I was nervous. I am always nervous before I present to an audience, be it to 10 people or to 100. Last night in Crieff, we counted 52 good folk who turned out to hear what I had to say. I think that’s very humbling. Although many had already read my book, some had not, but they came, intrigued and curious to see in the flesh a woman whose life is either different enough from their own to warrant a peek, or just like their own. To some my life reads like a story, to others an account they relate to, at least in part.
Having been invited to appear on International Women’s Day, I knew how to pitch my talk and worked on it for some time before leaving the island. As the time grew nearer, the doubts began to rise like chickens in a fright. Was I focusing too much on women issues within a conventional marriage? Was what I had to say, with a voice of authority and experience going to shake someone’s foundations? Was I sounding like a rebel and would someone sniff loudly at my bare-faced honesty and leave, taking others with her?
I am learning (oh boy am I always…..) to notice thoughts that arise in me, the ones planted long ago, in childhood, in early marriage, perhaps, those of the ‘storyteller’, the ‘monkey-mind’, the voice of self-doubt and judgement; the one that says (smugly) Who wants to listen to your claptrap? You are just self-indulgent, seeking hero worship, seeking recognition. I say to them, the chickens, You are just a thought and not the truth. It works, it really does for they are as insubstantial as a collection of dust motes in a new breeze. Even more so now that I realise it is I who have fed these flaming chickens and kept them alive when what I should have done is make a lot of chicken stew.
In a world of over-thinking everything from why a child has a tantrum in John Lewis in Manchester to how we can deny ourselves all of life’s pleasures in order to live a long life of denial, I try not to overthink very much at all. However, the invitation to speak brings in its wake, a wash of responsibility – to what? I ask myself and to whom? Well, yes to the audience (obviously) and yet I have no forward knowledge of who will be coming and nor does my inviter. Yes to the Scottish Book Trust who promote me for public speaking and yes to Kirsty who set the whole thing up and invited me a while back to come, but Yes also to me. What I decided, this time around, was not to seek approval primarily from my imagined listeners, but, instead, from myself. How arrogant!
No, not arrogance. Go away Chicken. My book is my truth and I must be true to it. The dynamics of a conventional marriage are not mine alone to live. We are many, we conventionally married women; we are legion and I am in the position of privelege. I have the stage and I can, by speaking out my truth, tell others they can change whatever they want within their lives. I can’t, nor would I begin to, tell them how because I don’t live that life, but I can tell them it is possible if they grab the chickens and strangle them.
As I read my talk and peppered it with readings from Island Wife, I could feel the audience were with me. I was talking to women (mostly) about things they knew well, moments highlighted, days of children and feeling overwhelmed and just a bit lost, of lack of communication, loss of confidence, feelings of rebellion and regret and no understanding of how to process them. Of patterns copied and then fixed in place, too complex to break down and to change; of either and of or; of what is and was expected of us by peers, by neighbours, by family and by our own selves.
The questions after were interesting and stimulated good conversations in the little theatre. Even the men, brave souls, engaged with questions. From behind a jug of tulips, fresh and bright and opening their blooms as the evening moved on, I listened to those questions and answered them honestly. One in particular stayed with me. ‘Did you know yourself back then when you were young, or do you only now know yourself?’ What a great question! I had to think. No, I didn’t know myself at all beyond the reflection I was shown by my elders and betters, that of a rebellious and difficult child/young woman, one that didn’t fit in; one who never settled, never landed, had to keep moving and changing; one who got lost inside her own head, was unfathomable, complex, moody. This is who I thought I was. Now I do know myself, and I am still all of those things, bar the moody bit, for that is always a complete waste of energy, and clearly announces to the one who put me in a mood in the first place, that I am expecting them to make it better, to make me better, instead of doing it for myself. And that makes all the difference because now, instead of feeling ashamed of all those labels, I know them to be my labels. To work with them, to contain or develop them, is entirely and completely in my hands. ‘Difficult’ means I don’t agree with what you want me to do, or to be. ‘Rebellious’ means I am going this way, not that way. ‘Not fitting in’ makes me unusual and interesting and possibly not invited to sing in the choir. ‘Not settling’ makes me energetic and gone before the dishes need drying. ‘Unfathomable’ works for me because even I can’t fathom me. ‘Complex’ sounds like a Mahler Symphony so that works and ‘Moody’, as aforementioned, has been dismissed without a reference. How wonderful to have learned such a vital lesson about 30 years ago.
As we disbanded, many came to speak, to have a book signed, to talk awhile. I looked into other eyes, bright sparkly eyes dancing with life. I know my story touched their hearts and my hope is that they all left with a seed for change, a seed that will need daily care and attention.
We are all pilgrims.