Why do we need to?

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Sarah Smout imbibing the silence (Italy 2016)

30th November is the international Remembrance Day for Lost Species.

Recently I was talking to a friend about an event in commemoration of species now extinct. She looked a bit puzzled. ‘Why?’ she asked. OK, that threw me. I’m not good at explaining stuff on the fly, and everyone else I’d spoken to had just ‘got it’, like a wake for lost species was a completely normal idea. I started talking about the importance of taking time to mourn, of the way society views extinction through the lens of science, but ignores the cultural importance of grief, and…  she interrupted me again, ‘Do we need to? I mean, they’re extinct, can’t we just move on?’

Do we need to? Earlier this year I saw Feral Theatre’s ‘Thylacine Tribute Cabaret‘ (Thylacine: Tasmanian Tiger; hunted to extinction by 1936). A phrase from that stuck in my mind like a tolling bell: ‘Nobody is alive now who knows what a Thylacine sounds like. The world will never hear its voice again.’ Do we really just shrug that off and keep going? We cannot change it, we cannot bring back species from extinction. Scientists are currently trying to clone the passenger pigeon, which was wiped out in 1914. They admit that even if they succeed, it will still only be a hybrid with a ‘normal’ pigeon, and DNA from one animal doesn’t make for sustainable genetic diversity. Surely a failure to acknowledge, or to mark the passing of such losses is just one more disconnect between ourselves and the world we inhabit? We are humans, we are animals. We berate our rich politicians for being out of touch with the lives of the majority, while we ourselves remain out of touch with the lives of the majority of animals on this planet.

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If my sister dies of lung cancer after a lifetime of smoking, would I be ‘normal’ to shrug and say ‘She’s dead, so what? There’s nothing I can do.’ Or would society understand if I asked for a leave of absence from work to grieve, to organise a funeral and write an obituary, or if I suddenly developed an interest in campaigning for cancer research, or restricting government lobbying by tobacco firms? If we can see ourselves as part of the incredible variety of life on this planet, we unlock a sense of connection that enables us to see something as huge as extinction on a much more immediate scale. To truly comprehend that a voice has been forever silenced, not just that a tick box on Wikipedia has gone from ‘Critically Endangered’ to ‘Extinct’.

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30th November is a chance to reconnect ourselves to the turning of this planet; to learn about lost species and tell their stories, and to renew commitments to those remaining. It is about art — music, dance, song, stories, all of it — setting its light to fill out the stories that science shows us the bones of. To make it real, immediate, and something that touches all of us. This year, one such event takes place a week later, on 7th December (venue logistics care nothing for your dramatic timing), featuring three amazing artists who each have a strong cause to be drawn to the theme of engagement with nature, environment, and loss. Tim Ralphs, storyteller and interfaith minister, says that when we are faced with something as shocking, hard and seemingly inevitable as climate change or mass extinction, we first need to pause and sit with our fears, our grief, and acknowledge how we feel; to talk, to sing, to find the stories that help make sense of the world. Sarah Smout, poet, cellist, and singer-songwriter, adds: ‘While I can’t berate humans for advancing, intellectually and technologically, I feel that the ensuing disconnection from nature is at the very heart of our destruction to the planet.’ This is one of the things that spurred her to embark upon her ‘Polar Line’ project; a travelling, collaborating, writing project to the Arctic and beyond, to ‘sit in quiet, remote lagoons of thought, to feel the pulse of the land.’ To grieve. Nancy Kerr, singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, speaks of our collective need to sometimes just take the time to ‘have a good wallow’. Steeped in the folk tradition, she talks of how folk songs put a name and a human experience to the vast, complex and seemingly uncontrollable forces of war, death and loss.

Together they offer this evening as catharsis, as a connecting with hurt and grief to better understand and move through it. So that we can remain connected and still remain sane, so that we can engage instead of avoiding — and be left bigger by that engagement, not broken by its enormity.

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Tim Ralphs, setting the storytelling fire under The Telling

 

If you are based in the North of England, an evening of Remembrance for Lost Species is at the Moor Theatre Delicatessen, Sheffield, on Wednesday 7th December. Tickets £9/12 available here. There is also a Facebook page here.remembrance

If you are based elsewhere in the world, we encourage you to join another remembrance event nearby, or start your own — have a look at the online map of events for 30th November 2016:

For further reading, Remembrance Day for Lost Species made the international press with this Guardian article published earlier this month.

(With thanks to Nick Hunt, and the Dark Mountain network, where this blog post was first published)


Facebook Faceache Farcebook Facepalm

They say Twitter is where you bare your truth to strangers, and Facebook is where you lie to your friends. I’ve seen a few things (on Facebook) lately about how most people only post their positive, slightly false sides, and so we should all embrace honesty and post about the mundane and the bad things that happen to us, to show that we are in fact ordinary, real people and not magazine articles. I disagree. I am an ordinary, real person, and I think if I posted half the stuff that goes on in my ordinary, real life many of my friends would either die of boredom or Continue reading


What are you like?!

I have an “About me” page somewhere around here, but nobody ever goes there. Yeah, this is about me, but I want to know about *you*. Who are you? What fires your passion? What kind of news article is bound to get your blood pounding, and which to make you smile and know that the world isn’t such a bad place after all? What do you do to relax, where do you go? Do you prefer to listen or see or both or neither?

I was waiting for the bus this morning, and an older lady tried to stand her trolley up, but it kept falling over. “There’s nowhere flat in this city!” she exclaimed (and she’s kind of right – Sheffield is built on seven hills). And because part of who I am is being remarkably restrained under provocation, I *didn’t* say No, not even Flat Street (a steepish hill in the city centre)! Although Flat Street is so named because it is an artificially flattened slope allowing passage from the medieval fishponds (now ‘Ponds Forge’) to the top of the cliff (a geological fold known as the Don Monocline) whence sat Sheffield Castle. I didn’t say any of that, I just nodded and smiled, and then got on the bus to go to my studio at Bank Street Arts. There are no banks on Bank Street (as far as I know); it’s so called because it follows the line of the bank of the aforementioned Sheffield Castle. It runs as far as Angel Street, which has no such historical beginnings, it’s just named after a pub that was destroyed by bombing in WWII. Did I just read all that? No, it’s straight from the recesses of my brain, after hearing it at one talk two Septembers ago at Festival of the Mind.

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C’est moi

That’s who I am. I am somebody to be either sought out or avoided at parties, depending on how much random origins trivia you’re feeling in the mood for. I still need step by step instructions to fill out my tax return, but I’d be great on your pub quiz team.

As regards my questions to you: I am outraged by injustice, especially as regards the rights of children. I am comforted by humans, doing human and kind things – I believe the good outweighs the bad by a large margin, but it doesn’t make exciting news, so we just don’t hear about it (this is actually true). Choral music relaxes me, and Taverner, Tavener, Tallis and Part (composers, not a law firm) in particular. Walking in woodland, near water relaxes me. And sunshine, and gardens, and birdsong.

So, who are you?

 


The Half-Danish Girl

Eddie Redmayne as Lili Elbe)

[Gratuitous pic for no reason other than ‘Oh Eddie, when did you get so pretty?’]

Me, btw. I’m half Danish. Anyway… I watched The Danish Girl last night.  I have to say I really enjoyed it (the copious and gratuitous screen-time given to Nyhavn and Art Nouveau style certainly helped), but for some reason I couldn’t quite put my finger on, it jarred. I thought at first it was just that my own expectations of what kind of a story it might tell were snagging up against the actual story being told, that the disconnect between being LGBT in 2016 and being trans in the 1920s (when there wasn’t even a word for it, let alone any meaningful examples of ‘how’ or ‘what’) was unexpectedly wide. But the more I turn it over in my mind, the more I feel angry that the narrative I saw unfold on the big screen was poorly, wrongly and inconsistently told.

Let’s get this clear, I am a cis woman. I do not know, deep down, what it is like to be trans. But I do know that ‘the trans experience’ is not a simply labelled box, and will vary as much from person to person as any human experience. So I will say that while I found Lili’s (Eddie Redmayne’s Lili, not the historical, real person of Lili) story a bit weird, I am also happy to accept that some trans people have exactly that experience. Is the split-personality, talking about yourself in the third person thing common? I mean I suspect not, but really I don’t know. I am also happy to accept that The Danish Girl is an excellent starting point for the majority of people who have no experience of trans stories; I’m glad that it was made, and that it has been so successful. Yay. To all you such people – don’t stop here, find out more!

Because while starting points are good, here we have cis straight white men rewriting and performing a history that isn’t theirs, thus silencing important voices that the world needs to hear. Lili Elbe’s diaries were made into a book, so it’s not like her voice has been lost – just ignored. When Hollywood does this to a slice of society that is *routinely* silenced, and abused, and misunderstood, they are actively reinforcing an existing, faulty narrative, in a way that harms people. A narrative that in this case showed the world that a trans woman is a man who dresses, and play-acts, as a woman (and still behaves like an entitled male prick when it comes to expressing this play act to his wife. Sigh). Underlined by the choosing of a man, to play a transwoman. By the way, if they can make James McAvoy look like a fucking faun, they can make a trans actress look like a man, so there are no good excuses here. Eddie Redmayne = box office dollars and no male hierarchy boats rocked, stop pretending otherwise.

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Holly wood magic. It can be done.

No, I am not trans. But my wife is. So I cannot add much to Hollywood-Lili’s story, but I absolutely can connect with Hollywood-Gerda. Kind of. But Real Gerda is so much more complicated than dutiful-confused-wife Hollywood-Gerda. So actually… I couldn’t connect.  See, this is what *really* bothered me: the reinforcing of the narrative that when a spouse comes out as a trans woman, the wife (who is always straight, btw) is left sacrificing all she holds dear and ends up hurt, frustrated, and in need of a man who doesn’t exist any more. Cries of ‘But I miss my husband’ and ‘Your husband is dead now’ and all that tragedy. It left me wondering – is that how people think it happens? That’s not what happened to me, and that’s a horrible story, why would you show people that? Where is my story?

But, nobody else is going to tell my story, and I realised last night that I’ve never even told it myself. I thought people would just know. But maybe people don’t, maybe they assume that Hollywood-Gerda’s experience is my experience, and I’m just being brave about it. So, for anyone who wants or needs to hear it, this is my story. Because I’m through with everyone equating trans to tragedy.

I met my partner when I was 17, we married when I was 22. We have grown up together, and always been the best of friends. We have two children, who are amazing. We talk, a lot, and so her coming out as a woman was a gradual blossoming that took many months. Whenever I see onscreen couples that don’t communicate properly I just want to knock their heads together – and Gerda and Einar were an amazing couple, so the non-communication and subsequent on/off breakdown just didn’t ring true.  My partner has now changed her name, and is in the process of accessing support from a gender identity clinic. I don’t want to say ‘transitioning’, because that implies a start and an end point, and a changing of who she is, and the point I really REALLY want to ram down Hollywood’s throat is that *she is the same person she always was*.  She has grown, in ways I hope we all continue to grow as human beings throughout our lives. But I have not lost my husband, my husband is not a person who has died and been replaced with another, my husband is *exactly the same person*, except now I say “wife” when I talk about her. She still likes mushrooms, and fruitcake, and cycling, she is still an amazing musician, and a terrible Star Wars geek (I mean good, she is a good Star Wars geek – oops). She steals my cool tights now, is growing her hair long, and wears skirts more than I do, but as a person she Has. Not. Changed.

I have been privileged to see the person I thought I knew blossom into someone neither I – nor she – ever realised was there. She has always been a woman, it is society that told her that because her body looked like a stereotypical male body, thus she must be male. She must dress in man clothes, and do man things, and *pretend to be a man so deeply that she comes to believe it herself*.  I love her with all my heart, and maybe my feelings for her have become a bit more protective (thanks, established narrative, for continuing to endanger trans women), but really? To be witness to the person I love stepping into their truth, and letting me step with them through the fears, the doubts, the hurts – and the joy; who could not want that?

Painting of Lili Elbe and Gerda Gottlieb by Gerda Gottlieb

Lili Elbe and Gerda Gottlieb by Gerda Gottlieb

I accept that my bisexual identity does mean that male/female holds no issue for me, whereas it may do for others, but this is my story. I’ve heard enough sad stories and I wanted a counterpoint to them. So, none of the grieving for someone I’ve lost, no discomfort in the label of ‘husband’ becoming ‘wife’ (because they’re just different words applied the Same Person – have I said that yet?), no shame, no hiding, no frustration. I’m not going to tell you about the sex, because I need to keep *some* boundaries. But, please don’t worry on my behalf😉 Oh, and you know what? The kids are completely unfazed by it too. They don’t care what gender or sexuality their parents identify as, because we’re (say it with me) still the same people.

So, history and “complicated” ideas mangled in the name of ticket sales. Just like ‘women just want to find their man’, ‘men have to be muscled heroes’, add it to the list of stories we absorb. Yeah, I know, HOLLYWOOD, but it still grates, no matter how often it happens.

Please, share my story. Not because it’s mine, but because it could be yours, or your friend’s, or your co-worker’s. Yes, I am white and privileged, so my experience will not be everyone’s, but it is one more to add to your library. Don’t assume that when someone comes out as trans – male or female or neither or anything in between – that the person they are will be lost forever, or changed beyond recognition. Instead dare to assume that everything will be as it always was, only more honest, and more joyous because of that. Let’s make the standard narrative not “person is trans, everything falls apart”, but “person is trans, WOOO YAY BALLOONS!” Because surely nothing is more worthy of celebration than finding your true self, finding the courage to live it, and loving supportive people to live it with. Those are the stories I want to hear.

 


Unconditional love

I’ve just read a blog post about snow, which drops in the (widely held, according to this) forecast that unless climate change can be halted, there will be no snow in Utah by the end of this century. The author says “My memories [of thick, winter snowclouds] make it incredibly painful to imagine a Utah without snow, but this is the reality confronting us.”

Across the globe the impacts of climate change are painfully uprooting people’s (possibly nostalgia-tinged) memories of what a place is like. Should be like, has always been like. We humans are very clever, and are more than capable of seeing the bigger picture, but somewhere deep inside, don’t we hold ‘what it was like when we were growing up’ as the yardstick to measure life by? Did you grow up with central heating, and shudder at the idea of life without it? Did you grow up with an outside toilet, and roll your eyes at people complaining their bathroom is too cold? When I look back at my childhood winters, they were filled (like, for weeks) with snow, sledging, days off school and failed attempts at igloo building – and this in Gloucestershire. So I remain perplexed when people in Yorkshire get wiggy about a couple of days of snow in January. But isn’t this normal? I ask. But ‘normal’ is what we grew up with. Nothing is ‘normal’ any more. Like it or not, believe the reasons or not, the climate is changing. Every year we see new weather records – hottest June, wettest December, highest monsoon, most ice lost, earliest melting.


So we are losing the things we love. This earth we live on is changing, and things are dying. People, species, hope. It’s easy to read the statistics and despair. And nothing I can say, no wishful thinking or positive affirmations, can change the facts. So maybe your childhood was filled with snow, and you have to face an adulthood without snow. Maybe the home where you grew up was filled with flocks of starlings, chattering and murmurating across the evening skies, and now there aren’t any. It hurts, it’s painful, I hear you; but I want to take your despair and kick its backside right out of the room. Let’s ask another question: maybe your partner is diagnosed with a degenerative disease, or maybe your parent succumbs to dementia. That person you love, you’ve know for so long, is changing, and there is nothing you can do. Do you despair? Or do you love them anyway? Do you love them as much when they cannot speak to you, as you did when they could? Will you love them when the chemo steals their hair? Will you love your home even when it loses its snow?

If we love this world, this earth, then we must love it unconditionally. If Utah loses its snow, it will not cease to be Utah, it will be a different Utah. And we can mourn the change, but we must continue to fight for its survival. I think this for me is the essence of climbing the Dark Mountain. Earth is still Earth, whatever state it is in. We must love it, and fight for it, and protect it, but we must never let change be perceived as failure, and an excuse to give up. Change is constant, and so must we be.  And yeah, I can see how this might be hard to hold in your head, the seeming dichotomy of ‘we must fight to prevent change’ and ‘we must accept change’, but come on. There are plenty of lessons out there from people who are doing this already; we’re clever. We can do this. We can love.

 

 

 


You Are So Very Beautiful – a craftivist project

[Reblogged from Pickymiss.com]

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The photo above is one of the pieces of encouragement I’ve been leaving around the place for a few months now. Not all at once, just one at a time, when I can. If you follow me on Instagram you might have seen them. But now I find something similar you might want to be a part of: because that amazing Betsy Greer is at it again, stitching things to make the world a brighter place. And she wants YOU (points finger) to get involved. Stitching positive affirmations, no bigger than the palm of your hand, and putting them out there for people to find. Like these:

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The ‘You Are So Very Beautiful’ guerilla art drop is happening in Baltimore and London on 7th February, so if you’d like to stitch something for it, or get involved in some other way, get in touch. For details (including posting addresses) of how to send sunshine and happiness to Baltimore and/or London, look at Craftivism.com. Please make sure your stitchings will arrive by February 4th. These three are en route to the Maryland as I type🙂

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I’ll leave you with Betsy’s words about why she started this:

“Because craftivism is as much about fighting the bad things of this world as it is about fighting the bad things we tell ourselves. We live in a world where the media constantly tries to tell us what is in, out, cool, passé. Every day we have to fight to remember that we are enough just as we are, we are beautiful just as we are. Some days, though, we forget. And those days can drag on into weeks and months. Leaving our souls sucked and dry, leave us husks of what we were as children, back when we knew we were amazing.

It’s time to remind both ourselves and others of just how wonderful we are just as we are. It’s time to let our acts of stitching go by leaving them in places for someone to find, someone who needs to hear those words just as you do, if not more. As craftivism is about healing ourselves as we make, and then healing the world with our products, let’s get to it.”


Democracy isn’t picking the nicest guy

You know what’d be good, and I accept this might be a radical and naive idea, would be if instead of MPs, we had ‘elected representatives’. Not people we voted in because we liked their opinions, but people chosen to listen to the people in their area and represent those views before the current government in charge.

I’d like to sit Nick Clegg down and say ‘Listen you spineless weasel (which essentially makes him a small and ineffective draught excluder, but that’s another story for another time), I don’t give a shit what you think. It’s not your job to have an opinion, it’s your job to represent the opinions of your constituents. You are not a leader, you are messenger, to whom WE have given power and authority to effect change. But not YOUR change. So do your fucking job.’ And then I’d punch him in the face and fly home on my unicorn. Sigh.