On Female Friendships

My friendships with women have evolved over the years, and are still evolving. I am incredibly grateful for what they are becoming, not least because they have been shaky at times. I had a series of ‘unfortunate’ friends whom I may have mentioned before; the people who I found myself closest to in my new schools, who bullied me in ways both crass and complex.

At college I found myself in the unique position of being ready to finally say, “Fuck you” to one of these friends who was treating me poorly, and got to trot off and choose myself a whole new bunch of friends who excited me and cheerlead(? Past tense…) me, and began a whole new chapter of experience in my life.

Throughout university I struggled to find people I connected with on a fundamental level. I flew the nest in the biggest way I could imagine at the time and left home comforts far behind me. I regret that sometimes. The small northern town and the very small northern campus I ended up at did not yield the open-minded liberal microcosm I had hoped for. I spent these years quite lonely.

Following graduation I formed the most intense friendships I had had for years. Living in each other’s pockets, we literally co-habited, ate almost every meal together and made creative work together, and shared dayjobs. That inevitably burned out.

Since then, I have felt slightly adrift, having invested every energy in this insular dynamic and finding myself now without a permanent home, a best friend I have known all my life whom I talk to every day. This seems to be something everyone has – a default, a backup, a safe bet.

When everyone you know is having children and getting married, you feel this all the more. Guest lists really drive things home.

I don’t always have the tools to honour my friendships properly. I have found myself on the end of a few very one-sided friendships over the past few years that have ultimately fallen apart. It was frustrating thinking I was giving all I could, using my years of focus on communication, and still not finding a compromise that worked. Which really shows how little these friendships were meant to be.

However, I’ve been looking around me recently and noticing that I have a pretty super support network of women who are respectful, loving and accepting, who make the effort to maintain our friendship. I can’t express how much it stands out to find these types of people in your life – people who actively listen, who tell you openly that you are worth their time and that they’re happy to see you, who regularly get up out of the house with no excuse for meeting other than enjoying each other’s company. There’s no need for themed events or activities.

Maybe the others could have been saved with some kind of mutual nurturing practice. I joined feminist newsletter Lenny Letter yesterday and the first email they sent me included this article. It’s about exercising timed conversations as a way of developing your listening skills and making space for both people in a relationship to speak and be heard. It’s used in couples counselling as well as by friends, and it’s a really valuable tool for anyone wanting to better their relationships, or indeed even just to further their own communication skills. I highly recommend it.

It’s ever-more important to value and celebrate our female friendships in this time of violence and oppression, to raise up women’s voices, to ‘build each other up’. Write a postcard to your female friends today. Start a group chat. Share the love. Keep it up.

Have awkward conversations

I still question
whether it’s a weakness
to retain words inside you
when they boil up your throat
flap about your brain
because there’s no civilised way out.
We’re taught to behave
to eloquate
articulate
formulate
anything but retaliate.
How some people can look with only a slight smirk,
unerring in the face of complete dissatisfaction,
derogation, insult. When anger would engulf someone smaller
like me
they stand still and let it wash over them
as if they were pleased to be there.
As if there were nothing more pleasant in life.
How trite, how lucky we are to live life,
and these moments are so small, such trifles in the face of the great infinity.
How wise, how enlightened.
I always thought it was a weakness to
let them get away with it;
whatever it was.
Racism, sexism,
crossing of social boundaries,
heinously antagonistic political views.
I thought, “No, fuck you,
how dare you think you can say that, do that,
you must hear that you are wrong,
and discover it, and feel ashamed,
and never do it again.
I have made the world a better place.”
And, of course, I haven’t.
The decided will not notice what you think
if it doesn’t fit their picture.
This is not is your target audience.

Portrait of a Christmas

My dad sits opposite me, scratch-and-scrawling in his brand new sketchbook. Glasses on string balanced low on his nose, head shifting regimentally between the page and his subject.

He draws my sleeping brother – to my right, on the sofa. Loafing.

Family gathered and now not knowing what to do with themselves, baited breath…

… Shrugging shoulders, moving on the balls of our feet, shifting in our seats, offering constant sweets and treats. Thankful. Peaceful.

That’s what gets me, what lets it in, it’s the peace. Lets in the Thought. This unwarranted time off from the world outside, from everything, it lets it all in. Suddenly we’re weak, aching, clogged, hardly able to perform perfunctory functions. Useless blobs, heaving and sighing.

I watch my dad and think about things outside here, back in my reality. We each have our own, to which we will return at the end of the week.

I think about depression, and the long-term things one needs to think about if one is to accept life as a long-term Thing. If one is to join the game, become a member of mature, fulfilled, healthy adult life. Depression in me, and in my partner, and how we deal with those. How we are only just getting to know one another. How we have a whole stretch of wonderful honeymoon life together lying before us. Wonderful, delicious, making me hungry and satisfied all at once. Like standing in a warm wind.

It’s easy in this cosy house to grow nostalgic, romantic, and expect everything to always be alright. Things will be smooth, and we’ll always be together, and everything will be easy. In this cosy house with the wind outside. Untouchable.

“There must be something on the telly.” People make their assertions about what they’d like not to miss; I stay silent, although really, I am desperate to catch Doctor Who. Surely they know. Surely I shouldn’t have to say. Too embarrassing, and I could never find the words, despite having heard them just now from others’ mouths. Too silly and selfish. Better to wait, and catch up on my own later, in my own reality.

To my left, on the other sofa; ‘Aunt’ Vera and my grandma, both engrossed in reading, except of course when there is a chance of engagement with the whole family – a loud noise, a squeal of delight from my baby brother, the offer of cake…

… Everyone seems serene, I think, even me, despite my sudden restlessness with this peace. Inside we must be crawling with anxiety to be normal, or rather to be individual, and yet we all seem at ease.

One more day of full-fat eating and resting tomorrow, before we go back.

Each to our own reality.

Sum’n Sum’n

Fresh-faced little sum’n sum’n
Running, and running, exhilarating,
Escape the werewolves, beat the boys,
Scrape first place and furthest
Pass the berries, pass the ferns,
Whack-and-thwacking care not no – time – breath – can’t – run – and – talk –
These daddy-approved shoes will carry
Over rucks and molehills, down crumbling hills, through stumps and rubble
She thinks she must have got the eye when she took Norb’s elbow but it was actually that fly-away berry,
Making its pretty purple mark just for her mother to see
A shining proud beacon of androgynous disgrace

Inspired by Normal Rockwell’s ‘Girl with a black eye’.

Ghosts of Partners Past

They say that every time you end a relationship, a ghost of the person stays with you. Every time. Can you imagine the noise? How crowded, how busy your space would be? And never mind you, how busy must those ghosts be? Do they have to split their time haunting all their other exes? Do they split their time or their essence? If their presence gets thinner, I suppose you can tell they have been through and ended another relationship.

Let’s not forget, you ended things with them for a reason. You decided not to spend the rest of your life with them. Surely they do not remain willingly either. Surely neither of you can move on while they linger. Do you get a say in who stays?

How do you quantify a relationship anyway? How long do you get to make up your mind before you have to either break things off or get stuck to a soul for eternity? Or both? And what qualifiers let you know that someone is an essence you do want to be doused in for the rest of time? Do vampires ever really know what they’re getting into when they turn someone? Why am I writing vapid questions like Carrie Bradshaw?

Perish the thought… can you ever leave yourself? And if you do, what kind of ghost are you left with?

I am followed by no less than Stephen, Stefan, James, Jamie, Ryan, Aaron, Nathan, Martyn, Chris, Tom (sorry, Thom), Pete, Pete, Pete (shut up), Jamie, Carl, Brindle, Mark and… phew, no, that’s it. So, that’s seventeen, if you’re counting, and some of them are rowdy fucks. God help me if they were all to surface at once. I think I’d be surrounded by the most intense of British unease of difference of character; the poets, the thugs, the clowns and the cheaters.

That sounds like not much that’s nice to say about you as a collective. Which is a shame, really, given my ethos of honouring the connection, of respecting one’s past decisions. Maybe I’m not so upstanding after all. Maybe I don’t practise what I preach. But there’s time.

Hell in the rehearsal room

Six years ago I had the displeasure of working with an insidiously passive-aggressive actor. Native to small towns rich in comfort-zone entitlement, this thankfully rare breed was one I had not quite encountered before, but one I certainly hope never to encounter again, and one that perhaps others have also met. There is fresh breath in sharing these experiences.

We that tread the boards have all met our fair share of the more common and harmless eyeroll-inducing diva, making inappropriate comments and demands that can be calmed and washed under the bridge. This is not they.

Scene: I had co-written, and was producing, a play. One of the cast was less than pleasant. Consistently late or absent for rehearsals with no reason or apology, including the tech-dress (turning up halfway through, in trainers, for the photo shoot, amongst a full set of Victorians, distracted and distracting as hell, subsequently demanding detailed feedback as though we were watching his performance and his alone as it would be in the show. Critical of others’ performances past the point of suggestion, forgetting that he was playing a minor, one-scene role, stealing off with other actors for private chats pre-show to make his own directorial enforcements and generally contributing a sickening kind of uneasiness to the room, this man was unbearable. But we bore it. He was alright as an actor when he didn’t let his ego take over (in case you doubt that they know best – improvisation needs to be capped when your director shows you the yellow card; if you don’t trust the script, you’re not doing your job properly.) We were as civil and professional as we knew how to be, and gave him as much as we could. We arranged extra workshops for him. Which he was late for. We exchanged hopefully reassuring glances and quiet words with the rest of the cast.

The main sticking point was the recording of the show. He wanted a copy, and he wanted it now. Now, as a general rule, we didn’t do that. We made theatre. I ensured recordings were made wherever possible for my personal portfolio, and, as a second priority, for the company (this had previously only mattered to me, and could, of course, have encroached too far and spoiled the live experience.) We were but three women, we worked full time, were in the middle of a crazily intensive six-shows-in-six-months programme, and we did not then possess that magical unicorn that poops out time enough to edit and send off copies of all our shows to everyone involved. Additionally, the company ran on volunteer power, and the kindness of friends, and our running and resources were heavily dependent on those people. Records of various shows and the means to edit them lay with the different people who could provide us that help at the time, and so editing the footage, even collecting it, meant coordinating our ‘days off’ (I’ve heard of these) with those who held the footage. I mention all this not to labour a defense but hopefully to shed some light on the process for others experiencing similar problems from either end. The task sounds simple enough, yes, if we were working 4/5 day weeks with regular hours and didn’t run a fucking theatre company in every spare minute we could grab. Days off consisted of the odd hour on a random day of the week in which I might lie in a little longer because I was physically exhausted, or one day in a few months when I actually had a full 24 hours in which no doctor’s appointments, laundry, rehearsals, meetings or chores were inescapable. On these days, because they came so rarely, I often literally needed to sleep all day. My brain required a few YouTube kicks before I made it downstairs, and after that everything was just a blur.

This ugly soul sent me a hideous, threatening email a whole year after the show closed, to reinforce just how angry he was that we had not yet provided him with a full video recording of his performance; a voluntary role he accepted without that caveat, which he then raised during the run. Such was his fury that we could not immediately deliver on his last-minute, never-promised request that he vowed a vendetta to upend our script, our experience of the show, and our reputation.

We would gratefully have accepted his withdrawal from the project at this point, and needless to say, certainly would never be hiring him again.

So goodnight unto you all, aggressive, strained egos seeking out a target. Take your leave. And everyone else – it is not.your.fault.