Constantly Hurting Me Love

Constantly hurting me love
the name of this post truth
that is going to make us
great again, good again
true again
Loves, lives
not what matters when power
the winner in the domination game
is the same
from way back when
nooses kept matters tight
in check

Constantly hating me love
the familiar that I keep
at the far end of my bed
lest it steal inside my dreams to intoxicate, colonise,
or murder them

Constantly burning me love
is in church for exorcism
and leaves with the weight of forgiveness
in its shoes
pace slowed, smile galvanised
Constantly breathing you love
resorts to arms

Constantly Hurting Me Love

An Invisible Veil

Because the cunning of black and the innocence of white
is an invisible veil for your eyes
A filter of fragmentation
distillation, crystallisation
This, that, those, these, them, us
clear as pus

Because we know where to go for good advice
bad drugs
sporting prowess
mathematical genius
and rational thought

Because we know who holds the guns and the keys to the bank
and who will clean up after us
and who will build the road
and draw the map

Because the map has been drawn
because we have the key and all the legends
that we will ever need
to win the race
which is, after all, not for the swift
but for the blind

An Invisible Veil

Disappointment Isn’t Killing Me

Today I am trying not to be disappointed and failing. Apparently there are no short cuts here – much as I try to invent them – and disappointment weaves its way through my body and soul to its own tempo. I want it to be quick and it refuses, instead meandering and backtracking and stopping to admire the view. Past experience tells me that eventually it will settle itself in a disappointment shaped nook somewhere (a knot in my neck perhaps, or a cosy turn in my lower intestine?) and go into hibernation. In the meantime I have to live with disturbance to my soul.

Yesterday my father-in-law told me he was pulling out of our family trip to Jamaica just after I’d heard that my son hadn’t been selected for a job that he very much wanted. I’m not a complete wimp – I did remind myself that these weren’t matters of life and death but my ‘pull-yourself-together’ self-talk did nothing to assuage the real grief that paralysed me in the moment. An overreaction? Perhaps, but it was a reaction which led me to ask why some important questions. Why am I’m so disappointment-phobic and what’s the story of disappointment I’m telling that’s getting me so twisted?

When I was a baby my mother left me. She had her reasons. I should be over it by now, not least because it happened nearly fifty years ago but also because since that momentous event I’ve survived, and even thrived. Nonetheless it remains the event that marks the birth of disappointment in my life. I imagine that at first, in my undifferentiated baby mind/body/soul, I thought she would come back and that it took a little while to realise that she wasn’t coming back, but that I still hoped that she would. You can’t knock hope can you? Hope is a wonderful thing – a lifesaver in fact. Hope is what you’re stuffed with before disappointment comes and knocks it out of you. Disappointment is hope’s assassin. When I think of disappointment in my stories it’s the multi-headed monster rising up just as the protagonist finds his way home, to gouge out his eyes; It’s the troll under the bridge stopping the Billy Goats Gruff from reaching their grassy green promised land; It’s the wicked stepmother who’s going to make damn sure that Cinderella’s dress doesn’t bang and that her prince never comes. Not exactly the life and soul of the party then.

In many ways, trying to sidestep disappointment is like trying to cheat death – worse even because if death is a frame capturing the beauty of life, fear of disappointment is the bleach draining its colour and eating holes in the canvas. So when I try to write disappointment out of my story I unwittingly write out what makes the story worth telling in the first place – the excitement and anticipation, daring and risk, without which there can be no happy ever after. So disappointment it seems, has a point after all

Today my disappointment is a revelation to me. My refusal to embrace it makes no sense. Why pretend not to want or care about something because I fear it won’t come? Who am I kidding? When, instead of fighting and refusing and trying to ban disappointment, I stop and allow it to be, it opens to reveal precious cargo – passion and desire. I’m disappointed that my father-in-law won’t be in Jamaica with us, yes, but isn’t this just evidence of how much I wanted him to be? Proof of my desire to be in his company and experience the land of his birth through his eyes. The disappointment that my son didn’t get his job is similarly, a reminder of how much I want him, and each of my children, to experience good things and to prosper. Disappointment isn’t a bullet I should be dodging but an opportunity to be intimately alive and feel what moves me. What I do with disappointment is my choice. I can choose to put it on lock down, in which case I get grumpy and tired and develop niggling aches in the disappointment shaped turn in my gut. Or I choose to allow it. When I do, I’m aware of it dropping through me like a pinball in a machine, nudging me where I’m sore and waking me where I’m sleeping.

This monster named disappointment and I, take a breath together. He’s a fierce and fascinating storyteller and I realise my efforts to tame him are futile. It’s hard work trying to send him out and keeping him in is a bellyache (literally). There’s nothing to be gained from hoarding disappointment. There are no prizes out there for the person with the most extensive collection of disappointment, and historical disappointments are no more valuable than those born yesterday. Maybe you knew this already but it’s taken me a while to see disappointment as a visitor that I can meet with more grace, if not quite greet. I imagine it’s a skill that I’ll find enough use for seeing that disappointment is not the kind of treasure that’s in short supply and no doubt, sooner than I would have wished, more will be along.

Disappointment Isn’t Killing Me

The Stain

They don’t go to the church with the steeple and the organ chamber any more. At the Free Church there are no stained glass disciples, fonts or baptisteries and no robed choirboys for her to envy. The hall of the Free Church is shaped like a shoebox and open to interpretation. When it’s empty, if not for the thin cross, mounted on the wall at the front, it might not be a place of worship at all. Here, the spirit of praise and prayer is invoked, not by architecture but with slideshows of good works in faraway places and hill songs accompanied by guitars. Gone then is the oaken grandeur of All Saints, where she could tune out soporific sermons, dream and be safely invisible. Now she sits alert waiting to be pounced upon.

Here, in the Free Church, they call her by her name. To them, she is not invisible. Here they don’t feel the need to ignore brown people – on the contrary they single them out for special attention. They ply her with soft drinks and bible tracts, and offer to take her to camp. They cast her in the church plays. They have given her the part of Mary Magdalene, because she speaks so well and this is a special honour because today they will perform in front of a visiting preacher. He’s visiting from America, which up to this point in her life is somewhere that only exists on TV. It’s a big occasion.

Mrs Turpin rushes them through breakfast ‘to get there on time and get seats at the front’. In the rush runny egg yolk spills on her white T-shirt. The T-shirt has a thick neckband and a hole cut out over her throat and until this moment it has been her favourite T-shirt. Now dead centre between the faint mounds of her budding breasts, it has an egg-yellow stain. Mrs Turpin rushes her to the car, chiding as she goes
“Stop fussing. It’ll dry out. Who’s going to notice?”

“Me” is what she doesn’t say but she does notice it, all through the opening hymns and the prayers and for each long minute that she waits to be called up to perform. She practices hiding the stain behind her hands and then with one arm slung casually across her chest. The poses aren’t casual but awkward, backache inducing failures. The stain refuses to be cowed and thrives, swelling and deepening before her eyes. By the time the start of the children’s contribution is announced to the assembled church it is not a dribble of yolk, but the sign of the beast that she can feel splashed in sunset yellow across her chest.

She takes the stage, along with her fellow Sunday schoolers to enthusiastic applause. The part has been easy to learn. Mary Magdalene is despised, shunned by all and then accepted and saved by Jesus. She’s unclear on the reasons for the shunning except that Mary, like all of them was a sinner. The Sunday school teachers have been uncharacteristically vague in their telling of Mary’s story and silent on the specifics of her sins, apparently so dark and dirty that they are unspeakable.

Bradley Reedham opens with his only line, thrusting his arm out in from of her
“Move away woman! A great healer approaches!”
She takes a practiced step back and recites word perfect lines,

“What grace! What light! My eyes have never beheld such a man”

The other children, posing as the crowd, move ahead. They push her back until she is almost out of sight before parting again, as Lenny Bell, who is playing Jesus, spots her and beckons her to approach. The precise choreography is the result of weeks of practice and it takes her by surprise, as she moves through the human corridor of her peers when an unscripted awkwardness pushes out from inside. It clings to her, gathering weight with each step and she feels herself sweating in a T-shirt that’s suddenly too tight and too imperfectly white. As she hits the front of the stage and comes face to face with Jesus, instead of the scripted kneeling she falters, caught in the glare of the gaze from the front row. Jesus speaks, waits and is then forced to repeat himself

“Woman, what is your name?”

Dragging her gaze away from the audience and down to the varnished pine of the stage she manages to recover enough to speak

“Mary” she says “of Magdalene”

The scene continues, Mary and Jesus centre stage, he reaching out a hand to touch her and her pulling away in shame

“I am not clean Lord,” she says, her voice shaking

A flicker of a frown appears on Jesus’ face

“What ails you?” he says
“Sickness my Lord” she replies, her voice dipping again.

With each line the source of her own voice seems to ebb further away

“What kind of sickness?” demands Jesus, raising the volume of his own voice to compensate for the quietness of hers,
“The sickness of sinners Lord” she mumbles, “with devils hounding me day and night”

Her final words, the ones that she was told to ‘bounce off of the furthest walls of the church’, are less than a whisper

“Praise his holy name, I am free”

There’s a moment of confusion in which no one is sure that Mary has actually spoken and Jesus has to decide whether or not to continue with his lines.

“Weep no more,” he says, eventually.

As Jesus turns his back to the audience to cast out Mary’s demons with seven arcs of his right arm, he shoots dirty looks in her direction. She is engulfed in a wave of embarrassment and relief as the play ends and the children are drowned in applause.

Back in her seat she’s still burning with shame when the guest preacher rocks up to draw all the attention. A toothy wide mouthed man with a precision haircut he has a solid frame packaged in a crisp beige suit and garnished with a bow tie. He sweeps down the aisle that has been formed between the rows of chairs and bounces up to the lectern with a charge that seems to emanate directly from his high polished winkle pickers. Everything about him says pay attention. He holds a sturdy finger up between him and the hushed congregation,

“Already ye are clean,” he says, “because of the word which I have spoken unto you”

She feels the vibration of his voice deep in her chest.

The preacher continues, conducting his voice like a full orchestra as he weaves a symphony in and out of the gospel and through people’s everyday lives. He takes the congregation with him as he navigates the movements. When he drops to a whisper they lean in to hear and when he raises the volume, shoulders pulls back to attention. A hundred eyes follow the dance of his arms as they point down to hell, up to heaven and then out at them, personalising the message to each and every person present. As he reaches the climax, his hand strikes the lectern, evoking drums and the crash of cymbals
“Are you ready?” he asks, “Ready to be cleansed?”

Several members of the congregation say ‘yes’ but he acts as though he hasn’t heard and cranks up the volume again

“Are you ready to let HIM into your life?” the sturdy finger, crooked now, raps on an invisible door, “Ready to accept Jesus Christ as your personal saviour?”

This time several members of the congregation rise to their feet and the assent is more substantial, bolstered with applause and isolated break outs of joyful whooping, or perhaps weeping – it’s hard for her to tell without turning around. The commotion persists, even as the preacher himself, pursued by handshakes and back pats, returns to his seat. The person with the job of reading the notices has to linger at the front for what feels like forever before it’s quiet enough for him to be heard. Fortunately today’s notices are short. The brownie guides will be holding a jumble sale next Saturday afternoon to raise money for African children. Any person who would like to enter into a personal relationship with Jesus please join with others to receive the preacher’s blessings in the side room. Refreshments will be served from the kitchen at the back of the church. She sits for a few crucial minutes, torn between good deeds, orange squash and salvation.

The room at the side of the church is dim and smells of polish. She is the last one to arrive and eases herself inside with her back to the wall so as not to disturb the circle of people, already deep in silent prayer, eyes closed, hands outstretched. Slipping into a gap and aping their stance, she wonders what it is that they are praying for. Since she can’t ask she makes her own prayers. She prays for African children to have food and for there to be no more earthquakes and for the Holy Spirit to come down and speak to her. There are things she needs explained. Why doesn’t Mrs Turpin like her? Why can’t her t-shirt stay white? Why can’t her skin? What is this stain that clings to her wherever she goes? How will she know when like Mary, she has been forgiven? When will Jesus wash her clean? What kind of sinner is she?

Mrs Turpin is pacing the stretch of pavement next to the car, arms folded, bull bars across her stomach

“Where the hell have you been?”
“I’ve been looking all over for you! You must have been somewhere!”

She shakes her head and shrugs, picks at her t-shirt. Her mouth is parched, empty of words.

“I’ve been worried sick,” says Mrs Turpin, “Worried sick!”

Neither of them says any more as they get in the car and drive home. In the back seat she keeps her face to the window, watching but not seeing familiar streets, praying that the Holy Spirit knows where they live.

The Stain

Horse On West Africa tour

I am a lazy writer, too often waiting for inspiration to come along and nudge me into action. Sadly, my industry today has more to do with vexation than inspiration. Intense vexation in fact, caused by my having come across a stack of just-arrived Findus ‘not beef’ lasagnes in a Gambian supermarket. Vexation multiplied when a friend posted that the same said lasagnes had found their way to Lagos. I mean, exactly how fast do the wheels of market capitalism spin? Looked at in one way, I might be impressed with the logistical efficiency of frozen ready meals withdrawn from UK supermarket shelves one week finding themselves filling shop freezers in West Africa the next. But I am as far from impressed as the Findus lasagne chefs were from beef. What exactly did we do to deserve such dubious cast offs? I don’t think we can reasonably call this food aid. So I broadcasted my outrage as a facebook status update and got a lot of support from friends and family (yaay!) and then some of my friends and family shared the love, and opened me up to the thoughts of some of their friends and family who clearly thought my outrage was an overreaction. So here’s what I think about your objections

It’s better than being hungry – aren’t they just grateful to be eating?
A rather simplistic analysis a bit like claiming that having an asbestos roof is better than having no roof at all or that recipients of decaying second hand refrigerators should stop harping on about the ozone layer and CFCs and be thankful to get their water chilled. In short, the old adage that beggars can’t be choosers. It’s also based on certain assumptions a) that these meals were donated ‘free of charge’ (not true) b) that people in Africa are by definition hungry, and c) that mass produced frozen ready meals (with or without horse meat) are genuinely nutritious. So add to simplistic, offensive and naive then.

It’s only horsemeat. If it’s good enough for the French, why not others?
Leaving aside the fact that it’s been labelled and sold as BEEF, it is apparently not, in fact only horsemeat. I’m sure the French would confirm that it is nothing like the regulated, reared for human consumption product available in France. In contrast, this particular meat product took time to track down, most likely slaughtered in abattoirs in Romania that no one seems to know much about and then bought and sold across a myriad of countries including Cyprus, Luxemborg, France, the Netherlands and Ireland. I doubt that anyone would want to vouch for exactly what added extras may or may not have found their way in but suggestions include phenylbutazone, an anti-inflammatory drug given to horses and commonly known as BUTE. Once upon a time, several decades ago, human beings were prescribed BUTE for gout and arthritis. Then some of them got a serious blood disorder known as aplastic anaemia which, without prompt treatment, was (and still is) considered to be life-threatening. Then BUTE was banned for humans and forbidden from entering the food chain. The End. Oh no it wasn’t the end after all because two weeks ago we discovered that we’d been scoffing down unregulated horses and their nasty drug habits for years. What an epilogue. Anyway, to get to the point, it doesn’t matter how much people try to play it down, if this particular horsemeat isn’t good enough for people in Europe to eat, Africa doesn’t want it either, especially in packaging that still tells us it’s BEEF.

Perhaps it’s been sitting in African freezers since before the scandal broke. Shouldn’t you give them the benefit of the doubt?
We’re talking small-scale minimarkets here, not superstores with huge warehouses and products stacked high and wide. We’re talking about a place where the arrival of new products is (as humiliating and sad as this is to admit) a regular topic of conversation. Besides which anyone who’s spent any time here knows that a prerequisite for importing processed foods into West Africa is that they should either beyond or perilously close to their sell-by dates. So no people, no benefit of the doubt here. The sudden arrival of heaps of frozen ready meals that don’t expire next month should always be viewed with extreme suspicion.

I blame the Africans who are importing these things
If you like. I don’t particularly object. Of course Africa should be more aware, more vigilant, and of course we should put the health of our children above the profits to be made through selling bad food (FYI the lasagne that retailed for £1.60 in the UK is, as I speak being sold for the equivalent of £2.13 here, so the agenda here is definitely profit, rather than charity). However, I think it’s fair to say that everyone involved in this particularly sordid supply chain with its deep cynicism, greed and criminal intent should stop trying to shrug the blame onto other people in other places and take responsibility now.
So perhaps Findus would like to drop by and set up a temporary information desk in sunny Banjul. It’s all well and good telling customers to return withdrawn products for a full refund, but when your customers are 3000 miles away and need a visa to reach you that’s a lot to expect. Akin, I would say to closing the stable door when the horse is already half way through a worldwide tour. That’s what the lazy writer thinks anyway. And her non-new year resolution is to stay out of supermarkets and spend more time at the keyboard. Pray for her y’all.

Horse On West Africa tour

Memoir – Reasons to Dig In Your Pockets

We sit on wooden benches in a South London café with a view of Brockley station. On the other side of the glass trains slide by, their noise squeezed out by the aroma of coffee and baked bread. We equip ourselves with lattes and sandwiches and ‘kids’ hot chocolate. My friend chooses spiced roasted pumpkin, while I tuck into blue cheese and rocket. He also lends his iphone to my daughter. She is scowling because she is ten years old and her sandwich contains artichokes. She is not old enough for artichoke to be food. Fortunately the iphone works. She finds vegetable-free entertainment on YouTube and leaves us to talk.
That’s when he asks the question I don’t want to answer
“So what’s happening with the writing?”

What’s happening is this; I write stuff. Then I don’t write stuff. Then I write some more stuff. Then I don’t. I haven’t blogged or added to the collected pieces of memoir for more than six months. Instead I’ve wasted time seesawing over a single persistent question: Who cares?
Who cares about my life, about how I felt about being in care, or being adopted, or discovering that a brown skin made me different? Who cares about my prolonged and various family searches and my African sojourns? Given that I’m not famous (or infamous) or fabulously rich or successful, or a high-flyer in world politics or a warlord or an architect of genocide, what possible interest could my (ordinary) life hold for others? Why would anyone want to read it, and if no one wants to read it, why would I write it?

My friend, lover of iphones, off-the-beaten-track cafes and relational psychotherapy is preparing for a seminar on memoir. He is going to interview Jackie Kay and Gillian Slovo on the writing of their own memoirs. He practices on me.
“Why write memoir?”
My first answer – ‘it’s therapeutic’ is perfunctory, automatic, ultimately neither edifying nor satisfying. He graces it with a nod and continues – Why do I write? What need does it serve? How do I feel when I’m writing? How do I feel when I’m not? Do I hope my children will read it? What do I imagine their responses will be? He enquires in the manner of someone uncovering precious things. Gently he scrapes away at the impacted earth within which are buried my less conscious motives. From here on in we shall call him the archaeologist.

The archaeologist helps me to see that memoir can of course, be thought of as therapeutic in as much as it involves remembering events and the joys, desires, pains and losses that go with them. Memoir must be in some way therapeutic if you accept the idea that the hidden, and the repressed and the un-fully remembered sit like stones in your pockets as you wade unsuspecting through life’s many rivers. There are those who will scoff at this – who believe in soldiering on whatever the cost and who view things ‘therapeutic’ – memoir or otherwise as self-indulgent wastes of time and money and ultimately pointless activities. Sometimes I wish I could think this myself. I wish that I could ignore the clank of rocks and just keep on trucking, the problem being that you mostly don’t feel just quite how heavy they are until the water gets deep. Sometimes in life the water level rises without warning. In my case it happened a long time before I discovered artichokes.
Perhaps memoir also has a value as legacy – as the process of collecting and packaging memories for the enlightenment and edification of others – in particular the children who are born heirs to our histories whether or not we wish it for them, or they for themselves. The way I see it, as I watch my daughter watching X-factor auditions on Youtube, dreaming, no doubt, of her own future contributions to this particular phenomenon, since the baggage she’s destined to carry will include lines, scenes and possibly even whole acts of the life I lived before she was even born, the least I can do for her is to provide her with some of the detail. It might not be enough to win her a sympathetic audience on a TV talent show but it could just save her some investigative time in future therapy. Which begs the question of whether it wouldn’t be simpler to just tell her – to sit her and her siblings down and run through the whole shebang from the beginning? If nothing else it would save considerable time and effort spent sweating over a keyboard.
Sadly I am not sufficiently evolved for that, and even if my children had the patience to listen there has been much in my life that I have been reluctant, if not totally unwilling to talk about. To be fair to myself it’s less of an unwillingness to talk than a failure to find a way to do so without a) falling apart b) having other people fall apart or c) being suspected of insanity. I wish I could talk it all out. I love people who can talk. My best friends are some of the greatest storytellers, my husband among them. When he and my in-laws get together, their childhood tales can roll on through the night and into morning. As well as giving us all some good belly laughs these oral family histories furnish my children with a rich picture of their father’s childhood – with all its dramas and heartbreaks, characters, its unfathomable relics (telephones with dials? Paraffin heaters?) And of course its shocking mischief (Yes your Dad really did set fire to his bedroom). I on the other hand, am not in touch with the characters of my childhood. There is nobody around off of whom I can bounce my remembering and nobody to help me flesh out memories, correct inaccuracies, or piece the threads of memory together. My stories are disjointed and infuriatingly inconclusive. They meander. They are independent travellers, walking their own paths without a mind to whether I had them planned as tragedy or triumph, as stories of love or redemption. I don’t know where they will lead. They embarrass me when I am seeking affirmation and make me cry when I have my heart set on celebration. They don’t behave themselves in public and leave me unravelling on stage. Hence it’s probably not surprising that my childhood tales don’t always work as material for light humoured discussion. Even if I manage to steer the telling in the right direction, the humour I can find in my various crises of identity and failed attempts at suicide appears to be personal. It isn’t always shared, and especially not on social occasions. Frank Carson had a point when he said ‘it’s the way you tell ‘em’. That’s why he was a stand-up comedian and I am not.

The excavation in the café progresses. The archaeologist says that he is going to send some of my work to Jackie Kay, who I admire greatly and who is speaking at the memoir event. My reaction is to snap at him and then to take it back. I am afraid of his belief in me and of this dig, of what it will reveal. We order a second round of lattes and cake to see us through. My daughter cheers up and joins the conversation for a few minutes. Cake, no matter from what it is constituted, will always be food.

One of the things I love about the archaeologist is that he hears what I don’t say alongside what I do. I am a better (or possibly just more practiced) listener than I am a teller. When other people tell stories I am absorbed. I find great reward, as well as comfort and safety in the silence required of the listener. In listener role I am appreciated for my focused attention and seen by others as someone who is ‘together’. The archaeologist sees this and more. He sees the stones in my pockets and the unravelling that is hidden in the dark of silence. Listening lets me know the stones of others and feel less alone. Memoir helps me to know the stones that are mine and to feel more connected. As I write I lift them out and into the light. After a while I put them back. It’s rare that I get to drop one into the water, but it does happen. Memoir is the freedom to unravel.

For now, the dig is over. We finish our coffee and pay the bill. We miss a train accidently on purpose because rushing doesn’t fit the mood and because there’s enjoyment to be had on the station platform, huddled against the November cold. We get a small groove on, watching Azalia Banks on the iphone, the depth of her profanity expunged by the breadth of her creativity. The archaeologist and I are separated, too often, by oceans. We may not see each other for some time after this.
“So send me the next instalment soon,” he says as we part.
The best I can manage is
“It’s possible”
In making writing public, there are only two possibilities. Possibility 1 – people will be interested in what I have to say. Possibility 2 – they won’t. There are however, many more reasons to write.
I have large pockets and stones and I live on a seesaw. I will write and then I won’t and then I will again.

Memoir – Reasons to Dig In Your Pockets