Saturday, July 30, 2022

Pivoting to Asda (and beyond)

I'm starting this post at a bus stop in Summertown, Oxford. NGO X was HQ'd here many years ago, and when I started working there, fulfilling two ambitions simultaneously (1. working for NGO X and 2. getting a job that had been advertised in print in the Guardian), my world tilted on its axis a little. 

It was after the genocide in Rwanda but before the Asian tsunami. Before (just before) 9/11. Phones were still bricks, there were hardly any blogs. And I used to get my lunch almost every day from a Lebanese deli called LB's. Sometimes falafel. Sometimes a vegetarian lunch box. But my absolute favourite was a wrap with ijja ("little clouds"- a kind of fluffy omelette made with cauliflower and parsley), shredded cabbage and tahini sauce. I loved it so much. 

Today, for my lunch, I sat outside LB's and had a coffee and an ijja wrap. It tasted just as I remembered and I loved it just as much. As Chrissie Hynde once said, some things change, some stay the same. 


After I wrote that opener, in a notebook, in pencil, I bought four Punjabi samosas from a young woman at a stall (Summertown has a street market on Sundays these days) and got on the bus. I was heading to Kennington for an Easter gathering with M's offspring and their families. Before I got there, at the next bus stop in fact, I ate one of the samosas. After I got there, I ate one of the others. Man alive, I love samosas. *That* love affair started in Cambridge, at a bakery called Nadia's on Trinity St, where I bought my lunch most days. It was either a warm, fat vegetable samosa, or a poppy seed roll with houmous and salad, to which I would add most of a packet of prawn cocktail crisps. Both excellent nourishment for my deep thoughts about the human condition

I've been buying samosas for over 30 years now. Ijja wraps, over 20. I hope I will be buying them both for decades to come, given that I'm unlikely to develop the skills to make either. But it's literally only in the last couple of months that I've started noticing how much they cost. And these are not fancy food items. You're paying for some basic vegetarian ingredients, the fuel to cook them, someone's time, and a bit on top. But suddenly, it's "how much? for a samosa?". 

I am not claiming poverty, not remotely. I am still, for now, someone who puts tins *into* the food bank collection box (sardines, usually, obvs). We live on a part time income (mine) plus a very part time income supplemented by the state pension (M), which isn't a huge amount, but still more than a lot of people, and we have secure housing and an extremely energy efficient house (one of my neighbours recently said to me, in a reversal of the trope, something along the lines of "if you hate it so much here, why don't you go and live somewhere else?" to which I said well, I don't hate my *house*, and that's where I actually *live*). Until recently, there was a bit of money left in our joint account at the end of the average month, which I salted away to pay for holidays. I did a weekly Abel & Cole order, the occasional Ocado, Co-op top ups and still managed to support various charities as well as buy foodbank tins, keep up a respectable (if low-end) wine habit, and feed a voracious half-wild cat. I honestly thought I'd cracked it. 

So this -- the cost of living crisis, as we seem to be calling it -- is a proper shock to the system. A perfect storm. All of the things hitting at once, so hard and so fast that even those of us with multiple buffers are reeling. 

You could, at this juncture, point out that I live in an intentional community, and don't we explicitly share resources? Doesn't that save money as well as increase the sustainability of your lifestyle? Well, yeah, in theory, kinda, potentially, in a way. But only if you are willing (or even able) to accept certain constraints. "Cutting edge" was one of the phrases that attracted me to Ecoville over 11 years ago. Oooh, I like the sound of that, I thought, because I am always thinking. And lots of things *did* feel pretty 'out there' initially. The ideas were good, their implementations not quite there maybe, but we evolve, right? We continuously improve. We iterate. We adapt. 

But actually, my experience has been more that we stick with things that were close to cutting edge in 2011. And now we live in 2022. It's not the same world, but we largely act like it is. There are mutterings, there are conversations, there are tentative forays, but (in my view) we are stuck on two fronts. Firstly, all systems have inertia. It's harder to change things than to do the same thing, until there is a tipping point, and many of the Ecoville incumbents are pretty comfortable, and not for tipping.

Secondly, there are some things that are held sacred, inviolable, although we are not supposed to be a cult and indeed they are not written down anywhere. You might not even know about them till you innocently ask a question some time in year 3. These are qualities of the system that are somewhat mystical, which I do not understand and which no one has ever been able to explain to me. Despite being almost the first full time resident of this community based in the county of my birth, I remain a stranger in a strange land. 

What this means for me in practice is that I can't really do my food shopping in our little store, because a) a lot of it is not stuff I want to eat/use, b) I have been firmly informed that this will not be changing, and c) the combination of these things means I experience extreme dissonance, almost physically, when I think about it for too long. So, in short, I mostly don't. And mostly don't buy stuff there. (I make exceptions -- eg local eggs and salad leaves -- because with those things, the equation in my head works). 

I've had enough feedback to know how annoying this logic is for a lot of people. And of course, if I had no choice, I would be grateful for the convenient food supplies. But I resent having my options constrained in ways that do not make sense to me. 

By way of comparison, one of my colleagues, M, was furloughed during the first lockdown in early 2020, and spent his days volunteering for an organisation distributing government food parcels to households who had to shield because they contained people who were clinically extremely vulnerable, and in time, to households that just could not access or afford food. He did this for weeks -- sat in the back of a black cab with bags of food and delivered them to homes in one of the most deprived boroughs of London. Often, he was the only person they'd seen for days. There was one household he visited which had children in it, and it was the same little boy who opened the door. One day he looked in the bag and said 'can we have white bread next time?'. Thing is, the government knows best, and the government says only brown bread can go in emergency food parcels. Those of us who can go out, we get to choose our bread. 

So broadly, overwhelmingly, I shop elsewhere. And because of my fact-spongy sort of brain, I hold a lot of information which helps me decide where and how to do that. I'm nowhere near at Jack Monroe's level on this, but then my motivations are different. She's a national treasure, I'm just a stubborn foodie geek. 

Enter Asda, as Metallica didn't quite say. I'd only previously Asda'd with my late aunt, when I was little and went to stay with her. She had two boys who were even littler than me. I loved going to Asda with her to do the Big Shop. One of her boys would be in the trolley and the other wandering around getting lost and I would be holding the 1980s Sinclair calculator and adding everything up. It was basically sums, to me, and I loved sums. We didn't do a Big Shop in my family, because my mum went out shopping every day on her bike (occasionally I went out in her place if it was the school holidays and she'd been on a night shift), and my dad went out in the car with me on Saturdays. I know the same sums were happening, but not in such an obvious way. I definitely knew that you never, ever bought anything that wasn't on the list (my dad: it just says salami, do you reckon we can get away with Hungarian?). We didn't go to Asda, or any kind of superstore, because there wasn't one locally, but (because I knew basically nothing) I envied the people who did. 

When I started going out with my Significant Ex, his mum asked us to "go to Sainsbury's" because there was "nothing in". This was categorically not true, there was a whole walk in pantry full of stuff that I quite rapidly took on the job of organising, because that's the kind of job I like. But we went, of course. There was no list. What are we getting? I said. What do you want to get? he replied. This was literally my first experience of shopping like this -- I would say I hadn't been very "on it" as a student, but I only ever bought the same things: bread, eggs, Cup a Soup, cheese, mayonnaise, tuna, Encona, sweetcorn, pasta, tinned tomatoes, Batchelor's Savoury Rice, Super Noodles, gherkins. You can do a lot with that stuff, believe, but this was like walking through the doors of perception. Wholegrain mustard!! Anchovy paste!! Fresh basil!! Parmesan in a lump!! Artichoke hearts!! Avocados!! Lemon juice from a lemon!! 

And very fast, sooo fast, I got used to that. I have a sense of frugality for many things: if I can't afford it, I don't buy it. If I really want it, I save up for it. I have had an overdraft, but I have never had a credit card. But a) I acknowledge the psychological as well as generational privilege this represents, and b) I've never really, in my adult life, had to apply that to my food shop. In my 20s, it was Tesco on foot / Sainsbury by car plus local shops on Cowley Road (for the samosas, the kosher pickles, the instant ramen and the Polish bread), my 30s much the same plus Abel & Cole veg boxes and the occasional Ocado delivery. My 40s were entirely different, as I tried, but ultimately largely failed, to reinvent myself as a locavore. I came close, but we fucked it, lads. 

So here I am in my early 50s, feeling the financial pinch with the rest of the medians. What's a highly numerate girl with catholic tastes but strong views to do? 

If you're in this position too, here are my top tips: 
  • Absolutely follow Jack Monroe: her advice is impeccable and her recipes are inspiring. My favourite book of hers is Tin Can Cook: this is absolutely my style of cooking but taken up several notches. I hope one day to interest her in my Tuna Noodle Pickled Vegetable signature dish. 
  • If you a) eat meat, b) have a reasonable size freezer c) live in the British rurals and d) can pull a bit of cash together, buy a whole lamb, or (as we did) half a lamb. You get a LOT of meat for your money, and you know exactly where it's come from. 
  • Make a list, and take it to Asda. In person, at least the first time, because there are things you will see in the store that you would not notice online. For me, here are some of those things: 
    • Fresh squeezed not from concentrate juice -- unbeatable £ for this, like half the price of the nearest NFC alternative and those vitamins guys!! 
    • Their quick frozen scratch cooking veg: chopped and ready to use for an amazing price (my favourite is what they call soup base I think but I would call mirepoix - carrot, celery, onion) -- get it on, bang a gong, get it on. 
    • Relatedly, dried soup pulses mix -- get your soup base melting away in EVOO, add your stock and your mixed pulses, little splash of red wine, little squirt of tomato puree, you're living a pretty good life. 
    • Re: the EVOO: watch for offers, watch like a hawk. Likewise the wine. 
    • Invest in stuff like capers, olives, anchovies, which are all cheaper in Asda than many other places. 
  • Things you might want to source elsewhere, especially if you have local Asian / Turkish / Polish / Kosher shops
    • Cheese -- especially white salad cheese which is so useful (I can find ways to eat it for breakfast, dinner and tea), halloumi etc 
    • Pickles and fermented stuff generally: big jars for small money. 
    • Mangos, drumsticks, okra, melons -- never are they good in the supermarkets
    • Rice, noodles, herbs, spices -- only a fool buys coriander from a supermarket if there's a local Asian grocery. 
  • My final Asda-adjacent tip is: PLAN. If I write out the meals we might eat for the next week, even if we don't eat them, exactly, we will source stuff more efficiently and cost-effectively than if I send myself out for something at the last minute. Relatedly, assess your INVENTORY -- what's sitting around waiting for use? Is there a cupboard you have not delved into the back of recently? (There probably is -- I obsessively over-stock certain things, especially those which are haram here in Ecoville, which is not necessarily the best use of my limited storage).
  • No, not my final! Make a trip of it! Have a lunch in the cafe, buy some stuff from B&Q or whatever. However you can make it ok, do that. 
I reckon a big old reining in can be done. Enough of us have belt-tightening space, and the government just deposed our spaffer in chief, who felt it was ok, right here right now, for someone else to spend six figures on a very temporary play space for one, max two, of his many offspring. We could regroup, somewhat collectively, having de-spaffed. We could seek a little common cause, some of us, maybe. Find a way to think about a future that would work for (I both love and hate to say it) the many, not just the few. We're already seeing mould, misery, malnutrition and DIY dentistry in this actual country which is supposed still to be actually wealthy. Is this... fine? Are we going to let people freeze to death? We already let people drown in the Channel and burn to death trying to keep warm in tents, so maybe we'll find that's tolerable too. 

It might be a policy decision to keep most of us scrambling to find the means to keep warm (or, hey, cool) *and* put food on the table, if we have a table. I really think it might be. And one of the things I find hardest about it is that it's working, in the sense that it takes a lot of time and energy, that we might otherwise use to think about alternative ways to use the same resources. 

For example. If I ran the country and had an 80 seat majority (big if, I do understand), I would proceed along something like the following lines. 
  • Baseline it. How good, on the whole, would you say your life is, British person? Big old survey. Hopes, dreams, mental health, all of it. Representative selection, with some more in-depth focus groups maybe. Get some indicators together. BIG COHORT. 
  • Everyone who owns more than one house, or indeed any property that isn't occupied for at least nine months of the year and could be a permanent residence, has to choose one. The other/s get Compulsorily Purchased by my government. At market rate, but non-negotiable. 
  • We use those properties to house everyone currently in temporary accommodation - refugees and asylum seekers, care leavers, families in B&Bs. The family size homes go to families, the bigger and smaller ones go to single people or groups from similar backgrounds. 
  • There is a quid pro quo here: in order to access this (now social) housing we ask them to sign up for three years to participate in a Grand Plan. This involves all adults doing some mix of the following: 
    • Training (provided) as an eco-refitter of existing housing stock. Practising on the housing they are currently occupying then moving on to a government programme to reach all homes
    • Training as a care worker, specialising in personal care for people coming out of hospital
    • Agricultural labour 
    • For those with caring responsibilities, setting up kitchens in community centres / church halls and either working in the creche or cooking evening meals for the local community to come and eat or take away. Childcare and food hygiene training will be available too. 
  • Some benefits that I could imagine accruing from this:
    • Sort out the housing crisis 
    • Repopulate holiday home desert communities with economically productive families
    • Make a dent in the energy crisis 
    • Fill gaps in the labour market with a guaranteed supply of skilled workers
    • Sort out the social care crisis and the hospital bed blocking crisis
    • Address the nutritional gap for people who can't afford or don't have the facilities to cook decent food at home, and redirect surpluses and gluts in a direction where they can be used. 
  • Everyone gets paid the living wage, and everyone pays rent out of that. After the three years, people can decide to sign on for longer or move on (if they are refugees / asylum seekers, they get indefinite leave to remain as a thank you for their contribution). 
  • After the first three years we re-run the baseline - do we feel like we're a better country? Are we happier? Do we like ourselves and our lives a little better? 
  • I'm going to take a punt on yes, and run again on that ticket. Going to expand the scheme. Anyone who wants a three year go at socialism is welcome. 
This isn't the only option, of course. And it's not perfect (I just thought of it all on my own, with my own set of privileges and prejudices and resentments. I personally like the clarity of a deal: if you do X then you get Y, but YMMV). My bigger point is that we should all be thinking bigger. It's the thinking smaller, the pulling the ladder up, the building the walls, than pains me the most. These are not the times for that.  


Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Never give in to the fuckery

Content note: abortion. Not mine. But still. 

Second content note: I'm not outing anyone in this post. I've changed pretty much any detail that could possibly identify anyone except me, my Significant Ex, and guy X. Should guy X happen upon it (deeply, *deeply* unlikely), well, it's never too late to say sorry. 

The world: Hey, how you doing?

Me: Fine! Actually, not fine? Actually, more like commando crawling through an assault course made up of austerity, Brexit, Trump, Johnson, climate emergency, Covid, Afghanistan, Ukraine, Roe? With a few extras that don't make global headlines because geopolitics, and a few extras that are local and personal. But thanks for asking. How *you* doing?

Did I mention that my inner voice is a screaming woman?

In a big conversation I had with my beloved recently I realised that he thought she was screaming in anger (I've only recently realised we don't all have a screaming woman inner voice - this would have been useful intel before now but I do at least now know).

No, I said, she's screaming into the void.

All the time? he said. No, I said. Just sometimes, but quite often at the moment. Would it help you to know when it's happening?

Um, I guess, he said. Worth a try. (This is excellent boyfriend behaviour, by the way. Exemplary, even. Big ups to my beloved.)

So, I was sitting at the table, writing to do lists, after weeding the broad beans at the allotment. We're talking about dinner plans but I'm a bit distracted.

Oh! I said. She's screaming. Shall I tell you why?

The attack on abortion rights in the US is genuinely terrifying. I am not in the US and I am almost certainly done with the egg and sperm business but still, it makes my blood run cold. It's medieval logic in the 21st century. Not so different from the actually certifiably evil Taliban, if you look at it straight on. Women - no, let me clarify, people with the ability to get pregnant, however we define ourselves - are fully realised humans or we're not, is the binary, and I know which side I'm on.

And I always have. In the 80s, in Blackpool, there was a never ending flow of boys and men trying to have sex with me. With any or all of us, I wasn't that special. Never. Ending. Mostly I didn't, sometimes I did, quite often there was some kind of tussle involved, almost like a dance.

In a way, I think they were gentler times, it wasn't a porn-saturated environment and no one really knew what they were doing. We shared tips on how to avoid what I'd now call PIV sex, but at the time was just called sex. How to deflect and distract and deal with the situation a different way. A lot of us were pretty good at it by the time we left Blackpool. 

And ngl, those skills came in handy when I got to university (I was stumped when someone *didn't* want to have sex with me, but that's another story).The main reason I didn't want to have sex with men who wanted to have sex with me, at that time, quite honestly (I have evolved since), was because I didn't want to get pregnant. I worked extremely hard at not getting pregnant. By this point I'd already borrowed money from my parents to lend to a friend who needed an abortion, and I knew of several other people who'd been in the same position.

Anyway, my first term at university, there was a night, there was a guy, let's call him X. He was pretty flirty, I was playing along. He came back to my room, got a bit pushy, I dealt with the situation. It was fine. He went to sleep, I sat smoking out the window for a bit, then woke him up and told him to go back to his room. (I could almost literally see his room from my room, I wasn't asking him to get a cab or anything). He said he wanted to stay, and I said I didn't want him there when the cleaner arrived. He asked me if I was embarrassed. I said not really, I just had a good relationship with the cleaner. (NB she later tried to set me up with her son, but that's also another story).

He left, and we never really spoke again, though when he was drunk he occasionally told me that he admired my breasts. I started seeing someone, who some months later was fundraising for a charity thing he was doing. He asked guy X to sponsor him. I will, he said, but only if you admit it. Admit what? said the man who went on to become my Significant Ex, (these were the glorious early days, but even at his worst he was never remotely as jaded and shitty as guy X was at 20).

Admit you're going out with Joella, he said. Well, said my Significant Ex, sure, I admit it. I laughed when I heard that story, but I was also very glad I hadn't had sex with him. Because I don't think he'd have been any kinder about me if I had. 

But that's not why my inner voice was screaming. She was screaming because maybe five years later, in another city, I was visiting someone I knew who was taking care of a friend of hers who'd just had an abortion.

It had been a fairly short relationship. He hadn't been particularly kind. He gave her money (he had money, I don't imagine it was a stretch) when he found out she was pregnant, but otherwise didn't want anything to do with it. She was one of those gilded posh girls who I at one level envied because they knew how to ski and how to eat fish with bones in and didn't bite their nails and were oh so thin, but at another level I knew they envied me because I was sturdy and stroppy and seemed to manage to have boyfriends who liked me (it took me a while, but I'd more or less got there by 20). 

I did not hate myself, I looked after myself in not all ways but several important ones, and I knew how lucky I was. By this stage I'd supported quite a few more people through abortions, financially, emotionally, practically. I knew some of the right things to say. We had a bit of a chat and long story short it turned out it was guy X who got her pregnant. 

And *I'm* the one you need to admit to going out with?

That's why she was screaming, I said to M.


Monday, March 28, 2022

She's got a new smell

Such times. Such times

My body is going through it at the moment. I was on the mini pill for about ten years, which knocked my periods on the head, thank the lord, for they were agonising, messy and disruptive, and made me sad and crazy. But with not having them, I always wondered how I'd know when I was menopausing. Well. Turns out you just know. Everything slides around in your head all of the time, and you could power a small village if they could only bottle your heat and your fury. Also, the sweating. Ye gods. Could water a small village too (or at least their marsh samphire crop, that could cope with the salt, right?). 

I should be eating cooling foods and drinking green tea. I should be wearing natural fibres and going for calming walks in nature. I know. I should not be downing Rioja and listening to true crime podcasts and generally stomping around. I haven't been entirely neglectful on the self care front, I have linen pyjamas and a lavender pillow spray and I swim in a cool pool where the water hits my red hot armpits and I think YES. I have started getting my top lip waxed. I have bought this book. I read *everything* that appears in a private Facebook group I was invited to a couple of year ago which is called Hot Ladies (Oxbridge level menopause discourse, I love it). 

Having read the book and absorbed the experiences of the Hot Ladies, I made an appointment with my GP for the discussion of my options. After the discussion of my options, about eight months ago I switcherooed from Cerazette, saviour of my 40s, to something called Premique, which I hope will do the same for my 50s. It's a lot better. A LOT better. But still fairly early days. Watch this space (or, you know, don't). 

But I think, without getting too woo about it, that whatever is happening to my body, there's also some soul processing happening. It's not like I've had the worst pandemic, millions have had it way worse. I'm double jabbed and boosted, I can still smell, at some point last September I could nearly do crow pose. None of my immediate loved ones have carked it. But however you look at it, there's no way round the fact that It Has Been A Right Two Years.  

So... #blessed. And yet, somehow, not? Maybe as a consequence of my over-thinking (see blog posts passim) I am really shit at gratitude journals and the like. I tried it for a week and I annoyed the hell out of myself. I need space for dwelling in the bleakness. I don't drink tea, and I don't eat cake. Do not invite me to an appreciative enquiry. There are no live love laugh cushions or cursively fonted self-help books in my house, no sirree bob, though I do have a well-thumbed 30 year old copy of Our Bodies Ourselves. Self awareness is the way to survive the white supremacist heteronormative patriarchy, kids. 

I don't feel, like, great about this. How nice (a word I also do not like, even if it's the biscuit, because I do not like biscuits) it would be to luxuriate in my cosseted existence, while virtue signalling, dispensing generosity on my own terms, and really not paying attention to much beyond that. It's the MO of many people in high income countries, and many high income people in low income countries. But any amount of not-even-over-thinking about the world, in fact the merest glance at Greta's Twitter, will create plenty of space for dwelling in the bleakness, you know? And while I love a negroni and a dancefloor at least as much as the next person, I harbour a deep suspicion of the people who are all about the sunshine. (Except maybe the sunshine causing literally unsurvivable wet bulb temps of 35+ in Pakistan amirite?) 

But you can't live in a ditch unless you intend to die in one, so a girl needs strategies. And scent has always been one of mine. As a teenager, I experimented. There was an Impulse Day and Night double set of body sprays that I leant on for a while. In the sweaty bread shop where I spent my Saturdays for £1.35 an hour I would dip into the kiosk that housed the phone and our coats and bags to refresh myself with Day, and once I was outta there I'd shower and become Night. I once bought a can of Femfresh because I thought, well, I'm fem and I want to be fresh. I was spraying it under my arms till my mum saw it and explained what it was really for and why it was terrible. Just Seventeen had a lot to answer for. I wasn't even 17. (I have never deo'd my foof, for the record, but if you have well, no judgement here).

Then the Body Shop arrived in Blackpool. My first purchase was a perfume called Aquarius - every woman needs a signature fragrance, I was learning from J17, and how could it not be a perfect match for my 16 yo proud Aquarian self? Short answer: because it honked. It honked so much one of my friends' mums asked her to ask me not to wear it again if I came round. I did not comply with the request (it was my signature fragrance!!), but at one level I knew she was right. 

So I adjusted my perspective and lo! (and approx 50% of my lady cohort will be right here with me, the other 50% being Dewberry girls) there was White Musk. This glorious (I loved it till just very very recently for reasons I shall not disclose but let's just say it is still some people's signature scent), era-defining perfume carried me through my late teens and all of my 20s. I sprayed the cologne on the clothing of the boy I wanted to go out with (he went out with me). I wore the oil on my pulse points every day. I used it in the bath and the shower and it was part of me. Ten years later, a friend I hadn't seen since uni walked into the pub with her husband and said 'I told him, she'll be sitting there wearing fingerless gloves, rolling a cigarette, drinking a pint and smelling of White Musk.' 

I love to be a constant in a changing world (as another uni friend beautifully badged me a few years after this), but I have to say that I did eventually outgrow that scent. I will always love it, and you can sprinkle it on my grave, but I needed to move on. 

I didn't find a new scent in my 30s. While having a ridiculous weakness for mainstream male cologne (honestly, if I'm ever in the market and you fancy me and have access to original Kouros, you're halfway there), the same does not apply to the lady scent. There was ol' unisex CKOne and its ilk, but nah. They remind me of ladette culture, and I did not belong there. The closest I got was a huge retro trip, back to eau de cologne from Boots in giant bottles and 4711 - a classic from the 70s that an old lady (I say old, but I was eight) I spent a lot of time with used to drench everything in. Love an eau de cologne. 

My early 40s took me to Boswells in Oxford, where I discovered Roger & Gallet. This was something of a breakthrough. Gingembre and Cedrat are both warm and lovely, and I wore them for a few years, together with a sandalwood-heavy fragrance whose name I can't remember. I went rather abruptly off them (like many things) when we moved north, my mum died, and everything changed. *Her* signature fragrance was Caleche, and I still have her last bottle of it. I bought it for her in Duty Free on one of my long haul trips for NGO X. I wear it on high days and holidays, and it's lovely, but it's her lovely, not mine. 

And then M bought me a bottle of Jo Malone's Wood Sage & Sea Salt cologne. This was a brave thing to do, or rather, a risky thing -- this stuff isn't cheap. But it was perfect. I absolutely fell in love with it and wore it every day till it ran out, then bought some more. I thought I was there, I thought I had my new signature fragrance. I was very pleased. 

But then came 2018, the year of cancer (M's), redundancy (mine), confusion and anxiety, and everything changed again. I couldn't wear Wood Sage & Sea Salt, it just didn't cut it anymore. I put it away in my washbag, and moved on to something darker and stronger: Black Cedarwood & Juniper. I never really loved it, but it fitted my mood. Towards the end of that bottle, I got an interview for the job I have now -- I travelled to London for both interviews, and for the second one I had to stay over the night before, so I had my washbag. Thus it was I rediscovered Wood Sage & Sea Salt, which I renamed The Smell of A Simpler Time. I was ready to have it back in my life. 

Things were never going to stay simple, though, were they. That job has brought me a lot of joy: deep thinkers who care deeply about the world *and* who deeply love to go to the pub, what is not to enjoy? I haven't had so much brain-stretching fun since the early days of NGO X, back when the world was only partly on fire, and we still thought we could fix it. As I said goodbye to NGO X and the many fine people who were still, at that point, sticking it out (some fine people still are, I should add, but I was not the only casualty of the Thing That Happened), I dropped into the Oxford branch of Jo Malone with my friend S, two large glasses of white deep, and chose the scent for the next part of my life. 

That was Jasmine Sambac and Marigold. I chose it because jasmine is one of my favourite smells. It is the smell of hot, humid nights in faraway places, at the point where the sand meets the sea and everything is the same temperature. The food is spicy, the liquor is hard and slightly weird, the music is Santana. Your feet are bare and the main smell, apart from the jasmine, is mosquito coils. You'll have to go back to your life pretty soon, but for now you're free, and now the sun's gone down, you are unfurling like a fern in the warm mist. It's the Smell of Possibility. 

Jasmine also has a high sillage, and I was feeling like I needed a bit of that about me. I wore Jasmine Sambac and Marigold for most of 2019, and it brought me many hugs. I hope it will always be in my repertoire: it is truly the scent of a woman trying to work out what her game is and how near to the top of it she wants to be.  

So we could have left it there, with the gorgeous Smell of Possibility tempered by the clean Smell of A Simpler Time, but 2020 wasn't going to let us get away with that, was it? Hell, as they say, no. So, please welcome to the group the Perfumes of the Pandemic. 

Grapefruit Cologne
My wonderful friends C and S bought me not one but two Jo Malone scents for my 50th birthday, the celebration of which just squeaked under the lockdown limbo pole. One was Sea Sage and Wood Salt -- did they know?? Or am I that easy to buy scent for?? Either way, yay, I still have a bottle for my washbag and I wear it every day I am not in Ecoville. The other was Grapefruit -- I would never have chosen this but it turns out I love it. It is sharp and clever and understated, only two of which qualities I can lay any claim to, but all of which I admire. I wore it through Lockdown One, and it ended up in my swimming bag when the gym reopened, which is where its last vestiges remain. It is now the Smell of Self Care. When it finally runs out, I fully intend to replace it. 

Red Roses
At the same celebration, I admired the scent of my friend K multiple times (good sillage) and it was another Jo Malone -- honestly, it's like she knows what she's doing -- this time one of the biggies, Red Roses. Again, I would never have, but it smelt amazing on her, so when my friend E said she had a Jo Malone voucher that she wasn't going to use and did I want anything, that is what I chose. And I cannot lie, it is a perfume with power. I am not sure we met the best of each other, me and Red Roses, because that is what I wore through the end of 2020 and into the lockdown of early 2021. Which was an intense time for me. I had an intense perfume to match, and I drew on its strength, but ultimately it will be remembered (by me, anyway) as the Smell of Righteous Yet Unwise Fury. 

Why unwise, Jo, you ask. Surely not you? Well. I swore at one of my neighbours on a Zoom call that was being recorded. The recording now has a life of its own, and I hear that several people just watch that part of it over and over. (I have not watched it, because I was there. I felt like a dog that had been poked with a stick for like months who finally snapped. I remember the sweet, sweet catharsis, swiftly followed by oh fuck I used a swear word, and we don't like swear words). 

How bad was it? I called one of my neighbours a bitch. She was (in my view, and if you want to lawyer up, I have evidence) being a bitch, and I was tired of letting it slide. But it was a dumb move on my part, as we care A LOT MORE, it turns out, about people calling people a bitch than about people actually behaving like a bitch. (Full disclosure: I think I said "stop being such a fucking bitch about this", which a) isn't actually calling her a bitch, but that's what people heard, and b) also included the f word, which I am not sure the audio picked up, as I said it half under my breath, but M's wince every time it comes up makes me think I probably did F it as well as B it). 

I blame the Red Roses. They made me all heady. To be fair, I should also blame my hormones, as this was when I was running at my hottest, but if you're running hot, Red Roses will make you hotter. It's like the drum beat of every injustice you've ever experienced. Mmmm, Red Roses. But I don't think I'll go there again till I'm out the other side of my 50s. 

Moving swiftly on, the same lovely E, possibly advised by my beloved, got me a Discovery Set from Rook Perfumes for my birthday last year. I don't really have a Rook Perfumes level budget so this was a perfect gift. I spent the spring (when I wasn't Red Rosing it in red mist) trying all six scents out, one a night on repeat, and thinking hard about which one, if any, might be for me. In the end, it was Forest or Undergrowth, and I waited for a decent discount code and decided to make my choice at the moment of purchase. 

I went Forest, and I have not regretted it. (I don't think I'd have regretted Undergrowth either, but Forest is more assertive). Forest was my mid-year smell last year. It saw me through getting hauled in for questioning by the community governance team, AC-12 style (I also wore an excellent jacket) for ... I still don't know what, really. Upsetting people with a greater set of privileges than me, who therefore get to present as 'nice', is my best reading, but I know even that interpretation would likely be seen as 'upsetting'. Who's upset by whose upset, we might ask. But we don't. 

I grew up on a street called Forest Drive, and I see Forest as the Smell of Remembering Who You Are. 

English Oak and Hazelnut

So. What are you wearing now, Jo, I hear you ask. (Maybe not you, but my imaginary friends, who love reading this stuff). Aha, I answer, I am very glad you asked. Because I do, as we limp towards the end of the beginning of this phase of humanity's decline, have a new smell. And it's another Jo Malone - this time English Oak and Hazelnut. 

This is what they say about it: "The crunch of green hazelnut with the spice of elemi. The earthy woodiness of vetiver, cooled by emerald moss carpets on a warming base of roasted oak."

Perfumier nonsense, of course. One of my neighbours caught its sillage the other day and said 'goodness, you smell amazing, what on earth is that?' 

Well, I said, it's English Oak and Hazelnut, but I call it the Smell of Getting The Fuck On With It. 

When summer comes to Ecoville, I will lie on the lawn, inhale the scent of the daisies and let it play through me. We keep going, they say, we keep growing. 


Thursday, March 10, 2022

I worry for the cats of war

I'm staring at the orphan refugee Cat Who Doesn't Live Here who you could say is thriving (tyrannical, muscular, sizeable*), and immensely loved by rebel factions**, but who lives entirely off instinct and never knew his mother or kitlings. No civilising influences for *him*, and he does pay a price for this. God knows it's no time for a cheap metaphor so I won't. But it's not an easy life. 


*Morbidly obese, if you're the vet weighing him. 
** Obvs me, but absolutely not just me

Friday, July 23, 2021

Ten tiddlers about TFRR

When I worked as a reporter for the late, lamented Information World Review, one of my jobs was writing the tiddlers. These were c60 word news snippets drawn from press releases that arrived by post, sometimes extended to c120 words (long tiddlers) if the press release was sufficiently informative. I loved writing the tiddlers. My editor called me the tiddler machine. And (though you might not know it to read most of my blog posts these days) they taught me the art of writing to length.

I recently participated in a course called Tools for the Regenerative Renaissance, which has various ‘graduation requirements’. One of the options is a 1000+ word blog post with reflections on the course. It’s a great requirement, but where to start? I could go on forever. So I thought I’d write to length, in the form of (leaning towards long) tiddlers on ten different aspects of my experience. 

Planting the seed(s)
I found out about the course because I follow one of the organisers on Twitter. It caught my eye because I was looking for inspiration. I have a personal learning inquiry question this year about how to make my knowledge management work more systemic. Ideas were taking shape but I wanted stimuli and conversation from diverse perspectives. This seemed like a great way to get it. However… I had to then get hold of Seeds to pay for the course. Seeds are a ‘conscious cryptocurrency’. You have to buy them with Bitcoin. I very nearly fell at this hurdle, but eventually cleared it just in time. 

I have never been on a course like this. There was a lot I liked about the way it was designed and run. The pricing, while not quite pay as you feel, offered several levels, leaving you to decide which was right for you. The cohort was large, maybe a bit too large, around 200, but it was genuinely global, and diverse in many other ways too. The sessions were on Zoom, supported by a Slack workspace and a bunch of shared Google docs. For each session there were links to a lot of supporting information, a mix of video, podcast and text. The set up all worked well for me, but I am a self-directed learner and very online.

It was both refreshing and challenging to talk big ideas with such a wide range of people — in most sessions there were random break-outs with groups of 2, 3 or 4, and you never knew what kind of mix of perspectives you were going to encounter. This is so rare, and so valuable — we spend so much time in echo chambers. Part of me would change nothing about this, but I also felt it was hard to land cold into a 15 minute conversation (often with people who were speaking English as a foreign language) without any context. There was a good turnout every week (there were six sessions over seven weeks) which would indicate that most of us coped, so maybe I am the one who needs to work on this. 

The power of place
I hear the phrase ‘place-based’ a lot at the moment, and this was one of the aspects of the course content that resonated most with me. Local knowledge, indigenous wisdom, patterns that have been with us for generations and can be revived and reinvigorated. We have many of the answers, and if (it’s a big if) we can only come together in the right permutations and combinations, there is so much positive change possible. This is sitting with me in a rather bittersweet way… I made the decision to move to an intentional community ten years ago, and what I often see here is people afraid of change, or rather the work that is needed to move towards it. Maybe I am looking in the wrong place. Maybe I am in the wrong place.

Oh, I love a map. I track my thoughts in mind maps (here’s the one for this course — this is its first iteration, I will build on it). So many connections only appear when you find the right way to map them. One of the things I was struggling with initially was how does all of this work together? How does soil fit with cryptocurrency? But more importantly, how can all of this energy, this power, this thinking, be harnessed in a way that can mount any meaningful challenge to the forces currently destroying the planet? Can it, even? I still don’t know, but I absolutely loved this phrase from Daniel Wahl, one of the guest speakers: “tell the stories, and put them on the same map.” 

The aha moments
There were a few of these, but I’ll focus on two. The very first video I watched had me. Soil! Oh my god! We could fix soil! We know how to, and everything. We just… aren’t, at least not anywhere near fast enough. I have read a lot about regenerative agriculture, and I live in a place that is directly affected by the way grazing land is managed, but I hadn’t tied it all into the climate emergency in the way that first session did. And… money. The way we use money, the money we use. It’s like the patriarchy! It’s the water we swim in. We don’t even know it’s a construction till someone explains it in ways that aren’t tech bro. I am grateful for this knowledge, though I have no idea what to do with it as yet. 

The scary bits
This felt a bit like multiple glimpses into multiple possible futures. There’s a lifetime of reading in the course notes, and I’m sure all of it would be worth the time. But time is what we don’t have, as a species, and while I loved the disparity, the leaping from concept to concept, the imagination and passion and commitment of so many of the people we heard from and about, and the work that we did on ourselves in the process, I still don’t see how this coalesces into something powerful enough to be that regenerative renaissance. Maybe it doesn’t have to, but where are the tipping points? How do we get there? 

The frustrating bits
I live in the mainstream. On the edge of it, in some ways, but I have a house, I have a job, I have a gym membership, I shop at supermarkets. For 20 years I’ve worked to support a transition to a fairer / better / more just / more sustainable / more survivable world, but … it’s not cutting it, is it, the mainstream. I tried, when I moved here, to be less mainstream, but I found that a lot of people in that space were intolerant, judgemental and incredibly rigid in their thinking. To be fair, I did not experience much of that on this course, though some of the Slack chats were tricky, but I sensed it was there. I do not know how we stay open, how we stay vulnerable, in a world where many of us have the choice not to be. Also, I still don’t understand the blockchain. 

The inspiring bits
Although there were sessions that I got more from than others, all of them were inspiring, as was the whole concept behind paying for the course in Seeds: complete your graduation requirements and you receive more Seeds than you paid. You can (if you can get your head around it) use those to share more ideas, run your own project, start something amazing. One of the ideas that completely blew me away was Proof of Humanity — imagine! But someone already has! And while I fear it would take quite a bit before I would hitch my flag to a new star, I loved the deeper 1-1 conversations I had with a couple of people on the course who were in their 20s and 30s, starting from a different place, with all of the hope and energy and determination that this brings. 

The ways I am changed 
Too early to say for sure. But one thing I know about myself is that switches flick within me when I am exposed to new thinking, and eventually enough things shift that I move onto a different circuit. I am starting no-dig beds on my allotment, having previously dismissed it as kombucha style hokum (I’ve been burnt by the best), and I am grateful to have been exposed to all of these ideas in a way that my Oxbridge-educated, double vaxxed, peri-menopausal self could engage with and appreciate. Watch this space. 


Sunday, March 28, 2021

Current status: Fish Can 4

I don't know where the muddy daffodils came from

It was bluntly pointed out to me once, by someone who went right off me after I split up with my Significant Ex, that my problem is that I think too much. The implication being, I assumed, that if I'd been less of a thinker I might have realised what a sweet deal I had. But what can I say? Like all such "feedback", it had a little sting of truth in it. I do stew. I unpack and untangle and scrutinise. I wrangle and I rant and I rage. I am insanely fortunate that life gave me options, and I take my responsibility to them seriously. It *was* a sweet deal, but it was not the deal for me. All indications are that, indirectly, I made another woman very happy, and I'll take that as a win. 
But it came at a cost. Any woman who's left a long term relationship will tell you that some shoulders get pretty fucking cold pretty fucking fast. We have so much invested in the status quo, consciously or subconsciously. No one likes a disruptor, apart from the people who do. 
So there's my opener. I have always had things to say. I have not always said them. I still don't always say them: one of the things I (over?) think about is consequences. We have norms, we have social contracts, we are interdependent. I know all this. I do my cost-benefit analysis. Just so you know. 

Fish Can the first
It started during Lockdown 1 with a conversation on our allotment. One of our neighbours, who has the next allotment over, was angry about the fact that several requests for our community food store to start stocking tinned fish had been, to choose a polite word, deflected. 
We have criteria for making such requests (number of households who might be interested in buying said product, ethical sourcing, inability to purchase locally etc). Fish is, obviously, fish, and not available from our main food store supplier, Suma. But with ye olde pandemic, we had diversified to the extent of supplementing from Sainsbo's, and in fact we've always used multiple suppliers. It's a lot of work, running the food store. I know, because I was its Treasurer for several years. The team currently running it had taken on even more work in order to make sure that people, especially more vulnerable community members, could source food on site rather than having to go to shops. 
So far so lovely. But the store has a vegetarian and vegan only restriction, and most of us, actually, literally, in reality, are neither. Most of us eat fish. Most of us also eat meat, but there is a great local butcher that you can walk to, if you can walk, which most of us can. I believe he will deliver if you can't. We also have Andy, who comes to the end of our street every Tuesday with his fish van, and this meets our wet fish needs. 
But there's a gap. A sardine shaped gap. They can be sourced locally, yes, but they will be, at best, John West. We can do better than this, sustainability-wise, in the shape of brands like Fish 4 Ever, and many of us would like to. And you can't get those brands easily around here. So... hey, can we have some nice tinned fish in the food store please? 
We made a proposal to this effect, and the place went nuts. Someone asked me how I would feel if there were tins of human fingers in the food store. I mean, I wouldn't buy them, but it would also be illegal? If we *were* in the business of eating each other, I expect fingers would be quite far down the list of bits, but I didn't say that. I didn't think it would be helpful. 
Like, guys. It's fish, but it's in a tin. You can't see it, you can't smell it. You can even get vegan "tunah" these days, presumably for the vegans who can cope with the idea of tuna existing in the world, maybe even the ones who miss it. Hard to see how you can have a tunah sandwich and not be at some level ok with the idea that someone else might be having a tuna one. 
At least, it's hard for me to see. At the point where we had our "community conversation" (sounds friendlier than it is) about it, I was able to accept that there are people who feel "unsafe" sourcing their foodstuffs from a store that also contains some tins that have fish in them, even if those tins are in a cupboard that they don't have to open. I was able to accept it because they said so, and I am not about to accuse people of lying. But this is not a standard operating procedure. I know a lot of vegans, and most of them go into shops. Quite a lot of them go to fish and chip shops, where the presence of fish is kind of there on the sign. And in the air. 
But no, we prefer to make like the world is not the world, and require our pescatarian neighbours to venture out in a pandemic to buy fish that is worse for the marine environment (and likely the fish, and certainly the workers involved) than using our shared food sourcing system to bring them something better. Go us! 
This proposal did not go forward. I had several conversations during the ensuing fallout where I tried to explore what we mean by aiming to be "vegan friendly" - because my reading of it is that there has to be some space between "vegan friendly" and "vegan" or else the word 'friendly' is redundant. And I see sustainably sourced tinned fish as something that lives in that space. During the best of these conversations, my neighbour (who is not vegan) said 'well, this place doesn't feel very vegan friendly to me at the moment'. 
She was absolutely right. I still think we have to define it at some point, because I still think there are vegans I feel friendly towards and vegans I absolutely don't. And the difference is the extent to which they want to impose their veganism on me. I am on my own journey, and I think very hard about it. Too much, you might even say. 
But I took this to heart. I put an empty Fish 4 Ever can out on my windowsill, like some kind of fishy X on the door, but I also shut up for a bit. That was Fish Can 1. 

Fish Can the second
I found that the best way for me to deal with my issues, my fishues if you will, was to do all of my shopping elsewhere. In short, I went Full Supermarket, something that I have avoided for most of the last decade. During Lockdown 1 I went around sourcing from little local shops -- we ate some odd things, but we enjoyed them. By late summer I'd pivoted to Sainsbury's, and (like a lot of people I think) started in on the comfort food: jacket potatoes, spaghetti bolognese, keema curry, a *lot* of toasted sandwiches. There are so many things they sell in supermarkets that I'd forgotten about. Readymade prawn cocktail! Thai basil! Bacon flavour bits! Gnocchi! And when you're not schlepping around seeking out artisanal produce, you do save money. 
In September, two things happened. Ocado flipped from Waitrose to M&S, and the ready meal came back into our lives (can report that the M&S Best Ever Macaroni Cheese is really very good). This was not just Full Supermarket etc. Also the ready washed watercress, the little tins of refried beans, the Luchito jalapeno and pineapple salsa, some pretty sweet wine deals. That was the good part. The bad part was that M had a TIA (mini stroke) and we had to have a Big Lifestyle Chat. Exercise-wise, we started going swimming every day. Food-wise, we re-pivoted. Now it was all about the poke and the ramen. Fish, vegetables, rice, noodles, seaweed, seeds, eggs, tofu. Many kinds of chilli, sesame oil,  rice vinegar, lots of searing in griddle pans. A big order from Sous Chef. Neither of us got Covid, so we never lost our sense of taste, and I am deeply thankful for that. But it was all quite scary. I put out another fish can. It's great healthy protein, you know. 

Fish Can the third
Christmas was a bit of a write off (we had plans, we had to cancel plans) and January started with Lockdown 3 meaning we couldn't go swimming, or do anything much at all really. We were hardly alone in this of course, and luckily, like millions of others, we met Adriene, and we did another Sous Chef order. They have these incredible ramen noodles, unpasteurised soy sauce, and all manner of fancy tinned fish, especially if Galician cockles are your thing. I didn't go into a shop for the whole of January. I didn't mind. 
But there were stirrings in Ecoville. When we were still allowed to walk in packs of six, a pack of six went for a walk. Entirely coincidentally, the following week there was an offer of a takeaway communal meal (vegan and gluten free). This was followed by another offer of a takeaway communal meal (vegan and gluten free), plus some 'vegan milky drinks'. There was much public appreciation of the people putting the work in to make these meals happen. 
Jo, you might say. What can possibly be wrong with this? Why do you want to stop people having a vegan milky drink, are you some kind of monster? 
It was cold. It was dark. We were isolated in our not-actually-that-big houses. It's easy to get paranoid. I (over) thought about this. But actually, one of the things I have really liked about this pandemic is that we had to shut our Common House. There have been no communal meals. Communal meals cause me pain. I have written about this at length before so I won't go over the whole territory again, but one of the things that is absolutely the worst about them, for me, is that we are legally, contractually obliged to provide them (and clean up after them) even if we absolutely hate them. And I absolutely hate them, in their current form, and I have never been able to shift them very far towards something I don't absolutely hate -- I remain convinced that a lot of people would love them to move in at least some of the directions that I would, but it's like being that little digger on the Suez canal. Honestly, for me, when they went away it was really good for my wellbeing. And here they are, back again, and we are feting the great people who are bringing us together in this way, aren't they just the best? 
Come on, I said to myself. They aren't doing it to piss you off. Don't think you're *that* important, love. So at the end of my (over) think I decided that what I would do was say that unless and until we are able to revisit our Common Meals Policy (it's a thing, if you're new here), I will not be partaking, even though I know this puts me in contravention of my lease, thank you and goodnight. 
Some of the people did not like this. Why can't we have some time off arguing about veganism, said one of them. I did not actually mention veganism! And actually it is very much not just about veganism! I replied. You upset people! said another of them. I'm sorry that happened but I am also upset! I replied. I am just trying to take myself out of the situation, and when we're ready to talk, I am ready to talk. Let's get into it, we won't get out of it until we get into it. 
I am missing out a strand of the story here, which is that we did a community Secret Santa. I generally hate organised fun, but I had a word with myself and put my hat in the ring, and actually, it was nice. Some time over the Christmas that wasn't, Mimi the cat posted a photo on Slack thanking Secret Santa for his gift, which was a can of Happy Shopper tuna flakes from the Shop at the Top. My fave, he said. 
Oh... did Mimi get a public bollocking for that from the vegan milky drinks contingent. In fact, the human behind it was accused of abusing the cat by hiding behind him. 
I have to confess. It was me. I was impersonating a cat on this occasion, and on several other occasions before and since. If you think he gives the slightest of fucks about this, you have not met him. This is genuinely also his favourite food, he's lazy and it's already sloppy. He'd eat a can of it a day if we let him. If he could understand his digital alter ego (which he can't, on account of being a cat), then he'd love it, he's a disruptive little bastard. Some people here hate him, to the extent that a few years ago someone suggested he should be put down. How vegan friendly is that, could I say?
Anyhoo, I did totally accept the point that impersonating a cat in order to make a point was probably an indicator that I was a bit nuts my own self, and Mimi did apologise and withdraw his appreciation for Santa. And my subsequent reflection caused me to make my (I thought pretty clear and neutral even if strong) statement that here is my position, I want to be transparent about it, as and when you want to move things on, here I am. 
That week, I reached Fish Can 3. 

Fish Can the fourth
One of my kinder neighbours asked me to go for a walk. It was the time of all the snow, and it was dark for what felt like 20 hours a day, so this was really a shuffle down the river with torches, and a chat outside the hydro (where there is a light!) until our teeth started chattering. What is this about, he said. What do you need? What will fix this for you? He's an engineer, so he likes to find a fix, and is always optimistic that there is one. What I need, I said, is a process. Our system is broken. We have to talk about it. 
I do still believe that there could be a way through this. But not without some Deep Thought. We use consensus as a decision-making process, and while I was dazzled by it as a concept when I first met it, I now see that it has a couple of deeply baked in weaknesses. Firstly, it hugely favours the status quo. Creating change if there are people who feel threatened by change, or even by considering change, can be next to impossible. An intransigent minority can absolutely block progress. I used to see it as progressive, but I increasingly realise that only holds if everyone engages and assumes good intent. Secondly, you can absolutely game it if you have the skills and the energy. It can totally be facipulated as a process. Seven years ago, I was part of a team that brought some proposals to a meeting. The process itself was hijacked by someone who didn't want the proposals to be heard. Later, as part of the fallout, one of our kinder neighbours came round and tried to explain to me that the reason he'd hijacked the process was because if you make a proposal, that sets the stage, and that's what people are responding to, and he didn't (to paraphrase) want to be starting from there. I actually laughed. I learnt this from that guy. That's exactly why I did it. It didn't work, but don't think I didn't know that this exact strategy is how we got locked into something that we still haven't been able to bust out of. 
What I will say is that I have learnt a lot in the seven years since then. I have learnt about the power of community when you are experiencing loss. I have learnt about what you can ask for when you are feeling vulnerable. I have learnt about how hard it is to do that asking, and how easy it is to assume that other people are fine, or to ignore the signs that they aren't. I have learnt that people can be absolute asshats to each other, often unintentionally, but sometimes deliberately. It's a cornucopia of learning, living around here. And our collective ability to assume good intent, which is one of the things that I found so hopeful and so radical about the community that I first joined, is a bit shredded. 
It's such a delicate little thing, is trust. Mine was stamped on several times before we even moved in, and has been several times since. When it happens, I withdraw for a bit, but then I try and stick its pieces back together with different kinds of glue, wabi sabi style. When the glue takes, my trust looks different than it did before, but feels strong enough, so far anyway, for me to venture out again. 
I do this because I want to understand. What actually *are* we all doing here? What should we be aiming to provide for each other? Do we even have ambitions beyond being a bunch of neighbours living in nice eco houses by the river? I have always been so sure that we did, you don't bring something like this to fruition without a serious sense of purpose. So what should that look like in 2021, after a year of pandemic, with a climate emergency looming? 
We have a risk register, here in Ecoville (small children, big river, sharp knives), and a couple of the chewier items on it are to do with our community resilience. What if it all falls apart? What would that mean? We are entangled legally as well as socially. We run a microgrid, we have district heating, we have communal buildings and land to maintain, we don't have nearly enough parking spaces if we fuck up our ability to share cars. 
Our community resilience in large part (in my view - and you know me, I've done a lot of thinking about it) rests with a shared understanding of what we each commit to, what we can each expect, how much tolerance we can have of difference, how much we are able to see past our individual interests and look towards those of the community as a whole, and how we understand what those shared interests are. 
And that stuff... well, it takes work. Some of it is fairly low level work, you can paint a wall together, cook a meal together, attack buddleia together, drink wine and dance on the terrace together. Do this on the regular, and your understanding of each other will grow. But... what happens when you get to the point, as we have, where there are people who are in conflict with each other, or people who would never call it that but would also never join a group activity because they just can't bear to spend time with some of the other people. 
A group of us (the current directors, who 'own' these risks) decided we would put some ££ into this coming year's budget to help us address this. We proposed some £ for external facilitation, to help us with some of our thornier issues (or even to diagnose what those issues are), and some £ for general 'wellbeing' activities. Coming at it from both ends, if you like. We have a nascent wellbeing team, but they are still forming, and in the meantime, for years now, the whole issue of 'wellbeing' has been parked with directors. This is not our first go at having a wellbeing team, nor even our second, so you can maybe already see the case for giving this some attention. 
Well. The place went even more nuts. It's all very much a live issue and I don't want to make anyone I actually like's life any harder so I'll spare the really gory details, but a few weeks in to this three members of the very-clear-that-they're-not-actually-a-team-yet wellbeing team send a message out to the whole community about how they are "surprised and saddened" that we'd thought it appropriate to do this. Mmm, sure. One of them was actually literally in the (Zoom) room at the time, as she was a director herself, and she supported both the original proposal *and* the significantly reduced proposal we made based on community feedback about not putting the overall budget up. One of them lives with that one, so must have missed that memo. And the third one just thinks wellbeing should be free. I can accept that as a position, but what about the other people who would like to be able to spend some money on some nice things? Can't we think about them? Because whatever wellbeing looks like, this ain't it. 
The director who thought something she agreed to twice was now the worst thing ever resigned, in some style. As I said to my fellow remaining directors, there is an obvious point I could make about this absolutely proving the case about the conversations we need to have as a community and how it feels to be hammered for being out there saying that.
As I also said, it's not my first cohousing shithouse rodeo, but it's not great.
And so, we reach Fish Can 4. Surprised and saddened? Fuck off. Come back when you're ready. I'll be alone, dancing, you know it, baby.

Monday, March 15, 2021

Are we nearly there yet?

When I was a kid, we had a pink bathroom: pink bath, toilet and basin, pink tiles, pink bath mat, pedestal mat and toilet seat cover - and, for a long time, a pink carpet. It had a towel rail over the radiator, and our four pink towels hung on it, identical but neatly initialled by my mum -T, D, J, P - and always in the same order, so you would never use the wrong one. 
I used them all. I would get out of the bath and wrap my towel round my middle, then another round my shoulders, one round my head and the last one round my knees and feet so I was basically more towel than human. Then I would lean against the radiator, and think. Sometimes I would read. But I loved it in there, in the towels, with a hot back, with the door locked. We had to make our own fun etc. 
And my love of a good bath has never left me, nor of a good towel. By the time I left home bath sheets were a thing, and I still have the two I went off to university with. I own other towels, but I always default to these. These days I don't have a hot radiator to lean against, and it is one of the disappointments of eco-home living: no towel scorch. But on the bright side I get a very hot bath any time I want one, and I wrap myself in my bath sheet for a bit while I brush my teeth, and then fold it onto the pillow and lie on the bed to steam gently. 
So, baths. Baths are one of the things getting me through. At least one a day, and quite often two. Morning baths have Badedas in them and the main light on, night time baths have something by Kniepp or Neals Yard and have the little light on. We've painted the room dark blue. It's good. 
We did Dry January (madness, I know, but December was very wet, what with the not being able to travel to Oxford as planned and only actually realising this wasn't possible the day before we were supposed to go, that was all a bit shit, especially as we'd eaten everything in the fridge). The evening bath first made a regular appearance then, as did Yoga with Adriene. We did that every single day: yoga, dinner, Netflix, bath, bed, or sometimes yoga, bath, dinner, Netflix, bed, for a change. I had wild insomnia to start with, but it's fair to say my body has remembered how to sleep. What it's struggling with is remembering how to wake up. 
There are also books. I lost the ability to read books for about a year after my mum died. It felt extremely weird at the time, as I am generally a voracious reader. But I just couldn't make the space, even though space is what I really needed. It came back, the ability, but then it went again when M got cancer and I got made redundant and our next door neighbour died in a way that seemed to require us all to be a part of it. I lost more than the ability to read books that summer. And recovery takes time. 
During Lockdown 1 I couldn't read much (well, I read all the time, but mostly in 280 character bursts)... too much bandwidth needed to just try and make sense of the world. But by Lockdown 3 I think I'd realised that that is one of the jobs that literature does. There's nothing new under the sun, not really. Or at least no new feelings. Find the right book, and you will feel seen. 
I had a wonderful time with Convenience Store Woman -- I don't yearn to work in a convenience store but I do spend a lot of time totally baffled by people around me (#notallpeople) and I love how she works out that okay, this is how you're supposed to do it, but also entertains murderous thoughts. But I had an even better time with Housekeeping -- I got fully lost in it, a world where honestly, why would you do the things you just can't see the point of doing? It all ends in the lake anyway. I'm now reading Ducks, Newburyport, which is a full thousand pages long and I've enormously enjoyed the 150 or so I've got through so far, so I think it's safe to say I'm back in the reading game. For now at least. 
I had a lovely lockdown birthday, with a Thai meal kit from Dishpatch, which was *amazing* (also vegan, don't tell anyone), and my beloved bought me a big glass vase, into which I put flowers that arrive every month. We've got a new season of Unforgotten, we're eating as well as two people in rural Lancashire can, and we've got the broad beans in. I've started listening to Radio 3, which has surprised no one more than me, though I do remember saying years ago that there was time for classical music in my old age. I said the same about Europe though, and look what happened there. 
But it all feels very... holding pattern. I've got my first vaccine dose booked, 21 million of my fellow citizens have already had theirs, we should be landing soon, yes? 
I don't know how it's going to feel when we do, this is my current worry. I am pretty misanthropic at the best of times (though wildly fond of many people, obvs), what will it be like when we can go places? I haven't been on a bus or a train for over a year now. I've been to Lancaster maybe three times, not counting the click and collect spot in the Sainsbury's car park. I literally can't imagine going to London. On the one hand I desperately want to, but on the other, I have squirreled away into my house and my tiny list of places I go, and ... it's actually fine? 
I do realise that I am absurdly lucky on the housing front (though more on Lockdown Ecoville soon, it's making me crazy), and on the work front, and on the relationship front, and on the regularly visiting cat front -- and I am very much in need of a haircut and in want of a swimming pool, but we don't actually *have* to go anywhere, you know? When I was a teenager I met a man in Lytham who'd never been further than Preston. He was probably in his 50s, he wasn't planning to change that situation. All those people who don't have passports, even now. Imagine never having left the country. Thinking this is it. 
But I have left the country, of course. I have a mind to travel in. Maybe that's the difference. I have excellent pyjamas and a big imagination, I can go anywhere. But we just booked a weekend at Center Parcs (postponed significant birthday celebration for one of M's children) in June, and it feels absolutely momentous. Center Parcs! I am not sure this year is going to be any less weird than last year, frankly. We need to be easy on ourselves. Although my god, that first pint of real ale is going to be good. 

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.