26th December 2018 (Boxing Day)
I over indulged yesterday and was over indulged. however, it was wonderful to spend time with the family. Today I am planning to take things quietly and spend time appreciating the gifts I have been given. I have been very spoiled but I am very grateful.
Siobhan Sheridan is the Civilian HR Director at the UK Ministry of Defence. When I first made her acquaintance she was the Director of People and OD at the UK charity the NSPCC. Siobhan's career started in a customer facing role within financial services; it was clear that she had a flair for understanding and developing rapport with people. On joining the consumer lending business Capital One, her talents were acknowledged and she moved into HR, initially via training and development (she headed up the UK-based Corporate University), before eventually becoming HR Director for the Cards business. Siobhán moved out of London earlier this year and now lives on the coast in a stunning house with the most beautiful views of the sea. She is a popular public speaker (renowned for her pragmatic attitude and passion for doing the right thing). She is also a valued contributor on Social Media - her Twitter handle is @SiobhanHRSheri.
There have been two regular features of my Christmas these last few years. One of them is this series of Advent Blogs, the other is the time that I spend with thousands of others volunteering for Crisis at Christmas.
Arriving at Charing Cross Station in the mornings and walking along Whitehall towards the office I pass too many curled up bodies resting on crumpled cardboard, sheltering in doorways from the cold night air. It breaks my heart to see the Big Issue seller with yet another set of new bruises and to hear the tale of the guy whose sleeping bag was set light the night before.
As I pull my coat more closely around me I know that the chill I feel is not entirely about the temperature outside, but more from a sense of overwhelming despair about how some of the world's problems can ever be solved.
Joanna Macy says that
‘Grace happens when we act with others on behalf of our world.’
And I guess that is what I see at Crisis every year. People caring enough to act. Just a one example of that is a woman I will call Karen who volunteered for the first time about three years ago.
The first evening in a Crisis centre is a whirlwind rush of so many things. Guests are welcomed to a centre where they can eat, shower, get their clothes mended, see doctors and dentists, access the internet, make a call to a loved one, find a bed for the night. Each centre is run by a group of volunteers whose day jobs probably ill-prepare them for what they find themselves doing. Spending time talking with the guests is something we encourage all our volunteers to do, because many of our guest spend their days being ignored, avoided, or worse. Talking to them is one of the most important things that we do.
During the rush of that first evening I passed Karen a few times, as she sat quietly knitting and chatting to guests.
There was something deeply calming about her presence and her focus and I found that I slowed a little every time I passed her. Later that evening I saw her talking to a young couple by the front door who were sleeping on the streets and scared to come in. Over the course of an hour she patiently coaxed them into the centre to eat, and later I spied her persuading the woman towards the showers. She came back half an hour later clearly delighted to be clean for ‘my man.’ And I watched somewhat hopelessly as the woman and her partner went off again into the night, saying they felt safer together on the streets than they would in a shelter they didn’t know.
Returning the following evening Karen asked if I would mind if she went to see if she could find the woman again, she’d been told by another volunteer that the woman had been seen earlier in the centre very angry and upset. Karen wanted to find out why. When she found her the woman explained that she had been sleeping on the streets for so long that her long dark hair had become thickly matted from tying it in elastic bands and chronic lack of care. There was a huge ball of knotted, matted hair at the nape of her neck, so thick and tight that when she tried to lay down to sleep it hurt her head. As a result, even when she could get to sleep she was frequently woken by the pain. It was clear she was in a lot of distress. After her shower of the evening before she had started to feel hopeful that perhaps the hairdresser might be able to help her. She was angry because she had been told that all they could do was to shave her hair off. Having her head shaved she said would make her feel even more ashamed than she already did. She was inconsolable, her hopes completely dashed.
Every single one of us I think has a reason for volunteering. Something that caused us to make the decision to do so. In talking with Karen about what her reason was she shared with me that she had lost her adult son in a car accident a year or so before. A proud, strong, elegant woman, she spoke of her loss gently and with just the faintest glisten of a tear in her eye.
Her heartache was very present but so too was her warmth, her openness and her compassion.
Over the course of the next few days I watch Karen sit with the woman and her partner for hours. She talked with them about their plans for the New Year, helped them get advice, laughed with them, ate with them. And throughout all of that she combed. For hours and hours she gently teased, combed, untangled and snipped the woman’s hair. For three afternoons and evenings Karen worked with the patience that perhaps only a parent who has lost their own child could summon.
On the last evening, they walked hand in hand to the hair salon again, where the woman was treated to her first proper haircut in many years. Beautifully blow dried she turned to the Karen and I watched as first they high-fived, and then giggling like teenagers collapsed into a huge tangle of a hug.
As the woman left that last evening Karen and I both said good bye to her and her partner. We never say ‘see you next year’ because we hope, that we won’t. And I’ve never seen them again. Karen returns every year and continues to channel her amazing compassion and patience into heartbreak, hope and high fives.
So, as I contemplate the start of Crisis again this year I hope, somewhat strangely perhaps, that my heart will be broken every day. Because as the poet David Whyte says:
‘Heartbreak is our indication of sincerity…..it may be the very essence of being human, or being on the journey from here to there, and of coming to care deeply for what we find along the way.’
I am lucky enough to care deeply about the work that I do both in my day job and my volunteering and am blessed to be surrounded by many other colleagues who do too. They make me want to do better every day because they deserve the best that I can possibly be. Crisis acts as a special reminder to me though every year.Whilst it is about finding homes for others I always notice that it helps me to come home to myself too. To remember some of the qualities that I want to strive to bring into my life and work every day.
‘The heart is the inner face of your life. The human journey strives to make this inner face beautiful. It is here that loves gathers within you. Love is absolutely vital for human life. For love alone can awaken what is divine within you. In love, you grow and come home to your self. When you learn to love and let yourself be loved, you come home to the hearth of your own spirit. You are warm and sheltered.’
Crisis also leaves me constantly amazed by just what we can achieve as human beings when we set our mind to do so. And each year it leaves me with a heart full of hope that we have everything we need to deal with the many challenges that our world faces today. We just need to crack on, and act on that hope, regardless of what others might say.
So I’d like to leave you with some of Joanna Macys words about Active Hope and to wish you all adventures in the New Year.
‘Active Hope is not wishful thinking.
Active hope is not waiting to be rescued by some savior
Active hope is waking up to the beauty of life
On whose behalf we can act.
We belong to this world.
The web of life is calling us forward at this time.
We’ve come a long way and are here to play our part.
With Active Hope we realise there are adventures in store,
Strengths to discover, and comrades to link arms with.
Active Hope is a readiness to discover the strengths
In ourselves and in others;
A readiness to discover the size and strength of our hearts
Our quickness of mind, our steadiness of purpose,
Our own authority, our love for life,
The liveliness of our curiosity
The unsuspected deep well of patience and diligence,
The keenness of our senses, and our capacity to lead.
None of these can be discovered in an armchair or without risk.
Joanna Macey, Active Hope