Conversations with myself
I spend a lot of time trying to think of things I want to write about. Things that can be packaged into short articles with neat conclusions, that can fill a reader’s head with new ways of thinking.
Ideas involve lots of looking, up, down and all around. For me they arrive when I am able to draw myself out of a drab day and see the beauty in it, or conversely, force myself to look at the painful parts of existence head on. Inspiration comes to me with a clear head, after a jog and a good night’s sleep, or a brilliant conversation or book. But lately, as the weeks fall away and the end of the year looms, I find I’m all out of ideas. Everyone’s exhausted. There’s daily tantrums in the house and not just from the kids. It’s all very Bah Humbug. Omicron looms over our holiday plans like the ghost of Christmas future. I’ve stopped watching the news. I just want to keep my head down.
So I’ve been trying to hold it together at home. My youngest son has been learning to read and write. I’ve been reading with him after school, moving my fingers along the words as he sounds out each letter and then tries to blend the sounds into a word. For the first week or so he just could not get it. He would sound out the letters of the word ‘cat’ like
“cuh - ah - tuh”
and then look at me with big hopeful eyes and say
It was hard not to laugh, and then not to be frustrated on his behalf, that he couldn’t put the sounds he was making with his mouth into his head to form the word.
But yesterday evening it all clicked. We decided to try and read a six page book called Kit and Dog. He followed my finger,
“tih - ih - peh - tip!”
He was really reading. Buoyed by my surprise he gained momentum and flew through the words. For all the blur of the day that had come before, this moment was in sharp focus. As I turned the pages for him, I imagined what we looked like, sitting on the bed in this attic room in North West London, the floor strewn with Pokemon cards and teddy bears, the rain beating against the window outside. A small boy, in a big city, unlocking a code, his brain clicking into a whole new gear.
Today, in a coat three sizes too big, he ambled home from school, drawing in the air with his finger. It took a while for me to realise that his finger was making the shapes of the letters he was learning in school. We waited at the pedestrian crossing, and I watched as his index finger poked out of the overly long sleeve of his coat, moving up down and around, and he muttered to himself, a little magician conjuring letters into the air. I wondered what he was saying to himself and what he was writing. And then I thought of my sister Rachel.
Rachel is a performance artist and a mother of three in rural Ireland. One of Rachel’s earlier pieces of performance art is called The Body Alphabet - Conversations with myself. She started by photographing herself contorting her body into the shape of each letter from the alphabet. Then she went to the most mundane public places in her local town, and filmed herself as she moved her body through the letters, spelling out words to whoever cared to watch. There is a clip of her by the side of a dual carriageway, methodically changing positions as cars and tractors whoosh by beside her. In another clip, she moves through a sentence in the middle of a shopping centre carpark, as the rain forms puddles around her. She says about the performances,
I'm not saying or doing anything profound, I'm just talking, to myself, and anyone else who wishes to listen. Communicating in an alternative, physical, non-verbal medium allows people to say things they otherwise mightn’t. Using this physical form of language requires bodily exertion, so forces the speaker to slow down. Words become more weighted.
I am inspired by Rachel’s investment in the processes of self expression. Her Body Alphabet series tells us that what we say when we talk to ourselves doesn’t have to make sense. There is no need for structure of logic, just that transference of words from our heads into the ether, just that process alone, is worthwhile.
And back to my son who, yesterday when we walked to school past the cafe, recognised the C and the O and the F at the start of the word COFFEE. I walked him through the sounds until he got to the end of the word and you’d want to have seen his face light up as he made the connection between the shapes, then the sound, then the meaning, and then the associations. Coffee is what mum and dad drink every morning. That is the place where you can buy it. Suddenly these letters were more than a puzzle for him to solve. They were useful. All the way to school his finger conducted an invisible orchestra, moving little circles through the air.
So there are no new ideas, just a brief pleasant feeling as I recognised my son’s behaviour in my sister’s art. Two people I love, talking to themselves, trying to make sense of this world. A world hurtling towards self destruction, with climate change fear, global pandemics and new variants swarming through our towns like locusts. A world of lying politicians and raging timelines. A world of cancer, famine and starvation. Of displaced people. Of bombed schools and hospitals. Sometimes it feels impossible to know how to even begin to process the pain and the joy of living.
I have no hot take. No clever spin. I’m talking to myself just as much as my son drawing letters in the air or my sister contorting her body into sentences in the carparks and playgrounds of her local town. I have no new ideas, but the act of spewing out these words has provided a soft pause; a break for meaning in the long tired sentence of this year, and I’m grateful for it. I hope you don’t feel as if you’ve wasted your time in reading this. Maybe you are already fluent in having conversations with yourself. If not, try talking to yourself today. I think it’s underrated.
My son’s current favourite letter is capital H. Up down across up down. What’s yours?