The One Where They Say Goodbye – How Friends(hip) Ends

There are stages of breakups. Sometimes there’s a clear moment when you know it’s happened, when you know that there was a shift. You were with someone. Now you’re not. You were doing something, building something together. Adding layer upon layer of love to a creation that is your own world. You have a language, a code, an understanding of one another that others can’t hope to come close to. 

That was my best friend and me. 

Some breakups happen all at once – everything’s fine until it isn’t. Like if you walk in on your partner and they’re literally mid-coitus with someone else. Or if they’ve cleaned out your joint bank account and disappeared. Sure for them it’s a gradual thing. But for you, the unwitting discoverer, it’s an all at once, full body, slam-your-breath-right-out-of-you ending. Those specific examples are harder to engineer with a friendship breakup.

Some breakups happen more gradually. There’s the initial creeping feeling that something isn’t right. That somehow the language isn’t working. You’re saying all the same things but it’s like the string between your two cups has twisted and they’re not hearing what you’re trying to say. You try to say it differently, you ask, plead even for something to get through. But it doesn’t and eventually it crumbles. With a bang or a whisper, it’s all the same in the end. That last moment is devastating. 

Does this one work? Nope. This one? Nope. Did she change cups and not tell me?

It’s worse with your best friend. 

You sort of expect a romantic relationship might end. You hope it won’t of course. But we start romantic relationships with caveats:

  • If it works out… 
  • If we’re still together by then… 
  • I really like them but we’ve only been on a few dates… 
  • We might not even last that long… 

It’s a protection thing, to stop us hoping too much and becoming too invested before the spark disintegrates. But when was the last time you said

“Well, if we’re still friends then…”?

We’re not taught to prepare for it. We aren’t told it happens.

And there’s something about female friendship – that close, intense, I know you almost better than you know yourself and I see you, but really see you, I feel so seen and I flourish in it but it also consumes me female friendship – that you’re not prepared for either. 

If Heathcliff had been a woman, he and Cathy may have stood a chance, or it may have been even more catastrophic. That’s the knife edge of the female best friendship. It could go either way. It could be the thing that sends you soaring to reach higher and higher potentials or it could eat you alive.

I am an intense person – for some I’m too much. I don’t like small talk. I can’t maintain it, I don’t really understand it. I find it exhausting; a social game I don’t understand. If you want to chit chat about nothing, I’m not the woman for you. I’m not aggressive with it – I respect the boundaries of other people and would never *expect* someone to tell me personal information, I’m just much more interested when they do. If I cross someone else’s line, I’ll apologise sincerely and quickly and back right off. I have a friend who calls me a story vampire – if you want to jump straight in with the real stuff, I’m all in for that. I thrive on it. 

Over the years I’ve learned to slow down a bit. I’ve learned to listen to others and to my feelings. I’ve learned to breathe. I let myself take a moment and figure out why I’m feeling something. I grew up with angry parents who shouted a lot. When I stopped running from that, I chose not to be that way. I chose not to lose my shit in the moment because something’s upset me. I’ll feel the feelings but I don’t have to act on every part of them. I’ll try to find the thing beneath the anger and work with that. I’ve learned to trust my instincts when something feels off and then sit with it for a bit. I’ve learned not to rush in.

For the last few months of my best friendship, things didn’t feel quite right. There was a nagging sensation that we were misfiring somehow. It wasn’t the worst thing by any means, but it wasn’t what I was used to between the two of us and it made me feel off balance, like there was something wrong in the universe. It must be the universe, because our rhythm was unshakeable. And yet…

There’s a stage in a breakup where you can’t bear to look at someone, at anything to do with them. Once after a romantic breakup that I hadn’t seen coming, I found myself refreshing Facebook over and over again both hoping to see and dreading seeing something he posted. When I realised what I was doing I deleted the Facebook app from my phone. Turns out it was one of the best things I could have done, not just for this breakup but for my life in general but that’s another story.

When I was ready I reached the stage of being able to look at his social media and it was an anticlimax because there was nothing to see. He wasn’t much of a poster. It was as if our relationship and subsequent breakup hadn’t happened in his online world. I’m not sure what I’d been expecting. I exhaled, heavily. I tend to have visceral reactions to things. If I’m nervous about seeing something, my heart starts pounding as if there’s something to fear on someone’s Facebook wall. I feel sick at the drop of a hat and I’ve been known to instantly throw up upon receiving an emotionally stressful WhatsApp message.

So I know not to look before I feel ready. If the idea makes me feel dizzy, don’t look yet. If my hands shake as I’m typing their name to search for them, don’t look yet. If I think I’m going to be sick, obviously put the phone down and go to the bathroom.

Before I was ready to hear or see, someone told me something had been written about me by the best friend that was. It preoccupied me in quiet moments. I couldn’t look. What the messenger described sounded horrible. I didn’t want to see it. 

But when I looked today, what I read wasn’t so awful. I didn’t feel sick, though my heart is still pounding a bit too hard for sitting on the sofa writing on a laptop. There were things I disagreed with in the hinting or recounting, things I rolled my eyes at because I’d already refuted them or apologised for them. It was both some of the things I thought it would be and some things I didn’t expect at all. But it wasn’t the hurtful thing I’d been led to brace myself for. Perhaps it was never so bad, but now I’m just ready to see it. I can’t know for sure. The lines of the relationship between a person sending something out into the world and someone else receiving it are always so blurred. We can guess at the intention behind someone’s words but however well we know people, we cannot truly know all of them.

I’ve not written about this at all until now. Not even a hint of a post anywhere. In part, I didn’t know how to do it. To spell out the whole sorry break down, crack by crack, piece by piece wouldn’t do anyone any good. The second part was my anger sandwiched around the pain of betrayal and broken trust. The third was that I didn’t feel sure I had permission to tell this story. It’s hard when it’s not just your own. Who has the right to it? We seemed to experience such different versions of what happened, like two planets that had been aligned, suddenly spinning in opposing directions. Whose truth is truer? It doesn’t matter in the end because the outcome is the same; the friendship ended. It’s over. 

In the aftermath someone asked me how I was doing. I said I was surprisingly fine. It was true. I didn’t feel like I was burying anything or blocking anything. I thought about her lots, but the craving to tell her everything that infused our friendship had passed. I expected to feel much more constantly sad and bereft. The weeks at the end of our friendship were so fraught, so painful and so terrifying to me that I grieved unwittingly, in anticipation of the end before it came. I was so certain she was leaving me I essentially prepared myself to be left. I lost five pounds in weight. I couldn’t eat properly. I wasn’t sleeping. I cried all the time. I was shaky and anxious constantly. I burned through my beta blockers. The anxiety was so bad that my resting heart rate jumped from 72 to 134bpm when I received an email from her shortly after the last time I saw her. I was just sat on the sofa, not suddenly doing cardio. I told you I react viscerally. It kicked off three months before my wedding and finally ended one month later. I was getting married in eight weeks and my best friendship had crumbled. I spent the weekend after we saw each other for the last time crying and sleeping, unable to do anything else.

But after that, there was relief. I didn’t feel safe in the friendship any more and the thing making me feel unsafe was no longer here. (I’ve written thing, though I toyed with writing person. The thing here is the friendship itself – I’m not demoting her from person status by calling her a thing. To say person would be to imply it’s all on her. I believe that generally we have some responsibility for the situations in which we find ourselves. There are exceptions of course, but this is not one of them. I own my part in this. We’re both responsible for the friendship dynamic. So I went with thing.)

The magical trust that only we had was broken and though I’d tried, I didn’t know how to fix it. I wanted to, needed to desperately, madly almost. But I couldn’t. Then the madness passed, and it was quiet. Not too quiet, not lonely. Just calm. Like a raging storm had passed and the air was clear again. I could breathe. 

I still think about her lots. I wonder what she’s doing, how she’s doing; I wonder if she’s happy. I think about things I want to share with her, things I read or learn about that only she’d really appreciate. I think about the stories she’d enjoy. I notice things I say that I definitely picked up from her. I think about the ways in which she changed me for the much, much better. I think about all that she gave to me. I think about the things she took from me, the things I let her have. I think about how much it terrified me when I got something wrong, crossed a line I hadn’t known was there. I think about the moments of such intense laughter, joy and love. The moments where we elevated each other so high we towered above all else, looking down on the rest of the world who could not touch us.

I wonder if I’ll ever have a friendship like that again. I wonder if I want one.

Worst Valentine’s Day Cards Awards 2019

Ah Valentine’s Day. The sweet smell of overpriced roses. The whiff of panicked chocolate buying. The pressure joy of semi-forced romance.

Beyond a single eyebrow raise indicating mild scepticism at the industry of it all, I don’t have a huge problem with Valentine’s Day. There’s nothing wrong with celebrating love for a day, even if it comes at an inflated cost. There’s even something quite nice about taking a day to celebrate each other and the utter improbability of finding love with a particular, single human entity in a chaotic world that extends both backwards and forwards in time and space beyond our timeline of insignificant existence.

But what I have noticed in even the briefest search for a card, is that in amongst the genuinely funny, the sweet, the shmultzy, the weird, the modern, the parodies, the gross (in saccharine levels and in referencing bodily functions far too graphically), the basic, the rude, the quoting of TV shows I haven’t seen and therefore don’t get is that there are still a bunch of really unpleasant sometimes sexist, sometimes just nasty cards out there masquerading as humour.

So here are my worst Valentine’s Day cards seen in 2019:

  • First up we have the category of pressure to have sex! It’s the woman’s place to “put out” and “do anal” for a bit of extra affection because isn’t that what real love is based on? Nothing like a bit of insidious rape culture to make anyone feel sexy on this day of lurve.
The only small saving grace about this card is that she looks like she’s got some kind of martial arts training so if someone did try to insist she has sex with them after she’s clearly said no, she might be able to take them down.
  • No, you may not have any feelings or expectations of how to be treated! And how dare you get upset if I, the man, do not make you feel as valued as you would like. So don’t get in a mood love, I did some bare minimum twitter and got you this card to pre-empt you and your godawful endless feelings. And even though it’s actually quite mean and really passive aggressive, you’re not allowed to complain about it because I got you something for Valentine’s Day didn’t I and isn’t that what you wanted? Urgh, bitches be crazy.
  • And the Valentine’s Day award for loving body shaming goes to… Because obviously anyone over a size (insert acceptable number here – I literally don’t even know what it is anymore) doesn’t deserve to have love and if someone is attracted to them or they do create a connection with another person then frankly we should get Sherlock Holmes on this because there must be some kind of mystery force at play.
Apart from anything else, skinny kids love cake too. Loads of kids love cake, I don’t think it’s size dependent or reflective.
IT DOESN’T EVEN MAKE SENSE.
  • Continuing on the body shaming theme, let’s talk about hair and autonomy. In 2019, does anyone really have full autonomy over their bodies? Like, seriously guys, don’t we all control someone else’s decisions in a way? Gotta love the guilt that comes with not complying to someone else’s idealised hairless wonder, infantilised image of you. Because you know who doesn’t have body hair? Children. That’s who.
To be honest, we’re all products of the patriarchy and the media so maybe none of us have any real actual autonomy. It’s just slightly easier to bear when it doesn’t come from your partner telling you how to look though.
  • Speaking of ageing, women just aren’t allowed to do that are they? Well, not if they want to be seen as attractive they’re not. And if they do manage to survive to over 45 and not be decrepit and disgusting, you better be damn sure to value them only on their physical attributes. Don’t even think about their intelligence or wit, that way madness lies. Older women are allowed to be a power-mad fetish or a harmless biddy and NOTHING IN BETWEEN.
  • And then there’s this gem which sort of captures them all. Want to make someone feel old, ugly and belittled for having feelings all in one fell swoop? THIS IS THE ONE TO GET GUYS.
I mean, you try growing a literal human inside you and having your body not change.
Or ageing past puberty and having your body not change.
Or eating and having- you get the idea.

Bodies change, get over it.
  • Life achievements can be measured in lots of ways, but for women the most important things are being consistently, impossibly beautiful and finding a husband. And for men marrying women, the most important thing is her beauty. You can’t show off a munter down at the club can you? So if a woman’s greatest achievement is finally getting her old arse off the shelf and into the arms of whatever man will take her, a man’s greatest achievement is being able to rank said woman in the top (shelf) tier of stereotyped beauty standards!
Life has thrown cancer, crippling debt, unemployment, losing loved ones, betrayal from close friends, difficulty conceiving children, depression…
but don’t worry babe, I’m super hot.

That’s always the silver lining right?
You’re feeling better already.
  • This final card gets an honourable mention because it’s kind of disturbing, not because it’s telling anyone how to be but because it seems to be the kind of card you’d send to a friend telling them to get out of an abusive relationship. But it is genuinely listed in the category of Valentine’s Day cards and it did come up in my search results so here it is for your disturbed viewing pleasure.
If you are worried about your safety or someone else’s because of domestic abuse you can visit this site here:
https://www.womensaid.org.uk/information-support/helpline/
or call this number (freephone, 24 /7) run in partnership between Women’s Aid and Refuge: 0808 2000 247 24 

I find it kind of baffling that these things are still considered jokes. Because that’s the defence isn’t it?

“Oh come on where’s your sense of humour? It’s just a joke, they’re kind of funny, why are you ruining it?”

Because ultimately, the recipient of said “joke” is also the tired butt of it. Because women have taken enough crap about our emotions, our bodies, our status, our age, our presence in the world. Because if you’re going to get your partner a card and you want it to be light hearted and funny, make sure it actually is. Because I’m a proud feminist and I love comedy and it does women, jokes and yes even Valentine’s Day a disservice to keep perpetuating these horrible tropes.

So Happy Valentine’s Day from your friendly neighbourhood feminist killjoy. May you share your love and humour with mindful kindness and may we continue to smash the damaging patriarchy one stupid stereotype at a time.

To My Body, From Me to I.

You and I haven’t always seen eye to eye, 

Especially when looking in a mirror. 

There’s a tendency to lack tenderness, to be hardest on the softer parts of this body.

But I want to tell you (me, us) something. 

I have made you (me, us) strong.

You (I, we) are strong. 

I love the part of my side that is the lower curve of my waist,

(The carnal pleasure I take in food won’t let it waste away)

That undulates and fluctuates in size and 

Becomes my hips that have grown inches as I have grown older, upwards and outwards. 

26, 27, 28, 29, 30. 

And as these numbers grow higher I have noticed the first grey hairs appear and they fascinate me,

Silver to the point of being invisible but still they glint ethereally against the black.

So delicately spun as if a spider tip-toed across my head and abandoned the threads in her wake; silk orphans presented to my head that cannot help but take them in and hold them. 

We have been fatter and we have been thinner, we will never be taller, though we most certainly have been smaller and look how we’ve grown.

Our presence has never been larger and time only moves one way –

You will never be younger than you are right now.

Let’s not forget to mention the elephant in the room…well, elephants.

These breasts are not small and there was no choice in the matter but to have them.

They, like every other part of me, grew and I know nothing else but the experience of having them.

They are the part of this body that one day might feed the children I hope the whole will bear.

It may not of course – that potential is as yet untapped and I have as much control over it as I do over how it has grown in all the directions it has expanded.

Sometimes all you (I, we) want is doughnuts or pastries or bagels, toasties, deep fried sushi, mayonnaise with a side of chips, chocolate milk, coffee with a tower of whipped cream, cake with buttercream icing, biscuits, pretzels smothered in melted cheese, all in the plural for maximum guzzling consumption.

Sometimes all I (you, we) want is to swim and dance, run or cycle, vinyasa and downward dog in ashtanga sun salutations to lengthen and strengthen and stretch.

You, I…we…I. We are the same one stuff of course.

But we’re told there’s mental and physical.

Head and heart and fat and muscle, organs and bone and hair and teeth, eyeballs and skin cells and nails and hands and feet and brain matter, synapses, nerve endings, pigments, sinews, joints, a head, a body, a heart, a brain.

It is all just this. Just I.

But we’re told mind over matter.

Just me.

But we see all these images of be smaller, be thinner, be less, be beach body ready, be the best you who is by no coincidence the skinniest you-

Just…breathe.

You’re ok. You’re strong and healthy. We…

I.

I am strong and healthy.

Except maybe for those doughnuts. They’ll get me every time.

A Short Poem on Love

“No one will ever love you again like I do.”
The words floated over to me
As I was walking away.
He said it as a warning. A threat.
I paused.
To me it was reassurance, a relief laced with gratitude.
“Good,” I thought.
I kept on walking.
No one should call that love.

The Smell of Old Books

The musty smell of old books
Is sweet like vanilla and
A little sharp with age.
The scent of the dust on the pages of books and the
Paper from which the pages are made lifts itself into my nostrils and
Fills my head with stories and memories of stories I’ve read.
Those thicker, slightly stiff or softer, thinned pages that might disintegrate, which have existed for so many years.
Some passed down from parents or grandparents,
Some from childhood, lovingly read and re-read, the pages yellowed from being held
And turned over and over or
Crinkled from their journeys to the bottom of the bath.
That unmistakeable scent fills my nostrils and I’m in a library,
Looking for a new idea or researching or
Searching for the next big adventure,
The next world in which to lose myself.
Oops.
I never did return that one.
The smell of books looks like the hard back covers,
The royal blues, reds, greens faded.
The paperbacks pop open a little by themselves,
And the books lift automatically to the regularly bookmarked places within,
The familiar scent wafting out from those favoured lines
On the most read pages.
The musty smell of old books permeates our room and fills me with comfort.
And then curiosity.
And then confusion.
Where is that smell coming from?
We have no old books.
We have only two kindles now.

A Modern Millennial Breakup

Him:
Sorry, can we pause for a minute.

Her:
Oh…um…sure. What’s wrong?

Him:
We need to talk.

Her:
What? Why? Everything’s great.

Him:
I just. I feel like this isn’t working.

Her:
Oh, really?

Him:
For me.

Her:
Oh.

(Pause)

Really?

Him:
Yeah.

Her:
I actually didn’t see that coming. Wow.

Him:
This isn’t easy for me to say.

Her:
Oh. Maybe this really isn’t working.

Him:
I feel like I do all the work here. You’re not putting anything in. You just sit there, all chill and I’m working really hard you know? To make this work for us?

Her:
So maybe you need to take a break, recharge or something?

Him:
But you put in zero effort. Maybe every so often you add something to one of my lists of ALL THE THINGS WE HAVEN’T DONE YET AND NEED DOING but most of the time? Nothing. It’s all on me.

Her:
Huh. I feel like that’s not entirely fair.

Him:
Can you honestly sit there and tell me this is an equal relationship? Does this look two sided to you? Balanced??

Her:
Well when you put it like that I suppose…

Him:
You know, sometimes it’s like you’re not even here. I mean, I’ve had to check in with you more than once. Just to make sure. And you just use me whenever you want. Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy to be there for you but you never even ask if it’s a good time. And what about when I need you? Where are you then?

Her:
I see how this looks but-

Him:
Is there someone else?

Her:
Excuse me now?

Him:
Don’t make me ask you twice. You heard me. This is humiliating enough as it is.

(Pause)

Her:
We never said we were exclusive.

Him:
Oh you’re pulling that one on me? God I didn’t think this could get any lower.

Her:
I’m sorry, I didn’t think it was-

Him:
That’s right. You didn’t think. You didn’t think about my feelings or about me at all. Well this isn’t just “one of my episodes”. I’m leaving.

Her:
Oh don’t be like that we can work this out, come on I’m here. I’m listening! Tell me what you need.

Him:
No. It’s too late. You take me for granted. I have just enough self respect left to get me out of here and I don’t know what will happen next but I know this. We’re done.

Her:
Netflix? NETFLIX. We are not ending like this.

Him:
I hope Amazon Prima or whatever her name is, is worth it. I gave you all I had. And I wasn’t enough. 4OD warned me about this but did I listen?

Her:
Who warned you? You’ve literally never mentioned them. And it’s prime.

Him:
What?

Her:
Amazon Prime. The name. You got it…never mind.

Him:
Do you think I care…really? That’s what you’re focused on right now??

Her:
I’m sorry. I’m sorry you’re right. That was badly timed.

Him:
For fuck’s sake.

Her:
Errr I didn’t see a bad language warning anywhere here. And I said I’m sorry.

Him:
I’m just gonna go.

Her:
Ok. Bye then.

Him:
Ok. Bye.

Her:
Wait. Can I…

Him:
What?

Her:
Can I just get those end credits? I really like the theme tune and I can’t place that guy what was his name? It’s driving me crazy and Amazon always tells me who’s in every scene so-

Him:
Ugh. Amazon is welcome to you.

(Netflix goes blank)

Her:
Well I guess that was a long shot.

It’s just you and me now Amazon. Hope it’s cool if we do you & chill.

One day we will all be obsolete.

Winter. Is. Coming.

My anxiety doesn’t look like this guy, I just really wanted to push the Game of Thrones reference.

 

Thump. Thump. Thump. Thump.

Shh.

Thump thump thump thump thump thump thump thump

Not now please.

Thumpthumpthumpthumpthumpthumpthumpthumpthumpthumpthumpthumpthumpthumpthumpthumpthump.

Just breathe. Get a grip.

Thumpthumpthumpthumpthumpthumpthumpthumpthumpthumpthumpthumpthumpthumpthumpthumpthumpthumpthumpthumpthump.

That’s my heart going faster and faster and endlessly faster. I can feel it in my chest, my throat, my hands. Like I’m holding the ghost or an echo of my own heart just pulsing wildly, out of control, that rising feeling. I’m surprised when I look down at my hands and I can’t see my feral heart escaped from behind my ribs, it feels so viscerally like I must be holding it.

THUMPTHUMPTHUMPTHUMP.

Yes, thank you we get it.

My hands are holding my ghost echo heart and they’re shaking and I’m outside but if you looked at my outside, you wouldn’t know a thing was wrong. You might say “Oh look, there’s Abi.”

But I’m not there.

I’m somewhere else in my head and it’s not connecting with outside, like swimming in a dream and then realising there isn’t a pool and you’re not even dreaming, you’re just confused and it’s loud and quiet at the same time. You’re far away but everything surrounds you and you stay still as it moves because you can’t move. So it washes over you like a wave from the dream pool you aren’t in.

“What’s wrong?”

Or like being in a mirror world where everything sort of looks the same but isn’t. It jars. Like the really bad half rhyme crowbarred into a poem.

Everything is wrong but when I come to tell you, nothing comes out. All I can say is “I don’t know” and of course that makes it worse because how can I not know what’s going on in me? I can’t make words, usually so reliable, match my feelings. How can nothing tangible feel like the heaviest everything? It fills me from the chest out, spreading like grey tendrils curling around my organs and my limbs and I could scream about it but if I opened my mouth I don’t think anything would come out. Also then my throat would hurt. Screaming is less worth it than you think and terrible for your vocal cords.

Thump thump thump thump thump thump.

You shouldn’t be able to feel your heart beating unless you’ve just sprinted or done something similarly active to elevate its rate. But I can feel it and it hurts and it’s beating so hard in my chest I think I should be gasping for breath but my breathing seems normal until I try to take a deep breath in. It’s not deep enough but I can’t cram any more air into my lungs. They’re filled to bursting and maybe they will burst. They won’t burst. Don’t be ridiculous.

It feels ridiculous though, to have this lung bursting nothing weight on my chest taking over, controlling me from the central point of my body, turning my legs down to lead and my tear ducts up to waterfall. The tendrils are grey so it’s greyness that fills me. It’s not darkness. I don’t mind the dark. The dark can sort of envelope you and hug you but the grey cloys around you. A familiar misty nothing damp panic paralysing fog. Can you sink in fog?

It’s like I’m drowning in it but I know I can’t be. It’s not actually real grey cloud in my lungs and anyway I’m a good swimmer. But you don’t travel through clouds by swimming so it doesn’t matter how well I swim. It all feels like that – like you’ve done all the working out but you’ve come to the wrong answer and you can’t retrace your steps to figure out what doesn’t add up.

It’s so tiresomely dramatic. I’ve got this heaviness between my eyes where my brow is constantly furrowed. My eyebrows hurt. Who knew eyebrow muscles could get tired? Clowns, probably. They know loads of things, hidden behind their sad fixed expressions. Although their eyebrows are painted on so maybe not.

Thump thump thump thump thump thump.

Shh. Just stop it.

If only it were possible to just take a break from my own body and brain. Because it’s hard to see the end point. I’ve always found it hard to imagine life being different to what it is now. And I know academically I don’t always feel like this but the feelings part of my head doesn’t seem to care about maths or logic or science. It’s staged a coup, a hostile takeover and I’ve crumbled instantly. And I’m irritated by that. Why have I unwillingly, unwittingly given over control of my body to this thing? It feels crazy to not be the one in charge of me.

Winter is coming.

And with it comes this swirling void of anxiety. I fall in and it’s endless. It keeps me a prisoner of the worst parts of my brain. I’m doing my best but it makes me close in on myself, folding over and over like a kaleidoscope. I want to know why it hits when it does, why everything turns inwards without reason. I want to know why it’s so unreasonably all-consuming, why even as I’m writing this sitting in a cafe out in the world, it’s the backdrop to my body. There’s the beat of the slowed down French house music the cafe is playing and there’s the pulsing of my anxiety over it. I feel like I could beg someone to switch me off, press “power down” on my mind. If they asked me how I couldn’t tell them.

I don’t have the answers to any of it. I don’t know when it will pass.

I just know it’s here and I’m as afraid of it as the Night’s Watch are of the White Walker King.

 

Stuck In The Middle With My Opinions

Rage to the left of me. Outrage to the right. Here I am. 

I rarely comment on the situation in Israel for so many reasons. This post is not about my position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is about how I’m more often than not, too scared to voice it. For fear of being shouted down by either and both sides.

 Last time I wrote anything remotely linked to the Middle East and the conflict that simply won’t end, it was about a small Israeli theatre and dance company show being cancelled in Edinburgh after pro-Palestinian groups protested.

The hypocrisy and singling out of Israel for this kind of boycotting to the point of danger so it meant cancellation (or as I saw it, caving to the threat of violence) was what pushed me to write about it with great sadness sitting in a heavy heart. Sadness for the silencing of artistic voices who did not deserve to bear punishment for actions of their government. Just as Palestinian civilians don’t deserve to bear punishment for their government, who act violently upon clear and self declared terrorist motives. 

There is no place for the middle ground in this conflict. There is no time for a moderate opinion, one that sees the treatment of Palestinian people in Gaza and says that both the Israeli government and Hamas should be doing better than this for everyone’s sake. The middle ground sees a shared responsibility. But historically, these two groups of people share nothing but the fight. The centrist view sees that we are too deeply into a decades long conflict to take any individual incident in isolation or to try and unpick the threads that have led to this tangled mess. Every action is a reaction to something and so often it goes all the way back to what is seen as the beginning in 1948. But to ignore the historical context of the forming of the state of Israel is irresponsible and a disservice to the Jews who were systematically slaughtered between 1939 and 1945. The forming of the state of Israel was not the beginning, the extreme antisemitism leading to the highly organised extermination of Jews was. It is the height of hypocrisy to call for human rights action while ignoring what Israel started as – one of the largest havens in history after one of the worst atrocities, so terrible it gained its own word; holocaust. 

To ignore the many offers of peace deals that were rejected is to rewrite history. But to ignore the suffering of people who have a governing body that runs on terror and corruption is to deny reality and avoid our own collective moral compass. To fall back on the holocaust as a reason why we cannot do better today is a disservice to ourselves and to the memory of those who perished. But we should not forget either. To forget is to erase and to erase gives way to real danger. 

There is no space to find the balance of those huge things. There is no space for squaring past inflicted inhumanity with finding humanity now. There is no space to see that Israel as a country must protect the lives of its people but that the Palestinian civilian lives are just as worthy of protection. A life is a life is a life. 

When online expression is one of the most frequently used and public forms of communication, it is hard to imagine that there might not be space for something. But I am too afraid to post about my sadness when there are deaths on both sides. I am nervous to express my frustration at organisations who gloss over Israel’s responsibility to constantly reassess the measure of its response to potential and enacted threats, while simultaneously expressing my frustration with groups who support terrorist activities and deny documented history, while also wanting to express my sadness and frustration that there are people who feel so desperate, living in an environment so toxic that they resort to acts of terror, so immersed in this ideology of hate that they are convinced it is worth sacrificing their own lives in attacks that result in their suicide. There’s more of course. Bigger feelings, sadder statements on both sides and there is no sentence long enough to encompass them all. So uncharacteristically, I shut up. 

My thoughts are tangled and sometimes it feels like there is not enough space in my head nor out of it to express a compassionate but uncompromisingly honest middle ground. Certainly not one that anyone who takes a firm one side or the other position will hear. Sometimes I struggle to hear it because it goes round and round and on and on and the thoughts circle but do not land anywhere except they keep trying to do the impossible and be on both sides.

There is no room made for those who want to shine a light onto both sides and bring both sets of agendas and operations out of the shadows and into that light. There is legitimate fear. There is death. But there is no meeting in the middle. 

In an extreme situation, only extreme opinions are welcome. You’re either for or against, there is no in between so get off that fence. To show moderation is weakness. I find when I do talk about this, I’m always taking the other side to the person I’m speaking to because if they’re further along the scale in one direction than I am, I feel compelled to point out the other side. There are staunchly pro-Israel people who would describe me as a Palestinian sympathiser and ally. There are fully Palestinian supporters who would describe me as their enemy. I feel I am neither and perhaps I am both. I am not on the fence for there is no fence. I am in no man’s land. 

I don’t post my moderation because when I see others bravely try, it only elicits shouting from both sides, incendiary comments and inflammatory statements. Of course there is some support but mostly it descends into heels dug in, insults and a shut down on hearing the other side.

I hear of people with their bags packed waiting to see if they’ll have to leave the UK because they don’t feel safe here. Where will they go? To Israel, where they’ll feel safer and will be accepted. Jews fleeing for safety was the very reason for which the state of Israel was built after all. I see people declaring how no one understands Israel and we should not judge what we do not know. I see all Jews being branded as murderers for believing in the right of the state of Israel to exist because of what happened to their grandparents or Torah or a whole bunch of other reasons. I see this branding from the same people who claim they’re definitely not anti-Semitic, just anti-Israel. For every point one side can make the other side has 7 statements that start with “Yes but what about….” and this goes both ways because the conflict is long and messy and tangled and you cannot untie it. You cannot undo it. It is too late for that, when so much has been done. I see people over simplifying to the point of absurdity. If it were simple would we, the world, not have fixed it by now? We will not and cannot know the full story for it extends backwards and forwards in time, on and on and on and we are not there. We do not know. 

People wait to hear what will happen. The question hangs in the air – will the Jews align to condemn or condone Israel? The feeling I get from outside the community is that we’re all somehow responsible, somehow united. But are we? The expectation is that one Jew with one opinion will speak for us all but how can that ever be true? Have we learned nothing from the division on our own turf with our own politics? Outside the Jewish community it feels as if you can only be accepted as a Jew if you renounce ties to Israel and condemn everything they do. Inside the community it sometimes feels as if you’re branded a traitor or self-hater if you don’t support Israel’s every move. Typically, you’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t. And at the same time as wondering how I could be deemed physically responsible for this, I do feel part of that collective moral responsibility. There is no way to win for the moderate, thinking Jew.  

When you stand in the middle of such a conflict and look both ways it is hard to find hope. There is fury and there is fear. Righteous indignation runs through the veins of both groups of people whose lives are lived against the backdrop of a living volcano made from layers of human lava. There are beacons of compassion in some organisations and people who work with people on the ground to build community bridges but it seems to me that this will not be fixed from the bottom up and those at the top are so far removed they can’t hear us. We cannot control what either side does. We cannot control what a country such as America does, when they choose to stoke the fire and feed the flames.

 I do not post about this much because I feel like I will never know enough to feel confident putting something out for the world to see. It is too hard to unpack and write coherently all the conflicting feelings I have and try to justify them all. I can turn it over and over and over in my mind but I cannot fix it. My opinions, my feelings do nothing and leave me feeling impotent and ignorant and wrong whichever way I turn because there’s always the other side. I have no impact on a conflict a continent away. My prayers for peace are not heard and no one cares what I think really anyway. It is hubris to suggest otherwise. This is not to say that one should do nothing, rather that I do not know what is to be done. 

 My younger brother is in the Israeli army and I can’t decide what scares me more – the fact that he will face terrorist groups or the fact that he will hold a gun that he is trained to use while he does it.

The Smaller Dorito Is Part of The Bigger Picture

 

A perfectly normal, crunchy Dorito thank you very much.

Yesterday in a stunning move of are you fricking serious, PepsiCo – owner of Doritos – announced #Ladydoritos. This move initially sounded like it must be a joke because I don’t know if you’ve heard but we’re in 2018 and we’ve never needed lady crisps before (can we call them crisps? I know academically that they’re tortilla chips but calling them just chips feels more Americanised than I’m fully Britishly comfortable with) and it’s starting to feel like someone got a bunch of creatives in the room and set them the task of finding fresh and innovative ways to ruin literally anything and just crowbar those patriarchal stereotypes right on in. I don’t believe Jeff from marketing sitting on the back table was serious when he said “crisps without the crunch for the ladies”, I believe he was just seeing how far he could take the joke but nope here we are and Jeff is probably living an emotional rollercoaster of feeling like he’s totally nailing life followed by a sinking feeling that he might get fired for the backlash.

 

No one understands you Jeff.

Anyway the point is that this article (which I’m going to quote extensively) from the New York Post made its way onto my newsfeed telling me in the headline “Doritos to make ‘lady-friendly chips that don’t crunch for women” so I didn’t bother opening it. I rolled my eyes and continued about my day living grumpily as a sceptical woman in the patriarchy. Because doesn’t it sound utterly ridiculous? Isn’t half the point of crisps that they crunch? I mean, they’re literally called crisps ffs. It’s in the name. To me it just suggests that they’re going to make soggy pieces of something in a bag and I don’t believe anyone of any gender wants that. So I mostly ignored it because I thought the mild uproar and sarcastic comments would pretty much be covered by other people. I like to comment when I feel like I’ve got something useful to say and to be honest, I don’t even like crisps so I didn’t think I’d be adding anything that wouldn’t have already been said.

Then I was nudged by a friend into bothering to open and read the article and I saw that this wasn’t a weird assumption that they’d arrived at by chance or jest – no. This was actually researched and women apparently “do not like to crunch loudly or lick their fingers when eating in front of others” according to Global chief exec Indra Nooyi who took time out of her busy 1952 schedule to visit us in the 21st century.

Indra also provided this gem: “You watch a lot of the young guys eat the chips, they love their Doritos, and they lick their fingers with great glee, and when they reach the bottom of the bag they pour the little broken pieces into their mouth, because they don’t want to lose that taste of the flavor [sic], and the broken chips in the bottom. Women would love to do the same, but they don’t. They don’t like to crunch too loudly in public. And they don’t lick their fingers.”

WHEN DO YOU EVER WATCH A LOT OF YOUNG GUYS EATING TORTILLA CHIPS? WHERE? ARE YOU HIDING IN BUSHES WITH BINOCULARS INDRA? I LITERALLY NEVER DO THIS. ARE WE SUGGESTING THAT THE TARGET MARKET RESEARCH GROUP FOR THIS WAS A BUNCH OF PORN STARS MAKING SOME KIND OF CRISP BASED PORNOGRAPHY? I CANNOT IMAGINE HOW THEY THINK THEY KNOW THIS. THERE IS A LOT I DON’T UNDERSTAND HERE.

I spy me some manly crunchers Robin. Not a woman in sight.

Also have they ever even been anywhere in public? I have definitely seen women pouring crisps into their mouths and getting to the crumbs at the bottom. In my just-as-valid-and-controlled-as-theirs research.

And finally: “It’s not a male and female as much as ‘are there snacks for women that can be designed and packaged differently?’ And yes, we are looking at it, and we’re getting ready to launch a bunch of them soon.”

That is literally “a male and female” you utterly bullshit ridden buffoons. 

So I made some snarky comments like “I’m not ashamed of pouring in public, I’d like to do some pouring of crisps but onto Indra Nooyi’s face” and also pointed out that today is 100 years since women got the vote in Britain and right now we’re fighting against patronising crap like PepsiCo trying to give us unnecessary #LadyDoritos. If we’ve got equality in voting surely we can have equality in tortilla chips? Right? Guys? Hello?
Oh you couldn’t hear me over all my manly chip crunching? YOU’RE WRONG I HAVE EXCELLENT DICTION AND THIS IS WRITTEN DOWN.

Stuff like that, laden with snark and general displeasure and designed to make you laugh and grimace at the stupidity of it all. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that something more is afoot here.

Because I thought about it and actually I do believe the (presumably uncontrolled and mostly anecdotal) research. It probably did show that women don’t like to lick their fingers or pour crumbs into their open mouths in public. I believe that there is a self consciousness around eating that is prevalent and predominantly felt by women. I believe what they’re saying – not that women want soft crisps (idiots, no one wants that) but that women do feel a pressure to maintain an outdated, yet weirdly ingrained demure image. I believe that women have been made to feel that relishing and enjoying food is unattractive. And of course, we have been conditioned to believe that we must be attractive at all times. However will we feel any self worth if we are not struggling to squeeze ourselves into society’s godawful tiny, contradictory, narrow, unattainable frame of what a woman should be? We are constantly told we should be given less. The size of the bags will now be designed to fit into women’s handbags…but this is bizarre and nonsensical too. Loads of men don’t carry bags AT ALL* and I don’t see Pepsi trying to make pocket sized Doritos. Women’s bags are often huge – if anything we should be getting an even bigger pack! The justification here doesn’t make sense. If I wanted them, why would I choose to buy a small bag of soft crisps when I could buy a big bag of crunchy ones? Women are being utterly shafted by sexism and it’s a problem of the patriarchy’s own making. And once again we’re being told to eat differently, eat less, that’s not for women (incidentally, you don’t want to get me started on Yorkies) it’s just for men because it’s big and crunchy and might taste good or make a bit of a mess. God forbid a woman should look anything less than impossibly perfect at all times. God forbid a woman should just enjoy a snack without giving a shit about how she looks eating it, who is judging her or what calories are in it. Men are so confident about their public appearances they literally whip out their dicks and piss in the street on the reg. Women can’t even eat a packet of shit crisps without being judged negatively and given a poor substitute that we don’t even want. And why? Just because people think we don’t go for the crumbs at the end of the pack? Or because they don’t want us to?

The bottom line for me is:

The patriarchy has created a situation. The patriarchy now perceives it to be a problem. The patriarchy has created a solution that fits its own agenda of keeping men and women divided and in the process, giving women less and making women less.

I reserve the right to eat anything crunchy exactly like this.

It’s really easy to dismiss something like this as irrelevant or unimportant, but it ties into the bigger picture. So much of continuously fighting for equality for women does. We can have a laugh about this one sure, but we mustn’t forget where it’s really coming from and why there’s a pretty shady layer of dark misogyny underneath it all. Because if women were constantly taught not to care about our appearances so much, if we were told to source our self worth and value somewhere internally rather than from others’ perceptions of us, what would all these companies do? They wouldn’t be able to exploit our self conscious insecurities any more, that’s for sure. So don’t let them bullshit us with this nonsense. It’s 2018 already – this stuff is getting *really* old.

*BECAUSE POCKETS ARE ALSO A FEMINIST ISSUE. Just think – if we weren’t told we need to carry so much bloody stuff around with us all the time we wouldn’t need bags. If we had decent pockets on our clothing we’d be able to put all we actually need into them. If we had pockets that were equal in usefulness to men’s pockets no one would suggest making handbag sized things but if they did they’d be bigger and more glorious and generally better and not smaller, shitter patronising flavoured crisps soggy tortilla chips with an aftertaste of sexism. PUT THAT IN YOUR POCKET AND SET FIRE TO IT.

Crispy, messy snacks. PREACH.

When PC Means Presidents Club and Fundraising Means Sexual Harassment

 

Just to be clear, this isn’t a photo from the event. It’s just the least offensive stock image I found.

The Financial Times have done a piece of undercover journalism that you might think happened in 1958 but in fact occurred in 2018. In case you haven’t seen it, you can read it here – they’ve dropped the paywall so off you go, no excuses now.

It’s been written carefully enough so that although people have been named and shamed, no one has been directly accused of anything and there is even a disclaimer to say that the seating plan the Financial Times has seen is not a guaranteed understanding of the list of actual attendees. But to be honest I don’t care. It’s enough of a totally galling blow to the concept of respect for women or treating us like humans that this event exists. It’s enough that the men invited are at the tops of their fields, are influencers and big names. It’s enough that the only women who are in the room are the ones who are there for entertainment, for display. It is enough that this event has existed for 33 years in whatever iterations it has been and not one of those men has ever thought to blow the whistle. For. Shame. All of them should feel as sick about themselves as I do.

While reading this article I kept thinking “oh it can’t get worse, can it?”

But of course, it can. You’d think I wouldn’t be quite so naive as to think that all those things are enough. The exposé mentions that the dinner raised more than two million pounds for charity…but what is the cost of that? Sure, these men are cracking out their cheque books and bidding on mostly innocuous high end prizes (the slogan “spice up your wife” for the plastic surgery prize was a fresh wave of totally disrespectful, reductive to women nausea) but who is really paying the price of this event for these charities? Because to me it looks like that money comes at the cost of the safety of 130 young women. Someone might bid £400 000 on feeding his ego  sorry, on naming a children’s hospital wing after himself, but if he’s doing it while sticking his hand up an 18 year old’s skirt who thought she was coming to do a black tie event as a hostess…doesn’t that somehow defeat the point?

“Oh but it’s not the men’s fault that there are young women there” – sure, the men didn’t hire them and we’ll come on to who did in a minute, but it’s funny because I’ve been in a workplace or a restaurant before as a customer or an employee or a visitor. I’ve never felt the need to grope someone. I’ve never felt the need or the desire really to just sexually assault and harass someone while they offer me a drink. You’d think these moguls and businessmen might be able to take some kind of responsibility for their actions right? We all get to decide how we behave. One of them could have blown the whistle. One of them could have decided this wasn’t an acceptable way to treat other human beings. I’ve also worked as a hostess for events before but you know what? I’ve never had someone stick their hand up my skirt while I’m offering round canapés and been told that “it’s a Marmite job. Some girls love it, and for other girls it’s the worst job of their life and they will never do it again” by the woman who has hired me. As if I’m supposed to just take it as part of acceptable working conditions.

So speaking of Caroline Dandridge…I find it really hard to contain my loathing of this person. To put it bluntly, what kind of person, what kind of woman sends young women into an environment where there is such a high risk of them being sexually assaulted, they’re basically meant to expect it? Except they’re not. The men are referred to as “annoying”. Not “harassing you and illegally touching your body without consent.” Not “in an environment set up for them to feel like they’re allowed to commit a sexual crime.” Just “annoying”. I can think of lots of things that are annoying – people humming, public transport being delayed, when I leave the house without an umbrella because it’s sunny but then the weather changes really quickly and suddenly it starts to rain and I wish I had that umbrella. Those are all prime examples of annoying things. You know what’s not annoying Caroline? It’s when you go to work as a young woman expecting to serve drinks and instead of that you get groped and touched against your will.

But it’s ok everyone, it’s ok because Caroline Dandridge’s organisation Artista has what the Financial Times calls “an enforcement team” and when you read that phrase you think “oh phew, good they’ve got people in place to protect the young women in case things get out of hand” but no that’s actually not what they’re for. They’re there “prodding less active hostesses to interact with dinner guests”. So the enforcement team are there to make sure the young women don’t take themselves out of an uncomfortable or difficult situation where they feel their personal safety is compromised. The enforcement team are there to make sure the women don’t escape to safety or take a break from being physically violated.

“Maybe they can go to the toilets!” You might think, in a desperate attempt to find a place of respite. Yes! Good idea – the toilet! That’s a place where for decades women have sought refuge, hidden and cried and regrouped themselves to return to the battle that is working and living in the patriarchy. The toilet – that will feel safe. They can hide there for 10 minutes and-Nope. According to the report from the Financial Times:

“Outside the women’s toilets a monitoring system was in place: women who spent too long were called out and led back to the ballroom. A security guard at the door was on hand, keeping time.”

Oh did I mention also that their phones are taken away? But if something awful does go down, they’re told by Caroline Dandridge to contact her except she phrases it as “if any of the men become too annoying”. How does she want them to contact her? By pigeon? By standing a minute and looking for her? Oh no wait, stand for too long and you’ll be hustled by someone throwing you back into the threatening situation you’re trying to leave. This woman has systematically stripped 130 young women of their ability to have any kind of safety. She’s taken away their ability to rest for a minute and regroup. She’s timing them on the toilets. No partners are allowed at the event. No support system. And she’s taken away their phones. So no outside contact or ability to call for outside help. This woman has single handedly enabled a room full of already entitled men to take advantage of women who are younger and more vulnerable than them. Caroline Dandridge tells them their phones will be “safely locked away” but there’s nothing safe about it. Well OK maybe the phones will be safe, but the women certainly won’t be.

“But these women are choosing to be there and some of them have done it before and some of them love it!” I hear you defend. You might be right. Some of them probably need the money and make that choice knowingly. And some of them are strong enough to draw their own lines and decide what they do and don’t want and will be confident enough to say no when it’s too much. And some of them weigh up the choices and decide that even if they hate it maybe it won’t be so bad. But to me it sounds like it would be horrific. I mean, I’m not tall or particularly thin so I’d never make the cut but tables of older, rich and entitled men who think that because they have enough money they’re entitled to touch me wherever and however they want, who are then put into a room where they’re basically told that yes this is true…that’s a combination of about 7 different nightmares for me. These are men who have real power, real influence and could be part of more than just giving money to places. These are men who could be part of a social change, who  could ensure their companies and spaces are safe not just for men but for women too. I don’t know what it’s like to be a man but if I were in that room and I knew that there were women being touched in ways they don’t want I couldn’t sit back and let it happen. I couldn’t just keep presenting or eating or standing there. I’d feel a sense of responsibility to them.

This is not the same as sex work or the sex industry. Because I imagine for this “black tie event” the job description doesn’t outline the need to accept a man groping you as part of your duties. There are many varying circumstances around sex work but I think generally the people know they’re going to do a job that involves some kind of sexual interaction. I don’t think that’s the case here and if it were made clear from the start I wonder how many legal ramifications Artista would run into. I wonder how many applicants they’d get. I wonder if the whole event would still want to run this way if they admitted openly what they’re doing and how they’re operating, if they directly addressed what they’re expecting of the young women who come to work there and what they’re allowing and enabling for the men who leer at them. This event happens and keeps happening because it’s allowed to be a well kept secret. The men won’t tell and the women have to sign non-disclosure agreements, so they can’t tell…or at least not without serious legal and probably financial consequences. I don’t imagine any of the “students…actresses, dancers or models [who] did occasional hosting work to make ends meet” can afford those kinds of consequences.

There are so many points of disgust for me that I could go on. I could write thousands of words about the power imbalance, the system, the patriarchy, how women are set up again and again to be taken advantage of and used and disregarded as people. But I have to end somewhere. So my final port of call is to commend the two women who went undercover and reported on the event. The women who may or may not have known what they were in for, the women who had to be “tall, thin and pretty” (the three criteria us women must have for any job of course) for £150 for a night’s work plus £25 for a taxi home. The undercover reporters who may well be those three perfectly fine things to be but who had to reduce themselves to be seen as being only those things for the sake of this job. And what a totally fantastic job they have done. If this were a show I’d be on my feet applauding and I don’t think everyone deserves a standing ovation. But these women do and I hope the consequence of their stellar reporting is that this event is brought to its knees. I hope that at every point there are people who will take a stand – the organisers, the supporters, the members and the charities who benefit from this event. I hope they all rethink what they’re doing; why they feel the need to behave this way and why they want to treat young women in this way.

I hope they raise even more money next year by inviting women to sit at the tables, rather than parading them to grope and sexually harass in their evening’s workplace.

 

Update: within hours of the story breaking but after I wrote this piece, it was announced that the Presidents Club will no longer be operating as a fundraising body and the charity dinner will not be held again.