Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Croatia

According to a receipt I've just found while trying to sort my papers, it was 37 minutes past midnight, on the 12th of July in 2016 when I bought a chicken tortilla from a shop on the seafront in Makarska. I remember that most of the sauce dripped onto my shirt, as I tried to dance salsa to the house music coming from a nearby club.

I remember keeping time with the music, as fast as it was. Then again, I'd had a few pints of the local beer earlier that evening, so I might be wrong. I was with a friend, and she was my reason for being in Croatia in the first place. From my perspective, a friend needed me, and I got a plane to Croatia without a second thought. Well, if I'm honest, there was a second thought, a third thought, a fourth and so on... but I got on the plane anyway.

It was in a bar in the town square that I'd consumed large amounts of the local beer. The bar had been quite a find. Actually, it was recommended by a guide I'd downloaded to the e-book reader I'd brought with me. There was little room inside, but plenty of tables outside.

There was something about drinking at a table in the town square... It was a nice, warm and pleasant evening. The beer tasted much better than I thought it would. Importantly, I was with a friend who'd reached a similar level of inebriation. There was a lot of laughter: some of it from me. It felt good to be away from everything that had been dragging me down, in the company of one of my very best friends.

It was only when the bar was closing that we decided to leave, via the seafront, and I saw somewhere that was still serving food. While I was waiting for my order, my friend started swaying to the music from the nearby club and reminded me that I'd recently started to take salsa lessons - well, five months earlier, to be precise. She wanted to learn some basic steps. In retrospect, the conditions weren't ideal, and I probably wasn't the best person to teach her.

"1-2-3... 5-6-7... 1-2-3... 5-6-7..."

I could barely keep up with the music. I was struggling to even count in time with the music. I got the numbers out of order a few times, due to the alcohol in my bloodstream. Somehow, I picked out a salsa rhythm in a hard house track. With a chicken tortilla in my hand, I demonstrated the basic forward step, back step, cucarachas and opening out step.

It was the early hours of the morning; I was in a beautiful country; I was with a friend; to be honest, I was quite drunk, but I was dancing. I didn't care about the sauce dripping onto one of my favourite shirts. It felt good. I thought, in that moment, that I should have more moments like that in my life.

I guess that my enthusiasm was contagious. My friend said she wanted to learn salsa. She managed to imitate the basic steps I was showing her. I looked around me a few times. The reflection of the moon was rippling across the water; above, the stars were clearly visible; not far away, a party was going on into the early hours of the morning. There I was, moving to the music with a great big smile on my face.

On the seafront in Makarska, under the stars, so drunk that I could barely stand, I fell in love with dancing.

Sunday, 9 April 2017

No sweat (I wish)!

I was at a dance last night, and it was fun, as it always is. Unfortunately, there's something that has been happening since I started dancing, and it happened again last night.

The evening started with a lesson, in which some of us learned a few new moves. As usual, I couldn't pick them up very quickly, but I started to get them towards the end of the lesson, only to forget them once I started asking the ladies to dance.

During the lesson, someone noticed that I'd started to perspire. I'd felt it myself before she'd noticed, but she confirmed what I'd felt. After the lesson, I noticed that a small patch on my shirt had become noticeably damper and darker than the rest of the shirt. For a while, after the class, I was approached by various ladies I'd met at these dances before. I prefer to take a break between dances, but I also have a rule that I never refuse a dance. The damp, dark patch on my shirt spread outwards, and my face became noticeably more wet as the evening wore on.

Why do I need to take breaks between dances? Why do I sweat so much? I remember the Christmas party in early December, where I made the mistake of wearing a Christmas jumper and not bringing a change of clothing, and I paid dearly for that mistake. A few ladies said that I looked hot, and I jokingly thanked them and told them they didn't look so bad themselves. Obviously, in that case, I suffered due to my own lack of foresight, but I still perspire heavily whenever I dance, even in the lessons.

I received a big clue as to why this happens, back when I was still doing modern jive. Someone was watching the other men dance, as he was trying to learn the style, and he later told me that he could understand what was going on when he saw the other men dancing, but when he watched me, he didn't understand.

All of us have our own way of moving. I know this from the many years I spent learning various martial arts. Although an instructor teaches us a specific way of moving, there will be a point where we take ownership of the movements we've learned, and they become ours through the modifications we make so that the movements feel more natural to us. This is how we get to the point where we can perform the movements with little conscious thought.

In my case, it was my early exposure to various Japanese martial arts in particular that would go on to affect how I learn movement and think about movement. Imagine the explosive speed and power which is seen as the ideal in the martial arts I'm talking about, but imagine it being expressed through the medium of dance. Imagine having to do that for three or four minutes at a time, repeatedly. Imagine that you're having to perform movements which are bigger, and not as efficient or direct as those you learn as a martial artist, yet you are so used to putting a certain kind of energy into your movements that you struggle to turn it off.

I'd considered that I was just getting old; I'd considered that I might be unfit; I'd considered many other possibilities. The bottom line, actually, is that I'm putting a lot more energy into dancing than is necessary.

The question is whether I'm able to change the way I've been moving for most of my life. The only way I'll find out is to keep dancing. I'm okay with that.

Lost in Translation

For a long time, I considered that I didn't have a favourite film. During my teenage years, and into my early twenties, one of the TV stations here in the UK would regularly broadcast foreign language films late at night. Occasionally, I'd watch one that I would connect with in some way: some feeling expressed chimed with something within me.

That brings me to Lost in Translation. It's my favourite film to watch late at night, without a doubt, and I once told a friend as much. Her reply was that the film has a very specific feeling to it, and she wondered if I could put that feeling into words. I couldn't.

The story is essentially about an affair of sorts, between a man who is of a greater age than the object of his affection, and that younger woman who seems to feel the same way about him. I struggled with this, because I wondered what connecting with this subject matter said about me, but I realised that it was something beneath the surface of the narrative that spoke so clearly to me. It was, as my friend had highlighted, all about the specific feeling of the film.

It's no accident that the story is set in Japan, and that much is made of the American leads coming to terms with being somewhere that is strange to them. In fact, it's the young woman who seems more familiar and at ease with being there, in contrast to the middle aged gentleman who is not just feeling uncomfortable with where he is in terms of geography, but also seems to be feeling a great deal of difficulty with where he is in life at this time. However, there is a point where she contacts a member of her family by phone and breaks down while talking to them, while they seem to be ignorant of how she feels, or at least show little empathy for her.

To me, the film is about yearning for a sense that we are loved, and that there is somewhere we feel we belong. In response to my friend's question about the feeling of the film, I'd say it's about feeling isolated, out of place, and finding that one person who understands and relates to you. Why is it my favourite film to watch late at night? I'll leave you to join most of those dots for yourself.

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Counselling: empathy, core conditions and micro skills

I don't know that I can teach empathy. I don't know how I developed the ability to see things from the perspective of another so easily, but it's something that's been with me for as long as I can remember. It's in my nature to listen, observe and do my best to understand.

It's the same with the micro skills, and the use of silence in the counselling session. These are things that I just do. What I have to ask myself, then, is whether there's something about my approach to counselling which makes these things easier for me. Is there something about the way I see the counselling process?

If there's an overriding principle I use in my practice, it's that what I say isn't all that important. The temptation is to go into a panic, to believe that we have to show our skills by constantly reflecting, paraphrasing, summarising, using open questions and so on. What we are going to say next becomes our focus.

Is what we say next, or what the client says next, more important?

When I put my focus entirely on the client, and step into their inner world, I find that the skills come to me much more easily. If I'm obsessing over my response, then my focus in on me, rather than where it should be, and it serves as a block to listening.

Just as important is resisting the tendency to make assumptions. We're supposedly non-judgemental in our practice, but there's always a danger that we might start identifying with a client, and interpret their experience through the lens of our own experience. This is where those open questions become important: we ask the client about what the experience is like for them, rather than thinking about what the experience would be like for us.

Good examples of those open questions:
  • What does [something the client said] mean to you?
  • What was that like for you?
  • How do/did you feel about that?
I could use many more examples, but the point is that we have to get to an understanding of the way the client sees the world, and the issue they have brought to the session in particular.

What about silence? Again, if you're staying within the client's frame of reference, and trying to get an understanding of what they are experiencing, or have been experiencing, then why would you interrupt? Better to leave a little silence, so that they can continue, should they want to. It also gives both the client and counsellor a chance to think about what has been said already.

Become comfortable with silence. Become comfortable with not knowing what to say. Reflect, paraphrase, summarise or leave a silence: these things show that you've been listening, or are considering what has been said.

Focus on what the client is saying.

Friday, 10 March 2017

Lights! Music! Beer! Confidence!

I walked past her, and almost carried on walking.  I'd gone over to the far side of the hall, to talk to someone I knew, and ask if she was okay.  She hadn't looked like she was feeling too good when I'd danced with her earlier, and I was concerned.  She replied that she was fine, and I said she could always talk to me, if she needed to.  I wasn't expecting the hug that followed, but I appreciated the sentiment behind it.  After a few minutes, a song she liked started to play, so she asked her boyfriend to dance with her.  I decided to walk back to my seat.

I'd had two pints of lager and lime by this point, and it was getting towards the end of the evening.  I couldn't feel my legs.  To be honest, the lager and lime had taken me by surprise: the combination of lager and a little lime juice tasted much better than I remembered.  Maybe it was at least partly to blame for me walking past her, and having to turn back.  I'm not a big fan of alcohol, and had told myself that I wasn't going to drink anything alcoholic.  Things didn't turn out that way, though.

I arrived at the venue at a time when I thought the class leading up to the social dancing would be almost over.  As it happened, I had another half an hour to sit and think about everything that was going on in my life, and I started wondering whether the huge amount of courage it had taken to get me through the front door of the venue had served me well.  I decided that a pint or two of fermented hops and barley might help me get to a state where the evening made sense.  The lime juice was an afterthought.

I saw people from the salsa class that I attend most weeks, but I'd already sat down when I noticed them, and some arrived after I did, only to sit at other tables.  An inner voice congratulated me, sarcastically, for my continuing commitment to displays of social ineptitude.  I'd told myself that I'd go there feeling confident, and at peace with myself, despite actually feeling like I might fall apart at any moment.  In reality, I'd parked the car, sat crying for a while and then paused at the entrance to the venue, summoning up the courage for that final push to get me through the door.

As the class came to an end, I hadn't had much of the lager and lime that was sat in a pint glass in front of me.  I was still feeling that being there might be a mistake, and considered that I might walk out again - after finishing my drink, of course.

My thoughts turned back to my sister, and how ill she'd looked when I'd last seen her.  I felt the tears forming, but out of the corner of my eye, I saw someone familiar approaching.  We talked, briefly, and she asked me to dance.  I told myself that I'd leave after dancing with her, and I should have known better.  I felt so good after the dance that I went back to my table with a smile on my face.

I followed this by asking a few other ladies I know to be great dancers if they'd dance with me.  All thoughts of leaving had gone by this point.  I even found the courage to ask a few ladies I didn't know so well if they'd dance with me.

I almost walked past her, though.  As I said, I'd been talking to someone I know, and was on my way back to my table.  Well, I did walk past her, in fact, but turned back.  I recognised her from being at one of these events previously, and remembered dancing with her.  I asked if she'd dance with me, and led her to a relatively safe area of the floor.

"It's [name withheld], right?"

"Yes."

Her smile told me it meant quite a lot to her that I'd remembered her name.  I decided not to spoil the moment by asking if she remembered mine.  I caught the rhythm of the song that was playing.  It was a fast one.  There would be little time to think, and that would turn out to be a good thing.

I know relatively few moves, or at least I don't know as many as I'd like to know, but I made them work for me.  As I pulled her to my right shoulder, she turned her head to keep her focus on me; as I moved her in front of me to my left shoulder, she turned to look at me again.  I'd seen this in salsa before, but had never experienced it myself.  If I'd been entirely sober, it probably would have freaked me out.  Her smile was gone, replaced by an intensity that was quite surprising.

The few moves I'd practised again and again came together in some sort of sequence.  She followed everything I did perfectly, adding her own style into the mix.  I felt that the smile on my face was more subdued than usual, and I was making more eye contact than I normally would when I dance.  There was a strange kind of flow to what I was doing, and I barely thought about what move would come next - they almost seemed to happen by themselves.

What was it that I was feeling?  I had an idea of what it was, but the idea was so strange to me that I doubted it at first.  In the end I had to accept it: what I was feeling was confidence.

Her smile came back as the song came to an end - a big, beaming smile - and then her arms were around me.  Another hug.  We thanked each other for the dance and I returned to my table.

I watched on as, at the far end of the room, another man asked her to dance.  I watched as he went through the larger number of moves at his disposal, and linked them together in sequences that looked impressive.  I looked at her, and she smiled for him, but I detected something else.  She looked bored, and I didn't understand it.  I still don't understand it.

I had a few more dances, mostly with ladies who were quite new to salsa, and told them they were doing well.  The last dance I had was with someone I've danced with a number of times, and we just don't seem to connect, and this dance was no exception to that rule.  The song came to an end, the host thanked everyone for coming, and wished everyone a safe journey home.

On the way home, on a dark, quiet part of the road, I thought about my sister, and how much I missed my fiancĂ©e, and started crying again.  I hadn't consumed enough alcohol to be over the limit for safe driving, but I knew that, if I didn't control myself, I wouldn't be able to see properly.  I couldn't let my feelings overrule the rational part of my mind, although it seemed like I'd had just enough alcohol to make it more difficult to hold back those feelings and be rational.

Suddenly, I understood how that dance had been so good.

Friday, 3 February 2017

Thought for the day: helping

I'm starting to question what I do. Even when I'm not volunteering, a lot of people tell me about their suffering, or ways in which life, and other people, have been cruel to them. I don't have to tell them what I do, and usually I don't: somehow, they just feel that they can talk to me. When I went on holiday to Croatia last year, a couple of people I'd never met before talked to me, separately and at great length, about how life hadn't been fair to them and how they felt about it.

I try to treat people with kindness. In my own small way, I try to compensate for the fact that the world is often cruel and unkind to those who least deserve it.

That's all I have to say for today.

Dance!

Last night (Thursday), I danced kizomba with a good friend.  It's far from being my favourite style of dance, but something strange happened.  I hadn't tried to present a good frame; I forgot about being technically perfect for a moment; I danced with a friend, and it just felt good to dance with a friend.

She followed everything I did, effortlessly, without fault.  That doesn't surprise me.  As much as she seems to want to credit me with being a good lead, she's an excellent dancer, and that makes things so much easier for me.  I didn't have to wrestle with an uncooperative partner; I didn't have to correct a partner who had wrongly anticipated what I was going to do.  I could just dance, because I trusted in her ability as a dancer.

I've heard people talk about dancers having a connection, and I think I understand what they mean.  The nervousness that I usually feel on the dance floor had gone.  It felt like a dance that might happen spontaneously, in an informal setting.  Though I stuck to the basic moves I know well, it felt like I'd known them for a lifetime.

The way I dance is very much affected by how I feel.  Without going into a whole load of psychological theory about cognitive functions, I operate via how something feels to me, or how I feel about it, more than most people would.

In a corner of the room, towards the end of the evening, with my legs already feeling like they might stop working as they should, it felt good to dance.  Actually, it felt great.