A Tale of Two Cats

We got our new cat Barney on the day the lockdown started in the UK on the 23rd of March. In the five and a half weeks since (has it really only been that long – it feels like at least two months!), we have just about managed to get them accustomed to each other (or should that be resigned?), but I’m not sure they will ever be friends. Part of that is their age of course (Zoe is eight and has been our only cat for six years, while Barney is fifteen), part of it their personalities, but I can’t help thinking that their very different life experience may have also had an effect.

Hear me out and indulge my fancy.

Zoe was born somewhere on the Franco-Swiss border and left by the side of the road in a bin bag with her other siblings. She has an aversion to bin bags to this day and suckles up to me constantly, a sign she was probably taken too soon from her mother. She was found by a homeless man and became his companion for a couple of years, until he found a place in a shelter or housing project and she ended up in a refuge. This means she learnt to bond with one person – and one person only. She gradually became Mummy’s girl, even though it took her nearly a year and a broken marriage to finally come on my lap, but she was initially not very accepting of anyone else. She has now included the boys in her ‘loved people bubble’ but is still frightened of other humans. As for other cats – forget it! She is deeply, deeply suspicious of them – perhaps a sign that she was bullied on the streets. Since we moved back to the UK, she has refused to befriend any of the cats in our close, despite some friendly advances on their part initially.

Look how safe Barney feels when he is fast asleep…

For Barney we have a precise date of birth. He was adopted (possibly together with a sibling) as a kitten and has been cherished and looked after all his life. He lived with another cat in the house, so he is predisposed to make friends with the other cats in the close. He is calm, laid back, friendly with everyone but not too clingy. He had a momentary glitch in his good fortune when his owner went into a care home and he was left to fend for himself. But after a few weeks in a foster home, he found himself yet more willing slaves – three of them now, instead of just one. And he has never attacked Zoe or even hissed at her, only occasionally creeping under the sofa when he thinks she might be on the rampage.

Zoe sleeps coiled up like a spring, and is often on the alert.

On the face of it, Barney is easier to love and get along with, but how much of that is thanks to his privileged background? How many of Zoe’s instances of aloofness and acts of aggression are really about a traumatised little girl not quite daring to believe her current good fortune is permanent (even though it’s been three quarters of her life by now)? I don’t know if the homeless man mistreated her, but she certainly backs down very quickly and guiltily if you raise your voice even just a little. She has never damaged anything in the house or climbed where she wasn’t supposed to go. Meanwhile, easygoing Barney nonchalantly pees in other people’s litter trays or jumps up on the kitchen counter and try to gnaw his way into the breadbasket.

Claudia Rankine’s defence of Serena Williams in her wonderful ‘poetry’ volume Citizen opened my eyes to the cumulative effects of countless micro-aggressions. All these might lead to a chip on the shoulder, to a belligerent personality that some people consider strident, to a question in parliament or a business meeting that may be waved away with a smile and a ‘Calm down, dear’. Meanwhile, charming and venerable older gentleman Barney has wrapped us all around his white paws, and wreaks havoc.

Well, I hope not, I hope this is where the extended analogy ends. But, now and always, I am the side of those who lack privileges and the easy life. This is not a conflict, but if it were, I am Team Zoe.

 

Not a New Situation

For all those who have been paying attention to the debate about increasing diversity in publishing or Lionel Shriver’s fears that opening up to diverse content might also dilute that content somehow (and she is not the only one who feels the citadelle is under attack), for all those who were surprised by the fact that in 2018 people are still calling for the decolonisation of the curriculum… this is not a new thing by any means. This has been going on since the 1960s at the very least. Why hasn’t it progressed more? Susan Jacoby’s The Age of American Unreason has some suggestions.

Shunting ethnic and women’s studies into a minority ghetto was the easiest thing to do. The creation of intellectual ghettos expanded the number of faculty jobs and left the still overwhelmingly white male faculties free to teach history or American literature or sociology as they had always taught it – from a white male viewpoint. One of the dirty little secrets of many white liberal on college campuses for the past thirty years has been that they share Bloom’s contempt for multiculturalism but do not openly voice their disdain. Saul Bellow’s famous remark: ‘Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus? The Proust of the Papuans?’ resonates throughout academia today. In the early nineties, there was grumbling in academia when Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved began to make its way into college English syllabuses with what was considered unseemly speed.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose…

Jacoby’s book is full of well-evidenced critical insights which apply not only to Americans, and which should make us question our own flawed ways of thinking.

Many Americans simply do not understand the distinction between the definitions of theory in everyday life and in science. For scientists, a theory is a set of principles designed to explain natural phenomena, supported by observation, and subject to proofs and peer review… IN its everyday meaning, however, a theory is nothing more than a guess based on limited information or misinformation – and that is exactly how many Americans view a scientific theory such as Einstein’s theory of relativity or Darwin’s theory of evolution.

Jacoby starts her book in a humorous manner, commenting on the rise of ‘folks’ in public discourse. A few decades ago, the general American public was being addressed as ‘the people’ or ‘ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls. But now it’s all about ‘folks’ to denote both exclusion (us folks vs. them terrorists for example) and inclusion (‘I’m down with the lads’ stance of politicians). She clearly attributes this to a dumbing down of culture and explores the multiple reasons behind this.

There are many interesting ideas in this book which explain some of those American traits which irritate foreign observers. The tendency towards fundamentalism and anti-rational discourse, partly as a result of no national curriculum and certain states setting their own ideological agenda in schools. She talks about the harsh life on the frontier which made people throughout American history prefer the harsher religions with more simplistic messages of struggle, sin and repentance (but then, why didn’t Australia develop in this way too?). She quotes from Bill Moyers, who is constantly under attack for his pro-science and pro-rationalist programmes on TV: ‘Theology asserts propositions that cannot be proven true; ideologues hold stoutly to a worldview despite being contradicted by what is generally accepted as reality. The offspring of ideology and theology are not always bad, but they are always blind. And that is the danger: voters and politicians alike, oblivious to the facts.’

In the land of politicized anti-rationalism, facts are whatever folks choose to believe.

It is a dense and somewhat depressing book to read – you’ll need to allow plenty of time for it. But let me end on this beautiful 1791 speech by Condorcet (French mathematician, liberal intellectual and revolutionary, who ended badly in the Jacobin bloodbath) about the purpose of public education for the individual, the community and contributing to the public good:

To afford all members of the human race the means of providing for their needs, of securing their welfare, of recognising and fulfilling their duties; to assure for everyone opportunities of perfecting their skill and rendering themselves capable of the social duties to which they have a right to be called; to develop to the utmost the talents with which nature has endowed them and, in so doing, to establish among all citizens a true equality and thus make real the political equality realised by law…

Why is it still so difficult to accept that and work towards it, nearly 230 years later?

 

Privilege Looks Like This…

Over the years I’ve had many conversations with friends from all over the world about white privilege (and yes, seen it all too clearly in my own life). In the past two years I’ve also seen evidence of what I would call ‘British privilege’ (it is not exclusively British of course – and, indeed, spread unevenly through the British Isles – so perhaps it would be more accurate to call them Anglo-Saxon Attitudes, to quote Lewis Carroll and Angus Wilson). Here are some examples, with no further comment, just to get things off my chest. For more excellent examples of these kind of liberal blindspots and microaggressions, see Americanah.

What is your evidence for saying that the general discourse against foreigners has worsened in the last two years? Do you really think that people are less tolerant now? I haven’t seen any examples of that. If you don’t like it here, why don’t you go somewhere else?

Do you really get that question ‘Where are you from?’ I have to say, I’ve never had anyone ask me that. (From a blonde woman with an English-sounding name). You must be exaggerating. Anyway, there is nothing inherently bad about that question. It just shows genuine curiosity, people want to find out more about you.

The UK has always been interracial and tolerant of all the different ethnic groups throughout our history. The only reason we have now started turning against our Commonwealth brothers is because we are trying to make up for the immigration we cannot control, the one from the EU. We have to allow all those people in, so instead we are putting all sorts of barriers up for those whose immigration we can control, like the poor people from the Commonwealth. That was never the case before.

There are so many empty houses in Spain – why do you think no one from the UK is going there under this freedom of movement? I’ll tell you why: because the UK is far too generous with its benefits, so it’s more likely that the Spanish are coming over here.

I am vegetarian, I am careful about recycling, I no longer use plastic straws, I care deeply about dolphins and sharks and other animals. I travel all over the world and love finding out about other countries and cultures. I am very much against racism. But… We’ve had to accept far too many people from the EU who are not qualified and our infrastructure simply cannot put up with it. I mean, just look at what has happened in Germany with all those refugees they have let in.

Where are you from? OK, but I meant, with a name like that, where are you originally from? Or where are your parents from? That is so interesting! Do you ever go back there? Do you still have family there?

What would we do without immigrants? I mean, our whole NHS would collapse without all the doctors and nurses from abroad. They certainly need to continue to allow valuable people like that into the country. It’s just those others doing unskilled labour and driving down wages who are a problem.

I don’t understand why people want to come to this miserable, rainy island with all the potholes and crowded trains and all that. I would love to live in the sun and on the beaches of many of those countries.

On a lighter note, here is the answer when I ask people in the UK what they think those coming to visit or stay in their country find most difficult to adapt to:

The weather? Queuing? What do you mean – unmixed taps? I’ve never had a problem with that!

 

Source: Zamzamacademy

Fragments of poetry caught gauze-like at night

Vulnerability sits beside a heart of stone, chided for being late.

Freeze-burn experiments roil in extravagant chalice where poisons hang sweet.

And I suckle oh daily those words because

they declare themselves worthy

poetic

and more,

designed to plug the gaps in our stature

and teeth.

You can always tell wealth by the teeth they choose to display.

On Depression, Privilege and Staying Strong

I finally worked up my courage to write this post after reading Matt Haig’s outstanding book ‘Reasons to Stay Alive’ and David Mark’s article a few days ago about access to mental health services in the UK.

Image from socialworktutor.com
Image from socialworktutor.com

‘Well, the blood tests seem fine. It’s just age – you’re not getting any younger, you know.’

And my French family doctor smiles ruefully, as if to apologise for being so ridiculously young and glamorous in the face of my galloping infirmity. I had been complaining of weight gain, migraines, insomnia, lack of energy, occasional palpitations. She suspects menopause or a shade of hypochondria.

I cannot complain that she is not helpful. After all, I am not entirely honest with her as a patient. I am reluctant to share my whole story, and not just because I fear breaking down in tears and using up all of the tissues from the box she has so thoughtfully placed on her desk. I also fear being labelled, once and for all, as mentally deficient or unstable or somehow missing that even keel that most people seem to be able to find. If most people can balance on choppy waters and tack against strong winds, why can’t I?

My mother tells me off each time we speak on the phone: ‘You’re just too bloody sensitive. It’s all in your head. Stop dwelling on things.’ This comes amidst many other helpful suggestions on how to fight obesity, be a better parent, earn more money and be more docile, loving wife. Unsurprisingly, our telephone conversations often end in shouting matches, so are becoming less and less frequent. But I fear she may be right (about the sensitivity bit) and I chide myself for being so weak, so helpless.

The other thing I fear is being given pills to dull my senses and make me gain even more weight. Pills speak of lifelong dependency rather than a temporary measure: it’s about acknowledging a long-term condition rather than a momentary blip in the system. Visions of 1984 hover in the sidelines. Fears of being sanitised and lobotomised swim towards me like shark fins. How will I be able to keep up with my children’s sprightly chatter and constant requests if I am dull as a cow laid out in pastures with grass too high for her to comprehend?

When I was younger, the periods of grim depression beset me mainly in winter, and were offset by manic bursts of activity for the rest of the year. As I get older, those moments of frenetic energy have become too strenuous and it’s greyness evermore. Everything is slowed down to the point of unbearable. I cannot think of more than one thing at a time and I’m forever forgetting what I was supposed to be searching for, where I left my papers, whether I’ve paid a bill or not. I leave everything for later because it is too difficult to do immediately or today or tomorrow or … soon. I get caught out without winter tyres when the snow begins to fall, so my car lurches and sloshes from kerb to ditch.

A sunny day makes me want to crawl under the duvet. You don’t even want to know or imagine what a rainy day makes me feel like. Above all, I want to dig my nails into my flesh, to escape this inner pain which seems to find no release, day after day after day.

When the self-pity has had its play with me, guilt and sneering take their turn. Middle-class ‘woman of leisure’ problems! The world is burning and this here woman can think of naught else but combing her hair! There are hundreds of people starving or dying or losing their homes all over the world at this very moment, while I’m boo-hooing about getting old, failing to live out my childish dreams of being a writer and an academic, being stuck to a faithless husband who doesn’t understand me – the oldest cliché in the book -, children grunting their way towards their teens, a family life which seems as alien to me as if I’d been parachuted somewhere in Papua New Guinea. Only the cargo cults don’t worship me – they despise and can’t wait for my ship to sail away.

My shepherd ancestors – tough cookies one and all – would despise my whingeing. They witnessed the rise and fall of empires, tyrants, wars, forced collectivisation, betrayals in the name of the fatherland or the Communist ideal or simply greed for one’s neighbour’s land or herd. ‘Life is hard, yes, but grit your teeth and carry on! Don’t expect anyone to help, love or understand you. Go up the mountains, all by yourself, find some peace and a mountain stream.’

But I’ve always been a weak urban sapling. The mountains I climbed, the streams that I found, I wanted to rejoice in them with others. I needed to believe that someone cared, that I could be my anxious, failing self and still be respected and loveable. Now I know that all love is conditional. And compassion is not an endlessly renewable source of water. Sharing is a weakness and each one of us is alone – that is the only thing we can count on in life.

‘My therapy is writing and reading,’ I used to say in my twenties with a faraway look in my eyes, hoping I resembled Emily Dickinson rather than Sylvia Plath, Jane Austen rather than Virginia Woolf. But, in truth, it has become more reading than writing now. How can I give voice to my grief and doubts without becoming annoyed with my privileged, spoilt self? How can I deal with the confetti of time left after anxieties, night sweats, endless To Do lists, yet another last-minute catch-up for work, yet another change of plan regarding parents’ evening? What words (other than swear words) will come when I tremble with fury after yet another point-scoring conversation drowning in logical circles? I cannot trust my own thoughts, my own words. I have to feed on the words (and pain and grapplings) of others. It gives me perspective, it makes me feel less alone.

Meanwhile, other than my compulsive reading, all I can do is flounder and flail. Now I understand my childhood nightmare of drowning. It was in fact not water but ash and sand in my mouth. The struggle to appear normal and smiley. The need to carry on.

 

Multiple Choices

For Open Link Night over at dVerse Poets Pub, I was inspired by this wonderful poem about Persephone by A. E. Stallings, written as a multiple choice quiz. Political indignation is all my own.

She pitches forward

  • in darkness
  • under cover
  • haunting waking hours
  • with mocking laughter

He wonders quietly

  • at her tangled shyness
  • how such a vamp could
  • where to shut her in
  • why she’s so cold

Their children hesitate

  • on brink of teendom
  • always picking the other side
  • which game to play next
  • to pick up weird vibes

We are so convinced

  • we have motley choices
  • our minds are our own
  • there is a right answer
  • we’ve the right to stun
www.thewhitepalace.com
http://www.thewhitepalace.com

Entitled in title and privileged, created in our image,

we sit back and enjoy

picking over the poor choices of others.