I've always been someone who feels an acute sense of humiliation, not only for my own ego, but equally - maybe more - for others. I remember my mother, who taught at my Primary School, telling us a story at the dinner table when I was still pretty young. We ate together every night, playing games and swapping ideas and having to recount 3 good things that had happened that day and no bad things because my parents wanted to raise optimists and by god, they did.
As we broke bread and dunked it in our steaming bowls of pasta, she spun the funny tale of the day, in which a student had approached her to say they were feeling unwell. She'd asked about their symptoms, (as teachers do), but she tried to say both 'tummy' and 'belly' at the same time. Which is a roundabout way of getting to the punchline in which my saintly mother blurted out: "Do you have a sore bummy?"
The kid laughed at her. My family laughed at her. She laughed at herself. But the fact that I still remember this story speaks volumes to how wounded I was by her brief embarrassment, even though it hadn't bothered her for even a second.
I was just that kind of kid. Teachers liked to sit next to the kids who needed drawing out of their shell or socialising a little. The Scarlett Hawkins Chatterbox Method - in which I peppered the poor kid next to me with jokes and banter and suggestions for our worksheets - was useful for shy kids, trouble-makers and anybody that the rejected for being 'a little off'. I was fiercely protective of my friends and their little quirks, and this quality has - for better or worse - stuck with me through to adulthood.
There's a lot of psychobabble around the concept of empathy, often inextricably interlinked with the legitimate stuff. When you separate what we know from what we don't, we're left with not much: Some people don't feel empathy for other people. Most people do. And some are hyper-attuned to the emotions and sensations of other people around them to the point where it becomes distracting. Slide along the spectrum to wherever feels right for you and plant your flag.
I explain this so it comes as no surprise to you that I'm frequently delighted and beset by the emotions of people around me, even when their passion, excitement, fury or defensiveness has nothing to do with me. I'm not exceptional in this: Who hasn't found their nervous system hijacked by a foreign feeling, only to realise they're subconsciously reacting to a lively discussion happening across the room or the snide whisperings of colleagues a few desks away? Empathy is the default setting for most of humanity.
But unfortunate by-product of people who possess a pinch of emotional intelligence is that they often think they have a fistful. If you start to think you can read the vibe of anyone, you're inevitably going to get it wrong at some stage. Especially given how ambiguous humans can be, with their magnificent ability to make a facial expression that screams, "You're a fucking moron" at their belligerent boss, whilst nodding their heads and saying, "Yes, I understand." Sure, it makes for a cool party trick when you start dating someone and they think you can read their mind... But if you classify yourself an empathetic person who has a few neurotic tendencies (hello All Millennials, thanks so much for stopping by) then you might find yourself projecting well into the stratosphere. End result: Reacting to things other people haven't even thought yet... And most likely won't.
I did not learn how to ride a bicycle as a child. I just didn't. By the time I reached adolescence and all the other kids were able to hoon around town on two wheels, I was too acutely humiliated by my own ineptitude to be seen learning. It takes a surprisingly long time to teach people not to be tiny psychopaths, and I had no intention of being identifiable as the Last Teen on Training Wheels. This fear of seeing (and sensing) the pity and amusement of others was enough for me to reject every opportunity to learn, well into adulthood. And there were opportunities. There were offers - many of them - but I could visualise the way my friends would feel as I struggled and tumbled and scraped my knees. Even if the feeling wasn't malicious, even if they kept a straight face, even if they said absolutely nothing except praise, I would know. And I couldn't bear the knowing. So I shut down every offer, without hesitation.
That's how, by the time I moved to Amsterdam at the age of 25, I still didn't know how to ride a bike.
I made do on foot for the first few months, watching humanity's closest thing to wheeled humans whizz by me without a care in the world, passive-aggressively dinging their bells if anybody so much as thought about stepping into the bike lane. Before that stage of my life, even the sight of people biking filled me with a residual, burning shame that had nothing to do with them and everything to do with me.
But living in a city where there are more bikes than people - where newborns are strapped into harnesses on handlebars, teenagers dink two or three friends at a time and lovers pedal in tandem, holding hands - I desensitised to the shame because I had to. Soon came the curiosity. I watched closely at how people took off, how they balanced, how they braked. Then I called on my closest friends to please, please help me.
And they did. Wobbling, slow takeoffs around the curves of Vondelpark. Forgetting to brake and simply jamming my feet to the earth as I threw the bike from my body. Smashing into the side of a parked car when a van trundled down the street, too close. A scar on my elbow that, all these years later, seems here to stay.
The problem with learning to ride a bike is that you can't do it in the privacy of your own home. And oh Lord, dear reader, did I feel every single stare. Every chuckle. Every grimace. Dutch children learn to pedal with confidence around the same time they start to toddle, so a grown woman battling so hard to do something so natural was quite the spectacle. The intensity of peoples' stares were overwhelming that I would sometimes fight back tears as I took off for the umpteenth time, praying my feet would manage to find the pedals once they left the relative safety of the cement.
But to quote an adage that is both postscript and call-to-arms: Nevertheless, she persisted.
I learned to filter out the unfiltered gaze of the outside world and focus instead on myself, my bike, my velocity. It wasn't easy, but I reduced the world down to what was me and mine, and all else became nothing more than ambience. And eventually - not easily - it happened.
On that magical, first time, the wind kicked through my hair and it felt like I had wings. I was giddy, euphoric, triumphant... And I knew that I wasn't coming back down to earth until I was damn well ready. As my legs found their rhythm and my pelvis relaxed into the seat, I was overcome with a triumphant thrill that felt so much like love, I wouldn't have been surprised if I was simply catching the vibes from someone else's heart as I passed them.
I was cycling. It was brilliant.
As you've probably already deduced, years of avoidance, denial and rejection had mutated the simple act of riding a bicycle into something of a phobia. And that fear fought hard against its exorcism. There were a couple of crying meltdowns along the way, as well as two perpetually scorched-red cheeks and a moment-by-moment battle against the negative feedback loop that oh-so-helpfully insisted that everyone is staring. But fear is flimsy - it takes root easily, but can be yanked out as smoothly as a dandelion if you practice your grip and fossick in the dirt for the stubborn remnants that refuse to die.
By the time I moved away from my beloved Amsterdam, I had developed the breezy Dutch confidence that I once found so awe-inspiring. I could make and take phone calls, balance grocery bags on my handlebars and haul a bouquet of flowers at the same time without breaking a sweat. I'd bike in the snow, criss-cross tram tracks, battle against 30-plus kilometre winds. When I'm biking, I don't give a damn if someone else is staring. Ding ding, motherfuckah. Get out of my lane.
On a bicycle, the world moves too fast for you to absorb much of anything - anybody - nearby. Instead, you become just one noisy, rapid blur in a world of noisy, rapid blurs. It's meditation for people who lack the hip flexibility for lotus pose; the medium through which communication is limited to how you share the road with other people, rather than what you think they think about you.
If my brain felt it necessary to hold onto the memory of my mother's innocent 'bummy' blip, I'm loath to imagine how many hours I wasted, agonising over now-obsolete fear. How many opportunities did I forfeit because I couldn't be brave? How much anxiety and shame did I project on other people as an excuse not to learn? And when people did react, (though they meant no harm), how long did I hold onto the shame after they'd completely forgotten about me?
Shame is the man behind the curtain, desperately puppeteering people in the hopes nobody will realise his own impotence. He found my weakness in tying something innocent to my hypervigilant sense of empathy. And once I refused to let my shame deter me from trying, and failing, and trying better - to learn the skill I desperately wanted - those ugly feelings that gnawed at me for years simply... lost their bite.
So if you're like me, and you think a little too long and a little often about the passions and grudges of everyone else in the world;
If you're highly attuned to emotional shifts and want to shroud the world in bubble wrap so it never needs hurt;
If you desperately want something harmless that you're simultaneously afraid to want;
Just... Take the emotion out of it. It's not easy, but it's necessary. Because no matter how wise or how studied or how intuitive you are, you are a deliciously unreliable narrator in your own story. And so is everyone else. We are our most severe critics, but we, too, are limited - and other people are far more diverse and interesting than whatever nasty thing we imagine they're thinking about us.
So if you're feeling weighed down by the sheer emotion of the world around you... Switch off. Breathe through it. Then get on a bicycle and fly.
My ex-boyfriend used to call it 'the bisexual haircut' because it wasn't a pixie and it wasn't long, and we all know the world is defined by binaries. It turns out he didn't invent the term, (and, in fact, it was quite prevalent), but until that day I'd only ever viewed the bob haircut as but one of two options:
1. The most flattering aesthetic to give your Sims character right before deleting the handlebars to the swimming pool during a neighbourhood party.
2. As profound a message as a horse-head in between your enemy's bedsheets.
Allow me to explain the latter. Ritualised behaviours are fascinating because there's often very little critical rationale behind them. It is ritual that compels a bride to throw her bouquet into a crowd of clawing, clamouring maidens for some reason that she can't truly call her own, but would feel subversive to defy. Ritual compels a family grieving their newly-deceased dog to fill the void hastily with a puppy of an entirely different breed from the last who, despite it all, remains irreplaceable. And ritual decrees that if you break up with a girl and she cuts her hair into a bob... she is never, ever coming back.
Just because something is superficial, it doesn't mean it is not significant. There is a strong linkage of identity to grooming that, I daresay, humans only understand to a skin-deep level (boom-tish). But it's there, it's seldom examined, and it should be.
When I came back to Australia for the first time in years, my younger sister - freshly nineteen years old and far more worldly and wise than I ever was at her age - cut her fringe back into shape.
"I wanted to look like I did when I was still your little baby sister," she said.
With a few snips, she had supplanted us back in time: she was a twelve-year-old with a fringe always just a smidge too short (and all the more adorable for it), and I had not yet left. It was inexplicably, wondrously easy to peer beyond her many piercings and artfully-applied mascara and see what she wanted me to see clearly again: the baby sister. My baby sister. A reminder that she never left, she simply spiced up her look.
The ritual of cutting hair is a sloppy short-hand for time travel if ever there was one.
But the post-breakup dramatic haircut - the kind where inches are vanquished all at once - is a different kind of ritual. It is the way we refashion ourselves into the illusion of someone your hands have never touched.
As with hurtling back in time, moving forwards creates its own subtle influence. My hair has been short for years; the last time my heart was broken, I had no silver bullet to recast myself as a mysterious stranger. Of course, I didn't know then that I would meet the love of my life in three... two... one. So, for lack of performative rebellion, I simply grieved whilst pretending I wasn't.
(Just because a relationship wasn't the last, it doesn't mean it wasn't significant.)
With nowhere to hide, the reality of the freshly-ended relationship bubbled to the surface, and I had no choice but to confront it. I find that even when I'm living in past tense, I revert to present. Every memory is new and beautiful and sparkly and sharp. I find that I almost like it.
There is ritual in prodding a bruise intermittently, just to see if it still hurts.
Time passes sluggishly, then abrupt. You think of the way lard solidifies against the surface of ramen broth as it cools; of flinging strawberry jam against a wall and watching it drip to the earth in stop-start slides. For the first few weeks you are invisible. The world tends to give space to people in pain. Even God gets tongue-tied sometimes.
I have been the younger sister. I know how to gaze longingly at the thing I don't want in order to distract him from the one I do. And break-ups have so many damn rituals.
'Ritualistic' is how we divide our friends. Our lives. I get the dinner parties on the eighteenth floor. He gets karaoke where the bar is always sticky and there's no shortage of single-serve acquaintances to make. We are both surprised at which friends cross the floor.
It is hard to give yourself permission to cry; harder still to make it actually happen. The tears smell a rat and refuse to come on command. There's a melancholy fantasy that doesn't feel like your own: Of running through sand dunes and letting a banshee wail rip across the winter sky. With it would come an unburdening, if only we were willing to make the trip, carve the path towards the water alone, commit to the act without fear of being overheard by strangers. I swallow my pain instead and make an insincere attempt to take a lover. They see my face after throwing themselves on your side of the bed and declaring it theirs. Their eyes widen with knowing at the sight of my gritted teeth; my flared nostrils. They leave, our flippant flirtation unconsummated. The side of the bed - the one that used to be my favourite before I let you claim it - stays empty.
Winter tucks its tail between its leg and lopes into towards whichever tilt of the earth hoards the most misery. The inverse of a Youtuber unboxing a parcel of junk, I pack away the priceless mementos of the relationship: the picture with the numbers scribbled, then crossed-out, on the bottom of the page. The stuffed fox. The card that, even then, hinted at a wince as it promised 'forever'. The springtime ritual of making space.
Nobody relishes the ritual of moving on, but eventually, somebody has to make the first move. Whether it is days or whether it is months, is always too soon. If you've prepared yourself for the inevitable, you might only reel for a day or two. You can remove your ego from the equation, recognise that you are not responsible for the other person's journey, and hope in that optimistic ventricles of your heart that this is not personal, it's not, they must have met somebody who would bring them a happiness that you were too sloppily held-together to provide. The word 'rebound' sounds ugly, even when deployed out of loyalty by friends. That hypervigilant part of you that always bristled to his defence trills. You soothe it with trembling hands. His battles are no longer yours to fight. But the muscle memory takes time to unlearn.
There is medicine in your shadow. I find a guilty sliver of relief in the sheer selfish indulgence of not having a second person live in my head rent-free. I get bored of being heartbroken; realise I'm recovering faster from the affliction itself than the months I anguished in anticipation of it. Fear makes the wolf look bigger. Sometimes losing someone is easier than trying to find your feet on the unstable terrain of their love.
You catch sight of your own petulant smirk in a reflective surface after somebody drip-feeds you a platitude. You can't help but laugh at just how seriously you've been taking yourself these days. You make a point of laughing more often. Sincerely. From deep in your belly, like your insides are seeping honey and you've swapped respiratory systems with a hippo, or a bear. Something that roars.
You forgot your laugh could be hiccupy. It feels good to remember.
There is a process that so many of us forget, but should not. In a digital age where everybody posts their shiniest moments and buries the dented tin stories underground, it is important to be authentic. We joined the internet for Neopets and social media for scrapbook memory-collecting, and since my red Shoyru is gone (his name was NibNib, in case you were wondering), we might as well double down on refocusing our digital identities away from haunting one or luring another. Never has there been a better time to delete Facebook, but if you're like me, you can't bear to lose access to your deep fried memes and posts from your great uncle who perpetually seems to use the status bar for Google searches. So reconnect with your own goofiness instead. Reinvest in the art of being visible for the right reasons. Let your technological footprint reflect the kind of person you are, and then pair that to your hobbies.
It's all Gucci if you got God, but if you don't, this is the time to channel something that makes you whimsical and wise. Consume more of it than can consume you.
There are infinite rituals that bring us change if we desperately need a disruption, so long as we do it for the right reason. The ritual of changing jobs. Cities. Countries. The ritual of coming home. The ritual of staying the same. The ritual of saying sorry. The ritual of becoming the girl Drake was singing about in Hotline Bling. (It would certainly be a better life than being the girl who had stayed with Drake.)
It's hard to understand what compels us to drastically and dramatically change ourselves during periods of turbulence, but there is something wonderfully curious and naïve about it. In light of the heartbreak I was so sure I'd never get over - until, like a snap of the fingers and the revelation that my happiness was my own, I did - I realised that it wasn't just about learning to love again. It was the revelation that by the time we reach our late twenties, we all carry neuroses and fears and defensiveness and traumas from the romances that have already passed. But, just as nobody is exempt from history, we are not special in our suffering. We owe it to ourselves to be brave. We owe it to ourselves to nurture our hearts back to whole like they are our skinned-knee children. We owe it to ourselves to forgive who we are today for the mistakes we made yesterday.
But sometimes still, I wonder: Would I have cut my hair into a bob if I didn't already have one? Truth be told, I don't think so. I grew as much from the embers of a turbulent, devoted, deeply healing relationship as I did throughout its roaring prime. We both became better - not just for those who came after, but for who we had to become. So I had no shameful history to purge.
But that's not to say that that my code of conduct should be yours. So do it, Rapunzel, if that's what your soul is screaming for... But only on one condition: That whatever ritual you perform next will be entirely your own.
You know what gets old? Platitudes.
We've all been guilty of leaning on them at some stage in our lives - it's human impulse to regurgitate the more lucid opinions of people you respect when a topic arises for which you haven't quite given yourself the space to develop an opinion. Most of the time, a superficial remark can informs our values. Other times, it can contribute to our own lack of initiative and actually prevent us from critically examining both the world around us, and how we relate to it.
Everyone has a few pet peeves and I am no exception. I've flipped from whining that "adulting is haaaaard," to seeing this as self-infantilisation. Yeah, I hate decoding my tax bills via Google Translate as much as anyone, but the fact that I even have the opportunity to complain about something like that is testament to how much freedom I have now. When people feel adrift, it seems they always end up latching onto 'adulting' as the self-indulgent scapegoat, rather than admit that these responsibilities are the trade-offs for the perks. I don't use that term anymore. I don't miss it.
It's easy to lose perspective of the multifaceted richness of life. Once upon a time, I'd have called myself a misanthropic extrovert and only cringed about 48% of how much I should have, but now my profound appreciation of silver linings is a huge defining characteristic of my life. Like most people, it came as a result of an abrupt and violent introduction to the concept of death at a young age. And I'm not talking about the 'all dogs go to heaven' kind.
The premature knowledge of mortality changes everyone. To an extent, both my personality and my life path were forever altered by it. Maybe I don't even know how much. When I was younger, it meant being highly risk averse - at night, I'd walk the fifty metres from the tram stop to my front door with my house keys studded between my fingers, despite living in one of the most idyllic, sleepy neighbourhoods Melbourne has to offer. It meant leaving house parties before midnight turned me back into a pumpkin instead of an invincible adolescent, even though all my friends would stay until the early hours of the morning and sobered up on the long walk home. I'd piece together their pre-dawn adventures through breathless retellings at school on Monday morning. That risk aversion is also why my sense of nostalgia is ever-tinted by the bittersweet; why I can see myself appear on-screen in the official Glastonbury 2017 highlight reel on someone else's airplane television screen and, despite that dehydrated giddiness of flying, feel a pang of loneliness instead of amusement.
If we understand that we will never live as long as we think we deserve, we can triage our priorities accordingly. To decide what you'd do if money were no option but time was limited... and the opposite.
I am the same age that my mother was when she gave birth to me. I have outlived the uncle who bounced me on his knee and speculated on the kind of adult I'd become. I have outlived the friend from school whose funeral was standing-room only, my brother's best friend with the electric blue eyes whom I'd had a (presumably obvious) crush on, the colleague who saved thousands of lives through her work but was still too young for those numbers to mean anything. I have outlived my cousin, who I loved with an uncomplicated and devoted territoriality. He had always, always been 11 months older than me. Until he wasn't.
Time marches on.
I love birthdays with that starry-eyed fanaticism of the newly rehabilitated. Perhaps before that first unexpected, traumatic lesson of the sheer impermanence of life, I might have not have. But I do, and with great aplomb. I agonise over presents. I fantasise about treats and meals and hosting parties. I am whatever is the inverse of a boggart would be in Harry Potter: I want to know what is closest to your heart, and I'll half-kill myself to source it for you in the hopes that you will feel all-consumingly blissful, adored, and alive. I want there to be competition in your mind when you try to quantify the best day of your life. I want every single day to be the best day of your life. But that's an ambitious dream and I am but one person; fortunate enough to live a life enriched by connections with thousands of amazing people. So I will buy your novel on pre-order and ask you to sign my copy. I will come to the first yoga class you teach and park in the front row to prove that I'm not just there out of loyalty; I'll sweat just as hard as anyone else. I'll surprise you at work with fancy donuts because you mentioned that you love them but can't justify the expense. I will celebrate you - and all that you are - as much as time, money, and our friendship allows... and if no other occasion arises throughout the year, your birthday is a failsafe opportunity to do just that.
The world is made of Squidwards and Spongebobs. Don't be on the wrong side of history. (Or if you must, at least be a Patrick.)
Without fail, I feel disappointed when someone says they are not excited about their birthday. That's their prerogative, but with the same confidence of a child who just knows better than the adults who for some reason don't understand that they can have ice cream any time of day at all, I am bemused. I wonder how we ever became so ashamed of loving ourselves that we shirk the spotlight on the one day a year that is our (birth)right. How can we be so self-flagellating?
"I don't celebrate birthdays. I'd rather we not mention it," someone will inevitably say when they notice my eyes illuminating. Though they rarely say it, they're usually cautioning me silently at the same time: Don't make a fuss.
"Why?" I ask, knowing the answer will be the same (it always is).
"A birthday is just another year closer to death."
But oh, my darling, how misguided it is to say that. We are not entitled to so much as the next minute of existence; another birthday marks another year that you have cheated a tragedy that could have come at any moment.
A birthday is a victory. It is a sign that we have snatched another 365 days from the slavering jaws of our own mortality. The game of life is high-stakes, and not everybody during the course of this year has been so fortunate as to emerge with a heart that beats and lungs that deflate and inflate and a mind that ripples with electric currents that set our puppet strings to dancing.
This perspective is important to me. I have somehow come this far when undoubtedly more worthy people have not, and one day, someone reading this might outlive me. And yes, I'd much rather live forever (or die trying), but that's what makes having an objective marker of how far we've come so special.
Can't you see how fucking lucky we are?
Today I get to eat potato chips which crunch and snap and explode salt on my tongue as I sit in a fluffy bathrobe and enjoy the pleasant muscular ache after last night's yoga class. I was exhausted - I'd been tempted to stay home until I saw I'd missed the cancellation window - but decided to persist and emerged feeling rejuvenated. Now, as seagulls skate by my living room window in lazy semi-circles, I can pore over my computer, creating new ways to express - through the limited medium of language - how instrumental the work of advocates and educators has been in saving lives in countries I might never see.
It's not an action-packed, giddying, perfect day. Since I've discovered the 3 Good Things app (self-explanatory in function), I've found that a day doesn't have to be any of those things to be a good one. And that helps me keep perspective, because maybe someone with chronic illness would love to have a day like the one I am taking for granted right now. Maybe an incarcerated person would pine for the luxury of 'adulting'. Maybe someone who will not have another birthday would give anything to go back in time and celebrate the last one they snubbed.
People struggle to appreciate what is stable in their lives. We are a hungry, ambitious species that thrive the most when what we want is just out of reach. Maybe we don't appreciate things like our responsibilities, our bodies, our wellbeing, our birthdays... or at least, not until we learn just how hard it is to no longer have them. But it doesn't mean we can't learn.
It is a privilege to be alive, particularly when odds have been stacked against us at even from the crude biological level of conception. I am not willing to squander it.
And if you'll allow me, I won't let you either.
I was sitting on my couch, staring out the window as pedestrians ambled the streets of Amsterdam, rugged up against the 2-degree chill when I saw it, floating from the apartment above: a solitary, swollen bubble. Then my eyes adjusted to the distance, and I saw another, and another. Everywhere, bubbles.
At the sight of them, I had but one thought:
Someone has just fallen in love.
Because we don't go blowing bubbles arbitrarily at 11am on a Friday from a residential apartment block for any other reason, do we? Or am I just the fickle eccentric who's captivated by iridescence, tethering it in some nebulous neural way to love, and giddiness, and the goodness of life?
Maybe it's projection on my part; maybe the 11am bubble-blowing bandit isn't in love, but rather, the emotion is simply on my mind. Having enjoyed, until recently, four years of unrelenting and unapologetic independence, the thought sits clumsily. How, I wondered, Would I know what is rattling around behind the sternum of some phantom bubble blower?
To love is to love, but to be seen loving is to subject oneself to scrutiny. Perhaps this is why so many people fear the word; we don't reach our mid-late twenties without a healthy portion of baggage. It's the only way we're allowed to keep passing "Go", and in my social circles, there's as much originality to our neuroses as there were unappealing tokens on the Monopoly board:
1) The Wheelbarrow: Still dating the partner from the first year of university, the Wheelbarrows are either as besotted as they were from the first day, or locked into a mutually-assured destruction of resentment and sunk-cost fallacy. Either way, they've got the next 15 years of their life mapped out;
2) The Racecar: Newly extricated from a long-term relationship, the Racecar is bracing for the long winter by hastily locking down their new partner, since they've already put in the emotional labour of preparing to settle down, just with someone else;
3) The Cannon: Voraciously, insatiably single... but less available for friends than they are for the endless stream of Tinder first-dates who all sound inconsequential initially, but soon become villainous in the retelling when there is no second date;
4) The Boot: The Boot's been beaten down by love, constantly trapped in the will-we-won't-we dance with some abusive ex-partner. They'll circle back around this routine to a few more times than is wise before they realise they're not in love, they're just scuffed and unlaced and don't know how far they can limp along on their own.
As someone who's been each of these Monopoly metaphors at some stage or other, and more (don't ask me about my stint as an iron), I can empathise. Humans are categorically unable to live life without clumsiness, which is, in itself, quite sweet. Everyone wants someone to warm their bed as the world is ending, but the ways in which we pursue happiness - within ourselves but especially with regard to our love lives - can make us seriously bloody hard to love.
Romantic relationships are often dysfunctional and ill-fitting from an outsider's perspective, and why wouldn't they be? People put so much pressure on their partners to make them happy, but happiness is a fickle target that sees us punish ourselves and the people we love for not fulfilling an expectation that doesn't align with the adorable doofiness of being a human being.
Because there are bubbles in Dam Square which means that someone is in love and frankly, I hope it's you. It should be you.
But we've gotta sort out our yardstick for what that means.
People measure the quality of their life by how often and intensely they feel happy, which is wonderful, delightful, perfect... if it works. But happiness as a feeling is quite thin without the weight of unhappiness to create a counterpoint to it. Someone can slog through the emotional equivalent of Dante's Inferno, hungering for a day when happiness will return to them, but such is the nature of the beast: like a blocked nose, you don't notice the moment that unhappiness disappears. You'll go straight back to taking the ability to breathe for granted until the next time it clogs. So to hunger for happiness as a measure of a life well-lived places an unrealistic burden on oneself.
I try not to let myself lean on the word "happy" as a defined objective these days. It stops me from falling into the logical fallacies of thinking: "If I did/owned/was X, I'd be happy". It's like a shining beam of light from the heavens illuminating you in its thrall - pretty spectacular, but eventually you're gonna wanna go get something to eat and wash your hands and maybe have a nap without having to just linger in that one spot for the rest of your life. You change depending on the context in which you live, so your feelings of positivity should too.
For example, owning a home wouldn't necessarily make me happy, but it would make me comfortable. I would enjoy having a space that's truly mine, where I can invite guests around at any time, to choose every stick of furniture in the place and be allowed to do something more interesting at an auction than when I was a kid and my Dad would let me accompany him under the condition I did not, at any time or for any reason, raise my hand.
Likewise, I love my career deeply, but making more money in my job wouldn't necessarily make me happy - it would simply give me more options, which I could then use for the things that do make me happy - like a trip to somewhere I've never been or a meal at a fancy restaurant, just because. So with this in mind, it makes sense that I don't think happiness should be found in the actual getting of the guy or the girl you have a crush on, despite this seemingly comprising 90% of the mental and interpersonal angst of the people I know. Making like Ash Ketchum and just choosing someone shouldn't be the happiest point of a relationship (though for many it is)... it should be the prologue to a big adventure full of highs and lows, doubts and growth, and a conscious decision between both parties to keep actively deciding to stay on the path they've stepped onto as a team.
The dating game places so much pressure on people to carve their ideal soulmate into the uneven marble of another person, but carving is a brutish craft when the raw materials are a human being. A "fixer-upper" relationship, or one contingent upon one party changing, is painful for both people: there is resentment from one for having to "guide" the other into becoming who they should be, and hurt from the person who soon realises that the love that was given to them, seemingly in good faith, is, in fact, conditional on the happiness they bring their partner.
So maybe we shouldn't aim for happiness. Maybe we should aim for satisfaction.
Satisfaction is a sensation that is as longitudinal or as brief as we want it to be; it removes the value clarifiers we place on everything (for example, in a failing relationship: "Does my partner make me happy, or did they make me happy?"). Satisfaction is more readily identifiable than happiness - it's warm, content, and a little self-congratulatory - the latter of which may seem a bit indulgent, but is not. In fact, the personalisation of satisfaction is why it's more sustainable than happiness in the first place: by feeling like we've contributed to our satisfaction (in some big or small way), we have some degree of control over it. An issue with the way we perceive happiness is that it is fickle and fleeting - circumstantial, bestowed upon us by someone else, contingent upon more labour to keep it. But satisfaction does not wither on the vine if you don't keep feeding it - it is there whether you focus on it or not, and unlike the way recall happiness, it is not tinged with sad, bittersweet nostalgia. It simply is.
Happiness is posited as a destination, not a process. Satisfaction is a more navigable marker that, when manifested properly, can be applied to both lives and lovers without forcing upon them the immense burden of perfection that is associated with "making happy".
And, to be a little less metaphysical: Dating is a dog's breakfast. If we can't laugh at ourselves, we're fucked.
Picture it like shoe-shopping. You haven't had your size fitted since you were a teenager and you're not totally sure what fits and you're still gravitating towards slutty thigh-high boots or Converse high-tops and it seems like everyone is just yanking shoeboxes off the wall, squeezing themselves into a pair that fits like Cinderella's slipper on her step-sister's girth, and strolling out like it ain't no thang. Meanwhile, boxes are scattered in your wake, spewing their contents left and right, and all you can think is: "How firm are restaurants really on the no shirt, no shoes, no service rule?" because this is a waking hell and you'd rather be barefoot for the rest of your life.
Not a super happy metaphor there, right? You're not wrong. Happiness cringes from that kind of discomfort, and I don't blame it. But satisfaction is a little more tongue-in-cheek, happy to salvage a good story from a bad experience and still call it a victory of sorts. Case in point: I've rarely heard a story about a threesome that wasn't, at its best, tempered with some disappointment or at its worst, an outright disaster. I know, Hollywoo keeps telling us the 'D' is silent if done right, but the way the stories are painted, it seems there's always one selfish link in the triangle, or someone's kinda gassy, or one person feels left out and ends up creating a colossal drama. Not happy times, not really, but salvageable if you know how to laugh at yourself.
But it's not sweet. It's not pretty. It's not happy. And the movies promised us all that and more - perfection in threesomes, and love, and cleanly-resolved arguments, and bad-boys tamed by the girl next door and that there's a Sandra Dee in leather for any guy who thinks he has the crude tools to change a person into an archetype. No wonder we're unhappy.
I suspect - though I'm not married to this theory - that maybe the best part of sex and love is actually the moment when all parties look at each other with excited anticipation, asking silently: "Are we really about to do this?", whilst knowing that yes, they will. Maybe we're not obsessed with love, but with antici...
I've seen the cognitive dissonance first-hand, and certainly more than once. For so many of my friends, the first kiss with Prince(ss) Charming has was vastly more exciting than the second, let alone having to hunker down for a year or two with them just to be a good sport. A kiss can feel like happiness - for what is infatuation if not capturing a butterfly in your hands and feeling its wings flutter within the hollow of your palms? - but maybe we're chasing the wrong sensation. After all, the real story always begins after the Happily Ever After rolls... and who's to say that story isn't more satisfying?
Not every part of life can be as pure or euphoric as bubbles floating by your window. But it can be content. It can be calm. It can be beautiful.
And it can be conquerable.
As an advocate for human rights, my work has seen me skew organically towards expertise in combating gendered - and particularly sexual - violence.
Every single day, I spend hours wading through the words of those who have suffered and survived. I have pushed aside my spare time, my hobbies, even my health because I believe that for each person brave enough to share their stories, there should be an opportunity for them to yield some small comfort in return. Perhaps it's a platform through which to be heard, a connection to help them heal, or a change in attitude or ethos or culture spawned by their story that mean, one day, they might be amongst the last people who have that story to tell.
With #MeToo tearing down all the flimsy constructs we have societally created to protect abusers and diminish survivors, there is a lot of emotion taking place. People want justice, they want action - but what can be done?
For many of these cases, the best was an offer is a change within ourselves.
There are action points you can take - today - to support survivors of sexual assault and change the culture that enables their abuse. They come with no financial cost, but they demand consistency and commitment.
Wellbeing for Women Africa has launched its first Master Document, Action Points for Changing the World: Sexual Assault, which examines the grey areas of sexual consent within which so much sexual abuse takes place, dismantales the logical fallacies that protect abusers and diminish the voice of survivors, and provide a tangible list of actions you can take to recognise the problem so that you can be part of the solution.
Unless we stand boldly against sexual assault, we are complicit.
Read the Master Document here at www.wellbeingwomen.org
I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of legacy lately; the ways we try to smear our sticky thumbprints on the ledgers of history so that something outlasts and outlives us.
For as long as there has been humanity, there has been a desire to transcend it. We can’t be sure that cavemen didn’t scratch their carvings into walls just for decorative purposes, just like we can’t be sure whether Van Gogh smeared oil on canvas specifically to keep bringing lumps to the throats of people long after he couldn't see it for himself. We plug in our headphones to goosebump as the doomed lungs of dead musicians croon us a chorus, and we know it’s not logical but dammit, it feels like they’re speaking directly to us, doesn’t it?
And it makes me wonder how much our fear of death influences the actions we take in life.
If asked, most people I talk to say that they couldn’t bear to be immortal, to watch their loved ones be born and live and die, over and over again. Me? I’m not so sentimental. Or maybe too much so. Whichever it is, I can become smitten with a thousand different faces and chase their stories like a bloodhound on the scent of a rabbit. If I was doomed to outlive everyone I'd ever cared about, I doubt I could forget those I’ve lost, but I'd still find ways to embrace new challenges and new friends from it.
Then again, I may just have that rationale because I’m scared of death. Quite scared, as it goes.
I didn’t used to be. It was an abstract concept; “Things to do before I die” with the word ‘die’ in a whisper. But then people I loved started flickering out like candles in a drafty corridor and suddenly the realisation that I might not have the luxury of a long life began to calcify in the back of my mind. It only became conscious recently, but it had been germinating in the grey matter for who knows how long before.
It started with a novel. I’d been a scribbling, scapping kid from my earliest years and I’d journeyed with my friends etched in fiction for so long, I wanted to contribute to their world. I took the plunge as an adult after losing the thread partway through a Young Adult trilogy I’d begun in my teens that, sadly, is lost on an old hard drive somewhere unknown to me.
But this wasn’t me writing about my friends and our adolescent drama, this was a proper novel. I didn’t just want it to be good: I wanted it to be cataclysmic. I wanted to be capable of writing something that changed the face of literature and shook university English professors by the lapel, spitting frothily into their faces, “But do you get it?!” It’s always been my way to start by dreaming big and then paring it down to reality, and this was no exception.
I was twenty-one years old when I finished my first book, Softly Screamed the Devil. While it had a lot of heart, the execution left much to be desired. Regardless, I pressed on with writing because I knew it would hurt me more to stop than to keep going. A novel a year, more or less, as I learned to prune and pluck my style into the truest expression of myself. And yet to this day, very few people have ever read my manuscripts.
Why labour painstakingly for hundreds or even thousands of hours, to cultivate something from the ether… only to bury it in some folder on my computer or stash in hard copy on the bottom floor of my chest of drawers?
For the same reason I wrote, of course. I’d worked so hard to create something that would outlive me, but it wasn’t yet right; not perfect. And if sloppy craftsmanship with my name attached went out into the world, so much the quicker that both of us could be dismissed forever.
A book is so easy to skim and then discard. A legacy in written by oneself ink is not as potent as a legacy scribed by others in legend. I think I must have known this, somewhere deep down, when I finally slipped from being a person with a job to a person with a career.
The International Development sector fascinates me endlessly; we work so hard to combat abstract concepts of human suffering such as female genital mutilation, human trafficking, and famine, all for the benefit of people we will never meet. Altruism comprises a significant part – those who know me are equal parts unsurprised that my bleeding heart has found a place to outpour its tenderness and amused that my cynicism can bear to navigate bureaucracies like the United Nations and the World Health Organisation to do so – but a sector fed on selflessness alone wouldn’t be a sustainable one. Ergo, there are other factors at play.
Loving what I do in my day-to-day work has always been a huge driving principle of my (until recently) shrug-emoji career aspirations. But as I’ve found my groove in the work I do, I’m recognising the things I need to create, and fuel, endless drive: room to grow professionally, autonomy to make decisions, and scope to work with and for the interests of numerous parties being chief amongst them.
International Development is full of people with equal and greater passion to mine. These people live and breathe their metrics of impact and grind away for decades in academic study and professional development, spurred by a burning hunger to leave even the smallest dent in their area of expertise. And I’ve also met people who spruik lives saved with the same lacklustre indifference of an insurance salesperson without a quota; people who are simply happy to have the place of their employment – a label of audacious idealism – written on their resumé without any follow-through. I don’t ask them why. It would be arrogant to assume that I am the only one whose drive is motivated by ways to leave something behind. Then again, it might be petulant to assume I'm not.
It comes back to the old conversations we have about marriage and family and children, doesn’t it? How people navigate the complexity of whether someone is compatible enough with them to share an intertwined generation, and whether that bond can endure a nonbiological connection (adoption, fostering) if conception proves impossible.
With millions of children around the world in desperate need of a home, I often wonder why for some people it’s a carte blanche, “I want my child to be biologically mine”, while others collect foster kids like Pokémon cards.
Sure, the simple answer is that humans are complicated beings. I’m not disputing that. But I wonder how much, if anything, a fear of death influences our more passive worldviews. Whether we need the child who outlives us to contain those nuggets of our DNA before we are willing to accept whatever comes after, or whether the gaggle of children who, at one time or other, are housed beneath our roofs are expected to go on and spread the gospel of the guardians who did them such kindness?
It might seem a pessimistic train of thought, but honestly, I feel nothing but compassion for these hypothetical people and their hypothetical priorities. We’re all just trying to live a life worth eulogizing before the clock hits zero. This does not make us arrogant, nor dangerous – so long as it doesn’t consume us – it’s just human. A hard-wired (possibly biological) imperative. And in a way, it’s kind of beautiful.
Two years ago, on a dry, arid day in the foothills of Shan State, Myanmar, I truly believed that I was about to die. What astonished me was not the revelation itself, but how quickly – and I mean quickly – I made peace with it. Even as my heart rattled against my sternum as if trying to break free and save itself at the expense of me, I thought with a dry amusement that this was perfectly appropriate of the life I wanted to live: mysterious circumstances, a foreign country, and insurgents in the area – a perfect storm for a diplomatic scandal.
At the risk of spoiling this story, I did not die that day. But the calm of my resignation stayed with me for another year, at least. Only recently did I realise that it had faded, when I also noticed that I’ve reverted to working myself to the bone in my fickle pursuit of immortality.
So I’m doing it right, this time.
I’ve come back to Softly Screamed the Devil in the last few months. Five years leaves a lot of time for your skill to grow and your heavy-handed use of five-dollar words to diminish. But the book still has heart in a way that makes me feel forgiving of my past, car crash-clattering-keyboard bandit self. This book may not be taught in high school English classes, but now that the world has become bigger and more vibrant to me, I don’t think that’s ever really what I wanted. I just wanted somebody I’d never met to see my name on a book sleeve and feel a frisson of anticipatory excitement, of, “What’s she written now?”
By the year’s end, I hope I will have found time in my busy schedule to have completed these edits until it is in a good enough shape for me to start feeding to those closest to me for feedback – the real kind, where the jugular sits just below the skin. By then, I will ideally have finished slapping together the resilience I need to handle the criticism it will undoubtedly incur, and grow from it.
I’m measuring the way I leave my mark on the world differently; through friends made, conversations that linger, and lives made better through my love, advice, honesty, or sympathetic ear. It’s liberating because it gives me permission to be mediocre, if mediocrity is in store for me. Maybe one day, I’ll accept that my name will mostly likely be lost in the wash of history. The world is interconnected enough for that to even be appealing, with some rationalisation – after all, for every person immortalised, there is a contrarian objector to everything they stand for. I’ve always been a person who prefers to hit 80% of the specs on the first attempt than exhaust myself in building up to an even hundred; I don’t have the energy to defend a legacy from the grave. It's not like I'll be around to glean any satisfaction from it, anyway.
But it’s nice to imagine that at least for the lifetimes of those who love (or, one day, have loved) me, I might be remembered. After all, what do we live for if not for the lives we’ve changed, we’ve made, we’ve moved?
Do you want to know my biggest secret? It might sound silly, but I've always fantasised about walking into my own surprise party. I want to know how the sensory overload feels when a sea of my friends and family convene in secret, just to blindside me with the knowledge that I am worth suffering bitten tongues and anxiety-inducing covert planning just to gift me that pure, euphoric moment. I can imagine no more perfect way to look foolish, nor to feel loved.
If only there was a way to know if that's what death feels like. If it was, maybe I’d stop living like I’m trying to beat the devil.
But maybe I wouldn’t.
That’s what makes it fun.
Fun fact about me: I fucking love barbershops.
There's no great story to it, since I've never actually been inside of one. I have no beard that needs trimming, no sideburns that need sculpting, no nose hair that needs twizzling or evaporating or setting on fire (whatever it is that those scary motorised thingies do).
But during my long, boring days in London, the ones when I couldn't afford to do much of anything and all the people worth doing things with were at their respective places of work, I found myself creating my own entertainment in much the same way bored children do with a handful of rocks. Eating a bowl of bun cha in one of my favourite Vietnamese restaurants one slow early-winter afternoon, I realised I had a voyeur's ideal vantage point into the bustling barbershop across the road.
The seats sat on raised platforms that cast the customers like a spotlight-bathed thespian on a stage. They gazed lovingly into their own reflections as a kingdom of cuttings lay scattered at their ankles, oblivious to the queue of waiting patrons seated against the glass. On these pedestals, they afforded me the perfect vantage point of each snip and coif.
I watched as I chewed on my own rumination - Is it time I moved away again? Where would I go? What if I don't find what I'm looking for out there? My questions began to simmer, then still, as I found myself increasingly enchanted by the scene across the road. Though it was a day like (I presume) any other for them, I was seeing something entirely different altogether. All at once, the significance of barbershops in the lives of men made perfect sense to me: they were part necessity, part performance piece, and part bastion of vulnerability.
Yes, vulnerability. Because as I sat in that seat for over two hours with my noodles all but forgotten, subtle markers emerged. There's a surprisingly intimate quality to the way a man cocks his head back to reveal his throat to a stranger clutching a straight razor. But like contact sports and auto-erotic asphyxiation, a clean shave seems to be one of the few situations where people manually override their natural instinct to protect their pressure points in exchange for a payoff that, one would assume, outbalances the risk.
I've never met a man who didn't turn into a quivering kitten the moment I raked my fingernails through his hair. Given most girls seem to have the same opinion when it comes to their own - it's long and tangles easily, don't fucking mess with it - it's interesting to me that men seem to so love what I find stressful. When a barber rakes a fine-tooth comb through an inch or two of hair, I wonder: Does their scalp sing? Does it sizzle? Does it purr as that feline, limp-lipped, heavy-lidded stupor falls across the face of the customer?
I don't know. After all, I was creeping through two layers of glass and a four-lane highway. But when one of the barbers revealed one of those plush, round brushes and began dusting the stray hairs from a client's neck and shoulders (with me supplementing the floof! floof! floof! noises in my mind), I wondered if perhaps barbershops were one of the last bastions of heteronormative male-on-male intimacy.
Then I wondered why they had to be.
It's no secret that I find the concepts of masculinity and femininity fascinating, particularly when we critically analyse where the line is drawn between what is ingrained in us internally, and what we have been socialised to believe as fact. As the world increasingly develops a greater understanding of trans, queer, and non-normative identities, people are becoming more inclined to put what it means to be male, female, both, or neither beneath the microscope. We want to better understand ourselves, and others.
For a while, I held the belief that I was a tomboy growing up, but truth be told, I think I was just looking for some retroactive continuity. Whilst the days of finishing schools and stuffing oneself before a meal so as to give the illusion of a bird-like appetite are behind us, many of my major personality traits as a child (and, admittedly, now), are still considered abrasive in women: loud, cocky, cheeky, blunt. They may not be considered hallmarks of masculinity themselves, but they're definitely characterised positively in male leaders, and less so in female ones. So to paint myself as a tomboy was a way to justify this raw femininity within me - though, of course, I was no less feminine for it. I wonder what age I was when I felt I had to justify my so-called failure to be the Quintessential Little Girl.
And this fraught nature has not abated with time. I can only speak to my own experience, but assertiveness in women isn't often taken lightly. In my early twenties, I was awful at the dating game because I didn't know how to play-pretend at being pursued. I either stood my ground in a "try it and I'll bite your head off" defensive stance, or threw caution to the wind to do a little pursuing of my own. Supposedly, men resent the expectation to instigate romantic relationships, but I've met plenty who did not seem too chuffed about me doing it for them. My attempts to play up and play the game - equal-opportunity romantic that I am - has been known to have the opposite effect; it turns out that the thrill of the hunt only applies when you're not the prey. No wonder I've never been much of a sprinter.
So why is it that even against the backdrop of love, romance, and flings alike, my new benchmark for male vulnerability was set by a bunch of Shoreditch hipsters getting haircuts at 2 in the afternoon on a Wednesday, and not by any of the men who'd ever murmured "I love strong women" to me like this would be the Konami code to a feminist's underpants?
When it comes to dating, I hold the opinion that emasculation - like closure - is nonsense. Not that 'emasculation' doesn't exist, nor that people don't believe in it. But rather, it's something one does to oneself... Not something subjected upon an innocent man by a woman too bold, too brazen, too bossy, (too sure of herself?).
This is why male intimacy is a beautiful thing. Whether it's platonic or romantic, between men or towards women, male intimacy is a mechanism to remove the codification of a world along the lines of strength, and strength alone. It's necessary for connection, companionship, introspection, and to facilitate well-balanced mental health. But the notion of being a man is so intertwined with never seeming weak and never opening up emotionally. As such, many men seem to find the idea of being emotionally expressive or physically intimate with another man (and no, I'm not talking about sex) jarring, even frightening. I mean, damn, most men can't even stand side-by-side at urinals without being scared another dude might peek at their junk. (Meanwhile, drunk girls sardine-pile into nightclub toilets with their jeans around their ankles, determined that a full bladder won't derail good banter - but hey, that's another post in itself).
Toxic masculinity, so named for its pervasive harms, is an active killer of men. The data confirms that men who consider themselves "self-reliant" are more likely to confidentially report suffering from depression, suicidality, and other negative mental health markers, but are less likely to seek mental health support for fear of looking weak or feeling emasculated. What I appreciate about the concept of toxic masculinity is that it places male needs at the core of its definition: What is toxic about masculinity isn't being a man, but rather that the "brand" of being a man. Stoicism. Emotionally aloofness. Repression. Aggression. Toxic masculinity glorifies these characteristics despite the fact they are actively harmful. As a result, men suppress their emotions, rather than diffusing them through sharing; through vulnerability. Accordingly, men in droves appear to be self-selecting away from support networks, and it's reflected in the statistics of suicide.
I don't pretend to have a catch-all solution to ending toxic masculinity, but I think progress starts with extricating shame from emotions and asking ourselves tough questions. Why is gender such a loaded term - a source of salvation for some, and a prison for others? Why do we bemoan gender norms and then recoil from any attempt to subvert them? Why would some men rather die violently than confront their very real need for emotional support? Why ?
Short answer: I don't know. But I really wish I did. We've lost too many men already.
A real cultural shift will come when we can mainstream meaningful conversations and critical discussions of gender. But until then, for all of the men who are taking their journeys at their own pace - the ones who are suspicious of mental health support systems, and never let their mates see them cry - I hope that at least you're keeping on top of things. Eating right, exercising a bit, keeping clean. Whatever makes you feel good.
And I hope you're getting your hair cut in barbershops. I hope you know the guy who tapers your fade by first name. And I hope that when you walk out - even if you can't quite put your thumb on why - you feel a little better than you did before.
Do you remember the first time you encountered injustice? How it rankled and burned at the inside of your stomach, leaving you flustered and indignant?
I don't remember the first instance - I was probably being told off for some hijink my old brother had lead and I, the wide-eyed toddler who would have followed him anywhere, came along for the ride - but I do remember one of the more recent.
For context: I work in International Development, where high-level change-makers across the planet come together to find solutions to some of the most pressing issues globally. My remit is in the improvement of standards for health, wellbeing, and gender equality in Africa. These conversations are meaningful, and important - the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals are the guiding principles to create substantive impact in emerging nations, and they are intrinsically bold.
In September 2016, I had the privilege of attending the United Nations General Assembly in New York, where one of the key themes across a number of meetings I attended was the need for greater youth engagement.
"We need young people to be involved in development across all levels!" said one old white man, whom my colleague informed me in whispers had been in his role for eleven years, and had worked in two other NGOs in the room for the twenty-six preceding.
"Africa's youth need to be trained in this, now, so they can be the leaders of tomorrow," agreed an old white woman, who had entered the sector after a reasonably successful career in government, as was a common career trajectory for reformed politicians.
"We need more young people involved in decision-making processes," said another old white man, nodding towards the young woman seated beside him. I later learned that, contrary to the allusion made by her boss, the girl was actually his Personal Assistant.
Injustice. Definition: when old white people have spent decades hogging the sector's microphone, and still somehow have the audacity to say that we collectively need to put young people - Africa's young people, especially - at front and centre, without meaningful follow-through.
Maybe when I was younger and the world was simpler, I could rationalise this "not in my backyard" mentality. But when so many organisations have worked so hard and for so long to achieve sustainable development, and then come to these meetings and pay empty lip service to innovation and accountability - true accountability - when it comes to youth, it's hard to bite your tongue. The solution to so many systemic issues is tied to youth engagement, and yet nobody seems to realise that this is an opportunity, not an obligation.
I came away from my first United Nations trip exhausted, excited, and inspired - not least of all by the young leaders I met along the way. In the International Development community, there is a maddening status quo in which all youth events run outside of the formal schedule, and were populated largely by those outside of the high-level spaces. It seemed to me that the establishment figures who spoke of youth engagement so often were all for it, so long as they didn't have to be involved. Which was a shame, given the youth fora seemed to present solutions that directly impacted the predicaments I was hearing in the high-level own sessions.
The discord between these two complementary platforms irked me; youth engagement was the flavour of the month but nobody was actually capitalising on some of the bright ideas I had been lucky enough to hear first-hand.
But by the tail end of the year, a new professional opportunity arose: an advocacy platform was going to be built, and a youth focus was preferred focus. All it needed was an analysis of gaps in sectoral capacity, and a carefully-defined brand to fill them.
Nobody else was doing it, so we did.
Wellbeing for Women Africa launched this month, and with it came a new dimension to global advocacy for African development. Wellbeingwomen.org is a digital platform within which experts in African development beneath the age of 30 create editorial content about their areas of expertise - fostered professionally, academically, or through lived experience from the very frontlines - on the subjects of respectful relationships, mental health, gender equality, and reproductive, maternal, newborn, child, and adolescent health.
It's been hard work to pull the platform together, and I'm proud of the strides we've made even in our first month. The Youth Partners on our platform have toiled in low-level jobs, volunteered for months, travelled to conferences on their own dime, and worked hard to achieve some semblance of recognition that can allow them to work in the International Development community at a level reflective of their value. Some of them have been fortunate, but many have not. By giving these young people a global platform, our mission is to foster a new standard of accountability in the International Development sector, in which those who are capable and willing to take a seat at the table can actually be engaged.
There are many ways to defeat injustice. At Wellbeing for Women Africa, ours is to incentivise and encourage other organisations working in International Development to collaborate with, and elevate, their greatest untapped resource: the young people who are eager to contribute their wisdom to the conversation. Because trust me, wisdom is the only way to describe some of the pieces we've had the privilege to run.
I hope that you, dear readers, will join us and change the conversation.
I live for the moments in which a stoic tension breaks; that flickering wariness before our desire to be seen decides that the risk is worth taking. I live for the moments in which a person realises that yes, it is safe to cock their head and reveal the soft hollow between curved jawline and the elastic thrum of the carotid artery.
I fall in love flippantly. Sometimes it's the old Israeli man behind the milk bar counter with a blotchy stick-and-poke tattoo on his forearms, which he explains were inked onto him by some near-forgotten friend - one whose name makes his eyes mist from some sepia-toned memory. Sometimes it's the woman in the gym who grunts from the depths of her lungs as she hoists an impossible weight over her head with hypnotic artlessness. Sometimes it's the dark-eyed twenty-something with the lazy grin and cocksure attitude, who knows enough of the world to bite their tongue whilst someone with half the wisdom speaks with twice as much confidence.
Is it fair to calling it 'falling in love' if I don't actually want to become a part of these peoples' stories?
The women in my family have known grief. Generation after generation, they have birthed their sons into caskets, clutching the minutes, months, and years of life with a lovestruck anguish. When the first clod of dirt strikes varnished pine, they farewell all that was of their boy, and everything he'd one day become.
And yet, they keep bearing sons.
There have been times that I've wondered if my heart has become hard from loss; whether the weight of coffin after coffin has sunk it southwards, nestling against the walls of my womb that have been licked barren by crematorium flames.
"I love children," I tell people as I gush and coo over their sticky-fingered toddlers.
Then I remember that I am not - have never been - a source of life, but merely the dumb ghost who holds vigil over graves. That my lifeblood is anchored to the restless tap of fingers on keyboard in time with that one, endlessly looped Elliott Smith song, and not in the delicate practice of life-giving.
The last time I buried somebody I loved, the eulogy that fluttered in my throat struck a peculiar dissonance with the slow calcification of my insides. Despite the plaintiveness of my words, I'd long since turned to stone. For the half year afterwards in which this deadening persisted, I wondered, with indifference, if the full spectrum of human emotion would ever return to me. At the time, it was but a mere thought experiment: I couldn't muster enough feeling to worry.
"Other peoples', I mean."
And yet, I keep falling into scatterbrained love.
Because there's life in human error: all of our petty, our uncertain, or slipshod stumbling through shifting sands to the future we won't know if we want until we arrive. And I love you - I mean, I probably do - for the exact reasons you can't quite stomach yourself today.
There's pure joy to be found in that brief moment of hesitation before a person attempts to pronounce a new word for the first time. If our tongues are paper wings, then the Icarusean audacity of stammering something we want to express, but don't yet know how, must be the way it feels to fly.
At every funeral I've ever attended, the mourners shoulder the collective weight of an oppressive, stifling cloud of misery. But humans are not made to stay static in suffering, and eventually - whether the sound flees from traitorous lips or is offered with a considered reluctance - somebody will be the first to laugh. Every single time, that light slices up and down the room, scandalising us all for a heartbeat, before we realise that we are still standing, we still feel something, and that joy might not be lost to us forever.
Hours pass at these affairs, and conversation gradually gains momentum as we try to coax the anxious knots in our stomachs with the aid of wine, or canapés, or smalltalk about one another's hobbies. Laughter begins to punctuate the tension, and as it increases in frequency and volume, the plaintive weight slowly deflates like a tired balloon. We leave with dark-circled eyes from lost sleep and suffering, but also with the first creeping inkling of maybe that we are still too overwhelmed to slip beneath the magnifying glass to inspect. We know we are walking wounded, but we still remember - if only mechanically - how to laugh.
To the first person who laughs at a funeral: your journey is your own, and there is no need to manufacture the intersection of what belongs to you, with what belongs to me. But in that brief moment where you forget yourself, there is a stranger savouring an opulent, anonymous moment in which she can love you.
I, like just about everybody else on earth who doesn't innately cringe at the words Harry Potter, have recently seen J.K. Rowling's latest film: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Since then, I've happily fallen into the pop culture analyses of it all: the hints to racial politics, depictions of a pre-Depression New York, critiques of the dickish decision to cast Johnny Depp, and - my absolute favourite - the significance of Newt Scamander, the Hufflepuff hero we didn't know we were waiting for.
For the fandom, the difference between each of the four Hogwarts Houses is practically etched in our muscle memory: Gryffindors are brave (but obnoxious), Slytherins are cunning (but slippery), Ravenclaw are wise (but smug), and Hufflepuff are... Sweet? Loyal? Maybe a little "soft"?
I grew up in the nineties, where people still adhered to the John Hughes-esque grouping of cliques as a tool for self-identification. In the age of Pokémon cereal and Friday nights in the aisles of Blockbuster hour upon indecisive hour, we'd gradually come around to notion that girls may not be so inferior to boys after all (thanks, Spice Girls). Still, there was a lingering presumption that people had to be defined by some strict parameter or other. So we pledged ourselves red or blue, an answer in a Dolly magazine quiz, or - go figure - a Harry Potter house.
To be specialised at something was to claim it for your own. Everybody, deep down, hungered to be the best at something, and so to make a decision as to what that would be was a triumph in and of itself. The accolades associated with specialisation have their own peculiar counter-reaction: a snobbery against generalisation.
I get it. I do. When I was a kid who devoured books literally every hour of the day - to the point that teachers and parents alike were forced to confiscate them - I staunchly determined that I, ever the Ravenclaw, would be an author when I grew up. This, I told myself with all the binary indignance of a child who will undoubtedly change her mind about her 'calling' a dozen times before adulthood, is my destiny.
Flash forward: at age 21, I've written a novel. The year after, I wrote my second. Then came a third, and now, I'm editing my a fourth: my first ever nonfiction book, and my most demanding project. But can I rightly call myself an author, to the exclusion of all other identifiers? Hell no. Between grinding my teeth in front of Scrivener, I've flirted with an array of different hobbies, and, like writing, mastered exactly none.
When you're rolling off a running list of a person's greatest hits, it's only natural for it to sound impressive. Take me, for example: nabbed black belt in taekwondo, travelled solo across four continents, written four books, toured internationally as a Spoken Word Poet, represented gender equality initiatives at the United Nations, and have lived in Lyon, London, and soon, San Francisco... but these are mere morsels of one vignette.
I meet people who inspire me every single day. I count my muses amongst friends, family, and colleagues who have risen to the ranks in any one field in which I've dabbled and made it their own: the Olympic fighter, the perpetual freelance traveller, the published author(s), the expatriate who lives and breathes in only their alternate language, the social media celebrity, the PhD candidate, the International Development expert who delivers their own programs on the very frontline: these are the specialists who have made lives out of their identifiers, and the definition of humbling is to project my fair-weather dalliances against their expertise.
I can understand why people like me might feel defensive about how "society" (quote-unquote) values specialisation. There is a weight tethered to the expression 'Jack of all trades, master of none' that cannot be denied, even as people collectively are more forgiving of people who have carved their own paths. Success is no longer defined by the stereotypes of our parents' generation, because there's simply no way to predict who will be the most accomplished person at your high school reunion: you could flip a coin between the person who chased the White Picket Fence and caught it, and the one who sold all their belongings to haul a stick and bindle into the sunset. Never before have sabbaticals and self-determination been so encouraged, but many of the generalists I know still seem to foster a misplaced anxiety about having to be forever 'on'. It could be that they have difficulty committing to any one thing. It could be that they don't quite know where their skills are best suited. It could be that they're secretly scared that if they double down on one thing, they might fail.
But it's okay. Perhaps that just means we're all fostering a little bit of Hufflepuff in us. And in this social justice era, there's never been a better time to embrace our own vulnerabilities. I suspect I'm that deep down, I'm more Hufflepuff than Ravenclaw. After all, I'm soft edges and too many kisses and a sensitive spit-fire and a marshmallow heart. I play video-games on easy mode because I'd rather know how the story ends than conquer an unconqueable AI. But I am ambitious, and curious, and swallow new information with the recklessness of Kirby in a bookstore, and I'm loyal, and ferocious, and can breathe fire when I have to. There isn't a Hogwarts house that fits all of that cleanly... Possibly because nobody should be filed into categories so staunchly in the first place.
I'm not sure I believe anybody is innately destined to be an expert, just as I believe nobody is innately meant to be a generalist. People are too wonderfully complex to live by binaries. Maybe being a Master of something is less of an insight into character than a reflection of one's ability to commit to a decision.
I may not be a published author yet, but perhaps that's just because I still need to work on my attention span.
Scarlett Hawkins writes novels... But in her spare time, she writes rants.