Greener Grasses

Looking over the hedge at our neighbour’s lawn is common practice. Their full-blooming roses, well-painted fences and that greener than green grass. It’s not fair, we fume, looking back at our own drooping blooms, faded fences and patchy grass.

When did we get so good at comparing? And why do we only tend to compare upwards?

Life under capitalism brings inevitable behaviours like this. But I sense that it’s a bit deeper than that, and with a longer history. Humans look around them and then look within, perhaps our species always has. Did our Neanderthal ancestors compare bison kills with the cave next door (the cave that was slightly bigger and always tidier)? Seems likely. 

Many years ago when I stood on the podium (having won a silver medal in the Northern Irish schools’ 100-metres sprint competition) where did I look? You guessed it – up at the girl who stood on the winning level, gold medal around her neck. She was faster, more successful, just better than me. I was furious (competitiveness in athletics is a given but I could’ve been nicer that day). I don’t even remember the girl who stood below me with a bronze medal. Perhaps she looked upwards that day too? Or maybe she was delighted with her achievement and grateful for her medal, no matter the colour.

When we use a scale of measurement like this, be it medals or some other measure of success, we fall into the trap of comparison. And this trap is clenched tightly around our hopes, fears, self-esteem, even our very identity. If I looked like her, we think, or if I had success like him – then I’d be happy. Then I’d know who I was.

But if we move towards outward vision, turn comparison into compassion, the world tilts on its axis. Suddenly we feel content. Suddenly we see that others might need our help. And those seemingly perfect lives, those greener grasses, are not so green after all. And gratitude is the inevitable result. 

Moving from comparison towards gratitude is a journey and often takes many small steps. But it’s a worthy destination and along the way we find compassion and contentment in equal measure.

Look down, look out. You have a part to play in this world. You are enough.

Do you hear that?

You don’t have to listen, but you’ll hear me

Do you raise your voice often? Is your natural speaking voice rather quiet? Do you ever want to shout something from the rooftops?

Our voices are inherently ourselves, inextricably linked with our personalities. I don’t think I’ve ever met an extrovert who talks quietly (and vice versa). But surely we all want to be heard. Western culture still tends to reward the loud and rebuke the quiet; speak up in school or in the board room, talk over other people to make your point, and for crying out loud don’t stay silent.

I have a quiet, low voice. I’m also small in stature. So in board meetings I tend to create a whole new persona; sitting up tall, raising my voice (often to an uncomfortable level) in an attempt to be heard. This has worked well enough over the years but I’m becoming weary of pretending. The best meetings I’ve been part of have been led by an excellent chairperson who gave time to each person present, even if that meant a shake of the head in response to the request to participate. Quiet people aren’t necessarily shy, or afraid to take part, they often simply don’t have anything to say. And that’s okay.

What’s not okay is that when the time comes they are often not given the opportunity to speak. Imagine a classroom where the quiet pupil is welcome to participate or to stay silent. Or a business meeting where the quiet colleague feels heard through writing or gesture.

The animal kingdom will continue to roar loudly and survive accordingly. Surely humans can move beyond such evolutionary markers to adopt and adapt to one another instead? Introverts are not necessarily shy. Or boring. They can be happy, funny, clever, lonely, sad, fearful. But if no-one asks, how will we ever know?

“Quiet people have the loudest minds.”

Stephen Hawking

Sometimes a little voice can say the biggest things. Lean in, listen, a whisper can shout after all.

Boxes in the Attic

Well I did it. I stepped out from the shadows and into the inter-web light. I’m blinking hard but standing still. Gosh, it feels weird! After many (many) years of avoiding all kinds of online malarkey I finally feel ready to speak and share.  And here’s the thing: it’s kinda fun. Scary, but fun. Blog post number one here we go!

I guess all of us have boxes in the attic. Or if we don’t have an actual attic we have boxes in our minds that Pandora has carefully sealed up and woe betide anyone who opens them. In the attic I’m picturing dust-covered suitcases filled with old photographs, old toys, that musty smell as you peek inside, all the while hoping you won’t disturb a rodent of some sort (or a grumpy ghost). The spiders in the eaves watch with disinterest as you lift items up and sigh.

Since such things have been assigned to a box and hidden away there’s usually uncertainty about what’s inside. Did I put my school prefect badge in this box? Are the old photographs from Granny’s flat in this bag? Wondering what’s there is part of the excitement about rooting around up there in dusty spaces. My friends Sally and Adam moved into a gorgeous eighteenth century coach house and soon discovered a safe of some sort embedded in the bedroom wall. Should they try to open it? Would they find a rusty key somewhere that fitted the lock like a fairytale? And biggest question of all: what the hell was in there? Years later and they still just sleep next to it. It remains closed and silent. I remain intrigued!

Whatever turns up, it’s inevitable that memories will follow. And memories are tricky beasts; good, bad, unclear. There’s a lovely moment in Amelie when she discovers an old toy tin and tracks down its owner, now an old man, in order to return it to him. His tears on opening that tin and seeing little toy soldiers are full of that odd mixture of late-in-life happiness and sadness. This is what memories can do. This is what boxes in the attic can do.

And sometimes those memories have been covered up for good reason. My wonderful mother-in-law, Rosie, found newspaper cuttings in her loft some years ago that described the 1981 hunger strikes here in Belfast. At that time Rosie was a young nurse and those traumatic images were folded away along with the newspapers and put in a box and never spoken about for decades. On discovering those papers, though, Rosie began to share her own stories and we family members sat at her feet and listened. It was incredible to hear all that she had seen and done during those terrible times.

And here’s what happened: catharsis.

It was truly an emotional act. Words have power. Spoken words in particular. The wellbeing industry is probably right – it’s good to talk. Something shifts when voices are heard and memories are brought into the light.

So once again, welcome to Shedwriting – where boxes are opened, light shines, and words have power.