Thursday, 30 March 2017

In Celebration Of Meditation!




Regular readers of this blog might be aware that I've been going through a hard time lately and that recently, I began counselling.  What very few of you might know, is that my first counselling session actually led to me discovering something that I had previously written off as very much not for me. 

You see, as that first session drew to a close, my counsellor asked me whether I had ever tried meditation as a stress reliever, and whether I'd like to do a quick meditation right there and then.

Now, guys.  If you read this blog, you'll know that I have a brain that does not shut up.  Finding my inner Zen seemed like an impossible task, given my mind's propensity to throw in all kinds of random images, songs and scenarios at any particular moment.  And, truth be told, I had attempted meditation a couple of times, before.  I usually either got the giggles (nervous laughter, rather than any kind of comment on the act of meditation, I swear), or I failed to get my noisy brain to be quiet enough for it to be at all effective.

So, to say that I was sceptical would probably be an understatement.  But, I was also angry, depressed and dealing with a whole heap of grief, following the events of the last four months.  So, I shrugged my shoulders and told my counsellor: "Why not try it?"




A weird thing happened.  After the first few moments of awkwardly chewing on the inside of my mouth, to stave off the giggles (I swear, I giggle nervously at the most inappropriate times...), my body seemed to sink into the chair and my breathing slowed.  I relaxed so much that my head dropped down and my mouth hung open (seriously, I think there might have been some drool issues...).  

I started to see things through my mind's eye, and not just the usual plethora of absurdities my brain likes to treat me to throughout the day, but a clear image of myself in silhouette, with certain parts of me lit up, like thermal imagery.  I saw a sharp, green rectangle in my belly and a deep red slash across my chest.  And then, as I breathed slowly and relaxed further, the rectangle became an oval.  It began to shrink.  And, somehow, with it shrank the gnawing stress pains I'd been having in my stomach for weeks.  The red line through my chest began to soften and my breathing seemed easier.  I'd been having terrible trouble with my asthma in the aftermath of all that had gone on in my personal life, but right there in that moment, I could breath freely and deeply.  An image of the former friend who had caused me so much pain, appeared in the front of my silhouette's head, before slowly disappearing towards the back of it, as though my subconscious mind was trying to tell me that it was time to try to forget and move on.

Now, I'm not exactly the sort of person you'd expect to be going all New-Age on you.  Like I said, my brain is usually full of bizarre images and noisy thoughts.  I stress over things way too much to think of myself as someone on the path to enlightenment, or anything like that.  But as I walked home from that first counselling session, I felt my footsteps were lighter than they had been on the way there.  And not just because I'd talked everything through (although that definitely helped; hearing someone unconnected to the situation say "this is not your fault.  The other person was in the wrong," was something I had desperately needed).


Pictured: Me before the counselling.

The thing is, I couldn't get the meditation out of my head.  The sensation of letting go associated with it, the things I had visualised during it, the lightness I'd felt after it...  I hadn't really ever felt anything like that before, and I wanted to feel it again.

And so, I went to my natural habitat: YouTube (by the way, I have a YouTube channel, which you should definitely check out, if you haven't already).  It turns out that there are literally hundreds, probably thousands of meditation videos on there, just waiting for you to click play and drift off...

Since that first successful meditation, I've been on, to use literally the biggest cliche in The Big Bumper Book Of Cliches, a journey of self-discovery.  

You may now take a moment to judge me for using that phrase.

I have lost my "You may now take a moment to judge me" Phil gif, so have Dan instead.


The thing is, I'm still very early on in this new discovery.  Meditation for me is still very hit and miss.  I've started trying to do it at least 2 or 3 times a week before bed and in one particular week, I went from a night in which I fully relaxed and my subconscious mind caused me to see things I had long forgotten and access feelings I had been keeping bottled up, all of which was surprisingly freeing, to a night in which I became so enraged by the narrator on the video I had playing, pronouncing "anxiety" as "angshuty," that I ended up stopping the video and going onto Twitter for an hour, instead.  

Guess which night resulted in a more restful sleep?!

Sometimes, my noisy brain still doesn't entirely let me drift off into a meditative state.  There are nights when I'll be lying in the dark, eyes closed, limbs relaxed, all ready to go, when a voice in my head will start sniping: "Dear GOD this video is soundtracked by a lot of pan-pipes.  What is it with bloody meditation and pan-pipes?!  And this person is standing way too close to their microphone.  How can I relax and find inner peace when I can literally hear their lips smacking when they talk?!"

And on those nights, I'm learning to either ignore that voice for long enough that it gets bored and goes away, or to stop and try again another day.

Because, I've come to realise that for every night where I don't entirely let go and have a blissful, relaxing experience, there'll be a night on which I do.  A night where I'm genuinely surprised by where my mind takes me, or by how relaxed my body feels when the meditation is over.



I guess what I'm trying to say, is that trying this thing that I really didn't expect to work, has been something of a revelation.  And it only confirms to me that we should try new things and test the limits of we think we might be capable of.

As for me, well, I have a long way to go.  The anger and frustration I've felt as a result of the way people I loved have treated me is beginning to slide into sadness.  It's no easier to deal with, but I suppose at least I'm moving through the grieving process, however long it takes.

I'm just glad that I now have an extra tool I can use, when things all get too much.  I can close my eyes, press "play" on a guided meditation video and just... Relax.

Well, as long as the narrator doesn't stand too close to the microphone.  

It's a work in progress...







Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Bedtime Story (29/3/2017)



There is a huge difference between a little white lie and a huge untruth that has the capacity to hurt someone or negatively impact on their life.  Honesty is so important to me, that it's something I think children need to be introduced to as a concept from a young age.  With that in mind, I thought I would write a story about telling the truth - and what happens when you don't.

Click here to listen to this week's bedtime story as a podcast.


Lily's Lies

Jenna's birthday party was coming up,
But Lily didn't want to go.
And yet, each time Jenna mentioned it,
Lily hadn't the heart to say no.

She knew, deep down, she should tell the truth.
After all, isn't that what friends do?
But she couldn't bring herself to do it, and so,
She just let poor Jenna stew.

Eventually, Jenna could wait no more
And she asked Lily to put her straight.
Lily had been trying to think of an excuse,
But now it was clearly too late...

"I was going to come," Lily said,
"But then, I remembered I have stuff to do.
I'd have loved to have been at your party, Jenna,
But it's actually Dad's birthday, too!"

Now, Jenna's dad and Lily's dad,
Had been friends for many years.
So, Jenna knew that wasn't true,
And her eyes brimmed with tears.

"Don't you want to come, Lily?"
She quietly asked her friend.
"If you don't, please just tell me;
It doesn't have to mean the end!"

But Lily was now stuck in her lie
And felt she couldn't get out.
"No, really, Dad's like the Queen;
Two birthdays a year!" Came her shout.

Jenna frowned back at her friend.
"Lily, I know that's not true.
I'd rather you just told me the truth;
After all, I'd do the same for you!"

But Lily just twiddled her thumbs
And stuck her nose in the air.
"The truth is I would have come," she said,
"If I didn't have to cut my dog's hair."

She shrugged her shoulders as Jenna blinked:
"He's ever so fluffy, you see.
And he won't sit still for anyone else,
So the only one who can do it is me."

Jenna opened her mouth to reply,
But she was too stunned to form any words.
Lily's lie had started out silly,
But now it was getting absurd!

And yet, Lily carried on:
"I can't be at the party, I'm afraid.
Because it takes an hour to cut my dog's fur,
Then he has to go the vet's to be weighed."

Jenna's face turned pale and she frowned:
"Why don't you stop telling lies?!
If you'd just been honest, I'd have understood!
But these untruths were a nasty surprise."

"Look, I know parties aren't for everyone,
And if you don't want to come, it's okay.
But I'm really sad you didn't tell me the truth.
It shouldn't be that hard to say!"

By now, Lily felt guilty,
But a little bit angry, too.
She didn't like being told off by her friend,
And she wondered what she should do.

"Fine, I didn't want to go,
But now you're just being mean!
I'm surprised by your behaviour
And I'm going to tell the world what I've seen!"

And so, Lily marched off to school,
Shouting: "Jenna is picking on me!
Can you believe it?  I did nothing wrong!
I'm as innocent as can be."

And as Lily's bad mood continued to grow,
So did the story, as well.
She added something different
To each person she chose to tell.

"Have you heard the story of Jenna's birthday?
I told her that I couldn't go.
And when she heard that I wouldn't be there,
She punched me, right in the nose!"

Lily would groan to all who'd listen:
"I've been treated so terribly badly.
If it wasn't for having to wash my mum's socks,
I'd have gone to that party, gladly!"

Lily was so keen to keep growing her story,
Rather than ever admit she was wrong,
That by end of the school day,
She had everyone singing the same song.

"Poor Lily, she tried to let her friend down
As gently as she possibly could,
But then Jenna smacked her and called her such names...
I'm shocked that a so-called friend would!"

And Jenna?  Well, Jenna felt terribly sad.
She knew Lily's lies were not true.
And worse, she knew people believed some of them.
What was she going to do?!

Well, that's the thing about telling lies.
Eventually, those lies are seen through.
And it's ever so tiring to keep on pretending,
So being honest is the right thing to do.

In time, Lily's stories got so overblown
That only a few people believed them.
And Jenna just kept on telling the truth,
Knowing their friendship would never be even.

Eventually, Jenna had her party,
And it was ever so much fun.
And although she missed Lily a bit,
She knew those lies couldn't be undone.

But the presents and cake and happy faces
All served to Jenna as proof,
That lying can only cause heartache,
And real friends tell each other the truth.


THE END





Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Bedtime Story (22/3/2017)


I can remember being twelve years old and wanting a dog so badly that I made a collage of dog pictures and stuck it on my parents' bedroom door!  It actually worked, too!!  So, I figured I'd write a story about pets and pester power...

The podcast edition of this story is available to listen to here.

"I REALLY Want A Pet!"


"I really want a pet,"
An excited Jimmy said.
"We're learning about animals in school
And it's put the idea in my head."

He gazed up at the sky
At the birds flying by.
And: "We should get a budgie!"
Came his enthusiastic cry.

"Or maybe a parrot!
With feathers of green and claret.
I could teach it to talk
And feed it seeds and carrots!"

Mum said: "Don't be absurd!
We can't get a bird!
It'd be flapping about all over the house;
It's the silliest thing I've heard!"

So, Jimmy had a think
And quicker than a wink:
"Why don't we get a frog?
It could swim in the kitchen sink!"

Mum turned up her nose.
"I don't want one of those!
It might hop up in my face!"
She shook her head and froze.

"A dog's the perfect pet,
Of that you can bet,"
Said Jimmy with a smile.
"With a dog, I'd be all set!"

"I could take it out for walks,
Teach it to sit and give its paws.
And throw it a bone or a bouncy ball
And it'd come back with it in its jaws!"

Mum shrugged: "Maybe when you're older.
You won't want to walk a dog when the weather gets colder."
And she hoped that'd be the end of it,
But Jimmy's suggestions just got bolder...

"I know - let's get a horse!
I could ride it at the town racecourse.
And it wouldn't mess up the house,
Because it wouldn't come indoors!"

Before his mum could even reply:
"Let's get an elephant!" Came Jimmy's cry.
"I know they're not normally kept as pets,
But they're so lovely, I don't understand why!"

"An elephant is much too big,"
Mum said, grabbing her coffee and taking a swig.
"People like to have pets that are small,
Like a rabbit, hamster or guinea pig."

"Then why don't we get one of those, instead?"
Jimmy asked, with a cock of his head.
I don't mind what animal it is,
I just really want to have a pet!"

Mum rolled her eyes and gave her hair a swish.
"If you're very good, I'll grant you that wish.
We can't have an elephant or a horse,
But if you like, you can have a fish."

Jimmy grinned. "YES!  Is that really true?!
And instead of one, could I maybe have two?
Because this is just the start of my plan...
By the time I'm finished, we'll have a whole zoo!"

For now, Jimmy was satisfied,
As he searched for a tank to keep his fish inside.
He'd start with one pet, but he was sure,
That one day he'd have an animal of every kind.

A dog and a cat, to cuddle and squish,
A horse and an elephant, just as he wished.
He'd have a lion, a bear and an eagle as well.
But he'd be happy to start with one little fish.


THE END






Sunday, 19 March 2017

Why Are We STILL Asking The Wrong Questions About Male Violence?!


The above picture has been widely circulated on social media in the last few days.  It depicts a 60 year old woman, who was viciously beaten by a thug in his 20s, after she turned down his advances.  The woman, who was visiting London from Austria, politely asked the man to leave her alone and was then grabbed and punched repeatedly in the face, causing injuries that will require surgery.

That such an appalling incident took place is grotesque enough.  But today, Ian Payne, a broadcaster on London's LBC radio station, posted a tweet that speaks volumes about why these things keep happening...

There is something massively wrong, here.  Let me spell it out for you:

YOU ARE ASKING THE WRONG QUESTION.

This woman politely asked a man to leave her alone when he followed her and kept trying to "chat her up."  His response was to savagely beat her.  And you seriously want to know how else we think she should have behaved?!



Let me break it down for you.

That woman could have sworn at the guy.  She could have yelled "GET OUT OF MY FACE."  She could have stuck her middle finger up and sashayed away.  It doesn't matter how she reacted to his unwanted advances.  She did not owe him anything.  He made the decision to start trying to chat her up and, when she politely turned him down, he made the decision to respond with violence.  He decided to punch her in the face, over and over again.

To ask the question "how should women reject unwanted advances?" places blame on us.  The women.  You are, effectively, blaming a 60 year old woman for her own assault.  Because your question implies that she should have done something differently.

It's not new.  When a woman is raped, we've become depressingly used to hearing questions like "what was she wearing?" or "had she been drinking?"  NEVER do we hear: "Why did he feel entitled to rape her?"  The questions are rarely about the man's decisions.  They're almost exclusively about the behaviour of the woman in question.  And that is wrong.

The thug who beat this poor woman does not deserve the luxury of seeing people pick over the bones of his victim's actions.  He does not deserve to be "let off the hook" by an audience of fellow men, asking how women should better ensure against this type of thing.

There are questions that need to be asked, in the wake of this shocking incident.  Questions such as:

  • "Why did this man feel so entitled to this woman's body that rejection was no longer an option he was willing to accept from her?"

  • "Why was this man so quick to decide that violence was an acceptable response to her exercising her right to say no?"

  • "What changes do we need to make to ensure that women are treated with equal respect and that violence against them is no longer deemed such a depressingly popular option?

  • "How can we challenge the misogynistic view that women are property, to be treated any way men see fit?"

All of those questions are valid and need answering.  Not only for women, but for men.  Because, thankfully, a lot of the responses to the tweet Ian Payne posted, were from men who were just as infuriated by the question as I was.  They want to know why the blame has been subtly shifted from the shoulders of the perpetrator of this attack, to those of his victim - and women in general.  Again.




In a patriarchal society, we are too quick to shift blame onto the women who are attacked, in order to avoid discussing male entitlement, male violence or misogyny.  Until we - as a whole - are able to look at the situation honestly and ask the necessary questions, we will never end male violence against women.  How can we, if we barely acknowledge it exists?  How can we, if we're genuinely asking listeners to a radio station to call in with their ideas as to how women should reject unwanted advances, rather than asking how to ensure that men handle that rejection - however it comes - without resorting to violence in the first place?

Victim-blaming is like placing a sticking plaster on a gaping wound.  It might hold it together for a short while, but it's not strong enough to last.  You need stitches.  It takes time to really sort out the problem.

Attacks like the one in London last week are not anywhere near as rare as they should be.  And they will not dwindle in numbers if we continue to apply a sticking plaster to this wound.  It's time to tackle the real problem.

It's time to start asking the right questions, even if the answers make us uncomfortable.  Only when we place blame on the attackers, rather than their victims (or potential future victims) can we really start to solve the issue.

As long as we're asking the wrong questions, nothing will ever change.

  


Thursday, 16 March 2017

Life Isn't Always Fair



We usually learn early on in childhood that sometimes, life just isn't fair.  Maybe we really wanted that packet of sweets that our parents said no to, or perhaps it just sucked that we weren't allowed to stay up as late as our friends did (or at least, as late as they told us they did).

But, the older we get, the more we realise that life not being fair is a lesson we're going to have to learn more than once.  In fact, it's a lesson we never really stop learning, no matter how far down the road we are.

The trouble is, although we usually come to a point in life where we know that sometimes, bad things happen to good people - and vice versa - it doesn't really make it any easier to accept.

Something happened to me this week.  I was driving to work behind a very big, very slow truck.  We reached a red light.  And after waiting for maybe thirty seconds, the truck driver decided to go.  The light was still red and the road ahead is obscured, so you can't see what's coming (hence the lights...).  His decision to run the red light was, in my view, a hugely dangerous one.  

I thought about beeping my horn.  I thought about gesturing at him (you know, Makaton sign language for "please be careful" or something - honest).  But instead, I quickly made a note of his registration number.  And, when I returned home after my work shift, much later that day, I reported him to his boss via email.



It's something I could have just rolled my eyes and tutted over.  I could have simply told my workmates and moaned about dangerous drivers who ought to know better.  But for some reason, that just wasn't enough.  I couldn't understand why I was so determined that this guy had to pay for his reckless driving; I just knew that it was vital he did.

And then, the next morning, when I received a reply from the truck driver's boss, apologising and saying the driver had been sternly spoken to and would also like to send his apologies, I couldn't understand why the strange sense of victory I had was so small and so fleeting.  

Why did I still feel like I needed more?  Why did I have a bizarre urge to go out searching for more bad driving and report all of that, too?!




And then I remembered.

I remembered the reason I had been in a bad mood when I set out to work, that morning.

I remembered the reason I struggle to get to sleep every night.

I remembered the reason I recently started counselling.

You see, four months ago, a trivial argument with a friend, in which I said I was hurt and angry with her for not being honest with me, blew up into something it never had to be.

She could have said "I'm sorry you feel that way, that wasn't my intention."

But she didn't.  And, long story short, I ended up losing three of my closest friends, receiving actual hate mail from one of them, being accused of being a bully, as well as a liar and sinking into a deep depression.

Alas, my depression is neither sexy, nor French.


I'm not a bully or a liar.

I'm not any of those things and I kept the entire text argument on my phone, so that I could always prove it.

But only one member of our friendship group wanted to see it.  Only my best friend cared about my side of the story.  Everyone else went along with the other version.  The version in which there was only one person at fault, and that person was very much me.

For four months, I've been able to prove that that's not true.  But I can't, because nobody - at least none of those three friends I've lost - wants to hear.  So, instead, someone has gotten away with painting me as things I'm not.  They've gotten away with portraying themselves as an innocent victim of my cruelty.  

And that, ladies and gents, isn't fair.


Can you see where I'm going with this?!

Suddenly, I realised why it was so vital that I reported that truck driver for running the red light.  Sure, it was dangerous of him and maybe I was doing the right thing, but that was only part of the reason I took down his registration and emailed his boss.

I did it, because I needed justice.  I needed someone who'd done something wrong, to receive some kind of consequence for it.  I needed to feel as though I had been listened to; as though my side of the story was worth hearing.

And that's also why my "joy" (if you can really call it that) at receiving a reply from the guy's boss, was so short-lived.

It was "justice."  But not really the "justice" I needed.  It didn't change anything.  When I look through old photo albums now, there are still three faces, smiling out at me, belonging to people who believe in a warped, nasty version of me that doesn't actually exist.  All because someone couldn't just say "sorry you feel that way."

And that, say it with me again, people: is not fair.



But you know what?  That's life.  Life is not always fair and there's nothing we can do about it.

If life was fair, the person who sent me the hate mail would have had her eyebrows plucked out by ravenous seagulls by now and would be forced to draw them on with marker pen.  And she'd discover she only had fluorescent green markers in the house.  And would be somehow unable to buy or borrow an eyebrow pencil, anywhere...  

That didn't happen.  

Sometimes, the people who hurt us never experience a consequence to their actions.  Sometimes, people who blindly believe cruel lies never find out how it feels to have someone believe something hurtful and untrue about them.

That's life.



As I sat in bed, a couple of mornings ago, reading an email informing me that a truck driver had been given a slap on the wrist for his bad driving, I finally began to realise that, although the unfairness of life can really hurt, you can't really make up for it, by trying to seek justice in other ways.  All you can do is try to come to terms with it.

Am I still frustrated, knowing people I was once so close to that I considered them a second family feel genuine hate for me, based on a load of exaggerations and outright lies?  Of course.  I'm frustrated, angry and deeply, deeply sad.  Maybe a part of me always will be.

But realising that life is not always fair isn't a lesson we only learn once, over the course of our lives.   We learn it and then, weeks, months, or even years later, something else happens that feels utterly unjust and we have to learn it all over again.  And there is no caveat to it.  It's not a case of "life's not fair, but you can make it better by doing X, Y or Z."  Because sometimes, there really isn't anything you can do, aside from accept that an unfair, unjust thing has taken place, then move forwards with your life in the most positive way you can find.

Because, essentially, that's the only part we have any control over: how we deal with the unfairness of life.

We can sit and mope and cry and get angry.  And there is value to that - never let anyone tell you that you can't have a damn good rant about things, or a proper, snotty cry about it all.

We can try to seek out our own form of justice, by campaigning against a result we feel is wrong, or by seeking some kind of revenge on those who've hurt us.  The trouble with revenge is that it often has the negative effect of reducing you to the level of the people who've wronged you in the first place.

Or, we can remind ourselves of all the good things we still have in our lives.  We can resolve to de-stress, somehow.  We can find a way to move on, when life has dealt us a cruel, unfair blow.

What we must try to avoid, is allowing the unfair moments in life to lead to us giving up, entirely.  We need to try see the good, as well as the bad in our lives.  To look for the positives, when life seems to be doling out negatives.

Otherwise, we lose ourselves.  We become eaten up by the unjust nature of the world in which we live.  We become bitter and we cease to notice or enjoy the beauty of the lives we lead.

And that isn't fair to ourselves.














Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Bedtime Story (15/3/2017)


One of my workmates is getting married this year and I was just thinking about weddings and wondering whether there could be a funny story involved, somehow!

You can also listen to this story as a podcast!


Here Comes The Bridesmaid!

Cici was the youngest in her family.  Her brothers were older than her and all of her cousins were older than her, too.  Not that Cici ever minded; being the youngest meant that everyone paid lots of attention to her.  And if there was one thing Cici loved, it was being the centre of attention!

Whenever the whole family got together - grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, the lot - Cici would regale them with jokes, or sing them a song she'd made up all by herself.  Whenever someone took out a camera, ready to take a family photograph, Cici would pull a funny pose and position herself right in the centre of the picture.

So, when Cici's cousin Leia announced that she was getting married and she wanted Cici to be bridesmaid, Cici was over the moon!  She was going to get to wear a pretty dress, carry a bunch of flowers and walk down the aisle in front of everyone.  She could hardly wait!

"You know, a bridesmaid's job is really important," she told her brother Jacob, over breakfast one morning.  "I have to make sure Leia has everything she needs, and I have to help carry her train.  Although, why she's taking a train to her wedding, I don't know.  And I'm guessing it's a toy train, not a real one, because I definitely couldn't carry a real one all the way down the aisle.  In fact, I'm not even sure a real train would fit in the church..."

Jacob just rolled his eyes.

Later, on the way to school, Cici explained: "Leia says I have to try to stay really clean and tidy when I have my bridesmaid dress on, because I'm going to be in all of the photos."

Cici's oldest brother, Marcus, gave her a glance.  "Not all the photos," he said.  "Some will just be of the bride and groom."

Cici frowned.  "Well, I'm going to be in nearly all of them," she insisted.

As the weeks went by, Cici threw herself into learning how to be the best bridesmaid ever.  

She practised walking down the hallway in her house, pretending it was the aisle of the church.  

She went shopping with Leia and picked out a lovely dress to wear on the big day.

She taught herself to play Leia's favourite song on the recorder, with the intention of surprising her cousin on her wedding day, by standing up and playing it in front of everyone in the church.  Nobody had asked her to, but Cici knew they'd love it.

In fact, as time went on, Cici's plans for the wedding day got bigger and bigger...

"I'm going to paint a portrait of Leia and Bobby and then they can hang it up in the church for the wedding," she announced to her dad, one evening.  "And I was thinking, instead of just walking down the aisle, what if I made up a really cool dance routine?!"

Dad took a long breath and pressed his mouth into a little line.  "I'm sure walking will be just fine..."

Cici ignored him and twiddled the ends of her hair, as she thought to herself: "I know, why don't I write Leia and Bobby forever on my arm in that glitter glue I have upstairs?!"

Mum peeked up over the top of her magazine.  "You can't put glitter glue all over your arms, Cici," she insisted.  "Besides, you're going to be wearing a pretty little shrug, remember?  Your arms will be covered up!"

Cici frowned.  "Maybe I'll write it on my cheek..."

Marcus and Jacob rolled their eyes...

Finally, the day of the wedding arrived.  Mum drove Cici over to Auntie Clare's house, where Leia was getting ready.  There were three other bridesmaids, all older than Cici: Cici and Leia's cousin Abigail, Bobby's sister Delilah and Leia's best friend Louise.  They all smiled at Cici when she arrived.  

"Girls, I have this great idea," Cici announced, as she strode into the living room.  "Why don't we make up a special bridesmaid song that we can sing at the wedding?!"

Abigail pulled a face.  "I think we just have to, er, stand there at the wedding," she explained.  "The only people getting up to do anything are the ones doing readings."

Cici frowned.  "Readings are boring, though," she said.  "What about if we do a play?  We could do it at the reception, if you like; that gives us time to practise.  I can be Leia and..."  She pointed at Delilah.  "You can be Bobby!"

Delilah bit her lip.  "I think there's already entertainment planned for the reception," she told Cici.  

Cici folded her arms across her chest.  "Hmm, fine," she grumbled.  "I'll make up a song by myself and I'll sing it when everyone makes their speeches."

Before she could say anything else, Leia came into the room with her mum.  Leia was wearing her wedding dress and she looked like a princess.

"Wow!"  Cici grinned.  "This is so exciting!  Is it time to go?  I've brought my plastic microphone so I can announce you as we walk down the aisle!"  She patted the little white bag she was wearing over her shoulder.  "It's not very loud, but that's okay; I'll shout!"

Everyone glanced at each other.  Cici thought they all looked a bit nervous, but that was okay; she had read that sometimes weddings made people nervous...

Cici's mum drove the bridesmaids to the church, with Leia travelling ahead in a special car, with ribbons on the front.  All the way there, Cici chattered excitedly about the grand entrance she was going to make.

When they finally arrived at the church, everyone made their way to the little porch at the front.  Leia took a big, deep breath, as the door opened and the organ started to play.  Cici was supposed to walk in first.  

But as she looked at the sea of faces, staring at her, Cici felt her feet sticking to the floor.  Her heart started to thud in her chest and she couldn't make herself move.  Her eyes began to glisten as she stared up at Leia.

"I can't do it," she whispered.  "I can't sing my song, or announce you with my little microphone...  I can't even remember the dance I made up to do on my way down the aisle."  She took a deep breath.  "I'm the worst bridesmaid ever.  I'm too scared!"

Leia bent down and gently wiped a tear from Cici's eye.  "Oh, silly," she soothed.  "You don't have to sing or dance!  And you certainly don't have to be scared.  The most important thing for a bridesmaid to do is be there for the bride.  And you're right here for me, aren't you?"

Cici blinked up at her.  "I suppose so," she whimpered.  "But I don't know all of those people in the church.  What if I fall over and they all laugh at me?  What if I drop my bouquet of flowers and they get ruined?"

"Nobody will laugh at you, whatever happens," Leia promised.  "All you have to do is smile that big smile of yours and be the Cici I know and love.  Just walk down that aisle with a big grin on your face.  You're going first because you're the most important, after all."

Cici swallowed hard.  "No, I'm not," she insisted.  "You are.  It's your special day and I've been trying to make it all about me.  I'm sorry.  And now I'm too scared to even do any of the silly things I said I would!"

Suddenly, Cici's cousin Abigail took her hand.  "Shall we walk together?"  She asked.  "That way, you're still walking down the aisle first, but you don't have to do it all by yourself."

Cici nodded.  "Thank you..."  She glanced up at Abigail and then at Leia.  "Now I know how important bridesmaids are," she smiled.  "You've just saved the day, Abi!"

And so, Cici walked - not danced - down the aisle.  And she didn't sing, or perform a play, or shout her cousin's name down a microphone.  But she did give the biggest smile she'd ever smiled.  And she was the proudest bridesmaid in the church.

"Abigail?"  She whispered, when they were standing at the alter.  "If you ever get married, can I be a bridesmaid?"

Abigail grinned.  "Of course you can."

"Great," said Cici.  "I've got lots of time to rehearse.  I might write a rap about weddings and wear a cap with my bridesmaid dress.  I could call myself MCiCi Bridesmaid..."

Abigail just shook her head and smiled.

THE END

Friday, 10 March 2017

20 Reasons To Love Buffy The Vampire Slayer



Twenty years ago today, a TV show called Buffy The Vampire Slayer first aired.  The fact that most of you reading this will instantly recognise the title of that show - and may well be able to talk about the premise in detail, regardless of whether or not you ever watched it personally - just goes to show how deeply embedded it became in popular culture.  Buffy was not just a TV show that came and went, leaving little mark.  Buffy came along and changed things, forever.

I arrived late.  I didn't really get into the show until season 4.  By season 6, I was utterly hooked and listened to the Once More, With Feeling soundtrack constantly.  I watched Buffy as a teen and it had a profound affect on me.  But, rather than merely gush about my personal reasons for still being such a fan of a TV show that will always rank in my top 5 favourite programmes ever, I figured, in honour of the 20th anniversary of that very first episode airing, I would compile a list of 20 reasons to watch Buffy and love it.

So, here goes...

1. It had mass appeal.


One of the reasons that Buffy was - and is - so successful, was that it catered to a seriously wide audience.  Looking for a show about vampires?  Well, duh.  The clue's in the name.  But beyond that, the show had something for almost everyone.  The mix of horror, humour, romance, teen drama, paranormal goings on and of course, for the first three seasons in particular, the portrayal of high school life, meant that whatever your televisual interest, you could probably find it on Buffy


2. It was honest.

Up until Buffy arrived, most teen shows focused on the popular kids at school.  Everything was bright and shiny and it didn't really portray the reality for an awful lot of teenage viewers.  Then, suddenly, a show came along in which the nerdy, awkward outsiders were the stars.  And Joss Whedon never shied away from showing us that Buffy and her friends weren't in with the "cool kids."  Whether it was Xander being knocked back by a girl he likes, or the entire "Scooby Gang" being mocked by the more popular students, you were always made aware that high school wasn't the joyous, socially exciting time it had been depicted as, in other shows.  Bullying, concerns about exams, unrequited crushes, failure to be accepted by your peers... It was all there, on Buffy, in all its painful, honest glory.  

And because of that...


3. The characters felt real.

It might sound strange to talk about a show that centres around a teenage girl who slays vampires in her spare time as being very real, in terms of the characters it depicts, but it's true.  Buffy may be The Chosen One, but she still worries about her hair, or her test scores.  Her concerns beyond her "job" as the Slayer are those of any average teenage girl, and that's what stops Buffy from being someone hard to relate to.  And it wasn't just the titular character.  Willow, Buffy's best friend, is portrayed as delightfully nerdy and endearingly awkward in social situations.  She is full of typical teenage self-doubt and you end up rooting for her in part because you just relate so much.  Xander is immediately recognisable as the hormonal teenage boy, desperate to be accepted by his peers and liked by the girls, and making many mistakes along the way to working out who he is.

Essentially, that was one of the most beautiful things about Buffy.  You got the feeling that this really was a group of very close friends, just trying to figure out who they are and where they're going in life.  You were able to see that they didn't always make good decisions, or get the happy ending you wanted for them.  And watching that as a teenager, who was also working out who I was and what I wanted from my life, was enormously powerful.


4.  The show could make you laugh out loud.


One of Joss Whedon's masterstrokes was that he didn't allow Buffy to ever lose its sense of humour.  No matter what happened, there was a witty line thrown in somewhere, or a visual joke to break the tension.  Anya becoming a human, having been an all-powerful vengeance demon for centuries, was just one of the many topics that provided giggles on the show, as we watched her try to handle humanity and work out how she's supposed to behave.  Buffy herself had a wit as razor-sharp as her beloved stake, Mr Pointy, and could rarely resist making a pun as she dispatched a vampire.  The jokes punctuated the storylines and kept the show moving at a fast pace.  Joss Whedon was even able to poke fun at the show itself, often through Giles, with his world-weary delivery of lines relating to the absurdity of whatever was happening in that particular episode. 

Whenever I'm talking to a fellow Buffy fan, the humour in the show is always mentioned.  Every time, without fail.  And with good reason.


5.  The show could make you cry.

I've already said that one of the biggest reasons I love Buffy is that it never shied away from providing an honest depiction of life, warts and all.  That was true throughout its seven seasons, and the sad moments were dealt with beautifully.  Obviously, an enormous part of that is down to the incredible acting displayed by the whole cast, but credit where it's due; the writing and direction was just perfect, when it came to breaking the viewers' hearts.  Take The Body, as the ideal example (major spoilers ahead...).  The first few minutes after Buffy comes home to discover her mother dead on the sofa, are played out with almost painful slowness.  The world seems to stop completely, as we follow Buffy walking down the corridor, unsure what to do.  The almost ridiculous realities of dealing with a death - Willow panicking about not being sure what to wear to the funeral, for example - are all on display, here, and the episode is devastating to watch (if you haven't seen it, you have been warned - have many, many tissues on hand).  For me, the most heartbreaking moment comes from one of my favourite characters on the show.  Anya, a former vengeance demon turned human, is not used to the concept of mortality and doesn't know how to deal with the situation.  As she contemplates the seemingly pointless nature of death, I find it almost impossible not to bawl my freaking eyes out.



Anya: I don’t understand. I don’t understand how this all happens. How we go through this. I mean, I knew her, and then she’s, there’s just a body, and I don’t understand why she can’t just get back in it and not be dead any more. It’s stupid. It’s mortal and stupid, and, and Xander’s crying and not talking, and I was having fruit punch and I thought, well, Joyce will never have any more fruit punch, ever. And she’ll never have eggs, or yawn, or brush her hair, not ever and no one will explain to me why.

Seriously, The Body is quite probably the most raw, emotive, honest depiction of death and grief I have ever seen on television.  Who'd have thought a show about a wise-cracking teenage girl who slays vampires could provide that?


6. Big issues were dealt with.

I've already mentioned above that Buffy is forced to deal with the unexpected death of her mother.  And death becomes a big deal again, later on in the series when another major character is unexpectedly murdered (I can't even say who, because OH MY GOD I AM STILL NOT OVER IT). But death is not the only major issue we see, during the course of Buffy's seven season run.  Early on, we get an episode that focuses on domestic abuse (although I wasn't keen on the way Buffy and Willow spoke to the girl who was being abused; things got a bit victim-blamey in my eyes, but hey, that's a discussion for another day).  And it's made very clear to us, without ever going into enormous levels of details, that Xander's home life is not particularly pleasant.  In keeping with the whole "honest depiction of life" ethos that runs through the show, Joss Whedon was never scared of showing us a character having a breakdown, or experiencing something traumatic and awful.  Life isn't all puppies and kittens.  Neither was Buffy.


7. Love wasn't always pretty...


Despite being a show about vampires and monsters, there's a fair amount of romance in Buffy.  But that's not to say that it's all hearts and flowers.  We see everything, from unrequited love, lust, doomed romances and bad choices leading to broken hearts.  

Buffy falls head over heels in love with vampire, Angel, only for him to turn evil after she loses her virginity to him, and for her to be forced to send him to Hell.  Spike, another vampire who originally wants nothing more than to kill Buffy, ends up obsessively in love with her, willing to sacrifice himself in order to save the world for her.  Willow's unrequited love for Xander is relatable and realistically portrayed.  Willow and Oz are a beautiful example of a very pure form of first love. 

Love was a theme that ran through Buffy, for all seven seasons.  But we saw every kind of love - angry, obsessive, passionate, desperate, true... It was all there.

People talk about the two big relationships being either Buffy/Angel or Buffy/Spike, but let's not forget that there was a major relationship in this series that broke a LOT of boundaries at the time...


8. There was a lesbian relationship that was not done for shock value, but was a legitimately beautiful storyline about two women who were in love.

Whilst we've taken enormous strides forward when it comes to LGBTQ representation on screen, in the last two decades, we have to remember that back in the 90s and early 00s, the idea of two people of the same sex kissing on screen was quite a big deal.  So, when Buffy's best friend Willow realised that she was falling in love with her friend Tara, the storyline was big news.  But there was no shock factor element to this story.  Their shy, awkward development from friends to lovers was treated with enormous respect and realness, which is probably why so many fans fell for them as hard as they fell for each other.  Tara and Willow were just meant to be together, which makes their eventual, permanent parting, all the more shattering.  This was a pair that it was impossible not to root for, and to this day, many fans of the show - myself included - still look to Willow/Tara as a gorgeous example of real romance on screen. 



9. The writing bled into popular culture and became endlessly quotable.

If I don't want to do something, one of my favourite expressions to use is "a world of no."  Where did I first hear that expression?  You guessed it: Buffy The Vampire Slayer.

The show portrayed a group of teenagers/young adults, talking in the way that friends of that age group really did at the time (and probably still do - God, I'm old).  It's no surprise that so many quotes from the show ended up on t-shirts and fridge magnets, or being taken as usernames on social media.  It was perfectly quotable.



10. At times, it was genuinely scary.

Okay, so it was a show aimed largely at teens, so there wasn't too much in the way of gore (although Xander having his eye gouged out by Caleb still makes me screech and look away), but it had plenty of scary moments.  Tell me Angelus' murder of poor Jenny Calendar didn't shock you.  Tell me The Gentlemen didn't freak you out.  Tell me there weren't moments when you genuinely jumped.  Tell me, and I'll call you a liar.  Because this show could be scary, despite all the humour.  And I don't just mean because of the 90s outfits...


11. GILES.

I'm sorry, but if your ass-kicking vampire show doesn't feature a sarcastic, supposedly-stuffy-but-with-a-secret-past type older dude who drinks a lot of tea and rolls his eyes a lot at the teenage rabble he's somehow become responsible for (he's meant to be Buffy's watcher, but let's face it, Giles takes care of all the Scoobies), then you're doing it wrong.  Giles is utterly pivotal to the show.  He is protective, wise, fatherly and actually, damnit, kind of hot.  Buffy without Giles would be like Ant without Dec, day without night, or me without some kind of sweet snack on standby at all times.

I just love Giles, okay?!



12. Character development happened in SPADES.

We meet characters in Buffy who change dramatically over the course of their time on the show, yet somehow always seem to be themselves.  That's the beauty of Joss Whedon's creation - a character like Cordelia can start out as a shallow, not particularly friendly person, whose presence seems to be based around making life difficult for the Scooby Gang.  And yet, over the course of her time in the Buffyverse, we see her become a deeper person, who is capable of strength and bravery, but who can still be catty and a little shallow from time to time.  Joss allows his characters to grow naturally, whilst still retaining many of the key traits that make them them.  We all change over time, as a result of our experiences and life-lessons.  We see that happen to each one of the characters in Buffy, and that is magnificent.


13. As the characters learned from each episode, so did we.

Buffy was never one of those irritating shows that insisted on having the lead character break the fourth wall to tell the viewer "what we learned, today" at the end of each episode.  Thank God.  But that's not to say that there weren't lessons learned from the show.  Whether it was Willow's addiction to magic, which slowly began corrupting her life and her relationships (a metaphor for "drugs are bad, mm'kay," if ever there was one), or Buffy's own journey towards self-acceptance, we could all take whatever "lessons" we wanted from the show, but they were rarely forced upon us.  Much like the characters themselves, we had to work out what to take away from each situation.  It's why Buffy is still so frequently written about and discussed; there's still so much to take from it.


14.  THERE WAS A FREAKING MUSICAL EPISODE.


Only Buffy could have carried this off so brilliantly.  I'm an unashamed fan of musical theatre and Once More, With Feeling is, without doubt, my favourite episode (along with Hush and The Body - for veeeery different reasons).  A demon is summoned to Sunnydale, who makes people sing their biggest secrets, before eventually dancing themselves to spontaneous combustion.  Of course.  What is amazing about Once More, With Feeling is not only that the songs are brilliant, or that the episode is so well acted and directed, but that it doesn't break from the show's overall character.  The gang are all exactly the same as ever, just... With added jazz hands.  And the narrative arc of season 6 continues in this episode, too.  It's not a stand-alone piece (although if you wanted to watch it as such, you'd probably get the gist of what's going on fairly quickly).  Storylines that were started in the episodes before are continued in this one.  There just happen to be songs and dance routines.  It's bloody perfect.


15.  It broke TV boundaries.

Think of your favourite TV show.  Now imagine an almost completely silent episode.

That's what Joss Whedon did in Hush, supposedly in response to being told that one of Buffy's biggest triumphs was its witty one-liners and excellent dialogue.  In that episode, we meet The Gentlemen (still Buffy's creepiest baddies, if you ask me), who remove everyone's voices.  There are suddenly no puns, no sarcastic comebacks, no hugely realistic conversations between friends or lovers.  Almost everything we know Buffy for is gone.  And yet this episode is one of the best.  It manages to be frightening, funny and captivating, all without words.

If you don't know much about Buffy, you might wonder how that could work.  But Buffy was a show that was never scared to try a path that hadn't been trodden, before.  And that bravery paid off.


16.  The clothes.  And the hair.  



Guys, I watch Buffy with a fair amount of nostalgia, these days.  It is just SO of its time, in the most glorious of ways.  The nineties fashion on display is so notorious that there is even a Twitter account devoted to "Bad Buffy Outfits."

Pretty sure this is Willow auditioning to join the Backstreet Boys.


17.  The concept of friends as the family you choose for yourself.

Yes, Friends was already a hit by the time Buffy came along, but for me, it was Buffy that cemented the importance of the almost family-like bonds that can be created in a close friendship group.  Over the course of seven seasons, we see the Scooby Gang prepared to die for one another; defending each other and supporting one another through the best and the worst times of their lives.  From the entire gang standing up to Tara's father, to Xander being willing to sacrifice himself for Willow, when she's lost in grief and is using dark, evil magic and threatening to end the world, this was a show that really brought home the fact that it's not just blood-relations that make a family.  




18.  It's still relevant.

All these years later, there are still nerdy outsiders who don't fit in.  There are still angst-ridden teens, falling in and out of love and trying to work out who they are and what they want.  There are still plenty of people out there, dealing with indescribable grief, self-doubt or life-pressures, struggling to keep on top of their emotions.  The issues Buffy addresses are still present now, despite the show being twenty years old.  So, you can switch it on today, all these years later, and still relate.  Hard.


19. THAT theme tune.

If you haven't heard it, rectify that at once.  Nerf Herder's insanely brilliant theme opens with a church organ and a wolf howl and then descends into thrashing guitars and drums.  As far as TV theme tunes go, it has to be up there with the most awesome ever.


20.  Feisty Females Kicking Ass.

Buffy is lauded as a feminist show and rightly so.  At a time when most action heroes were distinctly male, Joss Whedon gave us a girl who was short, pretty and liked picking out cool outfits to wear... But who could kick ass when necessary.  Buffy Summers was feminine and feminist.  She wasn't a one-dimensional character and that was hugely important.  And the wider range of female characters on the show ran the whole spectrum of humanity, without being there merely for their looks or sex appeal; they were people with their own personalities, their own issues/back stories and their own quirks.  Seeing women portrayed like this was pretty groundbreaking.  The message was clear:  Any girl can do anything.  I can't thank Joss Whedon enough for that.


Happy birthday, Buffy.  I more than kind of love you.