Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Transformative Moment

Here, a little late in the day, is my response to Steven’s meme. I’ve been trying to write this for days but there have been no momentous events in my life that I could point easily to and say, ‘that was transformative,’ more lots of piddling little things. These little things often connect, but trying to disentangle them and then put them back together in a way that makes sense has had me in a bit of a pickle. Then, this morning, as I was coming to I remembered: ‘amor fati:’ from Nietzsche’s autobiography Ecce Homo. This, I realised, was the link I needed. The full sentence reads:

My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be other than it is, not in the future, not in the past, not in all eternity. Not merely to endure that which happens of necessity, still less to dissemble it – all idealism is untruthfulness in the face of necessity – but to love it...

I don’t propose to deliver a lecture on meaning in Nietzsche, but I will say this: by ‘greatness’ he doesn’t mean what we think of, traditionally, as great. He doesn’t mean statesman-like, or conquering, he’s not talking about being seen as great by the rest of the world but is more talking about living a good life in the eyes of the individual living it. There’s no living for others in Nietzsche, as far as I can discern. Though, the thing about Nietzsche is that he is very open to interpretation because he was very much against dogma and absolutism.

When I first read this I didn’t experience a eureka moment, it was more of a ‘huh?’ But it was enough to make me read on and then read more. And as I did I got to thinking about myself and my own life. I had been brought up to ‘endure’. My mother was a Catholic and she believed that life was shit but if one didn’t complain one would eat at the banquet beside God in heaven. Being of mixed race in an all white working class neighbourhood I had had quite a lot to endure as I grew up: I got called names on a daily basis, boys threw rocks at me (really!), even a trip to the corner shop to get a pint of milk was fraught. But I endured, like a good Catholic. Then, like all good teenagers I rebelled. I stamped my feet at the injustices of the world and wailed about how people should be accepted for what they are, that appearances shouldn’t get in the way of what’s inside. This phase lasted until well into my twenties and, I have to say, made me pretty miserable.

At some point I began to accept the way things were and just live with them. By this time people had stopped throwing rocks at me and calling me names. The term ‘racism’ had been invented and no one wanted to be it. My appearance became, not an obstacle as once it was, but a calling card. But I was still pissed, something still grated, the world still seemed unfair. My acceptance was of the ‘it’s fucking shit but hey ho,’ kind.

Enter Nietzsche. I read everything of his, most of which didn’t make immediate sense but it bubbled away like pie filling in a slow oven until the above quotation mingled with other things and one day I thought: he’s telling us to love everything that has happened to us, big and small, good and bad, because all of life combines to make the person one is right now. It’s a bit like steak and kidney pie: although I love steak and kidney pie I hate kidneys, yet without the kidneys it is only steak pie which isn’t as nice.


There began a slow period of reassessment which goes on to this day. I like my life, I like myself, I’m glad I’m alive and like this. Sure, I wish I was better organised and that I didn’t procrastinate so much, I wish my obsession with detail didn’t get so much in the way, and life would be much more comfortable if I could get up early in the mornings and work during the day rather than slowly coming to some time around eleven, because I work better after dark. But these things are the little pieces of kidney in my pie, they’re horrid in isolation but without them the pie wouldn’t taste as good. With long enough cooking kidneys disintegrate and meld with the sauce that makes the pie so enjoyable. There have been some really big ones though, that along the way I have had to chew.

When I was six the prettiest girl in the school was able to convince our class teacher to steal from me my birthday Barbie, and give it to her. A child as ugly as I was could not possibly be in lawful possession of such a lovely new doll. It took a week for my father to get the doll back for me, by which time it was in a sorry state and I never played with it again. I remember this vividly, it was the first lesson in what was to be a long series on the importance of appearance. I learnt that appearance was currency, a door opener. Some people, no matter how much bollocks they talk, will always have a voice merely because of the way they look. For a long time I thought that was unfair. Later I accepted it and now I think thank goodness, for this has been a major factor in shaping the me I am today, without it I wouldn’t exist in my current state. I am not a natural beauty, but because of the, largely unconscious, work I have been doing all these years in this regard I am now able to convince pretty much everyone that I am. If Joanne had not stolen my Barbie I would probably be two stone heavier have far more wrinkles and have much less of an idea about what suits me – clothes, hair, make-up wise – than I do. It’s the details I attend to on an ongoing, daily basis, without even thinking about them, that creates the illusion. I have chopped, boiled and fragranced with garden herbs, this particular kidney: it is now the most velvety element in my sauce.

As a dark skinned, ugly child I was always considered stupid. No teacher expected anything from me. That seems quite unbelievable now, I know, but this was in the late 1960s and early 70s when England was still hanging on to its imperialist past and all the beliefs necessary to mercilessly overrun someone else’s country and annihilate their culture. You really couldn’t do that to someone you thought was as morally and intellectually worthy as you. I was a ghastly colonial. This was made resoundingly clear to me by a maths teacher called Mr Steer. He was one of those old military types, he looked like he had been a general at some point, and he hated me from the minute he set eyes on me. He openly mocked my ineptitude at every opportunity, he made me wash the class room floor on a pretty regular basis, he called me stupid to my face every time he saw me. And he never lost an opportunity to cause me actual physical pain: his ruler made regular contact with my face in full view of my classmates. So I learnt never to look him in the eye and never to even suggest that I might know the answer to a question, and this fed into all my classes throughout my school life. But sometimes I would be asked a question directly by a teacher and would have to give an answer. So, terrified of being mocked or even beaten (even the ‘nice’ teachers still believed in the purgative quality of violence) I ensured I knew the answer to everything I might possibly be asked. I rehearsed answers to possible future questions over and over. I checked them and rechecked them in multiple books, and for good measure I learnt how to reason clearly and carefully in order to explain how I’d come to a conclusion should I have got the answer wrong. I drove my poor parents insane with my questions. School was agony and I couldn’t wait to leave. When I did it was with one paltry qualification in English literature and I only got that because a new, young, enthusiastic teacher had come along and given us George Orwell and Alexander Solzhenitsyn to read. Once I left school I was really angry, I was sure I wasn’t stupid but I had no idea how to find out.

It took almost thirty years of trial and error but I’ve kind of got there. In my mid forties I embarked on a philosophy degree, and loved it. I was crap at essay writing (this tendency I have to try and cover every single eventuality can be paralysing, it leads to very tangly sentences that can take ages to sort out, not good for short deadlines) but it was enough to lead me to a post grad degree in writing, and my current incarnation as a writer. So I have a lot to thank Mr Steer for: because of him I learnt how to make sure of my sources, how to argue using reason – long before I knew what reason was, and the importance of communicating my ideas in a clear way. This kidney is still breaking down but is now so small I can take the odd piece with potatoes and, of course, the sauce of the previously described one. If it hadn’t been for Joanne teaching me the first lesson I wouldn’t have been heard in the first place: people only started to listen to me because they thought I was pretty.

But, of course, my main debt of gratitude goes to Friedrich Nietzsche because thanks to him I’m no longer enraged by the apparent injustice of the world (not the bits that affect me directly anyway, when I hear about how other people are, or have been, treated I am still apt to want to punch something). Now I have a beautiful crisp, golden pastry crust holding all the ingredients that make my life, kidneys and all, a pie worth savouring. Thanks Fred.


Pat said...

God Eryl! What you have had to endure. I don't think I could have been so strong minded. I can't stand injustice - especially when it's directed at me.
But you have obviously come out the other end - a formidable woman and sucks to the bastards! I'm proud of you.
PS have you ever been back to school. That would be something.

Caroline Gill said...

Well, what an account, Eryl. I am so pleased that the writing has won out. I wonder what Nietzche would say if he could read this.

Ms Scarlet said...

I had similar experiences. I would never have dared to take any new toys to school though!
I think I look daft... and I sound daft because I have a chavvy accent, so therefore I have an understanding of how it feels to be immediately judged... and then dismissed.
I thought I was stupid until I was thirty, when I went back to college and surprised myself [and everyone else] by doing rather well. I had a very good tutor who made me see things in a new way. Sometimes all it takes is one person to point you in the right direction.
I loved this post Eryl, and I consider myself to still be a work in progress, and I'm still learning to accept the bits of me I cannot change.

Rachel Fox said...

How our lives change! I was thinking only a short while ago how beautiful you are on the photos you posted a while back. We're about the same age but you look much less knackered than me. You're easily one of the most eyecatching of bloggers!
And I bet what's her face Barbie-stealer looks like crap now.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting - thank you.

I've never quite trusted Nietzsche, I often find him lacking in compassion, but I definitely sense a greatness in him.

Kim Ayres said...

Yup, I like Fred too.

In Wales, where I spent my life from 5 to 14, they didn't have anyone of even vaguely different physical heritages. Nor was there anyone of a different religion. So all bile and hatred was focused on the English. Which was a bit of a bugger really.

However, I guess it's one of the reasons I've always related to the outsider far more than the herd.

savannah said...

you are most amazing, sugar! i am so honored to know you. xoxo

Eryl said...

Pat ~ are you kidding, after everything you've been through? You are one of my Nietzschean heroes.

I have, on occasion, fantasised about going back to the school (dressed in Chanel!) but it will be a completely different place now. All those horrid teachers must have retired long ago.

Coastcard ~ hello! Nietzsche, due to some pretty awful experiences, wasn't fond of women so I suspect he'd find me toxic!

Scarlet ~ you're so right, one person is often all it takes, there are so many stories out there of odd-fit kids transformed by a kind teacher. Have you read the book The Element by Sir Ken Robinson, it's a brilliant testament to this. Glad to hear you found your 'one', you are definitely flourishing now.

As for your accent I'm pretty sure that the rhythm of my writing, it's very source, is due to being brought up in the chav heartland. I love that accent even though it is the accent of my childhood tormentors (I only don't have it myself because of enforced elocution lessons). To me it is music and it's led me to study Anglo-Saxon poetry which makes me very happy.

Rachel ~ thank you! When I go back to Kent to visit family I do sometimes hope to see her looking prune like and obese!

New Jenny ~ I think he can come across as harsh and unforgiving, but this definitely depends on the translator. (You're going to tell me now (aren't you?) that you have read him in German in which case you know better than me!). And, he was fighting a very tough battle against what he saw as the evils of the Reich and German protestantism which for him completely lacking in compassion, and he was pretty angry, as far as I can discern, most of the time.

Kim ~ I find that the most interesting, and successful, people I ever come across have some similar story to tell about their childhoods. To the extent that I sometimes worry about Bob: did he have it too easy, and does this mean he will spread into middle age wondering why the goods are no longer being delivered to his door?

Savannah ~ likewise, my dear friend, likewise, XXXX

Sid Smith said...

Hi there Eryl,
what an amazing post. Just reading some of what you've been through made me so angry. What on earth was that teacher (taking the doll) thinking of???

Your initial reaction to Nietzsche rang true for me as well. So often the things that teach us something aren't necessarily those we get straight away but the ones that make us question things, the ones that make us go "huh?"

Thanks for taking the time of sharing this.

steven said...

kerrbamm!! eryl, i was utterly unprepared for this and thank god for that!! i am stunned that any of this happened to you and equally astonished that you are who you are despite it!!! like sid i was initially angry. i teach - i am amazed at what went for normal acceptable behaviour in the past. but i'm here now making changes happen and that's really all that can be done. nietzsche!! i often wish i could go back and tell the teachers i had - hey look at me now!! i bet you might have some of that - then again maybe you're just as glad not to have to deal with them ever again!!!

thanks for this excellent posting eryl!!! steven

angryparsnip said...

Gosh !
Here I was just in envy of your Hair ! since I have very little (all the drugs, and none fun) I seem to look at every ones hair. I also just thought you had a great tan... see what I know ?

Ahhhh growing up Catholic. . . me too !

When I was younger, blond, green eyed people sometimes assumed I was dumb with out a thought in my head but I was smart, worked hard did well in school, joined every club and was on the Deans list in University but I never went through what you did.

Now it is a different kind of prejudice one of being older and overweight... sigh!

Glad you found something to hang on to. Your "ah-ha" moment.
I think of you as being so very put together and very interesting.

I agree with Savannah.

gleaner said...

With each blog I visit I think I have found my favourite in this meme - now I can say this is my favourite of my favourites. I liked the way you wrote about your life trajectory and of course found solace in Fred. I thought the same as Rachel where only the other day I was looking and wondering at your photo when I discovered you were not 18 years old, I mumbled to myself..she's just a natural beauty. By the way, if you went back to your old school I'd wear the opposite of a Chanel suit - it would have more impact as you certainly wouldn't need it to show your beauty.

Conan Drumm said...

We always think the awful teachers must be long gone but often they're not. I discovered an appalling history 'teacher' I once had was still pretending to teach twenty-plus years after I left the school. Luckily, aged 15, I was put into another school where I went from the bottom to the top of the class by the end of the first term. That's the difference good teaching can make.

Titus said...

Bloody hell Eryl! Superlative writing, not a tangled sentence in sight, and all threaded through with the wonderful food image (knew it was going to be good when I got to your blog and saw the picture). I felt, really felt, so many emotions as I was reading this - anger mainly - and empathy, for obvious reasons (steven has a lot to answer for today!). Bit of a tangled sentence there, but you catch the drift.
However, the big word is awe. I am in awe of your thriving. You are both beautiful and brainy. Now let's go and find those louche poets! (not at The Cat House I'm afraid. Hard rock/heavy metal club - my even darker secret).

Jenn Jilks said...

I am glad you let it percolate! The resulting post was terrific, is downright maddening.Such people in the world.

Take care and thanks for visiting my 'inspiration'!

Kathryn Magendie said...

I am astounded, overcome, joyed, perplexed, struck stunned, and mostly thankful that I went to Barry's blog, which led me to stevens 'golden fish' blog and then to these places with so many compelling and stunning stories....

I am grateful to have been a part of this, just by my reading . . .

thank you.

Barry said...

I was teased as a child, and that certainly affected my level of self confidence; but no one actually threw rocks (that I can remember).

Thank god for Nietzche and your own hard headed persistence!

And congratulations on that golden crusted pie!

Eryl said...

Sid ~ hello, yes you are right it's the questioning that's the thing.

That teacher simply didn't believe the doll was mine, Joanne told her it was hers and I had taken it from her, and that was all she heard. She was deaf to the protests of my friends and me. She was a very silly woman!

Steven ~ thanks Steven. This has been great, disentangling my thoughts about all this stuff properly. I bet you are the best teacher.

Parsnip ~ the tan thing is interesting because most of the prejudice I encountered faded away when Charlie's Angels came on tv and Farrah Fawcett was darker than me!

Prejudice against people because they are older really annoys me, I can't understand it we have so much to learn from people who've been round the block a few times!

Gleaner ~ thank you once again for your kind comments about my youthfulness! And also about this trajectory, I'm glad it made sense!

Conan ~ the thought of Mr Steer still teaching fills me with horror, and the thing is although he looked incredibly old to me at the time it is possible that he was only 22! Yikes.

Glad you got to move schools and discover a talent for history.

Titus ~ it was only once the pie metaphor/simile (whatever it is) sprang to mind that I was able to properly disentangle my thoughts and sentences here.

More dark secrets huh? This one really is quite dark!!! So where do the louche poets hang out?

Jen ~ hello, nothing like a bit of percolation! Thank you for coming over.

Kathryn ~ it has been quite a day, so many interesting stories, I am stunned, not to mention boggle eyed from the screen, myself. Thank you for stopping by and commenting. I will come over and see you tomorrow once my eyes have recovered.

Barry ~ thank you. I do love a pie!

Golden West said...

Your "baptism by fire" has given you a purity of thought and a remarkable ability to express yourself, Eryl. You have much to be proud of, not the least of which is courage.

Delwyn said...

Hello Eryl

Delwyn here...

You are one strong and talented woman...and beautiful too...

Bless Catholicism
Bless Barbie
Bless Joanne
Bless the teacher
Bless Mr Steer
Bless Nietzsche
Bless reacism and stones and name calling and bigotry

and let them go...

for they have made you who you are
and I am very pleased to meet such a woman of character...

Thank you for this honest and meaningful post...

Happy days

Unknown said...

I am really happy that throughout this whole story you knew that you were being unfairly judged. I think you also realized the teachers you have described here were teachers who needed to change more about themselves and their attitudes than you ever needed to change about you. You are strong of spirit, beautiful inside and out and you are so intelligent. I'm glad your life has finally reached a savoury place. Your story is compelling and you were courageous to share it. I am not a fan of steak and kidney pie but those green beans on the plate are making me hungry. YUM!

Raph G. Neckmann said...

I'm amazed reading this post, at what you have been through and the ways you have dealt with it through life. I love the imagery of the steak and kidney pie, which you've threaded through it all. I don't know much about Nietzsche, but I've come to see that how we 'frame' situations has incredible impact on how we perceive them and their subsequent effect on our lives.

Mark Sanderson said...

I enjoyed reading this, Eryl.

It's funny really, it's only about 20 years since teachers stopped whacking kids at school, isn't it?

Eryl said...

Golden West ~ thank you. I like 'baptism of fire'!

Delwyn ~ they have and I am glad of them, glad to meet you too.

Linda ~ of course I have only told one strand of the story. As all this was happening I also met good, kind, generous spirited people who helped me understand that these teachers were wrong and not me. Though, perhaps, not properly at the time. But the contrast between the bullies and the non bullies was felt and got to work at some deep level.

Raph ~ absolutely, it is the way we frame our experiences that affects the way we feel about them. What I learnt from studying philosophy as a whole is that I can't change the world but I can change the way I react to it, and that makes all the difference. Sartre's good for that.

Emerson ~ I know, and it's so difficult to understand, now, what on earth they were thinking.

The Weaver of Grass said...

Well said Eryl - and a very inspiring read. Thanks for visiting me - this is a return call and I shall call again. Besdt wishes.

Meri said...

My dear blog friend Delwyn and you are so much more generous in your thoughts of Mr. Steer. The mother in me just wants to throttle him. The teacher in me is aghast. No child learns through humiliation -- except to become invisible and to fight back in whatever way she can (in your case, it served you well. . . for others, not so much).

Dave King said...

They are without doubt the most moving words I have read in a very long time.
I shall come back sometime soon to read through them again. I can relate to some of it I meta couple of Mr Steers in my school career - and a Mrs Steers who didn't plague me but did pick on a friend of mine because his dad was a policeman, even to the extent of making him kneel under her desk and bark like a dog. My reading of Nietzsche is much the same as yours. A really most impressive post. Many thenks for it.

ellen abbott said...

I'm catching up, I couldn't get to everyone yesterday. What a story! You are who you are because of it. My experiences were not as tough. I was one of those kids that was not accepted totally into any particular group so never knew from one day to the next who my friends were going to be. Well, all that served to make me who I am. We hate it, living through it but the other side is lovely.

Thanks for visiting my blog yesterday. Oh, and I love the pictures of the ruins.

Eryl said...

Weaver ~ it will be lovely to see you any time, thank you for returning the call.

Meri ~ if I met a Mr Steer today treating a child similarly I would definitely throttle him.

Dave ~ good grief, your Mrs Steer sounds much worse than my Mr, please tell me that your friend grew up into a fine young man despite such horrific treatment. And, that she... I can't think of anything bad enough for her!

Thank you for your complimentary words.

Ellen ~ I was lucky that I had one or two good friends who always stood by me. I have a niece, though, who had the same problem you had and left school the minute she could, we still don't know what she will end up doing which is such a shame because she is a very bright young woman.

Getting to the other side sure does feel good, doesn't it?

Kathryn Magendie said...

Thank you for your comments about my blog *smiling* . . .

Eryl said...

You are most welcome, Kathryn: your blog is like having a writing tutor in a box under my desk who comes alive when I open the lid to help with any possible literary stumbling block.

Unknown said...

Hi Eryl,

Now, what I know about Nietzsche wouldn't fill the back of a postage stamp, so your little excerpt has helped a lot. I can't imagine that I would have discerned the message but I'm so glad that you did and that it has enabled you to see life differently. It's hard to understand how much inequality/injustice some people have (had) to tolerate but even the most low level bullying can have a profound affect.

BTW, I love steak and kidney pie too!

Eryl said...

Glad to be of service, Derrick!

It's getting to be steak and kidney pie weather: one of the joys of winter.

Khanh Ha said...

You made me think of HAM ON RYE by Charles Bukowski. Human pains suffered by racial bigotry and physical blemishes.

But your kitchen made my mouth water!

Eryl said...

Khan Ha ~ Hello and thank you, on both counts. Now I need to make a trip to Amazon, I've not read Charles Bukowski.