A Life Most Ordinary

We’ve had a few weeks of achievements in my house; the eight-year-old passed her third Fung Fu exam and completed her first guitar exam, while the 12-year old proved herself in French and netball. My husband, in turn, got his MA degree in psychotherapy.

And me? Well, I managed to binge watch the first three series of ‘Luther’ on BBC iPlayer in just a few days.

After decades of feeling that I must prove my worth by being successful, ambitious and smart, I am embracing mediocrity, and a life most ordinary. Or, to borrow an expression from my pre-teen daughter, “I can’t be bothered”.

I was never a ‘tiger mum’ in the first place, so the eight-year old’s success in Kung Fu and guitar owes much to her dad, who’s spent hours and hours of time practising with our daughter. I, on the other hand, have no such ambition. I’m not too fussed whether or not my children excel in music, academia, sports etc. As long as they’re reasonably happy, don’t watch too much Netflix, and don’t grow up to pursue a life of crime – or marry a banker – I’m satisfied.

The only activity I demand they excel at is swimming, which is pretty easy as they’re both accomplished swimmers and vastly more confident in the water than I am. Swimming, I tell them when they huff and puff about having to spend Friday evening at swim school, is a necessary life-skill. Being able to play the violin or serve a tennis ball, less so.

I’m not being completely honest here; I do have ambitions for my children, I do care about their achievements, and I’d probably still welcome a banker son-in-law if I had to. But I also know all too well that academic achievement is not always the key to happiness. Of course, just because I didn’t find personal and professional fulfilment in debating political theories and attending academic conferences, doesn’t mean others won’t. Each to their own. The point is, whatever makes you happy, go for it. But don’t pursue an education or career because it’s expected of you, is ‘family tradition’, or will make your parents proud. If you have a passion, by all means, pursue it. And if you don’t have a passion, that’s ok too.

Being ordinary and lacking in ambition is nothing to be sniffed at; just look at how much damage people’s personal ambitions have done in the world. There’s something to be said for embracing a life of average and ordinary; it takes the pressure off and, I am sure, is much better for your health and wellbeing. Less stress, fewer worries, less fuss. That’s how I like it.

If you’re Swedish you’re probably familiar with Ferdinand, the bull who didn’t want to fight. He was part of the Disney TV-special that virtually every Swedish household would watch on Christmas Eve when I was growing up. Ferdinand certainly had his priorities right.

Mending My Ways

My family call me ‘ThAJ’ – throw-away-Jenny – because I have a bad habit of throwing things away. I used to justify my behaviour as ‘decluttering,’ but lately, I’ve – somewhat belatedly – come to appreciate that my behaviour is a consequence of the disposable culture in which we live.

Anything we don’t need or want – plastic food wrapping, empty toilet rolls, broken cutlery, empty shampoo bottles, moth-eaten jumpers, etc. – we throw in the bin. Some things go in the recycling bin, which, we believe, makes our throw-away behaviour ok, but the reality is that only a tiny per cent of the all the rubbish that ends up in the recycling bin is ultimately recycled. The rest just adds to the growing mountain of waste that can’t or won’t be recycled or reused.shutterstock_1086742070

I can’t remember the last time I mended something rather than chuck it in the bin. When things are cheap, why bother fixing them when you can simply by new ones? The truth is, we need to bother because our disposable behaviour cannot be sustained without severe consequences for our planet.

The belief in economic growth as the paramount marker of progress is problematic for many reasons, not least because it fails to consider the fact that while the potential for economic growth may be limitless, our planet’s resources are not.

While I commend those that seek to live an ‘eco-friendly’ life, something I aspire to as well, we’re not going to save the earth, and ourselves, by eating less meat, recycling, reducing plastic, etc. While these actions are necessary, they are not sufficient. What is needed, is more than reform of the current economic system; we need to replace it with a system that supports the earth rather than exploits it. If we don’t, capitalism will destroy our planet.

No, I am not advocating socialism; instead, I believe we need to look beyond both socialism and capitalism to explore the possibility – and necessity – of creating a new, sustainable, system.

All of this may sound a bit rich coming from me, a bona fide shopaholic, whose comfortable lifestyle wouldn’t be what it is if it weren’t for capitalism. I’m the first to admit that my eco credentials are negligible, but even so, I am fully committed to improving my cred, because nothing frightens me more than the prospect of humanity destroying the earth. I’ll happily give up needless shopping, meat, plastic, and whatever else is necessary, to ensure my future grandchildren inherit a healthy planet.

While behavioural change is a start, it won’t be enough. To have a fighting chance of saving our beautiful planet, we must think and act radically. Reform won’t suffice. We need a revolution.

Meanwhile, I’ll be mending that jumper I nearly threw in the bin last night.

In Praise of Bushy Eyebrows

I am in a rush to write today’s blog because I have an appointment at a beauty salon to have a manicure and underarm hair wax.

Did I really need to tell you that? Who wants to know about women’s hair removal?

If you’re a man reading this, chances are you’ve never thought about women’s grooming rituals, and why should you? After all, hairy underarms (and legs, face, etc.) is a perfectly normal thing if you’re a man. It ought to be just as normal for women, of course, because we’re all hairy to some extent, some us more so than others. Yet cultural expectations compel us to resort to painful, expensive and time-consuming procedures to remove as much hair from our bodies as possible.

As much as I resent this bias, I dutifully comply with it, because who wants to see my hairy armpits sticking out of a sleeveless dress at a black-tie dinner? Continue reading

Chasing Unicorns

I was fourteen years old when I fell in love with London. Strictly speaking, it was the 1980s pop band Culture Club I’d fallen for but to my infatuated teenage heart, the two were synonymous.

My father had moved to London the year before and in the years that followed my brother and I would make the occasional visit during school holidays. My father’s flat was only a few minutes’ walk from Kensington Market, the three-storey indoor nirvana for anyone looking for cool things. In an attempt to fit in, I’d wear a Billy Idol t-shirt, purple eyeshadow and big silver hoop earrings while weaving in and out of the many shop stalls, wishing I had the money and the courage to get myself a tattoo or an earful of piercings.

To a very uncool teenager from Sweden, London in the 1980s was exotic, hip, a treasure trove of adventures and possibilities. It was the era of neon colours, big hair and lots and lots of hairspray and my idea of fashion and style was heavily influenced not only by Culture Club frontman Boy George but also pop bands like Eurythmics, Bananarama and the Bangles.

All of those memories of a time gone by came flooding back to me last night when I once again sang and danced along to the tunes of Culture Club at Wembley Arena in North London. What made the evening especially poignant was that while Culture Club – a band known for embracing diversity of all kinds – was performing to a full house of overexcited 40-somethings, the British Prime Minister Theresa May had just finished presenting her Brexit deal to cabinet ministers. Far from embracing the diversity, tolerance and love that Boy George sings about, Brexit is a decisive move towards isolationism and intolerance.

Although I knew it would ruin my still exuberant mood from last night’s concert, I turned on the TV this morning to watch Theresa May answer questions about the Brexit deal from disgruntled MPs in the Commons. More than two hours into the session, I was willing the ever so composed Prime Minister to lose her cool, calling out to the crowd:

“Sod it, I’ve had it with the lot of you! Wankers! You think you can manage a better Brexit, be my guest.” And with those words, she’d walk out, head back to No. 10 to fetch Phillip and her walking sticks and disappear in a puff of smoke, having swapped her kitten heels for her favourite pair of Swiss hiking boots.

I am no fan of Theresa May or Brexit, but it stands to reason that any Brexit deal would fall short of the fanciful utopia once promised by devoted Brexiteers like Johnson, Davis and Rees-Mogg. Their version of Brexit is simply undeliverable, and any Brexit deal was bound to leave Britain worse off than it currently is. It was either incredibly ignorant or plain delusional to think that EU would go along with Britain’s ambition to have the cake and eat it. And contrary to what those in favour of a hard Brexit claim, most of what troubles Britain today is of its own making and will not be solved by ‘taking back control’ from Brussels.

What is the way forward then? A people’s vote that allows for three options: a) accept the deal on the table; b) reject the deal and crash out of the EU with no safety guarantees or c) stop Brexit altogether?

It’s anyone’s guess how this Brexit farce will end, but one thing is certain: there is no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

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Free Speech

shutterstock_1029280372I don’t recall the US midterm elections being first-page news in British and European newspapers before but, then again, the US has never had a president like Donald Trump. As a political science student some twenty years ago, I used to think my American government class was dull in comparison with the class in international politics, but if I were a student today, I would surely have to revise my perception. Continue reading

A Post-Halloween Nightmare

shutterstock_392337658Halloween has come and gone and what a relief. I’ve never quite got the point of dressing up and begging strangers for sweets, but my 8-year old daughter considers it one of the highlights of the year so last night I found myself reluctantly chaperoning a bunch of young witches, zombies and vampires in search of treats.

With Halloween thankfully out of the way, there will be no more scary nights until next October. Except, of course, there is plenty to be scared of in the real world.

Two days ago, the WWF released The Living Planet Report 2018, the reading of which ought to give you nightmares. For according to WWF, humans have managed to wipe out 60% of animal populations since 1970. That’s a staggering number, and unless we act now to stop further extinction, we are heading towards complete disaster, not just for wildlife, but for humanity. Nature isn’t just there to behold and enjoy; it’s out life-support system, without which, humanity too will be wiped out.

And who needs A Nightmare on Elm Street when the world is hostage to political leaders like Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, the current incarnation of the British government – all soon to be joined by Jair Bolsonaro, president-elect of Brazil, a man who has defended dictatorship and torture, and has a history of denigrating women, gay people and minorities.

Are you still sleeping soundly at night?

Last Friday I attended synagogue with Jewish family members, a lovely evening of community, spirit and love. The following morning, a white American man barged into a synagogue in Pittsburgh and shot dead eleven people while reportedly shouting ‘all Jews must die.’ Antisemitism is on the rise again, Islamophobia too, and racism is still alive and well throughout the European continent. Earlier this year, an investigation by the UN special rapporteur on racism concluded that racism and religious intolerance had become more acceptable in Britain since the Brexit referendum.

And don’t get me started on the trouble with social media. Once lauded for its potential as a democracy-enhancing tool and as a vehicle for communication across national borders, social media outlets such as Twitter is now replete with self-righteous trolls and angry, resentful people unleashing their hatred onto others.

Misogyny, too, persists across the world, and though the #MeToo movement offered a brief momentum of hope, women are once again told to stop moaning and get on with life. Only the other day, a senior British police chief spoke against classifying misogyny as a hate crime, because police resources (stretched as they are thanks to government cuts) should focus on more traditional police work, such as catching thieves and violent criminals. Campaigners, however, argue that misogyny (defined as the hatred of, and prejudice against women) is itself a cause of some of the violence plaguing society. In a letter to the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, members of the pressure group Citizens UK write:

“Categorising misogyny as a hate crime won’t end violence against women, but challenging the normalisation of these attitudes on our streets and in public life can help challenge violence against women and girls in wider society. Recording these incidents also provides a vital evidence base. When police forces treat these incidents seriously, women’s trust in the police increases.”

I could go on and on, and even so, someone reading this will surely blame me for failing to mention the plight of groups not included here. The point is, this ongoing nightmare of prejudice, discrimination, violence, and the destruction of the natural world is real. Closing our eyes to it, won’t make it go away.  Turning away from it all, minding our own private business, won’t do, because all that I have mentioned here, is also our business.

Scars Galore

When princess Eugenie, one of the lesser British royals, got married last week, the media almost went into collective hysterics over the fact that her wedding dress was cut to reveal the scoliosis scar that runs along her spine. The princess was hailed as brave, courageous and an inspiration to young women for daring to show her scar to the world.

I admit, I too was taken in by the gesture, which I believe was heartfelt and genuine, but may I point out, that she’s not the first bride to show off her scars. I got there before her!

IMG_6230 copyOk, so my wedding wasn’t broadcast on TV and I didn’t have hundreds of guests in attendance, but my wedding dress was also cut low in the back, revealing part of the scar that runs from in between my shoulder blades to the front of my ribcage. Alas, no one called me brave or courageous, and as a 38-year old bride with a 2 ½-year-old daughter and ten weeks pregnant with my second child, I was certainly not anyone’s inspiration, and thank goodness for that.

No, no, I am absolutely not dissing princess Eugenie; as I said, I appreciated her gesture even though I wouldn’t call it brave. That’s because scars have been part of my life since the day I was born and had my first operation. Scars, in my world, are perfectly normal, and I don’t think I ever felt particularly self-conscious about them, least of all the long one on my back. It never stopped me from wearing bikinis or low-cut dresses and tops, although there has been the odd sales lady reacting when I’ve tried on party dresses in shops.

And because I find scars to be perfectly normal, I did feel a twinge of sadness that the princess’ choice of dress proved such a sensation only for what it revealed about the bride’s body.

One of the things I love about scars, in general, is that each one of them tells a story. Princess Eugenie’s scar tells the story of her childhood battle with scoliosis; my scar on the back is the result of an operation on the day I was born to repair my oesophagus, a story I’ve blogged about previously. Each one of my scars, some visible, others less so, tells an important story of my life and, therefore, I’d never dream of covering them up.

Speaking of scars; as we’re moving closer to Halloween, the day when children and teens love to dress up in scary outfits and go trick or treating, I’m imploring any parents reading this, to think twice before helping your child stick fake scars on their face. Scars are not scary, scars are not ugly, and scars are definitely not evil. By all means, go all out with the blood and gore, but please be mindful of people who live with real scars, many of which tell a story that holds both trauma and pain. To these people, scars are no joke.

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It’s my children’s half-term holiday next week and we’re leaving town for a few days, which means I won’t be posting a blog next Thursday. I hope to see you back here in two weeks’ time.

 

Bad Faith

shutterstock_138129767Few things set me off as much as having to deal with official rules and regulations.

Faced with someone telling me, “it’s the rules,” “it’s protocol,” or, better yet, “it’s a matter of security,” I can’t hold my tongue. Airline protocols are just one example.

I was six months pregnant with my second child and flying back from a Caribbean vacation with my husband and three-year-old daughter. We’d just about made our connecting flight out of New York with Virgin Atlantic, my back was aching, and I was dying to go to the loo. Luckily, we were seated just next to a toilet, but as I got up and reached for the door handle, an airline stewardess stopped me.

“Excuse me, where are you sitting?” she asked.

“Right here,” I said, pointing to my seat.

“I’m sorry, but you cannot use this toilet, mam, you need to go to the one over there,” she said pointing to the very rear of the plane.

“Why? That’s at least thirty rows away, while this one is right here,” I protested.

“It’s a security matter, mam.”

A security matter? Exhausted, and with a bladder about to burst, I lost it.

“It’s not a fucking security matter! You don’t want me to use a toilet that is for business class passengers. Can’t you see I’m pregnant?”

She looked at my sizeable bump and said in a steely voice, “you should have brought a letter from your doctor confirming you’re pregnant.”

A letter to prove my pregnancy, when it was obvious. I couldn’t believe the stupidity of what I’d just been told and swore at her as I elbowed my way down the aisle to the toilet assigned for economy class passengers.

On returning to my seat, another stewardess came up to us and, looking past me, told my husband that unless his wife apologised to her colleague for swearing, they would report me to the police on arrival to London.

I have not travelled with Virgin Atlantic since.

More recently, I’ve had to deal with bureaucracy reminiscent of something out of a Kafka novel. As Britain hurtles towards the precipice of a no-deal Brexit, I decided to finally go and talk to an immigration lawyer about whether to apply for permanent residence now or wait and see what happens after Brexit. Although people keep telling me I’ve got nothing to worry about since I’m Swedish, scaremongering reports in the press was starting to make me feel a little anxious about my future in Britain.

What I learned from my meeting with the lawyer was this: my marriage to a British citizen is of little consequence for a successful application for permanent residence. Much more important than my British spouse, is the fact that I have private health insurance, meaning I wouldn’t be a burden on the NHS were I to become a permanent resident. Never mind the fact that I’ve been paying taxes in Britain for more than a decade, during which time I’ve availed myself of NHS care on numerous occasions.

(I also learned that by law, European citizens have a right to permanent residence after five years, yet the Home Office rejects 40% of all applications, often on a technicality, as part of its ‘hostile environment’ policy.)

Having just returned from my meeting with the lawyer, I received a message from the Swedish tax authorities. They wanted me to provide signed and stamped proof of my residence in Britain, or they would hold me liable to pay tax in Sweden. What’s ironic is that it’s the same tax authorities that years ago issued me a letter declaring that as far as they were concerned, I had emigrated from Sweden until further notice. I dug that letter out of my files, scanned it and emailed a copy back to the authorities that had issued me the letter in the first place. I’ve yet to hear back from them.

While I’m not saying rules and regulations aren’t necessary, it’s the blind faith in them that I object to, the unwillingness – and the lack of imagination that implies – to think for ourselves, to question, and to take responsibility for the choices we make.

The Small Stuff

I never believed in God as much as when I was seven years old.question-mark-1751217_1280

I didn’t grow up in a religious home although my stepfather always read aloud from the Bible on Christmas Eve before we were allowed to open our presents.

But when I was seven, I spent a whole summer praying to God every chance I got; praying that I would win the Barbie doll that was first prize in a children’s comics lottery.

I didn’t win, and I soon stopped praying, that’s how fickle my faith was.

In my teens, I made friends with two girls at school who were devout Catholics, and I admired and envied their faith. If only I could believe, life would make so much more sense, I thought.

Many years later, I was in my early thirties when, out of the blue, I had a stroke. My father had died the year before, and I was working hard to complete a PhD dissertation in international relations while dealing with my loss. On a rainy but mild day in May, I left my shabby flat in Bayswater to meet a good friend for dinner in Soho. On my way to the tube station, I noticed I couldn’t walk straight and that my left arm wouldn’t move when I tried to lift it. Instead of dinner out, I ended up in hospital, where a CT scan confirmed that I’d had an ischemic stroke.

I was incredibly lucky to make a full recovery but the stroke, the cause of which remained unexplained, left me seeking something beyond my academic lifestyle, something deeper and more meaningful. Something spiritual perhaps, that might help explain not only the stroke but the other why’s of my life.

For the next two years I dabbled in religion, thinking I’d finally found what I was looking for, but in the end, I had to concede that it wasn’t the answer for me, however much I tried.

Ever since, in a continuous effort to find a way to find a resolution to that deep hole inside me that won’t heal, I’ve sought the help of psychotherapists of all kinds. I’ve tried Buddhist meditation, ‘secular’ meditation, transcendental meditation. I’ve lined my bookshelves with self-help books (most of which I’ve never read). But despite my efforts, the magic formula I hoped to discover remained elusive.

Because, of course, there is no magic formula. Perhaps I was going about it the wrong way around; looking for answers that weren’t there, instead of staying with the questions, and accepting the uncertainty that comes with having questions but no answers. It’s akin to what the poet John Keats called ‘negative capability, “…that is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties. Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”

It isn’t easy living with uncertainty, without answers to all those why’s I’ve carried within me since my childhood and giving up on my quest for answers won’t necessarily solve my existential doubts, the ambivalence about life I feel from time to time.

But it does open up the space for recognising and embracing the different parts of my life that do have value and meaning. Sometimes, it’s the ‘small’ stuff that truly matters: a hug from a child, a friendly message from a stranger, that intricate spider’s web that is growing ever larger and impressive on our front porch; and moments of laughter and fun with the people I love.

I really don’t want to talk about Brexit, but…

When Britain voted to leave the European Union, I was heart-broken; soon after, fear set in. What would happen to my family now? While my husband and children held British passports, I didn’t. Would I still be welcome to live in Britain, the country I’d called home for more than fifteen years?

Eventually, fear and despair gave way to defiance.shutterstock_773740984

“Fine, kick me out, if you want, I’ve got 27 other countries to choose from!”

Friends and family sought to reassure me that all would be well.

“They won’t kick out people like you,” they said.

People like me? Swedes? Blond and blue-eyed Scandinavians, Boris Johnson lookalikes? We, the people who gave Britain ABBA and IKEA?

When my blond and blue-eyed four-year-old niece was verbally abused on a London street for speaking Swedish to her nanny shortly after the referendum, my husband advised me to play it safe by not speaking  Swedish to our mixed-heritage daughters while on public transport.

In the wake of the Windrush scandal, and following reports that numerous EU citizens who’ve lived in Britain for decades, paid their taxes and married British citizens, have had their applications for permanent residence rejected, it seems that anything is possible, even the unthinkable.

So why is it that, only months away from the day that Britain is set to leave the EU, I find myself muttering “Go on, get on with it, for goodness sake,” while reading the morning paper? Get on with what? Brexit, of course!

Am I really so fed up with the Brexit debacle, the botched negotiations, the inept government, and equally dysfunctional opposition, the different stands on a second referendum, a so-called ‘people’s vote’, that I just want Brexit over with, deal or no deal?

Not quite, but two years on from the referendum, I simply fail to see how the Brexit issue will ever be resolved unless the government follows through on its promise to take Britain out of the European Union. When the petitions for a second referendum first began to circulate, I felt a glimmer of hope light up in me. Perhaps there wouldn’t be a Brexit after all. But on reflection, it seems that a second referendum would at best result in a tiny victory for Remain, the legitimacy of which would be as contested as that of the first referendum.

Brexit sucks, there’s no doubt in my mind about that and it will probably take many years to repair the damage done to Britain, economically, politically and socially, once it’s left the EU. Yet perhaps all this is necessary in order for Britain to finally come to terms with the fact that it is no longer – and never will be again – an imperialist superpower. What kind of Britain will rise out of the ashes of Brexit is anyone’s guess, but perhaps it will finally prompt some much-needed soul-searching.

“One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.” – Carl Jung