HOLLY MIRANDA SMALE

Writer, photographer, "rapper" and general technophobe takes on the internet in what could be a very, very messy fight. But it's alright: she's harder than she looks, and she's wearing every single ring she could get her hands on.







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Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Little steps

I knew it would happen. I wasn't sure when, but I knew it would turn up one day: and it has. On Sunday the 29th of March 2010, to be precise. At 28 years, 3 months and 22 days old.

The day where I officially turned old.

Unfortunately, it didn't - as I assumed it would - coincide with the day where I also became responsible, or mature, or tidy, or organised, or sensitive to other people's thoughts or feelings. I thought it would happen all at once; that it was a kind of trade off. You know: you give up being cool or hot for a nice smelling kitchen and friends who no longer forget your birthday on purpose in vengeful retaliation. But it wasn't a trade off at all. Just as I now have spots and wrinkles, I am now old and immature. And it has crept up on me entirely without notice. Or without much notice, anyway (I should have noticed that I no longer use hair straighteners because 'what's the point').

It all happened on one trip to the pub, just before I left England.

"It's bloody freezing," my sister pointed out, because it was - as she had astutely noticed - bloody freezing.
"You need a better coat," I said, tugging at the ruffles of her very beautiful and trendy Brighton bought coat with pursed lips. "This is not warm enough."
My very beautiful and trendy Brighton based sister rolled her eyes at me.
"Yes, but look how pretty it is," she announced. "Who wants to be warm when you can wear something this amazing?"
"If it's not keeping you warm then it's not doing its job," I said disapprovingly, and - I'm ashamed to say - without the vaguest tone of irony.
"Its job is to make me look good," my sister replied. "Thus it is doing its job."
I tugged at the padded sleeve of my long, quilted, bogie green parka.
"You need a coat like this," I said smugly. "I'm cosy as you like. I could walk a dog for hours and hours and not feel the slightest chill."
My sister and I then both laughed warmly at the idea of me walking anything - dog or otherwise - for hours and hours.
"I might need a coat like that," she said eventually, when she had got her breath back. "But I sure as hell don't want one."

Then, as if the warm-but-ugly coat had set me off, it all started happening in quick succession. I turned down free wine because 'I might get a headache on the plane.' I ordered a side of vegetables because 'I hadn't really eaten any greens for a couple of days.' I found myself getting interested in a conversation about the BA strike. And then it happened: the point of no return.

"My God," I said as my youngest cousin turned up at the dinner table. "What has happened to you?! You've shot right up."
My youngest cousin - all eleven years of her - looked at me with what I can only describe as vague disgust.
"Hmm," she said.
"No, seriously," I said, still reeling from how much of a difference eight months makes to a ten year old girl. "You look like a grown up!"
"Hmm," she said again, sitting down and trying to move away while I pinched the sleeve of her jumper and breathlessly exclaimed something about how lovely it was, being gold and everything.
"Hasn't she grown?" I repeated to my sister, pointing at my now pink and mortified relative.
"Stop it, Holly," my sister said tiredly. "You sound like one of those embarrassing old Aunts."
"But she has," I said, suddenly realising that perhaps all the times I'd run away, bored and humiliated, from a similarly delighted old lady, perhaps she had also been genuinely startled by my dramatic increase in height and maturity. Perhaps I, too, really had grown.
"Seriously," my sister hissed. "Cut it out. You're embarrassing me." 
So I gave up, and asked my fifteen year old cousin what A Levels she was doing and what her career plans were instead.

It doesn't sneak up on you at all, old age: it rushes up in scary, noisy little steps, making a big bang and clatter and bringing you to a stand-still, like the wrinkle under your eye that doesn't go away when you stop smiling, or the white hair that comes back no matter how quickly you pull it out. And then you go away, and you forget all about it, until you find yourself pointing out a pretty skirt and announcing you would never pay that much for a 'couple of flimsy bits of material', and it's there again, just one step closer.

It can make all the noise it likes, though. I know old age is coming, however small its steps, and I'm not scared at all of turning around and laughing in its face. In fact, I'm really quite looking forward to it. Perhaps I, too, really have grown.

Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Fluffback


“I didn’t call you Fluffy because you had curly blonde hair,” a very old exboyfriend just contacted me to tell me (old in terms of how long ago our relationship was, not because he’s currently collecting his pension).
“You read my blog?” I said, surprised and a little bit smug at the same time.
“Sometimes, when I’m bored silly at work,” he answered. “Don’t worry, it’s pretty far down my reading material list. Usually just before I start doing Suduko via The Sun online.”
I ignored him, because it’s more flattering to think that he’s stalking me a little bit than that my life marginally pips a small grid of numbers in entertainment value.
“So, why did you call me Fluffy, then?” I growled.
“Because you’re a bit… well.”
“A bit well?”
“I hadn’t finished. A bit… well… ditzy.”
“I am not ditzy,” I said, drawing myself up to my full height even though our discussion was online and he couldn’t see me. I’d like to think I was writing a bit taller, though.
“Hols, when I asked you once to give me an example of a definite article, you said ‘cat’”.
“Well it is a definite article! It’s definitely a cat!”
“That’s not a definite article, Holly. And you thought Peru was in Asia.”
I would argue against this, but then he’d ask me to tell him where it actually is, and then I’d be in even more trouble.
“You’re without exception one of the fluffiest people I’ve ever met.”
I retaliated with a stream of very unfluffy curse words.
And,” he added once I’d stopped swearing at him, “your nose is sort of fluffy.”
“My nose?”
“It has little tiny fluffy hairs on the end of it.”
There was a silence while I digested this, and then I gasped, horrified:
“I. Have. Little. Tiny. Fluffy. Hairs. On. The. End. Of. My. Nose?”
“Yeah. You can’t see them. Only feel them if you kiss it. But your nose is definitely fluffy. It’s a definitely fluffy article.” And then he laughed, as if he’d just said something funny, instead of mortifying and possibly emotionally scarring.
“Like a… monkey?’ I pretty much sobbed at him.
“No, more like a baby rabbit or something. That’s why I called you Fluff. It wasn’t an attempt to compress or supress or digest your intelligence or anything like that.” He paused and then added: “I think you do that pretty well on your own, to be honest.”
And then he laughed, as if he’d just said something really, really funny again.

If there’s one thing worse than being called Fluff by every man you’ve ever dated, it’s finding out that it’s because you have hairs on your nose. Having spent the last hour rubbing it with my finger and trying to reach it with my lips to check, I think that it’s nonsense: my nose is perfectly smooth, thankyou very much.

But - in my effort to prove my exboyfriend wrong - I have a strange feeling that I may have accidentally proven him right. 

Fluff

I arrived back in Japan last night, with the blossoms just breaking out and a new part of the country and an air that is already fresher and sweeter than Tokyo, and that`s with advanced jetlag and a cold - but I`ve decided to write about my hair instead. Changing your country is all well and good, but nothing shakes a girl quite as much as changing her image.

There is a big difference between moving where you are, and moving who you are, and 10,000 miles is not quite enough - I decided when I got here and sniffed the air - to feel like I`ve started again. So, to help me feel like the fresh beginning is quite as fresh as it could be, I got the brown hair dye and the scissors out, and I now have short, auburn hair that laughs in the face of mousey roots and will probably get far less confused tugs from five year old Japanese children (one of my previous students collected one of my long blonde hairs from the carpet - when she thought I wasn`t looking - and put it proudly in her pencil case). Practically, and culturally, it should help me blend in and go relatively unnoticed (as long as I can find shoes that somehow reduce my height by a foot or two). Practically and culturally, it should save me a lot of time and effort, trying to find a Japanese hairdresser who doesn`t look at my blonde highlights and run into a backroom crying and searching for her college hair manuals.

It`s more than that, though. As I stood and stared at myself in the mirror this morning, feeling strangely bereft and asexual and a little like a large French pageboy from the 1400s, I realised that my fine, bleach blonde curls have always been part of my identity, and they`ve tied me to it. Without any exception, every boyfriend I have ever had has loved them; without exception, every boyfriend has called me (thinking themselves stonkingly original, obviously, as all men do) Fluffy, or Fluffs, or Baby, or Kitten. Round eyes and fat cheeks haven`t helped me in my attempt to be taken even remotely seriously, obviously, but I have lost count of the amount of men who have kissed the end of my nose and told me I`m cuuutte. Regardless of the fact that my IQ is often considerably higher than theirs, or that the pinnacle of their creative talent involves pointing a camera at something pretty and pressing a button, or that their idea of biting wit is to say "toodaloo" every single time you announce that you`ll be going to the toilet.

"Is Fluffy writing?" they would say, when I sat down with at my computer (except that the `r` would be missing, so it would be Is Fluffy witing?"). "Is my Fluff drawing a picture?" they would say when I went anywhere near a piece of paper (except that it would be dwawing - presumably, again - in case the r scared me and my fluffy little endeavours). And then they would ruffle my hair, stroke my nose and tell me how sweet I looked when I concentrated. And, when I finally lost my temper, they would remind me how incredibly enchanting and adorable I was when I told them to "seriously, go and f*ck themselves."

It`s a hair colour, and that`s all it is, but it changes more than the colour of my hair. When I`m blonde,  I get more attention and I get more compliments, but I also get cheated on repeatedly (with brunettes), patted on the head, walked all over, ignored and patronised. Without my wispy yellow curls, I go completely unnoticed (I`m not particularly attractive without them, basically: they are the curtains in front of the magician) but I also feel stronger, more creative, and more independent. The blonde me gets her heart broken and spends six months in a bedsit, crying. The blonde me cares whether boys think she`s pretty or not. The brunette me doesn`t. That little box of hair dye - the one that cuts the old Holly off at the root, the one that sticks a finger up at every boy who has ever told me they were `proud` of me for knowing the answer to a general knowledge question - doesn`t just dye my hair; it colours my opinion of myself, no matter how wrong and stereotyped that opinion is. And the scissors that have made me look like a boy have simultaneously cut off all the curly, fluffy bits of me that begged so badly to be looked after and protected and never really were.

I`m in a new part of Japan, and it`s a completely fresh start for me; a chance to stretch my limbs, and laugh again, and joke again, and swear again, and be somebody stronger, and less vulnerable. But it`s my hair colour, and not my location, that has made me feel like I can truly start again. Because it doesn`t matter that the change is nonsense and all in my head, and on my head, and around my head. It doesn`t matter that I`m living up to every stereotype that has ever been written. It just matters that there has been a change. And that the past - as well as every single person who has used my hair to press my abilities and passions into the far less scary shape of cuteness - has been finally, totally, permanently (it says so on the packet) removed, destroyed and cut off.

And it is staying that way.

Sunday, 28 March 2010

Getting Rid of Holly

"Tralalala," my dad sang at me this morning, parading into my room in his stripy, multicoloured 'Joseph' dressing gown and enthusiastically offering me a cup of 'that green rubbish you brought back with you'. "My Getting Holly Back Out Of the Country Plan starts today."
"Don't," my mum muttered weepily from under the duvet where she had crawled in next to me while I was still too asleep to put up enough of a protest (I've spent the majority of time in England waking up to find a shadowy figure sitting on the edge of my bed, stroking my hair and whispering 'it's just me, darling. Just checking. Go back to sleep.').
"What shirt do you think I should wear to get rid of my daughter?" dad asked nobody in particular, disappearing out of the room and coming back in with a blue stripy shirt and a pink one. "I think the pink one is more cheerful, and therefore more appropriate given the circumstances."
"Mark," my mum said even more weepily. "Stop it. I'm trying to pretend that she's not leaving."
"Oh, but she is leaving," dad said even more jubilantly. "Definitely leaving. I've seen the flight confirmation. So what do you think: pink or blue?"
"My baby," mum said in a choked voice, nuzzling my shoulder. Dad took one look around my bedroom, and grinned even harder.
"Eight months it took us, to get this room looking like a boutique hotel. New floors, new furniture, fluffy rug, priceless art. It's taken you eight days to make it look like a bedsit again." His smile widened. "And now you're leaving again. And we can clean it all up again."
"I'd rather have my baby back with all her mess than all the tidy bedrooms in the world," my mum whispered huskily from the other side of my bed.
"I bloody wouldn't," my dad said. "Do you know how hard it was to sand into those corners?"
"It will be nice to know where all the household cutlery is at any one time," mum admitted, picking two spoons and a fork up from the top of my fireplace and peering at them in confusion.
I peered over my green tea, not convinced by any of it in the slightest. Dad's just excited that he can visit me in August in Miyazaki and learn to surf.
"You'll miss me," I said complacently. "I know you will."
Dad looked at me thoughtfully for a couple of seconds, and then smiled.
"Pink," he said. "I think pink. The Getting Rid of Holly plan deserves a pink shirt."

As much as I am going to miss my family, I'm prone to agree with him. I'm pretty excited about my next adventure, now. Maybe I should be wearing a pink shirt too.

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Aunty Mayne

"I'm upset with you," she said when I saw her yesterday. I tried to work out which of the many, many things I had done wrong had ultimately offended her.
"You don't like your present?" I offered, putting my hand out to take it back (I like it too).
"I like my present," she said, grabbing the Japanese painting back before I had a chance to stick it in my bag.
"I didn't send you a Christmas card, even though you sent me one?"
"No, you didn't. But that's not it."
"I didn't send you a birthday present, even though you sent me one?"
"No, you didn't. But that's not it either."
I thought about it carefully.
"I still can't speak Japanese, even after eight months?" I'm upset with me about it, so it makes sense if she is too.
"Couldn't care less," she responded. "No: I'm upset because you never write about me in your blog."
"Oh."
"Just a little comment, that would make me happy. Just say how lovely I am, or how I'm your favourite aunt, or how nice my hair looks, or how much you miss me. I just want to be in it."
"You know she lies all the time anyway?" my sister interjected from the sofa, pointing at me. "Half the stuff she writes about me is made up: she makes me have conversations with her after she's already written them. It's like having a life script or something."
"That is outrageous," I said in the most insulted voice I could find. "I don't lie. I sometimes bend the facts a little. I was in PR for years: it's all I know how to do."
"I don't care. Lie as much as you want," my aunt said, clearly ignoring my defence. "Lie through your back teeth, and your front teeth too if you want. I just want to be in it. And that can be my birthday and Christmas present for last year and then we're quits."

So, Aunty, this is my gift to you. A silly little blog written from my bed at 4am on severe jetlag. Personally, I would have asked for socks. :)

Home

Reaching the itchy part on your back; ordering exactly the right food at a restaurant; climbing into a hot bath when you've been standing in the rain for an hour, or a bed when you've been awake for forty; finding a cream to make a painful rash go away, or the right song to make the crying stop: that's how I feel now that I'm home.

It was just what I needed: to put everything in perspective, and heal the broken bit inside me, and make me laugh again. I'm ill and on antibiotics - 'there was never a girl as wan as you,' as my friend pointed out crossly when I had to postpone our meeting - but I don't care: I'm ill and on antibiotics and happy as a sunbeam, because I'm back in the place where things make sense. Eating curry with my dad, sitting in the garden with my sister, curled up with mum on the sofa, eating my grandparent's biscuits. Happy, with the people I love, and the people who understand me. And they are the ones who can fix me; not a silly boy. They are the medicine to the poison I've been accidentally drinking for six months: the freshly squeezed orange juice to my litres and litres of Sunny Delight.

There isn't enough time: only five days left already, and it feels like I only just arrived. But it's alright. I no longer feel mentally exhausted and tired of Japan: I feel excited about going back, and excited about my next adventure. I'm strong enough for it again, because I've reminded myself of how much I am loved, and how many people I have behind me, no matter how far away I am.

I left home, trying to find myself. And it took coming home to realise that this is where I was all along.

Thursday, 18 March 2010

Packing - the sequel to the sequel.

It's still not done.

It's 11pm the night before I fly, and it's still not done. If anything, it looks messier. I'm not quite sure how, but I appear to have packed in the opposite direction: everything that was in containers is now out of them, nothing belongs anywhere at all, and I have apparently accumulated belongings in the last 24 hours. I now own things that I didn't even know that I owned, and I don't want to throw them away just yet because... well, because they kind of feel like they're new, and I'm still congratulating myself about them.

Plus my washing up still hasn't been done yet. I'm considering just throwing the plates away, now. It seems like the most sanitary option.

"Think of packing like making a pie," my friend said to me this morning when I turned up at work, put my head in my hands and said a number of words that are definitely not on the English syllabus we teach.
"Start at the bottom and don't keep checking how it's doing?" I guessed.
"Ooh, that's good advice too. No, I mean: shove it all in, cram the lid shut and then trim the edges off with a pair of scissors."

So I have a new packing strategy: in half an hour, the things that are not safely in my suitcase are getting thrown away. That should help me to prioritise slightly.

I think I can pretty much guarantee that my washing up will be one of them.

Goodbye Songs

At 11 am this morning it was exactly a week since I had last cried, and I was getting anxious; I thought that perhaps my tear ducts had sealed shut, or some kind of emotional door inside me had slammed, or perhaps I just wasn't drinking enough water or eating enough salt to manufacture the necessary fluids. A week of goodbyes to friends I may never see again, and assistants and children I will definitely never see again, and places I will never eat in again, and an ex-boyfriend I may or may not ever see again, and nothing: not one tear, not one dry sob, not one lip wobble. Which was a little weird for a couple of days, and then discomforting, and then downright worrying: for a girl who once sobbed for fifteen minutes during Kung Fu Panda, the last ten days should have completely dehydrated me. But there was nothing. Not a trickle.

At 11.03 am this morning, the dam finally burst: exactly two thirds of the way through The Goodbye Song I am forced to sing at the end of every pre-school lesson. I managed the first 'Goodbye Goodbye Everybody' chirpily enough, the second was a little strained, the third was choked, and on the fourth I gave up completely, abruptly stopped singing and stood in front of six tiny children and ten adults and loudly bawled my eyes out. It wasn't just that I was saying goodbye to Kou - the child I adore more than any other in the world - but that I was saying goodbye to all of it; to all of the children I have met, and all of the friends I have made, since I got here.

The children barely noticed, of course. For 2 and 3 year olds, crying is as much a part of a normal day as eating and drinking and showing strangers your new car-shaped keyring, so they all just assumed I was hungry or sleepy and carried on with the chorus. The mums, however, stopped singing, stared at me in shocked silence for a couple of seconds - public sobbing is very, very unJapanese and usually ignored as much as possible - and then rushed towards me with their arms out: at least two of them crying as well. Many emotional things were said - 95% of which were not understood by either parties - and then I knelt down on the floor and had six tiny, adorable children throw themselves bodily at me and hang on my neck in the world's smallest rugby scrum, before telling me they loved me - for the first time - utterly unprompted. And then Kou unwrapped himself, handed me a card he had made for me, said - solemnly, and in Japanese - "thankyou for everything you have ever done for me", and left. And I will never see him or any of the others again.

Since I arrived in Japan, I have often been lonely, I have often been unhappy, and I have very, very often been heartbroken, but I would not take back a single moment of any of that if it meant losing this morning as well. As much as it hurts me - knowing that it was my last Goodbye Song and my last cuddle with all of them - this morning was one I will carry with me when I leave: one that no heartbreak, and no loneliness, and no unhappiness, will ever get rid of. And while I will always miss them, they have also changed me: they have made me better, and stronger, and happier, and they have made my time here worth it.

Tears are what you make of them, and my sobbing this morning was one of pain, yes, but it was also one of happiness, and gratitude. I am so lucky to have met children I can love like that, and who love me back; so lucky to have had such an intimate experience with another culture, and another age group, and another language. For me, Kou and the gang will always be three and two years old: will always be driving their little cars, will always be hanging onto my neck or pretending to be tigers. And I will always love them.

And that, I think, is the kind of goodbye worth singing about.

Packing - the sequel

It's still not done.

I woke up this morning to three things:

1. The exact same mess there before I went to bed. Brownies, elves, fairies, packing pixies: none of the above came in (no key needed) and helped me. Not even slightly. They didn't even pick my towel off the floor and hang it up nicely, so now it smells of cheese. There's a part of me - the part of me that looked under flowers for fairies when I was far too old to be looking under flowers for fairies - that's a little bit surprised, actually. And slightly angry. How was I supposed to do it? I was fast asleep.

2. An email from my grandparents. Please don't miss the flight! Love G and G. PS: Seriously.


3. An email from my mum. Your front door hasn't been locked for two entire bloody weeks? That's not funny. Are you trying to make me ill?


I'd like to say that I'm going to get up and pack and lock my door and sort out flight times right now, but there are a million other things I have absolutely no need to do first but will do them first anyway.

Writing this blog is just one of them.

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Packing

Every time I get to a point where I think I'm wiser, more mature  - that I've changed, grown, developed, blossomed (this all thought while staring wistfully out of a window at a carefully selected spot of blank sky, obviously) - something happens to prove that I'm definitely not. Sometimes it's big - a horrible decision, or a stupid comment, or something expensive broken or lost because I'm too lazy/distracted to look after it properly - but often it's not: it's simply little tiny pieces of evidence that prove that very little blossoming is happening at all, no matter how much time and effort I'm putting into staring at the buds and willing them to do something other than fall off the tree.


I am currently sitting in my flat, trying to pack. When I say trying to pack, I obviously mean: looking at a disgusting mess of clothes and hair grips and orange juice cartons and half empty shampoo bottles and plates of pasta covering every single inch of floor, shelf, table, chair, and doing to my best to force them - with the power of my mind - into a large pile that the power of my mind will then happily set on fire and dance around, laughing hysterically. I am not an adult at all: that much is clear. Every time I get up to 'pack', I half-heartedly fold a jumper in half, put it on top of something else - knowing full well that I'm just going to have to pick it up later and refold it and put it somewhere else - get bored, and find something else to do: make a semi-scrapbook of receipts and stickers, or draw a picture for no reason, or send an email, or... you know, write a blog. I can't make myself do it. Worse: even though I know, with utter certainty, that I am nearly 30, that I am completely on my own, and that my flight back to the UK will leave without me on Friday, I am still a little bit convinced that somebody is going to come and do it all for me. I don't know what time I need to be at the airport or any idea how to get there, I have no tickets, I have only just found my house key after leaving my flat unlocked for two entire weeks (sorry mum), and I appear to have left my iPod in a curry house somewhere in Yokohama, but I can't remember which one. The washing up is not done, the fridge is full of food I cannot and will not eat in two days, everything smells like yoghurt - apart from the yoghurt - and I have no idea how my boxes are going to get to Miyazaki because staring at them hopefully doesn't seem to be moving them very fast at all.

I had so much hope for myself: that, in my 8 months living solo in a strange country, I would become self-sufficient, grown up, mature, responsible, tidy, neat, capable. That I would learn to wash up like a grown up, and maybe enjoy it like a grown up (or whatever grown ups feel about washing up: I don't think I really understand what motivates anyone to ever do it), and not lose things like a grown up, and organise my own life like a grown up. Do my laundry like a grown up. Clean out my fridge like a grown up. Clean my shower like a grown up. But I haven't. At all. I'm still just a massive typical teenager sitting on the sofa of life and waiting for somebody to clean up around me, and then shouting when they get in the way of the telly. Even more humiliatingly, I'm not even a teenage girl: I live life like a massive teenage boy. I have the glass full of Coca Cola and mould in my bedroom to prove it.

Which reminds me of what my best friend told me the night I left England. Or - rather - what she told my answer machine.
"It's me. I just wanted to check that you have your tickets and your insurance and your birth certificate and your passport and your visa. And that you've had your jabs and know where you're going and have a forwarding address, and have your phrase book and your bank card and traveller's cheques and you know what to do if there's an earthquake or a typhoon or a fire and if you have an emergency contact number and.... and.... and...."
And then she started crying.
"Of course you haven't: it's you. Oh my God, how can we let you out into the world yet?" sobbed the voice recording, as if I was a baby penguin born in captivity. "You're not re-re-reaaadddy." And then she hung up.

In truth, she was right: I'm not ready. Facing facts, though, I'm probably never going to be. The day - the magic day I assumed happened to us all eventually (the day where we wake up and have a desire to separate the trash properly and pay bills before they're in red and dry our towels properly after every shower instead of leaving them on the floor) - has not happened, and I'm not sure at all anymore that it's going to. I'm 29 this year, and nada: no desire to behave like an adult at all. So - perhaps - the only wisdom I can really hope for is not expecting to ever learn anything; to never blossom, never change and never develop. To simply adjust to who I am and learn to deal with it. Or learn to modify my life around it (like never, ever living with another person again). Perhaps that in itself is wisdom enough.

Perhaps, in fact, I've blossomed after all.

On which note, I've just seen another piece of sky I feel like staring smugly at. I'm just going to have to climb over my packing first.

Sunday, 14 March 2010

White Year

"Three weeks," my sister said on Skype last night.
"Three weeks?"
"You, turning your back on love or whatever. I give it three weeks."
I gave my sister my sternest stare, which had absolutely no impact at all because my webcam had frozen.
"Maybe four if you really, really mean it," she added after a pause. "This is you," she reminded me.
I bridled and put my green tea down because you should never make important decisions while holding something hot and liquid: it's just dangerous.
"That's it," I said. I'd been thinking about a break anyway, but nothing will push me to a decision quicker than being underestimated. "No dating, no kissing, no physical contact, no romance, no love, no hand holding. Nothing. For one whole year."
"Ha."
"No blogging about dating or kissing or romance or love or hand holding, for one whole year."
"Ha. Like some kind of romantic Lent?"
"Yes, a romantic detox. I mean it. Or I'll give you £200. Cash."
My sister abruptly stopped 'ha'ing.
"Really?"
"Really. It's an experiment. I want to see what will happen."
"Oh my God, are you going to grow your armpit hair too? And start throwing things at men in the street and stuff?"
"No."
There was a pause.
"I do need £200," she said thoughtfully. "Our washing machine is broken."
"Deal," I said. And then I felt strangely warm and motivated, which is - perhaps - a sign of things to come in the next year. Or perhaps it's a sign that my tea had spilt in my lap and soaked through my trousers and if I didn't get up immediately I was going to end up with burnt thighs.

Tomorrow is White Day in Japan. On Valentine's Day, Japanese girls are supposed to give their lovers presents; exactly one month later, Japanese boys are supposed to return the favour with something three times as expensive. In Korea, they've taken it one step further by introducing Black Day: if you get nothing on either the 14th of February or the 14th of March, on the 14th of April you are supposed to eat black bean and black cakes to mark your loneliness and single status. And, presumably, stand somewhere nice and public so that kissing couples can throw stones and coffee flavoured chocolates at you (left over from the month before because nobody likes them: not even people in love).

I'm using White Day to wipe the slate clean: like a kind of romantic Easter. It's been an emotional year, it's been a dramatic year, and my heart needs a good, long holiday. I don't need love, I don't want it, and I want to see how much I can achieve without it. I want to throw all of my energy into seeing the world and creating things and learning a new language and making new friends: not into mending and breaking my heart over and over again. I want to eat my black cake happily, and with pride, because it means that I'm celebrating my freedom rather than commiserating my loneliness.

It is White Day in Japan, but for me it is the beginning of a new, clean, bright, White Year. And it starts tomorrow morning. 

Saturday, 13 March 2010

Bricks

A small romance is happening in my classroom.

They are five years old and besotted with each other. They go out of their way to make sure that a part of them is always touching; a foot stretched out, or a finger linked on the carpet, or a shoulder leaning against the other. They enter the classroom next to each other, they sit next to each other, they fly their imaginary aeroplanes in line with each other. If I even make any attempt to separate them there is mutiny: tears, recriminations and frequently thrown blue bricks.

What is strange is that - while the little boy increases with confidence every week and seems inflated with this developing love - it is having the opposite effect on the little girl. Where once she would sit happily on the chair and tell me how much she liked rabbits and that her favourite colour was pink, she now glances at the boy every few seconds to see if he's watching or listening or proud of her. She is distracted; she is less focused; she picks up vocabulary less quickly. She cries easily; she is on edge to make sure that he is sitting next to her, or partnered with her, or holding her hand when we make a circle. She is always, always aware of where he is in the room, while he - in the meantime - happily gets on with his thing and just assumes that she will be next to him. Which, of course - being five and in love - she is.

As I sat and watched the little girl's chin wobble this afternoon - he had sat at least a metre away from her, and was nonchalently ignoring her and making a car out of lego - I realised that perhaps it has always been like that and I had simply never noticed before. Girls and boys - and then, in a bigger kind of classroom, men and women - react differently to love. Men tend to take love, and they add it to themselves: they become bigger, and better because of it. Loving and being loved makes them more than they were - poised and safe and confident - and they grow. Women, on the other hand, tend to do the opposite. From that first hand holding to the first text to the first date to the first kiss to the first night to the first proposal, wedding, child: women deconstruct love - take it apart, turn it over and over, look at it, talk about it, think about it, worry about it - and are consequently deconstructed by it. Whether it's anxiety that we wear the wrong clothes or have the wrong hair colour or listen to the wrong music or make the wrong kind of jokes or apply the wrong makeup or have the wrong job or the wrong dreams or the wrong shaped legs, we take ourselves apart and then prod at, criticise and destroy the pieces.

Love forces me, from what I can tell, to pretty much stop functioning. I stop writing; I stop drawing; I stop making jokes; I stop being in a room when I'm in a room because my head is somewhere else. I think about little else, and my head and heart become full of cotton and wisps and feathers and anxiety and criticisms of myself. When I am heartbroken the same happens: I just stop functioning in a different way, and my head and heart become wet and heavy and full of water and general self-loathing. From countless tears and phonecalls and emails and weepy glasses of wine in the pub, I know that most of my female friends do the same: they deconstruct love, and they use love to deconstruct themselves. I also know - from countless laughs and lack of phonecalls or emails and many, many happy pints in the pub - that most of my male friends do not. They're just happy they're getting laid and have somebody to go home to at 11pm who will remind them to brush their teeth before they get into bed.

So much has been made of gender and creativity throughout history - why there are so many more male artists and writers, why the Western canon is predominantly masculine, how money and liberty and freedom and power allowed men to achieve what we could not - but perhaps it's simply that love inspires creativity and productivity in men, and plugs it up in women. After all, the best and most famous literature in the world has been written by men in love - Shakespeare, Hardy, Dickens, Keats, Byron, Tolstoy - while the best and most famous literature by women has one thing in common: the authors are almost always single. Jane Austen, all three Bronte sisters, Christina Rossetti, Louisa May Alcott, Emily Dickinson, Harper Lee, JK Rowling: all alone, all unmarried, all unloved. Not with heads full of fluff or water; not crying in the corner of the room because somebody is making a lego car without thinking about them first; not busy deconstructing themselves or somebody else to see what they can do with the pieces. Free - without love - to build, to create, to produce, to construct. To make something, instead of tearing everything around and inside them apart.

When women talk about finding love, we never think about what we might be losing in the process. Somewhere out there, perhaps, was a man who could have made Jane Austen happy; the man whose absence or missed train or dinner party or penchant for brunettes gave us Pride and Prejudice. Maybe the world has Wuthering Heights because Emily never found him; because he took the wrong turn on the moors and ended up marrying a nice girl with pretty ankles. Harry Potter might never have turned up if Rowling's husband hadn't left her first.

I'm not Jane Austen or Emily Bronte or JK Rowling, but it doesn't matter. I want to be building something, and creating something, and constructing something. Putting something together, instead of pulling it apart. And it doesn't even matter what it is; it can be anything. As long as I'm making something that wasn't there before I started.

So I'm turning my back completely on love, to see what will happen. To see if it makes a difference. To see if I can produce something without it, and stop taking myself apart because of it. To see if I can make a car out of lego, instead of wobbling my lip in the corner because of a boy.

There is nothing I can do to save my little five year old girl. I can just keep my fingers crossed, and hope that in 23 years she'll finally work out how to save herself.

And maybe start building with her bricks, instead of just throwing them around the room.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

Decisions

It's been ten days, now, since the break up, and - after ten whole days of back-to-back epiphanies, life crisises (or whatever the plural of life crisis is), semi-mad breakdowns, obsessive blogging and fits of intermittent crying, numbness and binge eating - I've totally changed my mind.

I still hurt like hell, and I still miss him to pieces, and I still love him to pieces (as well as actually wishing he was in physical pieces too, obviously: possibly as a result of something sharp and slicey), but this will not do. I am better than this; I am better than falling apart and running away because of a heartbreak, or because of a boy, or because of a judgement mistake. I will not be defeated by love, or forced out of an adventure, or forced out of a country before I've barely seen any of it. I will not slink back to England with my tail between my legs, broken and crying and two stone lighter, because of a man. It is not who I am, it is not who I have ever been, and it is certainly not who I am going to become now.

None of this is Japan's fault. I've tried to blame my unhappiness on it, but it has nothing to do with the country, and everything to do with me. I have achieved none of the things I came out here for: I have not written my book, I have not learnt more than a few words of a new language, I have not learnt to surf, I have not lived somewhere incredibly beautiful and I certainly have not found the romance and lifelong soulmate I thought I had found. I have seen almost nothing of Japan, I have met very few of its people, and I have made some excellent friends and spent hardly any time with them. Instead, I have sat on my own in the rain, crying over a mean boy who couldn't keep his pants on. In short: none of this has been Japan's fault, and all of it has been mine. I have let my own head and bruised heart ruin my adventure, and I'll be absolutely damned if I'm going to return home feeling foolish and pathetic and in pieces because I was too stupid and weak and in love to grab life properly.

So I'm coming back, and I'm starting all over again. I'm heading home for a week to see my friends and family, and to load up on all the love and Marmite and underwear I need, and then I'm flying back to Japan: to a brilliant new job that I've been offered in a totally different part of the country (right down South, in Miyazaki). This time it'll be sunny, it'll be by the sea, it'll be in the pretty countryside, it'll be shorter working hours and it'll be a large house and not a bedsit. I'll finish my book, I'll learn Japanese properly, I'll make friends with the locals, I'll learn how to surf, and I'll undo all the mistakes I made this time. I won't be lonely: I'll be free. I won't be isolated: I'll be enjoying peace and quiet. I won't be shut off: I'll be appreciating the local culture. And I won't be here for someone else, or for love. I'll be here for me.

There are some mistakes we make that we have to live with: that will follow us around forever. And there are some that we do not.

And this, I'm happy to say, is one of them. I do not have to live with this. It will not take me down. I'm returning to Japan, I'm taking this adventure back and I am going to make it mine again.

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Little earthquakes

Roughly two or three times a day, Japan experiences some kind of earthquake. Most are miniscule and barely noticeable - for the first month I just thought there was something in the water making my knees sporadically wobble - and some are slightly bigger. Now and then, though, there will be a shudder that is so severe and lasts so long that you end up crawling shakily down your bedroom ladder in the middle of the night and screaming crossly 'I don't have a bloody doorway to stand in' at nobody in particular (I live in a studio apartment).

Last night was one of those nights. There was a shudder that woke me up and left me staring at the ceiling and calculating - for at least twenty seconds - exactly what was positioned directly above me. And then, after I had done that, left me calculating for the following twenty seconds just how I felt about being crushed to death by my upstair neighbour's toilet.

"Did you feel it?" a friend asked me this morning at school.
"Of course I did," I said. "My flat is made of origami paper."
"That one freaked me out. You know The Big One is on its way?"
I nodded. I don't need to answer that: my friend tells me at least once a week that The Big One is on its way. It's seventy years overdue, actually. I know this because she also tells me at least once a week that it's seventy years overdue, actually.
And then she dropped the bombshell.
"What would you save?" she asked, prodding at her rice ball as if she hadn't just turned my life upside down.
"Eh?" I replied.
"What would you save? I mean, if - sorry, when - The Big One happens, what will you grab? I've already got my route all planned out, via my ancient teddy bear and laptop."
I stared into space blankly and tried unsuccessfully to think of something - anything - that meant anything to me.
"Nothing," I said in a small voice.
"Oh." She licked a grain of rice from her finger. "Ok, I guess you've not been here that long. What about if it was in England? What would you save then?"
I stared into space even more blankly.
"Nothing," I said in an even smaller voice.
"Nothing?" My friend stopped picking at food and looked at me. "Nothing? At all?"
"I don't really have anything to save," I said, and put my own rice ball down.

I don't. I have absolutely nothing I own - either in Japan or in England (which is lucky because I believe that everything I left behind got thrown out two minutes after I left) - that I couldn't lose in a moment and never, ever think about again. Not one thing. Not a piece of art, not a piece of jewellery, not an item of clothing, not a piece of technology, not a sentimental toy, not a diary, not a small scrap of blanket from my childhood: nothing. In fact, if my laptop got squashed it would arguably be deemed a mercy killing, considering its current age and state of health (and the same certainly goes for the contents of my wardrobe).

If the ground shook last night in real terms, it felt like it shook again for me this morning. I'm 28 years old, and I live like a nomad who doesn't actually travel anywhere. I live out of a suitcase, and if - say - my suitcase got lost in transit, it wouldn't make the slightest bit of difference to me: there's nothing in it that means anything to me at all.

"Wow," my friend said eventually. "You're, like, so non-materialistic." She paused. "I wish I could be more like that. I have twenty five pairs of shoes."

But she's wrong: it's not about being non-materialistic at all. It's about the opposite. It's about being too scared to have anything I care about in case I end up losing it. It's about refusing to allow myself to feel close to anything, in case I have to learn to live without it. It's about taking massive risks with my life all the time - quitting my career in PR, moving to Japan, writing a book, jumping off mountains - and yet never really taking the tiny, daily risks that mean that anything really touches me. It's about refusing to build anything because it means that I can't run away if I need to, and because it might all fall through to the ground in a mess.

Little earthquakes are good for Japan; they release the pressure that would otherwise build up and create The Big One, and they remind everybody that the ground is always, always moving and to be aware of just how fragile what they have built is. But, at the same time, it also reminds them how precious the things they have are, and how much they want to hold on to them. And, so, I think little earthquakes might be good for me too.

Because they've made me realise that it might finally be time to start building a life around me that I really want to save. Before I end up with a toilet on my head.

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Shopping lists

There is a conversation my dad and I have just outside Waitrose at least once a week (or we did, before I moved to Japan. That made it slightly less regular). It goes, almost without variation, like this:
Dad: "Did you bring the list?"
Me: "What list?"
Dad: "The shopping list."
Me: "I didn't know we had a shopping list."
Dad: "We always have a shopping list. It was on the breakfast bar."
Me: "Well, then, I obviously didn't bring the list, no."
Dad: "Then how the hell are we supposed to go shopping?"
Me: "Can't we just shop? We don't need a list."
Dad: "Of course we need a bloody list. How else do we know what to buy?"
Me: "By buying things we need when we see them?"
Dad: "And how do we know we need them?"
Me: "Because we get the same things every week?"
Dad: "Only because you keep forgetting the bloody list."

And then we go shopping, and we buy the same things, and we forget the same things, and we come out and - on top of the same old pasta sauce and chicken and broccoli and Quorn sausages - there is always, inevitably, something utterly incongruous: 500 teabags or five giant packs of ice or 3 family sized jars of a brand of coffee that nobody in the household actually likes. And then, when we're back at home, we'll unpack all the bags and stand in the kitchen and frown at each other and have a conversation that goes something like this:

Me: "Why the hell have we got a box of 500 teabags, dad?"
Dad: "It was on special."
Me: "But we don't drink tea."
Dad: "But it was on special."
Me: "But we still don't drink tea."
Dad: "Well other people do, Holly. Other people can drink it."
Me: "Who?"
Dad: "I don't know. Builders."
Me (looking round): "What builders? And 500 cups of it?"
Long silence.
Dad: "This is why we needed the bloody list, Holly."

Without a list, my dad argues, you're stuck in no man's land: forced into boring routine and habit to compensate for not knowing what you're doing, and also a victim of sporadic and irrational whims that you - or the builders who actually prefer coffee - end up seriously regretting. You need a list to keep you focused, and to keep you inspired, and to make sure that every 'special' offer doesn't turn your head. To make the trip bearable and smooth. And - perhaps most importantly - so that you don't end up with coffee decanted into little tiny jars tucked into every single drawer or cupboard in the house, which makes the whole place smell like a bad cafe and really, really upsets my mum.

I need a list. My life has turned into one big shopping trip in Waitrose, and it's all either horribly routine or stupidly outrageous, with little direction, little motivation and little inspiration. I'm just standing in the middle of the shop with my trolley completely empty and nothing to guide me around at all.

So I have decided to write one. A Write Girl, Write List; of all the things I want to do and see and feel and be before this huge shopping trip is over and I'm standing in the kitchen of life staring at my purchases and wondering why the hell I ever thought 5 tins of canned button mushrooms were a good idea. A list of hopes and dreams and ambitions; a list of the things I've always wanted and never really known I wanted before. A list that may take me some time to decide on, because I haven't got the foggiest idea where to start, or what I want, or what I need, or who I am, or how much money I have, or how much I need to buy, or even how big my trolley is. I have no idea at all.

Which - I think my dad would tell me - is exactly why I need to write one in the first place.

Monday, 1 March 2010

Dancing

Love is like a maypole.

For some people, it is the ribbons. It is brightly coloured, and always moving, and something to dance with. They wrap themselves with it, and - over time and with each dance - the patterns get more complicated, and richer, and more beautiful, and every dance brings its own movement with it.

For others, it is the pole. It is built into them - a part of what they are made of - and they are rigid with it, and always standing still, and unable to function without it. There is no colour and no movement in love, because it is simply needed to keep them upright. Without it there is nothing to pin the colours and the movement to. There is nothing to dance around. Without love, everything beautiful just ends up in a messy heap on the floor.

For me, I have finally realised - at the not very tender age of 28 - that love is the pole.

It always has been. It is part of the fabric of me. I have looked for love, and needed it, and wanted it, and chased it, even before I really knew what it was. From the books I read as a child, and the stories and music I listened to, and the poetry that made me cry - from the loneliness that has always been a part of me - love has been woven into my middle, and it is - and always has been - what motivates me, what inspires me, what scares me, and what keeps me upright. I simply cannot remember a time when I have not been falling in love, or trying to fall in love, or hoping to fall in love, or having my heart broken by love, or imagining that it is being broken by love when it isn't. I cannot remember a time when my entire being has not been focused on love: on the search for it, on the gain of it, on the loss of it. It is - I have finally realised - the point of me, and it is what I have built my life on. Waiting for it, finding it, and keeping it. Hoping - without ever realising that I am hoping - that it will save me. Complete me. Fix me. That love will one day make everything better.

It has not. And, I've finally realised, it will not. It will never save me. It is asking too much, and love is just not strong enough. It has not made me happy: even at my most loving, and my most loved, there was still a hole in the middle of me. It has not made me safe and whole: I am still alone, I am still scared, and I still feel like a fragment of something bigger. The more pressure I have put on love, the more I have demanded from it, the more I have wanted it, the less it has stood it: the faster it has buckled, the faster it has fled. I have thrown my life away for love - always somewhere else in my head, with someone else, instead of with myself in the present - and I have done it willingly, knowingly, and consciously. I have encouraged myself, as a 'romantic'. And it has not saved me. It has not made anything better at all.

Which can only lead me to one conclusion: the books and the poetry and the music that have made me who I am are all wrong. Love should not be in the middle of me. Love should not be what motivates me or inspires me. It should not be the pole.

It has taken me 28 years of loving, and losing, and yearning, and hurting - and throwing my life around to make room for it - to finally realise that the only thing love should ever be is the ribbons. That it should not be what I am made of: that it should not be what helps to keep me upright. That I have to be able to stand up without it. Otherwise it will always be rigid for me, it will always keep me standing still, and it will always, always fail.

Love should be the colours I tie to myself; the thing that makes me and my life more beautiful, not simply functional. I should be able to dance with it, and make patterns with it, instead of always being rigid with fear that if it disappears everything else will come down with it. I should be able to lose a ribbon now and then without falling over.

The only thing I can do is start again, and do it now. The only thing I can do is take myself completely away from love, and from the hope of it, and from the search for it, and learn who to be without it. To learn what I am made of on my own. To rebuild without love at the centre. And I don't even know where to start, or how long it will take. I don't know who to be, or what to do, and it is absolutely terrifying. But it is also absolutely necessary. Because I've realised, now - finally - that love is not the point of me. It is not all I am. I still exist without it: I am of value and importance without loving, and without being loved.

After a lifetime built on fairytales and happy endings, I am going to start looking for something else to hang my happiness from. So that perhaps one day love will be something I can wrap around myself without pressure, and dance with, and enjoy.

Something that will make my life more beautiful, instead of simply existing to hold me up off the floor.