Thursday, 19 December 2013

Kindness is for life, not just for Christmas

"Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around" Leo Buscaglia

Remember my blog post about Jim and Stella, the lovely old couple I met during rather unfortunate circumstances?
Today, Jim came into my work to deliver a Christmas card. Sadly, I was out at the time so I missed him but he stayed for a wee while and chatted with some of the Nursery staff. He still can't talk about what I did that day without getting emotional. I had absolutely no idea how much it meant to him that I helped Stella and it’s very touching to know that my small offering of kindness has gone so far, that one act of compassion could have had such an impact on two strangers' lives. I really didn’t really do much but it was enough that I cared.

Christmas is a time when we show love and compassion towards one another. It’s a time when even the most frozen heart can thaw, even if it’s only for a little while. I wonder why it is that we wait for this festive season to demonstrate that side of our nature. Wouldn’t it be lovely if everyone was like that all year round? I was not shocked to discover that two people walked past Stella that afternoon as she lay, shaking and bleeding in the road. However, not being shocked by such appalling behaviour is in itself shocking. How sad to think that we have come to expect so little from our fellow human beings, that it no longer comes as a surprise that some are capable of turning a blind eye to the worst suffering.

I know it’s a cliché but how wonderful it would be if we could only extend the love, forgiveness and compassion we feel during the Christmas period and to do it, not for reward or personal gain but simply because it was the right thing to do. It needn’t be a grand gesture that makes the difference, it could be something as small and as simple as a smile, a sympathetic ear or stopping when no-one else has. 

Sometimes it feels like we live in a world full of people who couldn’t care less. Try being that person who couldn’t care more. Beginning now, treat everyone you meet as you would like to be treated; offer them all the love and empathy you can muster, spread it like gold dust and in doing so perhaps a little of that gold dust may cling to your hands.

I love this time of year partly because of the coloured lights, the chocolate and the exchange of presents but mostly I love it because it brings out the best in people. Christmas seems to wave a magic wand over everything, turning us into better versions of ourselves; it’s the time of year when people are reminded that they are here for something other than themselves. My wish is that we could bottle some of our festive spirit and sprinkle it liberally over things throughout the year. It's a schmultzy thing to say but this Christmas let us open our hearts as well as our presents. In the words of Charles Spurgeon, 'Carve your name on hearts, not on marble.' 

Leave nothing behind but goodness, be kind, live well. Happy Christmas Xx

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Just a Silly Phase I'm Going Through

“Youth and regret, here alone. Bright and joyful celebration.”

What’s a girl to do? It’s the story of my life that I should develop a hopeless crush on someone who is totally uninterested in me. I wonder what the odds are of falling for someone who feels the same way back? Slim to zero I reckon. It’s a miracle that anyone should ever fall in love with anyone else. Surely we should all be single entities, floating around on a lonely planet, colliding occasionally but never actually connecting. In fact I’m beginning to think there’s more chance of my fridge sprouting wings and flying out the back door than me enjoying a mutual connection with someone nice. 

It’s not a big deal. I’m fine on my own. Really. But I have to admit, it’s not like my hopeless crushes to last this long; normally they fizzle out when I realise they’re not going to go anywhere. But for some inexplicable reason I feel different this time. It’s hard waiting around for something that might never happen but a whole lot harder giving up on it when you know it could be something special.

Saturday, 7 December 2013

A Daring Adventure

“When I look back now over my life and call to mind what I might have had simply for taking and did not take, my heart is like to break.”  ~William Hale White

Today the family watched my niece in her Christmas show. It was all very sweet but there were a few moments where I had to avoid eye contact with my sister for fear of us both sniggering like 12 year olds – you know that bubble of laughter that builds like gas inside your stomach before erupting at the most inappropriate moment? I had to swallow that down a few times during the hour. Some of the singing was buttock-clenchingly awful but as I sat there enduring the din I felt guilty about judging these kids. After all, at least they were up there giving it a go. You wouldn’t catch me singing on stage in front of a couple of hundred people unless there was copious amounts of red wine involved. So, bless their cotton socks, they were trying their best and nobody should ever be ridiculed for that. Furthermore, they looked like they were having the time of their life and let’s not forget, it’s not the winning but the taking part that matters.

When I think about myself as a youngster I feel sad that I never expressed my talents for fear of failure. Or lack of confidence. Or lack of encouragement. Or…who knows what? All I know is something prevented me from choosing the paths that might have taken me to great places. Frustratingly, I had it all inside me. I could’ve been a brilliant singer or actor. I was extremely creative and spent many hours writing plays, choreographing and singing. I had (and still have) an incredible gift for remembering lyrics. But all these things took place in the privacy of my bedroom, or in the bathroom, singing into a deodorant bottle, imagining the tiny flowers on the wallpaper was a rapturous audience at the London Palladium. I perfected the thank you speech for my BAFTA at an early age and I truly think, with the right guidance and an injection of self-confidence, I could have achieved that dream. In fact, I could have achieved anything. But sometimes it’s easier to not try. Sometimes it is easier to hide away, to let other people take the risks and to let life pass you by. Years of having a thick layer of protective fat really saw to that.

We often make the mistake of thinking that opportunities are going to spring up and hit us in the face. For a long time I imagined meeting the man of my dreams in a museum or a library. Like a scene from a Rom-Com, I would play the part of the ditzy, misunderstood character who bumps into the handsome geek as we browse the artefacts from ancient Egypt. Cue the moment where the music kicks in, we’re both completely awestruck and spend the rest of the day strolling through parks and sipping hot chocolate whilst discussing life and love. I now know that is never going to happen, not least because I rarely get the chance to visit museums nowadays and the last time I spent time in a library I stumbled across a strange man doing something very dodgy behind the Historical Fiction aisle.

Opportunity can be difficult to recognise. It doesn’t come with flashing lights and alarm bells attached to it. Sometimes it is subtle to the point of being invisible. Opportunity surrounds us but it rarely falls into our laps; we must go out and grab it with both hands. A wise person once said, “If opportunity doesn’t knock, build a door” but that takes time and effort. It can also involve hurt and humiliation. But the other option is to never try and that simply isn’t an option.

I am raising my son to believe in himself. I desperately want him to recognise his qualities and to try his best, even when he’s not very good at something. I will guide him in his interests and I’ll tell him he’s gorgeous every single day, because that is the truth. Judging by the deodorant/hairspray fumes that waft from his bedroom every morning – enough to stun a small horse! - he perhaps believes me a little too much. I have always encouraged Junior to be the best he can be, to try his best and to never judge others when they try theirs. I will endeavour to raise him to take appropriate risks, even if that means certain people laughing at him or making fun of his efforts. Even if that means failing miserably or falling flat on his face and even if that means taking the giant leap of following the person of your dreams on Twitter only for them to immediately ask you to unfollow them. Life cannot be lived fully without risk. To play it safe and to never put your dignity on the line would only result in a life unlived. It’s worth remembering that with time the hurt doesn’t hurt anymore. Only regret does.

I still suffer from debilitatating nerves when I give author talks but I have never opted out of any because of this. There’s something exhilarating about feeling the fear and doing it anyway. Not only is it a gigantic “fingers up” to all the people who ever doubted me but it’s also a reminder that I am as good as the next person if not better.  I remember my first gig at the Edinburgh Book Festival, where I presented my novels to a fully booked auditorium, filled with children from all over the country, some of whom had travelled an entire day to see me. The pressure was huge and as I watched over 250 eager children file into the venue I thought I might actually die of fear. But the second I started speaking, the nerves disappeared and were replaced with an immense feeling of peace and pride.

I wasn’t alone on the stage that day. In the shadowy corner, just behind my right shoulder, I felt a strange and unexpected presence. A ghost of a girl, sitting in a chair, quietly absorbing the words coming from the mouth of the woman she would become. She was wearing her favourite burgundy dress, tied at the waist with a black belt and her hair shone chestnut under the lights. It was me, aged ten. It’s an extremely difficult moment to try and put into words without sounding seriously unhinged but I held that moment in my hand, brilliant as a star, fragile as a bubble and at the end of the gig, just before the lights went up and the children prepared to leave, I turned to my younger self and smiled a smile that told her, “We got there in the end.”

Saturday, 23 November 2013

Hometown Memories (Part Two)

Previously, I was talking about health and safety during my childhood (or lack of it!) I’d now like to revisit a blog entry from 2009, some of which I’ve tweaked for the purposes of this post.

Health and Safety didn’t exist in the 70’s and 80’s. British Bulldogs, a game we played during break-time at school, resulted in many broken limbs, missing front teeth and black eyes. Despite this, there was never a need for playground supervisors. We just got on with things without adult intervention. And it's a miracle that any of us managed to escape Mad Cow Disease after being forced to eat those horrific beef olives for school dinners. They looked like turds wrapped in boiled socks, cunningly disguised under a mound of lumpy gravy and mashed potato which had been served up with an ice-cream scoop).
I distinctly remember my Primary 6 teacher clapping with glee as a fellow pupil stood up to show us all her party trick, which involved shoving a liquorice lace up her nostril, pulling it out of her mouth and yanking it backwards and forwards like she was drying her back with a towel. We all thought this was mega cool and not one single member of staff intervened to tell us otherwise. Those were the days!
The best example of 1980’s leniency towards health and safety was my Dad’s generator. Intrigued? Sounds like something out of Doctor Who, doesn’t it? Well that’s not far off. The few times I have ever dared to raise the memory of the Generator in front of my childhood friends has resulted in the room suddenly turning icy. This is usually followed by an eerie silence filled only by the sound of tumbleweed rolling past. Some memories are best left buried.
The Generator was one of a kind. I had never clapped eyes on one prior to 1981 and I have never seen one since. I still have absolutely no idea what the purpose of the device was (other than to torture small children), although I have a vague recollection of it having something to do with my Dad’s job as a telephone engineer. Basically, it was a small, black plastic box with a handle on one side and two long (rusty) wires sprouting out of the other. One person was supposed to turn the handle S-L-O-W-L-Y while the victim - sorry, willing volunteer - held on to the wires (one in each hand). If this was done correctly, a mild electric current, not dissimilar to pins and needles, could be felt in the palms. My Dad thought it would be a great idea to take this contraption into school and to use it to demonstrate the physics of electricity to a class of nine and ten year olds. Actually, it was a brilliant educational experiment which involved the class standing in a circle, linking hands. The person at the beginning of the circle would grab hold of one of the wires and the person at the end would hold onto the other. Ta-da! Everyone would experience the tingle of current flowing through their hands, hence grasping the important message that human beings are excellent conductors of electricity. Now, in a controlled environment with a sensible adult supervising, this was a terrific lesson (unless you were unfortunate enough to be standing next to John Galbraith who not only spent most of his time with his finger up his nose but who also had incredibly sweaty hands). However, in the wrong hands this small plastic box was a lethal weapon. It certainly gave kiss, cuddle and torture a whole new meaning!
Only once did I agree to hold the wires when asked to do so by someone who shall remain nameless. I had a hopeless crush on this boy and was therefore putty in his hands. He lured me behind the coal bunker, another dangerous place where we liked to explore, despite the desperate pleas from our mothers who had to deal with our filthy clothes in the days before spin cycles and Vanish washing powder. He cruelly led me into a false sense of security by initially turning the handle very slowly. Delighted with the attention I was receiving from him I happily allowed him to speed up a little. By now the pleasant tingle had been replaced by a prolonged stinging sensation. A small crowd had gathered and were goading him to go faster. There was an evil glint in his eye as the rotations quickened. I didn't have time to let go of the wires. I can still remember, with horrifying clarity, the whirring noise of the generator. I can almost feel the hot, searing pain that shot up through my arms and neck before making its way back down to my burgundy Clarks sandals. There was a smell of singed hair in the playground for days after. The whole experience had a nightmarish quality to it - the boy’s evil laugh as his cheeks reddened from the exertion of turning the handle, the jeers of the baying crowd and the horrific realisation that no matter how much I wanted to let go of the wires I simply could not open my fists. When he eventually stopped (and believe me, it felt like a lifetime before he did) I remember trying to smile to cover my embarrassment but in truth I fought back the tears until I got home. It was my first realisation that love could hurt. Despite this, the hopeless crush continued well into my teens.
The Generator made me popular - for a little while. I took it into school a few times after the coal bunker incident but we got bored of it when no-one was willing to take a turn holding the wires. Something better, more exciting and equally as dangerous probably came along and the Generator would’ve been relegated to the back of the garden shed, the one my sister and I decorated with blue and white gloss paint and posters of Bananarama. It’s nice to still laugh about the Generator with friends who remember it as clearly as I do. Perhaps every childhood contains an object that to an outsider may seem of no consequence but to the rest of us holds much more significance. To those of us who shared the moments it created, the Generator will always trigger vivid memories –  and not always good ones!

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Jim and Stella

I was walking home from work this afternoon and to my horror I saw an elderly lady sitting in the middle of the road. I ran over and as I got closer I realised there was an awful lot of blood on her face.  I fumbled for my phone as I tried my best to comfort her. Her husband came from nowhere, himself rather shaken, and explained that she had taken a tumble whilst walking to their front door. He had left her alone to park the car. It was clear that he was in a deep state of shock. I dialled 999 and offered as much information to the emergency services and I could. By this point another member of the public had arrived and was helping the old man lift his wife off the cold ground. It was heart-breaking to watch her shuffle up the driveway, clutching her nose with a blood soaked handkerchief. Whilst I was relaying information to the emergency services, the man managed to tell me his wife was called Stella and he was called Jim. He couldn’t remember how old Stella was; just that she was born in 1927. I did a quick bit of mental arithmetic for the nice lady on the other end of the phone. Jim explained that Stella had Alzheimer’s and that she had forgotten to take her walking stick out with her.

Once I'd finished the phonecall, I let myself into their house where I found Stella sitting in the living room, teary, shaken and disoriented. Jim was in the kitchen so I made sure she was comfortable and warm. I reassured them both that the ambulance was on its way. The heavy bleeding had stopped (much to my relief) and I could now see a nasty gouge down the entire length of Stella’s nose. She already had the beginnings of two black eyes and her top lip was torn. There was blood all over her coat and, more poignantly, the paper poppy pinned to her lapel. I took her hand in mine; tissue paper skin as cold as marble. I could feel her shaking like a baby bird so I gave her hand a gentle squeeze and she started to cry. Jim left the room to get the shopping in from the car. It struck me as odd at the time but I realise now he probably needed a moment to collect his thoughts. I shouted that he should leave the front door ajar so the paramedics would get in easily. He was worried about the house getting cold, especially with the rising cost of electricity. I pulled the blanket up over Stella’s legs. She started opening up about how much she loved Jim and how lost she would be without him. She told me this three separate times, the exact same words with the same passion. I had to fight back my tears every time. 

I learned a lot in the time it took for the ambulance to arrive. I learned that Stella was the youngest of seven children and that she hated her name, blaming her mother for running out of ideas by child number seven. I told her (truthfully) that it was one of my favourite names and her face lit up.
“It means star,” she said, proudly.
“Well, today you really are a star,” I replied, “a falling star.”
She laughed.
I learned that Stella and I share a birthday – 45 years apart. I learned that she is at the horrible stage of Alzheimer’s where she’s aware of her decline and that she often forgets her own name. I learned that Jim, aged 93, cares for her by himself, doing all the cooking and household chores. He never complains. I learned that they have been married for 65 years and have one son (who they refused to let me call in case he worried.) I learned that even in an emergency people feel the need to offer you tea and that it is possible, even at the ripe old age of 87, to have the most beautiful, bluest eyes in the world. 

Some people bring out the best in us and make us forget, for a few minutes, that the things we think are vitally important really aren’t. What is important is love. I witnessed love in action today and I found it deeply moving. Love can be beautiful but often it’s messy and painful. Often it’s about sacrifice and staying together even when things get ropey. And love is always accompanied by fear. I saw that in Jim’s eyes as he watched the white handkerchief turn a vivid shade of crimson. 
Here was a couple so devoted to one another that at times it was difficult to see where one ended and the other began. I joked with Stella that I wished I could find a man like Jim but I know in my heart I won’t. I don’t think love is built to last like it was when they met back in 1947.

When the paramedics finally arrived I knew it was time to leave. Jim couldn’t thank me enough for sticking around.  Stella held her hand out to me. Her blue eyes twinkled but this time there were no tears. And this time it was her who squeezed my hand. She thanked me for helping and apologised for the blood on my trousers. I hadn’t even noticed. I told her to take care and to remember her walking stick the next time she left the house. 

I had a little cry when I got home. It was probably a mixture of delayed shock and the emotional roller-coaster I’d been on. It was sad to think that at some point in the not too distant future either Jim or Stella will find themselves on their own. How unfair that will be after all those years, all those shared moments, the laughter, the tears, the sacrifice. 

True love is a quiet thing. There are no thunder booms and flashing lights. The real meaning of love is absolute loyalty, acceptance, allowing yourself to be be vulnerable. Love is what is left over once being in love has fizzled out. Perhaps that is not as exciting as the initial firework display but the beauty of true love is that it’s long-lasting and unquenchable. Above all, love is a bit of a mystery. You can’t go looking for it; it has to find you.