Monday, 20 December 2010

A room of her own...

I was scanning the on-line news today in search of a reliable update on the travel chaos in Europe caused by the cold snap. Internet news is so difficult to follow - one clicks on links and follows little distracting stories about hair and sales and weather updates and movie reviews and what so-and-so thinks about the coalition's comments on such and such and before long amidst solving problems on the domestic front because someone has someone else's felt tip and the phone is ringing and the kettle is boiling and there is a buzz at the door and no, thank goodness it is only the postman delivering Grand-dad's presents, not a Tiger coming for Tea - again - and then realising that it is colder than one thought and one had better put socks on and goodness what was I looking for in the first place - oh yes I must google headache on right side of head and see whether it is indeed an aneurysm (hate those "sm" words that are hard to spell) or just a pinched nerve in my taut and uptight shoulders due to 48 hours gym deprivation and what was it again that I was on-line looking for.. 

Right - Heathrow, havoc and such. So the paper describes in terms of peril and woe how the UK has ground to a halt. And yet in my little haven, it is anything but at a standstill...  Indeed I can barely gulp down the Nespressos fast enough to keep pace with the rumpus, dressing up and general melee in the second bedroom (just the Offspring at play, I assure you), while colouring the increasingly grey locks and writing the list for the store. You see if the country is at a standstill then the shelves will soon be bare as we all rush out and do our panic buying. And it occurs to me that one cannot really be embracing a "panic buying" opportunity if one is carrying a list and has time to browse for those books the supermarkets sell which are perfect holiday reading - the Lee Childs and the Tami Hoag's and the like (though I did buy two packs of Special K and two Agave Syrup squeezy dispenser things and another dozen eggs and 1.5 kgs of frozen fat oven chips - so a hefty shop by my standards).

And after all of that it was time for lunch and I could suddenly relate to people who say that sometimes they seem to get nothing done... 

I am not so interested in the misery at Heathrow as I seem, I should add. It is merely that Mr Springgirl may not get back for Christmas given that flights from Accra are cancelled for the third day and there must be a lot of passengers to accommodate when they do resume... Now I should say that Mr Springgirl is not one to let the grass grow under his feet and if there is a seat on a flight he will get it. This tenacity, while admirable in many ways, can be disconcerting to the likes of me who tends to stand back to let others in first and hates crowds and so on and would really just like to board at the last minute.... so again, I realise how lucky and blessed I am - despite the whole stuck in doors due to the cold, feeling just a little bit like a caged animal - because I do not have to jostle for a flight, queue with hundreds of desperate travellers and worry anxiously whether I will be home for Christmas.  I am reminded of that carol about being home for Christmas - Bing Cosby sings it on "White Christmas" - which informed me as a girl as to what Christmas really meant - being Australian and sweating over roast turkey and Christmas pudding and praying for a storm to come after lunch to cool things down while we finished the washing up, I really had no idea that Christmas could be cold and dark and full of fear that snow might prevent one from reaching one's loved ones.

Be careful what you wish for - as Mum would say.

And amidst all of that mayhem, and thoughts of "well I really should make the most of the time at home this week and finish the novel", I came across the following (before the Offspring hijacked the computer and watched two straight hours of BBC's Planet Earth):

"Imagine a small cottage in an idyllic country village. It is a very small cottage - 15ft square - probably medieval and rebuilt about 1700. In 2001 it exchanged hands for £50,000 and restored for a further £25,000: what was once garden privy is now a washhouse.
It was bought at the instigation of a single person, who had in mind a single purpose - to make such a space available, rent and running costs free, to a woman over 40 who has need of seclusion and financial security to get on with her written work.
The charity - for such it is - takes its inspiration from Virginia Woolf's famous remark in her essay A Room of One's Own - "A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction."
The woman who takes up residence in the cottage need not be writing novels but must offer some evidence that she can produce written work. She is given £750 a month for living expenses, and most of all, freedom from worry."

Well, one does come across the most astounding things on-line, no?

The mind boggles - a quiet idyll away from worry and responsibility, with living expenses of £750/month, for a year. Mmmm.

I have drafted an application but see a few potential issues.

1. I like my family, friends, colleagues and neighbours and would miss them if away for a year.

2. Heretofore, I have found that two-three hours solitude (say at a movie, or gym and reflexology) are ample for providing a fresh perspective and recharging my energy and motivation. I admit to being lucky enough to have had as many as two weeks away from my family in recent times. Every moment seems a lifetime (in the words of Michael Buble), - but in a very good way - and immensely restful. Much longer and I start to feel cast adrift, anchorless, selfish.

3. If one was to be paid for the privilege of writing - even just expenses of £750/month (nothing to sneeze at) - one would be a lazy cow to not be able to get on with it in one's own house, surrounded by the familiar and well loved.

4. If one could take a year out of life, would one not prefer to have a life changing experience like walking to a Pole or two or learning a new skill, helping someone who otherwise might perish or suffer?

5. I do like a good chat - is one allowed to take a phone?

6. Given I wrote a book over five months sitting on my bed between 8 and 10 pm every night, the pressure to deliver something truly amazing if blessed with a room of one's own for a year would be almost crippling, I suspect.

7. What does one do for inspiration and ideas if one is stuck in isolation? Solitary confinement if you will?

8. Surely the true value of a room of one's own is that it lies within the heart of one's life and existence - at the epicentre of all that one is and does and enjoys, such that one can access it easily and readily (if one can quiet the demons urging one to do and be more all the time). Is this not what holidays and nations grinding to a halt are for after all?

9. I need a gym and decent coffee more than space and time alone.

10. No one is their right mind would expect to win such a prize and return to their old life happy. In my case, the credit that would be owed to Mr Offspring if a year on my own were to be accommodated would be so massive and debilitating as to make the entire project utterly untenable.

I may not know my Virginia Wolf, but isn't the point really to help people - indeed, women - create a "room of their own" within their lives and within their minds? To help them carve out the space and time amidst the responsibility, the striving, the worry, the exams, the rows at school and in the office, the disappointed longings, the doctor's appointments, the pounds gained and the shopping and washing not done (reminds me - put the load on tonight!), to know and express something of themselves? For it is in how we cope with the bad times that we show our mettle and worth? Don't we wish to celebrate the works of fiction, achievement, humour and success that rise from the ashes of real felt life with all of its chaos and pain, rather than spend thousands so that one woman can go and be a hermit?

A room of her own? Hardly - more a cell, a sentence, or a vocation perhaps.

While I won't tell the Offspring, I quite like the crumbs underfoot and the "pictures for you Mummy" piled on the shelf and the fact that I cannot find my purse beneath the half used tissues. I quite like switching key and refocussing, even if only for a second as I gaze upon the sleeping head of my child or a photo of a loved one or the view from my shared room.

I quite like the idea of a room of my own where the door is always open and the real world can enter any time it likes.

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Baby it's cold outside...

As I write this, snuggled under my duvet/doona/eiderdown, the mercury plummeting (the whole "mercury" metaphor being this season's most hackneyed phrase in weather obsessed Britain, as "Arctic" weather systems wreak "havoc" on Christmas shopping and travel plans), as the "big freeze" continues and  forecasters speculate on the "record lows" ahead, it seems opportune to reflect on this chill season and lament the suffering of those stranded, cold and disheartened in airports, on motorways and in train stations, unable to move due to the impact of the ice and the continuous subzero temperatures.

Mr Springgirl is due to travel to the UK from warm and sunny Africa on Tuesday. He may be delayed, like so many. I daresay the Offspring will recover from the disappointment as long as Santa finds a way through next Saturday morning. Thankfully, beans on toast and scrambled eggs would not disappoint my three, in the event that supermarket shelves are cleaned out and we miss out on the typical festive fare this year. Though, having said that, the freezing weather ought to ensure nothing actually rots this week - if left on the back step - so I really had better dash (slip and slide) to the stores tomorrow for some meat and vegies... just in case.

It is difficult when one is really cold to imagine being really hot. This time last year, in west Africa, we were really hot. It seems like no time ago despite the old clichés about so much happening since etc etc.

There we were in the humid scorching sun (not in it, actually), sweat beading on the brow over breakfast, make-up dripping off, red-faced children begging for water, lathering on the mosquito repellent. While I know that it is a bit of a cheat - reusing old material in a blog - I am going to post the reflections I shared this time last year from Ghana when I wrote home.

Goodness knows it is more interesting than snowball fights, "brush your teeth, no story if you take too long" and pesto pasta for dinner (again)...

From Accra - December 2009 - email from Springgirl to her sister

"Today the Off-Spring were given a big bag of glitter, cardboard, glue and decorating stuff and are having a great time making cards and xmas decorations, some of which now adorn the besser brick wall near the front door of the house. So creative to make something more of the lovely besser. They are being helped by Effe's (maid) son, Elvis, who is 11, but seems younger. Elvis is in Heaven with all this stuff to play with. I just checked on them - they have used up all the glue sticking said decorations to house walls and front door, ie a big old mess for me and Effe to clean off. All the years of "don't draw on walls; never stick things on walls" goes out the window when a couple of local kids think it will look nice. After all, it's not like they ever had the chance to do it before; stick stuff on besser - that is (and by "they" I mean the Offspring as well as Elvis and Ama). Now Effe is out there scrubbing the colour out of the white walls. The colour from the paper has bled into the paint leaving rectangular "frames". Hope Mr Springgirl doesn't lose it when he sees it. Five minutes wiping at it and I was a lather of sweat. The youngest Offspring (3) is now telling Elvis and Ama not to "carry him up". Ghanaian kids are very affectionate and demonstrative and they always try to pick up little kids. The youngest Offspring is trying to explain it so patiently: "I am using words to tell you that I do not want anyone to carry me up."

We drove west along the coast to Cape Coast (formerly a massive centre for the slave trade) yesterday. We stopped on the way at a very nice beach for a swim and some lunch. A friend of Mr Offspring has bought into a beach club: pseudo mud huts and lots of palm and coconut trees down to the water. One can camp or stay in the chalets/huts. Some of the new ones look pretty comfy - air con and tv for a start - and new bathrooms, though I saw several cockroaches crawling around outside one. We might go back overnight next week (with insect spray) and use it as a base for more exploring. There is an eco-tourism award winning attraction an hour or two on from there called Kakum which is a forest with a canopy walk. Apparently high up in the trees there are rope and suspension walkways; say 6 storeys up. I would like to see it but the kids may be too small for the adventure just yet. Long way to climb down if they change their minds, though great for the legs after eating one to many fried plantains this week...

Anyway the beach was pretty clean for Ghana, where shortage of bins and cultural insensitivities means that the beach is often polluted with rubbish and the assorted debris of village life; can lids - with serrated and jagged edges, of course - faecal matter, string, assorted fruit skins, cigarettes, papers, plastic bags. The beach club have built a breezy timber restaurant on stilts under which the waves lapping at high tide. The food was ok, all local and fresh, but the views and the breeze were really worth paying for. The sand of the beach is brownish, so the water is pretty murky, but is is covered in lovely little spiral shells which the Offspring collected by the handful before lunch. I suggested we send some to you. The club has more or less banned the locals from coming inside its perimeter so the club's beach was empty apart from us and a handful of holiday makers staying there. The drama was outside - by the nearby village. We wandered up the beach to watch the village people pulling in their catch of fish in massive nets cast out past the breakers. There were more than 50 people of all ages, singing and pulling up the catch which took a good half an hour. The Offspring were captivated. In the end, there was a pretty good haul - but all small fish -15 cms or less.  The big international trawlers take the big fish - out  on the horizon. But the daily catch would feed the village - and beach club - nicely. And they are all well fed - not fat (although some of the women are definitely plump, perhaps due to too much palm nut oil in the cooking) - but there is no shortage of food here. A little girl of about three picked up shells to add to my handful while we watched the fish dying in the nets. A teenager asked me my age - 27 - and told me my "babies" were "handsome".

We loved the beach and our time there so much that we returned after visiting Great Grandma in Cape Coast, for another swim. The water was warm - perhaps 25 degrees, but still refreshing. There was good but gentle surf. We watched the sun set over some hills along the coastline. It is strange to see the sun settling at that angle, but as the coast runs east to west, virtually along the Equator, there is no sun over the water to witness. However, due to the haze and the salt air it was a huge orange disc slowly sinking, while we splashed in the waves one last time; stealing the last safe moments before the mozzies descended at nightfall. 

While driving to the beach we made a list of all the natural resources of Ghana; for the children's benefit mainly (being keen on educating them about the place), but between cocoa, pineapples, rice, yam, fish, goat, cows, chicken, paw paw, citrus fruits, corn, wheat, sugar, coffee, oil, gold and natural gas, not to mention sand for cement (besser!) and rocks for gravel, there is really no reason for anyone to be hungry or poor, and yet they are very poor. It is both humbling and depressing to see how life is still as it was 100 or more years ago for many. No sanitation or running water. They have tvs and phones and Nike shoes but the Government cannot seem to lay roads or run pipes. It is really harsh. The first president - Nkruma - a visionary and nation builder -built the dam that provides most of the electric power, on the Volta River, built roads and universities, got the gold mining tribes organised into companies etc, but while his legacy lives on, much of the infrastructure remains as it was when first established in the 60s. The signs and building at the Dam feel like something out of a 1960's James Bond film. I don't know where the tax and export money is spent. Also there are many people who do very little. A lot of sitting around in the village, waiting for the catch or the next meal or game of football. They are not miserable, by any stretch, but the thing that one sees, coming from the west, is that there is not a sense of initiative or energy. A few small boys could clean up rubbish, even just put a bin out! The men could dig sewers or repair the roads. But why would you bother? It functions ok, after all. They have food, family, faith. Admittedly the road to the beach club is pretty good - I suspect that the owner pays local youths to regravel it every few weeks - but organising work teams to do this on a massive scale seems to be a bridge too far. The wheels of bureacracy turn slowly. The well to do and the returning expats love talking things over. Every conversation involves strategies for change. And with all that besser and cement they could really clean things up. 

I suppose to say so is naive and insensitive. I daresay to impose western mores is just another form of tyranny. Yet, even in the towns there is still a lack of basic amenity. Great Grandma has no toilet. The Offspring used her chamber pot, but as they kept threatening to need to do more than ideally accommodated therin, one's visit is never very long. I have never really asked whether Mr Offspring or his siblings could perhaps have a bathroom installed in the old colonial house for her. I daresay it is moot if there is no actual pipeline infrastructure to attach it to beyond the front door. Another quandry is the use of straw switch brooms. Even here at the family house in Accra, Effe uses a little brush thing to sweep up. It is effective enough, especially with all the dust that accumulates in the dry season, but one has to bend down double. I waltz in from the developed world expecting to use a chux and a broom; all of which are sold up the road at a roadside stall (open 24 hours by candlelight), but the old ways seems to prevail, nevertheless. Sadly the Offspring used the wrong end of the broom to sweep up spilt glitter - or at least move it around some more - such that most of the straw is now lying around the courtyard...

Reading the history of the place is very interesting. Independence from Britain came in 1957 and yet they really just left a mess behind, in material terms. I think cultuarlly and spiritually the place is very intact and highly functioning, a heady blend of timeless Ghanaian traditions and legacies from colonial times mixed together with modern globalisation. Also like in India the local language and commitment to education, is rich and prized. But is is clear that trade was the key - gold and cocoa and slaves made the Dutch, French, Portuguese and British very wealthy. Indeed, Ghanaian soldiers sent to the East Indies by the Dutch settlers brought back Indonesian craft and batik - a common print now on local cloth. A rich and harsh history.

Mr Offspring has gone to the cemetery to attend a memorial for his cousin's mum - they are unveiling the tombstone for close family. On Saturday we will attend a church service and reception at the house for all who knew her - ad in the paper announced it. In Ghana, like much of the developing world, funerals and memorials are a huge to-do. Friday and Saturday are funeral days and anyone who has known you will come. In the villages everyone wears balck and white apart from members of the chief's family. The cheiftancy is noted by the wearing of some sort of red. It is quite spectacular to behold the cloth and the people all walking through the streets dressed up. The men wear toga style cloths over one shoulder. Coffin making is a huge industry, and recession proof. They make very elaborate designs - like sharks, boats and animals - carved into the wood - all local of course. Funerals are very social. A man from up the road died two weeks ago and we could barely pass the house due to the cars clogging the street for the week up to the funeral. I suppose if it keeps the bereaved from thinking too much for a while it is a blessing, but it seemed a little much to expect the widow and kids to be sitting up receiving visitors day and night up to the funeral. But that is how it is done and they expect and are used to it.

Today we will drop in on a few friends to say merry xmas and leave some little gifts for the kids. It is so humid that one just wants to jump in a pool most of the day so I will take swimmers in the hope we can do so at some point. Mind you Ghanaian ladies tend not to swim - messes up the hair. 

I will have to stop for some coffee somewhere as well. Thinking it would be economical and good for the country for me to buy local I bought some ground coffee for the plunger last week at the nearby Lebanese supermarket which is basically a rip off. Anything imported is marked up astronomically. Special K costs $10 for a 350gm box. Pampers (small pack) are $36 - thank Heavens the Offspring are past that stage. The coffee I bought is called "Daniel" and was only $7 as opposed to $24 charged for something recognisable from Italy (expired use by date). But "Daniel" had either gone off for being on the shelf too long or it is just gross, as it tasted like dirt mixed with tanin, flavoured with cordite and dried in a tannery - or as I imagine that would taste. Needless to say I went and bought the american brand next time we were at the store. It's the little things that get you down...

Hark, a year on. My Nespresso coffee maker will whir reliably for me tomorrow morning as I look upon sparkling, white, snowy garden outside my window. The Offspring will shiver delightedly in their parkas and wellington boots as we crunch through the snow to the communal garden igloo. Will they remember the glitter, the fishing nets and the chamber pot of Christmas 2009? I hope so.

So while we have so much and are surrounded by so many who even in the midst of freezing conditions and austerity, will be warm and well-fed next Saturday, it is timely as the year draws to an end, to think of those with very little. While our pipes may threaten to freeze, they will still take the dirty water away and bring fresh to us, reliably, and every day we will fill not only our tummies, but our hearts and minds with riches and plenty.

But it's cold outside for many.

Monday, 29 November 2010

Woolly hats and functional fitness

Well, it has been a while since I posted a blog. I have no excuse for my silence; my absence.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions they say. But in this case I doubt that I am much further down that road, since I have not had any intentions to post a blog at all. 

So, no, unlike a couple of months ago when not posting disappointed me, it is not a case of hoping to blog and letting myself down. Clearly I have adjusted my expectations down - the secret of a happy life - after all. 

No, I have simply not had a lot to say - which for me is somewhat surprising. I admit that I have had a lot to say in my off-line life though. Perhaps the secret of blogging success is a rare and enticing blend of no mates (no offence keen bloggers - I speak only for myself), time and ideas, coupled with motivation and a desire to express something.

In any case, rather than labour the point I will just say that sometimes one wants to blog and sometimes one does not. I am aware that my little blog audience may have abandoned me during this time. I may have to build back up from scratch again. Oh well... Live and learn.

So what's been happening?

I have been keeping out of trouble in a few ways. Promoting my play based communication coaching initiative for children in a variety of local schools has perhaps been the highlight. Though keeping an eye on adult learning and development roles in-house and sending my cv to recruiters in the hope of persuading them that my unconventional background - tax lawyer, turned author and leadership, engagement (not marital but psychological, though I do address engaged couple coaching in my book) and communication coach is a great combination for a learning facilitator and not a volatile and potentially devastating mix of bossy, anal, control freak meets boring, nerd-like, number cruncher who finds reading tax law interesting, is quite a laugh as well. 

Then there is running the PTA at the Off-Springs' school which is never dull. I have delighted myself by creating the most gorgeous, colourful calendar featuring pictures and snippets of the story from my e-book "Tess and the Seaside Girl" (every home should have a couple) and managed - without trying to - to sell a further 50 copies of "Spring to Mind" via my publisher's distribution channels. This is very exciting because that means that a quarter of all my sales came this past month without a second's effort from me. Finally all of these fun pursuits have been fit in around the gym and domestic jobs and parenting, of course. Apart from the surprise book sales I seem to keep very busy making no money whatsoever. I need to monetise this PTA thing somehow...

The upshot of all of that blatant self-promotion is that I have learn loads of new things.

So as I am conscious that I may have lost your interest over the past month, and am eager now to regain it - quickly and decisively - I will share only the "best" parts of this recent learning with you. Forgive me if this is all old hat for you.

1. I discovered while shopping for photocopier paper for the school PTA newsletter in a paper shop, that Katy Perry sings yet another one of those catchy tunes that are always on the radio. Between the "shut up... that's what you get for waking up in Vegas", "you're a firework" and "livin' a teenage dream" - I really feel that this girl is a kindred spirit.

I honestly feel that I am living a youngish middle aged person's dream (more on that next time), am quite a firecracker and often wake up with an early onset Alzheimers sense that I may have lost some of the previous night. I really need to get more sleep...

2. Despite the really cold weather here in London this past week - daytime highs of 1 degree Celcius - I am toasty and snug when out and about. The secret? A woolly hat! Also one of those duvet/doona/parker jackets. I am amazed that I have endured 13 winters in the UK without taking these steps before this. Me, the big hat wearer of yesteryear would not buy a hat for fear fo winter hat head. Just shows you how a significant birthday and overcommitting oneself can force one to embrace a common sense approach to weathering the cold.

3. Wearing my hair out/down (never happens) and "big" a la Cheryl Cole in a big breeze, with plenty of eye make-up around the normally sunken and dull peepers, can make one feel and look young and vital. Indeed - a bit like Cheryl herself.  You see, I hosted the school fundraising Bingo Night last weekend dolled up and in character as Trinny Knowall (Woodall) of Trinny and Susannah - of "What Not to Wear" fame. The occasional, only very odd glimmer of self doubt in the preceding week, that perhaps I was going to crash and burn, ensured that I was well prepared, looking the part and primed with comic and cutting repartee - snowflake sweaters and fetching hairstyles among the parents giving me plenty to work with, admittedly.

The night was a success - I had a blast and several parents and staff reported they also enjoyed themselves. All of this while feeling young and vital due to said hair and make-up.

This leads to interesting discovery number 3:

3. If I enjoy myself I really don't feel bad if others don't (this is in the context of a party, not in life per se). I mean, I want them to have fun and be happy, but I feel no responsibility for their enjoyment. This is very liberating. As a result I am thinking that Dame Edna Everage might need to pop her head in and do a turn as host at the next fundraiser...

4. Positive mindsets bring out the best in people. Literally. I see this with the parents at school, people one smiles at in the course of day-to-day life and in children, increasingly. Children are the richest source of learning. The scope they have to be inquisitive and engaged and excited about the world they inhabit is amazing - if they feel listened to and valued. The way they come alive and thrive in circumstances where they have the freedom to express themselves and move and interact with each other is amazing. It's like watering a plant. It seems obvious. Yet the tedium, the chores, the rushing to get things done, the tests, the keeping up standards, the arriving on time and the homework, can cloud that clarity. Hence, my renewed commitment this past month to getting Play on Words Communication Coaching front and centre of my own commercial and business agenda. 

5. Pushing back is a good strategy. We should play to our strengths and be valued for what we do well and can contribute with ease and aplomb, rather than apologise for not being things we are not. How can we twist ourselves into shapes we could never be?

6. Sometimes people live in bubbles - thick, impenetrable and opaque bubble. 724 newsletters, 496 emails and 298 signs on the school gate and still parents say they did not know "such and such" was happening at school. Skywriters, radio announcements, billboards, clowns, mime artists? What would it take to reach them?

Nothing. Stop trying.

And when you do.... They suddenly get it. 

7. At the gym when they rave on about "functional strength" they really know what they are talking about. All those classes where several muscle groups are worked in combination are amazing for overall fitness. The difference between fit and functionally fit is quite startling. The latter means fit for life - for broken elevators and literally chasing children up steep hills and squatting for minutes on end to tie shoelaces and wipe tears and pick up after them... It is treading water for hours not minutes and carrying bag upon bag of groceries home.

8. In the words of my amazing sister when she began her career as a social worker, Eleanor Rooselvelt and a Chinese Proverb as well, it is indeed better to light a candle than curse the darkness. 

So I leave you with that thought - light some candles - even if no one else wants to, even if cursing the darkness is easier or more popular, even if your fingers get a little bit burnt. The winter is cold and dark enough.

Oh and buy a good hat!

Sunday, 31 October 2010

Trick or treat?

I began this blog in the Springtime as the little leaves were budding outside my room, the daffodils formed a carpet in the shadows of the trees in the garden and the days grew longer and milder and promised a warm and bonny summer ahead.

This morning we turned our clocks back an hour and now we see out the summer with all the crazy commercial madness that Halloween has turned into over the past few years in the UK. Outside, the leaves are yellow and red, orange and brown; most days there is rain. The skies are often leaden, but the oppression of the grey is still elusive. There is still enough daylight and warmth to keep those sensations at bay. For now amidst the excitement of tricks and treats and then fireworks next weekend for Guy Fawkes night, then the (7 week) rush to Christmas, it will be some time before the winter really gets us down.

More significant perhaps than the details of the festivities of this particular season - the costumes, the pumpkins, the sweets - is the passage of time; the never-ending cycle of our lives that brings us once more to an Autumn.

There is a magic in the showers of rain that impede our outings. There is a frisson in the morning air. The crunch of leaves and the peril of uncollected dog droppings squelching beneath them is always exciting. The fairy lights and Christmas lights herald a joyful anticipation (and a huge anticlimax) as we approach the "holidays" and no matter how nostalgic or sad the short days and chill evenings may leave us feeling, we can always head to the shops for our fill of commercial and capitalist glee and purpose.

It is hard to be cynical when everyone else is so moved, so excited. The radio reported that 30% of the nation have begun stocking up on food for Christmas - spreading the cost - they said. (That's not all they will be spreading, thinks Springgirl.) The Off-Spring caught the Halloween bug in the communal garden some weeks ago. Long before October began, but shortly after the shops began selling the orange and black wrapped sweets and cards and faux spiders' webs (early September when the back to school shelves were depleted and the kids were off our hands once more), the collective imagination was seized by the notion of dressing as ghosts and ghoulies and asking the neighbours for sweets. Springgirl is not poo-pooing the occasion - hey, each to their own. It is just that celebrating without understanding the underlying meaning of an occasion always feels purposeless and wanton. Perhaps it is my convent upbringing....

So I explained to to two of the Off-Spring (well all three were present but one is not attending the trick or treating and sausage sizzle due to some naughty behaviour for which Springgirl is secretly grateful as she can also miss out...) that Halloween comes from the Celtic festival of Samhain (the end of the harvest and beginning of the "darker half" of the year) and the Christian holiday of All Saints' Day.

In that way the Off-Spring were warned that the sweets symbolised the end of the plentiful "light half" of the year and should thus be consumed sparingly (not all within 10 minutes tonight) and saved to cheer the dark days ahead.

"Oh come on Springgirl, lighten up," you may think. "You are always telling everyone to lighten up. It is just a bit of fun, some dressing up, some laughs."


I do have sympathy for our Parish church which sent a plaintive suggestion in the last two newsletters - a valiant attempt to shut the gate after the proverbial horse, firmly behind the cart, had strayed - that children might like to dress as saints.

Nevertheless, but for the communal garden, that richest source of community, entertainment and education in an urban landscape of anonymity and consumption, we would not be traipsing into this new territory. Unless one is constantly taking one's children shopping one can avoid much of the hype, after all. So I am grateful for this opportunity to inform them about times gone by and the union of the pagan with the Christian and the endless cycle of the seasons and man's courageous attempts to shackle and control the environment through marking such occasions, while I book a check up at the dentist.

Seriously though, I have always loved Autumn in the UK. The colours of the leaves and the crispness of the air are restorative and invigorating. The streets seem fresher despite the day's fall of leaves. The air seems purer despite the huddles of smokers drawing warmth from their cigarettes. The stars seem brighter, when one can get out of the city to see them. While much of the natural world prepares for sleep now, still more of it seems to teem with life and purpose.

So with renewed purpose and motivation I collect conkers and make apple crumbles and cobblers, soups and stews. I hunker down of an evening with rich pickings of programmes to catch up on. I baton down the hatches preparing for the storm of preparation for the seasonal celebrations at school (PTA busy season just around the corner) and I revel in the spring that comes into my step as the cool autumn winds blow out the cobwebs in my mind.

I have a new book idea to work on now, having finished "Tom's Dreamflight" and created a colourful and if I do say so myself, delightful, calendar of "Tess and the Seaside Girl". Turning to marketing them - well, what better to do on a cold grey Autumn Sunday than settle down with a good book (specially targeted at 8-11 year old boy readers). And how better to prepare the little ones for 2011 and all that lies in store than with a beautiful calendar of original prints depicting a little girl's seaside odyssey?

Best of all, it is raining now! As we prepare to venture to the country to visit friends we relish the prospect of donning the Wellington boots and splashing in puddles and squelching through mud (rather than dog-do), of sitting by an open fire perchance and sipping hot drinks brewed with love.

Alas, no trick or treating if it rains though...

Sunday, 10 October 2010

Change is hard

I have been unable to commit my thoughts to a post for some days now due to fear. Yes, that's right, fear. Fear of what might happen if I were to open the proverbial flood gate and let pour forth the torrent of negative feeling that was building within.

What is she on about, now, you are thinking.

Those of you who have experience in student politics, or indeed real politics will perhaps relate to these sentiments. And no, I am not running for office or kicking off a campaign, though I have been contemplating my suitability for such, I have to admit.

Rather, as many of you know, in July, I naively, if not wantonly and crazily, volunteered to co-chair the Off-Springs' School PTA. I did this with the best hopes of helping raise money for the school in these times of budget cuts and rising prices, and to do so with a sense of humour and some fresh ideas that would hopefully bond together our community of wonderful parents, staff and children. You see, by the ripe old age of X, one tends to know what one is good at. And so I thought I had something to bring to the table. I am a lead by example sort of person. I am passionate and creative yet highly practical and grounded. I roll my sleeves up and get stuck into any and all tasks while steering my ship with self-effacing positivity and optimism. I like people and I like concepts. I like trying new things out and surprising people. I am an effective communicator and a person of the people. No ivory tower keeps me aloof from my team - I am right in there amongst them, getting things done. I am big picture and details, I am analytical and reactive. Yet, I can take on too much, reluctant to ask for help. Nevertheless, things usually turn out well because, eager to do my best, I am not a perfectionist. I am definitely a subscriber to the 80:20 rule or indeed in many cases (like cooking for the Off-Spring), the 60:40 rule. Best, of all I have loads of energy and capacity and relish a problem to solve. Indeed, last week a recruiter asked me to describe my ideal job or workplace. I had to say - being on The Apprentice day in and day out, and getting paid for it. Given an insatiable desire for challenge and hurdles, I saw the PTA as potentially a walk in the park.

And yet, after just one month, I am seriously rethinking this strategy and wondering just how many screws were loose in the my brain when I thought this was a good idea. You see, I forgot that solving problems, implementing ideas and overcoming challenges in a job or in one's private life are generally compelling or enriching experiences, or both. Doing the same for free in the "lives" of  200 other people is a whole different proposition.

On the bright side, I have strengthened some great friendships with my co-chair and some of my committee. I have learnt loads about communication and facilitation and used many of my favourite skills such as listening, project management and writing. I have even been a fantastic critical friend to myself. I can honestly say, hand on heart that I have no concerns that my ideas are not well-considered, sensible and cohesive, indeed unified by a rational and community spirited philosophy that will stand the test of time. So the problem is not the ideas per se. Nor is that I have any trouble communicating them.

No, the problem is that I was so arrogant and bold, so dazzled by the opportunity to make a difference and to implement those good ideas, and so eager to get stuck into a new challenge, as to overlook one of life's biggest truisms - People do not like change.

Where was my grounded-in-reality-common-sense when I needed it? Where was the pragmatist coach who "got" people? Where was the disillusioned writer still waiting for all the 5* reviews to materialise from her friends on Amazon? You see, these parts of me had been silenced by the Voom, the Big Ideas and the Change-Is-As-Good-As-A-Holiday hype I had sold myself when the inner cynic was whispering sweet nothings in my ear all summer.

And that is why for two weeks I have wandered lonely as a cloud with a face of grim determination and a notebook in my hand in which to record my every thought. That is why posting a blog before now would have been a mistake. That is why I realised mid week that I had not laughed in days. By way of aside, the realisation came when I texted a parent who had signed up to cook with Year 4 (a curriculum linked cookery initiative of the PTA) to dissuade her from cooking on her suggested theme of Halloween. The parent may have felt this was an appropriate seasonal topic but I wanted to encourage her to work with the topic of the Tudors (for which a lot of material had been collated and made available to parent cooks, and which ties in directly with the children's history lessons). My newish smart phone, my gormless texting and its officious anticipatory text function, sent my message as: "we suggest you work with the topic of tumors this term", whereupon I collapsed in mirth and merriment out of all proportion to the provocation. But my sense of humour had abandoned me for some time such that I knew that I was in no place to commit my thoughts to this semi-public forum. Indeed, my thoughts were not yet clear. Had I attempted to articulate my frustration at the overwhelming negativity with which our ideas were being met, I might have said things I would later regret.

But now - clarity has returned. For you see, I now realise that using the PTA as means of unifying disparate peoples is an idealistic and perhaps unattainable goal. I realise that expecting support and positive encouragement was naive. And I realise that the phlegmatic and relaxed countenances of former chair people are not attributable to better skincare regimes or a superior capacity to deal with stress. Rather, former chairs know what we are in for, know they are well out of it and know they survived to tell the tale.

I have grown and developed in myself and for that the whole to-do has been a worthwhile experience.

I could blog endlessly about criticism and negativity and fear and change. This is not new or interesting though. We all encounter resistance to change at some point in our lives - whether it is the response to our new chic, short hair-do, or the change in brand of coffee we buy. We also know that negativity at the suggestion of something fresh or un-explored.

So, for me the compelling things are four fold.

First - one needs to keep sight of the big picture and accept that while change is hard, and cannot happen overnight etc, at the same time, humans have an amazing capacity to morph and evolve, to reach new heights of achievement and to explore new horizons.

Second - to fear change, to feel confronted and threatened and negative at the thought of a new experience must be, at the very least, discomforting, and perhaps even, terrifying and paralysing.

Third - in the face of seemingly unwarranted criticism, all one can do is manage one's own reaction.

Finally - negativity can seem stronger and louder than is is. Left unchecked it can become contagious and poison us. In managing our reactions, it would be worth remembering that the squeaky wheel gets the grease, but a new wheel is better yet.

Ultimately, then, building on these points, I have come to a new and amazing revelation - Advertising is truly a worthy profession.

Through it, people come to do and buy things far stranger, scarier and more risky than anything my and my co-chair's self-conscious and gentle little initiatives would appear to involve.

So I will put it out to tender:

Wanted - PR/marketing/advertising professional with VOOM to donate time and energy to clear up after crazy, maniacal PTA co-chairs with as much grasp of reality as the Cat in the Hat.

Hold on - I know someone who could do that job!

Friday, 24 September 2010

How to feel like a Spring Chicken

I celebrated a semi-significant birthday last week which may account for my lack of motivation to write a blog post for over two weeks - a personal worst. Not that I was actually celebrating for the whole two weeks.  I had hoped to make a weekend of it but decided that a day was in fact sufficient - and some credit stored up for a time when needed would in fact be a better way to play things. As it happened, the birthday coincided with a busy time in my journey back to paid employment. I am still on the proverbial dock as it happens, casting about for any vessel that I might be able to set sail on - but that is a time consuming process nonetheless. I am also settling into my new role as PTA co-chair. My natural proclivity to get stuck in early, leave nothing to the last minute and to do as much as I can before asking for help means that instead of blogging I am spending time drafting newsletters calling on parents to give this and that and volunteer for this and that, and searching the web for the foods enjoyed in Tudor times.

However, I feel that from today I need to step back from the job hunt and the petty pedagoguery and practice what I preach about authenticity and playing to strengths. Unless I can monetise the PTA role somehow, I need to find time for my writing. When I do eventually persaude someone that I am not a huge risk to their organisation and start earning an income I want to have some manuscripts to pay to publish.

While it is very enjoyable to have the amazing outlets of the gym, the communal garden and the school mothers, my inner life has been on hold. Many of the distractions one busies oneself with when one is a person of the world - in the world and part of the world - are afterall in large part, ways of quelling those inner musings. Truth is I do miss my quiet rants in this forum...

So given that twenty-something blue-eyed, rosy cheeked  recruitment consultants are not nearly as warm and supportive as they look, I turn to my dear followers (and hopefully a large number of new patrons) to regale you with my thoughts on ageing. 

While I have the beginnings of a post on "how to live the cliché" turning around in my head and hate to move off the topic - again - I have to admit to succumbing to the predictably trite state of being somewhat perturbed about this particular birthday. Naturally, it was in the weeks leading up to the birthday that I noticed myself turning the corner into a new place of agedness. Since last week I can confirm that these things loom larger in our imaginations than they ought. As with most things, entering the next decade was worse in the anticipation than the reality. Nevertheless, the process of ageing and coming to terms with it is so universal and unifying as to be worth commenting on. 

The fact that one is getting older is an omnipresent one. We never escape it. Even at three we realise there is someone cuter and sweeter and more attention grabbing than us. At seven we learn that we have to remember things for ourselves. From then on we journey ceaselessly towards a place of self- knowledge and self-reliance, until one day we stand alone before the mirror, only too conscious that we hold the lives and happiness of others in our hands. Aware that what we eat for breakfast impacts another, how we speak may have more than a transitory impact on a young life and that with each year we travel inexorably onwards clinging to the last vestiges of innocence, idealism and blue-sky dreams. Or it just me? Sometimes life is like the travel-ator at the airport - we want to stride along, virtually bouncing in our rush to reach the end as quickly as possible. Sometimes we stoically avoid it and walk alongside it - all the others racing each other and arriving sooner as we plod doggedly on, thinking the exercise will do us good. Other times we stand still on it - moving, yet not really going anywhere under our own stream. Then again there are the times when we joyfully chase our families and luggage as the walkway moves in the opposite direction to that in which we are stumbling...

I am reminded of a comment I made to Mr Springgirl when the eldest Off-Spring was a few weeks old. I said that I felt sorry for the little guy. Mr Springgirl asked me why - no doubt fearing I knew some terrible secret he had yet to discover about the little pet - and I said that it was too bad that he only had me and Mr Springgirl to guide him. We laughed, naturally, what else could we do; we were neither the first, nor the last parents to realise what a lottery it might be - and we just got on with it. Now - a dab hand at so many matters of parenting, those weeks all seems a long time ago. Which brings me again to the theme of time passing. 

For most of us, the body goes first.

Mine has been going for a while, admittedly. I am not so vain as to conceal that from myself and others. I am so vain as to fight it valiantly though, especially in matters of fitness and exercise. I can live with the grey hair re-growth at the temples. I cannot miss the gym class. If you knew the gym instructors you would see why...

I am delighted to notice that despite my seniority, I am in great company at the gym and my strength and fitness is improving. I am complimented on my push-ups and core strength and I have a sneaky suspicion that if tested in a shipwreck (in calm, non-shark infested, warm waters) I could stay afloat and calm for a good long time before giving up. I also suspect that in a survivor type "mockumentary" scenario my keen sense of direction, sense of humour and stamina would stand me in great stead (finding and enduring all those classes paying off immensely).

All of which is to say that exercise and fitness are the key to feeling fab. And at risk of repeating myself, feeling fab is the key to life. The gym or other substitute must be the font of youth (a decent sense of purpose and some great relationships can't hurt either, granted). But exercising the body (and mind) need involve no one else and can sustain us through all sorts of trouble and stress. 

Now I am not going to rest on my laurels here. In order to ensure I can keep all the bits in good working order I am also joining a bridge club, extending my social circle and trying new things.

One of the new things I considered committing to was always speaking my mind. That lasted about seven minutes. I have to admit that changing habits is never easy. That is another post in itself. So clearly, trying something new is best done when something old does not need to be drastically altered first.

So by new things I mean watching different tv programmes, taking a different route to get places, trying a new brand of chocolate, wearing a different colour, breathing deeply before losing the plot over something trivial, and so on.

Another new thing is eating dinner outdoors and walking and chatting in the windy early Autumn gloaming, searching for foxes with the Off-Spring. 

Another is trusting my instincts. By my age they are well-honed. Stand up comedy and singing solo in public are also on the list.

Anyway, all of these musings will be boring you, so I want to share some I prepared earlier - indeed when I was a couple of years younger. I have extracted below some ideas from my book "Spring to Mind" which set out my vision of the ideal gym - a space where mind and body can be exercised and nurtured.

Investors are welcome to email me directly.

(NB - as this is a long post - feel free to return to the rest tomorrow - that way my visitor stats will look healthier - to me, anyway...)

Spring to Mind Spa

At Spring to Mind Spa we value space and time to reflect and think. We call this “mind space”. We believe that when we harness and maximise the ideas and inspiration that emerge from our mind space we can embark on transformational journeys.
Whatever your motivation, Spring to Mind Spa can help you clarify your thinking, rediscover your equilibrium, nurture your dreams, connect with your true self and get and stay fit and relaxed.
Our unique services incorporate a blend of coaching, training, treatment and support group. Leave your worries at the door and move into a new mind space.
Rejuvenate and refresh.
Spring to life. Spring into action. Find your inner spring.

Spring to Mind Spa is an Urban Retreat, divided into a number of spaces where clients can focus on their particular needs.
Spring Body Space
As well as a state of the art Gym and swimming pool with specially designed lighting that enhances you and where needed, conceals you, rather than exposes you, as well as mirrors and rest areas that motivate you to workout, Mind Spa Spring Body Space offers a range of active classes and group fitness sessions intended to put the fun back into exercise.

For the Uber Fit:
High Kicks and High Jinks – a high energy aerobic workout for the super fit. Bored with stepping up and pulsing it out? Then this is the class for you. Our instructor, Kevin, guarantees no two routines are alike. Not only your body, but also your mind and memory, will be stretched as you pirouette, can-can and cartwheel your way around the studio. (Knee pads optional).
Commando Cruising – ex-marine, Charlie, will get those abs tight and those buns light with this intense adventure based workout. Test your ingenuity, mettle and inner thighs on our bespoke obstacle course.
Pushover – bring out the child in you with rough play and rumpus style work out techniques. Devised by 8 year olds, Pushover will have you roaring with laughter as you elude the tickling probes, escape the water bombs and duck for cover as the pillow fights erupt.

We know all too well that not everyone has coordinating gym kit, a desire for a six pack or a pair of clean trainers. Some of our clients have not been inside a gym for some time.  We respect and cater to that. We welcome all ability, interest and fitness levels. We applaud effort over execution and substance over style. So pull on the old Dunlop Volley sandshoes, slip on an oversized t-shirt and dust off the skipping ropes and elastics that kept you fit in 1982.
We have a special range of classes of a shorter duration to ease you back into it. These are designed for all self respecting newbies, wanna-bes and pudgees.
Unco Yoga  - a gentle blend of sun salutes and toe touching. You’ve never seen a downward dog like this before!
Balance - walk straight, stand tall and look your reflection in the eye, all while balancing a book of your choice on your head.
Bo-i-nngg - set to the upbeat and irresistible melodies of the Stock Aitken and Waterman stable of stars, this class has you bouncing (literally, on our flouro hop balls) around our Sunshine Studio. When the going gets tough on the old thighs, you bounce right over to the super large trampolines and rediscover your youth. (Maximum weight restrictions apply.)
Being a holistic organisation we recognise that some of our clients prefer to stay fit using a range of techniques not typically found under one roof. Accordingly, we offer special experiences in the Spring Body Space.
For our Ice Queen clients there is the Frisson Space with 20 metre high ice wall, mini ice rink and cold room (excellent for taking your mind off your worries and burning fat).
For the Water Nymphs we cater to both active and sedentary preferences in our Luxury Lagoon Space. Consider:
Water Ballet (tutus provided).
Synchronised Swimming (nose clips available from the Pool Boy).
Deep Immersion Pool - an abyssal experience in a 15 metre deep diving pool. The challenge lies in resisting the ebbs and flows of the random currents and riptides. (Life jackets available on request.)
Alpha Aqua Avalanche - an intense and invigorating experience in which industrial strength hoses batter and blast you through three stages – the hit and miss, the power shower and the water slide to freedom.

Naturally, being a spa, we offer traditional treatments such as massage, facials, manicures and body wraps.
Some of our special treatments in the Pamper Space include:
Total Makeover packages  - hair, teeth, attitude, body image and mindset.
Hot Stone Therapy – a visualisation therapy – who would you like to pelt hot stones at?
Lavage and Lose it  - a bespoke cellulite buster.

In the Learning Space we offer workshops and seminars to help you sort out your ideas and priorities. A sample include:
Meditation and Mindfulness  - learn to slow down and live in the moment.
Making time for me - harness your selfish whims and give them purposeful life.
Rediscover your Inner Child - using a combination of toilet humour, play-dough and dressing up, discover a simpler way of seeing things.
Find your Voice - role play, ad libbing and free association.
Now say it and Mean it - develop subtle and persuasive assertiveness techniques (very useful within marriages).
The Visible Woman – learn ways of being more noticeable and increasing your impact.
Aqua Therapy - a range of water based treatments achieving several benefits including cleansing the mind of negativity, washing away the proverbial crap dumped at your door, sifting through the detritus and debris washed up on the shore of one’s life, going with the flow, riding the current and no longer fighting the tide.
Clear Out and Declutter – find out what makes you a hoarder – learn how to let go of stuff yet retain control.

In the Emotion Space we offer suites dedicated to specific needs. For expressing Anger try the Belt it and Bash it Room. For frustration and desperation the Steam and Scream Room is a favourite (it also fights wrinkles, cellulite and fluid retention and surveys show that a 3 minute scream session and a cool glass of water achieves the same results as 20 minutes on the treadmill and a full body massage). The Tears on my Pillow Room is a zen hideaway where you can relax and let it all out, knowing you will leave intact after a mini-facial and restorative head massage.

We also have a Gratitude Room, a Guilt-Free Room, a cyber cafe and juice bar, with complimentary salads, a wine bar specialising in wines from the Antipodes, and a state of the art, sustainable crèche where the little tykes will finger paint, splash and make mess to their hearts content! (Open days for Mums first Wednesday of the month).