Strength in numbers

I had the opportunity to spend this Christmas in Italy with my partner’s family. It was one of the last traditional events I had yet to experience over there and I hoped that taking part might enable me to experience a little more of what Italian culture was all about.

After a spectacular flight across the sun-blushed peaks of the Swiss Alps, I landed at Malpensa airport and successfully made my way to meet Veronica at the local train station outside of Lake Como.

As is the custom whenever I visit, we went for a quick aperitivo at her dad’s bar, then it was time to head to the family’s apartment for dinner. Soon after arriving, however, I began to notice a tendency for all members of the family to outwardly express an opinion on everyone else’s business. It’s not the first time I’ve witnessed this and as I discovered, it wasn’t only confined to the Mulas household.

On reflection, it seemed to me that this (admittedly irritating aspect) came down to that most well-known feature of any Italian home; the dinner table. Throughout my stay, every lunch and dinner was eaten around the table with just about every member of the family in attendance from two to 65 years-old. And it was here that anything and everything was discussed, whether it was what to have for dinner the next evening, the best route to take to town or what a certain child should or shouldn’t be doing. No one was safe.

I’m a fairly independent person and am used to making my own decisions, so I initially found this a challenge. Even just getting out of the door was often delayed by an impromptu debate on what we ought to be wearing and if it was this place we were going, shouldn’t we go another day or take so and so with us. Nevertheless, as the days passed, I began to see a deeper reasoning to this approach and I found myself thinking back to something her dad once said.

A few years ago, I went to the wedding of Veronica’s oldest sister in a village near Rome. On the way home, we were sitting in the airport with her parents, waiting for our respective flights. The news was showing on a big screen, flashing up the usual ominous world events and I mentioned how nice it was to have been away from all that. Her dad gave a dismissive wave at the television and said something that stayed with me; “all that matters is that you stick together.”

The notion of the family unit was central to virtually every activity that took place within the home. When the table needed to be laid, everyone helped out, if a child started crying, others were ready to offer a hand or some advice. Inevitably, this attitude spreads out to neighbours and other relatives who, like long lost friends, would stop and chat in the street or the hallway or simply turn up, unannounced.

Not only that, but this group mentality puts everyone on an equal footing, including children who, from day one, are initiated (kicking and screaming) into the etiquette of Italian social life. This was apparent when we went to dinner at a friend’s. Naturally, the evening took place around a large table with a family of six. Everyone helped out with the preparation and, perhaps most crucially of all, every opinion was listened to, including the children’s.

The last notable instance was during a visit to an aunt and uncle’s house. Their son, a reedy man with a grungy biker look, had not long come out of rehab and was now living in an annex at the back of the house. He struck me as a gentle yet melancholy soul who had clearly lost a large part of his life, but with a supportive family network around him, it seemed to me that he couldn’t be in a better place to rebuild his life. I wondered how he might have turned out if he was shoved into a one-bed flat somewhere across town or bunched together with other recovering addicts.

With such loving and devoted family around you, there’s little you can’t get through, even if it does mean having to put up with everyone’s point of view in the meantime. It certainly brought out an affection for my nearest and dearest when I returned home and I hope to hold onto that impression, even without the addition of an enormous dinner table.

One for the road

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They say it’s the journey and not the destination that counts. But that’s not immediately obvious when you’re driving for six hours up a motorway.

We were on our way from Bristol to Newcastle to attend the opening of an exhibition that featured some of my partner’s work. Normally, I’m all for a good old road trip, but the endless winding grey punctuated by industrial sites and Costa/McDonalds/Subway combinations was starting to get to me.

Things changed, however, when we passed a slumbering power station, dressed murky gold by the afternoon sun. My partner took a few snaps of it and suddenly the road took on a different meaning.
Within the strange, alien landscape we found art. Brutal concrete shapes became contemporary wonders and boundaries walls formed painted lines along with the trees and the sky. Swooping power lines looked dramatic against shifting clouds and there was even the occasional splash of colour, such as the OK Diner just north of Middlesborough.

It made me think that even in the bleakest of locations or the dullest of prospects, it’s possible to find a creative spark. Sometimes all we need is a little shake up of our perceptions in order to see something in a new light. On other occasions, however, it’s more about shaking loose any assumptions we might have to see what’s really on offer.

This was very much the case when we finally arrived in Newcastle. Admittedly, my expectations were limited to a city of smokestacks, bad weather and a mildly irritating accent. But as we crossed the majestic Tyne Bridge, I was faced with a glittering city that was anything but the crumbling industrial hulk it had once been.

Like the transformation of numerous East London boroughs, redundant buildings had been turned into artspaces and studios while brand-new apartments and construction sites jostled each other for space. The gallery itself was situated in a former biscuit factory and the place was teeming with visitors excited to see the new season of work that was on display.

This experience brought home a realisation that, despite being nothing new, seemed pressingly relevant. When faced with something as devastating as the closure of businesses and loss of jobs, buildings and neighbourhoods require nothing short of a complete renewal in order that they don’t crumble and waste away. Much like industry, attitudes die hard, but it seemed clear that we need to be ready to embrace transitions rather than resist them in order that cities and society at large can move into the future in the best possible way.

I got the impression Newcastle was trying to do just that. And the accent wasn’t bad either.

Write like nobody’s reading

I recently put together a submission as a part of an application for a writing job. The process was a fairly straightforward one; write about something that inspires you and influences your practice. I opted to write about my current favourite magazine, Boat, as the theme and quality of writing always buoys me up 😉

However, a couple of weeks after I sent it off, I received a reply telling me it wasn’t quite what they were looking for.

Apart from the specifics of what was missing (insight and personal reflection should have been on the agenda) I realised I had once again fallen into a familiar mindset. It seems that lately, whenever I write, I become bent on just finishing the thing and getting it out there. I’m constantly rushing, whether it’s a short story or otherwise and find I often cut short the writing process just so I can say I’ve got something done.

Inevitably, the result is a finished piece, but hardly my best so it’s no surprise I’m not getting the answer I would like. In truth, I’m struggling a little with my identity as a writer. As time goes by, thoughts of ‘making it’ seem more fantastical than ever. Couple that with my mid-thirties fast approaching and the uncomfortable question keeps niggling away – is it make or break time? (Or just broke?) It seems as though the more I reach for it and the tighter my grasp, the further away a reality of accomplishment and satisfaction becomes.

So, for nobody but myself I rewrote the piece as if nobody is going to read it. Nothing to gain, just the truth according to myself. Hence, I’ve discovered a motto that I’m going to take forward this year and hopefully a different way of working; Write like nobody’s reading. Fitzgerald said something similar, but I can’t recall the quote. If anyone knows it, please tell me!

Mind out

It came to my attention last week that mental health is a topic I have a lot of time for. We were having a training session at work on mental health awareness and we watched a video of people talking about their experiences, what they’ve suffered from and how its been perceived by friends and colleagues.

Their experiences struck a chord with me on a number of levels, mainly, because I’ve had a few run-ins with mental health difficulties myself. The worst were in my teenage years, but its only been recently that I’ve started to figure out what was going on at that time and how some of it has clung on as I’ve got older.

I also know of several people who have gone through severe difficulties, in particular, one of my best friends who had a psychotic episode and spent many years of his life trying to claw back a sense of self that had been all but destroyed by the experience.

Mental ill health has been in the media a lot in recent years and charities such as Mind and Rethink Mental Illness are making bold moves to bring mental health matters out into the open. The common argument is that as an illness, mental health problems should be spoken about in the way that we speak about other illnesses, or even a broken bone. While its definitely good to encourage people to talk about it, the problem is that mental health is never a straightforward subject to discuss. The mind is a mysterious thing and scientists are still baffled by its mechanics. Moreover, medicine still knows relatively little about common mental health problems, such as depression, despite the fact it affects 1 in 10 of us.

In my mind, issues such as depression or anxiety can arise for so many reasons. In my case, I’m still questioning whether it might be a hereditary issue, something I developed in childhood or even if I’m one of those people who seem to be more naturally disposed to psychological struggle, if you will.

I once saw a psychotherapist and he was of the opinion that people who are artistic or creative carry both a burden and gift as the mind is highly capable and therefore prone to highs and lows. Personally, I like to think of it as having a ‘loose’ mind, which is the way I feel, when my thoughts and feelings carry such weight that I’m almost at their mercy as to how they will influence my mental outlook.

Whether this is just a personality trait or something deeper is almost impossible to tell. Maybe its a bit of both. Furthermore, personal circumstances and how you conduct your life can have a great affect on mental health. Working nights in a shitty job is bound to affect your state of mind fairly drastically. Likewise, spending a large amount of your time on insular or inward looking tasks, (such as writing) can lead down a bit of a melancholy path if not evened up with some empathetic company.

And yet, there’s hundreds of people out there who carry on with their lives and never talk about their mental health problems, either because they can deal with them adequately on their own, or even that they don’t  consider them a problem, but part of their larger psychological framework. And maybe there’s nothing wrong with that. I suppose what I’m trying to say is that while its good to get the topic out there, don’t suppose that its in any way similar to physical illness and that talking about or dealing with mental health is a different story for everyone. Perhaps the biggest challenge is getting people to look at their own psyches once in while, then we wouldn’t be so uncomfortable with discussing other people’s in the first place.