Fragments of me in Madrid

I don’t go to see modern art expecting to know what I am doing.  This used to put me off and on a bad day it still will.  However, I went to Madrid braced and ready to open myself up to the unfamilar territory of art and hoping I would learn something.  Reminding myself to be patient and that I am entitled to experience something, even if I don’t grasp it in its entirety immediately, gives me the confidence to try.  So I do try and I always take away something beneficial from the experience when I do.

In short, having any response to the art is enough to justify my attempt and being a human being, it is impossible for me to have no response at all.

This is very much the attitude with which I approached the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía.  I have to admit, right at the beginning of this post, that after only two hours of persevering with appropriate contemplation I was relieved to finally step outside into the cool, refreshing night air of Madrid.  I had been trying to find an exit for 10 minutes, having realised my brain had had enough of being confronted by white room upon white room and of being bashed with the big stick of modern art over and over again.  As I stood outside I was overcome by a feeling of kinship and familiarity with the foreign streets of Madrid, their foreign bustle and chatter and even the ever present and somewhat terrifying volume of traffic.

I went to the museum for the last two hours of its day, where the entry was free.  I preferred to think the hordes of other visitors (the free entry seemed popular) were approximately as bewildered by the prospect of modern art as I.  That thought made me feel better, anyway.

I think I am slowly building up a mental schema for dealing with modern art.  I have my methodology for exploring a gallery now.  Having glanced at a plan and noted any names I know, I wander from room to room or cluster to cluster.  Sometimes I follow what catches my eye, sometimes I follow other people.  When I find myself in a room I purposefully tackle it in a non-linear fashion.  Sometimes I zigzag across a room.  Sometimes I just head for pieces I particularly like.  Only if nothing really catches my attention do I make a conventional circuit.

On this visit I feel I managed to learn something about Cubism.  I still don’t really enjoy te paintings, but having read the information cards I realised I both understand and agree with some of its philosophical underpinnings.  This was interesting as I thought it was utterly alien.  So I learnt a little something and expanded my world just slightly.  By and large, however, I have decided I don’t like cubist paintings.

The things I like are thethings that move me, that evoke an emotional response.  It never ceases to amaze me that inanimate things can convince me to feel.  Even more fascinating is tracing back the chain of associations to unpick the journey started simply by my eyes alighting on a foreign object.

I encountered a cuboid metal frame with a colourful, slightly worn looking, striped canvas stretched in several zigzags between two upright, parallel faces of the cuboid shape.  My first thought was of home.  It brought to mind deck chairs and the traditional English seaside.  To have an experience of such familiarity in the middle of a stark, minimalist modern art gallery in the middle of Madrid (so far out of my comfort zone and away from home in so many senses) stopped me in my tracks.  There was also the contrast between that and the unfamiliarity of the object in question.  It wasn’t really remotely like a deckchair.  The harshness of the geometric lines, its metal framing and the suggestion of a conveyor belt had connotations of industry and mechanisation.  I experienced discomfort on at least 2 planes.  I found the experience of unpicking my emotional response absorbing and stimulating.  Objectively I could see no reason why this object, of all the strange forms in the room, should speak to me, but it did.

The object I saw is a sculture by Alighiero Boetti and was part of the exhibition estrategia de juego  and the link below shows what it looked like:


Peering through the gloom

2011 has started quite grumpily for me with a nasty bout of fluey-buggey thing that has me in bed for 4/5 days and playing catch up with my energy levels ever since.

I am struggling to maintain a sunny disposition, which I normally pride myself on, and the weather isn’t helping.  It is all about finding moments of pleasure for me at the moment to push away the sense of impending and melodramatic doom that coughing, spluttering and exhaustion tends to bring.  Despite the gloom, moments of pleasure are pretty plentiful if I look for them.  They don’t always last long, but they are definitely there.

Clothes – for any one who read my post on getting dressed a couple of months back, this will not be a surprise.  I am wearing my brightest and cosiest jumpers.  The colours remind me I am alive, often elicit compliments from others (a lovely bright red, chunky wrap around jumper got me a compliment last Thursday) and the jumpers give me something to huddle into when my colleagues fail to read my emails for the umpteenth time …

Music – Music is definitely my drug.  When I need a moment I put on my mp3 player and stare out the nearest window.  I am still listening to my December playlist from an earlier blog post.  Today I resdicovered The Wombats ‘A Guide to Love, Loss and Desperation’ which I love for its noisey, fast paced, angst-soaked and frankly celebratory feel – particularly ‘Let’s Dance to Joy Division‘.  I am also listening to Pulp ‘His ‘n’ Hers’, a new acquisition which takes me back to being 15, sulkily thrown on my bed railing against the injustices of my teenage existence.  If ever there was a sobering and galvinising thought, it is remembering how self absorbed I was back then.

Fresh air – Getting in to the outside and soaking up every last bit of light as well as getting some exercise is a Good Thing.  I went for my first post Christmas run the other evening and though it was cold and dark the endorphin rush and the sense of achievement made my evening.  I wandered along the seafront earlier today trying to avoid getting soaked by the waves and feeling the wind whipping my hair around my face.  It was exhilarating and blissful, enough said.

Friends – I have met up with two friends for coffee in the last two days and catching up with them has been the high point of each day.  Not so very long ago I didn’t have any one to call on for a chat and a cup of tea and now I am always overdue for this with someone and I swear by it as a must for learning and functioning in the world.  By some amazing act of grace they seem to benefit from our catch ups as much as I do.  Wonders will never cease.

Kind thoughts – Another friend sent me a card to say thank you for their Christmas pressie, which I recieved on my first day back at work after the break.  Such a lovely thought and such a pretty card (colourful little birds with gold embellishments).  The thought taken over something just for me like this means so much and it reminds me that a little effort can bring a lot of joy, which is incredibly heartening.

Spontaneity – I try and do at least one thing just because I desire it in the spur of the moment, each day.  Today I approached a busker in the centre of Brighton (apparently collecting money for School fees but I am not sure if I believe that) and asked if he would sing ‘New York, New York’ for me if I made a donation.  I ummed and aahed a bit before asking as I felt pretty shy about it, but I am glad I did.  I enjoyed the song and felt good about plucking up the courage to ask the guy and hopefully offering him some encouragement.

I suppose the moral of this blog entry is that I am trying to grow up and stop feeing hard done by when life isn’t everything I want it to be.  I am trying to find strategies to help me seek the positives and to be a better human being, one who isn’t unpleasant to be around even when she is feeling a bit fed up.  If any one reading this has any tips they would like to share for how they deal with the more gloomy days I would be grateful to hear them. Onwards, ever onwards!

The west pier

… Do you remember the first time?/I can’t remember a worse time/ but you know we’ve changed so much since then/oh yeah we’ve grown … (Pulp, Do You Remember the First Time?)

I’ve gone and done it!

Yup, I have actually submitted my dissertation and finished the masters.  I can hardly believe it.  I feel as if I have been run over.  I am that tired, achey, disorientated and generally battered and bruised.  I have not been sleeping properly for three weeks.  I have been so keyed up about finishing that I have not been able to get to sleep and have been getting up way before my alarm goes off in the morning.  On two nights this week I got only three hours sleep.  Factor that in to having to work a 37 hour week and I am well beyond shattered.  However, I submitted three copies of my dissertation yesterday morning and last night I had the best night’s sleep I have had in weeks.  I am still exhausted, but now its Friday and I have finished work for the week I can relax and have some fun over the weekend.  Fun? Can I still remember what that is?

Wow.  I have produced and written a piece of original research, one that I am really pleased with and I have really enjoyed working on it and especially the writing of it.  The writing has been the most fun bit.  I have met so many intelligent and creative people and this in particular has been an absolute joy.  I have found my interest and my voice in the field and that is also a truely wonderful thing to have done.  Is this getting nauseating yet?  Can I express just how truely amazing the experience of studying for and completing this MA has been? Perhaps not but I am going to try.  When people ask me about my research I can hear myself talking to them with a confidence that I never thought possible.  Not only do I talk, but they seem to listen and to respond.  In other words, not only do I have somethiong to say and the confidence to say it, but other people seem to understand me when I talk about my research.  They don’t laugh, not even a snigger.  Two years ago I could not even have imagined what that would feel like.

Apart from all the people I met through the University (that is, all the other students whose diversity of viewpoints brought an incredible richness to our teaching seminars and the academic staff whose enthusiasm and encouragement has been so infectious) I also contrived to meet with two local fiction writers.  I had met them both before, briefly, and I wanted the excuse to talk with them both about writing and to get to know them on a more personal level.  It was like a brush with celebrity for me and I was terribly nervous before meeting with both of them.  (“You mean I am meeting with real writers, really?  And I get to ask them questions and present myself as an intelligent person? Am I sure this is real?”)  Can you imagine my jaw dropping surprise when both of them said that they wanted to meet again, to learn a bit more about me?  I, honestly, could hardly believe it.  Me? What could possibly be interesting about me? I have since met with the delightful James Burt twice and I have made plans to meet up with the lovely Kay Sexton tommorrow morning.  And I have engaged in fascinating, stimulating conversation with both.  WHAT?? Is this my life?

The thing is, my life has changed beyond all recognition.  It was two years ago I started the study and so much has happened since then.  So much has happened that I really need some time to digest and reflect on it.  Which is exactly what I am going to do.  Once I have done a great deal of sleeping.

Its becoming more and more real

I have now submitted my dissertation outline and have had my title approved by the powers that be.  I have gone from feeling utterly terrified about writing this dissertation two weeks ago to feeling excited and buzzy about getting on with it.  It has been quite strange and the process of committing my thoughts to paper has really solidified the project for me.  Without there being the very real consequences of missing my deadine for submitting the outline, I would not have come this far in this short space of time with settling on a programme of research.  I would still be reading, thinking and just flirting with ideas.  However, having had to write about my idea and present it to other people, I have now got a pretty well structured idea of what I want to write about and how I want to go about making my case.  To put it bluntly, I am stunned that I have made as much progress as I have.  I wouldn’t have done if it hadn’t been for the fear.

That is the strange thing I find about writing.  Writing stuff down does make it more real.  Talking about things makes them more real too, but I find writing has particularly strong qualities of thought crystallisation.  Its not as simple as it being that writing is about taking something from your head and putting it out there in the world, though that is obviously true.  In having to write about something I find I have to submit to conventions or organisation and ordering which force me to think around the subject and discover those half vocalised/conceptualised rationalisations for why I am even thinking about the topic.  This also has the effect of applying pressure on my to form my thoughts in to a narrative of sorts, where there is a progression (or at least reasonable links) between the ideas I am explaining.  I find myself forced to impose categories and section off/impose boundaries on what, in my head, was an amorphous mass of thoughts, values and interest.

I also have to think more carefully about the language I am using to ensure the reader doesn’t interpret it from outside the context I am intending and to make explicit enough of those implicit assumptions I make when I am turning the ideas around in my mind.  Of course the reader won’t understand why I find this fascinating if the only way I experience it is as a vague thrill of interest or if I can’t get at what it was that prompted me to investigate that particular phenomenon.  I often find that I start thinking about something from the middle of the idea – I have an intuition or I am drawn to something and then I have to work backwards to figure out how I can make the argument for what the value in bothering to investigate that thing is.  That process can be very difficult and is often a case of reading theory, thinking, reading theory, reading literature, thinking while waiting for inspiration to strike – waiting for it to hit me, what the point in it all is.  When this happens, it is euphoric.  When it is not happening it’s terrifying.   Interestingly enough, it is when I pursue a literary text as well as the theoretical ones that I find the best answers.  My work is a lot more creative, there is a spark generated by engaging with a literary text that I don’t get otherwise.  Hard core philosophy is too much and too heavy for me.

So, outline written and I discovered that my dissertation is going to fall quite neatly in to three parts, each corresponding to one paragraph in the outline.  More than this, they fit together and flow quite nicely!!  I had no idea before I wrote it that it was going to come together like that.  I had no conscious idea of the structure of what I was going to write about.  Its as if it just appears out of the ether.  I should add at this point that before I do any formal prose writing that is going to find it’s way to any one else, I nowadays write reams and reams and reams of notes by hand.  I just get the ideas out of my head and on to paper, always in chaotic and disordered fashion.  So I suppose that counts as writing too, though I think of it as just play.  Perhaps that is an inherent part of the crystallisation process?

This brings to mind a half formed science analogy.  I took Chemistry at A level and vaguely remember something about a temperature plateau in reactions involving crystallisation that is a result of the energy required to form the bonds required in a solid struture and organise the molecules of the substance being retained within the substance rather than chucked out as excess energy (in the form of heat).  My point of interest is that there aren’t any other obvious signs that any thing is going on, just the steady temperature (if I remember rightly).  However, within the reaction it is chaotic as molecular bonds are broken and reformed and energy is released, transferred and bound up again within the structure.  The end result (the solid) manifests itself without much outward sign of all this.  All that energy and potential isn’t visible, manipulable or useful until it is transformed in to the creation of a real, solid, structured object that is visible in our world.

That is too much science for a Saturday morning, my brain hurts now.  I was an avid science student once but that feels like a long time ago.  I’ll stick to the writing for now 😉

An ongoing process of further refinment and going farther.

Once again, it has been ages since my last blog post.  Once again, life has over taken me somewhat and it really wasn’t all my fault this time.  I resolved to make and keep time for myself to prevent exhaustion and running around like a headless chicken.  I even went on a long weekend break at the very beginning of February which was very relaxing and intended to spend the rest of the term getting my head down and pressing on with that term’s course and preliminary reading for my dissertation.  A family crisis intervened, spanning several weeks in all, and I spent the rest of the term trying to catch up with myself.  I find myself with some time off work over Easter and so I am working on the term paper for my spring term course.  This has been an interesting one so far and I haven’t even started writing it yet.

For a start, I now find myself free of anxiety about whether or not I can write a term paper.  I realised that I wasn’t worried about it with a sense of awe and revelation.  Our class was charged with writing an informal essay each to give us some practice for the term paper and to give the tutor a chance to give us all feedback.  I cursed this at first as I didn’t feel I had time.  I have found the prospect of writing essays very worrying and, on top of the weekly readings, I didn’t know how I was going to find time to research and write an essay, even a short one.  Surprisingly enough I managed to write the thing without much fuss and was really pleased.  We were told we could use the essays towards our term papers as they were informal assessments.  I was happy with mine and thought that I had essentially already written half my paper.  Then I spoke with the tutor about it and while the essay was not bad, his feedback essentially came down to a challenge to do better and to push myself harder, with a push of encouragement and belief in my ability to suceed in doing so.  There was no way I could resist the challenge, and at that point I realised I wasn’t hugely anxious about writing the paper.  The other papers have worried me so much that I have had to get on and start writing them as soon as I have had a workable idea so that I can know they are done and not have to worry that I won’t finish them.  With this one I have spent the last two weeks faffing about refining the title/topic of the essay.  I have even been brave enough to seek feedback from the tutor on two separate occaisions!  In the past I have been too scared to get feedback on my work on the basic idea after the tutor has agreed it is within the remit of the course just in case I am told my work is rubbish.  I also haven’t allowed myself to refine the structure and focus of an essay this much before starting to write it before.  I am rather hoping that this extra time spent working through the focus of the essay will improve the standard.

If nothing else, it is a revelation to realise that the writing of the thing and expressing my ideas is now hardly worrying me.  So I find myself with time to worry about formulating the problem and exploring the more difficult aspects of it.  I think this is what another tutor was getting at when they commented that there wasn’t enough critical focus in a previous essay.  Its interesting how feedback from one person (the tutor for the latest course) has suddenly crystallised in a way that enabled me to understand where there was room for improvement.  It is possible that I couldn’t have understood that feedback until this point in my MA, I suppose.  I suspect it is a culmination and coherent crystallisation of all my learning over the last 18 months rather than just a sudden lightening bolt of advice that could have come earlier.  Anyway, back to reading up for this paper and also thinking about my dissertation.  No time to stop and endlessly contemplate the architecture of my learning and experiences, interesting as they may be.

Through the looking glass (or should that be wallpaper?)

A lot of stuff has happened since my last blog post.  It has been Christmas, I have managed to relax and get a proper mental break from my day job for the first time in months.  It really has been that long and work really has been that stressful over the last 12 months or so.  I have also gone back to work and realised things are better this side of Christmas and it wasn’t just a vain hope they would be.  That leaves me more mental energy to think about my study.  Also I passed my driving test this week.  I am still on cloud nine about it – I am so, so thrilled to have done it and have that out of the way.  I passed on my first attempt, which surprised every one including my driving instructor and me.  As if that all weren’t enough, I have started a new course this term with a strong analytical (philosophy) focus.  Although that is rather intimidating it is also really good to learn about another way of thinking about and exploring the world, especially one that feels so far from what I have been doing already.  Last, but not least, I have finished the essay I was working on and submitted it and so it is an appropriate time to put down some of my thoughts about the writing of it.  One of the things I find interesting and useful to reflect on, aside from the course content, is how writing the essay changed my outlook; how I went about writing it, how that changed as I did it; how my writing skills have progressed and how it all came together to produce a piece of writing that consolidated my learning, pushed me to explore my ideas more fully, realise trains of thought that were only half embarked upon (and, hopefully) that someone else can read and get something out of.  The reflective element of my interest and thinking can be traced back to my undergraduate degree, where it was explicitly encouraged to take a reflective attitude to learning and I find it has served me well both in life and in my return to study.  It is an amazingly well put together programme and I owe it and my programme convenor a great debt for all the skills I learned during my time studying it.

I will steer this post back to the recent term paper, though.  On reflection(!), I really enjoyed writing it.  I was anxious about it when I started writing it, but once I had realised that the writing was progressing more quickly than I thought I relaxed a bit about it.  I did go back and work on it a bit more on Christmas Eve in the end so by Christmas day I had written approx 2,500 words, which is half the bugger!  I was thrilled by how quickly it came together.  The other two papers I have written seemed to progress more slowly then that.  That is probably partly because I have had more practice by the time I got to this one and partly because the subject matter was less impenetrable.  The other two papers I have written have had a focus of being writing about the problems/traps we fall in to with written communication.  As I learned, it is bloody hard to write sensibly and compellingly about the traps we fall in to with written communciation when you are writing.  Kettle? Pot??  The latest paper, having the focus of a literary text (which was “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman) was in some senses easier to physically write.  Another thing that I found fascinating about it was that the literary text shaped the essay in a way that I didn’t anticipate.  Obviously I expected the literary text to shape the essay, but originally I chose it because I thought it would resonate with and demostrate some of the theoretical points I wanted to bring out.  However as I was writing the essay I realised that the text seemed to have some ideas of its own … the essay was much more about the text than I had originally anticipated and I think this was a significant improvement and made it balance in a much nicer way.  By nicer I think I mean more aesthetically pleasing and more intellectually engaging.  I also realised that I have a greater/deeper personal engagement with the lit text than I had first thought.    So now I just have to wait and see what the tutors make of it.  I should get the marks back in about a month.  I am just so glad I wrote it though.  There were times when I really didn’t want to. I didn’t want to think about it, I didn’t want to research it and I didn’t want to sit and write it.  Another amazing thing about it is that it is proof to me that I did learn an awful lot from last term’s course.  I deliberately took a course that was about literary theory and reading/interpreting texts (with the great name of ‘Theory in Practice’ which completely sums it up!) as I know very little about the theoretical frameworks and schools of thought on literary readings.  I really wanted to have a go at reading some literary texts in this way and to be exposed to the ways of going about it.  The course allowed me exactly that and also gave me the motivation to read some really great literature that I didn’t even know existed.  At the end of it all I managed to write an analysis of a specific text that has moved and does still move me greatly and that also illuminated/provided context for some theoretical points that I think are worthy of further consideration.

Is that really what I did?  Did I do that??  Not convinced – there must have been a mistake somewhere.  I am just fiddling about pretending I know that I am doing and getting to read amzing stuff and talking to intelligent and inspiring people.

I have another course this term and then I have to write my dissertation over the summer.  I am excited about both and had a fantastic meeting with my dissertation supervisor yesterday.  Yes, that’s right!! I have found myself a dissertation supervisor without using extortion and he hasn’t laughed at my ideas yet!  Will wonders ever cease?  I will write more about this before long because it is just so very exciting! It is a wonder I can sit still at the moment actually …

Starting to feel like I might manage to finish this MA

Its Christmas Eve and I am sitting at my Mum’s as I write this.  She has been at work this week, leaving me to my own devices during the last couple of days giving me time to start writing the next term paper and also to let my mind idly wander over various subjects, not least being my progress on my MA so far.  Christmas is a good time to reflect on how far you have come over the year as I rarely find time enough to stop at other times.  I finished work until Jan 4th last Friday and don’t have small children or inlaws to keep happy at Christmas so I have had just the right amount of time to relax and calm down after a really busy 6 months.  Now I have started this latest paper I feel quite confident I can finish it and be pleased with what I have written.  That means I will soon have completed 3 of 4 term papers, leaving only one 5,000 word paper and the dissertation to do before I finish the MA.  It hardly seems possible that I might have come this far.  The other thing that helps is that I have an idea what to write my dissertation about so even that feels like it might just be doable.


The thought of actually finishing my MA fills me with euphoria.  Thus far I have hated and cursed it but also loved it.  I love the reading and I love the discussions in seminar groups.  I hate the feeling of being well out of my depth and of not having enough time to read as much or as deeply as I want to.  Then I love the feeling of having mastered a subject well enough to write about it when it all seemed like nonsense to me to begin with.  I still vividly remember talking with my Programme Convenor in the first term about my anxieties that I wasn’t reading critically enough.  Although I was enjoying the reading I didn’t feel it was sparking any kind of response in me, and she had been talking to the group about how important it was to develop our critical faculties.  She told me that I needed to find some friction (mentally, that is).  It seemed incomprehensible and I despaired of ever managing to complete the programme of study.  However, 12 months on from that point and I know I am getting what I want out of this MA.  I am not quite sure what that is or if I am truly critical enough in my approach (though I have definitely developed my abilities in this area as it is essential in my field of study).  That doesn’t matter a great deal any more and I am perfectly willing to make decisions about what I think is important and how my learning is progressing and stick to them.  Not that I don’t take in to the account the advice from my tutors, I really do.  Its just that I also have a strong sense of what I want to achieve from this MA and I feel that I am getting there.  Its not as if I and my tutors radically disagree, my essay marks have been pretty good and I have had good feedback on the 2 other papers I submitted.  So I am happy with my progress.

Funnily enough, despite how much I curse my MA in the middle of term or when I am struggling to find a topic for the next assignment, I do find it is a good escape.  To become absorbed in the reading or a series of ideas that might lead to the next piece of writing I have to do is a great way to forget about the stresses of work and other anxieties/irritations.  It feels virtuous too.  Not only am I getting to escape, but I am doing something worthwhile as I do so!  I find it difficult to relax and enjoy time off if I don’t feel that I have earned it.  Time off is not as precious if you don’t have the contrast of having been busy or the self righteous feeling of deserving a break.  The other thing I love about the studying is having motivation to go and read/think about things I would not encounter otherwise.

I am just trying to decide if I can persuade myself to sit and work on my term paper for a short while today.  I will have company from about 1pm onwards so I don’t have much time and the paper is up against going out to get some mincemeat and making a mincemeat lattice tart thingie.  The tart might win.  It is not like I haven’t worked hard enough on this MA so far this year.  I think I can allow myself to procrastinate for a day on Christmas Eve.  Or if the company of my family becomes too much this evening I could always slip away with the excuse that I really MUST work on my paper …