Refusing the shame

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The question that roots this blog ‘can – and how – do we change things?’ has taken on different shapes and nuances over the years I’ve been writing it. More recently I’ve realised the question is a personal one as much as it is about the political, and that the two very much interweave.

In these three years since Mark died, as I’ve written before, I’ve learnt to trust my intuition or instinct, to trust in the fact that if I wait and listen, then what I should do, which way I should go, will become clear to me. As much as I relied on and needed other people, I knew that it was only me who could get me through. And, as it approaches three years to the day since Mark’s death, it’s my capacity to navigate, to respond to various signals, in short to ‘do’ life that I cherish.

It’s only in contrast that looking back I can see the extent to which self doubt dogged my attempts to create a life that was meaningful to me, how I had much less hope in capacity to work things out, and a great deal of frustration over the state of things. It’s a strange alchemy to come to terms with that amid all the pain and anguish of the past years, those things have disappeared like a great bundle of knots being unravelled.

Instead there is a feeling, which I think could be called ‘resolute’. When things happen it seems to have the capacity to dig in, start thinking options, and most of all, seems to have hope and confidence that by doing so, things can change. It’s such a simple thing, but it’s only now I realise the degree to which it was missing, how so much in life felt like a futile pushing of my head against a wall.

That belief that the way things are is not inevitable, that there is recourse to action, to justice, that there is a different way of doing things seems vital in all the stir of emotions since women’s claims about sexual violence have broken through to a more public hearing. In her essay An Insurrectionary Year about women speaking out against sexual violence in North America, Rebecca Solnit charts the course of 2014, a watershed year she had been waiting for all her life. The accounts she describes show not only that women were speaking out, but they were beginning to resist the sense of futility, the idea that there was no point trying to do anything, and also the shame that worked also to silence them.

A Columbia University student Emma Sulkowicz began to carry a mattress with her on campus after staff and police failed to respond to her allegations of rape against another student. By refusing to be silent and instead responding with a very public performance, Sulkowicz, “cracked shame not only for herself, but for all of us” according to a fellow student.

Describing watching a group of students who offered to carry the mattress “giggling and chatting like young women anywhere” Solnit writes that they were also

…ferociously intent on solidarity in the form of transporting this symbol of conflict up stairs and along walk ways. Sulkowicz made rape a visible burden, and although she will carry her mattress as long as both she and her alleged assailant are at Columbia University, she marks the return of shame to its rightful owners.

Sulkowicz, by refusing to accept the way things are and looking beyond the inevitability of injustices and double binds, came up with a response that is powerful, playful even.

Sometimes, so much of what we experience seems impossible to challenge, and the sense of futility can be overwhelming. But since Mark’s death catapulted me far beyond the realms of ‘normal’ life I’ve seen much more clearly what it requires of us and how it harms us to conform, what it shuts down and silences in order to maintain its order.

Perhaps one of the most significant times for me has been when, after grief seemed to come to an end, I decided I couldn’t return to ‘normal’ if that required me to shut down that deeper sense of knowing that I’d come to rely on. In seemed a bit of a no brainer decision at the time, but I’m so grateful that I did, all the while feeling I was muddling along, make such an important decision to live by my truth rather than suffocate trying to live out a different set of rules.

That shift There are so many questions about change. They go beyond can we? to how? and to what? But as as I square up to another milestone in missing Mark, amid all the rage and potential for backlash as women in the UK are speaking out against sexual violence and harassment, I feel a sense of excitement about the potential for creative, playful and powerful change.