Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Weird dream no 6

Last night’s dream was fuzzy round the edges. There were waves of panic and vague hidden messages. “Look!” I said to dream Bryn. “Look on the wall over there – that is the answer!” Somehow smudgily written on the wall was a word that was the key – I knew it because it appeared mysteriously on the wall, and the rules of Harry Potter-style filmic ritual mean that it was significant. It was a scruffy, browned wall in a derelict sort of room, the kind you might see in a seedy motel on a bleak American highway. We were tossing and turning and trying to figure out what the answer was. The letters of this secret word blurred gradually into view, painfully obscure, agonisingly sketchy. Dream Bryn was asleep and wouldn’t wake up to hear my insistence. I could see it but he wanted to envelop me in warmth and comfort, for me not to be agitated like this. But I knew that if only we could make out the word, we would know the truth.

There was a C, a double MM... an S? Commas? Bishop Cranmer returning dyslexically to send us a creepy message from the hereafter? However important it seemed at the time, I can’t remember the word, or I don’t know if I was ever able to read it. A less Poe-like ending than I would have liked – just an unsettling sense of striving, and the yearning for a simple one-word answer to a question that has many words, moods and emotions, to the extent that I don’t even know what the question is, either.

Thursday, 11 April 2013

Why busy busy busy is a boring boast

A few months ago, I was chatting to a contact of mine  in the Guiding world. "Ooh, I've been wanting to ask you about blah blah blah", she said (it wasn't boring, I just can't remember it). "But I'd heard how busy you were, so I didn't want to bother you." My heart fell at this, and it's been gnawing away at me ever since.

Had I jabbered on so much about how busy I was that not only were people saying "I know you're busy" to me, but they were also saying it ABOUT me?! Had I become so bad at managing my own time that I was starting to get a reputation as a flakey, unapproachable blusterer? Of all the things people could say about me when I'm not there, I was mortified to think that their lasting impression of me was that I was BUSY, and not that I was kind, generous, helpful, someone to look up to or any of the other things I aspire to or would like to be.

I'm sure many will have already seen Tim Kreider's brilliant article 'The Busy Trap' in the New York Times ( if you haven't). I can't help but agree with him that "It is, quite obviously, a boast disguised as a complaint". Look how important I am, you're saying. Look how much I have in my life. Look at all the things that would come crashing down around our ears if I wasn't here, the indispensable martyr giving up my time for the good of humanity. Bow down before me, ye mortals with enough free time to spontaneously visit the local ale house. You are no match for my mighty sense of self-approbation. What a total dick.

I have definitely fallen into this trap. I've shown people my pen-covered diary with a forlorn look on my face. I've moaned to friends that I feel trapped by my schedule. I've complained that people don't realise that a guide leader's job is voluntary and neverending, not paid by the hour. I've felt smug about myself because of this. And deep down, I've felt scared that although my diary is backed up with meetings and engagements, my urge (or ability?) to sit on the sofa eating Pringles and watching endless reruns of Friends means I'm actually fundamentally rather lazy.

Some of it is fraudulent. I am usually the last person in my office, and the security guard constantly gives me the knowing-but-patronising "Another late one for you then?!" routine, commiserating with empathy as he nods how busy he is too, implying "we know each other don't we, fellow martyrs". Sometimes I feel like shouting "YOU DON'T KNOW ME! I'm not like this really! I rolled in this morning at 9.45 and I spent two hours at lunch reading The Vagenda! I'm just making up my hours! I'm going to the pub after this!" I start to resent the implication that life has taken me over, that I don't have control over my time and that an outside force is deciding what time I leave, not me.

Even my dad said to me recently "I know you're really busy", so I said "No I'm not! I just decided not to look at my emails!"

The growing sense that voicing busyness somehow says the wrong thing about me has made me realise two things. 1. These conversations are not interesting for others. And 2. It's all my choice. I have control over my own existence. I decide to do all the things I do, and if I don't like them, I can stop. I have therefore resolved to do two things differently. 1. Not to bore other people with my busy boasts. Enjoy the moment. Embrace their company. Make sure they know that time spent with them, for whatever reason, is something I will give with pleasure and without expecting sympathetic tilts of the head in return. And 2. To take control. If I don't want to spend every evening out and about, don't. Don't make wall-to-wall plans unless I am willing to own them, to vigorously and dynamically embrace them.  Indulgently enjoy moments of pointless downtime. The point is that they're pointless. "The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightening strikes of inspiration", says Kreider so eloquently.

Now that the clocks have changed and its light when I leave the office, even at half past seven, I notice as I do every spring a palpable sense of difference - opportunity and optimism. Somehow idleness, time and inspiration all seem more abundant. And if the seasons can make my consciousness shift like this, I don't see why I can't shift it myself.

I love my life. I believe in the things in it. Simple as that.

Thursday, 7 February 2013

This is why I am a Guide leader‏

There’s been a lot in the news recently about the Girl Guides. Our newly appointed CEO, Julie Bentley, has controversially proclaimed in a press release that Girlguiding UK is “the ultimate feminist organisation”. This has provoked a mixture of reactions, both from Guide leaders themselves, many of whom take it for granted that this is the case (whilst others seem inexplicably repelled by the label, as if it means we’ll be offering a Bra Burner badge any day soon), to the press, some of whom have published some frankly ignorant, lazy and offensive journalism on the subject that made my blood boil rather (this fluff piece from the Torygraph is the main offender, replete with a geeky-looking photo of a Guide that I can guarantee is at least 20 years out of date). And now there’s the promise consultation – the start of a process that may lead to some of the stuff about God and the Queen being taken out of the promise we all make as Guiding members – or at least reworded to make the promise more inclusive for atheists and republicans.

Unfortunately the image of Guiding as a tally-ho, middle class sort of institution is the one that is prevalent – as well as its rep amongst those ignorant of GGUK’s branding, messaging, PR and actual work as a bunch of gimpy God-squadders. The media persists in portraying us as a place where girls are sent to learn to be good housewives and mothers, doing nothing but sew and bake cakes, whilst wearing a pseudo-military get-up and parading around with flags, all of it with a vague implication of hairy-legged lesbianism perpetuated by seedy journos. I also sometimes hear women boast that they were Brownies, but got chucked out of Guides for being too naughty – as if Guiding was about trying to quash their free-spiritedness and individuality. When I wanted to join the Guides as a kid, my mum was worried that I would be indoctrinated into some kind of secty, old-fashioned dogma that would do just that.

As someone who spends an awful lot of time volunteering within Girlguiding, I find it difficult to reconcile these stereotypes with the work I do. Each week before Guides, I feel the burden of responsibility; I don’t want to run a session on domestic violence or challenge the girls to a Ready Steady Cook-a-thon – I can’t be bothered to teach them how to wire a plug because I’ve had a long day in the office and I want to go home and veg out in front of the telly and not think about anyone else’s needs. Then I get there, and experience the enthusiasm and vitality, surreal sense of humour and thoughtfulness of the girls – it cheers and refreshes me, and I remember what it’s all about.

What it’s not about is self-important trumpeting about God or housework or the monarchy. What it is about is getting girls to see that they are not ‘just girls’ – about counteracting the wimpy, simpering girliness that so shocks me when I see it in women of my own generation who think they need men to do DIY and light barbecues and get their Apple products to work. It’s about giving girls and the women they will become the confidence to realise they can do anything if they just put their minds to it – whether that’s getting up a climbing tower, surviving in sheets of unending British rain or becoming prime minister.

To do this, I think real girls need to be encouraged to be who they are, without being embarrassed or retiring about it, or feeling scrutinised or shouted over. That’s why, at least for now, Guides needs to be a girl-only space, without the presence of boys. I don’t believe in single sex schools, but I do believe in Guiding’s philosophy that a boy-free environment is essential to nurture girls and women with guts, and with fire in their bellies and passion in their convictions – girls and women who can use their intelligence to become something amazing.

The thing that motivates me to put in all this free work as a Guide leader is seeing this really happen in my Guides. The Guide age (between 10 and 14) is a crucial time in a woman’s life, and the transformation between a girl’s arrival at Guides fresh out of cute little Brownies to the end of her Guides career is remarkable. Possibly my favourite thing is camp. Camp is actually where we do the more traditional Guidey things (and I love the idea that even traditional within Guiding means feisty, physical outdoorsiness of the type described in How the Girl Guides Won the War) – pitching tents, making fires, grubbing around in the woods and getting thoroughly filthy.

The best thing about camp is that development process in action – seeing girls becoming strong and confident over a week and over the years they take part in camp. To start with, you ask them to bang in a wooden tent peg and they can’t hit it on the head, the peg flops around pathetically in the ground and is completely useless. After a few camps, they’re bashing it assertively on the head like it’s their worst enemy, confidently striding round the tent identifying weak spots where the rain might get in and efficiently dispatching the required peggage with gusto. A novice camper will flap disheartenedly at their groundsheet, unable to grip it or get all their bedding to stay inside it. After a week at camp, they’re wielding their authority over that bedding bundle, rolling an airtight package secured with sturdy rope that would survive a dip in a lake if we ever carried out our threat to test it. New Guides shy away from the wood fires we teach them to cook on; experienced Guides jostle over who gets to feed the fire, knowing instinctively the right balance between control over and respect for the flames.

The point is, they start to realise their strength and ability. They start to realise they can influence the world around them. The girl who flourishes in Guides knows her world is her dominion – she’ll shove her incompetent dad off the barbecue and she won’t let anyone push her around. She’ll assert her place in the world in a way that is confident but compassionate, assertive but sisterly; she’ll be equipped to be the best she can be.

And this is why, in my opinion, Girlguiding IS the ultimate feminist organisation – and this is why I am a Guide leader.