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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.

Because Orlando.

Shock, then sadness, now anger…

Why does LGBTI equality matter? Orlando. 
I’ve been afraid for my safety, my life, my career, and more recently for all that again for my kids, for as long as I can remember. I’ve been fighting for it for as long as I can remember. I am still not equal. I am angry, and tired, and angry I’m tired and tired of being angry. 

Equality matters because without it bigots feel authorized to walk into a gay club and gun people down. Equality matters because without it people feel authorized to throw gay men off buildings, ‘correctively’ rape lesbians, forcibly sex change gay men, and throw transgender women into male prisons to be brutalised. 

Equality matters because there are people right now here in ‘Europe’s most LGBTI positive country’ who feel afraid to be out, who are harassed and discriminated against. Equality matters because if not here then where? Equality matters because if not us then who? Equality matters because for all our advances in Scotland too many of us still experience prejudice or feel afraid to be out at work

Equality matters because we are not equal. Not yet, not always, not all of us, not everywhere. Equality matters because laws and rights don’t guarantee it. Equality matters because Orlando.  

It’s not over till it’s over for all of us, always, everywhere, all the time. Love is not love. Not yet. But let’s try here. Let’s make it here. Let’s make Scotland the place where love is love at last. Let’s make Scotland the place where equality matters. 

The Happiness of Work

I thought of happiness, how it is woven
Out of the silence in the empty house each day
And how it is not sudden and it is not given
But is creation itself like the growth of a tree.
No one has seen it happen, but inside the bark
Another circle is growing in the expanding ring.
No one has heard the root go deeper in the dark,
But the tree is lifted by this inward work
And its plumes shine, and its leaves are glittering.
[…]
For what is happiness but growth in peace,
The timeless sense of time when furniture
Has stood a life’s span in a single place,
And as the air moves, so the old dreams stir
The shining leaves of present happiness?
No one has heard thought or listened to a mind,
But where people have lived in inwardness
The air is charged with blessing and does bless;
Windows look out on mountains and the walls are kind.
– May Sarton, The Work of Happiness

One in fifty. I used to think of myself as a ‘one in twenty’. As a kid it was the oft quoted figure for the percentage of people reckoned to be gay. Such things seem a little less useful in the era of fluid sexuality. But the one in fifty is more up to date. One in fifty people diagnosed with multiple sclerosis will still be working 25-30 years after diagnosis according to research by the MS Register. In a few years, with luck, I’ll be one in a hundred. The figures are so stark they stopped me in my tracks.

I know of course that I am lucky in more ways than one. My disease course has been kind to me where it has been vicious to many others. My work and employers positively minded to make managing MS and work more feasible than it is for too many. For most of my working life with MS I have had work that asks more of my mind than my body, employment that has offered the flexibility to work with and around the highs and lows of MS, employers who have had positive views on disability and illness.

One. In fifty. 

When I was diagnosed I was much more concerned with the odds of me still being alive at this stage than I was with the odds of me still working. But as shock and fear and uncertainty settled over the years into the tedious slog of life with a chronic and progressive illness, anxiety about work loomed ever larger. To manage fatigue, spasticity, brain fog, foot drop, pain and all the other nips at the heels of comfort and ease and ability is a full- time job. Many times the challenge of that and a job in the more conventional sense has seemed impossible and I’ve teetered on the edge, slipped a little over it too. But somewhere deep inside I have known that the inward work of work itself is (truly) vital, is part of what lifts me up.

It’s not in the silence of the empty house but in the clatter of the working day that happiness grows inside me. For those hours the emptiness of multiple sclerosis, the void it pulls you toward, is drowned out. I have purpose, distraction, the comforts of collective endeavour. At a basic level, as I have often found in my worst moments, I have the simple power of ‘a reason to get out of bed’. A reason to unfold and stretch out a body full of the spasticity and pain that has settled over it through the night. To take the small awkward steps that through the day (at least till energies and medications wear off) will build in confidence and speed.

In the rhythms and energies, triumphs and disasters, joys and frustrations, of work a peace grows. I have learnt to aggressively manage my energy and time. I work four days so that on the fifth I can rest and sleep, and on the sixth and seventh gently recharge. One might think that it is in the quiet of home, body freed from the demands its failing abilities struggle to meet, that I would be happiest. But in those times the ghosts gather – remembrances of a future lost, sad sighs for roads denied. There is no peace in those times. I need work. Not always paid employment. But work.

It’s the world of work and purpose and others that gifts a sense of time spent well, of life lived well, of limitations stretched out as far as they can go. Having finally found myself able to balance all this, manage all this, in a place that is stimulating and challenging, I am happier than that terrified woman standing in the rain the day she was diagnosed could ever have imagined.

I dread the loss of this. I never look ahead for fear of that. I weep for those for whom employers and work will not flex and accommodate. Those other forty-nine, were their conditions really so bad that work was impossible? We can turn to statistics on disability to progression to see that could not  be the case for all, perhaps even many of them. Is it so beyond our wit to redesign work and workplaces to make the happiness of work available to all that seek it, need it?

I am lucky. I know that. I wish this luck could be gifted to any of that forty nine who like me desire and need the happiness of work. So to my list of jobs to be done while I am still on the right side of that ratio I’m adding ‘be part of making change happen for people with MS in the workplace‘.

 
Multiple sclerosis steals our future. We deserve the shining leaves of present happiness. We deserve the happiness of work.

Ann Hallenberg: A Precious Gift


The first time I remember noticing it was when I was a toddler. I had a picture book I loved to read. I would lie on the floor in the side room of the hotel my parents managed, head propped up on my arms, staring and staring at the pictures. I can remember everything about those times. How I would cycle between complete absorption in the pictures, feeling so in the scenes that I could feel, hear, smell everything in them, and then a sudden awareness of everything about me. How it felt to be stretched out, my feet swinging behind me. The carpet pressing on bare legs where they touched it. The sounds and smells of the hotel as its routines unfolded – lunch, afternoon tea, cleaning, guests checking in, guests checking out.

It didn’t feel like two worlds – one real, one imaginary. I don’t remember thinking that they were different. Just part of the same thing, the same experience of quiet absorption in the experience of life being lived. ‘Virtual’ and ‘real’ sensations tumbled about in my head. I could ‘feel’ the resistance of the hard typewriter keys with the little ridge of metal all around them as I listened to my mother typing in the office, could smell the pies fresh from the oven in the bakery of my book. My legs would tense a little in sympathy with the sound of a waitress walking by with a silver tray heavy with plates. Being in the world was a fluid thing, no need to fix, to formalise, to explain.

Sometimes (well, often really) at school I would get into trouble for not paying attention. I longed to be able to tell the teacher that I was paying attention, just not in the way she meant. I would try hard to concentrate on her voice but my mind would get lost in contemplation of the sounds of the heating pipes, or the feel of my fingers sliding along the grooves on the desk left by generations of others pupils. I would be writing when suddenly the tiny vibrations in my fingers created by the scraping of pen nib on paper would take me off into a world where things didn’t need to make sense in some intellectual way but could just be melded into you until the difference between ‘you’ and them was no longer important. I look back now and see school as the start of the binary time – when you were told that real life was the life of consciousnesses of self, of paying attention and making sense in ways that were prescribed and structured. Of leaving behind full absorption in the world, which we were taught had a (pejorative) name: day dreaming.

I often wondered if this was what everyone felt like, how everyone experienced life, or if others found this binary living, the solid world, easier than I did. It’s something I have carried with me through adult life. As a deeply shy teenager struggling to work out how to be in the world I struggled to let go of that need to ‘be’ like that (as the world wanted me to let go, I learned at school). As a more confident adult I can pretended now more easily that paying attention to the surface of things, the bits that lend themselves to rational explanation, to analysis, is what really matters. And then I go to a concert and all pretence is abandoned.

I have no intellectual engagement with music – much as a try to learn about, be interested in it, at that level. I can be curious about its mechanics, its logic, now and again. But as soon as I sit down in the audience the need to think is overwhelmed by the need to feel, to experience. I sat down a few days ago in the Wigmore Hall to hear Ann Hallenberg sing with the Classical Opera Company. As she walked out on stage I instantly felt myself let go of formal thought, I was here for this. For a singer so skilled, so powerful, that I could safely count on her to take me to that magical place where ‘being’ was enough. No need to think or rationalise or judge. Just sit there as these incredible sounds created such a tumble of sensation that sense of self, of life, of things to be managed, done, dealt with could slip away.

Effortlessly the sounds plunged so low you felt yourself falling with them, then just as effortlessly you felt sinews stretch up as the notes climbed up and up. I have no idea how a human being can do that, but I am so grateful she can. The world wants us adults to pay attention so hard to so much that removes us from our sense of simply being, that distances us from the essence of our spirit in the world, from that ability to be with others quietly, observantly. Perhaps for religious people this can be achieved through prayer or contemplation of God. I often think music must be my religion. Not all music, not always. But when music as beautiful as that is played and sung as perfectly as that, well then yes it does feel spiritual. I long for it almost physically, chase it like an addict.

I have no rational, technical, analysis of that concert to offer. I cannot explain if this cadenza was good, that aria better than another. But I can offer my experience – my experience of utter joy, of freedom from the endless impoverished world of rational thinking and surface level being, of time held in abeyance while life energy at its most fully spiritual is replenished. Our lives are so filled with noise, and busy-ness, and demands to pay attention to the surface of our experience here on this amazing planet. Ann Hallenberg’s singing cuts through that, her voice and artistry craft a magical place where we can once again simply be. Be thrilled, be absorbed, be stilled. Really with music as beautiful as that I need nothing else. I am that little girl lying on the floor again. I am neither here nor there. Neither this nor that. All is fluid, I am swept into the sea of experience, fully alive, experiencing life so directly and richly and fully I long for it again almost as soon as it ends. Could anyone give us a more precious gift than that?

Finding my way out

Lanark 77 (1)
I already knew I wasn’t ‘right’ that first day I walked through the gates of Lanark Grammar, the below knee skirt my mum had bought for me at the start of the summer holidays nowmid thigh after a huge summer growth spurt. The boy’s shoes with the compasses in the soles, the shirt and tie and blazer, respite from the tights and skirt that trapped me in an illusion of femininity. A crowd of older girls were waiting to tease the new girls. As I walked awkwardly by a chorus of laughs greeted me. These were girls with breasts and ‘hair dos’ and eye shadow and all manner of signals that said ‘female’. I knew that this was not who I would be, or wanted to be.

I hated wearing skirts. I hated being a girl. I didn’t want to be a boy, but I didn’t want to be a girl either. Not if it meant playing with Barbies and wearing skirts and those ‘weird shoes’ that looked like ballet pumps. Or worse, heels. And not if it meant not climbing trees and playing football and getting dirty and building giant papier maché landscapes for my collection of Airfix WWII tanks and jeeps. I watched old movies on TV and struggled later to work out what it meant that I wanted to be Cary Grant kissing Sophia Loren. I hated being a girl, so why was I so drawn to her, the most womanly woman I could imagine? Shouldn’t I like Cary Grant more? And why though I hated everything girly did I feel such an affinity with Ma Walton, and dream of having lots of children? Nothing made sense. There was no one like me in my life, no one who could help me answer the question ‘what am I?’

A few days later the answer appeared. A beautiful, astonishing, breath taking senior walked by us in the corridor. I could hardly breathe.  ‘Is that a boy or a girl?’ other 1st years speculated. No one seemed to know. I suppose I must have been vaguely aware that the speculation was aggressive, not supportive, at least I knew I shouldn’t show my interest. And I knew something else, for despite the speculation I knew right away she was she, she was me, I was her. I had a role model.

I found out that she was called Horse and was known for being musical. I decided to try and get near her by joining the music club, and so my short lived career as a bongo player was born. I still think of her when I hear bongos and though I don’t recall how often my bongo bashing achieved its aim of closeness I do remember it was enough times to fuel my obsession. Times when I would sit in the music room, or the school hall when she was performing on stage, my throat burning for lack of oxygen as I held my breath in awe. In those moments my mind would race trying to take in everything about how she dressed, moved, wore her hair. I would hang around at the school gates at the end of the day hoping to see her. One day I very nervously followed her, I’m not sure with what intention other than simply to be near someone who made me feel less alone. She walked by the hotel we lived in and I almost burst with excitement to think that she had been so close to my home. For days afterwards I would gaze out of my bedroom window down to the street where she had been, conjuring her up in my head.

In the summer holidays I began to nag my parents to let me cut my hair (like hers, I didn’t say to them). I told them I wanted to go the barber on the High Street, and somehow eventually they relented and let me. I look back now in astonishment that they did, that I did. That painfully shy girl took herself off alone to the barber, sat in a chair waiting her turn, endured the suspicion of the barber when she told him to just cut it short. As I sat on that unfamiliar and exotic barbers chair, worn leather arms gripped tightly in fear and anticipation, I took in the smells of aftershave and balms so different from the hairdresser. I loved how stark it all was; no pink, no frills. I loved the look of the razors and shaving brushes arranged on the shelf. My eye caught in the mirror the scantily clad woman on a calendar behind me. The barber looked uncomfortable as he realised what I was looking at and shoved my head down roughly. As I watched the tresses fall away I felt for the first time the power of being in charge of my own identity.

We left Lanark in my second year. I couldn’t tell anyone why it broke my heart, though by then I had found another girl my own age who seemed familiar too. Even if I had told them they wouldn’t have understood why was I so sad to be leaving someone who didn’t know I existed. Wouldn’t understand that knowing she was in the world gave me a sense of being a ‘something’ I hadn’t had till them. I didn’t have any words for the something yet, and it would be many years before I would become comfortable, would find an identity that was my own. But for those couple of years when she and I shared a school, despite the fact that I am sure we never exchanged even a word, I had a sense of being with, of community, I wouldn’t find again until my early 20s.

Years later I would hear her name again, and with a shock realise that the singer on TV was her. My role model. The person who helped me feel a little less alone in a world I knew even then was going to struggle to let me be me. And years again before I would find tears in my eyes reading her account of those times – of how alone and bullied she was. A wash of shame as I realised that it never occurred to me back then that she was suffering. I suppose that’s the thing about role models – we use them for our own ends and rarely think of their experiences. Back then she seemed supremely confident and powerful. I knew people talked about her but somehow never really thought about how she felt. I was so desperate to know that I was not alone and that it all might be ok after all I blocked out any notion that it was not ok for her.

She was in the back of my mind when some friends and I decided to open a gay café in Edinburgh – the Blue Moon – in the late 80s. We’d all been involved in gay activism, fighting Clause 28, running demos and dreaming of a world that wouldn’t find the need to spit on us in the street or deny us a place in the everyday. The idea of creating a space where people could see each other, could find each other, was an idea not to be let slip. I’d watch them come in, clutching their distinctive paper bags from Wilde and West bookshop, nervously sitting alone, watching intently everything and everyone around them,as I had watched her. The alone finding their home. There amongst the outrageously out, the quietly out, the not very out, they would find their way out too. It was the first gay café in Edinburgh, at a time when finding each other was still always hard and often dangerous. Maybe it was the Ma Walton in me, but I loved seeing them slowly find themselves. The day they would first talk to one of us, or appear one day with a friend on their arm. It makes me a little sad to think that all these years after the Blue Moon we still need role models, still need those places of sanctuary. Sad, but grateful that they are still there. Sad, but reminded of how precious they are.

And Horse – well, she’s still being a role model, still being musical, still helping people understand that a world in which so many feel that they have to be careful about being themselves is not ok, and not inevitable.

 

 

The Non-Sense Body: Technology to the Rescue

IMG_0463

 

It confused people – the woman cycling through the forest happily who then has to engage in a rather complex set of manoeuvres to get off her bike, pulls a stick from her bag and limps off. But MS is nothing if not inconsistent and unpredictable.

For a long time after MS really started to affect my walking, I was able to cycle. Foot drop means my left foot drags and my leg is very weak. First a brace, the later carefully selected shoeware and one or two crutches depending on the surface allow me to walk but not easily or comfortably, or even these days safely since trips and falls and ankle sprains are par for the course. The worse and more exhausting the walking became the more I loved the times on the bike. On a moving bike, no-one knows you have MS. My weak leg just needed enough strength to keep my foot from slipping from the pedal and I was off, my strong leg doing all the work. It wasn’t without its dangers; poor balance and slow reactions meant road cycling was off the agenda, and stopping and dismounting became harder and harder, but still I was able to reclaim that non-sense of body that used to be my accompaniment when walking when I was cycling. Moving through space was a combination of upper body movements for direction and lower body movements for power. When walking is difficult the sensation of moving easily and largely unthinkingly through space is like that ice cold beer in Alex in the film of the same name – more welcome than any beer ever was. The benefits of cycling are perfect for MS -the motion of pedalling gives spastic muscles a stretch. Moving means a cooling breeze to help keep temperature down (a real problem for MSers exercising is that symptoms are triggered by heat), and whilst aerobic exercise via walking is impossible as I can’t move fast enough to get heart rate up it is possible with cycling.

Before MS, like most people I was very rarely  aware of my body as I moved about. I didn’t need to think to walk. I just did it. But after MS every move is like those early attempts to ride a bike – frustrating and difficult. Ironically because of a sensory problem in part – my ability to sense where my left leg is has been damaged and my balance is affected by that, weakness and vertigo. Normally we are utterly unaware of that ability to sense where our limbs are in space (it’s called proprioception). It’s only when we lose it that we realise we had it (Joni Mitchell was right, we don’t know what we’ve got till its gone). Walking , going up or down stairs, moving around something, none of these are difficult if you can without even knowing it be constantly adjusting the position of feet, making tiny corrections, judging where to move your foot and when, firing muscles at just the right point. But without it, well it all gets very effortful, and scary.

Like a lot of people who acquire disability my feelings of loss and grief are really challenging. When balance issues finally meant that cycling was became too dangerous I felt the loss dreadfully. Having those moments of freedom, of non-sense of body, taken away was painful. As a young woman I had been a really keen cyclist, that I was still able to cycle was a real emotional boost. A stationary cycle in the house felt like such a slap in the ego – a poor substitute for the real thing. I tried to convince myself a tricycle might be ok. But my heart longed for that feeling again. Until recently it seemed a dream, but technology has come to the rescue.

A vertigo training programme on the iPhone has meant that slowly but surely I am getting a bit more stable, the spinning and tipping feelings have become a little less intense. Suddenly the prospect of perhaps one day getting out on my bike again seemed less fantastical. And then I discovered the world of virtual trainers. So this week for the first time I set my beloved Trek up on a trainer, got myself a virtual ride app, and with a bit of faffing around to attach my weak leg with brace on to the pedal so it wouldn’t slip, I was off. On my bike, not some sad pretend bike. It felt so real. I selected an easy ride around part of Australia (!) on the app – the screen displaying video shot by someone actually cycling the ride while the trainer resistance adapted to the details of the route.

And for those minutes once again (some correcting for tipping aside that vertigo still produces – though at least this was not happening while travelling at speed along a road, much less scary!) I felt the beautiful feeling of a non-sense body moving through space. My target of course is to get back out in the real world, but for now this virtual world will do just fine.

If you are interested the set up I am using is:

  • Wahoo Kickr Snap trainer which I have found really easy to use. The big plus for me is no need to take the rear wheel off. You just need slip the rear wheel onto the trainer and snap the mount in to place and you are done. It also folds up for storage.
  • Wahoo Fitness app on iPhone to control it and save ride details to the Apple Health app so I can monitor training effects
  • FulGaz app on iPad for the virtual trainer.

 

 

 

 

The Real Rainbow Family: A Change I Can Believe In.

 

Being the victim of homophobia – It couldn’t happen to a better person than Sarah Drummond of service design firm Snook.

Well now I have your attention, let me rephrase. If someone had to be the victim of homophobia on a train to Alloa, then that it was Sarah Drummond at least ensured a degree of attention for the thoughtful and honest reflection someone like Sarah would bring to it. Her painful to read account of her experience, and her reaction, has shone a light into our dirty little secret. The secret we all (L, G, B, T, I and straight) harbour about what has changed in society.

Like most dykes* of my age I have long felt torn between a sense that younger LGBTI folks have benefitted from the efforts of my generation and those before to drag us out of a world in which getting your head kicked in of a Saturday night was an accepted part of life for us queers and the unsettling feeling of a sure and certain knowledge that ‘no it hasn’t, not that much, not reliably’.

Of course we all know it hasn’t changed at all for the queers thrown from rooftops, the dykes subject to ‘corrective gang rape’, the lovers hung from lamp-posts and the gay men forced into a sex change to confirm to the mores of a society that cannot conceive of man who willingly could love another man.

We know that bad stuff – really bad stuff – happens to those like us elsewhere. And sometimes some of us older ones shake our heads a little sadly at how many younger LGBTIs happily holiday in places where just outside their resorts or hotels our brothers and sisters suffer some of the above. For they are my family, however unfashionable the idea of a queer community or a gay ghetto now seems to some, at least if we define family as the place where one is supported to become your best and truest self. In my day the list of places lots of us queers did not go in solidarity with the family was very long.

But my earnest desire to ‘believe the change’ in my world is daily compromised by my sense of worry. The worry that those ‘gains’ are not so well embedded as to be counted on. I was not allowed to be officially in love with the woman I loved, and then I was. What is given can be taken away. Thirty years ago I had several shades of terrified kicked out me by a gang of young men who saw the queer flaunting it in the street as an easy target. Irony of the fact that they thought I was a ‘poof’ and not a ‘lezzie’ aside, I felt no shock at this. I had grown up not just aware that my ‘lifestyle’ was not normal, but that discrimination, harassment and violence were part of the deal. Within the family we bemoaned, raged, sometimes fought back – chasing the men who’d just chucked yet another brick through our café windows, campaigning, Larking in the Park. But mainly, we understood. We were ready. My bruises and cuts didn’t hurt any less because I knew that could, probably would, happen. But the damage to psyche, to sense of self and safety, was protected at least a bit by my knowledge and by my family.

Sarah isn’t the first younger person I have known in recent years who has been subject to the kind of homophobia we once expected as a matter of routine. But she’s someone whose energy and perception can tap into and give voice to the kind of protection that I think lack of familiarity with everyday homophobia has killed. Though now, unlike in my day, it’s not the family of queers that are gathering around her. It’s the family of human beings who get that loving someone of the same sex is about as worthy of comment as whether or not you part your hair to the left.

Young LGBTIs in our community are less likely to experience routine outright homophobia. Less likely, not unlikely. And how much less likely varies from community to community. Sarah’s instinct to be afraid, to drop the hand of her lover, was not the instinct of someone fearful but someone smart. I last did exactly the same thing on a train home from the Edinburgh Festival last year. What has changed is that the family that cares for them is now the true rainbow we always dreamed of: L, G, B, T, I and straight. Now that is a change I can believe in.

* Yes. Dyke. A word I fought hard to own and use back then but which I have shamefully let slip from my vocabulary to collude in the illusion that ‘it got a lot better’ while excusing myself on the grounds I let it slip to spare the blushes of the welcoming, evolved, pro-LGBTI straight world.

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?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Four Hours

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Four hours. How was it four hours? Time swirling loose around us as we talked and laughed; tears springing to eyes from emotion high and low. One woman just in her 30s, one just in her 50s, death rendering all chronological difference inconsequential. Two fragile creatures making sense of life together through death.

I remember when my babies were born, those first forays out into the world after the early intense days of obsessive attention to one fragile and impossibly new creature. The new little unit suddenly out in the world, at once in and apart. Marvelling that the world of other people was unfolding around oblivious to the momentousness of our unfolding. It felt like that sitting there with her in that café as we rolled around our stories with each other – making sense, making safe, making community. Attention occasionally drawn by a pause or a noise to the rest of the room. The unhappy looking woman alone at a table, her pile of papers and pot of tea vying for space and attention, her eyes wandering to the window and the world outside. The group of young women with babies, each juggling attention between food, infants and each other. The older couple sharing food and intimacy, a stroke along shoulders as one left the other for a moment to survey the cakes.

Was death on their minds? Would they value a chance to join our discussion about the sharp joy that facing death and illness brings? Would care pathways and euthanasia and incontinence be things they’d like to explore with laughs and occasional outbursts of frustrated indignation at the lack of wit in our fellow man that condemns us to a lack of choice at that most precious final moment? Would they have imagined, looking at us, what depths of intensity we were diving into? Could they imagine how joyful and powerful it is to find someone to talk with of all this – freely and unafraid?

And us, would we have known in those past occasional encounters that one day we would find this camaraderie? I’m not a mystical thinker – life everyday is intensely magical enough for me. But as we sat there it was hard not to feel the threads of chance that drew us to this comfortable and rewarding exchange, differences fading as the similarities between us were drawn sharper into relief by the bond of death’s presence in our lives. Two watchers, believers in the power of disruptive thinking, practitioners in the arts of the examined life. Two women whose lives have been committed to the idea that ‘this can be better’. Two women who will go into that dark night gulping furiously at every moment of happiness and joy life gifts us.

Those fours hours led us with gentle good humour to a new commonality, for now we were two women discovering a mutual belief that the dying should be nurtured through that journey with as much humanity as they were through their birth. Two women marvelling that somehow our sense of joyous wonder at life has led us to a feel a sense of joyous wonder at death. Two women joined by the idea that embracing the preciousness of life makes no sense if we do not embrace the preciousness of death. Two lives made meaningful through the idea that holding the dying gently and with dignity is the ultimate measure of our humanity. Two women sharing the knowledge that our joy and love of life must find its place in our death.

Fours hours. How was it four hours?

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