Victim of words?

blackholes copy“What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist.”
– Salman Rushdie

I talked about being offended by words and ideas in a previous post, and although I will now continue along the same topic I hope to avoid being too repetitive. A few weeks ago I came across a lengthy Facebook status by Sebastian Tynkkynen, a Finnish far-right politician, indeed the president of the True Finns youth party, which I mentioned in my recent discussion on gender. The story is in Finnish so I will briefly paraphrase what’s going on.

Following the Brussels terrorist attacks The Finnish Resistance Movement (part of an overarching Nordic National Socialist movement) organised a small-scale rally in central Helsinki to promote their anti-immigration views. Mr Tynkkynen was invited to the event as a speaker, and as he got up on the stage a bystander started yelling “Tynkkynen is racist, Tynkkynen is racist”.

“Public discussion has become taxing and those with critical views on immigration are being silenced by equating them with an ideology represented by the nazis who practised racial segregation: racism.“

Giving this premise Tynkkynen is now raising charges against his defier for slander, thereby trying to bring justice to the many immigration critics who are constantly being accused of racism. He is seeking to make his case a precedent in the public discussion of immigration; to eliminate “the racist card” because “the game has become too cruel”. Tynkkynen goes on to elaborating his reasoning for taking this to court. According to him a culture that allows indefinite slander of a person “if one knows how to do it right” – whatever that means – is growing stronger in Finland.

“It generates endless bullying and contempt which effect both mentally, socially and on one’s employability. I often get these messages from citizens and I now want to intervene. I’m not aware of a case where defamation of a citizen by the racist card has lead to a conviction – -“

“If this goes through, the ruling will have wider implications on the societal conversation at large. It follows that a citizen charging their adversary with racism would in practice automatically be convicted.”

Needless to say that I think this is ridiculous and bordering on offending free speech.
I agree with Sebastian on one point, and that is that the haphazard use of the word ‘racist’ in public discourse is 99% of the time unhelpful. The term has become so overused that it has lost its meaning, and nowadays those holding racist views tend to hide behind some version of ‘immigration criticism’. But even when calling someone a racist might be an accurate denomination based on their opinions it just doesn’t bring anything of value to the conversation. It’s a shortcut used in the place of actual fact-based arguments, and does not serve defenders of human rights one bit.

Defamation

Racist

Is it slander to call someone, who has publicly leant their voice for a known far-right group with glaringly bigoted views, a racist? Is it a false accusation to make the connection between his views and those of the openly racist organisation that he has for the moment sided with? Moreover, is pointing out this apparent connection harmful for the accused racist’s reputation?

Like I said, I don’t think it’s helpful or necessary to yell insults on either side but I also don’t think that being called out on prejudiced views, or affiliations with advocates of prejudiced views is particularly harmful to one’s good reputation. Perhaps Sebastian, and others in similar positions, don’t realise that by agreeing to dignify these kinds of groups with their presence as a public figure, one is making a statement. And should they indeed be so worried about being labelled a racist then perhaps they should reconsider what kind of events they want to appear at in the first place. If Mr Tynkkynen was being honest, we would admit that even his own party’s stance on immigration is somewhat radical and in itself grants him a role – whether wanted or not, in the debate of what is and isn’t racist. When one decides to be in the public eye one must grow a thicker skin and be prepared to defend oneself in the crossfire of comments and offences.

I’m not interested in personally attacking Sebastian Tynkkynen. In truth, I know hardly anything about him. This case merely beautifully illustrates the self-victimisation phenomenon in social media. I see it as yet another way of misunderstanding the essence of freedom of speech, and misusing the concept of it as a justification for holding intolerant views. I have said it before and I will say it again: yes, you are absolutely allowed to have your opinions and express them. But when you face resistance it does not mean that your freedom of expression has been infringed upon. Being offended does not automatically mean that you are right. This is something that many Finnish immigration critics, especially members and supporters of the True Finns party do not seem to grasp. The same can be said about the opponents of the equal marriage law who pretend that allowing same sex couples the same judicial standing as heterosexual couples somehow offends or limits their freedom to practice religion. I have no idea how this could be true unless it forced gay marriage on everyone – which it doesn’t by the way.

And let’s not forget that these champions of freedom of expression have come up with their own slander term for those who call them racist: “suvakki” or better yet, “suvakkihuora”. The first one is derived from the word “suvaitsevainen” meaning “tolerant” and in the second one the lovely word “huora”, “whore” has been added to the mix. Should all immigration liberals now start taking people to court for calling them tolerant whores? What a time to be alive.

But on a more serious note, the thought of a word being practically criminalised is rather chilling. There are obviously more eloquent ways of criticising people’s views than yelling “RACIST” but as Tynkkynen himself points out, the author of this insult was calmed down by a couple of police officers who were present at the event. No damage was done, no one’s freedom of expression was denied, no one was physically or mentally traumatised.

Understandably it is annoying and frustrating when our comments are dismissed as racist or otherwise irrelevant but instead of immediately seeking to deny the use of certain words wouldn’t it be more effective to take the time to explain why our opinions are actually relevant, to defend ourselves with intelligence rather than seeking to make resisting us a criminal offence. Criminalising certain kind of societal critique is a feature of totalitarianism which we should always fight against, in every way possible. That is, if we really want to preserve free society and liberal values, and that precious freedom of speech.
The use of force, physical or otherwise instead of intelligence only confirms the narrative of a bigoted caveman afraid of the unknown, which the word ‘racist’ is used to bring attention to. When the insult seems to do real harm to our career or image then it should be treated as a false accusation and proved wrong. When it is a random person at an outdoor event after a recent terrorist attack, who is in the end only manifesting his own shortage of temper and lack of elegant articulation, it ought to be ignored -in my humble opinion at least. By treating this incident as a valid commentary on one’s character you are only presenting yourself as a victim, lethally wounded by a word. You are saying that this slur has caused so much damage to your person that it is only right that the offender should be punished in the court of law, and that also everyone else who holds this view of you and your opinions should not have the right to call you out. How exactly does this advance our public discourse on the real issues of the immigration crisis in Europe? News flash: it doesn’t. I am no expert in this particular topic but I claim to know something about effective advocacy and communication.

Finishing with “I left with my dark-skinned friend” is also not the most convincing argument and doesn’t negate the connotations of being affiliated with a group notorious for using violence to propagate its antisemitic, anti-gay and racist agenda. If in your heart of hearts you know that you are not a racist then why would you publicly seem to support a group of known racists? More importantly, why would you care if a random bystander calls you a racist? Is it perhaps because they hit a nerve? I don’t know.
What I do know is that there are many and more people whom I disagree with on different topics but whom I still respect because of their ability and will to articulate well and think critically. Anyone who is not willing to have a proper conversation but instead just dismiss me as a feminazi or a privileged white girl or whatever else, I’m not going to bother with – let alone sue them. But maybe that’s just me.

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Hail, Caesar! and shades of satire

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I wrote another longwinded commentary on the rampant online culture of self-victimisation and being offended, but instead of posting that today, I decided to talk about something possibly more fun. I’m certain that the other topic will still be relevant next week – sadly.

Disclaimer: I’m going to chat about a film that makes fun of religion (among other things). I you don’t like that kind of thing maybe go read something else. I’m an atheist, a critic of religion and a supporter of secularism. As a result I always find it marvellously entertaining when someone pokes fun at religion in any capacity – especially in the form of cinema. Life of Brian, anyone?

Hail, Caesar! is a film about films, about the enigma of the moviemaking business in the 1950’s where a Hollywood fixer Eddie Mannix has his hands full trying to keep his cavalcade of starlets in line and away from the scandal-hungry press. I love a good satire and even if your knowledge of show business myths and clichés is even less substantial than mine: mainly based on Audrey Hepburn films and Marc Maron’s podcast, you will get the the gist of this film. I spent about 90% of the time in fits of laughter and the rest catching my breath. There’s the young and handsome film star who doesn’t really know how to act apart from doing cool tricks while riding a horse in Westerns; the innocent looking blonde bombshell who is actually a chain smoker and disgracefully pregnant to one of the guys that she’s been going out with; and one of my personal favourites – the secret society of stereotypically Jewish looking communist screenwriters.

The central storyline revolves around the production of the film Hail, Caesar! which tells the story of Jesus from the point of view of a Roman military commander. Of course the studio doesn’t want to ruffle any school of believers with an offensive portrayal of their messiah so they gather together a group of clerics from the Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Protestant and Jewish traditions to consult with. My favourite scene: a hilarious and poignant exchange regarding the essence of Christ, ensues. The way Eddie phrases the issue to his interlocutors is along the lines of whether they think that anything in the script of Hail, Caesar! would strike as offensive to a “reasonable American regardless of faith or creed”. Reason and faith inhabit the opposite ends of a spectrum, which obviously leads to a totally nonsensical argument between the four religious leaders about theological disagreements between each of their respective sects. The Patriarch is merely bothered about the “fakeyness” of an unrelated scene, the Catholic Priest is really, very intense, the Protestant Minister nonspecific and the rabbi clearly sees himself as superior since Judaism obviously departs from the rest of Christianity by insisting that Jesus was just a mortal man.

Here’s a transcript of part of the debate for your entertainment. If you’re bored, try to identify who’s who, and go see the film. It’s extremely funny.

“Young man, you don’t follow for a very simple reason: these men are screwballs. God has children? What, and a dog? A collie maybe? God does not have children. He’s a bachelor. And very angry.”

“He used to be angry!”

What, he got over it?”

“You worship the God of another age!”

“Who has no love!”

“Not true! He likes Jews.”

“God loves everyone!”

“God is love.”

“God is who is.”

Clearly the film is here ridiculing the internal discord of Christianity, and the overall elusiveness of the basis of religious faith. For many, religion answers the big questions of why there is something rather than nothing and what is the purpose of our lives, but from a secular point of view this system is frankly, a big old mess. When there are several different religions in the world divided into several different sects and traditions whose spokesmen all seem to have different interpretations and ideas of what the essence of their god is, not to mention the billions of people who undoubtedly also harbour their own personal interpretations and ideas of these things, any truth claims made on such a premise – or lack thereof really, completely evaporate in the non-believers eyes.

In addition to teasing the concept of organised religion and its feeble and fabricated relevance to truth, the character of Eddie Mannix represents a more personal relationship to religiosity. In the opening scene Eddie is shown at a confessional, which he frequents daily, seeking divine forgiveness for his failure to stop smoking and lying to his wife about it. This sin seems rather benign in comparison with the threats, lies and other questionable methods Eddie has to employ in his job in order to cover up all the trouble that his starlets are constantly running into.
This cognitive dissonance of identifying as a devout Catholic whilst simultaneously making unethical decisions is an integral part of being any sort of a believer today without causing massive havoc. Or how else would a Young Earth Creationist (someone who believes that the Earth is 5000 years old and that Darwinian evolution is nonsense) be a doctor for example? Clearly, in order to pass medical school you must have studied a bunch of science totally inconsistent with your scripture. And this also holds true to any theist who accepts that the Earth is actually 4,5 billion years old and that evolution is a fact. Human mind is so flexible and immense in its capacity that a person can hold contradictory beliefs and be totally fine with it, but I think we have to notice that this is not a logical way of processing information. It isn’t markedly wrong or bad – just illogical. And I’m not condemning or sneering at anyone of any faith as long as they don’t harm others in its name. (Look at me getting all defensive. This blog has approximately four and a half regular readers but I’m still terrified of religious fanatics. There’s one living next door, and half of the city’s Orthodox Jew population just round the corner.)
Moreover, I read the cycle of immorality, shame, confession and retribution that dictates Eddie’s life as a critique of the notion that without religious disposition one cannot be moral. Clearly, practising religion is not the answer to the evils of the world either. Quite the contrary, as it seems that for Eddie, going through the motions required by his faith, justifies committing the same sins again and again. And why would he change his ways if the heavenly Father is going to forgive him all the same?

But honestly, it is entirely possible to watch this movie without getting all worked up about the hypocrisy of organised religion. Don’t be discouraged by my seriousness and pessimism!

“All religion, my friend, is simply evolved out of fraud, fear, greed, imagination and poetry.”
– Edgar Allan Poe

So you’re offended?

IMG_9866Freedom of speech is very high up on the list of my most important values – as I believe it is for most. However, following the expansion of social media as a platform where anyone and everyone can have their say on any topic under the sun it seems that freedom of speech has become confused with the freedom of not being offended.

I used to be an avid Tumblr user some years ago. At first it was a cool place for pop culture and fandoms where you’d find a lot of people deeply devoted to sci-fi shows doing character studies and meta-analyses and what have you. Feminism, LGBTQ rights and anti-racism were always prevalent and I have to say I learned a lot about everyday sexism and racism in the U.S. (most users seemed to be American) among other things. But then gradually everything became offensive to someone, and the term ‘trigger warning’ started to appear.

By the way, I’ve now heard that some universities in the U.S. and even in the UK have student bodies demanding that lecturers issue trigger warnings and refrain from using certain words lest they cause a student to be upset – or rather traumatised.
I sometimes wonder how the human race has survived for this long…

The thought behind this is that some topics may be triggering to survivors of sexual assault or otherwise. I can see the value of the idea but so long as media platforms like Tumblr don’t automatically generate trigger warnings haphazard tagging by a minimal number of users seems pointless.
With regard to establishments of higher education and research, I can hardly think of a worse course of action than to start censoring people in spaces which were created for free enquiry, research, discussion, debate and open critique of ideas and theories. I simply cannot stand the thought of going to do a Masters degree and finding out that the professors and lecturers are having to hold themselves back in the fear of accidentally making someone feel uncomfortable. This is inconceivable – and in my honest opinion, individuals who feel that they would be seriously damaged by hearing certain words or discussing certain topics should probably not go to a university in the first place. Being uncomfortable is crucial for intellectual development.

“It’s now very common to hear people say, ‘I’m rather offended by that.’ As if that gives them certain rights. It’s actually nothing more… than a whine. ‘I find that offensive.’ It has no meaning; it has no purpose; it has no reason to be respected as a phrase. ‘I am offended by that.’ Well, so fucking what.
– Stephen Fry

But back to Tumblr: the more I read responses to apparently triggering content, the more I came to realise that for the most part people were merely upset or angry about something they had read, rather than actually triggered in a psychologically serious way. In Finnish we have a wonderful word,’mielensäpahoittaja’, for people who seem to actively look for things to get offended by so that they can attack the alleged offenderAs soon as one seeks to shut down a conversation or silence their opponent on the grounds of being offended, in my eyes, they have lost. No problem was ever solved by declaring it a taboo.
So then I stopped using Tumblr because my blood pressure couldn’t handle the “How dare you use that word you racist, trans-phobic, misogynist, white supremacist, ableist, sociopathic cunt!!!” type of rhetoric that was rampant.

Escaping Tumblr was only a short-term solution and being offended is increasingly trendy in every nook of social media. Of course there are words like nigger or fag that are found offensive in most of their uses. However words in and of themselves are not and can not be offensive; we give them meaning and one can either chose – or not, to give or take offence. There are ideas that can be viewed as offensive, such as women as second-class citizens, and of course some people find nudity or homosexuality terribly upsetting. All in all everyone has a right to be offended. This is not an issue. The issue is the misconception that being offended means you are right and the other person is wrong; that somehow you, as the offended party are entitled to be de-offended. Spoiler alert: you are not, and none of us are. Taking offence is our own business, and if we wish to confront our perceived offenders we have every right to defend our views. But simply stating “This is offensive” is not effective advocacy, and will not aid your cause whatever it may be.

The world is full of interesting and hard conversations to be had and the real tragedy is if intelligent and insightful people start to censor themselves under the pressure of thin-skinned opponents and audiences. I firmly believe that any topic should be open for discussion and any idea fair game for critique. We should all recognise that when our ideas, views and beliefs are being criticised, we as persons are not under attack. For instance, when I question your religious ideology I am not questioning your personhood, morality or value. I would never deliberately offend a person but I would offend an idea.
How about actually offensive and hateful speech though – isn’t that bad? I think everyone should have the right to present themselves precisely as bigoted and ignorant as they in fact are. Genuinely bad ideas will more than likely be faced with mockery, and genuinely malicious speech will be condemned. Shutting people up won’t stop them from generating stupid ideas, laughing them off the stage might.
That said, when it comes to representing the views of a group of people, one ought to be held more accountable for their statements as they are in fact not only speaking for themselves.

‘If someone tells me that I’ve hurt their feelings, I say, “Well I’m still waiting to hear what your point is”.’
– Christopher Hitchens

Some resources:
The Thinking Atheist Podcast – I’m Offended!
Sam Harris and Jonatahan Haidt talk about political correctness on campus and lots of other things (just listen to all of Sam’s podcast episodes, he’s brilliant and you might get offended)
SubReddit about Social Justice Warriors on Tumblr and elsewhere (it’s funny ok)
All of Christopher Hitchens’ debates on YouTube (he’s the bomb)

The Gender Police

blacksheepI’m listening to The Thinking Atheist podcast episode from last summer and the topic of discussion is transgender issues. As a conversation starter the host reads out loud a couple of bigoted and misinformed views of people who feel entitled to weigh in on certain trans-celebs’ experiences. I got particularly annoyed by a Facebook response to Caitlyn Jenner from a middle-aged lady, Emilee Danielson who asserts that “Mr. Jenner” has no right to identify as a woman because there is a multitude of innately feminine experiences that “he” will never be able to have, including period pains, menopause and pregnancy.

This also ties in with a very recent campaign launched by the youth sect of a Finnish right wing, nationalist political party “True Finns” (How do I hate the English translation they use!). I’m not actually sure what’s going on with the campaign now because it immediately faced an onslaught of backlash and ridicule in social media. Anyway the point of it was to enforce traditional gender roles and get rid of “confusion” and “needless complexity” that that arise from a more fluid definition of gender. Wearing baseball caps stating ‘boy’ or ‘girl’ these young conservative actives call for the right for boys to be boys and girls to be girls because according to them our sexual nature is clear-cut binary. Not only is the statement scientifically inaccurate, but it also dismisses the difference between sex and gender entirely. To their defence, in the Finnish language, we only have one word that covers the two terms, and so confusion is understandable. However, one would think that in a campaign seeking to reduce confusion more research into the socio-biological study of the topic of gender should have been done. But maybe that’s just me, and to be honest, these True Finns are notorious for making rather outrageous and poorly justified claims in public. Therefore I shouldn’t be surprised.

I would suggest that behind these – or any – truth claims about sex and gender are some very deeply rooted misconceptions: 1.) sex and gender are interchangeable words for the same thing, 2.) there is a clear-cut binary division in sex/gender, and 3.) there is something inherently special about one’s gender that is also inherently different from the other.

So let’s start with the difference of sex and gender. In short, sex describes one’s biological properties, and is somewhat easier to define. Most people are born with either two X chromosomes and female reproductive organs, or with one X and one Y chromosome and male reproductive organs. So there is the binary, plain and simple – or is it? Although rare there are those who are born intersex i.e. with some elements from both reproductive organs. Sadly, very few of those babies get to grow old enough to know whether they want a surgery or not, and are often assigned a gender by their parents and doctors in infancy. And we can’t always even look to the chromosomes to know what’s going on because some people with female reproductive organs are born with three X chromosomes or even a traditionally male combo XY. So reducing both sex and gender into a the combination of sex chromosomes and denying the validity of alternative gender identities seems rather ignorant.

Which brings us to gender. Gender in a nutshell is a social construct, which traditionally holds all of our preconceptions of how people of one or another gender are or should be. It shows in ways in which we express ourselves to the world, and in how we feel about our place amongst people of other genders. Gender as a term is in constant flux and can seem elusive especially if you, like me are cis-gendered i.e. your biological sex matches your gender identity, and you’ve never had to ponder what being certain gender means to you.

But let’s go back to the Facebook post and Emilee’s view on who gets to identify as a woman. According to her the formative experiences of womanhood include the physical experiences arising from female reproductive systems and hormonal changes, the challenges of motherhood and the fear of male violence. And as trans-women can’t have all of those experiences they don’t get to be called female? How about the women who are sterile? Or those who never want biological children? Are they somehow lesser than women who go through period pains and pregnancy? The problem with this narrow description of womanhood, which boils down to ovaries is its exclusiveness especially in today’s world where it is increasingly socially acceptable to choose to leave no offspring. Needless to say this view also perpetuates conventional nuclear family structure, which in turn leads to the conclusion that women belong in the home whilst men rule the world. Of course, it is entirely possible to be a mother and also work and realise one’s dreams outside the family, but saying that motherhood is the pinnacle of femininity is archaic – and so 1950’s.

Then there is this experience of fear for male violence when alone in the dark  – apparently unattainable by trans-women.

“You will never know what it is like to have your car break down on the side of the road and when a couple men stop to help your prayer is that their intentions are good because there is no way on earth you have the ability to physically hang let alone overpower them.”

I have two issues with this statement. First of all, to insinuate that trans-women are not vulnerable to violent crimes is simply ridiculous. The Human Rights Campaign reports that there were more reported transgender homicide victims in 2015 than any previous year. These crimes are not recorded as hate crimes but for the sake of this argument this isn’t really even relevant. The point is that the fear of violence is very much present in many trans-women’s lives – probably even more so than an average cis-woman’s due to the prejudice and lack of empathy towards trans-identities.

It bears a mention that most victims of these crimes are not only transgender but also people of colour, and in this light it is probably accurate to say that Caitlyn Jenner personally is not at risk of violence to the same degree as the victims mentioned in the HRC report. However, also Emilee is white and so statistically safer than any woman of colour – cis or trans. Of course fear and statistics don’t go hand in hand but the claim that trans-women having lived or living in male bodies are unfamiliar with the experience is plain ignorance and lack of compassion.

The other huge problem in this passage is the notion of fear for violence inflicted by men as an integral part of the “true” female identity. I find this one of the most misogynistic statements about femininity that I’ve ever heard – especially coming from a woman. That to have a full and real experience of womanhood we must feel inferior to men to such a degree that we are afraid. Just to clarify, I completely understand why many women feel unsafe walking alone at night and uneasy in the presence of strange men. I am by no means saying that the feeling is irrational and weak and stupid – no. I don’t really experience this myself but I empathise with anyone who does, and the rare times that I’ve been outside at night alone, I have made sure to be alert and cognisant of my environment.

The real issue is seeing the fear of male violence as an inherent part of womanhood without which one cannot identify as a female. This kind of thinking perpetuates inequality between genders and promotes traditional gender roles where woman is seen as less than complete, and man as the ultimate human. In short, it implies that a woman needs a man to protect her from other men, which is seriously counterproductive to feminism and social equality at large. To promote such a view is to promote the experience of self-inflicted victimhood, which only leads to passivity, lazy name-calling and making complaints instead of taking action in one’s own life. There is really nothing worse than to teach ourselves and our children to adopt an overarching fear of a group of people. I was never told by anyone to avoid being raped or attacked by doing this, that or the other thing, and somehow I learned to carry myself with confidence instead of paranoia. I’m not saying I’m untouchable; bad things can happen to anyone. But to hold fear at the core of an authentic gender identity is to put a stop to progress.

In conclusion, I find the gender policing from the likes of conservative youth politicians and the Eileen Danielsons of the world boring and a waste of everyone’s time with their quick judgements and eagerness to put people’s identities in neat and contained boxes with no overlapping and no fluidity. Frankly, there are so many actual problems in every corner of our planet that getting overly agitated by someone’s non-conforming gender identity seems very petty and short-sighted. At least Mrs Danielson is just a regular person with some regressive opinions which she certainly is entitled to, but a political organisation should probably reconsider the target of its resources. If you are so threatened by the acceptance of diversity of unconventional gender roles in society that you feel the need to shout from the rooftops what it really means to be a woman, maybe consider seeking professional help. And I am sure to send you an invite back to the 50’s as soon as someone invents a time-machine.

Live, and let others live.
p.s. Listen to The Thinking Atheist!!

Resources:
The Thinking Atheist Podcast – The Transgender Question
Emilee Danielson’s Facebook post
The HRC report
The Guardian’s article on the HRC report
Broadly – ‘He’s not done killing her’: Why so many trans women were murdered in 2015
Chromosomal anomalies
The True Finns campaign (in Finnish)
For some gender theory check out Gender Trouble and Undoing Gender by Judith Butler

A good old feminist book rant

books copyLet’s ignore the fact that I have been completely awol for the past couple of months, and jump right into my review/analysis/feminist rant inspired by my current favourite author Patrick Rohtfuss’ book series.

Reading the first two parts of Patrick Rothfuss’ to-be trilogy, The Kingkiller Chronicles turned out to be a completely unanticipated rollercoaster ride in the best possible way. Without conducting a more in-depth analysis of the plot and characters let’s just state that the bare bones of the story are pretty much identical to 90% of the fantasy books that I have read: a young, talented boy loses his family in a tragedy, lives in poverty, discovers magic and eventually proceeds to doing extraordinary things. Not a particularly exciting premise to be sure but rest assured that everything on top that – the flesh and blood of the story if you will – are well worth exploring. Not only does the author give shape to the story with beautifully intricate and at parts even poetic language, he also has the skill of balancing out profound ideas with witty and relatable humour.

The quality that I found most surprising and inspiring was the treatment of the female characters throughout. Many books in the fantasy genre tend to harbour worn-out feminine stereotypes with only a minimal female presence in central roles. Kingkiller Chronicles departs from this tradition by bringing in a number of well-developed, singular female characters none of whose reason for existence is to be a pretty accessory. The epitome of this is the careful construction of the Adem: a people that has its own cultural history, language, country and customs. Like any fantasy author, Rothfuss has created his own world with different geological and cultural areas, languages and so on. Adem is one such, and it differs from the predominating culture in a number of ways.


At first we only know as much as the protagonist; that the Adem only venture outside their own country as mercenaries. They are said to be excellent fighters whose appearance is stoic to the point of where it’s considered an oddity among the “general population”. They are seen as other. The fact that no one seems to have any first-hand experience with the Adem has spruced up a mass of rumours, each one more fantastical than the last. Of course, as the protagonist learns more, the strange customs start to make sense, which in itself is a poignant remark of the human nature. We naturally fear the unknown especially when it is a part of another culture. Racism at its core is fear turned into anger and hate. Anyone who takes time to reflect on another culture will notice that people are people no matter how they communicate and what they believe in.

What really impressed me about the way the Adem are portrayed is that their society is matriarchal. As feminism is at the centre of my academic intrigue I got sucked in in a heartbeat. I haven’t come across many matriarchal communities in my previous experiences of fantasy lit, and really the only other remarkable example that springs to mind is the genius satire, Egalia’s Daughters. Being a satirical matriarchy, Egalia is the exaggerated polar opposite to our world, and provokes the reader through humour until they see how absolutely constructed the prevailing patriarchal system that we live in actually is.

The Adem are portrayed as hard-working and humble people; not fanatic or eccentric in any way. They are just as suspicious about outsiders as the outsiders are of them. Unfamiliar customs are just as off-putting and strange to them, and in their eyes, their way of doing things is obviously the correct one. Everyone else is uncivilised.

That aside, their philosophy is a fascinating one. Central to the Adem’s belief system is the tradition of martial arts, which is also the way in which their mercenaries bring wealth into the community. The backbone of the art is the Lethani, a sort of a spiritual and ethical path that guides all of the Adem to do the right thing. The Lethani is an innate morale peculiar to the culture, that in their eyes is missing from the rest of the world. The Lethani guides one to use their fighting skills sparingly and only for a cause that is for the good of the Adem. What the Lethani really is and includes is rather obscure but what seems to be clear is that although the Adem are known fighters it is not of the spirit of the Lethani to relish violence.

Another side of the fighting is the Ketan, which reminds me of yoga and thai-chi as it is described to be a series of movements to be performed in continuation as close to perfection as possible. These movements are then incorporated into combat where they usually take your average non-Adem opponent by surprise.

The Adem regard women superior fighters to men as they have less anger, and are therefore better at controlling themselves. Lethani is about control and knowing when to fight. Men are deemed more impulsive, more prone to violence and therefore more likely to depart from the code of conduct. The notion that men are less valuable for the society is a no-brainer for the Adem and although the male protagonist finds himself rather offended by this he and the reader are forced to admit that it is no worse than the opposite view of women being seen as the weaker sex.

But like any other society, the Adem also have their ridiculous beliefs that put them back on the same level with other systems. Due to the dominating role of women in the society the Adem hold a belief that men have no part in procreation at all, which serves the power of matriarchy as it diminishes the relevance of man entirely. Although for the reader as well as for the protagonist this belief is complete nonsense it does serve a purpose regarding the fictional world it is set in. By giving this flaw to the otherwise beautiful culture it descends back into being just another set traditions and customs constructed by humans who want to believe that their way is the right way.

An interesting component of the Adem values is that they have no sex taboo. This is of course in line with the belief that the physical act is in no way related to conception. When there is no danger of forming unwanted familial ties through offspring sex becomes purely a physical act where both participants are seeking pleasure and release. Because of this there is no shame or sense of ownership of another’s body. The protagonist comes from a world similar to ours where women are easily labelled promiscuous and viewed as men’s property. Their sex is owned by one man, and prostitutes are at the lowest level of social hierarchy. This is a massive problem in our current world as well, and women are still much more easily labelled sluts than men for having multiple sex partners. The violation of the female body – and what is considered a violation is constantly questioned and debated; and debated by men no less. The right to one’s own body is not a given to women like it is for men, and the sex taboo is one of the man-made constructions fuelling this way of thinking.

That said, the carefully thought-out philosophy of the Adem is refreshing and I applaud Patrick Rothfuss for coming up with all of its complexities. It shows another example of a culture built upon a set of circumstances, history and beliefs. In some ways it is no better than patriarchy but it demonstrates that many of the patriarchal customs are nothing but myths and tired traditions that have no foundation in facts, but merely illusions that are set to keep up the power relations.

In my opinion, one of the great triumphs of The Kingkiller Chronicles is its conventional setting, which in the hands of the author, turns into quite something else than your average fantasy novel. Patrick Rothfuss shows that with great sensitivity and originality the tired cliché of a teenage boy with tragic childhood and special skills can surpass its predecessors and become a thought-provoking, entertaining and a heartfelt story, that manages to tap into very important points about how racism and sexism are fuelled by preconceptions and the inability to see people as people – equal on all levels.

Le Trajet and The Pre-Raphaelite obsession with dying ladies

Le Trajet | Romaine Brooks | C. 1900

Le Trajet | Romaine Brooks | C. 1900

As I’ve previously referred to my profound fascination of Pre-Raphaelite art, and its symbolically saturated way of replaying feminine tropes, I thought I’d share a bit of picture research and analysis with you. A chapter in Bram Dijkstra’s Idols of Perversity discusses how the ‘cult of invalidism’ encouraged Victorian women to both physically and mentally sacrifice themselves in order to arrive at the pinnacle of femininity as defined by men in power. Historically physical prowess has not been among the most sought for and admired feminine qualities but in the tour-de-siècle environment where frailty and submissiveness were regarded as particularly desirable, any demonstration of female empowerment received moral scorn. It is not a massive stretch to make a connection to the first-wave feminist movement that started fighting for women’s rights by campaigning for equal vote.  The ruling elite’s unease of the thought of sharing political and social power translated to visual art, among other things, in the form of strictly conservative stereotypes of women as fragile, controllable and unthreateningly simple.
The stirring term ‘Cult of Invalidism’ connotes an aura of mystery and underlying plot – and indeed, numerous depictions of thin, sickly, sleeping and dead women from the late 19th and early 20th centuries suggest an increasing popularity of fetishising physical and mental invalidity in women.

Carl Larsson C. 1899

Convalescence | Carl Larsson | C. 1899

Ophelia 1851-2 Sir John Everett Millais,

Ophelia | Sir John Everett Millais | 1851

Romaine Brooks’ painting from the early 1900’s, Le Trajet (The Crossing) portrays a pale, naked androgynously thin woman lying on her deathbed, detached from the reality surrounded by bluish darkness. There is nothing hinting at he surrounding environment or preceding events. Even in her deathlike sleep, the woman has been positioned generously on display, her hips turned towards the spectator to offer a direct view on her hairless pubis; her hair brushed back, pouring over the pillow like a black stream merging with the dark background, leaving every inch of her anorexic body bare. Bram Dijkstra sees this particular image as representative of the self-abusive fashion in which women of the time tried to be in control of their lives “through a supposedly self-elected ideal of physical invalidism and consumptive fragility” – that is, by carrying out the patriarchal ideal of femininity to the point of starvation and catching grave diseases in a desperate quest to become perfect, these women could experience the only form of control of themselves that was allowed by their restricted role in the society. Le Trajet fully conforms to the ideal of a porcelain woman whose starved, childlike body has no imprint of sexuality; whose bony limbs offer no resistance; and whose state of unconsciousness makes her utterly vulnerable to the gaze and actions of the spectator.
A detail that doesn’t quite match up is that the artist, Romaine Brooks, was a woman, and openly lesbian no less. The woman in the painting was her lover at the time, Ida Rubinstein, a Russian ballet dancer and a sort of a beauty icon of the time. It seems puzzling that an otherwise non-conforming artist who was known for cross-dressing would portray another woman in such a way. Why go along with the prevailing, destructive view of femininity? Perhaps there is an illusion of control there: that shrinking into skin and bones is really a way of taking back the ownership of one’s body.
This notion is nowadays supported by a number of  psychological studies into eating disorders – especially in instances where they coincide with sexual trauma. Some sexual abuse survivors cope with their trauma by attacking against their own body; through food restriction, purging and losing weight, the victims are able to feel like their bodies are again under their control. Another aspect is the desire to make oneself unattractive and small – in a way invisible to another attacker. But whether one is rebelling against society on the whole or a sole perpetrator, the war is really being fought within her body, and there is no winner in such a war.
For compelling and eye-opening survivor stories I would recommend a brilliant podcast called The Mental Illness Happy Hour. On the ripples of sexual trauma and eating disorders: Episode 74Episode 70 and Episode 14.

The thin figure of Ida Rubinstein seems lifeless apart from her elevated chin. She is limp but the strong profile of her face bears a shade of assertiveness. Furthermore, the eeriness of a pale figure on an equally white bed floating in nondescript darkness creates an emotional distance between the viewer and the painting. The lack of colour, objects and landscape renders the scene a very surreal one. There is nothing to reveal details of the woman’s life or personality; she is just a ghostly human figure between in a state of death or sleep. And perhaps there is the key to her existence in this scenario. Removed from a bourgeois family setting or a compelling story, she only exists in and for herself. The two most popular scenarios for these all but dead ladies were the domestic and the fantasy. Ophelia and Sleeping Beauty come up regularly alongside with bourgeois ladies tucked in their beds, immobilised by an illness.

Sleeping Beauty | Henry Meynell Rheam | C. 1899

Sleeping Beauty | Henry Meynell Rheam | C. 1899

Brooks’s woman wears no traces of physical, emotional or spiritual connection to anything outside of herself, and that makes her different from other women portrayed like her. The convention was to implant these sickly women in domestic settings with friends and family, where their weakness was juxtaposed with the vitality of their family members, expressing concern, sorrow, despair over her state. Brooks has not portrayed her muse fainting in a man’s arms, nor being surrounded by grieving friends and children.

The Convalescent | Gustave Léonard de Jonghe | 1893

The Convalescent | Gustave Léonard de Jonghe | 1893

Peaceful and alone, she simply is. Moreover, at the time Romaine Brooks was practicing art, the nude was a controversial topic for a woman to paint, and so already by definition Le Trajet – as well as many other artworks by the artist – is more than its surface at first suggests. What is most fascinating to me is the subtlety with which certain conventions of image making were rooted in the aesthetics that still prevail. The reclining female body continues to inhabit the space of admiration and visual pleasure in the contemporary mind in whatever setting it may be.

Tattoo musings

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I thought I had sort of narrowed down the kind of content I was going to be posting here but as it turns out  random topics – or formats – outside my predetermined spectrum keep popping up. And who am I to resist the urge to write when the mood strikes?
With this briefer than brief prologue let’s jump into the world of tattoos, or rather one specific tattoo: my most recent one.

For some of us, tattoos are a way of self-expression, for others they represent significant things in their life. One gets a tattoo because they like the look of it, the other builds an image around a carefully thought out concept. Personally, my tattoos must have a meaning deeper than their aesthetic. I had my first one designed by a friend following my instructions, the second I borrowed from the cover art of an album, and the third was an idea, sparked by words. I simply told the tattoo artist this:
“I want a small green butterfly, on the right side of my neck. No outlines, just a splash of colour. About 5 centimetres across.”

Here, I have to cross over to a topic that I more than enjoy talking about, but that I usually refrain from writing about especially if I’m attempting to seem like I know what I’m saying. See, the source of the words that morphed into my latest tattoo, is one so emotionally laden for me that discussing it in a calm and collected manner feels like holding my breath while running up the stairs. This is a territory that my analytical grip cannot reach despite my best efforts. You are possibly wondering what sort of deity or magic I am referring to, but rest assured it’s nothing more mysterious than a rock band. How’s that for an anti-climax?
I do actually have some thoughts on the nature of music, and why I find it so difficult to describe with words but that shall be a discussion for another day.

There’s this band called Nightwish. And everyone who knows me well and is reading this, I’m imagining all of you sitting there with a smug grin upon your faces because you know how much I’m struggling to keep this together. The danger of soppiness is looming.
All you really need to know about Nightwish is that their music has been one of the nearest and dearest things to me for about a decade now, and that many of my most vivid and treasured memories are related to it. For the longest time I wanted to get a Nightwish themed tattoo, but one that wouldn’t be super obvious e.g. the band members’ faces as a sleeve (not judging anyone who likes that sort of thing though). Long story short, from amongst gazillions of lyrics there was one passage that, at a certain moment just lit up in my mind. I’m picturing this as one of those cartoon moments where a lightbulb appears above your head.
This is how it goes:

An obese girl enters an elevator with me, all dressed-up fancy,
a green butterfly on her neck.
Terribly sweet perfume deafens me.
She’s going to dinner, alone.
That makes her even more beautiful.”

The simultaneous strength and fragility and everydayness of this situation always resonated with me, but then again, there are countless other bits in Nightwish lyrics that do. This it the one that feels personal enough to be the story of my tattoo though.

Let’s start with the butterfly. I am very profound when it comes to research, even the research of a tattoo. As I was already very drawn to how a butterfly would look like as an image on my skin, I focused on getting familiar with its symbolism. Across cultures and religions butterflies tend to represent some aspect of rebirth and freedom from earthly burdens. I don’t practice any religion but the thought of escaping from the weight of life is a compelling one; not through death but rather through dreaming, forgetting and letting go for a moment. A more mundane rebirth of the tired mind.
Very much alike, the colour green is the colour of life and growth. It can also be the colour of envy or of sickness, but perhaps the weightless existence of a butterfly can counteract those aspects; and of course any symbol carries a multitude of meanings depending on the person reading it. Nevertheless, my green butterfly is first and foremost a vessel of life and energy.
It is also a reminder of the temporariness of all things. The lifespan of a butterfly is brief, and its flight past one’s eyes easily missed in the blink of an eye. Kind of like the many little details of our everyday existence that are left unnoticed as we rush past them.

 Where is that girl in the lift in all this then?
Although obesity is heavily frowned upon and considered anything but beautiful in today’s world, in this context it seems to bear no more a negative than a positive connotation. However, for me the notion of physical bigness relates to a challenge of my own. I admittedly view myself through somewhat dysmorphic lenses. Separating the distorted picture from actuality is a struggle that perseveres, and although I have never actually been of a size considered obese, something like that is how I tend to experience my bodily form. And of course the majority of women can relate to the sense of unhappiness regarding their appearance.


I find the thought that the aloneness of this girl makes her “even more beautiful” a particularly endearing one. Going out alone is another strange social taboo. As if we weren’t good enough just to be by ourselves. As if loneliness, or aloneness ought to be kept from sight.
That girl then, being obese – yet dressing up, and being alone – yet going out, directly opposes what is considered normal and acceptable, thus rising above criticism to live her life with a lighter mind. To resist condoning to norms and expectations asks for a little bit of bravery and faith in oneself and that in the long run many of the things we are easily judged by don’t really matter all that much. In the whole of the universe a human lifetime is only a blip in time, which might sound dramatic and deep but what it really gives me, is perspective and the license to stop and appreciate all of those other small, temporary things that will be gone in the next minute.

And there is the story of my butterfly, and how it represents things that I aspire to be and things that I find important to remember.

Favourite non-fiction books: Part 2

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Here we have another instalment of my top non-fiction books to talk about today. All of the following four volumes are fairly new additions to my bookshelf but have immediately secured their place at my literary inspiration station. Being recent purchases I haven’t actually properly read through all of them, hence the little introductions/ reviews that you are about read are not conclusive in any way.
As if any of my ideas were. But let’s cut to the chase.

Barbara G. Walker: The Woman’s Dictionary of Symbols and Sacred Objects

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I didn’t know I specifically needed a woman’s symbol book until I saw it.
This book is very simply exactly what its title implies – a dictionary of symbols related to women and femininity. I am fascinated by universal symbols, local symbols, religious symbols, you name it, and have been on the lookout for a symbol encyclopedia for quite while. More often than not these kinds of manuals are very pricey, and so I was thrilled to stumble upon this bargain at my local second hand book shop.
The Woman’s Dictionary has been divided into sub chapters where interrelated symbols can be studied individually as well as a group. Of course there is also an index at the end for when you want to find a specific object – or use the “blind selection method” and start reading from the first page that you happen upon. That’s how I usually do it.

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Whitney Chadwick: Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement

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This is another brilliant find from the aforementioned second hand book store (that I’m going to miss when I move next week!). I love surrealism, I love women and I love books. I used to browse through collective art books like this at my university library all the time, and I even wrote an essay about women and surrealism at one point of my studies. I don’t think I ever saw this particular one before because when I first leafed through the pages I discovered so much gorgeous, poignant art from the surrealist movement made by women that I had never seen before that it took my breath away. It is such a shame how women have historically been treated in the creative arts, how their art in any media has been erased from the art history.

In addition to the visuals, the essays in the book are also right up my alley discussing women’s place in the arts as primarily muses and the passive objects as opposed to active practitioners, and how the societal change has enabled them to start occupying a more visible and acknowledged space as creators and storytellers.
Nothing like a little bit of female empowerment to get those ideas coming.

Michael Gill: Image of the Body – Aspects of the Nude

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Guess what. Another bargain!
When I saw the cover of this book I instantly knew I was going to need it. If you read the first part of my favourite non-fiction books, you’ll know that the human body is one of the most fascinating things to me creatively and academically, and I will not stop hoarding related books. I have only read the first few chapters but based on that and a quick browse through, the book seems to offer a very rich view into the cultural history of the nude from the very first depictions of humans in pre-historic caves to contemporary photography.

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Quite unlike my usual experience with introduction chapters that feel like a never-ending hike through mud to the real content, this one was captivating on its own right. The cover photo that drew me in was in fact the theme of the intro. It is a commission made by Robert Mapplethorpe, and the creation of the image is described in such a detailed way, intertwined with paragraphs concerning those cave paintings that I mentioned, that I couldn’t but see it all happening right before my eyes. As a visual person I relish language that paints vivid pictures in my mind. And to be able to observe Mapplethorpe working with the models through the author’s eyes is quite unlike anything that I’ve read before. A big thumbs-up for this one!

Angus Hyland & Angharad Lewis: The Purple Book – Symbolism & Sensuality in Contemporary Art and Illustration

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Last but not least is my most recent gem, The Purple Book, which I first saw at Saatchi Gallery and fell in love at first sight (well actually my good friend Kimberley, pointed it out to me saying: “I found your book”). The price was a bit steep though, so I googled around until I found the best deal – nearly half of the original – and placed the order. Can you tell I’m a chronic bargain hunter?
Unlike all of the previous books that I’ve talked about this one is total eye candy with it’s canvas spine, purple and black divider pages and romantic typography. The content  consists of artwork from 23 contemporary artists paired with interviews, short stories and excerpts.

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Again I have only read the introduction and stared longingly at the pictures, and all I can say that it is a beautiful thing inside and out. Not to mention that purple is my favourite colour.
If you’re into tour-de-siécle kind of aesthetic and eroticism, dark romanticism, Tim Burton, Edgar Allan Poe, burlesque and sensual nudity this might be your cup of tea as much it is mine.

Of course, there are shelves upon shelves of other books that I’ve come across in my research that have left their mark. These are just the ones that either caught my eye in the right place at the right time, or I connected so deeply with that I just had to posses them.

Leave any recommendations below if you wish. One can never own too many books. Right?

Creative Ideas: Access Denied

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I have been in a very persistent state of creative block for several months now, not really knowing how to dodge it. However, very recently it seems like a glimmering light has appeared at the end of the tunnel, and suddenly I feel like I have some new insights into easing or even defeating that state of lacking productivity.

First of all, I think it’s important to accept that your artistic juices aren’t flowing like you’d want them to. Accept that it is goddamn frustrating that the most creative effort you can manage is the shopping list. Also remember that you are definitely not the only one having to fight the fight; everyone is sometimes faced with a brick wall.

Something that helps me to deal with the swamp of non-creativity is trying to work out whether there is anything going on in my life that could be the cause of it. For example, I’ve had a couple of stressful and ungrateful jobs that completely ate up my energy and motivation. I’ve also struggled with some mental health issues, and the change from university to working life has added its weight to the baggage to be sure. In this light, it isn’t such a curiosity that I’ve been lacking ideas and excitation. When you can name some of the things that might be taking over your mental capacity, leaving nothing for the arty side, it’s easier to get over the frustration of the situation.

So now that you’ve accepted you’ve hit a wall, and maybe understood some reasoning behind it, it’s time to do something that at least for me feels scary: take your mind off of it. Whatever creative task you need to be doing, just forget it for a couple of hours – or even days if you can. Do something else, something that you really genuinely enjoy. What works best with me is physically getting away from the place that I would otherwise be working at. Somewhere that I can be completely detached. A couple of weeks ago, I spent some time in Finland and went to see three incredible shows by my favourite band with some of my favourite people in the world. I didn’t spare a single thought to all of the wiring and image-making that I should be doing, but fully immersed myself in the experience. I returned home absolutely exhausted but also buzzing with new energy. I believe that creativity comes from a genuine place, a place of honesty and childlike wonder. Re-connecting with that place within you will most likely have a huge impact on your productivity and creativity.

Another thing that I always neglect is talking to other people about my work. In university, I got used to brainstorming with my peers and tutors, explaining my ideas, finding strengths and weaknesses and challenging my thinking. Out of the academia, not only do I not have the structured way of making work, but also there are no people at hand to discuss my research and practical issues with. Of course I can shoot a message at any one of my friends at any time, but the constant support of the peer group is just not there in the same way as it used to be. Having someone else give their opinion on your project is extremely valuable especially when they genuinely put their mind into it. For me, hearing someone talk about a project from three years ago was an eye-opening experience, which encouraged me to go back to it and expand those ideas. The most unlikely conversations can give you the best ideas, which leads us to my next point.

Keep an open mind. It’s sounds like a cliché but it rings true. Don’t try to assume how anything will unravel. Maybe the first way you’ve thought out of a problem is not the best one in the end. Maybe something that seems completely unrelated and irrelevant to what you are doing is exactly what you need in order to overcome your mental block. Creativity is after all, exploring and discovering something new.

Lastly, as a counteraction to my first pointer: instead of getting excited, get bored. When you’re sick of sitting with the non-existence of creative ideas, you automatically reach for a distraction. I play bubble shooter or hidden object games, and although sometimes the mechanic, mindless activity will actually help to massage those brain cells, just letting yourself be bored can be a whole other way to rekindle the artistic fire in your mind. For me this is again about being a little bit brave because in our world boredom is practically the worst faith anyone could be faced with. We all have the smartphones and tablets within an arm’s reach, and so we never have to just be with our thoughts in silence doing nothing, embracing the dullness of life. But how can we expect to come up with new ideas if our minds are constantly engaged with pointless distractions?
Maybe a creative block is just our minds’ way of saying: “give me a break, I need to rest”.

What helps you to find a way out of a mental dead end?

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The smell of trees after rain.
Squeezing a hand when you’re in pain.

Conversations without sound.
Watching ferris wheels go round and round.

Making a new friend.
Wishing the night would never end.
Sitting by a fire, losing track of time.
Jump on a trampoline and pretend that you can fly.

Sway and move your body with the beat.
Curl up in a bed of fresh clean sheets.

Looking out the window,
slowly noticing the wonder
of rain and growth and bicycles,
people walking, talking to each other on their phones.

Close your eyes and see the galaxies.
Find happiness in sorrow and struggle in peace.

Lying underneath the stars.
Find the meaning of your scars.
Staying up ‘till sunrise.
Look into a pair of trusted eyes.

When someone else prepares the dinner.
Let another see your inner
world of colour, madness, sadness, loneliness.
Discovering a key to treasure chest.

Laugh until your face and belly hurt and breath falls short.
Try and fail, and try and fail – and try again once more.

Dancing,
running,
listening.
Pick the first flowers of the Spring.

The sound of thunder, the salty scent of sea.
Knowing this is where you need to be.

Chocolate bars, snowfalls, old books and wine.
Inhale,
exhale.
It’s going to be fine this time.