Sunday, December 10, 2017

When it snows

In the UK snow is a novelty. Sometimes it's a disaster, sometimes it's a welcome diversion. Today it snowed and, being a Sunday, most people seemed very happy to enjoy the opportunity to not do what may have been planned, but to wrap up warm and go outside.

Walking from where I live towards the heath there is a small hill approaching the station. It was slippy and several of us stopped to help push cars up the slope. It wasn't the best day to drive really, but it was quite fun pushing the Porsche (although I did get spattered in grey snowy sludge as it's wheels spun).

There was an air of pleasantry - people tugging kids on sleds, dogs eagerly trotting in smart coats, adults in hats and gloves and generally most people were smiling and willing to say good morning and look you in the eye, conspiratorial in the joy of snow.

When I reached the heath there were lots of people sledging and just having good old fashioned fun. Snowball fights, large mounds of snow being rolled in anticipation of snowmen, and dogs excitedly rushing around, chasing irretrievable snow balls. 

The sound on the heath was beautiful - the shouts and calls of happiness: people having fun in the open air,  and the echoes of voices bouncing off the low cloud whilst it continued to snow.  In the woods the sound was muffled, with the occasional 'swoosh' of snow falling from branches (and catching me unawares sometimes as if snowballed by the trees); the call of a wren, a robin, and some great tits dancing above me backgrounded by the distant calls of humanity.

I felt so peaceful being on the heath, walking through the woods in the snow.  I have many happy memories of being on the heath with my children - sledging and building snowmen - and I cherish this wonderful place that is fabulous for people and wildlife both winter and summer.

More photos here: Flickr All pictures (C) me.

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Sunday, December 03, 2017

The perfect (American) Christmas story

Miracle on 34th Street (C) 20th Century Fox
Having watched a few – I have to say ‘schmaltzy’ – Christmas movies, I’ve come up with a formula for the perfect story.  The ingredients you need are:
  • Small US town
  • Snowy region (preferably near Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Buffalo etc – cities in the ‘snow zone’ or miraculous snow in New York)
  • Single parent family (this facilitates the inclusion of children whilst permitting a romantic storyline)
  • The children are polite and well behaved 
  • A problem (St Nick has lost something, one of his elves is in trouble, his ‘magic’ is being depleted, family home about to be repossessed etc)
  • A ‘miracle’ themed object (star, angel, animated snowman, special house etc)
  • An ‘unbeliever’ (cynic who has had a negative Christmas experience, loss of family, etc)
  • A supporting cast of friendly uncles, aunts, neighbours, friends
  • A reluctant romance
  • A penchant for choosing the rural career over the city life
  • The conversion (cynic is provided with undeniable evidence that ‘Christmas miracles’ exist – whether Santa is real or that against all the odds lost family members are found)
  • The ‘spirit of Christmas’
  • A happy conclusion

And by observation, it seems to be a largely white, middle class cast of characters - though I think we can dump that in the ‘historical’ bin and be a bit more inclusive!  Sometimes (but not always) there is a bit of religion.

By contrast, UK Christmas stories seem to contain a mix of the following:
  • Disaster (sometimes averted)
    'Nativity' 
  • Unlikely romance with a specific challenge (societal, etc)
  • Badly behaving kids
  • A nativity play
  • A supporting cast of idiots/comedians
  • Cynicism in the majority
  • Conflict resolution
  • A happy conclusion

What’s do you think – do you have a ‘top ten’ (or top three) ingredients for Christmas stories? Post your thoughts in comments below. 

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Sunday, November 26, 2017

Two walks

On Saturday I took my daughter’s dog out for a walk in nearby woods. She snuffled amongst the undergrowth, sniffing each piss-glistened leaf, rummaging through the debris for scents and stories – doggie social media.

I crunched along the path, beech nut husks brittle, new fallen leaves crisp, earlier casualties slippery with dew and ripe for rotting.  The ground was green with nettles and ivy, and the wind turned from autumn chill to cold winter gusts. 
On Sunday I took her on a walk in the fields of Hundon.  The sky was bright, the air clear and clean – lacking only the hint of snow to make it perfect.  Let off the lead the little dog ran helter skelter along the muddy path, letting off steam whilst also stopping to investigate each intriguing odour.



Tonight she lies sleepily – doggie dreams twitching her paws. Whilst my cat awaits his chance once again to show her that she is the interloper. It won’t be for long, she’ll go home soon, but she’s had a few adventures with me.

Photos (C) Me.

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Sunday, November 19, 2017

Troublesome angels

This week's Writers Circle exercise was to write something inspired by a paragraph from 'Girl on a Train'.  As usual, all the stories were different - from childhood memories to attempted murder. Here's my contribution.


My head was slowly fogging as the muggy air in the carriage warmed up my cold face and hands. I was lucky, I’d got a seat today.  I sat at the end by the window, with the luggage rack at my back and, as was my preference, facing forwards down the carriage. Humanity before me.  I watched the Hertfordshire countryside fly by as we drew nearer to London; at each stop more bodies piled in. Long, smart black coats on shaven headed men; scarves wrapped around skinny necks to defy the heat loss that fashion was gifting them. They swayed like winter trees as the train took the huge curve by the golf course.  Dead eyes, the audible beat of music from headphones. They looked at phones, newspapers, laptops – anything but the other commuters.

Women in short skirts, thin tights and high heels. Woollen coats and cardigans, coloured scarves and bright pom pom hats. Severe suits and emulation. Cheeks as red as their lips from the cold winter air until they hit the ambient temperature of the heaving carriages, and then their faces burned with the warmth of too many, too close, and no space to shed a layer or two.

Here we come King’s Cross.  A red kite, a buzzard, and a football pitch teamed with pigeons and gulls. These drew my lazy eyes as I struggled to stay awake.  The rich green fields, the skeleton trees on grey horizon, replaced by the silhouettes of suburbia. My head nodded, and I snatched it up again with a startled jerk.

We had just pulled into Finsbury Park and the carriage suddenly hummed with life. People were moving, collecting, shifting, departing and joining. A rearrangement of humanity.  Two men dressed in long white robes boarded. I thought it odd. Angels, I mentally tagged them.  Both beautiful, but no wings.  A Christmas party in the offing, no doubt.  They moved towards a four square in front of me and, without a word, the incumbents vacated, finding other places to stand or sit, too close, too near to others.  The fancy dress duo took their places opposite each other and spread out in relative luxury in the jam-packed carriage.   I watched them carefully, they intrigued me.  I was sure my surveillance was obvious but the one who was facing me did not catch my eye.

King’s Cross. This train terminates here. Please take all your belongings with you.

I never hurry as the heaving mass surges to the doors even before we’ve hit the platform. My office is only five minutes’ walk away; plenty of time.  Dead eyes, deaf ears, cold legs and cold heads milled and spilled from the opened doors. With only stragglers remaining, I stood and stretched. The two angels were still there, deep in conversation.  I passed them on the way to the open door and muttered “better move or you’ll end up back where you came from.” A heinous crime, talking to a fellow passenger without invitation, but I didn’t care.  They looked up at me and back towards where I had been sitting, but I ambled on and out onto the platform. Hi vis and helmets constructing bicycles from confused concentrations of metal cluttered the platform briefly. Clattering suitcases dragged towards an unknown fate added to the cacophony of the station’s morning routine. A few slow movers – casual with age or indifference – were the last to join me as I hitched on the tail of the flood towards the exit gates.

Ticket in hand I was nearly at the gate, ready to swipe my season ticket, when I felt compelled to turn and see if the two idiots all in white had left the carriage. They had. They stood on the platform and were waving at someone.  It wasn’t a goodbye wave, but a come here, urgent flapping of perfect hands.  I’m not sure why but I felt they were waving at me. I pointed to my chest and mimed “Me?”  They indicated the affirmative.  I looked around – it had to be me. I stood for a second and then knew they wouldn’t come down the now almost deserted platform, so I trod my curious way back to them. Past the door – to the other side of the window where I had sat.  I looked in.

They gathered round me and put cool hands on my shoulders. Not a bad way to go, I thought, as I looked at my body, still at rest in the train as if sleeping.

Photos (C) Carolyn Sheppard

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Saturday, November 04, 2017

Ghost stories

Photo from Amazon.com
I like to tell stories, and I was asked to do two sessions with ghost stories this week. The first was at a bar in Norwich (all adult audience), and I told a personal story about Maurice, the ghost we used to live with.  It was an interesting experience, because it took me into very personal, emotional territory. Not something I'm used to doing!

But last night I was storytelling outside, to families at a camp site in Swanton Morley.  The first story I told was of the ghostly US airman on the nearby airfield, but given an audience of children in fancy dress, and after singing ‘Old MacDonald had a Haunted Farm’, I decided that some more ad lib stories involving the kids would be better.

I asked what they wanted, and the small boy dressed as a mad professor wanted a monster story. So we told the story of Frankenstein and his monster, and the kids acted out some parts. I had a 10 year old ‘zombie’ do a pretty good impression of the monster - lying on a picnic table as we 'winched' him up the tower to the lightning. Oh, I also got Burke and Hare involved too – but no historians on hand to correct me so I got away with it.

The second story we told was about Dracula (the small boy dressed as a vampire actually dozed off), and the final story request was for one about a skeleton. With no immediate skeleton stories in my memory, the ‘Skeleton who couldn’t sleep’ was born. The kids joined in and the adults joined in (their costumes adding to the cast of characters) and there was even a running race to see who go to sleep in the king’s bed.


I really enjoy story telling and though last night’s event was very unplanned, I knew that if I had enough kids, it would work. And I’m pleased to day it did.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Choice

Me and Bella last summer
I’ve just spent a week working on my own choices. How? Well, as I said it took a week, so I can’t really explain it all here in a short blog post.  But the nub of it is about choosing how we feel – because all the feelings in the world that we want (and don’t want) are accessible to us – we already have them all inside*

It sounds a bit simple, doesn’t it, that you can just choose how you feel? But when it comes down to it, choice is an important opportunity that many of us do not take advantage of.

For example, if you had the choice between feeling confident and feeling nervous, you’d choose confident.  Now this may seem glib and even insulting but once you are taken through the thought process and set some hard challenges (about self), it’s actually really powerful.

There’s a ‘voice in my head’ that says I’m not good enough, unloveable, ugly, fat, old, stupid, that the future I want is impossible… the list of my own failings to me is quite a long one. But that’s not how others see me. That’s not how I want to see me, but I have been choosing to believe the negative voice and ignoring the opinion of everyone else.

In other words, I’d rather believe a lie because it makes me feel bad, than the truth, which is about who I really am.  So after this week, I’ve chosen to believe the truth about who I am and be happy with that – warts and all – and tell that voice in my head to ‘shut the f*ck up’ (or at least turn it down a bit).

I spent a lot of money on this course, money I could have spent on a holiday, or the home, but I’m glad I spent it on me; there’s only one of me in the whole world, just like there’s only one of you. Our uniqueness is something to be treasured and celebrated. Is this an explosion of ego? No – it’s a great step forward in finding and being my authentic self. 

If you want to know more about this course, or the people who run it, check them out on Facebook.  You may find it a bit whacky, out of your comfort zone, but it took three years to get me to even think about attending this course, and it is likely to be the most important decision I have ever taken. Cool, huh?!


* You may wish to point out that there are people who do not have every feeling available to them, but let’s face it, a true lack of feeling (even hate) would be pretty hard to find in any conscious human.  Oh, and any sentence you start (in your head or in voice) with ‘Yeah, but…’ is usually working hard on behalf of that negative voice, so beware!

PS - I did not have to build bridges, climb trees, wade through rivers, walk over coals, live in the wild or even eat raw insects  - but I did make new, amazing friends.

Photo of me by Anna Langley

Sunday, October 01, 2017

Hey Phil, I get it.

In a helicopter. 
I found you on Facebook as you accepted Nick’s friend request. I did a bit of stalking.  I’d looked before, but you were so totally under the radar on social media and online that I didn’t think to look again.

I’m pleased to see you are doing something interesting at the radio station – and still using that moniker (I looked under Bilko too, of course).  Good to see you are alive (I didn’t know) and sad to see that you have health issues. 

You have reinvented yourself as a person from where you are now. You’ve put your past well and truly behind you and moved on.  You have always been able to contact me if you wanted. You don’t want to and, finally, I get it. I’m going to move on too. A bit later than you, perhaps! But when asked by others why I don’t try and find you – I try to explain that I am respecting your wishes.  I can’t think of anything worse than some ‘blast from the past’ turning up and causing lots of awkward questions, or nosiness from people you don’t want to talk to about that stuff.

I’ll let you know when mum eventually passes on – she’s 85 now.  Interestingly she looks back on the past and has regrets when it comes to it. She’s said some very self-aware things about our childhood that, although way too late, is amazing that she has recognised, and cares about.   

I will make this my last letter to you – though I guess I know you haven’t read any of these any way. So goodbye Phil, but I’m always here if you do ever want to make contact. 


Get well soon

Earlier in September I heard David Beeney talk about mental health at work, and he used an interesting example:  The staff member who has a broken leg gets get well soon cards and contact from colleagues to see how they are doing.  The staff member who is off with stress is usually ‘left alone’ and there’s little or no contact, and no get well soon card. Yet which of these is most likely to need the contact, support and to know that others are thinking about them? (NB - make sure you read the comments below that followed on from this post)

One point that David wanted to make is that it is OK to share – to tell others if you are having issues around mental health, just as we would if we had – say – a bad back, diabetes or a headache.  But that involves a huge culture change; since Victorian times the British (I can only speak from what I have heard, read or experienced here) have been very good at the ‘stiff upper lip’.  Prior to then, the British were known for being rather emotional – perhaps better at sharing how they were both physically and mentally – than we are now.

As someone who has depression (sometimes quite a big black dog, sometimes a puppy, sometimes it’s away in the kennel) I find it hard to share what is going on in my head, because – as an example – depression makes you lose perspective. You won’t share, because no one will care anyway.  You won’t share because they might ‘find out’ you are not as amazing and indestructible as you want everyone – including yourself – to believe. Sometimes the logic of the dog is not logical at all.

The purpose of this post is the same as David’s talk – to get the conversation out in the open, to be prepared to talk about an issue which, as a nation, we seem to try and keep hidden.

There are many statistics around mental health, such as one in three adults, and more recently 25% of teenage girls. In other words, there's a lot of people who are contending with mental health issues.  Sometimes individuals might have an ‘episodic’  issue, but, if you think about mental health as a spectrum (as we do with autistic or other developmental states), then we have probably all had an issue at some time or another. The question (or perhaps diagnosis context) for me is how much it affects everyday life.

Help and references

  • www.mentalhealth-uk.org/

Teenage mental health resources

  • Youngminds - reports on mental health for younger people and charity

Resources



Photo: from Pinterest (no credit identified)

Footnote: since first publishing this, a comment came in that it isn't always appropriate to contact someone who is off work for mental health reasons.  Yes, that's true, and contact may in fact increase problems rather than offer comfort, but the very principle that people off sick because of a mental health issue is 'taboo' is what is challenged here.  If you have a colleague off sick for any kind of mental health reason, check before contacting them with your HR department or boss.  Maybe a get well soon card could be the best thing they ever got.