The hearts of small children are delicate organs

“But the hearts of small children are delicate organs. A cruel beginning in this world can twist them into curious shapes. The heart of a hurt child can shrink so that forever afterward it is hard and pitted as the seed of a peach. Or again, the heart of such a child may fester and swell until it is a misery to carry within the body, easily chafed and hurt by the most ordinary things.”

― Carson McCullers, The Ballad of the Sad Café and Other Stories


Positivity (or not)

As anyone who knows me in real life (or has been a reader of this blog for more than five minutes) will know, I have a very slight tendency towards negativity. I see problems everywhere, I have little confidence in my own abilities, I tend towards melancholy and I am a pessimist. Yes, one of those.

The problem for me, and others like me, is that in society in general, and the workplace in particular, it seems that it’s not acceptable to be negative, even when the negative thing is the true thing. For example, the other week, we were evaluating something at work. We’d had quite a few negative comments from staff, which we wanted to put into the report because we felt it was important people had the chance to have their say about the situation. But one person in our group said we should leave them out because they were too negative. But they were people’s opinions – why should they not be entitled to have their voices heard just because their feedback wasn’t positive? (We put it in the report in the end as the majority of us thought it should go in.)

Antidote book coverAnyhow, one of my (two) new year’s resolutions was to try and be more positive, so I have decided to actually do something about this. I usually enjoy reading Oliver Burkeman’s columns in The Guardian weekend magazine, so when I saw he’d written a book called The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, I decided I would read it. Happily, I was able to download it as an e-book from the public library. [I’m still slightly over-excited about the fact that one can borrow e-books from the public library – perhaps I should write a blog post about this and get it out of my system.] I enjoyed the book, and I think it’s worth reading, particularly if the usual run of self-help books just makes you feel worse than you felt to begin with. For starters, the book describes just what a waste of time positive thinking (aka pretending everything is alright when it’s not) can be. Hooray! I felt better already.

I was going to summarise the main points of the book here, but (a) it’s probably better if you read it for yourself, and (b) this post would be too long if I did, so instead I will share the quotations used at the head of each chapter, which are a sort of summary in themselves:

Try to post for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute.

– Fyodor Dostoevsky – Winter Notes on Summer Impressions

Pessimism, when you get used to it, is just as agreeable as optimism.

– Arnold Bennett, Things  That Have Interested Me

You want it to be one way. But it’s the other way.

Marlo Stanfield in The Wire

Future, n. That period of time in which our affairs prosper, our friends and true and our happiness is assured.

– Ambrose Pierce, The Devil’s Dictionary

Why are you unhappy? Because 99.9 per cent of everything you think, and of everything you do, is for yourself – and there isn’t one.

Wei Wu Wei, Ask the Awakened

Security is a kind of death, I think.

– Tennessee Williams, ‘The Catastrophe of Success

You can’t turn a sow’s ear into a Veal Orloff. But you can do something very good with a sow’s ear.

– Julia Child

If I had my life over I should form the habit of nightly composing myself to thoughts of death. I would practice, as it were, the remembrance of death…without an ever-present sense of death, life is insipid. You might as well live on the whites of eggs.

– Inspector Mortimer in Muriel Spark‘s Momento Mori

One of the most helpful ideas I got from the book was the idea of, when worrying about something, to think about what the worst-case scenario could really be. In most situations the worse-case scenario is probably not really going to be as bad as we might think it is, and even if it is bad, it is unlikely to be something that we really can’t cope with in some way. Also, being a brilliant procrastinator, I found the idea of procrastination being a result of  feeling that we can’t do something rather than us really, literally, not being able to do it an interesting one that I hadn’t thought of before. E.g.,  I might feel that  I’m unable to do some Hebrew exercises, but really, I am literally (physically) able to do them, I just don’t feel like it. So, the answer to procrastination is to just get on and do things.

I was also interested to learn that the expression “X  [person] is a failure” and the idea of people being “failures” only came into being during the growth of capitalism in the late 1800s when people started to get credit ratings, and bad credit ratings came to determine a person’s “moral worth” as well as their financial status.  Also, there is a particularly intriguing chapter on the evils of goal setting that should be read by all managers, IMHO.

In general, Burkeman advises embracing such ‘negative’ things as failure and uncertainty, because seeking after success and security are likely to make us more unhappy. None of this is news, but, when you look around at society and at the workplace in particular you would be forgiven for thinking that it was. I suspect that most people secretly (or not so secretly) know that trying to be perfect is going to do us harm, that setting goals is not the way to get the best out of people, that it’s OK to fail, and that we need to think about death a bit more (in a good way), but ‘society’ and the way we’ve been taught to live tell us the opposite. We spend a lot of time deluding ourselves, in various ways, about a myriad of things, when, actually, if we could just see and accept reality we might just be a bit happier. 

Miss Happiness and Miss Flower

When I was young, one of my favourite books was Miss Happiness and Miss Flower, by Rumer Godden (first published in 1961). The book is about Nona, who is sent away from her home in India, to live with family in England. She is lonely and homesick, as one might expect, and her cousin Belinda is cruel to her. One day Nona receives a parcel containing two Japanese dolls, Miss Happiness and Miss Flower. She realises that the dolls, too, are far from their home, and decides to make them a Japanese dolls’ house –  in proper Japanese style, and takes great care to get everything right. As she creates and prepares the house, she grows in confidence and enlists the help of  friends and family, eventually feeling more at home and less lonely in her new surroundings and making peace with Belinda (once Belinda does something particularly bad and then realises the error of her ways).

At the back of the book are very detailed instructions for making your own Japanese  dolls’ house, which, as the kind of child who liked to make things, I thought was very cool, and I still do. I don’t know what happened to my copy of the book, if indeed I ever actually owned one – I think it might have been borrowed from the library. I was pleased to find a copy in the Shiny New Learning Centre – a hardback (‘mine’ was paperback), and a work of art in itself, I think. The illustrations, by Jean Primrose, are lovely.

After reading this book, I went through a phase of being interested in Japanese things. I got a book about doll-making from the library, and made a Japanese doll, using an old kitchen roll tube, among other things. I think my mum must have sewn the kimono, because I’m sure my sewing skills wouldn’t have been up to it. I remember having a cup and saucer set with a Japanese-type design on it – goodness knows where that came from or where it went.

Miss Happiness and Miss Flower is a good book for several reasons (or at least, I think so). Firstly, because it is concerned with empathy. In the book Nona has empathy for the dolls because of her own situation. I remember my mum saying to me that Rumer Godden knew what it was like to be homesick, because she also was sent far away from her home as a child, and that taught me something about empathy, and what makes writers write the things they do. I think Miss Happiness and Miss Flower is also about learning from people who might be different to you, and the importance of caring for those who are displaced or lonely. It’s a gentle tale, which would probably seem old fashioned to a lot of people, but it deals with some important subjects.

The book is still in print, but the newer illustrations aren’t anywhere near as nice, in my view (sorry Mr Blythe), although it would be interesting to see if the new edition still includes the instructions for making the house.

Jim: A Cautionary Tale

Jim book coverMy favourite book so far this week (I know it’s only Tuesday) has been Jim: A Cautionary Tale, by Hilaire Belloc, illustrated by Mini Grey. It is a rather jolly tale of a small boy who escapes his nurse and well, you will see (if you don’t already know). The poem is one of Belloc’s Cautionary Tales, first published in 1907. You can read all of them if you like, courtesy of Project Gutenberg.

Anyway, the modern book of Jim reprints the poem as originally written, but adds new illustrations and some cool pop-up bits. I particularly like the fold out map of the  zoo, which has some amusing signs and disgruntled looking animals on it, and the inside front and back covers. I think most young children would like this book, as long as they’re not afraid of lions…

Book of the day – The Rabbit Problem

The Rabbit Problem, by Emily Gravett book coverMy favourite book that I added/catalogued today was The Rabbit Problem, by Emily Gravett “(and a lot of rabbits!)”. It is a most unusual and marvellous book, and everyone, young and old, should read it. The book is in the form of a calendar, illustrating (literally), what happens over the course of a year after two rabbits start having baby rabbits. It’s a version of Fibonacci’s sequence (or series) . He discovered his famous number sequence after trying to work out how many pairs of rabbits there would be a year from now, if there are now two rabbits, one male and one female, who have just been born – this became known as Fibonacci’s Rabbit Problem.

The Rabbit Problem isn’t a maths book, as such,  although it could be used as the basis of a discussion or lesson about the Fibonacci sequence for younger children. It’s beautifully illustrated with lots of very cute pictured of rabbits, 3D features, like a rabbit’s ration book (when food goes short because there are too many rabbits), and a very cool pop-up bit at the end. Because the rabbits encounter problems as a result of their population explosion, the book could also be used with young children to talk about what happens when places become overpopulated. So, The Rabbit Problem is educational and it has cute bunnies in – what more could you ask for?

Art in unusual places

When I was in hospital, one of the things that made my days more cheerful and my walk around the wards more interesting was a lovely collection of pictures featuring whimsical, pretty, sweet and sometimes slightly odd scenes cut out of paper. I think they were made by Rob Ryan. If I’m wrong I apologise! You can read more about Mr Ryan in this article from the Independent Magazine. Among many other things, he did the cover illustration for The Book of Lost Things, which I read last year and liked a lot.

I wish I knew more about the circumstances of how the pictures came to be on the walls of the ward at the Brompton Hospital, but I think that they were (and hopefully still are) there as part of the rb&hArts initiative at the Royal Brompton and Harefield NHS Trust. rb&hArts is a charitable organisation that seeks to bring the arts into the hospital environment. During the rest of this year there are various events going on at the Royal Brompton and Harefield hospitals: poetry readings, an exhibition of art work by staff and patients, recitals by students from the Royal College of Music and music by the Kosmos Ensemble.  The organisation also commisions and installs art works around the hospitals, such as the pictures by Rob Ryan and a Poetry Wall that’s recently been unveiled in the bronchoscopy suite, and are working towards making singing part of the treatment programme for patients with respiritory conditions.

Having the opportunity to listen to live music or look at some art work is surely good for the soul, which in turn helps the physical healing process.  Art in any form, be it pictures or music or poetry, can be a doorway to another place. For someone in hospital it can be a reminder that there’s more to life than the daily routine of injections and medication and tests. When I looked at the art work in the ward and around the hospital I could see that some people somewhere had taken the time and trouble to think about and choose art works that were interesting and beautiful and thought-provoking. It (as well as the lovely hospital staff) made me feel valued as a person, rather than just as a patient.

Open Hearts

The Grown Up Congenital Heart Patients Association  has just published a little book of stories from people with congenital heart defects, called Open Hearts. If anyone has followed me to WordPress from my old blog you might be able to remember me talking about trying to write my story for this book. I eventually finished it and it’s in the book. It’s weird reading it again now, as it was written over two years ago, long before I even knew that I was going to have my recent operation. When I looked back at my blog entry about the story I saw that I’d written that “I don’t often talk about my heart”, which is not really true at all now – sometimes it feels like it’s all I’ve been talking about for the past few months, both on this blog and in real life!

I bought myself a copy of Open Hearts and read through a few of the stories last night. I cried so much I had to stop reading. (I also didn’t used to talk about my emotions very much, or indeed be so emotional – what has happened to me?) I think I was expecting all the stories to have happy endings and, of course, some of them didn’t. Even if they had happy endings the struggles and sufferings of my fellow people with congenital heart defects (I don’t like the term GUCH) were all too present throughout the stories.

Some of my tears came from sympathy, some from empathy and some, I think, from relief in the knowledge that other people feel the same as me.

Reading some of the stories made me face up to the fact that having a heart defect, even one that’s just been nicely re-repaired, is a serious and potentially life-threatening thing. Although I (obviously) do realise this – I’m not that stupid – I tend to live in hope that everything will be alright in the end, that I’m going to get the long lifetime I wish for and be able to do most of the things I want to do in my life, but this just isn’t the case for many people with congenital heart defects.  It may not always be the case for me. Perhaps some of my tears came from me recognising this. I’m quite good at self-pity, I’m afraid. 

Reading the book reminded me again that I take a lot of things for granted, when I should see everything as being precious. I wish this wasn’t easier said than done.