how strange these mortals be!

How many of your characteristics do you need to consider before you become unique? I may not be the only left-handed aphantasic Scottish trans woman, but I am probably the only left-handed aphantasic Scottish trans woman entitled to join Mensa. It’s a trick question, of course; we are all unique, if only for our fingerprints.

People’s experience of the world can differ greatly. An effect I have on some people is that they imagine I think I am better than them. They project their insecurity onto me. I don’t, actually. I was deeply ashamed that I, being highly intelligent, empathetic, moderately well-read and interested in everything human should have such a poor CV. I have got over the shame, but I remain humble because of where I am in life (I think- subject to what I may write about consciousness). Why could I not do better?

This surprised even Tina. “It must be hard thinking you could do the job better,” she said. Actually, no. I don’t think that. But I find joy in these characteristics. I value having these gifts. That is how I value myself. It has been hard to value myself.

Being bright is supposed to make life easier, but it hasn’t, for me. Other things affect my life. I am socially awkward. Everything is multifactorial. She said, “We tend to be very reductionist, and think being bright makes things easier, having wealth makes things easier, and therefore that person does not have the difficulties I have.” We’re all doing our best under difficult circumstances.

-You find it hard to communicate without seeming arrogant and presumptuous. It’s not arrogance: you are saying, “This is the bit of life I can do! I’d like to share it, please.” I said I could go to a cocktail party or a dinner party and hold my own, but that is not quite true: I could talk on the intellectual level but not about social or life-issues, and not if it became a conflict, and I would need to borrow appropriate clothes. And I might be nervous.

I got into a conflict, and I had not anticipated it. I think she thought I was trying to put her down, put her in her place. In her situation she may get arrogant people trying to do that. I was just sharing something that had interested me- I have known of aphantasia since my teens, when I found that this phrase “the mind’s eye” was not just a weird metaphor but most people’s actual experience, but I had only just learned the word for it, only just heard others talking of experiences just like mine. I was excited about it. So the conflict came at me, out of the blue. And now I am not sure I could even learn from it. It’s just one of those bad things that happen occasionally, I could not imagine it part of a class and avoid similar problems. I sympathise with her.

I trained as a lawyer, and am Scots, and so write and talk with that flavour, with these twists of lemon in the cocktail.

I wonder how my sincerity comes over. I do not like to see the world as a battle, and some people do. And some people are ignored, brushed off, not seen or heard. It is hard to imagine other people’s experience is different from your own. We try to hide our foibles and vulnerabilities, and in doing so make ourselves more vulnerable.

Battle of the sexes

Some feminists see the world through the question “How do women lose out?” There are so many ways- sexual violence, poorer work prospects, supporting men emotionally and with physical care… AFAB trans mutilate their bodies, AMAB trans encroach on women’s space. If trans is rejection of gender roles, it is highly stylised. Surely it would be better to be your true self without dressing up and pretending? I agree. Transition was my way to being my true self, but at such a cost! I did it because it was the only way I saw.

Men compete, viciously. In Siri Hustvedt’s academia, she enjoys the argument. The more you know the better your position. “Bite back, hard, and never cry,” she advises a colleague.

George Orwell despised softness and snivelling. He was an intellectual and political analyst, on the Left, and a fighter who had survived his Prep school, as well as Catalonia.

I hoped the law would be a cerebral, rational haven, and found it a battlefield. Even on the Left I find women fighting for equality and seeing me as against them. The Right is for a neo-liberal privatisation of all human activity, controlled by private wealth. The Left is about what we do together, social work, a safety net for those in need, public spaces, new antibiotics and caring for our biosphere- all the many market failures the Right ignores or devalues- but we still compete.

I write, and read that literature is a feminine pursuit, so devalued, worth less than rigorous intellectual manly pursuits.

I need to be at ease with my emotions, aware of them, able to express them, and find I am so imbued with the idea that this is weakness that it is a continual struggle; and my society finds it uncomfortable. That, too, is a way we struggle with each other.

Hustvedt shows how we split off parts of ourselves, labelling them “feminine” and thereby devaluing them or denying them. My femininity is a social construct and my engagement with it makes me wonder if “masculine” traits are in me yet devalued because I must assert my femininity or demanded of me but not in me. Transition helped me find a stereotype which is so much closer to Real Me yet capable of deluding me.

We spend our time, and we spend ourselves- usefully or frittering. Sitting at home I imbibe microplastics in tap or bottled water, tiny particles which fall from clothes and possessions as well as from throw-away packaging, then accumulate toxins. So many threats! Who would save their life will lose it. Everything is a struggle, so I must struggle for something I find worthwhile.

Inner conflict

Every day, straws break camels’ backs. Every decision, from “shall I get up now” to “do I need a new job” is balanced between internal, unconscious drives for and against, until something becomes overwhelming and you make the decision. We dither and swither and deny, because overwhelming conscious, acceptable reasons struggle against shame filled reasons the person cannot admit to themself, and we make up stories to justify because we want to seem virtuous when we aren’t. How could emotions fail to be conflicting? Or, at least, there is no precise name for emotions any more than there is for colours on a computer, all 166, or 16,777,216 of them. Emotions mix as watercolours do.

The conscious self, which seems so important to itself, is not in control. It may be just a by-product of unconscious processes, as a rainbow is of water, light and perception. I found this academic article fascinating, though hard work, taking over an hour to read. The authors suggest that as members of a social species we create and continually update a “personal narrative”, an understanding of who we are and what we do, which we communicate to others. That is created by a “central executive structure”, the product of several non-conscious brain systems.

Clearly we have inner conflict. Deferring gratification requires balancing pleasure now against pleasure later. That conflict may be between what we tell others, our personal narrative, and what stronger internal processes desire. So the personal narrative would be closer to Carl Rogers’ “self-concept” than his “organismic self”. What we do is affected by how confident, happy or depressed we feel. Feeling good motivates us better than feeling terrified: pride, gratitude and compassion motivate more than will-power and determination, which are a finite resource.

So I feel that the idea of an inner human, doing socially approved things, and an inner chimp, doing impulsive, selfish and destructive things repellant; but all this challenges my idea that the human being is fundamentally good. I have selfish and pro-social impulses. For the whole self, it would be good to broadcast the pro-social and keep the selfish hidden; so the Personal Narrative and the aspects in consciousness would be skewed to the pro-social. Sometimes obeying rules is clearly beneficial and of no great cost: we drive on the left rather than the right to avoid crashes.

I am also unsure of the ego-less self, which is Love; the inner light; or Mary Oliver’s You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves. Some people have a calling, knowing what they want to do with their lives early and pursuing that goal, but not everyone. That is appealing because the personal narrative conflicting with actions is uncomfortable. Most would protest that their desires are good, but that is just the personal narrative.

And I can change conscious states, from ruminating about past and future to giving my whole attention to the pear I bite into, or the washing up I am doing- the sounds, sensations and visual stimulation of a quotidian task. Life and the world seems then to take on greater beauty and intensity. It is pleasurable. People say it is spiritual, but I do not know why that should be so. Does it increase appreciation?

What is judging my motivations? I want to write, photograph, perform, to create beautiful things and have them appreciated. These desires seem positive.  I want to survive, which seems basic, essential to all life. I want to hide away, not to be noticed, not to be given tasks as I am sure I will fail.

My motivations may not be wholly “good” as the culture judges, but are good for me, or at least as good as I can manage. Someone tells me I can do better, but I may not believe them. Possibly if the soft animal pursues what it loves, it will be wholehearted, succeed, and do more, to its greater love and delight.

Social status definitely comes into this somewhere.

Harmony

Dutch Interior III, 1928, oil on canvasAm I projecting? Of course I am. How could I approach another’s experience, except through my own? It seems to me that we are uncertain, and feeling overloaded, and not communicating well- then I thought, it is certainly true of me, though I would say that the stress is the exhilarating side of too much. I looked up just now and saw a plane tumbling and spinning, its wings going over and over, apparently out of control- would it crash? Then it pulled out of the spin; the pilot had been practising tricks.

So, then, is it just my own delight in conflict? It happens. I have managed to get people fighting over when we hold our meetings. You would have thought arranging meetings was simple enough, we fix a plan and stick to it. Now I receive emails saying my changes are insufficient, and others saying I should not change things. The emotional vampire can enjoy the display, or even my own intense emotions as I watch it. I have my preaching thought through:

Friends, this is not a zero-sum game. This is a loving and creative Spirit-led process in which we go beneath the apparent question to find our Friends’ needs and desires, and how best to move forward together.

That is true, and my saying it could be me scoring points for myself, rather than being genuinely constructive.

Putting my washing out, I found Ben and a young woman he introduced as Steph’s daughter Trish. Collage painting, sandpaper gouache mirror and threadWe greeted each other in a warm friendly manner. Then he said he would like to apologize for the other night, for the noise Steph was making. Trish scoffed. “You apologise for someone else?” I don’t know- Ben’s attempt to appear to be the reasonable, sane one? It backfired with me, and I expressed my sympathy with Steph being wound up. “Fuck off” is what I say when I am wound up. Or, worse, his moulding of reality: he keeps repeating such ideas, refusing to hear any alternative, to mess with their heads.

I said, “I don’t know. You have to sort it for yourselves. If you want me to preach at you, I will say that human beings get better at stuff, it is what we do. We work things out, we find ways through problems. You will sort it.” Ben said “That’s so wise. You are so intelligent. Isn’t she intelligent?” Trish went in. Ben had to go in too, he explained.

Next day, though, Steph explained the noise had not been her. It was her friend, who had smashed a bottle with the intent of slashing her wrists, but Steph and Ben together had dived on her to stop her. She had been assessed by the Community Mental Health team, and kept in overnight. Now, Steph was worried the landlord would want her out. I tried to reassure her.

I had an email, please give me X because you did not give it to me when we last met. I emailed back, you did not ask me for it. She emailed, “I did not know I had to ask you”, which because I thought she had known that she would need X, which I had, I found rather petty. Well, either you approach me or I approach you. But perhaps she had not known she would need X.

Conflict

Potato, 1928, oil on canvasShe likes to think of herself as one of Nature’s conciliators. She loves to serve, she says. Her fingertips lightly graze your forearm, her gaze through painted lashes melts at you winsomely. Yet those who spend time talking with her find all their irritants, all their niggling worries, coalescing; other misery and blame surfaces, so that they recognise it for the first time. Soon after her ministrations you will wake at four in the morning, sweating and writhing, for all that need has merged into white rage. Yet she is not a hypocrite. Truly she only sees herself as dispensing blessing and Love to all.

Where does the shoe pinch? Where does it rub? You hardly noticed any more. We all have our crosses to bear, and you may imagine yourself hardly short of saintly coping as you do. Mustn’t grumble. It is the way the world is- until someone shows slight surprise and concern for you that you should be so afflicted. Nothing may be done, or surely you would have done it- and suddenly you see how small your world has become, how different your life from how you imagined it.

In the Quaker meeting, it can seem like I purify my thoughts in the clear Light of God. Here I am again, seeing more clearly, what might be done in Love, what is real, what is true, what is right. But in the Meeting for Worship for Business, I must speak that aloud, and test it with others. Perhaps someone will see it entirely differently. Perhaps I will have to change.

Then again, Steph and Ben. “As God made them, so He matched them”, me old muvver used to say. Two alcoholics, even if he is off the white stuff. They were shouting at each other drunkenly, fuckoff fuckoff fuckoff leave me alOAAN. Sometimes it clears the air, sometimes it doesn’t. Good job my bedroom is the other side of the house.

John Perrot’s hat

Part of the Quaker testimony to equality is a thrawn insistence on showing only the respect of an equal, even to the monarch. When a man addressed a superior as “you” and an equal or inferior as “thou”, we called all men “thou”; and where an inferior would take off his hat to his betters, we took off our hats to no man, no Lord, no judge. Our founders were put in prison for this lack of respect.

Men worshipped wearing their hats, a custom we in Britain have dropped only in the last century. A friend wanted to get a Quaker hat, but the problem was that there was no one design: the Quakers’ hats and bonnets were visibly different from those of outsiders, but their fashions changed over two hundred years.

Fashions change in Ministry, as well. I have only ever heard ministry which is addressed to the gathered congregation. People talk of God, of right conduct or of politics with a moral slant; but I am aware that there is a convention if anyone in ministry prays to God. The minister in that case kneels down, and everyone else stands. And, when the men wore hats, they would take them off.

John Perrot, who still does not have his own Wikipedia article, wished to keep his hat on during prayer. He argued that if taking off the hat was no true honour to another man, it was no true honour to God either. George Fox imposed his authority, and Perrot was driven out of the Society of Friends.

Where we have ritual- shaking hands to end a meeting, or the guidance on what is appropriate Ministry- it helps that it is the same across the country. We seek the leadings of God in making our decisions, but the orthodox Quaker custom had evolved in worship and been affirmed by decisions made in worship. Perrot sought to go his own way on this.

My own refusal to obey authority led to a minute of disunity from my area meeting, condemning me. That minute was reversed when it was considered by wise Quakers from outside the AM, but  that process was incredibly painful for me. As a lawyer, I want to distinguish the imposition of authority on me from that on Perrot. When I made a stand against my friend being scapegoated, I was myself scapegoated, wrongfully. I absolutely refused the ultimatum imposed on me. I was always willing to meet in Worship to discern a way forward, and promote reconciliation between my friend and her persecutors. Fortunately, I am happy in my current area meeting, and I have a role in which I serve it.

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Ours is a Society without a hierarchy. We make decisions together, seeking God’s loving purposes: what is the right thing for us to do, here, now? Our Quaker roles, of Elder and Overseer (from Greek “Episcopos”) circulate among the members of the meeting. 

Retreating together is a powerful thing, able to build community, and that is why it is an excellent thing for Northamptonshire AM or Central Manchester LM to do, and in this case such a toxic thing for South Wales AM elders and overseers to do. It was in one of their retreats that they considered a conflict between one of themselves and a vulnerable but committed Friend, and decided to exonerate themselves, and scapegoat her. Seeing that it was a conflict between themselves and one Friend, H, they should have sought outside help and reconciliation: but they did not see that. The outside helper already involved was asking them uncomfortable questions, so they rudely told her that her assistance was no longer required, and started a sustained campaign of bullying and vilification. That has led, two years later, to H’s exclusion from the Society of Friends.

At area meetings discussing this, where Friends are supposed to attend “with hearts and minds prepared”, elders and overseers have worked very hard to prevent the facts being known. Only their interpretation could be heard. They directly accused me of lying, behind my back, when I could not be present and had no chance to respond, and on the evidence of one witness, which was contradicted by her own writing. When I complained their accusation was false, they silenced me: I was impugning the word of the one of them who called me a liar. One reason they gave for silencing me was that she was not present to answer me, a rich hypocrisy. Thereby, they forced through the minute of disunity with me, which was only reversed on appeal six months later. Because I had moved, they sent a letter to my new area meeting. Perhaps fortunately, it condemned me utterly, and portrayed me in an entirely negative light: it was therefore belied by experience of me. I am accepted and happy in my Quaker meeting, no thanks to the liars in South Wales.

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The appeal panel overturned the minute of disunity, which is now void. They specifically criticised South Wales elders and overseers for claiming that I alone was responsible for the conflict. Having more delicacy than I about the use of the word “lie”, they call this an “oversimplification”. In the meeting of the AM which received the appeal panel’s report, elders and overseers prevented this criticism from being read out. And so they continued their campaign of mendacity to force through the humiliation of my Friend H.

My current area meeting show their regard for me by appointing me assistant clerk. I am unsure of the current situation in South Wales and Cardiff Meeting. Sometimes, scapegoating and expulsion of an innocent victim, and the creation of an out-group, can make a community bond more closely. Quakers should have a more excellent way of building community.

Sgian dubh

from Wikipedia

In The Two Drovers by Walter Scott, an Englishman thumps a Scot. The Scot’s honour is impugned, so he gets his black knife (so called because it is hidden) and stabs his friend to death. If we all carried knives in our socks, in the six o’clock commute on the Tube, packed like sardines, perhaps no-one would get out alive. Yet in Rob Roy, set in 1715, Scott shows the elaborate courtesy of the Highlanders, necessary in a society where every man carries a blade; and the contempt they have for the lowlanders who have no blades, or fighting skill.

When I presented male, and wore a kilt for country dancing, I carried a sgian dubh with no thought of self-defence, and indeed we have seemed to get this civilisation thing, living together in conurbations of ten million with surprisingly few murders. And yet we still have anger and hatred, which we exorcise vicariously through sporting contests, or by “kicking the cat”, picking on a safe target where the true object of our rage is too frightening to contemplate.

All that energy, dissipated; or turned inwards to self-hatred and depression; or turned outwards, to the effusion of blood. I want to use that energy, constructively, in my own interests (which are pacific- connection, creation, love). A good step forward is seeking not to be so frightened of it.