The Great Leveller

Prince or Pauper. Young or Old. Death doesn’t distinguish.

Rarely do we acknowledge that with every moment and every breath, we are moving towards our own ends. If life is a miracle, then death is its unsung companion. It lurks at every bend and fold. It stalks us with every near miss and illness. It laughs grimly as we celebrate birthdays and anniversaries and milestones. After all, we have to walk into its arms eventually, and feel its lips upon us.

Does that negate the meaning of all life? On the contrary, as anyone who has had a brush with death would attest, it reinvigorates you into living better, and puts into sharp focus that which is really important.

I lost a friend and colleague last week. As memories and tributes have poured in, one fact has stood out in glaring contrast to the others. People have spoken time and again about his kindness. His generosity of spirit was the trait that distinguished him from all others. Not to say that he didn’t have his share of faults and weaknesses, as we all do. However, the overriding narrative has been about his selflessness, his need and ability to help.

The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones, said William Shakespeare. For once, I am in disagreement with the Bard. The good does live on. This is not canonising the dead. This is accepting that each of us has a choice in the legacy we leave behind. Our legacy could be little or large. It could affect multitudes, or only a handful of near and dear ones. Yet, it would be the one thing that we would be remembered by. Choose wisely.

Having seen how quickly life can end, it makes me examine my own self, and ponder whether disagreements and resentments, and standing on points of principle are really as important as I thought they were? I could never be a doormat, and let people wipe their feet all over me. Yet, I need to inculcate forgiveness and empathy, and an awareness that each of us views life and relationships differently. I need to be honest with myself about my own legacy. I don’t want it to be one of anger and hatred.

In his illness my friend reached out to those he had wronged, and those who had wronged him. He set the record straight, and if nothing else, he died with his conscience clear. Perhaps this is a life lesson for all of us.

We do not need to be looking at death in the face to realise the importance of telling our loved ones how much they mean to us, forgiving those we have perceived as our enemies, building bridges that we have allowed to fray, and choosing to live each moment to its fullest capacity.

Live well, Laugh often, Love much.

A trite phrase that contains a pertinent universal truth. Do not wake up to it when it’s too late.

Patriarchy, Feminism and Women’s Day

On the occasion of International Women’s Day, I received various messages in the form of inspirational quotes, funny memes, cartoons, jokes and videos, each with a spin on how women had to be celebrated on the 8th of March. Amongst all of these, I also received a short clip in a regional Indian language, with English subtitles. Obviously this video has been doing the rounds, as it came to me from three different sources.

In it a young, simple but not unattractive young woman is shown waiting hand and foot on her husband, who ignores her, treats her like domestic help, seems irritated by her neediness, yet does little to promote independence or encourage her talents. She is servile and eager to please. He is unkind and dismissive to the point of callousness. The video ends with a message to men to appreciate their women, love them and give them the time and attention they crave.

No doubt this is the plight of many women, not just in India but the world over. Yet it seems especially poignant that on International Women’s Day that women are still pleading for attention from menfolk like that would be the pinnacle of their life’s achievements. Two of the three sources that sent me this video were women themselves. In all fairness, we often forward things without reading too much into them. In this instance however, it felt as though this myth of the all sacrificing woman was being perpetuated and propagated. The irony being that all pervasive patriarchy was being shrouded in a message that on the outside seemed to be pro woman.

In a month that celebrates women’s achievements ( Women’s History Month) and a day that honours womankind, it is doubly ironic that we are unable to recognise patriarchal undertones in how we are portrayed in the media. A gun toting, scantily clad Lara Croft is no more the flag bearer of feminism than my previous example was. These are men’s fantasies upon which we try and superimpose our own agendas of freedom and equality.

Emma Watson is a young outspoken feminist whose recent Vanity Fair photo shoot caused quite a stir. The problem was two fold. It was her breasts. She chose to expose them partially in an outfit that covered her shoulders, but not so much her chest. The world cried Foul! How can she be a feminist when she is subscribing to objectification? Yet her pose was neither sexual nor provocative. As she said in response to being labelled an anti-feminist, “What do my tits have to do with it?”

This was a young woman who chose what she wore, and how she presented herself. That in no way dilutes the essence of her feminist ideology any more than the fact that Malala Yousafzai chooses to cover her head, yet is a staunch advocate for female education. Choice is the difference between patriarchal strictures and the freedom to expose or cover one’s own body.

Yet, paraphrasing Emma once again, feminism is often used as a stick to beat other women with. Instead of solidarity and sisterhood, there is jealousy and a need to disparage and diminish. For every one woman who supports another, there are five waiting for her to fall. Instead of being mentors and cheerleaders of one another, we resort to back biting and compartmentalising. Instead of seeing ambition and principle, outspokenness and drive as positive forces that will move us forward as an entire gender, we feel threatened and seek to destroy that which we are unable to emulate. It is a miracle that feminism still thrives despite such toxic conditions.

Sophie Gregoire Trudeau is being slated in the press for wanting to celebrate her ‘male ally’, her husband, the Canadian PM, Justin Trudeau. She is said to have ‘missed the point’ of International Women’s Day. Has she really? Her husband has championed women’s causes, has famously called himself a feminist, and has truly been a partner and ally in more ways than one.Yet she is not allowed to praise him? That feminist stick again.

In my experience, men; free thinking, educated, liberal and fantastically confident men have had just as much to contribute to feminism as women have. They have subverted patriarchy. They have understood the need and the desire of women to be equal contributing members of society. They have encouraged, they have opened doors, they have created opportunities where none existed before. To sideline or marginalise these men is tantamount to shooting our cause in the foot. So, acknowledge and praise these ‘allies’, keep them close for in the times ahead it will behove us to swell these numbers, particularly as the opposition swells.

2186. More than a hundred years is what is predicted for the gender gap in health, education, economics and politics to close. More than a hundred years! Don’t you think we need a few allies along the way?

As the world changes around us, and a right wing fervour grips the West, changes that pioneering women like Marie Curie, Amelia Earhart, Frida Kahlo, Gloria Steinem and Maya Angelou amongst so many others effected, could so easily be eroded by backward looking administrations, and our own complacency and divisiveness.

On International Women’s Day, and Women’s History Month, let us be the proud torch bearers of the legacy of these incredible women. In solidarity let’s take this movement forward so that a century from now, patriarchy and feminism will no longer be combatants. On a level playing field, only equality will flourish.

Stalker

Hello?Katja it’s me. Please answer.Why do you persist in ignoring me?

The bins are heavy as I pull them outside. It’s a blustery day, and my scarf is struggling to escape off my head. The sunglasses keep sliding forward on my nose. I push them back impatiently. The disguise must remain. Even if it’s only 6 am, and no one is on the street yet. The disguise must remain. I place the bins, side by side, like two upright soldiers called to attention, one black and one blue. Rubbish and Recycling. I have gone through everything painstakingly. Shredded all the documents so that no trace of me remains in there.

I hobble back indoors. My back has been playing up again. Maybe it’s time to go back to physio. Except that I can’t bear to be touched or examined. Even by that gentle Indian doctor. So I will take the painkillers and soldier on. Ah! I smile to myself. The girl can leave the army, the army can never leave the girl.

After I eat my Weetabix in the conservatory, surrounded by my wonderful green garden, with it’s apple trees and flowering wisteria, I pull out the laptop.

Facebook. This nameless, faceless existence I have chosen for myself is at once obliterated.

There I am. In full technicolour. Blonde hair flying. Lips in a red pout. Gold lycra clinging to every curve. In my heyday, the most famous woman on the planet, and they will not let me forget it. Why did I agree to get hooked up to this infernal thing? Gert had thought it would be a distraction. Did he want to remind me of the good old days? Well, if anything, it makes my present course seem like the most sensible thing I have ever done. Yet I compulsively check it everyday. I read the good things and the bad. I look at all the pictures, and chuckle over the comments my many fans put on the site.

That life seems like a million years ago, and I am happy to leave it like that. I want to be a bystander to the circus now.

I scroll down the page to see what else has been added – old songs, photos, memories of people who saw me in concerts, messages pleadingly asking me to make a comeback. Then I see it. It’s him again.

Hello?Katja it’s me. Please answer.Why do you persist in ignoring me?
***
Looking back, the ascent to the top was really easy. Too easy. I got recognition before I even knew what to do with it.

As a child I was an inveterate performer. It did not take much persuasion from my parents to stand in front of a room full of guests and belt out a number. I basked in the glow of being admired, the compliments that I took as my due. Then teenage hood happened, and I retreated. In the sanctuary that was my room, I hid from the world and the incessant arguments between my soon to be divorced parents.

In the wilderness of those years, music was my only companion. Even when I signed up to the army as a direct rebellion to my mother’s party lifestyle, seeking order and discipline, I never abandoned my first love.

It was while I strummed and hummed that an army mate suggested that perhaps I was better suited to being on stage rather than on the frontline. I agreed, as the daily grind of military life had long lost its allure. She put me in touch with an uncle who knew a record producer, and before I knew it, my amateurish tape of home produced songs was winging its way to him.

The rest was a blur of performances, awards and fame. Too much fame.
***
You know I will find you. I always do. You are my one true love. If only you would give us a chance.

My hand shakes as I pour myself a cup of tea. How could he possibly know that I check the site? Is he hazarding a guess? My account is a fake one, and my profile picture is a cat. This is the third house I have moved to in the last five years. Each time looking over my shoulder, his shadowy presence threatening my every move. Gert thinks I am being paranoid. I have never actually encountered the man. But I feel him there- his eyes upon me, watching, watching, waiting to strike.

I punch in the number quickly. It rings for a while before Gert answers.

“Katja”

“I’m afraid Gert”

“What now?”, he sounds sleepy, and exasperated.

“He’s found me again”

“Who has?”

“The stalker”

“That’s impossible Katja. You know we’ve taken every precaution. There is no way on earth he could have found you. I am the only one who knows where you are.”

“He’s sending me messages on Facebook”

“On your private account?”

“No, on the public one. The fan page one.”

I can hear him breathe deeply before he responds. “Listen Katja, there are a lot of weirdos and nutters out there. Any number of people can write any sorts of things on Facebook. It’s an open forum. It doesn’t mean he’s targeting you. Hell, it may not even be him!”

“I know it’s him”, I insist.

“Like the time you were certain he was hiding in the rose bush, or when you thought he was pretending to be the postman?”

“I know you think I am a silly old woman. But he’s pursued me for so many years, and I can tell it’s him again. He calls himself KL. Just that. He’s using an old photo of mine as his profile picture, and it has a heart with a dagger superimposed on it. ”

“Ok, fine. What do you want to do? Move again? That can be arranged.”
***

The thing is that I have grown to love this house. I feel like I’m finally putting down roots. I am not a part of the community yet. It is too early for that. But this bungalow feels like home, and I don’t want to move. So I’ve decided to ignore this nagging feeling, and stay off Facebook for a while.

There are some beautiful nature walks near where I live, and I intend to make full use of them. The late onset of Summer weather means that I can cover up, and with my hat and sunglasses on, I look no different from the multitude of middle aged women walking around the lake in the morning.

The lake is like a placid sheet of glass, and I watch the few ripples that a lonely swan creates behind him. The dog walkers, the yummy mummies, the serious joggers and the semi- serious cyclists are all out in full force. It’s turning into a glorious day, and loath as I am to, I pull off my hat and scarf. It’s just too warm to keep them on, and no one has displayed an iota of curiosity in the middle aged woman ambling slowly amongst them. I feel buoyant in the anonymity. Perhaps there is hope after all.
***

Your hair is like spun gold, did you know? Even with the few streaks of grey in there. You looked beautiful this morning, my love. Fresh air and exercise are doing you good.

I slam the laptop shut, my heart thudding. He’s found me. How? HOW??

It takes a while for my shaking to subside. Then I retrieve the shoe box from under the bed, and slowly remove the lid. In there lies twenty-five years of obsession. Letters written in blood, photos taken when I was unaware, Valentine cards that spelt out in gory detail all that he would do to me once I was his. Everything signed KL. Katja’s Love.

Gert had always wanted to turn it over to the police. I hadn’t. At first because I laughed it off. And then because it was a constant reminder of why I’d had to leave that life behind.

Once again I ring Gert.

“I think it’s time to tell the police.”
***

My case officer is a pleasant young woman called Hillary. She is too young to register quite how big a star I was. She peers at me uncertainly.

“Miss Nilsson, why have you never spoken of this before?”

“I felt that if I somehow melted away….disappeared….he would too.”

“But he didn’t. I find it curious that he locates you each time. Do you think your manager, this Gert Peeters, could be letting things slip?”

“Gert isn’t just my manager, he is also my nephew. My cousin’s son. He’s family, and he knows how much I value my privacy.”

She looks doubtful but nods her head, and shuts the file in front of her.

“There is not a lot we can do till he contacts you again. We’ll be monitoring the Facebook site for any further messages. As and when that happens, it is fairly easy to trace the IP address, and through that get a fix on his location. Please take your usual precautions, but live your life normally.”

I nearly laugh at that. Normality was never an option.
***

Weeks have gone by without any messages. I can tell that Hillary is disinterested now, putting it down to an over fertile imagination.

I am, in part relieved, but anxious too. I know that as soon as the surveillance is removed, he will be back. I hope he gets impatient before then. I need someone to believe in me, and right now the chances of that are looking grim. I go about my daily business, which really amounts to a morning walk, watching some daytime television, making myself lunch, trawling Facebook, and then cooking myself dinner. It is a lonely existence, and the spare room full of my music memorabilia is a testament to how far I have wandered off my original path.

Sometimes I sit and strum the guitar, sing a few lines and then collapse into sobs. There is no way back. None at all.

***

The neighbour’s cat is a mangled mess on my doorstep. The blood smeared message says BITCH.

Hillary keeps making cups of tea for me, while the other officers take samples and clean up.

“Has he ever gotten this close before?”

“No…never…I’ve suspected that he’s nearby…but this….this….”

I can’t stop the trembling. This kind of violence is new. He is getting desperate, and I am desperately scared.

“We’ve posted an officer to watch over you. Don’t worry Miss Nilsson. We’ll be around. He won’t be able to come anywhere near you.”
***
The Press is swarming out there. All those years of hiding, and now they have found me.

RECLUSIVE KATJA DISCOVERED IN SURREY HIDE HOLE scream the headlines.

Gert is doing damage control from New York. I feel suffocated, claustrophobic, paranoid. I cannot even sit out in my garden for fear the long lens cameras will post more candid shots.

FAT AND UGLY- WHAT HAPPENED TO KATJA?

I examine myself in the mirror. Am I really that fat and ugly? A frumpish woman scowls back at me, lending credence to the screeching tabloids. When did this happen?

“You need to give an interview”, Gert commands.

“No…I can’t. Don’t ask this of me Gert. You know how much I hate all this.”

“Katja, satisfy their curiosity and they’ll back off. But if you keep up the Garbo act, they will hound you to your grave!”

“What about him?”

“Who?”, asks Gert impatiently.

“The stalker. KL. I don’t want him to know anymore about me. Anymore than he’s already found out.”

“Oh Auntie!”

Gert only calls me Auntie when he feels sorry for me.

“The police is on it. And with the Press around, he won’t be able to get a look see. They’ll nab him soon enough. I told you, you should’ve gone to them ages ago.”

Suddenly I am exhausted from the hiding, the running, the fending off of people.

“Okay, I’ll do it.”
***
He sits across from me, the young reporter with the piercing blue eyes. I’ve already forgotten his name, and am too embarrassed to ask again.

“So, Miss Nilsson, may I call you Katja?” I nod in assent. “I must say at the outset, what a huge fan I am.” He seems too young to know my music. “I had a big poster of you in my bedroom as a teenager. I think you might have been every red blooded male’s fantasy back then.”

I flush. I should be flattered, but instead I feel uncomfortable. This was the sort of attention I had sought to escape. I’m old enough to be his mother. I don’t want to be spawning fantasies.

“Why did you, at the peak of your career, decide to retire?”

The well rehearsed answer sits on the tip of my tongue. The change of musical tastes, the evolution of the industry, the mass produced pop stars- everything Gert has made me practice over and over.

“I was tired”, I say.

“Tired of what? The music?”

“The fame game.”

“It was voluntary- this withdrawal from the public eye?”

“Yes. Yes it was.”

He leans back on the chair, and smiles. His teeth are white and even, and I think then that he looks like a shark.

“So, nothing to do with the nodules that were discovered on your vocal chords then?”

I stiffen. Sensing my unease, he leans in for the kill.

“That must’ve been so difficult for you. Discovering that you wouldn’t be able to sing those high notes anymore?”

When I don’t answer, he abruptly switches tack.

“I hear you are being stalked?”

Nowhere in the brief that Gert did with this particular newspaper were any of these points mentioned. This was meant to be a gentle reintroduction to the world, not a public mauling.

Twenty years ago I would have stood up and walked out, imperious and Diva like. Now I sit here like a deer caught in the headlights. For one thing, I have nowhere to go to. This is my home. Secondly, I am unused to throwing my weight about. I size him up, and then give him a tremulous smile.

“Yes, it’s true that I cannot sing the way I once did, but that does not mean I can’t write either. As you know, I wrote all my own songs. I could have still had a career had I wanted one. I just chose not to. As for being stalked, there are any number of strange people who fixate on celebrities for the lack of something in their own lives. Giving them undue importance is just that.”

Satisfied, I take a sip of my tea, a slight smile playing around my lips.

“Yet this is not just a run-of-the-mill obsessive fan, is it? He’s a long term stalker. Someone who’s been leaving you little presents lately.”

I exhale sharply. This man is too well informed, and his source must lie within the force.

“I really do not wish to speak about it. This is a police matter now, and I suggest we leave it with them.”
***

I am not surprised to read a less than flattering piece on me. He describes me as an ageing prima donna with delusions of grandeur. I laugh and throw it aside. So much for speaking aloud. Now perhaps they will leave me in peace.

They do, and they don’t. The press has had its fill. The public aren’t that interested to discover that behind all those mysterious years there lies another spent talent. It’s the music producers that start sending the feelers.

“Katja, I’ve been receiving so many phone calls from people who thought you’d fallen off the face of the planet!”, Gert shouts excitedly down the phone. “They want you to write for them, for the new singers. Come on, isn’t it time? Why are you burying yourself in some Godforsaken village? You have more talent in that little finger of yours than most of these young ones do in their entire bodies!”

I grimace at that. Gert is prone to hyperbole when he gets fired up. Although it does get me thinking. What’s stopping me now?
***
My second career is going so well that I have forgotten all about KL. Till he resurfaces.

This time it’s a bunch of roses outside the front door. All white except one crimson one. I start shaking immediately. I look around me furtively, and then pick up the bouquet. A note drops out.

My girl is writing again. Such lovely songs. Are they for me?

Hillary comes three hours later, by which time I’ve worked myself into a state. I’m pacing up and down. My hair is a mess, and she takes a step back at the crazed look in my eyes.

“Calm down Miss Nilsson. This has arrived how many months later? Four, five? We’ll send the note to the lab for analysis, but I really think he might be losing steam.”

I look at her incredulously. “Losing steam? The note is written in blood! This man will never let go of me. What are you doing about it? When are you going to catch him?”

“We don’t have a lot to go on. I posted a few plainclothes men here a few times, and they spotted no suspicious characters. The Facebook messages disappeared soon after you reported them. He’s a phantom Miss Nilsson.”

“One you’re supposed to find! How will I ever feel safe while he’s out there?”

I break down then. Sobs racking my body while she pats me on the shoulder and mutters something soothing.
***

There is a cool breeze and I pull the covers up to my chin, trying to remember if I’ve left the window open. My feet feel cold, and half asleep, I rub them together to warm them. There is a distant sound of music and laughter. A party, I think sleepily.

Suddenly I’m wide awake, my heart thumping. He’s in the room. I can sense him. I reach for the steak knife I keep under the pillow but it isn’t there. I panic, and squeeze my eyes shut, hoping he hasn’t noticed my laboured breathing. His hand reaches under the covers and touches my leg.

I wake up screaming.

I look around the room frantically. There is no one there. It’s the nightmare. The same one I’ve had since I was fourteen. Since Mama’s first boyfriend after the divorce, decided he wanted to play with me instead of her.

He was the first of many. Till I finally escaped to the army. Yet the ghost of him lingers in every nook and cranny of my life.
***

I start looking for houses. Somewhere even more remote and rural. If I have to run my entire life, I’m going to make it as difficult as possible for him to follow me.

Gert rings me on a Sunday morning.

“Katja, there is a favour I have to ask of you.”

“What is it?”, I am wary. I don’t like giving or receiving favours.

“It’s Papa’s 70th Birthday. We’re having a big party. The whole family will be there. I’d like you to come.”

The whole family. I haven’t seen them in years. Not since that spectacular falling out after which I severed ties with all except Gert.

“It’s time to make your peace Auntie. This is the perfect occasion to do it. Everyone will be there. It can be like the old times again. Please say you’ll come. I’ll book the flights and the hotel immediately if you do.”

I find myself agreeing reluctantly.
***

Five days later I am boarding a flight to New York. It’s been years since I was surrounded by as many impatient people, pushing and shoving, and getting irritated with my slow moving ways. I’m confused at the airport, with the new regulations of having to put liquids in plastic bags, and walk through metal detectors shoe less. I’m confused with the flight numbers, and the gates, and the Duty Free shops filled with perfumes and alcohol. I am confused and I am scared. The world has changed a lot since I became a hermit.

The flight is uneventful, and the overweight American man I sit next to snores the entire way. I try to concentrate on the film on my personal monitor, but my thoughts flit here and there, a jumble of memories and conversations, of accusations and anger.

A flight attendant walks by me, then stops. She kneels in front and I brace myself for the usual gushing.

“Are you ok? You look rather pale. Would you like some water?”

I nod gratefully. I needn’t have bothered with all that camouflage over the years. My body is its own disguise.
***
The car whisks me to a Manhattan hotel. Gert has spared no expense. He’s done well out of my royalties. I snooze on the King size bed, dreading the evening get together. The party is scheduled for tomorrow, but tonight is about getting re acquainted.

I dress carefully in the black dress I bought online. Even at size 18, it clings to every lump and bump of my misshapen figure. I apply some red lipstick that must at least be a few decades old. It smells off, just like I do. The phone rings just as I am spritzing on some perfume. It’s Gert. He’s waiting in the lobby.

We walk into his Penthouse apartment, arm in arm. Gert is tall and handsome with his salt and pepper hair, and I am short and stout, and visibly nervous.

They all come and greet me silently, a kiss on each cheek. Mama sits proudly in her wheelchair, ever the Matriarch, waiting for me to go to her. I do. I kneel down and kiss her proffered cheek.

“The prodigal daughter returns,” she notes dryly, her voice a mix of whiskey and cigarettes.

I smile and move towards Gert’s father. He greets me stiffly, still not forgiving the last fracas. Families. I sigh inwardly, and keep smiling.

Wine loosens tongues, and over time the awkwardness dissipates. I stick to soda water, and don’t add much to the conversation. I have nothing to add anyhow. Talk is about the extended family who I haven’t been in touch with, current affairs that I have no clue of, and people who have died, whose funerals I did not attend.

“Katja, are you taking your medicines?” I turn around, startled. Mama is smirking up at me. “Are you? You know it’s the only way to control your condition.”

Gert comes and lays a hand on her shoulder to hush her up. I turn and stumble out of the room. This was a very bad idea indeed.
***
I wake up with a hollow feeling in the pit of my stomach and a thumping headache. Last night I got very, very drunk after a very long time. I’m not sure what I said or did but I do remember the look of horror on Gert’s face. I remember him dragging me out and putting me to bed. I sit up, and the room spins around me. With a groan I fall back upon the pillow. Mama’s face swims into my mind, shock and disgust writ large on it.

Nausea hits me suddenly, and I stagger to the bathroom, and throw up in the toilet. Shaking, I move towards the basin to wash my face.

You naughty naughty girl.

My red lipstick lies abandoned on the side, the script on the mirror screaming its message out to me silently. Aghast, I back away.

I walk the streets of Manhattan for hours. At one point I find myself on a bench in Central Park, as a horse drawn carriage with a young couple goes by. There is a surreal quality to this morning. I feel everything is too vivid, the colours too loud, the sunshine too bright. The cacophony of the traffic is assaulting my ear drums, but I walk on, uncaring, unseeing.

The sun is setting as I wander back into the hotel lobby. The manager approaches me.

“Miss Nilsson, there have been several messages for you. Mr Peeters came to pick you up around noon, but there was no response from your room. We, uh, had to enter to check that you were okay. The room has been cleaned. Is there anything I can get you?”

I walk past him blindly.

There is a note on the dresser. It’s from Gert.

‘Come if you can.’

But I can’t. I flick through the Television channels, unable to comprehend anything. Finally, succumbing to the gnawing in my stomach I order dinner. And a double vodka.
***
KATJA NILSSON FOUND DEAD IN NEW YORK HOTEL ROOM

In what appears to be a suicide, Miss Nilsson, yesteryear superstar was found dead in the bathtub of her Manhattan hotel room. She had recently emerged from a self imposed exile. However, reports indicate that her mental state was extremely fragile. It appears that whilst Miss Nilsson claimed that she was the victim of a stalker, she was in fact suffering from paranoid schizophrenia. Her family had long urged for medical and psychiatric intervention that she had refused, choosing instead to barricade herself from the world. Her nephew and manager had this official statement to make:

‘It is with great sadness that we bid Katja goodbye. She lives on in our hearts through her extraordinary music, the legacy of a tragic, troubled life. Kindly leave us to mourn her in peace.’
***

A bouquet of white roses with a solitary crimson one in the midst, sits on the graveside of Katja Nilsson. The note reads: Dearly departed, Rest in Peace.x

 

©PoornimaManco 2017

 

Patriotism and Prejudice

What, or who, is a patriot?

The dictionary definition is: a person who loves, supports, and defends his or her country and its interests with devotion.

Most of us believe that we are patriots. Whether it is the country of our birth, or the country we have adopted, we normally owe our allegiance to it. Would we support and defend it? Of course. Would we look after its interests with devotion? Absolutely. Would we blindly follow all laws and regulations, even if they went against our moral fibre? Ah.

Trump claimed in his inaugural speech today, “When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice”.

Respectfully, Mr President, I must disagree. The heart can house a great many things, and patriotism and prejudice seem to make very fine bed fellows. Your own campaign proved that magnificently. In fact, the brand of patriotism that you are selling is of a very prejudiced variety. Anyone who does not fit the mould of a Bible thumping, misogynistic, homophobic believer is ‘the other’, and therefore cannot possibly participate in the Make America Great Again project, and consequently cannot be a ‘Patriot’.

If all brown, black and white people bleed the same red blood, why are you in such a hurry to deport a load of them back, and build a wall? Why is immigrant a dirty word? Why are you claiming to speak for the common people, while surrounding yourself with your billionaire cronies?

The next four years will ask a lot of questions of you. The next four years will also display whether in your book, being a patriot means shutting up and putting up, or whether you will see questioning, doubting, investigating and inquiring as a part of being patriotic too.

Most Americans I know love their country. They wait on the threshold of this new era, with bated breath. They hope that all your rhetoric and jingoism was merely a means to get into office. They hope that you will lead this nation forward and in doing so, not destroy the tenets it was built upon. Those of the rule of law, human dignity, personal freedom, civil liberties, and the cause of the common good.

Respectfully, Mr President, do not disappoint them.

Listen

Meryl Streep nailed it. Her acceptance speech at the Golden Globes was dignified, on point and demonstrated just how shocked us ‘liberal lefties’ still are by the shenanigans of the President Elect, and the coterie that promoted, and now defends him. As she said, these words and actions will undoubtedly have a trickle down effect. The general populace takes their cues from those in the limelight, be it in the political arena or in the entertainment one.

Yes, we remain appalled. We shudder collectively at what may follow. We see reason, common sense, tolerance and free speech becoming casualties in the path of this juggernaut of self aggrandisement and insular politics.

However.

Perhaps it is time for some introspection as well. Why has this come to pass? What signs and signals did we miss? Did we become so cocooned in our liberal bubbles that we refused to recognise the disaffected and the disenfranchised?

On WordPress a while ago, I began following a writer simply because a particular post of his appealed to me. Over time though, I realised that his political ideology was so different from mine, so far right that it seemed almost alien. A number of times I nearly unfollowed him, but something stopped me. This man’s posts made me uncomfortable. They made me cringe, get annoyed, even want to throw something at the computer. But it was important that I listened to what else was out there. It was important that I realised that my way of thinking wasn’t the only way of thinking.

It’s easy to surround oneself with like minded people. That’s what we do. That’s what we did. We read what we wanted to. We agreed with each others’ opinions. We believed that everyone around us wanted the same things as us. How wrong we were proven!

To believe that everyone who voted Trump did so because they were misguided, misogynistic racists would be equivalent to believing that everyone who voted out in Brexit was an old fogey who wanted to make Britain ‘great again’. There were valid concerns on both sides of the pond. People were fed up of elitist, out of touch governments that imposed laws and regulations that hit the pockets of the common man. People were fed up of mass immigration, of terrorist attacks, and of treading softly in arenas where they wanted hard payback. More than anything else, people were fed up of not being listened to. So, they spoke the only way they knew how. Through their votes.

Am I condoning or endorsing the results? Most certainly not. But I am cautioning that we need to start listening. Listening to those with opposing, even abhorrent views. Fight them, debate them, scoff and mock them, if you will. Just don’t be that proverbial ostrich that buries its head in the sand, and hopes the problem goes away.

There is no doubt in my mind that the times ahead will be tumultuous. We are bound to see a lot of ugliness, a lot of upheaval and chaos. In times like these, it will be important to engage, to challenge and to resist, without losing sight of one’s own moral compass.

People like Meryl Streep are doing this already. Take your cue from her. Alongside however, don’t forget to look, listen and learn.

‘Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored’ – Aldous Huxley

Annus Horribilis

What a year it’s been!

With the passing of George Michael on Christmas Day, it seems as though we have lost more luminaries in a year than we have in the last decade. From David Bowie to Prince to Alan Rickman to Zsa Zsa Gabor, nearly every month has brought news of another celebrity demise. In and of itself, this would make headlines. But coupled with all that has gone on politically, 2016 has kicked us in the teeth repeatedly.

Pondering the US election results, a colleague had remarked that the pendulum had swung this far right only as a reaction to it having swung too far left. Equal and opposite seems to have been the rule of the thumb this year. Brexit and Trump. Farage and Le Pen. Racism and Misogyny.

Adding an extra glitter to the proceedings have been all the horrific terrorist attacks the world over. From the Istanbul bombing(January) to the Brussels airport attack (March) to the car bombings in Baghdad (May) to the Orlando nightclub shooting (June) to the Bastille Day attack in France (July) to the suicide bomber in Quetta, Pakistan (August) to the Ohio State University Attack (November) to the Berlin Attack (December), to name but a few.

And all the while, the world has watched the plight of the Syrian civilians in Aleppo caught in a civil war nightmare, from a distance, helpless and shocked that a despotic ruler can attack his own people time and again, with nary a murmur from the powers that be. Alliances and political juxtapositions being paramount.

Turmoil, upheaval and change have been 2016’s calling cards.

Governments are mutating, political ideologies are being replaced, humongous talents are bowing out, and climate change is being labelled as fraudulent. Is this the beginning of the end?

Every Century has brought its own kind of change. The world has seen natural disasters, extinction of species, plagues and contagion, war and strife, and it has carried on spinning on its axis. Despite all of mankind’s destructive capabilities, and megalomaniac desires, the world has survived. How much longer though?

With the nuclear codes in the (very) small hands of a man with an easily bruised and (very) large ego, might this be the last decade or so that the world does carry on spinning on its axis? Let’s hope not. Let 2016 be a footnote of sorts in our History books. If it is the year that took away so many and so much, let it also be the year that led us to self awareness, to a perseverance and persistence of belief in the ultimate wisdom and kindness of the human species.

If 2016 has been an annus horribilis, let’s look forward to an annus mirabilis in 2017.

Goodbye, you awful year. We shall not be sorry to see the back of you.

Is boredom necessary for creativity?

An idle mind is a devil’s workshop, it is said. What might the opposite be then? For is it not in idleness, that fantasy takes flight?

Nearly two months ago, I declared that I was starting my Experiment 2 series. If I could’ve glimpsed the future, I might not have been quite as rash in my declaration. In all fairness, I did start on the first story. Then life and events overtook me. I got involved in a new project at work which meant training and travelling far more than I had done before. When I was not at work, I was too busy catching up on errands, and tending to my long suffering family and circle of friends. Too many balls to juggle, and the one that fell was the writing. Somehow, it slid to the bottom of the priority list, and kept sliding, as more and more chores jostled for space on that ever growing inventory of mine.

I thought (foolishly) that no matter how busy I got, I could still think my stories, flesh my characters out, prepare some semblance of a plot. Alas! That was a pipe dream. When your thoughts skitter in every direction, when reports need writing and suitcases need packing, even the most trenchant of characters withdraw from the forefront. We need time and attention and care, they whisper, as they turn their backs truculently.

So, as I vacuumed my living room in a frenzy of tidying up in the two short days I had at home, I wondered whether boredom was really a pre requisite for creativity. Perhaps a sort of vacuum in the mind, that allows for the conception and fabrication of fiction.

A counter argument could present the scores of writers that were employed full time, yet kept plugging away at their first love. It could talk of people waking up at 5 am to write three pages, holding down two jobs, bringing up children and never complaining. Yes, and yes, and yes. Maybe their creative process is different from mine. Maybe their characters scream to be put down in print. Maybe they thrive under pressure and timetables and discipline. I don’t.

And so, I await the return of that idleness. I await those gentle mornings spent snoozing in bed, when suddenly a character will nudge me and say, Give me auburn hair, will you? I await boredom, and the urge to create that arises from that boredom.

Experiment 2 will resume in good time. Until then, bear with me.