tea bag thrown in? Or they say ‘I walked through the door into the sitting room and there she was…’ Invisible beings walking through solid doors. Overheard at the pharmacist ‘Have you got something for this cough?’ ‘Now what would the cough like? An amplifier?’ There you have it. Words having a field day.

Why do people tell me in so many words that they are honest? ‘To be honest.’ ‘I will be honest.’ ‘To be perfectly honest.’ In all honesty.’ ‘Let’s be honest.’ ‘I’m not telling a lie.’ Everybody is saying it, even the weather man ‘To be honest, if it doesn’t rain today it will tomorrow.’ As an Alien, I am on my guard, what do they mean? If they’re honest now, what were they before? Can I believe them when they don’t say ‘To be honest’? Or even when they say it?

Funny things happen on TV. They ‘break the news’. And the weather men herald ‘nice weather courtesy of a system of high pressure’, and guess what’s ‘on offer’: ‘glorious wall-to-wall sunshine’. The power of words! They make the sun shine wall-to-wall. But ‘make sure you take sun screen’ and of course ‘enjoy it while you can’. Is that an order or a habit of speech? Who’s behind the order? And who’s behind the habit of speech? And why are they saying it?

Words can feel like bullies, too. ‘Absolutely’ knocks out ‘yes’. ‘Tragic’ puts the knife in ‘sad’. ‘Literally’ hits ‘really’ hard. And ‘epic’. An ‘epic funeral’. Imagine an ‘epic funeral’! And ‘virtually impossible’ or maybe ‘literally impossible’? A gang of criminals get a combined sentence of 850 years. What does it mean? That all are one with a life span of hundreds of years? And then the half-dead patient lying in his hospital bed ‘fighting for his life’. How does he fight? Who does the fighting?

‘Well, I mean, yes, it’s like this, you see…’ To be honest, is this how you start a sentence? Clearly words that literally don’t know what they’re going to say.’ Absolutely! It happens time after time after time after time. A working man doesn’t exist, only a ‘hard-working’ man. People who rescue a cat from a tree are ‘heroes’. It’s not six weeks but ‘six long weeks’. And let’s be honest, I have to literally ‘thank you very much indeed’. Anything less will not do.

And yet, it’s quite good fun, isn’t it? Let’s be perfectly honest, those words with a life of their own are doing just that, having fun. At our expense? You can’t blame them, can you? We have nobody to blame but ourselves. No wonder we always have to ask people ‘Do you see what I mean?’ ‘Are you with me?’ ‘Do you follow me?’ The words can do with us what they like. We have no power over them. Or do we? Ah!  The charm of the English language!

What can words do?

I feel so strongly about words I almost think of them as hand grenades to lob at thoughts, to explode old patterns that hold us back, destroy us. I do this to shatter the idea of continuity and permanence that we sometimes cling on to.

Maybe our brains are like gardens littered with unmovable statues of thoughts. If I manage to see the light I mean the light that illuminates my statues.

Words helped me to destroy preconceived ideas that stood like statues in my brain. I want to explore fixed mental language patterns through words. If I’m using them as a shield against a life lived, I want to know.

Do people use words to keep their world safe? Sometimes we need to break out of old thinking habits. For me, it’s worth all this unfolding. I see words like plants that come and go and live and die.

First we’re alive and then comes words. Life can only go on now, so the symbolic meaning we have through language must lag behind life – from life to words.

Language can carry us into a world where abstract concepts like ‘now’ and ‘here’ can feel like our lived experience of the here and now. Nothing replaces living the moment, but words are full of wonders and benefits, healing and stretching us.

‘Heal’ means ‘whole’. It’s not words that make us whole, they can’t do that; it’s what we let words do. Words are like carrier pigeons, they carry something, they are like an electric current carrying our thought content from inside to outside.

Like a psychological ‘metabolism’, words burn everything that’s not needed by the ‘soul body’. Words throw out, detoxify our psyche, quicken our healing. They are like our blood, carrying things round the body and then carrying the waste out.

Oxygen is the life force for our bodies; our psyche maybe needs a form of oxygen too; when it’s gone we suffer. Words that heal help shed what we no longer need and make a space for a bit of that oxygen. Suffering can be alleviated through the act of writing. In this sense, I’m talking about writing as a release rather than ‘art’.

Learning what we’re caught up in can be a great teacher. Words can mirror back what needs to go. Like a sifting mechanism, they help us throw out clutter so change can take place. To become aware by reading what’s on the paper. What’s coming out? What’s emerging? Then we get to the point where we say ‘if I carry on like this I carry the same old crap’.

I’ve been thinking about words and their power for good. Carol Ross in Cumbria has begun unleashing this power with a group of people in hospital. Where will it go? You can see an extract of her book Words for Wellbeing here: http://trioross.wordpress.com/new-words-for-wellbeing-book-extract/ 

 

Whereof one cannot speak…

It’s just turned 2011. So I’m going to write a list of what I want to happen that would greatly improve my life and the lives of others. It’ll start off with ‘Give Arnfrid a big load of cash’, then ‘let him achieve world-wide fame yet keep him anonymous and happy’ and ending with ‘peace on earth and good will to all men,’ especially those on my side.

Then I’m going to nail my 2011 wish list to a tree trunk in the garden as that’ll mean during the night when Elves, Pixies, Fairies and Foxes feel safer from us earthlings and come out to lark around, they’ll see my list and stuff will happen or it won’t.

I love a good Magical Belief. I know I know, you’ll all laugh even guffaw at my simple mind, but how do you explain the mystery of the disappeared yellow sock which turned up mysteriously in the arm of an old army sweater? Hey?

During my life I have been greatly comforted and cheered by a whole host of Magical Beliefs. I’ve dipped into them when the going was tough and they’ve seen me through some rough old times when the only friends I seemed to have had wings and lived in Bluebell woods – Fairies.

Far from being at the bottom of my garden, and a million miles away from Danny La Rue, I believed the little creatures were on my doorstep. Every dark glade of every forest could support a whole eco-system of Fairy Folk. Worker Fairies, Queen Fairies, Fun Fairies and whether or not I seem bonkers and create comforting illusions, I don’t really care.

Angels! Angels are controversial. If you are tolerant of a good old conversation about Angels being around and doing their bit to alleviate the gloom and doom of life, from finding you a parking-slot at a busy supermarket to making you the sole survivor in a multiple traffic pile-up, then you’ll know what I’m talking about. However if the very word ‘Angels’ sinks like a stone in your heart as being one of the world’s most boring and bonkers and unscientific ideas, you’ll probably have zero tolerance.

Re-incarnation! I want to hold on to re-incarnation. I just love the idea, but will only agree to come back as something glamorous. At the moment my reincarnate of choice is a Roman Centurion or a Medieval Monk. Both outfits are quite manly and fetching, but my girlfriend tells me I’ll come back as a Night Soil Attendant in Blackburn or a worm in a mouldy apple.

Does anyone ever imagine they’ll come back as something worse than they are now or do we always go up the ladder of glamour? And if we do always go up the ladder of glamour, why is that?

I am someone who used to follow many rules for living that promised much, Magical Beliefs that were accessible and controllable. Not just ‘eating little and mainly plants’ and ‘being kind to children and animals’, but also the rules of gurus, masters, avatars, saviours, priests and philosophers, but oddly enough never really the Ten Commandments much.

I moved into Magical Beliefs pretty early on in life and with considerable gusto and have kept them bubbling in my life soup ever since. I embraced loads, though never quite fitted into crystals and Feng Shui, but have given the rest of them a good shot – personal development groups, spiritual healing lodges, mystery workshops, round and square tables, spiritualist circles, enlightenment seminars, you name them. All of them turned out to be so many magical mystery tours.

And yet, life’s mysteries feel good to me, though not making me tremble with hopeful anticipation anymore as they did in the past. More and more, I appreciate the freedom of delicious chaos, but not always. The rules of the masters seem so beguilingly certain, so irrefutably logical. And it’s so easy to submit things to the authority of their magic, to surrender one’s entire life to their Magical Belief Systems. Why? Could it be that we are often too frightened to stand alone, to be our own masters?

The question I ask myself is, do Magical Beliefs diminish and constrict me by their very nature? Do Magical Beliefs impose their own brand of authority on my mind, which destroys the discovery of reality? I know they can cheer and comfort me when I’m fed up, but they can also keep me in zombie-like mental suspense, before the penny finally drops – the wish list I nailed to the tree trunk in the garden didn’t work. What have I done wrong?

There is magic, yes, and for me, it’s the magic of the moment, which is the mystery of life – chaotic and random, often cruel and surprising,  with all the gods we serve daily, anger, hatred, greed, jealousy, envy, fear, but also love, forgiveness, mercy, empathy, compassion. Aren’t these human qualities the channels through which we realise our Gods, in ourselves?

Through every action we energise our God of the moment, the God we believe in and serve then and there. These are the living Gods, living in and through our deeds, dissolved in the ultimate mystery, which cannot be captured in the net of human language or, to put it in Wittgenstein’s words, ‘Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.’

Heil Schicklgruber!

During the last few weeks I have enjoyed BBC4’s German season, about Art, about walking and sharing Al Murray’s wonderful big-hearted intelligent view of a country he’s made his reputation out of mocking.

It felt good being German, coming from such a varied cultured people who have such rich history and for a few hours I could lose myself in the media without being worried that the spectre of Hitler would rise up and slap me round the face and prevent me from openly enjoying all things German.

I read with wry amusement that British ‘History’ taught in schools largely concentrates on the ‘aitches’ Hitler and the Henry’s – the heavyweights of British history. I wonder why that is? Why does the UK keep Hitler alive and well in the public mind rather than letting him settle into the slot next to Josef Stalin, Saddam Hussain, Pol Pot, Vlad the Impaler and Genghis Khan?

What is it about Hitler and the Third Reich that so intrigues people? As a German I can’t take the xenophobic anti-German jibes in the press too seriously, I actually have to find them funny and laugh, if I don’t want to be seen as your stereotypical humourless ‘Teuton’. I’ve lived here for 50 years now and love it, but it seems to me that everytime I open a popular newspaper or switch on the TV, I begin to wonder if Hitler is dead, and if he is, why he won’t lie down?

Is it all really ‘lest we forget’? In every bookshop in the UK there seem to be extensive World War 1 and World War 2 sections.  War memories abound. Lest we forget? As far as I know, most people in Germany were so-called ‘Mitläufer’1, an easier option than being sent on an extended vacation to a Nazi brainwashing camp, a torture clinic or the gallows. They secretly hated the Nazis and loathed what was happening and have lived with great shame and torment of the holocaust ever since.

My girlfriend was surprised when she couldn’t find similarly extensive WW2 sections in bookshops in Düsseldorf recently. ‘Is it because you lost the war?’ she asked innocently. I don’t really think that’s it, I think it’s more that we see the Nazis as a horror that we must learn to accept as part of our history, but at the same time we must move on and away from our past.

In December 2010 I noticed the freeview channel ‘Yesterday’ broadcast programme after programme about Concentration Camps et al. Why? Perhaps someone out there will help me think about this in a new way. What are these programmes for? ‘Lest we forget’? Most people in the UK were born after 1945 and have no direct experiences of the horrors of war. What is there for them to forget? Could there be other reasons?

Some people believe we can learn from history, that by looking at the horror images of world wars often enough and long enough, we will be deterred from solving our political differences with tanks and rockets and concentration camps. What evidence is there that by looking at past wars will stop us starting a new one? 

I believe the past can teach us nothing, but that we repeat patterns of war and hurt people. It’s in the here and now we actually live, and that is all we have. That’s where we must feel whether we are going to hurt people or not. As far as I can see, it is only from working diligently and sincerely with the givens of the present that we can learn anything at all and perhaps create a better future.

As a German toddler in the war, I was no part of it, I can’t remember a thing. I 100% accept the horror and mindless cruelty of the might of Germany having been used for evil, but is there a danger of keeping these images of past horrors in people’s minds? If so, what could these dangers be?

I set foot in London at the beginning of the Swinging 60s. What a place it was to my stiff and very formal grammar-school-tutored German mind! It took 5 minutes to shed any of my ‘good-boy’ inhibitions and to get down the pub and sink a few pints and meet a few girls.

What was fantastic then was nobody ever mentioned the war other than my late-teenage colleague in the City of London shipping office where I worked. Every morning he beamed a big smile at me across the table, stood up, clicked his heels, gave the Hitler salute and sang ‘There’ll always be an England…’ Of course, I laughed. It was funny then. It’s not funny now, why?

Hitler seemed to emerge from the textbooks of history under the reign of Margaret Thatcher.  She didn’t favour ‘Europe’, even though, forgive a German for pointing it out, isn’t the UK part of Europe? Often Europe and Germany were mentioned in the same breath, as if they were synonymous. A new jingoism raised its head, born perhaps from old WW2 fears?  And maybe belonging to Europe was felt to be tantamount to being annexed by Germany?

All of a sudden there seemed to be a rash of TV programmes based on the war and how funny the Germans were.  I must point something out, dear readers of this blog, Germans aren’t really funny at all, if you haven’t noticed.

‘Dad’s Army’ didn’t feed any prejudice about Germany, that is to say that Britain equals Good and Germany equals Bad. It was based on unadulterated British self-irony, a superior brand of humour that seems to have died out. ‘Fawlty Towers’ made me laugh, too, and I wish ‘don’t mention the war’ was real and not a joke. I could already detect signs of self-congratulatory, self-righteous, xenophobic spirit insinuating itself into this humour, which was completely absent in ‘Dad’s Army’.

When people mention Hitler or the Holocaust or the war, I feel a sense of deep shame for being a German, and for having a father who fought the Russians and a mother in the Hitler Youth. Talking to them of their experience in the war you get a sense of the sheer power of Hitler’s propaganda machine. They knew what they had been told, knew better than to question it and were glad when it was all over. To raise their hands and salute the Führer with a cheeky ‘Fawlty-Towers’ kind of ‘Heil Schicklgruber!’ 2 would have meant their certain death.

We were lucky to live in the British zone after the war and my one enduring war image is of British soldiers giving kids playing in the streets lumps of butter, oranges and chocolate from their own rations. I remember them as quiet, serious men for whom my heart will always be full of thanks.

1 ‘Mitläufer’ literally translated means ‘with-runners’ or ‘running with them’ or simply ‘paying lip service’ to the regime.

2 Before Adolf Hitler was Adolf Hitler, he was Alois Schicklgruber. 



A place the desire and envy of many

Manicured lawns green and even, hedges straight and crisp, driveways black and smooth, cars new and shiny, paintwork bright and gleaming, shops a’plenty, trees with blossom, why do I hate it so?  Why does it represent a place of desolation of the human spirit to me?  And what on earth made me move here in the first place?

I live daily with the noises that produce those manicured lawns and straight hedges and smooth pathways and shiny cars.  I hear the many hives of a strange new service industry buzzing outside my window.  No errant blade of grass to be left, no peel of paint, no blip of mess, no overgrowth of gardens or rampantness of nature.

I see the results of all this human labour and I wonder why anyone bothers.  How often can you improve things?  How much can your house be shinier and newer and cleaner and neater than your neighbour’s?  How many Lamborghinis Porsches Bugattis do you need to show your neighbours who you are and what you are?  What are you again?  How smooth has your driveway your onsite parking area your pavement got to be to let your neighbours know you’re not something from the bottom of their garden?

I live in a town hell-bent on improvement.  Property here is a clear indication of which rung of the ladder you’re on.  So are the cars in the driveways.  When you make a few bob you don’t say a word you just get the building contractors, garden designers, path layers in, again and again and again and park two three four limousines on your driveway, silver silver silver silver.  There must be no peace.  Peace equals inertia in the eyes of those hell-bent on improving.

Leafy avenues must shed their leaves but their natural carpets lie for a short time removed quickly and relentlessly with great big noisy leaf-sucking hoovers ploughing backwards and forwards across the Stray, not leaving the tiniest of islands for wildflowers and wildlife.  I wonder if the seasons get as confused as I do.  Where is winter’s slush and spring’s havoc?  Or summer’s dust and autumn’s must?  All swept away and polished off every surface with spray and shine.

Is that verdant even green really attractive to the human eye?  What is grass for?  Grass is the world’s most successful plant but it’s beaten into submission here, cut down and down until the brown soil shows through.  Where are your curves, nature?  Where is the cheeky weed or the fallen log?  Where do you go to find the beauty of the surprise?  Where is random’s refuge?  Where is entropy’s hiding-place?

Perhaps everyone who lives or wants to live in this town, where I dread the sound of the strimmer, models their ideal ‘look’ on plastic grass and dolls houses.  If only things didn’t grow and change. If only the weather didn’t mark the windows.  Though not a pigeon lover, I appreciate how they do at least leave messages from randomness on the window panes, terraces and garden paths for everyone to see. 

I walk along the lawns and under the trees so coiffured and finished that I feel as if I should pay more attention to my appearance.  My hair needs a bit of strimming, my face could do with resurfacing, my clothes need re-shaping and I could do with remodelling generally.  Call in the improvers.  Pay money for more nonsense.  Make me smooth and bland and safe and plastic.

The dogs have fancy collars here and are called ‘Hugo’ and ‘Poppet’.  They gambol and frolic on the wide green open spaces and I wonder if there’s any good sniffs around for them to enjoy.  Or are the very trees sprayed with ‘Eau de Acceptable’ and not other dogs’ bottoms?  The supermarkets have a touch of the Truman Show about them.  You know when you go to Ikea and you get the feeling that lots of people are caught up in making a day of it?

Supermarket shopping here seems like that.  I don’t believe the women haven’t had their hair striped and their clothes pressed to glide round Waitrose with their trolleys full of exotic but safe foods that their neighbours would approve of.  Boxes with photographs of wonderfully successful food, some day soon maybe that’s all we’ll have to do to live here.  Glide about neatly with pictures of food on display in our trolleys.  I can’t help thinking of the Stepford Wives.  Or is all as perfect as it seems?

Well my house is up for sale and I’m playing the upkeep game along with all the rest – shiniest windows and brightest surfaces.  Outside my window the strimmers, the lawnmowers, the hedge cutters waken from their night’s rest.  The paint strippers are turned on and the hot-tar machine plies its trade.  Keep up with the Jones’s or die!

I’d rather live and breathe somewhere a bit untidier and looser round its edges.  Here the flowerbeds of identical flowers in serried ranks march towards the centre of town and gather round the war memorial, squadrons of yellow pom-poms.  Every shop seduces your eyeballs with its painfully tidy boutique-ish chi-chi-ness.  If the tidy-town inspector calls, we’re ready. 

If the heart-and-soul agent is around, don’t bother with us.  We bought the wipe-clean low-maintenance version of that a long time ago.  It sets a stone to my heart.  Maybe I need to consult a specialist to have my eyes tested, an ophthalmic optician who can provide me with magic spectacles through which I see this town more benignly.  Then again, moving somewhere a bit untidier and looser round its edges may be the only escape.

 

 

 

 

 

My doggone day

Maybe I’m the Mystery Shopper of Life, doomed to walk the highways and byways we all tread, but with a bit of a twist, or a slight sting in the tail.  Days unravel in many ways.  Do you ever have a day where you feel if it was a film you could accept it more easily?  A day when you could ‘harrumph’ your way through it as soon as walk down the road?  A day when you are merely a player and have no control of the script?

It wasn’t just the consultant at the hospital shaking hands with me while still holding his ballpoint pen.  Of course that didn’t help to start the day feeling normal.  I asked him ‘Is there any significance in the way you shook my hand while still holding your ballpoint pen?’  He looked perplexed.  We were there to talk about my oesophagus and he obviously thought this was a trick question.  Handshake?  Ballpoint pen?

In my mind I felt a surgeon who’s not aware he’s still holding a pen in his hand when he shakes mine might be just the person to leave a pair of scissors, four needles and a few clamps in my gut and look perplexed when after a few weeks of rattling around doing no good at all they show up on the x-ray.  Scissors?  Clamps?  Needles?  Who me?

From the worry of Pen-in-hand-land I drove to the warm soft seductive Sainsbury’s with its lovely offers and gleaming cleanness.  I emerged unscathed with a minimum of shopping, not one item on special offer and no buy-two-for-one gimmicks.  The plastic bags went in the back of the car, the coat came off and joined the shopping on the back seat, this day was warming up.

Automatic window goes down for a cooling draught, window shudders up again and then down from its own volition.  Wind whistles past head building to crescendo, shopping bags and jacket on back seat lifting up from gusts.  The car’s just been fixed and garage what done the deed is but a roundabout or two away.  Windows go up and windows go down, all on their ownio. 

Eardrum is wind blasted and all sense swept from right side of face plus right hand.  Sainsbury’s bags now resembling Ha-hoos from the Night Garden.  Miss my roundabout as wind-whipped face now affecting my powers of navigation.  I know the garage is near Knaresborough, so why not go for a spin with the howling gales right round Knaresborough instead of taking that little turn left into the garage forecourt just before you get to the roundabout?

Windows go up and windows come down.  Sometimes they glide and sometimes they shudder.  Ballpoint pens jabbed into hand seem more agreeable to me at this stage than windows with a mind of their own.  I finally park in front of the garage and the windows miraculously close and even when I’ve glared at them through narrowed eyes, stay shut.  The garage laughs and books the car for a good talking-to on Thursday.

After a lunch of is-it-me or is there something funny about this doggone day? I tackle my broadband account.  O woe is me, click-click ring-ring friendly voice we both speak English but do we?  Is it me?  Why is it called a helpline?  After many a long click-click ring-ring round of phone calls, after an afternoon of talking to random people in this and that random department who know the right answers if only I could ask them what they know already, but I want to know what I want to know and it isn’t helpful to be transferred and start again and again and again, password place of birth date of birth post code first line of address, a saint would get tetchy let me tell you, o great helpline of all helplines! 

I will try from now on to ask only questions that they can answer.  It isn’t actually a helpline in the traditional sense of helping people.  Not many left of those, come to think of it.  They’re all pretty much the same nowadays, more like Chinese whispers, lines of technical gobbledegook and polite reassurance.

That was my yesterday and now this is my today.  I sit and write and think and wonder at that doggone day.  I realise there’s nothing I can do but accept with a laugh the numerical probability that unplanned events will occur in the randomly ordered plan of life.


Reisefieber!

I’ve even been to the Himalayas but sometimes I wonder how I got there, not in terms of route or transport systems but how this heap of quivering manhood broke through his worries about travelling, bit the bullet, boarded the plane at one end and got off somewhere else. 

My travel anxiety (or Reisefieber) which takes the form of a mild sense of unease when I think of going anywhere, probably has its roots in my mother fleeing from the bombs at the end of the war, she had to keep me safe, whatever cost to herself. 

OK….. My travel anxiety perhaps started then, but this amateur psychology of mine doesn’t help at all when I’m faced with the big ‘J’. The Journey. 

At one level I know I’m not in the grip of a hopelessly uncontrollable ever unfolding nightmare of tickets, planes, trains, cars, roads et al. But even as I’m writing this I know that what I’ve done all my life is translate my feelings of unease into an anxiety language that helps me bear it. 

I have methods and approaches, oh boy do I have methods and approaches to help me cope.  

The List!  My list is a good friend. I know that without a clearly delineated list I can achieve nothing. Often it is bullet pointed but preferably numbered as numbers give me a sense of priority. For example, ‘timing’ would always be number one and ‘bottle of water’ way down the list at perhaps seventeen. 

Note: bottle of water is for emergencies only, the secret is to drink as little as possible on journeys involving public transport so you never have to vacate your seat. 

The Timetable is central to my equanimity. I like to start early and get cracking. I’m happy to sit, bag at feet, a’watching the dawn come up rather than risk being ‘last minute’ in my approach. Anything I can have control over I control, but what can I do about trains not arriving on time? Missed connections? Late arrivals? Fire, flood, famine, attack by vagabonds or little green men? 

I take a professional attitude to thinking about what might occur on the journey. I worry. You name a natural disaster to me and I can already see it happening, even on the slow line from Harrogate to York. Pestilence? Plague? Meteor showers? Nothing would surprise me because I’ve been there in my head. People look out of the train window and see the rolling countryside. I look out of the train window and see fields drowning in a flood. 

I must leave a sense of order behind me when embarking on a journey. My flat must be pristine. Of course I double-check locks, windows, plugs and water supplies. I like to know that all appliances are turned off. This has worked to my disadvantage as I helpfully applied my methods to my girlfriend’s house when we were going away for a few days. She was unhappy about the defrosted freezer and fridge that we came back to and I had to eat a lot of defrosted peas without complaining. 

Rye bread is my way of settling my stomach for a journey. No spiced foods, no beans. I can think of nothing worse than queuing for a toilet in an aeroplane with diarrhoea or being subjected to bursts of flatulence sitting next to a stranger on a train. 

But do you know what? I quite enjoy travelling my way. It makes every journey so eventful! 

The Beauty of Randomness

I attempted to write LOVE LIES: A Journal in a consciously random way, does that sound wrong? Does it seem counter-intuitive because surely, it’s conscious or it’s random?  But for me, surrealism’s strength is in its non-logical nature, not illogical but just not following what we know as logical. 

Do you associate ‘surrealism’ with the visual, like a Salvador Dali painting or that French silent movie where a razor blade cuts across an eye? Do you think that ‘surreal’ means just ‘more real’? But does it?  I’m interested in those times in our lives when emotions are heightened. When as an adult you feel you’ve arrived somewhere and it makes you uncomfortable. You’re doing the right thing but it’s the wrong thing for you.

What if the natural order of life and death was unnatural for someone and he was trapped by the life he was in. What could he do? How do we break out of patterns that are destroying us? Do you run away in your mind or with your legs? I looked to surrealism for guidance. What if you jump out of your life, away from your wife, away from day, night, wrong, right, and let what will befall you befall you?

The surrealism you find in my novel LOVE LIES: A Journal is a device using words to explore one man’s fall from his conventional life.  I wasn’t using words to describe odd or surreal events. I wanted the events to read as surreal and unsettling. So the reader wouldn’t be sure if it was happening in someone’s mind or in actuality. To my mind, it’s immaterial. My words came out as the opposite of an easy read. It’s not just words that conjure up surreal images. It’s also using words in new iconoclastic ways.
 
So how can a novel or parts of a novel be made into a fish just as Dali created a phone from a lobster? Or how can a portrait not contain a face, like Margritte’s?  How do you write like that, so it’s not just a description of something extraordinary that’s visual? 

Why not write in a way that to the reader seems like random episodes? Who is to say how we should write? Things happen chronologically or do they?  Things happen one after another or do they?  Can the day begin at night or can a saucer grow a furry coat?  Saucers grow fur if you leave milk in them for long enough.

Time is just a concept we’ve imposed as a pattern on the universe. In the extreme north there is no night and day as we know it.  ‘As we know it’ excites me.  Do we all know things the same way? Experience life the same way? Is your pain like my pain?

As for someone like André, the protagonist of my novel, he looks to other people to give him a clue, a glimmer, an insight into familiar behaviours that he could adopt or imitate to gain a sense of certainty or even peace of mind.  But does it work?  Can it work?
 
Surrealists attempt to express the unconscious and sort of mix and match this with the conscious mind.  They use the familiar as a frame of reference and mess it up, turn life as we know it on its head, distort it, show us images we recoil from as they don’t follow our expectations. The visual arts work immediately, a painting of the back of Margritte’s head makes us stop in our tracks. 

Writing is a different thing.  I struggle to combine, to synthesise the unconscious and the conscious and weave my words between the two.  I find beauty in the random, I feel it takes precedence over the pre-conceived.  That’s a huge freedom, step out of the box and see what forms on the page and what meanings can be made.

I thought that was me, but it wasn’t

You stop, you look round and wonder how you got to where you are.  Do you ever feel as if you blinked years ago and now it’s your life?

Whenever I feel hemmed in by life or by people or by circumstances or even by the glorious British climate I try to remember that the ‘hemming in’ isn’t real.  It’s a construct I’ve made, a story I’ve created about myself.

I suppose we all make meaning of what happens to us, of our lives.  We construct our perceptions into a shape that suits us at the time. I’ve begun to realise as I’ve got older that my construct of meaning has at times been a suit of armour holding me back.

My strict Lutheran parents (who else do you trust as a child?) guided me with principles that felt irrefutable.  Each one of these principles had the ring of absolute truth.

The horror that would befall me if I stepped from their path of righteousness was too terrible to contemplate.  Outwardly, as a boy, I conformed with only minor forays into the land of disobedience like buying jeans with my first pay packet.

I tried to shed that initial ‘imposed’ construct by running away from there to here and never really wanting to go back again.  But here’s a thing, those principles lived on in me even though I didn’t want them.

My back was against a wall of irrefutable truths and absolutes.  Good and bad, right and wrong, immorality and morality, work and laziness – the Protestant ethic.  That wall I had felt at my back as a child came with me into adulthood.  I have often felt driven into a corner, albeit a metaphorical one.

Aha though, a light has crept in through a chink in that wall.  That corner, that wall, that construct was, is, of my own making, a story I created.  If I I’ve created my construct, I could have a go at deconstructing it?

No, that’s more navel-gazing and reflecting on my narrow childhood and upbringing which aimed to keep me a ‘good boy’, colouring my life as I was growing up.  Instead of thinking woe is me, I’ve been done wrong to by them these parents, I’ve started constructing a different meaning to my life.

Maybe it will soon feel as if I’m in a corner again and this back of mine is again against a wall.  But do you know what?  My back has strengthened through a lifetime of being forced into corners and it’s ready for what life throws at it.

I still stop from time to time and wonder how the hell I got to where I am, but it’s no longer a set position.

Maybe I haven’t been a perfect Dad or even much of a friend but I’m looking, I’m moving.

My past is there and always will be, but it has come out of that corner and is now in the light.

N.B. Much of this has been described by me in my novel LOVE LIES: A Journal, where I’ve used Andre as a mirror image of myself.

(Originally published 17.12.2009.)