Friday, December 24, 2010

It was thirty years ago today

30a This year, I've done a great number of things which required significant courage and as a result, my life has completely transformed from where it was a year ago. Today is my thirtieth birthday, so I think I am entitled to one self-congratulatory blog post, which also explains some of what I've been up to whilst not blogging, or hardly ever blogging this year. Things haven't settled down just yet and next year promises to be another kind of adventure, but life is better for me, at thirty years old, than it has been for at least the last decade. Because I was brave.

I have read and talked to others a great deal about courage over the years, especially in relationship to disability. Disabled people are often called brave for simply existing, let alone achieving things or making changes in our lives. We answer this misplaced compliment with the fact that faced with these limitations, you just get on with it. You have very little choice. Mik Scarlet wrote about this most recently in the context of the way disability is represented on television (his two other 'Lectures' on this are well worth a read).

But this year, I have been properly brave and learnt a few new things about bravery. The first is that once you are brave about one thing, further acts of courage become a lot easier. The most difficult thing I had to do, I did in March.

I allowed someone else to read my novel. There has been no occasion in my life so far where I have had to place such profound trust in someone. And honestly, this was the bravest thing I had to do. This may seem rather silly, given that I wrote the novel to be read and it would have been a ridiculous thing not to show it to anyone. But I was so disheartened about it all and I had no evidence that it wasn't a complete pile of pants. As soon as life calms down enough to look into agents and publishers, letting others read it will be a doddle in comparison.

The second lesson is that whilst we have very limited choices about whether to do the brave thing or not, there still is some choice. I have long thought this with disability - we don't deserve medals for carrying on and living our lives, but occasionally you meet someone who did give up. Some people experience loss, whether it comes in the shape of disability, bereavement, divorce or financial disaster and they simply become their own tragedy and get stuck as victims. It almost always requires some courage to get over things and move on. Sometimes, because people and their experiences are complicated, it requires a lot of courage, even where we have everything to gain by it and even though it's still inappropriate to be considered heroic just for making the right choice.

In April, I brought my marriage to an end. On many levels, I had no sensible choice at all and I faced very little temptation to do otherwise. But it was still a choice which required significant courage - hopefully far more than most break-ups require. I also had choices about how I went about things. I went to great lengths to behave honourably and kindly. And that was brave.

The third thing I learnt is that acts of courage require faith. There are some things you have to believe in, in the absence of evidence, especially when it comes to your own capabilities and the intentions of other people. You have to be able to make promises to yourself and others, and to believe the promises of others if you trust them.

At the beginning of this year, I had become very cynical about others and I had no faith whatsoever in my own resilience. I felt I would be flattened under the weight of any further crises, and that I couldn't believe anything another person said, especially about their feelings. But I learnt. I learnt very quickly and realised both my own strength and the strength that others were prepared to lend me. I am an extremely capable person when it comes down to it.

So what else did I do this year?

  • I ran Blogging Against Disablism Day again this May, despite everything that was happening at that point. I was sleeping on a sofa, living in a house with the person I was separated from, dealing with no end of tension whilst trying to organise myself and the few worldly possessions I was keeping in order to move out. But my friend suggested that achieving continuity with BADD would be useful when everything else was in such flux. And it was. So a special thank you to everyone reading this who participated.
  • I repeatedly placed myself upon the hospitality of others. In one context, I was paying rent and utility bills, but neither my friends-cum-landlords nor myself ever shook off the sense that I was a guest there (which was a problem, but one unwittingly created). Beforehand, I had imagined myself enormously burdensome because of my illness and difficult to live with because of ideas about who I was. Yet, since May, I have variously lived with seven different people, five dogs and two cats and I have received no complaints. I have broken two mugs, but I replaced them both with nicer ones. And I have a much better gauge of how much help I actually need against what I am able to contribute.
  • I told a friend I was in love with them. That was brave. And worth it.
  • I moved to another country. Well, almost another country. I moved to a part of Wales where Welsh is spoken more than English, and I knew no Welsh. Unfortunately, I didn't stay long enough to learn Welsh and make new friends locally. But I planned to and that was brave. And I'm still going to learn Welsh because I think it sounds great.
  • I took on responsibilities, despite my sense of profound incompetence and dependence. There were days when someone relied on me for their oxygen supply. On the same days, I looked after three dogs, despite being totally intimidated by them (Border Collies do look at you funny – even dog people agree with me on this). I have now totally overcome my uneasiness around dogs.
  • I placed myself in a great number of different social situations which involved some social risk. It's been so rare for me to get out of the house and deal with any face-to-face social contact, that this stuff has made me very nervous. I sat down to dinner surrounded by strangers, more than once. I joined a brand new family, very strange and different from my own.
  • I moved to live with my parents, eleven years after I moved out, the second house move within six months. This required a lot of faith, both in my folks and myself, that we could avoid the nightmare I'd always feared it would be. So far, so good.
  • I have tried a great number of new things. Foods I have never eaten before and things I thought I didn't like. I have experimented bravely with clothes. I have made all sorts of decisions which bore no relation to the approval of anyone. I'm not sure I've ever managed that before in my whole life.
  • I have opened up to friends and family more than I ever have before. I have begun to talk about some of the worst experiences of my life, things I have worked very hard to hide from the world. This is brave.
So there we have it. Happy Birthday to me, a very Merry Christmas to all who celebrate it and an excellent New Year to one and all.

Before I go, more reading for you: Ira provides by far the best festive post this year, God Bless Us Everyone on Tiny Tim and disability. And disabled bloggers in the UK need to know about One Month Before Heartbreak.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Ann Widdecombe: Feminist Icon

Ann Widdecombe is wrong about a lot of things. She campaigns against a woman's right to choose and as a politician opposed various anti-disrimination legislation. She does not consider herself a feminist. And yet, I'd argue that Ann Widdecombe is a feminist icon.

Ann Widdecombe proves that, whether or not women can have it all, we certainly don't have to. We might not want it all. We may be completely disinterested in over half of it. A woman can very well not have it all, and still be a tremendous success as a politician, as a public figure and most recently, as a competitive dancer. And she is a success. There is no reason to suspect that Ann Widdecombe is not completely and utterly fulfilled by the career she has had and the bits and pieces she does now, together with a family and social life which doesn't involve romance or children of her own. She is a rare public example of the not uncommon phenomena of the happy spinster.

Although her politics may be totally and utterly wrong (and they are), in many ways she was an exceptional politician. So far as I can see, she always said what she meant and did what she said, in a political climate increasing concerned with spin. She was not - is not - afraid to say something that most sensible people would totally disagree with. Last week, she supported Lord Young's comments that most of us had never had it so good (although in context, she has at least a bit of a point).

Widdecombe is the closest thing we have in mainland Britain to the Religious Right and yet she is not a hater. She is no egalitarian and converted from the Church of England to Roman Catholicism at the point that the CofE ordained women. She is anti-choice and believes in a very restrictive version of heterosexual marriage to be the only context in which people should take their clothes off - but she disapproves of most of us in equal measure. She has never said anything hateful towards gay people - she insists there is no difference between sexually-active gay folk and straight folk who also fornicate (it's a great word and without people like Ann Widdecombe, it might fall out of use entirely). I think the most enraging thing I ever heard her say were comments about rape, which focussed entirely on women's responsibility to avoid situations in which they might be vulnerable to assault.

But what makes Ann Widdecombe a feminist icon is that she doesn't want to be one. She doesn't feel that because she is a woman, she has to support women's issues, or exercise any gender bias at all. She doesn't feel the need to be any softer or fluffier than any male politician of her creed and generation, even though she was and still is subject to far more ad hominem attacks than most politicians of similar rank. Politicians who happen to be women (Widdy hated to be known as a Woman MP) are particularly vulnerable to criticism for their supposed attractiveness, their romantic and family lives and when they are right-wing and generally, well, harsh, they are attacked with gendered language. So Widdecombe is described by her detractors as lonely, loveless, frustrated and frigid, where there is no evidence that she is any of those things.

What is particularly admirable about Ann Widdecombe is that she apparently hasn't tried to neutralise this effect. Widdecombe is not ugly and has a very sweet face when she smiles, but she deviates from cultural ideals of beauty in almost every way; she's the wrong shape, the wrong weight, the wrong age and has had one of two very unfortunate haircuts. During a period where Blair's Babes were being made over to make relatively attractive politicians more attractive, she was still applying the pudding-basin and sheers method (we've all done it at some point). She has never tried to be other than she is. Unless I'm missing something, this lady is truly authentic.

In Strictly Come Dancing (yes, yes, you've got the point - I'm hooked), the Widdster resists all the reality show narratives that other folks fall into. Not for her talk of the journey, not for her tearful frustrations or life-changing experiences. Her brother died during training, and there was no mournful montage about her soldiering on despite it all. And she comes across as quite a lovely person. Physically awkward and a little shrill, but these are not bad things to be.

Women in late middle age are extremely rare on our television screens and newspaper pages and other than royalty, the only other examples I can think of are glamourous actors with long careers behind them. These women are famous, in part, for their beauty and continually congratulated on its preservation. Widdy proves that women can be valued and respected for more than being nice and being pretty. Even though she is, at least, just a little bit of both.