Why I left the Big Blue

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In my late teens I had a fantasy that I would get up and walk out of my life. I would open the door, turn left, turn right at the traffic lights, turn left at the dirt track that led up to the dam, and then keep on walking over the hills. I would carry nothing and never come back.

Like many young souls, in my early twenties I kind of did it. I moved to London, on a one-way plane ticket with £70 in my pocket and spent the next few years trying to build the life I wanted on my terms, but none of this really amounted to walking away without warning or a trace. I saved that until July last year.

I mostly work alone in the attic office above my kitchen. During my working day, my colleagues are friends and contacts who I interact with via a computer screen. The platform I mostly use to communicate with them is one that I am going to call the Big Blue. Like the sea, it is a place full of curious fish and a few monsters. In July last year, I climbed out of the Big Blue, and returned to dry land. I spent four weeks entirely on dry land. Four weeks drying out.

The first few days were weird as it became creepily apparent that I had got into a habit of summarising my thoughts and feelings into pithy one-liners that I would share daily with the world, and as the month rolled on, I found myself reflecting on how submerged – drowned even – I had become in Facebook.

Like many, I had first joined in 2004. Those were the days when its captain encouraged us to list our favourite movies and music next to our names, and I remembered how difficult I had found it. While others were sharing cult classics like Clockwork Orange and listed their fav musicians as Indie legend Jarvis Cocker, for me, Mary Poppins and Elton John sprang to my mind. Sure I liked Jarvis and I’d watched Clockwork Orange at a midnight showing at an arts festival, but they weren’t my favourites and I remember feeling the gap open up between what I actually liked and what I was supposed to like.  Instead I posted a quote that I had seen on a greetings card: “One day I hope to become the person by dog things I am”, and left it that.

As the years went by, the Big Blue became a kind of scrapbook for life. A place to stick holiday pics and gig tickets, a place that reflected your life back at you. Life is about becoming. It is normal to have dreams and desires and wishes, and it is especially normal about being excited when some of these dreams come true.

I went horse riding across Iceland.

I got published in a famous newspaper.

I met a sexy man and he proposed.

But of course, the Big Blue didn’t just reflect your life at you, it reflected your life at every one you were linked to, and it wasn’t long before one of the first monsters of the depths reared its head: the green monster, jealousy.

While it’s natural that people get excited by the exciting things that happen to them – and want to share that joy – it’s not always easy for people to hear about other people’s success, especially when their golden moment intercepts your day from hell. Researchers began to study the mindsets of people who spent too much time wallowing in the Big Blue, and it turned out that that sharing our highs was beginning to wreck havoc in other people’s psyches, making them feel alienated and worthless.

Society is a bit like a self-cleaning oven. When things get too murky, it starts to auto-correct to bring things back to the less murky middle, and one of its favourite tools for doing this is shame. As age old as jealousy, shame is a brilliant tool for stopping people from doing something we don’t like. And so it came to pass that those who felt hurt, and worthless and sad by the Big Blue, began to mock the other people in the Big Blue.

“Those who swim in its waters are not authentic,” they said.

“All they show us is glittering reflections of themselves.”

“The Big Blue is a place of fakery.”

“It is not real. You are not real.”

It didn’t matter that people had been brought up to dream, to have ambitions, and do their best and try to make something of their life. It didn’t matter that it was once normal – even expected – to share your joy and holiday snaps and special moments with friends. Almost overnight, you were not really happy if you were sharing your life freely with others. In fact, you were bad. A traitor to the collective wellbeing.

And so, slowly, incrementally, the rules of the Big Blue changed, and the new consensus became that if you truly cared about the wellbeing of others, if you were a kind, community-orientated good person, then you needed to censor what you shared. And when you did share, you needed to share things that really mattered to everybody – not just you. And so within a few clicks, everyone in the Big Blue became chuggers.

Do you remember them? Charity huggers? The people who would accost you in the High Street and guilt you into signing a form that took £3 every month from your bank account and gave it to a dog/child/tap in some place you have never been? All of a sudden, the Big Blue was awash with people caring about lives of people they have never met, just so their posts no longer offend the lives of the people they do know.

And by god, there was so much caring to do. There was an opportunity for outrage at every moment of the day, and being in the Big Blue started to feel like you were treading water in a turbulent sea, randomly grabbing at bits of flotsam and jetsam to stay afloat.

Sink with a Guardian article.

Surface with a piece from the New York Times.

Float for a while on the back of a refreshing blog.

Pulled under by a petition from Avaaz.

Your own life, the one you live in an actual body that requires actually feeding and washing and sleeping began to seem unreal as the Big Blue washed over you and demanded more and more of your attention, more and more of your care.

You might have once wanted to sail a yacht in the Mediterranean or ride horses across Mongolia, but now you dare not want these things. Or if you still did, you made a calculated decision not to share them with anybody. The new consensus from the Big Blue was that dreams were wrong, desire was wrong. The only thing that mattered was the anguish and suffering of people who you do not know. The only life worth living was a life of sacrifice.

When I began writing about this, I did some research into people who go missing. According to the charity Missing People, up to 80% of missing persons cases involve someone believed to suffer from mental health problems. In Japan, there is a phenomenon of johatsu, or “the evaporated people”.

Tormented by the shame of a lost job, failed marriage, or mounting debt, thousands of Japanese citizens have reportedly started leaving behind their formal identities and seeking refuge in the anonymous, off-the-grid world. The book features a collection of vignettes from people who have fled modern society in search of a more secretive, less shame-filled life. That word shame struck a chord with me.

Shame was what the Big Blue was making me feel every day. Shame that I was white.
Shame that I had a roof over my head. Shame that I dared to have big dreams. Guilt refers to what we have done to others. Shame is a feeling that we have about just being. You can get rid of guilt by doing – by making amends, fixing things. But you can’t fix shame in the same way.

No wonder I swam for the shore.

I began to realise that being immersed in the Big Blue was like being in an abusive relationship where someone else was in charge of my emotions. I started to see that I was adrift in a choppy sea of reactionary feelings, never sure when another wave would come along and sink me. In the place where I had once played Scrabble with friends, I now felt powerless and overwhelmed.

It’s been six months now since I started to rethink my relationship with Facebook. During those six months, I also stopped blogging. I needed time to rethink what I put into the world and why I put it there. Half a year later, I consciously avoid political conversations on the Facebook platform, I rarely repost articles and perhaps most crucially, I no longer feel any impetus to share my private life with the world. That’s not to say I have cut ties completely. I still enjoy connecting with friends in faraway places, but I consciously keep it as light as I would at a wedding before the wine is served.

Am I happier? Yes. Do I feel calmer and more in control of my life and my emotions? Yes. Do I feel more empowered? Yes. Does this matter? Yes.

Follow me on Twitter @writerclb

What I write about when I am not writing

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I am nursing a wound. You can’t see it, but I can feel it. It’s on the lower right hand side of my heart. Sometimes it spreads to my solar plexus and it hurts to the touch. Sometimes it sinks lower and makes my belly ache and churn. Today it is a cold whisper, as if my heart has caught a chill.

I prefer not to write from this place. To write from here is like giving oxygen to embers allowing them burn me up all over again. But I also know that to ignore this place entirely is fuel of another kind. Ignore it long enough and it’s as if someone has tossed paraffin on the embers while everyone was out. The house burns down.

I know the content of the pain. And I understand that one of the reasons I can’t write about it is because of that content. Beneath the ache and the chill is hurt and anger towards those in South African society who, on some days, not all, have treated me with a mixture of haughty righteousness, lack of consideration and rudeness. The hurt and anger are linked to how I can never seem to find the right words to stand up for myself because there is some unspoken rule that because I am white and these people are black, that I am being given a taste of how black people are treated all the time, and that this treatment is part of my learning/punishment.

I am finding it difficult to find the line between what is fair and what is not, what is playful mocking and what is meanness, what is a lesson I need to learn and what is punishment for my behaviour or that of some other person with a white skin, and so I have pressed pause for a while on trying to fathom things out through words and have turned to my other ways of working things out: silence and craft.

Silence is an old friend of mine. Growing up in a house full of anger, silence was where I went to be safe. Speaking was dangerous, it was so easy to say the wrong thing and to become a victim of wrath, so instead I would curl myself in patches of sunshine, on my bed, or close to a tree, and sit alone, in silence. As an adult, I have learned, slowly, not to just sit in the silence but to allow that silence to move through me, for that silence to fill up in me, like hot water in a cup, and allow that silence to dissolve the hard grains of those feelings, so I can feel them fully, and then allow them to pass out of me. That is the practice of meditation that I have learned, and continue to learn, with the help of the Buddhist teachers Pema Chodron and Tara Brach.

Craft is also an old friend. I started patching pieces of African fabric together from the around the age of 15. I loved the bright, chaotic designs of African wax prints and working with it felt like I was bringing the pulse of Joburg into the sleepy South African suburbia where I grew up. It made me feel connected. This week I picked up a book on my bookshelf by the Californian patchwork and colour guru, Kaffe Fasset. There was one quilt in the book that particularly struck me – it had bright, clashing colours and wasn’t a complicated repetitive pattern but was rather long strips placed in an irreverent, who-needs-rules kind of way. The accompanying text said it took its inspiration from the Gee’s Bend quiltmakers.

Within a Google heartbeat I was down the rabbit hole into the world of Gee’s Bend, a remote community in rural Alabama surrounded on three sides by the Alabama River and inhabited by descendants of slaves. The African-American women of Gee’s Bend have been making quilts here since the middle of the 19th century, in a style labelled “my way”. Guided by personal vision and creativity, rather than by rules and patterns, the Gee’s Bend quilters create abstract, improvised quilts with unusual designs, colours and rhythms. Think Mondrian on ecstacy.

You can explore the quilts for yourself here:

http://www.soulsgrowndeep.org/gees-bend-quiltmakers

An hour later I was upstairs, scissors in hand, remnants of treasured fabrics scattered across the bed. A pillowcase from my friend Jolene. Discarded purple batik from Jolene’s mum. A piece of pink embroidered silk I found in Florence when researching Gucci for a writing assignment. Polka dots from Ikea. A piece of sequinned fabric from Delhi, bought on the weekend I spent alone, shopping in the city, after a Buddhist pilgrimage. A piece of jacquard from my favourite flea market in France. And of course, an African wax print from downtown Joburg. All the pieces with a story, and all the stories being patched together to become another tale.

Quilting reminds me of writing. When you write, you take little chunks of thoughts and feelings, and piece them together so that they solve a puzzle of meaning and make sense of the world that little bit more, for yourself, for others. When you make a quilt you pick and place, move and shape, until something inside you clicks and it feels right to the eye, and right for the soul. The words and behaviour of others are not ours to choose or change. But how we respond to them is.

Follow me on Twitter @writerclb

The vilifier is back

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I took a break from Unpopular Essays for a few months because it can be exhausting writing essays that you know will stir up bile in others. Sometimes you just need to walk away so you can breathe again.

The trigger for my break was a piece I wrote in March, in which I reflected on two Consciousness Cafés that I had recently been part of – one that I had co-facilitated, with a mixed group of 70 South Africans on Human Rights Day, and one that I had facilitated alone with a small group of white South Africans who wanted to experiment with having a whites-only conversation about the legacy of apartheid.

As a facilitator, my job is to guide the group to find the deeper wisdom that is trying to emerge (none of us know what this wisdom will be when we begin), and what had struck me was, despite the fact that the cafés were held at opposite ends of South Africa with totally different groups of people, similar wisdom emerged from both groups.

The wisdom was that privilege, in whatever way we have it or define it (and it was agreed privilege was more than just wealth), is not something that we should destroy, but something that we should become aware of and use to the advantage of others, not just ourselves. Careful use of our personal privilege was the ticket to a fairer society for all.

I thought it was a powerful and insightful reflection, and I wrote a piece about it, and then asked my Consciousness Café colleague if I could share this essay on our Facebook page. The heartache came when she said no.

I immediately understood why she refused. As she saw it, this was not a perspective that would sit well with the black radicals. The growing narrative from the black radicals was that privilege was unjust, and white people, especially, should be stripped of their privilege. The way to a more fair society was through restitution and to some extent, revenge. To post an article that was counter to the black radical narrative on the Consciousness Café page would enrage them and potentially be bad PR for Consciousness Café.

My arms became heavy. I slunk down on the couch and felt that giving-up feeling.

This wasn’t the first time in history that the wisdom of the crowd was to be ignored or silenced. It happens all the time, every day, around the world. Shifts in consciousness begin on the fringe and it takes a long time for new collective wisdom to be born. In South Africa, the voice of the black radicals was relatively new, and it was claiming centre stage. And fair enough, grab the limelight while you can, but to silence a point of view because the current populists won’t like it is a mistake.

South Africa veers from “one solution” to another. Apartheid. The Rainbow Nation. The Frantz Fanon Approach. It is a society that abhors complexity and nuance – to its detriment.

Interestingly, in the few months I took away from the page, I received some amazing teaching from the world.

I went to India on a yoga retreat, and found myself, at the ashram, surrounded by 15 people who I couldn’t get along with, and who didn’t like me. This never happens. My husband always laughs that I could make friends in a toilet, but I had travelled all the way to India, hoping to find solace in the company of like-minded yogis, and had ended up the pariah.

I then went to a global WorldWork training event in Greece, and again, found myself in a group of 15 people who labelled me “the vilifier” and “the judge”. For the whole week, until a breakthrough on the last day, they detested me because I was pushing them to confront uncomfortable truths within themselves.

When I reflected later, I realised that the two experiences were connected but different. In India, I was disliked for no obvious reason, a personality clash. In Greece, I experienced being loathed for a reason. And I can say with confidence, I prefer the latter.

So I’m back. With a bit more chutzpah and insight. I am certain that at times, Unpopular Essays will upset friends, allies and enemies, but my aim is not to make you like me, but to give you something to think about.

How liberating. 

 

Follow me on Twitter @writerclb

 

The space within

I am struggling more and more with the South African story. With the current sentiment  that to be a conscious white, you must be a silent white. That unless you are a representative for the views of black people and acting as an ambassadors for “their” pain, you are a racist, or at least, deeply mistaken. I am feeling stymied and stifled and I feel my consciousness shrinking rather than expanding.

After a weekend of sitting with an anguished mind, I asked the universe to send me a wise man, and yesterday it, in did in the form of L, a fellow dialogue facilitator and a black man. We sat under a tree in the oldest garden in South Africa and he told me about his recent diagnosis of diabetes, and with his struggle with being labelled “ill” and feeling ill. He did not want either to be true, but both were, so in his wise, way, he leant forward towards those feelings,  while at the same time asking himself what he could do to get better. Both accepting and seeking a solution at the same time.

He then talked of other people he had recently met who had been sitting with diabetes for 15+years and how he was dismayed by their resignation to their fate. He then shook his head and wondered if it was a cultural thing, and went on to talk about a “victim mentality” which he feels is ingrained in the majority of black people’s consciousness.

“It’s hardwired into us,” he said.

He gave a metaphor. “If someone has R30 of airtime on their phone, they will spend R25 complaining about the problem, and only R5 trying to find a solution. But by the time they get to that R5, they are so exhausted by all the complaining, they have run out of energy and give up. The laws of attraction say that you get what you give, and black people frequently operate within a negative consciousness.”

I recognised what he was talking about. Someone has to fill in a form but they would rather spend 10 minutes complaining about having to do it, instead of just doing it. Why not just do it quick and celebrate that it is over? I do not see it as exclusive to Africa though. I have seen it plenty in Scotland. But L felt it was more prominent in the black consciousness.

“Our celebration comes before. Complaining is our way of making ourselves feel better about the fact that we have to do it at all,” says L.

I told him he should write about this, but he joked that he would be castrated for saying it. He added that whenever he suggested to black people that they lean into their pain, ask themselves what really lies under the pain around filling in that form, they go crazy. They reply that black people are always in pain and it’s stupid and wrong of him to suggest that they feel their pain even more deeply. Also, they will say, they know what causes the pain. The white man. The lack of opportunity. The poor living conditions. Things that others have caused and others have not fixed. The pain comes from outside. The problems are not in me. They are out there.

I realised something else as we sat under the tree.

L and I were talking about the structural challenges of co-running an organisation like Consciousness Café, and L asked me why I did this work. Didn’t I need to admit to myself that I was in it for profit?

“No,” I said. “It might be hard to believe but it’s not profit that motivates me, it’s belonging. I want to belong here. I want us to be able to see each other. It’s another form of selfishness yes, but that’s what is driving me.”

My Consciousness Café colleague and I had talked about this the previous weekend and she had told me that I had to accept that this would never happen: “If you expect the black movers and shakers of Joburg to accept you and not see you as privileged, you need to know now that this will never happen. Never. You need to accept that. And then you need to ask yourself again why you do this work.”

Speaking to L, I realised that my own desperation to belong was blocking my compassion. Not in the dialogue space, there my compassion flows with ease (perhaps from years of being a journalist who is naturally interested in the stories of others), but when it comes to the structural positioning of this work in society, and the relationship with others who do this work, some of whom have got out their guns and criticised me for trying. When it comes to those encounters, I realise my compassion is thin. My compassion dries up because it feels like they are screaming “YOU DO NOT BELONG!” while I am begging to belong.

It becomes all about me.

I thought I had learnt this lesson already. At my 40th birthday I told a crowded room that I had made peace with belonging. That I accepted that I had to find belonging in writing, in creativity, in my craft and in nature. That since I was not a nationalist, I had to stop looking for belonging under the South African sky.

I thought I was there, but I was just flirting with this new consciousness, it had not bedded in yet, and this fledgling consciousness had buckled and bent under the level of anger currently being directed at white people.

Yesterday, as I sat under the tree in the oldest garden in South Africa with L, he helped me lean into it, name it, see it, and as I did, I felt it lift off my chest.

I may wish to belong here, but the fact is, in the eyes of the majority of the people of this country, I do not truly belong. Not a day goes by when someone doesn’t ask me: “Where are you from?”

So once again I commit to letting go – or at least, lightening my hold – of my need to belong.

And as we create a little bit of space between ourselves and our deepest desire, our compassion grows and we can breathe again.

Follow me on Twitter@writerclb

 

Let it go, Let it go…

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Last week I turned 40. To celebrate, I blew a month’s salary on a Bollywood party in a hotel in Scottish Highlands for my closest friends. We draped ourselves in sequins and saris, glitter and velvet, and danced to bhangra while the snow outside turned to ice. As I held her hand, my three-year-old goddaughter whispered to her mum that I looked like Elsa from Frozen, and in that moment, I felt like a queen in my own Narnia, surrounded by magic, laughter and love.

Two days later, on my actual birthday, I sat alone, on the shores of Loch Carron. It was a day of complete stillness. No clouds. The sun blinding but without warmth. All around the mountains were topped with snow, and for hour upon hour, I sat on a bench in absolute silence, my legs wrapped in a soft, grey blanket, my head tucked into a Harris tweed hat, my eyes intermittently open and closed, until the sun finally dipped behind the mountain and it became too cold to be outside.

The stillness was tangible. Audible. At times throughout the day it felt like I disappeared inside of it, and today I am still craving it, so much so that I postponed my flight to South Africa. I was supposed to leave this afternoon, but I can’t bear the thought of moving across the planet, which is ironic, because for 40 years, that’s all I did.

Run away. Run towards. I ran from a childhood sense that I was tolerated but not wanted, desperately seeking a place where I would belong without question, where I would be loved with certainty. My running began as a way to survive, but it became a habit.

Last year, I ran back to my childhood city, Johannesburg. In its energy, I felt my own. A city of craving, a city unfixed. I wrapped its skyline around me and said here, this is where I belong. I am home.

But South Africa is a contested place, and as I walked her streets and rode her buses, I realised that at this moment in history, for a person with a white skin to claim belonging on this soil, is at best impertinence, at worst a subtle declaration of war. My running had led me back to a place similar to the one I had forever being running from – where I felt tolerated, but not wanted.

And maybe that’s nothing to do with South Africa, and everything to do with me. Maybe whenever we run away from something, we drag it with us. And maybe that means we continually end up in the same place, just in different guises.

As I sat on that bench in total stillness, I asked myself what home and belonging would look like, if it wasn’t tied to a place. It felt like an important question. A crucial question. We live at a time when nationalism is on the march. When angry men and women leaders around the world are taking to podiums to declare that some people are not wanted and should not be tolerated, that they must get off this land and go back to their land, despite the fact that the history of humanity is a history of migrations.

If home and belonging are just linked to place then the world becomes narrow and confined, and there will be more places where we don’t belong, than where we do.

But unhook home and belonging from one place, and it becomes an immense, interior landscape.

I’m home when I knit and when I sew.

I’m home when I daydream and gather stories.

I’m home when my best friends agree to wear saris in the snow, and when a 3-year-old sings “Let it go” on my 40th birthday, and I discover an unlikely new hero in a Disney princess…

[Make sure you play it and sing-a-long]

Follow me on Twitter @writerclb

The next pot of gold

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I am heading towards depression again. I can feel it hounding at my ankles. Self doubt. That feeling of overwhelm. Panic in my chest. The future stretches ahead of me, blank and uncertain. I want to switch the world off.

This last year has been an attempt to be in the world. Actively, passionately. I am struggling now with the things that I have found.

Realisations that my kind, the white kind, have done horrid things to themselves, to each other, to those who do not look like them, and that standing here in my white skin, I am often thrown in the heap with them. I am white. I am them.

Realisations that in the name of progress, of a better life, people have done horrendous acts. That the worst atrocities – the Holocaust, the Soviet gulags, Pol Pot’s mass murders – were all done in the name of goodness, because the perpetrators believed that this was the way to make the world a better, safer, fairer place. And now Brexit. Trump. The burning of books at Wits. The self-righteous insistence that the end justifies the means.

Realisations that people pretend to kill others for amusement, for fun, to relax.

What is this world where people believe that one person’s wellbeing will be improved by the destruction of another’s?

I am wearied by this. Wearied by this world.

Last week I went to the Biodata World Congress at the Wellcome Campus in Cambridge.  Genomics is the study of the variations and mutations in our human DNA in a bid to understand ‘the language of God’. I am writing an overview of the world’s largest genomic projects.

I was struck by these things:

  1. The reference human genome – the first dictionary that we made for this new field of research – is 96% made up of the genes of a Caucasian man.
  2. Nature abhors racism. It abhors sticking to your own kind. The more you breed with those who are close to you, the more it makes you into a mutant. Nature prefers diversity.
  3. Genomics is the next arms race. Fuelled by a belief that if we can figure out which genetic mutation causes which disease we can make drugs that will stop /fix/block that genetic mutation.
  4. We are so afraid of death, we are in danger of replacing it with a fear of life. Come here Human 4579kB, it seems that you are at risk of these diseases. We recommend this pill.
  5. We are mining ourselves as a way to make money. We are the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

Weary, so weary.