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Saturday, 30 May 2009

Hot, hot, hot

Britain is in the grip of a heatwave at the moment, with temperatures in the late 70's to early 80 degrees - it makes a welcome and much needed change after the last 2 lousy summers that we have had. I only hope that it continues for the rest of the season - the forecast looks promising.

I really need a good holiday this year and the chance to unwind and relax. Funds are tight, so it may be the last chance I get for a while. I am due to go to Lundy for the obligatory two weeks at the end of July, and it may be my last visit for a while. It it not that the island has lots its appeal, it is just that I have become aware of how many other places there are out there, and the fact that I should be visiting them while I still young and fit enough to enjoy them.

I used to travel an awful lot before I discovered the island - in Britain and abroad. For a while during the late 80's I had a job that involved working weekends only, which meant that I had the rest of the week free. It was a well paid job at the time (around 8K a year, the same as I am on now 20 years later - how times change), so I could afford to indulge my passion with a vengeance. I often used to disappear for a few days during the week to visit places such as Bath and the Gower Peninsula in South Wales. I remember one such trip where I spent three nights at this wonderful youth hostel in a place called Port Eynon - it was a converted life boat station right on the beach. I have wonderful memories of sitting on the beach eating chips and watching the sun set, and even more wonderful ones of a day spent walking up and down the 2 mile stretch of sands at nearby Oxwich Bay.

I have decided that even though I cannot really afford it, if I have not heard anything re the part time post room job that I applied for the other day (and which the agency have put me forward for) by the end of next week, I will book a couple of nights at the Laston House Hotel in Ilfracombe where I usually stay at either end of Lundy visits that sail from that port. It will be lovely start to the holiday - long days at Saunton Sands beach combing and watching the wind surfers in their ever so tight trunks! Driving down the winding country lanes with the wind in my hair and the salt on my skin - I really need this holiday and feel better just thinking about the possibility.

Monday, 25 May 2009

Almost there - hold on tight!

I received an another Wings post from Karen Bishop last night but it was late, and I had the village newsletter to finish, so I chose not to read it until this morning.

The good news is that the wait for our new reality is almost over and will be anchored by the summer solstice on June 21st. It is no coincidence that that is also my birthday ! It will be a huge relief to finally have somewhere in which I can rest.

It has been a difficult year for many, and I am no exception. There has been much to let go of, in particular my job and the idea that Lundy would solve my problems. It did not, but simply created more. Well not more, but it certainly made me take a long, hard look at myself and my motivations for wanting to be there. I can see now with hindsight, that it would never have worked; if I was going to do it then I should have done it ten years ago, when my mother died. I didn't and so, I have to live with the consequences, the realisation that I have lost the opportunity for a wonderful, possibly life changing experience. In the end though, it does not matter, for the realisation that I have lost that and spent so much time and money concentrating my energies on one place, have been a life changing experience in itself. It is all a learning curve.

So although, we have lost and let go of much, it seems like we are still in stasis, waiting for those final pieces of the jigsaw to slot into place. The final steps must be completed before we are ready for the final transition which will take place around the summer solstice. This is not to say that we will wake up and find everything has magically changed, it is more an internal thing, where we will find that we have changed. The air will be lighter somehow and we will feel different and more positive. It is difficult to explain. The date of June 21st represents a portal, a window of energy that provides the signal that the time has arrived. The energy of this portal will serve to use its natural energy to support us for the transition to our new reality.

While we wait for the final pieces to slot into place, there seems little point in making long term plans (could this be the reason for my series of short term jobs?). If we attempt to create things before the time is right, chances are they will have to be undone. So, the reason that things appear not to be manifesting as they should be is because they are not meant to! It is as always a protective mechanism. The trick is (easier said than done) to know and to acknowledge that everything is as it is meant to be. So although it may seem cold and lonely, and very scary indeed, with nothing much to hold on to, by the time the new energy finally does arrive, boy will it be worth the wait !

Saturday, 23 May 2009

Let he (or she) who is without sin cast the first stone

It seems that everywhere I look this week, the media is reporting tales of honesty, or rather, dishonesty, with the fiasco regarding MP's expenses and the case of the New Zealand couple who disappeared after their bank inadvertently paid a $10 million overdraft into their account rather than $10,000. I have found myself asking if I were in a similar situation would I have done the same, and I can't honestly say that I would. Of course I would be tempted, but when you think about the practicalities of life on the run, always using false names and constantly looking over your shoulder, not to mention saying goodbye to your family and friends, is it really worth it? Sooner or later the law is bound to catch up with them, so I hope they enjoy it while they can.

Back in New Zealand, in fact all over the world, the couple are being hailed as folk heroes, for playing the bank at their own game. I cannot speak for New Zealand banks, but if the ones in our own country are anything to go by, you cannot blame people for feeling this, as it is the recklessness of those in the city who have largely contributed to the situation we are now in, while they were and in many cases continue, to get exorbitant salaries and bonuses worth more than I can hope to earn in my entire life. When it comes to small businesses, or even private individuals, the banks show no mercy or leniency whatsoever. My own bank recently charged me what I thought was an exorbitant amount for going a few pence into the red by one day while I waited for some funds to clear. When it comes down to it though, stealing is stealing, and like I said, sooner or later the law will catch them up.

All this has made me take a long hard look at myself, and ask the question, where or how have I ever behaved like this? There is an old but true saying, "let he (or she) who is without sin cast the first stone. If I am to be really honest, my own life is not entirely free of blemishes. I went through a phase in my teens where I played truant from school (due to bullying) and fell in with a less than savoury crowd who encouraged me to go shoplifting. I did not succumb, but the thought was there. There have also been times when I used trains without paying, mostly because the train was coming in and I did not have time to buy a ticket and there was no one at the other end to check. Then there was the time that I took stationary home from an office that about to close and re-locate to the other end of the country. Does this make me a dishonest person, not necessarily since I have owned up, but stealing is stealing no matter how you look at it.

Some would say that this cannot be compared to what the MP's have done (£1600 for a duck island?), and of course those responsible for these fraudulent claims should be held to account, but dishonesty in whatever form is still dishonesty, and the fact that these stories seem to be so much in the news is an invitation for us to look into our own lives with honesty and see where and if we behave in a similar manner. I suspect that there are not that many who can really and honestly say that they have never taken advantage of situations in order to gain some benefit for themselves.

This applies just as much to companies as it does to private individuals - thousands of firms rely on the goodwill of their staff to do unpaid overtime, working late or through their lunch hours to get the work done. This too is a form of fraud, since these individuals should be paid for the work that they do, or receive compensatory rest. My ex employer tried to do this to me, and got away with it by saying (which was blatantly untrue) that I was told in advance this work would be unpaid. This too is a form of stealing, since it robs those individuals not just of money to which they are entitled, but also to time with their families and friends, relaxing away from work. Ultimately this is far more valuable than all the money in the world, as I have discovered these past few weeks, when I worked 13 days in a row.

Saturday, 16 May 2009

A question of choice

Today is the eighth day in a row that I have worked, and God I am cream crackered. I have another five days to go until I get a day off, and half of that will be spent getting the village newsletter sorted out, the copy deadline for which was yesterday. Although I am enjoying the job, I will be glad in some ways when the exam season is over and things can get back to some semblance of normality. It is a nice contrast for me though to spend the week days working with young people and the weekends with older folk. It was nice today to have a chat and a catch up with some of the residents, now that we are getting to know each other. This is my third weekend at the nursing home already and they seem to be pleased with me.

I have invigilated various different exams this week and clocked up just over 28 hours. Monday was the busiest day when I did not get out until 5.45pm, but most of the time I have been finished by around 3.30 - 3.45 which isn't too bad. Although the Government has abolished SATS, this particular school has decided to continue with their own version, so a lot of the exams this week have been with the younger children (years 8 and 9 - 12, and 13 year olds respectively) before the bulk of the GCSE's and A'Levels start next week. Most of them have been very well behaved, but there are always one or two that you need to keep your eye on.

I did one exam the other day with five special needs children, all of whom had readers to help them read the questions. This particular boy, who I guess was around 12 years old, finished his early, and so his reader asked if it was okay if she gave him some paper to scribble on, as I was not allowed to release him. I said that was fine as long as he did not disturb the other kids, and he promptly used the paper to make some aeroplanes! Fortunately he did not try and fly them around the room ... In situations like this, there is not a lot you can really do, as the reason why those kids are kept separate from their peers, who were all in the main assembly hall, is because of their behaviour. I suspect that this particular one may have had ADHD or something similar.

I was impressed on Thursday though when we had an English exam for year 9 (13 year olds) and had the chance to read the material that the children had to comment on. I was so impressed in fact that I asked I could bring a copy home to write some comments about it on this blog. Needless to say that was fine, or I would not be sitting here typing right now.

The reading booklet is entitled "A Question of Choice" and contains three different articles that the children were asked to comment on. The first of these was an article from The Independent (4th March 2004) by Harriet Griffey entitled "More is Less". This is an article about the huge amount of different products that there are now available for us to choose from and how this leads to people becoming so overwhelmed that they cannot make decisions. This was and is interesting enough, but the final paragraph is the one that really aroused my interest, for it asks the question that if all this choice is causing us stress, what can we do about it? The answer is to stop worrying about the everyday choices and save our decision making for the serious things that really merit our time and effort. It goes on to say that we need to live in the moment, appreciate what we have and not think about all the other things that we could choose instead. Hallelujah to that. If this is what they are teaching our teenagers, then I am impressed.

It gets better than that though, since the second article was about the benefits of Fair Trade. So first we have an article telling teenagers to appreciate what they have and to live in the present, and then we have another article asking them to think outside of themselves and buy fair trade goods that will benefit the growers. When I read things like this, then I realise that there is hope for the world after all.

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

The younger generation

For the past two days, and the next five weeks, I have been working as an exam invigilator at a nearby secondary school. I have done this type of work before when we lived in south west London at a well known Catholic boys school. This school is mixed, with pupils of both genders, so it is a little bit different, but the basics are the same.

It is an interesting job which suits me while I look for something more permanent, as it is well paid, at almost £9 an hour and offers the chance to help the younger generation, who are after all the future for all of us. It is them after all who will be paying my pension, long after I have retired. The main exam season is of course from the middle of May through to the end of June, but there are mocks and re-takes at other times too, mostly November, January and March, so the potential is there for quite a bit of work if you want it. The school have rostered me to work almost 80 hours during the next five weeks, which will certainly help my finances.

Regulations state that there needs to be a minimum of one invigilator for every thirty children, but both the schools that I have worked at try and manage more than that, at one to every twenty-five. This means that if you have very large exams, you will sometimes be working with up to 10 other invigilators but at other times when you have a handful of special needs children, who are usually dyslexic or physically disabled, you will be on your own. The children are not allowed to have mobile phones with them during the exam, or any other electronic devices, but the invigilators have access to a phone to summon help if need be.

If you are working in a team with others. then one of the more experienced invigilators will act as lead. They supervise the rest of the invigilators, start the exam and tell the children when they are finished.

A shift normally starts half an hour before the exam begins. The invigilators meet in the main sports hall to collect the papers, and then go and prepare the room. We have to make sure that clocks are visible and that certain notices regarding the rules are displayed. We have a seating plan with different coloured cards (according to which exam the children are doing - sometimes there may be up to 6 different exams going on in the same room) with the children's names on, which are laid out according to the plan.

The teachers normally get the children lined up outside and into the room. When the children arrive we help them find their seats, and make sure they have nothing on them which is contrary to the rules. Mobile phones are placed in cardboard boxes and given back to them at the end of the exam.

When they are all settled the head invigilator or sometimes a teacher, will start the exam, writing the start and finish times on the board and noting any children who have extra time. Each invigilator will normally look after a certain number of rows, distributing and collecting the papers. Once the exam has begun, we walk around the room being vigilant for hands going up which may be for any number of reasons. The children may need to go to the toilet, they may need a tissue, more paper, a calculator (if they are allowed) or to ask a question re the paper. We are allowed to give some help with where to write their answers, but cannot give them the answers or explain for example the meaning of words.

Once the exam has finished, we collect the papers and the cards with the children's names on and put them in order, sign the registers, and then deliver them back to the exam secretary's office. That is about the gist of it.

Invigilators come from all walks of life - some like me have part time businesses, some are students, some are former teachers, some have part time jobs elsewhere or work at several different schools.

The exam system has of course changed dramatically since I was at school, so much so that at times it makes me feel quite old. When I left school back in 1982, there were still two different types of exams - CSE's and O'Levels - I took a mixture of both. Now there are only GCSE's and there seem to be many more different subjects. Because the school I used to work at was a faith school, Religious Studies was compulsory; at this school General Studies and the Certificate for Preparation Towards Working Life are compulsory. These may seem like "soft" subjects, but when I read the questions for the latter in particular this morning, I was struck by how useful some of the information covered in this paper would have been for me when I first left school - questions on employment rights and legislation for example.

I am enjoying the job, but it is hard work, as you are on your feet all day and have to concentrate quite intensely for often long periods of time. Still, like I said, it is immensely worthwhile since it helps the younger generation in a highly practical way and offers the opportunity to talk to them about their plans for the future and really make a difference.

Saturday, 9 May 2009

Out with the old, and in with the new

When I arrived home from work this afternoon shortly after 2pm, I found a note on the doormat from my partner (with a bar of chocolate - he must love me!) to the effect that he had gone to the viewpoint just up the road (we live one mile from one of the National Trust's largest estates) for a cup of tea and some reading. So, I quickly changed out of my uniform, refilled my water bottle, and jumped back in the car to join him.

After I had finished my tea we were sitting together in my car listening to the birds and the sound of the wind, when who should walk by but our friend and spiritual teacher Marion. Marion was and is one of the leading Journey (a technique pioneered by Brandon Bays) practitioners in the UK and does some immensely valuable and worthwhile work. She came and set on the edge of the drivers seat of my car and we had an interesting chat for half an hour.

She observed that having recently been divorced, for some months she has been simplifying her life and as she put it, "cutting out the dead wood". What she had to say struck a chord with me, and it occurred to me that I have been doing much the same thing.

There comes a point in most people's lives where they can no longer pretend to be someone or something that they are not, and have to be authentically themselves, naked in some ways to the world, devoid of barriers and pretence. This is the point where I am at, which in some ways has been forced upon me by the events that happened at my last job, and my subsequent application to go on Lundy. You could say in some ways, that I experienced a mid-life crisis.

It sometimes feels that my whole life has lurched from crisis to crisis, but when I think about it, really think about, I have overcome an awful lot in my soon to be 44 years - years of school bullying, the death of both parents, a sister who suffers from schizophrenia, countless redundancies and losses of job, rejection by publishers, I could go and on if I wanted to, and wanted to make you depressed. I choose not to get depressed about it all though, but rather, see all of this as challenges and a mark of just how strong a person I am, and what I have achieved and overcome.

Downsizing seems at the moment to be word on everyone's lips, but is something that my partner and I began several years ago when we moved into our current home shortly before Christmas 2006. Prior to that we had lived in a 2 up, 2 down terraced house in a suburb of
south-west London, near the Surrey border. The house was situated two minutes from a busy main road and 5 minutes from a notorious council estate, where Pizza delivery drivers refused to make deliveries due to muggings and other crimes. Contrast this with our new home, which is a park (mobile) home in one of the most sought after villages in Surrey, halfway between London and Brighton, and surrounded by one of the National Trust's largest estates. We used to think that such properties were draughty old caravans, but they are in fact luxury detached bungalows with all mod cons. Now I have experienced this way of living, I would be loathe to go back to bricks and mortar.

Part and parcel of this for many has also been changing their career aspirations. I never had that many to begin with - all I wanted was a job that fulfilled me, and paid the bills. I have had some of these "career" jobs in the past, and trust me, they are not what they are cracked up to be. These days I consider myself to be a "portfolio person" with my hands in many pies - my bread and butter job is as a housekeeper in a nursing home, which is a real gift, to be able to talk to the old folk and brighten their days. In addition to this, there are also my book royalties, occasional exam invigilating work (the exam season starts next week, so I shall be busy for a while) and market research. It might not be the best paid type of work, but I am happier than I have been in a long, long while, and it is all thanks to my ex employer - for if they had not conspired (with my consent) to get me to leave, then this would not have been possible. This finally, is my time.

Part of the simplification and downsizing for me as with Marion, has been cutting down on the number of emails I receive by gradually unsubscribing from those that are no longer of interest, but also removing the advertising and affiliate links from this, other blogs and my personal website. I need to keep one or two on the ordering page of my website of course, but have restricted this to a handful of companies that I know and trust.

The same is also happening with the people in my life - I find that those who are no longer on my wavelength, or whose ideals are not compatible with my own, are leaving me (this is one of the strongest reasons why I had to leave that old job!). In return, new people are coming into my life to fill that gap, neighbours, friends, and yes, the old folk that I now work with.

I can recommend downsizing to anyone who is looking for a change, and to simplify their own lives - the trick is not to force the change, but to recognise when you are ready for it to happen - you will know when this is the case, for the things that I have described will also start to happen to you. If and when they do, do not be fearful of what you may be losing, but welcome the new with open arms.

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Chop wood, carry water

A joint survey by affiliate network Linkshare and research house Penn Schoen and Berland Associates on the impact of the recession on shopping habits in the UK has revealed that nine out of ten shoppers have more faith in information they read on the Internet than advice given to them by retail staff.

The survey revealed that 81 percent of consumers spend time conducting online research because TV and other forms of advertising do not give enough information in order to make an informed choice. As the purse strings tighten and the recession starts to bite, more consumers are also turning to the Internet in order to save money. The rise in Internet shopping is the most acute in southern England, with 23 percent of consumers planning to increase their online spending this year. This is followed by 20 percent of people in the Midlands and Wales, with the North of England and Scotland on 18 percent. This is not surprising when you consider that the industries most affected by the recession are concentrated in the main around London and the south-east, with many of those recently made redundant from such positions choosing to downsize into less well paid positions that they would not otherwise have considered.

The most popular tools for conducting research are price comparison sites (75 percent), user reviews (69 percent) and professional review sites (66 percent). Loyalty and disocunt voucher sites are also favoured by around 55 percent of respondents. 43 percent of respondents claimed to have purchased a product online that they may not otherwise have made without consulting these voucher sites, showing the importance of discounting on the prevailing culture. The good news is that despite the recession, 58 percent of respondents expect to spend as much as they did in 2008, if not more.

The message to retailers is clear, that they need to remain competitive in the face of savvy consumers, who are prepared to shop around in order to get the best prices, but also demand the best service. The public demand good service, but are not prepared to pay for it, perpetuating a minimum wage culture in which retail staff are expected to be experts on the products that they sell, learning more often than not in their own time, while subsisting on minimum wage because their bonusses have been cut to the bone. I speak as someone who has recently escaped from this madness, which affects more and more areas of retail. How glad I am to have made my escape.

Contrast this with my new job as a housekeeper in a nursing home, which I started this weekend, where the staff are treated as individuals rather than disposable commodities, their contribution valued for what it is, regardless of the role that they fulfil. I am ten times more fulfilled in what some would term a menial role, cleaning residents rooms and helping in the kitchen than I ever was selling expensive items that people believe they need in order to keep up with the Joneses, and have discovered there is real dignity in this. Like they say, chop wood, carry water.