Condolences

From the receiving end, condolences can be a right pain. Often it is not that people are trying to cheer me up, but trying to get me to appear cheerful, because appearances are important. If only we could express feelings as we felt them, we would not bottle them up. Someone crying on the bus is doing everyone a favour, by modelling authenticity. Would that everyone could be so brave.

They might be trying to console themselves. It’s not so bad really, they say. You will get through it. Well, your vicarious pain at my suffering is not my concern. It will hurt me far more than it hurts you, because I am the one involved, however wonderfully empathetic you are. I will attempt the way you propose that I get through it, but I am aware of possibly insurmountable difficulties with that course which you are not.

Some might be enforcing the “right” way to feel and respond. Cliché feelings. My feelings are far more complex than that. No, don’t tell me what I am feeling. That must be very painful for you. Well, no, actually right now the adrenaline’s kicking in, and it feels good.

Some tell you that they faced a similar situation but they overcame it. A nose or a chin is such a tempting target. I am terrified, and my inner critic is having a field day. I have failed, failed utterly, in part because I have always tried to fit in and keep to the rules rather than following my heart’s desire, and now I am being punished for it. The World sees me as worthless, just as I do.

I am not sensible. I wonder if the Quaker concept of the Inner Light, or Richard Rohr’s God within, applies to me. There’s that bit inside each person which is their Guide, which will show them the true path if only they act in accord with it. Well, Licia Kuenning was certain of her Inner Guide, and look how that ended. My most powerful inner voices are the sensible bit, which tells me what I should do, and unfortunately has no power to motivate me whatsoever however hard it chides, and the inner teenager. Don’ wannoo, she says. Actually, there are things she wants, which are not sensible at all, and I wonder at them.

What I desire makes no sense to me, except that I desire it. It only makes me happy for odd moments. Oh well, I make that choice. I make it. It is my choice. I choose that.

And I was staring at the thing which I must do, thinking, Oh God, that’s dreadful- and the idea popped into my head how to rewrite it. So I did. It’s not dreadful in quite the same way, now. It may be the best I can do, at least in this mood.

Homes and Gardens

I went into the garden, but could not sit in my usual seat. I thought, how beautiful to be here, and wake up to this:

and how horrible. In October it might be bearable, in January it would frighten me. Not just the cold, but the possible lawlessness.

A man comes out to join me. The Quaker meeting is discerning about this use. It’s the only place in the town centre which is not patrolled by guards or wardens. The other side of the garden, a prostitute plied her trade, having laid a mattress behind the bush, and they only found out about it when she led two men in while a Quaker was there.

Now it is another bed-space. You can’t sleep in polythene bags, all the sweat condenses inside the bag and soaks you. Possibly that sock is hung out to dry, or wash in the rain. There’s a water bottle hidden in the bushes. You need access to water. Most people, he says, put cans in the waste bin.

He goes to put a large piece of cardboard in the recycling bin. It could be insulation for bedding. The council take the view that there are sufficient spaces in hostels so that no-one need be homeless, but the hostels are unpleasant, and you cannot enter under the influence of drink or drugs.

Hard exercise in Meeting again. Do I have an Inner Guide? I can discern different ego-states, but the part seeming closest to real me is the depressed and lacking in motivation part which says Don’ wanoo when the rational bit says what it would behove me to do. Someone quotes Isaac Pennington: Our life is love, and peace, and tenderness; and bearing one with another, and forgiving one another, and not laying accusations one against another; but praying one for another, and helping one another up with a tender hand.

and, she said, it is not. That is a lovely ideal, and there are tensions. And- we- can just- try- to- follow- the- Spirit.

It seemed to me that she was going beyond her leading, trying to get some hope, and the slowness with which she squeezed the words out showed the Spirit’s resistance. But that could just be my pessimism, at this moment.

I had thought, how beautiful are all the people here! I love them! And, I can be guarded, or even acting a calm, collected front; I can be present in the moment, aware of my surroundings- can I be Open?

Intermittently, perhaps. But when she quotes Pennington, I start to weep, and go out to wipe the mascara smudges from under my eyes.

Outside, there are a group of four people, in torn dirty clothes, chatting and perhaps drinking on one of the benches. I tell a local Friend, and he says they know them.

Forgiveness II

What would forgiveness mean?

Someone wrongs me at work, such that I can’t bear to be in the same room. There is no way to complain about the wrong, and I have to continue working with them. I grit my teeth, or I “let it go”- I swallow the feelings of rage and resentment, and get on with the job. I have to.

Or my friend does something I might find objectionable. I learn they are not reliable. My self-esteem is so low that I just suck it up. Or I balance pros and cons, finding that despite this let-down friendship with them is still worth the effort. These are separate experiences, but in both the objectionable act is new information about the world and my place in it. In one, I see myself as worth little, and a little less after the experience. In the other, I see that I can trust my world less than I thought.

Or, I do not forgive. I decide I am worth more, and the world has better possibilities, and write the person out of my life. Which is best depends on which is right. Wisdom to know the difference, and all that. It is the same with that work situation: is it better to slog on, or can I find something better?

All this is happening within me, but it is possible that the other has feelings of remorse, and has learned a bitter lesson about themself. They will not be like that in the future. They apologise. Possibly, they really can change. That is something to add to the calculation, that it is worth still bothering. If I can enjoy helping them change that is my classic understanding of forgiveness, which is repentance and amendment of life, so that there is no need for punishment.

My experience of forgiveness is mostly from childhood too, though, bickering or fighting and being told to make up. Possibly experience of being forgiven colours ones understanding of forgiving.

Society is set up for the privileged. Are the police, social services, etc, on your side, or are they there to stop you stepping out of line? Are the rules of society there to make your way through life easier, or to advantage others over you? The privileged might find “forgiveness” easier, the resentment of the others might be too great. Or the put-upon have no illusions, make clear-eyed calculations, and waste no time or energy on resentment.

Coming back to that work situation. You have no alternative. You have to continue working with that person. You cannot get another job. Yet it is all too much, it sticks in your craw and you cannot do it, so lose the job.

Forgiveness- what is virtuous, or sensible, or creative and generous- depends on circumstances. Desmond Tutu writes, There have been times when each and every one of us has needed to forgive. There have also been times when each and every one of us has needed to be forgiven. And there will be many times again. In our own ways, we are all broken. Out of that brokenness, we hurt others. Forgiveness is the journey we take toward healing the broken parts. It is how we become whole again. If I have found some way to resent the world less, or “forgive” it, that is letting down a burden of powerless emotion, “giving up the hope of a better past”, benefiting myself.

Taunting God

Why should a conversation turn into a competition?

“Free Archaeological display” said the sign on the trailer, so I wandered in. Before I had got to the top of the stairs a pretty woman in her twenties came over and asked how I was doing. The display is about Umchester, only a couple of miles away. There is a video and some display boards. What do I think? A man of about the same age followed her.

I tell her of the mosaic at the Lakes. Not a picture of a God, or anything, just an abstract pattern- but still quite impressive, we agree. I am interested, I say. I watch the odd documentary on the TV.

-Don’t believe everything you see. If it’s [name] switch off immediately. Later, it emerges that his documentaries are about alien beings building the pyramids. A little hurt, I protest that I can trust BBC4. Channel 5 is a little dodgy.

She works with the public engagement team in London. She does not know much about Roman Britain, she is an Egyptologist by specialisation. I feel the need to show I know a little, to move the conversation to a higher level.

-So if I dropped a name like- I don’t know how to pronounce it- Khasekhemwy…
-That’s early dynastic period, isn’t it? asked her colleague doubtfully.

She starts telling me of Unas. He had unique poetry in his Pyramid Texts, saying he would use the bones of the Gods to scour his pots if they did not obey him. I said I would Google, and I have:

397: Unas is the Bull of Heaven, who (once) suffered want,
and who has decided to live on the essence of every god,
who eats their entrails when they come from the Isle of Fire with their bellies full of magical charms (HkA.w).

398: Unas is a well provided one, who has absorbed his spirits (Ax.w).
Unas has appeared as this Great One, lord of those who are at hand.
He sits with his back turned to Geb.

413: Lo, their soul (bA) is in the belly of Unas, their spirits (Ax.w) are with Unas as the broth of the gods, cooked for Unas from their bones.
Lo, their soul (bA) is with Unas, their Shadows (taken away) from those to whom they belong.

Fuckyeah. Badass or what? I can’t think of any other literature about Gods treating them with such disrespect. “Later kings are back to grovelling,” she said. The ceiling of his tomb is covered in lapis [lazuli] with tiny golden stars for the night sky, she says, with the awestruck tones of one who has seen it.

-Does that survive in the Books of the Dead?
-No, they are very respectful. She quotes a bit. I should read Miriam Lichtheim, she tells me. She loved those works, with transliterations, literal translations word by word then prose translations. “Is it Licht [as in “loch”] or Lisht?” she asks her colleague, but he does not know. Her teacher said Lisht. I google again, and find these are substantial academic works.

I like Gilgamesh, I said. “There is nothing new under the Sun”.
-You can quote it? said the man, impressed. Well, it is a fascinating quote, “Nothing new” in the oldest story we know.

In London many of the objects unearthed are Victorian. She finds them quite interesting. Her colleague is not interested in anything newer than Georgian, he says. He drifts off.

I look down at the displayed objects. There is a coin, a black disc I would not have thought was metal without the context, and the broken pin of a brooch. “You should volunteer!” she says brightly.

-Mmm, in a ditch with a brush.
-Not really, a trowel more often. Though there might be human remains, we would use a brush then. Sometimes people use mattocks. It is very good exercise, she says, winningly. I imagine volunteers with mattocks and archaeologists like her with brushes doing the interesting stuff, sometimes showing it to sweaty, muddy volunteers.

I don’t know how this one started, but we were on Romans in Britain including black people, from Africa, and I remarked that there were Emperors from all over the Empire, but not from Britain. She said there were rulers in Britain. I made myself clearer: there were Emperors from North Africa, or Syria, Emperors of Rome, but none from Britain. She said Britain was a Roman concept, not a concept from before Roman rule.

-I don’t know how I am failing to communicate. There were Emperors from all over the empire, Emperors of Rome, from Syria or North Africa, but not from Britain.

She tells me that was about being closer to trade routes. And when I say that the tribes before the conquest had no writing she said just because none survives does not mean that Boudicca could not write her own language. On African soldiers on Hadrian’s wall, she says the concept of black slaves is a modern concept, we think of slaves coming from Africa; but I meant that the population could move around the empire, and would not all be white.

I want to share poetry with her so ask if she has heard of Hafiz. She has not. I quote some. It is translated by Daniel- but I cannot remember “Ladinsky”, his surname, until later. She goes to talk to a man who nearly fell on the stairs. “You could go down the ramp,” she says helpfully. He had not seen it.

Jewish translator, I say, but she is engaged elsewhere.
-Jewish?!

To Hull

I got the train to Hull on Monday. Philip Larkin was at the station. I love the expression on his face.

Also there is this sculpture, “The Journey”. It is far more affecting from behind than from in front.

I found Sam at the station, there to meet Lucy. We walked back to his house, which he explained is an intentional community. He is Christian anarchist. In the evening we went to an artists’ collective, with their works on the walls, and saw the placards they had been making that afternoon for Mad Pride. The walls upstairs were covered with murals.

They gave us a thick vegetable stew.

On to the Adelphi club, where Lucy was to perform. Sam also performed his poetry about his bipolar experiences.

There are several murals round the town. One commemorates the sinking of three trawlers.

I asked if I could do “The story of my breast”. Sam was fine with that, and the audience were very friendly. I had several laughs. I am pleased with my delivery. I must write more to perform. Em joined us. She had visited Lucy at Yearly Meeting Gathering, where I met them, and been amazed by the electric atmosphere of Quakers together. Paula performed too, a sketch where the negative voices in her head- telling her she is ugly, reminding her to mourn past hurts, telling her she is not good enough and not capable- were symbolised by puppets worked and voiced by four other women. She decided to walk to the other side of the stage, they attempted to stop her, the drama was set up in the simplest way. It worked. She won my sympathy, attention, and will for her to succeed. Then Lucy performed, in the way I aspire to. We had a curry, and went back to Sam’s place.

I love the stained glass in the Minster transept, and particularly the grief on Mary’s face

and Mary Magdalen reaching up- but what is that spare hand doing?

Greenbelt encounters

I got recognised. “You did a talk last year, didn’t you?” asked the person sitting next to me. She had enjoyed it. How wonderful to make an impression on someone like that!

I really enjoyed meeting Kirsty. She was walking up the path as I was leaving my tent for the Eucharist. We talked deeply, enjoyed the sun together, and without irony she expressed admiration for my wisdom. I can’t remember anything we talked about. I saw her again just as I was leaving, and we hugged warmly. She is a lovely person, and found me a lovely person. With another, I enjoyed getting my reference understood- I had “seen a cloud no bigger than a man’s hand”.

At Greenbelt, we consecrate the bread and wine together. We are worshipping, we become one body, but we need no priest or leader to do that, just the whole group of several thousand people. I raised my hand in blessing of the bread and wine- the priest’s physical action is much like a healer channelling Qi- and we share it among ourselves. We danced and we sang and we heard a teenager preach through a speech device she programs through eye movements, as she was starved of oxygen at birth. She quoted Daniel 7:9-

an Ancient One took his throne;
his clothing was white as snow,
and the hair of his head like pure wool;
his throne was fiery flames,
and its wheels were burning fire.

God- in a wheelchair!! She was delighted to find God in her image in the Bible. God is us, and we are God: God is trans as well, the Father gathering us under Motherly wings. We are acceptable before God.

As I was packing up my tent, a man was walking by on the path, so I asked him to help me roll it up. “Are we folding it in half?” he asked. No, we are folding it from one end, about 2’6″ wide folds, then rolling up the folded tent. It is so much more efficient when you have one person each side, folding it inwards, dashing back and forth to do that is a pain. I roll the tent round the inner tent and the poles, but officiously he started to roll it up by itself, ponderously, forcing out the air. He was taking charge, diminishing me by looking after me. “You’ll have to dry it out later, or it will be smelly,” he warned. Well, that’s my decision. The rain had dried off in sunshine, the underside was not damp, I thought, it will be hard to roll up again if there is a breath of wind. He was talking down to me.

In the marquee, where the actors were preparing for their show, I looked over the shoulder of one into the mirror. Yuk. I have an old wig on, it is squashed flat, and its look displeases me. I push vaguely at the front, then move away.

“You’ll need to spend some time on that,” says a woman. She judges I have no idea how to present my hair, and starts to educate me. I could push it behind my ears, she tells me. That means I notice my own grey hair, and it looks more like a hat plonked on my head rather than my hair, I feel. What I said was, I was self-conscious about the tabs above my ears. “Oh, nobody notices those,” she said. My concerns don’t matter. She will show me what to do. She showed me in her own hair how it was fine around the temples, and how she had had to draw it forward to conceal that. I back-comb the front of my wig with my fingers, and it plumps out a bit. “That does not look too bad,” she says. It’s good enough. I want to take it off, possibly will drop it on the floor, and did not want to take my human hair wig. I don’t need to look impeccably groomed. I still got recognised, and given the microphone to speak from the floor.

The men’s sharing circle

I went to the Grove, where there are thick logs to sit on and drums to play. The man leading the group says this group is for Men, but I say my Y chromosome is as good as anyone’s, and he ceases to object. I am in my purple dress, pretty sandals, wig and make-up; I am not trying to fit in.

There are not enough drums, so I pick up a washing up bowl and try hitting it with the flat of my fingers. Not loud enough. I use a dry twig, which makes a more satisfying sound, and drum off beat, or attempt a slower beat so that my strokes sometimes are just after the others’ beats, sometimes just before. It is a way into the silence with others, just listening to the beats of all and making my own. Sometimes I am investigating different noises the bowl can make, sometimes thinking about my strokes, sometimes just in the group activity, mixing beats. The Grove is beautiful.

I cannot fit into roles defined by others. They imprison, squeeze, constrict, suffocate me. I have to carve my own role, breaking rules, being inconsistent, selfish- at best spontaneous and creative, at worst like a toddler screaming all the louder because he has just received what he was crying for a moment ago. I have to make a lot of mistakes to get one thing right.

The group leader, a big man with a strong baritone voice begins to speak, and I could almost lose what he was saying in the incantatory repetition of the word Men… Men… Men… Their group is based on the ideas of Richard Rohr, and leads Rites of Passage workshops.

We split into two groups, nine in each, and share. Our two questions are, why we are here, and what is our darkness. The rules are to speak from the heart, and listen from the heart- not to spend time while others are speaking planning what I will say, but to pay attention to the other Men in the circle; then to speak spontaneously. This gets easier as I age: I have practice, and I care less about how I appear and more about truth. I have space to observe others. Of course what they said is confidential.  I want to honour my femininity as a male way of being, to flit between the Man and Woman in myself, and unite them, and to expand my expression, my understanding, and my options. I don’t say all this there, I say it now.

What is your darkness? My darkness is a tiger, pacing angrily in a too small cage. The image came to me then, spontaneously as I spoke it. In the right places, letting go of the inner censor can produce wisdom. My darkness, the parts of myself I cannot permit, are power and strength which I can use if only I can open that cage. The tiger seems frightening, and is untrained, but holding the cage shut takes effort I could use elsewhere.

I do not want to disrupt this Men’s group, but to contribute to it. I come not to mock but to affirm, to speak truth as best I can, to state positive, good, opportunity, reality rather than the Bad. Rohr preaches on Noah’s Ark- God invited everything in, clean and unclean, predator and prey, male and female, and locked it in together. I used to think it was about balancing all the opposites within me, but slowly I have learned that it is actually “holding” things in their seemingly unreconciled state that widens and deepens the soul. And if I am here, listening and speaking, I am a threat and a promise to the group, just as I am in the Red Tent, just as every group member is.

The Red Tent

The Greenbelt women’s space is for all who identify as women. I asked permission to enter, and was welcomed, at least officially. For the opening session, they ask us what we want from women’s space. I say I want to explore the tension between the femininity I choose to express, and the womanhood of most people here.

The name “Red Tent” is not particularly welcoming for trans women. Of course it refers to menstruation; a woman asked if it were linked to the Red Hat, but that is separate, named from Jenny Joseph’s poem. The Red Tent creates a space for us to honor our blood cycles and womanhood journeys. Yet there is no objection to me here. That could be a legal thing, I cannot think it would be a “proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim” to exclude me. Others wanted to discuss The Handmaid’s Tale, and time is set aside. And given that reproductive physiology is such a huge part of most people’s experience, it is reasonable to make it a defining matter for women’s space.

We hear that some men object to there being a space solely for women. Ribald catcalling ensues. We can tell them there is a Men’s Journey group at 11am on Saturday, and 11pm on Sunday. Later, I saw notices up about this in the Red Tent: a feminine taking care of others’ feelings, while asserting their rights.

I went off to eat, and as I ate a woman sidled up to me. “It was brave of you to speak like that,” she said. I don’t think it brave, myself. I was participating. There is no point in being there otherwise. She said she knew someone who transitioned, and “he” said (I am fairly clear she means AMAB) “he had transitioned with a small T not a capital T”. I get what she means. There is no good way of asking that question, but this sidling round it is horrible. I don’t answer, but don’t ask if that should make a difference to the Red Tent. It’s not as if we were getting undressed. We ate together, then went for a drink, and talked more. I insisted on buying my own. I would not accept a drink from her.

After that, I had to go back to the Red Tent. I would not be chased away. We are in small groups discussing, and a younger woman talks of children learning of sex through porn, and sex education being solely biological, mechanical, rather than about relationships, or even about pleasure given and received. An older woman talks of being a minister, and having her leadership subtly disrespected. Where a male minister would be “charming” she is read as “flirtatious”. She wondered about mentoring younger women in similar roles. Two black women talked of more content here to attract black people. Then all my group but me left, and I was left sitting in the middle of the floor, with everyone else round the sides. I felt a bit exposed, but fed back to the larger group what they had talked about. A minister in another group gave her take on the matter, as clearly I had not understood.

-Oh, and we talked about sex. (laughter).
-Did any group not talk about sex?

It’s evening, and getting colder, so I put on my tights, then walk out.

Day out

I went into the men’s loos. They smell awful- they don’t use the same floral air-freshener as the women’s. Who knew?

I got oil from my chain on my hands, and wanted to wash them. There is no soap in the women’s loos. The friendly cleaner explained that replenishing of the soap had been contracted out to PHS, a service company, and there was no soap in the station to refill it. He suggested I could go into the men’s, as the place was quiet. No soap there either.

He then unlocked the disabled people’s loo, so that I could wash my hands there. That’s not under the same contract, so there is soap there; however I noticed the disposal unit in there had the same PHS logo. Neo-liberalism in a nutshell: poorer service, greater cost.

I told this story on the train, where three of us round the table chatted and one sat silent, and there was the sound of conversation from all the carriage. Something in the air. The woman asked me if my bike was safe and I said once I had left it unlocked at the station for a day: no thief had bothered to check, or noticed. She has had four bikes stolen, but wanted to cycle to the station before work, as parking was £9.50 a day. Get a cheap reconditioned bike. When she started at work in the 90s they typed memos for internal mail, which would take two days to be delivered then two for a reply. As email increased, her line manager, who was in Miami, was copied in on every email she had- for support rather than surveillance, she thought- and broke down under the strain. Even on her day off, going for a meal with a friend she used to work with, the only former colleague she has ever kept in touch with, she has to keep checking her work phone. She is in contact with people from all over the world. Scandinavians are happy with a reply within two days, Russians want a reply immediately, even if it is 5am here. “Do you work?” she asked. God, do I look unemployed? Hardly a rentier, no-one would retire on my income willingly. I write a little, mainly on spiritual matters. I tried to explain Quakerism, to an avowed unspiritual person. “Spirituality” is one way of putting it. Some people might call it “life lessons”.

The man, a widower, volunteers at the Nupton theatre. As a volunteer he gets to see the shows. His wife died, and he had to get out of the house, being retired.

To the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition with H. There are thousands of works, including two complementary prints, each of three columns, light-dark-light and dark-light-dark, each an edition of 20 for £1200 each. £48,000 for at most a week’s work: one might produce several candidates, then print off a favourite. The income could support you for a year, while you made any art you liked.

Here there are two figures, about eight feet tall. I don’t know what the core is, but the exterior is fabrics. They are gagged with tights, with £20 notes stuffed into their mouths. One is male. One has breasts, but the forehead and chin look male, and the hips narrow. They are horrible. I don’t like the blowsy, sagging shape of the breasts, a bra visible. I talk to a stranger about them. Yes, it could be one of my lot.

To the Royal Albert Hall for my first Prom concert since 1986. After the Berg violin concerto, the conductor stands with his baton poised. Often with a quiet, contemplative ending there is a period of silence, but here it extends for an age. The I-player shows it is 24 seconds, but I have not experienced anything like it. Five seconds’ pause is rare.

To St Pancras, where I play the piano for the first time in months. There are three people round it: the old man says there are often more at this time of night. He often comes to play, living about a mile away. He says “She’s classically trained,” of me, appreciatively. “Is that Chopin?” asks the woman. Yes, the C Minor prelude. I haven’t played the piano for months, but can remember this.

Why haven’t you played? Too depressed. Too lacking in energy. And now- they changed my meds! I had an experiment with nine days of Norethisterone, synthetic progesterone, and had a wonderful high on it and colossal downer after. So now I want to experiment with taking it for longer, and see if the increase of energy continues. She says it never does. I hope it will.

He plays by ear. He plays the tune of Summertime, and stabs vaguely at other notes. Sometimes he makes useful chords, sometimes not. I sing it, baritone, I want to play with gender. No-one minds.