Sunday, 17 February 2019

Change of blog

I have never really figured out Blogger well enough know the ins and outs or to inform myself how many people actually read anything I write. It may be none, it may be as high as three! Who knows?
There are changes to Blogger arriving soon I took the opportunity to jump ship and from now on I write on Medium.com so if you are a subscriber to my blog please move over to medium.com/@bendench for my writing. Many thanks.
And thanks for reading anything I write.

Ben

Saturday, 12 January 2019

And Here We Are


And I remain here in our world of blood-red tomatoes and earthy spices,
Willing for change and new routine and otherness,
I can be a sentinel for others' attraction
and a beacon of rest for the grieving faction.
But I know what I am not
and who I have not.
Everyone else remains here in our world of barking dogs and carrier bags,
Scuttling, targeting, oblivious to who they have lost,
Maybe wilful ignorance helps navigate
the risks of daily comfort.
Maybe they do not want
what they have not got.
The children that know lived through homework and after-school clubs,
Their fortitude bolstered by potential and by childish romance,
Maybe distance has dulled the sharpness
and youth is resilience.
They can survive painlessly
wanting what they don't have.
But she doesn't remain in our world of red tomatoes and earthy spices,
Of barking dogs and homework and after-school clubs.
Of sentinels and beacons and places of rest
Of daily comfort from those who give peace.
There she is,
and here we are.





Wednesday, 2 January 2019

Anniversaries



There are a handful of anniversaries to navigate now that Ruby is not with us any more. Each has its' own identity. The anniversary of her death (May 8th, the day before my wedding anniversary) has a blanket sadness that is utterly unavoidable, there is nothing that can be done that day to reduce its effects, no distractions, no positive discussions. It is, without fuss or negotiation, the worst day of my life. I feel terrible rage at the unfairness of it all, I feel my body collapse and implode, I feel fate has assaulted me with a disability for life, I feel so much and also so little.
Our birthdays, as close relatives, have their own identity in connection to grief- we make them as fun as we can but the gap of loss is unavoidably present. There is no other day of the year like a birthday for someone who forever grieves. There are presents, laughs, cake, going out for dinner, seeing friends and all the usual shared celebrations. But the edges of the precipice are crisper than ever. On birthdays Ruby is barely mentioned, if at all. It is supposed to be day of celebration after all so sad stuff is not supposed to be brought up but of course it barely needs to be brought up, its always there.
The emotions experienced on Ruby's birthday vary every year depending on her age. Three months ago she would have been seventeen years old (when I last saw her she was eleven). The run-up to this anniversary is the longest of the year and usually takes many weeks. In public during this period I can only see young women of about her age and I am distracted by ideas of lost potential- would Ruby be in education, training, still have the same friends, would she be happy in our family, what about her relationship with her brother Tom, would she have liked a birthday party or a quiet night in with close friends?
Christmas grief has its own identity, one influenced by a monthly build-up to a holiday of family time, expected jollity, excess and conspicuous consumerism. I can experience social anxiety any time but there is a pressure on me like no other time of year to be around other people and there is an expectation to be celebratory, which I never feel. As an atheist adult, Christmas meant very little for me from the time I stopped believing in Santa Claus up until I had children of my own. Then there were eleven Christmases of childlike wonder and excitement but now that has gone. Tom enjoys it, of course, but everything is different now.
In the last five years Christmas has barely evolved from what it has always been around here- getting together with extended family, eating and drinking. This year I spent much of my time in a quiet corner online, connecting with strangers and trying to make things a little less lonely for us all on a Twitter group designed just for that purpose. That is my Christmas identity- loneliness. Feeling alone, even in company, has been the unique identity of my Christmas for the last five years. I do what is expected of me, as a relative, but there is no other day of my year that has that same quality of displacement as Christmas, of disconnectedness from my surroundings (it is for this reason that I can easily empathise, and can create good connections with, lonely people online and I try to use some of my day to ease our burdens). I am always pleased to see the end of this day. This year my dad was over from London for a week which was lovely too but he and Claire and Tom were all ill with bugs so my two weeks time off from nursing over Christmas was a busman's holiday. I had prepared myself a little for the unhealthiness of the time by losing a little weight in December (reducing bread and pasta for a few weeks and adding on a few more runs than usual which also contributed to helping me feel a little more in control of my emotions).
I spent midnight New Years Eve at home. Claire and Tom were asleep, snotty, coughing, with a high temperature, and I considered my resolutions for 2019 but came up with nothing. I think all I wanted was a return to some sort of routine combined with an escape to the forest. Maybe this is all I ever really want.
I want to get through the new year without totally fucking up. Anything else is a bonus.




This my favourite tree in the world- an oak in Castlewellan Forest Park in Northern Ireland, taken today 2nd January 2019.












Sunday, 11 November 2018

Trans men are real men too



In my job as a nurse helping homeless people I have knowingly met many transpeople (I am not a particularly sociable person and so I meet very few new people outside of work). Some of them I have met because of the psychiatric profession pathologising their transgenderism under the banner of mental health (hopefully this will disappear soon) but others I have met through usual day to day interaction (poverty is a great leveller and doesn't discriminate for or against transpeople, cisgender people or others). My reasons for working as a nurse with particularly vulnerable people could appear truly cheesy and cringe-worthy but the reality is that I hate unfairness, I hate bullies and I am fully aware of the power of autonomy. We flower when we are in charge of our own destiny and I want to help people regain some of that control when it is lost without intention.
Some ignorance about trans issues is conscious prejudice because there is only cursory research, and hence evidence, about why some people are transgender so some people make up reasons to fit their own narrative (I'm very aware that explaining transgenderism via scientific research is an ugly concept for some and that the focus should be on solidarity rather than scientific explanations but I am writing this from my view of knowledge and my view of interest).
There has been very recent research in Belgium to suggest (strongly) that the brains of transpeople identify on a physical, neurological level with the brains of the gender they identify with. There has also been research for many years proving the changeability of the the physical make-up and processes of the brain throughout our life (neuroplasticity) which may also contribute to being transgender and to gender fluidity. Cognitive neuroscience is really in its infancy and will be a massively exciting field to work in over the next few decades. Also, our genetic make-up and the interaction of the environment with our genes (epigenetics) has proven the extraordinary complexity of the human condition and the million shades of colour we exhibit and inhibit. I passionately watched the Human Genome project, an extraordinary scientific endeavour mapping the human genetic code, progress through the 1990s at a cost of a billion dollars. As of today some companies are offering the same genetic mapping for individuals for $999 and it takes one day- the field of genetic science is amazing as we discover the increasing complexity of our genetic code and the lack of demarcation between nature and nurture, such is their close relationship. Clearly the old fashioned idea that our gender is defined by our genitals or by XX or XY chromosomes is over-simplistic nonsense, as has been proven for years.
But that's just the scientific evidence.
Self identifying as transgender and then sharing that knowledge is really hard. It can be terrifying. There are serious and real risks of rejection from all corners of your life and risks of serious violence. Real violence. It is no surprise to me that around half of the people who identify as trans have considered taking their own life. Half. The fault for this terrible pressure and lack of acceptance comes direct from ones' environment, from the society and media that mock and confute and use fear of "the other" to gain capital, from the wilful ignorance of friends, neighbours, people on Twitter who refuse to weigh and consider and refuse to take even a cursory glance at the subjective experience.
I think times are changing. The non-binary nature of gender is beyond serious debate. That people identify as trans, and through their subjective experience as male or female or neither, is non-negotiable and the rest of the world is playing catch up. My anecdotal experience is that, to be open with others about being transgender, one has to have gone through such a phenomenal amount of introspection and that one has to be so completely assured about it, if you say you're a man, you're a man. Of course anyone can say it but that's not what transgender means- it means you feel a different gender to the one assigned to you at birth. It isn't what you say, it's who you are.
So what to do? The main advice I give, as a mental health professional, is usually clinical advice because I often meet people who identify as trans due to the problems they experience. And those problems are usually the fault of other people around them so my support is usually about exploration of the self, information about formal LGBTQI+ services, related mental health issues (depression, anxiety, ideas of self-harm, etc) and providing a listening ear and a safe place to be as honest as they
feel comfortable. And I would encourage them to tell anybody they they feel safe to do so which may not necessarily be a close relative or friend but simply someone they feel comfortable enough ("would you feel/be safe telling them?") to confide in.
None of this should be an issue, of course, because the dangers and stressors lie with non-trans people. The more this issue is discussed, the less we pathologise it, the more we can all be comfortable around that which we do not know. Knowledge is power.
Much of the transphobia I have seen online, and which has been told to me by other people, has been about trans women not being perceived as "real" women or trans men not being perceived as "real" men to which my immediate thought is: What is a real women or a real man? It certainly isn't a chromosomal thing or a genital thing or the words you choose. An idea currently in trend is that trans women don't have a "lived" experience as women and won't have directly experienced the same sexism, misogyny, differences and other insights into female gender identity. This is such a patronising idea to me because if you identify as female you will feel the same, or very similar, internalised patriarchal pressures that many women experience. And it makes no sense to me identifying your gender based on ideas of violence, disadvantage and negativity. Is a trans man only a "real" man if they competitively earn more than their peers or like football or get into fights in a pub? I like very few typically male things I guess I am not a "real" man either.
If something is beyond your control then your worry will change nothing. If something is in your control, choose wisely. It would be blatant idiocy for me to be angry at someone because they are Kurdish or ginger or tall or a heterosexual, the same model of idiocy expressed by transphobes. If you can help your choices, being a Tory say or disliking cheese, then your shortfalls are up for contrarian discussion.
There is a spectrum here. Not all women have experiences that some women consider necessary if they want to call themselves women. Not all men have experiences that some men consider necessary if they want to call themselves men. Some experiences, and the resultant personality that is affected, are male, some are female and many people experience both types. In combining within us those lived experiences with the plasticity of our neural development and the complexity of genes and epigenetics and a hundred other factors beyond my brain power to understand, the idea that gender is binary is surely a dead idea.
There is a beautifully analogue fluidity to gender in humans. To even suggest the idea of "trans"-anything suggests there is clearly male and female and you identify as "not one but the other" as opposed to identifying as "my gender which is simply, naturally, messily, uniquely me". Our primary hope is to accept differences as natural and normal- as we do if you are a Kurd or ginger or tall or heterosexual- and just be fucking nice to each other. There is no zero sum gain here- you don't lose out if your transgendered (perceived) enemy gains some acceptance, you gain too, as we all do. People who identify as trans can be arseholes just as frequently as other people, and they can be racist and Tories and cheese-haters too. Judge people on their choices.
And if they vote Tory dismiss them from your lives forever, they only brought it on themselves.

Saturday, 3 November 2018

An Old Poem



Foundations

When houses are new,
with inspiring, influential solidity,
with smoky signs of life soaring to heights
and lights, the life-signs of the restless.
New houses are square, they're just there,
like single boulders. Built on shared
times, mortared with blunt-edged anecdotes,
fresh colours, clean windows, new glue.

When houses are old,
and fulfilling their use, cracks start to show.
Its walls wane and wander,
groaning under the weight of age and change.
The gaps trace like deconstructing plot-lines,
through predictable brick-line breaks,
like old arguments with new jagged edges,
down to the foundations, without fuss, like foundations.

And there, nestling on the bedrock, is our base
of unshifting seismic certainty,
of unchanging geological you-ness,
of all you are, without fuss, like rock.
Underground, unseen, understood,
unfounded, the earth swallows us.
Better by far we are founded
than rocked by a bitter wind,
or dislodged by a weed,
growing in our shadow.

Saturday, 20 October 2018

Toxic Masculinity



I often think about masculinity being toxic and about who it affects. I have read recently about hegemonic masculinity as being a more accurate phrase to use because it encompasses the element of toxicity and also explains its origins in age-old patriarchy and its aggressive dominance. How can masculinity become toxic? Because it is rooted in centuries of oppression and force leading to disparities that are accepted as being "normal". If these disparities can be reflected upon and considered in detail, the reasons and histories, then maybe men can do something about this problem- about women receiving less pay for the same work, about women doing more unpaid and insecure work, about women not having universal suffrage, about educational inequality for girls, about glass ceilings, about sexual violence against women, and so on and on. If men can do something about this then men should do something about this.  How can men do something about this? Men can use the position they are in because of those centuries of patriarchy to somehow lift others up. If men have the advantage of predetermined patriarchy then when others' disadvantages are recognised men should use their power and influence usefully. Surely the reason to have power (and money and status) is to give it away.

Hegemonic masculinity is toxic for everyone. For women, of course, because of old, deep, invasive patriarchy that suffuses almost everything and which contributes to a type of misogyny that sometimes feels hard-wired into the human psyche. It is toxic for men too because it utterly distorts their relationships with women and so they learn less, bond less and grow less. Also, because of the advantages that men have (particularly straight white men) such as in power disparity, lack of fear of women and living in world whose default setting is for their benefit means that men are likely to suffer too- poor rates of health in older men are notable, risk-taking behaviour is greater, lower levels of support for emotional and mental health, greater loneliness, etc.
Hegemony masculinity is about dominance. It is toxic precisely because the otherness that it assumes in its power hierarchy gives rise, by definition, to misogyny. It is no surprise that such prejudice often encourages homophobic and transphobic hatred and, in turn, racism too. I often assume that toxic masculinity particularly affects straight white men because it reinforces the heteronormative, binary view of those most deperate for, and who have, power.  Of course this is not to say that hegemonic patriarchy is not intersectional- anecdotally there appears differences  in the privileges and powers of men in different ethnic groups, queer (LGBTQI+) men, those who are poor and so on (I would be curious to look at research related to intersectional power balances and abuses).
Hegemonic masculinity is about unattainable ideals. If aggressive masculinity encourages a black and white approach to partnership, to friendship, to who men are and to who they are supposed be (basically, James Bond) it is unsurprising that many men feel a strong pull towards a comic-book adaptation of manliness. It is partly my own prejudice that looks warily at men who have obviously spent a lot of time in a gym making their muscles bigger or men in suits driving cars that are unnecessarily large. I imagine they are sad they are not allowed to legally carry an umbrella with a poisoned dart on the end.
Hegemonic masculinity limits expression. As men's continual and subconscious reliance on the patriarchy for their success continues, their introspection is reduced and their belief in binary norms are reinforced. They are not encouraged to consider shades of grey, the ambiguous aspects of human life, and spend little time weighing, considering, examining. The result is a dearth of personal exploration and, instead, the expressed wilful ignorance of 99% of the human experience.
Hegemonic masculinity dimishes life-chances. I am a mental health support worker helping homeless people with varied needs (health issues, addiction issues, etc) and I meet many young men who have rarely had a positive role-model in their life. They often feel trapped in their poverty and unequipped to deal with positive change and engagement with helpers. It is very difficult to escape the restrictions of toxic masculinity if it has spent your life teaching you to be invulnerable and emotionless (or at least that to show vulnerability and emotion is a sign of weakness and is to your disadvantage). There are many restrictions in my job, some "peace walls" are higher than others here in Belfast, but there is an underlying and persistent influencer that restricts men, and by association all of us, again and again. This influencer facilitates drug abuse, it empowers poverty, it perpetuates trans-generational trauma from The Troubles, it encourages distance between young men and young women and also between young men and old men- the influence of toxic masculinity.

Men need to learn a lot. In standing by when women are belittled, abused and coerced, men, like me, are complicit in their abuse. Us moderates who look away (in fear of abuse or embarrassment maybe) are participants although we like to ignore this fact. With our passivity we are co-facilitating patriarchy, encouraging it. When men, like me, do nothing we ossify patriarchy, and we ossify ourselves. We petrify women and we petrify progress. I am lucky in that I was brought up in a matriarchal house with a sister, no brothers, I always had close friends that are women and most of my colleagues and managers have been women. I consider myself relatively empathic and sensitive to the needs of people unlike me, an advocate and, if needs be, a protector. But I have been reflecting on past comments and behaviours, from when I was a teenager up until today, without an entirely clear and unembarrassed mind. I have said things, and done fewer I think, that have made women uncomfortable and want to not be in my company, at least temporarily. There have been times I won't ever know that women were scared walking the same street as me, uncomfortable to speak up in front of me, didn't want to catch my eye. But for now I hope I can be as introspective and learned as possible to say that I see you, I see myself  and I am trying to be aware. I will be as aware as I possibly can as to how I might be perceived and I will try to use the weight and privelege I have as a white, cis-gender, heteronormative man born into power. I will try to identify subjective and objective otherness and I will listen more.

I have a son to raise, a father to relate to, male friends to love and many men who are homeless to assist. But irrespective of these men in my life I am in contact with hundreds of other humans- men, women, people of both genders and none- and I could do better to recognise all the extraordinary shades of all the glorious colours on the spectrum of human experience. Differences, together.

















Monday, 3 September 2018

Grief reminds us why we love


It will be Ruby's 17th birthday next week. I think about her every day. These days I forget that I have thought about her after the thought. It used to be that, when I thought about Ruby, strong emotions would overwhelm me and I knew for hours after that she had been in my mind. I felt the aftershocks, ripples. Then after some more months and years thoughts of Ruby would instead leave a tracer like a radioactive isotope, a half-life of a few hours then eventually just an hour then, at last, minutes. Now, five and a half years after she died, I forget I have had thoughts about her after the thought occurred.
And that's what mostly happens now- the thoughts occur. Thoughts of Ruby used to crash into my consciousness, chaotically destroying any mental work I had managed but now they just occur. I am, these days, gently reminded of her or maybe I will let myself think of her at times I am less vulnerable (after exercise, say, or when I am having one of those little phases of joy here and there) or maybe an old friend will remind me of that time Ruby found a joke funny and we smile together without pathos.
It is a fortunately rare occurrence that violently strong thoughts of grief punch me in the guts and leave me breathless and it always happens from a spontaneously triggering experience. One morning recently Claire told me she dreamt about Ruby (neither of us ever dream about Ruby) and that she dreamt she was stroking her face. Immediately I was struck with rising anxiety, nausea and a physical pain in my chest- I have an immensely clear memory of the feel of Ruby's hair on my face and Claire's dream caused a type of flashback that felt as real as real hair brushing my face. It felt like Ruby was suddenly there with us and I was resting my cheek on her head and I knew, I absolutely knew with the certainty of my own skin on my own bones, that her hair was touching my face. And then I had to suddenly also know that she had died and I had to suddenly know I was without her. The rest of my day was blurry and  actionless and I floated around powered by poignancy. I was suffused with otherness until medication helped me sleep that night. My powerlessness lasted one full day and then I jogged, I cooked, I loved, I read and I did all those things I know help and then normality, of a type, returned.
The world of the bereaved is suffused with otherness- living life a few inches to the left, needing to squint to focus, the requirement to tilt my torso and adjust my head ever so slightly to get the view others receive unfailingly.  Colours are never quite right, they need more light or maybe they are washed out. Circles are oval, edges too sharp. Tactility is squishy or painfully hard.
Bereaved people are acutely aware of their perceived exertion as comparable with others' objective view of their work. And like an athlete in training for a marathon astutely analysing their own body's work rate, the bereaved person knows their exertion level and its relation to reality.
Sometimes my thoughts love the sound of their own voice, circulating round and round, not letting me in, the conscious me who wants to rationalise and interact. They can be obsessively self-centred and exclusionary. At other times it is hard to break out from their tyranny, the  sporadic carapace of grief, I can be imprisoned. But everything passes.

By their very nature anxiety and depression are rational, as is grief. But grief is so much more. It is anxiety and it is depression- normal reactions to unusual circumstances- but it is also post-trauma learning, it is untreatable because it is a sign of wellness not illness, it is an endeavour from which we can learn the importance of things. Grief explains to us the ephemerality we are chained to and maybe provides a reason and eventual escape- it is a reminder of how deep we loved someone.
This is the bittersweet nature of grief- we are sad because we were happy. We are broken-hearted because we loved. A key navigation skill along the road of grief is to shed the burden of what we have lost and instead look to the love we held so close and to celebrate the joy we had. Grief is the ultimate lesson in why, and how, we love.