Tuesday 27 March 2012

A Simple Song

In the nineties, when I learned to use makeup, the whole idea seemed to be to make as little difference as possible to your natural face. Hours were spent deliberating between eyeshadows with names like Ecru, Bone and Shell; if it was a really special occasion I might break out the Mushroom. (No, not that sort of mushroom).

Things are different now. I stand at a makeup counter in John Lewis in Oxford Street, feeling old and out of touch. Should I pick Bird of paradise, Neon, or Pop? Which one of those says 'the grandparents are babysitting and I've got a night off, baby' most effectively? I decide on Bird of Paradise, because it's true - the babies are being sat upon and J and I are off to see the Shins. The tickets for this London show sold out in sixteen minutes and I got two of them; I scored them from work a few weeks ago, frantically pressing 'refresh' on my computer while the interns shouted encouragement from the sidelines. I haven't been so excited about anything since... well, since I saw Radiohead in 1998, I suppose.But now the day is here, I feel disoriented too - I haven't done something like this for such a long time and I find that I don't really remember how to do it.

I wasn't even sure what to wear. I know that everybody else there will be wearing confusing shirts with logos I don't understand; shirts that have obviously come from some Hipster Palace of Awesome that I've never even heard of. None of them will have to check their cardigans for evidence of some small person's mucus, and if they are wearing cardigans at all it will only be in some sort of hip, ironic way, rather than, you know, to actually keep warm, like me. I can't keep up with that. In the end, I wear jeans and a striped top from the Anthropologie sale because I just want to be comfortable, dagnabbit, but now I'm regretting it and some new eyeshadow seems the only way to redeem my confused, out-of-touch self. I realise it's unlikely that James Mercer will see me up on the balcony and say 'Hey! You! Onstage now! I must have you for my muse!' but if that does happen, I want to make sure my eyelids don't let me down.

I take the package and slip it into my bag and wonder what to do next. J is still at work. I've left the children with his parents and travelled up to London and I have an afternoon to myself. Shouldn't I have something urgent to do? Apparently not. I may be on my way to an utterly awesome gig, but I'm still a woman in my thirties who is renovating her attic so I go and look at fabric swatches and request some samples.  Then I go to the hotel and put on my new makeup, layering it on until my eyes look bruised, and then I get on the tube and now it's the date and the time that it says on the ticket and here we are, it's time.

I meet J at the tube station and we go to grab a burger, but I'm so excited that I can't eat it.  I know I'm ridiculous but I can't help it - I'm absolutely giddy with anticipation. Any moment, I could breathe in some carbon dioxide that has actually been inside James Mercer's lungs. It's too much to take in. We go to the venue, me faster than J's long legs for once, dragging him along and saying hurry, hurry! I don't want to be late!

We are definitely not late. This is how out of touch I am - I'd forgotten how boring it is waiting for the main act to come on stage if you turn up at anything resembling the time printed on the ticket. Also, I have no idea why the support act are wearing surgical masks. Would I understand if I was younger? If I didn't have kids?  Is there some kind of airborne pathogen I should be aware of?  This is dull. J and I start to play Angry Birds.

Then The Shins finally come on, and they hit the ground running. They kick off with an incredible version of 'Kissing the Lipless' and the crowd goes crazy - okay, I go crazy, anyway. I was hoping they would start with this! I say to J and clutch his arm in excitement. He says why? and I look at him like he's got two heads and say because it's awesome, also it's the first song from the first album of theirs that we bought, obviously and then he looks at me like I'm the weird one, even though he has heard these CDs as often as me and really, there's no excuse, he should totally know these basic facts.

It just gets better and better. I love the songs from their new album and they are even more amazing live. The Shins is exactly my very favourite sort of music - downbeat lyrics with upbeat tunes, sort of a bit Smiths-ish, I guess - and I'm as happy as I can ever remember being.  There's so much energy and I'm bouncing on my chair like a two-year-old because I'm just having so much fun.  It's not like I don't like my normal life. It's not like it isn't fun watching DVDs of 30 Rock on the sofa and eating pasta, but I'd forgotten what it felt like to just be swamped by a wave of fantastic music, to be in a room where everybody is being carried along by the same tide and everybody is feeling it (except, maybe, J, who would possibly rather be dropping eggs on a pig wearing a helmet). Right now it seems to me like every minute of my life that hasn't been spent at a Shins concert was a total waste of time.

My favourite thing about live music - any kind of live music - is that you can be totally absorbed in the experience but at the same time, your subconscious is footling along in the background and you find yourself suddenly thinking about stuff, stuff that you didn't realise was even in your head until it falls out. I'd say that a really good concert takes up exactly three quarters of the brain, leaving the other quarter to wander down strange, deserted alleyways.  I guess that means live music is sort of like going for a run, but without the pesky shortness of breath or unattractive sweat circles. I find myself thinking about the people onstage and wondering about their lives.  I know the frontman is married with two kids. Does having two kids feel to his wife like it does to me? Or does being married to someone famous (and presumably rich) insulate a person from most of the inconveniences that go along with everyday life for the rest of us? Does she have a cleaner, at least? I bet she gets to go to more live music than I do. But then, my husband doesn't go on tour. She's probably at home, on the phone to her mother, right now, complaining that he's off having a grand time while she's stuck on her own looking after the kids and her life wasn't supposed to turn out like this and she has dreams too, what about her dreams? Or maybe they've brought the kids on tour and she's sitting next to me. Gosh, if so, I hope I didn't say any of that out loud. But speaking of women - there's a girl in the Shins now. How did that happen? It seems odd to me, but I can't really put my finger on why, apart from the fact that she looks about eighteen. Also, that guy playing the keyboard - his hair! Ouch. Definitely the world silver medallist in Bad Indie Hair (with the gold, of course, going to Darwin Deez and his frankly ridiculous ringlets). And then they start playing New Slang.

If you didn't think that post-punk pop could do bittersweet visceral yearning, you haven't heard this. Suddenly, without warning, this song catapults me back to 2007, when we went on holiday to Wales and had this CD on repeat in the car the whole time. It poured with rain that whole week - in fact, that whole summer - and we were miserable. We were in the middle of the horror of trying to make a decision about how to have a family and I couldn't think straight for sadness. The couple in the cottage next to us had a little baby and I would run past their front door in the rain and glare at them damply and get in the car and turn this up. I had forgotten about that.  I loved this song, and every time it came on I would press repeat to hear it again.  The line that always stuck with me was: If you took to me | Like a gull takes to the wing and I know this is cheesy  but I used to listen to this and think about that image, two people taking to each other in a way that is irrevocable and natural and somehow immediate and right, like jumping off a cliff together and finding out that you can fly. I wondered if I would feel that way about my baby; I wondered if my baby would feel that way about me, if we would ever have a baby at all. And in a matter of seconds I'm not sitting here any more, I'm that old Claudia again, somewhere else, heartbroken and lonely and hollow and willing to trade all the freedom in the world for what I have right now, two precious children to tuck in at night. 

The song ends but I still feel dizzy. I feel like crying and I don't know whether it's the smash to my emotional solar plexus or something else. Probably it's just that I'm up past my bedtime and I'm overexcited; too much time spent looking after toddlers and it seems I've become one. I want some juice. They do another number then leave the stage and the crowd begs for more - and they come on for an encore and do three more incredible songs.  I'm myself again by the end - waving my arms with excitement and glad, so glad, that I work with people who are young enough to explain how to get tickets to shows when they are going to sell out quickly. 


A day later. We've picked up the children; disassembled their travel cots and packed up their highchairs and thanked the grandparents and driven back to our house. It's good to be home. I like my home, and I missed my kids, these kids I fought so hard to find. This life feels very stable and anchored and I wouldn't change a thing but sometimes I get the urge to wriggle out of the ties that bind me and leave that weight behind and fly, just fly away. 

I shake off that thought and turn my ipod on to  scroll through my ipod to get Artist>The Shins > All Songs>Shuffle. I press play and let the melodies wash over me again, the perfect studio mixing reminding me that this is not the same.  

It's not the same, but it'll do. And then I go downstairs and get out a chopping board and I cut up some potatoes for dinner.

Tuesday 20 March 2012

Something That Other People Do

I sometimes find myself in a social situation where I need to say, politely,  "I'm not sure I agree with what you just said about that ethnic group".  In my head, this feels like a non-confrontational way to get a conversation going that doesn't use the R-word - racist - but it never seems to work as well as I hoped.  Here is how those conversations go for me.

When I say: "I'm not sure I agree with what you just said about that ethnic group" it seems that most people hear I think you are a bad person. I hate you and your whole ugly family. And then they get angry, and then they aren't listening to anything else I say and then we're both angry and I wish I'd never opened my mouth, even though I knew that I really needed to say something.

A comment about what you said is heard as a judgement on what you are. I think this happens because, as a society, we've tied ourselves into a big ugly knot when it comes to talking about race and racism. We've made racism such a huge taboo that we've set up the following logic chain within people's heads:
  1. Racism is really, really bad
  2. Therefore only bad people are racist
  3. I am not a bad person
  4. Therefore I cannot possibly be racist. 
Racism is such a big ugly word, such an unforgivable sin, that I think it's only ever conceptualised as something that other people do; bad people, people who aren't like me. I think this means that most people can't even consider the possibility that something they have said might be racist, or on the path towards it. The way they think about themselves just can't allow for this possibility.

I think this is incredibly unhelpful. I find this tricky because hey! Racism is bad! But I think we're all predisposed towards it, too, and I think that our failure to admit this to ourselves, to each other, makes dealing with the issue as a society worse, not better. After all, how can we address a problem in our attitudes if we won't admit it exists? It's much easier to shunt the problem to the sidelines, as an issue that only members of the KKK or people who shoot innocent teenagers or people who shoot Jewish schoolchildren need to deal with. Much less constructive, but much, much easier.

Admitting the alternative - that I have a problem with this too - is far from easy. It was a big deal for me to realise that I, personally, struggle with racial prejudice. I mean I struggle personally. I mean that I find it easier to assume good things about people who look like me. I mean that I am prone to leap to conclusions about groups of people based on stereotypes. I mean that I am working on all of this and I've come a long long way but it does take work. I mean that I wasn't born with an attitude that truly sees all people as equal, that never gravitates towards people because they remind me of myself.

I don't think any child is born with this attitude; not really. Children start to 'sort' from when they are very young. They don't know about race but they can see skin shades and they aren't stupid; of course they use it as a sorting tool, as a way of determining who 'belongs' and of course they are sometimes unkind about it and sometimes downright horrible. Why does this surprise us? Why would we expect that kids would get this right? People who think that children are pure and know no evil - have you ever met a child? Children do a whole lot of stuff that I wouldn't want to see in an adult: tantrums, hitting, biting and a whole lot of  smearing vegetables in their hair. Our job as adults is to take all of their baser instincts, face them head on,  and guide them towards being the kind of adults that we want in society. This includes being adults who have learned to see people for their whole selves - including ethnicity and skin - but not define them solely by it. It also includes not telling the world when you are about to poop, but that one is a long way off in our house.

It seems to me that racism is the ugly flip-side of the desire to belong. Humans want to be part of a group, and that's a good desire. But wanting to define my group too easily turns into defining those who are not in my group: not liked, not welcome, not equal. Excluding one group of people fosters a feeling of belonging in those who are included. Children love this, and adults often love it too. Stretching one's definition of belonging to include people who dress differently from me, look different and speak differently is not automatic. If it was automatic for you, if it never, ever feels like an issue - well, good for you. That must be nice.

And I think you're probably lying.

But I feel like this lie is what we all should be saying; anything else leads to much clutching of pearls. It's that only-bad-people-are-racist thing again. (Did you hear her admit that she doesn't always love people who are different? That she is raaaaaaaaaaaacist? And her with those two precious brown children!)  If I'm honest, I find it kind of odd. After all, admitting that we all tend towards racial prejudice doesn't mean it's okay. Far from it. It's like selfishness or greed or envy or any one of the other awful things that we humans do which come naturally to us. I am ashamed of how far I still have to go in dealing with this, but I'm not ashamed to talk about it. Again -  how can I possibly work on something if I won't admit that it's there?

(It's probably worth saying at this point that yes, I think we are probably all the same on the inside when it comes to this issue. I don't think that Black people, or Hispanic people, or Asian people are any 'better' than White people. I don't think they are made of different stuff.  I don't think their almond or cocoa or copper hearts are any purer than my peachy-pink heart, even though it's us peachy-pink ones who benefit from most of the power structures that are in place in the West. I'm sure that people of all shades have their own heart issues to work on. But in a way, that's none of my business. It's vanilla-flavoured racism I need to deal with because I am White). 

And I am dealing with it. My thoughts and attitudes have changed immeasurably over the last few years, and I'm nothing but glad about that. The irony, of course, is that when I knew absolutely nothing, I thought I knew everything. I thought I had nothing of which to repent. And now that I know a bit more, I realise how far I have to go.

Being racist isn't about being a good person or a bad person. That's not how it works. It's too serious an issue to pretend that it's something that other people do, something that only bad people need to deal with. I still don't know how to talk about this issue with people who are still at the 'denial' stage, but maybe I need to work on being more open about how I think this is actually something that affects all of us; including me; especially me.

So. My name is Claudia (well, okay, actually it's not) and I struggle with racial prejudice. And I bet you do too. And I would love to reach a point where one of us would be able to say to the other "I'm not sure I agree with that generalisation about that group of people" and for the other to then say  "Oh, I'm sorry. I guess I was being prejudiced. Thanks for calling me out; I need to work on that". And then the first person would say "Any time; and by the way, I think your family is very good-looking" and we would high-five each other and go on our way.

A girl can dream, right?

Monday 12 March 2012

In On It

While we were waiting to adopt, I remember seeing my mother-in-law standing in our hallway, looking hopelessly at our shelves and shelves of adoption books. "Are any of these books for me? I just wish there was something about adoption that I could read" she said, and I wished there was too. Once when she came over, she pulled Joyce Maguire Pavao's The Family Of Adoption off the shelf, hoping that it would be the 'grandparents' guide' she was looking for. Now, that is a really good book but it is not a grandparents' guide. Neither is this, or this, or this, or this or anything else that was on our shelf.  There were a few books aimed at family out there, but they were mostly hopelessly anodyne - anything really helpful about adoption parenting is going to be fairly raw in places, and that's not what she or I were looking for. 

My mother in law was the only person who directly asked me for a book, but there were a lot of people I would have given it to if one existed. There was so much I wanted friends and family to know about adoption, but every time I talked about it I got upset  because they never seemed to ask the right questions or say the right things or read my mind like I wanted them to. I was definitely hypersensitive, but (some) people also say some crashingly dumb things. It would have been better all around if they could have had those crashingly dumb misconceptions corrected by someone else, someone who wasn't me, someone who would take them by the hand and tell them all the things that I wish I had the presence of mind to think of.  

It turns out that what I needed was In On It, by Elisabeth O'Toole. This is a book about adoption for people who care about adoptive parents (or parents-to-be) and who plan on loving their kids, too. It's an overview of adoption - what is it, what does it feel like, how does it work, what does it mean? aimed at the interested bystander / grandparent / brother-in-law / friend. The author (who is lovely, by the way) recently sent me a copy to review (and once again, I'm going to stress that no, I'm not getting any money from this review or anything else on my blog).  When it arrived, I opened it up and started flicking through it and within minutes I was hooked.  I started reading... and kept reading... and didn't put it down until it was finished.  I could tell straight away that this was the book I needed back in 2008 for my mother in law. So. Can you tell I am about to rave about this book? Well, I am. I am about to rave about this book. 

Here are my three favourite things about this book: First, its tone is extremely generous. It assumes the best of the person reading. It assumes that the reader has nothing but the best intentions and really really wants to do and say the right thing and be there for their friend / relative as they go through the nightmare rollercoaster confusing process of adoption. It isn't sarcastic, it doesn't condescend and it doesn't treat the reader like he or she is an idiot. Revolutionary, I know. But that is a lot more than I could do in person when we were waiting to adopt.  I was easily offended by people saying the wrong things. I was easily upset by people putting their feet in their mouths, or even just putting their feet near their mouths. I was prickly and defensive and hurting and I was not feeling generous. I wish I could have given some people a book that would have been generous on my behalf, without me actually having to screw my face into a smile. Win-win! 

My second favourite thing: It's respectful of all the people involved in adoption. Even the subtitle (What adoptive parents want you to know about adoption) is respectful - it doesn't assume that adoptive parents speak for everybody. Again - revolutionary, I know. This book talks about the different ways that adoption affects adopted people and first families (again with the revolutionary!) but doesn't try to speak for them. Another big tick. 

And this carries through to my third favourite thing, which is the hardest to articulate: I was really impressed by the way this book deals with the sensitive topic of adoption and loss / trauma in children. It's so hard to get this right, and this is what I found most difficult when I was talking to people about our adoption before we adopted - in fact, I still do. I found that most people I talked to about adoption didn't really have many opinions about it - which is fine, obviously. But those who did seemed to fall into one of two groups. The first was 'adoption loss, what adoption loss? Adoption is great! Who doesn't love adoption?'  which was a nicely cheerleader-ish attitude, but made it difficult to talk about attachment strategies, issues of race and how our family would be different from other families.  The second group was 'adopted kids have seen too much and suffered too much. They're damaged. I wouldn't want one of those in my house'.  (The second group was not my favourite. Obviously). 

I found that it's really hard to talk honestly about loss in a way that says these kids are vulnerable, but they are valuable. They have suffered; they have faced difficulties and sadnesses that most of us will never need to, but they are precious and worthy and fully human. I really thought this book did an excellent job of talking about the realities of what adoption is like for a child in a way that is compassionate rather than fearmongerish.  (Not actually a word. I know. Sorry. But you know what I mean). 

Here is the one thing I didn't like about this book: It wasn't around in 2008, when I really needed to hand it out like candy.

Which is not to say it's too late to read it now. I'm no longer an adoption beginner, and I found this book really helpful and very moving. Anyway, you should all have a copy, especially if you are still pre-adoption, especially if you are at any stage of adoptive parenthood and have family who are well meaning but occasionally clueless (don't tell your family I said that about them),  especially if you have friends or relatives who have adopted / are adopting and want to be even more awesome and supportive than you already are.  Did you miss the amazon link above? Here it is again. (This is a US link; there doesn't seem to be a UK link). And here is a link to the author's site with more information about the book and other ways to buy. 

While I was reading my copy, I originally thought that I would do a giveaway and let one of you lucky ladies get your hands on it when I was done. But when I finished, I changed my mind immediately. You're all going to have to buy your own copies - mine is going straight to my very-supportive, now-quite-adoption-educated, but I-think-she'd-still-enjoy-it mother in law. 

Saturday 3 March 2012


I am still sick. I'm about to enter week six of a low-grade but beastly virus and I feel utterly depleted. 
Yes, I am solely responsible for the existence of MRSA. 

I want to say something profound about this experience but really, there is nothing profound about mucus. 

I am just so tired. We have our annual church day of prayer tomorrow and I have never felt less like praying. I know that the less I want to pray, the more I need to pray, but I'm worried that the moment I close my eyes I'll fall asleep and snore. Also - speaking seriously - at the moment I am finding it so hard to deal, spiritually, with the chronic discouragement of the everyday. I have wrestled with God over Big Things several times in my life and always come out so much stronger in my faith, so much closer to Him. But thorns like this lingering virus and attendant exhaustion and the thousand tiny inconsequential dramas  of life seem to shred my soul in a way that nothing else does. I need to take my eyes of myself and focus on Jesus but I'm struggling. Those of you who are Christians - if you want to pray for me, please pray about this. 

On the plus side, my hair is still bouncy, thanks to the ministrations of my wonder gadget. Several of you have asked for proof so - it's surprisingly hard to take a picture of your own hair, but here it is.  This picture is only impressive if you know what a frizzball I usually am, so you're going to have to take my word that for me, this is as sleek as it gets.  

What? You want my autograph because you think someone this glamorous must be famous? No problem. Five bucks. 

Anyway.  I'm half-way through a book review that I want to share here, but I'm too fuzzy-headed to do it justice tonight. And seriously, people. It's eight thirty. 

I'm going to take some more drugs, and then I'm going to bed.