The Great Below

living the feeling life

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On expressing feelings

Notes for an apocalypse D.Tanning

“Notes for an apocaypse” Dorothea Tanning

Like many people, I find it very hard to feel my feelings – this despite many years of psychotherapy, and working with mind-body connections as an Alexander Technique teacher.

What I tend to do is ‘put’ them somewhere in my body where they will eventually cause trouble, but at the time cannot be consciously accessed: it’s called somatising.  I learned this about myself  at the age of eighteen when I had to leave my job as an au pair in Paris at very short notice, with nowhere else to live. I felt perfectly calm and breezy about it in my mind, but woke up on the morning of the move vomiting non-stop.

I’m sure it’s part of a very deep-seated, and quite possibly inherited, pattern of survival from growing up in a family and a culture where expressing feelings was (and still is) discouraged, if not forbidden. If you can’t express feelings safely, without other people getting upset or angry rather than just acknowledging how you feel – witnessing, if you like – then they must be shut off and dealt with another way. This is very often through disrupting the functions of the body: breath-holding, muscle-tightening, gut-churning etc. These patterns become so much a part of us we cease to notice the effects, let alone understand the underlying emotional stimulus.

A couple of weeks ago was the tenth anniversary of my husband’s death – a momentous day which I negotiated in a mood of gentle wistfulness. I visited his grave with a friend, then we had lunch and a walk in the sunshine. I didn’t feel particularly sad. But that night I began to feel quite sick, and by the next morning had bad diarrhea, stomach cramps and a feeling of exhaustion. Now, I know from other people that there was a bug ‘going around’, but I also know that my body tends to react to anything it perceives as stress (including, sometimes, excitement) with an illness response. I spent most of the next day lying in bed and in the afternoon I deliberately watched a sad film to try and bring myself to tears, feeling that letting them out might help. But it didn’t work: I remained strangely unmoved.

What finally brought me to tears was, to my astonishment, the announcement of the outcome of the Scottish Referendum a couple of days later. I held no particularly allegiance in the debate – indeed I secretly rooted for both sides, on different grounds. But something about it being “all over”, the sudden release of tension, moving from uncertainty to certainty, the bitter disappointment of those on the losing side, the anticlimax that there would be no momentous change  – all of this combined to keep me in a high state of emotion throughout the day. I could not tell you what part of the mix relates to my grief, or how, but I’m perfectly sure that it does.



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The first ten years

Michael-Donaghy-005I love this photo of Michael, taken by Claire Macnamee outside Lumb Bank, the Arvon Foundation’s Yorkshire writing centre. Apart from his beauty, I think it also shows his kindness, intelligence, warmth and sparkle (no mean feat as he most likely had a hangover from the previous night!)

Tuesday 16th September 2014, was ten years since his death, and there have been some lovely tributes to him, notably one from Katy Evans-Bush, a former student and friend who blogs about literature at Baroque in Hackney

So I won’t add to the memorialising here, but consider instead what it is like when someone you love has been dead for a whole decade. That’s almost a fifth of my life, and over half of our son’s. Despite that, and the knowledge that we have not just survived, but changed and grown over that time, there is still a big part of me that refuses to believe or accept that he is gone from our lives. Just looking at the photo of his smiling face, I still wonder – ‘But where is he?’ No matter what else is happening in life, he is never really out of my mind for long, and I can’t see that changing.

The mistake we make with grieving is to think that our memories of people will fade with time, recede into the past to be replaced by the more vivid experience of the present. In fact, I think the opposite happens – it seems like the longer it is since someone died, the more they are missed, the more their loss resonates with those of us who knew them. Maybe it’s that we now have the responsibility for keeping them alive in our heads – and also, as it were, keeping them up to date, since a person is almost frozen in time at the age of their death. I think about what Michael would have made of Facebook, for example, which didn’t exist at the time he died  – he’d surely have had a million ‘friends’. More poignantly, how would he have felt about seeing his little son grown up into a young man? And how would his continuing existence have made a difference in Ruairi’s life? All these questions are of course unanswerable, and by that very fact continue to be asked.

People we have loved or were related to are bound up with our selves like the fibres of a thick rope which can’t be unwoven. They are part of who we are, and our relationship with them continues developing – whether or not you believe that the dead live on in some other realm, or simply inside the heads and hearts of those who knew them in life, I don’t think matters.

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The pursuit of happiness?

White Rose  I was recently asked to write an article about happiness. Initially, I turned down the offer as I couldn’t think what I might have to say on the subject – happiness has always been an elusive concept for me. But then I began to think – who better to write about happiness than someone who struggles with it? After all if you are, by nature or good fortune, a constitutionally cheerful person, you probably don’t have much perspective on it – it’s just the air you breathe.

But what is ‘happiness’ anyway’? Is it enjoyment of life? Sometimes I have fun with friends or feel really nourished by an art exhibition or performance. Or I bask in a sunny afternoon at the Hampstead Ladies’ Pond. Is it satisfaction? I do feel proud of  finishing and publishing my book, and pleased that my writing has touched and helped people. Is it relationships? Sometimes I’m overwhelmed with love for my son and feel blessed to have him in my life; at other times he drives me spare.

Is it the same as contentment? Occasionally, perhaps only once a year, I feel a wave of complete peace wash over me – a sense of everything being completely all right just as it is. As soon as I try to grasp it, it starts to slip away. This is perhaps the closest thing to true ‘happiness’ that I have experienced – total acceptance, or what a Buddhist might describe as the absence of desire, and thereby of fear. It always feels like a moment of grace.

Happiness certainly isn’t the perpetually grinning advertisements that surround us, or the competitive self-publicising of modern culture. The pressure is on to make happiness our goal, and that makes us perpetually dissatisfied with what we have, who we are, how we feel. But comparing your ‘insides’ to other peoples’ ‘outsides’ is nothing new: my mother always believed that other families were happier than ours, and that she had somehow failed in life because things were not perfect.

Are we really just seeking just the absence of unhappiness – what The Guardian‘s Oliver Burkeman has called ‘a long-term state of unbroken uplift?’ A friend who was brought up Catholic says that she learned from an early age that life is a struggle, a vale of tears (though I presume there was the promise of heaven at the end of it, at least for some. ) To be honest, it is learning the truth of this through what you might call bitter experience that has brought me in some ways the most satisfaction and understanding in my life. It has made me a richer, more complete person.

In the article I wrote, perhaps controversially, that I thought the worst day of my life and the best were one and the same – the day in 2004 that my husband Michael died. By ‘best’, of course I don’t mean happiest. I mean that in the midst of the most traumatic and dreadful event, I felt more truly and intensely alive that I have ever felt before or since.  It was a state of awe – as if I understood, however transiently, the meaning of life, the universe and everything.

I would like to have held onto at least some of that feeling. But perhaps that’s just another way of saying I wish I were somewhere else than where I am right now.



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Writing memoir – “A Death in the Family”

Knausgaard, Karl Ove


A Death in the Family.JPG









I’ve just finished reading A Death in the Family, volume one of Norwegian Karl Ove Knausgaard’s remarkable seven-part novel/memoir My Struggle. The book covers in intense detail several periods of Knausgaard’s life: as a disaffected teenager living in a small Norwegian town; in his thirties dealing with the fallout of his father’s death ; in the ‘present’ as a married father of three living in Sweden. The narrative expands and collapses time, moving back and forth between then and now, or then and then, to reveal and explore the author’s troubled relationship with his father.

There is almost microscopic scrutiny of certain episodes – he devotes seventy pages, with many digressions, to his attempt as a teenager to buy alcohol on New Year’s Eve – while others, such as his father’s last few years of life and descent into alcoholic ruin, are dispatched in a few paragraphs. (Perhaps I’ll learn more from the subsequent volumes.)

I was confused at first by the label ‘novel’ for what is clearly an autobiographical story, told with searing honesty from the point ot view of the writer. (I gather Knausgaard has fallen out with half his family, which is not surprising given the revelatory nature of the writing.) But I get it – the conversations, descriptions, the moment-by-moment narrative that seems to put you right inside the author’s head as it is happening – these are creations rather than memories, but creations of such detail and intensity that they take us right to the emotional truth of the situation and seem completely real. It has been described as “densely ordinary” by one critic, who added “Even when I was bored I was interested”. Slow as it might sound, it is an extremely compelling read.

Though it reminds me most of Virginia Woolf’s stream-of-consciousness in Mrs Dalloway, Knausgaard says he was influenced by Proust’s A La Recherche du Temps Perdu. ( Personally I have never managed to get further than a few pages into this book whose title I once saw translated as “When will I ever find the time to read this?”) Two other memoirs which have left me with the same feeling of having touched an ‘inner truth’ are Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius about his parents’ deaths from cancer, and Martin Amis’ Experience  – the only book by him I have ever wanted to read – which tells, amongst other things, of his cousin’s abduction and murder by Fred and Rosemary West.

A Death in the Family reminded me that I have strong visual memories of certain periods of my life, but whether I could find the words to describe them, or even be bothered, is another question. In writing, and particularly in editing, The Great Below I worked hard to find the emotional truth of a situation without necessarily narrating every last detail of the story. In fact it felt necessary to condense certain anecdotes in order not to lose the overall flow of the main story. I even shifted a particular experience from one country to another, in order not to turn the book into a travelogue. I made a conscious decision not to name the people I wrote about, feeling that they did not ‘belong’ to me as material for the book even though they had played a part in the events.

But if only one person who reads the book feels the kind of gratitude I felt to these other authors, for simply telling me their story, I will be more than happy.

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“My last summer” – talking about death and grief.

355Z6271last_summer_sI’ve just watched a Channel 4 series called My Last Summer in which five people who are terminally ill come together over the course of a year to share their experiences of facing death. It’s not an easy watch, but like every programme in which people speak honestly and openly about their feelings, it’s compelling and important. The saddest thing is that, having forged deep new friendships and given each other the kind of support that only someone in the same situation is able to offer, they have to face the deaths of three of the group over the course of the filming. In some ways their grief is stronger for each other than for themselves.

Each of them is dealing with their situation differently –  Ben has cut himself off from all his friends and is waiting out his time alone in his flat, while Jane stoically refuses to let her poor health get the better of her, and clings to her dignity and good cheer with an iron grip. The one who really seems to have it sorted is Lou, who has Motor Neurone disease; she faces death with a clear-eyed realism that in no way diminishes her ability to live life in the moment.

I can’t imagine what it’s like to know that you will be gone very soon, perhaps leaving behind young children and grieving spouses. We see the participants’ families coping with their immintent bereavement – some with clarity and practicality, some with denial. How on earth do you explain to young children that mummy or daddy is going to die soon? Should you?

Sonja, the girlfriend/wife (they married 3 hours before his death) of one of the participants, Junior, expresses her raw unmitigated grief at his death straight to the camera, to us, in a very moving way. It made me realise how rare it is to see someone genuinely ‘feeling’ in public. Of course there are more tears on TV than there used to be, but still  people break down in the middle of an unbearably sad story about their lives and then apologise for welling up. Is it just their own embarassment or are they afraid of making others uncomfortable?

Programmes like My Last Summer play an important role in showing us the feeling side of life – how complex it is, how little understood, how hard to express in a world that sees vulnerability as weakness. But there was nothing weak about Sonja’s grief, or about any of the participants’ experience – it was powerful and illuminating, and I’m deeply grateful to them for sharing it.

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The other night I watched a programme in which the singer Emeli Sandé goes to Mexico to explore the life and art of Frida Kahlo, who has long been one of my favourite artists; her open-heartedness in depicting raw images of pain in her paintings is breathtaking, whatever you think of her skills as a painter. (The programme itself was slightly annoying, as much about ES as Frida, and shot in a grainy ‘artistic’ music video style that got old very quickly, but it’s here if you want to watch it.)

Emeli Sandé visited Frida’s “Blue House” in Mexico City, which is now a museum in honour of the artist. Michael went there on a reading tour of Mexico, during which he got serious sunstroke, ate an iguana tamale, and came home with suspected hepatitis (he didn’t travel well!). As a young woman Frida Kahlo was in a terrible bus accident which left her in severe pain for most of her life, unable to bear children, and probably contributed to her early death at 47. She began painting to pass the time while confined to bed – a wooden four-poster which is still in the house, and features in one of her best-known paintings.

ImageFrida Kahlo The Dream or The Bed 1940

Frida Kahlo, The Dream or The Bed, 1940
Frida Kahlo, The Dream or The Bed, 1940

I have a particular connection with this painting: when I was sitting beside Michael’s bed in the National Neurological Hospital where he lay unconscious after a catastrophic brain haemorrhage, I brought along a book of Frida’s paintings. I don’t know why I chose it, but somehow I must have had the feeling that looking at these images of suffering might be illuminating, or at any rate pass the time without needing concentration – at this point we were still hoping he might wake up. This bed, floating in the air between life and death, a skeleton on the canopy, seemed to sum up our experience, as well as reminding me of the Mexican view of death, that it is always present. A Mexican Day of the Dead sculpture was the cover picture on Michael’s second book  of poems Errata (published by OUP in 1994, and later incorporated into Dances Learned Last Night under Picador).


Standing beside Frida’s bed in the Blue House, Emeli commented that she felt that an artist left most of their spirit in the place where they were creative. With a jolt, I realised that the sofa on which I was sitting was exactly in the position where Michael’s desk used to be when this room was his study. After his death, I left it pretty much as it was, full of his books and things, for several years, but eventually I realised that we needed to rebuild our home from the crater around which we were encamped, and turned it into a living room, storing his belongings, including seventy-five boxes of books, up in the loft. (These books will soon form part of the library at the newly refurbished Arvon Centre in Shropshire, The Hurst).

A shiver ran through me at the thought that I was sitting exactly where Michael used to write his poetry. Although I can’t claim to be infused with his spirit, I do sometimes sit on this sofa to write; although I wrote much of my book in bed, like Frida, while I was ill with M.E. Maybe I’ll do it a bit more often from now on.


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