Sunday, 25 January 2015

Not My Circus, Not My Monkeys

I'm told this is a Polish proverb, and as I always am when it comes to language, I was pretty intrigued when I first heard it. Pithy sayings are two a penny on the internet; between WikiQuotes, Instagram and Memebase a body could get away with never having to express an original thought in their lives - which is not to say the re-drafting and sharing of other people's ideas necessarily denotes a lack of imagination. After all, the whole history of language is about appropriation, words and phrases finding their way from culture to culture through migration, education, politics, popular song, myth and legend. The languages which have survived have had to endure a certain degree of osmosis, and perhaps now more than ever our cultural understanding is deepened by this shared linguistic heritage.

But I digress. Quite simply, the circus/monkey idiom is just a clever way to say 'not my problem', which is something I've historically not been much good at. It's a mix of typical British politeness and the genuine desire to solve problems and make/keep people happy, and consequently I find myself in some ridiculous pickles (not an idiom I'm covering this week). You've probably been there: saying yes to a favour for a colleague when you've had a long week and should really take some downtime; volunteering to get a friend out of a mess and winding up doing more of the work than them; casually wandering into a situation you didn't realise was horribly complicated and before you know it, you've had a whole load of the proverbial hit the fan and you don't even know what you're doing involved in the first place.

My problem is that I always feel it's selfish to say no to anything I'm technically capable of, if it will help someone out. I was brought up to be a helpful person and somehow that translated into a chronic inability to say no, which I've had to unlearn or at the very least suppress. It was university that taught me finally that saying yes and being helpful were not always the same thing; there was so much to be involved with, at points I found myself rushing from pillar to post contributing barely anything but stress-led efforts that left me exhausted and didn't actually bring much value to anyone. When you fail to get out of bed for an 8am meeting you are hosting, because you've been up most of the night proofreading someone else's essay at the last minute, it's time to re-think the strategy. Because you might be one of those uber-organised, barely needs to sleep, inspired all the time people, but me? I'm only useful to others if I've sorted myself out first.

 This is now my approach to other people's monkeys: I stop to think through a few points before saying yes. It's fundamentally important to establish boundaries that protect your peace of mind. How many things are going to be worth upsetting it? Am I realistically able to take this on, and why am I getting involved? Is this a genuine need or am I being taken advantage of? I'm not the most pragmatic of people and I hate to let anyone down, but for the sake of my own sanity I have to go through this process, because frankly some things are just not a good use of time and abilities.

I also learned from being the eldest of five siblings that actually, my 'helping' them with some things was an unwanted interference that came off as a lack of trust in their own capability to deal with situations in their lives. As much as I like to be needed, as I've got older I've had to let go of it, because they're all grown-ups now. If my family or friends need me they can come to me, but it's not fair on them or healthy for me to even partly measure my value by how well I can deal with other people's monkeys.

I'm always going to be a pitch-in kind of person, and that doesn't bother me - there are plenty of good reasons to do it. But sometimes it's chaos and I just have to remember: Nie mój cyrk, nie moje małpy!

Sunday, 11 January 2015

Hush Your Mouth

I'm not a big tea drinker outside of work, but somehow in the office I almost always say yes, and I almost always get given this mug:

I smile a wry smile and glances are exchanged, and I drink my tea and shut up for a few minutes. It's just the way I am - I'm a verbal processer. My parents have hours of video footage and hundreds of photos from my childhood and there I am, rabbiting away, bossing around my younger siblings or holding forth very seriously with the nearest adult. I always wanted to join in the 'grown up' conversation, so much so that my mum regularly had to shoo me out of the room when the subject turned to less than child-friendly topics, and if she didn't I was bound to loudly ask awkward questions.

To my parents' credit I never thought there was anything wrong with this, although I have several distinct memories of being shut down by less understanding adults and feeling rather small and sorry for myself as a result. I suppose I must have cut an odd figure to the average grown-up, especially if they didn't have children - this bobbed beanpole with a very earnest face, full of loud opinions and overusing my favourite adjective of the week (I once told my grandma that a trip to the cinema had been 'absolutely horizontal!', which is still a go-to anecdote when they want to embarrass me).

I will always be grateful that I was given the opportunity to channel my love of language in creative and engaging ways. My family let me story-tell to my heart's content, and my primary school teacher got me onto a creative writing weekend course aged eight, from which I came back with a whole book of poems and the firm resolution that I would become a journalist. I don't know why I didn't plump for novelist but I was getting into politics at this stage; also aged eight, I had marched across the road from my school to volunteer my opinion to the news crew who were reporting on the fact that local residents had prevented the school from buying the field immediately behind the playground, which meant that we had to be walked half a mile on country lanes to the common for sports. I just remember being propelled by a very strong sense of injustice, and while I'm sure there were plenty of people who understood the situation better than I did, I was the one who wanted to articulate it.

Out of necessity I have of course learned to dial it down - my mum lived the example of a good listener and I watched her, learning to think before speaking and to make what I had to say count. 'Precis!' she would tell me repeatedly as I wriggled my way through long-winded explanations, or, in later years, homework essays. I never liked having to brutally cut out so much of what I thought was valuable description, but as I was told I couldn't always live in 'fairy land' (and I was insulted when it was implied I had no sense of practicality because I was always dreaming) I started to shut my mouth.

Maybe I shut it a bit too much. In fact I know I did. It's such a fine line between effective communication and overshare, between creativity and pigs-may-fly, between what people will accept as whimsy and what makes them think you're just plain odd. I wanted to make people happy, that was all. I wanted them to like me. And slowly but surely that meant keeping my lips firmly pressed together, pretending I hadn't seen what someone had done, pretending I didn't have an opinion that needed airing, pretending it didn't matter when it really, really did. Because their eyes were judgemental and they would look at me as if to say, I dare you. What they were really saying was 'hush your mouth!'.

You might be reading this thinking, 'well clearly she's given in to some kind of paranoia, and no one actually cares what she thinks/says.' I'll freely admit you might be right, and I am probably far more afraid of being considered irrelevant than opinionated or strange. Nobody likes to be ignored. But I'm willing to hazard a guess that some of this rings a bell for you, because you too have experienced that strange sensation of suffocation, second-guessing yourself and the value of what you want to say. We believe in free speech, we've seen people die defending it even this week, and it's not a straightforward situation at all. There are so many questions that need to be asked, but there's still so much fear of asking them. How will we know what's important and what we can impact if we're afraid to open our mouths?

I don't tend to make New Year's resolutions, mainly because I'm making resolutions all year around; I need a kick up the backside more than once every twelve months! It just so happens that a lot of things in my life seem to be coming to a head in January; I'll call it serendipity. I guess what I want to say now is, if anything I've experienced and written here resonates with you, please join me in refusing to shut up. In your job; in your study; in your home; when you have something valuable to contribute; when you have truth to convey; when someone needs kindness; when something needs correcting; when the awkward questions have to be asked; when someone deserves congratulation and encouragement; when someone needs to be called out; when justice is lacking; when to bite your tongue would be to diminish your very essence - speak up. If I have a 2015 mantra it's this: I won't let fear be my master.

Thursday, 1 January 2015

The Opening Gambit

I love red.

This is no secret to those who know me. I have red dresses, red jeans, and the most delicious red shoes. I paint my nails red, and my lips. Whatever the weather, whatever I wear, red is never far from me; on my earrings, the pen in my bag, the vase in my kitchen, the glass on my table. Red is in my mind and in my heart.

It wasn't always so. I grew up in blues and yellows, purples and oranges, loud and brash patterns my mum created, leggings and Dr Martens among the pale pink tights of my peers. For Christmas when I was ten I became the proud owner of what became fondly known as the 'Joseph fleece', a veritable technicolour dreamcoat of a sweater which was very definitely cut for me to grow into. I was called Joseph from across the street by kids from the local school and I still wore it, still took it on holiday even in the summer, still let it feature in holiday snaps of balmy Carcassonne and the balloon-filled skies of the Loire valley. The world was colourful and I was colourful in it.

I could never pinpoint the demise of the Joseph fleece or what it represented; there was no single moment of departure. Somewhere between patent black platform boots and bleached denim jeans and trying to squeeze my awkward body into the things that made me decide it was awkward, bright colours became something to avoid and my wardrobe metamorphosed into a sea of pastels, generously-cut and ten years ahead of my age bracket. At 16 I was to be found in my auntie's hand-me-down dungaree dresses or work blouses. I wore a voluminous lilac number to my first ever dinner dance and I cried after my mum lost patience with our four-hour jeans hunt through the high street stores of Oxford Street, as pair after pair was too tight, too short. I wasn't a shy girl by any means - I was a Cadet Leader with St John's Ambulance; I ran a family newsletter for which I demanded subs from my relatives; I sang in public. But my body wasn't part of this, wasn't playing ball. As far as I was concerned I operated from the neck up and it just became something to cover, to hide.

The summer before I started sixth form, my parents embarked on the Atkins diet and I decided to join them. It didn't last long, as I lost weight so quickly that they banned me from further participation due to my age, but at that point I was hooked on the power I felt, this power to change what I thought had hindered me. In nine months I dropped three dress sizes and acquired a new wardrobe, a tiny and experimental one with short skirts, loud tights, and things that were long and lean and just what a girl my age ought to be, right? And I got my first red dress. It was a beauty, theatrical and flamenco-flavoured, unabashed like the girl who wore it.

It's a funny thing (but probably a common one) that we can attain a long-held goal and fail to achieve the fulfillment we thought it would bring. Because my body was different and larger and an awkward shape to dress, I assumed it was the problem and needed to be altered and brought in line. Then I got thin and was still hyper-critical of my physical self, still complaining about my appearance to long-suffering sisters who wondered how I could be dissatisfied with a thigh gap and jeans that the youngest of them couldn't even get into. Boys noticed me now and I fitted in with the other girls and I wasn't embarrassed to go to the pool anymore, but my attitude had changed for the worse, and I was beginning to judge everything around me by the same warped rule with which I judged myself. I wore red in a mask of defiance and that was all it meant to me.

I could go into details as to how my volatile appearance-based confidence led me down various garden paths, or how I struggled as I regained the weight through university and the first year of my marriage, but the weight thing isn't entirely the point. The point is I came to love red, truly love the life and energy and confidence it represents, as I came to love myself - my whole self, not just the parts that fit the narrow pattern of accepted femininity which I had mistakenly come to believe was the full picture. We are so beautifully diverse, so perfectly imperfect, so riotously bold, so infinitely capable: every woman. Every one.

So I love red. Red is the lifeblood and passion of humanity, the vivid splendour of the earth, the comfort and heat of the sun, joy and freedom bought through pain. I wear red as a reminder of who I am and what I can be, in and with my body rather than because of or in spite of it.