Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Things fall apart

Fragmentation. It was WB Yeats who said 'things fall apart, the centre cannot hold' and more and more I know  exactly what he meant. In fact it's become one of my guiding principles in life. In motherhood, ministry, menial tasks, mundanity, mental health and just about anything else beginning with any other letter, if you allow that the centre cannot hold and indeed is falling apart most of the time, it can be quite liberating.

But also difficult, if you're a recovering control freak like me. I can't help it but I just do prefer to come into the kitchen and see all the miscellaneous endless papers that come our way secured in clips (different colours for different members of the family of course), in folders in straight lines next to the cookery books...

Because if for one moment you take your eye off the ball, what you discover is that papers about parents evening are mixed in with papers about the endowment policy shortfall and the forthcoming car MOT, not to mention the ISA that needs switching, the parent survey that needs filling in, the orthodontist appointment that needs making and the latest new password which you mustn't, at all costs, lose.

I used to be a checklist person - make a list for the day, check things off as you do them. Although I hate this mentality when it comes to education or ministry (how to quantify human learning or Christian formation?) I rather liked it as a means to getting things done day to day. It appeared to give a sense of achievement. But recently it hasn't been working for me. It's as if every small thing you try and do leads to more things to do.

Take tax self assessment. Between the tax system changing, me moving house and HM Revenue and Customs' own incompetency, I had two whole years to catch up on. 

Feeling morally bad and  disorganised, clearing this backlog was obviously an imperative for personal integrity. Having therefore put it off for several head- in- the- sand months I decided finally to get it done. Since I'm all digital now, online registration would be the way forward; easy, quick and more efficient. 'How hard can it be?'

Sensing however that this would probably take a bit of brain power and time (two things I do not seem to have at the end of a busy day of motherhood/ministry) I booked into my diary a slot on my day off when I would sit down fresh after breakfast and DO IT. End of. Tick. That was in March.

Looking back through the diary I see that I booked this magic slot (after which it would all be sorted) four times before it actually happened, either because I woke up that morning and had an urgent desire to physically leave the house, or because some other more important thing came up (not important: urgent. Or perceived as 'urgent').

It turned into a kind of personal crusade. March turned into April. April turned into May. Another tax year began. I will do it. I will do it. In the background to my real inertia was of course a lifetime of living with dire incompetency when it comes to form filling.

Where others see a form that requires a modicum of  information - 'simples' -  I see all the possible ways you can get it wrong, from using the wrong colour ink to filling in all your names in one box, instead of noticing your Christian name comes first, then your other names, or your surname first, or your maiden name, etc. etc. etc. A straightforward request for factual information for me is an invitation to anxious gainsaying, imagined nuances of partial fact, and erroneous outcomes bordering on fantasy/horror.

And at the end, when you're congratulating yourself on having Tipex-ed out most of the errors, you'll notice a small addendum which says, quite clearly, 'do not use Tipex'. 

So don't even get me started on Wedding Registers. I could blame my high end 'iN' (intuitive) on the Myers Briggs Personality Type Indicator, but that would be immature.

Having managed finally to sit down one morning, then, steeling myself with the form on the laptop screen, I 'followed the onscreen instructions' until, feeling quite pleased, I seemed to have actually, nearly registered. Until it said I would have to wait for my 'Activation Code' (a small piece of paper sent through the post. Another 7 days).

Oh. So no ticking off 'done tax return' for me that day then, on already my fourth attempt at gaining control of this particular part of my falling apart life.

So, back to booking another day- off -morning in the diary. When the paper came I peeled back the perforation (you know, the way they never tear where you want them to, in fact they usually tear through the very piece of supposedly highly secret information they are sending you through the post that they could just have easily told you online) and I read my activation code. Which was confusing, since they'd insisted on printing it in multiple ways - not just digits and letters but digits and their corresponding words, which freaked me further.

I went to 'activate' my account and was asked for my user ID. Which I couldn't remember. After a great deal of sorting through my filing I found some paperwork which looked hopeful and typed some number in, along with the activation code. 'The information you have supplied does not match our records'.  'You are a pathetically incompetent human being. You are in breach of your own filing system and  personal moral code.'

Never mind. I would phone. Everyone knows speaking with a human being is much more effective than doing business with a computer. Everyone except anyone who's ever tried to phone HMRC, that is. After five minutes of being told how straightforward it was to register online, five minutes of not understanding the multiple options and a further fifteen of waiting for a human being, I gave up because I'd now been at it several hours and needed to go out. After all the things I had to do whilst out, I came home, did supper, helped with homework, thought about doing my tax return, thought about how little brain and/or time was left of the day and gave up. I booked another day off slot in my diary. Another week went by.

On my sixth attempt at registering online, I realised I had three different user IDs, due to having attempted to re-register twice and being given a new number each time. By some divinely miraculous stroke of luck I eventually managed to match up the correct user ID, password, activation code, AND type in my Unique Taxpayer Reference Number. It was like a slot machine moment. They matched!! The lights flashed!! I was registered!! All this was before I even started to fill in the forms. Let's call it a work in progress.

Things fall apart. The centre cannot hold. In many ways I experience life as a series of fragmentations and 'multiple overwhelmings' (David Ford). I do battle with organising all the parts of my life.

I try and file papers but they just get lost. There are multiple bank accounts and doctors/dentists appointments between us. Passwords are forgotten and important dates blindly come and go. People's braces are not checked regularly and other people's shoes don't fit them. Even conversations, where both parties are actually listening and matching up the dots in theirs and others' diaries, are hard to come by (laptops, Youtube clips, Twitter, Facebook, TV, radio, DS games, XBox, Playstation, internet banking, phone calls and other interruptions being what they are). Part time 'work'/'ministry' is never the sole culprit. Or running a home and family. Or studying for an MA. It's the combination of course.

To let it all hang loose or scream against the chaos (trying to get it all under control again) are the two options. I do not know which way it will go. 

I dream of living in a hermitage. 


  1. Just living in the chaos you describe, reminds me of the life I led when I was working. Much time procrastinating about items on my 'to do' list, which got transferred from day to day until eventually they lost their priority and were deleted, since nobody had actually asked for the information so urgently demanded several months before.

    Combining three jobs into one (two posts were long term gapped and I picked up the work) was a nightmare. I would move from the intricacies of financial management and audit to the horrors of Business Continuity precautions to Doing Risk Assessments for Substances Hazardous to health. I'd also be juggling a few Human Resource issues such as dealing with complaints, trying to get funding to recruit the vacant posts and dealing with long term sick absence in a pastoral way, under pressure from those up the chain whose agenda was making the absentee redundant.

    Along with this, I was juggling a personal life and family, with a spouse who also had two jobs with competing priorities and who needed my support to keep it all together.

    On the horizen was my pending retirement, preparing a job description was a nightmare, because they'd have to pick up on three jobs, not one :( And sort out pensions and all the baggage that that brings. At the same time, I was trying to discern a vocation to Ordained Ministry.

    Eventually, I retired, having been unsuccessful in identifying a successor leaving my post gapped for someone else to pick up, along with the other three. I left without regret looking forward to concentrating on discernment in some breathing space. Sad really.

    I now have a different life. Discernment has been and gone and NOT meant that another path needs to be discerned. Now, I'm in the grip of hurry up and wait. My spouse having retired from one job, still works virtually full time at another, and has had serious health problems. My tidy, unpressured life has been turned upside down more times since retirement than it ever did while working. Not sure what message God is sending, but I'm finding it particularly challenging at the moment.

    So, while you struggle with 'things' be content that others struggle alongside you in different ways, in different spheres, but all trying to be the best that they can be.

  2. That's very interesting and shows juggling and stressful diaries/work life balance issues are endemic to all seasons I suppose.
    We all need to return to the still centre continuously.
    Thank you for your thoughts.