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The Service Lift

She dances on the edge, the lost me. The unreconciled me. Fearless. As I was once. She lives behind the curtain, in life’s backstages, waiting for me…

The service lift. The place where illusions are swiftly dispatched. Out front the hotel is buzzing with guests suspended momentarily in the uniformity of ‘global upscale hotel chain’ style. Daily lives put aside as the fantasy world encourages entertainment of fantasy lives. Like lingering in an airport and imagining all the more glamorous locations we might be going to, hotels encourage us to imagine versions of ourselves more exciting and interesting than the one we carry through most days. But illusions recede with brutish speed as my guide and I wind our way past artifice to artless utility, my guide embarrassed and a little annoyed, unsure of the rules of service when inaccessible spaces force a guest backstage.

It started hopefully. Arriving for an event the thought that there will be no straightforward access route for someone with a disability is just a tiny worry scratching at my carefully constructed illusion of normality. But a few moments of heart sinking search, and the look in the receptionist’s eye as I approach hopefully asking where the lift to conference room X is, shatters all illusions of normality. I know immediately where this will end.

We enter corridors designed not to soothe occupants into a vague sense of being valued (as they truly are, as long as they can pay) but into efficient action. Designed not for lingering but for speed. Staff rushing behind the scenes to ensure the apparently effortless ‘service’ can be provided out front look a little askance as they realise ‘a guest’ is amongst them. Decor stripped of all but the most functional features. A shabby, unloved, space reminding the staff who must use it of who’s who and what’s what. My guide apologises profusely, but there is no sincerity behind the words. Rather there’s a thinly veiled implication that it is me that has created this awkward situation.

Unless you have worked in a hotel, it’s a unknown world to those caught in the chimera of stylish calm out front that most ‘upscale’ hotels strive to create. A guest’s wallet and online hotel review being soothed into compliance by the pampering. Sometimes I make myself better by musing that it’s not just the disabled but VIPs who experience this. Whereas out front I might entertain a little fantasy of being some glamorous globetrotting writer as I linger in reception, on these journeys backstage I sometimes fantasise that I’m a President being hurried along these corridors by my security detail. It helps pass the time till we meet, she and I, in the service lift.

The service lift. Those grotty, often smelly, transports designed for dirty laundry and dishes and and into which the disabled must be herded when access has been forgotten. Inside she gets straight to work. “Forgotten, unconsidered, worthless. Yes that’s it, worthless. Other. Not part of. This is what you deserve, you cripple.” She has not acquired the veneer of civilisation, the politically correct filter, the lost me. She knows where the vulnerable points are and wastes no time going for them. “You don’t belong out there, you belong here with the grime and the smells and the bleak ugliness of it.”

Like so much ‘designed’ for the disabled this access route is stripped of any aesthetic sensibility. Why go to that effort for the worthless? Surely they are grateful for any accommodation, no matter how mean? “Look how kind they are allowing you to come back here. Guiding you. Be grateful, you shouldn’t even be here.” she taunts, revelling in the chance to let rip again with all the disgust and rage she can muster.

By the time I am disgorged into another maze of backstage corridors my sense of a professional, worthwhile, self has been shattered. When we finally reach my destination I look immediately for the toilet. Experience has taught me that I need a few moments alone to compose myself, to recover enough sense of self to re-enter the world of “I’m okay really.” But there’s salt yet for these psychic wounds. There is no toilet on this level, I must either clamber up and back down the dreaded stairs, or reenter the lift.  I decide to spare myself that till biology needs it. I’ve had enough experience now to know that I’ll be able to swallow down this taste, hold the sting of tears in my eyes at bay, recover ‘myself’ enough to get through the event.

Being denied access as a disabled person –  to spaces, to jobs, to experiences, to participation, to pleasure, to beauty, to fun – is not just about equality of opportunity. Lack of access denies self-determination, destroys confidence, comfort and a sense of belonging. It upends all the hard work that disabled people must do if they are to keep engaging with a world that, despite the advances that may have been made (depending on where you live),  still routinely forgets us. The inaccessible meeting venue, the bus driver that can’t be bothered to wait till we sit, the buffet lunch, the standing or walking meeting, the inaccessible website, the open plan office. A world of situations designed for the many that could so easily be made better for all by considering the few. But aren’t.

Why?

Sometimes we forget

 

For someone used to involving herself in political debate I am a little surprised to learn how much I have come to value the enforced public silence of the Civil Service Code: watching, reading and listening to others but not contributing. In the silence I have had time to think deeply about my feelings, my hopes, my fears without the noise of the public fray. I have been able to reflect and root my thoughts beyond the ‘us and them’. Political decisions aside, today I feel a sense of deep sadness that the world of hope through unity I grew up into, surrounded by people who had survived WWII, and even some who had survived WW1, has been so challenged in these last weeks.

I grew up with the idea of Europe as a shining special place that was home to a beautiful idea – that by seeking common cause we could be not just stronger but better, kinder, together. I was 9 when the UK joined the EC. I have known little else. I have spent my whole adult life travelling widely across Europe. I have worked with, taught, and loved people from all over Europe. And I have always regarded myself as a European as much as a Scot.

I know that the vote doesn’t change that, but I woke up today desperate to go to Munich – my German partner and I live between here and there and our future together is now as for so many thrown into doubt. My Facebook feed is full of the sadness and shock of former students and colleagues around the world, and especially of young people who seem stunned and even afraid. We have much to do to pull together in the spirit of that beautiful idea. To reassure our friends, our young people, ourselves, that no matter how you voted, the beautiful idea of common cause in unity against hatred and intolerance is bigger than all of this and can survive regardless.

Whatever the months and years ahead bring I hope very much that the forces of fear and mistrust that sadly played too visible a role in the debates can be addressed. There is much that can be improved in the democratic structures of the EU (as here), and Europe (as here) is struggling with those forces of hatred and intolerance. Regardless of how you feel, the idea of a Europe seeking common cause somehow, someway, is still a beautiful one and I choose to hold on to the belief that out of all of this sadness something stronger and better and even kinder can emerge.

Today also feels like a day to reach out and reassure. To all my European friends here in Scotland, well our First Minister said it for me – you are welcome here. To all the immigrants to this country feeling unsettled or even scared I hope the days ahead will allay those fears.  And to all those whose suffering in WWII gave birth to the idea of the EU, I’m sorry. Sometimes we forget.

 

 

Our places deep with song

Because my mouth

Is wide with laughter

And my throat

Is deep with song,

You do not think

I suffer after

I have held my pain

So long?

 

Because my mouth

Is wide with laughter,

You do not hear

My inner cry?

Because my feet

Are gay with dancing,

You do not know

I die?

– Minstrel Man by Langston Hughes

I was terrified. I’d heard of this place somehow (before the internet was around you always heard about things ‘somehow’). You couldn’t hear the music from the street, only when you pushed at the discrete entrance and started to head up the stairs, so it had taken me a while to feel sure I was at the right place.  Like me until a few days before, late night revellers on Princes Street in Edinburgh in the 80s were  unaware of the transgressions just a few feet above. And though 80s Saturday night on Princes Street wasn’t quite the all night bacchanalia it is today, it was busy enough that I had walked past the entrance several times before I felt safe enough, invisible enough, to dart in.

The sounds from above felt familiar. It was music that had permeated my childhood, so recently fled. ‘D.I.S.C.O.’  was snaking down the stairs and swirling around me, tugging my still frightened legs up towards the sound of bodies pulsing on the dance floor. It was the music I had rejected in my scramble to acquire an identity that shook off my family, my pre-destined path. But this didn’t feel like the upbeat, mindless kind of stuff I had screwed my face up in distaste at when it appeared on Top of the Pops. This music felt hotter, sweatier, more dangerous somehow.

I pushed into the club past leather men dancing eyed by baby dykes in biker jackets, past old school butches courting femmes, past drag queens with wigs and heels lifting them high up above us all like camp angels, and past men and women who looked like they had popped in to sell insurance. Everywhere I looked my eyes my eyes felt rigid with shock at what I saw. Shock not at the difference on display, but the familiarity. Everywhere I looked I saw people living what I felt. People claiming these moments of self realisation not hidden away in some dark corner of their soul, but under the lights on the dance floor. Sure around the edges was a darker space, but this space was not for fearful hiding but for fearless flirting.

Track after track of what I had until then (with the level of sneering contempt only a teenager rejecting ‘the oldies’ can muster) dismissed as cheap music for the masses pulsed through my body, teaching my heart a new and unfamiliar rhythm. The rhythm of family found, not family fated to. The rhythm of familiarity, of seeing out there what I had held inside for so long. Not sanitising and stripping away what made us different – our sexuality – but celebrating it, revelling in it, expressing it. But there was something else. For all the joy, the thirst quenching relief, at being amongst family there was a much darker, more powerful undertone. These were fleeting moments, and we all knew that too soon we’d be back on that street, eyes flicking around for signs of danger, nerves tingling in readiness for fight or flight.

For many of us the events at The Pulse in Orlando seem to have stirred intensely fond and grateful memories of clubs like that. Of how important those havens of comfort (if not cleanliness, the floor of Fire Island sucked you in with years of ineffectually ‘cleaned’ grime) were. Memories of those places where you first saw yourself reflected in those around you, where you could flirt without the fear of attack or signs of disgust that accompanied any such attempt in the ‘straight world’. Where you could hold your lovers hand, kiss, dance, without a second thought for your safety. Or so we thought. So those men and women in the Pulse thought…

It was then, and is still, a ‘straight world’. For all our advances, for all our new found ‘rights’, this is still not my world. I still cannot walk down the street without also scanning for the signs of aggression imminent that all LGBTI people can be subject too at the drop of a hat. As a young woman I used to rage at the stupid, futile, ridiculousness of a straight world that could not simply grow and accept “we’re here, we’re queer, get over it” (as we would chant on that same Princes Street during our many demonstrations). Could not quite accept that I would live my whole life unable to do what every straight person can without a thought – hold my lover’s hand in the street without comment or fear. Yet here I am 30 years later, a lifetime later. And it has not changed. I am still different. The anger still bites at my throat, rage still grips my soul as I contemplate a world so incapable of getting over it. Our difference is still reason enough for many to feel a flicker of discomfort and for some to feel the flame of hatred. Reason enough to gun us down in our dark, safe, life affirming, self realising havens of cheap music and precious freedom.

Orlando has reminded us all that for as long as we cannot hold our lover’s hand in the street safely, places like the Pulse should be celebrated and protected. From Stonewall to the Admiral Duncan to the Pulse they have tried to take them from us – these places where our feet are gay with dancing and our mouths are wide with laughter. They can take our safety, our equality, in the streets and the workplaces and the hospitals and schools. But we will not let them take our places deep with song.

The Adaptable Team: Getting Stuff Done, Together

 

In any organisation the question of how best to get stuff done together exercises many, especially leaders, much of the time. It brings with it a Pandora’s box of further questions:

  • what is our mission
  • what kind of organisation do we want to be, and need to be, and are those aligned
  • what should we do and how do we know if it’s the right thing
  • what skills do we need, and how many people, and how do we organise them
  • what processes should we have
  • how can we motivate individuals and monitor their performance
  • how do we measure success?

 

We tend to stay focused on these questions because they lend themselves to the kinds of abstract thinking modern workplaces value. We can model, and theorise and predict and analyse. Teams are cogs in the organisational machine, people are cogs in the team. We just need to figure out the right arrangement of cogs.

But perhaps we focus so much on these for another, simpler reason? Like every human being before us, we are highly attuned to threats, to danger. The unknown represents the deepest well of threat and danger we can imagine. What is more unknown to us than other people?

In the workplace we often instrumentalise each other in order to contain that fear of the others. We understand each other as functional parts of the organisation and use performance measures, pay grades, job titles, to explain those (frightening) others to ourselves. We understand teams not as a collection of living, breathing, messy human lives but as collections of skills to be applied to tasks and measured against performance metrics. After all, how else are we to achieve our goals, deliver on our mission, honour our vision?

And yet… despite the miles of books written on teams and team working, the endless TED Talks and Harvard Business Review articles, for most of us the daily experience of team sits on a spectrum of vaguely ok but insecure and unsatisfactory at some existential level through to downright awful.

Having worked for over 30 years in a huge range of different organisations and roles, I decided to look back at specific, detailed moments of times when I felt truly happy in a team and the team was successful. Not at the experience of team x or team y across time, just at particular moments when the idea of getting stuff done together seemed to be most fully and happily realised for me and the team.  As I reflected I noticed a pattern in the times that popped into mind, illustrated in this account of one of those moments.

The sun was happily turning my pale Scots skin a shade of red to rival the dusty red ground of the UN base in Split, Croatia. The convoy of lorries that had set off a few days earlier from Edinburgh was waiting for us. Tools, generators, water pumps, all manner of heavy goods were soaking up the heat. A small band of us were there to get the goods onto the lorries that would take them to their final destination – Tuzla in Northern Bosnia.  A team of us from the aid organisation I worked for was supplemented by a few others. I don’t remember where they came from though I think a couple might have been from other aid organisations we hung out with, and perhaps some of the squaddies we had all got to know. (Our leader Magnus Wolfe Murray was, and still is, one of those people with the ability to inspire people to help regardless of their connection to an organisation or task.)

We didn’t have much time to move the goods, negotiating their passage through Croatian customs had been tricky and we were wary of any delays. Winter in northern Bosnia is fierce and displaced people streaming out of nearby Sarajevo would need winter proof shelter if they were to survive.  So as we stood in that fierce midday sun it didn’t occur to me to ask why we were doing this in the hottest part of the day. Just as the truly herculean task ahead (we had no special lifting gear available, this was to be a manual transfer) was simply a given, not be questioned or worried about. We started.

It didn’t take long for sweat to start pouring , muscles to start aching, blisters to start stinging. We naturally fell into roles that suited us, though they bore little resemblance to any previously labelled roles. The heavy lifters taking time over the larger challenges, the sprinters who could move smaller items monotonously quickly, the organisers checking inventories and customs paperwork and seeking the optimal final securing of items. Time slipped from view as task after task after task was achieved. We had a clear end point to get to, a timeframe which was less comfortable than ideally it might have been, and a set of circumstances which aggravated rather than ameliorated our challenge. I do remember a steady stream of feelings of satisfaction – another task achieved, another piece of the puzzle placed.

Suddenly and without fanfare we were done. In every sense – task, strength, heat exhaustion. Magnus suggested a river in the forested hills above us. We jumped into a jeep and headed off with no discussion. There is nothing as cool and welcome as a forest after a herculean task in the heat of midday. Eyes bathed in the dappled light, skin delighted at the cooling shade, exhausted muscles dangled in the cold mountain river. A little cafe (in previous times, and probably again now, this was a tourist destination) served up wine and bread and cheese. Everything about this was designed to delight our senses. We ate, swam in the river, laughed at the madness of our task, and gradually fell quiet. The job was done. We had done it.

There are a number of key elements of this story that I find in many of my best experiences of getting stuff done together.

Knowing What Needs Done
There was a shared clear sense of the endpoint, the goal. We knew what needed to be and the bigger picture our task was part of.

And Knowing Why It Matters
For each of us that work was clearly and directly connected to our wider mission – to help ensure the the Tuzla area was habitable for locals and displaced persons during the Balkans War. Nothing in the work felt contrary to or distant from that mission.

Goals Ahead of Roles
Though we all had nominal ‘official roles’ we also had a strong sense of each other – our strengths and weaknesses – and a trust that we would all adopt the role best suited to getting the task done together and not the role best suited to us as individuals or the role suggested by a job title.

Porous Boundaries and Flexible Roles
As in almost all my best team moments the team was not in its ‘usual formation’. There were co-opted team members around. As the day wore on people flexed roles in order to accommodate needs and abilities. As people became exhausted they would take the breaks they needed or take up a role that allowed them to recover.

A Leader Who Protects
Protection comes in many forms. Knowing when to find extra help, knowing when to organise versus when to step back, and knowing how to help teams recover from intense periods.  Team leaders are often encouraged to focus on individuals – helping, rewarding, developing. But that day Magnus exhibited a rarer and less valued ability – to protect individuals by protecting the team as a whole.

Team and Not Individual Achievement
Going to the forest together as a team allowed us to quietly acknowledge to each other that we had achieved something, and that it had been hard for us. There was no singling out, no special praise. The reward was for the team as the team had achieved the goal.

I started this post by suggesting that team thinking in organisations could benefit from stepping back from the abstracted view of team members as ‘parts of the machine’. But when I look back at my warmest memories of team work ‘I’ seem to be in the background and team in the foreground. So what is the point I am trying to make?

Well, it goes back to the idea of the messiness of life and people. Anthropology, music, art, literature all exist to flesh out what accounts of human beings as rational, functional, organisable entities miss out. The reason accounts of the actual lived experience of work are so much longer and more confusing than process models and organograms is adaptation. If there is one thing that human beings are, it’s adaptable.

We flex, and fudge, and massage our way through life everyday. We have too. The world is too unpredictable, our knowing too limited, our ability to forecast too faulty for any fixed, formal system to work. ‘I’ disappeared in that experience in Split, and in my account of it now, because of that very adaptability. Though the conditions of that task seemed unfavourable, that was only from the point of view of the fixed and formal work world. In the messy real work world, we had almost perfect conditions to unleash our natural instincts to work together in adaptable ways:

  1. A goal that stretched us as individuals and as a team
  2. A good reason for the task (tight connection with mission)
  3. Adversity – enough to make it tough, not so much as to make it impossible
  4. Familiarity plus – a core that knew each other well enough and a few others
  5. Good leadership – protected the team, rewarded the team (not individuals)
  6. No organogram to answer to – freed from the need to account for ourselves against a fixed model only, or the need to single out individual contributions.

 

As the parent of any small child born in the last 20 plus years in the UK will know, “Can We Do It? Yes We Can!” is the cry of any team that has ever had to step beyond the organogram to get stuff done together. The challenge I have for any organisation is – do you support the Adaptable Team or the Organogram Team?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Being. With. Now.

IMG_0039

So it was true. It does pass in a flash: your childhood, your youth, your children’s childhood. One minute it’s 4am at Leith Docks and you and your friend are hanging out watching the sun come up, stretching out the last bottle of beer, singing songs and dodging drunks. Your jeans are torn and your hair shaved and your fingers stained by the cheap rollup tobacco you smoke, wilfully ignorant of how much you will regret that. Then suddenly you are in the same place 30 years later, only now the only thing that has you awake at 4am is insomnia, and this is the place you work and not the place you wander, wonder, love, dream. Now it’s a place you pass through, not really attending to the traces of all those paths taken and untaken. Mostly.

You didn’t know it then, but you were to be lucky, you stumbled through life picking up enough weird experiences to learn a few life-saving tricks. You’ve learnt how to be here, now. Not all the time. Not always when you wish you could. But often enough that life’s challenges and disappointments and grief can be nursed more gently than might have otherwise been the case. You learnt how to switch off the chatter in your head “What do I do now, what’s in this for me, what do they think of me, what happens if I…?”. The endless narcissistic angst that litters our minds, like the detritus defacing city centre streets in the early hours of a Sunday morning. You learnt how to still the memories that seem to shout so loudly so frequently now. You learnt how to turn up the intensity on seeing, hearing, feeling. A series of near death moments (weirdly one every decade, a pattern you hope stops this decade), a professional turn, a love, all helped you hold and practice this skill.

Was it always there, that knack? You remember that time in Loch Awe, on the little island your family holidayed on so often? You roamed all day like a character plucked from Swallows and Amazons. Climbing trees, exploring overgrown gardens from the time when this island was home to a wealthy man’s Gothic baronial fantasies. Adventures were everywhere on this little island, parents calmly unconcerned as you were alone there those precious weeks. You’d explore and craft and swim and forage until exhausted you would collapse on the ground by the crumbling wooden jetty. Lying there on the grass, staring at the sky and listen to the water and the trees and life above, around, and beneath, you sometimes found yourself crying from the being-ness of it. You felt, without words to express it, that this being-ness only really came when the sense of connectedness came. As you lay there overcome by feelings of togetherness with the land and the sky and the water and everything around you, you knew that to be with was to be now.

A few years later, freshly out in the world, you’d feel the same sensation as you watched an old couple struggle against the fierce Edinburgh winter rain. Bent into the wind, legs dragging as if through mud, you suddenly felt so with them, so in their moment, that your heart filled with an unexpected love for them. It came easily in youth, that sudden sense of being-ness and connectedness. In adult years the frequency dropped as life and money and worries and career and all the things that hide the simple being-ness of life buffeted you like that fierce Edinburgh wind. I thought of all this today as I sat on my uncle’s chair. A simple wooden chair he used in his study. A couple of hundred years old, its surfaces rich with layer upon layer of wax and care, its arms rounded from the thousands of hands that have run along them. Without thinking about it, I knew it was a time to switch it back on. Feeling frustrated with myself and life, my past and future living selves noisily tussling in my head, I switched it on without even noticing.

How grateful I am for all the adventures and (far more numerous) misadventures that led me here. If I had not had those reasons to hold and practice that youthful skill would it have died? I shudder to think of that, since I have come to understand that those moments are what protect us from the damage that living in the past or in the future inflict upon us. Living in the past it’s hard to avoid guilt, shame, envy, bitterness. Living in the future breeds anxiety, meanness, fear. But to be here now is to be with, and to be with is to be at peace, to be open, to be free. It provides respite from our past and future living selves, those screwed up creatures endlessly obsessing on their inevitable faltering and failing. As our struggle through the wind gets harder and harder with each passing day, that sense of Being, With, Now, is like the hand of our loved one helping us along the road. And so frustrated, defeated, tired me creeps off into the corner and my Being, With, Now self enjoys the chance to take the stage again, if only (as she knows) for a little time.

 

 

 

 

“What Do People Do All Day?”… She Said.

scarry-ship

I talk to myself as I write. I try not to. I work in an open plan office and lovely as my colleagues are I’m not sure I want them to hear all of my various trains of thought as I write. But I find it increasingly hard to write without doing this. I don’t always and for a long time I didn’t at all. It’s one of those things you learn to lose as a kid keen to become an adult.

I was reminded the other day of a time when I was little, about 3 or so. My parents had given me a book called What Do People Do All Day? by Richard Scarry. I was in love with that book. I mean really in love. When I wasn’t with it I was thinking about it. Longing for it. When I was with it I couldn’t take my eyes off it. I would lie on the floor in the little office of the hotel my parents ran, swinging my legs behind me, staring and staring at its pages. I’d run my fingers along the edges of the book, onto the cover, noticing the different feel of the thicker, harder, slippy material. Sometimes I would just drop my head down a little and inhale. Once or twice I feel asleep on it and woke with the warm smell of its pages in my nostrils and amazed that I could just open my eyes and be back in the story. When I was with it I felt so happy, because when I was with it I was there, in that world.

The book was a series of beautifully illustrated scenes of an imaginary town, American, populated by ‘people’ who were in fact animals – pigs and dogs and cats. It never occurred to me that they were cats dressed as humans. They were just people. Neither human nor animal. I didn’t need that distinction. I drank in every scene in the way I imagine many kids now disappear into a video game. I was there in those scenes when I was reading. Actually I couldn’t really read when I first got it, in fact I kind of taught myself to read using it. If any of the staff or either of my parents came in I’d ask ‘what’s that?’ and point at a word I couldn’t guess. When they told me I’d quietly repeat it over and over. The sounds felt strange in my mouth, I’d notice how my tongue and lips made different shapes, and some words or phrases, Fire Engine, for example, made me feel like something was happening. I began to notice the power of words to make us not just think but feel.

I would make up stories in my head to fill in where I couldn’t read the real story, or later when I could read, to add extra layers to the stories. When I started to write my stories I would speak them aloud, I suppose to help me spell the words. But there was also something comforting about hearing what I was thinking. The whole body engaged in what we try really hard as adults to convince ourselves (at least in Cartesian Western cultures) is the province of the “mind” alone. Years later I’d be reminded of that, listening to Glenn Gould play piano and hearing that lovely humming noise he would make as he played, so much part of the pleasure of those recordings for me.

It’s that comfort that causes me to speak aloud now, I think. A few years ago during a bit of a weird relapse of my MS I lost my inner voice. I was standing outside and suddenly realised that I was talking aloud to myself about a plane flying overhead, and then in the silence as I stopped, realised that there was nothing inside my head. Where for most of my adult life I had been used to a constant inner chatter, now there was nothing. It was one of the most unnerving and unpleasant experiences I have had with MS. I struggled to read (till I realised if I read out loud it was easier). Watching a film or tv was almost impossible. Without the chatter writing, in fact life, became lonely and frustrating – where was my friendly inner voice playing around with ideas and telling my fingers what to do? My inner voice came back in time, although never quite the same, I had to get used to a new me in there. And she goes through phases of quieting if I am fatigued or having a bit of a flare up. The quieter it gets, the louder the external voice. It’s a little odd but in the grand scheme of things not really a big problem.

And sometimes, if I am not around other people, it’s nice to feel words in my mouth like that again. The connection between movement and sound and hand and sight and thought all made open in the world again, just like I remember. So though I sometimes wish that chattering old me was back inside my head again, I also appreciate the comforting and absorbing bubble that talking as I write creates, a good place in which to dream and wonder – what *do* people do all day…?

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)

A Young Woman’s Fear, A Young Man’s Despair

me shaved headWhen you are female, 23 years old and nearly six feet tall, standing on Princes Street in in Edinburgh in 1988, with a newly shaven head and clothing selected to clearly identify you with the lesbian tribe you have so enthusiastically found, you learn a lot about anger and its roots.

There we were loudly protesting against the State’s latest assault on us as equal members of society, legislation being proposed (later passed) to prevent the “promotion” of homosexuality in schools. We were a small group on that first protest, it was the 80s and gay liberation was still a tenuous concept in Scotland. And there they were: the women with alarmed faces hustling children by, the men with snarling aggression looking for an opportunity to pounce but frustrated by the public setting, the good Burghers with a mixture of disgust and pity in their eyes for the brief seconds they caught yours. Clinging to our signs and to each other, we found community and identity in those times, the anger we absorbed pulling us ever closer together. It didn’t make the difficult conversations with family, or the moments of terror as you realised the jeering voices behind you were getting closer in the late night walk home from the clubland you had minutes earlier been happily forging your sense of self in, any easier. But it provided some respite, some space to grow a bit stronger, to learn some new tricks.

Fast forward a few months. It’s late one night, you and two friends are in the gay café (this was before the acronyms became more inclusive of the rainbow’s diversity) you have recently set up. We were closing up after another eventful evening. Yet again a gang of young local men had gathered outside to harass the customers as they came in. Usually you pulled down the shutters and waited till they tired, a lock-in without the party. This night was a little different though. Perhaps it was the cumulative effective of bricks through the window and the indifference of the authorities to the frequency of these gangs on the door step over the previous few weeks – but this night you and one of your friends decided enough was enough, and faced them, angry and tired of it all. In the heat of that exchange your friend randomly pointed at one of them and suggested that he was gay himself: an attempt to turn their contempt and hatred on themselves. Random and totally false… or so we thought. But here he was, soft now, all that earlier aggression displaced by drugs and despair. You know right away there is no danger here, and that there is a story to be told. Through slurred words and mind, he manages to tell us of his friend, of the man he loved. Of his life and the impossibility of being gay in his world. Of his wish that he could live another way, be someone else. And of his grief, since his friend, his love, had died beside him of a glue overdose. We listened and sympathised and then he left. We never saw him again. I have no idea what happened to him. But I learnt something about hatred that day. I learnt that besides fear, and hatred of self, sometimes it’s just overwhelming sadness that has no outlet that stirs it up.

Shame and the grief that often comes with it, the result of the kind of identity inequality that comes when we deny others the chance to live their authentic selves, these are the roots of hatred and anger every bit as much lack of education, or of financial inequality, or direct assault. We stoke shame, promote inauthenticity, at our peril. The world has changed a lot since I listened to that sad young man’s story. But authenticity is still hard to achieve. Our public narrative may be of equality, but words cannot save us from shame. It needs concrete actions. I’ve been reflecting on this a lot the last week as I watch just such concrete actions in my workplace, praise worthy of course, but I can’t help wondering if beyond my workaday world, in those pockets of deprivation and despair that still exist all over the world, things really have changed.

Would it be different for that young man now? I feel a little ashamed myself that in the busyness and challenges of my own life (especially those related to my latest identity, as a disabled person) I have forgotten to wonder about that, and I have resolved to find out. To not let myself forget how important it is to protect and nurture the advances we have made, and to be sure that those advances are spread equally through society.

She had no idea what would become of her, that girl on Princes Street. She’d have been pleased I know that she managed to live up to the Huron native American saying she’d picked along the way – “You’d better live an interesting life or else you will become a boring old woman with no good stories around the campfire.” But she would be ashamed too I know, to think that she lost sight of that young man and his despair.

Carpe diem, Scotland

IMG_0135It’s not what time heals, but what it reveals, that occupies my mind these days. For of course time does not heal, not really. It might soothe, or mask, or obfuscate. But healing, true healing, how can that be? The concept of healing implies some ‘perfect state’ from which we have been rent asunder, and to which time returns us. But there is no perfect state, there is simply ‘what we make of it’ at any given point in time. There is simply the day ahead.

We had a national ‘rending asunder’ here in Scotland last week. A moment when time slowed as we all approached and then departed a crossroads. Stay or go. Status quo or the unknown. We chose to stay, we chose the status quo. In the aftermath a sense of shock seems to have descended on all sides – yes, no, and don’t know. But there is something else too. For all the talk of reconciliation and healing, there is a sense of the unrealism of that idea. There will be no healing, as the state from which we came is gone. There can only be a revealing, and (hopefully) a renewing as  we all finally understand what was at stake, what we actually voted on, and in the case of 55% of the population, in. Armed with new insight we address our challenges anew. We look ahead with new eyes, we act with new imperatives, we understand with new knowledge and insight. As our disappointment or elation withers the newness of this starts to make itself felt. We have moved from the unknown to the known, from the anticipated to the understood.

Exactly one week before the vote, I turned 50. And today, I ‘celebrate’ the 20th anniversary of my diagnosis with multiple sclerosis. As Scotland woke up to its new reality, I couldn’t help reflect on how easy it is to hide from time and her revelations, to assume that time will stretch out endlessly, and that ills will be healed. At 50 I find myself reflecting daily on how precious not time, but what we do with it, is. I ponder on my younger self, pre-30, so innocently unaware of the preciousness of her health. I long to be able to tell her to enjoy (as she only rarely did as an adult though frequently did as a child) the physical achievement of bounding up stairs two at a time, of running through a forest, of swimming with grace and ease and speed.

I did, now and again, as an adult enjoy my simple physicality. I remember in the cafe I ran with some friends in my early 20s I would often become suddenly aware of how fluid and efficient my movements were as I rushed about gathering dishes, washing, drying, restocking on busy days. I remember as a child running, illicitly, around on rooftops enjoying the sensation of moving lightly but at speed to avoid detection. I long for that freedom. I have since the day I was diagnosed. I struggle to balance the remembrance of such embodied joy with my attempts to haul an awkward and pain ridden body through life. I struggle to forgive myself my innocence. I shudder as I remember as a young girl watching a man who walked with loudly slapping flat feet. How horrible, I thought, he looks: I congratulated myself on my smooth and easy gait, blissfully unaware of what was to come.

We have so few chances to renew ourselves in life, beset as we are with the constant battle against encroaching enfeeblement. MS has sped me along that route faster than I might have expected. I walk like a 70 year old on a good day, a 90 year old on a bad. So I know perhaps better than some my age that as we get older the cost of our renewal gets higher, and the opportunity to simply stay where we are becomes more falsely attractive. I leapt into the unknown myself recently, perhaps more keenly aware of the cost of staying put than I might otherwise have been had the sword of Damocles not accompanied me these last 20 years. But that same sword also gave me more reason than many to ponder the wisdom of walking away from a secure and permanent job as a 50 year old with secondary progressive MS. I leapt nevertheless.

I woke up last Friday to a Scotland that in the end decided not to leap. The wisdom of that choice time will tell. But the costs time will not heal. For all has changed now. A vote for the status quo could not, in the end, really be for the status quo for the vote has upended the Scottish people’s values and laid them out on the floor to be mulled over and reviewed against the backdrop of a process that has energised the spirit of democracy in this country. How it plays out we cannot know. But that change is inevitable, well that we all (yes or no) now know.

Time cannot heal, but it renews our sense of self and future, it prods us to embrace change, and it reminds us that after all we can only ever go forward. So at 50 and with 20 years of my journey with MS behind me, I, like Scotland, am looking forward with new eyes and new knowledge and new hope. I’ll never bound up stairs two at a time again. But there are other ways to embrace my physicality and time reminds me to seize them, to seize the day, as I hope now my country will. Not the day the 45% had perhaps hoped for. Not the day the 55% had perhaps expected. But it’s the one we have. Our day.

Carpe diem Scotland.

Poets tell our heads what our hearts already know.

All these weeks thinking about death, looking away from you, scared to summon up the remembrance of you. I forgot my Shakespeare, my darling Norman. But Maya’s passing reminded me that poets tell our heads what our hearts already know. I remembered my Shakespeare, and I remembered you.

You taught me to ask “why?”. You taught me to ask “why not?”. You taught me to look beneath. You taught me to look beyond. I ache every day without you. I celebrate every second I had with you. Dear friend, it’s true of course…. sorrows end in sweet silent thought of you.

William Shakespeare, Sonnet 30

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste:
Then can I drown an eye, unused to flow,
For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night,
And weep afresh love’s long since cancelled woe,
And moan the expense of many a vanished sight:
Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,
And heavily from woe to woe tell o’er
The sad account of fore-bemoanèd moan,
Which I new pay as if not paid before.
But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restored and sorrows end.

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