“Truth counts, Truth does count.”

So says Mr Emerson in E.M. Forster’s lovely novel, A Room with a View, about repressed middle class Edwardians who happily travelled around Europe and went skinny dipping in ponds. Like those fusty Edwardians I too was long schooled in the fine English arts of passive aggression and stiff-upper-lipness. Confrontation was something to be avoided at all costs and emotions were best left repressed. Nevertheless, after a breakdown in my early 20s I slowly learned that mental health is vital as is the ability to experience, process and communicate my emotions. A not dissimilar breakdown last year taught me that telling the truth is also vital, be it recounting my own experiences of suffering and isolation as a gay man or speaking up for the wider suffering within the LGBTQIA+ community. Just like Lucy Honeychurch, the protagonist of A Room with a View, I have learned that love and truth do count, they really do (incidentally, my privilege let me go travelling in South America, much further away than Europe, and there was definitely the odd bit of skinny dipping).

The COVID-19 pandemic requires love and truth on an unprecedented scale. A love that is being demonstrated in abundance by the UK’s key workers who are working tirelessly to save lives and a love we need to show towards ourselves, those we care for, the vulnerable, the NHS, our key workers and, actually, everyone. And the truth matters just as much because many people still don’t understand the severity of the pandemic and the need for us all to take action following the recommendations of the WHO (World Health Organisation) and medical experts. This includes staying at home, regardless of whether we have symptoms or not, an incredibly simple yet powerful thing we can do to stop the spread of the virus.  We can follow the advice of the government as well but we must remember that the government has been slow to act, so there will be times when we can act more responsibly than Boris Johnson is telling us to. It’s in our hands (but hopefully not on our hands because we’re washing them regularly).

This isn’t a self-help blog and I can’t tell you what to do but I can tell you that I am doing my best to honour truth and love. I’m having difficult conversations with people I care about (conversations we might call ‘conflict’ but are actually about trying to do what’s best for everyone) and encouraging people to speak up for themselves. And, I confess, there are times when I have shied away from these conversations because I fear someone’s reaction more than I do the consequences of inaction. I will do my best to change this behaviour because it could save lives. I am trying to look after myself so I’m in a better place to look after others. I am trying not to catastrophise (too much) but I am also trying not to deny the rapid ways in which ‘normality’ has irrevocably changed. I am trying to love myself, I am trying to tell myself the truth, and I am taking it one day at a time. Over to you Mr Emerson and Dr. Rita Issa:

“…we fight for more than Love or Pleasure: there is Truth. Truth counts, Truth does count.”

Home Is A Verb

“Home, imagined, comes to be.”

The Operating Instructions, Ursula Le Guin

Unsurprisingly, the late Ursula Le Guin has a lot to say about home. She talks of the need to find your people, to build customs and habits together, to live out traditions and to question them too lest they become stagnant and oppressive. She talks of how the written word can connect us to other minds throughout the world and history and, how there, in that text you can find a piece of home as well. She talks of the need for listening and silence as integral acts of community building. And the more she talks of home the more it becomes clear that home is a verb before it is a noun.

Because home is something we have to do for ourselves and for others. Life for the individual is a long process of homecoming as we, hopefully, delve deeper into ourselves through the years, learn more about ourselves and become more of who we are – sloughing off old ways of being that don’t serve us anymore and striving through painful and violent impositions that others, alive and dead, may have enforced upon us. Thus, as we live so we are always coming home. Life for the collective is not a dissimilar process as we learn how to live well together, how to enact our love, set our boundaries and share what we have. Ceremonies, celebrations and rituals are a vital part of this – be it praying together, getting KFC together, or chilling out on the sofa – as they help to keep the social fabric strong as we weave it over and over again. Home is a collective endeavour.

However, for many, home is a painful and difficult process as we are so often cut off from ourselves and others be it due to the swift atomisation of ‘modern’ society, a lack of teaching and knowledge about all the different ways there are to be and live, and/or violence. So home becomes a privilege but, really it shouldn’t be, all should have the right to home but it is clear we do not. Thus, home can be a mindset and a mission for those with the privilege as they can make the space for others be they refugees fleeing other countries or LGBT+ folk cut off from their own gender and sexuality by repressive societal norms and so many other forms of violence or those facing the prejudice of being HIV positive. Home is not something that can be taken for granted, home must be done and it must be done together over and over again. So, yes, I think home is a verb – a state of being, possibility and hoping. And, if we’re lucky, home, imagined, will come to be. So let us never stop imagining.

Bertie Did Burlesque!

Back in the autumn of ’16 I had the privilege of watching the fierce, fabulous, queer, Canadian, Burlesque wunderkind that is Rubyyy Jones perform at Ku Bar’s first ever Kindness Kabaret. They stripped to sparkly underwear, they sang and they stuck two fingers up at the God awful patriarchy. Suffice to say it was love at first sight and a year and a half later I found myself in a small dance studio in East London being coached by Rubyyy in the art of Queerlesque.

I signed up to the course for two reasons: one, I do actually love Rubyyy and couldn’t pass up the opportunity to spend more time with them and, two, I wanted to turn my overly-intellectualised dissatisfaction with mainstream beauty norms into something practical (put my money where my sparkly jock strap is, sort of thing). The Queerlesque classes themselves were a wondrous adventure – I learned about classic burlesque, neo-burlesque, lip sync, choreography and costume. I also got to do the course with five other epic folk, all there for different reasons and all of whom taught me lots about dancing, stripping, living and being queer. The course culminated in a graduation show at the Hackney Showrooms (just last week actually) and, given I had never done anything like this before (discounting singing and dancing in front of the mirror), I had to come up with an act. It came in the form of Bertie. He cropped up as an idea early on in the course and gradually took shape: a former public schoolboy and Oxford University graduate conditioned into toxic masculinity and poshness but yearning to reveal his inner queerness (sound familiar!?). Cue chinos, loafers and a tie being stripped away to reveal tights, jock-strap and mesh. And then I had to perform the thing in front of an actual, live audience!

Rubyyy led the way and one by one we did our acts until my name was called. Pushing my need to pee aside I stepped up onto the stage and, basically, had fun. I wasn’t there to prove myself to others or try and be sexy for them, I was there for me and for Bertie. Besides, sexiness is in the eye of the beholder, so I can’t control that, but I can bare my body and own it. I can occupy space and queer it. I can be me and have fun. Don’t get me wrong, there were a lot of nerves, but I did what my acting friends do – I acted confidence until I felt it. And it felt great to rip off the layers of posh programming and show the real(er) me beneath and it felt great to get applauded for it. So, for one night, myself and six others (we had a bonus guest appearance from a previous Queerlesque course), led by the fantastic Rubyyy, kittened by the fab Lydia, shared a bit of our souls and varying amounts of our skin. Together we created the world we long for – queer, fabulous, inclusive, just and joyous. At least that’s what it felt like to me. Now, here’s Rubyyy…

 

The Origin of Love ft. Mika

When I was 21 I believed the world was a clock. I thought nature was a very complex machine and humans were just walking, thinking robots. Everything ticked, clicked and slotted into place. But there was one problem – consciousness – y’know, all those feelings and experiences we have, whether it’s the colour red, a surge of love or the taste of chocolate. How could a glorified wind-up toy experience these things? It took a thoroughly irritating philosophy tutor of mine (like, so irritating) and a genius biologist to upend this mechanistic view of the world. The philosophy tutor tried to convince me that the mind was immaterial (i.e. not mechanical) and mental experiences (like sights, thoughts, sounds etc) couldn’t be reduced to material things (like neurons, particles and clockwork). Meanwhile, the biologist, who I liked a lot more, told me that even though he did not hold the same view as my philosophy tutor, it still couldn’t be disproved. Maybe the mind really was immaterial and the world was so much more than a clock. Cue epiphany.

The soundtrack for my ensuing epiphany was Yael Naim’s song, Brand New Soul, and as I walked the sunny streets of Oxford I suddenly had this feeling that I was opening new eyes to the world. I no longer saw everything as predictable and mechanic but immaterial and spiritual. I visited a Church, did some Buddhist meditation and generally felt like my heart was exploding. It really was an epic experience and the closest I’ve ever come to a religious epiphany. There may also have been some correlation with the fact that in a few months time I would be experiencing my first bout of severe depression and feeling that my world was crumbling around me (more on that anon) but during the fun bit of my epiphany I had this sense that there was one force governing the universe – not clockwork, or the laws of physics, but love. I believed that love was at the centre of everything we did (hence the hanging out with Christians and Buddhists). I came to believe that even the most heinous acts had their origins, somewhere, in love and if only we could be allowed to connect with this powerful, universal force. Love was the origin of everything.

That was some nine years ago and, now, I no longer believe love is at the centre of the universe. I think gravity, atoms and other such things are very important and I think hate, anger and despair are also woven into the fabric of the human condition. But something I have been doing since reading lots of philosophy books at university and having minor epiphanies is getting out more. I have planted my feet into a foot of freshly turned soil, I have swum in very cold Welsh rivers and walked up a mountain. And it’s there – in nature – that I find soul (maybe just another word for mind), not way beyond my earthly condition in some immaterial plain. Love is still a part of this, not the only part, but a vital part. It is a both a source of energy – something that powers me in the good I do and in the better I try to be when I do bad – and it is a choice – I can choose to act in a loving way or not, and bear the consequences of my decision. As for the origin of love – I believe it’s us, in all of us, mirrored in the acts of the creatures we have evolved from and metaphorically represented in each nourishing ray of sun. Love does not have to be a literal constituent of atoms, as I once thought it might be, but it can be the guiding force for all that we do. Not a law of physics or a diktat from the heavens but a choice borne of mind, heart and soul. Not an easy choice either but one worth making if we can.

Theresa May: Shante, You Stay or Sashay Away?

RuPaul and his panel of bitches have the final say on Theresa May.

Michelle Visage: “Lady, you’ve been strutting it up and down the runway for nearly a year now and we know you can work shoulder pads, angels and chunky earrings but why red? I mean, your colour’s blue and here you are striding out of Number 10 wearing red, that was a faux pas.”

Ross Mathews: “Theresa May! I’m like you gurl, I like my men strong and stable, if you know what I mean.”

Michelle: “We all know what you mean!”

RuPaul: “The shade [giggles].”

Ross: “The Iron Lady throwbacks just rocked my world but I feel that behind all your looks there’s no substance. For the whole season we’ve been asking to see the real Theresa May and she just hasn’t emerged yet. Don’t get me wrong, I would lurve to frolic through a field of wheat being chased by a big hunky farmer but I have bigger aspirations than that.”

Michelle: “Getting banged three ways from Sunday in Hula Bar’s dark room.”

RuPaul: [cackles]

Carson Kressley: “Let me square it with you Theresa, I was gunning for you when Davina Cameron sashayed away. Michelle Gove was a tart, Andrea Gimme-Sum just couldn’t do make up for sh*t, Liam Foxy…who?…and the less we talk about Borissima the better. But your relationship with the runway has been vexed to say the least. The odd U-turn to show off that fab bum of yours worked a treat but you turned one too many times. And your cutting has just ruined those hemlines not to mention all those furs.

Michelle: “We don’t do dead animals anymore, hun.”

Carson: “And when you came out with those hunky police men we wanted tens of the well-hung fellas but we only got three. Also, that dementia themed dress…”

Ross: “…forgettable.”

Michelle: “And when we did the Broadway episode your Human Rights Act was not a class act.”

Theresa: “I just want to say that while I may subsist on a diet of cardboard and vacuities I have always done my best. Corbynina, Sturgoon and Caroline ‘The Queen’ Lucas may have big personalities…well, they may have personalities, but I have stood my ground even if I didn’t always get it right.”

Michelle/Ross/Carson: [stoney, unimpressed silence]

RuPaul: “Silence! I have pretended to listen to the judges for the last five minutes and regardless of everything I didn’t hear them say I have made my decision. But before I reveal it I want to level with you Theresa. Here on RuPaul’s Drag Race everyone is a winner, even the losers. Even the people who preach prejudice, exacerbate inequality and don’t always vote in favour of the gays. Because the Rupaul family knows that everyone, even the most hateful, needs some good loving. And, Theresa, apart from some good hard lovin’ you’re also gonna need to wrap up warm because your blue-faced fanboys are about to throw you some serious shade. They’re gonna smear your make-up, tear your dresses and scapegoat you for all the larger failings of a party that forgets to put 99.9999% of the population on the guest list.

“All of us on this show have faced shit times: we’ve been bullied at school, ostracised by society, isolated to the point of self-harm and for some, suicide. But despite all this we’ve kept our hearts and now it’s your turn, Theresa, to go find your own. Because if you can’t love yourself, how the hell you gonna lead our country into a sustainable, equitable future?

“Now, whether it’s Shante, You Stay or Sashay Away it’s time you got lip-syncing for your life because we all know a good politician just mouths the words to someone else’s tune. Whether it’s the tune of neoliberal, corporate capitalism or the beats of the people. Either way, good luck and…

…DON’T FUCK IT UP.”

Do You Deserve To Be Loved (feat. Regina Spetkor)?

We often think that we deserve to be loved. For example, take the person who has been in the ‘single wilderness’ for so long, y’know, the place that smugly coupled folk tell us is the worst place ever. So, we’re there, in that forest battling the brambles of loneliness, the ditches of bad dates and the poisonous berries of awkward-pauses-in-conversations-with-friends until we see them, the one! Suddenly the dates are fun and we’ve got so much to talk about and then it’s six months later and we’re partnered, hurrah! And after all that time of being single, as we lay down our head next to that of our partner’s we might engage in an indulgent sigh and think, “I deserve this.” But what if we don’t?

In a previous post I wrote about doing away with the concepts of earning and deserving, and now I’m going to apply that idea to love. The verb to deserve comes from the Latin deservire, ‘serve well’, itself made from de-, ‘completely’ and servire, ‘to serve’. And all this talk of serving just makes me think of servitude and slavery (which was very big back in Ancient Rome). Deserving requires at least a two-way relationship between the person who has done something of merit and the person who owes them something in return. In other words, to deserve something means you’ve got to earn it. Yet all of these words are inherently and historically economic, they are about transactions and I’m not convinced that love can be rendered in a spreadsheet. Love is not a calculation.

Of course, love does involve give and take: we all make changes in our lives to suit our partner/s and the hope is that they will do the same for us. But underneath all this there is a different sort of love: love as an intense, wonderful, biological and metaphysical experience. Love as that feeling when our whole body scintillates at the presence of the person or people we care for. Love as something that sends us to the moon and back. And there is something else that love is: a choice. It’s not just about feeling amazing it is also about taking responsibility for our actions, keeping promises and ensuring that intense feeling translates into something our loved ones can cherish. Or at least that is one way of looking at love should you choose to drop the ideas of deserving, earning and owing. Love is too great to be reduced to a calculation and whilst the idea that we all deserve to be loved is very prevalent I think we can drop the economics and instead choose to love, as simple (and difficult) as that. We can make love a fundamental part of the human experience and hope others will do the same. And I reckon it starts with the  simple act of standing in front of a mirror, looking ourselves in the eye, not flinching and saying those three magic words. And we’ve got to mean them too (and if we struggle, we can get a friend to help).

Grieving With Regina Spektor

The Light, it’s an incredibly simple song by Regina Spektor. The lyrics are not complex, they tell of someone falling asleep into familiar dreams and then waking up to the light of morning. They talk of sunlight, stars, memories and the wisdom of the morning. Yet I find this song incredibly sad and whilst I do not know quite how to interpret the lyrics they wake in me a grief for things lost. “So many things I know,” sings Spektor, “But they don’t help me. Each day I open up my eyes and start again.” And there is something in that – the notion of waking up to another day and starting again. For that is something the aggrieved must do, wake up and live on, despite their loss.

My last surviving grandparent, my gran, died a few years ago. I remember getting a call in which I was told that she was close to dying. So I got on a train, headed north and stood at the side of her nursing home bed whilst she slipped away into death. It was a surreal moment especially as the woman I stood next to looked nothing like the woman I’d known as a kid, who would chase me up stairs, put plasters on my cuts and generally be as silly as I was. I remember the train journey home after the funeral, I was looking out the window with tears streaming down my face trying not to freak out the passenger next to me. I just didn’t get it, I just didn’t get why I was crying so much. That was until someone close to me said this: “when someone you love dies, it’s just sad.”

And it’s as simple as that. When you love someone they are wound around your heart, embedded in the fabric of your being. You might see them lots or only occasionally or not have seen them for years but memories persist, especially the ones that are born of love. When that person passes away the part of you that is them suddenly aches. All those memories you shared, as taken for granted as they may be, suddenly reverberate with loss and the knowledge that no new memories can be forged is heart breaking. And it breaks my heart that it took my gran passing away for me to remember quite how important she was in my life. Still, I am grateful for all those memories and the fantastic woman that was my gran. I don’t know how to interpret The Light by Regina Spektor but it awakes a sense of grief in me and for that I am glad. And like Regina those who have lost must wake up every morning over and over again until, perhaps, normality is returned to. But not the normality of old but a new normal in which love and loss are now intertwined. It’s often a very sad world we live in and to pretend otherwise I think is to deceive ourselves. I consider this song an honouring of grief, as devastating a process as it is I think it an important one. I speak only for myself and do not wish to make glib comments about ‘moving on’ or to dictate to anyone how they should experience their grief. Yet maybe something in what I say rings true and you recognise some of your own experiences in mine and maybe the song evokes something for you too. As I often do I’ll give Regina Spektor the last word.