Well it’s true, isn’t it? At least in the UK it is, where centuries of patriarchal programming has instilled upon us British men an inherited predisposition to stifle one’s emotions. Whether it’s the fallout from our stiff-upper-lip wartime conditioning or a deeply entrenched view from generations of Fathers explaining to their sons that crying is for sissies, one thing has always been made clear – boys don’t cry.
And on most occasions, I’m as guilty a subscriber to this social stereotype as any, but last month was different. I gave a talk on the story of Blue Bear Coffee Co. at an event in Norwich, which caused me to reflect, once again, on my time investigating trafficking in the Dominican Republic. Most of these memories I allow to go undisturbed, but as I considered what to share in my presentation, it was necessary to unsettle some dust. I couldn’t help but wonder what had happened to the many boys, girls and women I had met and how their circumstances had changed in the past couple of years. My emotions were stirred.
On the same weekend, I gathered with family, to remember the ten-year anniversary of losing my auntie to cancer, a woman who I deeply adored and whose life left an indelible mark on my own. As we stood together on the beach, each sharing a memory and casting a flower into the cold North Sea, I felt my throat close, cheeks flush and eyes begin to flood. I was what my American friends would call a “hot mess” and no I don’t mean an attractive crier, there really is nothing sexy about a snotty, whimpering man, is there.
Returning to work the following week I was confident that I’d vanquished the teary version of myself and returned to the emotionally moderate man, ready to face the world again. That was until the postman arrived on Friday and handed me a cardboard tube with my name on it. Inside was a glossy photo wrapped up by loose pages of an Indian newspaper. The image inside is a girl, probably 15 or 16 years old, walking along the train tracks, carrying a large white sack on her head and a blue bucket in her hand. She looks poor and the background is dirty, unsanitary and perilous. Yet she has this bright white smile across her face, an expression of joy that stood out against a backdrop of grief and grime. She is looking down, perhaps bashful of the person behind the lens or maybe blissfully unaware of the photographer and simply lost in a happy thought. As I uncurled the photograph and spread it out in front of me for inspection, to my surprise, for the third time that week, this boy began to cry.
The photo was gifted to me by a new friend who lives in India. A musician from the UK, who chose to leave behind a comfortable life in London in exchange for the red-light district of Kolkata. She doesn’t work for an NGO or represent a wider cause other than her desire to go, to serve and to love. She uses her time teaching women and children from the Line (term for those working in prostitution) music therapy and other creative ways of expressing themselves in a loving, supportive and safe environment. In many cases, these sessions are a respite from the insufferable reality of life on the Line, and all are offered free of charge or condition. She also happens to have a remarkable talent for photography, as the below photograph attests, and sent me this beautiful gift in return for a Blue Bear Keep Cup I gave her a few months back.
At the talk in Norwich, I was asked how I manage to shoulder the responsibility of running Blue Bear while holding down a job and managing the emotional weight that comes with this cause. I didn’t answer it brilliantly and if I had my chance again, I would explain that it is because of meeting people like my friend, who have committed so much more than I, which inspires me to persist, with a stiff-upper-lip, and just the occasional tear.
Written by Bryn Frere-Smith
Founder Blue Bear Coffee Co.