Looking into the Dark

There’s a question I’m often asked about my art and poetry; why am I so interested  in dark subject matter when I could be writing and making images about ‘happy stuff’?

I’m not sure if I choose my themes or they choose me.  Inevitably my work reflects my life, my view of the world.  From early childhood I’ve experienced pain and trauma growing up within a dysfunctional family where I never felt safe and also at the hands of an uncaring medical establishment that treats disabled people as expendable.  Although I’ve been lucky enough to have love, friendship and joy in my life, it’s always been within the context of a threatening world.  I’ve spent most of my life in ‘survival mode’.

It’s important to me that my creative work tries to expose the truth as I see it.  I want to confront my reality head on, with all its flaws and sores.  I don’t want to retreat into a rose tinted bubble and pretend life is perfect which is what the State would prefer us to do.  It’s much easier to control a population that doesn’t ask difficult questions.  Of course, it’s also essential to maintain a positive attitude and a sense of humour.  To see into the dark we also need some light.  Before you descend into the subterranean depths of your pain make sure you have a torch.

 

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Original Photograph by the author

 

An attraction to the dark side of life may be a tendency among creative people. There certainly seems to be a link between poetry and pain. There’s a higher rate of depression, addiction and even suicide amongst poets.  Flick through any poetry book and you will find more poems about loss and pain than happiness.  Personally, I find cheerful ditties about love and rainbows rather tedious.  Misery is far more fascinating!  Perhaps truly happy people (if they actually exist in the real world) do not feel the need to agonise over choosing the right words in the right order on a piece of paper.  They’re probably too busy doing whatever it is that normal, happy people are supposed to do, making money, having sex and playing football or whatever (no disrespect to rich, sexy footballers intended!)

One of the reasons I write poetry and make art is the hope that sharing my experiences may help others in similar situations. It’s comforting to know you are not the only one with difficult thoughts and feelings. We can all learn from one another, we can all gain strength from one another. We don’t have to be alone. That is the beauty and power of art.

 

The Day Room

She doesn’t look up,
swaddled in pink toweling.
Dinner in the Day Room, haddock on a tray,
the old queen who lost her soldiers slumps an empty table.
Above her head the TV plays silent memories,
survival of the fittest in exotic locations.
A lioness stalks prey while another dies.
She doesn’t look up when I speak.
Lips rotate, chewing, tasting the sins of the world
cut up in pieces.  Her hand trembles as she adds salt.
My absent presence, invisible bones on the edge of her plate.
She starts on the sponge pudding with custard.
She doesn’t look up when I leave.

She doesn’t look up when I leave.
She starts on the sponge pudding with custard,
my absent presence, invisible bones on the edge of her plate.
Cut up in pieces, her hand trembles as she adds salt.
Lips rotate, chewing, tasting the sins of the world.
She doesn’t look up when I speak.
A lioness stalks prey while another dies,
survival of the fittest in exotic locations.
Above her head the TV plays silent memories.
The old queen who lost her soldiers slumps an empty table,
dinner in the Day Room, haddock on a tray.
Swaddled in pink toweling,
she doesn’t look up.

 

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Original Photographic image created by the author

The Day Room is an example of a specular poem – the second stanza mirrors the first.  Please see  a-poem-for-remembrance-day  for another example.

Forgetting Mozart

We met the second
time in the old scarlet fever hospital.
You were pale as sea-pebbles.
We followed the beat of Arabian
drums down secret passages,
footsteps echoing on linoleum.
Rain pelted
prestissimo at the skylight.

I put Mozart on ice, played Sad
Eyed Lady of the Lowlands for you,
arpeggio style. Don’t need melody you said,
hunched in the shadows with your heroin
cheekbones and roll-ups.
You turned the lights down on your way out,
left me smeared across the ivory.
Don’t need complicated, you said.

So I learned simple chords, A major, E minor,
two of us on the piano stool, free style.
Not looking for a solo but looking
for adagio down the motorway
shooting out the window with my Lomo.
I was looking for a car crash.
I was looking for a mindless.
Don’t need money, as you took my last fiver.

We met the last time as  the sun
fell into the lake and a murder
of crows ripped from the birch.
In the twilight everything
was almost alright, alright?
There was a moment when I saw a new
moon over your shoulder, a moment
when we almost touched.

 

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Original image by the author

 

The Whisperers

In Medieval times gossip was considered a serious crime in Britain.  Perpetrators were physically punished and humiliated, forced to wear a mask of shame called a scold’s bridle and paraded through the town on a leash.  The scold’s bridle was an iron muzzle enclosed in a framework that surrounded the head of the accused. The device prevented the person from talking by a bridle-bit which was put in the woman’s mouth and pressed upon the tongue.  Sometimes a spike was attached to the bridle-bit, so that the movement of the tongue would cause wounds.  Christianity viewed gossip as a sin.  Islam, Judaism and the Bahai faith took a similar stance.

I believe it is natural and healthy to take an interest in other people but there is a big difference between negative, malicious gossip and neutral gossip.  Passing on factual information is one thing, but twisting the facts and inventing sordid tales to create a frisson of excitement is another.

For example, neutral gossip – Mrs Smith says to her neighbour:- “I saw Susan in the Post Office this morning. She’d just had her hair done and was wearing a new coat.”

Negative gossip:- “I saw Susan in the Post Office this morning.  She’d just had her hair done.  Pink hair and a leopard print coat at her age – talk about mutton dressed as lamb!” Followed by mutual laughter.

Unfortunately, most gossip tends to be malicious and is carried out by ignorant people with low self-esteem to make themselves seem more interesting.  Gossip is akin to an act of violence.  It can cause huge damage to the lives of others.  Very often the victims of gossip are marked out as different or vulnerable in some way, eg single women, people with mental health problems  or those from ethnic minorities.

The old English proverb states, “sticks and stones may break your bones but words will never hurt you”. Not true.  Words are powerful.  Physical wounds will heal over time whereas emotional damage may last forever.  In my local village there have been cases of marriages breaking up, people losing jobs or forced to move away and even suicide due to malicious gossip.  It seems small rural communities enjoy gossip and relish the stigmatisation of minorities.  However, gossip happens in all types of enclosed communities including schools and workplaces where it is particularly dangerous.  Gossip is a form of bullying and with the advent of social media it is a growing problem throughout the world.

Our attitudes to gossip have been moulded by language.  Many metaphors used to describe gossip have associations with food or drink, eg spilling the beans, tempting, scuttlebutt, a water cooler moment, grapevine, juicy, delicious, delectable, tidbits, morsels.  It’s as if gossip is something to be devoured, digested, a form of nourishment. The writer, David Rakoff complained about the negativity of these expressions as they imply that the pleasures of gossip are those of schadenfreude: that is, one person’s enjoyment at the expense of someone else’s pain.  The word ‘gossip’ originated in the Old English ‘godsibb’; god sibling, the godparent of one’s child and usually a close friend.  Shakespeare’s uses of the noun were derogatory: “Shall she live to betray this guilt of ours—A long-tongued babbling gossip?”

If you become the victim of malicious gossip you may feel upset, violated and helpless as rumours and untruths circulate.  Challenging or arguing with the instigator is not to be recommended.  It is demeaning and only adds fuel to the fire.  The best policy, although it can be difficult, is to ignore the whisperers, raise your head up high and pretend you don’t care.  When you are forced to meet your accusers be polite but indifferent.  Build up your confidence and nurture your self-esteem by treating yourself kindly.  Remember your achievements and that you are a strong person.  Surround yourself with friends and supporters as much as possible.  Do activities that you enjoy.  Show the gossips that you don’t need their approval or validation to survive and be happy.  Remind yourself that the people who gossip are sad individuals with empty lives.  Defamation is the only way they can get their kicks.  They are not the type of people you would choose as friends.  But do not indulge in gossip yourself.  Let others find out for themselves where the truth lies.

I recently bought the small ornament pictured below as a reminder that gossips are insignificant.  It is only what you think about yourself that matters.

 

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Example of a Victorian fairing, porcelain ornaments once given away freely as prizes at fairground stalls. Now collected as antiques.

The Empty Cup

Love changes.  Love can fade, love can break.  It is not a solid and reliable commodity like a chair or a pair of slippers.  For the lucky ones it may blossom and grow like a carefully tended orchid but for many of us, love withers to indifference or even hate.  There is rarely the happily ever after ending promoted in the fairy tales of childhood.

Love is a four letter word sometimes used to camouflage abuse.

Like many survivors of childhood trauma I am accustomed to losing people who once promised to love and protect me.  They often disappear from my life very suddenly and I am left with a few random souvenirs, a few photographs.  I have become adept at dealing with loss.  On the surface at least, I appear to let go, move on, retreat within my own defences, working harder to protect myself from future pain and disappointment.  Many of my relationships end at my own choosing.  I am expert at constantly scanning and evaluating for potential cracks in the shiny glaze of love and friendship.  And the more you look for lies and betrayal the more likely you are to find them.  So perhaps my relationships are doomed from the start.  I am unable to live with the compromises and blind spots other people seem to cultivate within marriage, the smoke and mirrors of romance.  I prefer reality, even if it hurts.

I have realised I am happier with just my cat for company.  If you want true love and loyalty, get yourself a pet.  But for some strange reason I hang on to a few random souvenirs of past loves.

 

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This cup is an example.  My second husband left it behind.  I’m not sure why I keep it.  I’m usually ruthless at decluttering but for some reason I retain this piece of ethnic pottery.  My ex-husband bought it in Crete when he was on holiday with his previous wife.  I’ve never been to Crete and never likely to go in the future.   I always felt threatened by John’s continued friendship with his first wife. They had cosy dinners and trips to the cinema, just the two of them even though she had also remarried.  When I complained of their intimacy he accused me of being small-minded.  It was one of the many reasons our marriage ended.  There was no trust.

When we split up, we bickered over custody of the Art Deco sofa and the Bruce Springsteen albums.  We had several meetings on a bench in a public park to talk things through.  I was afraid to be alone with him in private.  The rustic pottery, a relic from his earlier marriage was forgotten.

The cup and saucer once resided on the slate mantlepiece of the house we shared in rural Yorkshire. Now it’s on the top shelf of a glass display cabinet in my Scottish kitchen.  It’s a chunky type of pottery with a rough, matt glaze, probably hand thrown.   Uncomfortable to hold or drink out of.  It’s a piece of tourist bric-brac, not useful, just for show.  A piece of fakery.  And perhaps that’s why I keep it, it’s a reminder that romantic love is not real, that I’m better alone.

 

 

Narcissus

As far back as I can recall, my mother has been my number one problem.  I’ve spent most of my life trying to understand her behaviour and fix our dysfunctional relationship.  My childhood home was not a sanctuary filled with love and support but a battlefield where any tiny mis-step by myself or my faded father would result in a massive explosion of rage and abuse from Mama.  Nothing I ever did or said was good enough.  No matter how hard I tried to become the daughter she wanted, it was a lost cause.   I was a clever, pretty child, straight A+ grades in every subject at school and glowing reports from teachers.   But she wanted perfection and as most of us know, only God is perfect.  It was impossible to be the daughter she required but I still kept on trying.  I longed to see love and pride shine from her eyes but when she looked at me her face was always twisted, crumpled with disappointment and contempt.

There was never any peace as I grew up.  My mother would go days and weeks ‘not speaking’ to my father or myself due to some mysterious minor transgression.  Sometimes her mood would escalate to violence, smashing up ornaments, ripping up family photographs,  stripping naked and running around the house screaming.  I never knew what might happen next.  She would go to any length for attention and control.  I remember nights when she would exit the house like Betty Davis in a 50s melodrama swearing she was going to kill herself.  My father and I would spend anxious hours searching the dark canal bank with a torch, expecting any moment to find her floating in the cold water.  Or we would cruise the suburban streets looking for her.  When we found her marching, head erect and facing front like a furious soldier, she would ignore our pleas to get into the car.  At the age of 13 I took an overdose of aspirin in a moment of loneliness and despair.   I slept through nearly 24 hours.  My mother never noticed.  She was always busy cleaning the house which had to be immaculate at all times. She was always looking in the mirror and applying make-up.  She was always dressing up in fur coats and gold jewellery. Image was everything.  Other people thought she was a devoted wife and Mother.

 

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I married the first boy who came along at the age of 18 just to escape my home environment.  Then I tried to create as much physical distance as possible between myself and my mother.  But she continued to exert power over my emotional well-being for many years.  It could take just two minutes of hearing her voice on the phone to propel me into a severe depression.  It’s only gradually, through counselling and reading and writing that I’ve come to understand that my mother has Narcisisstic Personality Disorder.  She is concerned only with her own needs and ego.  Other people are mere objects, tools for her gratification.

According to Wikipedia:-

“A narcissistic parent is a parent affected by narcissism or narcissistic personality disorder. Typically narcissistic parents are exclusively and possessively close to their children and may be especially envious of, and threatened by, their child’s growing independence. The result may be what has been termed a pattern of narcissistic attachment, with the child considered to exist solely to fulfill the parent’s wishes and needs. Commonly parents attempt to force their children to treat themselves as though they are their parents’ puppets, or else be subject to punishments such as emotional abuse. Relative to developmental psychology, narcissistic parenting will adversely affect children in the areas of reasoning, emotional, ethical, and societal behaviors and attitudes as they mature. Within the realm of narcissistic parenting, personal boundaries are often disregarded with the goal of moulding and manipulating the child to satisfy the parents’ expectations.”

We are taught by religion and society to respect and obey our parents.  But what if they do us harm?  What if it’s either them or us?  Our first duty is to protect ourselves, to survive.  Sometimes, sadly, there is no solution to dealing with a narcissistic parent.  The only way is to break away, have no contact.  This hurts.  There is grief, guilt and loneliness,  even though it’s not rational.  I envy friends who enjoy spending time with their mothers.  I envy harmonious families.  In fact I find it hard to understand because my experience is so different.

I believe it’s better to be alone than to live with abuse.  If you have a narcissistic person in your life, beware.  They are toxic.  You will never fix them.  Their satisfaction depends on your demise.  You can only save yourself.