Category Archives: The quiet revolution

Taking pain seriously

I grew up hearing that I made a fuss about pain. It’s understandable in that what was going on with my body wasn’t really recognised  then, but still, it would have made a lot of odds if there had been a bit more kindness in the mix. PE at school was the worst – painful and also humiliating and with no sympathy at all. But, it wasn’t just school, and it included my doctor. I internalised the idea that I make a fuss and I learned not to take my pain seriously. Of course doing that means you can’t ask for help, relief, slack cutting or anything like that.

A few years ago, I saw a friend talking about hypermobility on Facebook like this was a thing that merited care and concern.  This surprised me. All of my body bends in ways it shouldn’t, but I hadn’t connected that with experiences of pain. I decided to educate myself, and discovered that hypermobility is a soft tissue issue. People like me damage easily, we feel more pain, everything takes more effort, and as a soft tissue issue it can impact on the gut and other things as well. It’s helpful when things make sense. It’s useful having some idea what to do to avoid hurting myself in the first place.

But more than this, it is validating of how I’ve experienced my own body.  I’ve experienced this information as permission not to be ok, and having spent the first thirty or so years of my life being given to understand that I make a fuss and must have a low pain threshold, this is a very big deal.

The pain is real. The pain is real enough that I am allowed to take it seriously. Taking it seriously opens the door to trying to avoid it, trying to get help, trying to manage it better. It also gives me space for the emotional impact both of living with pain and having internalised the idea that the pain I live with doesn’t matter and shouldn’t be taken seriously. It means considering that I’m not some kind of pathetic drama queen who over reacts. This is quite a shift in my self-perception.

Sometimes we do need permission. Especially if there’s been a big push in the other direction. Validation can be a powerful thing.  It’s another reminder that none of experience life in a vacuum. We’re all impacted on by each other’s words, deeds and ideas.  Wellness and healing are not isolated individual issues, they are community issues. The stories we tell each other about what our bodily experiences mean have massive impact, for well and woe.

I’m watching similar things happen around the growing recognition that trauma has real, measurable effects on the body. I think we’re moving away from old stories that hive emotions off as irrational and not situated in the body and that instead we’re moving towards recognition of people as complex beings where experience can impact on wellbeing.

We’re challenging the stories that are quick to write off some experiences as over-reacting – the medical profession does not have a good history of responding to female pain – and even worse if the women is poor, or Black, or all of those things. But this can change.  We can have new stories in which pain deserves care, and in which we don’t tell people off for making a fuss when they are suffering. We have to stop assuming that being a certain kind of person means something about whether we really feel pain or not  We can stop telling stories that block the way to getting some people’s pain taken seriously. We can do better and we can be better.


A haircut to die for

It may seem strange that so many people are keen to get out and shop, have haircuts and do other non-essential things during a pandemic. I wrote last year about the way in which white western culture especially, pays to get its needs met. More of that here – https://druidlife.wordpress.com/2019/08/04/buying-your-needful-things/

Often, a haircut isn’t just a haircut.  For a lot of people, it’s also about confidence and self esteem. It’s about fulfilling that need – created by social pressures – to look certain ways. It may also be the only time someone touches you kindly.

If retail therapy was your anti-depressant, of course you want to go shopping. If being in the pub was as close as you got to having friends, then you’ll be missing the pub, not specific people. The things people are clamouring to have back may not seem worth dying for, but these are things that we’ve been substituting for quality of life for some time.

Paying to meet your basic human needs keeps the economy moving. The less able we are to meet our needs through real relationships and meaningful experiences, the more willing we become to pay for them. Little wonder then that the UK government doesn’t want you hugging people or seeing your lover, but is happy for you to get in a crowded shop with a bunch of other emotionally fragile people who just want to feel better.

Is a haircut worth dying for? No. But a lack of self esteem might kill you, and having no one to touch you kindly may well give you such a poor quality of life that you can’t face it. Right now, a lot of people are going to make risky choices as a consequence of normal life being so inadequate. Most humans could be emotionally sustained by relationships. What we’re seeing, is people turning back to the things that they used to depend on as substitutes for the things real relationships give us.

Try not to be too hard on them, or on yourself if it affects you. Colonial capitalist culture has been ill, and making people ill, for a long time. This is a new manifestation of that.


Teenage Nimue and the quest to rescue Severus Snape

My good friend Meredith has written an excellent blog post about the problems with JK Rowling – so let me start by directing you there  https://meredithdebonnaire.wordpress.com/2020/06/08/when-you-have-to-break-up-with-an-author

A person could spend a lot of time (and I have) picking over the race, gender and class politics of the Harry Potter books.  But, I thought I would pick up on one of the issues that has always bothered me, and that I would do so by writing about my favourite character, Severus Snape.

Snape, like almost every character in the HP books, has his whole life defined by the person he loved as a child. He’s not allowed to move on, he’s not allowed to heal, or fall in love again and rebuild his life. He is obliged to live in the hell created by one ghastly mistake. This is true for most of the characters, whose lives are defined by their teens – especially who they will love.

Most of us were still working it out in our teens. The more out of synch you are with hetranormative mainstream culture, the longer it will have likely taken you to figure out who you are and where you fit. To tie people to their teenage identities is to leave no room at all for who we grow up to be, and to leave no room for the idea that most of us will change. Some of us will change a lot. It is an awful, untrue story to tell that what happens in our teens is the most important story of our lives, but the HP books tell that story in pretty much every character’s life.

I’d like to rescue Snape. I’d like to rock up in his twenties with an assortment of characters of various gender and body types, and seduce him out of his grief. I’d like to get him some counselling, and give him the opportunity to live in a safe and healthy environment for a few years. I’d like someone to be kind to him, and not leave him in a space of being constantly emotionally manipulated by bloody Dumbledore.

I have thought about this a lot because it bothers me so much. It’s been one of the dominant stories young people of recent years have grown up with, and so much of what it tells us is really problematic. Stories matter. Stories tell us who we are and who we should aspire to be.  The Harry Potter books tell us that we’re never going to get over what happens to us in our teens; that our worst mistakes will define our entire lives and that the only redemption is death. No one grows up. No one moves on. No one heals. This is not the story to tell ourselves.

I am not my teenage self. There’s continuity, but there has also been a lot of growing and changing. I am a much bigger and more complicated version of that person. The mistakes from that time in my life are behind me, the wounds are healing, the choices did not define everything. I will rescue Snape as much as I can. I will quietly tell myself stories in which far better things happened to him. I’m also going to get myself a Snapeish sort of coat, and let my non-binary self play with this a bit. Yes, my teenage self did understated cosplays of male characters I identified with, and I like the idea of going back to that. Not because I am defined by my teenage choices, but because some of my ideas back then were really good. I will be a sexy queer sort of Snape.

Sometimes, ideas and characters turn out to be a lot bigger than the authors who first encounter them. Ancient literature is full of this sort of thing. Shakespeare borrowed other people’s stuff all the time, so there’s a good literary tradition to not letting JK Rowling define her own literary legacy.


All art is political

All art is political. If you can’t see the political dimension of a piece of art this is because it aligns neatly with your own world view and requires no effort on your part. If you are cis, white and male and you’re used to it being normal for the main character to be cis, white and male, then you won’t see anything remotely political about this representation. This happens at the unpleasant end of comics reading rather a lot. To introduce diversity is political, to carry on with this – from the perspective of those who support it – isn’t.

Anything that upholds the current system and gives us what we expect can be misread in this way. However, given the many problems and failings of western colonial culture, to present it unchallenged is to be political. We are killing our planet, ourselves and each other with pollution, climate change, loss of resources and over-consumption. To ignore that is political. Art that doesn’t mention these issues is political.

Equally, art that has no room for vast swathes of diversity and experience, is political. If there is no room in your story for queers, if disabled people don’t exist, and poor people are just cannon fodder and BAME people don’t get speaking parts, or are just there to be exotic eye candy… then the art is political.

All creators exist in a political context. All creators are impacted by the laws and financial realities of the time and place in which they create. Some creators have massive privilege – family wealth, education, support, nepotism, opportunities… some creators do not. Publishing is not good at diversity. Getting an arts education is a lot easier if you can afford one, and doors open for people who know people who work in the right places. It is impossible to make art that is not political. If you find it easy to make and sell your work and give no thought to the context that makes it easy for you, your art still has a political dimension.

If you can ignore the political context in which you create or consume art, that’s political. It means you are safe, and have privilege and can choose whether to engage or not. Marginalised people don’t have the luxury of that choice. If politics are done to you, then you don’t get to choose whether you engage or not, and the political dimension in which your art occurs is there whether you wanted it in the mix or not.

Then there’s the politics of how we think about it. Whether we see an art item or a craft item is a political issue. The way in which beautifully made and decorated items with utility are hived off as craft is a political decision that impacts on how the arts of working people are understood.

So, next time you see someone complaining about an artist bringing politics to their work, bear this in mind. Some creators don’t get a choice, because who they are means that their work will always be viewed in political terms even if they don’t really want it to be. Art only seems not to be political if it expresses and reinforces your world view, and that’s a very politically loaded thing to have happening unquestioned.


Everything is political

I notice a lot of people saying we shouldn’t politicise the virus, or that making a political point in a crisis isn’t the right response. This assumes it is possible for something not to be political. Just because we don’t see the political dimension of something, we imagine it isn’t there. This does not help us.

Everything we are allowed to do, required to do and forbidden to do is held by laws that have been decided on through our political systems. There is no area of our lives where this isn’t relevant. Alongside that, the rights, freedoms, obligations or the lack thereof for companies, wealthy individuals, landowners, and politicians also impact on us.

There are so many ways in which lockdown and the virus are inherently political issues. Funding decisions over the last ten years have undermined the NHS. Political ideas about Europe have cost us protective gear and ventilators. Treating the economy as more important than lives has killed people. These are all political choices. The degree to which we are battered by all this, the number of people who die and the economic damage we take are all tied to political choices. The crushing of whole areas of economic activity – arts, leisure, self employed folk, is a political choice that will have long term consequences. Funding billionaire tax dodgers while letting small businesses go to the wall, is a political choice.

Everything about the virus is political. The decision to not treat it as a political issue is also a political issue. If we insist on not being political about it, we do not call politicians to account. We accept that they could not have done better – and they so clearly could. We accept that the political decisions creating the context for our poor handling of the pandemic, were not important. That’s really dangerous territory. What do we think politics are for, if not for creating the framework in which we all operate? If that framework fails us – as is happening now – ignoring the political part of that is an act of powerlessness, of our abdicated responsibility as well as theirs.


Love and tentacles

We live in strange times. Many of us have had our lives put on hold for an uncertain amount of time to come. For some, it is beyond uncertainty and into life-undermining threat. I don’t know how self employed people who have lost their incomes are supposed to survive at the moment. So I want to start by acknowledging that the level of disruption varies and that for some of us this time is inconvenient, and for others it is disastrous.

If you can buy food and have shelter and basic amenities, you’re in a good position right now. It might not feel like a good position, and the fear of the virus and future uncertainty may well be taking a toll. But if your basic needs are met, you’re doing well. It’s important not to lose sight of this, and not to imagine that the stress of lockdown is the biggest problem anyone has right now. If you came to lockdown with pre-existing mental health problems, if you are living with an abuser or lockdown is triggering because you’ve an abuse history, it is going to be tough right now.

Beyond dealing with the basic necessities of day to day life, it is impossible to plan at the moment because we don’t know what’s coming. Big ideas are on hold. Life goals, career moves, exams, education – all that normal stuff we are to want and work on, is out of the equation. With life stripped back in this way, we may have to square up to all kinds of things. Who we are, who we live with, and what we want may become more visible to us and those may not be easy or comfortable insights. We also get opportunities to step up and take care of other people.

This changed perspective on ourselves and our lives gives us reason to rethink everything. What have we lost that we genuinely valued? How much of it filled our days while giving us little or nothing of any quality? What do we miss? What do we want? How do we want our lives to be once all of this is over?

If you have enough income to be secure, please consider the people who do not. Foodbanks need our support. If you have friends who worked in the creative industries or were self employed, check in and see if they can afford food. In America, loss of jobs means loss of healthcare and some people are in deep crisis because of this. Anyone you know whose work was precarious before all this happened, is likely in real trouble now. Your help could be a matter of life and death.

If you don’t know anyone who is in trouble, and who you could help directly, look around to see who else you might help. Now is a good time to buy ebooks, to commission art, pay for music. If creative people are keeping you sane during lockdown, consider that most of them are out of work right now and not getting paid to stay home. It is a good time to take care of whatever and whoever you love.

We’re ok as a household, but we’re trying to help others where we can.  We’re particularly trying to help Walter and Edrie of Walter Sickert and the Army of Broken Toys. They’ve seen their entire household income wiped out for the foreseeable future. Tom is offering to draw your pet as an Elder God and will send you a massive file that you can print on anything! (T shirt, mug, pillow, lunchbox(?) make a huge print…etc) if you are able to send $125 via the old Paypal to them – we’ll send the details.  If you don’t have a pet? Tom will draw your RPG character or… something! Leave a comment if you are interested.

What you do for your own amusement and comfort right now, could save someone else’s life.


Trees in isolation

I am lucky in that the living room window of my small flat looks out onto a view with trees in it. There’s a bit of sky. I sit at my computer to work, and I am facing a horse chestnut tree. Often that tree is full of birds. Over recent days, the leaves have been unfurling and they will be fully open in a day or two and after that will come the flowers.

I feel very fortunate. For many people living in flats right now, there is nothing good to look at outside the window. There is nothing to rejoice in and be uplifted by. We know that green space is good for our mental health, but the way we’re responding to the virus is overlooking this, especially for the poorest of us. What do you do if your home is small and overcrowded, with no garden, no space indoors to exercise, you can’t travel to a green space and there isn’t one where you live?

If we had plenty of green spaces, everyone could get out to exercise and take what care they can of their mental health and there would be no crowding of popular spots. In practice large gardens and access to green spaces go with affluence. There is a huge difference between staying home with a garden, and having no outside space you are entitled to be in. There is a huge difference between a view with some trees in it, and a view of other buildings. The mental health implications of being trapped with no green space, are huge.

What social distancing and isolation means depends a lot on where you are doing it, and that in turn depends on how rich you are. What’s happening now is that the impact of pressures and inequalities that were always there are becoming that bit more obvious. The lack of green spaces for many has always been a mental health issue. The cramped, inadequate conditions many people live in, have always been a problem. Mental health problems have been at an epidemic level for years. Stripped of our coping mechanisms and forced to stay in, many of us who were in challenging situations to begin with will be forced to suffer more.

Access to trees should not be a matter of wealth. Green space should not just be a middle class thing, it should be for everyone. Green spaces help us stay well, in body and mind and this has never been more visible than it is right now. Access to trees is a facet of social justice that often gets overlooked, but it is part of a great deal of systemic injustice that urgently needs changing.


The politics of illness

I’ve been struck by the massive and wide reaching political implications of the coronavirus. There’s a lot to think about here.

Governments that put people before profit are clearly going to take better care of their people. Leaders who believe experts and take science seriously are going to be an advantage to their populations. Societies that organise for mutual aid and protection will do better than anywhere dominated by rampant capitalism. This may change how we think about politics and politicians.

Good leadership will reduce panic and focus people on what they can usefully do. Good information will help us stay safer, slow infection rates and protect the most vulnerable. Governments that don’t do that will put their people at risk.

There are many things we’re now looking at that we could have had all along – working from home, conferencing and studying from a distance, cutting back on travel. These are things that would always have helped disabled people. There will be no excuse moving forward, for not being a good deal more inclusive – clearly we can do this. These measures also reduce the need for travel, which has huge environmental implications and again, we should have been taking this seriously already.

Western countries that have been so intolerant of people fleeing war, famine and climate crisis need to get some perspective. If we look at our own responses to this threat, we might see people in other kinds of crisis in a more compassionate light. Many people around the world suffer a lot more, with considerably more stoicism and sense than white and reasonably comfortable panic buyers around the world have been demonstrating recently.

If your healthcare is free at the point of delivery, sick people won’t be afraid to come forward. People who are identified and treated are less of a risk to others. State funded healthcare is in everyone’s interests.

If you have good laws around work and sickness, people don’t have to work when sick. All diseases, coronavirus included, won’t spread as much when ill people are allowed to take time off to recover and not infect others. Flu kills a lot of people every year – there’s a lot we could do to reduce misery and suffering if we had a better work-health culture in the first place.

If we had universal basic income it would be really easy to shut down all non-essential work for a few weeks to reduce transmission.

The more structures, networks, systems etc your country has in place for taking care of people, the easier it is to respond to an emergency. If we focus on profit and efficiency, we pay for it in terms of resilience.

Coronavirus at its worst affects breathing. It is known to hit smokers hard. Clearly, air pollution will also create increased vulnerability. Our polluted commons make us much more vulnerable to diseases. We need to recognise that human health and planet health are the same thing.

Perhaps some good can come out of all of this. Perhaps we can start recognising how much we depend on each other. Health needs to be a collective concern. It needs to be framed within the health of our world as a whole. The politics of profit and growth are killing us, and this is just another example of that playing out. We need to change how we think, and stop treating people as expendable, and economic growth as a master to be served in all possible ways.


How we think about work

How we think about work may be more informed by what we get paid for it than by how useful it is. Unpaid carers are routinely undervalued. Unpaid domestic work is unvalued. We tend to take going out to work more seriously than staying at home to work. Friends and family don’t assume they can just pop into your busy office for a cup of tea and a chat when they feel like it. If you are a self employed person and a carer, it can be hard persuading the people around you that you are working.

The way we prioritise paid employment has a great deal to do with the stories we’ve assembled about paid work. It is the basis of how we organise our lives and our countries. It is entirely normal to work for someone else who profits more from your work than you do.

For most of human history, it clearly wasn’t like this. We haven’t always had money. The closer to subsistence you live, the more preposterous the idea of profit seems. We didn’t used to work, we used to exist, survive, struggle, hunt, farm and make the things we needed for daily life. Without the notion of work it is hard to have a notion that some people are so important that they shouldn’t have to work and should be served. When everyone is involved in the effort required to stay alive, the value of what you do is not going to be measured in coins.

Our ideas about work are deeply intertwined with our ideas about human worth. Our money stories distort our sense of what is valuable. It’s worth taking the time to think about what we value and what we pay for and who we think is important. If our views weren’t distorted in this way we might better value the people who raise children and care for the sick and elderly. If we did not put money first, we might have a very different perspective of people who do very little, and get paid a great deal for it.


Breaking free from what’s normal

When something is normal, it is all too easy not to notice it. To change something, we have to know it could be changed – that it is not inevitable, or inherent, or intrinsic to how the world works. The things we think are normal are the hardest ones to see or do anything about. This is why people who are normalised to abuse stay in abusive relationships. It’s why changing our lives to be more sustainable is so difficult for many people. It’s why making the most useful personal changes can be so hard.

So, this is a story about overcoming something that was normal. I’m sharing it partly because it’s what’s going on for me at the moment, and partly because it illustrates how powerful normalness can be and how hard it can be to resist what we think is just the way things are.

In the last few weeks, I’ve had a major breakthrough and have started using supports, splints and making other changes to reduce the pain in my hands while I’m working. That all sounds obvious – you experience pain, you do something to alleviate it. Except… my hands have hurt for as long as I can remember. Learning to write, I couldn’t hold the pencil properly because it hurt too much. I found a work-around and spent my childhood being told off for my bad handwriting and bad pencil hold. At 11 I spent time in remedial classes where someone tried to teach me to hold a pen properly. That it hurt me to do so never came up and I never mentioned it because it had never seemed important.

Hand pain was there when I played the piano, and when I held a violin – the bow and my little finger especially. It’s there for typing and crafting, long stints working with the mouse are painful. Last year there were pages I coloured while crying because it hurt so much, but I didn’t stop doing the work, and I didn’t look for workarounds because for most of my life, hand pain has just been part of how the world works.

In the last few years I have, thanks to friends sharing experiences of hypermobility, started to realise this is something I need to take seriously. I have a massively hypermobile body – this is no doubt a large part of why so much of me hurts. My hands are intensely hypermobile. I can spread my fingers wider than is good for my knuckles. I’m now using hand supports, and taping to stop this happening. I’m using a splint when working with pencils so that I don’t push the knuckle on my right hand sideways. It’s a bit of a faff, but the difference is huge.

I am inevitably feeling a bit foolish for not having got into this sooner, but for me, hand pain was just normal. I did not believe that it could be changed, so I ignored it as best I could. What’s shifted for me in the last year is I think a consequence of doing Tai Chi and learning to better manage the hypermobility in my ankles and hips. Learning to make changes there, and getting so that I can walk longer distances without ankle support from a boot, has opened me up to change. That I have tackled the problems with my ankles makes it thinkable to change how things work for my hands. That’s changed how I’m able to think – which was the block to changing what I do.

One of the best ways to identify and challenge apparently normal things, is to talk about them. When we test our experiences on other people, we get a chance to query what might seem intrinsic. I’ve got to where I am because someone else talked about hypermobility and I realised the same things were true of me. What had been normal suddenly looked rather different. This works across the board. When we talk about coercive behaviour and abuse, there’s scope for other people to realise where they are. When we talk about cultural ideas that trap us in certain ways of living, there’s scope to break out. Dismantling what we think is normal is hard, and also key to making radical change and it is a project best undertaken collectively.