Things You Only Know If You Live With An Activist
The Debrief: Living with an activist is a uniquely challenging experience, especially if you are not also an activist.
Illustration by Studio Pop
I was on my way to a tutorial. It was 7.30am on an icy cold, damp Oxford winter’s morning. As usual I was running just late enough late to be in a rush. I was, very unusually, the only person awake in the house. I bumped into on the second floor of our shared student house as I swooshed down stairs, next to the mouldy bathroom with the woodchip walls.
As she left the bathroom, wrapped in a towel and far more bright eyed than I am even at a more sociable hour she rolled out one of her classic one liners:
‘Vicky…have you ever thought about why you wear mascara?’
‘Errrr no….Not now mate. Not now…Come on’ was my response, probably. As a teenager I had always been political in that I was, broadly, interested in politics but I was not what you would call politically active or engaged. In today’s trending terminology, in my teens and early twenties I wasn’t very ‘woke’.
When Amy (let’s call her Amy) and I found ourselves living together as part of a group of 6 21-year-old women in our creaky, poorly insulated and absolutely filthy student house we had never met. We were thrown together in second-year accommodation by mutual friends who needed to fill space in order to secure a not-totally-shit house quickly.
She was an activist. Often away on protests – at airports where the threat of future runways loomed large or power stations which pollute our environment – and rarely home. Relentless, fearless and never still.
The mascara incident was one of many badly timed ideological run ins. It was too early to get into a debate about how the cosmetics industry is basically just the long arm of the patriarchy, oppressing us all via late capitalist consumer culture. I didn’t feel inclined to explain or defend my choice to lacquer my lashes in black goo. I was on my way to a tutorial (that translates from Oxford to mean ‘bloody terrifying one on one with a very smart academic’) and, for whatever reason, wearing mascara made me feel more prepared for the intellectual ear bashing I was about to endure.
Out of our motley crew of wildly different young women, thrown together in the midst of trying to figure out who the hell we were, what we wanted from life and how often you actually need to hoover carpet and clean a toilet, we were the least likely, on paper, to get on. We were two opposite ends of a magnet and we made each other bristle without even trying.
She was vegan, long before it was cool. I was (and remain) a passionate, if somewhat guilty, carnivore. She was gender queer, before that was a term used in everyday conversation. I was and am currently very, very, very straight. She was a relentless, fearless and passionate social activist before our generation had really woken up politically. I was far too busy worrying about whether I’d die alone and/or fail my degree to do much beyond get plastered on the regular. She made people check their privilege before intersectionality became a buzzword. She went out to volunteer in soup kitchens and protest at power stations (often getting arrested), I went clubbing, chased boys who weren’t interested in me and studied hard. At university my politics involved drinking the free booze at Oxford Union receptions and watching back to back episodes of The West Wing when it all got too much.
When I first met Amy I knew she thought I was ridiculous and felt I was a ‘very bad feminist’’. I found her terrifying. Growing up in the safety net of South London's suburbs I had never met anyone like her, not even close. Before I met her I didn’t know people like her existed. In the beginning I did not know what to make of her. For the first time in all of our lives we were living without any ‘adult’ supervision whatsoever. Our house comprised of six dramatically different people, all with our own quirks, insecurities and idiosyncrasies but she was the smartest, wildest and most committed of us all.
Over the years we spent living and studying together she changed my outlook on life, which sounds like a bold statement but is, emphatically, true. We came together, two people who appeared to have nothing in common, over time, we realised that not only could we learn from each other but we occupied an unlikely common ground.
Disagreements went on to include the time I purchased insect killer to deal with a persistent ant infestation in our kitchen. I sprinkled the toxic white powder over the kitchen floor and went away for the weekend. On my return I found it gone, more ants rushing around in its place and some rock salt sparingly sprinkled around. Later that evening I was scolded for bringing ‘un-environmentally friendly’ pesticides into the house. I pointed out that having an army of ants marching through your kitchen, which you have to leap over to get to the sink, is generally not ideal.
But then, there were moments of complete unity. At the time when we went to Oxford, particularly at our college, sexism was, quite literally, everyday. We encountered it everywhere. She may have chosen to inhabit queer spaces whenever possible and stay away from the heteronormative herd but when we did go out together we always found ourselves calling the same people out on their total bullshit.
In my darkest moments and times of extreme self doubt she was there, always with perspective and endless time to listen. We shared experiences, skills and outlooks both learning to see things differently as a result. She asked difficult questions and forced me to question my choices and identity in order to answer them. There is no other way of working out what exactly it is that you do stand for. I hope I provided her with more than a little light relief and taught her that looking after yourself is as important as saving the world. If I suggested that to her, she’d probably laugh, look at my wryly and bring up the time I got thrown out of a club for starting a fight with a sexist rugby player who was groping girls in our group, before racing to KFC before it closed at 3am.
Living with an activist is a uniquely challenging experience, especially if you are not also an activist. Sometimes you need to switch off, shrug the weight off the world from your shoulders and root yourself in your own time and place. Nobody is ethical all the time and nobody is right all the time. We’re all human, even the social justice warriors amongst us, we all make choices and sometimes we make the wrong ones.
However, now more than ever, I find myself thinking of Amy and wondering what she would do, say and think. 2016 has brought so much uncertainty and challenged the liberal status quo I, and many others, had taken for granted.
If we were still at university Amy would probably have been able to remember this Edmund Burke (pretty right on for a Tory) quote (which I’ve had to Google and double check) verbatim: ‘the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.’
If there was ever a time for action and activism it is probably now.
Britain is Brexiting and Donald Trump – a sexist, xenophobic, racist and divisive demagogic man has been elected President of the United States. Amy taught me that we are way too apathetic about important things, all too often in our own heads instead of out in the world and staying quiet when we should be making a noise.
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