Learning to read the signs

Sign reading isn’t just a mystical art, although it often feels that way even when it’s largely pragmatic. Appearing to have magical insight can sometimes be about being better at reading the world than most people are. Knowing how to read the clouds when they move over your specific bit of landscape is a good example of this.

Many other animals are better than humans when it comes to spotting the early warning signs for earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and tsunamis. Observing and knowing how to read those reactions can be a life saver. Understanding how everyone else responds can provide you with a lot of information.

At the moment I’m trying to learn how to read the signs in my own body. The immediate future can be divined from the behaviour of my heart. I’m trying to outwit anaemia, and the earlier I can read the signs, the better chance I have of staying well. It’s all very of-this-world but compared to where I was a month ago, it looks truly supernatural.

We can tell a lot about what people might do by paying attention to body language, word choices, and the tells they have that indicate lies or bluffs. Good poker players are often good people-readers. I prefer not to have to infer things, but it is often necessary.

Human systems are complex and can be difficult to make sense of. Even so, the lines of cause and effect are often there to be read, even by someone who does not have a deep understanding of everything going on. I remain amazed by the people who seem unable to see what the impacts of the UK leaving the EU are. In pragmatic issues just as in mystical ones, it is all too easy to only see the signs you can interpret in the way you wanted to all along.


My hot take on that celebrity situation

Sometimes, the vitriol famous people endure online impacts their mental health. Sometimes people die as a direct consequence of this. However, most of the time, my hot take on the latest celebrity thing will have no impact whatsoever on the people involved. They won’t notice me judging them, and if they did, they probably wouldn’t care.

The people who will see my hot take are my friends, most of whom aren’t especially famous. If I body shame someone, it will be my friends with body shame issues who feel that. If I stigmatise someone for their disability or the state of their mental health, it will be my struggling friends who are impacted. If I am sexist about someone because I don’t like them, it is my female friends who will be hurt. If I mock someone for saying they feel suicidal, it is my suicidal friend who becomes less confident about asking for help.

I’ve talked before about why I think celebrity culture needs taking seriously. It is culture. In just the same way that what we do online is real and not magically hived off from the rest of existence. Wound someone emotionally via the internet and they are still wounded. How we talk about famous people can have a huge impact on the people around us.

It is important to call out people for the things they should not have done. I’m all for that. But all too often, the insults that come with it reveal a lot about the person making the comments. The kind of sexism hurled at women isn’t ok, no matter what they did. Call them out over their behaviour, but don’t link it to appearance, or desirability, or how appealing it seems to have something horrific happen to them. 

If your main focus is on taking down people you don’t like, then weaponising anything you can about them will seem like fair game. It’s a toxic way to behave. What we need to focus on is building something better and that means not hurling abuse for the pleasure of it. It means staying out of the personal attacks. It also means checking, and double checking your assumptions. If it feels ok to hurl sexist abuse at a woman because she’s on the other side of a political divide, that’s still hurling sexist abuse and it upholds sexism. 

Focus on what you want to build, not what you want to take down.


To be dependent is human

I write a lot about community because I think too much solitary individualism has harmed us all. There are too many things that cannot be done as an individual, and too many things that are really hard to do alone. There are also a lot of things that we do collectively and then try to ignore. This is especially true around harm we’re causing – climate change is a collective problem and yet we focus obsessively on individual solutions.

How dependent should we be on each other? At what point does dependence become unhealthy? Do we prioritise independence too much? How does ableism inform all of this? At the moment I have more questions than answers. What bothers me is the way in which dependence is pathologised, and treated as a problem to solve. Too needy, too clingy, codependent, enmeshed… at what point is it reasonable to be worried about how involved people are with each other?

I think the simple answer to this, is when it becomes controlling. When a person feels justified in controlling another person so that they feel secure, or needed or whatever it is they get out of it. If dependence turns into wanting to make people do things, a line needs to be drawn. There’s a great deal of needing people that is possible without having to take over their lives.

I’ve never been a very independent person. I’ve never lived on my own and I never want to do that. I would always choose to live communally. I’m very relationship oriented and by that I don’t just mean romance. I’ve tried living off-grid, and it’s exhausting. I don’t want to independently produce all my own food, for the same reasons. I want to live in a community. I want to share resources. I want to give, and borrow and lend and be part of an ecosystem.

My whole state of being in the world is people centred. I’ve only ever been interested in ritual as a community activity. Shared music spaces have always been really important to me. I’m in conversations about communal crafting. I’m happiest as a writer when I’m co-creating. I move towards community projects whenever I have the chance. Reading books is the only thing I’m really invested in doing on my own. Even that isn’t truly solitary, it’s an interaction with the author.

Unless you really are off grid, in a yurt of your own making, growing your own food from your saved seeds and wearing clothes spun from your own sheep, then your life is full of interactions. Even if you live alone, someone made your shelter, your food, your clothes. Someone touched your possessions before you did. People got sick and died so that you could have cheap things. Landscapes were impacted by your diet. We’re in constant relationship, and the idea of independence is a fantasy that insulates us from knowing what kind of impact we have.

We’re all participating in exploitation, in degradation of environments and in the destructive nonsense of capitalism. Individualism is just a way of ignoring this. We are all held by countless relationships, most of which are invisible to us. I’d rather be dependent on my relationships with my friends than, for example, getting my emotional viability by buying new clothes on a daily basis.


Sparrows

A bit of messing about with pencils – I used photo references for all of these. First up, the sort of sparrow I see round here a lot.

This is a flock and I took a slightly more abstract approach. I love how some of the images of sparrows in flight contained an array of blobs that didn’t look anything like birds at all. Those three weird shapes are fairly accurate!

This one is an attempt at a Eurasian sparrow although I don’t think I nailed the shape. About two years ago, when Abbey was in Tokyo he used to send me photos of the birds on the bird feeders outside his window. I know a handful of words in Japanese. Abbey’s English is brilliant, but bird language is a bit specialist so it took us a while to figure out that his visitors were sparrows. They are different to my local sparrows, but clearly related.


Wessex Mysteries

I’ve been blogging for a few weeks now about crime, murder mysteries and working with David Bridger and I’m going to keep that coming because there’s plenty to think about around the project. This week we made a commitment to a trilogy, and that these will be The Wessex Mysteries.

Wessex is a wonderfully evocative name, I think. It conjures up two wildly different things. The first is Thomas Hardy, who had a fictional version of the south west that featured in his novels. I’m not a huge Hardy fan (I’ve read three now) but I am really interested in the idea of how stories relate to landscapes, and his Wessex has been highly influential for a lot of people.

Go back a bit further and Wessex is an Anglo-Saxon kingdom, and has strong associations with King Alfred. Alfred the Great is one of those historical figures who stands on the edges of history and myth – he’s the one with the burnt cake story. 

The Wessex area also has a lot of prehistory in it, and I’m looking forward to giving that more thought and attention as we go along. The presence of history in the landscape is definitely going to be a theme for these books.


Community Spaces

One of the great things about libraries is that these are spaces you can be in where you don’t have to pay. Warm, dry spaces with seats and things to do, where you can be for hours, no questions asked. 

In the warmer weather, there are parks and green spaces – for some of us, at least. There are benches in the high street. However, for the greater part, your scope for community participation, social spaces, activities, entertainment and leisure all depend on your ability to pay to access the space in the first place. It means poverty increases social exclusion and with the cost of living rising, ever more people will be priced out of opportunities to meet people and to socialise.

There are people who are perfectly happy being alone. However, most humans are social creatures and suffer intensely from loneliness without enough human contact. Passing people in the streets and seeing them in shops is not an answer to social needs. It’s better when we can do things together, form bonds, share things and feel like we’re part of something.

Stroud has a great initiative on at the moment and I wanted to flag it up as an example of a good project. We have a market area in town, but for much of the time it isn’t used. It’s a mix of open space and partially sheltered space – well ventilated but ok on a wet day. This summer, the council are opening it for a lunchtime each week and inviting community music groups to perform in the space, and putting out chairs for anyone who wants to come along. Bring lunch. Bring children. Bring the dog. It’s all good. It’s free, and friendly and pretty safe.

These are the kinds of spaces we need. Spaces that invite participation, that create interest and that don’t cost participants anything.


Costing the Earth

Here’s a handy list of things to avoid if you want to reduce your carbon impact.

Don’t own or use private jets.

Don’t own or use massive private yachts. The kind of little yachts that have sails are fine.

Don’t own a large company that is involved with ecocide. Don’t extract fossil fuels, don’t frack, don’t cut down rainforests, don’t pay people to do those things for you. Don’t own a massive agrobusiness. Don’t steal water from people or poison their water supplies. Don’t use massive fishing nets and industrial fishing boats.

Don’t lobby governments on behalf of any of those ecocidal companies.

Don’t invest in cryptocurrency.

Don’t go on cruise ships.

Don’t own or drive an SUV.

Don’t throw your clothes away after only wearing them once.

The odds are of course that only the last four things on that list are even options you have. This is because the vast majority of us are not the ones doing the vast majority of the harm. However, not doing the last four is still relevant and important, and it’s always worth doing what you can do.

The biggest job, for the majority of us, is changing the culture that celebrates poisonous over-consumption and pushing for laws to restrict it, and to end ecocide. 


Teaching the cat new words

Dogs are fairly open to commands and can be taught to do what they’re told to quite an impressive degree. Cats, less so. It’s not that cats don’t understand words – they are smart and can figure out meanings. They just aren’t motivated to please and obey in the same way.

All creatures have a better shot at language if you use the same phrases or words to signify the same things, and you keep it short. For some time now, Mr Anderson has understood many words pertaining to cat food and cat treats. He understands ‘cat go out?’ as meaning we’re going to put him on his lead. ‘Cat go down?’ is a question for when he’s being carried. He prefers to be carried out and walk back, most of the time, and it is helpful to remind him when we’re heading for home.

Saying ‘no’ to a cat is pointless. They hear you, but they are seldom that concerned about what you want if it doesn’t align with what they want. In recent weeks I’ve been working on the phrase ‘bad idea’. I say it when I think something isn’t going to go well for him, and I reinforce it by saying it when he makes a bad choice and it doesn’t play out well – usually this involves Mr Anderson having made unreasonable assumptions about how physics won’t impact on him. Saying ‘bad idea’ doesn’t get him not to do a thing, but increasingly I see him pause, and reconsider. Sometimes he changes his mind. Sometimes he clearly fancies picking a fight with physics and does the thing anyway.

Much of this has applications for people, too. It’s worth thinking about how individual people use language, what kind of language they respond to and what actually motivates them. Most people are far more like cats than like dogs. If you can find a way of communicating that engages them in the right way, what it is possible to communicate changes dramatically.


Nature for everyone

Not everyone in the UK has equal access to wild places and green spaces. I expect this is true of other countries as well. As is usually the way of it, underprivileged people are the ones least likely to be able to access green spaces. If you live in a flat with no gardens, then having some communal green space in walking distance is important for mental and physical health alike.

If you don’t have a car, and live in an urban environment, then our national parks are pretty inaccessible. Without good public transport infrastructure, you won’t be able to access the countryside closest to you, even. Safe routes for cycling would also really help with this issue.

Where can you access green spaces as a disabled person? Where can you find the information about accessible spaces? How do you find out where it’s possible to go with a wheelchair? What about if you have limited mobility – it’s not unusual to be able to walk, but unable to get over massive stiles in fences.

Nature for everyone means not pricing people out of the opportunity to spend time outside. It means accessible green spaces in urban areas. It means proper information about access and what to expect. It also means more than a stretch of mown grass and one lonely, tired tree! 

Here’s what we need from the government:

  • Make equal access to nature a core test of levelling up
  • Make it a legal requirement in levelling up legislation for developers and public bodies to provide access to nature-rich green spaces for everyone
  • Provide funding for locally accessible nature-rich spaces by extending the Levelling Up Fund to green infrastructure projects.

Help ensure everyone has the equal right to nature. Sign this petition.


Talking about pain

There are two major factors that will impact on how your talking about pain is understood. One of these is who you are considered to be, and the other is whether you fit into expectations of pain communication. This happens in medical settings and also in any other context where talking about pain might be a thing.

Women have a much harder time of it than men getting pain taken seriously. Black women have an appalling hard time of it getting pain taken seriously. If you are perceived as drug seeking, attention seeking or fuss making you won’t get your pain taken seriously – this can often affect people with mental illness and neurodivergence, or anyone else who might be stigmatised. Sexism and racism inform how people interpret expressions of pain. Anyone who experiences prejudice is likely to find that prejudice shows up when they express pain and results in minimising, dismissal and a lack of help.

How you express pain and how that fits with expectations has a big impact on whether you get taken seriously. There are two particular groups I’m aware of that suffer around this. Neurodivergent people don’t express themselves in the same way as neurotypical people. A monotone speaking voice, or not using your vocal chords in the expected way can go against you. People with chronic illness have similar issues – when you live with pain all the time you don’t go around crying and screaming over the things that would make normally pain-free people cry and scream. So you aren’t believed.

I’ve had plenty of first hand experience of saying ‘my whole body hurts’ and being met with disbelief. I can say that calmly, because mostly I communicate calmly. It happened to me while I was giving birth. I expressed my distress in a calm voice and no one took me seriously. I got most of the way to being ready to push with no support or pain relief as a consequence.

If someone is expressing that they are in more pain than they can bear, then how they express that should not be the most important thing. Pain relief is widely available in many forms. There’s nothing weak or immoral about wanting it. The only consideration should be safe dosage. And yet, all too often for too many people, pain is dismissed or ignored. Why on earth would it even make sense to judge a person’s pain on how it compares to pain some imaginary other person might experience? Why should how normal or credible we find someone’s pain expression to be – which is so subjective – be a measure of what help they deserve?

Oh, but some people make a fuss about nothing.

Why does that external judgement carry so much weight against reported suffering? Why does it even matter? Pain relief isn’t a rare thing, it’s not massively expensive. Kindness isn’t a finite commodity. It’s much more important to ask why some people are taken more seriously than others, how privilege informs this, and how we ignore the presence of our own prejudices and assumptions when we downplay someone else saying they are in unbearable pain.