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Not fitting-in is your Superpower

When I arrived in England, my partner gave me a book.

I didn’t realise it at the time, but Watching the English: the Hidden Rules of English Behaviour would become my bible.

Kate Fox’s book is a marvellous addition to any expat’s research on England. I read it, but like so many things about culture, it didn’t really sink in until I’d experienced the things I read about.

My now wife and I met at a conference, a death conference to be precise.
As you do…

We sat next to each other the first night at dinner and the rest, as they say is history.

But it seems I only made it by the skin of my teeth, or rather the teeth on my fork.

Unbeknown to me and outside of the rules of English behaviour, I had no idea that on that first night, I held my knife and fork correctly. We’ve joked about it ever since. Held it wrongly and we wouldn’t be married…

The Knife Holding Rule

Page 316 talks about the knife holding rule, whether the handle goes under your palm or rests like a pencil between your thumb and index finger.

I jest about whether I would have passed the test to marriage. But it gets more extreme. When we met, Angie ate a pot of yogurt with a fork, because she didn’t want to move away from me to get a spoon. Sweet huh, but oh so wrong!

I jest, but these social rules about eating utensils are the key to opening up the whole world to English social history – the history of class. It’s certainly a fascinating insight into a country when you understand where it’s come from culturally and socially.

In one sentence, whether your midday meal is lunch or dinner, or whether your evening meal is supper or tea tells someone exactly what your social standing is.

I don’t say this to judge. I’m not judging.

This is historically how England operated. Your social behaviour, the words you used, the tone of your voice, your mannerisms – so much was and is revealed.

This history of class was part of shaping the nation. Your social status defined what you could achieve, what doors opened to you and how others viewed you.

The influence of class on identity

As an outsider arriving newly to a country you observe in ways that you might not as an insider.

I’ve often wondered about the infamous English reserve and where it comes from.

I still don’t know, but I can’t help but think about the impact of class. I may be wrong, but historically, if the minute you open your mouth you’re judged, then you’re going to keep it shut aren’t you? Whilst there are many other signs, your behaviour is also going to be more measured to not let out any hints.

Is this where English reserve comes from? I wonder?

The outsider’s view

Whilst time has evolved English society considerably, its history remains present and influential.

When I arrived in the UK, I worked in the field of heritage management. All my experience was Australian history and so I was a little concerned about how I might fit in working with English history, of which I knew very little.

But being an outsider was my genius zone!
It put me in a powerful position that I hadn’t considered.

I could get to the heart of things.

Someone said to me, “As an outsider, you’re in a really powerful position. You’re not part of our social history or class system. You can ask the questions we know we’re not allowed to ask.”

Wow!

That blew my mind and I suddenly realised that I didn’t need to fit. My value and strength was precisely that I was different.

So, I asked away. It enabled me to have conversations that locals couldn’t in normal work settings. Professionally, it became my asset. People hear my Australian accent and I’m allowed a space that others aren’t. My accent attracts other comments, sometimes not friendly, but that’s their shit not mine.

The longer I’ve lived and worked here, the more I knew what I couldn’t ask, but with my accent I was still given open access.

Make the most of how you don’t fit

For all the people out there who are struggling to find a sense of belonging where you live, remember that your difference is your asset.

Whether you’re an expat, relocated 100 miles down the road, or maybe moved to another State or region, you will experience a period of adjustment. It’s easy to fit in because it feels safer.

However, my advice?

Don’t try to fit.
As I stated in the American Express magazine, AMEX Essentials, belonging comes from within

And the best bit?

You really want to know?

Your ability to not fit is your superpower.

Cath x

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To Speak Up or Not – can you live with yourself?

I wish I’d said something.

These were the words of a friend of mine when she witnessed someone being discriminated against.

A comforting friend might say, Ah well, next time you can…

I suspect that we honestly believe that we would say speak up next time, but when the moment comes, we are presented with a choice.

And the choice not to is easier.

I won’t today because I’m tired and just want to get home

I won’t today because the bloke that said the comment looks like he could crush me through a meat grinder.

I won’t today because I’ve just ducked into this shop for one thing. I’ve got to get back to work.

I won’t today because, well…. do I care enough?

I won’t today because I’m here for work and don’t want to make a scene.

These thoughts are common and normal. I know they are because I’ve thought them.

It’s hard to speak up.
But I always regret it when I don’t.

When I worked in Sydney I had to visit a maximum security prison to relocate a family of birds that had nested in the exercise yard of the prisoners who were severely mentally impaired. To this day I regret not saying anything about the prison officer whose language belittled and made fun of the prisoners.

Did I think, she knows her job and I know nothing about how hard this must be, so I won’t say anything?
Yes, I did.

BUT,

I also chose to ignore the uncomfortable body language and facial expressions of her colleague whose behaviour was completely the opposite – positive and open hearted.

Personal or External?

When it’s personal, it seems easier to speak up. When a colleague started talking about ‘drowning gingers at birth’ I had something to say. When I hear homophobic stuff I speak up. When I receive anti-Australian sentiments I will voice an opinion. I can do this without thinking because they all affront me personally.

I feel justified.
It throws that energy back at them so I don’t take it on board.

So why is it harder to do for others?

Because we have a choice.
We can choose to ignore.

Subtle versus Smack-in-your-face!

The recent Black Lives Matter campaign has highlighted how so much of racism is subtle.

As Patrick George says, “White people in England can be a bit smarter, they know exactly what they can’t say to be obviously racist, but they’ll do it more subtly. They’ll come for you in other ways.”

Evidently, this is also why large proportions of White people don’t think there’s a problem, because they don’t see it personally. As Patrick George explains, those who discriminate know they have to be careful about how they do it.

But what about when it is not so subtle? Does that still happen?

Can you remember the last time you witnessed racism openly and boldly?

I can. Several times, unfortunately.

It shocked me.
It shocked me because it showed that the racist felt safe to be racist.

They felt that they had support from the White people nearby.

No, this gentleman is next” said dad as he pointed to the Aboriginal man next to him.

Only then, did the White staff member choose to serve the Aboriginal man who’d been standing there waiting for several minutes – passed over every time a White person had walked up and ordered.

Again…. an Aboriginal man asked us for a lift in our car, but unfortunately 300kms in the opposite direction to our route. We found another family nearby to give him the lift. They were more than happy to until they saw he was Aboriginal. In front of him they screwed up their face, said No and shook their heads.

It’s abhorrent when you witness it.

It’s abhorrent when you realise that people have to change their behaviour to stay safe.

On remote Australian roads, everyone waves at oncoming traffic. It’s gives a sense of ‘we’re all out here together’.

Over many years I’ve noticed that Aboriginal people hold back until you wave first. Then with beaming smiles you get a friendly wave.

A few weeks ago I read about a couple in the USA; he’s Black, she’s White. When they go running, she always runs behind him, so it never looks like he’s chasing her.

Pardon me, but FUCK! How is that okay?

I know it’s easy to say there’s a lot to learn and there’s no easy fix. That’s true. And I also know that Australia, the USA, Africa…. they’re all different. The discriminations have cultural contexts and histories that give each country its own complexities.

But, we do have a lot to learn and by understanding cultures and people different from ourselves better, we can understand the impact of oppression and discrimination and how to change it.  

For example, do you know that in many Australian Aboriginal languages, there is no word for ‘thank you’ or ‘please’? The value of sharing and caring is such an important part of Aboriginal culture, its value is inherent. There’s no need for such words (from Clothing the Gap – an Aboriginal owned and led social enterprise)

In Resmaa Manakem’s book, My Grandmother’s Hands, he talks about the impact of genetic trauma and how bio chemical stress hormones influence what is passed down through generations. These traumas are living within Australia’s indigenous people. Equally, the traumas of slavery (which happened in Australia too) are in the bodies of People of Colour in the USA, the UK and other parts of the world.

Imagine the impact of colonisation on ‘sharing and caring’ people by ‘conquer and take’ people.

The damage starts instantly.
It’s now very old. These are old deep wounds.

We cannot ignore this when considering whether we choose to speak up today or tomorrow or we are regretting yesterday’s lack.

Let’s work to change the record
Let’s work to create new experiences that positively influence genetic trauma
Let’s be part of healing
Let’s make sure that subsequent generations are not dealing with this shit in 50 or 100 years.

You with me?

Cath

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Claiming Your Margins

“I’m not a White woman. I’m a faded Black person”

– Jane Elliott

Sit with that.

Take a little longer.

“I’m not a White woman. I’m a faded Black person.
My people moved far away from the Equator, and that’s the only reason my skin is lighter. That’s all any White person is.”

Jane Elliott, is an anti-racism activist who says some powerful things. She’s right of course.

“We are one race”. As I say that I can feel my gut fighting ‘we are one race’. I want to interject and say we’re all different, that culture creatives diversity and there’s different languages and, there’s …. and there’s….and there’s…..

But she’s right again.

Underneath the thin little layers of pigment, we are all the same – muscle, fat, bone, organs etc.
Yes, I’m human, but again I want to say I’m different because of x,y and z.

So why is that? I’m asking myself this question too.
Why do I feel the need so strongly to assert my difference?

It all relates to how I am identified – not how I self-identify, but how others identify me.

Have you noticed that being Black is so important to Black people? Or being gay is so important to gay people or being Jewish is so important to Jewish people?

It’s not because they are proud.

It’s because they’ve fought.

They’ve fought to be who they are and there’s no way in hell, that is going to be taken from them.

And they are proud.
They’re proud because they’ve survived.

I believe that middle-aged white people, i.e. the Privileged, can struggle to define themselves.

Years ago, I was sitting in my car by a waterhole in far north Queensland, Australia. An Aboriginal man drove up with a car load of Japanese businessmen. He walked up to waterhole and spoke loudly in Language, before coming up to my window to explain that he’d just introduced himself to the Spirits and thanked them for allowing us all to be there.

“Where youse from?” he asked and just as I was politely answering that I was from Sydney, he butted in. “Oh that’s right, youse don’t know where you’re from”.

I was slightly affronted; I knew where I was from!

But I’d missed the point.
As a White woman I didn’t have Dreaming and beyond a handful of generations I don’t know where I came from. As an Aboriginal man, he has a lineage to that continent that goes back 60,000 years.

Privilege doesn’t question

With Privilege comes a lack of questioning because of a lack of threat and therefore, a lack of needing to define yourself, because you, are the accepted ‘norm’.

Someone once asked me to describe myself in 6 words. I surprised myself by saying without hesitation, ‘red-headed Australian lesbian’, before I had to think a little harder about the remaining three descriptors.

The red-headed Australian lesbian 🙂

In hindsight, red-headed, Australian, lesbian are the three things for which I’ve been discriminated. At various points in my life, I’ve been made to feel that they are problematic and they have attracted verbal abuse.

So now, without thinking, I claim them.

I claim them because they’ve been used against me.

I claim them because I’ve fought for them.

And I claim them because I’ve had to.

They are not simple descriptors. They have power. Without the discrimination, these identifiers would not have the same level of importance.

And the wonderful irony, is that the people who discriminate actually create completely the opposite effect they are after.

They abuse and mock to belittle and to make themselves feel bigger. But all they do is make us rise stronger.

The VERY thing that they see as our weakness, is what makes us the strongest.

And a recommendation before I go…..

Don’t ever piss off a drag queen. You’ll live to regret it.

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There’s Truth and then there’s TRUTH

Together

We know our truth.

Well at least we think we do.

Two people can have a conversation and come away with different ideas as to what it was about.

There’s a lot of new age, feel good stuff out there at the moment about knowing your truth.

Be true to yourself
You can only be responsible for your own truth
– Find your truth and you find yourself

These are all well and good, but what does that actually mean?

Last Friday, in my regular Barefoot Friday I talked about what it’s like to live with a neurodiverse spouse. Barefoot Friday is live illustration and conversation in which I cover a range of subjects around Identity, Belonging and Expat Life. 

With half an hour to spare before I started, I said to my wife, ‘what am I going to do for Barefoot Friday? Nothing is coming to me. I want to do something simple, but powerful’.

My wife replied,

‘I’m simple….’

‘And powerful’.

We often joke about her being simple, like the happy bouncy dog that can only focus on the ball you are about to throw. I appreciated her nudge towards our inside joke.

‘Why don’t you talk about what it’s like to live with a neurodiverse partner?’ she said.
She was right. This felt good.

Barefoot Friday’s illustration from 5 June 2020

It’s not something I could have talked about once. I didn’t understand it.

My truth was frustration, pain, hurt and confusion.

Ang’s diagnosis of Dyspraxia at aged 50 and our belief now that she’s also got Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and Autistic tendencies created a space to talk.
It turns out her truth had been frustration, pain, hurt and confusion.

Ang is now 61, so we’ve had 11 years to learn, negotiate communication that works for both of us, and find ways that mean we get what we need. It’s like anything in a marriage. It takes a commitment to each other to make it work.

So, my truth turned out to be her truth too, but from a different angle.

Finding your truth

In reality…

I didn’t find my truth as the new-age tells me. I found my wife.

My wife didn’t find her truth. She’d known it for a long time. She finally felt understood.

In talking about neurodiversity, I received feedback from another neurodiverse listener who stressed the importance of talking about the positives of neurodiverse people, not just the struggles.  They are right. Neurodiverse people have amazing skills and that will be the subject this week, but it got me thinking about truths again.

It was my wife who suggested the subject matter and she was very happy with it, but someone with a similar experience holds a different truth. Even when we speak the same language this disconnect exists.

In the expat context, imagine too, the added complications of different languages and culture. It’s a wonder that anyone ever understands anyone else!

Dyspraxia is classified by the World Health Organisation as a disability. The benefit of this means that diagnosis opens avenues for funding, support services and further public recognition – all of which has been invaluable for my wife.

However, and I know this is going to sound like I’m speaking from a position of Privilege, non-neurodiverse privilege, the majority, the main-stream…. but I’m going to say it anyway.

And I am saying it, because THIS is my truth.

There is limited support for people who are married to people with dyspraxia. You can find information and services to help with bringing up autistic and ADD children and if your partner is autistic, but dyspraxia? Not so much.

At one point I even contacted the Dyspraxia Foundation to ask if they had resources, but they didn’t. Rightly so, their focus is on helping dyspraxic people, but I do wonder about partners. Are they also hidden voices as they navigate neurodiversity? Resources for non-neurodiverse people would certainly also benefit their neurodiverse spouses and relationships.

Have I just given myself another project?

Navigating neurodiversity in a marriage

Both my wife and I will openly admit that it’s been a challenge to negotiate, individually and together, but we’ve done it well and we continue to. We are an amazing team and I wouldn’t change anything.

Being dyspraxic is as much part of your identity as having brown hair. THIS is the reason I am talking about this issue. Diversity is about understanding, acceptance, embracing and celebrating.

Not allowing space for the full spectrum of people is nothing short of rejection. Who do you reject without realising it or without being honest with yourself, because you can’t cope with their difference?

Living with a neurodiverse spouse can be really challenging, but so can living with a feisty red-headed Australian. We are just who we are. Angie has opened my eyes to the world in ways that I would never have looked it. My wife’s approach to life has given me a lot to think about and loosened me up, inspired me and helped me in numerous ways….

but to find out about that, you’ll have to watch this week’s Barefoot Friday (Friday 2pm BST) on Facebook.

Cath x

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The cultural limitation of being old

Old hands

We all think someone else is old until we get there ourselves.

Then….

We massage our mind to try to be at ease with the number before looking to name a new distant number as ‘old’.

Is it any wonder though? At least in a large proportion of the West.


We erase the older generation from our lives.

And I don’t mean physically. It’s bigger than that.

It’s a deeply seated attitude where ‘old people’ are socially sandwiched between residential care and dying.

They become less than human.

When was the last time you saw an elderly person involved in a romantic storyline on TV?

When was the last time you saw an elderly couple in a film sex scene?

I can’t remember either.

It’s not because it’s not happening in real life.

In the UK, 54% of men and 31% of women over 70 report still being sexually active with a third stating ‘frequently’.

So, why is it that society pretends it’s not happening? Is it because it makes us (the society that values youth) uncomfortable?

I know that there’s the awkward thought of your parents having sex. I’m sure mine only had it twice…9 months before I was born and the same for my sibling.

Seriously though, in the expat community we often talk about how others box us in, especially with the ‘Where are you really from?’ question. Often, the enquirer doesn’t like our answer because it doesn’t fit their predetermined limitation of one’s identity.

The same applies to the elderly.

We place limitations on what we expect suitable behaviour and identity to be, but in doing so, we impose our own identity and attitudes. Apply it enough and at some point, the social pressure becomes a lived reality.

Last year, there was an incredibly good TV program in Australia called Old People’s Home for 4 Year Olds. I think it is my most favourite program ever on TV.

This unique social experiment brought older retirement home residents together with pre-schoolers, to see if their contact and connections could help the residents to lead happier and healthier lives.

The children placed no limitations on residents and the results were remarkable.

It got me thinking.

When we place limitations on others, we also limit ourselves. We assert our own fears. We lower our standards. We close our minds.

I do not think that Josephine Smith felt limited.

Meet Mrs. Josephine Smith, aged 84, whose hobby is digging graves, says the caption to this National Library of Australia photo.

Josephine Smith

Woah! Stop right there!

84 and digging graves as a hobby?

I think I am in love with that woman.

She certainly does not look like a woman who would take well to being treated as old. She is a prime example of the power of seeing the elderly very much as active members of society.

They have a lot to offer if we allow ourselves to see them. I am not saying that to be seen, they need to be as active as Josephine Smith.

Rather, let us look beyond our own lens of limitation. Wipe your murky glasses to help you see differently. You might find that you do not even need to wear glasses and a new perspective will reveal itself.

The integrity of any society can be judged by how well it treats its youngest and oldest members.

– Brian Atuhaire

We have a lot to learn about how other cultures treat their elderly.

Mediterranean and Latin American cultures often all live under the one roof. I remember reading an article years ago that talked about the elderly living longer in cultures where they lived with family. The simple fact was that they were not isolated.

In South Korea, it is an honourable duty to care for one’s parents.  In India, the elderly are the head of the household and respected for their wisdom and sage advice to younger family members. In Vietnam, Japan, and China they also live with family as do many other cultures.

So where does leave us?

I look to Josephine Smith.

I’ve made a deal with a friend that we will go running together when we are 75. Who knows if we’ll even reach 75. It might be more of a crawl, but I know one thing for certain.

I’m aiming high and, in the meantime, I’m going to aim high for the elderly in my life.

I might even ask how good they are on the end of a shovel.

Josephine would be proud.

Cath x

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The Cultural Implications of Fatness

I’ve heard it my whole life.

The one with a ‘lovely smile’ and ‘pre-Raphaelite hair’. I’m the woman with ‘brightly coloured shirts’ or the woman with a ‘lovely complexion’. Sometimes I’m the one with a ‘curvy figure’. Occasionally I’m the ‘larger lady’. I’m never the ‘fat one’.

At least in my culture.

But I am fat.

It’s a fact. I have fat. The fat is reducing, but it’s still there.

Why is fatness such a sensitive subject in western cultures?

It’s been my identity as long as I can remember. Defined by others, which in turn imposes a valued definition and worth upon myself. I’ve always struggled with my weight.

See, even there I say ‘struggled’. That phrase comes naturally.

It implies that I should be thinner…..
or is that fatter?

If I was Jamaican, I’d be considered more physically attractive and in good health. However, I’d probably also be serving a jail sentence for being gay, so as they say in Britain, ‘swings and roundabouts’.

In Barbados, doctors report of diabetes patients worrying about becoming ‘less sexy’ to their spouse if they lose weight. A stark difference to my own Australian culture.

I remember being bullied all through school for being overweight.
There it is again, ‘over’weight. ‘Weight’, being the preferred size according to the name caller – the one who takes it upon themselves to decide my identity.

We all do it.

We all look at people and make decisions about who they are, based on our own cultural and social reference points.

What I love is when a cultural taboo like talking about fatness, is smashed together with another culture. Each person’s parameters are poles apart, but the collison creates cultural tensions within oneself.

In 1988 my family backpacked around China. I was 12.

Me, aged 12.

I returned in 2005 and again received the same question, “Why are you so fat?”

My brain always takes a few seconds to register.

Yes, she really did just ask, “Why are you so fat?
My first thought? Bitch!


But, when my brain has time to organise itself away from its cultural programming and natural reactions, I remember I’m in China.

I want to bark back, “Why are you so small?”

But I’m torn.

My own cultural limitations prevent me from asserting myself so freely.

I then want to say, “and why are you so rude?” but that is pointless too. It’s not rudeness. It’s cultural difference and it’s just smashed mine to pieces in the most non-violent game of Rock, Paper, Scissors.

In the two seconds that took up those thoughts, I’ve traversed thousands of years of history in both cultures. I’ve searched the depths of my soul, ethics, values and internal dialogue about self-worth. I’ve seen my life through another culture’s eyes, I’ve seen another culture through my eyes.

Not bad for two seconds eh?

This is how identity, belonging and expat life work.

Sometimes they are three distinct elements. Other times, you don’t know where one starts and the other begins.

I am pleased though to find out that I’m not alone in my experiences of discussing fatness in China. A friend told me about a friend of his who was kicked out of a taxi, because, “you’ll break my tyres!”.

If you want to travel or want to be an expat, you better develop a thick skin.

Maybe I should live in Africa.

In many African countries, being overweight implies richness, fertility and wealth. When living in west Africa, a friend of mine discovered that their cook was adding a lot of oil to their food to fatten her up. The explanation came that given her husband’s esteemed job, he was not being a good patron if his wife walked around thin. He would be seen to be not taking care of her and they would not be doing a good job of showing their status and wealth.

Fatness and fertility have often gone together. In Vienna, the Museum of Natural History is home to the Venus of Willendorf.

She was found in Austria and is believed to be a fertility symbol crafted between 30,000 and 25,000 BCE. I took great delight in drawing her when I visited and joked that it was me 25,000 years ago.

The fateful sketch!

But, I also feel the need to confess.
I don’t mean to brag, but…

My hair is way better.

I knew you’d agree.

To me, there’s a great irony about the Venus of Willendorf being at home in Vienna. I love Vienna, but never have I been looked up and down so much by well-to-do women. And they weren’t shy.

Four feet from me. Eyes start at my feet, look me up and down again and then dead in the eye. Terrifying.

It happened mostly at the people’s opera. A childhood friend of mine is a soprano soloist for the Vienna State Opera and it had been my dream to see her on stage. I realise that I wasn’t dressed to the standards shared by these women, but who cares?

MY mate was on stage. MY mate got the standing ovation.

And this is the thing.

This is all it’s about, any of this cultural stuff.

Know who you are
and
Know what’s important to you.

Get those two sorted and you’ll know your identity and where you belong.
The only place you need to belong is within yourself.

It can be one of the most hostile of places.
But it can also be the most satisfying and peaceful.

So, let’s:

*talk about fatness
*talk about all those things we struggle with about ourselves
*remove the taboos and we remove the isolation of sitting in silence
*remove the power in taunts
*remove the voice that tells us we are not enough, too much or too little.

*EXPLORE other cultures.
*LIVE fearlessly.
*JUMP INTO conversations and JUMP at the chance to be challenged.

It’s where the good stuff lies.

It’s where we grow.
It’s where we find ourselves.

Now, give me a second to find my car keys and I’ll see you there.

Cath x

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The ignorance of being an expert

When you live abroad, you become an expert in your country.

You learn the culture intimately. You find the food you love. You soak up the nuances of social behaviours. You know it so well.

Right?

And once you’re ‘in the know’, there’s nothing more irritating to an expat than people at ‘home’  assuming that you’re the same as when you left. You’ve changed and learnt stuff. The more humble amongst us would not make the full claim, but we’ve learnt nearly enough to call ourselves an expert.

Right again?
You’re not going to like this, but my answer is ‘No’ and ‘No’ again.

Yep. Really.

Sorry.

Right about now, your head is filling with examples of where you know that you were/are at one with the culture.

There was that time wasn’t there, where you weren’t seen as the foreigner because the food stall holder laughed wholeheartedly at your joke? It was great wasn’t it? I’m still smiling.

I’m thinking of that moment too when the coffee waiter became our ‘friend’. We were really connecting. He wanted to show us around the next day too. It was A…MAZING.

I’m blending and I really ‘get’ this place and the people I meet.

No you’re not….And, I’m sorry, but you don’t.

Oh crap, she is joking about not being an expert, isn’t she?
Yeah, she must be. I sooo understand and love this other culture and its people.
Oh no, she really IS serious.

Why am I not an Expert?

In early February I wrote about my experiences with racism in Harlem, New York and discovering my own infallabilities.

This time only had the massive impact on me because I went from being an observer to a very brief participant.

When we live elsewhere, we so often remain the observer. We get glimpses into a life. If our heart and mind are open we hear it, but we know nothing of its layers.

When my parents told their cleaners that they were leaving Chile, one of the ladies looked at the other and said in Spanish, “Why do all the best ones leave?“. It wasn’t for mum and dad’s ego affect. It was in Spanish to her friend.

So, you imagine… What do the worst ones do?
Seven words that lead to another whole experience of life if you’re willing to ask.

We need to be full particpants, not to get a glimpse of another’s life, but to completely embody what that different life means. I don’t mean ‘participant’ in the sense of volunteering at a soup kitchen or helping out in a poor neighbourhood. I mean participant as someone who lives and breathes that life E.V.E.R.Y.  S.I.N.G.L.E   D.A.Y.

In Harlem, I experienced a miniscule snippet of ‘participant’, but I still had white skin and I still was able to walk away to my Privilege.

Recently with coronovirus, the rallying chat amongst postive-thinking people and those wanting to make the best of the situation, tends to focus on ‘we’re all in this together’.

We’re not.

We think we are (said the white woman), but others know we’re not.

In the USA, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends wearing masks made out of a hankerchief or bandana. Seems like a good idea when stocks of medical masks are low?

Aaron Thomas shares another view – a Black man with genuine concerns about risking his life if he wears anything other than an official protective mask.

This comment says more about the state of our world than the Coronovirus pandemic.

You need to live that tension and threat EVERY day to call yourself a participant.

… and you need to be a participant before you can call yourself an EXPERT.

Being an expert isn’t so attractive now is it?

Let’s shift to what we do know. Our own lives.

Experts of our own lives?

I know about being a white, red-headed Australian lesbian who lives in England. I am an expert in that and I write about identity and belonging in the context of expat life.

Well at least I thought I did.

Recently I heard an interview with the author Sara Collins, who talked about the pressure that writers of colour face to address Race in their work. People assume that she will always write about ‘Black issues’. She went on to comment about the double standard, “white people think they’re writing about humanity, but in fact they’re writing about white issues.” Sara Collins is not afforded the same luxury when writing about humanity. She is told she writes about Race.

Us ‘white experts’ assume liberties from our positions of comfort.

She’s right.
It’s that little thing again called Privilege.

We’re like that racing horse with blinkers covering the sides of our eyes; self imposed blinkers to make sure we don’t get frightened by the reality of our context (people of colour sharing their truths) as we head to the finish line to soak up the glory of winning (being seen as an expert on participants).

Does this blog make me one of those ‘experts’ on participants?
It’s highly likely. Unfortunately, yes, I believe it does.

It’s like I said in my piece about Harlem, I don’t have the answers, but I’m not going to do nothing either. Nothing is an easy option and that does not sit comfortably, especially when I hear the Coronovirus statistics coming out of America.

In Chicago 68% of people who have died are in the African-American community despite making up only 23% of the population. Socioeconomic inequality detemines that we are NOT all in this pandemic together.

And I want the Privileged amongst us to be aware of what our privilege means.

It’s a matter of life and death. 

So yes, maybe I am being that ‘expert on participants’.

In reality, I’m not a participant or an expert on anything other than being a 43 year old white, red-headed Australian lesbian who lives in England.

BUT…
I’ll also be damned if I know these inequalities exist and I stay silent.

I have much to learn.

I’m being public about my personal exploration, in the hope that you see yourself in my musings and explore your own internal dialogue.

I firmly believe that this is how we change the world.
LEARN, in order to GROW internally, so we can EMBODY WISDOM, which leads us to ACTION.

“    Wisdom tends to grow in proportion to one’s awareness of one’s ignorance.”
– Anthony de Mello

I want to find out that I am wholly and massively ignorant.

That would be a good day.

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Finding self-love in pleasure

“How do I know if I love myself?”
That’s a simple question.
Well, it kinda feels like it should be.

I’ve discovered it’s not. It’s not at all. Like, reeeally not. SO much of a not it’s like someone telling me I’m a man.

Ask it of yourself. What was your answer?
Your REAL answer. Not the one you think you want it to be.

If you received a clear answer that affirms that you do love yourself and you know why and how, then I congratulate you. I’m serious. It’s a beautiful thing to love oneself.
 
If what you heard in reply was little more murky or you felt like that person who excitedly opens their box of chocolates to find that someone else got there first and all you have is empty wrappers, then I think we should talk.
 
Firstly, you’re not alone.
I’m there with you, exploring this myself.
Only last week was it the subject of my Barefoot Friday.

Secondly, if this is you too, I have a hunch that you’re probably a woman.
I’m not saying that all men love themselves but talk to a woman and my experience is that pretty much every single one of us has had to navigate a path to loving ourselves.

What does it mean to love yourself?

Given how different we all are, I suggest that there’s probably a million and one ways to interpret that question.

Yet, I think that all these variations come down to three elements:

Self-acceptance
Self-confidence
Self-respect

That’s a lot of ‘self’ in there. And trust me, there needs to be. You got to be selfish for this to work, but more about that in a bit.

So why talk about this in a global context of expat life?
Expats are some of the most confident people who get ‘out there’ aren’t they?

Yes. Some.
Others, like me, grow and mature as we go. The wild ride of living elsewhere, triggers us to go deep. It forces us to find out what we’re made of and to look in our pockets for the emotional resources we didn’t think were there.

I’m like that soft centred chocolate. Externally, my outer shell holds its own in the variety box. As the orange flavoured chocolate, I know I’m a little rarer than most (we’re the 2% of the world’s population) #proudtobeginger.

But you know the thing with those chocolates?

They’ve also got soft centres.
Me too. I get wounded easily.

And this brings me back navigating the open seas of expat life whilst also learning to love oneself. If you wait until you love yourself, Life presses the PAUSE button. It’s a big button too. Hard to rewind.

There is another option though – find the cassette tape called ‘get out there and stumble through’ and press PLAY. That’s my tactic at least. Decide to do it all despite the self-love and confidence not being balanced.

I’m never going to let that stop me.
Why? Because life is too good not to.

We all have that voice in our head that talks to us. Sometimes she’s your best friend.
Another time? She’s a real bitch. I find her particularly unkind at times, in ways that I wouldn’t dream of being with a friend. She’s so rude. I’m not sure why I’m still friends with her to be honest.

Why do I allow her to speak to me this way?
It comes back to the three Ss, Self-acceptance, Self-respect and Self-confidence.

I can accept myself, but if I am letting that voice have an impact, I’m not allowing space for self-respect – and as a result, my self-confidence plummets. It’s like the three-legged stool. Damage one leg and it’s not going to stay upright for long. We need all three legs to function fully, for the stool to remain stable and to be able to support our weight.

So how do we maintain the balance of a 3 legged stool?
I think it comes down to pleasure.

Seeking Pleasure

I know a large proportion of you instantly thought of sex.

No?

Okaaaay… well, that was just me then.
Awkward.

Sex is part of it, but in its broader sense, pleasure is about feeling happy and satisfied on a deep level. It’s everything from passion for your work, reading and cooking to exercise, fashion, sport, music, meditation and pretty much anything else you can think of that makes you feel good in that warm fuzzy way.

I’m currently reading ‘Pleasure activism: The Politics of Feeling Good’ written and gathered by Adrienne Maree Brown. “Pleasure activists assert that we all need and deserve pleasure and that our social structures must reflect this”.

And this is where is gets interesting for expats.
When we exist outside the social structure of the country in which we are living (either through privilege, cultural differences or a feeling of not belonging), I believe that pleasure can be one of the first things to suffer.

Rather than thriving, we may start to feel like we’re surviving. Coping and reacting become our norm and from survival mode, it is an easy slippery slope to experiencing the devastation when self-confidence, self-acceptance and self-respect decide it’s time to take temporary leave.

This was certainly my experience.
I forgot about myself. I didn’t know who I was anymore. In losing myself whilst trying to fit, I also lost my self-confidence. But that’s okay I thought, because I still had self-acceptance and self-respect in the bag. Well, if I’m honest, I’ve always struggled with the self-acceptance side of things.

I realised recently how often I’ve seen myself in relation to others, not me as me, standing there transparently visible and vulnerable. Vulnerability is scary.
Really scary.

This blog kind of throws caution to that wind. I’m hoping that it doesn’t suddenly switch to a gale force 10 and knock me off my feet. But if I don’t step out, I never feel that wind on my face nor feel what it is to be truly embodied and alive.

And so I turn to pleasure as the path back to me.

Practical Pleasure

In practical terms, what does this look like for you?

For me, the exploration of pleasure has included:
*Discovering and celebrating my feminine side
*Eating well
*Making it a priority to connect with my favourite people regularly
*Writing handwritten letters to friends who live abroad
*Running 3-4 times a week
*Illustrating more
*Socialising more
*Saying no to work projects I don’t want to do

So, as I sit here at midnight writing these musings, I’m reminded of a conversation I had this week with my best friend.

We were talking about the value of writing down your achievements and keeping them as a reminder of just how well you’re doing. AND, this is not despite ‘the shit’ of life, but actually because of it.

It is in the shit/the difficult stuff, that I feel most alive. I can’t hide within it. It is truth. It is authentic and it is me warts and all. It’s equally hard as it is enriching and awakening.

And I’m not talking about experiencing a one-off argument at work.

I’m talking about depression, anxiety, panic attacks, family members dying and losing close friends, two spinal surgeries, supporting friends through bereavements, repairing relationships, health scares etc.

And through these experiences, I’ve started 2 businesses which I continue to operate, got my passion project off the ground, published my own book, travelled widely, reinvented myself, gone from couch potato to running 9kms at a time, gained a post graduate diploma, made a life in a foreign country, became a citizen of a new country and I’m currently studying a Masters.

I don’t list these achievements to gloat, but to say that I’ve realised something incredibly exciting.

If I can achieve these things whilst navigating the shit and the tough lessons of loving myself, imagine what I could achieve if I really loved myself 100%?

That is BEYOND exciting!!!

So, it is here that I call for all those who are navigating the journey of self-love.
Join me.
Be selfish.

Make yourself a priority.

In doing so, you’ll find that SELF will start to fight for front position and much to your surprise Respect, Confidence and Acceptance will announce that they’ve change their names by deed poll to SELF- Respect, SELF-Confidence and SELF-Acceptance.

I’m pleased to meet you, my new friends.
Have we met before?

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The Disappointment of Realising You’re Racist

I’M RACIST

No joke.
Unfortunately, I’m deadly serious.

That’s not something you want to discover about yourself.
Racists are those people that I Ioathe. The ‘less than’ people I see on the news being arrested for hate crimes.
The people I disassociate myself from because….

I’m well-travelled.
I’m educated.
I’m cultured.
I have friends with different coloured skin.
You need to know that as I write this, that my whole body is creasing up in discomfort.
It’s the pain of realising that I’m no different to the ‘less thans’ and I’m trying to not feel ashamed.

I want to run. Badly.

Every cell in my body is fighting this admission. I hate it.
And now I’m crying. I feel like I’ve hurt my dear friends who have different coloured skin to me and I hate that even more. They don’t even know that I’m racist… but I feel like crap for actually being secretly pleased that I’ve been able to hide.

F*** This. Is. Hard.

Our street in Harlem

Last October I spent a week in Harlem, New York.
It was incredible and it was hard. Boy was it hard. It’s taken some time to process and has led to me sitting here, writing to you.

My wife is an Archbishop and her denomination’s Synod was being held at their church in Harlem.
I went along for the ride. I think my exact words were, “you’re not going to New York without me!”. It was my dream city and I’d never been before. For ease of access to the church, we stayed in Harlem.

And then it began. Five days of realising I’m racist.

So how does that happen?

MISGUIDED ASSUMPTIONS

His words were, “with all due respect, please do not compare your sexuality with one’s race. It is two totally different things.” I was affronted at his assumption that I was like ‘the others’.
I got it. Really I did!  I didn’t.
I’ll just reframe my point because he’s just misunderstood me. He hadn’t.

De-Dee Loft Davis is a racial equity consultant I follow on Linkedin. She’s great. About 2 months before New York I’d commented on a post of hers (how WOKE of me eh?) to show support that I understood the micro-aggressions Black people experience, because I get them too as a gay person.

It started a conversation between me and another racial equity consultant – a guy who continued to say, For me, most can hide their sexuality. I cannot hide my Blackness. It is what you see. I understand what you are trying to say by, “Sit in my shoes,” but I really don’t like when people try and compare the two. Both identities should be able to stand on their own.

I still didn’t like it. I really wanted him to understand my position. He wasn’t listening. (I know…..) He didn’t understand my gayness. I continued my argument, reframing and adding more points from my angle. This would make him understand (Don’t say it. I know…).

Suddenly I stopped.
I don’t know why, but I remembered something that Catrice M Jackson had said in her book ‘Antagonist, Advocates and Allies: The Wake Up Call Guide for White Women Who Want to Become Allies with Black Women’.  See I knew I wasn’t racist; I was reading the right books.

Essentially one of Catrice’s messages is simply to shut up and listen.
LISTEN to Black voices.
LISTEN to their experiences.
LISTEN to what they are telling you.
TRULY LISTEN.

So I listened and then I apologised to him. I did come to understand his point.
However, I still managed to tell myself that this was a one off experiences of me misunderstanding.

There’s that blindness of privilege again eh?

A FALSE SENSE OF SECURITY

Fast forward a couple of months to Harlem – grab a coffee and walk to the station to head Downtown. Ironically I was on route to give a talk to Families in Global Transition Tri state affiliate about identity, belonging and the biases we hold.

I’m feeling confident as I walk. Slightly excited at being here. Yeah I’m in Harlem. I’ve always wanted to come here. I’m an ally. I want to show support.

My naivety hit me hard. I smiled at people. Nobody gave a crap.
In fact it felt the opposite. It felt hostile.

And there were two hostilities, but I realised that they were both inside of me.

The first? I was desperately uncomfortable and trying to not look privileged. I couldn’t hide it. I’m a white woman walking down a street called Malcolm X Boulevard. That’s enough.

And second, (now I’m really trusting you with this), it became apparent to me how different my body felt when I walked past Black men. It hesitated and it felt anxious.

I tried to tell myself that it was because I’m a woman and we’re good at keeping ourselves safe in public, but deep down I knew I wouldn’t have felt it so acutely if they were White men.
I was ashamed and felt awful. I even found myself blaming them for making me feel this way. Nothing like a bit of projection eh? But I did want to understand why my body spoke to me this way.

I’m still wrestling with the why, but what I can offer for now is:

  1. My thoughts about Black people have primarily been developed through White eyes (mine and other people’s)
  2. My life has been very White. Yes, I’ve travelled widely, but observing is not living the truth of someone else’s life
  3. So much of the media talks about crime and social problems in Black communities, when in fact there are also many problems in White communities
  4. Somehow, the biographies and stories I’ve read about Black people, compartmentalise in my brain as separate individual cases, rather than evidence of a greater status quo of discrimination. I mean how much evidence do I need? Seriously? Again. Privilege.

YOU’RE JUDGED FOR BEING WHITE

I was completely ignored as I walked around Harlem. No one smiled at me. No one said anything to me. No one made eye contact of any description. But if you’re White and thinking that’s normal for any city street, watch what happens when you’re next out and about where you live. You receive subtle acknowledgements all the time. A sorry when someone squeezes past you, a quick stare if you’ve got a slogan on your shirt, people stay on the footpath when you walk towards them or they might give you a smile.

I got nothing. Like A.B.S.O.L.U.T.E.L.Y nothing.

In shops, the cashier talked to me as in, ‘that’ll be $5.99 thanks’, but if I said anything else it was completely ignored.

I felt like I wasn’t welcome. I wasn’t.

And why should I be? Centuries of slavery, discrimination and aggressions towards Black people and I think I can be welcomed as I venture into their safe spaces? Their communities? The reality was starting to hit me.

The reality hit even harder when I walked down the street with my wife dressed in her clericals. Her Bishop’s collar received welcomed smiles, greetings, Hello Padre – yes, padre! 🙂 In the laundromat where we’d been met with disdain in the morning, we were now offered a staff machine and all the help we needed.

My wife in clericals and me.

Previously, being White was enough to be judged. I hated what my skin represented. I wanted them to know I was different to ‘other white people’, but it didn’t matter. It was irrelevant. I was now experiencing what it was like to be judged for the colour of my skin.
It’s shit by the way.

Having struggled enormously when my wife became a priest (suffice to say, I didn’t like religion much), the irony of her giving me warm passage through the streets of Harlem was not lost on me.

You see, one less barrier existed. One less potential agitation removed. The collar bridged our differences and mutual fears.

I found myself wanting to leave Harlem, because I felt uncomfortable. I wanted to go back to blending. And then it hit me again. Blending is not an option for Black people. Unless they’re in Harlem. And then there’s this stupid White woman walking down the street…..

That’s gonna piss anyone off.
Privilege.

And you know the really awful thing? When I was in Harlem, I wished I had black skin, so I could blend and then I thought about what that really meant outside of Harlem and I didn’t want it.
Not because I think being Black is in anyway ‘less than’, but because I wanted to be accepted and not judged.
Privilege.

REALITY HITS

One of the fun things about New York is all the snippets of conversations you overhear when people walk past talking on their phone.

On this occasion I wish I’d heard differently.
A group of guys sitting on the front steps of a house.
Yeah, he’s dead. They said, ‘Stop! Freeze!’ then shot him. He’s dead.

The laundromat’s bathroom walls

This wasn’t a TV cop show or a social media post that you can distance yourself from.
The reality of their faces said everything.

I was now starting to truly listen. Minute snippets of truth slowly sinking into my tiny brain.

A couple of days later, Atatiana Jefferson was shot in her own home through her bedroom window by a Fort Worth police officer responding to a report that her front door was open. Moments before, she had been playing video games with her nephew, heard a noise and went to the window.

She’s now dead.

Black people are subject to deadly force even when they stay home.
I have never worried for my life when the police come to my home or when they’ve pulled me over in my vehicle. Privilege.

Poignant graffiti on the subway

RELIEF AND GUILT

It became time to move to another hotel Downtown. Synod was over.
I was relieved to be leaving the tension of Harlem.

This relief was also distinctly uncomfortable, because I knew that I could simply walk away from the discomfort I’d felt. It was an easy option for me. I could return to privilege without any effort and if I wanted to, forget about my experience ‘north of Central Park’. I could slip back into the melting pot of New York’s diversity and everything would all be okay again.

But it’s not.

What is not okay is not doing anything about it.

A switch has been turned on and I can’t turn it off.
I don’t want to.

The challenge for me personally is to work out what I’m going to do about it.

It starts with this blog.

In reading Catrice Jackson’s book, I had hoped to be classified as an ‘Advocate’ with the aim of moving to ‘Ally’.

However, my well intentioned, but misguided comment on Linkedin puts me in the Antagonist camp. I am not proud of this. But I’m also not afraid of difficult conversations.

So for me, it’s back to Catrice’s book to learn how to move forward into ‘Advocate’ and ‘Ally’. It’s too important not to.

Who’s with me?
It’s going to take more than one coffee to work through this one.

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Don’t ‘DIS’ My Ability

Why do you choose to sit where you do in a restaurant?

Noise levels? Away from the toilets?
By the bar?

Or maybe to protect yourself?
Huh? Protect yourself?

Yes. Stay with me on this.
Just before New Year’s Eve I was enjoying dinner in a resturant; one where you choose your table yourself.

All the diners had arranged themselves roughly in the centre of the restaurant, except for one table.

Sitting in the furthest corner away from any other diners and under a loud TV was a family; two parents and their adult child who had an intellectual disability. They were distinctly separate; removed from other diners.

Now, humans are fairly predictable. We follow well-worn paths. We clump together. We struggle to be random, even when we try to be. For example, you can tell if someone has fudged their expenses because they will often include numbers ending in a zero or a five.* Yes really. Don’t get any ideas! (*Is this where I enter my disclaimer?)

I admit that there may be a myriad of reasons why this family were separate (other diners had since left or they liked the TV? etc), but I couldn’t help but wonder if they’d removed themselves because of their son?

And the minute I write that I want to correct it.
Not because of their son, but due to a fear of how people might react to them.
We naturally want to protect ourselves. Who wouldn’t?

I know too as a gay woman, how much my own public behaviours are modified to remove any chance of being hassled, stared at or jeered. You self-select your protection measures.

Insight 1: DISCRIMINATION can create ISOLATION on route to PROTECTION

There’s oodles of research out there which proves that people with intellectual disabilities are discriminated in restaurants and cafes.

Do an internet search if you want stats. It’s real and it’s about as polar opposite as you can get from Belonging.

And within the context of our globally mobile lives, disability adds a layer of complexity. Do you admit to employers that your adult child needs to travel with you and has extra and different needs? Subsequently, you wonder if you will you be as employable if the company perceives your family to have additional cost implications? For example, you need to live near health facilities or require a house with no steps etc.

So you don’t say anything, but you feel guilty. You feel guilty because what does it mean if I don’t say anything? Does it matter? Well, yeah, because it’s like I’m hiding. Does that mean I’m uncomfortable by my family’s difference? No. I’m just scared about how I will be treated. I want to be open, but if I’m completely honest, I worry that….. And so the thought cycle goes round and round. It’s exhausting.

I have a friend who works internationally in the developing world and travels a lot for work. Picture rural areas, broken pavements, pot holes, footpaths covered by market stalls, animals lying in your path, stairs not lifts etc. She clearly impressed them in her interview as she got the job. The first they knew of her wheelchair was when she entered the interview room.

Now, imagine that. Really imagine that.

Think of the emotional energy that goes into removing the chance for discrimination.
The excitement you feel at getting an interview takes a hit when you imagine the potential discrimination and previous experiences of ‘not suitable for the job’. You try to work out how much it matters to you; whether or not you want to ask for the disability assistance that’s available for the interview. NO, let’s remove all chance of discrimination and just turn up. This protects you emotionally whilst holding the uncertainty of how it will be received. That’s all before you even get to the interview.

That’s a lot of emotional energy that could be redirected into more positive things.

Insight 2: INCLUSION removes wasted energy and creates a sense of BELONGING.

I’m not sure that people who are resistant to diversity realise that inclusion is going on all around them. They just don’t see it.
And in many way they’re not meant to. It’s not for them.

It’s a bit like a hidden code – only seen by those who can read it.
For example, my wife wears a sunflower lanyard when we go through airports. It shows staff that she has a hidden disability and might need assistance. A Rainbow flag sticker on a cafe door shows me it’s a safe space. A Rainbow badge worn by the nurse and doctor in the UK’s National Health Service tells me I’m seen.

Cartoon produced for Families in Global Transition.

These visual cues are so important. We all know to be careful walking near someone with a white cane. It is no effort for us, but makes the world of difference to that individual.

BUT, we still need to listen and not assume that we understand the code. We all speak different emotional and observational languages….. and if we go back to those *fudged expenses (*ahem…insert another disclaimer here), we need to remember that we struggle to be random. Based on our own set of cultural and social reference points, we tend to assume that our own observations of an individual’s behaviour equals that person’s intentions. Mostly, it doesn’t.

I suspect that we’ve all stomped along that well-worn path of human predicatibility at some point in our lives.

Insight 3: ASK FIRST – Always! and FOLLOW THEIR CUE

We’ve all heard the story of the elderly ‘disabled’ person who is ‘helped’ across the road by the well-meaning but misguided champion, only to inform them that they in fact weren’t waiting to cross the road.

Only last week, after my wrist operation, the nurse said,
Wear your sling in public so people know to be careful around you.
You’ll probably get someone trying to take you across the road!

A cartoon from my book Living Elsewhere.

A few years ago, we were in Glasgow for my wife’s work. As we stood at the pedestrian crossing waiting for the lights to change, I saw a woman in a wheelchair coming towards us.

Oh no! Angie! There’s a woman coming towards us in a wheelchair. I don’t want her to think that we’re ‘taking the piss’.
(For non-Australian and non-British readers, this means to make a joke at someone else’s expense).

So picture this. Angie and I standing by the side of the road with Ichabod (her ‘rubber man’ as she calls him) in his wheelchair and his granddaughter, Jessicha on his lap.

The woman approaches. I now see she has britle bone disease. I’m hoping she goes straight past us and doesn’t see us. But of course no, she pulls up, right next to us to also cross the road. The five of us in a row, waiting like peas in a pod – sandwiched together between two traffic light poles.

Angie and I stare straight ahead, trying to act as though wheeling a rubber man around in a wheelchair is normal. Mind you, he’s quite life-like so people often don’t realise that he’s not real.

And then I see her.
I see her slowly turn her head to look at Ichabod. The look of surprise is palpable.
She opens her mouth to speak.

I wait, worried.

And then in a broad Glaswegian accent she says Aye, and there I was thinking I was the special one! before laughing uproarously.

I’m fairly sure I then embarrassed myself by chatting to her waaay too enthusiastically. My relief burbling out with freaky friendliness.

It is also safe to say that I didn’t ‘style it out’ particulary convincingly.

But I didn’t care. She showed me how to ‘style it out’ like a pro.
Thank you Glaswegian woman. You taught me well that day.

Cath x