Well, it’s been a fair old while, hasn’t it? For a while I thought I’d just stopped blogging entirely, but lately I’ve been having a few thoughts about blog posts I want to write – or more accurately, blog posts I wanted to read except that they don’t exist yet. Life has been taking interesting twists and turns, causing me to learn and grow in ways that might be useful, or at least entertaining, to other people. Continue reading
Earlier this evening, my eye was caught by this blog post about the recent legal flip-flopping in Indiana about gay marriage. It got me to thinking, yet again, about something that I have never been able to understand.
Why do people have a problem with gay people getting married?
I mean, seriously. I can’t comprehend it. I know intellectually that some people have a problem with the concept of homosexuality at all – depressingly, this includes some members of my own immediate family – but I know that in the same way that I know that the universe is infinite and expanding all the time. I accept it to be true, but I simply can’t begin to wrap my mind around how that can be the case. Unfortunately, the nature of the universe, whilst being very interesting and obviously crucial to my mere existence, doesn’t have as much impact on my day-to-day perception of myself in society as the reality of homophobia.
Just a few months ago, gay marriage finally became legal in the UK. I say finally but in context of UK law in general it actually happened pretty quickly. Section 28, a despicable law which made it illegal to tell children in schools that gay people were, y’know, real and allowed to exist and (gasp!) sometimes even had families, wasn’t repealed in the whole of the UK until 2003. For the first twelve years of my life, it was illegal for my teachers to tell me that not all men loved women or vice versa. No wonder I was so muddled when I realised that I didn’t only like boys.
So the fact that just over a decade later it became possible for gay people, whose existence was no longer treated as a dirty secret, to make the same legally-binding public declaration of their love is significant and rapid progress. But what baffles me is that this progress had to be made at all. I know all the arguments that people make about why homosexuality is wrong or unnatural but they just don’t ring true in my experience. Well, they wouldn’t, would that? It’s not unnatural for me.
I was deeply saddened when I watched a video in which the Archbishop of Canterbury declared that gay marriage would “damage the fabric of society”. Apparently, this is because marriage is intended as a covenant and the foundation of the family, the “cornerstone of our society”.
Now Archbishop Welby’s argument is not the foaming-at-the-mouth tirade that we often see from individuals in the USA. He supports the concept of a “separate but equal” form of same-gender relationships, but he doesn’t want it to be called marriage because that, somehow, weakens the concept of a mechanism around which to base a secure family unit in which to raise children.
And I can’t help but think, what does he think gay marriage is? I can’t speak for anyone else, although I have a pretty good idea that I’m not alone in this, but the reason I want to get married, to a woman or to a man, is so that I can form a secure family unit and raise children. I’ll even take those children to church regularly, which is more than can be said for a lot of heterosexual married couples (and that’s fine, of course – but it seems bizarre that the head of the Anglican church would prefer atheist heterosexual marriage to Christian homosexual marriage).
Apart from anything else, I don’t really see why it matters to anyone else who I marry. If your own marriage is so fragile that it can be damaged by the marriage of two men or two women, then I think you need to look closely at your priorities and maybe seek some relationship counselling. If your argument against gay marriage is that two gay people (always assuming that they are cisgendered, a caveat that is often overlooked in this debate) cannot reproduce in the standard biological manner, then I would like to know what you think of marriages between heterosexual but infertile couples, or couples who are childless by choice.
I fully intend to have children. I’d like to do so in the “normal”, biological, pregnancy-then-labour manner. I might need some kind of medical assistance to do so, but that’s the case no matter the gender of my partner. I’ve never been pregnant. I don’t know whether I can get pregnant. Maybe even if I marry a man, I will be unable to grow a person in my uterus. Would that invalidate my marriage? Would it invalidate yours?
At the end of the day, my view is that my relationship is the business of me, my partner, and no one else. I try to be respectful of my relatives’ discomfort with my “unconventional” lifestyle, but I can’t deny that I get frustrated. I want to talk about my girlfriend; I want to share my excitement about holidays we have planned or wonderful days out we’ve enjoyed; I want to ask for advice when I’m not sure how to deal with issues that arise. It’s saddening to have to tiptoe around people’s prejudices before I can even begin to share this aspect of my life with the people I love. It doesn’t make sense to me that those prejudices even exist.
I was trying to explain to someone today how the knowledge of the existence of homophobia is a constant presence that follows non-hetero people around even if, like me, they have only ever experienced it in a very vague and minor sense. Every time I meet someone new, every time I have a conversation that touches on relationships, every time someone asks me whether I have a boyfriend, I have to make a snap judgement about whether they will react badly to the answer. I have to constantly choose between lying to protect myself from a potentially negative reaction or being honest and opening myself up to hurt. Straight people don’t have to do this. Straight people don’t have to think “will it damage my professional relationship with this person if I disclose to them that my partner is female?” whenever the labouring woman they are caring for asks them whether they’re married. (OK, most people don’t have that problem whatever their orientation – but feel free to substitute whatever career-relevant situation is most appropriate to your life).
Two hundred years ago, slavery was legal. I wasn’t around at that point, so I can’t speak from experience, but I am assuming that it was considered normal to keep slaves. I presume that the majority of people didn’t see a problem with categorising one group of people as less worthy of respect, equal treatment and freedom than another. Now, it would be rare indeed for someone to publically announce that they believe that slavery should be legal, because treating black people the same as white people damages the concept of being a free citizen. Certainly any person who espoused such views would not be allowed to be part of the country’s legislative body*.
I hope that in the same way, two hundred years from now, or preferably much sooner, people will be staggered to think that it was generally accepted that it was ok to treat relationships between two people of the same gender as somehow different from, and less valuable than, relationships between two people of the opposite gender. It makes me optimistic to recall that children born in the UK from now on will grow up in a country where gay marriage is legal and exists, even if there are still some people who don’t like that fact. But I wish that I had been one of those children. I wish my parents had been. I wish Archbishop Welby had been. If nothing else, it would have made my adolescence a lot easier.
* For anyone unfamiliar with the British constitutional system, the Anglican archbishops of Canterbury and York, as well as 24 other bishops, sit in the House of Lords, the upper house of the legislature. This means they have significant influence over whether legislation is passed.
There are times more numerous than I’d like to admit when I forget how old I am – I’ve often been on the point of telling someone I’m nineteen, or even seventeen. I have to think carefully when filling out forms which ask for my age or my age range.
But I am starting to realise that I’m making that mystical shift from teenager to adult (albeit a few years late, numerically). Here are the things that have tipped me off:
- I prefer a cup of hot chocolate and a good book to a night out
- I have a weekly budget, and I stick to it
- I make shopping lists and meal plans
- My cupboard contains neatly-labelled storage jars of baking ingredients
- I am genuinely excited by the prospect of making my own bread
- I wear comfortable shoes almost every day
- For Christmas, I asked for (and received) an ironing board
- People refer to me as “the lady” rather than “the girl” when speaking to children
- When I take my babysitting kids to the park, people think I am their mother
- I own, and often wear, what my grandmother would have called a half-slip
Now obviously there are plenty of adults who do not do these things, just as there are probably plenty of people who do at least some of them whilst still technically a child. But they’re my personal markers of maturity, the signposts along my life path that I can only see in retrospect.
The comfortable shoes, for instance. My wardrobe is full of old, tattered summer pumps which were agony to walk in, didn’t keep out the rain and only lasted for three months before falling to pieces. This year, I’m wearing padded faux-leather Mary Janes which I hope will last me for years to come. Even six months ago I would have told you that I was prepared to sacrifice comfort in order to wear pretty shoes, but now that I’ve experienced wearing shoes which don’t cause blisters, bleeding and bruising on my heels? It will be impossible to ever go back.
Being referred to as a lady/woman and assumed to be the mother of toddlers makes me laugh, because only two years ago I was underwear shopping in the company of my mother and was informed that, as I was under 16, she would have to accompany me into the changing rooms while I was measured for a new bra. The flustered expression when we told her that I hadn’t been under sixteen for several years was rather sweet. When I look at photos of myself from back then and compare them to what I see in the mirror each morning, I honestly can’t see the difference, but something has changed – I haven’t been offered the child fare on a bus for ages, more’s the pity.
I started writing this post over a year ago, and came across it in my drafts folder with the list half finished. The ease with which I added the final six items proved to me that I have grown up even more in the past fourteen months, which in turn suggests that I still have a long way to go in the future! Back when I began writing it, we were only a few months away from the graduation ceremony for the year I matriculated with. At the time I did not feel anywhere near ready to leave university, even while I was kicking myself for messing up and not being able to graduate with everyone else. Now, with my own graduation on the horizon, I do feel ready. I’m starting to feel old here.
Thanks to our college’s pastoral system whereby new students are assigned “mothers” in the year above to help them through their first term, and due to the eponymous ad libbed gap year, I am now the matriarch of my college’s law students. Almost all of them are my college daughters and nieces, or grand and great-grand versions of those categories. It doesn’t mean very much to be honest, I can’t keep track of who they all are (rather like a real great-grandmother, I suppose) and I haven’t even met most of the first years. But sometimes I do get the chance to mother them a little.
The other day, one of the first year lawyers (ironically the only one definitely not descended from my lineage – she has geographer parents due to a scarcity of lawyers in the year before her) had a Coca Cola-black ink explosion in her bag just outside my door. I quite literally stumbled across her, and lent her a proper cloth and a tub of soapy water instead of the soggy toilet paper she was attempting to mop with.
As I helped her deal with the flood I was reminded of my own college grandmother, who spent my first year, her final year, lending me textbooks, giving me sage words of advice and trying to persuade me to try gin and tonic. At the time she seemed very grown up and together, with a clear life plan and enough experience to know how to pursue it. I’m now older than she was when she graduated. It turns out that being a grown up is decidedly relative.
Just a few months ago I walked into a women’s prison and was searched, patted down, scanned, and required to hand over my keys, phone, ID, jewellery and purse. I was accompanied by a uniformed prison guard and walked across to the general population dormitories.
I was just visiting, but the women I saw that day were there for the long haul.
Most people my age have never been to a prison, either as an inmate or as a visitor. To my knowledge, and that certainly isn’t an infallible measure, no one I know has friends or family members who are incarcerated. But tens of thousands of people in this country do spend their days at Her Majesty’s Pleasure, and hundreds of thousands in the United States. I might not realise it but the odds are that someone I know has a loved one behind bars.
I arrived at the prisons I visited in the USA this summer without a clear idea of what I was going to see and hear. Of course I’ve watched films about prisons, television dramas, comedy shows and documentaries. I’ve read about prisons, and listened to radio programmes about prisons. But none of that had given me an image that matched what I really saw.
My first sight inside a prison was of a beauty salon. It was identical in almost every way to the beauty salon at my sixth form college, where teenage girls spent their days learning how to cut, dye and style hair, give manicures and massages, and communicate with customers. I only went in once or twice but the smell and atmosphere stayed with me, and resonated with the atmosphere of the prison salon.
The man who was guiding me around the facility was obviously, and justifiably, proud of the hair and beauty programme. He introduced me to the coordinators of the course, who – unlike in my sixth form college – were uniformed prison guards, stationed in a locked office where the bleach and scissors were kept unless signed out. The three guards chatted to me about the programme and how important it was for the women who worked there.
Shamefully, when I first spoke to one of those women I felt awkward, out of place and a little nervous. Despite knowing that the prison was a minimum security facility, and that statistically most of the women held there would have been convicted of minor drug or theft charges, I nonetheless felt anxious about engaging with prisoners. I assumed they would hear my accent, see my clothes, hear the proud introduction (“She’s from Cambridge University, England!”) and think that I was posh, stuck up, nosy, there to gawp or judge or criticise.
What they say about assuming turned out to be true. Every one of the women I spoke to, at that facility and in the other, higher-security prison I visited later that summer, and the former prisoner I met later still, wanted to tell me their story. They didn’t ask me what I was doing poking around in their business, or tell me I wouldn’t understand or treat me like I had no right to ask them questions – which I didn’t, in all honesty. I was surprised and gratified at how many people were prepared and willing to talk to me.
One of the other things which surprised me most was walking into the general population accommodation and seeing women wandering around from bunk room to bunk room (between two and six bunks in a room smaller than my bedroom) carrying cats. I simply hadn’t realised that prisoners might be allowed to keep pets. Later I learned that both the prisons I visited ran pet progammes, allowing selected inmates to care for and train abandoned dogs and cats ready for adoption. When I visited the puppy block, I have to admit to a tremor of shock. There were perhaps two dozen women in one large room, rows of bunk beds dominating the view and dogs everywhere. My guide told me that all the participants of the progamme lived and slept there all day, every day, and were only separated from their canine charges for a couple of hours a day at the most. It was noisy, it was crowded, and there was no privacy at all.
In the corner of the room was a pile of tiny puppies, only a few days or weeks old to my uneducated eye. They were fenced in with what looked like a fire guard; a prison within a prison, to keep them safe from the hundreds of feet tramping around the room. I gazed at them and cooed but they barely twitched in response. Being stared at was normal for them.
Upstairs I found an incongruously domestic living room, complete with sofa, arm chair, television and miniature flight of stairs to nowhere. This, I was informed, was to give the dogs a chance to practice the sort of skills they would need out in the real world: climbing stairs, not chewing wires, resisting the temptation to jump on the sofa. For a similar purpose, another small room housed a cat with her six tiny kittens who were only just old enough to walk but would soon be skittering around, socialising the dogs ready for any future multi-pet households.
The image was of something that my dissertation research has thrown up in another context: the unreality of life in a prison. For the men and women who are sentenced there, prison is the consequence of a series of choices made “on the outside”. Whether the sentence is long or short, it was preceeded and will probably be followed by time in the free world. But for some residents, prison is all they know. Residents like the cat and her kittens, the pile of puppies… and the babies in the prison nurseries of the USA and Mother and Baby Units over here.
In the United Kingdom, there is space for 84 babies aged up to 18 months to live with their mothers in prison. Despite the hundreds if not thousands of babies whose mothers are incarcerated, not all of those spaces are always filled. It isn’t an automatic process: spaces in MBUs are only given when it is in the baby’s best interests. It’s not usually in the baby’s best interests.
Sometimes babies are born during the sentence, sometimes they arrive at the prison with their mother. Either way, they spend the formative months of their first two years living in a highly peculiar environment. The reason the upper age limit for babies in prison is fixed at 18 months in the UK, and even lower in some parts of the USA, is that the evidence shows any longer stints behind bars can have serious and long-lasting effects on development. I have read about one little girl who, after leaving her mother in prison, would stand and wait at doors until someone opened them for her. She had never experienced the process of pushing against a door or turning a handle to open it herself.
Despite the information I was given by the staff of the prisons, about courses and rehabilitation and programmes and education and work, the overriding sense I got when wandering the hallways was one of time hanging heavy. A lack of purpose, in a strange sense. It is an odd thought that all the systems and procedures, programmes and classes, beauty salons and parenting centres and kitchens and libraries, were in existence because a constant stream of women are deprived of their liberty. Given the choice, not one of those women would have spent five minutes in that building. The friendly banter with the obviously well-liked guard who showed me around and the earnest talk of rebuilding lives and improving futures was not rooted in organic friendship or childhood aspirations. No one declares aged five and a half that when they grow up they want to talk a drug detox programme in prison.
At the moment I’m facing an uncertain future. I’ve spent the last seven months in a kind of limbo, not certain where I’ll be after the end of June, a date which is hurtling towards me at an alarming rate. Some days I feel panicky that I will graduate with nowhere to go and nothing to do. Other days I feel confident that I can face the future equipped with the experience, intelligence and determination to find something and make it work. One possibility that has never even crossed my mind is that I might end up in prison, but it happens. People’s lives spiral out of control when they aren’t looking. They make bad choices, fall in love with bad people, become desperate, and get caught.
I walked out of those prisons after a few hours. I got into my car and I drove home, listening to the radio, watching the world go by, and feeling extremely grateful for my circumstances. There, said a little voice in my head, and it’s saying it again now, there but for the grace of God go I.
Term has ended, and in its place revision has started (I’m easing into it gently this week, since I have some 7-10 hour choir days to work around). This year is, at last, my finals year which means that I am a little more interested in getting good grades – not stressing about it, but motivated to work. It helps that of my six papers, I am interested in five of them and only finding one of them impossible to follow… and oddly, those exceptions apply to different papers, which will hopefully help me not to fail either of them.
But wanting to do well this year isn’t sufficient motivation to get me to sit down and concentrate for hours at a time. No, what I’m relying on for serious encouragement is a sticker chart. Yup, I’m six years old again, and I have no shame. I’ve drawn up a fairly ambitious but still achievable schedule that has me focusing on each subject for 24 hours in total over the next six weeks. The plan is to tackle them in two three-hour sessions on rotation, and for every completed hour I can add a new coloured dot to my chart. So far I have four dots and am currently on a tea break mid-way through earning a fifth.
It’s funny how it seems to help. Even when I’m genuinely interested in what I’m doing and even enjoying the process of revisiting and summarising my notes, or researching and writing my dissertation, it can be tempting to get distracted by something else. Having a goal to aim for, even if it’s something as simple as sticking a small coloured sticker onto a piece of paper, helps me to stretch out my attention span for a little longer.
And on that note, time to wash the remaining bowls soaking in the sink, switch off Shirley Bassey and get back down to work.
I went to the Cambridge Book Fair today, run by the Provincial Booksellers Fairs Association. I wasn’t expecting to find anything I really wanted to buy. I’m a fan of books, I like looking at and being amused by old books, I’m impressed by fancy, rare or unusual ones, but at the end of the day I go home and read a paperback or an ebook on my Kindle without a sigh.
But today, my hypothetical shopping list would have set me back at least £3,500. The first book which tempted me was a history of Newnham College, published in 1921 and priced at only £25, and I took the man’s card because that is not so much money that I couldn’t possibly envisage myself buying it. I’ll think about it – it’s not likely to be high-demand, I can wait a couple of weeks before deciding.
Then I found a first edition, Hogarth Press version of The Years. I have a £2.99 paperback copy sitting on my table right now, but the lure of the beautiful, rare, historical book was strong. Not quite £1,500 strong, sadly. But I have to confess that I was very, very close to deciding that I don’t need to eat for the next two years. (I have since looked on the bookseller’s website and discovered they have another copy, identical apart from the fact that it is signed by the author… and therefore costs a cool £25,000. Gulp.)
And then I found a copy of Million Dollar Month by Sylvia Plath. Only 155 copies were ever printed, five of which were special advance copies. And this was one of the five. Oh, my goodness, I wanted to buy it. I still want to buy it. It would set me back a further £1,250. Perhaps if I bought the two together (they were both being sold by the same bookseller), I might get a discount, but it’s unlikely to be a £2,700 discount which would be what I needed to afford them!
And then I found another book for £350, and one for £40, and one for… you get the picture. Some of them were just particularly nice versions of books I could get for 5% of the price elsewhere. Some, like the Plath, the Woolf and the history of the college, are unlikely to ever enter my life again.
I do have the beginnings of two small book collections. One is a collection of collectors’ editions of children’s classics: Beatrix Potter, The Wind in the Willows and a couple of other favourites. The other is the one my wishlist from today would have joined; the books are all loosely based around Newnham’s alumnae authors and their associates. I’m sure they will both expand over the years, but I did wish that I could justify expediting that expansion today.
Undergraduate terms here are eight weeks long, and there is a widely-known concept called “week five blues”. I used to be rather scathing of the idea, but I have come to realise that actually week five can be the hardest week of term. Week five of Lent term, which is what we’re in the middle of now (weeks start on Thursdays here, don’t ask me why), is the hardest of all. Midway through the middle term of the year, during a cold and frequently grey month.
Today is actually gloriously sunny and warm enough that hats, scarves and gloves are merely optional rather than essential, but unfortunately even that can’t affect the tiredness that has permeated my entire being this week. My sleep schedule has been knocked off balance so frequently in the past two weeks that I’m not sure I can even continue to claim I have one. My “healthy habits” chart is staring accusingly at me, the “nine hours sleep” column conspiciously blank. The one night I did get to bed in time to get nine hours of sleep, I lay awake until 3am despite employing every fall-asleep tactic short of drugging myself.
There are some nice things about this week. By chance, my workload is reasonably light. One supervisor has decided not to set us any more essays this term, and the reading list for her next supervision is so short I had to check I hadn’t lost a page. My dissertation is finally coming together, and I’ve even managed to write somewhere between 800 and 1200 words (some of it will have to be scrapped after the feedback I got from my seminar last week). I had a very helpful phone call with a woman who works with prisoners and she gave me a lot of things to think about, as well as some advice about where to do more research on certain areas.
On Friday we had an interesting double-length medical law lecture with a visiting doctor who gave us the clinician’s side of the story in relation to declarations of death and Do Not Attempt Resusitation orders. There was a short but lively discussion about whether or not we would benefit from legislation which legally defined death – as it is, the matter is left entirely to clinical judgement – and I learnt a lot of things which might well be important, albeit hopefully only occasionally, in my midwifery career.
Yesterday the choir went off to Hereford for the day, to sing evensong and also to look around the town. Although Hereford is sufficiently close to my mum’s house that I recognised the shape of the landscape, I had never been before and it is a nice place full of interesting old buildings – and to my delight, people walking their dogs and children around the town. Dogs and children are both things that my life is generally lacking here. It was a long day, though; we set off at 10.30am and got back at around 11pm.
A small, musically-irrelevant triumph was managing to reattach the zipper to a cassock bag one of the boys had brought to me saying “Choir mummy, can you fix my cassock bag?”. A tiny part of me was quite flattered at the title (and I have to confess that it’s not the first time I’ve been deemed to be the “mummy” for a group of fellow students – I was “cast mummy” to a touring theatre show in the summer of my first year) and a larger part of me was determined not to be defeated by a piece of metal and some plastic teeth. For reference, if you’re attempting the same thing and can’t feed both halves of the zip into the bottom of the zipper, feed one side through, slide the zipper down to the bottom, cut slightly into the zip at the base of the other side of the zip and feed that through from the top of the zipper. Magical!
Next weekend is a long-awaited trip to the gardens of our local National Trust house, which is currently in snowdrop season and more importantly offers delicious tea and cake for which we have a voucher. My shiny new NT membership pack arrived earlier this week and I’m determined to make the most of it. Heidi, my doing-interesting-things friend from chapel, has also procured two free tickets to a book fair on Friday afternoon which sounds like it will be worth going to. It’s fortunate that I have so much free entertainment and socialising planned, because I didn’t babysit this week (they weren’t home) and therefore I’m rather broke. Thank goodness for a well-stocked freezer and food cupboards fit to burst 🙂
I’ve been a bit under the weather this week, having caught the cold that’s been making its way around the choir, and around the town in general. For a while I was concerned it might turn out to be flu, which is also rearing its ugly head in places, but so far so good and I’m still mostly vertical. Thankfully illness week coincided with a week where my workload isn’t too heavy, so I haven’t fallen behind.
Lately I’ve been trying to develop some new habits. The plan is to change up the habits every month or so, once they’re ingrained into my routine. This month I’m keeping it simple: getting enough sleep, eating properly, spending time with friends… three things which have all been particularly useful this week. Sleep is the main one at the moment. I don’t think I’ve slept this much since I had the fatigue disorder two years ago. Hopefully it’s the cold that has made me feel as though I’m actually getting more tired the more I sleep.
Illness and tiredness aside, I had a great time today with the two little girls I babysit. The younger is ten months and the elder is two and a half, and I’m watching them grow up before my very eyes. Having not seen them for around a month over Christmas, I was astounded. Baby M is sitting up, crawling, laughing! A is speaking in almost-comprehensible sentences and playing imaginary games! After a nap, a lot of playing, a bit of foot-dragging over tidying up the toys and extended wrestling with the double stroller we went to the park. It was so nice to spend a couple of hours hearing two little girls laughing to each other. Sometimes spending all my time with adults can be wearing.
Last night I sprinted out of choir and sprang onto my bike (perhaps not quite as athletically as that sounds), and cycled at top speed across town. I was impressed with myself – it took me precisely the 13 minutes Google had informed me it should, despite the unpleasant hill mid-route and my general lack of fitness. I barrelled into a Mexican restaurant where my friend Abha was waiting, having helpfully already ordered my veggie burrito. The reason for all the rushing was that we had just three quarters of an hour before we needed to head up to the cinema next door to watch Les Miserables.
Except that when we did get to the cinema, all tickets to the evening’s final screening of Les Mis had sold out. I had vaguely considered pre-booking, but three weeks after its release it hadn’t seemed necessary. It was a happy accident though, because after a bit of humming and haahing we decided to see Lincoln instead.
People, go and see Lincoln. It was astonishing. I didn’t know a great deal about President Lincoln, beyond a few key details, but my overall impression (which has been confirmed by people who do know more than I) was that it was quite historically accurate. But more than that, it was just thought-provoking and excellently made. I intend to buy it on DVD so that I can watch it again, and possibly again, and maybe again after that.
This weekend my mum will be coming to visit, and in rather unfortunate timing I have a mock exam (slap bang in the middle of Saturday afternoon… it’s a good job I like the subject!). We’re going out to dinner with a group which will include a lot of my friends to celebrate a birthday – not mine, although mine is this weekend. By a weird coincidence the choir is filled with people who share birthdays. So far I’ve heard of four pairs of people born on the same date, and this week four of us will turn a year older in the space of three days. Perhaps there’s something about certain dates that encourages musicality? Who knows.
It wasn’t a New Year’s resolution. It wasn’t a considered decision made after a long anguished tussle between my head and my heart. It wasn’t because of concerns about privacy or hacking or the erosion of true friendship. I just deactivated Facebook because I suddenly no longer wanted to broadcast my life to the world.
And once I had clicked the button that silenced the constant outpouring of communication online, I started to like the idea. So I switched off my phone as well. No more habitual pressing of the button on the side to see if I’d missed a message arriving. No more fiddling with the internet apps to fill empty patches of time. No more sending texts just for the sake of seeing the reply arriving. Now my phone spends its days in the drawer of my desk, waking up for half an hour or so each evening to check for anything genuinely important. Most days there is nothing, and I smile wryly at how much time I’ve saved by not constantly checking for that nothing.
Today, though, four texts arrived all at once, and two emails to pass along information that would otherwise have been sent by Facebook. A rush of communication all at once, quite by chance, and my immediate instinct… is to post a dry comment about the irony on my Facebook wall. Ironic.
I haven’t stopped using the internet. In fact, coincidentally my internet usage has stepped up a notch, as I’ve taken on moderator duties for a forum and am engaged in a war against adverts for knock-off Uggs and dodgy Viagra. I’ve sent emails to friends to see how they’re doing, or dashed off an email to them to tell them about a recipe for vegan Bailey’s or an adorable video of a cat climbing into a cardboard box. Reciprocally I’ve had friends emailing (or less commonly, texting) to see how I am and to invite me to things personally instead of simply glancing at my profile to gauge the mood I reveal to the world.
It seems a fairly glum comment on society, or at least on the subset of society frequented by Cambridge students in their twenties, or perhaps simply on me, that it was my breakup with my Facebook account, and not my breakup with my boyfriend, which elicited the most surprise. The first thing my fellow law students said to me today was not “how was your Christmas?” or “Happy New Year!” but “you’re alive! You disappeared from Facebook and we were worried!”. I only know two other people who do not have Facebook; I feel part of an exclusive gang.
So if you have been worried by the sudden cessation of broadcasting from my life, do not fear. I am alive. I am fine. You can get me on my email. Come round for tea, we can catch up properly – in person.
It feels very odd to be in the new year already. It almost feels as though Christmas didn’t really happen – and at the same time I have done a lot of Christmassy things.
Jens arrived on the 22nd and we were joined by Charles and his brother on Christmas eve for the epic queue at King’s. We got there at 8.15am and were let into the chapel at around 2pm, which on paper sounds like a very long time to be standing in the rain. As soon as we arrived I realised we should have brought things to sit on (even carrier bags would have been better than nothing). Some well-organised people had folding chairs, but I don’t actually own any folding chairs.
The time went more quickly than I would have expected. We chatted to a few people who Charles and Jim knew, talked to each other, ate the picnics we’d packed, made trips to the college cafe to warm up and buy drinks, and at one point were serenaded by members of the chapel choir singing carols. The final twenty minutes, after they had started letting people in but before we reached the front of the queue, were the longest minutes in the whole of the seven-hour wait.
The service itself started a little after 3pm, and we couldn’t see a thing. I actually think we might have heard the choir better had we stayed at home and listened to the radio broadcast, but we’d have missed the spirit of the event. I was amused by the fact that between the four of us, we sang all the different voice parts whenever the congregation were invited to join in with the carols. Jens was a little bemused; not all English carols are well-known in Norway and none of the rest of us were singing the tune…
In the evening we had a nap and then headed out for midnight mass at the church I occasionally attend for morning prayer. It was a really lovely service; it’s difficult to put into words what was so nice about it, but it just was enjoyable all the way through. We sang some of my favourite carols and hymns, the choir was smoked out with incense which actually smelt reasonably nice for once, an amusingly solemn procession placed a plastic baby in a lavishly-decorated stable and the vicar (whose installation service I attended last year) gave a witty and thought-provoking address with his right arm in an elaborate sling which was so liturgically appropriate with the rest of his vestments that Jens hadn’t even noticed it until we were greeted by him on the way out and had to shake hands with our left hands.
Christmas day began late, at around noon, when we had a scratch brunch, opened presents and then headed into the kitchen to start cooking. “Dinner” was ready at around 4pm, and to my amazement was totally fine, with all the components cooked properly at the same time. The Quorn roast was nothing to write home about, and I think I’ll not bother with one again, but the vegetables and sides were all great. I’ve never cooked such an elaborate meal before so I was rather proud.
We didn’t have the space or stamina for Christmas pudding, so we decamped (after some faffing with locked doors, broken television sets and well-hidden light switches) to the college bar to watch the traditional Christmas TV. Then we headed out to the MCR International students’ potluck supper, which was surprisingly good fun. I hadn’t met any of the people who were there, but I got the impression that they hadn’t met each other either so we didn’t feel odd. There were several non-Newnham people there, notably a few men who clearly weren’t students here, and a small male baby who was far too small to be a student anywhere.
We rounded out the day by watching some more Christmas TV, and then did some last-minute laundry. I wouldn’t usually wash clothes on Christmas Day, but the following morning we were heading off for a week and Jens had packed light.
Boxing Day dawned and Charles arrived to pick us up and drive us to stay with his family. We spent two nights there and it was a lot of fun. I’d met his parents and brother before, but we were also introduced to his sister and her boyfriend, and both of his grandmothers who were all very friendly. One grandmother was particularly good fun, joining in with the four-part-harmony carols (it’s rather convenient that I sing alto, since they already had a soprano, a tenor and a bass in the family) and making lots of jokes. The other grandmother is a gentle Irish lady who I enjoyed talking to.
When we weren’t being fed mountains of delicious food, which took up a lot of the time, we went for walks round the town. At one point our attempts to walk around a lake failed as the lake had risen up and taken over the entirety of the path and surrounding fields. Jens bought several books from an excellent little bookshop. In the evenings we watched films and played board games and all in all, it was lovely to have a proper family Christmas. In the last five years or so my family has been too scattered for that sort of thing to happen – although we haven’t done so deliberately, my brother and I have managed to be in different places for Christmas almost every year and we stopped spending the holidays with our similiarly-aged cousins years ago.
After that we headed north to spend a few days with my music friends, some of whom Jens had met before. It was an interesting contrast with the time in the south, and I was reminded of how differently my life could have gone if I had chosen a different university. One particularly notable feature of our visit to Manchester was that I got to hold a snake who coiled around my arms and body and went to sleep with his head tucked into my elbow. I have never considered snakes to be cute before, but this one decidedly is.
The final leg of our tour was in Aylesbury, for New Year’s Eve. Stumo helpfully offered to pick us up in Milton Keynes, which made the journey both cheaper and quicker, as well as having the dubious benefit of subjecting us to at least fifteen roundabouts in an hour. Most of the people at the party I hadn’t met before, but there were five or six old friends who I don’t see often enough. Jens and I were both fairly well exhausted by this point and went to bed not long after midnight. The following day we helped with the clearup, mostly by eating left-over cake, and then went to meet an internet friend for coffee. Our trip back to Cambridge, again courtesy of Stumo, was heavily delayed by an ultimately futile attempt to find a pub or restaurant which was open and serving food.
And now the festivities are over, and I have started working again. Today we went on a wander round Cambridge, visiting a few of the more famous colleges and delving into the depths of the UL to look for two books, one of which was there and one which was not. I feel rather guilty about the one that was not: I recalled it, which I thought would mean that the person who has taken it out would simply not be able to renew it again when it was due back on the 16th. I checked with the front desk after having done so, and they told me that it actually means that the current user has 7 days to return it to the library or they will start getting fined. My hope is that the fact that they have taken it out during the vacation means they do live in Cambridge, and aren’t undergraduates living in, for instance, northern Scotland. I would have left it until next week had I known… I don’t need it that urgently. But never mind, what is done is done.
College has reopened and there are hoardes of staff members around, which is very odd after such a long time of silence. The winter pool is taking place here, meaning that admissions tutors from all the colleges are milling around reading applications from people who didn’t quite make it into the college they originally chose. We’ve seen more people in the corridors today than in total in the entire college in the past two weeks.