Monday, November 30, 2020

I don't want to ride my bicycle (and other stories)

A couple of months ago on ye olde Facebook I said that I was thinking of entering full disclosure Angry Autumn / Furious Fall (aka #aaff2020) and just saying it as I feel it. There was a bit of a 'yes we should all do this' response, but you know what, we didn't. 
I am still not sure I can really do this - as my old dad likes to say, you can't unring a bell - but I've been moving towards it as part of my wider second wave (now Lockdown 2) survival strategy. 
It's based around tiers, because, hell, what isn't right now. A long time ago, my friends A&K came up with a three-level categorisation scheme for people. You are a) a twat, b) not a twat, or c) a high quality person. Try it, it's surprisingly effective. But also a bit, you know, crude. So for the current situation, I have repurposed it. 
  • Tier 1 people: the ones you need around you right now. The ones who nourish your soul, who give you what you need, who hold you up. The ones you would be drinking negronis and eating Dishoom black dal with tonight if you could. 
  • Tier 2 people: most of the people. The ones who are muddling through and doing their best like the rest of us. The ones you are happy to help out at a basic human decency level, and who are happy to help you out. The world would be fine with just these people in it, but you would probably feel a bit lonely and misunderstood. 
  • Tier 3 people: the ones you really, really don't need in your life. The users, abusers, narcissists and manipulators who *no one* should have in their life, but also the ones who are somehow toxic to you personally. Which might not entirely be on them, but either way engaging with them is an act of self-harm. 
The first thing I did was fillet my Facebook friends list. I am lucky to have a bunch of Tier 1 Facebook friends, we all know it's an evil platform but it does bring me much joy. I also have a bazillion Tier 2 Facebook friends, some of whom I don't really know or seldom interact with, and I'm cool with that. The random likes and the posts that get a different kind of conversation happening are also part of the joy. Tier 3 though. The ones who get shitty or shirty, or I self-censor in case they do, they are gone. The White Lives Matter ex, he's gone. How did I ever think I'd make a difference there? I never could when I was 17, why assume everyone grows up to be a better person? The overt transphobe, bye. The partner of the guy who blocked me for reasons I never understood but which really upset me, gone (I always really liked her, but life is less confusing this way). A couple of people whose posts I'd unfollowed but somehow felt I might offend if I unfriended them, gone, why would they even notice? So if you get here, I'm assuming you want, at some level, to be here. I haven't stuck it in your feed. I think that's less, you know, provocative. And more freeing. What took me so long? 
The second thing I did was apply this schema more directly to my neighbours. I do this thing at night, when I can't get to sleep, where I run through an exercise in my head and align it with my breathing. It needs to be just complicated enough to take up the mind-whirring space but not enough to stop me drifting off. Going through the 13 times table can do it, for example, or the Hebrew alphabet, or the periodic table. But do all of these things often enough and they become too familiar and stop working. So I started using my street. There are 41 households and about 70 people in total, so it's a good sized dataset. Breathe in, person at #n. Pause. Breathe out, person at #n+1 . Pause. And so on. For quite a while, just populating all the houses in order was the perfect level of abstraction. But then I got too good at it, and I had to switch it up. So I'd add things like, all of the people who have *ever* lived in this house. What year the current occupants moved in. (I have a head for this kind of thing). It sent me to sleep, for a while.*  
But eventually that also wasn't enough. So I tiered them. One of these people has (indirectly and cack-handedly but still) accused me of fascism. A few of them don't quite ignore me in the street, but make the sort of acknowledgement that is only upsetting when you see them greet someone who they actually want to see. One of them seems to have ruled me out as a cool kid (and honestly, the bar is quite low, so this stings). There are the old wounds, too. We eat our young, around here. Anyway, that's Tier 3. 
This strategy is sweet in two different ways. It still helps me sleep, as neighbours occasionally shift between tiers, always worth checking (especially interesting with couples in different tiers). But also... it was so useful to enumerate the Tier 3 neighbours. There really aren't very many of them, there *really* aren't. There are more in Tier 1, but I would never have thought that till I did this. But I have done it, and if I apply my sleep science to them, I find when I am awake I can just not pay them attention
It's honestly quite a shift. As Leymah Gwobee said: "Anger is like water - the shape it takes comes from the container you put it in. Let it flow". So as I pass up and down the street, breathing, I let it flow out of the houses, into the Sustainable Urban Drainage System, into the river and out to sea. We live, and sometimes, we learn. I'm honestly feeling better for it. 
You're wanting to know where my bicycle fits into this, aren't you? Well, it's another of my pandemic learnings. With great introspection can come great enlightenment. 
I like to think that I don't do things just because I'm supposed to, but clearly that is not the case. I am supposed to cycle everywhere, and I'm supposed to like it. I'm surrounded by people who cycle out in all weathers, hauling all kinds of loads in all kinds of ways. Many of them have more than one bicycle. There is a lot of lycra, and a lot of those big bright waterproof panniers. And they just keep doing it. It's amazing. 
And I did decide to come and live here, and since I did I have done really quite a lot of cycling. But earlier this year the council dug up the off-road bike path into town in order to build up the flood defences by the river. It will be reinstated at some point, but for now, cycling into town, while still relatively traffic-free, is much more of a palaver. And suddenly... I stopped. 
All of a sudden I have realised that I hate cycling, and I have always hated cycling. I have actually only had three bikes in my adult life. There was one at Cambridge, a crappy second hand thing that I only ever used in my first year, to cycle to ballroom dancing lessons, until I realised I did not need to learn how to ballroom dance, and I stopped. Everything else I needed to do, I could walk to, and I did. I have no idea what happened to that bike. 
I lived in Oxford for four years without a bike, but I got one not long after I got together with M, because he couldn't believe I didn't have one. It came from a Cycle King sale and was probably quite a good bike, it had a lot of gears. I rode it to work sometimes. I rode it to the station sometimes. I rode it to the pub sometimes. I never, ever understood why people would choose to 'go for a bike ride' but I was talked into it once or twice. We cycled round a reservoir in the Peak District once. And we cycled out to some kind of country park when we were in the Forest of Bowland one January. It snowed on the way back, and I actually cried with misery. I was allowed to spend the afternoon drinking golden mild by a peat fire after that.
NGO X used to run the cycle to work scheme, and after I'd had my bike around 10 years I saw a demo one that I thought might actually be a bike I could love. It was Dutch style, with hub gears, and it was solid as a rock. My mum (who loved riding her bike) got it for me for my 40th birthday. It was certainly very comfortable, and pretty much maintenance free (which was handy, as I know nothing of cycle maintenance), and there was a stretch of the Oxford ring road where I could get up a good speed on the way home from the office to the Interim Bungalow. I could just about say that I was fond of that bike, but I couldn't say that I loved it. 
I thought for years, this issue is with me. I am not fit enough. I don't have the right legs. I don't have the right kit. I don't have the right bike. If I had the right fitness / legs / kit / bike, I would love cycling. I just need to try harder. 
No. I fucking hate cycling. It is shit. It is, I have realised, like camping. If you don't love it at its most basic, you can spend all the money you like (and it will be A LOT) but you will never, ever love it. I hate dealing with traffic. I hate faffing with helmets and lights and locks and waterproofs and panniers. I hate hills, I hate punctures, I hate getting pins and needles in my vulva. I hate all of it. So why would I spend what would be easily into the four figures on upgrading my infrastructure? That's a lot of bus fare, and I will still hate it. 
I gave the second bike to a project that refurbishes them for refugees. I saw it locked up at the train station about six months later and was happy it was helping someone get around. I still have the third bike. I will probably start riding it again when the cycle track re-opens, though I have also now fully got into shopping by car, mixed with Abel & Cole and the occasional M&S via Ocado. 
I also currently have two baths a day, have developed a Kiehl's habit, spend a lot of time vaporising essential oils and am washing my clothes at 60. More habits I may readdress when This Is Over, but if we've learnt anything over the last eight months it's that life can come at you fast. Take your pleasures where you can. 
*This is such an obscure reference I think only my Significant Ex is likely to get it, so on the offchance he's reading and wondered if it was a nod to Gary & Melissa, yes. 

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Saturday, November 07, 2020

I hope the Tories love their children too

I wrote this before Lockdown Two but I forgot to post it. Still holds. 
If you know me at all, you'll know I'm a foodie. I have always been a foodie. My tastes have, it must be said, changed somewhat over the decades, but the basic principle is the same: good food makes life immeasurably better, bad food makes it significantly worse, and insufficient food is one of the worst things that can happen to a person, and something we as a society, a species, should constantly strive to ensure does not happen to anyone. 
Which brings us, topically, to half term. When I was a kid, half term meant a trip to Lytham Kitchen with my mum. I remember it as just the two of us, but I'm guessing my sister was there too as I'm not sure where else she'd have been. By the relative sizes of things in my mind (Lytham Kitchen is still there, and not that different in most of the important ways - go there) she might have been in a pushchair. Anyway. The point is, it was a big treat, and I had spaghetti bolognaise followed by a Viennese whirl. 
What, I think, marks me out as a foodie is that I can remember this meal in such detail over 40 years on. The spaghetti was fat and soft, and came mixed in with the sauce, which was not particularly meaty but very juicy, so you would suck the strands up and it would splat on your face. It had grated cheese on it, which was in fat shreds, unlike at home, where my mum used the thin side of the grater. I don't think I was allowed to lick the plate, but I would have. The Viennese whirl was a piped shortcake biscuit that was half dipped in chocolate. I would eat the plain side first, and then the chocolate side, very, very slowly. 
It's always good to feed appreciative people, as I have learnt myself, and I hope it was obvious how much I absolutely loved these meals at the time (one hallmark of my early eating years was if it ain't broke, don't fix it, so I had this over and over again, and to be honest if they still served it I would have it tomorrow, only not the biscuit, and maybe with a glass of red). 
In the year my mum was dying, I would visit most weeks and sit by her bed, chatting to her about anything that came into either of our heads, wanting to acknowledge what was happening but without getting into the deep and dark places. She was not a great opener of cans of worms or boxes of Pandora, like many of her generation, and many of us Gen Xers have learnt to walk that line. But one night, the LKSB (Lytham Kitchen Spaghetti Bolognese) came up, somehow. And by this point there was a fair amount of morphine in the mix, and I learnt that the reason it was just me stuffing my face was because there wasn't the money for both of us to do that. 
This honestly never occurred to me at the time. I was max eight years old, so I can forgive myself, but additionally, she never gave much evidence of enjoying any foodstuffs as much as I enjoyed pretty much all of them. With soooo much hindsight, including knowledge of how her terminal cancer ultimately played out, I can see that she likely always had a vulnerable digestive system, and learnt to manage that by not really eating a lot. And we could get into the thin thing, which I will just touch on: I think my mum was a 10 because she smoked like a chimney for decades and also didn't eat much, then she stopped smoking and she hit like a 14, and then she got cancer and she went down to an 8 and then she died. She bought a tiny suit to wear to the funeral of one of her uncles who'd been a bit 'handsy'. It was her last 'fuck you' and I love her for it while also still dealing with the implications of all of that, not that I explicitly know the facts. She embodied them, as women so often do. 
*Anyway*. Half term to me means spaghetti bolognaise and Viennese whirls with your mum, or whatever the 2020 equivalent is, and to learn that life often gets worse rather than better for kids, over that time, makes me want to howl. And the thought that the government would enforce rather than relieve it, well. 
I look at those pictures of Marcus Rashford and his mum and I think, people like them should be making these decisions, not a bunch of boarding school educated posh boys, many of whom were deliberately starved of that kind of love in order to make them better heartless leaders. I live with one of those boarding school educated posh boys, and I think I can safely say they are a lil fucked up by the system, even if they never had to watch their parents choose between heating and eating. How are we still here, in 2020. 
What can you do? Well, we went swimming on Friday, then went into town and had noodles and a beer in our local Thai restaurant - use it or lose it, guys, and their Pad See Ew is *so good* - then went to Sainsbo's and spent our lunch budget on foodbank supplies, which can conveniently be deposited in between the tills and the exit. 
I have done a lot of buying foodbank supplies, and my general MO is to buy food I would want to eat myself, on the grounds that just because you are in need doesn't mean you want ham in a tin. (I will add that I never ever buy brown things for the foodbank, on the grounds that just because you're in need doesn't mean you should have to eat some do-gooders idea of healthy food). But this time I took my eight year old self shopping, and bought everything that she would want. Instant mash. Hotdogs. Tinned ravioli. Curly Wurlies. Sardines in tomato sauce. SuperNoodles. Jelly. Twenty five quids worth of joy, and I put it all in the collection box and then had a little cry on the way home. I'm so sorry. I'm so fucking sorry. 

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Saturday, August 22, 2020

Heat and the male gaze

I dropped a note idly onto Facebook the other night. I say night, it was around 3 am, not long after I woke up on the sofa (classy, Jo, classy), tangled in my giant culottes and oversized top, and crawled upstairs to a not much cooler bedroom but one where I could starfish in my pants on my linen mix sheets and think about summers past. The note was about being told, when I was younger and it was this kind of hot, to put more clothes on. I wrote it because I often think 'I should say more about X', where X is a thing I'm thinking about, and then I forget. I even forget when I write the notes in a notes app, because when I do that, I use personal shorthand, like I'll know what I mean, but when I see it again, I generally don't. But if I say it on Facebook, it has to make sense to people, so it will make sense to me. Was my logic. Around 3 am. But actually, the sense it made to others was very different. It started an interesting conversation about the limits of being able to wear what you want, the consequences of wearing what you want, the things that affect what you want to wear. And it was a good conversation, but not the one I had been thinking about. 
Because the times I had been thinking about were the ones where the clothes they wanted me to put on were the ones *underneath* the ones I was already wearing. 
Even at my youngest and most exploitable, I never wore revealing clothing. This was partly because I have skin the colour of a milk bottle, and can *feel* it burning, even with sunblock on, and we didn't have sunblock when I was at my youngest and most exploitable. So I'm used to covering up. It was also partly because I was convinced, like many young women, that my body was deeply unattractive, not least because of the milk bottleness (these were the Miami Vice years and your tan was verrrry important). But it also became apparent to me that having a deeply unattractive body (I conceded in a diary from the time that my arms were "ok") the colour of a milk bottle did not seem to stop a certain level of attention being directed at me. I had a brutalist haircut and a totally flat chest till I was about 14, and was regularly taken for a boy, so it didn't start as soon as it might have, but start it did, as it in-evi-tab-ly does. So it was also partly to minimise that attention. 
I also identified as a feminist pretty early, became familiar with (if confused by) some of the core texts of the second wave, and was in some essential way drawn to the baggy t-shirt, leggings and DMs look. So all in all, you rarely saw my fleshy edges. 
But it was *a* look, of course, and often topped with wild, wild eyes. I'd say they were smoky but they were far less subtle than that. And my hair was enormous. I modelled myself on Robert Smith, learnt how to backcomb with an afro comb, and got through more cans of firm hold Silvikrin than the ozone layer could, it turns out, really deal with. I wore second hand men's clothes (grandad shirts from Oxfam, my dad's old suit jackets), mixed with a touch of goth and a bit of Miss Selfridge, hundreds of bangles and tons of make up. Look at me don't you dare look at me, this look said. 
I think, now, that when you're 15 or whatever, anything you wear is revealing, because you are open season for the next two decades and you're finding that out the hard way. But then, I was handling it, I thought. 
But here are three stories, the ones I was replaying the other night in the heat. 
1. I'm at school. 
My school was recently demolished. I wasn't sad. There exists some kind of vestigial presence, in the form of a) a merger with another school with a fancier building a little way down the coast, and b) the form of a Memories of Jo's School Facebook group, which I follow with some fascination. There really are people who hold those days as the best of their lives, who still have their blazers and their ties, who salvaged memorabilia up to and including the *curtains from the stage in the big hall which they made into curtains for their actual house*. I say people. I mean men. 
My school was not designed for girls. I'd personally argue it wasn't really designed for children, but I can be sure as eggs is eggs on the former statement because it had been going for the better part of a century*  before it let any of us in. And when we got there, I had the strong feeling it was under sufferance. There weren't very many of us, and they often bunched us together in lessons, especially science ones, as if we might warp some kind of laws of physics / biology / chemistry if we moved around too much. I was a proto blogger even then, and some of the things they said to us (collectively, en masse, as girls) would be genuinely fucking reportable these days. 
What they really wanted, I think (apart from our Oxbridge potential, mwa ha ha), was a sort of no mess no fuss arrangement. Girls can be such a civilising influence on the main story, no? And useful in plays. So, while there were almost no female teachers (they were an even smaller proportion of the teaching staff than we were of the school population, which is batshit if you think about it for any length of time at all), there was a Head of Girls. There was no Head of Boys, because boys were the norm. No, just Girls. For the right amount of fine wine (any) I will tell you about the Sanitary Towel Experience. But we're not here for that today, we're here for the summertime. 
The Head of Girls would call you in, if you were a Girl, for any of an unspecified number of Girl related infractions. These were almost exclusively to do with what you looked like (or occasionally, smelled like). One summer term the temperature reached the level when we were allowed to dispense with our green blazers, or, if we were in the Sixth Form, as I was by this point, our grey suit jackets. Fairly soon, I was called in. 
HoG: Do you have any idea what you look like? 
Me [I'm fifteen, I have more idea what I look like than at any point in my life before or since] : How do you mean? 
HoG: We can all see that you're not wearing a bra. 
Me: Um, ok? 
HoG: I want to see you in a bra tomorrow. 
Me: But... I don't need a bra? And it's hot? 
(I didn't need a bra. I didn't really have any bras at this point. But I did start wearing a bra. Even though it was hot). 
Some days later, I am called in again. 
HoG: What are you wearing under that shirt? 
Me: A... bra? 
HoG: It's black. We can all see it. 
Me: But... I thought the problem was that you could see that I wasn't wearing one? 
Now. I knew to a little tiny extent what I was doing here. I knew that no mess no fuss (white) girls wear nice white bras under their nice white shirts and I knew I was fucking with the HoG a bit. But I also profoundly believed that the person most upset by my lack of bra and/or visible bra was the HoG herself. I really did not *need* to wear a bra** at that point in my life. If the tiny breasts of late developers bother you, please, just don't look at them. If you want to look at them, that's on you. It's not the job of young women to police themselves. I have written about this before. 

2. I'm at work. 
I have left school, and am working in a restaurant kitchen over the summer. My job is the worst one in the building, I'm on wash up. I am very happy to have this job, as it enabled me to leave my previous job, in a bread shop which was run by sex pests. Nobody in the restaurant kitchen appears to be a sex pest, and this is progress. So I'm pretty cheerful, on the whole, as I load plates in and out of a red hot dishwasher and scrub pans in the sink. They bring me beers and fries. It's quite convivial. We all get a share of the tips. I'm gradually getting to do bits of other things - this is the place where I first see a whole cauliflower, learn how to peel garlic, and work out that I am a proper vegetarian. (This last part doesn't last, but I had to wash enough bloody chopping boards and scale enough sardines to see me through for a while). 
We all have some kind of uniform, and mine is a white overall with a long white apron. The chefs have whites, and the waiting staff are in white shirts, bow ties and the same long white apron. The aprons are also the tablecloths, from a laundry perspective it's pretty efficient. 
But it's really, really fucking hot in the wash up (which is a portacabin) that summer, and I basically stop wearing anything under my overall. (I mean, I wear pants, and usually leggings, but sometimes shorts). You can see where this is going. 
I must make it clear, I still had naff all by way of breasts. If you only met me during the last 30 years that may sound hard to believe, but honestly, they arrived fully formed the second I went on the Pill (and never went away). Before that, I used to own a badge that said 'Small Breasted Women Have Big Hearts'. (Might still be true, who knows). 
Anyway, there I am, in the sweaty Portacabin, washing up all of the things, swigging on a newly fashionable Becks, and in comes the boss. He's one of those shouty chefs, but he's not a bad man. I can sniff out the bad men by now, for I am seventeen and have met enough of them. 
Jo, he says. I need to say something. 
Sure! I say. Hot, isn't it? 
People are noticing... he says, that you're, well, not wearing anything under your overall. 
Philip! I say. I am wearing pants and leggings. 
That's not... what I mean, he says, but I know, and he knows I know. 
Who is bothered? I say. It's not like the customers see me. I'm just here, out the back, in the hottest place, doing pretty much the hottest job. 
He doesn't have an answer for me, and to his eternal credit, he leaves it be. 
Later that summer, maybe even that same week, there was a shift where it was so hot I was putting ice down the back of my neck and running my head under the tap. And then the weather broke and there was a thunderstorm and a massive downpour. I banged the dishwasher on, walked out the back door, and by the bins I pulled my overall open to the waist (it had poppers), threw my arms up to the sky and stayed there till I was rain-soaked and cold. Then I reassembled myself and went back in to get on with it. 
I imagined that I probably didn't look that different as I'd been soaked with sweat for hours (in a way that is coming back to me now in the menopause, weirdly) and I was bang-crashing away when I heard a little knock at the same back door. It was a boy maybe a year or two younger than me, absolutely scarlet faced, who'd been sent from the restaurant we shared our yard with to ask if they could borrow some garlic. I did suddenly realise that he must have seen me howling bare chested at the rain. I was really nice to him. 

3. I'm in hospital. 
Well, now I'm 22 years old. And I do have pretty decent sized breasts, I think I'm a C or D cup by this point. I'm travelling with my Significant Ex, and in Thailand we have a 'couples massage' where I take my (M&S basic, unpadded) bra off and the lady masseuses hold it up to the light and pass it around in incredulous, hilarious wonder. I have arrived, on the top half, and I dress accordingly. 
Somewhere in between Thailand and Malaysia, I contract something which may or may not be typhoid (I have had my jabs, so tests are inconclusive though my symptoms are consistent). I am actually pretty fucking ill, and after a long week of mad fever, weakness and dehydration, I end up in a teaching hospital in Kota Baharu. 
I have nothing but respect for the people who got me there (my SE himself, of course, but also the couple who ran the guest house we were staying in when I fell ill, and who cared for both of us and got me medical attention on an increasing level of intensity, including, ultimately, driving me to hospital. I sent them Christmas cards for over a decade). 
Anyway, here I am, on IV fluids and antibiotics, in a hospital ward I arrived in barely coherent. The ward is open to the air - by design - the walls are slatted, and I am starting to feel better. They have given me a hospital sarong outfit and I have worked out how to take myself to the squat toilets - the drip stand is fixed to the bed, so I have to hold the bag up with one hand and the sarong with the other (and if I get them the wrong way round and hold my bag up with my drip hand the blood comes out into the tube and I slide, faint down the wall till someone rescues me or I sort it out myself, anyway I generally manage it, and hang the drip bag on the hook in the bathroom stall and use both hands to hoik up my sarong to have a piss and then do it all again in reverse. 
It may or may not have been typhoid, as I say. One of the other things they thought it may have been is dengue fever - you get this from mosquitoes, and we'd spent a very bitey night on the floor of a train from Surat Thani. One of the symptoms of dengue fever is a rash on the chest. A steady stream of male doctors appeared at my bedside, asking to check for this. Honestly, I'd say, your colleague just looked, there's no rash. I think I'll just take a look, they'd say. Just to be sure. Fine, I'd say. I mean, it was company. 
But actually, this one isn't about my spotless breasts. On day, I don't know, three? I was in there for about a week I think, my Significant Ex turns up at visiting hour, bearing V8 juice and Marmite (I still love him for this) and I don't know... sanity? I'm definitely on the mend by this point and can see that on one level he's doing a lot of the heavy lifting, not least trying to stop my mum getting on a plane to Malaysia. We're both pretty sure that I'm not going to die, and we're kind of back in the game as a team. 
He is sitting next to my bed, and the husband of the woman opposite is sitting next to hers. She takes time every day, before visiting hour, to check her face and put a headscarf on. The husband calls my SE over. Words are exchanged. 
He comes back to me, pulling a face that says 'you're not going to like this'. 
What did he say? I ask. 
What he said was: tell your wife she is exposing herself. 
Dude. I'm in actual hospital. I'm on a drip. It's a women's ward. It's open to the actual air. I'm wearing the actual clothes they give women to wear in here. You have an issue because you can see my pants? Honestly, just don't fucking look. 
These little stories, over and over. These are just three. These are just mine. And it literally doesn't matter what you wear, so you might as well wear what you want. 
In the original conversation, someone asked me about the female gaze. I've been thinking, but I haven't got a lot to say about it really, at least not mine. Summer brings out the sort of man who likes to hang out in a beer garden with his top off. We see a lot of male flesh at this time of year. I generally mutter dear god, put some fucking clothes on, but I guess the same logic applies: if it bothers me, and often it does***, I take my gaze, and I avert it. 
* I managed to top this by attending a Cambridge college that had been going for over four centuries before admitting women, and all I can say is it can be fun being a trailblazer, but you better not bleed anywhere.   
** These days I am pleased to see there are things called bralettes. I'm way past the market for them, but when I would have been, all we really had was A cup versions of the overengineered things most of our mums wore - mine would elaborately remove hers from under her top as soon as she sat down after tea (a useful skill, which I also have). There is progress. It does exist. 
*** I'm fine with actual naturism. It's the performative tatts out look that I struggle with. But your body, your choice. 

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Wednesday, August 05, 2020

Just another sister on lockdown

Bread (not pictured) and roses, bread and roses

Just before this year's Significant Birthday, I did a little series of This Much I Know style musings on Facebook. I enjoyed it: the taking stock, the reflecting on things from the perspective of middle age. I like to think I don't feel that different to the way I did 30 years ago, when Young Joella was at her most glorious, but I must. I absolutely have to be a fully-fledged adult by now. I belong to the generation that's in charge here, terrifying as it sounds. 

But whatever any of us thought we knew has taken some punishment in the last 150 days, hey. And there's been no shortage of white middle class takes. Is there ever? But you know the drill: if you don't want mine, you really don't have to read it. Back buttons are available.

Schrodinger's Dad 
This was the big one. The big fella. Sometime in late April, it's a little blurry now, my actually quite beloved dad, my grumpy, stubborn, 20th century, pre-Israel Israeli, principled, heartbroken, sometimes inappropriate, reluctantly-but-in-the-face-of-incontrovertible-evidence evolving dad, was blue-lighted to hospital for the second time in a month. The first time, it was with a recurrence of the thing that keeps coming for him that no one has yet been able to identify. The second time, it was with the Covid-19 that he picked up the first time. I won't lie, I thought he was a goner, that it had finally come to, as he would say, Goodnight Vienna.

I know I am so far from the only person who went through this, and I know that the NHS were doing their absolute valiant best, unlike some people we could mention, but it was terrifying and awful. There were days and nights, long days and longer nights, where I just didn't know whether he was coming, going, or already gone. I couldn't go and see him, he wasn't well enough to call, there was a mega spendy phone number that went to his bedside, but they kept moving him around, so the number kept changing, and when it rang out I didn't know if he wasn't picking up, or someone else's dad wasn't picking up, or it was just ringing into the void. The ward asked for one person to call each day, morning and evening, so they weren't overwhelmed, and one day it was me and I rang in the morning and the person who answered said 'he's asleep'. 'How is he, do you think?' 'Well, he refused his breakfast'.

Two things I now know that I didn't know then: first, he'd lost his sense of smell, so food wasn't that interesting to him, but more importantly, he's vegetarian, and they kept bringing him meat. In those circumstances, refusing breakfast seems reasonable, but at the time, I thought, that's it, he's checking out. The one thing we could do was send messages online, and every morning I typed a little message into a web form, trying to say what I needed to say, and hoped that somehow it would get to him.

He survived, though is yet to fully recover, and I have since been to visit a few times. But there was some point in the 10 days or so he was out of reach where M observed that he was effectively shut in a box with a deadly virus, and until someone opened it we had no idea whether he was alive or dead. I grew that little shell around me that I remember from my mum's terminal illness. Not very much could reach me, but what could absolutely tore me apart.

He's back at Caffe Nero now, and sporting quite the beard. A couple of weeks ago, I was in his kitchen frying up some garlic for pasta puttanesca and he said 'wow, that smells great!'. I looked at him and grinned, and he said 'my god, I can smell!' He dodged the bullet that's now hit the larger part of a million people. May his luck continue to hold.

Reassessing the familiar 
I knew about the obvious key workers. My mum was a nurse. My dad worked in local government. My best friend is from a family of teachers. I have spent most of my own working life in the third sector, but many of the same values hold. It's not about you, it's about everyone. Nobody is ok till everybody is ok. Human rights apply to all humans. Pay your taxes. Vaccinate your children. Vote for progressive government. Check your privilege. Don't be evil.

But I did not fully recognise how reliant we are on the delivery drivers, the corner shops, the butchers, the bakers and the people who keep the lights on. Andy the fish man comes here on a Tuesday. He disappeared for three weeks because Fleetwood fish market closed for physical distancing adjustments. When he came back I nearly cried with happiness. In the deepest lockdown, the appearance of his van was one of the major events of the week. You can't outsource eating. We have to remember that. I can't even go there on the care worker front, I'm still too angry and sad. PAY ALL THESE PEOPLE PROPERLY. THIS IS THE REAL WORK. (Also: monkfish curry is the best).

Inequality begins at home. 
If we're going to have more pandemics, and I imagine we probably are, we need homes we can bear to stay at home in. I'm Generation X, and, broadly speaking, we got a fair deal on the housing front. I hadn't properly realised how precarious this situation is for millennials and Gen Z, and how badly and insecurely so many people are housed. Which is to say, I knew housing was fucked, but I didn't know how fucked. I learnt back in the dying days of Thatcherism that this is a problem the 'market' will never, ever solve. You want to house your citizens decently, you have to invest public money in it. May we finally learn this lesson. May we finally vote accordingly.

Son of a gun, holy cow. Turns out we need to look after ourselves. There were the sourdough waves, the crafting waves, the Zooming all evening after Zooming all day waves, the allotted hour of exercise waves, but all that passed and we were still here, looking at the walls, wondering how to climb them. And like many people, I fell back on familiar comforts.

A lot of this was around food, and I think this was also linked to where it came from. We do have food available here in Ecoville, and the team who source it bust a gut to keep it coming in, but it is very much at the wholefoods end of things, and I found that I did not want it, even more than I usually find that I do not want it. What I wanted was pie. Fish fingers. Spaghetti hoops. Cheese and pickle toasties. Tuna mayo jacket potatoes. Ham, egg and chips. Instant noodles. There wasn't a supermarket delivery slot for love nor money, and I did not want to go into town.

So I developed a whole new opportunistic way of shopping, which was a mixture of watching the Abel & Cole website like a hawk (and huge props to them for bringing us what they could bring us every single week), and buying stuff in the local villages. I can now tell you what the Halton shop at the top has (Philadelphia! Cream! Koka noodles! Limes! Chillies!) vs the Caton Co-op (Prawns! Organic wine! Refried beans! Parmesan! Parsley!) vs the Bolton le Sands Spar (Locally made pies! Barmcakes! Linguine! Salted pistachios!).

As is the way in this house, I do the sourcing and M does the cooking. So I have been appearing through the door with all kinds of things, and he has dutifully been creating glorious dinners from them. Special mention to the miso ramens topped with fish fingers (aka cheat's tempura), the tuna steaks with chips and creative salad (aka whatever we have to shred), the many and varied frittatas and omelettes (thanks to my well-connected neighbour S, we have been well supplied with local eggs throughout), the (British*) corned beef hash - now just referred to as CBH - and the absolute standby sausage and sardine pastas (these are two pastas, not one, we're not monsters). We have eaten like kings, if the kings had been teenagers in the 80s. We're a bit fatter, but I think everyone is at this point, so that's fine. Who's even looking.

Like a bird on a wire, like a drunk in an old midnight choir, I have tried, in my way, to be eco. I have taken this a lot further than many people, to the extent that I could probably give you a list, but I won't, because then I'd sound smug, or defensive, or both, and that's not where I want to go with this. Where I want to go with this is that we all have our limits, in the places where we have a choice, and a whole myriad of factors affect those limits, as well as those choices.

When it all went tits with the Covid, a lot of those limits and those choices became really exposed, and I had a kind of dual experience of it. On the one hand there was the mainstream realisation that we are interdependent beings. Supply chains fail if even one of their links doesn't work. I had a higher than average awareness of this, partly because I'm quite old and I remember the days before you could think oh, I'd like x, and within minutes x appears in your life, as if by magic. And partly because I've spent a bit of time at the other end of those supply chains, on farms in developing countries, with small producers, with the people who don't get prioritised for anything, basically. We mostly don't know we're born, the water comes out of the taps, the lights stay on, and the shops have stuff in them. The difference between that happening and not happening is extremely finely balanced. The more of us who understand this, and make our choices accordingly, the better, and I have noticed the increasing awareness of this. Might we come out of this... better? (I'm not hugely hopeful, but there have been moments). The deep satisfaction that can come from scoring macaroni in a time of scarcity... I think, for a time there, we all appreciated that we should not take this for granted.

On the other, there was the choices that are supported here in Ecoville. I don't think we've had a good war. It's admittedly pretty challenging when you've deliberately designed a set up that relies on sharing facilities (washing machines, cars, bins, play spaces, stores, communal areas) and suddenly all of them are danger zones. There's been a lot of helping each other out, as you might expect. But as a collective, as a whole, we have not, in many instances, opened our minds to new possibilities, or extended each other generosity. In fact, we managed to weaponise the word 'generosity' a while back, which would be impressive if it weren't so depressing. 

I have instead sensed something of a hardening. The lines that have hardened are not a great surprise, maybe - I'm going to avoid the gory details, but we've had the Tinned Fish Wars, the Don't Tell Us What To Do Wars, and the Trampoline Wars. I mean, we're all a bit broken. Who can say they're at their best in "these times"? And I do, honestly, try and access my empathy (as I imagine others do too, at least those who've done even the tiniest bit of therapy) but then I boing up against its limits and ping off in the other direction. I guess you could say this is a counterpose, if the pandemic were a yoga class, which it in no way is, but we can try. 

The first sign was the washing up. I hate washing up, and we do have a dishwasher, but three meals a day at home, every day, there's stuff that needs dealing with. We ran out of washing up liquid. What's supposed to happen is you take your bottle down the street and refill it from a giant vat of Ecover. This can take a while, it's pretty viscous, but I have been dutifully doing it. And I thought no. Fuck this. I want proper washing up liquid. And I went out and bought a bottle of Fairy Eucalyptus Anti-Bacterial. Oh, the joy those bubbles brought me. I blew the little ones round the kitchen, and made giant ones with my hands. I poured it into running hot water like a cocktail waiter with a bottle of Galliano. 

I was a bit unstoppable after that. Dettol wipes. Tesco Click and Collect, feat. hash browns. Air freighted roses from Sainsbury's (see above. Fairtrade, of course, I'm not a monster). Giant bars of Cadbury's Dairy Milk. Even (and I do feel bad about this, just not bad enough) a strimmer, a whole strimmer, just for my allotment, because the communal strimmer battery went missing and I could. not. be. arsed. waiting for it to be found. So I bought a strimmer. Off Amazon.

I know these decisions are taking me in the wrong direction. We need to be doing less of this, and I have been doing more. I'm still trying to fathom why, as I'm fairly sure it's a slippery slope between this kind of thing and refusing to wear a mask because yada yada freedom. (I am not refusing to wear a mask, of course. I'm not a monster). I suspect it might be actually quite linked to the regression thing. I try and make principled choices, but actually I don't always find that easy. You have to work at it, all of the time. And when you take a kicking for not being principled *enough* (I'm not expecting medals, just not "feedback"), and then there's a *pandemic*, I think what happens is a little switch flips. I have, these last few months, rediscovered the deeeeep pleasure of driving fast, on my own, windows open, loud music playing. I thought those days were long behind me. Turns out not. Quite tempted to make a roll up at the traffic lights singing along to I Am The Resurrection, go full 90s.

If you're not angry, you're not paying attention. I started a 21 day Deepak Chopra abundance meditation thing that one of my lovely Australian half-aunts was hosting, because I thought it might do me some good. But I dropped out from fury on day... 4? Not now, Deepak, I thought. People are dying fully preventable deaths. I could say more about the anger (I could always say more about the anger) but actually, I read this on the LRB blog a long three months ago now and I can't top it. It's really very good.

And now what? 
I work with futurists, and the futurists are busy as hell. This has been like a fracture in time, a deep but sharp shifting of the tectonic plates. We have none of us any certainty about what comes next, and if we do, we're deluding ourselves. So much possibility has been revealed, as has so much vulnerability. Many of us have had the opportunity to think deeply about what really matters, and some of us have taken it. The bare brick of the structural inequalities in our world has been exposed in a way that I have never experienced before - at least, not in the country I live in. 
We could adapt -- we've had a sense of how fast things can change when the political will is there. But I am not sure that we will. We present as a democracy, and heaven knows it could be worse, but our electoral system is so unfit for its 21st century purpose that we have somehow ended up being led by amoral narcissists advised by monsters, and we might quite possibly be fucked. I watch the signals that my colleagues produce that indicate which trajectory we may be on... zero sum game competition for limited resources? trading privacy for access to goods and services? a radically different, regenerative future? something else? Who will decide? 

It's been an interesting time for those of us who straddle various divides, or, to use the new parlance, inhabit several bubbles. Not sure I'd wish these times on anyone, but they aren't boring. There is possibility, for those who are able (and allowed) to lift their heads up high enough to see it. There is a lot of bleakness for those who aren't or can't. I don't know where to put myself really. But imma stashing some tins of sardines, just in case.


*This isn't a Brexity thing, it's a rainforest thing

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Friday, June 12, 2020

The less I seek my source for some definitive

A little journey story. Because I want to say it out loud. YM, as ever, MV.

When, some years ago, I first started seeing the blunt statement "trans women are women", I baulked at it a bit. I felt it was being thrown at me across the room, no returns, closing down issues and concerns. Pick your side and fight the other, or shut up. As Josie Long said yesterday, I deeply hate this entire discourse. I also felt I had a horse in the race, as it were (and horse racing can kill horses), as second wave feminism shaped my world, my thinking, my identity. It's part of me. A lot of  the older women I grew up reading and was influenced by, the radical feminists who now identify as 'gender critical' (aka TERFs, but that is often used as a slur), don't believe this. I took this seriously. Same with a lot of women my age and a bit younger, mostly (but not all, it's never all), who are now powerful presences in the media, politics, elsewhere. Some of them are my friends, and I always take my friends seriously.

But I could also see that many people younger than me have absolutely no problem accepting this statement, like, of course? Nbd? Why are we even talking about this? And I thought about the slow, gradual unpicking of centuries of misogyny by generations of feminists that gave me the ability to take up space in the world, and the work that still needs to be done there, and the slow, gradual work (with occasional explosions) done by generations of activists fighting other kinds of prejudice, oppression and discrimination. And the relative ease with which younger generations can take some of that for granted, the battles that are (for now, in some places) over, look around and say 'what do we need to do next?' (You can be legit asexual these days, guys! I wish someone had told me that when I was 15. I could have skipped a whole load of UTIs, for starters.) Some of these younger people are now also my friends, and I always take my friends seriously.

So I have done a lot of reading and a lot of thinking, and a lot of talking to people who I feel safe talking to about this kind of thing (which is quite a few, I have some excellent friends, these are the ones I take extra seriously), and I have essentially come to the conclusion that you can absolutely be a feminist (even, maybe especially, with radfem tendencies) and a trans ally at the same time. Put at its simplest, I don't want or need anyone to tell me what being a woman means, so I have no interest in or need to tell anyone else. And we can take the rest from there. You can quote me on that.

That only really fully crystallised with me this week, when I read That Blog Post. Lots of shit things have happened since, not least to the author, and believing she is a) wrong and b) should not have used her platform in this way does not make them any less shit. I deeply hate this entire discourse.

But as Eddie Redmayne responded nice and clearly (and for the record I'm just fine with posh white men saying what needs to be said): trans women are women. Trans men are men. Non-binary identities are valid. I was just going to post that, but I thought some of you might appreciate some of the context in which I am saying it.

I have no interest in, and no energy for, going over the same ground again and again with people who are not for examining their own views, privilege and prejudices, or those who do not even acknowledge that they have those things. You know, at some level, who you are. Don't @ me. But if you're on this journey too, stay with it. It's worth it.

This song has been my friend since I first heard it over 30 years ago. It still does the job. SOUND UP, as the kids say.


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Sunday, December 29, 2019

Breaking the McDonald's seal

Christmas 2003, we went to India for a month. It was one of the best resettings I've ever had, and not just because it was a long one. We did a small group tour with Intrepid Travel, which was organised in partnership with Oxfam Australia, and we visited a bunch of NGO and community projects, including spending a full five days in rural Orissa with Gram Vikas, whose work tilted my world on its axis a little.

Intrepid are an Australian company, and our group included quite a few solo Australians, including three women who bonded with each other pretty quickly and were excellent life and soul value. I generally love the Australian women I have met on my travels. They are hilarious while remaining humane. They don't give a shit, while managing not to be dicks. They drink a lot of beer, and they taught me the phrase 'breaking the seal': it's the first time you go for a wee in a drinking session. Once that's happened, you'll be running to the loo all the time, like a proper girl. It resonated hard. My bladder control is on the excellent side, but only till it's not. Oh mate, they'd say, you're breaking the seal. They'd hold on waaaayyyy longer. But everyone's seal breaks in the end.

I have found it to be an adaptable concept. I didn't eat meat for 30 years, with hardly any breaches - and those were mainly politeness-based. Eventually I was someone who didn't eat meat because she didn't eat meat, even though my reasons for not eating any meat didn't fully hold anymore. I used to argue that the people who don't do something because they don't are important - you have to stand for something or you'll fall for anything etc. And I still think that's true - you need the unbenders in lots of situations, to keep you thinking and keep you honest. But I came up against some of the truly unbending, and my contrary self broke the seal.

And I'd like to tell you that every bit of meat I have eaten since has been pasture-fed and out-door reared and organic and free range, but while a lot of it has, you know and I know that would be a big fat lie. I have had an American Hot. I have had a Steak Bake. I have had a gala pie. But till t'other week, I had gone the entirety of the 21st century without a Big Mac.

Till December 2019, I had, in fact, only once been to a McDonald's in the 2000s. It was at 6.30am in January 2002 in Huehuetenango, Guatemala. I was there on a work trip, it was freezing cold, it was literally the only open place in town, and the project officer accompanying us had no idea why two of us hovered on the threshold, wondering what the Spanish for 'we don't visit McDonald's on principle' was. We quite quickly got over ourselves and had a coffee and an Egg McMuffin, but it felt, even in the circs, unpleasantly transgressive. These guys, these guys are part of the problem, we felt.

But there's problems and problems. I mean, look at the Labour Party. And about a month ago, we seemed to be at it again here in Ecoville. It's a long story, and it's been going on a long time. I have written about it before*, but not for a while, not for years. Mainly this is because I know there are people who don't like me writing about it. Or, possibly, anyone writing about it. Which is a challenge, as it's such good material - so good that we actually got covered by a real magazine this year. Which is a good read, I think. But it might have stirred something. Something did, at any rate, as a little bomb went off.

The timing was unfortunate. To live successfully in a place like this you have to work out how to play the long game. You get knocked down, and you get up again, but it can take a while. It's always been important to me to be making a contribution, and I've always found a way to do that. There are low-exposure and high-exposure jobs (which broadly, but not perfectly, equate to low stress and high stress) and there are jobs that anyone can do, and jobs that only some people can do. A few years ago, while I was still very much licking my Food Wars wounds, I found myself a low-exposure job that needed specific skills (treasurer of the co-op that buys stuff for our on-site food and household goods store). This role is actually Quite Hard, but also Mostly Appreciated, and can, if necessary, be done anywhere there's an internet connection. It was a good fit, but I was getting a bit tired of it: sometimes it involves chasing people for money, and I hate that part; there are some bits that are wildly inefficient, by design; and also I just felt it was all a bit staid. A bit wholemeal. I wanted to be a bit more creative with what we bought and where we bought it from. But no one else was interested, not really. You have to pay attention to that, in the long game. Pick your battles, Jo.

So I was thinking well, things feel quite stable at the moment, we're doing ok. M is currently well, my job is going great, my dad's not been in an ambulance for a bit. Maybe I should be offering a bit more. We are, as one of my neighbours beautifully put it, all crew.

We elect company directors every year - lots of people have done the job (it's a two year term) but it's very much at the high exposure end of things. There are never quite enough people willing to stand - certainly not in recent years. I think we could have up to 12, and there are currently five. So if you decide it's a thing you can do, you're pretty much guaranteed to get the job. So. Hey, I'm a company director! Go me. So is M. Go us. We thought about it a lot, and figured it was our turn to take some of that stuff for the team. He's done it before, I haven't, but when he did, it was all in the house anyway, whatever he was dealing with, so I figured it was worth doing it together. Deep breaths, I thought. We're growing up and growing past and growing on.


(Actually, maybe it was that that was the trigger? It's fine to do the books but not to make decisions about [checks agenda] firewood and trampolines? I don't know).

Also - and this has happened several times - like a lot of people, we're supposed to do a lot more communal meal cooking than we actually do, and it's a point of some contention in our house. I know I should try harder, but how we eat together, or don't, is at the absolute heart of a lot of my own sadness, anger and frustration about living here. It's the main thing I am trying to grow past, so I can focus on the joyful, creative, productive parts. But it takes me actual months to build up the energy and the enthusiasm. And then... just when I do, (and I try, I really do - this time I'd sourced a special ingredient from a kosher deli, ffs), BLAM! Someone says something, someone does something, and I think oh fuck it, I am not giving this a day of my life, and we invite people we like around for sausage pasta** instead.

Instead (and I do get the inherent tension here, so don't even think about explaining it to me, I'm not in the mood, I'll never be in the mood even when I'm in my best mood) there was a proposal for a Saturday morning conversation whose framing included the question "Do you think that a public blog is a useful way to initiate discussion and facilitate change in a community?" No. Of course it's not a useful way to initiate discussion and facilitate change in a community. But hey fellas, neither is a lot of the other stuff that's happened around here, a lot of it more in your face and screamy than that, and some of it pretty gangy-uppy, at least in my experience. Specifically, men claiming exclusive knowledge of the concept of inclusivity really. pushes. my. buttons.

And I have buttons. Your correspondent tried to do all the things she was supposed to do. She joined the teams. She turned up for the discussions. She explained why she was unhappy with the things she was unhappy with. She engaged with every single process at every single point. The above things happened anyway (most of them before she wrote a single blog post about them).

And this time she tried again. She lost a lot of sleep in the build up to the conversation, and did not practise her best self care. She may have drunk too much wine, stridden around the house ranting about 'this fucking place', done some sobbing and wailing and gnashing of teeth and rending of garments, but she got some wise counsel, she calmed the fuck down and she showed the fuck up.

As did around 20 other people, which is pretty impressive for a Saturday in December. She proposed a reframing of the questions, because she thought they were the wrong ones. We need to be talking about how to deal with conflict before it becomes a cold stale deposit in our arteries, congestion in our lungs. We've unpacked the shit out of this, years after the events, and it hasn't really helped, so why dwell?

And we took that forward, the kind, thoughtful people who'd shown up wanting to move this on, and we had four separate conversations about different aspects of the challenges ahead, and it was hopeful and energising and actually, maybe, worth the angst. (Jury's out on that one, I was planning a calm December and did not get one, but whatevs.)

Two hours we were there, and then four of us went to McDonald's. I had a Big Mac Meal with a full fat Coke, and I enjoyed every inch of it. The following week, I went to London for work, and thanked my colleagues for helping me learn more about systems and how they work, and how important it is to ask the right question, diagnose the problem whose addressing will have actual impact.

The last night I was there, I left the pub four pints deep and made my way back to the YHA. I got off the bus outside the Oxford St McDonald's. Yes! I thought, and I ordered a Filet-O-Fish from a machine. It arrived, about 45 seconds later, and I ate it, surrounded by girls from many nations and women of all classes. It tasted like very heaven.

Another seal done gone.


* Links available on request
** One of our very favourite comfort dinners. It's by Jamie Oliver, and the recipe is here. It's not vegan, vegetarian, kosher or gluten free and it has wine in it for extra points.

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Saturday, August 10, 2019

My imaginary friends

My baby's got the bends
We don't have any real friends

Every time I scream this (it can be quiet, but it's always a scream), I wonder if Thom Yorke was thinking well, but there's always the imaginary ones. You know where you are with them.

My first two lived about my person when I was a child: in the creases in my belly, to be exact. I mostly talked to them in the bath. They were Maledores (F8) and Jongomes (M7). They lived in pyjamas (sensible). We would just chat, we didn't argue. They were good company. They understood me, basically, and, like many slightly geeky kids, I felt that nobody else really did. I think they probably disappeared around the time we got a shower and I didn't have so many baths. But I have a bath pretty much every day now and although my creases are in different places these days, I remember them fondly.

My adult imaginary friends are very different beasts. There are currently three of them. The two that have been around longest kind of sit on my shoulders, like angels (or devils), whispering things in my ear. I take their advice seriously, but I don't always follow it. They don't talk to each other. In fact, I don't think they've ever met, and they would for sure get right on each other's nerves if they did.

Ginny has been around the longest. Her full name is Ginny St Clements, like something you might drink on a punt. She's been there in some form ever since I moved to Oxford... maybe even earlier, since Cambridge, when I first encountered the kind of people whose parents held garden parties in the summer, because that's the kind of gardens they had, what else are you going to do with them?

She's gorgeous, is Ginny. She has long curly auburn hair and golden skin. She has lots of freckles and in late summer they kind of join up across the bridge of her nose. She can play tennis well enough to make up a mixed doubles if you need her to, and her French is sufficiently fluent to deal with platform changes and dietary requirements. Not her own though, she eats everything, there's not a single thing she doesn't like, though if pushed she's a bit squeamish about lobster, because she's read David Foster Wallace. She's a handy kind of woman to have around generally: good with kids, can handle the business end of a barbecue, always has a spare tampon. I want to hate Ginny, because she's so damn nice and because she would run a 10k just to keep you (not me, obvs) company, but I can't.

You see, Ginny is the person we could all be, if life didn't regularly cut us off at the knees. She's optimistic, she's at ease, she's pretty much always her best self. I dream of a world where we all get to be our version of Ginny. She's not perfect, that would be weird. She can be pretty moody sometimes, and she had a verruca once and didn't wear a swim sock. But she has every chance of fulfilling her potential without fucking anyone else over in the process, and I love her for that. As Randy Crawford once said about Almaz*, she was born in a world where love survives.

But woman cannot survive on the counsel of Ginny alone, so there's also Tits. Tits McGovern. Before you ask, Tits has no time for your bullshit. She doesn't often even have time for mine. Tits is Scottish, fairly obviously, but looks a lot like 00s Jeanette Winterson. She's short, dark, fierce and butch, and she has been wearing the same biker's jacket since, I'm guessing, the late 80s, though I didn't meet her till well into the 21st century. Life has not been kind to Tits, but she's made from tough stuff and she has read a lot of political theory. She eats structural inequality for breakfast, with a side of black pudding, and your balls for afters. You take her seriously, or... well there isn't really an or. I do really like Tits, but she's hard work. You have to explain yourself A Lot, but that can be a real help when you're not sure why you're doing something, or whether you should be. If Tits is ok with it, it's ok, is my basic strategy. Her bar is very high, and she has the humanitarian rigour I sometimes lack. She's the reason I have stopped buying Italian wine, for example. Tits doesn't drink wine, though. Her poison is single malt. You possibly already knew that**.

And then there's Alice. Alice is the new girl in all of this. There we were, me and Ginny and Tits, getting by, and then something happened that threw both of them. I've written about this already and won't repeat the long version, but there I was, sleepless in Yangon, and something had to happen.

M and I have a jetlag / insomnia strategy that isn't remotely original but works pretty well when there are two of you, which is that you choose a category (eg model of car, country of the world, type of fruit or vegetable) and then try and think of an example beginning with each letter of the alphabet - Astra, Beetle, Capri... Albania, Belgium, Canada... Apple, Beetroot, Carrot etc. It's less effective on your own, but I was desperate, I'd had a full sleepless night and was well on my way to a second. So I popped a Valium, and I worked my way through a few categories, sticking as usual on the N and the X (N is a common letter but not one a lot of words begin with, though I could just have an N block). Then I thought, oh, let's try girls' names. A? Alice.

And suddenly, there was Alice. She looks like she could have been drawn by Tove Jansson, she is as ageless as a Moomin. She has a black bob with a perfectly straight fringe, and wears a pinafore dress with a stripy top. She looked at me, and she said 'sleep, please', and pushed everything else straight out of my head. I slept. I thought her manifestation was a one-off, but interestingly she has joined the gang. She only turns up when I really need to sleep, but while she may have needed a benzodiazepine to emerge, she can come back quite happily by herself. And what she does, she does well. Ginny and Tits give her space. There is a lot of mutual respect in this sisterhood.


*Not recommending this as a life manual or anything, I should absolutely emphasise. 
** Before I published this, M asked what Tits's song was. It's this

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Sunday, May 12, 2019

The art of floating

This tree's story is near the end (sorry)
I'm aware that I've left a pretty devastating post up here for several months now - and you might, if you don't know me IRL or on Facebook, not have had an update since then. So here's one. Short version = I'm still here, it's all a bit better (and some of it's a lot better), but nothing will ever be the same again.

If you want the longer version...

Stories generally have a beginning, a middle and an end, but lives - except in their extremities - aren't so clear cut. We have our milestones, we humans, but it's not always obvious at the time which of them are the start of something, the end of something, or even events of any significance at all.

My NGO X story took up nearly all of my 30s, and most of my 40s. I've been thinking a lot recently about its last chapter. It was about six years long, and in my head now, it started in one South East Asian swimming pool and ended in another.

The first was in Cambodia. At the time I had a manager who pushed me out into a space she thought I might be able to make sense of. My first attempt failed - there wasn't anyone to work with out there - but the second attempt, a year or so later, landed. I got invited to a global IT meeting in Phnom Penh, completely winged it (wung it?) and came out leading a piece of work to design something that wasn't remotely well defined but everyone knew we needed.

Now, I'm ok with that kind of thing, so although this was several levels more politically complex than anything I'd done before, I wasn't a bad choice - indeed, my ability to say 'well I have no idea what to do for this part of it, so better get some help' was a positive asset. But I had a bit of a wild ride on the way - the trip was literally three days after we'd moved north, so I was already spinning with strangeness. While I was there I saw someone get their skull caved in by a moped metres away from me (do not romanticise the lack of traffic regulation in developing countries, do not do that), and then came back to the hotel to the news that my friend W's terminal illness was approaching the terminal part. The last night of the meeting I drank far too much minibar whisky (arguably any amount of minibar whisky is too much) and spent an absolute fortune sobbing incoherently down the phone to M.

The next morning I went down to breakfast a sorry mess of puffy eyes and existential dread. Everyone who'd flown in had been staying in the same hotel, and most of them were off sightseeing in Phnom Penh or flying to Angkor Wat for the weekend. I mean, who travels economy for 24 hours for a three day meeting with vicious jet lag and doesn't take in the sights afterwards, especially in a country with a history like Cambodia's? Well, me, it turns out. I had barely managed to find my passport and update my jabs. Our house was so new it didn't have a postcode yet. I needed to get back to it.

So I was heading to the airport that afternoon, and I didn't even have the energy to visit the, you know, genocide museum. My bad. But I wasn't quite on my own - for a couple of hours that morning I sat with N, a colleague of mine who at the time I barely knew - I'd only met him three days earlier - and he asked me how I was, and I told him, and he listened, and it was the kindest thing anyone could have done. After a while I made my excuses and said I needed to be in the water: there was a swimming pool in the hotel's courtyard, and I went up to my room, got changed, did a little bit of swimming up and down, then just settled for floating on my back, like a starfish.

I remember learning to float like that - it's easy once you know how, but not everyone does. It's all in the breath, like so many things. And you need an empty pool, as you will drift, and they don't come along that often unless you're in the 1%. But once you've mastered it, when you have a place to do it it's profoundly relaxing. And, I suspect, highly beneficial, especially if you are emotionally dessicated.

I remember reading Elizabeth Wurtzel's Prozac Nation when it came out and being highly irritated by it generally, and especially the parts of it where she would say things like 'I was so depressed that year I have no idea how I managed to win the Rolling Stone college journalism prize'. You can't have been *that* depressed, love, I thought. But you know, I came back from that trip to Cambodia and within a month my mum was in hospital, and within a year she had died. We didn't have broadband for nearly four months, we didn't have an office for 13 months, so we were sharing a desk in our spare bedroom (sitting on opposite sides of it, each trying to use the same 3G mifi - remember mifi?), our house was full of boxes and our lives were upside down. Yet *somehow* I coordinated a team of five (in four countries on three continents, all working part time on this) and a consultant and we held three workshops in three countries and pulled a solid business case together. Which landed on the day of the Boston marathon bombing, and the project sponsor was in Boston. He did not like the business case, but he was also in lockdown. To be fair, I did not like the business case either, but for different reasons. We all learnt something that day.

But we still needed the thing. (The thing is what is now known rather imprecisely as a 'digital workplace' - I could talk about that for days but what the thing is doesn't really matter, it's how it happens, or doesn't happen). And so we went back to the drawing board, we got some more external help - focusing *right in* on the politics of the situation, that was a laser-sharp piece of work - and we reworked it. And we got the go ahead, and we secured not enough budget but a lot more budget than no budget, which is what we had before, and we were off!

Around this time, it became perfectly clear, not least to me, that I was not the right person to lead the project anymore. I am not a technical project manager. I do not sprint. If you want someone to do a politically-savvy-yet-complexity-aware job of prioritising your wish list, I am that woman, but just a few steps down the line of breaking that down into work units, my eyes glaze. And hell, there are people who are *great* at this. That same sponsor (and I remain super-fond of him) yelled at me "are you trying to tell me you've never delivered a global IT project?" and I yelled back "Yes!" He said "Wrong answer!"

Long story short - and man, this is a looooong story, but don't worry I won't be telling all of it - he recruited N to do that job. N was by now a friend of mine - one of the many people who'd supported me through my mum's illness and death, and one of the few who had been there himself. I knew N much better by this point, and I was beyond delighted that he was going to be taking this madly political, essential-yet-vulnerable piece of work forwards. 

In the four years that followed, N would often describe me as the project's "vision holder" - a title I loved to think I might embody, and in return I would say that he kept the project on the rails *and* kept everyone in the tent through some insane in the membrane level organisational weirdness. One of the best pieces of advice I ever got was that if you try to run ahead of your organisation's evolution, or to cut across its grain, you will fail. And I agree... though I'd add that even if you don't, then you might still fail, but in a different way. We had some long dark teatimes of the soul. One of the longest and darkest lasted about three months, when a meeting of some Powers That Be decided it wasn't a priority and should be stopped, even though that wasn't the question they were asked, and everything went a bit crazy for a while. Because, man, we still needed the thing. So we carried on, even though we'd sort of been told not to, only we could sort of pretend we hadn't because the minutes of that meeting were never shared. It was that kind of a time.

I absolutely love most of the people who were on that team, and they remain people I would climb mountains for (and I *hate* climbing mountains). And gradually but inexorably, because we simply refused to entertain the idea that it wasn't going to, the thing took shape. It's not the sort of project you can ever call finished, and the place we got to was different in many ways from the one we'd originally imagined, but essentially, we did what we set out to, and now there is a whole excellent team who are helping it grow and making it better and enabling and supporting whole new endeavours and possibilities. I am really so proud to have been a part of it. It is a testament to the power of diverse teams.

But the reason I slogged away for so long with the political heavy lifting was not simply because I wanted the thing. It was because without the thing, I couldn't do what I *really* wanted to do, which was to Solve Knowledge Problems. That, ultimately, is my game. And the technology, in a big global organisation, is necessary but not sufficient. And what we finally had, a couple of years ago, was the potential. We talked about it at conferences, I shared it with the NGO network I was a part of. This is great! people who know how hard it can be to do this stuff on a non-corporate budget said. Well done you.

I mean, not everyone saw it that way. One of the criticisms that is often (and fairly) levelled at me is that I am not very good at showing my workings. Partly because I don't always understand them myself, but mainly because I think writing long documents that no one will ever read is a colossal waste of time and energy. I once spent a month on a piece of work and produced a three page executive summary and slides that everyone *loved*, with a note at the end saying 'full report available on request'. There was no full report, but it didn't matter, because No one. Ever. Asked. But I know why I wrote what I wrote, or designed what I did, mostly, and there are always reasons. I'm not random. But you might not know that, to meet me, and especially not if you don't get how hard it is to do this kind of thing well. It isn't rocket science, but at least if you're a rocket scientist people recognise your expertise. If you're a knowledge manager, not so much.

Which is the deal - a lot of knowledge management / digital workplace people will recognise the 'can't we just' mentality. Um, no? And we could tell you why, but we'd all get bored. Maybe we should put you through it a bit more often than we do, but you know what, I'm boring myself now.

And then there are the people who *should* support you, because they work in the same field and for the same organisation, whose first instinct should be 'tell me how this all works then, so I can understand how we got here' but who don't. Oh, the power plays. Never, as Anne Robinson once said, underestimate the treachery of the workplace. We're not all out for each other's best interests, guys, even when we're trying to change the world. No. Some of your colleagues will break your (metaphorical) knees soon as look at you, if there's a sniff that you might be in their way.

We live, we learn, and there's always another chance to get your heart stamped on, and (bear in mind this is still the short version) that is what happened. I emerged from a bunker with hopes and dreams and a toolbox and the long view - and there was no home for any of it. That was a political failure on my part, for sure, but I thought I had enough currency in the bank to see me through.

And I was wrong. I managed another couple of years on the back of existing networks and relationships, and built some new little pockets of interest in what I had to offer, but it was no substitute for the kind of backing that I would have needed in order to have any significant effect on organisational impact (aka changing the world). It was table scraps, really, and while I am forever grateful to the people who held me close through those times, it maybe stopped me from seeing the inevitable hovering on the horizon.

When I say "the inevitable", I mean inevitable given the way that I played it. I could have been more ambitious. I could have been harder and faster. I could have been working full time these last ten years, and building my empire. My thinking is good. My political acuity is strong. My organisational awareness was excellent. But I had a terrible bullying experience in 2006-7, and it wasn't managed well, and something switched in my head. I still wanted to be working for a better world, but not any longer at the expense of my health.

So... Like so many women before me, though not for the most common reason, when I was approaching the peak of my powers, I "went part time". It was a great life decision, but (though it took a while to manifest) a bad career one.

I don't really know why I thought I could do it any differently, especially after I moved north in 2012 and became both part time and remote. Don't go getting any ideas, love, is what they should have told me. And maybe I only managed it for so long because I am actually *very good at what I do* and because I wanted to keep doing it. (I am saying this as someone whose self-esteem is remarkably good most of the time, I am blessed). And On That Basis, I sought out opportunities, and made cases to follow them up. Some of them were so obviously describing those Knowledge Problems that I had spent years getting ready to be able to solve that I literally jumped up and down in my eagerness to be given the opportunity to work on them. (While spending most of the rest of my time writing turgid, tedious - but still pretty short - papers about my 'offer' that no one ever read).

And, to start to bring this sorry tale to a close, there were two that really got traction - in one case because it was a complex programme in a conflict-affected country (South Sudan) which had a strong learning element, and in the other because there was £ available from a global 'knowledge fund' that was successfully applied for by a country team (Myanmar) with a relatively young programme including a new humanitarian response.

I never got to go to South Sudan - it was a hard programme to support remotely, but we also need to get better at this. I enjoyed the challenge, and the other constraints, and designing something that (potentially) made really good use of the shared platforms we'd spent so long pulling together. I still think that template could be a gold standard for an endeavour with that many stakeholders. I will be drawing on that thinking for a long time.

I *did* get to go to Myanmar, and that is where my story went south. I've covered this already, kinda. But in so many ways that could have been (and in some ways anyway was) SUCH A GREAT piece of work. It had so many good elements - country support, interest and capacity, high quality work, excellent team, specific technology challenges that could be addressed, good connectivity, high interest in learning... It could have been a model in so many ways. And, so far as I know, it succeeded and is still succeeding on its own terms, which I couldn't be happier about, but the longer, wider, broader pieces... I am not sure how you build that culture without someone in a role like mine.

And, as we all know, at the end of my first working day in Yangon I heard that my post was being cut. As I've said, I could have played a different game, but I didn't. I had some faith, and it was misplaced, and well, I'm not the first girl in the world to have that experience, right?

But I do think that it was an experience that has changed me forever - not least because of the way that it was done. Rainy season south east Asia is oppressive at the best of times. It's hot, it's 100% humid always, and about 12 hours a day it's absolutely pissing it down. Add full-strength jetlag and 11 days till you can get a hug from someone who loves you (or even knows you) and you have a little idea of how profoundly weird and lonely an experience my redundancy news was.

It came on the Monday. I did not sleep on the Monday night. I worked on the Tuesday, and Tuesday night I took some Valium and got about four hours (and met my new imaginary friend Alice, more from her next time!). Wednesday I worked, and also got about four hours, because I had to leave the hotel at 5 am to fly to Sittwe. Thursday night, I howled down the phone to a colleague in the UK, then went out with Myanmar colleagues to a restaurant on the coast. It was an almost perfect NGO X experience: principled, interesting, skilled, committed people from all round the world having some beers and eating some food together and having Real Talk. I loved it, but I knew it was probably the last time I'd get to do it, and part of me was hovering above the table, observing, and mourning.

On Friday afternoon, we flew back to Yangon, and I returned to Hotel M, where I checked back into room 207, with its dark wood floors, cool marble bathroom and window shutters. You could hear the rain over the air con, and the air con was pretty loud. Me again, I said. I am hoping I might sleep in you this time.

That night was the first time I'd got a full night's sleep in over a week. I slept through hotel breakfast time (though I drank some instant coffee and ate some leftover pizza that I'd stashed in the minibar fridge because that's the kind of girl I am) and I decided that, although I really just wanted to lie in bed and cry, that I should get out there and do something. Around noon, it stopped raining. I have never really been a very good solo tourist but I gathered my defences and got a taxi to the Shwedagon Pagoda.

Which was a *good* decision. I scorched the bottom of my feet because you have to take your shoes off and when it's not raining, it's very very hot, but I accepted an offer from a private guide, who was tiny and lovely and spoke just about the right level of English to tell me things but not ask me anything, and she showed me the Tuesday corner (I was born on a Tuesday, so she had me do some kind of ritual there, and the Tuesday corner's animal is a lion, which pleased me) and also the palm tree - see above - which has survived everything life can throw at it. All my photos are terrible, as it was so bright I couldn't see what I was doing, and I returned to the hotel a full sweaty mess, but I was proud of myself. And it still wasn't raining, so I decided to go for a swim.

Oh, that pool. I was the only person in it, and I swam diagonally back and forth across it for a while, crying gently, and wondering when I'd been in a pool before with water that tasted like that (it was the pool in Cambodia, but it took me a while to remember). And then I lay on my back, and I floated. When I started to wrinkle, I climbed out and lay on a sun lounger - by some miracle the sun had gone in so I did not immediately burn to a crisp but it wasn't yet raining again. And I slept out there, warm and sad but bolstered by towels (I love towels), till big fat raindrops drove me back in about an hour later.

That was one of the best naps of my life. After it, I thought, well, this is all still terrible and I have no idea what to feel, but I am no longer sleep deprived, so I can see that, eventually, I. Will. Be. OK.

I didn't know how long it would take, or that I would still be so angry about it nearly a year later, but here we are. I have come through it, and I have a new job that I am enjoying hugely, and new colleagues who are just as principled, interesting, skilled and committed - pursuing different ends but ones with which I am no less aligned. In fact, more so, maybe. It's really great and I feel both lucky to have landed it and inspired to be there. I got my heart broken on the way - properly, properly broken, but you know what, you live, and you learn to float.

I needed to write this and I am grateful to anyone who has found the energy to read it till the end! And I think that's me done with NGO X, I don't have to dwell on it anymore. She labels it, she lets it go.


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Tuesday, January 08, 2019

Well then, 2018. I mean, what the actual?

Shadow and light on Marine Drive, Morecambe: 8 Jan 2019

I don't think I knew what a bad year was till 1998. That was my first one. I had my fair share of adolescent misery but it was all standard issue (even the Thatcherism was standard issue, as I was unaware that there were alternatives, like a war baby only with more vitamin C, and, temporarily, milk) and I knew it was transient. 1998 was different - everything changed: I split up with my Significant Ex, spent some time living off Spar lager and Bombay Mix, chopped a lot of wood while listening to Ani DiFranco mix tapes, and got a tattoo. It doesn't sound so traumatic, really, does it? And with hindsight, yeah, fair point. But I genuinely did not know why this was all happening to me, at least till I got some therapy, and for a while I was very freaked out that I was not the person I had long thought myself to be.

That new person had to get another job, for reasons, and in early 1999, she did. It wasn't the right job, so she got another one - at NGO X - in early 2000, at which point she felt fairly sure that she had finally found her tribe. This, she thought. This is where I live now.

And you know, ups and downs, squalls and storms, a bit of existential bleakness, but the next 12 years, pretty good on the whole. Most of them are obliquely documented on this here website but tl;dr = when there was adversity, it was generally overcome, and along the way, at the risk of sounding like something someone would put on a cushion, there was a lot of love and laughter.

Then we made the Great Leap Northwards, and *that* year was a whole new deal. New house, new way of living, new dying mum. Same boyfriend, same job, but everything else was swirling strangeness, and much of it not of the good kind. It was another 'shit, who am I?' year, and I did not enjoy much of it very much at all.

When my mum died, I was so sad I didn't know what to do with myself. I also thought I was probably dying myself, of non-specific everything disease (kind of what did for her, to be honest), and I went to the doctor's.

I got the kind of GP that is nearly retired, the kind that wears a cardigan, and has seen a lot of people who think they're dying because their mum just died. He was so lovely to me. He said, well, we'll do some blood tests just in case but I think probably you just need to give this time, and he printed off an A4 page with a list of sensible things to remember to do (eat vegetables, sleep, go for a walk etc). I still have that piece of paper in my bag, and every now and again I pull it out to remind myself of the basics.

Grief does what it does, but it does eventually ease (though it will come back for another go every now and again). The year after, I reached the top of the allotment waiting list, and each season, as we clear a little more and grow a little more, I sit on one of the chairs up there (which belonged to M's late mum) and feel I am coming back to myself, albeit a self that will never quite be the same.

And we live here now, we know how it works. There are aspects of life in Ecoville that I will never love, and we have conflicts that may never get resolved, but no one's accused me of anti-vegan hate crime for a while (indeed the man who did has taken his business elsewhere, much to my relief). And so many things about living here are amazing, and so many of the people are too, and we are all, I think, gradually coming through the forming and storming. Who knew it would take so long? (Oh, everyone who's ever done it, duh).

So I wasn't expecting to step into an avalanche last year, but I did. And just like Leonard says, it covered up my soul.

I guess it started in February, when NGO X had a major crisis. It wasn't something I was directly involved in, but it had a profound effect on me and many of the people I love. It shone light into some dark corners, catalysed some long-overdue conversations and actions, and generally prompted the kind of soul-searching that is hard enough to do in private, and extraordinarily difficult to do in full media (and social media) glare. My faith in humanity did not grow in those months. What grew instead was anger at the horrendous pressure the situation put on the people trying to deal with it - most of them conscientious, thoughtful, compassionate, talented humans who were stretched, some of them, to breaking point. A surprising number of them are still standing, still doing their jobs, and I honestly do not know how. I spent a couple of weeks in March doing some direct support (not even on anything sensitive), and I encountered a lot of thousand yard stares.

The fallout also, obviously, had an impact on funding, and before too long it was clear that if there was reduced project funding, there would need to be a commensurate reduction in the functions supporting them. There was a Change Process. I've been through many of these (including one where they literally forgot about me till afterwards, which was interesting) and they are usually fairly predictable affairs, even those which are financially, rather than strategically, driven. This one was different, in that it was executed largely behind closed doors, with much of the work being done by the very same people who were already halfway on their knees. Most of the rest of us mooned around, feeling a bit useless and a bit anxious, and wondering if it was worth starting anything new.

Not me, so much. I had two chunky pieces of work to do, both of which were providing direct support to programme teams, and one of which involved a programme visit. I hardly ever get to do this kind of thing, and I was really looking forward to it. There's only really me doing the kind of thing that I do, and I have to say no to most of the requests that come my way, so I wasn't feeling too worried. I thought my post might move, I thought it might change, and I could see the logic in both of those things, but I didn't think it would be cut. Specifically, the change proposal was due to be shared with staff on a Tuesday, with those whose jobs were significantly affected to be told on the Monday. The Saturday before that, I flew to Yangon to kick off one of those pieces of work. They surely wouldn't let me fly all that way, I thought, to let me start something they weren't going to let me finish, and to tell me that when I would be on my own for 12 days in a city where I knew nobody. In the rainy season. No, they'd tell me before I left. I even had a meeting in my calendar with my manager for the previous Thursday, and it got cancelled. Nothing to see here. Let's go do stuff.

Yeah. No. I worked a full jet-lagged day in an office where you leave your shoes outside and everyone is *incredibly* polite, got thoroughly drenched on my way back to the hotel because I had no idea how hard it could rain in June and my umbrella was not up to the job, then spent half an hour getting Skype working so I could learn that I wasn't going to have a job anymore. The edict that everyone should be told on the same day was apparently in order that it should be "fair". Fair on whom, I am not sure. It was epically shit for me, and it was probably almost as shit for the person who had to tell me - she had to have that conversation, or a version of it, about 20 times in succession. Whoever wrote *that* slide did not know the difference between equality and equity, and, frankly, fucking well should have. I expected more. Something broke that day.

I have another little post to come about how that experience brought me a whole new imaginary friend, which was useful, because I was powerfully lonely the whole time I was there. People did get in touch with me - indeed I had beery, teary Skype chats most evenings - but there was no one who could actually touch me. I grew some kind of shell. When I got home I couldn't shake it off, and that was before the extra fun of having to answer the 'how was your trip?' question over and over again.

In theory I could have fought to keep my job, or some job, at NGO X. There was a consultation period, there were hypothetical options. But I was done. I knew I was done, although it took me a while before I could say it out loud. Eighteen years is a relationship. And I didn't see it coming, so I had no idea what to do next. It was all very bewildering. And then of course, in the middle of a season of weddings and funerals, M was diagnosed with bladder cancer.

I think September was the worst month. I was having apocalyptic dreams already, then (in real life) my dad ended up in hospital, one of my best friends lost her mum, and Ecoville decided it was finally time to stir up the mud at the bottom of the Great Food Wars pond. It would have been a pretty intense time even in a good year. I gradually realised that I couldn't have proper conversations, couldn't hold thoughts for any length of time, couldn't concentrate at work, couldn't read books, couldn't do anything very much apart from just about stop myself screaming. Everything was very loud and bright and I could not filter anything properly. Jo, I said to myself one lunchtime, as I was crying into my soup, I think you probably need some help.

And, well, I got some. I called up NGO X's 'employee assistance programme', and they sorted me out with some telephone counselling within a couple of days. I also went to the doctor's. And so it was that within the space of a week three people (the initial EAP screening person, the counsellor, and the GP) asked me if I was thinking about taking my own life. I wasn't (I really wasn't), but it was all a bit whoah, is this where this might be going? I will say that I've had 'who am I' times before, but this was my first 'why am I', and it was pretty scary.

However. The counselling sessions stopped me panicking. We took the big old snarled up ball of wool that was in my head and teased the threads out of it one by one. It was helpful. I wrote little notes in pencil in a little notebook. I was allotted six sessions, and after the first three, I spread them out further and further apart, and I could see that every time we spoke, things were more manageable than the last time. That was also helpful. And the GP, well, the GP was great. She did a little test of my anxiety levels (high! But we knew that!) and depression levels (medium) and we talked about what to do. I asked about medication, and she said well, do you think you need the extra help? Yes, I said. Yes, right now I do.

I had never taken any head meds before, and I started on a tiny dose of Citalopram. The leaflet says that it takes a few weeks to kick in, and I'd say that was true for the depression, but it hit my anxiety levels within a couple of days. Maybe I have particularly susceptible neurons, maybe it was a placebo effect, I don't know. And nor do I care. It was a profound relief. I have heard people describe SSRIs as giving them 'breathing space' and that's exactly what it felt like: breathing space, thinking space, sleeping space. Nothing goes away, but you can look at it from a slight distance, with a bit of perspective, from more than one angle. I feel insanely (or maybe sanely) grateful for that space. One of the things I have found most interesting is that I am still having the same textbook anxiety dreams that I have always had - cars with no brakes, losing my passport in a foreign country, accidentally killing people etc - but (still in my dream) *these things are not bothering me*. I just get on and deal with them. It's extraordinary. And it makes waking up a far nicer experience too.

So we get to early November, and I'm not freaking out, and this is very good news. I had a couple of weeks off work while I was dealing with the Citalopram side effects, and a couple more weeks of short days (aka getting to have afternoon naps). I'm eating, I'm sleeping, I'm exercising. But I'm still as flat as a pancake. People keep asking me when I'm leaving NGO X (I don't know - to some extent this is up to me, and I can't decide) and what I'm going to do next (I don't know - this is entirely up to me, and I can't think about it) and how M is (we don't know - and this is largely unknowable). I went back to the doctors for a review.

This GP was the absolute bollocks. I told him my sorry saga and he listened, and asked good questions, and was generally both super-empathetic and super-confidence-inspiring. I'm still feeling pretty depressed, I said. Maybe I should take a slightly higher dose for a while, do you think that would be worth a try? Yes, he said, I think from what you've said it would really just give you that lift. So I left with a new prescription. That was on a Monday.

I work on Tuesdays, and I went into the office and thought, right, time to tidy up my desktop. I was closing Chrome tabs and I saw a job advert that someone had sent me a couple of weeks earlier, saying 'you should look at this, it's a very cool job and I think it would be a really good fit for you' ... and I'd immediately discounted it (though not closed the tab, interestingly) as it was a) full time, b) London-based and c) would have required me to feel that I was someone you might want to work with. I looked at the closing date. It was midnight on that day.

And it *was* a cool job, and it *did* feel like a good fit, and maybe I *was* starting to feel like I might be someone you might want to work with, one day, maybe. So I banged out an application letter in three hours flat, got M to read it, and sent it off before I could tell myself it was a terrible idea.

Two days later, they invited me to London for an interview the following week, and I went. I was still feeling a little like Suzanne Vega's Neighborhood Girl - looking out at people from the back of my mind - but I prepared hard (thanks to an interview preparation course that NGO X offers people who are getting made redundant - I had to do it in a flat rush but it was really helpful) and met up with my friend E for coffee beforehand, which made me feel more like a real human. And it was a friendly interview, there was nothing to be scared of. And I found I had things to say. By the time I left a little hopeful part of me had woken up, but I was a bit worried about that, hope can be a scary thing.

When I got the invite for the second interview, I knew that I really wanted the job, and I knew that I had all of the things they were looking for, but I still wasn't quite in the place where I thought that they might want to give it to me. The brutal thing about depression is you literally stop seeing the point of yourself. I hadn't gone quite far enough down the track that I couldn't see that this was a thing that was happening, rather than being completely sunk in it, but it was still a battle to try and imagine myself past it, rather than paint a 'well I used to be a person who brought energy and enthusiasm to things, those were the days, but I live in a hole now' kind of a picture. There's nothing original about this, I realise, but I have generally found enthusiasm pretty easy to access, and I felt its absence keenly. Also, I had a really shitty cold.

I went down to London the night before, and the lovely E met me again and we went for Thai food. I slept in a huge pile of duvets on her sofa bed, and in the morning she walked me to a little coffee shop by Harringay station, and then waited for the train to Old Street with me. It was pouring with rain, and the train was packed to the gills. I was the last person on, and could literally not move an inch for two stops. I fell out at the other end sweaty and snotty and a little bit tearful, and I thought, no, really, I should just go home now.

They have public toilets in Old Street, and I went into the Ladies, and sat in a cubicle for ten minutes, and gathered myself. I'd had a Lemsip before I left, and I squirted some Otrivine up my nose and held my head back till it cleared. I washed my face, put on some perfume (Jo Malone's Sea Salt and Wood Sage, which I call The Smell of a Simpler Time), had a drink of water, and thought right, get out there and do the thing.

I did the thing. I found my enthusiasm, and later that day, after I'd travelled home and was lying on the sofa listening to Radio 4 and drinking wine, my mobile rang and it was the recruiting manager offering me the job. I squealed with delight for the first time in a very long time, and I am squealing a little bit still. I haven't started yet (I do not technically finish with NGO X till the end of this month) but I am looking forward to it very much.

So there was a very good thing that happened at the end of a very bad year, and I am super-thankful for that. We had a low-key festive season, which we navigated successfully, we have entered Dry January, and I have accidentally joined a gym. There is more energy around, for sure, and there is more light.

And while I don't feel that I'm completely out of the woods - there is still uncertainty around M's prognosis (though he is feeling fine right now), and hey, no one could be unaffected by the geopolitical shitstorm that was 2018 - I have access to most of my usual resources, and I'm doing my best to deploy them effectively. They say that when the shit goes down, you find out who your friends are, and they are of course right. My friends have been amazing, some of them exceptionally so. Multiple little (and bigger) acts of love and generosity have made such a difference this year, especially at times when I have not been feeling very lovable. I've also been surprised by the power of the chance encounter - a few unplanned conversations have shifted whole chunks of my thinking. But they're not quite chance, are they. People must rate you a bit if they suggest things to you, you argue, and that can help you remember that you rate yourself.

I think we can largely thank millennials for changing the conversation about mental health - I don't know that I'd have sought help at the point where I did if that hadn't been a message that had been coming through loud and clear from some very articulate writers. It really doesn't seem to have the stigma that it once did, and that can only be a good thing. But I think I was also very lucky that I appear to have landed with something that worked pretty much straight off, first go, with nothing too bonkers in the side effects department. And I got to see fantastic doctors, and take some time off work, and spend many afternoons curled up in bed with my beloved and the Cat Who Doesn't Live Here, reading and snoozing and waiting for the clouds to lift. I wish we could all be so well cared for.

But me, I am, and I live to fight another year. And, I hope, to be there for other people like they were there for me.


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