Wednesday, 26 August 2015

This year my birthday present to me...IS ME

I know, I know, that sounds super cheesy and a bit hippie right? But there is definitive proof me and birthdays don’t get on well (*see at bottom of page for self pitying list) and I think I know why. It seems to me that birthdays are another front where my inability to surround myself with loving and respectful people, or (as suggested by my therapist) my inability to consider myself wholly worthy of (and demand) a decent level of respect sees me spending every August and most of September with a low sinking feeling in my stomach. The pressure is on to organise ‘A Thing’ or have ‘A Thing’ organised for me.

Suddenly Facebook events become a rite of passage for validation. Sentimental baby pictures taped up on lampposts are a necessity and ideally you have your own hash-tag. Because of this I am nervous. I am neurotic. I am 100% sure that everybody hates me and I am going to spend my birthday in another family's caravan, resented and alone. People like drinking, but I don't drink. Queers are supposed to be able to smoke weed and drink gin, but I have found myself deeply & unfashionably sober since the age of 21 (and constantly excluded for it). We're supposed to spend our birthdays being showered with gifts by our (presumably wealthy) families. But that's not really how stuff goes for me either. If nothing else we're supposed accept this yearly occurrence with grace and dignity. But I seem to be stuck with grace and dignity's working class cousins- money problems and anxiety. The resonating pressure of those two words 'supposed to' means that by early September I am a mess.I have only ever had one friend who seems to have the organisational skill and reckless determination to tackle me and my birthday phobia, who has listened to me cry from bed after being let down by friends, who has rang me up every year since I was 17 and said ‘So what are we doing for your birthday?', who made sure I was never forgotten never invisible on my birthday (it’s you, Lucy, in case you’re wondering) and whilst I truly love her for it, those aren’t very good odds are they? One person out of hundreds?

Don’t get me wrong when I say me and birthdays don’t get on. I mean there are good elements of all the birthdays listed below (I mean, who wants to speak to humans anyway, goats are way cooler) and I have had good birthdays. When I was little, birthdays were magical. I got to dress up in a BIG POOFY DRESS and wear a ribbon on my head. I got shiny toys and I got to see family. But most of all, the loving attention that was laid upon me made me feel replenished, special and capable. People being happy that you were born is like, a pretty nice indicator.But when you're not living the dream life (not even on instagram), when 'Suddenly I see' by KT Turnstall doesn't play as you walk down the street, when maybe not everyone is overly excited about the fact that you still exist, where does that attention come from?

I am a common, fat, womanish person with holes in my shoes and no postgraduate degree who doesn't take sh*t from people. Societal norms dictate that I am not first in line for loving attention. So what do I do? Well here comes the super cheesy idea- maybe I give myself that attention? (Not in that way, although maybe, I mean, self-love right?) Maybe you could give it to yourself too? After all, for those of us who are pushed out of spaces, spoken over in our social groups and sidelined at work is there really any other option?

Here is my action plan

1. Take it from Akua Naru “self love is the very first romance”
Everyday I am trying my best to remind myself that I am in a life long relationship with myself and that I am a gift that only improves with age. Every year I know more, try new things, meet new people, and achieve new things. Even if it’s getting out of bed, making it to work, writing this blog post. I am reminding myself that the aging process is not negative and that I am a worthy person all year round.

2. Forgiveness is a virtue
Forgiving myself for being imperfect in a world that demands an oppressive standard, forgiving myself for not doing enough work or forgetting to pick up milk. I am doing my best to look upon myself with forgiving eyes because like it or not, I am stuck with myself for the long haul. Forgiveness is difficult when you have no money and limited prospects. Forgiveness is difficult when you are unhappy with your place in the queerosphere, the workplace, the family and society. Forgiveness is a process, and it will probably take me the rest of my life, but guilt will ruin the rest of my life & I know which I'd rather be working towards.

3. Enjoying the ride
Everything I achieved I achieved in this body with this brain. When I am distracted by negative and toxic messages about my self worth I am being drained of my energy. Energy to be an attentive partner, energy to be a supportive colleague, energy to organise politically, energy to confront the trauma in my past. I have started looking at baby photos. I have started making lists of my adventures. I have started spending time with the old friends who I can laugh with at shared memories. But most of all I have started have started celebrating my life in its current state, no apologies. Being at war with myself is not sustainable. If I am working towards living & forgiving (as in points one and two) then this point to say that I must also work towards surviving and thriving. 
Me (far right) running whilst fat

This year I am my own birthday present. I am ensuring that I lavish myself with loving attention, that I feel replenished. This year I am fat, and worthy. Disabled and capable. Anxious and loud. Sober and entertaining. Ugly and beautiful. Serious and hilarious. Working class and yes, probably a little bit more intelligent than you.This year I am imperfect, my own little state of anarchy. It's not all planned out. I'm not looking forward to a holiday or a promotion, and it's highly likely that I'm not going to be 'achieving' things in the way that I'm 'supposed to'. But I'll make do with what I've got and what I've got has a lot of potential. This year I am wearing a BIG POOFY DRESS and a ribbon in my hair. And even if I spend the day on my own, or don't hear from family, or things don't go to plan, this day doesn't define me. It's not a test, not another chance to flaunt my social capital. It's enough to just get a year older and still be alive. I am taking responsibility for myself and that is scary, yeah. But god, the odds of getting through the month are so much better when I’m not at war with the person in the mirror.

*Self Pitying List 1. There was the year when I spent my birthday on a family trip in Wales with some family members, wandering lonely and only comforted by the presence of goats, stranded with a little family I wasn’t really a part of (seriously you wanna see the pictures from the disposable camera taken on that holiday, a picture of me with a dog, a picture of some rabbits, a picture of a pony, some more rabbits, the cloudy Welsh sky, a goat, two goats, three goats). 2. There was the year I spent my birthday in bed crying after being let down by a friend. 3. There was the year a parent forgot how old I was. 4. There was the year a family member forced me to have a ‘tea party’ against my will & when they then proceeded to get drunk and to flail around the house to a soundtrack of Bob Marley and my father saying (louder than he thought) ‘doesn’t she (me) have any friends?’. 5. There was the year I became '& co' at a joint party. 6. There was the year my foster mother forced me to spend my birthday watching her cry in a KFC car park, and gave me a box of chocolates & and old bottle of perfume in the gift bag I gave her some Mother’s Day presents in. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not about the money or the gifts, but she got a bloody grant on my birthday. 7. There was the year all my ‘friends’ at my primary school didn’t come to my birthday sleepover because I was the fat kid with a single mum and we lived in a council house. 8. There was the year when I had the flu & a family member organised a meal in the local Italian restaurant & shouted at me for not dressing up enough so I spent the day half crying. 9. There was the year when I threw myself a party, had a panic attack and thought I was dying. 10. There was the several years I lost out to aggressive, careless, cruel or controlling partners, illness, self loathing. 11. There was the many years where my birthday was just a way to keep the electricity meter going, just a token from people who offered no further support during the rest of the year.

On women only train carriages

I often utilise women only spaces (officially ones or unofficial ones) to avoid harassment in public & at social events (toilets, gyms, kitchens at parties, clothes shops) and, you know what? It works. The issue of public transport is the issue of choice. Now, it would be real simple if you and your buddies could make the honourable choice to stop flexing your metaphorical members in a cat call-off on a Friday night, but my experience has concluded that you can’t. So the idea of women only coaches on trains and tubes (proposed for consultation with women by Jeremy Corbyn) is one simple (by no means 100% solve-all option to give women a choice to be in a carriage with no men in it. Now, whilst there may be problems with this idea (that would be useful  for women to discuss together) men have taken to twitter to air their disgust at this policy idea. 

I have been harassed on public transport since the age of 14. Telling me that this ‘could easily happen to men’ even though it doesn’t is telling me that I, at age 14 on the train from Southport to Appley Bridge deserved to be cornered and & have middle aged men interrogate me about body.

Because the truth of the matter is in the last eleven years I have grown to expect to be sexually harassed and assaulted on public transport with very little support from other passengers. And when that support comes it is usually from other women.

Every time I have been harassed on public transport it has been (to my knowledge) by a man 99.9% of these instances the man has been white 99.9% of instance he has been unchallenged.

-It was a man who repeatedly tried to touch me on an empty platform in Liverpool when I was 21.

-It was a man who harassed me on a weekly basis on the 395 bus from Ormskirk to Skelmersdale, who got annoyed when I refused to speak to him and followed me part of the way home when I was 19.

-It was a man who rubbed his genitals on my hip on the London Underground when I was 18.

-It was a man who intercepted another man who was drunkenly propositioning me at Ormskirk bus station only to then sexually harass me for the entire journey home when I was 22. Imagine that- getting sexually harassed whilst you’re being sexually harassed.

-It was a group of boys (age 12-16) who spat at me, threw food and drinks at me & chanted names at me every morning on the school bus in Shevington when I was 14.

-It was a man who touched my body without my consent on the 143 bus in Manchester when I was 23. And who got the funny looks when I shouted over to my friend  ‘Ew this man is trying to grope me’? Oh yeah, me.

-It was a man who rubbed his thigh against my leg and read over my shoulder on the bus last night.

-It was a group of four men who made comments about my fat body this morning at the coach station.

I am 25.

I have been spat at, cornered, followed, groped, shouted at, whispered to, blocked from moving, stared at, spoken about, had pictures taken of me, been called names, been coerced into conversation, been sexually shamed & had my belongings confiscated.

I have tried ignoring it, challenging, discussing it, reporting it, shouting back, glaring, asking other passengers for help & physical confrontation.

Any whilst it might hurt a few feelings for men who have decided that this is ‘segregation’ (which is not only pretty flagrant use of a racially charged word but just horrifically incorrect) or that ‘all carriages should be harassment free’ (yeah, they should, but erm, they aren’t & I don’t see you looking up from your copy of the Telegraph to challenge other men on their behaviour) I can’t help but feel cheated.

Yet again men’s views are privileged above women’s safety and autonomy. That same privilege that comes into play when a man decides his desire to touch a woman comes before her permission. Your feelings are hurt?  Your FEELINGS are hurt. Fine. That doesn’t make your beliefs correct. This isn’t Dawson’s Creek. This is the real world. And I have a life time of research called ‘Being a Woman on Public Transport’ to support my ideas.

So I’m sorry if the idea that women want to be safe from the daily barrage of crap you throw at us is hurtful. It seems so many of you are moved to tweet, maybe whilst on public transport, maybe whilst ignoring the awkwardness of a woman being harassed three seats down.

I am tired of pretending to be on the phone, pretending to know other women on public transport to defuse harassment situations and most of all I am tired of pretending to care about your feelings. Close your legs,  get your hand off my thigh, log off twitter and shut up.

Monday, 10 August 2015

On Jump Stories of Life, Love and Fear by Paula Kelly-Ince, justice & quiche.

In university, where Paula & I met (studying creative writing), each semester we had an assignment entitled 'Reading as a Writer'. And sometimes, when I wasn't too busy protesting or talking about representation, I did the assignment. We analysed the work of playwrights, poets, screen writers, novelists and memoirists. We discussed their form their structure, what themes we would apply to our own work and how, if the work was effective and (audible gasp) what we would improve. 
Now, it's one thing telling your classmates their time travelling-rapping-werewolf-romance novel would be a more consistent read if the dialogue was tighter, but comrades, it is an entirely different bag of fish to critique a "real" writer.  A "real" writer with that elusive published masterpiece (following film adaptation, cult classic t shirt references). Yes, obviously I chose George Orwell.

Believe me. I am picky. I may not be Judy Blume myself but I can sniff out holes in stories at the speed a quiche disappears at a family buffet (dead quick). I guess the reason I'm saying this is that when I read Jump I felt that I was reading as a writer, reading the work of an established and effective writer. Paula writes beautiful and delicate stories of people (mainly women, woop woop feminism) at their extremes. These circumstances that life pushes up to live through, documented in such a grounded style. 
And that's the point. Paula's work is effective because it's written about women I could know. Working class situations we recognise, grief, crushes and money problems, community. Struggle, really. How often is it that we see our own experiences played out on the page interspersed with magic realism and hilarious dialogue? Never. 
On reading Mr Phillips I  was transported to my own teenage years. And with Paula's gentle, yet uncompromising humour I began to recognise the hilarity of youth. The story plays out before you and after all you can do is think God, do you remember -. Even now I spend time too wrapped up in social justice causes (arguing with Tories on the internet) to consider the relationship between activism and fiction. But I believe healing is part of justice and Paula's work was, for me, healing. 
Jump is a story that rings with heartbreak and shines light on an area so often wrought with shame and secrecy.  Tara is a story that twinkles with promise and the unsaid. The fact that these three stories can sit side by side in unison is a testament to Paula’s skill, precision and bravery. It is brave to speak out, to construct these voices that whisper truths to us, in a world that seeks to scare us into silence. 
Seeing the stories of working class people, especially women written down, it's transformative. Sometimes, just existing in a world where you are abhorred and tested is radical in itself. Depicting the stories we are too scared or embarrassed to tell is one step further. If doing so with elegance & care is not justice I don't know what is. 

  • To buy Jump (for less than £1!) click here Content note for still birth and child death in Jump, slut shaming in Mr Phillips. 
  • For weekly updates on Paula's hilarious life and musings on feminism and parening you can follow Paula's blog.
  • To keep up to date with Paula's writing you can like her on facebook or follow her on twitter @paulakellyince.