Knowing What To Make Of It

Make the most of it they say. They grow up fast. This time will soon be a distant memory. And yes, I know what they mean, and I know they mean well. I find myself looking at photographs of our baby from twelve months ago, unable to believe how much has changed. It’s a fact: my child is no longer a baby. He doesn’t fit in the carrier anymore. When he sees me put my shoes on for work, he doesn’t get sad. No, he points and says “ca-ja”, so that I don’t forget my coat. He still needs me and his dad, but less so and differently. Believe me, I know that time goes fast.

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However, I am always reminded of an acquaintance of mine who asked me, when my son was only a few months old, if I got irritated by people commenting on how fast the time goes. She joked that there were plenty of days when hers were babies that could have gone faster. That comment was a breath of fresh air. Because, like every stage of life, the reality is that there are parts that there’s no making the most of. There is nothing enjoyable about nappies, for example. In my son’s memory box, there won’t be pictures of me or my husband at 4 am, wandering around the flat, humming softly while our insides scream with tiredness.

It doesn’t matter what stage you’re at in your time on this Earth, the make the most of it mantra fails to consider the nuances of living. It sells happiness as a choice, but I am not buying it.

It’s not just parenting either. There are lots of times we are told to embrace the moment when it’s not that easy. Take university, the freedom and possibility is a double-edged sword; it’s a wonderful time of chance, but also a time when the future is unsure and daunting. I will always be grateful for that time. I recognise it was a privilege. But it was a lonely time. It was a scary time.

Now I am safely in my thirties, I see young couples, and I too think: enjoy this time, this freedom, this youth whilst knowing it is not that easy. I have no idea what challenges they face, despite their apparent lack of responsibilities and carefree smiles. They could be without a job, living through an illness in the family, wanting marriage or a family of their own and unable for whatever reason. We are all masters at hiding what is going on behind our eyes.

Yet, I can’t dismiss the call to embrace the positives and look on the bright side. However, I think it is something we have to learn. We have to be guided by experience to really see what matters and what is worth making the most of. Otherwise, we just end up feeling guilty for not being happier. (Telling a new parent, on their knees with tiredness and questioning every decision that they should cherish every moment is only going to make them feel worse, believe me.)

In the end, I have learned that it comes down to treasuring what matters: the “adventures” my son and I go on; the comedy-drama that is lunchtime, sharing beans on toast followed by bananas and peanut butter: or the quiet moments, when it is me and my yoga mat, my book or my absolutely-the-last coffee of the day. In doing so, I build up my resilience for the harder times. The times when I am tired and frustrated and feel like I am failing. The times when I am pulled one way by work and another by family.

Oh yes, I am treasuring this time. I am making the most of these freely-given cuddles. I am aware of the privilege it is to watch him grown up. Already too many things are a distant memory.  But I won’t feel bad for feeling bad sometimes. I won’t feel bad for finding parenting hard or frustrating. And I say the same to you, in whatever “make the most of it” phase you find yourself. Make the most of the times that are worth making something of. Appreciate what you have and forgive yourself when you don’t feel like making something of everything.

 

Not My Alternative

 

Yesterday, I was confronted by a poster that said: immigration is a privilege not a right. It was facing one way from a lamp post and the other side, in the same red and blue, was equally confronting: Islam does not belong in Germany. The smaller print was rallying people against those seeking asylum and arguing for a ban on a full veil in public. You might be wondering where I was. A rally like that in Charlottesville? An exhibition of fascist posters? No, I was at the tram stop in Weinheim, a beautiful, prosperous town less than 20 km from Heidelberg. These posters were the Alternative für Deutschland’s (AFD) election campaign material. This was no political satire. There was no subtlety. This was cold Islamaphobia and anti-Immigration rhetoric.

These posters aren’t aimed at me. Despite having enacted my right to move between EU countries, I don’t think I am the kind of immigrant that the posters seek to attack. Looking at me, you wouldn’t know I wasn’t from here. As such, it would have been easy to ignore the posters, to turn up my nose in disgust, perhaps, but easy enough to forget about them. But, they hit a nerve.

They hit a nerve and now that nerve aches. For me, moving to a new country was both my right and a privilege. For people seeking asylum, it is not a choice or a privilege to leave their home, but surely it should be a right. A right to escape from war, poverty, and fear. The idea that these people, who have suffered untold harm, should see their situation as one of privilege not only baffles me, it disgusts me. There is no equivalency between someone like me, easily hopping from one country to the next and someone who has risked their life to arrive in Europe. Yet, one of us is allowed to do so freely and without burden and one of us treated as an alien, made unwelcome by such groups as the AFD, and burdened beyond description by horrific experiences.

Yeah, it was just a poster I saw yesterday,  yes, this group doesn’t have that much support, and sure, my reflections on it will make not one iota of difference. Yet, watching the recent news from America, hearing the UK talk about hard borders and restricting the movement of people, and seeing election campaign material on my doorstep that calls out groups in society and makes them other scares me. Racism and xenophobia should be an anachronism of the year 2017 and yet they seem to be a sign of the times. In an age where information is at our finger tips, we seem more ignorant of the truth, and in a world where it is possible to talk to friends thousands of miles away, we are becoming more and more isolated from the people around us.

These posters aren’t just something I can ignore. They need calling out. Even if it makes no difference. Even if no one hears or listens. Because change should be positive. Alternatives to the status quo should mean change for the better. Anything else is unacceptable.









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Saving The World, One Jam Jar At A Time

10 year old me was going to grow up and save the world. Sensitive, even then, to the news and with an acute awareness of right and wrong, my younger self was all set on becoming an eco-warrior, a UN Peacekeeping mission leader, and a provider of food and water for the starving. All at the same time. And all by the time I was twenty one.

If I could travel back in time, my first stop would be to sit down with that ten year old and explain a few things. The first thing I’d do is tell her to hold on to those ideals, however jaded the world makes her, however impossible it seems. Then I’d apologise. I’d apologise for giving up on those dreams in my twenties, for taking the easier and more selfish path at times. Finally, I’d thank her. I’d thank her for always staying with me, for nagging me quietly and poking me gently to remind me of that girl who’d stare out the window long after bedtime wondering why everyone couldn’t just get along.

At 31, I’m no closer to changing the world than most of my generation are to becoming astronauts or space cowboys or whatever else 80s babies dreamed of being. I got jaded, selfish, and, of course, realistic.

But more and more lately, I find that that ten year old girl is nagging more and more. Partly it’s my own maturity, and partly it is because the next generation of my family is being born and setting a good example has never seemed more important.

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Idealist, young and with no idea that hair straighteners would come to be a treasured possession.

But how? Where to even start? If we can’t single handedly change the world, how do we make a meaningful difference? How can we make changes that matter?

From the environment to conflict, from modern day slavery to the abandonment of refugees in need, there are no shortage of areas where change is needed with no obvious solutions that any one individual can offer up.

So, I figured out one thing. The only way I was going to keep ten year old me happy was to keep her ideals and mix them with a measure or two of a thirty year old’s pragmatism. And I was going to do this by having young me help older me make choices. Because that’s all we have as individuals. We can choose to do or not do things. We can choose things that contribute negatively, neutrally or positively and live with the consequences.

So I started making some different choices. None of them make me a saint. None of them make any great difference to the world in any real sense. Some of them remain bad choices. However, in thinking about what I do, I hope to live a little better than I used to.

So what are these choices?

Number one – meaty decisions

I cut down on the amount of meat I eat. It can be hard to tell people that I don’t eat a lot of meat for environmental reasons because, frankly, you don’t want to sound like a pretentious arse. However, it hasn’t been a big deal. I don’t make anyone cook vegetarian for me. I still have meat sometimes when in a restaurant, and, since I got better at meal planning, not everything is cheese or mushroom based.

Number two – pack it yourself

We eat a lot of lentils and chickpeas. A lot. A couple of tins of each a week and that adds up to a lot of packaging. However, more and more “packaging free” shops are cropping up. I just checked out the place in my town and love it. Take your own boxes, stock up on dried goods, don’t use new packaging. Win, win. Of course,  it takes time and effort. I won’t promise to never buy another tin of chickpeas again (there’s the pragmatist), but when I don’t have to, I won’t (there’s the idealist).

There are loads of other ways to cut down on packaging from taking your own travel coffee cup out with you to carrying reusable bags for buying fruit and veg at the supermarket or even just picking brands with less packaging. One person making these changes has no impact. Lots of people making these changes does.

Number three- get new habits

The clothing industry is a pretty evil one. Fashion is fast and the reality for those making a lot of our clothes is bad. This is the trickiest of changes to make. Just finding out where clothes are made and how well companies treat their staff is tough. Plus, alternatives to high street shopping are hard to come by and often very expensive. There are a couple of changes you can, however, make.

  • There are some good websites that let you research stores based on what matters most to you. A bit of research never hurt anyone, right?
  • Have a collection of sites that sell fair trade/environmentally friendly clothes and sign up to their mailing list- that way you know when there is a sale on. Some of my favourites are: Ethletic, Armedangles, Mayamiko, and Monkee Genes.
  • Consider second hand or organise clothes swaps with your friends.
  • Realistically, accept that it’s not always feasible to make the best choices. Many fair trade manufacturers are really expensive for most of us. I still go into H&M and I still sometimes buy things I don’t need. But if I can buy less and buy some items from better sources, it’s a start. If we all did that, we’d move forward faster. It’s a team effort.

Number four – Jam Jars

And we get back to my inspiration for this post. Jars. Just like this one:

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Meet my new glasses, storage jars, vases, snack pots and etc. Every time I go to throw something away, I decide if it has another use. (Or ten year old me does). So instead of going out and buying new glasses, I made some recycled ones. Instead of buying containers for going to the packaging free shop, I made some recycled ones. It’s kind of dumb and it’s kind of silly, but it is also just another simple choice that means I’ve bought less stuff. I am good with that.

My future has turned out nothing like I imagined when I was ten years old. I haven’t made any of the contributions she dreamed of making. I never will. What I will do, however, is try and keep her as a conscious, guiding me through choices that might not change the world for the better, but at least won’t make it worse.

Me and her, we’ll take life one jam jar at a time.*

*confession: they are actually peanut butter jars, but for reasons of artistic license I chose to say jam because it sounded better. 🙂

One Conversation At A Time

It’s nothing but a cold, stone building on the outskirts of the city. It’s surrounded by similarly unattractive buildings that house companies, workshops, and various nondescript businesses. On a Saturday morning, the area is desolate. Tumbleweed all but blows down the street.  Yet there is one building, on what could be the world’s blandest corner, that transforms from an unwelcoming, chipped, white facade to a place of activity and people. The big doors to the storage area are peeled back early as orange-vested volunteers pull out racks of coats, boxes of toys, and cartons of shoes. Others wheel out bicycles and prams. All of it is second hand, of course; all of it pre-owned and pre-loved.

The Red Cross’s local store is getting ready for business.

At 10 am, early bargain hunters have been gathering for a while, stamping their feet against the biting German winter, eyeing bargains, eyeing things they need. Then the doors open and in they file. Many of them need something specific. Many of them know there’s likely to be just that one pair of shoes in their size. Parents come for the third week in a row, trying to find a winter coat for their child who just won’t stop growing.

And I sit, in my spot, in my orange vest with my German Red Cross badge, ready to help. There’s not so much to do on a quiet day. I sit, I show people where to find things, I tidy up a bit, and I talk to people. And through the talking, I learn. Through the listening, I make connections and I start to understand a little better.

For all that seems wrong in the world, a little talking can go a long way.

Through broken German, some English, and plenty of gestures, I learn about places from Ghana to Bosnia. I chat with a lady who tells me she first saw fingerless gloves like mine on a bus conductor in the UK. I play peek-a-boo games with kids waiting patiently (and impatiently) for their parents to finish searching. Many of the patrons are refugees who rely on places like the Red Cross to get supplies. Others are local Germans, searching for a bargain. Many speak German, others English, some neither.

Language isn’t always necessary anyway. Watching two men look up at a photo display documenting the Balkan’s conflict of the nineties, I don’t need to speak their language to understand their conversation: Recognition. Sadness. Regret.

Having spent just a few meagre hours in this place, I’ve learned a lot.

We live in a world that feels more and more divided. Problems seem to be getting bigger and bigger. Politics is more divisive than ever. People are more polarised than ever. And it’s harder to know what to do about it. It’s easy to feel powerless.

But we can talk to each other.

We can try and find connections with the people around us. We can reach out to people on an individual level and find out what we share. From the lady who loved that I was English to the man who is also expecting a baby and in need of some maternity clothes for his wife, it’s incredible what you can find to talk about, where you can find common ground, even in places where you least expect it.

In a world where too many people talk of building barriers, conversation is the best way to knock these barriers down.

In a world where fear of the unknown is used to breed more fear, listening is a way to neutralise these  very fears.

Of course, it’s easy to level accusations of naivety at thoughts like this. Go ahead. But when I don’t know what to do, when I feel scared about the state of the world, I’m going to go ahead and keep talking to new people, keep finding out about their lives, keeping working to make connections with as many people from as many places as I can. Because we’ve all got humanity in common and all too often we seem to forget that.

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We – Better Together

We, it’s a great word, isn’t it? It means that at least two people view themselves as connected, part of something bigger than themselves. From husband and wives, to residents of the Earth, we all use we all time and it’s brilliant!

I love being we: we, my husband and I; we, my school; we, my family; we, my friends; we Heidelberg. Using we is a comfort, a clear sign that I am not alone.

There is one we , however, that I refused to be part ofI will not accept Nigel Farage standing in front the EU and saying “we want our borders back”  and be part of that we. He can not say that and presume he is saying it in my name.

That we appalls me and embarrasses me. In the last week, I have been forced to squirm uncomfortably as incredulous non-Brits question me on the decision we made. Despite it being clear which way I vote, I am still part of that we in their eyes.

However, that we, who want their borders back, as Farage claimed earlier today, is not me. That we is not 48% of the UK. That we probably doesn’t even represent many of the people who voted Leave. (Both sides are victims, it must be said, of some unfair umbrella-ing).

Part of me wants to rant and rave, stoop to name calling and foot stamping, but that won’t get me very far. Instead I will write here, clearly and simple: I am not part of that we.

But I will be part of a we that stands for international cooperation with the good of all at its centre.

I will be part of a we that stands for tolerance and equality.

I will be part of a we that is against racism and bigotry.

I will be part of a we that promotes honest politics and condemns the politics of fear and lies.

I will be part of the we that wants the future to be about people and prosperity, not imaginary dividing lines and sovereign flags. The we of the past did all that, and it failed.

It’s not clear yet if the UK is too far down the Brexit road to Bremain. It seems like the divorce is unstoppable. Whether it is or it isn’t, I strongly believe that people have to take this opportunity to build groups of voices united by positivity and demand that those people who take we in vain be held accountable.

Are you with me?

 

Word is Getting Around

On why I am still banging the mental health awareness drum…


Growing up, I didn’t really know that mental health was a thing. I knew I had to eat healthily and do sport. I was told that I shouldn’t smoke or drink too much. As far as I was concerned that was how to be healthy. I didn’t associate checking and worrying, intrusive thoughts or panic attacks with health. I didn’t have the language to talk about anxiety or compulsions. People could be a bit OCD if they had a tidy bedroom or all the cans in their cupboards facing the same way, but it was a badge of honour, a demarkation of organisation, rather than a problem. (As well as being a terrible misrepresentation of what OCD is.)

Thanks to a supportive husband and family, good healthcare, and time, I learned about mental health and learned that, like physical health, it is not static. Mental health isn’t a label or a diagnosis; everyone’s mental health exists and changes. Like colds span from a sniffle to deadly flu, different mental health conditions also exist on a spectrum. We readily accept differences in physical health. It is important we do the same with mental health.

And we have made great leaps forward.

 I am delighted to see mental health getting column inches and am glad to be part of it, in whatever small way. Just this week, The Secret Illness project has got coverage in The Independent and Bustle. I am proud to see my stories appearing in these articles. I don’t think it’s more important than other issues, but it is an issue I have worked hard to understand. It is an issue that, by understanding more, I’ve been able to become happier, and importantly, healthier.

I don’t want to preach or get into political correctness. I can live with people using the I’m a bit OCD without understanding it – I mock my own ‘mentalness’ as a means of coping with it – but I do appreciate that some people find that hard to stomach. That is why mental health awareness is important. It is about understanding and appreciating to support those around us. More importantly, perhaps, it is vital for taking care of our own health.

I am grateful for my mental health awareness. I can safely say it has changed my life. I can only show my gratitude by sharing my experiences for those who might be interested.


Recent links about The Secret Illness, to which I’ve contributed:

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This picture has nothing to do with this post. It’s just nice to see a heart in a cup of coffee.

 

Harboured Feelings

Harbours are magical places: places of economic, social, political and nautical history. Places that were often dirty and smelly. Areas of hard work, grit and grime.  In many cases, they have seen rejuvenation and growth into areas of modern commercialism. Take Liverpool, Hamburg, Sydney, these are places steeped in history that are today extremely vibrant and popular tourist attractions, while remaining working and functioning ports.

 

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The Iconic Sydney Harbour Bridge with tourist and cruise boats, going about their business.

Harbours and ports are, first and foremost, places of comings and goings. Sites where goodbyes and hellos are cried, shouted and steeped in emotion and significance. They are the places of the conquered and the conqueror, viewed very differently at different times by different people. Perspective in port cities is not to be underestimated.

Today I learned about Sydney harbour. Not by walking around its beautiful inlets with shops, bars and botanical gardens, not by noting the lines marked by brass plates showing the past shore lines, but in the grey rain at its nautical museum. I learned of European settlers, making remarkable voyages for the day, forcing out native peoples with horribly dramatic consequences. These were stories I’d heard before of course, a chapter of my own country’s history I struggle with, but learning about it in situ is different.  I learned of people transported against their will. I heard of Indonesians, rising up from their homes in Australia, being supported by Australians, to gain independence for their country.

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Photo taken at National Maritime Museum, Sydney

I learned of Japanese brides, separated from their husbands, arriving, finally in Australia to reunite their families. I learned of Europeans, talented individuals, escaping the horrors of the 1930s and 40s to come to this land, arriving at this very port, to freedom and welcome.

Immigration, arrival, legality, and welcome are all words that can be used to describe almost any port with differing levels of praise and judgement over the last two hundred years.

History is a complex web, and one to which I don’t feel able to do justice. It is fascinating and in many great nations the places where people have been able to come and go, or not as the case may be, have lead the way to making countries what they are today.

That aside, harbours and ports are also places of great beauty, where lands can be seen from the inside out and outside in, where people gather, where life bubbles, ebbs and flows with the tide that dictates it.

Yes, there is real beauty in this city. There is fun and style and wonder. Yes, before I get accusations that I am doing Australia all wrong, I will be spending much time sitting in the sun – should it ever reappear – with a cold glass of wine and hopefully some barbecued  sea food, reading and chatting. However, inspiration comes in all shapes and sizes, and forty eight hours into this trip, this land down under has already provided food for thought, even if it is in ways I didn’t expect.