Alchemy for beginners

Photo credit: Chris Fort

Photo credit: Chris Fort

For the last few weeks I’ve been trying to write a book about generosity.

It was probably predictable that this would bring my own less generous moments into wincingly sharp focus. Since starting, I’ve caught myself suggesting that we reduce a monthly gift to charity, that we turn down a slightly inconvenient request for a favour, and that my closest family members go away and leave me alone so I can concentrate on writing about kindness and inclusiveness. 

Despite the fact that I admire rather than exemplify it, I have been drawn to the subject for a long time and the more I study it, the more convinced I am that the practice of generosity has got to be a solution to some of the most difficult issues we face. 

Admittedly, being generous with our time, attitudes, bank accounts and affections was always going to be a good thing. 

It’s not rocket science: but it might just be alchemy.

Generosity has the power to cut straight to the heart of a situation and change it when reason and argument and eloquence fail. It lowers defences, bridges gulfs, deepens trust, heightens connection, and makes the other a friend. It can take the base metal of self-centredness and transform it into something unexpectedly, ridiculously good – often magically much greater than the sum of its parts. 

On a simple level, there is the generosity that responds with provision to a perceived need. Someone spots a lack and is moved to fill it. This can often be beautiful to witness, like the person who gave their umbrella to a homeless person sitting on a pavement and walked on through the driving rain. One person realises they are seen; the other realises there is much more to see outside the confines of their own experience, and their gaze lifts and extends.

When generosity grows to become a significant part of a person’s character, everyone benefits. I know how much I value those friends who love lavishly and don’t count the cost, whose homes are open and whose kindness is contagious. I have the privilege of living next door to someone like this, and my family – in fact, our whole community – are blessed, and in turn breathe a bit more freely and share a bit more readily and rise a little higher to match the kindness standard she has set.

But in some unexpected situations, generosity can floor us. 

In the fevered and fearful atmosphere that has followed the killing of an unimaginably high number of black US citizens by the police, division and distrust seem to have opened up chasms in communities. 

Against this backdrop, a black mother of two recently saw a white police officer in a city park. She stopped her car, got out with both her children and approached the police officer – to ask if she could pray for him and for his safety. 

Unwarranted, courageous and extravagant generosity has the raw force to right wrongs and reverse vicious circles.

There’s a joy in generosity, an unrestrained, feisty, fighting response to life’s pain. It has, in the writer Marilynne Robinson’s words, ‘a grand laughter’ in it.

This makes me think of the day a few weeks ago when my friend Jenny and I met in a London cafe and resumed our conversation from where we’d last left it, months before. We talked, as parents of teenagers, about boundaries and expectations. She asked wryly, with raised eyebrow, what I used to get up to as a 15-year-old. The answer – ‘handbell-ringing’ – was met with one of the best and most brilliant laughs I have ever witnessed. Joy coursed out of her, along with tears, wave after wave as the people sitting next to us shifted uncomfortably in their seats and the traffic inched along outside and I knew I was witnessing something I would not forget. 

There are many facets to generosity I want to explore, but I know that one of the chapters will look at generosity in friendship, and I will write about Jenny. About friendship that weathers storms and provides shelter in them, that gives you a place to belong, that tells you that you are loved on this earth.

In the scheme of things, life is short. Let’s allow generosity to make it sweet.

 

 

 

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Lycra and me - a late-flowering love affair

To teach us how to cartwheel, my PE teacher used to line a selection of pupils up in ability order, rather like the evolutionary chart of progress from knuckle-grazing ape to statuesque homo sapiens. A girl called Georgia was invited to perform the ultimate, immaculate, fully evolved cartwheel.

The primate-style pre-cartwheel stage? Mm-hmm, that was me.

It makes me sound like I haven’t quite mastered walking upright. I should point out that I’m a reasonably capable human being, and not desperately unfit, but neither am I naturally gifted or overly interested in sport. 

But a strange and wonderful thing has happened.

I have for a long time had the head knowledge that fitness is a demanding but worthy goal. But my experience has finally - slightly red in the face and panting - caught up with the theory.

It’s been an interesting journey. The world has always seemed quite beautiful and inviting to me; I’ve walked far and wide exploring it, but at a comfortable pace, interspersed with regular breaks for cake and coffee and a sit-down somewhere nice. 

Sport, on the other hand, has always seemed other and alien. A sceptical relationship with the leotard, thanks in part to a number of Victoria Wood sketches, has prejudiced me against all stretchy gym wear.

A few years ago my car became quite unreliable, and reluctant to give it the attention it seemed to crave, I left it on the drive and cycled to work. I was encouraged in this by the fact that I live in a city that is constantly gridlocked with traffic; when this improves slightly, the council quickly put new plans in place to close a strategic combination of major routes in order to maintain high levels of disruption. 

My city is also home to the most jaw-dropping beauty, and my bike ride to work took me along a riverbank lined with wildflower meadows and medieval university buildings. So I became a cyclist, lost my parking space at work and fell in love with the freedom and fitness my bike brought me. 

But I retained a deep suspicion of running. Occasional fits of enthusiasm would overcome me and I would put my trainers on, launch off and stop soon after, out of breath and bored. 

I live on a street that circles a central green. I once set off from my front door for a run, got halfway round the green, saw a neighbour, lost confidence in my mission, and jogged nonchalantly back to my front door.

A few years later, I chose a new word for the year, as part of oneword365.com’s genius encouragement to ditch a list of new year’s resolutions and focus simply on one word for the year that sums up how you want to live.

The word I chose was ‘run’. 

This initially applied to attitude more than practice, and was defining as I made the decision to leave my job and set up a new business - Nightingale Ink, as a purveyor of words that sing to anyone needing some. The impetus, determination and effort captured in the word ‘run’ came into their own as I launched off into the unknown.

But I also started running for real. In the dark at the start. I would measure out sections of the road by lamp-posts and alternate running and walking between each section. There was no love lost between running and me, but I stuck at it. 

Then I agreed to take part in a triathlon for Viva, the charity I was about to leave, which holds a very dear place in my heart. I might hate running, but if running could help generate funds for work with vulnerable children that is thrilling in its courage and effectiveness, I could run.*

The triathlon is days away and I am now training regularly. I have just come back from a run with a smile on my face, my heart rate raised but my colour normal. It was on this last run that I realised for the first time what it means to hit your stride. Rhythm and momentum, and a new kind of comfortable. 

This experience has led me to think about the number of things I discount because I don’t think I’m good at them. Often we focus on the activities we’re naturally talented at, that come easily and bring some level of success.

But I’ve learned that my life’s trajectory is not set. I’m not a finished piece.

I knew that other people could, but now I know that I too can change, learn new things, take on unexpected challenges. I don’t need to focus only on what I know, what people associate with me, what I have allowed to define me. 

I can break the mould and change the script. 

It’s a wonderful irony that it took running to teach me that. 

Who knows, maybe I’ll dust down the leotard. Never say never. 

 

 

*If you would like to sponsor me, go to http://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/team/VivaTrio. Any donations will help release children from situations of poverty and abuse and will be enormously, hugely appreciated.

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Four ways to live well I learned from my great-great uncle George

My great-great uncle George considered himself quite an ordinary person; King George V disagreed. 

In December 1914, in Merris, France, he awarded George the Victoria Cross for ‘conspicuous gallantry’. 

George was a gunner in the Royal Field Artillery. Three months earlier, he and his battery had been fighting to defend a crucial position just below the Chemin des Dames ridge on the Western Front. 

The shelling that day was so devastating that the Commander of the British Army authorised the digging of trenches, and trench warfare began. George, laying a gun in an open field with no defence, was repeatedly wounded and taken for medical treatment. 

But each time he returned to his gun. 

The second time this happened an orderly was charged with preventing him from returning, but in an almost comic-sounding move George distracted him and slipped back to the battle. Wounded a third time, he simply refused to leave his position.

George’s life was short and hard, but his courage has not been forgotten, and it challenges and unsettles me today. 

A few days ago I went with my parents and other members of the wider family to a ceremony to unveil a memorial to him in his home town of Alton, Hampshire. As he looks levelly out from the hundred year old photograph I sense both a steadfastness and a heaviness about him. Aged just 29, his eyes are old and I know, as I hold his gaze, that he has been witness to things I will never be able to imagine. 

The worlds we have been given to inhabit are so different. His was full of chaos and endless, ear-splitting, body-shaking shellfire, constant fear and separation from those he loved.

My world, with its freedoms and opportunities and promise, was hard won by his generation. I’m keen not to take it for granted, not to squander what was bought at such a high price. 

The shape of his life and the fibre of his character highlight for me four lessons that I want to explore and try to live out. I believe we urgently need to: 

1. Know what we stand for. They might not involve shells and rifles, but many battles need fighting today. There may be comfort and security for some, but so many people in the UK and further afield are imprisoned by exploitation, injustice, poverty or hopelessness. There’s no time to wait for someone else to step in. We need to draw on our own courage, energy and creativity, and make use of the channels at our disposal to demand and deliver change. My activist daughter has pinned a quote from a psalm to her door, ‘You’re here to defend the defenceless, to make sure that underdogs get a fair break. Your job is to stand up for the powerless, and prosecute all those who exploit them.’ She means business and I couldn’t love her more. 

2. Be willing to be uncomfortable. Comfort can be a wonderful thing; a friend and I have a running joke about how nicely decorated our personal comfort zones are. But its shadow side is disabling and counter-productive. When you live in comfort and refuse to venture out from it you end up living only for yourself, and you live small. Things that really matter often cost us something of ourselves. A tiny example is fitness. I have started running. I am not a runner. Running makes me cross. I could opt out (a frequent temptation), or I could push through the discomfort and build my strength, win a longer term benefit for my health and the charity for which I am aiming to raise funds. 

3. Block out distraction. Many of us can easily spend day after day with almost every need provided for and every second filled, and no need to think or act with originality or boldness. The messaging to which we are constantly exposed tells us that our main aims in life should be to have very white and even teeth, a powerful car, an impressive phone, a photogenic partner and a selection of mini-breaks. George would not even recognise much of this, but his life had meaning and resilience and character that was not bought or bid for or downloaded in an instant.

4. Refuse to be defined by others’ expectations. George’s father was illiterate. He signed his marriage certificate with a clumsy cross and brought up his large family in a labouring household, on someone else’s land, scratching a living in both fine weather and foul. But George didn’t define himself as someone whom life had treated harshly, someone who was owed something. His response was commitment, tenacity and generosity of spirit. 

So what came after the award and the rapturous response from his home town, when he returned on leave? He continued to serve with the Royal Field Artillery, seeing action from the first battle of Ypres to Mametz Wood on the Somme. 

He sailed to Egypt in 1917 as part of the Southern Palestine Offensive. A misunderstanding prevented his ship from entering the harbour at Alexandria. Sent back out into open sea, the ship came under torpedo attack. Hundreds were rescued from the waves - including George - and taken on board a second ship. 

But then the rescue ship itself was torpedoed, and George - married for just 78 days - lost his life. His bride never remarried; her husband lies now in Alexandria.

George’s life shows me that there are no guarantees, that each day is a gift and that I must recognise that there are more important things than my own needs, desires and comforts.

He showed what guts, grit and gallantry can do. Inspired by him, I’m renewing my commitment to take a stand and stick to it, and live for something bigger than myself.  

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We are all originals

Photo credit: Antonio González

Photo credit: Antonio González

When I told my husband that I was thinking about writing a post on the importance of not comparing, he laughed. For quite a long time. 

So apparently I am addressing myself as I write this. 

Comparing ourselves with others is common practice. Some of us even make it an art form. Unfortunately, I think that group has included me.

An early, defining moment was the discovery that a girl in the year above me at school had gone on to study fine art at the Sorbonne in Paris and then medicine at Cambridge. I so admired her epic and stylish crossing of both national and discipline boundaries, and felt emphatically small and dull in comparison.

I had a similar experience recently when I stumbled on the profile of someone I studied with at university who - like me - is now a forty-something mother. Slightly less like me, her facebook photos show her in a bikini at a festival, with legs so long and foal-like they look photoshopped (they aren’t; they haven’t changed in 20 years).

She is spectacular. But her beauty hasn’t done anything to stop me from being who I could or should be. I know that her looks and my sense of self are entirely unrelated. So why do I wallow in the comparison?

As a society, we measure constantly. It’s useful. We view the world through figures: rate rises, dress sizes, exam scores, numbers of followers, return on investment, and use these metrics to judge what is successful, and what has value. 

This information is also more readily available to us than ever before. We can search for a person and instantly find their job title and qualifications, even the value of their home.

As a result, we rate ourselves, identifying where we believe we come in the order of things. This can make some of us feel good, others feel falsely superior, and far too many of us freeze or recoil in response. As practices go, it’s got to be pretty pointless.

Here are four reasons why:

1. It steals joy. Comparing yourself critically with someone else more often than not lowers your mood and throws your focus. It also steals your ability to be genuinely happy for someone who has developed a talent, been tenacious and achieved something. That deserves to be celebrated rather than used as fuel to feed our insecurities. 

2. It stops momentum. The perceived gap between ourselves and those we admire may spur some on to greater efforts and successes, but more often it saps our energy and sense of empowerment, and brings with it stasis, self-pity and an erosion of self belief. 

3. It’s contagious. Those who live around comparers risk catching the habit. As a parent I know that my children’s value is, quite frankly, beyond imagining. I would stand up to anyone who undermined them. So why risk behaving in a way that causes them to develop an internal narrative that does just that?

4. It’s inaccurate. We often focus on the wrong things, and miss the big picture. Google can find someone’s title, career summary or net worth, but it doesn’t know how to show you what they carry in their heart, or the content of their character.

So if these are some of the reasons not to compare, how do we go about releasing ourselves from the curse of comparison? 

I’d argue that we need a fundamental change in the way we see things. If we take ourselves as our starting point - the selves we know to be lacking, because there’s simply no hiding - and look out at a world full of apparently able and high achieving people, we feel diminished. 

But what if we switch the viewing point? 

If we learn to look at ourselves and others from a wider, higher and more generous perspective, we see something radically different.

We see real people who are at once flawed, frustrating and full of wonder. Somehow, despite the vast numbers of people who have lived and died over centuries past, not one has yet been a duplicate. 

In his book ‘Gratitude’, neurologist Oliver Sacks writes: "There will be no one like us when we are gone, but then there is no one like anyone else, ever. When people die, they cannot be replaced. They leave holes that cannot be filled, for it is the fate—the genetic and neural fate—of every human being to be a unique individual, to find his own path, to live his own life, to die his own death.”

Two millennia earlier, an erudite Roman citizen called Paul of Tarsus was exploring a similar idea when he wrote that we are all - every one of us - God’s ‘poiema’. This Greek term means craftsmanship.

It also means masterpiece. 

Masterpieces are one-offs. They have a history and a resonance, imperfections, light, shade and colour all their own. They’re not copies. You don’t interpret one only by looking at a thousand others.

You stand in front of it and drink it in.

It's quite hard to wallow when you start seeing it that way. 

 

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The wrong sandwich

Just before Christmas I bought a copy of The Big Issue from a seller. I went in to the deli behind him to buy a present for a friend and while queuing to pay I decided to buy a sandwich for him. I chose a festive turkey and cranberry one, and gave it to him with a smile as I left.

At least that was the plan. 

What actually happened was that as I held it out to him he rolled his eyes and said he didn’t eat turkey, and asked me to go back into the shop and get a refund so he could choose something different. The experience was awkward and embarrassing, and I walked away feeling I’d been insensitive in not giving him the opportunity to choose the flavour he’d like, or even checking if he happened to want a sandwich at all. Gaaaah.

I’ve felt concern about the issue of homelessness for a long time. When I was a student I wrote to the Prime Minister of the time asking why - in our wealthy and stable country - there could possibly be an article in The Big Issue advising readers that a baked potato could not only be nutritious but also a good source of warmth to a rough sleeper on a freezing night. 

But beyond that I haven’t done very much. I’ve followed other causes and responded to other needs, but in terms of the homeless living in my city I’ve done little apart from turkey-sandwichgate.

Homelessness is on the rise, and increasingly, painfully visible. Government figures report that rates have increased by 40% in the last five years alone.

Life on the streets is dangerous and can be deeply damaging, both physically and emotionally. Life expectancy for homeless men is 47. For women, it’s a shocking 43. That’s how old I am, and I feel like I’ve hardly even started.

The issue is also complex. Its causes are manifold and inter-dependent: traumatic life events, mental health issues, addiction, a lack of affordable housing, insecure jobs, debt, poor physical health, family or relationship breakdown, movement on from institutional living such as prison, the armed forces or the care system. 

Many of us care about homelessness and the people who find themselves homeless. But when people are struggling with deep-rooted, heart-rending problems like these it can be hard to know what to say, or how to be properly helpful. 

My local council ran an ad campaign recently called ‘Killing with Kindness’, discouraging members of the public from giving money to people on the street. It explained how responding to a request for cash can potentially do much more harm than good as it sustains life on the streets rather than encouraging people to access available support.

Combine this uncertainty about how best to respond with busy-ness, lack of experience, embarrassment and a range of other demands on our time and thoughts, and the result is often inaction. We get stuck - not sure how to help, feeling bad when we don’t respond, and bad sometimes when we do.

Effective and sustainable solutions are urgently needed. Many organisations are doing excellent work to deliver this, including ACT (Aldates Community Transformation), an innovative Oxford-based charity which is working to build a community where homeless people, prisoners and ex-offenders can find the acceptance, support and opportunities they need to flourish. They offer mentoring, life-skills courses and accommodation with specialist support in three houses. 

Their Meet at the Gate project provides an intensive programme of support to people leaving prison, including assistance finding accommodation, a community pack with daily essentials, help making connections to other services, and daily and subsequently weekly mentoring in order to support ex-offenders at a critical time to make a positive transition into life outside prison.  

Between them, the ACT team have years of experience, learning and expertise, and the fruit of it is clear in the stories of lives turned around. Like Dean, who after years of dealing and violence now says, ‘Thinking about the way I had treated my family and friends before, I realised I was like a beast. Now I want to be different, I want to be a man.’ 

But what can our role be as members of the public rather than experts or specialists? 

More than you’d think. Your skills, time and energy can make an invaluable contribution. And this doesn’t just apply to those who are time-rich. Opportunities for getting involved are flexible and creative and can fit around existing commitments in already busy lives.

There’s Amanda, the dentist, who gives up a few hours a week to cook with ACT members in one of the supported houses, sharing her love of good food and knowledge of how to prepare it.

There’s Claire, who commutes to London for her civil service job but spends one Sunday lunch-time a month at the Community Meal hosted at St Aldates church, where the invitation is extended to all who are hungry to come and eat, talk and build connections with each other.

There’s Jamie who works in sales and has been trained in mentoring, who is about to start regularly meeting with an ACT member to share coffee and conversation, and encourage and invest in his personal development.  

If you are interested, whatever the time you have available or the skills you can draw on, I’m pretty sure there’s a place for you at a local organisation working with homeless or vulnerable people.

It is wonderful to see what happens when people who have known little but pain, rejection and insecurity get to feel part of a safe and inclusive community, when they receive the investment, support and love that may have been missing all their lives. 

And what am I doing? I’m avoiding sandwich selection and concentrating on writing. I’ve just started volunteering with ACT to help spot, capture and share stories of change so that more of us know how to help address a huge and complicated issue in a way that means individual people feel their lives are worth living.

 

 

 

 

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Song for an old friend

Tomorrow I'm going to spend the day with Jo. Geography, jobs and family life mean we don't see each other so often. 

But when we do meet she often gives me a present that she has made herself. 

She is a lawyer and a historian with a sharp mind and impressive qualifications. She also loves to make things, and once told me about her new City law job and her experimentation with eighteenth century marmalade recipes in the same conversation. She is awesome.

Last time we met she pulled a present out of her bag for me, and I unwrapped a beautifully frilled scarf in autumn colours, layer after tumbling layer. It took me a few minutes to realise she hadn’t picked it out in a shop. It was complex and must have demanded considerable skill and time - and she had made it for me.

Over the years of our friendship she has also made a framed cross-stitch of my initials, a soft patchwork blanket for my daughter, and the most elegant green gloves (my favourite colour, she checked). 

As for me, my children have had to brave some humiliating moments in the nativity outfits I’ve ‘made’ for them. I’ve occasionally semi-successfully sewn up a hole in a jumper but I can't knit, crochet, sew or stitch.

So I thought about what I could give her. 

And I decided to write her a present, and you are reading it.

We met on the day we arrived at university for interview as seventeen year-olds, sick with nerves. Shown into a common room where we would spend the next two days waiting with hundreds of other candidates, we turned to each other and struck up conversation. 

Talking quickly and without really stopping, we managed to make each other laugh, even though I felt I was drowning in the depths of teenaged self-consciousness, surrounded by people who seemed effortlessly impressive, articulate and confident. 

Some returned from their interviews full of the effusive feedback they’d received. We went off, hearts beating, mouths dry, palms sweating and returned to each other, limpet-like, with an unspoken knowledge that we had, in each other, found someone to trust.

At the end of the two days we said goodbye, not really expecting to see each other again. I left for home feeling drained and hollow, not wanting to return, much less thinking I would.

The next time we saw each other was in a press of human flesh in the Horse and Jockey pub on the first day of freshers’ week. Disorientated and friend-free, I was pushing my way through the crowd of new arrivals. So fresh in my memory it seems it will never fade is the image of a hand reaching out to touch my arm as I passed. It was Jo, and I stopped and we didn’t leave each other’s side for the night. Or for many days to come. 

That first year is now a blur of fragmented images and sounds. Dancing in Jo’s room as we got ready for the nightly trip to the bar, ploughing through texts in the library, plates of pasta in the middle of the night, painfully early starts for rowing on the river, emotional upheaval as love lives flourished and waned, the drips of sweat that condensed and fell from the ceiling of the college dining hall during dance nights. Essay crises, love-life crises, confidence crises, hormone-driven angst, exhaustion, elation and belly laughs.

We shared a house in the second year, and boyfriends and new friends took us in directions away from each other but we always returned to each other’s company for laughter, for reassurance, for support. 

I had to leave college in my third year to live in France and work as a language assistante. The tearing I felt as I left was almost physical, and when I returned Jo was gone, living hundreds of miles away, studying law. I was still at college, one of a small number of fourth years left after the tide of our peers had moved on. 

She studied law in York and then practised it in London. I volunteered at a charity in Oxford and started working in fundraising. She bought a flat in the city; I became a mother in a little Cotswolds town. Our lives were different in pace, in shape, in style, but she came to cuddle my baby in the sunshine and I went to her wonderful wedding as she married her delicious husband, and they knocked us dead on the dance-floor.

So my present is a song of friendship that builds over years, of the unspoken trust and bone-deep understanding that comes from knowing and being known, from the shy 17 year-olds we once were to the women we now are. 

I am so proud of Jo. She bursts with life; she is generous and outrageous and thoughtful; she is feisty and funny and loyal.

Last year we met for lunch and drank and ate and walked and talked of jobs and family and travels and dreams. We talked about things that are very hard, and things that are very good. Children we’re proud of, husbands we love, roles we play, workloads we manage, homes which frustrate us. She sent me an email afterwards, which I have kept in my inbox, its subject line simply: ‘Wonderful day!’

So this is my song for an old friend. I sing it so that she knows she’s known. And enjoyed. 

And loved.

 

 

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Art and anger in response to the sexual exploitation of children. Or why the police are poets.

A year ago I wrote a visceral and angry post in response to the sexual exploitation of children in my home city.

Called 'Cherry trees and children', it included a reference to the blossom I saw falling from trees in the garden of a local guest house in which many children had been abused. The image seemed to speak at a deep level about the destruction of promise and innocence and all that should have been allowed to flower.

My friend Hattie is an artist. She felt moved to create a piece of art exploring this, and before beginning, researched the reason why the police investigation into the crimes was called 'Operation Bullfinch'.

What she discovered gave us pause. 

Who knew that the police are poets?

Operation Bullfinch was named for the birds notorious for eating the buds on fruit trees before they have a chance to blossom. 

Her response was this haunting triptych:

'Solitary bullfinch', Hattie Rutter

'Solitary bullfinch', Hattie Rutter

'In among the blossoms', Hattie Rutter

'In among the blossoms', Hattie Rutter

'Aftermath', Hattie Rutter

'Aftermath', Hattie Rutter

Some things demand our attention, our anger and our engagement. We can't stay silent.

We must raise our voices, speak out and speak up, whatever our chosen channel. 

 

* * * *

 

Here is the original post, from March 2015:

I am an angry woman.

You wouldn’t necessarily know that if you met me. People tend to tell me I seem calm, even serene (not necessarily my favourite way to be thought of, but it is often said, just the same). In the normal day to day I’m a gentle person. I can go to a deep, quiet place. I did when I brought my children to birth, lost far away inside myself.

But something makes me so angry I could roar.

My home is a small and beautiful English city, known across the world for the learning that goes on beneath its famous spires. Thousands of people visit each year to trace the steps of scientists and inventors, presidents and poets. It is an apparently dignified and distinguished place.

But in the shadow of the spires and towers unspeakable crimes have been committed against children. And some of those whose job it is to protect them have looked away. And I am angry beyond words.

Hundreds of girls and a smaller number of boys have been targeted by networks of men intent on violent sexual gratification, sharing children for entertainment and profit. Some of the children have been in the care of the state; others live in families – some struggling, some apparently stable.

For years men lavished attention on these girls, using drugs and violence to enslave them, driving them to cities across the country to share with other men for money. They met the girls outside school, conducted their grooming on the day-lit streets of my city and used local guest houses to rape and torture their victims.

One of these guest houses, framed by cherry trees, is just a few hundred yards from where I work.

These events have only recently come to light. And in the lighting of these shadows more darkness has appeared.

It seems that in my city those who speak articulately and with the right accent are treated well and with respect. They can access justice and be taken seriously if they have a crime to report or a complaint to make. But for those who wear cheap clothes, are young and mouthy and sound wrong, come from the wrong address, things are very different.

A fourteen year old girl went to the city centre police station, her clothes covered in blood, to report a serious sexual assault. She was told she was a nuisance, and was made to leave.

And for that girl and for her peers, I am angry, blisteringly angry. Stolen childhoods, broken bodies, shattered futures. Behind closed doors, while guest house owners did what? Turned up the music? Put the TV on?

I follow the teachings of a Palestinian Jew who was anything but predictable. Authority figures who cared for no one but themselves he called ‘unmarked graves’. People focused only on profit saw their businesses sabotaged and their tables overturned. Love your enemies, he also said, pray for those who persecute you. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

I feel so powerless to change things. But I put my trust in a God who specialises in change, in revolution, and by his grace I will channel my anger into prayer and passion and care for the city in which I find myself, and its children.

And the guest house? It is still open for business, under the falling blossom.

 

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The importance of our stories and why we should share them

Stories are powerful. The best ones can freeze-frame time and steal our breath. They can stop us from feeling alone, remind us that we’re part of something bigger, give us a sense of our shared humanity. They can build bridges and expand horizons, deepen empathy and dissolve division.

They have been shared since prehistory. We’re told them from birth. They surround us - not just in books, films and plays - but at the heart of the messaging we absorb each day from a thousand different sources. 

Stories build identity and a sense of belonging. In my family we still talk about my grandfather’s childhood adventures, long since he left us. How he launched a makeshift aeroplane off a warehouse roof, how he blew his eyebrows off with a home-made chemistry experiment, how he learned to drive a lorry at the age of 13. The stuntman genes have not necessarily been passed down in my direction, but my children hear these stories, just as I did, and they know what they are part of and where they belong.

The stories you lean towards reveal what defines you. They say something about who you are and they shape and reinforce the deeper narrative through which you see the world. I have always sought out stories of redemption, of rescue and the power of hope over all that hurts and breaks us. I grew up hearing about a father who watched and waited for years for his long-lost, dissolute son, and hitched up his clothes to run at the sight of him, to welcome him home with arms open wide, despite the shame and smell and grime of the life to which his boy had sunk.

I love novels; my shelves are groaning under the weight of them stacked two deep and several high. I love the inventiveness involved in a talented person’s creation of a brand new story. But in their shadow, often overlooked, is the quiet, true story from your own life, or your family or community, now or mined from the past. There is richness close to you. You don’t have to go far. You just have to notice.

I have a story to share that stands up to any tale of high heroism I could find in a book.

It starts when I met a fellow parent at the school gates when my children were little. I liked her immediately and we became friends over a shared love of good books and funny stories. She was an A & E nurse at the local hospital. We were part of the same book group, and later prayer group. I remember the day a couple of years later that she told us of her diagnosis with breast cancer. All the people who knew her and loved her (same thing) were winded, blindsided.

But over the next few years we watched her walk her journey.

Despite what she was going through, her house was open and her laugh was loud and her friends were countless.

She made caramel shortbread once, and put it in the freezer to cool down. Carrying the tray out from the kitchen she suddenly bent double as she realised that the chocolate and caramel had frozen into the drawer above, and all she’d brought out was the shortbread. I can still hear her laughter.

She was honest about the grimness of what she was going through. She would share her heart and her thoughts and then turn the conversation towards the other person, to hear all that was happening in their life.

A few weeks before she died she took her children to the seaside with a friend, and despite lungs that were ceasing to work, she jumped in the waves with her son and he turned to her and said,

‘This is heaven’.

Before reading prayers at her funeral I had to stare at my feet and empty my mind to keep my tears at bay. Once I’d finished, I returned to my seat and looked up for the first time to see the flowers and the card her son had written that said, ‘Didn’t we have a lot of fun, Mummy?’

It would have been her 50th birthday tomorrow, and we would have been dancing and raising a glass, probably in some pretty preposterous fancy dress. 

So I tell her story, which is one of courage and laughter and love. She will not be forgotten.

 

[She was a galvaniser of people and a raiser of funds, and her daughter is just like her. In honour of them both, I’m sharing the link to Sarah’s fundraising page for Cancer Research UK, in case you would like to make a gift: https://www.justgiving.com/catherinesangels1 ]

 

 

 

 

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He slowed down - lessons from life with a seventeen-year-old daughter

 

After we decided that we’d like to share a future, the boy I fell in love with and I used to imagine what our first child might be like. Not so long afterwards, we met her. She was tiny and feisty and beautiful. We blinked twice and she started school. Days later, it seems, she was trying on her secondary school uniform. And now she is 17 and university prospectuses are falling heavily through the letterbox. 

My husband went to collect her from a friend’s house recently. It was a short, unremarkable journey. He has quite emphatically never been known to take his time driving anywhere.

But this time he slowed down. 

To make time stand still and to savour the conversation.  

Because she is full of life and getting older and her sights and thoughts are fixed firmly on the future. He knew he wanted to enjoy her company while it was still his.

I share his growing realisation that what we thought would always be - the five of us together at the end of every day - will change very soon. I am excited for my daughter, and my heart aches. Time is revealed for what it is - insubstantial and elusive. 

We trade our time every day for something, but I think we're selling ourselves short. 

Modern life is built on the premise that fast is good and faster is better. Place an order online and have it delivered in hours. Read and respond to your work email at any hour of day or night. On demand: the phrase is revealing.

Thanks to my phone I need never sit quietly with my thoughts. I can read other people’s, then comment on them, like them, share them, re-tweet them.

It’s easy to assume that busy-ness now will buy a calmer future. 

But there is a problem.

Life gets blurred in the rush and we stop seeing what matters.

Things of true value often take time to unfurl. They need to be noticed. They deserve to be celebrated. You can’t do that if you are hurtling, distracted and preoccupied, through the life you have been given.

This is relevant to our lives both personally and professionally. Our working self cannot be separated from the person we are for the rest of the day. Living life too fast and shallow depletes us and we can’t give our best to anyone. 

The benefits of slowing down and paying more attention can be widely felt  -not just by us but by those who get to live with us, work with us, share their lives with us. Here are six ways you can do this: 

1. Live outside your own bubble. Look up and see who’s around you, and how they are, really are. Bring your life - and the lives of the people you love - back into focus. See them, listen to them and look for active ways to contribute to and nurture them wherever you can so they flourish rather than diminish. 

2. Be deliberate with your goals. Time is not infinite. It quite definitely runs out. What do you want to single out as important in the midst of the urgent? It’s hard to make valuable progress across a thousand little goals. But it’s more possible against one we’ve identified, set our sights on and pursued relentlessly. Do you know what yours is? For one of my friends it’s securing change in the treatment of imprisoned mothers, so their children aren’t part of the cycle of poverty and neglect. She’s eloquent, and people are listening. 

3. Prioritise quality. Occasionally high quality is achievable immediately, but more often it is the result of considerable thought, preparation and skill. Take time to review and improve before releasing. The world is a noisy place. We can generate a lot of content or product, or take the time to hone and develop and produce something so good it stops people in their tracks. 

4. Refuse to fall for the lie that only what is new has value, that novelty and the next big development are all that matters. That people have a sell-by date, that old means redundant. It takes years for wood to develop a patina. With repeated polishing, resting, absorbing, the true warmth of the wood's colour and grain slowly emerges. Real beauty grows; it’s not diminished by time.

5. Go deep. It’s hard to do more than skim the surface when you’re going fast. Don’t be satisfied with shallow. Take time to push down into the depths and explore them. Don’t be defined by what you give a Facebook ‘like’ to, or how many you get. But what you give your heart to. What you love, what you fight for. Have a grand passion, and be faithful to it. 

6. Enjoy. Savour. Intensify your experience. Spend long enough in the present moment for it to leave an imprint in your memory, in your cells, in the grooves of your habits and behaviour. Identify what is good in your life - a table full of family, a laugh with a friend, an unexpected compliment, kindness from a stranger -  and celebrate it.

Life can be hard and painful, but it’s also bursting with wonder.

Just make sure you don’t miss it.

 

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Ten ways to ensure your thank you letters connect with your charity's supporters

More than once in my professional life I have had the slightly surreal experience of drafting a thank you to a supporter who has written to thank me for a thank you I sent them.

I realise there are far too many ‘thanks’ in that sentence.

While I did have a dilemma each time about how to respond, I believe it’s evidence of the power of the humble thank you to make a real connection, to build genuine relationship and therefore ultimately further your charity’s aims.

Thank you letters can often be overlooked. Sometimes thanking is seen as a basic administrative task, like filing. But there’s a reason thanking is called ‘fulfilment’ in the business, and we forget this at our peril.

Charities invest considerably in multi-channel appeals, PR, social media, websites and analytics. But the thank you is one of the very few true human bridges between charity and supporter, and at its best it can be authentic, warm and memorable. This kind of experience gives a significant boost to a donor’s loyalty, in a way that few appeals, magazines or email campaigns can. 

Creating raving fans is the fundraiser’s holy grail. We ultimately seek to inspire people to the point that they become vocal advocates, and choose our charity as the beneficiary of their time and money throughout - and even beyond - their lifetime.

Feeling genuinely noticed and appreciated as an individual is increasingly rare in the busy-ness of 24/7 modern life with its constant demands and superficial interactions. A heartfelt, personal thank you can really stand out, and help turn a one-off supporter into a long term fan of your organisation.

Here’s how to ensure your thank yous create a meaningful connection:

1.     Change your organisational attitude. Give thanking the time, value and status it deserves. It’s not admin; it’s kindness, courtesy and warmth in letter form.

2.     Prioritise it. There’s no need for delay. A donor who receives a letter just a few days after giving will feel much more appreciated than the one who can’t quite remember donating. Set and stick to short turnaround times for thanking.

3.     Be accurate. Allocate the time to check all the details. Make sure the supporter’s name and address are correct. Double-check the amount, fund and Gift Aid status. If you send out a letter full of inaccuracies you’ll only succeed in alienating the recipient, making them feel even less valued than if they had received no response.

4.     Personalise it. No one really likes those impersonal printed thank yous with a ‘delete as appropriate’ line. Model your letter around the person you’re writing to. They did something great for you. Make the thank you fit them. Keep good records and use the information to tailor your letter. If your donor volunteers for you add a reference to this. If they’ve told you that they have a particular area of interest include a relevant update in the body of your text.

5.     Make it feel human. Hand-write the salutation, write ‘best wishes’ at the end, and sign your name. Add a note or a Post-It where relevant. Don’t use a digitised signature. Make sure your reader feels they’ve had an interaction with a real person, and not with mailmerge.

6.     Capture your reader’s imagination. Most of the pieces a charity sends out are essentially impersonal, but the thank you is a one-to-one communication. It’s therefore a great place to add a human story that will touch someone and stay with them. I once read about a boy from the Dominican Republic who grew up on a rubbish dump and had never been given a name. The charity I supported worked with him and helped him find a name – David. I’ve never forgotten his story, and have re-told it to friends and family.

7.     Don’t just focus on money – thank people for their time or engagement, for hosting an event or being an advocate.

8.     Use purple ink! Maybe another colour will work for you, but purple certainly works for my friend Liz, whose readers know that she is a real person, that she’s quite quirky and a lot of fun. Her purple ink-signed letters get a significantly higher response rate than those signed in black. It’s scientific and official. Sort of.

9.     Make it short. The point of the letter is the thanks, not passing on lots of statistics or messaging or making more asks. A good thank you should be short and sweet.

10.  Thank people for regular gifts as well as one-offs. Sometimes people can be quietly doing something heroic – giving every month, year-in, year-out, through times of plenty and times of hardship - and they are only thanked when they start giving, and then chased up when they stop. Make sure that’s not the case for your regular donors.

You might think this is a time-consuming approach, but if you’re a small charity it’s worth doing this for the impact you’ll have on the supporters you’re attracting. It’s hard and expensive to recruit new supporters, and it makes sense to give the ones you have the best possible treatment. If you’re a bigger charity, you’ll have resources to invest in growing your funding base, and building loyalty, goodwill and real connection is a strategic and effective way to do this.

By following these suggestions you will help make your reader smile. If their post is anything like mine it will be full of pizza delivery flyers, garden maintenance cards and charity collection plastic bags. Let your thank you letter stand out, and give the gift of gratitude to a person who’s done something great. 

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Under the falling blossom - a response to the sexual exploitation of children in Oxford

Some subjects demand strong, uncompromising words. This is a post I originally wrote for the angry women blog at www.theangrywomenblog.wordpress.com. Its subject is the sexual exploitation of children in my home city. 

I am an angry woman.

You wouldn’t necessarily know that if you met me. People tend to tell me I seem calm, even serene (not necessarily my favourite way to be thought of, but it is often said, just the same). In the normal day to day I’m a gentle person. I can go to a deep, quiet place. I did when I brought my children to birth, lost far away inside myself.

But something makes me so angry I could roar.

My home is a small and beautiful English city, known across the world for the learning that goes on beneath its famous spires. Thousands of people visit each year to trace the steps of scientists and inventors, presidents and poets. It is an apparently dignified place, distinguished and exclusive.

But in the shadow of the spires and towers unspeakable crimes have been committed against children. And those whose job it is to protect them have looked away. And I am angry beyond words.

Hundreds of girls and a smaller number of boys have been targeted by networks of men intent on violent sexual gratification, sharing children for entertainment and profit. Some of the children have been in the care of the state, others live in families – some struggling, some apparently stable.

For years men lavished attention on these vulnerable girls and used drugs and violence to enslave them, driving them to cities across the country to share with other men for money. They met the girls outside school, conducted their grooming on the day-lit streets of my city and used local guest houses to rape and torture their victims.

One of these guest houses, framed by cherry trees, is just a few hundred yards from where I work.

These events have only recently come to light. And in the lighting of these shadows more darkness has appeared.

It seems that in my city those who speak articulately and with the right accent are treated well and with respect. They can access justice and be taken seriously if they have a crime to report or a complaint to make. But for those who wear cheap clothes, are young and mouthy and sound wrong, come from the wrong address, things are very different.

A fourteen year old girl went to the city centre police station, her clothes covered in blood, to report a serious sexual assault. She was told she was a nuisance, and made to leave.

And for that girl and for her peers, I am angry, blisteringly angry. Stolen childhoods, shattered futures, broken bodies. Behind closed doors, while guest house owners did what? Turned up the music? Put the TV on?

I follow the teachings of a Palestinian Jew who was anything but predictable. Authority figures who cared for no one but themselves he called ‘unmarked graves’. People focused only on profit saw their businesses sabotaged and their tables overturned. Love your enemies, he also said, pray for those who persecute you. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

I feel so powerless to make a difference, to change things. But I trust in a God who specialises in change, in revolution, and by his grace I will channel my anger into prayer and passion and care for the city in which I find myself, and its children.

And the guest house? It is still open for business, under the falling blossom.

 

 

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The art of pome writing - or what words can do

 

When I was six I fell in love with writing. 

I wrote poems (or pomes, as I called them) about what I saw around me –caterpillars that turned into cocoons, autumn leaves on the pavement.

Early titles were ‘A Pome’, ‘Another Pome’ and the classic, ‘A Pome Yet Again’. I moved on to princess-in-a-castle stories, endless horse riding adventures, and later pieces that brought tears to my eyes as I wrote them, surprised by the wonder of the story that was finding its way out through my pen.

I have long had a deep love and respect for the power of words and what they can release.

Later, at university, I read other people’s writing, in French, and airport blockbusters for light relief from the bleak realism and existential angst.

My first job was a fundraising role at Oxfam, where I relished the writing of communications to generous people keen to hear stories of justice, change and futures re-written.

When I left work to care for my three small children as they arrived in quick succession, we shared books in bed, on the sofa, at the kitchen table, on the bus, and in time I tried to emulate some of the great stories we shared. These attempts gave me the highest respect for those who had written books that successfully captured children’s hearts and imaginations. It’s hard.

Then back to fundraising, at Viva, where I worked to generate funding, but above all rediscovered my love of writing and editing - a process rather like jewellery-making: the cutting and polishing of other people’s writing so the light is reflected and the meaning flashes clear and bright.

When I was wondering what to call my new writing and editing venture, I wrote list after list of different ideas, taking inspiration from favourite colours, my house number, even the plum tree in my garden. But all the time, in the background, was the image of a nightingale bursting with song - and it wouldn’t leave me alone. 

Sometimes words can sing.

My favourite subject is the love and faithfulness of the God I follow. Another person who felt the same way, thirty centuries ago, wrote: ‘I will sing of the mercies of the Lord for ever; with my mouth will I make known thy faithfulness to all generations’ (Psalm 89:1)

Those words ring clear today, down through time.

By writing words down we can catch them from the air and keep them. Treasure them and pass them on to generations unseen, to children’s children not even imagined.

Unlike anything else – fabric that disintegrates, silver that tarnishes, keepsakes that decay – words can be as full of life on the day they are rediscovered as they were when they were first written.

The love affair continues.

 

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