Ending 2016 With Lorde

So, it’s the end of 2016, which at times seemed like a pretty apocalyptic year. Trump got in, Brexit got voted for, Syria still rages through war and not to mention the 6th mass extinction and resource depletion. It seems all those stories about humans conquering the world, about technology solving all our problems, about the forward trajectory of human civilisation, well, they turned out to be pretty shoddy stories with a shed load of plot flaws and inconsistencies. Fortunately, we’ve got Lorde, the singer songwriter, to offer us some guidance and it comes in her song Team.

The video and the lyrics go hand in hand as they paint a picture of faded grandeur. A city that’s slowly falling apart, the sort of place “you’ll never see on-screen, not very pretty,” – nothing like the Kardashians’ numerous houses. It’s a place where guys joust with baseball bats on motorbikes and grin chipped tooth smiles as the blood trickles down their noses. It’s an apocalyptic rite of passage as people get initiated into meaningless. “Living in ruins of a palace within my dreams” and that’s where we seem to be retreating these days, to inside our heads, far away from the dangers of the world, far away from the grim realities of climate change and refugee crises. Although even for Lorde that palace in her dreams is falling apart. It seems nowhere is safe anymore.

But maybe, in and amongst the debris, there’s hope. “I’m kind of over getting told to throw my hands up in the air, So there.” Maybe Lorde’s bored of being told to give up and surrender, maybe she does want meaning in a culture that’s regularly telling her nothing matters and we should all just give up. Sure, the old stories might not make sense – that everything would end happily ever after – but the people telling those stories were clearly quite deluded (and probably very privileged). What if it’s this naive belief in stories – that life has clear and well-structured beginnings, middles and ends, like fairy tales – that’s the problem. What if finding meaning in today’s world will take more than a simplistic story structure.

“And everyone’s competing for a love they won’t receive, ‘Cause what this palace wants is release.” Lorde’s right again, we are competing, constantly hoping this life of high consumerism, economic reductionism and endless comparison will give us meaning as we shove one another aside to get what we want and get happy trying. That seems so much to be the dominant story of now. But beyond the credit card transactions and the debt, like Lorde, we crave release – release from these highly conditioning bonds of consumer capitalism. Or maybe this is just an exceptionally self-indulgent blog written by a directionless yet privileged millenial – a bit like the sort of people Lorde sings about perhaps.

But, as self-indulgent as I can be, I do want to do something about the mess we’re in, even if the contribution is small and it still all ends in apocalypse (bearing in mind that countless people are already living and dying through various incarnations of hell on earth). And I think Lorde’s song holds the key. She offers us the answer for getting out of this debt-heavy, meaning-lite existence because “you know, we’re on each other’s team.” Somewhere beyond the narratives of endless competition there is a story of teamwork, a more meaningful story in which we join forces and learn to share. And it will be so much more than a story, it will be real human experiences of compassion and community. Better to rebuild ruins together than be forced to live in them alone.

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Matilda The Musical And Why We’re Never Growing Up

I was very lucky to be able to watch Matilda The Musical the other day. Not only did it get me in the festive mood but I also thought it was a brilliant production. Lots of dedicated kids and adults singing their hearts out and weaving a fantastic and rather timeless story. It’s based on the Roald Dahl book, which was made into an ace movie, and now it’s on in the West End. A few spoilers on the way but I am guessing you probably already know the story: Matilda, a young girl, is bullied by her horrible parents who try and stifle her blossoming genius by threatening to ban reading. Then off to school where she is bullied by the awful (but brilliant) headmistress Miss Trunchbull who has a habit of putting naughty children in Chokey – a small and spiky cage (yup, Roald Dahl was dark). However, Matilda meets Miss Honey, a passionate teacher who is very shy and timid, and very scared of Miss Trunchbull. Miss Honey spots Matilda’s genius and tries to help foster it as any good teacher should. The rest involves giant chocolate cakes, telekinesis and floating chalk. Like many stories about children this one is about growing up and there’s a great song that is all about doing just that (see video below, starts around 42 seconds in) but there’s one bit in particular that is just spot on.

The woman in the pink cardigan is Miss Honey and it’s funny that an adult should be singing about growing up. Her words are these: “When I grow up, I will be brave enough to fight the creatures that you have to fight beneath the bed each night to be a grown up.” And it takes a super-genius, telekinetic girl with an immense capacity for bravery to help Miss Honey grow up and fight the creatures that have been plaguing her often lonely and frightened life. Yet, it’s us adults who have a habit of telling children to just grow up whilst simultaneously telling them that things will be better once they have grown up. But I reckon us adults have an awful lot of growing up to do as well and really we’re using ‘adulthood’ as a facade to exercise undue authority. Yes, adults can be frightened, lonely, scared, mean and nasty too but until we can be honest about our vulnerability we’ll keep on missing those chances to grow up, chances that come from all directions, including (and maybe espeically) from those younger than us. Only then can the world we promise our children really come true.

Matilda also has another great point to make, which is that to make a difference you don’t have to do huge things, the little things you’re capable of can also make a huge difference. Whether it’s offering a helping hand or a listening ear or even just a smile, the little things do add up and they do have an impact. Matilda is also big on challenging authority and fighting injustice, and thanks to her ‘little’ actions, which are huge for others, so much change happens. So yes, 2016 has been quite a year and 2017 has an awful lot of work to do but I reckon it’ll be a much better year if, like Matilda, we do the little things we can and, together, help each other grow up.

What Is True Love?

It’s a question on many of our lips as we navigate the marketing campaigns, movies and relentless narratives of heteronormative patriarchy that tell us true love is something to be shared with one other person of the opposite gender for the rest of our lives. True love will involve a white wedding, 2.4 children and a mortgage. True love will look good in public and any problems will be hidden behind closed doors. True love will be shared on Facebook and Instagram whilst the passive aggression happens off camera. Fortunately, P!nk and Lily Allen aren’t buying into this bullsh*t.

Well, ok, I think both Lily Allen and P!nk are married with kids although they probably own their houses outright rather than have mortgages. However, there’s a lot of angst in this song as they complain about how irritating their partners are, how infuriating, how stupid and a whole load of other negative things (there are also quite a lot of domestic abuse references as well as some causal anal sexism, but that will be another post). And at least they’re honest. Love isn’t all roses, doves and honeymoons it can be annoying, smelly and sometimes quite disappointing. But I do like the idea of taking the rough with the smooth and committing to something bigger than  just two (or multiple) people, where 1 + 1 makes more than 2 (or 1 + 1 + 1 etc for those in polyamorous and/or open relationships). I think that’s something worth committing to and not that crass and crushing heteronormative, consumer capitalist version of “true love” created to make us buy more stuff and go to bed feeling guilty and alone. And I don’t think that better kind of true love (maybe just call it love to sound a little less presumptive) has to last forever either, what a sad benchmark for a relationship’s success if it only counts if it ended at death. It also doesn’t need to involve kids and a mortgage, dogs in a housing co-op are ace too. And it certainly isn’t just for straights. Queers welcome.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I am not against people marrying, having 2.4 children and getting mortgages. It’s often a brilliant and inspiring (and very, very difficult) thing to do, hats off to you. But I do mind if that’s all you do, if you’ve just glanced at the ‘true love’ manual (aka watched a few Julia Roberts films and dressed your son in blue and daughter in pink) and taken it at face value. Worse still, not just read the manual but started to recite it as well, as you take for granted that society (and this includes politics, economics and culture) is often weighted in your favour (but only if you’re wealthy enough). I reckon the best thing you can do is acknowledge that space has been made for your type of love, enjoy it, and then set about helping create space so others can enjoy their types of love too. In brief, as with most posts on this blog, check your privilege and don’t be prejudiced. Then we can all have a go at mucking up true love (p.s. and yes, this post was basically an excuse to post that song, it’s just so catchy).

Bleeding Hearts With Regina Spektor

There’s a new Regina Spektor album on the way and I am excited about that. Her latest song Bleeding Heart has a curious melancholy to it. If you listen to each verse it tells the story of someone who, for so long, has been lonely and angry. They’ve been stuck at the back of the class, ignored at the dance, wishing for connection with others but getting rejection instead. So they get bitter, start drinking and wall themselves up in their “prison-like home”, brooding on their memories and hating on the world of judgemental, unfriendly people. “It’s you versus everyone else.” Regina sings on that someday they’ll grow up, forget the pain and move on. That is until they see “a sad pair of eyes…and up will come back all the hurt.” All they’ve repressed and suppressed will come flooding back and even though they want to help they’ll move on because their life has been tough enough, “cause you won the war so it’s not your turn but everything inside still burns.” And they douse that fire with more drink, thinking on the refrain: “never never mind bleeding heart, bleeding heart, never mind your bleeding heart.” But everything changes in the final verse.

How long must I wait till you learn that it’s not too late,
How long must I cry till you know that you really tried,
How long must I try till you learn that dreaming’s hard,
How long must I dream till you heal your bleeding heart,
Never mind your bleeding heart.
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And that’s just it, we should always mind our bleeding hearts. Because they’re right there, in our chests, all the time. To not get to know our hearts is like having a smart phone without any apps or only playing Goldeneye on the N64 (as good as that game is) – we’re severely underusing this fantastic piece of technology.  Just like a smart phone, the heart is fragile, prone to breaking and bleeding, and it can be very tough to experience this. What we tend to do though is try and ignore the times when we are hurt and upset. Much simpler to brush these issues aside, pretend we’re ‘fine’ and move on. It’s all that keeping calm and carrying on rubbish, the stiff upper lip bullshit and all the other ways we try to condition and cajole ourselves out of having feelings as we pretend that not being invited to the party didn’t upset us or all those other times we’ve been forgotten and ignored haven’t hurt us. But those things do hurt and their effects do add up and we can’t hide behind seeming indifference and bitterness for too long.
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Fortunately, as Spektor in her endless wisdom, already knows, it’s not too late to recognise we are human: fallible, fragile and oh so incomplete. It’s never too late to have another go at being human, to try getting in touch with our emotions and recognising our feelings. We can also acknowledge that we have really tried even if we don’t think we have. We can be kinder to our past selves because they were the ones that got us here and without them we wouldn’t be where we are today. Sure, we might not have always used the best tools or made the best decisions but we did try and that’s something we can keep on doing and maybe now we can do it with better tools and not make the same mistakes. And dreaming is hard, it’s dangerous to want things you might not get and to hope for the best in such seemingly hopeless times. Far easier to wall ourselves up in cynicism and prison-like homes. But isn’t that life of passivity, denial and fear much worse than one of wanting, striving and dreaming? And in amongst the making up for lost time, the trying and the dreaming well maybe, just maybe, our precious bleeding hearts will heal. So, yes, always mind your bleeding heart.

It’s All About The Money

Debt and money, two mainstays of human economies for many hundreds of years. Even without money people can still get in debt: with debt creating a two (or more) way relationship between a debtor and creditor, between the person owing something and the person who leant it. Without cash people might end up paying off their debt by giving hours of their labour, their property or their body. Money just facilitates this process, whether it’s cash in hand or digits on a screen. Because money and debt have been instrumental in human societies for so long it’s hardly surprising that their impacts have stretched far beyond the economic realm. They are also interwoven in our language and relationships.

Take the word ‘should’ for instance. “I really should go to the gym today,” “You really should be nicer to people,” etc. It’s used to indicate obligation, duty or correctness, often in moral situations which concern how we treat other people but also in more mundane situations like getting fit and eating less junk food. Etymologically speaking it relates to the Old English scyld which means ‘guilt’, the German schuld which means ‘guiltand ‘debt’, and the Lithuanian skeleit ‘to be guilty’ and skilti ‘to get into debt’. Thus, a simple word such as should has origins in both finance and morality, in both debt and guilt. Similarly for the verb to owe which we use both financially (“you owe me £5”) and personally (“you owe me a favour”), its history can be found in the Sanskirt ise ‘he owns’ and isah ‘owner, lord, ruler’, and the Old English phrase agan to geldanne ‘to own to yield’ (or ‘to have to repay’). These are two instances of the fusion of the financial and personal. It seems money and relationships go hand in hand.

In a previous post I commented on the book Debt by David Graeber – he highlights the history of debt and also the violence that goes with it. In many instances debt is a threat because those who don’t pay their debts are threatened with so much, e.g. a jail sentence, physical violence, being shunned. Graeber also traces the history to some of the ultimate debtor/creditor relationships, namely masters and slaves, in which the latter owed everything to the former – namely, their lives. This is hardly a happy history and certainly not a peaceful one, and it continues today. Slavery might be abolished (yet still practiced widely) but we still have to give up our time to get money from people with much more of it than us so we can afford life’s necessities. Worse still, because wages can be so bad we often have to take out loans and get in debt to banks to actually be able to buy these things. And when the system stumbles (as it does at every economic crash) the bailiffs come knocking and the reckoning is upon us – we have to pay off our debts one way or another or face the consequences. Jessie J knows all about this as is evidenced in her song Price Tag

“Seems like everyone’s got a price” she sings, in a world where “the sale comes first and the truth comes second.” And isn’t that a shame, that even in non-economic spheres of life, such as friendships, relationships, socialising etc, the ‘logic’ and discourse of money are still so powerful, even though one hopes that these spheres shouldn’t be predicated on the implied threat of violence. Jessie J hopes for something different, a world that’s “not all about the money.” She thinks it’s high time money and economics were put back in their place – an ambitious stance given we have a lot of reconceputalising to do, what with the money discourse being everywhere. But she knows we can do it and she knows that our relationships will be better off for it. “Forget about the price tags,” she sings: “We’ll pay ’em with love tonight.” And I wonder what an economy of love would look like…tbc.

Doing It With Victoria Wood

The hit British comedian, singer, songwriter, actor and all-around brilliant woman Victoria Wood sadly passed away on April 20th. Famous for Dinnerladies, her stand-up and a number of risqué numbers she was a genius of comedy. And so I found myself watching The Ballad of Barry and Freda, one of Wood’s musical numbers that tells the tale of a couple. They’re sitting at home one evening watching the telly when Freda gets the urge to get physical, meanwhile, Barry’s got the urge to go to bed. And so the song continues as Freda tries to convince Barry to have a bit of sex whilst Barry comes up with a number of increasingly ridiculous excuses to avoid getting intimate. The song sings for itself so here it is:

It’s a comic number but as I listened to Victoria Wood sing, knowing that she had passed away, I couldn’t help but feel that there’s also something quite tragic about this song. Freda’s desire to grab life by the balls and do it is truly inspiring whilst Barry just seems like a wimp. He has all these reasons not to, worried he’ll “get it wrong”, worried he doesn’t have the strength, worried about the state of the roof, but I can’t help but think these aren’t valid reasons to avoid Freda’s offer of, what sounds like, the promise of some scorching intercourse (“slap me on the bottom with a Woman’s Weekly”. Yes please!). I think Barry’s just making excuses because he’s afraid.

And how often do we do that? Make up excuses to avoid having to get down and dirty, and I’m not just talking about shagging, I’m talking about living. There are times when fear really is the right response and not doing something is eminently sensible but I’m talking about those experiences just on the edge of your comfort zone not the ones in your panic zone. Those experiences that might take a little effort but would prove totally worth it. I can’t help but think having sex with Freda is one such experience for Barry. Yet the song ends before we know if they do it but I hope they do. I hope Barry’s heart starts pumping and he too opts to grab life by the balls (or, indeed, the boobies) because they say that the magic happens at the edge of your comfort zone and it sounds like Freda has an awful lot of magic to share with Barry (I mean, “smear some avocado on my lower portions”!). So here’s to doing it, to being like Freda and just going for it, and inspiring others to go for it too.

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