Saturday, 10 August 2013

Leadership, Bangladesh, Women and the Imam

One day, the time before last, when we were in Bangladesh we were really lucky to share a meeting space with a group of women who were, in turn, meeting with the Imam. The Imam wanted to borrow money and the women were considering his request. They decided not to agree but to ask the women who contribute to the community fund first. It looked like a pretty momentous decision. When he left the meeting after "not today" they all raised simultaneously from the floor, a thousand colours merging in unison to form a kaleidoscope of human butterflies. When they dust settled and the surge of adrenalin it took for them to say "no" seeped away we were given the space to ask questions. Always a tough one. What do I know of what it take to find the courage and imagination to haul up the anchor of poverty, steer toward a life and find the strength to lead and speak out amongst all that?  Not much I can tell you about that but our visitor status and, worse, the colour of our skin means I am often asked for the benefit of my "opinion".

I had nothing to give that came anywhere near what they'd just done, or were doing. So I asked a question. They were leading their community.If I took them to meet women in the UK and asked them to define what leadership is what would they say? Kate grabbed a bit of paper and scribbled what they said. I have been looking for it all morning. I will post it when I find it. It says what you'd expect. Courage, inspiration, humility, self confidence, self awareness, compassion. That's not the punch-line of the story.

No, the punch-line is not that the women's definition was so breathtakingly inspiring. It is that knowing they have never been to school & had only just learned to write, for an infinitesimal fraction of a second, I  was afraid the question might be too difficult.

Leadership isn't defined or understood by organisations, status or job role, it's defined by doing it. Even though I believe that with every ounce of who I am, even though I could see the evidence of it before me with my own two eyes, even though these women were doing it  against odds I felt an atomic sliver of doubt. As I recollect it is crystal clear that the singeing flames of doubt had no right of place on the edge of my consciousness that day. They taught me a big lesson.

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

It's not about ABBA

This post comes from a series of haphazard seemingly unconnected life events. I hope you see the point.

Scene 1. Cut to my first day at school. I was 4. I met Denise, my lifelong friend. It was an unlikely friendship, what with her being so little and cute and me being so big and gangly. That sourced endless jokes for people entering and leaving our lives for years... Cannon and Ball... Little and Large...Tom and Jerry..... 

There’s something about friendship forged so early that, like family, it denies judgement. It just is. The rules of engagement were laid down long before we were consciously aware that we needed them. The comfort is in the familiar. The detail is rich. The connections limitless. We walked our separate life paths she and I, together and separate, together and separate, together and separate. The elastic strained but never broke.

Scene 2. Cut to this last month. Her 50th pending. M arranged a surprise birthday and I secretly robbed all her photos. The plan was to make a film of her life. Just a little one, to pull together the story and to stand back and love it and her in its splendor. The photos, many of them unseen or unremembered, plunged me back into life, memories and stories that were lost to me without them. I laughed and I cried. Her mum and I pieced together the background to the photos, the fragments of the story, to form something of a narrative of her life - in so far as that's possible anyway. I set them to music... Donny Osmond, Bay City Rollers.... Oh come on, don’t cringe it was our life!  We were 10, what did we know about what was cool? We listened to it when we were playing phones and libraries. Together and separate, together and separate. Thinking about it, we were playing work. Like so many children's games we were unwittingly preparing for our life beyond. There's an irony in that, you'll see. Read on. 

Scene 3. Cut to Saturday. The film was done and shown and she loved it. I watched as the notes to the soundtrackbeat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past” (Great Gatsby in case you are wondering). It had all felt like an immense privilege, a huge responsibility and for the 8 minutes it lasted time pivoted wildly on her axis my eyes locked half on Denises and half on the screen. With the final notes the clock resumed it’s metronomic tick and, unburdened, I took a seat quietly in the lounge to replay the serenity of a perfect moment. Together and separate, together and separate.

Scene 4. Cut to the sofa, eyes closed basking in peace. Feeling I’d done what I set out to do.  Relieved. My head slipped to the back of the chair, my eyes closed and I rested in the moment. Words, sounds, laughter bubbled up. Her voice, my mum, my sister, her brother, Nancy from class, her mum, Chris, my mum, Steve, Denise... each voice taking turns to lift itself above the others and fade away. I was listening to the sound track to my life and I couldn’t tear my ears away.

Scene 5. Cut to yesterday. I went to visit someone we support, nothing to do with that other story, right? Another story?

We are in a transition. We both get that. It’s not goodbye. We’ll stay in touch, only the form will change. A connection forged through a tough night maybe two years ago makes sure of that. Awake all night, we counted minutes, counted seconds, counted milli seconds each one carrying us a minuscule distance further away from the scene of a threatening nightmare. Readmission. We promised each other we’d be OK, we'd make it through the night. There. Would. Be. No. Readmission. We fought for it, we were terrified, we were sad, we paced, we fought for it again and we made it to morning. No-one walks stories like that and comes out unchanged. Our landscape altered and we came out the other side friends. Whenever we see each other now thoughts, life and our conversation turn back to then, to understand that night, that journey, that success. Hold the recipe tight and hard, we may need it gain someday. We relive it, each of us determined to award the happy ending to the other, truth is we did it together, together and separate. 

When we talked yesterday I talked of my weekend, of the story of Denise and of the sound track. He loved it. Eyes bright he put his head back, just as I did. He in his story echoing me in mine, listening. He was listening for his own sound track. I invited him to share.... “What do you hear”...............

“There’s screaming, anger, crying, everyone is shouting, they are shouting at me, I can’t hear properly, I think its the drugs. It’s all arguments, only arguments. It's awful. The click of the door on the seclusion room, I can't stand it. I am the only person they use it for. I can't stand the click. I can't stand the silence behind it. Ten minutes is a lifetime”. I faltered as, like you just did, I realised he hears the sound track of the many hospitals that built his late teens and twenties.  The music is not nice. It's like nails on a blackboard, tin foil on a filling, it's worse. It's real nightmare stuff.  He thought he'd never get out. He feared he was going back. 

“I am OK aren’t I here in this life Judith”? ..... “Yeah, you're OK mate, this sound track, this today, is not controlled by the people with syringes you told me about. It's controlled by you. It's you now, you are OK”.

The lives we create for people in a so called benevolent service system that sets out to care eh?

Consider this tomorrow. Listen in. What kind of music do you hear when you close your eyes and open your ears in work? What music do we we create in the "support" services, the "human" services that form so much of ours and other people's lives? What must it be like to live a system, a life, where shift changes or worse are your musical accompaniment? What's it like when each time you close your eyes or take your ears off now's road your Eamon Andrews turns out to be Freddie Kruger? Maybe it's benign and the soundtrack is just an endless sea of faces for whom you are a job, some come, some go, most never stay. None of them know that Donny Osmond is the right tune for those pictures.

Is this a story about “natural supports”? 

Maybe, but I think maybe more it just about music, my good fortune and a cracked record that needs to be updated.  

Thank you for the music... the songs I’m singing..........thanks for all the joy.... yeah.....take it away maestro......