Me Too

ME TOO (1)

I’ve been seeing this #metoo trending hashtag everywhere and I’ve had fairly mixed feelings about it, honestly. When I sit down to comment on it, I either get so agitated I can’t type coherent sentences or else I feel a bone-deep weariness and sit, staring blankly at the screen, until I give up and close my laptop.

I thought that perhaps now, after dragging a 27kg box down my road and up a flight of stairs, I would be tired enough to tackle this issue, but I’m still sitting here jiggling my leg anxiously. I don’t like the #metoo campaign. I just don’t. I don’t like it, even though of course ‘me too’.

Perhaps because ‘me too’.

Have I felt harrassed?

Yes.

When?

How about the time I was 16 and a man in his mid-thirties stopped his car in the middle of traffic to run over and chat me up?

How about the time a man at least two decades older than me sat – uninvited – at my table during my lunch break, followed me back to my workplace and then sent me effusive poetry?

How about the many times I’ve had my ass grabbed, or the men who have slid their arm around me and nonchalantly stroked my breast? How about the guy who almost followed me into my house? Or the men who have forced their unwanted, unasked-for compliments on me and then acted like I owed them? Or the guy whose name I didn’t even know, who made me mix CDs I never asked for and followed me on my commute home? Or the guys who have kissed me against my will?  Or the man who stalked me from store to store despite not a single sign of interest? Or the many men who don’t listen to the first no? Or the second no? Or the third, or the fourth, or the fifth….?

Here’s the thing about sexual harrassment; 98% of the time, the people doing it would never admit to themselves or anybody else that what they’re doing is harrassment. I think that a lot of the time they really are completely unaware that what they’re doing is creepy, or intimidating, or frightening or enraging or just plain inappropriate. They think they’re flirting. They think they’re being charming, or “cheeky,” or that they’re – shudder – wooing you. They either don’t realise or don’t care that your laugh is a nervous one, or that your smile is plastered on over gritted teeth. They are completely oblivious to the fact that you flinch when they try to touch you, and they ignore any subtle hints you might drop about them leaving you alone.

They don’t stop to think about positions of power, or whether or not women feel like they can shut it down. They mistake any gesture of politeness for encouragement. They mistake silence for enjoyment. They don’t stop to consider that maybe politeness feels like the only option. They don’t bother to contemplate alternative interpretations of the silence.

Did I say or do anything?

I once had a job in a large office block. I worked on the front desk of the building, but since it housed several different businesses – each of which had their own receptionist – I didn’t have very much to do. The office I interacted with the most was the one on the ground floor staffed solely by a group of middle-aged men.

Most of them engaged in what they considered “friendly banter” with me, and a lot of it was inoffensive and light-hearted, so I didn’t mind. There was one man in his early sixties, however, who routinely said things that made my skin crawl. It started with outrageously over-the-top flattery and escalated quickly from there. After a week or so he was saying things like, “You’re way better than the last one, that bitch was no fun. And you’re much easier on the eye!”

And then:

“Come down to the garage with me for twenty minutes and I’ll give you anything you want!”

And then:

“I’m going away with my wife for a sexy weekend, but I’ll be thinking of you the whole time!”

And then:

“Oh you have a form for me? Come sit on my lap and read it to me like a good girl!”  – and when I slapped the form down on the table, narrowed my eyes at him and walked out – “That’s okay, I like to watch you walk away too!”

Every time he approached my desk I felt a mixture of negative feelings. Revulsion. Fear. Intimidation. Discomfort. Powerlessness. Shame. Rage. He would say these things – and many others – in front of his colleagues and then wink at me, flashing his dentures in what I’m sure he thought was a dashing grin. His colleagues would laugh, or groan and then laugh. At no point did anybody pull him up on his behaviour. At no point did anybody say that it was inappropriate. At no point did anybody say anything at all.

And neither did I.

Why not?

  • I was young and not very confident.
  • I was afraid of how he (and the rest of the office) would react.
  • The fact that nobody around him ever said anything made me feel completely outnumbered and made me second-guess myself, wondering whether I was making a big deal about nothing.
  • I wasn’t going to be there for very long, so I figured I should just stick it out.
  • My job wasn’t actually linked to his office, so I wasn’t sure who I should even talk to about it. If anybody would be moved it would be me.

… So, you know, the usual reasons people don’t report these things. Or rather the usual reason, singular, because it really always boils down to the same simple truth:

I was afraid of the consequences.

Whether you’re afraid the repercussions will be violent, professional, dangerous or simply awkward, it always boils down to the consequences of standing up for yourself to people who are generally larger, more powerful, more important, and completely unpredictable. The #metoo campaign is like picking up fistfuls of sand and feeling it slip through your fingers; there are so many ‘me too’s. Too many ‘me too’s. It would be better to ask for people who have never experienced it to step forward. Find the scant handful who have never felt that tingle of fear, or that burning shame of not feeling able to risk their job/reputation/safety.

I guarantee you they are few and far between.

So maybe stop looking for the #metoo.

Maybe look for the #luckyfew.

 

Thoughts On… Size Matters

SIZE MATTERS

I am small.

I’ve mentioned this before, but I guess it bears repeating for the purposes of this post. I am 5ft 1″ tall… or small, as the case may be. Almost inevitably, the first words out of most people’s mouths when they meet me in flats is, “Oh my God, you’re so short!” And I am!

I am so short.

I am so short the only exercise my upper arms ever get is from dragging chairs over and back to the kitchen so I can reach for the ingredients I need while cooking. I am so short that when things are on the top shelf in the supermarket I need to ask for assistance to get them down. I am so short that if somebody tall sits in front of me at the cinema, I spend the entire movie tilting my head from the left to the right and vice versa in order to see the screen, and if a concert is standing-room only I am guaranteed to see nothing but a sea of shoulders.

Having said that, I am not petite.

Short, petite people look like fairies or sylphs. They’re graceful and delicate and look as if the earth’s gravity only barely holds them tethered to the ground. I do not look like that. I look like a regular person who has shrunk in the wash. I look like I was popped in on a hot cycle by mistake and left in there for a tumble dry.

I went through a phase as a teenager when I hated my height. I hated the terrible, terrible, dad-level jokes that came with it. All the cheery, “Oh, how convenient! An armrest!” lines accompanied by an elbow on my head, all the times I was unexpectedly lifted off the ground, all the morons who thought it was absolutely hilarious to hold things just centimetres out of my reach… I imagined myself suddenly extending like Inspector Gadget and backhanding them across the face.

With a bionic hand, of course.

For maximum impact.

Luckily for me and my blood pressure levels, this period of my life was mercifully brief. I grew into myself (though obviously not too much) and embraced my inner shorty. I realised that my height could sometimes be a positive. For example:

  • I’ve never had to worry about towering over anybody because that has simply never happened.
  • No matter how high the heels – or the platform heels – I still have never had to worry about towering over anybody. Still no. Always no.
  • I can shop in the children’s section, which sometimes has nicer stuff.
  • Scandalously short dresses are an acceptable length on me.
  • Long tops can be worn as scandalously short dresses.
  • No matter how cramped airline seats get, there will always be more than enough room for my legs.
  • I have never had to duck because of a low ceiling.
  • Ditto for low shower heads.
  • Ditto for small doorways.

So overall…. it balances out. Do I have legs that go on for days? No. But do my feet ever stick out over the end of the bed? Also no. I can stretch out like a starfish and know that the duvet (no pun intended) has me covered.

I’m looking at my two six-month old kittens right now. Maya is a flimsy, lean little thing. She is, as kittens go, petite. I can pick her up with one hand. She is graceful and agile and manages jumps I didn’t think were possible for a mammal that isn’t a kangaroo or a jerboa.

jerboa
This creature that looks like a mouse photoshopped onto bird legs is a jerboa

Oscar on the other hand, despite eating the same amount of food and being the exact same age, is a bona fide chunk of a cat. He weighs the same as a miniature hippopotamus, and has no discernable elegance in his movements whatsoever. He thumps around the apartment like a tiny despot, singing the song of his people. Sometimes he leaps – front legs stretched wide like a flying squirrel – for the bed, or a chair, or the windowsill, and he misses, landing back on the ground with an earth-shaking thud. He is dense. He has a wide, fat little head and when I lift him, I make an audible “OOF!” sound.

If he were a human child I would have already signed him up for the local rugby club.

Maya can leap in enormous bounds that Oscar will never manage, but Oscar can pull himself up bodily to areas that Maya can’t reach. Maya can slink through the narrowest of gaps if a door is left slightly ajar, but Oscar can bulldoze his way in head first.

It all balances out.

Does size matter? Not in my experience.

…But I know it’s harder for guys.

*As a teen. I am no longer a hellion demonspawn. I wasn’t a rebellious teenager but at times my moral compass was in need of a good shake.

A Bad Time

When we’re young, we’re thrown together with other children and told to go and play in an effort to gift our long-suffering parents with a blessed hour of peace and quiet. Before we begin to play, we have simple, rudimentary ways of assessing each other:

“What’s your favourite colour?”

“Blue.”

“Me too! Will you be my friend?”

Then we each grab a stick with twigs sticking out the bottom and start studiously brushing the dirt in an attempt to clean our “house,” which is really just the space under a bush where the frost killed off the lower branches, but thankfully we have the imagination required to bridge that minor gap in realities. It doesn’t present too much of a challenge to our world view.

That same imagination is, I think, what helps us form these fast friendships. We make huge leaps of logic from stepping stone to stepping stone of assumption. We decide that since we like blue and are okay, if they like blue they must also be okay. That’s enough. It’s enough to have a shared interest in the colour blue, or in ponies, or in holographic stickers, or pogs (are they still a thing?), or whatever we have our open little hearts set on at that particular moment.

As children, once we’ve established that one binding fact that cements our friendship, we don’t act passive-aggressively forever more if one person claims that Skipper is better than Barbie. We don’t thump each other until we need medical assistance over a difference of opinion on whether Micro Machines are better than Hot Wheels. We don’t refuse to speak to each other ever again because we don’t both want to watch Aladdin. We accept these things as valid and skip over these differences because the important things are still true; we both like the colour blue, and we like each other.

As time wears on, our lives grow more complicated. Our requirements for friendship grow more complex. We start to write people off for small, niggling reasons. That one person who breathes through their mouth. That other person who won’t watch movies with subtitles. Chasms open up where opinions on religion and politics diverge. Instead of the simple acceptance we had as children, we now debate and argue – viciously, ferociously – in an attempt to change other people’s points of view. Race, class, beliefs and values all get dragged into discussions.

Nobody cares about your favourite colour anymore.

It seems like the world is fracturing at the moment. Cracks have appeared as if from nowhere and I can’t tell how deep the damage goes. It seems like the planet is tearing itself apart at the seams, with untidy, fraying stitches just barely holding everything together. What used often to be educated discussion is now aggressive shouting. Disagreements are now total incompatabilities. Apparently there’s a worldwide chronic deficiency of imagination at the moment and people are either unable or unwilling to understand opposing points of view.

Facts have been sacrificed on the altar of audience engagement and squeaky wheels everywhere are getting the grease of media attention, no matter how insufferable the squeak.

The cracks might not worsen. They might stay as they are, never worsening but never healing completely. Or they might at any moment become a break. A split. An insurmountable challenge.

An impassable chasm.

The worst part is that I think a few more seams are going to rip open before this is over. I think it’s going to get worse before it gets better, and I don’t know what to do in the meantime. I definitely don’t have a manual for this. What I do have is a history book, and it’s not exactly reassuring me if I’m honest. If anything it’s making me think we’re about to be in for A Bad Time. A Bad Time with a lot of shouting.

And I hate shouting.

So if anybody wants to hide out and be friends, I’ll be hiding out in my blanket fort with a few micro machines and (since we’re grown ups) some bottles of vodka and gin.

Only people with the password* allowed!

*The password is your favourite colour.

One Stranger, Two Viewpoints, Three Drinks

 

One STRANGERTwo viewpointsthree drinks

I had a pretty interesting but slightly infuriating conversation over the weekend.

It wasn’t really that infuriating at the time, because I had already had two vodka & cranberries and at that stage I’m content to slip easily into the role of Devil’s Advocate on any given subject. I don’t know about you, but I’m a happy drinker. After a drink, I just want to do two things: talk and dance. I don’t much mind where you want to take the conversation, I’m happy for you to take the lead as long as I have a white russian in hand.

Unfortunately at the weekend I didn’t have a white russian. Instead, I had just started on my third vodka and cranberry when this man engaged me in conversation. He began by asking me where I was from (of course), and then launched into a lyrical ode to his home county, which I won’t name here. He asked me what I knew of it, to which I replied, honestly, that absolutely nothing was coming to mind. No landmarks, no tourist hotspots, no holiday destinations. My mind was a total, freewheeling blank. He puffed out his chest and told me that actually, it was one of the most beautiful places in Ireland. I lifted a skeptical eyebrow and pulled my phone out of my pocket. Slowly and deliberately, I typed “Things To Do In _________” into my search bar, partly because I was curious as to what would come up, but mostly just to rile him. Which it did! Only not in the way I was expecting.

“THAT’S WHAT’S WRONG WITH THE WORLD!” He yelled over the music.

“Google?” I asked, confused.

“NO, EVERYTHING. GOOGLE. PHONES! I TELL YOU THAT _______ IS A BEAUTIFUL PLACE AND THE FIRST THING YOU DO IS PULL OUT YOUR PHONE INSTEAD OF JUST BELIEVING ME!”

I bit back a laugh, because yes, I do tend to believe aggregated opinions of many different people over the sole (biased) opinion of one person. Is that bad? I opened my mouth to interject but he was off again.

“WE WERE BETTER OFF WITHOUT IT! DO YOU WATCH TV?”

“TV? Yeah, sometimes…” I mumbled, thrown off balance by the abrupt change in topic. I thought we were talking about phones?

“I BET YOU WATCH KEEPING UP WITH THE KARDASHIANS!”

Okay. Look. As it happens, I have never actually watched Keeping Up With The Kardashians, but millions of people have. MILLIONS. I’m tired of this implication that people who watch the show are a zombified army of braindead shopaholics who speak solely in emojis and don’t understand basic grammar or syntax, particularly since it’s a disdainful accusation thrown almost exclusively at women. I know plenty of intelligent people who watch it regularly. There’s no reason to use this as an insult.

It’s not the first time I’ve had this said to me with a curled lip of disgust, as if what I watch on television somehow lowers my IQ. Not only does what I watch have no bearing on my intelligence, but it’s almost* enough to make me want to watch the show, just to spite them.

I chased ice cubes around my glass with my plastic straw and tilted my head.

“No…?”

“WELL ANYWAY,” he continued, “I KNEW A MAN WHO LIVED WITHOUT ELECTRICITY AND HE WAS HAPPIER THAN ANY OF US PROBABLY.”

I breathed deeply and looked around me, considering my options. The dance floor was bathed in deep pink and purple lights. To my right, a blonde in a short skirt ran her hand down the arm of a laughing man with dreadlocks. I stabbed at the ice cubes, then took a drink.

“He lived without electricity? Is that what you said?”

I mean, I was in it now. Might as well let myself be pulled by the conversational current.

“YES! LIVED WITHOUT ELECTRICITY. HAPPIEST MAN I KNEW. JUST HAD A RADIO THAT HE RAN WITH BATTERIES AND A PHONE.”

I eyed the ceiling and debated whether or not to point out that a man who has a radio and a phone is not entirely without the benefits of the modern age. I decided, with drunken magnanimity, to let it go.

“What did he do at night?” I asked, instead.

“LIT A CANDLE IN THE WINDOW!”

I laughed.

“You can’t read by candlelight! Have you tried it? You’d ruin your eyes!”

“HE DIDN’T READ HE WOULD JUST SIT ALONE WITH HIS THOUGHTS!”

I side-eyed him.

“That’s fine in the summer when it gets dark at a reasonable time, but what happens in the winter when it gets dark at 5pm?”

“HE LIKED IT THAT WAY, HE WAS A VERY HAPPY MAN! WHAT’S WRONG WITH BEING ALONE WITH OUR THOUGHTS? I THINK MORE PEOPLE SHOULD DO THAT INSTEAD OF SITTING IN FRONT OF THE TV WATCHING KEEPING UP WITH THE KARDASHIANS!”

There he goes again, I thought, with the Kardashians. What is the deal?

“That’s well and good if your thoughts are kind ones,” I pointed out. “But what if they’re not? Thirteen hours is a long time to be left alone with unkind thoughts-“

I barely had a chance to finish the sentence.

He leaned in, cutting across me to shout, “I BET YOU NEVER KNEW ANYBODY WHO LIVED WITHOUT ELECTRICITY!”

My eyes narrowed. The vodka and cranberries I’d consumed were busy sketching out a pale pink outline of the sort of person this man thought I was, and it wasn’t particularly flattering. If I squinted the right way, I could see the exact stereotype this guy had pinned on me.

I took another sip of my drink and thought for a moment.

“I did actually.”

“WHO?”

I was starting to feel like Alice down the rabbit hole. Where was this conversation leading exactly? How far down where we going to go? I told myself to relax and let myself flow into the empty spaces left by the holes in his argument.

“The people in my grandparents’ village in Spain lived without electricity.”

I paused, thinking about the pueblo. It’s a dying village. Even when I went regularly, the inhabitants all seemed as ancient and weathered as the sun-split rocks down the hill. I thought about the women I had known with deeply lined faces and no dental care, sitting outside their houses in black shapeless tunics, leaning on canes and fanning themselves.

I thought of my great aunt pressing 100 pesetas into my hand with her bony fingers and shuffling next to me as we made our way to the bakery across the square, which doubled as the only place in the pueblo you could buy anything.

I thought of my great aunt’s house, where the ceiling sagged in the middle, looking like it might cave in at any moment. I thought of the way doors were always left open to cope with the heat, with a beaded curtain strung over the doorway, keeping out the burning sun but nothing else. Walking into the house was an assault on the senses. My nostrils would sting from the smell of cat urine, and I would blink furiously, my eyes taking a minute or two to adjust to the darkness. The reason for the smell was quickly apparent; stray cats would shoot out from under every piece of furniture the moment I took a step in any direction.

Yes, their lives were simple, but their lives were hard. They faced tragedies and difficulties I can barely imagine. My grandfather would tell me stories that would break your heart. They lived lives of quiet isolation and tight community not because they chose to eschew electricity and modern conveniences, but because they had no choice.

The man at the gig, meanwhile, had been surprised into a momentary silence at my assertion that I had, in fact, known someone who lived without electricity. I took the opportunity to squeeze in another sentence.

“They didn’t choose not to have electricity, though. They were very poor. They didn’t have the option.”

His eyes skated around the room as he considered what I had just said.

“BUT THEY WERE PROBABLY HAPPIER LIKE THAT!” He roared in my ear after a moment.

I felt an unfamiliar tingle of annoyance. Unlike me. I thought. It’s a Saturday night. Don’t let him harsh your mellow.

For some reason though, my thoughts flew to the woman who had lived opposite my grandparents. Alone and elderly, she had lived all her life in a tiny cottage draped in grapevines. I thought about how, after she had died, I would look through her window and see her kitchen table, still draped in an impeccably crocheted tablecloth. A small plate sat on the table that had once held a long-since disintegrated piece of toast, and a carefully balanced knife rested on the edge of the plate.

Untouched since her last meal, the room was a silent testimony of her existence. Every year I would crouch to look in through the window, and only two things ever changed; the number of stray cats using the furniture, and the thickness of the layer of dust. Over time, the colours slowly muted and the room took on a ghostly, grey air. When sunlight streamed in the dust particles glistened, making it look even more ethereal.

Had she been happy while she was alive?

As a child, I hadn’t liked her, and that’s putting it mildly. She seemed positively antediluvian, shrunken by age and circumstance. She had once engaged my parents in conversation about the stray cats that my grandmother often fed, and recounted how she had killed a great number of them by swinging them by their back legs and smashing their heads against a rock. Hearing her tell this story had the same effect on me as if she had admitted to being an axe-wielding maniac with a penchant for scalping children; after that I avoided her like the very plague.

Now, with time, I am more understanding. She was completely uneducated and lived in that same small pueblo her entire life. She had no family. The war she waged on the stray cats was ended by her death and, in a twist that shows life has a sense of humour, in her absence they took over her house and made it their own.

I thought of this wizened woman, and how different her life might have been in other circumstances. I thought of my great aunt. The more sober section of my mind struggled to steer my train of thought onto a straighter path. After all, this was a Saturday night chat at top volume with a stranger during a gig, not a cosy in-depth debate in a dark corner at a party. Not exactly the best time to argue the merits of education and how electricity contributes to a greater quality of life.

I leaned towards him so he could hear me clearly.

“I don’t think they would have chosen that life if they had had an alternative,” I said, watching his face.

“BUT YOUR GRANDPARENTS LEFT, RIGHT? BECAUSE MAYBE THEY WEREN’T HAPPY LIVING LIKE THAT. BUT THOSE PEOPLE DIDN’T LEAVE! BECAUSE IT’S A SIMPLER, HAPPIER LIFE!”

My grandparents left because they could, because my grandfather dragged them out of there through a combination of dogged hard work and compromise and connections.

My great aunt, who had been in a relationship with my grandmother’s brother, found out she was pregnant while he was away at war. Unfortunately he was killed in action, and so she had her son out of wedlock at a time when this was enough for society to shun you. The son was born with an intellectual disability. Thankfully my grandmother’s family treated them kindly and supported them despite the circumstances, but still, her life was difficult. It was complicated. She was poor and uneducated and had nobody by her side to make her life easier or more bearable. She went to mass every day and pulled wooden rosary beads between her skeletal fingers, her gaunt face a mask of peace as she prayed.

Do I think these difficult times in her life would have been greatly improved by having a light switch and a functioning fridge? Not necessarily. Some hardships can’t be softened with electric lighting and chilled goods. I do think, however, that electricity often reaches places at much the same time as other things like literacy, and education, and modern plumbing, and state aid. I think those would have made her life easier.

The pueblo had a school, and running water, and electricity in my childhood. The neihbour died. My great aunt died. My grandparents also died. The population continues to decline. In 2015 it had a population of 280 inhabitants.

Back at the gig, I threw my head back to dislodge these thoughts and tried to untangle myself from a conversation that was going nowhere fast.

“I agree that our addiction to our phones is bad but dude, I don’t agree we would be happier without electricity.” I waved an arm around me. “We wouldn’t be enjoying this without electricity!”

He nodded his head from side to side as if conceding the point, and then we were loudly (and thankfully) interrupted by a friend wandering over to say hello.

 

It’s Okay To Not Be Okay

It's Okay to Not be Okay

I don’t know if this post is for you. Maybe. I guess you won’t know either until you’re halfway through it. If it’s not for you, that just means it’s not for you today. It still might be for you three weeks from now, or next Summer. At some point, I think this post will be relevant to your life.

Unfortunately.

Even though it’s Monday, and I would have preferred to start the week with something lighthearted, I sat down to type and this poured out instead in a wave of emotion, so here we are.

I want to talk about unhappiness.

This is not an overt unhappiness with people crying at bus stops, or being unnecessarily mean as they cut in front of each other in queues. It’s not a screaming-at-service-staff-about-something-that’s-not-even-their-fault unhappiness, or even the kind of unhappiness that leads to dark undereye circles and terrible dreams. Instead, it’s an almost invisible cheese-wire thread weaving through people’s lives, slicing through their good days. It’s this weak but persistent undercurrent of…

you’re not good enough

you’re not funny enough

you’re not normal enough

you’re not popular enough

you’re not successful enough

you’re not loveable enough

you’re not doing enough

you’re not worthy enough

you’re not trying enough

you’re not happy enough

…..And here’s the thing about that.

It’s always been there. This Gregorian chant of insuffiency is an unfortunate symptom of the human condition. Thankfully, not always. It’s not constant for most people; it tends to chime in at brutally inconvenient times like when you feel so lonely you actually have a legitimate concern you might be invisible, or when you feel like your self-confidence has reached rock bottom and proceeded to dig, or when you have failed spectacularly at something in a public way and are desperately searching for the words to pretend that everything is fine.

It really picks its moments.

This repetitive, monotonous, doubting drone of voices has always been around me, and I just haven’t been paying attention. Now that I’m looking for it, I see it everywhere. I see it, and I recognise it, because guess what? I have it too. Everyone does. Trust me when I say that even the person you look up to the most has had days where they didn’t want to get out of bed.

We know this. We’re all aware of it. We’re alive, and sometimes life is a kick in the teeth. Even the luckiest person can’t avoid the most difficult parts of life forever. Even the cockiest person can’t ignore their inner fears at every waking moment. We’re human, and that means we are skin-draped skeletons walking around with an expiration date, and our short lives are vibrant pops of colour filled with emotion and adventure and love and heartbreak and passion and fury. We collect memories and experiences and feelings and struggles throughout our lives, ee mix them together as we grow, and whatever muddy concoction remains is the sum of our parts.

On some level we are all aware of this.

I think we are getting better as a society at articulating the stickier parts of life, the parts that slow us down, the parts we feel we’ll never move on from. I think it’s great that it’s slowly becoming less taboo to discuss negative feelings.

Have you noticed how we talk about them though?

When negative emotions come up, people have this habit of being unable to talk about them without attaching wholly unnecessary feelings of guilt and shame, like carabiner clips of dead weight. I do it too. I feel terrible, and then I feel terrible about feeling terrible.

Why?

It’s already exhausting to struggle through hard times. When life gets tough, your usual daytime stroll unexpectedly becomes a hike up a cold mountain in the dark, and most of the time it blindsides you and you’re entirely unprepared; you didn’t bring water, you don’t have emergency chocolate, there are no signposts, you’re pissed off because now everything is going to take that much longer, and you didn’t even bring a jumper.

It’s the worst.

Now imagine attaching two dumbells to your waist so you can drag them up that incline with you for no good reason.

Why?

I know that there’s an unease about what people will think. Everything is always supposed to be fine, right? Instagram should be comprised only of excessively highlighted people in beautiful clothes, eating photogenic food in perfect lighting. Twitter should be an oasis of sanity and witty, relatable comments from People Who Have Their Shit Together™. Human unavoidables such as misery, and fear, and unhappiness, and the sort of concerns that keep you up at night until five minutes before your alarm goes off don’t fit neatly into 1:1 ratio photographs or 140 character limits. They ruin the narrative. It’s not a comfortable thing to shine a light on dark thoughts.

And so any reference to these inescapable truths of life and humanity seems to be couched in remorse and embarrassment, and then wrapped in a shroud of shame. There’s usually an acknowledgement of heartbreak or depression or anxiety or failure, and then in the same breath it’s linked to a feeling of weakness or anguish. So not only are we not okay, but we’re not okay with not being okay. Sometimes it’s even followed by an apology, or a reassurance that it will soon change, or a determination to turn things around.

I see this happen not just in myself, or in people I know and love, but also people I don’t. Friends of friends who pop up on my facebook. Complete strangers that are retweeted on my timeline. I see it everywhere, this idea that not being okay is not okay.

So on this dreary Monday, let me just say this:

If you have been unknowingly looking for permission, or subconsciously searching for some sort of sign that you are allowed to take a moment for yourself to just wallow, or cry, or scream into a cushion, or punch a pillow, or go for a long walk with nothing but your thoughts, or anything that you had previously written off as an indulgence… I am giving you that permission.

This is that sign.

You don’t have to be okay all the time. You don’t have to be perfect, ever. You are human, and you are loved, and you have a unique life unlike anybody else’s, and you are wonderful. You have talents in you that you aren’t even aware of.

If you have recently felt less than, know that you are not alone, and you are not less than.

If you have recently made a mistake or done something you wish you could take back, know that we have all been there (more than once!), and that the discomfort you are feeling is what teaches us not to make the same mistake again.

If you are feeling lost, know that sometimes the road is winding, and can even loop back on itself. Familiar landmarks are not necessarily a signpost of stagnation; remember that even when you feel stuck, you are still moving forward.

If you have recently had your trust betrayed, know that you are not foolish for having being fooled. Trust is a precious and fragile thing, and you are not to blame for somebody else having broken it.

If you have recently experienced heartbreak, know that this is the price of having loved fiercely, and that it is worth it every time. Some heartbreaks will make you feel like you got scammed, that maybe it wasn’t worth the cost. It was. It always is.

If you have recently had failure, know that there will also be success. Try not to tip the scale by giving more weight to the failure than it deserves.

If you are melancholy, or depressed, or afraid, or worried, or anxious, or struggling, that’s okay. That’s okay. You don’t have to feel guilty about that. You don’t have to apologise for not being a presentation-worthy version of your best self at all times. You don’t have to feel bad about experiencing the exact same struggles as everybody else.

You just have to be you.

It’s okay to just be you, even when you’re not happy. Even when you’re not having the most photogenic of feelings. Even when life is roundhouse kicking you in the teeth repeatedly and you feel like self-defence is not an option because your arms have inexplicably turned into pool noodles. Even then.

This is not to say that you can stay there forever.

Eventually you will have to stop punching the pillow. You will probably have to drink some water, because non-stop crying is very dehydrating. You will have to get up off the floor, pull your shoulders back, and tell the frankly irritating buzz of self-doubt to shut the hell up. I am not giving you carte blanche to wallow forever in the Swamp of Sadness. We all know what happened to Artax (NSFL), and you, dear reader, are far too precious to me for an ending like that.

Eventually, you will slide back down the scale to relative normality, and the feelings will shift, and the path will be clear again… at least until the next time.

But right now, as you read this – whenever that may be – if you find yourself in a heap, or you just need a breather, or you’re losing it, or you’re feeling ashamed because you’re losing it, and you don’t have anybody else around who can deliver this message in a timely fashion when you need it most…

This post is for you.

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Thoughts On… Death

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I remember my first dead body.

That makes me sound like a serial killer. Let me rephrase.

I remember seeing my first dead body.

It was my maternal grandmother’s – my Yaya’s – and she was lying in a coffin with white satin lining. It was propped up, almost standing to face those coming to pay their respects, and she was pale. Unnaturally pale. Much paler than I had ever seen her. Her expression was serious, her mouth turned down at the sides. There was no joy in her face at all, which was very unlike her. She was a woman who was always smiling, always laughing, always trying – like a stereotypical grandmother from a storybook – to feed you delicious food until you burst at the seams.

She was a woman who was always shuffling around the kitchen, or fanning herself with her abanico as she leaned back, out of breath from laughing, sighing “Ay!”

She was a woman who always took the time to pin a brooch to her breast and put lipstick on before going out, who always sprayed herself with perfume and made sure each blonde curl was in place, and who had a faith in God that stayed with her even after hope had been abandoned.

Now she lay, silent and still, in a box behind glass; an unsettlingly strange and wrinkled doll in a building of tears and heartbreak. She no longer looked like herself. She was missing that spark that made her her. This wasn’t my Yaya, this wasn’t the woman who would envelop me in her arms and kiss me over and over again until I wriggled away laughing. This was a husk. A shell. This was the discarded coccoon of a life well-lived, of a woman well-loved.

Death frightens me.

Life frightens me.

It frightens me how fragile we all are. It frightens me that we go through life as thin-skinned human popsicles made of nothing more than a pinch of star dust and earth, brought together and animated by an ember of life.

And when that ember is extinguished or extinguishes itself, leaving behind the curling smoke of memories and loss in its wake, it can be suffocating. The after-effects of the end of a life can feel like your heart is in a vice, and every thought of the person you loved and lost is a turn of the screw.

Death is something that enters into all our lives, and it visits more often the older we get. We like to ignore it, skirt around it, pretend it won’t touch us with its long, cold fingers, but it does. It will. It is unavoidable.

When it will come to us is largely unpredictable. It can slip in and out of our lives at any time. As we grow older, we become more aware of its presence; we look over our shoulder every so often and do things that we hope will make death pass over us, at least until we are old and infirm. We stop smoking, we exercise, we eat healthy food. We become more risk averse. We understand the full weight of life. If we’re lucky, we accumulate loved ones and experiences and hobbies and passions that we don’t want to say goodbye to, and so we shrink back when we feel death nearby.

Don’t pick me. Don’t pick us.

We support our friends in their times of grief. We cry with them, because we know the pain. We may not feel their loss, but we feel their suffering. We read terrible, tragic stories about strangers and feel sorrow, but also relief; glad that it didn’t happen to anyone we know, glad that it happened to someone else, somewhere else. No matter that their grief is just as profound, just as crushing as it would have been for us.

Death is busy elsewhere, and we have the audacity to feel safe in its absence.

There is a unique and precious freedom that comes before we learn about mortality. As children, we exhibit a recklessness that we lose around the same time we begin to comprehend the concept of consequences. Even though this is obviously an important part of growing up, I’m starting to think we could all do with adding back a little of our childhood bravery. I know I could. After all, we don’t know when death will come to call.

Is there anything to be gained by dreading it the way we do? Is there anything to be gained by pressing ourselves against the wall, hoping to make ourselves invisible?

I’m not suggesting we all go BASE jumping in the morning.

I’m not suggesting we start a diet consisting solely of donuts*.

I’m just wondering out loud whether we – I – should live a little less fearfully. There are things I haven’t done yet because a thin, reedy voice in the back of my head makes it its mission to spook me every time I think about them too hard. If I talk myself out of things I wish I had the courage to try, am I really living my life to the fullest? I can’t keep putting things off for an indeterminate ‘someday’ when I don’t know how many somedays I have left. I should make the somedays today.

And so should you.

I hope that when death comes for me, I have lived a long and full life. I hope that like my Yaya, I leave behind memories of love and laughter, good food and good company. I hope that like her I have time to say goodbye to those I love, and that I face it with courage and acceptance. I hope, but I don’t know.

So in the meantime, I’m going to try to live fearlessly… or at least, less fearfully.

Same same, but different.

 

 

*Although how delicious would that be?

 

 

 

Thoughts On… Giving and Taking Advice

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I feel as though, in my limited time on this earth so far, I have been through A Few Things.

I’ve been through disappointment and heartbreak, I’ve been through grief and adversity. After all, thirty years is probably younger than it used to be, but – unfortunately – it’s not young.

I haven’t found my one true career path, been married or had a child (which they had by this age), and I haven’t purchased my forever home (which they also had by this age). Times are different now. Friends are only now starting to get engaged and married. Very few have had children yet. Even fewer own their own homes.

At thirty, we are just teetering on the precipice of proper adulthood.

And while we windmill our arms wildly, trying to keep our balance, not sure if we’re ready to topple over the edge, we listen to each others’ struggles and we give each other advice based on things in life we have experienced.

I dole out a lot of advice for somebody who often knows nothing*.

According to friends, I often – probably to their surprise and almost always to my own – give good, useful advice. Relationship advice is the most common variety, although I can also help out with an intriguingly wide-ranging list of topics such as effective team management, faulty ballcock** valves,  mental health, cooking, and so on.

Lately, I’ve found myself advising a lot of people to take care of themselves.

I’ve seen an alarming amount of people be unnecessarily harsh on themselves recently, both online and in real life, and I’ve tried to take the time out to tell each one to take it easy. Take a Time Out. Life is hard, and sometimes we make it harder on ourselves for no reason. We say things to and about ourselves that we would never in good conscience say to another human being. We beat ourselves up for not being ‘enough,’ when there is nothing to be quantified. When we are at our lowest, that’s when we punch at ourselves from the inside; that’s when we think the worst of ourselves, that’s when we are at our most self-critical.

We kick ourselves when we’re down.

I feel like in the past short while I have had to tell too many people to be kinder to themselves. I have told them to be more patient, to be more gentle, to give themselves the space and the encouragement to get out of the rut they find themselves in. I’ve reminded them of their talents, their kindness, their grit, their goodness. I’ve told them to treat themselves like they would their closest friend. I’ve advised patience for some and self-belief for others, communication for those feeling alone and tenacity for those feeling trapped.

I give all of this advice hoping it will be heard, because I really believe it. I believe in the people I’m giving advice to, and all I want is for them to be happy. I want to see them smile. I want to see them with their two feet planted firmly on the ground, ready for the bumps and unexpected curves in the road that life inevitably throws at us. I want them to be able to see how great they are, or at least look through my eyes and see how great I think they are. I want them to live their best lives.

And of course, at the same time, I know that it’s very difficult to take your own advice.

I’ve been there. I know it. It’s tough to cut yourself some slack when you’re at your lowest. It’s hard to see the way out when you feel cornered. You might logically know that you really are doing your best and you’ve just hit a temporary roadblock, but telling yourself that and believing it is an entirely different matter. It’s much easier to hear it, and internalise it, and believe it when it comes from somebody else.

So if you’re struggling, let me know. If you need a break, give me a sign.

I’ll say it so you don’t have to.

*Although I know cows can jump seven feet off the ground. And I know that male Angler Fish live horrifyingly grim lives. And I know that we are closer in years to Tyrannosaurus Rex than T-Rex was to the Stegosaurus. And I know Cleopatra lived closer to the time of the moon landing than she did to the time of the building of the pyramids. And I know that redheads require about 20% more anaesthetic than non-redheads. And I know that the smell that lingers in the air after it rains is called petrichor. And on, and on, and on….

**Was there ever a more inappropriate name for a household item?

Thoughts On… Breasts

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So apparently breasts are back in fashion, according to a moronic article in the New York Post.

This is excellent news, since much like my arms, legs and head, I’ve been foolishly lugging my breasts around for years now without a thought as to whether or not they were popular. I didn’t even realise they had gone out of fashion. I thought they were body parts, not accessories.

My bad.

That being said, for the past few years I have been noticing a distinct scarcity in clothing that caters for my cleavage, so maybe that’s what they mean. Dress shopping – something I’ve had to take part in recently – is an actual nightmare. Brand name dresses were clearly designed with twelve-year old boys’ figures in mind. High street fashion requires me to breathe out and then never breathe in again, otherwise seams are in serious danger of popping. Urban Outfitters in particular seems to cater exclusively for girls with slim figures and breasts the size of mandarins. I know this because I tried on about five dresses there and each of them had a band of fabric fitted in the chest area – presumably for my chest – that was so narrow it covered only the middle, leaving not only underboob but also overboob, which is not a good look for anybody, ever.

Dresses that look demure on other people look indecent on me. Dresses that look slinky on other people are downright unwearable.

Did I mention I hate shopping for dresses?

And it’s not just dresses.

Backless or sheer “tops”, strappy anything with long armholes, bralettes that might as well be stitched together from scraps of tissue paper… the past year has not been kind to anyone with more than a B cup. So maybe some people out there did have a vendetta against large breasts and I just attributed to stupidity what I should have attributed to malice.

My own feelings on my breasts are… mixed.

My mother is not well-endowed, and has always equated my generous cup size with being overweight. Growing up, dressing me was all about minimising them. Anything that made them look smaller or hid them was considered attractive. Anything that emphasized my curves provoked the same reaction I imagine I would have elicited with a casual bit of public nudity. On a Sunday. In a church.

The body-shaming was real in my house.

Anything with even the slightest hint of visible cleavage made me look “fat” and “attention-seeking.” Actual cleavage was “pornographic” and “desperate.” For a long, long time I internalised all this claptrap, nestling it down deep next to a tiny seed of confidence that had yet to sprout.

Today, not only am I more confident in myself, but I also just care more about my own comfort than I care about others’ opinions. I still hear that insidious voice when I wear clothes that expose the indecent fact that I (clutch your rosary beads) have breasts – a slowly-but-surely withering part of me feels uncomfortable and fat and desperate and gross in a way that I know isn’t necessarily rooted in reality – but now I just shut it up with black eyeliner and high heels.

Which is all to say that I for one welcome this fabled return of breasts.

Not that they ever left.

 

Memories Are Made of This

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If touch is my drug, then memories are my kryptonite.

I am an overthinker. I have always been an overthinker. As a child, I remember adults telling me, “Don’t think so much!” and wondering how they could ask that of me. I could no more control my thoughts than the weather. They rushed over me in a continuous wave of questions and hypotheticals.

Over the years I learned to stem the tide of thoughts when they got too much for me. I learned to put them away. Today, my mind is a hoarder’s attic, stuffed to the brim with ominously unstable stacks of thoughts and emotions and worries and passions and dreams and experiences and fears and imagination and memories.

I don’t know what other people do with their memories. My brother has somehow managed to purge all of his childhood memories … or lose them. I’m not sure which. My own seem to be (much like my real life belongings) stored in a state of organised chaos. I revisit them often. I turn memories over and over in my mind until the jagged feelings that used to jut from them are worn away, leaving the recollection itself smooth as a pebble. Easy to handle. Almost comforting.

Sometimes I forget memories only to find them years later, untouched, unexamined. When this happens, I’m always surprised to find the feelings that came with them are still there, unblunted, in the corner of my mind. I prick my fingers on the sharp points, and the unexpected sting of it startles me. My mind makes an immediate jump to hyperspace and I start overthinking again.

  • How did I forget this?
  • Is it even real?
  • Do the other people in the memory remember this?
  • Is it important?
  • Why do I only remember this now?
  • How many times have I examined this memory?
  • How many more times will I examine it before the feelings disappear?

Then I worry that when I’m finished turning it over and over, it will become another pebble: a skimmed pebble. It will bounce twice or three times on the surface of my consciousness and then sink to the depths. I’ll forget it for good.

Something about this, something about memories, makes me profoundly sad. It’s not nostalgia. At least I don’t think it is. Merriam-Webster defines nostalgia as:

“a wistful or excessively sentimental yearning for return to or of

some past period or irrecoverable condition.”

I don’t long to go back. I don’t wish for a time-machine. It’s not the moment in the past I feel a strange yearning for, it’s the memory itself. I worry about my memories getting lost forever. I worry that I am altering them all the time until I can no longer trust which ones are true. I worry that I’ll smooth away all the edges and be left with flat, polished versions of every memory I’ve ever had. Easier to manage, yes, but also smaller. Diminished. Sanitised. Sterilised. Incapable of making me laugh or cry.

A forgotten memory found its way into my mind yesterday. It caught me so completely by surprise that a tear escaped and made a run for it down my cheek before I even had a chance to realise what I was thinking of. The instant rush of thoughts and feelings gave me a sentimental papercut. I sat, listening to music, pressing against the sharp ends the same way you use your tongue to press against a loose tooth. It hurt, but I didn’t stop. I couldn’t help it. The pain pleased me.

I examined the memory from every angle. I wondered if there was more to it that I had forgotten. I wondered who else remembered it. If they do, does it come tied to an emotion, or has time buffed away any inconvenient feelings?

If I am the only one who has kept it, does that make it more precious, or less?

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So, Touching

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I am a tactile creature.

Not so much with people, but with things. I like to touch soft fabrics, and run my fingers through deep pile carpet. I like to trace the grain on solid wood, and press my hands against granite stone so hard the imprint is left on my palms. I love searching the seabed, trying to find beaded seashells and tide-smoothed driftwood and coarse-edged coral. I like the slippery coolness of glass, the feel of a salty breeze on my skin, the springy tension of needles on a pine cone. My fingertips explore the world around me. it’s not always enough for me to just look at things; I have to feel them.

I suppose I don’t seem overly tactual when I first meet new people. I didn’t grow up in a cuddling kind of household; I still feel a bit awkward hugging people that aren’t my closest friends. It feels uncomfortably intimate, and I’m never quite sure how to arrange my limbs so that they fit against the angles of a stranger’s body. I overthink it, debating whether or not to stick my hand out or just hug-tackle the person before they have a chance to decide for themselves. When I touch strangers, I always feel like I’m intruding, rudely popping their personal space bubble with my clumsy presence.

If I care about you, it’s different.

If I care about you, I like to sit shoulder to shoulder with you. I like looping my arm around your waist while we belt out lyrics to terrible songs. I like sitting against walls, thighs touching, talking about life. I will hold your hand on the way to the shop. I will throw an arm around your shoulders and pull you close. I will hug you hard and long, because I missed you, or I hate saying goodbye, or I’m happy for you, or just because. I will hesitate for a split second before doing any of the above because it doesn’t come naturally, then do it anyway because I want to be close to you.

But if I love you.

If I love you, I can’t keep my hands to myself. I want to run my fingers through your hair, and trace the outline of your lips. I want to hook my arms around your neck and stretch against you, tucking my head into your shoulder and disappearing into a feeling of warmth and quiet thoughts and soft exhalations. I want to rake my nails lightly down your back.  I want to slip under your clothes and feel the difference in texture between the cotton of your t-shirt and the warmth of your skin. I want to lace my fingers through yours, and kiss a trail down your throat, and place the heel of my hand in the hollow of your shoulder. I want to lean against you, and rest my forearm on your thigh, and be acutely, painfully aware of your arm around me. I want to slip a finger through one of your belt loops, and tug at the rough denim. I want to sit between your thighs and feel the safe, solid weight of your body against my spine. I want to outline the features of your face until I recognise them blindfolded.

The chasm between the stiff discomfort I feel with casual physical interaction and the greedy, bottomless hunger for touch I feel when it comes to those I love has always bewildered me. I assume it has to do with feeling vulnerable, and feeling safe, and the mix of both of those things making it possible for me to express myself. Maybe I’m wrong in thinking that I am not a physically affectionate person. Maybe I am an intensely physically afffectionate person and it just happens to generally be constrained by a straightjacket of apprehension, unease and the usual social anxiety.

Physics says that our electrons never actually come into contact. Our electrons repel each other, keeping us apart from anything we reach for. On an atomic level, I suppose I am never actually touching anything, only following its form.

My fingertips will always hover an infinitesimal distance from yours.