We spend ourselves

She left school aged 15, and went to work in the mill, just like everyone else did. She was unhappy there, nervous, uncomfortable, and her mother took up the habit of walking her there, and being there in the evening to walk her home. Then she did not want to go, and eventually stayed at home. When I met her, she was in her mid fifties, still living with her mother. She had been getting benefits as unfit to work, but the system had stopped them, so I had to prove she was entitled. She was like her mother- both the same height, around 5′, medium build in proportion, but as if the flower, never fertilised, had wilted and dried rather than become a seed pod. She was still an adolescent, looked after by her mother.

We established that she was entitled to benefit, and after the tribunal hearing I caught the eye of the presenting officer for the DSS, one of those who acted as if it were her own money that would be paid to the claimant- but the woman had touched her heart. I said to her, “You’re glad that she got the benefit too, aren’t you?” and she nodded.

(I will add- “Not trusting herself to speak”. She said nothing. It is an assumption, pushing my observation into the realms of imagination, but one the fiction writer feels justified in, telling this story which is part fact. It rings true to me. Did the steely presenting officer’s eye gleam slightly, was it moist, or is that a trick of memory in the service of my fiction? Heightened reality, just slightly heightened-

We spend ourselves, says the stern moralist in me. The claimant had not, but guarded herself in her bower, and therefore stopped growing. It was an existence, just stopping at home. She was unrealised, possibly because the society was such poor soil, with mill work the only work.

Every day I feel the lack of my testicles, and resent it, for what it bars to me, that way of relating to another, and I am alone. The fat person might know he cannot run for a bus, his joints will be damaged by his weight, it would be better in some ways if he were lighter, and he is doing all he can to be in the world. Losing weight is another’s priority, however rational-seeming, and not his. My testicles were the price I paid for self-acceptance at the time, and keeping them would have been harder. I had them removed, and my depression lifted.

I hide myself in my bower, except when I go to London, or the Labour party. Or these daily cries for help to the ether. We spend ourselves out in the world, joints ruined by weight, testicles sacrificed to Womanhood, and even hidden away the days tick by and I have had more than half of mine. I spent as I had to, to achieve what I needed. Society was such poor soil for me. My writing may have value, an easy grace sweated over, generous, expansive and an invitation to question.

The best writers change how we think and see, and Siri Hustvedt’s essays in “A woman looking at men looking at women” challenge me. She dances around the truth, making connections and seeing from different angles, as scientist and artist for she is both. She has an exercise for the patients in the locked ward- write “I remember” then keep writing; what you write may surprise you.

Hustvedt: writing blocks are symptoms. Why have I shut out the truth?
Inactivity is a symptom. Why have I shut out the truth?
Can writing help?

Out in the world I suffered and spent myself, and now at home, in my bower, I suffer and spend myself. The consolations may not be enough. I am glad that I see things, glad that I write and speak the truth. Though I have just remembered the presenting officer’s eye glinted or gleamed, or not, in another case: that of a woman of limited intelligence, who could not calculate how many bank notes to hand over for her shopping, so trusted the checkout woman to tell her, yet who lived independently, married and brought up a daughter, who had not realised she had ceased being entitled to carer’s allowance for that daughter and might have had to repay an overpayment: a woman I admired, for achieving so much despite her difficulties, and possibly the presenting officer did too. I had sympathy for all of the claimants, but the presenting officers’ sympathy was rare.

Body positivity

Trans activists can learn from fat activists. The words we use change the way we see: “obese” is medicalised, “overeater” is a judgment, “fat” is a description, being reclaimed. I got the word “Overeater” from a meeting of Overeaters Anonymous at the Quaker Meeting House; all were women, and I noticed the beauty of their complexions.

I am not as other people are, and I might rail against that, or deny it, but acceptance makes life easier. Some might say the fat person lacks self-control, but my maintaining a fairly steady weight does not feel particularly difficult, and I recognise the efforts many people put in to losing weight. Science might classify people as obese, a rational, not necessarily moralistic judgment, pointing to health problems such people are more likely to have; or that might be the judgment of power, where paying attention to particular matters is a choice, and there are different ways of conceptualising the same underlying reality. My own conception could seem to me like simple reality, clearly seen, until I become aware of another’s, which is totally different. Surely they are wrong, missing something, in denial, or else I am- but no, they merely see differently.

Thinking myself an ally I unthinkingly used the word “obese”, a judgment, so turned to Google to find other ways to see. I can learn from others. Searching for “Fat activists” showed me articles aimed at the left-liberal mainstream, such as this interview with an activist written to explain “Here’s how you can be an ally”. There are enemies, who imagine their way of seeing is the only one.

Jessica Hinkle, interviewed in Vice, says They say I glorify obesity when I actually glorify self-love. Men imagine she is starved of affection and send sexually explicit messages. People hide their fat-phobia as “concern” for our health. Indeed, and people hide transphobia as concern, or as feminism. It is phobia: anger, fear and a desire to control.

In order to be body-positive, you have to acknowledge that people truly deserve respect and autonomy over their bodies without judgement. Fat people aren’t “before” photos. There is so much that I have not questioned, just picked up or assumed, that oppresses others. Cat Polivoda: In our culture, it’s a standard assumption that if you’re curvy, plus-size, or fat, you must be actively trying to lose weight. The otherness of others is challenging, so one makes assumptions. Having sketched out my map of the world, it is time to colour in more detail.

The person of colour mentions intersectionality. Ariel Woodson: body positivity at its best means an intersectional take on bodies. You want to prioritize the bodies that are most oppressed in our society and make sure things are equal for people. It means doing away with the real-world implications of living inside a body that people don’t like. If I can, it behoves me to see others’ oppression as well as my own.

Just as people will sometimes reassure me how well I pass as female, they tell Cat “You’re not fat, you’re beautiful”. She says she is both, and they find that challenging. “We’re supposed to hate ourselves. We’re supposed to hide,” says Alysse Dalessandro. She makes clothes that do not try to make her look thinner, under the label “Ready to stare”.

It’s all about the [cis or trans] women, but Kelvin Davis has been shamed by jackets not in his size, and told to suck it up, be a man, not talk about his feelings.

Searching for body positivity I found a collective of facilitators, creating a world in which people value their unique identities and are liberated from self-hatred so they can optimize their energy and intellect to make positive changes in their own lives, communities, and beyond. It sounds wonderful, but I would prefer a bottom-up, self-organised web of activists sharing their wisdom to experts monetising it. Our model is comprised of five core Competencies, the fundamental skills we can practice on a daily basis to live peacefully and healthfully in our bodies. Buy the book, they say, but share this pdf on the competencies. They seem to me to match the wisdom I have learned as I mature, moving from self-rejection to self-acceptance.

I have read an article, and looked at a site; and I am aware of new ideas I can get to know, and some of the ways I thoughtlessly hurt others which I might correct.

Fear and dependence

To the jobcentre.

-How are you?
-Sort of alright, more or less, I say. This is not good enough. Sally is so clucking motherly.
-Better than last time?
Well. I can’t pay my gas bill, I have this that and the other problem, so I say no. Though all must be on an improving trajectory, I shall be fit and well and working soon, and so she cannot really accept that answer, I am not budging from it.

-Do you know why you’re here today?
Because I am to be referred to a welfare-to-work programme. I say I am in the Work Related Activity Group and the person I saw last time referred me to another scheme for more intensive help to get work. So I am here for that.

“I referred you-”

I hated being there anyway. I had no pleasant anticipation of the “help” I might receive: unpaid work experience in a supermarket, perhaps, with sanctions if I refused. And I thought this interview was the start of it, so much so that I did not recognise Sally when I saw her. I was mortified. Not because she reacts badly, but because I am kicking myself. Not because I want to be polite to this person but because I fear not to. My inner policeman is out, cudgelling me for making such a mistake which could hurt me so badly even if Sally does not show that.

It is an imbalance of power between us; yet it is all in me, my worry, fear, embarrassment, judgment of self that is cudgelling me. Could I just not care? My own reaction is the only thing I might control, but having made the mistake I make myself less able to respond to what comes next, because I am dwelling on it.

I thought this was the start of the HELP programme, but it is not. Actually, I have to turn up for the referral to be completed, Sally does not know why. I suggest it is to avoid people being referred and not turning up after being on the programme, after their appointments being paid for, because this is contracted out. Had I not attended today, I would have been sanctioned. If I do not attend when summoned again, I will be sanctioned. That is a cut in benefit, perhaps 40%. She phones up the service provider, because she likes to speak to someone, but they tell her just to complete the referral screen on her computer, so she does that.

At the supermarket, a woman commiserates with me, having to cycle home four miles. It’s not that far, I say- “But so much time when you have so much to do!” she says. Well, it is a way of getting slightly breathless. Better to cycle home than to have to drive to a gym later.

In Tuscany

I had moments of complete delight on holiday. Some was with art, with Botticelli’s Primavera or the doors of Pisa’s cathedral. Some was with the countryside: in the Boboli gardens, looking over the town to the surrounding hills, I was enraptured by the beauty.

The colours of the town, even in winter sun! There was the porcelain exhibition, beautiful things I was not inclined to study but enjoyed glancing at.

Getting to places was a bit of a pain. We were a long time getting going in the morning, and at Pisa station wanting to go to Florence we went the wrong way, taking an extra hour: I did not recognise the name of the place, but was sure the time indicated the correct train. The lift at the station was undergoing repairs, so we struggled down the stairs together. I was always concerned about my pennilessness, and while there were plenty of places for tourists to sit, inside and out, they all involved buying at least a coffee. I saw one public bench, sat on the steps of a statue, and considered sitting on the concrete anti-terrorist blocks, painted white and red to be clearly visible and make the townscape ugly.

Alright, two public benches, one not even close to anywhere I wanted to sit.

Getting to places: we walked slowly because of disabilities, and ended up walking separately: I heard the tap, tap of his walking stick behind me. The joy of his company was overwhelmed by the stress of getting around, seeing what we wanted to see. And once we were sitting in the cathedral in Florence, having been queueing in the cold outside, only to be corralled in the nave, bored, waiting for the others. I was not finding it hugely inspiring. The cordon was west of the picture of Dante, so I could recognise him but not consider him. It would be better to go in the other door, reserved for prayers. The ideal tourist state is linked to a spiritual state, open and receptive. Not being able to photograph things would release me from the compulsion merely to imagine things as images within a frame. I could just glimpse the dome, where someone was captured in his endless fall into Hell.

People of colour, I presume African migrants, perhaps illegal, sold selfie sticks and Philip bought one. How are you going to use that, asked Richard, when your phone has no jack-plug for it? Philip had intended to use the timer, not realising they had a button on the handle to take the picture. I told the man he should give Philip his money back. He gave back a €20 note, and waited for Philip to return the change he had been given, then he and another spent some time plugging various sticks into the phone to see if they could work, but none could. I told them I would not have confronted in that way, when I was younger. I was keen not to show up Richard for not confronting.

I was glad to meet H. I liked her a lot. I would not have read her as Aspie, perhaps because I am less used to the indications in a woman, but it is not a compliment to say that she “passes”. Her gift is a disability because of the way society is organised, and she shared her shame and resentment around that. I noticed how the near sides of her shoes were broken down, how she walked off the sole, and how otherwise she presented and carried herself proudly. It is frustrating not to have opportunities to fulfil our capacity.

There were wonderful moments linked to a particular place: an art work, some cacti, the quality of sunlight which led people to block it out of their homes, rather than seek it: I type now staring hungrily at my picture-window, thinking of that sun on my skin.

Sensitive souls

He might not be good company, he warned me, as he hardly slept at all last night. His mind was racing. He had bought The Guardian, and was enraged about Carillion- the payouts to the fat cats, successful only at filling their pockets; and the fact that “George Gideon Osborne, former Chancellor of the Exchequer and Second Lord of the Treasury” had been connected to hedge funds which had started short-selling the company before its profit warning in the Summer. Possibly George had passed on information; he has little value otherwise. He explained short-selling to me: I knew it was betting that a company’s share price would decline, but he told me that the hedge fund borrows shares for a set fee and a set period, sells them, buys them and hands them back before the end of the period, and if the share price declines it makes money.

I tell him that even asleep his company would be pleasant to me, I like him so much. I would drink my tea and play on my phone. And that his choler could hardly be more bad for his health if you added an “a” on the end. And that I go to sleep with In Our Time on the I-player, four restful voices saying interesting but not too interesting things about Xenophon, gravitational waves, or the Paleocene/Eocene Thermal Maximum.

My other way of going to sleep when awake in the night was to stop thinking of worries, and rehearse summaries of Doctor Who plots.

I feel that I am able to listen and sympathise, and possibly mock a little. He waves his hands about, and I mirror him. He asks me not to, then says “I’m stimming”. At which I apologise and stop. I wish his choler was less, though, at things he cannot affect. Choler with an “a” will come in ten years, if the Tories win the next election and Brexit happens. He is so gentle, withal. I have rarely seen him angry at another person (it was me). He was reading about Dolores O’Reordan, and it mentioned the Warrington bombing. And his photographic memory brought up the face of a boy who was killed then, and he started crying.

Are you still here? My Moral is for you: such sensitivity is a gift, though also a burden; and when two sensitive souls come together usually it is a great joy, though sometimes it is terribly painful.

Or, See me! I am like you! Please let me know, if it is you.

I don’t want to take cash out, and I notice I have not enough for a bus fare. Then I pay with my credit card, and notice after I have been overcharged by £5.70- so she repays me in cash. Pleased by this synchronicity, I walk in the supermarket, and hear Petula Clark. Forget all your worries, forget all your cares- Oh! Do not play something which will move me!

Pictures from Pisa

I love this; but not all shots along the river from the bridge are the same. I love the balance of light and shade, and the reflections in the water, but a boat or a bird would improve it; and not all my shots from the bridge were as good.

How do you show the angle of the tower? It is so familiar, and so deeply weird:

I loved the fallen angel, a recent sculpture, with its broken head and arm, which I took from up the tower:

I did not at first notice the screaming face in its wing:

Pigeons feasted on a display of bread at a street cafe. The man who chased them off was peeved.

A flower, from the tropical hothouse:

Pisa pictures

Men with sub-machineguns prowled around the cathedral and tower, and ordinary city police had holstered pistols. I am perturbed, but the other tourists do not seem bothered. How to photograph them? I took these from behind, as when Philip pictured them he got into a contretemps. Then, emerging from the tower, I thought to take that carabinieri from a distance:

but did not think it through, just snapped and walked on, so did not even notice that my lens was at too wide an angle or that a man had just walked in front of him anyway. Police here do not like being photographed, though they are happy to intimidate ordinary people demonstrating, by taking detailed video. The policeman on the left was paying attention, and thereby showed his face for the picture beautifully, so my terrorist cell- if I had one- could identify him.

On the West of the South transept I spent some time admiring the door. Such craftsmanship:

It’s yet another Annunciation. It looks childlike, compared to the West door, where some people just dashed by, instead of admiring:

That chap has no wings. Is it Christ, giving Lucifer a push? Some of the figures on the door stood out from it, away from the plane. Wonderful technique.

The fresco of the last judgment in the walled burial ground was cruel. Half was Hell; but Christ is a quarter of the way along the picture, and there are people in the half I first thought was Heaven who are on his Left. That is not a good place to be.

Note that he is looking to his left. At the moment captured, he is not greeting the Blessed, but condemning the Damned, who are being repelled by sword-wielding angels. I am not familiar enough with Italian Judgment scenes to be sure, but it seems unusual to me to have the Queen of Heaven seated in apparent equality.

I am also unused to sights like the chap among the blessed, who should not be there, being hauled off by an angel. There is arguable Biblical authority for that, but the picture is designed to inspire fear rather than Love. Even the Blessed look pretty scared.

A thin layer of plaster containing the pigment was taken away, preserved, and brought back to be hung on metal supports, away from the brick wall.

Portraits on holiday

Something prickly: and a cactus.

The cactus was in the Botanical Gardens in Pisa. In that hothouse I was enraptured by the beauty and strangeness of the cacti. Some straight ones looked like dildos, one long enough to murder Edward II. The bamboo was there as well, growing outdoors. We went to a small museum there, with cheap portraits- a black background, as scenery is extra, and one unfortunate man could not afford to have his clothes depicted- but showing personalities beautifully.

The same day we took in the Baptistery, which of course is only of use as background. These pictures are not selfies, as I got others to take them- though according to my precise direction, sometimes after I took a picture of my victim to show them exactly how I wanted it to look.

This is in Florence, in the Boboli gardens, just behind the Pitti Palace, where I had another moment of bliss, enjoying the colours of the city and the mountains in the sunshine, even in January.

I had more than one dress with me, honest, I just wore that one two days.

Up the Leaning Tower. The passer-by said the cathedral dome was washed out, but I like the colour of it. Framed by the stone, read from left to right, there is dome, bell, me.

I took one with the timer. I love the bright blue background.

Up the tower, I asked a Sydney-sider what she thought of it, and she enthused. She has relatives in Somerset and Yorkshire, though has been in Australia for generations. She is an academic, teaching nursing, and finds leading people to critical thinking challenging. She wondered what the mountains were. I thought the Chianti hills- how decadent, to name hills after a wine- she thought Switzerland, and her daughter with Google thought the Apennines.

I looked, speculatively, at that barrier. Properly determined, and jumping from the stone steps, you could get over it, though I hope others seeing your purpose would hold you back. It would be a peculiarly vile way of committing suicide, with all the tourists about to be shocked, even traumatised, by a death. And- it ran in my mind. I would not like a chest high rail as protection up there, it would not be sufficient. People are strange.

One final view of the tower.

The Leaning Tower of Pisa

People go to Pisa to create anew the iconic shot of holding up the Leaning Tower. Here at least five people are attempting it: I love the fun they are having.

People embrace it:

fist-bump it:

even push it with their feet.

It is more difficult than it looks. Climb that bollard!

Don’t have the hands too far back:

or have the palms showing.

Pernickety photographers may need to adjust their victim’s subject’s hands:

This is my best attempt:

This is the least blurred of my friend’s. If only he had deigned to crouch, I might have looked less peeved:

Pisa

I am in Pisa. 

Even the roads near the station, where the tourists would not go, are beautiful and distinctive, their colours and shutters. It is mild enough for grockling, in January. 

Local beggars sit by the side of the shopping street, with a laminated sign with a message. Trafficked people hawk wooden ornamental trains, made to spell names or words. One sold selfie sticks which I thought were Nordic Walking poles. A man who proclaimed himself a former drug addict engaged us in conversation and asked for a contribution to their hostel,  costing €40 a night per resident. 

I am with Aspie friends. I love the way we are all careful of each others’ comfort and happiness. Two declared themselves a couple only last month. We sat in the cathedral and wandered along the streets. I cannot afford a holiday but want to enjoy it now I am here. 

The flat is lovely with varied art reproductions on the walls, and showers with a choice of three jets,  including one aimed at the crotch. As always you can see me here by what I find worthy of remark.