Noting Winter

I always find winter difficult. Short days lengthened by darkness. Grey skies, low energy, and oppressive coldness. This year I told myself it would be different, that I would make this the winter I didn’t get the seasonal blues. Sadly not. My determination and difficulty forced me to realise that it’s not how I feel that I should work on but my expectations of myself.

Those days
Struggle to scramble out of bed
Eating from a dirty plate
Blank reflections
Speaking in the past tense:
I used to bask in dreams.

Our environments influence in so many subtle ways; a grey sky does more to us than we realise. Winter is a time to strip away the excess, to de-clutter and simplify. As energy levels decrease, so should the pressure. Your expectations of yourself shouldn’t be those of summer when you’re full of sunlight, but those of compassion. It’s a time to evaluate what counts and what can be held off, for now, to re-evaluate what brings you warmth or light in the cold, dark days. 

Deleting social media was the first step in making my days feel more spacious, freeing up the energy and concentration that really counts in winter. A gap had opened in my free time, I knew I needed to fill it with something creative; I knew I had to create to feel like I was getting through my days with purpose. It was then I decided to really start working on putting a collection together.

Instead of finding relief in creativity, though, I put more pressure on myself and caused a writer’s block. Turning from the blankness of my pages, I found inspiration in collections such as Louis MacNeice’s Autumn Journal, Ted Hughes’ Moortown Diary, and various photographers’ documentary works. I studied how they used the rhythms of their days to find resonance in the ordinary, to make poetry out of routine. A notebook and camera accompanied me everywhere.  

Filling empty pages with days instead,
Transcribing ordinary,
Finding rhythm in the sombre close-in-cold
Of the year after.

Slowly, a documentary of an uncertain period has come together: the year after Covid first hit, a time of the dreary back and forth between lockdowns, the tolerance of latent anxieties, and the experience of isolation that I’m currently writing from. I feel that I hid behind the technical aspects of the poetry in my first collection, here I’ve stripped the poems down and put myself and the world around me forward.

I only feel normal in words
Poured in my eyes or out my fingers 
Words end however

If my last collection was of songs for lost moments, then these are the notes those lost moments play; the ordinary and isolated parts that would normally lead to a more conceived poem. 

Longing for the song in the streets,
Walking, walking, lost, lost, lost,
Tossed and turned corners fleeting,

Winter Notes documents my approach to the dark season, it’s impressionistic, spontaneous, and experimental. Accompanying the poems will be a selection of black and white images, not necessarily corresponding to the words, but standing as texts themselves. 

Fog warps all
Dead sunflowers slouching on fields
Appear like dizzy ghosts  

Unlike Songs For Lost Moments, this collection has no end and keeps growing every time I open my notebook. Making it has taught me to slow down, lower my expectations, and strive for ease in difficult times. I hope it will do the same for you. I hope your winter hasn’t been too cold. Remember:

Be kinder to yourself in the dark.

Motion, Manchester

Tram toots by: I let it pass and cross the pulsing tracks of St. Peter’s Square.

Here. People circle the square like clock hands, winding around their timetables, flooding at the turn of the hour, invisible after the bell. Skateboards and rollerblades weaving round the yellowing trees, disturbing the busy bodies in motion, marching through the gap in the clouds with their umbrellas as walking sticks.

Walls narrow as I head down the Oxford Road Corridor, encased by metallic buildings shimmering and echoing the brief glints of sunlight down the long pass. 

This is my familiar walk, busied like before the world switched online. Memories of Manchester’s sleepless street dimmed with every quiet stroll down to the half-closed library, yet now I’m confronted with the past and how strange it was. 

Defamiliarised as if new, fresh city energy beats bold and bare.

The endless stream of cyclists, buses, taxis, cars wavers down to the crossroads by the station. For months, I crossed this quiet and ignorant of red and green lights; now, every corner of my vision is motion, novelty, colour. I get through the disorder and march on into the parade of pavement people.

Under the bridge; a train slides above, pulling with it a fresh sheet of rain. Pavements slick-shine and umbrellas flash up iridescent clouds. The density of bodies zipped up in raincoats surges as the universities approach. I dive into the rain-darkened throng, another hood among many.

My head swings left: hooded blind spot near collision with a curving bus. My head swings right: a soaked beggar shakes a sparse soggy cup for change. Left: a face, tired and wet. Right: a beaming rain-spat smile. Left, right, up, down: clouds of shisha smoke that smell like birthday cake, shopping bags gaining watery weight, a small child gripping her mother’s hand, water-catching pigeons parting the mist, Beamers in the bike lane accumulating fines, off and on single lines through sliding bus doors,  a cloud darker than the rest, a painter painting the chaos under a tarp, Fleet Foxes harmonising from the fruit stand speaker, a crisp packet stuck to a foot, soggy leaves a dark yellow damp debris, the smell of chlorine, shower-slicked instrument-case turtle-shells bobbing at the commencement of the green man across the crossroad estuary.

A brief interlude between campuses – rain eases off, hoods unleash a momentary waterfall; faces wipe, fringes damp; umbrellas shake spits of cold into freshly lit eyes, weary from the shimmering-shattered-week’s worth of images accumulated so far. Were cities this alive before lockdown? Or are my memories of barren streets just dreams? Quiet seem a vague impossibility, yet this stroll seems equally unreal. I’m stuck questioning what normal ever was and what it means now. 

Breathless, I enter the revolving doors of the library, hairpin left and head into the quiet, neglected corner, the home of my studies two years ago. I sit with a full view of the quad, lit by new patches of blue-sky above. Again, the people wind like clock hands and silence by the bell; the circular rhythm of modernity back in motion.

Wind rudely crashes through the trees and gushes out yellow-yellow-red leaves, curious squirrels investigate the rubble of the year; doing as they have done all along, as we re-attune to the rhythm. 

Strolling Down Sleepless Street
Rhythm of Dreams

Plant-Based Philosophy

Being vegan for a year has been great, I’m constantly feeling energised and alive, but I’ve found that the biggest change has been my worldview. Veganism is more than a diet: it is a tool for improving yourself and your connection with the world.

Especially in these strange times, swarmed by news of the pandemic and the climate crisis, there’s a lot of value in a reconnection with nature, in seeing ourselves as part of rather than apart from or greater than the world around us.

Switching diet was daunting at first, I had to eat a very balanced and varied diet to get all the necessary macronutrients. This required research and mindfulness about what I consumed, and what I realised in this slow process of education was the ingenuity of nature and how our interactions with it have engineered plants.

Each plant is grown for a purpose, each is filled with different fuel for the body. Our bodies are diverse spaces of compounds absorbed from what we consume. We are what we eat.

When scanning the ingredients of processed food, I couldn’t help but notice all these chemicals and additions I could barely pronounce. Items of food that claimed to be ‘healthy’ filled with additives, frightening amounts of added salts and sugars, fruits that never seemed to go off. 

Mass production has completely removed food from its natural origin. Our nourishment has been ousted by the profit incentive, no surprise there – but what does this mean for the items we consume to survive?

Your body is a vessel that you experience life through, meaning you can control your quality of life through what you feed it. You wouldn’t put dodgy fuel into your car, so why would you put it into your body?

Such thoughts naturally lead to a whole food diet, turning to the plants that we cooperated with nature to engineer – but what about meat?

Farm animals are predominantly herbivores; why, then, would I get fuel from an animal who gets its fuel from plants, especially when such farming is destroying the environment that creates the plants that we both feed on?

I cut out the middleman and eat what made these animals strong before they were forced into farms: if I want to be strong like an ox, I eat like one; I nourish myself with nature’s tools rather than the additional step of animal abuse. 

Remembering: a cow’s cry is not so different from a dog’s, which is not so different from our own. 

Surrounded by concrete and bricks, it can be easy to forget that we are part of the same system that paints landscapes green in Spring, puts feathers on a parrot’s wing, synchronises a pod of dolphins, curves a mountain’s back, and stripes a tiger’s side. Reminding ourselves of this is key for the future of a world with us in it. 

No diet is perfect and a whole food vegan diet is hard to fully commit to, but an ideal to aspire towards goes a long way, because it is ideals that pull us forward towards the future with active hands and open eyes rather than passive steps and sleepy thoughts. 

Veganism has brought me more strength, vitality, and happiness than I’ve ever had, especially in these strange times.

Knowing that my sustenance and nourishment does not directly stem from death and suffering is an empowering feeling – it could be the feeling that saves us from the worst of climate change.

References
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Redefining Masculinity (May 2020)

The traditional masculine figure seems as out of place in the modern day as those that enforce it. Hegemonic masculinity was surely helpful for Roman warriors as they charged into battle against all odds, but for people like me – a young man whose battles with identity are more abstract – it is not so helpful. 

Gender identity, for some, is a powerful tool for self-liberation and growth, but how can such a narrow view of masculinity benefit someone who feels at odds with its very construction, despite the societal expectation to align with it? 

Men are supposed to be: ‘Strong’. ‘Courageous’. ‘Independent’. ‘Leaders. ‘Assertive’. 

It all lies in perspective. These general qualities of masculinity are typically bound up in restrictive ideas about how they should be embodied. Even the term ‘masculinity’ implies the existence of a single, definitive masculinity, which ignores the shifts of culture, society, and even of our selves which occur through a lifetime. So, as suggested by sociologist Raewyn Connell, it is more appropriate to refer to ‘masculinities’ rather than a catch-all ‘masculinity’, accepting its potentially infinite variations and constantly changing nature. This also means that these supposedly foundational aspects of masculinity are equally diverse in the varying masculinities they embody. 

Why should we search outwards for our gender identity, shouldn’t it come from within? By recognising our own individuality and our own versions of what it means to be ‘masculine’, gender identity can serve as a positive and empowering tool, rather than a narrow, irrelevant standard. 

This can be achieved by re-evaluating those terms, what constitutes ‘masculinity’ traditionally, to see what ‘masculinity’ means to you. This is how I find liberation from societal standards and use identification with masculinity for positive means rather than anything so-called ‘toxic’. 

STRENGTH

Masculine strength is typically depicted in terms of power and is defined by its exertion upon others. This is not a healthy measure of my worth. It is natural to have days when I falter or feel weak physically or mentally, and I have nothing to gain from exerting myself over others. 

For me, a more reliable measure is strength of purpose. Realising what makes me feel fulfilled, setting goals, and measuring my strength by how I achieve them. This makes strength a much more quantifiable and realistic measure of my character, rather than simply my physical strength, or appearance of.

Connection with others, exercise, and creative hobbies are the most obvious examples. By anchoring my strength to these notions, rather than my physical prowess or ability to exert myself upon others, I create a consistent metric of my character and influence myself to pursue the means that enrich my happiness and identity. 

COURAGE

Lack of fear is something always bound up with masculinity – the idea that men must face adversity headstrong and un-feeling. This simply isn’t realistic. Humans are made to feel, whether it be elation or anxiety.

Courage for me is not an end, it’s a means. It is something I strive and work for, through challenge and struggle. Challenging myself in one area of life can make things easier in another. It is by failing that we grow. Courage is not something to be defined by lack of failure or anxiety, but our ability to persevere through with whatever means. Whether alone or with help, the result of overcoming these issues is the same.

Courage can be measured by consistency. By challenging myself and doing what I can to stay true to my identity. It’s not in repression, but the very opposite. It’s in feeling and continuing to feel, even if we find ourselves in difficult times, that we are brave. 

INDEPENDENCE

The notion that men must not express emotion is something that has been challenged in recent years, but it remains hauntingly present. Feelings and emotions are processed through expression and vocalisation, not repression. Likewise, the idea that a man must not depend on others and find reliance only upon their self is a similarly damaging belief.

For me independence can instead be found in the recognition of my own unique individuality; that my identity is my own and depends entirely upon my understanding of it. Expression and connection with others are perhaps the most powerful tools in realising your own identity. Equally, it’s found in recognising that everyone has their own individuality, and learning to recognise, respect, and accept this too. 

Seeking help, communicating with others, or simply depending on others does not undermine my masculinity, for I find my independence in my individuality, and I preserve it by nurturing and developing it. 

LEADERSHIP & ASSERTIVENESS

Being a leader and being assertive are, like strength, measured traditionally by their relation to others. This isn’t a productive way of measuring my identity. Leadership isn’t always necessary and being assertive can be oppressive or contribute to a sense of hierarchy. 

Instead, I believe that turning these traits inwards allows for their benefits to be seen outwards.

I strive to be a leader of myself: to know my purpose, identify with my independence, and find the courage to express and fulfil these foundational aspects of my masculinity. In confidently leading yourself, you become a leader in a way that is perhaps greater than any – you lead by example. 

I try to be assertive through clarity not through force; by seeking to understand my emotions and being in touch with them however tumultuous or complicated they are. In doing so, I’ve realised that expression and connection can fuel a happier mind. Asserting yourself through force means that you are communicating not through clarity, but a lack of, and this not only highlights the weakness of your own identity but also damages your connection to others.

Become a leader of yourself, learn to assert yourself through clarity and connection, not force, and masculinity becomes a tool for greater self-growth and connection.

CONCLUSION

One of the greatest misconceptions of gender identity is the belief that its traits are inherent, not requiring nurturing and growth, and that they are fixed, not subject to personal definition and fluctuation.

By re-evaluating traditional notions of masculinity, anchoring them around positive and personal definitions, and seeking actively to develop them, masculine gender identity has gone from an oppressive and reductive force to one that has empowered and developed my identity. I’m no longer comparing my masculinity to the unrealisable standards of Roman warriors, athletes, or models; I am comparing my unique masculinity to my own standards and values, striving to grow as measured by my own terms. 

[Originally written in May 2020 for Peach Street Magazine; edited and updated since]

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