Tuesday, 25 November 2008

Catastrophes - and beginnings!

Just when you think that you have things in hand, you have a grip on your life and can make some plans - that’s when you’re in your comfort zone and catastrophe will come and smack you in the back of the head!

There was a programme on tv the other night about the catastrophes in Earth’s past, which have made the planet what it is, and paved the path to creating life. The presenter, the ubiquitous Tony Robinson, made the point that catastrophes are usually seen as unmitigatedly bad, but actually each catastrophe is a new beginning. Without the arrival of cyanobacteria, which produced the terrible poison gas, oxygen, life as we know it could not have appeared, but for the life forms to whom oxygen was lethal it was certainly a catastrophe. This ‘Catastrophe is a new beginning’ idea set me thinking about my own life, in a timely way, as Jeffery came home last night to say that he has unexpectedly been made redundant. As we have very little financial cushion, our capital being tied up in our flat, this bears all the hallmarks of catastrophe in today’s financial climate! However, we are not in despair, for we have been here before, in worse condition, and found that things did not turn out as we feared. Each time being open minded and determined to cling to our core values has led to new beginnings, in ways we could never have planned for.

In the 1970s I was in my second marriage, with 2 daughters and 2 stepdaughters, and a handsome and hard working husband, everything seemed on the up. Ha! I should have known better, first my husband turned out to be not simply a transvestite, but to want a sex change. Ok, I loved him, I felt for his pain, I would do my best to support him through this, even though it seemed an unmitigated disaster from my perspective. Could it get worse? oh yes! While he was away from home at a gender re-assessment clinic, I discovered he had been ‘interfering’ with the girls, and it had been happening for some time. I think that most people will agree that for a mother in her late 20s and her children, this qualifies as ‘catastrophe. At the time I could see no way in which there could be a new beginning in this, my whole life, on every level, was a wasteland. I was wrong. Out of the blue, not long after I had refused to allow my husband to return to the family home and had my stepdaughters taken from my care, an old friend made contact. He helped me to see a way out of my terrifying situation, helping me to find a live-in job in the Orkney Isles, where he lived, enabling me to take my vulnerable little girls to the opposite end of the UK from where my husband was, and protect them from the likelihood of meeting him again.

Orkney was instantly home, a gorgeous feast for all our senses, and a total escape from the alarming situation we had left behind. Of course, once the pressure was off, I went into reaction and had a bit of a breakdown, but my old friend and I developed a close relationship and we had 2 wonderful children together - 2 new beginnings! Catastrophe continued to dog my heels, losing my only parent just after the birth of my 3rd child, and my relationship with my old friend turning very sour, but, yet again, disaster became a new beginning when I met my present husband even as my Orkney life was falling apart around me. Our relationship was born out of coinciding catastrophes for both of us, and has evolved through a series of disasters that kicked us into ever changing world views. I am still deeply homesick for Orkney, but going backwards in life is not healthy, and I can always visit my eldest daughter and her family, who returned home to Orkney a few years ago! She, too, has found new beginnings through catastrophe, and goes from strength to strength, endlessly re-inventing herself and discovering new aspects of herself, I’m so proud of her and all my children, who all seem to be mastering the knack of finding new beginnings in the debris of disaster.

I have a special Facebook Friend who introduced me to blogging, and gave me the courage to do it myself. She is a lovely person, talented and beautiful, who has helped me understand many things about America that mystified me, but she seems to have been hit hard by the results of the recent Presidential election. While most of my American friends are celebrating, for her the result is a catastrophe, I do hope she soon finds a new beginning in her catastrophe.

Monday, 10 November 2008

We shall overcome . . . .

As a non-American, some may feel I am ill equiped to comment on the recent Presidential election, but what many Americans fail to take into account is the impact that their country has on the rest of the world - which, believe it or not, is alot bigger than the USA! As was said many years ago, when America sneezes, Europe catches a cold - but it’s actually more than just Europe, particularly now that this amazing creation, the internet, has made us a truly global society. I know, there are plenty who would argue with me on that, too, but I’m not arguing that it’s an homogenised society. The speed and accessibilty of information has changed not just our world view, but the very way we think and behave, even the way we feel. Our perceptions of reality are now enormously expanded and changeable, as the net feeds us an ever changing wealth of information, and this is what I see reflected in the election of Barack Obama as America’s next President.

World wide, the struggle for civil rights, and supply of basic human needs, has grown enormously since WW2, particularly with the advent and availability of radio and tv. It’s a truism that we don’t crave what we’ve never had, but the expasion of information accessibility has meant that more and more of those ‘at the bottom of the heap’ have realised what they are missing - that compared to the small, wealthy proportion of the population, they are grossly deprived and disempowered. This has created a powerful groundswell of discontent and anger that, sadly, the ‘haves’ appear to be oblivious to. With the advent of the net, it is much easier for the ‘have nots’ to link up and start to form action groups, and to educate themselves in their own potential and abilities. Networking groups such as Facebook and YouTube are not simply about entertainment or time wasting, as some employers are prone to see it, they are powerful tools for people to form alliances, not just locally and nationally, but worldwide, and to take action, to turn individual actions into an irresistable tide.

I believe that the election of President Obama is just the beginning - I fear that ignorant reactionaries may well attempt, or even suceed, to assassinate him, which would be an appalling tragedy, but not, I believe, the end of the movement for change. The disempowered have now discovered that they have real power, after all, and I don’t believe they will reliquish it, even without their symbolic figurehead. After the assassination of Kennedy the movement for progress and change collapsed in grief and fear, but if something dreadful ( heaven forbid) happens to Obama, I believe it would light the touch paper to an explosion of anger that would overwhelm not just America, but the world. He is only one man, with a terrifying task ahead of him, but he is the thin end of a rapidly growing wedge, that the ‘haves’ and the societally old fashioned ignore at their peril. It’s not Communism, or religious fundamentalists, of whatever stripe, that those at present in power need to beware of , it’s something they really can’t control now, because it’s gone too far - it’s the empowerment of the disempowered by the enormous expansion in connectivity that the internet has brought.

This is why I believe we are truly entering a global society, made up of a staggering variety of differing cultures, all with something to offer. Today’s young people take this connectivity for granted, and use it with a fluency and imagination that is inspiring, they socialise, and work, across national borders almost without thinking about it, it is no longer necessary to travel physically to share in a world wide society, and market. This connectivity is also why we are going to have to radically re-think the whole financial system - one nation’s financial mistakes now have an almost instant global effect, we can no longer afford any kind of insularity. Humans have come to dominate the globe through our ability be flexible, and adapt to changing situations. The net has speeded up this process of change and adaptation, or rather the necessity for it, exponentially. As has always been the case, those who are not able, or willing, to adapt as change drives through our lives, will fall by the wayside, in this new context, there will be no room for inflexibility.

Monday, 3 November 2008

Weather wisdom

Saturday night was just a bit too exciting - not the nightlife, of which there is little in the middle of a field, but the consequences of the weather. The wind was rather more than our porch awning was made to cope with, and poles snapped, allowing the porch to collapse against the caravan door - trapping us inside! Jeffery managed to force the door open, as the roof fabric ripped across, and he re-arranged the guy ropes to hold things open, while he removed the broken poles - after we had rescued all the washing, and food, stored in the porch! It was great fun, in the pitch dark, with a manic porch trying to entrap us in its folds. Yesterday my heroic husband managed to mend the poles (narrowly avoiding losing a tooth in the process) and replace them, so our porch still stands, if somewhat the worse for wear. If we continue to be beset with strong winds, I have no great hopes for its longevity, but in the meantime we hope for a dry weekend, to try and repair the rips. The episode set me thinking about other times when the weather has played havoc with my life, and made me realise how very lucky I have been in that regard - I can only recall one serious re-arrangement of life due to the weather.

In 1977, when we had first moved to Orkney, the Islands had their worst winter for many years. Orkney is a glorious place, and I am still homesick, despite having left in 1982. It is a place of sweeping vistas, awe-inspiring skies, and relentless winds - I can remember, on one occasion, having to turn my back to the wind, and put my hand over my face in order to be able to breathe out, the wind was so determined to go UP my nose! Once you have been there a little while, you either get used to, and enjoy the wind, or you have a breakdown - or leave! I learned to love the wind, but that first winter I also learned never to underestimate it, you learn quickly when you make the mistake of opening a car door with one hand and have it torn from your grip, taking skin with it, and nearly tearing the door from the car itself.

I and my children had been living in a lovely static caravan, parked in the shelter of the disused deep-litter chicken house where my partner at the time had his pottery. As winter approached, we thought that it might be wise to rent something a bit more sturdy for the winter, so we rented a bungalow from a friend. The bungalow was usually a holiday let, and was very luxurious after the caravan, it was all electric, with plenty of heating and space. We had a cosy Christmas, cooking lots of lovely Orkney produce in the spacious kitchen, and enjoying the long nights with the Aurora Borealis to make us gasp. However, come the New Year, 1978, the weather started to get worse, and finally we had warnings of severe weather on its way - and in Orkney, you take such warnings very seriously. Very shortly, we had blizzards confining us to the house, and then the power went off. This is a risk you take for granted in such windy country, and you have alternative sources of light, heat and cooking to see you through a day or two - the engineers are very experienced, and don’t take long to get things up and running again.

This time, things were different - there were impassable snow drifts even on major roads, and the phone wires were strung with HORIZONTAL icicles! All the water pipes were frozen, no-one was likely to have electricity for weeks and almost everyone was completely snowed in. Well, there was plenty of pristine snow to melt for water supplies, and the children were delighted not to be able to go to school - or anywhere, much, in fact! We had given my eldest daughter a sled for Christmas, which came into its own, carrying all sorts of supplies across the sparkling white fields, but we only had limited non-electrical heat and cooking supplies, and the bungalow was rapidly becoming a miserable place to be. The caravan had ample gas supplies, and was a smaller place to keep warm, so the sled was pressed into service to transport all our possessions back to the caravan!

It was certainly a wise move, as we were cut off for quite a long time -2 snow ploughs broke their drive chains trying to clear the road at the bottom of the drive, and eventually it was cleared with shovels and man-power! In the mean time, I had still 2 children to care for, including a little girl who was still in terry nappies at night - you have no idea how much snow it takes to wash just one nappy! We have a few pictures, still, of 2 swaddled children, and a sled, grinning in the snow, oblivious to the struggle it took to keep them warm, dry and fed!

Some years later, coincidentally when we left Orkney, in 1982, we encountered similarly determined snowy weather - we very nearly didn’t mange to get off the islands, and when we reached the mainland we had an epic journey south on the train. We rode through dramatic snowscapes, with more and more frequent weather-induced stops as we went further south. Eventually we reached Hereford - and got no further for a couple of days. The buses weren’t running and the roads outside the city were barely passable, so we were stuck in a hotel for a couple of days - the cat didn’t think much of it all! Eventually we found a taxi driver who was willing to try and take us to Hay - another epic journey! When we arrived at Jeffery’s little cottage, we found the back door completely blocked by snow - the whole alley was full to the tops of the doors, and snow drifts in the loft.

As I look back at these memories, I find I am deeply grateful. Not only did we survive, but we had fun, and we all came to have a new appreciation of how lucky we are to live in modern times, with so much protection from the dangers and discomforts that nature assault us with! What has made human beings so powerful is our resourcefulness, and these episodes make me glad to still have a bit of that left.