Fifty-three years ago Dr Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated in Memphis. He was in the city to support striking sanitation workers who marched carrying signs that bore a simple statement: I am a man. The slogan was chosen, striker Elmore Nickleberry told NPR, because “most of the time they’d call us boys.”
The night before his death, which was the night before a protest march, Dr King gave a speech famed for its rousing finale: ” I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!”
Each term I share this speech with my students as a masterpiece of rhetoric, a master class in persuasive writing. I ask them to listen to the whole speech, including the less-often quoted part that made Dr King’s existence a threat to a certain segment of society.
“Now the other thing we’ll have to do is this. Always anchor our external direct action with the power of economic withdrawal…
“We don’t have to argue with anybody. We don’t have to curse and go around acting bad with our words. We don’t need any bricks and bottles. We don’t need any Molotov cocktails. We just need to go around to these stores, and to these massive industries in our country, and say,
“God sent us by here, to say to you that you’re not treating his children right. And we’ve come by here to ask you to make the first item on your agenda fair treatment, where God’s children are concerned. Now, if you are not prepared to do that, we do have an agenda that we must follow. And our agenda calls for withdrawing economic support from you.”
And so, as a result of this, we are asking you tonight, to go out and tell your neighbors not to buy Coca-Cola in Memphis. Go by and tell them not to buy Sealtest milk. Tell them not to buy — what is the other bread? — Wonder Bread. And what is the other bread company, Jesse? Tell them not to buy Hart’s bread. As Jesse Jackson has said, up to now, only the garbage men have been feeling pain; now we must kind of redistribute the pain. We are choosing these companies because they haven’t been fair…
But not only that, we’ve got to strengthen black institutions. I call upon you to take your money out of the banks downtown and deposit your money in Tri-State Bank. We want a “bank-in” movement in Memphis. Go by the savings and loan association. I’m not asking you something that we don’t do ourselves at SCLC. Judge Hooks and others will tell you that we have an account here in the savings and loan association from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. We are telling you to follow what we are doing. Put your money there. You have six or seven black insurance companies here in the city of Memphis. Take out your insurance there. We want to have an “insurance-in.”
‘I have a dream’? Cool. Black kids and white kids joining hands? Fine.
Black citizens boycotting racist corporations and seeking economic empowerment? That’s dangerous talk.
When we honor Dr King, let’s honor him as a warrior for economic justice. He knew there was no chance of equality, freedom or social justice in a system predicated on economic oppression.
Listen to Dr King’s speech today. The truths and challenges he speaks are still with us.
“We mean business now, and we are determined to gain our rightful place in God’s world,” he said that fateful night. “And that’s all this whole thing is about. We aren’t engaged in any negative protest and in any negative arguments with anybody. We are saying that we are determined to be men. We are determined to be people. We are saying that we are God’s children. And that we are God’s children, we don’t have to live like we are forced to live.”
This article about my trip to the 2012 Irrawaddy Literary Festival in Myanmar was written for the Free Word Centre. Recent events there show that freedom is as tenuous as it is precious.
Free Thinking from the Irrawaddy Literature Festival
At the beginning of February 2013, the Irrawaddy Literature Festival drew readers and writers from around the world to the city of Yangon in Myanmar. In a country which has lived under the rule of a repressive military junta for more than half a century, it was a cultural and political landmark that allowed writers to gather, speak and exchange ideas freely for the first time in recent history. Cila Warnke visited the festival to see how a country crippled by censorship is starting to find its voice.
It was, in many respects, a literary festival like any other. There were book signings and a photo exhibition. Puppets for the children and grown-ups drinking lager on the verandah. Book stalls bursting with everything from Beatrix Potter to physics texts. On a sweep of grass between the Inya Lake and the hotel were tents where you could buy journals and newspapers, join charitable organisations or get a bite to eat. There were little differences, though. Buddhist monks in brick-red robes chatted as they sifted through volumes. The food stands offered rice noodle salad sprinkled with pungent dried shrimps. Women and men alike drifted through the heat in the traditional longyi – an ankle-length wrap skirt knotted at the waist.
In the cool interior of the Cold War-era hotel (a gift to the government of Myanmar from Nikita Kruschev) other, subtler, differences became apparent. Prior to the event, co-organiser Giles Fitzherbert voiced his hope that the festival would “open a window that has been half-shut for so long… [and] help turn Burma from an inward looking country into an outward looking country.” This sense of purpose was the thread that linked panel discussions about library usage, memoirs, debates about literary developments, and conversations about how a nation successfully transitions from censorship and repression to freedom of thought.
Democratic political reform has given Myanmar new hope after nearly fifty years under an ugly-minded military junta, but achieving openness is a complex, multi-faceted task . At the Irrawaddy Literary Festival four things emerged as preconditions to lasting change: political freedom, education, economics and international cooperation.
One of the liveliest speakers at the festival was Jung Chang, author of Wild Swans, which tells of life during China’s Cultural Revolution. Though many of her anecdotes were hilarious (she told of accosting sailors in bars to practice her English – “You can imagine what they were thinking!”) but the bones of her tale are tragic. She was exiled at age 16; her father was forced to burn his beloved library; she was denied education. In the darkest days of Mao’s war on intellectuals there was no reason to hope. It was only when the violence eased and Mao reopened the universities that she was able to study, winning a scholarship to study in Britain.
As Chang’s story vividly illustrates, without political freedom there can be no intellectual or literary liberty. Jean Seaton, director of The Orwell Prize, spoke of being “blessed to live in peace and freedom” – a sentiment shared by the event’s other Western attendees. For those of us accustomed to freedom of expression, censorship is unimaginable. But for many of the authors at the festival it is the only reality they know. The Myanmar government lifted censorship in 2012, meaning that for the first time in 50 years writers and journalists did not have to submit their work for approval prior to publication. In January 2013 the censorship board was disbanded.
That the government could, with the stroke of a pen, abolish this long-standing apparatus of oppression is both heartening and cautionary. What can be done can be undone, and Myanmar writers acknowledged that a true end to censorship lies in the future. “We used to say, ‘the censor has moved into our head with his chair and desk, and lives there,’” said Pe Myint, author of more than 40 books. Silencing their internal censors is a struggle that every writer will face in the coming years. Myint also raised the prospect of tacit or post-publication censorship, even if the letter of the law remains on the side of press freedom.
The late dictator Ne Win banned the teaching of English in the 1960s. He eventually rescinded his ban but not before a generation or two grew up without learning a word. This makes it almost impossible to communicate with ordinary Myanmar.
On the first day of the festival we set off for Inya Lake, armed with a map clearly marked with our destination. Our taxi driver didn’t speak or understand English, but he examined it, nodded and we set off through the sticky morning smog. After twenty minutes, he pulled up in front of a hotel and gestured hopefully. It wasn’t Inya Lake. Another consultation with the map and off we went again. After some quality time in one of Yangon’s ubiquitous traffic jams we arrived at another hotel. Also not Inya Lake. I was fizzing with frustration at this point. Finally, after another turn around the centre of town and several stops for directions wefinally reached our destination. Only later did it occur to me that the English place names on our map were probably as incomprehensible to our driver as Myanmar script is to me.
This was just the first of dozens of encounters, inciting varying levels of frustration, that hammered home the importance of a lingua franca. The woeful state of English language skills is the most obvious manifestation of Myanmar’s overall educational deficit. One of the military junta’s favourite repression tactics was closing the universities. Students were sent to rural areas, or assigned home studies, to supress political action. Writing in The Irrawaddy, Denis D. Gray notes that “Burma is saddled with two generations of chemistry professors who have never conducted a proper laboratory experiment and mechanical engineers yet to handle hands-on equipment.” Another journalist I met remarked there are probably no more than five psychologists in the whole country.
There was much discussion at the literary festival about how to overcome these barriers. Local libraries, such as those attached to the United Nations and the American Centre, are working hard with limited resources. They offer books, journals and space where people can come and use computers. Perhaps more importantly, they give training in how to use libraries and computers. Thant Thaw Kaung, who helps create village libraries, noted that, as in the West, TV, mobile phones and the internet compete for people’s time and attention. In his words, “we have to support the reading habit.”
Aung San Suu Kyi speaks at the launch of the Irrawaddy Iterary Festival. Aung San Suu Kyi speaks at the launch of the Irrawaddy Iterary Festival.
Dr. Thant Myant-U, author of the superb Myanmar history The River of Lost Footsteps, spoke at the festival in his capacity as founder and director of the Yangon Heritage Trust, which aims to preserve the city’s unique Colonial architecture, as well as promote much-needed improvements to planning and infrastructure. Yangon’s crumbling buildings and surreal pavements testify to decades when the military rulers exploited the country’s natural resources for their own benefit and poured up to a quarter of the national budget into arms.
Neglecting the basic needs of their cities and citizens had a predicitable impact on education and welfare, too. Alex Mackenzie, of the British Council, said that poorer children often leave education after primary school to work, a fact attested to by the city’s hordes of awfully young waiters, shop assistants and street vendors. Human infrastructure, even more than the buildings, is crying out for proper investment and planning. Clearly there will not be any improvement in education until the economic barriers are removed, which means legislating school attendance and funding child welfare. Broad, systemtic changes have to come from the goverment but private initiative has a role to play as well. Aung San Suu Kyi and the British Ambassador, Andrew Heyn, announced two scholarships and presented prizes to the winners of an essay contest.
It is easy to look at a patchily-developed country with a rocky history and conclude it needs the wealth and wisdom of the West. After a fortnight in Myanmar, I’m not convinced that they need us more than we need them. Yes, foreign investment is good for the economy, and will hopefully aid development and raise living standards, but it would be arrogant to think of ourselves as benfactors. As Alex Mackenzie put it: “Myanmar doesn’t need things, it needs the exchange of ideas.”
Myanmar is tough and self-sufficient. Many of its citizens have endured suffering we can only imagine. They are under no illusions about who they are or their place in the world, and they are not looking for charity. The literary festival was more than half funded by local businesses, and organisers Jane Heyn and Giles Fitzherbert, as well as patron Aung San Suu Kyi, expressed the hope that future festivals will be run entirely by local organisations.
This is a modest ambition. Despite its political, educational and economic challenges, Myanmar has an air of resiliance. The mere fact that just two years into its transition to democracy it is almost impossible to imagine the previous repression shows a laudable refusal to wallow. The literary festival is a product of this new freedom. It is also testament to hope for the future. According to Daw Suu Kyi, “literature is not just for fun, or to pass the time. It is a learning process.”
If there is a lesson to draw from the Irrawaddy Literary Festival it is that this process takes place in surprising ways, under even the toughest of circumstances, and as long as it does there is always hope for the future.
The late literary genius and humanist nonpareil James Baldwin spoke for Black Lives Matter decades before the movement gained a name. And as a gay black man, born poor, he understood intersectionality in a profound sense.
Baldwin’s gifts included the ability to study himself and report, however painful or unflattering the truths that emerged. This spawned an empathy as rare as wise. He didn’t excuse cruelty but he acknowledged and, as a writer, rendered in meticulous detail the pain that (often) underlies it.
The following quotes, from interviews and from his fiction, articulate truths that are as urgent and relevant today as when he uttered them.
“Look, we live in Harlem, let’s say, or we live in Watts. The mother who comes down there with his cap and his own gun in his holster, he doesn’t know what my day is like. He doesn’t know why I get drunk when I do. He doesn’t know anything about me at all. He’s scared shitless of me. Now, what the fuck is he doing there? All he can do is shoot me. He’s a hired concentration-camp keeper…. All you can do is bring in tanks and tear gas—and call the National Guard when it gets too tight. And think you can fight a civil war and a global war at the same time.”
“The black cat in the streets wants to protect his house, his wife and children. And if he is going to be able to do this he has to be given his autonomy, his own schools, a revision of the police force in a very radical way. It means, in short, that if the American Negro, the American black man, is going to become a free person in this country, the people of this country have to give up something. If they don’t give it up, it will be taken from them.”
“The country has got the police force it deserves, and of course if a policeman sees a black cat in what he considers a strange place he’s going to stop him—and you know of course the black cat is going to get angry. And then somebody may die. But it’s one of the results of the cultivation in this country of ignorance. Those cats in the Harlem street, those white cops; they are scared to death and they should be scared to death. But that’s how black boys die, because the police are scared.”
“I’d learned how to get by. I’d learned never to be belligerent with policemen, for instance. No matter who was right, I was certain to be wrong…. I only had one head and it was too easy to get it broken… I figured out what answers he wanted and I gave them to him. I never let him him think he wasn’t king.”
“Those boys, now, were living as we’d been living then, they were growing up with a rush and their heads bumped abruptly against the low ceiling of their actual possibilities. They were filled with rage.”
“For everyone’s life begins on a level where races, armies, and churches stop. And yet everyone’s life is always shaped by races, churches, and armies; races, churches, armies menace, and have taken, many lives.”
“To be forced to excavate a history is, also, to repudiate the concept of history, and the vocabulary in which history is written; for the written history is, and must be, merely the vocabulary of power, and power is history’s most seductively attired false witness…. One thing is absolutely certain: one can repudiate, or despise, no one’s history without repudiating or despising one’s own. Perhaps that is what the gospel singer is singing.”
“All the years that we spent in and out of the South, I always wanted to say to those poor white people, so busy turning themselves and their children into monsters: Look. It’s not we who can’t forget. You can’t forget. We don’t spend all our waking and sleeping hours tormented by your presence. We have other things to do: don’t you have anything else to do? Maybe you really don’t? Maybe the difference between us is that I never raped your mother, or your sister, or if and when I did, it was out of rage, it was not my way of life… Maybe the difference between us is that I’ve never been afraid of the prick you, like all men, carry between their legs and I never arranged picnics so that I could cut it off of you before large, cheering crowds.”
Because I don’t want to walk around thinking the next breath is going to kill me, or someone else. For the first time, I have an inkling how some men feel about condom use. Yeah, sure fine it’s the most appropriate thing to do but goddamn it, who wants to experience the world through a prophylactic shield?
Cherry blossoms are out, yellow wands of broom, did I mention the walnut trees are leafing? The air is pristine, sharp and Atlantic-cold. Our neighbor trundles up and down the road in an old red tractor, moving wine-sweet hay bales.
I do not want to touch the world with rubber fingers and breathe through layers of activated carbon. Why the hell would I sign up for that? Why not just lock myself in a sterile box and wait to die?
Okay, it’s not that dramatic but something important is being (has been?) lost in all this. Our sense of touch is already degraded from devoting too much of it to digital screens. We rarely breathe as deeply as we should. This stupid cunning virus is robbing us not just of too many lives but, sneakily, of things that make life worth living.
I’ll probably end up like wearing a mask for the common good (assuming I can beg borrow or steal one) but I refuse to think it is a Good Thing, in a larger sense.
We cannot do without enjoyment, wrote to Jack Gilbert. The ordinary sensual pleasures of filling our lungs and encountering the world through touch are not dispensable.
Last year, Chris and I spent Easter week with our dear, long-long-long-standing friends
C & R in Yorkshire. On the edge of the moors. Next door, it transpired, to my ex-boyfriend (who, true to form, was smoking on the front porch as I had my first cup of coffee).
Twelve months ago, someone I’d met and dated in Ibiza turning up next-door in a northern English was cause to murmur, small world.
Today, proof of the world’s smallness is inescapable and grim. The ticker-tape death toll mounts, the number of official coronavirus cases races towards two million and even the most fortunate of us hunker at home, waiting for a future that might never happen (that’s cribbed from Mavis Gallant, who wrote exquisitely about societies in meltdown and the delusions they cherish on the way to the flames).
There seems to be a split take on COVID-19. Either, it’s going to usher in hitherto unimaginable era of mutual support and higher consciousness or we’re going to be dragged (resisting or not) back into the machine and crushed between the cogs of resurgent capitalism.
What is about to be unleashed on American society will be the greatest campaign ever created to get you to feel normal again. It will come from brands, it will come from government… the all-out blitz to make you believe you never saw what you saw. The air wasn’t really cleaner; those images were fake. The hospitals weren’t really a war zone; those stories were hyperbole. The numbers were not that high; the press is lying. You didn’t see people in masks standing in the rain risking their lives to vote. Not in America.
When a storm subsides, the air is washed clean of whatever particulate matter has been obscuring the view, and you can often see farther and more sharply than at any other time. When this storm clears, we may, as do people who have survived a serious illness or accident, see where we were and where we should go in a new light. We may feel free to pursue change in ways that seemed impossible while the ice of the status quo was locked up. We may have a profoundly different sense of ourselves, our communities, our systems of production and our future.
(To be fair, Solnit is no Pollyanna. Most of her longform piece details how fucked things are and how stacked the cards are against people trying to unfuck them.)
It says something about my own wiring that I feel compelled to take sides, to argue the case. Coronavirus has turned me into armchair experts. Like a sad gambler, I stare at screens, watch the numbers, argue my interpretation of the stats, have opinions about things I zero right to opine about (South Korea’s testing policy! Sweden’s schools!)
This impulse has to do with lack of control. I value knowing things, having well-formed and well-informed ideas. In other words, I’m an instant relic; a creature who belongs to the bigger yet more predictable world that existed before January 2020.
Taking sides, prognosticating, surmising and supposing are ways to pass the time but little more. (Aside: I was listening to a TED en Espanol talk about coronavirus from 16 March; it felt like listening to a historical reenactment.)
If this pestilent mess proves anything, it’s that opinion is pretty much beside the point.
Still, if I had place a few bob on an outcome, my money is on business as usual with a twist. Advertisers will come after what’s left of our bank accounts, governments will wrangle for the remaining shreds of our civil liberties, global warming will heat back up and we will not turn into kinder, gentler, better versions of ourselves.
Nonetheless, we may be more attuned to the ludicrousness of the situation, and quicker to say so, to complain or resist. I hope so, anyway.
Above all, a year from now, I hope to be with friends somewhere, drinking, breathing fresh air, gossiping about some minor coincidence. That would be a happy ending.
Once, apropos who knows what, a colleague said that one’s family is ‘obviously’ easy to get on with. I argued then, and argue now, that however much and sincerely we love someone, intimacy and proximity often cause carelessness.
I choose, when engaging with friends, to not sulk and storm. My time focused on them is brief so, even on bad days, I can muster the energy to be a slightly better self.
This isn’t falseness so much as simple courtesy. Other people have feelings too, and limited time, and worries. It is unkind to fill up their head space, which is surely every bit as overcrowded and precarious-feeling as mine, with solopsistic whinging.
But when you’re with someone round the clock, for the indefinite, it is easy to feel like every moment doesn’t count. Like, it’s okay to be grumpy and skip showering because he’s going to be here tomorrow (and the next day, and the next day).
Slipping into this perilous relaxation happens when we treat love as a noun. I love him, he loves me, ergo I can do what I like.
Fair is fair
The trouble is reconciling my bellyaching inner child with the duties of an adult relationship. I’m an individual, entitled to feel and express my feelings. Granted.
My partner is also entitled to not live with a whiffy harpy.
Excuse me while I shove a tea-towel in the gob of the me, me, me voice in my head.
It is only right to acknowledge that my rights end when they being to infringe on someone else’s. Yes, I have every right to curse, moan and carp; but when my crappy mood blackens the air for both of us, I’ve overstepped.
Basic courtesies like this are what allow us to maintain friendships and relationships. Letting ourselves act and react unchecked is what leads to breakups, meltdowns and guest spots on Jerry Springer (if that’s even still a thing).
Get to work, love
Making it work, in real time, means doing love not just giving ourselves credit for feeling it. Love has to be a verb, or it risks losing any real meaning.
Love, the verb, is making the effort to find something funny or pleasant to talk about, it’s not complaining constantly, it’s taking a shower and remember to put on deodorant, it’s shutting up for a minute and listening, it’s keeping some of the more outrageous paranoid thoughts to yourself, it’s saying ‘we’ll be okay’ even if that seems like a stretch.
Ursula LeGuin, the (Oregonian!) stalwart of goodness, sanity and fine prose, said:
Love is not a thing that happens to us. It’s a thing we do. It’s not a thing that lives inside of us and can be left to its own devices. It’s an action. It’s not an experience. It’s a way of relating.
Of late, my way of relating has been sub-optimal, to put it mildly. Which is, and this I must remember, okay. Only Pollyanna or a complete ditz believes that long-term confinement, financial precarity and uncertainty bring out the best in people.
It can’t be all or nothing anymore though. I can’t be one of those positivity freaks (and would hate myself more if I tried) but that isn’t licence to be unbearable.
For now, I’ll do my best in the circumstances and try to keep faith with love, the verb.
Since I was 12 or so, running has been my talisman against self-destruction. It hasn’t kept me slim (that was an early-20s drug cocktail followed by vegetarianism) or particularly fit — after more than 25 years of running regularly I still take an hour to run a 10K — but it kept me functional, if not always happy.
The worst of this godforsaken lockdown is not even being allowed out to exercise. The minor saving grace is we have a driveway, or mini-camino, that is the only part of the property currently free of knee- to hip-high grass.
After five or so days of trying to get a buzz off yoga I started jogging in the driveway.
It is about 75 metres long, uneven, inconsistently cambered and comprised of a variety of surfaces. Beyond the concrete slab in front of the house is a spot of mud from where we turn the car round. This gathers itself into a mossy, grassy hump I cover in two strides before settling into the right-hand tyre track.
The driveway subsides going away from the house till it reaches the j-bend up to the paved road. About halfway down, at the end of a crumbling, overgrown stone wall, a walnut tree is putting out leaves. They are still tightly furled, waiting, presumably, for some solar encouragement before showing face.
Chris has tramped along the verge with our trusty hand-mower, keeping the grass reasonably lawnish for about 50 metres. Beyond the close-cut strip is an explosion of waist-high weeds. There is dandelion and stinging nettle in there, but mostly some skinny chancer with reddish seed pods. No idea what it is.
Romeo, the tiger-ish looking one of our twin boy cats, usually stakes out a spot at the end of the driveway during my run. Yesterday, he sat at attention, perfectly immobile, for about 15 minutes, staring at something I couldn’t see. He may be a Zen master.
I am not.
Today’s news was that Pedro Sanchez, Spain’s improbably debonair, well-spoken and (I believe, as of today) utterly useless, mashed-potato-brained president has threatened/requested an extension of the state of emergency until 10 May.
While I’m rarely carefree I am also not often apoplectic. Continuous low-level outrage and cynicism seems to inoculate me against the wilder mood swings.
Hearing we are going to be trapped in a rain-sodden ice box of a house, in a place neither of us have any love or affinity, for makes me want to put my fist through a wall.
As I write, my chest feels like it is self-compressing. If it weren’t for Chris napping upstairs and the cats (Teddy in particular is distressed by loud noises) I would scream.
Running is supposed to help when I feel like this. Watching my footfall, adjusting my posture, picking up my knees, monitoring my breathing, these things can help.
So I run, counting out the laps: 2.5, 3… 5… 10… 14.5… 23…
On odd-numbered laps I run faster, picking my way between extrusions of natural rock — pinkish, glimmering with tiny crystals — and detritus: rubber piping, smashed tiles, bin liners, odd bits of plastic embedded in the hard earth. Uncut hair flops damp against my forehead. My left Achilles tendon twinges a warning.
Near the end of the drive, on the right (as you face the house) is a bare tree with small white flowers. Must check with my sister later, she’s the garden wizard.
Add that to the post-release list: plant a garden. Be ready, when (not if) this shit comes raining down next. Dig potatoes and pluck herbs.
The permanent mist thickens and moves purposefully. Rain, now, really.
I jog/wheel/sprint/job/wheel through the 40s without shedding the desire to inflict damage on something. I’m going to need a lot of therapy, which I can’t afford.
And the reasons I can’t afford therapy are part of the reasons I’m at risk of melting into a lava pit of rage and self-loathing without it. None of which can be addressed now, or in a week, month, or perhaps a year.
That’s the kicker, as I turn through 47… 49… 52… Nobody knows when, or how, this ends. (I’ll take ‘bang’, if that’s an option.)
Sometime ago, in the hazy days when freedom still seemed like a possibility, however faint, I wrote a pile of rubbish.
Writing rubbish isn’t an occupational hazard, it’s inevitable. Most writing is crap in the aesthetic/artistic sense: unrefined, hasty, careless, lacking finesse. Ninety-five to ninety-nine percent of anything I write falls in that category and, for the sake of sanity, has to be accepted as ‘good enough’ otherwise I would never make a deadline.
The article for which I need to apologize isn’t that kind of rubbish. It is pure, unmitigated cringe. My strong inclination is to wipe the pile of twaddle titled ‘10 things to do on coronavirus lockdown‘ from the internet and, if it were possible, from my memory.
What kind of grade-A asshole writes, in the face of a global pandemic, things like:
Always wanted a capsule wardrobe? This is the moment to dig through those chests of drawers, wardrobes, cupboards and shoe boxes and sort the wheat from the chaff. If this current crisis demonstrates anything it’s that certainties aren’t. Stop holding on to that sale-rack outfit you bought for the occasion that never happened.
Do something with your fingers that isn’t typing. Do you draw? Paint? Sculpt? Throw pottery? Play an instrument? Knit? Quilt? Scrapbook? If you do — awesome. Now you have time to throw yourself into it. Get into the flow and lose a few hours, see what you can create.
The smug wanna-be positivity MindBodyGreen-lite-esque-ness of that makes me want to crawl inside my skin and pop my eyes out from the inside.
My words stare at me: the image of myself I don’t want to see.
Worse than silly, worse than naive, worse than tone-deaf, worse than irritating.
Phony. Forced. What she thinks someone (or some algorithm) wants to hear.
Let’s be clear: I have never in my life looked on the bright side. I have never seen the silver lining before the cloud. I have never thought the glass was half-full.
As a kid, I believed neither in Santa nor happiness. Not much has changed.
Though I am conscious of and grateful for the many good things in my life my default setting is not optimism. My primary emotions are boredom, frustration, fear, and disappointment.
Before COVID-19 I worried about dying without having accomplished anything. Now, after 27 days of my own company, unrelieved by the mental-health saving drudgery of work and other people, that meaningless death feels inevitable — and my own fault.
The inescapable fear is that if I were a person who could take my own vapid advice (“If you aren’t already studying something, check out online learning resources”) maybe I would have something to show for 40 years on earth. But I’m not and, it seems, I don’t.
No doubt some people are using quarantine to repaint their cupboards, learn Danish or perfect their eclair recipe. Whoever and wherever you are, I salute you.
Trying, unsuccessfully, to remember what having freedom, or a libido, felt like.
Running up and down my driveway.
There is so much to be angry about. I’m angry at myself, at global capitalism, at politicians, at the old ladies in the grocery store who travel in packs, at the weather, at my inability to concentrate, at my helplessness, at my writing skills, at my ex-boss, at the banks, at timing, at circumstances, at the whole stinking croaking aching joyless goddamn mess.
Whenever, if ever, we get out of it, I’d like very much to see my friends, go to the beach, go to a gig, hug someone without worrying one of us will be mortally sick as a result.
Until then, I’m hanging on by my fingernails, not using this as an opportunity for self-improvement. My sincerest apologies for suggesting otherwise.
Three years ago, on a bright blue morning, Chris and I walked to the Shelby County Courthouse in downtown Memphis and got married. He wore a charcoal grey jumper and Doc Martin Chelsea boots. I wore a black silk mini-dress and the gold leather pumps I wore for my first wedding, more than a decade earlier.
After the judge pronounced us legally wed, we went to our favorite restaurant and celebrated with black-eyed pea hummus and prosecco.
Food has always been central to our relationship. Our first date was in at a Mexican restaurant – vegan mole topped with pickled purple onions, one too many margaritas. Since then, we’ve eaten (and drunk) our way around Europe and the States, finding favorites that, while we may never see them again, are touchstones. We move and travel a lot. The restaurants and bars stay, reassuringly, in place. It is a comfort to know we can go to London or Barcelona, Denver or Memphis, and rediscover our memories in flavors.
This was the black-eyed pea hummus wedding lunch joint, but Babalu was more than that. It was where we went for happy hour when I finished work, taking advantage of $2-off glasses of wine, chatting with the servers while we wolfed down tacos made with handmade corn tortillas.
A few minutes drive from the house, Pyro’s was can’t-be-bothered-to-cook evenings, and let’s-have-a-treat (for under a tenner) occasions. It is one of those build your own pizza places and, because or despite being a chain, has a credible gluten free base. The staff were always sweet – high school kids, early-20-somethings, smiling in the face of latex gloves and polyester uniforms. Another draw: the hot sauce collection arrayed on the condiments table. As much habanero, jalepeno and ghost chilli as we could stand.
Our first trip to London together, part of our week-long second date. Of course, I wanted to go to Soho, a few blocks of cramped, crowded streets woven into more than 15 years of memories. We cut through St Anne’s Court and spotted Tostado, a single line of tables along the wall – the whole joint hardly wider than the door. It served Ecuadorian food, comfort in glazed pottery bowls: corn and potato soup thick with cheese and topped with sliced avocados, steaming plantain-leaf wrapped humitas topped with spiky green chilli and coriander sauce, fried plantains. It became our home-cooking away from home.
On the other side of Oxford Street lies Fitzrovia, where I worked during my London years. Set on a corner with a handful of tables outside, this Thai place looks unremarkable and vanishingly small. Step inside and it mysteriously expands, finding space for however many friends you happen to bring along. As creatures forced to make habit out of minimal material, food is a ritual. Here, we ordered green curry with tofu, and drunken noodles – a heap of seared, spicy, basil-laced rice stick fresh from the pan – accompanied by flinty chenin blanc.
The few months immediately after our wedding went like this: Chris goes back to work, I stay in our rented room with the strange room-mate and needy cat finishing my own contract, then cram everything moveable into a couple of suitcases, put the cat in a carrier, fly to Oregon, and spend a few weeks camped in my sister’s basement – breaking up the time with weekend trips to meet Chris. Salt Lake and Denver were excursion, my first trip to the mile high city. While they loaded in, I ran through the thin sunshine, stopping to do a headstand in the park. Later, when work was done, we sat at the bar of this vegetarian restaurant eating arepas and drinking cocktails.
It was a few days before Christmas and almost everyone else in tiny taco joint was drunk and in costume – elves, Santa, fairies strung with flashing lights. A courtesy drink, I told myself. Knees close under the table, I found myself staring into his coruscating blue eyes and thinking: this is something. One of the Santas upended a chair and fell cartoon-style, legs sticking straight into the air. Chris and I tried each other’s food, deciding we’d made the right decision in trying both moles. Our hands met and laced together on the tabletop. When we rose to leave we kissed instead. Walking to my car I thought: I could marry him.
Because the boys are, nominally, from Manchester, we wound up spending a lot of time there. Our first week in a comically awful hotel where we could hear fighting most nights, and had to navigate a cluster of unimpressed junkies to get in the main door. Naturally, we spent most of our time out – especially after discovering this Thai restaurant. The décor boded ill, but the food turned out to be spectacular. We ate green curry rice, complete with fat fresh green peppercorns, for lunch and returned for dinner.
Arcos was our longest-lived home to date, a pueblo in the foothills of the Serrania de Cadiz. We walked down one steep hill and up another to reach the centre of town where this restaurant was built into the hill beneath the old fortress. The interior was long and low, like the Arches in London, with an incongruous yet charming water fountain tucked into a nook. We ordered, without fail, the warm goats cheese with pepper jam and a plate of fried potatoes. The cheese unctuous yet sharp, and paired perfectly with a local Chardonnay called Gadir.
Chris spent a lot of time doing flight training near Barcelona, and I would go up to visit. Teresa Carles was a lucky Google Map find. We went, the first time, quite early in the evening so actually managed a table – the aubergine rolls and tempeh salad were enough to keep us coming back, again and again.
A few steps away from the Atlantic, we found the best Mexican food we’ve eaten outside of Mexico and likely the best margaritas in Europe. Run by a mother-son team, it is a testimony to the Coruñés proclivity for doing things properly. Everything is handmade, from the corn tortillas to the thick smoky-spicy chipotle sauce to the salbutes – a fat lightly-fried corn cake that melts in your mouth. Like the other places we’ve dined, drunk and laughed, we’ll miss it when we’re gone.
There is a scene in J. D. Salinger’s Franny & Zooey where Zooey tells his mother that he doesn’t want to get married because he likes to sit by the window on the train, and once you’re married, you never get to sit by the window.
It expresses, rather beautifully, how my thoughts on children. To paraphrase, I don’t want to have a baby because I like to sleep, and once you have a baby you don’t sleep.
Throughout my adult life I vacillated between wanting and not wanting children. Aged 18 I started a list of baby names. In my early 20s, immersed in London’s club scene, I barely had time to sleep, much less think about kids. Then it kicked through my senses like a police battering-ram. One of our friends fell pregnant and a crazed, logic-free longing rushed through me: I want a baby.
The only problem was, as I said to my then boyfriend in so many words, was I didn’t want his baby. In my defense, I was skunk drunk; which is no defense at all. It was a terrible thing to say and he should have dumped me on the spot.
Whether to it’s his credit, he didn’t, and our relationship stumbled along for a few months. Then I gathered my courage, said what had to be said, and moved to out of the country. At the time, it seemed necessary; now, it suggests a penchant for self-dramatization that does me no credit.
Absorbed in a new life in Ibiza, I didn’t think much about getting into another relationship. The undertone hum of wanting a baby remained, though, reinforced by the Noughties cult of the yummy mummy, epitomized by Kate Moss. Ibiza’s beaches were dotted with plenty of stunning taut, topless mamas romping with catalog-cute toddlers. Even if I hadn’t wanted kids sheer lifestyle envy would have gotten me.
Still, with no potential baby daddy, and a freelance journalist’s intermittent wage, having a child remained an abstraction.
At 32, in a relationship, the baby name list I had been cultivating for over a decade took on new significance. I tried names out with my partner’s surname, and mine, and double-barreled. The only grain of sand in this oyster was my boyfriend’s horror of procreation. As a 30-year-old who lived on Fanta and pizza, and spent hours at a time playing Mario Kart, he felt their was enough youthful energy in the house.
For the next couple of years friends and I discussed, semi-seriously, having children as lone parents. One dear friend said she’d nearby and help out (unlike most of these offers, I think she meant it). Another, already a mother, promised me it would be worth it. My ever-supportive sister said she thought I’d be a good mother.
It was this idea, perhaps, more than anything, that kept me hooked – the chance to be a good mother. My sister and I were not blessed with good parents. We, and our brothers, had to find our way through a fog of repression and emotional abuse. In a practical sense, we were on our own from adolescence, working minimum wage jobs while going to school, trying to secure our escape.
Time, distance and my father’s death had helped me be a bit philosophical. Finally, I could see my parents as wounded souls whose sins of omission and commission were grounded in unhealed traumas. Part of wanting to have a baby was wanting to prove it is possible to overcome a crappy childhood. Being a good mother would give me license to keep a little of the familiar old anger.
Axiomatically, this is a poor motive, but no worse than any other reason to have a child.
The right man
When I met my now-husband, one of the first things he told me was he never wanted to have kids. This conversation unsettled me but I figured he would be persuadable.
As our relationship developed, it was me who was persuaded.
Strands wove together, revealing a pattern unseen in earlier years.
Having a child is marketed (particularly to women) as a shortcut to fulfillment, an elevator ride to realms of higher purpose. Having a child is a route to social approbation, as long as you’re a well-educated, middle-class (passing) white cis-woman, as I am. Having a child is supposed to buy entry to some Rockwellian fantasy of family harmony.
What I found in the affection, intimacy and adventure of our partnership is that these things thrive in the presence of freedom, resources and – above all – sleep.
The toughest moments of our relationship have been when work and travel schedules left us bone-tired. I learned the hard way that it is obscenely difficult to be a nice person when you’re exhausted. And when you can’t be nice to your partner, things get rough.
Going through relatively mild sleep disruption warned me, vividly, that I’m not built for protracted sleep deprivation. More than a night or two of curtailed sleep is a kick in the face of my mental health in the face. My moods start swinging like a clobbered piñata, my sense of humor vanishes, and my self-control withers – freeing the snider, sadder parts of my personality to wreck havoc. This is consistent with studies that show insomnia is a causal factor in mental health problems.
The idea of chronic sleep deprivation – recent research published in the journal Sleep shows that women’s quality and quantity of sleep suffer for six years after having their first child – is terrifying.
Perhaps choosing to not have children because I like to sleep sounds as petty as not marrying for the sake of sitting by the window. If so, I’m okay with that.
To be a good parent, you have to know yourself – and that includes knowing your limits and being realistic about your resources. It would be a disfavor to a hypothetical child, and to my real and cherished marriage, to do something that would irrevocably change the basis on which it operates.