Me, myself and I

[something I wrote for a writing group I’m attending]

 

When I sat down to tackle this assignment, I couldn’t remember whether the title was writing about my life or writing about myself. This led me to question the difference. Is it a question of mere semantics or is there a distinction between my life and myself?

I would hazard a guess that writing about myself may prove the more revealing. My Life is the view from the outside, the window frame through which others can peer in. My day-to-day, the things I do, the places I go – that part reads like a fairly open book. As far as I can tell, the stuff of my everyday is transparent; the part of me that perhaps reflects the person I have chosen to be.

I am a stay-at-home Mum who rarely actually stays at home. My neighbours will attest to my Groundhog-day morning routine. Each day they can set their watches by my often mono-syllabic squawks heard through the party wall that separates our two houses. Between the hours of 7 and 8am I’ll bark: “out of bed”, “clothes on”, “teeth”. Then in the evenings I’ll reverse these commands: “teeth”, clothes off”, “go to bed”. To all appearances, my life is less defined by who I am, than by what I do on behalf of the three smaller human beings for whom I am responsible (and to a lesser extent, by the larger one, to whom I’m married). Throw in the labels taxi driver, cook, cleaner and counsellor and you begin to get the picture.

The hours when I’m not with the children are spent wearing various different figurative hats. You may find me helping in one of the local schools, wearing a Guiding leaders’ uniform, in lycra at my Tuesday boot camp or in my anorak in Aldi.  You may see me enjoying a coffee with friends or even idly scrolling through Facebook. The cogs of my world are greased with coffee by day and gin by night (all in moderation of course). A lifestyle forged by fortune, opportunity, design, but above all, that First World luxury: choice.

I am, as we all are, shaped by my ancestry and influences; genetics and education; all the books I’ve read and all the songs I’ve ever heard (although only the 80s ones stuck). My self is defined by who I am, not what I do. There’s nothing more irritating that the query, “and what do you do?” as a conversation opener. As if the idea that someone’s line of ‘work’ is the single most revealing thing about them. In some cases, it might be, but in many others the fullness of that person’s identity cannot be conveyed in the job title on their badge.

I didn’t choose my personality. It chose me. If my self was one of those fashionable word-art images framed on a wall, the computer generated mass of buzz-words arranged in an abstract shape may include: introvert, argumentative, bright, worrier, funny, mother, carer, lazy, thinker, pragmatist, child, contradictory. That’s me in a nutshell, or perhaps it’s more like a particularly disappointing Kinder Egg; there’s the fun and colour and anticipation on the outside that sometimes the inner surprise finds it hard to live up to.

While the outer life is lived in plain sight, I’m not sure my inner self is fit for public consumption, but then, whose is? My own peculiar mix of positive and negative quirks are the anodes and cathodes of my inner circuits; I seem to be on a constant quest to know myself better and to improve the self I already know in order to harness their full power.

There is always the hope that by getting all this down on paper/a screen, a clearer portrait of myself may gradually emerge. And as my life moves on over the years, my self also evolves.

After all, I’m not the me I used to be, nor have I yet met the protagonist of my future memoirs.

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Pictures of me

 

I’m not sure whether I can remember going to the park in Ferry Hill at all.  I do know that I have been there. I have sat coyly at the base of a column of children extending up the park’s enormous slide, a shy face fronting a tower of smiles. I know this because I have seen a photograph of it.

Looking back at the slide in that image now, it’s perhaps not as imposing as I once thought, nor as steep. Still, it must have been fairly long to accommodate all twenty-something of my Aberdeen playgroup chums along its length. The photo was taken on the day I attended my last session of blubloup – as I affectionately called it – before leaving the Granite City and upping sticks to the Midlands. There I am, perched at the bottom of the slide, nervously looking down at my tan-coloured Clarks buckle-ups and gripping the cool metal of the slide for dear life. Meg and Wilma, my marvellous playgroup ladies are waving down at the camera from the top, while alongside the slide, on its raised cement mount, steps jut out from the hillside like concrete teeth.

Meg and Wilma are the stuff of legends, the names that kick-started my education, that tried to coax me out of my shyness with too-strong orange squash and a ready supply of Digestive biscuits. Again I’m not sure whether I truly remember them or even being at playgroup itself, but those ladies are penned in our family’s narrative as much as the sting of Aberdeen’s bitter North Sea blast or the dead grey of its housing stock. I can recall a hit of sadness when a few years ago, my mum told me about Wilma’s untimely death to cancer. This lady who remains deep in my memory banks and a seminal part of my childhood, gone but living on in a cheerful snapshot.

Whether or not this picture is painted from my own pallet of memories, or from the ‘proof’ of a photograph in front of me, the sense of nostalgia is the same: nearly forty years on, I can taste the lip-curling sharpness of that sugary squash and feel the hot burn on my cheeks when, on that same last say at blubloup, I was asked to stand up and hand round the biscuits.

But are these genuine recollections or would the pages of my memory be embarrassingly blank without some photographic prompt? Fortunately much of what I can’t remember, my Mother can. She tells me that I loved playgroup, I loved Meg and Wilma, and I loved going to that park, although a glance at my pained ‘stop looking at me’ expression in every photograph might make it appear otherwise. The fondness of Mum’s appraisal of these two staff members perhaps colours my memories of them, after all, I was three at the time. These were playgroup ladies of a traditional mould and Mum trusted them. I think she felt the same about Meg and Wilma as I did about the wondrous staff at Stepping Stones, my own children’s playgroup. Leaving your most prized possession in someone else’s care is no small thing, since those are the people who will feature in future stories and memory fragments, the perceptions and the pictures that shape childhoods.

The park in Ferry Hill is a long streak, the sort of green space planners bung in to break the stranglehold of so much sameness. I have another photograph of that Aberdeen park, one in which my school-uniformed brother and I stand by the sash window in our Albury Road house overlooking the green space opposite. Look higher out of the same window and you can glimpse a prim row of granite houses, their grey seeping into the sky. My parents must have been grateful to live opposite that flash of green: a playground and a pause, right there on their doorstep.

The change from black and white to colour photography predates me, but the earliest snapshots in which I appear are almost always printed out three by five inches and feature the round corners that were fashionable at the time.  My childhood memories have round corners too. Aberdeen’s harsh light is softened with curves and any hard edges are smoothed out for posterity. 

Perhaps after all there is nothing new about the Instagram generation’s need to apply filters to everything they view. Some of the best memories are a little blurred at the edges anyway.