ONLY CONNECT

Family portrait with parents and four daughters.
Family portrait with parents and four daughters. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Families who can’t talk to each other, create problems that grow in magnitude and are passed down the generations. Communication, a willingness to empathise and hold out a hand, is the glue that keeps relationships healthy. To achieve this, needs the wisdom of Job and the patience of a saint. It also need assertiveness. Running away from problems in a family set up, refusing to discuss them, or yelling and shouting to assuage feeling of frustration, just drives a bigger and more dangerous wedge between family members. Loyalty and the strength to support each other when the chips are down, is hard to maintain. It’s so much easier to disappear into a silent chasm of your own making.

When family members stop communicating, people get lost. If the communication is shallow and uncaring, people feel negated. If there is no loving compassion in the way people communicate, then there will be a flatness to life and a sense of emptiness, for what else is life about, but connecting. The saddest stories are the ones reported in the newspapers that tell of elderly people found dead in their homes, alone and uncared for. These people often have children scattered across the world, who have lost touch with them. Of course, the reason for these estrangements is never fully explained, but I know from my own experience, that often it was nothing more than a difference of opinion that caused a family rift that was never resolved.

There is also the issue of courage. It takes courage to overcome rows when bad things are said and people are hateful to each other in a family setting. I am not talking about abuse here; that’s a far more serious issue and should always be addressed with the help of professionals. No, I am talking about having the courage to challenge bad behaviour within a family, in a calm, assertive way that enables you to maintain dignity and self respect. A lot of family misunderstandings are down to a lack of good manners. People who are close, often take each other for granted and forget courtesy and kindness. A culture of ‘anything goes’ can develop in a family, where there is an unspoken permission to ‘let it all hang out’ – to be able to say anything or behave however you wish, even if the words and behaviour is hurtful and damaging. Standing up for your self-respect in a family setting where emotions are running high takes courage, but it so much better than enforced silence or unbridled rage.

Families nearly always have bullies. Bullying is covered up with excuses from them, or from other family members. There is never an excuse for bullying, whatever the circumstances. When people bully, it is because they cannot express themselves with the right sort of assertiveness. Bullying is borne of frustration. It’s hard work to deal with a family bully, because if you love that person, you tend to tread on eggshells around them, in the hope that they will see that bullying is not the way to communicate well. But bullies need to be challenged and that takes self-esteem and courage, too. When you love someone and they bully you, it is your self-esteem that takes the hit.

There is also another type of family member. The martyr. This is the person who constantly says sorry. Who makes him or herself the fall guy. Who lives in a state of apologetic silence. Who can never resolve anything, because to resolve something would mean responsibility. Being a martyr lets you off the hook. You wish to be seen as the person who will lay down your life for others, rather than do anything pragmatic to resolve the problem.  What that means is that you do not have the confidence or insight to  employ intelligence, wisdom, and reason. Martyrs are very emotional people. Deep inside, they feel that the whole world is against them. Being a martyr means you want people to notice you and to acknowledge that you exist, above everything else. You are screaming for attention, you are hurt and you want others to know it. How can you resolve anything, feeling like that? So beware the martyr in your family. They need help!

Then we have the isolationist. The family member who removes him or herself and says, ‘Let them get on with it, I’m out of here…’ This person is usually very sensitive too, but presents a tough exterior. They come across as the know-all. When they are not given enough listening time or they feel that others are ignoring them, or can’t understand them, they are off! They have an innate stubbornness and an overblown sense of self-protection, that prevents them from reaching out to others and loosening up.

So we are back to communication; a vital component in family relations. Parents need to talk to children and listen to them; really listen. Children have to listen to parents… Is that possible? Parents do not have a good press. They are presented as ‘hard-working and poverty struck’ by politicians, as ‘rich and unfeeling’ by the press, as ‘possessive’ by many, as ‘irresponsible’ if they are single parents, as ‘pushy’ if they are ambitious for their kids… the list  of the failings that society seeks to heap upon parents, is endless.  And it doesn’t stop when the kids are grown. Then, we are on to the behaviour of grandparents and their interaction with their children and grandchildren.

As we age, the things that help us to stay healthy and happy are good relationships, within our social groups and with our families. This has been proved scientifically. It is also recognised that people entering nursing homes today are far more frail and need more care than they did years ago. Is this because we have lost that sense of family? Families are split; live far way from each other, do not communicate and by doing this, create a situation where older members feel unloved and uncared for? This affects their sense of well being and self esteem. If you think you are useless, of no value to your family or are simply a seen as a burden, you are not going to feel much like living, let alone live a productive and happy life.

That nagging sense that often overcomes older people, that they are surplice to requirements, that in our throw-away society, it’s time they were thrown away, does not make for contentment. This often happens when there is a divorce. The married couple separate and make new relationships with new families. The old grandparents are sidelined for the new crop. Kid’s loyalties become confused. They love their original grandparents but are expected to suddenly love the new lot! They love their parents, but now they are expected to show love and respect for the new ‘daddy’ or ‘mummy’… It’s very tough on everyone.

Now we come to the most difficult of family members; the fantasist. This person is not grounded in reality. He or she will see their children as saints, when they have committed bloody murder! This person will swear that black is white and white is black. This person will avoid a brush with reality at all costs. They will turn reality into a fantasy and swear that their fantasy is a true representation of what is happening. They will never accept that there are none so blind and those who will not see…  Fantasists lie and they believe their own lies. They cannot understand why people don’t believe them. If confronted, they will say they are just’ exaggerating a little’ or they will withdraw into silence until, they can find an audience to listen and believe their next fantasy. In a family, it is very difficult to explain the behaviour of the fantasist. They are very good at avoiding, at making promises they never keep, at saying outrageous things, while expecting to be forgiven because they are were ‘only joking’. The story of Walter Mitty illustrates the mind of the fantasist beautifully. Mitty is a simple man who lives a vivid fantasy life within his mind. He imagines himself in a variety of exciting roles, yet his own life is bland and unexciting. Walter Mitty is a hapless dreamer. If you have one of these in your family, beware! There is nothing wrong with dreaming, in the right context. Artists have to be dreamers, otherwise they would produce nothing. This, to my mind, is a very valid use of fantasy and dreaming! But the bleak world of a Walter Mitty character deserves our compassion and a gentle nudge into reality now and then!

Staying grounded when dealing with your relatives, keeps you sane. Good communication is the only way through this minefield, I’m afraid. It takes sustained effort and committment and it’s not easy.

HOLIDAY HAPPINESS 3

Sun
Sun (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This morning, the dog woke me at 4.30am. Actually, I was almost awake because my mobile phone, which I am keeping beside the bed, beeped at 4.10am. My network provider decided that was a good time to text me with a special offer! When the dog started to bark, I was tempted to open the shutters and throw the phone at his kennel, but I didn’t. I just hushed him and tried to get back to sleep.

It is so dark here at night. You can see the stars so clearly. I know that with a telescope, you would be able to see the Milky Way. Sitting outside in the twilight last night, glass of wine in hand, dish of olives on table, was so magical. As the stars popped out of the darkening sky, you could hear a faint buzzing from the hundreds of bees that surround a tree – still haven’t managed to discover what species it is – it’s boughs sagging with blossom. As darkness fell, the bees flew off to their beds, but I stayed up, drinking in the atmosphere with all my senses.

Going to bed has a set of rituals that I am now enjoying. On the first few nights they seemed like a chore. Now they are a prelude to sleep. First we lock up the shutters on the outside of the house. Then we close the shutters on the windows and finally, having locked all the inside doors, we close the inside shutters. We are as snug and cosy as any bug in a rug!  The closed shutters keep the house secure and cool. Oh, the joy of flinging them all open in the morning and feel the heat from the sun stream through the window. More magic!

Yesterday, I found a tiny dead scorpion in the bottom of the pool. I know they lurk underneath stones in the land behind the villa.They won’t finish you off, but they can dispatch a nasty bite, like many of the insects here. But you become acclimatised. Even my fair skin is holding up well to all the small, flying, biting things. We put the pool robot under the water yesterday. Like a small R2D2, it crawls the bottom and sucks up anything nasty, but it had somehow missed the scorpion, so that was a task we had to do ourselves. It took a couple of dives and a small bowl to scoop up the creature with caution, even though it was quite, quite dead. As dead as a parrot on a stick.

The vineyard has produced better wine this year. There is a large tin barrel with a tap in the garage. When you feel the urge, you take an earthen wear jug to it and turn the tap. I’ve never in my entire life, had wine on tap. Total magic! Mind you, we are at a thoughtful age and indiscriminate quaffing is not our style any more! But I must say, the wine is hard to resist and I probably have drunk a little too much… But it is so delicious and it must be doing me good, mustn’t it?

Today is a day for abstinence. We have chores to do. The patios must be swept, the pool workings checked, the dog walked the cat stroked and fed, the pots washed, the garden watered, the sun worshiped. This afternoon there will be time enough to swim and feel holy for the exercise endured. Somehow, structure is important, even on holiday. So enough of this idleness. I must away to sweep.

More tomorrow!

HOLIDAY HAPPINESS 2

italian food
italian food (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Okay, yesterday was hot. Today is scorching! The tiles round the pool are too hot to walk on barefoot. Even the water in the pool is warm, or is that just me, because I am ‘glowing’ so much? (Remember, horses sweat, men perspire and ladies glow.)  It’s ten o’clock and the temperature is climbing. The man who came to tend the vines yesterday said it might reach 34 degrees today. And it’s only June! I feel horribly smug about it. I believe my home country is lying water-logged under dismal grey skies… Yah boo sucks!

Down in the valley below the villa, the flat land has been ploughed and sown with tobacco plants and peppers. The tiny plants have just surfaced and look so vulnerable. On the way back from the town yesterday, I saw fields of yellow wheat. Nothing unusual, you may say, but these fields were also full of red poppies, showing that insecticides were not in use. There are poppies everywhere. Like sparkling rubies they sprinkle the side of the road, the gardens and the fields. Everyone here seems to have a huge vegetable patch. There are not many green lawns manicured with scissors, just neat rows of beans and tomatoes and peppers and celery.

Along the straight road through this fertile valley to the town – the Romans were here once – several very old and romanesque houses stand at regular intervals. They appear to be derelict. Doors gape open and on closer inspection, you can see dark rooms inside providing shelter for ancient garden machinery or crates full of rusty tools. These empty houses sit side by side to modern, spotless villas, with brightly painted walls and those huge vegetable gardens. In the morning, if you go into town, you see the women in aprons carrying rubbish bags to the metal bins by the roadside. You see old women leaning on sticks, no longer dressed in black with black head scarves, but smartly attired, walking slowly along the road towards the houses of other family members, for here, the family is everything and nobody moves fast.

From my son’s villa, you can see a conglomeration of houses below, on the valley floor. Recently the matriarch of this family passed away. I am told she was a wonderful woman aged 84, who ruled over three daughters and a son and worked the farm with their help, since her husband died a few years ago. They each live in a house, with their spouses and children. In the UK, people seem to hate this idea. We embrace isolation from each other. Elderly parents are relegated to care homes. We offer older people ghetto living in  ’gated communities.’ Here, in Italy, the elderly are seen as an integral part of the community. They seem to be venerated and applauded and listened to. They have status.

In the tiny bar at the bottom of the road, the old men play cards with the young men. The women, of all ages, natter and nag on a separate table. Down some stone steps by the Basilica church, there is a charming restaurant run by the monks, a Franciscan order, where families go to eat Sunday lunch after attending mass. It’s not just a religious event, it’s a social occasion, where all ages come together, friends and family meet and there is, to my mind, a manifestation of that elusive thing that David Cameron keeps talking about, a Big Society. At least, that’s how I see it. It’s an expansive way of living. It  isn’t relegated to high days and holidays, a Jubilee street party or other special event, it happens every Sunday and is part of the fabric of life here. It is the norm.

Perhaps the weather has something to do with this inclusive way of living? But they have snow here in the winter. Indeed, my son and his family were snowed in for 10 days last year. No, I don’t think it’s the weather. It is a genetic desire to stay close to your family. Before Unification, Italy was a disparate band of small communities and staying together with your tribe was essential for survival. Maybe that is a clue to this glue that binds people; famiglia . Holidays are a time to read and I have just finished a wonderful book: THE PURSUIT OF ITALY by David Gilmour, published by Penguin Books. The author: celebrates a nation of bewilderingly mixed bloods and ethnicities. It’s a fascinating book, well worth reading. I loved it because it explained to me so much about my heritage and my family, their opinions and ethnic background.

It’s time for a cup of Italian coffee in the sun, perhaps at the Bum Bum Bar – an unfortunate renaming of a small cafe in the village. If you pronounce it Boom Boom, as I believe the natives do, all English connotations vanish and you can enjoy your coffee in the sunshine without giggling. Viva Italia!

HOLIDAY HAPPINESS

A group portrait of a mother, son and daughter...
A group portrait of a mother, son and daughter on glass (c. 250 AD), once thought to be the family of Valentinian III. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve been out of the UK for a week now. The weather here is hot and the sky blue. Apart from a couple of thunderstorms, this corner of Europe appears to have weather I can live with. I love being away. I love the feeling of freedom I get when I board a plane. I love holidays. Yet, what have I been doing, at least for some time every day? Watching the TV World Service to catch up on the Leveson Enquiry. Yes, I have. I should be out there, in the sunshine, turning my skin to leather, but between twelve and two I am in the cool, dark kitchen, staring at a screen and marvelling at David Cameron’s sincerity. The secret of success is sincerity. Fake that and you’re in…someone said once.

To be watching the Enquiry from another country gives me the strangest feeling. I have also watched the Jubilee celebrations and lots of hype about the Olympic Games. I am seeing the UK in a new light. My brain is a bit addled with all the rest and recuperation that comes when you are taking an enforced wind-down called a holiday, and I am eating far too much and drinking wine daily and not getting side effects – amazing. And, as I said – I am seeing the UK, my country, in a new way. It’s like being at the cinema watching a really good drama documentary in a foreign language with sub-titles.  You know bits of it are true but you are not sure which bits because it’s all been put together by someone from a different culture and even if the characters seem familiar and you try really hard to understand what is going on from the sub-titles, you constantly miss the nuances, the subtext, the hidden story…

Watching  Cameron giving evidence this morning, was a bit like that. I’m sure if I’d been watching him from my sitting room in the UK, I would never have doubted him… Or would I? Well, I might have been a little sceptical about his earnest demeanour. But watching him here, it was really hard to make sense of the person he strives so sincerely to be, if you get my drift? But then, I guess that’s politics for you…

Of course, distance has something to do with it. I am at least a thousand miles away. I am hearing a lovely and musical language being spoken all around me and I have forgotten all about the Euro Crisis because the sun is hot and the food is wonderful.  And David Cameron is another country.

In the Basilica this morning, I watched a monk using a well-known spray cleaner on a glass box behind the altar that contains a relic of a saint. Last year, I went to mass there and after the service, I followed a queue of people round the back to the relic. One after another, we either kissed the glass front or touched it. When my turn came, I chickened out and just gave the glass the briefest brush with one finger, so conscious was I of the germs that might be lingering after all those devout Catholics had done their thing. It was quite gratifying to watch the monk spray and polish this morning. I know that on Sunday, I shall be able to kiss with equanimity. Like Cameron at Leveson, all is not what it appears to be and can be wiped clean at any moment.

The campagna italiana calls me. The sun is hot. My son’s dog chases the tiny green lizards all afternoon and never manages to catch one. The fat cat snoozes under the olive tree. There has been a plague of caterpillars this year and the trees in the forest behind the villa are full of the pesky creatures. You can actually hear them chomping at the foliage! But their days are numbered as tomorrow they will be attacked by a man with a spray gun. I make my way up the stone steps to the pool and slip into the water, warmed by only the sun. Time to swim. The cares of my ordinary life slide away. David Cameron is somewhere over the horizon. No doubt he will still be there when I get home…

I apologise for the many mistakes in this blog. I had rather a lot of wine with lunch!