Something a bit different today, but something I’m really keen on: natural cosmetic recipes. A cautionary rule of thumb: do not put anything on your skin that you are intolerant to in your diet. It may very well irritate. Keep all of this stuff away from your eyes. Don’t ingest any essential oils.
I’ve always had super-sensitive skin which gets more and more fragile as I progress through my perimenopause (a common symptom). I use Weleda Baby products day-to-day, but I make my own skin treats and bath-time indulgences.
The simplest (and best) moisturising bath is a good cupful of milk and some lavender essential oil (if you are lactose intolerant or vegan, almond or oat milk is good). A handful of salt or a couple of capfuls of cider vinegar help to balance the skin. I like to add essential oils (rose and geranium is a mixture that I like, but everyone has their own favourites). I usually exfoliate with a cotton washcloth but for an extra, soul-deep clean, I use this recipe:
Take 1 teaspoon oil (olive, almond, coconut, etc.) and mix in a cupful of brown sugar until all the grains are coated. Finely grate square inch of fresh ginger and mix in. Add the juice and zest of half a lime and stir. You can apply the scrub by hand or on a washcloth. Use it within a week.
Face masks of honey or honey and yogurt work well for me, being moisturising and calming. A recipe I saw many years ago had you smooth honey over the face, and then gently pat with flat fingers all over to stimulate circulation and draw out muck. Chilled white tea is a lovely skin tonic. You can whip coconut oil and aloe vera (go for a pure-as-possible aloe vera gel, lots of them have alcohol and other additives) together with a hand blender to make a good general moisturiser for dry or rough skin. Although I often use pure rosehip oil on my face these days, for many years I used virgin olive oil with rose, lavender and tea tree essential oils (5-10 drops of each added to about 15ml of base oil). If you have oilier skin, olive may be too heavy and almond or jojoba will be better.
A nice cooling spray can be made thus: pour 30ml of witch hazel into a 100ml spray bottle, add 5 drops of peppermint oil and shake well. Add 30ml of aloe vera gel and shake again until mixed (if the aloe gel is very thick it may be best to mix these ingredients in a bowl). Top up with distilled water. It’s great for when you’re overheated, on any part of the body, but close your eyes if you are spraying your face! This is similar to a very easy room spray recipe: 30ml witch hazel in a 100ml spray bottle, 5-10 drops of essential oils, shake, top up with water. I react badly to artificial air fresheners (they can trigger migraines) and find these natural ones much better. Lavender is supposed to be good for relaxing, I find lemon and mint refreshing (only use a couple of drops of mint, it overwhelms all other fragrances), rose is calming, citrus oils are a good pick-me-up. But again, you will have your own faves. If you don’t yet know what oils you like, you can research online, ask at a good health food shop, or just go in and smell a few to find a pong that suits you!
I began this pome a while ago, wandering around in a wood. I think the spirit of the Romantics had taken me over that day. I was overdressed, full hair and make-up, ‘sensible’* in the sense in which Jane Austen used that word; bemused families passed as I stood engrossed on the riverbank, immersed in listening to the water and scribbling free-form lines of verse. I enjoyed it very much. I think the mood comes across: it’s some deep Zen Taoist hippy stuff.
At the place that was our last place
I went to visit my river; it had been a year
This spring she is full of pace, of spirit
Rushing on towards the future
‘Come, follow me!’, she sings
I hug the banks and follow, keen to see
What she will do next
As we slip and slide and run along together
She grows in glittering confidence and majesty
She makes me feel like: yes, you can weather storms
Yes, you can absorb floods
Yes, life is possible, a new life
Here is all the energy that you will ever need
Ever changing but always the same
Carrying me away, carrying all before her
Flowing flooding fleeting on she runs
‘Til I find myself at a confluence,
Surrounded on all sides by streams and culverts
Joyfully her sisters run to meet her
Singing their journeys in their various voices
The water leaps, it’s thrown into the air
It falls upon the earth, the banks
But it knows its way home, it trusts its journey
All journeys lead to the same place, after all
Why should I fear, any more than the spray of the waterfall does,
I’ve contributed this essay, which will be displayed in the structure that they are building. It can be seen from the 1st of June as part of the London Festival of Architecture at Greendale Playing Fields, just off Dog Kennel Hill in Camberwell, SE London. The themes were solitude, sanctuary, women negotiating urban space. Some of it is based on a previous post, Doing Identity
Here’s what I wrote:
On the Street
Growing up as I did – a ‘weird’ kid with undiagnosed autism, a unique dress sense, the oddest parents in the neighbourhood, and indoctrinated as a good baby revolutionary, was pretty lonely. Sometimes I had friends to pal around with, but more often, I didn’t. But, since home was not always comfortable, either, I walked the London streets alone a lot from the age of about ten or eleven. Often, I crossed and re-crossed the street to avoid other children, from whom I always expected, and often received, a hostile reception. I walked in a state of constant paranoia and tension, trying to remain alert to any possible danger. At home I got rubbish advice: try to be more like other people, because dressing my individuality was attracting the hostility, or to just punch people who bullied or physically harassed me. But as far back as I can recall, I have been a pacifist and an individualist. So no help there. At the age of twelve, I did try for a while to dress like everyone else at school, and I cut my problematic hair (curly, bushy, frizzy, huge). But I felt so miserable in my ‘normal drag’ that I decided the trouble it caused me to dress as I pleased was worth it; I returned to my own tastes.
That was the year I discovered, during the chaos of a teacher’s strike, that truancy was a thing. Rapidly I learned to take advantage of the fact that I was often mistaken for my mother on the phone: I rang up the school in the morning and excused myself, changed out of my uniform, then spent the day walking around London. Sometimes I wandered far, as far as the British Museum or National Gallery, where I swooned over Egyptian artefacts and Tudor paintings; sometimes I walked around and around closer to home, weary and driven, not enjoying myself at all, but unable to stop. The city streets are hard, they blistered the soles of my feet. I got lost in the maze of streets and had to retrace my steps. Sometimes I saw groups of truants in the shopping centre, where I would only venture on rainy days. They were having more fun than me. But I never went to speak to them, and I often saw them being questioned by authority figures. I didn’t want to get caught. In the backstreets of ‘Theatre Land’ I saw drunks on the streets, urine trickling away from them in streams that stained the tarmac. I kept walking, never stopping. Once an older boy, brother of a kid in my class, followed me for a couple of hours and tried to chat me up. I knew I had to be jaunty but firm, and to keep walking, just keep walking, to fend him off without making him angry.
As I grew older, leaving school at fourteen and spending a year travelling the world with my family cemented my individualism. I returned to London (sans parents), aged fifteen, did not attend school, and embarked on a year or two of constantly changing my appearance and hair colour. It called even more attention, not always hostile, but often it was the attention of men, in cars, on scaffolding, just walking down the street. Now I had sunglasses to hide behind, and a fierce image which I wore as a shield. I told the men to get stuffed if I was feeling confident, or just blanked them, hot, angry, humiliated on the inside. I cultivated what I like to call ‘fuck off-vibes’ and insisted that I would walk where I liked, when I liked. I would not take up the cultural burden of fear that society tries to drum into the female body. I drew on my anger about the fear culture and projected that outwards, striding along. I’m not physically brave, but walking through London at 3am, perhaps dressed as a punk, perhaps as Madonna circa Desperately Seeking Susan, I felt that I was willing to risk anything in order to feel free, as free as a man might. No-one ever approached me then, even in Soho, even in the 1980s ruins of Docklands – I must have looked pretty angry.
I also became a ‘tagger’ for a while, writing my graffiti tag as often as I could on every available surface. Our tiny crew walked everywhere, as much as we could, because that was how you found the newly-cleaned-of-graffiti bus shelters to ‘bomb’ (entirely cover with graffiti), and at night was the best time to tag post boxes, phone boxes, any kind of signage, billboards, etc. It was another kind of urban freedom – we claimed the space as our own by marking it, and we became part of a network. The first time I went Kilburn I was paranoid until I saw a familiar tag. I felt reassured – I was not in entirely unknown, unexplored territory. ‘Care’ had been there before me. So I still feel at home in areas covered in tags. I know they are not the acceptable face of street art. They are often poorly penned, poorly executed, and seem to me to be poorly chosen (a ‘tag’ is like a single-word signature that you don’t change often. If you come up with a good one, you may keep it for years, even decades. The word you choose may be misspelled in order to make the artistic flow of the letters better). A good tag is a beautiful example of the calligrapher’s art, executed at speed, often on an uneven surface and with felt tip or spray can. So I’m often, when in cities, caught standing in front of a wall of tags, looking for the good ones, laughing at strange word choices, by young people who may well wonder what the hell this middle-aged white woman is doing. If I lived in a city now, I think I would engage in street art again. It makes a city yours.
Nothing makes me feel more liberated and powerful than challenging those societal fears that my female body might be violated if I am alone, or where I ‘shouldn’t’ be. I have experienced just as much – or more – violation indoors, in domestic settings, where I should have been safe. And in other ways, I like to play with urban space and feminism. Although I never ‘man-spread’ when space is tight, if the bus or train is fairly empty and my clothes allow, I will sit with legs apart, arms resting along the seat backs, just taking up space in the way I see men do all the time. It garners a lot of surprised looks (I admit, I relish those looks), but it makes me feel that I belong in the space and the space belongs to me. I will stick out my elbows and square my shoulders and muscle my way through a crowd, and only step out of someone’s way if they are also behaving politely. I’ll sit on the steps, on the ground, climb over walls and railings, dash across the road. Because the more you let the conventions of civil behaviour rule your body and where and how you negotiate the city, the more you ingrain obedience into your psyche. I do not advocate rebellion against civility itself – I am considerate, helpful, polite, always making room for people who need a seat more than I, offering help with a bag or a pushchair, holding doors open and trying to spread good feelings in my wake. But I won’t submit to rude, pushy and aggressive people. Nowadays, having lived out of London for sixteen years, I no longer generate my ‘fuck off-vibes’ all the time, I have slowed my pace, I can walk without being driven by paranoia as I was when I was a child and a young woman. I talk to people in shops and on buses like the bumpkin I’ve become. But something of the streets will always be in me, something of the rebel who jumps the gate instead of going all the way around, and the woman who enjoys messing with preconceptions about how to use space and where and when and how we can be in the city.
Many years ago, I shared a place with a friend. We got along well, accepted each other’s quirks and complied with each other’s domestic foibles, since none of them were excessive and we were both quite clean and tidy. He never complained if I spent two hours in the bath; I never minded him spending two hours on the phone. We never expected each other’s company, but always enjoyed it. We subjected each other to our crap weekend telly preferences. On occasion we slept together; we had dated for a while several years before and it happened after a few beverages, I think.
My friend suggested that what we had going was a good basis for a marriage. But I knew without any doubt that reclassifying this relationship would ruin everything. If he’d been my boyfriend, his quirks and foibles, mannerisms and politics, moods and wanderings and phone calls and crap TV choices would all have made me nuts, or paranoid, or angry, or impatient, by turns. I would have taken them all personally. I’d expect his attention and company, not just enjoy it when it was there. I’d feel I owed him the same. Now, why do I do this in relationships? Does everyone else do this, too? I know that for many people, just the sexual contact would be enough to transform the relationship; for me it’s not, but calling it a ‘relationship’ would.
I’d like, in my next turn on the merry-go-round of love, to remain in that friendly state, and not concern myself with my beloved’s habits and behaviours as long as they have no negative impact on me. I’d like to not take moods and quirks personally. I have lot of work to do to avoid this: I am egomaniacal enough to think that I am responsible for the happiness and comfort of those closest to me. Perhaps it seems to some of you that this would be no kind of love at all, or impractical, or cold. But I just want to enjoy my beloved as I enjoyed my friend, with all his funny little ways.
I’ve been feeling very guilty about watching the Giro d’Italia this year. Grand tour cycling is the only sport I’ve ever loved, would happily pay to watch, anticipate with great excitement and even give up birthday celebrations for (my birthday is mid-Tour de France). We all know that cycling is not a very ‘moral’ sport – cycling and doping have gone hand-in-hand since the Tour was first held in 1903. Most people who are not fans can’t see past that, and most people who are fans live in a state of determined denial about it. But I’ve never had a real problem with it. It’s unfair to those who don’t or can’t dope, as are all the other sports that routinely dope, but equally, watching Lance Armstrong was joyous. It’s more of a problem to me that he was reputedly an arsehole and went mountain biking with George W. Bush.
No, my issue with the 2018 Giro is that it started in Israel, as a part of the 70th anniversary celebrations, while Palestinians just miles away were being gunned down for protesting the same anniversary. No-one in the sport has really talked about this (there have been a few mentions and a few boycotts by cycling journalists), no athletes have boycotted or been reported discussing the issue. BDS has called it ‘sport-washing’. Israel paid at least €10 million to host the race, and paid Chris Froome €2 million to participate. Fans have protested in many cities. The lack of discussion about the issue is one of the chilling aspects of it.
I am disturbed by this and feel awful watching the race even after it returned to Italy. So I started watching highlights of the Tour of California. And during that, I suddenly thought: hang on, who allows Israel to behave in the way it does? Largely the USA. So maybe I should boycott the Tour of California? Should athletes refuse to compete in the USA, with its history of training the torturers of the modern world, fighting proxy wars on every continent, launching open wars for regime change and revenge (don’t get me started right here about repression within the United States)? I live in a country that is certainly in the top ten of arms-exporting countries (some more recent estimates rank the UK as second largest arms exporter), happily selling arms to countries on its own ‘human rights watch list’ and to 39 of the 51 countries described as ‘not free’ by Freedom House. At the same time, crippling welfare and social care cuts have hastened the deaths or inspired the suicides of perhaps 120,000 people in this country, while the most wealthy got 30% richer in the two years after the ‘credit crunch’, and £55.5 bn richer since 2010. So I should not watch the Tour of Yorkshire, either.
The modern military-industrial complex has entered territory that Eisenhower could not have imagined. It’s a huge, huge business, estimated at 2.5% of world trade globally (which cannot account for illegal arms trading and is based on 2013 figures). Mercenaries are being employed at record levels, generating yet more revenue. War cannot stop, will not stop, while the fortunes to be made are so vast. And certainly, when an asset-stripping pirate like Trump can become president, while the worst excesses of the Conservative government’s ‘Austerity’ and ‘Hostile Environment’ policies cannot make the people of this country vote them out of office, I cannot see that war will stop: at least half of us seem to have ‘drunk the Kool-Aid’ and blame other poor people for what’s wrong with the world, rather than our rulers and their business partners.
None of this is to, in any way, excuse or condone the violence of the Israeli state against Palestinian people. I despise violence as the lowest, laziest form of human interaction and believe that it will usually generate more violence (there may be times it’s the only option. That is a different case). The whole issue of Israel pins a large proportion of the region’s problems in place, and must be resolved before peace can come. Please do protest, campaign, boycott, publicise as much as you can for universal human rights, peace, freedom and compassion. But let us not devolve responsibility for the situation. Let us not hypocritically and unquestioningly continue to buy American and support American artists and sports teams and companies, or UK ones, or French, or Saudi, or Thai, or Turkish, to name but a few countries. Since I live in the UK and take part in its commercial and cultural life, I don’t know how to resolve this dilemma.
So I am disappointed in my beloved sport and some of my beloved competitors (not Froome, he has never been a favourite). But I am gonna watch my bike race and try to campaign more against the arms trade, and I hope that everyone finds their own way to face up to the rabbit hole of the global trade in violence and oppression. Answers on a postcard, please, if you find any.
My guru once said something along the lines of: don’t put chains or conditions on your love – as soon as you do, you guarantee that your love will die one day. I always agreed with that and tried to not bind my beloveds with conditions (although, of course there have always been unconscious conditions and expectations that I see once a relationship is over). But only recently did I realise that this also means: don’t put chains or conditions on yourself, either. I think at least half the reason my marriage ended was the limits I put on myself. I tried to impress in the first months, I re-wrote myself in certain ways to leave out aspects of my life and personality I’m not proud of, I left out things I thought were ‘too much’ or too intimidating.
And so I set the end date for my relationship, as those parts of me are me, also, and would not be silenced or denied.
Don’t limit yourself, don’t censor yourself, don’t try to impress. It’s very hard, when you meet someone that bowls you over and you want so much for them to love you back. And you can obviously never see into your blind spots. But not having been as brave and true as I might have is my greatest regret. Who knows what the outcome would have been? The relationship might have never happened, or ended much sooner. All I know is that I never want to feel this kind of regret again.
2. absence of government and absolute freedom of the individual, regarded as a political ideal.
The word has, since the 1660s at least, always carried both of these meanings.
A direct translation from the original Greek αναρχία or ‘anarkhos‘, would be ‘without (‘an‘) a leader/ruler (‘arkhos‘)’. And I think we can see the huge split in the two definitions thus: while an anarchist movement sees the second – the political ideal which elevates (and demands) every citizen’s participation and contribution and chooses an optimistic view of human nature and sociability, anyone describing anarchism from the position of the entrenched ruling elite will, of course, plump for the first – chaos, mutiny, insurrection.
It seems almost impossible for us in our large, centrally-controlled nation states* in the 21st-century world to imagine how an anarchist society might work. Indeed, I am new to anarchy myself (identifying as such only within the past 12 months) and still learning. But it unquestionably true that anarchism is the longest-running system of human organisation, the form of social organisation within which the human species evolved and grew up, and it continues to be the way in which mobile hunting-gathering-foraging peoples live. I guess that, if pushed, I would suggest a political system of local collectives which decide issues by consensus (predicated upon total freedom of movement and the choice to join together in whatever collective best suits your own inclinations), accompanied by a system of participatory representative democracy at a larger level, so that all citizens could/should take a turn in representing their communities.
An anarchist world would not be without problems and divisions, of course. So many, many people are unhappy, ignorant, lazy, mis-educated, and in order for us all to live and let live, we will need to address this. But community life breaks down a huge amount of barriers and heals a lot of wounds, as I know myself. Working hard together on projects that are larger than one’s own concerns is excellent at creating ties between people. Hunter-gather-forager communities do have to work to keep everyone equal. Typically this is accomplished with humour and love, gentle teasing, and practices such as ‘insulting the meat’ to prevent prolific or skilled hunters, for example, from getting too full of themselves. This is a lovely post about how this egalitarianism is sustained, and reproduced generation to generation.
Although we may think that such organisation is impossible in the huge nation states of today, if we stop to think about most of the movements and technologies that make major and positive changes to our lives, we can see that it’s always people/citizens that make the difference, make the change. A truly representative government should indeed always follow the people, but our governments, only having to worry about their remit every 4-5 years, often do so only when forced to by overwhelming public feeling. Universal suffrage, the civil rights and anti-apartheid movements, the dismemberment of empires, LGBTQ rights, environmentalism; all of them started at grass-roots level, all eventually gaining enough momentum to force policy change in governments. The fight goes on on all these fronts and new movements begin all the time.
But does this not inevitably lead to the question: so why do we need the governments? They almost cannot help becoming distanced from the people, because they are corralled and given special status. While the hunter-gatherers make sure no-one’s ego gets over-inflated, our leaders are driven around in fleets of limousines with police escorts and wined and dined in palaces. They almost cannot help getting mired in corruption and graft because it costs so very much to become a leader. Because half of our MPs were privately educated, networks which link them to business and the judiciary are inherent to the system. A sense of specialness and privilege imbued since primary school is hard to eradicate (just go and have a look at some of the private schools and prep schools and try to imagine what it might have felt like, walking into one of those places every day, seeing other children walking into crappy comprehensives. There’s no need for the difference to be articulated, it can be seen and experienced).
Meanwhile, 75% of human ingenuity, creativity, intelligence, passion, ability, talent, is languishing. It’s stuck behind gender and colour bars, wasting away in refugee camps and prisons, working in bullshit jobs or sweatshop jobs or slave-labour jobs. It’s scrabbling to feed its children and pay for medicine and school and housing while we pour oil on the land, plastic into the sea, particulates into the air. We have all drunk the Kool-Aid about anarchism. We don’t feel capable of dealing with these huge issues, making these important decisions. But it will take every single one of us getting involved in our society to change our society. Not just by voting – our representative democracies are at best a compromise, at worst a sham – but by acting, organising, communicating, taking responsibility. There are different things that all of us can do, from the utterly radical to the small and everyday. Try something. Take back power, a little at a time. Join a demonstration, educate yourself about some issues, give your plastic packaging back to the supermarket, volunteer, change your bank or your energy supplier, support a grass-roots movement or campaign in your area or globally. It feels good. It feels like being an independent, free, human being with a brain and a heart. Like being an anarchist.
*Gonna do a post about the origin of nation states another day – it’s a fascinating subject
I have a lot to thank James Cameron for. Whatever sins he has been guilty of since, in the mid ’80s he helped to change my life.
When I first saw Aliens I was 15 and living at a residential school in rural Devon for children in the Osho (Rajneesh) movement. I felt I was on the cusp of life; I felt the adult me was about to be born. I’d just arrived back from a visit to London where I’d actually met a boy I liked and who liked me in return (first time those two situations had aligned). Everyone over the age of ten crammed into a room and we watched Aliens on VHS. From the very beginning I was gripped. Ripley is both Cassandra, the woman fated to know the awful future, cursed to be never believed, and Odysseus, clever and tough but set against a range of opposing forces that obstruct her return to home and family. Ripley wears the action hero’s vest. In being a woman who acts, who is independent, who is a mother and a lover and draws fighting strength from her love, she was a new kind of heroine to me. In a world that obviously has more gender parity than our own, Ripley still stands out to those around her as ‘more equal than others’.
In the search for heroines amongst the women I’d been exposed to on screen, I’d found that I had to go back to the black-and-white women of Hollywood’s Golden Age. I loved irreverent Jean Harlow, breezy and modern Katherine Hepburn, devilish Bette Davis, sharp-shooting Barbara Stanwyck. I admired a lot of other women of that era but as a decidedly androgynous-feeling person, I was intimidated by the sexuality of Dietrich, the elegance and poise of Bacall. I loved them, but I could not identify with them. It was the same for most of the women presented to me in comtemporary roles: they were too pneumatic (Wonder Woman), too good (Charlie’s Angels), too princessy (Princess Leia), too clean (The Bionic Woman).
Ripley impressed by being six feet tall, taking no shit and working as hard as any motherfucker out there. She didn’t have to be clean or feminine to be sexy. She picked up her flamethrower and fought as a mother might fight, and she used her brains as well as her muscles. It was love. I had found my hero. That night a lot of the younger kids were scared by the film and so I led them around the house, armed with a big stick, bursting into the bedrooms with a shout, checking under everyone’s beds, even leaving my watch with my favourite kid as a ‘tracker’. It was simultaneously a childlike performance, acting out scenes from the film, and the first assumption of adult-like behaviour: taking charge and making the young ones feel safe. Something awoke in me that night, a new possibility. I’d always felt nervous and cowardly, anxious and weak. That night, my inner Ripley got to her feet and showed me that that was not the whole story. Being bullied had made me strong as well as paranoid. Being different and lonely had made me independent; I could stand apart when I needed to. Plus I had discovered how much I love action movies and how much of an outlet for my aggression and rage they could be.
Cameron and his wife, Linda Hamilton also created the amazing figure of Sarah Connor in the Terminator movies, who, although seriously disturbed, is another action hero who is not confined to the usual gender roles, not forced to be good or sexy or even sane in order for us to root for her. These women are mothers who have been forced into existential battles and then chosen the fight over everything else, neglecting their parental role like a man is allowed to. They ‘wear the vest’, strap on weapons, lace up their boots, and learn how to handle the hardware. They battle against fearsome monsters and bang their heads against dark corporate entities and manage to be much more intelligent and humane, less casually psychopathic, than Arnie, Bruce or Sly.
I know that I have disgusted people of taste over the years with my preference for Aliens over Alien. I don’t care. I don’t care about taste or what critics think. I even like Alien 3. I will never forget what Ripley did for me that night. It’s been a long wait for us to see such powerful women on screen again. Nowadays we are used to women fighting, firing guns, flying spaceships. They can even turn out to be the Jedi-in-waiting, which I admit did both delight me and bring a tear to my eye in the latest Star WarsFranchise offerings. But while they are in lycra or latex or corsets,* while they have perfect lipgloss and hair and wear high heels and have Barbie-doll figures, while they have to be good or feminine, they remain unbelievable and inaccessible to me. Give me a woman in army boots and a vest, a complicated and imperfect woman who will stub out her fag with a tired sigh and get to work, getting sweaty and dirty in the process. Give that woman a flamethrower and I will be in heaven.**
*Not Michelle Pfieffer’s Catwoman, I really liked her even though she breaks all the rules I list here. She’s just so deliciously bad and insane.
**As I write, I realise that this is basically a vision of me doing archaeology with a flamethrower.
I’m afraid I have been remiss in my blogging – I’ve been engrossed in trying to finish the first draft of an espionage novel! And when it’s not that, I’m plagued with thoughts and theories about the Neolithic, etc. You know how it is. So here’s a morsel of fiction for you, not newly written, but I hope you enjoy it.
ON MOONLIT NIGHTS it’s so difficult for me to sleep. I had gone to bed with my husband at around 11pm, read for a while, and even fallen asleep before midnight; but by 3.30, I was awake again. I lay still and tried not to think for about half an hour, but then I started getting itchy and sneezy and I knew it was no good – I’d have to get up. I crept into the dark living room, pulling on my dressing gown as I went. I found my eye drops to stop my eyes from itching so much. The challenge now was to find something to occupy myself with, other than the obvious. I switched on the TV. Scrolling though the forty-odd channels, I found very little of interest. I left the tail end of a TV movie playing, and cast around for a book I hadn’t read. The itching was getting more severe. I ran my hands through my hair. No books appealed. I opened up the laptop and began to play Solitaire for a while. Along with a cup of tea and a cigarette, this could often keep me occupied for a few hours until the restlessness wore off. Tonight I played about five games, no wins, and then grew bored.
One of the windows must have been open a bit behind the curtains. A breeze was blowing in, cold and crisp, and scented with the woods. When I lived in London, I would have gone out at this point, no question, and roamed about a bit. City streets still feel more comfortable to me at night, although you’d think I’d feel more at ease in the countryside. Now I was hungry. I opened the fridge and pulled out some leftovers – lamb stew, part of a pie, milk. Anything I could get down me quickly. I devoured the food quickly, ravenously. It didn’t fill up much time and didn’t really appease me at all. There were things I might have done – I needed to shave my legs, I needed to file a lot of old mail and receipts, but those sorts of things were out of the question at this point. The itching phase was over now and it left me with an aching sensation in my bones and teeth. I massaged my jaw. I had to get up and stalk around a bit, trying to stretch out my hunched shoulders. I heard clicks as I did this. A look in the mirror confirmed my suspicions – I was changing. If I stay asleep on those full moon nights I can often get away with it – my husband sleeps really deeply and I think he likes the fur to snuggle up to. I’m not a real danger to people, never have been. So I don’t worry that I might do something to him.
Time to take some more direct action. In the fridge were some steaks which were for tomorrow night’s dinner. In order to get around the fact that my husband would miss them tomorrow, I’d have to replace them during the day, but luckily he was working tomorrow which would make that a lot easier than if he had the day off. On those occasions, I have to sneak out to the supermarket before he wakes up, but after first light, the precise timing of which is hard in the winter months. I ripped the packet open and demolished the good raw meat. It was glorious, but another kind of torture arose – I could really do with a nice cup of tea to wash it down with, but my talons were now too long to manipulate kettle, teabags and cup. Fuck.
I sat back, tried to watch the end of the movie, which I didn’t understand at all because I hadn’t been watching it. Eating the meat was always a tricky business. Often it would be satisfying and sleepiness would steal over me. I’d pull out the sofabed and sleep in the lounge until sunrise, then brush my teeth and creep back into bed. But after half an hour I knew that this time it wasn’t going to happen. It was now 4.30, and in the summer I might have been in the clear, but at midwinter I still had hours to wait until the moon’s effects wore off. The wind picked up outside and blew the curtains open a little. That was it. Actual moonlight entered the room and I couldn’t help myself. I tore open the curtains and pushed up the sash. Climbing out onto the flat roof outside the window, I sniffed the air and felt my fangs and claws grow to their full extent. Once I give in to it, I love being a werewolf. I threw back my head and howled with the joy of the night and the moon. Dogs all around the neighbourhood woke up and barked. I leapt from the roof to the driveway and bounded into the night, towards the forest and a nice fat pony.
The tendency towards a relatively stable equilibrium between interdependent elements, especially as maintained by physiological processes.
Why is change so hard? I’ve asked myself this question so many times, in reference to a wide variety of situations. Sometimes I feel like every cell in my body is resisting. I can almost hear them all going: “Wait! We have food, a warm bed, some kind of day-to-day stability. What you’re asking is that we, your cells, risk all that by plunging into the unknown! No way. We are staying just as we are, in this admittedly uncomfortable and less-than-optimal situation, where we know what to expect and how to plan for it.”
If our cells are trying to be maximally efficient all the time, they will be in energy-conservation mode. That’s our brain cells, too. In fact, the brain seems to put systems on ‘sleep’ mode when they are not needed. It feels unhealthy to me, because, just as muscles atrophy through under-use, so can our senses be blunted, our minds slower on the uptake, our experience of time itself changes as the sameness of daily life allows the brain to stop noticing, stop being alert. Novelty of any kind forces us to activate all those systems again.
In our hunter-gathering past, we evolved these brains of ours to answer specific needs. First and foremost, our brains are social brains. An enormous amount of processing power is devoted to analysing facial expressions, for example (which is one of the reasons that an over-botoxed face can be disturbing to watch). Trying to anticipate the reactions and feelings of others demands further huge tracts of brain cells. So if you are not being social, you are probably under-using large parts of your brain. Interacting with fictional characters in books and visual media cannot be the same, as it doesn’t involve your participation, or your jeopardy. I don’t game but I’d be interested to know the difference that an interactive medium makes in brain activity.
After that come all the dangers of life in the wild – falling off things, being attacked by animals or other people, or going hungry to name just a few. We had to notice everything very carefully, partly due to danger, partly just to make sure we were exploiting all the opportunities that came our way – a tasty snack (like a giant spider), lurking under a log, a new plant or fruit that we’d not seen before. This is a major change in human history – a lot of the time, a lot of us can just wander around texting as we go. We know where our next meal is coming from, and we don’t have to keep an eye out for sabre-toothed tigers. We are domesticated. We have domesticated our world.
That’s why the thrill of doing dangerous things is so great and so seductive. It brings all of our systems back online and make our glands produce substances that make us feel aware, keyed up, focussed. Afterwards we get a rush of ‘high’ hormones. Blood was pumped all around our bodies. We got oxygenated. A ‘natural’ life is a mixture of both states – rest and excitement. It’s the healthiest way to live. It seems that HIIT training is a good way of mimicking the ‘fight or flight’ type of situation, producing similar body reactions and after-effects. But the stimulus need not be physical – it can also be mental, emotional, psychological. The act of overcoming your shyness and talking to someone at a party. Standing up and giving a presentation. Playing a song at open mike night. It might be a small thing – going out for a walk, phoning a friend, getting a different haircut. Taking the risk is what counts. And using the social brain is probably the most demanding and exhilarating of all – which is really a ‘note to self’ to get out and interact with humans more. Some of them are idiots but many seem to be kind of okay.