Just like me

Just like me but a baby…

When I was a girl and I used to go to my Grandma’s house with my mother, there was a picture on the sideboard of her (me mam) as a girl and she looked just like me. It was so like me, but not me, that I was mesmerised.

Now a mum with daughters, I am mesmerised when I look through old photographs which look just like them but are actually me. I have always liked my face, not least of all because it looks like my mother’s and whenever I look in the mirror, I see her and I am comforted.

One of my Bikram teachers has a thing about looking in the mirror. She is constantly saying things like: It’s hard to look at yourself in the mirror. Perhaps you feel old when you look in the mirror because you are grey and fat. And she says it with such passion and commitment that I find it hard to bear. It stirs all sorts of painful emotions within me.

I am very grey and occasionally fat, and most of the time I am okay with that. I actually like looking in the mirror at myself doing bikram, even when going through a mini Porker-Firth phase, like I did last year after eating all the cookies. I missed my mum and comfort ate my way through grief which created a prosperous roll around my midriff which my girls and I affectionately referred to as my cookie belt. I was okay demonstrating that if I comfort eat I put on weight, and it’s important to listen to our bodies, not our pain, where food is concerned. And, I was okay demonstrating that if I have grey hair, it’s ok embrace it and not dye it and not conform, as my youngest got her first grey hair at seven years old. Equally it is okay to dye it, though it took me long enough to grow mine out which was definitely less torturous than dying it every two weeks.

That said, I don’t know if it was the heat, but whenever my yoga teacher went on about feeling fat and grey and old, it made me want to say and do very un-yogic things even though Pantajali said that the first yama, or rule, of his limbs of yoga was ahimsa, do no harm. Instead, he advised that we act with loving kindness, or what the Buddhists refer to as mitri.

After writing the comfort blog, I asked my eldest if she minded looking like me, – I hadn’t always felt grateful to look like my mother – and this daughter of mine being smart and completely charming, mentioned Kung Fu Panda 3, when Po arrives at the secret Panda village and sees lots of pandas for the first time: You look just like me but a baby. You look just like me, but old. It made us laugh so much that we have been saying such things to each other ever since.

The day I came home from Bikram complaining about my teacher, saying that I just couldn’t believe that someone who practices yoga and teaches yoga daily is still focused on physical appearances, my daughter changed her phrase to : You look like me but old… and fat … and grey, until of course I was helpless with laughter, and that got me thinking: Why did I care so much what this teacher was saying?

I think it is because even though that I have made my decision about my grey hair, and I have shed my cookie belt after my bikram 30 day challenge last month, like my teacher, I still buy into society’s message for women who have grey hair, which is: I am disposable, invisible. This is utter nonsense of course (I stick out a bit with the grey) but the hair dye industry is so invested in selling hair dye to grey haired women that it has to tell us that we would look better with our grey hair covered up.

After all, selling is about making people feel less than, it is about hitting them as low down on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs as possible. Consequently, it is hard sometimes to keep the grey hair faith, or the Graith, which disappoints me because it bothers me to look in the mirror and feel less than satisfied with my appearance, after everything I have lived through and all the meditation and yoga I do.

And if I am not squirming enough saying that out loud, I think just because that someone is a teacher, then they should have mastery over themselves, and be able to teach me things I cannot teach myself. I am so intolerant. It’s awful, and now I am judging myself as well as judging her which makes me feel less than.

I trained as a yoga teacher, and I have also lectured computing for many years, and one thing I have just come to realise and now know to be truth is that sometimes you have teach something in order to learn it. That is the beauty of teaching and learning, it is a magical exchange of energy. Even when I think I know something pretty well and I am teaching it, there always comes a moment part way through whatever course I am giving that I, the teacher, learn something new because someone in the room has a different experience and a different perspective regardless of their age and experience, hair, weight, lifestyle. Everyone in every part of our lives is a teacher, we just have to be willing to listen. And, this is why I love teaching. We are all in it together teaching and learning with each other, we resonate with a shared passion for computing or yoga or whatever it is that has brought us together.

This energy exchange puts me in mind of Tonglen, the meditation practice of breathing in and out and exchanging fear for love in those moments when life gets unbearable. It was something I started doing after reading buddhist nun Pema Chödrön.

So I was delighted the other day, when I was thinking about my feelings of intolerance and impatience with my yoga teacher, and I happened upon Chödrön’s meditation of equality practice, often simply called Just like me:

The equality practice is simple [..] You think, “Just like me, she wants to be happy; she doesn’t want to suffer.” …it lifts the barrier of indifference to other people’s joy, to their private pain, and to their wonderful uniqueness.

– Pema Chödrön, Tonglen in Daily Life

After a few rounds of just like me, I realised that my yoga teacher is teaching me all manner of things I do not want to teach myself. She echoes the thoughts in my head, the ones I pretend are not there. She really is just like me, only braver.

The truth is, I am not as sorted as I like to pretend I am with my grey hair, nor am I as tolerant and yogic as I like to think. My teacher has the courage to talk about her private pain, well our private pain, which is why her words disturb me, she is just like me, but speaks up, when I keep quiet so that I don’t have to feel that people will think that I am less than. She has shown me that by speaking up, I am not less than because I don’t judge her as less than either, I see her as brave and authentic, and perhaps that’s how people view me or perhaps they don’t, as Deepak Chopra says: What people think of me is none of my business. I need to let go of that thinking altogether.

Lesson learnt – well not quite, but I am looking forward to her next class. I am ready to step into that magical energy exchange of teaching and learning, of yoga and meditation, and come out slightly different at the end, but not too different, after all, she is just like me, but different and I give thanks for that and for everything she has to teach me.

Namaste!

2019: Top 10 blogs or the story in the stats

[ 1) ghosts, 2) robots, 3) big data, 4) stories,  5) stats]

I have a big box under my desk which is full of planners and journals and notebooks that I have dragged around forever and I am wondering, should I make a big bonfire out of them? I never look in them. I keep them, just in case.

I think my motivation is the same as Muriel Spark’s. I talk about it here in the Privacy blog (one of my personal favourites, just lately anyway), as Spark kept an archive as irrefutable proof of who she was and the experiences which had shaped her. She could use that archive to know the truth about herself. No one could tell her who she was.

I feel that. I want me to tell me who I am. It has always been my greatest fear to not know myself. Deepak Chopra says that the fear of death is just really the fear of not knowing who you are and once you know who you are, you are no longer afraid of death.

Having watched my mother withdraw from life, from herself, and from all the things which give life meaning, including who she was, I saw that not knowing who you are was quite different from the frightening thing I imagined it to be, to the point, that in some respects, it might be nice to not hold on so tight to everything, all those social labels, those constructed identities, the need to please, the desire to be seen as successful. That said, throughout my mother’s long journey on home, as it were, though she was my home, I wanted her so desperately to stay the same, be the her I had always known, and to still be here with me, so that I wouldn’t feel so lost and homeless.

After she died, I decided that I would use the money from her Estate to do something nice for me, so I applied to do a Creative Writing MA at my local university. At interview, I had to discuss one of the last five books I had read. I chose Elizabeth is missing (oh they are going making it into a BBC drama starring Glenda Jackson. Great joy).

The main protagonist has Alzheimer’s but she is never afraid of not knowing who she is or if someone is annoyed, perhaps even at her – it is what it is. She just carries on with her detective work, and the reader finds out what is going on from the other characters, which made me laugh out loud. I read it not long after my mum died and I was so comforted because I often worried about my mum’s distress and pain about not remembering even though she never seemed that bothered. One time I said to her: Oh there’s another Jean in here. And she nodded and then looked at me for a bit and nodded: Jean, Is that me? Am I Jean? Is that my name?

So, there I was in the interview, part way through explaining the book and comfort and experience and resonance – all the good stuff I blog about. And, I began to cry. I couldn’t speak so I cried for a good few minutes. The interviewer – white male middle class (patriarchal but thinks he’s not, bless him) – just looked at me expressionless and then offered me a tissue, and I cried into that until I finished off what I was saying and we carried on with the interview. It was very British. The only thing that was missing was a teapot. One lump or two? (I wish I hadn’t written that as it reminds me of discovering breast cancer.)

Sometimes, I think that it might be nice to retreat from the world, to choose to shave my head and go sit in a cave somewhere, with just a knotted hankie of my possessions and no social labels, just to connect with the divine. Although, I have just put a lovely blue rinse – wash in/wash out Pixie Lott promises me – on my fabulous long grey locks which have taken ages to grow, so no, not right now, perhaps I could take a mirror and a job lot of blue rinses: You look gorgeous.

The first time I had chemotherapy, I ended up in hospital with neutropenia. Lying in a hospital bed on a drip with the curtains closed feeling like death warmed up (as my mother used to say), which apparently I was, medically speaking, it wasn’t that bad. It really wasn’t that bad. I could barely remember my own name and couldn’t at all remember my date of birth, but that was ok, it was written on the tag on my wrist. I was detached from anything which had given me meaning and it wasn’t at all how I imagined it to be. It wasn’t frightening. It really was peaceful, nothing mattered, and if I had slipped away, it might, possibly, have been okay, selfishly, for me. Although, to be perfectly honest it has taken until now for me to come to terms with the reality that I had cancer.

Another time, in the chemotherapy room which made me nauseous – the stem cell treatment smelt like heated sweetcorn – a woman next to me was telling me that after a chemotherapy session she found it hard to care about anything including her beloved dogs, she said she literally threw food at them. I shared with her that it was the same with my babies, my longed for loved babies, the drugs were so strong as to disconnect us and life shrank down to the bed and the pains in my veins (she told me that she loved her central line and I was momentarily envious) from what had been injected in there. She looked better about it and I am glad we had that moment. I wonder how she is and I often think of her. I like to think of her walking her dogs, feeling happy, full of love.

Life is what it is in any given moment, and it’s easier, though nigh on, sometimes, impossible, to accept things as they are and remember even in the depths of despair, things change. Even when there is no hope, there’s always hope. At the very least, the hope that when the desperation passes there will be peace, even just briefly.

It’s odd to think that I got discharged so I can go about the world bombarded with adverts on every social media platform about shite that I have no interest in. It makes me want to look under the hood and tinker with the lazy algorithms, though the Match.com 30something handsome men who want a date with me ads aren’t so bad. You are as young as you feel ( I wouldn’t mind feeling me some 30, wink, wink – perverted old lady stereotype – nice, a new social label).

Offline, I have an immense amount of super boring transactional conversations about other people’s shite too. You know the type, when you have known people for years and seen them daily but still they never speak unless you make a big effort so that they notice you, they don’t reply to your email even though it’s about fun stuff our kids could do together, you have to go over and put your face in theirs and demand a yes or no because they are holding out on a better offer and don’t care if they hurt your kid’s feelings #wtf. They never remember your name, or your children’s until they find out that one of yours child goes to the school of their dreams and now they want to be your best friend and want information like you have some sort of insight. Oooh, perhaps they thought I tweaked an algorithm. An algorithm of life. A secret of life. Interesting. We often all think that, don’t we? That someone else knows something we don’t which is why they look like they are living on Easy St and we are stuck in the Five of Wands battling through life, our difficulties, our mental conflict.

Five of wands source: Tarotteachings

I love the Tarot, it has a card for every occasion.

So, I have deleted my stats plug-in, again, and today, I am thinking I might just write my own, as we can see, I like thinking about algorithms, and interpretations, I could do that. I have been pondering what to do and that I am done, stick a fork in me, I’m done. It might be nice to do something new within what I already know.

But, before I do, and before I deleted my stats counter- which reminds me of comedian Alan Carr’s very funny routine about his parents buying a shredder to prevent identity theft, if they carried on like that, they wouldn’t remember who they were themselves – I made a note of my ten top blogs of 2019 which now that this blog has gotten really long, I will analyse separately in: 2019 Top 10 Blogs the sequel.

In the meantime, I have to ask: Does it matter if we don’t remember who we are? Does it matter if I don’t drag around my past? Would I feel better if I made a lovely bonfire out of my journals and danced around it, naked as a new born, under the moonlight?

We are always changing, always experiencing new things. Perhaps, I could let go of the past, of the journals, of old ideas, old dreams, old goals, and with a big fire, I could create some space for dancing, dreaming, drumming and the odd quotation from ye auld Lao Tzu:

When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.

– Lao Tzu

I have no idea what it means, I really don’t, but does it matter? It fills me up, it gives me hope.

Last winter I burnt all my old lecture notes and forgot I had and only remembered when I had turned the place upside-down looking for them. Turns out I got on just fine without them. I didn’t need them at all.

I’ve never needed my box of journals either but after I have emptied it, I may just leave it the box there as a den for the cats, and I will also leave a note, so that if I go looking for my journals and my past, I’ll find a cat and instructions:

Look inside your heart, Ruth, you’ll find everything you need.

– Is that me? Am I Ruth?

I used to be, my darling, I used to be.

[ Part 2: the list ]

The inner life: Tarot and technology

The other day I read this tweet: I just assume people who don’t have a twitter account have no inner life. I laughed a lot and got to thinking.

Lately, I have been contemplating my inner life using tarot instead of twitter and, I like it. I did a tarot course back in January at Treadwell’s and ever since, instead of picking up my phone first thing when I wake up on a morning, I pick up the tarot.

I have written thousands of words about technology, in particular social media, and the advantages it gives us, the connection, the reassurance, and that it is popular because we all want to be experienced, that we all want to be seen and heard and to feel that we matter. But I am beginning to see that it has to begin with ourselves. We need to see and hear ourselves, we need to have a space to be able to express ourselves without interruption and feel received, which is hard to do online.

When I give a tarot reading, I am giving my full attention to someone for them to be seen and heard and to talk about what matters to them. In a normal day, how often do we do that for other people? How often does someone do that for us? And, does that ever happen on social media? That interesting broadcasting to no one in particular model which is so compelling and yet at times, so indifferent. We don’t know if someone has heard, or if anyone is listening as you cannot be a silent comforting presence on twitter.

I have had magical conversations online with people before I’ve even met them, but they are few and far between. Most social media isn’t like that and from a person to person point of view, to feel seen and heard online, social media works best in a: Here is my news until we meet next. It is not a complete replacement. We need the physical, the being experienced and we cannot be present for others unless we are present to ourselves which is difficult to do if we are permanently distracted by seeking consolation in our phones, for we take ourselves away from our lives, which is for better or worse, where we need to be in order for us to be able to define who we are.

Of course there are times when we need to escape – we used to do that with a book – or we need to physically be somewhere else and that is when technology helps. It can get us to connect where there is just a void and in the moments when you can’t get to be somewhere to say goodbye – perhaps forever – then technology can make a moment happen by compressing time and space and for that it is a blessing. Ironically, the only reason I am writing this blog is because I read a tweet and got inspired.

But for the inner life, to connect back to oneself where there’s only a void which needs filling; that Sehnsucht : (German) yearning or inconsolable longing which sometimes happens, or perhaps, as as someone else tweeted today, that Hiraeth: (Welsh) Homesickness for a home that you cannot return to; grief for the lost places of your past. Those feelings are hard to manage using technology, though knowing other people have them too can help. Personally, I hate the idea that someone else is feeling as miserable as I am, especially if I can’t help, and if, they have typed out a whole scary story which doesn’t end well. Staring at a tarot card which embodies that feeling until I see other things on the card as the feeling dims and hope returns is a more calming way for me to manage as I hate the vulnerability hangover which comes from oversharing online.

Growing up, the tarot was always a bit of a taboo, right up there with the oujia board. (Does anyone try to contact the dead with technology? I wonder! ) I grew up in the Church of England which frowned upon my dad’s spiritualist community, which in turn took a dim view of ‘occult’ practices like tarot. My dad was quite clear on not dabbling with things you didn’t know about, but that was after his automatic writing phase in the cupboard under the stairs where the gas meter was kept. I think now perhaps there was a bit of a leak which caused the visions.

But given that he was pretty eccentric and into the scary esoteric – like those days when the seances in the front room got out of hand – I got the impression that tarot was something way, way out, which begged the question: Who the hell did tarot?

After going on the course now I know: People like me, that’s who. Normal people who are curious and want a different way to think about things. Some of the lovely people I met were into Jungian Psychoanalysis and social work and saw the tarot as a way to communicate. The tarot, and cards and games are as old as time itself and we connect to others through them and then back to ourselves to make sense of the world.

The tarot has 78 cards, 22 of which are the major arcana embodying the archetypes of life, the events, feelings and situations we all experience whether we like it or not: birth and death, love and fear, loneliness and happiness, and so on. Archetypes bring an energy to our stories and to our design processes, and stories and design (as in games or cards or indeed technology) are the way in which we communicate and how we change the world in real life or online. The minor arcana represent the cycles our mind, body, spirit and emotions go through and the court cards represent aspects of our personality or other people. All of it only has meaning because we give it meaning.

So say I pull out DEATH XIII in any reading, most people, myself included, will be able to look at their lives and see that there will be somewhere in their lives where they is the need for an ending to happen, even if they don’t want one, it could be for the best in a situation, a friendship, a job, because with each ending as painful as it is, there is a relief, a release and the promise of the sun rising the next day.

I love the fact too that in the deck I have (the classic Rider-Waite) DEATH XIII looks just like the KNIGHT OF CUPS – the romance card, and I guess falling in love with a person, a project, an idea, is a beginning and the very opposite of letting go and feeling stuck and diminished. A beginning is an ending, and an ending is a beginning.

With technology there is no beginning nor end and we don’t look at twitter and question it’s meaning or relevance. We immediately assume if it is out there then it has meaning, and we make it relevant to our lives, even if it is to our detriment and impacts our inner life.

We set our intentions and our opinions by other people’s stories because we are conditioned to do so– normally we know people or the source of the information and we trust it, which is harder to do online. Lately there are lots of stories about fake news, fake reviews online and even this week the Pope had his say, warning us about robots. But none of this is new, we have long had fake news and spin and propaganda, in wartime it’s a good thing, in peacetime it’s manipulation. Technology just facilitates all of this with a wider reach.

Technology has no message. The medium is message. It is up to us to define the correct meaning for it and for our inner lives but that is a hard thing to do. Currently, my inner life is doing well using tarot not twitter and I am not feeling the sharing is caring vibe at the moment but should I change my mind I can easily and instantly on my phone and will try not to mind when no one answers.

Alone Together three years on: Is social media changing us?

technology-disconnect-s from vortaloptics.com

You are not alone – Oprah Winfrey

Alone Together (1)

Three years ago, I watched social psychologist Sherry Turkle’s TED talk (2015) and then read her book: Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other, (2011) which prompted me to write a blog called: Alone Together: Is social media changing us?

Rereading my blog, I see that my opinion hasn’t changed and on checking, neither has Turkle’s. She now consults on reclaiming conversation ™ to stop the flight from face-to-face conversation.

I am not so sure we don’t want to talk face to face at all, rather it’s just technology gives us the option to avoid those particular prickly peeps we’d rather not see face to face if we can.

Added to that, I don’t believe that technology is taking us to places we don’t want to go. We have no idea what we are doing online or where we need to be, and I am tired of hearing technology described as an unstoppable force outside of our control as if it were freak weather or a meteorite zooming towards earth about to destroy us all. Economics is often the driver of technological advancement and human decisions drive economics.

Glorious technology

Our behaviour online and towards technology reflects us in all our glory – the good, bad and the ugly – along with all our hopes and fears. I do not believe that we expect more from technology and less from each other. Instead, I believe that we turn to technology to plug the gaps and find solace in those moments when we feel alone, afraid, unloved, and indeed sadly, sometimes, unloveable.

Life can be crushingly hard, and many of us know that there are certain people in our lives with whom we will never have the rich, robust and trusting relationships Turkle believes have been eroded by digital technology. Some people are just not up to the job. It may be the same with our friendships online but the hope is there.

Many of us just want to get in and out of any given, often potentially stressful, situation – work, meetings, the playground, the hospital, the dinner table, events with relatives – without saying or doing anything to cause any bad feeling. So that when we do finally get to our tiny slivers of leisure time we can use them to fill ourselves up with what makes us feel better, rather than analysing what we didn’t get right.

If that means staring at a tiny screen then what’s wrong with that? One person I know spoke of their phone, and the access it gave them to an online friend, a person they hadn’t met at that point, as an Eden between meetings. And, why not? Whatever works.

That is not possible now

Turkle says that we use online others as spare parts of ourselves, which makes me believe that she hasn’t really engaged with people on Twitter in a normal way in conversation, and she hasn’t ever met people who do that offline either. Many people make new friends on Twitter and meet up #irl a long time afterwards and then only occasionally. Their relationships are mainly based online. Rather like families who live a long way away from each other. It doesn’t mean it’s less real or not important. It just means they are physically not there which might be difficult but we don’t want to not have any contact with these people because we love them. Maya Angelou said something really beautiful about this when she was on the Oprah show one time. She said:

Love liberates it doesn’t bind. Love says I love you. I love you if you’re cross town. I love you if you move to China. I love you. I would like to be near you. I’d like to have your arms around me. I’d like to have your voice in my ear. But that is not possible now. So, I love you. Go.

We want to be in contact with people whom we love and appreciate, and who love and appreciate us in return. Those people who make us remember the best bits about ourselves. We like people who like us. It is that simple and these people are not always in our daily lives. It’s not for nothing that vulnerability expert Brene Brown says that people armour up everyday to get through the day.

To cultivate the sorts of relationships Turkle feels that we should be having without our phones takes not only a lot of time and energy (and Brene Brown books) but a fearlessness which is not easy. Our greatest fear is social rejection and a robust conversation can leave us badly bruised. Online it is slightly easier because if a person drops out of your life, then you have some control over the day to day reminders unless you turn stalker, which is understandable as the grief of any online loss feels just as real. However, know this:

You are not alone

When we seek answers to our problems emotional like grief, or physical, spiritual, legal, fiscal. Technology really does say: You are not alone.

In real life, difficult relatives and tough-love friends don’t make the best agony aunts and may make us want to keep our questions to ourselves. We may forgo the embarrassment or shame by keeping our anonymity and seeking counsel elsewhere. Giving and receiving advice makes the world go round. In the book Asking for a Friend, the history of agony aunt columns is given over three centuries, and even today with all our technology, they remain as popular as ever.

But, if we can’t wait for our favourite agony aunt or uncle, a quick google/bing or peek round Quora can give us the reassurance we need. No, we are not shoddy, terrible people. Our thoughts and feelings are completely normal. The article What’s wrong with Quora? says that we may prefer a dialectic communication (a chat) say on Twitter, but we don’t use it in the same way as the didactic Q and A on Quora. We may never join Quora or Mumsnet but plenty of us (lurkers) use these and similar forums to find answers and feel better about the difficult circumstances we often find ourselves in.

It is reassuring to know that someone somewhere has already asked the question, either under a real or false name, and some other lovely human has written something underneath which just may help.

I don’t really believe that anyone of us is afraid of having a regular conversation because we have a phone. Turkle mentions research done on teenagers a lot, but they are specific user group and shouldn’t be taken as representative of the general population nor the future. How many teenagers want to talk to anyone? The teenage years are torture. As adults, however, because of the way society is set up, we often have to spend time with people we wouldn’t choose to, at work or in families. In the past we may have tried harder, felt shittier, been robust or at least tried to tell ourselves that, nowadays, it is more acceptable, a relief even, to be alone together, and to save our thoughts and feelings for those we love and who love us in return, wherever and whenever they may be.

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 wanting 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.