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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.

Letting the light shine November 13, 2012

Posted by Jane Matthews in acts of kindness.
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candle archI’m writing this on the first day of Diwali – the Festival of Light – which is no coincidence – as you’ll discover.

You see I’ve been meaning for a long time to head out and post copies of some of my favourite poems in the city’s bus shelters. It seems to me that only those who have no possible alternative would choose to stand and wait in the wintry weather for a bus that may or may not turn up. It’s hard to read on buses without getting sick; they take the long way round; and they’re about as reliable as a dry summer’s day…

So I decided that those who are forced to use them to get to and from work/appointments/supermarkets deserve a little cheering up… and set off with a stack of printed pages tucked into plastic sleeves.

Having been told sticking inspirational poetry onto bus shelters is still billposting and therefore illegal I did so under cover of darkness, wearing my darkest clothes. Which is ironic, considering the words I chose to print off and stick up were by Marianne Williamson, known variously by the title ‘Let your light shine’ or ‘Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate’.

Perhaps I should have opted for something fun and frivolous but the clocks going back and shorter days have made me think about the importance of light a lot lately. From the candles inside pumpkins through dancing bonfires and Diwali, this time of year is all about the light.

Christmas sparkle

I love presents and festive food as much as the next person but the bit of Christmas I really couldn’t give up is the light: the simple candle arches in dark windows; the winking lights on people’s trees; the flickering flames of a midnight mass. Any one of those things has a million associations for me. When I stop and look quietly at the lights shining through the darkness they speak to me of warmth, hope, home, and, eventually, the return of spring and sunlight.

The thing about light is, it doesn’t take very much to change the complexion of the darkness. A single candle in a pitch black room transforms it to a place of mystery and magic.

Which is what Marianne Williamson is getting at,  reminding us that we too have the power to light up our corner of the world. It was her words that Nelson Mandela chose to quote when he emerged from the darkness of two decades’ captivity, his own light undiminshed by the experience.

don’t curse the darkness – light a candle

Whether or not you have any time for the concept of God or a greater power, her encouragement to stop hiding your light is needed now more than ever. The more our world seems drawn towards darkness, the more we need to join with others in putting our light and warmth where others can see it – bringing our best selves to the window if you like.

Is that a message anyone wants to be reminded of on a damp November day as they wait for the bus’ headlights to appear around the corner?

I guess I’m counting on the surprise factor: seeing the passage posted up in such an unlikely setting will be as unsettling as the bus showing up on time.  And sometimes that’s all it takes to change the direction of a whole day.

Let your light shine

Here are the words for you to enjoy again too:

Our greatest fear is not that we are inadequate,
but that we are powerful beyond measure.

It is our light, not our darkness, that frightens us.
We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant,
gorgeous, handsome, talented and fabulous?

Actually, who are you not to be?
You are a child of God.

Your playing small does not serve the world.
There is nothing enlightened about shrinking
so that other people won’t feel insecure around you.

We were born to make manifest the glory of God within us.
It is not just in some; it is in everyone.

And, as we let our own light shine, we consciously give
other people permission to do the same.
As we are liberated from our fear,
our presence automatically liberates others.

Pure silver on the sidelines October 27, 2012

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Every cloud has a silver lining apparently, but over South Shields I could see only unrelenting greyness, a gloomy blanket of cloud with no break in it.

Rain dripped from the ends of my hair down my neck and I had lost all feeling in my toes. I guessed there was a drip at the end of my nose too, but inside damp gloves my hands were too numb to do anything about it.

This was the day I’d spent nine months in training for, hauling myself from bed for a dawn run along the canal with only a few moorhens and the occasional dog walker for company. But instead of lining up with 55,000 other runners 13 miles down the road in Newcastle city centre,  a last minute leg injury had forced me to swallow my disappointment, leave my sister at the start line, and catch a bus to greet her at the end.

There I huddled in four layers of clothing behind the course tape and prepared to keep myself as warm as I could by cheering home those 55,000 runners – the vast majority of whom were raising money for charity.

The crowd was thinner than I’d ever seen it on the four previous occasions when I’d been with my sister on the other side of the tape. Which made me feel a little sad for those who’d be pushing through rain and cloud that morning. Over and above the sense of achievement I’d felt each time we’d completed the run, the thrill of catching first sight of the silver ribbon of sea as we rounded the crest of a hill into South Shields and the final mile, what I’d most enjoyed about those runs was the support of the crowds.

The Teesiders were just so hospitable, plying us with cups of squash and digestive biscuits, ice pops and even spray from their garden hoses, as we huffed and sweated past their front doors. From year two we’d learned to put our names on our running vests because hearing someone call your name and shout encouragement is the equivalent of putting on the afterburners. My sister and I always said that if we could manage the first seven or eight miles the cheering crowd would carry us the rest of the distance.

As I waited for her, trying to imagine how she was feeling running the course alone for the first time, without me to alternately urge her on and be urged on, I hoped the crowd would step up  – though where I was standing the line was a paltry one-deep and strangely subdued.

What goes around comes around

Four hours later the rain had stopped – but I’d found the silver lining long before that. Standing on the sidelines, applauding all those runners, shouting out their names, making a special point of cheering and thanking those running for charities dearest to my heart – Carers, the Stroke Association, the British Heart Foundation, Wateraid – urging on those who seemed scarcely able to lift a leg for the next step, was fun and moving, exhilarating and unbelievably heart-warming.

I’d begun cautiously, embarrassed by the thought I could be making an exhibition of myself (as so often in this blog) in the damp silence. But one thing that half-day shift on the sidelines showed me was that the more I practised putting my voice, my energy, my admiration and gratitude out there, the easier it became, the less worried I was about what everyone else might be thinking. That was up to them: pushing for long enough on the tape representing the limits of my comfort zone eventually snapped it.

The day’s other lesson was more like revision, reminding me that supporting other people in their goals is every bit as expansive to the soul as achieving your own. Professionally, as a workshop leader and coach, I know that’s true. But on this occasion all I had to do was show up, speak up, and be a part of a crowd scene. My act of kindness hadn’t cost me anything more than a husky throat, sore hands and a few hours. It had, inevitably, repayed me a thousand-fold. In pure silver.

No sooner had I posted this blog than I came across this fantastic story of a sheep farmer who became a running, fundraising legend (skip over the intro if you will but don’t miss the tale of a man who broke records wearing wellies!). I suppose the moral is it doesn’t matter what form your kindness takes – running for sponsorship, cheering from the sidelines or serving up digestives – it’s all pretty miraculous.

Walking a mile in someone else’s shoes October 24, 2012

Posted by Jane Matthews in acts of kindness.
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Had to share this lovely story with you, above all for the spontaneity of the gesture.

By Canada’s standards, five degrees above freezing is positively balmy, but it was still too cold for a Winnipeg bus driver to continue past when he spotted a homeless man on the streets with bare feet.

Pulling his bus over to the side of the road, he jumped off and, after chatting to the bundled-up man for a moment, bent down, took off his shoes and handed them over.

“I couldn’t stand seeing someone walk barefoot in this termperature. I just saw him walking and thought ‘hey, I could do something’,” the driver told his load of passengers, stunned into silence.

We’ve all heard the advice about imagining we are walking trying to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes when other people confuse, anger, frighten or puzzle us. But here’s an example of someone whose imagination was already a step ahead of him.

“There wasn’t a dry eye on the bus,” one passenger told the local news services, whose full report you can read here

Let them eat cake January 15, 2012

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Amy’s homemade heart cake

The cake of kindness seems a bit of a theme this week. First off daughter Amy and I were glued to Sports Relief’s Great Celebrity Bake Off. Watching folk we might have glimpsed on the small screen at some point (there is rarely much celeb in celebrity I find) get the giggles over a line of tragically sunken banana loaves was great fun. But the real purpose of the series was to recruit viewers to organise their own fundraising cake sale. Here’s the link if you’re as inspired as we were: http://www.sportrelief.com/whats-on/tv-listings/the-great-sport-relief-bake-off

And then there was this fantastically sweet story in the Mail about a woman, Cath Webb, who decided to bake one Victoria Sponge a day and give it away to cheer someone up.

In the nine months since she started she’s baked for everyone from family and friends to hospital wards and the homeless.

I’ve no doubt her cakes have gone down a storm and put a smile on many faces. But what really impressed me about this story was that Cath has had the courage to share what she’s doing. That can’t have been easy, which was something I was discussing with a friend yesterday.

Our instinct is to keep our heads down. Not to make a fuss. And certainly not to seek attention or praise for the things we do well or the good that we do.

And yet, and yet…if we don’t share by example then there is no chance at all that we might influence one other person to be a little kinder themselves. It is by giving of ourselves that we give permission to others to do the same.

Marianne Williamson’s wonderfully wise words from A Return to Love came to mind as we discussed our own fear of standing out. Of seeing in someone’s eyes the thought ‘who does she think she is?’

“There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you.” is what Williamson wrote.

It’s one thing being kind for charity if you are a ‘celebrity’ (which is not to downplay the fact that those who were featured gave up two days to work for nothing.)

For the Cath Webbs of this world, as for us, the recipe is more complicated: along with kindness we need to mix in courage and commitment – trusting that by putting ourselves out there the impact on others may be greater still.

Why giving matters December 12, 2011

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Well hello again, and could there be a more appropriate time of year to be reviving this blog I am so fond of?

The season of giving indeed (unless you’re waiting for someone to vacate a parking space in which case you’ll see there are plenty of others – with faster foot action on the accelerator – who are willing to take).

After much pondering on the political, social and economic upheaval of this most topsy turvy year I had already begun to dust off this neglected site and start planning some more forays into acts of kindness. You’ll be reading more on this very shortly.

In the meantime I spotted and had to share an article from the Huffington Post which begins with a simple statement whose truth hit me with all the force of something familiar and yet forgotten: money doesn’t bring happiness; giving does. And that’s official.

What I love most about this article is its examples, which really drive home relative value: amongst a whole lot of Xmas spending I could but won’t share with you I recently paid £19.99 for a tea towel for a dear friend. (I know, I know: there is so much wrong with this statement I hardly know where to start. A tea towel? For a Xmas present? And one costing twenty quid; yee gods. In my defence it is shocking pink, and carries a hand-drawn picture of a place that is special to us both. Plus it’s great fun and will be a talking point in her kitchen. Still – a TEA TOWEL?)

Never mind the wisdom of my choice; you can leave me to rescue the friendship. The point I want to make – and which Michaela Haas makes so well in her post – is that the £10-20 I routinely spend on each of my friends at this time of year could fund two years of education for someone in India, or provide the materials for someone to start their own business, become self sufficient, and entirely transform lives.

I love giving gifts. I even like getting them. But I’m grateful for the reminder that there are a few friends – whose names I don’t even know – who I’ve forgotten to add to my gift list.

As for any friends whose names are on the list and who happen to be reading this, apologies in advance if when you tear the paper on Xmas day you’ve got the tea towel. It really isn’t just any other tea towel you know….


I’m being nicer somewhere else… March 14, 2011

Posted by Jane Matthews in acts of kindness.
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If you happen to stumble on this blog and find yourself looking for a recent post let me first apologise. And then direct you elsewhere, since I haven’t actually given up blogging. Merely got a little distracted by the publication of my latest book, Have the Best Year of Your Life.

Since one of the seven themes running through the book is ‘giving’ you’ll see I haven’t given up on kindness – and if you’re feeling kindly towards me I’d love to see you over on my new blog, which you’ll find here http://www.bestyear.co.uk/site/index.php/site/blog/

Speeding fine? Fine by me… October 21, 2009

Posted by Jane Matthews in acts of kindness.
only fools and students...yes, I drove one of these once

only fools and students…yes, I drove one of these once

Talk about rubbing salt in the wound. For 35 years I’ve driven an assortment of old bangers the length and breadth of Britain without once being caught speeding. And in the same week my record attempt is dashed by the arrival of one of those stern official envelopes from the Fixed Penalty Support Unit I read of a 99 year old man named as the UK’s safest driver for not getting a ticket in 84 years on the road.

Oh well. I’m happy to let Mr George Geeson have his five minutes in the spotlight. He deserves it, not just for his ‘safety first’ maxim, but for being old enough to be able to boast that his first car was  a Model T Ford. How cool is that?

And I deserve my speeding ticket, for as surely as traffic lights turn red the moment we approach them, I confess I have  never been a slave to the speed limit.

road sense

It turns out that while I’ve been smugly crowing about my clean sheet, everyone else I know has been racking up points like  Tesco shoppers. Indeed, some of the tales I’ve heard make my 37mph on a deserted Watling Street at 7.30am on a Sunday morning sound positively pedestrian.

But getting the ticket did set me thinking what a thankless task it must be, sitting in the FPSU (there’s catchy!)  grinding out thousands of letters that you know are going to ruin the recipient’s day.

I wonder if dealing daily with calls from Mr and Ms Angry has worn them as thin as an illegal tyre, or whether they still get some job satisfaction from the thought that every ticket they send just may have a tiny impact on our fast-forward-world. That occasionally it may just make someone pause for thought about the effects of speed, and the fact that every morning when they jump into their car they’re putting themselves in charge of a dangerous weapon?

I don’t want to come across as po-faced about this but the older I get, the more I’m inclined to agree with gorgeous George that, when it comes to the roads, safety comes first. And not just my safety but the safety of all the pedestrians I pass, preoccupied like me with all the things they’re hoping to do that day and therefore not necessarily paying attention to what’s going on around them.

a small thank you

So there’s a subtext to today’s act of kindness, parcelling up a box of Marks and Spencer chocolates to send anonymously (for fear they may think I’m trying to bribe my way out of trouble) to the FPSU as a thank you for doing a thankless task.

And that’s my growing sense of gratitude at having been caught, and reminded that I am not in a hurry to get my life over with.

The Big Bleed October 12, 2009

Posted by Jane Matthews in acts of kindness.
Tags: , , , , , , ,

billy_animThis was my third attempt to give blood.

The first time I tried was in the early ’90s when there were more stories about HIV/AIDS than the X-factor in the papers and no enthusiasm for donors whose blood had ever darkened the Dark Continent.

By the end of the 90s the mention of Africa no longer sent the NHS screaming into a corner and my 10-year conviction for having been there was allowed to drop off my donor licence. Sadly, one glimpse into the lecture theatre where prostrate bodies lay hooked up to lines and bags bulging with the red stuff, like a field hospital from the Crimea, and the blood drained right out of me. My second attempt ended with smelling salts, which was pretty much par for the course. I’m someone who passed out so regularly during school biology lessons they banned me from sitting on those wooden lab stools and installed a beanbag so I didn’t have so far to fall.

The spirit was willing but the flesh was oh, so ridiculously squeamish.

blood banking on friends

Then came an email from a friend still reeling from the news that her father, young, fit and 11,000 miles away in Australia, had been admitted to hospital with minor chest pains and rapidly transfered by helicopter to a special unit for a quintuple heart by-pass. Pre-empting all the ‘if-there-is-anything-I-can-do’ responses her message ended with the following appeal:

Please give blood. It’s largely painless, you get a mars bar at the end and you could literally be saving someone’s life. It’s particularly healthy for your own heart as it’s meant to lower your iron count, and an excess iron count can lead to heart disease. It’s also a complete credit crunch donation – costs you nothing, yet you get the warm buzz of being able to contribute positively to the social fabric.”

It was time to test that third time lucky saying…

personal services

I’m going to pass over the details of the paperwork to be completed in advance. Not that it was long or complicated or anything. Just a tad, shall we say, personal (in the sense shops use the term to mean anything concerned with matters below the waist and above the visible panty line).

And to note in passing that Africa is now SO last decade. It’s South America, indelibly linked with Swine Flu thanks to this year’s media obssession, that now sets alarm bells ringing at the Blood Donor clinic  – or  ‘the bleed’ as I heard the staff rather unnervingly refer to it among themselves.

I was shown first to a row of chairs and asked to have a big drink and read the small print. Unfortunately, my appointment letter hadn’t mentioned it helps speed the bleed – and recovery – if you drink copious amounts of water ahead of donating. Thanks to a Starbucks voucher in that day’s Guardian my blood was almost pure Americano (presumably making it a pefect match for any sick journalists).

Next I was led behind a screen so a nurse could check my paperwork. It wasn’t entirely in order: in my haste to demonstrate what a healthy, clean-living type I now am I’d answered the men’s questions as well as the women’s.

The nurse looked up at me just a little sternly: “You did read these statements before ticking them didn’t you?”

more in the same vein

A small sample of blood taken for testing, then another nurse brought me to one of a half dozen beds set out in a circle in the middle of the room. It all looked quite convivial – more campfire than circled wagons – and once a third nurse and I had established that I am squeamish and might be there to give blood but best not to mention it or let me see anything ressembling blood, I was hooked up to one of the machines, good to go.

It was all pretty painless, took less than 10 minutes, and though I did get my usual touch of the vapours at the end it was nothing three more cups of water couldn’t put right. Which is pretty amazing considering what brilliant stuff blood is.

Among the things I learned are:

  • that the NHS gets great value from each donation because the blood breaks down into red cells, platelets and plasma which are all vital for treating certain conditions
  • that 53% of all donations go to help people being treated for cancer, leukaemia, sickle cell disease and similar conditions; it never occurred to me before, when I’ve been wanting to support friends and relatives with cancer, that becoming a blood donor is a fantastic way of giving active support
  • and that only 5 percent of those who can give blood do so.

local heroes

In the months I’ve been experimenting with acts of kindness this was one of the best experience I’ve had. Of course it helped that the lovely staff got all excited to be bleeding a ‘first-timer’ and made a point of thanking and congratulating me at every stage along the way. (A Mars Bar afterwards would have helped even more but perhaps it’s only the Aussies who know what comfort there is in chocolate; in austere Britain it’s Rich Tea all round.)

But sugar rushes aside,  the 40 minutes  I spent at a community centre in Newport Pagnell were an embodiment of what this blog is all about: anonymous acts of giving, where what is in my heart, my intention,  counts for more than how much I spend or what, if any, thanks or reward I get.

Three months ago a friend was found to have pancreatic cancer – one of the cancers that causes people to speak in an even more hushed tone than usual. The good news was the doctors decided it was worth operating on and after eight long hours under the surgeon’s knife he’s sufficiently recovered to enjoy whipping up his shirt to show off the pyramid-shaped scar cutting his chest in half.

The fact that he’s in a position to turn my stomach at all is down to a dozen people who gave up their time to attend a bleed.

I’ll never know how and where and who my small donation will help. But what I do know is that I won’t have to feel quite the same degree of helplessness next time I hear of a friend’s cancer, pass the shocking evidence of an accident as I whizz up the motorway, or switch on the news to more tales of distress and disaster.


National Blood Service  Do It!

And while we’re at: organ donation at The Wall of Life