Monday 26 December 2016

What's love got to do with it?: politics, passion and positionality

My first political awakening came relatively late. It wasn’t that I was unaware of inequality, and injustice but I hadn’t ever before felt the burning need to people the barricades with like-minded others. It was a return to education following 10 years of training and working as a nursery nurse that did it. In a Monday evening A Level Course at my local FE College my love affair with all things sociological began. I couldn’t get enough of studying or of sociology and the effect it had on the way that I felt about the world and my place and position within it. This was the start of the growth of my personal political imagination; a development that opened my eyes wide to the tragedy of living in Thatcher’s Britain whilst at the same time filling me with excitement and a hope to work alongside others for a better future.

My influence has been moderate. In the research that I have done my aim has always been to raise questions about the social world in an attempt to change things for the better.  Many of the issues I have studied -- not least in the areas of reproductive and non/parental identity (i.e. the status and experience of those who do and do not parent); on gender and health; on working and learning in higher education; on the social and emotional experience of travel; on loss and bereavement - concern experiences that I, and others, think are both misrepresented and misunderstood. I can (at the local level at least) show evidence of some positive difference and I am humbled when my academic publications are referenced by others who work in similar areas. As teacher, as colleague, as supervisor, as mentor I have been privileged to be able to help others in their endeavours for change but I continue to learn as much as I give from those my job has been to teach or support. I delight in the many good friendships I have made through my professional life.   

In my research I have attempted to give a voice to individuals whose experiences have not always been given the attention it deserves. Additionally, some of my work has been auto/biographical. By this I mean that I have undertook research on issues of which I have personal 
experience and have explicitly reflected on the significance of this on and in my work. An auto/biographical approach acknowledges that when researching and writing about our self the traces of others are always present and when focused on the lives of others our own values, beliefs, experience is - whether explicit or implicit - part of the story. 

So my engagement with sociology, specifically feminist, auto/biographical sociology has been personally significant. It has not only helped to shape my identity and my understanding of important life events and experiences but it’s also given me a language to articulate my feelings and reflections. No where more is this evident than with reference to the encounters with loss which have peppered my adult life. My father died when I was 20, I miscarried my only (to my knowledge) biological child in my mid twenties and was divorced from my first husband at 32. My relationship with my second husband was happy but hard work given his many years of illness and when he died a couple of months short of seven years ago he was estranged from his two sons who remain estranged (their choice) from me, even though John had sole custody and they had lived with and were cared for by the two of us during their teenage years and early twenties. Almost five years ago the person who was my main support and source of comfort throughout all of these experiences – my mum, Dorothy – died following a short but nasty illness. Other extended family members and close friends have died over the years and as such I feel that that I have become something of an expert in bereavement.  Additionally, after more than 21 years of full-time work in the academy in December 2014 I left; accepting an offer of ‘voluntary' redundancy. So although I continue to work at various higher education institutions on a freelance basis, and enjoy the liberation from institutional administration, this change to my everyday working practices has required some significant adjustment for it is a loss of another sort. It was a loss – my miscarriage – that led me to sociology and in turn I believe that sociology has influenced the way that I ‘do grief’, just as it have influenced my engagement with the social and political world more generally. 

In a novel I read shortly after my mum's death I came across a reference to a poem entitled The Summer Day, written by Mary Oliver, the last three line of which are:

     Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
     Tell me, what is it you plan to do 
     with your one wild and precious life? 

I am still trying to work this out. I have done some stuff, achieved some things, but there is still lots more to do.

Much of my work in the academy has been multi-disciplinary and recently this has included collaboration with occupational therapists. Occupational science encourages us to use the term occupation broadly (not merely in relation to paid work) and suggests that although occupations may lose meaning when one is grieving paradoxically it is occupation that can help in regaining meaning in life. I have long found writing enriching, therapeutic even. The night I left my first marital home I packed a change of clothes, my toothbrush and the books on prisons and imprisonment I was currently reading in preparation for writing an undergraduate essay (marked coincidentally by the man who was to become my second husband although this was several years before our intimate relationship began).  Academic writing also helped me through John's periods of mental distress, alcohol misuse and physical illness.

In the last few years I have begun to experiment with other, different genres. Following the usual childhood creations I was left with ambitions to write fiction and memoir like my dad Ron, (a blue collar worker for most of his working life) did whenever he had time.  As well as a 40 thousand word memoir my dad wrote, and had some success in publishing, short stories in the 1960s and 1970s. He made up stories for me too; my favourite being the series about a gnome called Tipperty Tapperty Sam who lived under a bridge and made furniture for dolls houses. Despite my desire to follow in his storytelling example until recently I had no imagination about what to write. In 2010, not long after John’s death, I suddenly had a few ideas, and even more after my mum died in 2012. Not surprisingly perhaps many of my early (and current) attempts are grounded in, or relate to, my own life; early experiences, reworking of family events and challenges told to me by my parents; adult adventures and engagements with change. Other pieces relate broadly to research data I have collected and to events in the news. In 2015 I began writing short pieces of memoir all of which related in some ways to loss and to the legacies I believe that John and my parents have left me with. The two thousand plus words here represent one example of such work.

Following some, previously unusual for me, physical illness (evidence I believe of the connections between emotional and physical wellbeing and the fact that for many of us grief is an embodied experience) at the end of summer 2015 I began to feel very low. Almost a year later just as I was beginning to come out of this particularly part of my grief journey, I was struck by tremendous anger and anxiety. It wasn't that I wasn't distressed by the 2015 general election result, I was. It wasn't that I didn't feel shock and fear following the May EU referendum, I did. But what I really couldn’t get over was when at a time when the Left really needed to work together and to work hard for a better more secure future for all a significant number of the Parliamentary Labour Party thought that it was sensible to start an internal war. This was what really stimulated my second (party) political awakening. This time rather than experiencing excitement about my potential involvement I just felt very miserable (in an earlier blog entry entitled Stomach Churns and Chewed Nails I detailed some of my physical symptoms). In part my anger and anxiety was self-directed. I felt guilty for my political laziness over the past few years. I don’t regret focusing on the ‘personal as political’ in both my working and private lives but I have neglected the ‘bigger picture’ somewhat. My anxiety grew as I felt increasingly helpless in terms of what I could actually do. I missed John tremendously during this time. He was himself a political being, reflected in the choice of music and readings at his funeral, including a memory shared by a long-time good friend who recalled the time he and John were thrown out of a Conservative club just because they stood on a table to sing The Red Flag. I can't think why they both had lovely voices.  

Several months on I am a little less 'churned up' although my equilibrium is precarious and still likely to dip on a daily basis. This more comfortable state I credit, at least in part, to having found a way to live with the (now lower level) anxiety. Also relevant is that alongside my writing on this blog and elsewhere (some of which not surprisingly relates to recent political events and my responses to these) I have become more actively involved in party politics at a local level. I have also recently signed up for some additional volunteering which involves writing, listening and talking; all things I can go. With these developments in mind I like to think that I’m taking Maya Angelou (2006) to heart when she writes:

     You should be angry. . . . So use that anger. You write it. You paint it. 
     You dance it. You march it. You vote it. You do everything about it. 
     You talk it. Never stop talking it.

Alongside the activities detailed here I have certainly talked a lot in the last few months and I’m grateful to my dear, generous friends who have listened to me (a lot) and others who have read and commented on the pieces I have written. These communications haven’t always been easy or comfortable but they have all been useful in helping me to work out what I need to do next: to be useful, to feel useful. More than one person has challenged me on my support for a politics that is kinder, gentler and more focused on hope, peace and solidarity. It’s not that they don’t want similar but rather it’s the possibility, the reality of such as approach they are sceptical of. I accept this. Turning on the TV or radio or reading a mainstream or alternative news piece in my social media feed is all I need to do to be reminded how nasty and brutish the political world and broader society – both at home and abroad – can be, and often is. And yet: political campaigns to end infant funeral charges; speeches and alternative Christmas messages in remembrance of deceased colleagues, friends and family members; public discussion of the need for material and emotional support for the elderly, for those suffering from mental or physical ill-health, for asylum speakers; and solidarity with those who deliver our mail, enable our journeys to work, take care of us when we are ill who are fighting for more efficient, safer, better paid working conditions. . .  and so on, go some way to lift my mood. Add to this MPs staffing food bank stalls; recording (admittedly sometimes cheesy) charity singles; and highlighting the importance of love and care through their interactions with others as well as their political oration.

For those who want to find them, there are also many, many examples, of positive and life-affirming messages in literature, film and other cultural outputs. I Daniel Blake and Harry’s Last Stand (Harry Leslie Smith (2014) Harry's Last Stand: How the world my generation built is falling down, and what we can do to save it Icon Books) are both frightening reminders of how bad things are and how, if we don’t all fight hard to change things, they could get even worse. But IDB and Harry’s memoir are also about the power of positive relationships, of friendship and of love. 

I carry in my heart those I have loved who are no longer with me and despite my lack of traditional family I am lucky to have a life peopled with significant others who I love and who love me. If the personal is political, which it is, then the political is personal also. My personal politics is still developing, I'm still learning and changing but I know my approach will always include a focus on love for having received so much of it I have lots of it to share. Whilst writing this piece I have been conscious that some might dismiss my feelings and my ambitions as idealistic, as naive, as 'gross advertisement and sickly self-indulgence' (for after all I've had this criticism before, but that's another story). If so, so be it. After the year I, we, have all had I'm just doing what I know I have to do. 


The image on the front of Jeremy Corbyn's Christmas card is in fact more complex than it seems. On first inspection it's a dove carrying an olive branch. Looking again some people see 2017 and others the word JOY. Despite The Sun's suggestion that this is un-festive, whatever one's religious belief, or not, what more could we want for 2017 but peace and joy.
In my small way I need to keep working on achieving this for myself and for others, in order, not least, to feel comfortable within my own skin. 

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