Fuck self-care, I need looking after

9 min read

I have come a long way along the path towards self-care and self-love. To avoid being that trickster though, who hooks you in with a controversial title and then does a complete U-turn halfway through, I’ll do it now instead and say: Sure, self-love, self-care and self-compassion are vital to self-esteem and good mental health. There is no way to be truly mentally well without decent sense of self-worth, and being able to provide basic care for yourself in any circumstance. But what if you can’t?

There is a burgeoning awareness, especially (to my notice) in women’s conversations, about the benefits and necessity of self-love and self-care. It goes by many names, and so in that sense it clearly belongs equally to many male spiritual or mental-health advisers and practitioners from all corners of the globe and all aeons. It certainly should never be overly ridiculed as an outgrowth of individualism and excessive selfishness, or, heaven forbid, compared with narcissism. But amongst women, the patient but insistent voices calling on us to ask deep and complicated questions about whether we truly love ourselves enough (for example, enough to be mentally healthy in a hetero relationship where we may have to grapple daily with unconscious expectations that our needs matter less), have gradually morphed into loud, proud, ubiquitous voices proclaiming self-care and self-love as the panacea for everything from loneliness and depression to period pain and chronic ailment.

Enough. I can see, from both sides of my own (in)ability to love myself, how essential it is. I am also beginning to realise that I only became able to develop self-loving feelings, and stagger drunkenly down the path of ‘lifestyle changes’ that might incrementally amount to ‘proper self-care’, as a direct result of first discovering a large group of people who were enthusiastically reminding me on a regular basis that I could, should and deserved to, be loved and cared for to this extent, including by myself, or, starting with myself. People have been telling me that it was normal, right, not immoral or selfish, to meet my own needs – first no less! – even if other people might still want or need something from me in that minute, day, month.

Before I get carried away backwards into a blind alley let me clarify, for both our sakes, that I do not believe that we need a community to tell us to keep ourselves nice and cared-for so we can go out looking (and being) our best and hook a good man. That’s not the trajectory our fourth-wave feminist grandkids have written for themselves, so shame on us if we think it’s our only option either.

What I’m saying is that self-care has a double edge, like everything, and that using it as a mantra for well-being risks disguising the many important ways in which we are interdependent, intertwined even. And dare I say it – we are sometimes actually dependent. We need to depend on other people. On the one hand, I could not have created the particular pattern of self-esteem I’m currently running with, without much help from women with similar life experiences to mine, corroborating those experiences and sharing tools for recovery. On the other hand, it’s delusional to imagine that I/we/one will never have needs that simply must be met by another human being, or more. Not only care when we are sick, injured, in delirium, trapped at sea on a lilo, or very very old or young; visits in prison. But also basic anti-loneliness needs like chatting, hugging, comparing notes on day-to-day experiences and difficult people, and having an audience, be it of one or one million, for the more extreme events we run into which need expressing sooner or later as a form of hygiene for the psyche.

As usual, it’s a game of words when you strip it back. Take ‘anti-loneliness’ which I just trotted out. What a revolting alternative to ‘healthy’ or ‘normal’. While choosing words carefully we can also define self-love, self-care and self-compassion in ways that marry with our need to build and maintain strong self-esteem and good mental health. We can also find ourselves slipping down the slope towards feeling shit about ourselves for not being more ‘resilient’ emotionally, because we’re so far failing to be good enough at self-care and self-love, not realising that these feelings won’t come from nowhere, especially when we have many scripts running that counter them. In this case they will only come on the back of consistent mutual support, even if that has to come in the first instance from books, or groups or services or the internet. For me it was crucially the Red Tent, a global network of women’s groups that are free to attend.

Having ploughed the lonely furrow of searching for how to love myself better than this proper dodgy scriptwriter in my head, I found, when I met a guy and fell for him, that I was actually in conflict with myself simply over enjoying and accepting being loved. Naturally, there was the time-honoured badge-of-past-hurts which kept me from unreservedly feeling the love that was being offered. And (no shit) there were other obstacles. But the self-love-achievement endgame reveals that building greater self-esteem (fake it till you make it) has been utterly intertwined with that particular healing process that is receiving loving-care from a real person … these are not two separate, parallel types of allowing-in of love. If I was rendered single again (somehow without a major personal-identity crisis/self-esteem nosedive), my current self-love level would set me in good stead compared with past cycles. But I would mobilise it with gusto to attract warm, open, committed and loyal people into my life; people with whom I could continuously give and receive care and attention, in a variety of forms.

I think maybe inner-love would be a safer term. Where there is weak inner-love, there is vulnerability to accepting disrespectful treatment from others. That includes accepting inadequate care, either from individuals in roles close to us, from professionals paid to provide care services, or from society at large. Specifically not accepting a lack of adequate care provision for such challenges as chronic illness or disability is a crucial marker of strong self-esteem.

To clarify, it has been through the loving care of both a nurturing partner who takes the same pleasure from looking after me when I am exhausted, sick or down, that I take in looking after him, and the consistent mutual support of women coming together to remind one another that we must value ourselves properly if we want to be well, that I have been able to develop a sense of self-worth which can stand up – most of the time – to unjust, internalised, ‘inner’ criticism. This inner voice is a particularly vicious foe for those who work too hard and burn out – expecting more than most from themselves, and suddenly being able to do none of it. It can be psychologically crippling, and in our atomised society, they/we make up just one of the many groups for whom even basic daily needs are scarcely met … a bubble bath just isn’t going to cut it.

Self-worth is an essential aspect of a healthy human self, and self-care as a concept is a vital deterrent to being a doormat, or a laundry-and-dinner-machine, one which women in particular and parents in general need reminding of frequently. But in spite of its name it cannot thrive in isolation, and wherever loneliness is probable due to a lack of real community, ‘self-care’ can double as yet another aspiration to manage on your lonesome: to believe that all that is needed – not only to flourish in your relationship with yourself, but also in order to be shiny enough to deserve company – is a lot of willpower to make you feel like you like yourself a lot. Do me a favour.

All hail the true hermit whose solitude is merely an outward manifestation of his/her bottomless well of loving connection to some flavour of God, aka the living presence within themselves; and who is really not in any way avoiding the hurly-burly of everyday life. Find them on the third mountain to the East, second left after the unicorns.

Controlled explosions

9 min read

Addicted to your smartphone? No shit. I don’t even have one and still manage to be addicted to the exact same things. I guess I started getting addicted to email communications with friends back when my first full-time office job landed me in an office like solitary confinement, with not enough to do, missing my young kids – and my daily fix of after-school-social-life – like crazy. But that’s another story.

I’m writing today because I am here at my laptop again. For the statisticians among you, I got up an hour ago, washed the dishes while my tea was brewing, brought my tea to my computer to check for an email, message, gif of any furry creature, emoticon sequence, from my beloved, which there wasn’t. This is the pattern. If there is no message, I get stuck on the damn thing; checking not just my various email inboxes but opening a load of emails offering me free talks and expensive courses – and of course the occasional bit of real admin like paying my tax bill. Those things were all slated for some other time – not quite a routine, yet, but certainly NOT NOW.

The plan for now was very definitely to go back to bed, where I would have drunk my tea, written some ‘morning pages’ (journal) to clear my head for a precious free day when I might just do some writing. Then I would probably have allowed myself to read another chapter of an extraordinary poetry book I got during a recent present-giving festival and be inspired. Then I might have had some breakfast. Now I have to get the bloody breakfast before I have even gone back to bed. So whack right?

If you’ve read my posts before you’ll detect a familiar self-pitying tone, hopefully reasonably well-disguised by flourishes of righteous indignation and swearing. But I am not feeling sorry for myself this time – I mean what the fuck? Who can make having a day off to sit in bed writing into a complaint?? I know. But I write right now because I caught myself in the act and I made myself sit here and think about what I had done. On the naughty step with me. So hey, you want to know what I discovered?

Catching myself in the act of being on the laptop, mostly the internet, often social media, for longer than I intended (or budgeted) has become a more-than-daily habit. Catching myself in the act sometimes leads to stopping and coming off and going and doing something else that I actually planned to do. Sometimes. Often it just leads to a series of catchings over another hour or two: ‘Oh damn, I’m still here at 10.45, even though at 8.25 I caught myself in the act of not being supposed to be here.” It’s embarrassing really. But I do deserve some compassion for my addiction to connection with other humans.

Being on the internet has always been a way of feeling connected to the rest of the human world – plugged in if you will. Everybody feels this way, I think. Being connected with other humans is a key aspect of what we live for and is it naturally not easy to willfully disconnect.

Think of trying to say goodbye to your best mate after meeting for coffee. One of you ‘had to go’ at 2pm. But aren’t you literally standing outside the cafe on the street talking at double speed and it’s easily ten past but just keep talking and don’t look down at your watch, obviously. My long hours, days, weeks, months, years, okay okay, of lonely ensconcement in a barren office and an emotionally illiterate relationship laid foundations for my addiction to grazing on my computer for things to make me feel connected to other people, and when my friends aren’t available, social media and reading other people’s writing will do. I hope to overcome this addiction eventually, and I have improved.

Reading is of course a much more nourishing activity on the whole than browsing aimlessly, and watching videos is also full of benefits. I imagine my future self being able to come on here always with a clear mission to read a certain person/blog or article or watch a bunch of recipes … but I’d never have found these people, writers, videos, if I didn’t browse some of the time, right? Not so much a deadly poison as a rich nutrient best taken with extreme self-control. The problem, then, is not the internet, full of shite though it may be, because it’s also full of gold. The problem is not being able to stop.

Today, as so often, I caught myself ready to get off, in the sense that I’d checked all my possible message-routes multiple times while reading a few emails and following up on them for good measure. And I noticed I just didn’t want to. I should be feeling happy to be finished so I can get on with my awesome day of me-writing-time. Instead of which I am looking for other email accounts to open.

That’s the test: my brain wanted to find some more depositories of random comms from people I do or don’t know but might have once thought interesting to sign up to hear from. There is no such inbox.

And so I forced myself to do the thing: to sit and close my eyes and find out what the fuck I think I’m playing at. I already know, I told myself, that I need to feel connected with other people and when I am alone at home I use the internet to do this. I knew already also that a significant part of the solution to this is to keep reminding myself that in my own company I am fine, I am well. Wherever there is some deep, partially hidden discomfort with myself, ‘my life’, my plans for the day, or lack of them, it’s inevitable that I will avoid myself by engaging with the computer. But I am sludging through this avoidance, one day, one hour at a time and I will win, eventually.

But today a happy accident happened. A friend was live-streaming on social media. I clicked on it automatically, then I went back to what I was doing beforehand. When I finally broke free I remembered this with curiosity. By forcing myself to sit still for more than the few seconds it normally takes me to repeat the well-worn mantra ‘I need connection’, I suddenly realised that I didn’t. I didn’t want to take the risk of someone I actually know actually engaging with me, in real time!

Final insight: I use the internet and email and social media to connect with people in a way I can control, to a far greater degree than I can when I meet with people, or even speak on the phone or a video-call. When that is unsatisfactory, when some real feeling is what I’m after, notably with my beloved, I relentlessly check back for signs of life and get stuck in a loop on just about any old content while I unconsciously wait.

The rest of the time though, it’s almost a power trip, if you think about it. Send a gif that will make somebody feel something. We won’t be there when they feel it. We won’t have to follow up when our kindness causes them to weep. And we can apologise later if we fire off something shitty to give ourselves an insta-lift in our shit day, kidding ourselves for that one necessary moment that it’s quite fair in response to what they sent. We are thriving, in part, on an unlimited diet of protected, shielded interactions, getting our emotional-electrical hits while always being able to switch other people off in one second. Unless of course, we are keeping in touch with someone who we will see tonight, after work, in half an hour, just round the corner; someone who will hold us to account. In which case, do we really need this at all?

Can we not even be with ourselves for while one person is travelling home from work? Did we miss the birdsong? Did we pass the old friend in the street without seeing them … they were on the other side, on their phone, texting someone they are going to see in a few minutes.

Postscript. If you haven’t come across Wasting time on the internet by Kenneth Goldsmith yet then do read it! He’s brilliant at unpicking all the ways we beat ourselves up for using the internet, which is a truly wonderful reason to read a book. And it has a very cute cover. https://www.hive.co.uk/Product/Kenneth-Goldsmith/Wasting-Time-on-the-Internet/18857150 (They also have the ebook for a fiver.)

Red jade egg

Red jade egg


when the elasticated waistband
of your softest pair of knickers
is the only piece of clothing
still pushing on your body
and that touch is still unbearable
reach for your red jade egg

when walking is arduous
and working is fatuous
when sitting is torturous
and laying down is dangerous
when doing nothing is repulsive
and little pills seems like your only option
reach for your red jade egg

when your mind says
call in sick and go to bed
and your body says
I have unfinished business with you
those labour pains you anaesthetised
that uncomfortable sex you forced on me
that pathetic attempt to say No to overtime
that man you tolerated
for so many years
when your card is marked
reach for your red jade egg

every time the body comes for you
and you escape
every time you reach for a chemical
to trick your brain
every time you say ‘this is nothing’
to those who buy you
and those who show you concern
the body saves that up for later

when the ovaries feel like unpinned grenades
when the uterus feels like a graveyard
when the vagina feels like a faucet 
and the vulva feels like a mistake

when your back and your kidneys are weeping
like bystanders at a car crash
in their village high street

when children are so close to you
that even words of love
bounce off your skull like a gong
or so far away from you
that having a womb seems ridiculous

when the world shrinks 
into half of your body
and roars
reach for your red jade egg
and listen



by ebmh

Interpretation, that’s what you nee-eed

On messages of various types and their emotional wake…

So I often use Messenger to write to the other half, because I don’t have a device for texting and because phone calls are often way more substantial in their performance requirements than many of the things that I feel like saying would justify. I do get told off sometimes for not phoning more but, hilariously, I don’t get told off for messaging too much.

This is not me emailing my boyfriend
(Bolovtsova/Pexels)

One thing that irks me however, is the time lapse between his seeing my messages and his responses. I didn’t know what kind of problem this was, until today (other than being one shared by masses of us). In the past, I have considered it to be the kind of problem rooted in my romantic insecurities. Later on, feeling relieved to have a get-out opportunity from that self-image, I came to see it as this near-universal human tech-comms idiosyncrasy: the one where you send a text and you don’t get one back straightaway so you fear and assume the recipient is dead. I may not be able to send and receive SMS messages, but I remain perfectly equipped to share wildly irrational hive-traits. We train ourselves with diligence to repeat the counter-mantra: They are probably not dead. They may have turned off their phone, or more likely, they are being held hostage by guerrillas. Or maybe they are concentrating on work, or in the bath, or in the bath concentrating on work.

Well, if you use Messenger you’ll know that it informs you when someone sees your message – or at least when its little robot brain assumes they have, presumably because it has appeared on their screen. Hence the very possibility of my becoming irked by non-replies comes to exist. I don’t choose to be irked, in order to set in motion a downward spiral of paranoid recrimination. I just set to wondering what he’s doing that can include looking at Messenger on his phone, but not include clicking a thumbs up, for my simple pleasure. If I expressed this to him, he might switch off the function which allows me to see when he has seen my message, and go camo. He doesn’t read my blog so we are safe here, for now.

Happily my torment is almost over. It has occurred to me just this hour that when he sees a message from me it goes into his brain like an email. OMG reader it’s that fucking simple. I can’t tell you how annoyed at myself I am for having accumulated such a bundle of emotional misdirections in my life that it has taken me this long to put this two and that two together. Naturally I allow for him seeing a message while doing something else on his phone, whilst genuinely busy. But outside of that I have always unthinkingly interpreted his reply-speed as an indication of when he feels like engaging with me, in relation with how important or urgent my topic seems. It’s an obvious formula. Wrong, so wrong have I been. Although these factors exist, for everyone, the way this boyf replies to my messages bears great resemblance to the way he asks for thinking time when I hit him with any complex issue in person. Likewise when I send an email, to anyone, or receive one, it stands to reason that the reply will come all in good time, allowing for the recipient to consider the topic, and ideally, be sitting down. What’s great is that the considered replies boyf sends are in the main intelligent and often pleasantly suprising. Not that one uses Messenger to elicit that kind of communication mind you.

I know what you’re thinking, really I do. You’re thinking I spend too much time messaging when I should be doing something more worthwhile, like dancing round the room singing loudly to Vampire Weekend or Graceland. I agree. But it does help us gel when we are apart, even though it simultaneously opens a portal to endless other conversants of less significance to pounce and expand a normal tea-break into an unintended day off. What’s that? I could just send an email? Blimey you’re feisty today.

Strange normalities

You know those days you get when wherever you go, you almost bump into people you know but you aren’t really, one hundred percent, in the mood to stop and talk to them? Or, it’s people who are a bit dodge and worth not being spotted by; or, people you out-and-out want to avoid because they talk and talk in long, long sentences that go on and on and on forever with loads of unnecessary words for no apparent reason that you can think of except possibly that they just really enjoy thinking of extra words to add on?

Well today is not one of those days. Today, right now, I am standing at a perfect people-watching vantage point, where many people are passing below me, at a recognisable distance, but without me invading their privacy or personal space being here. Further away, twice as many people again pass by beyond recognition, but clearly at ease; mostly strolling and cycling; very few walking at any pace. Two people see each other from different levels – they are the first I have seen to walk fast, they are excited to each reach the end of their level, to join each other. Their joy is palpable, and it’s hard not to watch the entire event. But there are others to watch.

I notice how much pleasure just witnessing everybody is giving me. There is a chill wind coming off the sea, but it is sunny and not intermittently. A significant inner voice thinks that in spite of the sun, I am unwise to stay out too long standing in the cold, that I should go home and rest according to my rulebook; a tiny, insignificant voice thinks that I might look odd here. The truth is that this level of exposure to a random selection of humanity, pottering about as if it were a normal day, yet, somehow, ineffably, better than that, is nourishing me deeply with a feeling I cannot possibly, arbitrarily cut short. I am being refilled. There is a sensation that I am witnessing something extremely rare, and yet we both know this should be utterly normal.

I stay and I stay and I write this. I have warm enough layers and the emergency winter hat in my bag. No gloves or scarf today. It is not Spring, we still have at least three weeks of legitimate hibernation time to go before we can expect ourselves to bounce and labour beyond a self-sustaining minimum. Incidentally, this makes it a crucial moment for noticing whether capitalist working hours / practices are fucking with or squandering your life.

But back to the people. Are they the blessed workless few or the privileged wealthy? They are not at work while they stroll and cycle, probably. It is not even lunchtime. How many people who have lost their jobs are happy today? Is it enough? Why do they seem subtly happier than I ever normally witness in this country?

And here are the cutest couple ever. They look so similar; I think they are both boys but I don’t care and guessing by age I doubt they do either. They are both white with long, furry/fuzzy/wavy hair; really long, combed out nicely, one black, one brown/almost fair. Their long-sleeved black cotton tops are a pair, the same but different. That also equals same number of layers worn on a sunny Winter’s day … definitely boys then. Same jean type, similar shoes; and they walk in sync, both holding smartphones in two hands, occasionally stopping so closely together that they could actually be a couple, and if not, even cuter. The best bit is that one (fair hair, glasses), is the only person to look up and smile at me today from that level; even if it was an accident, caused quite possibly by a spontaneous need to emit an excess of joy received from the device out further than the companion for one moment. It worked.

And now here comes the first obvious nutter, the first laden shopper, the first walking jogger. We are not so fit in February; we are flagging a little at 3 o’clock. Time for the nap.

Trans authority?

Do you think trans people are wrong for wanting to self-identify? Do you think it is a problem for someone born one sex, to choose for themselves to change their name and gender on official documentation to align with the opposite sex? Can a trans person authorise their own gender?

Trans people are not only vilified for wanting to employ the apparatus of the state to legitimise their chosen identities. They are vilified all the more easily for choosing to live in identity forms which sit outside the ‘legitimate’ identities authorised by the state apparatus – something they have been doing for millennia, if I have understood correctly.

So it is that one generation of trans-sceptics (or trans deniers, or transphobes) can harass trans folk for being fringe lunatics, while the next generation – possibly even the same individuals, can harass trans folks down the line for claiming legal identity, not acknowledging that it was not really trans folks themselves, but their own (predecessors’) behaviour which created the very need.

I have seen weirdly similar behaviour in my boyfriends. My ex, in opposing a new relationship I was in, sought to impose restrictions on how we conducted ourselves in my home. After much acrimony we went to mediation. During this mediation, he was of the opinion that we were managing to deal with ‘our’ restrictions and that we could therefore carry on, and while he sympathised somewhat with the hassle it was causing us, he did not see that his own actions or beliefs or feelings were relevant. He saw that it was our problem to continue dealing with.

He got comfortable with his own arbitrary, emotion-driven assertion of will having been obeyed, and promptly accepted that reality as if it had always been that way. Indeed, it took three of us (me, my new partner and the mediator), to get him to even think on the point that the restrictions we were all there to discuss were of his imposition. Indeed, had I refused to comply with his wishes/demands beforehand, the mediation would not even have been necessary. There would have been some other outcome, undoubtedly even more acrimonious, and involving other, less pastoral institutions. That did happen anyway; those poor institutions, they could scarcely believe the way their time was being wasted by us.

And even within a relationship, I have found myself having to argue in similarly archaeologically-torturous style. In order to protest against a given dynamic process between myself and partner which I experience as unfair and unequal, I have first had to dig out the roots of my own submissiveness. This I have done because my first (second, third) protest at the dismissive behaviour has been dismissed. I demonstrate that the behaviour which demeans me is real, by confessing that I have allowed it, earlier in the relationship, when insecurity or inferior/second-class status have made it feel necessary, and/or happen unconsciously.

Having confessed, I still have to make the case that the dynamic is not fair to me, based on how I feel when it happens. For example, I don’t want to carry on eating dinner late at night – because I want to eat earlier. Instead of being negotiated with by an equal, I am confronted with the reticence that comes from me having eaten late at night without complaint, suggesting that it is, factually, fine for me to do so. Never mind that I have requested change, multiple times, whist consciously trying not to do so in an attitude of complaint. Or I might want to go to a different supermarket, or say no to a visit on a certain day of the week, or say no to a certain kind of movie on cinema night, or use windfall money not to refurbish a decrepit car, or not smoke skunk, or have sex in the afternoons when I have better energy levels, or have a second child with a two-year gap from the first.

The roots of this contorted process are always privilege and entitlement. The entitled person takes for granted that the rules as they see them are self-evident. All they have done is endure the bothersome process of having to assert them – a process which I presume is experienced as reminding. Hey, you in the dress, you’re a boy, duh. Hey. You in the dress, I thought I told you yesterday; hey fellas this dude just won’t listen. Hey, whose funeral is this? Oh yes, right, no, no officer I don’t know anything about that. None of my business. Live and let live I always say.

As a woman you get reminded inadvertently of your actual second-class status by your own willingness to capitulate. When did that start? There is no accurate answer. The most accurate answer I offer you today is: early on. Yes we have assertive women amongst our ranks, and yes, hooray, some of them have never experienced that submissive dark-side first-hand, because they were brought up by intelligent and gender-aware parents. I am a bit of an anomaly. I was brought up without overt gender stereotyping from my parents … so it got imposed on me later on than most.

I believe this has made it easier for me to dig out my roots – they were shallower, closer to the surface than for the boy told not to cry when two or three years old; the girl put in the dress and told not to show her knickers while her brothers climbed trees. I did once experience heterosexual-correction from a parent, but it was an off-guard moment and popped out accidentally as part of incest-correction. Don’t overthink it, honestly.

I also suspect that a relative lateness in my own social conditioning created a strange brand of adaptive trauma – something like a more-profound-clash between my child and my adult, because my child was more sheltered than many. Still untangling. What is normally childhood conditioning followed by heteronormative entrenchment (and them maybe some deconstruction), was for me, some childhood innocence followed by a creeping heteronormative traumatisation. My sense of normality was out of whack for decades and I knew not why. I have followed this up with self-effacing apology for being complicit with others’ entitlement and privilege.

So: Entitlement creates people like my mum’s boyfriend when I was thirteen, filling my head with misogynist bullshit and fearmongering. Privilege (and fear of its loss) is what motivates people (like him) to defend their corner, even when that means to abuse and disrespect others. Entitlement is the unconscious experience that rules are there to make us happy. Privilege is the reality of having rules which give us an advantage. Entitlement is shouting transphobic abuse in public. Privilege is the murderer strolling past the funeral with his mates.

Trans women belong with all women: because we cannot win. And so do trans men: on the side of self-authorisation. There is no authority but yourself.

Theorist schmeorist

Relationships between men and women in the current phase of UK cultural development are truly fascinating. I say this quickly through a break in the clouds that overcast my personal life-story on a day-by-day basis. Some days when things are feelin’ good, I would not dare to risk writing some birds-eye-view observations about positives in evolving gender dynamics, lest tomorrow some unpredictable lurch comes to prove me wrong in the heart. Other days when things are feeling like an uphill struggle, I would not dare risk writing some birds-eye-view observations about negatives, or stagnancy, in evolving gender dynamics, lest I return to the words another day and find that my claims are clouded by personal demons that bear little relation to the rest of the world (local, regional, national or universal), or worse, that they embed misandrous barbs unconsciously aimed at my undeserving partner.

Today, I begin to feel like I have waited long enough. Not, to be quite clear, that I have literally waited. I have by no means actually held off committing extensive observations of bests and worsts in my relationships to initially untainted white spaces of material and digital kinds. I have even shared some, on this blog, in zines, and come to think of it, I have literally published a book composed in large part of precisely this thread of my ruminations, blended with ruminations of the most universal kind I was having at the same time.

But I have waited to feel like I could talk about my relationships without prodding and poking the most sensitive parts of myself in the process. Note that that book was started at a time when the M-F relationship dynamic I was living inside of was in truth dissolving, with only the barest, most utterly contested, awareness of the fact on my part. Now I have worked hard to progressively allay my vulnerabilities, for my life, and so that I can contextualise and discuss relationship features and hypothesise and enquire about their relatability, extensiveness and consequences. I can open up without fearing being shot at without my armour. I can no longer feel the former ubiquitous dread that exploring in public form any topic that bore a relation to my live-present-sense of M-F relationship was tantamount to jeopardising its well-being and its becoming. In short, I feared claiming things were good, and I feared believing they were bad.

And fundamentally, I owed my current lover his privacy. Of course there are many easy tricks a writer can employ to disguise people’s identity, but it is not so easy if one wishes to write from the heart, from the hip, from the present-moment. A fully structured hypothesis is very different from a sharing.

I love fully structured hypotheses. But I write to share too. I sense that as I continue to write I will continue to share, and strive less to construct hypotheses. I will never give them up: I am a theorist in nature as much as I am a cook, a mother, a gardener, a talker, a listener. I ought to inject as much oomph into my resentment of the professionalisation of the idea of ‘a theorist’ as I do of the celebritification of universal human birthrights like singing, dancing, playing music, writing poetry, acting and so on. (Let us not even try to attend here to the celebritification of just being a person, and how intrinsically damaging that is destined to be to a generation of youngsters, just trying to become persons.) To be a theorist must no longer be a term associated with academia alone. To be a theorist means to be a person who likes to (and enjoys) and is good at constructing theories. You can be a bad theorist. Certainly you can be gainfully employed at the highest levels of academia and be a terrible, or ineffectual theorist; quite easily if you are the same gender and colour as your teachers and mentors. So too can you be a terrible, embarrassing, ineffectual lay-theorist, pub-theorist or self-publishing theorist. But it is, theoretically, quite possible to be an excellent theorist in so-called ordinary life, whether your theory concerns the imminence of a new age of enlightenment or the better stability and consistency of a souffle made with ground flaxseed.

And so I aspire to start yet more blogs with the same sentence and slowly start to say something concrete about heterosexual evolution in the early twenty-first century UK and perhaps beyond. My hope and expectation is that my theories will show themselves up within and throughout such apparently random writings. Not simply for you, dear reader, but for me: I cannot grasp these theories so easily as I would like. I have to lay out the pieces right-side-up, pick out the straight edges and put them in the lid, sweep the middles into the bottom of the box, tip the straights onto the table and lean the lid on a handy stack of books, find the corners, and most of all, I have to keep going even if there are gaps in the edge. It’s a hard-knock life folks.

knock knock, acceptable-statement police open up

Relationships between men and women in the current age have never been more simple, or more complex. Except, I don’t believe either of those things. We humans are very fond of pointing out how things have ‘never been as x y z’ as they are now. My observations suggest this is very rarely worth saying, that is, at the level of communicating some kind of real information or, dare I say, truth, about our world. I think it serves to bring us into focus on the present time, and by making it exceptional, to give us a little boost of excitement, which might well be wildly irrelevant to us by the end of the day. ‘It-has-never-been-better/worse’ statements may give us hope to carry on, shock us into action, or numb us into a little respite from our labours, which may be no bad thing. But why do we use them when they aren’t true? Perhaps unconsciously, we want to sound like an authority on the subject. Perhaps that sleight of hand can achieve this: a commonly heard turn of phrase which will arise no objection in the listener, yet, embeds the notion that the speaker is somehow able to have coolly assessed every other era of humanity, every culture there ever was, every continent perhaps, every perspective and angle, and summarised their relative values in terms of good or bad, or simplicity vs complexity or whatever the claim du jour might be, and just knows that today is better, the best; or worse, the worst.

Next time you hear or read or almost say such a thing, let us remember Dozer from the Matrix. Faced with the prospect of the discovery <spoiler alert> of a messiah who has been anticipated for, er, centuries or millennia, one of those, and whose existence, if genuine, heralds the end to a kind of extreme exile and enslavement of the entire human race, a goal for which he has been fighting presumably his entire adult life, he says: “This is an exciting time.” The excess of emotion is expressed with the arm. That is truth. Not “OMG Neo this is the MOST exciting time in human history, man.” (NB. This is despite the fact that it might really be that.) In the circumstances, Dozer could easily be forgiven for the everyday and commonly accepted hyperbole of “This is the most exciting time of my life / thing that has ever happened to me.” But he doesn’t even do that. Perhaps because he is more in tune with the group than with his own individual experience. I don’t know, ask the Wachowski sisters.

So maybe I should check my aesthetic prejudices now. I always accept – and practice – these personal hyperbolics (‘This is literally the best pizza/cake/fry-up/beer I have EVER had in my life…’) and I can enjoy them actually. I probably used to rankle at them, and while I may have stopped due to the pointlessness and pragmatics of it, if I have joined in too, then surely I feel the communicative, expressive value. I boost my story; I express my joy efficiently. Likewise if a negative, calling someone “Literally the worst pigfucker prime minster we have ever had,” has more cathartic value than “I don’t like this prime minister, even though in the spirit of accurate communication I am willing to admit that I can’t remember ever liking any prime minister.”

But these hyperbolic personal statements are very different in their content than the sweeping all-of-human-history-in-a-breath statements I tried to open with. These do subtle violence to our innate ability to assess the true breadth and depth of the speaker’s wisdom according to the meaningful statements they offer on the topic at hand. I don’t suppose I really expected to let myself get away with it here, but for that moment it felt like a normal thing to say. And that just won’t do. Let’s put a stop to this nonsense. And while we’re at it, Please, Please, PLEASE for the love of Dog, will everybody STOP spelling ‘led’ as ‘lead’ or I may have to kill myself.

A war of needs

Internally, I have different needs waging war with one another. This can spill out into relationships with others, for sure. But it also impacts my physical health (via overwork and overload), my mental health (via self-esteem and overwhelm), and my social life (via anxiety about overwhelm).

For example, I go online to fulfil a simple administrative errand. I see my email inbox first, so I open a message. I reply to the message and open a link to an article within it, or I fetch a link to go in the reply, and while fetching it, I open more articles to read now and later. I send the email then I compulsively go to my other email inboxes to check them, and look at message portals. This affects my mood and sense of being kept-in-mind versus being truly alone, as does visiting chat groups where I can feed in however many comments are required to reap the validation I need that day.

When I get back to the errand I actually needed to do, it may be when I have decided arbitrarily to get off the internet/computer, or when my body is really shouting at me. It may be when I have turned it off that I remember the errand. This might be really fucking annoying and happen regularly.

My need to maintain good order at the administrative level is thwarted by my need to respond promptly to other people who write to me. My need to continually learn new information is fed while I neglect my need to drink, eat, stretch, pee, get the fuck out of the house. Does it help me to try to categorise these activities as belonging to one or other need-type (feeling safe; being nice; intellectual/physical survival: human contact), so that I can police or micro-manage myself more effectively? Do I believe I can develop a less addictive relationship with a tool I currently depend on for an enormous range of activities and needs? Or do I believe I can just gradually get better by employing intention and willpower? I’m trying to categorise. I have ways to soothe myself, feel loved and known, communicate with others, learn new information and express myself … that aren’t online.

The habits run deep: they were ingrained when I first worked alone in a small office full-time while my kids were still in primary school, maaany years ago. I emailed all day (that was what there was). I wrote poetry in emails and sometimes sheer desperation drove me to send them to the people they were about. This might be also the root of adrenalin addiction, which eventually led to adrenal exhaustion.

If I can get clarity on which categories of need these things are I might be able to switch, or to preempt, screen binging. But eating away at my belief in this twofold strategy is the deeper belief that I was not built to withstand this balance of contact and aloneness. Maybe neither were you.

Wish me luck though yeah?

Ladies

Today I cannot decide whether to aspire to be a lady who lunches, or a crazy cat lady. I live in an environment now where a lady who lunches would fit in perfectly, and indeed, the closest thing I have come across to a regular community gathering is a poster inviting ladies to lunch together. Mid-morning coffee is probably more accurate, but then, eating is fairly intimate isn’t it.

Craziness and cats are completely evident here in this strangest of neighbourhoods. But lilting, wandering, scruffy people with trolleys are restricted to employment at the local supermarket. Being a cat lady requires a lot of responsibility, which I have openly boasted about being unprepared for since the trauma of having to keep some new people I made alive for 18 years without any paid holiday. Vets bills, keep them. Pet insurance is just too ideologically complicated for me to process, which means I can never actually make a decision to house a cat. Phew.

lady, crazy: no cats, bags
lady, crazy: no cats, bags

On the other hand, I have always had a lot of bags. I love bags. I refuse to have a handbag. Like stilettos, bleaching or shaving hair, wearing lipstick or tolerating pads in bras, handbags are a giant step too far into the overt symbolism of femininity. Leave me occasional earrings, beads, long hair, smelling of birthday-present Jasmine, skirts, dresses, cookery, drinking beer in half-pints and eating chocolate. But, I have couple of bags that most people would call handbags. They’d be wrong. Only one is a handbag. The other is a good bag for getting into easily and has three compartments, is perfect for keeping books flat and clean and can hold a surprising number in one go. It also has enough corners to stuff rolled-up worn knickers away from books, making it technically an overnight bag.

It would be far, far too easy for me to be a bag lady. I talk to myself now with full volume and conversational exchange and duration. I’m only 46. Let me give you an honest inventory of my bags.

Suitcases: 0
Full size rucksacks: 0**
Large ‘daypack’ rucksacks (modern): 1
Army surplus daypack-sized rucksacks: 1*
Small day-to-day rucksacks: 1
Colourful over-the-shoulder fabric bags: 2***
Aforementioned overnight bag that looks like a handbag but is not: 1
Highly durable courier bags: 1
Highly durable laptop bags: 1
White tote bags: 3
Black tote bags: 2
Red tote bags: 1
Waterproof stuff sacks: 4
Toilet bags: 1 normal, 1 multi-section fold-out hanging
Stuff-away bags that fit inside their own tiny pocket: 4
(on-the-shoulder: 2 (RNLI: 1), over-the-shoulder: 1, rucksack-style: 1)
RNLI stuff-away bags that others have borrowed and not returned: 2
Holdalls: 1*/**
Tiny over-the-shoulder bags for use w/ inadequately pocketed clothing: 2
Bum bags: 0
Heavy-duty shoppers with fabric handles (UK): 3+
Heavy-duty shoppers with fabric handles (foreign, proud of): 3
Strong canvas/jute bags with short handles (portrait): 3
Insulated picnic bags: 2
Heavy-duty open-out tool bags: 1
Small, soft bags for household storage (in use): 4+
Bivvy bags: 1
Sleeping bags: 1
Handbags: 1****

****I bought four handbags for my new mother-in-law who needed one but who doesn’t go out very much. I limited myself to maximum £5 per bag (ideally less than £3, so that I could buy any number that fit my criteria), (effect = charity-shop home-visit). They had to be near-pristine, otherwise it was pointless to offer them as a newer replacement-bag that was unnecessary but would be a nice thing to have. She had clearly had one handbag for a minimum of twenty years and it clearly matched her needs perfectly. It was therefore clear that the new bag should match the format of the old bag very closely. She chose the one which matched it the closest. I obeyed a rule that they had to be colourful, not navy, brown, black, grey or, heaven forbid, white. The winner was a lovely bottle/emerald green. Leather was allowed because it was for her. Of the three remaining, the one I had most obviously bought because I liked it so much myself is still in my cupboard.

It is flat and rounded, has only one proper compartment, a single shoulder strap which does not fit over the head, and a patchwork exterior of non-hippy fabrics. Actually most of the patches are brown or cream or blue et cetera. In short it is an abomination of a bag on every count. I like it though, and I have gone outside with it ‘on’; I feel like a proper imposter, method-practising for a play. I’m not sure why I won’t be able to get rid of it. Speaking of which, * means that I almost culled one of these when I last moved house; ** means that I did cull one or more when I moved. *** means I have culled one but it is still in my home.

(Also in the home are heavy-duty carrier bags (5-10), large beach bag employed as laundry holder (1), fabric sausage of carrier bags, small plastic bag of small plastic bags, brown paper bag of folded brown paper bags, and a sizeable collection of flat, durable ex food-containing bags (packets) (e.g. coffee, nuts) for future storage of seeds, one folded black bin liner, a roll of small bin liners, and 5-10 empty folded compost/bark chip bags (outside), a pack of mint greetings-card cellophane bags and some toilet-paper-wrapper bags and large crisp packets which make excellent mini-bin liners for the kitchen, living room and bathroom.)

Please let me know in the comments section if I have neglected a bag category.

The other half idly believes having so many bags is crazy. But this many bags enables me to dress up as any kind of lady on the spectrum. I can even dress as a boy easily, with the courier bag or the laptop bag, which is very important. I feel funny today, as if the craziness of old age is upon me, and precisely because I have set my mind some time ago to being an early developer. The purple hat-wearing lady of the famous poem always struck me as too patient and polite, as far as aspirations go, though I heartfully respect that her beauty depends on it. I cannot decide whether my suppression of the frequency with which I speak out loud to animals, to the full extent that basic courtesy requires, has dropped over time from 90-95% to about 15%, or only 5%. I suspect, and hope, that it is probably in the 13-15% range with a further drop to 5% still to come. I am also thrilled and excited by the dramatic deepening of the conversational range of plants. Life is truly a rich dance.

[Please feel free to share your bag inventories below. I don’t think some people realise how important bags are.]