Caught between despair and hope


Sitting across the table from Alice in the Pelican Cafe, we both seemed to salute one another for distances we have travelled since the last time we saw one another. During the past eight months, while I’ve been moving through grief, Alice has been treated for cancer.

It was early Autumn last year that she texted me to say she wouldn’t be able to meet for coffee as she was in hospital. instead I went to see her in a ward where she stayed for three weeks while they carried out tests. After that time and others when I visited her, Mark said often that it was a “good thing” that I was doing, a reflection of his appreciation for such acts of friendship. Just after Mark’s funeral I went again to another hospital and waited with Alice while she was having more tests. In recent months we’ve been texting each other, offering support while both deeply mired in our daily struggles to find a way through chemotherapy and dark days of grief.

So when we met today, it felt like it was a significant, weighty, meeting, a pause in each of our journeys to catch up. It was good to see her positively shining with health and wellbeing, bursting with enthusiasm for her work – I came away happier that today, at least, we could talk and smile and know life is good. It hadn’t been a good week – at times the loneliness of this new life brings with it an overwhelming chill that is hard to shake off. At times like this, I feel like a complete outsider, and I know the experience of this is changing me. It’s not all bad, I like the freedom that comes from not feeling I am part of the game – I feel much more immune to the vagaries of social conventions, can shrug off people’s reactions to me far more easily than I could before. I also feel far more understanding of Mark’s position on things. In many ways, he did experience life from the margins, and I’m appreciating a lot more the fact that he never tried to explain himself, didn’t try to fill the gaps, smooth everything so that people felt ‘OK’. I learnt a lot from him when we were together, but now, in this experience of isolation, alienation, even, I can celebrate both his love for people and his freedom from caring too much about how he was perceived by others.

It’s a strange disconnect that I often feel. I am still concerned about what’s happening to the Greek people, was moved by the report on Newsnight about the young Afghan woman Farkhunda Malikzada murdered in Kabul and the women who carried her coffin,refusing to allow any men to touch it at all. I’ve felt frustration at the sight of the migrants arriving in Greece and elsewhere and the failure of the debate to address the issues in an effective way.

Sitting with a cup of tea – you get to choose your own cup too – talking to Alice about some of these things, and about the situation in Nigeria, I was as ever, inspired to hear her perspectives, the insights and connections she made, and her determined search for solutions. But I also felt a glumness, a sense of futility, that while people like her seem to see situations clearly, and suggest ways of tackling them that make so much sense, I have little expectation that those we look to to act would do anything truly effective, so caught up are they in narrow political interests.

It’s one thing to analyse the situation and come up with potential responses, but I couldn’t navigate the disconnect between what decent, good-natured, knowledgeable people would do, and the actions of politicians. The past week I’ve interrupted my reading of Paul Mason’s book to read The Global Minotaur by Yanis Varoufakis. It’s a fascinating analysis of the post war economy that argues that the global financial crisis is symptomatic of a deeper malaise which can be traced all the way back to the Great Crash of 1929, and that a surplus recycling mechanism is required if there is to be any stabilisation. As inspiring as his arguments are, there was little in the book to suggest there was much hope that such radical decisions would be taken.

As ever, this pessimism bleeds both into, and from, my own sense of being at a juncture that requires optimism that I simply don’t have. It touches on the question at the heart of this blog – are we destined to fail in our attempts to make the world a better, more just place? Or is there a way out, are there solutions to be found? I’m constantly trying to make sense of the question of how to respond to the problem of the future, while acknowledging the full extent of the brokenness of now. I have a growing sense of ‘wanting to do something’ an emerging certainty that ‘normal’ could destroy me. But I often repeat the same question I asked Alice: “What can I do?’

Alice talked about the need to connect and include civil society in the political process if change is going to happen, which reminded me of the women I met in Madrid who had made women an integral part of the process of drawing up a manifesto and pulled off a tremendous feat of collaboration. There have been some really inspiring campaigns, women so often taking to the streets or to social media to make their voices known. But what do we conclude after almost 500 days and two million retweets of the #BringBackOurGirls campaign in Nigeria about people’s capacity to influence world events?

The women I met in Madrid were convinced that they would have to stay strong at a local and municipal level if they were to continue to influence Spain’s left-wing party Podemos should they gain power in elections this year.

So, sitting in Peckham, between spells of rain, I felt overwhelmed by my own struggle to find meaning for my life, to feel that there was a ‘point’ to it all… But it was good to hear Alice, urging me to see my life as part of something bigger and, like her, to use who I am and what I have to offer to try to make a difference.

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