Friday, May 25, 2007

The worst cell of all, oneself

The Ministry of Fear movie poster, based on a book by Graham Greene

After the chaos of yesterday, I was prepared for today to be either an equal slush fest or something closer to zen. Getting up at some extreme-sport hour of the day in order to get to the Citizen's Advice Bureau at some ungodly hour didn't help. Although it was a mini soap-opera in itself.

There were two people in the waiting room when I arrived at about 8.15 and the CAB doesn't officially open til 10am. (I discovered that you can't book appointments, but fortunately got a tip-off that in order to be seen you have to arrive really, really early). After waiting until 9.45, we were informed that only one volunteer (the CAB general advisers are all volunteers) had turned up that morning. By this time, the queue had increased to 10 and we were told that they would only be able to see two people, possibly three. The prospect of waiting for another two hours only to find out we'd run out of time was not appealing and I decided to go and see a solicitor instead and pay for the bloody privilege if I had to.

Fortunately, I voiced my intention and the receptionist provided me with a list of solicitors that specialize in housing law. Nice dudes. So off I went, clutching my Danny Wallace, Join Me, which I had been reading for the past two hours (he accidentally starts a cult - brilliant - I'm meant to be reading Brighton Rock for my reading group next week, but you know me, I like to live on the edge). Then I received a text from G informing me that the Council gives advice to private tenants. I kicked myself for not knowing this already and headed to work. The woman I saw, a singular gemstone called Sandy, (she saw me immediately - it's not like going for housing benefit) advised me that we are only entitled to 28 days notice if the new landlords want to increase the rent. I almost cried at the table, something I think she noticed.

"Are you ok?" she asked as she looked up from her papers, seeming genuinely concerned.

"A little, er, surprised is all," I squeaked.

"It's not much time, really, is it?" she observed.

"Not to find somewhere else, raise a deposit and rent in advance, pack all my stuff and move down eight flights of stairs," I answered, resting my head on my chin and attempting my best 'I'm calm about this really' smile (which came out as an, 'I'm having an acid flashback and you've just turned into Medusa complete with a full head of hissing snakes' smile, I suspect),"No."

"If they do put the rent up, come and see us straight away," she said, "You might be eligible for housing benefit."

I thanked her, but secretly knew I can't take benefits at my age. Not with two degrees under my belt and absolutely no reason why I couldn't pay my own way.

She was lovely though, and told me to contact her as soon as something happened and she would advise me and the residents every step of the way, either individually, or as a unit, either in her office or at our house. Sometimes, the Council gets it right.

When I left I felt hysterical, but as I wandered around the streets before going home, I started to turn my frown upside down (yes, I am using crack as a way of alleviating my stress levels, what of it?). I thought about how, without knowing what the rent was to be raised to, I couldn't really make any choices now about whether I would leave or not. One thing struck me as certain though, whether I was going to have move out or whether I was going to have pay more rent for where I was, I need more money.

I thought about my options. I could:
  • sell my ass on the streets (time consuming, possible I wouldn't make much off it and I'd have to deal with the perils of chafing)
  • sell all my possessions (seriously unlikely to make much money and what money it did make I'd be tempted to use buying all the things back again when the full horror of my decision finally sunk in)
  • get a full-time, grown up job and stop living like Petra Pan (awful choice, this one, I've spent so long avoiding the trappings of middle class material commitment in honour of being a hippy creative, it seems a shame to ruin it now when it's working so well for me)
These didn't seem like great choices at all. Then it occurred to me, maybe the Universe was trying to tell me something! Maybe it was saying that what I really need to do is make a proper commitment to my writing. Now that I have several finished pieces (ok, in need of a little bit of editing), I should be sending them off. Apparently I should have a little index card file so that I know which pieces are where, when they've been rejected/accepted and so on. There are ways of making these things work and maybe the Universe was trying to tell me it was time to try some of them. I couldn't help but wonder (for all you SITC fans out there).

Now I feel as though a weight has been lifted from my shoulders. This isn't a catastrophe, it's my destiny! Whatever happens with the flat is now less important that what happens with me, and I think that's the order it's meant to be.

If it doesn't work out, I'm going to try selling my ass.

It is impossible to go through life without trust: That is to be imprisoned in
the worst cell of all, oneself.

Graham Greene

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Serenity, or something like it

Serenity, by Stella Dunckley
You can buy it here at the minigallery site

The hormones in my system are like a brain flood. Everything is hazy around the edges and tinged with an overdoes of emotion - yes, I mean more than normal. Tomorrow I have an appointment with the Citizen's Advice Bureau to ask them about whether anyone in the Heights has any rights to delay or just slow down the inevitable process we're all facing of rent hikes through the roof. Keep your fingers crossed for us.

I burst into tears at my desk at lunchtime, a little over-tired and a lot out of emotional gas. The hormones do not help and I know I'm far too emotional when I wander over to the Chief with flooding eyes and tell him I want to go home.

"Absolutely," he answers, his eyes fixed on mine. "No problem. Want me to walk you?"

You know, though he hates me to say it on the Interpipe, or indeed anywhere, that man can be pretty damn lovely when it counts, which is, well, when it counts.

So, back to the Peace Cafe I wander (yes, I'm living there) and drown my sorrows in camomile. It doesn't take long before I feel my Zen wander back to me and settle down at the base of my spine, curling itself around my backbone like scaffolding. That place is magical, you know.

To cap it all, I close my day with Lisa at MJ's where BBQ chicken wings (I'm still just flirting with vegetarianism, ok?) and french fries heaped with a lot of catch up between Lisa and I (I know, I can hardly believe I pulled that pun either) take my mind from my worries. Perfect. Her new book is out in June, and it's called Beautylicious, so go out and order your copies, ok?

Two and a half hours in the bath at the end of the day make everything seem better, and only one thing can close the day to perfection. Spaced Episode 6 - obviously. Here's to Jazzy Jess and the Fresh Pegg!

Apologies for the quality, but you really should own it on DVD by now, you know.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

All night, All day, Angels watching over me

Two abandoned fishing boats on Mull,
Picture courtesy of Kit-Kat Kate

Everyone in the Ministry was hungover today after our Events Manager, Lydia's, leaving do last night at the unbelievably beautiful Mozzarella Joes on the seafront. The restaurant is one of the best kept secrets currently in town and if you get the chance on a quiet, sunny evening, snag yourself a table on the balcony.

"This is the best view in the world," murmured the Chief as we all stood staring across the waves.

A large amount of alcohol and pizza was consumed last night in MJ's, and a deafening amount of laughter was poured around the table too. The highlight for me was when Norma, the Ministry's very own International Woman of Mystery, rubbed the Chief's head as if were the stomach of Buddha and the next moment challenged him to a swimming contest. The Chief confidently accepted before discovering that Norma was once an Olympic contender in swimming. We'll find out for sure on August 1st and you have til then to decide whether you're Team Chief or Team Norma.

Tonight the African Women's Forum regrouped after singing this weekend in Gunwharf as part of the Steel Pan Festival. The atmosphere of the group is more relaxed now we have a few performances under our belts and we have begun dancing more as we sing, which makes the evening feel more like a party than ever.

News from the Peace Cafe is of a film called Earthlings, which has intriguingly turned Chris, one of the PC regulars, into a vegetarian. Vegetarianism has been courting me of late and I'm curious. It's a documentary about the meat industry and Kate and I have vowed to watch it.

Mark Wright, you sprite of all gorgeousness, I love your idea of the script about the Heights, I'm resting with it right now to see what grows. If I can find any time between laughing at the sky and howling at the moon in the meantime, I would love to get back to my other creative work right now, too. Then I could share the last installment of my as yet un-named love triangle drama.

Poem of the Day

An old favourite, from Instructions to the Double

It's a dangerous mission. You
could die out there. You
could live forever.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

The struggle that is without joy is the wrong struggle

Strange happenings are afoot at The Heights. I had a call from my landlady yesterday, asking me to go and see her urgently. Thinking I was about to be evicted from the Earth Mother House, I went straight there. Turns out, due to a series of unfortunate events out of her control, come July, my landlady will no longer be in charge of the Heights. Estate agents are taking control of our lovely old building and rent increases may inevitably follow.

In order to fully understand why this will have such an impact on the residents of the Heights, you would need to know a little something about our landlady. As I’m not sure how keen she is to be broadcast all over the Interpipe, I’ll call her Miss X. Miss X runs a few properties in and around Southsea, and she runs them all along a similar ethic. She explained it to me yesterday.

“The most important thing to me has always been that each building is filled with a community of people who all get along, a house of people who aren’t in each others’ pockets, but know enough about each other to be there when things go wrong. It's not about the money. That's why I try to make sure the rents are low.”

Her ethos works too. In the ten years I’ve lived at the Heights, I’ve grown to know all the residents. We exchange birthday cards, invites to each others’ flats, and when things go wrong – such as the two fires we’ve experienced there before, in which my next door neighbour risked his own life to save the life of the man who lived beneath him – everyone helps everyone else. It’s no seventies commune, but it is a community and it matters. Moreover, on a personal note, without the Heights, I could not have spent the last few years working for peanuts in my local authority, I could not have got a degree and a Masters and I would not be able to spend two days a week pursuing my freelance writing. The Heights has helped to shape my life.

The Heights houses some unusual people. We are a community of writers, painters, musicians, shopkeepers, sculptors. Some of us lived some pretty crazy lives before we got here, and we don’t always fit easily into the outside world, but we get along well with each other. There are 15 people living in maybe a dozen flats where I live. I’ve known almost of all them for the last ten years, and if the rents were to go up in line with the market value of the flats themselves, I think almost all of us would have to leave.

When I first heard the news, I started to panic. Fears about having to give up my newly launched creative work rained down on me. You’ll have to get a proper, grown-up, full-time job and stop mucking around with all this creative nonsense, I told myself. You’ll have to grow up. Of course it didn’t take long for me to dismiss that idea. I thought about all the amazing memories I have of the last ten years in the Heights: the laughter, love, tears and rivers of booze that have flowed around within its walls. I realised that I’m already one of the luckiest people I know to have enjoyed the last decade in a place like this. And I remembered that change is inevitable and as difficult as I choose to make it. Maybe it’s just time for something different, I thought.

This morning I shared my newly found zen with the Chief.

“No Smurf!” he commanded, as he strode purposely across the Common, ”This isn’t the time for acceptance! It’s the time to fight! You must defend your home and your community!”

He recommended I book an appointment with the Citizens’ Advice Bureau at once. This afternoon, two of my Heights mates called me, preparing a meeting of all the residents for this weekend, to see what we could do to stay in our homes. I nominated myself to go to the CAB on Friday for some advice, with the Chief’s words ringing in my ears. I’ll keep you posted.

Monday, May 21, 2007

The Hardest Word

Don't cry for me blogosphere! The truth is, I never left you! But it has been a while, so I've probably got a little bit of explaining to do. But how to explain a 17 day absence from a blog I dared to call The Daily? An absence that amounts to 17 consecutive failures to honour my eponymous promise?
  • The dog ate my computer?
  • I've converted to Scientology and have spent the last two weeks conversing with my inner Thetan?
  • I'm Dr Who's new assistant and was engaged in battle with the Squidmen of Beta 3 in a universe far, far away?
  • The Chief locked me in the Ministry until after the local elections to prevent me wreaking any havoc on Tory candidates?
Ok, none of these things are strictly, or indeed in any sense of the word, true. The truth is something less sensational, the truth is more complex, and, possibly, the truth is only half as interesting. Frankly, you can't handle the truth.

OK, that's not true, either, I've just always wanted to say it (full marks to anyone who can source the film and the actor). But it is a bit of a long and winding story, so strap yourselves in if you're still interested....

About two weeks ago, before we adventured with Sam and Lucy and the IT strumpet (never underestimate someone who can speak in HTML - Geeks Know Things), I was blogging about a guy called Matthieu Ricard. His fantastic book, Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life's Most Important Skill encourages the use of meditation and mindfulness as a way to cultivate one's happiness. I'm still reading it, in fact, and his simple ministrations have proved the catalyst for changing my understanding of, and approach to, some of life's more challenging moments.

I've also been reading Danny Wallace's great book 'Yes Man' which describes - in the most endearing and entertaining style - Danny's decision to say 'yes' to everything life throws at him. I would really recommend it. This book reminded me of a conversation I had with my Dad a while ago. I had commented on how busy his social life was (slightly resentfully as compared to mine) and his answer was surprisingly simple.

"Oh, that's because I say Yes to everything," my dad explained, "Whenever someone invites me to anything, as long as I'm free, I say yes."

This premise struck me as noteworthy at the time, and Danny Wallace made me think about the power of being open as a way of living your life. So I took their advice, and about two weeks' ago, I decided I would try to say yes more, and to consciously try to be more open to the world around me. There have been some fairly interesting consequences to that, actually, some of which I have no intention of writing about here, but the direct consequence has been that I've been much busier.

In the last two weeks, I have met more people than I had previously met in the first three months of the year, been to more places, and consumed more wine than my doctor would be prepared to smile indulgently at. Now, I smile more, and I definitely laugh far more than is recommended in most psychological assessments. I've sung in public (over this weekend I performed with the African Women's Forum in Gunwharf!) and danced with strangers and I can honestly say, life has been better. I dare say I've been a better person.

One of the places I've been saying yes to at every available opportunity is Southsea's Peace Cafe on Castle Road. I'm duty bound to tell you to visit the Peace Cafe because it is Awesome with a capital Ahhhh! and I know you'll love it. Moreover, because it's the Peace Cafe, it will love you right back, and believe me, that doesn't happen often over a latte. The Peace Cafe also has its own Cake Fairy who works magic in the form of sponge, fruit and chocolate, and the loveliest owner of a modern business since the shopkeeper in Mr Ben. Although I dread the day when it is as busy as Costalots in there, I urge you to go. Now.

It was in the Peace Cafe a couple of weeks ago that I met Sue, a wonderful pixie woman with the most gorgeous energy who also happens to be 'a little bit psychic' as she put it. This turned out to be 'a little bit of an understatement' because when she began to talk to me, I felt as though she had been secretly living inside my head for the last 6 years, possibly longer. I'm not going to tell you everything she said, but suffice to say it had a huge impact on me and proved the catalyst for a whole world of change in the way I understand myself and the rest of this crazy-beautiful world.

The night I met Sue, I wrote in my diary that her reading "was the emotional equivalent of having my head thrust repeatedly down the toilet and it being flushed on each entry." The meeting was unexpected, the subject matter the very last thing I wanted to discuss with a stranger, yet her final words rang with so much truth it actually made my eyes water to hear it.

"You must focus on accepting yourself. Not you as others see you. Not you as you want to be. Not you without Him. You. Who you actually are."

I've been working on that golden nugget of advice for the last two weeks. I think I'm even getting better at it. I'm sorry for the sudden silence. I'm sorry it had to last so long. I hope it was worth the wait, and it's good to be back. I can't tell you service will be normal, but it has resumed.

A very big thank you to Sally Jones for telling me to have the balls to take a break from the blog, and for teaching me about colour, make-up, the nature of boys and being nicer to myself. Thanks to everyone who wrote, phoned, emailed, commented, texted and turned up at The Heights in the middle of the night to tell me they missed the Daily, and especially the Chief for managing to moan at me about it and make me feel missed all at the same time.

T-shirts in the Queue

Sally Jones Changed My Life
We're All Good People

What Would God Do?

Millipedes Leak Cyanide - Mind Them