Nervous First Interview with the Subject of My New Ghostwriting Project: LGBT She-Ra!

I contacted ‘LGBT She-Ra’ a few weeks back to see if she would do me the honour of sharing her life story, to potentially create a memoir together. I should add at this stage that ‘She-Ra’ is not her real name. It does, however, reflect what an absolute warrior she is – a warrior of the heart.

She-Ra was thrown out of the Navy for being gay in the seventies and went on to love fearlessly within the confines of a relationship that was destined to always remain a secret, even from those she loved the most, even after her partner’s death a lifetime later. She is a hero and her story fascinated me. So why was I nervous?

I had met She-Ra already on a number of occasions and we had clicked well, which is half the battle won. I was excited to hear all about her life, I had set up the Zoom meeting, got my snacks, notebook and flask of tea ready (I panic when if I don’t have easy access to tea), but I was fidgety. Excited, but unable to settle.

I think it’s because I had been proactive and approached her – it’s usually the other way around – and she had taken a while to get back to me. I assumed that I had overstepped the mark in some way, that I was hoping for too much from her, because asking someone to trust me enough to share their entire life story is massive. I was asking her to lay herself bare, to think about painful memories that she may not have wanted to revisit, to speak her truth, however difficult that may have been. When she finally got back to me, however, she was far from offended; she was just surprised that anyone would care about her story. She’s a sixty-seven-year-old woman now. Why would anyone care about her experiences? It’s funny how we’re blind to how incredible our own lives have been.

So, I was satisfied that she was happy, but it didn’t stop me twisting myself up in a knot, obsessively trying to make sure that the whole experience was okay for her. I created a framework to make her feel safe, deciding that we would speak for just an hour at first, so she would see it as a finite process and not feel stuck with me. I wrote a bunch of prompts and questions, nothing too intrusive to begin with, mostly sticking to her timeline, and she could elaborate when she felt comfortable. I didn’t want there to be any uneasy silences where she felt uncomfortable. And I would make sure that we ended on something positive, rather like the way a counsellor ends a session. She lives alone now, and we’re in lockdown; I didn’t want to send her away with the weight of her own grief or injustice on her shoulders.

I told my girlfriend all about my welfare provisions, and she gave the pat on the head that I always need when I’m being a bit weird, and at 6.30 p.m. she appeared in my waiting room and I welcomed her onto my screen. After a few minutes of pleasantries – a discussion about lockdown hair and our mutual experiences of past crew cuts – she said, “So how do you want to do this?”

Referring to my notes and the rigorous plan I had to control the environment and every second of our exchange, I told her (relaxed, like!) that I thought we could start with a rough timeline.

“Well,” she enthused. “I was born in 1953 …”

Two and a half hours later, she was still talking. She had taken me through her childhood and the navy years, with more bravery than She-Ra facing off against the shape-shifting Catra on the smoky plains of Planet Etheria (Thank you, Google!).

I needn’t have worried at all, and at the end, when I thanked her, she couldn’t believe that she had spoken for so long either. She’s normally a listener.

“I guess I’ve lived my whole life in secret,” she told me. “I want to be heard.”

So, this week, I am grateful for LGBT She-Ra, for not only being an absolute gift with her honesty and ability to articulate her story, but for reminding me of how important stories like hers are, and how privileged I am to be in a position to listen to them and pass them on … Oh, and that maybe I just need to chill out and trust that everything will be okay.

Follow Hayley Sherman, Writer

@hayleystories

Learning to Breathe Again. A Therapy Session I Will Never Forget

I am sitting opposite my counsellor, not just crying but sobbing with unstoppable force. Her head is tilted, eyes softened, with the helpless sympathy of a woman who just doesn’t know what to do. It’s eighteen months ago. She nudges the box of tissues towards me, but I’m crying too much to reach out to them. The waves of despair hit me over and over again, and I genuinely can’t stop. The panic is rising, because I might die here, of crying. Has anyone ever died of crying before? But I can’t stop, and surely the only end to this level of grief is death. I’m going to drown in my own tears while the sun shines in through the window and my counsellor looks on.

Six months before, I had suffered a catastrophic loss and my world had caved in. I had caved in. I was immobilised by grief, but unavoidably, life goes on. I was now learning to put one foot in front of the other, to be in the world again and cope. I hadn’t been in this terrifying emotional state for a while, and yet it was more intense than ever. I was a heroin addict overdosing on a single hit after a period of abstinence. This last explosion of emotion was going to steal the life from me. I had been getting better. I thought I had been getting better. I thought I could cope. And now I was back to the beginning again.

“Close your eyes,” she whispers.

I take a deep, helpless breath, but I trust her, so I do as she says. I close my eyes.

“You’re in the river,” she says. “It’s choppy, too choppy, wild. It’s throwing you around. You’re drowning.”

What the hell is she trying to do? My panic intensifies, grows colour around it, as I’m thrown around by the unyielding current. How is this helping?

“You try to reach out, but there’s nothing to save you. The current is too strong and you are powerless. The flow gathers momentum, rushes over you, forcing you under.”

This is it. This is the moment that I might actually die. A fresh wave of despair hits me. I’m dying.

“Now, all at once, you use all of your force to jump out of the river. You’re standing on the bank looking down at the chaos. The water is thrashing and foaming, splintered branches are dragged along by the fierce current, but you are safe. You can feel the earth beneath your feet, the grass between your toes. It’s all still there, but you are no longer in it. You are safe.”

Unimaginably, the most incredible feeling overtook me even as she told me to jump out of the river. I gasped as if I had been underwater and was breaking the surface. And then, unbelievably, I was calm, genuinely calm, my tears drying in an instant. The river was still as hungry for me as it had been before, still raging and snarling with promises of death, but I was out of it. As she said, I was safe.

Breaking free of the river was such an incredible, visceral lesson, exemplifying something that I knew intellectually and had experienced through meditation, but I had never felt it with as much force. In meditation, we learn that we are not our thoughts; we are the thinker of our thoughts. Cross-legged, we close our eyes, free our mind and become the observer of the endless dialogue running through our minds, committing to simply watching thoughts drift past without judgement, without engaging with them. Eventually, the mind calms, the thoughts become fewer and further between, and if we’re lucky, we eventually find the silence.

This gives us incredible freedom from the unwelcome and spiralling thoughts that keep us awake at night, or simply from the inane chatter of our monkey minds that will prattle on endlessly and repetitively if left unchecked – about bills and shopping lists, about what the woman in Sainbury’s really meant by what she said to me last week by the checkouts.

That day with my counsellor, I was presented with a new revelation. We are not our emotions either. Just as we are the thinker of our thoughts, we are the feelers of our emotions. Just as we can distance ourselves and even control the spaghetti junction in our heads, with practice, we can step back from our emotions and return to our calm centre, even when they are overwhelming, even when we think we might die of the pain or anger, the sorrow or grief. As far as revelations go, it’s a biggie.

I am grateful that this powerful experience and realisation came to mind this week because I can feel the first signs of anxiety and depression scratching at the door again. I have been writing a memoir about my experiences over the last two years, which has brought old emotions to the surface, and although I’m trying to stay positive, like most people, I’m struggling with lockdown. So, this week I’m grateful to have simply remembered that the river exists – no more, no less. I can’t pretend to have mastery in this area, but the option to feel the cool, solid earth under my feet, respite from the chaotic emotions I am currently feeling, if only for a short while, is a welcome one … to be able to breathe again.

Follow Hayley Sherman, writer …  @hayleystories

Opera Glasses and a Packet of Frazzles: Visiting the Theatre in the Middle of a Pandemic

I can’t believe I just wrote those words – visiting the theatre in the middle of a pandemic. The NHS is straining at the joints, with doctors and nurses risking their lives on a daily basis, and I’m standing on my bloggy doorstep clapping for the National Theatre. Yes, I was happily listening to the wireless and dancing as the Titanic went down. War? What war? I was having a picnic and playing Cluedo at the time.

But I am genuinely grateful that the National Theatre has decided to stream productions into my living room via YouTube once a week. I couldn’t be more grateful, in fact, because for a whole day we’re able to pretend that we don’t have to stay in, that the world isn’t slowly falling apart at the seams, that we’re normal.

This Thursday, it was our anniversary.

“I wonder if you’ll do me the honour of joining me at the theatre tonight?” I asked sheepishly, as if she might have something better to do.

We’ve been having conversations like this since the lockdown began.

“Where shall we go today? Brighton? We could see our friends, have a paddle, check out La Choza. Nom Nom Nom.”

Sometimes we lick our lips, smile, and let our imaginations take us there. Sometimes we don’t.

But this was real. This was a way out of our ‘Stay at Home’ for a few hours. This was an event.

“We could get dressed up, move the sofa, put the light out, grab the opera glasses and Frazzles.” (Our snack cupboard was looking a bit bare.)

So we did. I in my long pinstripe jacket and bowtie, hair oiled back and moustache drawn on with eyeliner pencil. She in her flapper dress and boa. I have no idea where she found the peacock feather to stick in her hair, but it was a nice touch.

And I’m grateful for the countdown on YouTube before the show began, during which we chatted about how the traffic wasn’t too bad getting there, but we wished they sold better snacks; how I had to queue for ages for the toilet and came back with toilet roll stuck to the bottom of my shoe; how we hoped that the woman in front of us would take off her exceptionally large hat before the show began.

And then the theatre darkened, the curtain rose, and we spent the next few hours laughing at the farcical antics of James Corden and co in One Man, Two Guvnors, breaking only, perhaps ironically, to join in the actual doorstep clap for the NHS at 8.00 p.m., in full costume, before walking back down the dark aisle to find our seats again (H24 and H25 – not too bad for the money we paid, but we would have preferred the stalls, and the man sitting next to me could have slurped his champagne a little less noisily).

I’ve read tweets this week by people who question the worth of financially supporting the arts in these troubling times. I wonder if these same people have done any of the following during their isolation: watched Netflix, TV, YouTube, read a book, magazine, poem or blog, listened to music, a podcast, an audiobook, gazed at a picture on the wall that made them smile or reminded them of better times, been moved by photography or dance or even simply sustained themselves with conversations and memories of times spent exploring the visionary architecture, galleries, theatre productions and festivals of their past … I could go on.

Art, in its many forms, takes us places, gives us freedom, and this is more important than ever as our world seems to get a little bit smaller every day. It makes us laugh or cry and helps us to escape our insecurities and fears, and if we’re lucky, it teaches us a little about the human condition, strengthens and restores us, so we’re able to cope and even find a way to be useful when, for most of us, it feels like our hands are tied.

So, I guess, I’m not just grateful to the National Theatre, but to anyone who has ever picked up a pen, a paintbrush, a guitar, a camera or anything else that can be used to create. I can’t imagine this time without you.

Follow Hayley Sherman …  @hayleystories

Lamb Bingo: A Walk in a Field in Lockdown

It’s such a small, frivolous thing to be thankful for when the world has been brought to its knees by influenza’s older, demented half-brother, with a chip on his shoulder and daddy issues, but we were walking out in a nearby field for our daily exercise, shielding our eyes from the early-evening, orange blush, already grateful enough for such glorious spring colours, when the familiar sight of grazing sheep came into view. And then we saw them … tiny, skipping miracles in the grass around them, newly born into the world, tens of them, just days into their earth experience – hopping and nursing, one of them curled up on its mother’s back.

It’s such a small, frivolous thing to be thankful for when the world has been brought to its knees by influenza’s older, demented half-brother, with a chip on his shoulder and daddy issues.

We raced over. We thought they were tiny dogs to start with (neither of us passed our farm animals GCSE). But no, they were lambs alright. And we were blessed to be there, to be permitted to walk through such a serene and peaceful painting, full of life. There wasn’t a soul around. It was just for us.

We took pictures and made videos, and as always, we laughed. We’ve been doing that a lot over the last few weeks, which is surprising considering we no longer have to turn on the news to find out that the world is a frightening place, but the human condition is a strange one. We laugh at the memes and videos our friends send us, of the innovative ways that people are considering wiping their bums in a time that we deludedly hope to look back on as nothing more than the great toilet roll crisis of 2020. We laugh at each other and the stupid ways we pass the time – anyone for tampon tennis? And we have both been shocked by the dark, dark jokes that emerge at a time like this, which could never be repeated outside of the two of us.

Back in the field, we laughed at the numbers on the lambs’ backs – anyone for lamb bingo? We laughed when one of us suggested calling social services on number 47, who would obviously rather be off flirting than feeding her lamb, who’s buggered off and joined 51, although baby 51 has other ideas. Then we ruminated on how cruel it is that lambs, which are so cute, lovable and full of energy, eventually become the rounded, dowdy frumps that are nursing them, the irony not lost on us that we are both becoming more and more like our own mothers every single day.

In between laughing and taking photos, there were moments of silence. And I think we both felt it. Not just gratitude, but peace and calm. If we could just stay here. If we could just stay here forever, then … I have no idea. But neither of us wanted to leave. We could almost feel the earth taking a sigh with us, her relief obvious, enjoying a temporary reprieve in her own battle against raging disease. And then it was over. We were losing light, getting hungry and had to leave this perfect moment behind, but we were smiling for the rest of the day.

Follow Hayley Sherman, writer …  @hayleystories

Being Disqualified from the Thinking Olympics for Doping: How Steroids Are Messing With My Brain

I’m a buzzed-up giant. The washing machine in my head is spinning my clothes for the 800th time although they’re already clean. I’m a whirr. I’m polo-mint breath puffed onto an eyeball. I’m running three marathons dressed as the end. I’m tinfoil in a microwave and a thousand thoughts in a thimble. I’m a thousand warts in a wimble, and my brain is not my own. I’m a buzzed-up giant – snorted a trail of coke from one end of the street to the other with a scaffolding pole lodged up my nose and now my sun roof won’t close. It won’t close. It won’t close. Stop washing my clothes. Ahhhhh!

And breathe.

I’ve been prescribed steroids before, but I forgot quite what they do to the brain. It really is like being on class-As 24/7, and I haven’t touched anything like that since my insides were young and beautiful and it didn’t take me a week to get over the comedown. It’s not worth it now. Same with drinking. At what point exactly between thirty and forty will nothing short of a blood transfusion from a four-year-old, vegan, pure-thoughted, Icelandic child stave off a week-long hangover, the days of partying all night and going to work the next day a distant memory?

For me, this amplified-thinking hell with no off-switch has taken the form of obsessive inspiration, and I’ve channelled my relentless brain energy into writing. I’ve had no choice. I’ve been almost delirious in the middle of the night with more thoughts than I can possibly process, let alone write, tapping away on my laptop like a Tasmanian devil at a piano. It’s been great for productivity, but that level of obsession and activity is exhausting and almost painful. And aside from the obvious fraying of my sanity, there’s another issue. Although I decided that I wouldn’t make any major changes in the way I work or do anything rash in this time of madness, I haven’t been able to stop myself, and I’m a little worried that I might have trashed my life.

I devoured The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and immediately started to organise myself in a way that I have never been able. In the same way doped runners can smash world records, I was a time-management ninja on my way to a gold. The second ‘habit’ encourages readers to write a mission statement for their life. I’m reading mine now and can’t help noticing that it doesn’t necessarily represent or reflect the me that existed, live, breathed, thought and was sailing the ship for the first forty-two years, six months and four days of my pre-steroid life. No, this two-week-old, drug-addled incarnation has produced bullet points that never occurred to me before I was Super Hayley. Apparently, fiction is out and the truth is everything. If I’m going to write, it has to be honest. It has to be me. If I’m going to bother doing this, it has to be real. I write the life stories of others for a living and expect them to lay themselves bare for me. This is what I should be doing. So my detective and sci-fi works-in-progress have gone out the window, my paid work has taken a back seat, I’ve changed my name, started running again, and I’ve overhauled my website to preach truth and honesty. I’ve officially taken leave of my senses.

My partner is checking everything I’m writing because I’ve lost all sense of perspective and quality control. It could be terrible. I could have filled pages and pages with shopping lists and recipes for bean stew for all the awareness I have. But, surprisingly, she tells me it’s beautiful and I’m brave, and it’s incredible to be that honest. This means the world to me.

The steroids have also shut down all those annoying voices in my head that tell me, despite my many achievements and evidence to the contrary, that I’m not good enough, that I have nothing original to say, that I should just switch on the TV and eat cake instead, and for that I am truly grateful.

But what happens when the course is over, when I stop being Hayley 2.0, the very best, most productive, creative, confident and well-organised version of myself, and return to regular Hayley who likes a nap in the afternoon? What happens when I see what I’ve produced in this time for what it really is? Who knows? But I plan to see it through to a fiery showdown in a clearing with the sun setting behind me and my arms thrown in the air, and then I’ll see what’s left when my mind is my own again – which will be very soon because what started as an overwhelming box of medication has been reduced to rows and rows of empty blisters and screwed-up information leaflets. I have just two weeks left, and for this I am grateful. I am grateful for the whole experience, and the opportunity I have been given to tap into something deeper than I normally would, or at least more personal, but I can’t wait to reclaim my own brain, flawed, imperfect and guarded as she is.

I need a rest.

Follow Hayley Sherman, writer …  @hayleystories

Two Walnut Whips in the Library: An Unexpected Encounter Among the Bookshelves

I recently watched a man drink a whole bottle of salad crème in the library, and there wasn’t a salad leaf in sight. Straight from the bottle. Glug, glug, glug. To me, this epitomises libraries in the twenty-first century: a catch-all for those in freefall from the community services and projects that have been cut by the government, looking for a place to belong or snooze or drink condiments. As a writer, obsessed with people-watching, I love it.

It’s possible to work in the separate study room in absolute silence, away from those who have drifted in for weekly colouring-in, reminiscing or language exchange groups, or simply to have arguments with their partners at full volume, and I do this when I’m close to a deadline, but for most part, I can’t resist dropping myself in the centre of this vibrant soup of people, most of whom would be surprised to learn that you can borrow actual books from the library as well as charging your phone. It’s gold, and I don’t want to miss a moment.

There’s also the food issue; the staff in the silent study area are particularly unforgiving and appear at your desk like riot police at a crack house at the slightest sniff of a cookie or a crisp. Sirens have sounded and ejector seats flung for lesser crimes than a rogue sandwich. And I love to eat while I work, which is exactly what I was doing last Wednesday afternoon – working in the noisy part of the library where no one says a thing if you bring a portion of chips, a tub of ice cream and a flask of tea in with you. And then I saw him. The milky-eyed man from Hong Kong.

I’m quite good at zoning the hum of conversation out and getting to work, but I’m less able to concentrate when my curiosity is on fire, and this old guy had every synapse in my brain glowing. Spread out on the table in front of him was an array of goods – books and newspapers, a KFC sandwich and coffee, some kind of dispenser shaped like a house, two multi-pack boxes of Walnut Whips, crisps, and a stuffed bag for life that I would have loved to rummage through. But it was more the arrangement that stood out: sprawled, as if this was where he lived now. And it was the way he interacted with it; he would bite the sandwich before replacing it precisely, glance at a book before returning it, and slowly move around before taking his seat again. Then he would gently rest the side of one hand on the palm of the other, like a knife on a chopping board, close his eyes and disappear into meditation. I couldn’t take my eyes off this strange but peaceful creature.

And he’d spotted me looking.

“Wrong number!” he laughed as he hovered by my table and pointed down at my phone. By now I was texting my partner about him.

His eyes were glowing as he smiled down at me, and I couldn’t help laughing at his humour and the open, warm way in which he had made contact. I was in love with him already.

He returned to his seat after a short exchange, and I continued texting, but when I looked up, he was standing over my table once again with a Walnut Whip in each hand – one mint, one original. Again, his face was so peaceful and full of kindness.

“For you,” he offered and gave an almost imperceptible bow of the head.

I’m vegan, but I was genuinely touched and didn’t want to insult (or bore) him, so I thanked him profusely and happily took the gift. I know enough people who love chocolate.

“I wish I had something to give you in return,” I told him, taking a mental inventory of my bag, genuinely wishing there was something in there other than my notebook and a box of tampons.

“You don’t need to,” he smiled. “It’s not Christmas.”

Gift accepted, we quickly moved onto getting to know each other, and before I knew it, he was sitting with me. He told me that he had moved from Hong Kong with his father when he was thirteen and had been in town for the last forty-five years. I couldn’t imagine the culture shock and impact of being separated from your homeland at such a young age. He told me about the Opium Wars, Hong Kong independence and how good the chicken was in the buffet restaurant just down the road from the library. An old school friend was murdered near there a few weeks ago, but I didn’t bring it up.

He then asked what I did, and I told him that I write people’s life stories. I may have been imagining it, but curtains twitched on a few other tables when I said this. Everyone has a story to tell.

“You should write my life,” he told me. “My life has been exceptional,” he added, and I knew that he was telling the truth.

I looked down at the two Walnut Whips sitting on my laptop, and there was nothing I wanted more in that moment than to write his life story and send it out into the world for posterity. I was giddy with love for him and all the tales he had to tell, and before I could stop my hand from doing it, I had scrawled my number on a piece of paper and arranged to meet him at Costa on Monday. The sensible part of me was already backpedalling, and I explained that I work on so few project that there was only a slim chance that I could do anything for him, publishers are only interested when there’s an exceptional angle, and not all life stories are sellable, but I couldn’t deny that I would love to spend an hour with him and hear his story, and he seemed happy enough with that. I was happy too.

So, this week, I am grateful for the man who drifted over with the two Walnut Whips in the library, made me smile and booked an hour to tell me about his life. I look forward to discovering what Monday brings.

Follow Hayley Sherman, writer …  @hayleystories