Root Menu

Anne Chatterton

In conversation with Simon Beard

I feel as if I'm starting a slightly new life at the moment. The reason is that I've moved house and, though I've only moved round the corner, the house that I'm now in has a garden where I can grow vegetables. I'd always sworn that I would never grow vegetables. It's much too much work. But a freind said to me, ‘Oh, I have some tomato plants spare; maybe you’d like some,’ and someone else said, ‘Well, I can give you a courgette plant,’ and so on. So now I have this garden that I’m cultivating, and it’s wonderful. There were blackcurrant bushes, a gooseberry bush, Japanese quince and loganberries all already there, and I’ve planted sweet corn, sweet peas, squash, runner beans, potatoes, tomatoes and an apple tree at the side. I love it, and I never thought it would be such fun; it’s definitely something new.

The other new thing that I’m doing is that I have enrolled on an art course in Banbury. It’s a two-days-a-week access to art course that can lead to me taking a degree if I want to, though I don’t anticipate that I shall. I have been doing art for the last ten years, and I’ve been taking classes here and there and sketching on my own. However, I feel as though there is this membrane around me that I cannot break. I don’t know where to go next or what to do, so I think this could help me break through at last. I used to write poetry, and I thought that was what I was meant to do in my life! I wrote poetry for ten or fifteen years, and then I just found I was out of words. I think for me art is something you do, not something you make. It’s a way of being, a different way of living, having that artistic element to life and doing something, in contrast to not doing it. It doesn’t really matter what I make, in a sense; it’s the process that I like.

I do Zen meditation. That’s my main religious practice. I also go to Quaker meeting, but that’s more for the stillness and silence and because I enjoy the people there very much. With Zen you sort of open yourself to everything so that you are very much in connection with the world. One of the things that I do sometimes is walk and just listen and look at the detail and the shadows. I’ve always done that. I’ve always looked about, but I have tended to filter things out like the traffic and just listen to the birds, which can be very selective and leaves you sheltered from a lot of things.

I feel that physically I’m much freer now than I used to be and much more at ease. I enjoy living in my body in a way that I didn’t when I was younger. Which is strange, as my body gives me much more trouble than it did. Now I’m conscious of my body being very much connected with everything else. I have just been on a Druid camp and the emphasis there was on honouring all forms of life, but also just being aware of it, how it is and what it is --  how the plants develop, what they are used for and how they are in themselves. I also feel more connected to the past, my past, than I used to.

One of the things that I took part in on this Druid camp was a sweat lodge. I actually didn’t enjoy it very much as a sweat lodge because people were sitting and chatting about mobile phones as they where waiting for the fire to heat up the bricks enough, and there wasn’t much silence and concentration on what we were doing. However, I was completely free walking around with nothing on and with other people with nothing on, whereas in the past I would have been horrified. Being free in the body is another thing you notice at Druid camps, that people really feel free, whatever their shape, size or anything. It’s just very liberating and accepting.

I’ve always had this attraction to nature. When I was young, ten or eleven, I can remember I used to live in Yorkshire on the edge of the moors and that was my chief connection with things, going up on the moors. I didn’t think of it in the same way that I think of it now, or I didn’t put it in the same context as I might put it in now.

Maybe this connection is part of what drives me to do art, but I don’t think it’s quite like that. Expression is more what drives me with the art and the writing, expressing perceptions. The writing was certainly more driven by psychological things and emotions. What I really liked when I began doing art wasn’t so much doing the art or what I produced, it was what it did to the way that I looked at everything with an artist's eye. That comes and goes depending on whether or not I’m practising. I haven’t been doing much art recently. I’ve been too busy choosing colours and growing the vegetables.

***

Over time I’ve found that I have become less and less fearful. No fears have increased except, perhaps, those public fears, such as people bombing London. I used to have a fear of not being accepted and not being wanted. I also used to fear that I wouldn’t have a properly full life. That was quite a big one, but it’s gone away, too. Now I have had enough experience of being wanted, and I think that the sense of connection with more things and more aspects of myself has helped to decrease the fear.

One of the big things that helped to bring this change about and set myself on the way was when I was in America. Our son became worrying as a teenager. He stopped working at school, and started taking a lot of cannabis and other stuff as well, and I felt as if his light was going out. He just wasn’t interested in what he had been interested in before. He stopped playing guitar and things like that. We decided to send him to a different sort of school, one that was a boarding school. I had always sworn that I would never send my children to a boarding school, as I had been to one myself, but I thought that this would help him.

This school worked with the whole family. It was quite tough and worked on improving the student in more than just academic ways. It wanted students to use all their potential and to gain integrity, leadership and that sort of thing. On our side, what it did was that the parents within a certain area would meet every so often and talk about their issues, and then the students would talk about their issues at school. We would have weekends every so often when the parents and students would get together and talk about what was going on in the family and other personal things. I sort of stepped out of myself then and started to say much more about what I felt, thought and wanted. That was really very good for me and for most of the people there. My husband had never talked about things, so I really welcomed this programme because now he would have to talk about what was going on inside him. It was also very good because it meant I met many other people with similar experiences. That was something that really started the dissipation of a lot of the fears that I’d been carrying around since childhood.

After that I was much more explicit about what was going on, or what I felt that I wanted. My husband left several years after that. I think there had been all sorts of things going on in him, too, which led to his avoiding parts of family life and making himself unavailable. I don’t know what would have happened if we hadn’t gone through that sort of school. It released me!

Doing things has been a big element in my becoming less fearful. I was afraid of taking big steps. Initially I was terrified of moving back to the UK, what with the children, selling everything and coming here with no job, et cetera. However, now this freedom made me feel that I really could do it if I wanted, and here I am. I have done a lot of things now that I had been afraid of doing, and that’s got rid of the fears, I think.

Another thing that got rid of my fears was adopting the maxim that if there was a risk I should be taking, then I should take it. Sometimes if you're not taking risks you come to recognise it, and if there was a risk I should be taking and I wasn’t taking, I’d generally feel stultified. It could be quite a small risk, like going to someone, not in a particularly challenging way, but just going and saying hello, or saying yes to something instead of no.

I think about the future in two quite different ways. I think about it as being this quite rich place full of risk and opportunity, but then I also think about it in terms of increasing decrepitude. I’ve also begun to cherish my childhood, rather than feel hurt by it, and I hold it as part of my life’s span. I’ve reached an age now where I am aware that I’m going to die. It’s no longer beyond the horizon; it is the horizon. That’s partly because my mother died a few years ago. My father had died quite a long time before, so now they are both gone and I am really aware of it. I’m not very afraid of death, but I just keep on thinking about it. I’ll be reading some Shakespeare and think, ‘Well, he’s dead now, as I will be.’ It’s present with me, although at the same time a distant thing. What I would hope for my future, before I do die, is that I will reach a state where I am at peace. I started meditating because I was tired of living in the box of my mind and I wanted to change my consciousness. I would like that consciousness change to be completed. That’s a very enriching possibility, and I anticipate that it will really be so. I also would like the art work that I do to increase, or that I will go back to writing and do that.

I’m not worried about money. I used to worry about money a lot but I don’t anymore. I feel secure, in a mental as well as a financial sense. I feel quite well set up because my mother left me quite a lot of money. I’m going to let the house I’m in now, which will be an income that will help, and so on. The only thing I feel anxious about is whether I will have enough money either to visit the States or to bring my children over here. I have two children in the States. Visiting them is my biggest expense above just living. My son now has two quite tiny children and in a year's time they will both be over two years old, which will mean four full fares, and he doesn’t have the money for that. I also have a daughter here.

I don’t often feel lonely, but sometimes if my normal close circle, including my family, aren’t available, that makes me feel lonely. This is quite rare, however. I anticipate the possibility of future loneliness. I have a man friend, and if that broke up and my children were still far away, I think I would feel quite lonely then. Sometimes I also feel lonely if I tell someone something that is significant to me, and they don’t listen to it or hear it or recognise what it is I am trying to say. Sometimes, however, I just feel lonely and I don’t know why. I think what happens is that the feeling is around, somehow, as if it arises in my body. It can happen with anxiety as well. Sometimes when I meditate I flush hot, and I’ve noticed that if I am suddenly anxious about something, then I also flush hot. I think the feeling comes, and then I find a reason for it. So that if I am meditating, and I am not really thinking about anything, there is no reason for anxiety, so I only feel it physically.

With unbearable feelings, there is one remedy I have. I concentrate on the feeling and try to feel it without thinking about it. I learned this when my husband left. The direr the situation, the more important it is for me to do this. If I have a feeling, what happens is that my mind starts imagining things and doing things with it and putting words around it. This does three things. It magnifies it, but away from reality; it protects me against the real feeling; and it keeps me in the same place. A real feeling surges and then it breaks, but if you imagine around it, then that imagining bridges all the gaps and it’s misery all along. That’s what I do with any unpleasant feeling. You have to take time out to do it though. You have to stop, and then often you’ll feel it bodily as well as mentally.

***

When I was living in America, there came a time when I felt I just had to come back to England. I was over visiting my mother, and I went for a walk. At one point there was a bend in the path, and suddenly it hit me that I belonged here. Then when I was driving back to the airport past the Windrush Valley on the A40, I found it so beautiful that I just thought, ‘I’ve got to come back. I’ve got to come back, no question.’

I could get by in America, and I did feel at home with some of the people there, but I never felt American. It’s a different imagination. It’s a different culture with its own politics and history. The trees and plants that grow there are different, and even the light falls in a different way over there. I felt as if I was skittering around on the surface, but here I feel rooted. When I was abroad, a lot of what I missed was the language of home. I have lived in Germany and Austria, and there I missed English. In America I missed the expressions and intonations of this country. I had to come back here for the language.

I’ve missed place more than people. For example, I was in Colorado last Christmas visiting my son, and we went up into the mountains. It was absolutely stunning, lovely weather. However, when I came back here and walked home from Oxford through the meadows with the evening light falling across them, I thought, ‘There’s nothing that can beat this, no matter how beautiful.’ People you can stay in touch with and go and visit, but when you feel part of somewhere, you have to live there.

October 2005