Someone I cared about and respected deeply died this past Friday. The grief and shock has been coming in waves for me, mingling with the grief and anxiety I feel about the world at large. It’s taken me a while to decide what to say – if anything – about her death. I tend to step back when someone who wasn’t part of my family or closest friends dies, wary of appropriating others’ grief (we all know that one stranger who takes over all the message boards when someone dies, like a sadness vulture).
But she changed my life. This person, Marian, changed my life multiple times over. And I want to remember her in writing, because that’s where I make sense of things. So this is a letter of love and gratitude to a woman whose spirit moved me deeply.
When Marian and I became colleagues in 2015 I didn’t realise at first how multi-talented and accomplished she was. A teacher, writer, musician, academic – Marian excelled at many things, and did it with such humorous self-deprecation that her gifts kept sneaking in under the radar. Before I came to know her as the idea-generator and researcher of note that she was, I knew her as a very kind and very funny woman. When she bragged, it was about other people’s accomplishments. (She’s probably the only person – other than my supervisors – to have read my MA thesis.) When she joked, it was mainly about herself.
At work she bustled about with funny quips and stories about her family. She defused the tension in meetings. She kept me company as I chain-smoked between lectures, sharing about her own life and emotional struggles in a way that made me feel safe to share as well. She once described us as people “missing an extra layer of skin against the world”, matter-of-factly giving words to the sometimes excruciating experience of living in this world as a sensitive person. She was completely disarming: infinitely quotable, gutsy, wholesome, yet vastly complex. She had a tremendous appetite for life (and for naughty jokes), a shy streak, and a huge heart.
Besides being an all-around good human, Marian changed my life in a number of tangible ways.
At a work retreat in 2018, shaky and weepy and exhausted, I shared my romantic and existential woes with a few colleagues around the dinner table. (I cringed about this for days afterwards, but that’s what happens when you combine red wine and Marian’s icebreakers.) Marian stepped in immediately: “Book yourself into a psychiatric clinic, girl!”
At that point, I thought only REALLY sad or sick people went to psychiatric hospitals. Like, not-me people. Marian was quick to bring me back to reality by pointing out that I was in fact REALLY sad, and also, that I had a use-it-or-lose-it opportunity: Our work-imposed medical insurance permits 21 days of free mental health care a year. “It’ll be like a 3-week holiday,” she said. “Treat yourself.”
I treated myself, and boy am I glad I did. (There were many problematic aspects to the psychiatric clinic, and don’t even get me started on the lack of help available to non-insured South Africans, but nonetheless – my stay at the clinic turned my life around.)
Marian destigmatised mental illness for me, in that conversation and many others.
A year later, when a close family member of mine attempted suicide, Marian sent me countless resources. Not only information about mental health, but names and numbers of people and organisations who could help; she even phoned several counsellors on our behalf. For months afterwards she sent me messages to hear how we were all doing – full of advice and opinions, she also knew when to step back and simply support.
It’s also through Marian that I met my closest friend and the biggest shaker-upper of my adult life so far (and please universe don’t let there be many more of those – a girl can only take so much shaking up). It was at a workshop led by Marian; I caught a lift home with her afterwards and her first words to me in the car were “whew, he is HOT!”
And I was like “which one?”, because there’d happened to be two hot guys at the workshop and I was feeling giddy and wonderfully glad I’d attended the session. (This was a while after my exit from the clinic and I was just about ready to flirt with the world again).
Marian had laughed and said “both, you’re right!”. And then myself and one of the hot guys in question struck up a romance, and it was complicated and intense right from the start, and I tried not telling my colleagues about it because I didn’t actually know how to explain it. But they found out anyway because Marian was beside herself with pride that this had all started at her workshop (and also, I am BAD at secrecy). We were her success story – one time she ran into us having coffee, sent me a wink, and cornered me afterwards to call dibs on being our future children’s music teacher. (I tried explaining to her that wasn’t at all where we were headed, but she was dead set on this imaginary future for us).
When the romance part of that relationship ended, I distinctly remember feeling bad on Marian’s behalf that things hadn’t worked out the way she’d envisioned. To her credit, she didn’t pry. She just sent me the occasional encouraging text or email, and commented on my glow when we met in person (she had optimistic eyesight). I was going through an extended (ongoing) reshuffling of my understanding of love and friendship and life itself, and Marian was there for it. I shared with her a little bit about my forays into non-monogamy and she thought I was a bit weird but brave. It was such a relief for my people-pleasing soul to share about my life – with a colleague, no less – and be met with warm-hearted acceptance.
Marian took life on with gusto. She was funny, and wise, and humble, but most of all she loved well.
That is what will remain, what cannot ever be undone. The biggest lesson I learned from Marian is that everything pales in comparison to simple, ample, sincere love. When we show up with willingness and an open heart, we change the world.
You do not have to be good.You do not have to walk on your kneesfor a hundred miles through the desert repenting.You only have to let the soft animal of your bodylove what it loves.Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.Meanwhile the world goes on.Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rainare moving across the landscapes,over the prairies and the deep trees,the mountains and the rivers.Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,are heading home again.Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,the world offers itself to your imagination,calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting -over and over announcing your placein the family of things.
- Wild Geese, by Mary Oliver
Almost exactly three years ago I was discharged from a psychiatric clinic after spending three strange and illuminating weeks there. I was 28 years old, wobbling my way back into the world, eyes stinging from the beauty around me. I felt reborn and also very, very old.
‘Everything is about to change,’ I told myself. ‘Everything is different now.’
And it was. It is.
I had done a lot of self-work in the ten years prior to my visit to the clinic: Seen therapists, journaled, cultivated self-awareness, read Women who run with the wolves. But now I intended to work harder. Dig deeper. Cultivate more nourishing friendships. Exercise more. Eat healthier. Heal.
I did not factor Covid-19 into my plans, of course. Nor had I really thought about the effect of living in late-stage capitalism, in a prolonged world-wide existential crisis, in a looming climate disaster. Nor had I really reckoned with the depth and intensity of my own childhood trauma. I was going to yoga it all away. I was going to do magic mushrooms and make uplifting Spotify playlists and listen to good podcasts and go for long walks and I was going to be ALL BETTER.
And, credit where credit’s due: I don’t know where I would have been had it not been for long walks and Spotify playlists and yoga and good podcasts and psychedelics. And good friends. And my dog. And nourishing food. And breathing exercises. And journaling. And the foundation of self-inquiry that had been laid over the past decade. Thank fuck for routines and good books and self-care.
And also, I AM NOT ALL BETTER.
I don’t even know what ‘better’ means anymore.
This is a life update, because some of you have been asking me what’s happening and why I’m so silent on my blog. I have a million other things to do, but I’ve just spent three hours in foetal position on my couch staring into the void – nothing else is about to happen, so I might as well write this post.
I am turning 32 soon. A lot of people tell me they don’t feel as old as they really are, but I definitely do. Not that I’ve become remotely good at adulting, but my heart feels heavy with all the lives I’ve lived. Not exhausted exactly, but laden with sorrow and pungency like tea that’s been left to steep for hours.
I know some parts of the world have been coming out of hiding, but over here in South Africa we’re in the heart of a third wave of Covid. Every day I receive news of more friends, colleagues and acquaintances who are very very sick. Facebook feels like a minefield of bad news and conspiracy theories. Our government is fast losing whatever credibility it once had and our president’s fortnightly speeches are just fodder for memes and existential despair. We wear masks and obey the 9 PM curfew, but other than that, everybody does whatever they feel like, myself included.
It’s winter and outside the rain is pouring down; even my dog refuses to leave the house. My sister, who lives in Kwazulu-Natal province, sends us hourly updates on the protests and violence over there. She’s locked inside her house. Someone she knows had to evacuate. I refresh the news every ten minutes, watching with rising horror as my beleaguered country burns down. On Instagram the positivity brigade is wearing me down, yet I scroll endlessly through uplifting posts in search of answers, in search of something to do: Another mantra, perhaps. An online tarot card reading. An inspirational quote.
I am not holding it together, but I am holding it.
I am holding it all and I am grieving really hard because this world is terrifyingly broken and movingly beautiful, and it is a crazy thing to be alive right now. It is a privilege and a curse. It’s everything.
I have no idea what’s going to happen next, not to the world nor to myself. It’s like I’m living in the eye of a storm and all I keep feeling, deep in my gut, is to be here fully. To resist the urge to DO SOMETHING, and be here instead. It’s excruciating.
At the end of 2019 I felt very strongly that I would have two more years at my current job and then I’d have to move on. Tick tock, those two years are coming to an end soon. I still plan to move on, but all my best-laid plans have fallen away in the face of internal and external crises. I thought I’d be writing much more, making beautiful zines, cranking out poem after poem, connecting with other writers and artists and even making money out of my writing by now. Instead, I have a floundering blog and a slowly-growing Instagram presence (about which I have mixed feelings). A piece I wrote a few months ago has been accepted for publishing in an anthology book, about which I’m very excited – and also, I can’t seem to find the inspiration to make its last requested edits. (I will, though – tomorrow.)
What am I willing to do without? What am I willing to let go of? Because more and more I am coming to know that I will have to surrender whatever is not necessary, whatever weighs me down, and whatever markings of success I’d envisioned achieving soon.
At first I thought I’d find somewhere cheap to live (probably east of here, because where I currently live is not affordable on a freelancer’s income). I thought I’d pack up my things, twist my brother’s arm into helping me move, and find a small place on the east coast where I can do freelance work, build my writing practice, play the ukulele a lot and make friends with the locals. Now, I think even that might be too solid and structured for my next move. I think, instead, that I might have to put my possessions into storage, and bring only my dog and my clothes with me. I might have to flounder about from place to place, volunteering and staying with friends. I’ll freelance if needs be, but I don’t want to spend too much time scrabbling to earn a living at jobs that take more energy than they give. I want to write. I want to start a podcast. I want to build meaningful connections. I want to learn about community living and regenerative agriculture and about the endless variety of cultures and ways of being in my own country, ways I know very little about.
I don’t want to quit my job only to find myself scrambling away at endless low-paying freelance tasks that allow no room for creativity.
I am asking myself: How little money can I get by on? What am I taking for granted that very soon I’ll have to give up? Personal space, organic vegetables, fancy dog food – can I do without that? My handful of close and beloved friends here – how do I leave them behind?
And, on the flip side: Why do I imagine that only hard things are worth doing? Why do I imagine that I’ll have to move to a remote town on the far side of nowhere to prove my commitment to making a change in my life? Is there another option? Have I been so steeped in a mentality of suffering that I cannot imagine an authentic future if it isn’t isolated and difficult?
I’m shit scared all the time, and every time I try to reassure myself by falling into frantic action my body forces me to a halt. The only things I seem to be able to do semi-consistently is to weep a lot and go for long walks. This prolonged inactivity goes against everything the world has taught me and against my natural inclination too, yet the only thing that feels right at this moment is to exist very slowly. Even as my self-imposed deadline looms closer and closer (a deadline I still intend to honour), the message I feel insistently in my heart is that right now I should do very little, and do that fully. I don’t get it. But it’s what I’m doing.
The world is not okay.
South Africa is not okay.
I am not okay.
That’s where I’m at right now. I am not holding it together, but I am holding it. I’m holding it all in my heart.
Content warning: This post contains mentions of sexual activity, sexual harm, and sexual discrimination. I hope that you’ll listen to your own inner wisdom when deciding whether or not to continue reading.
I lost my religion because of sex.
Imagine a girl of sixteen, raised in an extremely strict fundamentalist Christian household. Her parents recently separated, she’s given more freedom than she’s ever had. She goes to a public school for the first time. Boys pay attention to her. Her friends talk about and do things she’s never even considered before.
Her whole life she’s been told to guard her purity. “Do not arouse or awaken love until it so desires” (Song of Solomon, 8:4) is quoted at her frequently, as is the idiom “vroeg ryp, vroeg vrot” (translated as “early to ripen, early to rot”). She knows that God only approves of sex within marriage. But more than that, she knows that any unclean thoughts are sinful. She knows that even thinking about someone in a lustful way is tantamount to sexually abusing them, since they didn’t consent to playing a starring role in your fantasies. (Needless to say, she spends much of her early puberty apologising to God and to the souls of the hapless boys she had now sullied by thinking of them in a sexual way.) She knows that stoking lust – even by just kissing someone – is sin.
Her dad has told her, numerous times, that he will have failed in his task as a father if he one day hands her over to her husband no longer a virgin. At church and in youth meetings she is shown the image of two sticky paper hearts – this is your soul, and the soul of the person you’re romantically involved with, she is told. When you have sex, these two sticky hearts are glued together. When you then split up, the two hearts are torn apart. Heart now torn and tattered, you move on to the next partner, and pretty soon all that remains of your heart is a limp piece of paper with no ability to stick to anything anymore.
You have destroyed your own capacity for intimacy by having sex with people before marriage.
From about the age of 14 onwards, she is plagued by romantic and sexual worries. She doesn’t particularly want to be handed over to a man for marriage. On the other hand, even if she is, that could only happen in her early twenties or so. At 14, that means at least another 7 years of waiting before getting to have sex – a really long time if you’re batting away lustful thoughts every day, and guiltily reading the sexy bits in Reader’s Digest’s condensed books over and over again.
She can feel from the adults’ reactions that sex is really important. They talk about sex with a strange mixture of forced confidence and shame, making her suspect even then that they have some guilt over their own sexual conduct. Some adults testify in church about their sexual pasts, sharing how God saved them from their slutty behaviour and brought them into victorious second-hand purity. She knows that the hopes of her parents’ generations are pinned on her and her peers – that she will vindicate her parents with her own purity and, one day, with her successful marriage. She pledges to remain pure. She tries hard to push away all sexual thoughts. She feels gross when she masturbates.
Then at 16 she gets her first boyfriend. He can’t keep his hands off her. When they’re sitting together during school breaks or when watching a movie, his hands wander round her ribcage, over her stomach, lingering over the waistband of her underwear. When they walk somewhere he holds her around the waist, hand gradually drifting down to her bum. She likes it. She really, really likes it. Eventually their clandestine make-out sessions move from simply kissing to rather frantic heavy petting. She is awakening to the exquisite pleasure of discovering and being discovered for the first time.
She feels guilty and she also doesn’t. It’s as if she’s living two lives now – this aliveness, this exploration with her boyfriend is removed from the rest of her life. She is so consumed by all the new feelings happening inside her, that questions about right or wrong fall by the wayside. If you’re very very hungry, you don’t worry about the ethics of the food you’re eating. And she was ravenous.
They don’t have sex for a long time though – she holds out for five months before that happens. And then, one night, he climbs through her bedroom window and after hours of making out, just as dawn arrives, they finally do it. It doesn’t last very long (of course it doesn’t) and afterwards she is surprised at how non-earthshattering it felt. She’d actually liked some of the other stuff they’d done more. After all that fuss, all that resisting, the actual act of penetrative sex felt like just another fun thing in a repertoire of discoveries. Not really more intimate – and definitely no more pleasurable – than touching and being touched had been.
Nonetheless, this was It. They’d crossed the Rubicon. Made a soul tie. Become spiritually wedded. It was okay, she told herself, because she loved him.
I’m sure you know what happens next. Her mom finds out (fortunately her parents had already split up, because her dad quite seriously might have killed her, or put her in hospital). The church finds out. Amidst all the hysteria her boyfriend makes a run for it, his last words to her being that one day they could try again, when her mom “isn’t in the picture anymore”.
Her heart is broken – more, much more about her boyfriend breaking up with her than about the fact that she is now a fallen woman. But she’s also very sad about her mom, who can’t look her in the eyes anymore, who feels betrayed and disgusted by her behaviour, whose eyes are red-rimmed with grief for weeks. She agrees to burn her diary (in which she’s of course written all about her sexual experiences). She agrees to talk to the pastor and his wife, who insist that she be exorcised of the demon of lust (she manages to extricate herself from that one, although who knows, they probably still think of her as the demon-possessed girl who got away). She attends video lectures about sexual purity. Everybody knows.
Most of all, she spends hours on her bedroom floor praying and crying. “Show me,” she begs of God. “Show me why this was wrong. Put conviction into my heart, and then I will truly repent.” Because she knows in her heart of hearts that she is more sorry for hurting her mom than she is for actually having had sex. She searches the Bible, but it doesn’t say anything about soul ties. Jesus says stuff about not lusting after your neighbour’s wife, and the apostle Paul gets really cross about men having sex with their mothers in law, but other than that she finds only vague references to sexual purity. For every reference to sex, there are about fifty verses about helping the poor, about redemption, about bearing good fruits and even about having slaves and farming and how to raise children. Almost everything in the Bible is discussed in more detail than sex. Masturbation is never even directly mentioned.
If the Bible is so little bothered with it, why is the church so obsessed with sex? Where do all these ideas about “soul ties” and “purity pledges” come from? The little seed of doubt inside her mind, long sprouted, starts growing vigorously.
But still, she tries really hard. With her next boyfriend, she even tries to refrain from making out. When their chaste kisses do veer into intensity, she demands that they pray afterwards (looking back, her boyfriend was either remarkably patient or remarkably horny to stick around for all that praying). They date for two years before, at the age of 19, they finally do have sex.
By then she’s well over it. She’s spent her first year after high school in an ultra-Christian college where she learned to make music, clown, mime, and do missionary work. Her leaders there had convinced her for a while to break up with her boyfriend (so as not to lose her focus on God, and of course because purity) but they’ve started dating again by then (in secret).
Everybody’s relationships at the college are policed to the extreme. Senior girls walk past her and pull her shirt down so a piece of her lower back won’t stick out and awaken sexual thoughts in men. Showing cleavage is an absolute no. The college is in favour of “courtship” instead of dating – an elaborate ritual wherein the father as well as the pastor’s permission must be gained first before a couple can start spending time together. (Many of these couples kiss for the first time on their wedding day). She feels more and more disaffected and sceptical. The church leadership’s over-involvement in everybody’s lives feels oppressive.
So she and her boyfriend eventually have sex, and she keeps it a secret, and she barely feels guilty, except about betraying her mom again. The next year she goes to university. Strangely enough, most of the girls she becomes friends with here are also really secretive and embarrassed about the fact that they’re having sex with their boyfriends, even though most of them didn’t grow up in the same oppressive purity culture she did. This was an Afrikaans university, and thus most of her friends came from the Dutch Reformed church, more staid and hands-off than evangelical, yet here too puritanism had stretched far and wide. Sex means shame. Sex means secrecy. If you have to have sex, you keep this non-ideal fact about yourself very quiet. You try to get birth control without your parents finding out.
Oddly, after a while she becomes the girl her friends talk to when they’re wondering about sex.
More than one friend comes to her with the metaphor of the torn sticky heart, which has apparently permeated their adolescences as well. Some of her friends have purity rings or have made purity vows which they then broke. They’re in tears. They’re scared their parents will find out. They wonder if their boyfriends will still respect them, now they gave away their most previous asset (“why would he buy the cow if he can get the milk for free?”).
She becomes angry. Incensed, even. The stigma around sex has made it impossible for her, and for most of her friends, to even find out about what they like. There can be no discussion about how the clit works, for instance, or about how to actually have an orgasm, when everybody is still stuck on whether or not sex is sin.
We don’t talk about pleasure. We don’t ask for what we like. Resigned, embarrassed, we hand over our sexual power to a bunch of boys who don’t know what to do with it, who brag amongst themselves about having the best “ride”. We expect them to lose respect for us, because we’ve been told we’re not worth respecting anymore. We’re sinful. Living in God’s disapproval, how can you even expect to feel good?
In my early twenties I start wondering: What even is sin?
I come up with many different ideas. Perhaps sin is not acting lovingly towards others. Perhaps sin is not serving God wholeheartedly. Perhaps sin is straying from God’s plan for your life. My definitions become wider and vaguer, but from the start I know one thing: Sin is not as simple as “having premarital sex”. Because I have done mean stuff in my life. I have harmed others. I have felt guilty and convicted and asked God for forgiveness for doing things; I know what true conviction feels like: like a leaden sadness inside my gut, like being profoundly sorry. I have never felt that way about having sex. If a system punishes an act which (when it’s consensual) is at worst awkward and at best absolute ecstasy, but it doesn’t make nearly as much of a fuss about malice and even abuse, then the system is fucked.
And eventually I realise that the concept of sin is completely arbitrary. It’s a word made up millennia ago by men who wanted to control entire populations, especially women. And its definitions have shifted and changed according to whomever held the reins at the time. The idea of sin is completely useless. Am I living wholeheartedly? Am I being kind? Am I being true to myself? Those questions are much more useful than wondering whether I’ve sinned.
And so I leave Christianity behind. (And, bit by bit, I start having shameless sex).
But I’m still very very angry. Because I can never have my first teenage sexual experiences again, and those are tainted with shame and fear. I had to choose between enjoying my own body and having God’s approval, and that is an evil and abusive choice to force upon anyone.
I am angry because it’s downright gross that other people get to have an opinion about my sex life. It’s invasive and creepy that my dad, and the pastor, and so many others, felt they had the right to know the most private facts about my own body. It’s abusive to be treated as if your body is not your own. It is damaging to be taught that your body is the hotseat of sin and shame.
Things could have gone much, much worse. Looking back, I am immensely grateful that my first sexual experiences were with sweet guys who took things at my pace, who practiced safer sex, and who didn’t harm me in any way. If they’d taken advantage of me in any way, there would have been nobody I could have spoken to, because my behaviour had already isolated me from my community entirely.
But the damage lingers, nonetheless.
And so many of my peers did not escape nearly as unscathed as I did. Imagine being a queer kid in this milieu, told that your sexual orientation is an “abomination unto God”. Or imagine being sexually abused in this milieu. Imagine the many, many ways in which a person’s psyche can be damaged by these invasive and creepy teachings. Imagine how hard it is to regain trust in your own truth, to break free of shame, to learn how to live without doubting yourself every step of the way, when this elemental distrust in yourself has been hammered into you from childhood.
There are many harmful institutions in our society. But in my own life (and in many others’), purity culture and evangelical Christianity as a whole has been the most obviously abusive; and it shocks and worries me that it goes largely unchallenged. This is a sick system. It is a shame-based system. It is permeated with oppressive patriarchy and body-shaming and slut-shaming and deeply harmful ideas.
Whatever good things can be found in evangelical Christianity (and I can’t think of many), those good things exist elsewhere too, and much more abundantly. There surely are well-intentioned people who subscribe to and even preach purity culture, but then they too are doing harm. And, to be clear: these are the same churches that look away tactfully when one of their members abuses his family. They preach vague prosperity teachings when their members go hungry. They crack down on “sexual sin” to a profoundly invasive degree, and refuse to intervene when people are actually in harm’s way.
There is so much more to say, and I intend to say a whole lot of it, so stick around if you want to hear. But for now: As Jesus said, “if a tree bears only bad fruit, then you cut it down”. And the fruits of evangelical Christianity are rotten to the core. It’s time we cut it down.
We’re coming up on Easter. And I’ve been wanting to write about religion (specifically Christianity) for a long time now, so in honour of the occasion, here we go.
I cannot quantify the harm nor the value that religion has contributed to my life. I know that my existence has been shaped by Christianity; and some days I feel itchy about this, allergic to all things religious – and then, on other days, I feel immense gratitude.
However, if I look at my country, and at the Afrikaans culture I come from, I feel that Christianity – Calvinism specifically – has done, and continues to do, a great deal of harm. Generations upon generations of my ancestors lived lives steeped in suffering, silence, and oppression (both giving and receiving). The punitive approach of Calvinism created an artificial divide between body and spirit, between earth and heaven, between man and woman – fertile breeding ground for the kinds of injustices that have blighted South Africa for centuries. I believe that religion is largely to blame for Apartheid – both in obvious and less obvious ways. I believe that it is religion that has allowed people to forget about their connection to other humans and to the earth herself, leading to rampant capitalism, to exhaustion of our natural resources, to climate change.
But of course, religion is a man-made thing. In a sense, blaming religion itself for the ills of the world is a cop-out, because it too is only a symptom of an ill society, just like capitalism, or any of the other malfunctioning institutions we have created. They are symptoms of greed, of fear, of dogmatic thinking, of the need to control, of disconnectedness. They tell us something about who we can easily become as humans: how easily we grab onto anything that resonates for us and try to make a monument out of it. How easily we step out of flow and try to hammer truths into immobility, forcing a moment of transcendence into stagnation.
This can happen to anyone, with anything: One might become just as dogmatic about ideals like compassion, or equality, or respect for nature. In fact, Christianity was built on beautiful ideals. But somewhere along the way it lost its joy and became an institute built on crippling self-righteousness and shame.
Yeah, I’m not a fan.
And I will write about that. I’ll write an entire series about that.
But I also need to acknowledge that in many ways religion has been good to me.
The word “religion” of course encompasses many types of faith, and these have affected people in a variety of ways. What I write here applies to my experience, and to the brand of Christianity I was raised in: fundamentalist, charismatic yet Calvinist-influenced Christianity (think fire-and-brimstone meets happy-clappy coupled with a good dose of shame and suppression). Other people’s experiences may, and do, differ widely.
My parents met as ‘rebel’ Christians: Both had broken away from their Calvinist Dutch-Reformed roots, had been ‘born again’, and been baptised as adults (something of a scandal in 1980s Afrikaans culture, enough to get them kicked out of the Dutch Reformed church). They were hungry for something that felt real, for relationship with God instead of rote singing of hymns, for community and communion instead of weekly lip-service.
By the time they had me, however, their versions of faith had already deviated from each other’s. In my childhood, my dad’s religion did not appeal to me at all, even though I was convinced by it and correspondingly scared of God. His religion was fervour bordering on frenzy, a morass of condemnation, self-congratulation, isolation, and rampant rage. We joined a new church; we left it within weeks, my dad foaming at the mouth. We couldn’t listen to pop music, or celebrate Christmas, or play with Barbies. We were always told that we were different, pure and right in a world full of heathens, atheists, and fake Christians.
I don’t remember my mom openly disagreeing with my dad about religion. I think most of the time she didn’t, at least not consciously so. But her faith was…alive. She found comfort in God. He wasn’t the jealous God my dad was fond of citing, but rather one who invited debate:
Like David argued with and railed against God in Psalms, my mom told me, so too I could go to God with my questions and even with my anger. (Which I did, many times, especially in my teenage years).
To my parents, God spoke (though it seems he said different things to each of them). He spoke to them in Bible verses, in moments of clarity, through other people, during worship. If nothing else, my parents’ religion seemed very involved: Theirs was not a God of distance but of daily interaction. Every small event was a miracle. Every struggle was a test. Every sadness an opportunity to grow closer to God.
The combined push-pull of my parents’ Christianity worked very well on me, and I was a very religious child. Even though I am still unearthing the damaging ideas of God I then internalised, it wasn’t all negative. I was raised to believe that God could speak to me, and so he did. I was raised to believe that God cared about my life, and so I told him all about it. I developed the habit of thanking God for every beautiful thing I encountered, a practice which has carried me through many difficult times since. That feeling of having an intimate witness, a friend and protector who is always by my side – I sorely needed that as a child. In many ways, religion saved me.
One of the most beautiful things I gained from religion was the concept of grace. As a teenager I read Philip Yancey’s book ‘What’s so amazing about grace?’ and it changed my life. This concept of grace, of being welcomed into a life that places emphasis on abundance rather than performance, has remained with me ever since. Sure, there were some recesses of my mind that held (and perhaps still do) an idea of God as a punitive being, one who punishes pleasure and will tolerate no straying. But mainly, by the time I entered my pre-teens I had grown to love God on my own terms, as a figure who extends compassion to all.
Strangely, the more my dad forced his doomsday religion upon us, the more I doubled down on my own more compassionate brand of faith. It was like God and I would share a little knowing wink, a shared moment of “you and I know better, don’t we?” The very religion that was used to oppress me became my shelter.
I also really liked Jesus. He hung out with dodgy people and spoke movingly of inviting the drunkards and the homeless to a banquet fit for kings. He was patient with his disciples (mostly). He was kind to prostitutes. He condemned hypocrisy. He said “I have come that they may have life, and life in abundance.” (John 10:10)
To me the Bible was filled with poetry.
Even today, reading the first verses of the gospel of John inexplicably fills my eyes with tears: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made. In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
The principles of Christianity that I cherished – grace, gratitude, faith, honesty, relationship, cultivating a spiritual practice – these I later discovered to be principles for life. I was able to take them with me into secular adulthood, but I doubt they would have formed such a foundational part of my life had I not already learned to live by them in my childhood.
And the last thing: growing up religious left me with a taste for the mysterious, for the inexplicable, for the divine. Try as I might, I have never been able to fully divorce myself from the concept of a higher power. When I’m driving in my car and the Stellenbosch mountains unfold before my eyes, and at that moment the perfect song starts playing on the radio, I signal a mental ‘thank you’ to god. And then I laugh, because I don’t even know what god is – but I’m okay with that. To me god is in the soul of trees, in the laughter of my friends, in the ache in my heart when I think about the collective pain of the world. To me god is in my garden. To me god is in my feet, in my palms, in my ability to see beauty. God rests in the intimately known, yet hovers also beyond what my mind can understand.
God no longer bears much resemblance to the religion I was raised in, yet I am grateful to religion for playing its part in teaching me this: everything is holy.
So someone sent me this question on Instagram, and I am so excited to respond to it here. I’ve been wanting to start some type of advice column for yeeeeears but I’ve always hesitated, because something about it felt really…arrogant, you know?
Yet here we are! I lay no claim to any credentials nor any superior knowledge whatsoever. What I do have, however, is a vast and colourful dating history, a heartfelt desire to heal and love well (which has translated into much research and therapy), and a network of weird, brave friends who will hopefully contribute their voices here as well.
If you’d like to send a question – I’d love to respond to it! Find my details in the contact section.
I have so many things going through my head right now with polyamory. We opened our marriage to polyamory just over a year now, and overall it’s been working great; I really resonate with the philosophy of it and the idea of loving who you want to love, not feeling like you’re trapped, or that you’re not allowed to love more than one person. But I’m having so much trouble connecting, just finding people who understand what polyamory means, and actually looking for connection – they always think that it’s something to do with sex, and multiple sexual partners.
I have a husband and a second partner, my boyfriend. And I get very protective over my boyfriend, but not with my husband having other partners. I just found some items of an ex-girlfriend at my boyfriend’s house, and I felt so uncomfortable. I thought he was maybe cheating on me, but he explained in detail why his ex’s belongings were still there, and I don’t think he was lying at all. But the rage I felt was something else. I thought I would never get jealous of any partners because I’m absolutely fine with my husband having partners, so I’m a bit shocked about my reaction. The amount of feelings and emotions that this person triggers in me, it’s absolutely insane – I never thought I was going to go through the things that I am going through right now, because I was in a very stable marriage: we’ve been together for nearly ten years, everything was very set…and now this person comes and he came completely out of nowhere, and we really connected…
And I would love to have somebody to talk to about this, because I don’t have many friends who understand the concept of polyamory.
Thank you so much for writing to me – I feel so honoured that you reached out. A lot of what you wrote really reminded me of my own experiences, and of others I know who are braving the world of non-monogamy too. I’m going to answer from my own life lessons and experiences, but I know that there are others out there who also have a lot to contribute, for instance people who were already married (which I have never been) and who then opened their relationship – so this is an invitation to everyone out there who resonates with the letter writer: please share your experiences in the comment section!
First of all: there’s nothing wrong with you.
If you’re judging your own feelings, or feeling ashamed of your reaction, please don’t. Your emotions are valid, they’re always valid, however illogical they might seem to you. We have ideas of fairness ingrained within us, for instance the idea that we shouldn’t feel jealous or threatened when our partners have other partners if we ourselves have multiple partners. But just because your heart agrees with the concept of polyamory doesn’t mean that you’re exempt from feeling insecure or triggered. So start by lovingly holding your own vulnerable heart close, and accepting every feeling as a valid part of you.
There are many reasons why you might feel triggered about your boyfriend potentially having other partners, yet not be anxious about your husband seeing other people: You and your husband have been married for a long time. You’ve built trust and safety with each other over time, you’ve settled into a rhythm, you most likely communicate quite well. You know he’s not just going to leave you when the next interesting person appears.
And also, quite simply, every relationship has its own dynamic. While we can definitely transfer the skills we’ve acquired from one relationship to another, there is a different kind of energy between any two people. Different wounds will be triggered, or lessons we thought we’d learned long ago might be tested in new ways.
This is a whole new human being you’re getting to know; and we are never fully prepared, however mature we thought we were, for the upheaval that a new relationship brings.
Because falling in love: that’s one of the most intense experiences we get to have on this earth (at least for most people). You’ve been married a long time and you’ve likely settled into what Page Turner calls “old relationship energy” with your husband, which is that wonderful feeling of being at home with somebody, of looking fondly at their quirks and habits and feeling known in return.
In comparison, what is often described as New Relationship Energy (NRE) – that initial feeling of intensity and longing: that’s a LOT. On a physical level, there are heightened levels of adrenaline, oxytocin, and dopamine coursing through your system, which make you crave being with this person all the time. On an emotional level, everything feels achingly poignant.
And so in my experience, however non-monogamous my heart and intentions might be, at the start of a new relationship my entire body wants to be monogamous with that person. I want them to be ALL MINE.
Imagining this person being with someone else can feel like actual death.
And let me repeat myself: It’s okay to feel like this. Discomfort is not necessarily a sign that something is terribly wrong, and intense emotions are part of life.
So these are some of the possible explanations for why you’re having these feelings. You could still be in the NRE phase with your new partner, you’re not yet securely attached, your dynamic is simply different than with your husband, and you may have forgotten how intense those initial feelings can get. It could also be that different insecurities are being triggered for you with your boyfriend, things you haven’t had to deal with or investigate for a long time.
Here’s what I would do (and have done) with these feelings: I would find myself a quiet spot (or go for a long walk, if that’s available) and take a few deep breaths. I’d put my hand on my heart and acknowledge my courage, because this is courageous work. I would extend love to myself, to my heart, to my body, to my insecurities and wounds and splendid wholeness. I would tell myself that everything I feel is valid. I would sit and breathe, and probably cry, and NOT try to find a solution immediately. And I would do this frequently, as often as these feelings come up, reminding myself again and again that I am safe with me.
Because the most important thing is to cultivate safety within yourself. When your heart can really trust that it will be seen and heard by you, then much of that intense panic can slowly dissipate. And then it becomes easier to feel safe around other people too. And when the fear comes up again – remind your heart again that she is safe.
And then you might think of actions to take. Perhaps the action will simply be to share with your partners how you’re feeling. Try to do this from a place of openness, without making them responsible for ‘fixing’ things; do it in the spirit of creating more intimacy, not imposing more rules.
But you might also ask your boyfriend to adjust his behaviour, if that feels right for you. For instance, you might ask him to ‘over-communicate’ for a while, telling you beforehand about situations you might find triggering. You might ask him to reassure you of his love more often. You might ask him to ease gently into non-monogamy. However, be prepared with any request you make for his answer to possibly be “no”. Be prepared to negotiate, and to have this conversation many times as the situation and your needs change.
You don’t have to always power through your discomfort.
You don’t have to grit your teeth and force yourself to be cool when you’re simply not feeling cool. Being polyamorous doesn’t mean you stop being scared and vulnerable, and you’re allowed to be those things. Over time you’ll learn the balance: when it’s time to push yourself past your comfort zone, and when it’s time to take a breath and say “ouch, can we hold back for a moment?” And you will achieve this balance by being very patient and compassionate with yourself.
Know that you are busy with the most beautiful and worthwhile work you will ever do: you’re grappling with what it means to be human, to love, to exist. The complexities, aches, and joys of human relationships – this is where the magic happens.
I am sending you all my support and empathy. You are not alone on this journey.
We’re ten days in and so far 2021 has been…all of the things.
Some questions I am asking myself as we skid and crash into this new year: What does it mean to show up fully? How much can and should I allow myself to feel the pain of the world? How do I balance that with joy?
So far my answers have been: Yes.
Yes to pain. Yes to joy. These things can, and do, and should, co-exist.
Yes to loving hard. Yes to grieving. Yes to doing the work. Yes to self-discipline. Yes to flow. Yes to rest.
If I don’t speak my truth I feel as if I might die.
I desperately need people to like me.
I desperately need to act with integrity.
I desperately need people to approve of my every action.
I desperately need to feel free and unscrutinised.
I need to feel safe.
I am not safe.
I am never safe.
A week ago I woke up and was about halfway to the bathroom when my body announced to me: “I think I’m dying”.
Something sprang in my neck, followed by a sharp cramp that would not let up regardless of how still I held my head. I yelled, and then stopped yelling because that hurt more. I crawled back to bed and tried to find a position in which my neck would not cramp. No position worked for longer than a minute – within a few minutes I was crying from the pain, soundlessly and without moving my head.
Fortunately one of my neighbours is a body therapist. She twisted my neck back and forth, clicked it into place (I screamed quite a bit), and for the rest of the day I was able to move, cautiously. “It’s because you clenched, during the night,” she said. “Because of yesterday’s stress.”
“I know, I do that,” I responded, exasperated with myself. On the surface, I handle (short-term) stressful events well. But the day after, I invariably wake up with a cramp in my back, or a shoulder that feels dislocated, or a migraine.
For the rest of the day I wobbled around from couch to floor, occasionally spasming up and dissolving every time into panicked, tired tears. That was the strangest: the tears. Each time I felt a cramp I started crying involuntarily.
It felt as if my body were acting out, punishing me, screaming at me “danger, danger!”
I felt like a scared child, and the feeling was entirely kept within my body, because every time I’d tap into my heart, into my deeper inner voice, I’d experience a large, unruffled sense of calm there. Yet, despite the underlying assurance from my heart that all was well, my body was intent on warning me furiously against impending death.
The day before had been a difficult one on the farm where I live. We’re an assortments of households here, an ‘unintentional community’ if you will, at least tangentially invested in each other’s lives. One of my neighbours, whom I really like and am quite close to, went through a personal and medical crisis and I found myself somehow in the middle of it. There were phone calls to and from the landlord. There was involvement from other neighbours, and accusations flying back and forth, text messages and screen shots being sent, and in the middle of it all myself, googling what to do, trying to be as helpful as possible without being intrusive (at one stage I really thought my neighbour might die).
Everything turned out fine, turned out well even, but it took a few days. At the height of the crisis I found myself doing what I often do, what I’ve done since childhood: slipping into calm supportive mode. Totally chilled. Watching series with my neighbour while I surreptitiously checked her vital signs every 15 minutes. Trying to make it clear to everyone involved that I was not judging, not prying; being almost cringe-inducingly tactful. Feeling overwhelming compassion, but also the ever-present urge to be needed.
Was I doing this from a place of empathy, or because my identity lies in being useful? Who the fuck knows. Both, I guess.
The next day was the neck cramp day. My neck got better fast, but for the past week my body has been sending me all kinds of distress signals. Severe back pain. Slight nausea. Waking up in the middle of the night and being unable to fall back asleep. A near-constant headache. I keep reassuring my body: “You’re okay. The crisis is past,” but like a screaming infant, my body refuses to be calmed down before it is good and ready.
Someone I follow on Instagram posted the other day “If you listen to your body when it whispers, you will never have to hear it scream”, and I thought FUCK YOU.
She meant well. Listening to your body is generally a good thing. But if your body has been through trauma, then any hint of new danger will make it scream anew. Your body holds the fear of all the times something terrifying happened. My body tenses up when men move or speak aggressively. It clenches whenever someone I care about appears to be in danger, especially if I cannot help them. When my defences are particularly low, at night I have recurring intrusive thoughts of my loved ones’ gory deaths and wake up with a migraine. When I myself feel in danger – when my heart is broken, or my finances look bad – my back and shoulders become a plethora of knots, often so stiff that I can barely sit or stand.
My body screams regularly, without warning, without offering up a whisper first. To say that it is screaming because I did not listen to its whispers is to speak from a place of almost unimaginable privilege.
It’s not the message that trauma survivors need – or anybody else, for that matter. What we need to know is that it’s okay to sometimes feel as if we’re going to die – we’re not doing anything wrong.
We’re not failing in our self-care practices, or not being mindful enough, or bad-adulting, if life feels suddenly and inexplicably hard. (But also, it’s fine if we ARE neglecting self-care or not being mindful enough, because life is weird and there are no fixed rules for successful living.) We need to know that it’s okay that we feel deeply unsafe, and insecure, and torn between opposing needs like wanting to be liked by everyone and wanting to feel authentic.
That last one is my particular struggle.
In the wake of the farm-wide crisis, with whispers of possible evictions doing the rounds, several neighbours asked me what had happened and gave me their opinions. I found myself mediating: giving the absent person’s perspective, trying to advocate for them, without offending the ones that I was talking to. Trying to tell the truth without oversharing. Trying to be polite without picking sides. I tried to come out the entire drama looking lilywhite, yet it felt as if everybody was misquoting me, assuming I was “on their side”. I felt profoundly fake somehow.
At one point I even lied: A neighbour asked me point-blank whether I’d done something, and, panicking, I denied it. (The thing in question was a wobbly choice I’d made during this whole drama). That night I lay awake, nauseous. I tried to listen to my body, tried to regulate my breathing, but every time I’d tap into what my body was feeling, a rush of panic would threaten to overwhelm me. So in that moment I decided to override my body with my mind. I felt too unsafe within my body to let it be in control. It was trapped in a childlike cycle of panic, and it was time for my mature self to call the shots.
And so I reasoned things out: I was feeling panicked because I felt dishonest and inauthentic. But I was scared of being honest, because then people might not like me, and I have internalised the idea that my survival depends on being likeable.
So I was caught between two needs: I can’t exist if I am not honest. I can’t exist if I am not liked.
Well then, said my mind. The answer is simple: Choose honesty. Because honesty feels more intrinsically important, whilst I actually know that I will indeed survive if I am not liked by everyone. (In fact, when it finally happens, being disliked often feels like a relief.)
So the next day I contacted the neighbour in question and told her that I’d lied, that I had indeed made that wobbly choice she’d asked about. “I feel confused and torn between everybody,” I told her. “I want to be honest and I also don’t want to pick sides. And also, sometimes I make bad choices, and I didn’t want to look bad.”
“We like and accept you just the way you are,” she responded. “And I understand your inner conflict. I won’t ask you any further questions.”
And this is what flooded through me, the moment I got her response: The remembrance that I am no longer a child in an unsafe world. I am an adult and I’ve got my back. Even when it feels terrifying, I can choose to act with integrity and the results will confirm that I made the right choice (even when I do piss someone off).
My survival does not depend anymore on my family liking me or on being super useful. And every time I choose to act from a place of authenticity, my body believes a little bit more that I am truly safe.
I might never be fully free from the panicked messages my body sends me whenever a situation reminds me of past traumas. But the wisdom in my heart grows more assertive. I know what to do when I am panicking: I honour my body, I am gentle with myself, but I do not give in to my most panicked demands. And I call upon my community, the community I have gradually built by choosing to be authentic again and again.
(I still have a headache but my body is no longer screaming at me, merely grumbling. Onwards!)
And then, two months after I began writing poetry in English again, the annual Poetry in McGregor Competition took place. The theme was “Love in the time of Covid”, something I’d become intimately acquainted with over the last few months. I had the option of writing either in English or Afrikaans. Why did I choose English? I don’t know and I feel conflicted about my choice still.
But here’s my poem. It was a finalist in the competition and finally won the merit award for very moving poem (an award that felt so ultimately perfect that I giggled about it in delight for days afterwards):
As a child I wrote poetry in French (what now seems to me, with a strange feeling of loss, to be poetry written by somebody else since I have since forgotten the meaning of every fourth word). Coming to South Africa at the age of ten, I flailed about in search of a language that would fit well enough to give rise to poetry. Afrikaans, my mother tongue (in the sense that it is my mother’s language), felt so earthy and clumsy beneath my throat that no poems would happen.
And then in high school, romantic and forlorn like every teenager, I tried my hand at poetry in English. Writing in your second (or third) language, for those who haven’t tried it, is strange yet appealing – it gives you a sense of distance, of romance even, because every word doesn’t feel as fully and awkwardly birthed from your own innards.
But then the romantic phase passed and for many years I wrote no poetry whatsoever. At varsity, tentatively, I started writing in Afrikaans, my very own language, the language I have had the most complicated and passionate relationship with yet. Afrikaans is a Germanic language. It asks for guttural sounds and little explosions of consonants beneath your pen. It asks for honesty. I loved it and found it daunting. I kept at it.
But English – English sometimes reminds me of French in how it allows me to bring some smoothness to the process. And so, eventually, I found myself writing poems in English again as well. Today I alternate between Afrikaans and English, always conflicted, always longing for the ease of English and the rawness of Afrikaans, whichever language I choose.
Here is the first poem I wrote in English as an adult, after an almost 15-year hiatus:
This body is mine. These shoulders, bony, summer-browned, beauty-spotted. This hair, bright purple, growing too long into the nape of my neck. This tattoo on my upper arm. This leg, bundle of confused nerves, scar tissue and odd-shaped bone – mine.
Taking ownership of it isn’t always easy. For me there is a lingering shame in being abnormal. It’s not a reasonable shame (what shame is?) but it’s there nonetheless: there’s a part of my body that I find ugly, and I am ashamed of that ugliness. And not (only) because society has enforced ridiculous beauty standards upon us, but also because it looks…dysfunctional. We find health and vigour and good adaptation beautiful – young glowing bodies, taut calf muscles, or flowers blooming exactly as they were meant to to attract pollinators.
Sure, our standards are constantly shifting, but some preferences remain the same, and we prefer for our fellow earthlings to look able-bodied.
I’m not describing how things should be. I’m telling you how they are, in my experience of things: We look away when we see something we find ugly, or dysfunctional. We are embarrassed on behalf of the owner of this ‘dysfunction’. We suspect they must feel very bad about it and so we try not to make a big deal out of it, we pretend we didn’t see, we try not to look again.
We don’t ask questions but we feel very relieved when they bring it up themselves because we have been dying of curiosity – were they in a car accident? Were they born that way? Could we, perhaps, get a peek into their inner world and glimpse their pain as they tell the story, giving us that frisson of sympathy and ‘thank god it’s not me’ we are always craving?
I was born with a club foot. My foot got bent straight through exhaustive physical therapy by my mom (thanks mom) and I learned to walk normally, if with a limp. At the age of 14, my leg was stretched by 5,5 cm with a machine that looks like a Russian torturing device (it was, incidentally, invented by a Russian and calling the procedure torture would not be an exaggeration).
The long-lasting effects are that my right leg is scarred and skinny from the knee down, my ankle is misshapen and totally immobile, my foot is five sizes smaller than the other one, during my last surgery the surgeon managed to cut off my big toe tendons so I can’t lift my toe anymore, my foot and ankle ache constantly and are always swollen (to varying degrees), and I have scoliosis.
That might sound worse than it is. I can do almost all the things more able-bodied people can do.
I don’t tick the “disabled” box in questionnaires and I hesitate to call myself that. Does it count as disabled when you can’t keep up with your friends on an uphill climb? Or if you fall over if you try to stand on one leg? Or when your ankle aches violently after an hour of dancing (my favourite activity), so much so that you know that standing will be hard tomorrow? Most of the time, I’m not in much pain. I can walk for kilometres on end so long as there aren’t any steep climbs. I manage my back issues with yoga and insoles. I know, I really know, that it could have been so, so much worse. This little taste of differentness has made me immensely grateful for all the things my body can do. I am kind to myself, and thankful for my body.
But I flinch when I look at my right foot. Because most of the time, to me it’s ugly. And I know it is to others too, because their faces tell me so.
Here’s an incomplete list of what people say to me about my leg:
“Oh! Well I’d never have noticed/you don’t notice it at all, don’t worry.” This feels like a patent lie. Complete strangers on the street have asked what happened to my leg – It’s noticeable. Also, that’s like telling a fat person “you’re not fat!”: you’re still agreeing with them that being fat is bad. Instead, when someone says they’re fat, we could say “well you know your body best, but I can tell you that you are also very beautiful/worthy/this does not detract from your value whatsoever”. In the same way, I’d like people to instead say to me: “O I noticed that, yes. It’s such an interesting part of who you are!” (And some do say this, to their credit; and every time it’s a relief. I feel incredibly awkward when people lie to me to ‘make me feel better’).
“Oh shame, what happened?” The main people to ask this are uber drivers, waiters, shop assistants, and complete strangers. I’m stumped for a reaction every time. There are cultural differences in South Africa that make this especially hard – whilst most white cultures value privacy quite highly, I have oftentimes seen that in some POC cultures, caring is sometimes expressed in ways that I find personally invasive. And so I ask myself every time: Was this question asked out of concern? Often the person who asked is somebody who knows me a little bit – a cashier at my local shop, the waiter who served me twice. In that case I respond vaguely but kindly: “oh it’s just an old injury”. Other times I view this as an educational opportunity and respond with something like “We don’t know each other at all, so that’s actually an inappropriate question”. Of course, nine times out of ten, when I say that the other person responds with an exaggerated “Oh I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to offend you!” Great. They strut off thinking I’m over-sensitive, and I am left feeling frustrated because I don’t get to just live without fending off prying questions.
(Here’s a tip for you: If you see someone you don’t know well and they look injured – scars, crutches, a cast even – don’t approach them and ask what happened. Even if the injury looks recent. Let them bring it up, and if they don’t, it’s because they’re tired of talking about what’s wrong with them.)
(Here’s another tip: Don’t use a person’s body as a conversation starter. That counts especially for things they have no control over (weight, injuries, disabilities, facial features). If you must comment on appearance, make it a compliment, and make it about something they had control over. For instance, it’s okay to say “Oh your tattoo is so beautiful!” but it’s not okay to say “Oh, what made you get that tattoo?” Just because something is visible does not put it in the public sphere. Also, “I love your haircut!” feels much less invasive than “Wow you have beautiful eyes” (only say the latter if you’re getting drunk together or if you’re close friends).)
“Oh, I also have that! My one foot is almost a size smaller than the other, it makes shopping for shoes sooooo hard.” Alternatives to this one are when people launch into long tales about their rugby accident, their ingrown toenail, and the neck spasm they once had. Also, lists of their sister’s best friend’s injuries. I get this, I really do. We want to relate to people. And we want to tell our stories too. I know that this reaction is not malicious, but it is fucking exhausting because now the pressure is on me to be gracious (and it’s not fun to be gracious when a few decades of my pain are being erased for the sake of a “same!” story).
“Don’t worry, you’re still beautiful”. I kinda appreciate this one because in my heart of hearts I really want to be beautiful, but I don’t think it’s a great response. It puts too much emphasis on beauty, and it effectively says “in spite of this thing about you that’s not beautiful, you are still nice to look at.” In effect it is a back-handed compliment. (As a child, my dad once said to me that I could have been a beauty pageant winner were it not for my leg. Guess which part stuck with me.)
“Oh, I didn’t realise it was actually that serious.” (This usually after we go dancing/hiking/martial artsing. No, I really didn’t exaggerate.) Alternatives to this one are “You should see my physio, she’s amazing” and “But can’t they operate on your toe and fix it?” and “You know, at my church they do faith healings, you should come”.
“Oh, you shouldn’t care what people think.” Well, I do care, and you do too, because we’re humans and that’s how humans work. Also, thanks, but I’m actually fine: I don’t care an inordinate amount, I’m not crying myself to sleep, I feel mostly beautiful and always worthy. But I was sharing a tender part of myself and you just lectured me about it.
I’ve said these things too. I’ve tried to make people feel better, or make myself feel less awkward, or inserted my own experiences inappropriately into a conversation. We do this, and it’s okay – we’re not being malicious. But remember that the person you’re talking to has had a lifetime of experiences. They know what they look like, what they can and can’t do, what makes them feel confident and where they feel exposed. They get to feel all of those things. They know their reality. Behind every sentence explaining their body lies a wearying amount of similar encounters. Give them this gift: Allow them the luxury of a day spent not having to explain themselves and making you feel at ease. Believe them when they say what they can and can’t do.
What we could say instead:
“Thank you for sharing your story”.
“I really like this about you, it makes me realise how brave and unique you are.”
“I can imagine that must have been difficult, and I respect your journey.”
“It’s true you don’t conform to normal beauty standards, but personally I’m not interested in mainstream ideals of beauty.”
“You can tell me any time if your body is struggling to do something, and I will support you/wait with you/take a break with you.”
“How would you like to be supported right now?”
Being different is hard. We all know that, we’re all different. Not being able to rely on your body to do the things you’d like to do is hard. Not being mainstream beautiful in a world that values beauty above almost all else is hard. Being in physical pain is hard.
And it’s also really okay. It’s part of being human. This is my body. It’s mine. Sometimes I inhabit it with grace and other times with hesitance, but I always inhabit it with love. I love my story. Please allow me to tell it my way, at my own pace; and when I tell it, recognise the honour I have just bestowed on you.