Wednesday, 23 March 2016

Would Jesus let his toes get nibbled by ants in the name of love?

As a child my interactions with the Church of England (via primary school) and the Catholic Church (St. Marie's in Sheffield city centre every day at 7am in the school holidays with my Nan) made me anxious. I was (and still can be when the wind blows the right way) a very dutiful & loyal person. I took things seriously. I tried praying a lot and got really upset when God never spoke back to me. I felt like I wasn't "good enough". I redoubled my efforts and my prayers turned into destructive thought patterns e.g. 'If I hold my breath long enough for ten cars to pass then God will let me into heaven'. Imagine it- my chubby asthmatic body wheezing after holding its breath for Jesus'  love.

In a school assembly they told us that we had to love all of God's creatures so that night when I went home and found an ant infestation, I felt weird. I knew the ants weren't meant to be in my bathroom but they were God's creatures, right? So what would Jesus do? Would Jesus let his toes get nibbled by ants in the name of love? I told my Mum about the ants with a smile on my face (which didn't impress her). She stamped on them. I felt guilty because they were dead...and  because I was relieved I could urinate without ants on my feet.

I was never baptised or christened & this was a constant source of guilt. I deeply wanted the wine and the biscuits and told my Nan as much after church one painfully early morning. She laughed. But it was no laughing matter! I wanted to decide whether to be a chewer or a melter (methods of treating the holy sacrament/biscuit)! Instead I had to cross my arms on my chest (like some kind of self-exorcising devil child). Then when I got to the front of the queue the priest would draw a cross on my head with his thumb. I stopped washing my forehead for a few days to see if I got holier.

 On holiday with a family friend I played with an Irish girl on the beach. She asked when I had my first communion whilst patting out a slumped sand castle. I told her when I was 9 (lie) & felt guilty for the rest of the day. I was confused. I thought your first communion was like getting married to God. I wanted to wear the dress but me and God had already been going steady for years & he never answered any of my prayers. I was writing to a big sky boyfriend who never wrote back.

I put all my pocket money on the collection plate. I scolded myself every time I stared up at the ceiling instead of listening to the priest or vicar. I just wanted one reply, it didn't even need to be anything special. A simple out of office would have sufficed.

I was sure that God wrote back to R_____ in my class. Her Mum & Dad were still together & she had pretty hair. Everyone liked her & all the girls wanted to be her friend. She was always called a sweetie by the teachers.  Yeah, she would scribble on my work, kick me under the table & call me names but I never told the teacher. In Sunday school they told us that whatever we felt, Jesus had felt it before. They said he was with us in our hour of need. That he was all we needed to get through. I wondered which one of the disciples had pulled Jesus' hair. I felt it was probably Mark.

I was confused about Values vs. Practice. I didn't understand why all the Mums at school could bring tonnes of tinned fruit salad in for the harvest table for the 'needy' but act so coldly to anyone who needed anything outside of church. My Mum was 20 when she had me & we were a single parent family. From what I understood my Dad wasn't well enough to be around us so we just went it alone. I was aware very early on that the rest of the Mums did not like my Mum. Not one smidge. Equally early I became aware that the Dads very much liked my Mum. Or at least they liked looking at her. I started feeling annoyed when Mum turned up to collect me looking pretty. Why couldn't she just wear anoraks and comfy shoes so we could fit in?! Here I was staying up late praying (very timid, sycophantic, anxious prayers) to become "good enough" & my Mum could help out immensely by just being a bit more repressed & ugly!

The only person who would speak to my Mum was the only other single Mum, S____. It seemed like the other Mums wanted to show God they were nice when they were in his house, but didn't give too much of a shit in the playground. The vicar with the bald head and the guitar told us God could see us everywhere. He made all the mountains & the birds. He had the power & the glory. Had they forgotten?

The situation got more intensely stressful one night when my Mum told me she didn't believe in God. She said she had tried but it just wasn't her so she gave up. A huge bolder sized lump rose in my throat & I squeaked out
'Jesus wouldn't have given up!' Which as an adult I can see is a bit meta. At the time I was scrambling to be a good Christian. It was just another job to do. I had to make my Mum believe in God, convince the other Mums to be nice to her, stop thinking bad thoughts about R____, pray all the time, be one of Jesus' sunbeams, polish my shoes, treat every woodlouse like a long lost friend. The list was endless. I truly believed that if could get all the elements right like plate spinning then suddenly God's warmth would shine down on me. We just needed to fit in, on the playground, at church, in school. We just needed to be "good enough".

 S_____ invited us to her house one day after school & I played with her daughter (dolly hospital, if you must know) whilst she washed my Mum's hands. She'd seen that the nails were bitten and the cuticles red raw. It was a simple gesture. A kind gesture. It was a friendly hand up amongst the dross of daily life. I thought she was a curly, blonde-haired, scouse, Lady -Jesus. She became one of my idols, instantly.

I'd been switching between CofE God's house & Catholic God's house for years. Then, I became aware that other religions existed because some people had to sit outside of assembly in the library every day (A+ for Demon Headmaster vibes). I asked A____ and she said she was Hindu. Another girl said her family went to church but only on Wednesdays. 'Phew, there are even  more?' I thought. I didn't understand that you picked one and got on with it. I thought you had to tune into each like a TV channel. Every new religion was like a new tamagotchi (but much less fun). I struggled to keep them alive.

This sense of anxiety & urgency has stayed with me. I understand now, that the middle class Mums of the world will never like me and my Mum. That we were just too poor, and common, and attractive (in the case of my Mum) & "husky" (Kirkby talk for "fat" in the case of me) to be "good enough" for them. Religion, conformity, guilt, it stays with you long after you leave the playground. It's a reminder that for some of us, no matter how much we play by the rules, how many woodlouse nests we build or 50ps we give to God we will never feel accepted.

I still feel sentimental about church. Especially the Catholic Church, no offense CofE, you just weren't punishing enough. When someone says a line from the service the line after slips out of my mouth before I register it. I don't pray. I always got the same feeling praying that I did when I asked groups of kids with light up trainers 'Can I play with you?' and got ignored. It's okay. The space in my head I used to devote to God I try to devote to my earth based partners, my friends. There is a sense of loss. This presumed standard of spirituality is palpable in my work place, in legislation, in  most educational institutions (even the non-denominational ones). Christianity as a structure permeating our consciences from birth like McDonald's adverts (ba da ba ba ba- I'm lovin' God), offering people around the world food and water as long as they pray right & read the Bible, excavate their culture & plant seeds of ours.

I still get defensive when people close to me shut me down mid Catholic guilt rant, or sentimental Christian monologue. This is my history, my Nan, her friends, good people.  I am still not "good enough", I may never be.  My relationship with Christianity is, like all my relationships- queered. Neo-marxist but stubborn, I want redemption but resent never hearing from God, it's like not hearing back about a job you spent 12 years applying for. 

Smug atheist attacks don't sit well with me. Isn't this whole life malarkey difficult enough already without you looking up Doris from Hathersage online to tell her that the scarf she's knitting to raise money at a raffle for a new church roof is pointless because God doesn't exist? Let Doris knit her scarf. Let Mohammed pray in peace. Let Siobhan do her happiness spell. Let Alex spend Sunday washing their dog. We've all got our own shit to be getting on with. If you're really that bored there's a new season of Hell's Kitchen on Netflix. If you're really so lonely you want to take away someone else's spiritual companionship you could always try talking to someone.

The last time I was in a church 2014-  S______'s funeral. She had a difficult life, after all her Lady-Jesus miracles, and died a horrifically early death. Her family & the women around me are of the strong Scouse Catholic breed not a tear in sight  (apart from my Mum who is the only one to break down crying, like the big Lancashire, agnostic, emotionally present, wool she is).
My best friend, S_____'s daughter is literally unwavering, holding her daughter, at the front of the church after organising the whole funeral. Today, I'm in perfect timing, I am peak Catholic, burying the hurt, wearing black, singing the hymns, getting through. I don't want to do all my mourning now.

The priest seems fixated on the fact that S_____ didn't balance all the plates, tick all the boxes. He keeps reminding us that she'll go to heaven despite straying from God's path. I'm winded by his audacity. Never a holier, more honest, loving person had entered my life. We sing more hymns. The church smells of lilies. It's light and airy, like her.

Mum is still snotting on my shoulder, she doesn't make it to the crematorium. Outside the wake, a large ram packed room, I think  that S____'s  holiness was in her actions. She was a good person so religion showed her goodness. I am an anxious person so religion created more things to be anxious about. At 13 my brief, rebellious flirt with paganism too left me anxiously waiting for my spells to work. My only option is to stop trying to be "good enough" & just try to be good. Even so, I wish I could have tasted the biscuity body of Christ, drank his alcoholic blood and played with the good Christians, just once.

Friday, 4 March 2016

Women, Femmes & non-binary siblings- unite and praise the fuck out of each other.- a note on praise hijacking

Hey men & masculine privileged people,
We need to have a little chat about the way you treat women, femmes & non-binary people's work* & how you co opt our praise.
I'm so tired of trying to talk about the amazing work women & gender oppressed people are doing only to have one of you interrupt me to say 'Yeah (name) AND ME do work really hard'. Or
'I did (project) too/in a different place' (You're not fooling anyone with that). We get it, you want recognition. Everyone deserves recognition. Everyone deserves to have their effort rewarded but not everyone needs it, right now, this instant- from me. The reason I go put of my way to praise women, femmes & non-binary people is that the work they do is devalued in the big bad patriarchal world. Yours isn't (at least in this space).

It may be that you only have masculine privilege in this setting for a couple of hours once a month. It may be that the rest of the time you don't feel you hold power in the same way. I understand that you may want to flex the ol' privilege muscles whilst you can but that action isn't necessary or fair. When you tear down, intercept or manipulate the praise or recognition of someone else what you're doing is being complicit in gender oppression. Yes, you can experience oppression on the basis of your gender AND perpetuate someone else's gender oppression too. The truth is that there's actually no shortage of praise to go around & there are more appropriate ways to receive it than hijacking someone else's. So I've put some tips together as a loose guide to not hijacking praise off those of us who trying to support each other.

1. When you feel like you want praise from people in your life in general take these three steps
- Consider
Consider what you have done that you feel deserves praise. Is it something specific? Is it a project? Who does the project serve? Are any of those people around? Have you done the bare minimum? Have you piggybacked someone else's achievement? Did someone else facilitate you doing the work with reminders or resources?
- Critique
Think critically about your need for praise. Is it coming from a place of privilege? Is it a feeling you can placate by working on your own self esteem? Do you definitely need these people to praise this achievement?
- Communicate
When you feel like you deserve or desire more praise for a task, project or achievement try actually just asking for it. Then the person you're talking to isn't trying to interpret meaning from your words. It saves them time and you effort. It's less coercive than just leading them down the path of your ego & guilting them into ringing the bell.
E.g. 'Hey I did this thing, I feel really proud of myself, but I'm feeling insecure, can you tell me that I did well?'

2. Be willing to accept the fact that women, femmes & non-binary people may not want to praise you.
It takes a lot of work to exist in a world where your achievements are underrated & ignored. Being bullied into praising someone whose achievements DO get recognised definitely makes me feel resentful. Learning to take 'no' or 'not right now' as an answer helps everyone. The more we accept a 'no', the more women & gender oppressed people feel confident saying no, the more energy we can all put into performing crucial labour when we want to. No isn't a dirty word, it's one that helps us demonstrate our boundaries.

3. Practise praising yourself
I like to make pictures and give them to myself as a reward. E.g. 'Getting through a shit day' crown. I am rewarding myself for doing a thing. I can post it online and talk about doing the thing. Then my friends can respond if they feel like it by celebrating my achievement with me instead of feeling like they have to praise me & support me.
Try looking in the mirror & thinking 5 things you have achieved (not appearance based). Acknowledge them, praise them.
Be a friend to yourself. Service your own self esteem.

4. Seek out & celebrate
In a society where women, femmes & non-binary people's work is ignored, overlooked & devalued it can be quite easy for masculine privileged people to pretend we don't do any work. You can't expect the people doing work from any oppressed group to just pop up shining like a brilliant example for you to praise. Seek out the work of working class non binary people making poetry, disabled femmes running support groups, black women lifting up creative communities, trans women of colour leading resistance, fat femmes organising in their workplace, lesbian artists etc. Ask questions about people's art, tell people how and why you appreciate their work, let them know you understand when their work isn't meant for you.
Praise is not a one way street. It's an exchange.

5.  Understand us
When you see women holding each other up, or femmes praising femmes or non-binary people shouting and cheering for each other- think about why. Think about why we have created support networks, why we send each other care packages or help each other out. You might find that if we don't do it no one else will.

I'm sure in spaces where masculine privileged people interact in masculine communication styles there's a different attitude towards support. A different attitude towards praise. Maybe it's a scarcity? (I genuinely don't know)Maybe you see us praising one another and think 'I want that'. If that's the case then it's 100% legitimate to create friendship groups and foster nice political communities where that exists for you. Doing so is helpful emotional labour for yourself and others. These dynamics are precious & important to us, they are how we survive & that's why we build them & why you can't snatch them away.

In love & solidarity,

* Work in this sense is the broadest most inclusive meaning of the word. Paid, unpaid, academic, emotional, domestic, political, support, social, self, community, friendship, relationship, voluntary, creative, organising, self care. Literally any action taken by people to further the wellbeing, progress, survival, existence, thriving, or expression of themselves, their community, their friends,  partners, their family, their comrades, strangers or acquaintances.