Friday, 15 December 2017

The Shadow is the Candle’s Son - Day 16

Day 16 (Saturday 16th December 2017)
16 - the average number of Christmas presents a UK child will receive.
Winter gifts were given to family and friends long before the biblical story of Three Wise Men
bringing gold, frankincense and myrrh was told. Pagan in Europe and the Middle East gave gifts 
on a number of occasions over the winter period, including the raucous Saturnalia on the 17th 
December, in honour of the god of agriculture, Saturn. People would drink to excess and give gifts of pottery and
wax figurines, edible treats and candles. During the puritan times of Oliver Cromwell and 
the Pilgrim Fathers in America present giving at Christmas was banned because of its pagan roots.
Christmas celebrations were legalised in the 1680s. People have complained about the increasing 
commercialism of the season over many years, in 1904 Margaret Deland, a journalist in Harper's Bazar,
wrote "Twenty-five years ago, Christmas was not the burden that it is now, there was less haggling 
and weighing, less quid pro quo, less fatigue of body, less wearing of soul; and, most of all,
there was less loading up with trash." This lead to the creation of the Society for the Prevention 
of Useless Giving, whose members included former President Roosevelt and Anne, the daughter of financier J.P. Morgan.

The weekend is here - given the date, I suspect that it will not be a day of calm reflection and relaxation. However, whatever type of day you have ahead, please ensure that you give yourself sufficient time to savour today's thought provoking post. It is written by the brilliant Chris Nichols, a Founding Partner of Gameshift - a consultancy, made up of a collaborative hub of coaches, artists, musicians and business experts that support organisational and individual change. Those of you who have interacted with him at work or via social media (his Twitter handle is sometimes the name of his business @GameSh1ft or else as himself @chrisnicholsT2i) will know that he is highly intelligent, quick-witted and a broad thinker. He works as a coach and is not afraid to speak out to help others learn and grow. Erudite but with a keen sense of the absurd, he is a fan of laughter. This will doubtless prove a delight to both him and his beloved granddaughter in the years to come. He is highly creative, his poetry has been published in Hold this Hand - a collection of poems on loss released by Cruse (the bereavement charity). You can find one of his stories in Knock Twice, a collection of tales for social change published in autumn 2017. Chis is a pleasure to be with and commands considerable respect from clients, contacts and colleagues. He lives in Dartmoor and loves the open space around him; he is a keen long-distance walker. He walked the 1,000km of the south west Coast Path in 2016 following his departure from Ashridge, as an act of recovery from anger and depression. He is currently studying an MA in Buddhist Studies and planning another long walk.


The Shadow is the Candle’s Son

In nature’s heart, a deep silence reigns,
with bird-call, dog-bark,
the sound of rain:
each sits gently, beside the jet engine’s bite,
the sky is unmoved

by the easy-jet flight
As I sit I sense the ease
with which paradox rests among the trees.

Bright light bears shadow on its wings:
a still note spills from the moving string

The brilliance and the black
are one.

The shadow is the candle’s son.

Paradox, Chris Nichols (2007)

We live in a time of so much hashtag hate. So much effort poured into making clear that “we” are not like “them”.

Us and them - Pink Floyd

It’s a time of polarity, when much debate seems simplified into a Punch and Judy show of adversaries. 

There’s only a thin shoreline for understanding to stand on. It’s washed to nothing when the contesting tides deny all space for meeting and curiosity.

Caribbean meets Atlantic in Bahamas
Perhaps there is a lesson this season might gift us, if we step in close enough.

Alongside the marketing and merriment, Advent offers a deeper steadier voice, reminding us that this world is a pattern of brightness and night.  It once marked a time of fasting and abstinence in the move towards the birth of the light. The Christmas festival echoed the earlier solstice paganism of Yule, celebrating the turning of the dark and the return of the sun.

Every one of us is a fractal of this dance. Sometimes we can see only our own light. Sometimes we see only the dark in others. Yet we are all of us both dark and light together.

The ceaseless cycles of one season passing into the next reminds us that binary views mask something deeper, of a greater complexity, woven of richer tones.  We can’t do good work, we cannot live well on this tiny earth, if we assume to ourselves all of the light, and insist that some other is only an agent of darkness.

Perhaps we can pause at this time of the season’s turning to look beyond the identity dance of “self” as “not-other”.   Maybe we can take time to acknowledge that we too have our darkness, that our most brilliant light also casts a shadow.  Maybe we can look at another long enough to see the crack in the wall that keeps us from them, a crack through which their light becomes more visible to us.

Every such act of seeing our connection to another would indeed mark a turning of the season and be a cause for cheer.

Yule 2017

Thursday, 14 December 2017

Darkness to Dawn - Day 15

Day 15 (Friday 15th December 2017)
15 years ago the trend for the UK Christmas Number One Single changed, when the support for 
traditional bands ceased and reality TV started impacting the Chart. In the UK the Christmas 
Number One is the single at the top of the UK Singles Chart in the week in which Christmas
falls. Traditionally Christmas Number Ones were the best selling single of the year. 
Often there was intense rivalry between bands to achieve pole position - most notably i
n 1973 when 2 glam rock bands, Slade and Wizzard, battled it out. Slade won with "Merry Christmas Everybody" 
(which has remained their best selling song of all time and is the most played Christmas tune 
as well as being the festive song that nets the most royalties  - at least £500,000 pa)
I'm on my way to Leeds this morning to visit the people in our branch there and then on to the team in Beverley. It's good to get out of the bubble of London and see how things are in other areas. I suspect it will be a bit chillier than down south, but I know that the welcome will be warm. At the end of the day I'm driving on to Durham to fetch my youngest back from uni - I'm beginning to feel festive - the family will be back together. :-)

The writer of today's piece is not antisocial, but they have asked to remain anonymous. Once you have read their piece I am sure you will understand why. I am sure that you, like me, will want to wish them a better 2018. There have been a number of posts this year where people have shared their challenges and sorrows. One of the things I particularly like about the Advent Blog's reading community is the genuine concern and compassion that is shown by the many to the few. Life isn't always easy but it does help to talk and share. 


2017 can't finish soon enough. It's been an awful year. Illnesses, work, and personal issues all fell on top of each other to create the perfect storm and the storm rained darkness. It's no wonder that earlier in the year the wheels came off.

This darkness has always been there but it's always been in the shadows. It's always been part of the shadow. It's always been talking to you. This year its voice has been loud enough to start to, and then take over, the self talk that you're good enough. Not hearing your positive voice but the voice of anxiety and despair is painful.

Waking up several times a night and dreading waking up in the morning is a hateful feeling, only eased by getting so tired that you sleep because of exhaustion, not tiredness. Hiding that lack of sleep behind stories to avoid admitting it to your family and friends tests your creative side.

You read about the fear of public speaking and how people feel like prey. The fear of speaking at all is what dumbstruck really means. When half a dozen faces are turned at you in a meeting waiting for the next words you'll say. Not knowing what to say because you know what you'll say will be the wrong thing is true creeping death. So you say nothing much and become 'uncommunicative' and less of a 'team player'.

Those times in the day when you can't concentrate because the voice is there, reminding you you can't do this. 

The noises in your head are mixed with the noises in the office so you go to the lavatory and sit there for 10 minutes trying to gather the strength to get by. Even getting by for an hour would help you. 

The paralysis that comes from having so many things which haven't been done that you do none of them because you can't imagine doing one over another. And then dealing with the feelings of despair that you anticipate will come from the tasks not being completed.

Some people talk about you in glowing terms and it's difficult. Your self-esteem doesn't exist, you are panicking about what you said or did to create that perception of you and then have to steel yourself to go again and be better.

On a warm summer day you come home at lunchtime and stand in your lounge. You drop your work bag and weep. Deep and painful sobs that wrack your body for an hour. This is too much. This is wrong somewhere. You've felt like this before and you couldn't deal with it alone. 

You call the Samaritans. They recommend you see your GP. And a crack of light appears. You see your GP and they help you realise that you are unwell. It's the same unwell you had 15 years ago and you dealt with that by talking to people. You are recommended for counselling and you spend time with a person who listens. Another crack of light. They don't just listen though. They empathise, they get you to question those strategies and ways of working that are dysfunctional and energy sapping. It feels better and gets better week by week.

It was dark as night but the sun is coming, the sky is a deep violet now with a hint of orange. The dawn of something else is here.

Wednesday, 13 December 2017

The Darkness and Dawn of Miscarriage - Day 14

Day 14 (Thursday 14th December 2017)
14 - the age of James Lord Pierpont when he ran away to sea and joined a whaling ship. 
Pierpont was the composer of "Jingle Bells", the only Christmas song that doesn't mention Christmas.
(That is because it was commissioned by his father in 1857, for a Thanksgiving Service.)
"Jingle Bells" was the first tune played live in space. When astronauts Tom Stafford and Wally Schirra 
were preparing to re-enter Earth's atmosphere on 16 December 1965, Stafford contacted Mission Control 
to report a UFO. ‘We have an object, looks like a satellite going from north to south, probably in polar orbit . . . 
Looks like he might be going to re-enter soon . . . I see a command module and eight smaller modules in front. 
The pilot of the command module is wearing a red suit.’Before Houston could reply 
Schirra started playing "Jingle Bells" on a harmonica he had taken into space, 
accompanied by Stafford making jingling bells sounds. 
Pierpont, the composer, was the uncle of J.P. Morgan, the successful financier. Pierpont himself died in penury.
I am starting today with a four hour session on culture within Financial Services business - like most sectors, it is a mixed bag. Increasingly culture is being seen as important - my friend Tim Pointer (the former global HRD who founded Starboard Thinking - a consultancy that helps organisations enhance performance through leadership and cultural change) was the brains behind the establishment of the Business Culture Awards - due to his appreciation of culture's role in underpinning performance and engagement. I am proud of the fact that I work for a business and CEO who has been recognised for the work we have done to lead by example and enhance our organisation's culture and approach towards its people, clients and communities in which we operate. Just because you are in financial services it does not mean that you have to behave in an inappropriate and unethical manner. Being fair, caring and respectful should be the norm.

Today's piece is written by a highlyrespected HR expert - Janet Webb. Janet is an Associate Lecturer in HR and L&D for Chichester College's CIPD programme and is also a highly competent and valued consultant; she works via her own firm - Janet Webb Consulting, which she founded in September 2012, having previously worked within the public sector. She specialises in helping people to learn and grow. Janet uses "audacious" as a way of describing her work - it could also apply to her Advent Blog post. She is prepared to speak what few will say aloud. Like Day 9's post, this is a useful read both for those who have suffered a miscarriage but also for those around them who may not know what to say or how to react. She is active on social media and will, I am sure, be pleased to hear from you - her Twitter handle is @JWebbConsulting . 



Miscarriage is not the happiest of subject matters but a topic that affects so many people - about one in four pregnancies. I have written this in the hope of answering two questions:

  1. Why is it quite so upsetting?
  2. How do I support someone going through this?

I worked in a hospital at the time of my miscarriages. The obstetrician was fantastically supportive and kind, but many of my colleagues said the most appalling things to me; not from malice but from misjudgement. It was really confusing. It was hard enough to get my head around the fact that I had been a mother who had never held or kissed her child. To be subjected to pseudo-medical guesswork was just more than I could bear. After the first miscarriage I went into a form of shock. I was back at work on the Monday, apparently fine. By the Friday I was in pieces and I didn't really understand why. Now I do understand why but it took a while to work it out.

For those going though miscarriage one of the hardest things to deal with is other people's reactions. The problem, I believe, is created by a difference of perspective. For friends and family the miscarriage is a medical event - the pregnancy has stopped - but for the hopeful parents, what is lost is not the pregnancy but the baby in their arms. And it is this baby, fully imagined, fully cherished, that is lost. I have many friends who have also had this experience. Loved ones wanting to support but unsure of what to say, because of their perspective getting it horribly wrong; the very people who should be pouring love and support, just end up pouring more darkness.

So How Do You Be Their Dawn? - for the mothers and the partners.

  1. Understand that you are helping someone who is grieving (as well as dealing with chaotic hormones and probably having undergone a fairly grim, clinical procedure.)

  1. Don't assume that when someone says "I'm fine" that they are. Don't assume that the "I'm fine" from yesterday is still true today or even in a month's time.

  1. Don't keep going on about it. Don't get frustrated when they do.

  1. Do NOT say:
·     it was for the best (it wasn't - it really, really wasn't the best)
·     at least you have your other child (they are not consolation prizes)
·     well at least you know that you can get pregnant (this was not a dress rehearsal; this was the real thing.)

  1. If you notice anyone saying the above, have a word.

  1. DO say:
·      I'm so sorry.
·      How can I help?
·      This is really sad news.
·      I'm sorry that I don't know what to say.

  1. Hug them. Remember to hug the partner; they're grieving too.

  1. Help. If you can, turn up and do the washing up, hoovering, making tea for visitors. They'll be mortified that you did their washing up etc. but will also be relieved that it's done. You have to play this one really carefully so have empathy dials up to max.

  1. Turn up with food; my friend Sarah turned up with a casserole and jacket potatoes already cooked and still hot - I just needed to put them on the plate. I sobbed.

  1. If you are their manager, treat them as you would after any bereavement. Take particular care to remember point 1 and 2.

I had a very spiritual experience a while ago that helped me deal with my own miscarriages. I share that here in the hope that it brings some peace, clarity and hope.

One final point; if this is you then you are not alone. The miscarriage association have a fabulous website. Speak to your friends and family; there will be people close by who have been through exactly what you are going through. Lean on them. Say yes to help. Be difficult. Rage. Love. Grieve.

Tuesday, 12 December 2017

A dawning through the dark - Day 13

Day 13 (Wednesday 13th December 2017)
13 is known as a "Baker's Dozen". 
There is a traditional festive tale, originating in Dutch colonial New York, 
about Van Amsterdam the baker, famous for his honesty and his St Nicholas cookies.
However, he was pedantic - giving customers exactly what they asked for, nothing more and 
nothing less. He is cursed by a crone for declining to give her 13 cookies when she requested
a dozen on St Nicholas' feast day. Over a year his business dwindles and fails. However, after dreaming 
of St Nicholas' generosity and a further visit from the crone, the baker mends his ways and 
from henceforth gives 13 cookies when asked for a dozen. Other bakers emulated him and hence the 
"Baker's Dozen" became a term. The phrase "Baker's Dozen" actually originates from medieval law 
that specified the weight of loaves, to avoid punishment bakers would offer an extra loaf to ensure that t
he required weight was met. Illustration by Wendy Edelson in "The Baker's Dozen: A Saint Nicholas Tale"
I had an amazing day yesterday - a day of personal learning about myself and others followed by chairing a Committee on Quality of Patient Care and patient, community and worker Engagement in London. The evening was humbling, hearing how the staff and medical professionals at two of London's leading hospitals (and the wider Trust of which they are part) are raising standards and rising to the challenges of the current environment - cash is tight, patient numbers are increasing, the pressure on people working at the Trust is immense, and yet they remain constant, focused and dedicated to providing appropriate care for those in need. An example to us all.

Today's blogger is also extraordinarily caring - I should know because I have seen her in action: encouraging desperate children living on the streets in Uganda and supporting the staff trying to help them turn their lives around; doing mad things that she hates doing, in order to raise funds for the charities she supports (Retrak, Team Margot and the Anthony Nolan). I am also privileged to have her as part of my team and to see, on a daily basis, her skill in helping people learn and achieve their potential, and her ability to enhance individual lives. Her name is Donna Hewitson. Following a tough childhood, spending her teenage years in foster care, she came into HR when her talent with people was spotted whilst she was working in an operational role behind a bar. If you want to know more, read the article published in HR Magazine about her this November. Her career success is entirely due her own determination, natural skill and attitude. She is active on social media (her Twitter handle reflects her roots: @PubDonna) and she writes an excellent blog:


This year has challenged me in ways I never expected. I have had to adapt, change and morph into the next incarnation of me; a bit like the new Doctor Who (I’ve never seen it, but I get the drift).

I have still not yet developed into the next person I need, or want, to be. But, I know what that will look like, and feel like, to me.

How do I see the person who saw out 2016? I see someone who was so focussed on filling the gap in their soul, it became all encompassing. Not “A” gap, “The” gap. It was deep, so deep-rooted, that I’m not sure if I truly knew who I was, or wanted to be. When I found myself in that space, I defaulted to the “it’ll be fine, it’s just a dip, it will get better.” It had to, didn’t it? What were my options otherwise?

September 2016 changed all that and guided me onto a new path, in a totally different direction, a path, on which, I can say I feel truly complete. Even if, at times, it feels like I’m travelling the wrong way up a one-way street.

My brain is odd. It is constantly going at a gazillion miles per hour; do this, sort that, always say yes and work out the “how” after. Always thinking “what next, what can I do bigger, bolder, stronger, better, how can I make my life, our life, better, what difference can I make to the world we live in?” If I got hit by a bus tomorrow, so what? That kind of stuff. It’s fair to say that it’s never a dull moment “up there”. But it weighs. Heavily. I spend so much of my time seeking to understand the troubles and challenges of others, and stretching myself to find a solution, that I forget about me. And then it comes. The dark descends, and it envelops all of me. 

But my face cannot change, I will not allow for others to see the impact of, metaphorically, the rocks I’ve been gifted weighing down the backpack I’m carrying. Then the mask slips and “ta da”, I find myself vulnerable with other people seeing the darker side of me.

I’m OK with that now. It’s important. With the best will in the world, maintaining the expected face all the time is a big old ask. Impossible.

I cried at work today. Twice. That’s OK. It’s also OK for other people to see me showing emotion. The reason for me being so emotional today? Someone showed, quite publicly, appreciation. I find this hard to accept. When I relayed to hubby, he immediately said WTF? You don’t cry. 16yrs we’ve been together, and he’s not seen “that face” often. This face I have suppressed for many years, but a wise and wonderful lady taught me it was, indeed, “cool to cry”.

Friends who know it's #CoolToCry
I am not a machine. I now express my emotions, I do speak freely, and directly (it’s not to everyone’s liking), I operate very efficiently and, for the most part, can keep my shit in check. There are times, however, when I am not able to. I don’t want to. I recognise this and I’m OK with it. It weirds me out, but I’m really thankful, for the first time in my life, I am able to me. Truly me.

I have many faces (thanks to Phil Willcox for educating me on this subject) and it is for me to choose which face I show. I can mask it, or share it. I choose the latter. The response from people who constantly tell me how strong I am, how inspirational my story is, the good I’m doing equal those people, who know me well, who express concern, tell me stop, slow down, take time for me.

What concerns me? I know it will not all be plain sailing and I’m sure that I will get burned sharing so much of me. I am vulnerable, I will be susceptible, and I will get turned over. I have spent years protecting myself and had built a fortress around my heart. 

It will take time to unpick, unlearn, re-learn and build confidence. I am thankful to have the most brilliant people around me, who trust me, believe in me and afford me the space to be me. All of me. The good, the great, the bad and the downright shite. How I respond, and not react, will make the difference of whether I see the start of the darkness descending or the beginning of a new dawn.

Nina Simone singing "Feeling Good"