Season 2, 004: Celebrating what we do well
Quote on my chalkboard kitchen wall by Neem Karoli Baba: Love people and feed them.
I will squeeze lemons and peel ginger and add water and cinnamon and honey and then simmer, pour, deliver.
I will pick chicken from bone, add broth and vegetables, season and serve soup when you feel depleted.
I will make fresh scones and clotted cream and homemade raspberry jam and tea when you come home from England wishing you were still there, young and full of dreams of travel.
I will shave dark chocolate into full fat milk with sugar and just a touch of cayenne and cinnamon to warm February bones.
I will send cookies and brownies to your air force base and when you are home on leave I will fill the kitchen with every favorite, every dinner a Sunday meal and eggs every which way for breakfast.
I will step away and let yeast and water and salt and flour become better than the sum of their parts and bake in a blazing cast iron pot and call you to the kitchen while the bread is still warm.
I will let flour fly and sugar sparkle, berries will join hands, buttery crust will flake and pie will be served.
I will grind the beans and pour the water into the French press and pick a mug I think you will like.
I will pick and cook and peel and process beets in a kitchen stuffed full of hair frizzing humidity.
I will stir, mix, blend, chop and toss, simmer and grill, boil and broil, bake, saute and simmer, coat in olive oil and season with salt and roast for you.
I will feed you like an oak feeds squirrel and jay, like goldenrod feeds September bees, like snowmelt feeds streams and rain feeds puddles. I will feed you like a middle-aged lady feeds her birds.
“Tell me about a skill you possess”. My heart sinks heavy and I want to hide. Please don’t ask me this. I don’t have any skills. Not now, age 50. Not anything that would mark me out as special, different, unique, worthy of the telling. My first instinct: to tell you about the skills of others. My friends, my family, the little boy who lives next door and pretends to be a dragon. Or to say that I did, once, have skills, but so distant in time it’s barely memory. Talents and abilities I possessed as a little girl. I could do backflips! Turn endless perfectly dizzying cartwheels until I collapsed in a giggling heap, the world still spinning around me.
And yet. My friends, my colleagues – have they not sung the song of myself to me, when I could not (or would not) sing the song myself? My friend who admired my hand-knit jumper, striped in the colours of the summer Hebridean sea, unknowing of the hidden months-long labour of its creation. A colleague who felt able to share with me some of her deepest worries, knowing she would be truly heard and seen by me in the telling. Awards given more than once for being ‘best educational supervisor of the year’ from former students.
Perhaps what I have lost is not the actual skills, but rather the skills of seeing, of recognising, of valuing. My skills. Myself. Perhaps it’s now more than time to regain this long-lost skill.
Sometimes we don't recognise a skill we possess until many years after the event. And that might be because it's accompanied by a complete lack of development in other areas, particularly in young adulthood.
Shortly after I left home to go to university, my widowed mother began an affair with a young man only a year or two older than me. It was a horrible experience that I've only very recently been able to confront, because it brought out some very nasty aspects of my own personality. I finally found the words after reading about Thomas Hardy's complicated, messy feelings for his first wife after her death. I think it's possible that one or two of his phrases have found their way into this poem.
How did I learn to mistrust my mother’s
dangerous show of innocence?
her lady in the tower pretence,
the purity that ran skin-deep?
I had a radar that would beep
within a mile of any creep.
I’d spent a childhood reading grown-ups
hiding in the corner, earthing
their barbed lightning,
grown an inner shit-detector
Conflict was so frightening that
I hoarded power through staying mute.
but sensed when things did not compute.
Yet, one time, I was moved to speak,
I saw the boy, confused and weak
her vanity could not resist.
saw that he’d never leave his mother,
he would rather steal another,
mine, the only one I knew.
That time I knew what I would do.
I also knew it wouldn’t work,
and yet I tried it, anyway.
I couldn’t bring myself to say,
or even quite acknowledge to myself
what I sensed would transpire.
Don’t touch, I warned her. Run a mile,
She thought my jealousy was vile,
called me a religious prude,
scared of my sexuality,
Well, she had stolen it from me.
She stayed, and it was I who fled.
and for a while,
I had no place to lay my head.
I threw myself on God instead,
who, it turned out, tells lies a-plenty
but who knows that at one-and-twenty?
I've always been an arty type, creative, handy ( that's what people have said - though I know it is true now }. I'm not a "main stream" teacher of things, but there's been quite a lot of teaching, supporting, encouraging, helping of others, sharing my "skills". I enjoy doing things differently - putting my creative spin on things whatever they are or have been. Sometimes rubbing people up the wrong way, never mind, I'm not for everyone - I didn't say that bit to be clear!
These days I think, well, perhaps my quirky way may nudge a different thought in someone?
The stepping stones along my path, my older wiser self sees now as my sign posts, opportunities, choices to make or not.
People, connections, situations have lead me to where I am today.
Now 61, hurtling towards 62 I teach children to swim. I didn't see that coming 10 years ago. I love it, it's joyous really being around young people. I didn't think I would feel like that but I do, it's refreshing, challenging at times too. Apparently, I'm told I'm good at it too!
Who knew, 30 years ago, I thought I'd be retired by now. Ha! no - that's not how it's worked out.
For the last 3 decades I've been a bodywork therapist ( Julie-ing a friend refers to it as ) - my hands on literally work eventually meant I would hang up my therapist hat due to my too painful digits.
Before that hat of choice, my younger adult self worked in the art departments, in the distorted male dominated then world of advertising. I couldn't, wouldn't want to go near that now. I'd definitely be more outspoken if ever I did.
Still, I have taken nearly all my skills from then with me, knowingly or not.
Actually, not too long ago I sort the "help" of a life/business coach to assist my twirling procrastinations. I was told straight off that" I have too many skills? - it can be problematic"!!! That might have been said in encouragement. It didn't feel like it at the time. It was a useful experience, though, fortunately, I went a different way with my suitcase of too many skills!
As my mother often said to me " Clever Clogs" me now - "Is this a loaded backhanded compliment"!?
Anyway, I'm off to blow my own trumpet!!
'There is no such word as can't were the words that I grew up with, and as much as those words would make me scream inside at the time, I have admitted to myself often over the six decades and more of my life that they have been a blessing.
These words turned me into what they called Jack of all Trades, Master of None, and Clever Clogs (also mentioned in a post by Julie, who has had a similar experience). Oh, how I used to be bothered by ‘Master of None but not that much, I guess, because I always wanted to try something new!
I was not allowed to go to Art College because continuing to study after age 16 meant that you were a lazy lay about! However, with those immortal words swimming in my head, I found myself in a hairdressing apprenticeship at a high-end salon on the posher side of the next town. I would be artistic here instead!
My new career was short-lived due to an (up until then unknown extreme skin condition), and so, work took on a higgledy-piggledy new life of its own!
From Mamma to Grandmamma, Ambulance Practitioner to Bank Manager, Counselor to Dementia Liaison Officer, Energy Healer to Librarian, Human Resources to Tarot Reader, and myriad others, this Jack of all Trades, Master of None this Clever Clogs created a working life that was and still isn’t ever dull!
Phew, this hasn't been an easy post to write but now it has been written, I am feeling like I should be celebrating what I do well!
I just have to figure out what it is exactly... :-)
Think of a world without any birds.
When I first met the world my senses were pummelled and stretched by a chaos of sights and sounds. An immediate, instinctive sucking in of my environment took over and so I hoovered up the wonders around me. Every breath I took filled me with curiosity. A mystery of sounds came for me, gathered me up in it's score and Pied Pipered me to where I danced to the brightness of my imagination. I soaked up the creaks; sighs, groans and whispers of the wild.
Black coated sentinels kept watch over me from their treetop fortresses, chastising me with a harsh, unmelodic " caw " and " caah". The cackling chorus of rooks cricked my neck with reverence. From the splendour of a sharp tongued, scolding jay floating gracefully through it's wooded by-ways; to the stylish red curved beak of a probing chough the corvids lie deep in our folklore and folk horror. Straight talking; no nonsense, heralds of doom and devastation; goths of folklore fancies piqued my inquisitive nature and fuelled my appetite to share spaces with these intelligent, worldly birds.
Isis, the youthful Thames seduced me; lured me to her clear, running waters and conjured up a cobalt blue, halcyon performer that unzipped the flesh of the world as it skimmed fast and low above the water leaving a shrill, tangy, "chee" "chikee" in it's wake.
My hungry head drew in the music of the birds. Scrolls of memory filled with songs; now always there. A musical library of trills; warbles, flutes, chuckles and whistles. I close my eyes and listen to the calls of the wild in this harsh land of humans.
Oh…. That really got me thinking. I can list so many things that I lack and so many skills I wish I had. So, I’m always learning and always ready to start something new just to try it out for size.
I do have a very useful skill though that got me through my childhood and my 20s. I am my own best friend. I only found out that when I trained as a nutritional therapist and started working alongside doctors and counsellors at a cancer charity. I never realised until then that it was a skill. Of course, it doesn’t mean that I don’t need friends. I do. But … I’ve been able to self-counsel myself through anything that life has thrown at me so far. I’m never bored with myself. Me and I have some great conversations (not in public!). Sometimes we argue but never bear any grudges, never shame, ignore, or punish each other. We can find different perspectives in almost everything. I’m almost always honest with myself but I’m also good at lying for self-preservation or to put someone else at ease. I talk myself calm through tricky situations, like having a gun to my head. I can easily smile while crying inside. I can camouflage myself in any room if I need to (ok, this might be a wishful thinking). And I can play “dead” and still breathe with my head in the sand when things get tough.
Unremarkable. I hated how the word fell out of my mouth with such ease. But at that moment in time, nothing felt more like the truth. Based on our current worldview of what deems a person successful or worthy, my status was simply unexceptional. Nothing to write home about. This self-deprecating voice took centre stage through my depression.
The truth of course is that my skills aren’t usually spoken of, let alone celebrated or sought after. Because what I bring to the party is far more subtle and often unnoticed. In fact, my skill is completely silent. I just have to show up and my expertise takes over.
All my life people have shared with me their most intimate and vulnerable stories. As a child, it was my neighbour or a friend of my parents. Often it was a stranger I met on a train or waiting at the bus stop. Today it’s a mum outside the school gate or the elderly lady who created a book-swapping library outside her house. Upon meeting me all veils are lifted and only the most honest and heartfelt exchanges take place. Tears are shed and apologies made. ‘I don’t know why I’m telling you all is. I’m so sorry.’
‘It’s fine. Really. It happens more than you know.’ We often part ways with a hug, a gesture of familiarity and gratitude. They walk away slightly lighter; I stumble through my day wondering why I got to listen to the undisclosed whispers of a stranger's heart. Again.
Is knowing how to hold space for someone to expose the most tender parts of their soul a skill? Some might say I just have a kind face.
Kindness and compassion shouldn’t need to be learned. But in an increasingly divisive and fractured world, I’m proud to be a master in them.
OMGosh ! Thank you so much Tanya. I'm blown away to be honest reading your feedback on my piece. I had twirled this theme for a while. Reminds me of an acupuncture treatment I once had - the therapist describing in Chinese medicine the meridian point she worked on referred to "standing behind the shutters looking outward - and that it was ok to step forward on to the veranda" Quietly beaming. Love this community of online writing. Thank you .. Julie xxx
I am truly excellent at planning and organising. Other people might be extraordinary artists or writers or athletes, but in my humble opinion my small unspoken skills are under recognised. If you need jobs done, tasks completed, I will get it done, if I start something then I finish it. I will find the extra time and squeeze and wring out the minutes and seconds of a day to Get It All Done.
But at times this skill feels like a curse, it tips me over the edge into anxietal overthinking, it’s frankly exhausting when my brain doesn’t switch off. To do lists are scribbled over and pressing tasks highlighted and post notes stuck on top for something that’s really urgent - and that’s only the physical manifestation of it all. My mind is often a whirling messy mess remembering this and that, ticking off the do lists, making mental notes of this and that for later.
And it’s burdensome because everyone around me knows that I will do all the planning and leaves the mental load to me.
I used to feel like I was a crazy person that couldn’t just go with the flow like everyone around me seemed to do. And I felt guilty for thinking ahead and making A Plan for the day.
But lately I’ve realised that this is my superpower, that without it my family and I would just fall apart. Without it I wouldn’t be able to work at a high level job or train for marathons or care for my family. All superheroes seem to have some sort of flaw or difficulty in controlling their power don’t they? So I work hard to maintain that delicate balance of using my skills to their best effect without totally collapsing from the exhaustion of it all. I’m not saying this should be the new plot line of the next Marvel blockbuster (Organised Girl to the rescue!), but these small soft unrecognised skills are what makes the world tick.
Morning my lovely hope you are well ?
I'm not sure if it came up but popped a little ditty on promises theme x
Lots of love