Silent Soldiers

I have felt conflicted for some time about Remembrance Sunday. On the one hand, I think it is important to provide support for those affected by war, and to acknowledge those who lay down their lives and health in defence of their country, both now and in the past. I think there are few families who don’t have stories about those who fought and died or were permanently affected in the two World Wars. The scope was too vast for it to be otherwise.

Of my own family, my great-grandfather fought in the army and spent most of his adult life in an asylum as a result, suffering with shell shock. One of his older brothers never came home from the Somme. On the other side of the family, another great-grandfather was a naval engineer, and sailed on the HMS Ark Royal. We have photographs he took of its sinking. I grew up hearing stories of my grandmother’s seven uncles who went to fight and all came home (although not unscarred), and the woman who lived down the street never getting her only son back.

My grandfathers were both too young to see active service in the Second World War, but one was a parachutist and the other joined the Air Force – until he was injured and invalided out. At this time of year I remember them, and many others. I am aware of the sacrifice made by so many, for the sake of those at home.

And yet, I can’t help but wonder how well we as a nation still do remember. The message was “lest we forget”, and yet this morning, I sat and watched young children returning home from a parade, decked in poppies and cheerfully waving their Union Jack flags. Do they remember? Do they even know why the soldiers march? Why poppies are found on almost every breast at this time of year – a splash of bright red which will never be so dark as the blood which was spilt. Spilt by those who never got a chance to grow old. By soldiers who returned home, and tried to find a life for themselves in a world which could not comprehend what they had seen. By innocent civilians, caught in wars which touched every corner of this world. Wars whose after-effects lingered and festered, and laid the foundation for so many of our modern conflicts.

Lest We Forget, millions were sent to their deaths by generals who seldom left the safety of their bunkers.

Lest We Forget, innocent people were mown down by invading armies, or sent to die in horrific concentration camps, far from home and their loved ones.

Lest We Forget, soldiers returned home –still return home – with their minds and bodies torn apart by war, to a country which glorifies the dead while bypassing the living.

Lest We Forget, those soldiers, so long ago, did not all choose to lay down their lives. Enlistment left them with little or no choice. Their country loved them less than they loved it back.

Lest We Forget, celebration is not remembrance. Pomp and circumstance is not remembrance.

Lest We Forget, we fall silent to remember those who will never speak again. To remember the countless lives which ended too soon.

This is not the day to fly flags and remember that we were the “good guys”. This is not a day for patriotism and glory. This is a day – and the eleventh is a day – to remember the death, and the injury, and the lives which ended or were irreversibly changed in the name of war. To remember the lives which are ending even as we speak, and the lives which will never again be the same.

As I type, in the wake of the Remembrance Parade, I am surrounded by people with poppies and flags. Flags. Whatever your view about the poppy in modern times, there is no denying that at least it began life as a symbol of remembrance. But our flag did not. Our flag – any flag – has no right to be waved right now. I don’t want to celebrate the continuation of conflicts people died to bring an end to. I don’t want to celebrate national pride and jingoism. Especially not today.

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Mirror Image

You know, I’ve always had this weird obsession with reflections. That’s possibly overstating the matter, really, but I can remember reading Through the Looking Glass at a young age, and the whole concept really resonating with me. Everything being reversed. That disorienting sensation where things are on the wrong side. For years I’ve looked at reflections – in mirrors, windows, puddles – and imagined a mirror world, where everything is the other way round. Back to front.

Which is a neat sort of image to open with really, because it turns out (to my own surprise) that today is International Letfthanders’ Day. I wasn’t aware that it was a Thing, but hey. It is! Unite, my fellow lefties!

Most likely, the connection doesn’t make sense at first. But really, the more I think about it, the more I see how linked those two thoughts are. Being left handed in a world where more than 90% of the population isn’t, you quickly learn to adapt. Some with greater ease than others, to be sure, but you do work things out. You manage. Maybe you never even consciously think about it most of the time, because that’s just how things have always been. It’s still there though.

I will admit, I did roll my eyes when the Lefthanders’ Day thing popped up. Because… it’s just a hand, you know? I don’t usually see a big deal in it. Most people use their right hand, I use my left. No problem. And then I started thinking, and looking back over my childhood (always a dangerous pasttime, that), and I realised that no, maybe there is something in this after all.

Being left handed is a lifetime of micro strategising. It’s adapting to a world which was made for people who work the other way around. It is, when you get right down to it, like growing up in the mirror world. Where everyone reaches for something on the opposite side to you. Where you need that extra second to go: “Oh, no, the handle/pen/mouse is on the other side.”

Of course, being an adult, that’s mostly instinctive. Being an adult in my own home it’s also mostly unnecessary. I leave my kettle with the handle on the left. I own left handed scissors and vegetable peelers, and a tin opener which works for both hands. The rest I learnt to deal with years ago.

It’s childhood really, where it can be a problem. Which, if you look at the Wikipedia page for International Lefthanders’ Day, is  sort of the purpose of having a Day (with all the emphasis of capitalisation that it implies) in the first place.

Because when I look back on my childhood, there’s that little undercurrent all the way through. It’s the green and yellow handled scissors which were always blunt, because there were so few lefties to use them that they never got replaced. (I learnt to use right handed scissors in my left hand – other solutions include really sucking at using scissors until you get proper ones, or just using your right hand to cut with.) It’s the moment when everyone else in year four was writing with a pen, and I was told I couldn’t because I made a horrific smudgey mess of everything I wrote – if you’re left handed, writing left-to-right is a bit of a bother. I can remember very clearly – even twenty years on, nearabout – the day that someone told me to turn the paper so that I wrote towards myself instead of horizontally. It was a revelation. It was a chance to not be the Odd One Out. To not be held back because teachers just didn’t have any practical advice for someone not being the same as the rest of the students.

Plus this is so damn comfy, you know?

Seriously. A revelation. Revolution, even, if I’m feeling Punny.

I mean, it’s pretty sad, in a way. Because I can recognise that it’s not a big deal. We’re not talking serious, life-changing stuff here. And yet I remember that. I remember feeling different, just because of the hand I use. I remember sitting in lessons and having problems because I would knock into the elbow of the person next to me if I wasn’t careful. If I didn’t sit on the left. I remember that frustrating moment where I picked up a peeler and I couldn’t use the damn thing because the blade was on the wrong side. I remember my frustration with the brief, short stint I had learning the piano because my right hand just wouldn’t do the fiddly bits. I remember PE lessons where I was just plain backwards to everyone else. Holding the bat or the racket in the wrong damn hand.

I remember going into hospital for problems in my teens, and having a cannula put in my left wrist, and feeling completely helpless because suddenly I couldn’t move it properly, and there went my ability to do pretty much anything. I’m a writer, and could no longer put pen to paper. It was hell. (These days I make a point of getting them to put it on the right side. That there is a “these days” for that statement is something of a bugbear of mine, but never mind.)

And I remember the jokes. The stupid, irritating jokes. Not often enough for me to class them as anything other than an irritation, but there, all the same. The implication that being a leftie is weird. That I’m awkward. That I’m clumsy. The constant “bad handwriting” association. The weird looks when I pick up knives and apparently “just look awkward”. To be honest, the fact that it’s anything to comment on at all, outside of making adjustments for it. Why does it matter?

Because, you know, kids aren’t stupid. I mean, you tell a child often enough that they’re different, and they’re not just going to gloss over that fact. When you make a fuss about a child who smudges their writing and don’t offer a solution, you can’t just expect them to be okay with that. I had years of feeling self-conscious about my handwriting. To the point where I would apologise for it before anyone even saw it. To the point where, these days, I have this compulsion to show my handwriting to people just so they can comment on the fact that it’s tiny, not scruffy. To get that validation that I overcame the problem. It’s a minor insecurity which never went away.

And I’ll be honest, I’m not even that left handed. In some respects, yeah, I am. I do most stuff with my left hand. But I don’t have a different setup for my computer – I use a mouse in my right hand. (I type slightly weirdly though because my left hand does most of the work.) I eat “right-handedly”, whatever that means, and I can use my right hand for stuff when needed. I have a degree of ambidexterity. There are plenty of people out there who struggle to adapt as well as I can. Who need to change keybindings on their computer to make things work. Who really need left handed scissors, instead of liking them. Who grow up feeling short-changed because they were born on the wrong side of the mirror, and everything is back to front – and instead of helping, people just make idle jokes associating lefthandedness with clumsiness or being “wrong” in some way. “Cackhanded” is one of my least favourite words, for that exact reason. (I also super hate “southpaw” but I accept that’s a personal bugbear and lots of other people like the word. For me it’s like a tic. I hear it, and I want to thump someone. I have a HAND. I do not – and am not – a fucking PAW.)

I guess the point I’m trying to make is this. Left handedness isn’t something I really think about until I’m reminded of it – and then the floodgates open and I realise just how many things irritate me on a near-daily basis which I’m so used to tuning out that I seldom think of it. It’s cash points having the Chip and PIN reader on the right hand side, so I have to stretch to do it (that was worse when cards still had signatures, btw. Super fucking annoying trying to fit in the awkwardly-placed gap). It’s those study chairs at colleges and in sixth forms having the desk attachment on the right arm (although the 90 degrees trick for handwriting helps there). It’s so-called ergonomically designed utensils being shaped so as to be nigh unusable. It’s the oven controls being placed in such a way that I have to stop myself reaching over the hob in order to turn the temperature down. It’s every till I ever used while working in retail being geared for right handers.

It’s teenage me getting flack from the teachers when I cut my left hand on a glass bowl and they didn’t believe that I was unable to write my homework. Because hey, it was my left hand. (Not even joking about that one. I went in with my hand bandaged and the response was “use your right hand”. To take notes. In a GCSE History lesson. Yes I am still bitter. No, I wasn’t able to take notes.)

I am a leftie who spawned another leftie. So some of these issues I’m starting to see from the other side, too. I see my daughter writing with a super awkward grip on her pencil. I see her struggling with scissors (I made sure to buy a leftie pair so she had some with blades that actually cut). I can already foresee future hurdles as she moves outside of my leftie-friendly home into a mirror world which really doesn’t give a lot of allowance at times. I wonder if I should present her with the same challenges I had, so that she learns to adapt young. In a sense, she already has – my right handed computer setup means that she, like me, will grow up able to use regular computers without issue.

There’s a correlation between left handedness and creativity. I think the general public assumption is that it’s genetic, but really, I think it’s as much growing up in the mirror world as anything. It’s a lifetime’s experience finding solutions to the problem of everything being back-to-front. A childhood adapting to the almost limitless minor inconveniences of the world around. Of the locks on every single locker being on the right hand side of the door. Of fumbling your own way to writing legibly. Of manhandling implements so that they work backwards. Of being super glad to live in the UK when you learn to drive because ha! At last, something which seems tailor made to me! (And then not being able to drive any more, but oh well.)

So, ultimately, on International Lefthanders’ Day, I want to stand up and gesticulate wildly. Not so much to celebrate the fact that I’m different (although at one time I did pretty much do that about being a leftie), or to make out that I’m super hard done by (although, again, I was a teenager, so I had that phase about leftiehood too). It’s more just… if you know someone left handed – particularly a child – maybe take a minute to appreciate that all those little obstacles do add up. They’re small hurdles, but they can have an effect. A lifetime of hopping over them adds up to a lot of extra energy spent. And maybe there are some hurdles which don’t need to be there.

My daughter is not the only leftie in the class. There’s a stupid number of them in her year group. Nine in one class, eleven in the other. It’s amazing. She won’t spend her primary years being the odd one out. And that’s good. But that’s also not the case in every school. Not every child is in such good company, and sadly, some children are subject to bullying or put-downs because of it. To struggling because of illegible handwriting. To finding it hard to use scissors or computers (ever important in our technological age). Is that really how things ought to be, in this day and age? Should we be letting children grow up being othered just because of the hand they use? It’s all rather Lilliputian, to my mind. Surely we can make the world a more adaptable place. For everyone.

The Subtle Art of the Request.

For those of you who don’t know, I have a fanfiction account. It was neglected for a long time, and then I got this idea, and I had to write it, and then one thing led to another and now I am in the middle of another story, which is over 50k long and shows no sign of winding to a close any time soon (I mean, in terms of story, we’re about to get into the real plotty part).

But anyway. I digress.

Fanfiction.net has been an experience. Mostly a good one, I have to say, although that could be because I’m hanging out in a fandom which seems to have a core of really good writers, and not so many of the sort of fic where you read it and then go grab the eyebleach. While reading (too many) fics recently, I have noticed that some are written as commissions, or as requests, or in response to prompts. I though it was interesting, but ultimately didn’t really pay it that much attention.

And then last night, someone sent me a PM requesting that I write a fic. And I was hugely flattered, because I literally have three fics on the site and two of them are 5k and under, and holy shit SOMEONE IS PAYING ME ATTENTION! FEED MY WRITERLY EGO, PEON! So I replied, and said, well, depending on what it is, I don’t see why not. And I asked what they wanted me to write, including the disclaimer that hey, I will readily agree that I don’t have so much writing time at the moment.

What did they request, you ask? An AU version of the first series of Digimon Adventure. Now. This made me pause a moment. A very “what the fuck?” moment. But, you know, I’m new to all this requesting stuff, and maybe I just misunderstood, right? So I tap out a message asking if they mean the whole series, or just, say, a specific part of it.

They want the WHOLE DAMN SERIES.

Here’s the thing.

This person has not been rude. They’ve not been especially polite either (we’re talking a bare minimum of words in the PMs), but they’re just asking. They’re not demanding or anything like that. It’s a question, not “urh, you have to do this or you suck”.

But.

It really makes me think about how much people take for granted. I mean, this person who knows nothing about me save for the little bio on my about page, has requested that I spend I don’t even know how long writing a fic about an entire, 54-episode anime series. Based on, presumably, one (unfinished!) fic that I’ve been writing.

Sure, you can argue that it’s a great compliment. That hey, I enjoy writing anyway and it’s not like I have to say yes. The fact is, as it happened I had an idea lurking in the back of my mind that the prompt sparked a little anyway, so you could even make the argument that it’s something I would probably have written at some point even without the request.

But really, if I write that fic. If I write an AU version of the entire first series of Digimon, that’s the work of hundreds of hours. For a fanfiction which I can’t really benefit from save for a “yay me” if people leave positive feedback.

Don’t get me wrong here, I am currently writing a hella long fic for the fun of it, which I have never expected to get anything for. I don’t mind writing for no gain. I love writing. But I remain very uncomfortable with the attitude that allows someone to ask a person they don’t even know – with no preamble – to make that kind of commitment to something. For nothing.

I mean, just… this is the commissioning/fic request equivalent of bumping into someone on the street and going down on one knee there and then. There’s nothing wrong with proposing. There’s nothing wrong with requesting a fic. But you know, there’s a teensy bit of interaction which reeeeally should happen first. With the proper context, everything is hunky dory.

Without it, at best you come off as a bit of a twat. At worst, you’re going to make people feel really awkward and uncomfortable. Either way, it’s fucking rude, peeps. Let’s not do this thing, yeah? CONTEXT. CONTEXT IS GOOD.

The Greatest Gift I Never Used

So, yesterday was Father’s Day, or Fathers’ Day, depending on where you place that apostrophe. Covering my bases here.

I’m lucky. I have a great relationship with my dad. We’ve always gotten on well, and we have similar temperaments. I understand him. Plus, he’s kept all the stuff I don’t have space for but don’t want to throw out for the past ten years now. I think that counts for a lot.

I spent much of yesterday sat in his back garden, digging through the shed which has been home to some of my childhood treasures for a decade now. I didn’t plan things that way – when I moved in with him, age 18, it was a temporary fix to the problem of trying to move my sister and I from two large bedrooms into one smaller one. My divided childhoods merged into one house which didn’t have space for them both, and although the plan was to sift and sort and compress, that kind of never happened. Boxes of books and trinkets and treasures were placed in a shed which they never came out of.

Other things took over. Health, and the spiral of trying to work out what was wrong with me, and then before I knew it, I had moved out, and was thrust into the world of motherhood. The two-part childhood, which I had never resolved into one piece, had to wait. Part of me was in that shed, or in the loft. Growing dusty and damp; coated in cobwebs.

And now I’m here. Here as an adult, somehow, looking back on boxes which I’ve held in my heart for years, but not in my hands. Things I never grew out of and let go, but were left behind nonetheless. I’ve always had an obsession with nostalgia, and the past. I’ve spent over half my life trying to make sense of who I am, and I’ve always fallen short of the answer. It came to me, yesterday, that part of the problem is how much of me doesn’t add up.

As I looked over my old things, I started to realise how disconnected they were. Two worlds which never met. I have memories which I can’t place, because there is a section of my life which doesn’t follow the linear narrative of the rest. I can draw a line in my mind, connecting all the things I did with my mum, but my life at my dad’s didn’t run parallel. Those weekends and holidays existed in a different world – one where I didn’t have to wear the mask I wore during the week. There was no school. No homework. No anxiety. It was my sanctuary – and it existed outside of the rest of my life. A little bubble which protected me, but never integrated. As I looked back at my treasures yesterday, I realised that while I can put ages and dates to most of the things I boxed up at 18, I can’t do that for the things which had been in that room at my Dad’s house all along.

They exist in a part of me which escapes time. Weekends and summers blur into one. A decade of my life which doesn’t quite fit with the rest. Ten years of a part of me remaining static, while the rest of me grew and changed and matured. Treasures and trinkets which have so many memories, yet no age.

And the reminder of when my lives started to merge again lies in an envelope. That brief, strange few months when my two lives crossed in the other direction. When I would drive, once a fortnight, to spend the weekend with my mum, and then return home. And it’s funny really, because I had forgotten those months even existed. Forgot that part of me had even been there, until a black envelope reminded me of the Christmas when I had been free, and mobile, and ready to embark on a life where I could merge those two lives into one in my own time.

The greatest gift I never used was for a day at Brand’s Hatch. Before I had a chance to go, my licence was gone. The seizures had stolen my mobility, and that future. And in a way, they stole my past, too. Because there it stayed, in boxes. Left tucked away, while life took me further and further from the girl who never let go of them.

Further, but only in time. Because the thing which struck me most of all, as I looked over my old treasures, was how much I am still that girl today. The chaotic mix of things I owned and treasured all match the loves and interests I still hold dear. Books, a telescope, a typewriter, jigsaw puzzles, cut-outs from computer game boxes. Memories of hours spent making miniature worlds. Piece by piece it slots in place. And it’s funny, really, that I spent so long trying to make sense of who I was, when I never really changed at all. I’ve spent the last twenty years in an identity crisis of one sort or another, and as I slowly surface, I think I’m finally ready to start letting go of some of those boxes.

I don’t need to keep them all, slowly rotting in a shed or in a loft. I’ve had them all along. I’ll keep my black envelope though. It’s too easy for me to forget those few months where both halves of me came together again, and allowed me to grow into my future. And who knows. Maybe one day I’ll go to Brand’s Hatch after all.

Cold White Light

When I migrated this blog over here, I don’t think I had a very clear image in my mind as to why, exactly. I knew I had something I wanted to say, but I wasn’t really sure what that something was.

Well, it would certainly be expected and mundanely appropriate for me to announce with a flair that I have now discovered that purpose. Unfortunately, I haven’t. And the more time goes by, the more I realise the inherent truth in that. Not everything has its epiphany moment. Oh, we all have our moments of self-discovery, and the epiphanies are the easiest to spot and to share, but sometimes, the most important and fundamental realisations we can make about ourselves take time to arrive.

If an epiphany is like a light turning on in our heads, the slow-burning, life-changing ones are more like a dawn. Hear me out. Dawn doesn’t start when the sun breaks the horizon, filling the world with a new day. It’s not a “no sun/YES sun” kinda deal. It started long before those first bright rays crest over the hill, or peep past the tops of trees or buildings.

Dawn starts when the world gradually turns away from night. When the sky takes on a lighter sheen, and the stars begin to fade into the background. And that light isn’t yellow and warm. It doesn’t shine brightly and joyfully. That light is cool, and white, and it inches over us so gradually that it’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment when it started. You don’t see it getting brighter – you just look back and know that five minutes ago, or maybe ten, it was dark. That now it’s less so.

Life takes us on many ups and downs. If we let stories dictate what we should be feeling, we expect epiphanies. Sudden dawns, which spring from the darkness to fill us with all the energy of a new day. Love. Happiness. Achievements. All the good things are portrayed as a sudden uplift – a washing away of all our problems. Or a bridge which helps us walk above them. They don’t tell you that sometimes the first thing you notice is that the stars are fading into a sky which can’t yet be called blue.

The truth is, so often there is no sudden rush of knowing. We just muddle along, and then we look back and realise with hindsight how much brighter things are than they were before. Maybe one day that sun will crest the horizon and I’ll bask in the warmth of its rays. Until then, I think I’m content with knowing that it’s no longer night.

Concussions, and other fun things

There are few things in life which I value quite as much as the ability to think clearly. Food, family, and somewhere to live are all up there, of course, but aside from the basic necessities of living, what do you actually have if you can’t think?

I don’t mean thinking as in contemplating the deeper mysteries of life and all that (although I am the sort who enjoys that too, now and then), just… thinking. Being able to sit and know where you are, know how you’re feeling. Anticipate the finer things, such as how you’re going to get up, go into the kitchen, and put that kettle on for a cuppa. And then being able to get up, and not stop and think “Um, I’m in the kitchen. What was I about to do?”

A handy mug of tea

This, Jemma. It’s called tea, and it rules your life.

Last Friday, I had a pretty bad seizure and, although I don’t really remember doing so, hit my head kinda hard. I know this, because there’s a nice, handy bruise on the back of my head to remind me every time I lie down the wrong way. Now, this is a good opportunity for me to get sidetracked and point out that this wouldn’t have happened had the people around actually known what to do when someone has a seizure, and believe me, I will, another time. But today, the focus is the aftermath. The why, as it were.

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The Problem with Princesses

Well, I just got round to the frankly rather irritating task of hand-washing the Girl’s princess dresses. Actually, I did it in two batches (small house, and they all need to air-dry), but still. 
All fancy dress outfits these days require hand-washing, which isn’t really the issue for me. Fill a bowl in the sink with water, squish them in one at a time, and there you go. But afterwards, with two dresses scrunched on my draining boards awaiting hanging space in the shower (these things drip forever, I swear), I got to thinking.
I just washed away a swirl of glitter from one of these dresses, from a pattern glued onto the fabric. It looked lovely on the shelf, but I am all too aware that its days are numbered. When the glitter is gone, it will look a lot more shabby. 
Yes, sharp-eyed parents of Rapunzel fans may know that the purple dress
is technically sponge-clean only but, that didn’t work. It never does.
Most of her other dressing-up garments are similarly fragile. I gently tease the marks out of the polyester, because they are too fragile to go in the washing machine. That said, there is so little natural material in these dresses that everything comes out with remarkable ease. I mean, even tomato stains rinse right out.
Still, I look at her little collection of dresses, all about £15 a go, and wonder at the point of it all. None of them can stand up to thorough use – they all rely on little girls playing princess tea-parties and practising curtseys no doubt – but the Girl has a big brother, and a rather more enthusiastic streak. She is the Princess with a Light Sabre, or a Princess with a Sword (even if the “sword” is actually one of my scarves). 
She’s going to ruin the dresses long before she outgrows them. And, while I’m totally on-board for the sword fighting, I can’t help but think it’s a shame that her make-believe clothes can’t stand up to her make-believe ambitions. And seeing as I have a sewing machine, I’ve gotten to wondering if there isn’t something I can do about that. 
This grand scheme may all come to naught. But I’m definitely going to look into what I can do to make a sturdier dress that won’t rub off all over my sofa (seriously, there is purple glitter everywhere from this latest dress), and will let my daughter be the Sword-Fighting Princess she is in her head. Maybe I can even give it a scabbard. 
Watch this space, eh?