No Plain Jane

No Plain Jane

I was 22 days older than her. This time last week I attended the first funeral of one of my classmates; her name was Jane and she’d had cancer for the last decade She was not a plain Jane by any means, in fact she was the prettiest girl in the school, and I had envied her because she was tall and always looked immaculate during those awkward teenage years. Death is an inevitable fact of life, but no one should have to endure pain, and I take some small amount of solace in that she is now pain-free.

I hadn’t seen her since we were 16 years old when we left school to start the next stage of our lives. I had gone onto college and University and those who didn’t quite get the grades stayed in the area and got the best job they could. That’s what Jane did, but when you spend 5 years of your life seeing someone each day, while you are growing up you get to see the real person. There were 33 of us in my class; we were the top class, and we all knew each other as you would expect after 5 years from the age  of 11 to 16. We all sent one another Christmas cards (even the lads) and exchanged gifts with our pocket money, and then suddenly a couple of decades later we are reunited for all the wrong reasons. Not everyone could make it because they were no longer in the area or couldn’t take the day off work, but that didn’t mean they weren’t thinking of Jane.

Like one of those made for television movies, I’d returned home to look after a sick parent and eventually bumped into some old school friends who had remained in the area. We made plans to meet up over time, and I did with a couple and then I suggested meeting up with Jane who was still well at the time. After lots of messaging back and forth, people were busy with school holidays and then it was Christmas and before you knew it a year had passed by. Then I got a WhatsApp message telling me the news and that the funeral was on Monday, the next day. My friend said she hoped to see me there. I didn’t have to think about it; of course I would be there, and asked if we could go together mainly because I didn’t know how to get the crematorium.

This was the first of our school friends who had died that we knew well. At college, one of my classmates didn’t come back after the Easter break in my law class. It took a few days before I asked if he was alright and that’s when I was told he’d died from meningitis during the two week break. His name was Andrew, but I didn’t know him well and no one ever sat at his desk for the remainder of the year. In my first few weeks of University I chatted to a girl called Emma who was studying English and said goodbye to her on the Friday as I went home to get more clothes. I returned on the Monday to find she had died from meningitis, and I was probably one of the last people to speak to her before she fell ill. Life is transient, and each interaction we make is unique and can never be taken for granted. Death makes us remember that materialism really doesn’t matter, because experiences and memories can remain with us forever.

Kay, my friend came and picked me up on the day of the funeral and we chatted about who else would be there, and what we should do afterwards. There was a wake in a nearby pub and so we parked there and got a lift to the crematorium with some other friends, none of whom I had seen for a couple of decades. Some I had reconnected with on Facebook, and others I barely recognized. At one point I had to ask someone if I knew them, and I did as soon as the name was mentioned. You see teenage boys who were late developers look so different as men!

There was a long queue when we arrived and I followed what others were doing. People had arrived early and we knew that we’d be standing but it made her death all the more tragic. I spotted a few faces I recognized, and more that I didn’t. These are the people who had been part of her adult life, and the person she became that I never got to know.

What can I say about her? She never had a bad word to say about anyone and she always had a warm and kind smile. As teenagers she was one of the first to wear high heels to school, just an inch and a half, but that made us feel grown up. We learnt together how to walk in them and discussed the best shops to get heels, and then there were the over the knee socks because three-quarter just looked too young. I learnt from her and others how to hold up over the knee socks (elastics sewn together), and also the basics of makeup from lipsticks to eyeliner. In hindsight we couldn’t wait to grow up, and at least I can treasure those innocent days. A few of us would walk home for lunch, and Jane would peel off to her road while we carried on. We only had an hour, yet we managed to pack so much in back then.

Even though I hadn’t seen Jane for years I knew I would cry, not for her, but for not getting around to seeing her earlier. Kay said she’d not been getting any better so she wasn’t strong enough to meet up with us. That was little consolation as we stood to the side. I looked around and saw Amanda who I knew would be crying so I avoided looking at her, then another person stood with our group as I came eye to eye with another old friend, Anna and we hugged without any hesitation once we recognized each other. We both cried because we hadn’t seen each other for years and had lost contact. She cried most of the time, but she had known Jane since primary school and so had Kay; it was going to be much harder for them.

I listened to the service as we heard about her life, as she laid in a coffin just metres away from me. It was hard and I looked to the ceiling to avert any tears, but Anna next to me struggled and I held her hand. We’d all been in the same class for 5 years, and as  teenagers Anna and I used to volunteer at the local theatre together and have fun running around behind the scenes. We followed everyone out and I whispered to Kay, “What do we do now?” but she didn’t know either and we ended up outside unsure what to do while people hugged one another. “Nudge me and tell me who people are if they say hello to me,” I whispered to Kay. I saw the other Jane, one of Jane’s best friends who saw me and who grabbed and hugged me. We cried and made a promise to meet up and to find the time. While Jane’s death was tragic, it brought us together and made us realize that we must make time for one another.

Some were going to the pub and others couldn’t because they lived out of the area and had to get back, so I said goodbye to Anna several times and promised to meet up again. We suggested a class/school tribute to Jane, because while many others knew her in her adult life, she was part of our growing up; those teen years where you swap tips on getting rid of spots, how to dye your hair, and when you learn slang and swear words, and also about sex and dating. At the pub we reminisced about passing magazines around in class, which teachers we liked, and tales of getting locked out of the classroom. That was a lifetime ago, but it  was an era that defined who we became and how we turned out.

At the wake there were others I recognized, but a smile and a nod sufficed as they had been the school bullies. I chatted to Julie who was in our group that arrived together. To be honest I didn’t remember her name despite Kay’s description of her, and only after an hour or so did I remember who she was. I didn’t know her well, but I knew of her and I saw faces that had been in my primary school. Most of the people there had never left the area, but I had been away for a long time and was only back to care for a sick parent. Leaving the area was something I had yearned for since childhood and now amongst old school friends I realized it was the best choice I made, never to look back.

Nevertheless, these people were part of my life and shaped who I became today, whether through friendships, or my learning to stand up for myself against them. Each interaction helps us to learn strengths and discover our weakness. I saw Helen who hugged me and told everyone I was the best netball shooter in the county and that when we went to the same High School we had the best team. That was true, because we won just about every single tournament possible. We’d played netball together for years, and I didn’t know her that well to be honest, but when I think about it we spent a lot of time practising and playing sports together over a decade, so maybe I did know her better than I thought.

As Kay and I left the pub, I sighed and said, “That was weird, but I’m glad I’m with you,”, because it had been an emotional time for us all. People that I had grown up with and not seen for decades had made me remember that sometimes the little things we worry about really aren’t that important. Even though Kay and I hadn’t seen each other for decades, because we had been part of a gang, we knew each other well and could talk without the need for small talk or minding your p’s and q’s.

I decided the whole day was for Jane and to think of the good times we had learning to grow up. That night I added a few extra friends on Facebook in a bid to keep in touch and somehow we will do our own celebration for Jane, our old classmate, the first to go and it’s not easy to get your head around.

One minute we can’t wait to leave school, and then we get caught up in adult life and responsibilities. Before we know it that phase is over, and we are reminded that life is short and while life will always have difficulties and tragedies to cope with, we learn from them. Death teaches us to appreciate the true friendships you have and not to take them for granted. Bonds cannot be broken despite time apart.

Our old school friends will always be a part of us for they helped shape who you are today, even if you never see them again. As for my friend Jane, I know she will be happy she brought everyone together, and I am safe in the knowledge she is no longer in pain or suffering. Even though I never wanted to return to my home town, I am glad I was here to see Jane for the last time. I smile as I remember us walking home for lunch and swapping pin badges of pop groups on our school bags in our salad days. Life was less complicated than it seems today, but in reality it’s only as complicated as we make it. Night Jane, and watch over us!

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Do We Enable A Superficial Existence?

For some of us, we may question the point of existence, yet there are different layers—an extrinsic (spiritual) layer, and an intrinsic (materialistic) layer. So while some deep thinkers may come up with theories as to why humans exist, why pain, happiness, and other emotive responses occur, the vast majority will only focus on the intrinsic layer—what they can see, feel, understand, relate to and can touch. This is however superficial and is created my humans, but do we all enable it and therefore are responsible for how it has evolved?

Consider the goals one has in life on a superficial level that society has created and framed:

  • Get a good education
  • Have your own home
  • Marry an attractive partner and have children
  • Find a well paid job

Who says we must have these to exist? The irony is that people subconsciously believe they must do these and that is what existence is about. Yet if you look at someone who lives in a remote village in Asia, with no contact with the western world, few of these goals will apply, but they are still humans that exist on this planet.

If we move on, other superficial goals that society has created and enabled are the following:

  • Go on holiday several times a year
  • Buy a flat screen television
  • Wear designer clothes
  • Get the latest smartphone or laptop
  • Own your own company
  • Dine out at least once a week

Have these been created to advance humanity, or are they superficially meant to classify people from those who have succeeded and those who have not in the eyes of society? You only have to look at lifestyle surveys to see what marketing companies are deeming successful, and if you don’t fit into their niche they reject you. The question is; are you a failure if you don’t go abroad or on holiday, if you don’t eat in a restaurant once a week, or if you don’t own a smartphone? The answer is a realistic ‘no’ yet in the eyes of many who are brainwashed into superficiality they would deem that to be the case. So, are we as a society enabling this superficial existence based on material goods, appearance, and status by subconsciously conforming to the goals the media promotes and that society aspire to and accept as goals for success?

Look at tabloid types of magazines, websites, and shows where people focus on appearances, and what kind of lives alleged beautiful and successful people are living in a bid to promote aspirations. Is that a realistic or practical type of existence? Is that what life is about? It’s worrying that an emerging generation look to celebrity gossip as inspiration, and websites that promote egos, status, and shaming as the norm. Magazines thrive on trivial gossip, boosting those without merit and embarrassing those in the public eye when they make an error. Again, think about it and consider is that what existence is about and if so, why do you strive to be like that?

Let us look at the extrinsic layer of existence, which is intangible, and unproven but does make logical sense. People can’t always relate to these theories, and many prefer not to, simply because they can’t see the endgame as in ‘what’s in it’ for them.

  • We exist to learn from our mistakes and be a better person/soul.
  • By existing we are helping others learn their lessons, through support and advice.
  • Existence has a purpose to help mankind and society to evolve.

Many may struggle with the above and wonder how and what do they need to learn, how can they help others (and should they), and why does mankind need to evolve? Now, I’m not talking about human rights or charity work here, because these are remedies for man made problems. Yes, there maybe starvation in some countries, but look at the corrupt governance there and why it exists, then there are cultural differences in laws that may need to evolve, but one must still respect the choice of different laws and cultures in society.

The extrinsic layer will rarely bring about immediate results, and that can deter people because human nature likes to see progress as it motivates them. Also some will want to see the rewards, or want to know how they are doing. Unlike a scale of wealth you cannot measure how you have progressed in terms of learning from your mistakes, as there is no limit. Some may ask, “How can anything I do help mankind evolve?” and the simple answer is that we all do without actively thinking about it.

In what ways to we enable a superficial existence? We do it by placing importance on transient and trivial matters—why is it important to hail a previously unknown celebrity spouse as a fashion icon because designers give them free clothes knowing they will be photographed, do we care who a Prince or Princess is dating, and why would what the public (a handful of people in a poll) think have any credence or relevance? Why are we made to feel or look inadequate if we don’t have a social media account or know how to use one? Why do we judge others on where they live or where they went to school? Materialism is superficial and people become materialistic without realizing it because others validate it and make it seem normal, hence these attitudes and behaviors enable a superficial existence.

People aim to go to a college that will make them look good in society, to use the latest smartphone in public so others will think more highly of them, or they emulate celebrities in what they wear and use in a bid to feel superior to others. Does any of the above actually matter extrinsically? No, because people are conforming to what others have created as the purpose of living and existing. You have to ask yourself what is that all for? Who gains pleasure from any of it and did you enjoy it? One may enjoy watching a film on a large flat screen television, but that lasts a couple of hours, and they may proudly brag about their possession. However, it can breakdown, and eventually it will become outdated. It’s transient. What about wearing designer clothes, or the same outfit as a celebrity in a bid to feel good? You wear it for a day or on several occasions, but you have to take it off to go to sleep, to wash it, and it can get torn or stained. Again, it is transient.

I recently stopped reading many magazines because rather than read articles that explore issues I have found the recent generation of writers (sorry millennials) who boast, brag, and who praise their peers for pretty much anything. There is no real substance in most of the media, yet it has the power to brainwash the weak-minded and impressionable into thinking that is the point of existing—to earn enough to go on holiday, to pay a deposit on a flash new car, to buy shoes that a film star wore, or even to follow a cause because someone said it was a good idea. It’s not only the media that enable this, but those who choose to take note and blindly conform.

Are any media outlets promoting extrinsic concepts of existence? Usually they are seen as the loony websites, cults, or religious crazies, but you don’t need to read or listen to any of them. Simply ask yourself when you are at the end of your life, what was the point of your existence? What did you learn, what made you happy, sad, and when you had to make difficult choices how did you do that? That is the real purpose of existence, not to have children, a mansion, a highflying job, and to look immaculate. These elements may have helped you find out things about yourself (strengths and weaknesses) and others, such as children may teach you how to love, or be responsible, a house may teach you what is it to feel secure and safe, and a job can teach you about interacting with others (good and bad). They also teach you that they are fleeting, and come and go and there is no continuity.

Instead of waiting until your golden years ask yourself the important questions of what your aims are for your existence. What do you wish to achieve for yourself and no one else. The truth is no one will really care if you went to Harvard or if you did an online degree (there is still snob value where Harvard Extension is considered low class even though it’s the same courses taught on campus), no one will care that you lived on the most expensive street in town, because none of those things have defined you as an individual.

We do have the ability to think for ourselves and that seems to have been forgotten. Don’t get me wrong, I like nice clothes, but I choose colors, fabrics, and styles I like and that suit me, and I also opt for practical technology that I am comfortable with and can use. I like to travel, and go to places that inspire me or that I wish to visit to explore rather than others who like to boast where they have been to look glamorous. I’ve been there and in a circle that behaved as such, and it really is a façade most of the time, and then some believed in it and tried to be something that they weren’t because they thought that is who they could become. The problem is they weren’t do it for themselves, but for others acceptance and validation.

So why do we exist? It’s not to upgrade to a new smartphone every couple of years, to go on holiday each year, or to buy a new wardrobe each season. If that is your existence (and that’s what some people aim and for live for), then maybe you need to think about why you feel the need for any of the above? The fact is you can exist without them, but what can’t you exist without? Humanity; morals to know what is right or wrong (and to act accordingly), humility, the ability to forgive, love, and most importantly know who you are and that it doesn’t matter what others think. It’s nice to be liked and loved, but that doesn’t make you a good or enlightened soul, because you, whether you want to believe it or not chose to exist, and you do know the reason or reasons, you just need to discover them in your own time.

Reality versus Perceptions

What is reality and how do our perceptions change? Sometimes it comes with age and experience and other times it’s just plain common sense. Is society so blinkered these days where reality seems so abhorrent and sad that people have to create perceptions to survive?

Who wants reality when they can live in a bubble and pretend that their lives can be like celebrities or reality television stars? Reality shows are staged and scripted by prompts; people don’t really live like that and if it gets boring or people don’t cooperate they ‘leave’ the show.

The problem is the media hypes reality to be something it’s not, and behind closed doors the persona of most people is in fact very normal and boring. Famous models and actresses do walk around without makeup and politicians and actors do take public transport. Reality is not always exciting, but is about survival and being as happy and content as possible. The media tempts and goads us to buy bigger houses, buy expensive clothes, and to eat out at fancy restaurants. If the average person can do, then we all can, can’t we is the message they portray. In society we are perceived as equal, but it’s human nature where you will always find someone who wants to be bigger and better than a sibling, neighbors, or friends. No one will admit it, but it’s true.

Our perceptions change when we yearn for something that we are led to believe we can be or have. We want to believe it’s possible, or some choose to only see what they want to see. Many don’t want to know about the homeless street people (thinking it’s their own fault) or the single parent working two minimum wage jobs, or that the elderly maybe lonely and need help. We are led to believe that these things are taken care of, but in reality they are not. What if it was you?

Reality is seen as depressing and boring, but is honest and is how many people do live or survive in this world. People do struggle to put food on the table and live hand to mouth, racism and sexism still exists despite the laws making it illegal, and people do lie and cheat. Accepting reality and acknowledging it is much better than pretending it doesn’t happen, yet the reality for the minority is that their lives can be out of touch for the masses. Even the celebrity life can be a façade—what is perceived and what is reality are two different things. The sibling of a famous actor told me that they saved their air miles to travel, even though they are a multi-millionaire. I remember well-known comedian traveling on the bus standing next to me, and a model and pop star were told that they had to give up the two tables they were using and to let me have one. That’s reality, what many don’t see.

Society is built up on materialism, and humanity, in helping others and protecting nature comes further down the list. What we perceive makes us happy, but how real is it? Are you brave enough to see reality in humanity for what it really is, or is it easier to create your own perceptions?