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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.

 

Ramblings about Christmas (I know, sorry…) and about Charity, charities and Love

It’s that time of year again. Chillier mornings, frost taking a run up, and Christmas bits appearing in the shops. I have heard some Christmas music being played in some places as well, mostly pappy lift Christmas muzak but it still sets out the stall for the coming deluge.

I was educated mostly by nuns and brought up on a diet of kissing the feet of icons, taking communion, or the body and blood of Christ as it was more attractively known, emptying myself of sin every Saturday in preparation for Sundays consecration and a general acknowledgement that I was not good enough and Must Do Better as the sins filled me up again over the next calendar week. Christmas was a big deal, a time to celebrate the Baby Jesus and be kind to people we didn’t like and to patronise the needy. A time to remember our difference from Anglicans in that we were clearly the chosen ones and should never, ever, utter Anglican prayers or hymns for fear of damnation. That one got me a detention in my Grammar School as I extravagantly nudged a Catholic chum in assembly (where we had to file in separately in case there was someone who hadn’t noticed we were different, to allow them the opportunity to clock us) who was joining in the “wrong” Our Father. I was saving her soul at the expense of a detention with the Chemistry teacher who hated me, not without reason. When exam time rolled around we all had to visit the teachers individually. I rocked up to the Chemistry Teachers den and breathed in the sulphur. She looked at me. I blinked at her. She said “I don’t think we have anything to say to each other, do you?” I left. It was a relief.

Anyway.

Christmas remained a big deal, especially when I married and had children. My husband was and is an atheist so it became less noticeably Catholic and more secular – more fun, really. Me going to Midnight Mass was tolerated with affection. We cooked, cleaned and preened for Gods sake for at least three months before the Big Day, bought gifts, decorated, made card lists, planned menus. The house was warm, golden and tinselly and we loved it. I wept when carols were played on the radio and filled up at the scent of candles. And that is where I am going with this. As my faith ebbed and flowed so the experience of Christmas changed. I am a recovering Catholic immersed in a Buddhist ethic and I am happy with that. I have gained so much from the path I have followed: the wisdom to know I am not as wise as I think, the contentment of being comfortable in my own skin, and the deep understanding of my transience. I have also lost things: the comfort of certainty, the cuddle of my God, the simplicity of Faith. Christmas, however, remains a big deal. We cook, clean and preen as much as ever although as the children grew and left and our Granddaughter arrived it took a different shape, a shape that was just as warm and lovely but was opened out and closed down all at the same time. And over the years that my Faith also changed so the ability of Christmas carols to move me decreased – that nipple-tingling, teary, warm, gut-filling emotion that Christmas Carols used to create was not there, and I miss it dreadfully. I remember each of my childrens Nativity plays at which, every time, I had quietly wept because it was so lovely, and the awful realisation on that final day in the final year of Primary School for my youngest child that Nativity plays would never be the same for me again, and I sobbed quietly at the back because it was beautiful and sad all at the same time. Of course my comedy nose gave it away when I had to blow it and people wondered how the Queen Mary had managed to pull up alongside……….

Anyway, again.

I still love Christmas and value more each year the opportunity to share it with a widening circle of family and friends as well as the opportunity for solo reflection and consolidation which has become more important than ever.   I will play carols again this year and hope for the thrill but without too much expectation. I will also play Stabat Mater by Pergolesi and know I will get the thrill that always brings. Perhaps I should simply be happy I can still be thrilled at all………

A lot of of this pondering about Christmas, and thrills, and change, was prompted by the obvious early marketing of Christmas which is in itself disappointing. It led me to reflect seriously about authenticity and ethical behaviour, two qualities I prize highly. Even though my own Christmas is not based in Catholicism any more, it is still based in faith and in love, it is authentic. It does not need the gaudy support on sale in the shops or the approval of someone ordained to approve. I do not need the prompt of religion to do the right thing ( or recognise the wrong thing) or love my fellows, or to enjoy festivities that are designed to bring people together – they stand on their own merits. The Stabat Mater moves me not because it is about Jesus but because it is about Love, Mothers love, turmoil and grief, cruelty and suffering and the sweet and bitter pain and joy of love and loss. It is as valid for our current world as for that world 2000 years ago.

Working with so many terrific people over the years I recognise authenticity in someone very quickly. Authenticity, passion and experience are things that underpin a great deal of work in the Third Sector and indeed are qualities that have created the genesis of many charities and organisations, and if married with talent and skill can produce formidable results. In their absence the tinsel quickly fades and good intentions are crushed under the weight of misconceived marketing and misunderstood motives, but if all those things are in place there is a lightness and a brightness about the business which lifts it above others and supports the drive which created the organisation in the first place. Hope and warmth are the driving force underpinned by all those more concrete talents of organisation.

So……..I look forward to Christmas in the same way I look forward to any event that excites me, but with that added thrill of knowing why I love it so much and the anticipation of some cracking meals and evenings to come, with people I like and love. There is no substitute for genuine commitment, authenticity and real affection, at Christmas, at Home, or at Work. My wish for this year is that you find all those things, in all those places, and enjoy them as much as I do.

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  http://www.barnardos.org.uk/   , CAFOD  http://www.cafod.org.uk/ , Fund It (because arts and culture are also important to children) http://www.fundit.ie/browse/ , Save the Children http://www.savethechildren.org.uk/ , the NSPCC http://www.nspcc.org.uk/ , Action for Children http://www.actionforchildren.org.uk/ , Demelza House http://www.demelza.org.uk/home/#,  the Big Issue http://www.bigissue.org.uk/    and UNICEF http://www.unicef.org.uk/UNICEFs-Work/. 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.

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