In celebration…of being

I have realised that my writing is for different purposes. The outcome is always the weaving of words and ideas: a combination of long ago memories, joined with present day happenings, produced from one (or more) of my squiggling thoughts late at night. Those squiggling threads must be followed and woven into written words on a page. The squiggles demand to be followed or my sleep is interrupted for many nights, and a tight knot of guilt forms inside my chest as I push those squiggles away, bidding them be silent. I have spent years with that knot of guilt “no time, no time” but no more will I allow that to happen. Sometimes the writing comes because I have a strong emotion which demands release: anger, frustration, sadness at the world. “Better out than in” as my mum says. I now realise how sometimes the writing is because the squiggles just demand to be recorded. There is no outcome, no intention…just a record for future attention. I teach students about the importance of reflective writing when working with others – children, families, colleagues. I realise that I practice what I preach. So forgive this post…it serves as a reflective tool, a record of some happenings, food for future investigation perhaps. This writing is to stop the squiggles and the knot of guilt. Read on if you are curious about my mad squiggling ramblings, otherwise see you another time perhaps.

The squiggles have been rampant over the last few weeks, but often pushed down. I woke this morning having promised my body a Sunday lie-in. Unfortunately, I forgot to tell my brain, and once the birds outside and the light had stirred my eyes to open, the brain started it’s squiggling insistence. I turn over in the bed a few times, trying to sink into the delicious warmth of the duvet. The cat hears me moving and starts her scratching at the door demanding her right to breakfast. She has other plans for me – plans which involve meeting the particular needs of cat. My body hurts. I try not to talk too much of that part of me. The constant pain seems worse when I acknowledge its existence. I have made a conscious effort to rise above it of late – that way lies madness… and more surgery. However today the pain cannot be ignored. I have abused my pacing habits. I have learned a way to navigate life and the pain. I have a smorgasbord of what I need to do during any week, and make a choice about what to graze on. There are some foods from the menu that must been eaten, but others which are choices. This last few weeks the things that I have had to do for work have been many, and this week the choices of things I wanted to do for pleasure have also been many. No chance of pacing.

I realised a few years ago that I had become an Adrenalin junkie. I don’t mean jumping out of planes, rollercoasters, or bungee-jumping Adrenalin. That ain’t me – lol! I mean the heart-pumping thrill of a job-well done. Of rushing from one project to the next and proving that you are good at what you do. After all (and I had my personal theory confirmed yesterday by others like me) as a black person in a white world you feel you need to prove your worth, and be better than others expect of you. Prove your worth black girl, we have given you an opportunity. I worked long hours, days and nights to be the best I could be. Work and study. What kept me going was my friend Adrenalin, surging around my body to fuel my frenzied activity. However, the come-down comes at a price. Stop that pumping and fuelling and the body protests. I have noticed that it happens to many people I have known in fast-paced jobs where you have to give, give, give. The long awaited holiday comes. You relax. Friend Adrenalin takes a break too, and…bang…you fall ill with the latest bug that is doing the rounds, or your body, in some creative way, makes up its own foul disease. For me will come THE pain. Joints and muscles from top to toe complain with a dull ache, punctuated with stabbing pain, and weakness. Feet and hands are the full stop – at the periphery of my body they seem to be the dam that captures the full force of the hurt. Eye sockets sore; the pain acute as you look around. Throat and weirdly even gums become sore. Head pounds – avoid any quick movement or you pay with pain and swarmmy feelings of nausea. That is the downside of Adrenalin overload…and I knew when I had selected from my smorgasbord this week that this would be my Sunday. I hadn’t quite banked on an emotional week at work, with my faith in human nature being eroded…again. This had added to the Adrenalin load. But hey that is another story and a bitter one, best left inside my head. The cat scratching at the door becomes frenzied, she has decided to add pitiful mewls as punctuation. She is an old cat who manages to pull on the heart strings by drawing on her long lost kitten voice, with insistence that she has not been fed for a very long time, and will starve very soon unless saved. With effort I pull myself out of my warm comfort, to answer my cat and the squiggles.

I start to write this having experienced two days of celebration. Two days of celebration whilst at the same time sitting on that all too familiar rollercoaster ride of emotion, that is life. During the day on Friday I sat and listened to wonderful colleagues talk of research ideas related to early childhood. My passion, my home, my comfort-zone. And yet as I listened I felt a niggling feeling in my tummy as I cast my eyes around for people like me. By that I mean brown people.

After I registered and picked up my name badge, I searched for coffee. Last in the queue as often happens as I hate the scramble, I picked up each jug testing the weight to see if it held any of the the magic elixir to keep my exhausted body going, which additionally helps pump the Adrenalin. It has been a month of crack-of-dawn-early-morning-to-late-at-night-marking-hell that befalls most university lecturers at this time of year. There is the constant dilemma of having tight deadlines, yet wanting to hold onto the quality of feedback that enables students to understand and move forwards in their study. Wanting to do justice to the effort most students make in producing their assessment, and being respectful of this weighs heavy with the knowledge that this takes time. Time that you do not have and is unacknowledged within the workload. *sighs*. Usually my only friends are chocolate, biscuits, crisps or nuts during this time…the alternating taste of salt then sugar helps me ‘do justice’ as I read the words of students, and to keep going even though I have read 10s of thousands of words over the days. With some writing you can sense students have been on a similar food-frenzy as they crafted their work. With some you feel the sweet-taste of recognised success in their words as they understand a concept, with others sadly a sense of salty tears. Sorry…I digress. This year doctor’s instructions meant I was forced to avoid the sugar and salt, so instead I have eaten my body-weight in strawberries…washed down with the guilty pleasure of caffeine to keep my mind (and Adrenalin) buzzing.

As I searched through the empty pots of coffee I sensed someone next to me, and turned to see a smiling face. Wow. Another brown face. Like me. We introduced each other and began to talk that conference small talk; where have you come from, what do you do, before all pretence was abandoned as we climbed into the lift on our way to the keynote, and we revealed our relief that here, in this white place, was another brown face. We continued to bump into each other throughout the day. Nervous laughs at our shared understanding, a secret smile.

I left that celebration of academia – a mostly white and privileged space – and home to prepare myself for a different celebration. I recognise with discomfort my own privilege and associated ability to navigate that space. I am pleased I recognise that I have privilege and that this discomfort must be endured and acted upon. The privileged must see their privilege and notice those who do not experience the same I think. So sad, that more people won’t acknowledge this for fear of that discomfort.

In my previous blog I explained my feelings of imposter as I prepared my reading for the launch of the “Hidden Sussex” Anthology. The date for delivering that reading had arrived. I drove to pick up family members – their excitement and anticipation matched my own. It was a surreal night for me. Two worlds collided – my comfortable world of white friends and wonderful family where I am blessed by being loved, joined with the new world I have entered where I raise my little voice about being ‘other’, and meet others like me who experience the same disquiet. I stood to read my piece, I was too long in the reading, but it was a story which for me begged to be told, to explain the source of my feelings of imposter. These feelings had come from years of people ‘picking at the seams’, and much effort from me to ‘weave together the threads’ of my identity. I looked at my wonderful family in the front row their bodies and faces transmitting their love, my own eyes matching the tear-glistening eyes of my darling daughter. My connection to them was strong, but in my minds-eye I imagined a connecting thread, to each body in that room as I wove my story, asking them to listen to the stories of others in society to better understand their worlds. I listened to the stories of my companions too, all different but so similar. Stories of place, of discovery, of identities. The questions from the audience that followed our reading and conversations afterwards picked at my sense of self, but one in particular, “Why do you describe yourself as a Black woman?” It picked at me because in describing myself in that way – the way that I was ascribed by those I have met but who don’t know my mixed heritage, and by society who ask I tick a box – I worried that I was denying the white part. What had my lovely dad thought all those years ago? What would he think now at my description of self? It was late in the darkness as I mulled over the day, that realisation dawned. One of the audience had declared that I had a lovely soft Sussex lilt in my voice and it had filled me with a warm glow. I smiled inside in the dark, “Ah dad, there you are. I see you!

The alarm clock trilled it’s alarm far too early the next morning. A different conference, this one on my home campus, to bring together BAME educators and those interested in that topic. The gnawing in my tummy was different this time. I was entering the unknown alone. I arrived with others that looked like me. Different colours, different hair textures, a different space. I walked in and immediately felt comfortable but also like a spectator. I was not used to being in the majority. My life finds me surrounded mostly by white people. All of my friends and most of my colleagues are white. As I sat drinking a coffee before the programme of the day began, I reflected on my feelings. I realised, as I said in my reading the night before, that I often feel “neither fish nor fowl”, neither truly black nor white. However, it struck me then that it really didn’t matter in this space. My story here mattered as did everyone’s in that place, and I was surrounded by people who wanted to listen. I took my seat at the back of the lecture theatre. Someone slid into the seat next to me, “Hi. This feels a bit different today doesn’t it?” The lady from the Friday conference, with whom I’d experienced a shared understanding was beaming at me. I laughed, “Yes, from the moment I walked in!

The day began and I cast my eye over the audience. I looked at the very few white faces, some I knew. I found myself thinking, “Poor them. How brave. It must be hard to feel different” and suddenly smiled to myself. Perhaps this was an important lesson, roles reversed. If only there were more people experiencing that lesson that day perhaps they would begin to understand. I had the joy and pain of listening to different stories during the day. Important work being done to try and change the script, to be seen and heard with equal opportunities in our society. I came away emotionally and physically drained, but knowing that we all have so much to do to ensure the voices of others are heard and crucially that I must play my part. We cannot stand aside and watch, we must be involved in order to bring about change.

Today I spent the day with my wonderful grandchildren. A joyful time in the week. We walked up the road to their car to wave our goodbyes as we do every week. The cat followed behind, as she does every week, with her relief declared in the exclamation mark of her upright tail. She likes to see them off the premises, knowing that soon she can sleep on a lap undisturbed. The youngest grandchild, nearly three years old, walked in front of us with his dad. One foot on the road, the other on the pavement, walking a lopsided walk, as he chattered non-stop to his dad. I smiled, remembering doing the same. Strangely, that same memory had popped into my head in the night as I had explored my squiggling thoughts. I had thought of it when mulling over the three very different experiences of the previous days. My love of metaphors again. It had made me think of how I straddled different worlds, black and white. In the night I had seen that as difficult, and a cumbersome way of navigating my journey through life. However, here in the bright light of day, and seeing the joy of my grandson, I realised that it’s a good place to be when you realise you have choice and control. You can choose the road or the pavement, or you can enjoy the lopsided bumpy feel of a foot in each. And occasionally, as he suddenly did, you can just stop, look up at the sky, and laugh with the joy of just being.

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