Women as superheroes: Society, Storytelling, Technology (5)

We cannot live in a world that is not our own, in a world that is interpreted for us by others. An interpreted world is not a home. – Hildegard of Bingen

We all love Wonder Woman, we do. My childhood memories tell me that it was the only show with a main female protagonist, and I was glued to the telly when she was on. Until I had girls, I had forgotten that I had minded about the lack of females on TV until the day I watched part of the James Bond movie Die Another Day with my girls and they kept making me replay the scenes in which Jinx was centre stage. They didn’t want to see Bond.

I didn’t want to see Bond, I wanted to see women living out loud and having adventures. I have blogged about women centre stage before, mentioning: Suffragette, Spy, Star Wars, Hunger Games and The White Queen. And, after watching the Ghostbusters (2016) the all female reboot, I was so looking forward to Wonder Woman (2017), as I was expecting a modern day women-centred interpretation of a favourite from my childhood.

What a huge disappointment. I will just state up front: Wonder Woman is a male idea of a female superhero (or self-actualised woman), which would be par for the course if it had been produced by an all male team, but it wasn’t.

Paradise Island is a male fantasy of women warriors, honestly it was only missing some mud-wrestling, and it’s so patriarchal, all those sexy women – liminal women: an extraordinary phrase used by A S Byatt and @IsabelWriter in her fabulous poetry collection Don’t ask – hanging about, waiting for Ares to come back whilst preserving (probably fondling and worshipping) relics donated by Zeus. This pressed all my patriarchal buttons until it got worse and we saw that Paradise Island has permeable boundaries, and none of these women were monitoring the perimeter. Really?

Permeable boundaries is another fabulous phrase which resonated with me when I read it first in Ann Monk Kidd’s The Dance of the Dissident’s Daughter. She says that women are trained from birth to have permeable boundaries, so we can be invaded, serve others, not listen to our own self-actualisation, etc. Nowhere to date have I seen it better demonstrated than on the Paradise Island of Wonder Woman (2017).

So, hot (he tells her lots of times) Steve Trevor washes up on the shore and a glorious woman can’t take her eyes off him, even though she has lived for an eternity, and she follows him in his quest, to war: A war in which he doesn’t treat her as an equal, he tells her to be quiet, talks over her, renames her, denies her her identity and heritage, tells her how to dress, how to look, how to be, and expects her to toe the line. He then nips off to be a hero leaving her to endure a supporting role in her own movie!

The whole (clunky) plot fits right into the hero’s quest as defined by Christopher Vogler as the masculine need to overcome obstacles to achieve, conquer and possess and his updated female interpretation of the hero’s quest which sadly fits Wonder Woman’s journey in this film: Grapples with emotions as a romantic heroine, looking for the missing piece romantically. I’ll spare you the bit about homemaking. Yes please – feel the rage.

I am totally with James Cameron‘s criticism of this film when he says that she looks spectacular but seems to be designed to appeal to 14 or 18 year-old males. Looking at her half-brother Ares you don’t see him wearing a skimpy outfit which shows off his sexy form. Gods are supposed to have beautiful physiques – Diana does and add insult to injury, she is referred to as a God never a Goddess. Though, it works the other way with the female scientist – who was an anachronism if ever I saw one – she wears a mask because she is beautiful but has to be scarred to seem unattractive ‘cos she’s evil – a clumsy attempt as Chaucer put it in The Canterbury Tales as an outer manifestation of … inner characteristics. At no point does the film take us anywhere new and empowering, though it got rave reviews saying it did.

And, I get it. I do! I wanted Wonder Woman to be empowering and I wanted to write great things about it. But all it does is reminds me of those times when you want something so badly, like that job, that friendship, that interest in your book, to be good for you, and you want it so badly that you ignore the signs, you know the ones: the creepy, fake, lame behaviour which you think that with enough energy and patience you can turn into something else, but you can’t. All that happens is you feel betrayed by someone’s lack of integrity and you are left feeling that you’ve been had.

Lillian Robinson wrote a fabulous book about female super heroes called Wonder Women which aligned her joy of comics with her work as a feminist. She had lots to say about how Wonder Woman was created in 1942, and her creator Charles Moulton or William Moulton Marston had an interesting home life with his wife and children and girlfriend and children all living in the same house. Consequently, he thought Wonder Woman and her gang (which included Etta Candy) would conquer the world with some sexy lovefest which overpowers men’s need for domination and war.

Also, Wonder Woman’s magic lasso was really a symbol for using her wiles and feminine sexy powers to get a man to tell her anything. Her bracelets were to control her savageness. Anger is never accepted from any female – we have seen this from The Taming of the Shrew to Little Women’s Jo March. When women mature, they accept male domination, get behind the scenes and distract the menfolk by getting busy. Consequently, if Wonder Woman’s bracelets are chained together she loses her power, and Robinson had to wade through a lot of S&M themed editions as well as Marston’s copious lovefest fantasy notes to understand what was really going on.

Wonder Woman may be super powerful but she is not like Batman or Superman all muscly as she has to remain super sexy and attractive, with those magnificent breasts which stand up on their own in those metal breastplates. This means that she was super slim in the 40s and super toned in the 80s. She has always kept up her babe-status but is one of the rare female superheroes allowed to grow up: Super Girl for example never becomes Super Woman. She remains just a non-threatening girl. We don’t want our women fully grown, we want them malleable.

Robinson also points out that the term Superwoman is used to describe women who do everything, have a family, have a big career, run a home, which suggests potential exhaustion and no balance. There is no male equivalent. Men never talk about having it all. Men don’t need to have that conversation. So where does that leave us with self-actualised women and female superheroes?

Normally, at this point I turn to turn to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, it explains most things. However, this time I can’t. Maslow only used two women in his group of self-actualised people, which Betty Friedan pointed out in 1963. Though, Maslow himself said he never expected the psychology community to swallow it whole and cite it indefinitely, he wanted it to be debated.

So, what I guess I am asking now is: What does a superwoman look like when viewed through a female perspective? And, fiction aside: What does a self-actualised woman look like look through the eyes of another self-actualised woman? Yeah baby, that the movie I want to see.

Women’s work: Society, Storytelling, Technology (4)

We cannot live in a world that is not our own, in a world that is interpreted for us by others. An interpreted world is not a home. – Hildegard of Bingen

The above statue in Whitehall is a poignant reminder of the women of WWII who kept the country running but then were forced to hang up their uniforms and heroic identities, as Lillian Robinson puts it in Wonder Women, to return to domesticity, motherhood and consumerism. The men needed their jobs back and that was that.

Thanks to the massive propaganda effort, by the 1950s, it was accepted that a woman’s role was to help men. Anne Lamott illustrated this brilliantly in a recent podcast by describing how at a buffet at a social event, a man could not go up and get himself a plate of food, so a woman would go for him. He was far too busy, far too important thinking important things, so much so that when the woman got back, he might not even notice, he might not even say thank you for his food. He was too busy and important to notice and say thank you.

Lamott’s podcast was part of as part of a Sounds True series on Self-Acceptance, and the host, Tami Simon, said that it was the only podcast in the series which turned self-acceptance into a feminist issue. However, if someone doesn’t even see you to thank you because of your gender, when they have been given food by you, how can you see yourself and your gender as anything than less than? How can you feel acceptable? And, how do you learn to accept yourself when your sole role in life is to be ignored? Lamott said that it has taken her a lifetime to unlearn those patterns of unworthiness.

Marion Shaw says in Man does, Woman is, that women’s work has always been of low regard and lowly paid, and some women have been denied access to employment altogether. And, if as a woman you were able to get work in a domain outside of women’s work, then there was and still is the construct of being a woman in a man’s world and all the things that went and still go with it.

When I was a student, I worked on site at ICI. Women on the chemical plants were almost non-existent and they had not had a woman fixing PCs before. I had to prove my skills for holding down that job with each PC I repaired. Fast forward a few years, when I was on bridges in Switzerland, everyone downed tools and followed me about. One of the other engineers with me laughed at the amount of attention I was getting. Now older and wiser, I wonder why I didn’t question any of this. I had been interviewed and hired to do a job. I shouldn’t have had to prove my worth and my ability, each and every time I entered into a professional situation during the course of my working day.

During my first lecturing position, I was paid 12% less than the youngest male lecturer. When I asked the (male) Head of Department why as an older, more experienced person I was paid less, he got a bit nasty. I stood my ground and got a pay rise, but it was a pyrrhic victory, and still to this day saddens me, that a) I had to ask and b) I was spoken to as if I was being unreasonable for wanting to be recognised fiscally as someone equal to my colleagues.

However, my stories are tame. We have all seen the stories this week of Harvey Weinstein and recently, the sexist culture at Uber. Anecdotely, often on the playground at pick up and drop off, I hear disgraceful stories across all industries. In publishing, finance, the public sector, to name but a few, women have been pushed out, their jobs reduced or even taken off them. Recently one woman said to me, thinking aloud, on the retirement of a senior (male) colleague:

There must be something wrong with me, otherwise why would you give all your clients to someone junior to me?

And, that is what women do all the time. We question and doubt ourselves and we experience imposter syndrome, instead of recognising that we are being treated badly. We feel we shouldn’t be there, because for centuries, we have been told that we shouldn’t be there. And, it is so institutionalised across society that men just don’t even see women, and if they do they follow them around to oogle at their female form, or check that they can do the job, or they don’t think that they should be paid exactly the same amount of money to do exactly the same job.

I went to a series of seminars this year run by TRIGGER: Transforming Institutions by Gendering Contents and Gaining Equality in Research. And, whilst they are looking at ways to find solutions for tackling inequality, it is staggering that in 2017, these series needs to exist.

Some of the facts I got from the research which was presented there are as follows:

  • There is a 40% pay gap between genders in the Financial Services.
  • There is a definite gender bias in publishing.
  • There exists a male group think where women are not even seen, let alone considered.
  • Woman are penalised against in the TEF and REF.
  • Only 16% of women run boards and conferences, and even fewer are no doubt invited.

Yes, I have loads more facts but am too weary to type them all down because the rage and powerlessness I feel as I reflect on this blatant discrimination gets me down.

The government has spent millions on initiatives to get more women into the STEM professions but it remains that in my areas of Engineering and Computing (am capitalising English style): 15-20% of students are female but in my experience over the last two years it is more like 5%, 10-15% senior faculty are female, and 2% of professors are female. Research has shown that women are less likely to collaborate internationally and travel internationally. And, everyone is scratching their heads wondering why. Really? You really don’t know?

Personally, I believe that it is no good encouraging girls to go into these fields if you are not going to change the very nature of these fields. They are ripe for change. But, this would mean changing the whole of society and the view that men are legitimately allowed to be there and women aren’t and should be at home looking after the kids. Myself! I am too tired to fight and prove my worth anymore. I just want to tell any man who even dares to looks at me the wrong way to go forth and multiply, which of course I don’t, because then I would be deemed unprofessional and that I shouldn’t be there instead of recognising my behaviour as a righteous rage. I would never question whether a man should be there or not based on the way he looks.

And this is a recurring theme. Society recognises the legitimacy of men in a way they have yet to do for women. So, as a woman, please know that when you show up to work, understand that your status and hierarchy as a woman will not be respected, you will need to know how to influence too. And, you will need to be more visible too, e.g, yes be on a board, but you must be the editor not just a reviewer, as you will disappear down the cracks when it comes to promotion time, as no one will see at all the amazing contributions you have made. And, don’t have a career break, no, it will be detrimental to your career. I know my career definitely got messed up because of that gap – you know that one where I took time off to look after our future generations in that lowly unpaid role of women’s work.

It is exhausting and infuriating, and no man in any role even thinks about being seen and presenting and justifying the very space he occupies, before being allowed to get on to do the job he has been employed to do.

When I started thinking about this series one year ago, I asked many of the women I meet socially and professionally about it and many of them didn’t even want to think about the inequality of society, because it is depressing.

I have been mired down for months trying to write this blog series, and now I am here I am in a rage as I write. In spite of that, I am raising girls. I am raising girls and I want them to have better experiences than I have had in the workplace, I want their lives to be the great experiences that I can only dream of, because they are the future. So each time I look at my girls, those magnificent glorious expressions of the future, I put aside my fury and I research and I write in the hope of figuring out some solutions to make the world easier for them to be themselves in, because left to be themselves they will definitely make the world a better place in which to live, something I absolutely know for sure.

Women’s health: Society, Storytelling, Technology (3)

Source: Huffington Post

We cannot live in a world that is not our own, in a world that is interpreted for us by others. An interpreted world is not a home. – Hildegard of Bingen

Back in 2001, I wrote a paper based on part of my PhD research about function-structure-behaviour and got to thinking about serendipitous design which is when a happy accident has led to the discovery of a new thing. There are some famous examples like the text message and the post-it note, but, I wanted something different. So, I emailed round asking people, and got back vulcanised rubber, velcro, nylon stockings, mmm different, and then a female psychologist suggested the vibrator. Oh my!

The vibrator, so the story goes, was originally invented to help doctors who had tired hands from giving ‘pelvic massages’ to women to relieve their hysteria, long before it became a tool for pleasure. It does beg the question why did Victorian doctors starting putting their hands up women’s dresses to help with their minds? It reminds me of the time my mother nodded towards the consultant on a ward round who examined her and said: He’s never a doctor.

Older and wiser today, I applaud the psychologist’s creativity and think the vibrator is an extraordinary example of serendipitous design (though designed by men, so phallic shaped which is hardly surprising.  Lynne Segal says, even today the language of sex is phallocentric). Back then, I imagined myself at the conference in front of a load of men saying the word vibrator and went with the post-it note instead. Extraordinary example or not, it really wasn’t worth the aggro it could cause in the brain of any excitable male, who unable to see past my female physical form, would assume that me saying vibrator was code for please hit on me later. I mean why else would I be there, except to get me a maaaaan?

I have had many conversations with female academics who work in engineering and computing who have said: I don’t wear peep toe sandals, I don’t wear nail varnish, I don’t wear make-up. They eradicate anything which draws attention away from the smart things they are saying. And yet, I do not know a single male on this earth in any field who has ever felt the need to analyse his appearance in this way for fear that he will not be taken seriously, nor treated with the respect he deserves. Women are constantly subjected to being viewed as little more than objects even in a professional environment when they are there with a job to do. And, there are days, even now, when I feel the way a female cousin said to me once about a man disrespecting her: Somedays you just want to take an iron bar to the idiot and beat that respect out of him.

But, back to Victorian times, when doctors were busy putting their hands up their patients’ dresses and not getting struck off for it, the medical profession (men) believed that they had to keep a woman’s sexuality in check by getting them married and having children, as they believed that celibacy led to insanity.

And, once in that role of wife, the woman was encouraged not to do too much intellectual activity as it diverted the blood to her brain instead of her reproductive organs.

In her book Women, Madness, and Medicine, Denise Russell examines the lives of various writers such as Virginia Woolf and Charlotte Gilman Perkins who were advised to take a rest cure to dispel their creative urges, which were unhealthy. The only creativity they should have been doing was making babies. Motherhood was sold to women, as Marion Shaw puts it in Man Does, Woman Is, as their gift or their duty.

A woman could be an inspirer, but not the inspired; the muse, not the poet; the presence, not the activity. It may be a flattering notion (FOR FIVE MINUTES) but ultimately it was, and is, a dreadful, dreadful lie causing women to be defined from the outside, and to not be defined by themselves, and it still lingers to this day.

Danielle Laporte calls it the Patriarchal Lie of Authority: We know what is best for you and if you don’t do what we say then there is something wrong with you, which I guess is where #mansplaining comes from. How many men have come over to me and explained stuff about things they have no idea? Sometimes a male student will do it during lectures and I think: You have been thinking about this for two weeks under my guidance and I have been thinking about this 20 years, and yet you have to explain something to me. Would you do this if I was a man? And, when we get to assignment time you can guarantee the guy hasn’t really understood, because he wasn’t listening, he was too busy mansplaining.

On this blog, I have spent a lot of time talking about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, but nowhere on that triangle is there a level which tells you to suck it up, defer to someone else, and do exactly what someone else prescribes is good for you. No! No one knows what is better for you than yourself, so why does society insist on telling women exactly what is good for them, when society itself is so damaged and damaging?

Russell says that there have always been more women than men resident in mental hospitals since the 19th century, because a woman’s role in society is mentally unhealthy and yet women are encouraged to conform to this role because that is how they are socially valued. And still today, many buy into this. There was a great article this week in the Mirror about Louise Rednapp who fell hook, line and sinker for the con trick that domestic goddess breeds domestic goodness. Which sometimes it does. But other times breeds isolation, resentment and frustration, especially when it comes to sacrificing your own self-actualisation to support someone else’s.

Consequently, given the boring and restrictive lives many women led there were many forms of madness and women’s complaints. Once society had done away with healing women – hunted as witches – and the church gave up on the theory that mad people were possessed by the devil, the patriarchy moved into medicine and often conflated medical treatment with morals.

Robert Brudenell Carter studied men’s mental health in the Crimea, but he still had a theory that women were more emotional, had stronger sexual desires, and were hysterical for an audience. It didn’t occur to him, like the men he studied, they were doing something they just didn’t want to do and which wasn’t at all what they thought they had signed up for. His cure for their oppression was marriage. It was imperative to avoid women becoming that female archetype of voracious hunger and sexual insatiability, ‘cos wouldn’t we all be hunting down men for our next shag if we weren’t married? His theory was a ridiculous confusion of medicine and morals, and don’t get me started on the randy old bugger St Augustine and his original sin, just ‘cos he couldn’t keep it in his pants, he had to make it into something outside of himself.

Consequently, poor women or single mothers could be committed. Women who engaged in political activity could be committed. Any deviant behaviour was viewed as illness rather than an unwillingness or inability to fit into an oppressive stereotype and was treated as such and these women would be committed in the name of the patriarchal lie.

And, it is this pathological approach which extended not just to mental health but to physical health and still exists today. Menopause, pregnancy, and menstruation are managed like they are illnesses that we have to get through. They are scheduled and treated with hormones and painkillers with very little celebration of it being a natural process, the cycle of life, and trust in the body. Don’t get me wrong, without the intervention of modern medicine during childbirth I would not be here to tell the tale, nor would my daughters. But, how often have women been dismissed as being hysterical? Or told to come back in a year if it hasn’t sorted itself out? Or told: that pain is not that bad, it will improve after you have kids, from a man who will never experience childbirth nor period pain. And, when I hear men grunting in Bikram like they are about to give birth, I can’t help but wonder like feminist Flo Kennedy, how different the world might be if men were the ones who got pregnant and had kids. Would they remain in a restricted role? Would women go about explaining how things work incorrectly to them? Would they be told to stop whinging and suck it up? Just because a woman can give birth, it doesn’t mean that it is the only thing she can or should do. And, she shouldn’t be told how to live her life.

I can’t find a reference to this, but originally women were barred from the priesthood because of menstruation. How could they possibly hold the sacrament when they were unclean and bleeding? Ironic, given that it is supposed to represent or be (in Roman Catholicism) the body and blood of Christ. It is similar to the idea that women after childbirth weren’t allowed in society until they were ‘churched’ and made ‘clean’ again. Seriously? You can’t make this stuff up. Oh no right, they did.

We live nowadays in a society which publicly embraces equality but in reality does little to effect change because these thoughts and ideas about what a woman should be are so deeply entrenched and institutionalised, that it is going to take a revolution to shake off the subordinate social status of women and to see that women can have their own interpretation of the world, we don’t need the menfolk to explain to us how it all should work. They need to be quiet and listen to who we think we should be in it.

Women: Society, Storytelling, Technology (1)

The Mona Lisa in the Prado, Madrid

We cannot live in a world that is not our own, in a world that is interpreted for us by others. An interpreted world is not a home. – Hildegard of Bingen

At Easter, I was in the Prado Museum in Madrid when I wandered past this version of the Mona Lisa. Until that moment I hadn’t known it existed so it truly felt that I had discovered it, and I was able to look at it, through my own eyes and think my own thoughts without any expectation or expert opinion. It was overwhelming. It is a beautiful version and I am astounded anew every time I look at the postcard I have tacked up above my desk.

It reminds me of Philippa Gregory’s novels about the Tudors. They take the viewpoint of the women who played major roles during Tudor times but who were, because of the way society was organised, denied a voice, particularly the forgotten women like The Other Boleyn Girl, Mary; and Jane Grey’s sisters, Mary and Katherine in The Last Tudor. To coincide with the release of The Last Tudor last week, Philippa Gregory gave an interview in the New York Times saying that she was reading around the topic of medieval women with particular attention to how and why women get squeezed out of the marketplace, out of the law, and out of public service, and out of sight. I can’t wait to see what she has to say.

Just looking at the Mona Lisa, I already have an idea, for the original in the Louvre was labelled as Leonardo da Vinci’s handy woman. For the longest time, no one knew who the sitter was and no one really cared. It was all about da Vinci. The woman – it was decided around 2007 was probably Lisa del Giocondo – has been, for several centuries, an object on which people (let’s face it, mainly men) could project their own fantasies, which was why it was so refreshing to see a different version even though it remains symbolic of the position women have had in society for the longest time. They are silent, the muse of men, there to cater to the needs of men, treated like property, without autonomy, without legal rights. Women were powerless and helpless, and though things are much better nowadays, there is still a hangover from those days.

Life coach Martha Beck says: The most helpless feeling anyone can have in society is that of a little girl, when little boys cry they get called little girls. Little girls are at the bottom of the pile!

Things are changing slowly, with a lot of resistance. We only have to look at the fuss made over the next Dr Who and how a woman couldn’t play a time travelling alien with two hearts. Seriously? And the hatred expressed when Ghostbusters was remade in 2016: Ain’t no bitches gonna hunt no ghosts. I won’t even begin here my rants about the way women are portrayed in the media and in everyday conversation.

As a mum to girls, I feel that it is important for my girls to see a female Prime Minister, female leads in movies, female scientists, female sports women, female astronauts, female anything that my girls may want to be one day, because seeing a woman doing a job helps immensely. Even Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön says that she didn’t think she could teach Buddhism until she saw another woman teach it:

Before, I had felt there was no way could I ever do that, but now I felt like I could.

However, overall in technology and in academia in technology, where supposedly things change more quickly, there are still very few women. I have always felt about technology the way I feel about the Prado Mona Lisa, that there is no expectation and there is no expert opinion telling me, a woman, what I should and shouldn’t be doing or thinking as I spend my days absorbed in IT. However, not everyone shares my opinion. Recently, I was out socially and met several 20-something-years-old women who thought me doing IT was very cool but really hadn’t even imagined it could be a career possibility for them. And, the last two courses I taught this year (1st year undergraduate: Web Authoring and Databases) had only one woman in each course. It is sad to think that this relatively new and constantly changing field doesn’t have anything remotely approaching an equal men to women ratio.

On this blog I have written indirectly about women in storytelling and films but not in technology and just once in society which was really more about what I felt when I suffered through yet another bout of #mansplaining. I have put off writing up the research I have done, as one female academic friend summed it up perfectly by saying: It’s too depressing to think about.

So today, I am starting a blog series to look at women in society and in particular, technology to see if I can understand more about where we have been, where we are, and where we are going as women, so I can better explain to my girls how to navigate their way through this world to become anything they want to be. Wish me luck!

Creating space (5): Letting people be who they are

We have to acknowledge the pain of the present, the traumas of the past, and the broken dreams of the future – Matt Licata

The day I rang my dad to tell him what the plan was for treating the cancer I had been diagnosed with, he said: You haven’t really got cancer, have you? Not really. I read about it on the Internet.

I was so angry, I could barely speak: Err, yes I have, that is why I am now starting what will be probably a year in total of treatment (it turned out to be two). But, even though I was raging, he just couldn’t stop himself insisting that I hadn’t really got cancer.

I now see that it was just him unable to witness me potentially fall apart, or worse. We had just been through three years of life or death treatment with my daughter and two years of mental and physical illness with my mum and so my news tapped into a hopelessness and grief he hadn’t had space to process and which he could no longer manage which is why he felt the need to talk me out of my experience. He died one year later, his big, kind heart couldn’t take anymore.

Don’t wear your heart on a sleeve

My dad is an extreme example of not being able to recognise or bear witness to another’s fear and pain. But, it is not uncommon. Last week, I went to my uncle’s funeral and one completely lovely relative said to me: Don’t cry, Ruth, – words we say to one another all the time which are comforting, but are really, deep down, a plea asking someone to keep it together, behave better, and stop reminding everyone about the pain and agony in their own hearts.

Anyone who has cancer can tell you how, when you tell someone your news, the person opposite you will chime in – often part way through your story – to tell you about their friend/relative/loved one who has/had cancer too. They launch into a massive tale that you really haven’t got the emotional strength to hear, let alone bear witness to. People can’t stand you. They cannot stand to hear your pain, as it taps into theirs until they just have to share their pain, in the hope of feeling better, which in this scenario doesn’t really work.

After some God-awful-into-the-abyss-experiences when I felt myself freefalling into the fear which has no beginning or end, I took to interrupting people: Has this story got a happy ending?

I know now this is why one wise doctor advised me to be very careful when thinking about telling people I had cancer. After some God-awful-into-the-abyss-experiences when I felt myself freefalling into the fear which has no beginning or end, I took to interrupting people: Has this story got a happy ending? Otherwise, left to their own pain and sadness, people would quite amazingly finish whatever very long, horrific tale with: AND THEN THEY DIED….!!! #ffs. I know more stories about cancer and kidney transplants than anyone in their right mind can bear.

Holding space

It is very hard to watch someone fall apart under the weight of a life experience, to fall into that dreadful emotional agony, without wanting to stop it, to shush it, to shove it all back down to where it is manageable. It takes even greater strength to stand there and share that agony by acknowledging it and being a witness so that you allow someone to express what they must, but I am starting to think that it is the only way to live this life. We have to acknowledge the pain of the present, the traumas of the past, and the broken dreams of the future as psychotherapist Matt Licata puts it in a lovely facebook post, so that you can be of service to yourself and others.

Managing others experiences

When my baby had tubes coming out of her and I had no hair at all, I used to watch all the mums going off on their lovely coffee/play dates, as I made my lonely way home. We were not invited. It seemed that we were not wanted because we looked different. We had scars which demonstrated that life can serve up terrible experiences inexplicably, without rhyme or reason, so it was easier not to have us around. No one wanted to be reminded of the fragility of life.This made me feel ashamed as if there was something wrong with me: why couldn’t I just be normal? Talk normally? And, most of all not cry. The rejection scarred me deeper than any surgeon’s scalpel.

One mum kindly admitted last year that people dreaded seeing us as you never knew what terrible thing might have happened to us since the last terrible thing. In a strange way her admission made me feel better. It wasn’t me, it was them. Just the other day I bumped into one of those mums who breezily asked me how our health was, I ignored her (a new skill I have when I don’t want to answer a question which can undo me, sometimes I just shake my head) but she asked me several times. I think she asked because it looked like she would get a safe answer in the middle of H&M, because even now she wants my experience to be one that she can manage, and she can feel she expressed the appropriate amount of concern without me touching her fear.

But if you do, it is in there that you let them decide what the meaning of it all is and allow them to be exactly what and who they are. You are giving them the greatest gift of all – the gift of love.

It seems to me that when you get breezy, avoid, or interrupt someone, you are forgetting that they are human, and that they are innocent and whole underneath the wounds which frighten you so much. But it is very hard to not interrupt other peoples’ energy – to let them have the space to let off steam and to let the conversation flow. But if you do, it is in there that you let them decide what the meaning of it all is and allow them to be exactly what and who they are. You are giving them the greatest gift of all – the gift of love. None of us get enough love says meditation teacher davidji to which he adds, and none of us breathes deeply enough.

However, if you cannot hold the space, ask yourself what it is that makes you so afraid? I know I am still afraid, still anxious, still hurting after all this time, and I don’t always manage conversations well. Meditation makes it better but it is agony, which is funny as that is the topic of the last conversation I had with my dad, which would surprise anyone who knew him. He was a rock, who could sit in the company of the wounded, the dying and make it right, make it better. He had a magnificent compassion that was pure unconditional love. However, that night, on the phone, he got me to read out the side effects of my latest round of painkillers, in case they would be good for him, he was in pain, and then he said he was having trouble sleeping/managing/being and I said that he had to meditate, ‘cos I had just read a book by Deepak Chopra on it. He said: Effing Deepak Chopra… and there was a load of chuntering on and more swearing until he admitted: Meditation is so hard. And so it is.

Be not afraid: Energy exchange for the broken hearted

Lately, I have been practising Tonglen a Buddhist meditation technique for overcoming the fear and suffering my dad was swearing about. Danielle La Porte sums it up in the Firestarter sessions as:

Breathe in for all of us and breathe out for all of us. Breathe in suffering— yours, others, the world’s. Breathe out compassion— for yourself, for others, for the world.

Basically when you feel brokenhearted, which I currently do, you breathe in the very pain that is undoing you, and you lean into the unbearable agony of it all, and then you breathe out love. You may feel that you are going to shatter into a million little pieces, but then a little magic happens and you exchange one emotion for another. You do it for yourself, and for all the ones who broke your heart, and for those who broke their own hearts, and by doing so broke your heart so badly that you feel nothing good will ever happen again. And, you keep doing it, in and out, in and out, in and out, until the pain is bearable and not so heart breaking and not so frightening and it has become a noble pain of service. Who knew that the simple act of breathing could be so powerful?

The most often repeated words in the Bible are: Be not afraid and yet it is the hardest thing to be, not afraid. And yet, it is the only thing to be, in order to live life with love and to truly connect with others, we have to learn to be not afraid. As my old dad used to always say:

The only thing to fear is fear itself.

Until you can know that, deep down in your broken, tender heart, the only thing to do is breathe.