Monday, 20 February 2017

Calais, Refugees and Thinking


Mrs. Sheppard, where I come from, there is a saying: 'The patient man will be patient until he dies.'
- Anon, pharmacist from Afghanistan living in the Jungle in 2015

This is not meant to be a newsy or educational post. When I went to the Calais 'Migrant Jungle' in 2015, it affected me enormously. I meant to really write something. But other things kept happening, internationally, politically, and I wished that I could come up with some 200-word SOLUTION that people would listen to, but all that happened was that I read more and talked to more people, and everything I would share would take 100 years of talking and writing. So this will be more of a short and useless ramble.

The Calais Migrant Jungle was similar to many slums - similar to Trinidad's slums in some of its architecture, economy and vibe, so it felt a bit like home for me. The people there divided themselves into loose neighbourhoods by religion and language, and many spoke some French with a smattering of English. We were handing out three vehicle loads of sleeping bags, tents, split peas, rice, seasoning and other goodies, knowing full well that it would have been better to have given them to an agency who could distribute them as an when needed rather than just handing them out to the strongest, pushiest and least needy. The economy of a slum is based on power, and the trickle down effect does not work there - similar to the way in which giving tax breaks to large companies does not help the neediest in society but only enriches the rich. The power in the Jungle, as in many slums, is held by strong men. But our planned contact in Calais had fallen through, and handing out goodies seemed to be less tragic than returning to the UK with all of that good stuff. I'm still not sure if it was! But since I was personally there for fairly selfish academic reasons, I thought I could at least interview a few people in exchange for sleeping bags. We hooked up with some young ladies from Secours Catholique who were valuable allies, they had experience and spoke the language.

My Afghan friend was well-spoken and earnest, and educated enough to understand that I was not there to help him. We surveyed the scene and talked about travel, passports (I hid mine upon my person like a true Trini at Pan Finals, but I needn't have worried, no-one tried to pick my pocket), education, politics... He wanted me to understand, looking at the dozens of Afghan and Somalian men searching for shoes in their size and belts and decent shirts, that every person there was going to keep moving until they found a home. Nothing we could do would stop them. He wanted a backpack, because if you have a backpack you can keep your things with you - money, treasures... passport. I hoped we would be able to give him the one we had, but it was snatched away and disappeared. I thanked him for his patience.

We had a scary moment. At one stage we ran out of the best goodies and mob mentality took over. The crush of angry men threatened to destroy vehicles or worse. Why didn't we have more? They had waited in line nicely (not really), for nothing? What about in the front of the van? What was that stuff? Whose bag was that? I pushed into the mob and grabbed one man by the shoulders, made him look down at me, and said "Can you help me? Ask your friends to be peaceful. Ask your friends to let us look and see if we have anything else. We need your help." The light of the mob faded from him and he was a human again. Next man, next plea. Next man, next plea. Look at me, I'm small, I'm a woman, I need your help and I won't be giving you anything in return. Gradually we had peace and humans again. But we were all humans to begin with. There were no troublemakers there, wanting to punish or make war. It was a risky tactic for me to assume that every man there was going to cool down and walk away empty handed. It was sheer luck in action. There were no police or any sort of security nearby and the UK and French border controls had both said, tight-lipped, that we were not at all advised to go and did so at our own risk.

An hour later, we were kicking a football around in the dirt with the same men. Somalia VS Dorset!

A week or so after we returned to the UK, the camp was bulldozed. Our gifts became landfill, along with the treasures, papers and passports of anyone who wasn't quick enough to save them. I've thought of them often since then: the chef who skipped off merrily to a central cooking area with lentils, curry powder and onions; the Somali footballers, with their deflated and worn ball; the drummers; the artists; the farmers; the engineers and other professionals who, if and when they arrive at their final destination, will find their qualifications invalid and have to do janitorial work or whatever they can to get by.
Latrine Pun

The Calais Jungle residents have been moved on, so who knows where they might be now. Whenever the weather is cold, I think of them, and all those landfill sleeping bags. Thanks to my trip to Calais I have ideas, which drive some of my research. When I started my degree, I thought finally I would have some answers. All I have, it seems, are more questions.

If you'd like to keep up-to-date with the latest news from Calais, there's a facebook page to follow.


(Photos: Me, Kitty Forester, Sharon Carr-Brown)

Thursday, 18 June 2015

These Dangerous Women

28th April, 2015: A hundred years later, following
in the footsteps of those amazing women.
 See Flickr for album 
"On the 28th April 1915, 1300 women, who had been organising internationally to get the vote, met together at the Hague to try to find a way forward to peace. They advocated continuous mediation as an alternative to armed struggle. Envoys from the Congress visited 14 Heads of State, the King of Norway, the Pope and the President in their attempt to halt the War. Churchill called them These Dangerous Women. They were influential in the forming of the League of Nations and formed an organisation - The Women's International League for Peace and Freedom which is still active today, giving women a voice at International level.

These Dangerous Women is a community project bringing together members of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom and young volunteers to celebrate and uncover the heritage of the women who tried to stop World War 1.

  These Dangerous Women
Supported by a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, we trained in oral history recording, archive research, exhibition skills, re enactments and documentary making to create an exhibition, documentary and set of oral history recordings."



- With Thanks, Helen Kay

You can see Anna Watson's Flickr gallery of the day of filming here, and the full film here. Website coming soon!

Edited: The website's live! Click Here for Website.


Thursday, 21 May 2015

Relaxing Holiday Booklist!


For sunshiny reads among the garden weeds:

The Tao Te Ching : A Book About the Way and the Power of the Way, a beautiful edition by Ursula Le Guin. I highly recommend this, especially for reading in the garden while the bees buzz among your weeds, despite occasional drizzle.

I read The Underground Girls of Kabul: In Search of a Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan, with fascination. This book explains so much of the history of conflict in Afghanistan, while looking at the trend for girls to be dressed and raised as boys. Of course. If I had a daughter there, I would probably dress her up as a boy and let her go to school too.

I'm now reading Radical: My Journey Out Of Islamist Extremism, and so far so good.

Have you read any good books lately? Do recommend!

Thursday, 14 May 2015

There were so many things that she wanted to do, That whenever she thought it was time to begin, She couldn't because of the state she was in...

- Title Adapted from 'There Was an Old Sailor my Grandfather Knew',  by A. A. Milne.

It's been a week like that, I'm afraid. Even the poor cat has been ignored. I have been hopping from one project to another, decluttering, studying, dancing, jogging, painting and repairing my home, and loving every bit of it, but the really important things that have deadlines are starting to loom out of the mist and cackle nastily. Paperwork and such.

So I'll just leave you with a few thoughts, that do tie together:


  • Pope Francis' recent statement on War as a money-maker. Obviously, people who manufacture arms would not market peace.
  • Madeleine Rees' Statements at The Hague last month.1.776 TRILLION dollars were spent on arms last year. That's 480 years' worth of the UN's regular budget. Not that the UN is perfect, but wouldn't it be interesting if everyone stopped spending money on weapons for one year and gave the money to an existing peacemaking and mediating force:





  • Medicine manufacturers pay doctors to prescribe their drugs, and marketers come up with sneaky way to make us feel bad about speaking up about corporate abuses of power. The 'natural remedy' market, my goodness that's a clever one, dividing society into mad science deniers and drug addicted morons, both camps spending a fortune to cure themselves. 
I am all for capitalism. I like that you can sell just about any thing, any idea, any clever gadget. But maybe some checks and balances need to be put in place, like the laws that govern infant formula marketing. Of course formula companies ignore these laws whenever they can, giving free supplies to new mothers in the third world so that their breastmilk will dry up and they will have to continue buying the product and so on. But at least the laws exist there, so the 'judgy lactivist breastapo hordes' can keep bringing marketing abuses to the attention of the WHO.



Maybe similar checks and balances need to be in place in other areas where a product kills. Arms and drug manufacturing, for example. 
I haven't got the answers - but I'm seriously asking the questions. We should all be. 

Friday, 19 September 2014

On My Bookshelf

Yes, my bedroom wall is MANGO YELLOW.
And the orchids are all flowering madly. 
At home with a cold with time to blog! I have quite enjoyed the peace and quiet this week. It would have been better to have a few days off and NOT have a cold, but hey. I have been catching up on my reading this week, and realised I haven't updated my book list here for EVER. So without further ado:

The Cosmic Serpent by Jeremy Narby and Dancing Naked in the Mind Field by Kary Mullis -  Two mad scientists, wonderful to read. Both authors are into DNA - Mullis won the Nobel Prize in recognition of his improvement of the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) technique, which allows the amplification of specific DNA sequences.

The Cosmic Serpent is anthropological, and studies how the wisdom of ancient people and primitive tribes has always explained that all life comes from twinned serpents, which looks exactly like our current understanding of DNA. When I finished that book I decided to learn more about DNA, so I bought Kary Mullis' book. *Disclaimer* - I didn't learn much more about DNA from Kary Mullis' book. But I was highly entertained and his writing, like Narby's, is thought provoking.

The biography of Gabriel Garcia Marquez: A Life, by Gerald Martin. Anyone who loves Marquez' novels will enjoy this, as it is well written and will take you al over South America and Europe with some of the best Latin American authors. History buffs will like it too. I started reading this a few years ago, got about half way through, and then put it aside while life got complicated for a bit. I picked up where I had left off a few weeks ago, and it was like seeing an old friend again.

While life was complicated, I read two lovely stories by Melissa Westemeier: Kicks Like a Girl and Whipped, Not Beaten. These uplifting novels are fun and readable, and make you feel like everything's going to be ok in life and love.

Two Writers
Max and I are reading the final instalment of Skulduggery Pleasant together, and we GOT TO MEET DEREK LANDY!!!!! Max's tooth fell out while we were standing in the very long line and Derek said "OMG please don't let any more bits fall off here," was the exactly perfect thing to say to a boy who loves funny books about zombies.

This month I finished reading Goddesses: Mysteries of the Divine Feminine, by Joseph Campbell. I love, love Joseph Campbell, and this new collection of his Goddess lectures is wonderful. It makes me want to go back and re-read all the old fairy tales and myths.

And then, since I was in a myths-and-symbols mood, I bought 'The Book Of Symbols: Reflections On Archetypal Images'.

A friend lent me Zen in the Art of Archery recently, which helped me to understand the importance of ritual and the little things in life:
'As in the case of archery, there can be no question but that these arts are ceremonies. More clearly than the teacher could express it in words, they tell the pupil that the right frame of mind for the artist is only reached when the preparing and the creating, the technical and the artistic, the material and the spiritual, the project and the object, flow together without a break.' - Eugen Herrigel, Zen in the Art of Archery
Zen in the Art of Archery is short, sweet and insightful.

I have also enjoyed That's Not It and How are You, Sugar? by the lovely Nancy Ellen Row - The first a novel and the second a collection of recipes and wisdoms from the past, and both set in the Southern USA.

And lastly, for laugh-until-you-die hilarity, there's Let's Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny Lawson. Don't try to read this when other people are trying to sleep, your guffaws and screams of mirth will keep them up.

I've got quite a heap of other books to get through, so I won't be bored this winter. Have you read anything good lately? Tell us!!

Saturday, 2 August 2014

Keep Working on Love - Lessons From Another Dimension

Today I  moved two teenage boys' beds and vacuumed under them. One boy helped, doing the heavy lifting. It was like entering another dimension and having wake-up calls of various sorts. If you find yourself travelling there, take a good vacuum cleaner and proceed with your eyes shut.

One of the various things I discovered in that alternate universe was "Jonathan Livingston Seagull", and I opened the book to this quote: "Jonathan," he said, and these were the last words that he spoke, "keep working on love."

I've been feeling so frustrated by the hate-fuelled wars that are filling the news recently. We need to work on love. It's time to speak love, teach love, and be love.

This planet is a good one, and we learn some hard lessons here. We are all students - but we are teachers too. We have a responsibility. Be love.

Namaste ॐ

Saturday, 21 June 2014

Celebrating Failure with Gold

"There is a crack in everything. That is how the light gets in." - Leonard Cohen 

In January 2014, one of my articles was published in Aquila about the Art of Failure. It was fun to research, and it got me thinking about how we can appreciate brokenness and re-think our failures.

My 2013 and 2014 were incredible years. There was so much brokenness and pain, hardship, loss and fracture that at times I felt like I was putting one foot in front of another and just remembering to breathe with each step. Just remembering to remain kind and calm in the face of awful adversity was really difficult. My family had deaths, sadness, and huge changes and decisions going on and at times it just didn't seem fair that we should be under constant attack on top of everything. I cracked, but I didn't shatter.

At the same time, I saw others struggling with life, and the different ways people have of dealing with their messiness and brokenness. I was reminded of the Japanese art of Kintsugi, where broken objects are mended with gold. I love this - Being broken doesn't mean the ugly end! The way that an object is repaired should make it stronger, show the flaws, celebrate the history. Wouldn't it be wonderful if we did this with our lives as well? We are all flawed and broken. We have failed again and again. I would not change any of my failures for the world. My mistakes were my most important lessons, and the greatest beauty in my life came from them.

And the way I fixed things made me stronger and more beautiful. It set an example to my children about imperfect, wobbly grace and kindness. At least, that is what I hope! Some of the best people I know have taken responsibility for their mistakes and turned them into their biggest assets. 
"Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep." - Scott Adams
I pulled out my old 'failed' paintings around this time, and spent a happy afternoon highlighting the failures with gold acrylic and watercolour paint. It was the best fun I've had in ages! The unfinished pieces, the ones that ran, the ones the cat walked over leaving prussian blue footprints in the sky... They all got touched up with gold. They really are beautiful, and useful - I think I might find a use for them as business cards. I got a new card guillotine (squee), and somehow my printer will be convinced to print on heavy gauge watercolour paper. And who wouldn't want a business card that is truly one-of-a-kind, with the flaws detailed in gold? 

I had such a fun morning, pulling out old paintings and generally splashing paint around. Then the cat came along, lay on my creations and licked her bum. 

She is my harshest critic.

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Deep Thoughts


I've been having epic lying-in-the-garden-with-my-book evening sessions after work, walks, and enormous spring cleaning and office organization weekends. Also been thinking deep thoughts, while I observe the bees working merrily among my weeds. (My weeds are doing SO WELL! I am really proud. And the bees and butterflies are thrilled.)

Some deep thoughts concern internet responsibility, and I have posted a few rants on facebook about how dumbasses should check their facts before they share 'news' about a new kind of deadly spider or Ryan Gosling's baby or how cancer can be cured by eating llama poop on alternate Tuesdays. People share these things, and say "OMG this is unbelievable!"

Guess what, it's unbelievable because it's PRETEND! Someone made it up! And you are a dumbass!

And my brain is going "Oooooh, you are being mean. Just because YOU are a perfect genius of complete brilliance and you know everything, doesn't mean you can be a know-it-all pedant at your friends and family." (My brain can be horribly sarcastic sometimes.)
"A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes" - Mark Twain
And then I had a long conversation with my son, where I said that just because a scientific theory has not been disproved yet, doesn't make it un-disproveable, and that blind faith in science was as bad as religion. He said I was a crazy lady, because I mentioned Panspermia as a think-outside-the-box mad theory that has not been proved or disproved because it is a THEORY, just like, say, evolution. And then I remembered that teenage reality is fixed and absolute, and there is no point arguing with them. But it was too late, I am now a conspiracy theorist in his eyes, who believes that life on Earth was seeded by aliens.

It could be worse, I suppose.

I have been wondering (and researching) how humans get these fixed ideas about things. Why we believe 'unbelievable' stuff we see on the internet. Why we have faith in climate change, or religion, or that women should cover up, because men are so weak and stupid they cannot take responsibility for their actions. We like to Believe, and if facts come along that challenge those beliefs, we feel stressed out - stress hormones actually flood our brains and put us on the defensive. This is part of what makes us social humans, bonding us together with the cultural beliefs of our tribe. Anything that threatens our beliefs is evil and must be stamped out!

If someone is repeatedly taught something as a child (say, breasts are immodest and breastfeeding in public is disgusting) then no amount of logic will make that person feel comfortable with the sight of a breastfeeding mother. They will make up all sorts of reasons to convince themselves that women should not bare their breasts, even making others responsible - "Oh *I* am fine with it, but you will offend the elderly/those who cannot breastfeed/the priest/men who cannot control themselves and will have to rape someone."

I have always felt that the truth is in people - if you can make them laugh, put them at ease, and introduce them to possibilities then maybe their minds can be opened to the beauty of truth. There is so much cruelty, desperation and injustice in the world, because of fear. And making people more afraid - "You must believe this truth, because you are wrong and you will suffer!" - will not bring anyone to truth. I know this. I have tested this in lectures with young people, who only needed to laugh and be respected to see truth for themselves. They needed to learn that they were intelligent enough to work it out for themselves. If we can look at someone and say, "I see your truth, and it is good. What do you think about this idea?" then conversation becomes possible, and everyone walks away wiser and more thoughtful.

Usually, I am good at shutting up and letting lies and stupidity blow away. I like all people - even religious fanatics, even gang members, even liars, because I think that all people are a precious and fundamental part of the universe. But for the last few weeks I have had a hard time with Patience and Acceptance. Maybe I'm getting older. But not wiser. I'll work on that.

ॐ Namaste,

Nan





Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Approximately 4 Advanced Procrastination Tactics for Writers

So coming to the end of the Travesty that was Winter 2013-2014, not to be confused with the travesties that were all the previous winters since we moved to this damp and northerly place, I took a few months off of freelancing. My creativity was at its usual February Low, and I decided to give in to the overwhelming desire to lie on the sofa with a heap of books and eat chocolate. I told myself (and anyone else that would listen) that I would be back at the end of April. And then I signed myself up for a month of Bikram yoga to counteract the chocolate and get my ass-ana back in gear.

So I'm BACK! Oh yes, the cash flow is calling! The creative juices are flowing! I want to experiment, research, paint, and take long walks in the lovely spring sunshine. I've got some great writing projects too, fun features for kids and blog posts hither and yon.

I've done plenty of research, made notes, and emailed the relevant press offices, friends and family for information, images and updates.

What I haven't done is really sit down and finish writing the necessary 800 words or 300 words or whatever it is that each piece needs. As my chief child-feature proofreader-in-residence Max pointed out this afternoon, "Umm, this is not a real sentence. And are you going to have a beginning to this paragraph at all, or are you just starting in the middle?" Max reads my kids' features to make sure the language and vocabulary are child friendly. Today he was just horrified that I felt I was ready for proofing.

The problem has been Procrastination. Freelancers know that when you've got work to do, you sit down and do it at the same time every day. 'Inspiration' tends to turn up when you're working, and once you get your mind in the habit of focusing on work at a certain time every day, magic happens.

“Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.”― Pablo Picasso

I am so out of my routine that Inspiration has been chased out of town by Procrastination. I know that the only way to lure Inspiration back is with a hefty dose of Routine. Meanwhile, I have procrastinated myself into last-minute deadline panic.

So whenever I sit down to write, I immediately think "Oh, I'll just put a load in the washing machine." You might think that putting on a load of laundry would be a quick and sensible multitasking gesture, but be warned. Once you're there, you will find that you may as well sort the entire basket, iron that one blouse, stitch on a button, hem school trousers, tie-dye six t-shirts... The article isn't due for ages, right? You'll get to it in a minute.
“Never put off till tomorrow what may be done day after tomorrow just as well" - Mark Twain
Another great tactic I can suggest, if you have work that's not-immediately-but-soon due, is to drink gallons of water, tea and coffee. the ensuing trips to the loo will keep you away from your desk for extended periods of time. And every time you get up, there will be a new distraction beckoning! Have the plants been watered? Are those dead leaves that need picking off? Come on, it only takes a moment and that article isn't due for at least a week.

The most wonderful and effective method of not-writing, though, has to be playing find-the-glasses. Each and every time I get up, I take my glasses off and hide them in a different and top secret location. Then when I finally tell myself to get a grip and get back to work, I sit down at my desk and say, "Huh! Where could my glasses be?" A merry hunt ensues. Could they be in the laundry basket? Next to the kettle? By the loo? In the fridge? Oh look, leftover cake!!
“You can't just turn on creativity like a faucet. You have to be in the right mood. 
What mood is that? 
Last-minute panic.” 

― Bill Watterson
Today two of my articles are DUE! Standing in the kitchen trying to decide whether I need another cup or coffee or another cup of tea, and finally deciding on a cup of soup, I also decided that what I REALLY need is a bread bin. But what kind? Must go online and google bread bin inspiration, I told myself. That was when I realised that I had taken procrastination to a whole new and never-before-seen level of awesomeness. So I gave myself a good talking to, and settled back down at my desk.

And wrote a blog about it.


Saturday, 26 April 2014

16 Completely Materialistic First-World Things That Bring Me Great Contentment

I realise that my last few posts have been mostly about "OMG Will Winter Never End??!" Which is fine, because that is really how I feel about winter and this is my blog so I can whine all I want.

But there are also things some of which I have lived without and survived just fine, that I appreciate so damn much that I think "Wow, this is awesome!" Some of you will have no idea what I am talking about. Many people will never see this post because they cannot read well or have no access to the internet or haven't got the freedom to read what they want to. I think about those people and wonder what I can do to help. But meanwhile, I enjoy my little comforts, like:
  • Hot water. Easier cleaning, de-greasing, hot bubby bath-ing, steamy-showering HOT RUNNING WATER! Out of a tap!!! Wow. 
  • My very own washing machine. I even have a dryer now, an ancient and cranky thing but wonderful for rainy weeks. I can put a load of wash in without having to apologise to anyone, and then potter about or wash the dishes while it takes care of business. Multitasking awesomeness. 
  • No Scorpions Lurking Anywhere. 
  • No Tropical Mildew Madness.
  • When I close the doors and windows, the outside world is locked out. There is an actual lock on my actual door, which makes me sleep so much more soundly. Outside noises are muffled and the damp days can't get in. 
  • My snuggly grey hoody of great snuggliness, pictured above. Maggie really appreciates it too, as you can see. I've got nice clothes. Warm ones, ones for fashionably keeping the rain off, special ones for yoga, pretty ones for going out dancing. I love them! 
  • A Telephone. 
  • Free yoga and pilates classes at work, the ultimate in first-world corporate fabulousness. 
  • Electricity ALL THE TIME! 
  • RUNNING WATER that just comes out of the taps ALL THE TIME! Even if you flush the toilets (both of them) frequently and wash clothes and have long showers, there is still water flowing. It's like, ENDLESS! I know it isn't really and we need to think of the environment, but there is a big difference between toting buckets of bath water downstairs to water the plants because it's good for the environment, and actually physically running out of water and having to bribe a truck to deliver a muddy tankful of water so you can finally flush the toilet while all the plants die and looking at the sky every day with a prayer for rain. 
  • The Internet. Fast, cheap. 
  • Having a fully-stocked grocery in walking distance, where the food is fresh. 
  • Free health care - checkups, emergency care, surgery, treatment - no matter what. (The first world, of course, except America) Yes, my taxes are high, but if someone I love gets very ill, I won't have to beg for charity or become homeless to pay for medical care. 
  • Basic laws being obeyed - like traffic laws. Or, as my kids once said, "Huh, we haven't seen a single dead person on the roadside since we moved here!" 
  • LIBRARIES EVERYWHERE! Three in walking distance!!! 
  • Online ordering. You want it, you order it, it arrives two days later in the mail. Epic. 
For many people, this is a list of basic necessities. For many, most of them are unreachable comforts. For all of us, it's food for thought.

Could you live without your first-world comforts? Of course you could. Which one is your favourite?