store-bought words

Hattie Grunewald is a UEA Creative writing Grad, Foyle Young Poet of the Year in 2009, published by Nasty Little Press, Cadaverine, YM, Myths of the Near Future and the Poems on the Underground scheme.

Ten Things I Learned On Retreat *

  1. Being without Wi-Fi won’t kill you. When people heard I would be living without my phone for five days, the reaction was horror across the board. “How will you survive?!” Now, anyone who knows me will attest to the fact that I am a twitter addict. And I am glued to my smartphone screen as much as the next girl. But I have suffered many hardships in my life and gone through my share of losses and disappointments that don’t even rank close to five days without my smartphone. I can’t help but feel the melodrama isn’t healthy for us.
  2. Practice makes practice. With most hobbies and skills, we practice them in order to improve, with some gold standard of achievement at the forefront of our minds. Meditation doesn’t work like that. Yes, you may get better at maintaining focus over time, and you may find that this focus creates a sense of distance from your thoughts or connectedness with the universe. But we shouldn’t confuse this with the idea that when we start meditating, we won’t be good at it. As Headspace’s Andy Puddicombe said, there are no different levels of meditation – there is only aware, and not.
  3. Anxiety about food is far worse than any food can be. On retreat, I would spend my morning work hour washing up in the kitchen after breakfast. There I got to see all the days vegetables being chopped, and tried to guess what lunch might be. On my third day on retreat, there was a tonne of broccoli. Now I used to be a very fussy eater, and green veg is the place where I still have a few hang-ups in this area (that and strong cheese) – particularly broccoli. The whole morning I got into such a stew about it, wondering what lunch would be, worrying I wouldn’t eat it and would be too hungry to meditate all afternoon – barely registering that I was so distracted by this non-issue that I wasn’t meditating now. When lunchtime arrived, the broccoli was served on the side, with a hearty main dish of a spiced lentil and courgette bake, and roast potatoes and sweet potato, and it was all delicious. I was able to choose not to have any broccoli at all. My worries set aside, I continued with the rest of the day, and at dinner had the usual soup that was made from all the leftover veg. I only afterwards realised that all that broccoli had probably gone into the soup, and it hadn’t even bothered me! It was a real awakening to the fact that my stress and anxiety about not liking foods lasted far longer and was far worse than eating a food I didn’t like could ever be – in fact, almost all anxiety is the same.
  4. There’s no alternative to not having a choice! At first meditation seems really straightforward. You just sit there and focus on your breath. Then your back starts to hurt and your mind starts to wander and you think to yourself “you know, I’m just not feeling this today, I’m clearly not in the right mood to meditate”. Often, at home, that’s the point where I get up and do something else. But on retreat, leaving in the midst of a sitting was not allowed. My only choice when faced with that was to stay, quietly, sitting in the room. There was nothing to keep my mind occupied, so I would find that actually, meditation was far more preferable to the boredom I felt otherwise. I would go back to watching my breath, as it was the most interesting thing in the room. The whole practice might then feel lighter – “I’m not meditating, I’m just sitting here in silence watching my breath” – but it was still meditation, and because I had no choice, I would find that 45 minutes would soon have passed and it was time for a break.
  5. The best part about silence is no small talk. Spending the best part of five days in silence made me realise how much of the talking I did in my day to day life was out of obligation. Dropping the necessity of small talk took a great deal of pressure off – I wasn’t expected to talk about the morning’s meditations or the weather or the food over lunch, which was great because often I hadn’t yet processed thoughts on any of them. My mind worked a lot slower on retreat. There was also a sense that my façade of having to perform had been dropped. I wasn’t worried about impressing people – I know no one would be able to talk about me, so any judgements they made would have to be kept internal, and through meditation, they would be reconciled into a much more compassionate outlook. It was a much friendlier atmosphere than a talkative one as we existed with mutual respect and empathy for one another, despite being in silence.
  6. The worst part is no singing in the shower.
  7. Emotions can be as strong in memory as in reality. How often have you looked back at a time in your life and thought “ah, I was so happy back then…” Meditation teaches you that you can exist in that feeling in the present as much as you did back then. If that seems ridiculous to you, I ask, have you ever remembered a time when someone hurt or offended you, and found yourself getting furious all over again? The same can, and does, work for positive emotions. If my thoughts were getting too dark or overwhelming during meditation, I would remember a happy day I spent with my friends on a beach in Wales, and be happy again. If I needed to conjure up a feeling of compassion and empathy, I would imagine my dog jumping up at me when he hasn’t seen me for a while and licking my face. Meditation gave me the power to make those remembered feelings as strong as any I’d experienced first time round.
  8. Retreats do not make you more relaxed. I didn’t go on retreat “to switch off”. Instead I switched on, and became more in touch and aware of my own thoughts, and others around me, and the world itself. I also sat in silence for a long time. Coming back to the real world, to the fast pace of human interaction, to the huge numbers of fast moving people, to conversation everywhere and loud traffic and your friends being very intense about finding out how you feel and telling you they missed you, when you’ve been training yourself to be more in touch with sounds and feelings and people, is incredibly overwhelming. Any calm you felt is engulfed by anxiety almost instantly and it’s very hard to work out how you are going to be able to incorporate what you’ve learnt into the loud world you’re living in.
  9. The antidote to propaganda is empathy. Being around people with one purpose, practising compassion and empathy, and knowing nothing of people’s separate contexts and backgrounds made me aware of how much we like to compartmentalise and separate people. Propaganda is a force that encourages us to group people together and blame them, and empathy is what bridges that connection. One of the key tenets I tried to internalise on the course was – “All living things want to be happy. No living thing wants to suffer”. Remembering this one unifying force in meditation can be very powerful. As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote: ‘If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?’
  10. Own your basic okayness. When I started meditation, I thought I was going to fix myself. I saw myself as a selfish, emotionally-needy person who was toxic for other people to get close to. I wanted to change myself, to become a better, more compassionate person, and I thought meditation was a way to do that. I am not in that place any more. What I learned that there was a part of me that could observe myself and judge what I perceived to be selfishness or toxicity, but that part of me, that core of identity, can’t be like that. All these feelings, moods, and judgements pass over what my retreat teacher referred to “basic okayness”. Or, as the headspace program says, the sky is always blue, just sometimes clouds pass over it. I am basically okay, and you are too.

*there were plenty more than ten but let’s start here.

Ten Commandments for the Atheistic Theist

I try not to get into arguments with my friends about religion. I have been a Christian for a long time, but I know the kind of scorn that kind of comment encourages. I have no desire to “convert” my friends when they seem pretty happy as they are. Nor am I entirely comfortable with the “Christian” label myself. A lot of terrible things have been done in the name of Christianity – I would be denying my privilege to try and distance myself from the legacy, but equally, in the current time and place I don’t want to belong to a religion that is, in practice, so sexist and homophobic.

Moreover, as a friend has pointed out to me, most people’s view of any organised religion is historically oriented and static, whereas for me my Faith is and always has been a journey. It has been a series of conversations with God over a long period of time. My views are always evolving, and this evolution is towards a much more holistic view of religion than the label “Christianity” would allow. It seems bizarre to me that, when people I’ve met of all religions have proclaimed the same Faith that I have, that anyone who isn’t a Christian must be wrong. I feel that even if many of us misinterpret God’s word, it is deep down the same word that we are hearing. I also know many disagree.

My Faith is based on a Christian theology but it also encorporates a lot of Buddhist meditative practices and ideas – and I don’t believe that this is at all a contradiction. I think it’s easy to see how Christian terminology can be translated into a Buddhist or a non-theistic framework, and I was asked by a friend to try and explain this. It is difficult, because a huge part of my Faith is belief in a God (and in Jesus, something that is even harder for non-Christians to grasp), but I also have for a long time been trying to interpret the bits of the Bible I don’t agree with in a way I understand.

I don’t believe, as many people seem to, that Religion exists to provide a framework for morality. Faith is a path to happiness, and humans have created a morality as a way of keeping the most people happy. But as society progresses, the meaning of these rules has to evolve, or the message of God will be lost. 

So here is my interpretation of the Ten Commandments, for people who don’t want a God or do, for people who might find it useful. My rules are no more valid than anyone else’s. Faith is personal, and in the end, we each find a path as unique as ourselves.

1. Seek nothing but happiness.

2. Ignore its imitations. Pleasure is an idol built to satisfaction. It will distract from the genuine article.

3. Do not speak of joy with scorn or dismissal. Words determine thought.

4. Dedicate time to seeking happiness. Cultivate it. Work for it.

5. Listen to people who can teach you. Everyone is worth learning from, even your parents. Sometimes the best lesson is to ignore what you are taught.

6. Respect life. Even if other people are wasting theirs, it is the greatest gift they are given. Never take life from anyone, nor hinder their journeys.

7. Stay true to what you love. Never lie about your passions. Never hurt the people you care about.

8. Most things in this world cannot be owned. But what is in your head and heart is yours. So don’t try and control others, as that is the only theft there is.

9. Be honest, especially with yourself. Truthfulness is compassion.

10. The only way to be happy is to be happy with what you have. To find, stop seeking. Let go.

 

post-script: I am aware that the first and last commandments are a direct contradiction. This is something I learned from meditation. Meditation takes practice, it takes work, it is something you must make the commitment to do. However it is a work of effortlessness. The thing we seek is already found the moment we decide to seek it. I still don’t fully understand how this works, but intellectual understanding is needless when you already know something. I guess, in a sense, that is the essence of faith.

Why NoMorePage3 is Protecting our Freedom

Last week, UEA became the 21st University in the UK to remove The Sun from their union shops. This was passed democratically by a vote of Union Council. The uproar about this has been large to say the least, and for a long time I didn’t see the point in adding my voice to the mix (especially as “SHE DOESN’T EVEN GO HERE”).

I don’t want to talk about whether Union Council is representing students properly (my gut feeling is it isn’t, and a lot of work has to be done, but I’m not sure that if it were the outcome of this decision would have changed much – the majority of UEA students are female, after all, and all the dissent I’ve seen has come from men, and at the end of the day The Shop only sell around 30 copies, most of which don’t go to students).

Nor do I want to debate about objectification and sexism, ‘cause my gals have got that covered. And in fact the majority of people who opposed this motion will openly state that they don’t like Page 3 (whether or not that’s true, UEA is a campus where people are at least a little worried about appearing sexist).

No, I think we need to talk about Free Speech. That’s another reason why I was hesitant to blog. This isn’t really my area – I mean, I read a lot of current affairs and I have a politics A level and I am very politically active, but I’m not a journalist or anything and for some reason I don’t feel as comfortable in this territory as I do when talking about feminism. But then I realised that the majority of men who are speaking up against this don’t know what they are talking about either, and it doesn’t seem to stop them.

I don’t want to argue semantic differences between a ban and a boycott, and the implications of that difference in a capitalist society. My point is much simpler. If you truly support freedom of the press, you should be supporting the boycott of The Sun.

Can we talk about why we need a right to free press in a free society? It’s because we need to be able to scrutinise those who hold power. That is most obviously scrutiny of the government, but it should also be scrutiny of those with financial influence and the ability to affect society and our lives. We need a free press so that we the people can see when someone is screwing us over, and so that no one with too much power can pull the wool over our eyes.

The Sun is owned by Rupert Murdoch. He owns News Corporation which is the second biggest media conglomerate in the world. As well as owning Twentieth Century Fox and Wall Street Journal and Harpercollins, in the UK he owns News UK which comprises of The Sun and The Times, two of the countries bestselling papers, as well as having a controlling stake BskyB. I’m not a business expert, I don’t really fully understand the structure of all this, so don’t pull me up too much if I’ve got something slightly wrong – my point is that he has a huge monopoly over the media we in the UK consume. Let’s not forget “It’s The Sun Wot Won It” – this is a paper that potentially has the power to change the outcome of our elections.

I’m not saying that the Government should ban The Sun or all Murdoch papers until Page 3 is gone, but there is a massive difference in scale here. The Sun is not scrutinising the UEA student union, and so by boycotting it, the union are not in any way preventing us from finding out information about its inner workings. I am opposed to the Government banning the sun, and I would be opposed should the union motion to boycott The Tab (as much as I dislike a lot about it) – that’s an equivalent scale decision. By boycotting The Sun, the union are not stamping on freedom of the press – you can buy The Sun anywhere else after all.

We need freedom of the Press in order to scrutinise power, so that those with less power in society are not persecuted. In this situation – Page 3 – one of the most powerful men in the world (Rupert Murdoch) is exploiting a minority group (women). Women don’t want to be objectified, and there are far more of them than Rupert Murdoch, but the power imbalance is so great that Rupert Murdoch still gets his way.

Freedom of the Press exists to give the disempowered the ability to empower themselves – through information. If we have reached the point where we are so disempowered that we cannot stop one man from exploiting and objectifying women in the most-read UK paper, then what do we have Freedom of the Press for? Seriously?

We need this boycott, we need it on a much much wider scale, we need to do it to prove that we still have the power to stop something we don’t like. You’ve already admitted you don’t like Page 3. We need to boycott The Sun in order to prove to ourselves that we are free, that we don’t have to do what one very rich and very powerful man says. If we are really happy for our media to form such a monopoly, we should at least be able to stop it when it does something we all agree is very very wrong.

And all this is without even touching on the phone-hacking scandal.

So don’t tell me you oppose the boycott because free speech. Because you clearly don’t understand what Free Speech is even for. If you oppose this boycott, it’s because you’re in favour of Page 3. I won’t take any other explanation.

WATER POEMS for National Poetry Day

The theme for National Poetry Day this year, so these are my favourite poems that in some way (often tenuously) relate to water. Where I have only quoted extracts, I have linked to the full poem.

1. Spilt by Jean Sprackland
And still you arrive
with nothing to offer the people you love
but damp fingers, the evidence.

 I really love this poem, because I think the central image works so well. For me, I read it as a poem about being at university, coming home to a town that’s not your home any more. Water in this poem seems to stand for love in a very straightforward way, and yet I think the ending is one that resists straightforward explanation, as good poetry should… I find myself asking what the evidence of love is, and can you ever offer love itself or only ever evidence of it, no matter how old you grow.

 2. Not Waving But Drowning by Stevie Smith
Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.

Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he’s dead
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
They said.

Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.

A classic. It’s light but chilling and it’s a poem that resonates endlessly. Here water, the ocean, represents life I guess – massive, engulfing.

 3. The Innocence of Any Flesh sleeping by Brian Patten
Have you ever slept beside an ocean?
Well yes,
It is like this.

The whole motion of landscapes, of oceans
Is within her.
She is
The innocence of any flesh sleeping,
So vulnerable
No protection is needed.

 I love soppy poems that mean almost nothing. I love the images of this poem, but most of all I love the way they sound when read aloud… the rhythm is that of a sleeping person’s breath, slowly peaking and troughing, like waves in the ocean he is sleeping beside. Unlike in Stevie Smith, the ocean here isn’t massive and threatening… it is small and safe enough to be contained in the body of a sleeping lover.

4. Say I forgot by Lorraine Mariner
I don’t know what makes a child doubt
the water is able to keep her afloat
think that the other side is too remote
but if I froze, could you wait it out
until I’m propelled again towards your smile
and wrapped tight in your towel like the first time?

 I think this is a poem that would resonate with anyone who finds themselves irrationally anxious, and that fear that ceaseless worrying about how someone feels about you might get in the way of actually loving them. Water is a source of anxiety again here, though much smaller than the ocean, as it fits inside a swimming pool.

 5. A lot of Water has Flown Under Your Bridge by Roger McGough
i remember how
when we lay together for the first time
the room smiled,
said: ‘excuse me’,
and tiptoed away

 Roger McGough’s earlier love poems are unique, I think. The images are surreal, surprising and yet play with clichés in a really clever way, and I think this poem is a good example. I love that, in the end, it’s not spelling out anything at all – because we don’t know if the water under the bridge has made any difference, whether the metaphor McGough uses is living or dead.

 6. Ahhh by Caroline Bird
Let’s fill the room with water,
I will wade into your arms.
Stroke me with your golden hairbrush,
swing me like a chimp.
Your lips dab ointments on my cuts,
the hours ramble round my blood,
crawl beneath my knees until the noise stops.
My head is a box full of boxes.
The walls taste like strawberries, go on, lick them.
I take a pinch of sadness in my soup.
But never mind the morning with its people,
tonight our hearts are swollen with the sweet,
let’s fill the room with acres of warm water,
sail like smiling shipwrecks into sleep.      

And speaking of surreal imagery, Caroline Bird. An incredibly odd assortment of metaphors and pictures that in the end really summarise that feeling of wanting to just ignore everything but your lover for one night – I love the idea of floating in a room filled with warm water and the way it feels safe, and pleasurable… but also we are “shipwrecks”, which suggests the danger that might come in the morning.

 7. She can’t swim off by Kate Light
She can’t swim off. She cannot drive, she
cannot ride away. She can’t defend herself
or run along. She is not safe, or free;
protected not by night or stealth
of street. She does not numb or medicate.
She needs to take things as they fall.
This is difficult. She stays up late.
to convince herself: It’s better after all.
She does not believe a word of it.
Something terrible will happen to him.
She must be there to help. He does not want
her, but something draws her in and in.
Is it just his silken skin, the taste and thin
and tall of him. A voice that’s like a hymn or chant:
You must swim off. She can’t.

 I love the way Kate Light plays with the sonnet form, because it’s so effortless that you don’t even realise but it just flows off the tongue out loud. I also think this is a perfect depiction of the frustration of not being able to get over someone – the way you anchor yourself to someone, like holding onto the side of the swimming pool, when really you should be pulled out into the ocean.

 8. With No Experience In Such Matters by Steven Dunn
To hold a damaged sparrow
under water until you feel it die
is to know a small something
about the mind;

Water features only very briefly here, but I think that’s the nature of the poem – it’s a short poem that asks a lot of big questions about relative moralities, and the power humans have over life and death. On a first reading I barely gave it a second glance but found the ideas continually resurfacing for me.

 9. Dover Beach by Matthew Arnold
The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

 The ocean seems to either be a symbol of fear or reassurance to poets, it seems to me – Arnold spells this out pretty clearly with the tide of his faith going out, and I love the way this huge world-shattering problem becomes a relationship between two humans, clinging to each other.

 10. “In Memory of WB Yeats” by WH Auden
For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.

 Perhaps this link is too tenuous, but I feel like it made sense to end a series of poems about water with a poem where poetry becomes water, a river flowing through Ireland. I studied this in my first year at uni and I think it’s a really interesting question to end with on poetry day – does the river of poetry make anything happen, or does it carry on through time, barely even eroding the land it touches?

“Hit Me Baby One More Time”: School Uniform and Sexualisation

When I was 11, my maths teacher dressed me in front of our class. We had maths after PE, and having had to put the dance mats away, I was late. I was a scruffy tomboy at 11 (I know a lot of feminists find that word problematic but it’s a term I like to describe part of my gender identity), and a girl’s school uniform did not suit me. I came to the lesson with my skirt and jumper back to front and my shirt untucked. Before I could sit down, my maths teacher, a slightly over-friendly man in his forties, summoned me to the front of the class. He pulled my jumper off me and put it back on the right way round, twisted my skirt round, tucked in my shirt. Then he told me to sit down.

I wasn’t sure at the time if this was wrong. I didn’t, at 11, see my body as a sexual thing. And I wasn’t being told off, because my teacher was joking and smiling. This is what I find most creepy now, the enjoyment with which he performed my humiliation. Because in that moment I wasn’t a human, I wasn’t a scruffy geeky boyish little girl. I was a mannequin being put back into shape. And not until I was nineteen did I ever question why my right to not be touched by an adult man, why my right to feel like a human, seemed less important to me than the need to conform to what a girl at school is supposed to look like.

Uniform is political. It is an institution that seems logical and yet is fundamentally oppressive. It is presented as an equaliser, and yet it reinforces systems that are by their nature unequal. In my sixth form, both male and female students were required to wear business-wear. But the list of rules, many of which were unspoken, that governed female dress was not only twice as long as for the boys, but far more rigidly enforced. The length of our skirts, the necklines of our tops, the lengths of our sleeves, the height of our heels, the amount of makeup and jewellery we wore and the way we styled our hair were all strictly policed, and I remember at the time thinking it fair enough. We did need to dress for a working environment. We did need to look professional. There were so many more variations in female clothing than male clothing that of course stricter rules were required. It was only sensible.

Yet I remember my head of sixth form stopping me and a friend on the way to our politics lesson. Our male politics teacher had complained that one of the female politics students, he hadn’t said who, had been wearing a top that he considered too low-cut for school. We were the only two girls in our politics class, so it must have been one of the two of us, and my head of sixth form instinctively disciplined my friend – I was considered a “good girl”, shy and studious and conservatively-dressed, whereas my friend was prettier and flirtier and my teacher judged her to be “that sort”. But when we talked about it afterwards, we both agreed that my friend never wore low-cut tops – she was relatively flat-chested, and dressed to show off her legs instead. It was me who had been wearing the offending garment.

And suddenly, I saw my school uniform differently. Because I felt comfortable in what I had been wearing – a tight-fitting grey jumper with a scoop neck. On a less busty girl, on my friend for example, there would have been no problem. But I am a curvy girl, typically hour-glass shaped, E-cup tits. It’s very hard to hide big boobs. And what I realised in that moment was that it wasn’t, in fact, my clothing that was inappropriate for work – it was my body.

People see the female body as unfit for the workplace. Breasts and hips and bare legs are seen as inherently sexual things, to remain in the bedroom, or, of course, in magazines and page three of The Sun. They exist for men to look at. And to take them into the workplace was distracting for the men, who are, of course, the priority. I wasn’t uncomfortable in that lesson wearing that jumper; it wasn’t hindering my learning in any way; I didn’t realise there was even a problem until the next day. What took priority was the feelings of my teacher, who, married, at least twenty-five years older than me and in a position of responsibility, should really have known better than to sexualise a young girl’s body. If he was uncomfortable, that should definitely have been his problem, not mine.

Uniform trains girls to see their body as separate from their brains. It tells them that yes, maybe they are now considered to be worthy of an education or a place in the workforce, but their bodies are not. We are training children into a victim-blaming mentality – you must be careful how you look, in case men find it distracting. No one sexualises men, talks about how distracting it must be for girls to see them scratching their balls or reeking of lynx deodorant as they come into class. By the age of eleven, I already believed that, if a strange men touched my body without my consent under the pretext of fixing my uniform, the fault was my own.

It was the start of a long process that taught me to see my body as separate from myself. It’s something many girls go through as part of adolescence. I hated the curves I grew, because I knew what people thought of busty girls – that they were stupid, flirty, available. I didn’t want to be any of those things. Guys shouted at me on the street and rather than being angry at them, I became angry at my own body, which seemed so unfit for the kind of person I wanted to become. I didn’t become interested in boys or sex until quite late, and until I was sixteen, I didn’t want to be pretty. I wanted to be smart, funny, likeable… but appearance-wise, I just wanted to blend in. My hyper-feminine body shape prevented me from doing that, and I hated it. My boobs made my back ache, and jeans never fitted both my waist and my hips. It seemed clear to me that my body wasn’t made to be dressed, to go to school, to go out on the street. It was sexual without my consent. I never had a choice in the matter.

The problem seemed to be fixed when I started wanting to be sexual – but that wasn’t really a solution. Women are taught to view their sexuality as there to please others. We find it hard to refuse sex we don’t want, worry that the way we dress means we owe men sex. We spend hours worrying that the clothes we work in might mean we are not seen as professional, that the clothes we exercise in make us vulnerable to assault. The fights we have with our body as adults are kindled when we are children, told not to show too much skin at school.

If we put girls in school uniform, we must be sure that we are doing it for their own benefit and comfort. We must teach them that they own their bodies, not the systems they live and work within. We must teach them that they are allowed to occupy their space, that they are able to become whatever kind of humans they are expected to be, and that if anyone ever tries to shape them as if they are simply mannequins, they are allowed to fight back.

#twittersilence

I’ve had tumblr for a while. I’ve had tumblr since tumblarity. These days, I have about 140 followers. I only follow 65 people, most of whom I know in person. I keep away from popular tracked tags and generally reblog from people I know. I keep anon messages turned off. A lot of people tell me I’m not getting the most out of tumblr, but it’s not always been like this, and I’m pretty happy with my decision.

When I was 18, things were different. I had over 500 followers. Tumblr felt smaller then, less splintered, more indie, more cool. I got into feminism through tumblr – reading and reblogging stuff, writing my own, being reblogged by a few big name feminist tumblrs. It felt like a fun community.

One day a stranger started a fight with me in my ask box about how men faced as much discrimination as women. I like to think these days I could have taken him to pieces, but I didn’t have the articulacy or knowledge back then. He got his friends to come argue too, some on anon. He called me a ‘stupid bitch’. For some reason, none of my friends, of that supposedly wonderful feminist community I was part of, backed me up.

The argument ended – I definitely lost, despite being right – but the anonymous hate didn’t stop. At first it was just gender slurs, inarticulate and easy to ignore. Then came the sexual stuff – brief at first, but getting worse. Soon ask messages were 500 words long or more, graphic descriptions of me having violent, degrading and sometimes disfiguring sex with my boyfriend at the time. I didn’t post them. I showed my boyfriend one, and he found it funny, so I kept the rest to myself, along with my unease, and the feeling of violation. In these messages I was described as ugly, fat and unhygienic, the acts I performed were disgusting and animalistic, worse than anything my own naive 18-year-old imagination could come up with. These messages arrived daily. I never responded.

Then came the rape threats. In a way, this was easier to deal with. I knew a line had been crossed. I went from feeling frightened and violated to empowered. I knew I didn’t have to put up with it.

I deleted my tumblr.

Was I silenced? Did the trolls win? Maybe. When I created a new tumblr 6 months later I didn’t follow as many people and I posted no original material. My voice vanished from the tumblr feminist movement and though I found other forms of activism, I never really came back.

But I see myself as a strong person. It felt strong to take myself out of harm’s way, to assert to myself that, as a woman, I didn’t need to let men treat me like shit. It wasn’t ever funny.

So that’s what informs my view on #twittersilence. Sometimes it takes incredible strength and self-respect to not put up with it, to give yourself a break, even for 24 hours. You shouldn’t have to listen to it. No one should have to, to keep talking while others bawl them down.

And I wish others had stood with me, that my boyfriend had said ‘until the internet feels safe for you, it’s not for me either.’ We underestimate the importance of solidarity. It frustrates me no end that we live in a world where it’s easier to unite people under a banner of hate than one of love; that a middle aged man and his mates will work together to bully a teenage girl off the internet but not one friend will have her back; that hundreds of a trolls can group together after one reddit thread to send thousands of rape threats but the same number of feminists can’t stand together united for one day of silence. How exhausting to spend the week fighting each other as well as the trolls. When we ask for silence, we don’t need you all to agree – just to stop yelling at me for a while. We are all so tired.

How does anyone even win here? Yes, some trolls are malevolent misogynists trying to stop any woman ever saying what she thinks. But most aren’t that clever. They want to provoke a reaction. They think they’re being funny. People, like my ex, who try to laugh at them just feed their perception of themselves as entertainers – they think they’re Frankie Boyles and Jimmy Carrs and any other comedian who’s ever made a rape joke. That’s why my own trolls changed tactics every time I ignored them. They wanted a reaction to make their friends laugh. I couldn’t win.

So why not silence, then? I saw someone tweet that they’d actually leave tomorrow when we were all back feeling self-righteous. Well, so what if we are? If all today achieves is a handful of women feel better about themselves, feel supported and empowered and less alone… Well, for me that is the best possible outcome. I promise you that’s exactly what the trolls most dread – that women might take some time to themselves, and come back stronger. That’s what I did.

But What About The Men?

Last year I was President of UEA Feminist Society, a society I am still very much invested in. And in the last few months we have had an infestation problem. I think it is probably to do with the fact that we have more than doubled our online membership in the past twelve months, but more than ever before, we are hounded by men who think that feminism is wrong. That men face equal but different discrimination, that feminism should  be “gender equalism”, that our society does not to enough to represent men.

I’ve had this argument so many times in the past month that I can’t be bothered to outline the counter-arguments again; I will only say that the UEA Feminist Society Committee has a higher percentage of men (25%) than the UK Parliament has women (22%), so if you think we’re not doing enough to include men, you should try living as a woman in the UK for a while.

Why do some men have such a problem with feminism? Why do they feel the need to come into our spaces and tell us that what we believe is fundamentally wrong? You don’t see Conservatives coming to Labour meetings and telling them that progressive taxation is unfair… or at least, not nearly as often. And no one goes to Cancer Research and says “look, my Dad had a heart attack, what are you gonna do for him?”

The answer, of course, is about power. Men are still the most institutionally powerful gender in our society. They are conditioned from a young age to think they know more than women, that their voice is more important than women’s, and that what women think of them doesn’t matter in the slightest.

You can’t tell these men that, of course. They believe they are right and that they have a right to tell us so. That’s what they’ve been told their whole lives, after all. And women who disagree with them, well, they just haven’t heard their arguments yet. They’ll come around with some good, straightforward, masculine reason. SILLY WOMEN.

Here is what men have missed in this line of argument… we have heard all this before. It’s the overriding ideology of society that these days men and women are basically equal and we should all focus on other things. It’s the point of view that we all started at, until we realised it was wrong. You’re not standing at the front of the class teaching us, you’re lagging way behind. Been there, done that, realised we were discriminated against, decided to be progressive rather than regressive. Do you see what I mean?

It is the epitome of arrogance to assume that you know more than us, when we’re the ones who founded the society, organise discussion groups which we research thoroughly, and spend a good proportion of our lives reading about and discussing gender equality. An arrogance that, you guessed it, is conditioned into you because you were born with a penis. It’s arrogant to assume that you should have any input in a society that you have not only not paid membership for, but which until this moment you have not participated in at all. We do not have to cater for you if you’re not a feminist. If you’re under some illusion that this is what inclusivity means, you’re wrong.

If feminism doesn’t provide you with a space for your views, then go out into the world and bask in the fact that anywhere else, people will listen to you and agree with you. You’ve had this argument before with all your friends, and they’re all on your side. If you really care about making the world more gender equal, you don’t have to do it under the feminist label, but you should use the power you have in the world to act and change things. I simply don’t understand why, if you care so much, you need to start with reforming a feminist society. You’re wasting your efforts.

It seems a lot more like you just want to prove to women that they’re wrong. I’m sorry to say, we don’t care what you think.

Aveilut

(Hebrew: אֲבֵלוּת; mourning)

I heard it was their custom
to bury you on the day you die.
I can’t pretend to be an expert in such things.

Something blew our family apart,
loaded us onto trains that took us across
continents, taught us strange tongues.

The only image I can call to mind is a skeleton,
covered with elastic white skin, crouched
in the dark with sunken eyes, waiting for salvation.

My uncle died today and though
I never met him, some slice or gene of me
is lost, and I never took in the shape of it,

the faith of it. We have not yet shaken
from our bones the feeling that, exiled
and far from home, we are orphaned.

 

(serious redraft of an old poem for coursework)

Corrupting Influence

The drip of stale blood on an inner thigh
and that worst nightmare where the whole class
turns round to listen to your answer,
and sees that you have left your underwear at home.
The police arresting the flasher in the park
and the respectable businessman, feeling dawn rise
on the realisation that his girlfriend,
with primrose printed bed sheets
and sunny-side-up on Saturday mornings,
is a whore, and his mother will find out.
He still holds her hand in the back streets.
Sometimes as humans all we can do
is close our eyes and fall, praying hands first,
into the pit shaft of our worst mistakes.
That old, cold teacher with forests in his nostrils
watching from his guilty peripheral
the beauty queen with no father
and one scar lengthways along her arm
bleeding mascara tears.
As my mistakes go – you’re a good one.

Daphne Does Slutwalk

Turned into a tree,
and they still say I was asking for it.
I was born already singing,
could write poetry, outrun a hare,
do long division in my head and yet
I was beautiful; that was my undoing.

Even in my dungarees
they still threw comments at me.
Baby, you look good enough to eat.
Not wanting to be consumed,
I chose celibacy, but even my father chuckled:
Not with a face like that.

Like any object of natural beauty,
I was common property:
A sunset or a national park,
a waterfall. Back then I ran
from groping hands, unable to march
in a body that wasn’t mine.

Now I’m wearing a dress you can’t take off.
My waist thickened, my skin turned rough,
my hair grew waxy and green.
In my new wooden heels
I will walk my own walk:
these roots have set me free.