Tag Archives: faith

On Failure. For J.

All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

That’s Samuel Beckett. From his 1983 prose work, Worstward Ho. It’s funny. Recently, I’m wondering if it’s the new ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’, in which case we could have a ‘Fail Better’ gallery – mugs, doormats, handcuffs, you name it. What would Beckett have thought? Probably that it was tomfoolery, but hopefully he would have laughed.

I digress. Why do I begin with this quotation? My late grandmother once said something along the lines of how you had to fail with style and in an interesting way before you could call yourself a grown up. I remembered that. She also said that you have to get quickly off your arse when the devil vomits into your kettle, which was a terrifying jumble of stuff, right there. Could have been Beckett, with a bit of polishing, and less scary Welsh grandma. Anyway, I think that she didn’t take the bit about failure far enough: I think you keep doing it. I’m not saying you actually aim for it, but that you accept it, more, as the natural state of things, just with economies of scale.

Now, I have failed aplenty. I like to recast it so that I failed majestically, heroically, as if I were looking at me from the wings, going, “See what you did there?” (actually, I sort of did that: read my autobiographical novel, Killing Hapless Ally for a load of that) and clapping, like a pissed cheerleader. True, there have been some comical moments of failure: falling off a desk in front of a GCSE class and tearing down an entire wall display of their work, trying to steady myself, in the process; attending meetings with my dress in my knickers; in one accidentally saying ‘sex’ when I meant ‘notes’; talking a bit too excitedly to mums on the school run and seeing them begin to sidle away; very recently saying to a class teacher, ‘Has my son been a bit of a twat?’ when I meant ‘twit’; falling asleep on my first date with my husband and falling over in a perfectly flat field on my second. That sort of thing. I relate these sorts of things to others sometimes, should we be discussing delicious things like, I don’t know, embarrassment, and it might happen that they go, “Noooo…how awful” – and I think, “Do you not do that sort of thing regularly too?” Then I think maybe it’s just me; like a dervish at a particularly stifled funeral. But I’m not so sure. It’s not that others will have done the same things, but, truly, everyday embarrassments and failures: aren’t they normal? Human.

These were not important failures. Just untidy life.

There are bigger things too. Hearts I broke, people I disappointed. The fact that my mother thought I sucked. Some of these things I thought to be my fault, but time and reflection may tell a different story.  Ah what else? Career blips; no career; the PhD I didn’t complete (I won’t tell you the whole story here), the fact that people weren’t very nice to me on my wedding day (again reflection might not point to me here) – oooh loads of stuff. Parenting mistakes; financial ones; soured relationships. Oh get out of here. This isn’t very interesting. It’s more that I want to tell you you’re not alone. But, most of the time, I, you, we did our best, yes? Then there you go.

You can get big bold places, high on failure and not seem to know it. Donald Trump is, in my opinion, a colossal failure as a president. His world view is egregiously limited, his ego needs to be regularly stroked because it must be upheld, like gossamer. Do you think he goes to bed worrying about his failure or reflecting on it? Well, I’ve not been with Donald at bedtime, praise the Lord, but I rather doubt it. And therein lies the crux of the matter. To acknowledge that you misjudge, misprise and misrule; to be compassionate and self-aware enough to know that you failed and to attempt, where you can, to make amends – that is the key thing. When it’s missing, what might that make you? Appetitive; governed by your own wants and a desire to be, err, stroked and told that you are right. Ugh. That makes me want to barf on my shoes. And oh, it makes me cross. I realise I am simplifying about Trump, and that he probably has some latent virtues, but he seemed a decent enough exemplar.

To be human is to err. To err splendiferously. In teaching – and I don’t know why anyone would pretend otherwise – you will misunderstand some of those you are teaching and fail to see their ability, their wants, even, sometimes, the terrible pain they might be in. You will get a lot right, but a lot wrong. In your life, you will accidentally upset friends; say things that reverberate in others’ ears for a very long time. But you did your best and that’s all that can be asked of you. If it’s a failure where you know you have hurt someone and done what you can to fix it and make amends; if you’ve felt guilt and reflected and looked at yourself sternly – painful but necessary – then take that and move forward and not just for yourself. Learn. If it’s a comical failure – like, say, trying (I actually had a conversation about this recently which reduced me to helpless, snorty laughter and tears – and no I am not naming its provenance) a new sexual position, striking the bedside lamp in flagrante and singeing the side of the duvet, please LAUGH. You know what’s not hot? Being joyless and mirthless. You know what’s not sexy? Perfection. Also, it’s bollocks and doesn’t exist.

I had a friend once (note past tense) who said, with passionate confidence, “I don’t know what failure is. I have never failed at anything.” I was in awe of her; I had chronically low self-esteem, was battling depression: I thought she was someone to look up to. How wrong was I? It’s humility and humour; kindness. That’s where it’s at. That’s success. Arrogance is not a success. That is definitely a failure, in my book. Anyway, I don’t see this person anymore. Don’t wish ill, there. This person may be deliriously happy, for all I know. Sharp suited and driven, but maybe not having messy sex in the back of a pick up…or feeding a sad-looking pony an apple…or maybe even comforting another person whose life has unravelled at the seams. What do you think? Am I over-simplifying?

Parenting’s an eye opener for this success/failure malarkey. I have seen other parents chortle at how their child is top of the pecking order or say, without apology, that their child will go a long way and, in the meantime, tends only to be friends with other high achievers. It is bang on to be proud of your child (I have three myself), but a) your child is not an extension through which (she says cattily) you get to swat drippy under-achieving fellow parents (like me) and b) can you HEAR YOURSELF? Pipe down.

Now, I do think that failure is normal. A lot of dreams and career aspirations tank. Of course they do. Marriages or your final sense of acquiring a sense of identity may feel incomplete. In some work – the creative industries – I’d argue that failure is hardwired into your job. Having your work rejected or not even acknowledged. But hey there, frownie, suck it up. It’s normal: fail again, fail better. Carry on.

I do think – and I speak as someone who has had many years of battling mental health problems – that we place too much emphasis on achievement. And not, I might say, always that achievement which is in line with our core values; with what we truly believe and value. If you are driven, then go drive, but maybe know that when you get to the place called THERE, you might well discover that there’s no THERE, THERE (if you follow my meaning). I am not suggesting that we don’t aim for things we would like to do or be, just that it might be healthier and make us happier if we were honest about those things. And – I speak from hard-won experience here – I don’t think it helps to be led by comparison with others. In fact I’d say, “compare and despair”. I know when I do that, the comparison thing, I incline to come off worse and likely to feel awful, physically and mentally. I did kind of tell you at the beginning there that I was an epic failure!

There has been a great deal of study of this of late, but the role of social media and what we absorb and ingest therein can be a problem. I talk to the teenagers I teach about it. Some of them struggle, but find they can’t stay away, frightened to miss out. But that feeling is not unique to those in this demographic and, in fact, I’d argue that younger people are often way more sensible than older people and not just because they are digital natives. Yet I think we all need to be mindful of the fact that what we see is a version of reality; a curated narrative. I love social media for the friends I’ve made and things I’ve been able to learn; the writing project I am currently pursuing came to me through twitter. A picture, a conversation: serendipitous, exciting and joyful. But the braggy, showy stuff can go hang.

Is all this depressing? I’d say no. Stuff up. Let go. Go and rehearse the facts of life in a sober manner and I wonder if you might actually start to giggle. Because the failure provides a much better anecdote and releases you from much stress. Achieve, according to your own lights, but when I go, I just want to be remembered (if you do remember me) as the funny lady who tried every day to be kind. Fell on her arse constantly. Loved Jesus but enjoyed cursing. Embraced paradox and irreverence. And pie. And kittens. And gave a sad-looking pony an apple. You know.

All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

On you go, then.

Love, Anna x

 

 

 

 

What’s Passerines about? Here. “What do you know, who has not been mad?” and “Those who are confined have the best imaginations.”

Don’t nick it. It be @copyright Anna Vaught

Passerines. A synopsis

How would it be if four lunatics went on a tremendous adventure, got to taste full liberty, revisit and reshape their pasts, their futures, make us question what we think madness is – and kill Mussolini? That would be extraordinary, wouldn’t it? How would it all be possible? Because, as Violet Gibson, the key protagonist of the book would tell you, those who are confined have the very best imaginations.

This story is grounded in truth but, as historical fiction, it fills in the many gaps by imagining the interior lives of its four female subjects, and lends it a supernatural air in Violet’s invoking of the birds of the air (and with them, the birds of religious texts and iconography) to help her connect with other three (apparently mad) women, and their tortured lives. In 1926, in Rome, Violet Gibson, an aristocrat, tried to kill Mussolini, having previously failed to kill herself. Violet was not the best shot. Mussolini was struck on the nose and though he bled copiously, he lost only a divot of flesh and was soon off, bandaged, to carry on; plans of Il Duce, Mare Nostrum and the creation, he thought, of his Augustan Empire. Meanwhile, Violet was trampled to the ground, taken to prison, placed in a lunatic asylum and then, by the grace of Mussolini (and with copious thanks from the Foreign office, her father the Fifth Baron Ashbourne, and Winston Churchill) she was deported and placed, for the rest of her life, in St Andrew’s Psychiatric hospital in Northampton. She petitioned for release for the rest of her life, but was always refused; many of her own letters remain, unsent (contravening the 1890 Lunacy Act). She died in 1956, was denied the burial she requested and rests in a shabby corner of a a municipal ground. This much is true.

For the last few years of Violet’s life, Lucia Joyce, daughter of James Joyce, was incarcerated at St Andrew’s. She also died there, in 1982, and is buried steps away from Violet, away from the family grave in Zurich: isolated, arguably in death, as in life, like Violet, her records and letters burned or sealed by decree of the keeper of the Joyce flame. Lunatics both, these women. Of course. That must be true, musn’t it?

Meanwhile, not so long ago, Blanche Wittmann dances and crawls like a dog while under the hypnosis of the great neurologist Dr Charcot at the Salpêtrière in Paris. Le tout Paris turns out to see her; she is painted, in a state of hysterical glamour, by the fêted Andre Brouillet and Le Tout Paris turns out to see her. Dr Freud observes and learns and is fascinated, though he comes to a different conclusion; that it is psychiatric, not a disease of the nerves. When Blanche goes back to her room, or rather cell, alongside the other eight thousand mad women at the hospital, the evening continues elsewhere in fine apartments with absinthe and a tinkling piano. Just a little after Blanche, comes Anna O; a woman who retches at water, swerves between languages and tells stories like those of Hans Christian Anderson. She suffers hallucinations of snakes, has paralysis and a persistent choking cough. Anna O becomes a patient of Dr Breuer and, later, a subject in Dr Freud and Dr Breuer’s book, Studies in Hysteria. Blanche never leaves the Salpetriere, but later works in one of the laboratories while, paces away, Marie Curie experiments with pitchblende. At some point, Blanche disappears from records and we do not know where she is buried; Anna O, meanwhile, remains a mystery until, in 1953, twenty years after her death, she is discovered to be Bertha Pappenheim, an Austrian-Jewish pioneer in women’s rights, sometimes referred to as the first social worker. What she has built is later razed by the Nazis. These women are the four majestic feebles (as Lucia Joyce has it) of the story.

The story imagines what their lives were like as patients and how it might have been were all these women to be free and meet and have an adventure together; from the Ireland of Violet’s youth, to Vienna, Paris – a meeting with James Joyce. It is also an alternative history: had Anna O ever been free, a voyager, a scientist; had Bertha found the love she hoped and her work not destroyed; had Lucia written her novel, been able to carry on dancing, as she had been trained to do by Margaret Morris, William Morris’s grand-daughter, had she been able to have the work she was offered at the Gotham Book Mart in New York or to be a tumbleweed at Shakespeare and Co in Paris: had she got out; had Violet been successful in securing the end of life she wanted, a Catholic burial and to change history: had they all been with her, that day, on Campidoglio, in Rome, 1926, and all held a Lebel revolver – and killed Mussolini.

Why Passerines? Because part of Violet’s therapy in the psychiatric hospital was to go outside to feed the birds, of which we have a deeply moving photograph. She communes with them, and the birds of the air make sure, through a kind of magic, that her letters to Blanche and Anna O arrive, just as they stimulate her to thoughts of freedom, possibility and to whisper to Lucia Joyce through the walls of the asylum. Does any of it really happen? We return to the question posed by all the women: “What do you know, who has not been mad?” – and Lucia Joyce, who never got out, lays a passerine on the grave of her friend.