Wednesday, 22 September 2010
Sadly, we don't live in a John Lennon song and if there's one thing that has become blatantly obvious in the wake of the Pope's visit to the UK, it's that extreme atheism and extreme religious views are just as irritating as each other.
Before I go any further, let me clarify my situation: I am not massively religious. I do believe in something, but the older I get, the more confused I become about what that actually is. I believe - largely - in life after death. I do not believe that the world was created in seven days. I am what I like to refer to as a "spiritual agnostic." I have a sense of faith and I very much identify with some of the messages of love, forgiveness and respect that are associated with the Christian faith. I do not identify with any of the homophobic, narrow-minded and ultimately offensive views of some Christians. I do respect every individual's right to believe in whatever they choose, but I do not support inflammatory hate against any section of society and I do not accept the institutionalised cover up of paedophilia within the church. So that's me: Sitting somewhat awkwardly in the middle between mild Christianity, whilst despairing of some extremist views put forward in its name and agnosticism with a dash of spiritualism thrown in for good measure.
So why am I writing this? Why do I feel the need to set up camp so firmly in the middle, distancing myself from either extreme?
Because, as I said, both extremes have shown themselves in something of a poor light recently. Now before I get complaints, that's not me bashing Christianity. I said extremes, after all. It's the extremists - both religious and atheist - that I have a bit of an issue with.
If someone finds strength in a belief in God, who am I to take that away from them? Indeed, who is anyone to take that from them? If a belief in the afterlife offers someone a crumb of comfort in the dark days after losing a loved one, why should anyone have the right to mock them for that belief?
I know many Christians. I have Catholic friends, I have Protestant friends and I have friends who, like myself, like some of the more loving and compassionate lessons within the bible (do unto others as you would have done unto you etc) and try to live by them, without taking everything in the book literally or referring to themselves as necessarily "religious." I also have friends who belong to all sorts of other religions, but in the context of this blog, I'm sticking with Christianity for now.
What angers me and what I'm sure angers the atheists, is the fact that the very same book that preaches love and tolerance is then used to preach hatred towards certain sections of society and to justify the unjustifiable. When the same people who speak of "loving thy neighbour" discover that said neighbour is gay, suddenly there's a seismic shift in their attitude. "Well, only God can judge them," they tell us, whilst blatantly judging them themselves. And lets ask ourselves why? Because a book that was written thousands of years ago in a world entirely different to one we live in now says so? Yes, I appreciate that the hardcore religious believe that the bible is the word of God and that if he says being gay is sinful, they're going to go right ahead and take that at face value. But doesn't it fly in the face of the messages of love the bible preaches? The lessons of tolerance? Judge not, lest ye be judged? You have to ask yourself: If the bible is the word of God, why does he contradict himself so much?
As for the systematic cover-up of paedophilia within the church... Children everywhere have the right to feel safe and to be protected. To shelter a priest who has taken away that safety, who has destroyed the innocence of a youngster, is surely sinful in itself? To err is human, to forgive divine, but... Well, an eye for an eye and all that. No matter how high up a person is within the church, abuse is still abuse and should be punished. The fact that priests have been moved to new parishes and allowed to continue working rather than ever having to face up to their crimes is indeed sickening and I shared in the anger that many felt during the pope's visit, for this and many other reasons.
But to shroud every person who identifies his or herself as a Christian with the same anger is unfair. I know plenty of Christians up in arms about the idea of children being abused and the perpetrators being allowed to effectively get away with it. I know Christians who use condoms, because they're intelligent enough to know that they don't cause AIDS (dearie me, for someone so revered the pope's a bit thick). And I have Christian friends who truly do believe in the phrase "live and let live" when it comes to people of all sexualities. And yet these people - my friends - are constantly lumped into the same category by extreme atheists who can't seem to grasp the idea that not all Christians are "brainwashed." People are born with free will and can believe whatever they want to believe.
Which leads me on to the other side of the coin. I truly believe that extreme atheism - and I mean extreme, not just those who casually say "I don't really believe in God" - can be just as harmful as religious extremism.
There are those who are so intent on proving the non-existence of God that it begins to come across less as scientific interest and more as some kind of holier than thou (no pun intended!) example of higher intelligence. Their own, rather than that of a deity. If I had to take a guess, I'd say that the majority of free-thinking people in this country believe in evolution. I know I do. I'd also say that the majority of free-thinking people in this country believe in scientific discoveries rather than miracles. But does that mean we have to rule out the idea of spiritualism? Does it mean we have to mock those who choose to believe in God, or in the afterlife?
In the wake of the pope's visit, the internet has been littered with Richard Dawkins quotes, anti-religious statements and some quite insulting opinions, tarring all Christians with the same, homophobic, paedophilic brush. Forums, Twitter, Facebook, MySpace (I assume someone out there still uses MySpace, right? I don't, but someone must...), Bebo... It's all there. Spat out in anger: "THERE IS NO FUCKING GOD, HOW STUPID ARE THESE PEOPLE?!"
In the case of covered-up child abuse, ignorance towards contraception and sexual freedom, or homophobia of the worst kind, that anger is justified. But far too often, these people are shouting at all Christians. If you believe in God, they think you're an idiot. "LOOK, THE SCIENCE PROVES HE DOESN'T EXIST!"
In fairness, proving God does exist is harder than finding a photo of Jordan in which she looks like a nice, natural woman. It's fairly impossible if you don't already have a little faith and are therefore prepared to take something a little less than concrete. But does quoting scientists and denouncing all believers in this manner make you any better? An extreme atheist would argue that it shows a higher level of intelligence. I would argue that for all the academic intelligence in the world, it shows a distinct lack of emotional intelligence.
If a person wants to pray before bedtime, let them. If a person wants to go to church, let them. If you encounter a person with such extreme religious views that you find yourself enraged or offended, by all means tackle them with reasonable debate. But don't assume that all Christians hold the same views. All hardcore Christians might. But many are open-minded, understanding and tolerant. Just as many atheists are non-judgemental, accepting and placid. You can choose not to believe in God and simply go about your life, meeting others and treating them fairly, just as you can choose to become a religious believer and do exactly the same.
Why must we take everything to the extreme? Why must we stand so massively opposed? It's possible to sit in the middle. To take the good from religion - the lessons on love and supporting your fellow human - and ignore the bad. It's possible to understand and respect the work of the world's best scientists without thinking it somehow qualifies you to judge religious people unfairly. To be open minded and accept that we actually don't have all the answers, but that people are free to be who they are and believe what they want. We don't have to agree. We simply have to live alongside each other for the brief snatch of time that we inhabit this planet for. It's possible to live and let live. To be neither religious or critical of those who are.
It's possible to be a "spiritual agnostic." I should know. I am one.
Monday, 6 September 2010
Audrey Hepburn is, it's fair to say, an idol to millions. A film icon. A fashion Goddess. A timeless beauty. But it's not simply those things that still appeal to her many admirers long after her death in 1993 (at the age of 63). Audrey didn't simply look good.
In an age of Hollywood beauties, such as Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield, she stuck out like a sore thumb with her dark hair (as opposed to being a blonde bombshell like the two aforementioned starlets), her tiny frame and her soft, European accent. Whilst Hollywood divas made ludicrous demands on set and got caught up in a glittering, superstar lifestyle, Audrey maintained a quiet aura of grace, preferring a quiet life at home with those who meant the most to her. In March 1988, she told the press: "I had to make a choice at one point in my life, of missing films or missing my children. It was a very easy decision to make, because I missed my children so very much. When my elder son started going to school, I could not take him with me anymore and that was tough for me, so I stopped accepting pictures. I withdrew to stay at home with my children. I was very happy. It's not as if I was sitting at home, frustrated, biting my nails! Like all mothers, I'm crazy about my two boys."
The desire to shun the limelight, to be with her children rather than make more films, is something all too unheard of in today's fame-hungry society. And not only did Audrey have no intention of putting her career before her children, she also had very little ego. In spite of the fact that at the height of her fame, she was widely regarded as one of the world's most beautiful women, she would dismiss herself as "awkward" or "funny-looking." She didn't have the hourglass figure of Monroe or Mansfield, that's for sure. One of my favourite stories involves her arriving on set, only for the director to look at her breasts and declare: "I think you ought to wear some falsies..." Only for Audrey to reply: "I AM!"
She never thought of herself as better than anyone else, or even prettier than anyone else. There was simply no ego, there. This is a woman who appeared in major Hollywood films such as Breakfast At Tiffany's or My Fair Lady and went home to hold proper, old-fashioned birthday parties for her two sons, making their cakes and their fancy dress costumes herself, rather than ordering them in from some posh boutique. The stereotypical image of Audrey Hepburn may be one of a glamour-puss, oozing class and sophistication, but lets not forget that this was a woman who cherished the role of "mum" more than any film role she ever played.
Audrey wasn't a woman afraid of getting her hands dirty. From the late 80's onwards, she worked as an ambassador for UNICEF, travelling to places such as Somalia and Ethiopia, walking amongst the poor and the starving, feeding desperately ill children and offering comfort to the adults she met. It wasn't a position she took lightly. Audrey made speeches to the united nations and, on her trips to Africa, she rolled up her sleeves and became just another volunteer, with the needs and wants of the hungry children she met becoming her main priority. Even when she began suffering with stomach pains (which would later be diagnosed as due to the cancer that would kill her), she continued to campaign for UNICEF as hard as she could. Here was a woman who had suffered famine and sadness in her own past - now all she wanted was to use her own good fortune to help others.
I don't have the time, the space or the skill with words to do justice to Audrey's memory in one blog. All I can say is that, should you wish to learn more about her, there are plenty of books and websites devoted to her and of course, a legacy of films to enjoy. But it's worth remembering that the Hollywood image is only one side of the woman. A woman who once said: "I was born with an enormous need for affection and a terrible need to give it" - words which I very much identify with, myself. A woman who knew how to make herself look glamorous and fashionable, but who, in reality, looked just as beautiful in a pair of jeans and a polo shirt. A woman who looked into the world and saw the true beauty - not only of mountains or flowers, but of people and the amazing things that they're capable of. Again, something I indentify with. A woman who believed that love could fix anything.
She wasn't just a filmstar or a fashion icon. She was an incredible, sensitive, truly beautiful woman - inside and out. I've not really done her justice at all in this blog, but I wanted to pay my own little tribute to a woman I've admired for all of my adult life and will continue to admire until my dying die. As corny as it sounds, she'll always be my fair lady.
I'll never look like Audrey Hepburn, much as I may sometimes buy a dress or a skirt with an excited squeal of: "Ooh, it's SO Audrey!" But if I can live my life with the same level of grace and of compassion for others, then I'll be doing okay.
Thursday, 2 September 2010
When people say the word "bullying," it conjures up certain images and emotions. It's a word that's used to cover so many different forms of abuse (because essentially, I believe that that's what bullying is) that it's easy to develop a somewhat flippant view that it stands only for petty name-calling. Many of us have experienced it at some point in our lives. Some of us may even have been guilty of inflicting it upon others. I fall into the first group. What I experienced between the age of 12-14(and a half) not only affected me at the time, but changed my life so completely that to this day, the memories bring tears to my eyes and a shiver down my spine. It made me an entirely different person to the one I was before and I sometimes wonder (thankfully no longer as often as I once did) what I'd have been like - what sort of life I might now be living - had it never taken place. The bullying I suffered was not restricted to petty name-calling. To this day, I wish I could turn the clock back and ensure that it never took place. Sometimes I still dream of things I should have said or done in response, even though I know that it's several years too late. But I want to share my experiences in a public place, in the hope that it might help someone (and yes, for a little catharsis).
I began secondary school in September 1994, a little less than a week before my 12th birthday. Nearly 16 years have passed since that very first day, but I can remember it with the sort of clarity that you hope to remember happier times, such as weddings and holidays. I can remember the butterflies in my tummy as I took a seat on the school bus (at the front, near the driver, like my mum told me to). And I can remember the first time I saw him. For the purposes of this blog, I'll call him S. His stop was the next but one along. He climbed on board with a swagger in his step and called out a greeting to those already gathered on the back seat. It sounds horribly judgemental, but from the first second I saw him, I didn't like him. There was something about his stocky demeanour and his long hair, shaved underneath and tied back in a ponytail that made him look frightening. Lets not forget, you're talking about an eleven year old girl who was less than five feet tall and would have struggled to fill an adult size 6 dress at the time. I was tiny and I knew absolutely nobody on the bus. Mum used to call me "Lamby" because of my soft, blonde (then) curls, but on that September morning, I was a rabbit, caught in the headlights.
It didn't take him long to focus on me. I was a gawky looking kid and with my face pressed against the glass (in that tried and tested: "If I don't look at him, I will obviously become invisible" trick) it was clear that I was nervous and didn't want to be the subject of unwelcome attention. If my memory serves me correctly, his first words to me (or rather about me) were: "What is THAT?"
And that, quite literally, was it. From that day, up until I moved away at the end of January 1997, I became sub-human. I was never referred to as "her," only as "it" or "that." My femininity was removed as well as every shred of self-confidence I had ever had. In the mornings, when S got onto the bus, his first words would refer to me. If I was wearing my hair down (which I think I only did two or three times; I've never been happy with my hair), it would be: "Oh God, it has it's hair down today." If I had a new coat on: "Look! It has a new coat!"
Those comments were, however, only the tip of a particularly nasty iceberg and relatively easy to ignore. My parents had always told me: "If someone's nasty, just ignore them" and that's what I'd do. Stare out of the window, clenching my fists and counting the stops til we reached school or, in the afternoons, the safety of home. Unfortunately, silence wasn't the reaction S wanted.
In the afternoon, on the way home from my first day, he came to sit beside me. I was uncomfortable - he was sitting deliberately close, whispering in my ear for maximum effect. At first he asked me simple questions. Where do you live? Do you have any brothers or sisters? How was your first day? My answers came back in a tight-sounding, high-pitched voice that I didn't recognise as my own. It certainly didn't belong to the confident, somewhat feisty young girl who'd left primary school just a few weeks earlier. Then, as the (rather one-sided) conversation continued, the questions became more attacking: Are you posh? Have you ever kissed someone? Do you know what you look like?! I decided I wasn't going to play anymore and elected not to answer. What's the matter? He cooed, with mock-concern. I'm just being friendly... And with that, he erupted into howls of laughter and returned to his throne at the back of the bus, where he loudly shouted that I was the ugliest thing he had ever seen and that I was pathetic and couldn't even stand up for myself. I went home and cried. Mum said it was probably just because I was the new girl and that it would get better. It didn't.
Over the next few weeks, he took to sitting beside me and whispering into my ear. I'd bite the insides of my cheeks, silently wondering where the hell the cocky, outspoken girl I used to be had disappeared to, willing her with all my might to return to tell this idiot where to go. But she had gone for good. He had effectively killed her with his words: You know nobody likes you, don't you? Your friends might pretend to, but actually they feel the same as the rest of us. We can't stand to look at you - nobody can. You're so disgusting, you're barely human. I feel so sorry for your parents, you must be such a disappointment. They must be so ashamed, knowing people are looking at you and thinking: What is that thing?! You should kill yourself, so nobody has to look at you anymore. Nobody would miss you. Your family would probably be relieved. And it's not like you have anything to live for, is it? Who's ever going to want you?! Nobody. Nobody could bring themselves to love something that looks like that."
I was only a child. I was twelve years old. An age where your body is changing. Your opinions about the world are just starting to form and you're confused about who you are and what you look like. You are, in a sense, growing into yourself. I had been on course to grow into a confident (some might argue cocky), intelligent young woman. Someone who had very little interest in whether anyone thought negatively of her, because I was content in who I was. Surrounded by love at home and the centre of attention amongst my friends. Suddenly all of that changed. I was frightened. Confused. Was he right? He must be - my friends at school talked about having boyfriends, whereas nobody gave me a second glance. Of course he must be right.
When, inevitably, the words caused tears to fall from my eyes, he would screech with delight: It's crying! It's fucking crying! Oh my God, you have to see this, it looks even more gross now! He would try to turn me round, so the baying group of his mates at the back of the bus could see my tear-stained cheeks and, when I resisted, he would laugh: Fucking hell Gonzo, don't try to fight back, you freak.
Sometimes simply tears weren't enough. He and a friend (the name of whom I have, mercifully, forgotten) would come and sit behind me and play a "game." The rules were simple: You gobbed at me and the one who got the most phlegm in my hair and on my clothes was the winner. My friend Clare began waiting for me at school, knowing she would have to usher me into the toilets to wash my hair and scrub at my clothes whilst I sobbed uncontrollably and told her I wished I was dead. It wasn't just bodily fluids, either. Sandwiches were thrown at me. On one occasion, black sugary stuff was rubbed into my hair so it looked like I had nits. Nits are disgusting and so are you.
The driver of the bus never said or did anything. The teachers at school were clueless as to how to deal with the situation. My parents offered to take me out of the school, but it was where my friends were. Besides, all of my confidence was shattered - how could I go to a new school and try to start again? I was a hideous, disgusting freak and I may as well stay where people knew me.
The Emma I once was had disappeared for good by Christmas. My leavers report from primary school had referred to me as a "bright, confident girl, unafraid to join in with debates or to be centre of attention." I came home in December 1994 with a report that said I was "worryingly quiet and withdrawn." S had murdered the person I was. The adult I could have become. In place of that girl was a frightened, lonely scrap of a person. I put my head down at school and did my best. I still managed to make my small group of friends laugh. But inside, I was terrified. Not simply of going to school. Not simply of the bullying. But that S might be right. That I was a disappointment to my parents. That I would grow up to be unloved. That there was no point to my life. That I would be better off dead.
In late 1995, I climbed up onto the edge of our bath and tied my school tie to the shower rail. I tied the other end around my neck and jumped. My feet landed on the warm, fluffy bath mat. I couldn't even get suicide right, for crying out loud. I took five or six paracetamol, before I got scared. I didn't want to die. I went to bed and cried myself to sleep.
Finally, in January 1997, I was given the news I'd prayed for. My dad had been posted to an RAF base in Gloucestershire. We were moving away. I can still remember the overwhelming joy of stepping off that bus for the last time. I don't know whether S knew I was leaving and I don't care. He spent that last bus journey sat next to me, with his arm around me, telling me: Enjoy this. No other man is ever going to touch you. The thought would sicken anyone to their stomach.
I walked into my new school a few days later, feeling like an enormous weight had been lifted from my shoulders. My form room was up a flight of stairs and, once registration was over, I followed a few girls out of the room and asked them to show me where to go for my first lesson. We walked halfway down the stairs and then I realised an enormous crowd of boys had gathered. One of them pointed at me: Look! THAT is our new GIRL. Look at it! That's not a fucking girl!
I felt my stomach drop to the floor. S had been right. I was hideous. I was going to spend the rest of my life alone. Luckily, that incident was pretty much isolated. I made it through the rest of my school life with only a few snide comments - the sort you can allow to pass you by (or at least pretend to). S did enter my life again, though. When I was 15, a friend from my old school phoned me and said he was with her - did I want to speak to him? He took the phone from her:
I bet you're still an ugly freak - I hope someone there is doing my job for me! Say something then, Gonzo!"
I hung up.
There are people who argue that the things that happen to us in our past should be forgotten to an extent. That we shouldn't let the past affect our present. In some ways I agree. But I believe that what happens to us shapes us and affects the way we treat others. It affects the choices we make and, although mine have been painful, it teaches us lessons that can prove to be invaluable. I wish I had never been through what I went through. I wish I could go back in time and put a comforting arm around that frightened 11 year old on her first day at school. But I can't. What I can do is learn from it. Learn never to judge others solely on their appearance. To have enough emotional intelligence to know when someone is upset and to try to help wherever I can. To offer support to those who need it - I helped to run a counselling service for lower school pupils affected by bullying when I was a sixth former and it was incredibly cathartic, albeit bittersweet as it reminded me that there was no such service afforded to me when I needed it most.
I may not be the confident, out-going girl I could have been. I may be infuriating at times, when I look in a mirror and proclaim myself to be fat and ugly. I can't imagine how frustrating it must be for people who think I'm actually half-decent to hear me constantly put myself down. But those people have to try to remember where that comes from. No, I don't live in the past. No, I don't believe I deserved to be attacked for the way I looked. But it takes a lot of effort on my part to look at myself and be pleased with what I see. I've never stopped seeing that gawky little girl.
And yes, I know it's annoying when I feel the need to justify myself by saying "I don't want to sound arrogant, but..." before I compliment myself. But for someone who spent years feeling unfeminine, sub-human and not worthy of any compliment, it's a pretty big step forward to be saying something positive at all.
I'm not perfect, by any means. I have my flaws (and I don't just mean physical ones). But I'd like to think I'm a pretty good version of the Emma I was forced to become and I really hope that reading this helps those around me - those I love and wouldn't ever want to be without - understand me a little better.
Wednesday, 1 September 2010
You see, Ms Puschnik appears on The Sun's website today, in a video that I can't bring myself to watch (the pictures and the description were enough to bring me to tears). In the 44 second clip, she's seen reaching into a basket of squirming black and white puppies and, as they yelp and wriggle helplessly, she throws each one into a fast-flowing river, smiling and cheering as each small animal drowns.
As with Mary Bale, the woman now infamous for dropping a cat into a wheelie bin, sections of the internet community have (somewhat understandably) already made Puschnik a figure of hate. Her name and contact details have been put online and death threats have been posted in blogs and on the pages of animal rights websites. I'm not suggesting that I agree with quite that level of outcry, but I'll gladly say that I hope the bitch is prosecuted for such sickening behaviour.
A little too strongly worded? I don't think so.
What Puschnik has done is not simply murder (again, I don't really think that's too strong a word) innocent animals. She has deprived several potential owners of the many, varied joys that a pet can bring. Why not advertise the puppies for sale and make a little bit of cash? What about leaving the basket outside a vetinary surgery, knowing the puppies within would be checked over and hopefully rehomed without her having to pay a penny or deal with the fuss of unwanted dogs? Of course, these are all moot points. Unfortunately, the deed is done. And as a dog lover and the owner of a much-loved cocker spaniel, it breaks my heart to know that those lives were snuffed out in such a cruel way.
Dogs are often referred to as "man's best friend." It's not just a random cliche, either. Cal, my now slightly doddery 15 year old spaniel has provided me with loyalty and companionship of a kind I've not experienced from some of my human aquaintances. A philosopher (I forget which) once said: "If you give love, it'll come right back to you." That seems almost doubly true with a dog. And amazingly (almost unfortunately), even when a dog is mistreated by its owner, it will remain loyal.
Those of you who aren't animal lovers, or who prefer cats may not understand a word of what I'm jibbering on about, but believe me: A dog will enrich your life in ways you would never have thought.
Often, when something bad has happened in my life - a rejection from someone I've fallen for, or a failed job interview - I've returned home with tears in my eyes and immediately, Cal will sense that something is wrong. He'll see me, sitting at the kitchen table and trot over to press his head into my lap, whilst staring at me with those big, brown eyes. And he won't budge. For as long as the tears fall, he'll be there, patiently and silently waiting for a smile to return to my face as I run my fingers through his fur.
He's never anything less than pleased to see me. He doesn't get annoyed over silly little things and in spite of the fact that he's a male, I never worry that he's not actually as keen on me as he seems, or that he's going to go off with someone else. He has an amazing sense of humour, too. And yes, I know that sounds a bit of an odd thing to say about a dog, but it's true. He has an incredibly expressive face and even at the ripe old age of 15, he'll still sometimes chase a ball around the garden and, when you finally stop and decide to go back into the house, he'll still stare at you as though he's thinking: "OI! I was enjoying that!"
Yes he's a bit greedy and yes, now that he's old he can never make up his mind as to whether he wants to go into the garden or stay in his bed. But when he gives you his paw and sits, open-mouthed, tongue-lolling out, tail wagging merrily... None of that matters.
It's all of that affection, all of that love that Katja Puschnik has deprived someone of. It's more than just the lives of the puppies that she has stolen, it's the chance to make memories. It's the silly photos of the dog wearing sunglasses or a funny hat that you still chuckle over years later. It's the mutual trust between dog and owner - the bond that stands strong over the years, no matter where you go or what happens in your life. I find it heartbreaking that anyone could take the life of a defenceless animal and I'm sure any other right-thinking person does too.
I think I shall end this here, before I get too upset. Besides, it's almost time for walkies...