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

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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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