Category Archives: journal

me and my daughter too

When my daughter was 10 months old, as I held her in my arms – in a bookshop in Louisville Kentucky – she was touched inappropriately by a man in late middle age. He approached us and commented amiably on her sweetness and I smiled in return and made some innocuous reply. Then I realised that he had put his fingers in her mouth and rubbed them along her gums, as he asked me conversationally if she had any teeth yet.

I pulled her back away from him as I replied to him, sensible of the physical imposition – but I didn’t rebuke him. It didn’t even occur to me to rebuke him. I was swept along in the imperative to be polite and friendly in public. And it all happened so swiftly. He didn’t linger, he headed with his purchase out of the shop and that was that.

My friend had seen it all from a few feet away and she moved over to us quickly, indignant on my behalf. She asked if we were okay as we watched him walk out the door, and wondered scathingly how he would like it himself if a total stranger stuck their fingers into his mouth. I brushed it off, played it down. He probably meant no harm. He may not have even been conscious of what he was doing. He had just been trying to be friendly. Well anyway it was too late now, he’d left the shop. No point in dwelling on it. Just a weirdly unpleasant encounter, best forgotten.

The trouble is, I have never forgotten it. I remember being surprised, caught off guard, when he reached out and touched the inside of her mouth. I remember pulling her back and away from him, my gut instinct being that he had crossed a physical boundary, and wondering when he’d last washed his hands. I remember the immediate mental negotiating, trying to rationalise why it was no big deal, that I shouldn’t worry about it, that it didn’t matter. I remember a seed of disquiet lodging itself inside me and spoiling the rest of that day, what should have been a wonderful day visiting with my friend.

Time hasn’t eased the disquiet. That seed has grown steadily over the years, and with it my anger. I’m not especially angry with the man himself. My baby daughter wasn’t harmed, and he really may not have meant to cause any offense. I’m not angry with that man himself but I am very, very angry that it happened. It makes me angry that he felt so thoughtlessly entitled to touch her. He imposed himself upon her, and upon me too by proxy. It makes me angry that I didn’t stop him or confront him – that I didn’t have the social tools or the inner confidence to confront him. My ingrained response was to swallow my discomfort, to not rock the boat, to minimise and excuse and push it all aside. It makes me angry that I accepted it with a smile, even though it didn’t feel right.

Jesus, it wasn’t even sexual contact.

Like every woman alive on the planet, I have experienced inappropriate behaviour and sexual harrassment from acquaintances and strangers. I have been ordered to wear shorter skirts and sexier tops by my male boss, and fired when I failed to be flirtatious enough with his pub clientele. I have had my ass touched in public places, and been ordered to smile by complete strangers. I spent nearly an hour one afternoon trying to peel away from a man who had attached himself to my side, demanding that I tell him my name and join him for a drink. I’ve sat next to men on the bus and the train, squeezing myself into as small a space as possible, while they stretch themselves out, often with their legs splayed wide apart. I’ve walked past innumerable men with a hand resting on their crotch… why? To intimidate me? To reassure themselves? To make sure their dick hasn’t dropped off?

But of all this everyday sexism, it is the encounter with the man in the bookshop which sits like a grim pit in my stomach and still nauseates me nearly twenty years later. It was so casual, so nebulous, so invisible a transgression. So insidious in its power dynamic: you are there, available for me to touch, this old man told my infant daughter – and in doing so told me as well. I can touch you as I like, and then walk away as though it means nothing. And you won’t complain. You won’t kick up a fuss. You will try to tell yourself it doesn’t matter. But it does.

Frankie Vah meets Laurie Penny

Edinburgh in August becomes a swarm of performers and tourists and buskers, there are posters and flyers plastered onto every available fence or lamppost, and the pavements are littered with dropped handbills and ticket stubs. With hundreds upon hundreds of shows and concerts and talks and gigs on offer, it can be overwhelming. Choosing what to see becomes a gamble: it could be great, and well worth the money, or it could be a lemon. This year in the lucky dip I came up with real prizes: performance poet Luke Wright, in his acclaimed one-man show Frankie Vah, and journalist Laurie Penny, talking about her new book Bitch Doctrine at the Book Fest.

Both Wright and Penny advocate for the political left with spitfire gumption. They both wield words like eloquent weapons, aimed with clarity and precision, that cut open hesitancy or prevarication and rally the troops to the cause of social justice for all. (God knows the left needs to be rallied.) And both operate from the same base: a deep and abiding respect for words as voice, and voice as political agency. But what resonates most for me in their work is this: both understand that the most radical act anyone can take in life is to learn.

Frankie Vah tells the story of a boy growing up during the 1980s, setting himself against the conservative, religious dogma of his father (a vicar) by embracing anti-Thatcherism. We watch a tentative, yearning teenaged Simon evolve into a snarling, adamant Angry Young Man named Frankie Vah. Along the way Frankie becomes consumed with his own righteousness and self-creation, eventually insulting, betraying and alienating everyone close to him – until he breaks. The anger-fuelled facade falls away, leaving a raw and humbled human heart on full display.

Likewise, Laurie Penny offered a graciously open interview, the most notable point of which (for me) were her reflections on the responsibility we must each take to keep learning. ‘I don’t always get it right’ she admitted, ‘I make mistakes,’ and she acknowledged the privilege she holds as a white, middle-class, well-educated person who holds a very public platform in her writing. She described her personal commitment to listen and learn from others about what is needed to create a just society.

Both Wright and Penny draw on this fundamental truth: the personal is political. Every individual holds values and makes choices that contribute to the collective human experience. Every individual is responsible for their impact on others. And every individual makes mistakes along the way. But as Penny pointed out, we need to create safe spaces where people “can get things wrong.” Getting it wrong is the fuel of learning – but only when it is digested and transformed into a usable energy.

Anger at injustice can be a form of getting it wrong; it is a valuable resource from which we can create a useable contructive energy, so long as we don’t stop and linger with anger for its own sake. Frankie Vah learns that righteous anger hits a dead end if one doesn’t remain open and listening to the equally valid emotions and opinions of others.

It’s a balancing act, for sure. One audience member at the Laurie Penny talk was a German lady who referenced Karl Popper’s “paradox of tolerance: Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.”

Penny replied with Oscar Wilde: “The truth is rarely pure and never simple.”

The discussion also touched upon the relationship between truth and reality, in this age of so-called post-truth. How can truth and reality either of them be anything but subjective, and aligned with an individual’s experience and perspective? Penny alludes to this when she writes about journalistic objectivity: “I have never held with the notion of objective journalism…. When I started out, my world was overfull of stern men imploring me to strive for objectivity – which meant, in practice, that I ought to tell the story as a rich older man might see it.”

In this way, objectivity becomes confused with telling one’s story from a worthy point of view. When we listen to individual perspective as indicative of a greater legitimacy, we grant it the power of voice.

Here is where Laurie Penny and Luke Wright veer off from one another: while they share a vast common ground of ideals and values, Luke Wright will only ever speak as a white man, and Laurie Penny as a white woman – and their experience of voice reflects this. Interestingly, Frankie Vah is a persona created by Simon, who is himself a character created by Wright. These layers of identity fall away like tshirts tugged off and flung to the far corners of a teenaged bedroom: Luke Wright as Frankie Vah paces and swaggers and sweats and vibrates with an indignation summoned from his own alive-and-beating heart. Luke Wright as Simon at the start of the show stands in awkward gawky adolescence, eyes gleaming with eagerness to connect and participate in life; he stands in lone, vulnerable hurt at the end, when Simon faces up to his life choices. Wright’s honesty and self-examination drive these characters. He channels himself into a story that leaves him poised at the edge of reason, and we love him for it.

Like Wright, Laurie Penny digs deep into the viscerally personal and channels her soulful passion into the stories she tells through journalism. But what happens when a woman voices righteous anger, and travels to that same edge of reason? Penny can tell you: she takes vicious and unrelenting flak for daring to hold an opinion, daring to express herself, daring to challenge the demand that she be quiet and submissive. Her voice becomes a dare, a transgression, for which she will be emphatically trolled, verbally abused, even threatened with physical violence. And most likely of all, she will be dismissed as irrelevent.

In Bitch Doctrine, Penny writes “When women write and speak the truth of their own lives, it is called ‘confessional’, with the implication of wrongdoing, of sharing secrets that ought not to be spoken aloud, at least by nice girls. When men do the same, it is called literature, and they win prizes.”

That particular observation resonates, because I’ve experienced the same. Too personal, I’ve been told about some of the things I’ve written publicly. Too raw. And yes, even “confessional” – that last by an otherwise open-minded, feminist, liberal friend who is also a man. It was a throwaway observation about my blog, probably forgotten as soon as he said it – but on my end, the word stung. There was a gentle reprimand in its tone, a suggestion that I was being incautious by baring myself so openly. It instilled a pinprick of shame, which I can still feel despite all efforts to rationalise and yes, excuse the friend who said it. He is a gentle soul, a considerate and loving and well-meaning person, very willing to reflect on and engage with feminism, to question the assumptions of masculinity, and to acknowledge the privilege he holds. Yet even he found it somehow unseemly that I would write candidly about my personal experiences and opinions, and felt entitled to chasten me.

It hardly seems worth dwelling on this, given the scale of crises which are engulfing our world in the 21st century. But no, on the contrary: I think it is well worth dwelling on even the most subtle of dilemmas, exploring any avenue which may lead us to learn from one another. Learning is at the core of our salvation, if there is to be any real healing of the wounds which fester so doggedly in the human psyche.

Organisational theorist Margaret Wheatley once observed that in natural systems, dysfunction is only resolved by introducing new information. Our human system is deeply dysfunctional, bloated with injustice, mired down by obsolete and discredited philosophies and customs. It is time to welcome the new information being voiced, to flood the system with fresh ideas and different perspectives. We can learn to do better; we must learn to do better. We can and must learn, individually and collectively. Our capacity to learn is the most powerful thing about us, and the most beautiful.

climate minds

I grew up in a midwestern American suburb, with neat rows of houses each on their own patch of tidy lawn. It was still a fairly young housing development, perhaps twenty years old. The trees of the neighbourhood were beyond the sapling stage but not yet grown to their full height or strength. Ornamental bushes and beds of flowering plants decorated the edges of front porches and backyard decks. Residential streets and long driveways crisscrossed the groundscape, establishing car traffic as the dominant species in this constructed environment.

Yet some of the most emotive memories from my childhood are connected to the natural world which insisted on existing beside and around the self-contained boxes of suburban housing:

sitting on the front porch in a heavy, pressing air watching the spring sky turn the deep grey-green of tornado weather; weird fingery flashes of lightening scratching along the cloudscape, punctuated by groans of thunder, rumbling and grumbling in sometimes alarming closeness overhead. Rain breaking through the salty tang of sulphurised air, pouring steadily down in a loud beating cadence, driving all the earthworms from the dirt out onto the slick wet black of the tarred driveway

deepening dusk on warm summer evenings, a long lingering at the threshold of darkness, and the sudden magical smears of fireflies’ golden light, appearing and disappearing in a slow blinking dance

bright yellow blobs of dandelions scattered across the grass, on a fresh summer morning, with the sun reaching its way upward behind the houses opposite

moody grey overcast autumn sky, lost in its own thoughts, and leaves turning red gold brown, dropping into crisp rustling layers and skittery scattering across the pavement

waking up to the first frost, a crisp white icing sugar coating each stiff blade of grass and each dried up, gnarled up, long gone autumn leaf – and then, weeks later, the first snowfall, thick feathery flakes drifting down in slow motion and gathering like feathers into sparkly soft contours over bushes and rails.

tulips appearing, from nothing to something, steadily green and then surprising bright pink and deep red with yellow streaks

grey squirrel leap-jumping across the lawn and scurrying up a tree, bushy tail a fluffy curl

robin landing with a thump by the kitchen window, beady black eyes peering around, taking off again in a startled flapping rush

white papery moth beating against the wire mesh of the window screen, creepy tiny rustlings of summertime night-time

Despite the best efforts of suburban town planners to build over and tame the midwestern landscape, the natural world persisted. Green weeds pushed through cracks in the pavement. Spiders explored bathrooms. Black ants invaded kitchen cupboards. Changing seasons demanded attention and the grass – oh the grass. The grass never stopped. It needed to be mowed again and again and again – my brothers’ weekly chore.

I am reminiscing for a reason. My relationship to the natural world sat uneasily beside the more pervasive lessons of my childhood, which involved bug spray and cellophane wrapping. Twentieth century American post-war suburban life gave me interstate highways and shopping malls and a two car garage. McDonalds and Wendys and KFC. Oreos and Cheerios and Cheetos and Doritos. Pacman and Walkman and synthetic clothing in neon pink and green. The culture of my upbringing worshipped the artificial, the mechanical and digital, the automotive, the commercial, the televised and the mass produced. Nature was just a messy nuisance.

Those memories of mine were collected despite, not because, and in truth I know very little about the natural environment. The names and characteristics of all but the most obvious of flora, the habits and habitats of all but the most common of fauna – I know so relatively nothing of who they all are and what they’re all like. In a wilderness challenge, I would die quickly. Foraging, protection from predators, weather patterns and terrain? Sorry, but no. No idea.

That leads me finally to the point of this post, which is to ask: how have I been prepared for the spectre of climate change? How does the average mind of modern civilisation grasp the information that is coming at us about global warming, and all the evidence we have marking the gruelling degradation of our natural ecosystems? Psychology is so commonly associated with human culture, human relationships – but what of our relationships with the natural world? What of my intense internal dialogue with those mesmerising stormclouds as I sat watching the sky from our front porch, what of my tentative, curious friendship with the worms on our rain-drenched driveway? What of my far more intimate relationships with my collection of factory-made cuddly toys, my menagerie of small plastic animals and my beloved Merlin with its battery-operated blinks and bleeps? How have I been set up, for the predicament I face as part of the human community?

Do you ever wonder the same? What are your own experiences and ideas at this unique, bewildering and many would say terrifying juncture of civilisation? Can we humans ever be forgiven for the damage and even extinction we have caused to so many other species and ecosystems in this world? Can we create a human culture that harmonises with the natural world, rather than destroying it? Can we clean up the mess we have made? Will we even survive?

These questions and others inspire the next issue of Unpsychology magazine. My friend Steve Thorp, founder and editor of Unpsychology, has invited me to co-edit this upcoming issue which takes as its theme Climate Minds. You can read the brief and the call for submissions here.

Please consider contributing to this issue, or circulating the invitation throughout your own networks. The deadline is 30 September 2017.

Allow your imagination to soar. Remember those moments of your childhood, when the natural world bewitched you. Consider how you fit into this remarkable web of life. Share your thoughts, your fears, your hopes. And above all, trust your heart, which remembers so vividly the joyful fresh air of a summer morning, lawn mowers rumbling in the distance, and those damned inevitable dandelions smiling up at you.

thank you friends

It’s always good to recognise the dappled patterns of one’s perspective. ‘The way it is‘ contracts and expands. Memories come coloured with emotion.

I wrote in my last post about the environment in which I grew up – one of middle class privilege and relentless competition. This was the 1980’s and the Reagan years, a time when America rode a wave of material prosperity and the promise of evermore: endless growth and profit, bountiful rewards for joining the rat race and playing the game. I called it “the belly of the beast” and indeed, when I imagine myself as a teenager walking through the local shopping mall, with its designer boutiques and its trendy brand logos, its parquet floors and potted trees and fast food courts, the picture takes on the discordant atmosphere of uneasy dreamtime.

However: even in the midst of the spectacle and the striving, there were lifelines of human warmth and belonging. A few days ago I was reminded of this when I received an unexpected greeting from an old friend and neighbour: one of the little girls I used to babysit for, now grown up and a mother herself. It threw me into reminiscence.

The girls were three years old and three months old, respectively, when I first met them – and I was only thirteen myself. It’s easy to say I watched them grow up but really, we grew up together. Mr and Mrs H took a regular and well-earned weekly break: an evening out to the movies or dinner with friends; sometimes if their calendar was full I would be at their house twice or perhaps even three times over the course of a week. When I learned to drive I was entrusted to take the girls on outings to the library or the swimming pool. I was invited to join their birthday parties, and occasional holiday gatherings, introduced to visitors and relatives, and I was always, always made to feel welcome in their family.

Some stray memories: sitting on the couch in the evening with the girls in their pyjamas, watching Fraggle Rock or Fairy Tale Theatre. Playing Rainbow Brite. He Man and She Ra. Smurfs. Drawing pictures with coloured markers, and making a game of mixing and matching the pen caps with the pens. Sitting on the carpeted bedroom floor, back leaning against the bed, choosing bedtime stories from a pile of picture books. Angelina Ballerina. If You Give A Mouse A Cookie. The Berenstein Bears. Plastic bags full of gorgeous handknitted sweaters that Mrs H passed on to me from her mother. Mr H walking me home, along the pavement to my own house down the street, the dark summertime air heavy with humidity.

All just ordinary snippets of ordinary American suburban life. Nothing dramatic. No crises or conflicts, no serious accidents or notable difficulties. When I imagine myself as a teenager, in connection with this family, the picture takes on the gentle atmosphere of nostalgia. Fondness and gratitude wash over me. A Big Star tune comes to mind: thank you friends.

on wordpower

“A word after a word after a word is power.” Margaret Atwood

My favourite bookshop in the world – WordPower – is moving into the next stage of its life. Its lovely founders have given 22+ years of intense loving slog into raising this baby, which has grown into not just a shop but also a hub of progressive thinking. As well as individual author events, they have also hosted the Book Fringe every August, International Women’s Day dinners and the annual five-day-long Edinburgh Independent Radical Book Fair – a massive undertaking just by itself!

Now they are planning to move on to pastures new, and WordPower’s future is on the table. A fundraising campaign has been launched with the idea being to transition the business into a social enterprise and to develop its role as a community resource. Needless to say I am wholeheartedly supporting this and want to see it succeed.

WordPower and its fine selection of books have seen me through my own journeys of discovery, up dark mountains of unknowing and back down into light valleys of understanding. WordPower gave me Derrick Jensen and Joe Bageant when I needed to rage; Tom Hodgkinson when I needed to rest; David Edwards and Erich Fromm when I needed to believe; Carol Gilligan and Inga Muscio and Laurie Penny when I needed to be believed; Jane Bowles when I needed to laugh; Joanna Macy and Rebecca Solnit and Margaret Wheatley when I needed to hope; oh and there’s just so many other good friends there on those bountiful shelves in that purple painted place.

If you love books and you love the joy of reading and writing and sharing ideas, please consider pledging something toward the WordPower crowdfunding effort.


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on a hopeful note

When I was a child, one of my very favourite picture books was The Wump World by Bill Peet. We didn’t own a copy at home but the public library did, and I borrowed it repeatedly. The Wump World tells the story of a small planet covered in rolling meadows, twinkling streams and large leafy bumbershoot trees. The only residents of this world are the wumps, a gentle and innocent species of herbivore mammals who live together in a large flock.

The story tells of how one day this peaceful, unassuming planet is invaded by the Pollutians from the planet Pollutus. They arrive in a horde of roaring metal spaceships that vomit black smog into the air. The frightened wumps run away and hide themselves in an underground cavern, while the Pollutians settle into the task of building a vast, heaving civilisation full of skyscrapers and motorways and factories and shopping centres, with cars and trucks zooming around and crowds of stressed-out Pollutians buzzing and bumbling their way through the streets.

It doesn’t last forever, of course; it becomes so awful that even the Pollutians can’t take it anymore. They pack themselves back into their spaceships and go off in search of another planet, leaving behind their devastation.

Any child reading this story will identify with the wumps, sharing in their fear and their misery as they hide underground. Any adult will concede sadly that we are the Pollutians, and will recognise with disquiet the assumptions and behaviour of that race, with their willingness to exploit and pave over the natural world. And child or adult, any human reading the story – humans, with story running through our very blood and our bones – any human will understand in heart and in conscience the sad truth of the Wump World: civilisation as we play it now is a failing game.

But it’s just a story, you might say. What can we do about it anyway, you might say. Stop reading picture books and grow up, you might say: grow up and join the real world. Get a job, pay your bills, live for the weekend. Watch tv, go to the shops, plan your vacation. Calm down, take your pills, join the club.

Well that’s what you may have said, even a week ago. Are you still so sure about the solidity and inevitability of the ‘real’ world? Are you still convinced that ‘they’ will take good care of ‘us,’ that ‘they’ will ensure that ‘we’ don’t go too far? When will it sink in, that there is only us, there is only we – and we are them, and they are us. Pollutians, planets, bumbershoot trees and wumps – this is we, this is us. Social activist Charles Eisenstein refers to this truth as ‘the Story of Interbeing,’ which he explores in his aptly-titled book The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible.

The story of the Wump World ends on a hopeful note: the beleaguered wumps venture out of the caves and eventually find a small, undamaged corner of grass and trees where they can survive.

In time the murky skies would clear up and the rains would wash the scum from the rivers and lakes. The tall buildings would come tumbling down and the freeways would crumble away. And in time the green growth would wind its way up through the rubble. But the Wump World would never be quite the same.

no class

Time to take Joe Bageant down from the shelf and consider his more-relevant-than-ever reflections on the American hologram.

He wasn’t kidding when he wrote that “the four cornerstones of the American political psyche are (1) emotion substituted for thought, (2) fear, (3) ignorance, and (4) propaganda.” Those ingredients have now put a beligerent, misogynist ass into the country’s highest office and a conservative majority into both houses of Congress.

Bageant told it like it is: what we are witnessing is a class war.

“Class,” however, is defined not in terms of income or degrees but in terms of power…. Leaving aside all numbers, “working class” might best be defined like this: You do not have power over your work. You do not control when you work, how much you get paid, how fast you work, or whether you will be cut loose from your job at the first shiver on Wall Street.

Why on earth anyone thinks that Donald Trump heralds a corrective to this, I don’t know. Well yes I do: see above numbers 1 through 4. Trump is a class hero precisely because he has no class.

Bageant goes on to observe that

The New Conservatism arose in the same way left-wing movements do, by approximately the same process, and for the same reasons: widespread but unacknowledged dissatisfaction, in this case with the erosion of “traditional” life and values in America as working people perceive them. Otherwise known as change…. There is no good reason why for the past thirty years the uncertainty and dissatisfaction of people… was automatically snubbed as unenlightened by so many on the left. If the left had identified and dealt with this dissatisfaction early on, if they had counteracted the fallacies the Republicans used to explain that dissatisfaction, if they had listened instead of stereotyping blue-coller angst as “Archie Bunkerism” (itself a stereotype of a stereotype delivered unto their minds by television) and maybe offered some gutsy, comprehensible, and practical solutions, we might have witnessed something better than the Republican syndicate’s lying and looting…. Real movements take advantage of the protest-potential to be found among dissatisfied and disappointed people – people disenfranchised by bureaucracy, technocracy, and “experts.” Rightists tapped into that dissatisfaction by lamenting the loss of community and values and attributing it to the “cultural left’s” feminism and antiracism, the gay movement, and so on. The Republican message, baloney though it is, was accessible [while] the Democrats didn’t have any message at all.

Joe Bageant passed away in 2011 and so missed the culmination of New Conservatism, playing out as it is into this endgame called President Trump. The working class people have now got what they want: an ignorant, mediocre, self-obsessed white man dragging us all down with him. Trump is the President of

Plain Americans, isolated by the rest of the world by the certainty that it’s better to be American than anything else, even if we can’t really prove why. Even if we are one house payment away from homelessness, even if our kids can’t read and our asses are getting so big they have their own zip codes, it’s comforting to know we are at least in the best place on earth.

The best place on earth, soon to be great again. Or so he says.

Excepts from Deer Hunting with Jesus by Joe Bageant, Random House, 2007.