Ridicule is nothing to be scared of

When I was a kid I was painfully shy. Ridiculously so. So much so that when I went to school my Mum was called in by the teacher to ask if I was deaf and dumb (it was the 70s, political correctness hadn’t been invented). I couldn’t speak to strangers. I couldn’t speak to adults. I wasn’t keen on crowds.

I know that many people that know me now will find this a bit surprising and might be a bit cynical but it’s true. I’m an introvert. Quite an extreme introvert but I’ve learned many coping strategies to help me survive in an extroverted world. It’s a world that exhausts me.

People exhaust me. Strangers in particular. The thought of small talk is a horror that I don’t want to think about. A trip to the hairdresser is terrifying. I have a dread of crowds. I still have to take a few deep breaths before I walk into a crowded room. I have to prepare myself carefully for social occasions. But I have my coping strategies and some of them I have learnt from what you may consider odd places…

But that’s where magic and inspiration comes from.

When I was 8 or 9 I went to my first gig. It was at the glorious Apollo in Manchester, still one of my favourite venues. I saw Adam & the Ants. It was really a birthday present for my older brother but as an annoying younger sister of course I had to be there too. It was a magnificent, flamboyant, spectacular affair complete with pirate ship, swinging chandeliers, leagues of drummers and wonderful costumes. I was entranced. I was hooked; on live music, on theatrical performance, on the arrogant swagger of a front man.

I saw Adam Ant again this week. I was entranced. He was spectacular. I was 8 years old again and totally swept away.After the joy and awe started to fade he made me think.

His mental health issues have been well documented and sensationalised but the man that stood before me was fit, healthy, well and performed for over 2 hours, certainly appearing better than most of the audience at the end of it.

As I sang along to his back catalogue I considered his struggle. Even in the most beautiful of his songs there is reference to it. But blink, in it’s poppy, Lightening Seed-esque lyricism and you will overlook it.

Wonderful

Fundamentally it’s a cry for help. An acceptance of the horror he is capable of and a plea for someone to stop it.

Even at his most popular, at the height of his fame he was telling us about his pain. Our Dandy Highwayman, our Prince Charming was trying to convince us, or was it himself, that ‘ridicule is nothing to be scared of’?

Prince Charming

I have clung to that lyric all of my life. Actually, I’ve clung to Adam too. If you see me at a wedding chatting to a (poor, unfortunate) DJ or at a jukebox, you will find, at some point some ant music making it onto the play list. I find it and him empowering. Accepting.

Now I don’t know if it was Adam Ant or Mr Benn that taught me that fancy dress was the most wonderful idea but whichever it was I am forever grateful. Because every day and for every occasion I choose an outfit and put it on like a costume because it gives me confidence. you may not notice, you may think it’s a business suit, a pair of jeans…some hot pants? But in my head I’ve created a character. I’ve put on my costume. I have a suit of armour that will protect me and which I can wear with pride and sass. Most people don’t know this but it works for me. Whatever works for you, do it!

Don’t you ever, don’t you ever, 

Lower yourself, forgetting all your standards

Ridicule is nothing to be scared of

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The black dog

It’s Mental Health Awareness week and it’s really made me think. One of my mates posted on social media, ‘If anyone said that they haven’t been affected by mental health issues, they’re lying’. That really resonated with me.

I pretend that I haven’t but I know that I have. I struggle with what I call the dark clouds (it seems less serious that way) others would call it the black dog, depression. I’ve had black clouds for as long as I can remember and I fight them hard.

My best and most wonderful weapon and defence is to have a purpose. A reason to get out of bed every day and to care. 19 years ago that purpose was a funny, silly, skinny little puppy who I met at Manchester Dogs’ Home called Oscar. He wasn’t a black dog, he was sandy coloured and truly wonderful. He nestled into my heart from the moment I saw him and from the day I brought him home we loved each other completely. Unconditionally.

He kept the black dog at bay.

He was my baby, my hero, my best friend. Together we could take on the universe.

And then in the blink of an eye he was 15. Going grey around the eyes. Slowing down. Sleeping more. The vet said it was arthritis and gave us pills. I took him swimming. I learned about dog massage. It all helped.

We were hanging on for each other.

I eventually had to admit that my boy was in pain. Incurable pain. He had to admit that he couldn’t hang on. I lay on the floor with him for seven hours until the vet could see us. I sang to him, all the silly songs that I’d made up about him over 15 years. He was the only one that had ever heard them and this would be their final show. We cuddled. His chocolate brown eyes looked into mine the whole time as I stroked his velvet ears.

I can’t share the moment when I had to say goodbye. It breaks my heart now, even after four years.

I was broken. I spent three days in bed. What was there to get up for? I had four panic attacks. I thought I was having a heart attack during one of them. I think that my heart was just breaking. I promised my mate I would go to the doctor. I did. I never told him about how I felt. I didn’t to be a burden. I didn’t want medication. I was in pain and wanted to feel it. But also I could never, ever admit that. I never wanted to ask for help. Me? That’s not what we do!

Before you think, ‘It was just a dog’, that’s not what this is about. Re-read what I’ve written. That dog was my saviour. My reason to get up in the morning. I used to say to him regularly “They call you a rescue dog but just who rescued who?”. He was brighter and better than me and just cuddled.

We all need a reason to exist and being there for someone else is a very bloody good one.

There are tears running down my face as I type this because I will never recover from that great loss. I struggled in the weeks and months after wondering ‘what was the point?’. I swore that I would never let myself get that hurt again, I would never have another dog. It was too hard…

Two months later I adopted a 3 month old puppy. He was due to be put down the following day. His time was up. His photo stared from me from Twitter with chocolate brown eyes and they said ‘I’ll keep the black dog from the door’.

He has. He is. He’s snoring next to me as his younger ‘sister’ snoozes on my feet. I now have a (small) pack who make me laugh every day and  keep the dark clouds away. I’m lucky.

We’re a small pack of rescues and we get each other through.

Be kind when you can.

Care

To be moved from raucous laughter to tears – that in the end I didn’t even try to hide -is not something that you expect in the course of one presentation, and certainly not at a conference but that is exactly what happened when Lemn Sissay gave his keynote address on the second day of the Co-operative College’s Education and Research Conference. I think I wept three times during his speech but as I’ve reflected on it since, as I put myself into the shoes of that scared and confused little boy, I must also confess to tears pricking my eyes again and again.

Lemn shared his story with us. His own personal history, lived through his eyes. In his own inimitable style. It was warm, it was incredibly funny, it meandered through wonderful moments of his life in a magically chaotic, haphazard way interspersed with his lyrical poetry. And then it got very real. He told us his story. The story. His experience of going into ‘the system’ and living, or rather being processed through Care. Care. It’s an odd choice of word really but that’s what we call it. A convenient shorthand but not an accurate one.

The painful truth that we were forced to face… The Care system is failing young people. Our young people. Our next generation.

Our children.

  • 34% percent of care leavers are not in education, employment or training at the age 19, compared with 13% of all young people
  • The average age for suicide if you are a care-leaver is 27
  • Young people leaving care are probably going through major trauma, possibly even PTSD, while trying to cope with all the ‘normal’ stresses of training, finding work, living as young adults
  • 40% of prisoners under 21 were in care as children (only 2% of the general population spend time in prison)

The Care system is failing our children. And failing them massively.

How well do we understand that? How often do we sit and think about it? How often do we talk about it? Or do we comfort ourselves that there is a system that looks after the children that have been failed, that gives them a bed, food, shelter and that’s a measure of our society doing right by them? These are difficult questions that I’ve potentially never asked myself. Not because I’m a careless or uncaring person, not because I’m politically or socially unaware but maybe because I see other issues more often, more urgent (?), more horrifying (?). Every day as I walk past shop doorway after shop doorway with a cold and hungry homeless person sleeping in it I weep and a voice in me screams that something must be done to solve this.

It’s not an excuse. Not a good one at least. But it’s potentially a reason.

But as I heard that story I got a wake up call, suddenly I could see more clearly. This is a disgrace and a national crisis.

“I needed a hug” said Lemn. Those four words chilled me to the bone. I now felt the abject horror I should have already known. It cut through me like a knife. Hot tears spilled down my face without me realising.

“I needed a hug.” Of course you bloody did!

The thought of a child growing up without a hug is devastating. Impossible to imagine. Wrong. So very wrong.

“The most emotional conversation I had throughout my childhood in care was with a care worker who said ‘I have to keep my emotions separate from the job’.” Of course they did. I can hear it. I can understand what they meant and why they said it. But I wanted to scream ‘No!!. You can’t do that, it’s not fair. He needs a hug!’. And then I reflect and I can hear myself saying it. I can understand that processes and transactions are put in place to support care workers, to keep the system moving, to create efficiency and reports and to get the right result. And amongst all that, all the horror, how can you deal with it and take it home and sleep at night? But where is the humanity? Where is the nurturing? Where is the space for children to be children? Our children.

There has been much discussion in recent times about how co-ops can get involved in social care. It’s a great idea. It’s perfect. It chimes with the values and principles of the movement. It’s a great fit with the motivation of the Rochdale Pioneers. Identifying a social need, seeing the gulf of inequality and responding to it. This is what co-ops are about. This is why they’re important. This is why the world needs them.

But when I’ve heard these conversations that I welcome so much, they tend to be about elderly care. Care homes. ‘End of life care’ as it is neatly packaged occasionally. Run in a uniquely co-operative way with the service users consulted and involved, at the heart of the decision making. It’s all good. I support it wholeheartedly. We’ve all heard horror stories about what has happened to vulnerable, elderly patients in homes and hospitals and rightly we’ve been shocked and felt that something must be done. There has to be a better way. And a co-operative way would definitely be a better way of that I’m certain.

But what about the next generation? What about our children? Surely there can be a co-operative solution for them too… Putting humanity, empathy and actual care into the Care system. I would very much welcome a discussion, debate and serious consideration of this from the co-operative movement. We can be the difference. We should be the difference. Who else can or will do this?

Let me tell you a story

It’s National Tell a Story day and though that may feel like an artificial construct does that really matter? Isn’t every day a great day to tell or hear a story? Stories are the magical fairy dust in our lives, they’re a mystical golden chain that threads through who we are, everything we’ve done and the adventures that we’ve been on. They capture our imagination and our hearts and that’s why they’re so powerful.

Storytelling is a fundamental human activity. We create and share stories with each other every day. We carry our own story inside us and can reach in and share an excerpt at any time. The story we carry with us shapes the decisions we make, or don’t make and the path that we choose.

Stories provide a shared narrative for us too, as a community, whatever that community might be. The common folklore that describes and defines our culture and identity.

The art of a good story is that it reaches us emotionally, it makes us think and then take action. The measure is that it’s one that people want to be part of, even if that’s only to share it. The art of oral history might not be as formalised or revered as it once was but our natural human instinct to share will always prevail. We’re all creators. And increasingly we’re all curators. Whether deliberately or instinctively, we read, watch, see and absorb content and we pass it on. We retweet, we share, we copy links into email and text messages. We find things that will touch the hearts of our friends, we see photos that will make our family smile, we see photos that remind us of the people we love and we hit send.

Many times I’ve heard people bemoan social media as being the death of communication, toxic to conversation, a dark, deadly negative place. It doesn’t have to be. It can be a place for our stories to spread their wings and fly.

Values versus value…

cu-core-values

When I decided that I wanted to dedicate my freelance career to working with charities, credit unions and co-operatives it was primarily because these organisations had an absolute fit with my own personal values and would inspire me to do more, do better, be better. What is a greater motivation to get up in the morning and be the best that you can be?

Yes, I absolutely understood that in the current climate there was a need within the sector, particularly given the cuts in funding and the struggle with the onset of austerity that has damaged so many organisations to the bone. I knew too that, as in the corporate world, the first roles to go (and quite rightly) would be in ‘non-essential’ areas.

I was sure that there was a way for me to offer my help, my support and experience.

I knew that there was a need and I wanted to step into that gap and offer a professional service that was collaborative, inclusive and a professional offer at a price that was fair to all.

I know that many people thought I was naive and probably in need of a dose of reality. Perhaps some still do.

What I have learned though is that communications activity, that can add significant value to organisations, is being given to people who already have a full time job. Perhaps they have shown some enthusiasm or commitment for it but they are often struggling to fit it in alongside the day job. I’ve seen people carrying out these ‘side of desk’ roles who are terrified, lost, stressed and even downright resentful. None of these are good for the individual or the organisation.

I now know I can help more than I thought and it’s why I’m proud of the choice I made and the pricing structure I have in place. I refuse to charge overly expensive day rates or project rates for third sector organisations. My view is that you can be fair, honest and offer a quality, efficient and bespoke service at a reasonable rate.

Challenge me on that if you like but I stand by it wholeheartedly.

The resolution will not be televised…

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At the end of a year and the beginning of a new one we’re culturally encouraged, almost expected, to make a set of resolutions, promises to ourselves – and more often others – that we will try harder, strive to be better, give over old habits. Many expect us to declare them from the rooftops, hold them out for approval and judgement, only to then have to turn our blushes and apologetic eyes to the world if we fall short of our grand ambitions.

Surely this is why many see their resolutions out till the end of January (mid-February for those with great will-power) and then abandon them as a lost cause for another year. That doesn’t seem the best model for improvement does it?

I’ve outlined a set of objectives and ambitions for Wochi for 2015, and beyond but – call me pedantic – I’m refusing to call them new year resolutions, that terminology just doesn’t sit comfortably. I believe that in order to succeed we need to be flexible, responsive and agile to change. That’s something that is difficult to achieve when you set out a rigid goal at the beginning of the year without knowing what the year holds.

I’ll share these objectives with you in the coming weeks but as a principle I agree with this quote from Henry Moore;

“I think in terms of the day’s resolutions, not the years”.

That is not to say that the objective and ambition will bend with direction of the wind, it’s the activity required to make the ambition a reality that will have to flex as circumstances change and develop. That’s incredibly exciting and inspiring.

The thing that will always remain steadfast is the bedrock of Wochi; the values that it stands for and the purpose for which it was created. Future blogs will continue to explore these values and how they work in action and I’d love your feedback and views on them and how we can continue to develop further through new opportunities.

For now though I’d like to wish you a happy, peaceful and incredibly successful 2015.

“Write it on your heart that every day is the best day in the year.” Ralph Waldo Emerson