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Another prescription for kindness January 8, 2022

Posted by Jane Matthews in acts of kindness.
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It’s hard to read the statistics recording soaring numbers of covid sufferers needing hospital and not worry for those caring for them. They’ve been at the front line for two long years now, seeing things we can only imagine, forced to cover – or even cancel their own leave – for isolating colleagues, watching in disbelieving horror as yet another wave hits a service already on its overwhelmed knees.

Everyone I know is suffering the fallout of these unprecedented times, the uncertainty, fear, isolation, and more. How much worse must it be for our health and social care workers dealing not only with their own feelings but the pandemic’s impacts on those they are caring for?

If you read back over this blog you’ll find instances where I tried to anonymously show my appreciation for them: ice creams delivered to A&E, biscuits to the local surgery, and yes – I also stood on my front doorstep for a few minutes every Thursday last year and clapped my gratitude.

Small tokens of thanks but truthfully a mere drop in the ocean for a group of people from whom our country has demanded more…and more… and still more – while all the time giving less: less support both financial and practical; less notice and awareness; less approval – yesterday’s Daily (Hate) Mail carried a headline implicitly criticising the number of sick days taken by NHS staff, failing, in its usual angry way, to join up the dots and ask why so many of our health workers get sick?

So here are a couple of thoughts on actions we can take which, long-term, will leave a sweeter taste than the biscuits and boxes of chocolates.

  • All of the health service unions are running campaigns for better pay for NHS staff. The Fair Pay for Nursing campaign is only one of many examples you can find and support: https://www.rcn.org.uk/get-involved/campaign-with-us/fair-pay-for-nursing. For me it’s a no-brainer: at the start of the pandemic our health and social care services were identified as essential/key workers. In other words, we can’t run our society in the way we’ve been doing without them. Which suggests to me that their value to us is higher than those in many traditionally better-paid professions. So why are we reluctant to recognise value in the currency our society (sadly) operates on: money?
  • If you’re a user of social media find, like and amplify the voices of those who care for us. Some of my favourite tweeters, telling it like it is, are @NHS Million, @EveryDoctorUK and @doctor_oxford.
  • Finally, and crucially, write to your MP about this and explain why health and social care is the backbone of a civilised society – caring for those unable to care for themselves, and why we need to get much better at supporting them to support us. You can find details of who to write to and where here: https://www.theyworkforyou.com/mps/

When kindness is in question March 19, 2021

Posted by Jane Matthews in acts of kindness.
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I found myself very moved by this video of one marathon runner assisting another to the finish line. But even before I shared it I had the thought that only one person in this film is being kind.

Seriously, for all the commentator’s talk of the runner’s courage, how kind is it to force your body on beyond the point of collapse? When you don’t have to…because you’re not being chased by a tiger, and another marathon will soon come along.

Just saying. Perhaps it’s time I spelt out my belief that being someone nicer isn’t only about kindness to others, but always, always, to ourselves too.

A needle in a haystack March 18, 2021

Posted by Jane Matthews in acts of kindness.
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Driving to the supermarket I spotted a young man moving carefully along the grass verge, eyes scanning the ground.

I was past him before I had the thought “he must have lost something; I should have stopped to help search,” and felt a wave of guilt. In the days I wore contact lenses I often had a whole roomful of people carefully scouring the floor alongside me, desperate to be the one to find the tiny disc, rather than the one whose foot crushed it into little pieces.

I was in luck though. The very next day I am walking to the surgery and the young man was there again, a little further up the road, shoulders hunched under a loose denim jacket, hand-rolled cigarette in one hand, searching another patch of grass.

I scooted up to where he was searching. “Lost something?” I smiled.

“Yeah, he looked up at me uncertainly from behind a curtain of long dark hair.

“Can I help? Is it something small?” I confess that a small part of my mind was delighted at this turn of events: here was a genuinely spontaneous chance to be kind.

I guess the young man was about 20. He stared blankly back at me then remembered his manners. “Errr, it’s small yes. Like looking for a needle in a haystack.”

“Do you want to tell me what you’re looking for?” Why was I beginning to feel my help was actually unwelcome? And yet I blundered on. “Would a metal detector help? Not that I’ve got one but you might know someone who has.”

Have you ever had that sense that you should have recognised sooner when your act of kindness has become someone else’s burden. A but like Mrs Doyle in Father Ted forcing an unwanted cup of tea on people too polite to keep refusing: “G’wan, g’wan’ g’wan, g’wan.

The poor man continued to stare at me, desperately searching for an answer that would satisfy this determined do-gooder without being rude. “Err, it’s a bit difficult to describe really.”

Finally, the penny dropped. Whatever he’d lost – and I’ll admit it – in the face of his secrecy my mind moved immediately to drugs, fallen from a pocket on a late night stagger home perhaps – my help was not wanted.

So I wished him good luck and carried on my way, laughing at myself a little for not backing off sooner, not reading his body language right away.

Wondering whether it still counts as an act of kindness because my intentions were good. And hoping that the fact my help was unwelcome won’t deter me from joining the next search party I stumble on…

Sweet surprise March 17, 2021

Posted by Jane Matthews in acts of kindness.
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Is there anything quite so lovely as a surprise package arriving with the post?

I have to confess that during the long months of lockdown I’ve once or twice organised to receive treats from myself by mail order – simply for the pleasure of seeing a parcel on the doorstep.

Since kindness to ourselves is just as important as being kind to others I’m happy to encourage you to do the same. But let’s be honest, it’s not quite the same thrill as when something arrives unexpectedly from someone else.

love by post

It isn’t just the joy of an unexpected gift. Indeed I’d go so far as to say the contents are the least important part of the good feelings a surprise parcel engenders.

The real gift is knowing I’ve been in someone’s thoughts, and they wanted to show their love by searching out a suitable surprise and were willing to stand in a queue at the post office for a good while (another bit of lockdown fallout is a revival in the dear old PO’s fortunes; there’s never not a long queue where I live).

Ten years after a friend sent a DVD of Elf in the post to me because I’d used Facebook to ask people to recommend laugh-aloud films , I can still remember my delight at this surprise. Ten years! Now that really is a gift that keeps on giving and giving.

sealed with a kiss

I’m not alone in saying that the long months living through a pandemic have reminded me that the most important thing in life is my loved ones, family and friends I’ve been separated from.

Like you, no doubt, I’ve done my best with Zoom and Skype and Houseparty and Google Meet to keep in touch. But when my daughter Amy started what she calls a ‘side hustle’, baking brownies to send out or sell, I saw an opportunity to reach those I hadn’t seen for the last twelve months.

It gave me so much pleasure to write short messages of love and support, address the little boxes and seal them with a kiss, imagining how they might be received with the same rush of love I’d felt when that DVD showed up.

Which is something I’ve observed many times in this blog – that even when giving is a selfless act there’s a pay off for the one doing the giving. Acts of kindness have this way of making me feel every bit as good as I want the recipients of those brownie boxes to feel.

What goes around comes around.

Embarrassed by kindness March 8, 2021

Posted by Jane Matthews in acts of kindness.
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In

This guest blog, submitted anonymously, echoed many of my own thoughts about the barriers to being kinder…

I think I have a problem with being nice. Let me explain. 

My first memory of this particular brand of discomfort occurred in Auckland over a decade ago when, between finishing school and embarking on the enormous adventure of university, I was working and travelling with a close friend on the other side of the world. I realise looking back quite how much I learned during this year – the joys of commuting included!

It was a fleeting moment but one that has – for some reason – stayed with me ever since. Having observed the etiquette of the trams as I journeyed in and out of the city each day, one morning I offered my seat up to a lady who looked like she might need it more than me (a 19-year-old who was just about to work her entire shift at a desk). My offer was declined, but not all that kindly. No harsh words were exchanged but I got the distinct impression I had offended her, which was not my intention.  

Luckily I was quite close to my destination, but still I hopped out a few stops early to make it seem as though my offer had more to do with me than her. These days, as a regular user of the London tube who often offers their seat up, and is occasionally offered a seat myself, I do wonder how anyone could be offended by this? On reflection, I suspect my fearful and insecure young mind somewhat embellished this scenario.  

I’d like to be able to tell you that, a decade on, I’m over this fear of being rebuffed. But the truth is that I still feel a pang of dread just before rising from my seat.

I think what lies behind the same thing that has led me to donate to St Mungo’s charity each month rather than stopping in the street to give money directly to a homeless person.

When I began  donating  I was fresh out of university and living in Manchester. Walking home from late shifts I couldn’t stop thinking about how many people were sleeping rough as I arrived home to the luxury of my warm and safe flat. I told myself at the time that my choice to donate from behind the comfort of a screen was because I feared pulling out my purse late at night, as a woman on her own.  

Looking back though, I think there was more to it, and I wonder what my excuse is now, moving through busy London streets during the day and witnessing increasing levels of homelessness? My heart swells when I see people stop for a chat, or offering to buy food and a hot drink: being human. That is the person I want to be – it’s the person I feel I am. So what is really holding me back? 

I feel ridiculous confessing this, but I think it comes down to a feeling of embarrassment: my lack of confidence – a fear of standing out, of being ‘shot down’. And I am utterly ashamed admitting this because another part of me knows my discomfort should never be a barrier to doing the right thing.  

Is it because giving anonymously has become a habit? Is it that I have confined this very important cause to the safety of my comfort zone? Should I be challenging myself more when it comes to donating, and to giving and kindness more generally? 

I don’t have the answers, and know that what we’re comfortable doing and how we feel about ‘standing out’ is different for everyone. But in a world of increasing fear and division, it’s urgent that we keep questioning these things – acknowledge when something feels uncomfortable and ask ‘why?’ – and ‘can I change that?’

I think I have a problem with being nice. Let me explain. 

My first memory of this particular brand of discomfort occurred in Auckland over a decade ago when, between finishing school and embarking on the enormous adventure of university, I was working and travelling with a close friend on the other side of the world. I realise looking back quite how much I learned during this year – the joys of commuting included!

It was a fleeting moment but one that has – for some reason – stayed with me ever since. Having observed the etiquette of the trams as I journeyed in and out of the city each day, one morning I offered my seat up to a lady who looked like she might need it more than me (a 19-year-old who was just about to work her entire shift at a desk). My offer was declined, but not all that kindly. No harsh words were exchanged but I got the distinct impression I had offended her, which was not my intention.  

Luckily I was quite close to my destination, but still I hopped out a few stops early to make it seem as though my offer had more to do with me than her. These days, as a regular user of the London tube who often offers their seat up, and is occasionally offered a seat myself, I do wonder how anyone could be offended by this? On reflection, I suspect my fearful and insecure young mind somewhat embellished this scenario.  

I’d like to be able to tell you that, a decade on, I’m over this fear of being rebuffed. But the truth is that I still feel a pang of dread just before rising from my seat.

I think what lies behind the same thing that has led me to donate to St Mungo’s charity each month rather than stopping in the street to give money directly to a homeless person.

When I began  donating  I was fresh out of university and living in Manchester. Walking home from late shifts I couldn’t stop thinking about how many people were sleeping rough as I arrived home to the luxury of my warm and safe flat. I told myself at the time that my choice to donate from behind the comfort of a screen was because I feared pulling out my purse late at night, as a woman on her own.  

Looking back though, I think there was more to it, and I wonder what my excuse is now, moving through busy London streets during the day and witnessing increasing levels of homelessness? My heart swells when I see people stop for a chat, or offering to buy food and a hot drink: being human. That is the person I want to be – it’s the person I feel I am. So what is really holding me back? 

I feel ridiculous confessing this, but I think it comes down to a feeling of embarrassment: my lack of confidence – a fear of standing out, of being ‘shot down’. And I am utterly ashamed admitting this because another part of me knows my discomfort should never be a barrier to doing the right thing.  

Is it because giving anonymously has become a habit? Is it that I have confined this very important cause to the safety of my comfort zone? Should I be challenging myself more when it comes to donating, and to giving and kindness more generally? 

I don’t have the answers, and know that what we’re comfortable doing and how we feel about ‘standing out’ is different for everyone. But in a world of increasing fear and division, it’s urgent that we keep questioning these things – acknowledge when something feels uncomfortable and ask ‘why?’ – and ‘can I change that?’

Photo by Matthew LeJune on Unsplash

Read all about it February 9, 2021

Posted by Jane Matthews in acts of kindness.
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I’ve written before about giving people the gift of a great book to read: passing on to a stranger something that has given me pleasure, insight, or support.

One of the few gifts of lockdown is that I have so much more time to read; the downside being the stacks of finished books I don’t have room for on my already crammed shelves.

Then, on one of my daily walks (another of those few pleasures), I spotted The Little Bookshop’s free book exchange: an unlocked cupboard packed with plenty of reading, and an invitation to help myself for free.

It’s not a new idea: but it was a new thought to me that, instead of carting books I’ve loved off to charity shops or car boot sales, I could donate them to my neighbours.

To tell the truth, a part of me felt this was a cheat since setting my used books in the unlocked cupboard was doing me a favour: more space. So to assuage the guilt I decided to throw in a new copy of the latest edition of my own book, The Carer’s Handbook. I know that in better times The Little Bookshop runs carer support sessions so figured maybe someone who could use the advice and support in the book might be in the habit of checking the book cupboard.

In the spirit of a book exchange I also chose a used book to take away. As someone who has never ever had room in her house for all her books, I don’t want this lovely little community project to suffer the same fate.

Why I’m no longer liking you February 2, 2021

Posted by Jane Matthews in acts of kindness.
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Three months into a global pandemic there are a number of things that have helped me stay sane – top of the list trying to contact family and friends every day.

A part of that picture is the time I spend on social media, seeing what everyone is doing, sympathising when they’re down, enjoying their jokes when they’re up, and ‘liking’ all their other updates.

And I do mean ‘liking’. Just watch me whizzing down the page clicking the little thumbs up button willy nilly, racing through all my friends’ updates, scarcely pausing…

And that, I realise, is not kind. How long does it take to click on the ‘like’ icon, or the heart button if I particularly like the photo or the post? It’s the online equivalent of hearing someone out, smiling, then turning my head and getting on with whatever I was doing before. Or waving at good friends across the road but not bothering to cross for a hug and a proper ‘how ARE you?’

showing I care

Instead of liking everything – which suggests I’m not really paying much attention to anything – why don’t I try giving my social media friends and followers the gift of a bit more time and care, responding to or commenting on what they are putting out there.

I know people who are really good at this and being on the receiving end of their comments and comebacks is a lovely feeling. It also tells me they value our friendship enough to write a few words.

It would be nice to imagine myself passing on that momentary glow of being seen, heard and valued to others.

practising unconditional kindness

Two small things I notice immediately: obviously it takes longer to reply than to like, and since I don’t want to spend my whole life on social media I’m going to miss a whole lot of posts. That’ll be challenging for someone whose working life began in journalism because other people’s lives and experience are just so interesting.

Secondly, there’s a small part of me – a very small part luckily – that is tempted to pop back and see how folk are responding to my responses. I’ve written about this in other blogs: the traitorous part of me (is it in you too?) that enjoys being kind but also enjoys being recognised for being kind. I’m getting better at overriding it by reminding myself love and kindness are at their most powerful when they’re unconditional.

Let’s see how this being kind online goes. And apologies in advance if you’re one of my friends and I ‘like’ you less from now on. It’ll only be because I’m choosing to put a little more time and thought into having an occasional conversation.

I’m not snubbing you but hoping to show you I’m here and I’m paying attention.

Photo by Karsten Winegeart on Unsplash

How to say thank you January 29, 2021

Posted by Jane Matthews in acts of kindness.
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As I write this post, the UK has recorded more than 100,000 deaths from Covid. We don’t hear the statistics on how many people have been successfully treated and recovered. But it’s safe to imagine that upwards of half a million may so far have passed through the caring and expert hands of those NHS workers on the frontline.

Clap for carers?

I confess that after the first one or two Thursday evenings on my doorstep, clapping for the NHS and other key workers, it began to feel like an empty gesture. It was unlikely any of them could hear me clapping and – in the light of their contribution – it seemed embarrassingly easy: one minute’s interruption to my evening, and even a bit of pay-off in the shape of brief catch-ups with the neighbours.

What I really wanted to do was some kind of grand gesture – like the people down the road who painted a massive rainbow-coloured ‘Thank you NHS’ banner to display alongside the main road. Or the pizza companies who sent in towers of free food to hospital staff – who, I’m sure, can barely lift their heads to cook at the end of another exhausting, emotional and distressing shift battling to keep patients alive.

Why not create my own Thank you collage at super size on the side of a hill in our city park? Or head to the hospital and hand out homemade muffins to every person heading to the staff car park?

Second thoughts, four things

Because, I suspect, those kind of gestures put me at risk of making it more about me than them. I need to challenge my motives, put myself in their shoes and ask what, if anything, right now might genuinely convey my gratitude?

Firstly, I think, to listen to what the medical folk I follow on Twitter are telling us about what they would prefer to more clapping:

  • following the guidelines and not putting myself or anyone else at risk of becoming another NHS in-patient
  • lobbying my MP for better pay, conditions and recognition for all those working in the NHS and other health and social care roles
  • lobbying government generally for better valued and resourced health and social care services reflecting a society that looks after its most vulnerable – and casting future election votes accordingly.

As soon as I’ve finished this blog I’ll be emailing my MP, signing a couple of relevant petitions I’ve seen recently, and thinking of other ways to keep up the pressure on our political leaders to do the right thing by all those who’ve now been doing the right thing for all of us for the last ten months.

For now, I’ve written a thank you note which I’ll post to the ITU team at my local hospital in Milton Keynes. Maybe, after all, a quiet heartfelt thank you from a stranger will say more than big gestures…

And if you want to join me:

Fair pay for nurses petition: https://action.rcn.org.uk/page/70375/petition/1

Free Herdy thank you cards to download https://www.herdy.co.uk/herdy-freebies/

Some like it cool July 29, 2016

Posted by Jane Matthews in acts of kindness.
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mini ice creamsAs if spending visiting a hospital A&E department isn’t ordeal enough, finding there are no seats, the coffee machine is dead, the cold drinks cabinet only contains bottles of something purple and sticky,  plus there’s a minimum four hour wait, is enough to make anyone sick.

It happened to me recently as I’ve already blogged.

So this afternoon, as I finished my Sainsbury shop, I suddenly decided to throw a few boxes of ice lollies into the trolley.

Then I sped down to Milton Keynes A&E with my loot to offer it to the waiting hordes.

I think this qualifies as a best year activity on two counts: firstly, it was great to bring a smile to the faces of a few frazzled parents, grateful for anything that might distract them and their bored children (I have been there so many times myself).

And secondly, if I’m honest, it took me outside my comfort zone . Quite apart from worrying that I would look foolish, that some people might suspect me of selling something, trying to poison them, or just being a bit eccentric, there was the dithering in front of the freezer cabinet wondering how many ice creams I’d actually need. I didn’t mind having too many – ice  cream doesn’t last long in our house – but I didn’t want to run out while there were still  frustrated, hot, tired people rammed together on the rows of plastic seats.

I can report that some people did indeed seem to think me strange (or at least guilty of un-British behaviour) but that there were many more smiles and thank yous – including from those who didn’t take an ice cream but appreciated the gesture.

I can also report that I caught myself just in time to avoid offering one to a woman clutching one of those paper sick bowls to her chin.

And that the most grateful recipients of all were the two elderly men who were there in A&E by themselves. I suspect that for all the pleasure they showed at being offered ice cream, a few minutes’ conversation might have tasted even sweeter.

But that will have to be another story…

 

 

 

 

Doing what you can November 22, 2012

Posted by Jane Matthews in acts of kindness.
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sunset shotI’ve been a carer twice which means I’ve spent more time around hospital doctors than is good for anyone’s health. Let’s just say that, sadly, during many of those visits the medical professionals charged for caring for my elderly relatives have been big on busy-ness and authority – and short on time, empathy and commitment to treating patients and their carers as partners in healing.

Which may be why this story from my friend Dar Payment struck such a chord. I was really pleased when she agreed to let me share with you her account of a small moment that made a huge difference.

 

Making a difference: the power of doing what you can

I remember the day as clearly as if it was yesterday. I lay alone in a semi-darkened hospital room. I welcome the beep of my IV as it lulls me into a semi-hypnotic state. I am grateful, as it allows me to forget not only the cancer trying to eat away my desire to live, but also the pain that throbs throughout my body.

All of the sudden the privacy screen around my bed was jerked open. I felt the sterile white bed sheet covering my then 86 pound frame being slid away from my body, and immediately I felt the cold sting of embarrassment and shame. My bony, naked, bag of bones was covered with petechiae, a form of body rash common from the type of leukemia I was receiving chemotherapy for. My withered body humiliated me.

Peering down at me were ten sets of eyes. They crowded unceremoniously around my hospital bed. A doctor began to read my medical chart aloud to the physician interns who had accompanied him into my room. Some took notes; other just listened and shook their heads grimly as he read off my diagnosis and my anticipated prognosis.

They did not acknowledge me, nor did they speak to me. I was mortified. I shut my eyes trying hard to fight back my tears, but only to feel them streaming in warm trails down my cheeks and into my ears.

I heard a shuffling in the room, and then silence. I opened my eyes, and this time saw only one set of eyes kindly gazing down at me. The physician intern gently wiped away my tears with a soft tissue. His eyes were full of compassion and I watched as he tenderly pulled the snowy bed sheet back over my body. I welcomed the warmth. Next he pulled the privacy curtain back into place enabling me to regain my modesty, and to surround myself once again with a sense of safety and security.

What he did next I will never forget – he bent down and gently kissed me on the forehead, and then silently left. One small act of loving kindness made ripples onto the surface of my heart like a small pebble makes ripples on a tranquil pond. One small act of genuine love made all the difference in a dying woman’s life and gave her the courage to keep fighting.

This young intern gave me a very valuable gift in the form of a powerful insight. Making a difference in the world in which you live begins right where you are at. It is an extension of your heart: thinking, speaking, doing, and being love expressed in action. The lesson has caused me to notice the numerous ways I can contribute to people in my immediate environment – at home, at work, on a crowded expressway, while standing in line at the grocery store.

“The point of power is always in the present moment,” says Louise L. Hay. So let me ask you a question. Who can you encourage today? Who can you support either emotionally or tangibly?   More importantly, how can you encourage and support your spouse, your children, your mother, your father, the stranger at the bank, right now in the present moment?

Making a difference in the world around you does not mean doing something big, but in realizing that you can make a small shift in another person’s heart and mind by simply doing that which you can.

“I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; and because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do something that I can do.”   Helen Keller

Dar Payment 

Licenced Heal Your Life Teacher and Life Coach 

lessons from the street November 18, 2012

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So we came, we raised some money, and we mostly failed to sleep. But we also got a small taste of what it means to be without a roof, never mind a warm bed, for the night, and to be in a constant battle with the elements, trying to stay warm.

I do mean a very SMALL taste. Unlike the majority of those the Surviving Winter campaign is raising funds for, we were not alone, and we were definitely not hungry: generous donations of soup, curry and late-night pizza from supportive local businesses arrived every hour. And at 7am, a mug of hot tea inside us, we rolled up sleeping kit, dashed through pouring rain to waiting cars, and from there back to warm, dry homes.

Here’s what my night on the street taught me:

It’s what’s underneath that counts
It sounds like I’m moralising but I mean this in the most practical sense. Those who survived the sleep-out best were those who had plenty of padding between them and the pavement. For those who hadn’t brought enough layers of cardboard and foam the concrete was as unforgiving as a slap in the face – or in this case, an eight-hour jab in the hips. Piling layers on top had nowhere near the same effect as getting the foundations right. OK, so maybe I am moralising just a little 🙂

Fashion doesn’t count for a thing

Do you know what, I loved raiding the bottom drawer for my slobbiest clothes, the jumpers and leggings which only get an outing if I’m gardening or absolutely certain that no-one will come to the door for another 12 hours. And it was oddly liberating to be wearing them with people I’d normally dress up to sit in meetings with; a useful reminder that beneath the job titles and roles the essentials are still about being warm, and safe and healthy. Even if that means wearing my son’s AC Milan woolly hat and the frankly peculiar-looking pixie boots (yet lined with sheepskin) I threw in the bottom of my wardrobe after I was given them one Xmas.

People aren’t always grateful

We were in the city centre so yes, of course it was noisy. And the quieter the traffic, the more obvious the throb of music from late night bars reverburating through the pavement below us. Meanwhile, only lack of investment in public transport can be responsible for a fleet of buses that sound as loud and jarring as a deployment of tanks.

Somewhere around 2am, with my head buried deep inside the sleeping bag, the city settled enough for sleep to finally come. It vanished suddenly  two hours later when a man staggered along our line of prone bodies screaming ‘oy, oy oy, wake up everybody, rise and shine’. Our wake-up call, it turned out, was the genuine article, someone who’d been sleeping rough in the bushes nearby for the last year.  Fair play to him: I remember talking with the homeless Wolfie in an earlier blog, and him telling me how he’s been rudely woken by abuse,  missiles and occasionally by kicks in the head. We got off lightly, woken by words rather than sticks and stones.

There’s a lot we don’t see

There were around 20 of us huddled under the canopy of a building opposite one of the city’s late night hubs yet we saw and spoke to no more than a handful of passers-by all night. We appeared invisible to the late night revellers.

I guess in the space of my lifetime I’ve also probably walked past 100 times that number of homeless people in cities around the UK and beyond: afraid, embarrassed for them, guilty, making a choice not to see something that might take the edge off whatever it is I’m doing.

So that’s going to change. The one thing I’m usually in a position to do – drop enough money for a meal – still doesn’t feel quite as useful as it might be to give support to those charities tackling the causes rather than the symptoms of poverty, homelessness and isolation.

But what I can commit to from now is the seeing. Not looking away but acknowledging that all of these troubling, frightening and awkward things exist alongside the bright lights and the laughter and good times. On our side of the street, while we were raising funds and awarness, there was also a lot of laughter and support for each other.

What feels important is not needing life to be one thing or the other: rich and poor, haves and have-nots, happiness or misery. But allowing that in the messiness and complexity there is also richness, and the choice to live with eyes wide open.

You can’t help to change what you don’t allow yourself to see.

A night on the streets November 16, 2012

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In a few hours I’ll be rugging up and heading out to my bed for the night: a few feet of pavement in Milton Keynes city centre, a stone’s throw from the Hub. Not your average Friday evening, particularly not for someone who will drive to almost any lengths to make sure she gets home to her own bed for what’s left of the night.

But a night, literally, on the (concrete) tiles, seems a useful thing to do if it serves as a reminder that plumetting temperatures and shorter days do not mean warm fires and Christmas festivities for everyone.

my kit for sleeping out

Here’s my kit: yoga mat, sleeping bag, fur rug, pillow, son’s woolly football hat, scarf, two pairs gloves, fleece, jumper tee-shirt, running trousers, tights and some ridiculously large woollen socks, plus dinky little lambswool booties – a gift from Australia. I have absolutely NO idea if this is too much or wholly inadequate. But that’s the whole point of the exercise I guess.

Tonight’s sleep-out marks the launch in Milton Keynes of the surviving winter campaign, raising funds for those charities who are at the front line of homelessness, and the fear and poverty that leads some of the frailest members of our society to freeze to death in their own homes rather than put the heating on.

One look at the thick – and still growing – pile of things I am wearing and taking show that I am only sleeping rough-ish. I will bed down with a good meal inside, I’ll have company, and, though I plan to stick it out until what’s forecast to be a damp and foggy 7am dawn, I know I can go home and climb into dry clothes and a warm bed if I choose.

Those are not choices available to most of those who Age Concern, the YMCA, SSFA Forces and the Food Bank, will be literally keeping alive this winter.

Meeting Mark

It was a 17-year old boy called Mark who sowed the seed for tonight. More than two decades ago I was a rather niave journo on a local paper, who struggled to get her head around the idea that a new city can still be home to old inequalities. Shelter introduced me to Mark. I’ve written an edited version of his story below.

Meanwhile, to all the Marks out there, wherever you live, may tonight make a tiny bit of difference, and inspire many more tiny acts of empathy and generosity until the day they all join up and no-one has to go cold, or hungry, or sleep in the skip behind a fast food outlet, unseen by the rest of us, making a cheery way home to bed after a night on the town.

Home is a rubbish skip for Mark

Sitting in McDonalds, tucking into a Big Mac, Mark looks like any other teenager.

Until he unzips his suede jacket and reveals he’s wearing nothing underneath.

When I sit near him he shifts away uneasily. Much of what we talk about is how hard it is to keep clean. A month ago Mark had a job at the cinema but he gave it up before it gave him up. You see other than the washroom at McDonalds he has nowhere to clean up.

He tells me: “I loved that job but I couldn’t keep smart. They were hygiene conscious and in the end I thought I can’t go into work smelling like this.” Mark says he once wore the same outfit for two months without taking it off – until in desperation he went into Marks and Spencer planning to steal a change of clothes. He was caught and shipped back to Milton Keynes where he has been in and out of trouble ever since.

His story is typical, say Shelter. The child of a broken home he never got on with his stepfather who, he says, beat him badly. So he ran away and now his day begins and ends in a rubbish skip near a late night takeaway.

“It’s the one they put the cardboard boxes in; it’s quite warm actually,” he says brightly. Breakfast is a pint of milk and, if he’s lucky, a loaf of bread, nicked from someone’s doorstep. If he can’t steal to eat he’ll make his way to the YMCA where he scrounges a cup of tea and a bit of company. Boredom is the biggest problem.

“Usually you don’t eat all day long. The only thing you can do is sccrounge off your mates, but most of them are in the same way. One of my mates has been on the street for three years.”

The pair had a spell sleeping in a copse at Coffee Hall then in a tent in Campbell Park until someone removed it. The lads returned one night to find their few possessions scattered around the park. “I just turned and walked away. I couldn’t be bothered with them,” says Mark, which is why he’s sitting here now with nothing more than a jacket and pair of trousers in the world.

His problem is that, like his friends, he’s managed to slip through every single net designed to catch society’s fall outs. He says he’s too young to get on the housing list. He can’t or won’t go home, and without a permanent address he can’t get or keep a job or claim benefits.

Throughout our interview Mark never asks for sympathy. He acknowledges he’s as much to blame as his stepfather and society for the way his life has turned out, and in a moment of bravado claims “It’s fun, an adventure like Indiana Jones”.

The next moment he adds,”Anything would be better than this. I think most people who sleep rough do it because of family problems. If everything went my way it would be just me and my mum and my stepdad would be out the door. I’d be at home filling my face and wearing my own clothes.”

Mark isn’t his real name. Incredibly (to me) his mum doesn’t know her son is on the streets. “She’d do her nut if she knew,” Mark whistles. “She thinks I’m living in a friend’s house.”

He shakes his head when I offer to buy him something more to eat. “I wouldn’t dream of begging.” It’s a curious confused morality this young boy has, stealing without a qualm, taking what he needs to survive, yet at the same time worrying about hygiene, about upsetting his mum, and about what I might think about him.

I think back to how little I knew when I was 17; how relatively little of the world I probably still know. Try as I might I can’t see Mark as anything other than a child, or avoid feeling that as adults we have a responsibility to know these things are going on just a step away from where we’re at work, rest and play.