Cold comfort

The bedroom was seriously cold… I had left the window open all day and all night and the temperature has struggled to get above freezing lately. I smiled… because that is exactly how I like it. I don’t care for a nice, warm bedroom…just a warm bed in which to snuggle and the electric blanket warms the bed nicely. I suppose it harks back to my childhood, ‘when I were a lass’ in Yorkshire.

Without wishing to sound like the famous sketch, life was very different then and although I saw it from a number of angles, the relative poverty of the north was stark then in comparison to life in the ‘soft south’.

When I was born, one set of grandparents lived in a big house where a housing estate has now taken the place of the croquet lawn and tennis courts, while the others had a cosy family home opposite the mill where Grandma worked at the looms. Regardless of the difference in social standing, neither home had any form of central heating but drew their warmth from coal fires. My mother and I moved into married quarters in the south while my father was stationed abroad. Life in the south was considerably warmer.

Visiting friends in the area, the child that I was found it fascinating that all the rooms were warm… all the time! And people had toilets downstairs as well as upstairs bathrooms! In later years, back in Yorkshire, I was to live in houses with neither heating nor hot water nor bathrooms… there were still many homes that shared a toilet at the end of the street or used the privy at the bottom of the garden.

My last bedroom as a girl was very cold in winter. I had to dress in layers for bed, cuddle a hot water bottle and often woke to icicles inside the windows. There is not a day goes by that I am not grateful for central heating and indoor toilets. Or hot showers, when I think back to one fateful winter in France when the water supply froze underground for six weeks and the icicle that grew up from the shower drain one night was nearly six feet tall.

I suppose that is why I prefer a cold bedroom these days… though not quite that cold! What you are accustomed to as a child unconsciously forms both lifelong habits and a measure against which the future is held. Warmth and a decent bathroom are still amongst my biggest priorities and luxury, for me, is being able to have a hot bath on demand…or choose a cold bedroom.

It is not just habits of living that are formed in childhood though, we form habits of perspective too. As children, we have little control over our environment and simply accept the world-according-to-grown-ups. Like it or not, even the most liberal-minded parent will unconsciously indoctrinate their children to some degree, seeking to arm them with the tools they deem necessary to operate within their social sphere, whatever that may be. In later years, we either continue to accept what we absorbed, or will question and rebel against it. Either way, that early conditioning plays an important part in who we become and how we view the world. The child’s perception of the world is the foundation upon which that of the adult is built.

It is widely known these days that a difficult or traumatic childhood will have an impact on adulthood. We don’t tend to think so much about how our ‘normality’ in childhood shapes us as adults. Sinichi Suzuki said that “children learn to smile from their parents”, but we also learn to judge and define our world from the same source. Outmoded beliefs and behaviours are passed down in this way, just as much as human values and moral codes. At some point, we are likely to catch ourselves doing or saying something that reminds us forcibly of those who raised us.

Whether we have chosen the paths of acceptance or emulation, or a more rebellious route, we are continuously and unconsciously reacting to the events, people and conditions of our early life. Many of our tastes, beliefs and opinions are defined by those years, as may be our ambitions, standards and dreams. Right down to the small things, we can feel the echoes in our own behaviour. From keeping the bedroom tidy, just in case the doctor calls… even though they no longer make house-calls… to whether we are frugal or spendthrift, keep the eggs in the fridge or at room temperature…or prefer cold bedrooms. The habits of behaviour are seeded early, and we rarely think to question where they originated.

It is an interesting exercise to take one or two of those habits and trace them back, trying to find their point of origin and how we have reacted to them. It is even more interesting to take the habits of thought and track them in the same way, especially as it is these that form a large part of the person we show to the world. Once we realise how they began, we may wonder why we continue to perpetuate them. We may even begin to ‘change our minds’, seeking to face ourselves and the world on our own terms, making conscious choices, acting instead of bowing to reaction.

For most of us, there is a moment during our teens when we realise that we wish we were free of parental control… yet as soon as we think we are, we recreate or rebel against the life they gave us. Understanding and accepting who we are and why we are who we are, does not mean we have to change everything, nor does it mean we can cast blame or responsibility on others. What it does is gives us a choice.

We can choose to smile when we see ourselves doing something exactly like our grandparents did when we were young, conscious of the connection to our heritage. We can choose to discard that opinion that was never really our own and cease to be ruled by it…especially when it was about who we are or who we could become. We can recognise why a cold bedroom feels right and yet we are free to turn on the heating. Who do we want to be? The choice, like our destiny, is ours to make.

Only human…

 From the archives…

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“Yo, missus!” I turned… a tattooed yob in shredded denim with more piercings in his face than you would have thought possible held out my phone. “Your bag’s open… you dropped this.” My handbag falls open with alarming regularity. I smiled and thanked him and winced as he smiled back, fearing the damage the piercings could do under the strain. I was genuinely grateful. It wasn’t the best of areas and I would probably have given him and his friends a wide birth after dusk.

When I first landed in the south and was asked in what part of the town I lived… a town I had known nothing about and moved to by the simple expedient of sticking a pin in a map blindfolded… folk would do that thing with their lips, sucking in air as if I had mentioned the unmentionable. It was, they said, a bad area. Granted, it was not the prettiest part of town, but the house was nice…spacious… with a cosy, private garden and the neighbours some of the nicest people I have ever met. The place was convenient. I could walk the boys to school every day and walk to work in the town and back; to be fair, I had to… I couldn’t drive back then. There was never any trouble, it wasn’t noisy or covered in graffiti and the gardens were all nicely kept. As a bonus there were both supermarket and countryside within a few minutes’ walk.ORC broch 043

Not that it would have mattered much, for in many ways it doesn’t matter where you live… once you have closed the door you are home and the world stays outside. I have lived in some beautiful places, and lived in some of the worst. I have lived, too, for a brief period, without a home and I don’t recommend it; at that point anything with a roof looks good. Admittedly, it is far more pleasant and less nerve-wracking to live in an area where you are not constantly looking over your shoulder as you walk home, but once that door is shut the world outside almost ceases to exist.

The outside of the house barely matters; the road, the area… they are not the place upon which you put the stamp of your personality. It is not there that you play with colour and texture and make a room that says ‘this is me’. Or perhaps, ‘this is what I think I would like you to think is me’. We do have a tendency to conform to what we assume others will be impressed by, find pleasing or to something that meets the current trend.ORC broch 038

You can tell an ‘honest’ room the moment you walk in… it may be untidy or kept in pristine condition. It may be full of costly antiques and artworks or done to the tightest and most creative of budgets… but the things that are there are real expressions of a personality, traces of a life lived and the interests of its occupant. There is a specific feel to the place that has that indefinable quality of a real home.

I had occasion to call at a little shop today near that first house in the town and it was there I almost lost my phone. The economic downturn over the past few years, the death of local industries and rising unemployment have all taken their toll on the area. I watched the local businesses that sustained the community close down one by one over the years, shattering lives and families that depended upon them. Council spending cuts and minimal maintenance of the streets have dragged the area visibly into poverty. No doubt behind many of the doors there are lovely homes; many of the gardens themselves are still neatly kept, but there is a feel of grey despair on the streets.

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It reminds me of deep depression… that state of mind when you are emotionally exhausted and can no longer be bothered how you look or what you wear, or even if you have combed your hair before going out.

The people too, clustered outside the little shop that now sports bars on its windows, all have that grey, despairing air. Their clothes are scruffy, hair unkempt, skin lacking the lustre of health. It is as if the poverty is a spreading infection leaching the energy from them, setting up a cross contamination between the area and the people.ORC broch 039

I was reminded of a recent report I had read on the impact of poverty, both physiological and psychological; how the scars of childhood poverty can remain in the adult brain, how adults living under the constant stress of reduced income…the ‘relative poverty’ that affects so many in an unequal society… see reductions in executive function and even functional IQ that helps perpetuate the very circumstances that cause them. It is a vicious cycle.

I found it infinitely sad. And pulled myself up. Who am I to judge? I, in my scruffy, grubby clothes from walking the dog, with no make-up and hair blown to unkempt extremes? Isn’t my exterior the same as theirs? Are my circumstances any different, balanced on that knife edge that robs Peter to pay Paul? Would I look any different to an observer? No. They are me, and I am them.

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Does it change who I am… who they are? Deep down? No. It may change the surface, it may alter the way in which you face the day, but a decent person remains a decent person regardless of circumstance, bank balance or social standing.

Chastened, ashamed of the judgemental thoughts, I went home, opening the door on a tidy house that I keep as best I can. It smelled of polish and disinfectant, the product of the six a.m. cleaning… overlaid with the vague inevitability of dog. She was waiting for me, tail thumping the ground, eyes bright and eager, ball at the ready. Does she care how scruffy I look or if I have showered yet today and done the make-up? Not a bit. She doesn’t judge by appearances, couldn’t care less what I look like. She works on ‘feel’, just as we do when we walk into a room. She doesn’t care about exteriors, she loves those she loves for who they are, not how they dress. If it feels right it is right, regardless of the surface. She has a lot to teach me; after all… I’m only human.

Ani winks