Friday, 22 July 2016

Being alone in grief is one of the hardest things to bear. When you speak with family, friends, other people who knew and loved him - he is alive again between you all. You nod, and laugh, and reminisce. You recognise and share the same concept of him, ahh yes, there he is, the person we all remember. When you grieve alone, you alone bear the weight of keeping that person alive. And that my friends, is one hell of a responsibility.

Wednesday, 20 July 2016

My Grief

You know when you were younger, and you'd gotten into an argument with someone at school, and you woke up in the morning with a deep dark pit in your stomach? You dreaded what the day had in store for you, your mind was focused on only that situation. You didn't want to go in, you desperately wanted to avoid that situation, but you were forced to confront it - you had to go to school. You couldn't just not go into school again, ever. You were rooted in that situation, and it felt AWFUL.

This is what grief feels like. Every day. You wake up in it, you are surrounded by it. It's reminders that you are "IN this" are everywhere - not just in the photographs you want to keep up in your living room (but can't bear to look at yet without bursting into tears), not just in the bag of oats that he gave you for morning smoothies on your kitchen counter (sitting there, untouched), not just in smell of his cologne that you keep but ration yourself for fear of spoiling the memory of, but it's all over your mind, it's all over your memories, it's in your daily routine and the sudden and very noticeable absence - that your favourite part of your life has disappeared.
As C.S Lewis writes about the grief he felt when he lost his wife, "Her absence is like the sky, spread over everything."

I have found myself "in" this, every day for the last three months. The initial days and weeks were unbearable, I found myself howling like a wounded or lost animal at times, I grieved like a child, my heart sobbed for his return.
I felt every inch of my life move, I felt every time the grief changed and shifted. I felt it when it sat more comfortably, but just as heavily, on my back. I noticed on the day I woke up and didn't think of his death immediately, but instead noticed the sunshine through my window. I noticed when I made choices out of emotion, rather than rational thinking - I noticed my grief working it's long dark fingers through my mind and into my life, and I noticed when I bolted upright in defence of this.

It has been my quest, for a long time now, to be emotionally healthy. As an artist, suffering can be glorified easily, we can wallow in our pain and let it take us, sometimes our identities are so enmeshed with pain that we do not even recognise or know a self without it. This terrifies me, not one ounce of me wants to suffer through life - artist or not. It goes against everything I believe in to wallow in sadness, to offer despair a chair at your table. I stand up for smiling and kindness, for finding the good and the positive, for being greater than your suffering. If you were to cut my soul in half, you would find the essence of positivity there at the root.

Loss like this, however, is new to me. I didn't shy away from the experience of it, because any experience can be a strength maker, and I intend to live so intensely that I could die at any moment without regret. That said, I grossly underestimated the impact this would have. I thought that knowing someone would die (after all, we all do) and preparing myself for it, would somehow lessen the shock, or the pain of grief. It doesn't.
BUT, I thought. Surely if I learn to truly "live in the moment" with him, to soak up every wonderful moment I get to spend with him, to really cherish him and appreciate every second of life with him with all the gratitude I can muster - surely that would numb some of the loss? I mean, if I do that, then I won't ever look back and say "I wish I'd appreciated my time with him more"?

Well, yes and no. I am so grateful that I can say I savoured every moment with him, and that I truly acknowledged how precious it was, and that I felt true happiness with him, but living this way also invited this big dark cloud of entropy to hover over me. Feeling that elation and joy meant that one day I would be very much without that elation and joy, and I didn't know how that would feel - whether or not that would break me, break my positive spirit. The catch was, until he had actually died and I had learned that I could still access that happiness and joy, I just didn't know. So my joy and love was tinged with this overwhelming sadness that it was just so, so temporary. I couldn't crawl into those moments with him, in his arms, and stay there. Indeed, the last morning I spent with him on that day he left, we cuddled and laughed and smiled and told each other to have a wonderful day, and I let myself let him go. I thought, "he isn't mine to keep." You have to live like you won't die, like those you love won't die, otherwise you will be crippled by the attachment of having them. And eventually, this need for other people will contract and compound and you will be so afraid of losing things and of change, that you never dip your toe into the water that all life has to offer. I knew I couldn't do that. So every time we parted, I savoured the moment, and I let it go.

And looking back, I'm glad life didn't wrench me from him. I'm glad my last goodbye to him was as sweet as all the others.

So yes, this is where I am. I wake up and notice he is gone, but it is not immediate, it is not overwhelming as it was. I am currently more grateful for the memories I have, than sad that I cannot make more. Most days are enjoyable and I drive in the car and sing, I let myself enjoy what life has to offer, because he wanted me to do that and because I want to do that. Occasionally I have a bad day, like yesterday, when I just do not have the energy mentally to psych myself up for another day of positive living. And that's OK for me, too - as long as it's just a day, and as long as I don't wallow.

What I'm beginning to realise, is that grieving is also the same as healing. For me, to switch off the sadness would be to switch off the same emotion that gives me access to happiness, to gratitude, to appreciation, to peace. Grieving like this allows me to enjoy the lighter moments, knowing that I've truly felt the heavier ones. I let myself enjoy them, just as I let myself suffer the sad ones. It's cheating the guilt that comes with grieving - the guilt of feeling good and being able to carry on when you never thought it would come so easily without them.

The night before he died, we sat on his bed and I ate a bowl of peas and he ate chicken soup (he had a cold). We talked about what we wanted from life. He just wanted to always "be", and I just wanted to always "feel". It still stands - I never want to stop feeling, I never want to stop dipping my toe into what life has to offer, everyone deserves to. And he continues to "be", in my heart, in my head, in the things he taught me that I apply to life. He's alive in the stories I tell about him, he's alive in the mannerisms and language I picked up from him, in my photographs, in my memories. It's funny, because I suppose that's the solution to death, almost, keeping someone alive in you.

Saturday, 2 July 2016

A Thank-You

I opened the window, the air breathed green again
"Thank you."
I said to him.
"You've given me everything I needed to learn.
And everything I could never quite touch
is mine now.
Thank you."

A tear leaked down my cheek.
Given the choice, I would always choose him as him,
over him as concept.
him as memory.
him as experience.
him as lesson.
him as story.
But knowing I cannot choose
and knowing what he would want to be
since he cannot be himself any more.

Then I shall open my arms to all of it.
Today is the first day of my life.
Today I embrace.
I hold my life again, with him, still breathing into it.

Today I say,
Thank you.

Friday, 10 June 2016

How To Deal With Haters

The Internet is a strange place.

On one hand, here is a place built for connection. We're finally free from our bodies and the judgements and prejudices that come with them - just souls without a vessel, able to bare ourselves in whatever way we wish. Unless we chose to upload a photo of ourselves, we don't have to be judged based on our physical appearances - what we were born into, what we can't change, what we are as a result of our lives. Finally we can be judged purely on our character, our spirit, our kindnesses and our actions.

Sounds great, right? Doesn't that kind of sound like the Utopia we've all been hoping for?! Oh man.

Somehow, this incredible opportunity for judgement-free connection got hijacked by people who, like The Joker, just like to watch the world burn. I say that with a wink and a twinkle in my eye, because really, the negativity that comes with the internet is something you must play with. In fact, that goes for all of life's hatred and negativity. You need to soap up and learn to let that stuff slide off your back, into the water beneath you to dissolve and dissipate - back into the abyss from which it came. Life is a real tricky beast sometimes, and learning to have fun with it is very very important. Because the Real Hard Times are coming for us all, and wow - if I hadn't had a really really really good attitude and mindset (to people, to life) I don't know how I would have gotten through mine.

So, here are my own personal experiences of Haters, and how I got through it.

46/365 - i can be anonymous too
(self portrait from almost exactly 8 years ago today, I was 17)

1) Teenage Years

I'll be the first to admit - I wasn't a lovely teenager. Granted, I wasn't the kid who pushed people about and spat at people or mentally destroyed people (at least to my recollection, I never did that) - but I was a very defensive teenager.
When confronted with arguments or conflict, when I perceived to be the "misinterpreted" party,  instead of calmly saying "Woahhhh, I'm so sorry you thought I meant to hurt you - that isn't what I meant at all. I'm sorry if I hurt your feelings there, buddy" I would emotionally leap up in self defence, shut people out, talk about them behind their backs in order to build up a safety net of "friends" to validate me and protect me, I would sometimes say hurtful things in order to "get one back" and other childish things that teenagers do. Yikes. Just reading that makes me feel uneasy. It's very clear to see why kids these days dread going into school - when even the Nice Kids Aren't-That-Nice.

What first changed my mindset during this time was being totally isolated from my entire friendship group at one point - I can't remember why. But I remember that people were being told not to talk to me, I felt very alone and very misunderstood, because inside I felt like I was a "nice person".

This is when it hit me - actually, I wasn't that nice. And actually, why would people want to talk to me? What good WAS I in their friendship group? This little revelation hit me like A TON OF BRICKS.

Once I dropped the "people owe it to be nice to me" thing, and started actually wondering WHY they owed it to be nice to me, I began to transform.

I decided that I was going to become The Kindest Person Ever. I decided that I was never going to talk about people behind their backs, ever again. I decided I was going to try try try to understand EVERYONE, regardless if I disagreed with them, because holy crap I wanted someone to try and understand me at that point. I started walking down the street, and thinking lovely things about people I passed along the way. "I love the colour of her dress" I thought. I started smiling at people, enjoying people, for the simple human they appeared to be in the seconds that I encountered them.

Of course, people don't suddenly notice you've gone from being Average-Nice-ish-Person-Who-Is-Sometimes-A-Bitch to The Kindest Person Ever in a week. Or even a month. Or even a few years. In fact, I'm pretty sure there are still people out there who probably hold hurt from things I said to them when I was younger, and for that I will be always willing to apologise. But, what I do have, is an inner peace and confidence in myself that I am Kind. I am always still learning, and it is not always easy to act with kindness when you feel misjudged and misinterpreted, but I am learning.

This was the first lesson I had to learn in how to deal with Haters - first I had to deal with my own hate, my hatred for who I was. When I understood myself, and then forgave myself, it allowed me to understand and forgive other people.

Why Me

2) Internet Haters

The Internet seems to be the place where Haters gather and pour insults like shots at a bar. It's a scary place to be, it's an even scarier place to lay out your vulnerable self - in blogs, in photos, on social media. You're pretty much opening yourself up to All The Criticism. It's an even scarier place to try something new - like photography. I was 17 years old when I first started uploading self portraits on Flickr, for my 365 Days Project.

Very soon, due to my "openness" (I mean, I was The Kindest Person Ever now, what did I have to hide?) my flickr profile started gathering momentum. I think people were just intrigued by this 17 year old kid who took weird pictures of herself dressed up as a clown in her bedroom after school.

My photos weren't particularly great. They were imaginative, but technically, they weren't great. The kind of broke all the rules of photography - and not really in a badass way. They were out of focus, they were photoshopped to near death, they were slammed over and over with texture upon texture, they were filled almost as much teenage angst as they were textured, and then blasted through ALL THE FILTERS and uploaded with pride. By a teenage girl. I wrote about my life - about my day, about my thoughts, about the good, about the bad. I mused on things, I connected with the strangers that stumbled across me, I felt at home.

A few people saw this, and didn't like it. When I say "a few", I'm going to translate that into what felt like the entire internet. After the photo series with my then-boyfriend Aaron got featured on a few blogs and news networks, I was suddenly open to every criticism known to man.

I mean - who the hell did I think I was?! I was some teenager who had spent zero years and zero money being educated on photography, shooting on the most basic of kit, making a big textured mess of what I did make, and getting more recognition and support than people who had been SLAVING over their craft for YEARS had gotten. I'm the first to admit, I can totally see why people were agitated by that. And then there was the time where I ran out of ideas for self portraits that I was trying to post every day and didn't credit the original ideas (which I very much should have) on my photos. What followed was the most heart wrenching period of my teenage life.

I had hate campaigns set up in my honour, people on websites and forums all over the place talking about how I should just curl up and die, people wishing cancer on my family, people in school coming up to me and asking if my relationship was being sponsored by Adobe as a marketing tool "because they'd read it online somewhere". I was torn apart, for being an 18 year old kid excited to share something I had created, that I was proud of, that I wanted approval for.

I knew that I could very easily switch myself off from it, that I could just turn off ALL the hate - simply by deleting my Flickr and never picking up a camera again. I stopped my 365 Days project for a week and felt huge surges of guilt whenever I saw art online that inspired me. I felt like The Kindest Person I had tried to become was dying a death, I felt myself wanting to turn on the people who were making my life miserable to live, who were taking my passion away from me.

I remember being sat absentmindedly in Biology class, ruminating on my horrific online situation that was unfolding, paying no attention whatsoever to what was being taught. I remember thinking I was never going to be able to get a job in anything else, because nothing captured me like Photography did. I didn't love anything like I loved photography. And then it clicked - what else did I love photography more than? I loved it more than people's validation of me. I loved it more than I loved the safety of being liked by everyone, I loved it more than anything I had ever loved.

It was that day I knew that Haters were just going to be something I took on as part of this journey - and that every day I picked up the camera, it would be worth it. I started shooting self portraiture again, and wrote a massive post about my mistakes and handed the haters exactly what they wanted - acknowledgement that they had a point. Because sometimes, just sometimes, people do have a point.

The decent lot who had been writing mean stuff about me, took my apology and allowed me to move on, some of them supported me, some of them are now my friends. Some of them carried on hating, because haters gonna hate. I don't know what they're up to with their lives - and that's something else that I've realised - the things you are willing to take from your situations are the things YOU have to live with. If you go about taking bad, giving back bad, don't be surprised when you're living a bad life that you don't think you deserve. I try with all my might to give good, to take good, and for the most part, I will happily confirm that this has yielded me a Good Life.

she had not known the weight until she felt the freedom

3) Shake It Off

Once you have accepted that haters gonna hate, the next step is how much you let it penetrate your life.

I have chosen to pay attention to approximately 0%.

If someone writes a mean blog about me, I don't read it.
If someone writes me a mean email, I delete it.
If someone writes a mean comment on a picture, I just leave it or delete it. I don't let it sink in - because the general rule of thumb is that anyone who has time to spend making someone else feel bad either a) hasn't felt enough sorrow in their life yet to really appreciate how silly it is to do that
b) has also felt sorrow in their life, but has not felt enough kindness to know how wonderful kindness is.

You would be amazed at how often it is the latter.

So, here is my solution to Hate.

When someone shows hate, so often they just need to see what understanding and kindness looks like. They just need a hug, they just need someone to listen, they just need a bit of connection, a bit of patience. And though I'm no Dalai Lama and won't be driving round to theirs with a bar of chocolate after they've told me they hope I get hit by a bus, I will certainly not throw more hate back their way.

My friend Adam posted an amazing photo onto a photography group today - and got some grief about it linking to his editing tutorials he sells. One person wrote how they were going to download and pirate his tutorials, because they were broke. I suggested he send them a free copy.

If there is opportunity to good - do it. What's the worst that could happen? Someone walks all over you? Feel free. If I'm a doormat, then I have a big fat "WELCOME" sign on me. The risk of being used FAR outweighs the possibility of that kindness making that person go "Wow, actually, that was nice and I'm going to try and be a bit nicer."

At the end of the day, there are no prizes in life for those who live with Kindness. You won't avoid pain by being kind. Pain comes for all of us, the concept of karma is just another way of hoping those who hurt us will be unhappy. There are no prizes for those who live with Hate - you won't avoid pain by being hateful or hard.
The Real Hard Times are coming for all of us. Mine came for me just six weeks ago, and I was launched into the depths of sadness so deep I had never fathomed. As I sunk lower into my sadness, I kept hoping my toes would touch the sea floor, it never came. So instead, I am learning how to swim, and appreciating all the time I spent on the shore, glad that I savoured every single moment on it with him.
There are no prizes either way you live your life. There are no ways to avoid the tragedies that you are on a collision course with, the entropy that you are furiously speeding towards without even moving from your sofa.

But I can tell you, life is so much lighter lived with kindness. Life is so much lighter when lived without hate.
So when you encounter it - first understand it. Put yourself in their shoes, even if they're totally wrong, even if they're totally misunderstanding you. Forgive it. Apologise if you need to. Work it through your fingers and if you can, help out the person behind it, who is probably struggling in their own way. You could even hug it. Embrace that hate, and before you know it, it will slide off you like water. There are no prizes waiting at the end of this race, but a journey that you enjoy taking is surely the best you can hope for. Let's all try to make it a good'un.


A Bad Day

The clouds had rolled in, her brumous mind began to tremble
She allowed the fog to sweep low, to moisten her eyelashes
She heard the sirens sing in the distance, then fade
Until all that remained was background noise rain,
Like TV static that wouldn't switch off
This was a storm she could not stop.

She let the thunder clap and jeer.
Let the crowds laugh, let them watch with their raincoats
Transfixed by suffering that is not their own
Let them make light out of lightning
They will tell the world how they saw it
But they do not mention how
They did not feel it slash across their skin

Let them return home to their lifeboats
That they claimed, that they built, that they bought
That they will not admit that they need
Until all is lost
and they too, are at sea.

She stood alone, and let her barriers give way
Let her ankles lift and take her, somewhere else maybe
Underwater might be better than here
If she had to drown, she would drown in her own mind
In her own world, with the scars she chose herself.

I got out of bed.
The skies were still made of slate, today.
For reasons unknown, I turned all the lights on in my house.

Saturday, 14 May 2016

Strength: Revised

"I am strong, I can get through this." "You're the strongest person I know." "This will only make you stronger." "Just be strong, it will get better."

Lately I've been thinking a lot about being 'strong' and what it means to me. I've always considered myself a 'strong' person - I'm kind, and make a conscious effort to be. I equate kindness with strength, because I believe it is easier to find reasons to hate - to hate life, to hate people, to hate your circumstances. It is far harder to love, to be gentle and kind. But right now, kindness isn't really doing much to ease the loss and absence I am feeling, that I can't escape from.

So, okay, let's put kindness aside for now. What else do I have? Well, I'm pretty good at avoiding pain. I have built a life for myself away from most things that hurt - I live in a cosy affordable apartment in the countryside, so I don't have to suffer the pain of ever being financially crippled and not being able to cope. I simply avoid the stress of city living, the hustle and bustle of people pushing through the crowds on their way to some destiny, by sitting in the fields miles away from it all, toes stretched and earth under my feet. I'm pleasant to everyone I meet so I don't have to deal with the anxiety that they might not have enjoyed my company, that they might not like me. I listen to my own music instead of the radio, so I can control the mood I'm in when I run my errands for the day. I only take on jobs that I will really enjoy with clients who seem like really decent people, so I can minimize stress and avoid going to bed with a defeated heart and a sense of emptiness.

And this is all working for me, it has worked for me up until now. I created a climate in which I could breathe, I made time for the small pieces of glitter that you catch glinting within all the grey stone. I have walked the sadness out of my shoes many times, run with tears rolling down my cheeks until I couldn't deny the feeling of being alive any longer. I have savoured the taste of the camp fires in the air and I enjoyed every moment I had with you, with myself. I allowed time to pass without trying to hold onto it. I thought I was prepared for this, I thought this had made me strong.

But I sit here, and I remain.
The first time I looked in the mirror that day, I didn't see my reflection. I saw me without you, a person I never wanted to see.

I do not feel strong, I feel carried. Time takes me to the next day, and the next, and the next. I just remain here in my body, powerless to fight it.
If strong is an attitude, then yes, I have moments of strength. But my motivation most days is limited to lying with a white mind, in my white room, on my white sheets, motionless.
When I moved in two years ago, I chose that bedroom because when the evening spring sunlight shines into it, and the soft curtains catch the breeze from the open window, it feels like heaven. And I lie there, in my self created heaven, not feeling much at all.

So I ask myself, how can I avoid this? I usually have all the answers. I could travel to a room bursting with colour down a side street in Morocco, but I don't think this sadness is something I can unpack from my suitcase. I could swallow sweetness and use biology - lift up my wilting mind with dopamine, sugar, a fix. But I think I am too aware of my own bad habits to fool myself any more.
The idea of filling the hole you have left with another is sacrilegious to me, my teeth crumble at the thought. The idea of loving again seems inauthentic, and I am convinced any feelings for another down the line would be a result of loneliness and a need for human contact, because no one will ever compare to you. No, I've had my fill of love for this lifetime. It might not have been for long, but it was enough, a taste was enough.

So I am left with this. This is now my Great Journey, there is just my shadow left walking down our road.
And whilst I do not "feel strong", I do "feel". And though this pain I cannot avoid, I must find a way to work it through my fingers, to add water to it, to turn it into some softness. I must learn to dance with it, to listen to it, to stroke it's hair, to love it. I must learn.

To be continued.

Thursday, 25 February 2016

Stage Left

The air thickens
in my lungs
I breathe in water,
under water
salty and seasoned
by some numbness.

I try to take hold of life and shake it
Instead words drop from sentences
like heavy leaves, dead from a branch
And I remain
The sky is blue and high
I feel it all, I see it all
I am free to leave, unlocked
You asked me to leave myself ajar

 But I do not move
I curl into myself
Wishing I was a dying leaf too
That I did not have to live in this humid
you-less place
more a place borne to choke
each breath out
Your absence rings in my ears

For now, I live in the hesitation before the choice
the word you search for on your tongue
but cannot place
that's my home
My hope lies in the leap days that will never happen
Maybe you are waiting there
On some star with some telescope
a thousand years before our births, waiting
to watch us meet again

You call, and temporarily I forget
this headache simply dissolves
Except for this deep bass note, reminder
that every second that passes is hurling me towards your grande exit
Stage left
And there is nothing I can do, but watch
with big eyes and a broken heart