Friday, 25 July 2008

Various thoughts

"I AM"

This caught my eye the other day - orange's latest advertising campaign based on the lines such as " It’s the people we meet and the experiences we share that make us who we are."

This is a model of identity that is created socially - neither nature, or strictly speaking, nurture. It's also a model that suggests our personality is continually developing, shaping and being shaped, by our experiences and our choices.

No more "Give me a child when he is 7 and I will show you the man." You might give someone the man at 37 and still not see the 47 years old.


Part of the poem about my people (below) is about introversion. It's something that's fascinated me since I saw the lemon experiment on television programme. Suddenly the thought that I'm someone that reacts very strongly to the presence of other people made sense of a lot of things for me. It doesn't worry me to think that introversion is a given in my personality, though I think that it's partly the way I have adapted to being an introvert in a world of extroverts that has made me who I am.

I can't help but think that we'll discover more of these genetically coded fundamental brain reactions, that while they don't define our personalities, may well underpin their development.


Here's Darian Leader on identification.
"At the simplest level identification means that we become like another person.... most of the time (identifications) take place outside conscious awareness. We become like others without knowing it.... Children will identify with aspects of their parents from the very start.... as their identity is forged different traits are borrowed from their parents.... A further kind of identification occurs at the moments when an intense emotional relationship is broken or put in question... the child may start to adopt some trait or behavioural detail of a precisely the parent who disappointed them. The pain of disappointment is dealt with by incorporating some aspect of the other person themselves.... Analysts have shown that if an illness appears in different generations of the same family, identifications may be the underlying mechanism.... Children don't just inherit their parents' genes they inherit their parents.


Also from the same book
"Study after study has claimed that the fewer one's social relationships, the shorter one's life expectancy and the more devastating the impact of infectious diseases.... One of the first and most famous large-scale investigations of this phenomenom was known as the Roseto study. This time in Pennsylvania had a population of around 1600 and was founded in the late ninetheeth century by immigrants from Roseto Val Fortore in Southern Italiy.... The death rate from myocardial infarction was only half that of the neighbouring towns or the US in general. Yet their diet wasn't particularly healthy, their cholesterol was about the same as their neighbours and they smoked a fair bit. But what struck the researchers was the cohesiveness of the comunity.... If it wasn't the diet of the smoking the answer seemed to lie in the organisation of social bonds...
"Studies of the eldery, for example, made the surprising finding that the amount of contact with the rest of the family is far less imporatnt than the expectation that someone is there for them. Knowing that family members are contactable and available my matter more in many instances that actually receiving regular visits. What we mean by 'other people' can thus include their physical or their potential presence."

When I read this I thought of my conversation with Jeanette and her suggestion that in searching for their ancestors people might be replacing a cohesiveness missing from modern life. Could it be that the idea of the ancestors they discover (or in fact create) was as therapeutic as any real people in their lives (and possibly a lot less annoying... )

I notice I've been using these two terms pretty much interchangeably. I'll straighten that out at some point. But I think what this shows is that for me, they are more or less the same thing. Who I am is the sum total of what I do, what I think, how I feel.

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

The Family Face

Here's Thomas Hardy on the subject of Heredity

I am the family face;
Flesh perishes, I live on,
Projecting trait and trace
Through time to times anon,
And leaping from place to place
Over oblivion.

The years-heired feature that can
In curve and voice and eye
Despise the human span
Of durance -- that is I;
The eternal thing in man,
That heeds no call to die.

Thursday, 10 July 2008

First residency poem.

It wasn't part of the plan for me to write poems this residency, but there's nothing like saying you won't for making you want to. This one came out of a writing exercise at Commonword based on Kona McPhee's poem 'My People'.

My People

I would know them at first by the way they know cloth,
speak the language of selvage and warp and weft,
their way of holding the fabric and letting it fall
to check that the weave was true. And each would have
their own body’s measure – the turn of the head that gave
them a yard from nose to thumb’s end. Their eye are sharp
but the world fades away - beyond the street the edges
are muted, birds disappear as they land in trees and trees
themselves have no leaves until seen from beneath.
I could walk amongst them, they’d be somewhere else,
they would clutch at their chests at the sound of my words
and even then they would look without seeing for a breath
of two, always in aprons, interrupted, wiping their hands.
But up close I’d see their hands are like mine, restless birds
in a roomful of voice and wishes, finding their roost
on the cloth, on the paper, on the wood, or the keys

Monday, 7 July 2008

Writing our Stories

Of the conversations I have had with Kate and Jeanette, about Genetics and Kinship, one of the things that has stuck in my mind is the role of the imagination.

Kate talked about people who had been offered testing for a genetic pre-disposition to bowel cancer, who 'knew they had got it', perhaps because of relatives that they 'took after'. These people had a clear idea of their future, and sometimes those that did not have the gene  -who got the good news - had more difficulty coping, because their idea of their future had been so changed. In some cases where one sibling had the gene and another didn't, it strained at their relationship. Not only was there guilt, but in some sense the mythology of their connection had been challenged.

It's hard sometimes to remember just how much recombination and randomness there is in the business of inheritance. If you track just one gene or even two as we did at school at it makes such a neat diagram> ( ). Introduce more and the possibilities increase exponentially. And that's before you even start thinking about those strange other ways that genes apparently can behave. 

We forget that we take after people in some ways and not others. So sometimes we look at those relatives we aspire to be like, and we see what we want to see. Sometimes we look at ourselves desperately not wanting to see the evidence of those people we don't want to turn into. It's easy too to look at those relatives that we resemble - or are said to resemble - and see some of their personality traits in ourselves. It's easy to see, too, that the expectation of others might powerfully influence a child's development.

Jeanette's speciality is Kinship. Recently she's been studying people who trace their family trees. One of the things I realised quite early on in our conversation is that if you trace a family tree in this way, it's upside-down. It doesn't show people's children, it shows their parents, but it proliferates just as quickly, if with more regularity. You have two parents, four grandparents, 8 great grandparents, 16 great grandparents, 32 great great grandparents and so on. (Actually I don't because my maternal grandparents were second cousins, but that's a whole other story). The further back you go the more possibilities there are.

Except people can't track down all those possibilities. There are choices made in the paths that are followed. Some paths of course are blocked through lack of information, and sometimes there's a lucky find. But there's also a process of selection - people chose those ancestors they invest in - perhaps because of their difference in terms of class or wealth, or perhaps because they bring exciting stories with them.

Jeanette felt that 'discovering' one's ancestors was the wrong word - that people 'created' their ancestors as they built a person from scraps of information. Again there's a significant role for the imagination in our idea of who we come from and how we relate to those people.

Do we become who we imagine we can be? I recall Anwen in a recent discussion at Commonword interjecting several times with the words 'we chose'. Do we, given the potential laid in by our inheritance and our early upbringing, chose who we turn into? Or do we discover who we really are? How much can we chose if we are unable to imagine ourselves being different? And how difficult is it to imagine that which has no basis in experience?

When I first got this grant through it occured to me that I was stumbling into the complex and fraught territory of the nature vs nuture debate. (I've never been one of those that's afraid to tread; part of my charm, I'm told... ) Now I don't think it's that one at all. I think it might be the one about determinism and choice. Genetics might seem to offer us a fatalism rivalled only by ancient curses and the 'sins of the father'. Psychology might also seem to show us a version of life in which we are forever bedevilled by the half-known experiences of our childhood.

What if both nature and nuture merely lay in the potential? And what if the thing that allows us to variously exploit and transcend that potential is the imagination?

Kate told me of one person at risk of inheriting Huntingdons   (  ) who refused to take a genetic test. In some versions of the world that might seem like denial. But perhaps too, she is claiming that which we all have - the right not to have our life mapped out. To make choices, to deal with what happens. To write our own stories. 

Tuesday, 1 July 2008

Blood and Water

It's almost a month into the start of this project and I realise I haven't blogged yet. So far I've met talked to Kate Mathieson, from NOWGEN about inherited conditions and genetic counselling and to Jeanette Edwards a social anthropologist from Manchester University. I've also run a discussion and workshop at Commonword and met with a couple of possible artists.

There's already a lot of material to process. After my conversations with Jeanette and Kate I'm beginning to get a sense of just how important the imagination is in how we view what we inherit, how we make it matter.  But it's not fully formed just yet. 

So, in the meantime one of my stories, about where I'm from, about who my people are.

Hannah and Harry were brother and sister, both unmarried and childless. I and my brother and sister inherited them through my father. When his own parents had been too tired, too preoccupied to care for him he had found refuge with Hannah and Harry, and their mum mother. They provided stability, security and stimulation. They were to become our third grandparents.

I remember little of their mother who died when I was around 6. I know that she was born in the workhouse, father unknown. I know that she was adopted by a couple who ran a sweetshop when she was a little girl - but that she was more helper than daughter. I know that she married a roofer who died of 'red lead' poisoning leaving her with two young children. I know she took in washing to make ends meet. I never even knew her Christian name. She was Mrs Robinson but everyone called her Robin. 

Harry lost a leg as a child. Hannah kicked him with a log and septicaemia set in. His dummy leg with it's leather strap and catch at the knee was a source of great fascination to us. We had no sense then of the tragedy. Hannah herself had a lifelong hip problem, possibly congenital and after a series of unsuccessful operations walked with two sticks.

They were good people. They are my definition of good people. They lived simply and decently and bore their troubles with humour and fortitude. They worked hard. They took pleasure in small things - for Harry this was a small nightly glass of Vintage Port. Hannah was an avid reader of Mills and Boon stories. They did the pools each week, leaving a small pile of coins on the window sill to pass to the Littlewood's lady when she called. They were unstintingly generous, both with their time and what money they had.

Their home had at some point been compulsorily purchased and they lived in a small council flat. This gave them a modest amount of capital which they invested carefully. It was a small meticulously kept flat. Hannah sowed pansies outside, which came up year after year. Sometimes she would remark on the boon of running water.

Their stories, as much as I know them are my stories. They are my link to the past. They are my people. Even now, years after they are dead, I would be ashamed to disappoint my idea of them. They are my plumb-line.

They invested in us - my brother and sister and I, as well as a neighbours child who sought sanctuary - by through their gentleness and wisdom as well as through the buff envelopes of notes that appeared at the beginning of university term times and for first cars, and first houses. They were our first call on Christmas day. They were our refuge in times of difficulty. They are our past. We were their future.

When Hannah was dying I went to visit her in hospital. A nurse asked me was I her granddaughter. No, I said, just a friend. I have no idea where that 'just' came from. I winced as it left my mouth. I think Hannah heard it too. If I could take back just one of the words I have spoken in my life it would be that one.

In any way that counts, they were kin. Love is thicker than either blood or water.