This Kingdom is not United

My first attempt at blogging was inspired by the results map of the 2015 UK general election – a startling picture of gold across Scotland that stood in sharp contrast the vote swinging right in the rest of the UK.

My leftover frustrations from the so very nearly won Scottish Independence Referendum of 2014 mixed with awe at this unprecedented result, where a Scottish-only party became the third largest party in Westminster, spilled over into writing.

Did the SNP sabotage politics for the UK wondered how we could move forward united when our countries seemed to view things so differently.


So how did we?

Well, we staggered on, with arguably Scotland’s most effective government ever somehow managing to maintain success whilst working within the tight confines of Conservative enforced austerity.

The double edged sword of this, of course, was that effective stewardship kept the SNP in power but also allowed the people of Scotland to believe that while we might not see eye to eye on everything, Scotland could perform well within our union.

That is until Brexit.

Today perhaps the game is finally up.

David Cameron’s game within his own party didn’t achieve his aim. Rather than quashing the hard right, his Brexit Referendum gave them airtime and unleashed an unexpected storm.

At the eye of that storm was undisguised racism. At the windy edges, a simple naivety about a return to the good old days when Britain was top dog.

Ideas once whispered carefully between friends were now being shouted as brave declarations of entitlement.

The running of this referendum was no surprise to the Scottish people. We literally watched it all run as it had in 2014. A media, fuelled by billionaires with much to gain from Brexit, sold the public a fairy story about freedom and new powers to come. In case that wasn’t enough, they topped it up with pages of scare stories about immigration, reminiscent of Germany in the 1930s.

While this hit a chord with many in England, it never really stuck north of the border, in a country where immigration is essential and cultural diversity actively celebrated by those in charge.

The irony of course lay in the lie we had been told in 2014.

We had been told our place in Europe was a prize to be lost in claiming our independence. As it turned out that prize was going to be torn from us simply because we voted to stay.

Scotland voted overwhelmingly against Brexit but as that first post predicted, it turned out we didn’t get a say at all.

As the ugly negotiations have dragged on, Scotland has been actively excluded. Scotland’s needs for immigration, for farming and fishing support, for trade, have been put aside for the greater cause of the ‘British people’s’ desire for sovereignty.

In truth we are simply swapping one allegiance for another.

Scotland knows all about losing sovereignty. Her democratically elected government was excluded from Brexit talks. Scottish MPs were mocked in parliament and told many times to go home.

So these European elections, not generally a high status election in the UK, have become a focal point of our frustration. Although the turnout was not high, it was significantly higher than in previous years and it was clear in what the people of Scotland had to say. The results map takes us back 4 years.

That upside down Marge Simpson shows the cartoon that democracy really is in the UK

Undoubtedly this was a one issue election. Its result: Scotland still does not support Brexit.

It might not tell us much about how a second independence referendum would go but it surely shows us we can’t go on as we are.

I find myself thinking exactly the same as I did when I was writing 4 years ago.

“I genuinely wonder what my friends who don’t support independence feel about things now.”

It is clear yet again that Scotland is politically different from the rest of the UK. It is going to become all too clear that these differences are not just local side issues to be managed with devolution.

Scotland has different priorities, different needs and it seems a different mindset. Yet we are shackled in a system that forces us to go where the rest of the UK goes, even if it is jumping off an economic cliff.

The Scottish Government has skilfully managed some of the challenges of austerity but no government will be able to cancel out the effects of Brexit. The loss of population and trade from a hard Brexit will be devastating on Scotland whoever is in charge.

The SNP are constantly being told to “get back to the day job” and stop focusing on independence. Yet, while Westminster has been frozen by Brexit for months, the day job has continued in the Scottish Government.


The SNP European Election campaign was run on one issue – stopping Brexit.

Only the Scottish Conservative and Unionist party made Independence a focus of their campaign, stating a vote for them was a vote against another independence referendum.

Still, now that they’ve brought it up and got their answer, I wonder if it might be time to ask the Scottish people again.

The thing about democracy is you get to change your mind.

We do what we think best at the time. When we know better, we do better.

The past 5 years have uncovered the lies at the heart of the last Scottish referendum (even the architect of the famous Vow has shifted to supporting Independence) and the dangers of staying in a union that serves itself at our cost.

Maybe we’ll be wiser this time. Maybe we’ll be braver.

Because the only alternative is to accept the will of others imposed on us, regardless of what we believe. That almost certainly means Brexit now and probably the loss of NHS next.

The alternative is to accept the death of democracy.

Once again our voting demonstrates that our kingdom is not united. And if we don’t change something this time perhaps we never will.

It is finished.

It has always felt strange to call this day ‘Good’.

The day when we remember torture and crucifixion and a mother watching her son die from an agonising distance. It was a day of utter darkness, literally as the Bible tells it.

Jesus’ last words were “It is finished” (John 19:30).

I imagine His followers, having watched the day unfold in disbelief, reaching a moment of utter despair as they heard those words and watched their Leader die. And die with such hopeless words.

They had seen with their own eyes that He had miraculous power. They had seen him confound death itself by raising others. Why wasn’t He doing it now?

Surely He knew that this was the time to show His power, to show that He was the Son of God. Surely He knew how afraid His followers were and would not leave them in their terror!

And yet He did.

Good Friday was the day when things did indeed seemed finished… in the worst way.

Those who loved Jesus watched their hopes die.

The disciples had given up jobs to follow a man who seemed to hold the key to what really mattered. They had followed Him passionately, listening and questioning, arguing and learning. They believed they were just at the start of something incredible.

But now. Now, in the darkness, all they had staked their lives on seemed finished.

They found themselves alone and not only that but potentially under attack from the powerful who wanted their revolution crushed.

I imagine despair and confusion. How had the power and presence of God they had known so keenly, suddenly disappeared?

Either the whole thing had been a elaborate ruse or He had simply abandoned them

Did they still believe that Friday night as they returned home?

Did they start to question all they had seen?

I know some of that feeling. Not as desperately as Jesus followers that day, I don’t think. But I have known despair and confusion.

I’ve wondered why, when I’ve tried to follow God faithfully, He seems to have abandoned me at times. He seems to have let circumstances, outwith my control but surely within His, march on and crush my hopes. Agonisingly so, at times.

That’s the thing about life – it’s hard. Not always. But often. For everyone.

But when we feel despair, we don’t speak it out in case it gets bigger. We dare not confess it in case we really are alone. And we face attack. We quietly sit in Friday darkness wondering if there is anything left to hope for. And wondering why no one else seems to feel this.

I do speak mine out. Not in public but I shout it to God and I believe He hears. Yet sometimes He doesn’t answer.

It makes no sense to me, having known His power in a very real way, why He should choose not to act when I need Him to.

I know without a doubt that He is there. I am certain that He loves me. I am confused by how these facts sit with His silence when I sit in the darkness.

And this is the hard work of Faith. Faith is not joining a club and singing songs. It is not finding a purpose and feeling good about life.

Faith is the gritty work of clinging on to what you have known to be true when the darkness seems to have won.

Faith is not for the faint hearted. And sometimes, when I am tired and frustrated by all that I see wrong in the world, I wonder if it it is for me.

But then I remember who I am. Just a person, who really doesn’t know very much. Who has felt this before and has watched the answers unfold. Not always fully but enough to keep going.

And I remember who He is.

God, the creator of everything that has ever been and ever will be. That I would think I could direct Him to make things better. My arrogance is embarrassing really.

What the disciples couldn’t see that day was that the Friday they hated was indeed Good. In fact, good doesn’t even begin to cover it.

What Jesus had finished was in fact the work that He came to do, the work of making people right with God.

His cry was not giving in, it was triumph!

It was too much for the disciples to understand. That work, even after 2 centuries of theological consideration, is still too much for human minds to fully understand. That one perfect man could really take the punishment of the whole world for all eternity and change the direction of all human existence away from judgement and towards Grace.

The disciples had no notion of that. They had not really listened when Jesus told them he would die and be raised again 3 days later. They heard what he said, then and now, through their limited capacity to understand.

I think we all see God through our limited capacity to understand.

Acknowledging that might be the start of seeing Him for real.

Jesus didn’t set up false hopes, warning “in this world you will have trouble” (John 16:33). This life was not promised as something easy.

It is full of wonder and joy but it also has its darkness for all of us.

The message of Good Friday is that Jesus has been in that dark place and won. In the dark times, I may not understand how His plans can fit with my experience but one day I will.

And maybe I’ll discover that at the very moment I thought He’d abandoned me, He was actually achieving incredible things.

Sometimes the biggest and simplest job of Faith is believing, in the dark times where there is no understanding, that hope will rise again.

If you feel finished, at the end of yourself, I hope you find a seed of Faith to sit with in the dark place and wait for the sun to rise.  The rising is coming and, if history is anything to go by, it’s going to be spectacular.

Social Media Can Make You Happy

I am now the mother of a teenager. I was geared up for the arrival of hormones and huffs but so far it is not nearly as emotionally challenging as I was expecting, although we are only a few weeks in. I feel nervous having typed this; the precursor to it all going wrong must surely be showing off online about how well you are doing something.

Which links neatly to the unexpected adversary of parenting in the teenage years I had not really given much thought to – Social Media.

I am a stickler for rules, so no one in my house was having access to anything they had to give fake ID for. 13 is the golden age where most of these apps become ‘legal’ so having a teenager means I have just entered the world of online parenting.

The media is full of stories about how Smart Phones are destroying a generation, ruining lives and causing a mental health crisis. While I know from experience working with young people that there are risks, I also know that Smart Phones are here to stay. Short of moving to a desert island to raise my kids (and I can’t even imagine parenting without Google so that’s not going to happen), there’s no question that they will play a large part in their lives and that Social Media, whether now or in the future, will be part of that.

Maybe this is a result of cognitive dissonance, but I genuinely feel that Social Media has been a mostly positive influence in my life. It has helped me get to know people better who might have otherwise just been passing acquaintances. Social Media has introduced me to books, music, films, events and ideas I would never have known about otherwise. It makes me feel supported, sometimes very practically (“Has anyone got an animal costume I can borrow tomorrow?”). Social Media entertains me, challenges me and gives me a place to share.

I do know that it is not without risks. Sometimes, I take things personally. Sometimes I see sides of people I wish I hadn’t. Sometimes I show sides of myself I wish I hadn’t. I can easily lose an hour browsing that could have been better spent doing something more productive. Still, I think the benefits outweigh the risks, so long as I manage them carefully. I think how you view and do Social Media determines whether it enhances or ensnares you.

It has been eye-opening to see how different a teenager’s experience of Social Media is to my own. I scroll through my daughter’s newly established Instagram feed and see no female faces which have not been electronically modified. While this is done explicitly – everyone knows girls don’t have cat ears – I wonder about the psychological effect of seeing this new ‘normal’ face, with a tiny chin, enlarged eyes and perfect skin, over and over again. Girls seem to comment almost exclusively on how beautifully each other is. And beside this, the boys faces are unaltered and their chat focused on what they are doing. As a feminist this concerns me. As a psychologist, seeing the impact on mental health of this life lived in comparison, it terrifies me.

But as with all terrorism, the power is in the fear. So what if I refuse to be afraid? What if I believe instead that Social Media can be good and look for a way to navigate through it both for myself and for my children? What if Social Media can not only be neutralised but actually be used to make you happy?

Happiness research is a real thing. You can study for degrees in happiness at Ivy League universities. This is not a frivolous topic. Happy countries have better economics. Happy workers are more productive. Happy people cost society less. And happy teenagers save parents sleepless nights (and the need for photographic filters on Social Media).

So what if some of the principles of happiness were applied to Social Media? How would that change how we view it and how we do it?

Bill O’Hanlon has inspired much of my approach to work. In my personal life I have found his acronym for happiness a helpful driver in decision making. He has distilled the research on happiness into 4 key factors which everyone needs: SOAP. I’m now thinking of how I might clean up my little corner of the internet applying it. I’m wondering if it might help me lay down some guidelines to help my daughter stay happy on Social Media too.

  • Social Connections

  • Optimism

  • Appreciation

  • Purpose

Social Connections

The happiest people have strong social connections. The evidence of course relates to real-life relationships. Still, it feels like a good start. There is definitely potential for increasing socially connection through social media. Connections are not automatically positive and nowhere is this more true than online. I think it can be helpful to distinguish connections that drain from those that energise.

Drains make you feel less. Sometimes that’s through consistently negative posts. Sometimes you just find yourself feeling ‘less’ having looked at their updates. If their posts make you feel less beautiful, less accomplished, less successful, it doesn’t really matter if it’s their fault or yours for making the comparison, don’t spend time looking.

It’s possible to maintain friends without looking at what they post online all the time. I don’t even need to unfriend them. I can just stop their updates from showing on my timeline. Maybe when I am in a better place I can appreciate their shares for what they are. For now, if it’s making me compare, I need to step away from the screen.

Energisers‘ posts make you laugh, make you think, make you feel connected to them. Sometimes they’ll post things that make you compare a little but overall seeing what they post makes you feel better. I have energising online friends who I never meet in real-life but they impact on my day to day life immensely by what they share.

So my advice to my daughter is, Try to be an energiser. Be real. Only say things you’d say in real life. Ask yourself whether what you’re posting is likely to make people feel better about themselves or worse. Make people laugh. Post things that will make people think. Be brave enough to share your opinions and humble enough to listen to ones that are different yours. Don’t be scared to reach out to ask for or offer help. Choose your connections carefully. Only connect with people you know and filter what you follow based on how it makes you feel.

Optimism

Looking for positives rather than negatives leads to longer, more satisfied life. Obviously connecting with Energisers is going to build up optimism but sometimes we have to work at it ourselves. Optimism is a habit that can be practised and built. Even habitual pessimists can train themselves to catch negative thinking and check what an alternative explanation might be. Is that person showing off or might they be looking for affirmation because they are feeling vulnerable? Is that comment definitely directed at me or might it mean something else?

Teenage daughter, please write positively on Social Media; you’ll feel better about yourself and maybe encourage others to at the same time. Avoid judging people harshly by wondering what is behind what they post. If you are seeing anger or cruelty, it’s probably coming from fear or sadness. You can’t control that but you can choose kindness. If that isn’t working you can choose not to look at what someone is writing. Always try to be your most optimistic self online. What you focus on is what will fill your mind.

Appreciation

Gratitude can be used to effectively change how people feel about their lives. Appreciation is also the antidote to comparison, the ever present danger of Social Media. I have discovered that when I feel jealous of someone, complimenting the very thing I feel jealous of, extinguishes the negative feeling. The more I practise it the better I get.

Social Media can be used for complaining about all that you feel is wrong in the world or it can be used to celebrate all that you feel is right. I love people who celebrate nature, beauty and creativity online. Someone I know recently set up a Facebook page solely for sharing what local people love about the town we live in. The communal sense of gratitude is good for us all.

I do have some reservations about #soblessed posts which feel too close to showing off but maybe that’s just my West of Scotland cultural bias showing up. Gratitude always works for the grateful but it helps to be mindful about how it might affect the onlooker. Will it lead people to compare their own lives and feel they come up short? I think gratitude firmly placed in reality helps avoid this. My kids are both wonderful and a huge source of stress. I could take a photo for Facebook in the only tidy corner of my house or I could just take it amidst the reality. I am definitely drawn to the former but am fairly confident that the latter would make other people feel better.

Daughter, you already know the power of gratitude, writing down things you are thankful for every day. Social Media gives you a platform to focus on what you feel is good in the world or to complain about what isn’t. Choose to be grateful for what you have especially when you feel jealous of what you don’t have. Say thank you often. Give genuine compliments freely. Notice what is good in the world and keep notes, in photographs and words. Moments will come when it will help to look back on them.

Purpose

The final common factor found in happy people is a sense of purpose in life. Social Media can unfortunately drive a particularly negative purpose in life, one of making an impression and creating a perfect life. Depending on your connections, some sites can feel like there is room for nothing but this. I fear that for teenagers this is possibly more of a risk. With the right connections though, you can see the power of social media to work for good.

Politics has been re-energised by the ability to share information and debate on Social Media. As it becomes more apparent how manipulated the mainstream media can be in this era of Fake News, Social Media can offer an alternative. As long as we avoid sitting in echo chambers of our own beliefs and are open to alternatives, Social Media can be a place of learning and social change.

As a Christian, I have found myself despairing at times of the public face of my faith. Through Social Media I have discovered bloggers who share my sense of social justice as well as my feminism and faith. They have empowered me, educated me and restored my sense of purpose in the world.

Finally to my daughter I say, Remember your life is not about how you look or who you impress. Your life is about being the best version of you, the bravest, kindest version you can manage to be in whatever situation you find yourself. Even now what you share or how you respond will share values with the world. Find people to follow who live for a bigger purpose and learn from them. And I hope as you grow you’ll use your wisdom and words to make a difference to those who have no voice.

The teenage years are a time of growth and learning, a time when mistakes will be made. Some of them will be made in Social Media. This is much more difficult than in my youth, when mistakes faded with time. So for the next few years, I will be monitoring my children’s use of Social Media carefully. I could view this as an extra responsibility I could do without. Or I could view it as an opportunity to Socially connect with my kids. I could view it Optimistically and Appreciate the opportunities it offers. I could even use it to develop a shared sense of Purpose to our lives. Yes, I think Social Media could make us happy. As long as we are in it together.

Homework

It was with delight that I received a letter from my children’s school explaining their new approach to homework – that the only thing children would be expected to do at home would be to read, enjoy and talk about books.  The whooping and dancing were not reflective of a neglectful approach to parenting.  Not that I am NEVER guilty of that.  My daughter no longer gives me letters that have to be returned to school; she just holds them for me to read, hands me a pen to sign on the line and whips it away before I can accidentally recycle it or write a shopping list on it.  (That I recycle and write shopping lists must surely be seen as evidence that I TRY not to neglect either the planet or my children.)

My response to the homework policy was as a professional working in education who sees this issue from both sides.  And on neither side do I see it working.

Professor John Hattie is a highly respected researcher in education, who has been described as “possibly the world’s most influential education academic” by the Times Educational Supplement. He has spent years studying what influences learning, analysing studies from around the world, covering 80 million students.  His Visible Learning approach, which encourages teachers to use the approaches that actually make a difference, has been adopted by schools around the world and many here in Scotland.

Within this it is interesting to discover that, contrary to the firmly held beliefs of parents and teachers alike, homework has little impact until children are of secondary school age.  While schools have embraced the rest of Hattie’s work, many have been nervous about acting on this.  Why is this?  I think the answer might be us – parents.

I have been interested in parents’ responses to this change in our school.  Many are delighted to feel they are being given some time to enjoy their children after school. Some are relieved to no longer have to battle through activities that their children resist with passion.  Other however, have concerns about the potential risks of leaving homework altogether.  They see homework as a key pillar of education and are worried that removing it will leave the whole endeavour less safe as a result.  This can be even more the case for parents worried that their children are not keeping up with their peers.

It strikes me as being a bit like the case for antibiotics from your GP.  When my children are really ill, I desperately want them to be better and go to the GP hopeful that there will be some magic medicine to achieve this.  However, the doctor knows that most of the illnesses she sees wont be affected by antibiotics.  Indeed giving them may be counterproductive, building resistance for when they are really needed.  So my GP does not respond to my pleading eyes and write a prescription to make ME feel better.  She trusts her professional knowledge instead and rises to her responsibility to do what is best for my child.  And although it feels disappointing at the time, I trust the training and ongoing study of my GP and know that she will be there to continue to support us and change her approach if necessary.

I have heard that there are some GPs who do prescribe more freely, perhaps because it is easier, but I believe that this is lessening as the evidence becomes more widely known and public opinion changes accordingly.

Similarly with homework, we parents want our children to have the best opportunities to learn and develop with a view to becoming the best they can be.  Just like wanting our children to be well, this is a positive attitude.  However, when considering the means to achieve it we need to trust the professionals tasked with knowing this.  While our gut feeling might be that more work must be better and that we have a responsibility to help with this, the evidence does not back this up, at primary school.  Indeed, my experience as a parent is that homework takes time away from enjoying activities together, adds pressure to family life and doesn’t actually influence my children’s learning.

My children tend to find their homework straightforward and I used to be a teacher, so it’s not difficult for me to help them when they don’t.  Yet, still I find it a stress.  How much more difficult must it be then for children who are struggling and whose parents haven’t been trained to teach them, not to mention those who have other pressures in life that must take precedence over ‘rainbow writing’.  To be putting families under this pressure when it DOES NOT WORK, is wrong.

As a professional, often working with children who are finding school particularly difficult, I frequently have to reassure parents and talk them out of their plans to hire tutors and buy all sorts of well marketed products to save their child from going under.  Ironically, it is often the pressure of doing more and more of what they find difficult that leaves them feeling like they are drowning.  Most teachers I speak to agree with me on this and will tell parents to leave it if children are struggling or  are finding it too stressful.  Yet few have the confidence to stop giving homework altogether.  Our schools need confident, well informed leaders to make such a grand change.

Now, just like the GP, the well-trained teacher will be able to assess and respond to individual situations according to their need.  For some children, in some circumstances, doing some work at home might well be helpful.  However, giving everyone homework to tackle that would be like giving my children antibiotics every time they have a sore throat just in case it is tonsillitis, without even looking in their mouths.

As an aside, I wonder if part of the issue here is the gradual erosion of trust in public sector workers that has taken place over the last few decades.  New Public Management approaches encouraged the questioning of public sector professionals and made them answerable to their service users.  And while I don’t disagree with this in principle – I think I should be answerable to the people I work with and often tell parents it is their job to ask questions – I do wonder if an unfortunate side effect has been to make the public forget just how much training and expertise a professional has.

Teachers are better trained and more knowledgeable now than they have ever been.  It amazes me how much they are expected to know and that they achieve this with calm professionalism, occasionally seeking advice from others like myself when they discover there is more they need to know.

If you as a parent feel strongly that your child needs more input on a particular area, of course you can do whatever you feel will help them.  Or better still, talk to your school about your concerns.  In my experience of working with lots of headteachers in lots of schools, I find that the ones most ready to stand up for their principles are also the ones most open to listening to parents and taking their concerns seriously.  The best schools develop not from a ‘them and us’ approach between parents and staff but from parents listening to and supporting their teachers, knowing that they will be listened to and supported in return.

If your school is changing its policy on homework, or anything else, find out why and if you find teachers studying what works best and being brave enough to do it despite cultural norms, congratulate yourself on your luck.  You’ve got a good team.

Our school policy is not to do no homework at all.  It is to focus on reading.  This reflects the national Reading Challenge that has been launched in Scotland, which recognises the importance of reading as a building block for all educational achievement.  The school has also been quite explicit about parents spending time with their children enjoying and talking about books.  So it is not the ‘reading homework’ that I remember of robotically reading a page of words then wondering why Janet wasn’t yet bored with John.  This is about doing what many parents do anyway – cuddling in, reading stories and developing language and literacy skills in a safe and comforting environment.  It also encourages us to keep this going beyond the early years.  My 11 year old, competent reader still enjoys being read to at night, and this allows her to enjoy books that would be more difficult for her to appreciate on her own.  (I am loving Little Women but good luck to anyone trying to read Treasure Island aloud – sentences so long you must surely develop a diver’s breathing capacity in the process.)

I am glad our school leaders are being brave in this.  I don’t want my children to be in a school – or a GP practice- where decisions are made my majority rule.  I want them to be cared for by professionals who know their field and have the confidence to stand up for what’s right. And I intend to stand by them while they do.

 

 

 

 

Pay Attention

Last night, for the second time, I wept over politics.   I should confess that I am a fairly emotional person.  Then again, I think anyone who is paying attention to life should be.  Whether we agree with air strikes on Syria or not, shouldn’t we all be weeping over a situation where air strikes have begun in which civilian casualties will be “kept to a minimum”, to quote our government?

I imagine it is my town.  I imagine that a dreadful terrorist cell has sprung up here with atrocities planned that are further than my imagination will let me travel.  They have already started committing them and horrific death lurks everywhere.    The only way to get rid of them is to take them out, in carefully targeted strikes.  These strikes will be direct and civilian casualties “kept to a minimum”.

What minimum is OK?  We need to get rid of them.  WE NEED TO.  This is too much.  We have to accept some collateral damage.

But what if it is my 3 year old daughter, who will be buried alive or burnt to death?  What if it is my son who is left holding his father’s hand as he drops to the ground?  Even if it was a minimum of one and it was one of my precious ones, I would have to draw a line.  I would insist that there must be another way.

My friends and those around me would probably agree.   We can’t have a little one from our town suffer like this.  Perhaps some in neighbouring towns would agree with us, but others, scared of the danger that might be heading their way, might think that one is not too much, that life is hard, that we need to accept that.  I suspect the further away from me and my town you get, the less that one life matters.

Syria is very far away. I would have struggled to find it on a map with any precision before it became the country that got our attention.  It is far enough away for one life not to matter.  Especially when we are not paying attention.

But sometimes our attention is captured even when we don’t want it to be. Sometimes an image slips in that we can’t distract ourselves from.  Collateral damage becomes real and the rhetoric of war is exposed for the nonsense it is.

That’s the thing, though – it requires attention.  And paying attention in a culture designed to distract you is difficult.  Then, even when you manage, it becomes exhausting and overwhelming and just too difficult to maintain.  So we mourn for a time then go back to the things that are easier to deal with.

When our country last debated entering a war, I wasn’t paying attention. It was the start of the century and I was old enough and educated enough to have taken some responsibility for informing myself but I didn’t.  I was recently married, with a life to build.  I had started a new career and moved to a new town.  I had money to spend and advice all around me on the best ways to spend it.   My own life required diligence.

Don’t misunderstand me.  I had values.  I took an interest in people.  I shared what I had and I hoped my country could be something better than it had been as I grew up.

Perhaps, partly an inheritance of those long Tory years, whose details I did not understand but whose essence was tangible around me, I was thrilled with the election of Tony Blair.   I saw a fairer future.  Things could only get better.  D-Ream said so.

So when there was debate about air strikes on Iraq, I wanted to believe in the man I had put my hopes in.  I dismissed the critics as not understanding the gravity of the situation.  And never once did I consider the people of Iraq.  I just believed the government spin of catching bad guys, as if we were in some Hollywood movie.  And I am ashamed to admit that I think I might, if pushed, have even accepted a small, anonymous child as a sacrifice.  I needed my government to be the good guys.  I needed life to stay safe.

I have grown up since then.  I have seen the facade wipe away from people in power and have learned to understand that as much as I long for it to be so, things aren’t black and white.  And I just can’t work out who the good guys are.  So I have learned not to trust people because they are on my television screen or words because they are in print.  It is still my bias but I have learned to watch out for it and remind myself of what I know.

People in power, even if they don’t start out that way, often end up needing power more than anything else.  And the need for power seems to be at the heart of this on every side.  I don’t exclude myself from this.  A bit of attention from a successful blog post is enough to sway what I will write next away from what I think might be less popular.  I am gripped with need to continue to be successful.  Until I remember to pay attention to what matters.

Following the refugee crisis online has been a sobering reminder of what matters.  Stories like those featured on Humans of the Refuge have made those at the heart of this crisis feel very much closer. My vain concerns are ridiculous in the face of the brutality that so many people in our world face.  And so I have paid attention, to try to understand and to see if there is any hope in any of this.

As I have studied, I have discovered a story with so many twists and turns, I cannot follow the plot.  In the end, Syria’s story seems to be the world’s story:  everyone wants power.  Governments all over the world, the UK’s included, are part of the reason Syria is as it is.  The lust for power existed long before the terrorists.  They just seem to have grabbed it with a particularly evil fervour.

I think those in power prefer us to be distracted, in case we notice the inconsistencies in the story we’ve been sold.

My tears were shed last night when at the end of Hillary Benn’s speech, the House of Commons burst into ecstatic applause.  The clapping, which had been inappropriate when it was practised by novice MPs encouraging a maiden speech, was apparently acceptable to celebrate the thought of bombing a country.  The irony of this after his father’s speech (which had been shared on social media all day) to demonstrate the folly of such strikes was clearly lost in the celebrations.

I still do not understand the cheering.  Mr Benn ( I feel like he must have entered an alternate zone via a dressing room at some point in his formative years) demonstrated good rhetoric but as far as I could see, added nothing new to the argument.  Was it relief that the ghost of war debates past could finally be exorcised if they now had a Benn onside?  Or did it reflect people so desperate to have their way, they forgot what it was going to involve?  While I viewed the debates on the Iraq war through a Hollywood lens, last night I found myself transported into an Orwellian nightmare.

I watched the subdued Scottish benches and wondered how they, and the brave individuals sat amongst the masses, could stand to be amongst the braying triumphalism .  I am sure Mhari Black is right when she says she will never forget that sound.

Paying attention is difficult.  There is so much to understand.  Paying attention hurts a lot.  The small child buried alive and the boy holding his father’s hand as he was shot dead are real stories from Syria.  Sometimes I think it would be easier to go back to the time when politics was someone else’s business and I didn’t know any of the things I know now.  Yet without paying attention to the brutality I could not see the beauty that arises from it.

There is hope in individual stories of people refusing to bow down to terror, when it is perpetrated either by the terrorists or the media, and demonstrating that flowers are stronger than guns.

Today my heart remains heavy about the decisions that have been made in my name.  I continue to believe that there must be another way.  It seems this will not come from government. So, in the meantime, I must find my  own ways to be the change I want to see.  Right now, this involves simply not looking away.  I will pay attention, no matter how many tears I have to shed.

 

A Year Wiser

I love the app in Facebook that gives me snapshot of this day in time over the last few years.  The captured moments trace the shadow of my family’s story.   Photographs reveal chubbiness lost from children’s cheeks.  Long-since forgotten stories come to life and prove Virginia Woolf right that “one never realises an emotion at the time. It expands later”.   I love this gift from Facebook – the expansion of my memories in the light of today.  I know what matters in a way I didn’t then and I know better what to treasure on the road ahead.

Over the last few weeks the memories popping up are less about family and more focused on my own personal growing up, my political awakening, which arose from last year’s campaign for Independence.   As I look at the younger me, I feel the same twinge of regret as I do seeing pictures of my round-faced children.  There was such innocence and such hope, a fearlessness and a sense of possibility.  There was a readiness to jump and an expectation of flight or at least being caught.

My son has just started school and his excitement, sharing what he’s learned each day, mirrors what I went through last year.   I was learning incredible things and proudly showing them to my Facebook family and hoping they’d approve. The reaction was quite like that in our car journeys home from school.  Some did not mind if I was right or wrong but encouraged my sharing.  Some were excited to discover something new for themselves and some thought I was naïve and no doubt annoying at times.

My teachers encouraged me regardless.  They came from throughout Scotland and beyond.   They were well-studied and patient scholars who analysed, reported, blogged and spoke.  Many had been stating their case for years without giving up.  Some took on a new role of examining the evidence on offer and making sure we had all the evidence.  Without them and without social media, I am not sure there would have been much of an argument.

Like many, I once saw Independence as a slightly eccentric ideal, a nationalism that was almost endearing as long as it wasn’t really an option.  I grew nervous watching more and more people getting behind the idea and became too scared to find it charming any more.  I began reading posts furtively, clicking links then extending that with my own study, still not sure who to trust.  As the scaremongering in the media became more blatant and I dared to believe the evidence I was gathering, I finally saw that the eccentric dream was in fact a vision of hope and it was well within reach, if only we had the confidence to say Yes.

I look at that younger self now with the same feelings of pride and protection as I have for my children.  And as with my children, I realise that I now know more.  But I also realise that some of the more I know doesn’t help.  Some of the experiences of growing up make you less confident and fear distracts you from the truth.  The last year has changed me.  I went through a grief that blindsided me last September and I have never been quite the same since.

The campaign had instilled in me such confidence in Scotland that I couldn’t quite believe we hadn’t been brave enough to say Yes.  I felt angry at the machine, fuelled by lies and fear, that stole my country’s future.  I was angry at the individuals who had carelessly given away our chance.  I, who had argued vociferously during the campaign that the referendum would not split the country, was feeling completely divided from those who had voted No.  I genuinely felt something had broken inside me.  It would have been very easy to allow bitterness and cynicism to grow.

This experience was perhaps my adolescence.  I retained my childlike vulnerability but had to step into experiences that hurt.  Just as adolescence is a time of becoming something new, so was my post-referendum experience.   I had to work hard to apply principles I had often written and spoken about but perhaps not had to really exercise much – grace, kindness, patience, openness and above all, bravery, to keep believing.

As often happens, out of the grief came strength.    Gradually I returned to seeing people as more than the choice they happened to make on one day.  My anger at those who manipulated the debate has died down.   What remains from my experience is realism about how a country might change direction and a realisation that change is inevitable regardless of how people vote.  Grassroots movements involving people from all sides have led to campaigns and direct action, supporting for example, food banks and abandoned refugees.

I think the maturity gained over the last year has not been just for me but for the country.  We are older and wiser post referendum.  We all understand that things are not as simple as we first thought.  Many who felt strongly against Independence last year, voted SNP in May, emphasising the importance of social justice at the heart of politics in Scotland.  Those passionate for Independence see that we cannot force people to believe.  We must patiently demonstrate the evidence that backs our case.  The way ahead is perhaps not the simple fork in the road that we faced last year, but a winding path, with options along the way that can lead us eventually to the destination we all want – a positive Scotland that serves people well.  So as my Facebook memories appear this week, I feel the same emotions but they are expanded with the wisdom of experience.

My heart aches for what was but as with my children, it is warmed by the possibilities in what lies ahead.

Have Courage and Be Kind

My daughter and I have been keeping a journal together.  We both like writing.  Sometimes it is easier to work out and express what you feel through writing than it is by talking.  It’s fun to do it together and I am trying to grasp the moment before her diaries (and internal thoughts?) are off limits.

The journal contains some light-hearted fun lists and questions about life but also leaves space for you to improvise your own topics and ask questions.   This makes it easier for us to tackle potentially embarrassing situations.  In principle this is good but in reality can lead to quite a lot of stress on my part when I have to answer something difficult. In writing. There will be a record of my answer that I can’t later deny or redraft, which is quite intimidating for someone with perfectionist and people-pleasing tendencies.

It’s a challenge.  But then again, I find that most things in life worth doing are, so I am leaning in.

The question currently threatening me from the journal is “What does it feel like to fall in love?”.  I have been sitting with this for a couple of weeks now, feeling a bit overwhelmed if I am honest.  I feel like I need a whole book to explain falling in, and more importantly – STAYING in love.  And the book needs to be written by someone else.   I certainly can’t do it justice in an A5 page.

As a compromise I am going to try and figure it out here and see if my daughter will allow me to publish it.  If not, this may be my first private post.

The clock has been ticking on my overdue Journal Homework and I was beginning to think inspiration would never strike. Until today, when it did, from quite an unexpected source:  Disney’s Cinderella.

Part of my reluctance in writing about falling in love, is feeling a responsibility to balance up the Hollywood ideas of love that dominate our culture.  In my experience, these are at best are misleading and potentially quite damaging.  How many relationships are lost when they stop feeling like the feelings we get watching ‘love’ on the big screen?

However, my daughter is 10.  I need to remember that this is an age where it is nice to believe in magic.  My job, at the moment, is to protect her from the harsh realities of life rather than introduce them to her.

You can see the dilemma.  Do I write a sweet answer for a 10 year old or one that her future teenage/adult self can read?  If I am going to leave a written record of life lessons I need to make it good.  This may be used against me in a future dating debate.

Given my feminist leanings, going as a family to watch a traditional tale of a poor girl who is treated badly by other women and needs a prince to save her so she can live happily ever after was not an obvious choice.  However, it was the Kids AM showing so with 6 of us to pay for it was the only choice.  Economy won over idealism.  It happens.

I approached Cinderella with caution.

I am surprised to find myself reporting that I LOVED IT!  Cinderella was not saved by the prince. She saved herself by following the rule her dying mum left her:  Have courage and be kind.  This is a version of our family rule: Be brave and kind. My tears started falling at that line and continued on and off throughout the film.

Let me confess – I cry very easily.  I always have but since becoming a mum I cry at the drop of a (tiny bobbled) hat.  I especially cry at films involving any kind of child-parent relationship. So parents dying are pretty much a guarantee of a minor life-analysing breakdown for me.  Despite Cinderella losing both of her parents, this was super-emotional even by my emotionally-unhinged standards.  I think it was the mixture of feeling the romance of the film alongside genuine wisdom about love.   The answer to my homework was right there.

The Cinderella Theory of Falling and Staying in Love.

I think falling in love is like going to the ball.  It is magical.  You find yourself in a new world of 2. Everyone else becomes an extra.  They gently move to the side to allow you to spin around together experiencing this new glow from every angle. You are light on your feet.  Your tummy flutters.  You feel beautiful and special and cherished.  The love songs suddenly make sense.   You don’t pay much attention to the world around but when you glance at it, it all seems more beautiful too. Everything is shiny and new.   At the ball, everyone looks their best.  Everything is scrubbed clean and it feels like it will last forever.  Falling in love is wonderful.

But then the clock strikes 12.  There is a time limit on the magic because the magic isn’t real.

Staying in love is leaving the ball and choosing not to give stop loving.  The magic disappears.  The perfect ‘you’ – all the beautiful parts of you that Love noticed and helped to grow – is joined by the other parts. Tired parts. Insecure parts.  Selfish parts.  The glow disappears and the extras come back into focus.  The rest of life is still there – work, other relationships, illness, fear, baggage we’ve carried for a long time.  This happens to both and love is no longer a magical feeling.  Now love is a choice to act as if you feel the magic, even when you don’t.

Love is a decision to put someone else’s needs before your own.  The only glow from long-term love is the sweat of hard labour.

I once showed a boy the well known Bible passage about Love:

“Love is patient, love is kind.

It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.

It does not dishonour others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.

Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.

It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. 

Love never fails.”  

(I Corinthians 13: 4-8)

He replied that this was unrealistic and gave me a Patience Strong card about love instead.  That was a near-miss.

He was right though.  It is too much to live up to but it is also what real love is.  It is being and doing all those things to those we love.  It is actions and decisions.  Actions and decisions that often fly against everything we feel like doing.

So while we will probably fail regularly, this is what I think we should strive to be like to those we love: our partners, children, family, friends.

As Cinderella says, looking towards the future, “We must see the world not as it is but as it could be.

And as the prince reminds her, he is “still an apprentice, learning [his] trade”.  Staying in love is behaving like the magic is there even when it is not, especially when it is not even.  It is also acknowledging that we are apprentices at love, as are those trying to love us.  We must be patient with ourselves and each other.

I hope that my daughter experiences the magical Disney moments of love that take her breath away.  But I hope she does not chase those feelings when they fade, jumping from one magical moment to the next without finding true love.  I hope she has courage to keep going when it is difficult.  I hope she chooses to be kind to whoever she promises to love – her future husband, her children, her siblings, her parents.  For there the real magic is found.