Monday, 20 April 2009

"You know how it is - work, work, work"

As with my last blog, this is one that’s been a long while coming. I thought that it would be written a few months ago, but, once again, I’ve somehow not managed to get down to actually putting it on paper. Until now - away on holiday, and feeling that my day is full of hours of freedom that I can use completely as I will.

The title is part of a comment I heard the other week on a bus: “You know how it is - work, work, work, and there’s never any time to do anything else”. When I wrote my last blog, that was very much how I felt. I was considering the possibility of reducing my hours at work, and looking at taking up some of the things I didn’t have to do but wanted to, in terms of studying and learning new skills.

4 months on, then…

Well, in relation to my last blog, my biggest achievement is probably that, after years of dreaming about it, I’ve finally gone part time at work. Since January, I’ve gone down to three days a week, a change that was achieved by the simple method of, erm, asking. Up until the moment I got the ‘yes’ back from my manager, I seriously thought that my application would just be laughed off, and I’d be told to come back when I had a few kids to justify my request. Nothing of the sort - the reaction went a long way to prove one of the adages I’ve always gone by - ‘If you don’t ask, you don’t get’. Colleagues were actually really positive when I told them about my change. Most were also slightly wistful - of the ‘I wish I could afford to do that’ type. When I asked them why they thought they couldn’t, the responses tended to involve mortgage, price of living, affording bringing up kids.

Whilst I must admit, initially I did worry about the cut in my salary, even without all off the issues mentioned to contend with, I soon shrugged that off as I realised I could still quite comfortably afford all the things that I needed, and really only needed to make a few restrictions in the things I wanted. It’s made me a bit more selective in the things that I do spend money on - so I find rather than just getting something I sort of want, I’m spending on things I really value - time out with friends over DVDs that I probably won’t get round to watching - and finding alternatives for other things - trips to the local library rather than buying books I probably won’t read more than once; free comedy TV and radio recordings; very cheap theatre tickets through a local initiative at the Young Vic (I saw King Lear for £2.50!); and time spent browsing Freecycle before looking to other sources for all sorts of things.

Funnily enough, the one colleague I spoke to the most about my cut in hours, and who expressed a similar desire to go part time is our receptionist - a young mum living with her baby son and husband in rented accommodation, probably on a salary not too different from mine (i.e., not very much). Each time she talked about wanting to go part time, she said she felt torn between worrying about getting on the ‘property ladder’ and spending more time with her little boy. With some totally unbiased and balanced input from myself (“why do you need a mortgage? - look at the state of the market - all those homeowners are probably wishing they stuck to renting” and “Surely spending quality time with your son is worth more than whatever anyone can pay you, as long as you’ve got food on the table and a roof over your head” - like I said, totally unbiased arguments), she actually went from just wishing about it to taking steps to making it happen. She’s now down to three days a week as well, and tells me she wishes she’d never come back full time in the first place.

Back to my own experiences, though. As soon as I knew I was going part time, I signed up for two courses - one in Arabic, one in Counselling Skills. What I didn’t know, at this time, was that I was about to become one of our roving trainers at work - being sent around the country to help run remote training of the courses we offer. In the first seven weeks of the year, I travelled up North five times, for either one or two nights away a week. Suddenly I found that, rather than the calm and relaxing time I’d been expecting, I was plunged into even more stress than any time I’d worked five days a week. I was missing classes, and spending free time catching up with these, and also coming back to the office with work that piled up while I was away, and needed to be tackled, all the time with the knowledge that I’d soon be off again. We actually started joking at work that I was away so often, they’d need a picture to recognise me when I was actually in. Joking aside, I spent the first two months of the year almost constantly stressed, working longer hours and wondering whether the whole part-time thing had been such a great idea after all.

Then a lot of things seemed to fall into my place. My manager re-evaluated my work-load, so that it actually reflected the hours I was in, taking into account all the time I was away training. I gradually started learning to say ‘no’ as well, if I was asked to do something that I really couldn’t fit into my schedule, both inside and out of work. I got into the groove of studying again, and was supported by friends made on both courses. And suddenly, all the benefits that I’d hoped would flow from working fewer hours started to flood in.

Over the past few months, I’ve reconnected with a lot of friends who, over the past few years, there’s simply not been time to see that often. Studying at the university I used to work at, I’ve had a number of lunches and after class/work meetings with old colleagues who remain friends. I’ve started volunteering regularly at a Forest Garden in North London, just once a month, but great for getting out, meeting others, and doing a bit of work with my hands. And did I mention the holidays?

The other day, I worked out all the time I’ve had or am planning to have off work this year, made possible by a combination of my newly-reduced annual leave, buffered by my two non-working days, weekends and time off in lieu:
  • 5 days in Greece in March - a visit, to see two close friends, that I’ve been planning and putting off for the past 5 years, either because of lack of time or money. Although I wasn’t keen to fly, taking the train and ferry just wasn’t feasible (3 days!), and so I’ve put this down as my flights for the year;
  • a day trip to Portsmouth to see a friend I’d not seen since I left there;
  • 11 days down in Dorset: 9 days in Weymouth at the flat of a friend’s parents - 4 with relatives and 5 alone; and then 3 days at the Hilfield Project;
  • 10 days in Edinburgh, staying with a friend or two, enjoying the Free Fringe;
  • the last 10 days of Ramadan off
  • ten days in Cumbria (two working).

That’s immense - apart from Ramadan, then, 35 days that I’ll have spent away, doing with them whatever I please, seeing friends and generally just enjoying not working. And that’s not even counting the other weekends, and the rest of my two non-working days. Compared to two weeks away last year, that’s got to be something worth going part time for.

Now I’m off to take my evening constitutional along the sea-front, maybe take a few dozen pictures in the local nature reserve, and possibly grab some fish and chips on the way home. I might even put on a film, or call a friend, then have myself an early night. I’ll probably spend the day on the beach tomorrow, catching up on my correspondence, or reading the Oliver Sacks’ book that I’ve just started since I bought it last year. So much free time, so many things I could do - and all only if I want to.

Thursday, 2 April 2009

'Forms of Activism'

Thank you to Julia Khadija for kindly, and efficiently writing up the following notes:


A transcript summary of Derek Wall's talk

Derek Wall’s inspirational talk, at the 2nd Main Fast for the Planet event, was most thought-provoking in that it was full of original ideas and in a short time dealt with many issues in an innovative way.

He began by mentioning the Zen approach which would be to ‘say nothing for 10 minutes’, echoing one theme of his talk, that we often rush in with solutions that don’t work. He stressed another theme by mentioning the verse in the Qur’an: ‘"But waste not by excess, for God loves not the wasters." (Qur 'an: 7:31)

Dogmatic solutions are often not the answer to environmental problems and we need a variety of approaches. One typical approach is that as the situation is so urgent, we should not waste time thinking about solutions, but this usually leads to unworkable ‘solutions’. Two examples he cited here were carbon trading, which only passes on the carbon to somewhere else, and bio diesel, which has led to huge damage to indigenous peoples and environmental destruction.

What is needed is a strategy that leads to transformation of the basic economic system, which is based on growth and expansion unsustainable on a planet with finite resources. Capitalism has led to so much consumerism that we end up destroying ourselves. For example if acid rain kills off plankton, the whole eco-system of the ocean will die. We need structural changes which would help us to be greener.

Derek cited the examples of three prominent activists who had successfully achieved change. The first, Jerry Hicks, is a Trades Union activist, who has worked for the creation of ‘green jobs’. Secondly, Hugo Blanco, a Peruvian revolutionary has helped indigenous communities in Peru to stop the takeover of their rain forests, so that they may continue to live in and benefit from them in a sustainable way. One of the best types of activism is to support grass roots action where people see themselves as part of the solution.

The third activist is Roberto Perez in Cuba, who with Castro’s support, developed renewable energy systems, city farms, making Cuba a model of sustainable development.

Derek pointed out that instead of trying to imagine a ‘utopia’, we need to struggle with the situation we are in. Everyone needs to decide which form of activism they are best suited to and work on that.

The above is a summary transcript of a talk by Derek Wall (22nd March 2009)

Sunday, 25 January 2009

The Full Dream - A Revolution of Values

For me, this past week has felt like watching the production of a film or tv show because until now, minority presidents only existed in the realm of imagination. But as reality began to set in about a refreshing new leader in America, I was inspired to read more about the man invoked most often along the path toward the election of our first African American president. I wondered what his spirit would say to President Obama-or more importantly what it would guide we as a people to do to make the most of this extraordinary opportunity. So I decided to read more of Dr. King's other speeches, to go beyond the soundbytes. What I discovered was that we do a tremendous disservice to his legacy and ourselves by reducing his dream to a few statements from the end of one of his speeches-as powerful as they are. We need to understand his full dream so that we can work toward actualizing it.

King's activism shifted dramatically during the last years of his life and subsequently suffered vilification from the national media, President Johnson, and even other civil rights leaders for changing direction. The media and much of the population had come to laud his civil rights quest, so what was this vision that caused his descent from grace? Martin Luther King Jr. did not stop with his quest for integration, because he realized that integration into a broken system would not bring equality and justice. In 1967, a year before his tragic death, he delivered a speech entitled "Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence" at Riverside Church in New York. In it he said:

I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a "thing-oriented" society to a "person-oriented" society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.

A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies....A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say: 'This is not just.'

The speech is worth reading in its entirety, and although written about American imperialism and militarism at that time, sadly, it remains astonishingly relevant today, as Gaza lies in rubble. Interestingly, this is the same speech from which Obama drew the phrase, "the fierce urgency of now".

A few months later, King delivered the speech “Where do we go from here?” where he asked:

“Who owns the oil?" You begin to ask the question, "Who owns the iron ore?" You begin to ask the question, "Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that's two-thirds water?" These are words that must be said…..What I'm saying to you this morning is communism forgets that life is individual. Capitalism forgets that life is social. And the kingdom of brotherhood is found neither in the thesis of communism nor the antithesis of capitalism, but in a higher synthesis.

Now, with the planet's future at risk and social inequalities increasing at an alarming pace, but also a massive infusion of hope pulsing throughout the world, the time is ripe for a revolution of values. That was his dying dream. I have made an intention to learn more about his full dream and share it with others this year, for that is how we can begin to answer the question-What would Martin Luther King Jr. want us- citizens of the world- to do now?....and then work on making it a reality.

You can read the full text of these speeches here:

Thursday, 22 January 2009

The Pen and the Keyboard: Letter to a Friend

Christmas is the time when my life slows down. The cry of "Discounts" and "Sales" is like a momentary wind - If I am not taking cover, I can usually let it blow over me, feeling it but letting it pass. It is during this period that I often have space to focus a little more on my inner life, close friends, and family.

It was during the Christmas period just gone that I was affected by a telephone conversation I had with a friend. I was affected in a quiet way, as though a seed had been planted in consciousness. My friend told me that she had been spending this period writing to friends, in particular those with whom the friendship had got stuck - and she was writing, not to explain that she was right and they were wrong, but to bring more awareness into her relationships. What I found so refreshing was firstly her sincerity in supporting her relationships to grow, and secondly, that rather than sitting in front of a screen tapping an email on a keyboard, she was instead largely writing letters, using a paper and pen.

As she spoke, I was swept into distant memories of what it had felt like to receive a handwritten letter from a close friend - the appreciation of the effort it had taken to write it, the (usually!) more thoughtful content and deeper levels of expression, the pull of aspects of the handwriting and illegible bits that took time to decipher - and although writing emails is 'efficient', the ease and speed with which they are sent means the attention we give to each has lessened. A quality of experience has been eroded - and my friend was demonstrating how it could so easily be revived.

It was about three weeks later, just a few days ago in fact, when I finally took the plunge and wrote a letter to a friend of mine. I wrote to someone I hadn't spoken to for a year, and had not written a letter to for at least ten, but a friend with whom I had spent quite alot of time throughout my teens. We had met at a martial arts club in Coventry and spent many a time sparring and working out together. We also knew one another's families. We were now travelling along quite different paths in life, but shared a bond of common experience.

Just putting pen to paper was an experience, that felt noticeably more expansive than what I usually feel in front of the screen a couple of clicks away from any one of thousands of emails. I felt able to have my friend in consciousness more clearly, and my writing flowed. I said things that I might not have said on email, and knew that he would give more time to take it in. A couple of days later, he called me. He was so pleased to have gotten the letter, that he called as soon as he had read it, and thanked me for writing.

So, here I am, having just had an experience of something that is so out of fashion that it feels like a novelty. I hope to carry on writing the occasional letter - and as an environmentalist whilst I appreciate that writing letters uses paper, and email doesn't, I'm simultaneously aware of a deeper experience, one of wholeness and stillness that I got out of writing a letter and that I found nurturing to the soul - something that is another world to the conveyor belt mode of contemporary life which pulls us to our next material fix.