An ode to a man much missed

I’d got used to the silence after you’d left to live in Islamabad. It had settled around me. I’d snuggled down into it. I’d occasionally interrupted it with friends, with endless episodes of favourite TV shows on Netflix, with phone conversations with family, with days spent at my desk working. I’d got used to the daily chats with you on Skype, you on the sofa in the quiet new home that next summer will explode with the sounds of me and our babies, and me in the flat in France that we’d so happily occupied together. I’d got used to cooking the meals for one, to sleeping alone, to waking up without you. I’d put a picture of you beside the bed, an indulgence I’d never needed when I could open my eyes and see the real thing.

But then you came home. Miraculously. Surprisingly. Gorgeously. You had two days of work in Geneva but hadn’t mentioned it to me. We’d spoken on Skype on Tuesday evening, then you’d packed your bags, got in a taxi to the airport and got on a plane to take you to Dubai, and another to deliver you to Geneva. Then a taxi brought you home to our door in Divonne. You rang the doorbell and I didn’t answer it – it was two o’clock in the afternoon and I was working, expecting no-one, still in my pajamas. So you came in. When I saw you I stood frozen to the spot for about five minutes. For about four hours I couldn’t actually believe that it was you. That you were there. But then I realised that the silence had evaporated. I didn’t need to snuggle into the silence anymore, when instead I could snuggle into you.

Before our babies were on board, we used to do stuff. We’d get out and explore whatever amazing world we happened to inhabit. We’d drive or walk for hours. I’d take thousands of photographs to document our experience. We’d visit and sightsee and soak up. But we don’t need to go out to experience amazing things now. All the amazing stuff is happening internally – inside our home and inside me. When you were here this weekend, we didn’t need to go out and feel the rush of cold wind on our faces on a hiking trip, when instead you could just sit on the sofa with your hand on my belly and feel the movements of our growing sons. We didn’t need to visit Geneva and hear the canons commemorating the Escalade, when instead we could just laugh out loud together and be filled with joy that the tiny ears of our babies are now developed enough to take that sound in.

I don’t miss the lovely stuff we used to do. It will all still be out there when we’ve safely delivered our gorgeous little aliens into the world and we can spend our time introducing them to its infinite wonders. It’s the small things that have become huge to me now – you wordlessly doing the few chores that you know I particularly hate having to do, or walking into the bathroom when I’m in the shower just to chat or to say something that will otherwise be forgotten. Just to keep the silence at bay.

But now it’s Sunday and you’re working in Islamabad again tomorrow, so today I drove you to the airport so you could get on a plane to take you to Dubai and another to deliver you to Islamabad. And then you’ll get in a car and drive to an office where people are expecting you, where no-one will stand frozen to the spot for five minutes, unable to believe that it’s actually you. That you’re actually there. And tomorrow afternoon we’ll speak on Skype, you sitting on the sofa in the new home that next summer will explode with the sounds of me and our babies, and me in the flat in France that we so happily occupied together.

For now, it’s late, and I’m going to bed alone, your picture propped up on the bedside table beside me. I feel our tiny aliens wriggling. And in your absence, I snuggle once again into the silence.

Life! Oh, life!

If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.

Woody Allen

Positive!

“M has a new job,” I said.

“I’m moving to Pakistan,” I said.

And the gods heard me, and they chortled.  “You think?”

And then I peed on a stick and I understood the reasons for their mirth.

“I’ll go anyway!” I said. “People have babies in Pakistan!”

And then the doctor did a scan. We listened to the baby’s heartbeat and I cried. And then he said, “Oh, but there are two!” We listened to the second baby’s heartbeat and I laughed for about ten minutes straight.

And the doctor said, “You’re going to be a 44-year-old woman giving birth to twins. You are NOT moving to Pakistan.”

I’m going to be a 44-year-old woman giving birth to twins! And the babies’ father is going to be living in Pakistan while I stay here in Geneva to have them! Who says the gods lack a sense of humour!

In the last of the four posts that I published in 2013 on the subject of infertility, I wrote:

“I’d thought that I was going to be a mother and I’ve done everything I possibly could to make that happen. But it didn’t, and now, barring some miraculous future event, it probably never will.”

Well, there seems to have been a miraculous future event. The miracle came in the form of modern medicine and a medical team with vast knowledge and immense skill, as well as a wealth of patience and understanding. It was fuelled by love and generosity and acceptance. It was paid for by those with the funds and prayed for by those with the faith. And if the funds and the faith and the tremendous good fortune continue to be supplied with such abundance, it will manifest itself next year in the form of two of the most hoped for, anticipated, loved (and presumably photographed) babies in the short history of homo sapiens.

The experience of sharing this news with our families has been like having a direct line into the source of all happiness. I’ve never felt so loved and supported, which is huge, given that I’ve always felt loved and supported. This is a screen grab that I took when Dad Skyped me back about ten minutes after the initial conversation in which I told him I was pregnant:

What a great day!

My sister Luli, who was sitting in a café when I called her with the news, went straight from the café to a hobby shop to buy wool, and has since started to knit a baby blanket for us, consciously casting a spell of love for the babies with each new stitch that she casts on.

My beautiful brother and I don’t speak on the phone very often but he called me as soon as Dad had shared the news with him. He said that in all the years that M and I and have been hoping for a baby and he has been trying to console us with the words, “You don’t need to have kids to be happy,” he knew he wasn’t speaking his complete truth, as he can’t imagine his life without the millions of joys that his two boys have brought him.

My sister Kalinka sobbed when I told her. She texted every day for days and days afterwards to see how me and the babies were doing. And she’s setting aside a little dress that was passed down to her daughter by my little sister’s little girl so that if I have a daughter, she can wear her cousins’ dress too.

My sister Pinky, hilariously recognising the enormity of the news for us and the fact that my quiet life of books and travel is over, kept repeating the words, “Fuckedy-fuckedy-fuck!” And that was before she knew we were having twins!

My little sister Coco started making immediate mental preparations for me and the babies to come and occupy the spare bedroom in the lovely new home that she and her family have just moved into. The cot that Dad made for his six babies to sleep in in the sixties and seventies and that has accommodated all of his eleven grandchildren since will take pride of place in the room.

When I was in The Vagina Monologues earlier this year and I delivered the piece about childbirth, one of the most poignant lines for me was the last one, “I was there in the room. I remember.”

It has even greater poignancy for me now. Because in April next year, if all goes according to the new plan…

I’ll be there. In the room.

And our lives will change, miraculously and forever.

Zeitgeist

As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy.

Abraham Lincoln

Gender Equality
Gender Equality

When I first went to see The Vagina Monologues in London about 15 years ago, everyone was talking about the play. It had gained massive popularity. But despite the fact that it was being performed to huge audiences in theatres throughout the world, it was still considered pretty out there.

The funny thing (and by “funny” I mean really, really depressing) is that when I told people that I was performing in the play last month I realised that popular perception is still pretty much the same now. I don’t think Eve Ensler would mind if she heard me saying that I wish the play was no longer of interest. I wish the issues she described in the Monologues had been resolved to such an extent that the play had become a bit of a yawn. Gender inequality? I want to hear people say. That’s so last century!

Things have arguably improved for women over the last few decades. One only needs to watch Mad Men to see that we’ve taken huge strides in gender equality in the workplace since the fifties (although I did once work in an office in Suffolk, England, which, as much as I loved it, bore considerable resemblance in many ways to those times!)

It’s very difficult to describe the zeitgeist of a period of time that you’re still living through. There’s so much going on at any one moment in history that all sorts of issues get blurred and shadowed, each by the other. When we look back on this decade in the 2030s or 2040s, we’ll no doubt think about financial crises, Middle Eastern conflict, governments spying on their own people, and global whistle blowers.

But I think we’ll also look back with gratitude on the beginning of the fourth wave of feminism. There’s a brilliant article here which details exactly what that looks like.

It should be pointed out that men need not fear this fourth wave. In fact they should embrace it. I’ve just found a Tumblr site, fantastically named MA’AM, for Men Against Arseholes and Misogyny, that lists Ten Ways Feminism Benefits Men. The whole point is to make things better for everyone.

At the The Vagina Monologues after party in Geneva last month, one of my fellow cast members introduced me to a friend of hers, a lovely young man who was interested in knowing my thoughts (probably as a member of his mother’s generation!) about feminism today. I told him that I think progress had pretty much plateaued during the nineties and noughties, but that I was excited about the massive upsurge in determination to make things better that I see now.

There is a rise in consciousness. And to give the last word to the woman to whose work I’ve dedicated this last month of writing, “When you bring consciousness to anything, things begin to shift.”

Yet

Optimism is a strategy for making a better future. Because unless you believe that the future can be better, you are unlikely to step up and take responsibility for making it so.

Noam Chomsky

Optimism
Optimism

I am, by nature, an optimist. I don’t really have a choice in that – it’s just the way I was put together – but I am grateful to have been born with that outlook. I just can’t imagine how awful it must be to be otherwise, always anticipating the worst possible outcome in any given situation.

But I’ve been thinking lately about “data porn”, as Eve Ensler describes it in The Vagina Monologues:

2 million women raped and tortured
1 out of 3 women
a woman raped every minute
every second
one out of 2
one out of 5
the same
one
one
one

I’ve been thinking about data porn in terms of optimism and pessimism. How can I be an optimist when such statistics are still true?

I’ve come to the conclusion that my optimism lies in the word yet. The pessimist thinks, “We haven’t eradicated violence against women.” The optimist thinks, “We haven’t eradicated violence against women yet.”

“Yet” gives us a reason to rise and strive and insist that things get better, and a reason to work to make it happen. The Suffragettes didn’t think, “Women don’t have the vote.” They thought, “Women don’t have the vote yet.” Saudi Arabian women are not thinking, “Women in this country are not allowed to drive.” They’re thinking, “Women in this country are not allowed to drive yet.”

Let me try it with some more sentences.

We have not yet put a stop to female genital mutilation in the 29 countries where it is practiced.

We have not yet ensured that women’s reproductive rights are enshrined in law in all countries in the world… or even in all states in the USA.

We have not yet empowered women to refuse the devaluation of their bodies.

We have not yet ensured that girls across the world can go to school without having to brave verbal taunts, stone throwing, kidnapping or shooting.

We have not yet stopped blaming rape victims for the trauma they’ve endured, accusing them of dressing inappropriately or drinking too much or simply being out of the protective custody of the home.

We have not yet stopped describing men who celebrate their sexuality as studs or players and women who do the same as sluts.

We have not yet assumed equal responsibility for housework and childcare in homes where both partners work.

We do not yet have equal representation of men and women in governments or positions of corporate leadership.

We do not yet encourage girls to enter the sciences.

We have not yet stopped attacking female public figures because of their physical appearance or dress sense.

We have not yet achieved equal pay for women. (Although if enough people watch this light, funny and inspiring short video all that might change sooner rather than later.)

YET.

Such a tiny word.

Packs such a lot of bang for the buck.

 

XXX

We are all born sexual creatures, thank God, but it’s a pity so many people despise and crush this natural gift.

Marilyn Monroe

Vagina vaudeville
Vagina vaudeville

Roll up, roll up! See twenty women on a stage talking about vaginas! R-r-r-r-roll up, roll up! Get your tickets here!

No, really, it’s not easy to imagine this being said in Victorian England, is it? Or in Geneva in the same period. Such a performance certainly couldn’t have taken place in America, and Australia as we know it barely existed then. The most an expectant theatre audience could hope for in terms of saucy titillation was a briefly exposed stocking top or a cheeky knowing wink, and even that was only in the lower-class establishments. So perhaps I was exaggerating slightly the other day when I said that we hadn’t come very far, and that our attitudes in 2014 are shy and puritanical. And yet…

People who’ve read more than one of my blog posts might have noticed that I like to start off with two things – 1) a quote from someone far wiser and more articulate than me and 2) a photo. Let’s deal with the quote first.

You might be shocked to learn that I don’t have quotes about every subject on the tip of my tongue (you read it here first) so sometimes I have to enlist the assistance of my favourite search engine. This is great when I’m looking for quotes about work or inspiration or life or books or education. But the other day when I wrote a post called Vajazzles and Vajayjays, I was distressed with what I found.

If you type “quotes about vaginas” into Google, it starts off well – the first one you’ll find is a quote from the piece in Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues that I had the honour of performing on stage last month. But it all goes very rapidly downhill from there. Vile, misogynistic “pussy” jokes are pretty much all there is to find.

And about the images… I usually use my own photos for my blog (or, this month, those that my lovely friend Helen took of The Vagina Monologues, Geneva) but very occasionally I don’t have anything that’s relevant and so borrow from the internet. Like today. But man, you can imagine what happened when I typed vajazzle and vajayjay into Google Images… Enough said about that.

Some lovely friends of mine in London have a cartoon stuck to the door in their downstairs loo which always makes me feel simultaneously sad and amused. A man sits with The Sun newspaper open to the very busty, topless page three girl, and next to him sits a woman breastfeeding her baby. The man pulls his small child away from the breastfeeding woman and says, “Don’t look, son. That’s disgusting.”

This seems to me to be a good summary of the current state of play. Women can be reduced to less than a sum of their parts for the purposes of private and public sexual consumption, but if they dare to talk about those parts then they’re considered vulgar. There’s a virtual vagina X-travaganza out there and yet women sometimes struggle to describe symptoms they might have to their doctors because they’re too embarrassed to say the word.

Things are seriously out of kilter.

So just a small question… Erm, can I have my body back please?

Work

Nothing is really work unless you would rather be doing something else.

J.M. Barrie

Subtitling and stuffing my face
Subtitling and stuffing my face

Back in the very old days when I worked in schools and offices, and didn’t have the flexibility of working from home, I thought I’d be hopeless at trying to do a job when surrounded by the comforts and temptations of my own abode. I thought I’d spend all day gazing into the fridge or watching daytime TV or vacuuming under the bed.

But I’m not like that with subtitling. I really enjoy it. As soon as M leaves the apartment at 7am I sit down at my desk and throw myself into it. I enjoy the tick-off-the-list nature of the work – I’m given a programme to subtitle, I download the video, I subtitle the programme, I do a detailed review of my work, I spellcheck, integrity check, save the file and send it to the client. Tick. The job is done and I move onto the next one. It’s quite mechanical but there’s something in that that appeals to me. And I do, of course, appreciate the fact that essentially I’m getting paid to watch TV.

But on Thursday last week, I was distracted. I’d wrapped up one season of The Only Way Is Essex and was moving onto another, and all I could think about was food. I kept getting up from my desk to grab another chocolate Easter egg or make another coffee. Or have a sandwich. Or eat the leftovers from last night’s dinner. Or wish that I’d bought that packet of Zweifel paprika crisps that I’d eyed in the supermarket so that I could now sit here and scoff the lot.

On Friday morning, when I sat at my desk and tried to get back into the awful mind-numbing rhythm of TOWIE, I felt the same way. There was a Lindt bunny with my name on it. But as I got up to grab the doomed rabbit, I spied my camera. The SD card, I knew, was still full of the hundreds of photos that I’d taken during our hiking holiday. So I slotted the card into my computer and 90 minutes later had chosen some of my favourite pictures, uploaded them to my Flickr account, and thrown myself back into TOWIE with a level of energy and enthusiasm that had been absent since we’d got back from our break. The lovely Lindt bunny lived to tempt me another day.

This was such an important reminder for me about what I already know to be true about work – that you have to choose a job that you love doing. Sorry, I know it’s obvious but sometimes I forget the glaringly self-evident and have to beat myself over the head with it. Don’t get me wrong – I love subtitling. It’s harmless and it’s helpful and it appeals to the pedant and the geeky grammarian in me. But as a freelancer I have the gorgeous joy of being able to mix it up a bit. I can do the work that I get paid for and I can intersperse it with some “work” that makes my heart sing. And that prevents me from eating my own bodyweight in chocolate. And I think if I didn’t have this flexibility in my scheduling then I’d have to come home from the nine-to-five and learn to paint or write a novel or knit jumpers or start trying to recreate the Bayern Tapestry. Or something. Anything to remind myself that work is important but fulfilment matters more.

I’d love to have a chance to ask Eve Ensler whether she felt like she was working when she wrote The Vagina Monologues, or when she first performed it as a one-woman show.

I’d be prepared to bet that she didn’t.

Vajazzles and vajayjays

Progress happens when all the factors that make for it are ready, and then it is inevitable. 

Henry Ford

I have never claimed to have my finger on the pulse of popular culture. I probably had my best shot of zoning into the zeitgeist during the years I spent living within walking distance of all my favourite music venues and theatres in central London. But even then I think my tastes were a bit too obscure to really get what was going on. And in the last four years, living sans TV first in Israel and then in hippest Switzerland… Yep, you’re right. Not a bloody chance. If you want to know what’s hip, ask a hipster.

Often I have to rely on the freelance subtitling work I do to haul me kicking and screaming into the modern day. And I have to admit that sometimes, when I’m hauled here, I want to block my ears and screw my eyes up and shout, “La, la, la, la, la!” until someone makes it go away and lets me crawl back to my happy place. Because in that happy place, I’ve never heard of The Only Way Is Essex, and nobody expects me to know how to spell the word vajazzle

Yes, in the last few weeks, when I’ve not been scaling mountains, entertaining lovely friends or writing this blog, I’ve been sitting at my desk working on yet another “reality” TV show that’s given reality a very bad name. I’ve subtitled conversations in which people didn’t know where in London they might find a place called “North London”. I’ve endured about a gazillion monosyllabic exchanges between two sub-humans called Mark and Lauren, who are too moronic to realise that their matching idiocy means they’re obviously made for each other. And to my horror I’ve learned that a vajazzle (and this is a word that even I, in my cultural no-man’s land, have heard floating about in the last number of years) is a Swarovski crystal vaginal decoration. To use a good TOWIE expression… What the actual fuck?

But I have to admit that (shockingly) I have learned something as a result of hearing this word. (I’m afraid that the rest of you, you know, the ones who haven’t been living on planet Gen-Jerusalem for the last four years, will already know this, but for me it’s news so bear with me…)

In the same way that I’d heard the word vajazzle and failed to know its meaning or origins, I’d also been aware of the word vajayjay and failed to know anything about that.

But in being shaken down from my happy Sound of Music hilltop, I’ve learned that vajayjay was first popularised by an episode of Grey’s Anatomy and has since become pretty much mainstream. And I think, weirdly, that I’m kind of comfortable with that (and not just because it apparently has Queen Oprah’s official stamp of approval.)

Eve Ensler, author of The Vagina Monologues, is right when she says that “what we don’t say becomes a secret, and secrets often create shame and fear and myths.” And that’s a powerful argument for calling a vagina a vagina. But the fact is that like it or not (and just for the record, I don’t like it), we are still squeamish and oversensitive about a wonderful thing that’s in the possession of 50% of the world’s population. Vajayjay seems to me to be a fairly acceptable transition word. If we can go from silence to vayjayjay to vagina before, say, 2015, then I’ll be forced to admit that the people at broadcast standards and practices, whose puritanism inadvertently brought the word vajayjay into popular use, have accidently done us all a favour.

But hey, since I’m so far behind the zeitgeist, perhaps I’ve missed the fact that people have already become comfortable with the word vagina… Hooray! Hey, Eve Ensler, apparently your work here is done!

 

 

Travel

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.

Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad/Roughing It

onebillionrising.org
onebillionrising.org

One of the best things about having a vaguely itinerant lifestyle is the fact that you get to meet so many extraordinary people from all over the world. Last night I had dinner with three lovely friends, one of whom was from New Zealand, one from Ireland and the other from the US. Our lovely English friend was up to her neck in work and wasn’t able to join us, but if she’d been there we would have represented five English-speaking nations. And the fact that we were all English-speaking made ours quite an unusual gathering for Geneva, where international organisations attract people from every possible ethnic background.

Last night our Irish friend reminded me of a story that I’d told her once before. In 2001 I’d been living abroad for about ten years and decided that it was time to make up my mind, once and for all, where I wanted to live on a permanent basis. I put my stuff in storage in London and landed on the doorstep of my fantastically obliging little sister in Perth, Western Australia, and stayed with her for an amazing six months.

There are many things that I could write about that time (and I’m sure one day I will) but my point for this piece is that for the six months that I was there, I only met one person who spoke with an accent that wasn’t Australian. I don’t remember this Belgian girl’s name or very much else about her now, but what I do remember is that I absolutely adored her. And all she had to do to earn this adoration was speak with a foreign accent, so starved were my ears of a variety that had become familiar after years of living in London. Of course there were “foreigners” living in Australia, but for some reason they weren’t in my circle of acquaintance during that time, and I missed them.

I was very young when I left Australia and I think it was probably my youth, while I was there, that made me feel disconnected from problems in other parts of the world. The distance was also a factor, of course, but I think it was mostly the fact that I find it much easier to identify with other places when I’ve been on their shores and/or met their people. It’s much more difficult to have an “I’m all right, Jack” attitude when the people of whose suffering you read are people with whom you’ve eaten and talked and travelled.

That’s why it was so important for me to be involved in The Vagina Monologues and by association with One Billion Rising. I had the random good fortune of being born into a society where my very existence wasn’t threatened because I was a woman. But I’ve met people who didn’t have that same chance. I have no more right to life, freedom, self-determination and dignity than they do. There are some rights that should be inalienable.

Perhaps this three-minute video will give you a better understand of what trying to say. Be warned that it’s not for the faint of heart. And be aware that it concerns issues that everyone in the world should know about.

 

Older people

A melancholy lesson of advancing years is the realisation that you can’t make old friends.

Christopher Hitchens, Unacknowledged Legislation: Writers in the Public Sphere

Older People (sometimes played one stage by young ones)
Older People (sometimes played on stage by young ones)

A few years ago one of my colleagues told me about his experience of visiting his mother in an “old people’s home”. Usually, he said, he spent his weekly visits talking just with his mum, and he saw the other residents in the home not as individuals with lives and stories, but more as a collection of geriatrics whose presence in his mother’s home he had no choice but to tolerate.

Then one day his mum was busy with something when he turned up for his visit and he had nothing else to do but talk with some of the people sharing the roof over his mother’s head. And he realised that they were amazing. He heard extraordinary stories about the lives that people had lead, the things they’d achieved and the sacrifices they’d had to make. It was a good reminder for him, he said, to always look behind the possible decrepitude to see the life and the love and the story.

A number of months ago I made a new friend in Geneva. I was sitting at a bus stop outside of the Art Geneve exhibition at Palexpo and the lady sitting next to me took an English novel out of her handbag, so I struck up a conversation with her. By the time we’d reached Cornavin we’d established that she was born in the same year as my mum and I was born in the same year as her daughter. This, to me, is a very special kind of friendship, for reasons that those who know me well will understand (and those who don’t can read about here). The next time we met we went to see a photography exhibition and spent about five hours telling each other about our lives. It was at the end of that rendezvous that I told her that I was going to be in The Vagina Monologues and she said she’d like to come along.

And she did. My lovely 72-year-old friend K was there in the audience for the matinee performance, laughing and crying and whooping it up with the best of them. The hug I got from her after the show was more important to me than perhaps she realises.

One of the monologues that K was most touched by was The Flood, which was based on Eve Ensler’s interviews with a group of women between 65 and 75. One of the women said that she’d never had an orgasm and had cried when she’d seen her clitoris for the first time at the age of 72. Eve Ensler wrote The Flood for her, and our directors cast the wonderful Christina to play her part. They couldn’t have chosen better. Christina’s warmth, charm and humour paid perfect tribute to the woman and the life that she might have had if things had panned out differently for her.

After the matinee performance of the play K asked if I could introduce her to Christina. A brief but beautiful moment passed between a 72-year-old woman and a woman decades younger who had played a 72-year-old woman.

It was a good reminder to all of us to always look behind the possible decrepitude to see the life and the love and the story.