‘One inspirational letter can change your life forever.’
Well that’s something I can certainly stand behind.
It’s no secret that I have an active enthusiasm for the written word, and written correspondence by letter is right up there amongst the favourites. It was much joy that I came across another avid epistolarian, and Jodi has taken her passion one step further by engaging in an letter-writing drive.
To summarise, finding herself swallowed up in darkness whilst suffering from meningoencephalitis (Google was required) Jodi thought of others who were similarly losing themselves. She decided to set up a website, send messages out to the world via Twitter: ‘I’m going to write you a letter…just to make the day a bit better or to remind you of the bloody amazing stuff about you you’ve forgotten.’ Overnight she received two hundred responses from strangers, and Jodi responded to these individually with much care and attention. The project has expanded and unique, thoughtful letters are sent and received across the world by Jodi and her team at ‘One Million Lovely Letters’. Jodi has even brought out a book with the same title to tell her story, and I have just added it to my online “shopping cart”.
We’re the same age, Jodi and I, and that caught my attention on top of the subject matter of the magazine article. We are two individuals, strangers to one another with a shared appreciation for letter writing and understanding of the subtle power which one small gesture can have for the life of someone just at that right moment in time.
This morning I wrote my own contribution to Jodi’s project and future exhibition. Encouraged by the invitation at the end of the ‘Oh Comely’ article: ‘something which would make a stranger’s day’, I sat down with a cup of tea and put pen to paper to scroll out three pages to someone, anyone. I wonder where it will end up. I included a letter for Jodi herself full of praise and enthusiasm, because she should know she’s doing something really inspirational.
For anyone else who might want to take part, you can find more information about ‘One Million Lovely Letters’ here.
And of course, I wouldn’t even know anything about the project without the article by Lottie Storey in ‘Oh Comely’ magazine, and their website can be found here.
“…when I’m letter writing it feels a little bit like magic”.
One year. They call it the Paper Anniversary, so we chose Easyjet boarding passes.
For five days we wandered around the capital of Sardinia, Cagliari. We meandered through colourful cobbled streets, queued for the best restaurants down in hidden alleys, and revelled in agenda-less days and bright blue cloudless skies.
We tried the local Sardo cuisine, from ‘pasta-bombs’ stuffed with pecorino and nuts (culurgiones), roasted pig (su porcheddu), tiny circular pasta that looks like lentils in a seafood stew (sa fregula), more pecorino, dried meat, and more pecorino. It was delicious, but somewhat…heavy.
Culurgiones with pine nuts (ie. pasta bombs)
We stayed in an Airbnb, a few streets removed from the main centre of the old town, so we did spend a fair bit of time speaking Ital-nish in corner shops to buy tickets, trying to comprehend the incomprehensible (or lack of adherence to) timetables and running after the number 6 bus. The public beach, Poetto, was absolutely packed with Italian families and their deckchairs. We took our trusty volleyball with us every day, which was a surprising (to me at least, who has never taken more than a book to the beach before) amount of fun.
Luckily we did manage to escape the hustle of the city one day, as we went on a little adventure with our good friends H & Q, who were also holidaying in the same spot. They had hired a car and so we went off to find a more secluded beach. Obviously, being August in Italy, this was no easy task, but we managed to find a beautiful spot on the rocks. We spent the day snorkeling, reading and eating ice-cream.
Cagliari wasn’t the most picturesque of all spots I’ve visited in Italy, and felt a bit run down. But it had some wonderful details that stuck out: pink flamingos flying in the distance at over the deepest orange and crimson sunsets, poems typed on papers stuck to the walls of the city, all the ways possible that you could ever eat pecorino, ice cold spritzes, and on our final night, a local man named Carlo who overheard us speaking Spanish and saw an opportunity to practice the language he was learning, showed us the city from a special viewpoint, taught us some words of Sardo (the local language), and introduced us to the mayor of Cagliari. Wonderful.
Above all, it was a perfect opportunity to spend quality time together, and reflect on and be grateful for our first peaceful and happy year of marriage. On that note, I revisited my favourite words from our wedding ceremony, written and led by my dear sister-in-law one year ago:
“We are here to celebrate the wisest and holiest paradox of humanity: that the greatest individual freedom can only be achieved by connecting us with, and committing to, other human beings.
This is the profound truth we are here gathered to acknowledge and to celebrate:
that the best of us can only be achieved with the help of an Other.
An-Other, who, like a mirror of clear water, can return us to ourselves. Because we cannot stand face to face to ourselves.
An-Other, who puts our lives at risk: who makes us question all we thought we knew about ourselves, suffer the loss of our identity and become someone we never thought we could or would be.
An-Other, who is willing to embrace our continuously changing selves, not out of worn-out or prescribed loyalty, but because they know our transformation also brings them forward.
An-Other, who does not expect us to follow them till the end of time, but who would ‘simply’, humbly, wish our company on their way to eternity – so long, and as long, as we want to.”
I really enjoy learning about the lives of others, which is something we all do as an audience when we listen to music, read a book, or watch a film. It’s not simply because I am nosy – I prefer to say inquisitive – but one of the purposes of storytelling is to take an individual on a journey and to show life from another person’s point of view. Stories told through written word, visual performance, and musical arrangement are often a source of inspiration on a subtle or even subconscious level to both the teller and the receiver.
I watched a film today and there was a moment whilst watching when my heart pined a little for my best friend whom I saw recently (though I must note, it was a mere moment because I can equally hear his scoffing half-laugh chiding as he casts me a withering look).
The film was set in England in the 1950s, it’s autumn and the scene that caught my attention sees a man and a women strolling arm in arm in a garden bathed in late afternoon sunlight. Autumn in the UK is my favourite time of the year and when I close my eyes to daydream more often than not I am transported to such a scene, with the russet and gold leaves casting a dappled warmth across the path and faces of two friends. The story of the film is about two individuals who at this particular point are sharing those first simple moments when two people realise that they really enjoy one another’s company; there is no confusion in this relationship, no lust or words going unsaid, no feelings beyond a shared platonic connection of friendship.
I think there is something so lovely about walking arm in arm with a friend, feeling close to that person with such innocent tenderness, as if are you sharing in a secret as you take a turn around the room. In such a moment you are in a little alliance, it isn’t necessarily a romantic gesture but it is a sure expression of companionship. I don’t stroll about clutching the arm of all of my friends though, because sometimes it doesn’t sit quite right in that relationship.
That being said however, just you try and wipe the smile from my face as I step out next time arm in arm with my best chum, whenever that may be. Why such an unspoken, gentlemanly gesture makes me so happy inside I couldn’t tell you, especially since that same friend will no doubt tell some ridiculously embarrassing story about me within five minutes, utterly spoiling the moment. I love him and he drives me round the twist sometimes too, but perhaps that is the perfect balance in our friendship.
Life is sprinkled liberally with strange coincidences. It’s the beginning of the week and you’re listening to a friend share stories from a recent holiday in Iceland. Before the week is out you will bear witness to numerous seemingly subliminal signals about Iceland from work colleagues, TV programmes, magazine articles and Instagram posts that eventually you’ll seriously consider looking up flights and buying a Lonely Planet guide so you too can be in on the action. I won’t be the only person to have experienced a scenario like this and perhaps on some occasions the coincidences are actually symptomatic of an omniscient marketing strategy to “guide us” through our day to day lives. However, some coincidences are downright weird and truly warrant the reaction: “what are the chances, spooky or what?”
A couple of days ago I was catching up with a dear friend of mine, and as we exchanged messages back and forth like a virtual ping pong match between ourselves we shared current life updates, old memories and screen shot pictures of the music we were listening to. Combined, we have the best music tastes-as far as we’re concerned that is-with music at the epicentre of our relationship over many years. I reminded my friend of the day he burst into my bedroom on a whirlwind of elation whilst exclaiming with such joy that he had found his funeral song. It was a slightly morbid turn of events for what was a beautifully sunny spring day but I listened to the track and heard why it was so inspirational and significant for him. I certainly haven’t forgotten that day, neither have they and the song is still “the song” to be played. Good to know.
Here is an excerpt from the following day’s conversation:
“Today is quite good, finished my book and now I’m walking to work.
It smells like rain”
I love that smell”
“Which is a good smell.
“What are we like”
Had a car crash last night”
“Bonfires are another great smell
As I whittled on typing my responses quicker that he could respond, I almost missed the key statement and on first reading it felt like a punch to the gut that stopped me in my tracks. One day we’re making each other smile with our shared black humour, the next one of us plays dice with death and I’m left stunned at the evident fragility of life. I’m always on the way to somewhere when things like this happen, when I really don’t have the time to work through the emotional upheaval. Just because I know the song that someone wants played at their funeral, does not mean I want the opportunity to do so to arrive any time soon.
I have since been assured the crash wasn’t too serious, another broken nose and a few cuts and bruises, so blasé as we joke about sueing the French for the malfunctioning airbag. But in all seriousness, that was a close call, and a strangely coincidental situation that I do not want revised or repeated.
I’ve started a new internship. And it’s great, and I’m learning so much, absorbing a new field and a new set of unpronounceable acronyms, meeting new people, and feeling fried by the end of the day. But there’s no time to kick back, as I’m also doing a Masters degree (albeit part-time and via correspondence, but still), so at the end of the day, I’m back in front of the screen, reading even more reports on protracted crises, and defunct protection schemes. My eyes feel ready to go on strike, and my head feels strangely as if it was stuck in a clamp.
And then this week, my mum went in to hospital, as did a friend, both for silly accidents. They will both be fine. Everything is still manageable. Everyone’s ok, I don’t want to play up any drama.
But it’s a little overwhelming.
So I sat on my balcony this evening as the sun set, and took in some deep deep breaths. It was only then that I realised the flowers blooming beside me. I know, it’s spring, no big deal. But you see, this is a little bit of a big deal.
I was given a bouquet of flowers on my birthday, the 26th of January, in the midst of dark winter. Long after the other dahlias and roses in the bouquet had wilted, these orange flowers didn’t seem to be finished. So I put them in a wee pot of water, and left it on the balcony. And despite the cold, the wind, the lack of attention, despite the fact they were cut in winter, probably brought over from Holland or wherever, they flowered, and flowered, and flowered. Now, on the 5th of May they still haven’t finished.
A little miracle. And a little push to go on, flowering, flowering, despite the elements.
A mere stone throw away from the Castlegate, I continued on my treasure hunt trail to experience the Look Again Festival by locating the Peacock Visual Arts centre down a little alleyway so surreptitious in its location that I almost missed it completely. Thankfully, I did not and found what was to be my favourite discovery of the whole festival: ‘The Brutalist Playground’, by architect collective Assemble and artist Simon Terrill.
The juxtaposition of the marshmallow-esque building blocks and austere minimalist structural positioning really struck my fancy, and was very effective in establishing ‘a contemporary narrative’ for the post-war urban planning prevalent in and around London ’50s and 60’s. Fun, engaging, and provocative, ‘The Brutalist Playground’ was originally commissioned by the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) in 2015, and asks the audience to reconsider the original Brutalist designs and intentions, and our own contemporary attitude towards risk assessment and freedom to play. Not just for children, the light hearted nature of the ‘The Brutalist Playground’ inspires joy in people of all ages, something special and to be commended.
The public is invited to be part of the installation, what is a playground if not a space for play, the reconstituted foam providing a gloriously springy, playful platform for sensory experience. Not one to shy away from silliness, I was at first surprisingly self conscious as an adult on my own and felt an awkwardness reminiscent of infancy watching the big girls playing together and wishing they’d let me join in. One trip up the squishy pink staircase and down the appropriately adult-hipsize wide slide dispelled all social inhibitions prerequisite to maturation into the “grown-up world” and I fell a little bit more in love with the whole concept and piece.
There were a number of excellent events and exhibitions which I was unable to take in on my cultural treasure hunt including the ‘Unreal Estate’ commission, although I was amused to come across ‘Locked’, one of Iain Kettles’s two inflatable structures as part of Interzone, whose undisclosed locations encouraged the puplic to participate in a hide and seek game and question the relationship we all have with our surroundings. The playfulness of the Look Again Festival taking residence in such a rigid city centre surrounding built primarily of cold, grey granite was enchanting and I am delighted to discover that several of the exhibitions will still be accessible for the month of May, so there’s still time for more enlightening discoveries.
Aberdeen, you’re not so bad, and just like the bare Scottish landscape coming out of the winter and welcoming spring there are small signs of life starting to poke out and bring a little smile to my face. The year ahead is looking a little less grim and I hope to continue to find inspiration in my surroundings now I’ve seen the benefits of giving a place a second chance to show just what it has to offer.
What else can you do when invited to embark on a treasure hunt but tie up your boots straps and set off on the adventure, keeping your eyes open at every turn. Marching down the main street in Aberdeen city centre a couple days ago I set off with a smile on my face and an open mind ready to get engaged.
Promising to “challenge the way we all see the Granite City“, the Look Again Festival has certainly done just that and I must write to the organisers and pass on my congratulations. Subtle yet creatively conspicuous in the city, the diverse programme of exhibitions and events spread out beyond the confines of the city centre to one of the university campuses and a number of art spaces in the surrounding area. As a pedestrian this was the perfect introduction to the small galleries whose existence had been unknown to me prior to this weekend, with the keen volunteers at hand to offer directions and navigate highlights at the different sites.
Starting my cultural trail with perhaps the most accessible project, the ‘Mirrored Pavilion’ situated was in the Castlegate and beautifully reflected the historical architecture of the area. Designed by Lucy Fisher, second year architecture student and winner of the Look Again Architecture Design Competition, the bold and elegant sculpture caught the eye, draws the attention of the public into the festival vibe, as well as played the pivotal role as information hub for the festival and exhibition space for the Look Inside Design Collective. I found the ‘Mirrored Pavilion’ to be charming, prominent without being ostentatious and I saw how it caught the attention of members of the public more often inclined to keep on walking whilst minding their own business; the perfect focal point to catalyse enthusiasm and promote the ethos of the Look Again Festival.
Sharing the Castelgate location, the ‘Diabolical Dance‘ installation found particularly poignant staging at the Mercat Cross. Shelagh Brown, a final year Contemporary Art
Tactics student at Gray’s School of Art here in Aberdeen, created a hauntingly moving spectacle which drew inspiration from the history of the city. Twenty-four pairs of shoes, embedded in concrete, were position around the Mercat Cross to represent twenty-four named witches in Aberdeen in 1596 and 1597 accused of ‘dancing round the Mercat Cross as Halloween’. I was unfortunately unable to make it to the official talk with the artist at the Town House but had the good fortune of meeting Shelagh Brown herself at the actual site of the installation and a short discussion with her gave fascinating insight into the thought process behind the piece.
Little fun fact, a number of the pairs of shoes used as moulds were the artist’s own, including the fur lined boots she was wearing when we met. The cast and sculpted pairs of concrete shoes actualise the ‘impossibility of defence against the accusations’ and cleverly invite an audience to feel the weight of such persecution and empathise for the victims, centuries on but not without forbearance on modern times. By asking the public to put themselves in someone else’s shoes, I think Brown wonderfully connected with the sentiments of Look Again Festival and I applaud her for doing so in such a modest and gracefully striking way.
As is so often the way, it came to mind seemingly from nowhere tonight, a memory which opened a door to another memory which sparked nostalgia for a moment of shared novice romance and silliness.
A number of years ago, whilst lying in the dark and still talking long passed the decision to turn out the light, my dear friend E. told me how she always loved the moment in our teenage years when I told her of how, when I grew up, I wanted to have a room in my house which would be near empty of furniture. In this room with wooden floorboards would sit a good sound system, a record player, and some really top notch speakers. The vision I had as a teenager, to spend my spare time in my future adult life zoned out of reality whilst lying on the ground zoned in to music, lived on long passed the teenage dreams, as well as the prematurely nostalgic reminiscing of my early twenties, to my far more ‘together’ mid-twenties and I still want that room in my own house. When E. told me then that she remembered something that I had said no doubt in adolescent off hand conversation about our hopes and dreams for life, I was touched that she thought that it was a significant remark, and that she was right to think so. I think it would be heavenly, and that’s just a little just something about me.
Tonight, I lay on the carpeted living room floor of my parent’s house at twilight, the daylight lingering thanks to the long anticipated Scottish spring. Track of choice to start the spiral of absorption into music was ‘Really Love’ by D’Angelo. Closing my eyes, with a smile on my face and in my heart I remembered the night he (the crush of the moment) first played that track to me as we hung out in the wee hours in his garage, after a night of ridiculous dancing and fairly hilarious unsteady cycling in the dark. Surrounded by beer cans, garden furniture and surfboards, me and that blonde man with the best smile in town, it was the Australian dream. We talked, we laughed, we shared music and the memory will always be special to me, that track will always take me back to that summer of fleeting novice romance and silliness.
Last Sunday night, I went to see the documentary “Voyage en Barbarie” with my good friend Zelal, about human trafficking of Eritreans from refugee camps in Sudan to torture detention centres in the Sinai desert. It was a truly horrific exposure into one of the most brutal current criminal activities that I have seen throughout all my film-going and studying. I highly recommend the film for awareness and for the quality of the storytelling, yet it was the discussion that happened afterwards that is the subject of my post. As we left the film feeling so helpless and troubled, Zelal asked “what can we do?”. This question has been my underlining train of thought for months now.
I have spent so many years “upholding”, “defending” and “being interested in” human rights, and studying and discussing has been an essential part of who I am. Yet despite this, and aside for the occasional volunteering, marching in the street or signing petitions, my interest has never been actively expressed by my actions. 2016 needs to be the year that I graduate from student to actor. I’m starting with my clothes and would like to share my story with you. I realise, and would like to include a massive disclaimer at this point, that this subject has been overblogged about by wonderful writers more experienced than me. Yet I have chosen to write about this for those who do not spend as much time procrastinating on the Internet as I do, on the off chance that this is an unread story for them.
A few months ago, at the beginning of the year, I opened my wardrobe one morning and found nothing to wear. I spent a frustrating half an hour trying to pair tops with bottoms and shoes, and left the house, late and wearing an outfit that wasn’t quite right. I ended up stopping off at H&M on my way home from work, to buy a little something that would fill that frustrating hole in my wardrobe. News flash: that cheap new top did not solve the problem.
While I know that I’m certainly not the only one who has these moments, for me, it was one frustrating moment too many. I’m lucky to have lots of clothes (too many to store and constantly falling off the shelves of my small apartment in the city), yet I only have a few things that I actually like, and too many of my garments make me feel, well, meh. My lack of style, and lack of simplicity in the mornings, was taking up more mental space than made me happy.
So I started to pay more attention to my consumption patterns and the value that I place on the things I wear. I realised that the cheapness and disposability of my clothes enabled me to not care about them: I didn’t feel too bad about buying mediocre garments and so inevitably these did not make me happy. I researched, I observed, and the internet taught me all sorts of things about capsule wardrobes, minimalism, second hand buying and so on. For those interested, check out these links here, here and here. I decided to downsize my possessions, and to only keep or purchase things that I truly loved, in an attempt to curate a style and a simpler range of choices.
Among this research, uncomfortable truths kept popping up. Safety conditions in factories, measly wages, water contamination, child labour, desertification due to intensive production (for cashmere for example), human trafficking and landfill pollution are among the issues linked to the fashion industry. I realised that this was more about being uncomfortable with my personal style; this was about being uncomfortable with my purchases and their impact. About how my values and my actions were unaligned, and despite tragic events such as the Rana Plaza disaster popping up in my newsfeed, how I still popped down to H&M whenever I was mildly unsatisfied with morning routine. I was kidding myself if I thought it was a matter of streamlining my wardrobe and carrying on as usual.
With this reflexion in mind, I went to see the film “The True Cost” at the Geneva International Film Festival on Human Rights, which was followed by a debate with the representative of the Bangladeshi textile industry, the head of the International Labour Organization, a spokesperson from the Clean Clothes Campaign of the Berne Declaration and from the CSR department of the shoe company Bata. While I’ve read about this film on English speaking blogs, I don’t have Netflix so I hadn’t got round to watching it (it’s also available on iTunes!). I recommend checking it out, it’s one of those documentaries that tells you what you already know, yet is still very entertaining and moving. Some of the conclusions drawn are simplistic, and many of the scenes provide great sound bites yet lack nuance, but I think that the film is worth seeing just for seeing the reality of the conditions our clothes are made in. To listen to the interviews with factory workers in Bangladesh, to see footage of unionised workers beaten to the ground in Cambodia, and to see the chemicals from leather tanneries poured into rivers in India. To understand the toll that 52 “fashion seasons” per year have on our planet, to realise how the constantly cheap prices of clothes in our shops are affecting people’s lives. And also to grasp the numbers behind the industry: fashion being the world’s second most polluting industry after oil, with deaths of workers due to safety issues in the thousands in the past few years alone and minuscule salaries for those sewing our clothes. This contrasted with those at the top: the main shareholders of Zara and H&M worth a net 70 billion and 30 billion dollars respectively.
So how to start not only loving what I wear, but also respecting those and the resources that made it for me?
First of all by understanding that I need less. A few excellent garments far outweigh the value and enjoyment of many mediocre ones.
Secondly by purchasing clothes from companies whose business models include and value the human and environmental capital in the creation, transportation and sales of their products. I am not advocating for a boycott of certain brands, I will just not be buying their products until they demonstrate that they are taking these issues seriously and have found solutions. Although many companies have signed agreements and have busy CSR departments, change is not happening fast enough, and this is from the mouth of the head of Bangladeshi textiles himself, on behalf of the people stitching our seams. I don’t agree with the argument that stopping fast fashion purchases will be detrimental to workers themselves, as I believe that if companies see that their customers are serious about wanting quality, decent labour conditions, and inevitably are prepared to pay the price, the agonisingly slow changes will be implemented and decent wages will become a reality. I choose to open my purse to those who have already understood this. Luckily, the Internet is a great resource for finding brands and companies that approach fashion in a different way and do provide valuable livelihoods for those employed. The prices are often higher, and while price is not an indicator of quality or of commitment, I am happy to pay more for clothes if I can be assured that the money is being allocated down the supply chain. After all, I am buying less!
Thirdly, I’m looking for garments that will last and will be versatile. This may sound like an absolute no-brainer to generations older than me, but ma foi, I am a product of my age. My teenager years were spent buying cheap outfits with friends on Saturday mornings, and I have never once in my life checked at the seams of a piece of clothing before buying it. Well-made, quality, durability and taking care of my clothes are new phrases to my vocabulary, ones that I am sure my mum and my granny will be happy to hear.
Finally, I am learning to shop for second-hand clothes, which satisfies the cravings for new and cheap additions to the wardrobe without having any impact on the environment. In fact, as most clothes aren’t biodegradable, they spend up to two hundred years rotting in landfills, so buying second hand is the ultimate form of recycling. In the past month I have bought a practically new The Kooples jumper and a wool J Crew jumper, as well as an awesome denim jacket, each for less than 20.-. For those living in Geneva, check out this wee second-hand shop where you can buy and sell clothes.
My aim through this is to create a wardrobe in which each and every piece has been made in decent working conditions through sustainable practices that value both humans and environment. Obviously, this may take me several years, as throwing all my clothes out and starting from scratch would be entirely missing the point. Yesterday I listened to an interesting Foreign Policy podcast about the social media generation, which highlighted that grassroots feelings were strong amongst our generation, yet grassroots action was extremely weak. Many of us know what we are against politically and socially, but the question should be: what are we for? I’m against violations of human rights, dire working conditions and the destruction of our environment, and I’m for acting and purchasing in a way that doesn’t perpetuate these practices. While the cynic in my head cackles, “how sweet and millennial of you to think that you can make a difference”, I’ve chosen to brush scepticism aside. These small changes are my first steps into living more aligned to my values, and to answering the question “what can we do?”. And it feels really quite exciting.