Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Merry Christmas

I've always enjoyed Christmas as a chance to reflect. While everything outside is dark and resting, there's something lovely for me about snuggling down and thinking about the intangible: love, God, grace. 
And celebrating.

I also love looking ahead to a New Year - the dreaming and planning, although I generally steer clear of making resolutions.
Hopefully, when the holiday gets underway it will give me lots of food-for-thought to explore here in 2012. 
Until then, happy and merry to you and yours.

Monday, 19 December 2011

Fantastic Failure

This is an extract from 'The Word for Today'* that I loved and found encouraging:

If you refuse to quit when you fail, you'll ultimately succeed. You just have to be willing to get back up and keep moving forward.

In 1832 Abraham Lincoln was defeated for the State Legislature.
In 1833 he failed in business.
In 1835 his sweetheart died.
In 1836 he had a nervous breakdown.
In 1838 he was defeated for Illinois House Speaker.
In 1843 he was defeated for nomination to Congress.
In 1854 he was defeated for the U.S. Senate.
In 1856 he was defeated for nomination for Vice President.
In 1858 he was defeated again in a U.S. Senate race.
But today he is considered one of America's greatest presidents. 

* A magazine produced by United Christian Broadcasters with 'Encouraging Words Every Day' available to order (free) from

Friday, 16 December 2011

Wardrobe Stories

There's so much around for us to buy and wear that I want to appreciate the things I own and the reasons why I love them. Sharing my 'wardrobe stories' is a way for me to document that. I get really excited when I realise that an outfit I'm wearing is largely or entirely from a charity shop. There was a time when it was decidedly against the norm to be proud of thrifty finds, but on the whole it seems that attitudes have shifted with more and more people acknowledging that they can be great places to pick up [unusual] bargains. And there's the obvious added bonus of knowing you're saving something from landfill and helping to finance a good cause.

In this outfit I'm wearing a dark brown leather Levi belt that my Dad bought himself on holiday in America before I was born. I plundered his wardrobe in my teens and have been wearing it ever since because it sits on my hips (as opposed to my waist) really nicely - although here I'm wearing it functionally rather than just aesthetically. My necklace was a present from one of my closest friends and my jeans are Topshop (Baxter): one of only two styles of highstreet jeans that come close to fitting me - and even they are a touch too baggy at the top but I need the length.

The rest are charity shop finds. A raspberry knit top (label was cut out, so not sure where from originally): it's quite short in the body and has an asymmetrical pocket - loved it as soon as I saw it in the British Red Cross (£3.50). The jacket was an unbelievable £1.50 (also label-less - I think people must find them itchy or something), and I'd been looking for something like it for a while. The arms are too short, but the navy inside lining means turning up the sleeves works. But my favourite is the bag - can't remember how long I've had it now, but it's a trusty travel faithful, cost around a fiver and holds a miraculous amount.

I'm no fashion guru, but I've had a lot of fun over the years collecting things that I love to wear and use over and over again. It can be easy to forget what a privilege it is to own anything in the first place, let alone things that I feel comfortable in and that have allowed me to cultivate a sense of style and identity. I don't want to take these things for granted.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

H&M Fake Bodies Furore

Eating out on my lunch break last week, I picked up a copy of G2* that was floating around in the coffee shop and was disappointed to read about a controversial marketing technique being used by one of my favourite clothes shops.

Columnist Jane Martinson was commenting on recent revelations that multinational retailer H&M has been using an amalgamation of plastic bodies and real faces to model swimwear and lingerie online.  Various sources are credited with breaking the story in early December, including Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet and Norwegian website Bildbluffen, and coverage seems to have been circulating the internet ever since. Reactions in columns and comment boards range from totally unperturbed to weary resignation and indignant outrage.

In defence of the company, press spokesperson Håcan Andersson is quoted as saying:

“This is a technique that is not new, it is available within the industry today and we are using it for our Shop Online in combination with real life models pictures and still life pictures… For all other marketing and campaigns – outdoor, TV, print and other media, H&M will continue to use real life models.”

To my mind, that is no where near an adequate answer. Superimposing real people’s (presumably airbrushed) heads onto fake bodies and passing them off as genuine individuals completely distorts the way the consumer relates to the product, brand and – most importantly – his or her own body.

There are aspects of H&M’s marketing that I’m a real fan of. Their winter/Christmas campaigns over the last two years have coupled different generations, emphasising family and friendship. It’s an approach that resonates with me – I especially love choosing outfits for those types of get-togethers: my extended family is so chic in all kinds of quirky ways; style is always appreciated. The ads are also a refreshing change from the “this-person-is-sleeping-with-me-because-I’m-wearing-this-top/dress/bag” approach present in most mainstream adverts that feature multiple people.

I also feel a certain amount of brand-loyalty: I remember an older cousin taking me to “Hennes” during a London stay with her family, and being so excited when a store opened in my hometown months later. In my early teens it was my first go-to for high street fashion, when I wasn’t raiding charity shops and street markets or customising hand-me-downs. And it’s still a shop I look to for certain staples.

It offends me that a company I’m willingly committed to has been so seemingly dismissive of the wider social implications of their actions. Just because a practice is commonplace doesn’t mean it’s intrinsically acceptable. The irony is that for something to become commonplace, it has to be accepted by the majority. It’s regrettable that the overt manipulation of images in advertising has become so institutionalised across an industry that, for its own survival, heavily relies on the people it belittles.

Why haven’t we said ‘not in my name’? And what would that look like?

For me, it starts with sending a few inconsequential letters to the mighty management at H&M. I’ll share their contents in a post here on Inklings soon…

*A supplement of The Guardian newspaper containing articles, columns, television and radio listings amongst other things.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

"Body and Soul" - Anita Roddick

A happy mishap has seen me end up reading a book I never intended to buy. When I tried to order Anita Roddick's second autobiographical business book "Business as Unusual", I struggled to order it online. Despite finding it on a number of websites, it seems to be out of print with originals rarer than gold dust. I eventually managed to put in an order, but when I opened up the package days later the book that had been dispatched was her first: "Body and Soul".

I was initially disappointed, having been particularly interested in the decisions she made to sustain her business in the expansion that followed its early success, but reading about the beginnings of The Body Shop has possibly been one of the best things to happen to me.

There are lots of reasons to admire Anita Roddick as an activist and entrepreneur, and after I'm further on in the book I'll probably post about those things. But having read the first three chapters, I've been forcefully struck by the fact that Roddick doesn't seem to have set out to be those things - she was simply determined to be herself in the circumstances she found herself in. Her business plan was the accumulation of adventure, experience, intuition and necessity. 

The shop's dark green branding came from the need to cover up damp patches on the walls of her first premises. Her knowledge of and commitment to natural ingredients in cosmetics was founded in the lessons she learnt in conversation on her travels as a "restless spirit". Her customer care ethos and work ethic can be traced to her mother's work and Roddick's own experience running a hotel and restaurant with her husband. I won't ruin the magic by listing it all here; it's infinitely better in her own words. Suffice to say that as the 'plot' unfolds over eighty pages, it's easy to see that nothing is wasted - every haphazard thing from family and personal passions to setbacks and flaws played their part.

Reading a book I didn't intend to is teaching me a lesson I personally find incredibly difficult to learn: we can't plan everything. What's more important  than the 10-step career plan or list of life goals is being attentive - even in the minutiae - because we never know when we'll have the opportunity to draw on what seemed insignificant and see it grow into something great.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Peace on Earth

There are days when, for whatever reason, exhaustion starts to set in but without a let-up in pace. This week was like that for me, but dipping into Red magazine in my lunch break gave me an unexpected lift. The  magazine's December issue gives a lot of consideration to balancing busy-ness and making space to be appreciative and/or recharge. Although this theme is covered in several sections throughout the issue, I think on this occasion I was reading the profiles in 'Peace on Earth', feeling particularly captivated by Bridget Harrison's description of how surfing bats back her worries and work stresses:

"When taking on the sea, all else is washed away by the roar of cold salty water, under your board, in your ears, on your skin, over your head."

Swept up in the spirit of the article I left the office and went for a walk in the nearby park. It was one of the more winterish days November has offered so far, and taking photos on a brisk walk in the bracing wind worked wonders for my mood. 

Reading about other people's rejuvenating habits, from surfing (above) to dipping into the calm of an old-fashioned book shop ("Once I closet myself among the books, the stress falls away" - Manuela Moollan, also profiled in 'Peace on Earth'), I loved being reminded to make fulfilling moments happen and that  we can all take responsibility for crafting some sort of satisfaction out of the most basic of materials.

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Colourful Language

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Despite the fact that this is a massive generalisation, I'm confident that anyone who has spent any time working in pretty much any role anywhere in the UK will have come across the Great British tendency to complain. 

It seems to be a quintessential feature of working life - a sort of bonding exercise that can encapsulate any subject matter, with favourite topics often including workload, the weather and (in some circles) other colleagues.

Although I freely admit to playing my part in this social phenomenon, I've recently had a rethink and am beginning to see if I can introduce a slightly different tone to my conversations. The catalyst for change is 100% selfish: my participation in the status quo just doesn't make me feel good. 

With the number of unemployed 16-24 year olds reaching record levels in the last week, being in any sort of work at all is something to be grateful for. Dwelling on the seemingly negative is also out of step with the biblical principles I profess to be committed to; the scriptural mandate is to think about whatever is true, noble and lovely and do everything without complaining.

Talking through genuine issues with the aim of achieving some sort of constructive resolution is healthy. There's also relief in 'just getting it off the chest' and being listened too - having your problems, emotions and point of view validated by someone else. 

But often when I join in the chorus, the things I'm complaining about (workload, the weather, it not being the weekend) aren't problems - it's just my choice of perspective that paints them in that light. In those circumstances, I'm trying to introduce a reality check: a dash of confidence instead of complacency and pessimism, a sprinkle of gratitude and, if in doubt, a touch of silence. After all, "if you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all." 

It might make me a little quieter from now on, and perhaps a bit of a social pariah but I think giving myself the chance to be more appreciative will make me happier, and a better person to be around in the long run.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

I Just Can't Stop Loving You

Probably the first musical artist I really loved, even before my indefatigable devotion to all things Spice, was Michael Jackson. We would play his cassettes in the car on repeat and watch his music videos until the tape ran thin. I remember, in the absence of a poster, printing off an A5, grainy black and white photo of him performing and pinning it proudly to my Disney’s Aladdin pinboard. I was a Michael Jackson Fan, and that was part of my mutable yet vigorous 10 year old identity.
It is fair to say that my early promise as an MJ devotee was not quite fulfilled: while I enjoy and listen to his music to this day, I couldn’t help my un-fan-ly feelings of bewilderment and pity at his strange behaviour later in life. When his death came, I was saddened, enough to shed tears, and yet in many ways I felt the popstar I adored had been gone for a long time.
And so it was with a strange combination of recognition and detachment that I followed the trial of Conrad Murray, the star’s physician who was recently convicted of involuntary manslaughter. What struck me most about the criminal proceedings was the reaction of the fans. Having made their pilgrimage to Los Angeles, today’s Unreal City, they camped outside the court to signal their devotion. When the verdict came, cheers and euphoria greeted the sentencing of Murray to up to four years in prison.
A natural desire for justice for the figure they loved? Perhaps. And yet, the blurred circumstances of his death seem to confound this straightforward triumph. The doctor’s actions were irresponsible in the extreme, and I am certainly not disputing that he deserves to be stripped of his medical license and jailed. But the tragic picture that arose from the trial, of a once extraordinarily talented man dependent on painkillers and dysfunctional relationships, is the image I take away, dampening any possibility of celebration. Perhaps we can take some comfort in the thought that maybe now, more than two years after his demise, we will be able to focus on remembering Michael Jackson as the wonderful performer he was. The news that his deathbed is up for auction implies we may have to wait a little longer.

A Good Read

I have been rather guilty of late of inflicting a stream of harrowing experiences on my partner (E.), a man so sincerely cheerful that he makes Disney seem pessimistic. Having signed up to an online DVD rental service, we seize our opportunity to broaden our minds through acclaimed cinema and add a dozen impressive titles to our list. Meanwhile, I mention that after E. finishes reading whichever The Girl Who Did Something Vaguely Rebellious he is on, he should try A Thousand Splendid Suns: a superb and deeply moving novel by Khaled Hosseini.
Soon afterwards, we find our first film has arrived: Precious, the story of an illiterate teenage girl who is pregnant with her second child by her father. We watch it, are suitably humbled and impressed, and pop it back in the post. At this stage, E. has begun the book I recommended. He comes home everyday with the heartbreaking details of the story etched upon his face, professing it to be one of the best books he has read, but that he cannot read it on public transport any more for fear of alarming passengers through his sobbing. A little worried about whether this will break his spirit for good, I tentatively mention that our next film has arrived: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.
Both Precious and A Thousand Splendid Suns actually merit reams of non-flippant, heartfelt praise, and I urge anyone to seek them out. It is with a more sober tone that I want to say just a little about Julian Schnabel’s magnificent film and the book which inspired it- a work of art as remarkable for the mere fact of its existence as its beauty. The details of its creation are famous: immobilised by a stroke, Jean Dominique-Bauby communicated his memoir through blinking his left eyelid to indicate which letter he wanted his scribe to record. I had read the book a year or so previously, and seeing the film brought back in a rush the feelings of awe, sadness and inspiration that had struck me then. It sparks a thousand thoughts, but the one I wanted to briefly highlight was its encapsulation of why we read or watch things that make us sad. We do it to feel, to experience the breadth of human emotion and suffering that our comfortable lives thankfully do not habitually offer. We do it to realise the humour, hope and beauty that stubbornly flicker even in the darkest corners of despair. We do it, in short, to enrich our lives.
I only hope it doesn’t diminish my point to admit that Thor is next on our list.

Saturday, 19 November 2011

Out Loud Living

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Reading an interview with Susan Boyle in the Big Issue* reminded me of a couple of home truths I'd lost along the way. Although I didn't follow her meteoric rise to fame as closely as some, it was impossible to miss at the time. Two years on, the interview is a bit of a recap with updates thrown in, and I was struck by two things.

I love the fact that Susan Boyle seems to have a deep sense of self. She talks about being grounded in the village where she was born and brought up, she seems to have surrounded herself in her professional life with true friends and trusted supporters and - most of all - her non-conformist ways are well and truly intact if the interviewer is to be believed:

Boyle, has become so cosmically symbolic of 21st century popular culture that the first thing that strikes me as I’m greeted by her in her £300,000 ‘posh house’ she bought in her hometown of Blackburn to celebrate being worth more than £11million (“money isn’t important to me” she tells me later) is how unbelievably like Susan Boyle this round smiley woman is.

All the quirks that have become almost mythical traits of the celebrity are there from the moment of meeting, from the giddy outbreaks of minxy hip-flicks and peels of cackling laughter, to that machine-gun West Lothian brogue, usually delivered at great pace and overwhelming volume.

I also love the fact that she put herself out there, and in doing so enriched a lot of people's lives and became even more herself. Her vocal talent is completely mesmerising, but the interview makes it clear that she took more than a little mockery at other auditions, not just in the opening moments of the well-known Britain's Got Talent one. 

Susan Boyle definitely didn't find awe and adulation first time round. I'm sure it would have been easy to settle for a lonely, light-under-a-bushel existence. Maybe she could have even justified it by saying that the whole youth-centric, hyper-sexualised pop music culture isn't her thing. But by being brave enough to engage with the industry, and with us - the audience, she's changed something for the best in our times and (the interview suggests) is the better for it personally too.

So thank you Susan Boyle for the reminder that with a sense of self and a little courage great things can happen.

* The Big Issue offers homeless and vulnerably housed people the opportunity to earn a legitimate income as street vendors selling a weekly entertainment and current affairs magazine.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

TV Treats

Promotional Image for BBC programme "Mixed Britannia" from the BBC Mixed Race Season
(used with permission)

TV, in our house, is often something that just happens. We consciously choose to put on a range of DVDs but we very rarely intentionally switch on the TV for anything. In recent weeks, though, there have been a couple of actually really special moments curled up in front of the flat-screen.

One was the accidental discovery of the BBC Mixed Race Season. As one half of a mixed race couple, it's amazing how often that's not on my mind. But I have occasionally wondered what our children's experience of growing up might be in contrast to mine - whether they'll be more curious about certain aspects of their racial heritage than I was, whether I'll have any answers for them. The one programme  we watched together from the series was food for thought, and there was something satisfying about switching off the TV afterwards and feeling slightly more intelligent than before.

The other gem has been watching BBC One Frozen Planet. Again, we caught it by accident at first but this time we were sufficiently hooked to come back for more. For me, the beauty of the programme is threefold at least. Number one is obviously the stunning scenery - being confronted by the sheer glory of such an unattainable environment is a privilege that puts lots of things into perspective. Number two is the strength, bravery and creative genius of the team responsible for such an incredible documentary. Number three is just being a part of it all: this is our world - nature and humanity, and - for those on the look out -  maybe even a glimpse of 'the invisible hand of God': the something more that takes us beyond ourselves in awe.

I find it really nice to think that in addition to TV being a distraction (positive or negative), it can also be something that really engages us and leaves us a little  more enriched.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Pocket Money

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The last couple of days in the UK have seen the political storm clouds start to gather over the issue of high income earners. As far back as September, articles began appearing that hinted at the disparity between the general performance across the economy and senior management salaries, with one commentator noting that, if current trends continue, the UK will be back to Victorian levels of inequality by 2030.

That comment was made in response to  an interim report by the High Pay Commission, whose findings were published in September. The end of October has brought another report to light, with the BBC covering the results of a survey by the Incomes Data Services (IDS) showing an increase of 50% in Directors' pay. In an age of austerity the figures have added insult to injury for a lot of people and left me wondering where I stand on all of this.

On the one hand, I have some sympathy for the argument that shouldering high levels of responsibility should come with corresponding financial reward. I was also initially swayed by a point I partially overheard whilst cooking with the TV on in the background: someone was articulately arguing that, in an international market, high salaries can a) be justified by the overall company performance, not just the UK arm in isolation and b) are required to attract the best global talent and prevent home grown would-be Directors from moving abroad.

Even so, I can't help feeling this is an issue I should give more thought to. The protests outside St Paul's Cathedral in London have moved from a fringe protest against greed and inequality into mainstream news as the Cathedral has struggled to find its voice in response. I feel a similar struggle. It's easy to be bullied into submission by eloquent people throwing around jargon about the economy. It's easy to feel like the status quo must exist for a reason.

But in my heart of hearts, I don't believe that closing the gap between the 'haves' and 'haves nots', or simplifying pay structures to give greater transparency, or incentivising senior managers through rewards based on performance factors other than pure profit margins would be truly detrimental changes. Costly, maybe - but acting with integrity often is.

It will be interesting to see whether the political will exists to offer more than rhetoric. And whether I will have the courage to act decisively in favour of those kinds of changes too - in the way I vote, the services I use and my handling of the finances within my control. And can I honestly be bothered to engage with such seemingly complex issues as they unfold? 

Friday, 28 October 2011

Ode to Autumn

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Considering November is almost upon us, time is running out to make mention of something I observed about a month ago: everyone looks good in autumn.

It's not that I spend the rest of the year criticising people's clothing, but whilst out enjoying an afternoon drink with my husband a few weekends ago I couldn't stop commenting on how well put-together passers-by looked. It was one of those golden days - crisp but not cold, the kind of day that needs layers but no coat. What I really loved was the variety and originality of both men and women: grandad-inspired caradigans with schoolgirl tights, bold block colours and soft knits. People seem more inclined to experiment when the weather allows for a few more items and accessories, and at the same time the final outfit doesn't end up being obscured by a massive coat.

Autumn is also more inclusive than a season like summer. Summer marketing seems geared towards making people (perhaps women in particular?) go to war with their bodies. Autumn makes allowances for a less than impossibly 'perfect' physique, letting us wrap up in ways that emphasise the best and show a little cosy kindness towards the rest.

Here's hoping the fun and freedom of autumn dressing lasts long into the seasons to come.

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Less Is More

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I recently saw an interesting blog post from one of my favourites: Lawfully Chic. The post highlighted a campaign aimed at helping people make more thoughtful purchasing choices. I haven't felt compelled to follow through the idea of having a month off clothes shopping on this occasion, but it has made me more aware of what I do/don't buy.

Personally, I'm a big fan of 'found fashion' - belts from my Mum's drawers; jeans, work trousers and sweatshirts from my Dad's; dresses from cousins and the odd shirt from my husband. Add a little 'vintage' and a lot of charity shop thrift and you basically have the full measure of my wardrobe, plus a few highstreet staples to balance out the general pick and mix approach. Given my clothes habits, I don't actually buy new items that frequently. Even so, there have been a couple of distinct periods when I've felt the need to limit my purchasing or purge myself of excess baggage.

Once was about three years ago at university when I reached the stage of being unable to walk past a charity shop without investing some of the government's graciously given money on another top/bag/jacket. The purchases had stopped being gems of discovery; I could no longer honestly say "one man's junk is another man's treasure" and truly believe that it applied to the goods in my hand. At that point nothing but an all-out fashion-fast, in the form of a pact made with my then-boyfriend (now husband) would do. After 2 months of non-spending I was cured.

The other occasion was more a phase than specific experience, and I'm only just coming out the other side. As part of my degree, I left the UK and lived in Germany for an academic year. On my return for holidays, and eventually for good, it dawned on me how many clothes I hadn't seen, worn or missed over the course of my time away. I began a donating frenzy with the kind of ruthless clarity made possible by protracted absence and disassociation. The exercise intensified at the end of my degree. That summer was the summer of our wedding and the beginning of a whole new chapter in everything. The clothes I took with me were the ones that felt like they bridged the gap between where I was coming from and where I was going - either stylistically or sentimentally.

The joy of shedding clothes makes me think of snakes shedding their skin: there can be something uncomfortable and slightly horrifying about it, but the end result is a freedom to maneuver more easily. Being more creative in clothing choices and more intentional about the outcome of dressing decisions is hugely satisfying, if fashion is your thing, and it's interesting how having less to choose from can often make that personal style evolution more achievable.

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Making Time

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Ever since one of my Aunties gave me a children's daily picture bible around age nine, I have been hooked on spending a part of my early morning talking to God about life, the universe and - for the majority of the time, if I'm honest - little details of my day to day life. As a student, in almost complete control of how I managed my time, these sessions would sometimes leak into the late morning or even early afternoon. I'd realise that I had completely lost myself in the listen-talk-listen of being alone with God.

When I eventually joined the so-called 'real world', this little routine suffered a severe blow. The alarm would go off (several times) before I'd finally rush into the day with an 'oh no'. The absence of that little haven of reflection and revelation at the start of my days bothered me, even though I would still have snatches of conversation throughout the day - bringing my thoughts about this and that to God mentally, or out loud in a private moment.

I started to try and build dedicated time with God back into my day in all kinds of ways . I tried meditating on the bus, but eventually the early start, schoolchildren and mid-journey bus change all conspired to get the better of me. When I switched to driving to work, I camped out in the back seat of my car a couple of times during my lunch break. I succeeded in creating a private space for our time together, but felt anti-social and self-conscious with colleagues to-ing and fro-ing.

There seems to be something special about a 'morning meeting' - perhaps a symbolic giving of the whole day to God by beginning it with Him. The idiosyncratic poems of the shepherd-King and wanderer-warrior, David, set out a template for morning contemplation, and Jesus is often described as nipping out early for space to set the day in context. Even so, the days of snoozing the alarm until there was no time for anything more than a grunt of greeting to God accumulated.

The turning point has come from being more realistic. I don't have unlimited and flexible time in the morning. I personally find mornings the best time to be brutally honest, seeking out God's insight and enjoying the depth and breadth of His company. But in reality I've found God is always ready and willing to sit with me a while, and when I obsess and feel guilty about the rules of engagement I really miss the point. I've whittled my target time down from half an hour to just 15 precious minutes - as the habit grows maybe the time I set aside will expand too, but for now this is more achievable.

And above all, I've remembered what I'm making time for: being with Love and in Love. Now, that's worth getting out of bed for.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Women's Issues

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Today I had the chance to attend a networking event for women in the sector I find myself working in. 

My current job is openly acknowledged to be a kind of intermediary exploration into business development ahead of moving into a role that relates to my degree, and I appreciate my employers being satisfied with my short term commitment. Even though it isn't a 'job for life', I want to make the most of the learning curves it brings and this event was an opportunity to meet more experienced practitioners and benefit from some of their expert advice.

The organisation that hosted the afternoon of presentations aims to link women in an arguably male-dominated sector, and essentially create a 'safe space' for their development. Whilst the subject matter discussed largely centred on how to network effectively, a reoccurring emphasis was placed on women being supportive of one another - working together to inspire each other and advance each other's careers. 

It's a sentiment I have a fair amount of time for: my bookshelves are littered with literature that charts the rise (and fall) of successful women, from Indira Ghandi and Anita Roddick, to the 'women who ruled England before Elizabeth II' who are introduced to an unsuspecting audience by historian Helen Castor. Reading their stories does inspire me, and I feel strangely supported by them despite our different circumstances, cultures and even time periods. I also recently enjoyed the snippets of interviews in Emerald Street with female leaders, and am guaranteed to buy Vogue whenever they do one of their inspirational women seasons.

At the same time, elements of the discussion left me feeling incredibly frustrated. For example, I didn't resonate with the idea that women struggle in more competitive and 'professional' networking scenarios and therefore need these havens of female informality in order to get ahead. This is perhaps a misrepresentation of what the speaker(s) intended to communicate, but it's what I heard, and often seem to hear when women come together to bond over 'being women' in a particular sphere. It seems to me that the message becomes about learning how to compensate for perceived female weaknesses, or in the language of this particular event "women's issues", with everyone rallying round certain accepted insecurities like not feeling confident enough in the workplace.

It's not that I don't think those insecurities are real and crippling, or that I want to deny anyone a supportive environment in which to move ahead in work (and life). I just feel that in packaging these sorts of concerns as women's issues, we are selling ourselves short and perhaps even reinforcing the difficulties  by perpetuating the idea that these are the sorts of things women should struggle with. 

Gender can be a powerful unifier, and gender specific role models and events can have particular relevance - offering encouragement derived from commonality. But let's not be complacent and fall back on stereotypes that reduce complexities into neatly applied labels. Male or female, we owe it to ourselves to make progress towards being the best version of our individual selves in the contexts we're in, without getting overly hung up on categorising ourselves along the way.

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Lightness of Being - Chris Levine

 'Lightness of Being'
Copyright 2011 Chris Levine
(used with permission) 

A few nights ago when eating with friends, someone posed an interesting question in that comfortable sort of wine-washed, post-dinner pre-pudding lull. We started talking about who we would want to meet out of anyone alive today, and after the slight grumble about instantaneous celebrity culture subsided I surprised a few people by settling on Queen Elizabeth II.

Although she might not be every 24 year-old's first choice heroine, the idea and influence of Her Majesty The Queen has crept up on me over the years and exerted a fascinating pull. Many significant anniversaries have come and gone in her reign to date, and on one of those occasions - I forget which one - I watched a documentary about her life and 'royal career'. The details have disappeared, but a lasting impression of her strong sense of duty and dedication was created. Recent years have only added to that, and as my own understanding of society has broadened I have a greater appreciation of the complexities involved in, as the official website of the British Monarchy puts it, "[reigning] through more than five decades of enormous social change and development." 

I think it's that longevity that most excites admiration in me - hers is a life clearly underpinned by fidelity. Fidelity to nearly 60 years of service on the throne, with all its benefits and burdens. Fidelity to a specific faith and specific values, and to a marriage longer than some people's lifetimes. To my mind, fidelity is the most dynamic of characteristics. To be steadfastly committed to anything amidst life's twists and turns requires both a flexibility and integrity that I think is hugely underrated. To stay and learn, when you want to leave; to commit to change when you want things to stay the same; to have to rediscover what you thought you already knew: fidelity to anything isn't easy. And to live it out under the spotlight of privilege and position, with audiences sometimes hostile and often ignorant... That's a strong lady right there.

I love Chris Levine's holographic portrait 'Lightness of Being' commissioned in 2004 (above). For me, the luminous quality of the image combined with Her Majesty's closed eyes communicates a sense of quiet transcendence, humanity and strength. Listening to Levine explain how the portrait came about in an interview with The Guardian it is clear that these qualities in the portrait were captured by the artist, not created by him. The tenacity I admire in The Queen is beautifully summed up in Levine's portrait. I see an extraordinary woman closing her eyes to how she is perceived and quietly regaining strength. It's a strength that seems to be derived, not from the externals of power and status (although those exist and are represented in the grandeur of Her Majesty's clothing and jewels), but largely from the inner resourcefulness of a life lived with purpose. A strength I would love to emulate.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Love and Work - Steve Jobs

Image created by artandwords on

Steve Jobs died yesterday. By the time my corner of the world woke up to the news this morning, the tributes had already begun to flood in from the four corners of a globe he did so much to connect.

I don't own a single Apple product, although I regularly use my husband's (and I guess what's his is mine). But I do have an enduring memory of watching a 15 minute youtube clip of the address Jobs gave to Standford University graduates in 2005. The BBC have extracted some of my favourite parts of his speech for their "In His Own Words" feature:

Remembering that I'll be dead soon is the most important tool I've ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything - all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure - these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.

Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma - which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice.

Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven't found it yet, keep looking. Don't settle. As with all matters of the heart, you'll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don't settle.

There's no denying how inspirational those words are, and his death adds a new poignancy to his ability to appreciate the brevity of life. But I'm also inspired by the context  of these words - wrapped up in the three short stories he chooses to share about his life. 

The stories are a testament to the fact that even the most inspirational lives are ultimately a string of growing processes. There's no shame in doing the job that takes us a step closer to where we feel we should be; it's natural to have to 'work our way to the top' - whatever 'the top' represents for us as individuals or societies. 
I'm a big fan of aspiration, but I don't want to miss out on achieving my dreams because I wasn't prepared to do the hard work - the behind the scenes, menial or boring bits. If I treat those things as a stage in the adventure instead of turning my nose up at them, I give myself the opportunity to find my way to something as fulfilling for me as creating Apple was for its founder.
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