Opening our eyes to the things we can be grateful for

Opening our eyes to the things we can be grateful for

It’s easy to take people and things for granted when we see them every day.  They become part of the wallpaper, like the colours in our sitting room.  We no longer really notice them: the eye and brain no longer pay attention.  And yet that doesn’t mean we don’t appreciate them – after all, we chose them and on both conscious and unconscious levels they probably still give us pleasure.

But the quality of our lives is greatly enhanced when we do stop to open our eyes to those things that we can be grateful for.  As a mental focus it brings great benefit and more happiness.  But little happens in the mind unless we train it to seek out what supports us and gives us pleasure.  Perhaps take a moment now to turn away from this screen and look around you at the items or people who surround you.  What brings a smile to your lips?  What warms your heart?  What can you be pleased with yourself for having created, bought or brought into your life?

It strikes me that if children in schools could be taught this practice of gratitude-awareness they might become less anxious and depressed.  With endless reports of rising numbers of young people suffering from mental illness I can’t believe it wouldn’t help them stay stable and become more resilient if they had their eyes opened to what they can be grateful for.

Perhaps every morning in assembly or in their class they could be encouraged to stop and reflect on how fortunate they are in one way or another.  They might start with three things each day and raise that up to as many as ten or more as they become more aware of what they have that brings them support or enjoyment – whether it be loving parents, friends, good health, a home, the skills or talents they personally possess. Read more →

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Everything has changed …

The miners’ strikes of 1972 caused power cuts around the country. With no coal for the power stations blackouts lasting nine hours were imposed plunging Britain into darkness.

The phrase “Everything has changed …” was a prompt for a 10-minute writing exercise in the creative writing course I am enjoying at The Avenue Centre, Kew, where they offer an amazing array of interesting courses.

Inevitably, in 68 years so much has changed but what came immediately to mind (and with only 10 minutes one has to go with what comes forward!) was how the Algarve area in Portugal has changed, and with it many other areas in Spain, Italy, Greece and beyond.

When I first went back to Portugal, having left Lisbon when I was 4 ½, it was 1968.  I was 18 and visited Lagos, which in those days was a peaceful fishing port.  I remember seeing women washing their laundry in the river and drying it by the river bank.  There were donkeys carrying produce from the market, women carrying water in ceramic pots on their heads, fishermen grilling fresh sardines on small barbecues on the pavement.  Life was poor and basic.

Today areas of the Algarve are full of tall hotels, tower block apartment buildings, bars offering cocktails and large screens to entice football enthusiasts, plus smart golf clubs.  It still  has marvellous beaches and warm welcoming people but the life has changed greatly.

This led me to imagine two different women who had lived through this change.  One who enjoyed the freedom that technology – a washing machine – had brought her, the other who mourned the camaraderie of the river bank and felt isolated and alone in her flat with her washing machine.  I imagined the latter missing the chatter of female friends, the gossip about husbands, children, grandmothers, and it made me think about how with every step of progress there is often something that we leave behind.

On sharing the pieces we had written with the rest of the creative writing class, we talked about what had changed in our lifetimes.  We particularly acknowledged the greater comfort in which most people were living now, that poverty as we describe it today is relative, when so many houses in our childhood did not have central heating, no washing machines, televisions, telephones, dishwashers, nor indoor toilets.  We remembered getting dressed in bed, or in front of a Dimplex heater, because the bedrooms were so cold.  We remembered how the glass of water beside our bed could sometimes have a thin sheet of ice on its surface.  We remembered how cars would frequently break down when you were trying to get somewhere.

Perhaps some of you watched the wonderful Andrew Marr programmes A History of Modern Britainhttps://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b007n1dx/andrew-marrs-history-of-modern-britain-3-paradise-lost The most recent repeat episode was set in the 1960s and 70s, a time when I was a teenager and young adult, and I was struck by how impoverished people appeared.  It showed film of the 3-day week, of factories closing, no electricity so we had to light our homes with candles, rationing of food as manufacturing was down.  Marr spoke of millions of days lost to strikes and of civil unrest.  It seems extraordinary, looking back at it.

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Shaping a positive future

Firstly, a happy new year to all of you kind folk who read my ‘Thinking Aloud’ blogs.  The turning of the year always makes me reflect on what has been and what might be in store in the year ahead.  I recently discovered some mind maps and collages David and I had made as we visioned our future and was struck by how much we could tick off as achieved.  It was a good feeling and reminded me of the power of setting positive outcomes.

However, when I went into our local bookshop in December to buy Christmas books for my teenage great-nieces, I was directed to an area of the shop for ‘teen books’, almost all of which were dystopian.  There were stories of aliens, viruses, robots, environmental catastrophes destroying life and the world.  How miserable, I thought, and not surprising that so many of our young are suffering from anxiety.

I managed to find two books that were more optimistic in tone but it made me think how difficult it must be for young people to have a vision of a better future when all around them is 24/7 news of disaster and uncertainty, digital games of violence … and Brexit!  We have always had dystopian books, of course, and I probably read quite a few of them as a teenager – Dostoevsky wasn’t exactly a song and dance, nor was Camus’ The Plague, nor Kafka’s Metamorphosis.  We had the Cold War, the potential of nuclear warfare, economic instability, and most of Europe dominated by one authoritarian regime or another, and yet our concerns were, I think, tempered by post-war optimism, the rose-tinted view of life portrayed by Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn movies, and not having endless news reports of misery or disaster brought into our sitting rooms from one part of the world or another.  We didn’t have the technology for such things.

What concerns me today is that no one is giving us a vision of a better future.  All we get is the negative and the divisive.  In my experience, both as a development coach and in my own life, I have found that when people have a vision and set goals they frequently achieve them.  If we, as a country, have no aspirational vision, no tangible goals in this muddle and mess of Brexit negotiations, how are we to achieve them?  How are people to know what they need to do to create prosperity and happiness in this country?

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Que sera sera

2019… Que sera sera …

A new birth, my new granddaughter, is a poignant and happy way to end the year.  New life.  It seems like a miracle really.  One minute she doesn’t exist, the next minute she does.  Birth and death and the cycles of life are both ordinary and everyday and yet ultimately extraordinary.

We grandparents can get a hard time from those who don’t have family or as yet don’t have grandchildren.  But there is a kind of secret smile that passes from one grandparent to another, even when you don’t know one another.  You see a grandfather walking with a toddler in Kew Gardens, catch his eye and you both smile, knowing how precious these moments are.

I think because one is older a new young life, bewildered, vulnerable, in wonder and far from understanding (any more than we do!) the complexities of the world they have entered, is potent.  The innocence, the wide-eyed approach to the rituals of the year, whether it is Hallowe’en, Guy Fawkes or Father Christmas is magical.

And as one ages one tends to recognise that family, friends and community are so important when the world outside is in such chaos.  Moving to Kew has brought us into a delightful and inspiring community where almost everyone we meet is volunteering in one way or another, as David and I intend to do now that the house is finished (hurrah!).  We couldn’t be happier in our choice of move and in the people who surround us, and the numerous interesting activities on our doorstep with theatre, film, galleries, talks, the river and, of course, the wonderful Botanical Gardens where we walk almost every day.

Small things make a difference when we can’t seem to influence what our politicians are doing.  But who can predict the long view of history?  I have been listening to Roller-coaster, Europe 1950-2017 by Ian Kershaw and am reminded of the huge changes that have occurred in my lifetime both in how we live and also in political regimes.  The horrors of Hitler and Stalin exposed the dangers of ideologies, and religion continues to divide rather than bring peace to the world.  Living in Communist Poland one might not have been able to predict the freedom they have now.  So how can we possibly predict the future?

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At Mrs May’s Brexit Nursery

… with apologies to Joyce Grenfell    

Children … now come along

I’m the head teacher and so let’s hold hands and pull together.  No, Boris, not that way … this way!

Michael, come along now.  Pull your socks up and hold hands.

David, don’t argue dear … you know I know best.  Come along, all you have to do is put a tick in this little box here – the one that says “Yea”.  No, not the one that says “Nay”. 

Now children stop mimicking a pony’s neigh, that isn’t funny. 

Yes, Amber, Yea does mean yes. 

“Yes to what?” … Jacob, you don’t need to ask what you are ticking.  Just do what I say.  I know best.  It’s for Queen and country.  No-one else seems to have a clue.

Now hold your heads up and play your parts.  No, Dominic, you can’t be a superjet so just sit down and keep quiet.

Boris, do stop fiddling.  Don’t do that.

Oh dear, Dominic, is that a penknife in your hand?  It looks rather sharp!  Why were you coming up behind my back just then?  You had better give that to me.  I shall confiscate it and give it to your Mummy.  You go and stand in the corner straight away, you naughty boy.

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Befriending the black dog

Reading about the high statistics of mental illness, anxiety and depression that we seem to be experiencing in the UK, I am wondering how these conditions are measured today.  I am also wondering, in particular, how well young people are being introduced to the fact that emotions are signals, not something to be afraid of necessarily.

We were with a friend last night who was talking about how she has learnt that when she goes down into a dark mood it is actually signalling a transformation that is often creative. I can relate to this personally as I have spent much of my life trying to avoid feeling glum and doing all I can to stay ‘up’.  But as I have become older and – who knows! – perhaps a little wiser, I am far less afraid of those down feelings and have come to recognise them as helpful messages, possibly to go more gently, to take more time out, not to push against life and be willing to accept some disappointments.  Sometimes the words of a poem will arise from these low moments.

I guess in an era of celebrity lifestyles, Facebook and Instagram, young people get the impression that life should always be perfect.  Rejection, disappointment, failures, mistakes can all take on a stronger impact than they would if one was living in different times when one wasn’t surrounded by images of perfect models and smiley happy people.  But disturbing emotions and experiences are part of human life and we can’t and should not try to protect ourselves from the reality that any human life includes suffering, often as much as it includes joy.

So I was horrified to read that students will be allowed to skip exam topics that they find ‘upsetting’.  Apparently staff at leading universities have been told not to include disturbing subjects in the compulsory part of academic assessments.  The list of sensitive topics in the Sheffield University guidelines includes faith, religion, sexuality, rape, abortion, torture, death and bereavement, as well as LGBTQ topics.

What are we doing in trying to shelter students from these areas of life that are a fundamental part of our human history?  Death and bereavement are as much a part of life as birth: how does it help young people to try to paint them out in case they get upset by the idea?  It seems those who claim to be upset can then resit the exam later… which, I am sorry, call me a cynic, seems like a great excuse for a bit more revision time!

Yes, much of human life, history and behaviour is profoundly upsetting but it is part of the whole picture.  We just reinforce the concept of ‘everything must be easy and perfect’ if we don’t explain the darker side of things.  And how can the next generations work towards improving human behaviour if they don’t understand that throughout history there has been murder, violence, robbery, torture and death?  How can they know the horror of the two world wars if we do not continue to remind them that their grandfathers lost their lives in the mud and therefore wars should be avoided whenever possible?

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The Brexit Ship

After a week of such turmoil I can think of little to say other than to share with you the poem I wrote about Brexit:

The Brexit Ship by Helen Whitten

Buffeted and adrift on a turbulent sea
the anchor is up, the mooring rope cut.
We slip between waves of deceit,
lurch around rocks,
lost in caverns of denial.
The Brexit ship is stuck in a fog
of conflict and confusion.
No direction has been set,
the navigation charts sunk long ago
in the depths of egotism and back-stabbing,
intransigence on all sides.
Which way now the crew ask
to China, India, New York?
On lands far and wide people wait and watch,
scratch their heads in bewilderment.
The captain’s shoulders shrug in despair
no answer forthcoming,
no-one at the helm,
the boat twists and turns
somewhere out at sea.

Hey ho, and so it goes on and presumably, one day, we shall end up in a place of greater clarity!

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Ghosts and Shadows

We’ve been surrounded by skeletons, skulls, pumpkins and zombies this week.  Hallowe’en has really caught on in a big way in the UK these days and here in Kew we had trick or treaters and small children dressed in all kinds of bloodthirsty outfits knocking on our door.  It’s fun and yet far distant from its Christian origins back in 1745 when Hallowe’en stood for Hallowed or Holy Evening, this, in turn, potentially stemming from Aztec, Mexican and Celtic rituals celebrating the dead.

It got me thinking about ancestors and reminded me of taking my granddaughter to see the film Coco last year, a cartoon about a young Mexican boy transported to the Land of the Dead.  One scene struck me particularly and this was the suggestion – a surmise obviously – that once there is no one left on earth who remembers you then your soul loses its energy.  That certainly made me think how quickly one can be forgotten.  I only knew my grandmother and great-grandmother on my mother’s side but beyond that I don’t remember my grandparents at all.

And yet their presence inevitably lives on in my family’s awareness and we are fortunate enough to have a family tree going back to the thirteenth century on my father’s side.  But a family tree only gives names and dates and occasionally place names – one learns little about the person themselves.

My mother always said that she didn’t believe in an afterlife or in ghosts and yet I have had experiences where I had a sense of a ghost, or was it a shadow?  Once, in the dormitory during my first term at Cranborne Chase, of my great-grandmother sitting on my bed.  A quiet shadow, very benign.  Another time a strange moment when I was sure the phone went in the middle of the night and my mother’s voice said “hello pets” in the way she always had … and yet she was dead by that time.  There have been other moments when I have felt someone tap my shoulder when no one was there and these have left me with a questionmark about the mystery of death and what is beyond.

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How do you listen to music these days?

My new car doesn’t have a CD player.  The Peugeot salesman told me it was dead easy – just plug your iPhone into the slot and you have music.  But I don’t… because I have never bothered to download music onto my iPhone.  When I am travelling on the tube I have watched and overheard the incessant sound of music drumming in other people’s ears but never really felt the urge to listen to music in this way.  I have rather enjoyed a little silence.  And silence is hard to come by these days.

But in the car I do like to listen to music and just at the moment I can’t because I can’t get the dratted iPhone to transmit anything that I really want.  Sporadically I succeed in listening to Spotify but it doesn’t seem to work every time and I end up thoroughly frustrated.  In the house we have Alexa and it plays some of the music we want to listen to but again we haven’t mastered the technology enough to get it to play everything we want.

And so both of us look at our CDs and feel nostalgic that they are disappearing.  David’s study is full of his old vinyl records and I can understand why.  I did sell most of mine, except for my Beatles and Stones collection, of course.  And weren’t we told that CDs would last for ever?  But they don’t, do they?  They jump and get stuck just as the old vinyl did.

And so now everything is streaming and, as I sat in a wonderful concert of Chopin Concertos in the OSM in Montreal last night, I suddenly realised that giving music to a loved one is no longer possible.  When my granddaughter started to play the piano I gave her some CDs of beautiful piano music including Beethoven’s Emperor, and my son put them on for her at night to calm her into sleep.  But now their house, like the houses of most of our young, is all digital and streamed and clever and so the opportunity for me to gift a CD of music to her now has gone.  And I realize that this actually makes me rather sad, and a little discombobulated.

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What Makes you Laugh these Days?

I rather despair.  I long for something silly to listen to or watch but I find that so much of the humour is angry, classist, divisive and crass and so I switch off.  I used to enjoy the 6.30 Radio 4 slot but these days the level of humour is so pathetic it just makes me cross.  The News Quiz and the Now Show used to make me laugh but they are just rather cruel these days and very ‘lovey’ and full of anti-posh rhetoric. There’s Live at the Apollo if one can be bothered so stay up late enough but quite frankly after a few months it is all so much the same stuff of lavatory jokes, boring stories about children that what Michael McIntyre made amusing all those years ago has been taken to endless levels of repetition.

I just long to laugh more.  My childhood memories are of our family sitting round listening to Around the Horne or watching Tony Hancock or Morecambe and Wise and collapsing in laughter to the point that my Dad used to have tears streaming down his cheeks.

There was the gentle comedy of the soaps like I Love Lucy, Dad’s Army, The Good Life, Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads, Til Death us do Part, Terry and June, The Avengers and idiotic humour like the Benny Hill Show, Eric Sykes, Marty Feldman, The Monkees, the Likely Lads, the Liver Birds, the Goodies, The Flintstones.  And of course Bertie Wooster and the Doctor at Large or at Sea series.  There was the classic Some Mothers Do ‘ave ’em.  We had so much choice!

The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin was one of the most brilliant comedy series of its day and I am not sure that there has been anything quite as witty since.  Perhaps The Office made an attempt to be as funny but I don’t think it matched up, in my view.

The original fly-on-the-wall Candid Camera could be brilliant but has been played to death.  And It’ll be Alright on the Night similarly ribbed ridiculous moments of theatre and television and made us laugh.

Along came Monty Python’s Flying Circus to take humour into another level of observation and idiocy that was radical and very funny.  Kenny Everett, The Young Ones and Dame Edna were equally radical and equally amusing.  Ben Elton and Victoria Wood combined pathos and sharp wit together.  And I am afraid I loved The Vicar of Dibley.

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