Mindset and the Memory Box

As we get closer to moving house, I have been doing some sorting out. Today I retrieved a box of memorabilia from the garage. My life started to flash before my eyes —

There’s a note from a parishioner congratulating my Dad on my birth in Spring 1959. He approved of the “good English names” I had been given.

There’s a big chronological gap (little early childhood stuff in this box, except for a few photos which made it onto a montage done – I think – for my 40th birthday).

Then there’s the religious novel, written in turquoise ink when I was thirteen. One draft only. What confidence! And a short story which the mother of a friend of mine (an editor I think) got quite excited about.

There are the school reports. When I think of the tracking and monitoring that goes on now, they seem superficial and skeletal. No one had heard of formative assessment. I don’t think my teachers had any imposed targets to meet, and nor did I. I wonder if my learning was any the worse for that?

There are a few essays from my sixth form years. There’s my university dissertation (you know, the one about TS Eliot – see my post from September,”Raid on the Inarticulate”). And the one from my PGCE year on children’s reading (easier to write, I remember). Today I didn’t dare read any of this writing, though, because I am so sure it would compare unfavourably with what my daughters produce now, at a similar age and stage. So what’s that about then?

A lot of my husband’s work is based around Mindset Theory. The wisdom goes that you can develop more of a “growth” (as distinct from a “fixed”) mindset – that is, learn to welcome and work with mistakes, take risks, and choose challenges, not safety, in your learning. You see yourself as being able to develop. Your skills and abilities aren’t fixed.

I don’t know if anybody has thought about how your mindset affects the way you view your past. The Eliot dissertation got a 2:2 (with no feedback comments at all – unbelievable), and the PGCE one got very favourable feedback (no formal marks given at all – equally unbelievable). None of my sixth form essays ever got lower than an A-. That must mean that there’s a chance they’re at least OK. But the fact that I even need to look at the marks suggests to me that I’m still looking for external validation. And I’m still so convinced they’re c*** that I can’t open the folders. So the question is, why am I so hard on my former self? Does it matter if my writing was bad, all that time ago? If it was, can I not celebrate my progress since, rather than beat myself up?

There’s going to be at least one more post about this Memory Box. I was going to take it and store it in the new house (at the back of the big new cupboard). But there’s more — I think I need to keep it out for a bit.

Maybe by the next time I post, I will have had the courage to do some reading. Watch this blog.



wise men

We were at the school carol service on Thursday night. The quality of the music was astounding, and I am so glad that both our daughters have had the opportunity to be part of such good choirs and ensembles. Our younger daughter was down to read “The Night Before Christmas”, but to our relief – and hers – this item was pulled from the programme. Our daughter said it would be social suicide for her to read it with any degree of animation; and we ourselves think it is a piece that is over-used, given its dubious literary merit.

She was also reading a commentary on a couple of scenes from “A Christmas Carol”. The literary merit of Dickens is less open to challenge; I do quite like the book, and part of me still buys into the sentimental, sugary Christmas of the Victorian era which lies behind so many of the traditions. I love the candles and the carols; but the words even of some of the best-loved don’t really bear much scrutiny. For instance, just check out the view of childhood in “Once in Royal David’s City” —

So there wasn’t much challenge or new thinking in the school carol service, and maybe I shouldn’t have expected it there. But hasn’t anyone written anything worthwhile about Christmas since Dickens? Well, yes, they have; and to be fair, the piece I want to talk about is far from new either. It may even fall into the “overused” category itself. But I think it’s more real: it’s about expectations and the actual, and, far from being florid and over the top, it’s understated. It’s T S Eliot again, borrowing shamelessly from other writers as usual, but coming up with “The Journey of the Magi”. In case you don’t know it, here’s the link to it:


I think this is full of great images, and I especially love the rhythmic tension in the last stanza. However my focus just now is on the line:

It was (you may say) satisfactory.

After all that journeying, searching, waiting and effort, that was what it came down to for Eliot’s wise men. They were clearly changed by their journey and their meeting with the Christ child, returning afterwards only uneasily to their old lives, uncertain about the experience they had had. But “satisfactory” was the only word Eliot gives them for that climactic moment which (presumably) they had longed for.

Feels a bit like Christmas to me – the long run-up to it, and the flat bleak days of January that follow after you take the decorations down. And given that I can’t re-capture the Christmasses of my childhood (when the tinsel and the paper chains were so beautiful, and Father Christmas was a fact); nor those of my believing days (and that was something – grappling, amazed, with the notion of God incarnate); nor even those of my children’s early years now, it’s not going to live up to the hype, is it?

I’m done with Christmas expectations, so I’ll settle for “satisfactory”: listening to, singing and maybe even playing some lovely music; a party or two; a few treats; relaxed time with those I love. And maybe just a hint of mystery and wonder. Because on Christmas Day, by late afternoon, it seems to me that the whole world holds its breath. There’s a stillness: everything stops. We down tools, and for a short while there is nothing we have to do. It’s a moment of rest, perhaps, before we pick up our baggage again to meet the coming year.

Today is the Winter Solstice. I always feel a small sense of relief when we get here. This is as dark as it will get. I know that it (and possibly I) won’t feel perceptibly brighter for quite a long time yet – not till February really; but after today, the light is on its way back.

Yes and No

B and I sometimes have a conversation that goes like this:

B: “Shall we /what if/ how about ——?”

Me: “No.”

After some further discussion and negotiation, sometimes my “No” changes to “Maybe” and even sometimes to “Yes” (and sometimes it is still “No”). The matter maybe local and transitory (“Shall we invite X and Y over for dinner?”; “Shall we go to the pub?”). Or it may be life-changing (“Shall we move house?” “Shall we sell one of the cars”?). But very often my first response is to say, “No”. One of my sisters raised my awareness of this tendency recently, because she thinks that her default position is “No”, too. It might be a family trait (our Mum often does it too).

So why do I say, “No”? I think sometimes it feels that saying yes – even to something fun – is too much effort. It’s easier to stay at home (especially in November) on the sofa with the knitting and a cup of tea than it is to get up and out to the pictures, even if the film is very enticing. That’s quite an admission isn’t it – how lazy!

Maybe I’m also in a bit of a time-warp. When the kids were tiny, an adventure with them did entail massive amounts of organisation and effort. Transport. Nappy bag. Spare clothes. Amusements. Getting them togged up. Jollying them along (though they were adaptable and tolerant, most of the time). And a trip out without them involved finding and paying babysitters. Even a dinner party at home involved getting them into bed and then starting the cooking and entertaining. However did we do it (and we did do it quite a lot)?? Now I have less excuse, and I’m still saying no. Maybe the memory of all that effort lingers, along with the memory of the fun.

Caution is no bad thing, particularly regarding big decisions, and especially when your partner (like mine) has an impulsive streak.(Paradoxically, he thinks I’m sometimes prone to saying yes – being too eager to please, when I should say no. And he may sometimes be right). But an encounter with a potentially life-threatening condition makes you realise that your time is limited. My life expectancy has not changed as a result of recent events; it’s just that now I know my days are numbered. And thirty years to go (say) doesn’t seem all that long, so knowing when to say yes and no is important. I have in the last few months said, “Yes” to the co-housing venture. Is that risk going to pay off? And I have said “No” to the job I found so difficult. Was that a good, well-judged “No”? (“Some complain/Of strain and stress/The answer may be/No for Yes.”)

In our house, we have often noted that I don’t readily do spontaneity. Yet I love the eager, slightly reckless, even flippant spirit of the following poem. Seems to me the default setting here is “Yes”. Maybe now I should set my own Yes/No dial a bit further in that direction.


It’s like a tap-dance
or a new pink dress,
a shit- naive feeling
Saying Yes.

Some say Good morning
Some say God bless–
Some say Possibly
Some say Yes.

Some say Never
Some say Unless
It’s stupid and lovely
To rush into Yes.

What can it mean?
It’s just like life,
One thing to you
One to your wife.

Some go local
Some go express
Some can’t wait
To answer Yes.

Some complain
Of strain and stress
The answer may be
No for Yes.

Some like failure
Some like Success
Some like Yes Yes
Yes Yes Yes.

Open your eyes,
Dream but don’t guess.
Your biggest surprise
Comes after Yes.

Muriel Rukeyser

Raid On The Inarticulate

In my last year at university, I wrote a long essay on T. S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets” (I may still have it in a box in the garage somewhere). I don’t know why I chose the topic. I think I would have found TSE a deeply unattractive character, and I still have only a tenuous grasp on his poetry. Eliot was an American by birth, but I think he really wanted to be English and European. As his religion, he chose Anglo-Catholicism, which gave him the chance to hook up both with English history/culture and that of the wider Catholic European tradition. He desperately wanted roots. So the poems are shot through with literary and cultural references, some deliberately obscure. In a way they’re an exercise in intellectual snobbery. Maybe that’s why I chose them to study: I admit there’s more than a bit of intellectual snobbery in me (deeply unattractive, I’d say, and it hasn’t escaped my notice that this post might be a bit of showing-off too. But what the hell).

You might ask what has brought poor old TSE into my mind to be slated like this. Whilst I still find the “Four Quartets” opaque in some ways, Eliot’s themes really resonate with me. He is preoccupied with the difficulty of words and word meanings. How language is fluid, and how hard it is to “fix” a meaning. For me there are two recent triggers for some thought about this. We went at the weekend to another wedding (weddings are like buses, etc.) – this time of a young couple – son of university friends of mine and his fiancee. Lovely, happy occasion – attractive and talented young people clearly utterly committed to the idea of a life together – and both of them (as is the wider family at least on the groom’s side, and probably on the bride’s too) – Bible-believing Christians. Even the presiding minister commented on the fact that the couple had insisted on three Bible readings, not the customary two. Moreover, the readings they chose were those which, in evangelical circles are interpreted to support a very, very traditional view of gender roles in marriage. It’s a view that I have to acknowledge seems to work very well for many of those who sign up to it; but I myself have some problems with the words, handed down through the centuries, which now seem so at odds with contemporary ideas about equality and self-determination. And I wonder what the true cost is to the woman in the partnership in particular.

By way of comparison, the national body of Quakers is currently asking itself if it’s time to revise a book called “Quaker Faith and Practice”. This book is an anthology of Quaker thought, with contributions by a range of authors, from the well-known to the obscure, grouped by themes. It’s also a handbook about how to run Quaker business etc., but that’s not the bit that I’m talking about here. It gets revised (a slow and careful business, involving wide consultation) about once every generation, in order to ensure that as far as possible it continues to reflect the concerns and commitments of Quakers in Britain. So it’s not static – it changes. Quakers love their time-honoured phrases as much as the next group, but some of these may get dropped from the next edition, and new material may be included.

So – what value do we place on old words? Do they stand for all time? Are their meanings not tied to the time/culture in which they were written? Should we be re-interpreting, re-formulating, or not? Should we use words – as best we can – to articulate our experience, or should we start with the words first and use them to frame our lives or even guide us?

The overarching theme of the “Four Quartets” is that of time, and how we are both in it and somehow need to transcend it. (There’s also sub-theme about counter-factual thinking – about all the roads not taken which somehow exist in parallel in our consciousness. This is particularly relevant to me at the moment in relation the One Lump Or Two experience.) I felt as if I was in a time-warp at the wedding. We were in the city and among people whom I knew thirty years ago. It is always a bittersweet experience going back to Cambridge, which on the whole looks so very much the same. Quite a lot is probably invested in keeping it so. I think about happy times now past, but also about all the opportunities I missed (and am glad that our student daughter, in her turn, seems better equipped to seize some of these than I was). I still expect to see friends cycling around on their way to lectures. But the reality is that here they are now, middle-aged like me, and witnessing the marriage of their own recently-graduated children. So somehow the past meets the present, and it makes me think about how our lives – so closely and intensely linked in student years – have diverged. And how some of us have moved on and changed; and yet for some, the old familiar words still seem to mean the same as they always did. I am left with a confused sense of loss and nostalgia.

But I would never go back. I don’t look like an adventurous person. I have never had the travel bug, and my nearest and dearest know how physically risk-averse I am. But, even while I don’t quite know what he means, I am with Eliot here:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

And that’s the final thing I want to say about TSE’s poem sequence: in it he wrestles to articulate the paradoxes I think we need learn to embrace (something I have written about in some of my earlier posts). The strange truth, for example, that the more you learn, the more you are aware of your ignorance; or that you have to “let go” (= make yourself vulnerable) in order to live. Like Eliot, the struggle for articulation sometimes take me back to traditional religious imagery with a new appreciation, even while the gods seem alien to me now.

I wanted to include many more quotations from the “Four Quartets” to illustrate my comments. But I found so many compelling, memorable phrases and images that I couldn’t choose. I take it all back, TSE. You wrote some wonderful poetry. And here is a link to the whole sequence, for those who care to look: http://www.davidgorman.com/4Quartets/index.htm


Matthew Arnold’s poem, “Dover Beach” (http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/dover-beach/) has been going round in my head for several days. I have always thought it quite a patchy poem, with one or two rather weak lines (“Ah love! let us be true to one another”), but also with some absolutely blinding images and a stunning ending. Then I caught on iplayer a BBC4 programme about it which went out on Sunday night (18th) – worth looking at if you are into your Victorians – on which the presenter explained the ebb and flow of the language from cosmic to personal as being part of the poem’s genius. I buy that. Also, it transpires that Arnold was on his honeymoon when he wrote it, so I will let him off the personal references on that count too (and I do hope he cheered up for part of the week!).

It is a bleak poem – strange how finding your bleakness well expressed by another can be such a comfort. But I think that’s how it is. And the part that came back to me first was the ending: the “darkling plain — where ignorant armies clash by night”. People are often said to fight a “brave battle” cancer. I can see why – but to me there’s not much brave about it really – just got to do it one way or the other, and the “battle” seems to me to be cloaked in uncertainty, if not entire ignorance.

Another favourite Victorian of mine is Darwin, who suffered the death of his nine year old daughter Annie (” a dear and good child”) at about the time he was thinking of publishing his “On the Origin of Species”. One of Darwin’s insights was not that nature is cruel, but that it is simply indifferent to the fate of the individual organism. And again, this makes sense to me. I don’t believe I’m either being punished or being cared for by a higher power. It’s just what happens.

I have a lot of affinity with these Victorians, for whom the world was no longer safely encircled by the “Sea of Faith”, because that is a journey I have made and am making. I am also fascinated by Cardinal Newman – also mentioned in the BBC4 programme – who went the other way, seeking a harbour in tradition and authority. Why did he do that?

In fact, today I am not feeling at all bleak – maybe that’s why I can write it down. Had a great visit from two university friends, as well as a continuing stream of messages, and the continued steady care of B; and it’s that, isn’t it – the love and support offered by others – which remains to us. If some privately frame it to themselves as the channelling of the love of God, that’s fine by me. It’s the doing it that counts.