I have been a terrible reader all my life.
I was rubbish at school and, after the age of about thirteen, was about as interested in it as I was in listening to my parents go on. I had no drive, no interest in the subjects, many of the teachers taught by rote and were unimaginative and disciplinarian, which I automatically rebelled against. It’s probably the same everywhere.
When I was about 14, my parents went to a parent-teacher meeting where they met with Mr Carroll, my English teacher. Mr Carroll informed them that it was obvious I read a lot because I had a good command of the English language. I have never forgotten that compliment, partly because I felt proud to have received such kind words from Mr Carroll, one of my favourite teachers and partly because it was so inaccurate. I rarely read a book and didn’t even read most of my reading list for English at school. I’m not writing this to show off but to illustrate something; maybe I thought I was too cool for school.
Having said that, my maths teacher, Tommy Dowd, in what I consider a shrewd assessment of my general character, summarised “He’s looking for problems where there are none.” That phrase has always both fascinated and perplexed me. It’s a kind of ‘wood for the trees’ thing for me. I understand the phrase ‘looking for problems where there are none’ but I could never see when I was doing it.
This is why I chose to opt out.
In the past, it was always easier for me to not get involved. If something seemed difficult I immediately gave up, finding it really hard to keep going with it. Unless I had someone overseeing me, ‘holding my hand’ in a certain situation, it was likely that I would sack it off altogether. Hence the lack of interest in school and study and not being bothered with reading.
Through this neglect I decided that I ‘knew better’ and was somehow superior to others. Occasionally bolstered by misplaced compliments such as ‘it’s obvious that he reads a lot’, it felt like a no-brainer.
I spent many years avoiding knowing about what was really going on in the world and focusing only on my own subjective take on things. This led me to become more interested in nature, dreams and intuition. It distracted from the cerebral world which I did not wish to be part of. I felt close to people emotionally but intellectually inferior which cased me to create a gulf. I worked hard physically but not mentally. I put up a wall between myself anf the ‘real world’.
So what did that cost me?
I grew up somewhere rural where it was easy to be away from people and despite living in the city for 20 years, surrounded by people at all times and being married and having a child, ( I often marevelled at how regularly I was within grabbing distance of my next door neighbour) I still managed to live mostly in my own head and most of my theories about how the world really worked were in my own imagination. Throughout this I managed to hold down some good jobs, be part of some amazing and groundbreaking sustainable food projects, start, run and sell my own business and play in bands and tour Europe. Outwardly, I could have appeared to be ‘an achiever’.
Gradually, in these past 4 years or so, since my beautiful daughter was born, I began to put a stop to my old, isolating, judgmental ways, mainly through challenging myself in new ways, so I could look at things differently. I learned to swim, began to emerge from my anxiety of walking down the street. I used to react with extreme discomfort and self consciousness in the most mundane situations, like going to the shops. Instead, I began to enjoy little interactions with people in shops and in regular, everyday moments. I even began smiling at people in the street for no other reason than just to smile. I was becoming a happy person. I read about 25 books last year. I even went on a great adventure/walk/challenge, talked publicly in front of audiences about it many times afterwards and then packed up and left the UK after 20 years to live a new life in the mountains.
It is only since arriving here that I have seen a clearer picture of who I am.
Arriving here and trying to get straight into a new life without a job or speaking the language hit me like a train. Stopped in my tracks of having spent the previous couple of years progressing steadily with the ‘job’ of growing into what I considered my true self, I sought the nearest rock and attempted to crawl under it. I approached going out in public with anxiety in a situation where I might have to talk to someone. Even simple, everyday, meaningless interactions I took for granted, and even learned to enjoy in the UK became instead, stressful awkward and frustrating moments here in Italy. This lasted for many weeks and I made myself ill for a month with stomach cramps, nausea and other digestive issues. The realness of the pain and not being able to ease it left me feeling anxious and perpetuated the uncertainty. I had no idea that this was going to happen, and I was shocked, as I had never suffered from stomach problems before. In fact, I prided myself, in some secretly superior way of having a particularly strong stomach, handling lots of booze and whatever else I would decide to indulge in.
Thankfully this appears to be passing, and the track I fell off when arriving here is again beginning to catch up with me.
There is nothing worse than that sense of uncertainty about one’s place and future. I carried that uncertainty with me for decades and just when I thought I had cured myself of it and was moving to a new level, it came back. Call it depression, opting out, anxiety, mistrust; it takes many forms. I spent much of my life feeling alone, feeling like I knew better, but at the same time I was desperate to belong. I trusted few and feared many. I put myself in destructive situations and friendships where I only hurt myself more and got more isolation. I am so immensely lucky to have an incomparably amazing wife, lover and life partner and fantastic sisters whom I know I can always rely on. Not everyone is so lucky.
Since returning to the ‘real world’, the world I shunned back in the early 1990’s, I know it’s not about finding my place in society, being part of the gang or even having intense, short lived friendships and relationships which end in ‘necessary hurt’ that matters. What counts is that I am ok with who I am and I am ok with the way the world is. If I’m not ok I have to express it. Writing helps me do that, along with physical work and now, more intellectual pursuits, such as reading books, having to learn a new language from scratch and getting more into what we as a species have done in the past and how we can do things better in the future. To do that I have to overcome the greatest barrier I put in front of myself and admit that I really don’t know better, but if I stay open to new possibilities, I can better myself and feel better about myself and my place in this world.
I love the fact that I am a people person, that I feel I can relate to peoples’ pain and am not afraid to express my own, despite having ‘hidden myself away’ for a long time. I still love dreams and the cosmic, otherworldly possibilities of the imagination; those intangible, but undeniably personal experiences available to us all.
From now on, my ultimate goal is to stop looking for problems where there are none and to actually read and learn a lot, thus gaining a better command of both the English (and Italian) language and of my place in this world. I owe that to myself.