Tag Archives: stories

The silent ancestors

Ancestors of not doing your dirty laundry in public.

Ancestors of lying about where the bruises came from.

It isn’t nice to talk about that. It isn’t polite. It isn’t appropriate. Don’t mention it.

The ancestors who said ‘what will the neighbours think’ and felt it was more important to put on a good show for strangers, than to deal with problems.

Ancestors of keeping up appearances, too proud to ask for help.

It is better to fail and suffer privately than to let anyone know you are struggling. You make sure your hungry child looks clean and tidy, and is polite.

The ancestors who said keeping up appearances meant not speaking about what was done to you. The parents and grandparents of other people’s silence.

Don’t bring shame on us. Don’t embarrass us.

The ancestors for whom the abuse of a female body was a source of shame, not of anger. And you wouldn’t draw attention for fear of hurting the girl’s chances of marriage, and you’d never talk or deal with what had happened that hurt the girl.

Ancestors of not rocking the boat and not making a fuss.

Ancestors of this is not for the likes of us, know your place and be quiet.

We do it my way, because I said so. It was good enough for my family. It’s good enough for you.

Ancestors of do not draw attention to yourself and do not ask for more than you are given.

We don’t talk about nasty body things, or sex, or disease, or pregnancy. We are the ancestors of having no words for these things that are good, or kind, or helpful.

 

Ancestral stories aren’t always made of large, easy to spot drama. Often the most dangerous things are the things we were not allowed to talk about. We pass on stories about the stories we are not allowed to tell. Sometimes the encouragement to silence is subtle. Sometimes it is brutal, loud, and either way it is destructive. Breaking the silence is never easy, but is often vital.


Stories for us

I know this is a subject I’ve posted about before, but it is on my mind a lot at the moment. Stories are maps we hold to help us navigate. When you don’t have stories about the kind of person you are, then feelings of otherness and isolation are inevitable. For many of us, the only available stories are tragic.

There aren’t many good stories out there for polyamorous people. Most three (or more) sided relationship stories are rivalries, and do not end well for at least one person. Love triangles are usually stories about having to choose. Or one of the three people turning out not to be so good after all.

There are more good stories for queer people than there used to be. It is no longer the case that the only way you can have LGBT representation is if your queer characters die tragically. But still, there’s a lot of work to do here. We need more stories in which queer folk do stuff that isn’t about coming out or having a hard time for being queer.

The same issues exist for People of Colour – that good stories that go well and aren’t primarily about politics, struggle and race issues are not as numerous as they should be. Not even close. We need to stop restricting the kinds of stories Black and Ethnic Minority people are allowed to tell.

Then there are the characters who are outside of mainstream culture because they are clever, talented, gifted, brilliant, capable beyond what most people do. And outside of the super-hero genre, this doesn’t go well. The souls who are too good for this world who end up dead, or still alone while comparatively mediocre characters get to have a meaningful experience or a coming of age narrative. This makes me sad. I want to rescue all the manic pixie dream girls and give them stories that are about how they live out their awesomeness and are properly appreciated. I want the world to look at the people who are too good for this world and up its game so they do not have to be sacrificed.

I’d also like a new love story. I am tired of the earth-shattering life changing love affair that can only make sense if it lasts for a very short time frame. What we keep telling each other is that grand passions are not for the long haul. You can only have Romeo and Juliet levels of intensity if you only get a few days together and then you both die. It’s not true.

Obviously one of the answers is that I have to write these stories, and amplify other authors who are writing these stories. If you’re doing this kind of work and would like a signal boost from me, please let me know.


Adventures in identity

How do we explain ourselves to someone else? When do we feel  that’s necessary? I think the desire to be understood is a widespread thing and a basic human concern – many of us want the reassurance of making sense to someone else. It’s interesting to ask on what terms we do that. What are the most important things you want someone else to understand about you? How would you share that?

The capitalist colonialist structure in which many of us are caught tells us to express identity through branding. What we consume and how we display our consumption is presented as a way of expressing self. We are given a narrow bandwidth for potential identity, and we choose who we are and how we show that by paying for it.

We might share who we are by telling stories about ourselves. The urge to share stories is also a human one. But, the desire to tell another person who we are, to impose our story of self onto them is a complicated one. I’m always interested in the differences between people sharing stories about their experiences, and people who show up saying things like ‘I am this sort of person,’ not least because I so seldom agree with them!

The sharing of identity also functions to help us understand ourselves. There’s nothing like having someone else reflect back to you something of how they see you. The process of explaining ourselves to someone else can be a process of figuring out who we are, or who we want to be. Knowing how you wish to be seen can be quite telling, and the further it is from how you think you are, the more interesting it gets. Where the lines are between aspiration and untruth at this point, may be hard to define.

What does another person need to know about me in order to work with me, or co-operate with me in some way? What do I need other people to understand? Lockdown has meant I’ve not dealt much with people I do not know, but it’s also meant investing more time in online relationships, which in turn raises questions about what it is meaningful to share. Who am I? What of that can I meaningfully offer?

Mostly online I share what I’m interested in, because I find that works and is a good basis for interacting with people. I’ve experimented a bit with sharing my face, and other photos of me – which has been positive as an experience, but feels odd.

I’ve realised that I prefer to know people through what I can do with them.  At the moment my options are sorely limited on this score. But, I don’t think the best understanding of me is a story, or a set of assertions. I think it’s what can be known wordlessly by sharing the things I do. Sitting under the same tree. Wading into the same stream. Increasingly I don’t want to offer a narrative of who I am.  This is complicated online because blogs and social media alike encourage us to do exactly that, to tell ourselves to other people as carefully constructed stories.

When I get online to tell a story about myself, I can engage hundreds, potentially thousands of people with that story. When encountering me means walking through a wood with me or sitting on a hillside, I can only offer that to a very few people. I have to be very selective. I can only be properly real on a very small scale. I think that’s true of all of us, but it’s easy to lose sight of. Who we really are is not the drama of our biggest stories, it’s the moment to moment detail, the precise way in which we approach life.


What stories shall we tell each other?

Humans are story telling creatures. We do it all the time in the normal scheme of things. We have our daily adventures, and our people we check in with about how that went. How was your evening? How was your date? How was your day at work? How did the appointment go? And of these small story interactions we affirm and build our relationships with the people around us.

How is your lockdown going?

I notice on social media that there are a lot more people posting and far less is being said. We’ve been doing this for weeks now. We are over the novelty. Most of us are not getting much done because this is all so stressful and depressing, so we aren’t doing new things that give us stories to share. For some people this makes drama and conspiracy theories appealing – they are at least something to talk about, and if you provoke someone else then you have a story to tell.

Relationships depend on stories to share. We need to find each other interesting. If we are bored with ourselves and bored with the people we usually communicate with, this is a recipe for misery.

It’s important not to be living too much in the future, as well. It’s easy to start telling stories about what we will do when this is over. But, those stories further dislocate us from where we are now. They aren’t an answer to everyday stresses. We don’t know when we will be able to do all the things, so setting yourself up to watch the things you want staying unreachably ahead of you isn’t a good long term mental health choice. It is better to think about what you can do now. If there are things you want, it’s a good time to be figuring out how to move towards that and what you can do. Have a castle in the air if you want one, but also work out the means to approach it.

I have several castles in the air at the moment. I want to move, and being stuck in this small flat with no garden makes that a powerful imperative. I have to believe I won’t be stuck here forever. Even so, I’ve taken the decision not to move at the first opportunity. I could get out of here, but I have been offered a truly lovely air castle that can more likely be made real if I stay awhile, so I’ll stay. There is a story to tell, but I’m not ready yet. As a bonus, but not my major motivation, if we can get that to work, one of my biggest and most outrageous castles in the air becomes more feasible – that daydream about setting up a small movie studio.


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.


Body Stories

We attach meanings to bodies. We pass around stories about what certain body shapes mean. Some bodies we sexualise, and some we desexualise with no reference to the nature of the person whose body it is. The racists amongst us have stories about the meaning of skin tones that has nothing to do with the people those stories are imposed on. Those stories are used to cause harm and to reduce opportunities.

We tell stories about disabled bodies that are profoundly unhelpful to the people they are about. The stories of liars, scroungers, and fakes beget violence. The stories about what a disabled body means regarding the capability of the person, keep people out of jobs, social spaces and opportunities. The stories about being brave and inspirational are perhaps less toxic, but just as much about imposing a narrative on someone else.

If you have big breasts there is no way of dressing short of using a binder, that makes your body look modest in some people’s eyes. It is, by all accounts worse if you are a black woman, much worse if you are a younger black woman with curves –  that your body will be read in a sexual way no matter what you do, or who you are. The power to impose a story on someone else’s body is the power to say they were asking for it, they were dressed provocatively, their consent can be inferred.

When we read poverty on a person, we judge them for being lazy, dirty and feckless. When we don’t see those things, we judge a person claiming poverty as lying.

It doesn’t get much more personal than the story about what your body means. When people are able to read your body and impose their meanings upon you, there is a massive power imbalance. When you are told what you can and cannot do because your body is read as old, or female, or black, then you are at a huge disadvantage. If you don’t get to act based on your own body story, you are compromised in so many ways.

People who consider themselves normal measure other people’s bodies in relation to their own. All too often, no one asks what a person can do, or how they feel. We put superficial readings of bodies ahead of finding out what a person actually does.

Who gets to tell the story about what your body means? Who gets to impose limitations on you based on how they read your body? Who do you judge on appearances? What assumptions do you make when you look at someone who is different from you? None of us are entirely free from this.


What does poverty look like?

You can’t see it, not reliably. Not if you don’t know what to look for. Many working people are in poverty. Many young people trapped in expensive renting situations and unable to get mortgages, are struggling with poverty. For many, it’s not where you end up all the time, just something you fall into the month there’s an unexpected bill or a setback. A person can have a good coat and not be able to afford to eat this week.

Our stories about poverty are often othering. They’re about people who are not like us, who live in almost Victorian conditions that they have brought upon themselves – it’s a mad sort of story, but there we are. People horrified by refugees and homeless folk with mobile phones, because they don’t fit the story. People oblivious to the folk around them who are marginalised, because when you sound educated, you don’t fit the poverty story.

We need to be kinder to each other. If we put down our assumptions about how poor people look, dress, and spend their time, we might more readily see what’s around us.


Grief and Identity

This autumn I entered into a grieving process for the many things I had not previously been able to grieve. I’m not sure which is the chicken and which is the egg here – whether I can do this because my sense of self has shifted, or whether my sense of self has shifted because I’m doing this. Either way, it’s a feedback loop.

When I couldn’t grieve, it was because I didn’t feel safe to do that. My emotional responses might well bring more misery down upon me, affirming the impression that everything wrong was basically my fault. There were so many things I experienced as my fault, even though I had no control over them. Every shortcoming and imperfection, every innocent mistake, the limitations of my body, and how that body looked. I grew up thinking I was a bad and unloveable child, that I could never be good enough and that unless I was hyper-vigilant about everything, I would do something awful.

Grieving is not only allowing me to process those experiences, it’s allowing me to rethink my own story. As I grieve for my child self, I’ve been able to think differently. I wasn’t entirely awful – I was largely trying to be good. Having now parented someone myself, I have a different perspective on what can reasonably be expected of a child. As someone who teaches, I’ve learned the importance of holding space in which it is safe to make mistakes. Deliberate malice and cruelty are the only things worth getting angry about, and most children don’t do more than dabble in it as they try to figure out what’s acceptable.

I’m in a process of re-writing my story about the kind of child I was. I wasn’t a bad child. I’m not convinced any young child can be ‘bad’. They’re just learning and making mistakes.  I wasn’t a lazy child, and I don’t think it’s necessary or good for children to be super-motivated to work and achieve. It’s ok to want to be a child, to want to play and mess about and be silly. There’s a lot to be learned from mucking about. I wasn’t a fat child. I’ve got some old photos of me and I’m the same size as other kids. I was continually fat shamed. That’s not ok. It still wouldn’t have been ok if I’d been fat.

I’ve spent most of my life trying to justify my existence. Trying to make up for being inherently inadequate and unloveable. Trying to atone for being a bad person.  I’ve invested so much time and energy in trying to be good enough, trying to prove something about my worth so as to turn off the flood of self-hatred that has always been within me. All I ever needed was to be able to consider myself adequate and tolerable – it’s a pretty low set bar.

So I grieve for the little girl who had trouble learning to skip, and who just wanted to draw trees the way other kids drew them, and who wanted to be able to mess about during the holidays. I grieve for the child who was constantly afraid of being punished, and who just wanted approval and for someone to say ‘you are fine as you are’. I grieve for the unwinnable setup of having to get the best marks but being told off for getting too big for my boots if I made anything of it. I grieve for my wedge shaped Minnie Mouse feet, my arms like  a baboon, my rats teeth,  my singing like a cat, my funny-looking face, my fat, unloveable body. I grieve those stories, and what they did to me, and who I’ve been as I’ve lived with them as an adult.

I had a beautiful moment last week when it dawned on me that I grew up listening to, and adoring Steeleye Span. Child me did not sing like a cat. Child me sang like Maddy Prior.


Changing my body story

The body story I have had for most of my life goes like this: I am fat and unattractive. I am fat because I am lazy and greedy and don’t try hard enough. I make a fuss about pain. I would have more energy if only I did/ate/thought the right things so it’s really my fault I’m not doing better. That body story has gone with me no matter what I’ve done, or how hard I’ve tried. It is not a story I started out telling myself, it was told to me and I internalised it.

I’m working on changing that. It is not an easy thing to do, because the story is so embedded, and there are other stories tangled into it – that I should not expect love because I am fat. That no matter how good I am, it will never be enough to offset how unattractive I am. Pre-teen me was told that no one would ever want me because I was so fat. I don’t think I’ve ever really got past that, even when it’s repeatedly been proven not to be true. It haunts me.

My new body story takes into account some truths about my body. I’m very hypermobile, which means I hurt and injure easily, and I hurt a lot. It re-casts my historical pain not as fuss making, but as a real issue. Hypermobility often goes with fatigue, and everything taking more effort. I can re-write the stories about my laziness as being about limitations in my body, and not lack of trying on my part. My poor co-ordination in childhood – only marginally better now – probably also wasn’t a lack of effort on my part, but a consequence of the hypermobility.

I can tell myself new stories about how child me tried their best, but had problems.

Hypermobility has implications for the soft tissues, including the stomach. I’ve always had a dodgy digestive system which suggests that the soft tissue issues are in my guts as well as around my joints. I’ve always had trouble building stomach muscle or getting my middle into a shape I’m happy with. During pregnancy, my middle expanded to an alarming degree. This would make sense if I have weaker tissues to begin with. What if the stomach shape that was the source of so much childhood shame wasn’t about fat, but about the state of my muscles? Dieting never changed it. Starving myself never changed it. Exercise routines, regular swimming and other such efforts have never made much difference either. Trying to get my stomach to be a more acceptable shape has been a life-long obsession. What if it’s not because I’m greedy and lazy? What if something else is going on?

I am trying to tell myself new stories about how this might not have been some kind of personal failing on my part.

I’m also becoming aware of a thing. When the first port of call is to stigmatise fat and shame the fat person for being morally inadequate, there’s no looking at causes. There’s no asking what’s going on in their body and how that might be managed, dealt with, or how they might be more kindly supported in getting on with life. No one (including me) asked what was going on in my body because it was so obvious to everyone (me included) that my greed and laziness were to blame. That my body did not change was proof that I must be too greedy and lazy to really make the effort. Even as a teenager on the slimfast diet (remember that? Replace 2 meals each day with special milkshakes) I did not get to be the right shape. I did get to be very tired and had lousy concentration.

Putting down a story that has dominated my entire life isn’t easy. But, it does help having a new story to replace it with. A story in which I do not have to hate my body for the accident of how it is. A story in which it is not my fault. A story in which I do not have to think of myself as a ‘bad’ person. And if my body is not an expression of my moral failure, it becomes that bit easier to ask people to accept me as I am.


Folkloresque and Picturesque

I’m currently reading The Folkloresque – a collection of essays edited by Michael Dylan Foster and Jeffrey A. Tolbert. Reading Paul Manning’s chapter on pixies in the Victorian era brought something into focus for me – the similar ways in which Victorian picturesque and folkloresque work.

The picturesque is the process of making a landscape into something to be consumed. It can mean artistic depictions but it can also mean knocking down peasant cottages to make a more pleasant view, or building a fake ruin. It’s the process of making charming landscape walks with lovely views that you can enjoy only a short distance from your large country house. It turns the living landscape into scenery for amusement. Anyone poor living in this landscape had better be quaint and appealing, or there is no place for them.

Folkloresque productions of the period take the same approach – focusing on what’s charming and delightful that can be taken from the place and sold to people for money. As with the land, the stories are made to confirm to what the money wants to buy – we are to have charm, and whimsy and something nice for the children. The people whose stories these were of course get no money from the sale of them, get no kudos for carrying them and won’t be named in person. If any of those ‘simple rural folk’ made their stories up, no one wants to know – it does not suit the Victorian folkloresque agenda. We don’t really know what the relationship between the people sharing folk tales and the folk tales really is, because the people themselves are vanished from the story landscape as much as they are from the picturesque landscape.

There is no place in the picturesque or the folkloresque landscape for the people who live, work and tell stories there. They are simply something to exploit – for their labour and their raw materials. Other people take the money. Other people get the kudos for collecting, or for improving the view. Knock down the cottage in which the storyteller lived because it isn’t pretty enough to be seen from your windows and claim the stories as your own. It’s much the same underlying logic.