The Still Life


Following on from my little self-discovery last week that I’m not overly great at living in the moment I thought I’d try and open myself up to some tasks that might force me to do just this.

So yesterday I participated in a life-drawing class where attendees take it in turns to pose for one another for 10-15 minutes stints whilst the others sketch them so that the group are provided with models to practice a bit of artwork. (In case you were wondering, no, this wasn’t nude life sketching.)

I used to love doing arty things when I was younger but one year of art A/S level at the age of 17 was enough to put me off it for almost a decade. I had thought that art would be a relaxing, or at least different way of engaging my brain, alternative when picking a-levels. A balance to the History, English Literature and Psychology I was also studying. But it was actually the most stressful of all these subjects as the workload was immense and I felt constrained by my teachers perspectives of what did and did not constitute art, in their narrowing definitions of uninspiring assignments.

Recently, however, I have been picking up the odd pencil, paintbrush and pritt-stick (after all, what’s art without a little cutting and sticking here and there) in attempts to make thoughtful presents for friends. For those unfortunate few with a Pottsy original art piece I can only apologise and hope that what I lack in skill I made up for in effort. And should that piece of art accidentally get lost in a house-move, randomly set-alight by art-hating anarchists who broke in or just be destroyed by the dog, I will understand.

However, having re-found my love of artistic endeavours, if not achievements, I thought perhaps I could attempt to actually improve my abilities. I don’t deny that a lot of artistic aptitude must come naturally to talented artists but it occurs to me that regular practice might help here as it does with so many other things in life, such as learning a language.

The life-drawing class afforded me that opportunity to practice. I wouldn’t have to spend hours pondering what I might draw, only to change my mind seventeen times as each sketch deviated further and further away from the vision I had. I would have to make a number of quick sketches of people. I wouldn’t have the problem of not knowing when to stop or how to start. Much like an exam, I’d simply have to get on with it once the clock started.

The fact we’d be sketching people, something I’d always tried to steer clear of even when I used to love art, added another element to the challenge and I was looking forward to* trying something new and opening myself up to the perceptions of others, both in how they drew me and what they thought of my attempts to draw them.

However, whilst I did want the chance to practice my sketching, what really motivated me to sign up for the event was the trial of having to sit still for 15 minutes with no distractions, when it became my turn to pose for the other students. No talking, no checking the latest facebook updates or emails, no reading a book, no televison, nothing, nada, rien. Just me, myself and I.

A drop in the oceanGranted 15 minutes isn’t actually a very long time but when sat in one position with nothing but my thoughts it seemed infinitely longer. I tried to think of meditational-ly things, thinking of myself as a star, unique but one of a multitude in the universe, or as a drop in the ocean. All the while focusing on a tiny patch of the floor, black and white speckles on the grey linoleum. When the specks started to blur and my eyes started swimming I thought I’d better change my tactic so I resorted to my usual strategy for passing the time in situations which make me slightly uncomfortable, like waiting for the tube on a crowded underground or having a massage. I started counting in French, slowly, to one hundred and then back again.

Before I knew it my time was up and I could move again, but actually although my thoughts, or rather my counting, may not have been the most profound they did root me to the moment and I was quite content, in a semi-trance like state, of just being. It was quite a calming experience.

The actual sketching highlighted the fact I need to practice more, but aside from this was, in a way, as meditative as the posing. Whilst there wasn’t time for profound thoughts about stars and oceans or even the Swiss French for the number 79, because time was so limited and concentration was so demanding, there wasn’t space for any other thoughts either. So the usual internal dialogue about what I’m doing with my life, what’s for dinner, does everyone at work secretly hate me was completely silenced.

Whizzing away on my bicycle at the end of the evening I felt a sense of tranquility that’s been absence of late. I can’t wait to go again.

* By looking forward to I mean in the abstract sense where I liked the idea when I signed up and it was too far on the horizon to actually be happening and then with every minute the actual event got closer the dread gripped tighter and tighter and I desperately willed a last-minute cancellation. I couldn’t just not show up that would be poor Glocals etiquette. (Glocals is a Geneva expat forum which, amongst other things, provides a space for organizing activities, where this particular event was listed. For friendless people new to the city it’s a treasure trove of ways to fill your time.)

The exhausting adventures of an over-organiser

The last week or so has been something of a whirlwind as the fiancé and I came back for a wedding and decided we would stop in the UK for the following week and visit as many people as humanly possible.
In 11 days we clocked up around 1500 miles between us, which is about 4 times the length of England, as we traversed the South East, Midlands and North. We managed to visit both sets of parents, my grandma, Tom’s grandparents, my aunt and nine separate meetings with friends.
This logistical feat of pulling off the who, how, where and when of maximising UK friend and family absorbing time has caused me to finally accept that I am good at this sort of thing. So in acknowledgement of my true self I’d like to say ‘my name is Briony and I’m an organiser!’
Despite the fact I have been in a number of jobs where organisational skills are an absolute must I never really think of myself as being an organised person, because I have always felt I could be better at this. But this doesn’t really make sense. It’s like me saying I’m not a runner because even though I regularly run 5k a couple of times a week (brag brag) I could be better at this. So yes, I could be a better runner and I could be better organised but this doesn’t stop me from already being both of these things.
An essential requirement of being disorganisedly-challenged (desperately trying not to keep repeating ‘organised’) is the ability to plan ahead. The amount of people we managed to fit in on a relatively brief visit was a result of my spreading out the charts and forming a touring battle-plan, if you will, carefully scheduled to within an inch of the agenda’s life.
Had I left the UK trip to the fiancé we’d have gone to the wedding and then just pootled about in London for the rest of the week and seen a couple of people. Granted, this might have been a relaxing alternative but, having been an expat abroad for almost 6 months now, would have seemed a wasted opportunity.
My methodical and systematic approach to work, holidays and so on definitely has its place but I know that I’m capable of this sort of thing because it comes naturally to me, which means I can’t really turn it off. And always going about my life in an orderly and controlled manner isn’t necessarily a good thing. For one thing, it sounds pretty dull. Nobody wants to be described as ‘organised’, even if it does get you jobs and has practical purposes. For another, I’m also pretty rubbish at spontaneity and just doing things on the spur of the moment.
However, the most debilitating aspect of being Queen of the Planning is that I find it almost impossible to live in the moment and actually just take stock of where I’m at without constantly question where I’m going.
On a day to day scale I can do this to some extent, I can enjoy a nice leisurely walk and stop to take in the view and think how great it is to be in the here and now. But I can probably only manage this for an hour or two at best before the brain starts going into overdrive with thoughts of ‘what’s next?’
I’ll eat lunch and even as I’m eating it I’m already thinking about what’s for dinner. If I’m having an evening out with friends I’m perfectly capable of enjoying myself, and it’s not that I’m wishing the night were over its just that I’ll probably also be thinking about what time I’ll be home and what I have to do the next day.
On a small scale the over-planning’s not so bad, on a bigger scale it’s exhausting. Moving to Geneva happened fairly quickly and there was a lot to sort both before I went and then after I arrived. This preoccupation worked pretty well at distracting me but now I’m more settled here I can’t stop contemplating the future.
Should I start studying again? Where do I see myself going within the new job? Will we come back to the UK in a couple of years and if not, do we stay here or go somewhere else? Should I have a career figured out by now or at least have all required training out the way before thinking about children? And on and on it goes. I don’t know how to just sit back and think well Geneva is nice and leave it at that.
When I was working full time in the UK and also studying part-time and trying to see friends and family and sometimes taking on voluntary work it was pretty manic. I often look back and think how the hell did I manage that? So now I’m kind of enjoying a more relaxed pace of life, and think my hair is greying at a slower rate, but I’m also kind of hankering after those activities that serve so well as distractions. Always working towards things in the future means you don’t really need to think about what your place in the world is now and what the point of it all is.
I clearly need a new project.
We had a great time back in the UK and loved every minute catching up with those we got to see, although still missed a fair few off the list, but the whole thing was a little hectic. To ensure we get round everyone at a slighlty more leisurely pace I’ll have to plan a number of trips over the course of next year. I hope it will be enough of a diversion for now.

The ambition to be human


“It comes to this,” Tarrou said almost casually; “what interests me is learning how to become a saint.”

“Perhaps,” the doctor answered. “But, you know, I feel more fellowship with the defeated than with saints. Heroism and sanctity don’t really appeal to me, I imagine. What interests me is being a man.”

“Yes, we’re both after the same thing, but I’m less ambitious.”

– The Plague by Albert Camus

As promised to one brother I am returning this week to a less heavy-going, non-political, more happy-go-lightly post. This will probably disappoint my other brother but hey ho, you can’t keep all of the people happy all of the time.

This week in book club we were discussing Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut, which led to a discussion about post traumatic stress disorder and then about why some people care more about certain things than others.

There was general acceptance amongst the group, perhaps more readily by some than others, that to shut oneself off from the traumas of the world is an essential human coping mechanism.

I agree it simply isn’t possible to constantly feel for all the tragedies that are enacted out across the globe at any given time. Right now, current tragedies include the two Malaysian passenger air line disasters: one missing one shot down; the Air Algerian plane crash; the situation in Syria; the fact that there are now estimated to be more refugees than at any other time in history; the situation in Gaza; the rise of Boko Haram and the missing schoolgirls abducted in Nigeria; travesties of democracy in Cambodia; and Isis’s latest announcement that FGM will be mandatory. And this is just the tip of the iceberg.

There are simply too many awful things for us to focus on at any one time, even if we wanted to, and so we don’t.(Perhaps this post isn’t quite so happy-go-lucky as I had intended after all – sorry bro.)

One book clubber asked does it take a crisis to make us care? Certainly when a crisis takes place many people are great at demonstrating that they do care. When I was a student I worked at a call centre, which often volunteered to man donation phone lines in response to global disasters or for Comic Relief. I took donations from a wide range of individuals, from all walks of life, many of whom giving sums they couldn’t really afford precisely because they did care about what was happening and wanted to help. So people really are wonderful.

And some people dedicate their lives to making the world a better place for others, providing their time, money or skills for the benefit of others. These people are exceptional. These people are saints.

But it doesn’t make the rest of us bad people because we don’t dwell on these things all the time. Yes, there are many terrible things that happen but there are also many wonderful things that happen too and it is important, at times, to hold onto the horror and the beauty. But being able to enjoy life at the same moment in time that someone elsewhere isn’t enjoying life doesn’t make us the antithesis of saints. It makes us human.

If you are a dedicated fan of my blog (a.k.a. my mother) you will be aware that I called the blog fearofthereaper and started all this as part of an ongoing evaluation of how my life is progressing. More often than not my focus tends to be on positive things I have achieved to become the person I want to be, but it is also important to reflect, from time-to-time, on the things I’m less proud of and on the kind of person I do not want to be.

I do not have the ambition to be a saint, I do have the ambition to be a human. Like so many things in my life, this is something I have the power to realise.

Let me give you a recent example: I had just moved to a new area in Geneva, my French was worse than it is now (which still borders on Yoda-like gibberish) and I was walking to the nearest shopping centre when I walked past an elderly woman who called out to me in French.

Thoughts that ran through my head went something like this: oh no, a human being wants to interact with me and I’m not in the mood, she probably wants something of me that I don’t want to give, she might be selling magazine subscriptions, my language skills are so bad I probably won’t understand anyway, someone else is bound to help, not my responsibility.

And I carried on walking. After about 10 metres I turned to look back, saw no-one else had stopped but walked on a bit further. But then it hit me that I didn’t want to be the kind of person that would just ignore someone calling out to them and so I stopped pretending not to hear and turned around and walked back.

I understood enough French to feel guilty when she thanked me for coming to help her (guilty for not stopping straight away) and to understand what she wanted, which turned out to be directions to a place I didn’t know. So it turned out I couldn’t help her but I did wait until we could find someone who could at least speak to her intelligibly in her language and I did, eventually, try.

I believe all humans are capable of both wonderful and terrible things and the capacity for good and let’s not say evil but instead let’s say less-good is something that resides within all of us all of the time.

How much we are influenced by the good over the less-good depends on a lot of factors: what’s going on in our lives, how we are feeling, how others are treating us and so on. Often we can’t control these factors but we can control how we respond. This I think is what it means to be human, if we take being human as deciding to be the best version of ourselves that we can be.


The arrival of the fiancé!

Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, while loving someone deeply gives you courage.’ – Lao Tzu.
On Wednesday my fiancé came to Geneva. Not for a visit but to live. This isn’t a post about how my life is all sunshine and roses now that he’s here. Neither is it a post about mourning for the end of my Swiss bachelerotte days. If anything this post is a bit of a shoulder shrug to whatever it is I’m supposed to feel about all this.
I’m afraid I am not of the ‘You’re Nobody til Somebody Loves You’ philosophy (sorry Dean Martin). Nor do I believe that my fiancé completes me or that my life was somehow lacking until I met him. Don’t get me wrong having him to share my life with is great and he complements me in a way that has enriched my life, it just hasn’t made it ‘whole’.
What I love most about him (see I’m not so unsentimental I can’t use that word) is that he endorses the idea that it’s alright being me, because I’m alright as I am actually. I’m not a puzzle missing half the pieces that he gets to transform into the full picture.
And with the fiancé and the cats and the unpacked belongings in the new flat Geneva is starting to feel a bit more normal. But that feeling of normality is strange in itself. I’ve been here for over four months now but up until now it hasn’t really felt like I’ve lived here. I’ve worked, I’ve explored, I’ve tried new things and met new people but it has all felt a bit transitory. Now that he’s arrived the Geneva adventure has taken on more of a realistic tinge and has become that bit more ordinary.
People keep telling me it must be wonderful and so much better now he’s here. And it is but, if I’m honest, it is also going to take a bit of getting used to. I’ve had a fair few visitors since I’ve been here so I’m used to giving people my undivided attention and a glimpse of Geneva living. I’m also used to them going home after a few days. What I’m not used to is the constant presence of someone else sharing my life with me. Or more precisely this is what I’m no longer used to.
Screen Shot 2014-07-04 at 2.22.17 PMMe and the fella have been together for quite some time (seven years and counting). We’ve worked together, got cats together, lived together, been on holidays together, grown together and even managed to get engaged. It’s not like I’m not used to him its just that for the last four months we’ve been living completely separate existences that we’ve talked to each other about but haven’t shared in the same way.
He’s had to deal with all the realities of our upping sticks and moving to Geneva as I left in a bit of a flash and wasn’t able to help much in the wrapping up of our UK life. He had to move back in his with parents, sort the flat out for renters, notify relevant people/companies/etc. about leaving the country and finish up at work. I’ve had to carve out a new life for myself here, find a flat, find my way around, work out how the public transport works!
This rather special human being has enough faith in me to uproot his life entirely to take a chance on Geneva living with me. That’s a truly wonderful thing, it’s also pretty terrifying. It’s one thing taking chances and trying new challenges that just affect me, it’s quite another taking chances and trying new challenges with the responsibility that if it all goes pear-shaped it wont just be me that suffers the consequences.
Over the course of the seven plus years we’ve been together. We haven’t completed one another but have come to know each other well enough that we can both derive strength from the relationship and have courage to face challenges knowing that we’ve got a bit of reliable back-up in our corner.
He’s pretty good at encouraging me and giving me strength at those times when I’ve wanted to give up and go home. Also he has a marvelous ability to helpfully point out that we can’t go home as someone else lives there now.
Ultimately if Geneva turns out to be a massive disaster that will be on my head, although I can trust that he wont rub it in too much, but without him I don’t know if I’d have had the courage to try.

“Boldness has genius, power and magic in it”

“Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always in effectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation) there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would otherwise never have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favour all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.” Johan Wolfgang Van Goethe.
I stumbled across this quote in a book of my brother’s, shortly after breaking up with my then boyfriend, whilst I was in my final year at University. It had a power for me then so I wrote it down. Today I have been unpacking the last of my boxes and in a typical act of Pottsy procrastination, whereby I have been compelled to look at every item in detail rather than simply putting things away, I found the book and found the quote.
A large part of my fear of the reaper philosophy has been fuelled by the realisation that sometimes you just have to take a leap of faith. In the past, when considering a new idea, if I couldn’t see the solution to every obstacle I thought of I used this to justify not even trying. Since I became conscious that my life was really in my hands (read more about this in my first blog post) I knew that I didn’t want to be held back by these fears anymore.
I know from experience that those niggling voices of doubt, telling you you can’t do something, are powerful and can hold you in check at moments when you don’t have the energy or optimism to drown them out. A lot of the best decisions in my life have been made when I have acted quickly to tie myself to the course of action that my heart tells me is the right thing to do.
I had became disillusioned with the role, the limitations imposed upon me, and lack of opportunities available to me in my first full-time job. So I decided to quit without a finalised plan of action. Granted I had the reassuring option that I could always move back to my parents but that wasn’t what I wanted and at the time handing in my notice felt like a scary leap of faith.
Providence acted quickly here and the very evening I resigned I came home to a letter offering me a new job. That job resulted in my meeting some great people, including my fiancé, and a wealth of opportunities and experiences that I am incredibly grateful for.
When I was offered a three month internship in Cambodia, that I had applied for without too much forethought, I committed before I could find excuses not to go. I arranged a period of unpaid leave with work, so I could undertake the role and have a job to come back to, and told so many people that not going would have been embarrassing.
As the date for my departure neared the reality of living so far away, in a culture so different to my own, without any income for three months hit me. I really wanted to back out but felt like I had trapped myself into the decision and there was no turning back. Which was just as well as I had an amazing time and would probably never have forgiven myself if I had pulled out because I let that hesitancy win.
Let’s skip to Geneva. Whilst, there were many great things about my old job I knew that I didn’t want to spend the next fourty-odd years working somewhere and doing something that I just wasn’t that interested in.
I had been searching for human rights jobs in London until one day I forgot to add the ‘London’ to the search criteria and the Geneva job came up. Had a quick chat with the fiancé about it, concluded might as well apply and see what happens. When I was offered an initial interview, thought about it a little more but, without worrying about the implications, decide I might as well plug on regardless. Then a second interview and a job offer followed and it was time to make a decision.
This wasn’t quite a blind leap of faith, there were things to consider like would the fiancé and the cats come? What would the fiancé do? What would we do with the flat? What about friends and family? Could we afford to do this? There were a lot of questions but the gut feeling was that I should go and we’d figure everything else out from there. So I accepted the job and moved to Geneva.
It hasn’t always been easy, I miss friends and family, and financial issues that would have been resolved had we just stayed in London have actually got a lot worse since moving here. Had I really thought in great detail about all this, had I focussed on every issue before committing myself there is a good chance I’d never even have applied. But here I am and, on balance, I’m happy with my decision.
Not moving to Geneva would have been easy but I don’t necessarily want easy, I want a life lived as fully as possible. My Geneva book club (I suspect there will be more on that in the future) led me into the path of Marcus Aurelius recently and I think he sums it up pretty well: “It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live.” I can cope with financial difficulties, I can’t cope with letting fear of the unknown stop me from living.