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24 Jun

woods path angels

By Rhea H. Boyden

In her memoir ‘Long Quiet Highway’, author and teacher of creative writing, Natalie Goldberg reminds us to think of our angels when we are writing. She tells us to write about our special ‘angel people’ and ‘angel places’ and think about the importance both play in shaping our lives, inspiration and creativity.

My first thought when I read this is ‘Well, I am not religious and I do not believe in angels, so what is she talking about?’ Upon further reflection, however, I realize that what she advises makes sense. The word ‘angel’ on the simplest level means ‘messenger’ and as a writer I try and stay open to all kinds of messages that might be useful in my stories and in my life in general.

So what does she mean by ‘angel places’ anyway?  Does she simply mean the places that always come back to you in your dreams or thoughts that make you feel at peace or inspire you? Perhaps. There is a path down to the river near my family’s house in Ireland that I always think about for some reason, when I write any memories of childhood. The memory of walking this path with my childhood friends in my neighbourhood brings back further happy memories of spending our summers at the river swimming. This path is one of my ‘angel places’ and I can’t quite pinpoint why I always think of it, but thoughts of walking along it always inspire me to write. I can only presume that this what Natalie Goldberg is getting at when she talks of ‘angel places’.

Now her concept of ‘angel people’ is one I find more intriguing. I definitely have my angels in my life who have guided me at very important points and not only regarding writing and creativity, but regarding much bigger and important life issues. There is one man in my life who I have always thought of as a guardian angel. He is an old family friend, and over the years he has always given me the best snippets of advice on what decision I should make at a certain juncture. His well-timed pearls of wisdom have guided and helped me and I have never quite understood why I have this connection to him necessarily. Is he some sort of ‘angel person’? He has even appeared in my dreams at times giving me extremely valuable pieces of information. There are some things that people say to you that you simply never forget.

I recently saw a humorous photo on Facebook of a marble statue of an angel with its head in its hands, full of despair. The quote under it said ‘I think my guardian angel must look like this a lot’. This made me chuckle, but I also related to it immediately. When I was partying and drinking a lot in Berlin (and acting less than angelic at times) before I finally completely quit the decadent lifestyle, I imagine that my guardian angel must have had some serious doubts and fears at times. I suppose I had a guardian angel ultimately protecting me against the demon, devil drink and I came through that episode relatively unscathed and with a great many stories to tell of Berlin nightlife.

Not to say that I did not have a few dark moments before quitting drinking where I pleaded to certain angels for guidance. There is a poem by the American poet, essayist and feminist, Adrienne Rich that I particularly relate to called ‘Gabriel’. (Gabriel being the archangel who visited Mary to foretell of the birth of Christ).  I am not sure what Rich meant, or what she was experiencing when she wrote the following lines, but they speak to me of a certain leveling with a higher guardian power that is there to warn, admonish and level with you for your own good: ‘The Angel is barely speaking to me, he isn’t giving or taking any shit, we glance miserably across the room at each other.’ Was Rich having a real conversation with an ‘angel person’ or was she speaking to a celestial being? It doesn’t really seem to matter. The whole poem appears to convey that she was given some special message by someone or something to help her work out one of life’s great challenges or turning points.

About the same time I quit drinking, another dear old family friend who makes angel necklaces, gave me one of her beautiful necklaces. It is shining silver with angel wings and has lovely glistening opals inlaid in it. Inside the box that the necklace came in is the following quote: ‘Change the way you look at things, and the things you look at change.’ This is a wonderfully guiding quote and has indeed proven useful. My attitude changed completely after the negative haze of alcohol induced depression lifted. I have a new found optimism in life, and things are not as dark as they once were at all, even though the daily particulars of my life have hardly changed.

I like to think of angels as being more metaphorical and poetic, but according to several polls conducted in the United States in 2009, a staggering 55% of Americans actually truly believe in angels. So according to studies, more Americans believe in angels than in climate change. A poll at the same time revealed that a mere 36% percent of Americans believed in global warming, a trend I surely hope is changing as more and more evidence comes to light as to the devastating effects of climate change. Or do these people pray to a guardian angel when a hurricane strikes or a flash flood occurs? I am not going to delve too much into climate change politics or religion because I fear the backlash that may cause. Instead I will just quote another line of poetry about angels by one of my favourite poets, William Blake: ‘I heard an angel singing, when the day was springing.’ A simple line of simple joy.

I like to think that my ‘angel people’ are the ones who come into my life and guide me at a time when I need them. In this sense, a lot of interesting and uncanny coincidences can be tied into a lot of my deepest experiences. After my fast paced partying Berlin life came to a close, I then started writing for the online magazine ‘Slow Travel Berlin’. This has turned out to be a tremendous thing for me as I have slowed things down and started to take my life and my writing more seriously. The editor of this magazine is truly one of my angels. He is an angel in the form of a mentor who believes in my work and gives me tonnes of advice, encouragement and feedback all the time. When he invited me to the magazine’s Christmas dinner party last year, I felt right at home. When I met him, his wife, and some of the other journalists, I had a strong feeling somehow that I recognized and knew these people already. This must be what Natalie Goldberg means when she talks of ‘angel people’ in your life. To close, I will quote a few more lines of Adrienne Rich’s poem ‘Gabriel’ which also speak to me as I sit in solitude in my apartment on a beautiful, sunny Saturday afternoon surrounded by my books, my notes and my angel people who are (as cheesy as it sounds) all around me all the time: ‘I sit in the bare apartment reading, words stream past me, poetry, twentieth century rivers, disturbed surfaces reflecting clouds, salutations in gold leaf, ribboning from his lips.’

On Good Art, Bad Art and Creativity

24 Mar


                                                                                 By Rhea H. Boyden
There are two things I have learned in my mid-thirties that I really, really wish I had been told by a wise professor on the first day of my four year career at a liberal arts university that would have made my life a lot easier. Firstly: when you study liberal arts you have no idea where it will lead and what career path you will end up in, so don’t stress about it now. And secondly: when you are writing a term paper, relax; procrastination and messing around with your notes and ideas are part of the process, so learn to love it. I was a good enough student at university, but I lacked confidence in my own academic ability and I was always really stressed when writing any term paper.
Last year when I really started to get more into writing, a good friend of mine gave me a fabulous book by a woman by the name of Natalie Goldberg entitled ‘Writing Down the Bones – Freeing the Writer Within’. I learned more from this one book about writing than everything I was ever taught at university. Goldberg uses perfect metaphors to describe different processes in writing. In her two-page essay entitled ‘Composting’ she talks of how all our notes and research need time to decompose through our subconscious mind before they jump out onto our blank page as beautiful poems and stories- as Goldberg says- like a bright red rose shoots out of the compost.
This essay resonated with me entirely and I have never stressed about writing an essay since. I have come to view collecting my notes and doing my research and reading as ‘composting’ and have come to enjoy it immensely as a part of the whole creative process from first idea to final draft.
The successful writer Neil Gaiman gave a commencement speech to graduating college seniors at a prestigious arts college and he gave them some good tips as they set out on their careers. He told them, that no matter what, and how hard life got, they should simply ‘make good art’. ‘People who set out on a career in the arts have no idea what they are doing’, Gaiman told the students. ‘And’ he elaborated, ‘This is great’.
I remember very well worrying a lot about my future in my last year of university. I did not know then, that within a year, I would end up teaching English at one of Berlin’s better language schools, a job I still hold 13 years later. It was a job I loved, and I learned so much from it in the first few years. Like most jobs, however it gets a bit repetitive. I still love it, and there are days of novelty and wonder, but it involves a lot of commuting, which is one of the most soul-destroying activities of modern life, so I have recently turned to writing as something that really and truly fulfills me and also gives me new energy for teaching and has made my teaching job better too as I am more happy and fulfilled. The combination of teaching and writing is a good one.  I get to be with my students during the day and then I get to be alone and get lost in reading and writing at night and on weekends. Each job feeds the other, and I feel, they would be
incomplete without each other. I had to ‘compost’ my experiences in Berlin teaching and partying for 12 years before I could even begin to write about them.
‘You never know where it leads and this is a good thing’. Neil Gaiman’s words make even more sense to me now than ever before. Writing for me is a magical adventure and I never know where it leads. I never could have imagined two years ago when I sat down to write my first short story as a mature adult that I would be enjoying so much success with it within two years. It has filled my heart with joy, gotten me published in three countries, helped me stay sober after hitting the bottle too hard because I was bored and frustrated, and has opened my life to a whole range of ideas and possibilities that I explore every day.
My magazine assignments have been varied and wonderful and I explore Berlin art, architecture, theatre and opera and write about it all either as previews, reviews, or guidebook assignments. When I see wonderful art I am alive, empowered and inspired.  Everything is great and I am on a roll. In the past few weeks, however, I have had the misfortune of experiencing bad art and disappointing performances which has left me feeling somewhat unhappy and lonely and with a feeling that I have wasted my precious free time doing these things when there is so much good culture in Berlin to experience.
Last week I went to the cinema to see a film, in German and set in Berlin called ‘Shark Alarm on Mueggelsee’. I had presumed that the shark bit was a metaphor for something else, but unfortunately it was not. There really was a shark in the Berlin lake. The characters were bad and clichéd, the acting mediocre and the attempt at humour mostly cringeworthy. I went home feeling disappointed and lonely.
Last Sunday was Saint Patrick’s Day, so I dressed up in green and went to the Saint Patrick’s Day parade on an internet date. It was freezing, the parade consisted of a few Scottish bagpipes, which for me, are not a symbol of the Irish national holiday, and a boombox blaring cheesy Irish country songs. To make matters worse the date was also a disappointment. Again, I went home feeling disappointed.
But the worst experience in recent weeks was going to see a play at the English Theatre Berlin a few weeks ago and the whole performance was dismal. I am not accustomed to writing scathing reviews of events and I like to keep my writing light-hearted and humourous. I had made a lot of notes to write a bad review but I was not quick enough. Another Berlin magazine got there before me. The woman who wrote the review slammed the performance and apologized in a public letter for having supported the project at all. I simply abandoned my notes, she had said it all already.
So after an exhilarating ride writing about wonderful cultural things I feel a little bored, lonely and uninspired by my recent experiences and I realize even more how important good art is for my emotional well being. If you work a full time job that is a bit repetitive then you hope for good culture and art to get lost in and inspired by in your free time.

My day job is at least full of the variety of companies, diversity of students and multitude of topics that keep me from getting too bored, but what if you really work a soul-murdering job that allows no room for maneuver at all? In his novel ‘The Pale King’, David Foster Wallace describes the daily life of an income tax rote examiner, who has to sit and process tax returns all day. When the examiner, whose skin is described as being the colour of wet lead, looks at the clock he is painfully aware each time of how slowly time is passing. Foster Wallace sums  up the examiners thoughts like this: ‘He imagined that the clock’s second hand possessed awareness and knew that it was a second hand and that its job was to go around and around inside a circle of numbers forever at the same slow unvarying machinelike rate, going no place it hadn’t been a million times before, and imagining the second hand was so awful it made his breath catch in his
throat and he looked around quickly to see if any of the other examiners had seen him or were looking at him’.
Who doesn’t know the awful tedious feeling of being bored and waiting and watching a clock? Clocks run our lives and either we are running late, running out of time or we are waiting impatiently for someone or something to happen or appear.
Last summer I went to the Documenta international contemporary art show in Kassel in the centre of Germany. One of the most impressive exhibits at the show was a spectacular multimedia installation entitled ‘The Refusal of Time’ by the South African artist William Kentridge.  The exhibit portrayed society’s attempts at control over time and the mesmerizing ticking of clocks and music left me so enthralled and inspired that I went home and wrote an article about it which was then published in a New York online magazine. It was the first piece I had ever had published so I was naturally ecstatic. Kentridge’s clocks were not boring or excruciating, but inspiring and empowering. That was definitely a ‘good art’ experience that left me feeling whole and connected to the world.
So if ‘bad art’ leaves me feeling lonely and despondent, ‘good art’ has the exact opposite effect and shows me even more how vital it is to support and create good art. Good art inspires people to make more good art and then everyone benefits. And when you are feeling lonely you can strive to make good art to help you reconnect to the world ending your loneliness. Another of Natalie Goldberg’s essays provided me with this insight. Writing can be a very lonely pursuit but Goldberg says the following: ‘Use loneliness. Its ache creates urgency to reconnect with the world. Take that aching and use it to propel you deeper into your need for expression- to speak, to say who you are and how you care about light and rooms and lullabyes.’

Musings on Modern Gender Relations

17 Feb


by Rhea H. Boyden

A dear friend of mine recently posted an article from the magazine ‘The Atlantic Monthly’ on my Facebook wall. It was an article by a woman by the name of Kate Bolick, and it was entitled ‘All the Single Ladies.’ In this 20-page article, Bolick spells out the modern state of gender relations in the United States. She points out very candidly exactly why there are so many single woman in America today. The increasing number of deadbeats is due in large part to the many jobs lost to men during the recession, especially in manufacturing and the auto industry. There is also an increasing number of players out there too, who refuse to commit, and there are so many single ladies for them to play around with. These two facts in particular, Bolick contends, make it a lot harder for a women wanting to get married to find an appropriate mate. Even though I live in Berlin, I believe a lot of the ideas she points out in her article about the U.S. hold true for the West in general. The article rang especially true with me, and I read it with great interest, as I saw how freakishly my life parallels that of Bolick’s.

She says that she broke up with her intelligent, loyal, kind and good looking boyfriend in the summer of 2001 right around her 28th birthday. The only reasons she cites for having done this is that ‘something was missing and she wasn’t ready to settle down’. She had been in the relationship for 3 years and wanted more from life. I did EXACTLY the same thing in the same month of the same year right around my 26th birthday. I broke up with my boyfriend of 3 years because I wasn’t ready to settle down. I wanted to explore Berlin, have my freedom (including sexual freedom) meet people, have adventures, work, travel and do more things for me. He was a very good, honest and loyal man with a wonderful sense of humour. Really we were pretty compatible. He was devastated. In the week we were breaking up he tried to convince me otherwise. ‘I have a fantasy of your lovely curly hair growing down over your pregnant belly with our child inside’ he sobbed, as he pleaded with me. I was unmoved. I wanted out, and nothing was going to change my mind. Later that afternoon, I left the apartment and went to my mother’s empty apartment in Berlin. She was on holiday in Turkey with my younger sisters and her place was free so I went and slept in her bed. I left him in our apartment to give him enough time to figure out what he was going to do now that I had broken up with him. While I was riding the train to my mom’s, a man approached me with a big pink rose and handed it to me. As he did he said ‘Don’t become a nun’. I was stunned. I just sat there with the rose in hand and watched the man as he gave me a wink and exited the train. ‘Well, talk about an omen’ I thought. ‘Who WAS that guy?’ ‘And did he just pick up on my vibes, or what?’ The man had sized me up well enough: I had no intention of taking a vow of chastity, that was for sure. I spent two weeks at my mother’s and then returned to my empty apartment. My now ex had packed his bags and flown back to North Carolina where he was from. I had told him to go and he did. He had even left me our good pepper grinder, and that was the only thing he had said he wanted out of the break up. I still have it, and it works to this day. A decade later, he is now happily married with beautiful twin daughters and I am still single living in Berlin. I have had a whole string of boyfriends, lovers, dates and sexual adventures in the past decade and to recount it all would be impossible (and unwise). I regret very little of it and I am fairly happy. I do, however, still find myself single at age 36 and wondering where I will end up. I have my ups and downs. I enjoy my freedom immensely, but there are also lonely and desperate days. Days where I freak out over having to deal with every little aspect of life, the cooking, cleaning, bills, repair work, shopping and so on and so forth ALONE.

When I was 17, I lived in Ireland with my father and went to secondary school there. I had my first real boyfriend at age 17. He was 23 and I adored him. He was a local Irish guy and he had a car. None of my friends had cars back then in rural Ireland. I was not with him for the car, but it was a big plus. I was so proud to be seen with him and he really was my first love. We had a lot of fun together. It was a decent relationship and we used to go out to the pub on weekends and then he would drive me home and we would make out in his car until I snuck into my bed. We didn’t have sex until two months into the relationship, and then a month later it ended and I was in tears. The relationship lasted three months in total, but it seemed like an eternity at that age. After he and I broke up, I graduated from Secondary school and went to Berlin in the following Autumn of 1993. I was 18 and looking forward to the adventure, but also still devastated that the relationship was over. My mother showed little sympathy. ‘But you don’t want to spend your life with him in Ireland, surely’ she said. ‘You are only 18, there is so much more to discover in the big wide world. You need more experience’. At the time, I remember being shocked. I had genuinely loved him, and I had a young and broken heart. How could my mother be so dismissive about the ending of my relationship? Bolick too, recalls her teenage love life. She says her first boyfriend used to go on holidays with the family and that once, her mother had turned around to her and her boyfriend who were cuddling in the back seat of the car and had said: ‘Isn’t it time you both started seeing other people?’ I can imagine that she might have been just as surprised at this as I was when my mother showed little sympathy to my break up with my first boyfriend. And of course, our mothers are right. We would have been mad to settle down forever with the teenage boyfriend. There is so much more to experience in life and this is what we have moved on to do. I would suppose that Bolick is as thankful as I am that she has such an open-minded mother. We know as well, that there is a section of American society that highly values getting married at 18 and hopefully staying that way. (yes, THAT America, of heartlanders, conservative right wingers, beauty pagents and the military) But this is not the world we come from. Bolick states that middle class, educated American society seems to deem 30 as the ideal age for marriage, and she is not the only one who says this.

In her book, ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ Elizabeth Gilbert also talks about reaching the golden age of 30 and then feeling pressured to have a family. She had been married for 6 years and she and her husband were well off, owned a big house together, and were on track to have babies, but she did not want a baby. She claims she kept hoping she would feel like having a baby, but the feeling never came. She tried to convince herself it was just nerves, and of course she should want a baby, but eventually she sums it up in this funny way in her book and I totally relate to it: ‘I was trying to convince myself that my feelings (of dread) were customary despite all evidence to the contrary’ Gilbert says. ‘Such as the acquaintance I’d run into last week who’d just discovered she was pregnant’ she continues, ‘after spending a king’s ransom on fertility treatments. She was ecstatic. I saw the joy in her face and I recognised it. It was the exact same joy my own face had radiated last spring, the day the magazine I worked for was going to send me on an assignment to New Zealand to write an article about the search for a giant squid’ Gilbert goes on to say that until she felt as ecstatic about having a baby as about going to New Zealand to search for a giant squid she could not have a baby.

Of course 30 is the ideal age to have a baby when you are well-educated, want to have a career, travel, have fun and have all these adventures before you settle, but clearly, trying to force this and plan it too exactly is not the path to genuine happiness. You can only plan so much in life and people who try and overdo it on the planning, as far as I can see, are leading, in many cases, contrived lives full of lies and deceit. I really don’t know how these people can convince themselves that they will be happy if they follow society’s exact expectations and follow this strict timeline. Bolick says ‘We took for granted that we would spend our 20’s finding ourselves, whatever that meant and save marriage for after we’d finished graduate school and launched our careers, which would of course happen at the magical age of 30.’ A dear friend of mine from New York also talks about this pressure in New York to get married by 30 and a lot of her friends there have done this, and are planning pregnancies around sitting the bar exam. I listen to these stories with a mixture of horror and admiration. I do suppose some of them are happily married and doing well. I am not that cynical, but I also have a deep feeling that a lot of them are doing it out of following societal and family expectations. And I suppose many of them have just settled for someone because they were reaching the age of 30 and getting worried about being alone and felt the need to settle down. I know this because I myself found myself in a marriage track relationship at age 31 and I am glad I got out of it before I got pregnant.

I met a handsome German engineer on an online dating site when I was 31. He earned a high salary and spent a lot of money on me flying me all over the place to be with him while he was travelling on business. We got settled into a very serious relationship very fast, and I did love the man, but we had our problems. He talked about marriage and babies pretty quickly and he took for granted that I would quit my English teaching job and follow him whereever his job took him and he would pay for everything. I suppose that I had the relationship that a lot of women are looking for: a wealthy man who was willing to spend his money on me and provide for me. We had a lot of fun together and he was caring and silly, but I was living a lie. I did try and make the relationship work, really I did, but I finally realised that we were not truly compatible. In any case, I just always felt that he did not really appreciate my true merits, and that I was just an accessory for him. I had the hunch that he just wanted some pretty woman at his side, it didn’t really matter who. I am a very sensual woman and I also felt that something was really lacking in the passion department. I tried hard to improve things with him in that field too, but he was very grumpy, and seemingly had a very low sex drive. Some nights I would come out of the bathtub, hoping to make love to the man who was supposed to be my boyfriend, and find him sound asleep snoring. To say the least, I became sexually frustrated very fast. To make matters worse, the couple 2 floors up from us were having great sex and the whole courtyard could hear it. I lay in bed next to my snoring boyfriend and thought to myself’ ‘Wow, I am never going to have sex like that couple in THIS relationship’. He kept bringing me wonderful gifts back from all his exotic business trips from all over the world. I suppose he thought the material things would make up for the lack of passion and soothe my frustration. It didn’t work.

The crisis came one Sunday in February 2009 when I was 33. We had had sex that morning and it had been bad. Later that evening, I was lying in the bathtub enjoying a nice soak. He came into the bathroom and was cleaning as usual. He was very fastidious in this German house-wifely way about cleaning, dusting and ironing. It used to drive me nuts, and was a total turn off too. As he was dusting the window sill I ventured to talk to him about our epic fail in bed that morning and how I would like things to improve in the bed department. He turned to me and said grumpily: ‘Look, sex is just something I want to get done and move onto the next thing’ and he marched out of the bathroom. I held my nose, closed my eyes ,and immersed myself fully under the water and had the following thought: ’ I am dumping him, he has no idea how he just nailed the last nail in the coffin of relationship destruction’. I felt relieved. I knew exactly what I wanted and that was out of this relationship with no turning back.

I had done a lot of thinking about my relationship with him in the bathtub. It is a good place to think and read. About a month before this February bathtub crisis, I had attempted to read ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ in the bathtub but I had to throw it aside after a couple chapters, because Gilbert was basically talking about exactly what I was about to do myself. Namely, end very materially rich relationship with a man who wanted kids, stabilty and family, and go in search of my own freedom. Gilbert was excited by the hunt for a squid in New Zealand, I was excited about going for a beer with a charming Scottish musician who had very little money.

A week later, I dumped my rich German engineer boyfriend and ran off with the Scottish musician. I was finally back with someone who shared my soul, ideas and moral values. I was broke, but I didn’t care. Gilbert quotes a New Yorker cartoon in her book, where one lady says to another ‘If you really want to get to know your husband, you have to divorce him’. Well, I got to know a side of my ex that I had always had a hunch was there anyway: complete and utter pettiness, and an awful judgemental manner in which he took the break up. He took absolutely no responsibility for the fact that the relationship had failed. I really do not want to talk badly of any of my exes, but this was the worst break up of my life. He acted like the biggest child. He sent me the nastiest emails saying the basest stuff to me. This only confirmed to me even more that I had made the right decision. Even two months after the split he wrote to me saying that he wanted the flavoured olive oils that we had bought in Milan. Well, what could I say? The oils were long gone at that point, obviously! I let him keep everything apart from the laptop I am writing this story with. He had hoped, I suppose, that his financial power would keep me, but it didn’t work, because I am not that kind of girl. I am fiercely proud and independent. I am good friends with, or at least on civil terms with all my ex boyfriends, but not with him, because he made it an impossibility. To lessen my guilt even more, I discovered that he found another girl on the internet two months later to replace me and they have since gotten married. Rather her than me, I say. I can’t help but wonder what kind of relationship they have. Is it a sexless marriage? Is it one where she is just happy to be an accessory? Who knows, maybe they really are compatible. He wants the traditional marriage, and I suppose that is what he has gotten. I wish them the best with it.

My life, on the other hand has been a big colourful, dramatic adventure since I dumped him 3 years ago. I have never regretted it once. Fine, I have been a little broke at times, but I have had lots of different kinds of relationships with different people and I have been free to do what I want and I have a decent job too. Do I want babies? The truth is: I don’t really know. But it has not been a priority for me at all, and at age 36 I look around me and see more and more women my age who don’t have children either. You can have a full life without children, this is becoming clearer and clearer. As Bolick says in her article: ‘Motherhood is no longer compulsory. Since 1976, the percentage of women in their early 40’s who have not given birth has nearly doubled. A childless, single woman of a certain age is no longer automatically perceived as a barren spinster’.

As women rise and rise to power and earn more money and gain more confidence we are increasingly in command of our own destinies and this should be a reason for joy and optimism for the future and not despair at being alone. I am trying to see my future in a more positive light even though I remain single. As Bolick states, we women are increasingly having to deal with men who are deadbeats with little or no job prospects and players who play the field. The good men are taken and kept under control and if they get divorced it seems they are snatched up again pretty quickly as was the case with my eligible-but-not-compatible-with-me German ex. So, striving for single happiness and independence is a necesssity these days.

I personally have had more trouble with the players than with the deadbeats. I have dated plenty of ‘deadbeat’ men. I would never say this to their faces, but I guess what this essentially means is that they would not be able to support a family and earn a good income if that is what I wanted. Regardless, some of them have treated me very well. I know plenty of underpaid struggling musicians and bohemian types in Berlin who are by no means ‘marriage material’ in the traditional sense, but they have big hearts, are fascinating people, and they enrich my life immensely.

The players are a bigger source of rage and frustation for me than any ‘deadbeat’ I have ever met. These players are men with status and high testosterone levels. It has been surmised time and time again that high testosterone levels go hand in hand with male ambition. These guys can have any girl they want and they know it. Bolick talks about how all the girls want these guys and usually they can have the guy they want- for one night. I dated the biggest narcissstic player here in Berlin and he drove me absolutely nuts. Bolick tells of a guy she dated who did not want to get involved emotionally, but was very interested in a physical relationship. Or the guy who ended things with her because he couldn’t fend off all the other offers of sex he was getting. Or the guy who claimed on a date with her that he wanted to spend his 30’s playing the field. Bolick states that the more successful a man is, the less interested he is in commitment. This leaves us girls feeling pretty upset in many cases. Indeed, it seems you can’t win as a woman when dealing with a successful man. Many successful men will have a steady girlfriend or wife, to be sure. And she may be the lucky one who has managed to keep him, but in many cases he is still dating lots of other women as well, because he can.

Here again, my experience closely parallels that of Bolick’s. My guy told me once when we were on a date that he wanted to move to New York because there he could ‘fuck around until he was 60’. Or another time when we were in bed he told me of the two 18 -year -old girls he had recently invited into his bed and while one of them lay behind him he fucked the other one.And after we had had mind-blowing sex for at least the twentieth time, he tells me that he ‘refuses to engage emotionally.’ Or when I sent him a text message thanking him for a nice date he responded with ‘Glad you enjoyed the fun.’ which of course made me feel as if he was doing me a favour. This man has inspired such rage in me that even though I have not slept with him for a year, my memories of the sex with him do not fade, as it was the best of my life. Unfortunately my feelings of rage have not quite dissipated either, and when I get drunk and emotional I still phone him up and freak out at him for treating me with such disrespect and outright misogyny.

Recently I was talking to my downstairs neighbour who is an artist and a teacher. She is is 33 and single aswell. We were enjoying a cocktail and some snacks in my kitchen and I asked her how it was going with the guy she was seeing. ‘Oh, God’ she said. ‘Bad. What is wrong with men? He keeps giving me mixed messages and he seems so confused about his own life and his own job prospects. Basically he is a coward and I don’t know what to make of it or whether he is going to dump me or what. Actually he is a pig and he treats me badly.’ This friend of mine is not the only one who complains of men being pigs. Plenty of other friends of mine are in the same boat.

In his aptly titled article ‘The Return of the Pig’ in ‘The Atlantic Monthly’ David Brooks talks about these pig-like men and how blatant sexism and chauvinism seem to be on the rise in America. More and more men are subscribing to pornography, men’s trashy sexist magazines, and watching MTV. In the 80’s MTV actually had decent music videos, now it is all babes in bikinis dancing to trashy music on the beach and rubbing themselves up against horny men.

Brooks and other progressive thinkers note with horror that numbers of these shallow men seems to be rising dramatically. He says that ‘their world has been vacuumed free of empathy, sensitivity and sophistication. It is as if millions of American men -many of them well educated- took a look at the lifestyle proscribed by modern feminism and decided, No, thanks, we’d rather be pigs’. Brooks says that many believe this to be a result of masculinity in crisis. Men are threatened by the rise of women and their ever increasing financial power, education and independence and they don’t know how to deal with it. How are we supposed to make men out of these men? I once dated another German engineer and he was also one of these kinds of guys. My dad, who IS a real man advised me to ‘make a man out of him’. It didn’t work. I dumped him too. So, as a result, millions of women who would like to get married are completely frustrated. But, must we marry at all? Why are we so fixated on marriage anyway in our culture? There are many other ways to lead life apart from being married. To quote Bolick again: ‘Our cultural fixation on the couple is actually a relatively recent development’ Indeed, in the grand scheme of things marriagelike relationships came into being at around the same time farming arose around12,000 years ago. Couples had to function to make a farm work. But, women’s power diminished at around this point too. In many other societies prior to this (and after it) women had power and authority (think Amazon).

Marriage, monogamy, and the male dominated society have been the institutions that have stripped women of power. Why then, do so many educated women with good jobs still strive towards marriage as the highest ideal? Bolick speaks of a ‘sea change’ in gender relations, a shift in people’s attitudes. Many more people are finally waking up to the fact that marriage may not be the thing we need to strive for. A recent survey in Japan, for example, showed that 61% of unmarried men aged 18-34 do not have a girlfriend, nor do half of unmarried women the same age. Many young Japanese claimed they were not even looking for partners, and a shocking quarter of Japanese men and women between ages 34 and 39 claim never to have even had sex! Many Japanese women are shunning marriage altogether, saying they deem single life to be far more fulfilling than their imagination of married life.

In her article entitled ‘Marry Him!’ Lori Gottlieb says that women who claim they are happy to be single at age 30 are kidding themselves and there is no way they could be truly be happy to be single. She puts forth the case for settling for Mister Not So Perfect. She claims that we should just lower our standards a bit if we want to get married and stop holding out for Mister Perfect, because given divorce rates, he likely doesn’t exist. Fine, if you really want to get married and that is your goal in life then read on, but she is American, and we all know how big the marriage industry is in the United States, and how much pressure there is to conform in many parts of American society. The wedding industry is a multi-billion dollar industry and it prices, packages and pushes weddings down our throats. I have nothing against getting married, but if I ever do, I want a small, inexpensive and sacred ceremony with the chosen friends and family who I love and I certainly won’t sign up to a wedding registry and dictate to my friends what gifts they must buy me and how much money they should spend on me. Gift giving is supposed to be a sacred thing, not something that you should be told you have to do. The whole concept of bridal showers, wedding registries and baby showers seems so contrived and materialistic. The bride shouts: ‘Come celebrate me and buy me exactly what I want you to buy me’. I have heard the most ludicrous stories from New York about what brides-to-be expect their bridesmaids to do for them in the time leading up to their weddings. One thing that has become especially popular in New York in recent years are so-called ‘Botox parties’ where brides spend fortunes for themselves and all their bridesmaids to get botox before the wedding. I also once read an article about an Asian-American girl who was complaining that her friend who was getting married expected her and all her friends who were to be bridesmaids to have their boobs enlarged (Asian women typically have small breasts) for the wedding so it would look better in the wedding pics.

I have felt pressured a lot for being single and not settling, and I find it intensely annoying. I have a friend who used to live in Berlin, and at the age of 26 she fell in love with her boss.(She got the status guy for herself). They both worked and earned good money and then they got married, moved to L.A. together to earn even more money. When she was 37 she gave birth to their one and only beautiful blonde son. He is spoilt, but lovely too. She visits Berlin every year and I meet up with her for coffee. I am not so sure whether I will be bothered the next time she is in town, because some of the things she has said to me have kind of put me off her. Things like: ‘Are you STILL not settled?’ and: ‘Why do you spend so much time out at night in Berlin, don’t you want a steady boyfriend?’ and the clincher of course was ‘Once you have a baby, all these other things you have been filling your time with seem so meaningless’. I guess she doesn’t understand my life at all. I have a really full life with a wonderful array of friends of all races, ages, and sexual orientation. I have a good job and a lot of fun hobbies including my latest hobby: writing! My dad understands me and never puts me under any pressure to conform. He is very supportive of my new found passion for writing and he said recently in a very excited tone: ‘you can give birth to books!’ Yes, maybe I can. Who knows? If I had a baby now, I certainly couldn’t write anymore and that would be a tragedy.

A decade ago we were all reading ‘Bridget Jones’s Diary’ by Helen Fielding and laughing ourselves silly over it. And it is funny. A neurotic woman in her early 30’s desperately seeking Mister Right. She makes a note of all the things she eats every day, the number of cigarettes she smokes, and the units of alcohol she intakes. It is silly and quirky, but essentially she is still being discriminated against by her family, society, and as she calls them:the ‘smug married’ because she is not married by age 32! The entire book again pushes for marriage as the goal of a happy life.

It seems things have changed in the past decade. ‘Eat, Pray Love’ urges us to do the exact opposite! Leave our stable homes and husbands and go out and have adventure. Of course the biggest criticism of Elizabeth Gilbert’s book, is that this is really only possible for women of solid middle to upper class with a good income to do. She divorces her husband and travels the world finding herself, and clearly not on a tight budget. But she can afford it. She had a great job and earned a lot of money. Good for her, but not possible for everyone by any means. Many women are stuck in unfulfilling marriages for financial reasons. The more money a woman earns, the more likely she is to leave her husband. This is true the world over. And then if you have no money at all, marriage isn’t even worth anything, as Bolick points out in her article. She looks at African-American women in her case study and she writes the following: ‘an astonishing 70 percent of black women in America are unmarried and are more than twice as likely than white women to remain that way. This is often chalked up to high incarceration rates- in 2009, of the nearly 1.5 million men in prison, 39 percent were black.’ She also goes on to cite that black women are doing a lot better financially and education wise than black men in America. Bolick interviews a group of black single mothers in a Pittsburgh suburb and they admit themselves they are a just another typical group of single black moms struggling to get by and raise their kids alone. Today, 40 percent of children are born to single mothers.

I have talked to a lot of women who claim they WANT to raise their children alone. I grew up in rural Ireland and there is a high birth rate amongst working class teenage girls there. A lot of them are girls I went to school with, and who are my good friends. Marriage is not something that was really ever discussed as an option for many of them. I probably would have ended up having a child in Ireland too as a teenager had I not been offered the chance to leave to the United States and get an education. An opportunity that was kindly offered to me by my educated, middle class American grandparents.

I studied, worked and dated in the United States for 4 years in my late teens and early 20’s and it was great. Now I have been working, dating, travelling and having fun based in Berlin for the past 12 years, and even though I am now 36, I STILL don’t feel like having a child! I have tons of good friends and a strong social network in Berlin and a very busy work and social calendar. And amazingly, even many of the couples I know here who have good, solid relationships are also delaying getting married and having children. I know a lovely couple who I go and have dinnner and play cards with occasionally. She is 36 and he is 37 and they both have great jobs and a fabulous apartment. They both keep talking about getting married and having kids, but it never happens. And I am sure they will stay together, as they are a good match. But when will they have the kid they keep saying they want? Next year? The year after?

I once dated yet ANOTHER German engineer (there are a lot of them) when I was 30 and he said to me: ‘in 10 years you have to have found a relationship that works because at that point all your friends are gone’. What he meant was, they are all married and living insular lives and not caring about the outside world. Bolick talks about ‘greedy marriages’ where a couple becomes so consumed in their own relationship that they do indeed forget the outside world.A lot of people have this fear too, that if they don’t find a mate and all their friends do, then they will find themselves ALONE. But does it have to be like this? Why couple off with just anyone out of fear? But what if this relationship does fail, or one of the two DIES? Then you find yourself more alone than any single person! Bolick also says that many single people, despite feeling a bit lonely and lacking intimacy at times, have many more friends than married people, and it’s true in many cases. She also says because they are single they put a lot more effort into maintining contact to, and visiting family and friends everywhere. I have a huge family and I visit them often. I love them dearly and they are very supportive. I know I will never truly be alone as I will always have them. I guess I am lucky. I will make one exception to this point however. The people who couple off because they don’t have any family. I do see that they feel alone and I can see why they would more desperately want the relationship. I have one friend who is living in this situation. Her mother died when she was 15, she has no contact to her father and she has one half brother whom she rarely sees. She has had a series of relationships with not the greatest of men, but then, I suppose she feels the need to have a family of some sort, so I do get her motivation, even though I could never settle for the kind of guys she picks.

You may be thinking at this point that I am incredibly complicated and picky. Well, I am quite picky, but I would settle for Mister Less Than Perfect, of course I would, but even he hasn’t come along yet. And there have been the men I really wanted to be with, but alas, they didn’t want me for very long, for whatever reasons.

Bolick says in her article that her father once pitied her for being so unlucky in love. She says she bristled at this because she did not think she had been unlucky in love despite the fact that she does not have a stable relationship She had met all kinds of interesting men over the years and had had all kinds of amazing experiences. She says that this is a certainly a form of luck.

I happen to agree with her on this, because since I broke up with my wealthy German engineer boyfriend I have also had a lot of different men in my life and they all fulfill my different needs in different ways. I suppose I would like ‘the one man’ but he doesn’t seem to be there so what can I do? There is an old joke that goes like this: ‘A woman needs a man who is good in bed, has a good job, is good with kids, is a good cook, who is cultured, and who is a good handyman. And she must also make sure none of these men ever meet each other!’

I used to just laugh at this joke, but now I respect it greatly because it has, ironically, turned out to be my life. I have a lot of different men in my life and I am proud of it. I have the occasional lover, (one who was longer term, the player whom I can’t forget). I also have the Scottish musician who was my rebound out of the stable relationship, but he has turned into one of my best friends, confidants, neighbours and colleagues and we offer each other moral and practical support constantly. I also have the guy who loves classical music and we go on dates to the Philharmonic together. (occasionally we end up in bed together too, because we both admit, we miss intimacy.) Then I have the guy who I give English lessons to in exchange for practical help with computers and household stuff. Then there are also several male of mine who both like occasionally to go to late night clubs. We have the same taste in music and we love to dance. They look after me on these late night sessions and especially when we are drinking, it’s nice to have someone to make sure you get home safely. Then there is the childhood friend who entered my life again after his 20 years of working and travelling the world. He is an amazing producer of house and dance music and he lives in Dublin. He visits me in Berlin a lot, and I go to Dublin to see him everytime I go back to Ireland to visit my family. People have started to wonder whether we are an item. ‘No’, I respond. ‘We are extremely good friends and I couldn’t imagine my life without him.’

I also have a lot of good gay friends who enrich my life immensely. Berlin has a large gay population because this is a city they feel good in and tolerated. Some of the gay men I have met here are of my closest friends and confidants and I love them dearly. Just last week, one of my gay friends posted on Facebook, Hillary Clinton’s historic speech in Geneva on gay rights which she delivered on Human Rights Day. Clinton herself has been a victim of extreme misogyny in the United States. If she were a man, she likely would be president now.

Clinton gave a powerful speech defending the rights of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender people worldwide and how their basic human rights must be protected. My gay friends were unbelievably moved and choking up in tears while listening to her speech. She spoke loud and clear about her commitment to promoting rights for them, and I quote this powerful woman who has just gained a new found respect in my eyes. She says: ‘It is a violation of human rights when people are beaten or killed because of their sexual orientation, or because they do not conform to cultural norms about how men and women should look or behave. It is a violation of human rights when governments declare it illegal to be gay or allow those people who harm gay people to go unpunished’.

Bolick says the following: ‘Perhaps true to conservative fears, the rise of gay marriage has helped heterosexuals think more creatively about their own conventions’. Yes, there are a whole lot of us out here who think completely outside the heternormative, marriage ideal lifestyle and our ideas must be respected. It’s the oldest cliche in the book, but I must state it: ‘Be true to yourself and you can’t go wrong’. It’s a plain and simple mantra and I try and live my life by it. I have been untrue to myself and stayed with ‘Mister Less Than Perfect’ and tried to make it work, but it didn’t and it had to end. Who knows, maybe I will never find the right man, or maybe I will have to wait until I am 60. Both my mother and my aunt are now with men they knew in their teens and 20’s. My mother is now married to her high school sweetheart and living in California with him the past 3 years. She is 63. One of my aunts reunited with her old college boyfriend on Facebook and they have been dating the past 3 years in New York. The dramatic rise of networking sites, gives us the opportunity to get in touch with all kinds of people from our past. My experiences with Facebook reunions has been an incredibly mind-boggling and for the most part, very positive adventure. (Facebook has been a more positive experience for me than online dating, but I may give that another shot at some point).

I have lots of good friends in Berlin, but one of my closest friends is a wonderful young woman from New York who has been living in Scotland and now London the past few years studying at university there. We spend many hours on skype webcam, and this allows us to be ‘virtual roommates’. She comes to Berlin frequently too and stays with me. We do both talk a lot about how to form a community in the future to help stave off loneliness for all of us who are consciously choosing to take the non-conformist path in life. And our numbers are growing so I am sure we are in good company. What is a possibly pensionless generation supposed to do? She recently posted an article on my Facebook wall about an apartment block here in Berlin where everyone lives their separate lives in their apartments, but they also have a communal living room and are slowly buying the building together. We all know how hard communal living can be. I am 36 and I have lived in my own rented apartment for years. I certainly don’t want to go back to college style crazy communal living where I have to wake up in the morning and get in a bad mood because somebody has drunk the rest of my milk for my coffee. Neither do I want to have to write my name in thick black ink on the things that belong to me in the fridge. But I would be open to forming closer community life with even more singles in my neighbourhood and in fact I am already doing it. But, I would like more of it. Bolick also says in her article that as soon as an apartment opened up in her building in Brooklyn heights, she urged another single girlfriend of hers to move in. They can now be close to each other without living college roommate style. She says that they take in each other’s mail when the other is away and bring each other oranges, medicines, love and support when they are sick. I have a very similar network in place and it’s wonderful and I dearly hope to increase it in the future.

Bolick goes on to talk about the possibilities of communal living. She discovered a woman on Facebook by the name of Ellen (which is also my mother’s name) who was living in the Begijnhof in Amsterdam. Bolick describes this as an ‘iconic bastion of single sex living’. ‘The Begijnhof’ she writes, ‘was founded in the mid twelfth century as a religious, all female collective devoted to taking care of the sick. The women were not nuns, but nor were they married, and they were free to cancel their vows and leave at any time’. Bolick interviewed this woman and it was clear that living here is a very popular thing to do for single aging women to this day. Forming healthy collective ways of living is definitely something that will see a rise in popularity in the future as the number of single women increases.

So, instead of moaning about being single and being worried about being lonely, I am trying very hard to change my attitude towards my life. Being single is actually pretty cool and trendy these days, and I sometimes actually really consider myself lucky to be single, especially when I see the kind of relationships some people have settled for. The word ‘spinster’ is a joke at this point and we do not have to be worried about being labled that anymore. I realise how very lucky and blessed I am and that actually I live in a very good era wihich offers all kinds of possibilities for single women. Single women sure had it a lot harder in the past in times when there was a shortage of marriageable men. Look at any time following major wars when thousands of men were killed off. Like right after the American Civil War for example. The 1870’s was not a great time to be a single woman and somehow those women survived too!

So, I am writing this article in December 2011 as I prepare for Christmas celebrations. I have a large family who are spread across Ireland and the United States and I usually spend a wonderful Christmas with them. My dad is a great cook and I sometimes go back to him, my stepmom, and some of my siblings for Christmas. My aunt is also a fantastic cook, and sometimes she and my other aunt (who are both childless too) and I go to North Carolina where my grandparents live. This year however, I have decided to stay in Berlin and host Christmas dinner. I am a passionate cook myself and I have been writing my own cookbook these past 6 months. There will be 8 of us for Christmas dinner and I can’t wait! My Christmas party will consist of the following: 2 gay guys, 4 single ladies in their 30’s (including me) and one married couple. A dear friend of mine who is exactly 30 (that golden age for getting married and pregnant) IS newly married and heavily pregnant! But she is one of the few people in my group of friends who just happened to find all this right at the age of 30 without forcing it or it being contrived; and in the New Year we look forward to welcoming her daughter into this wild new world. What kind of a world will SHE be living in when she reaches dating age? And so to conclude, I remain very hopeful and optimistic for the future. I see that there are many possibilites for me in the future and I plan on looking into them all. Ultimately, I want to be true to myself and all the wonderful people I love and the people who make my life special, and I hope we can all form communities to love and support each other and find solutions for everybody as we all grow older.

Facebook Feedback:

  • Rhea Boyden I just finished writing this article. Any feedback or criticism welcome!
  • Rhea Boyden (the title, as you see is the hardest part and I haven’t figured it out yet)
  • Samuel Dylan Clayton reading it now. its very honest, and clear, and has a message that i think many relate to.
  • Rhea Boyden Wow, thanks Sam, you got onto it fast!
  • Samuel Dylan Clayton well i’m procrastinating my own writing. but its a worthwhile break.
  • Rhea Boyden I write in spurts too. You can’t force it! This is the first piece I have actually finished in awhile. I have a LOT in progress!
  • Hannah Dare Very very well done Rhea, love it. Reminds me of being in uni…happy days, thanks for the reminder!!Shared with my sis Aoife who is also a good writer. Looking forward to your cookbook too!!xxxx
  • Rhea Boyden Thanks Hannah! I am thankful for the feeback! It has a positive ending!
  • Hannah Dare Just read that!!! Couldn’t leave it! Really well done, for being so honest, and open. Hats off.
  • Neil Collins Yes, I agree fully with the last comment. I started reading this Rhea and couldn’t stop. I can’t really say why, something very readable in your writing. It kind of flows and rambles at the same time in a very entertaining way. I mean this as an absolute compliment.
  • Andrea Ryan this is definitely publish material, you really write well rhea
  • Rachel von Hindman Impressive! I had to skim part of it, as it’s time for bed, but I’ll go back and read it in more depth when I get a chance. I love your mix of personal anecdotes and political opinion and gender theory, etc.
  • Claire Lambe Great work Rhea, and well and thoughtfully shaped and written. There is so much here I almost wish you had published it in serial form so as to comment on all of your points, but I’ll comment on a few anyway. 

    Re your friend who married her boss and visits her judgment on you once a year (the ghost of Christmas past, present and future all rolled into one): what she says about extraneous things becoming meaningless after having babies is, in fact, not untrue, but it is a temporary state and, I think, biologically necessary as small children are so demanding, but as temporary as the smallness of the child. A lot of women forget that or are unaware of it in the first place and make it a permanent state – then when their children turn away from them towards their own lives and destinies, they are often hurt and bereft. So do go out with this person one last time and be HER Christmas future – tell her how happy you are for her present state, how you understand why she must subsume herself in the role of mother, but warn her that, unless she goes on to have a child every year and eventually give herself over to minding grandchildren, her little boy will grow up and one day sooner than she can imagine, she will once again be childless. So she ought not to forget to nurture her own self, to keep her own interests outside of her child and home alive even if only to avoid becoming an overbearing mum, a boring wife and, last but not least, a former friend. 

    I like that one of your references – Bolick? Wish she’d change her name though – made the point that having children is something that women can forego if they so choose. When I think of all the times I’ve heard people who chose not to have children described as selfish – I always thought that surely the selfish thing was to have children. But if one felt a need to play a role in raising the next generation, there are lots of ways of “having” children without physically producing them out of one’s own body (which is painful) including becoming a support to a good friend, especially if she is a single mum – I met a woman when Zoe was tiny who really helped me to be a successful single parent – Miranda is still my best friend today and, I know, remains an important figure in Zoe’s life. Also simply volunteering at an after-school program for needy kids, helping with homework and becoming that adult who takes a real interest – that’s huge. 

    Perhaps it is true that a lot of guys today are feeling inadequate and we women can’t fix that – it is a man’s problem to solve. However, if having a man in one’s life and/or having a child became important, perhaps working with one of those sweet deadbeats could work, but that may mean letting go of one’s own conditioning and the expectation of being supported – it might mean letting go of being the primary care-giver too. But, first and foremost, it has to be discovered if this man of little means is likely to be a good Dad – someone who will continue to be available to his children even if the relationship fails – a deadbeat Dad who ignores and abandons his kids is worse than a dead Dad (I learned this from my daughter Zoe who is studying art therapy with an emphasis on children and it makes sense – the fatherless child knows that their dead Dad, in most cases, didn’t choose death over parenthood after all). However, no woman wants to be breadwinner and find that they are also the sole housekeeper and 90% responsible for childcare too + have the added expense of supporting a 6 foot, 160 lb infant. So if the guy with no ambition for work also has no ambition for creating a nice home life, he has to be left in the dust – but hopefully one can discover that before getting in too deep, i.e: having a child together. 

    Re the case of the long relationship that fails on marriage – is that possibly because it was already shaky? Often people, in an effort to avoid what is staring them in the face, rush to the next level only to find that they can’t outrun a crashing relationship. It is a shame when that next level is pregnancy.

    Having written the above and thinking of “The Return of the Pig”, I am also sad and wonder how the mothers of sons must feel. Then again, I have to ask myself and you – who and whose are these young men today? Surely they are the sons of feminism, the sons of the 60s generation? How did we come to grow these strong, independent women and fail to prepare our sons for them (BTW, I am writing as the mother of daughters – just thought I’d stick that in there…  But, seriously.

    Lastly, the community of women: I think this is such a wonderful idea. It is something I have discussed with women before as even us married ones have a good chance of being alone again since, statistically, we live longer. At the same time, it occurs to me that if there are all these single women out there, doesn’t that mean a high instance of single men too? Are they – especially the players – hoping to snare a lovely young thing to take care of them in their old ages? Some will but others will probably hear the legend “In your dreams you dirty old sod.”

  • Claire Lambe PS: am going to suggest this to Zoe – also a 30 something and single.
  • Samuel Dylan Clayton reah i was thinking as i was reading it that it is really a personal essay. i’ll have to let you borrow that anthology of mine. there is something similar to the essays in it, in the way you bring people into your private world, and at the same time you are presenting a history in the hope of making a point, of saying something about life.
  • Tanya Miri Browne very well written and researched ! i found this an inspirational piece of work ! you certainly have a gift for getting your thoughts and logic accross
  • Rhea Boyden Thank you so much to everyone for taking the time to read and for the feedback. It means a lot to me!
  • Laura Mac Carthy Brilliant Rhea, read the original article a few weeks ago.. but your Honest,clear and true writing encapsulates the true suitation of single modern women perfectly..Inspiring and enlightening..x x
  • Rhea Boyden thanks for the feedback Laura!
  • Rhea Boyden Interesting to note the the people who have given me the most posititve feedback so far are my girlfriends and my amazing gay friends! I have gotten some private messages from my male heterosexual friends who are not as impressed. I give every ‘deadbeat’ guy a chance! And I honour the men who earn little money too. This point is not to be missed, by the way!
  • Helena Chadderton Fascinating Rhea, and has filled in a few gaps in your life for me! Like others here, I appreciate the fact that you researched your subject well and incorporated others’ ideas into your own work. I love you for your open-mindedness and passion. You sum up the social pressures we suffer from perfectly. I can’t help thinking it would help us all not to see the divisions between men and women so starkly though. x
  • Lorna Riorden Good points made! Makes me feel a bit better about being single! But anyway I agree that there’s nothing better neccessarily than being in a partner relationship than being alone…Both are valuable learning experiences, but for sure our society emphasises being in a relationship…THere is much to learn about being alone…especially about our fear of being alone…what are we so afraid of anyway? Being with ourselves?
  • Phill Marshall Hi Rhea, seems like you got a touch of early mid age cri’sis, dont worry, in ten years it’le all feel diff’erent. Great writing!
  • Laura Kinsella Really enjoyed this Rhea- well done! It’s so interesting, whilst millions of women are unhappy because they want to get married; undoubtedly there are millions of women (and men) who are married and still unhappy. I reckon society’s empty promise of completeness from marriage has disappointed and disillusioned many. (It’s also worth noting that weddings are a massive commercial industry, ‘the dream’ is packaged, priced and forced down our throats)
    I think it’s really interesting what you say about collective living, relationships are important for happiness but the traditional prescriptions often don’t fit contemporary life. It feels like there is a repositioning of roles going on, which is wonderful but ambiguous. More honesty is needed and that’s why you’re writing is so valuable.
  • Rhea Boyden Thanks for the feedback, Laura! And you are very right about weddings being a huge industry. I actually wanted to talk about that too. Especially in the U.S. where people spend thousands on them and so many of them are hugely contrived. I hope you are well! Love to you.
  • Laura Kinsella Love to you too Rhea! I’m just back on fb temporarilly as Ive a kidney infection and am at home and bored. I really love your work. Keep writing and posting- really think you should start a blog, its a great way to get feedback and if you want to get published and already have a group of followers it would really stand to you, id say magazines etc would be really interested in it too. X x x
  • Bernadette Landy-Lovatt · 6 mutual friends

    Hey, Rhea, as far as a title goes, I think you should call it: Memoir of a Lioness… Actually, you raise a conundrum I’ve lived through myself, the consequence of which has proved to me that the problem with modern women, who can satisfy all their ‘wants and needs’ leads mostly to lonliness and sorrow. I fell victim to satisfying my own needs early in the game and since I’m way older than you, I can only recommend a lesser degree of self-concern and a greater degree of acceptance of others. Also, as a mother, may I recommend the joy of giving birth and the eternal joy of blood relations. There are not too many older single women who convince me that their lot was worth it! Just call me old-fashioned, but the idea of a commune of older single women sounds nothing short of scarey! Use your body for what it was meant to do, use your breasts for what they were meant to do, and use your apron strings to guide the ones you love. Bx
  • Rhea Boyden thanks for the feedback Bernie, fact is though, I would have a child if it worked out. In case that isn’t clear in this writing, it hasn’t worked out for me, the men I want chilren with want them with me and the men who want them with me I dont want them with at all! It’s the story of my life and very frustrating!
  • Bernadette Landy-Lovatt · 6 mutual friends

    That’s you being too fussy! There is no perfect in this world. Lesson number one.
  • Bernadette Landy-Lovatt · 6 mutual friends

    Most of us were accidents. Lesson number two.
  • Rhea Boyden I do not think I am too fussy actually! I really could not have a child with the men who have wanted it with me. Every feeling went against it.
  • Rhea Boyden (your son, by the way was not impressed with this piece at all, but he took the time to read it!)
  • Bernadette Landy-Lovatt · 6 mutual friends

    Men don’t want to read all about women’s thoughts and moanings. They have their own moaning to do!
  • Rhea Boyden yeah, and I love Mike!, but he is very grumpy, but I praise him in my article as you see!  xx
  • Bernadette Landy-Lovatt · 6 mutual friends

    It was too long for me to read on screen… I scanned the half of it but got the gist. Mike is impossible too. You young(er) folk should be hung out to dry :- )
  • Rhea Boyden You are just as grumpy as Mike! The article ends very positively if you take the time to read it!

  • Rhea Boyden P.S. Bernie: I had no idea you were so fervently anti-feminist. I’m schocked. And I totally disagreee with you, that I should ‘use my body and breasts for what they were made for’ Not every woman should have chilren by any means!

  • Rhea Boyden children* my ‘d’ key isn’t working properly!
  • Margie Johnson Ware Thank you for sharing this….as another comment said, it fills in some gaps. I’m sorry we can’t sit and have wine/beer and talk about it all evening.
  • Adrian Sanders Very interesting. In spent 2 years living in a 16 man/women/child WG in Hamburg where the building did belong to us and it really does work.
  • Claire Lambe @Bernadette – every choice has its pros and cons but the one thing young women today don’t have to be is a slave to their gender. As for women living together: my mother and most of her female friends were married all of their adult lives – but for the last 15 to 30 years of their lives, they were single again. They were each other’s support group but I think if they had found a way to pool resources – possibly in some kind of community apartment complex or co-housing community – things would have been a lot easier and less lonely. Here is a co-housing community near where I live:

    Send questions and comments to: or to Cantine’s Island Home Owners Association, Saugerties, NY 12477
  • Chantal Ailsby What an unfortunate second name that woman has! Especially considering her subject…  An interesting read Rhea. Certainly makes you think about conforming to society’s expectations and the stress of being single. I guess we all want to feel like we belong somewhere whether that means following the other sheep (marriage and children) or creating your own gang. Have a great Christmas and see you hopefully in a week or so for a few drinks! xx
  • Rhea Boyden @Chantal: yes, her name is unfortunate, but what can you do? She should get married and change it! lol!
  • Cathleen Camouflage I can follow your train of thoughts easily but I think less reference to the articles and books you read about this topic would give your article much more uniqueness and less review-style.  Just my POV. I can see that you really did a lot of research on this.
  • Rhea Boyden @Cathleen, there is quite enough of my personal life in this article, I think. My experiences are supposed to be backed up by research and statistics and compared to them That was the whole point.
  • Amelia Boyden havent gotton the whole thing finished but so far its pretty dame good!!!
  • Claire Lambe @Cathleen: What makes the article interesting, serious and, indeed, worthwhile, is precisely because it is referencing other thinkers and combining the author’s two cents worth from her own personal experience. Otherwise it might have been in danger of sounding like a long rant from one disgruntled female as opposed to a gathering together of experiences which can then, legitimately, ask the larger questions.
  • Aisha Tanner loved it ,i was in stitches you’re a natural ….cant wait to read the rest of your books! x
  • Rhea Boyden Just to hit’ like’ on your comments here would be an absolute understatement. Very beautifully expressed and well said Cordelia! Bravo! Thanks for the feedback sis! And yeah, ha ha, when I think about you turning 30 next year, how old does that make me? You are my kid sister! ha ha! xxxxx I love how you quote raw energy moving us forward and our ages being irrelevant.
  • Rhea Boyden I really want to edit this article. There is a lot more I want to add. I was going to talk about the sometimes empty promise and huge price of white weddings, and you and Laura make very valid points on that!
  • Rhea Boyden actually Cordelia you crack me up! I love what you wrote here. Very good espcially: ‘Being the bastard child that I am and coming from a family with one mum, 5 kids and 3 dads…..not to mention the countless boyfriends that always seemed to be floating around I never believed in marriage anyway. What’s the point? Do we really need the government to approve our relationships to believe that our love is real?’ Well, yes, I failed to mention enough about my background to provide some insight as to why I may be the way I am and have these conventional views!
  • Rhea Boyden sorry UNconventional views***** !!!!!!
  • Anke Illiger TX for the true comment! It is me too..still the loneley woman with a big heart, who needs freedom… Cosmopolitan! I`ll pay the next round for us
  • Michael Tanner Very nicely written, longest post I have seen here, not that length is so important, allegedly. As you quote,;Be true to yourself’ is the key. It does also appear that there is a move to more communal living, which I expect to take many forms, as we need the extra support to survive. Blessings
  • Rhea Boyden Another note on weddings: a friend of mine from New York mentioned recently how annoying she found (yet again at yet another wedding) the throwing of the bouquet to all the single girls out there. It is yet another way for the bride to say: ‘See how lucky I am, hopefully one of you lucky, poor sods out there will catch my bouquet on my special day and you just may get lucky one of these days. I actually caught the bouquet at a wedding once and I am still unmarried! ha ha! A good point though, it is a very degrading and smug act at a wedding!
  • Michael Tanner As with all superstitions it is possible to see them in many lights. By giving away a token to an eager/anxious single they may find some extra confidence or support. If you do not agree with it there is no need to take part. I do have a naughty side which came up with the possibility that you are annoyed that it did not work for you!! (Joke) I do not see it as being degrading, what is degrading is selling yourself short and not holding true to your standards/self in order to join the club.
  • Rhea Boyden @ Mike: good point: it is all about mutual support! ha ha!
  • Adam Bliss “So, instead of moaning about being single and being worried about being lonely, I am trying very hard to change my attitude towards my life. Being single is actually pretty cool and trendy these days…”


  • Rachel von Hindman Thanks to Adam Bliss re-posting this, I finally went back and finished reading it… getting sick while living alone was a new experience for me, and it was awful! Must get that network in place…
  • Rhea Boyden Thanks Rachel! Hope you are feeling better. Wanna party????? I love you, babe!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
  • Rhea Boyden p.s. I have lived alone for years!!!!
  • Rhea Boyden (some sort of stupid idea of mine that I thought would lead to ‘happiness’ and ‘indepenence’) …. blaaaaahhhh!!!!!
  • Rhea Boyden This is what my dad wrote and aske me to post: Rhea,

    What can I say? It is just a beautiful, honest, joyful, resourceful piece of writing.

    Clear, succinct; developing ideas in a structured manner towards a satisfying conclusion, quoting sources and statistics where relevant, building, building a compelling story. Magnifico!

    When I finished it I just wept. Wept with joy, with compassion, with empathy, with identification, with astonishment, at an extremely well expressed exposition on human (and woman) “condition”.

    Rhea, you are absolutely gifted at writing compelling essays, whether they involve cooking or relationship or………………? Stay the course, develop this, it’s well worth your pursuing.

    This isn’t the time for me to inquire (in this moment of absolute admiration and reverie about this document)…but do you want some editorial input?

    Can’t help this: Ignore the spelling mistakes for now; but do eliminate any use of the word “absolutely”.

    Because it’s absolutely redundant!

    Yr a star that shines brightly. Stay at it.



  • Rhea Boyden ha ha! This article is crazy: ‘A huge report was issued by the National Center for Health Statistics. It covered the topic of teenage oral sex more extensively than any previous study, and the news was devastating: A quarter of girls aged fifteen had engaged in it, and more than half aged seventeen. Obviously, there was no previous data to compare this with, but millions of suburban dads were quite adamant that they had been born too soon.’ – How nice girls became comfortable with oral sex’- Caitlin Flanagan, The Atlantic Monthly
  • Sandra Wochele brilliant. May I share the article?
  • Rhea Boyden Here is another anecdote I intended to include in this article regarding New York. When my high status high testosterone player sex god guy told me he wanted to move to New York because there he could ‘fuck around til he was 60’ he clearly knew what he was talking about and how many available women there are in NY. I have a beautiful Belgian friend who moved to New York about 5 years ago with her good looking and succesful German boyfriend. They are a beautiful, picture perfect couple and they both got good jobs at the U.N. When I was in New York about a year after they moved there I went to the U.N building and had lunch with them and a tour of the U.N. They certainly did seem to be having a great life there. Atfer lunch however, she and I went for a walk and she confided in me with desperation that EVERY time they went out in New York to any club, there were literally girls all over her boyfriend flirtiing with him and shamelessly trying to snatch him away right in front of her. HE was clearly enjoying all the female attention! I haven’t seen or spoken to them in a few years now, but I wonder of there relationship is still in tact.
  • Rhea Boyden I am aware that maybe some people think I am going a little overboard on how hard it is for women, but I am speaking from experience. Men do have more choice and more time, there is no denying that fact. I am painfully aware at age 36 how my male peer group have their eyes on women at least 6 years younger than me. This shift just started happening in the last year or so and I find it terrifying. I do see the numbers of eligible men dwindling before my eyes right as I am getting more hormonal and my biological clock is ticking ever louder. It’s really not a nice feeling at all. And I expect this feeling to get worse in the next years…..
  • Rhea Boyden this article pretty much sums hp how I feel:…/in-search-of-mr-right/6587/

    Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, the author of Why There Are No Good Men Left, discusse…See more
  • Rhea Boyden Oh and I had a heated argument with one of my male friends recently about this and he said: ‘The Atlantic Monthly is all a bunch of propaganda, you shouldn’t read it, it’s crap’. and I replied: ‘Oh really?, well, how come I can relate extremely well to the articles they write on relationships then and how painfully they ring true with me?’
  • Carolyn Turgeon I finally sat down to read this… wonderful, Rhea!!!
  • Rhea Boyden…/marriage-suits-educated-women…

    For women seeking a satisfying relationship and a secure economic future, there has never been a better time to be or become highly educated.
  • Tree Lewis so true Rhea.I particulary love the bit about your “german houswife” boyfriend,my last boyfriend was the exact same and it drove me nuts!
  • Rhea Boyden


Consider the Cold Spot

8 Dec

By Rhea H. Boyden  

A city can be a wonderfully inspiring place to live-most of the time. As a writer you can observe all kinds of incredible things every day that can become the marrow of your next story. The way an old man sits sadly on a bench with his lip curled up can make you wonder about his day, and you can turn him into a character in your next story. Snippets of conversation overheard on the train between colourfully dressed hipsters can provide you with the first lines of a glittering dialogue that could go anywhere. Observe a strange building closely and then describe it in as much detail as possible, and you have the setting for your next scene. There is indeed so much exhilarating sensory overload the entire time, that you need to go somewhere peaceful to digest and decompose these images through your subconscious mind before you can sit down to write about them. So where does one go to get into this peaceful and meditative state?   Well, in Berlin there are a lot of lush parks which are fabulous in summer, but in winter I head to my heated swimming pool, followed by an even more heated sauna, and then I relax in the so-called “Himalaya Room”. This is a room with comfortable reclining chairs which face an entire illuminated wall of a Himalayan mountain landscape with an icy river meandering in the foreground. It is the perfect place to relax, doze and meditate about writing. Last week, however, I was rudely interrupted from my post-sauna reverie by not one, but two different tones of beeping noises. I sat up, irritated and groggy, and saw that the man to the left of me was fiddling with his iphone and the woman to the right of me was deeply engrossed in reading something on her ipad-with the sound turned on. Do they take them into the sauna with them too? I wondered. I got up and left the room, but the experience had already given me an idea for a new article. “Yes”, I thought. “I want to write about the importance of mobile, Facebook, twitter, chat and beep free zones as essential in certain public spaces in order to give people the space to meditate and give their overloaded brains a chance to recuperate. This is important for everybody, not only for writers and other creative people, but my focus here is particularly how important this is for people who have to work creatively. They need space from the incessant need to be turned on, plugged in and available.   In her recent article in The Sunday Times, Laura Atkinson talks about the importance of turning off your phone to recharge your creative energy. And she says that just switching your phone off for 3 hours over a long and leisurely dinner doesn’t count. You need to really switch off to unwind. She talks about the increasing blending of business and leisure -bleisure- as being stifling to creativity. These days, you can jump on a plane and fly to an exotic destination and the first thing you can enquire about at hotel reception is where the hotspot is, where you can get online, and where you can plug your laptop in to upload your beach photos of your adorable kids up onto Facebook within a few hours of deplaning. Atkinson says that in the future it will more likely be cold spots –places where there is no internet access- that will experience a sharper rise in demand as people become and more aware of the damaging and draining effects of always being switched on.   It seems there is already a demand for this. After polling 1,000 travellers about how they deal with the stresses and demands of always being digitally connected, Marriot Hotels are now offering tech-free zones to travelers in 9 resorts in Mexico and the Carribbean. These zones will offer tech-weary travelers a “braincation”- a chance to really unwind without their mobile gadgets. In these areas, guests can enjoy other leisure activities that don’t include any tech gadgets, and -what a revelation- will be encouraged to simply interact with the other real world individuals they encounter in these areas. This takes considerable willpower for some people who are addicted to their gadgets, but after a little practice they may find it quite lovely to spend the afternoon reading a real book instead of staring at an iphone for hours on end.   I have frequently felt irritated when my mobile gadgets fail to function while visiting my family in rural Ireland. I have often found myself wandering around our front lawn waving my phone around desperately seeking a signal to send a text message. Or I have had my phone upstairs in our house for days and have felt lonely and despondent when I don’t get a response to the many text messages I have been sending, only to find that 10 messages come in at once when I walk downstairs and out into the orchard with my phone. Clearly my bedroom was a nice cold spot.   “I don’t know how you function here with no broadband!” I used to moan to my dad. He just smiles at me and says “Welcome back to the cybersticks, it’s great isn’t it, you can really unwind here.” I used to find this unamusing and would continue to will my poor phone to work, but more recently I see the great value of going somewhere where my phone refuses to cooperate. I also remember being a young child snuggled in my bed, and hearing my dad in the next room typing away for hours into the night on his old typewriter. He was clearly happily lost in his work with no internet or phone to distract him.   When I left the pool the other evening, I resolved to come home, turn on my laptop, and only open my word document to write and not go online at all. I wanted to create a cold spot right in my living room, with no internet to distract me. I was thinking of my dad and his typewriter and serene and quiet space. Upon opening the door to my flat, however, I got more than I bargained for. I stared at my desk and saw that my laptop was gone. Burglars had created a very cold spot for me. Now, 24 hours later, after dealing with the mayhem of a break-in, I am now sitting at my desk calmly typing this article on an old laptop borrowed from a friend and I have no internet connection. Naturally, I am livid that my space has been invaded and my personal belongings stolen, but I could think of only one way of curing the pain I feel of being the victim of a burglary and that was to replace the lock to my front door, bolt it tight, make a fresh pot of coffee, and get lost in writing.     Of course, having your laptop stolen is an extreme method of being forced offline. If your laptop happens not to be stolen, then you must take other drastic measures yourself to make your workspace conducive to creativity. The successful music producer Illiam Gates shares his methods for success in his workshop “The Ill Methodology”. He says that if you plan on producing a track that day then you must pull the modem jack out of your wall and take the battery out of your phone and store it at the other end of your house. No exceptions. He states that our brains get crippled by over thinking and we must clear our minds of other noise if we want to get into the creative zone and get on fire creatively. We have to train our creative minds to stay in the right brain-which is the side of the brain from where most creative impulses stem- and become removed from the analytical noise of the left brain. The left brain functions are marvelous indeed for many a pursuit, but not when you want your actions to be clear of doubt and ego. When in the heat of composition you need to simply follow through and not analyse what you are doing or question it. You must follow your instincts and roll on the wave you have caught with no doubt to stop you. Illiam Gates talks about how society rewards and  encourages us to live in the left brain constantly analyzing, thinking, doubting, proscrastinating, doubting and thinking again. We are not encouraged to think outside the box in mainstream pursuits. Internet addiction and useless hours of staring at an iphone seem in some ways to be a combination of doubt and brain turning to mush at the same time, and ultimately not really achieving anything of any value in either the left or the right brain halves, but rather confusing and draining both.   Naturally some of us are more talented at right brain activities and others at left brain activities, but Illiam Gates surely has a point when he talks about left brain careers and activities being more rewarded in our society. Look at all the accountants, mathematicians and computer scientists in our society who are rewarded handsomely for their analytical skills.   In his novel ‘The Pale King’ David Foster Wallace ridicules his character Sylvanshine, who is a trainee accountant, for his petty way of over-analysing every situation and every outcome of every action he takes in the same manner a tax accountant can analyse cost and profit analysis in every situation. Foster Wallace himself was a tortured right brain genius who very much spent most of his time in the creative state of writing, feeling very much alienated from the rewards of the left brain analytical world. He had his incredible left brain talents too, being a superb tennis player, but he suffered severe depression and eventually committed suicide at age 46, but not before leaving us with a great dose of his opinions on modern society. It seems he could never shut his brain off.   Foster Wallace was extremely critical of many aspects of American society and he spoke the crystal truth of how he saw things. His views could not be denied even by many a left-brain conforming analyst. He was sent on the strangest journalistic assignments that seemed clearly, from the outset, not what the magazine had intended. His critical essay of the treatment of lobsters at the Maine Lobster Festival which was then published in Gourmet Magazine- does not contain a lovely recipe for how to prepare a lobster, but rather how he is loathsome of mass tourism and of the fact that lobsters are thrown live into a pot of boiling water to be cooked. One has to respect Gourmet magazine for thinking outside the box and publishing his whole article ‘Consider the Lobster’. Its publication was a marvelous surprise for the world of animal rights movements too-whose work, like many people who live in right brain endeavors are also not richly financially rewarded.   And what area of the brain are burglars using when they operate, and how analytical or creative are they when they are at work? It is an area I find too painful to even explore in depth at  this present time, but I would imagine that they use both halves marvelously when  at work, and I would also guess that they don’t care to have much down time or living in cold spots to meditate on the wonderful jobs they are doing. I can only guess that constant online access makes their jobs easier to coordinate. So while I sit here genuinely enjoying and making the most of my forced internet offline cold spot, I shudder to think what those burglars are now doing with my laptop and my data. I certainly do not want to torture myself too much and get overly analytical and doubtful and obsessive over it though, because it will only disturb the surprisingly easy-going and happy creative state I have somehow managed to work myself into within only 24 hours of a burglary, and I would rather wait until tomorrow to deal with it again when I will then be forced to unhappily deal with tedious, painful and analytical bureaucracy that is filing police reports and insurance claims. For now I am going to stay in my happy offline right brain activities making the most of it, away from the noise, images and beeps of the city and its gadgets.


Link to Prenzlauer Berg-A Personal Memoir in Slow Travel Berlin

5 Dec



Ellen pic window

Link to Prenzlauer Berg-A Personal Memoir in Slow Travel Berlin

Helping Little Old Ladies versus Getting To Work On Time

3 Dec

by Rhea H. Boyden

‘Can we spend next Monday’s lesson working entirely on preparation for a really important presentation I have to give in English?’ one of my students requested of me last Monday. ‘It’s urgent and I am stressed about it and will need the whole class time for it’ she informed me. ‘Absolutely,’ I responded agreeably. ‘I will bring all the materials you need. There is no need to stress about it, I will get you prepped,’ I assured her.

This morning the sun was shining and it was a beautiful December morning. I was in an amazingly good mood considering it was Monday morning. I packed my bag with my presentation materials and headed out the door. As I approached the station a little old lady on a walker stopped me. I pulled my headphones off my head. ‘Can you help me walk home?, she panted. ‘I can’t manage it on my own’, she said. I looked at her with concern but simply said ‘I am really, really sorry, but I have a train to catch to an important meeting and I cannot be late’. She just looked at me sadly and I gave her another look that said how sorry I was, and I ran to catch my train. As soon as I took my seat on the train the realisation of what I had just done-or rather failed to do- hit me hard. ‘Wow, you are a real asshole, you just refused to help that poor old lady’: My heart sank and my good mood disappeared. I then pondered the moral implications of this and obsessed about it all the way to work.

When I arrived at work, I unlocked the meeting room and pulled out my materials and waited for my student. I kept watching the clock. 15 minutes later there was still no sign of her. I started feeling even worse about the little old lady and wondered if she was okay ‘Why am I letting this ruin my day?’ I thought. Eventually, half an hour late, my student came running in the door. ‘I am so sorry I am late’ she said, all flustered. ‘There was this little old lady at the bus stop and she was really stressed out and didn’t know where she was, so I had to help her.’ she explained. I just sat there listening in disbelief. ‘She said she needed to go to the hospital and I assured her it was not this bus but she had to take the other bus in the other direction. I think she was quite demented. I then took her to the right bus, but missed my own bus and had to wait another 20 minutes for the next bus.’ she continued. ‘God, what a morning. So much stress. I hate Mondays.’ she groaned. ‘Yes, I agree, Mondays suck’ I said, feeling bewildered. ‘I guess we better get to work on your presentation now, we really don’t have much time for it after all.’ I reminded her, my heart sinking even further. ‘Oh right, the damn presentation!’ she said. I haven’t prepared a thing!’

The Creative Timeline

17 Nov

The creative process

A friend of mine recently posted a nice illustration of the creative

timeline on my Facebook timeline. The timeline showed how one

typically goes through the creative process and it stated it like

this: Start project, mess around for days, panic, then do all the
work in the last minutes while crying as the deadline slaps you in
the face. I can definitely relate to this as a writer with deadlines.
I used to freak out even more about deadlines until I read a nice
little essay by a teacher of creative writing named Natalie Goldberg
who defines the ‘messing around’ phase as necessary and she calms
your nerves by calling this part of the process ‘composting’. She
says your thoughts, reading and notes have to decompose through your
subconscious for a spell before your ideas hit you and roll through
you like a tidal wave in a creative burst to help you complete the
project. This really helps to conceptualise the whole phase of
procrastination and indeed many people have pointed out that
procrastination is a very necessary part of the creative process and
there is no point in battling against it in agony. Ride with it and
let it take you where it takes you.

summer an artist friend of mine from Chicago arrived at my apartment
in Berlin en route to Kassel to present her work at the international
contemporary art show Documenta. She was very definitely in the panic
stage of her project. ‘I couldn’t manage to get my boot off when I
was going through customs.’ she said, recounting the story to me with
exhausted frazzled jet lag. ‘The boot was simply stuck to my foot’.
That, however, was the least of her problems. She had hired an art
student to cut out thousands of white paper spiders that were
supposed to be part of her project and she realised with horror that
the student had failed to produce enough spiders. She sat up half the
night, distraught, cutting out paper spiders in a frenzy. I was
little help to her as my mind had gone completely blank. I was trying
to write an inspired essay under pressure and I was getting nowhere
with it. ‘Why?’ I queried ‘Am I able to write something great and fun
when I have no deadline, and not when a deadline is given. ‘You
better learn,’ she warned, ‘If you really want to be a successful
writer.’ I was in bits. ‘How do you learn this?’ I asked. ‘With
practice and determination’ she said. She clearly had more practice
with with the creative process than I did.

we both got our projects completed to our satisfaction. She presented
her spider project at the show and I got my article published. We
joke about it now, and I sent her a message recently telling her that
I had found yet another stray spider that had somehow made it under
my couch. I keep it on my desk as a souvenir of that panicked
creative night that we agonised through last summer. On and on we
work to the next stage of procrastination, panicked work and
satisfied completion of a project. It can be terrifying at times, but
there is nothing I would rather be doing than writing and
understanding the workings of and becoming more comfortable with the
stages of the creative process.

Wrestling with Writing

12 Oct
William_Butler_Yeats_1 Maud Gonne
by Rhea H.Boyden
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

William Butler Yeats- The Second Coming

When my dear mentor sent me back an article I had written covered in correction symbols it felt like a punch in the face. I had genuinely been of the opinion that it had been very good, and nearly ready for publication. How wrong I was. ‘So, I will have to wrestle with this article all night and follow her instructions and disssect and interpret every red mark, green symbol, blue sign and purple arrow’, I sighed in exasperation. She had helpfully included a key to aid me in deciphering the symbols, and told me exactly what I needed to change and how to proceed. I had to do the work though, she wasn’t going to do it for me. I had never been published, and this was my first big chance to get my art show review into a New York magazine, so I was going to heed her rules. I took a deep breath. This was work, much unlike the creative heat of the inspiration of writing a first draft, which is fun and intoxicating. The symbols she had provided reminded me of formulae from my high school maths class which I had hated. Even very experienced writers with a couple novels under their belts, a knowledge of the process of getting a manuscript completed, and a tonne of confidence in their own ability, dread the proofs of their manuscripts being returned to them besmeared with red ink. The accomplished author Zadie Smith (who is my age) talks about her fear of receiving her novel back from editors. ‘Proofs are so cruel!’ she writes in her essay on writing. ‘Breeding lilacs out of the dead land, mixing memory and desire, stirring dull roots with spring rain. Proofs are the wasteland where your novel dies and the cold reality asserts itself.’ she says. I read this and I wonder if I will ever get my book finished. How is it I came to be writing a book anyway? It wasn’t really my plan. I already have a full time job and a very busy social life. And now I have to spend hours editing in my limited free time? I can only say that somehow writing chose me and not the other way around. Some of the essays I have written just somehow wrote themselves and were stream of consciousness, flowing out of me and onto paper in a river of ink flowing through a burst dam, uncontrolled by me. I am simply a conduit. My article ‘Musings on Modern Gender Relations’ wrote itself as I was under the influence of vodka cocktails on a cold December night. That article ended up as cover story in Gloss Magazine with the Irish Times and the response to the longer unedited version has reverberated throughout this entire year. And everyone had read the unedited version! I have been scrambling to edit it and make it better, but it seems people even loved the unproofed version. ‘It kind of flows and rambles in a very entertaining way, and I mean this as an absolute compliment.’ one friend of mine posted. Why I posted it online the minute I finished writing it, without even editing it or spell checking it is a mystery to me, and one of these crazy ideas of a beginning writer. I am not of the opinion that second drafts and editing are for sissies, and I am, of course, willing to put in the work, but I was just dying to get that essay out there. It couldn’t wait for editing, and the overwhelming feedback on it seemed to confirm this. Scores of people said: ‘What a timely essay, I couldn’t stop reading it.’ Even Gloss Magazine ignored the fact that it was clearly unedited and offered to publish a shorter version of it. This must have been beginner’s luck. I wouldn’t dare send an unedited article to a magazine again. What was I thinking? Even now, when I edit a draft two or three times, glaring errors still become apparent on a fourth read through. I do still post my articles on my blog and on Facebook all the time after two reads through, fully aware that there are still errors, but I think most of my readers are forgiving of this. I do not have the time to stay up til midnight every night, editing stories to magazine quality before I share them. If I ever get any of these articles published in a magazine again, I will go back and rework them. For now, they are good essays for my friends to read and that is fine. Writing is just a hobby that chose me and I was not even intending to get published yet. I started slowly writing an autobiograhy in recipes a year and a half ago for fun with the idea that maybe some day, if I am lucky, I will get it published, and it will be something that will be enjoyed by my circle of extended friends and family. I have no real formal education in style and syntax, neither am I journalist, or in possession of real solid skills that are needed to edit an article to top quality on my own. People keep saying: ‘Rhea, keep writing, you are so talented. Know it, own it, claim it!’ Hearing this kind of feedback is indeed very flattering and motivating, but I know only too well where my weaknesses lie. I need to spend more time studying style and syntax, punctuation and prose style, and all of this takes time. My book, of which I have written 50 pages, has been ignored these past 6 months in the excitement of getting my first two articles published, and then writing lots of other articles and prose poems on the heels of my publishing success. I need to forget all these other projects and get back to my book. Somehow I have developed a fear of revisiting that project though, partly because despite my lack of confidence, I do realise that my writing style and voice has improved a lot since I started that project , due to the sheer number of hours I have been writing. Going back to my book will be going back to a time when I was a worse writer than now, and I will likely groan and cringe at what I have written and realise how much work there is to be done to bring that project up to scratch, and indeed finish it. I completely relate to what Zadie Smith writes about revisiting things she has written and how daunting a task that is. She sums it up nicely in her essay by saying: ‘To look back at all past work induces nausea, but the first twenty pages in particular bring on heart palpitations. It’s like taking a tour of a cell in which you were once incarcerated.’ Indeed. Who wants to go back to jail? I need to have a more positive attitude and go back to that project that is dear to me and attack it with all my love. The very act of writing this essay here is yet another writing project I am throwing myself into in an attempt to ignore my book project. I have hope that I will attack it with a happy heart soon, especially as I am reminded by many teachers of writing that it is a good idea to leave things you have written for a spell before going back to them, as you can then approach editing with fresh and new energy that is somewhat removed from yourself and your ego. As Natalie Goldberg, teacher of creative writing and poetry, says in her essay on rereading and rewriting: ‘Time (away from what you have written) allows for distance and objectivity from your work. You can sit down and read something as if it weren’t yours. Become curious. Read it page by page. Even if it seemed dull when you wrote it, now you will recognise its texture and rhythm’. Yes, I must fight the nausea at my own earlier writings that I am bound to experience while rereading them, as Smith so clearly points out, but I can still have the benefit of re reading them from a detached and objective space. Quite apart from needing to squeeze time for writing and editing into an already busy work schedule, I must also find time for reading. Serious reading takes time, concentration and mental alertness. An alertness that is, depressingly, not always present after a long day of teaching. But read I must if I have any hope of being a good writer. My current reading materials are style guides, poetry, essays written by other writers, magazine articles on relationships, psychology, economics and history. I also read memoirs and the occasional novel of contemporary fiction. I have read many of the classics, but sadly my reading still has large gaps in it that I intend to fill when I find time for it. I have not read ‘War and Peace’ or ‘Crime and Punishment’ and neither of these books are high on my list of priority reading, even though I am aware that these are both books that one is ‘supposed to have read’. Both Smith and Goldberg talk about reading in their essays on writing. They both discuss how so many writers fear that their own voice will be lost if they read too much of another author’s work. Goldberg says in her essay that a student of hers complained to her that she was reading so much Hemingway that she was afraid her voice was not hers anymore, but that she was copying him. ‘That’s not so bad’, Goldberg writes. ‘It’s better to sound like Ernest Hemingway than old Aunt Bethune, who thinks Hallmark greeting cards contain the best poetry in America.’ Goldberg states that writing is a communal act, and that no one can lay claim to any voice. Obviously, if all you read is Hemingway over and over again, then you do not develop your own voice. You must read lots of different styles and different authors to broaden vocabulary and ideas constantly. While reading you will never know what will influence your style or not. In my experience, I notice with great joy while I am writing, how the different things I have read influence my writing, and I never have the feeling that it effects my own voice. If anything, all the diverse things I have read strengthen my writing. Surely it is arrogant to say that reading will ruin your voice? I would assume that most good writers have read a fair amount of books in their lives to date, and that all this reading influences their writing. How else have these good writers even developed a sophisticated enough vocabulary to write something worth reading if not by reading a lot themselves? Zadie Smith is also a proponent of reading a lot while writing, and says her writing desk is always covered in open novels while she is in the midst of writing a novel. As she says beautifully in her essay: ‘I think of reading like a balanced diet, if your sentences are too baggy, too baroque, then cut back on fatty Foster Wallace, say, and pick up Kafka as roughage. If your aesthetic has become so refined it is stopping you from placing a single mark on white paper, stop worrying so much what Nabokov would say, pick up Dostoyevsky, patron saint of style over substance.’ she advises. Who would worry about your reader thinking you have adopted someone else’s voice? I stand in awe, instead of Zadie Smith, who finds the time and energy to read all these other novels and write her own too. I have another very entertaining and ironic book that I love to read while commuting entitled ‘How Not To Write a Novel.’ by Sarah Newman and Howard Mittelmark. The book lays out, misstep by misstep, how you can sobotage your own novel in laugh -out-loud anecdotes that are easy to digest and somewhat silly, but at the same time very useful. They have one section where they talk all about how they understand how the beginning novelist wants to impress us by proving what an extensive vocabulary they have by wrestling with as many important and big words as possible that even they seem not to know the definition of in their writing. Newman and Mittelmark then offer a simple test that you can apply to any word to see if you know the definition. The test goes as follows: Ask yourself: ‘Do I know this word?’ If the answer is no, then you do not know the word.’ Natalie Goldberg also talks about how beginning writers are intimidated by the success and achievement of published and talented writers. She says simply that you need to subtract rules for writing, not add them muddying your prose with needless clutter. Writing needs to be kept clear, simple and honest if it is to make sense and keep the attention of your reader. ‘Good writing’ she says,’ is more of a process of uneducation than education.’ and her essays and simple tips seem to confirm this. Newman and Mittelmark humourously go on to talk about how confident and published writers have no problem using the speech tag ‘said’ when someone in a dialogue says something. Unpublished and inexperienced authors, on the other hand are uncomfortable with the boring repetition of the word ‘said’ when someone says something and try out every other word under the sun that indicates exactly in what manner someone has uttered something. The following section from their book is entitled: When the author thinks he is too good for the word ‘said’: ‘It was a dark and stormy night’, he divulged. ‘And, far from the coast we had no fear of any sea creature. How wrong we would be proved!’ he appended. She queried, ‘It was a sea creature? How is that possible?’ she further wished to determine. ‘It was a sea creature,’ he affirmed, ‘but one which had subtly mutated to be far more dangerous, far more deadly, than its marine counterpart. For on dry land,’ he uttered, ‘it had become both larger and more muscular. It’s funny’, he smirked, ‘now that I look back from safety.’ ‘Funny?’ she interrogated. ‘Hilarious!’ he expostulated. ‘Surely not?’ she doubted. ‘But how little you know!’ he exclaimed. ‘Says you!’ she objected. ‘That’s the last I am willing to say,’ he concluded. ‘Some listener you turned out to be!’ he snorted. This book wisely says that if we use too many words to say how something is said, we distract from what is being said, and we kill any chance of holding the attention of our readers, let alone landing a book deal. I am a beginning writer and I also get intimidated by all I have not read, all I do not know, and the sheer amount I have to read and learn, but I just try and be patient with myself. I do not have to write if I do not want to. I do it because it brings pleasure and gives me something to get lost in after a long day of work. When I am tired and in a bad mood, or lonely, I sometimes do not write. I sit on the couch, eat cookies, day dream and listen to music. That is ok too. And sometimes I do write when I am lonely and depressed and I find it lifts my mood. Goldberg has a whole chapter on loneliness and how you can write to reconnect with the universe. Smith too talks about how you can fall in line with a feeling, write, and go where it takes you instead of fighting it and going against the grain. Both of their essays on these topics have proven very useful therapy for me when I am feeling blue. In short, writing is therapy on so many levels and it can lift you up and help you process any low feeling you may have, whether it may be inadequacy, depression or loneliness. I live and breathe writing and I feel it is now an integral part of my life and essential for my sanity on many levels. When I was a young student at university in the United States, I did not do a whole lot of extracurricular reading and some would say that I was academically lazy. If I had not had to work the whole way through college, I may have had more leisure time for reading books for pleasure, but it was not the case. I did the coursework, made good grades, and that was that. I read about six novels in my free time for fun throughout my whole university career. I was more interested in going out and having a good time and doing a lot of sports when I was not at work or in class. It was not until a year after I graduated from university that I started reading again for pleasure. The book that set off my post university reading career was an autobiography by a woman named Mary Karr called ‘The Liar’s Club.’ It was so funny and so honest that I devoured it in one sitting and I immediately ordered her other novels and poetry and I have never looked back. Karr awakened in me a mature love of poetry, something which I, like a lot of people, found to be a chore at school. In Ireland we were forced to read a lot of W.B. Yeats and I never appreciated it. Presumably educators realise that the average teenager will not appreciate poetry at school, but will hopefully appreciate it at a later point and their wish is to lay the groundwork for this future appreciation. Mary Karr quotes Yeats’ ‘The Second Coming’ which is a serious poem about Christ’s Second Coming in the middle of talking about her crazy, hilarious Texan childhood. This was the first time I saw that poetry can come to life and have meaning in the middle of not such high brow literature. It was a revelation to me. Since that time, I have found poetry to be of great solace and find that it is speaking to me in a special language that only I can deciper at that time. This of course, is the very essence and beauty of poetry: it is very personal and it is there to be interpreted in many ways. I have cried and laughed at poetry and recently even written some of my own prose poetry, a process which was an incredible experience. Here again, like some of my crazier inspired essays, the poem wrote itself and just flowed out of me with me as the conduit. These are the times when I am not wrestling with words, rather they flow easily through my soul, muscles, blood and sub conscious mind easily, and with great pleasure. As an adult who has suffered unrequited love, I can feel compassion for Yeats when I write my own prose poetry. He was desperately in love with the Irish revolutionary and feminist Maud Gonne, who rejected his three marriage proposals. It seems the best muses for poetry and writing are the ones who are unable to give us the love we so seek from them. I wrote a poem (that I am very proud of) this past summer for a man, and I sent it to him and told him I had written it for him. He read it and politely rejected my advances. He has remained my muse however, as I have not yet been able to lodge him from my head. He has served a good purpose, however, as muse and character in nearly every poem and article I have written since then. If he had said he loved me too, and we had indeed started the love affair that I had built up in my silly head, I doubt I would have gotten a whole lot of writing done these past months. This is my solace. I am productive with my writing while not in love. Rejection breeds fertile ground for writing, and I am thankful to say that the writings inspired by him are merely mournful and hopeful for future reconciliation, and not bitter and resentful. Much of Yeats’ poetry requires dedication and a knowledge of Greek myths and a qualified teacher as a guide if you are to become a dedicated scholar and really get what he is talking about. I have read a lot of his poetry and I get a lot out of it, but a lot is lost on me because I do not have a professor at my side to guide me through it. But that is fine, we do not all have to be academic scholars of a poet to allow their writings to touch our busy lives and feed our souls. Poetry can lift you up regardless. Both Zadie Smith and Natalie Goldberg rave about John Keats and what an accessible poet he is. Smith talks about how she much she can relate to him and how he opened her mind to the beauty of poetry. ‘Keats offers his readers the possibility of entering through the side door,’ writes Smith, ‘the one marked ‘Apprentices Welcome Here’. For Keats went about his work as an apprentice. He took a sort of MFA of the mind, albeit alone, and for free in his little house in Hampstead. A suburban lower middle-class boy, he made his own scene out of the books of his library.’ To this I can most definitely relate. I am a homebody too, surrounded by my books, my ambition to write, and no advanced degree beyond a BA and no more professors to guide me. I do enjoy surrounding myself with my intellectual superiors and I lap up what they have to offer, and do not fear it. Keats’ poetry is so wonderful precisely because it is intellectually demanding, while at the same time unpretentious. He admits the limits of his knowledge and education in his poetry. His sonnet ‘To Homer’ opens with the folllowing two lines: ‘Standing aloof in giant ignorance, of these I hear and of the Cylades’. He pays homage to Homer in this sonnet, but admits his ignorance of the Greek language. It does not appear, however that his lack of knowledge of Greek impedes his own talent for writing poetry. His sonnets openly explore his weaknesses, his fear of not being loved, his fear of being alone and his mortality. These are universal fears whether we can read Homer and understand it, or have dropped out of high school and are struggling for recognition in society. We are all searching for love and are wrestling with whatever comes our way in life and we want attention and to be understood. Goldberg warns in one of her essays not to write because you want to be loved. ‘Writers get confused’ she says. ‘We think writing gives us an excuse for being alive. We forget that being alive is unconditional and that life and writing are two separate entities. Often we see writing as a way to receive love and attention. See what I wrote. I must be a good person.’ I must admit that I am guilty of using writing as a way of getting love and attention. I can hardly deny it after what I divulged above. That I have a muse and I wanted him to love me and my poetry. I wanted him to be a fan of my mind and my body. That is the fantasy that lives inside me. Quite apart from my romantic fantasies, however, I simply hope that people will like and appreciate my writing. I am ecstatic when I get messages from happy readers saying how much they love what I write. How could I not be happy? I have my critics too, of course, and I try and take their advice and learn from it. And I apologise for my terrible syntax and my somewhat perverse refusal to use ever use spellcheck. My writing, I know, swims in a sea of misplaced commas, which could, along with my poor syntax, be a result of my having learned the German tongue fluently, which is a language awash with commas and neverending sentences. I need to bear in mind Natalie Goldberg’s teaching that good writing is a process of uneducation. In my case unlearning German syntax while writing English sentences. It is something I wrestle with every day. But this relentless wrestling with language, writing, syntax and style need not be a tough match that ends in bruises if I remind myself that it is all a learning process that I can do in my own time. I, like Keats can set the pace and do my own MFA of the mind, in my own cozy living room, surrounded by the books and people I love.


Featured images: William Butler Yeats 1920 (Bain News Service) Maud Gonne (Max Elbo Graphics)


30 Sep

Rhea H.Boyden

When I was a
young student at university I wrote quite a few good papers, but it
was always a trial, and I always stressed out about it, because I
never grasped the process correctly. To write a good paper, article
or essay with ease you need patience and an understanding of the
process of creativity. Why did no professor ever point this out to me
back then? It is only years later at age 37 as I write as a mature
adult, do I now appreciate with full clarity the patience that is
required when working on any creative project, and I am trying to use
this new understanding in other areas of my life beyond writing. It
only took one reading of a very short essay by a teacher of creative
writing and poetry named Natalie Goldberg for me to relax, be kind to
myself, and let the ideas unfold at their pace.

In her
perfect essay entitled ‘Composting’, Goldberg uses the simple
metaphor of the brain and subconscious being a compost heap through
which our thoughts and ideas need to decompose before becoming the
rich soil and fertile ground from which grow our stories and poems.
She talks of how she was attempting to write about her father’s
death, and she had pages upon pages of disparate notes about the
topic that she was processing, but nothing seemed to be working. But
then, all of a sudden one day, she was sitting at her favourite cafe
and a long poem on her father’s death just flowed out of her. As she
says: ‘All the things I had to say were suddenly fused with energy
and unity-a bright red tulip shot out of the compost.’

A couple
weeks before I read this essay I was in New York and I went to the
Metropolitan Museum of Art. I had a wild experience at the museum and
was particularly struck by two paintings that inspired me so
incredibly. I took some notes at the museum and then I went back to
my aunt’s apartment in Brooklyn and started to write about the
paintings. I also compared them to some other crazy electronic
gadgets I had seen in Berlin at an electronics store and then I
started talking about art and science fiction and alienation and
technology and so forth. I filled a good dozen pages of my notebook
with a whole lot of crazy disparate notes that were attempting to
become some insane essay on what I am not quite sure. I ended up
throwing the notebook aside in exasperation and making myself another
iced-coffee to quell my over-heated impatience with myself and the
New York heatwave. ‘I am such a crap writer. What the heck is it I am
trying to say here?’ I didn’t write another thing in New York.

Back in
Berlin a couple weeks later, I then looked over my notes from New
York again and it hit me like a thunderbolt. ‘This is not an essay or
an article!’ I exclaimed. ‘This is a poem!’ I sat down, turned on my
laptop and a long prose poem flowed out of me on the paintings I had
seen in New York. The science fiction and electronic gadgets were
ignored. The next day I read Natalie Goldberg’s essay on ‘Composting’
and she described EXACTLY the creative process I had just
experienced. Every essay, article or poem I have written since has
been done with great ease and patience as I consciously realise that
in the time leading up to writing, while I am researching, making,
notes and processing, that is exactly what I am doing. I am
composting my materials. Good things take the time and patience.
When I next have writer’s block I can also remind myself to be
patient with myself. Every field must lay fallow for a spell before
it can produce more beautiful plants. And not every seed that is sown
will sprout. What to do with all those other notes on science fiction
and electronic gadgets? Maybe at some point in the future when I
re-read those notes, they will grow into an article, essay or poem.
And maybe they won’t. That is ok too. Some notes, like weeds, must be
discarded and do not blossom.

Goldberg also knows very well how many poets and writers love whiskey
and wine. How that nice glass of red wine can unlock and unleash the
trapped thoughts in an artist’s head. How, when thoroughly
intoxicated, the writer loses all inhibitions and all is laid bare in
words on the page. I too, have written some of my most inspired
essays while drunk, and it was, admittedly, a wild and enjoyable
experience. Goldberg encourages us, however, to have the patience
with ourselves to get drunk and intoxicated on reading poetry without
the aid of whiskey. When completely absorbed and understood in its
essence, poetry is a drug enough and the whiskey is not necessary.
Poetry becomes the whiskey.

Since I have
quit drinking I have realised that a greater patience with myself is
demanded as I am forced to look at myself completely with sober eyes
and it takes more effort, but the rewards are evident. I feel much
better and produce more quality writing while sober too. Berlin
winters, however, can be very long and cold, and alcohol is
definitely something I used to help me survive in the sub zero
temperatures in January. Who can resist a cup of hot mulled wine that
is being served on a platform while waiting for a severely delayed
train after a long day of work? I was once reading the online
satirical magazine ‘The Onion’ and I stumbled upon a silly photograph
of a man holding a thermos coffee mug which had the words ‘I love
commuting’ written on the side. He was secretly pouring a generous
shot of Jack Daniel’s whiskey into the mug. Who can’t relate to this?
Commuting daily for years is surely one of the most mind-numbing and
soul- destroying activities of modern life and it is easy to see why
it leads people to drink. Commuting also demands a lot of patience. I
personally hate it, but a good amount of it is a requirement of my
job, so here again I try and take Natalie Goldberg’s advice. I keep
her book of short essays (which are the perfect length for reading on
a train), and a book of short poems to help make my commute more
meaningful and enjoyable.

Not only
commuting can be lethal, but also the effects of a repetitive job. I
have been teaching English for years in companies and I love it, but
it can get very repetitive and a greater amount of patience is
required to carry it out with grace. When I find myself having to
answer the same question for the 500thtime,
I find myself feeling very impatient with my students. I try and
practice patience with them too. It is only the first time this
student has asked this question of you, so do not take your
impatience out on him, I remind myself. I get impatient when a
beginning student cannot identify Australia on a map of the world, or
does not know things about the English speaking world that I, in my
wordly ways, take as general knowledge. ‘Have you ever been
anywhere?’ I ask through gritted teeth. ‘No, I have never left
Germany.’ my student responds in German. ‘I have never been anywhere,
I have two horses and I spend all my free time with them.’ she
informs me. ‘Ok, fair enough’ I respond, humbled. I sometimes forget
what a privileged and jet set life I have led and that many, many
people stay in one place. It’s good to be reminded of this. Horses
must take a lot of patience. I don’t think I would have the peaceful
composure that is required to look after them.

Another time
a student asked me what it was like at an airport. ‘Sorry, what do
you mean what is it like at an airport?’ I responded. He seemed like
a trendy young guy who I presumed had travelled and the topic in the
book was all about travelling. We were talking about baggage reclaim,
and he didn’t have any idea what I was talking about. ‘Well, your
bags come out on a moving conveyer belt after your plane lands and
you take your bag off the belt when you see it.’ I explained
patiently. ‘Don’t people steal the bags?’ he asked amazed. ‘It’s not
a good idea to try and steal a bag’. I said. ‘The owner of the bag is
likely standing there watching it too.’

Airports are
another place that can test your patience. And I have spent a good
chunk of my life both in airports and on planes. How to patiently
pass the time there? In my younger drinking years, I headed straight
to the bar. That is the most logical place to meet other bored
passengers and have a few drinks and a few laughs. I have met the
most amazing people while travelling and drinking and I could write a
whole book on that topic. These days, I try and make sure I have lots
of interesting reading material and I find the most comfortable seat
I can to sit out the tedious wait for a connecting flight and try and
use the time as best I can. But as we all know, when we are forced to
have to wait for an exended period of time, it is a challenge to just
be happy and read and enjoy yourself. Who actually enjoys waiting at
an airport and using the time productively instead of heading to the
airport bars, restaurants and shops?

In his
article on patience in the magazine ‘Psychology Today’, Alex
Lickerman talks about strategies you can use to help you actually
enjoy the times you find yourself having to wait. And in our modern
world filled with so many people, there are plenty of times when we
find our patience tried by having to wait. He encourages us to try
and immerse ourselves completely in the action we are taking. With
practice you can get very good at this. He says you can also vividly
imagine you are already enjoying the thing you are waiting for.
Anticipation of something, he says, is often far more enjoyable than
experiencing the real thing. To this I can most definitely relate.
Getting lost in fantasy about some enjoyable experience you hope to
have is warm, fuzzy and comforting and really helps speed up time
subjectively. I have had certain romantic fantasies, for example,
that never happened in real life, but the fantasy helped pass the
waiting time in a more pleasant way. I was at an airport too, and I
was hoping to see the man in the country I was flying to. He let me
down and I never saw him, but it was a most enjoyable passage of time
thinking about seeing him. On the way home again after not seeing
him, I concentrated entirely on a funny book that helped me get my
mind off of him. It was so engrossing, in fact, that I nearly missed
my flight.

The ultimate
test of patience when dealing with the passing of time can only be
how an innocent prisoner decides to deal with this. Mumia Abu-Jamal,
a black convict, who has been serving a life sentence in prison since
he was convicted of the murder of a black policeman in Philadelphia
in 1981, has become an inspiration to millions. He is widely presumed
innocent, and his books and writings have been published from Death
Row. In his book ‘Death Blossoms-Reflections from a Prisoner of
Conscience’ he talks about the erosion of caring, nurturing and
community in present day America. He says: ‘For billions of us, life
is a search, a journey of seeking for that which we found unfulfilled
in our youth. We search for love, family and community. We search for
the completion of Self in others. As we search we find that modern
life with its bursting ballons of materialism, leaves us more and
more empty inside. Things that once seemed to fill us now fail to
bridge the gaping chasms in our psyche.’ Abu-Jamal reminds us in his
brilliant and critical essays how important community is and how
terribly our community bonds have eroded in the search for the dream
of self-actualisation and individuality.

In his essay
in ‘Psychology Today’ entitled ‘The Need for Patience’, Micheal
Austin talks about how erosion of community the need for everyone to
follow his own individual path actually really has increased levels
of impatience to an unprecedented level. We have become unbelievably
impatient and its easy to see what he is talking about. If you live
alone for years you get very used to doing things as you do them and
if anyone comes into your home and does them in a different way this
immediately leads to impatience with another’s methods. When living
alone, we forget how to compromise. I love having my own flat in
Berlin and living alone, but I notice with horror at the tender age
of 37 how stuck in my ways I am becoming and it terrifies me. My dear
dj and producer friend from Ireland has been staying with me lately
while he looks for his own flat and it is forcing me to be patient
and respect his space and his wishes even though he is in my flat. I
can be a total control freak in my kitchen, but I try and just keep
my mouth shut and let him cook dinner without interfering. It’s a
good lesson for me. We are both creative people and we both need our
space to get lost in our art. Me in my writing and him in his music.
We discuss how both our artforms teach us patience with ourselves,
but how as a creator you can never truly be fulfilled. Once one
project is over, you impatiently and hungrily move onto the next one.
Can one ever be satisfied? We need our art to live meaningful lives.
Without my writing and the intoxication it provides I know I could
easily slip back to the easy intoxication that is produced by whiskey
and wine. After a long day of commuting, I try and be patient with
myself, my friends and my artform. In the words of Picasso: ‘Art
washes away from the soul, the dust of everyday life’. And so true it
is. I want to continue to get lost in reading, writing and poetry and
use them to foster patience as I have learned from Natalie Goldberg.
Good things take time. I am half way through writing my book. It will
take a lot of effort and patience to complete and its completion is a
goal I cherish. In doing it though, I do not want to become too
self-absorbed. I must also remember the community of people around me
and patiently spend time with them, whether on a crowded train at
rush hour with strangers, or with the people I care for the dearest
whose patient feedback and love I am dependent on for my success as a

Soulful September Sunday

2 Sep

by Rhea H. Boyden Sunday is a funny day. Sometimes I love it and sometimes I hate it. It is supposed to be a relaxing and rejuvenating day, but living alone, it can be a bit lonely. I enjoy my time alone to read and write, and this afternoon I intended to do just that. I nestled down into my couch with a cup of tea and my book. The book was one of short stories by a woman author my age named Zadie Smith. I read her novel ‘On Beauty’ a couple years ago and I loved it, so I wanted to try this book too. I started reading the first story and became frustrated fast. She was talking all about a book she had read and I couldn’t quite follow the story because I had not read the book. I then skipped to another story. It also referenced lots of books and poems I had never read. This of course made me feel intellectually inadequate, irritated and then plain lonely, as I sat on my couch pondering how to continue my Sunday. ‘Why can I not just enjoy a book of short stories on a Sunday afternoon without getting riled up that I don’t know what she is talking about?’ I grumbled to myself. ‘Must one have read everything she quotes here to get it, or am I missing the point completely?’ I tossed the book aside, exasperated, and decided to check Facebook to cheer myself up. Checking Facebook did not help. I immediately stumbled upon the Facebook page of my old Secondary School in Ireland and then got lost in looking at pictures of the school and past students. I then felt extremely nostalgic and homesick. One of the descriptions of the photos said that my old school had first opened its doors to students in September 1972. ‘Wow, that is 40 years ago this month.’ I thought. ‘Where does the time go?’ I began to think of the old days at school and a tear came to my eye. Thinking of past loves, past haunts, and past pranks. I smiled through my wistfulness, choking back the tears and then managed to laugh at a couple photos. Talk about mixed emotions. I then suddenly thought of the book of short stories I had abandoned on the couch behind me. ‘Wait, was Zadie Smith not just talking about nostalgia and soulfulness in her story?’ I logged out of Facebook and returned to my book again eagerly to re-read her bit on nostalgia and soulfulness, ignoring the fact that I had not read the book she was quoting. Most short stories, as far as I know, are meant to be enjoyed alone with no prerequisites, so I am going to do just that. Zadie Smith says to be soulful is to be nostalgic and quotes the definition of ‘Soulful’ as: ‘expressing or appearing to express deep and often sorrowful feeling.’ She then goes on to say ‘soulfulness is sorrowful feeling transformed into something beautiful, creative and self-renewing.’ I suddenly felt happier and uplifted. It suddenly did not matter to me that I had not read the book she was talking about. I sat there and pondered why I was feeling wistful anyway, and how I could turn it into something creative? One plain reason must of course be the change of season, the chill in the air. That chill that makes you feel lonely, and of course nostalgic for warmer Summer days. That rustle in the leaves as the evening air blows through them. The leaves are clinging on to Summer too just as I am, in denial of the fact that they will soon be blown away. Zadie Smith goes on to talk about soul food which she defines as ‘simple, flavoursome, hearty, unfussy and with spice.’ Of course one of the soul-saving traditions of Sunday is the delicious food you can take the time to prepare on this day of rest. I am now very much in tune with Smith’s world as I read on and she says: ‘to be soulful is to follow and fall in line with a feeling, to go where it takes you and not go against the grain.’ This is marvellous advice. Especially for writers. Loneliness and nostalgia can be wonderful tools for writers. Not to wallow, but you can write yourself out of wallowing and process the feelings a September Sunday bring. First a big plate of soul food followed by an evening of writing. This Sunday has been a success after all, and I am sure I can face the darkening days as Autumn approaches. I can even set aside some time on those dark evenings to read the poetry Smith writes of and then go back and read those stories with a fresh perspective. A new season can bring new hope and new creativity. I have lots to read and process, lots of soul food to eat, and lots of writing to do.