You want it darker

I felt a blast of irrational fury towards Leonard Cohen on Friday when I heard that he had died. Christ, Leonard, did you have to go and die on us in such a week? When so many Americans chose the candidate who promotes hatred and fear? When the Klan announced a victory parade for Trump and the hate crimes began? When those of us in the UK who voted for humanity last June are getting flashbacks to the trauma of the referendum result to add to our sense of horror for the US?

Leonard, I loved you my entire life, but this was bloody bad timing mate: how to cope with the grief of this loss as well?

Of course I rallied, and I said my tender goodbyes to the great poet.

What next?

So there’s the question of how to go on from here in this screwed up world. What the hell to do next.

I was privileged to be invited to join the “secret” Facebook group Pantsuit Nation, now 3,500,000 strong and climbing. A group of both women and men, a space where people could share their stories and write of their admiration for Hillary Clinton without fear of vilification and attack. It includes many thoughtful Republicans voting the Democrat ticket for the first time in their lives.

That group has been inspirational, a leaping wild river of a timeline as hope turned gradually to disbelief and grief that long election night. And the stories keep pouring in, of hope and ideas for the future, of fractured families, of people being assaulted and others jumping in to protect them, of both hate and reconciliation. People are organising, they are not giving up.

On not being a good girl

There are a lot of ideas floating around for moving on. But a friend of mine said:

Be a good girl. Be nice. Mind your manners. Stay quiet. Do as you’re told. Speak when you are spoken to. Gotta say… all the “let’s move on” and “work together” chatter sounds a lot like this old shit.

I agree, this is a time for grief and for rage. For me, it’s reawakened all those post-Brexit feelings of fear (despite my white privilege) and unreality. Of discovering that the country I’ve lived in for over sixty years is not what I thought it was. It’s underlined this dark tide of racism, misogyny and homophobia that’s sweeping not only the US but the UK and most of Europe. Marine Le Pen, the French far right leader was one of the first politicians to congratulate Trump. Nigel Farage is in New York with him as I type this. (I can’t reflect on Farage and his smug grin for long without being in danger of an aneurysm.)  If you want to know who someone is, look at their allies.

Working together?

And yet… clearly we do have to work together. And to understand what’s happening and talk about it with those with whom we disagree. There’s a difference between people whose political views are different from ours and the haters. I will not engage with haters. Being a thoughtful Conservative here in the UK is not an oxymoron, any more than being a thoughtful Republican is in the US (heaven knows we need more of both).

In fact one of the things that’s shocked me most this year is how a few people I know and love and whose political views are liberal or left-wing have gone out of their way to taunt and insult right-wingers on social media. Trolling is trolling regardless of who does it. One thing I would love to see in the weeks ahead is for people on social media to stop calling each other stupid. It doesn’t help anyone. We go high.

I’m also not sure that white liberal guilt and hand-wringing does much good either. Yes we need to recognise that those of us in this category can be arrogant and inward-looking, that minorities of all stripes have been experiencing this hate for longer than we have. We need to understand that we don’t see life in the same way as the majority of people on the planet, and that we are considered effete and out of touch by people whose jobs in manufacturing have disappeared and who are living in poverty.

In a stroke of good timing, while writing this I got an email from a good friend forwarding a satirical piece about liberals fleeing the US for Canada. I particularly enjoyed this extract:

“A lot of these people are not prepared for our rugged conditions,” an Alberta border patrolman said. “I found one carload without a single bottle of Perrier water, or any gemelli with shrimp and arugula. All they had was a nice little Napa Valley cabernet and some kale chips.

But if you’re a white liberal suffering from guilt, let’s quit with the hand-wringing, enjoy the Napa and do what we can to build bridges.

Next steps

As an older woman who remembers the excitement of the feminist movement in the 1970s, I wanted desperately to see Hillary Clinton elected as the first woman President of the United States. Not only for the symbolism although that would have brought me such joy, but because I believed she was a great person for the job. How that woman has remained standing after everything that’s been thrown at her over the past decades is extraordinary. (Of course our two female Prime Ministers so far here in the UK have been extraordinarily divisive, so this isn’t to say that women are automatically the best for the job.)

So what I would love to see is a resurgence of the energy of those early days of feminism, converted into a world-wide progressive movement for everyone who is being beaten down by this new fascist threat around the world.

I’m going to be thinking hard over the next couple of weeks about what I can specifically do, and would love to hear ideas from you in the comments.

Meanwhile…

Adam Cohen posted this on Facebook today:

My sister and I just buried my father in Montreal. With only immediate family and a few lifelong friends present, he was lowered into the ground in an unadorned pine box, next to his mother and father. Exactly as he’d asked. As I write this I’m thinking of my father’s unique blend of self-deprecation and dignity, his approachable elegance, his charisma without audacity, his old-world gentlemanliness and the hand-forged tower of his work. There’s so much I wish I could thank him for, just one last time. I’d thank him for the comfort he always provided, for the wisdom he dispensed, for the marathon conversations, for his dazzling wit and humor. I’d thank him for giving me, and teaching me to love Montreal and Greece. And I’d thank him for music; first for his music which seduced me as a boy, then for his encouragement of my own music, and finally for the privilege of being able to make music with him. Thank you for your kind messages, for the outpouring of sympathy and for your love of my father.

Goodbye Leonard, I love you, and thank you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lammas apples

Lammas-apples

Working in an office and living in an apartment, nonetheless I try to spend time out under the sky at the weekends and especially at those points of the year where the wheel turns. Tomorrow is Lammas, the first harvest festival of the year.

Where I live we have a wonderful rural life museum built in the house and lands of a Victorian farm, and staffed almost entirely by volunteers. (Have you ever noticed how most volunteers are at or close to retirement? I wonder if the number of volunteers overall is shrinking as we age and die, or if the volunteer workforce is replenished constantly by more “oldies” coming through the ranks.)

Lammas-bench

I visited the museum today, and sat on this very bench in the sunshine.

The last few weeks, life in the world has seemed so bleak, so almost unendurable that I expect like many of us, it’s taken all my resolution to look at the news each morning to see what latest act of large terror or small meanness has occurred.

What this means to me is that the little things of beauty are not little at all, they are of huge importance. So I’m choosing to focus on the bounty of everything around me at this festival time. Here in the museum’s Victorian garden, lavender plants are smothered in bees, a rosemary bush leaves its astringent scent on my hands when I brush against it, beans are ready for the picking. And the fruit trees are swelling ripely. Not quite ready yet to be harvested but only a few weeks away, like the apple tree in my photo.

Lammas blessings to all.

 

Dark times at midsummer

 

Fabric texture of the Gay rainbow flag

I’ve lived over sixty years and I can’t recall ever feeling as depressed and hopeless as I have felt and still feel this week.

Orlando

First, the attack on Pulse nightclub in Orlando. Forty-nine people having a fun night out in a gay nightclub, gone. As a bi woman, this hate crime with its terrible toll struck at my very heart. Like so many of my queer siblings, I learned at first hand the difference between the huge compassion and sadness and fellowship we as humans feel in the wake of a terror attack and what we feel when the attack is on our own community, no matter if it is thousands of miles away.

It isn’t that a queer life matters more to me – I struggled for days with that possibility. It’s that like so many other communities we know fear. Orlando may have been peripherally a terror attack, but it was primarily about hate against part of who I am. That’s why it’s personal. This post says it better.

Political extremism

Focusing back over the ocean to the UK, we are in the middle of a vicious, ugly fight over our membership of the European Union. We the people vote to stay or go in a referendum on 23 June. The rhetoric from the side who want us to leave the EU has centred around causing fear about immigration, fear of the “foreigner”. (In a very similar way that Trump is stoking those same flames in the US.)

Two things happened in the UK on Thursday:

The leader of one of our extreme right wing parties, UKIP, unveiled a campaign poster which has been likened to Nazi propaganda from the 1930s. I won’t dignify it with a link, but it shows a long line of desperate refugees – the implication is that they are coming to Britain to take over our jobs and our homes and our health services – under the heading “Breaking Point”. Hatred.

Then later on Thursday the politics of fear gained a victim in Jo Cox, Labour MP in Birstall, West Yorkshire, who was shot and stabbed in the street by a white British male who refused to confirm his name in court, identifying himself instead as “Death to traitors, freedom for Britain”. Jo’s killer is almost certainly mentally ill, and must not be demonised, but how have we created a climate in the UK where this attack was, as many have said, only a matter of time? Hatred.

Our planet

Almost as a footnote to these events, I noted on Friday a report from scientists saying that dealing with climate change is more desperately urgent than anyone had thought. It is an emergency now. As I write this, there are dangerous heatwaves across parts of the US and continental Europe.

Picking ourselves up

Is depression and hopelessness the right response to this past week? No of course not, but sometimes it’s terribly difficult to get up and keep fighting (as Jo Cox’s husband said so eloquently) for an end to hatred. But I will. We all will.

It’s Father’s Day today and Facebook is full of loving tributes to my friends’ fathers. My own Dad has been dead for decades. He was a cameraman during World War II, recording the war for future generations. He spent time in Beirut. He told me often of the beauty he found in the voice of the Muezzin, calling Muslims to prayer. He spoke of his time in Italy, talking to ordinary brave people who had no truck with Mussolini and his fascists.

My Dad was a tolerant, loving, hard-working and loyal husband and father. He was a patriot in the best sense of loving his country, not excluding others. He saw and catalogued the cost of war. He would have welcomed immigrants and refugees. He never expressed himself with hatred.

The only thing I could think of to write on my Pilgrim’s Moon Facebook page immediately after Orlando was (in part) this:

I’m struck always by the sheer viciousness of the comments sections in news reports, on Facebook and Youtube. I think these small moments of ugliness collectively contribute to a world in which events such as this latest atrocity are commonplace.
Perhaps one thing we can do is resolve not to express our own prejudices and hatred (and make no mistake we all have them) in small things: our observations of others, our social media posts, our reactions to situations.
It’s so easy to feel smug when we make intelligent little quips about those stupid people who have different political or social views to ours (those of us who are liberals seem particularly prone to this)…

I still think this is right. We bear responsibility for our words. It must be possible to fight hatred without hatred. It must be possible to be fierce in our beliefs without being contemptuous.

 

Women’s histories

Journal-cover

I went to a local Vintage and HandMade goods fair at the weekend. If I’m going to buy something I want it to be a little unusual, so I now have a beautiful lino-cut print of a running hare for a particular spot on my wall that’s been waiting for something. And an unusual ceramic vase in sea and sky blues inspired by an Icelandic harbour. And this hand-made journal, in all its tatterdemalion glory.Journal

Here’s part of the inside as well. A leather cover enclosing pages and pages of different types of paper, ribbon, scraps and whatnots. The wonderful woman who makes these journals calls them Knicker Drawer Notebooks:

What’s a Knicker Drawer Note Book?

Memory book? Pillow book? Keepsake book? Journey book? Quiet Thoughts Notebook? Story prompt book?

Creative space? Costume support? Commonplace hoard? Sensory texture book for physical therapy?

Perhaps a unique and personal book, made to hold an item that matters, the item that expresses you, and you alone?

Or just about the most fun and whimsical personal book you’ll ever own?

A Knicker Drawer book is all of these: it’s a beautiful place to keep the precious things of your everyday experience, whether they are daily jottings, fragile letters, your youthful billet doux, an old journey ticket, memories of good and bad times, a card from a time you want to remember, your poetry, or the heirloom recipe in grandma’s handwriting. (Or even, ahem, the receipt for the hotel room you’d rather keep quiet about.)

You can see more examples of her work here, and oh how she’s rekindled my interest in journalling and journal-making.

The reason I’m writing about it today is because of one particular use for these journals which she showed me: a repository for old letters, a written history of a long-dead woman’s life, not forgotten if preserved between the pages of one of the notebooks.

On International Women’s Day, let’s remember those generations and generations of women and their hidden histories, preserved in memory and sometimes between the pages of a special book.

N’est pas un parfum pour les femmes effacées

Rive Gauche

What is she talking about now, I hear you ask!

Well I was walking past the Yves Saint Laurent cosmetics counter the other day just as a customer spritzed herself with Rive Gauche. In a giddy breath, I was transported back to those heady days of the mid-70s. For me they were an uneasy marriage between feminist consciousness raising groups (remember them? I miss them!) and dating men my mother would have considered unsuitable had she known about them.

Rive Gauche was the perfume which accompanied me through those days. It was the first perfume I bought as an adult. Considered daring and modern, somewhere between a floral and a chypre, sold in a can, not a bottle, it was aimed at the growing market of independent women. (Here’s a link to a contemporary advert from YouTube.)

And the point of this little trip down memory lane? To understand just how potent our sense of smell is.

I only have to catch a whiff of tomatoes – those old-fashioned varieties with that musky damp green scent clinging to them – to be back in the tomato nursery I visited as a small child, the vines high above my head.

And the bitterness of roasting coffee has my three-year old self toddling along on reins with my mother past the only Italian shop in our North London suburb, insisting that she stop and wait for Henry to catch up. (Henry was my imaginary friend, an immaculately clean pink pig who was a little portly and could not walk as fast as I.)

Our sense of smell has evolved to be useful in all kinds of ways. Was the gas left on? Has the milk gone off? If you don’t have a sharp (or any) sense of smell, you lose a lot of eating enjoyment because the senses of smell and taste are interlinked. (I did an experiment recently in which I allowed a small square of fine dark chocolate to dissolve in my mouth while holding my nose. Very little sensation in the taste department.)

There is evidence that some (not all) loss of the sense of smell as we grow older can be an early indicator of dementia or other serious conditions. But it’s not all one-sided, as aromatherapy can be an effective way of improving quality of life in dementia, and I’ve seen from my own family experience that a familiar smell can cause moments of awareness or recognition.

I could probably name a hundred scents which have a profound influence on me. What are your scent memories?

 

A centennial story

Ethel and Eileen in about 1922

My darling Mum would have celebrated her 100th birthday this week. Sadly she died at only 74, but it made me reflect on her life and the amazing things that have happened in the last 100 years.

Her name was Ethel. Born bang smack in the middle of the First World War to a working class Roman Catholic couple in London, early pictures like the one above (around 1922) always show her with a rather serious expression, and in this one very protective of her baby sister Eileen.

When Ethel was born, women in the UK couldn’t vote. But her parents were politically active socialists with a strong belief in the value of education. Ethel went to a London convent school and later became one of the first women in the country to study pharmacy.

Mary and Freddie with Tony, 1939But she married my Dad in 1937, when she was 21, and a growing family plus World War Two put paid to ideas of a career. Here’s a picture of the young couple with their first son, on the very eve of war. Dad joined the Army and Mum became one of that generation of British women who brought up children alone in constant fear of a German bombing raid or that knock on the door with terrible news from the front. She and my father devised a secret code so that his letters home would tell her where he was stationed (this wasn’t allowed). Food was rationed, and it was almost impossible to get luxury items outside the black market, which she didn’t approve of. She grew vegetables in the garden, and kept meat rabbits for protein. She struggled to heat her house in winter.

With Dad home safely when the war ended, Mum continued raising their two sons. Following several miscarriages, which she never spoke of,  I was born in the early 1950s, as memories of the war were just beginning to recede – civilian food rationing finished in 1954. Women were back in the home with a vengeance, their lives beginning to fuel the writings of Betty Friedan and others.

Two more children came along in the late 1950s. The first, my brother Philip, created a seismic shift in our family as he was born with Down’s Syndrome. In those days, the advice was that children with this condition should be institutionalised, my parents should have another child and forget about Philip. They took the advice to have another child, which gave me the advantage of a sister, but were having none of the rest of it. Philip was brought up as part of the family and we all became part of that early shift towards creating societies in which people with intellectual disabilities were just people. It was very hard work for Mum who was of course “just a housewife”.

The ’60s – swinging or otherwise – were right around the corner. My parents were devout but liberal Catholics, delighted by the election of Pope John XXIII in 1958 and his work to bring a breath of fresh air into the Church during the Second Vatican Council. I recall their sadness when the Pope died in June 1963. We were on holiday at the seaside at the time and read about it in the paper – there was no radio at our rented bungalow and social media not even thought of.

By then we had our first black and white television set, and I remember later in 1963 walking into the kitchen where Mum was cooking a meal and asking her what the word “assassination” meant. She asked why and I told her that on the television they were saying President Kennedy had been assassinated. I’d never seen her clumsy but she dropped something – a knife I think – and ran into the living room. We didn’t have a cooked meal that day, just sandwiches.

Our family was shrinking. Both Mum’s parents had died young and now Dad’s mum, who lived with us, also died. I think this may have been a secret relief to Mum because although Dad was grief-stricken, Granny had been a bit of a tartar who didn’t make her daughter-in-law’s life easy. Later in the ’60s my older brothers both married and moved into their own homes. So we moved to a smaller house.

By this time a lot of what were then modern “conveniences” had found their way into our home so housework took less time. In the 1970s Mum began to volunteer at a local special school, later becoming a paid teaching assistant there, part-time. Around this time I moved out into a rented flat, followed by my sister.

One big event in the late 1970s was my Dad’s retirement. He was given a big cash gift and took Mum, me and my sister on holiday to Italy, which he had fallen in love with while being stationed there during the War. We found out after arriving that Mum had been absolutely terrified of flying but had steeled herself and not let a hint of it slip, because she didn’t want to spoil the family anticipation. This was typical of her.

After 46 years of ridiculously happy marriage, Dad died in the mid-1980s and Mum lost a lot of her light and energy.

Living alone with my brother Philip in the family home, she realised she had to take action to secure Philip’s future. Having spent years supporting him to become more and more independent, she put into place a plan for him to move to a small group home, where he would live with other people who had intellectual disabilities. Her unselfish wish (for she loved his company) was that he should not suffer too much loss and disruption to his daily routine when she died. Sadly the plan didn’t come to fruition quickly enough and Mum became ill and died in 1990. (My sister and I lived with Philip until the move took place a couple of years later.)

I remember sitting with Mum’s address book phoning people to let them know she had died, and the task took hours. No mobile text-messaging or emails.

I sometimes wonder who she really was. She was known by three names. Her family called her Ethel. My Dad and most of their friends called her Mary (her second name). But at school, her close gang of mates all had nicknames for each other and Mum was known as Gerrie. Her best friend was Nancy and she always addressed Mum as Gerrie. And there was something about that name and Mum’s ownership of it that showed me a younger woman, with her life ahead of her. After she died, I found some diary pages written while she was at school as a teenager (although I guess teenagers hadn’t really been invented then) which expressed eloquently her yearnings for independence, self-expression and adventure. I’m sad she never got this, but I believe she had a happy life.

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Women growing older with grace and gusto