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!