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Scotland it’s time to roll up our sleeves

(My first taxi driver story…)

A few months ago I got in a taxi in Edinburgh to take me from work to the train station. Because I work in government that meant a conversation about politics. It was a bit after the referendum and as is often the way matters turned to that.

When I was growing up talking politics meant talking binaries – left or right, Tory or Labour? But times have changed. We were convulsed as a nation on the binary Yes or No, but in its aftermath something I believe incredible has happened. It was exemplified by the conversation I had in that taxi, for instead of discussing how we voted we discussed how we felt and what it all meant and what next.

My taxi driver told me that the day after the result was announced it had suddenly occurred to him that it didn’t matter what the result was because he’d realised something important. That it wasn’t enough to just vote and then let your MP and MSP do the work. That what he wanted more than a result in his favour was a change in how government worked, and that he would be part of that change making because this is Scotland and we’re good at rolling up our sleeves and changing things. That’s what we do.

Nothing since that day has led me to doubt him. Scotland has changed a lot over these last months. People are as interested in the mechanisms of government, in how we “do” government, as they are in the colour of your ideological belief system. There is an appetite for change, for innovation in the democratic space. But more importantly a desire to be a maker not just a thinker or a bystander of that change, a desire to roll up our sleeves and get on with it. We have a way to go yet in creating the conditions within which that energy can be best directed to effect national level change, but we are on the road.

So what will it take? Many have mused on this of late. My tuppence? Well in my years as a design ethnographer I have learnt two things. First, that effective change (another word for design) starts with accepting that you don’t have the answer and there is an extremely good chance you don’t even have the right questions yet. Second, that once you have the question, the answers can only be found by trying, failing, and trying again.

Whether you’re designing a car, a website, or a system of government, the approach is fundamentally the same – *do* something, assume nothing, let yourself fail, keep trying. My taxi driver was right. It’s time to roll up our sleeves. As Hamish Henderson wrote the year I was born:

Quo life, the warld is mine.
The floo’ers and trees, they’re a’ my ain.
I am the day, and the sunshine
Quo life, the warld is mine.

(from The Flyting o’ Life and Daith)

Still Walking Still Falling Still Getting Up

It’s not the pain, or the bruised ego, or even the distress of realising that getting up is getting harder every time it happens. It’s not the immediate aftermath per se but the experience that is hardest to take. When your body cannot react quickly to anything, falling takes on an unusually unnerving quality. Where before I could catch myself, prepare for the landing, sometimes avoid the fall altogether, now a trip more often than not heralds a slow motion descent from which there is no escape, and an imminent landing for which there is no softening.

With MS when you fall your body is simply rigid and unable to react. Where your limbs were as the fall began is where they are as the fall ends. Which is why stairs cause us MSers such concern. Fall on a stair and there is little chance to protect your head for the landing. At least the “public street fall” usually leaves the head untouched, even if the mind finds the shame as painful as the damage to body. Today it was elbow and knee that took the brunt of the skinning and bruising, and crutch shoulder that took the brunt of the jarring and pulling of tendon and muscle (full cuff crutches are great when you are walking but dangerous as you fall since there is little chance to shake them away as you tumble). Luckily I was in Dundee, a city I have found to be very generous with its fallen.

People in Dundee seem to have that perfect combination of swift, kind, practical and discrete that makes for the perfect post fall assist. Swift because there is nothing worse than lying in a public place as the world curiously passes by (or even worse, over) you and time stretches interminably. Practical as what a fallen person needs is to be asked what they want and then offered it. Not faffed over or have help thrust upon them without checking that is what is actually needed. Kind because, well shocking as it seems a lot of people struggle with being kind to the fallen. Perhaps they think we are drunk. Perhaps they are one of the many who I can only conclude from the frequency of the “angry stare” that a limp or a stick or crutch can elicit from some strangers find disability personally insulting. That one has happened in many places. And finally discrete, because the only thing worse than being ignored or ineptly or unkindly helped, is being excessively fussed over. A crowd of clucking, staring, not helping people gather and launch into the chorus of “Oh are you ok” (Well d’oh… no!) or worse “Is there someone with you?” (Because yes a fallen cripple obviously must have a carer nearby, I can only presume their thinking has gone).

It was a day for falls. Earlier I had been in a cafe when a young mother had stood helplessly by as she watched her one year old tumble backwards off a bench. The paralysed shock that overcomes a parent at that moment is rather similar to the experience of falling with MS. You watch your darling one in horror, unable to act, to save. You cannot do the thing every cell in your body became obsessed with the second that little foetal heartbeat fluttered on the scan monitor. The thing every cell in your body decided it would die to achieve the second you put your head against your newborn’s skin and inhaled. You cannot protect this tiny creature from pain. Some bit of you manages somehow to snatch up the creature, hold it to you, soothe and check and hold tighter and tighter as the enormity of what could have been crashes into the guilt of your role in what was. Hours, days, later the shock and guilt and fear of it all will still crash over you unexpectedly, bringing tears to your eyes.

Watching that young mother this morning, even though it had been years since my tiny creatures had crashed to the ground in front of me, I felt tears rise to my eyes as memories of my past (and present) maternal failings sprang to mind. At home and at work falls and failings abound – real and anticipated. To walk with MS is to risk falling. To live – as a worker, as a mother, as a daughter or a partner – is to risk failing. After all aren’t falling and failing just other words for living?

On many fronts the fear of failing has been especially present these last few weeks. Though as I mused sitting on a wall after my fall this morning recovering myself, I fall because I am still walking. I fail because I am still trying. MS may have eaten away at my equilibrium, may have paralysed or put into spasm key muscles needed for effective and safe walking, but it has not taken it all. I stumble daily but fall less frequently. Perhaps the stumbles remind me to pay attention more, protect me from more frequent falls? My lack of skill in different parts of my working life may cause frequent stumbles, but again perhaps serve as much to protect me from more falls, reminding me to attend better to the things I have managed less well than I should have?

Falling and failing. We are so afraid of these things, so pained when they happened, so fearful of them happening again. By and large I try to ignore my MS, to not be stopped by it. I know every time I walk I risk a fall, but I have to assume (rightly) that most days it won’t happen, or the trip will be light enough to end in a stumble and not fall. When a stumble becomes a fall though, the emotional fall out needs some work.

Initially there is shame and embarrassment. Then anticipatory fear – a fall often precedes a flare up of my MS, though whether causal or correlation I don’t know. Then finally, sometimes a few days later, the sudden sense of the slippery slope again. The recognition of the frailty and temporary nature of “me”. The awareness that as each year passes the me I could have been is further and further away, stolen by MS. The me that is left is less and less able, more and more dis-abled. She now has no choice but to wait for help, to take help, she can’t get off the floor by herself after a fall any more. Her fragility is ever more present. But somehow, magically, so too is her strength.  In the street, at work, at home, she is still walking, still falling, still trying, still failing.

And still getting up again.

The fires of something-ness

I remember about 30 years ago, on the cusp of adult life, wandering through a supermarket with a friend who was shopping. I had no money; I was on the dole and it was the day before “giro day”. My money had run out three days before, my food had run out the day before. I was unable – Scottish small town Protestant upbringing to thank for that – to ask for help, for food. My friend had not asked why I wasn’t buying anything or why I was so quiet. All around me the sights and smells of food had my stomach in turmoil. I wasn’t poor, I had a family I could get help from if needed – a safety net. My hunger pangs would subside the next day when I picked up my dole. I had no sense that this period just before the years of a series of shitty jobs and exciting social whirl that would usher me in too less shitty jobs and less exciting social whirl and eventually motherhood and  into, and back out, a career, was in any way my path, my slippery slope. There was no sense that this in fact was the slippery slope, the path to the abyss from which there could be no escape. No sense that this was utterly out of my control, or that I was without choice or opportunity for change.

My father’s family while by no means monied were solidly middle class. My mother’s family Glasgow ‘respectable working class’ that lived frugally, prided themselves on the solid council houses with gardens they had recently left the Gorbals for, thought conservatively, and went to Church every Sunday. I was hungry and sorry for myself, but not despondent. This was a blip. But I never forgot that blip. I’d remember it in 1992, on a beach near Split in Croatia watching a group of refugees fishing in the sea while the Balkans were on fire and I readied myself for another Kafkaesque day wandering the endless faceless halls of the Split customs office trying to get permission to release a shipment of heavy engineering goods the aid operation I was working for was taking to Tuzla in northern Bosnia. I would remember it not long after that too, walking out of a neurologists office having just been told I had MS already starting the process of denial that would have me back there 6 months later being retold of my diagnosis.

There are moments that let us see our slippery slope and walk away. There are moments that let us see other’s on their slippery slope and walk away. There are moments when we know we have met ours and there is no walking away. However in each the sense of fragility, and weakness, that pervades us stands in such stark contrast to the world of “Bigger!”, “Transformative!”, “Innovative!”.

Everyday we wander through a world urging us to be the best we can be, to climb the ladder, to be ‘something’ (anything, as long as it is something). The finiteness of ‘better’ eludes us, the cost to others eludes us. But more importantly, the cost to self eludes too. Caught in a web of insatiable longing to be something (I’ve known many “someones” for whom their power and status has failed completely to satisfy the need to be special, better, best) we flutter against that trap unaware that we are losing the ability to just be. Though we may have some unease at the loss of ‘just being’, those nagging fears (I am not enough, I am not something) blind us to our inability to connect to others, to see the world as others see it, to be calm and still in our lives. Groups, families, organisations, all can be consumed by the fires of something-ness. Things fall apart, as Yeats said, in the flames of something-ness. Love, compassion, kindness, all that gets lost in something-ness.

Perhaps we are just afraid of the alternative? Perhaps we falsely reason that the opposite of somethingness would be nothingness? Perhaps we forgot that being with, being here, is more important that being something? So at the end of another fun, frustrating and energising week at work, I come home and stop, and watch the clouds, and remind myself that to be something is not the point of being here, and not what we lose when the slippery slope cannot be avoided. Being, not being something, that is the point. Being is what we lose at the end of the slippery slope, not being something. Being with, being here, that is where peace, and calm, and love are found. Being, that is where we truly find each other. Being, that is where we find ourselves.

The dignity of work, not career

It’s so great to see you so enthusiastic and excited, it’s like the old you, when you ran the cafe and were all over the place campaigning about this and that being an activist. You were lost for a while there.

The advantage of knowing people since you were at primary school together is that they can occasionally stop you in your tracks with a reflection back of a you that’s slipped from view. An innocuous chat suddenly casts light on a feeling, an idea, that had been lurking unarticulated for weeks. As he walked away, and without conscious bidding, a phrase popped in to my head – “I’m so happy I have work again, and not a career.”.

I never meant to have a career. I read somewhere when I was a kid that it was important to have a lot of adventures, do lots of things, so you had good stories to tell round the campfire when you were old. I held to that tightly all the through my 20s and a good deal into my 30s. I have some bloody good stories for that campfire when the time comes. But then I got waylaid. I got a career. It was a good career, I learnt a lot, had a lot of great experiences, and it turned out to be a big part of my life, over 10 years. But a career has constraints. It has a ladder that tantalises with promises of reward. It usually comes in an institutional setting of one kind or another – an organisation, a profession, a particular company – that brings a whole Grand Tour of Europe assortment of baggage. There are codes, and rules, and structures to fit in to. There is a constant looking ahead, imagining the next step, the next move. The mantra of ever upward, the lure of ever more (financial, status, power) reward.

A career can happen across many settings, and work can be a series of moves in just one place; it’s not the context that determines whether a job is “work” or “career”, it’s a mindset that we take on what we do each day at work. It’s a sense of what is important and where we focus. And it’s how our natural orientation does or does not fit with the ways we behave in the workplace. Some people can trip lightly through “a career” largely untouched. Some people are crushed and broken by the experience. The career is something that some people embrace and through which they flourish. Some people (*waves*) crash around never quite falling out, never quite fitting in.

When I was younger, I had jobs. Some great, some awful. Some rewarding, some soul destroying. The best of those had a buzz, and an energy, and a sense of mission and possibility and community, that was beguiling. A job is outward facing – it’s about who you work with, what you do, where it fits into the bigger scheme of things. In a job the reward (if you are lucky) is dignity from work and not from career. A career is (too often, not always of course) inward facing. It’s about who you are, how you are, who you are with, how others see you.

I love having a job. I love doing work that has real value, being part of something valuable. I love having a job in a place that has integrity in its bones. I love having a job in a place that has community but without worrying about where I am in that community, without wondering where I will go in that community. I could have a career approach to this of course. But I love being able to do what I think is best for the work without worrying about what it means for my career. I love being free of all that concern about my future.

My old school pal  was right. I am energised again, liberated. I fell off the career ladder and into the kind of work I had lost sight of. Now, it has to be said I am very lucky. For all sorts of reasons I don’t think too far ahead, dream too far ahead. I don’t need to, which is lucky because I can’t. So at least in terms of work I can stay focussed on now, here, this.

But I am also frustrated, because I want this for my kids, for all of us, for it to be a more valued choice. As soon as a kid shows signs of inclination in certain directions a vision of life that is very focussed on “career planning” is dangled in front of them. The rewards sold heavily, the costs massaged out of view. I want the dignity of work and not career to be something we sell to our kids as heavily as we sell the prospect of “a career”. I want my kids to know that they can choose the career path – for that will always be a good option for some, maybe even most. But I want them to know that they can also choose the work path if that suits them better. And they can change from one path to another if they want. I want this for everyone.

The world has changed so much when it comes to employment; the idea of the career is tenuous for many, perhaps most, now. Yet rather than embracing that and thinking about what it really means we invent a new concept – the portfolio career – to avoid engaging with new thinking about how we should employ ourselves. Scotland is engulfed in talk of grand things right now – democracy, justice, equality. Maybe we could add one thing to that list – the dignity of working and not careering?

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