To care or not to care, that is the question….

When I was in my teens, I had a boyfriend – let’s call him Alexander – who told me ‘You care too much about people who don’t matter.’ I was intrigued by that comment and, being a bit of a philosopher, I went away and thought about it a lot. The first bit, I accepted: I maybe do care too much. According to my mother, I was ‘too sensitive.’ I wrote poems, didn’t eat meat, joined political groups that campaigned for fairness, inclusion and equality. I cared, and maybe it was too much at times, but I was a teenager, and passionate. However, the next part of Alexander’s sentence bothered me a lot. ‘…about people who don’t matter.’  I gave that quite a lot of thought. Who decides who matters and who doesn’t? Why do some people matter more than others? What defines the ones who don’t matter? And doesn’t that mean that someone should start to care about those side-lined people? Needless to say, I was a bit unimpressed, and Alexander and I didn’t last very long after that statement.

Of course, I grew up and I realised that what he was probably talking about was simply learning to prioritise. Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps he meant that he thought I should prioritise the good people, family, friends, my boyfriend… People who were first in the queue as recipients of my kindness were those I should care about first and, if there was space left over, I could then offer a bit of thought and benevolence for those I didn’t know well, or at all.

Alexander’s criteria for judgement were not mine: I wanted to reserve the right to care about who I liked, to be charitable, thoughtful, to seek out people who I may want to care about for reasons that were my own. And that didn’t just extend to people I knew, but to hordes of people I’d never meet, but who have reasons to be considered and supported.

Through experience, I’m beginning to learn that, had Alexander substituted the word people for the word things, he’d have been spot on. I definitely am learning to care less about things that don’t matter. That’s so important. And I’m getting quite good now at deciding which things to prioritise and which to ignore, which to give credence to and which not to even think about twice.

In a room in my house, I have several inspirational posters, ranging from Just Write and You’ve Got This to quotations by Maya Angelou and Sylvia Plath. But on my desk, I just have one inspirational message, that urges me in quite clear language to care less about things that don’t matter. In short, that includes everything negative that worries me, everything I can’t change, everything temporary and secondary, that in the grand scheme of things doesn’t matter. I might learn from these negative things, I might even consider them for a moment, but I won’t care. I include things like mistakes and criticism, (I’m only human and I’ll learn from them, but I don’t need to beat myself up,) negative opinions from people I don’t know, irrelevant things like cars and hoovering, that sort of thing. And it’s really useful to have that reminder on my desk when I’m stuck on the phone trying to talk to some provider or another, and I’ve been waiting for twenty-five minutes listening to the worst possible music. It’s not a priority. I leave the phone on speaker and go back to my typing. In those cases, caring less is a blessing.

So, back to Alexander, all those years ago. He was only young, and I’m sure what he meant could be summed in the words, ‘think about the effect that caring has on you yourself.’ Perhaps he was just being caring. And perhaps he had a point, but didn’t phrase it right. So, wherever he is now, I hope he’s caring about all the people in the world who matter. That’s pretty much everybody. And I hope he’s happy.

Note to myself as this time of restrictions comes to an end…

Like many people, I have dreamed and planned for a long time what I’ll actually do to celebrate when the time of Covid restrictions comes to an end. I haven’t spoken to most of these people face to face, of course, but at a social distance and, more times than not, over social media. There’s been a lot of talk about how we’ll enjoy throwing away face masks, meeting friends down the pub, hugging beloved and much missed relatives and going to gigs and theatre again. Planning holidays is a favourite topic – there are so many places we’ll be so desperate to go. And it’s no surprise. Once restrictions are lifted, it’s natural to want to live a little, a lot, to catch up, to make up for lost time.

Many people have started celebrating already – I have friends who’ve been to the theatre, to football matches, who have taken off on motor home holidays across the UK. Once we’re double-jabbed and we feel safer to be out and about, we’ll all deserve to have a good time. I’ve done my best to start getting back to normal – I’ve met up with relatives I haven’t seen in too long; I’ve organised to go away for weekends in the van.

But, as August approaches, something unexpected has crept in to slow my plans down. I just don’t seem to be able to organise anything. I’m a sociable person; there are so many people I’ve missed, so why am I not rushing to email, phone and text them to arrange visits, invite friends round for dinner? And the answer is very simple – torpor.

I don’t understand it. There are so many people I’d love to see again. We message each other regularly, exchange views about books, tell each other we’re dying to catch up and send streams of emojis. So why am I filled with a lethargy that tells me I can sort it all out tomorrow? It doesn’t make sense.

Unless, perhaps, the restrictions we’ve been living under have somehow seeped through our skin and made us feel that this old way of life, being separate and distant, is now normal. This strange hesitation to ring friends and throw our arms around them is due to the fact that we haven’t thrown our arms around them for far too long. Coronavirus has had the effect of continued electric shock treatment and, like the babies in Huxley’s Brave New World, we are afraid to reach out and grab that which we want in the fear of being stung again. What happens if there is another spike of the virus?

Or perhaps the torpor is really not torpor at all, but a learned lethargy? We’ve sunken into a habit of slobbing around the house in pyjamas, taking zoom calls half-dressed. Someone told me recently that they were nervous about going back to work in an office because they hadn’t worn ‘normal clothes’ in so long. Being among people again and relearning the codes we readily accepted before may be more difficult to assimilate than we realise. It’s as if the skills to socialise and the impetus to resume a normality have become temporarily dormant.

Of course, so many key workers put their heads down and worked on while many others of us have stayed at home: thoughts of getting back to normal are not happening to them because they’ve had to run on the treadmill of a strange new normal for the last eighteen months. For that we will all be eternally grateful.

But what about my social life, the one that I’ve left on the shelf to sort out tomorrow, or soon, or some time in the future? I have so many friends on social media that I talk to regularly, but that’s no replacement for real life eye-to eye contact, that exciting buzz of live meeting of minds and sharing of thoughts and ideas. I’ve said too many times, ‘we must meet soon,’ ‘we must get together.’ Now I need to actually do something about it. I need to invite people round, meet them for coffee, dinner, walks, whatever. I need to get my old life back, and soon, while I can. I’ve used work, deadlines, time frames, distance and Covid as excuses for far too long and that has to stop.

So, whether it is lethargy, torpor or the fact that I need to change from the old tattered vest and shorts into proper clothes and actually put some shoes on, I need to be active. Then, and I’m sure everyone understands this feeling, when I’m back to normal and laughing and enjoying the company of friends, I’ll wonder what held me back and why it took me so long.

The Triumph of the England Football Team

Like many people in England, I stayed up late to watch the exciting match between England and Italy and, like many people, I have been aware of the aftermath this morning on the news: I usually listen to a sports channel in the gym and the programme was full of regrets because the team lost and bad news because a minority of fans have been disrespectful.

England lost. They played well, especially in the first half, and they held their opponents to a draw in extra time, meaning that there woud be a penalty shoot out, the most random coin-tossing way to end a game. Then three young English men, two in their early twenties and one just nineteen, took the last three penalties and failed to score.

Of course, after a game, the mamager takes all the responsibility on his shoulders and pundits are ready to criticise the fact that three youthful and less experienced players were left exposed to failure. Southgate himself, when he was a player, missed a vital penalty in an important match, plunging his team into a situation where they lost the game.

Against that background, and I’m sure Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka, are smarting today, there has been horrendous online racial abuse and camera footage of fans breaking into Wembley and behaving badly. Who’d be proud to be English today?

The answer is, the England team and the whole country should be proud of the achievement. There are so many positives to be taken from one narrowly lost match. We should not spend time and give credence to the negative behavour that accompanies the beautiful game. Thesr people are a minority, and do not represent the sport at all, although I hope the online abusers are taken to task and given a thorough programme of re-education – it has to stop.

I’ve never been a great England fan, although I do support my own Premiership team. But England as a team never really grabbed me. In my youth, the national flag didn’t signify much to me. I don’t need to mention some of the negatives that have come from certain flag wavers in the past. So, while I was happy when England did well, I wasn’t particularly moved by their losses.

This England team are different. They promote values that England, or any other national team would be proud of: Marcus Rashford’s tireless work for families in food poverty; Mason Mount visiting sick children in hospital; Jordan Henderson’s rainbow laces in his boots; Kalvin Phillips wearing a shirt with ‘Granny Val’ on the back, in memory of his grandmother. This team are a flagship for inclusion, equality and fairness in society and for me, that is England’s triumph. Forget the foolish few who still use sport as an occasion to be unpleasant. We should celebrate the positives. We have a team of young men who are heroes. They played heroically and the three young lads who stepped up to take those penalties demonstrated three singular acts of bravery.

As a team, England were seen as a united, inclusive and supportive group of men. Gareth Southgate, their manager,was a spokesman throughout for positivity and fairness. The players spoke lucidly about the values they promoted and I couldn’t help but admire them and get behind the team.

England will play again and become a better team for this experience: they are a young squad and they promote a culture where failure is not simply failure, it is a step towards success in the learning process. Yes, it hurts now, but they will be stronger and better for it. That doesn’t help much today – the team came very close to lifting a trophy, incredibly close. Today they will lick their wounds and wonder, if only…

But some of the images that come from the England fans, not the negative ones but the ones that make me cheer, are so important. The Muslim primary school kids in the classroom cheering the team on. The woman in the hijab who said that she suppoorts England because the team represent her. The woman who spoke on TV about being Raheem Sterling’s neighbour, how he used tho kick his ball over her garden as a kid and politely ask for it back. The England team have brought humanity, equality and fairness to football and they are a team who truly represent a country: they are brave, humble, tenacous, focused, fair, survivors.

I believe the England team will be a force to be reckoned with in the World Cup next year. And, whether they are successful or not, each team member should be proud of his achievements. Who says football doesn’t represent the best of a country? These young men were certainly some of the best and I am impressed, not just by their heroic performance, but for the people they are and the positive values they have made England’s throughout their campaign. Long may it continue.

The treasure inside the nutshell: talent that goes unnoticed.

It’s interesting to think about talented people and to stop for a moment and really take in just how good they are, in terms of their skills being so much more than what we know as average. I often use myself as the average against which to compare others, but in many ways, I don’t even make the average mark.

I like running a bit, not a lot: I can run along a beach for a mile or so, simply because of the freedom and the fresh air and the sound of the sea – it sort of buoys me along. But at speed, or for the duration of a marathon? No way. I look at the Paula Radcliffes of this world with awe – I’d never be that good, not if I trained for a millennium. And other sports men and women amaze me: Trent Alexander Arnold is only 22 years old – do you remember that perfect corner kick against Barcelona? And look at Tour de France riders, each gruelling day in the heat and the mountains, and those scary descents? I’m not even average when it comes to a comparison with those fit and courageous people.

Let me try and find an average – I have an A level in Art. I’m an average painter, perhaps. Or I used to be – I’m way out of practice and I never considered myself to be particularly good. So, if I go to an art gallery, it doesn’t matter who I look at – Turner, Van Gogh, Tracey Emin – the artists have so much more skill than I do. Or Music – I love music, and I dabble very badly and inconsistently. Then I consider the skills of real musicians, classical, rock, jazz, and I’m way below average. Again, I’m awestruck by the jaw-dropping skills.

I’ve just read Sarah Winman’s novel, Still Life. Utterly gob smacked. She’s taken her writing to another level. True talent absolutely sings.

Which leads me to wonder whether those special people, those with huge talent, magnificent skills beyond us all, will always rise to the top. Talent always shines, of course. But is it necessarily the case that everyone will see it?

No, it isn’t. Van Gogh, the ‘misunderstood genius,’ only sold one painting in his lifetime. Emily Dickinson’s incredible poems were edited furiously to conform to society’s norms and then only seven of them were published. Edgar Allen Poe couldn’t afford food, and died an impoverished alcoholic, yet he was one of the first to introduce the world to his stylised detective-fiction stories. My favourite poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, published only a few of his poems during his brief life: he died of typhoid in 1889, his last words being ‘I am so happy, I am so happy. I loved my life.’ He was bipolar and had battled depression. But his poems are stunning.

So, it follows that there are some super-talented people out there who are seldom noticed. At least Van Gogh and Emily Dickinson became famous for their genius, albeit after they had died. But there are many incredibly talented people whose skills remain unsung. I’m sure of it – I taught theatre to so many kids who had no idea of their potential and little in the way of self-belief to push beyond the expected ceiling they felt kept them and their expectations low.

My brother is one such person – a blinkered secondary school ignored his many abilities. He can do things that amaze me, both in terms of painting and engineering and in logical thinking, but of course that goes unrecognised when the only expectation of a  student is to be quiet, to conform and to copy from a book. No wonder he was a rebel.

And there’s a friend of mine, whose name I won’t mention as it will embarrass him. We worked together for years. He was a lowly paid technician and jack-of-all-trades who was asked to perform appliance tests and fix small electrical faults. But on sports days, open days, publicity opportunities or at theatre events, a huge burden of work was thrown at him because of his talent, because he was the only one capable of shining. It was seldom recognised, apart from a bit of fleeting thanks or a brief flurry of quickly-forgotten compliments, but the man was a genius. He produced lighting sets, films, recordings of exceptional quality without the proper equipment; sometimes he resorted to using his own equipment, or even having to buy it. The world took him for granted. ‘Oh, could you just… it will only take a minute.’

Then this exceptional man, a gifted musician, a film maker in his own right, would be given a mammoth task, a short deadline, no financial recompense, no change of status, and he’d come up with breath-taking work beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. He was way, way beyond the average, and he certainly surpassed his pay grade and everyone’s expectations. Let’s hope he’ll be remembered for it properly at some point…

Unsung geniuses are amongst us everywhere. They may seem insignificant to others, like the small kernel of a nutshell, but they are made of solid gold. I could mention a musician I know who is such a focused maestro he can’t operate a mobile phone. I know writers, actors, editors, teachers, nurses, engineers, people whose gifts are magical and a joy to behold, and yet these people remain humble, unaware of the extent of their gifts and often underappreciated.

So, this blog post is for you all, those of you who maybe don’t even know how special you are, how strongly your gifts shine, how you are so far beyond the average, you are solid gold, you are diamonds. I can’t remember who said it, but this quotation puts you right up there, where you should be. And thank you for sharing your gifts – you make the world a wonderful place.

‘Skill reaches the ceiling, talent reaches the mountaintop, excellence reaches the sky, but genius reaches the stars.’