Scars Galore

When princess Eugenie, one of the lesser British royals, got married last week, the media almost went into collective hysterics over the fact that her wedding dress was cut to reveal the scoliosis scar that runs along her spine. The princess was hailed as brave, courageous and an inspiration to young women for daring to show her scar to the world.

I admit, I too was taken in by the gesture, which I believe was heartfelt and genuine, but may I point out, that she’s not the first bride to show off her scars. I got there before her!

IMG_6230 copyOk, so my wedding wasn’t broadcast on TV and I didn’t have hundreds of guests in attendance, but my wedding dress was also cut low in the back, revealing part of the scar that runs from in between my shoulder blades to the front of my ribcage. Alas, no one called me brave or courageous, and as a 38-year old bride with a 2 ½-year-old daughter and ten weeks pregnant with my second child, I was certainly not anyone’s inspiration, and thank goodness for that.

No, no, I am absolutely not dissing princess Eugenie; as I said, I appreciated her gesture even though I wouldn’t call it brave. That’s because scars have been part of my life since the day I was born and had my first operation. Scars, in my world, are perfectly normal, and I don’t think I ever felt particularly self-conscious about them, least of all the long one on my back. It never stopped me from wearing bikinis or low-cut dresses and tops, although there has been the odd sales lady reacting when I’ve tried on party dresses in shops.

And because I find scars to be perfectly normal, I did feel a twinge of sadness that the princess’ choice of dress proved such a sensation only for what it revealed about the bride’s body.

One of the things I love about scars, in general, is that each one of them tells a story. Princess Eugenie’s scar tells the story of her childhood battle with scoliosis; my scar on the back is the result of an operation on the day I was born to repair my oesophagus, a story I’ve blogged about previously. Each one of my scars, some visible, others less so, tells an important story of my life and, therefore, I’d never dream of covering them up.

Speaking of scars; as we’re moving closer to Halloween, the day when children and teens love to dress up in scary outfits and go trick or treating, I’m imploring any parents reading this, to think twice before helping your child stick fake scars on their face. Scars are not scary, scars are not ugly, and scars are definitely not evil. By all means, go all out with the blood and gore, but please be mindful of people who live with real scars, many of which tell a story that holds both trauma and pain. To these people, scars are no joke.

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It’s my children’s half-term holiday next week and we’re leaving town for a few days, which means I won’t be posting a blog next Thursday. I hope to see you back here in two weeks’ time.


Bad Faith

shutterstock_138129767Few things set me off as much as having to deal with official rules and regulations.

Faced with someone telling me, “it’s the rules,” “it’s protocol,” or, better yet, “it’s a matter of security,” I can’t hold my tongue. Airline protocols are just one example.

I was six months pregnant with my second child and flying back from a Caribbean vacation with my husband and three-year-old daughter. We’d just about made our connecting flight out of New York with Virgin Atlantic, my back was aching, and I was dying to go to the loo. Luckily, we were seated just next to a toilet, but as I got up and reached for the door handle, an airline stewardess stopped me.

“Excuse me, where are you sitting?” she asked.

“Right here,” I said, pointing to my seat.

“I’m sorry, but you cannot use this toilet, mam, you need to go to the one over there,” she said pointing to the very rear of the plane.

“Why? That’s at least thirty rows away, while this one is right here,” I protested.

“It’s a security matter, mam.”

A security matter? Exhausted, and with a bladder about to burst, I lost it.

“It’s not a fucking security matter! You don’t want me to use a toilet that is for business class passengers. Can’t you see I’m pregnant?”

She looked at my sizeable bump and said in a steely voice, “you should have brought a letter from your doctor confirming you’re pregnant.”

A letter to prove my pregnancy, when it was obvious. I couldn’t believe the stupidity of what I’d just been told and swore at her as I elbowed my way down the aisle to the toilet assigned for economy class passengers.

On returning to my seat, another stewardess came up to us and, looking past me, told my husband that unless his wife apologised to her colleague for swearing, they would report me to the police on arrival to London.

I have not travelled with Virgin Atlantic since.

More recently, I’ve had to deal with bureaucracy reminiscent of something out of a Kafka novel. As Britain hurtles towards the precipice of a no-deal Brexit, I decided to finally go and talk to an immigration lawyer about whether to apply for permanent residence now or wait and see what happens after Brexit. Although people keep telling me I’ve got nothing to worry about since I’m Swedish, scaremongering reports in the press was starting to make me feel a little anxious about my future in Britain.

What I learned from my meeting with the lawyer was this: my marriage to a British citizen is of little consequence for a successful application for permanent residence. Much more important than my British spouse, is the fact that I have private health insurance, meaning I wouldn’t be a burden on the NHS were I to become a permanent resident. Never mind the fact that I’ve been paying taxes in Britain for more than a decade, during which time I’ve availed myself of NHS care on numerous occasions.

(I also learned that by law, European citizens have a right to permanent residence after five years, yet the Home Office rejects 40% of all applications, often on a technicality, as part of its ‘hostile environment’ policy.)

Having just returned from my meeting with the lawyer, I received a message from the Swedish tax authorities. They wanted me to provide signed and stamped proof of my residence in Britain, or they would hold me liable to pay tax in Sweden. What’s ironic is that it’s the same tax authorities that years ago issued me a letter declaring that as far as they were concerned, I had emigrated from Sweden until further notice. I dug that letter out of my files, scanned it and emailed a copy back to the authorities that had issued me the letter in the first place. I’ve yet to hear back from them.

While I’m not saying rules and regulations aren’t necessary, it’s the blind faith in them that I object to, the unwillingness – and the lack of imagination that implies – to think for ourselves, to question, and to take responsibility for the choices we make.

The Small Stuff

I never believed in God as much as when I was seven years old.question-mark-1751217_1280

I didn’t grow up in a religious home although my stepfather always read aloud from the Bible on Christmas Eve before we were allowed to open our presents.

But when I was seven, I spent a whole summer praying to God every chance I got; praying that I would win the Barbie doll that was first prize in a children’s comics lottery.

I didn’t win, and I soon stopped praying, that’s how fickle my faith was.

In my teens, I made friends with two girls at school who were devout Catholics, and I admired and envied their faith. If only I could believe, life would make so much more sense, I thought.

Many years later, I was in my early thirties when, out of the blue, I had a stroke. My father had died the year before, and I was working hard to complete a PhD dissertation in international relations while dealing with my loss. On a rainy but mild day in May, I left my shabby flat in Bayswater to meet a good friend for dinner in Soho. On my way to the tube station, I noticed I couldn’t walk straight and that my left arm wouldn’t move when I tried to lift it. Instead of dinner out, I ended up in hospital, where a CT scan confirmed that I’d had an ischemic stroke.

I was incredibly lucky to make a full recovery but the stroke, the cause of which remained unexplained, left me seeking something beyond my academic lifestyle, something deeper and more meaningful. Something spiritual perhaps, that might help explain not only the stroke but the other why’s of my life.

For the next two years I dabbled in religion, thinking I’d finally found what I was looking for, but in the end, I had to concede that it wasn’t the answer for me, however much I tried.

Ever since, in a continuous effort to find a way to find a resolution to that deep hole inside me that won’t heal, I’ve sought the help of psychotherapists of all kinds. I’ve tried Buddhist meditation, ‘secular’ meditation, transcendental meditation. I’ve lined my bookshelves with self-help books (most of which I’ve never read). But despite my efforts, the magic formula I hoped to discover remained elusive.

Because, of course, there is no magic formula. Perhaps I was going about it the wrong way around; looking for answers that weren’t there, instead of staying with the questions, and accepting the uncertainty that comes with having questions but no answers. It’s akin to what the poet John Keats called ‘negative capability, “…that is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties. Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”

It isn’t easy living with uncertainty, without answers to all those why’s I’ve carried within me since my childhood and giving up on my quest for answers won’t necessarily solve my existential doubts, the ambivalence about life I feel from time to time.

But it does open up the space for recognising and embracing the different parts of my life that do have value and meaning. Sometimes, it’s the ‘small’ stuff that truly matters: a hug from a child, a friendly message from a stranger, that intricate spider’s web that is growing ever larger and impressive on our front porch; and moments of laughter and fun with the people I love.