Category Archives: Having it All

Smell the coffee, make a difference

If you click the picture a charming video plays. Please take a couple of minutes to watch. I think this makes an effective point, and one with which I agree. These days I make sure to spend time smelling the coffee, so to speak. For years I rushed, head down, trying to do good stuff. When my parents died I realised how much I had missed and how much I had made other people miss in my hurry to be good. In my hurry to be good I had been, perhaps, less effective. Now I take time to sit on my front steps and watch the birds in the sky and listen to their songs; I watch people as they hurry by, perhaps missing things too; I watch the clouds and wonder how to paint them properly and then go and try; I smell the earth. I still make a difference sometimes, and still try to be good: I work doing things I believe in with people I admire and respect, but I don’t do it exclusively any more. I also choose words for stories, colours for paintings, actually hear the music I am playing. My life is the better for it and I think I make a better difference now. Working smarter not harder is a cliche, but it is a cliche because it makes sense. I just wanted to share the point…If you have some interesting work, let me know. I am your woman.



Freedom this Bank Holiday Weekend……..

Every morning I wake up and whatever else is happening I recognise my good fortune and articulate my gratitude. I think about the day ahead, and reflect on the day before. This morning, looking out of my study window at the world outside my thoughts drifted down a path that pondered Freedom.

Living in a democracy, perhaps I am politically free, although that is dubious given how much people pay to become politicians and how much it costs them to retain power. Their wealth supports their power grab.  But I have a vote which matters and for which people gave their lives, so partially free perhaps and indebted to those courageous people.

I am free to work and earn my living, earn my self respect. Dependent on the people above to enable jobs of course, and dependent on me doing a good job.

I am free to marry whoever I choose, and that freedom has been refreshingly extended recently, partly because of our democracy and our right to lobby and protest peacefully – although that too is under threat when police measures so obviously discourage peaceful protest and peaceful and passive campaigners are taken to court for exercising their peaceful rights.

I am free to have a religion or not have a religion, but sadly not free to express serious doubts about religions because the weight of those religions are impacting my own, and their money and votes talk.

I am free to live in the expectation that I will not be abused, although that too is impacted by others who might disregard my freedom to live safely and securely and the impotence, ineptitude and apathy of those who might want, or be tasked with, protecting me.

Despite the limitations, I live in what we call a free society. But on what does my freedom depend?

While 9 year old girls can be bought and sold and abused and raped in “marriage” in some cultures, how can I be free?  While a country with whom my own country does business and exchanges money and with whom we have a relationship, is passing into law the right to stone to death someone who has sex with someone who is married but will not pass a law to protect those children who are being sold off how can I be free? When cutting into a child  of any genders genitals and mutilating them is accepted and condoned, how can I be free? When entire corporations condone the use of an animal slaughtered in a way that my society had rightly decided was barbaric and disallowed but which has, somehow, become acceptable again, how can I be free? How can I ever be free when my fellows are trapped?

Our freedoms are bought with our courage and our vigilance. Without the bravery of the people who marched, fought and died for my right to vote I would not have that democratic right; without the real struggles of people who valued freedom I would still be my husbands property and married to someone chosen for me; without serious campaigning and people prepared to endure hostility and violence I would not be able to earn a living wage. The key to life is movement, when we stop struggling and moving we die and that liberty is lost .

My freedom is your freedom, and yours is mine. As fellow humans, as people, we share the right to the freedoms that do not reduce other peoples freedoms. I will never be really free until all people are free and for that reason I will continue to strive for freedom for all of us. Freedom from the tyranny of crime, substance mis-use, abuse and the after effects of abuse, poverty, violence, oppression, political deviance, homelessness, fear and prejudice. In my small life there are opportunities to make a difference and I have an obligation to take those opportunities and pay back some of the debt I owe. It is my pleasure to do so.


I am looking out of my study window enjoying the birdsong, the breeze and the people passing on the pavement below. I can do this and I can write about it because of my liberty. Let us value those freedoms and strive to enable everyone to experience the same liberation. Let us not take our eye off the ball and let in those who want to reduce our freedoms – there are many of those, and the most dangerous are those who do it only because they believe they are right, who have a belief system that values their own principles and degrades mine. The picture outside my study window is beautiful because it is my view and I value the things in it, and one of the things I value most is that those things are not reducing anyone else. As I play golf this afternoon I will rejoice that I have the freedom, means and desire to do so, and can enjoy the wonderful company of my friends. We all deserve a life worth living, in freedom and in peace.

Have a great bank holiday weekend!













Diabetes, then…..tch!

You have probably not been wondering where I have been as you have better things to do. After regular blogging there has been a pause, a whistling  tumbleweed silence unfilled by words or thoughts. I have missed you, though.

Like many women of what used to be called “a certain age” but is now called the New Forty I have discovered that  I am not a grumpy tired old bat, but that I have diabetes with a side order of thyroid malfunction and some yummy cholesterol. Well, ok, I am also a grumpy old bat, but I now have a lovely ready made off the shelf excuse for it and I’m not afraid to use it. With a vivid memory of the PMT I used to suffer, or rather my Old Man used to suffer, pre-menopause (men, look away now) I put the  recent irritability and low moods down to being a woman. Call myself a Feminist?! I should be ashamed, bringing dishonour on the lovely bright green dungarees I used to proudly wear in the 70s, with the universal Feminist sign all over the front. In case the short hair, dungarees, free-flow pit-hair and  belligerent attitude didn’t give it away.

So, the low moods, exhaustion and annoyance are the result of diabetes. Another confession: I used to be a nurse (technically I still am, which is scary), and I still don’t understand diabetes. I tried to convince the diabetes nurse that my blood sugar was raised because I have honey for breakfast and that the dizziness, fatigue and biting the heads off small children was probably because the Old Man was annoying. Which is true. But it wasn’t the reason that getting out of bed in the mornings was becoming less of a pleasure. I am a natural early riser, every morning, around 04.00 or 05.00 at the latest, up and at ’em, starting the day with meditation, focus, honey (of course) and tea – I love the start of the day. But in the last few months my mind has continued on the same plane but my body has been dragging behind whispering ” do we have to do this….?” and generally loafing around making my mind think twice. And when I was first identified as diabetic I dived straight into denial, taking to it like an old hand: it wasn’t diabetes because I eat properly/don’t smoke/it can’t be/I haven’t time for this. I thought that I could eat my way away from diabetes. Partly true, but a little optimistic I think. I think I thought I might grow out of it, like acne………

So on the whole I made a nuisance of myself avoiding the inevitable, bobbing and weaving to miss the headlines and warning signs, finding plenty of sand in which to bury my head and making a pain of myself.

Running alongside the diabetes was a serious dip in confidence. Hitting fifty (and the rest) can be a shock to the system, especially if the usual things all happen at once – and I can almost hear the rumble of agreement from other “New Forties” out there as you anticipate what I am going to say. My parents both died within a couple of years of each other (horrible circumstances, for another blog), I became disabled enough to need a blue badge, and the kids started leaving home/having babies/getting married/being grown up. And I continued to run the business and work hard. I wasn’t about to let grief, disability and pain, and the empty nest stop me! Oh no, because I am Superwoman, hear me roar.

Except I didn’t roar, I shrieked, snapped, snarled and moaned. I lost the ability to step away and see the bigger picture, and my assertiveness began to drip out of me and stain the carpet. I am used to achieving and have high expectations of myself, not unrealistically.  I know what I am doing and that bigger picture is what informs me. I always think my work is like being the conductor of several orchestras – the job is to lead, to show the tempo and understand the destination, and to make sure all the component parts get there at the right time and that any improv enhances the show. The energy and thrust needed for the business gives me energy, feeds me, and gives me purpose. And when all of those other things, those Life Events, converged, I lost the Kerpow Whoomph. I no longer really knew if  knew what I was doing even though I thought I knew that I did, I wasn’t sure. If you see what I mean! Where once I would have known with certainty when something was actually mine and the buck stopped at my feet, and when it wasn’t and that buck needed to be re-directed, I suddenly found it harder to tell, and started to think it was indeed all my fault, that I was wrong, it was me, and that I didn’t know anything. I think it is fair to say I was confused. But confused on the inside. My Fellow New Forties,  you know what it’s like – you are the one in the middle holding it all together. You have the reins, the strings and the plug that could be pulled and let it all swirl away, so you can’t let it go. So I didn’t, and the music played on. But I did shut down for a while, which is why I haven’t been here for a few months. It took all my energy to keep the plates spinning and I didn’t have any left over for Life.

So…… I am diabetic and proud! I remember when I first became disabled, and I kept thinking “when this gets better I will get the bike out again” until gradually (d’oh!) it dawned on me that this was as good as it got and I was disabled. Diabetes received the same treatment. I have now reached acceptance and along with it the ability to take the advice and the pills, and I am living again. Maybe next time I have a Life Event you will be kind enough to send me a copy of this blog post so that I don’t waste too much time on denial and faffing. And, a bit like the Walking Stick club that I inadvertently joined – that band of walking stickers who with a nod and a smile, and a comment about the stick, offer unity and solidarity in disability – I have found a new club of diabetics that I hadn’t known existed. The more impaired I become, the more clubs I seem to be invited to join…….Happy Days!

Did You Marry A Coffee Table?

You marry someone mostly because you love them – they appeal to you, look good, fit with your tastes and lifestyle –  you want them. Much the same reasons you used when buying a coffee table. You know where they will fit into your home, your style, your image and your dreams.

Once that coffee table is in place, though, if it is a quality table, a good one, one that needs little attention other than the odd wipe or squeeze, doesn’t need to be moved about too much because it fits where it is, perfectly, you probably don’t pay it much attention. It fits it, looks good, gives you pleasure just being there, does what you expect it to do, doesn’t have any features that require repair, and no bits drop off.

After a while – sometimes a long while – you might notice almost by accident that it looks a bit faded. Perhaps it has started to peel, isn’t as shiny, has lost its gloss.  Perhaps it doesn’t fit in quite so well with the rest of your lifestyle – you look at it more closely. The rest of the room has moved on, the walls are a new colour, the floorboards have a new varnish, your tastes have changed a little. What were you thinking when you bought that chintz sofa way back? Chintz? Who does chintz any more? Thank goodness you replaced it with that handsome new brightly coloured modern sofa! Where does this quality but old coffee table fit these days? It has stood where it is for the longest time, has held your coffee cups and plates, your pretentious coffee table books, had stains wiped up, has tolerated the dogs using it as a back scratcher and the cats using it to sharpen their claws, has supported the babies when they cruised the furniture as they became more independent, has blended in with the various morphs of your home, has never mentioned those times when you dumped rubbish on it or kicked it in temper, and has never complained or asked for anything. It was just there, doing what it was expected to do, strong and dignified. Durable.

You take a long look at your table. You can’t remember what it was that you liked about it way back then, can you? Has it always had those great big feet? When did it develop that slight list to one side? Did it really look like this when you brought it home? At what point did it begin to look out of place in your house and start to chip? What to do? It obviously doesn’t fit in any more – it is shabby and too old, it needs repair and looks damaged. Those cups and plates you kept leaving on it have left their mark and isn’t that a crack where you deliberately threw your bag onto it that day when you were tired and irritable?

Well, if you value quality, enjoy reliability,  value trustworthiness, love steadfastness,  perhaps you need to step back and think. That table has been there throughout all the upheavals, the changes, the fads and fancies, the tempers and the frustrations. It bears the scars of your annoyance, and of your carelessness. It is still strong, still there and still yours. It may not be perfect, it may not be as beautiful as it once was, but isn’t that partly because of you? And isn’t imperfection also part of its charm? If it were perfect, perhaps you would also need to try to be perfect, and how would that work out?!

What is it that it needs to be what you want it to be? Some attention? Some loving caresses and nourishment? Some repair and rest? Can you offer it those things? Because if you can, you will be rewarded with a handsome, supportive, reliable, durable, quality table that actually puts your modern new stuff to shame just by being quality and dignified. And administering those remedies could be a joy in itself, part of that healing pathway that you can both savour and enjoy, knowing that when it has finished you both know it will not cease – that you recognise that in fact if you had administered that amount of care in the first place, as a matter of course, there would not be as much damage as there was. True, if the table had been able to tell you it was in need you might have listened; if the table had just once raised a voice to say it was starting to list, starting to deteriorate, you might have heard. But you  might not, and besides, tables don’t talk, and you knew that when you brought it home.  You knew what you had back then, you just forgot over the years.

If you don’t get a move on and give some of that nourishment and care you might find that someone else appreciates the properties in that table that you have forgotten about and finds they have the time and energy to deliver nourishment and affection, and will reap the rewards. If you cast off that table, send it to the second hand shop, or worse, simply allow it to continue to subside, you will have lost a real treasure. And there is little if any possibility that you will replace such a find.

Take another look. Remember. Your old table bears the reminders of happy times and sad times, both of which matter if we are to grow and learn. Nourish what you have and delight in the result.

A Postscript to The Family Way – and Having It All………

I reflected, as I do, after posting The Family Way, and the old mind meandered off towards another path. I felt I had perhaps done a disservice to people who “have it all”. I am so grateful for what I have, and mindful of my good fortune, that I sometimes overlook the challenges along the way. It seems a little ungrateful to dwell on them! But that does a disservice to others who work hard and manage complex lives in order to stabilise their families and support them. We have complex lives in our family, and have had some histories to get to where we are. We are fortunate and have what we need, have a nest and the life support systems that keep us afloat. But we have worked to get there. Without boringly baring all and sharing too many dull details, perhaps I should explain.

Before we had our family, for whom we waited eight years after we married, we lost a number of babies before they were born. Does that mean we cherish the ones we have more than others? I don’t think it does – families love their babies however they arrive. But perhaps it means we have a lively appreciation of them! When the babies were small I worked nights for some years nursing in many different places good and bad, in order to support us. Being part of that system and witnessing it was a part of the reason for me starting my own company some years later – to make sure that we did our best to ensure that good practice happened and bad practice was not tolerated, that people had the best services and the best means of enjoying their lives that they could, regardless of postcode, disability, age, cost or any of the other factors that often reduce a persons quality of life. Our drivers are equality of opportunity and the right to a Life.  It was a difficult time but ultimately lead us in a positive direction. Losing a job later on meant I took some time out, did some painting and writing, took a good, long look and reassessed what I actually wanted and where my strengths were, and my life took off in a hugely exciting and fulfilling direction. A bad thing turned into a good thing. And when my parents died, within 3 years of each other, in hospitals that were shameful, and outrageously and obviously so , it once again took me down a challenging path that had some beneficial outcomes despite the enormous pain of that time, effecting some changes and leaving a legacy for my Mother to be remembered by. And when I became disabled a couple of years ago it was a period of real development for me – I blogged at the time about how it had taught me a new and honestly better way of managing and leading. I was genuinely grateful. And I freely admit to having experienced depression from time to time, and learning how to manage and actually use that experience has taught me a great deal. Life has been stunningly good!

I suppose what I am saying is that sometimes “having it all” can set people up for the envious and the sad, who might deride people who have good lives and feel they do not deserve it or have not earned it somehow. One of the online forums to which I contribute has a thread doing just that at the moment –  a few sadly envious people are having a massive pop at anyone, particularly those in the public eye, with some wealth or success and ignoring the fact that in most cases considerable hard work and experience have contributed to that status. Now, we don’t have oodles of wealth or extravagant “success”, but what we do have is sufficient, it is what we need, and who needs more than that? We have what we need to allow us to have some choices and be ourselves without reducing the meaning that supports our lives – we do not have enough to make us lazy! And we have learned so very much along the way, growing together and weaving our branches to create a support for the new shoots.

It has been a blast – and all those who have it all, who have developed their lives so that they can be themselves and support their families, should be proud of that. There is no pathway without brambles, but learning how to climb over them is a major cause of success and fulfilment. And to be honest, aren’t they one and the same thing?

The Family Way

Thank you Nicola Horlick for once suggesting we could have it all. No advice about what to do with it all once we have it, but hey ho, that’s liberation for you.

Cards on the table and no fudging the age thing: I am about to become a grandmother for the first time. I am at an agreeable age for grandmotherhood – not too young so that I have to find excuses for grandchildren and not too old to enjoy a bit of energetic childcare. Of course, my daughter thinks it is all about her, but as all other grandmothers will know  – and as we speak will be nodding wisely – it is about us. I am an incredibly lucky woman. I have a gorgeously  lovely husband, beautiful and diverse children (and the ones who have partners have chosen terrific partners), a great house and a job that I am enjoying to bits, capacity for choices about work and a room of my own which houses my piano, paints and canvases, banjo, books, and other bits and pieces that keep me very nearly sane. It is also right next to the kitchen………. I have a good life. And into that life another life is about to step.

I remember as clearly as if it were last week the births of each of my children. I remember that my Old Man watched the World Champion Athletics on the telly in the labour room as my son was being born, and that in frustration at my pains at one point he grabbed the TENS machine and turned it up to full strength. I can feel the collective winces of all those women who have used TENS. Yes, ladies, I did hit him once I had been peeled off the ceiling. I remember on another labour day the midwife going to fetch a beanbag to support my back thinking Molly wouldn’t be arriving for a while and Molly arriving almost as soon as she had left the room, and my sight taking a brief holiday as my blood pressure hit the roof. I remember my firstborn experience: a patronising junior doctor leaned over me and reminded me sharply that I had “precious cargo” inside me. I told her I had, until that moment, thought it was a bag of f***ing sugar and was grateful to her for pointing out my mistake. I can be a little irritable. (Memo to self: try to remember not to piss off people who are either preparing my food or delivering my care……) And my lastborn – an enormous baby of almost ten pounds who decided to get stuck with her knees around her ears and attempted to arrive bum-first. She was my little Caesarean, as she is fondly known. All different from the word Go, and so different now. I wonder what this first grandchild will be like? So many genes to choose from!

Whichever genes are uppermost, whatever shape, gender, pedigree or colouring my grandchild turns out with, she will have a particular advantage: an extended family who will love her and care for her, and for her Mother and Father, whatever happens – and no mistake, we never know what is going to heppen; a family who will nurture her talents and indulge her fancies,  notice and enjoy her quirks, and cherish her forever. I am reminded today of all those who do not have what we have and in my own fortunate world I regret those lost chances for those lost children. Wherever you are, and however you live, perhaps you could join me in supporting Barnardos   , CAFOD , Fund It (because arts and culture are also important to children) , Save the Children , the NSPCC , Action for Children , Demelza House,  the Big Issue    and UNICEF Please feel free to add some more to this list.

As I grow older I realise that, in almost every aspect, there but for the grace of God (and for those atheists among us, there but for the grace of Circumstance) go I. And you. I have been privileged, genuinely, to work with some of the most vulnerable and abused people in our society, and there is a mere hairs breadth between us. Don’t ever think, as I have heard people say, “I would never allow myself to sink so low”. You simply do not know what you might do given a particular set of circumstances, most of which are not within your control. And most certainly the children who are there have not chosen it.

I “have it all”, and I am grateful. I do moan a little about how to manage “having it all” because it is damned hard work, but I don’t moan much. I know how lucky I am, and I also know that having it all has been my choice. Having a first grandchild on the way, from a dearly loved and cherished daughter and her lovely partner, has reminded me of all that I should value, and of all that is missed by some. It hurts me deeply to know that my own parents, who died within the last few years, will not see Mollys baby, but  it is wonderful that all my In Laws and her fathers family will be here to see her and that she has such a loving and diverse family to join.

As the Big Issue says: a hand up not a hand out.  Supporting organisations who support people to move up and out of their circumstances rather than simply throw money at them, who return the power to where it belongs empowering individuals to regain control of their lives, is the best possible way to return some balance to society and promote success.  We will support and cherish our grandchildren but, as with our kids, we will expect them to work and share the jobs out, to earn what they have and to remember to value it. That way they will be less likely to take it for granted or chuck it away, and will be more able to face the inevitable challenges along the way.

I look forward to meeting our new family member. It matters that while doing so, I also remember others. Loving my babies makes loving other babies so much easier, and not taking action is not an option.

Self, self self………

Sometimes being selfish is awfully hard.

I enjoy my work, I genuinely love what I do for a living. I am lucky. Mind you, I do it quite well……

During my work I meet a huge variety of people, most of whom I like, all of whom I respect and from all of whom I learn something, usually profound, but even if it is  just how not to do something or how to achieve a serious level of being-annoying-ness it is worth knowing! It is my genuine pleasure and privilege to do what I do with whom I do it.

Sometimes during a project I find I have done as much as I want to do or achieved as much as I wanted to achieve and run out of steam. I plunge all my energy into my projects – that is why they generally succeed. I energise the planning and research, I embrace with enthusiasm the refining of the planning and the partnership working that supports success. I review and refine and refine and review, and I lead a team towards success, making sure that they know they are succeeding. Then, the project is complete. Either because it has concluded and achieved resolution, or the parameters have changed and it is no longer attractive to me.

Not long ago I moved on from a project because it had concluded for me. Lots of reasons, the shape had changed, the direction changed, and someone with whom I could never have shared oxygen for any salary joined the project, and I would have to share oxygen with them if I stayed as I was.  The project was still Live, had legs and was moving onwards. It was me that had concluded, for all of the above reasons.

Like any relationship it took some reflection, pain and work to draw to an end, especially as it was me ending it and I had been invited not to end it. It was, like the end of any relationship, painful to a degree – not devastating, but painful enough to sting. But, like many relationships, enjoying it at the beginning was no guarantee that I would keep enjoying it or that it would continue to be attractive to me. The people I worked with were fascinating.  The work itself was the work that I love:  the planning and actioning and the drive towards excellence and the leading of a team and the thinking and the slowness and the rushing and the remorseless need to respond quickly and the hustling and wheeling and even the dealing. All the component parts were there, and I loved it. And then I didn’t.

Knowing what it is that attracts you to a particular project or job ( or partner… can see where I am going with this!) matters, because if you get it right and choose correctly you will be happy. If you are happy you are more likely to succeed, and to form good relationships. Equally important is knowing what repels you, or what the warning signs are when the role begins to lose its lustre.  I have been in some conversations about a role when I have instinctively thought “back away slowly, this one will bite”……..and on analysis it is clear that it was because of the interviewer who, be honest, is the representative of the organisation for whom you may one day work. In one, I sat with my back to a biggish window facing out of the guys office onto the open plan area. Not a good start and either he meant it to be uncomfortable or he was an eejit. He spent the entire time peeping round me at the open plan office area. Eventually I politely asked him if I could help him find who he was looking for so that we could get on with the interview in peace. I did not wait to hear if I had been successful………

In another, I brought along as requested a carefully crafted, well planned and thought through, rehearsed and (I thought) effective presentation only to be told the laptop was not working and cheerfully told not to worry as it didn’t matter anyway……this did not make me feel valued and it certainly did not impress me with the interviewers skills……..I left.

I have also had conversations with people of great charm and courtesy, who enthused me so much I took even more care to make sure I shared with them my achievements and enthusiasm, people who had infectious and bouyant interest in not only their jobs, but mine as well, and were clearly genuinely interested in the people around them. I liked them, and I have worked with most of them. We clicked.

I think what I am driving at is one of my favourite phrases: “Life’s too Short”. I don’t have time to spare to work with eejits and bores who have no prospect of change or any redeeming features. Why would I? I spend a lot of my time and energy at work, with the people with whom I work – if the chemistry isn’t there, what is the point? Eejits and bores can pass the time well enough but don’t ask me to spend my working days with them. I don’t spend my personal time with them either. Life’s too short………and if you have tried hard, reflected and thought it through and there is no realistic prospect of fresh developments or of repairing any bridges, well……………..

BUT,  in any relationship there are subsidiary relationships. I have left behind some dear people about whom I care deeply, and with whom it was a pleasure and a privilege to share space. And this is the point of this post: I had to be selfish and back away from a project that was still in progress, and leave behind some great people, because otherwise I would have been too unhappy to be as effective as I would want, and that would have been toxic for those relationships. Painful as it was I had to walk away from some people with little warning, because of the need to be selfish. And being selfish was very hard.

BUT, I urge you to be selfish. If you want those good relationships to survive, want to keep the sanity of the “family” of people you have had the honour of working with, be selfish. Know yourself, know your warning signs,  understand if the role is worth struggling to revive, and if not do the decent thing and stride off towards a new adventure with those lovely memories intact for everyone. Make sure you do as much as you can to relieve the pain, tie up the ends, tuck in the straggly bits, smooth over the jagged bits, leave a nice smell behind if you can. But make sure you do just that: leave. You and they will be happier – and who knows, perhaps it will prompt some development in someone else as well. And you can be proud of that.

The shelves in the back of my head……..

Last week I spent some time in retreat. No, I did not hide under my desk while colleagues tried to find me after an undisclosed incident in the boardroom – I went away to be silent for a while. The wonderful Aylesford Priory were gracious enough to allow me to spend time in their beautiful and majestic grounds and buildings specifically in order to be quiet.

I don’t need to tell you how hard it is to be silent: telly, radio, cellphones, games, sirens………     It used to be a pleasure to take a train journey (please, if you are under 50 years old, don’t laugh) –  it created thinking time, space in which to read, think, gaze past the window to the trees smeared against them as the train cantered towards its destination. Now it is impossible to switch off, quite literally. Cellphones ringing (if you are lucky – if you are unlucky you will be trapped in a carriage full of people with pop tune ringtones like I was recently. It is like being forcibly confined inside an especially horrendous episode of X Factor without the restraining feature of a presenter), people babbling into cellphones, laptops tapping and pinging, iPods clicking and whooshing away. It feels as if no-one realises they are in public: like the Emperor with no clothes, the reality  of self exposure is cloaked in the self deception of self absorption..

So, I needed to tap out, but silent tapping, braille tapping, BSL tapping.

My parents died within 3 years of each other, my Mother only this year. Some bad times and feelings happened because of the circumstances and I had not had time to properly hold those times and examine them, turn them over in my hands and feel them.

So, I needed to tap out, but soft tapping, tapping that came with an embrace. But not a real hug. I don’t do touch! That must be why I like the spiritual kind so much!

Being in a Monastery has a specific feel to it. The grounds of this one are glorious anyway, and the sun dripped through the autumn leaves and created some spectacular ripples on the lakes and dapples on the hundreds of geese, ducks and swans and bounced brilliantly off the stained glass. The ancient buildings smelled of age and wisdom and the place is still in my nostrils and my head.  Silent communal prayer – silence and your God, whatever or whoever that may be, shared with other people – has a healing drench to it. It seems to get right to the centre of things and iron out some of the wrinkles and kinks. Of course, some of the wrinkles and kinks are there for a reason and remain firmly in place! It takes time and effort to gain the wisdom of wrinkles, even those inside your head, so I will hang on to the useful ones, thank you!

As I slipped gently and gradually into reflection and became absorbed in that special kind of thoughtless weightless thinking that leads to real meditation and communication with something like self, I remembered that I have held so many things against myself. I mentioned in my last post that it had occurred to me that Justice begins inside us and if we are to live justly we have to be just and fair with ourselves. That doesn’t come easy. And it isn’t self-absorbed or selfish to try to be fair to oneself – the damage that is done to our relationships if we can’t get right the relationship inside us can be phenomenal. If I am uncomfortable with who I am, how can I expect others to be comfortable with me? And if others are not comfortable with me what use am I? What purpose can I have? None of this means not taking responsibility for our actions, or absolving ourselves for deliberate malicious actions and intent. Quite the opposite, actually, it means, more, knowing the difference between what we have done with bad intent and what we have done either thoughtlessly or with good intent that turned bad. For some people it is hard to leave behind the grief and the emotional flagellation – there is some comfort in not facing reality, that someone has gone, that it is too late to say those things you never said, that there were some things said that shouldn’t have been. That Life has changed forever. Sometimes, for some people, that is too hard to bear and it becomes easier as time goes on to slip back into that sense, to cling to the pain like a babies rattle, at once annoying and pleasing, but always distracting. But unless you release the grip you have on it, allow it to slip away where it needs to go, that pain, however comforting you think it is, will stop you breathing. It will tether you to the spot where it happened. It needs to be freed to allow you to grow.

So over that strangely unquantifiable period of time of silence when I had the opportunity to reflect and pursue ideas wherever they took me I began to realise that I am still here. A bit weird, maybe – of course I am still here. Perhaps only an eejit would need time out to notice that! But I think what I mean is, I noticed that things had changed and I am still here. I have changed and I am still here. I had been waiting about for some forgiveness from my Mother for not being able to spare her those last miserable painful, tortuous days of her death. And it occurred to me that I didn’t need to wait – she has moved into another place and my own forgiveness and angst has no meaning for her now. Neither she nor I need it and neither of us would be able to give or receive it – things have changed. And her death had a consequence: the hospital where she spent those last few days which were so miserable was a dreadful place, filled with well meaning people who failed at every turn to provide the caring service that they are tasked with providing. I had to fight for every last shred of dignity and care for my Mother and witnessed some frankly evil events which were rooted not in evil but in carelessness, thoughtlessness and laziness. And I made a fuss (would you believe!). It was a sustained, draining, challenging, loud and long fuss.  I made a fuss for my Mother and we got a better end for her than we could ever have expected without the fuss. But a miraculous thing happened:  the overall, long term, result of that wail of a fuss was that changes were instituted in the organisation and on the wards. Really major changes, life changing changes, changes that took my breath away when I heard about them. These changes, told to me by the people managing those services, sound like good changes – they were a long time coming, and although they sound good I cannot evaluate them myself because we have moved on. But if even half of what I was told has been done to improve those services materialises the change would be incredible. So her forgiveness comes, perhaps, in the form of the knowledge that she made things better for the people who came after her, and that is some satisfaction. I have the benediction of knowing that good came of evil.

So, with that as my starting point, and what a good one it was, I managed to clear out and tidy up most of the shelves in the back of my head. I had a good rummage around in there and a bit of a mop and dust, mended the wear and tear of some of the things, threw out the accumulated rubbish and folded things as neatly as I could and put them back. Some things will never fold properly – they are too bulky, or too worn, or too fragile. But knowing they are still good and are stored properly is a comfort. And I can take them out again when I need to and run my hands over them, smell them, and take care of them.

If I could say one thing to you it would be: try silence. Try stopping, and listening, and looking and waiting. Have you ever seen a kingfisher swoop? Have you then gone back to that same spot and tried to see it again – the magical flash of colour and the whirr of sound. If you have seen the kingfisher swoop and want to see it again you have to wait. You have to go back to that same spot, wait, and wait. You know it’s there, you know it will be there, but you have to wait. And then, suddenly, joy of joys, it is there and it is gone . You have seen that splendid flash of colour and heard the whirr, and it is because you have waited that you had that.  Waiting, listening, pausing and being still are wonderous, and reward us so well.

Do the shelves in the back of your head need some attention? Is a bit of a rummage in order? For your sake and for the sake of the people who care about you, try silence.

The blessing of slowth…….

In my last blog I rattled on a bit about my bad knee and how I had been brought sharply up by experiencing disability and severe pain first hand. It shifted my view of things, gave me an opportunity to experience what it actually means. It was genuinely humbling and annoying in equal parts, and still is. I am still in pain, sadly, and have gone from the “when this gets better I will start cycling again” to ” I had better buy a couple of decent designer walking sticks that match my clothes……” and I have, in short, begun to suck it up.

Since reaching that conclusion I have noticed that, in fact, things have become easier. The pain is the same and don’t get me started about that. The first ten minutes of a car journey are spent groaning aloud until the pain settles – yes, I am a baby. So the disability remains, unchanged. What has changed is me. I am beginning to genuinely value the opportunity to look around me, take in the sights and smells and enjoy them (most of them)  and interact a little differently. It has made a difference not being able to leap up from my desk and trot down to the next department for a chat and the chance to rattle cages – I now walk a little slower, which gives me time to chat on the way as well as when I get there. As a super-focussed active achieving ambitious driven revved-up dynamic boss with buckets of energy (pauses for a round of applause….) it has been hard to adapt, to realise that I can still achieve, can still express my drive and focus, can retain my energy, but I have to use different tools. I have noticed that, because I am almost forced to talk at more length,  I am learning more about people; I am looking at people more closely; I am hearing different answers and asking different questions; I am using my energy to absorb as much as to reflect. The drive  and energy I have is spreading over a denser area and is actually achieving more because it has time to sink in. I have re-evaluated what matters to me during the day as well – the walking stick factor means I have fewer hands so need to rationalise what I carry around. Now when I travel around I know I have the things that matter with me, no more and no less. I have discovered, by accident, a new fresh way of managing and leading and it is fun! Accustomed to achieving and leading it has been a revelation to follow a different path towards success and find that it is even more satisfying than it was before.  This has both astonished and delighted me.

I believe the people I lead are also happier – there are more opportunities to be heard, more avenues to understanding. Before The Knee I believe there were those opportunities – after all, I had created and embedded them, recognising the need for those interactive oases and hot-spots, a bit of directed interaction. Since The Knee I can see that those oases were drying upa little  and needed to be refreshed. So Thank You Knee

My designer walking sticks are fab, by the way………and I have discovered the Walking Stick Club. I had not realised the covert winks and nods that go on between walking stick owners – the exchanged looks that say “nice stick, I know how you must feel. It’s ok”. I have had countless absorbing conversations with fellow walking-stickers and have even taken instruction from a perfect stranger, who was perfectly charming, who described to me how he had made the rather fabulous stick he was using when we met in the orthopaedics waiting room. Fascinating! It’s opened up a whole new universe for me! And this website sells some really gorgeous walking sticks:

So I say Thank You Knee. I wish you didn’t hurt, I will be glad when we have sorted you out, but Thank You for pointing me towards fresh conversations, new insights and better communication.

Walk a mile in my shoes……….

A mate of mine, a consultant geriatrician, was and is a kind, thoughtful and skilled practitioner who deals with his patients with respect and reflection. He listens, hears and responds and genuinely cares. However, I remember the time he contracted conjunctivitis for the first ever time. It was horrible: uncomfortable, mildly disfiguring, and hugely irritating. He was contrite – he remarked that he had prescribed medication for conjunctivitis countless times and thought it was a minor problem which his patients moaned about too much, until he felt the itchy, distracting, impairing mess of it!

I am also guilty! In the past 30+ years I have met, worked with, sincerely cared about and supported countless people with disabilities of all sorts. I have also had the odd bad back, but it wasn’t until the past few weeks when I have experienced real disability because of a dodgy knee that I have fully appreciated the full range of implications for people. I can only walk short, very painful distances with a walking stick – my guilty pleasure of a trawl through the charity shops on a Saturday morning are, for now, a thing of the past. Goodness knows I can barely fit any more books in the house, but I do so enjoy the rummaging, the discovery and acquisition of a deliciously second hand book that I either have yet  to read or do not possess and I miss that pleasure. I drive many miles a week for my job – that also has become increasingly painful and impacted on my genuine pleasure in  my work. The pleasure is still there and the achievements still rewarding, but knowing that I will almost  fall out of the car when I arrive at work and will take up to 15 minutes to bring my leg back from the dead before I can walk painfully into my workplace reduces it somewhat. I have to plan my journeys and the parking and the slow warm up o fthe leg , allow extra time for the irritatingly slow hobble, and gobble painkillers, avoiding the ones that make me drowsy but which also happen to be the only ones that impact on the pain! I will gloss over the need to plan for the loo in advance because of the slow pace and ditto the challenge of bathing.  This has been my life for the past few weeks and it is driving me to distraction, even though I know will not be permanent – I am so used to dodging about, popping to places, hurrying along that the frustration is palpable . I can barely imagine what it is like for people to endure this for years on end, or to know that the prospect of this and more is on the horizon because of an existing condition. That reduced capacity for life and pleasure, the pain, the dependency.

I watched the Terry Pratchett programme about planned and assisted suicide this week. And I am annoyed that it has become “the Terry Pratchett programme” and not ” the Peter Smedley programme”. Mr Smedley was kind and generous enough to share himself with us, yet it is Terry Pratchett who will be remembered in the media. Whatever views we hold about death, suicide and the legal system, or the BBC,  Mr Smedley and his wife chose to share themselves with us at a poignant and painful time and that was courageous. Until relatively recently I held gentle but nevertheless properly thought through views about assisted suicide: it was wrong. There were too many risks of abuse for us to go down the road of  de-criminalising it, and besides it felt like playing God. As a sometime Catholic it did not sit comfortably in my mind. I have also supported and cared about people who wanted to kill themselves through depression and lack of self worth, some of whom succeeded. It always, without fail, seemed to me to be a waste, whoever they were and whatever their lifestyle. Every one of them had gifts, talents, individual traits and worth that were ebbing away because of their perceived need to die. I have always respected others views on suicide and assisted suicide, but was in the camp of those quietly opposed to it. Almost disapproving at times, on the inside. What a smug idiot I was.

Within the space of three years I have sat by the bedside of first my Father and then this year my Mother as they did not go gently into that good night, spending weeks succumbing to the effects of massive strokes from which there was no way back. My view up until recently has been – and still is, actually – that death does not have to be like that. Given the right support and care a good death and a good end of life is achievable, especially when it is a medical event like a stroke or terminal disease that allows time for the right plans to be put into place and the right support to be made available.  However, the almost total failure of health services to manage pain and death for either of my parents leads me to the inescapable conclusion that this is unlikely to happen. Despite the fact that many, many people must have died on those wards, there was nothing to indicate that death was planned for or acknowledged or that the nurses had any meaningful education around care of the dying , and given that the living and aware were also on the whole treated with an appalling lack of dignity and humanity I am confident that the dying would fare no better. I know that, given a choice, both of my parents would have preferred to slip easily and quickly away and not had to endure the indignities and suffering of their final weeks – but this is not possible to include in the assisted suicide debate which focusses entirely on those who are able to express their wishes on the day, in fact as they take the medication. The paradox is also that the people we saw on the programme were aware and alert, and each of them agreed that they were ending their lives earlier than they might otherwise have done  as they did not want to risk the very thing my parents were forced to endure – and they had had to endure it because they had lost the ability to state their wish at a given moment.

So, we are left with the glaring fact: if we could ensure a good death, could be confident that death plans could be in place, that the dying would be supported to their dignified end of life and their death, that pain management would be effective, that health services would have the will and the means to enable good dying, assisted suicide would be less relevant. While there are some places where dying is supported, some wonderful hospices and services who dedicate themselves to the essential and rewarding, if challenging, task of supporting people in their natural death, they are a minority.  What I have seen in my personal life in recent years has shown me that it is the norm to find inadequate services in the NHS, to find careless staff  and stretched facilities and no preparation on any level for end of life care in the routine daily business of hospital wards. I have to ask myself: is it worth the risk of sliding towards my death, or enduring my end of life as a dependant, knowing what I know? What would I do, knowing what I know, having seen what I have seen?

One thing I am sure of in the middle of all the uncertainty: until I have walked a mile in your shoes I will not presume to know what is best for you, even if I believe, as I do, that taking life is wrong. There have been times in the past few weeks when, if someone had offered to remove my leg thereby relieving the pain I would have very quickly accepted. Desperation and disempowerment  create a challenging and dark environment. Perhaps our task should be to shed light in that environment, to empower and uplift, to return control and dignity to those who are missing it. I am very sure of one more thing – I will continue to strive to do this and will continue to drive my services and my organisations to achieve this. Not to do so would be appallingly negligent. I will walk a mile in your shoes.

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