Lucky Shampoo

Finding the right shampoo is like finding the right man. You hope its scent will make you stop cross-eyed and swoon, you want it to bring out the best in you like some kind of magical transformation, and occasionally you get it in the eye and wish you hadn’t.

I’m not a superstitious person, usually, I don’t think, (though I do still say hullo to lone magpies and never tread on three drains; the learnt behaviour of childhood) – but whenever I find a nice new shampoo I sometimes attribute any good luck I have to its sudsy powers until the bottle is finished. I know this is ridiculous, like some kind of new age dickhead witch seeking magic in potions, but the possibility still pops into my head nonetheless. The things we allow to course through our noggins while we’re trying to find sense and reason and patterns in life are quite often completely uninvited, unfounded, or just plain bonkers. Our imagination pitches itself against the science of the world we have been taught and think we know.

I remember my first feeling of wondering if shampoo had some kind of glutinous destiny when I was about fourteen. My first love, a boy named Joel whom I had loved from afar for months, with whom I then went on to have a steamy on-off smoochy love affair that peppered my teens like summer christmases. He liked the smell of Revlon Flex, and by golly if I wasn’t using Flex I thought our union would crumble like a cake with no butter. Then for a brief while I started doing well in science at school and put it down to the discount brand I was using at the time that made my hair softer than ice-cream and smell like blueberries. I never found the shampoo again; we only went to Kwiksave that once. Good science & I were clearly not meant to be. (This could in fact explain my formulating hotchpotch ideas about shampoo. No hard facts; just lunacy.) Perhaps this strange linking is purely down to the evocative power of scent; the nose blindsides your other senses with that power that can call to you toddler memories unbidden at the age of 36 when you smell milk formula or the perfect trinity of twiglets and orange squash and the warm plastic of a wendy house.

I suppose I still occasionally do this baffling fusing of shampoo and luck in my head, but last week I found myself thinking of it even more. I’d just cracked open a bottle of caramel and cocoa-smelling goodness that left my hair feeling like fresh combed straw, too stripped clean to be soft, and then in a succession of an intense 3 days I had heart-stopping sad news, got burgled, and then had some possibly life-changing good news that left me dizzy. Given the fact the new shampoo had brought with it two bad days and one day of giddy smilebursts, in my head I had to label the bottle ‘intense experiences’ rather than ‘good luck’. And now I’m halfway through the bottle and wondering if the bit of possible good luck will die once it’s empty. What will happen next?

Maybe thinking small things like shampoo affects anything is easier than believing in god or some other greater steering power or giving yourself up to the utter randomness of life. It comes in a bottle, contained and potent and fresh and clean, and pushes you out into your day with a lingering scent, the feel of your hair on your head, the air than moves between the strands, a constant tangible feeling.

Do you go out and buy exactly the same shampoo in the hope that it will be similarly charged with serendipitous particles, or do you seek a different better luck in a new bottle, a different smell or brand promise? Or do you accept that you’re mental and shampoo has got bog all to do with anything and you make your own luck? I know the truth in my head, but my imagination is boss. And my hair smells really dreamy.

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The Trouble with being Burgled

The trouble with being burgled is that it makes you question how good your stuff is when they decide not to take any of it. That, and the safety of your abode. But mostly your stuff. I got called home from work last Thursday saying there had been a break in. My neighbour had disturbed them and they’d been into both flats. I legged it home assuming that the only thing I own of any value – my mac – would definitely have gone. And surely the reprobates would have had the good sense to spot that the 1980s brown glass perfume bottle in the shape of a bassett hound was a fine collectable that might not fetch much on the Cash Converter circuit, but would provide hours of whimsical inner mirth. Neither were touched. And when they’ve flung your clothes out of the drawers onto the floor of course you’re going to judge yourself. As you fold it back up and place it back in the drawer, you’re thinking “fine, ok, so these sequins weren’t the best decision I’ve ever made, but I’d had some darn good times holding my stomach in in this skirt and if you can’t see that then it’s your loss”. Burglary makes you take things very personally.

Turns out they hadn’t taken anything except for some Royal Horticultural Society vouchers my neighbour had got for his birthday. That’s quite niche isn’t it. I imagined the robbers stalking around the walled gardens of a stately home, guiltily opining the peonies. I comforted myself that they had only blatantly disregarded everything I own because they had been rumbled by my neighbour before they could bag up the loot. Of course they would ordinarily have taken the knot of sterling silver necklaces I have amassed since my teens that would take seventeen hours of picking apart with patient fingers and possibly a pin to make any of them wearable again. If only they hadn’t been cut short by the vigilance of Stephen downstairs they would have been right in the money.

When the attending cop came round he introduced himself as Christian and I thought it was a bit inappropriate, changing established police protocol in such a friendly manner. If I was going to be questioned, I wanted to feel sufficiently ill at ease to call him Officer. My burglary, my rules. Officer Christian was satisfyingly big and burly. I found myself wondering if he could lift me with one hand while batting back hardened crims with the other. I decided I bet he could if he wasn’t feeling tired and I had only had a light breakfast.

I felt bad that Officer Christian had to come round to mine for a rather lacklustre tale of a basic bungled burglary where nothing was taken. I wanted to pep it up for him so he had better stuff to jot down in his neat tilted handwriting. Then he mentioned he’d just come from a double-stabbing and of course I felt inferior. I couldn’t compete with murder. My knives couldn’t hack the seeds out of a tomato anymore let alone disembowel someone.

It’s a funny feeling knowing someone’s been in your home without asking. I’ve been burgled before and the last time left me feeling vulnerable for months; it felt like the windows and doors were permanently left open for all and sundry to come bursting through, and in the darkness at night I was jumpy at every sound. It’s not about the stuff. I don’t have much and what I do have is not going to support anyone with a £200 a day heroin habit, not even long enough for a five minute high. It’s about feeling safe. So while I stared around at the mess and the broken glass and the worthless things I own and felt that familiar unsettled feeling of my private space having been violated, I mostly felt relieved that I have never had to feel the desperation that one day turns ordinary people into thieves. That can’t be fun. Especially if Officer Christian catches you and pins you by the balls to the wall, which I’d kind of like to see if I’m honest. That’d teach the tykes for thinking my stuff is shit.

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Women’s Snickers

I had a lovely International Women’s Day last week. I’d been feeling a bit grumpy on account of lady problems – my bits ached, I was emotional, and I had a savage craving for Snickers like you wouldn’t believe, so I wasn’t massively in the mood to celebrate being a woman. Everything was narking me off and I was very cross at the disruption that hormones can cause. I didn’t want to play the worldwide sport of owning our femininity, I wanted to watch Meryl Streep films in the dark and throw things. Maybe have a little cry over nothing in particular into the dog’s tummy and then eat another Snickers.

But I cracked on because it would have been frowned on if I’d skulked around wincing at my boobs and muttering that I wanted to be a man. That’s not the kind of thing that’s expected of you on International Women’s day. You’re supposed to be at your best, showing anyone who will notice that you are part of a franchise of Gender Awesomeness, not just today, but every day. You are an ambassador of all that is Woman; you certainly can’t grumble about your fallopian tubes.

Somehow I got through the day without weeping, throwing anything, killing anyone or performing a self-hysterectomy with a spoon, and set up for the International Women’s Day event I was doing in the evening, which was a talk on the theme of The Invisible Woman. “I WISH I WAS RUDDY INVISIBLE AND THEN NO ONE WOULD NOTICE ME SITTING IN THE CORNER, PICKING SNICKERS NUTS OUT OF MY TEETH”, I wanted to bellow as I laid out the seats. But that wasn’t the point of the evening.

The point of the evening was to welcome a small number of women to talk openly about whether we feel seen; whether we have to struggle to be seen as young women, get seen for a few years, and then slowly get forgotten again. To discuss whether we want to be seen at all, and if we are seen in the way we want to be seen. I was expecting maybe a handful of people to turn up for an hour’s chat before attending the next events; a talk on domestic violence and a talk on the Essex Girl and her stereotyping. The talk got going and slowly the room filled up until there were no more seats. More women turned up and eventually there were people sitting on the floor, standing by the back wall, and filling the pockets of space at the side. I was pleasantly surprised and settled in to the talk with a warm feeling growing in my tummy. Not unlike when you clutch a hot water bottle to your abdomen because Eve ruined it for all of us when she mucked God about all those years ago or whatever.

The assembled women had brilliant things to say about their experiences; how our lives are shaped by our gender, how often things get brought back to our sexuality when they shouldn’t, and how sometimes it feels very much like some men forget to address things to our faces instead of our boobs. “If anyone talked to my boobs right now I could ruddy bash their face off with one slight jerk” I muttered inwardly, still a bit peeved at the enlargening effects of the monthly tribulation.

It was an inspiring hour of a diverse collection of brilliant women of all ages meandering off and on subject as we achieved what was essentially the point of the day; be with each other, share our stuff, listen to each other, and support each other. We ended the session saying we should do it again soon. On the whole I was glad I’d turned up. Especially as it was my event.

It was so nice I even stopped thinking about Snickers. For, like, an hour.

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Spring is Always a Surprise

The sun’s come out. No matter how old you get Spring always feels like a bit of a surprise. Like bumping into an old friend in the street who’s been living abroad for a while. Familiar and lovely but somehow not expected. You turn a corner into March, the sky gets brighter, the days get a fraction longer, and the real new year starts. January feels like a month of pretending. We know we’ve ticked into another calendar year but it doesn’t really feel real until the sun unfurls itself from its February chrysalis and colours everything differently. Fresh.

It’s amazing how everything changes. The birds pipe up, the clouds look freshly scrubbed, the streets get greener, the trees look less sad, the first flowers of the season pop up shyly, the blue above us looks crisp as a dry-cleaned suit. Our lungs feel lighter; our steps have a different energy. Something in us changes. Even the winter lovers among us are rejuvenated by the vitamin D, you can’t fight the science, and for those whose soul feels a bit bedraggled from months of gloom it really is a new start. We are reunited with something in ourselves; something that we quite like. We’ve not been our best, and now we feel like we can be.

It feels easier to tackle things with this strange new energy that nature gives us. More realistic resolutions for the year come into play. After months of spreading myself too thin, feeling frazzled and too brain-weary to do anything particularly well I feel like I’m shaking things off, mixing things up. I have promised myself I am going to manage my time more strictly so I can allow myself time to switch off. I am going to keep work within certain parameters so I get to keep my evenings and weekends for remembering that I am human. Or that’s the idea anyway. I lay in bed quite late on Sunday listening to the spring birds and it felt strange. I felt like a lazy slug but then realised that that is what people do on Sundays. It is a day of rest. I can’t remember the last time I really did that. I had myself a proper weekend. It felt sort of dirty but I loved it.

I’d spent the afternoon in the pub on the Saturday after getting my hair cut and my new fringe that I suspect makes me look like a simpleton was making my eyes a bit blinky. I sat in the pub garden in the spring sunshine with a friend and we played each other new songs we’d discovered on our phones. One of his contributions was a French band named Pamplemousse who I loved mainly because the French word for grapefruit is about as good a word as you can get. You can’t get a fresher word than pamplemousse. Use it in a sentence today. It will make you feel like you’ve just licked a tart bit of pink citrus. French music always gives me a little flood of imaginary memories. You can fancy yourself a bit French when you were conceived in Nice harbour. You owe it to yourself to be a bit French when your mum and dad banged you into being on a boat after nearly dying crossing the channel. Sometimes these appended selves from little tributaries of our lives can make us feel new and fresh when we imagine ourselves in different stories. Our imagination makes us know that change is ok. Spring is the time for imagination and for changes. I am a tiny weeny bit French and have a new fringe like Amelie’s idiot older cousin and I like it.

As I write this, eyes squinting at the sun as my eyes grow accustomed to the brightness, there’s a fat fly jittering against the window – like a bulb that grew wings that can’t quite carry him far enough. He looks like he’s been locked inside all winter and has just noticed that’s it’s sunny. He wants to get outside. I know how he feels. It’s nice to reemerge.

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Love is Loud

A friend told me last week that he suspected his Nan had lived for thirty years in a gay relationship but had never spoken of her love for her partner. She raised a family living with the woman she loved, but no one was ever quite sure of their true relationship. It just wasn’t the done thing back then. Hearing that after she lost her life partner she regularly said she “missed her friend’ broke my heart, not only because I know missing people is an emptiness that is never quelled, but because not being able to speak about the love you feel is a prison. Love is an emotion you want to share; when you feel it your heart wants to shout, and so often we reduce it to a whisper or even silence. Real love is a diamond you want to hold up after years of grasping around in rocks. It is why people post pictures of their dogs or babies or new engagement rings. Love never wants to stay quiet. Love is loud.

The other evening I went to an event at Focal Point Gallery hosted by Southend artist Scottee that for me crystallised the importance of love being free and open and unashamed. Entitled “Is Southend homophobic?”, it was a platform for people to come and express their views in a queer safe-place.

The empty floor of the gallery space had been given over to a long table lined by chairs. A further row of chairs circled the table; people were to sit on the outside row and step in to the table when they wanted to contribute. It could so easily have been an intimidating set-up for those not used to speaking to many strangers at once, but under the masterful friendliness of Scottee, it took almost no time at all until the table was filled and people were talking openly. 

I stood by the wall sandwiched between the rainbow art of current exhibition Volker Eichelmann and listened. I didn’t want to take up a chair that might have been needed by someone else. For a few brief moments I was nervous that my head-cocked curiosity on the periphery was a patronising outsider’s stance. For what was I bringing to the table? I had not suffered coming out of a closet in a town that, like most, fears alternative ways of living and loving. I had not had to feel scared to fall in love with someone from my own sex or walk down a street holding the hand of the person I loved, or experienced derision, verbal hatred or violence for the choice my heart had made; which, where love is concerned, is really no choice at all.

While the adults spoke freely, a young boy of about maybe 12 got to his feet and joined the table. All eyes fell on him as we waited for him to speak. And then, when it was his turn, he did. He spoke of having come out at school and how his friends supported his decision. He spoke as though he felt part of something, a wider community he has not had the freedom to mingle in yet being still in possession of a parent-dictated bedtime. He spoke with a nascent wisdom of how many had struggled before him, and he was respectful to those who had helped make it acceptable for him to recognise who he is, so young; for him to be openly and articulately gay in his still-small world. I had to wipe my face dry about a hundred times in ten minutes, though I had no right to the tears. I did not want to be one of those liberal observers pleased at the chance to get their cheeks wet, but I just felt so overwhelmed because there was a young man sat at a table of adults, utterly equal and at home, seeming proof that times had changed and were still changing – and that he would live his life being brave; a bravery that had been fought for and hard won by his peers at the table. Bravery is a word we seem to over-use when people have the confidence to simply be themselves, to articulate how they feel without fear of being judged. If this boy felt fear he did not show it, and there, with the whole of the rainbow around him – lesbian, gay, bi, trans, camp, queer, straight, all the different shades in between – it was bright and it was beautiful. The evening concluded with dozens of people sharing chips from the chippy brought in big squishy white bags by the gallery staff, there amongst the art, discussing how everyone could keep in touch and keep talking. I left, heart brimming as trans queer punk group T-Bitch crackled in full-force in the foyer usually accustomed to a quieter crowd. 

How many of us present our true selves to the world outside our comfort zone? It takes bravery to live our lives as we wish; it takes long enough to discover ourselves, our sense of self a journey started at birth and seldom ever completed – and then it takes a certain defiance once we’ve realised who we are to express it outwardly. Sometimes it takes people decades of private wrangling; some people never get there. We are naturally predisposed to staying in some sort of closet of society’s or our own making, and flinging open the closet doors feels like a loudness few people embrace. To live openly is a gift; at first to ourselves, and then to the world, which is always richer when the closet doors are smashed. Our selves should be like the best galleries – not locked away portraits pointing inwards for a lifelong private view, but open exhibitions of the morphing vibrant fearless expression of the infinite possibilities in being human. Who are we, really? Let us be that.

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