Stitching For Sanity

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I learnt to sew at primary school. We started in the infants and worked our way painfully from basic stitches and hemming through samplers to decorative aprons, finishing off with reading a pattern and making a blouse at 11 years old.

I never again bothered with these skills till I was 48 years old.

I can remember the day exactly.

I was hugely stressed. My daughter was pregnant with her second child. Instead of blooming, she was always horrifically ill during her pregnancies so my toddler grandson spent a great deal of his time in my office (I had a tolerant eccentric workplace – people brought their dogs in too).

One day I was hurrying past an art shop when I glanced at the window display of cross stitch materials and charts. I suddenly knew what I needed. On impulse I went in and bought a simple kit. Then, after a gap of 40 years I simply took up my needle and started stitching.

Thereafter I never went anywhere without my work. I stitched on the tube, on planes (it was before terrorism & no sharp objects), in hospital waiting rooms, at conferences, discreetly at the back of lecture halls and boring meetings. I entered a new hidden world of stitchers, secretly continuing a centuries’ old female tradition.

I could see why it had continued. Stitching got you through. It looked virtuous and was a creative outlet menfolk couldn’t object to. It was an absorbing object of skill and pride that let you escape the pressures and tedium of domestic life. It got you through the months when your menfolk were at the crusades or on the high seas or off hunting with their mates or about important masculine business.

It took time and patient concentration. It involved the satisfying feel of the materials, the painstaking selection and organisation of threads. There was the designing, choosing and following a complex plan. And the faith that it would come together at the end.

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Because stitching is never a complete picture until right at the end. The different parts of the design don’t achieve a pleasing balance until then. You have to struggle through the tedious, confusing, frustrating bits to reach the finished article.

But, of course, all this stopped when I started blogging for #107 days and #JusticeforLB. I now have a selection of unfinished (possibly never to be finished) work!

I have forsaken tradition for technology.

Though, on thinking about it, the actual processes of patiently acquiring the skills and faithfully sticking to your purpose in order to bring something together are still the same!

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Fighting Monsters 2

Three lessons in one blog + a pitch for Wisegrannie.com

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Lesson 1:
Once years ago I came across a short paper written by a liberation priest working in South America. It was called “Taking Sides”.

He challenged the widely held belief that any problem could be equitably solved by bringing the two parties together to discuss the matter. He pointed out that this was too simplistic. In some situations, where the power balance was unequal, it was a nonsense.

In oppressive or unjust situations, one party is in the right and the other is in the wrong. There cannot be a meeting of minds. In such a situation you have to look at the evidence, disregard the propaganda and the rhetoric, decide for yourself, then act for the right.

Sometimes you have to take sides.

Lesson 2:

Another time, when I was idly half watching one of the many World War 2 documentaries, I was suddenly shocked into attention. The scene showed an architect’s office and, on a drawing board, the meticulous plans for the gas chambers.

Somehow it was more chilling than the dreadful images of the death camps themselves. A cultured, urbane designer sitting down with his cup of coffee in his well appointed office, taking up his pencil and his slide rule and, with every attention to detail, calmly calculating the measurements necessary to achieve the greatest efficiency in destroying his fellow human beings.

Yet, by a purely technical quality assessment, here was a model of an excellent architect, carrying out his commission in an exemplary fashion.

Sometimes the worst monsters are in the office.

Lesson 3:

I learnt another lesson from the example of Elizabeth Kenny the pioneering Australian nurse who transformed the treatment of polio victims.

Ridiculed, looked down upon and obstructed by the medical establishment at every turn, she steadfastly fought on, in defiance of the accepted wisdom, to demonstrate that her approach was more effective. With grass roots support from patients, their families and others who paid serious attention to her evidence, she eventually succeeded in revolutionising practice and transforming the lives of victims.

In the end, if you can keep going, have sound evidence and a groundswell of support, you can win through.

The Way Ahead for Wisegrannie:

Campaigning operates on different levels. There have to be initiatives and activities to keep existing supporters in good spirit and to bring others on board. There has to be effective dissemination of information. There has to be conversation, debate and sometimes conflict.

So there is a a need for somebody to bring us back to our shared humanity, our fallibility and frailty and our dependence on each other. To get us down from our high horses, to encourage us, to remind us of our worth and make us laugh together again.

That’s the place in the blogging universe for Wisegrannie, the little old person hanging on in there, still fighting monsters in the ideological forests of an unequal world.

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Making a Difference – Blogging to Save the World

Why my story – and your story – matters

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Why do I blog, why do we blog? What gives us this urge to shout into cyberspace about what we think and do and experience?

So many voices out there, so many different people, hiding away from their families and their real world chores, bent over a keyboard,
And why? Why does it mean that much to them?

For some it’s simple, I suppose. It’s their job. It’s how they hope to make the money to keep their real world lives afloat and thriving.

But for the rest of us?

It’s been puzzling me all week, but I woke up suddenly this morning from a dream in which I was speaking to a group of people, and I felt I knew!

Although we’re, each of us, only one in a huge crowd, we want to be seen and heard. We know in ourselves that what we see and feel can make some kind of difference in the world. We know our story, our unique story, matters.

We might want to entertain or to share the frustrations of our daily lives. We might hope to help others through difficult times. We might want to share the experiences of all the places and people that we love.

But somehow we believe (enough to expend hours of our precious time) that our unique view is worth listening to, that it has the power to enhance and influence other people’s lives.

Of course we might be deluding ourselves. We might be vainglorious, wanting to bludgeon the world into thinking and seeing just like us.

But I don’t believe this of the majority. I think we’re doing the most worthwhile human thing of all – reaching out to others to say “Listen! This is what I’ve learnt along the way. It might lighten your path too!”

We believe our story matters and we need to share it.

We’re witnesses to life, our little bit of it. And by giving witness we can contribute to the whole world wide community, as well as our own tiny corner.

We want to make a difference. But we can only do so if we listen in return.

Because our stories matter.

Each and every one.

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Being On The Receiving End – Think Before You Blog!

Another of life’s hard lessons- do they ever end?

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I have enjoyed myself so much remembering people and happenings in my past, but I am very wary of writing about memories in a way which might identify, or touch on the experiences, of the others involved. I’ll tell you why.

I was listening to Book of the Week on Radio 4 one morning as I pottered around and suddenly I began to recognise the scene that was being described. It was eerily like an event in my life.

It went on in more detail.

There was no doubt, it was my life!

I had to sit down.  It’s quite a shock to turn on the radio and hear a bit of your distant past being humourously retold for the entertainment of the respectable elderly doing their housework on a Tuesday morning.

One of my daughter’s childhood friends had gone on to become a sort of jobbing media personality and had made use of her memories as fodder for some of her writing. 

It was the most peculiar feeling.  It was the difference in perspective of the same event that shook me most.  I had experienced the incident as sad and distressing, but she had written it up as funny and laughable.  It was mocking the people involved.

For me it was one of those moments in life when the scales fall from your eyes.  When you realise you don’t matter to another person.  You are just an insignificant, but marginally amusing detail in the backdrop of their lives.

I did track her down at one point and tax her with it. 

“Oh it wasn’t you, it was someone else,” she replied, with more than a hint of irritation.

“What rubbish!” said my daughter, when I eventually told her. (I had been reluctant to mention it to her in case her feelings might be hurt). “Of course it was us! I knew the moment I read the book, but I didn’t like to say anything to you!”

It is easy to get led astray by your own desire to be witty and clever, especially if that’s what makes you a living. Even a humble blogger can get carried away with the pleasure of gaining a few extra hits.

But it doesn’t feel nice to be on the receiving end, to be valued only as the raw material for somebody else’s vanity.

Still, I’ve had that lesson, so perhaps I’m safe to continue!

Blogging for the Common Good

On finding a voice and learning by doing

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I’ve lived through an educational revolution in England and I didn’t experience it as a good one.

I trained as a teacher in 1973, and my dissertation then was on Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society.  I also referred a lot to Teaching as a Subversive Activity by Postman & Weingartner and Paulo Friere’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

Try doing that nowadays in UK teacher education. Nothing to do with delivering the National Curriculum? Forget it! We can’t waste time encouraging our teachers to think, or worse still, dream! Why, it might rub off on the pupils, and what mischief might that lead to!

Whatever and whoever I taught, I wanted them to think. I wanted them to question. I wanted them to experience places and people outside their own limited surroundings. I didn’t want them to be trapped by fear of the unfamiliar, or intimidated by dogma or deceived by marketing and spin. I wanted them to be the best they could be. To be ready to take on the world. To know they mattered. To have their own confident voice.

I still want that.

I can’t change my ways. I’m obviously a bad old person. I won’t accept that I should just bow out of active life, shut up and wait for kindly euthanasia. I still value the sheer enjoyment and frustration of learning by doing, of jumping into new experiences, of finding out with the help of enthusiastic mentors and the company of others along the way.

While I may not be going out into the forest any more to plodge around in muddy streams and discover strange living things, I’m exploring the online world of blogging and social media, and encountering all its weird life forms, its good angels and its monsters.

And, by so doing, still playing my little part in fighting the grim Mr Gradgrinds in their dingy classrooms and their endless “Facts! Facts! Facts!”. Fighting for creativity and joy in learning and in valuing others for their unique humanity, not for what they can deliver to the economy of an all consuming state.

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Starry, Starry Night and the Magic

Advent 8 On the power of story

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I was brought up in the cold, grey north where winters were dark and grim. The culture was pretty grim too, in those days. Bars were for the men and they shut at ten o’clock. Respectable children were not allowed to play out on a Sunday.

My friend told me that when she started school, it was arranged she would walk back to her grannie’s for her tea, before going home. On her second day her grannie asked her how her day had gone.

“I didn’t enjoy it very much,” she ventured timidly

“Enjoy!” said her grannie sternly. “You’re not put on this earth to enjoy! We’re here to suffer and be judged!”

That about summed it up really.

So it wasn’t until I was well into my teens that I encountered the magic of light and joy in a well enacted story.

One Christmas Eve a gang of us teenagers went along on to what was known in Scotland as the Watchnight Service. We weren’t particularly religious. It must have been because one of us was the minister’s son and was under orders to go.

I had never been to anything remotely symbolic in a church before. No gilded statues or lavishly decorated altars for the United Free Church of Scotland where I had gone to Sunday school!

But, at the Watchnight Service in this strange cold church, there was silent darkness until, at midnight, the candles were lit as the words of the King James bible were read out and the old story of new life coming into the world was retold.

It was magic!

The symbolism of the midwinter feast was lived out before us. The darkest time of the year just past and the earth turning again towards the sun with the promise of renewal, survival and spring.

Even nowadays, however much killjoys try to wean us away from magic and the power of stories, we still rebelliously trail strings of pinprick lights over our hedges and around our homes. In the midst of the shopping spendfest we still fall under the spell of flickering candles and starry skies.

Somewhere underneath all the cynical commercialism still lurks the ancient desire to celebrate new life and to welcome the rebirth of light into a dark world.

And discover, in the face of all the grimness of existence, a spark of hope.

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In The Bleak Midwinter

Advent 6  On coal fires and chilblains

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The constant background to my childhood memories of 1950s winters is the cold and waking up to windows covered in frost!

I never lived in a centrally heated house till I was well into my late twenties. I relied on open coal fires or, later on in student days, to a hissing radiant gas fire for my main source of warmth.

One of the first skills you learnt as a small child in the 1950s was how to roll up old newspapers into tight little balls to set the fire each morning. Certainly by the time I was five I knew how to build a fire from newspaper, thin sticks of wood for kindling, then gradually adding small coals to form a neat pyramid in the grate. Once the fire had caught, you could begin to add bigger lumps with a pair of tongs.

I seem to remember you got a badge at Brownies for firelighting. It was a necessary basic skill.

And the only places in the house that were ever warm was the kitchen when the oven was on and whichever room had a fire. All those cosy pictures of families gathered around the hearth were not because they all loved each other’s company so much. It was because everywhere else in the house was freezing.

However, when I was a teenager I actually got a birthday present of my own electric fire for my bedroom. (I think this was intended to enable me to study in the evenings)  It was a futuristic design, like a sort of yellow and red toadstool. It smelt of warm paint and burning dust.

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How I loved my heater! I would dash out from under the covers in the morning and turn it on before diving into bed again, till my room started to get warm. The sheer joy of getting dressed in front of a personal, private source of heat!

By the time I got to secondary school, the new buildings there were centrally heated and, if you got to the classroom first, you could get a desk next to a radiator and toast your feet. The bliss of it!

Then you got chilblains, of course.

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