Stuck to the wall, as you enter, is a list of house rules. There are just three of them: (i) Show respect for each other; (ii) No judgment; (iii) Be yourself. It’s a fantastic women’s group – I used to volunteer there, and I still visit from time to time. Whist being down on others is an insidious but not uncommon characteristic, and withholding judgement can require you to bite hard on your tongue, the one rule that is most difficult to live out might be: be yourself. On first reading it seems like the easy one, but I think it can be a lifelong struggle. When you are a visitor to someone’s house and you’re invite to, ‘make yourself at home’, you almost never do, because if you did – quite frankly – they mightn’t want you around for long! We are made to bend, fit in, and conform at a young age: toe the line, stop fidgeting, wear clothes that others in the gang approve of, follow the cool bands, choose the right brands. ‘Prayer Before Birth’, by Louis MacNeice, is an incantation against conformity and, I feel, the ultimate call to be oneself.
“I am not yet born; O fill me
With strength against those who would freeze my
humanity, would dragoon me into a lethal automaton,
would make me a cog in a machine, a thing with
one face, a thing, and against all those
who would dissipate my entirety, would
blow me like thistledown hither and
thither or hither and thither
like water held in the
hands would spill me.
Let them not make me a stone and let them not spill me.
Otherwise kill me.”
They are frightening words. Surely being – dragooned into lethal automaton – is something that happens to other people: to Stepford wives, with their scarey-doll-dead-eyes, or to cult members. Yet, I have often felt like a cog in a machine, acting out a role that isn’t me. I think that being yourself is so intrinsically bound up with doing things you love; things that allow you to feel and express who you are. What do you like doing, just for fun? In Attenborough’s new series, ‘Blue Planet’, he shows us footage of a school of dolphins catching waves and surfing. There is no physiological reason for this; he tells us that they do it for the ‘sheer joy of it!’ As we leave childhood, we often box our joyful pursuits away, like Christmas decorations, only to be taken out occasionally, if at all. Then the box gets pushed to the back of the loft and forgotten, until we no longer remember what makes us zing! We might have boxed it away because we were told we were no good at it, or it was a pointless pursuit, a waste of time, frivolous. Maybe it’s time to get your metaphorical box down from the attic, follow Maya Angelou’s instructions, and rise:
“You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may tread me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.”
(“Still I Rise”, Maya Angelou, excerpt)
I had a long chat with M. on the phone the other night. She has a list of things she would like to do, things that bring her to life, but with no time to pursue them. “Can you not prioritise one and do it, at least?” I suggest. She agrees that might be a way forward, but says she spends too long making plans and never actually begins. She says it’s always something for the future, but the future is coming at her faster and faster.
MacNeice and Angelou may be fine poets, but my father taught me a great little poem, the author of which is not known to me. At the time, I thought he was just teaching me an amusing little ditty. I now realise he was teaching me a fundamental life lesson in being oneself and not twisting, remoulding, or contorting oneself into a shape that no longer resembles you. It’s message is clear: do your own thing! (Note: best read in a mid-Antrim accent!)
“Angelina, from Ballymena,
Could dance on her toe, like a ballerina.
She married a man from Cushendall,
And now she doesn’t dance at all.”