on words and voices…

Hello. Its me. I know I have been quiet for a while. Have you missed me? I’ve missed you.

What’s that? I look well? Thanks, I am. Oh the bruises? yes, lots of them, but I do bruise like a peach. The physical ones are from the pole-dancing. The emotional ones, well, I’d better not say…

But yes, I have missed this. Communication. Having something to say and saying it. I just haven’t been able to get my words out lately.

Funny things, words. Our relationship with them – the way they define things and people and hence can seem to shape actual truths – is a long term obsession.  I remember when I first read Foucault it blew my mind. The idea that lots of things didn’t actually exist, they are just formed discursively, and then they gain power. I’m sorry to break it to you folks but there is no such thing as the wow factor, and nobody really has a comfort zone. There was no Axis of Evil just like there never was an Iron Curtain, and it has always been a powerful thing indeed to name a lunatic or a terrorist. But lately we do seem to be making a little progress with all this.  We are just starting to realise that child pornography is in fact images of child abuse, or that date-rape isn’t nearly as much fun as it sounds, and this week there is a call to replace ‘migrants’ with ‘refugees’ when we describe those living, breathing human beings who are fleeing their homes and hoping to find a better life somewhere else. Herein lies a hope for an ontological shift , that words might change an attitude, might alter the knowledge of a truth.

Living with small children really hammers home the relationship between language and reality; more so, even, than reading Foucault. Small son, for example, has picked up the word “ballbag” from somewhere (and Foucault was always remiss in glossing over the issue of ballbags). I didn’t react to this much: I saw it as an inevitable part of raising a Scottish child, much like his penchant for lorne sausages. But of course, he didn’t have a word for, well, his ballbag, before, so he doesn’t think its a rude word or a slang term, it is just a name for a part of his body he is pleased to have a name for. It is not called a ballbag, it is a ballbag. And then, when confronted with a load of turkeys at a petting zoo, he could boom with confidence “IT LOOKS LIKE THEY HAVE BALLBAGS ON THEIR CHINS”, elegantly using his knowledge to describe reality as he saw it.

And I have been struck by the power we have as adults to shape our kids’ knowledge. My son asked my husband what ‘trust’ meant the other day and I thought, gosh, I don’t know if I could answer that. I moved closer to listen in on the answer and I was surprised. “to trust is to know, or to think, that someone will be kind”, said husband. ” I can’t believe you would think anything else” he said to me later, and I wondered how many problems I would have avoided if I had abided by this simple definition, or how much a lack of definition at all might have contributed to my bruising like a peach. “So if you thought someone would be kind and they weren’t does that mean they betrayed you?” I asked. “No” he said. “It means you were wrong to trust them”. Which is of course probably very true when one is supposedly an adult, but made it very clear to me what is so innocent and vulnerable about children. They do, naturally, tend to think that everyone will be kind…

And of course we are all pre-occupied with innocent children, those refugees rather than migrants, at the moment. Trying to find a language to deal with what we are seeing. For me this has been easier in music than anything else. A year ago, when I was looking for songs to sing about refugees that weren’t Fast Car by Tracy Chapman (because while fabulous, it is every singer’s nemesis musically: all those bloody words) most of the good stuff I found was from Australia, where there has clearly been a need to face some of the things we are now facing for some time . I was moved by a version of Were You There when they Crucified my Lord with the words changed to Were you there when they turned the boats away. It seemed somehow entirely perfect, to link these too total abandonments; moments of being utterly forsaken. But the song I picked was a sea shanty, which I just about got out without crying. It is a lullaby, a song sung from a mother to a child, who will die. When I first heard it, it communicated much more to be than any straight prose could have done the plight of those who make the decision that they would rather have their children die in their arms, on a journey, than have them to whatever they might be subjected to back home.

Because that is what it comes down to, what we are challenged to imagine here. We, who generally have palpitations at the thought of a bus ride without oakcakes for our little ones, or half a mass without a fruitshoot. We need to make space for that choice: torture, war or exploitation at home or the drift into eternal sleep from suffocation or drowning. What do the mother’s say to those kids in those last hours? And do those children keep trusting, do they keep thinking that the world will be kind?

And will the world ever be kind? You will have seen the image on social media which is circulated with the petition asking Theresa May to, I don’t know, just do something vaguely decent about the refugee crisis, of a dead child washed up on a beach. It is a grim and haunting picture, and to be honest when I signed the petition I removed it, I wanted to turn away. Those soft little limbs, the fragility, the innocence. Coming to such harm. It’s a little bit like that when I read about kids having been beaten and abused, what gets me is the descriptions of how soft they are, how easily they scar and bruise. I feel a bit sick, a bit shaky. And I have to say I am not entirely sure I think the pictures are a good idea, but still I was taken aback by this comment on a friend’s newsfeed:

Fuck off with the pictures of dead kids mate.

Maybe he didn’t like the threat to his imaginary comfort zone. But, at least it was a reaction I suppose, and I can empathise with the anger even if it came out in a very strange way. The death of a child, for those close by, is something so stratospheric in its impact that it changes everything forever, makes every cell in your body scream with the sense of something entirely wrong , the world so at the opposite of what it should be. It is a silent scream and a heartbreak that forever changes the colour filters and brings every light and shade into sharper focus. It imparts a knowledge that is profound and a sense of truth beyond what words can conjure. Maybe a little of that is spreading to all of us at the moment.

And of course, we are generally voiceless. We who have wept and bled and torn and wept some more. Because to care is to be vulnerable, to love is to be powerless, and so control always passes to he who can give the least of a shit. That’s how it works. But that doesn’t mean our Still Small Voices should be silent. Not when the need for kindness is greater than it ever has been.


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