Letter to my mind

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I am on retreat this week training in the Buddhist path but right now all I want to do is drink and smoke and rock ‘n’ roll. I don’t even smoke any more. And rock ‘n’ roll, well, let’s just say my party years are truly in the past. I do still drink, but not excessively, most of the time anyway, and when I do, I don’t actually enjoy it all that much.

But my mind has ideas of its own. It tries to rock my boat of calm; nagging me and sowing discontent. Why? I guess because my mind is not getting its own way and that is not what it is used to. Usually it’s more like this; mind: “Oh I would quite fancy a beer on this lovely day.” and I get up and check for beer in the fridge or, mind: “I want to watch something.” and instantly I start searching on iTunes. I could go on and on and on. And unsurprisingly when I’m on retreat and I take away all this external stimulation that I usually allow my mind to indulge in, it roars.

It’s my own fault really. I should be setting boundaries all the time. My mind wants excitement or, at the very least, some form of destruction from its normal state; usually boredom or anxiety or confusion or – to my intense bewilderment – a mixture of all. Why at least can’t I go on Facebook then, it urges. Because it does you no good; within minutes you start judging people and get upset about posts and wonder how best to portray yourself; being witty and intriguing all at once. What’s the point, really? By the end I am all scatter-brained with nothing to show for my time. And then, you keep dragging me back into it, wanting to check for comments and likes. It’s embarrassing, really.

Why can’t we watch a movie then, you ask. Here’s why; if you like the movie, you won’t be thinking about anything else for hours, even – or more accurately especially – during meditation, and if you don’t, you will be upset because it was a waste of time, maybe I should have chosen better. Surely you can see it’s a lose-lose situation. Right, let’s have a beer then! No!!! It makes you sluggish and lazy and, as it is, it already takes plenty of energy to get you focused in meditation. You wander off to all sorts of places, just not the ones I am telling you to, and this stops here. We are on retreat and we stay until the end.

I know, you will get your way again, but right now I am taking control and I am determined to take with me the strength to say no more often and I won’t allow you rock my boat of calm and contentment just as easily anymore.

 

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Are we a generation raised to be discontent?

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Okay, I’ve been silent on this blog for a while. I’ve been travelling and moving places and had a lot of stuff happening. It’s no excuse because without writing there is no writer and a writer I vowed I wanted to be. I read an update on Facebook this morning from an acquaintance who had changed jobs for about the fifth or sixth time in the 3 years I’ve known her and a thought came to my mind and it became a question:

Are we a generation raised to be discontent?

So these are just some of my musings, no cue from the little red writing book this time, just something to get me back into the swing.

I understand my parents wanted a brighter, better future for me. They are both working class people; of the hard-working, never-a-sick-day in my life kind. The office world must have looked like a paradise from there; no standing on your legs until your feet were burning, no heavy lifting; just suits and happy faces.

It is not just my parents but a whole generation of parents that pushed their children into a seemingly better future. They told us we could do anything; be anyone we want to be; have it all. We just had to study hard at school, go to college or university and – most importantly – be ambitious and over-achieve over and over again. And so we believed them and walked ahead to fulfil their hopes and dreams for our lives, ambition shining brightly in our hearts.

Now we are grown-ups our lives are filled with our careers; moving up that slimy ladder, always checking that we still carry the star ambition. Sometimes we rest, nearly allow ourselves to be content with our achievements for a while, but then there it is again, nagging, our ambition; we have outgrown this job, there is no excitement in it any more, surely it’s time to move on. How much ambition does one need to achieve? How much ambition is too much, just creating discontent burning away in our hearts?

Our grandparents used to work in the same place all their lives, went to the same places on holiday every year over and over again. Had they achieved any less? They never seemed unhappy to me; rather content actually with their lives and their armchairs with the fabric worn through and their mismatched collected tea sets.

But we had been born into a brighter future; where, if you worked hard all your life you didn’t need to be content; no, you could have so much more. And now we have more; more stuff in our oversized houses, more exotic holidays and more and ever bigger dreams. It all comes at a great expense. Our ambition keeps us going on and on down the dark alleyways of discontent until we can’t find our way out anymore and we don’t know any other way to be.

 

Beyond the grey – beyond the story

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“Write to say something beyond what you say… the story beyond the story.” Good writing, we learn, doesn’t just tell a story, but leaves the reader with something more, not told directly, but there, somehow within.

Write about a place you used to go as a child. Write the aspect of the place itself or your memory of it that is most deeply personal, but not merely private. Out of singular human experience, the only kind any of us can really know, personally narrated.

This is the lake, where my dad taught me how to swim. On a warm summer’s evening, when my parents got home from work early enough, we packed a blanket and towels and a few apples and wandered down to the lake. We walked along the streets past the socialist era housing, we all used to live in then – grey and pastel pink and pastel yellow, every one of them five storeys high – and my school and some high-rise houses, the sweltering heat closing in around us – oppressive, further and further over the tramlines until the grey and pink and yellow gave place to hints of green in the distance.

And as we entered the forest, the air started to feel lighter and I often took off my shoes, feeling the moist earthy forest ground under my little feet. Once the lake was in sight, I always got a little giddy, I couldn’t get into the water soon enough, and full of excitement I started running ahead for the last few metres, as if the lake might disappear if I wasn’t quick enough. There was a clearing, where everyone put down their blankets and picnic baskets, if they had packed them, and took off their clothes and ran straight into the lake.

We found a spot – somehow there was always enough space for everyone back then – and put down our stuff and joined into the fun. It was so refreshing and I shrieked with joy every time. My dad put his hand under my little belly and I moved and kicked my arms and legs, splashing him and everyone who dared coming close enough. It never got boring. My dad also taught me how to ride a bike but learning how to swim like this was the best. When he finally took his hand away I stayed over water kicking and squealing, knowing that I could swim because he believed I could, trusting that that I was safe – always.

Tranquillity – Be prepared to hurt

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This main chapter, poetics, is brimming with exercises; one at least on every other page. This time Mark is talking about the writer’s voice and tells us, the reader, how we must be “most utterly (ourselves)” and “bring… everything (we) are to the page.” Also, “… be prepared to hurt.” I have noticed. The writing does get better when you pour all that you are into it. I remember well from writing about my biggest loss yet.

Recall a moment of high passion from your life – a birth, a death, an awakening, a loss, a love found or a heart broken. Whatever. See if you can write it in tranquillity. Out of everyone you are. Three hundred words.

There was nothing to do. All the things that had seemed so big and important the night before – gone, only a faded memory now. I had spoken to him that very night, full of excitement about the trip I had just come back from. He had waited for me, they said. Waited to be sure I had returned safely before embarking on his own journey, his last. We were just sitting there taking in the news, comforted in each other’s company; yet alone in our own grief, each with their memories and pictures and questions. He was a father and a grandfather, a husband and a brother, a good friend – I am sure – to others yet. But now, already, the man we knew became a memory; he would be whoever we wanted him to be in our minds for the rest of our lives. And who he was in each of our memories would be gone on the day of our own deaths.

I wish in our house we’d talk about the dead with laughter and joy, because we’ve been lucky enough to know them, to care for them and to be loved by them; I wish we would recall funny stories and laugh until our bellies hurt; I wish we’d share our memories of deepest connection and bring the dead back to life, make them whole again for a moment out of the fractions of our separate memories, at our dinner table. But those are not the things we do in our home. We are silent. We look at old photographs with regret for the things that might have been; missing the chance to relish the joy of the things we’ve been fortunate enough to have had.

For the love of life

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What do you read for?

I read for a few reasons. With fiction I want to immerse myself in a story; dive into it and create a fantasy world in my head. I just love getting lost in a good book; letting it take me places I’ve never been before; places new and places forgotten. But I also read to learn and discover; my favourite being books about food and nutrition and wholesome eating – especially now with my new-found love for vegan cooking – and books about social developments.

Recently I found I enjoyed them more when they were also well written. I’d re-read a sentence and think to myself; how beautiful, how well expressed a thought and I may stop and muse and ponder, losing and finding myself all at once. I read for entertainment and knowledge; distraction and growth; the joy of getting lost and the pleasure of finding.

What do you write for?

As a child I loved nothing more than reading; it was my favourite pastime, my books my most treasured possessions. Soon I wanted to create worlds on paper myself and – for a while – I did; I wrote strong essays in primary school but somehow, as I grew into adolescence, I got distracted; having always been encouraged to focus on my skills with numbers, I lost my passion for words and fantasy worlds. As a teenager I started writing poems; to understand – I think – and make sense of the world; my feelings, my anger, my teenage-hormone-fuelled anxieties. But then I grew up and the tediousness and heartlessness of a day-to-day office job in the corporate world slowly but surely managed to suck me dry; first it took hold of my free spirit and then the joy and light-hearted laughter until in the end I was just another functioning robot; well-adjusted to the rat race, seeking happiness in the next bonus or promotion.

The childhood dream might have been hibernating for all those years but it never died. And now that I have finally started writing again I realise, I write for so much more. Writing helps me to sort my thoughts and ideas; without structure how would I bring them onto paper or a screen? The more I write the more I feel like I am becoming the artist Mark is talking about; I write and re-write, read and re-read, tweak and re-tweak my sentences until they feel strong with meaning and sound beautiful to my mind. It’s a process of creating – painful at times; always rewarding in the end. And I write to connect, to share my thoughts and stories so others might learn from them or just feel more connected on their own journey. I write for the love of life, its stories and its people.

Writing about nothing – writing about everything

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I’m enjoying this book immensely. Just reading it is a pleasure, working through the exercises an array of indispensable lessons, reflecting on what I’ve read makes me grow and re-evaluate my own writing. I have learned so much already and now, that I have moved on to the next main chapter – poetics, I feel it’s going to get even more interesting; we’re moving away from the techniques – which we all I need – towards the process of writing; why we do it, how it feels. Mark says “write (about) small, good things… because writing them reminds you and whoever may listen why we write at all.” He lists some very interesting reasons for writing, but ultimately he believes we don’t need one; “writing (is) an end, not a means”.

Write for 10 minutes, starting like this: ‘The work I want to write…’

The work I want to write will change people’s minds. It will help them, to see things differently, but also be light-hearted and entertaining; not the kind of finger wagging headmaster kind of style – more like a gentle breeze opening people’s minds to new ideas. But I would also like to write fiction, possibly science-fiction; there’s not enough good sci-fi out there. Maybe the two could be combined – in an Aldous Huxley kind of way. Not that I have his grandeur, but then, everyone has to start somewhere. I would love it, if people – after reading a book of mine – said ‘I hadn’t thought of it that way before. It’s an interesting view. It makes sense’. And, of course, I want my writing to be good; with strong phrases; clear, precise and to the point.

That has been an interesting 10 minutes. I didn’t know this. But there you go.

‘Small, good things’ is a phrase from a Raymond Carver story. Write about a small, good thing a violent, hasty world needs – that you need, anyway.

As the world is growing louder and faster and evermore dizzying, we need places we can go to reflect. We are living in constant sensory overload – visual, acoustic, olfactive – and we need breaks from the relentless chattering and churning, so we don’t break ourselves. As I take off my shoes, I leave all the distractions behind me, and when I enter the Temple, a different world opens up; at first around me, then inside. A place of refuge might take on different forms for everyone, but without one, there is no balance, there is only ever ‘on’; on-line, on Facebook, on the run, on a date, on to something, on to the next thing. Without time for contemplation and reflection, this turns into a mindless and dull chasing; of what exactly, remains unclear, as we are too busy to wonder, why we have to move on and on and on at a speed – if we could – faster than light.

I did this second exercise on a 10 minute timer as well. It’s quite an interesting experience; it puts on the pressure to just start writing and keep at it and so surprising things come out of your pen. (I did both exercises on paper first. As I’ve mentioned in a previous blog, I can’t actually use a keyboard but use voice control instead, and sometimes I wonder, if it changes the way I write, so I often write first drafts with pen and paper to get into the flow.) It’s been fun. I’ll definitely do this again.

Active choices; my own Vegan recipe

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When I first read this chapter I was going to go over it quickly without a blog entry. Mark had stressed the need for active writing in his writing course, which I participated in last year, and I have been trying to be mindful of his advice. But I did the exercise and, focusing my awareness, realised, that a few passives had sneaked themselves onto the page, and I decided, that it was worth spending more time directing my attention onto this in practice.

So when is it appropriate to use the passive voice? The short of it is that passive writing gives the sentence an air of impersonality, non-commitment, detachment. The latter of course can have its virtues, but, if one takes the time to write, why detach from the thing you set out to say, I wonder? Passive writing can also be stiff and dull in the way it is often found in bureaucratic writing. And really, who wants to sound that way? So unless there is a valid point – mainly to ensure irrelevance of the actor, the wish to make a strong emphasis on the person acted upon or some structural need to create coherence in the writing – there is little reason to use the passive voice.

Write a paragraph in your journal. Write for five minutes about the last meal you made. Take a look back at it and find your verbs. See how many of them are passive. If any, see if you can rewrite those sentences actively.

I am going to write about a cooking experience, quite different to my usual ones. And I will correct myself every time the passive voice wants to sneak up onto the page again, unless – of course – it is totally appropriate and adds value according to Mark.

Prelude

I have been looking into vegan cooking a lot recently. Not because I don’t like animal products – I rather do – but because I feel, that I cannot ignore the animal suffering involved any longer. I am still eating meat a few times per week – I need to due to my own personal medical conditions; although I understand that for a healthy person it is practical to get all your protein from plant foods. But there is no nutritional benefit in dairy. My research indicates quite the opposite: dairy affects the intestines in a way that might be contributing to digestive and other health problems.

So if I can get enough calcium – always named as the big nutrient that we need dairy for – from my almond and soy milk, why still consume cow milk? Why make those poor dairy cows suffer? They have to be impregnated every year and have their calves taken away from them, just so I can eat cheese or yoghurt or milk chocolate. I don’t think it’s fair.

At the same time, I find it hard to change my behaviour. Conditioned since childhood, I am constantly falling victim to my old dairy-is-good-for-you roots. I am German after all and with 65 kg per person per year we are world leaders in dairy consumption. Not something to be proud of. Most of the cooking I know either contains dairy or meat or both. But this is changing. Now let’s move on to the actual cooking. This is not a blog entry about animal suffering. This is about food. And I love food.

Cooking

We were going to go away for a few days and I had to use up the perishables from the fridge. I was pondering what to make with it, while, at the same time, going vegan and using the beautiful wild rice that we had bought a few days earlier from a cute little organic shop. I decided to make some sort of rice and vegetable salad, but was still unclear about the details; what would go in and how would it turn out? To start with I put the wild rice on the boil; in a small pot, one part rice, three parts water and a pinch of salt. It would need about 45 minutes.

I went on to boil some wholemeal brown rice in a separate pot; one part rice and two parts water and a pinch of salt. It doesn’t take quite as long as the wild rice so I prefer to cook them separately to get the consistency just right for each of them. I always try to buy wholemeal rice these days. This way you get the fibre and all the other good stuff that’s otherwise stripped away. After all, food is for nourishment and what’s the point of empty carbs!

I remembered that I still had some beetroot that needed to be used in the fridge and decided to boil it as well. I wasn’t quite sure yet whether to use it for the salad or not. I filled a third pot with water, high enough to cover my two small beets, and put it on the stove to cook for 45 minutes.

When both types of rice were ready I moved them into my beautiful new salad bowl that makes making throw-stuff-together-dishes so much more fun. My friend gave it to us for our wedding, for which we didn’t actually ask for gifts and which – unfortunately – she couldn’t even attend, but now I’m so happy I have this bowl because I enjoy its aesthetics so much and I always think of my friend when using it.

I drained the water from the beets and set them aside to cool down before peeling them. I quickly steamed some cauliflower and zucchini, both of which I had left in the fridge. No more than five minutes. Then I quickly put them under cold water so the vegetables would stay crunchy in the salad later on. If I had had some broccoli or snow peas in the fridge, I would have chosen those to add some more colour to the salad. But I didn’t and it was no loss, because the flavour of the cauliflower worked really well in this combo.

I added the vegetables to my rice in the bowl. I also still had a whole bunch of fresh crisp sprouts in the fridge that I threw in. And then some parsley. In my mind I started to see a dish now. I peeled the beets. I was wondering, if they wouldn’t make my whole salad awfully pink but then decided to chop them up and add them.

I was looking at my bowl. My concoction so far lacked protein. I opened the dry food drawer. My eyes scanning its contents, I was looking for some seeds; pumpkin seeds, I think, would have been a great choice. But I didn’t have any. I opted for blanched almonds instead. I did not regret it. I poured a good amount into the salad. I don’t measure ingredients, so I poured just about until the ratio seemed right to me. At this point I still didn’t stir it.

Now my salad needed a dressing. I opted for tahini, more good quality protein; freshly squeezed grapefruit, high in vitamin C which is good for absorption of nutrients; and some nice Sichuan pepper, for a bit of a kick. You are probably wondering about the grapefruit. I had recently seen this on a cooking show, where the host replaced the lemon with grapefruit and explained how you can add a note of bitterness to the acidity of a dressing and I have been dying to try this. Delicious! I also decided to chop in a lone leftover chilli, although it ended up not being enough to really taste it, and some garlic, something I’ve learned from my dad. I mixed the dressing and left it to sit.

Just before serving I added the dressing and gently stirred the salad so I wouldn’t create a pink mash with beets. It went just a little bit pink and turned out to look surprisingly great and, more importantly, tasted divine.

Ingredients

I have since made this recipe with a bit more preparation and replaced or added a few ingredients, as I felt, they were going to work better. Below is my final list. I love this dish!

  • ½ – 1 cup brown wholemeal rice
  • ½ cup wild rice
  • 2 medium sized beets (or 1 large)
  • 1/3 large cauliflower (or ½ small) in big chunks
  • 1/2 of a piece of brokkoli in big chunks
  • 1/3 fennel sliced
  • a couple of handfuls of sprouts
  • a good handful of parsley
  • 1 handful of blanched almonds
  • 1 handful of pumpkin seeds
  • a good 2 tablespoons of tahini
  • juice of 1 grapefruit
  • Sichuan (or other high quality) pepper
  • 2 or 3 cloves of garlic (optional)
  • 2 large semi-hot green or read peppers (if you like it spicy)

Learning English, avoiding clichés

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I think Mark is hilariously funny; in an understated kind of way. I guess, you’d have to meet him or read one of his books; and even then, you may or may not agree. But calling this chapter “Avoid clichés like the plague”; it just cracks me up.

“Refuse phrases you’ve read or heard of often before. They belong to someone else.” Well, you can tell he has an opinion; but I imagine it more to be like a kind of wisdom, developed from experience and a passion for good writing. I love his statement! Because it means – to me – that if I find my own phrases, they will belong to me. There’s something inherently beautiful about that. You create, you compose, and – if you can stay true to yourself – in the end, if you put in the work, there will be something new that belongs to you.

But Mark being Mark doesn’t keep things quite that simple. No. “Write every sentence your way. Keeping every phrase vernacular, make it striking.” (Vernacular = in the language or dialect spoken by the ordinary people of a country or region. I had to look this up, which is something I also love about Mark’s writing: I am learning new words all the time. ) Ha – write your way, but use words that are commonly spoken by society. To avoid clichés we shouldn’t make up new words or use a bucket full of difficult, purposelessly intelligent sounding ones; quite the opposite.

A few pages later, Mark leaves no doubt about what he thinks of people using big words; he quotes Walter Murdoch “… The general rule holds good; long words are sign either of muddled thinking or scam erudition.”

There is no writing task, but it might as well be:

…write about a big achievement; nothing flashy, nothing fashionable; just plain and authentic prose. Write like yourself… in a language that anyone might use.

Learning English is – to date – the most difficult thing I have ever done. I don’t mean, just knowing a few words and throwing them together haphazardly. I am talking about breathing the language, feeling it. That is something a grammar book won’t teach you; but knowing all your basics most certainly helps. Born in Eastern Germany and with a serious lack of talent for languages I was facing two big disadvantages: I was years behind my peers when I started college, because I had started studying English later and chosen to drop it from my curriculum early, and, possessing no natural talent, I didn’t manage to catch up, which seriously affected my confidence, which in turn meant I just stayed stuck at the level I was at.

I had chosen to study business. I didn’t quite want to know it then, but it started to dawn on me; I wasn’t going to get anywhere without speaking English. Then there was an opportunity to go abroad on an exchange programme to an English-speaking Business School in Finland. I signed up for it. I bought a grammar book “Year 5 to year 10 English” and studied every night. I did all the exercises until I got them right, every single one.

My grammar and vocabulary were quite reasonable by the time I arrived in Finland, but I struggled to hold a real-time conversation and I struggled in class. Looking back, my problem at this stage was simply a lack of self-confidence. I was afraid to speak up, worrying myself sick about the mistakes I would make. I’d been the one who couldn’t really speak English for so long; in my heart I didn’t believe I could change things around. But I met great people; people who took the time to listen and wait until I formed my sentences, and slowly, over the next three months, my shy attempts at talking became real conversations. I even managed to research a subject and give a presentation on it in class, although I nearly stopped breathing, I was so scared. After I came back home my marks went up by three grades.

But something else had happened. I had changed and I wanted more of that new me. That new me liked the change of air and people and life that comes with exploring, and suddenly I was craving places, I had never really thought of before, and became very eager to keep improving my English, possibly for different reasons now. Over the next few years I booked two separate English language study holidays, a fortnight each: San Francisco and Malta; learning English was seriously starting to be fun.

When I started my internship at a big multinational corporation, I realised the meetings were held in English. I could understand everything by now, but this was a different playing field. I wouldn’t talk. My old struggles with my self-confidence came back. I just didn’t believe that I could ever be able to converse fluently in English in a business environment. But I wanted to. Then a few things in my life came together – I had finished my degree, I didn’t have a job and I was in a dead-end relationship that I needed to get away from – and so it seemed like a great time to go on exploring again. Next stop Scotland.

What was I thinking? Do they even speak English? I remember my cab ride from the airport like it was last week. The cabbie was talking non-stop and I didn’t understand a word! It was an all too familiar feeling and I panicked, wondering whether I had really made the right decision. It took me a few weeks, but in the end I managed to get a job as a sales-assistant as part of the pre-Christmas staff hire in a department store, just as I had planned. And another few weeks later, I started to understand the customers too.

At first, I couldn’t understand a word my landlord (and flatmate) was saying. It got really boring asking him to repeat himself all the time, and I resorted to just answering something, anything; and we kind of started having conversations, that weren’t real conversations and probably would have seemed really weird to any onlooker. But eventually I started to make sense out of his West Coast accent; although that didn’t make that much of a difference to our conversations.

My English got better by the day now. I was watching a lot of TV then. I mean I didn’t just lock myself in at home; I made friends and went out and partied and drank lots of beer; there is no doubt about that! But TV is actually a great tool to get into the heart of how a nation is using its language. I don’t approve of TV. I don’t even own a TV anymore. But back then, I learned a lot about British pop culture and somehow it helped me with my language skills. On the other hand, a lot of the vocabulary is just not that useful.

There was a key moment though, when I knew, my level of skill had just jumped up. I was preparing sandwiches for work in the kitchen and the TV was running in the background. I wasn’t watching. Suddenly I realised that I was following the news and understood exactly what was going on without looking at the television. It may not sound like much but to me it meant that I was taking in the language at the same level as my mother tongue; without actually actively trying. I was ecstatic.

Don’t get me wrong. I was still making a lot of mistakes then. After all English is my second language. But all my friends were so encouraging and kept telling me how great my English was and how well they could understand me until eventually, I just believe them. That’s when I got to yet another level, a level of more ease in using the language; in the same way in which previously the understanding had automated itself in my brain, now the speaking had too. It just happened. Only it didn’t of course. It was the result of tenacious work.

That is 10 years ago now and I have put in a lot more work since. But it has never felt like work – not since I had developed a love for the language and a passion for understanding it better, knowing it – since then it has felt more like fun, like playing around.

Another thing I should probably mention is reading. I have spent days and nights reading English books; book in one hand dictionary in the other. I always recommend it to people, when they say they would like to improve their English. There is no greater tool to work on your style, your grammar, your vocabulary – your entire set of language skills. Of course, you have to be careful about the books you choose. 10 years ago, when I first moved to the UK, I started with Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides. Yes it’s a big book, and yes I spent the first third of the book looking up heaps of words in the dictionary, but it’s always the first third only. Every book has a range, a set of vocabulary, and after about a third of the book hardly any new words are being introduced and the reading will become more fluent, more fun. I always tell people, but they tend to find it too tedious. It’s a shame, it’s a great lost.

Eventually I got a job in my career. I wrote emails, strategy documents, briefs and proposals just like everyone else. I think I might be more fluent in English now than in German. But the learning never stops. And now, trying myself in writing, the old insecurities are right back, saying that I could not possibly do this, not me, not this. And I am doing, as I did before; I am studying and I am practising and I am trying my best. And now part of me is wondering and this part is kicking the insecurities out of the door, because this part is saying, we’ve done it before, we can do it again.

Loss and clarity

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Clarity – “Just make sure that you’ve said what you set out to say” Mark advises us. What else is writing, than “to make meaning”.

Imagine or recall a difficult time – a loss, a dread, a disappointment – and try to write with that (as in an example previously given) kind of self-effacing honesty about exactly what it feels like.

To fulfil this assignment I have to go back and relive moments from my past, pains long moved on from, disappointments left behind; go there again, searching the dark corners of my memory, where the breathing gets shallow and the stomach, involuntarily, ties itself into knots.

Maybe that is one of the things with the big disappointments in life. You forgive, you move on, you find peace. But the moment you turn around and go back to that point in time, it just hits you, like strong wind does when you turn a corner; hard and unexpected. You might even jump a little before finding your feet again. So then why would anyone choose to go back and dig deeper in those hidden corners? Because, if one wants to write about pain and loss and disappointment, to achieve clarity in one’s writing, one needs to remember. The writing needs to come from within.

This is the story of my biggest loss yet. It was right there in front of me but I never saw it coming.

Acute pains

Bang! I watched as the last bits of water were dribbling from the glass rolling on the floor. Slowly I bent down and picked it up. I had to use both my arms. The pain! I panicked as I felt the feeling of fear slowly climbing to the surface from someplace deeper inside, where it had been hiding. It dawned on me that something was seriously wrong, that I couldn’t go on pretending it wasn’t.

In a trance I wiped the floor but where previously there were my arms and hands doing the things my brain told them to, seemingly on autopilot, there was now just jolting pain. I couldn’t wring the towel. The inability to do the simplest tasks would mark the weeks to follow: Cutting bread – impossible; washing my hair – with great difficulty and long rests in between; drinking a glass of water – with two hands only; and always, always in excruciating, seemingly never ending pain. I had RSI in its most acute state. I had been working, pushing through the pain for weeks, maybe months now, always ignoring it, always believing that tomorrow I would wake up and the pain would be gone. It never went of course. And now I couldn’t even lift a glass of water.

Sitting in front of the computer, just the thought of clicking the mouse would now bring tears to my eyes. I had to stop working. Over the next days and weeks I would find myself crying, just walking down the street, or I’d stay in bed all together. That feeling of fear seemed to transform inside me. Anxiety! What if this pain was never going to stop? What if I could not work ever again? I felt dizzy with worry. Who was I? Who was I going to be without my career? How would I support myself? The breath – usually coming so naturally – didn’t want to go in any more. Short. Shallow. Hopelessness. Why? What now?

Back in the office

I went back to work in the end. I didn’t have a choice. The doctor said I was fit to be in the office, just not to use the keyboard. An impossible situation. The days went by painfully slow, as I was sitting at my desk trying to do my job while being off-line and disconnected.

What’s wrong with her? She looks alright to me. She’s just simulating. She is just lazy. She doesn’t do anything.

I don’t. I can’t. They used to be my friends. Why won’t anyone help me? It’s all very confusing.

You have to do this. Here. You haven’t done that. It’s not our fault you didn’t know about this. You weren’t here. I sent you an email.

How am I to find the strength to show up the office every morning?

Eventually I did connect again; with voice control.

It’s so slow. It doesn’t understand my accent. I don’t know how to do this. I am lost. I just want to do my job. A little bit of help would be nice.

What is she doing all day? She doesn’t do anything. Why doesn’t she just leave?

I want to quit. But I have nowhere to go. How am I ever going to get another job? What am I to do?

The anger and the desperation were burning me up from the inside out. It all felt so unfair. I wanted to scream. Inside me there was a tornado but I just sat there.

The last conversation

They called me into a room. I could tell by the way they looked at me that something was up. I sat down. Then one of them said that I didn’t need to come back on Monday. We want you to take the time you need to get better. The words hung in the air. Suddenly the air felt too thick to breathe. It didn’t seem to move past my throat.

My head was spinning but when I looked into their faces I was astonished to find them looking at me anxiously. I couldn’t shake the feeling that they needed me to take away the tension. Maybe they remembered that we all used to be friends in this office once. Maybe after all they still cared. But what exactly did they want me to say? Thank you very much? This is very kind of you? My mind was racing. What about all those projects I had just started to get on top of again? Who would finish them now? Weren’t they important? Didn’t they know I was doing the best I could under the circumstances?

They had never really believed me, not give me the support I needed. I knew then and there I was never going to come back. As soon as they legally could they would terminate my contract. Okay, I said, of course, if you think it’s for the best. I saw the relief on their faces, grateful I wasn’t making it any harder for them. I wondered what they had expected my reaction to be like.

I go and get my things then; I finally said and got up. I sat down at my desk and what had just happened started to sink in. It was Friday 4 PM. I packed up my stuff, wished my colleagues – the ones that were still talking to me – a nice weekend and left. There would be no leaving drinks for me, no thank you speeches, no offer to come back. They thought I was a scam and a liar. Two months later my termination letter would arrive in the mail.

Today

I am at peace and my breath flows freely again. As always with loss and grief, once we have worked through it all, we can see opportunities that previously didn’t appear to us. I had to come all the way. As a Buddhist I call it Karma, but you can call it whatever you like. I am still not able to use the keyboard and most likely never will be. But two years into it I am doing great with voice control. Most day-to-day tasks in my life I am able to do without restrictions, others I might have to space out over the course of the day. I have good days and bad days, flare-ups they call it, but I am able to manage the condition just fine.

Most of all I have exciting plans for my future; I mean the “I can’t wait to start” kind of plans. I am going back to college to become a Chinese Doctor, something my past self never ever thought possible and with the security of a well-paying job would have never done. And I am writing. I am writing! Well, I am talking into a microphone and words appear on screen. Lucky me; someone has invented voice control! Life is wonderful and full of surprises and I feel immensely grateful for it and to all the people inside mine.

Going vintage – Finding grace in writing

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Grace. The next chapter is simply called “grace”. Mark is talking about his love for old things, old watches mainly, but reading his words you get the idea that he really enjoys all things created with love and for a purpose, pieces with a story; he doesn’t seem to have much time for the new, for the sake of new, often cheap and purposelessly created to feed our hunger for consumerism. I am interpreting of course, but you can tell he enjoys good quality, beautiful materials and good old style. And that is his advice for writing; “old-fashioned grace and cool”.

Are you still wearing anything you bought more than 10 years ago? Write about it in 300 words. Try to write about it in a style that becomes that stylish garment.

This time I didn’t follow his exercise cue. It wasn’t a decision I made. It just happened. I have a love for the old myself, and without even thinking about it, I wrote about this love; a love for all those beautiful old pieces of clothing out there. I hope that my style has become their fabric and that you can feel my love through my words.

I love vintage. I can spend days wandering through thrift shops and second-hand designer stores; any shop holding the promise of hidden treasures to be unearthed.

As my hand carefully glides over the different fabrics and my eyes spot intriguing shapes and colours; my mind starts thinking of the ways in which a particular piece would work, the occasion, to which I would wear it first, and the possibilities of future outfits featuring the new piece. There is so much excitement in the air.

Everyone can buy a fashion magazine and go to the High Street and copy the look. From London to Berlin to Sydney to New York, we can all look the same; perfectly styled copies of the latest runway fashion. But with a treasure you have found in a vintage store, you can create something unique, define your own personal style. No one can just walk into Zara or Topshop or Portmans and copy your look; there is no risk of anyone rocking up at the next party wearing the same dress you do.

And there are bargains to be had too. I have picked up many treasures from markets and backstreet vintage stores around the world: the most beautiful necklace from days long gone at Camden Market for £3, a “one of a kind” vintage dress in the back streets of Amsterdam for less than €20, an old leather jacket in Finland – I forgot where – for a few bucks and the list goes on and on and on. Many of these I have worn until they fell apart; some I still own and others yet, I have outgrown and taken back to a thrift shop, where they may find their next rightful owner.

This is the thing with real vintage. Every item of clothing, every piece of jewellery – every old piece of furniture for that matter; they all have a life of their own, they all tell a story. And by wearing them you become part of that story and connect with people in the past, present and future. It doesn’t matter that you don’t know their stories, because you are already in it.