Waiting for the dove

October 25, 2010

Lately, my old and familiar “companion” The Black Dog has been nipping at my ankles more than usual.  He’s everywhere.  I wish he would leave me alone.  He’s there when I wake up, he travels with me on the buses and trains and he sits at my feet at work.  He refuses to get lost.  [I keep referring to it as a ‘he’ but I think it could actually be a ‘she’ as I suspect it’s pregnant with little Black Puppies].

It’s late October and getting colder in London.  Leaves are falling off the trees, the days are shorter and soon we will change the clocks for Daylight Savings.  The Black Dog thrives in this kind of dreary weather.  While it is literally approaching the winter months in the UK, I feel as if my soul has been in a permanent winter for most of this year.  The reason is because I’ve been searching for my mislaid mojo, my ‘oomph’, my zest for life and I can’t seem to find it anywhere.   In fact, I don’t even know where to look or how to search for it.  I often feel like I am a car with the accelerator going full throttle but am in neutral and so I’m burning out while standing still.

That’s the background to the story I am about to tell you.

Our multi-site church has recently acquired another building in South Kensington.  It is an old, traditional and ornate building bordering on cold and austere.  Al and I were early on Sunday afternoon so we sat in our chairs and gazed around at the decor.  Al pointed out a huge brass cross at the front of the room and on top of it there was a dove flying out of heaven.  ‘Hmmm, that’s pretty’, I whispered and didn’t think anything more of it.

At the end of the service, during the prayer time, the minister said that a few people had been praying before the service and had some words and pictures of knowledge they wanted to share. I listened to about five of these really sweet words but they were too dramatic and specific to apply to me.

I kept my eyes closed and my head bowed.  I then heard a man say this:

I have a picture of someone in a place where it is winter.  The ground is covered in snow.  In fact, there is so much snow that they can’t see where they are going.  They have a shovel and are trying to move the snow but it is so heavy and it seems pointless because they have no idea in which direction they should be shovelling.  Then, all of a sudden and out of nowhere, a dove appears.  The dove flaps its wings and begins to fly.  It leads the person with the shovel in the direction they should go.

I was stunned.  ‘That’s me!’ I thought.  I’m stuck in a permanent winter and I can’t see my way out of the snow.  I have a shovel and want to clear a path out but I don’t know how and in which direction I should start.

When I woke up this morning, I opened my eyelids and stared straight into the eyes of The Black Dog with his wet nose touching mine and his hot, morning breath on my cheek (It wasn’t Alastair – he was still asleep).  I wondered, ‘What happened to the dove and the shovel and the direction and the snow?’  Surely I should now spring out of bed and shout with complete glee ‘Good morning God!’  But I couldn’t.  Like usual, I sighed and mumbled ‘Good God, it’s morning.’  Why?

I realised that the picture was of a dove that will come soon but it’s not here yet.  I must wait.  I must keep a look out because it will happen in the future but not now.  In spite of this, I think the words from last night made the wick of the tiny tea light candle in the darkest, deepest part of my soul glow a little brighter.

I’ll let you know when the dove arrives.


Empower the powerless

October 22, 2010

On the Dubai-London leg of an Emirates flight in September, I sat next to a rugged British guy called Brad.  Brad is based in Kandahar, Afghanistan.  He was travelling to the UK for a holiday because needed a break from ‘desert sand and Americans.’  I am all for meeting new people although I avoid striking up conversations on aeroplanes as I have no escape route if things get a bit longwinded or dull.  Fortunately for me, Brad’s stories were captivating.

Poor Brad was very thirsty and I woodpeckered him with questions while he requested copious cups of water from the Emirates stewardesses.  One of the things I asked was, ‘So what’s the solution to all the problems in Afghanistan?’

Brad replied immediately, ‘We must give the Afghans something they don’t want to lose.  What is that thing?  It’s education.  They need the hope that comes from education’.

Brad said that many Afghan men spend an entire day sitting cross-legged under a tree, high on opium and staring into the distance.  They’re not motivated and don’t have much ‘oomph’ but that’s just a psychological, subconscious defence mechanism.  They’ve lost so much in the past and their lives have been raped and pillaged by foreign forces and the Taliban.  This means they don’t get too inspired when the West builds them roads or bridges or schools or houses or hospitals.  If this infrastructure is built for them by foreigners they don’t get too attached or feel as if it truly belongs to them.  In fact, it makes them feel powerless and incapable of doing anything for themselves so they lose even more confidence in their abilities.

Brad downed another cup of water.

‘This solution is conceptually quite simple,’ he said as he pressed his seat buzzer to request more to drink.  ‘You can’t solve Afghanistan’s complex problems by only throwing money and troops at it.’

I reminded Brad about that wise old adage that says if you give a man a fish, he has food for a day, if you teach him how to fish, he has food for life.

‘Exactly!’ he said.  He tipped his head back and glugged down more water.

The best way to change Afghanistan is from the grassroots up.  Start at the base of the pyramid.  Help Afghans to help themselves.  We need to empower them to build their own schools, roads, hospitals, bridges and houses.  Then they’ll look at them with pride and say, ‘We did this ourselves.’

I told Brad about Greg Mortenson’s amazing book called Three Cups of Tea.  His experiences in building schools with residents in rural areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan have taught him that when locals share the vision and help build the infrastructure, then they are most committed and inspired.

Brad raised his hand for a water refill.  ‘Let me tell you something else.  The best way to educate is to focus on the women.  They have a nurturing instinct and are less likely to disappear off into the sunset in search of fame and fortune.  They’ll go back to their communities and share what they’ve learned.  They will teach their children and their friends.’

‘Oh for f—k’s sakes, why do they keep bringing me water in these egg cups.’  So Brad raised his hand yet again.

I started getting really excited.  I could finally put some of my tedious psychology studies into practice.  I told Brad the theory behind building a unified, inspired group culture.  People crave shared memories and stories that build spirit and camaraderie.  The Afghans need to look at a finished product and reminisce to their grandchildren about how they built it themselves.  They can say things like once upon a time we hauled timber and cement on our backs for miles and miles, across raging rivers and in freezing, stormy weather.

I think this theory applies everywhere.  Maybe that’s why Africa has never risen to its full potential because is been developed and colonised by foreigners so locals never got a head start at doing things for themselves and feeling the pride and citizenship that comes with that.

‘Thank God, finally!’ exclaimed Brad as the stewardesses finally got the hint and brought him two 2-litre bottles of mineral water.

Don’t poo poo a BA degree

October 16, 2010

When I finished school, I decided against doing a BA degree.  My heart said yes but my head put its foot down and said NO WAYS.  I had always worked hard, achieved a lot and I created high expectations of a bright, lucrative future for myself.  Everyone joked that a BA gets you Bugger All in life so I felt that doing one was a bit like going off to join the circus.

In hindsight a BA would have taken me down the path that is more of a reflection of the true me.  I always wanted to be a journalist or a political commentator, an academic, an author or a lawyer.  But when I was 18, I was fed up with thinking, reasoning, reading long books and writing academic essays that were scored based on a marker’s subjective opinion.

Instead I chose to do something right or wrong, black or white, debit or credit and so I became an accountant. Do I regret becoming an accountant?  Yes and no.  I know myself so well.  And one thing I know for sure about myself is that I want what I don’t have.  If I had done an arty farty BA, I would have resented the spending power of my BCom accountant friends who could afford cars with aircon and a 2 bed-roomed house at the tender age of 23.  Now that I have done the CA route, I am jealous of the BA people who lived a relaxed, bohemian student existence for longer and seem to have more colourful, fulfilling and equally well-paying jobs now.

I know I chose to be an accountant for the wrong reasons.  I have always been in awe of famous people and I wanted people to scream ‘Julie, Julie, Julie’ like they did to the celebs at movie premieres.  I was too shy to be an actress so I thought why not do a business degree, climb the corporate ladder, be a high-powered, blindingly successful corporate exec with attentive minions who would adore being in my presence so they could soak up some of the scraps of my reflected glory.

I also wanted the status, respect and financial stability that a premier business degree promised.  I aspired to buy a house that was more solid than the one I grew up in.  I longed for one that didn’t leak when it rained and I didn’t ever again want to see my neighbour’s house through a crack in the study wall.

If someone asked me what high school subject has been most useful to me in my business career, I would say it is in fact the bedrock of a BA degree – English.  If you can master the analysis, reasoning and interpretation required in English, then you can master pretty much anything else you put your mind to.  There is nothing that undercuts the credibility of an accountant more than when they send verbose emails with incoherent sentences.  I have worked with some qualified accountants who aren’t clear on when to use a capital letter or when to use a full stop or comma.  An accountant may have the knowledge of the disclosure required for employee benefits or know the nuances of a discounted cash flow but if they can’t write a decent sentence in an email to a client, it creates a really bad impression.

I recently read a fascinating article by the writer Jennifer Weiner.  She believes that a degree in the Arts is the best preparation for most careers because it teaches you how to read, how to write and how to reason.  You learn how to think creatively and it gives you a framework or context that helps you make sense of the world and your place in it.

I never appreciated that university was a precious opportunity to immerse myself in an interesting subject.  I like the British university system where, for most business qualifications, you can study anything at university and choose to specialise after you graduate.  I was in too much rush to make a lot of money and climb higher up the corporate ladder and I soon wondered if there was more to life than the house of cards that is the finance world.  I didn’t appreciate the stretch of time where I was care free and could explore academia without the burdens of debit orders, mortgages and dependants.

The moral of the story is this – don’t poo poo a BA.  It is not Bugger All and while it may not provide you with a lucrative career straight after university, it prepares you more for life in the real world (and certainly the business world) than most people give it credit.

We only have one life

October 14, 2010

The Chilean mine rescue gave me a warm fuzzy feeling.  The news was happy and uplifting for once.  It taught me that we can have hope in the direst of circumstances and, for all our faults, human beings can also achieve great things if we put our minds to it.

I loved it that so many of the miners spoke about how they will approach life differently from now onwards and will never take life for granted ever again.

I was particularly touched by an interview with Mario Gomez, who at 63 was the oldest person stuck underground.  He said:

I’m a different person.  Sometimes you need something like this to happen to remind you that you only have one life.

If you were one of those miners stuck 700m underground for 69 days, how would you live differently?  What would you change?


October 11, 2010

I have reached an all-time low.  I am scraping the barrel of my existence.  Today I contemplated taking up smoking.  Not for the nicotine but for an excuse to regularly leave my desk for 7 minutes at a time.

I am bored.  My brain is locked in first gear and I long to move it to, at least, second gear.

I get cross with sluggish officials at police stations, immigration desks, and post offices or at any other place that requires a drone to repetitively process the same paperwork day in and day out.  I hate their glazed, I’ve-just-sucked-a-lemon expressions and their slow. movements. in.  spite.  of.  the. very.  long.  queues.

This is a shout out to all those people in the civil service that I have criticised for being useless, mindless, slow, lazy louts.  I forgive you.  I know why you work at the speed you do.  It’s not your fault.  I suspect your boredom has taken over the controls and is like thick cement hardening in every joint.  Boredom literally immobilises you.

I always thought boredom would make people more proactive and encourage us to use our initiatives more.  Ironically, it has the opposite effect.  I can’t reply to emails from mates as I don’t have the will to type.  I’ve contemplated cleaning my desk and doing some filing but I can’t as I don’t have the energy.  I think back to my early working days when I was an unguided missile of enthusiasm and proactivity and I think ‘When did that girl disappear?’

I divide the day into neat slices – morning before tea, morning after tea, lunch, afternoon before tea, afternoon after tea and home time.  Reaching each milestone becomes a celebration where I reward myself with a 5 minute trip to the loo.  Boredom turns you into an obsessive clock watcher.  I have come to the conclusion that

Pardon me.  The clock struck 13 hours, 00 minutes and 00 seconds and that was my cue for lunch.

[Exactly 60 minutes and 0 seconds passes]

Right, where was I?  Oh yes!

I have come to the conclusion that one can die of boredom.  Boredom slowly shuts down your system as a type of coping mechanism for your soul.  You have to work slower to make the day stretch out longer.  Before you know it, doing something as simple as walking to the photostat machine becomes like coordinating a mission to the moon.

My recent bout of boredom has made me more sensitive to the plight of the homeless and unemployed.  I think the solution to most of society’s problems is to keep people busy with work that has some sort of meaning and value to them or others.  It doesn’t even need to pay a lot, it simply needs to keep them busy.

I want to be engaged in something so interesting, so all-consuming that I forget I’ve worked passed home time.  I want it to feel like 11am and then I look at my watch and am surprised to see it’s already 2pm.

Now it’s only 15:33.  97 minutes until home time.  YAWN.


Some thoughts on writing

October 6, 2010

I love writing but, until recently, I’ve never considered doing it with any seriousness for 2 reasons:

  • I wonder if I’m no good at it because it feels hard.
  • I worry what people think of me.

I presume I’m hopeless at writing because I find it difficult.  I picture good writers in a productive trance-like state, hunched over the keyboard while they churn out page after page of pure eloquence.  Sometimes I look at a blank Word document with literary constipation.  I have no idea where to start.  I can’t translate the jumble of ideas in my head into a coherent sentence on paper.

Why is it that if something is really hard, we write it off and assume we are no good at it? 

I’ve realised that Roger Federer is good at tennis, Tiger Woods is good at golf and Michael Phelps is good at swimming, not because it is easy but precisely because it is hard.  I’ve read they train and train until they almost puke, so yes, no wonder they are good at what they do.

I’m fascinated by the creative process and have been devouring research about how writers write and how they feel when they do it.  Someone once asked Ernest Hemingway, ‘Why are your books so easy to read?’  He replied, ‘Because they are so hard to write.’ 

My hero, Charlie Brooker, says words are a lot like cockroaches because you have to turn off the lights and then they all come scuttling out.  You need to teleport 95% of your brain into nowhere, and make sure it takes its neurosis with it.  This then leaves the confident, playful 5% alone to operate the controls.

My favourite writers all speak of procrastination – Anna Quindlen, Dan Pink, Marcus Buckingham, Ernest Hemingway, George Orwell, Charles Dickens and more.  Lengthly periods of flow are the exception rather than the rule and they all seem to experience a mental struggle to get words out.  Charlie Brooker recalls he had a deadline on his birthday and spent the day hunched over his keyboard in his underpants, sobbing. 

My second reason for avoiding this writing business is because I worry what people think of me.  I am an arse-kissing people pleaser so if someone has a negative opinion of me, I am paralysed by it. Writing is about putting myself out there, exposing myself to peoples’ judgement as I say, ‘Look at me, look at what I’ve written.’   

I’m a big fan of the writer Elizabeth Gilbert.  She’s a lot like Marmite because you either love her writing or hate it.   Her book, ‘Eat Pray Love’ has been on the New York Times best seller list for over 190 weeks and it has even been made into a movie, starring Julia Roberts.

If you look at the book review for Eat Pray Love on Amazon.Com, you can see that 520 people gave her book one star and slated it.  1,133 people liked it.  Imagine if she had sent a draft of her precious work to any of those 520 people?  Imagine if she had listened to their criticism and not submitted her story for publication?  The world would be deprived of a great talent.

As further confirmation to me that you can’t please everyone and I should have more of a I-am-what-I-am-and-I-love-who-I-am attitude, I saw this quote from Margaret Thatcher – ‘What great cause would ever have been fought and won under the banner, ‘I stand for consensus’?’

While constructive criticism is useful, I must learn to have more of a Ferdi attitude.  He was the winner of the first Big Brother in South Africa.  I’m going tattoo his words on to my arm so I don’t forget it.  He says, ‘I know what I want to do in the future and I know where I want to go so every time people point a finger at me, I go FUCK YOU because they don’t like what I’m doing but I do.’