A Year of A Long Commute

This time last year I moved to Canterbury from London, and started commuting on the train into London every day. A couple of months after I started commuting I wrote a deeply smug blog post about how much I was enjoying it, that I was getting into using a Nintendo 3DS and that after a year I wanted to be able to see what I had achieved with this easily measurable slab of time. Well, inevitably, it has not been as straightforward as that. All I know for certain about the commute is that it’s given me a hell of a lot of time to read, and it’s shown me that I get bored almost as easily as a toddler. I take a backpack with me to work that makes me look like I’m about to go for a trek in a rainforest. It usually has at least two books, a kindle, and an iPod (yes, I am old school – I got tired of paying Spotify £10 a month when I listen to the same thirty songs day in, day out) as well as a small pharmacy, tea and water, and various snacks in case I get hungry. It’s a wonder I can fit onto the train.

Commuting is a strange business. You see the same people every day because people tend to always get on at the same door – perhaps just so they have one less decision to make at 7.15 in the morning. Most of the time nobody speaks but I have regular conversations now with two of my fellow travellers. One is an ecologist and the other is something to do with army recruitment. The latter has a very short phone call with someone every morning as the train is about to pull in, and I don’t know why. The ecologist has a son who’s studying music at university, and plays the clarinet – I was played a piece of his music which was a bit surreal but lovely. The army man has a son who is dyslexic, which he (the army man, not his son) and I had a conversation about after he saw I was reading Neurotribes, a book that’s about autism but has a tagline on the front – ‘how to think smarter about people who think differently.’ It was an interesting conversation although he was irritatingly patronising about how long he thought it would take me to finish the book – it took me about a week.

I have made “enemies” as well as “friends” during this commute. My nemesis is a woman who stands out at the side instead of congregating in the little huddle of people who are staking a bet on where they think the door will stop. We all stand dutifully back from the edge, behind the yellow line. As the train pulls in, this brazen female will walk right in front of everyone neatly queuing, and stand right in front of the doors when the train stops. The urge to push her under the train is strong. It is as bad as the people in London tube stations who decide that they ALONE will ignore the ‘keep left’ sign, and march down the right-hand side- often making progress if there’s no trainload of people coming the other way. They think they’re so smart, refusing to follow everyone else like sheep. I guess they don’t realise, or don’t care, that they are only gaining something because everyone else is playing by the rules. If everyone did it, if everyone marched alongside the edge of the track to stop in front of the doors, or ignored the keep left signs, it would be total chaos and people would regularly fall under the trains.

In many ways commuting is just an opportunity to catalogue selfish acts. Like the people who set themselves up in the outside seat and stick their suitcase in next to them, or plug themselves into a screen attached to the back of the seat in front so nobody will bother to ask them to move. This strikes me as so astoundingly selfish I want to shake these people and ask them how they can so wilfully inconsiderate.

People who sit at tables and put their bags on the table instead of the overhead racks. People listening to music so loud half the carriage could sing along (shout out to the guy who got on at Ashford one morning listening to Atomic Kitten loud enough to bust his eardrums). Men on the tube – and I’m afraid it is mostly men – who seem to have made it their goal that day to take up as much S P A C E as possible. Once two men having a conversation on the tube in the rush hour were taking up enough room for six. I had to physically duck under one of their arms to get into a space. It makes me wonder if we need more than one definition of the word consciousness, because these people are so completely unconscious of anybody or anything other than themselves.

Commuting also gives up many funny or scary or interesting day-to-day occurrences. A guy who ate four chocolate éclairs on his way home one evening – he also called a woman a tramp the week before and got a very public dressing down from another man on the train. A drunk man who followed a girl when she moved to get away from him, and was roundly shouted down by many members of the carriage, once people realised he was harassing her. He had no choice but to withdraw to his seat. The girl ran away but reported him, as later members of the British Transport Police got on to hear what he had to say for himself.

Other tiny irritations. Endless people who are unable to breathe quietly who always seem to sit next to me. A man who was sniffing in such an irritating manner that I offered him a tissue – which he declined to take. People watching slightly disturbing or pornographic television shows on their tablets, which you can’t help seeing even if you’d rather not.

After the bombings at London Bridge my commute became something other than a long, mildly tedious but also peaceful few hours of the day. As I don’t live in London anymore I don’t have the daily immersion in city life, which immunises you to some extent to the fear of an attack. When you do it every day, you can’t keep up feeling anxious about it – unless you suffer from severe anxiety. It’s part of the day-to-day and you stop noticing it. But I was coming in and going out and wasvery aware of the change from calm rural setting to the frenetic stressful city. I was afraid of going through King’s Cross and of getting on the tube. I watched my fellow passengers suspiciously and felt exhausted by the effort. I tried to make excuses to stay at home and work there, because I felt imminently in danger.

It didn’t last too long, thankfully. About a week or two. Now my commute is back to deciding which book to read and staring down my nemesis at Canterbury West.

People ask me how the commute is going, as if it’s an entirely separate part of my life – I suppose it is in a way, but I try not to think about that. Especially since I realised I wasn’t going to have anything neat to tell anybody I’d achieved in all that time, other than reading an incredible number of Agatha Christie novels. Hopefully nobody can say that’s a waste of time. While I do get tired of it, particularly when I haven’t had a holiday in a long time, it could certainly be a lot worse. Maybe one day I’ll remember the long hours in air conditioned carriages, doing wordsearches and failing to work out who poisoned the local gossip, and wish I had such a pleasant commute again. One thing’s for sure, though – when it ends, I won’t miss spending more than a fifth of my salary on it.

Do you have a plan?

“Phoebe, do you have a plan?”

“I don’t even have a pl-.”

The above is a quote from one of those Friends episodes that absolutely nails being a mid-twenty-something with no bloody idea what you’re doing. We all assume when we’re growing up that you reach a certain age when everything will work itself out: you’ll marry your partner and buy a house and start having a family, all while holding down that great job you fell into after university. I used to watch this episode of Friends without really getting it – of course people worked out what was going on in life! I wouldn’t still be floundering in my mid-twenties!

Well here I am in my late twenties and the shit is in many ways not coming together into a perfect sphere like it was supposed to. I graduated into the second year of a global recession and suddenly realised I should have spent the last three years getting masses of work experience as well as a First Class degree. This is thanks to what I see as the ultimate Catch 22: you can’t get a job without experience, but you can’t get experience without a job. One mildly embellished CV later I got a job on the minimum wage working for a man who shouted himself puce in the face whenever he thought I’d made a mistake. A few years later, the relationship I’d started at university which I assumed would end in marriage – because that’s what happened with the relationship you started at university, according to my parents and most of my friends – finally kicked the bucket, and I went back to university to restart my career and, suddenly, restart my love life too.

Fast forward a few more years and I’m in a happy relationship, but about as close to acquiring property or a dog as I am to writing a bestselling book – i.e., some light years away. I have a job I enjoy with people I like very much, but the boundaries of it are constantly shifting and I am frequently plagued by worry that the problem with creating a job from no job title, is that the job title can disappear and the job can go with it. Throughout it all I wonder if my problem is the same as that of Monica and Phoebe: I don’t have a plan.

When I was at university a friend told me the plan she’d made for the rest of her life. She knew what kind of man she wanted to marry, how many children she wanted to have, where they would live, and what job she would do, right down to the events she’d host for local disadvantaged children when she was retired. She asked me what my plan was. I said: ‘Well, I thought I’d finish this degree, and then… see what happens.’ She was as astonished and terrified by my lack of a plan as I was by her planning down to the nth degree.

I don’t do well with long-term plans because I’ve always found the ground shifts too much underneath me for any plans to be of any use. This shifting ground can be good or can be bad. Sometimes opportunities pop up unexpectedly and I like not having a plan to change – I don’t like changing plans if I do make them, in terms of the day-to-day and longer term. Other times, people disappoint you, and I feel it’s slightly less painful if you haven’t pinned too much on them to begin with, so I try not to. Most of the time any plans I put in my diary or on my calendar have a question mark after them, because then it hurts a little less if it turns out people have forgotten, or they cancel at the last moment.

But not having a plan can also be very unhelpful. There can be things you want to achieve but if you don’t set down the end destination it’s difficult to plan the route to it. I shy away from deciding, even in my own head, what I want the destination to be because I don’t want to be disappointed when it vanishes into the mist. Or because I fear that I won’t be strong enough to get there, and it will be twice as embarrassing when I collapse in a heap and have to be carried home. This is going against every motivational quote and women’s magazine ever written, not to mention all self-help books, but to be honest they always speak in such vague language that I’ve never really known what they meant. ‘Don’t limit your challenges, challenge your limits!’ What does that mean, in concrete terms? Show your working! Give me diagrams! It’s only now, when a potential goal of mine has been moved further away, possibly due to my own lack of certainty, I can see that I do need to set down that destination – even if I’m not 100% sure about it. Sometimes it’s impossible to be 100% sure, especially when it involves other people being on board too. But your determination might be a guiding light for them.

One of my science teachers in high school praised me for saying that I thought X was the ‘probable’ outcome for the end of an experiment. In science, this lack of ego is good because it’s often difficult to be certain. But in life, going around saying ‘maybe’ and ‘I might but I’m not sure’ could just end up with me not quite going anywhere. And that would not be a good plan.

Playing peekaboo with a squirrel

What a first month to 2017. Particularly the last ten or eleven days. The news has brought one shock of disappointment after another, quickly evaporating any hope that Trump’s presidency might not be as bad as it looked. As a UK citizen, seeing the way May has handled herself has made me sick to my stomach. We appear spineless, naïve, collaborating – Chamberlain and Hitler all over again, if you want to take a very pessimistic view. The sneaking tendrils of the policies of both leaders are weaving themselves into my life and the life of those around me, in ways that make me frightened for my future. I am lucky that I am 28 before my government has made a noticeable negative impact on my life – unless you count the university tuition fees which tripled in time for me turning 18. But seeing what these fees have done since, I don’t feel I have much room to complain about the £25,000 odd debt I still have round my neck. These policies making people feel unwelcome outside their own country, pushing the poor deeper into poverty, and spreading hate and stupidity are affecting everybody now, even if we can’t see it straight away.

The news this month has been overwhelming in new ways, a bit like having your head held in a toilet by the school bully while they flush it over and over again. I started the year feeling good on some new anti-anxiety drugs – indeed I’m now wondering how anyone is getting through at the moment without them (joke). But the last ten days or so, I’ve started getting dragged down if I spend more than a few minutes a day on facebook, where I am bombarded with people’s statuses detailing the latest horror, or NYT article after article explaining why we’re going to hell in a handcart. Every now and then, we all need a break. But the worst thing is that when the news is this bad, it has some kind of centrifugal force that keeps us spinning round and round it, trying to pull away but kept in place by this weird effect of negative gravity. This week, I am trying to take a stand, and return to a few habits I had in the first weeks of the year which were keeping me feel centred and grounded. For me, it’s a combination of looking at the very big – and the very small.

The very small first. I spend a lot of my working week sitting down, so at lunchtime, I try to go for a half hour walk. Next to the office complex where I work, there’s a mosque. Sometimes in the summer, presumably when there are too many people to fit inside, men pray on the pavement outside. Other times I’ll come out for my walk at the end of a service, and there will be so many people filling the road that the occasional car struggles to get through. I watch the people at the mosque, with innocent human curiosity about a religion I don’t know enough about. I hope they take my glances as curiosity, and nothing more sinister. When I see them I wonder how much attention they get, how much courage it takes to walk outside wearing what they wear, marking themselves as “different”. On one of the lampposts by the mosque, there is a battered, rain-drenched flyer about inclusion, and welcoming refugees. I wonder if it was put there by someone at the mosque, or whether it was someone else trying to offer them some support and solidarity, to let them know that not everyone in England feels like they should “go home”.

After five minutes of entirely uninteresting pavements, my walk takes me to the canal, which is lined with houseboats. Next to the canal is a strip of greenery and trees, a wildlife garden set up around 15 years ago that’s gone slightly to seed. The small ponds are stagnant and covered in algae, some of the fences are in need of repair and there’s a general unkempt feel to many parts of it. A wooden walkway squishes slightly underfoot, as if (and I think it’s probably the case) the wood has rotted underneath. In one area, I often find three grey squirrels. Grey squirrels get a bad rap in this country: introduced by somebody sometime, they turned out to be rather more aggressive than the native red squirrels, which lost more and more territory to the grey squirrels, and now red squirrels are only rarely to be seen- mostly in Scotland, in pine forests. The grey squirrels also get a lot of grief for their habits of digging up plant bulbs, or stealing food in bird feeders. My dad will run out into the garden at odd intervals shrieking a battle cry or brandishing a cane, trying to get “the little bastards” away from the feed, and prompting my mum to say: “your father’s taken leave of his senses”.

Poor grey squirrels. It’s not their fault they’re greedy and extremely good at procreating. I have made friends with one of the squirrels in the wildlife garden, whom I have christened Chubs, for no real reason other than it’s a comforting sort of word, and he’s a comforting sort of squirrel. He stops and stares at me often when I walk past, interrupting his game of chasing the other squirrels round and round trees, either in an attempt at flirtation or to get them away from some buried treasure, I’m not sure which. One day, he was staring at me and I was staring at him as he held onto a tree trunk upside down. After a moment, he disappeared around the other side of the trunk. I waited, and a second later, he peeked his head round one side. I made a sudden, ha! I see you! action to that side, as you would with a small child. He disappeared. Then appeared on the other side of the trunk. I did the same thing. He disappeared… and reappeared again on the other side! I had to laugh at the sheer ludicrousness of what I was doing: playing peekaboo with a squirrel. He peeked round each side five or six times before he remembered the buried treasure, or the mating, whichever it was, and wandered off.

It’s the little things, the moments and pictures that make you feel grateful, even for only a little time. The benefits of interacting with nature are well-documented, and it’s nice to know it’s possible even in the middle of a large city. I’ve also watched coots diving in the canal, fascinated by their disappearing, reappearing act, and the smoothness of each of their dives. I’ve watched robins singing in trees – something that strikes me as actually quite rare, to be watching a bird sing. I watch birds, and I hear them sing, but not often do I see the bird that’s singing.

So if these small acts of nature watching on a lunchtime walk help make me feel centred in a whirlwind world, I’ve started turning to non-fiction to ground myself. Oddly, because I wasn’t keen on the subject at school, I am taking refuge in science. Specifically, physics. I read Carlo Rovelli’s Seven Brief Lessons on Physics at the start of the year, then followed it up with his examination of similar themes in Reality is Not What it Seems, which has a greater emphasis on quantum gravity. How much do I understand? 40-70%, depending on what he’s talking about, I think. I also lose the specifics very quickly, which is frustrating. But I enjoy reading about people discovering things we take for granted, or things that are too weird for us to have comprehended yet. The stories of failure and trying again are quite inspirational, especially in today’s culture of failure being something so monstrous nobody is allowed to fail – everyone gets a medal for participation – or nobody tries because they failure is too difficult to entertain. Science is a beautiful subject in that it is, in some ways, so ready to take criticism. If someone disproves something, then okay, we move on. Einstein proved Newton wrong on some things. Einstein was wrong about some aspects of quantum theory. We are all wrong, and it doesn’t make us bad or useless people. I am finding comfort in that.

I am also enjoying using my brain in different ways, and I’m intrigued to learn how relaxing it can be. Until now I thought to really RELAX I needed to be watching Friends, or reading a Mhairi MacFarlane novel (excellent intelligent “chick lit” which is actually genuinely funny, even if the plot is more or less identical in each book). But I’m finding I can relax with my brain engaged. I am rediscovering the joy of learning, which I think I lost a little after my Masters degree. Reading about quantum mechanics and the theory of relativity and the history of autism (Neurotribes, EXCELLENT book – a pamphlet summarising it should be required reading for everyone) has shown me that I can learn about things I thought I would never understand, and feel better for it. I’ve also read a couple of Jon Ronson books, on public shaming and psychopaths, which are certainly lighter and easier to read, but which I wouldn’t have considered standard ‘relaxation’ fare either. As I found during my degree, placing myself in a wider history or broader story is comforting. Even though looking back on mistakes and seeing them reflected in today’s world is sometimes discouraging, you can take heart from the changes that did eventually come. Paying attention to new facts and history makes it obvious how ignorant many people still are about things they really shouldn’t be ignorant about, but seeing how change eventually arrived in many areas is also heartening. I’m talking here about advances in science in many arenas, physics, but also psychology, as documented in Neurotribes and Ronson’s The Psychopath Test. Neurotribes really deserves its own post as its messages are so important, its approach to people who are “different” and how we respond to and interact with those people. I’d like to send a copy of that and The Psychopath Test to Trump (I’m fairly certain he’d come out as a psychopath) but I don’t suppose he’d be interested in learning anything new outside his own self-centred, self-interested, stupid view of life. I am grateful that I do not think like him. What a prison it must be.

Highlights of 2016

THERE WERE NONE, I hear you cry. Well, the other day I found a piece I wrote this time last year on highlights of 2015. Apparently I thought 2015 pretty much sucked in terms of news items as well, although I don’t remember it being particularly bad – apart from the Conservatives winning the UK election. Reading back through the post I remembered lots of little things I enjoyed about that year, and although 2016 was rubbish in terms of democratic votes, gun shootings, and celebrity deaths, it’s important to also think about the good things. This isn’t going to be one of those list of good news for the environment etc which have been doing the rounds lately, but rather a list of my own personal highlights. Some are tiny, and some are life-changing. What were your highlights of 2016?

The Guilty Feminist Podcast

This year I finally started listening to podcasts, and this was the first one I tuned in to after it was recommended by a friend (thank you Gillian!). Female comedians discuss a range of topics, from shoes to periods to nudity, and examine their complicated and at times contradictory relationships with femininity, feminism, their own bodies, and the people around them. It is hilarious and thought-provoking, wonderfully forgiving and a real tonic if you think feminists are shouty and irritating. Some are like that, but some of us don’t have a clue! The show starts with a list of brilliant ‘I am a feminist but…’ quotes, such as: ‘I am a feminist… but I often find myself promoting this podcast by saying, it’s about feminism, but don’t worry, it’s funny.’

Dancing at weddings

I’ve been to a few weddings this year with my partner. I struggle with weddings. I find the logistics of getting there, finding somewhere to stay, talking to people you don’t know, and figuring out when it’s okay to leave very stressful. But I’ve discovered that dancing at weddings with my partner is the best. This summer we went to a stunning wedding of a friend of mine (the same Gillian who recommended the Guilty Feminist podcast – congrats on the awesome wedding too!) in rural Kent, in a big marquee and the groom’s family’s back garden. I was panicking about what to wear up until the last minute, and got changed 30 seconds before we had to leave into navy trousers and blazer and a red shirt (then got self-conscious when my partner said we looked like we were heading to a business meeting). Anxiety + free champagne meant we were both wonderfully silly by the time we sat down to eat, and still pretty tipsy when the music started. We both love dancing and we barely stopped for the next couple of hours. Several people complimented us on our dancing, which felt wonderful and all in all it was a fabulous evening. I like weddings now.

Lazy corgi fight video

I love the beginning of this video, with a corgi lying on its back with its feet in the air. What is it doing?! And then the “fight” – I’m going to snap at you… and then just go and lie over here… and bark at…nothing… These dogs are just ridiculous. Corgis themselves make no sense. How are their legs so short?! So comical.

14th May, Canterbury

I moved to Canterbury this year after ten years of living in London. This was one of the life-changing highlights to the year: I moved in with my partner and started a much longer commute to work. For the most part living together has been lovely, and although the commute isn’t my favourite thing in the world, I love living in Canterbury. When I got back after Christmas it felt like home. And although there are pros and cons to being out of London, I certainly don’t miss the tube or the weekend crowds. Or the exorbitant rent. Although the rail pass does its best to make up for that!

Started anti-anxiety medication

This might be a strange thing to put as a highlight of the year. Having to take medication is bad, right? I certainly thought so for a long time. Even though I’ve been blogging about mental health for a while now and I am very supportive of friends who are on medication, I really fought going on anxiety medication myself. I realised that I still saw it as a sign of weakness. I thought I should be able to get past it on my own. And I put a lot of work into that and when I was feeling generally okay, the self-care worked. But when you’re tired or something knocks you so you take that lift back down to the beginning again, sometimes it’s too tough to haul yourself back up all the stairs on your own. I’ve been on anti-anxiety medication for six weeks. I’m on a very low dosage and it still sometimes gives me nausea, but I also have some more space in my head to combat anxious thoughts. I’ve achieved things that I’m not sure I could have done if I hadn’t been on medication. I don’t know what will happen, whether they’ll keep working, whether I’ll need to switch, or whether I’ll need to up the dosage, but right now I think they’re working. It’s easier for me to take a step back from anxious thoughts. There’s no point saying to myself “you don’t need to worry about this” because that doesn’t work. But I am finding some relief from going a step further and thinking “you don’t need to think about this. There is nothing saying you need to spend time and energy going over this. Let it go.” Just gaining that step and finding a bit more stability is feeling great. Keep your fingers crossed for me that it stays good.

Dyeing my hair

While in most areas of life I’m quite frightened of change, as we all are (I heard someone on the radio recently say everybody is scared of change, and if someone says they’re not, they’re lying) when it comes to going to the hairdressers I LOVE change. The bigger the change, the better. If I have a haircut and come out looking more or less the same, I’m a bit disappointed and have generally forgotten I had the haircut by the time I get home, so someone saying they like it confuses me. You like what? It’s the same! This year I dyed my hair red for the first time. I’ve wanted to do it for about a decade so it was pretty exciting for me. It didn’t go quite as bright as I wanted so I’m planning to get it done again soon. I look so quiet and demure that most hairdressers are worried I’m going to get upset, so they tend to – consciously or not – tone down what I ask for. But my current hairdresser in Canterbury seems to trust I want what I say, so I’ll ask him to dye it next. Hopefully it won’t come out some dreadful shade of pink.

Driving home for Christmas

I passed my driving test four years ago, then only drove on the odd weekend at my parents’ house for the next four years. Now I’m living in Canterbury, I have my car with me here. Unfortunately the years off and the fact I was driving somewhere I barely knew meant I started getting extremely anxious about getting in the car. Panic attacks and heated arguments with my partner while driving ensued, and although I kept at it, I was still struggling with nerves. I would be so anxious about driving fifteen minutes to the nearest stables for a riding lesson that I could barely stand due to extreme nausea. Then I started anti-anxiety medication, and although I was still anxious before I left the house, once I was in the car I was fine. So I took a somewhat bold and impulsive decision – I do this sometimes – to drive myself from Canterbury to Suffolk to stay with my parents at Christmas. I hadn’t been on a dual carriageway for four years and had never driven on a motorway. But for some reason I decided that having a parent come down and sit in the car with me, or drive in front of me so I at least knew where I was going, was not as good as going solo with the Google Maps app and ‘winging it’. Well, I was right. I had a couple of fun moments at roundabouts and risked speeding tickets here and there (with added adrenaline rush because when you take my little car over 80 miles per hour, the steering wheel shudders) but the sense of achievement was second to none. Definitely a highlight of the year.

Other people’s achievements

I am very lucky to have an amazing circle of friends, family, and partner. They share in my achievements and my worries as I share in theirs. Although there have been difficulties and sadnesses this year, several of my immediate circle have also had wonderful news that I have loved sharing with them. My best friend is pregnant and expecting her baby very soon. I love that I was one of the first to know about the pregnancy, and I’ve loved keeping up our dinner routine while we can and checking in on how she’s doing. Apparently my general cynical nature has been a great tonic to her when all she wants to do is complain about feeling fat and having rib pain and most of the people around her are saying OMG YOU MUST FEEL SO BLESSED!!! My ‘yeesh, poor you, that sucks’ has been very useful, she says, which I’m very happy (and relieved) about. In other news, my partner had his first academic book published this year. It’s a huge moment and I felt so very proud going to the launch and hearing him talk about it. Getting to read a published book by someone you know and love is really wonderful, and I couldn’t be happier for him.

There are more great moments but I feel like this post is already quite long and gushing. I encourage you all to note down a few things that went well this year, even if it was just a great book you read or a brilliant movie you saw. Looking back on them in the future is really encouraging, and god knows we all need some good things to remember about 2016.

2016: My Year in Books

I’m planning to write a few ‘Review of the Year’ type blog posts in the coming week or two. Some might address the general shitshow that we all believe this year to have been, but others I want to be quite light and more positive too. Here are a list of my favourite and least favourite books from this year. I’ve noticed that most of the favourites have a bit of a theme: they are about hope. No wonder they were my favourites in 2016. Let me know what you think!

The Good

All the Light we Cannot See, Anthony Doerr

I walked past this book and picked it up and read the back numerous times before, one day, it was the right day to actually buy it. I’m so glad I did: it is one of the most beautifully written books I’ve ever read. The story follows a young French girl and a young German boy through the Second World War. The girl is blind and escapes Paris with her father, while the boy is a whizz with radios and electronics and gets inducted into the Hitler Youth as a result. The innocence and fragility of their young lives is stunningly well-written, and the moment when the two eventually meet made me incredibly emotional. I’ve sought out other books by the same author since, and haven’t been disappointed. About Grace is also a gorgeous, if at times painful, story of love and loss.

Girl meets Boy, Ali Smith

Not published this year, just one I got round to this year. It’s amazing. One of the most gorgeous, hopeful books I’ve ever read. It’s all about gender fluidity, feminism, and standing up for what’s right. Totally accessible, small but perfectly formed. I loved every word and the end made me sob like a baby, but with happiness.

The Art of Happiness, His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Howard C. Cutler

Speaking of happiness: I read this classic this year. I think it will need a few rereads, as some of the ideas take a while to sink in, but it was very well-written and engaging. I loved that it used mixtures of Eastern and Western philosophy and showed how often ideas from totally different backgrounds match up, even if one is rooted in science and other in philosophy or spiritualism. The thing that stuck with me the most was the idea of being honest as an antidote to anxiety. If you are honest with other people about what you can do, you have no need to be anxious. It also quoted this classic piece of advice: if you can do something about it, do it instead of worrying. If you can’t do anything to change it, there’s no point in worrying. Easier said than done!

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet and A Close and Common Orbit, Becky Chambers

I haven’t read much science fiction but I absolutely adored these books. They can be read as a series or equally as stand-alone books. She has really gone to town imagining different species with totally different customs, examining human nature and society with real insight and compassion. Her examination of people’s feelings, gender, love, and what it means to be alive is brilliantly thought out and, again, very very easy to read. She also veered away from a common plot line in fantasy/sci fi of things going steadily to shit, and then a big battle at the end, and then things are good. She mixes it up and messes things around, but also keeps most of it on a wonderfully low key- the books are by no means uneventful, but I was never too stressed out by them. Can’t wait to see what she writes next.

The Descent of Man, Grayson Perry

A late entry as I just read it this week. I think Grayson Perry is brilliant and fiercely intelligent so I was really interested to hear what he had to say on masculinity. It was thought-provoking and engaging, even if it did feel a little bit like a draft of an essay that one of my old lecturers would say needed polishing, tightening, and a rework to bring the main argument front and centre stage. Very much worth the read though because he challenges so many aspects of patriarchy that one might not have thought of, and some of his examples are very useful. Extremely well-written and easy to read.

The Bad / Unfinished

I try not to leave books unfinished, but have also started abandoning them when I am really not enjoying them at all. Thankfully most were acquired from the local library. I walked away from a few classics this year – apologies in advance if this offends you!

Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie

Apologies to all those who thought this was phenomenal. I got about a hundred pages in and stopped. I have a strong dislike for books that go off on endless tangents rather than getting to the sodding point (unless it’s Ali Smith, who is just too awesome for me to care) and I found I just gave zero fucks about any of the characters or any of their stories. I didn’t even get to the bit where the boy finds out he’s magic or whatever, which may have been a mistake. Just the endless stories about noses and whatnot made me start losing the will to live.

American Gods, Neil Gaiman

I was given this as a gift so I’m not sure it’s advisable to include it on the list, but the gift giver was my best friend so I’m thinking we’ll be able to work past it. Both she and my partner love this book, and I loved Neverwhere, so I was expecting to love it too. Instead I found the main theme of the story – that we have gods now but they’re of electronics etc – quite dull and one-dimensional, and I also found the fact that there were basically no female characters who weren’t sexual objects exceptionally tedious. There also seemed to be a lot of unnecessary references to their breasts, or other women’s breasts, or just breasts randomly, and I found that pretty dull too. That probably speaks to my own issues rather than anything else, but I get enough of teenage boy humour around me in life in general, I can do without reading about it too.

Left of the Bang, I can’t remember the author

Got it out of the library. I don’t know why. Girl has unsatisfactory relationship with boy, meets other boy from her past, has fantasies about him, does bugger all of use about it. Meanwhile her boyfriend starts having sexual fantasies about children. How About No.

Mr Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore, Robin Sloan

I was really excited about this for the first half, and then sort of faded out of it. A big part of the mystery of the bookstore was revealed, and not as exciting as I’d hoped, and the boy starts going to save the day as per usual while his girlfriend tags along as sidekick. Also, as with American Gods, the teenage boy-ness of it started getting me down. OMG, my girlfriend is super intelligent, geeky, and really attractive!! FFS. Stop being surprised and give her some freaking flaws to make her an actual person. And again with the boobs: the lead’s mate runs some company making tools for software companies to make perfect, realistic CGI breasts. Which were used to make some beach volleyball computer game. Give me a fucking break and take me out of this teenager’s wet dream.

High Fidelity, Nick Hornby

It might not be fair to include this as I read literally about five pages. Douchebag runs through list of break-ups; isn’t fussed about most recent one, tries to work out when he’s next going to have sex. Broke up with girl at school because she wouldn’t let him touch her – you guessed it – breasts. I swear to god. This year’s books have done nothing to get me past my fear that men are obsessed with perfect boobs. The guy sounded like a complete arse and I put it straight in a bag to go to the charity shop.

Author of the Year

Agatha Christie

I have read SO many of her novels this year. They are perfect when you are ill, or in a book rut, or just want something that doesn’t require any effort but still has an amazing plot. They are so easy to get into, and I never ever guess the outcome. What an incredible brain. How did she think of all those plots?! I know many people think her books are ‘light’, or simplistic, and they are light in the sense that they’re so well-written you don’t have to work to find them interesting or enjoyable. But I think her talents as a writer are often underestimated. I would love to write a single book with such an enjoyable and unguessable plot, never mind however many she managed to write. Stand out books were Then There Were None- fabulously creepy; and The Secret Adversary- almost more of a spy novel, but just brilliant.

Also:

Josephine Tey. Another female detective writer. Love her style of writing and again, brilliant plots.

Uprooted, Naomi Novik. Loved this. A really different fantasy novel with some great twists – also really quite frightening. I never quite got to see the characters as fully rounded people, otherwise it would be in the favourites list.

Mutual kindness and mental illness

I read an article recently about the secret to making a marriage last, based on the research of John Gottman. While the article found many of his findings exceedingly obvious, the theory of mutual kindness struck a chord. When we are in a secure relationship of any kind, whether it’s a friendship, a romantic relationship or a family bond, it is easy to start taking it for granted, and to stop making the tiny overtures of friendship we make with people we don’t know so well. The research suggested that whenever someone makes a tiny comment about their day or something they’ve noticed, they’re sending out a tiny message for reassurance and comfort. And if those gestures are knocked back more often than not – “you’ve told me that before” “I don’t think that’s true” or just a “hmm” and barely a glance up from the phone/tablet/TV/computer – then the bond can begin to fail.

I was thinking about this in the context of relationships with people who suffer from mental health problems – depression and anxiety, and particularly the latter as it is what I’m struggling with the most these days. It struck me that this advice relates even more to these more difficult relationships, and in a number of ways affecting both parties.

First of all, if you are having an anxious or depressed day, it can make it much easier for you to take your mood out on the person who is closest to you. You know they are not going to leave but at the same time it terrifies you that they might, especially when you are low or feeling like a burden. This fear and discomfort with yourself makes you more likely to lash out, especially if you’ve had to spend a day pretending to be perfectly well so you can carry out your job. If you have been fake smiling or hiding anxiety attacks behind water cooler chat all day, the pent-up pressure getting released may make the evening at home difficult. You want to relax but sometimes you’ve forgotten how. You want to have a nice evening in but you’re exhausted and just want to lie down and cry. The knowledge that you’re wasting the precious free time does not make it any easier.

I found myself in this mood recently and the only thing that helped was a kind of forced reset. You know when you can only turn off a computer by holding down the power key? I did that. I forced off all electronic appliances, poured a glass of wine and parked myself on the sofa with an Agatha Christie. No electronics within reach, all notifications off. It helped, but any kind of half reset I don’t think would have had the same effect. For partners, it can be very wearing to be on the receiving end of this kind of mood. It is isolating, frustrating and sometimes hurtful. I can’t offer much advice except to try to be patient and, for me, it’s probably best to give me some space. I want company but know I’ll be bad at it in that mood. And while it could also be useful for a partner to suggest a total relaxation shutdown, ultimately it needs to come from the person who is upset. If you suffer from mental illness you need to learn your own moods and how to cope with them, to get support from people around you without pushing them away. Easier said than done, so, in the words of a best friend: communication, all the time, until you can read each other’s minds (or near enough).

The issue described at the beginning also works the other way round in these relationships. If someone with depression or anxiety reaches out, especially about how they are feeling, even in a very small way, it can be very difficult for them. In the words of Dr Brene Brown, we are making ourselves vulnerable by opening up about something that makes us feel ashamed. People get anxious about all sorts of things: job interviews, flying by plane, public speaking, driving, going out to social events, going out to places they don’t know, talking to people on the phone, going to the shops, going out of the house, going outside a set of rooms. If you suffer from anxiety, when you’re in one of those triggering situations – I, for example, get anxious about driving – then your physiological reaction to doing that thing may be the same or even more extreme than someone going to a very important interview, or sitting an exam, things that make most people at least a little anxious. Because for most people, these things like making a phone call, or going to a party, are “normal” and not stressful at all, we feel ashamed that we get so worked up about something so “small”. So with any reaching out about these things, the need for mutual kindness is ramped up to a hundred because of the shame behind the feeling. If our partner or friend or family member then replies with something that is cutting the feeling down, making it sound silly or irrational, if they respond with a deep sigh or an eye roll or even with a platitude like, “oh don’t worry, it will be fine” we feel a hundred times more shut down and irrelevant than someone might under “normal” circumstances, if they shared something they thought was funny or interesting and were met with stony ambivalence or disdain.

For partners and friends it can be very difficult to know how to respond. The best thing to do is to acknowledge the fullness of the feeling that person is having – try to imagine it from their point of view, take it seriously and don’t just shrug it off or treat it with frustration. Think of how you would want to be met if you were talking about something you find particularly frightening and difficult – this is that thing for that person. I used an example the other day – I’d booked myself a horse riding lesson, which I was really excited about, but nerves about the drive there and parking in the small and awkwardly shaped car park were making me very nauseous. My partner said, “but I thought you wanted to go riding?” because for a normal person, the excitement of going riding would outweigh the nerves of a ten-minute drive. I explained that, for me, it was the same as if he was going for a job he really wanted, or even had the job and today was the first day, and he was quite nervous about it, and then if I said, “but I thought you wanted this job?” Somehow you need to find a way to understand that what seems so small to you, is not small to the other person.

The person suffering with anxiety or depression has to be careful to do the same thing. I often find one of the best ways to get me out of a low or anxious mood is actually if my partner needs me for something  – I tend to start focussing on them and my own problems seem smaller because I’m not looking at them so closely. But it can be difficult sometimes, if you’re caught up in your own head and are used to being the one to receive support, to remember to turn around and give it to your friends and family and partner too. Especially if you are afraid that part of their issue is their worry over you. Of course they need other people to lean on too but it can help, when you’re in a good place, to talk over the effects and issues together. Talking about the difficult times and what you both want and need in those situations is essential. It’s a give and take process – and mutual kindness and empathy is absolutely key.

When you’re both feeling down, as my partner and I have been a bit this week after the US election, it’s even more important for us both to practise mutual kindness. I feel like we’ve both feeling a bit defensive, hurt and beaten down, like little creatures evicted from our safe shells, trying to find some comfort and warmth. We all need to turn in towards each other, be honest and stay vulnerable, to keep our closest circles a happy corner in which to regroup in these difficult times.

 

 

Keep hoping, friends.

Well. Since 3am I’ve been lying awake or having nightmares about Trump becoming president. Maybe it’s because I had a few run-throughs of waking up to it before I actually woke up to it, or maybe it’s because of the Brexit result in the summer, but this result isn’t such a shock to me.

I know how terrifying this is, especially for people of colour, LGBTQ+ people, women – or essentially, anyone who isn’t a straight white misogynistic power-crazed man. I am very depressed for what this says about people’s attitude to women in the 21st century. By voting for Trump, people are voting for a view of women which many hoped had died off around the 1950s. And by going with an “anyone but Clinton” attitude, although people say it’s because of her corruption, it seems to me pretty obvious that one of the main reasons for it is because she’s female. If you keep their histories and behaviour but switch their genders, there’s no question about how this election would have played out. A 70-year-old woman who had been divorced three times would never have got close to the White House, while a man with Clinton’s experience would have been, I would guess, far more popular. I don’t understand all the reasons why people dislike Clinton so heartily, but I do think they underestimate the role sexism has to play in it. If we take the view that people see women as Madonnas or whores, Clinton doesn’t fit: she’s clearly not a whore, but she can’t be a Madonna because she is powerful and, at times, ruthless. Terrifyingly, apparently the majority of white women voted for Trump. This is baffling to me, but perhaps feeds into arguments that women are threatened by the power of other women. Or maybe they enjoy that kind of ‘man taking control’ bullshit that Trump espouses so brilliantly.

Anyway. We could talk for hours about what a depressing result this is. God knows 2016 has been a hell pit for anyone of a liberal persuasion. Here are a few thoughts I’ve been having to try and counteract the negativity this morning:

  • I have such low hopes for Trump that really, the only way is up. If he hasn’t nuked China within the first six months, I’m counting it as a win.
  • I am taking solace in the fact that there are millions of people all around the world who are feeling just as lost and powerless as I am today. Thanks to today’s technology we all have ways of connecting and joining virtual hands around the globe, and that kind of connection can only be a point of comfort.
  • I have recently finished The Art of Happiness, a book full of conversations between the Dalai Lama and an American psychologist. Together they try to find ways of creating happiness which take elements of both Eastern and Western philosophy. It is a heartening book particularly at times like these, showing the surprising similarity of ideas that originated in such different cultures, and also what it can be like when people are open and receptive to other people’s thoughts and opinions. One idea that is helping me in particular is samsara, or cycles of death and rebirth, which is central to Buddhist thinking. I do not believe in reincarnation per se, but Buddhists also believe the world goes through cycles of samsara. I’m not entirely sure if it’s supposed to be used in this way, but I am looking at history today for these cycles.

    In the nineteenth century there was a rapid increase in communication across the world, with the advent of telegrams, railway lines, and increases in trade. This was in many ways the beginning of western hegemony, as previously China was one of the most powerful empires in the world. With western industrialisation, the balance of power changed. Through the first half of the twentieth century many racist attitudes held sway, and extreme nationalism brought several terrifying leaders into power. After a massive cycle of change and, of course, wars, the balance changed again. The second half of the twentieth century saw many of these “scientific” racist attitudes thrown in the trash, empires slowly began to come apart, and since then we have had huge steps forward for women, gay rights, and civil rights.

    I am, of course, simplifying MASSIVELY and I’m sure any academic reading this will want to step in and teach me a few things. Not today, please. Be tolerant today. Unless you believe my views are harmful or you’re really in the mood for teaching and debate, in which case, let me know and we’ll discuss it like adults, and like rational human beings, and I’m sure we’ll both enjoy the conversation immensely. But sadly we are now seeing a backlash to this “opening up” which has brought joy and happiness to so many. Unfortunately, for some, these expansions in rights have not been a sign of progress, but a sign of their own power being reduced. If we believe that there is only a finite amount of power and influence to go around, these are frightening times if you are someone who has, to date, held most of that power. Or if your beliefs are such that you think only certain people should be allowed to hold it. If you believe in the verses of the bible which prohibit homosexuality, then I can only imagine that the day the US allowed same-sex marriage you had much the same feeling as I do now. If you believe that the colour of someone’s skin has something fundamental to say about what they can and cannot achieve as a person, then the anger that has flowed through many American cities of late can be read as confirmation of your beliefs, rather than the righteous fury of people mistreated for too long, too often. And if you believe women’s main role should be at home raising a family, then this year will have been a real shake-up for you.

    I am sad to think that people believe these things. But I am not surprised by the fact that they have not disappeared yet. It seems clear that these attitudes have risen up again, that we are rushing headfirst into a new era of intolerance and rolling back of the rights of people who have been fighting so hard for them. I am hopeful that we will avoid wars of the kind of magnitude we experienced a hundred years ago, especially as, with someone like Trump having their finger hovering over the button, it would literally be the death of the earth. And although that’s depressing to think about, if it does happen, then we’ll have nothing to worry about anyway. (Side note: I’ve just started watching The West Wing (I know, I’m ten years behind the times. When I’m 40 I’ll start Breaking Bad) and I had no idea that it is basically ONE person’s decision to start attacking another country. Just the president. Terrifying! Also, is Aaron Sorkin and the West Wing cast available to run America? I feel like they’d do a stand-up job, especially compared to this crazy waxwork clown who’s got in instead.)

    Steering back to my positive point: the world has gone through some serious shit before. We’ve had men who chose to try to exterminate an entire race. We’ve had terrifying eras of persecution and intolerance and people treated like less than animals. And it does end. Eventually. Although sometimes it doesn’t feel like it, we’ve come a long way and more people have more than they have done at any time before in history. A friend said she read an article which argued that if Clinton had got in, as the ultimate establishment figure, the feelings that started with Sarah Palin and ended up in Trump would just have got worse. Maybe getting what they think they want will prove that it isn’t as advertised (hello, Brexit). Keep up the hope, my friends. We are all human beings underneath. I know it is tough for everyone who has already worked out this fundamental human truth – that we are all just people – to see the rest of humanity continue to be so fucking stupid, but the millennial voting map in America was very positive. Hopefully this new generation, of which I am a part, will rise up against the bigotry and dumb rhetoric which has characterised politics in the UK and US this year, and we will fight for a brighter future. The cycles will keep on turning.

    And in the meantime, there’s The West Wing to distract us.