Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Of maelstroms, tides and harvests

Here in the UK, volcanic ash once again disrupts air travel as the Grimsvotn volcano in Iceland erupts for the first time since 2004. The notion of an ash cloud slowly billowing across the planet at an invisibly high altitude wreaking havoc on air travel so far below and so far away is quite surreal; poetic almost. One does not wish to make light of natural disasters - of floods, tsunamis, landslides or tornadoes. Nor would volcanic eruptions seem poetic in Iceland now. But from a distance or from the perspective given from an arm chair in a safe, dry, sunny place far away, the workings of nature are breathtaking. Like the best music, art, or literature.

Perhaps it's the metaphor that resonates most with me. Words describing nature at work best describe states of mind, emotional and interpersonal interactions; best conjure the image of what we mean or feel.

Floods of tears
Depths of despair
Heights of emotion

We stand on precipices and brinks, fall into abysses and jump off cliffs, we scale pinnacles, weather storms, overcome maelstroms, fight the tide, go with the flow, paddle upstream, tread water, have the wind at our back - all without leaving our offices or homes.

Some days seem like uphill battles. Or the quiet before the storm. Some days we feel as if we are caught in a rip and no one can hear our cries for help over the sound of the waves pounding on the shores of our lives.

And some days there is a life preserver right there if only we could see it through the salt and sand, the spray and even the volcanic ash in our eyes. On those days we feel our way to safe harbours, trust our instincts and somehow know where we can turn for the buoys we seek.

And on those days, despite the exhaustion and the heartache, when we sense or find the solace we need, the relief and the gratitude that follows is so deep, so palpable, so real, that it makes so much that we concern ourselves with seem small and trivial.

By and large, in its simplest terms, the road we hoe is essentially a solitary one. We surround ourselves with others, with noise and distraction, clutter, stuff, experiences. But basically, we're all just hoeing a bit of dirt, more or less alone. Sure, we're all out there seemingly together, tending our crops in one way or another, hopefully reaping what we have sown, or not, in some cases. Some of us have our noses down, some have our ear to the ground to hear what is coming. For some it is the zephyr that will herald the news we seek. For others the clouds. For we are all tending different crops. For some it's wheat, potatoes or rice - nourishment for many, for others sweet fruit and pretty flowers will bring joy and beauty. Still others will give their life to rare cacti or allow noxious weeds to take over their patch. And others will cultivate great forests and provide shelter and protection. And some will seem to reap it all.

And yet others will throw down their tools and wander off to some other man's field to steal some manure perhaps, to break a shovel or perhaps to help out after a drought.

There may be tough times out in those fields, but ultimately if we know what we are sowing, can the harvest be a surprise?


The youngest Off-Spring once said  - "Some days (walking) feels like just pushing the world back."

At three, he was describing a physical sensation (I hope).

But his simple metaphor was profound and memorable, for some days that is exactly how it feels.

Sunday, 22 May 2011

The Impossibility of Failure

We all have a recurring dream - or two or three - which no doubt represents a fear, a state of mind or a phase in our journeys. One of mine is that I am due to sit a final year law exam in something tricky like Restitution or Conflicts of Law. In the dream I am unprepared; chronically and desperately unprepared. The remarkable thing is that even with the semi-conscious awareness that the sleeping brain always has that this is a dire situation, my dreaming persona is never as panicked as my awake mind would expect. In my dreams I never feel the desperation that seems to be almost a necessity in cases of not being ready to go on, to step, to speak. It's as though a part of my sleeping mind knows it's only a dream and that in the end I will wake up and all will be alright. Perhaps my sleeping brain remembers that I passed that exam 18 years ago. And even rudimentary dream analysis would tell me that the dream is a way of processing a fear or anxiety about being unprepared for something important.

What is fascinating too, is the degree to which the unconscious mind believes it can overcome the hardship or the challenge in each case. In the dream I am committed to getting to that exam, to working, rushing, pushing on, striving to overcome the obstacles, never so deeply perturbed or worried that I give up.  The dream usually ends before the exam is sat or the results handed out, but in those moments when one can cram, choose whether to attend the exam, consult the campus map or not (so as to find the right room), pack the pens, one does all of those things. Is this a reflection of a persevering personality or something else? Is it true of all of us - that we dream of possibilities, even if our conscious self would drop out of the race, give up, cry off? The dreaming self is so optimistic and confident, unsullied by all those gremlins and limiting self-beliefs that the awake self has to deal with.

Or is it that a some level we know it isn' real - that it is only a dream and no matter what happens we cannot fail?

Imagine living that way? Imagine believing you could never fail?

There are fleeting glimpses of this fearlessness in conscious life. Last night was the Off-Spring's school Dinner Dance and Auction fundraising event. Together with a wonderful committee of mothers, I and my co-chair arranged the event. Safe in the knowledge born from experience that the night could not be an unmitigated disaster but rather, some version of a success, I was quietly confident that it would all go well. I hoped we could match previous years' funds raised. If we could just create a nice atmosphere and a convivial evening of socialising and merriment, then we would have something to be proud of.

Well we did all of that. And we raised a lot of money - almost three times more than I hoped we might raise (pitching expectations low being a great source of gleeful surprise and smiling in so many things one does). The school now has an even lovelier fund on which to draw for various initiatives for the children as well as much needed building restoration work. We were blessed to have received 30 donated items that were both sought after and valuable. Strong interest, good ticket sales, delicious food, generous and supportive parents and an inspiring and dedicated staff and headteacher contributed to the rest. It was a great event. Every person who contributed to it in any way should feel proud to have been part of it's success.

Running a PTA is voluntary work, charitable giving, community work, if you like. Many of us do it or something like it at some point in our lives. But why? Some say that acts of giving make us happy. Some say that we do such things for recognition, or out of guilt or a sense of obligation. For some it is a way of giving back. For others it is to use skills that we might otherwise not have a chance to use during years of parenting or retirement or when we are not engaged in paid work. It may be to please someone, to impress or to persuade, to gain leverage or to buy good will, to learn something, or to teach something.

Whatever the reason, and there are a probably several in combination on any given day, we do it. Perhaps the why is not so important, in the final analysis, but it weighs on my mind, for there is the question as to whether to stay on for another year as Chair person. In order to decide, understanding my rationale or purpose is important - at least to me.

Part of that means one has to work out why failure on the part of some to acknowledge a success holds a sting. One has to know one's limits, one's priorities, one's values. One has to be candid and authentic about how best one can play a role and the potential conflicts that the roles one plays can create in one'e wider life and circle. One has to understand that whether one is motivated intrinsically or extrinsically, or perhaps both, one would not do it if one thought in terms of merely success and failure.

Which leads one to value perhaps the best part of any challenge; the overcoming of an obstacele and the learning that goes hand in hand - particularly about oneself, but also about others. And the knowledge that there really is no such thing as failure, just opportunities to learn, to grow, to give (and to take) and above all, to wear a pretty dress now and then!

Monday, 2 May 2011

Ordinary People

I promised that my next post would cover the Royal Wedding. Rather than disappoint you, I will deliver on my promise.

Here in London the magic was palpable that day. For the first time in several days the air was clear and cool. There was a cloudy sky, the first in weeks that morning, and the high pollen count had abated somewhat. Consequently for the thousands who descended on central London to catch a glimpse of the wedding party the atmosphere was very British - very Wimbledon - very amenable.

For me, a hayfever sufferer, the day could not have been more pleasant. Watching the wedding from home and then the gym, enjoying the company of my neighbours at the Royal Wedding garden party, feeling united with my English brethren in a proud and historic celebration of love, community, majesty and family.

But in hindsight I think the truly amazing thing about the event - and indeed - perhaps the reason for my malaise over the next three days - was the almost story book quality of perfection around the occasion (not unlike my own wedding day...). Everything was just lovely.

For me, the fact that someone really quite ordinary snared the future king of England is though, one of the most profound aspects of this happy tale. And by "ordinary" I do not mean "common" as the British press and establishment love to call her. Nor do I mean to be disparaging - for ordinary is truly what most of us are.

No - the really wonderful thing is that unlike so many elements of monarchy, this wedding seemed charmingly democratic and accessible. Kate, by all accounts, is a sensible and poised woman. Unlike some pundits and posters who have comments to make about make-up and social climbing, her weight and her hair, I really can find nothing to criticise her for. Isn't she the sort of girl one would have been friends with? The sort of girl one would like one's daughter to be? A nice, ordinary, straight forward, committed, dedicated, sweet person?

Ok, so those qualities may not be entirely "ordinary", after all, but I can't help wishing and hoping that they were or could be.

But the magic lies in the fact that this young couple are so discreet and polite and measured. Unlike the B and C grade celebrities (and A as well, let's be honest) that festoon the headlines most weeks, there is no controversy, no tawdry gossip, no drugs or indiscretions.

While they may be royalty the very fact that she shops on the high streets and does her own make-up and that he plays a little bit of football in the public park on the eve of his wedding, makes this couple, this very famous  duo, breathtakingly regular and indeed - ordinary. She has worn the same thing more than once for the cameras!

This is not to say that their lives are ordinary, by any means. Nor is it to suggest that any ordinary Joe or Jane could or would swap places with them and assume their roles with even an iota of the dignity and aplomb with which they seem to carry off every public appearance.

All I mean is that it is refreshing and a little bit magical to witness a commitment and love outside one's circle of ordinary people that is just so nice and normal (despite the guest list and the budget for the wedding, the helicopter pickup the next day and the titles...).

The other thing that is so lovely and fresh, in this age where everyone has a website, a blog, a point of view, and in which so many mediocre and extraordinarily damaged and strange people harbour a yearning for fame and fortune, notoriety or celebrity, is that this couple to date has really said very little.

So yes, less is more. Silence is golden.