R U OK?

I was really moved this morning to read a Facebook status from a friend, Rob M, describing his past (and occasionally present) battle with depression, plus the loss of a dear friend who took his own life some years ago.

He was prompted to share his experiences because today, Australia marks something called ‘R U OK? Day’. It’s organised by the R U OK? Foundation, a non-profit organisation ‘dedicated to encouraging all people to regularly and meaningfully ask, “are you OK?” to those struggling with life.’ It was founded by Gavin Larkin, whose father tragically took his own life in 1995, as a way of honouring his father’s memory and with the aim of protecting other families from the pain that his has suffered.
R U OK? Day is about awareness, and prevention.

Rob describes the problem of seeming ‘happy and confident’ on the outside whilst suffering from depression, and I think this taps into the root of the matter—we are conditioned to believe that we should pull ourselves together, put on a brave face, get on with it. This is how some people end up committing suicide without their loved ones even knowing they were suffering at all.

Rob’s status was, of course, flooded with comments of support, many friends expressing a similar struggle. What struck me were the comments commending his honesty and bravery. He was brave and honest to write it—he says himself how hard it was to write, and how cathartic—but why? Because, despite great progress being made, I think, in society’s awareness of mental health issues in the last decade or so, there is still a not insignificant stigma attached to it. Let’s face it, if he’d gone on Facebook and said ‘I’ve got Type 2 diabetes’, nobody would be saying ‘well done for being honest’, would they? And as long as there is stigma, there will be people who slip through the cracks of life because they have an illness that they’re ashamed of and which therefore goes untreated.

So, in case you’re interested:

I’ve suffered from depression ranging from mild to severe for all of my adult life, and much of my teens. With hindsight, maybe even in childhood I had tendencies. When I was younger I didn’t actually know I was depressed. Maybe if there had been more openness about it then, more people like the R U OK? Foundation promoting awareness, I would have realised that it wasn’t ‘normal’ to cry every day, loathe every facet of myself, find the simplest of tasks utterly impossible, and want to be asleep most of the time. And when I finally thought to see a doctor, maybe I would have insisted on proper treatment instead of being sent to a well-meaning counsellor who told me that I couldn’t really be depressed because I’d ‘managed to get out of bed and come here today’. (¡Estupendo!)

I’ve actually been pretty open about all of this in recent years, determined not to give in to that pesky stigma issue, and indeed hoping to chip away at it in my own small way. Most of my immediate family and close friends are aware—indeed, a great many of them are fellow sufferers. And this is the thing: a whopping 350 million people worldwide are estimated to suffer from depression at any one time. That’s 5% of the population. And if you look at the percentage of people who suffer a period of depression or other mental health issues at some point in their lifetime, that figure goes through the roof.

But despite knowing this, and my resolution to reject the stigma, this is hard to write. Not because I’m ashamed of having a really common illness, but because of a fear of making other people feel uncomfortable. So I’m currently fighting an almost overwhelming compulsion to apologise for that.
Instead, I’ll say thanks for reading, to anyone who’s got this far…and I’ll urge you to do two things:

Firstly, if you’re suffering, don’t do it in silence. You are so, so far from being alone. See a doctor; get some help. Tell a friend, your mum, a colleague, a Samaritan—anyone. It’s an illness like any other and it can affect any one of us. There are loads of ways to treat it: drugs, therapy, mindfulness, meditation…Work with a doctor to find something that works for you.
Secondly, look around. Ask that simple question, and mean it. I’m very lucky to have some wonderful friends and family to talk to, but even so, it’s not always easy to make that first step and say ‘I’m not OK at the moment’. Sometimes people need a bit of a prod.

Go forth and prod.

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Anabelle de Jour

I cried this morning. A proper, full-on blub.

No, that is not so unusual I suppose, and a few years ago would not even have been noteworthy…

 

The cause of my over-spilling emotions was a simple photo. In it, my dear friends’ daughter Anabelle sits bolt upright. She wears a green printed dress with puff sleeves and a white Peter Pan collar. On her head, over her dishevelled blonde mop, perches a cream beret, at a suitably jaunty angle. She is holding something, possibly edible, in front of her chest with both hands, in an attitude which at first glance appears almost like one of prayer. She is staring directly into the camera, with enormous brown eyes, unsmiling and serene. She is unspeakably beautiful.

She is two.

 

This alone, her sheer beauty, coupled with her cleverness and good humour, and the joy and enchantment that she brings to her parents and all who know her, could easily have moved me to tears.

But today it’s a little more than this.

 

There is something arrestingly adult about the pose. And in her expression, there seems to be a knowingness, or a wisdom, or even a sadness, that could not possibly exist in the mind of a two-year-old. It is like a foreshadowing of the adult she will become.

And it’s this that moves me: this flash-forward into the unknown.

 

Anabelle’s future will certainly be dazzling. She has every advantage anyone could possibly want for their child.

Her parents are both extraordinary and truly beautiful people: fiercely intelligent, creative, talented, generous and kind. They are two of the funniest people I’ve ever met, and two of the most decent. They believe in education, in the arts, in science, in peace, in friendship, in justice and in freedom of expression. They are open, and open-minded. They love and are loved by a vast number of people. They are unique. They are cat-lovers. They have excellent taste in music.

They are exactly who you would want as parents.

 

But let’s not pretend that money doesn’t help too, and yes, they are lucky in that they are able to live in a pleasant area where their child(ren) will go to a good school; also Anabelle’s mum has not been forced to go back to a full-time job mere months after giving birth, as so many mothers are. And of course, Anabelle, like millions of us, was lucky enough to have been born in a developed country where she will never have to worry about whether she will eat today, or fight for her right to vote or to work or to receive an education. She is unlikely to suffer racial persecution or be involved in civil war.

 

Yes, she is fortunate. But when I look at that picture, I can’t help wondering what life will bring her.

 

And this is what causes such a powerful reaction in me: I suddenly find myself subject to a fleeting and terrifying glimpse into the extremity of the emotions of parenthood.

 

These are not revelations. Ground will not be broken. It’s just that for me, children have always been a somewhat abstract concept. I’ve spent very little time around them; although a few of my friends now have them, most of them don’t. And when talking to those that do, many of the marvels and horrors of the whole business will have come up. It’s just that I’ve never felt them before.

 

 

Firstly, I am hit by the sheer enormity of the responsibility. There’s no surprise, nothing original, nothing new in that idea – nobody who decides to have a child does so without at least the fugitive notion that this is quite a big deal. But when you actually, genuinely think about it…and maybe I never have before…I mean, when you have a baby you are immediately elevated to the status of a human planet. You are somebody’s entire world. Nothing beyond you exists, not for now. You are food, water, shelter. You are words, thoughts, actions and feelings. Over the next few years, everything they learn, they will learn from you. It’s that simple. Even the things they discover for themselves, they will do so because of the environment you’ve provided for them. And you will spend the next couple of decades shaping this creature; everything they become will be, at its root, because of you.

That is some seriously heavy shit.

 

And the things you can’t control? This must be the source of such abject fear that the childless can barely begin to imagine. Fear that you can never give in to, because, if you did, you would be utterly overwhelmed.

 

I find myself thinking, maybe Anabelle’s life will be tainted by tragedy. Maybe she will have rotten luck with boys (or girls); someone will probably break her precious little heart, at least once. Maybe at some stage she won’t be healthy, in mind, or body, or spirit. Maybe she will be touched by depression, which pays no mind to affluence or amazing parenting. (And if she were, then maybe she would also suffer the guilt and shame that commonly fuel the depression of the otherwise fortunate, who ask themselves, who am I to feel this way, with all my Advantages?)

 

The anticipation of the pain you will not be able to protect them from: maybe this is the hardest of all.

 

And this takes me back to Responsibility. Because no, you can’t control the shadows of your children’s future. You won’t be able to hold back the tides of life. But where else will they get the tools to cope with these tribulations? You again…

 

The final pane of this little window into the realities of reproduction is the clearest, the cleanest, the brightest: the Wonder. (Reproduction is the mot juste, too, as this particular child appears to have been created using precision-measured quantities of her parents’ genes, 50% of each. Straight down the line. She’s remarkable. I’ve never seen anything like it.)

 

I mean, here she is, this mini-you-me. You have taught her to use a spoon to put various types of goo in, at least, the rough vicinity of her mouth. You’ve taught her which bits of the cat not to pull too hard. You have helped her find her voice enough to eventually formulate the phrase, “Daddy got boobies.”

 

You have baked, swum, sung and danced with her. You have shown her nature, and books, and maps, and technology. (You have also dealt with all of that practical, sticky stuff which is a given, and is not especially palatable or thrilling to discuss.) You get to watch her growing day by day, physically, cognitively, emotionally; acquiring language, ideas, predilections and idiosyncrasies. Making discoveries and making a mess.

It is awesome and exhausting in equal measure, I imagine, this lifelong task.

 

I should say at this point that I’m not a huge fan of children. Or rather, I’m not a huge fan of children as a topic of conversation. And in the past I have felt an off-putting separateness between the childfree and the childed, which I’ve come to realise is more pronounced in British culture than in others.

 

But looking at that picture, and considering all the other things that it has evoked, I suddenly understand in a way that I never have before, how the fear and the gravity of all that responsibility are an inherent part of the wonder of raising a child.

Without them, how could you possibly summon what is required of you?

 

And finally, maybe this new perspective has made me think about embarking on this venture myself..? No no, not quite that.

I’m happy to leave it to the experts: to watch (and blub) from the sidelines. 

 

Maybe one day I’ll have the guts for parenthood. But when it comes to life, I arrived a little late to the party – in fact, everybody had gone home and they were mopping the floor – so I took my Lambrusco and Twiglets and started my own elsewhere.

 

And right now I’m having a bawl…

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Barça Loner

So here I am, almost 18 months to the day since I arrived in Barcelona. And I have barely even found the surface, let alone scratched it.

It’s a strange sort of limbo-like state I find myself in really. I’m not a tourist; I live and work here. I know the Metro like the back of my hand. I have a local shop whose owner sometimes gives me free vegetables. I only get lost, on average, once or twice a week now (and this is usually when they have plonked a diagonal road in the middle of a perfectly good grid system).

But the term ex-pat, for me, conjures up an image of middle-aged culture-vacuums (in the empty sense, not the hoovering sense), living on the Costa del Sol in newly built villas, eating fish and chips, possibly in the 1980s. (Maybe this has something to do with Eldorado?) Also, it has a permanence to it that I’m not quite ready for. Nor will I ever be, I think. At the moment, I live here; I am not ex-anything. Don’t get me wrong. I have no plans to go back (PLEASE DON’T MAKE ME GO BACK), but ‘ex’ makes it sound like you’re not allowed to or something.

Still, I am a long way from being comfortably absorbed by Barcelona, not least because of the barrier of language(s); but it is not only this. Catalan people are notoriously difficult to get to know, and groups of friends nigh on impossible to infiltrate. (Coincidence! It takes, on average, 17 years to get to know me, and I have only ever found my way into a group of friends by the tradesmen’s entrance.)

I know I could be, and often am, known as a ‘guiri’, but even Spanish and Catalan people cannot agree on the correct definition of this. (I don’t mean that they argue amongst themselves over this, of course. But some say that if you are from elsewhere, you will always be a guiri. Others say it’s only tourists. Many think you have to be European, even specifically northern European. One told me it is a term only used for philistines; The Eldorado crowd. You see? It’s a pickle.)

I am a guest here, of course, but feel a certain entitlement as a European citizen. And as a world citizen, come to that. I’ve never had any beef with people living wherever the deuce they want to as long as they are respectful of other cultures.  But I feel differently to some of my fellow ‘guests’, who seem to have lost their sense of wonder for the place, if they ever had it, and have in some cases acquired a certain acidic cynicism which manifests itself in weary and snidey ways. If you don’t like it, why in heaven’s name do you stay? I’m not talking about people who complain about the government, you understand. I refer to much more trivial gripes. I once spent a mercifully short time with a guy who’d been here for 18 months, and whose criticisms of Barcelona ranged from the justifiable (the alarming abundance of dog ‘business’ – although the street-cleaning teams do their level best, bless them) via the incomprehensible (the fairly common and thoroughly innocuous custom of enjoying a small beer with lunch: why ever not?) to the utterly baffling (“People’s diets are terrible here. Look! All they ever eat are baguettes.” I mean, even if that were true, what on earth is it to you?)

So then. I am a current non-pat, a long-term tourist, a resolutely awestruck guiri. Lo que sea.

June is a strange time here. Herds of English teachers are leaving, either to summer jobs or family visits or whichever country they will next call ‘home’. The teachers’ online community is chock-full of rooms to rent and furniture for sale. So many people teach as a means to the travelling end, rather than as a career choice, and a bloody good means it can be too if you are self-assured and carefree. In fact, if you want to live in Spain at the moment, it’s about the only safe job there is…

But the ephemeral nature of Barcelona, and especially the teaching community, can be a problem for the integrationally challenged, such as myself. You have to make friends hard and fast, take no prisoners, hit the ground running. And then get ready to say goodbye.

It can be pretty exhausting for those of us who have to psych ourselves up just to ask where the toilets are.

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Review: Zoon van snooK ‘The Bridge Between Life & Death’ (Lo Recordings/Kimi Records – May 20th)

Zoon van snooK’s second LP, The Bridge Between Life & Death, is the astonishing follow-up to 2010’s wondrously idiosyncratic (Falling From) The Nutty Tree (Mush Records).

Each song has been constructed around a different field recording, the collection having been garnered during a trip to Iceland at the end of 2009.  Snook had long harboured a love for, and fascination with, the country and its music, and the finished result reflects that enchantment beautifully. He has also managed to enlist the input of various eminent Icelandic musicians.

The album begins by beckoning you in with the curious and captivating sound cradle of its introduction, before throwing open its arms, Leiktími’s glockenspiels and strings both conveying and instilling a sense of blithe expectancy and anticipation.

Led slowly by the hand into Snorri’s Saga, you find yourself warm and safe, rocking gently by the fireside. But don’t get too comfortable: two and a half minutes in, the mood darkens; you realise you are being gently tipped, and the profoundly unsettling final chord finds you dangling helplessly over a precipice.

The album continues with Björn of the Mendips, a classic Snook concoction of sticky sounds, voluptuous melody and vocal sampling, in this case an Icelandic anecdote [Icelandecdote] culminating with the words: “That’s how the life can be here on this little strange island”.

And on we go. Inclementine skitters and skips like winter sun on water, mesmerising and becalming.

First single The Verge of Winter begins playfully, coltishly, like a whispered secret. Then in comes a lolloping beat, which later gives way to an eerie mid-section of strings and sirens before moving to a joyous canter, rich with synths. And all of this in under four minutes; a miniature rhapsody.

And so you arrive, exhilarated and red-faced, at Thufur Thoroughfare (featuring MORR Records stalwart Benni Hemm Hemm), which opens with mischievous plinks and plonks, but stops you dead in your tracks with its opening string chords; a progression of such aching pathos that the ensuing piano refrain, perfect in its plaintive simplicity, threatens to break you entirely. And as it rises, backed by shimmering counter-melodies and half-heard sounds (maybe footsteps?) it does indeed seem to rend open a deep-buried place, whilst simultaneously filling it brimful with hope and longing. But, as ever, Snook steers you well clear of sentimentality with a perfectly placed vocal sample, this time a child’s voice looped to sound like a gently jeering taunt. Nonetheless, this track provides some of the album’s most deeply intimate moments.

The Potter’s Garden (featuring Sigur Rós string section, Amiina) is a delicious tapestry of intriguing sounds, melodies and rhythms; it leads you around a maze of tunnels, following someone half-seen, who keeps disappearing, laughing, round another corner just as you think you’ve caught them up.

Magret the Outlaw’s beautifully disturbing refrain, juxtaposed with an oddly- but expertly-placed sample of, perhaps, an Icelandic folk song, builds breathtakingly and then gives way to driving drums, synths, and breathy vocals, which the toy piano (?) rejoins to startling effect. It feels like running hard into the night with the wind behind you.

Now follows the dulcifying balm of Lyre! Lyre!! with a sample of an Icelandic woman talking. About what? The non-Icelandic ear neither knows nor cares, because the timbre of her voice, with its rolling burr, is an instrument in itself; the perfect fit for this song.

Tjörnin Side opens with a spiky sequence of plucked strings; it develops, via squelchy sounds and chiming glockenspiels, into something dark and sticky, which trickles into gloomy recesses and pools there, ominously.

Finally you find yourself at The Gaits. Featuring guest performer Sin Fang (Seabear, MORR Records), it seems to wrap you entirely within its bejewelled wings, with church bells sounding amid multitudinous layers of woven melodies. As it gains height, it takes on a surreal dichotomy of feeling like home and like the biggest adventure; an unabashed celebration of life and everything in it.

The Bridge Between Life & Death is a vision sublimely realised. It rings, echoes and shakes with heart and history, exploring darkness and light and everything on the Bridge between, as surely was intended. Enjoy the ride.

 

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