On the sidelines?

On the sidelines?

Recently I went to the dedication of the child of some friends of mine. It was in south London on a Sunday afternoon, meaning that I needed to make the trip down to the capital using Sunday trains – always an ‘experience’. Now, I travel to London quite regularly, but for some reason, on this journey I kept getting everything wrong. First, I walked all the way to the station before realising I’d forgotten my railcard. I was quite early (I’m always early, I spend most of my time waiting for other people to turn up), so I decided to go back and get it. When I eventually arrived at Euston station, I was still early, so I went to take some photographs around the city. ‘I’ve got loads of time,’ I thought, ‘no need to hurry.’

Wrong. I ended up being 20 minutes late.

I stumbled into the church just as my friends were going to the front for the dedication part of the service. Still, I’d arrived for the part I had gone to see and I even got to take part in the church’s after-service tea (there were some lovely egg sandwiches).

Now I’m not telling you this to show how incompetent I am (although I can be an idiot at times). Despite the rather wonky journey, it was amazing to be there at a landmark in the life of my friends’ family, to celebrate and to thank God for this cheeky little 1-year-old. These times of family celebration – birthday parties, baptisms and more – are such joyous events and important in the development of the life of a family.

I can’t say what it’s like for single women, but as a single man, I don’t often get invited to children’s birthday parties and the like. Friends who are parents are often asked to come along and bring their children, but it can sometimes feel like I’m on the sidelines. Perhaps parents don’t think I’d be interested in spending three hours in a soft-play area or playing musical bumps with a group of over-excited toddlers. But the thing is, I actually would.

Now, the lifestyle of parents and that of those who are child-free are very different, and sometimes misunderstandings can arise about others’ priorities and ways of living. It’s true that being long-term single and child-free does make you a little bit selfish – more often than not, you don’t have to consider other people before you make a decision. You can decide to go out without having to arrange a babysitter or spend an hour trying to convince a 3-year-old to put their shoes and coat on.

And when you don’t have children, spending time with them can be an experience you’re not fully prepared for. I always forget how the need for attention and entertainment is constant (some might say relentless, I couldn’t possibly comment). Added to that, children are loud, so very loud. And children’s toys are some of the most annoying things in the world. If anyone wanted to interrogate me, all they would have to do is lock me in a room with a plastic musical dog and I’d tell them anything they wanted to know.

But that doesn’t mean that I don’t want to play a part in the lives of the families of my friends. As I said in my previous post, there aren’t many points of celebration in the life of a single man, so it’s fantastic to be able to share in those landmarks with those I care about. Children are joyous, fun and can change your perspective on life. They are frustrating, amazing, exhausting and loveable. Helping celebrate the special times in their lives is life-affirming and a treat for me.

Moreover, parents have access to a wealth of ‘aunties’ and ‘uncles’ that can be drawn from their circle of friends. These almost-relatives can add to the richness of the life – and faith – of families. In the US, an organisation called the Fuller Youth Institute did a substantial piece of research called Sticky Faith, looking into what helps children’s faith to last into adulthood. They identified several key factors, one of which being that children and young people need relationships with adults who are not their parents in order to enrich their social, emotional and spiritual development.

Organising this takes effort. I am godfather to four lively and energetic children, and I’m not very good at keeping up with them. My life takes over (remember I said being long-term single can make you a bit selfish?) and suddenly months have passed without me seeing them or even contacting them. If you have a family, time can play the same tricks, with the endless churn of school, clubs, church, shopping etc meaning that families can go for long periods without seeing people outside these circles.

So, to parents, I’d say that you shouldn’t assume that your single friends don’t want to come to events in your family’s life. They probably would love to be invited and would prove significant and important features of your children’s upbringing. To single people (particularly single men like me), I’d say that you shouldn’t let time slip away from you – keep in contact with friends with children. Make a note in a diary or set a reminder on a phone to send a card or make a call. Just don’t forget.

This article was first seen in Mothers’ Union’s outreach magazine Families First www.familiesfirstmagazine.com

Lost friends

Lost friends

A while ago, a friend from university (Hello Orlando!) posted a link to this article, about how friendships can slide away from you when you reach your 30s or 40s. It’s an interesting read, but I’m not sure it comes to any real conclusions as to why people, especially men, lose contact with friends when they reach this age. Is it marriage? Career? An ‘out of sight out of mind’ mentality?

I thought about this idea as I was volunteering on a primary-school trip to St Paul’s cathedral with a friend’s science and maths group. On the coach on the way back, we drove past a block of flats in Islington where Nick, my best friend from sixth form, used to live. Even before I’d seen his old place, Nick had been on my mind for a few weeks. I’d even done a bit of internet stalking to see if I could track him down. I hadn’t seen Nick for years, and it occurred to me how much I’d missed him. I recalled a time when he and I had sat either side of our friend Debbie on Salford Crescent Station and subjected her to more than one terrible (and incomplete) rendition of ‘The Farmer and the Cowman’ from Oklahoma.

Similarly, Jindra was a great friend while I lived in the Czech Republic, and I hadn’t heard from him for years either. I was heading to Prague to celebrate my 40th birthday, and I wanted to meet up, but I wasn’t sure he got any of my emails. But, joy of joys, I managed to meet up with them both – Nick at Christmas and Jindra in Prague. And on both occasions, it was as if we had never been apart.

Now I’m not saying that I don’t have any friends now, and it’s difficult to maintain friendships over long distances or even in different countries, but the fact that I had lost contact with these to fine gentlemen made me a little bit sad. And as I reflect on other relationships closer to home that aren’t now what they used to be, I get the same feeling. I realise that times come and times go and sometimes we’re not in a position to keep up friendships because life gets in the way, but I don’t think that we should surrender valued relationships just because we’re too busy.

What should I do about it? Well, I need to pick up the phone and ring old friends. I need to set up times to meet and catch up. I need to get off my bum and make the effort. So, if you haven’t heard from me for ages, get ready for a call…

Three is the magic number

Three is the magic number

On 5 November 2012, I officially started my own business. I became self-employed, freelance, whatever you call it. And it was perhaps the most un-thought-through thing I have done. Looking back, I can see that I really didn’t know what was going to happen. Armed only with my redundancy money, a handful of contacts and a sense of overwhelming optimism, I set out quite unaware of the personal magnitude of what I was doing.

Work came slowly at first. I would go on walks round Wolverton, where I live, thinking, praying, wondering where I might go to get more contacts, more contracts, more jobs. It was easier than sitting, staring at the keyboard. Some people told me that when they started, they never struggled for work (so what was I doing wrong?), while others said that it took them four years to get going (could I wait that long?). However, slowly but surely, one client led to another, and another, and another. Regular work built up and I started to risk agreeing to more ambitious projects. I passed my first anniversary, then my second and now I have reached my third in rude health.

Now my business is well and truly a toddler. And I would like to thank the people who supported me at the start – my family and friends, my old work colleagues and my first clients. You all helped to lay the foundations for what has turned into quite a successful venture! Thanks for being actively supportive and for just being there. Thanks for those initial jobs and for passing my name onto other potential clients. Thanks for being patient and understanding.

I am officially listed as a ‘sole trader’, but I am anything but. I couldn’t do what I do without that network of supporters, clients and cheerleaders. If I could bake you all a cake, I would, but that would take a while. So I’ll just content myself with saying THANK YOU. And who knows? I might just surprise you with a Victoria sponge sometime soon.

One (challenging) singular sensation

One (challenging) singular sensation

Last week, I got to indulge one of my worst character traits – I’m a terrible show-off – by performing in the musical, A Chorus Line. Set in a theatre in 1975, it follows a group of dancers auditioning to be in the chorus of a Broadway show. I love performing and being on stage – as I’ve said already, I’m a terrible show-off – but I found this show quite difficult.

Even though there were large parts of the show where I did very little, I was on stage almost all the time (most of the cast were). It sounds a bit daft, but not doing very much while still staying in character is actually quite tricky! The temptation is either to switch off and start thinking about something completely unrelated (like tomorrow’s dinner) or to become a spectator and watch the action as if you were an audience member (albeit one with a very good view).

It was also difficult because the dancing was quite complex and because I had a long monologue to deliver. The worry that I would forget dance moves or parts of the speech kept me awake at night for weeks before the show. And on stage, concentrating on routines and lines was quite hard work.

And yet, I think these issues made it a more enjoyable experience. I appreciated the challenge of the dancing and of the character I played: needing to find the emotional journey to take the character on (if that’s not too much of an X Factor cliche) meant that I had to spend time working at it.

If I’m honest, I think I enjoyed it more than last year’s Acorn Antiques, even though I’m a massive Victoria Wood fan. For me, Acorn Antiques was comfortable and fairly easy to do. I loved the comedy, the silliness and the songs, particularly the epic and daft ‘Macaroons’. But in terms of a sense of satisfaction and achievement, A Chorus Line was streets ahead.

Now, I’m essentially a very lazy person, and when I’m faced with a challenge, my first though is that I’d rather not take it on. I’d rather have an easy life. Better to sit on the sofa than to put the hard work in. Nevertheless (and if you’re a client of mine, this might be a relief to hear), it won’t be long before I’m squaring up to what needs to be done and the rewards for that hard work will vastly outweigh those of just watching TV. And A Chorus Line is proof of that – something that needed to be worked at but brought great reward.

I’m not sure where my next challenge will come from. Writing the Guardians of Ancora brings new challenges every time I have to create a new quest. I’ve just written a column for the Mothers’ Union which was a struggle to produce, but that they were very happy with (which is encouraging, but I’ve got to write five more and I’m not entirely sure I can!). However, wherever it comes from, I need to remember the satisfaction and sense of achievement I’ll get when it’s finally done and in print/on stage/on film. So, who’s going to challenge me?!

A tale of two hospices

A tale of two hospices

When you think about the word ‘hospice’, what images come to mind? A grey place where people go to die? A place of sadness, illness and overcooked cabbage? You wouldn’t be alone – these are certainly some of the things that I conjured up in the past.

But I want to tell you about a hospice. Well, two, actually. Children’s hospices. They are places where children and young people with life-limiting conditions go to be cared for and yes, perhaps to die. However, they aren’t drab, they aren’t depressing or oppressive and there isn’t even a whiff of overcooked cabbage.

Christopher’s in Guildford and Shooting Star House in Hampton together make up Shooting Star Chase. These two amazing places serve families across south-west London and Surrey, helping to manage the care for children and young people with life-limiting conditions, and their families. I provide editorial support to the charity (and even voice-over work) – I’ve just finished doing some editorial work on their supporter magazine and my head is full of the tough, but inspiring work that Shooting Star Chase puts in to make the lives of the families they work with immeasurably better.

They don’t only manage and care for the medical needs of children and young people, but their emotional and psychological needs too. Nurses and carers get to know a child’s likes and dislikes, their habits and comforts, as well as their medication and therapeutic requirements. Chefs, maintenance staff and volunteers strive to create an atmosphere of support, relaxation and fun. Social workers, care managers and support staff work hard to make sure children and young people get the best care possible.

I was lucky enough to visit Shooting Star House about a year ago, to see for myself the fantastic facilities, meet one or two of the care staff and even have a fine cup of tea from the creative kitchens. It was a privilege to see everything in action and a help to my editorial work for the charity, to have seen the facilities within which the stories are all set.

I’m writing this partly because my mind is buzzing with the stories of children, young people and families well cared for, but also because their story, and the stories of children’s hospices around the country, needs to be heard more widely. Financially, Shooting Star Chase only gets a tenth of what it needs from government funding, and so has to raise the remaining 90% itself. And when your care bill tops £10 million each year, that’s a big ask.

So, if you live in south-west London or Surrey, why not find out how you can support these two fine establishments? And if not, is there a children’s hospice near you that can make use of your time or money? That places like Shooting Star House and Christopher’s have to rely of charitable support is discomforting, but the work they put in to make the lives of children, young people and their families immeasurably better is worth every penny.

Community service?

Community service?

Recently, I have been spending a lot of time eating macaroons, wearing a tight white suit and singing a song about breaking a man’s leg. This strange and questionable behaviour can be explained by the fact that I was in a production of Acorn Antiques – the Musical, produced by my theatre group, Company MK. It’s not ‘my’ group because I own it or run it like a tin-pot dictator, but because I belong to it.

I belong to the group because I share its aim to produce top-quality amateur musical theatre. I belong because lots of my friends are also part of the group. I belong because it gives me the chance to show off perform on stage in interesting shows. I belong because I feel proud to be identified with the group… and I know lots of other people feel the same way.

When we started to put on productions again after a two-year hiatus, one of my objectives was to help build a community that was welcoming, fun to be part of and that gave everyone a fair crack at being cast in a role. By no means do I think we’ve done this perfectly – we’ve got things wrong on the way. We’ve made mistakes and have offended or disappointed people, or just got up their noses (and if we’ve done this to you, we’re really sorry).

However, I think we’ve started to build a group where people enjoy themselves, are stretched artistically and feel welcomed and included. People have stuck with us and the feedback we have had after successive shows has been how much people have enjoyed being part of our community. We’ll probably make more mistakes and be idiots from time to time, but we’ll try our hardest to continue this ethos and produce the best shows that we can, as we look to 2015 and beyond.

Thinking more widely, surely this is the same with any group we’re part of: a church, a sports team, a school… Even if we’re working with dysfunctional and difficult groups (and, given that all groups contain humans, each one is going to have its dysfunctional and difficult aspects), we need to work together to make things better. We need to be generous and gracious when others make mistakes or get on our nerves, just as we hope they will be when we inevitably mess something up ourselves. We need to encourage and push each other to reach higher, to develop skills and to surprise ourselves in what we can achieve.

Talking about groups in this way can sound idealistic and a nice idea (‘it’ll never happen’). But if you don’t give it a go, you’ll never know.