Stories We Tell Ourselves

I’ve just received my DNA results and my ethnic story has slightly rewritten itself. For most of my life I’ve felt very strongly Welsh but always with a strong pull towards Ireland. The first time I ever visited there (Donegal) I knew it was my spiritual home and in many ways my journey on Ancestry.com has been about confirming that. I found the link quickly, on my mother’s side – a very clear line coming from Ireland to Liverpool and then into North Wales. It explains the Catholicism and the twinkle in the family eyes.

Growing up, my mother told me her family thought there might be some French blood in there – she had a French nose, she said. She also had glorious cheekbones. There had to be something else mixed in. There is – 26% Western European (likely to be Belgian, French, German or Dutch – even Swiss). Later in my life, I’ve wondered if there was some Jewishness in me – it turns out there is – 4% to be exact – probably from Eastern Europe.

As well as an unsurprising healthy dose of Scandinavian blood, there is the very small matter of 1% East Asian. A friend tells me I’d only need to go seven generations back to find a full Asian parent in my ancestry. I wanted a surprise and I got one – how cool would it be to track that parentage back?

One thing’s for sure, I am a woman who feels connected with the world beyond our shores and this DNA test confirms it.

I’ve had some friends take this test and been wholly blindsided by the reversal of the narrative around their ethnicity. Barring the Asian curveball, I am pretty much who I thought I was. Perhaps a tad less Celtic than I thought but a strong European mix. But other people have discovered that their family story isn’t quite as it’s been told over the years. It makes me think of the Alistair McGowan episode of the BBC’s Who Do You Think You Are? when the impressionist was blown away by his father’s Anglo-Indian roots and the fact that his name hails from Ireland, not his beloved Scotland, where he’d always felt a spiritual pull. As my mum used to say, it just shows to go you.

It’s made me think about how we construct narratives around ourselves to make sense of our place in the world. I’ve spent years trying to place myself – ethnically, professionally, socially – and this blog is part of that exploration. If you don’t fit a pre-set narrative, this is what you do. As a fifty-one year-old woman I ‘should’ be juggling my publishing career with a bunch of teenagers and mid-life crisis man at home. I ‘should’ be holidaying in a cottage in Cornwall with my family, not preparing to trek through Kyrgyzstan with a group of mostly strangers. I ‘should’ be spending Christmas in a chaotic household filled with multiple generations, not walking along a Goan beach, solo, with an occasional white horse for company.

I’ve compared my own story with other stories of like women. I connected with Elizabeth Gilbert and her Eat Pray Love story, but over time I realised mine was not going to end with the Love bit so I looked for a new narrative to connect with. I found another with Cheryl Strayed when I read Wild, and then saw the movie. A woman who’d lost her mother and then gone wandering off into the wilderness to find her true self. But again, that narrative ended with marriage and babies. I’m sensing that this is not my true path.

In the search for my own narrative I’ve found pieces of others’ that have resonated hugely but no one story arc that matches mine. I’ve tried to find an essential truth behind what happened to me and why, tracing from my happy childhood, through the pain of early parental loss and the fracturing of a family, to a coupling and decoupling, and an establishment of my solo self. I want to get to an absolute truth and tell the story, and not hide the reality.

Over a number of years, I’ve developed a habit of seeking out and telling the truth (as I see it) about situations. I’ve also discovered that sometimes people don’t really want to hear it and prefer to believe a falsehood to make themselves feel ok. Maybe because I had to face reality so early on in life I prefer to look at things square on, and not flinch from the truth. I want to prepare myself for the reality, and not believe in false hope. I like to know what the exact weather forecast is and be ready for it, rather than ‘hope’ for the sun to come out. That way disappointment lies.

In the workplace over the years, I’ve become the ‘meme destroyer’ – running around throwing proverbial wet cloths over flaming untruths that gather around rumour and conjecture. I’m always amazed at how far these will go and what people are willing to believe. And also, how disappointed they are sometimes when you tell them the truth – when there’s nothing to complain about any more (ditto the weather).

I once worked for a company that was described to me early on as a ‘dysfunctional family’, when in fact it was more akin to a domestic-abuse situation. The staff who’d worked there for a long time described office life there as ‘rough and tumble’ and the boss as ‘a bit of a character’ – I called it being bullied by a manipulative narcissist. People refused to hear it at first, but gradually, even now, after a few years, I received emails from them saying ‘you were right’. I could see that they had constructed narratives to be able to cope with the situation and told themselves they were true. They didn’t want to hear me state the reality out loud. But I had to. The boss hated that I walked around with a folder containing the facts, not willing to listen, let alone believe, the gaslighting.

I’m not saying that I’ll never fall for a falsehood ever again, because I do all the time, because I like to believe people when they stand in front of me, talking. I was in Gower in Wales earlier this year and met a woman running her own coffee shop. Her other job was being an editor on films like Wonder Woman. I excitedly reported the news to one of the guys in the group. “And you believe her?” he said. “Well yeah, of course,” I replied. He was amazed at my readiness to believe and I was amazed at his cynicism. I instantly recalled myself showing a picture of me holding a sloth in Costa Rica to a local: “How do I know it’s real?” he said. “Do you have a video to prove it?”

In many ways I’m glad I’ve retained a willingness to believe someone’s story, in spite of being spun so many falsehoods over the years. I’m rewriting my own narrative on a daily basis, but I try to root it in the absolute truth – and here it is, on the third anniversary of me starting this blog.

You can choose to believe my story or wait for a video to prove it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Britain’s Got Weather

My favourite seasons are always the ones in between the extremes – spring and autumn are the ones in which the changeover between winter and summer can be viewed almost daily in a natural slideshow of shifting colours and shapes. Spring offers the promise of balmy summer nights – I think I prefer the promise to the actual event – and autumn makes us feel nostalgic about the balminess just past.

Meteorologically speaking autumn starts on 1 September and this year, it delivered a blinder – warm temperatures and daily sunshine made us think summer hadn’t quite ended. But it had. On 31 August. But somehow September got rebranded into ‘the last days of summer’ and yesterday’s harsh drop in temperature became ‘the sudden onset of autumn’. I think autumn needs a little bit of help on the brand-management side, don’t you?

I don’t know why, but autumn seems to have become synonymous with rain, cold and misery. For me, those unexpectedly mild sunny days are the stuff of it. Walks on Hampstead Heath kicking leaves, sitting outside a cafe in the sunshine – these are autumnal pursuits that can be done without having to slather myself in Factor 50 to avoid sunburn. I can sit in the sunshine without feeling uncomfortably hot and having to go in the shade every ten minutes. Bliss. These aren’t ‘the last days of summer’, they’re ‘the best days of autumn’.

Often our positioning of summer as ‘the perfect’ season is based on complete myth. For many people my age, it’s based on that one summer in 1976 when the season did what we expected it to do, if we lived in California. Boiling hot temperatures, wall-to-wall sunshine – it was the driest, sunniest, warmest summer of the 20th century. I remember lying in the sun with my sister in our back garden – she got third-degree burns on her stomach that year because sun-factor wasn’t a thing back then. We also had a plague of ladybirds – I remember them flying about as my dad Flymo’d the lawn. The summer of 1976 also led to a severe nationwide drought. Joy!

Because that summer has become wedged so firmly in our childhood memories, we are addicted to its Hipstamatic golden glow with its ‘Phew What a Scorcher!’ headlines. The season has never delivered anything like it since, although we’ve had a few good ones, like last year, and this. That summer was the exception, and not the norm, but people still expect summer to deliver 1976-style levels every year, and are profoundly disappointed when it doesn’t.

It rains in summer, often for long periods. Then we get a week, or two if we’re lucky, of warmth and sunshine. Then back to rain again. I always laugh to myself when the inevitable ‘the summer’s over!!!’ cries are found all over my social-media feeds when we have one day of rain. I think of these desperate people as dogs whose owners have just nipped out to the corner shop, but they think they’ve left for good. It’ll be back, I find myself saying, trying to comfort them, and it always is. There are, admittedly, prolonged periods of rain during some summers that do make you feel like it’s all over, but I always keep the faith. It’s never let me down.

I often feel like a one-woman weather marketeer in charge of reminding everyone that Britain’s Got Weather. You get rain in summer, sunshine in the middle of winter, balmy days in autumn, freezing days in spring. It’s unexpected and that’s the joy of it. I also feel like I’m the only one who checks the weather each morning, and dresses accordingly. Actually, I only check the temperature – my mantra is ‘dress for the temperature, not the weather’, which means that I’m not uncomfortably wrapped up in too many layers on a warm but cloudy day in September. I’ve really chuckled to myself over the past month, seeing Londoners wearing winter coats because the sun’s gone in. It might still be 22 degrees, but the coats go on because the sun isn’t there to validate the shedding of them. Interesting.

This mantra of mine does lead to the annoying commentary I get in early summer when again, I dress for the temperature, and inevitably get accused of looking ‘summery’ a grillion times a day. Well yes, I say, I look summery because it’s summer, which starts on 1 June, according to the Met Office. Other people wait for the 1976 moments to get their summer wardrobes out – which of course, may never happen. I like to get a good wear out of my summer wardrobe at the earliest opportunity, otherwise it’s wasted.

I wonder if my attitude to weather comes from being Welsh. In North Wales, the skies are often a flat, dull grey. Sunny days were so rare that we’d all rush out with our corned-beef legs and moonwhite faces, in nothing short of a pagan ritual. I remember my mum shouting from my bedroom window as she saw me lying in the sun, as a teenager, determined to roast myself into a ‘normal’ colour. I used to get horribly burnt, but I didn’t care – I had a colour that wasn’t blue-white.

I got used to the sun being the exception and not the rule and learned to enjoy it when it did decide to make an appearance. And now I love holidaying in places where the weather is mercurial – I’ve been trapped in snow and rammed by horizontal hail in New Zealand, during early summer, then roasted on the Abel Tasman trail a few days later. I’ve hiked Lochnagar on Midsummer Day in driving rain, but been bathed in sunshine on the way down. I’ve been sunburned on the west coast of Ireland, as I’ve trekked through soft rain and found myself exposed on Slea Head peninsula as the sun suddenly blasts out. I’ve been unable to see two feet in front of me on Hebridean islands in the fog, and then the sun has shown me the all the treasures of the turquoise seas of Jura as it penetrates the shallow coastal water. Our coastline is nothing short of paradise at that moment.

If you are continually hankering for 1976 then you will always be disappointed. Unless you can move to California, then you need to deal with it. It’s October 5 today and the forecast is 15 degrees and wall-to-wall sunshine. Next week it’s going to rain every day until Sunday, with intermittent sunshine (a note to TV forecasters – this isn’t ‘miserable’ weather – it’s weather. You are responsible for a nation’s sense of wellbeing.)

Get out there now and enjoy lovely autumn.

You’re welcome.