Looking Beyond …

thoughts and deliberations .. a theme is too restrictive


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What is a good sport?

..  or how to make a CVSsplash …

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I have just returned from a swim.  I have never been that keen on swimming, but occasionally it provides the right balance of exertion and mindlessness to be my chosen form of exercise.  Tonight, the driving factor is the fact that I am part of a team undertaking a sponsored swim on Saturday and I am beginning to get a little fearful.

One of my problems when swimming is that I forget that I am supposed to be putting any effort into it.  I start off with good intent to burn some calories and improve my style, but am soon lost in thought and find myself in the metaphorical slow lane (if only people would stay in their lanes) being overtaken at alarmingly frequent intervals.  It feels like the equivalent of being on the “lazy table” at school – but that is another story.

Today, true to form, I become lost in thought.   I occupy my time with thinking about how and why I got myself into this sponsored swim situation, and how important it might be to raise as much money as possible…

I once climbed Ben Nevis to raise funds for the Neurofibromatosis Association, but that was a cause that pulled on a lot of friends’ and families’ emotional strings as my young son was going through a tough time with the medical condition. It was effortless to draw in the £s and it was an exciting venture to climb – despite the rain and mist.  I vowed then that I would not become the serial thrill seeker, looking for other people to sponsor my adventures. Keeping this vow has not presented me with an insurmountable challenge as I am neither the sporting kind, nor the thrill seeker.

But am I …   (I am on about length 10 by now – a slow thinker as well as a slow swimmer – and of course I am sparing you every detail of my thought meanderings) ….. a good sport?

A quick review of my sporting achievements takes less than a length of the pool, but reflections on my sporting humiliation last somewhat longer…

It started with gym lessons in primary school.  Lessons consisted of little more than moving in a directed way to the unconvincing instructions played on tape in the school hall.  But it was not a good start.   “You are a tree being blown in the wind” coaxed the lady in the ‘storytime with Mother’ Radio 4 voice.  “No”, my five year old head would tell me, “I am an embarrassed and scared rigid girl standing here in my red pants” (don’t ask), “I am also nauseated by the smell of the soon to be suffered school dinner”.

Things didn’t improve.  A lack of eye hand co-ordination, a complete absence of confidence, and the inability to call upon friends with any kind of sporting prowess or acumen, ensured that all school sporting experience continued along the same vein.  There were, naturally, no out of school sporting experiences.

…. (I am navigating length 15 by now) ….

I exaggerate. A brief time of enjoyment in a canoe up and down the River Dee in Chester comes to mind, but that is quickly laid to rest by the memory of my father’s judgement on my swimming style as a teenager.  A happy trio of siblings, we were, enjoying a gentle swim and a splash around in the River Allen in Northumberland.  But Dad had observed a problem with my stroke style and pulled me aside to ensure that I was aware, through an explanation of physics that involved at least one of Newton’s laws, that the effort I put into my stroke was not being fully rewarded by my progress across the river.  I seem to remember being more uncomfortable about the fact that he had been watching me in my swimming costume (teenage girls are sensitive creatures) than eager to take on board the only instruction in swimming technique that I was ever likely to get.

(I’m now at length 20, and I am wondering if I would be progressing any more quickly if I had dained to listen to my father’s advice).

Fast forward a few years, and I had decided that it would be in my interests to overcome my firmly established and complete aversion to any sporting activity which gave as much as a nod to the competitive factor.  In the first flush of a new relationship, I agreed to take up squash with my new boyfriend – now husband.  Regretting a lack of progress, I decided that my problem – much as with the swimming – was a lack of determination to move more quickly when the target was before me.  So, in a moment of unprecedented enthusiasm, I took on the challenge of connecting with the ball as its estimated projectory lay way beyond my reach.

…. (Reliving the trauma of the broken collar bone that was the result of my efforts, enables me to reach length 30,  although feeling a little exhausted).

So a good sport, in the literal sense, I am most certainly not.

The sponsored swim challenge, however, is all about teamwork, entering into the spirit of things, raising money for a good cause – or three good causes in this particular instance and being a good sport in a kind of all inclusive – in it together – kind of way.    So, I wondered …. (over the course of the next 20 lengths) …. How am I squaring up on that one?

I think of being a “good sport” as implying having a good humour.  I have spoken before about my general lack of humour.  I can sit through hours of Laurel and Hardy without so much as a twitch of the mouth.  I am, indeed, the master of being serious

… (This is getting tedious, yes I know – but so was this evening’s swim.  I will speed things up for a few lengths if I can stay focussed for a while).

Recently I was challenged as to my attitude to supporting people on their sponsored bike rides, spelling bees, cake eating marathons, sky dives in Tasmania…. you get my drift.  I was finding it all too easy to keep on my cynical hat and declare such fundraising as inefficient and purely for the benefit of the participant.  Pausing to think things through (perhaps I was swimming at the time), I realised that what motivates people is usually a passion for their cause and a desire to make a difference.  I concluded that unless I could find no connection with the charity whatsoever, it was a powerful thing to have the privilege of being able to encourage friends and family with a donation.  When not engaging, I am withholding approval of being a good sport, as well as withholding funds for the cause.

….  (I am running out of steam now, having attempted a length of crawl with the pool now being empty of potential mockers.  I revert to slow and steady wins the race.  Length 45)…

I haven’t even started to tell you about our good causes.  We want to help local charities and local people – in keeping with the common charity for whom we work.  My own job is somewhat removed from the front face of fundraising and charity survival, but this is an increasingly controversial topic at a time when charities are increasingly having to reach out to the public to stay afloat.  It seemed to me, to be a good idea to identify with the charities we are serving by engaging in something practical in an upfront sort of way (like staying afloat, for example).  The causes are important, and the main motivation for continuing with what is possibly a doomed attempt at being a good sport.  In a nutshell,  homelessness, supporting families under stress, and supporting sufferers of dementia.  Who can’t make a connection with at least one of these?

I have to say, it has not been easy.  Gathering and communicating with a team of six, five of whom are part-timers has presented its difficulties.  There have been a lot of emails and a lot of cancelled meetings – not least due to my double booking errors.  We seem to have spent more time debating, designing and then rejecting swimming hats than actually getting in a pool and seeing if we can remember how to swim.  The marketing strategy hasn’t quite gone according to plan.  This is worrying, since I have the word ‘marketing’ in my job title!

(thankfully I have reached my 50 length target now and am spared the journey of thinking that through for tonight) ….

Duck related pictures, puns and phrases have been used to draw attention to the fact that we are pretty much a team of ducks out of water.  Er… I just realised, I haven’t actually used that metaphor yet in our campaign!  Oh well, there is still time – 4 days to go.

Which reminds me, if you feel inclined, do contribute, you can do so here:

http://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/CVSsplash

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No ordinary Mum

There is no ordinary Mum

I want you to know, that you are my wonderful mother. It is strange that when I reflect back over my childhood years, it is the ordinary yet to me, extraordinary occasions that spring to mind. The little things that demonstrate just how naturally and extravagantly you take up your parenting role.

Like the time when the three of us siblings excitedly clubbed together to buy you the first ever gift from us at Christmas, with Dad’s help. It was boots hand cream in a large tall bottle. I can picture it now. You were delighted. It was the same hand cream that you regularly bought for yourself all year round – everyday, economy, in keeping with the good housekeeping and careful spending regime that was part of our family life. You remained delighted, when from one year to the next on Christmas day, the same gift was proudly presented, unwrapped and appreciated. Mum, you never showed any disappointment in our efforts to please. The ordinary, was made extraordinary.

Like the time when we were all racing up and down the path that ran next to our house and Simon hurled headfirst from his trike onto a concrete pillar. We brought him into the kitchen all three of us screaming and frightened. You showed no fear or panic. We knew that you knew what to do, and it was sorted. And his brain didn’t fall out of the hole in his head. And you provided comfort for all. We knew nothing of your own tears or fears on that day. Mum, you were always there to comfort and wipe away the tears. The ordinary, was simply extraordinary.

Like the times when your friends and their children would come to tea. They would come in eager anticipation of the spread which they knew you would provide, of your meringues and cakes, your pies and trifles, your macaroons and scotch pancakes – warm and fresh from your own mother’s blackened griddle pan. These were accompanied by endless cups of tea and delivered with perfect hospitality and care, without any loss of attention to the animated conversation that pervaded the atmosphere. Mum, you were always content, providing feasts for the hungry and keeping faces full and happy. The ordinary, was something extraordinary.

Like the time when you took me to the village shop that sold ladybird clothes and bought me a lilac nightdress because I had to go into hospital to have my tonsils out. I was so proud to have that ladybird label, so disappointed when that nightdress became too small for me to wear. And I fondly remember those special 3-biscuit packets of bourbons at the hospital café and the squash in the plastic cups which we stopped to indulge in whenever I had my eye tests; and the cut up apple outrageously sprinkled with sugar, taken as a treat in your bedroom when I was starting to recover after being off school unwell.   Mum, you created special moments of comfort out of wearisome times. The ordinary, became extraordinary.

 

As a mother, you have always been warm, approachable, loving, generous and constantly ready to serve the needs of our family. These qualities extend way beyond your own family and I know this because there are so many friends and relatives that speak so kindly and lovingly of you. There have been so many good deeds, sacrifices and acts of compassion that you and Dad quietly undertook without any blow of trumpets or call for attention.

 

And yet, Mum, you have strength of character and a fighting spirit that might easily be missed by someone who doesn’t know you well. What people first see in you is your kindness, your care and concern for other people’s needs, and your desire to see others happy.   Only in these years of my adulthood, have I taken note of the tales of your younger days, have I reflected on the parts of you that are less Mum, and more Neville – attractive, vibrant, determined, adventurous, bright and independent.

I love that knowing look in your eye that conveys defiance, acceptance and humour all at the same time.

I love your ability to remain positive and make the most of every situation. Recent times have tested this, but you keep bouncing back strong and full of determination.

I love the things you say which come from the depth of your heart – like the other week when talking about marrying Dad 58 years ago you said, that it was the best thing you ever did!

I love the way that you led your life without so much as a hint of using your physical difficulties as an excuse to expect less, achieve less, or be less.

I love the way that you refuse to fall-in to the expected way of thinking and in your own quiet way, challenge the norm.

I love the way that you have always appreciated people for their kindness, effort and attitude and not just their achievement.

I love you Mum and still enjoy sharing precious times with you.

 


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To friendships – long and strong

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A thank you note to a special friend:

Four couples embarking on a new journey of parenthood sit on scattered cushions around the front room of a National Childbirth Trust enthusiast and teacher. They are wondering just what on earth they have signed up for. As the first group exercise unfurls and the earthy, left leaning tuition in all things maternal begins, they eye each other up suspiciously.   Right now, it isn’t parenthood they are worried about, as much as the unfolding nature of the forthcoming classes and instruction.

It is 23 years later, and we have lived to tell the tale. Having quickly identified each other’s reservations on that day, we dealt with them by meeting socially outside of the classes in order to assure ourselves that we hadn’t joined some kind of weird sect.   What some of us unknowingly had embarked on, was the beginning of a journey of lifelong friendship and support; the sharing of trials, tribulations and landmarks way beyond the birthing of those most special children that brought us together.

It was you, who sat at the helm of these developing friendships, bringing us together, spurring us on, challenging us and showing us over and over again with your energy, zest and enthusiasm that all situations in life are to be tackled head on and positively. With your generous nature, your optimism and perceptiveness, you were there at every turn and difficulty, as those of us new to parenthood stumbled our way through sleepless nights, weaning, teething and tantrums. You mopped up the tears, took our children off us for respite, gathered us together, and were constantly available. Even after we became separated as families geographically, you were the one that ensured that the friendships continued and thrived.

More than all of this, your friendship has been so special to me because you never once entertained the notion that my youngster, in his continual series of illizerof frames, hip spikas, plaster casts and splints, was anything other than one of the group, and you never once made me feel that our friendship through these times was an inconvenience. You gave this family total acceptance in our troubled journey and showed a generosity of heart beyond that of anyone else around us. I am not sure that you will ever know the significance of the times you took our two young lads to stay with you and give us a break, taking on the daily cleaning of wounds and medical care as if it were all part of the standard child-sitting duties. We will always be indebted to the love, acceptance and practical help that you gave to us during those years.

As the years went by, and our circumstances changed, it was you that fed our excitement at getting together for new year celebrations, and more latterly the infamous folk festival summer rendez-vous. Thank you. You ensured that we had many happy times together and we are still hopeful for many more.

Accompanying your generosity of spirit and your ability to organise and cajole, many other attributes – a sense of adventure, a continual striving to reach your full potential in life, to experience new and deeper things and to grow your identity – have brought many successes, adventures, joys and challenges along the way. When I look back to some of those conversations we had twenty years ago, who could possibly have imagined the journey on which your life has taken you since then? I am in awe of both what you have achieved and what you have survived.

Strong woman, not only have your nurturing, caring and loving characteristics ensured that each of your own children developed into wonderfully vibrant individuals who are able to offer and enjoy so much in their worlds, but you have enriched, inspired and encouraged other lives around you.

Long may you continue to give, and I pray that you will also receive abundantly, as you enter life’s next adventure.


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Just a few words, before absence makes the heart grow

By my side collage

We were running down the central reservation on Euston Road, attempting to make the last tube back to East Finchley, and awkwardly negotiating the crash barrier in the style of a school hurdles race on sports day. The evening out had been in celebration of the occasion of my 21st birthday – a trip to see ‘The German Sisters’. This film choice probably says everything about my sense of fun at the time – if you don’t know the film (and why should you?), here is an extract from the ‘Time Out’ review:

“Inspired by the cases of Gudrun Ensslin – the Baader-Meinhof terrorist and Stammheim ‘suicide’ – and her journalist sister, von Trotta once again takes up questions of the roots and potential paths of women’s resistance and revolt, creating a disturbing mosaic of personal and state histories around a sisterly relationship of intriguingly contradictory complexity.”

The party was composed of my closest university friends, my brother, and the sweetest young man I knew by the name of Michael. I was a bit unclear about how he came to be in our midst that evening – it may have been a set up – but confusion was no stranger to me in those days. Michael, however, knew perfectly well why he was there. That night was the night he was going to fix a date with me. Having understandably failed to find a suitably romantic moment during the evening, this was duly done whilst trying to cross Euston Road, and with my brother by his side.

Thankfully, his choice of outing was considerably more appropriate than mine, and our relationship started under the starry night in Regent’s Park watching Shakespeare.  This was 34 years ago. Today, my husband was up with the dawn chorus to fly to Seattle for a week and today is the day that I want to tell the world how much I appreciate him. After all, they say absence makes the heart grow fonder.

He has never wavered; he has been faithful to me in everything and has seen me through all the many times when a sense of fun has been about as far off as another universe. His commitment and quiet determination have steered our lives together through thick and thin.

My husband is the best listener I have ever known. Always attentive, always interested and never diverting the conversation for his own purposes. That is certainly how he first gained my respect and admiration and has continued to do so over the years. Perhaps that is why he has also been so well respected and liked as a manager – never shying away from attending to personnel issues and always striving to ensure that those working around him have all the support they need to perform their best and be happy at work.

Despite his ability to empathise and understand another’s view point, my husband is no walk-over. He is not blown every which way by the wind, and where it matters, he knows firmly what he believes in. He will stand by his principles and these beliefs no matter what anyone else tries to persuade him of. I know this from bitter experience! You can be sure that I have put him to the test on this one.

Michael has always been a man of his word and someone who takes his responsibilities very seriously. His friends recognise this – he was best man to no less than three of his university pals; (and incidentally delivers an excellent speech on each such occasion).

And, he has never shirked duties….whilst the rest of us are busy reprioritising, to ensure that the uninspiring tasks remain firmly at the bottom of the to-do list, Michael is always to be found keeping on top of the washing pile, the ironing pile, the shoe cleaning, car checking, lawn mowing, light bulb changing and so on ad infinitum. He patiently wanders around shutting doors and drawers left carelessly ajar and restoring order after the chaos caused by others.

Restoring order from the chaos pretty much reflects why I would never want to be without him. I have, in Michael, a partner who puts me back together, time and time again, through the small consistent acts of understanding and care that define his very nature.


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No need to wait until it is too late…..

Pusing up the daisies

This week started with a thanksgiving service for the husband and father of friends of mine.  He died quite suddenly aged 70 whilst out in the garden.  I was struck by the poignancy of one of the things his wife said to me when we were chatting some days later – she only wished that he could have heard all the nice things that people were now saying about him, when he had been alive.   I certainly shed a tear at the thoughtful and moving reflections written by one of the daughters at the service on Monday.

I have since been pondering on how after a death, family and friends speak with great sincerity and affection, extoling the virtues and happy times spent with their loved ones. Tributes given always focus on the positive and the good and choose the truths that edify that person and show them in a good light.   And yet that same person will rarely have heard these carefully composed encouraging words and received such appreciation whilst they were living – not unless they have come into the public limelight for some reason and have found themselves on the right side of the media.

I wonder why we are so bad at recognising the value of relationships whilst we still have them?  It seems so easy to pull a person down in conversation, to focus on their faults and failings.  It happens all the time.  It happens in the public forum, and privately – most frequently in relationships that would benefit greatly from the same shift of focus that happens when someone has suddenly gone from our lives.

After pondering on what the effect would be if I were to write my tributaries for important people in my life and let them read them before it is too late, I came across the following challenge from Jeff Lucas, the very next day:

“Who are the people who have impacted us?  Paul (he is speaking of Paul the Jewish convert in the New Testament) let his friends know, loud and clear, that they were important to him: he was very willing to express his love freely, without hesitation.  We should go out of our way – before offering a tribute at a funeral – to do the same”

And so, my idea for a series of blog entries was cemented in my mind.  After all, eulogies are given in public.  I have no idea how difficult this is going to be -I suspect it could present a significant challenge – but I am up for giving it a go.

Watch this space ……..


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Savouring the moment

The setting sun

We passed through ‘volunteers week’ about which I had much to say, and then into ‘carers week’; but I was too busy caring and volunteering and doing the things that fill life, to hold on to my thoughts and put them into presentable format.  I have wanted to post so many times of late, but frustratingly, the opportunity has not been there and the captured thoughts have escaped.  So instead, I am sharing a few words, hastily put together, from the weekend – I hope it is not too obscure!

An extravagantly sized circle of bright burnt orange sits tauntingly on the horizon, as mesmerizing as the big wide open eyes of a young child.

It is just a moment.  A moment enough to fix the image in my mind.  A moment enough to create simultaneous longing and awe and draw out a desire to share.

The setting sun becomes a backdrop to the silhouette of one of nature’s perfectly formed trees.  I glance fleetingly at my camera which sits within reach and yet out of bounds.  For what good is the image unless shared?  And the moment is gone.

The glorious sight disappears behind the urban landscape that is taking over the foreground as I drive along the motorway.  And then, as I already mourn its loss, it reappears in perfect view for another brief taunt, before slipping swiftly under the horizon leaving only its leakage to flood the sky with oranges, yellows and reds.

I arrive.  A cosmic shift.

The dining table offers no invitation and yet presents an eclectic feast for my eyes.

An incongruously  placed football takes centre piece. It’s large red sphere referencing me back to the setting sun.  Files with the latest hospital appointments; evidence of this week’s campaign against the powerful; medications; tools of measurement; tea and an empty milk bottle all surround the ball.  An open laptop awaits my attention.

The leakage in this table display is toast crumbs.  When all else is cleared away, the toast crumbs will remain.

Make of this what you will – there is much in it for me.

Capture those precious moments and savour them, for the special carries us through the mundane.


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This is now their life

nursing home wishing well

nursing home wishing well

Three Rubys sit together in the corner of the nursing home. Ruby One is struggling to uphold her position of power. She is the longest serving resident and observes all interactions intently with her fiercely glum stance. Ruby One is a veteran. She has been challenged many times as new arrivals come and disturb the equilibrium with their unsettled behaviour and lack of respect for the resident hierarchy. Ruby One knows exactly how things should be for everything to run smoothly. Key to her power is that she is the keeper of the lounge buzzer. All calls to staff therefore have to be approved and activated by Ruby One.

Ruby Two arrived just a week or so after my mother. She has not yet come to terms with life in the nursing home. Ruby Two is unsettled and lives in discomfort and confusion. Unlike Ruby One, Ruby Two can get up and walk, but nervousness and a vulnerability means that a house rule appears to be in place to prevent this happening, at least not without the assistance of staff. Ruby Two’s great asset is her hearing. She is not always sure which conversations in the room are intended for her ears but she is one of the few who hears what is said from afar, and responds.

Ruby Two is placed directly opposite Ruby One each day. They both have window seats. If looks could kill… Nevertheless, over time, it can be observed that Ruby One has a caring heart beneath her hard shell of an exterior. She means no harm. On those odd occasions when the power battle is not in the process of being played out, a modicum of attention to her plight, together with a little understanding, brings out a softness through which the occasional half-smile has been known to emerge. Ruby One knows from experience that the sooner Ruby Two can settle down, accept where she is and allow the house rules to dominate her existence, the happier everyone will be. She has made it her business to convey this. This can be done quite sufficiently with a minimum of spoken words.

Ruby Three is the latest addition to the Ruby mix. She is the quiet and compliant one. She does not complain and she does as she is asked. She eats whatever is delivered to her table, speaks only when spoken to and causes no trouble. The less careful observers might not notice that Ruby Three is constantly trying to ensure fair and adequate attention for all participants at the daily lounge party. Careful observation is needed, partly because Ruby Three is very softly spoken. It would be easy not to notice that she has spoken. The sort of conversation that brings Ruby Three the greatest satisfaction is an almost whispered exchange in which she is able to include a kind word of encouragement or a thoughtful reflection. When the situation requires, and sometimes when it doesn’t, Ruby Three will use her whispered observations to initiate a mission of rescue on behalf of another resident or visitor in need.

Unable to cope too well with the presence of three Rubys in such an intimate environment, Ruby Three has sacrificed her name. The staff now call her Jenny.

The Rubys are slowly learning to inter-relate. This is now their life. It is not a life that any of them have chosen for themselves.

Today, as we prepare to take Mum out in the wheel chair for some fresh air, Ruby One is saying to Ruby Two, “don’t look so miserable”. “The problem is,” says Ruby Three quietly as she turns to speak to me, “she never gets out, visitors come, but they don’t take her out”. “Do you ever get out?” I ask. “No”, says Ruby Three. “I haven’t been out since I arrived.” She arrived about six weeks ago.

One of the assets of this particular home is that it is in a village. There is a village shop, a church across the road, a village hall, a duck pond around the corner and a friendly pub serving good food just a few steps away.

Mum now shares her life with the three Rubys. They sit day by day together observing each other and driving each other to occasional interactions. Others come and go, but Mum and the Rubys do not have the freedom of choice to come and go as they please. Their mobility does not allow them this privilege.

As we exercise our freedom to get up and come home, Ruby Three speaks once more, this time on behalf of them all.

“Thank you for brightening up our day” she says.

It doesn’t take much to make a difference.