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Making friends with reality

Alchemilla mollis


Astrantia Roma

In a way, work is like a love affair. It demands commitment, absorption, and care. The difference is that it is a love affair with oneself, or at least with one’s creative abilities, and with an abstract world of ideas. Learning to Work, Virginia Valian

People have a conception, however implicit and unarticulated, of who they ‘really’ are, which I am calling true self and others may call identity […] Some people […] cannot point to a period in their lives in which they were able to act in accord with their true selves. Such people may thus have particular difficulty in trusting their perceptions of their true selves. They impugn their motivation, for example, by thinking, “if it’s so hard for me I must not want to do it.” […] My claim is that people are not wrong about their true selves. A related claim is that to encourage someone to doubt his or her true self is to do them the gravest psychological disservice.Solving a Work Problem, Virginia Valian

In planning each weekly schedule we considered everything we wanted to do or had to do. Our principle was: make friends with reality. [On planning a weekly schedule with an ally.]Solving a Work Problem, Virginia Valian

Mid-June; nearly midsummer, and yet it feels like the summer hasn’t even started. The weather is still mostly cool. Each week seems to have one day of sunshine, followed by a day of storms. Then it goes back to being cloudy. I’m starting to worry that this might be as good as it gets.

The garden has moved from blue to pink. I could spend all day photographing my rose. The aquilegias are almost over. Yesterday I bought a papery pink Astrantia ‘Roma’ at the Farmers’ Market. On the way home we passed a trestle table full of wilted cuttings and seedlings next to a sign asking for donations to be posted through the letter box of number 5 of a nearby road. I took some hellebores, a tiny division of lamb’s ears, an unidentified plant with tiny purple flowers. I posted coins through a letter box and felt inordinately happy.

The Pip-Pop has stopped napping and the rhythm of my days has changed completely. But on Mondays, after we’ve walked the older children to school, we meet his friend J in the playground and go straight to the pool to swim. On Mondays he does sleep. He’s sleeping now. The house is quiet. I have an hour or two alone. Here I am, making friends with reality.


It occurs to me that I’ve never sent you running to read Virginia Valian‘s two wonderful essays, Learning to Work (1977) and Solving a Work Problem (1983). It’s a serious omission. They are such generous, practical and honest portraits of someone struggling with what Valian terms a ‘work problem’. In her 2003 introduction to Learning to Work, Valian writes:

One woman who read “Learning to Work” asked a friend of mine, “Is this
Virginia Valian the same Virginia Valian who’s a psycholinguist?” It was inconceivable to her that the Virginia Valian whose work she knew was the same Virginia Valian who could sometimes only work 5 minutes a day. It was more likely that there were two people named Virginia Valian. Yet we need only look around — very carefully — to see that at least some people are complicated.

I came across Valian’s work in Priscilla Long’s The Writer’s Portable Mentor which I’ve talked about here before. If you scroll down to the comments in this post, you can see that Rachael has caught my enthusiasm. It’s a lovely, grounded and practical book, and if your library stocks it — and you can avoid the fines! — I truly recommend it.

So, a Monday gift to you: Valian’s reassuring take on the place of intellectual work in an integrated life, and my wishes for a week in which you make friends with your reality, however much or little time that may leave you.



  1. Your photos are beautiful! I’ve inherited large perennial gardens in the house I bought a year ago, and up until last year I didn’t know anything about gardening. Now I know a tiny bit, but not nearly enough! I’ve gone back and forth between loving the gardens and enjoying working in them, to despairing at ever getting them (sort of) organized and (sort of) under control. We’ll see what happens!

    • Thanks, Rebecca! But — a secret — you’ll notice that there are only ever close up shots of the plants, that way I can hide all the bindweed and ground elder and dandelions. Our garden is only small — or at least very thin (terraced house) & long — but there’s still a point each year where everything grows so quickly that I can’t keep up. Luckily I like things a bit on the wild side and I also know that come autumn I’ll pay for a morning’s help tidying things up. (Obviously tidying things up would take me weeks, but it takes our semi-retired ferociously fast gardener no time at all.) Good luck with your gardens — they sound lovely but daunting. Hope you get to enjoy some time just relaxing and reading in them.

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