The kindness of strangers

Friday, October 07, 2016

In the last 24 hours I’ve shared hugs with two complete strangers.

Mum was very poorly, rushed to hospital in the early hours of Tuesday morning with sepsis. Shushie and I kept vigil over her embattled body, lapsing in and out of consciousness.

The only other activity in the small bay was in the far corner where another woman was recovering from serious sickness. She was surrounded at all times by daughters, sons, brothers, sisters and neighbours bearing aluminium dishes containing Pakistani food for the patient – an entire extended family.

Yesterday the Muslim chaplain came to see her and, after saying prayers, spoke to me.

Amazing how a sympathetic word unlocks tears: I cried a little and shared with him my fears for mum.

The visitors in the corner saw my tears and, after the chaplain left, came over themselves. They brought a beaker of tea, asked after mum and said they would pray for her. The oldest son insisted I was to ask for their help if there was anything at all I needed; then he gave me a bear hug.  The walls of their extended family had been redrawn to offer me a place of care and comfort.

Pay it forward

More days of hospital visiting lie ahead so at 8.30 this morning I was pulling ready meals off the shelves in Marks and Spencer, anticipating I’d have little time or energy at the end of each day.

Behind me in the queue a middle aged man with Mediterranean features held only a single bouquet of pink carnations. I invited him to go ahead of me.

“Thank you.” His cheeks flushed, then he mumbled “these are for my mum. She died three weeks ago. Carnations were something special between us.”

“I’m so sorry. I’m sure you were special to her as well.”

He started to cry and I put my hand on his shoulder while he apologised and fumbled with a hanky and told me how his mum had always come to M&S. He’d driven up from Surrey that morning, he said, and was in no hurry really because his dad had dementia and wouldn’t open the door to him until after 10.

So I went ahead after all but after paying I turned back and gave him a hug while the cashier studied her nail polish.  He held tightly onto me for a moment, then thanked me as we wished each other well.

Demolition job

These are the moments that matter in a world where politicians want to build walls and the media’s success depends on reinforcing what divides us.

More than ever it seems to me that our best chance of healing our world lies in ordinary people choosing to see what we have in common: reaching out to each other over these small but important shared experiences - across boundaries of race, culture, and even convention (because let’s face it, how many total strangers have you hugged in the supermarket queue?)

Fear, distress, hope, faith, love, empathy, confusion, vulnerability:  in opening to our human feelings and choosing to see the same in others, we are not so much stepping over the boundaries as dismantling them brick by brick.  When enough people do that there will no longer be anything there. 

Posted by Jane Matthews on 10/07 at 11:09 AM
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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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Choose your church

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

I’ve been playing at being a tourist over the Bank Holiday weekend: two days in London alongside people from every corner of the globe. It was salutory to realise that what I took wholly for granted during the years I lived in the capital was captivating those seeing it for the first time.

We started at the British Museum, experienced enough to know we should limit ourselves to a single gallery. It was my first time in the African collection and first encounter with the Benin bronzes, which had the same effect on our Victorian ancestors as those London tourists did on me - forcing them to change their thinking about something they thought they knew.  According to Victorian commentators,  seeing such creativity,  sophistication and technical craft emerge from a place many knew only as ‘The Dark Continent led to a greater appreciation in Europe of African culture and art.

Leaving aside the important arguments about whether these, and many other treasures in this wonderful Museum, should be returned to the countries from which they were - mostly - stolen, what made the visit so magical was viewing them alongside a United Nations of other tourists. Somehow there was a sense not only that we were sharing the experience of viewing these artefacts, but they represented a record of human creativity and ingenuity that was our common heritage.

What’s more, the British Museum - as if in recognition of our shared ‘ownership’ -  has opened these treasures to us completely free of charge, simply providing outsize piggy banks at the entrance suggesting we might want to support its work and help maintain open access.

Artists in living

It was the same at the Tate Modern the next day.

We poured through the giant Engine Room and upstairs into galleries brilliantly curated into themes to challenge and provoke us into thinking about the crossover between individual and collective meaning and experience.

Every room buzzed with the energy of conversations in dozens of languages, and yet I believe we understood each other and reacted emotionally as humans rather than as passport holders of a particular land.  And all at no cost, other than any donation we might choose to make.

Outside, the Millennium Bridge stretched across the Thames like a modern day yellow brick road connecting the Tate’s stolid bricks with the graceful dome and towers of St Paul’s Cathedral.

We headed over, somehow feeling that religion - or in my own language, spirituality - was an integral part of this voyage of discovery. Only to be greeted by an admission charge of £18 for adult entry to the Cathedral.

How very sad that a place which, I believe, says as much about human potential, skill and beauty as the British Museum, is as thought-provoking as the Tate Modern, and has the potential to be as expansive as the London skyline, chooses to put such a heavy price on access.

Poor connection

I am certain the Cathedral’s managers have well-honed arguments for making the charge, and that is their right.

But in the heart of a city which elected, in the wake of Terror attacks and the Brexit vote, to run a campaign stating boldly that #LondonIsOpen  it strikes me that our museums and galleries are doing far more to live that idea of connection and common humanity,  than the Cathedral - which may have forgotten its original inspiration was a human preaching brotherhood, inclusion, sharing. Or, in the words of the LondonIsOpen campaign:  ‘No them, only us’.

This week I encourage you to look with awe-struck eyes at something you have not really ‘seen’ before. 

And to pay attention to what connects you rather than divides you from everyone you know, everyone you meet, everyone you hear or read or think about.

Choose your own church - whether it’s a chapel,  museum, gallery or town centre cafe - at which to sit quietly and ponder all we have in common as citizens of planet Earth:  our emotions, our search for new experiences, our need to create beauty and legacies, our talent for invention, and our ability to recognise and respond to what is awesome, whether we are staring at the London skyline,  Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, Buddhist prayer flags against the Himalayan mountains, or Turkey’s Blue Mosque.

Posted by Jane Matthews on 08/30 at 09:18 AM
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Time to bring the harvest home

Sunday, August 21, 2016

I’ve driven a lot of miles lately - many of them spent crawling along behind tractors.

It’s harvest time. The fields are shorn, stacks of straw bales stand sentry where the corn grew tall, and those who help to put food on our tables are busy from dawn to dusk, bringing it all home.

As we snake along country roads, splinters of chaff hitting my windscreen like golden insects, I can’t help noticing those who are not content to crawl. Their red faces speak of their frustration, and when, finally, the way ahead opens up enough for them to risk overtaking, they push down on the accelerator a little too hard, as if in reproach to anyone who dares keep them from getting on with their lives.

Except their lives are happening in the moments of delay every bit as much as they will happen when they get to the appointment, or the date, or dinner at home, or sometimes just the next junction where they’ll encounter a combine harvester from the neighbouring farm.

We’ve made such a habit of hurrying. In the last two days I have pushed myself to keep up with the cashier speed-scanning this week’s groceries (why?), rushed to close the phone call from a friend in order to resume what I was doing (surely the call was more important?), tried to hurry other people along by walking ever faster a few metres ahead of them (ignoring the fact that ‘going for a walk’ was the whole point), broken the speed limit trying to arrive on time for a breakfast meeting (would the world have ended if I’d stuck to the limit and arrived a whole two minutes later?); and raced through the To Do list, even though I know the only thing that happens when I get to the end of any list is that there is another one around the corner.

The truth is, there are few things any of us are dashing to which are as important to our health, well-being and ultimately survival as those farmers bringing the harvest home.

Nor are there many sights as lovely and calming as the countryside in all its moods, colours and shapes, endlessly repeating the cycle of spring growth, summer fullness, autumn bounty and winter rest.

I’m grateful to those impatient drivers - and the tractor drivers -  for reminding me that I notice infinitely more, and get in touch with what matters most, when I allow myself to slow down.

My challenge to you - and me - this week, is to choose an activity that you usually do almost unconsciously and do it slowly -  watering the plants, cooking a meal from scratch, reading a book, taking a shower, or just possibly getting stuck behind the slowest car on the road.

Just see what peace and richness you can harvest from a temporary go-slow….

Posted by Jane Matthews on 08/21 at 03:27 PM
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