A Tale of Two Cities

Last summer was supposed to be my summer of healing. Recovering from the last of a chronic illness that had plagued the majority of my first year, my overwhelming feeling was gratitude. I felt lucky because I was, for all intents and purposes, ‘cured’. It wasn’t until this summer that I realised what it feels like to actually heal.

Taking things day by day, I didn’t realise that I had spent the best part of 2018 living cautiously, half enjoying things, either preoccupied by pain or worried that I was over exerting myself. Even though by the time summer came the worst of this had gone, a part of my vivacity had gone with it. I felt lost – not having completed my exams, spending so much time at home alone, missing out on events with friends. Even though my pain and illness had gone away, it had taken a part of me with it. The result was a summer of feeling lost, anxious about going back to Cambridge and being behind, feeling like a disappointment for not Making The Most Of My Summer, withdrawing myself from friends and feeling guilty for even feeling these feelings in the first place.

This summer I healed when I didn’t know I needed to. I felt myself collecting up all the parts of myself that I didn’t realise had been sucked out of me. I’ve spent this summer between two cities that could not be more different, Delhi and Boston;  Delhi for six glorious weeks working for a women’s trade union, and four weeks in Harvard on an exchange program. Both cities pieced me back together in their own ways.

Delhi

Delhi,

You gave me back my love. 

You reminded me of the importance of platonic love, how wonderful my friends are, and how they never went anywhere, even when I did. You gave me new friends, some fleeting, some firm. You reminded me that being surrounded by the right people can turn the worst situations into the best stories.

You reinvigorated my love for women. You blessed me with the oasis of Women Only carriages on the metro and working in an office every day where the only male presence was the man who brought the tea. You surrounded me with the whole spectrum of womanhood; women who were CEOs, matriarchs, street vendors; ninety year old farmers who were fitter than me, and young girls deciding what kind of footprint they wanted to leave on the world. You reminded me that, as a woman in most places, it is often the case that to exist is to resist, and existing can be fucking exhausting.

You reminded me of my passion for the causes I believe in. Giving me the time and space to read, to learn from people I was surrounded with and the work that I was doing, you reignited a love that had been dulled by a bubble of self indulgent privilege.

boston

Boston,

I was afraid to visit you, far more than I was to visit Delhi, but you gave me back my courage.

You gave me the courage to step out of my comfort zone and meet new people, and the courage to not try and be someone that I’m not, regardless of whether it might be the easier option.

You gave me the courage to take up space. You reminded me that my opinion is valid and my voice matters, even (and especially) in an institution where it might be an unpopular one. You emboldened me to push back; whether it be against casual racialised remarks designed to make me feel small, or a white lecturer airbrushing history.

I was anxious to write this. I didn’t know where to start because I hadn’t spent my summer thinking about how everything I was doing was Making Me Feel and What Lessons I Was Learning. But sitting down to write this the first thing I mindlessly noted down was “feeling happy”. I have felt happy, and I have felt like me again, and that is enough.

Just Keep Swimming

Two years ago I had the worst summer of my life.

I was suffering from the most intense wave of anxiety I’d ever experienced and it was making it difficult to leave the house for long periods of time. One of the things that helped a lot was swimming.

Swimming didn’t cure my anxiety, that’s an ongoing process which has evolved as I’ve gotten older, but it helped me to gain a sense of control over a body that I felt disconnected from. Like a moving meditation, I used to repeat mantras to myself with each stroke to block out the thoughts and feelings which threatened to overwhelm me.

I heard the voice of my childhood swimming teacher:
Pull-and-breathe, kick-and-glide, pull-and-breathe, kick-and-glide

I replaced it with the words I needed to hear:
I am alive, I am alive, I-am-alive, I-am-alive

I am ok, I am ok, I-am-ok, I-am-ok

This will end, this will end, this-will-end, this-will-end

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I spent the last two summers in Berlin where I was working for my year abroad. I lived in a suburb in the south west, an easy train ride away from large lakes perfect for swimming. I took every opportunity to go, alone or with friends, to feel the cold water and the rhythm of a good swim.

When I moved last summer, I needed that calming feeling again. I needed to feel a sense of control after it felt like someone had pulled the rug out from under my entire life. People talk about how a year abroad is fun and life changing, but they forget it’s also terrifying and settling can take a long time. Swimming gave me the feeling, if only temporarily, that everything was normal again. For a few minutes I could be back at the pool with my mum, thinking about the coffees we were going to have when we got out. Or I could be nowhere at all, zoned out and trying desperately not to think about anything at all.

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This summer I’ve been back to the lakes more times than I can count. I waited all spring for the water to melt and for the temperature to rise enough to make swimming bearable. I am able to swim now just because I love it, rather than to escape my reality.

The lakes surrounding Berlin are deep, formed by glaciers, and as I swim out to the middle I like to think about the massive expanse which has opened up below me. I am floating above a chasm which I will never see the bottom of, made by something so huge and ancient. I sometimes find it hard to see what people find so interesting about pots and vases in museums, but when I am in the middle of the lake, I feel a deep sense of connection to the past. I imagine it is the same feeling they get when they look at objects made by humans long ago. I know that I am just a tiny slice of this lake’s history. I am a passer-by.

I am not a particularly good swimmer, but I love to swim, especially outside. There is something deeply satisfying about the feeling of pushing off into water. It feels like breathing out. There is nothing like the weightless glide and cold shiver of the first dive. I’ve been swimming so long that my movements are automatic and I can let my body take over. For the most part, all that runs through my head is the steady rhythm, pull-and-breathe, kick-and-glide. It is time to myself and to look after my body.

Looking towards the coming year, I want to keep prioritising looking after myself. This year away from Cambridge has been great for my mental health as I’ve taken more time for self-care and self-reflection. I want to keep my focus on my well-being and remember that personal success is more important than academic success. And of course, I’m planning to keep swimming when I can. Because at my worst I still need reminding: I am alive, I am ok, and this will end.

 

Image credit: pics_by_nics

The Abyss

Ciara Dossett

It’s late August. The shops are crammed with ‘back to school’ regalia; school jumpers in every imaginable colour, fluorescent highlighters, sensible shoes. But, for the first year since I was 4, I will not be joining the hordes returning to education. Slightly terrifyingly, I won’t be going into anything at all.

At the start of the year I considered this to be the worst possible outcome: to have nothing secured. As an addictive planner I had applied for countless jobs (with an equal number of rejections), desperate to have something confirmed for the following September. Not to do so, I thought, would somehow be a failure.

Instead, like so many millennials, I have moved back home with my parents. Swapping the stress and excitement of university life for the bumbling countryside and mundane summer jobs seems jarring. This post-university nothingness feels like a directionless blur, something I have somewhat dramatically begun to refer to as the abyss.

I realise I am in a privileged position, with parents who are willing and able to allow me to move home for a while. For this, I am grateful. But, with the prevalence of Instagram compare-culture, it’s sometimes hard for other people’s exciting lives not to make you feel inadequate.

Many seem to be in the same position, however. A recent article in The Times reported that a quarter of those aged 20 to 34 were living at home last year. Only a handful of my peers have dream jobs and apartments secured. Most are similarly taking time off to figure out what they want to do. When discussing this phenomenon with a friend, she commented on how we’ve been driven for so long that to take some time off to relax, re-evaluate and have fun seemed an alien concept.

Slowly, however, I’m beginning to the realise that real life doesn’t operate from September to September. That it’s ok to take time off to reset and rethink. That it’s fine not to have a plan, whatever well-meaning older relatives may say to the contrary. That perhaps the abyss isn’t something to be feared but celebrated and enjoyed. To have time to read books for enjoyment rather than for essays, to exercise, to see friends, to explore the world, all without the pressure of the imminent return to a desk, a freedom I might never have again.

Success is not instant nor does it necessarily result in happiness. In fact, I’ve come to realise the times when I’ve been happiest had little to do with success at all. So instead of planning my next career move, I’m jumping on a long-haul flight with two of my best friends in the whole world. And, after that, who knows? For once the addictive planner has no plan. I’m trying to see this as liberating rather than terrifying. Wish me luck…

Cover photo source: author’s own photo. 

 

The inclusive politics of women’s football

Posy Putnam 

I have been attending male football matches for years, but only recently have begun to watch women’s football. Does this make me a bad feminist? Perhaps – but I would hope my newfound enthusiasm for the women’s sport rectifies my past ignorance. And I do not appear alone in showing such enthusiasm. My conversion to women’s football reflects a growing trend, with rising TV ratings and match attendances. Indeed, 11.7 million people watched England lose to the USA in the Women’s World Cup semi-final in early July – the most-watched TV event of the year.

That semi-final also served as my full introduction to the US Women’s Team. Of course, I had seen a few of their earlier matches and caught the headlines centred around Rapinoe’s attacks on President Trump. However, as I followed the American women’s progression into the final, I was struck by the sheer volume and pride in their queer representation.

On July 7th in Lyon, as the crowd cheered the United States’ win in the Women’s Football World Cup, Kelly O’Hara ran over to kiss her girlfriend. Behind her, engaged teammates Ashlyn Harris and Ali Krieger celebrated, as did co-captain Megan Rapinoe, and head coach Jill Ellis. Whilst O’Hara had never publicly commented on her sexuality, all of these other women were publicly and unashamedly gay. O’Hara, meanwhile, felt comfortable enough to out herself on live, international television.

This victory snapshot illustrates one of the core aspects of women’s football that has made me such a fan: its unabashed inclusiveness. This is something that the women’s game appears to have taken on and celebrated – highlighted by the official Twitter account for the US Women’s National Team’s tongue-in-cheek re-tweet of Rapinoe’s quote, “Go gays. You can’t win a championship without gays on your team. It’s never been done before. Ever. That’s science right there,” with the caption “Told ya”, following their World Cup victory.

This tweet was no attempt to play down some of the players’ queer identity to make them more palatable to a wider audience, or to attract greater sponsorships. No – it was a bald statement of the inclusive, vocal identity the team has taken on, spear-headed by Rapinoe. After all, this is also a team who sued the US Soccer Federation for equal pay with the men’s side – leading to chants ringing out following their win of “Equal Pay! Equal Pay!” – and used their World Cup victory parade to reiterate their demands. Rapinoe was also the first white athlete to kneel for the American National Anthem, in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick, and during the course of the World Cup, attracted criticism for refusing to put her hand on her heart for the anthem.

Contrast this to men’s football. Political causes are rarely part of its discourse, and queerness is largely seen only in the context of homophobic chants and jeers. The fact that so few male players have ever publicly come out as gay is testament to the fact that men’s football simply is not a safe space for it. It was not twenty years ago, when Justin Fashanu, the first professional footballer to be openly gay, killed himself in 1998, and it is still not today. This is not to say that no efforts have been made – the Premier League did partner with Stonewall for the Rainbow Laces campaign with the aim of tackling homophobia in sport – but inclusiveness appears largely as a top-down policy, orchestrated by governing bodies, whereas the US Women’s Team demonstrated a more grass-roots approach.

However, inclusivity in women’s football goes beyond the US team. In many senses, women’s football feels like a more radical space than the men’s sport. Indeed, the existence and success of the sport itself is a challenge to football’s traditionally masculine association and assumptions, if not yet its inherent power structures. Following on from this, the queer representation at all levels of the women’s sport helps support a wider shift in how society accepts queer women. These women are strong athletes, great commentators, and masterful tacticians, not merely a punch-line in a joke, or reduced to a category on Pornhub.

This inclusive politics does not take away from the football itself – instead, it adds to it. I am able to invest far more in teams I identify with, who have players I follow off of the pitch. The support that the US team has garnered is merely an example of this phenomenon. Football has never just been about the pure, unsullied game on the pitch – pub disputes over penalties given, the buying of your team’s scarf, player transfer speculation and the chants sung during the match all serve to make the game so popular, and so integral to many people’s daily lives. For me, queer representation in the sport is an extension of this.

For too long, my sexuality has led to a feeling of otherness, of uncertainty and, predominantly, simply not feeling safe, when combined with my love for football. However, the more inclusive politics of the women’s game, introduced to me through the US Women’s Team at this World Cup, has opened the door to new possibilities for me. Rapinoe’s kick of the ball was not a magic solution to the problem of homophobia and discrimination in sport, but the success of the World Cup did give me, and others like me, a sense of hope and validation. It was, in many ways, a lifeline; I am allowed to love both football and women, and the Women’s World Cup was a glorious space to come to terms with this.

Cover image source: the author’s own artwork.