When grief and guilt collide

This is a bit of a secret, but here goes: I can never hear “Let It Go” without smiling. There are reasons, I promise. (Admittedly, I like a lot of other songs without the reasons, but some things are meant to stay secret…)

When Frozen was the new big thing, The Paleontologist was still at nursery, and only knew the names of about 3 dinosaurs. Picking her up each lunchtime, we often found ourselves walking home with another little girl and, as often happens, the two became fast friends. It would take us twice as long to walk home, of course, but it was worth it for the company, for the grown ups as much as the small people. As we walked, we discussed everything from religion to the trials and tribulations of having little girls with ridiculously curly hair. It was mundane, often slightly stormy, and utterly lovely. A few journeys home stand out particularly clearly in my mind. One was the walk where we spoke of my friend’s family for the first time. She was from Yemen, and these were the days before the war there was particularly spoken about. It was from her that I heard about the conflict, and her who told me the story of a nephew of hers, lost in the fighting. She never said what side he fought on, and I saw no reason to ask. She did tell me his last action was to call his mother, pray for her, and tell her he couldn’t get out. She stayed on the phone until the line went dead.

Image by Sarah MacIntyre, published on Twitter in response to the attack on the Charlie Hebdo building in January 2015. A beautiful picture of two young girls, one in a hijab, one with uncovered hair, weeping as they draw a heart between them.

My other memory is made more beautiful by the tragedy that walked with us at times. The Friend could barely speak English, growing up as she had in a bilingual household that spoke Arabic at home. The Paleontologist had never seen Frozen, or listened to any of the songs. But there they were, skipping down a backstreet, dodging dog poo and abandoned tyres, and belting this song out at the top of their voices, The Friend singing, The Paleontologist echoing. It remained their song until they left nursery to go their separate ways, to different schools and, soon enough, to different cities. In my mind, it will always be their song.

At this point in the academic year, Let It Go becomes a bit of an anthem. That and The Final Countdown. There are a lot of reasons for this, to say the least. Mistakes are always made, by teachers, by students, by other departments who frankly should know better. The time to sort them out has passed and we are left with no choice but to accept whatever outcome we are left with. Students who have failed who deserve to pass; students who have passed who did no work at all; students who have faced circumstances that mean they have dropped out, at the last minute quite often, because of exam terror, or sudden eviction, or losing their Home Office appeal and facing deportation. And we, their teachers, are left saying goodbye, looking at a year of slogging our guts out, summarised in a row of 50 or so little words: Pass. Fail. Pass. Pass. Fail. For me, at least, those words are filled with emotion. Grief for the things I planned to do, but didn’t quite manage in the heat of yet another Ofsted year. Guilt for the times I wasn’t focused enough, didn’t get that marking back with enough feedback; would that have made the difference? Grief because, for all it is an overwhelming relief when the end of the year finally comes around, it is also a goodbye, to the groups you have really enjoyed as much as the ones you have struggled with, and I have never been any good at goodbyes.

Loss. Goodbyes. They always seem to be bad things, to be avoided at all costs with Hollywood-style endings and Olaf having “his own personal flurry”. None of the heartbreak of The Snowman for younger generations, please. And don’t get me wrong, I’m all in favour of happy endings. There is a reason I’ve never made it to the end of Watership Down. But we know that growth, beauty, fulfilment can only happen if some things are lost. The more you prune roses, the more will grow in future. (I think, anyway; though if I’m wrong that explains why my roses keep dying…) Students must finish with us to leave and move on in their lives and achieve whatever they are able to. Children must grow up, grow independent, make choices and mess things up for themselves. Loss surrounds us, from monumental landslides that make life after them unimaginable, through to little disappointments, more hurt pride than moments to mourn. Beautiful moments you don’t want to let go of. Moments that went wrong, and leaving you grieving for what you hoped they would be. Every breath draws in new life and releases what is no longer helpful. Accepting those losses is the only way to release the weight of carrying the world on your shoulders, eternally. But isn’t that so much easier said than done?

How can you accept your children no longer seeing you as the most magical person to ever exist? How can you accept students who once saw you as their salvation seeing you now as the teacher who let them down? How can you accept the passage of time robbing you of health, energy, self identity? How can you accept a political situation that fills you with fear of what may be lost, and anger at the price that will have to be paid by those who have nothing to pay it with? How can you accept the loss of your parents, your partner, your siblings, your children? Grief never disappears. It sneaks into your gut when your shields are down, when you sleep and dream they are still alive, still around, that you are still able to change and correct the situation. And resting underneath the grief, gurgling maliciously, is guilt. Have you let them down? Could you have done more? Do they know you could, should, tried to do more to change things? And then that guilt surges to the surface, forming a suffocating barrier between yourself and acceptance.

Making a choice means closing down opportunities and saying no. If you commit to one course of action you are saying no to all the others. Sometimes it is just a delay, a maybe next time, or an I’ll try that when this other thing changes. But sometimes the choice is absolute. The choice to move countries; the choice to have children; the choice to get married, or to get divorced. Some decisions will forever change the direction your life will take, and you will never be the same person as you were before you made them.

But when we make these big life choices, we rarely pause to grieve for the things we are leaving behind, even as we celebrate the things we are moving towards. Nor do we acknowledge the guilt that can be associated with those choices. Getting married will always be a point where everything changes, and I added to that by moving halfway up the country at the same time. Oops… And then my father died, 3 months after my wedding. Publicly celebrating our intention to support, aggravate, annoy and enhance each other for the rest of our lives was utterly beautiful, and I will never again have a party that is so much fun. But it meant I was giving up my father’s name, changing documents so that he was no longer an explicit part of my identity, as he lay dying (even though we didn’t know that was what was happening). But I had just got married! How could I feel guilt, feel grief, for that? But seriously, looking back, how could I not feel All The Emotions at such a time?

You can have anything. You can’t have everything. And admitting that, whilst being one of the hardest things ever to do, is almost certainly key to surviving everything else, acknowledging the grief, the guilt, and moving beyond both into genuine acceptance.

Poppies at sunset. Image by danigeza, via Pixabay.

Why I wish I could break the rules

A long time ago, in a life-stage far far away, I did something unbelievable. The kind of thing that, looking back even a few days later, I couldn’t believe I really did. One Friday afternoon in sixth form, a group of us decided to leave school early and head down to Glastonbury Festival. We had tents and sleeping bags (well, most of us did. If I remember rightly, one individual named very aptly after a capricious Shakespearean character decided all he needed was a change of socks. Probably best not to ask, really.) We did not have tickets. Crowded into the back of a car, a bit terrified and very excited, listening to Britney Spears and laughing at how terrible the music was, was probably the closest I ever came to feeling like I had a part in the action. 

We parked up and started off in the direction of the fences, which suddenly looked rather more official than they had in my head. Close to the car park were a few scary-looking individuals who had cut holes already, and were charging a nominal fee – sometimes rather aggressively – to get through. We walked on. None of that nonsense for us, they said, though at that point my heart was pounding like mad, imagining that all these eighteen year old lads would be literally jumping over the fence, leaving unhealthy and unfit me on the other side, unable to get in, unable to leave. As was the case far more often than I realised, I suspect, I had underestimated the leaders of the crew. They kept going until we found a gap we could all squeeze through.

You are probably wondering why I am admitting to this now. The truth is, that is just about the only time in my life when I have not only broken the rules, but also refused to feel guilty about it. (Not long after this, the same classmates and I had the choice of jumping a queue or missing the Vatican Museum. We jumped the queue. I still feel guilty about it now.) Even when the news broke, shortly after our return, that so many people had broken in to Glastonbury that they were cancelling the whole festival the following year, we still felt proud rather than ashamed. Proud, and just a tad smug. 

A gorgeous image of the beauty and chaos of such a huge gathering of people.
By jaswooduk from UK – Glastonbury 2011, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18498961

Breaking the rules is absolutely not something I do. Even my acts of teenage rebellion were all within the stereotypes. We not only got our parents’ permission for the Glastonbury trip, for example, we also got our teachers’ permission to leave early (though there is a very good chance we didn’t tell either group we didn’t exactly have tickets…) When I started smoking – sorry, Mum, but I realise now you’re not daft and probably knew the whole time – it was an act of rebellion against my parents, my teachers, my goody-goody reputation; but I waited until I was legal before I started, and always used money I had earned myself to buy them, not money from my parents.

Breaking the rules genuinely makes me shake. Even bending the expectations fills me with quiverings. I seem to have passed this on to The Paleontologist too, unfortunately. When she was much younger and we were living somewhere very different, I took her to the local Eid celebration. It was the kind of party that had 20000 people attending, and its own funfair, so I was expecting her to be in her element. Instead, as we walked the familiar route to the local park that had been transformed into a place for prayers and celebration, her feet got slower and slower until eventually she stopped altogether. “What if they don’t want us there?” she whispered. “What if people like us aren’t allowed?”

I watch people who break the rules with a mixture of awe and horror. Extinction Rebellion have achieved amazing headlines, but my gut rebels at the idea of praising their methods. Greta Thunburg I’m happier with; strikes fit better within the language of revolt from my staunch Labour-supporting upbringing. But do we have to break the rules to be noticed? Does that mean that those of us who feel unable, morally or practically, to take that kind of action have no part to play at all? 

And it turns out that being congenitally incapable of breaking the rules has even deeper consequences than feeling unable to take full part in movements fighting for the things I most believe in. Breaking the rules should be a deliberate act, knowing what those rules are and rebelling against them. Middle class adulting in modern society means following a set of abstract and unwritten rules and keeping yourself and your loved ones within them, accepting the inevitable fallout when you step over a boundary no one ever told you was there. There are rules that deserve nothing less than annihilation; and yet, breaking the rules has consequences, not just for me, but for those dependent on me. And I can’t take that risk. So I struggle on, trying to work them out, only aware of them as they lie in ruins behind me. Have a home. Your own home. Keep that home tidy enough for a photoshoot at all times. Apologise profusely for the way your home looks if anyone pops in unexpectedly, even if it is spotless. Record everything – if a day out isn’t on social media, it didn’t really happen, right? – but whatever you do don’t go getting all self-obsessed. Value all things by their economic worth, whilst also bemoaning that stay at home parents are not treated with the respect they deserve. Recycle everything possible. Talk a lot about climate catastrophe. Own two cars. Go on holiday. Drink plant-based alternatives to milk.

What happens when you can’t keep to the rules? They are so many, so varied, so hidden under layers and layers of obscurity and obfuscation that even in trying to stick to the rules you end up shattering a lot of them. In fact, I’m fairly sure that one of the cardinal rules is to never acknowledge their presence. Some have never seen the rules in action, never understood what is expected and what you are expected to ignore. Many don’t know the rules, have never been shown them, have lived among people with different guidelines and spend every interaction expecting to be called out as a fraud. Some know the rules intimately, using them to their own advantage, manipulating the system to create a world that no one quite knows how to challenge. We have created a system so intricate, so all consuming, so woven into the mesh of our society, our economic system, our values, that we are no longer able to tell apart the rules that do good from the rules that do harm.

There are some rules – morality, decency, love – that deserve to be followed with the rigidity I use when waiting for the green man before crossing the road. Somehow, though, these rules seem to be the ones most neglected within the structures and confines of our everyday lives. Some need to be broken in emergencies. And some deserve to be wiped off the face of the world for all eternity. Particularly the one that says your worth as a person (and especially as a woman) is somehow inherently linked to your ability to keep up with the washing up. I really don’t like that one.

Saying it like this makes it sound so easy. Follow the good rules. Ignore the mediocre ones. Send the bad ones into oblivion. Trouble is, it’s really not always obvious which is which. And the likelihood is, some rules are life-giving for one person and a prison for another. One of my students, for example, the thing she is most proud of is keeping her house spotless. It gives her self-worth in a life that has consistently stripped it away, in a society that would cast her to the bottom of every heap going. How can I say it’s a bad rule that makes me feel terrible, when it gives her acceptance?

Some people see Christianity as full of endless rules. But Jesus didn’t just break the rules. He turned them upside down and ripped them apart from the inside out. He set down a way of life that is still more radical than anything we imagine today, and made it sound so easy to follow – just take your eyes off the rules, and follow love instead. Like every religion, one interpretation tends to dominate media consciousness, and it is never the whole picture. For me it is not about rules. There is one clear commandment, set in three parts (God does love threes…): Love your God, love others, love yourself. Do that and everything will be OK. It broke the rules then, it breaks them now. It seems to me that, thousands of years later, this is still the best advice we have. If we followed these rules, wouldn’t it be marvellous to be able to shelve the rest?

Please make me angry…

A lifetime ago, when staying up all night was something I did for fun (or essay deadlines), and TV marathons had to be planned in advance, I used to serve on committees. A lot. In fact, I never really felt part of a group unless I was wearing at least two hats within it; I’ve always enjoyed knowing how things work, what needs to happen behind the scenes. It’s probably why I enjoy being a treasurer. There’s nothing like it for finding out all the gossip how everything fits together.

Then I had a baby. A few years later, I had another. And the first baby was now a mobile, bloody-minded force of nature in her own right. And everything changed. That was the point that I felt I had to give everything up, unable to commit to anything for fear I wouldn’t be able to see it through.

So it is quite a big deal for me to feel ready to do something for my Quaker Meeting once again. The advantage of being closer to a Crone than a Maiden is that I have slowly started to develop a modicum of common sense – something that does not come naturally to me. Start small, I said to myself. And do you know what? I actually followed my own advice, limiting myself to signing up to do teas and coffees after Meeting. Just for one week. It doesn’t get smaller than that – well, unless your Meeting has a deputy plant waterer, anyway. (Yes, that apparently can be a thing. I’m not the only one who sometimes runs low on common sense…)

Sunday was the big day. So, inevitably, on Sunday I slept through my alarm and set in train a chain reaction that I would love to say was unusual, but is actually the definition of “lazy like Sunday morning” in my household. I woke up an hour late, scrabbling out of bed before my eyes were fully open, holding my breathe for screaming from the girls’ room, worrying more when instead there was absolute silence. As I got out of the shower, The Cowgirl came to find me. It had all been The Paleontologist’s idea, she assured me, which is never a good start. They had decided to eat all the sweets from a birthday party goody bag. With big, mournful eyes, she explained how hungry they had been, waiting for me to come and get breakfast for them. And now her tummy hurt and she was going back to bed. So now I’m angry with them (not for eating the sweets – who can blame them, when they were sitting on the kitchen table; more for not stopping before they got ill and not getting cereal, which they’re quite capable of doing when they want to). I’m even more angry with myself for not being downstairs when I should have been.

The Paleontologist assures me she will eat porridge if I make it. That’s ok, I think. It’s healthy, I think. We can even add a portion of fruit to it, I think. Will I never learn? She starts to eat, at about the speed of that fight scene in the Matrix. You can almost see the trail of the spoon as it inches its way to her mouth, her body bending away at the same time as mouth and spoon somehow never quite make contact. So now I’m hanging on to my shouty voice by a thread, desperately trying to reason with them and explain why I would appreciate them moving slightly faster. Pleeeease. I just about hold it together until The Paleontologist, one sock waving vaguely around her head, started talking to me about what we might need to buy for our holiday. The one in two months time. When we needed to leave the house five minutes ago. So now I’m using the growl that bypasses my throat and comes straight from my chest, and both children are looking at me like I’ve grown a tail and finally, finally, they start to move, but only because now, they are worried too.

We finally make it into the car, remembering the milk, which almost certainly qualifies as a miracle. Once we are most of the way into town, the red haze fades enough from my ears that I start listening to what The Cowgirl is chattering about. “And there’s another one. I’ve got one, two, three on my tummy, and two on my legs.” “Have you counted the one on your chin?” pipes up The Paleontologist.

They’re counting spots. Of course they are. The spots they’ve both noticed, which, in my hurry, frustration, anger, I had completely missed. So now I’m sitting in a car with a five year old counting spots, remembering the message about chicken pox that came through from school, playing through my mind could it be? Would it be? Would it be worse to take a child with potential chicken pox to a Quaker Meeting, or to leave them with no milk for their After Meeting Drinks? (I decided to go to Meeting. You should never ask people to live without tea. In the end, it was chicken pox, but not the kind that slows a cannonball down. At least I am now much clearer about what chickenpox looks like when it’s not just on Google…)

Anger. It controlled me that morning, blocking my experience of the world around me and every moment I walked through to get to the point that I would not let anyone down. Anger. It stands, seemingly indestructable, a barrier between me and life. Between life and joy. Between joy and peace. Anger. That feeling of frustration, gnawing at my belly, gnashing my jaw, scrunching my spine. It is an everyday thing for me, a whirlpool that sucks everything within itself, driving towards oblivion until all that is left is tension, radiating through my bones and stopping me seeing beyond the moment.

Image of a fireball exploding from a volcano, seen through burnt trees. Image by geralt, from Pixabay.

But this isn’t solely anger. Bleeding into it, blended together until they are a new and augmented all-consuming fug, is fear. So much of being a parent is about fear. Sometimes I feel that living in modern times at all is the most terrifying thing, but being responsible for others gives that terror pinpoint focus. My grandparents lived through the Blitz and the Great Depression; my parents, through the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Cold War, the Thatcher years. In my time I cannot point to a moment in history which will be remembered with the same capital letters; and yet I also can’t point to a time in recent years when I have not been afraid. Fear for my children and fear for the world and anger that any of us should be put in this position merge together. Trying to be body positive to two girls with entirely opposing builds feeds my fear of how children are being taught to see themselves from the outside in, with the perfect photo being the hallmark of success. The Paleontologist telling me, only half in jest, that she is already worrying about her end of primary school exams (in several years time)? That makes me furious with the education system as we know it, and scared for the pressure she will put herself under when the time comes. They are ill and I plan for hospital; they are teased and I fear for their mental health. They tell me what they want to be when they grow up, and I get scared and try to hide it, wondering if either paleontology or caring for animals will even be an option in twenty, thirty, forty years. Then I get angry with the people saying it won’t be; surely no one in such a progressive, capable world will really let things get to that point? But stopping it means taking a hit ourselves for people who are not us; who may not live in this country; who are not even alive yet. And taking a hit for anyone else is not something our society does well. So then I get more scared, and more angry, and the haze builds up around me. 

Life is tough, and made tougher through the pressures of society to balance everything in the world. None of us are good enough unless we are working full time with a full-time commitment to our children. We must be creative whilst doggedly seeing through all our commitments. We must be committed to every good cause going, whilst single-mindedly pursuing one goal. We must look perfect whilst paying no heed to our appearance. We must be warriors, nurturers, educators, pastors, volunteers and generals. Once upon a time, this was solely the domain of women. By demonstrating that was not fair, we have somehow set up a system we call more enlightened: rather than treating women more gently, instead we hold men to the same impossible standards.

At work, I have been called an oasis of calm (yes, I laughed too the first time someone said it to me, but isn’t it lovely!) But calm cannot be recognised without storms, just as silence is only apparent after noise. Somewhere within me is that oasis, waiting to be discovered. Maybe it can only be found by walking into the storm.

What does walking into that chaos look like? It simmers below the surface, lava waiting to get to boiling point before exploding out into an atmosphere where it is lethal and destructive. It is strong. So very strong. Can it be harnessed? Can it be used for good, for transformation, for evolution? If all the anger, the fear, the turbulance and hate felt within the core of our communities could be harnessed, what would it not be possible to achieve? If righteous anger guides our actions, there are no monoliths, however immutable they may seem, that would stand before us all acting as one.

Text: If anyone ever asks you “What would Jesus do?”, remind him that flipping over tables and chasing people with a whip is within the realm of possibilities.
So true! It’s the linking it to righteous anger that gets me at times, though…