Thursday, March 30, 2017

Morning Mass

I worship at your 7am mass
We are missionaries, 
Whispering prayers to one another’s backs
Feeling the morning’s light 
Caress us in its urgency

Saturday, March 11, 2017

The other side of Pura Vida

Oh, that’s the preventative pill, right? You don’t have something for a mistake with contraception that happened yesterday?” I asked at the counter of my small local Costa Rican pharmacy.

The junior pharmacist smiled sweetly at me. He must have been little older than 22 years old.

“You mean la píldora del día después? Oh, no that doesn’t exist here. Está prohibido,” he shared, looking kindly at me with something akin to camaraderie.

I did a double-take. We had experienced a fairly good pharmacist-client rapport until then. I tried again, certain that somewhere my Spanish had let me down.

“So what does a woman do here, in the case that her usual contraception has failed, as is the case for me?”

“Well,” he said, looking sweetly at me, “if your usual method of contraception fails, and you fall pregnant, then hay que tener un chiquitito.” He beamed, as if this was the greatest gift anyone could hope for. Abortion is illegal in Costa Rica.

I stared at him, not quite believing what I had heard. This whippersnapper was telling me, a 34 –year old woman new to his country, that if I fell pregnant, now, single, and living and teaching here, 6 months into a 2-year work contract; that if the unimaginable had happened and a split condom meant that I was now pregnant by a man I had known for three weeks, I was going to have to GIVE BIRTH TO A HUMAN BEING.

This kind-faced young man, still with traces of post-pubescent acne on his jawline, had laid eyes on me all of 2 minutes ago, and yet, here he was, telling me in no uncertain terms what I was to do with my body. The decision was made. Costa Rica said so. It was possibly the most powerful “computer says no” moment I have ever experienced in my life. And I’ve been to the DMV in New York City, where they have a lot of computer says no moments.

Before you judge me as some kind of promiscuous gringa; someone whose knicker elastic is as loose as her morals, some harlot who goes out corrupting young Costa Rican men with her worldly European charms and her tales of travel and the Theory of Knowledge (the subject I teach), let me make something clear. I’ve had three long relationships since the age of 16. My first lasted 6 years, and we stayed together all through high school and university. I slept with precisely no-one else aged 16-22. Then, upon that relationship ending, I fell in love with an older guy, and we were together for 2 years. He proposed.  I accepted. We realised we had made a mistake. I moved out to a shared house and slept with again, precisely no-one, until a few months later, when I met the guy who I thought was the love of my life. We were together 6 years, and we lived together for 5 of those, moving our lives and work from London to Barcelona. When that relationship ended in 2015, I had a few partners, but you could count them on one hand. I think I was fairly restrained, after a lifetime of sexual restraint. I like being choosy. Not that it should matter, choosing to be choosy is just that: a choice. An equally valid choice would have been to tear up society's rule book and go to wild sex parties, but I'm basically too much of a germaphobe.

In my life therefore I have taken the morning after pill exactly twice.  Once after a very young and very stupid experience with my very first partner, a manipulative older guy, aged 15 ¾, and once again last year, after a night with a close friend, a guy my age (we should have both known better – but – mojitos – and we trusted one another a lot. A pregnancy wouldn’t have been the end of the world, but he was moving to Colombia and I to Costa Rica.)

What I had taken for granted in my EU liberal bubble, I suppose, is how easily available that option had been to me. Even so, in my very first experience at a sexual health clinic, I was terrified. I was technically under the age of consent, by a month or two, and a nurse had to give me an extra assessment to ascertain if I was mentally able to make the decision to receive the morning-after pill without them informing my parent. They also had to check that I wasn’t asking for it as a result of abuse, or something untoward. I had to go with my high-school best friend, whose older sister knew where the clinic was, and assured us it would be confidential. I trembled throughout the assessment, feeling like I’d been sent to the school principal’s office. All of the nurse’s questions seemed designed to make me feel slutty and wrong.

My second experience was much more straightforward. I walked into a Barcelona pharmacy, asked for the pill, paid, and gulped it down. I sent a text to my friend to let him know. He treated me to an ice-cream and a hug, and we resolved to be more responsible.

In a different country, with a different prevailing set of beliefs, with a different partner, I too feel different. It was clear that my values and judgements about what was correct were not totally aligned with the law in Costa Rica. I'd noticed snippets of machismo in daily life here - catcalls, being called muchacha, or girl, by older men, enduring plenty of ogling - but I hadn't imagined that my right to a safe, legal way to control my fertility would have been questioned. After some heavy googling and plenty of frantic whatsapps on the subject, it became evident that Costa Rican women do of course have another method. The Yuzpe regimen, as explained by the World Health Organization, is an equally effective post-coital method of emergency contraception alongside the copper IUD and the morning-after pill. It's sightly more fiddly, requiring two megadoses of the combined ordinary pill taken 12 hours apart, but it exists. And boy, was I glad it did. But I had to question what I would have done had I found myself in the same situation aged 15 
¾. Or were I not an educated woman with access to information from trusted sources and not just the final word from a spotty pharmacist. I asked myself what the outcome might have been for a young Costa Rican girl living in a rural part of the country, or in a very strict Catholic household. I asked myself what many women must have to do in other parts of the world. And even as a committed feminist, a liberal, a teacher - I myself was shocked by how little time I had spent reflecting on what the reality of access to contraception and choice must be for many women worldwide.

For this, and so many other reasons, I marched on International Women's Day, March 8, here in San José, amongst thousands of other women and men, protesting femicide, domestic abuse, inequality, lack of access to legal and safe abortions, and the right for women living here to make their own decisions about their bodies' destinies, as well as their ability to work, live, love and exist without fear of judgement, harassment or comment. As I walked alongside people of all ages, holding placards with slogans like "Keep your rosaries off my ovaries", or "Ni una menos!" (a call to action on the number of femicides, several this year already shaking the bedrock of Costa Rican life to its core), I thought about a time when this won't be necessary. I hope I might live to see it. I also tried to think of my sweet junior pharmacist ever having someone tell him in no uncertain terms that he would have to be a father. (Maybe he already is.) That's the thing about this blinkered approach to birth control. It's offensive to men and women alike, robbing both sides of their sovereignty. It no doubt makes both genders feel trapped, and less trusting of the other. I wondered what the correlation is between countries with legal abortions and widespread access to birth control and equality of opportunity in terms of education, pay and opportunity. This paper from Georgetown University's Law Center helped answer my query.

Don't get me wrong, Costa Rica is a stunning place, with so much to recommend. Its people and way of life are often embodied by the phrase "¡Pura Vida!", which generally means, "no worries, no fuss, no stress, life is good", but I now see: there's still a little way to go.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Dinosaur Bones

We found
swatches of sea glass -
glitteringly littered near a half-broken, salt-eaten
backbone of a whale
or a dinosaur
large, antique, resilient bones
hugging the rocks
on a coastline
proudly facing a daily battle
with the ever-changing, ever-eroding, ever-exposing surf.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Too Much Tomato Soup, or Cognitive Bias & Curvy Edges

Have you heard of the More Exposure Effect? It's one of our best-loved biases as humans. It's the tendency to express undue liking for things merely because of familiarity with them. It explains why you (probably) love Heinz tomato soup, and would actively choose it over another generic supermarket brand. You've probably had more Heinz tomato soup in your life overall then other generic brands, and now you associate Heinz with what canned tomato soup actually is.

So, of course, this got me thinking about relationships. Tenuous allegorical link incoming.

What if you've only had quite a lot of one kind of tomato soup, and you get stuck thinking that's the only kind of soup out there? (I watched the soup nazi episode of Seinfeld recently, that must be where all these soup metaphors are coming from. I'll stop with that now.)

This past year and a half I've had to re-evaluate so hard, with so much effort, what kind of relationship I'd like, or need. I've been a newly single woman, after being in successive relationships basically since the age of 15,  heading towards her mid-30s. Just writing that line makes me feel neurotic. And yet I'm not. This year (well, now 18 months of self-discovery and singular alone-ness) has been some of the most life affirming time I've spent. Of course much of it has been in the company of others, but really, mostly in my own company. And I've lived a lot of life-affirming moments. But usually as part of a couple.

I know that I have an innate desire to be paired up with someone - my own bias, I admit. I like time on my own, and I value my independence fiercely, but there's something in me that needs to be tactile, needs to hear the breathing of another, needs to look into someone's eyes before the lights go out. I'm someone who finds joy in making breakfast for two, who likes to think about what the other would like to do, or see, or watch, who lives for planning unplanned road trips and weekend breaks, who wants to touch, and smell, and taste the other person in their life, living moments with their hands in my hair, and our legs intertwined on the sofa, and cooking soup, or singing, or dancing together. I actually quite like having private jokes, knowing looks and winks shared only between us. I would hate to be one of the "smug marrieds" but I think I'd make a pretty excellent matching jigsaw piece for someone. You know, with the weird curvy edges.

However,  I'm fairly sure that this bias for the familiar, for the neatly sewn-up, for the happily ever after, has caused me to outstay many a welcome in less-than-healthy relationships. Sure, I've learned something from every guy I've been with, and I hope I've taught them things too. But my former need to be paired - like my less-than-reliable cheap bluetooth speaker - has meant that maybe I've missed facing the music. (Another terrible analogy. I can only apologise). What I'm trying to articulate is that I finally feel like I can be alone, and I can be OK with that. It doesn't make me a failure, even as a woman of 34 years old who has many,  many paired-up friends. And although my lovers might come and go, I'm not going to try to "catch" one or hold on to him to meet some kind of former standard, or some societal norm. No, he shall remain out of my road trip plans, and out of my bed, unless his crazy matches my crazy, big time. And right now, I feel more likely to be able to spot a true kindred spirit, by knowing myself better than I might ever have done, at a hundred paces.

And that feels like growth, and it feels as good as making someone soup. But not tomato soup.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Three New Fledgling Poems

They're just tryouts, you understand. Feel free to give me feedback, I can take it. I think.


Sky and Sea meet, 
in a concordance of colour
a string of understanding connecting them.
They know one another's needs and they move together,
finding in one another
a perfect lovers' kind of peace.


I watched her walk into the waves
slowly heading for the horizon
her back was straight, her hair
long and untamed,
her eyes fixed on everything 
and nothing.
She walked until her feet 
were lifted from the earth
and the waves took her
back to the place where she
was born.


Whittle Me Away; just try!
Like driftwood, 
I'll often move with the tide
But I'll always have
My Own Form.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Om Shanti

a sound we make
to make us whole;
a terrifying prospect.
that all of us are merely halves
and shadows of our former selves

we twist this way and that
hold poses strong and fast
breathe deep, look in, not out
and let it go, they say

but only one half of me believes
in the wholeness of the self
without shadows of you.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Harvest Moon + Lunar Eclipse = Songwriting

I woke up this morning from a dream crying, and had to catch my breath upon waking.

I have one or two of these a year. Usually they're anxiety dreams about not having spoken to my mum enough, and I dream something has happened to her, and it makes me pick up the phone immediately. to check on her. They're my brain's way of telling me that I've been too self-absorbed and that I need to connect with the people that matter most to me. Because my mum and I only have one another, I think this is mild only-child-of-a-single-parent woe. 

This dream was different. It was about my ex, and it told me very clearly that the door to our connection was closing, and that my mind and body are re-assessing his influence in my life. I've been inside that process for nearly a year and a half,  more "officially" for a year, but after seeing a photo I hadn't meant to see, making it very clear that he had moved on and is in another relationship,  my brain started doing calculations in the background about what that meant for me. Maybe this weekend's full moon just made sure I'd caught myself up.

The truth is that I've also moved on, and moved very far away from our life together. I've dated others this year, sure, but mostly I've been working on making personal choices I know my older self will look back on and be proud of, after a heartbreaking rupture last spring made me question so many of the choices I had made over the past six years.

Apparently we're all feeling the effects this weekend of a giant harvest moon timed, unusually, with a lunar eclipse.  Our watery bodies are supposedly affected by the push and pull of the moon and this is a time of re-setting the emotional dial.  Here's the forecast for all of us from

This Eclipse may stir up some painful moments or some fears, but know that this is all so you can grow and flourish in the direction that you need to.  
While this Eclipse is helping to release the truth, it may also release any angers or frustrations that have been simmering beneath the surface. Emotions will be very high around this Eclipse and it may be difficult to see clearly at first.  
Know that the best way to channel this energy is into something creative. Writing, art and music are all excellent ways to channel any anger, frustration or heightened emotions that appear. 

 So I wrote a song about it (It's pretty terrible, but it'll be good to sing, in a somewhat PJ Harvey sermonising-style). My co-band member even wrote music for it already. Here goes.
Harvest Moon
You got me looking like a fool
Harvest Moon
I wake crying salty tears
Big rushing tidal fears
All alone in a stolid room
Emotion pushing through the gloom
All out of sorts, in my bed
I can't seem to find my head
My soul as heavy as deadened lead
I miss all the things you never said
Oh, Harvest Moon, you got me looking like a fool