Sociability amongst strangers

At school pick-up one day, I walked over to a mum whose kid plays with mine. She was staring at her mobile phone not typing or speaking so it didn’t feel like I was interrupting anything when I said Hi. She looked up at me and immediately looked back down at her phone. I stood awkwardly wondering what to do next. Then another mum came over and said: Hi. Mobile phone mum looked up, immediately put her phone in her pocket, and began an animated conversation with the new mum.

Sociologist Sherry Turkle says that even a silent phone disconnects us, it indicates that any conversation can be interrupted at anytime as the phone has an equality with the now. In this way, Turkle believes that mobile technologies erode our empathy for other people.

I find this an old-fashioned view. Turkle and others are basically saying that technology is a thing outside of us, an unstoppable force over which we have no control and which carries us away to places we don’t want to go.

I beg to differ. Like Marshall McLuhan, I believe that technology is an extension of us and how we behave. And, more importantly, we can choose how to use it and we just must take responsibility for our actions. Mobile phone mum is a perfect example. She knew exactly what she was doing when she wordlessly wielded her phone at me and then put it away for the next mum.

The smartphone in and of itself is an amazing invention. It is a mini-computer which is all people could talk about back in 2007 during some usability research I did for Orange. It thrills me everyday, I kid you not, to hold so powerful a device in my hand (see Augmenting Humans and Travels without my phone).

I think this is because I was fifteen years old when my parents first got a phone in our house and I’d barely gotten used to the excitement of it ringing when I went off to university to not have a phone number to give to people. I would go to the phone box if I wanted to phone someone. As a student in France I could only make a phone call if I had money and if I had remembered to go to the tabac to buy a phone card. I wonder how different life would have been, and indeed how different life is for students today, with a mobile phone and instant access to anyone.

Back then, I wandered around the world unreachable. Unless you knew my address and wrote me a letter, or you came to visit, you couldn’t contact me. Sometimes I was lonely. I spent all my time in shared spaces indoors and out, private and public (like parks and cafes, flats and universities) alone and with people, friends and strangers. In fact one time I was sat in the park in Chambéry and a friend I hadn’t seen in weeks who had moved to the Dordogne, wandered across and said: Thank God, you’re here. I was running out of places to look and was worried you’d gone away. I’ve nowhere else to stay tonight.

Feeling at home in shared spaces can be difficult and so designing public spaces to make them seem more friendly and safe and accessible remains a fascinating area of research. In Jane Jacobs’s classic book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, and Bill Hillier’s Space Syntax, the question often is: How do we make the public more sociable?

Many people think that the mobile phone is an invasion of the public by the private. Dom Joly’s I’m on the phone sketch is as funny today as it was when mobile phones were new. Similarly, last summer in the Louvre, I couldn’t get near the Mona Lisa because it had a billion people in front of it taking selfies.

Today, as I write this I think, well why not? Why not have a Mona Lisa selfie? Why not talk really loudly on your phone in public? Why not take up space and behave like you belong?

It can be hard to feel like somewhere public is familiar and friendly, but with easy connection to the Internet anywhere and anytime, people can use their phones to engage with their location by reading restaurant reviews, historical information, the locations of other people nearby, and of course by taking a selfie. There is much research into how we can redefine public spaces with mobile technology so everyone can feel familiar in a new or intimidating place but already the phone helps.

In my time as a student, wandering about Europe, I didn’t have such a luxury and as such was always at the mercy of strangers and exhausted by trying to figure out how things worked. Strange men would come and talk to me and give me their addresses if I sat in the park or on trains or when I wandered down the street. I have fond memories of the French farmer who used to jump out when I cycled past on my way to or from Bourget du Lac. He wanted me to come to his farm and meet his son: Venez, venez, madamoiselle. My mother always warned me about strange men, she was worried I would end up behind someone’s wallpaper. (Funnily enough strange women never approached me with their pockets full of written addresses. Would I have responded differently if they had?)

My first day in France, I cried on the bus. I didn’t have the right ticket because the bus worked differently to what I had expected. The driver let me on free and the next day when I was on another bus going the other way he stopped his bus when he saw me, beeped his horn and waved at me. It never occurred to me he was waving at me so half a dozen people on the bus tapped me on the shoulder to let me know it was me. Mortified, I waved back and cried again and a couple of old ladies comforted me whilst saying Oooh-la-la as I remembered how I had gotten off at the wrong stop, gotten lost, and gave up, at which point I let some random bloke take me to my home in his car. With a phone, I would have known how the ticket system worked, where to go exactly, which stop and so on, and I would have cried a lot less. Without a phone, I saw just how kind people can be to a lost and lonely girl.

In the book Mobile interfaces in Public Spaces, the authors consider the social and spatial changes in our society which have come about with mobiles phones by comparing it to the book, the Walkman and the iPod. These are all things we have used in the past to feel more at home say on a train, in a cafe, or in the park. They allows us to be present and yet go elsewhere as I have pondered in the blog Where do we go when we go online? That said, when I used to read the English paper in the park in Chambéry, it was always a day old, a male Jehovah’s Witness would regularly appear. He wanted to check the football scores in the Premier League.

There is the worry that phones are disconnecting us from the world and people around us because these interactions will no longer happen if we are too busy staring into our screens and everyone has access to the same information. But the authors above argue that mobile devices work as interfaces to public spaces and strengthen our connections to locations.

But what about our connection to people? Well! There are times when you just don’t want to be sociable or you require a different sociability, that of strangers, say who are enduring a long commute and need to carve out a space of their own whilst in a public space.

In July, I went to a talk given by Alastair Horne aka @pressfuturist at the British Library on ambient literature, in particular Keitai shousetsu, the first mobile phone fictions or Japanese cell phone novels in the noughties. They were written by young women, in the same way that they were read, on a small screen using text language, in serial form, during a commute. It was an intimate form of storytelling which led readers to give suggestions as to how the story should continue. The phone was often an integral part of the story because the writer and reader were both writing and reading in similar circumstances, exploring the story as it unfolded, and their commute became an exciting shared experience.

Interactive fiction and text adventures are not new, but their transfer to a mobile phone was and the immediacy it offers. Ten years later with better connectivity, ambient fiction is the next step. Stories are heard in a particular place and location and the phone again becomes part of the story, the shared experience and the connection.

Shared experiences and connection give our lives meaning. But, sometimes the reality of a moment or a person in a public space – like mobile mum – can really let us down, which is why I love the power of the mobile phone in my hand. It can interrupt my reality and get me through a difficult moment and onto the next. Not all strangers are kind, but from experience, especially the ones which I have shared here with you today, I can definitely tell you, the unkind phone wielding ones are absolutely in the minority – an amazing thought which will make me cry with gratitude every time. My mother always told me that I would never get through life if I cried like that all that time. I am pleased to report I have gotten through life exactly like that, yes, crying all the time. And can say, I have been shown many kindnesses and I am  immensely grateful.

Society of the mind: A Rhumba of Ruths

What magical trick makes us intelligent? The trick is that there is no trick. The power of intelligence stems from our vast diversity, not from any single, perfect principle. —Marvin Minsky, The Society of Mind.

Recently, I watched the episode The Relaxation Integration (S10, E3) of the Big Bang Theory in which Sheldon keeps dreaming of being Laid-Back Sheldon. At the end of episode he has a council of Sheldons to decide if Laid-Back Sheldon gets a say in Sheldon’s life. This got me thinking: What goes on in my council of Ruths? Is there a Laid-Back Ruth?

I don’t think there is. Not yet anyway. What do you even call a council of Ruths? A rising? A regiment? I looked up animal groups for one with an r. There was a raft, a run, a rabble, but I decided on a rhumba which is defined as a complex, violent dance. Yes, I would definitely say that is going on inside my head. Who is in charge? I am worried that it is Emergency Ruth.

Emergency Ruth

Emergency Ruth woke me up last night. I was in a deep sleep and then around 1am, she woke me up mid-panic, flailing and drowning. I smacked my husband around the head who didn’t seem to notice but sat up a couple of minutes later to wonder why he was awake at 1am.

Emergency Ruth is great. She is fabulous in a crisis. She pays attention to detail, she can spot what will go wrong miles ahead of everyone else. She always turns in a top-quality performance even when she is a completely knackered-in, nervous wreck. She can sprint down to A&E. She can stay up all night pressing buttons on a dialysis machine or a food pump, pass an NG tube, inject a tiny baby with a big needle, or herself, if no one else is around. She can give you, or a tiny cat, medicine on the hour every hour, with a syringe all night, or help you write a paper and meet your deadline. She sucks it up, sleepless, fearless (well she pretends she is) and does the thing that needs to be done: that medical procedure, that difficult conversation, that potential-to-get-nasty situation. Emergency Ruth is a total badass and she has my back.

But, in the middle of the night, when she should stand down, she is on red-alert, flight or fight, and she wakes me several times a night, every night, with a false alarm, and if I am too tired and fall into the dark night of the soul, she cannot help me feel better because that’s not what she does. Every morning she wakes me with a story of panic and a crick in my neck. She is intense.

Lately, I have taken to greeting her with: Good Morning, Doom. It makes me laugh and allows a tiny space in which Hippy Ruth can breathe and help unfurl my clenched heart.

Hippy Ruth

Sat chit ananda. I love Hippy Ruth. She had us vegetarian and organic for years. She rescues spiders and puts them through the cat flap. She recycles everything and wastes nothing. She worries about the environment, landfills, and data centres but talks to Techno Ruth who calms her, so that she truly believes that everything has a solution and all is well.

Hippy Ruth made us stopped dying our hair to grow it out and make it big and hippy once more, like it always was. She also makes us wear shorts at Bikram, so that we can embrace our body. She loves us. She loves our life. She is the best version of us. She is kind and compassionate and loves everyone, especially those people who behave badly towards us, for they are the most needy. (Emergency Ruth would eat them for breakfast.)

Hippy Ruth is happy on her mat or zazen cushion but equally happy to be interrupted part way through because she understands the tantra – or weaving – of the tapestry of life. Hippy Ruth knows that the mystical is to be found in the kitchen and the cuddles, as well as in the silence and the space of solitude. Always calm she hears the still small voice within.

Wild and Free Ruth

Wild and Free Ruth is an old, old joke between my husband and I. Though writing this, I asked him: What about Sensible Ruth? He said: I don’t think there is one. Wild and Free Ruth hates routine and doesn’t manage well in one. When she gets out, she’s up all night living wild and free. She is all about connection and go with the flow. But she doesn’t have the wisdom or the yin and yang of Hippy Ruth so she can fall into doing foolish things, and never says no even when she must. She is freespirited, rolls with it, sees what happens. She has a massive appetite for life and the ability to see the funny side in anything.

We’ve had some great times, hitching round the Alps, sleeping on the beach in Cinquaterra, flying to Kandmandu last minute and hoping our pal really meant it when she said she’d see us there, because Wild and Free Ruth always keeps a promise even if it’s a crazy one.

According to my husband Wild and Free Ruth causes trouble even when under lock and key, and my mother used to say: You’d cause a row in an empty house, but that’s just their opinion.

Boro Ruth

Boro Ruth is the bit of us who knew exactly what she liked to do and how she liked to be, before a million other people got involved and told her not to.

She discovered very early on that she liked: yoga, rollerskating, making music, zoning out (Hippy Ruth calls it meditation), the mystical and magical, the library, avoiding boring conversation. The things we still love to do today.

She loves anything which will make her life easy which is why she is fascinated by technology and can type faster than she speaks. Boro Ruth loves to talk, to learn, to teach and September – falling leaves and the promise of a new academic year.

She lives life like it matters and knows, as all kids do, that there is no need to improve the self. There is only acceptance. We are all just part of a bigger dance, there’s nothing else to do but to enjoy it.

Team Ruth

Team Ruth loves company and finds that everything is better in a group. She loves doing Bikram and meditation in a studio with like minded people. She soaks up that fantastic group energy and shares the love.

Ruth’s best programming happens in teams. She loves solution sharing and working super hard so her bit is ready for the person who needs it. She loves the art of great documentation and beautifully commented code which someone else can understand even when she is not around.

And, then the celebration at the end. Celebrations are always better in a team.

In a fabulous podcast hosted by SoundsTrue and which I listened to four times – it is that good, Mindfulness professor John Kabat-Zinn says that mindfulness is really about heartfulness, or open-heartedness, and not anything to do with the mind at all. I find this a really lovely thought and super encouraging. For as much as these personalities run around in my mind with a few others I haven’t outlined [like Techno Ruth who is a complete nerd, or Stalker Ruth (see what I did there?) who loves to research obsessively], it is a relief not to be limited by those personalities or stories, or any experiences I have had. As the Buddha said:

Nothing is to be clung to as I, me or my.

No clinging, but we don’t mind a cuddle as we welcome new joiners, I am looking forward to Laid-Back Ruth signing up and contrary to popular belief, I’m sure Sensible Ruth is already in there somewhere, I can’t wait til she’s ready to speak.

Group Hug, Ruths!

Sit. Feast on your blogs

My blogging tag cloud generated by wordclouds.com

I have had this blog 11 years now. It feels like a lifetime ago when I first installed WordPress complete with the Kubrick WordPress theme as a place just for me to come and figure out what I thought.

Recently, I discovered my Top Posts for all days ending … which sounds very dramatic and very satisfying, so thought I would look at my most popular top 11 posts of all time and remember how I wrote them. In order of most popular first, here goes:

1) Stalkers in space and Facebook in your face, (February, 2007)

I wrote this blog as I was fascinated by someone’s reaction to me googling them even though everyone else I knew had been online for years and so didn’t mind, but then that was from an era where we decided what to put online, nowadays because of genealogy websites and companies house there is a lot more information in the public domain about a person than they may even realise, anyone can find out anything. The Internet makes it super easy to become a Stalker!

But even now, this blog post gets read by someone everyday, and in the top ten search terms of all time there’s: facebook 1995, facebook, facebook screenshot, old facebook, early facebook screenshots, facebook webpage, facebook 2007

The other three terms are: ruth stalker firth, design pattern, IT security.

I love search terms. They are fascinating. So, I was saddened when Google decided to keep search terms private as I am a total nerd and love patterns (see 3) in statistics and words, which is why I find the above tag cloud completely beautiful. However, I do remember there was a lot Stalker search terms kept coming up and bringing them here.

And, people googling me helped me to decide to put up an About page as I hadn’t had one for a long time. I find About pages really interesting on other peoples’ websites so am thinking that people might want to know more about me. I added a Now page inspired by the NowNowNow initiative and I use it myself. It is like a to-do list.

2) User motivation: Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, (December, 2007)

I remember being very pregnant writing this and I had been already given the news that there was a problem with my unborn child’s kidneys. So, I came here to think about Crannogs and holidays instead of googling renal fetal problems and driving myself mad with worry.

For me, technology is all about people, and humans are the central factor in any design project. Maslow’s hierarchy is a lovely way of organising things from social media (see 4) to chakras, though he only used two women in his sample of people but since women have rarely been written about, I am glad he used two. I can’t find anything better to organise our human experience which is to be felt, seen, heard. Soon I will write about Maslow’s hierarchy of technology.

3) Using patterns to shape our world, (March, 2007)

I’ve long been excited about patterns. In my PhD research I looked for patterns in my big data and graphical-user interfaces, which reminds me of the time my husband and I were in a restaurant arguing about whether object-oriented design was good for graphical-user interface design, the people on the next table asked to be reseated far away from us.

I have written quite a few blogs about finding the patterns in storytelling, in data (see 10), and in design. This was the very first blog I wrote about it and it thrills me to see that it gets read nearly as often as the social media blogs.

4) Maslow’s hierarchy of social media, (April, 2015)

I love thinking about social media, again what motivates people to share which is the need to be experienced. This is one of my favourite blogs as it was the first time I figured out what social media was about and how we use it. From this blog came the social animal on social media series which regularly gets hits because we like to know why we do what we do and social media is fascinating.

5) Chemotherapy: The year of my hair, (October 2012)

My hair was always my crowning glory and people would comment it on it all the time. It was big and black and beautiful, though for many years, out of a bottle. So, to be completely bald wasn’t much of a giggle even though it was only for four months. Sadly, though it never grew back in quite the same way, my hair is a lot less curly now. When I took off my wig and had a shorn head, people used to tell me that I was brave for getting a haircut that short. It felt really nice and furry and my baby girls would rub my head.

Brave was the term people used again when gave up the hair dye so I am not surprised that Fifty shades of my grey hair, (December 2016) came in no. 12 of all time even though it is relatively new. People like pictures to guide them through their own hair growth. I know I do. I still look at both sets of pictures to remember where I’ve been, because even now I want to dye my hair black and so remind myself how long it has taken to get where I am and how my dyed hair didn’t look very good anymore.

6) Cognitive Science for IT Security, (August, 2007)

This one was written for my students when I lectured at Westminster. It is one of my favourite subjects as it involves how we think and technology and how the two don’t always fit together too well. It was the saddest of days when I couldn’t lecture after my daughter was born, not least of all, because when I was ready to return the course had changed and this topic had disappeared because I had made it up and no one else had my unique skill set to teach it.

7) Why my coffee machine is so sexy, (February, 2007)

I have been in love with my coffee machine forever. My husband and I were newly married and were totally broke, and we spent a month’s rent money on this coffee machine which we ordered from a dodgy Italian website which didn’t say anything at all, so we didn’t know if they’d got the money, or if they really existed, or if we’d been ripped off. Ah, the joys of early international Internet shopping.

8) Bad design: Fresenius Applix Smart food pump, (December, 2008)

I took this one down as it attracted a lot of negativity. I talk about it here but I reread it again today and it is a good blog, a solid UX review, and there are comments by people who agree with me which I had forgotten about as I, like most humans, tend to remember the bad stuff more easily. What occurred to me today is that the blog is a demonstration of the medium is the message. People got so focused on the criticisms I had, that they thought I was criticising the purpose of the foodpump which I wasn’t. I thought about putting it back up but then thought again. I would never write another blog like it and I only want to spread positivity.

After this post, and apart from one about augmented and virtual realities and wearables, I didn’t blog again until 2011, and when I did it was about WordPress, this was when I had just finished chemotherapy and was about start radiotherapy and more surgery that I had the energy to think about things – seriously though, would I listen to myself? I had two small children to look after, one who was about to have another big surgery too. I hadn’t slept in years. However, it was important to me to think about technology and people, it’s what I do, it’s what I’ve always done, so I read all of Alan Dix’s TouchIT and took notes so that I could feel more like myself. I lost the notes before I got the chance to put them online, but the experience in itself kept me going, so thank you Alan, for sharing your book-to-be online, it kept me going.

In 2012 I managed to blog about embodiment during chemotherapy and the experience of my daughter’s first day at school, which was really nice. It brought me back to me and helped me remember how I like to write.

9) Katie Hopkins’s #fatstory one year on (January, 2016)

This one is a pop psychology blog about why Katie Hopkins is so mean. It gets hits all the time and is always in my most popular this week. I have no idea why people want to read about her. I guess it is the same reason I needed to write about her. I just wanted to understand why someone would be that mean, which is probably why my blog on Prejudice: The social animal on social media (April 2016) comes in at no 13 on the all time blog hits.

10) Storytelling: Narrative, Databases, and Big Data (April, 2016)

I was asked to lecture the module introduction to databases and the notes were a bit dry so I wrote this blog for my students to let them know that while we were linking together small tables of ten rows, people working with databases have millions and millions of rows to manipulate. Database design is exciting and patterns are where it is at.

11) Bikram: Heat is the way to inner peace March 2015

I love yoga. I started doing yoga when I was 14 years old, and am a trained teacher (of course I am, if there’s a formal way of learning anything, you can count on me to be your most enthusiastic student. Sign me up!). Bikram is just another wonderful variation of this wonderful gift. I love the heat, the sweat, and the way my body feels bending over lots of times in a hot room. I would recommend Bikram to anyone. It is a super hard discipline and never gets any easier, but I love it.

And, I love blogging. I love this space of mine. I write slowly and at great length. I used to have yoast installed which tells you how to make your blogs more SEO friendly, and says basically: 300 words long, H2 headers must have the keyword of the blog in them as the title must too, and you must sprinkle the keyword through the text. Yawn! I switched it off.

I take my time to write my blogs as I am not doing them to impress a search engine. I edit a lot, otherwise I end up with a blog like this one which as I reread it now, is a little disconnected and full of it’s brilliant, I love it. Pressing publish after grappling to understand something I didn’t before is just brilliant and yeah, I love it. I am so grateful to WordPress and Tim Berners-Lee for creating a platform for me to explore what’s on my heart, and for anyone who takes the time to read what I have written. Thank you.

My top blogs 2017: Stories, statistics, and social media

Post-its patterns of my blogposts

I was talking to a Bikram friend today, who said that the first 20 minutes of the Bikram yoga sequence is us getting back in touch with ourselves and she has wondered for a while how to take that off the mat and into her life.

I love it when someone articulates clearly something that I have been pondering but didn’t know where to start. I know that connection to others is necessary, not least of all, because we learn about ourselves. But, in order to connect to others in a meaningful way, we first of all need to be able to connect to ourselves.

Each December, I like to reflect on what I have been blogging about all year. I did so in 2015 and 2016 and in this way I connect with myself, and my words, which makes it easier to connect to others and their words, especially with WordPress Reader.

And then, the stats themselves can tell a story. As I said in Top Blog No 3 (below), we are living in an age when we have lots of data and very little narrative, or insight, which is why everyone is nuts about big data as they think it will give them insight. But, to get the insight, you need to see patterns, and then make them into a story.

So, let’s take a look. My top 10 blogs of 2017 are:

  1. Katie Hopkins’s #fatstory one year on
  2. Fifty shades of my grey hair
  3. Storytelling: Narrative, Databases, and Big Data
  4. Maslow’s hierarchy of social media
  5. Aggression: The social animal on social media (6)
  6. Prejudice: The social animal on social media (7)
  7. User motivation: Maslow’s hierarchy of needs
  8. Designing story (3): Archetypes and aesthetics
  9. Game theory in social media marketing (2): Customers and Competitors
  10. Alone together: Is social media changing us?

In all honesty, given the nature of 3.6 billion people online and how Google gets people to come to this site, the only real common thread in these blogs is that I wrote all of them. That said, I could make all manner of patterns out of these 10 posts because if there is one thing statisticians know: if you torture the data long enough it will tell you anything. But, what I really see in these top posts is that I have been blogging away about social media and storytelling for a few years now, and I have come full circle.

I started off with no. 10, actually my first social media blog was: Emerging Technologies: What’s the story? back in 2013, but when I wrote Alone together: Is social media changing us? I wasn’t sure about us learning about ourselves online, but now 60+ blogs later I think: Absolutely yes, it is true, we do come online to learn about ourselves, in the same way we learn about ourselves in conversation with others.

I found this out during the series The Social Animal on Social Media, and how stories matter. We interpret signs and symbols and make stories semiotically to make sense of the world and ourselves. We then tell them to others which creates an intimacy, and an energy which yes, causes a connection.

The constant theme running through all the blogs is connection and also understanding how to connect (which is why 4 and 9 have made it on, we like to make sense of our connections, 1, 5 and 6 are about making sense of bad behaviour or when connection goes sour). Now I only have two blogs left to write (one on social computing, and one on connection) and then I will have said everything and much more than I intended to, when I set out to talk about social media.

I am a year behind schedule as 2017 has been painful with some difficult life events, some heartbreak, and a lot of soul-searching, so to have felt a connection to others, more often than not online, throughout 2017, has been truly lovely. We do connect and have proper conversations on social media, contrary to what some sociologists might think.

I love blogging here. I make sense of the world and of myself, and as psychotherapist Matt Licata puts it, I satisfy that innate yearning for intimacy and aliveness.

So for that, and for the conversations, the connections, and for the laughter, especially the laughter, I am so very, very grateful, and I can’t wait to do it all again next year!

Creating space (5): Letting people be who they are

We have to acknowledge the pain of the present, the traumas of the past, and the broken dreams of the future – Matt Licata

The day I rang my dad to tell him what the plan was for treating the cancer I had been diagnosed with, he said: You haven’t really got cancer, have you? Not really. I read about it on the Internet.

I was so angry, I could barely speak: Err, yes I have, that is why I am now starting what will be probably a year in total of treatment (it turned out to be two). But, even though I was raging, he just couldn’t stop himself insisting that I hadn’t really got cancer.

I now see that it was just him unable to witness me potentially fall apart, or worse. We had just been through three years of life or death treatment with my daughter and two years of mental and physical illness with my mum and so my news tapped into a hopelessness and grief he hadn’t had space to process and which he could no longer manage which is why he felt the need to talk me out of my experience. He died one year later, his big, kind heart couldn’t take anymore.

Don’t wear your heart on a sleeve

My dad is an extreme example of not being able to recognise or bear witness to another’s fear and pain. But, it is not uncommon. Last week, I went to my uncle’s funeral and one completely lovely relative said to me: Don’t cry, Ruth, – words we say to one another all the time which are comforting, but are really, deep down, a plea asking someone to keep it together, behave better, and stop reminding everyone about the pain and agony in their own hearts.

Anyone who has cancer can tell you how, when you tell someone your news, the person opposite you will chime in – often part way through your story – to tell you about their friend/relative/loved one who has/had cancer too. They launch into a massive tale that you really haven’t got the emotional strength to hear, let alone bear witness to. People can’t stand you. They cannot stand to hear your pain, as it taps into theirs until they just have to share their pain, in the hope of feeling better, which in this scenario doesn’t really work.

After some God-awful-into-the-abyss-experiences when I felt myself freefalling into the fear which has no beginning or end, I took to interrupting people: Has this story got a happy ending?

I know now this is why one wise doctor advised me to be very careful when thinking about telling people I had cancer. After some God-awful-into-the-abyss-experiences when I felt myself freefalling into the fear which has no beginning or end, I took to interrupting people: Has this story got a happy ending? Otherwise, left to their own pain and sadness, people would quite amazingly finish whatever very long, horrific tale with: AND THEN THEY DIED….!!! #ffs. I know more stories about cancer and kidney transplants than anyone in their right mind can bear.

Holding space

It is very hard to watch someone fall apart under the weight of a life experience, to fall into that dreadful emotional agony, without wanting to stop it, to shush it, to shove it all back down to where it is manageable. It takes even greater strength to stand there and share that agony by acknowledging it and being a witness so that you allow someone to express what they must, but I am starting to think that it is the only way to live this life. We have to acknowledge the pain of the present, the traumas of the past, and the broken dreams of the future as psychotherapist Matt Licata puts it in a lovely facebook post, so that you can be of service to yourself and others.

Managing others experiences

When my baby had tubes coming out of her and I had no hair at all, I used to watch all the mums going off on their lovely coffee/play dates, as I made my lonely way home. We were not invited. It seemed that we were not wanted because we looked different. We had scars which demonstrated that life can serve up terrible experiences inexplicably, without rhyme or reason, so it was easier not to have us around. No one wanted to be reminded of the fragility of life.This made me feel ashamed as if there was something wrong with me: why couldn’t I just be normal? Talk normally? And, most of all not cry. The rejection scarred me deeper than any surgeon’s scalpel.

One mum kindly admitted last year that people dreaded seeing us as you never knew what terrible thing might have happened to us since the last terrible thing. In a strange way her admission made me feel better. It wasn’t me, it was them. Just the other day I bumped into one of those mums who breezily asked me how our health was, I ignored her (a new skill I have when I don’t want to answer a question which can undo me, sometimes I just shake my head) but she asked me several times. I think she asked because it looked like she would get a safe answer in the middle of H&M, because even now she wants my experience to be one that she can manage, and she can feel she expressed the appropriate amount of concern without me touching her fear.

But if you do, it is in there that you let them decide what the meaning of it all is and allow them to be exactly what and who they are. You are giving them the greatest gift of all – the gift of love.

It seems to me that when you get breezy, avoid, or interrupt someone, you are forgetting that they are human, and that they are innocent and whole underneath the wounds which frighten you so much. But it is very hard to not interrupt other peoples’ energy – to let them have the space to let off steam and to let the conversation flow. But if you do, it is in there that you let them decide what the meaning of it all is and allow them to be exactly what and who they are. You are giving them the greatest gift of all – the gift of love. None of us get enough love says meditation teacher davidji to which he adds, and none of us breathes deeply enough.

However, if you cannot hold the space, ask yourself what it is that makes you so afraid? I know I am still afraid, still anxious, still hurting after all this time, and I don’t always manage conversations well. Meditation makes it better but it is agony, which is funny as that is the topic of the last conversation I had with my dad, which would surprise anyone who knew him. He was a rock, who could sit in the company of the wounded, the dying and make it right, make it better. He had a magnificent compassion that was pure unconditional love. However, that night, on the phone, he got me to read out the side effects of my latest round of painkillers, in case they would be good for him, he was in pain, and then he said he was having trouble sleeping/managing/being and I said that he had to meditate, ‘cos I had just read a book by Deepak Chopra on it. He said: Effing Deepak Chopra… and there was a load of chuntering on and more swearing until he admitted: Meditation is so hard. And so it is.

Be not afraid: Energy exchange for the broken hearted

Lately, I have been practising Tonglen a Buddhist meditation technique for overcoming the fear and suffering my dad was swearing about. Danielle La Porte sums it up in the Firestarter sessions as:

Breathe in for all of us and breathe out for all of us. Breathe in suffering— yours, others, the world’s. Breathe out compassion— for yourself, for others, for the world.

Basically when you feel brokenhearted, which I currently do, you breathe in the very pain that is undoing you, and you lean into the unbearable agony of it all, and then you breathe out love. You may feel that you are going to shatter into a million little pieces, but then a little magic happens and you exchange one emotion for another. You do it for yourself, and for all the ones who broke your heart, and for those who broke their own hearts, and by doing so broke your heart so badly that you feel nothing good will ever happen again. And, you keep doing it, in and out, in and out, in and out, until the pain is bearable and not so heart breaking and not so frightening and it has become a noble pain of service. Who knew that the simple act of breathing could be so powerful?

The most often repeated words in the Bible are: Be not afraid and yet it is the hardest thing to be, not afraid. And yet, it is the only thing to be, in order to live life with love and to truly connect with others, we have to learn to be not afraid. As my old dad used to always say:

The only thing to fear is fear itself.

Until you can know that, deep down in your broken, tender heart, the only thing to do is breathe.