The deceptive promise of future projects - and some Stoic lessons on anxiety and more
This monthly post marks the completion of two-years’ worth of monthly posts. I launched this newsletter in December 2021, with the intention of publishing one post every month, but life - under various guises - got in the way. The plan was for a post to appear on the first Saturday of each month: this was moved more than once to accommodate trips, an oversight, a taxing house clearance, and the navigation of difficult headspace quite recently. But I have kept it going with ten posts in 2021, and with this one being the eleventh post in 2022. Thereby hang a couple of lessons.
During the week I was putting together this post, I came across these fabric offcuts, some of which were brought over from Athens. After Mama died, I found various bits and pieces of fabric all over the flat I grew up in. Whole lengths of navy blue and forest green woolen suiting were mothballed inside the day bed storage; the pink, silky satin of an old nightdress was rolled neatly and tied up with a narrow fabric strip; various scraps were stuffed untidily in semi-transparent plastic bags in the fitted wardrobe and the linen dresser.
Some of the scraps brought back memories: the red checked fabric in the middle of the image above is a leftover from a dress she had made for me. I am wearing it in the photo below. I imagine that the photographer was Mama, trying to get me and little sister Eleni to pose for a photo to send to my sea-captain Baba. But three-year old Sophie has another agenda: she spoils the pose and is frozen in time just before or in the middle of complaining that it is now her turn to sit on the folding chair.
Eleni often offered to help Mama do a clear out, but Mama never wanted to let go of the scraps of fabrics. Her account was that she was planning to use them, but the arthritis in her hands did not let her. She also said, “you can throw everything away after I’m dead,” but it didn’t sound like permission, more like a passive-aggressive take on the inevitable. Her fabric scraps may have been the anchors of stories I don’t know; they may have held the hope of something that she would be able to give shape to, at some distant point in the future that never came; they may have embodied the lifetime of regret of a blocked artist. (I can only assume what they may have meant to her; she never said.)
I used to nurture disapproval and anger towards Mama, considered her moody, immature, emotionally closed-off: I had to, in order to be able to leave Greece and strike it out on my own. Over the years several promising writing projects have started and stopped, started and stopped, because even after nine years since her death, Mama’s story keeps knocking on the door and demands to be let in - or out.
The bitterest tears shed over graves are for words left unsaid and deeds left undone
Harriet Beecher Stowe
For over twenty years, I’ve been collecting scraps of memories, ideas, flashes of inspiration that would become a memoir with the title Words Left Unsaid. They live in record (index) card boxes, classified under headings, and in hardbound journals numbered consecutively and archived meticulously. To me they all carry a promise similar to the one the fabric scraps carried for Mama: that there will be enough life to make something out of them. Maybe the title Words Left Unsaid jinxed the work, naysaying its own existence.
Mama left with many words left unsaid. I may not have the sewing skills to make something out of her fabric scraps, but I can tell some of the stories I can piece together from her old photos and pocket diaries. I can meet her again on the page and let her be seen and witnessed in a way that she never was in her lifetime, including by me, her eldest daughter, who mirrored (unawares at the time) her lack of attunement and emotional immaturity.
The fabric scraps surfaced at the same time as I reviewed the newsletter, carrying other messages for me.
The newsletter has not been perfect, but it got done, more or less once a month, as I felt that I had to keep up the commitment to my readers. I learned that deadlines helped, even if they were set by myself.
I had laid out the topics I would cover in the first year, but the plan soon went out of the window: the newsletter started as something else and shifted as my interests evolved with time. I learned to go with the flow of life and discover where it gets me.
The fabric scraps seem to be telling me don’t save anything for later: use it now. In other words, don’t wait for tomorrow: do it now - tomorrow will never come (it doesn’t exist). The time to tell my stories is now.
The rest of the strands…
Memoir and Life Writing Group
Our supportive group, Memoir and Life Writing group at The London Writers Salon continues to meet up on the 1st and 3rd Thursday of each month, to get to know each other, talk about our work and share experiences and resources.
Our next community meeting is on Thursday 15 December, 5-6 pm GMT.
If you would like to join hundreds of other writers writing in community, join the free Writers’ Hour; one of the four daily sessions is bound to fit in with your daily schedule. We can’t wait to welcome you and to write together!
…and the long-haul project: 52 weeks to a Good Life
Our friendly, wise, supportive community at the Stoic Salon is now eleven months into the book Live Like a Stoic: 52 Exercises towards a Good Life, and has met live on zoom eleven times so far. The authors Massimo Pigliucci and Gregory Lopez have joined us twice to answer questions from the community, once shortly after the beginning of our journey (26 February 2022) and once halfway in, on 23 July 2022.
We are now halfway into the Discipline of Assent.
Week 42 - Retreat to your inner citadel (19 November 2022)
The whole earth is but a point, your habitation but a tiny nook thereon; […] well then, remember to retire within that little field or self.
Marcus Aurelius Meditations 4.3
In our latest meetup on 3 December we had an interesting conversation on the usage of the terms inner citadel and little field. Are they interchangeable? Citadel implies impregnability, a shutting off from the world, while little field suggests a small nook of the world that I can cultivate and belongs to me. In any case, over the years my inner citadel or little field has not been a small garden, but the small yard around a minute, whitewashed church on top of a mountain in my native island Kassos, with a view from above. I try to conjure this image when I need to retreat into myself. It always makes me smile.
My troubling situation this week has been (and continues to be) worry about the future because of my health condition. The Stoic maxim I find comforting is the dichotomy of control: I do not control its natural progression, nor how others, often dear and near ones choose to act or not act. I control my actions in taking care of myself, physically, psychologically and spiritually, so I need to concentrate on these areas rather than in areas I don’t control. Ultimately, peace of mind lies in total acceptance of the hand dealt by Fate (with the usual caveat: easier said than done.)
Week 43 - Challenge your anxious thoughts (26 November 2022)
Based on Seneca’s advice, Massimo and Greg lay out these three steps in challenging anxious thoughts (p 254).
Ground yourself in the present moment.
After clarifying your worry, weigh the evidence for and against it actually happening, and generate other ways the event may turn out better than you are anticipating.
Question whether worrying about it now is actually helping you regardless of how things may turn out. Plan an action if it is helpful to do so, and put the worry to the side if it’s not.
(Live Like a Stoic: 52 Exercises towards a Good Life, Massimo Pigliucci and Greg Lopez, p 254)
“Ground - Clarify - Question” is easy to remember when I become overwhelmed with anxious thoughts. Here’s how I applied the three steps this week:
I usually try to remain present: the stress is on “try” (because I fail often). Pausing and taking a few deep breaths usually helps, if I remember to do it.
I worry that my health may deteriorate to the extent that I won’t be able to complete the writing projects I’ve got in mind. However, for now, all is well, so I need to make the most of the time I have.
Worrying about it now holds me back from giving it my best shot. In fact, if I manage to allay the worry, this will be the best way of working constructively towards everything I plan to do.
Week 44 - Decompose desired externals (3 December 2022)
Decomposing an external can take the form of describing something I desire in neutral terms. For example, instead of “sumptuous, melt-in-the mouth, silky smooth chocolate”, I can try “bitter powder of the cocoa plant, mixed with the lactation product of a cow and the granular product of the sugar-cane.” At our latest meetup a couple of Stoic friends reported that they had successfully used this technique before becoming vegetarian/vegan. I confess that I love food too much even to try.
However, pursuing the good judgment of the nearest and dearest is a desired external that floats up every now and then and tempts me to modify the way I interact with them. On the flipside, I am trying to avoid the undesired external of their disapproval and ultimately feeling the fear of rejection.
I try to decompose these externals in this way:
A reaction (positive or negative) to anything/anybody is only a biochemical process in the brain and a physiological reaction in the body.
Every person attaches their assents and value judgments to these processes.
The assents and value judgments of others lie outside my circle of control.
My own assents and value judgments stemming from these processes/reactions in me are under my control, so I need to allow myself space to examine the processes/reactions before letting assents and value judgments to form in my mind and then influence my actions.
Week 45 - Study each impression scientifically (10 December 2022)
This is from [a person] who is of the same stock and kind and fellowship as I, but who is ignorant of his true relation to nature. I am not ignorant, and therefore in accordance with nature’s law of fellowship, I treat him kindly and justly.
Marcus Aurelius Meditations 3.11
I have written about the moral dilemma of reacting or not reacting to world events publicly. I have sat with the discomfort for a long time, and here comes this week’s lesson. These questions cut through every action or non-action I contemplate.
Marcus advises us to reflect on the connection between whatever is bothering us and the rest of the cosmos.
Of what use is this thing I am considering doing?
Is it going to do any good for humanity?
Is the action I’m contemplating wise, courageous, wise and temperate? [i.e. in accordance with the Four Stoic Virtues?]
(Live Like a Stoic: 52 Exercises towards a Good Life, Massimo Pigliucci and Greg Lopez, p 262-3)
I am now sitting with the questions: they seem to hold the promise of some answers that are still proving elusive.
Care to join us at the Stoic Salon?
We are meeting again on 17 December at 4pm GMT. Head over here, check out the first pinned message on top, and sign up. We always welcome new friends, even if you haven’t got the book. And more inspiring events are on the cards for next year.
The heart meets the (left) hand in an embrace of imperfection
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To me you seem to be a good tailor. A tailor who sews the matter to the meaning. A tailor who
stitches the colorfull scraps together and makes a clothes that feets to every one, the clothes that covers the people`s deficiencies.
I love the scraps of fabric, they are like the scraps of memory we carry. You have sewn them into a beautiful quilt in your writing.