No Ceiling to Hope

I’ve done a fair bit of travelling with work over the last couple of months, more so than usual. One of the added benefits of these trips (apart from the obvious ones of having a bedroom and bathroom to myself, and avoiding all domestic responsibilities) is that I have a lot of time to read, whilst travelling or at the hotel. The conference I’ve just got back from in Groningen was particularly good in this respect, as the one hour (ish) flight to Amsterdam was followed by a train journey – clean train, on time, excellent value for money, views of expansive countryside – of over 2 and a half hours.

I demolished one book on the way out – ‘No Ceiling to Hope’ by Patrick Regan, founder and CEO of the charity XLP. It tells the story of how Christians are bringing the hope of change and transformation to people and places which many would dismiss as beyond rescue, from the angry and disenfranchised teenagers of central London, to the homeless of Watford and LA’s Skid Row, the communities of Northern Ireland still segregated by ‘peace walls’, the drug addicts of South Asia, the ganglands of Jamaica’s Trenchtown, and those living in grinding poverty in Bolivia, Ghana, and Bangladesh… and several others. This list makes Patrick sound fairly unbearably do-goody, but he’s not; he doesn’t see the people affected as objects of pity, but very much as fellow human beings who deserve to be given the chances they have missed out on, often simply by being born into a particular family in a particular place and time. He is also refreshingly honest about his own struggles to pace himself properly and balance the demands on his time, and the problems he faces when communicating with non-Christian funding bodies, Christian churches, the media, and politicians from various parties. In some ways this book didn’t tell me anything new, but Patrick’s wide-reaching understanding of – and whole-hearted devotion to – obeying the Biblical command to “spend yourself on behalf of the hungry, and satisfy the needs of the oppressed” (and the rest of Isaiah 58v1-12) was deeply provoking and moving. It has caused me to move the needs of some of the needy I know further up my list of priorities, consider the impact of my busyness on my productivity… and join the Labour Party, with a view to influencing British politics from the inside.

I started Alexander Solzhenitzyn’s “We Never Make Mistakes” on the way back… but that deserves a post of its own.


Samantha Brick : the offence of believing you are beautiful

Untitled 14 Why I find Samantha Brick attractive

I’m not on Twitter. I don’t consider myself famous enough to have a ‘following’. But sometimes, being out of reach of the tweet means that you miss corking stories like the storm surrounding Samantha Brick‘s column in the Daily Mail. I only picked up on it today when I finally got around to reading a copy of The Week dated 14th April.

Earlier this month, she posted a blog on the Daily Mail website in which she described how men go out of their way to be extra-courteous to her because she is beautiful, whereas women hate her for it. She has been sent free drinks in restaurants and had various bills paid by men who are bowled over by her good looks, whereas women often accuse her of having designs on their partners and give her the cold shoulder in social and professional situations.

The response was muted until the article hit Twitter and became a big story and the source of many bad-taste and barely-funny jokes at Samantha’s expense. She ended up appearing on This Morning to defend herself, but didn’t particularly help matters by saying ’10 out of 10′ men fancied her – which presumably included Eamonn Holmes, one of the presenters.

I’ve read the original blog and am staggered that anyone gets that kind of reaction from men, it’s never happened to me or anyone I know. Samantha is a good-looking woman, but perhaps she gets such a response because she truly believes she is beautiful and revels in it, rather than actually conforming to some kind of aesthetic ideal. Those commenting on her blog are very keen to point out faults in her appearance, and call her deluded or arrogant. There is an untempered nastyness about many of the remarks, which comes all too easily in such discussion forums (and on Twitter), but makes me believe there may also be truth in what Samantha says about the way women treat her.

Bryony Gordon, in an excellent column in the Telegraph (it’s not often I say that), reflected on events with the following words: ‘Women – and men, more pertinently – do hate her, though not because she’s beautiful. They hate her because she has the temerity to believe she might be beautiful, even if she is, in the words of one online commentator, “not all that”. It would seem that in the world of confessional journalism, you can write about your divorces, your depression and your deepest insecurities without anyone batting a weary eyelid. But to admit you might quite like yourself is a confession too far.’

I am glad there is a woman out there who is comfortable in her own skin and likes what she sees when she looks in the mirror. The majority of women compare themselves to some ludicrous ideal created by already handsome women spending hours in hair and make-up, being photographed over and over again under the most flattering light, and the best results being airbrushed to remove any hint of ‘imperfection’…. and unsurprisingly, the majority of women feel ugly, to a greater or lesser degree. Self-loathing is normal, spending thousands on miracle face creams and magic knickers to correct our ‘flaws’ is normal, extreme diets are fashionable, aspiring to plastic surgery to ‘correct’ ourselves is commonplace. Anyone who dares to see themselves differently is an offence to the normal female state of mind; their self-image is a direct criticism of our own.

What a rudiculous position for womankind to have worked itself into!

Having brought two (rather large) babies into the world and gained – and, eventually, lost – three stones in weight in the process, I too have wrestled with my body image over the last few years. I have now returned to a healthy weight and am able to devote a little more time to making sure I rest enough, exercise and eat well – in short, I look after myself. I’m well-groomed and clean, but I don’t spend forever primping and preening as there are other things I’d rather do. I wear clothes I like, clothes that fit and that I feel comfortable in, clothes that are appropriate to where and when I’ll be wearing them.

When others look at me, I guess they see an average-sized woman – shame about the chunky thighs – with a big nose and wrinkles around her eyes and messy hair; they may even think me unkempt because I wear little make-up and seldom don glamorous clothes; they would quite probably be repulsed by the stretch-marks I exhibit by wearing a bikini on holiday (weather permitting). When I look in the mirror, I see someone who is pretty happy in her skin, who laughs and smiles a lot and has a face with creases reflecting that, whose wavy hair balances out the strong angles of her nose and jaw, who has a strong and trim body which comes in handy when chasing around after her family, and is actually quite proud to display those stretch-marks because if they weren’t there… well, her beautiful sons wouldn’t be there either.

You may now hate me. Good job I’m not on Twitter.

Fuzzy brains

A month or so ago, my friend Beth was asked to speak to a gathering of over 150 trainee medics about her experience of living with Lupus. As I regularly give presentations in the course of my work, she asked me to help her put together a few slides to illustrate her main points and give the audience something to look at. We set to work one grey Saturday afternoon, sat side-by-side on her new sofa, with tea in hand and laptops – appropriately – on laps.

Beth wanted a picture to illustrate what she calls ‘fuzzy brain’, the unclear thinking that originates from Lupus and the sizeable collection of medications needed to treat its impact on different body systems. A quick trawl of t’internet turned this up, a hand-knitted brain, shown above. The lady responsible is a child psychologist who knitted the brain “because it seemed so ridiculous and would be an enormously complicated, absurdly ambitious thing to do.” She’s also gone on, with a friend, to create a whole museum-full of scientifically accurate fabric brain art inspired by research from neuroscience, dissection and neuroeconomics. One wonders how she ever finds time to study real brains.

However, it’s good to see the beauty of our construction being celebrated. I find anatomy textbooks fascinating – it’s easy to become engrossed in the curves and the corners, the gross structure and the detail, the interlocking functions of the human form. It’s also intriguing in that you can often look at a particular organ or system, realise what it does, and think “well, I wouldn’t have designed it that way”… and yet it works, even though it seems to take a rather convoluted route to get there and creates some strange, assymetric shapes on the way. There is an inherent beauty in our bodies, even if the logic of the design is far from obvious.

I’m also amazed by how our body systems can circumvent injury, work around disability, and  compensate for congenital limitations. There is flexibility and redundancy built in that allows us to survive and even flourish in the face of so many ailments and functional deficits. For example, I was born with one kidney, and only discovered this after I volunteered for a research project (involving an abdominal MRI) at the age of 21. Further scans revealed I’d probably only ever had one big kidney but it had been quietly doing the job of two all that time, its Herculean efforts in single-handedly filtering my blood going unrecognised for over two decades. I may never have known, had I not had that scan. There’s a kind of beauty in that too, the beauty of the brave body that hasn’t quite got all the bits it needs, that doesn’t look like the textbooks, but carries on anyway.

Beth’s brave body does its best but sometimes Lupus throws too much at it all at once and life is hard. I am going to honour her courage and perseverence by asking Beth to contribute a guest blog, summarising that talk (which incidentally, went down very well and was recognised with a lovely letter of thanks from the hospital’s leading Professor of Rheumatology). When it’s uploaded, I’ll link it in here.

Reversible stereotypes

Almost all of the people I am connected to via facebook are those who I have met, and wouldn’t mind meeting again. The one exception is Stark Raving Madeleine, an independent filmmaker who spends her time recording and editing footage of girls and women doing things you wouldn’t necessarily expect them to, with the grand ambition of breaking down gender stereotypes. She also rides a motorbike, wears red lipstick, and is partial to a good slice of cake. In short, she is amazing. I hope to meet her one day.

Madeleine put me on to this article, a light-hearted commentary on five gender stereotypes that are often taken as genetically-determined absolutes, when it wasn’t that long ago that society assumed the exact opposite. Interesting stuff. Cheers, m’dear!


The only way is Harpurhey

Today I heard that a new TV series, called ‘The Estate’, is to be filmed in one of the most deprived areas of greater Manchester, Harpurhey. The local vicar is “keen to show is that there is a lot of hope in this community… there’s a lot we can do to show the area in a positive light”. Whilst the sum of the footage may well reveal that, it is all in the editing… and I fear the net result may not be ‘cut to flatter’.


Phases of parenting

Often when you stop and look at your life, instead of hurtling through it at 110 mph, you realise that something has changed. It was changing all the time, of course, but changing oh-so-slowly that you never noticed a genuine transition sneaking up on you.

I had a revelation the other day when my youngest son, who is 4 next month, announced to me that the phone was ringing, brought it to me, took it back it’s usual place when I’d taken the call, and skipped away with an air of satisfaction in a job well done. I called after him in thanks, and he responded “That’s ok, Mummy” and carried on finding something else to do.

He’s a proper boy now, independent of me in so many ways, which is a good thing as he will be joining his brother at school in September. I have worked part-time (Monday-Wednesday) since the boys were 6 months’ old, and will be increasing my hours (adding 10-2 on Thursdays and Fridays) from August. The end of an era is upon me, and I barely saw it coming.

Of course, it is wonderful that he is growing up into such a gorgeous little man. I am tempted to congratulate myself on the excellent mothering that has obviously led to this result, but any sense of pride is tempered by the realisation that things could so easily have been different. I am overwhelmingly grateful to have two bright, confident, healthy little boys who are developing as they should; the alternative would be tragic.

But this transition also causes me to reflect on how the needs of my children are changing as they age. As soon as we teach them to do anything for themselves, we teach them to be a little more independent of Mum and Dad, until they are ready to take on the world without us. My thoughts on this eventuality, this end objective, came into sharp focus when Nadine (our cleaner) gave me the bird’s nest shown in the picture above. She had found it, empty and blown out of a tree in the high winds, and wondered if my boys would be interested to see it (they were, as were the oldest’s classmates). It is exquisite, delicate and yet strong, designed to protect and comfort, constructed from many tiny pieces with skill and devotion. It is also empty. The chicks have flown, it has served its purpose.

As our children’s abilities develop, their needs change and so our parenting must adapt; but how, exactly? How do we build the nest our family needs? I searched for a framework to hang my thoughts on and found this article by Focus on the Family, which divides parenting into four phases: Commander, Coach, Counsellor and Consultant. Provided we acknowledge that this describes the dominant approach suitable for the corresponding stage of development, rather than a series of step-wise changes (which would be rather artificial and completely confuse the poor child), I think this framework broadly holds true…with one sizeable exception. This framework infers that parenting starts at the age when children can take instruction, when I have certainly been a mother from age 0, if not before.

I therefore propose an additional 0th stage, of Child-Commanded Constant Carer. When children are very small, there is no option but to put yourself at their beck and call, providing food, comfort, and cleaning (of the child, their clothes, and environs) as required. As they grow and settle into a routine, you still need to do a great many things for them, and help them safely develop the ability to feed, sleep, learn, and get clean over several years. I am only just coming out of this phase, a phase in which my needs – by very necessity – ranked below theirs. I had no comprehension of how intense the pre-school years were until now, when I am looking at them in nostalgic retrospect. The rose-tinted glasses are certainly off, though: I smile as I remember cuddling and breastfeeding them as small babies, counting their new teeth, seeing them learn to walk and hearing their first words… but I am also very glad to be rid of the extreme fatigue (and having to learn what to do with a baby whilst being so tired), the difficulties of finding good childcare, the challenge of redefining my own priorities and even my identity, the frustrations of potty training.

I am ready for new adventures, and so are the boys. It’s time to move away from being a Child-Commanded Constant Carer to a Commander, with a dash of Coach; time to keep on weaving that nest, until it isn’t needed any more.

Fast culture

Text from Shakespeare sonnet

I’ve just read this fascinating article by Will Self.

He has a point, so many of the cultural experiences we choose appeal because they have gone out of their way to be accessible, when perhaps great works deserve pondering and chewing over in order to truly appreciate them. Maybe it’s not a question of being obscure or difficult, more that they demand we invest some time and mental energy in comprehending their worth, and reward us for the effort. You wouldn’t bolt down a fine meal that a chef had slaved over to deliver, even if you would cram down something mediocre ‘on the go’ to fill an empty stomach.

I also agree that our use of language, and our vocabulary, has suffered from the growing popularity of forms of communication that value brevity above all else – think of the short, sharp, sparky and uncomplicated language of the average text, facebook status update, or tweet. I go out of the way to use proper punctuation in text messages; I will even seek out a semi-colon in the symbols menu if needed. If an unusual word captures what I am trying to express, so be it. It does give my texts a certain Dickensian feel, but I would rather my language was considered a little old-fashioned and florid than these symbols and words be lost to us forever.

And oh, I get angry if my fingers run away with me and my facebook statuses and comments are mis-spelt. I have often added additional comments to correct the error, which no-one else had noticed…

I should certainly play word dynamo more often, to broaden my repertoire… I used to have a ‘word of the week’ when I was in my teens, which I’d use at every possible opportunity – perhaps I should resurrect that. Join in! Pick up a dictionary (or try out dynamo for yourself), find a word you’ve never used before and have fun searching for a context to try it in.