Daisy-chains and Black Holes

If making daisy-chains and acting out what might happen as you fall into a black hole or similar were Olympic events, I might have had the chance as a sportswoman.

Or maybe not. 

I used to blame my lack of confidence at sport on childhood trauma: firstly aged five, hearing two grannies laugh at me as I tried to be placed in the egg and spoon race at school and later, aged nine or so, suffering two years of bullying which included being picked last for every team.

Looking back now, I realise not all of this is reasonable. 

I was the littlest child in my school in the youngest class. I was also extremely serious. I imagine a very small girl, running along clasping her egg and spoon (and they were the real thing in my day – none of this plastic nonsense) with a look of utter determination, socks falling down little legs, scabby knees occasionally showing as the overlong skirt flapped, mousy bunches bouncing above her shoulders. I was probably rather sweet and certainly funny. My own daughter, hampered by height in a similar manner just hammed up the whole thing as she competed with her best friend (the tallest in her class) to general hilarity including her own. I took myself far too seriously and felt quite bruised afterwards.

I recovered a bit when two years later, I went to a forward thinking junior school and was encouraged, despite my lack of stature, to learn the high jump and long jump properly. I was never going to win, but I did OK and was relatively confident in my abilities.

Then we moved again and I joined a school which had barely moved into the first half of the 20th century, let alone the last quarter. If there was any spare time, the boys got to do extra sport. The girls got to do extra needlework. If it was a very hot day, the girls got to do extra needlework while watching the boys do extra sport. My mother still has the item I embroidered that summer, every cross-stitch stabbed with boredom.

This was the school where I was comprehensively bullied for two years. On the one hand it crushed any small confidence I had that I could at least run, even if I wasn’t much good at catching or hitting a ball. It also put me off team games for life to the extent that when someone at work suggested an inter-team rounders match in St James’s Park, it took me straight back to those awful days of being jeered at and made me feel slightly sick. On the other hand, the junior school bullying – once I’d decided to stop letting people see they were hurting me – probably started me on a path of being determined to do my own thing and ultimately to stop worrying about what other people thought and worry more about whether I was meeting my own standards. 

Secondary school was a little different. Our games sessions involved four forms and therefore two groups of around sixty girls or sixty boys. How the teachers didn’t go mad I have no idea. Encouragement of women in sport was dampened by a teacher declaring in tones of despair that girls were useless once they hit puberty as women’s hips made it harder to run and busts made them more self-conscious. I’d never thought about my hips before and ever afterwards I’ve wondered if I really did run differently after the age of twelve. My bust was another matter. The last thing I was even remotely good at – running – became a torment both physical and mental as I was ‘wobbly’ very early on. 

The teachers concentrated on those who were teachable. These didn’t include me. During one year, in netball season, the teachers went off to coach girls with potential while those without were left alone – pitched in a vicious match against the goddesses of the school netball team. Imagine the Roman arena where useless specimens of humanity have been thrown to the top gladiators for a bit of light-hearted weapons practice. With no teacher watching, every rule (except bizarrely, staying in the right part of the court) was broken. Elbows, knees, and feet were employed to get the ball into the right goal. Meanwhile, even more feet were being applied to ankles within the useless girls’ team as low level feuds were played out under the guise of a match. In a vicious sort of way it was quite fun really. 

The teacher gave up trying to teach me tennis the day a cry came from the field where the boys were playing cricket: ‘Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No! It’s Paula’s tennis ball.’ I thought my serves were innovative but never mind. In the sixth form I went on a course to learn squash and afterwards challenged my boyfriend – a very competent sportsman – to a match. Afterwards, this generally mild-mannered young man said if anyone tried to make him play squash with me again, he’d have to kill them and me and possibly himself. This seemed harsh. My husband (not the same man and not as mild mannered) might feel similarly about teaching me dinghy sailing or ice-skating except he’s too busy laughing. I have fortunately learnt to put my nose in the air, get a cup of tea, stalk off and read or write something which is the adult equivalent of what I did in the days when I was picked last in teams – make daisy-chains and daydream.

You see, in school, the main sport in the summer was rounders. This – for anyone who doesn’t know – is related to baseball and consists of one team taking it in turns to whack a ball and try to get round four bases without being caught out, while the other team fields and tries to catch the ball in order to get them out. I hated batting because I was genuinely rubbish at it, bullying or no bullying, but I quite liked fielding if I could be as far away as possible from any likelihood of having to try and catch a ball.

Our country school had a massive daisy-covered field. Near one edge was a sort of copse. In break-times, the copse was crucial to me and the one person who’d play with me. It formed part of the world in which we acted out a very complicated story in which we’d gone through some sort of portal made of a translucent but tangible wall (a bit like clear jelly) to another world. We spent a great deal of time acting out the sheer terror of going through this invisible wall in which were trapped various enormous insects and managing the challenges on the other side as we tried to get back. It really doesn’t bear thinking about what we must have looked like and maybe it’s no wonder we were both considered odd. 

During a game of rounders, it was too risky to sneak off into the copse as the teacher wasn’t that daft. It was however possible to lay down in the grass as far away from any action as possible and make daisy-chains. Which is pretty much what I did, while imagining myself in the middle of one of my own stories having an adventure. On the very rare occasion a ball did come my way and an exasperated roar of ‘Paula!’ was bellowed by my team, it was really annoying. The one time I managed to scramble to my feet and catch the ball I was as surprised as anyone.

My own children turned out to be both creative and good at sports. My daughter did well and was quite focussed, particularly on gymnastics. But watching my son, who had a lot of potential, struggle with the team element of sport was baffling. No-one was picking on him (or at least not until his team lost because he wasn’t concentrating), he was capable and confident, he was being given lots of encouragement. So I asked him whether, apart from his struggles with concentration there was another problem. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘I want there to be a story and no-one else does.’ He wasn’t really interested in playing football or swimming or learning judo for itself or for the sake of winning. He wanted it to be part of a story – a quest, a challenge, an adventure and none of the other children or the trainers understood. 

But I did. Because looking back, bullying aside, that’s exactly how I felt about sport and fundamentally still do. I want there to be a story, otherwise I’d rather be reading or writing one.

I like to think that if I ever was silly enough to agree to be on an office team playing rounders in St James’s Park, you’d be able to find me as a fielder, a long way from the action, making daisy-chains. I can still do it you know. 

As for acting out finding myself in another world, I lost touch with that friend for a long time until a few years ago. But as we caught up with each other over a series of emails, one of her first questions was ‘do you remember the jelly wall with the fly in it?’ Perhaps this is because, though we’re both now grown up and she’s not odd at all and maybe neither am I, we’re both writers and still looking for the story in every situation and wondering how best to describe what might happen if we step through a jelly wall or a black hole into another world. 

It’s a hard job, but someone has to do it. Beats whacking a ball in my view anyway.

daisies

Words and photographs (c) Copyright 2019 Paula Harmon. Not to be reproduced without author’s express permission.

A Letter to My Bully

Left Luggage

Memory is a funny thing.

I’m just back from my silver wedding anniversary trip to an island we visited on our honeymoon, Kefalonia (Κεφαλονιά).

Work, not to mention life in general, had been pretty hectic for both of us on the run up to our break, so it wasn’t until we were flying out that we realised we should have looked at our honeymoon snaps to see what had changed since we couldn’t remember very much of how the Ionian Islands had been back then. We also realised we’d forgotten any Greek we might have known with the exception of a few words kalimera, kalispera, oxi, thalassa (καλημέρα, καλησπέρα, όχι, θάλασσα e.g. good morning, good evening, no, sea) a combination of which isn’t likely to lead to much of a conversation. Thank goodness for smart phones, 3G and translation websites.

I’m glad to say that despite our forward planning, we had a really lovely time on an island which is breathtakingly beautiful and full of the friendliest people. But memory, as I say, is a funny thing. A visit to Fiskardo where we had definitely been twenty-five years ago, didn’t ring any bells. ‘I sort of remember that bit of the quay’ I said. ‘That restaurant was definitely there,’ said my husband. But it was impossible to work out what had changed. I’ve since come home, looked at the honeymoon photos and it’s all still a blank. Back in 1993, we didn’t actually take photographs of ‘that bit of quay’ or ‘that restaurant’ so we have nothing to compare. 

Memory is like a suitcase we carry around with us, discarding and adding things as time passes, losing things, sometimes even accidentally packing other people’s things and thinking they’re ours.  We so often get all the priorities wrong: it’s like leaving a flattering shirt behind, yet for no good reason keeping the shoes that rub your feet raw.

I’m as bad as anyone. The things that hurt, wounded and damaged in my life embedded themselves deeper in my memory than many moments of love or laughter. I don’t know why that is, or why I let them. Some memories can still make me cry if I’m in the wrong frame of mind. Worse still, focussing on the bad memories can obliterate the good ones. Words from the reading at our wedding ‘love keeps no record of wrongs’ is something which should be tattooed to my eyeballs so I remember them.

One of the revelations I had when I started writing seriously again was mentally revisiting my childhood in South Wales. We moved there when I was eight and I was deeply unhappy about the whole thing. I remained deeply unhappy about it until I went to university. In the years after that, the negative impression grew into something monstrous. I focussed entirely on how I’d missed my grandparents whom I was used to seeing every weekend; missed the kind of school I’d wanted to go to; missed the soft rolling pasturelands and pretty villages of Berkshire; missed the friends I’d left behind and would never see again and having them replaced by bullies worse than any I’d encountered before. And then one day in 2015, I saw a writing prompt about a walk in a wood at midnight. I hadn’t long received an email from an old school friend. She’d revisited the South Welsh village where we’d lived on a whim, perused both our houses as much as she could without getting arrested and had a look around our old haunts. ‘Whatever you do,’ she said. ‘Don’t go back. It’ll ruin all your memories.’ But I’d forgotten my memories. The prompt changed everything. I recalled walking by the river, playing on a sandbank, observing wildlife, talking to the trees, imagining in the dell. Most often I used to do this alone (especially the talking to trees part) but I had drawn a detailed map showing where all the magic places were. My friend was the only one I had ever shown it to. Writing a story about that feeling of connection with the beautiful Welsh countryside and the friend who had been the only person who understood, somehow unlocked all lovely things I’d packed up, the way my map must have been packed up with my discarded belongings by my parents after I left home. For the first time, I started to forget the sense of loss for a place which had never been as perfect as I’d remembered and for things that might never have been, I forgot the loneliness and the bullying. I remembered the wild mountains and mysterious streams, the heathery slopes and the wild seas. A great many of the stories in Kindling came from that unlocked suitcase of memories, even more went into The Cluttering Discombobulator.

I know that I’m fortunate in that the bad memories I have are very much what a great many people, if not the majority suffer at some point or other, even though it didn’t seem so at the time. I was bullied, I had my heart broken, I broke a heart, I’ve been so lonely I thought I would shatter into pieces and dissolve into dust, I’ve been betrayed and lied about, I’ve been bereaved. At the time those seemed too enormous to bear. And I still don’t know why I let those memories haunt me rather than remember why a smell or an expression makes me laugh when it must connect to something lovely. 

I haven’t suffered the appalling abuse mental and physical of many I know and grieve for. They have much more to forgive, much more to forget. I hope I don’t underestimate that. But I also hope that one day each of them will be able to forgive and move on since forgiveness is not for the person forgiven but for the forgiver. It’s their chance to say – no matter what you did, I will not let you ruin my life any more.

Yes memory is a funny thing. Painful remembrances can make that suitcase heavy with anguish whereas happy ones can make feel as if it’s full of feathers. It doesn’t hurt to go through our luggage from time to time and chuck out the things we don’t need so that we can travel light with joy, leaving behind the people who don’t and never did deserve our attention and concentrating instead on those who do; including ourselves.

So much for the introspection. Going back to trying to remember our honeymoon. Now of course, as well as being a long time ago, we were sailing from island to island. Most of our photographs are of harbours, sea, other boats, the life-long friends we made and of course each other looking young, thin and nimble. We can recall eating in tavernas under starlit skies, walking through wild thyme on the abandoned island of Kalamos, feeding the fish with bits of tiropitakia (τυροπιτακια – a kind of pastry filled with feta cheese), the phosphorescence in the sea when we swam at night and my husband’s somewhat frenzied (and ultimately futile) battles with mosquitoes. 

Obviously we were too busy being romantic to notice much. Or something.

IMG_4523

Words and photograph copyright 2018 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.

Insight

Dear Niamh,

I blame you. 

Rhys doesn’t believe me but I just know it’s your fault that he and I are invisible. You’ve always stared at me as if I’m something nasty on your shoe. I hate that. I used to try and wind you up but it was a waste of time. Nothing gets to you. Nothing. I’ve never seen you cry and you don’t laugh at my jokes. You’re the only girl who doesn’t think I’m funny. Apart from Freya of course. Freya doesn’t laugh at anything at all. She just cries.

It really gets to me how you don’t like me,Niamh. You and me, we could make a good team. You’re brighter than the rest of these trolls. You read the same books, watch the same movies. To be honest, I even think you’re almost as pretty as me. We could run this school between us but you’re just not interested. You just hang out with Lauren and ignore me. Or I thought you did. But look at you now: you’re the only one who can see us and you’re grinning. So I know it’s all your fault.

I’ve been thinking about it and reckon it all started the day Freya went to Mrs Jones after break and said I was picking on her. Rhys sat there looking smug (made a change for him to be out of the limelight didn’t it?). He was just sniggering at me and nudging those thugs he hangs out with.  Charlie was looking gutted. Everyone could see the marks on Charlie’s neck but Rhys had got away with it again. Mrs Jones’s eyes rolled as she listened to Freya drivel on and then you stood up for her. You know how Mrs Jones thins her lips and stares at us as if she’s thinking how dare you interrupt my day with your pathetic little lives? Well she looked at Freya like that and then she looked at me like that. Me. I mean, Rhys, he’s a bully. Everyone knows he’s a bully. He chases people and thumps them. That’s bullying isn’t it? He even tries to thump Freya, when Charlie isn’t around, only she can outrun him – the lard arse. But me? I’m not a bully. I just tell it like it is.  

Freya is boring. She is gangly. She does have a funny accent. She does cry all the time. She is good at boring things like history. Her Dad is fat. Her house is a mess. 

Do you remember when Freya moved to this school from whatever God awful place she came from? She tried to make friends by inviting all us girls round to her house for a party. I mean, don’t you remember Freya’s home? Her parents are so weird and old fashioned they’ve only just about got a CD player and put on total crap music that even my mum wouldn’t listen to. Her Dad kept bleating on about stuff from about fifty years ago and Freya just hung on his words if he’s God or something. He didn’t even know how to do an internet search. I’m not sure he even had a smart phone. He just kept proving his point by digging out one of those dusty old books he’d got piled up everywhere because he’d run out of space in his stupid shop. I don’t think half of them were less than a hundred years old and there were about a million. There were cats asleep on them, her Dad was putting plates down on them. They were all over the place. Is that your idea of a party? So yeah, she’s weird. She can’t help it. It’s how she is. And it’s not my fault if I point it out to the other kids and they laugh. I’ve just got a good sense of humour and she hasn’t. It’s no good me pretending to everyone that she’d be any good on their team, she’d fall over her feet or cry or something.  It’s obvious.

I’m not like Rhys. He’s a bully. I’m just honest. He pushes Charlie around to get money and to make himself look scary. I just want Freya to face up to facts. If she laughed at my jokes I wouldn’t get so irritated with her. Not as much anyway.

The day when you told on me, good old Mrs Jones wasn’t putting up with all that soppy crap. She said ‘Just keep away from her then’ to Freya, just like she says to Charlie about Rhys, ‘just keep away from him then.’ See, she understands. If you don’t want people to get annoyed, don’t be annoying. 

People were a bit fidgety that afternoon. Well the girls were. The boys were just morons same as ever. Some of the girls wouldn’t look at me. But it was ok. It gave me time to remind Abbie about how Ellen’s Mum drinks like a fish and how it couldn’t be true about Georgia’s dad and then I wondered out loud why Chelsea is so short. After lunch, things were back to normal. Except you kept staring at me.

I decided to ignore Freya. It was the best thing to do, ignore her.

I thought, I’ll keep away from Freya, then she doesn’t need to keep away from me and I’ll make sure everyone else keeps away from her too. No-one has anything to complain about then. So I just mentioned to the rest of the girls how I’d heard that Freya had fleas and cockroaches in that slum she lived in and that was why she was so good at biology. I said it a bit loudly but it got a couple of the girls laughing anyway and they moved away from Freya and pretended to scratch. The ones that looked awkward probably didn’t understand the joke.   

Now I reckon that was the trigger point. You gave me evils while Lauren took Freya away with her arm round Freya’s shoulder. Freya was crying again: the big wet cabbage. That’s when you decided. I remember you asking Freya really loudly if you could go round hers that evening. It was after that.

Yes, I know it didn’t happen the next day or the day after, but I reckon that evening at Freya’s house, you found something in one of her dad’s disgusting old books.  

So everything was fine for a couple of days and then on Monday, I overslept. Mum didn’t wake me. She’d gone to work without dropping me off, which she does sometimes, but this time, she hadn’t found someone else to take me. So I just had to walk there on my own. I was a bit late so the only person arriving at the same time was Chelsea and she just ignored me. Didn’t even look at me. It was as if I wasn’t there. It was the same with everyone. They all ignored me. The bell rang and I went into the classroom and Mrs Jones took the register and when she got to my name she said ‘absent’ and that was that. It was the same all day. I put my hand up, no-one noticed. I kicked Sam under the table. He didn’t flinch. At break, no-one heard me. After lunch, Mrs Jones got to my name on the register again, looked a bit confused and said ‘why’s her name still on here?’ At the end of the day, she said ‘Chelsea, tomorrow, come and sit in that empty seat.’ and pointed where I was sitting. I looked round the class and no-one looked surprised or anything. Except you. You were looking straight at me and smiling in that quiet way of yours. God I was mad. I went up to Rhys and punched him really hard, just to prove I was there. I got up out of my seat and did it right in front of everyone, but no-one said a thing and Rhys, that great oaf, he just waved his hand a bit as if there was a fly around him.

I went home and Mum couldn’t see me either. She made enough supper for two but looked a bit confused and put the second plate in the fridge. I ate it cold when she’d left the kitchen. I sat down with her to watch TV but it wasn’t the same without her telling me to go to bed and me telling her how useless she is. 

I’ve kept coming to school. What else was there to do? I just thought it was some kind of seriously unfunny joke. A day after it happened to me, when I was sitting at the back of the class in Chelsea’s old seat, I saw Charlie come in crying. He wasn’t even pretending not to. He had gravel burn all down his cheek and his jumper was all ripped. The other boys squirmed a bit but everyone knew Rhys would come sauntering in next, on the look out for someone else to thump. Mrs Jones  told everyone to settle down and asked Charlie what had happened. 

‘Fell down,’ he said.

She didn’t believe it but shrugged. She scowled at Rhys, but Rhys just looked as innocent as it’s possible for Rhys to look. And thinking about it now, you glared at Rhys then while everyone else found something else to be interested in.

On Wednesday, Rhys came in to class but when Mrs Jones got to his name on the register, she marked him absent though he said ‘yes miss’. 

She’d stopped calling out my name the previous day. 

Rhys was angry. He started throwing things about, only nothing actually moved. It looked like they’d moved but at the same time it looked as if they were still where they were supposed to be. It was really weird. Everyone just got on with their work. Rhys got up and walked about thumping people. No-one noticed. Then he got to me, said ‘where’ve you been hiding?’ and punched me in the arm and I said ‘Ow!  Stop it you prat!’ and punched him back. It’s not really my style but I had to do something.

So there we were. I could see him and he could see me but we were both invisible to everyone else.  And after a while Mrs Jones just referred to me as ‘that girl who used to be here’ but said it as if saying my name made her mouth taste bad and talked about Rhys as if he were a particularly stupid pile of manure.

I thought Rhys only came to school to beat Charlie up, so I expected him to bunk off once no-one would notice. But he’s still here. I guess even he has enough brain cells to get fed up with hanging out at home. All the same, he’s worried because Ben’s taking Charlie to judo with him now.  Let’s face it, if he’d known how to, Charlie always could have got the better of Rhys. Now I bet Rhys is almost hoping to stay invisible.  

Me, I actually want to learn stuff, so it’s a bit frustrating when I know the answer and no-one’s listening. The only thing that made school bearable until this morning was that Mrs Jones was good for entertainment. I liked it when she made Chelsea finish that problem on the white board only made sure it was so high up that Chelsea had to stand on a chair and it was such a laugh when she got Tim to read out that long poem then mimicked his lisp. Yesterday, I thought it was hysterical when she laughed in front of everyone at Freya’s bit of creative writing about her father’s magic books. 

I’ve only just clicked it wasn’t funny. And it wasn’t a story.

I’m normally so bright, I can’t believe I didn’t realise the truth till you did it to Mrs Jones too. She came in late this morning, in a foul mood and bellowed like a cow, but no-one paid any attention. She banged on the desk till it nearly broke, but no-one calmed down. 

I actually felt a little scared of her, but I thought at least she can’t see me. Then I realised she  could. She was staring at me and Rhys while the class was laughing and chucking things around her. 

When the head came in to see what was going on and totally ignored her, Mrs Jones just slammed her way out of the classroom. And I looked over to you, Niamh, and you were laughing your head off.

So Niamh, I’ve worked out it’s all your fault. I know it is. I don’t know how but you’re staring at us with that smug grin. I thought nothing got to you, but obviously something does. I’ve never done anything to you, yet you’ve played this trick on me. I don’t know why, but if you can see us. I’m hoping you can read this and can reverse the spell or whatever you need to do.

Cos you know what I hate. What I really hate? I hate how they all forgot me and Rhys so fast.  Or not forgot, but how those kids I thought were my friends are all so catty about me now. I was the one that made things interesting and now they talk about me like they hated me. Some of them even hang out with Freya and say they were frightened of me. Me? I wasn’t like Rhys – I never hit anyone. I just like a good laugh. What’s scary about that? What’s wrong with them all? Turns out Freya has a sense of humour too and can smile. Who knew? I’ve heard some of the kids say even though she’s weird and boring, she’s funny and nice all the same so they just roll their eyes a bit and talk to her as if she was normal. 

And I miss my mum who just sits quietly at home in the evening and looks at my photo as if she’s trying to remember who I am.  

I don’t know what you think I’ve done to annoy you, but maybe you can tell me and then you can make things go back to normal. Maybe I’ll even try to work out what you all like about Freya. 

Niamh, please reverse that spell. 

It’s lonely when you’re invisible, Niamh.  

And it’s sooo boring.  

grey zoe

Words and photograph copyright 2018 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.

Whatever is in your heart, becomes your words…

How does the saying ‘sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me’ make you feel?

I was about five, reporting being bullied, when I first heard it.

Two adults who should have known better were the ones who said them.

One was a teacher, the first in a long line who went on to say ‘just keep away from the bullies and they’ll keep away from you’ and went off to have tea in the staff-room. Obviously, that’s exactly what bullies do, isn’t it? They would never think of pursuing you. Of course not. What she meant (I hope) was ‘don’t show them that they are getting to you.’ What I heard was ‘don’t bother me with your problems. I don’t care about you.’

The other was an adult family member, who followed it up with ‘you just have to put up with it, it makes you strong.’ I suspect she was trying to help. What she meant (I think) was ‘don’t let them get to you. Pretend you don’t care.’ What I heard was ‘don’t make a fuss. Good girls keep quiet.’

Either way, I heard, ‘you’re not important.’

Words can undermine.

As I grew up, there was more advice to keep away from the bullies so they’d keep away from me; there was the teacher that called me stupid in front of the whole class; there were the bullies themselves who taunted about short legs, puberty, old fashionedness, nationality, reading too many books, (or not reading the right books); there were great aunts who (in my hearing) compared me unfavourably with my sister and my girl-cousin; there was the grandmother who (again in my hearing) expressed her utter disappointment at all my failings to virtual strangers; there were the teenage friends who criticised my clothes, hair and make-up until I felt strange and out of kilter, leaving them to the lime-light; there were the adult friends that weedled endless favours, getting me to be the one to make a fool of herself but refused to give quite reasonable, unhumiliating favours in return and complained I was being needy by asking.

Words can be the first step to violence.

Professionally, I have had some involvement in raising awareness into domestic violence. Domestic violence almost always starts with a slow undermining of the personality of the victim. ‘You’re not … enough’ (pretty/clever/earning/interesting/sexual/supportive… whatever wounds the most). ‘Your achievements aren’t worth celebrating but let me remind you constantly of your failings.’ ‘Your family is not … your friends are not…’ In the end the victim hears ‘you are nothing. You are less than nothing. You deserve everything you get.’ The victim will end up saying ‘it was my fault I got hit, I shouldn’t have been so….’

Words can devastate.

Recently, I saw a Facebook post in which someone said that she wanted to celebrate how through running she’d had lost a significant amount of weight and got considerably fitter, yet her own mother said she was still fat and lazy. Reply after reply from complete strangers told her not to listen, often providing examples of how they’d overcome similar experiences. I have good friends virtually destroyed by things said by mothers. The words were so cruel and so wounding that they have been carved indelibly into hearts and minds as if with a poisoned dagger. The impact rebounds on the next generation and the toxin seeps into relationships that want to heal.

Many people, even if not suffering the extremes of domestic violence or mental abuse, are scarred by thoughtless or deliberately unkind words.

It is human nature to remember the bad and forget the good. We judge ourselves by the words of people who don’t deserve to be listened to rather than those said by people who love us.

I would like to be charitable to my one grandmother and think that she was trying to toughen me up as she had been. However, I could do nothing right for her. It’s probably as well that I could do nothing wrong for the other grandmother or I’d have reached adulthood with no spirit left at all.

The reality is that all the cruel words I heard, well into adulthood, made me believe that somehow or other I wasn’t worth much. There were plenty of nice things said to me too, but I don’t recall them as clearly. Many of the hurtful things were said by people who were supposed to be friends. I felt I had failed them somehow. But eventually, at some point in the last few years, I realised that I hadn’t deserve to be treated with such disregard.

My mother used to say ‘if you have nothing nice to say, then don’t say it’ but that is not always possible. There is a place for people to be honest, for constructive criticism. None of us is perfect and it doesn’t do us any favours to think we are. But the person who needs to convey that criticism has a choice as to how to express themselves.

If you’re that person, think before you speak. What are you trying to achieve? Do you want the recipient to be the best they can be or do you want to crush them? Do you want them to learn and grow or do you want to make yourself look strong and clever? Your words could make them rebellious or dangerous, broken or even suicidal. Or your words could build them up. Which result do you want to be responsible for?

If you are someone who is wounded by vicious or careless words:
Don’t judge yourself by cruel words people say but turn to the people who truly care.

Please seek help, don’t struggle with the pain on your own.

Repeat to yourself:

They are the ones who are WRONG.
I do NOT deserve to be treated badly.
I AM important.
The world needs ME.

I HAVE INFINITE WORTH.

shepherds delight

IF you are affected by any of the issues in this article, here are some helplines. Please seek help. Someone is ready to listen.

Bullied at school or work? Click here for help

Domestic Violence help

Domestic Violence against Men

NSPCC

Childline

Samaritans

Words and photograph copyright 2017 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission

Letter to My Bully

I found the old class photograph and I looked for you.

I can remember your words, most of them.

The words that stung, that ripped into me, then undermined me even when they made no sense: weird, strange, not normal, ugly, stupid, clumsy, useless, soft, cry-baby, weak: the jibes about my body, my face, my hair, my skin, my family, my past, my future.

I remember the separation, the isolation, the other-ness.

But guess what? Your face itself is blank.

Do I wish I learnt earlier to hide the pain? Maybe.

Perhaps I wish I had stopped looking at myself sooner and looked at everyone else instead to see that their vulnerabilities, their weaknesses, their weirdnesses, stupidities and so on were no less than mine. It was simply that theirs were not pointed out.

I certainly wish that it had not taken me so long to realise that you were the one with the problem, not me.

Someone who could uses fear to make companions is just as friendless as someone who sits alone. Maybe more so.

And if I was vulnerable and sensitive, in fact, if I am still vulnerable or sensitive then I am glad.

I have learnt that these are good things to be.

At least I can recognise pain and doubt and fear and try to comfort rather than exploit. I want to be kind and loyal. I bitterly regret every unkindness or disloyalty I have ever been guilty of.

And I do not fear failure. I know I can start again and again and again.

You thought that failure makes you weak. But you were wrong. It is not failure which makes you weak. Failure makes you strong. Failure makes you look at yourself and analyse what went wrong and move forward.

Being cruel makes you weak. Being a bully makes you smug on victory, building yourself up and up … but there is nothing but destruction waiting when you fall.

So I can look at the school photograph and find myself. I remember how alone I felt in that class of young faces. I can name most of those other children, including the ones who told me afterwards how afraid they were of you and the ones who tried to be kind even when you picked on them for trying to befriend me. But I can’t find you. If you’re who I think you are then you looked like everyone else. You don’t look so scary.

I am not ashamed to have been that shy, lonely little girl who didn’t know how to hide her feelings. I am proud that I have grown to want to be kind.

Are you proud to be the one who made me cry?

b&w

Copyright 2016 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission

At the Book-Signing

“I don’t really read.”
“Oh”
“But I came cos your name reminded me of someone I knew at school. In fact it’s weird. You look just like her.”
“That’s because I AM her.”
“No you can’t be.”
“I am. And I recognise you too.”
“No you’re not her. She was a weirdo. And a swot.”
“Yup. That was me.”
“Yeah but you look normal.”
“I did then too.”
“And see, it says here on the front cover ‘humour’. She didn’t have a sense of humour at all. Trust me.”
“It’s hard to laugh when someone’s hidden your stuff, beaten you up and isolated you from the rest of the class.”
“She was good at those boring things like history and English. She liked reading. She’d probably have read your book.”
“I have.”
“I always wanted to be in a book.”
“You are. Fourth story in. The one called ‘Revenge’.”
….
“That’s gross. Is that even physically possible?”
“Tell you what, take a book home with my compliments before I’m tempted to find out.”
“Nah. Like I said, I don’t really read.”

pen

Copyright 2016 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission

(This was written in response to a prompt “Imagine you’re at a book signing – what happens?”)