The Wright Way

The Wright Way

Monday, November 26, 2012

See Me After Tea

Apportion control
Life can be bitter-sweet – in fact life IS full of potentially bitter-sweet experiences. We can experience bad things on a good day and good things on a bad day.

Here’s the thing though – they are all just days, and they are all just things. It’s all down to how WE frame them, code them up, react to them, post-rationalise them and keep re-presenting them to ourselves. And that’s just a load of thinking – a load of scenery painting.
It’s how we build our own personal histories and superstitions, it’s how we match patterns – however spurious – and then generalise and distort them to make “more meaning” out of them. When all the time – in the cosmic scheme of things, of things like that - their nature is about as random and their movement is about as Brownian as our logical brain would normally discard.

If the world is an empty stage populated by people and events, then who paints the scenery and puts it in place? Who writes the dialogues, the sub-plots, the actions, the movements? Who manipulates the lighting and the sound-track?
To whom do we apportion control of this vast edifice?

In the Spotlight
In my small corner of the stage I first grappled with the nature of the bitter-sweet on my 12th birthday. I was at boarding school, in my second term, and my parents were 10,000 miles away. Yes I had family nearer, and I had a handful of school friends and a boatload of school acquaintances – but no loved ones with me in person to share my birthday.

My parents, bless them, knew that if we’d all been together the thing that would have meant most to me AND them, as a shared experience, was a fabulous birthday cake. OK presents were fine and I had a good number of those, but sharing the cake would have topped the lot. So they arranged for the best confectioner and cake-maker in town to make and deliver to me, at school, a fabulous cake.
And it was fabulous!
Cream, meringue, my favourite soft fruits, all interwoven with the most delightful sponge. A veritable Supercake!
250 boys were sat in the school dining room eating away, and there was a hubbub of voices, and sounds of crockery and cutlery. That’s the noisy scene. One of the cook’s assistants walks in with a presentation box and the duty prefect calls for silence and then asks “Where’s Wright?” I was the only one thus named in the school so I called out ‘yes’ and was duly presented with the cake box. The lads on my table were chuffed and excited since they got to share my fabulous cake. I became the glowing nucleus on that table, in that part of the dining room. The hubbub and noise swirled around once more. The scene continued to play out.

Some more minutes of the mealtime passed and then silence was summoned once more. “Where’s Wright?” came the call from the same prefect. There were expectant murmurings as I called out yes and he approached me. Some people were obviously anticipating another fabulous cake or more goodies!

“The Headmaster wants to see you after tea in his study.”
The table fell silent as I, blissfully unaware, thought that he probably wanted to wish me Happy Birthday as well! This was short-lived though. The table knew better however, as the wording of the summoning to the HM’s study meant only one thing.

The true awakening to the serving of life’s bitter-sweet portions arrived shortly after tea as I received six strokes of the cane with the taste of that fabulous cake still on my lips.
From then on the times around my birthday have been particularly bitter-sweet.
Or so I made it seem.
Birthdays are always abundant with good experiences so it’s very easy to notice the not-so-good-stuff – especially if you go looking for it, are prepared for it, are expecting it. And my reaction to that stuff was always to code it up as
it’s my birthday and I always get bad amongst the good at my birthday. There’s always something bad on my birthday to spoil it.”  Even if the bad was pretty mild compared to something bad a few months back, I would distort it, emotionalise it, and still code it up as Bad Birthday stuff!

Rainy Days and Mondays
We’re all very good at doing this – people will talk about “these are never very good times for me”, where there are associations with events, anniversaries etc. Some people even get places with negative associations; certain songs or pieces of music can do it for us too. Weather and days of the week also play a big role. We are very susceptible and can get very good at it!

Essentially we are pre-framing our scenes and painting our own upcoming scenery – and the irony is we are painting our scenery using the very paint from right back at that first instance, that first experiential scene.
If I look back at that 12th birthday scenario for me, the traumatic tipping point wasn’t the cane since that was real. It was the coding of my negative emotional reactions to a collection of things, all painted up with the colour of loneliness. I’d been caned in May and February, and it was no big deal. But around my birthday it was just SO unfair, it spoilt my celebrations, and reminded me that – for the very first time in my life – I was very much alone at a time when I’d always been surrounded by love.

Excuses and Reminders
Now it’s very easy to make the excuse that this all happened to a little boy who was just twelve, and how could he be expected to react in any other way than be upset. And of course you’d be right. We deal with things with whatever resources we have at the time, and a 12 year old does not have the resources of someone much older. There’s this widely held belief that experiences like this are “character-forming”. Makes a man of you – teaches you how to handle yourself – and other well-worn phrases get bandied about. And there’s a degree of truth in that. Getting the cane on my birthday gave me an unexpected chunk of street-cred at school; I learned how to handle myself in terms of ‘future-cane’ and other retribution; it definitely formed my character.
However – it’s the stuff going on in the confines of our psyche where the pernicious damage is done – by ourselves to ourselves.

When I get these reminders nowadays I don’t get anything triggered in the way I used to. I’ve been able to dismantle the aftermath of that imprint (and the numerous subsequent carefully distorted bad experiences) which I carried for years like another large set of emotional baggage.

Just as well really as today, in the midst of opening some delivered birthday presents, I innocently took a cup of tea up to my Dad ** in bed. I normally notice if he is not himself – his regular persona – and today (understandably) I was caught unawares. He threw the tea all over me and launched into a string of foul-mouthed invective about what an awful person I am! I did what I usually do when he is like this, and beat a hasty retreat – soaked in hot tea.
Now, old patterns of birthday experiences would have turned this into a major upset – but this time nothing prevailed – and eventually it got round to humour.

And for me, following today’s revisited trauma, “See me after Tea,” takes on a whole new meaning!

** (I live with and care for my Dad who is 93 and has dementia)

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