I have yearned to step into another world all my life.
Growing up devouring books, I longed to travel to Narnia where trees came alive and animals talked; to Olympus to watch the bickering gods; to wander Moomin Valley with Snufkin; to go to the Chalet School where there were no bullies and it was all right to be a bookworm; to the clean open prairies and simple life of Laura Ingalls Wilder, to the ordered drawing rooms of Agatha Christie, where justice always prevailed.
I wrote about fantasy worlds filled with mystical beasts or a facsimile of the real world in which, less likely than unicorns and dragons, people were kind to one another and learnt their lesson.
I can’t really remember a time when another world didn’t often look more appealing than the one I lived in. My father introduced me to current affairs when I was very small (probably far too small). I didn’t know what it was all about, simply that people were killing each other and suffering for reasons which no-one could adequately explain. Perhaps adults should bear this in mind: if you can’t justify something to a four year old, it may be because that something is completely unjustifiable.
By the time I was eighteen, I feared that I would never see adulthood because the people in charge all seemed to want to start a nuclear war. I was furious that all those “old” men (with the support of at least one “old” woman) wanted to destroy the world before we, the young, had had a chance to show how things should be done.
When I was growing up, female role models were confusing: dolly bird (probably promiscuous – good for a dirty weekend but not wife material), frustrated spinster (ugly but filled with ludicrous desire – a figure of fun), career woman/possible lesbian (all she needed to do was meet the right man), or of course the pinnacle: good wife and mother. Similar stereotypes applied to different ethnic or national groups, people of different sexual orientations, people of different religions. It didn’t seem possible to be just a human being.
When I was fifteen, I started writing a novel and created a country run on matriarchal grounds. I believed that women would run things better than men. I thought it would be more equal, fairer; that compassion would hold greater value than power. Then I discovered that women in politics can be just as ruthless and cruel as men; not simply to keep their end up, but because women are capable of cruelty and indifference in the same way that men can be gentle and nurturing. It’s not a gender thing. It never was a gender thing. Some people are kind and others cruel. Even when the cultural norm is for a distant father and an indulgent mother, the reality is something else entirely. People are just people.
And right now, people make me cry. Discrimination and racism makes no sense at all and yet people are marching in support of it. How can anyone say “we’ll look after our people according to our needs, and you look after yours according to yours” when everyone’s needs are the same: food, shelter, respect, purpose, love. Our skins protect our insides; our skull is supposed to be where we keep a brain. The shape and colour are irrelevant. Our cultural heritage is often a red herring. Most, if not all of us are descendants of populations which have been over-run, invaded, enslaved for centuries. (I wish, I wish every racist could be DNA tested.) Politics and religion can create an ethical framework, they need not be an excuse for prejudice, murder, cruelty and stupidity.
Over the years, I have often wished I could get off the world and step into somewhere that made more sense. Sometimes, it was because I was depressed or bereaved. Nowadays, it’s because I’m angry. I cannot believe what has been happening in the last few years, what deep-rooted hatreds and divisions have been exposed and are being excused as reasonable in my own country and countries where I thought people were moving forward not backward.
When I was a teenager, I thought that the majority of my generation, if given the opportunity, would create a world without man-made suffering or inequalities; would heal the environment and that people would no longer be discriminated against on the grounds of… well, anything.
Well guess what, now I’m no longer a teenager. The “old men” in politics are my own generation give or take a decade. Some of them are younger.
What happened to us? What happened to the great democracies who prided themselves on being fair? Was the move towards equity just a thin veneer over underlying hatred?
I despair. I feel beyond horrified, that another person was capable of driving into a group of other people, prepared to kill; that not just leaders but members of the public are talking about nuclear war as if it’s excusable.
People are still prepared to stand up for what’s good and true. There are many of us, hopefully the majority, who want the world to be a better place, not just for others like ourselves but for everyone. These days seem an unpleasant reflection of the 1930s. I hope that we retain the freedom to pass on the baton to the next generation and that they will continue driving forward towards a fairer future.
Yes I sometimes long to step away, to set foot in an imaginary world where everything is all right. I want to read or write about it. But it is only for a while, because I also love the world I’m in. I love its beauty, I love the creative and compassionate potential of every human. Perhaps this is why writers and artists and musicians make alternative worlds – because they want to hold up a mirror to what is and show a vision of what could be.
I just want the world to pause in joy, peace and awe, rather than spiral into destruction at the hands of those who are so stupid, so full of hate, they cannot see the wonder and potential of everyone and everything around them.
Words and photograph copyright 2017 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission