Marching for our future

Two themes mingled on the streets of Paris today. In the photographs and reports pouring in, I saw hope and hypocrisy: both will shape the future of this world. Crowds marched in defiance of the terror waged against them in the past week. Leaders went arm-in-arm in supposed solidarity for freedom of expression, after the recent attacks on French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket … while back in their home countries, those who stand for freedom of speech and democracy face persecution and imprisonment.

I don’t suppose any of this was far from the minds of more liberal leaders but then, within the context of the march – honouring the fallen – it’d be difficult to speak of other things. I must admit, I found myself hesitating before calling attention to the brilliant research by Daniel Wickham (@DanielWickham93) on the unique abuse of human rights / freedom of expression by many of the world leaders in attendance, if only because I didn’t want to dampen the moment. But then, there are so many moments in time, and they all add up to Change – or not. I thought of Tracy Chapman’s song, “If not Now…”
Then when? One voice among many.

With responsibility comes the shocker of having to give up a lot of what you might believe in. For the greater good, etc. Belarus, for example, is allowed a lot of leeway when it comes to human rights, just so the Lukashenka regime doesn’t kick up a shit-storm between the EU and the loudly-snarling bear, Russia. Or anywhere else, for that matter.

“The Lukashenko administration gives the EU chills from time to time. Belarusian officials make claims about Belarus’s exit from the Eastern Partnership. Belarus threatens to redirect its cargo transit routes from Lithuanian and Latvian ports to Russian ports. Belarus also promises to deploy Russian Tactical Ballistic Missile Systems against Poland. The message is clear: The West must turn a blind eye on the human rights violations in Belarus in order to cooperate with Lukashenka.” – Rethinking the EU Policies Towards Belarus, Andrei Liakhovich.

The world’s internet freedom is falling, with Turkey and Russia leading the descent. In Azerbaijan recently, the US-funded Radio Azadliq was ransacked by the Azerbaijani authorities, with twelve employees arrested and others threatened with the same if they chose not to comply with questioning.
The reason?

“The office raid and forced questioning come as prosecutors are investigating the Azadliq office as a foreign-funded entity. RFE/RL and its bureaus are funded by the U.S. government.
Siyavoush Novruzov, a high-ranking member of the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan Party, defended the raid as a national security issue.

Speaking to local media, he said it was necessary to close the bureau to prevent espionage, adding, “Every place that works for foreign intelligence and the Armenian lobby should be raided.”

And still.

I found the scenes in France heartening for a number of reasons – most of them pointed out by other people, tweeting as they watched with me, or attended the march themselves. Jamie Barlett (@JamieJBartlett) of think-tank Demos, put it most aptly:
“In 20 years, there will be a new wave of fearless journalists, cartoonists, writers – who as children were moved by the events of last week.”

We can only hope, for this is what and who will stand against the hypocrisy seen today. We all of us have a common enemy, exemplified by the extremists who would like to stir up trouble between Muslims and the countries they call home, or those who would have online dissent (AKA freedom of expression) flogged into silence, or those who would brainwash a populace with disinformation about external persecution, while quietly raiding the home piggybank.

If we’re marching for something – in our minds on social media, with our bodies in the multicultural cities – then let it be for change. Real change. Not words produced today, in the pathos of the moment, but for all of our tomorrows, because we still have to live among each other, every day, and our lives are as intertwined as they have ever been. What comes next, will count the most.

Advertisements

Reflections on responsibility: Charlie Hebdo

You don’t need me to tell you any more about the horrific and tragic events of Paris. You’ve probably read enough, and formed your own conclusions about those dark moments, when freedom of speech and humour took the blows of extremism. The satirists’ pens of Charlie Hebdo were deemed by the perpetrators as too deadly to be allowed to continue sending up their version of religion.

But then, the employees of Charlie Hebdo had a habit of sending up other religious and political figures too – as well as your average, everyday Brit. That’s what they do.

A cartoon is a bloodless weapon. Its barbs lie in ideas, in putting pressure on inflated opinions, on stereotypes – on the fanatical oppressors who would like to silence those that stand for liberalism, for the freedom to interact across cultures.

The weapons that these murderers used, do not stand for Islam. They are not held up by every Muslim alive, and I’ll challenge anyone who says otherwise. Right now, Muslims across the world are condemning the atrocities that took place – though, as Alex Massie rightly pointed out, they have no need to do so. But somehow, silence has become synonymous with complicity. I’ve seen and heard enough gross generalizations and mudslinging in the hours that have passed since yesterday’s events, to know that once again the names of 1.6 billion people will have become tangled up with those who, in fact, actively seek their destruction more than anyone else.

There are days when social media is a gift, a weapon of information-dissemination for the greater good. When flight MH17 was brought down last summer, only minutes had passed before Twitter, Facebook and Instagram were flooded with screen-grabs of text and pictures taken from the profiles of Ukrainian separatists, to be used as evidence of what had taken place. The original posts were (as expected) subsequently deleted, but by then, there were already too many holes to plug. One tweet can become hundreds, thousands, within an hour.

But then there are what I’ve come to know as the spin-cycle events – when something kicks off, and events are carried forward through the arteries of social networking by the instantaneous decisions of those handling information thrust under their thumbs.
I’ve been there. I know how it feels, to react to something – pressing down on a tweet or retweet – before the little voice of conscious reasoning has had time to pipe up, to ask – “Reconsider?”

Given that yesterday’s horror took place as a direct blow against freedom of speech, I know this talk of self-censorship isn’t going to win me any favours. But it’s my opinion, based upon about 18 months’ worth of experience.

Last year was a shitter, on that I think we can all agree. One tragedy after another, with the summer in particular seeing some of the bloodiest and most mind-numbing events possible, spread out across the world, and thus onto social media. If these taught me anything about myself, it was that my reactions to breaking news – and the reactions of those around me – matter as much as the news itself. There are consequences, because there are lives behind every screen.

Yesterday, I picked up on the ongoing scenes in Paris via tweets from journalists, who in their turn had caught eye-witness accounts from the scene, or from various channels. It’s easy enough to get sucked into something when scrolling through a list or timeline. I felt that familiar chill in my fingertips, the tight nausea in my throat, and a desperate pressure behind the eyes. It was utterly essential that I get out what I could to my followers, to share what I was seeing –

– pressing down –
– until an image of a bullet-riddled police car landed on my timeline, and I pressed Retweet. And stopped.

I work with the police, in a civilian staff role. My colleagues are friends, people I sit beside to eat, drink with in bars. I know their families through Facebook.
I also follow, and am followed by, police officers on Twitter, albeit with less personal relations – but the fact is, they live through events such as this. Sometimes they die by them – as did Ahmed Merabet, the officer tasked with protecting the people who poked fun at his religion. Not that this meant a thing to the cowards who, brandishing Kalashnikovs, put him to death while he lay on the ground, unprotected.
I wonder if it will mean anything to the likes of Nigel Farage, with his “fifth column” theory on how extremism somehow equates with multiculturalism.

Looking around at my Twitter feed, at the lists I keep, I saw yet more and more disturbing images arrive, as reports filtered in. Most tweets were kept within the character limitations, and the words alone were enough to strike my mind silent, cold.
Experience. It’s taught me that at times like this, it’s best to back away, to keep still for a bit – to process, to mourn, to rage, alone. To allow others to do the same, or to follow and pass on as they wish … but to give them that freedom, too. Not everyone wants to have a graphic image arrive in their timeline, out of context.

In truth, it’s taken me this long to write about it because I had to wait to calm down. Yesterday, I was trembling with anger. The hypocrisy was astonishing – we managed a media blackout when it was the Islamic State beheadings, so how on Earth was the slaughter going on in Paris any different? The propaganda machine was in full swing, and we were throwing our weight behind it. I saw the clip of officer Merabet’s cold-blooded killing, turned into a Vine. Retweeted.
How is this humane?

The sad fact, social media has given us a double-edged blade. We’re as able to keep in touch with each other, with the world, with information that might otherwise be prohibited or inaccessible, as we are able to darken each other’s minds, and diminish the last moments of helpless people, by turning ongoing events into a cultivated drama for our feeds.

Graphic content. It has its uses: to imprint an image or scenario on the audience’s collective mind and memory. To shock us out of everyday  complacency. To leave an undeniable mark. But with its use comes the responsibility of acknowledging how singularly inhumane it is to reduce a person’s death to a blurred and bloodied frame. Their last moments caught, held, then spread out across a vast network of tweets and retweets, news channels – all for the gratification of…what? Who?
Only the bastards that began the atrocities. The ones who want to see us in fear, panic, discord. I saw plenty of people fall out on Twitter yesterday, over this and that detail. Meanwhile, people died. And their deaths were shared and witnessed countless times.

As we saw again with the print papers. Many front pages were dedicated to the cartoon satire that upheld freedom of speech, the right to josh anyone and everyone on this planet. Some went for an improvised version of this, in muted tones, to channel the aching sorrow, the outrage. And still others have chosen that final, barbarous image – the photograph of Merabet lying prone, defenceless, with his last moments slipping away.

Held on a front page, to then line a bin. A street. A cage.

I’m sorry. I know this probably an old argument, or it’ll seem out of place, among all the other more nuanced writings on this subject. But that man was somebody’s child, loved one, friend, colleague. Above all, he was human. The fact that he was a Muslim shouldn’t matter, really, but it has to be taken into account, because vacuous idiots want to drive the same nail through all those who follow the Islamic faith, nailing them to the same wall.

My beloved friend Nillu is a Muslim. This isn’t exactly the first thing to cross my mind whenever we talk. I know her for the person she is, the unique individual and writer. I’m sickened to say that I’m reminded of her faith more often when in defence of it, at times like this, when I fear for her right to exist as a human among others, rather than be talked about as a collective murderous whole. Which is what I keep seeing at the moment. Names, faces, lives, are being blurred out, just as surely as the satirical cartoons made at Charlie Hebdo were blurred out by certain news agencies yesterday, in tweeted pictures. Already appeasing.

We’ve got our wires crossed, here. Are we fighting the extremists, or doing their work for them, by turning on the people they claim to stand for – who want nothing to do with them – while giving idiots like Farage and Marine Le Pen access to our doubts and fears about being killed, to use for their own twisted ends? Printing stark images of murder, while stepping back from publishing the brave images of Charlie Hebdo?

Can we take a moment to breathe, and remember that there are real lives at stake here – real people, with families? They are our colleagues and friends, their children go to school with ours. No, we don’t have to support or even try to understand anyone’s religion that is not our own – goodness knows, there’s enough death and persecution and blaming to go around, in the name of any faith, just as surely as there is among those without any faith at all.

But we do have a responsibility to appreciate and support their rights as individuals with connections, voices. Pressure points. Hopes and dreams and secrets.

They are us. We’re taking care of each other, on and offline.
These are the things that extremists fear, more than anything.
That’s what I believe, anyway.

A helping hand?

Almost two weeks ago, while scrolling through my Twitter feed on a Friday afternoon, I came upon the thought processes of a recently-added friend/follower. The words leapt off the screen and grabbed me. That’s the only way to describe it. I had been keeping an eye on her timeline, watching with growing concern as the images and language became ever more desperate. She had recently undergone an operation, and was in considerable pain; this, and bipolar disorder, made her feel vulnerable and frightened. Though she had support from real-time friends, her use of Twitter as an outlet for thoughts and emotions meant she had gained a network of followers – many of whom are in similar situations with regards to mental health – who were ready and willing, at any time, to talk back.

I must admit, I had little to say at first. When we suddenly arrive into each others lives on social media, it’s like dropping into a chapter midway through a text. Flipping backwards, to move forwards; reading what we can, to gain context. So I stayed silent and still for a bit, watching her tweets scurry through my feed. There didn’t seem much I could do, except offer Favourites by way of acknowledgement / agreement, and the occasional tweet in response to subjects that hit home. Things I could relate to.

That is, until the Friday afternoon when it became clear that her words might progress into actions. Without going into too much detail – a crisis point was hit, one I recognized and remembered all too well. The language, I’d heard it in my own mind once, circling like ravens.
I attempted suicide twice, in 2003. Both times, I “chickened out” – my words, then – and phoned for an ambulance.

(You could say that anorexia nervosa, which I’ve had since age 16, is also a form of slow suicide. It’s the long fall before the drop, but it has the “safety blanket” element of offering security and control to the sufferer. I didn’t want to die, with this illness. I just wanted to be strong. But when holding those packets of pills in my hands, I didn’t want to be here. At all.)

So when scrolling through my friend’s tweets, finding more and more references to death and ending it all and despair, I knew this wasn’t just a “bad day”, or black humour. I’d witnessed the downward trend, as had others who follow her, and we sought to keep her online by tweeting replies wherever and whenever possible. Just to keep her talking, and to offer advice and encouragement. She responded, and – though clearly disorientated and in pain – took the responsibility of asking for professional help. A brave move; she acknowledged to me at a later date (and I can’t tell you how grateful/glad I am that there was such a later date), “I have lots of very good friends. My issue is, and has always been, asking for the help I need.”

Sometimes, the hardest part about seeking help is letting go of the reins.

The Samaritans charity have launched a smart phone Twitter app, the Samaritans Radar, which is designed to alert its users to potential “red flag” tweets that have been gathered by an algorithm, and pushed to the app via words such as “tired of being alone”, “hate myself”, “depressed”, “help me” and “need someone to talk to.” Users receive an email alert, and the app asks whether such tweets are a cause for concern. The charity itself doesn’t get involved directly unless requested.

Reading about it this morning, I offered a cautious thumbs-up. The premise seemed sound. Who wouldn’t want to be alerted to a potential crisis, such as the one I witnessed? I’d rather know about friends’ anxieties, their blue-black moods, and be able to offer help wherever possible. The app comes with guidance on how to deal with potentially fragile situations – advice which, I must say, is fundamental in progressing the public narrative on mental health disorders. There’s always room to learn more, to do away with misconceptions and prejudice. Where better to do so than on social networking sites like Twitter, where the target audience (18-35 years old) spend much of their lives? Many of them, like me, use the platform as an outlet for thoughts and feelings which can’t be offloaded in real-time. Sometimes, that “shouting into the abyss” element is actually positive. I don’t really care if I get a response, though they’re welcome; and I admit, more often than not, my projections are via other’s words, in RTs. I still have a hard time articulating how I feel.

But – the fact is, I’ve chosen to do so, and others have the choice to look, to read, to reply, to ignore.

The app has proven to be divisive, with as many – if not more – Twitter users condemning as applauding it. Through the hashtag #SamaritansRadar, they are voicing their concerns and recommendations to the creators. While some agree that it is a good idea in theory, put into practise it could cause issues with invasions of privacy, the potential for retention of personal data; perhaps more crucially, there is no opt-out function for people having their tweets screened. There is no way of knowing if this is happening, as the app retains the privacy of the user.

IMG_20141029_181345

The backlash to this has produced quite a raw response, with Twitter users stating that they would have to lock down their profiles – making them Private – in order to keep projections of thoughts and feelings about mental health, within secure and comfortable boundaries. Considering these are the people who are feeling most vulnerable, it’s not a step forward in terms of social networking.

We all have days when the world is filtered through nightshade, or the white noise upstairs is louder and more disturbing than ever. For many users of social media, the only way to vent is to get the words out via a tweet – or a whole ream of them. In my case, I then sit back, rub my cheek and think “well, for fuck’sake,” and feel a bit better, and get on. Would I want to be offered help/advice? I probably wouldn’t turn it away if well-meaning. But that’s assuming all replies to Twitter users WOULD be well-meaning, which is the point of former Samaritans volunteer Emsy’s blog post: not all followers are followed back. They’re not all trusted friends, and there is the potential for abuse of the app, with stalkers using it to track a tweeter’s darkest moments. Which is a horrendous thought.

“The app itself is called the ‘Radar’ app, and even in the name gives connotations of being watched, being monitored. How likely are you to tweet about your mental health problems if you know some of your followers would be alerted every time you did? Do you know all your followers? Personally? Are they all friends? What if your stalker was a follower? How would you feel knowing your every 3am mental health crisis tweet was being flagged to people who really don’t have your best interests at heart, to put it mildly? In this respect, this app is dangerous. It is terrifying to think that anyone can monitor your tweets, especially the ones that disclose you may be very vulnerable at that time.”

Then there’s the misconception-factor. It’s got quite a scope. What if I, or anyone else for that matter, chose to use humour to detox a bad mood – would hyperbole, satire etc, be recognized by the app? Apparently not. This would be up to the human element on the receiving end, to filter out what was meant, and to act accordingly. Or not. I have a dear friend who blogs regularly, the sort of pitch-dark stuff that caused a former teacher to call him in for a chat about the state of his mental health. Said friend laughed it off – it was his way of venting, via twisting bramble words and noir humour. He’s normally quite a chipper character. What the app is saying to some people, is that to remain inconspicuous, they must smile.

Twitter is itself a microblogging site. Many users choose to divulge information about themselves, and while it could be argued that this is their own responsibility to monitor security levels, the fact is they retain the right to speak freely – without the feeling of being monitored.

If several people are all following each other, and someone is sending out multiple “red flag” tweets, will they then be piled in on by well-meaning but possibly intimidating attention, when in an distressed state? I know I get a little frazzled when several tweets/messages come in at once; trying to reply to them, I often just shut the phone down and go away for some quiet time, completely alone in my head.

Imagine trying to negotiate various tweets/messages from
people you might not even be following back, while trying to offload about things that won’t make it into real-time.

Which is the main fear of many Twitter users now. In putting their words out onto timelines, will there be a constant – silent – analysis? Paranoia is not something to be downplayed, here, or looked upon as a side-effect of the app. It is the very real state of mind for a lot of people, along with feelings of fear, anger, frustration, pain, confusion … numbness. As another friend put it this morning while discussing the app, “For me twitter is somewhere to vent – sometimes all you need is somewhere to be able to say something to get it out of your head and then it is gone. Though I know that’s not the case for everyone.”

This brings me back around to the crisis point of that Friday afternoon. Would I have preferred an app to locate the tweets of a friend which might have gone missing from my feed, given that it is now curated by an algorithm like Facebook? (I’ve noticed tweets going missing, only to appear at later times or to be located on friends’ own timelines.) Would I feel safer, knowing that her tweets could be pushed to me if something like this happened again?

I’d rather be a good friend, and try to keep consistency by checking in on her wellbeing – and that of others I care about – on a daily basis. Not when an app tells me to.

I’d also watch out for a recurring trend of negative thoughts with anyone I am following. While I’d like to think that friends could come to me if they felt they needed to offload, sometimes shouting into thin air is a very pleasant experience. Not everyone wants an intervention; and not everyone I am following, follows me back. It’s a delicate balance between Twittiquette and genuine concern. As I told a dear friend recently, we can only be there for so many people in our lives, on and offline.

It’s worth checking out the #SamaritansRadar trend to get a better idea of the current mood surrounding the app. While I do applaud the charity for its initiative – using social media to encourage people to reach out to each other (let’s face it, we spend much of our lives online) – the conception of the app seems a bit flawed. No opt-out function. Glossing over the fact that tweets in the public domain are still the personal data of the identified tweeter, as specified in data protection expert Jon Baines’ blog:

“A tweet from an identified tweeter is inescapably the personal data of that person, and, if it is, or appears to be, about the person’s physical or mental health, then it is sensitive personal data, afforded a higher level of protection under the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA). It would appear that Samaritans, as the legal person who determines the purposes for which, and the manner in which, the personal data are processed (i.e. they have produced an app which identifies a tweet on the basis of words, or sequences of words, and push it to another person) are acting as a data controller.”

And perhaps the most damaging: the breach of trust felt by some Twitter users, who are warning followers to identify themselves if they are using the app, so they can be blocked.

A sad state of affairs. Not the Samaritans’ intended outcome, I imagine. Perhaps with a pull-back and review of the app’s production, a resolution might be found – with tweeters encouraged to engage with each other over its use, rather than using it in secret to perpetrate already-present fears.

Updated (05/11/2014) to include: Change.org, petition to shut down the Samaritans radar Twitter app, by Adrian Short (@adrianshort).

Updated (14/11/2014) to include: Samaritans app removed, all data to be deleted.

Speak Up

At 29 years old, I still have a hard time giving opinions. Forming them is difficult enough – trying to work past the white fuzz upstairs (though significantly quieter nowadays) to piece together bits of information. Even with all this reading and research, most of my thoughts go unvoiced; I’ve lost count of the drafted and deleted tweets, the scrapped blog posts. I can’t pin the blame wholly on a fear of upsetting others. It’s more a case of, “Have I learned enough? What are the chances that I’ve missed a vital detail, and will end up looking like a twat?” I admit to being a bit of a people-pleaser, and a perfectionist; not in the “humble brag on the CV” sense, but in the way a sword cuts the wielder if mishandled.

There is, at least, some improvement on the mentality of teen years and early twenties. Anorexia nervosa is the equivalent of ice forming over a lake, with every thought and emotion locked down below. I didn’t believe my opinions were worth enough to break through. I have the ability to rationalise now, to think more clearly. Communication breakdown occurs when thoughts try to leave my mind, and fall into the gap where self-esteem should be.

(Working on that.)

This week, I broke past the dread of stepping in where uninvited, to offer an alternative view to a Twitter user responding to a ComRes opinion poll. It showed the hypocrisy of a large proportion of the British public, who believe that their right to live and work in other EU countries does not extend to those citizens that wish to do the same here.

“What’s good for the goose, is not always good for the gander. My case and point.”

This only seemed to highlight the vague simplicity and arrogance of the results found in the poll. What works for me doesn’t work for others. When I sent him a link to the excellent Jonathan Portes article on immigration, it wasn’t out of snark or any wish to be condescending. I felt he might benefit from it. Portes, as director of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, is someone with the authority to speak on such a hot topic as immigration, with researched and valid facts. I also advised reading up on the EU itself, since freedom of movement is one of the four basic principles enshrined in the treaties, running parallel with the freedom of goods, capital and services, for a functioning single market.

He didn’t want to know. The blinkers went on, as he pointed out that “i don’t read the papers and besides. i think my point is valid.” Well, fair enough. But when I pressed him on this – adding that, besides newspapers, there are facts on immigration and the EU to be found in academic papers and think tanks – the response was equally curt. “you can be intellectual w/out reading the papers. i would recommend not appearing to know my intellect w/out knowing me. blocked.”

I wasn’t angry. Actually, I laughed, but it was a sad outburst, and caused several of my colleagues to think I had finally lost it.

Reading across a range of views is something I’d recommend to anyone. Data can be presented differently to suit a political agenda, sure, but it doesn’t come from thin air. Research centres and agencies – many of which publish their findings for free on social media and official sites – give access to anyone willing to learn about the topics they want to discuss, or simply know more about for peace of mind. If they felt like, I don’t know, taking on a bit of grey.

I’m not talking about self-censorship. Everyone is entitled to their opinions, and god knows, I’m still working on my own projection. In the past 18 months or so, I’ve read enough to set off a new trend of wavering fear in myself, just because there is so much to process. Often, I don’t speak up at all. But this time, a combination of frustration and the belief that I held concrete facts over vague opinions about a very pertinent subject, overrode fears of rebuttal (which came anyway, but hey.) Whether he took it or not, I guess went interlinked with the satisfaction of knowing I’d at least tried to do something, for a change.

In the run-up to the GE, with the parties now apparently vying to show who can be the most pro-active on a public sore spot, surely the least we can do as individuals is take the responsibility for measuring opinions against facts, balancing our views against others. We’ve never been so well-placed to do so, with the rise of social networking, and various points of analysis to make the raw content more accessible.
What’s the worst that could happen? We are informed by the experiences of others – say, immigrants themselves?

It’s not about surrendering to a higher will. If anything, it’s about strengthening our personally-held truths by allowing them to be made fragile, perhaps changed and reset, by what we learn. It’s about giving others the benefit of the doubt, to form a more complex view of the world.

Anyway, that’s my opinion.

Solos and Duets: On choosing to be single

Out on an autumn walk, under a splintered-sun sky, I took the familiar route down the old railway line. Bracketed by trees with their jaded eyes and golden lace, I found the trove of oddities which always make these walks memorable, no matter how many times I take their routes, which are the veins of the city.

A tree whose current seasonal hue spreads a wash of deep crimson light, like a lava lamp.
Another tree with a twisted-skin torso, even down to the muscular striations and fleshy creases.
Pale light sifting through talon branches, edging around their fine lines; it was as graphite stencilled on a watercolour base (or the imitations I would draw as a child, of the Ladybird copy of The Hound of the Baskervilles – thick cartridge paper holds watercolour pencils well, whether it’s a clouded blur of teal for the uneasy sky, or a fine nib pressed point-down to crosshatch in teal sedge grass. The moon was always a gloaming of yellow, edged about in such a way that it was less of an orb, than a wraith of a thing.)
Conkers with the glossy coats of a Bengal cat.
A small child whose large brown eyes and gap-tooth grin were my own, a long time ago.

There, and back again. It’s a long haul-walk down the line, but it’s the scenic route to the local supermarket. I could take the pavement alongside the road, and hack off at least half an hour… but you know the story already.
Arriving home with sore feet and a slightly hunched back, knotted shoulder blades, I found a yoghurt pot had split and spilt its vanilla goop over everything else. Mopping up, I chucked the bag out. It was frayed down to paperclips and staples, anyway.

All the minutiae of my world. Rain usually plays a part in making the day that bit longer, what with slopping through silty mud and drying off after; I could take the bus, as my Ma is constantly telling me, but this would chew a good £45+ out of my budget for a monthly card, when I’m already haemorrhaging money. Glancing around this eyrie heart the other day, I realized I have been here for just over a year – and haven’t even unpacked the DVDs, the NES, certain books. An overhaul is needed, and some downsizing. I can fit into the small spaces of the world, so long as there is light enough in the room to see by. It’s about economising and prioritizing. As ever, the things that matter the most to me are internal, rather than external.

Don’t get me wrong – being single is fucking hard work sometimes. Fitting literary ambitions and research around the clatter of the house I currently rent in, bills, shopping, work-shifts bracketed by blue shadows, my head does spin. But I’ve got it fairly easy in comparison to some; and I’d rather handle these things alone, if only to prove to myself that I can.

I’ve been alone for much of my life, out of necessity and choice. Having travelled with the folks around Europe while Dad was in the RAF, I knew – in that trickling-awareness way of kids – that making friends wasn’t always a safe bet. There was every chance we’d be off again soon, so best not to get too attached. When we did finally settle in Sussex, I learned to keep my head down in school when some kids called names, refused to hold hands in case I was contagious; universal eczema had left my skin in scarlet croquet patterns. But early school reports also testify that I was “a chatterbox” with the close friends I did make (“daydreamer” crops up a lot too, especially around Maths lessons.) I only have to mention gremlins to a certain friend, to spark off a nostalgia-fest that involved playground games and scrappy exercise book maps.

Middle school, I was the butterfly between groups. I found it easier to stay on the fringes, even while secretly wondering how it would be to live in these nucleus-worlds. They flicked ash at each other and excelled in sports, formed bands, broke windows and smoked. Some lads liked to ping my bra-strap, when Ma eventually persuaded me to wear one (Sod’s law that the girl who hated being a girl, got the chest she couldn’t hide under baggy shirts.) One told his friends, with the low-loud tone and hyena eyes of an orator, that I was “only good for a grope.”

I shrugged it all off and affected a brassy tone, while quietly aching inside for all the embarrassment and awkwardness. Not so much because of the sniggers, but because anything sexual caused me to feel this way. Boyfriends – anything based around sex in general – was more of a low-key acknowledgement of feelings in my paperback diaries, rather than anything so overt as some peers managed. When the girls put on lipstick and adjusted their skirts in the changing rooms, I watched in silence and wondered – for myself, for them.
Nowadays, I still wonder, and with more admiration than I felt back then. There has been a lot to learn about feminism, especially in the past couple of years; even now, reading certain things on Twitter, I catch myself – “Why wasn’t that obvious to me before? Why haven’t I realized that how I was feeling / what I was thinking, might be wrong?”

Well. That’s a story for another time, I guess.

I have yet to embrace my sexuality as a woman and as an individual, but there have been small victories. I can stand to be alone in the room with a man, even strike up a conversation; I’ve evolved with the influences of a five-year relationship, and can give my opinions and lay access to feelings (after a bit of a headstart.) Twitter and Facebook have been particularly beneficial for creating the necessary “buffer zone”, allowing me to speak and to slip away from all company when things get overcrowded. It’s this element of online sociability that I find most appealing while out on walks: pointing out to friends across the world what I see in the world around me, breaking past the white blur in my head to describe purple skeins of bonfire smoke, the leaping orange flames; the charred tang in the throat. Then there is the option (without wishing to cause offence) of going offline, of retreating back into myself.

The line sometimes offered by (well-meaning) friends and family, is that it’d be a “bit of a waste” for me to remain single. But then, they’re not living this life. They weren’t there to see me break down before a night out with J, when the dress I was wearing revealed (to my mind) too much of this changing, healthier body.
(He did the right thing, as ever – comforted the child within, as well as the clogged-nose woman without.)

“The pressure to settle can be very real, even if it is not communicated explicitly… From our earliest days, we learn that our worth is tied up in our ability to find a mate; that marriage marks the passage into mature adulthood and is our most important adult relationship; and that we are not complete until we find our other half.” (Juliana Breines, Psychology Today.) If my personality and achievements in writing aren’t enough to engage the attention of a man, then he’s not likely to prioritize these things in a deeper relationship.

Anorexia held me back for a decade or so. In and out of hospital, isolating myself in Ma’s house to carry out the symptomatic behaviours (such tight coils) of the beast, there wasn’t time or any inclination to see friends. Dating was out of the question. I was terrified of men, though you wouldn’t know it, for the way I hunted the streets with a lowered gaze and dagger chin, close-cropped hair. People just thought I was angry, which I suppose is also true. The anger, the bitterness, manifests itself now on bad days, when it feels like my spine will never loosen up, and every remark is a shot over the bows or a verbal grope. But I know, through therapy and interactions on and offline, that these are just residual reactions. The perpetrators are out of my life, and it’d be wrong for me to paint their faces elsewhere.

Since literature makes up a large part of who I am, balancing on a knife-point of self-worth, it’s not something I can turn off for a relationship. Luckily, J understood, as a writer and fellow daydreamer. We both needed space; we gave each other time, the freedom to hear our own thoughts. He’d bugger off to the pub; I’d go for walks. We worked around each other, because it was this, or going our separate ways. In the end, I chose to do so because that latent ambitious streak rose up, reaching out across the world, causing me to learn more about it and myself – not altogether pleasant, but necessary. I still harbour guilt, but the outcome would’ve been worse had I lied to us both, and stayed.

I’m not a Sistah doing it for herself, much less a Holly Golightly (though, rereading Breakfast at Tiffany’s, I do find it easy to laugh at myself through her words.) Whoever I do have a relationship with, their company has proved engaging enough to convince me to give up time spent alone. I’m fine with sitting in a pub garden, nursing a pint of cider under tree shadows; with wandering over the local countryside, Mogwai and Sigur Ros plugged into my ears, ticking over thoughts on art and writing. Additional input is grand, but not something needed on tap. Individuals complement each other; no validation necessary.

As my friend Vittoria put it, “If I want a picture of the Eiffel Tower, I’ll get on a Eurostar and take one by myself. If I want to be congratulated, I’ll tell people about my work, or tell them a joke… I own my house. I have sex. I meet men, sometimes it works, sometimes not. I don’t look too far ahead. And I certainly I don’t settle.
I validate myself through how happy I feel, not how happy a man makes me feel. I validate myself through my work, my wit, my friends, my quality of life, my experiences and my health. I feel no need to spend my evenings swiping left or right, forcing myself to “see him again because maybe it’ll be better this time” or simply being with someone for the sake of being with them. I love my space, I love my own company, I can survive on my own.”

For some, being single is the blank stage between acts, with low light and the hollowness of echoes; for others, that same wide open space signifies freedom of thought and movement. Chances are that these feelings won’t be static, since life tends to shift like the colours of a bubble, and what “single” once meant to a person can alter with circumstances, experiences, and age. What’s most telling is that, for all our previous community-based organising, single households are on the rise. Economic development and social welfare, gender equality and the rise of tech-based social networking: these and other factors have contributed to the increasingly self-aware state of individuality, with many young people seeing their single status as not only a mark of independence from the need for attachment, but as a “mark of distinction and success. They use it as a way to invest time in their personal and professional growth.”

However, not everyone who is single got there out of choice; circumstances dictate the outcome. Another friend, Jo, gave me her own perspective as someone averse to being single, but with the experience to make her wise in erring on the side of caution when it comes to relationships:

“The needs of a small, vulnerable child who has already suffered rejection of the worst kind in his life has to come first… It makes me sad that those who have started relationships with me knowing I was headed towards taking on his care, subsequently couldn’t handle the thought of the responsibility. It makes me feel melancholy that, me, being me, who has never found romantic liaisons the easiest of courses to navigate, has to face the harsh reality that any future relationships will be more tricky to come by… I cannot have men flitting in and out of my life. Even if little one never had any contact with them, my emotions run too high, I invest too fully and too wholeheartedly not to fall hard when (for it has always been when) they don’t work out.

Part of me vows never to have another relationship. My heart can’t take the disappointment when it goes wrong and depression is hell enough on your own without a child depending on you, wondering why you are crying. For rejection causes me depression and I wish I could change that, but it seems I can’t.”

Jo’s self-awareness and commitment to the needs of her son, mean that he is protected from the disruption and emotional fallout that a relationship-breakdown can create. On the other hand, it’s this same self-awareness that creates something of a risk-aversion mentality that I hope – with great respect for Jo’s vibrant personality – wouldn’t discourage her from entering into a relationship. As she herself acknowledges, “The other part of me knows how desperately unhappy I am without a partner, and I live in hope I can meet someone right one day.”

Worth considering, though, are Jo’s achievements as a single-parent writer. Her time-management is a delicate weave of responsibilities and fulfilment in creative output.

“It can be tricky as I’m on my own. I also work, and although this is technically part-time, teaching means I clock up 6-7hrs a day and a few at the weekend, so in all can be 30hrs a week… Writing does take the last place behind everything else, including housework and all those other everyday things but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t get done. It’s what I do instead of watching TV or going to the pub. My boss told me not long a go he was starting up his blog as he was inspired by me as I spent my evenings doing something productive, chasing my dream and pursuing something I enjoy rather than wasting that time. This is not to say I don’t ever have evenings where I just veg out, of course I do, but in the main I use my ‘me time’ to be productive.”

This improves on the argument Suzanne Moore set out in response to Tracy Emin’s decision to choose art over parenting: rather than living between two camps, with the belief that children are “incompatible with the creative process or a substitute for it”, women should look for the grey area between. “Parenthood is not simply sacrifice. Art is not simply selfishness. Female creativity exists between these imaginary states.”

As for me – independence, taking care of my health, writing, and the freedom to come and go as I please, are grey areas enough, for now at least. Selfish? I don’t think so. It just means that I’m learning who I am, where I fit into the world, and how to get to know and help the people who matter.
And where mental health is concerned – it feels as though these last steps are best taken alone.

Being single is an opportunity to build strong friendships, devote yourself to activities and causes that you’re passionate about, and develop a sense of self-worth and identity that is not attached to a romantic partner’s love and approval. These experiences will serve you well if and when you find yourself in a relationship: if you feel satisfied in your life independent of your partner, you may be less likely to have the unrealistic expectation that your partner can and should meet all your needs.” – Juliana Breines.

For now, I’ll stick with my own sense of stability – colleagues who are the equivalent of big brothers and sisters, friends I can get in touch with by picking up the phone, meeting in the city under the lamplight. Any relationship that goes beyond appearances and even similar interests, to form a bond that is heard in silence as well as words, is something to consider when it arrives – not to wait around for.

Mirror, Mirror

On a lampenlicht walk yesterday, talking with friends Jo and Drew, I mentioned how we are the generation that “gets” Facebook-candid, knowing full well that they would indeed understand what I meant. While the tiered levels of security inherent of that platform are often tedious to negotiate, they’re useful for monitoring who knows what. Facebook can be credited for actually bothering to present such options, while Twitter – like most social networking sites – is, by and large, a public affair, unless you choose to lock down your profile. This is understandable in an internet-age where random trolls and cyber-stalkers are a sad fact of online life, but it’s also inhibiting for those who wish to engage more, voice their opinions and be heard – particularly if their “real-time” life doesn’t allow for such in-depth interaction, due to internal or external forces. I won’t try to list everything here. Humanity has more than enough ways to both curtail and elevate its people, from gender bias to gay pride; then there are physical and mental impairments to consider. I spent most of 2002-3 indoors, wound up in anorexia and depression, rarely speaking to anyone but those people I knew on the Something Fishy website, who provided encouragement for recovery; they were also forthcoming in the “ordinary stuff”, with whole threads dedicated to things unrelated to eating disorders. It was a narrow sliver of light.

The internet has provided the gift of communication to those who might otherwise have no voice, or limited contact with the wider world. We know of the plight of citizens caught in global conflicts via conventional news channels; but on a more immediate (and often personal) scale, by the images and information posted on social networking sites by eye witnesses, and the dispatches and on-the-ground footage of foreign correspondents. This has its faults, of course. For me, the summer of 2014 will forever be synonymous with online symbolic interaction, the push-pull of individual censorship v.s raising awareness, and the words “viral graphic content.”

Speaking of censorship – the State Duma in Russia are proving a little overzealous (surprised?) when it comes to handling the personal data of the country’s citizens. Recently accelerated plans to force foreign companies like Twitter, Apple and Google to “store the personal data of their Russian account-holders on Russia-based servers” by January 2015, would effectively provide the state with the means to “monitor all private communications of its citizens around the clock,” (Sarkis Darbinyan of the independent Internet freedom watchdog RuBlacklist.net.)

Of course, the Kremlin would never openly endorse such a move, which is why it has been fast-tracked and dressed up as protection from the big bad foreign servers (the internet, don’t forget, is Putin’s idea of a CIA-pet project.) This would require networking and communications companies like Google’s Gmail and Facebook, to “register as organizers of information dissemination.”

I’d love that on my CV, or a name-badge. “Member of the Information Dissemination ranks.”

Twitter, Youtube and Storyful have proven priceless when it comes to verifying information uploaded (and often subsequently deleted) to these and other platforms, such as Instagram and Facebook, in relation to the Malaysian airlines MH17 tragedy – the coverage of which by Russia Today forced reporter Sara Firth to resign in protest. RT’s replacement of news site RIA Novosti, which “tried hard to produce balanced coverage for Russian and international audiences” and “reflected the views of the opposition and covered difficult topics for the Kremlin,” means that factual and neutral coverage of world events are increasingly hard to come by. Never more so than with the Ukraine conflict, with the state-controlled media weaving a webbed view for the public of “western chaos and Russian order”:

“You will recall the news reports in January when the really bloody events took place, the rapidly changing images of flames, burning tires, running people, alarming music,” [referring to antigovernment protests in the Ukrainian capital.] “What do you think it’s for? For dramatic effect? No. There is a much bigger meaning behind it.”

“Chaos is the key word… All of it is done to create a stable association in our minds: Ukraine is chaos. It is an old mythologem — Chaos as a protoplasm from which the gods will then create the world. And what is Russia then? Russia is Cosmos, it is order, and it is the foundation of peace and stability.”

“If you watch Russian TV you will see that Russia has no problems other than the adaptation of Crimea. We have no inflation, no decreasing incomes. We don’t have any of the typical big-city problems. Russia has none of that. Everything is alright in Russia. What is it? It is called the manipulation of the agenda.” – Valery Solovei, at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO).

The internet provides alternative views, for those still willing to look. Disinformation in altered images can be picked apart and commented upon in live streams of tweets, Facebook posts, blog entries. It’s for this reason that the Russian government would rather see “popular ‘political’ bloggers” that are demanding a say in how their country is run”, stifled, along with human rights activist and Putin-opposer Garry Kasparov, whose website was blocked in Russia earlier in the year.

“I have spent my life thinking about thinking… and I find many others are as interested in the field of improving human performance as I am.”

This view probably doesn’t sit well with the Kremlin.

While this is bad enough for the atmosphere and mindset of the country, with fewer outside influences now permitted in the state-controlled media, the implications of a law to create Russian-based personal data could be just as detrimental for the Russian IT industry, and the country’s economy.

The primary objective “is to force Western Internet giants like Google, Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft and Apple to allow Russia’s security services unfettered access to the personal communications of Russian nationals”, with any company’s refusal to comply in relocating servers or to rent local cloud storage, providing the “legal vehicle to block their services.” This could well flashback on the government: as lobbying group the Information & Computer Technologies Industry Association wrote in an open letter, the move would force most companies to “put their operations on hold, inflicting untold damage on the Russian economy… Russia simply lacks the technical facilities to host databases with users’ personal data, and setting up the infrastructure within the remaining three months is impossible.” The cost and trouble of all this jiggery-pokery could put off foreign companies, who will simply take their business elsewhere – leaving Russian citizens stranded with nasty lifestyle changes, given that many indirectly-affected services will include “ online travel services, airline ticketing by foreign carriers, Internet commerce, Internet payments and even online visa application services at foreign embassies.”

Russia is already on a downward economic spiral, due largely to top-heavy internal corruption and tit-for-tat sanctioning for its involvement in the Ukraine conflict. Those who have the means to are getting out while they can, seeking improved housing conditions (Latvia is a favourite), education and welfare. They leave behind an older generation who will suffer physical and mental pressures, because their government has a bit of blind spot when it comes to “GDP expenditure on national defence.” That’s in stark contrast to, say, the crucial upgrading of infrastructure, and healthcare reforms. The purchase of the Mistral warships from France were a shining example of this little military weakness.
Someone should really warn Putin about houses built on sand.

What’s most interesting (and refreshing) to note, is how the smoke always finds a way of escaping through vents, to warn of the fire. Ahead of the potential 2015 crackdown, resourceful bloggers are sharing “advice on how to use proxy servers in order to access social media sites that, in their view, are under threat of being closed”, while seeking innovative ways to “cheat the feature that counts page visits and keep their daily unique visitor numbers just under 3000, or to make sure that the statistics are hidden altogether.” This is in relation to the “bloggers’ law” set down in August, which forces bloggers with 3,000+ daily readers to “register with the mass media regulator, Roskomnadzor, and conform to the regulations that govern the country’s larger media outlets.” On the personal data law, Anton Nossik, an influential Russian blogger, wrote on LiveJournal that while it does not “threaten individual bloggers directly”, it will provide “legal grounds to block popular social networks like Facebook, Twitter, LiveJournal and Google.”

I was thinking of this while reading Jo’s musings on her personal life, strung out in a composition of articulate tweets. I enjoy a well-plotted thought process, particularly when it’s as honest as the heart of a diamond – faceted, clear-cut, direct. I tried to imagine a situation in which she could not openly vocalise her feelings, and gain feedback from friends across the world – not out of personal inhibitions, but because the basic right to do so had been denied to her. And what if, as a more in-depth way of connecting with online friends, she had gone to write a WordPress blog entry about her life – perhaps to have a bit of a moan about work, the government, her family, all things relevant to us as people – only to find her account inaccessible. Trying to speak out, as many of us do, in that singular way which can feel damn-near impossible in real-time life … and finding yourself trapped on the wrong side of the wall.

“Sometimes I feel on here I should always be upbeat. I don’t know why. I like upbeat maybe that’s why. But sometimes… when you’re on your own a lot, Twitter can be a place just to throw it out there. Whatever it is. Sometimes you’ll get chat about it, other times not and both are okay.”

Which comes down to choice. Freedom of speech. Feelings, opinions, ideas, worries, delights, all built up inside, waiting to be shared. This is what social networking and blogging sites have been created for, to provide us with the access to each other’s lives that was once unimaginable. As a new friend put it yesterday in London, “ten years ago, Facebook and Twitter wouldn’t even factor into conversations. Now, it’s commonly accepted to say “did you see such-and-such”, and no one thinks anything of it.” Which incidentally, is how the best sci-fi stories work – when the technology is so well-integrated as to be background noise. Just another conduit, or an extra sense.

I find it very difficult to articulate myself as it is, on and offline, and often resort to symbolism, or (worse) projecting my feelings onto current affairs. There comes a point when I must knuckle down on my own “musings”; correspondence with people like Jo, and others scattered across the world, is of incalculable value. There’s a delicate wash of relief in reading the thoughts and emotions of people who, even in different contexts and circumstances, seem to hold up a mirror and reflect what I can’t quite face up to.

For the Russian people, such personal benefits could soon be cut off, along with much else they have lost since 2011 with the start of the internet crackdown. The new law will allegedly “ensure faster and more effective protection of Russian citizens’ rights to telecommunication privacy and personal data safety.” But the state Duma appears to be doing a rather good job of hollowing out these key features of free speech, all by itself.

Finding Constellations: Symbolism in Social media

People use different ways to convey their thoughts and emotions to the world, with some methods more easily identifiable and interpretable than others. Humour can be used as a subversion of pathos, as the light sparkles from a dark river to illuminate individual ripples of meaning; passive-aggression can fill the air between two people with an iron-tang tension, their mouths curled into wire smiles. I’ve always had a secret admiration – and yes, envy – for those who are able to come straight out with an intended meaning, with little to no subtext involved, while maintaining the dignity of manners that are the preservation of other’s feelings. The latter is a gift, woven into careful lexical choices and diplomacy.

My means of expression lies with figurative language. The weather becomes a mood; a song becomes a colour becomes an emotional reaction, behind the eyes. I find the world through metaphors and symbolism, and in trying to take control of / make sense of my part in it, I paint with words. Much of the world can be rather dull: grey-on-black-on-white, filing cabinets and coffee-stained carpets, absent faces drifting to and fro, bills and wet shoes. Chores and drinking, fucking in your own bed or someone else’s; collecting deliveries, and wrapping up presents. Visiting and shopping and … So far, so very human.

Since humour, wit and openness do not come easily to me, it’s through symbolism in particular that I make my presence, and intentions known. It’s also a bit more enlivening for the soul to create a running narrative of images, than stating plain old facts – though for whoever is on the receiving end (depending on their level of patience for this prevarication) it can be a delight or a chore to slog through.

There is also the element of concealing, rather than revealing my nature. When a subject becomes too intimate, controversial or uncomfortable for clear definitions, there’s the fall-back of figurative language to represent what I mean, with interpretations left wide open. It is the riddle-speak of the cat, and can bail me out of trouble or land me in heaps of it. A relative once told me that I trod a fine line between honesty and cowardice, in not speaking my truth upon serious matters with anything more than plain facts; a thought and assumption which I am still turning over in my mind, wondering if it was an accurate statement. As I grow older, and gain confidence in my own opinions, I’m working towards being more open and direct with meanings – if only to save time.

Then again, on less important matters – in everyday conversation – imagery can set free the mind from the mundane. This is particularly true on social networking sites, such as Facebook and Twitter (my prevalent platforms), which allow for a symbolic dialect that is otherwise unavailable in the kinetic world, unless you carry a pack of Post-Its around.

On Twitter, I can tweet an image of a blue rose, or describe one, to convey the sort of multifaceted emotion which transcends plain definition, and enters a symbolic spectrum of meanings. I’m relying on symbolic interaction theory to get my point across, whereby the flower and its colour are interpreted in accordance with the subjective associations each individual audience member has with them. While the colour blue may lead one reader to think of the unending sky, the fathomless sea, the eternal mutability of the natural world, another person may find sorrow and a wistful longing attached to the shade, for the rose genus cannot naturally produce the pigment delphinidin necessary for blue in the petals, thus rendering the image as symbolic of a love that is as mysterious as it is unobtainable; beyond the reach of reality.

It is through the language of Twitter – its trends, its retweets, its favourites; its words, images, memes and videos – that we may convey meaning in symbolism. It has opened up channels of communication for those who, like me, tend to find the vocalisation of intentions, ideas and emotions, more stilted and awkward than in lexical form. Introverts can flourish, without the exhausting addition of physical presence and paralinguistics (though I still need to take time away every now and then, to let my head be quiet); writers can bend the minds of a wider audience with their imaginations; hobbies and professions can become the central theme for communities, which in turn may overlap one another, as occurs in everyday life. This is an integral part of the social networking experience, and strengthens its continuity, for we tend to proceed from the kinetic world to the cyber, for two main reasons: so that pre-established interpersonal relationships / connections can be maintained, and to interact with others of a similar mindset, to engage with them and share content. If interaction and microblogging of information are the running threads that pull people together across the fabric of Twitter, giving it form in the minds of its users, then the symbolism of shared facts and opinions, the retweeting of others as an extension of “voice” (to endorse or inform), and the various media formats available to enhance meaning, are its embroidery.

In cyberspace, the limits of physical proximity and distance are broken down by the immediacy of the internet. Time-zones permitting, two people may interact in such a way that was once unimaginable. Bonds are formed across nations, cultures and societies are experienced and learned about on both academical and personal levels. World travel is, for the moment, not a physical reality for me – but on Twitter, I am granted the freedom to walk through the minds of friends and acquaintances, with the content of tweets acting as both their voices and as guiding lights, while moving through unknown areas. As a friend put it to me yesterday, it is rather incredible when you stop to think about it – people are not really standing with us, talking to us; they are tapping away on their phones and computers, often with no one else in the room. It this suspension of disbelief that we have accepted as the norm – great streams of information flowing past, and static profiles that we have come to accept as personalities, with the profile picture symbolic of a person – even when it does not actually feature their visage.

Friends have told me of visualizing Twitter as a large open space – typically a theatre, room or hall – with a constant flux-flow of information roiling past in all directions, as though standing at the crux of a highway. I tend to see that vast space filled with slanting bars of different shades of pale light, with a high ceiling and small, dark alcoves along the walls for more intimate conversations; there is a harlequin of sound coming from an ever-changing multitude of people, standing and sitting in groups, or alone and apart. This image is not so much an actual vision as a sensation, such as you would find in dreams, or in the colours which appear behind my eyes when listening to music. Less form, more presence.

At the same time, I am aware of that information constantly rushing past, to the point where – if I am tired or not feeling well – it is enough to bring on giddiness, and there is the need to step back and say nothing at all, to log off and leave well alone. This “channelling” aspect may arise from the use of Twitter lists, which collect people into easily accessible “communities.” This has the advantage of saving time – rather than pin-balling across the main timeline to gauge an atmosphere relevant to a situation, or to find information on a particular topic, I can skim across tweets and links holding key words which, in turn, form patterns. There is less of a need to clamber over many disjointed tweets, which all have their own relevancy, but are not a part of the constellation I seek.

The main appeal of keeping such lists, though, is when I stumble across a conversation between friends, which has grown legs and run on for hours, across nations and time-zones. I can choose to engage, or to sit back and watch it all unfold, thus learning more about the lives and personalities of people who I may never meet in the “real world”, but who have become so dear to me through almost daily interactions, our sharing of miscellaneous and personal information, and something which goes beyond words, but is often found in a single photograph or song.

Angel Olsen, “White Fire”
(courtesy of Ansh @lightnarcissus)

Who are we as writers, without words? We are bad tempers and blue-black moods; we are irritability found in crumpled paper and deleted files. We are frantically-stirred coffee, and empty bottles. We are red-rimmed insomniac eyes, or the lowest level of sleep, difficult to dredge for dreams or to wake from. We are …
Finding other outlets.

I have thought on this quite a bit, in light of recent events: a maelstrom of global disorder, and tragedy spanning nations. The past few weeks have been rough, and my voice has paled and faded to the back of my throat and mind, like the first frost-rimed leaves of autumn.

There are needle-points of heat behind my eyes, with each liveblog update and tweet coming from the most recent conflict in Gaza – and a silver-foil fear that lines my throat whenever I try to speak up about it, for fear that my lack of real knowledge and context will inadvertently upset someone representing either side. I find myself falling back evermore on symbolism, just to get across some kind of emotion that refuses to be turned into words. It often feels as though no amount of research can ever do it all justice, or permit me to understand what is going on, beyond the sickening lurch in my stomach each time I hear or read about yet more casualties and loss of life on either side. The grim reality of lives in war is pain, injury and death, and more often than not for the ones who take no active part in the conflict. Yet the very fact that we are willing to gather this information, to share it for the benefit of others so that we might come to a better understanding of a situation we are not part of but still feel wrenching sorrow and horror for, is symbolic of a wish to keep hold of the wider world. The pictures of shrines to the fallen, the videos of military advancement, all weave a complex narrative that allow us to engage on a closer, often very raw level. The image of one tiny, frightened child, sums up countless years of pain.

In truth, I had forgotten the power of pictures. I thought there would always be words to find, to portray an image of events and circumstances in the world. But how best to describe the silent-screaming horror and pale numbness which strung out so many on Thursday 17th July, when Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was brought down close to the Ukraine-Russia border?. Sometimes, only a photograph – the careful kind, symbolic rather than gratuitous – can encapsulate the pain and confusion felt on all sides.

flags half mast
Matthew Price (‏@BBCMatthewPrice)
“Half mast in Holland – waiting for remains of first #MH17 passengers to be returned.”

On that afternoon, when the sunlight seemed the same as it ever had, Twitter became all but audible in a seething wave of international voices, circling around and aimed at the perpetrators. Tweets spread with forest-fire speed, purporting to hold evidence of the pro-Russian separatists’ involvement in the plane crash. Even as retractions were made and tweets deleted by the DNR, the world took a great stride ahead, with information spread too far and too wide for recall. This may yet play a vital part in bringing the guilty ones to justice; a fitting example of solidarity on social media, drawing people together as a collective voice of humanity, in the face of tragedy.

And yet, at the end of it all, we are still left with this lost feeling; this sense of Where do we go from here? The world is currently in a state of upheaval, with many people feeling off-kilter. I know I have an itch at the back of my mind, wondering how to get on with everyday life while things stand as they are … and not still, for very long. We’ll see what the second half of the year brings.

In the meantime, we fall back on the voices and the minds of those around us. In seeking solace, we can look outward as well as inward, and pass on pieces of ourselves to the world – the things that matter, which have caught our emotions, and suit the circumstance. In bringing something to the narrative that will sum up what cannot be put into ordinary, plain speech, we leave our unique marks upon the community. There is solidarity in symbolism.

Song in Space
(via corrie_corfield)