Category Archives: Observations

The fantasy beach body

When ‘beach body’ gets mentioned, you can normally expect body shaming and very narrow definitions of beauty to follow. Ageism is likely as well. Rather than doing any of that, I want to subvert the idea of the beach body by inviting people to imagine their ideal beach form in much wilder terms. This isn’t a totally original thought – I saw something go by on social media a few weeks ago.

I posted this notion to facebook yesterday and the responses were glorious – lots of takers for going to the beach as a dog, or with a mermaid tail. Quite a few people wanting gills and sun proofing. I also really liked the suggestions of going as a bird – for ease of getting there as well as being well suited to paddling if you go for a wader.

I’m not sure about gills for myself – in part because I fancy the idea of a long trunk, and being able to stand under the water and raise my trunk like a periscope, and just be there. Apparently I want to be some kind of costal elephant, with a hide tough enough to deal with both sun and sand.

I think properly foolish daydreaming is a good and necessary thing. I’m very much in favour of letting the mind wander around sweet and whimsical notions, and playing with possibilities. There’s a way of gently stretching my creative muscles, and playing and making room for ideas to come in. I am unlikely to achieve any dramatic revelations by imagining my ideal beach identity, but there is charm in it. If you want to speculate wildly in the comments, please do!

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Beauty and the beholder

Beauty in nature takes so many forms. An old, gnarled tree is beautiful. A barren landscape (if natural) can have its own stark beauty. Meandering rivers are beautiful. Woods and fields, hills, mountains, marshes, dunes – all have their own beauty. Insects, mammals, fish and birds are beautiful. Toadstools are beautiful. We all have our favourites, but no one will troll you on twitter for the size of the hare’s thighs, or the stomach shape of a manatee. Even the least tree-friendly people don’t try to make claims about the trees being ugly.

People are a whole other thing. We look at each other harshly. This is absolutely a white northern hemisphere thing. I expect Australia and New Zealand work the same way. We denigrate people who don’t conform to narrow white standards of beauty. There’s plenty of scope for racism in the mix here. Ageism is absolutely part of it – not looking like an adult is a key part of what we treat as beautiful in women. That’s rather creepy. Men are allowed some signs of maturity, but must maintain youthful standards in teeth and muscles at the very least.

Not only do we judge each other, but we shame each other for not looking like photoshopped magazine articles. I grew up feeling completely unlovable because I was not considered an attractive child. It’s something I carry with me still, and probably always will to some degree. It is a difficult thing to go into the world with a body and face that you do not think other people will be able to put up with. Or that you fear they will reject. I’m aware that I’m passably symmetrical, I have all the usual facial features and body parts in reasonable working order and conventional configuration. I’m aware that my reasons for anxiety are entirely about how I’ve been treated, and that there must be many people who are less conforming than me and have greater reasons for anxiety about how their faces will be judged.

On the flip side, I’ve also had the experience of being told that I am devastatingly sexually attractive. So attractive, that I could hardly expect a man to control his behaviour around me. So attractive that my body could cause him to do things he had no control over. I was told I could hardly blame him for that. While generally feeling unattractive has been a lifelong discomfort, the idea of being so attractive that no one can be held responsible for what they do to me, is terrifying. Even though I know it’s a disgusting, responsibility avoiding lie. These days, I’m married to someone who can express attraction without any need to harm me at all, and it puts the past into perspective. The damage remains.

When it comes to how I see other people, I’m much more interested in the beauty a person creates, than the accident of their appearance. Most of how we look, we have limited control over. I like how kindness looks on a person. I like laughter and warmth, compassion and friendship acting on a body. I like how a person’s eyes look when they love whatever they’re looking at. Bodies expressing themselves joyfully are beautiful. People sharing their creativity, enjoying their clothing, or their own skin, are beautiful. The only qualities I find ugly in a person are meanness and cruelty and things of that ilk.


Dreams of houses

What we dream, and what we daydream can tell us a lot about what we want and where we are in life. I’ve been house hunting in my dreams for some years now. At the moment, I live in a two bedroom flat. Possibly in the future I will be able to change this. Most of my ambitions revolve around being able to live somewhere different – because much as I love this flat, it doesn’t really do what I need.

I dream about having more space – currently the living room is also the dining room, studio, writer’s shed, study space, storage space and spare bedroom. It would be easier to do all the things if we were a bit less cramped. I can sit half a dozen people before it gets uncomfortable and we can’t all sit at the table to eat, then. I daydream about a kitchen big enough to take a kitchen table where I could gather all of my friends and feed them.

I would love to have more space for creatures, and space to accommodate other people at need. Or perhaps permanently if they want to. I want to be able to take in friends who find themselves between homes, or otherwise in awkward straits. I want to be able to do something similar with cats. I want to be able to make a sanctuary, a haven, a place of respite and comfort for myself and others.

I would love to have a garden, where I could make homes for wild things, and grow veg and fruit, and just sit out. I have daydreams about orchards, and donkeys, and beehives.

When I dream at night about houses, it all gets a bit surreal. One had a vast basement full of antique furniture and pianos. Another was permeable, and was in a wood but the wood was also in the house, and there was a totoro – a Japanese wood spirit. This would definitely be a house to live in, and I crave those more permeable spaces where you aren’t quite inside or outside.

The daydream of a house is much more than a building, it’s about relationships and what can be shared. It’s about who I want to share such a space with, who I picture sat at the kitchen table, and how I want to live in such a space. I don’t believe that I can make it happen by simply wishing it so, but if I know exactly what I want, I have a better shot at moving towards it.


Stories we should stop telling

This is by no means an exhaustive list. It’s a selection of tale-types I am personally sick of. Do pile in and suggest others. I think we should stop telling these stories in fiction, and stop celebrating them in real life as well.

A problem is solved by killing a person, probably with guns.

A man is a total asshat, but he’s also a ‘genius’ so we should treat him like a hero and overlook his shit.

A white person turns out to be the chosen one of a non-white community. He (it is usually a he) goes on to be better at the thing important in this community than anyone raised there. He needs little or no time or training to achieve this because he’s naturally gifted.

A woman falls in love with a guy who has treated her appallingly. I might accept this as a dark and psychological piece, but please stop telling me this is romance.

A person (usually a woman or a more effeminate man) is too beautiful and good for this world, so they die pointlessly and everyone who failed them has feels.

A story in which a person is in love with two other people and is obliged to choose between them.

A white person travels to an ‘exotic’ place and discovers or does something important with little or no reference to the indigenous people. Lose extra points if the indigenous people are portrayed in a patronising way, with no reference to the culture that exists in the actual setting, or they are all played by middle aged white men.

Stories about how a woman has to change to make her attractive to a man.

Any story that hinges on one person failing to tell another person(s) something hugely important that they knew all along.

Stories in which women change their loyalty and betray their people because a male character they’ve just met is sexy.

 

What kinds of stories would you get rid of if you could?


Not keeping up appearances

One of the consequences of doing anything well, is that it tends to look effortless. If you’re doing something professionally, it is of course desirable to look as good as you can while doing it. Success is attractive. Relaxed capability is attractive. You want people looking at the elegant swan you’ve put into the world, not all the frantic paddling below the surface required to keep it there.

The problem with this – and I see it a lot – is that a significant number of people will assume it is indeed, effortless for you to do what you do. If they can’t see how much time and effort went into getting you to the point whereby it is indeed easy, they’ll use words like ‘gifted’ and ‘talented’ and maybe ‘lucky’. This can have consequences. It can leave other people assuming that they should be that good for no effort. Or they may assume that because they aren’t instantly that good, there’s no point even trying. Neither idea is useful.

The general wisdom is that to master something takes 10,000 hours of work. The effortless performance, the relaxed artistic flourish…  are possible because of the many hours of study and practice underpinning them. There’s also a lot of planning in the mix. Films have a nasty habit of showing us creators producing amazing work in a single frenzied round. Most of us don’t work that way. Paintings are planned and sketched for. Stories and pieces of music are built up in stages. And so on.

The same is often true of other things. Cooking. Gardening. Self employment. The effortless coasting towards success is often just a superficial appearance. People who get results usually have to work for them. If they can do it easily now, it’s because they already put in the work. Right now, Tom and I are starting to enjoy the benefits of the Hopeless Maine project – in terms of money, recognition, opportunities and whatnot. We’ve worked together on this for about a decade, Tom’s been on it longer. As one if my publishers used to say ‘it takes years of work to become an overnight success.’

We like the stories of people who come out of nowhere to achieve wild, unexpected success. We don’t tell stories about years of quietly chipping away at it, slowly building a following, and having modest success, but that’s often how it goes. We also don’t tell stories about people being able to invest in their own projects because their families support them and cover their bills, help them make time and give them space. It’s easier to be creative if you’ve already got money – are retired, or have a supportive spouse. This kind of information tends to vanish from the story of how the successful individual got to where they are.

It’s always tempting to create stories that make us look as good as possible. However, I think it’s ultimately harmful to create the impression of great talent welling up to achieve great things, and not mentioning the levels of work and dedication required. I also think its problematic to let people  assume you’re making it as a creator when you aren’t.

At the moment, my household is getting by on the money I make as a book publicist. We get top-ups from the creative side, which is always cheering. It looks feasible that in the next few years, the Hopeless Maine project will start laying golden eggs for us. This is because we’ve made a choice to invest time in the creative stuff rather than Tom mostly working for other people. If we make this work, it will be because of the massive amount of time he’s invested, and because I’ve been able to pay the bills. I intend to keep talking about this because there are myths I want to dispel.


Contemplating failure

There’s a lot of positivity culture out there to tell us we can have anything and everything we want. We have to be positive enough, never give up, keep visualising the glorious outcome. It doesn’t take into account that failure is a very real part of human experience. We will all fail sometimes. Being realistic about how and why we’ve failed and what the implications are, is really important.

We can fail through lack of knowledge, experience and skill. It can mean that we just have to pick ourselves up and have another go. Many things require patience and perseverance, and will not come to us quickly just because we want them. Recognising the work involved, and recognising that we may fall short makes us better able to deal with reality than going forth with relentless positivity.

The timing may be bad. We may be unlucky. Things beyond our control may wreck our plans. We may not have the resources to achieve what we wanted. We may need to change tack and study, or practice, or rethink in some other way. These are all common events. They do not represent a failure to be positive enough, and simply being positive won’t deal with them.

How do you tell when you really should give up? How much time and money and energy – yours and other people’s – should you pour into something before you’ll admit it’s a bad loss? When is it time to accept that a dream isn’t viable? There are only personal answers here. A consciousness of failure can help us shift our goalposts to more appropriate positions. When I was a teen, I wanted to be a famous and important author. Experience has taught me to accept that if I can make ends meet and some people like my stuff, that’s probably as good as it can get.

I could dream about one day climbing Everest, but this body is never going to be equal to it. I doubt I could get up even the smallest mountain these days. No amount of positive thinking is going to enable me to run long distances, either. When do we decide what’s possible and what isn’t? When do we give up?

One of the big questions here is around how chasing the dream impacts on others. Imagine the person who goes full time with their dream but earns very little, and whose family has to support them. Imagine that they put little time into their family or friendships, expecting emotional and practical support while they follow their dream. How long can that continue before the dream itself needs questioning. A year? A decade? It’s important to consider what we’re asking other people to sacrifice for the sake of our dreams. Are we making other people put their lives on hold for us? Are we killing their dreams for the sake of our own? Are we making them pay unfairly?

If your efforts and failures and aspirations only really impact on you, then how you live your life is really no one else’s business. Most of us don’t exist in that kind of isolation. Dreams need putting into context, and I think one of the most important measures for failure and for recognising the need to give up, is how much the unrealised dream is costing other people.


Rebuilding

Building anything up is hard work – be that a skill, a fitness level, a project, or anything else you might decide to invest in. Rebuilding is a whole other thing. Rebuilding means doing again something you have already done once and then lost. While there may be advantages from the experience of the first time, emotionally speaking it can be really tough.

If you have to rebuild, it is usually because something went wrong. Illness or injury may have stopped you in your tracks. Someone else may have pulled the rug from underneath you. Perhaps you were set back by misfortune, or by external pressures demanding you put time and energy somewhere else. Perhaps you lost your nerve, gave up on yourself, decided your goals and dreams were stupid and unreachable. Whatever stopped you when you were building, will have to be faced in some way as you rebuild.

It is utterly frustrating having to revisit things you could once do and now only do badly, if at all. It is a real loss to contend with. It may seem easier to give up entirely and avoid the emotional pain that comes from facing what you’ve lost. It may be hard to figure out how to do a reboot, and you may well struggle because you think you can run when in practice you can now barely walk – literally or metaphorically. You may feel awkward dealing with other people who have seen you better able to do the things you can’t now do. There may be anxiety and shame to deal with alongside the rebuilding. You may have no confidence that you can make it work this time, either.

Try to be patient with yourself, and to treat yourself kindly. Whatever experience you gained the first time round will be valuable. Consider whether you can realistically get back to where you were and if it isn’t an option, look carefully at the options you do have. If you aren’t going to be able to climb mountains, maybe you need to think differently about hills.

Ask what you are re-building and why. Is it about pride? Identity? Refusal to be beaten? Are you making a heroic choice to keep going or a foolish choice to not recognise that you really are beaten? Are you doing this for you, or for someone else? What, if anything, do you need to prove? What do you need to get back? Can you afford to compromise? There are no right or wrong answers here, but it is a good idea to know what your answers are.

My grandmother always said that if you fell off a horse, you had to get back onto the horse as soon as possible or you might lose your nerve. The longer it takes to get back on the horse, the harder it can be. She applied this to a great many things that weren’t horses. Sometimes getting back on the horse is hard, painful, scary. What meaning you give to that, is entirely up to you.


Things I am up to

Thus far this year has not gone to plan. I’m increasingly fine with that. One of the things I didn’t get to do I’m glad I missed – the feeling of having dodged a bullet there. I’ve become involved unexpectedly in other projects as well.

I’ve just launched a new column on The Hopeless Vendetta – Mrs Beaten is judging you. Mrs Beaten is the sort of character who worries about whether the orphans are speaking proper English, and complains about their poor postures while ignoring the fact that half of them have rickets. She’s all about appearances. Writing satire always means the risk of people thinking I’m serious, and to make this even more exposed, I’m doing cartoons for it. Tom is now working on the next Hopeless Maine graphic novel and I really don’t want to take any of his time away from that. Mrs Beaten will be unleashed on Sundays, you can find her here –hopelessvendetta.wordpress.com/category/hopeless-tales/mrs-beaten/ 

I’m still blogging alternative wheel of the year stuff for Sage Woman every month. I blog intermittently at Moon Books. I’m writing a regular Quiet Revolution column for Pagan Dawn, and I’m writing about tree activism for the Pagan Federation International.

Over on Patreon, I’m putting up content every week, including new poetry, and fragments of fiction that may eventually turn into a thing.

Alongside this, I’m doing a bit of online campaign work for The Woodland Trust and helping out where I can with The Pagan Federation Disabilities Online Team. I am behind on learning sign language, but I do have a chant written for the next festival.

I’m supporting a number of authors who are at various stages of trying to get their work into the world. I feel strongly that getting your work out there should not depend on being able to pay. I don’t want to live in a world where arts careers are only for those who have a lot of privilege to begin with. So, where people need help and can’t afford to pay for it, I do what I can. Which is, I fear, a very small drop in the ocean of what’s needed. One of the reasons I’m reviewing every week is that it’s an easy way of helping people make their books more visible. I only review books I feel largely positive about.

Quite a lot of my time goes into unpaid work. Donating via the ko-fi link, (thank you those of you who have already done this) and supporting me on Patreon (thank you!) helps me stay viable while giving my time and skills to other people. It helps me afford to continue with Tom not taking as many illustration commissions so as to focus on getting Hopeless Maine out there. It gives me time for my own speculative work rather than having to focus on the things that are definitely going to pay. It makes losing money on events less scary, too. Train fares cost a lot, and we need to get out there to meet people and promote our work, but in the short term it is all too easy to lose money on this.

Of course much of this is true for many creative people. Having resources to invest in developing your work can be really difficult if you’re barely scraping a living. Creating part time isn’t a good answer for many people and it brings us back again to only getting creators who are in good health and well resourced. If you support the creators you love – in any small way you can – you help keep them going. Review them, re-tweet them, tell a friend. And if you can throw money at them, know that it makes an enormous difference. A hundred dollars a month on Patreon can easily be the different between keeping going and not keeping going.

If you want to wave money at me, you can do so here.
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Are they ignoring me?

If you live with a phone that’s always on, or otherwise attached to the internet, it’s easy to expect instant responses to everything. If you think everyone should reply straight away and they don’t, stress, annoyance and misery may ensue.

There are of course lots of good reasons people don’t respond. Many of us aren’t available 24/7 – there’s no internet on my phone, and I have whole days where I’m not online. Self employed people should not be working seven day weeks – some do, of course – and the shape of their work may mean it isn’t obvious when their days off are. If I’ve worked a weekend doing an event, I take time off in the week to offset this. Around big events I can be largely out of contact for the best part of a week.

There may be something else going on. I may be on facebook because I need a conversation with a person. If you message me and I’m busy, I’ll ignore you until I have time to give you proper attention. I may be online because I’m not feeling good and I’m looking for something amusing and distracting. If that’s the case, I won’t answer work messages or queries. I am pretty confident I’m not alone in any of this. I feel strongly that just because a person appears to be around doesn’t automatically mean they have time and energy to respond to someone.

Sometimes, I don’t respond immediately because I don’t know what to say. I may need to go away and think about it. Sometimes I’ll just flag up that the message got through and I’ll get back when I can. However, if someone has made me unhappy or uncomfortable, I may need time to decide how to proceed. I give myself space to enquire as to why I’m reacting badly, whether I need to change something, or step away from a person. I’m dealing with thousands of people online, with various hats on. I can’t be everything to everyone and sometimes I have to make decisions other people don’t like.

I dropped someone entirely, early this year, who had emailed me to gripe about his life, again, and when I didn’t respond fast enough started demanding my attention on facebook instead. This is not ok. The instant nature of the internet may help us feel entitled to rapid responses. It certainly makes it easy to suck up other people’s time and energy. These days, I always ask what good that does. I try to be there for people who need my help, but if people keep having the same problems, refuse to make changes and just want me to pay attention to them (as with facebook boy) I can’t afford to indulge that. It’s very easy to make some of us feel like we should be helping, like we’re obliged to give our precious time and energy, but that doesn’t make it ok.

Of course sometimes things go astray online. Messages get lost – facebook is a terrible place to try and do anything important. If you want a serious conversation with me, ask for my email address and if I’m up for that serious conversation, we can do it by email. Sometimes emails get lost, and if something important isn’t answered, a follow through email after a few days might be appropriate. I miss things, we all miss things, and so long as you aren’t going to give me a hard time for being slow, I don’t mind being chased up on.

We need to slow down, give each other more time and space. If someone’s inbox is full of people asking, ten minutes later, why they didn’t get a reply to the first email… nothing gets done. It’s important to have boundaries, and where instant communication is possible, we need those boundaries more than ever.


Healing challenges

When there’s just the one thing wrong with you, healing can be fairly straightforward. However, when multiple things go wrong, there can be conflicts within your body. To give a simple example – if your back needs you to lie flat, but you have a stinking cold and can’t breathe easily unless propped up. When the side effects from the ideal medication interact with some other problem and you have no options.

There are a number of things I need to maintain my mental health. I need to walk and spend time outside. I need social time. I need to be creative and I need things that are mentally stimulating. None of this goes well with any kind of bodily illness. Needing bed rest and needing time with people do not easily combine. If I stay put and focus on getting my body well at the expensed of my mental health, this doesn’t go well for me. Equally, poor bodily health will undermine my mental health every time.

This is one of the reasons that unsolicited medical advice from random people can be such a miserable nuisance. Especially when said people are pushy and adamant that they have the magic cure for your ills and get angry with you if you say no to them. Because they didn’t know about the inner conflicts you have, or the things that won’t work with the magic cure. It’s no use telling someone to do yoga if being told what to do with their body is a major panic trigger (this has happened to me). It’s no good telling someone who also struggles with low blood pressure to take something that will, as a side effect, lower their blood pressure.

People with complex, multiple illnesses don’t tend to list off everything that’s wrong. Sometimes, people just want the relief that comes from being able to say ‘this is really shit right now.’ It’s no good insisting they should cover their face in bees if you don’t know how they respond to bee stings…

Pushing medical ‘solutions’ onto people who are ill can be incredibly bullying and demoralising. It’s the kind of bullying that hides behind the lies of ‘I’m only doing it to help you’ or ‘for your own good’ while offering no help and no good. Sharing information is always a good thing. ‘This helped me’ can be useful. The problems start when we insist people act on our information and refuse to hear their reasons for not wanting to.