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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In it together

Thursday, August 11, 2016

“This is going to cost you an absolute fortune.” The man’s face snarled in fury as he rushed towards me.

A moment earlier, I had oh-so-carefully opened the door of the car I was travelling in, conscious of him glaring hawk-eyed to check I did not come within a whisker of his red sports car. Inexplicably, we both heard the sickening click of my door making contact with his paintwork.

All hell broke loose.

He yelled and threatened and insisted that the bill he would send would break me because this was a PORSCHE, and making good the tiny nick would involve going to the main dealer for a respray in order not to invalidate the insurance.

Then his wife appeared, demanding to know why we were all squared up to each other in the car park. “She’s damaged the car.”

She rounded on me, face rigid with venom. “YOU IDIOT!”

I was sorry, and I had been saying so ever since I got out of the car to inspect the chaos my small mistake had wrought.

I had also made it clear that of course I would pay for the repair.

Not sorry enough

But what was I really sorry about? If I’m really honest, in the face of this fury, blame and aggression, it wasn’t the damage but the fact I’d given this unpleasant pair any reason at all to be in my life and to have some claim on me. There we were, my sister politely asking whether either of them had ever made a mistake, me keeping my temper and trying to talk to them rationally, but inside….?

Inside I actually hated them, considered them some of the most horrible people I’d encountered. The childish part of me thought the Porsche driver had brought it on himself - his fear I was about to hurt his precious car somehow MADE me do it.  If I could have found the words to cut them as they were hurting me then I’d have spoken them. Instead I was somehow proud of my restraint; of being the one who was behaving better.

Hours after we’d parted acrimoniously the whole episode was like a hard lump of gristle in my stomach. Wholly indigestible. I believe in the inherent good in everyone, and I also believe in connection - in choosing to focus on our common humanity. Why was it I could find nothing redeeming in these two people who I really knew nothing about?

All day and most of the night I played the whole thing over on a reel trying to work out what I might have done differently.

It was my friend Susie who reminded me I wouldn’t get to any kind of answer until I’d discharged the emotion. I was furious - with them and with myself - but truthfully I was also carrying a truckload of other angers about stuff I’d not dealt with. So in the privacy of my bedroom I did some yelling and pillow beating and felt the gristle dislodge. It was a mistake to try and swallow my feelings and shortcut to ‘working it out’.

Then I affirmed that all would be well. There would be no massive bill. I was safe.

Shifting gears

So it proved. When the email arrived from Mr Porsche it felt conciliatory. His car was a labour of love. It was rarely risked out of the garage. He was sure I felt his reaction was over the top but this was no rich man’s toy but a lifetime project. The dealership had advised it could be dealt with by a mobile repair outfit and the bill would be less than £100.

Since then we have exchanged polite but gentle emails. He has thanked me for handling it all reasonably and hopes there is no ‘ill will’. I have said I’m sure they are good people caught up in the stress of the situation and now the bill is settled wished them, through a gift of wine and chocs, many years of happy motoring.

But what could I have done differently? That lightbulb moment came this morning when I was reading in The Art of Possibility about the power of ‘WE’ rather than ‘I’.

Authors Rosamund and Benjamin Zander write: “More often than not history is a record of conflict between an Us and a Them.We see this pattern expressed across a broad spectrum: nation to nation, among political parties, between labor and management, and in the most intimate realms of our lives.”

How can shift from this position of opposition? They say it is by coming from a ‘we’: our essential togetherness. “By telling the We story an individual becomes a conduit for this new inclusive entity, wearing its eyes and ears, feeling its heart, thinking its thoughts, inquiring into what is best for US.”

Instead of making people the enemy they suggest we stand together against the real villians:  ‘revenge, pride, greed, fear and self-righteousness’.

While Mr Porsche stood in revenge, I met him in self-righteousness. I might have been apologising and assuring him I would pay for the damage but the words weighed light against the disdain turning to hatred in my heart.

My apology could never have worked unless I had meant it wholeheartedly. And allowed the unspoken language of my body, my whole self, to tell him I was hurting for him too, since the strength of his reaction showed me this was no mere scratch but something deep felt.

And then, what I might have done is cross the gulf between us and said “Genuinely, I am so very sorry, not only for the damage to the car but for upsetting you so much. I feel really upset too. I wonder if we could sit down and talk about how WE can sort this this out.”

Nudging the world forward, one tiny better choice at a time…

Posted by Jane Matthews on 08/11 at 07:03 AM
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Changing the tune

Saturday, August 06, 2016

There’s such an art to writing film scores – using music to guide us emotionally through the drama on screen.

How much poorer would a film like the English Patient be without its soaring, expansive soundtrack? Or The Omen without its sinister one? 

This morning I spent a few moments tuning into my own most-played soundtrack: what three thoughts do I think most often?

Oh dear.

There’s the thought about all the things I need to get done – the to do list; its close relative, how can I possibly fit it all in – the not enough time thought. And there’s also the what-should-happen-when thought: given the list and lack of time, how do I organise myself – the timetabling thought.

If my life was a film I can see that the usual soundtrack would be something like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice scene in Disney’s Fantasia.

And just like sitting in the cinema watching a film, the more I tune into it, the more wound-up I feel. Feelings are thoughts in motion.

The gift of such moments of clarity is the opportunity to change my tune: to Louis Armstrong’s We have all the time in the world perhaps. Or Don’t worry be happy.

As I think those thoughts I can actually feel my shoulders drop and the smile start on my face.

I wonder what soundtrack you’ll choose to live today to? And tomorrow…

Thoughts that make you feel like you’re in a Hammer Horror film, where you can’t even see what it is you’re supposed to be scared of but your insides are jelly anyway.

Or thoughts that, in the words of other songwriters, Raise you up, remind you that you’re amazing just the way you are. And that All is Well:


Posted by Jane Matthews on 08/06 at 07:10 AM
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