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I’ve been reading ‘The Real Work’ by Adam Gopnik

The subtitle, ‘The Mystery of Mastery,’ would have been much the better title for this reflection on mastery, but there isn’t much else that I’d change about this book.

I know of the American writer Adam Gopnik from his many non-fiction essays, his byline being one that always guarantees an interesting read, no matter how esoteric the subject. He has published many books, but this is the first I’ve read. I was inspired to read it after seeing an FT review by Erica Wagner.

Gopnik tries to understand what it takes to master skills in a variety of fields, sometimes by simply spending time with masters, and sometimes by attempting to learn the skill himself: be it magic, dancing, bakery, painting, boxing, urinating (he suffers paruresis) or driving. He reflects philosophically on the similarities in mastery between fields, while keeping the tone light.

Gopnik’s observation that mastery is much more common than we realise is perhaps the one that will stick with me longest from this book. There are people all around us—including ourselves—who are exceptionally skilled in various ways, but that don’t necessarily recognise that description even of themselves.

I was also taken by Gopnik’s observation that mastery of magic has very little to do with the technique of illusion—which is sometimes elementary—and much more with the patter and performance around it. I also enjoyed his reflections on the similarities between ballroom dancing and boxing, which would never have occurred to me until they were pointed out.

Like all good books, though, this is actually about a huge number of other topics, from Gopnik’s relationship with his aging parents, to the nature of life, and to his relationship with his children.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and it provided much food for thought.

Some quotations I noted down:

By now, you have heard the rumor: the hummingbird and the whale have the same number of heartbeats in a lifetime, differently expended. In that truth we seek some consolation for the speed of our mortality. Each being has a heart that beats a billion times—one over months, the other over decades. The hummingbird lives a brief and busy life, its heart beating literally a thousand times a minute, and the whale a slow and ponderous existence out in the deep. Yet their inner experience, the heartbeat rhythm of their lives, is foundationally alike. The hummingbird would not trade its place for the whale’s, because the hummingbird’s life is the whale’s, in a decent existential translation.

More than we fear being evil, or even outrageous, what we fear most in life is being embarrassed. It is the great constraint, and the great propellant, of human accomplishment, and of its opposite, human destructiveness. Much of the worst of history is only comprehensible as a tale of embarrassment feared and, at huge lengths, avoided, or trying to be avoided.

The highlights of life are first unbelievably intense and then absurdly commonplace.

Studying snowflakes, we were once told that they were all different, and thus gave some kind of natural metaphoric endorsement to our inherent individuality. Instead, it turns out that snowflakes are all alike, when they begin in clouds, changing in form and appearance only as they drift to earth through the accidents of wind and weather. A better image, that, of how we truly live and differentiate ourselves.

People were fooled because they were looking, as we always seem to do, for the elegant and instant solution to a problem, even when the cynical and ugly and incremental one is right.

If the concert audience is baffled, they are intrigued, even impressed. In show business, if they are baffled, they leave. In our age, the difference between entertainment and art is that in entertainment we expect to do all the work for the audience, while in art we expect the audience to do all the work for us.

My mother continued baking and cooking even as she aged, and though some of it was at her usual level, a habit of habit crept in and then triumphed. She worked, this woman whose ease in the fine art of strudel-rolling was my very first memory in life of mastery, increasingly intently, increasingly angrily—if one can imagine an enraged croissant or a pain au chocolat baked in fury—increasingly made for its own frightened sake. I can still do this. I can. On that much smaller scale, my mother’s baking became, as the years went by and our visits became first more infrequent (it was exhausting to go) and then more frequent (they needed more care), baking for the sake of the bagel. The bagel eaters were left outside the circle of dough.

But, and this is a truth that must be said, over and over: suffering is intrinsic to the human condition, and so we cannot grade it on any kind of absolute scale. What we feel is what we feel, and though it may be true that we cry when we have no shoes until we meet a man with no feet, the larger truth is that having no shoes is our only way of beginning to understand what it must feel like to have no feet. Deprivation, discomfort, unhappiness—these cannot be wished away by pointing to those who have better reason for them than we do. If we could be cured by the truth that someone is suffering more, then human suffering would long ago have been cured.

We have to pack our own parachutes with the silk that we have gathered and tested, probing it for each possible moth hole and tear… but then you have to jump out of the plane.

We must imagine Sisyphus happy. Because while the only kind of action we can attempt may be illusory, a stone rolled up a hill only to roll down again, the happiness it gives us is not. Sisyphus is right to be happy with his work. It’s what he’s got. It’s what we have. In a doomed, fatal, mortal world, we are all Sisyphus rolling stones, but we are also aware of the possibility of contentment as we do, not because the stone won’t roll back (eventually, it will), but because when it does—and this is the secret, hopeful side to the curse that the gods gave Sisyphus—it doesn’t actually crush us. It just gives us the work to do again.

This post was filed under: Post-a-day 2023, What I've Been Reading, .

County Donegal

This post was filed under: Photos, Post-a-day 2023, Travel, .

I’ve been to see ‘It’s my life… and I’ll do what I want’

I’m not sure what the opposite of ‘a hoarder’ is, but I might be an example. I’m wired like William Morris: “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”

When Wendy and I catch snatches of antique programmes on television, I frequently lament that I would have no hesitation in disposing of whatever’s on display. I long for the day that someone takes an item to The Repair Shop only to be told that it’s a waste of space, but that the parts will be great for recycling. When I was built, the circuits which promote sentimentality for objects were left out.

I wasn’t drawn at all to the objects in Jools and Paul Donnelly’s small exhibition of 1960s mod culture, It’s my life… and I’ll do what I want. I admire their passion as collectors, but there isn’t a thing in this exhibition that I’d keep. Perhaps luckily for the Donnellys, if any of this turned up in my house, it’d be down at the charity shop in the blink of an eye.

I also didn’t learn anything from the exhibition: this was intended as a celebration and reminiscence, so there was no interpretive text. I couldn’t reminisce about a time that precedes my lifetime by decades.

Yet, it was clear that others loved this tiny exhibition—including plenty of people too young to remember the period. I’m the odd one out here.

And, perhaps perversely, that made me enjoy my visit. It’s always refreshing to be reminded that life takes all sorts of different people, and that one person’s junk is another’s treasure. This was not for me, but the world is a better place for containing multitudes, not just exhibitions of things that I like.

More power to the Donnellys’ elbows.

It’s my life… and I’ll do what I want continues until the end of this week, tucked away on the top floor of Newcastle City Library.

This post was filed under: Art, Post-a-day 2023, , , .

I’ve visited Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum

I’ve been to Amsterdam a few times, but never visited the top museum (as rated by TripAdvisor). I’ve always struggled to get past the fact that it seems like a tourist trap. I know consciously that it isn’t: I’m sure I’ve read a Sunday newspaper article or suchlike at some point which gave the history and set out the Dutch state’s involvement, and I’m sure I’ve heard of its research work. But still, there is something about it that screams ‘tourist attraction’ more than ‘art gallery.’ Anyway, I got over myself and bought a ticket.

What I didn’t realise before visiting is quite how many Van Gogh paintings are in existence: he was certainly a prolific fellow. And perhaps visiting the Van Gogh Museum isn’t really the best time to realise that you’re not really into his style of painting. I can enjoy a bit of impressionism, and I can enjoy a bit of naturalism, but Van Gogh’s is a stopping point on the post-impressionism journey that doesn’t do much for me. It’s too structured to make me feel the wonder that impressionism can bring, and too unstructured to make me feel the awe of naturalism.

As I wandered the museum, I found in each gallery that my eye was taken first by the works of other artists, provided for context. This is probably partly a function of the museum being full of Van Gogh paintings, and the different things standing out, but it’s also because Van Gogh’s work leaves me a bit cold. I wouldn’t really want it on my walls (though I wouldn’t mind it in my bank, especially after his eponymous museum charged me €5 for a less-than-delicious latte).

This isn’t completely true. There were two works I enjoyed, though I was tickled to note that both were from the period after Van Gogh went mad.

The Yellow House from 1888 had enough life and mystery to draw me in for a few minutes. The depth off to the right intrigued me, as did the people outside what I took to be a restaurant. I lost interest slightly when I found this to be a painting of a real place rather than a more imaginative work.

Tree Roots from 1890, reputed to be Van Gogh’s last painting, was far and away my favourite. I love the abstract nature combined with the bright colour scheme. You really could see anything in it, and it invites contemplation.

Unlike The Yellow House, the interpretive text here only deepened my appreciation: it made the point that in his earlier studies of tree roots, he told his brother that he would like to use the subject to express life’s sorrows. The slightly unimaginative curators suggest that he must have moved on from this interpretation given his bright use of colour, but I wondered whether it was a vaguely Stoic commentary on the joy of life being found in the struggle. With that interpretation, I’d have no hesitation putting this one on my wall: but I’ll still pass on all those self-portraits and not-quite-abstract-enough landscapes, thanks.

This post was filed under: Art, Post-a-day 2023, Travel, , .

I’ve been reading ‘Wintering’ by Katherine May

I decided to read this 2020 bestseller by Katherine May after reading about the idea of ‘wintering’ in a magazine earlier in the year. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but ended up enjoying it.

This is essentially a memoir of times in May’s life when she has withdrawn from the world. These include homeschooling her struggling child from school as a result of bullying, or travelling to Iceland at a particularly difficult moment in her life. While this is a deeply personal book, May includes interviews with others, reflecting some wider experiences, and draws comparisons to similar behaviours seen in nature.

I enjoyed May’s style of writing, which was quite poetic at times, and I enjoyed her reflections. May’s life is very different to mine in many ways, but I nonetheless found her observations insightful and interesting. She briefly reflects on the lack of time in the modern world for true recovery from illness, which reminded me of recent books I’ve read by Gavin Francis and MR Rajagopal.

Most of all, I found this book easy to read and comforting, a bit like a large warm drink of a book. I think I might seek some of May’s other books to see if I similarly enjoy them.

Some quotations I took away from this book:

There are gaps in the mesh of the everyday world, and sometimes they open up and you fall through them into Somewhere Else. Somewhere Else runs at a different pace to the here and now, where everyone else carries on.

Wintering is a season in the cold. It is a fallow period in life when you’re cut off from the world, feeling rejected, sidelined, blocked from progress, or cast into the role of an outsider. Perhaps it results from an illness; perhaps from a life event such as a bereavement or the birth of a child; perhaps it comes from a humiliation or failure. Perhaps you’re in a period of transition, and have temporarily fallen between two worlds. Some winterings creep upon us more slowly, accompanying the protracted death of a relationship, the gradual ratcheting up of caring responsibilities as our parents age, the drip-drip-drip of lost confidence. Some are appallingly sudden, like discovering one day that your skills are considered obsolete, the company you worked for has gone bankrupt, or your partner is in love with someone new. However it arrives, wintering is usually involuntary, lonely and deeply painful.

Once we stop wishing it were summer, winter can be a glorious season when the world takes on a sparse beauty, and even the pavements sparkle. It’s a time for reflection and recuperation, for slow replenishment, for putting your house in order.

They say that we should dance like no one is watching. I think that applies to reading, too.

We’re not keen, as a nation, on expressions of mass exuberance, unless it’s related to football. We’re suspicious of the donning of robes, of the desire towards ritual. We like our belief tempered with an apologetic quality, a signal of humility. Sermons must bore us. Prayers must be muttered. Singing must be undertaken as a grim obligation, mumbled in the quietest possible voice, by people maintaining strict personal boundaries. The seeking of ecstasy doesn’t come into it.

There’s no doubt that we are supposed to immediately perceive the White Witch’s evil, but neither can we fail to perceive her glamour. Hers is an icy beauty, sharp and crystalline, speaking of the power to walk alongside the hardships of the cold. She seduces Edmund with Turkish delight and promises him magical powers. I’ve always thought that she carries a suggestion of Christmas: the sweets and food, the promise of gifts, but also the way that it forces children to dance with their own greed for a season, encouraged to desire worldly goods, but also scolded for wanting them too much, and with too much alacrity. She is the adult half of Christmas, perceived through a child’s eyes, that slightly bitter edge which they can’t help but notice as the grown-ups lecture them on the need to modify their demands, on the sacrifices they’re making to stage their midwinter dreams. She is the mother dressing up for a party from which children are excluded, leaving the house masked in unfamiliar make-up and perfume; the adults lingering at the card table with drinks on Christmas evening, their cosy duties discharged. She is a glimpse of adult pleasures that they don’t yet know how to crave.

I’m grateful to Newcastle City Library for lending me their copy of this book to read.

This post was filed under: Post-a-day 2023, What I've Been Reading, .

I’ve been to see ‘Tish Murtha: The Demon Snapper’

The late photographer Tish Murtha has a strong place in the firmament of the North East. She is best known for her documentary photography from the 1970s and 1980s, which brought the reality of life in the impoverished and marginalised urban communities of the North East to wider attention. Her photographs often combine gritty reality with a touch of humorous intrigue. They drew attention to social disadvantage while also celebrating the tenacity and grit of those experiencing it.

She was also known locally as the person who did the first professional headshots of Dec, of Ant and Dec fame.

Newcastle City Council recently decided to name a new social housing development as ‘Tish Murtha House’, and is holding three exhibitions of her work in celebration. ‘Demon Snapper’ is—perhaps bravely—the first of these. It leans into Murtha’s reputation for controversy early in her career, the title taken from an epithet given at the time by a local newspaper.

The controversy stemmed from Murtha’s 1970s work documenting ‘Juvenile Jazz Bands’—groups of children dressed up in military uniforms and parading through the streets playing marching anthems on kazoos and glockenspiels, as a sort of weird tribute to colliery brass bands.

Murtha thought these groups, and in particular their militaristic associations, were harmful. As she said at the time,

a child must put aside all normal behaviour, and become the plaything of the failed soldier, the ex-armed forces members and their ilk; any spark of individuality is crushed by the military training imposed, until the child’s actions resemble those of a mechanical tin soldier, acting out the confused fantasies of an older generation.

Murtha’s photographic contribution to the debate was to create an exhibition juxtaposing her pictures of the uniformed bands with other shots of backstreet kids rejected from the bands imitating them, like the one below.

From a modern perspective, it’s hard to argue with Murtha’s position, but it caused enormous controversy at the time.

I enjoyed this small exhibition partly because Murtha’s photography is eye-catching and intriguing, but also because I respect the fact that the Council is willing to lean into the controversy when celebrating Murtha’s success.

In the modern world, we so often hear about ’cancel culture’ that we can get the impression that even mild controversy is a barrier to long-term success. There is something brave and yet reassuring about the Council celebrating someone’s success and also celebrating their controversy, rather than shying away from it.

Tish Murtha: The Demon Snapper theoretically closed on Friday, but it was still hanging on the second floor of Newcastle City Library when I visited yesterday, so perhaps there’s still a chance to see it (if you’re quick).

The second exhibition in the series (‘From the Inside’) is apparently open in Cruddas Park library now.

The third (‘Camera in Hand’) will be a permanent exhibition inside Tish Murtha House itself, open only to residents. Bravo.

This post was filed under: Art, Post-a-day 2023, , , .

‘Nothing’ is hard to do

Reflections are sparked by the strangest things.

I was on my way to deliver a teaching session scheduled for a room off a service corridor in the basement of a hospital. The corridor was familiar. I was transported back to working as a foundation doctor, when building work meant traversing this endless corridor in the dead of night to get between hospital wings.

The sensation was so reminiscent that my hand automatically wandered to my back pocket to make sure I still had my ‘list,’ the indispensable scrap of paper serving as an aide memoire, with tasks and patients scribbled all over it. For a junior doctor, losing your list is akin to losing your mind, but I haven’t carried one in over a decade.

As I walked that corridor years ago, I would often be strategising about how I could fit an almost endless list of tasks into a narrow window of time. Most of my anxiety was related to doing things. These days—and I think this is common to most doctors as they become more senior, not just those in health protection—most of my anxiety is related to not doing things.

When presented with a situation, ‘doing something’ is almost always the easiest option for experienced doctors, not least because the burden of actually doing the work typically falls elsewhere: taking a specimen, giving an antibiotic, calling a meeting, putting up a sign.

But ‘doing something’ is very frequently the wrong option, partly because resources are limited, but more importantly because not everything benefits from an intervention. Specimens won’t always change management and can cause anxiety while awaiting results. Antibiotics don’t work for everything, have unpleasant side effects, and are a limited natural resource. Meetings don’t always achieve anything and sometimes just kick the can down the road, at a huge time cost. The world already has too many signs, and signs rarely solve problems.

‘Doing nothing’ is often right. Time is a diagnostic and prognostic tool. Waiting to see if a risk is realised is sometimes more rational than responding to an uncertainty.

But ‘not doing things’ is hard. As the adage goes, the coroner doesn’t criticise the doctor who gave the antibiotic that didn’t work, but finds fault with the doctor who didn’t give the antibiotic that might have helped.

‘Not doing things’ is exhausting. Going against someone’s expectations and saying ‘no’ can be emotionally taxing as well as time-consuming. It frequently takes longer to explain and justify and document why you aren’t doing something than it would to just do it. It typically sets up a confrontation that needs to be de-escalated before it begins.

‘Not doing things’ is also necessary, particularly when it might save time. My time is limited and the demands on it are—at least as far as I can tell—unlimited. Working out where my time is best spent is not easy. Saying ‘no’ to things that I’d usually enjoy is dispiriting, but often necessary.

More challenging still is when someone else decides that ‘something must be done’ and requests my participation—even when my judgement is that the better option is to ‘do nothing.’ Do I participate to try to limit the madness? Do I opt out and leave them to it, even if this might precipitate bigger risks down the line?

I still worry about how to do numerous things in a short period of time, but the anxiety of commission is far outweighed by the anxiety of omission these days.

The picture at the top of this post is an AI-generated image for the prompt ‘a world of clocks’ created by OpenAI’s DALL-E 2.

This post was filed under: Health, Post-a-day 2023, , .

I’ve been to see Jim Moir’s ‘Hot Buttered Mattress’

Jim Moir (‘aka Vic Reeves’ as the catalogue has it) isn’t best-known for his painting, despite clearly possessing a lot of talent. I popped along to The Biscuit Factory to see his exhibition ‘Hot Buttered Mattress.’

It wasn’t really up my street. Moir is a brilliant representational painter, and also has an interest in ornithology. A lot of this exhibition is paintings of birds, mostly in very literal form, like the Bird Colour Wheel above. I’m not all that interested in birds.

Some of his work is a bit more abstract, like this Mandarin Duck over a Football Pitch, but it didn’t strike me as having anything particularly interesting to say, and it didn’t draw me in.

There are some more comic pieces—see Totally Topless Open Plan Office Environment 1987—but these didn’t do much for me either, seeming rather one-note.

My favourite of his works is the one at the top of this post, Curlews Over Lindisfarne, though I think I’d prefer it without the curlews. With them, it seems literal and representative—without them, I’m left to fill in the gaps much more.

There was a passage in Adam Gopnik’s latest book which was resonated with me:

In our age, the difference between entertainment and art is that in entertainment we expect to do all the work for the audience, while in art we expect the audience to do all the work for us.

I suppose I felt that Moir did too much of the work for me… though this is only my preference. I wouldn’t have a hope in hell of producing anything even remotely as good as anything in this exhibition, given my profound lack of artistic ability.

However, there was much more by other artists within The Biscuit Factory’s walls which I loved, so allow me to show you four pieces that I think deserve attention.

Angelo Murphy’s New Teapot with Flowers is representative still life, but blooming heck, look at how good it is—it’s like a modern Heda. This might be a type of art that’s not usually up my street, but this is genius.

John Brenton’s The Colours of Dusk is a stunning contribution to his collection of coastal artworks that immediately drew me in. It is rich and deep and beguiling.

All of Laura Pedley’s pieces were fantastic, but I pondered Setting Out Again the longest. It seems to me that it represents profound hope and profound despair, capturing both brilliantly and simultaneously. I love it.

Jim Moir’s Hot Buttered Mattress continues at The Biscuit Factory until 2 April.

This post was filed under: Art, Post-a-day 2023, , , , , , .

I’ve been reading ‘A Psalm for the Wild-Built’ by Becky Chambers

I don’t generally enjoy science fiction. I have enjoyed many books which have an element of science fiction but which are really about other things—Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun or Never Let Me Go, for example. But books which fit squarely into the science fiction genre rarely do much for me.

But, I like to challenge myself, so I picked up Becky Chambers’s 2021 science fiction novel after seeing it recommended by Andrew J Hawkins on The Verge.

The plot concerns a human monk, Dex, on some distant planet. Robots, previously used in much the same way as in the modern world, have become sentient, and for several centuries there has been a separation between areas where humans live and where robots live. Dex, however, comes into contact with Mosscap, a broadly humanoid robot who wants to understand the needs of humans which the robots might be able to support.

In a first for me, the central character of the novel, Dex, is non-binary and uses ‘they/them’ pronouns. I’ve never really thought about the honorific one would apply to a non-binary monk, but Chambers has: ‘Sibling Dex.’ Mosscap is mostly referred to using ‘it/its’ pronouns, but is occasionally also referred to using a ‘their’ as a possessive, and I couldn’t work out the pattern as to when this happened.

I was confused by the ‘they/them’ pronouns more often than I’d like to admit. When there are multiple characters in a scene and ‘they’ do something, I was often briefly confounded, despite the text being perfectly clearly written. I suppose this is an effect of unfamiliarity, and more exposure to these things over time will educate me.

The book explores ideas of identity and philosophy. The robot and the human share certain characteristics yet differ in key ways, and have to feel their way through the building of their relationship. There is also some exploration of what drives characters, and what makes them happy. This was all done in an atmosphere that I’d describe as ‘cosy’—this is a book to curl up with, not one that is challenging or especially thrilling. I enjoyed that about it.

But I’m still not raving about this book, and it’s because of that underlying lack of connection with science fiction. I found all the world-building a bit of a drag on the main thrust of the novel. For me, staging the novel between a human and a robot was also a little unnecessarily allegorical, and removed some of its impact. I think the same messages would have had more impact in a real-world setting, and it’s not hard to come up with possibilities.

This doesn’t in any way mean that this is a bad book, and clearly Chambers’s audience would disagree vociferously with me. For people who like science fiction, science fiction is the sort of thing they like, and more power to their elbow. But this wasn’t a breakthrough crossover novel that converted me as someone who typically avoids the genre.

I was also disappointed that the plot isn’t self-contained in this book. It is promoted as the first of a series, so perhaps I should have known what to expect, but this does feel very much like the opening section of a longer story rather than a complete work. I found that quite narratively unsatisfying.

I liked that this was short, cosy, touched on interesting philosophical discussions and had lovely central messages. I liked that it unapologetically immersed me in the modern use of pronouns. However, I’m not yet sure whether I’ll read the second in the series.

Some quotations I noted down:

You’re an animal. And animals have no purpose. Nothing has a purpose. The world simply is. If you want to do things that are meaningful to others, fine! Good! So do I! But if I wanted to crawl into a cave and watch stalagmites with Frostfrog for the remainder of my days, that would also be both fine and good. You keep asking why your work is not enough, and I don’t know how to answer that, because it is enough to exist in the world and marvel at it. You don’t need to justify that, or earn it. You are allowed to just live.

They brought people joy. They made people’s day. That was a tremendous thing, when you sat and thought about it. That should’ve been enough. That should’ve been more than enough. And yet, if they were completely honest, the thing they had come to look forward to most was not the smiles nor the gifts nor the sense of work done well, but the part that came after all of that. The part when they returned to their wagon, shut themself inside, and spent a few precious, shapeless hours entirely alone.

Dex took note of Mosscap’s phrasing. “So, it is correct, then? You wouldn’t prefer they or—”

“Oh, no, no, no. Those sorts of words are for people. Robots are not people. We’re machines, and machines are objects. Objects are its.”

“I’d say you’re more than just an object,” Dex said.

The robot looked a touch offended. “I would never call you just an animal, Sibling Dex.” It turned its gaze to the road, head held high. “We don’t have to fall into the same category to be of equal value.”

It is difficult for anyone born and raised in human infrastructure to truly internalize the fact that your view of the world is backward. Even if you fully know that you live in a natural world that existed before you and will continue long after, even if you know that the wilderness is the default state of things, and that nature is not something that only happens in carefully curated enclaves between towns, something that pops up in empty spaces if you ignore them for a while, even if you spend your whole life believing yourself to be deeply in touch with the ebb and flow, the cycle, the ecosystem as it actually is, you will still have trouble picturing an untouched world. You will still struggle to understand that human constructs are carved out and overlaid, that these are the places that are the in-between, not the other way around.

Many thanks to Northumbria University library for letting me read their copy of this book.

This post was filed under: Post-a-day 2023, What I've Been Reading, .

On wintering

I’m not intending to turn this into a Kinfolk fanzine, though I realise that it is not long since I last posted about an article from the current issue. But another article, this time on wintering, has given me pause for thought.

There are usually occasions during the year when Wendy is working, and I am not.1 Every so often, I use the opportunity to go for a brief break somewhere alone, most often to a UK or European city. We’re both enormously fortunate to be in circumstances and at a time in our lives when this is feasible.

Spending a few days by myself exploring a relatively unfamiliar place is extraordinarily refreshing. It gives me days to think about things, reflect, and make sense of the world. It’s also time that’s filled with unfamiliar pleasures like going out to restaurants alone, an experience that doesn’t get nearly the fawning praise it deserves.

The Kinfolk article made me think about this habit in the context of wintering, both in its traditional sense, and in the sense described by Katherine May:

Wintering is a choice to stand up and say, “I’m not okay, I no longer understand myself, and I must be alone.” In order to winter, we must give up our attempt to keep our head above water. It’s a brave thing to do.

I don’t go on these breaks because I feel awful, in the way that May describes. Yet, they do give me relaxation, restoration, and perspective—and perhaps therefore to stop ending up quite as burned out as I otherwise might.

Over time, with the white noise of her professional life silenced, she begins to recover, like nerves slowly reconnected in an injured spine.

As you might remember, I recently read Gavin Francis’s Recovery which discusses the importance of taking sabbaticals in professional life, and giving time for proper rest and recuperation. Although the language is divergent, it seems to me that there is a lot of crossover between the two author’s main messages.

I’ll look out for May’s book to understand her arguments more fully.

  1. As my rota demands more on-call work than Wendy’s, the converse is true more frequently.

This post was filed under: Post-a-day 2023, , , , .

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