We’ve got a bit of spare space in our garden and I’ve been thinking about growing some of our own food. With rising prices it makes sense and I’ve been fantasising about the bee-buzzy abundance of an English summer garden, ripe with raspberries, yolk-yellow courgette flowers, and sugarplum tomatoes.
I’ve also been immersed in a useful book—Stephen Joseph’s Authentic. A professor of psychology, his writing has given me plenty to think about—fundamentally that you can only be happy if you’re true to yourself, and for that you need to know yourself. It’s not a new idea of course; Socrates advocated self-knowledge as the path to happiness, more than two thousand years ago. But it is remarkably easy to fall into traps where we deceive ourselves, and reading the book has prompted me to think about authenticity in my own life.
The first thing that came to mind was my sewing project. That was when I tumbled innocently into the imitation trap. It started when I was enchanted by a display of patchwork quilts at the American Museum in Bath. They’d been crafted by early American settlers who sat companionably by candlelight, sharing local gossip and making skilful use of their limited materials. I was transported by this romantic vision and I was inspired too by the exquisite patchwork creations of a friend. So I set out to dye my old wedding dress and to make a patchwork cushion with it. I didn’t think it through but I guess what I wanted from doing this was the satisfaction of creating something beautiful, and for other people to admire my handicraft, as I do with my friend. Unfortunately I forgot that she’s calmer and more patient than me. And she’s much more visually astute. I also conveniently forgot that I’ve never liked sewing and am probably never likely to as I can’t cope with precision. The whole experience was absurdly stressful and the end result was awful. I should have heeded Oscar Wilde’s wry advice to be yourself because everyone else is taken.
Another slippery trap is the fantasy trap. That’s when I lose touch with reality. At one time, I thought I would like to keep bees but I realise now I was carried away by imagining the delicious sticky, honey cake I could serve on a vintage flowery plate, and the dreamy hum of my own bees on a summer afternoon as they drifted around my cottage-garden lavender spikes and fragrant, floppy roses. But thinking is mere fantasy. The reality is often quite different. And the reality is that (a) I don’t want the responsibility of 30-40,000 tiny creatures (b) it seems like extremely hard work and (c) I don’t have a cottage garden. The key question has to be whether the positives outweigh the negatives, and for me I don’t think they would. Thankfully, I’ve avoided that particular trap but I was less wise in judging the reality of another kind of good life fantasy and spent several years, much energy and far too much money, trying to contain a pair of goats who were hellbent on eating my neighbour’s garden. I’m still not sure why I did that. I was of course younger and more energetic but I don’t think that the basic facts have changed. I don’t like mud, goats and chaos now and I didn’t like those things then. On the positive side, I do still remember how to trim a goat’s hoof—but there’s not much call for it here in suburban Southampton.
And I mustn’t forget the hormone trap. Our biochemistry can at times do its best to override good sense, and love addles us. For about a year after Molly was born, my hormones tried to convince me that I really wanted another baby. But later with a clearer head, I could see that it was just an oxytocin rush and a reluctance to accept that my reproductive years were over. It would have been madness.
But perhaps the most insidious trap of them all, is the should trap. It’s where we get ensnared by all those things that we do simply because we believe they’re expected of us. The tangled threads that hold us in these traps are spun from early on, and continue into adulthood. We unconsciously absorb subtle messages about what we should do, what we should like and how we should think. They come from many sources—parents, teachers, grandparents, siblings, lifestyle magazines, other media… I was an avid reader and children’s books surreptitiously planted ideas in my head about how girls should behave, what a normal family looks like, and how to be good. The shoots grew and I watered them without recognising that they were weeds. It’s taken a long time to unpick a lot of these influences; to realise that they have deep roots, and that they seed freely and are not easily eradicated. The annoying thing is that often there is no real expectation from outside ourselves—it’s simply a misapprehension or an outdated idea that has taken root and bent us out of shape.
I’ve come up with my own names for my personal collection of traps but the question remains—does it matter if I fall in? Does it matter if you fall into your equivalent but individual version of them?
I don’t think it mattered so much when I was younger—we need to explore in order to find out about ourselves. But as I get older, it seems evermore important to use my time and energy wisely, and if I try new things then I risk falling into a trap. There are some things that I feel fairly clear about and will avoid. It’s feasible, for example, that I might surprise myself and enjoy going to a cricket match or a pantomime, eating raw oysters, appreciating opera, or reading science fiction. But as I’ve never had any interest in those things, the chances are that I wouldn’t get enough out of them to make it worth my time, effort and money. I prefer to spend more time on the things I know I really love: playing with words; reading about ideas; walking; theatre, and spending time with my special people. Walking the South-West Coast Path with the wind in my hair, diamonds on the sea and an ache in my calves I feel alive without compromise. Nonetheless, there is a balance to be struck between exploring and remaining authentic, and it’s summed up in yet another of Oscar Wilde’s witticisms. His tart retort to “Know thyself” was “Only the shallow know themselves.” I don’t want to stay ensconced in entrenched positions; that’s not good individually or for society. I want to have doubt—especially in a world of rapid political and societal change. It keeps us open to growth and exploration.
Since we can’t avoid new things, and because we inevitably change, then here’s another question. How can I know what I want or think when I trip so easily into these traps?
In his book, Stephen Joseph says that authenticity is not something that people have or don’t have; it’s not like a qualification you strive towards and get a certificate at the end. It is instead about the decisions you make in each and every moment, and how you make them. There are inevitably many things both personally and at work, that we have to do but might prefer not to. But being aware that they are a necessary compromise does at least mean that we are not being misled. And it helps to know what the traps are so you can side-step them, or so that you can climb out gracefully before you slip in too deep. Before launching into new projects or agreeing to requests, I’m trying to remember to ask myself, Why am I doing this? Am I teetering on the rim of the imitation trap …the fantasy trap…the should trap…are my hormones confusing me?
These thoughts gelled when Mike offered to dig up an overgrown patch of paving in our garden in order to make me a vegetable patch. My first reaction was enthusiasm. I thought of friends who serve delicious meals with homegrown produce, and generously distribute the surplus, I thought of how we should make use of the little bit of ground we have, and I imagined myself wafting into the kitchen wearing a straw hat and a flowing dress. I’m carrying a traditional trug full of newly-pulled carrots and plump pea-pods. It’s a perfect summer’s day and the birds are singing a congratulatory chorus. There is no mud on the carrots and certainly not on me, and somehow these vegetables managed to plant themselves in a weed-resistant bed and didn’t mind that we went on holiday and neglected to water them. Then I remembered the patchwork, the goats and the children’s literature. Get real, I thought, and surprised my willing husband with the words, Thank you very much for the offer but I don’t think it’s what I want.
Photos by Mike Poppleton