Today is a monumental day. It is a monumental day in the same way that for our grandmothers, just shy of fifty years ago, it was a monumental day. It’s not even taken half a century. In under half a century, a progression of maybe two generations, women’s autonomy is again no longer a constitutional right.
It seems laborious to have to outline yet again just what is at stake here. I am twenty-eight and I feel like I’ve addressed this problem far too many times for someone who lives in a world where the National Organisation for Women has been around for fifty-six years. NOW was founded on the 30th June 1966 and had a simple message: ‘The time has come to confront, with concrete action, the conditions that now prevent women from enjoying the equality of opportunity and freedom of choice which is their right, as individual Americans, and as human beings.’
The equality of opportunity and freedom of choice which is their right. As in 1966, now, all these decades later, the time has come yet again to confront, to dissent, to rage, to demand and to mourn. The abolition of Roe v Wade is a death sentence for hoards of women, a state-sanctified sentence in that most ironically named Land of the Free.
It’s tiring to write this again; I wrote it last year when the state of Texas made abortion legally inaccessible past the six-week point. It’s hard not to start getting worn down by the idea that simply being alive, especially as a woman, is a depressing state of affairs. Access to safe and legal reproductive healthcare should be a human right, especially as it affects the traditionally oppressed half of a population. Start considering other factors; class, race, disability, and things are much more dire.
I’ve said it before, but I will say it again. Women have been having abortions for as long as they have been getting pregnant. The difference is whether they are doing it legally or unsafely.
It is the right to choose what an individual does with their own body that is the moral argument at stake here, not whether the actual act of abortion is right or wrong. The right to choose whether someone brings another human life into this world is integral to not only their dignity but their sanity. As abortion rights are further curtailed the second-class status of women is further enforced. As is the notion that we are less than, disposable, unintelligent, irrational or stunted in our decision-making capabilities.
There are a myriad of subtle ways that women are told that they are less important than their heterosexual, male counterparts but this is an act that is utterly brazen in nature. It is predicted that twenty-six of the United State’s fifty-two will make abortion unattainable, not only meaning that the women living in those States are now living in a hostile environment but that those twenty-six States unlikely to make any imminent change in their law will now face unprecedented pressure and influx from women in desperate need of life-changing and life-saving healthcare in a State where they do not usually reside. This is not financially or practically viable for many women, meaning thousands of women will either endure unwanted pregnancies and births, or face being labelled criminal for the simple act of knowing what is best for their body. And that is before we begin to consider those who will not make it.
Consider all those women who will be forced to try alternative methods of termination; the ones that end in haemorrhages, infections, or permanent damage to an individual physically and mentally. To be honest, I was about to type and they’re the lucky ones, but I don’t think luck comes into any of this. You are lucky if you survive an unsafe abortion but living with any of those consequences seems downright horrific. In this situation there are no winners.
These are just the basic and straightforward immediately quantifiable statistics. This doesn’t begin to touch on the socio-economic effects of a forced pregnancy and birth. Some families are simply unable to afford another child, and this would affect the unborn and their existing family detrimentally. It keeps families in a cycle of poverty which is already notoriously hard to break. A forced pregnancy can leave women in no other position than to leave education or stall their career progression, again reinforcing their second-class status and limiting their opportunities and advancement. A newly dependent child can make it infinitely more difficult for women to escape abusive relationships, another hostile and potentially life-threatening situation for them to be in.
There is nothing pro-life about enforced birth. In forcing an individual to go through giving birth against their will you strip them of their humanity; you reduce them to a machine and all those horrific dystopian ideas Margaret Atwood gave us in The Handmaid’s Tale start to look like a reflection of reality. It also strips the newly born of a potentially loving and full life if it is born out of a lack of autonomy.
More seriously, the issue does go beyond the simple act of letting an individual choose their own life. It means that the thousands of women and children who are sexually assaulted each year will have to endure a constant reminder of their abuser and a point in their life that was nothing but traumatic. This is inhumane and shows those six supreme court justices to be out of touch with reality and shrouded with privilege. You can only assume (and hope) that it has never or will never happen to their own daughter, wife, mother, or sister otherwise the true gravity of their decision-making will start to become all too painstakingly clear.
Forty-nine years after our grandmothers demanded the law be changed to constitutionally recognise their right to bodily autonomy and freedom, the children they so readily fought for are about to bear the burden of knowing that the patriarchy is still very much intact; thriving and oppressing in equal measure. I believe our feminine ancestors thought they were fighting the good fight, a hard fight and enduring ridicule and making many a sacrifice because they knew that in the end it would be worth it. Sometimes one can’t help but think that those sisters of ours who have passed on to (hopefully) more peaceful plains are blessed to have been spared this blatant display of disrespect. And then there’s the other part of one that wishes we still had the steady, powerful, honest, and daring voices of those like Ruth Bader Ginsburg who would have most certainly exclaimed not on my watch.
We can be grateful it didn’t happen on her watch; we can be grateful that for those fifty-six years since the formation of the National Organisation for Women we have had the likes of her, and Gloria and Shirley and Betty and Bella taking stock, standing guard, and maintaining some semblance of dignity for women across the Western World. We can be grateful whilst mourning the fact that it wasn’t enough. Grief is a funny thing. There are those five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and finally acceptance. We can’t allow ourselves to reach that final stage. There is nothing about this that we should be willing to accept. To accept this ruling is to lie down and let all that hard work, which was so admirably accomplished, be for nothing.
It cannot be for nothing.
Nothing can be for nothing.
Everything must be for something, otherwise why else did my mother choose to have me?
In December I was asked by NRTH LASS to pen a tribute to Joan Didion, following her death. Here you can read my thoughts on her passing, grief more generally and how she has influenced the writer I am/am still becoming.
There is a distinct comfort in knowing that certain people are still around. A reassurance in knowing that there are people out there who see the …
I made a conscious decision in March to not try and articulate the reality, implications or opinions I have on being in the midst of a global pandemic. Honestly, everything is saturated with this. Of course it is. Everything was saturated with this before it truly hit European territory. My mind was saturated with this long before it reached Italy and I was constantly anxious, yet feeling ridiculous, as there seemed no tangible reason to be. When the Western world was faced with the reality of what was to occur, writing and comment on the ‘novel Coronavirus’ became white noise, and there appeared no reason to contribute to the avalanche of thoughts, opinions or news that was filling the feeds of the tiny computer I keep on my person at all times.
We, in the UK, are now eight weeks into lockdown and I am unable to make sense of it anymore. I feel a great affinity with the writer who said ‘I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means.’ Eight weeks in I’ve realised I have to write about my experience otherwise I will continue to misunderstand my own thoughts and persist in launching myself along that ever familiar downward spiral that will ultimately lead to my insanity. I challenged myself to think of when limitations may have been put on my freedom prior to this and thought instantly; well never, I’ve never been in prison. Yet if I think about this with more complexity, with more layers than the one I have assigned, by adding some colours to that black and white image I have constructed then I come to realise that there are limitations put on our freedom every day. Childhood often saw me being sent to my room and as a teenager I was forbidden from going out if I demonstrated bad behaviour. A restriction on our personal freedom is traditionally a punishment, the sentence so effective through removing the element of choice. Considering this fact helps me to see how this has subtly transferred into my adult life. Money and employment are factors that put restrictions on our lives every day yet are simply accepted. We are however told that these are choices we make. I made choices about the roles I worked in but they were circumstantial, not what I would do if I could do anything, and I was always badly paid. Working hours are decided for you, and in my case holiday allowance was given on my employer’s terms (I don’t think this is unusual) and working in the service industry meant that even using the toilet wasn’t something I could decide for myself. A substantially inadequate minimum wage threshold means that thousands of people across the UK have restrictions put on their choices every day without it being deemed unfair by society. The blame is shifted to the individual; they do not work hard enough, skilled enough, often enough to deserve access to what those with money do. So restriction for me is aligned with punishment, dealt by those in control, just in varying degrees.
My ‘new normal’ started a bit earlier than everyone else’s. My contract expired in January and since then I have been navigating the world of Universal Credit with absolutely no grace, patience or ease at all. For the first time in my life I had no daily commitments. I had routine but it was dictated by choice. The appointments I regularly kept would not involve serious repercussions if I were to go AWOL for a week or two. I was struggling with my mental health, my need to sleep and consistent anxiety whilst trying to keep up with social events and hoping that my job centre appointments where I told them in all earnestness honestly? I just want to write books would be sufficient and go unquestioned. Surprisingly, it was going quite well. At the beginning of March I was finally accepting that when I have to fill out the employment box in questionnaires and tick the box labelled ‘benefits’ it didn’t indicate anything about me as a person. It is the result of a bad set of circumstances, not a reflection of my work ethic, intelligence or ability to motivate myself. I was getting down to writing my first novel – like any good English Literature graduate – and adjusting to living back at my childhood home on a permanent basis for the first time in around eight years. I was accepting a slower way of life, dictated first and foremost by my own choices, punctuated by visits with my partner and friends; things I could look forward to.
So, on the 23rd of March when our government mandated lockdown finally came into effect it seemed like there was not going to be much personal impact and that it was sensible. As someone who had been panicking about a pandemic since the end of January I felt some sense of relief. All those anxious what if’s started to fade as I realised we were now in the worst-case scenario and that it was hopefully safer. Prior to an official lockdown the members of my immediate household and my other half had been practicing a degree of social distancing as sensible precaution anyway and I am in that camp that thinks our government was too late to act on the obvious events unfolding in a continent that – Brexit or no Brexit – we still belong to. I initially approached social distancing with a degree of humour (regularly employing the phrase get back when out and about in supermarkets) not because I did not acknowledge the seriousness of the situation but rather that I knew just how grave it was and any shreds of normality were greatly appreciated, even if just for a millisecond. As the weeks have faded by these coping mechanisms have begun to wane. March turned to April, turned to May and the daily death count rose, and rose. And rose. It began to become plainly clear that as a nation we were unprepared, our government disorganised and our National Health System overwhelmed and undervalued. We needed to stay at home to give the NHS the slightest fighting chance and I, along with everyone else I know, knew that this was a good enough reason.
I have got through many of these weeks by knowing that there are worse things that could happen. I am lucky. I am lucky I do not have to navigate re-entering a potentially unsafe workplace, I am lucky I live with two close family members, I am lucky I have a garden, I am lucky I am able to walk several different countryside routes from my doorstep. I am lucky I have a wealth of books; I am lucky I have a loving partner and close friends who I stay in touch with daily. I am lucky that although worried about the shape the world will take when all this is over I have things I am looking forward to. I am lucky I have grandparents who, although isolating, have each other. I am lucky that I still managed to celebrate my birthday with friends and family from afar and I have the technology to do this. I have learned spectacularly more about the wealth of gratitude that can be found in simplicity, but this doesn’t mean that it is straightforward. I still struggle, like so many others, with the lack of choices we currently have in our day to day.
As we begin to look towards our ninth restricted week as a nation the simplicity of the ‘Stay Home, Protect the NHS, Save Lives’ (a slogan I didn’t need to research to type, I just knew off the top of my head) has been replaced by something that begins with ‘Stay Alert’. I can’t comprehend this. My upbringing and family circumstances mean I come from a background that has always relied on me being alert. A lot of my anxiety stems from hyper vigilance, yet I have always been unable to control uncontrollable events. A global illness isn’t something tangible that we are able to see and avoid. Staying alert seems akin to just being aware; my awareness isn’t something that will protect my family, loved ones or our health service. What was something I was able to accept – the clarity of the stay at home message – is now instead replaced with feelings of confusion and anger at a government whom I did not vote for which is collapsing under its own denial. Our counterparts on the continent have suffered long and intense lockdown periods (and lower death counts), which are now being extremely cautiously eased out of with clear-cut definitions on what activities are and are not allowed. The tragedies across Italy and Spain could have been warnings for the UK; the effects of locking down their nations examples to be imitated. We however continue drifting further into a self-imposed sea of hopelessness. We are a nation that (apparently) wishes to leave the European Union, in part to have greater control over our borders yet did not close them, did not finally use our island status to our advantage when faced with a tragedy of this scale. Google searches for the definition of irony have risen exponentially.
Boris Johnson’s national address last Sunday was farcical, proven instantly through Matt Lucas’ highly accurate and highly amusing satire of its existence. Addressing the nation before presenting in the Commons demonstrated the lack of communication and clarity between even the four nations, never mind between the public and those in authority. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland assuredly stood by the stay at home message that has proven so effective for the last two months, indicating that they would continue facing the losses the economy was already taking as opposed to risking a potentially more serious second wave of infections, closures and lockdowns. The English approach to encourage a return to work for those who cannot work from home fills me with rage. It is an approach laden with disregard for those who belong to certain classes or ethnic groups and sums up exactly how the Tory Party feels about the people who belong to them. (For more on this see anything Owen Jones has written in the past week.) It also demonstrates exactly what those in power believe to be important; the financial stability of this country for those who’s interests lie in this area.
I don’t know why this surprises me. I consistently vote against these people and all they stand for so why did I expect a different approach to easing our way out of a national tragedy? Maybe my exposure to the left wing press and occasional good news stories of community spirit, or glimmers of hope from a recovering natural world clouded my judgement. Maybe I have become naïve. Maybe, contrary to popular belief, I am an optimist and do try and look for the best in people. Or maybe I just believed that it would only be human, following so much loss, so much grief and so much pain to prioritise how we can socially recover from this. How we can nurture our relationships and comfort one another following collective trauma. No matter how well people say they’re doing, no matter what their social media feed says, no matter how many loaves of banana bread they’ve baked, we as a nation have been in survival mode. We have been threatened and it is only natural to want to try and survive, not necessarily thrive. Being able to be productive is an added bonus. I have found that all activities I have been occupying myself with have been underlined with a general feeling of anxiousness as we are faced with such uncertainty. If, as we are being lead to believe, we are at a point where we can begin to make certain allowances towards our freedom then shouldn’t we be engaging in activities that are good for our mental health and for our souls, not rushing back to save something that benefits a handful of wealthy individuals.
I didn’t used to believe in the simple things, I have learned to appreciate them over the last four years of my life. Through the past eight weeks it has been solidified for me; it honestly is the simple things that matter. It is waking up every morning grateful just to be. It is laughing at your mum talking to the cats. It is your sister giving you a hug when everything gets too much. It is your brother telling you he loves you at the end of every phone call. It is your grandparents looking as if they are about to present an alternative news broadcast every time they Facetime. It is your dad learning how to Whatsapp so he can stay in touch. It is planning all the meals you’ll cook with your boyfriend when all this is over. It is being unable to explain just how excited you are to be allowed to fall asleep next to your other half and knowing that you’ll never take that for granted. It is your mates ringing just to see how you are. In my experience, it is always other people that make my life so wonderful. People are not disposable. I hope that when we finally enter our brave new world that my clapping outside the front door every Thursday can be transferred into a deserved and decent pay rise for those in our society who have selflessly cared for others not just through this pandemic, but every day. I hope that we realise as a society who we truly need in order to function. How our reliance does in fact depend on those people who are so often undervalued; those who work in supermarkets, warehouses, care homes, education, the bin-men, post-men and delivery drivers who literally keep our worlds turning. When I was faced with personal grief I found that the only thing I could do was turn the results into something positive. I wouldn’t be the person I am and have the relationships I have today if I hadn’t experienced that trauma, and although it was at great personal cost I am happier today than I was five years ago. I truly hope that although we have experienced something so devastatingly sad we are able to collectively and compassionately recover into a kinder, fairer and healthier society.
You never take the cover off the car and it’s infuriating. It’s infuriating as it demonstrates to the rest of the world just how incapable of living you are, your incapability to leave the house, your inability to exist alongside others, to interact with civility. It demonstrates just how successfully you have achieved a complete sense of personal isolation.
It’s been sat exactly like that for three months now. No one walks anywhere in this city. You know that, as well as I know that, as well as our neighbours know that. It wouldn’t be half as infuriating if the impending threat of the judgement of others wasn’t so ever present. You wouldn’t know but they talk, and they don’t just talk in their own homes, or in their own cars, which are so frequently basked in persistent sunshine, and allowed to exercise their right to ride along expansive stretches of never-ending road, they talk at dinner parties, at golf courses, and in their gardens over fences that reach just the right height for faux privacy and gossip.
Privacy is a concept that skipped this part of the world. We like to pretend we don’t wish to be overlooked, that we want to get on with our own individual lives away from the prying eyes of others but you know, as well as I know, as well as they know, that actually we all need an audience. As it goes, in order to make this thing they call life, and it’s daily requirement of monotonous tasks, worth having then it must be observed by someone other than just us. There is no sense in hanging the washing so neatly, the pegs transforming from green, to blue, to red, if there is no other living soul to witness either the act or its completion. We thrive on recognition and we thrive on being noticed. Except for you. You, whom blossoms alone, with no interest in anything beyond the four walls you so regularly exist within and the notebook that sits consistently open an inch away from your poised hand.
I’ve never asked you what you’ve got to say so earnestly that you fail to open your actual mouth anymore, but I know. I know because three months and a day ago was when you last took the cover off the car, under a veil of darkness, overlooked only by a million tiny stars that shone so brightly in an ink-black world, and the curious version of myself. I stood so still and small in the window of the spare bedroom that neither of us ever venture into, that you’d never have noticed had you stared directly at the slightly parted curtain. I don’t know where you went, I’ve never had the chance to read that far, as the cover has never yet come off the car, but I know that when you got home you were heavy and you smelled strange, and although you tried your hardest the pressure of your body entering our bed nudged me out of my troubled dreams and I didn’t sleep again for the next two nights.
Two years ago we went on holiday for the last time. Three weeks on sun drenched beaches achieved through three days with your erratic driving, caused solely by my insatiable fear of aeroplanes and an obsession with their unnaturalness.
Your mannerisms when driving have never faltered in the entire time I’ve known you. A hand on the wheel, your left elbow conveniently resting in the gap of an open window, always so regardless of the weather, your mouth slightly parted, your index finger gently resting on your bottom lip. These were your calmest moments, rarely moving from the described position, the only change in your demeanour coming from the kaleidoscope of your eyes and mouth. I, ever fidgeting, would regularly change the temperature of the air con, irrelevant anyway due to your insistence on a natural breeze, would fast forward and rewind the tape player incessantly to hear my favourite songs. You claimed this wound you up, but by placing my eye to the kaleidoscope I could tell that you found elements of my childishness amusing, perhaps charming, maybe even loveable. On seeing me slump against the opposite window, always closed to provide a decent backrest, the sides of your mouth would move ever so slightly, so slightly that only someone as close as I could register, and your eyes sparkled as they travelled sideways, making them and your index finger the only parts of you that dared move in the last twenty-seven miles.
Somewhere in-between hours fourteen and nineteen on our land bound journey you abruptly stopped. It was sometime after midnight and there were no other cars on the road. You brushed my hair out of my sleeping face and gently put your jacket around my shoulders, waking me with a beckoning tone and a whisper. The door sighed as you prised it free and the land beneath your feet crunched as you approached the passenger side. You opened my door slowly and carefully; ever observant of how I so loved to repurpose its role as a convenient support. You told me to look at the stars, explained how important it was to feel as small as we really are, to appreciate the sheer magnitude of the world above and around us. I glance upwards, through half shut eyes and I see it. They are pinpoints in the sky, far too precise to be real, the light they create so specific and perfect that they must have been placed there by something so exceedingly more significant than either you or I. All of a sudden, the remoteness between the two of us doesn’t seem important. The only essentiality is that we be, and continue to be, in that particular moment. Abruptly, and without warning, you disappeared into the night and I clambered back into the passenger side, shifted your jacket over my chest like a blanket, and brushed the sand from my feet to the depths of the foot-well below.
Today I have read two books written by women, in fact I can’t remember the last time I read a book written by a man. I chose both these books for relatively straightforward reasons. One claimed to be a response to George Orwell’s essay Why I Write, and the other presented itself as a ‘manifesto for change’. I’ve read another woman’s response to Why I Write and found it to be honest, revealing and important, and anything that claims to wish to inspire change in a world I find to be so disheartening I’m interested in. I am actively choosing to not engage with male writers. This, it can be argued, is an act of sexism, but I have been raised in a world where the patriarchy tends to have the final say and small acts of rebellion count. I recently purchased and read the second book by a female author who’s work I don’t find to be particularly original or interesting, but supporting young, female art is important and it was still infinitely better than any crime fiction I could have chosen as an easy holiday read.
I put a lot of thought into what I read, possibly sometimes to my detriment. I’m not interested in how a book can hook me in its first few pages; I have more patience than that, in fact I give any book up to page thirty-six before I choose to pass an informed judgement on whether I am or am not enjoying it. I choose what I read based on simple things; the title can sometimes intrigue me, if the cover image encapsulates an emotion in itself, the first paragraph of a blurb. It’s worth noting that more often than not an author’s non-fiction work is likely to make me more open minded to reading anything fictional they have produced. This sentiment was ignited with one of today’s reads; Things I Don’t Want to Know, the first instalment of Deborah Levy’s memoirs. My mother bought me Swimming Home for my birthday two years ago and its sat untouched, so untouched that when I rifled through boxes upon boxes of books (I am still unpacking my life after yet another move) to try and find it today, I couldn’t. Reading only part of her memoirs made me desperately want to read the fiction that was a product of her real life.
I return to the sentiment of life and its experiences being a valuable creative tool over and over again. I remember being a teenager and the most experimental and daring author I could find to read in recent memory being Hunter S Thompson. I wanted to know how the author could bring their whole self into their words and he was the only obvious example I could find, and he was male. And an alcoholic, and a drug addict, and violent, and arguably insane, and travelling across large expanses of America’s United States in the 1970s. None of these qualities were relatable to me, a teenage girl working her way through secondary school who’d rarely left Manchester never mind the UK. As I got older the concept of including the self within one’s creativity was incomprehensible to my educators, and I was repeatedly told that as I was not doing a creative writing course, writing in such a creative way was inappropriate. No one at school, no one at college, no one even during my time in university pointed me towards female authors full stop, never mind female authors writing in the capacity of the personal essay. The importance of the self within an author’s work was simply not considered, this is something I have discovered and nurtured on my own.
Ironically it started with my male best friend handing me a copy of Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehemthat he’d recently acquired on a work related visit to the States. The action was accompanied by the words, ‘you’re a woman who can’t help but include herself in her writing, you’ll like her.’ I remember at the time thinking that this sentiment indicated that my male friend had dismissed her work, hadn’t found the worth in it, as she was simply a woman writing about herself. I then remember thinking that due to this perceived attitude anything he’d read that I’d written he’d happily dismissed as just another woman writing about herself. I know this isn’t true. I know he included the word ‘woman’ in his description, as he knew his target audience; the ardent feminist he’d been friends with for half his life who placed great importance on her gender and where that stood her in the world. Annoyingly, he wasn’t wrong. I devoured Slouching Towards Bethlehemand when finished declared that Didion was a nuanced and intelligent Hunter S Thompson, whose work was far more revealing, honest and sensitive. I’d stand by this point, but I don’t want to describe her in relation to a man who’s only similarity is that he also used his writing to make a living. The reason I love Joan Didion is because she stands alone, her work is like nothing else I have ever encountered.
Since my first introduction I have read many of Joan Didion’s works, fiction and non-fiction but as always I started with the factual. The factual opened me up to the story and the story is simply a reflection of the truth. Reading Joan Didion has made me more conscious. I am more conscious of myself, I am more conscious of what I want, I am more conscious of the world around me and I am far more conscious of what I choose to read. This has returned me to actively engaging with books. I studied literature for a long time and was, the majority of the time, told what to read and when. There weren’t many books by women throughout this period, and when there were they often covered multiple diversity bases. University gave the impression that to succeed as a female writer you must fit into some kind of minority group. We constantly focused on white male authors, but rarely white female and especially those writing in the contemporary period. The curriculum surrounding men indicated that you could be entirely dull and ordinary and still create a masterpiece; this was not conveyed for women. Women can be entirely dull and ordinary and remain that way. Leaving university has given me the time to search for those writers where I may be able to find a part of me, and therefore gain some sense of inspiration.
Consecutively reading two books in an afternoon was intense and liberating. On the day where the biggest news headline was Boris Johnson being faux-elected as the next British Prime Minister I was able to escape into two semi-imaginary worlds where I only need focus on the start of the next paragraph and the turning of the next page. It also gave me a day that was entirely mine. Things have happened around me and I haven’t realised. I got bad news relating to work on my day off and I, for the first time in three months, didn’t care. I was busy understanding that life isn’t always perfect, and life isn’t always exceptional but that it’s always worth talking about. The documentation of the everyday is ultimately always a reflection of, a comment on, the society that individual inhabits at that forever unique time, the present moment. It is so easy to forget the present moment, to dwell on what happened five minutes ago or project so fervently into the future that it makes our eyes hurt, and we have to scrunch our face up to relieve the pain. But it is this attention to detail and the finite things that occur that means that I admire writers like Didion and Levy; they both hold the capacity to put the reader in their present moment. They focus on the senses, they allow their reader to understand them, they tell them where they’re writing from, what they see, hear and smell, and most importantly the emotions they allow themselves to feel.
Women are often taught that the intensity with which we allow ourselves to feel our emotions is a weakness. It’s really not; it is an essential strength most people deny themselves. When you have the capability to understand that feelings are not facts and simply thoughts that flow through the body with as much right to be there as the blood that carries our oxygen, then the more strength we have understanding and expressing them. It’s also worth noting that no feeling lasts forever and that they are there to inform us of something. It is when we accept them for what they are and let ourselves experience them that we are able to act upon them with a sensible and logical attitude. Deny the feelings and refuse to accept them and the decision making process ultimately becomes a disaster. As opposed to being based in a source of truth, it is based on what is perceived to be the best course of action, something the individual may not agree with, which will ultimately cause further conflict. The experience of feeling then, and the emotional intensity that is inherent to these authors’ works becomes a part of the moment itself. It taps into that most human of experience, subjectivity. By including the self so fervently, and not denying the emotions that accompanied the experience, Didion and Levy make it more real and so much more human and therefore unique and interesting. This is why they are revered over simple fact collating travel guides or news articles that claim to provide the reader with an objective view. If I want an account of California I will reach for Didion, I want to hear what she hears, smell what she smells, feel the weight of a fluorescent blue sky in the same way that she did; sentiments that she carries so well through her words. If I want to understand the political backdrop of South Africa, I will reach for Levy who documents her own experience of how living their throughout her formative early years had an impact on her life with such honesty and tenderness. I want to understand her sadness, share her pain and feel her confusion, which I can do so easily through the construction of her sentences and the selection of her words.
Reading expands our worlds when we cannot physically do so ourselves. The Romantic period saw literature being used to express transgression; ordinary people turned to books to have experience and live vicariously in a time when their worlds were so limited. Using art in this way has progressed into the modern world, and now it can be argued that people turn to what is intended to be more immersive techniques of doing this, in the form of gaming and virtual reality. Essentially though the power of the book will always prevail. The images I see from someone’s writing are my own. No one has constructed them for me and placed them in my vision, I have formed them myself through my interpretation of the author’s words and the sentiment they have created through them. Therefore it is entirely unique, and entirely immersive, and an escape into a world that only I have access to. Even if you read the same book as me, the world you choose to inhabit will be entirely different, no two people will ever see things the same.
I know that my writing is not successful when I am not being honest, specifically when I am not being honest with myself. I have always used my writing to understand the world I live in, to understand how I form and partake in this world, to understand how I feel about myself; my actions, my emotions, my learned behaviours and my ability to change. My writing does not work when I set out to document a topic, my writing works when I have a problem, something I need to unpick, dissect and evaluate. It does not work when I am doing it self-consciously, or when I have an audience in mind; I am not writing to you, I am writing to me. This is why I have actively chosen not to pursue my passion as my career. I cannot stand the idea of someone paying me to write, for me to work to their restrictions and agendas, for me to formulate words based on a brief; there is not enough freedom or creativity in that space. Introducing a financial incentive means that truth is unable to take its rightful place at centre stage, there is someone else to adhere to, someone else to please, someone else’s opinion to impose.
As a teenager I wrote avidly. I’ve never written creatively; I am caught up in the real world, not a cynic, just a realist. I have filled notebooks upon notebooks with joy, anger, sadness, bitterness, achievements, failures, lost loves, countless relationships, first experiences, exciting milestones and those which have troubled me. Some of these I have read back, some I have read the first sentence, and upon understanding the idea shied away from its confirmation. By my fourteenth year I was filling these notebooks with my pain. I would write it out, get it all out; put it on the page so it was no longer in my head, as this pain was important to me, I couldn’t stand the idea of forgetting it, but I no longer wanted it. I would give my pain to my notebooks, changing my handwriting as the years went on, trying to formulate an identity for myself in every aspect of the written world. This isn’t so much the case now, it’s difficult to convey so much of one’s self through the impersonal and mechanic identity of machinery, the writer must work harder to convey their whole being through the pure arrangement of the written word.
Some of the most troubling times in my life have been the times when I felt incapable of expressing myself. When my Uncle died so suddenly I was unable to write; I was so frustrated, all I wanted to do was write away the pain and document the absurdness of my everyday, as even in the midst of all that grief I knew that one day the pain would change and I wouldn’t be able to comprehend the fact that I was ever that sad. From that day I have a series of key images, like stills from a film, which will be forever permanently impressed on my mind. One is being incapable of carrying myself, of collapsing in the hospital corridor, unwilling and unable to hold the weight of this sorrow. I was half carried; half dragged, into the smallest room and told I was having a panic attack. A nurse handed me water, which was disgustingly lukewarm, yet I was incapable of expressing this sentiment. I gratefully drank, ever the people pleaser who doesn’t like people.
Ten hours later I was back in Manchester, disorientated and numb. My mother and I had woken my siblings to tell them. This was my idea, my mother uncertain whether to wait until the morning; I said it couldn’t wait. We sat on my sister’s bed and sobbed, all four of us, and within that moment the room felt impenetrable. I don’t remember how I got home, or when I went home. I didn’t live at my parent’s then, my partner came to get me, opened the door and gave my mother a lingering hug. My grief was never secondary but I think to those outside of my immediate family I was doing better than I was. I lived that evening and into the night in a daze, refusing to go to sleep until I had no option, as in this day, Wednesday the sixteenth of March two-thousand and sixteen, my Uncle Ben was still alive and I was not willing to let that go.
The second thing I distinctly remember is waking on Thursday and before my eyes were open there were tears coming out of them. I remember this so vividly because it did not make sense to me. In my experience it is the closing of the eyes that makes the tears fall.
I tried with all my being to write throughout this. I wrote, rewrote and wrote again what I was intending to say at the funeral. Eventually I ended up beginning and completing my final public goodbye on the morning of the event, whilst I panicked that the dress I was wearing was transparent and one of its buttons was missing. My hair was red and I hated it. I put make-up on to cry it away and berated myself for the fact that my tights were the wrong colour. I wore all black, not because of the occasion but because I’d been intending to wear the dress to a wedding as Ben’s plus one. When I’d bought it a month prior there was nothing in my consciousness that could have comprehended the fact that I was now wearing it to his funeral.
The week before he died I dreamt I attended his funeral. The coffin was so small and as always with my dreams, the scene was exceptionally vivid. My subconscious has a fantastic way of making the most absurd unrealities reality in my deepest sleeps. Normally they are unpleasant, filled with my everyday but with disturbing distortions. Sometimes they reflect my anxieties, those I am conscious of and those I do not yet know. Sometimes, as with two nights ago, they are blissful, I am in Paris, drinking coffee in Le Deux Magots and looking across at a mirror that reflects layers upon layers of gold and I am grateful that occasionally my subconscious reminds me of things I found so beautiful.
I did not admit my dream for sometime, afraid that somehow I had willed the event to happen. I finally admitted it to my mother stood in one of the doorways at work, panicking and unable to hold myself together. I was regularly unable to hold myself together at this point, yet went back to work as I felt there was nothing else to be done. I was told to take a year away from my Masters so threw myself into a full on working lifestyle. Everyone assumed that at work my mind would be distracted from all the things that troubled me. Those who believe that one’s mind can be distracted from such a thing as uncontrollable grief have clearly never experienced it. I would cry whilst I served customers and complete monotonous tasks in the never-ending daze I existed within; that isolation that makes one feel like they are living within an invisible bubble that does not allow them to fully engage with the real world. Everything is filtered, not quite real, and untouchable. You are numb.
Normality is always just out of your reach. Every time you think you’ve managed to grasp it, put that first mouthful of food into your mouth or laughed hysterically at that moment in your favourite film, the crushing weight of your reality forces itself upon you and you are frozen, crying over pasta you are then unable to eat, laughing until the joy becomes uncontrollable sobs, because how on earth can you manage to continue with your every day when it is so very far from normal. It did not seem right that I should engage in those activities which assisted in sustaining me, did not seem right that I was able to even smile, let alone laugh so carelessly at things so trivial. I remember thinking that I was never going to be able to be happy again, and in those moments that thought was true. People regularly told me that time would heal. Time doesn’t heal, time changes. Over time my loss, and my reaction to this loss has changed; it hasn’t healed, I haven’t forgotten, it is not diminished, but it is different.
Now, I find so much joy in my every day, more joy than I ever thought imaginable and I did not have this in my life five years ago. My Uncle Ben brought me a wealth of happiness, and his sense of humour and intelligent wit is something I miss on a daily basis, along with his perspective, opinions and comfort, but I was lucky enough to ever experience these things in the first place and they have helped me become the person I am. I find joy in finding something funny, or interesting, or ridiculous and knowing that Ben would agree with me. I find joy in coming out with a phrase, a comment or an opinion that seems extremely Ben-esque and thinking to myself that he could almost be in the room. I am comforted by the fact that even though sometimes the only person I want to talk to is my Uncle I can probably quite certainly come up with a suitable answer to my problems that could have come from his mouth.
When we buried him, and were stood in front of his grave, I told my stepdad that now I must learn to drive so I could come and see him. His response was simply this: ‘you don’t need to come here to see him, you just need to look in a mirror’, his voice breaking in those final four words; my heart breaking in response.
I once said that everyone should try living on his or her own. I am still a strong advocate of this, but now I have some more experience. Earlier this year I moved back to my family home, for what I thought would be quite a long time. This wasn’t the case. Within six months I was gone, moved into a little two up two down of my own back in the SK1 area. This was, and still is, ideal. Living at home at twenty-four wasn’t negative but there were points when it felt suffocating, like I didn’t have the space to make all the choices I wanted to. In fact, I think I made worse choices. I spent a lot of time with my two younger siblings, which was ace, but I think it made me act like a teenager again. There was one week where we managed to do Venue twice, with a little Smiths Disco jaunt in-between. I drank a lot, I was sick a lot and I engaged in some activities I believed to be long gone. This was all a lot of fun, but not very me. I am a big fan of a night out dancing but drinking all the rum and spending the next day in work wishing I were absolutely anywhere but there was far from ideal; I am not suited to that lifestyle at all.
Living on my own has given, and continues to give me, a significant sense of self. This was an important point for me the last time I wrote about the experience, yet this time I’m in a much better place. A year and a half has passed and a lot of my self-doubt and uncertainty has dissipated. There’s something very important about being the only person responsible for any decision-making in your household, and the only person affected by the consequences. It makes you really consider your principles, your values and your morals. You are free to exist in a way that is true to all of these things. Additionally you are forced into a routine of self-care. There is nobody else around to make sure you get yourself to bed at a sensible time (something I am still learning, midnight has long since passed in my writing of this), nobody to make sure you’re eating regularly and well (again, learning!) and nobody to help you fill your time or entertain you.
I’m quite good at being responsible for my own entertainment, and have been since I was a child. A common conversation in our house when I was little would be:
‘Well, you must be boring then.’
I’ve never liked the idea of being boring, in fact I’ve always considered it the worst insult you could throw at me; I’m many things and have been accused of being many things, but never boring. This is a problem for me though. I fill my time with quite a lot of interesting things. My job is fast-paced and pretty unpredictable; I like to run on a lot of adrenalin it seems. In my spare time I am always doing something. I like to go on walks, I like to watch films, I like to socialise, I like being around people and I like to try and be creative for at least seventy-two percent of this free time. This doesn’t leave much downtime and it’s this that I find really hard and it’s this that I find really hard on my own.
I think my downtime is when I’m asleep, but even then my dreams are pretty mental. Although I studied literature I find reading to be quite a difficult activity to start and watching any kind of television is really just me staring blankly at a screen thinking about something utterly unrelated. I don’t have live TV, there’s very little point, and recently I’ve become so terrified through my incessant watching of Luther that I pretty much refuse to go near a screen at the moment.
(Pause here. This is one of the worst things about living on your own; watching something completely traumatising and then having no one else to be scared near/make sure you don’t get brutally murdered by an obscenely ridiculous serial killer halfway through the night. I don’t know if I can handle accepting my own death whilst trying to get to sleep at the age of twenty-four anymore. Upshot of this: no more Luther for me, which is a shame, as I’d quite like to know what happens to Alice…)
It turns out downtime for me is doing stuff like writing this. I find writing to be calming and therapeutic; probably why I spent an excessive amount of money making sure I got qualifications in it, and living on my own really forces me to spend more time doing it. There are a lot of times when I miss having somebody else in my home to interact with. I am happy that I have never stayed in a drastically miserable situation, especially with a partner, just to avoid being alone. This has never happened, I know my own mind too much for this, but I do sometimes struggle with loneliness. I feel like this is a difficult thing to admit and like I am displaying some kind of weakness by doing so. I very much have the attitude of ‘you should be fine, and yourself should be enough’ so any kind of feelings of unhappiness resulting from too much time spent on my own makes me extremely nervous. This is where the whole having more experience since last time aspect comes in.
I never got lonely the last time I lived on my own, but that’s because I avoided sitting with myself ever. I could not be on my own for prolonged amounts of time, I wasn’t well enough to be and that’s okay. When I was alone I was very good at not being alone. I was attached to my phone, always texting and always, always trawling through endless, endless rubbish on social media, which I would strongly discourage. Comparison really is the enemy of happiness and self-fulfilment. I have a very different attitude towards the outside world now. This is where I’m really taking control of what I choose to value. The modern world is a really difficult place to navigate. There’s a lot of pressure to both conform and be different. I have fallen into this at many points in my teenage years and further into my adult life. I am done with this now, or at least I hope I am. I’ve started taking positive action towards having a greater connection with the actual world we live in. I’ve set myself daily limits for screen time, which makes me sound like a child but if that’s what I have to do then so be it. I try and spend a lot of my time outside, especially now that daylight is limited. I try to pay attention to the naturalness of being human. We exist on the planet, we didn’t create it, and I believe that the majority of the human race has become so far removed from this that it’s unhealthy. Our existence is so artificially constructed that it’s no wonder everyone’s so anxious all the time.
A few weeks ago my brain wasn’t functioning as well as it usually is and I ended up using a free evening to really get into googling various mental health issues and self-diagnosing myself with three of them. Amazing what my head can do when left to its own devices. So, according to my Masters level research into the matter, I suffer not only from depression (number fifteen out of twenty-seven on the scale, nonetheless. N.B. I have no idea what this means but I’m over halfway there), some form of post-traumatic stress and anxiety, obviously. Although I find the idea that I used many hours of my free time engaging in this activity hysterical now, I still reflected upon it and particularly the idea of anxiety. After diagnosing myself with that particular disorder I wasn’t particularly worried, in fact my first thought was ‘well, who isn’t constantly anxious?’ Even then I managed a small laugh. However, inherently this isn’t funny.
It can’t just be me that’s baffled by the fact that we’ve created such a living environment that essentially most of the population is suffering from some kind of anxiety on a regular basis? I’m not referring to the kind of anxiety here that is crippling, nor am I referring to something as potentially extreme as panic attacks, although for a lot of people these are not uncommon, but rather just an underlying worry about pretty much everything and anything, and technological advancements really contribute to this. (Sorry Alex, they don’t ‘really bloody turn me on.’)
There is such an emphasis on constantly being connected to someone or something and I think this is really damaging. According to screen time, in the last week I have spent twenty hours on my phone, picking it up on average one hundred and twenty-one times a day; and this is me making a conscious effort to spend less time looking at an artificial light. Most of the time I’m not doing anything productive, I’m just consuming other people’s lives. Our constant connectivity is on the whole a negative attribute of the modern world, it can have extremely positive effects, but most of the time I don’t believe this is what it’s being used for and I’m included in that generalisation.
Having such easy access to other people’s lives is unnatural, especially access to people’s lives that we’ve never met. The Internet is the perfect platform for construction and idealisation and is largely a false representation of what it is portraying. My Instagram account is really not an accurate representation of what I get up to on a daily basis, if it were it would feature many more pictures of pints, many more pictures of me in my pyjamas sat in front of my laptop and many more unglamorous pictures of me, just finishing work at two in the morning, sweaty and covered in beer. I don’t share these aspects of my life online as they’re not attractive and they don’t conform to portraying a lifestyle that’s, essentially, full of leisure. I think I can quite certainly say that there are very few people in the world who’s lives are leisure based yet scroll through anyone’s online presence and you would think that work, sitting around on your own, wearing no make-up and eating an entire trifle meant for six were activities that never crossed their minds. (Okay, so maybe the trifle thing isn’t a regular occurrence, but whatever, I had a bad week.)
The point I’m trying to make is that we are becoming so far detached from reality that it’s as if everyone has two versions of themselves, the online and the functional. The functional exists within society, does a job, goes home and has tea, watches television, goes to sleep. The online exists as the ideal; it is the highlights reel of people’s lives, yet it is what people are using to define themselves, and I find that a lot of that definition comes from what people own, or have bought, or are aspiring to. I remember learning the phrase ‘keeping up with the Jones’’ whilst studying A Level Sociology and this has always stuck with me, the idea that in order to measure success and happiness it is essential to own the latest version of a thing in question. The key thinking behind this theory is that certain pockets of society were consistently dissatisfied as they were incapable of sustaining a lifestyle that adhered to owning the latest versions. They were always aspiring to be something better than what they were, always envious of their neighbours, ‘the Jones’’, who seemed to have it so much better, with little grasp on whether this was or was not true.
I was not brought up in a family that valued measuring success or happiness through material gain. Somewhere in my adolescence this altered. My mother thinks that my obsession (yes, that is what it is) with clothes started with her, as she would always ensure that me, my sister and brother were well turned out regardless of our circumstances. Maybe this is true or maybe, as I have theorised, I’ve used buying things to make myself feel better through extremely difficult periods of my life. Regardless of the root though I am beginning to alter these patterns; I have made sure I no longer follow any social media accounts that are trying to sell me something. The planet is under such threat with no obvious solutions being reached with our collective attitude towards sustainability that I really don’t need to buy any new things. In the wake of the current revelations about Philip Green (who, let’s be honest, everyone knew was a bastard anyway) I am on a full Arcadia Group boycott, which luckily for me only really includes Topshop. If I’m going to live within principles, values and morals that are true to me then this is essential and I am happy to report that it’s going really well. I’m also trying to change a habit of having material things in order to achieve a sense of contentment or fulfilment. I am trying extremely hard, and very slowly, to turn in a more creative direction in order to create my happiness. This will ultimately be more fulfilling and utterly sustainable. Luckily I have real-life friends who share my dreams.
Back to the issue of loneliness though, as this is really what got me writing this piece. Yes, I do love living on my own, but yes I do get lonely. I gave myself a lot of grief for this last week, believing that I should be fine and worrying that this meant that I wasn’t capable of getting on with life. My mother has always joked (been deadly serious) about me being co-dependent and I have had a lot of relationships that have conformed to this, both romantic and otherwise. I now joke (am deadly serious) that the only co-dependent relationship I am in is with my job. Co-dependency is really unhealthy but these are habits I have (hopefully!) taught myself out of over a long period of time. These things take time but are worth it. I spent time on my own to learn to like me and to learn to get on with me and most importantly to learn what is important to me and what I want out of my own life. And loneliness will feature, inevitably. Humanity is a social species, of course I enjoy and thrive off social interaction, this isn’t negative and doesn’t mean that I am incapable of spending time on my own, it just means that sometimes that time is too long and I need to practice self-care and get in touch with, spend some real-life time with, like-minded individuals who enrich my being. This isn’t a weakness; this is being human.
Fundamentally our ability to be constantly artificially connected to other people’s lives, thoughts, feelings and opinions is by no means an antidote for loneliness, but rather a creator. We are losing the ability to understand, fulfil and make ourselves happy. We are losing the excitement that comes from having engaging, vibrant conversations with others about the things we are passionate about. We are losing what it is to connect with and understand another person. We may have forms of social interaction available to us in vast quantities but as a result we are truly sacrificing its quality, and in turn our own sanity and happiness.
Today I don’t need other people to make me happy or validate my existence; I know that the only person responsible for that is myself; any outside influences are simply a bonus. However, I am an enthusiastic and passionate individual who enjoys the company of others. I like conversation and debate. I like sharing things. I like seeing things when out and about in the world and thinking, ‘so and so will like this, I’ll let them know’. I like discussion, and I like people who care enough to mull over the important things with me. This is the difference in me now. I accept these aspects of my character but I am comfortable spending time with myself. When I interact with people it is out of choice, not necessity because I am not enough. Inevitably living on my own means that loneliness will feature, but not as frequently, and today I recognise that feeling and choose what I do with it.
I think it’s important to get to know yourself, to try to understand the naturalness of your being. Living alone contributes to these values of mine extensively. I know my sleeping patterns, I know the times of day when I’ll be most creative or the points in my day where I’ll feel the least like doing anything which is normally between the hours of nine and ten at night, with my most productive hours existing within the three hours after waking up and from midnight until about three… unfortunate really. I know I don’t have a conventional routine but I do have some kind of Saffron routine, which currently consists of listening to Kate Bush really loudly at two in the morning. So really, what’s not to like? Doing exactly what I want can be the best thing in the world, if only I’ll let it.
As the sun descends behind its brittle mountains, and the moon increases its boldness, the island of Zakynthos and its inhabitants become difficult to distinguish. During this twilight zone the insects that dominate the day, with their incessant creaking from invisible bodies, moulded into olive trees, begins to deaden as one by one they succumb to what can only be assumed is sleep. There is an almost uninterrupted quiet for a while; the occasional dog bark, or whistle of a bird every now and again punctuating the silence, but nothing seems close and everything is far away.
A new kind of life begins to slowly creep out of the emerging darkness. Something has been flying above my head, under the veranda, for a while now. It is small and dark, like a bat, yet it makes a sound rendering my deduction false. Hedgerows, each exhibiting bright and extravagantly coloured flowers surround the house. In the dark, rustling sounds begin to take shape and an unidentifiable silhouette just darted from the steps to the cover of these plants. I’ve no perception of what it was, aside from the fact that it was clearly alive.
Beyond the veranda behind what, in the light of day, is an unintimidating collection of relatively small bushes is a disused and unloved old swimming pool. If you were someone who did not possess a natural curiosity then you would never know it was there. Fortunately for you, I have an innate desire to explore the unknown. Its beauty initially struck me. The relics of human existence are there; the plastic steps in and out and the integrated stone ones that occupy one edge demonstrate how this was once a place of sanctuary and joy for someone. My brain transported me to a world far away from this one and I could see two sun loungers accompanied by a striped umbrella on the far corner of the paving. A young woman, in sixties-esque swimwear, was lying on an intricately coloured blanket at the top of the feature steps, head tilted down, and eyes just visible beneath her large, white sunglasses intently perusing a battered copy of Lolita.
Why my brain decided that any woman’s favourite book would be Lolita is a mystery to me, yet there it was. In the obnoxious glare of the Greek sunlight the pond is green, filled with weeks old rainwater. It has not, and will not, rain whilst I am here. A frog leaping into its depths pulls me out of my inception of daydreams. It is dark now and the howling chorus of a thousand stray dogs has begun. Their staccato barks infiltrate the incessant noise of mopeds and quad bikes. Yet it is all far away. Close there is the sound of frogs, easily and initially mistaken for chickens, and in the distance a minute fraction of the island begins to come alive.
It is unclear whether here, in the middle of nowhere, it would be possible to be bombarded with the sensory overload that is Laganas, and its infamous tourist strip. When British teenagers say they are going to Zante, they are actually going to Zakynthos, what they meanis that they are going to Laganas. Zante is the miniscule strip of shisha bars, garish hotels, two for one cocktails and incessant euro-trash. Zakynthos is unspoilt beaches, loggerhead turtle nests and mountains. Lots and lots of mountains. It is not sitting on a veranda at eleven o’clock at night, due to the fact that you have the fortunate superpower of being inedible to mosquitos, and listening to 1980s pop hit Rio. The only acceptable setting for Duran Duran is Turner’s subtle nod in I Bet That You Look Good on the Dancefloor.
Her name isn’t Rio, but I don’t care for sand,
And lighting my fuse my result in a bang-b-b-bang-oh.