No. 30 Mental health barely makes the list?

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Yes, it’s a long dark road!

Mental Health Awareness, whether it’s a day or a book or a talk, the focus is largely on trying to achieve one of two things A. An end to the stigma that surrounds mental health and/or B. To raise awareness of the need for access for treatment and maybe even funding for treatment. Outside of these 2 campaigning points there’s usually a huge focus on getting people to accept their illness. All three things are pivotal if we are going to march towards eliminating mental health issues like we do HIV, Cancer and Dementia, but I have noticed something lacking, even when the buzz is at its highest during World Mental Health Day, where’s the “what you can do” rallying cry? The demand that together we can beat it? The unabashed demand for money for research? For solidarity? Facebook, bloggers, vloggers and friends moved me this week with their posts in support of such an important day, but the tone was a little subdued. There were gentle reminders of compassion, empathy, “until you walk in their shoes” type stuff, but no real hard hitting advice on how you, if you are not suffering with a mental health issue, have as much responsibility to be the lynch pin that holds shit together for someone with a mental health illness as you do for someone with a physical illness. I think it’s time we opened up the conversation about how the healthy, the family, the friends, the lovers, the employers and the society around someone with a mental health issue can be supportive.

  1. Don’t pass it off as, “normal” just because you think you have a shared experience

I have 2 scenarios for you: The first is for women, if you met someone who doubled up with stomach pain regularly, would you flippantly say, “all women get like that, think about how bad period pain is, doesn’t mean anything is wrong” without any real knowledge about frequently they experienced the pain or whether it had anything to do with periods?

The second, if you are a guy, you are talking to a friend who is pretty low about how he hasn’t been able to get an erection would you say, “happens to everyone when they are drunk, no big deal” regardless of how frequently your friend was afflicted by it or if alcohol was involved?

Unless you’re highly insensitive, I doubt it. Use that same sense of rational discretion in just being flippant about emotional issues too and the world would be a better place! It is very easy to dismiss mental health problems on the basis of thinking we all share those feelings but some of us just choose to lie down in them.

“We all get down”

“You just have to keep fighting, be strong”

“People have it a lot worse than you and cope”

“Most people can’t sleep when they are bothered about something” “I can’t eat anything before a job interview”

“all girls go through phases of hating the way they look”

“it’s just part of growing up”

“boys are gonna fight, boys will be boys”

“you just like feeling like you know what’s going on, nobody likes feeling like they don’t have control”

Words have power. I have no idea of the percentage, but let’s assume 100% of people would fear being diagnosed with Cancer, let’s also assume the same percentage of people don’t want to face a lifelong label of a mental health illness… Words will make people with a lump they’ve been ignoring go to a doctor; no one who loved someone ever said, “just ignore that lump, you’re right, it’s probably nothing, no big deal it’s getting worse”. But many of the same people will turn to another person they love and tell them it’s just a bad day, even if those bad days have been getting more frequent. From personal experience, I hung on every one of those affirmations that I was ok, even when in the back of my mind I could see that the balance of good and bad days, feelings and thoughts had shifted way beyond what was normal and healthy. When you are suffering with very low mood you often don’t like or trust yourself, you don’t see the value in your own beliefs but you might hang on the words of others as you value them more than yourself.

 

  1. Don’t fall in love with someone, or find someone incredibly sexy, because you think they are a broken thing you can fix.

I know, what a horrible thing to say! How does this have anything to do with mental health? Quite simply actually, we all know someone who feels better about themselves when helping someone else. That trait, in itself, is not the problem, some incredibly inspiring people have dedicated their lives to bettering those of others, but it can spawn 2 dangerous side effects. The first, the ill person will not get professional help, the second, you will enable them to get worse and make recovery more difficult.

So, how to challenge this?

Well, a crude observation, if someone is an insane lover but a wreck outside of that, don’t just help them fuck the pain away. Sex, drugs, drink… What do they have in common? All of them are a great way to escape. Sex is so physical and so demanding it is a very good way to distract someone from the thoughts in their head, from the nervous energy running through their body or from the long dark hours of sleeplessness. Sex is a great way to bring someone back into the moment when their mind has been off in long labyrinth of thoughts that stop them being present for huge chunks of the day. You can’t really guess someone is depressed when they are fucking like a pro, but that’s because often people assume depression is someone in bed all day, someone who can’t raise a smile, someone who has no opinions and is generally dull, a vanilla ice cream, luke warm tea type. This image is ridiculous and ignorant; remove it from your mind! From now on, let’s not forget Robin Williams killed himself. Let’s try to remember Robin Williams throughout dialogues about mental health and recall his wit, charisma, charm, impeccable sense of timing and sharp tongue… He was still ill.

A lot of people have heard someone make a comment about how, “crazy” or “needy” the girl they are sleeping with is but how great the sex is. To me, that’s cruel anyway, it’s not really cool to claim bragging rights about sex (especially when everyone does it, including your parents!) but it verges on abusive to use someone you are so casually able to talk about as not being ‘normal’. Just because someone can take the time to make themselves up, have the energy to dance all night and then go home with you, doesn’t mean they are not struggling. If red flags start waving at a later date, don’t ignore them because they don’t fit your narrow idea of what depression looks like. Think Cara Delevingne.

We all know that girls are actively sent the message that their worth is in their bodies, but it’s also pretty accepted that a damsel in distress in sexy, that a knight in shining armour is admirable, we need to stop this madness. Now. If from a very young age girls subconsciously believe that they are not emotionally equipped to rely on themselves to navigate their choices around their own best interests, then they will frequently fail to do so.

We all know the prince and princess stereotypes are ridiculous, yet princess clothing, slogans and identities are still indulged, I don’t see as many little prince shirts floating around, but the idea of a girl being spoilt, superficial and needing waiting on is indulged.

Apart from that little aside, gender norms are damaging. If we tell girls a guy can save them and guys that they can be the saviour, it’s inevitably going to ruin relationships when either party realise love or determination is not enough to cure mental health issues. Believing that love can cure everything emotional, hurts people, it makes them feel ashamed when they are not strong enough to carry the burden of an ill partner alone, it makes women with post-natal depression feel sick with themselves for not feeling what they thought they would, and all of these feelings get buried as there’s still a stigma around being honest about mental health illnesses. How many people have found out about a loved one’s condition very late?! I highly doubt the ill person made a firm decision not to tell you because they didn’t need or trust you; it is usually from a place of wanting to protect you from something they feel ashamed of.

Ok, if you are in a relationship with someone who cannot perform simple tasks without your assistance because their anxiety gets out of control, you should want to find ways to help them control that anxiety so they are happier in themselves independently of you. It should not be taken as a sign of how much you meant to them or that you are the one making them better. Someone else’s illness should not make you feel of use or value; you are already those things and will still be when they are well. I have genuinely heard good people say, “I like being the one she needs, she doesn’t need a doctor if she’s got me” and it makes me feel very uncomfortable.

When my anxiety was at its worst I could just not make decisions, (which is common for people with anxiety) so basic things like food shopping would become a nightmare. Shelves in Tesco have never been so alarming as when you can’t quite decide which meat size is adequate, sauce is the taste you want, or remember which vegetables are needed, simply because all the choices are making your breathing strain and all you can think about is how much you just need to move out of that aisle and get yourself to pick the meat up but you just stand there feel paralysed, worthless and very much alone in a sea of ‘normal’ people who are just blithely picking up shit and dropping it in their baskets! Now, before I accepted my illness, my go-to solution was calling the person I trusted most, was asking for their advice (because I couldn’t hear/trust my own), and sending a flurry of messages, getting someone else to make the call. Sometimes I would just go home empty handed and lie, say I hadn’t gone, just to avoid confronting how useless I was.

So, what could have helped? Well, in my mind at the time, nothing! OR, when I was particularly irrational, not having an absurd expectation that I should have to do anything, or YOU DO IT, IF YOU LOVE ME YOU WOULD DO IT! If someone you love is projecting this sort of ferocity about food shopping, paying bills, anything that requires a time frame or decision and they seem totally unable to articulate a reason for feeling so awful about it, they might be suffering with anxiety. They are not just a lazy useless shit bag! (This is probably what they think of themselves at least 25 times a day) If you want to help them retain their independence, help! Facilitate them still doing things themselves, but take out the decision part that can feel so stressful, make a list of exact things (maybe even how many potatoes), do the shopping with them, but give them half the list, set up an online shopping account but make sure you work out how to use it together so it doesn’t trigger a feeling of worthlessness later. Sounds simple?

It isn’t… because all of this requires thought and patience and is probably completely at odds with how the person you are helping has lived before, so it feels patronising and weird. But, if your partner had surgery and you had to wipe their arse, you would, without hesitation, even if it was uncomfortable for everyone involved, simply because it’s necessary. Same with someone suffering with anxiety… Go through it with them, make life easier, without letting them stop doing things! Don’t expect equal levels of gratitude either, sometimes you will be the hero sometimes the enemy, nobody wants to be the person needing to be spoon fed. Nobody wants to be grateful about shared shopping, especially if you used to actually be fiercely independent or you are fearful about how this change might strain your relationship.

  1. Accept the whole, “it isn’t you, it’s me”

Bi-Polar, Depression, Mood Disorders, Anxiety, Post-Natal Depression… Often people who suffer with these things become inconsistent friends. Friends that seem to have faded to the background, stopped answering calls, responding to texts, cancelling things with you and generally, acting like a selfish arsehole. Welcome to the worst symptom and side-effect of illnesses that simply have you lying in bed for hours and lacking motivation. My mum once said to me, “have you ever thought that maybe people want to know you’re interested in them, that it doesn’t have to be you talking, that you could just listen and act like you’re still interested?” and I still can’t explain why this doesn’t feel like an option. All the time I was at my worst I still loved people, I just didn’t feel connected to them at all and that felt so terrifying that I didn’t feel capable of facing it. Yes, I actively ignored calls, made excuses for attending things and cancelled plans, but it wasn’t because I didn’t care, thought these old friends were worthless, wasn’t interested. I just lacked any motivation some days, others I felt consumed by panic and couldn’t convince myself to even reply to a message. A lot of people who are in the worst stages of these illnesses lose whole hours of their lives and can’t tell you what they were doing. I could have my phone in my hand for an hour and not type a text because I couldn’t find the words.

Especially if your friend has a diagnosis, help by accepting it’s them not you. Don’t stop inviting them to things, don’t play the old, “they can message me first” game to find out who cares more, don’t think they don’t need you either, these illnesses already make them feel isolated and worthless, try not to add to it. When you’re getting frustrated, tell them but don’t give up. Also, my best advice, find some new common ground, maybe they can’t face things that used to bring them joy, that’s not a reflection of you that’s a reflection of what they are dealing with. Dancing, late nights, big groups of people might be too much, you turning up with ingredients for a pancake breakfast, making the pancake breakfast and not caring they haven’t got dressed might be easier to face!

If you value this person, do your research too, the only friends I questioned when I was feeling more rational were the ones still angry with me for things that were clearly part of my illness not me, a simple google of anxiety will explain why huge chunks of my memory were off. If it was a type of Cancer you didn’t understand, you’d be on Google, it’s the same with mental health issues, you do not understand it just because you’re human and, “everyone has bad days”! Educating yourself will prevent a lot of bad feeling, when you see it’s the illness, not you or your friend.

  1. Don’t tell people meds are bad, you’re not a doctor!

This might be one of the more sinister things people with mental health problems experience, people telling them they don’t need meds, that meds are bad or that they will never be ok independently if they start using medication. Wow. If only those same people said, “getting shit faced won’t make it better, relying on alcohol to chat up a girl/dance/relax means you’re a slave to booze, I don’t think you are ever going to be independent again”. I’m not even going to bite my tongue on this, telling an ill person who might be finally starting to accept they need help that, “everyone seems to be on anti-depressants these days” is not ok. Let’s go back to Cancer, ever heard, “everyone seems to just get given chemo these days”? No, because there’s an assumption people deserve a chance to fight cancer with chemo, the same assumption should be made for someone with depression.

A little lesson for anyone terrified of these pills too, (bearing in mind I was, I left 3 different doctors’ appointments having a panic attack because they said I wouldn’t be able to control my anxiety without them and start to get better. Three times I rejected them and left unable to breathe, walk properly or hold myself up without assistance. That’s the amount of shame I felt for not being able to value my own health, luck, friends, family and life enough to feel happy or safe within my own skin.) The pills don’t take it all away, nor do they make you lose your ‘true identity’ (my biggest fear) if you are a hot-headed, judgemental little madam you will still be a hot-headed, judgemental little madam using the pills, you just might be able to understand what you’re hot-headed about and be confident about your anger rather than so consumed by it you can’t even breathe. You might get some sense of proportion and scale back, you might be able to understand that not being able to find a matching pair of socks and having a tooth pulled out are not equally as terrible.

The pills are not like a switch that will turn it all off, that is why people are often on them for a long time, the pills are just a step, they move feelings that threaten to drown you further away, so it’s easier to function, they don’t remove them, you still need to learn to challenge them and eventually force them out and that’s an even bigger battle, but the pills often help you have a little more energy for that main battle.

  1. Be open-minded: Therapy is good!

I actually added the section about pills and therapy last, even now, when having neither; I find these topics make me squirm a bit. I still have a sense that one day, probably when I try to adopt or get a job that requires a background check, my health record will be sneered at and I will be stamped as lesser. Maybe it’s silly, but I feel it nonetheless. But, why write something and hide from the bits you feel most passionately about? So, here goes. I have had 8 sessions of CBT, 38 counselling sessions, 12 physiotherapy sessions, 3 rounds of hypnotism (I don’t advise this, it’s not medically advised thing either, I was just feeling pretty desperate) 8 rounds of acupuncture and used anti-depressants for 574 days (frequently lying and saying I had stopped earlier to avoid people thinking I hadn’t worked hard enough to get off them) I also took up roller derby and spent 6 hours a week skating to try to get rid of some of the nervous energy I had and keep my mind in the moment, changed to working part-time so I could sleep more, attempted meditation and failed because of panic attacks, attempted mindfulness and failed because it made me feel worthless that I couldn’t focus on it enough.

I estimate I spent around, £1000 on my mental health, for the pills, counselling (£15 a session, I was lucky to get it at that rate, they offered a staggered donation thing based on earnings), acupuncture (for unexplained pains in my neck, head shoulders and sleeplessness) and hypnotherapy (that was £50 for 3 sessions, I was trying to find a way to get around the anxiety I feel about food textures). Without the NHS support in subsidising most of the pill fee, free CBT, free physiotherapy and free assessment of my health I wouldn’t have been able to afford to get well. I owe the NHS my sanity. The money, although I frequently resented paying it out, was the best investment I’ve ever made.

However, I was lucky, I could afford it. A lot of people cannot afford it or do not want to have to pay for it, maybe it’s a British thing? Our healthcare is normally free so if we need to pay for counselling maybe it’s not a good treatment? Whatever the reason, try to shake it. It’s been proven that the pills are more effective with the support of a talking therapy of some sort. I was only given free CBT because I was assessed as being severely depressed and severely anxious, if I had been diagnosed with mild depression or anxiety my CBT would have been online in an IT room in a weird youth centre, with someone sat at a desk checking us in and out, it would not have been as useful and I wouldn’t have committed to it. A computer is no match for a professional and there are professionals looking for work.

I think it’s important we all start demanding better provisions for those with mental health illnesses, sometimes I feel like this group are so under represented exactly because the government can avoid funding these services, so save money, as less people are willing to complain about it and argue entitlement as there’s a culture of blaming yourself for being ill that doesn’t exist with physical illnesses. That’s not ok. Vulnerable people need access to healthcare services, imagine if we treated the elderly with Dementia the same way.

Who am I to advocate sitting in a room and talking to a stranger? Just someone who benefitted from it. I am like many other people who get ill and take a long time to come to terms with it: I am lucky, privileged actually, I am well educated, come from a stable home and have always been put first by my parents, I have a strong group of friends, I have achieved a lot, travelled a lot, have good earning potential, good health and have always been loved. I still got ill. Depression, Anxiety and the whole gang of other alien brain invaders do not discriminate, much like death, they are equal opportunity employers. Frankly, other people do discriminate though, I don’t fit a bracket of people who should be ill, so often I was misread as being aggressive, moody and a general pain in the arse (which I was when I couldn’t get a handle of my moods because I couldn’t rationalise anything) a trained professional removes the expectation that you should get better right away because there’s people worse off than you, my counsellor and CBT practitioner helped me accept my illness when others wanted to deny it based on misinformed views of what these illnesses look like and the type of people who suffer with them.

A stranger does not have the emotional investment in you that a loved one does, you can tell a stranger that you don’t find pleasure in anything, that you don’t see any sort of future, that you don’t feel of any value or that you’re suicidal and not hurt them, not ruin their day, not damage your relationship irreparably. That same stranger is a professional that will not just say, “everyone gets down” or tell you, “you’ll feel better in the morning” they will calmly tell you it’s going to be a long journey and they step by step they will show you methods of coping on that journey, because the are professionally trained to do so, and they will see if you meet your milestones and recommend other things if you don’t.

Don’t be afraid that a therapist is taking your place, or filling someone’s head with the fact you are to blame. Allow someone you love to need someone that isn’t you, it will help you both.

  1. Be prepared to go outside of your comfort zone

People say stuff they mean in the moment but isn’t actually indicative of who they are at all.  In bad spells, it’s hard to rationalise, bad stuff comes out. Try to work out what is simply said in a moment and what is actually lingering there that needs to be dealt with and challenge people, gently. Ask them to give you specific examples and if their examples could have a different interpretation offer it. But, be careful; offer it with kindness, good humour and in private. Challenging thoughts with evidence is one of the first major CBT goals, but it is very very difficult to accomplish it when you’ve had years of automatically responding and trusting your judgements. But letting people think stuff you know just doesn’t seem rational, isn’t going to help your friend, even if it does make the moment more comfortable.

Even if you’re a partner or parent to someone with an illness like Anxiety, and you know them intimately and they adore you, whatever you assumed was a fixed part of them and could always be relied upon to hold true, might change while they are ill. Adapt your expectations to help both of you. If your partner cannot get out of bed for work but you leave first, make it your responsibility to get them up even though it seems childish, make a cup of tea, pick out an outfit there and then, don’t just assume they will eventually do it without your help, it’s not always in them to fight the battle of a million decisions. It doesn’t matter that your partner used to tease you about how much you hate the alarm, or used to be a morning person, or is now only ever a little late, you need to face the truth about how some trivial things are now a trigger for anxiety and face them together rather than ignore them.

  1. Accept the apology

I’m not going to dwell on this one. Sometimes you will lose people to these illnesses, they will see you differently even if you haven’t changed, they will need different things from you without warning, they might not be able to articulate themselves and you might disappoint each other. Sometimes the damage lasts. Sometimes ill people only see things more clearly when they are well, at that point maybe they have cancelled on you one too many times or missed too many significant things, said unkind, cruel and regretful thing or just not been there for you. Maybe you can’t repair that, but at least accept the apology when they manage to see how they pushed you away. It wasn’t them, it was their illness and living with things you lost when you were ill is one of the hardest things to bear.

This is the longest post I’ve ever written and it’s pretty clumsy and could be prettier or funnier, but I guess I still don’t feel like this is a pretty or funny topic. A lot of people who need help are not getting it, those getting help are not actually getting as much as they should because of under funding, until people are screaming from the rooftops about mental health provisions like they do for provisions for Cancer sufferers it’s no trivial topic.

End the stigma, open up more honest dialogues. Let’s get better.

 

 

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No. 16 More substance than a quirky quote

There’s an old argument, I tend to agree with, that goes by simply being female you are a feminist. Another argument, eloquently put by Justin Trudeau, is, “Feminism is about equal rights and opportunities for men and women, about everyone having the same choices without facing discrimination based on gender. Equality is not a threat, it is an opportunity”. But, within these very simplistic arguments, along with that old nasty one about man hating, there’s no instruction booklet on how to be a good feminist. And, despite all the eloquent quotes, it’s not common sense. It isn’t obvious. You can’t just read the right columnists. Feminism, in its most effective form, is a lifestyle. A version of life I don’t know how to live (and not just because I don’t want to burn my luxurious, dainty, coordinated bras either).

In a world where Taylor Swift can use her voice to sway Apple, you know there is progress. (the company had originally released a statement saying artists wouldn’t be paid royalties for music streamed while customers were using the service during the free trial period, Swift criticised this in an open letter, the company openly reversed the decision to gain access to Swift’s 1989) I very much enjoy screeching along to Swift in the car,  am desperate to see her live, got tears in my eyes for the kindness of her hand made Christmas hampers in 2014, consistently feel totally delighted that such a huge star is willing to: laugh at herself, promote the value of female friendships, be open about how she has created imaginary characters out of her cats, admit making poor choices and having been hurt and vulnerable. Swift admits all this and is successful and thriving… So, why is it then, as a ‘feminist’ I am so concerned about her outfit for the Grammys and her recent bikini shot on Instagram?  Why do I get an uneasy feeling that I shouldn’t allow myself to think she can be a little hero of mine? I’ve never worried about David Bowie’s outfits, and they have been way more outlandish and risqué, or thought that they might somehow have a bearing on whether he is genuinely a worthy role model. So, here it is, the very dirty truth and bewildering paradox… I am a feminist that worries about the clothing choices of my female role models but not of their male counterparts.

How can I explain this? Simple. Women have wrongly been judged and defined by their looks for, well, you know this one! Women have been consistently put into the Madonna, Whore and, well, you know that one too! Women have had their bodies, bought, sold, regulated and… You know this one too! So, to avoid all the obvious, basically, I’m always a little terrified that I’m going to find out behind every successful woman is a sleazy little history that dictates a tiny part of said woman’s brain and tells her no matter how much she achieves, those achievements need to be packaged nicely for them to have a real impact. Propaganda brainwashed bit then makes women post a gym pic, post a close-up sleepy eyes with sexy bed hair pic, crawl on the floor in a video with the angles allowing cleavage to be seen and so on. In other words, these potential heroes of mine are suspected frauds and I’m constantly trying to find evidence.

This neurotic confession reveals the issue with living as a feminist and not just having a good stock of soundbites; I believe that women should have the equal right to a man to enjoy their bodies but in reality I will judge their choices as I feel acutely aware of the impact they have on the way my own choices are perceived by others. Taylor Swift is beautiful. Her body is beautiful. Taylor Swift works hard to have a body in that condition. Her Grammy outfit was stunning and playful and fitting for her age and showed off a body that was hard earned. But, what did I see? Her body is hard earned because she will be endlessly defined by her body in her industry and the definition of beauty is still narrow and she is conforming to it. If Taylor Swift is conforming to it, then how the hell can I avoid conforming to it?

It’s not hard to define the other reasons I don’t live like a ‘real’ Feminist: My barometer of success is set to read how loved I feel rather than achievements, I am a poster girl for an averagely pretty, averagely privileged, (super pale) white girl who conforms to the cliché of believing her life is hard… When it’s not. My waistline permeates my thoughts obsessively, I think on it like someone who might be going without food right this second is thinking on the gravity of that, I make schemes in my mind like a desperate person. My waistline is not a desperate situation.

When I was still in school, I remember tying the string from a hoody around my stomach for a whole month after reading if you tied it a little tight your stomach would naturally shrink. (Bullshit) and the honest truth is, I’m not a real feminist because I didn’t just cry because it didn’t work, I cried harder because my boyfriend didn’t tell me it was unnecessary when his fingers found it.

There’s a lot of years between me and school, there’s a few boyfriends between me and the high school one too, but at 31 I’m still a pretty shabby excuse for an enlightened, empowered, confident Feminist. A person should be able to value themselves, assess their strengths and shortcomings based on their own value system and trust their own judgements, put simply, I. Do. Not. Do. This. Well. I’m great at getting all the judgements ready in my mind, like any reasonable person, but when it comes applying them to myself it’s chaos. I cannot feel proud independently for any sustained period unless I get the approval of others, I can undermine my own capacities because my hair colour is wrong and therefore, even if I’d just saved a kid from a burning building, and balanced the pet hamster on my head at the same time, I could be convinced that that action had not been taken seriously because people were distracted by my dodgy bleach job and slightly sizzled fringe.

The strange thing is, I know I’m a Feminist trapped inside the body of a weak willed coward because, I still bleached my hair. This sounds like a tiny inconsequential thing, but it isn’t. The Feminist inside told me to do it! I’ll explain, but be patient! Since bleaching my hair a number of my pupils and colleagues have unintentionally confirmed that my fears are not unfounded by saying things like, “well, hard to take someone with purple hair seriously” and although this has been said flippantly, with a smile, and by some as a sincere on point quip, it resonates. I knew that there would be a certain amount of pupils who would see my hair as a reason to take my feedback less seriously, my authority less seriously, me less seriously. The Feminist in me said, “fuck that!” and reminded me that MLK said we should be judged on the content of our character and he was wise, I should trust his declaration, I should support it. I know MLK probably wouldn’t like me jumping on the bandwagon and butchering his words to talk about my hair, but he’s dead, so…

To me, a real Feminist will make decisions that are rational and bound to a deep sense of self-worth. A real feminist will not be too scared of challenging women on how they contribute to a culture that is less than healthy for the esteem of girls and women. It’s not logical that I can flip the bird to a man shouting something about my body out of a car but can’t speak up to a friend who casually comments on what sort of bra would make my boobs look better (she means bigger, obviously!)

Too much digressing. I’m scared of people like Adele and Taylor Swift, they tell stories of heartbreak, searching for a place to be themselves only to  give that place away carelessly as soon as they find it for someone else to have the key and use it against them. They’re telling a truth that millions of girls, women and myself can relate to, even when we don’t want to. Women define themselves by how wanted we are, frequently. It’s easier said than done to be an independent woman. Even Beyoncé would probably agree, especially as she sold that message to the masses by looking pretty and gyrating suggestively.

I’m sure Mary Woolstonecraft was thinking of Beyonce when she quipped equality for women could only happen when you, “treat them like rational creatures, instead of flattering their fascinating graces, and viewing them as if they were in a state of perpetual childhood, unable to stand alone.”

There it is, the mean girl in me, the anti-feminist, I don’t like Beyoncé because although her success is intimidating I find myself focusing on the fact that if she was an ugly woman her career wouldn’t have had the same longevity. Why I blame Beyoncé for this I don’t know. But I do get this flash of annoyance, is it subverting patriarchy when you don’t wear the same awards show dress? Like, Ever! Or are you adding to the problem that women are still viewed as objects? Maybe I have just spent too many years in classrooms despairing at how the pupils don’t listen to the ugly girls. The girls don’t want to be them and the boys don’t want to date them, so what use are their words, what valuable contribution could they possibly have to make? Maybe I have read too many comments from trolls who try to shame Lena Dunham for flashing her flesh when it doesn’t meet narrow beauty parameters.

I can’t be a feminist until I too embrace the fact that beautiful successful women are not to be feared for their beauty, it is not their intention to shame us (unless their surname happens to be Kardashian) and it is not their fault that their looks may have contributed to their success. I also need to stop fearing Taylor has abandoned her girl-power mojo because she is comfortable with her body in a bikini, it is, again, not her fault I’m not comfortable with my own bikini body, she probably wasn’t trying to make me feel bad.She probably doesn’t know I exist, it’s not like I got a Father Christmas emoji from her. Or a package.

We can’t just read Caitlin Moran and send copies to our friends and believe we are feminists; if we do, we will be unwittingly contributing to the slowing of the march towards equality.

 

 

 

 

No. 29 Become a ‘local’

When you type the words, ‘become a local’ into Google the first page is full of adverts about  how you could make a difference if you became a local councillor and then there’s one very interesting link to a page called, ‘Rent a Local Friend’. Dubious.

Why did I ever have this aim? What did I imagine when I wrote it? Honestly, I saw a vision of a flat in the Northern Quarter, Manchester, weekly trips (that all social occasions would be built around) to a pub quiz where the bar tender would eventually know my drink order (quite easy when you’re only ever on softs!). I could see myself strolling to the Arndale markets, maybe, and buying my veg in an environmentally friendly shopping bag (which I actually remembered every time) and chatting happily to the same man as he bagged it all up. I guess, I had a thirst for knowing the secrets of the city, for feeling comfortable in it, for finding tiny cafes and bars in side streets, having the luxury to indulge my whims of giving myself time to spend in record shops and book shops that I usually rushed passed. I wanted to know local bands, as I could walk home and still be in bed by half 11.

I just wanted to wander around Manchester when it wasn’t peak times and do it slowly until I knew it, could map it like my own history and then begin to understand it and own it in some way. Make it home. I love that city, I just still feel lost in it. I had a really strong conviction that by 30 you should really fit in somewhere. Confidently,

Maybe the Google results and I have something in common. Those adverts are about feeling like you belong.

Now, I live in Tlalpan, Mexico City (just; it got swallowed by the sprawl but used to be a city of its own). I didn’t think this place would be home or somewhere I wanted to be a local, I thought it would be an experience/adventure. However, I’m starting to feel like a local.

My guide to knowing if you’re a local in Mexico City:

You can sleep through an entire night and not wake up with your heart pounding because of fireworks that are let off at random 365 days a year, 24 hours a day. (Except Bonfire Night!)

You can continue teaching without seriously considering the best way to protect your children from the murderous gunman that has opened fire on the grounds; as you now understand those loud bangs are fireworks being thrown in the car park.

You don’t bother looking up to see if you can catch a shower of sparks from fireworks as you know that the firework of choice in Mexico is a banger. (Unless it’s Independence Day or something really special, as if they are frightened you will get bored of the beautiful colours but can never tire of the noise)

When you walk past a car sales place you can expect to see all the staff on the forecourt clapping, cheering and high intensity whistling if anyone has bought a car, even a just a little Golf. This ruckus continues until the car is safely on the main road and all the staff will wave emphatically, overjoyed for you. I still smile when I think of how much this surprised me the first time I was stomping pavement to the supermarket.

There are armed security guards and policemen in unexpected places, like the bakery; you no longer discuss this at length when you spot one or change your course to be as far away from the barrel of their gun as possible.

You know to take directions with a pinch of salt as Mexicans like to ‘help’ even if they have no idea what you are saying to them and will confidently send you in entirely the wrong direction just to be ‘polite’.

You learn to appreciate that eating a ten course meal, with each course wrapped in brittle, crinkling paper, in the cinema is totally normal, as is: answering your phone, talking loudly, laughing every 7 minutes religiously even if you are watching a very tense psychological thriller, that the writer wasn’t including a single joke in, is mandatory and that the consistent loud noise of ‘affectionate’ slaps of a boyfriend on a girlfriend’s arm is all to be taken as part of the atmosphere and not reason to lose your temper and shout.

You never get into a taxi and expect the driver to know where you live, even if he says he does. If you take the driver at face value you will not get annoyed that he takes you to entirely the wrong part of the city, is unapologetic, will leave the meter running while you try to find your home on Google Maps and the fare will have cost you double what you expected.

When queuing in an ice-cream parlour you no longer spend ages waiting for your turn only to be looked at blankly because you haven’t paid, before purchase, at a till (concealed behind bars) in the most hidden away corner of the room.

When you have violent diarrhoea at least once every 6 days you no longer fear it or question where or what you’ve eaten.

You don’t bother going through the long convoluted process of seeing a doctor when you get another parasite because Superama stocks a  drug that kills everything inside you within 24 hours and you don’t need a prescription to buy it.

When getting the Metrobus you know that you have 5 seconds to get on or off and the doors will slam into you if you dare to take longer than that, even if you are very old or disabled. You also never expect the driver to leave the doors open a moment longer if you are running for the bus even if he is stuck behind 2 other buses and is going to be at the station for another 30 seconds.

You have swapped fizzy drinks for Limonada Natural and never expect it to be made of lemons as limes are called Limons here.

It becomes clear to you that the only sensible way to transport a baby if you are using the Metrobus is in your arms, with a fleece blanket thrown over them; you start to think that prams are totally overrated and admire the upper body strength these parents have and the close connection they have with their children.

When you have a token black friend and a token blonde friend that you are walking with on the streets, you are totally unperturbed by all the stares that are directed your way and no longer miss Britain for the ability to be anonymous, you embrace the fact that this sight is a rarity and let people stare (and sometimes ask to touch their hair)

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You make sure you carry change to give to the person who bags your shopping in the supermarket, even if you could have put your loaf of bread and parasite killing drugs in a bag yourself because otherwise you know they don’t get paid. You no longer feel quite overwhelmed about how even the poorest people tip the bagging staff as you know that Mexicans have big hearts.

If you buy something expensive in a fancy department store you don’t get flustered by 5 members of staff crowding the till to count your money, give you a receipt and confirm everything at least 4 times; you accept that they think you are part of the mafiosa as nobody else carries large sums of cash. (We have no choice as we don’t have bank account so cash our wages in full)

You fall hopelessly in love with the way Mexicans use diminutives affectionately and start interspersing them in your own Spanglish conversations with abandon. (So, fat here is, “gordo” but they also use, “gordito”, masculine and, “gordita”, feminine, for what I can only translate as little fattie boy/girl. It’s used affectionately and can also apply to stuff like, “chica” becoming, “chicatita”)

When walking in your neighbourhood you give up on the pavements and stick to the side of the roads as you know that the pavements are death-traps: every 5 meters will involve a sudden step down, or up, of at least 12 inches, tree roots will have brought up entire sections, huge lamp post will be put directly in the middle of the pavement meaning you need to turn sidewards to pass them, and, if you’re lucky, there will sometimes be wires freely hanging from electricity poles.

You try to wander into Tlalpan Centro on Friday evening just to see the couples dancing in the square and you know that if you sit at one of the chairs assembled around the band-stand you will be invited to join in. You quietly admire the grace of the elderly woman that always bring her fan and snaps it out in perfect timing.

The main square in Tlalpan where bands and dancers gather.

The main square in Tlalpan where bands and dancers gather.

Maybe you can be a local anywhere, as long as your heart and mind are open? Everyone feels like an outsider sometimes! As Frida Kahlo once said, “I paint my own reality” and right now, I’m content with mine. I feel like a local here.

10th September 2013: An agitated English Tutor races down the spiral staircase to reception, for the third time, and breathlessly asks, “have you had a package for me yet?” The answer is finally, “yes” (without a smile, as is the custom of school secretaries)
Package in hand, the tutor sails through the doors, trips over her own feet twice while pounding on the pavement to get to her car, then, when safely stashed inside the metal machine, she cracks a grin, her face splits. It is skate day. After much vexation with tape bound too tightly and fingers being too feeble she gets to see them, her very own pair of roller hockey (to play roller derby) skates. Hers. Because she, at 28, is part of a team. A sports team! It was a sunny day too and the Blackbird who usually greeted her in the morning, when she pulled in, was there that afternoon to wave her off home. A good sign. Yes, her instinctive response to seeing her skates was, ‘they look a bit like clown shoes’ which, frankly, wasn’t what she’d been going for when she picked the red and black Renos; but still, she skated like a bit of clown so they would do just fine. And, did I mention? They were HERS!

Getting new skates is a game changer, because suddenly you have the potential for more control. You can loosen bits, (trucks maybe?!) have bad ass stops that you can actually rely on, (I spent 3 months without ever using the toe stops on the Arcadia skates, they are worn down and terrifying!) and they are mega responsive… So much so, you look like Bambi for at least the first day you wear them, an absent-minded tilt of the foot suddenly has the power to have you careering off in a direction you hadn’t intended to go. Basically, new skates are a thing of great beauty.

Didn’t even change out of my work clothes!

In the comfort of my home, I did not do the following things:
1. Reapply my make-up before putting my skates on for the very first time.
2. Play Avril Lavigne’s, ‘Here’s to Never Growing Up’ full blast while tying my skates (incorrectly)
3. Stay in my skates for 2 hours, while doing washing up and normal household chores, nearly falling down the stairs 5 times… Until, on Mat’s return, I was forced out of them.
4. Take photos of the skates from 5 different angles, just to immortalise their perfect newness.

Way too cool to do these things.

Since the investment in my new skates I have become a skate whore: my life, friendships and relationship revolve around skating, trips home revolve around skating. Babs’s 70th birthday (my loving mother-in-law) dared to fall on the very same Sunday I skate for 4 hours… It nearly killed me to miss it, so much so, I actually moaned to Bab’s herself… I genuinely hoped we’d have Sunday lunch rather than dinner… Just so I could skate. I know! Obsessed. Selfish. Pathetic… But, I am happy as a little girl wearing a daisy chain tiara when I walk through the doors of Arcadia on Sunday evening, it’s always a wonder to me, it transforms me. It’s become a home, the team a family, the car park a place I can always see the moon (who is definitely smiling at me). The track, somewhere, despite my nerves, I feel better in my own skin, more powerful.

However, new passion + new skills + new friends + all the good will in the world, doesn’t = ability to play roller derby well. Not. At. All.

Sunday November 18th 2013: I bundle into a car with Charmless at the wheel (know I’m a tribe member by now as I picked Charlie’s derby name for her, over riding Gareth’s claim it’s self-deprecating and usurping her ‘almost heart set on’ choice of Bird O’Prey) and we head off to the Wirral to our first mixed scrim. Charmless and I are bricking it. Lawless and Kim are buoyant, they re both stupidly talented when they put their mind to it and Georgia is somewhere in between; it’s different for her, she’s ended up coaching us for the last few weeks out of circumstance rather than choice and she wants us to enjoy ourselves but is worried.

She was right to be. DIS-AS-TER!

Unfortunate things to befall Arcadia Roller Derby Ladies:

1. A player got banned from the venue for berating the ref. Comments about his dick were made, there was screeching, staring and storming out. Most of us were too confused to really understand what had happened and why and felt useless and uneasy.

2. Lawless, later admitting it was in a state of defiance for being thrashed so badly, randomly skated the wrong way on the track. Jaws dropped. She was sent off.

3. My first attempt to jam was HIDEOUS. It was, by far, the worst thing to be seen during the whole event! I got a kind of stage fright and didn’t want to move, then when I did I slipped (weird gym floor that I hadn’t expected, only having ever skated on concrete) slammed my coccyx and thought I was going to die. Literally, had no previous understanding that I had a bone there and that little fucker let me know that was an oversight! (and would keep reminding me for weeks)

4. Charmless won’t admit it but her skating style was great and she did some really nice collaborative pack work, which is hard to do with strangers, but she spent a lot of time in the box. Both her and I hit 6, meaning one more time and, ‘adios bitchachos!’ Charlie is a proud lady and this bruised her ego; (For a first time, I think it was ok!) but more importantly, it made our team look bad, with her, Lawless and I being sent to the box all the time we were letting down the others and it was embarrassing for us. Georgia had her head in her hands. (The walk back to the changing rooms after was glum and Georgia literally could barely keep her, “”you lost your shit!” to a camaraderie tone)

However, none of this captures the severity of my misdemeanour. Not even close.

I went to the Wirral, inexperienced and eager (shirts hand-painted, with my name and number, the night before!) because I wanted to test my skills… I showed that I had none! Five months and NADA. I didn’t just eat humble pie, I got smacked-down with some cringe, shame, shock and humiliation pies too… If these metaphors had been real that day I would have suffocated from the volume of pies. Drowned.

I jammed, “for the experience” my line-up manager insisted; But I didn’t use the opportunity to learn, because like a fool all I could think was, “jamming means it’s all on me, I have to defeat everyone myself” and herein lies the problem… I do not cope well with pressure. Ever. In that moment on the jammer line, wearing my little starry hotpants (with leggings underneath!) I felt vulnerable and then angry that I was vulnerable and then panicked and then the whistle had gone, no tactics to be recalled, no plan, just fear and anger and 8 wheels and top speed and arms out in front of me… I did not even try to get through the wall of blockers from the opposing team. Not in any way, didn’t try to trick them by swooping from side-to-side, didn’t try and use my shoulder to force open a wider gap. I just hit them, with my arms. The line-fell, I fell. I hear, “F8, back block major! Off!”

Reputation matters in roller derby. Why did I go to the Wirral and show myself as being unsporting? That shit sticks. I was devastated. One of the penalty timers actually told me later that they’d felt sorry for me, could see how much I was just in auto-pilot panic mode. Seems like roller derby might not be the best sport to play when I suffer with an anxiety problem… But wait, I was terrible, our side lost, I fouled horribly and within 5 minutes of the end of the game an opposing team member is consoling me? Maybe I just need to practise? Harder. With more conviction? Yes, I’ll do that.

Anyway, the drive home could have been tense, silent and full of regret, but instead we went to the beach in the dark, balanced on the walls, wrote our derby names in the sand, piggy backed each other into the sea and laughed. We get to be on this planet for a lot longer than one day, we get to skate another day, redeem ourselves, progress, we get to do all of it! There’s a lot of ego in sport, there was none on the beach, just people happy to be alive. Best way to end the day.

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Oh, and Charmless made me an absolutely stunning birthday cake. DAIRY FREE. (The owl even travelled in the car with us because she was so pretty) and Kinders made us cakes with our team names on. because even when you Fale, you win if you’ve got friends. We might have been a shambolic team that day, but we were a team none-the-less and that’s when it really matters!

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No. 22 Carve a Heart into a Tree

I want to be remembered.
I want to own this moment. Forever.
I have something to prove.

These are the reasons we scrawl across desks, toilet doors, trees, mountains, walls, our bodies, trains, roofs and the sky. I WAS HERE!

Remember this. Remember us. Remember me.

When I was 15, and uncomfortable in my own skin, something happened that revolutionised the way I thought. It was something inconsequential and immature… but not to me. Not at 15.

Picture it: girl speaks to boy, who has been her best friend since they were 11, on the phone (landline no less, a ritual between these two, she sits with her back pressed against her parents bed frame, knees pulled under chin, attentive, because all the things they say to each other matter, she’s never in a rush to get off the phone, they have hopes and secrets to share. They are becoming.) One day, boy speaks to girl of an undeniable magnetism she has with his best male friend, this is a long running conversation… She denies it but her knows her. On this day though, he doesn’t tease her, he simply murmurs, “We went to the roof last night, I said to Rich we should write the names of the girls we could imagine actually being with forever. He wrote your name. He didn’t even hesitate, he just wrote your name.”

That was the moment the girl realised she was visible, her sense of presence could stretch outside of physical proximity. It blew her mind. She could just see it, her name laid out up there, with the stillness of night stretched all around, thousands of others yet to see it, and wonder about her, when they climbed up there for reprieve from everything. She could see the stars pressing down on it and her name looking back in defiance… Bold and assured. YES, UNIVERSE, I AM HERE!

Months later, she climbed the roof with both boys, one was holding her hand. She saw the name for herself, it was half a metre long and had been scratched into the granite with another stone, none of them mentioned it. Her face nearly broke with that smile though, the one she allowed when they lay side by side and stared out into the blackness asking the sky for answers and being sure they would all come.

That little anecdote isn’t an unusual one, think of the Love Locks Bridge in Paris:
Paris

Think of blood brothers! Two, mostly sane people, who actually cut themselves to share blood. It borders on obsession, maybe there’s a menacing possessive undercurrent too, but at its simplest form, I think sometimes people just feel they need to push themselves further to own that wonderful moment, to demonstrate their conviction. There are so many rainy days, why not make the sunshine epic?

In ‘The Perks of Being a Wallflower’ Sam stands with her arms thrown skybound, out of the roof of the truck, and Charlie looks at her and thinks ‘and in that moment I swear we were infinite’ and isn’t it really just moments like that we all need? (It must be, it’s the most cherished line from the book.) Aren’t they the ones that make up the patchwork of fragments we desperately need to believe we can hold on to? It’s so easy to get lost inside thoughts that revolve around expectations that we never seem to reach, or the noise of the negatives. It’s so hard to just have a conviction, like a bell ringing clear across a town, that just as we are, we are beautiful.

So, I carved a heart into a tree. What did it mean? The only thing that ever really needs to be known. While I might age, be tested, suffer and fear, be ground down and challenged beyond my abilities. I still have a heart full of love. This universe is still my very own beautiful playground. I’m so happy that I am here, right now. I believe in it all. That smile, that I elicited while I carved that heart, it was real.

No. 19 Education, Education, Indoctrination

Education, education, education.

Education is the best economic policy there is.

Tony Blair

If they’re seeing excellence as standard in cities like Shanghai, why can’t we see that in cities like London?

If they’re soaring up through the world rankings in Estonia, why can’t we?

If they’re making huge strides in science and maths in India, what’s to stop us?

David Cameron

British children start compulsory schooling at aged 5, is it wise to see a 5 year old as the corner stone for the future economy? Is it ignorant not to? As compulsory Education has always been for the churning out of future employees, with its inception in Britain being concurrent with the Industrial Revolution, I doubt it’s going to change anytime soon. In some ways, early indoctrination is positive, how else could we possibly end up working 5 days a week and not be miserable?

When I was 5, I had no ambition beyond the playground; where I’m pretty sure I always wanted to pretend to be the good horse not the bad one (My Little Pony folks!) but, this is the amazing sway education had one me, by 10 I was concerned about SAT scores, by 12 I was concerned about moving down a set in Maths, by 14 I was concerned about more SATS and by 15 I was being tutored in Maths and concerned about GCSEs. (I’ll spare you the following angst over A Levels, Degree and Graduate Teacher Programme) I am a school success story, the model pupil. I never had a single detention, I never skipped a single day of school, I valued my education and the clear path it paved for me to ensure I would get a good job and live happily ever after. I had been transformed from a day dreamer to a goal achiever.

 At primary school I loved drama so much I actually went to the Head Teacher, alone, when I was 9, and begged him to let me and some of my friends put on The Lion King (Mum and Dad had got me the tape of the songs!) and Mr McDonald, in all his awesomeness, agreed. We rehearsed for a few weeks, performed to rapturous applause in a whole school assembly and only really argued about who had to be Pumba (even at 9, girls are aware it’s not really a scoop to be a fat warthog.) I have never felt more engaged than when preparing for a play, you get to disappear and reappear as someone new, work as a team, see a result, be challenged. Blah blah blah. So taken was I with this world behind the curtain, I auditioned for a part in Sherman Theatre’s ‘Charlotte’s Web’, got it and spent a wonderful winter term missing school, preparing in a real theatre, performing to a packed audience and feeling exultingly alive.

For my GCSEs I elected to do Drama and again lost my head in the stories; about the same time I had my compulsory chat with a career adviser, who told me being an actress was a long, hard, lonely road that mostly lead nowhere, lacking a good singing voice and no dance training would probably hold me back. She suggested I focus more on my English and History and pursue writing or teaching, a tangible career.

When I moved on to college I felt nothing but relief to be able to just learn for the sake of it, having jumped all the hoops, I wasn’t going to have to do Science! I had passed Maths GCSE and could close that door! I was going to get to challenge myself with something new! Well… Maybe, but not if my college was going to have a say in the matter. To get into St. David’s I had to write a letter of application, then attend an interview and then get the results they were after; I did all those things. On enrolment day, wearing a t-shirt with a comic style ‘bang’ splashed across it, (because it was really time that I arrived) I trotted up the path towards enlightenment.  The gates were closed to me. ‘With grades like yours it seems silly to do Drama and Philosophy, why don’t you do Law?’ and, ‘Universities don’t take Drama seriously, surely English is enough’ and, ‘Photography is a poor choice to go with your others, why not do Politics?’

Frustrated, I waltzed out the door and, much to my Mum’s alarm, insisted on going to Glan Hafren (reputation being that it took all the duppers and was crap) or otherwise I was just going to get a job (Seeing as I was working at McDonalds at that time she pressed the accelerator pretty hard). A few hours later, I was signed up for English Lit, History, Drama and Law (I know! They didn’t offer Philosophy, and Photography couldn’t fit my timetable as it was a split site!) I stood my ground again a few weeks later when English Lit was so boring, and the teacher so archaic she made us sit boy, girl, I switched to Media Studies. (Despite the eventual A I got in this subject, I don’t think to this day my Mum has forgiven me!) I loved all my A Levels. (Apart from Law which I failed, dropped and only attended because the teacher loved music as much as me and made me copies of loads of ace stuff like Smashing Pumpkins and Radiohead B-Sides) I worked from my heart to master them. I ended up with an acceptable A,B, C in the year of the marking scandal. It was time though, after more career advice, to concede that Drama was not a career. It could be a hobby.

I haven’t done another day of Drama since then, which is why it’s on my list. I got distracted by ‘success’. The only type of  ‘success’ that is well regarded in wider society, success you can quantify: percentages, grades, qualifications, courses with certificates, work experience that will get you a character reference. Pushing drama out of my life only niggled at me really; if I was that bothered I wouldn’t have abandoned it so easily. But, my motivation for abandoning it bothers me, I still cannot go to the theatre without getting a small lump in my throat for the life that I only experienced fleetingly; a wave of nostalgia for backstage whispers, jitters and secrets. The thing is, I stopped doing Drama as soon as it seemed stupid, as soon as it meant owning up to the fact you were you trying to hold onto something you weren’t good enough at to be a ‘real’ success. Children put aside their toys and become adults who focus on goals. What makes me sad is that the goals we end up striving for seem so narrow.

Like a dark cloud, my choices at 16 have affected me to this very day. I could not get onto a PGCE anywhere, despite a year of volunteering in a school and a 2.1 degree from Birmingham University. The feedback? I wouldn’t be skilled enough in my subject area with A Levels like that or a degree in Media, Culture and Society. Passion and ‘success’ are not the same thing, unless your passion lies in something that can be directly applied to monetary gain in some way. I was successful in my A levels and in my degree, in the clearly defined acceptable way… I got the fucking grades! But, Drama and Media aren’t, ‘real’ subjects (don’t really know what I was doing for 5 years then)

Being stubborn, I got my teaching qualification. (I did a GTP) Then set about dismantling all the bullshit hoops for my pupils, focusing on their talents and interests, warping the curriculum around them, promoting confidence, honesty and expression. It exhausted me; the educational institution is a dementor. It is absolutely soul destroying to watch young people mostly end up in one of 2 categories: Apathetic or anxious. Watching somebody else having apathy for their own future is actually quite startling, it seems too self-indulgent, first world problem… However, watching young people getting wound up and whittled down by the pressure of endless exams, targets and, to be quite honest, threats of a doom-laden future is worse. Especially when, as a teacher, the guardian of these people for so many hours of their formative years, YOU are the trigger for that.

People often ask why I don’t want to teach anymore. I could give you many reasons, a good one is neatly explained above, but the sticking point is that it’s a million different things that make it too overwhelming, but it’s never because I don’t care anymore. I think education is essential, fantastic, liberating and mesmerising… Sometimes. I find young people exciting, inspiring and refreshing… Sometimes.

But, somewhere between: Blair, Cameron, Gove, British society, Capitalism, the recession, the general media and schools their traitorous selves, runs a bloodline that I don’t want to share.  A culture of, ‘what is the story?’ behind each kid that doesn’t achieve (with specific emphasis on those not hitting A*-C, as these are widely reported and become choke-hold value judgements) without any interest in the alcoholic mother, insecurity, bullying, arrogance, alcohol fuelled weekends, disinterested parents, weed, sex, lack of food, caring duties to younger siblings, shared bedrooms, distraction of 24/7 internet access. The ‘real’ story, as is inferred, is that you are failing the child. It is entirely reasonable to expect them to make levels of progress based on attainment from primary school, before puberty hit. If a child is failing, you are failing them, even if they are in the same class as other children succeeding, that you teach at the same time. There’s a strategy you haven’t tried, advice you haven’t sought, a length you haven’t gone to. The killer? It’s true. You have not sought it out, the elusive trick to set someone’s sky alight, as there are at least 40 of these individual kids out of the 150 you teach a week.

What galls me though, is the lies. Schools nearly all have papers remarked after exams now… You’d think, after the love that I’ve expended on GCSE classes I’d be all for this, and, yes, great, trust teacher’s judgements, if a kid has missed out unfairly that should be checked. However, across the nation data bosses are ferretting out, not the advice of colleagues, the worthy kid who broke down with disappointment, nor the ones who got a C but should have got a B, they are coldly and calculatingly looking at the C/D borderline and taking a gamble. A gamble, which they pay for per paper, to win the jackpot of a few more points for the school in the eyes of a society gone fucking crazy.

I did not go into teaching for letters on paper. I went to do something new every day. There’s no such thing as new when every individual student needs to be colour coded on a spreadsheet every half term, or every task needs a post-it note with some sort of tangible outcome described (justified), or when you start to fear introducing an interesting aside just because it’s piqued the curiosity of a beacon of hope with bright eyes in a room full of bored students. How can you stretch, challenge and inspire when you, as a professional, are not stretched, challenged, inspired or trusted?

Teaching is the equivalent of a lifetime’s dose of Catholic guilt dumped from a great height on an Atheist; the expectation put upon you is so absurd and unexpected it throws your whole life off balance and your identity askew. I know many incredible teachers, I have spent some of the proudest moments in my life in the classroom, I have said goodbye to certain classes knowing they have taught me more than I taught them and felt bereft. Leaving teaching made my head spin; I may never again do anything as important. However, to remain in it I have compromised my sleep, social life and confidence, to claw those things back you have to be vocal and start calling the craziness what it is, or, far, far worse, you just nod your head and don’t do what you’re meant to (well, the classroom is your kingdom, it’s easy to hide when there’s a mere 2 observations in a year) there are no other easier paths to follow. Why is this?

People that become, and stay, teachers don’t do it for the holidays, pay or pensions despite what the popular press spouts. Simply put, teachers wanted to have a meaningful career. The sort of person that wants a meaningful career, who deals with every person that comes through their door, much like doctors, irrespective of background, ability, manners, status; those people, well, they find it very difficult to admit that they are struggling to get equilibrium and provide what they set-out to, they are more scared than most of disappointing. People driven by the desire to do good are the easiest people in the world to exploit, they are too trusting, they eventually buy into the hype that standards are falling, bankers would be better placed at doing their jobs and they are not really worthy of their ‘gold plated’ pensions. Teachers, take a deep breath (which they hold until the next holiday), lose a few more hours a week to the job and just try harder.

I just don’t want to work under a dark cloud for my entire working career.

It’s about time I listened to my very confused, fluttering and quietly screaming heart, that just wants to have more freedom to try things a different way. That bang T-shirt would be more appropriate now than it was at 16, and Mr Boxford, my high school Head Teacher, who smiled at me on results day, when I impishly informed him I was going to college rather than staying on at school, “because I need to spread my wings” he was wrong when he said, “you’ve done enough of that here” school taught me how to loathe my differences and mistrust my instincts, both when I attended it as a student and when I worked in it as a professional. Time to find ‘success’ within my own parameters.

No. 16 Kelamitous Strikes Again!

Sunday 1st September 2013 the sunset above Stockport was glorious. The few clouds remaining skulked along the last patches of blue; reluctant to scar the purple, pink, orange sky party. The traffic lights held me at red (at ‘The Pyramid Roundabout’) for far too long, as if they were savouring coordinating with the heavens. I didn’t even mind, I got to look for longer, to own the moment. So radiant was the sunset, that I temporarily forgot that Mat had managed to pinch, punch me that morning for the 3rd month in a row.

Sunday 1st September 2013 was also, coincidentally, the first time I went to actual roller derby practise.

It is with bitter regret I admit, that as I pulled across the roundabout with enough speed to turn my knuckles white and tilt my very bedraggled Saxo unnervingly, (still in the clutches of Derby exhilaration) a profound melancholy settled on me. I just felt really old. It won’t be the last time I think it, but it felt somehow worse on the back of such good feelings, I just keep wondering, how is it that I am still looking for things to be good at, and worse, for things to make me feel content?

But, the more immediate source of woe, I should have listened to the girls when they said, the earlier I started Sunday training the better. See, Sunday was amazing, (nowhere near as scary as I imagined) but it’s taken nearly 4 months for me to even see what derby’s all about! The change of pace and attitude is palpable and I am not only lacking certain skills, I’m also not fit enough. And I’ve only just found out. BOOOOOOOOOO. I’ve allowed myself to be ignorant about exactly how to achieve what is quickly becoming the thing I most want to tick off this flippin’ list!

Turns out reading the rules for Roller Derby on Wikipedia does not ensure you actually understand them. At all.  In fact, reading them and constantly asking questions about them and even being told them before I started my first attempt at following them, still didn’t ensure I got them.

If you’re as unacquainted as me, here’s an idiot’s guide:

  1. There are 2 teams on a track, each team consists of 5 people (4 blockers and a jammer)
  2. The team scores points when the jammer laps the other team.
  3. Blockers are kinda offensive and defensive at the same time! Offensive mode = aiming to knock other jammer down or force her out of the track (so she has to come back in behind you all to start the very tiring assault all over again) Defensive mode = stopping your jammer being knocked down by the other team but also clearing space for her to get past other team’s blockers and score points (generally done by trickery)

‘Knowing’ all this I’m only loosely paying attention as we split into teams, thinking more about what happens if I can’t keep up, as my team are wearing bibs this shouldn’t matter. Oh, wait, the bibs smell too much for the girls to put them on, they are tucking them into their shorts while all (here begins my problem) all of the girls crush into a line. I have no idea where to stand and Mooks is shouting, “5 seconds” and my pondering on why she’s giving us so little time only costs me more of it. Sam, my team captain, is yelling, “over here!” and “look where you’re standing!” and “look where their jammer is!” and I can sense her frustration but it doesn’t make me understand any better so I simply move closer to her and then further away again like I’m in a bad sketch show, eliciting no satisfaction wherever I seem to go. Completely flummoxed, my nervous laugh is kicking in and I actually blurt, “who’s on our team?” but it gets lost with the whistle and the whole pack is moving. Turns out, other jammer is right behind me and I allow her to pass, smiling as I think she’s on our team! This happens another twice before I realise (because of an audible groan from someone whose bib I can actually see)

In brief, that 2 minutes is possibly the most confused I’ve ever been in my whole life. I also fell over, really hard, because of all the banging against other people’s skates; on the plus side, I got up really quickly and it didn’t actually hurt so I’ve shaken that fear! (However, back to the sad feeling I got later, my immediate reaction on righting myself was to look for a pair of eyes that had seen and were as happy as I was for my achievement. I don’t know who I was expecting to see, my Mum?! Nobody was looking and it didn’t make me feel bad in the slightest, but it’s still annoying I’m looking for approval even on the derby track, in a training session, I think I need a brain transplant!)

Georgia. I’m going to place a disproportionate amount of blame on her for my bumbling display. To sum her up, Georgia is a wily derby player, but, she’s also a natural teacher: relaxed, warm, forthright (“Where are your crossovers?” A devilish shadow interrupting my internal dialogue when I’m just skating around warming up! “Crossovers?” and when my playing of the deaf card fails to deter her,  “Kelly! Crossover!”) she’s also confident and funny as fuck. She teases me all the time but it comes from such a good, and frankly deserving, place that it bounces off me. BUT, as I said, she’s wily. So, when I’m in full derby panic mode about 5 seconds in, Georgia is skating next to me, wittering instructions that I follow, not answering questions I’m muttering like, “what should I be doing?” because she’s, in my head at least, too busy being amazing and making up for me being like a deadweight on a drowning person. The catch is, as I’m sure you’ve guessed when not under the high level of stress I was, Georgia, who I trust implicitly, was not on my team.

I mentioned this to her later, as seriously, I thought it was all on me, but she grinned like a kid who’s just snatched the last sweet and stuffed it in her mouth, and with a perfect balance of sugary sweetness and gleeful laughter she chimed, “It’s  not my fault if you want to follow me”. To be honest, her assertion is true and I’m still not sure if she meant to do it, but I’m leaning more that way.

Round 2: My naive assumption that both teams will start at a different point vanquished, this time I knew what I was doing: ascertained who our jammer was before getting into position, purposefully got myself near opposition blockers and Georgia was actually on my team. It was a far better 2 minutes! I managed to get in Kinders way (other jammer) at least 2 more times than she managed to sneak past me and I loved every strange second of being in the ‘pack’.

When it came to reviewing both rounds, I tried to apologise to Sam for my complete idiocy during the first go and, to my horror of horrors, this got lost in a torrent of shouts at Sam for her always, being ‘like that’ and ‘shouting’ (irony) and I’m still unsure as to whether this annoyed her or not and whether she realised me being sorry had nothing to do with her shouting, it had everything to do with me being clueless and letting the whole team down. For once, I wasn’t being sarcastic! Maybe, I need to work on my humble pie voice?!

Next step? Well, I have 3 more weeks of Sunday sessions to get good enough to still attend them; students will be back by then and team training can hardly be slowed down by goofs unable to identify their own team, as the season will be starting. Better get my skates on. (Had to be done!)

I also need to invest in my very own pair of skates. Weirdly, to achieve this you need to try on lots of styles (most of the girls at Arcadia wear hockey skates rather than derby ones) but you can’t really do this as it’s nearly all online ordering, so I have to try on different ones from the girls each week instead, despite the fact only one of them has the same size feet as me! Really helps with the balance issues I’ve got.

In my head, my skates should look like this:

Skates 1

Sadly, I will need to pick around performance and they’ll probably look more like this:

skates 2

Also, if I do make the team, I’m going to be reborn as Kelamity. It’s more fitting to my style than Baby Blitz. Unfortunately.

No. 14 Caption me!

Picture 1:

Maybe travelling is a little pretentious; especially if you come back having ‘found yourself’ (by quitting your job) and start plastering blown up photos of your adventures on every available space. So, I guess I’m pretentious… quitting my job and looking at huge versions of ‘best day ever’ both make me insanely happy. There are worse things though,  I don’t vote for the BNP!

I’m sharing the joy, these images helped me tick no. 14 off the list. Give me some captions and guess where I took them, I’ll update this post with the best captions in a few weeks, so be original or thoughtful at least!

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Picture 2:

Picture 3:

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Picture 4:

Picture 5:

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Picture 6:

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Picture 8:

Picture 9:

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Picture 10:

No. 16: Baby Blitz

When asked, at my first skating skills session, by the captain of the Roller Derby team why I’d joined, I didn’t want to lie… I also didn’t want to tell the truth, but she had sensed it, “don’t try and tell me you haven’t seen ‘Whip It’!” she grinned, “We’ve all seen it, and every newbie tries to say they haven’t!”

To my immense relief, she didn’t realise that ‘Whip It’ was actually the second reason; the main one was that I wanted my chance to do something really ‘cool’. I’m a ‘doer’ in many ways, but my ways are not, and have never been, ‘cool’ or independent; I write poetry (self-indulgent) and I’ve travelled, but I had Mat to guide the way and carry the heavy stuff. Roller derby, by anyone’s standard is totally 100% cool. Plus, I’ll have to skate on my own, get knocked over on my own  and have my very own roller derby name. Mine, mine, mine, mine, mine! Ok, so it’s a team sport… I’m going to get a crazy amount of support, but, I didn’t join with friends or because of friends, I decided to go alone, just because. Progress.

Fast forward 6 weeks worth of 2 hour Monday night training sessions, 1 roller disco (musical themed) and a Saturday drop-in (with mostly teeny tiny kids) session, and this is what I now know about Roller Derby:

  1. It’s going to take over my life.
  2. These women are ‘my people’ and if we still lived in tribes I’d kill others to make it into theirs.
  3. You need to be comfortable with being a ‘porn star’ (Never going to happen, see No. 18 )
  4. I’m going to be able to cave giants heads in, armed only with my super strength thighs if I actually master the ART that is skating.
  5. I need to get quicker at putting my pads on. It took an entire 15 minutes in the first week, (wrist, elbow and knee pads only, imagine if I was an octopus) just from not getting which way they went on and which one was for my left hand and right hand, despite being told 3 times and their helpful ‘L’ and ‘R’ markings… Due to No. 18 I’m not going to link this to being an inevitable result of my gender, I am clearly just failing at life, plenty of the other girls are ready in a minute.
  6. Checking the skates you put on your feet will improve your performance. I spent an entire 2 hours, during my second session, in a pair of skates that made my right foot ache from the start only to discover, in the cool down, that they were in fact two different sizes in the same design! (As I do with a lot of things, I declared my obervation out loud and my tribe now know I’m a fool)
  7. Screeching and squealing and grunting while trying out difficult moves will make other people on the track laugh or stare at you. Always. Try to avoid. (Not managed this myself, so far)
  8. At some point, some bitch is going to try to push you over and it’s part of the game so you will have to take it, not throw a fit like the one in my head at the mere thought of it. (As for No. 18 I do not think ‘bitch’ is misogynistic when I use it, I also liberally use ‘dick’ to berate men folk. I’m all about the  equality of gender specific insults.)
  9. When you play actual Roller Derby, not just skating skills for the scared, you will need to wear a gum shield and look like a chimp.
  10. 10. If you wear a skirt to training, in week 5, because it’s crazy hot, you will be mocked. Even if you are wearing starry hot pants under it and don’t even fall over once.

Trying to do the cross over

Week 1:
Two things happen in week one of significance, firstly, I get a sort-of ‘girl crush’ and I know that this is normally reserved for 13 year olds who are drinking for the first time and trying to show-off to a guy by making out with a girl (this makes no sense. Ever.) but I never did that! So, at 28, I am shocked to find how magnetic the roller derby girls are to me. They fascinate me precisly and solely because they are female. They are so energetic, uninhibited, raucous, inclusive and AMAZING AT SKATING! It shocks me to realise, that I have actually never moved in a community of females that are inspiring. Please read that last bit again, it appalls me to admit it, so consider just how awful that previous statement is!
I have never:
Seen strong and popular female leaders in the workplace (I have always worked for men or unpopular women)

Been close to a group of girls without there being snide comments about past relationships/current male friends that unsettles things (clearly, who is and isn’t loved by whom is a frequent source of envy/anxiety in many female groups)

Known a confident group of women who don’t focus on their appearance during every conversation.

(Important note: I know individually inspiring women, a shed load, but not groups, so don’t go getting offended!)

The Roller Derby girls get my instant admiration and adoration because this is a place where they have forgotten the weird ‘code’ of women folk and are just bad ass skaters, laughing and living in the moment. I know instinctively, skating will be my secondary lesson from hanging around with them.

Second thing, Gyspy (Captain) who’s showing me how to weave (in and out of cones) is cracking up, doubling over, and yelling “move your hips” fruitlessly again and again while I hit into each cone. Realising I have no idea what she means she gets ahead of me and grinning widely proclaims, “just watch my bum and follow” I finish the track flustered and scarlet (It would have been rude not to follow her instruction and I am jealous of what I saw and embarassed I looked!) she can tell, “Are you just really British?” and I nod sheepishly.

Next exercise is a relay and Gypsy demonstrates what we’re going to do; mainly skate and drop to one knee, then two… when, suddenly, some other alien move is thrown into the mix. I notice all the new skaters look worried, we have definately not been taught that move in the last hour and a half. I try to ask what the move was, unfortunately a skater from each team has already gone and I’m next so I figure it’s best to just watch the guy from my team carefully (guys come to ref) to my absolute horror as he gets to that weird move Gypsy starts shouting, “Porn star! Porn star! Porn star!” and the sound reverberates around until it’s at stadium proportions. I am in blind panic. I don’t want to join their tribe, I want to go home and hide. I wildly measured the distance and people and knew there wasn’t a chance I could leave without being knocked down or noticed. So, I play the ‘cool’ card and just do it. I did the porn star. Picture it: skate, skate, skate, at full pelt, drop to 2 knees throw head to floor and arse in air. Skate back. Easy. Beetroot face gave absolutely nothing away.

Week 3:
Mooks, the coach, is skating around checking my moves and casually drops in, “So, are you going to start coming to Sundays?” Being asked to go on Sundays is like being given a free pass to the holy grail that is a shot of being on the Arcadia’s Roller Derby Team (at the moment, I only attend general skate skills on Mondays, Sundays is full-on Derby practise). I am immediately a head full of fizz. Think, Christmas eve tingles. Imagine, a face full of chocolate cake. Unfortunately, my mouth does not prove this, it simply throws a firmly formed, “no!” out. By week 6, the answer to the question, which is now being echoed by team members is the same. I do not know what is happening! (Fear is the logical answer, I don’t want to fail or worse disappoint)

When I drove home after week 3, and that first exhilirating request to start going to sundays, all of the following things happened: I grinned like a goon, let every single driver who wanted to turn into the road turn, I had both windows down fully to breathe in the delicious smell exuding from the McVities factory, laughed aloud at my hair whipping my face sang, fiercely. As I neared the end of my journey Lana Del Rey’s ‘This Is What Makes Us Girls’ was playing, it’s a brilliant, close-to-the-bone ditty and I found myself thinking, if girls were all put in skates as soon as they had managed to take their first tentative steps, with the same passion that guys are introduced to football, Lana’s lyrics would not ring so true!

‘This is what makes us girls
We all look for heaven and we put love first
Somethin’ that we’d die for, (it’s our curse)
Don’t cry about it,
This is what makes us girls.
We don’t stick together ’cause we put our love first’

Let’s face it, all that crappy pivoting in netball isn’t going to inspire the same level of trust as is required when flinging your fellow female around a derby track so she can fly passed the other team. Plus, you won’t be able to wear fishnets or paint your face when you do netball. Also, with Roller Derby, who cares if you have no hand-to-eye coordination?! Alas, I digress! Point: this is a sport when you need to ooze confidence, that confidence is likely to follow you off the track. Boys are out until all hours playing football while at school, girls are just hanging around waiting to be noticed (Barbie has a lot to answer for!) it needs to stop, they should be breaking wrists skating instead.

Oh yeah, I’ve only fallen over once in 16 hours worth of skating.

Finally, my derby name should probably be Kelamity but I think Baby Blitz is better… Maybe I can pull it off? Got anything better? The best on my team is Kinderella, by a mile, but works even better because her surname is actually Kinder.

Grow Your Wings

I've started seeing wings everywhere

I’ve started seeing wings everywhere

“They say that shoulder blades are where your wings were, when you were an angel,” she said. “They say they’re where your wings will grow again one day.” David Almond, Skellig

Is it unusual to want to grow wings? I doubt there’s a kid alive (or that’s ever existed) that hasn’t at some point wanted to do it… Maybe because of birds but most likely because of a superhero. Being an 80s baby, Superman probably first gave me pause to think about the advantage of flying, but it was just that… A pause, the feeling was fleeting.

When I was 15, I read a book called Skellig by David Almond, Skellig himself has dusty crippled wings, he must learn to fly again (Foo Fighters reference anyone?!) and is supported through this journey by open-hearted but slightly alienated children. Can you see the appeal of this story when I was at high school? If school was: Cliques. Hormones. Uniformity.  Popular people who should be unpopular. Unpopular people who should be popular. Bullying. Not being able to change for FIVE WHOLE YEARS without somebody resenting it. Tests. Bad food. Skellig was about getting out stronger for it, the other side. Preferably, far away. All you had to master was the art of being good and you would be elevated away from the chaos.

The thing is though, I’m 28. I’ve lived by that idea, of ‘being good’, for a long time, it has served me well too, but… I still want to grow wings. I still feel that creeping sense of unease, quite regularly, that I’m the kid at the party that somehow got the dress code wrong, let’s say,  I’m wearing a condiment inspired outfit to a Cowboy party… the sad truth is, that in reality, I’ve grown to understand the dress code and I look the part, it’s an internal code that’s tripping me up. It’s the fact that 8 out of every 10 people I know just do not seem to care about ‘being good’. WHY DO THEY NOT CARE? It’s not just the big things either, like repeating Daily Mail lies without even considering checking the facts, or The Sun printing Reeva Steenkamp in her bikini, looking sultry, on the frontpage while reporting the last few horrifying moments of her life (and people still buying it) it’s:

  • The bullshit male head nod (you know the one, it looks like a tick and always involves raised eyebrows) that guys give Mat that somehow implies I need to be consulted/placated before he can make his own decision over something inconsequential like watching football.
  •  A certain Heaton Moor bar owner lecturing me on my voluntary role with Oxjam and saying, “you should go and do something important with a local charity, who do Oxfam think they are trying to bleed us during the recession?” Seriously, who is he volunteering  15 hours a week of his life for 7 months for? Nobody.
  • People who think teachers have no right to strike and make asinine comment over their social networks without the slightest notion of the reason teachers need to raise their voices and be heard.
  • People travelling alone on a long train journey and not offering to move next to another lone traveller so you and your friend/Mum/partner can sit together even though you are making it VERY obvious, that is your heart’s one true desire. (You inevitably sit next to the lone person, so why does it matter to them which stranger they are sat next to?!)
  • The tabloid press making it seem like Kim Sears life will only have true value when Murray pops the question.

If these people were trying to be good, these little things would not carelessly happen or be said. By default, I would not still be wishing for wings just to get to the point where I could clear the raging noise, that is people trying to make their mark, stake their claim and, crucially and frighteningly, carve up the opposition. If I had wings I could still save the day and me taking up space on this spec of the universe might be worth something.

As it is, I’m not going to grow wings. Ever. I’m never going to look like Michelle Pfeiffer did as Catwoman or be that cool (even in my Mosher days I could not rock that amount of PVC!) or be the amazing, life saving inspiring teacher she was in Dangerous Minds (part of the reason I went into teaching, sad but true) but I can do something else.

I can create a 30 before 30 list that focuses my attention on taking control of my life, rather than floating with the flotsam, and ‘being good’ to myself  will be nurturing enough to make sure I still have enough energy and will left to ‘be good’ to others. If it saddens you, that I need a list to do this, it’s the result of 6 long, arduous and miserable years teaching that have made me the sort of person who needs a list.

I have recently had a pupil yell, “I’ve got human rights you know?” in my face (so closely I felt the flecks of spit land on my own, uncomfortable, flesh) just because she was peeved at being given one-to-one support to improve her low grade in a piece of work. How very dare I. Sometimes, it’s as simple as those little incidents, they are enough to make you want to change something. Anything. Something in your own life, something that nominal amout of money coming out of your bank account every month for a worthy cause, elsewhere, just doesn’t cover.

My best friend once sent me a beautiful card that had the following words typed across it in black ink on stark white card:

‘When you think it’s the end, it is there that we will begin.’

I’m about to come alive.

I’m going to begin… With a list!