A Crack in the Viewfinder?

Last year, I was at the Easter Sunday service at Norwich Cathedral with a new acquaintance.  In the distance, I noticed a lady in the congregation whose face was very familiar.  "I think I went to College with her," I told my acquaintance.

She didn't miss a beat.  "Oh, that's V. – you know, she had cancer last year."

And I knew that very second that I would never be friends with my acquaintance.  Why? Because I do not want to be friends with someone who can find nothing to say about a stranger except that she'd had cancer.  She could have said that V. was a splendid cook, an outstanding gardener, an avid reader, or even simply that she was a lovely person.  At a push, "Oh, that's V. – you know, she had cancer last year and recovered by using such-or-such treatment/philosophy/herbs/breakthrough surgery etc."  Instead, she chose to describe a person exclusively by her affliction rather than by any personality characteristic she might have.  As though this woman was defined by her illness and nothing else.

It has been my experience that most people find it much easier – almost unhealthily more comfortable – to relate to another person's unhappiness than happiness.  As a literary translator, I know that it is much easier to convey grief, fear and unhappiness from another language and culture than happiness and humour.  Unhappiness travels at the speed of light.  Happiness, for some reason, doesn't.  It's stopped at every corner, questioned, analysed, its visa checked, its motivation examined and viewed with suspicion.  Too much happiness is viewed as superficial, twee, unrealistic, whereas unhappiness is frequently described with such complimentary terms as "profound", "real" and the arts programmes' favourite, "dark".  Happy endings are automatically considered flawed, while tragic or unresolved ones are worthy of respect.  Love stories that turn out happily are chick-lit, but the ones with characters battling each other's demons are more likely to win literary prizes.  When and why did we decide that darkness is worthier than the light? 

A few days ago, some neighbours were expressing their sympathy at my husband and me having to move house for the fourth time in as many years, and asked about our plans for the future.  "It's very simple," I said, flippantly.  "I'm going to buy a lottery ticket, win the jackpot, then buy a house in Norwich and an attic apartment in Rome."

Interestingly, they didn't comment on the obvious flaw in the premise of my plan.  Instead, their faces turned sad and they replied, "Ah, yes, but then when you buy a place you can end up with the neighbours from hell.  And then something always goes wrong and repairs are so expensive..."  There it was – the zooming in on a tiny crack in an otherwise perfect crystal vase.

"Not too bad..." increasingly seems like the favourite British response to the question "How are you?" and people are surprised when my reaction is, "Oh, dear, have you been unwell?"  To me, "Not too bad" implies that things could be worse but, well, they're not good at the moment.  

"A friend in need is a friend indeed" is a saying common to many different cultures, and yet it's much harder to share good news with a friend than bad ones.  People rally around you at bad news, offer help and sympathy with an enthusiasm that (I hate to say this) sometimes verges on a hint of gratitude.  They plunge into the pool of your unhappiness and swim in it for hours.  Give them a tale of success, independence and joy, and, sadly, they'll all too often walk around your pool of limpid water looking awkward, almost afraid of dipping their toes in it.

In a café, I overhear a woman at the next table talking to her sister about her forthcoming fiftieth birthday.  "It's a brilliant age," I volunteer light-heartedly, being two years her senior.  "It's when you find out what you really want." 

The woman beams at me.  "Oh, I really don't mind turning fifty.  In fact, I'm quite looking forward to it."

"Ah, that's what she says now," her sister says.  "Just wait for her to be really fifty and then she'll feel old like the rest of us."

That's what I call toxic.

More and more, I find myself drifting away even from people I love if their default setting is one of pessimism or their focus automatically on the negative.  If I can't tell them about my joy, then I will not give them the satisfaction of wallowing in my unhappiness.  They have their own.  I have no inclination to encourage Schadenfreude.  

Why do so many of us accept only a vision of a flawed, doomed world? Is there a crack in our mental viewfinder that distorts our perception?

What makes us more attuned to misery than to joy? To pessimism rather than optimism? To despair rather than hope? Why is it often easier to sink under the gravitational force of darkness rather than dare to push upwards through the clouds and stand in the sunlight?

In a world that is a resounding "YES" why do we primarily hear a stream of little "no"s?

Scribe Doll

Recent Comments
Rosy Cole
Those 'little "no"s' may well be symptomatic of a much bigger "NO!, but when we consider what Mary's Joyful (and Glorious!) "YES!"... Read More
Thursday, 20 April 2017 13:41
Katherine Gregor
Interesting insight, Rosy. Then, of course, there are theprofessional guilt-trippers. You say, "I'm going on holiday next week," ... Read More
Saturday, 22 April 2017 09:24
Virginia M Macasaet
love this Katherine! I can relate... there is good in every individual and in every situation, the challenge for some is in reco... Read More
Saturday, 29 April 2017 23:16
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3 Comments

Gender Equality: Women's Attitudes.

International Women's Day makes me feel uneasy.  The fact that there should still be a need for it.  For all the leaps and bounds we've have made in Europe and other countries since the relatively recent times when women couldn't vote or own property, there are still many issues to address before true equality is achieved between the sexes. And one thing I feel very strongly about is that more could be done by women themselves to redress this imbalance.  

Every International Women's Day, I mentally give thanks for having a vote and for all the countless other rights I enjoy which were denied to my female ancestors and, still now, to millions of other women all over globe. But I also feel deeply sad when I think of how many women – perhaps inadvertently – still fuel this gender inequality with their own attitudes and the signals they send out to men and, especially, to other women.     Perhaps our first step should be true independence and self-sufficiency.

    Naturally, I am speaking here about women who have a choice.

    A few weeks ago, I was at a lunch, surrounded by half a dozen or so women I admire greatly for their education, their professional achievements and their indisputable intelligence.  Every woman at that table could be a role model for any little girl. This is why I was somewhat shocked to discover that I was the only woman there who had not changed her surname after getting married. The others had kept their own names in the professional field but, in their personal lives, had legally taken on their husbands' surnames. Time and again, I am surprised by the overwhelming number of women – and young women at that – who take their husbands' surnames after marriage. Some will argue that most of us carry our fathers' and not our mothers' surnames, anyway, but there's a huge difference between being given a name as a baby, when we have no choice in the matter, and consciously, actively choosing to take on a man's surname in countries where this is no longer a legal requirement. Doesn't that send a message akin to saying, "because we love each other I will let you own, change, part of my identity"? I hate to say this, but to me, this is setting the tone for inequality from the outset.  Please explain this to me if I am missing something here.

 

How can you attain equality without self-sufficiency? A landlady I used to lodge with when I was a student once prevented me from doing an easy repair on the cat flap. She said her boyfriend would do it when he dropped by later.  When I tried to insist, she said, "Never learn to do DIY, or you'll always have to do it."

    Brought up in an all-female household where we fixed our own taps, I was shocked. Actively refusing to learn a skill you didn't enjoy simply on the grounds that you might have to use it at some point in your life struck me as willfully curtailing, in however small a way, your self-sufficiency.

    My landlady was not an isolated case. Too many women delegate financial matters to their husbands because they're "hopeless at maths" (I confess I was guilty of that in my first marriage).  Too many women lack the most basic DIY skills because "it's a man's job".  Women who – and that's something I cannot understand – don't have a bank account of their own.  Fair or not, having at least a little of your own money is the first step to self-preservation, never mind independence.  Many people choose to cohabit without getting married because it's important for them to feel that they're in the relationship out of choice and not because they're bound to it by a legal document.  Trust me, the legal document can be dealt with much more easily than the crippling, paralysing fear, deep at the back of your mind, that you couldn't leave even if you wanted to because you couldn't afford a roof over your head or keep yourself in the style of life you have been accustomed to.

    I believe that loving and respecting your partner or husband is also expressed by not being totally dependent on him, because every ounce of dependence you place on someone else is the amount by which you prevent him or her from being fully him or herself.  Of course, we all depend on our partners in many ways, emotionally, if nothing else.  However, being financially dependent not only gives your partner power over you and limits your freedom, but places you in a potentially very vulnerable position.

 

Every Friday night, walking past the pubs in the city centre, you see young women in sheer, short or very low-cut dresses despite the cold weather.  The men, on the other hand, are dressed for the season.  Apart from feeling astonished that they don't feel the cold, I   can't help but wonder: Why not just bring a jacket or a wrap in case they feel cold later  or in case it rains? Are they so sure of their health? Are they consciously or unconsciously relying on a man gallantly giving them his jacket? I see these young women balance on such high heels, it is anatomically impossible to – should, God forbid, the need arise – run or even walk fast on them.  As an older woman watching them, they appear to me like the picture of vulnerability and, consequently, potential dependence. 

    A bugbear of mine is women demanding to be paid maintenance after a divorce if they don't have young children to support.  Women who feel that, having given "the best years" of their lives bringing up a family and then finding it hard to get jobs in middle age (and, yes, this is a social reality, unfortunately), they are entitled to be supported after a marriage has ended.  As a divorce lawyer I once met put it: a marriage is a relationship, not a pension plan.  Having no children myself, I cannot begin even to imagine how hard or even almost impossible it is to keep earning while raising a family well.  But I also know women who, as soon as their children started school, began attending courses, keeping abreast of developments in their professional field, and taken on part-time work.  Admittedly, many cannot go back to their original, pre-family careers, so they learn new skills.  I am not, not, not suggesting this is easy.  Only that it is worth doing whatever it takes to keep as much of one's independence as possible.  How can someone who consciously allows herself to be dependent be viewed as an equal?

    I frequently come across women doing work they enjoy, often artistic jobs, which don't pay enough to support even just them alone.  They have the luxury of being able to do this because their husbands have "proper" jobs.  Apart from the blatant unfairness of the situation, what if these husbands suddenly lose their "proper jobs" or decide they want a divorce? Are these women equipped to survive financially? I know only too well how soul-destroying an unfulfilling job can be, but, surely, we have a responsibility to have at least the potential to keep the wolf away from the door, don't we?

    I love it when my husband or a male friend automatically pays for me in a restaurant or coffee shop.  It's so chivalrous.  But, sisters, we just can't have it both ways.  In general, I am often surprised by the number of self-proclaimed feminists who turn all 19th century fair sex as soon as it comes to putting their hands in their pockets.

    

I feel very strongly that one of the ways towards gender equality is also solidarity among ourselves.  Wherever possible, it's important that women stick together, encourage one another, are sympathetic towards one another, and not undermine members of our own sex.

    Let's stop watching one another in the mirrors of ladies' rooms, trying to assess who is better dressed, better made-up, more attractive, more of a competition out there where the men are waiting.  Let's stop putting one another down.  It is deeply sad but undeniably true that too many women see other women as competitors rather than allies.  Too many catty remarks are made where praise and appreciation would be much more constructive.      At the beginning of last winter, wearing a new russet-coloured coat and a Tudor-style, brown velvet hat on a slant, I went to see a female friend.  The two men I was with had commented on how lovely I looked, so I rang my friend's bell, a smile on my face.  She opened the door, took a quick look at me from top to toe, and said, "Gosh! Russian winter, is it?" My smile disintegrated.

    A couple of years ago, a friend invited me over for tea on the occasion of her birthday.  H. had a prior commitment, so I went alone.  To be fair, my friend didn't bat an eyelid, but the other woman in her living room, complete with husband, said, "What? Without H.?" Her arch tone and raised eyebrow suggested a hint of disapproval rather than genuine surprise.  But perhaps my making it an odd number of guests made the room look untidy.

    Many a man is invited over for supper, by the wife of a couple, while his wife is away, "so he doesn't eat alone, poor thing".  How many wives are invited over for dinner while their husbands are away?

    When a woman is single, it's true to say that – at least in this country – attached women will socialise with her when their husbands are otherwise engaged and seldom invite her to couples' outings.  Are they afraid that she cannot hold her own in a conversation without a man present?

    Several years ago, a friend invited me to her engagement party.  "Please bring someone," she said.  

    I was single at the time, so told her I'd be coming alone.

    "But you'll have no one to talk to!" she replied.

    I hadn't realised that it was a "bring your own conversation partner" event, or that she viewed me as a ventriloquist's doll.  Needless to say, I declined her invitation.

    My new female friend L. tells me this strong territorial instinct is a naturally-programmed leftover from our primitive female ancestors, who had to fight tooth and nail to keep other women from their males in order to ensure their very survival and that of their offspring.  I like to think that we have evolved since then.  We've had the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Sturm und Drang, and the Suffragettes.  It's time to shake off the primitive leftovers, right? 

    Time to take full responsibility for ourselves, and treat our fellow women with compassion and encouragement – always.  The fact that many men still consider us as second-class citizens is not a reason to lose our self-respect and our dignity, but, on the contrary a reason to consolidate it.  This isn't about their attitudes, but ours.

Scribe Doll 

 

Recent Comments
Rosy Cole
I have to confess, Katia, that on many fronts, I feel as unsettled about International Women’s Day as you do and doubt, on the who... Read More
Tuesday, 14 March 2017 18:04
Katherine Gregor
Thank you, Rosy.
Saturday, 18 March 2017 12:28
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2 Comments

The Alchemy of Turning Darkness into Light

A text message the day before, signed in both names, gently confirms that H. and I are to go the the Castle museum entrance a few minutes before the ceremony.  

It's a grey morning but unusually mild for December.  We walk over the bridge leading to the Norman keep, where for centuries, those convicted of crime were hanged.  I've always had an uneasy relationship with Norwich Castle.  For one thing, I find its sugar-cube shape on the hill dominating the city rather ugly.  It lacks the charm of Durham Castle's irregular edges, or the Gothic feel of Edinburgh Castle.  There is something eerie about its bland squareness.  I first set foot in it about ten years ago.  I walked in, bought my ticket, caught a brief glimpse of a series of busts on display, and promptly and almost involuntarily dashed back out at full speed, overwhelmed with a totally unfathomable feeling of terror.  I couldn't account for my reaction, which seemed utterly irrational, so the following day, determined to act like an adult, I went back, bought another admittance ticket, and marched in.  I saw the busts again and, as I drew closer, saw that some of the faces had twisted expressions.  I read the signs and only then realised that they were the death masks of men who had been hanged. Men who had been murdered by legal means, by the laws of other men who thought their right to judge and punish was equal to that of God.  Laws that respond to violence with more violence, to evil with more evil, and to despair with more despair.

But this morning, I am here not to visit a museum that keeps the memory of fear and suffering alive, but to attend a wedding.  The Norwich marriage register office has recently moved many of its ceremonies from the beautiful building near St Giles to the Castle.  We are shown into the waiting room and are welcomed by the sister of one of the grooms.  With a broad smile, she introduces us to the other eight or so guests, although I protest I'll never remember everybody's name.  It's a small gathering but international.  English, Polish, French and Italian, among others.  The variety of accents all giggling with excitement at this happy occasion immediately dissolves my innate nervousness at social events and I mentally bite my thumb at all the Brexiteers out there.    

Photos are snapped in various combinations of family plus friends, then more photos, in case some don't come out well.  Everything must be done to immortalise the day and, especially, crystallise its happiness.

After a few minutes, the door to the ceremony room is opened by a tall, elderly lady with a kindly face.  H. and I give a little exclamation of pleasant surprise.  She reciprocates our grins.  "Did I marry you?" she asks. "I'm sorry, I can't remember but when people look at me like that, it generally means I've married them."

She squeezes my hand and hugs me with the tenderness of a dear old friend.

When the two grooms walk in, I am struck by how young they look.  I know they are both in their middle years and yet today, there is a youthful glow about them.   

They stand by the registrar's table.  Vows are exchanged.  For ever. There is a slight crack in the voice, a moment when tears are kept in check. When an overwhelming burst of gratitude, relief and unbridled hope fills the room.  Rings are slipped on fingers.  Gold, like sunshine.  Circular, like perfection.  Like timelessness.  

When the ceremony is over and names have been signed in the large book, the registrar comes up to H. and me, and tells us this castle has a special meaning for her.  "When I was fourteen," she says, "a friend and I came for a walk here one afternoon, to see if there were boys."  She gives a mischievous grin.  "But we got followed by two American G.I.s – it was at the time they were stationed here – and got scared.  So we walked up to two local boys and I said to one of them, 'Can we stand with you until the two G.I.s go away?' Well, I've been with him ever since.  We've been married fifty-seven years." 

And now, over half a century later, she officiates at weddings in this very castle.  "I love doing weddings," she says, and her beaming smile makes it clear that she does, indeed.

It truly is a Good Day.  Into this Norman castle, a building scarred by violence, fear and despair, these two beautiful humans who have just embarked on marriage are bringing love, kindness and hope.  And all of us in that room help shine some light where darkness has lingered for centuries like a sticky cobweb.  It's time to infuse joy and love into these tear-soaked Caen stones.  Little by little, one wedding, one promise to love and be kind at a time.  One beam of light, then another, and then another, until the shadows have faded away.

Scribe Doll

Recent Comments
Ken Hartke
Katherine, Well, I had to Wikipede (is that a verb? Like Google has become?) Norwich Castle and, far be it from me to criticize, i... Read More
Monday, 19 December 2016 00:12
Katherine Gregor
Thank you for commenting and researching! There is no white stone in Norfolk, I don't think. Our local stone is flint, which clad... Read More
Monday, 19 December 2016 11:03
Rosy Cole
It's so important not to feed dark, or any kind of negative, energy by 'buying into' its theme, but to transform the 'vibes' by ac... Read More
Monday, 19 December 2016 12:02
1199 Hits
4 Comments

There are More Things in Heaven and Earth...

There has been much news coverage, during the past week, of the experimental Mars probe, Schiaparelli, which is now suspected to have exploded upon landing on Mars.  No doubt, in time, another spacecraft will be sent to the Red Planet with the purpose of investigating whether there has ever been, or currently is, life there.  Personally, I fail to see how this astronomically high expense can be justified, given the lack of funds alleged by our various governments to tackle the pressing problems on this, the Blue Planet.  But that's an issue apart.  Listening to various scientists speculating about whether or not there is life on Mars made me wonder – how would we know for sure?

 

If the sophisticated machines show that there is life on Mars, then I suppose the proof will be irrefutable.  If, however, they find no evidence of life, how could we be 100% certain that these findings are accurate and true, in other words, that they correspond to actual reality? I can't see how lack of evidence can possibly be considered as proof either way.

 

It's been widely observed that animals exhibit unusual behaviour and sometimes even flee before an earthquake.  I don't mean domestic animals, of course, many of whom have been overbred to serve and depend on us to the point where they have lost many of their survival instincts (once, as a teenager, I woke up in the middle of the night because I felt my bed being jolted and saw a couple of books fall off the shelf, while my dog, curled up at my feet, was fast asleep, snoring away).  How do these animals know there's an impending earthquake when human machines are unable to predict them? One can deduce that they possess a way of sensing them either through glands or other perception organs that are more refined and sophisticated than human-made machines.

 

In medicine, successful experiments have recently been conducted with dogs and cancer detection.  It appears that dogs can "sniff" certain cancers with an accuracy rate of over 90%.  This suggests that their senses are far more developed that those of humans.  Many pet owners will have observed that their cats and dogs know instinctively which grass or herbs to eat in the field when they are ill.  Most humans are not so in tune with their own bodies and require a doctor to tell them what to eat or not eat.  One could say that the authority of technology and science has bred instinct out of us, too.

 

My cat, Genie, knew when I was coming home despite my erratic working hours.  I'm told that about twenty minutes before I arrived, she would go and lie by the door, thus announcing to anyone at home that I was on my way.  How did she know? Do you sense when your spouse/partner/flatmate is about to come home?

 

There are countless examples of cases where animals are aware of realities we, humans, are not, which goes to prove the limits of our perception of the world.

 

*   *   *

Humans have manufactured technologies, machines, tests and probes that are supposed to reveal more than our senses can, especially in the field of medicine.  The purpose of a blood test, scan and X-ray is to detect what is, we believe, undetectable by our five senses.  Machines have been known to show more sensitivity than humans.  I remember one particular instance where my own experience showed this to be true.  When we were living in France, a nightingale sang on the hill outside our balcony every morning at about 4 a.m.  One day, my mother got up and tried recording the bird's song on her National Panasonic cassette player.  When we tried listening to it over breakfast we couldn't hear the nightingale over the numerous rustling, humming and clicking sounds made by the other creatures of the night, which our ears were unable to pick up.

 

Still, I think it's a fair assumption that we can only manufacture machines that our imagination allows us to manufacture.  After all, we cannot make what we cannot imagine to be possible.  By extension, our imagination is limited by our sensory perception, since it is the latter that informs us of the reality that surrounds us.  Therefore, the same way as, being someone with "bat ears", I can hear distant sounds people around me generally can't, our knowledge of reality is made possible, and consequently also limited, by what we or our machines – designed within the span of our sensory abilities – can perceive. Just because we can't see, hear, smell or touch something is not sufficient proof that it doesn't exist.

*   *   *

On occasion, when the topic has arisen, I have been challenged by atheists to prove that there is a God.  I can't.  Their conclusion was that because I can't prove the existence of God, He doesn't exist.  I've responded by pointing out that they, equally, are unable to prove that He doesn't.

 

I have come across people, in England, who assure me that not only do fairies exist, but that they have seen them with their own eyes.  Personally, my automatic reply to anyone asking me if I believe in fairies would be, "Of course, I don't," but, if I were consistent with my reasoning, I would have to reply, "I don't know.  I have no experience of fairies."  After all, do I not see fairies because there are no fairies (or unicorns, or ghosts, or other apparitions) to be seen or because my senses are too obtuse to see them? I can't answer that truthfully.

*   *   *

Back to Mars.

 

If our machines eventually detect a life form on the Red Planet, that would suggest that there is.  However, if they don't, it is equally possible that there isn't life there and that there is.  There could be a life form unlike any we can imagine, therefore undetectable by our machines and probes.  It is also possible that creatures of this life form have destroyed the Schiaparelli probe, to discourage humans from encroaching on their space.  And if it were so, who could blame them?

 

There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophies...

 

 

Scribe Doll

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