Fundamentalism and me

My misguided quest for freedom

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I was raised within a Christian sect commonly known as the ‘Plymouth Brethren’. Born in 1970. my indoctrination took place throughout the 70s and 80s and still has an impact to this day. The key belief of the assemblies, as they self-identify, is that the Bible is the one inspired Word of God, handed down directly from God to the men who wrote each one of its pages, as they are with us today, and that it contains everything that humanity needs to know about him. My Dad was an elder in our assembly and over time he became stricter than many about the central tenets of faith. He became convinced that the Authorised Version of the Bible was the only correct version, and put a sign on the pulpit asking all visiting speakers to use only this. There were many others within the assemblies who used the New International Version or the Good News edition, but these, said my father and other, stricter ‘brothers’, were taken from an inaccurate source and were not the Word of God.

What I’ve realised, as an adult, is that in every walk of life there are those who dabble or sit at the fringes of a movement, and there are others for whom every detail and every doctrine is of the utmost importance. It happens with exercise, health, veganism and other types of lifestyle choices. These people will create new rules and expectations over time, repeatedly more narrow and strict, and are never satisfied with ‘good enough’. Initially I was taught that girls should have long hair and not wear men’s clothing ie trousers. Over time, this became long hair with no fringe or layers (although I got away with both), and no shorts, culottes or anything which revealed the womanly shape beneath. ‘Modest apparel’ became longer-than-knee-length skirts, up to the neck tops, nothing too tight and definitely no bare arms or shoulders.

Our family had no television (devilish), and I wasn’t allowed to go to discos or anything too worldly. My one and only dance party was at the age of five where I swirled around in a long, pink nylon dress to Abba, had an amazing time with the glamorous Galbraith family and, on being picked up, told that nobody realised it was a disco and it wouldn’t happen again. Men wore ties and suits to church, Sunday was the Lord’s Day, we did not play outside or do anything that could be construed as ‘work’, there was no musical instrument at the morning meeting (distracting), the ‘breaking of bread’ service was a plain and bleak affair, where men stood and prayed, preached or gave our hymns according to the leading of the Spirit, and women sat in silence as ordained by God, and learned in subjection to the men, their heads covered by a headscarf, hat or beret.

As children we sat through two meetings on a Sunday, after already doing Sunday School earlier, a midweek meeting on a Wednesday by the time we were a little older, a Bible class on a Friday and Tuesday Special (games for children followed by an epiloque) which was actually fun, except for the epilogue. We were not allowed colouring books or other distractions and were taken out and smacked if we wriggled or whispered too much. We were taught unquestionable facts about God. That Jesus is the only way to God, that anybody who does not believe and accept Jesus will go to Hell, an eternal torment in flames, and that once we understood and still rejected this message, we would go to Hell upon death, no matter how young we were. Messages about Hell were the main content of the ‘gospel’ meeting in the evening, accompanied by graphic descriptions, and even in Sunday School we were presented with flannel graph boards depicting its fiery flames and taught the inadequacies of our own good works. Only by trusting in Jesus and accepting the gift of salvation would we be saved.

Other churches were not to be trusted and were wrong, although it was conceded that there were individuals among them who were true Christians. I was ‘saved’ at the age of six in response to a conversation about Heaven or Hell. Of course I chose Heaven and I prayed the prayer, felt incredibly happy and excited, and was presented with a little picture bible, inscribed with the words, ‘To our dearest Ruth, on the occasion of joining the Christian family’. I treasured this and still have it.

Growing up, I faced a few traumatic and repetitive anxieties. The first was about Hell, because I believed that if I had any doubts, this meant that I wasn’t truly saved. So I prayed to be saved repeatedly, often in tears, through sleepless nights. The other was about the Rapture, when Jesus would return to the earth in a twinkling of an eye and snatch away all of the Christians both dead and alive and take them to Heaven. All who remained on earth would face the Anti-Christ, a man who initially would appear to be a man of peace, who would re-unite the warring factions on earth, and would be universally popular. But after three and a half years of his seven year reign, he would become an unstoppable tyrant, a force for evil, who would behead all those who rejected the ‘mark of the beast’ on their hands or foreheads, and those people would be unable to buy or sell or survive, would be tortured, tormented and executed, this being their only last chance of getting into Heaven through the back door, so to speak. I worried in the dead of the night that the Rapture had happened and I was left behind, padding across the landing and checking that my parents were in bed, listening for the reassuring snores emanating from my father.

Later, as a teenager, I rebelled, in dramatic style. Never questioning the truth of what I was taught, I did, however, want the freedom that my friends had. Inevitably I made friends at school, as we were not home-schooled, and I became aware that other people had other beliefs. I’d known since primary school that my family were out of line with the mainstream, but as a small child I didn’t really mind that. I thought that we were right and they were wrong. But as a teenager, I began to enjoy pop music, Radio One, ‘Jackie’ magazine, makeup, jeans and, most of all, flirting with the boys. I was a Class A flirt and would put my makeup on on the bus on the way to school and get changed into the jeans I’d bought with my pocket money in an alleyway whenever I wanted to meet up with friends. I kissed several boys at school and ‘went out’ with them, which meant hanging around at lunchtime and kissing on the way to the bus – not actually ‘going out’. And then at fifteen I fell head over heels in love with Shaun, who I lied about to my parents, went to the cinema with, kissed every afternoon on the school field, and dumped when he wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer. Shaun broke my teenage heart when I discovered that he really did just want to get laid, and I returned to the brethren fold as a good Christian girl, truly subdued and sorry for my mistake.

See, the thing was, I couldn’t lie for long. Every time I met a boy (the next one was called Matthew and the next one Keith), I left the meetings, told the parents I wasn’t able to attend because I was seeing somebody, which was forbidden, unless he was a Christian and we wanted to get married some time, and there were massive rows over it. Every time. And thus began my two sides: the good Christian girl side and the worldly boy-chasing flirty girl side. I couldn’t have them both until I finally met and fell in love with the tall, red-haired, deep-voiced Scot who became my first husband, who everybody approved of, and who was also an assembly boy.

Eventually, after having three kids, I went to university, studied literature, came to believe that the Bible is a fascinating collection of texts with amazing contexts of production and reception and not the Word of God in a complete sense at all. For years I tried to escape all of the influences of the assemblies and find freedom of the heart and mind. I hated what they’d taught, the fears that I’d been subjected to as a child, the emotional manipulation, the physical punishments and the rigid doctrines which excluded anybody who disagreed or had the audacity to make human mistakes. I hated what I thought of as stupid beliefs: the seven day creation, the Rapture, the six thousand year old Earth and the binary beliefs about gender, sexuality and marriage. I mocked them, developed a raging dislike of all evangelical Christian beliefs and fought to release myself from the influence.

But here’s the thing. Hating something so passionately means that we haven’t escaped at all. I was still scared of going to Hell. Still am, a bit. Especially as a divorced would-be atheist who can’t quite believe in anything except the beauty of a sunset, a baby, a loving hug or a robin. Especially as a wishy-washy non-believer who can’t decide whether God exists or doesn’t, or whether we are all a serendipitous accident of the universe.

I have come to realise that the brethren isn’t just a group of people who raised me, shaped me, brainwashed me and then rejected me. Some of that is true, and some of it is not. There are those who only ever showed love and kindness and mercy. Some of the most amazing people I ever met were in those meetings. Preachers who spoke with such eloquence that the hairs on the back of my neck would stand up. Sunday school teachers who really loved the children they taught and invited them round for dainty cakes and sandwiches on a Sunday afternoon. Married couples who adored each other and lived with love and affection for decades.

The brethren isn’t outside of me. It’s a part of me, entwined into every synapse of my brain. Indoctrination is permanent and, even if it’s unconscious most of the time, it’s there. I still think in black and white, I still find subtlety and nuance difficult to decipher. I feel uncomfortable dancing at a disco and I’m still moved to tears by parts of the bible. I remember the words of hymns and choruses, I still love everything that Jesus stands for and the story of the resurrection makes me want to stand up and punch the air. If I’m at a carol service, I sing and believe with all my heart, even though I don’t, really. It’s a fairly common paradox to believe and not believe, simultaneously.

Those of us who were raised in a fundamentalist religion are misguided to think of escape. There isn’t a full escape from something engrained in the psyche. The Jesuits apparently said, ‘Give us a child til the age of seven and he’s ours for life’. We can, however, keep the beauty, the wisdom and the kindness of it and cherish that as part of the rich experience of life. The harshness and fear can be dealt with by facing it square on and subjecting it to logic. If, for example, I start to think I’m going to go to Hell, I ask myself ‘who would I be down there with’? I don’t believe my kids are going, or my husband, any of my friends, colleagues or neighbours. I’d be hard pushed to think of anybody who I think deserves to burn forever in tormenting flames. So why would I? It’s ludicrous. Using logic I can face out most of the fears. Likewise, the Rapture. I get scared of the apocalyptic tone of some of the news: the global warming, the melting icecaps, the looming extinction of thousands of species and the bleak outlook for humanity. But does this mean the opaque prophecies of Revelations are coming for us? No, I think we are doing this to ourselves and only we can save the situation.

So I look to the good in humanity and in myself. We can’t escape our childhoods. Awareness that our early indoctrination is part of our DNA makes it easier to stop fighting, learn to love who we are and to respect the process of how we got here.

Teaching, time and money.

An alternative to teacher burnout

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A facebook entitled ‘Exit the Classroom and Thrive’ has in excess of 39,000 members and is growing at a rate of over a thousand members per month. A quick join and visit would reveal scores of distressing stories of stress, overwhelm and leadership bullying. One member revealed that her SLT send out an email every day with a list of who is off sick and how much this costs the school. Others relate, every day, how their job is making them anxious, sick, exhausted, overwhelmed and burned out. The latest craze hitting the news recently is for students to put recordings of teachers on TikTok in order to mock them.

I was a teacher in state secondary schools for fifteen years, starting in 2006 and finishing in July this year. I did experience some of the toxicity that has been related by members of the facebook group, although, at the time, I felt that I could deal with it. My first difficult experience was with a line manager who regularly accused me of missing deadlines and generally not being any good as a second in department. Without any idea what she meant, I asked for examples and she was unable to provide any. She lied about me to a member of SLT, who believed her, and I subsequently got ‘moved sideways’ eventually proving myself and my ability through a different route. Many others in the school experienced her as a bully and her effect on me was terrible. I experienced anxiety so severe that I became dizzy with brain fog whenever she approached me and had panic attacks in the staff toilets.

Later, as I was due to be reviewed for the highest pay scale, UPS3, I and others in the school received a shitty letter in out pigeon holes saying that we weren’t eligible for the pay rise, in my case because some A level results weren’t good enough. With the support of a line manager, I laid out a folder of evidence to the contrary, asked for a meeting and received a pay rise and an apology from the head. The experience, however, seems to be repeating itself in schools across the UK, with far worse outcomes. UPS3 teachers are being observed, put on ‘support plans’, reviewed and criticised regularly and effectively bullied out of the profession. They are taking time off with stress, sitting behind closed curtains, crying daily and questioning what has happened to the profession that they loved and worked all their lives to enhance. This is unfortunately what happens when a government consistently underfunds a profession for more than ten years and SLT are forced to make cuts wherever they can.

For myself, I thought I was OK – that the niggling squirm of anxiety in my stomach, every morning, as I walked to school, was something to observe, using mindfulness techniques, and simply learn to live with. Later, in another school, I thought that some anti-depressants would get me through the first difficult winter, with classes who shouted, rolled about on the floor, threw bottles and covered the ceiling with glue sticks. I thought their behaviour was my fault, my lack of behaviour management skills and my ‘too nice’ personality. My anxiety was confirmed by some other teachers who muttered about the noise the class made, or boasted about how they would never tolerate bad behaviour. This competition is another toxic part of schools. Don’t get me wrong – there were plenty of teachers who supported me until I got control of the situation, but there’s a lot of really nasty, snidy comparison in schools. Why? Because SLT encourage it, with favouritism, special mentions, requests from ‘outstanding’ teachers to lead briefings and training sessions, and ‘support plans’ for teachers who are struggling. They are not supportive, by the way, from what I have heard.

I kept telling myself I was OK even as I started to dream of escape. There were many wonderful things about teaching. The happy look on a student’s face when they grasped a concept, the hilarious comments, the flow of a great lesson and the enriching class discussions that made me feel like punching the air. I would never have stayed for fifteen years had it all been awful. But there’s an 80% rule – if the happiness is less than 80% of the total, then it’s not enough, and mine sat at around 75%, consistently, for years.

Once I had a plan to leave and work as a tutor or a supply teacher whilst looking for other work, I felt the beginnings of an enormous weight lifting from my mind, but I couldn’t explain exactly why. Children’s worsening behaviour was certainly one reason, an arrogant twerp on SLT who visited my form group and hectored me about the fact that a boy was scooting on a wheeled chair (whilst I was listening to a gay student telling me about how he had been the victim of hate speech), and stale, boring schemes of work that made me want to run away from my own lessons. The lack of creativity, autonomy, fun and laughter. Students in rows and seating plans, post Covid, at one point even masked up, led to such apathy and resentment of school that I dreaded going in.

I am now out. I am working for my local council as a one to one special needs tutor. I’ve taken at least £500 a month pay cut, which worried me enormously when I started, but I’m beginning to realise something that I would previously not have dared to dream of. Time away from that environment is slowly cleaning my mind of clutter and worry, washing away my anxiety, smoothing out the furrow in my forehead and gently massaging the knots in my shoulders and back. I have time to walk to the allotment, my work up to date, my time my own, and I owe nothing to anybody. I’m looking forward to Christmas without wondering how I’ll have the time to get everything done. My lack of anxiety makes me feel a bit confuddled. I’m not sure who I am without it. It’s been a constant companion for so long that I am now left with a sense of freedom so huge that I don’t know what to do with it. The fact that I’m happy is difficult to comprehend. Why did I put up with that shit for so long? Security.

Teacher pension, a steady income, holiday pay and the promise of regular work are all the things that keep us stuck in jobs that we don’t even know are strangling us. I have so much compassion for teachers who need every bit of their income to pay the mortgage, bills, children’s clothes, groceries and all the expenses of family life like I did during my time as a single mum. Even with the considerable maintenance money that my ex had to pay, I still needed the regular £2500 a month on UPS3 with a couple of TLRs to be able to have days out, holidays, a car and some savings for birthdays and Christmas. But, for those teachers who want to get out and currently can’t, you can start to do what I did and make a plan. My plan got me through the last four years.

Going part-time is an option. I took a pay cut and went down to £2000 a month working four days a week, which helped a lot. I got my weekends back and got to see my elderly parents once a week. This was my halfway house and also freed up time. My kids had left and become financially independent, so without university costs the pay cut was affordable. There is supply teaching but I think the money is pretty bad. Leaving in July is a good shout because there are six paid weeks to find alternative income. On ‘Exit the Classroom and Thrive’ there are hundreds of suggestions for other jobs that ex-teachers can do. Private tuition is an excellent option as it’s in such demand right now. There’s a video on there entitled ‘The Pit Pony’ where several experienced ex-teachers give excellent advice on how to set up a tutoring business.

My good friend Rachel has also left – we went at the same time. We both experienced considerable worry about how we were going to manage on less income. She is currently working as a private tutor and doing some supply for agencies. She spends less money and more time with her three dogs. She is beginning to trust that she will be OK. My final point is this: time is also a form of income. It’s powerfully enriching, used wisely. It gives benefits that money cannot: mental health, time to exercise, get out in the fresh air, cook healthy meals and talk to your kids.

More time can mean planning a cheaper way of life, seeking out bargains, selling all the crap you don’t use any more and living with less. I know we need money but do we need everything we buy? I’ve pretty much given up regular coffees and that saves £30 a month alone, as well as less paper and plastic waste. There are so many ways to live a meaningful life that don’t involve spending a lot of money. A walk in the park, a telephone call, listening to music at home, having a home spa, podcasts, makeaways, film nights in, taking own food to the cinema, not going to the cinema. The time is so much more valuable, we have only so much of it, and it’s worth spending with intention for the absolute maximum benefits. To all the teachers out there, still plugging away in schools: if you’re happy, that’s great. If you’re not, please do whatever you can to get out. You are worth so much more, and it can definitely be done!

Spirituality

What does it mean to be ‘spiritual’?

For years, I resisted this word, connecting it to religion, man-made (as opposed to woman-made) structures, strictures, boxes, rules and shame. ‘The spiritual man’ is a concept discussed in the bible and many born-again Christians talk about ‘being in the spirit’, or being ‘spirit-led’ and they may be talking about being moved to pray, or heal, or speak in tongues. I was not raised to believe in these modern Pentecostal practices and indeed the brethren church in which I was raised preached that they were actually devilish. So any mention of ‘spirituality’ has previously made me deeply suspicious, deeply sceptical or deeply bored.

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In the brethren, ‘spirituality’ meant MEN praying in deep, monotonous voices: ‘Our Heavenly Father we thank thee today for thy great mercy in giving thine only begotten son for our heinous sins and crimes against thee’, by which time my inner child is screaming to run away and dive into the sea and swim for the nearest ship to take me as far away as possible. And the Pentecostal tongues, happy clapping, dancing, Toronto blessing style of spirituality I find simply baffling. If anything, I put it down to the charismatic nature of a large crowd egging one another on to greater displays of abandonment.

Despite these negative views of spirituality, I have known forever that there is something in me and in others that constitutes a beautiful knowing and wisdom that is beyond logic or explanation. It’s what I felt when I sat in church listening to a compelling preacher and tears came into my eyes when they preached about God’s love and mercy. It was in the power of the words and the power of the love in their hearts, that thrummed in their voices and thrilled even the air. It’s what I felt when I first heard the second movement of Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight Sonata’ and lay on the floor, unable to move, physically trapped by the mighty power of each unspeakably sad outpouring of Beethoven’s grief-stricken heart. It’s what my brother felt when he was at an abbey on holiday, standing in front of a set of stone steps that were worn by the bare feet of monks, many thousands of monks through the ages who trod those steps in prayer and contemplation and Jon felt that inner knowing and awe that I have come to call spirituality.

I don’t believe in mediums and fraudsters who claim to be in touch with the dead. Having born witness to the great Derren Brown’s ability to ‘read minds’ using trickery, memory and neuro-linguistic programming, I think these people are using the same skill set and conning people ruthlessly and callously. But I was once hosting a German student who had become depressed and increasingly lonely, sitting in her room reading every day and even avoiding her friends. For her 18th birthday, I decided to make her favourite cake and invite some of her college friends over. As I was whisking up the ingredients for a black forest gateau, in my kitchen, alone, thinking of her and her inexplicable sadness, I found myself rooted to the spot, unable to move. A tingling feeling took hold of every atom of my body, tears came into my eyes and I was filled from top to toe with the deepest, most profound love that I have ever experienced. In that moment I knew that her father loved her and was thinking of her and that I should tell her so. I didn’t hear a voice but I experienced a knowing and, when the tingling stopped and I returned to normality, albeit very shaken and confused, I considered how to share this information with her.

The next morning, she emerged from her room for a coffee and some breakfast, and I said I’d like to talk to her about something that she might find confusing and odd, and that my intention was not to upset her. I shared my experience and the feeling that her father wanted her to know how much he loved her and was thinking of her, at which point she broke down in tears and explained that her father had died in a car accident when she was seven. She had been thinking of him for the past few weeks and wishing that he could see her at 18, becoming an adult. I held her as she cried, and witnessed her return to her bubbly self later that night when her friends came for her little party, and I knew that this was a spiritual experience that had nothing to do with church, or religion, or anything man-made of any type. It had never happened before nor since and I do not think of myself as psychic. I believe that something greater than me occurred, that could well be explained by psychology, buried memory or intuition, but the explanation does not matter when the outcome was nothing but pure love and healing.

I used to want to have a set of beliefs that would be unchanging, wise and ever-helpful. I looked to books, programmes, philosophies and theories to try to find them. When I left the brethren there was a gaping empty hole in my way of being because up until then there had been certainty, security, community and structure. Anyone who has left a fundamentalist church will know the aching emptiness that happens when it is gone. It goes far beyond the loss of friends and the community. We were shaped by that religion. It is in our DNA. Without it, we are lost, like de-programmed computers that don’t function properly. But we aren’t computers. We can think outside of the conditioning and brainwashing. We left the fundamentalism because, despite the loving community that it provided, it hurt us and harmed us. I was offended by the shunning of a friend, the demands that my six year old child cover her head and the rigid and often contradictory, cherry-picking interpretation of the Bible. As I completed a literature degree as a mature student, I began to see the Bible as a collection of texts, with fascinating historical contexts, and I began to see the brethren’s insistence on seeing it as one cohesive message from God as an addiction.

Because we aren’t computers, we can re-programme ourselves by learning who we are outside of our conditioning. It’s hard, because it seems like everything. But since I left, over fifteen years ago, I have realised that my deepest self is wise and good. Somebody told me to ‘head for the light’ when I was lost in a bad situation and wildly grabbing for external guidance. When I thought about it, I knew what he meant. The light of intuition, the lodestar of MY truth. These are my truths: life is not fair, we cannot control people and love is the only thing that matters. Love for others and love for ourselves.

My truth actually resonates with what Jesus said, and every other religious leader that ever existed. It’s not the religious leaders that are at fault in this world: it’s the humans that grab it and twist it and make it a tool to control or manipulate. Inside and outside of churches, there are beautiful, wise, loving souls who live in light and love.

When I am digging the allotment and Mr Robin comes and waits for a worm, I feel an inner peace wrought in silence, physical exercise and the energy of nature. When I write, I am lost in the quest to speak truth and bring value to myself and others. When I walk in the mountains or look at the stars, I experience that inner knowing that I have come to call spirituality. I’m not sure what it is that I know. God? Possibly. But I have so many issues with the name ‘God’, infused as it is with patriarchal bollocks.

I know that there is more, so much more, than what we can understand or explain. I know that there is an energy, a lifeforce, a mighty power in every leaf, beetle, cloud and rainbow that we can’t explain or understand. I know that we’re connected to the stars and the cosmos and that a newborn baby carries in its tiny, helpless body and searching, grasping fingers the very essence of the divine love from whence it came. And I know that, when I die, I will return to that divine energy. While we live, we can be spiritual, when we are still for long enough to notice. The fact that it escapes definition and can’t be captured in words matters not; if it could, it would become something else, trapped and limited within the confines of human communication. And it’s so much more than that.

Programmed to spend

The capitalist propaganda that we need to deconstruct

From the morning’s news where Dominic Raab attempted to justify Boris Johnson strolling around hospitals, insulting hard-working NHS staff by breathing his hot air all over them without a mask on, while they stood graciously by, masked and probably pissed off, to almost being obliterated by a lorry emblazoned with ‘Prettylittlething’ and ‘Buy Happiness’ on its side, I had a very unwelcome capitalist start to my day.

I can only assume that Johnson refuses to wear a mask because he is all for personal freedoms in an Arthur Birling-esque ‘every man for himself’ kind of way. I find him excruciatingly annoying but I’m not against capitalism per se. It’s the way our economy works and, as I’ve never lived under any other regime, I’m used to it. I understand that businesses need to thrive if we are to thrive as a nation. Going completely communist would surely be worse. I would like the last surviving bastion of former socialist glory, our NHS, to survive, but I fear it’s too late for that, as thousands flock to private hospitals for lifesaving treatment because otherwise they’ll perish on the waiting list. I exaggerate, I know, but only slightly.

Within this ‘money makes the world go round’ paradigm, though, advertising slogans are true indicators of how much we are being brainwashed into supporting the economy, at the cost of our autonomy, the developing world and the actual planet. ‘Buying happiness’. Really? I know that particular slogan was deliberately cheesy and exaggerated, but when I see people on the news flocking to Primark and Next for the Boxing Day sales, it’s clear that there’s some belief in the possibility that buying exactly the right shoes, boots, hoody, phone, jumper, winter coat or shiny lipstick will make a positive difference to our lives. We are buying and driving massive cars that are polluting the environment, hundreds and thousands of toys that kids play with for a week or so, chairs, tables, TVs, laptops and, by the looks of IKEA on a Sunday, millions of household items. I know it’s all been said before, but why do we continue?

I’m not talking about essentials or even items that we love but don’t strictly ‘need’. I’m talking about wardrobes stuffed with clothes that wear out after six months or go out of fashion and sit on a hanger, only to end up in landfill. Or stupid things we buy thinking that we’ll use them – in my case a Shakti mat. For those not in the know, it’s a spiky mat that feels like hell for two minutes and then becomes strangely relaxing, but who is really going to lie on a spiky mat every day? Clearly not me. I sold it on Ebay and now wish I’d bought it there, too.

The reason we buy stuff is because we’ve been conditioned to do so by the propaganda that we see all around us every day. Smiling happy people, delighted that they are driving the car, or using the face cream, or wearing the fashion. Adverts use a ‘problem-solution’ structure – it’s a discourse that is taught on copywriting courses and studied in A Level language. In order to sell a product, a copywriter needs to present the audience with a perceived problem. Bad skin, problem areas, stained teeth, no time. Or more subtly, the problem is implied. We are made to feel that our cars are not modern enough, that our vacuum cleaner isn’t technologically advanced enough or, as happened to me recently, that my penis isn’t big enough. Some problems with the marketing there. Just a quick look through my Instagram reveals that my tights don’t fit, my bras are uncomfortable and my garden is plain and needs a metal bird. As it happens, the Snag tights do look great and I’ll probably try them when my current tights actually don’t fit. My bras are fine thanks – they’ve mistakenly assumed that I actually have boobs – and the metal bird is not as nice as the actual robin that I see every day at the allotment.

I would like to think that when I buy things it’s because I choose to, not because I feel compelled to. What do I really need? 3 jumpers, 4 tops, 2 skirts, 2 pairs of trousers, one winter coat, 50 running outfits and 3 pairs of shoes or boots. That’s it. Might vary from person to person but no I am not going to queue up outside Primark on Boxing Day because I probably already have all that I need and, if I need more, I’ll buy responsibly. It’s not even expensive. Ebay has amazing finds when it comes to good quality clothing and ‘White Rose’ in Newark is my favourite pre-loved clothes shop ever. I recently watched ‘The True Cost’ on Youtube and, after learning about the hundreds of Bangladeshi factory workers who have suffered as a result of awful working conditions and poor safety measures, I really feel that enough is enough.

If we are to survive as a species, which is a questionable goal given what we’ve done to the planet, we need to change willingly before we are forced to by circumstances beyond our control. Yes the economy matters but we have to slow down and buy less and buy more responsibly. The propaganda, once we see through it, becomes meaningless jumble, and if you can see an ad on my WordPress, that’s because I chose not to spend the money for the option to remove it!

Why ‘healthy’ is a stupid concept

The truth about what ‘healthy’ means

We are a society that thinks in polar opposites. Man or woman. Black or white. Good or bad. Maybe I am more this way than most. As the product of a fundamentalist upbringing, I was taught about good and evil, us and them, Heaven and Hell, God and the Devil, and everything seemed so simple. But now I’m officially grown up, at 50, I find it glaringly obvious that the world doesn’t consist of polar opposites. We aren’t either a man or a woman. We might be male or female, although that’s not the case for intersex folks, and many people with bits of chromosomes that muddle the issue, and as for gender – well that’s a whole confuddling mess of cultural norms which many just don’t get. Even happiness isn’t that clear cut. Why do we have to be either happy or unhappy. For me, I can be 80% happy most of the time but there’ll be a small element of irritation or worry about some aspect of my life and that doesn’t make me unhappy – just a bit of a mixture.

So why do people still insist on saying that they are ‘trying to be healthy’ or comment on others being ‘so unhealthy’? People aren’t either healthy or unhealthy. What is meant by the word ‘health’ anyway? It is NOT used by most people to signify an absence of sickness. We all get colds and coughs but can still be considered by those around us to be healthy. Some people have chronic illnesses like rheumatoid arthritis or even Stage 4 cancer but are deemed to be ‘healthy’ and people raise their eyebrows in confusion as to how they became so sick. ‘She/he was always so healthy’ and I find this quite pernicious as though the person somehow failed and nobody knows how. I was asked by a good friend if I would be really pissed off to get cancer. Well, the answer to that is definitely yes! But not for the reason that she asked. She was alluding to the fact that I’m a vegan runner and therefore shouldn’t expect to become seriously ill. But people do! I’d be pissed off because it’s a vile illness, not because I didn’t deserve it. Nobody deserves it.

So ‘healthy’ is not used in our society to signify an absence of illness. If this were the case, we would not discuss our plus-size friends and acquaintances in terms of them being so ‘unhealthy’. Are they sick? Probably not. So why are they ‘unhealthy’? Oh, the risk of heart disease? Well, in that case, we are using ‘unhealthy’ to allude to risk. But lots of risk is genetic. My Nan and my Dad had heart disease so therefore I am at risk. But nobody calls me unhealthy. A friend in Leicester had a double masectomy because women in her family were 90% likely to get a hereditary and aggressive form of the disease. Did this risk make us think of her as unhealthy? It did not. There is a massive risk of heart disease from being sedentary. But 39% of British adults are failing to meet the recommended quota of weekly exercise, but we don’t know who they all are and have no way of knowing who they are, and I’m pretty sure that if we see them eating a salad every day and they are thin, we’ll think of them as ‘healthy’.

If health isn’t used to signify the absence of illness, then, for the purpose of this blog post I will assume that it refers to a long, good quality of life. The chances of having such a blessing is determined by so many things that we couldn’t possibly know who was healthy or not without a PhD in long term health and its causes and many many case studies from different social groups and countries. For example, the biggest indicator of good quality of life in old age is socio-economic status. Yes, money. Why? I suppose having enough of it results in less stress and better quality fruit and vegetables, more information and opportunity regarding exercise and social opportunities as well as the gift of time – time that can be used in the pursuit of meaningful hobbies and interests. Another indicator of good quality of life in old age is social contact: laughter, friendship and the knowledge that there are people who have your back, always. People in happy loving marriages have better health outcomes. I can’t reference all this because it’s not an academic essay but it’s easy enough to fact check on google!

What are the indicators of poor health, early death etc? Being poor, being unloved, being part of a stigmatized group such as a gender minority. These are the things that make a difference and our focus should be on making a world of greater equality and acceptance. A world where a bearded person who wants to be called Annabelle is just fine. A world where a hairy person wearing a lace dress is just fine. Just another person in the street or, even better, the room. A world where people can be addressed using the pronouns that they choose, and where they can express their identity and be with the person they love, without fear of violence, ridicule or death. We are so far from this in the world as it is that it beggars belief. People are still being killed for being a minority and that’s not just in some far-flung, desert country that, deep down, we think of as barbaric and backwards. It’s here in the UK.

The real reason for this rant is the way that people seeing me lately, perhaps after a long time, comment on my appearance and, in particular, my weight loss. I started losing weight last year and put it down to marathon training although I had trained before without getting quite so thin. Comments have ranged from how much better I look, to whether I’ve forgotten to eat, to how ‘healthy’ I am. I’m not healthy. I’ve lost weight because my thyroid went berserk and my body is flooded with thyroid hormones which, untreated, are literally toxic. My skin has broken out in spots, I am exhausted from the carbimazole and I still need a betablocker at bedtime to stop my heart from attempting to escape my body. But I look healthy, apparently. Which leads me to the conclusion that ‘healthy’ means ‘thin’.

To be thin, in this culture, signifies obedience. We were trained up, us 50 year olds, to look after our figures, to battle the bulge, to not pinch an inch. We had Slimfast and the cornflake diet, now 80/20 and intermittent fasting. We still have Slimming World and Weightwatchers, and a hundred ways of losing weight that just stubbornly clings to our thighs, tummies and ‘problem areas’. Our bodies are a battleground of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ and in order to be ‘good’ we must appear to be ‘healthy’. This means either losing weight, being thin or talking about losing weight. We must denigrate ourselves in order to fit into the ‘well-behaved’ group or women who, heaven forbid, must never eat cake with unrestrained pleasure or let their tummies flop out with happy abandon.

I’m tired of it. Now I’m on the right dose of medicine I am gaining weight again and hallelujah for that because it means health! Real health! I am a naturally curvy woman with thighs that touch and a rounded tummy, sturdy arms and quite a big bum. I want to be healthy again and that includes eating cake with friends, spending time with family, laughing, loving, moving with freedom and joy and trying to make the world a genuinely healthier place for every body of all colours, genders, sexuality, size, shape and socio-economic status.

On the wedding of an ex

The weirdness of a second marriage

I was four happy years into my second marriage when my first husband, to whom I was married for 21 years, got married again. I could get bogged down into a hundred and one reasons why this shouldn’t be an issue (I’m happy now, I left him, we were not close any more, our marriage was a disaster area) but it was an issue. I felt apprehensive as the day approached and it bugged me immensely that it was on my mind so much. I sent him a Whatsapp saying that I hoped he’d have an amazing day, and that I was excited for him, and that was true. But it was still an issue.

A happy day on my second wedding

I’ve had counselling to help me to work through my turbulent emotions, several times over, and I’ve got better at it, but it’s so hard sometimes to know quite what the emotion is. About his wedding, I felt uneasy. Troubled. When he first met his partner, a few years back, and it became very apparent that she was ‘the one’, I was angry to the point of fury that he had changed. Without going into boring, pointless details, I had wanted more from him for years and had tried a gazillion ways to make it happen, some of which were downright damaging for all concerned, but it didn’t happen.

And now he has changed. When I occasionally see him at the children’s birthdays and hear him talking about her, I can see it, hear it and feel it. This made me spitting, hopping mad. But the anger turned to sadness when, one day, I acknowledged to a wise woman that he hurt me very badly and I cried uncontrollably for hours. When I blinked away those tears of grief and loss I realised that I’m free of all that rage, now, and it was not anger that consumed me when he re-married. So what was it?

Here’s what it was. It was the irreparable, far-reaching rupture of the family. It was not about him and me; it was about a community of people that I am separated from. Our three children dressing up and going to a wedding where they would see their grandparents, their aunties and uncles, cousins and old friends. I knew, when we broke up, that this would hurt, and it does. His brother came over from Canada, the brother that lived with us for one summer when he worked for the post office in his twenties and we chatted, every day, in the kitchen, as I cooked for the kids and he helped with the washing up. We got to know each other well and since the split I have not seen him or his lovely family. He called once to say he wished he’d done more to support, when things were tough and we were living separately through the week. There was nothing he could have done. He was a great brother in law and I miss him.

I loved my ex’s parents, too. His mum has had a heart attack and I wished I could have seen her but distance has grown between us. I miss his sister. We were good friends. She is wonderful and her kids are adorable. I still think of them as my nieces. I never saw his other two siblings as often but always loved catching up with them and had such a laugh with his youngest sister.

So we move on. I’ve met lots of other people through Tim and now have a whole other extended family, a lovely mum-in-law, brothers and their wives and partners and good friends. But these first people, my children’s grandparents, Aunties and Uncles – these still feel like family. I love them and miss them. When we break up with a person, we break up with all of the people who come with them, whether we intend to or not. Sides are taken, sympathies are shown. The break up sometimes feels like the amputation of a limb that, although I’ve learned to live without it, still aches at times.

When an ex re-marries, it might mean nothing and that’s fine, but if it hurts, for whatever the reason, I really think that’s normal. What’s the answer? I think it’s to acknowledge the pain, live with it a while, know that it will pass, keep in touch with the people who matter enough, and be kind to yourself.

Allotment Honeymoon

Crazy about a plot of land

‘We’re gona have a little house and a couple of acres an’ a cow and some pigs and live off the fatta the land’, says George to Lennie in the classic American tragedy ‘Of Mice and Men’, a novel that I taught for fifteen years and know pretty much off my heart, along with all the themes, motifs, figures of speech and structural features. Now I also know the dream of land and why it’s so important as I walk the mile to my new allotment, with my spade at my side and a snack and drink in my rucksack.

This morning I could have written a journal for my counselling course, done some housework, gone to the gym or tidied up a bit before my daughter and her boyfriend arrive for a visit. But the lure of the allotment won out and once again I wondered up to the grassy, brambly, overgrown rectangular plot, 8 X 10.5 metres, that I can now call mine. It’s actually the council’s, but never mind that. My mum had an allotment for twenty odd years and I remember thinking it so tedious when I went to see it. She gave the kids little sections to cultivate in whichever way they chose. Abi had a flower garden, Kirstin had vegetables, Billy had a mix, and they all had sunflowers. They all enjoyed it but I used to drop them off and collect them with complete bewilderment at what the fuss was about.

My morning companion

I’m not sure what’s changed but gardening has grown on me over the years. I like to be physical and strong and enjoy working hard, and renovating the Victorian house that we bought has reinforced the sense of satisfaction when a tough job is completed. Hiring a concrete breaker and removing most of a kitchen floor (my stepson did some, too) was an absolute joy. Making concrete crumble into piles of rubble that could be removed to reveal the original brick floor which was then transformed again into modern polished concrete for a modern family kitchen made me feel productive in an act of creative transformation. I also liked the aching shoulders and the happy tiredness because I knew that part of me was going into the house in the form of my labour and my energy.

I think the allotment taps into this same energetic drive as I’ve spent three sessions now digging over grass and pulling out huge weeds and stinging nettles. I’ve piled up wood, netting and beer bottles left by the last allotmenter and sat in between efforts with my water bottle, admiring the evidence of my efforts. This morning, I munched on some chocolate covered almonds and realised that I’d got stronger as I managed to dig for an hour and fifty minutes instead of getting exhausted after an hour. There’s now a wholesome looking strip of soft, brown, crumbly soil with none of the irritating builders’ rubble found in gardens. It’s inviting, healthy and full of enormous, helpful worms, along with an extremely friendly robin who has visited on each occasion hoping to grab one.

The other allotmenters are friendly so far. My mum recalls when she started and all the others were sexist old men who told her that the last woman ‘didn’t last long’ and ‘didn’t do much’. She went on to win the ‘best kept allotment’ award for two years running so screw them! There are lots of women at the Barnby Road allotments and it’s good to see that times have changed. I do not have my mum’s green fingers but I do understand now what she loved about her plot. It’s peaceful, in the way that there is literally no sound except the fork crunching into the soil, the wind howling through the trees, a loose bit of somebody’s fence tapping away in the distance and your own hard breathing as you work up a sweat that’s more productive than any weight lifting in the gym.

I hope to get the plot cleared myself. Alan with the rotivator could do it for me for a charge of £30 but I’ve got stuck in now and I’d like to put myself into the work as I put myself into the wallpaper stripping, floor digging and wall-painting in the house. I want that allotment to have my energy in the soil and the produce that we grow. I’ve learned about green manure, plastic sheeting and where to get seeds at a discount and I’m good to go. Tim will be the shed man and the designer of an aesthetically pleasing outcome and Mum will be the consulting expert.

Abi at her Grandma’s allotment

The Art of Failure

Making things better is the mission that drives me. In every aspect of life, I try to make things better for myself.

Making things better is the mission that drives me.  In every aspect of life, I try to make things better for myself.  Relationships, nutrition, work life, home environment, fitness and strength, education and understanding of the world.  It’s not just myself that I try to better: other people and animals are a part of my mission.  In my teaching career, I have strived to provide children with a better understanding of literature and the worlds within the texts that we read.  As a mum, I worked relentlessly to give my children a better childhood than mine, and better opportunities as they grew up.  As a friend and acquaintance, I try to support others to achieve better states of mind and happier lives.   As a vegan, I want to improve animal rights and the environment.   

Alongside these worthy thoughts and dreams, I have become aware of a subtext, born directly from my inner ‘truth’ that I must always get better.  I regularly find myself pestered by thoughts and ruminations about all the times in my life that I have got things wrong, and I haven’t known how to handle the sense of failure.   The list is long and goes back to incidents at school where I made up stories for attention.  ‘My cat has had kittens’, I told the class one afternoon, in circle time.  When a friend turned up at the house, with her mum, to buy one, the truth was revealed.  I’d made it up because I wanted the class to look at me with the ‘oohs’ and ‘aaaahs’ that other children received, with their exciting lives.  I can still feel the shame of that doorstep conversation, with my mortified mum denying the existence of any kittens, and my friend’s accusatory voice.  ‘But Ruth told the whole class!’ she persisted, disappointed and shocked. 

I don’t intend to write a list of my failures here.  The kitten story is difficult enough to confess, even now, although it happened when I was five.  There are many more.  I’ve been bitchy, two-faced, untruthful, cruel, weak and immature.  I have a failed marriage, which still bothers me.  He wasn’t the only one who messed up.  I did, too.  Many, many times.  It’s true that we were never compatible, and something was always off from the get-go, but there were times that I behaved badly and it’s difficult to live with that.

Why is it so difficult to know that I haven’t always been ‘good’?  I guess in my case there is a lot of conditioning behind that.  A Christian girl should be (insert a list of self-sacrificing bullshit).  Raised in a small sect of conservative Christianity, wearing a headscarf in church and being taught that men are leaders and women should submit to their leadership, I knew that I wasn’t supposed to feel, or express, anything challenging.  Taught that self-denial is a virtue, I learned to keep my true self hidden, and I simply behaved ‘well’ and mimicked the words and actions of others, to ensure my own acceptance and safety.  It has always felt like a terrible thing to say, ‘I failed’.  Getting things wrong is not acceptable.  I have tied myself in knots, time after time, trying to convince myself that what I did was understandable, and what I said was actually alright.  Given the circumstances, I couldn’t have done different etc etc.  ‘I failed’ has never been a phrase that I could live with.  It has seemed like a pointing finger – pointing to damnation and self-loathing.  In trying to forgive and accept myself, I have exhausted my frazzled mind attempting to justify and explain away my mistakes and wrongdoings.  When asking myself, ‘Am I a good person?’, I find that the failures make the answer a firm ‘no’.

Until this morning.  As I bumbled about, getting my breakfast and cogitating on the previous few days, analysing everything and anything as usual, something changed in my thinking.  I considered a recent failure, and instead of trying to justify it to myself, I said aloud, ‘I failed’.  The world did not change.  I said it again, with a growing smile: ‘I failed’.  It was strangely freeing and acceptable as I found myself accepting that failure is human.  We can be glorious and we can be diabolical.  I have been glorious and I have been diabolical.  We all fail.  Instead of justifying and explaining, I accepted, this morning, that I sometimes fail, and that’s not great but neither is it a disaster.  It is a fact.  If I wish to forgive myself, I must first acknowledge that I was wrong.  It wasn’t OK.  It was crap.  But that doesn’t make me any worse than the next person.  I’m no better and I’m no worse.  The average person gets many things wrong.  Even the most saintly type has a bad day.  So today I see my failures.  They make me human.  ‘I failed’.  And what?  It would be impossible to stop trying to get things right, to take the better path and to be the kindest version of myself possible every day.  But when I fail, I fail – and from now on, those are the times that I will put my arms around my fragile, failing self and remind myself that forgiveness and compassion are the most important qualities of human kindness, even and especially when it comes to ourselves.

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