Living The Dream

I’ve just finished appearing in a production of Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ as Lady Egeus, Hermia’s mother. (Yes, yes, it’s supposed to be Lord Egeus, Hermia’s father but men are scarce in amateur community theatre.)

I’m part of a small theatre company called Theatre of the Winged Unicorn. It’s unique. And I’m not just talking about the name. It’s unique because it’s not just about the acting. It’s unique because it’s not about the stars of the show or the glitz and the glamour. It’s unique because it’s about community. And it’s about family.

It says something when you’ll happily accept a part that has only thirty lines and appears for a mere half an hour of total stage time just so you can be involved.

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The “Crap-All Lines Club”. We spent a lot of time laughing and eating snacks.

It says something when you’ll happily accept extra roles behind the scenes like “Box Office” or “Fairy Wrangler” because being part of a family is about supporting one another.

Box Office

The “Box Office”

It says something when you’re sad that the show is over not because your stage role has come to an end but because your time hanging out with a great bunch of people has come to an end.

A Midsummer Night's Dream

Photo courtesy of S. Thorne

It says something when more often than not, the people you meet for the first time in a play become your friends for life.

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Two of my besties

I’m no great acting talent and I have no ambitions of fame and fortune. What I do dream of doing is joining with others I like and respect to create something beautiful, funny, tragic, mysterious or magical.

It’s more than just one midsummer night’s dream.

It’s a lifetime of living the dream.

Midsummer Family

A Midsummer Family

A post in reverse response to the Daily Post’s prompt “Dream”. Reverse because I actually thought of this post (title included) hours before the Daily Post posted its prompt. Figured I’d better write it then.

 

 

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A Popup Nomadic Community – Oxfam Trailwalker 2014

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Well, the blisters are slowly healing, the limp is becoming imperceptible and the sleep debt is gradually reducing. My Oxfam Trailwalker experience is over for this year and recovery is on the way.

It’s a gruelling event, particularly for those teams who choose to push on through the night to reach the finish line the next morning. Your feet hurt, your muscles ache and you become hypnotically delirious watching that bobbing circle of light on the ground from your head torch, willing your body to keep putting one foot in front of the other, hour after endless hour.

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But the wonder that is Trailwalker is that it creates an instant, pop up community. Over 3,000 strangers bond over their pain, their struggles and their mutual confusion as to what possessed them to take on such a thing. It’s a unique, shared experience.

At the start, walkers joke with each other, check out the funny costumes or matching outfits, work out which teams they think will make it and which look like they just wandered down from the shops for a stroll. There’s plenty of laughter, chitchat and general bonhomie.

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Later, the conversation tends to start with, “So, how’s it going?” The answer can vary from “Great! How about you?” to a barely audible grunt, depending on how the recipient of the query is faring.

As the pace slows and the walkers thin out, people stop asking how you are. They know how you are because they’re feeling it too. This is when the positive affirmations kick in. “Doing a great job”, “Keep going”, “You’re almost there”.

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People who’ve never met and probably will never meet again become each other’s biggest supporters.

Sit on the side of the road to remove a stone from your shoe and the next walker will ask if you’re okay. Then they’ll wait and help you get up again.

At the top of a particularly difficult track, I was handed a lolly (sweet/candy) by another walker “for my trouble”. One small act. Encountering the same team at various points, as rest times and walking paces varied, we would share a joke, a comment, a bit of cheer. We bonded over a piece of flavoured sugar. It was the simple things.

Every community needs its cogs to keep things going. At each checkpoint awaited our Support Crew. Providores, clothiers, caterers, psychologists, cheer squad, they were our angels of mercy.

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And the added glue to this moving instant community was the volunteers. People who donated their time to stand in the cold, the dark and the rain to point us in the right direction, give us a word of encouragement and some nourishment. Close to the end, exhausted physically, emotionally and mentally, while I waited for a slower team mate to make her way down the last hill, one volunteer, seeing obvious signs of distress, offered me a hug. It was gratefully received.

The joy, oh the joy, of approaching that finish line, the cheers not only of our supporters but of more strangers in this sudden, gathered community drawing us to the end of our troubles and the satisfaction of a challenge overcome.

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There are Trailwalkers who have come back not once, not twice but five and even ten times. At 4.00am, 20 hours in, I couldn’t imagine how anyone would want to come back a second time, let alone multiple times. Then, mere days later, my mind plays nasty tricks and whispers the words “next year…”.

Perhaps it is the community we miss. It certainly isn’t the blisters, the boring bits, the seemingly eternal darkness. But the camaraderie, the shared experience, the chance to give and receive support and encouragement to and from fleeting, nameless friends… That is surely what draws us back time and time again.

Postscript: Those who have been following my blog may be wondering how I fared when I was required back on stage the Sunday after the event. I am pleased to say that no lines were missed and due to the mystery of acting, all stage moves were completed without a perceptible limp (getting down the stairs off stage was another matter).

 

 

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Where Does Charity Really Begin?

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I’m currently trying to raise money for a charity. It’s tough out there.

Apparently most charities are experiencing a drop in donations. Add to that the seeming daily addition of a new clamouring voice for a shrinking charity dollar pool and it’s any wonder I sometimes feel like I’m pleading with a brick wall.

My charity of choice is a NGO that works in the area of extreme poverty (Oxfam). I know that every dollar I raise could mean the difference between life and death for someone. It does add some urgency and persistence to my efforts.

But I’m up against fundraisers for cancer research, family support, dogs for the blind and all manner of other causes.

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“Charity begins at home” they like to say.

What I don’t understand is: why, in a country as wealthy and resource-rich as mine, do charities for causes such as those above even exist? Surely we should be able to fund research, feed and clothe our own children and provide services for the disabled from within government? With targeted spending and appropriate taxation, surely we can cover these costs ourselves and in the process free up people’s charity dollars for causes aimed at bringing those in our global community up to even a minimum standard of living?

In a country where one person can spend $20,000 on a handbag, WHY are there children going to bed hungry at all?

Hermès Birkin Handbag available on eBay for $22,000

Hermès Birkin Handbag available on eBay for $22,000

A few years ago, I travelled to Peru as part of a community project trip (you can read about it here). Two days after I got home, I had a call from a charity asking me to donate money so they could run a camp for the siblings of children with cancer. I’d just got back from a place where a child with cancer would be lucky to get treatment and here I was being asked to donate money to make someone feel better about their brother or sister having cancer. Needless to say, I declined. I’m not decrying the provision of such a service. I just think it indicates how lucky we are that our charity is at that level.

I could rant and rail against the injustice of it all (I guess I already am) but in the end, who am I to say my cause is more worthy than anyone else’s? People have their priorities and their passions and they are as equally valid as mine.

But I can’t help thinking it would be a much easier world to live in if we could all at least start off with clean water, food and a roof over our heads. So I’ll continue to shout at the top of my voice in the din of charity fundraising and hope my voice will be heard.

To Donate: https://trailwalker.oxfam.org.au/team/home/15946

The Difference You Make

 

 

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Help! I Need Somebody! – Asking For Help Without Guilt

Help

What is it about the human psyche that we are so reluctant to ask for help? Even when it is freely and lovingly offered by another, we often only take up the offer when there seems no alternative.

In a society that lauds the attributes of independence, self-sufficiency and resilience, asking for help can be viewed as a sign of weakness. It’s not. Allowing another to help us takes strength in acknowledging when we cannot do it all on our own. It is acceptance that we are not superhuman which is logical and reasonable, not some sort of failure.

Helping each other – including accepting help for ourselves – is what being in community is all about. Mutual support, give and take.

Even when we do accept help, we can feel indebted to the helper, as if we must repay the assistance in some way as soon as possible. This also is not necessary in a community. Help will be given and help will be received when and as it is needed. Help given in a true community is an act of love, not one half of a user-pays transaction.

For everything there is a season and the helper one day may be the one in need the next. But in a healthy, caring relationship, help is not offered with the thought, “and you better help me when I need it”. It is offered simply because we care about the other person and we know, not expect, that the other person would do the same for us. It is a mutual relationship of support.

So, offer help because you want to, ask for help because you need to, and do so in the knowledge that this is community and we are all in this together.

 

 

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When A Bad Day Turns Good

The other day I had to speak to a group of kids about maintaining hope when things aren’t going so well. We talked about bad days. Here’s what they contributed.

“So, how would a bad day start?”

“When you have to get up early.”   “When you get out of bed and bump your head.”   “When you don’t want to get out of bed so you bump your head.”

“So, you’re up and you have to get dressed. Then you find out you don’t have any clean socks. Or worse, no clean underpants.”

“Or no clean pants or tops or anything and you have to go out in the nicky-nicky-nude.”

“It’s breakfast time. You pour the cereal into your bowl, you go to the fridge, open the door and…”

“There’s no milk.”   “There’s nothing there at all.”   “You have toast.”

“Then you go to school (probably hungry) and the teacher says, ‘I hope you have your excursion permission slip today. You won’t be able to go if you don’t.’ Of course you don’t have it.”

“I don’t want to go on the excursion anyway.”

“It’s the end of the day and you’re waiting for your mum or dad to pick you up…”

“And they FORGET!” “AGAIN! And look surprised when you walk in the door having walked home! On a hot day!” “That’s happened to me!” (This generated a fair bit of passionate discussion almost exclusively from my own children. So I told them, “Every child has to be forgotten to be picked up at least once in their life. It’s a rite of passage.”)

“So you get home (somehow), sit down to do your homework and…”

“You’ve forgotten your homework book.”   “You’ve forgotten your textbook.”   “You forgot your school bag.” (I’m a bit worried about some of these children.)

“Dinner time. What would dinner time be like on a bad day?”

“You drop your plate on the floor.”   “It’s food you don’t like.”

“What sort of food would that be? What don’t you like?”

“Chocolate cake with pumpkin.” (The mother of the child who said this stood up and announced loudly, “I’ve never served that!”)

“So by this time you probably just want to go to bed, right?”

“No.”

A Bad Day

A Bad Day

I love talking to kids about stuff. They are small conduits of innocent perspective and transparent wisdom. And often hilariously funny.

Having dissected the components of a bad day, we then spoke about what might help to make it a better day and we agreed talking to someone could help. (Someone said, “Talk to your mother” to which one joker responded, “Unless it’s your mother that’s giving you the bad day.” Predictably, the joker was one of mine.)

We talked about prayer and how it can help to send a silent call for help and know that even if there’s no magic to make the bad day just disappear, it can make a difference to know you’ve been heard and someone cares you’re having a bad day.

I’ve written previously about the remarkable singing group I attend every Friday. I’d had a tough week and by the time I walked in the door for singing last Friday morning I didn’t know if I wanted to burst into tears or punch a wall. Over the course of the next hour a beautiful thing happened.

Occasionally we are given the opportunity to volunteer to sing a verse solo during a song. The rest of the group joins in with the chorus. At these times I usually become incredibly fascinated with my shoes. It was always something I was never going to do. But on this day, I felt a metaphorical prod in my back and to everyone’s surprise (certainly mine), I slowly raised a quivering hand and said, “I’ll do it.”

When it came to my turn, I was terrified. My hands shook so much I looked like I was fanning myself and I wondered how anyone could possibly hear my voice over the loud thumping of my heart. But I did it. And survived. And I knew I was fully supported by the group.

Afterwards, people made sensitive, encouraging comments and I felt uplifted. Soon, I came to realise that my bad day had come good. When I had cried in the car on my way there, “How am I going to get through today?” I could not have known that help was on its way in the most unlikely of occurrences.

A Good Day

A Good Day

For me, it’s God. For you it may be the Universe, your own inner voice, or someone else’s voice in your head. Whatever it is for you, when the bad days come, send out an SOS and be prepared to watch and listen, and then to respond to the help that will come, sometimes in a way you might never imagine possible.

 

 

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Community – A Common Unity

COMMUNITY: (noun)

1. a group of people living in the same place or having a particular characteristic in common; 2. [mass noun] the condition of sharing or having certain attitudes and interests in common

I’ve been thinking about communities a lot lately. There seems to be the view that society, certainly Western developed society, is losing its sense of community. The newspapers love to report the stories of people found dead in their homes months, even years, after they died. They point to the destruction of the neighbourhood, the lack of care for one another, the individualistic mindset of our society.

These stories are tragic, there is no doubt about that. And there are obvious failings somewhere in the system that these lonely deaths occur at all. But those who claim that our sense of community is lost are, I suspect, caught in an outdated notion of what constitutes a community.

There was a time when the chief communities people belonged to were the streets where they lived and their church. Now, people often don’t even know the name of their immediate neighbour and participation in our churches, for the most part, is dwindling. But does this mean that we lack community? Or have our communities just changed?

I think the truest sense of the word community is to be found in the second definition given above, much more so than the first. In a world of greater participation in employment with varied employment hours and town planning that favours privacy over interaction, the likelihood that a group of people who happen to live in the same area will form a communal bond is slim. So we find community through our interests and involvements.

Book clubs, choirs, sports clubs, theatre companies, parents who wait together in the playground at pick up time, even here in the Blogosphere… wherever you meet with people who share your passions, you form a community. The nature of any community is the support each member provides to the others. Each of these communities is capable of nurturing and upholding its members.

“Some people think they are in community, but they are only in proximity. True community requires commitment and openness. It is a willingness to extend yourself to encounter and know the other.”

– David Spangler

Unfortunately, sometimes communities fracture. They are, after all, made up of human beings with all their frailties. A harsh word, a misplaced criticism, a lack of care in a moment of need, can lead to a poor experience of community. However, the mistake some people make is then to tar each similar community with the same damaged brush.

“I tried a book club once. When it was my turn to suggest a book, the rest of the group refused to read it and told me they didn’t read that sort of book. I hate book clubs.”

“I belonged to a choir once. Someone told me not to sing so loudly. I’ve never been back.”

If this is you, I encourage you to try again. If you’ve always loved to sing, find a singing group that welcomes you – I promise there will be one out there. If your first book club didn’t like your book, find some friends who do and form your own. The nature of the community is not grounded in the interest or activity that brought it together in the first place but in the people who form the community in the way they treat each other, care for each other, encourage each other.

How do you know if you’re in a true community? When someone asks you how you are and doesn’t believe you when you say “Fine”.

I suspect to some extent the view that community is lacking in our society is because it seems to have disappeared from the upper echelons of our society – most notably in our governments. This is no more evident than during an election campaign. Having just recently endured one, I was appalled at the blatant appeals to the worst aspects of an individualistic society – fear of the stranger, disrespect for the earth, the ‘what’s in it for me’ response – from both sides of the political spectrum. Once upon a time, a person would get involved in government because they cared about their community and wanted to make a positive difference. Now it seems, even at a local government level, people sign up simply because they want the power and prestige that comes with the political life and/or to push through a personal agenda to benefit the few.

So, if the leaders of our country are telling us refugees are bad or we can do what we like to the planet or we have no obligation to our poorest neighbours, how is the community as a whole supposed to function as it should?

By not playing along.

We form purposeful, caring communities of our own. We welcome strangers, help those in need, provide support to others even if it is just a cup of coffee to a struggling friend, and we share the joy of a common experience. Thriving communities are out there, defying the national trend to hunker down in our own misery, bringing light and warmth to thousands whether it be in a group of three or three hundred.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

– Margaret Mead

If you’re not part of a community, get involved in something you feel passionate about, whether it’s singing, tennis, knitting or collecting lollypop wrappers and gather like-minded people around you. Being part of a community can be life-giving, life-affirming and life-changing.

Community

 

 

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Hope is a Beautiful Dream

I sang these words this morning at a community singing group I attend every Friday morning. It was a repetitive refrain, sung in three parts, haunting and beautiful in its simplicity.

And in my case, a timely lyric. Our family has recently been destabilised by a worst diagnosis. In a family previously untouched by The Big C, we are now faced with one of the nastiest and, historically, most unnecessary illnesses making itself known progressively throughout the world – Mesothelioma.

It is the ultimate insult for a man who has lived a healthy and active life, hospitalised only twice in his life – once for appendicitis, once for a cut tendon in his finger. A man who only did what most other men of his generation did – a bit of home handyman, work in an office, commuting on the train – and all the while unwittingly exposed to the diabolical. We have, however, come to realise that analysis of the exact cause of exposure is pointless. We cannot change anything, he cannot go back and undo his actions to bring about a different ending. We must accept the truth and ‘go from here’.

But I started this post with a comment about hope which is indeed a beautiful dream. It is well to be reminded of the hope that lies in the life that we have Here and Now. The past is gone, the future is unknown, today is all we have for certain.

Sometimes I turn up to singing having had a good week and it is the icing on my cake. Sometimes I turn up having had a nightmare week and it brings me solace, peace and a lift to my spirits. Sometimes I think I can’t face it, go anyway, and never regret it. It alternately challenges or consoles me but it always inspires.

Put some singing in your life.

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