on the stories we tell ourselves


When I was a teenager, I was reaching the end of my photography A-level. Having been a fairly dependable 'good girl' for most of my teen years, no one was more shocked than me when I dropped off the rails at sixteen. After the dust settled, I was scrambling to get my grades back up for the two A-levels I hadn't dropped. My final project for photography had to be really good.

I'd been stripped, temporarily, of my identity following an abusive relationship. I felt strange in my own body. I'd lost ownership of it for a while there, and now it was mine again, and I didn't know how to like myself, I didn't know how to be present in the moment.

At the time - pre-selfies, if you can imagine that - I was enjoying the work of Cindy Sherman and Werner Bischof. Sherman for the intrigue: I would stare at her Untitled Film Stills, at the characters she presented with no context, and try to imagine who they were. And I loved Bischof's nude photography: the female form, the curves, the light and the shadow.

I liked the thought of using my own body as a model. But as much as Bischof's work was stunning, I didn't fancy getting my kit off for the entire class to look at. So I went the Sherman route. Clothes on self-portraits. I just needed a theme.

My photography tutor (one of the only people in the world that understood what had happened to me, at the time) helped me pull together the loose threads of my thoughts into some kind of coherent whole. I'd dress up as a fairy. I'd take a series of self-portraits in the dark. I'd read about the Cottingley fairies and was kind of obsessed with the idea of these two little girls managing to pull off such an impressive hoax.

I gathered together all of my costume jewelry (of which I owned a lot, because it was 2006), grabbed some strings of fairy lights, and got to work. It involved a tripod and a remote-controlled, old-fashioned SLR, and a lot of hours locked away in a smelly darkroom with my friend Tom occasionally poking me in the side to make me jump. But eventually, we got there; a few grainy, shadowy photographs of me, always at the edges of the frame, never actually showing my face. I developed them by hand, then scanned them and printed them out tiny. I placed them in a little box I painted myself, tucked into shredded paper, hidden in fake jewels and pearls.

They make me chuckle a bit when I look at them now. But the end result being a bit naff wasn't the point, really. I thought of a story and I told it and I dragged my grade up from a D to a B. And in the process, I accidentally depicted myself as I felt in that moment: fragile, precious, easily startled. Something you could accidentally crush in your fist if you weren't careful.

I've been thinking about women's bodies in general, and my body specifically. I think of reaching for the person lying next to me, irresistibly drawn even in semi-consciousness, only to be pulled back into a heavy sleep. I think of microscopic damage in a nerve. I think of the feeling of another life wriggling around inside me, the feeling of feet digging into my ribs. I think of the searing heaviness of labour. I think of a sudden rush of milk when a baby cries. I think of running to dodge crashing waves on the seafront, breathless with laughter, damp with seawater and sweat. I think of blood. I think of power. I think of weakness. I think of fighting. I think of love.

Sometimes, I feel like I don't even belong in my body at all: I'm just a soul rattling around in a capsule. The concept of embodiment is something I've been thinking about for a long time. How much of us is our bodies and how much of us is just, you know, the soul part? For so long I'd been taught to see my body as an enemy, almost. The humanity of our failing, miserable bodies draws us to sin and shame and takes us away from God. And so I'd lost the ability to see myself as my body. I separated myself from it. Aside from communion, everything felt all existential and, I don't know, future-focused. I wanted more space to experiment with physicality, I guess.

I keep thinking about the Dylan Thomas poem (because if we're talking about art we may as well go for poetry too):

The force that drives the water through the rocks
Drives my red blood; that dries the mouthing streams
Turns mine to wax.
And I am dumb to mouth unto my veins
How at the mountain spring the same mouth sucks.

I felt like, if I wanted to be close to the creator of the universe, I should have felt some of that force. I should have been more aware of it thrumming away inside me, I should have been more intuitive of it out in the world. One of my friends tends to prefer staring out at the sea to actually going to church and listening to a sermon; I kind of get where she's coming from. There's life out there in the steady movement of the waves.

And now I'm here, writing, pouring my heart into a digital space that doesn't actually exist in a way that allows me to touch it, and I'm once again wondering how much of my life I spend with my head somewhere else, not actually connected with my body in any meaningful way. Very rarely do I take a moment to root myself into my physical presence: to feel my heart beating, to actually experience the inhale and exhale. I'm constantly being pulled away from myself, drawn back into my mind, into my worries and my general feeling of unease. I feel unsettled on earth at the moment. I don't think I'm alone in feeling that way.

I wrote before that women, in evangelical Christianity, are presented as both powerful and powerless, and I stand by that statement. But the more I think about it, the more I realise that's how women are presented to the world in general. That's how I feel, sometimes. Like I can flip from one to the other in a heartbeat.

When I was pregnant with my eldest, I couldn't believe my body was capable of housing my future daughter. One day I rose out of the bath and I noticed deep purple stretchmarks, these stark jagged lines all over my body. And I was delighted. Because what an incredible thing, that my body could stretch to accommodate her. I was stronger, heavier, more solid, somehow. I felt that same power after giving birth, both times. Like I could conquer the earth.

And there are moments when I feel little glimpses of what it can be like, to be a woman. My favourite Nina Simone song is Do I Move You:

When I touch you,
do you quiver?
From your head,
down to your liver.

The first time I heard that song I did shiver. She's the embodiment of a woman comfortable in her own skin and fully aware of what it can do. And it's an incredible sight to behold; a woman in the fullness of her own power. Rooted into her own body.

Sometimes I feel that way. I feel that power. I feel, like Nina, that I should be fucking well respected, actually, because I am also a sight to behold. I let myself feel it because it's almost like a reward for the many years I spent minimising myself.

And then, it flips.

Because I remember that there are people campaigning to remove access to birth control. I remember that there are men filming women in the gym and berating them for the clothing they choose to wear. I remember the pastor stating that, if he was on a jury for a rape trial and the woman was wearing shorts, he'd find the man not guilty.

I think of the man who leaned out of his window and screamed at me that he wanted to fuck me while I walked down an alley, alone, with my daughter in a pushchair and my visible baby bump. I think of the boy who once told me I had blow job lips and how I stopped wearing lip gloss because I was scared it would make them more noticeable.

I remember the man who openly stared at me as I breastfed my son, how the greedy look on his face made me feel. I remember the woman who tutted in disgust at having to be in the same room as me while I fed my baby like I was some kind of animal. I think about all the times I've walked home in the dark in the middle of the road with my key wedged between my fingers and my heart racing. I remember the time I walked past my abuser, not so long ago, the way he looked at me like he still despised me after all this time.

It's strange. How you can feel power and then nothingness in the next moment. How much of my wellbeing depends on no one thinking to take advantage of how small I am. But I guess that's the same for everyone: all of us living in this facade that we're untouchable based purely on the idea of other people being decent human beings, until they're not.

I'm mildly obsessed with fairy tales at the moment. Partly because I'm studying them, but also because I keep accidentally picking up books that are either retellings of fairy tales or reference them in some way. I picked up Women Who Run with the Wolves recently. In the book, writer and clinical psychologist Clarissa Pinkola Estes explains how, in her practice with clients, she helps them to find some kind of myth or tale that instructs them, gives them some kind of idea on how to move forward. 'I use the simplest and most accessible ingredient for healing - stories.'

I've been writing stories since I was six years old. Consciously or unconsciously. I look back through old photographs and diaries and I can see myself furiously trying to create narratives to make sense of myself and the world and why things are the way they are. We all do it. We do it when we tell the same stories about life's most formative moments: with hindsight, we add to it, we shape it. It develops. We do it in our minds, in the narratives we tell ourselves. It's a constant and ongoing process.

I have to write a fairy tale for my next assignment. (I swear it's a real course.) And I keep thinking about the stories I used to believe about myself: that my voice is worth less, that my feelings aren't valid, that I'm easily led, that I can be used and discarded, that I'm less powerful or important or useful than men, that I, as a woman, am a problem, or distraction, or an inconvenience. I think about the part of me that still believes that and defaults to old patterns of behaviour because I feel limited by those stories. I think about how often I hold myself back, how often I don't say what I feel, how often I swallow my opinions and my feelings and my insights, how often I cushion everything I say with polite emojis and jokes.

And I think: fuck those stories! Fuck that, fuck you. That's not who I am. I'm not the fragile, fluttering little fairy I was when I was seventeen. That was fine at the time but I'm something else, now. I'm something else completely. It's evolution. And for this fairy tale I want to represent myself as something else. I just can't think what yet.

I've been looking through all my selfies. I take a lot of them. For one thing, my own mother hates having her photograph taken, so the few that I have of her from my childhood are lovely to me. I like seeing her blue eyeshadow and her nineties power suits and the embroidered maxi dress she used to wear, the one I used to hide behind when I felt shy at our noisy family gatherings, tracing the silvery thread with my finger and wanting to disappear into the fabric. So I take a lot of photos, because I think my kids might quite like to remember me the way I used to be when they were small.

These photographs will form part of the narrative of my life, when I look back on them. They will tell their own story. And I look at them and they make me smile, because I said I gave up photography years ago, but I've never actually stopped taking photographs. Not really. All these years I've spent at home raising our kids and writing and I've just been quietly snapping myself changing. Evolving picture by picture.

I got writer's block last week. That's why there was no newsletter. I know what I want from this. I know what I want from life. I've got this deep, burning desire to share stories. To write them, yes, but also to just point people in the direction of stories other people have created. Video games and books and films and music; these are what keep me going, these are the ways that I enjoy stories, these are the things people make that make me want to stop people and say 'hey - have you seen this thing?'. Because I get a lot of meaning and importance and life out of this stuff. I absorb bits of them, weave them into my own life story. All I want to do is celebrate the stories, in whatever form they come in.

I want to tell stories, I want to point people in the direction of stories, I want to help people make their own stories, I want to dig deep into the minds of the people making the stuff I think is really cool. This is the way I want to impact people as I move through the world.

It's kind of ironic that one of the only times I ever feel truly powerful in my life is when I am writing something and the words can't stop coming out of me. I feel alive in a way that I don't often feel elsewhere. And the irony part is that I've just spent this entire post talking about how I am not in touch with my body enough, how I'm always somewhere else in my mind.

But I do think I need to have a balance. I feel stuck and tired and emotional. I've forgotten how to be grateful for the fact that I am alive. I have forgotten how to be where I am, and not long to be somewhere else. I'm annoyed at my body, most of the time, sometimes justifiably, because it does cause me pain. But I've forgotten how to be fully human. There's something broken there, something that's been knocked out of alignment. I have to figure out how to make it all line up again.

I have to find a sense of power and control not just in my mind, but in my whole self.

I don't know what that looks like. Probably more movement and less sitting around in front of my computer. Probably more dancing and walking and stuff. Probably pushing myself out of my comfort zone. Probably remembering to acknowledge my own breath, the inhale and the exhale.

And maybe when I do that, I'll figure out what kind of creature I want to depict myself as, and I'll figure out the story I want to tell. I'll write it out and maybe it will help something to shift in my head. And maybe I'll share it with you, if you'd be up for that.

That's it for today. But speaking of creatures: next week I'll be telling you about some really cool and scary and weird things about deep sea creatures. So look out for that. And if you make stuff - anything! - get in touch with me. I'm keen to get other voices on here soon.