Category Archives: Observations

Seeing my grandmother

I’ve been seeing my grandmother lately. She died more than a decade ago. I catch glimpses of her out of the corner of my eye, moments of recognition that surprise me. It’s not a seasonal issue. It is simply that I am starting to look like her.

My maternal grandmother was born in 1920 – next year will be the hundredth anniversary of her birth and I plan to treat that the way we treat the centenaries of more famous people. She was therefore 57 when I was born. I don’t have any conscious memories of her face at that point in her life, but I think something is remembered unconsciously. I’m a way off 57, but my face is changing as faces always do, and I am moving towards my own grandmother face.

I’ve been thinking a lot about her in recent weeks. She habitually wore trousers, shirts and caps, had short hair, and went by the nickname ‘Barty’. I wonder what she would say to me if we could sit down with a coffee and talk about gender identity, and being non-binary because while she didn’t have those words, I think she’d have found them interesting. I have no idea what she would have said.

I think a lot about the pain she lived with, too. What she had used to be called rheumatism, but that diagnosis is no longer fashionable. The hard to pin down aches and pains are now more often called fibromyalgia. I’ve thought a lot about the trauma in her life, and her persistence, and her refusal to be defined by pain and diminishing mobility in old age. I don’t know to what degree I will follow after her.

If I can muster half of my grandmother’s interest in life and sheer bloody-mindedness around keeping going, I won’t do so badly. Aging doesn’t alarm me if I can age in a similar trajectory to her. I’ll wear more black than she did, and I’m never going to develop her enthusiasm for daytime quiz shows on TV, but on the whole, she’s a good role model for aging well. She kept walking everywhere for as long as she could. She kept singing and playing music and making art and cake. There were always cats. She had a lot of adopted daughters, and I remember her garden as always full of butterflies when I was a child. Like me, she collected up rubbish and made stuff out of it.

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Things I’ve learned about the working week

In the last year I have established that I can work a 40-50 hour week. I’ve also established what happens if I do that. I get to the end of my day, and fall into a weary heap on the sofa. I will likely be too tired, too short of concentration to read, or craft, or listen to music or watch a film. Socialising is right out and I’ll have no energy to go out anywhere, walk, or otherwise exercise. I got away with this during the 50 hour weeks only because I had to walk to get to a number of the jobs. All I could do was recover and get up the next day and do it all again.

Weekends taken off at the end of a 50 hour week (not always an option, I worked a fair few weekends during that time frame) were not great either. My scope to do anything fun or enriching was totally undermined by my exhaustion.

If I work a 30-40 hour week, I still need a fair amount of recovery time. I can manage to be sociable a bit, and I might manage to do something for me at the weekend. It is more viable. If I work more like 30 hours a week I am fine, I can have a life and do other things.

If you’re on minimum wage, (which for young people is very little money) the hours you have to work are considerable, just to get by.

One of the things I notice when I’m in the long hours and exhaustion mode, is that I come to feel defined by it. I’m just a person who works. I’m not someone who is supposed to have fun things, or who deserves anything emotionally sustaining, or enriching. In my time off I am so useless that there’s no reason for good things to move towards me.

It doesn’t help that the work I do requires a lot of concentration and thinking. To get it done in a reasonable time frame – and thus, as a freelancer, for a decent pay rate – I really have to focus. The more tired I am, the harder it is to keep focusing so in the 40-50 hour weeks I am less efficient.  If I’m working in a way that leaves me exhausted and I’m not getting enough time to recover, my efficiency levels fall, so I have to work longer for less per hour.

There’s a lot of pressure on self employed people to work all the hours we can, for fear that if we don’t, the work will dry up. Creative jobs are woefully underpaid, it’s an industry-wide issue impacting on everyone who isn’t a household name. This too creates a pressure to work more in the hopes of making some progress. Grinding poverty will make you feel like a failure, and feeling like a failure will undermine any scope you had for creativity.

There’s a further complication in that creative work requires time to study, practice, explore, experiment, imagine and gather inspiration. This is not time anyone pays you for, and if you’re already worn from the day job, that investment time can push you over the edge – wherever your edge turns out to be. This is a thing to bear in mind if you’re considering supporting someone on ko-fi or patreaon – you’re buying them the space and time to start the process, and that makes worlds of difference.

My patreon is over here – https://www.patreon.com/NimueB . It helps me take some time each week for learning, thinking and imagining. I know that to really invest in the creative side of my life I need a lot of things I can’t currently afford – more time off to make some headspace, a dedicated space to work in, and to have the energy and concentration to invest in developing projects. I’m aware that I might never be able to afford the time to really dig in. Most creative people are not doing their best work because we simply can’t afford to.


Finding more energy

I’ve had energy problems since my teens. Aged fourteen, my Doctor told me that ME didn’t exist, that it was probably psychosomatic or because I wanted to get out of doing PE. Oddly enough, I didn’t find that helpful. I figured out a lot of things on my own which have allowed me to manage my body a lot better.

I’m hypermobile, which apparently means everything is going to take me more effort than it does most people. Not a lot I can do about that, but knowing helps. It particularly helps in not blaming myself and telling myself I’m just being lazy and not trying hard enough. This in turn helps me rest when I need to and that’s improved my energy levels.

It may be the hypermobility impacting on my gut, it may be some other technical thing, but my digestive system has never been very reliable. I’ve eliminated the foods that make me ill – I can’t do meat, I can’t have too much refined anything, and I do better when I eat large quantities of fruit and veg. But, if my gut packs up, I mess up with the electrolytes and this in turn messes up my blood pressure leaving me feeling weak and useless. It took me a while to figure this because I get stressed by doctors so I don’t show up in tests as having low blood pressure!

By my early teens I was anxious about my weight, and went many rounds trying to starve myself. I’ve never been able to control my weight through any kind of dieting. In recent years I’ve focused on making sure I have the energy to be physically active. This works better for me, and having the energy from my food to do the things I want to do make a lot of odds. Investing in my diet helps with the aforementioned electrolytes issues. Having enough oil has helped reduce pain. I try to maintain good blood sugar because when low blood sugar and depression collide, energy disappears.

I’ve got the best energy levels and concentration I’ve had in a long time, and it’s more reliable than it’s ever been. I still get days when, for no reason I can identify, it’s like someone has coated my bones in lead, put old-style deep sea diving boots on my feet and sent me to walk through rivers of treacle. I don’t know what causes those days. I don’t push hard against them anymore, and I rest up as much as I can.

What this has taught me, over the years, is that my body is a really complicated thing, with many different factors involved (not all of which I have mentioned in this post). Simple, miracle cures have never cured me. Trying to work out things like how sleep, activity, stress, diet and body mechanics interact with each other is difficult, and those balances shift all the time. I’ve had to accept that I can’t totally fix myself and it’s not some kind of personal failing to have to work around some of this. Some of it is clearly genetic and I know something of the history of that in my family. Not everyone can cure all their stuff, and I’ve become very resistant to people who are adamant that a bit more magnesium and positive thinking (or whatever it is this week) would make me perfectly ok.

I’ve learned not to waste precious energy on people who are insistent about their miracle solutions. What I do know is that if a problem in your body was easily fixed, it was never that complicated a problem and it isn’t indicative of what will happen for anyone who has a whole mess of things going on.


The Tigerboy grows up

The young man of the household is seventeen now. I’ve never been a terribly conventional parent – I don’t order him about, I don’t shout at him unless there’s a genuine emergency and I’ve always taken his opinion seriously. We’ve had a fairly gentle time of it through his teens – despite him doing that while I’ve been sauntering towards the menopause. He doesn’t need to fight me because he knows he’s respected, and that, I think, has made a lot of odds.

This year particularly has raised a lot of questions for me about when one stops parenting (if ever) and what it means to parent someone who is an adult. I’ve looked around with interest at the parents of friends, especially. The parenting of adults in my own family is not something I can usefully refer to – on one side, a lot of silence, on the other, a lot of arguing, and neither giving me models I can work with. I’m asking a lot of questions about where to stand, when to step in, how much advice to give and when to step back and let him get on with it.

I can look at my own history as a teen and twenty something and see a number of times when I wish, with hindsight, that someone had stepped in. Inevitably there was a lot I didn’t know. I could have done with a wise elder to teach me about boundaries and self respect. I could have done with some solid relationship advice. So I’m doing the sorts of things I think I would have found useful and we will at least get to make new and different mistakes.

I’m also at a point of feeling like thus far, I’ve parented pretty damn well. I say this because the young man – formerly Tigerboy but now evidently evolving into something else, is a pretty awesome human. He’s kind and considerate, he looks out for people, he gets in and helps when help is needed and he does so cheerfully. If things are tricky, he negotiates. If he’s upset, he doesn’t slam around or yell at anyone and we work things through. I could wish he had a better sense of how unusual and splendid he really is, but in terms of shortcomings, this is one we can live with. He could be tidier, but I honestly can’t find it in me to care about that most of the time.

Parenting has been an often terrifying adventure, but we both seem to have come through it reasonably unscathed. That’s something I am proud of.


Toni Morrison

I was 18, give or take, when I read Toni Morrison’s Beloved for the first time. Friends in the year below me at school were studying it for A Level and wanted my input. Having grown up in a very small town on the edge of the Cotswolds, race relations and the history of slavery were not things I had much awareness of. The book was a poetic and brutal wake up into a world of real-life horror that I had known nothing about.

I went on to buy every Toni Morrison book I could in the following years. I studied Beloved while doing a degree in English Literature, and filled in some of the gaps in my understanding, and became increasingly aware that, white and English as I am, some of those gaps are never going to go away. But, I do what I can. Recognising what we don’t know is a useful thing more of us could do.

Toni Morrison has always made me uncomfortable. I go back to her because she makes me uncomfortable, not in spite of it. The most recent books I’ve read were so very difficult in terms of subject matter that I haven’t even tried to review them here. I do not know what to say in face of her work – that’s part of the power of it. I don’t really know what to say in face of her death, either. None of what I could say seems adequate. I am aware that it isn’t really my job to say anything about her work, that shutting up and listening is important. Often it’s the most important thing we can do. But at the same time, she had a big impact on me, and I wanted to write something today.

Without a doubt, Toni Morrison changed me as a writer. It was a comment in an essay about writing – I must have read it at uni and the other details have long since fallen out of my brain. Google has been unable to help me, so I don’t have the exact quote. It was about how the most important thing you do when writing a story is shape the gaps into which the reader puts themselves. That idea transformed how I think about my own work. I became a writer who thinks a lot about the gaps, and what space to leave and what room to make for what people bring. It’s one of the core concepts informing the whole Hopeless Maine arc. It is, to a significant degree, intrinsic to everything fictional thing I have written as an adult.


Buying your needful things

So much of what we need is for sale. If you want someone to touch you kindly and be affirming, there’s always the hairdresser, or the nail technician, or a paid-for massage. If you need to talk to someone sympathetic, there are counsellors, therapists and life coaches. Any human need you have, you can pay some other human to answer. Some of the options of course being more legal than others…

I’ve been thinking for a while about the way in which commerce and human relationships intersect. Money is our primary expression of valuing people, so when we don’t pay for services rendered, we don’t always value what’s done for us. But, when we put a price tag on things sometimes we lose that sense of duty to each other. Natural and non-financial modes of caring and sharing may become distorted by the dynamics of seller and client.

With loneliness known to be on the rise, there must be increasing numbers of people who could only hope to meet their basic needs for human contact, by paying for it. And with poverty on the rise, paying to meet your basic needs becomes ever less feasible for many people.

I have no simple ‘we should be doing this’ answers to this area of experience. It bothers me that if you can’t afford to pay someone to meet your emotional needs, you may struggle to have those needs met in other ways. It bothers me that we are often so isolated from each other that some of us have to pay to have people touch us kindly or listen to us carefully. At the same time I’m deeply grateful that there are people who have taken these areas on professionally and can bring training and experience to bear when we need them.

What do we give? What do we assume others should do for us? What do we willingly pay for? What do we think should be done for free? What worth do we ascribe and how does that connect with what we pay? Answers to such questions are of course always going to be personal. I am certain they are questions we need to ask ourselves.


Cause, correlation, cancer and obesity

Last week, the charity Cancer UK started a campaign to tell people that obesity causes cancer – more on their website – https://www.cancerresearchuk.org/about-cancer/causes-of-cancer/obesity-weight-and-cancer There’s a very good piece here pointing out that ‘cause’ and ‘correlation are not the same thing. https://medium.com/@laura_86024/an-open-letter-to-cancer-research-uk-19ecaa71b263

Humans are easily persuaded to see correlation as cause and effect – this is the basis of all superstitious thinking. We’re prone to seeing patterns even when no patterns exist. That there is a correlation between obesity and cancer is really important and needs investigating. Correlation means there is a good chance of underlying issues causing both. Unless you can identify a mechanism that means one thing results in another, it is not helpful to suggest there’s a causal link. So, what other options are there?

Stress. Some of us may store fat as a stress response – good article here https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3428710/ So adding to the stress of larger people by telling them their size is going to cause cancer may… wait for it… increase stress levels.

Alcohol has a lot of calories in it and is strongly linked to cancer risk in a mechanical way. Alcohol consumption could easily, for some people, be an underlying cause of both obesity and cancer risk.

Every article I’ve read about cancer avoidance has advocated having a good diet high in fruit and veg, and getting plenty of exercise. Poverty diets don’t deliver this, and a poor diet leaving you with low energy is not conducive to staying active. What if poverty causes cancer?

If you show up to the doctor with a health problem, and you are also a larger person, the odds are you will be diagnosed with fat. If you lose weight and don’t get better – as has happened to a number of people I know – you may then get your symptoms taken seriously. Being diagnosed as fat increases your risk of having the early signs of other conditions ignored. It’s not going to cause cancer, but it does mean you are at higher risk from any illness if you don’t get your symptoms properly investigated.

We’ve recently discovered, after years of being told that weight is the cause of diabetes, that there’s an impact from air pollution, too. Pollution is recognised as causing lung cancer, but according to the World Health Organisation website, there are questions to ask about the impact on other cancer risks. If you breathe it in, some of it is probably getting into the rest of your body. If pollutants can give you lung cancer it seems fair to ask what risk they pose for other cancers. Here’s a piece exploring whether air pollution might contribute to obesity – http://thescienceexplorer.com/brain-and-body/pollution-making-us-fat and another study about what happens when pollutants accumulate in your body fat – https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/02/150227084315.htm – studies are ongoing as to the health implications.

If you make obesity and cancer the responsibility of the individual, you don’t look at collective responsibility for pollution and poverty. It is easier to blame and shame an individual who is at risk, than it is to invest time and money helping them. It is painfully easy to persuade people that being fat is a personal failing and that shaming fat people is the best way to help them. There’s plenty of research out there that demonstrates blaming people for their body shape does not lead to productive, health-improving changes in behaviour.

It’s shit science. Correlation is not causality. There may well be a great many people for whom conventional weight loss tactics don’t work, and many underlying causes that link obesity and cancer that will be ignored if we insist on simply focusing on weight.


Honesty and touch

My whole adult life there has been a steady supply of men who put their hands on me without my consent. I’ve had one round of successfully persuading a chap who was rather too hands on with me to stop because it wasn’t what I wanted. I’ve gone a lot of rounds being told that it means nothing, they do this to everyone and that they weren’t prepared to make the effort to remember not to do it to me. There has repeatedly been pressure to accept this contact passively. I also note that the vast majority of ‘I do it to everyone’ guys do not in fact treat guys this way.

There’s a lot of entitlement underpinning the idea that your right to touch someone is more important than their right to say ‘no’ to being touched. There’s also something very weird (I think) about touching someone and claiming it means nothing. I’ve been the recipient of kisses on these terms as well. I do not want to be kissed by people who mean nothing by it. I find it immensely disturbing.

My suspicion is that the men who do this get something out of it that they aren’t willing to be honest about  – be that the pleasure of touch, or the pleasure of making a female-presenting person like myself accept them doing this – it could be a power trip. If you can touch someone and make them accept that, you have all the power in a situation. If you can touch someone you desire and then tell them you don’t find them attractive so they aren’t allowed to make anything of it, there’s all kinds of power-over going on.

Why haven’t I resisted more strenuously? To avoid awkward escalation. Because I’ve felt that if I protested I might be entirely rejected – a perfectly reasonable fear. Because I am easily persuaded that of course no one finds me attractive so it can’t be coming from there. I also find touch emotionally affecting, so if someone touches me as though they love me, or desire me, that can have a really big impact on me, and can do so quickly. To then hear that it meant nothing and I should make nothing of it is unsettling to say the least.

I have learned over multiple rounds of this that I am not supposed to respond at all. The ideal response from the perspective of those dishing it out, is to passively accept whatever is done to me. If I question it, there can be backlash. If I respond to it with affection, or Gods help me, with anything that could be read as desire, the slapbacks can be nasty. In these situations, it is not my place to do anything active and that, frankly, makes me very cross and very unhappy. Every time I’ve tried to talk about this I’ve found that the men doing it feel it is fair for them to touch me, and not fair for me to respond. It’s a line of thought I am pretty sure is held together by our wider culture – that male access to female bodies is a right, and that active female sexuality is unpleasant. We are to be appealing and quietly manhandled and make no comment.

If you want to touch someone purely on your own terms, with no reference to what they do, or do not want, you shouldn’t be touching them at all. If touching people means nothing to you, then you should not be touching them. If you desire someone and want to touch them on those terms, you should have the decency to own it, and not gaslight them by telling them it is something else entirely.


Time off – some observations

I took last week off – sort of. I still wrote a few blog posts and checked my email most days, but compared to a normal working week it was minimal stuff. I used the time to look after my home a bit, to read, craft, walk, and rest.

By Friday of my week off, I was starting to feel a bit better. That told me a lot about how exhausted I’d been. I need to make some ongoing changes around rest and time off, clearly. Once I reached this point it was also noticeable that the anxious aspects of my thinking had toned down significantly. I would like to spend more of my time not so close to the edge, so this is something to explore.

I’ve spent some time thinking about what uplifts and restores me, and how to do more of that.

I’m going to keep notes on how long I’m working each day, so I can cap the length of my working week. There are some hazy areas around working and not working for me. Is rehearsing a mumming side work? Is doing technical support for a friend part of my work time? Maybe, maybe not. I’m not going to get bogged down in the details because the self employed life is sprinkled with speculative stuff that never turns into paying gigs, and fun things that turn out to be research. I can’t read a book without learning something, but that doesn’t necessarily make it work…

I want to be able to work a solid eight hours a day when my brain is sharp and fast. I want to have the rest of the day off to do domestic things and potter about. I know if I slide into longer days I become slower and get less done for the time put in. Creativity is dependent on having time when I’m not busily thinking about workish things –I’ve not been getting this balance right. I’m hoping this time off will have given me a reboot and that I’ll be able to change some of my working patterns.

And if it hasn’t been a successful reboot, I’m simply going to do it again!


Pausing to reflect

It’s my birthday today. I find birthdays are a good time to pause and take stock of things. Quite a lot has changed for me over the last year – I’ve become more involved with Transition Stroud, which has brought a whole host of new people into my life. I’ve had a lot of upheaval around work, which has given me a better sense of my limits and possibilities. I’ve coloured an entire Hopeless Maine graphic novel. I’ve written and performed a lot of poetry, and I’ve started dabbling in storytelling.

Birthdays inevitably have me reflecting on how this day has played out in other years. Some have been memorably good. Some were deeply unhappy. It’s a day that highlights what’s best in a person’s relationships but that will also flag up insufficiency in a way that’s hard to miss. This is a good year in terms of people.

On the whole, I like how my life is going at the moment. My ambitions are on the small side and I’ve become much more focused on the details of daily life than on big schemes. The things I most want are fairly feasible. The changes I want to make moving forward aren’t very dramatic, but might improve my day to day standard of living a bit. I’m getting better at deciding when to say no, so as to protect my time and energy. I do a lot of saying yes, and I remain willing to offer help, support, volunteer work, and the such – I’m just being a bit more picky about who gets what of that. I’m working out how to step back as well as how to step forward.

The state of the world worries me immensely. I reflect a lot on what can be surmised about people living at the ends of empires and civilizations. I think about my radical ancestry – the many people who fought, and sometimes died to try and advance the causes of equality and fairness, many of whom never saw that get results in their own lifetimes. I keep reminding myself of all this because it is important perspective. Life is not like a movie, and I may not get a coherent narrative arc. The important thing is to do what I can and to stay hopeful and active, and to help as many other people do that as possible. Giving up is one sure fire way of being defeated, and while there is life, there is some sort of hope, however frail that may seem some days.

Birthdays are a reminder of how finite our lives are. None of us will live forever. If we keep on with the unsustainable choices, many of us will shorten our own lives, and the lives of others. Life, and time are the most precious things we have and the question of how to spend that well is one to keep asking.