Minding other people’s business

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Once a week I take mum to pay her bills in town and once a week my inner traffic warden leaps out as smartly as The Spanish Inquisition in those old Monty Python sketches.

Even before I’ve unpacked the wheelchair I’m scanning other cars to check they have blue badges on display.

Sadly, this isn’t the only time I don a virtual uniform to check up on other people. Dull and foggy days see me flashing drivers without headlights on. “I can see the other cars on the road perfectly well”, I mimic what I imagine they are thinking.  “Right, idiot!” the traffic cop in me responds. “ But have you considered we can’t see YOU?”

Byron Katie says there are three kinds of business: our business, God’s business (for which you are welcome to substitute the laws of the Universe), and other people’s business.

Yet it’s only just struck me how much time I actually spend minding other people’s business in this way.

The truth and nothing but the truth?

But hang on… surely sticking my nose into other people’s business is justified? Disabled parking exists to make life a tad easier for people like mum, and unsafe driving habits put us all at risk.

I get that, but I’m not willing to let myself off the hook for two reasons.

Firstly, even as I am setting myself up as judge and jury over bad driving habits, I know it’s rare that we ever truly know what’s going on. That woman I’m angry with for nabbing the last disabled space without a blue badge may be dashing into town on an urgent errand for a sick neighbour. Or her life may be an impossible juggling act of responsibilities and stress, or her husband left her last week and she’s not thinking straight - and in that sense she may be suffering far more than mum – or me if I have to push mum an extra 100 metres.

Or she may have the kind of dis-ease that isn’t immediately obvious -  perhaps she’s in the middle of chemo for instance – and has forgotten her blue budge, as I do sometimes.

Feeling bad

And secondly, judgement doesn’t feel good.

There’s no doubt that driving a dark car on a dark road without lights is foolish and dangerous. But so is allowing my thoughts to chunter away, working themselves up from irritation to anger, assuming transgressors are being arrogant rather than forgetful.  My hawk-like focus on finding and furiously flashing every lightless-car is bound to make me a less attentive driver. Just as choosing thoughts of anger, blame, judgement make me a less peaceful one.

If what we give out is what we get back, sitting in judgement on others is only reinforcing those old thought patterns in which I judge myself (for not being good enough or kind enough or hardworking enough or any other type of enough).
Becoming aware how much judging is going on when I’m minding other people’s business has been like lights going on in my own mind. As I let go of judging others, choosing instead thoughts of compassion and understanding, I can do the same for myself.

That doesn’t mean that if the last disabled parking spot is occupied by someone who’s clearly only pulled in to use the cash machine I won’t smile and politely ask if they’d mind pulling back a little as there’s nowhere else for us to park. Nor that on a dusky autumn day I won’t do all of us a friendly favour by flashing my lights at a car I almost missed in the gloom. But that I will try to do so without judgement.

My choices. My business.

Posted by Jane Matthews on 09/28 at 09:04 AM
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Miles of smiles

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

This year’s far from over but I already know one of its Red Letter Days will be doing the Great North Run with my sister.

Miles behind where Mo Farah was breaking the finish line we ran alongside Star Troopers, Supermen, and firefighters sweating in full uniform. It was a day of colourful celebration, personal achievements and incredible fundraising. It also reminded me of an important lesson.

A smile really is the shortest distance between two people

By mile eight I was convinced someone had replaced my legs with tree trunks. They didn’t bend and they weighed a ton. All around, clenched jaws and clenched faces suggested we charity runners had not only hit the pain barrier but would spend the final five miles shoving against it in order to move forward at all.

I’m sure I grimaced with the best of them - but not as much or as often as I smiled. And it was that that made the difference.

You see the streets were lined with thousands of people, but apart from pointing out the occasional Elsa or Mutant Turtle, there were too many faces and stories for the crowds to pick out individuals.

Our smiles became an invitation to connect for a moment, and that was all it took for the spectators to see us and call out our names. “Go Jane. Well done Shirley. You’re doing great girls.”

Their support was like rocket fuel, just as it can be on any day of the week when we are busy, preoccupied, exhausted, down, depleted, on the treadmill or whatever. And then a moment of connection - a smile, a word, someone seeing us or hearing us - changes everything.

A long chain of those moments got us to the finish line and therefore to a fundraising total of almost £1,000 for the Stroke Association who will spend it making other lives better.

Truly, you never know how far a smile can travel.


Posted by Jane Matthews on 09/21 at 09:15 AM
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The Great Rift

Friday, September 09, 2016

I’ve changed sides. It was always Meryl but for a long time now it’s been Robert. Let me explain.

There’s a scene in Out of Africa where Karen Blixen, played by Meryl Streep, and Denys Finch Hatton, played by Robert Redford, discover their dealbreaker.

They are in love; a beautiful love story based their shared passion for conversation, music, literature, the way they both have of demanding so much from life, and above all the beauty of Africa’s vast spaces.

And yet, in the midst of all this, Denys sometimes vanishes from Karen’s ‘farm in Africa’ for days on end.

His absence gnaws away at her somehow. “When you go away…you don’t always go on safari do you? You just want to be away.”

“It’s not meant to hurt you.”

“It does.”

How I used to resent his obstinacy (I called it selfishness). His inability to accede to Karen’s need for someone to be physically THERE. His belief that you might love someone and still sometimes love your own company more.

Those things were all that was standing in the way of the happy ending I craved.

all or nothing

I watched Out of Africa again recently and fell back in love myself: with its breath-taking shots of the Great Rift Valley, the spare truth of the script – and, finally, the complexity of the grown up relationships within it.

Now I reached an age neither of them attained,  I understand the extent to which, actually, Denys knows Karen better than she herself and speaks for them both when he defends his disappearances: “I don’t want to live someone else’s idea of how to live. Don’t ask me to do that. I don’t want to find out one day that I’m at the end of someone else’s life.”

I see he speaks for me, and for many of us in knowing the importance of separation in order to come home to oneself; the times of stillness and empty spaces (that are anything but) that are so essential to our well-being.

Out of Africa is not one love story but many it turns out.

And one of those stories is about self-love: the importance of knowing ourselves well enough to honour our own needs, even when that means disappointing someone else.

It was in Africa that I discovered, for the first time, how essential to me are the quiet times; the times of meditation, escape, stillness, coming home to me.

For five months, as 50 of us rumbled through the continent in two Bedford trucks, skin pressed against each other, knees around our ears because the provisions we carried took up more space than us, my way of coping was to turn my back and, for hours, stare out at the landscapes we were passing through.

I remember writing in my journal at the time how astonishing it was to discover my huge capacity for alone time. And how, when I didn’t have it, even Africa’s vibrant colours dulled along with the edges of my own nature and capacity to enjoy what we were doing.

I think of Karen Blixen on her farm, working ever harder to tame the elements, to control nature and other people. To put gloves on her Kikuyu house servants, reroute the river, and battle the voices of disapproval coming from Happy Valley with all its codes and norms.

In the end those things can be infinitely more dangerous to us than the wildness that lay beyond the farm. The roar that threatens most isn’t the lions on the plain but the noise in our heads when we live according to others’ rules.

My wish for all of us this week is the courage to honour our needs, and sufficient space – whether we find it in the Great Rift Valley or the contours of our own quiet minds - to recognise what those are.

Posted by Jane Matthews on 09/09 at 11:58 AM
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