Saturday, 6 February 2016

Full steam ahead

I had been intending to write a blog post about living with uncertainty. Now, however, it seems there is too much busy-ness to spend so long reflecting on the past year and the emotional coping strategies that entailed. Although we still face many unknowns, the direction is much clearer. The decision to commit to a new future has been made and the pieces of the jigsaw are being put into place.

This time last year, Bruce visited colleagues in Wellington, New Zealand and learned more about the job he had applied for there. It was (and still is!) a job that had his name written all over it and he had been shortlisted although the interviews had yet to happen.
The prospect of a move to NZ has taken a lot of getting used to though. The job is great, and there is no doubt that it is a beautiful country with so many benefits. But, oh my goodness, what a distance from family and friends. The UK is our home; could we really go so far away that the time and money required would make even an annual visit back a major undertaking?

Even after the interview was successful and the job offer accepted, there have been periods of doubt:
  • Would the department really invest in the type of equipment needed to build up the facility proposed? The answer to that was yes. The container containing the recently purchased mass spec is possibly going through the Suez Canal as I type. In other words, Bruce is taking one of his favourite pieces of lab instrumentation from one institution to the next, a major step in expanding the research capabilities of where he is going.
  • Would we get through the visa process? In the end I had to jump through a few extra hoops with my medical history. If the visas hadn't come through, what on earth would have been our plan b?
  • When would we tell the girls? When should we aim to move? 
Since the turn of the year, though, the reality of the undertaking has become more apparent. Now there are no doubts about whether it is the right thing or not. We are going, and we are going to make the most of it. We are relishing the adventure and we are excited.

We've achieved a huge amount in the past month or so.

Five years' worth of DIY has been crammed into a few weeks, with fresh coats of paint, fixed door handles, replacing the shower cubicle... the list was long. Also, transplanting apple trees and other plants from the allotment (an emotional undertaking). One car has been sold. Those we all items on Bruce's list I might add - I am the taking bags of unwanted-but-still-functional clothing and clutter to the charity shop member of the team. Also contributing to the admin: getting three shipping companies to come round and quote for removals to NZ, three lettings agents for renting our house out once we've gone. Of course there has been non-NZ activity too: a tax return to do, feeding the family, trying to work.

What next?

Bruce flies out tomorrow.

The adventure starts in earnest.

We will continue to put everything we can into place while he's away. We have the bathroom refit in March, we need some more work to be done before we can let the house. At times it will be a struggle. The girls are not looking forward to seeing their dad go. Neither am I for that matter! More than two months apart is a long time and we'll miss him. He'll be homesick. Facetime and Skype will become our norm. We will enjoy our distractions - Bruce getting stuck into his new job, and for us girls: ballet, gymnastics, visits to friends and family, and preparations for the ballet show which lead right up until the end of our time here at the beginning of May.

Time will drag when our hearts ache, but mostly time will go too quickly. We'll be off before we know it. It's full steam ahead!



Sunday, 3 January 2016

New year, new adventure... New Zealand!

This year we will embark on what could be the biggest adventure of our lives: we are moving to New Zealand.

It is not an exact science, pinpointing precisely when this chapter of our lives started, because although I say 'about to embark', the move itself isn't really the beginning of the adventure. Even the very idea of upping sticks and going to the other side of the world is a step into something new. We feel British, our friends and family are here, and while we occasionally pine for sea and mountains, our feet are not terribly itchy. Mental preparation counts as part of the adventure too I would suggest.

The prospect of New Zealand first came up more than five years ago. Job opportunities for a specialist, analytical research scientist are extremely limited in the UK in Bruce's subject. When Victoria University in Wellington started developing plans for their research facility and a new post was under discussion it was certainly worth a second look. Then I had my cancer diagnosis and the whole notion was filed as an impossibility.

This time last year, it all became a very real option again. With only a year left on his contract at the OU, Bruce applied for the position that had eventually been created in the department at Vic - a role that is right up his street, a gem of a job. He went out to meet up with colleagues there, to have a good look, and although not interviewed at that time, he was left with a clear impression that should he be successful when the time came, Wellington would be a great place for us as a family, not just for him as a research scientist.  

So, on the face of it, that it is it. He was offered the job. He accepted. Great opportunity - let's go!

Of course there has been rather more soul searching and discussion about it than that. And the not insignificant step of applying for visas.

I intend to blog again over the coming weeks with progress reports, so for now I think I will leave further background to events of last year for another time, and instead bring us up to date.

The visas arrived just before Christmas, a few days before Bruce's contract at the OU ended. This meant that at last we can be more confident about making plans.

However, we have not yet booked flights. It is summer holiday time in NZ so communication with members of the university has been limited since the visas came through. Bruce wants to start work as soon as possible, but we have so much to do here first getting the house ready to rent out. We are still discussing how it might work for Bruce to go out soon (to start work in Feb, and to find us somewhere to live there), while the girls and I continue here for a bit longer - P is in a performance towards the end of Feb, and we are hoping to have a bathroom refit in early March.

As you can tell, there we have loads to organise and achieve, but at least we are now able to get on with it. This weekend's tasks included Bruce advertising the dome from the observatory (the telescope goes with us, the dome does not), and me clearing a mountain of random paperwork that has been growing and gathering dust since the kitchen extension was built more than seven years ago!

The girls are very mixed up about it all - although excited about some aspects, they are very sad about leaving friends behind. More about that in a future post.

Thank you to everyone who has been putting me in touch with their contacts in NZ. It is great to know there is a network of friends, and friends of friends out there. We look forward to getting to know people better when we arrive. Also, we will welcome tips about all sorts of things from removal firms to schools to the best beaches!


I wish you well whatever adventures you encounter this year.

Happy New Year everyone!

xxx

Thursday, 10 December 2015

Defined by our actions

Like millions in the UK, and 223 of our MPs, I was against our country's involvement in air strikes in Syria.

My MP was not one of those voting against the motion last week and we had an email exchange where I put forward my views and he gave a measured response. It was a standard letter explaining his stance to reply to the emails he was no doubt receiving lobbying against the bombing campaign, but a thought through, reasoned response none the less.

This was a few days before the vote, and given Cameron's outrageous 'terrorist sympathiser' remarks, I felt the need to write a follow up email. I was joining the voices calling for peace, voices expressing anguish about the prospect of escalating the situation rather than resolving it. I knew he wouldn't change his mind, but I knew that saying nothing would mean I had done nothing to prevent it.

It took a while for the second response to come through (after the vote of course, my second email was too close to the debate to expect a reply). Again it was a measured, thoughtful response. Except for one sentence about Deash which has really got my back up:

"They hate us and want to attack us for who we are, not what we do."
Really?!

There is more than one reason why I take issue with this 'who we are, not what we do' sentence.

Firstly, what the hell is that meant to mean: 'who we are?' And in what way is that unrelated to what we do?

Who are we? - Human. I don't believe that we are hated simply for being human because then the organisation would surely implode through in-fighting.  Who are we? British. But being British means being part of a diverse nation. Are we hated for our diversity? Are we hated for lack of faith, or too many faiths in close proximity?  Are we hated for our role in the Western world? Well, I expect it is the latter possibility that comes closer to it. But then isn't our role inextricably linked with what we do. How can you possibly define who we are without examining our actions?

Secondly, I resent the way this sentence creates an 'us' and 'them'. Everyone starts off being a son or daughter. Many, although presumably not all, will have been cherished and loved. But then their upbringing, experience, belief system, conflicts and influences have led them to act in ways that we struggle to comprehend. However, assuming that they hate us no matter what we do, means that there is no possibility of change, of reconciliation. I also resent being put in an 'us' category that I have no say over.

Why might someone hate me as individual when they don't know me? Surely it is because of what is being done in my name (however much I may hashtag #notinmyname). It must be the action, not the very fact of being that is the problem. Would they really hate 'us' as much if it were not for our actions - either present or historic - in creating inequalities in the world, taking greater than our share of the world's resources, treating people with mistrust while at the same time being perfectly happy to sell them weapons?

Therefore, I still feel very strongly that dropping bombs wrong thing to do. On an individual level, I do not want to sanction the killing of another individual. Whether air strikes can be limited to infrastructure or not (and I very much doubt that they can be), I believe bombing in the area will directly or indirectly kill people. The Syrians home land is already such a terrifying place they are forced to flee and try their luck in desperate circumstances, in over crowded refugee camps or attempting to cross borders which we also seem to be determined to secure against them. We only make it worse with our actions. We will create more fear, which in turn could lead to more hate. For those already involved in terrorism, they will feel more justified in their actions against us.

What do our actions say about who we are? If we bomb, it says we are aggressive. If we aim for dialogue, it says we want to create a human connection. If we sell arms to people or nations without taking into consideration their human rights record, it says we care more about money than peace. If we invest in the health and education of our people, it says we value each other.



So what can we do? Not bombing does not mean not taking any action at all. Indeed we need to keep living, keep loving, and keep on striving to live in harmony with our fellow human beings. We need to make sure we make informed choices in our daily lives, and exert what influence we can to seek peace. We need to make sure that what we do is in keeping with who we are, recognising that what we will be known for what we do.

There is a small sentence within the Quaker Advices and Queries that is currently stuck in my mind:
"Let your life speak."
We should let our lives speak and allow what we choose to do to be a true expression of who we are.  

It is easy to feel overwhelmed by the situation, but I take heart that I am far from alone in my belief that bombing is not the way to resolve conflict. I thank everyone who has expressed concern about the road we are being taken down, for there is strength to be gained from each other. I have been grateful for people highlighting protests not always covered by the mainstream media. I will remember the words of one of the Veterans for Peace who returned his medal saying "you cannot sow bloodshed and reap peace".

We need to keep making our voices heard and listening to each other. You can be clear that the current bombing campaign in Syria is certainly not in my name. If it makes no difference today, then maybe it will tomorrow. And if not tomorrow, then perhaps greater understanding over time will help build the foundations to build a peaceful world.  I choose hope over despair.














Saturday, 13 June 2015

Haves and have nots

The pressure is building. Apparently "most girls in my class have a phone", "everyone's on Instagram", "it's going to be even worse in year 6 when everyone has a phone except me".

Our answer has been pretty consistent: "not until secondary school" and then, thinking about social media in particular, "those sites are meant to be for 13 plus".

I find it hard to believe that everyone does  have a phone at age ten (and actually these conversations started best part of a year ago). But, an unscientific straw poll of mums makes it clear that it is surprisingly common in this particular year 5 group, although less so in a nearby school in Wolverton. However, having a phone, ipod or tablet doesn't automatically mean access to social networking. Incidentally, for those that do have an Instagram account, I'm not sure if they have had to lie about their age when setting the account up and whether this has been endorsed by their parents or not.

I suspect that there are some children keeping very quiet when phones and social media are discussed. These kids probably face the harsh reality of parents struggling to get food on the table every day or to replace outgrown shoes, never mind having a spare phone to hand down. They have to make do with what they have in so many ways, a phone is one part of a much bigger aspirational dream not a sole item to focus on. Possibly. I haven't spoken to them to know how it feels, so perhaps a phone or access to Instagram is a massive deal to them too.

But, what I do know is that if you are being told by your peers that you have to get on Instagram to join in the class gossip, then you end up with a longing to be part of the crowd. It is yet one more situation where there is a divide between the haves and the have nots.

As a parent this puts you in a tough place.

Many of the kids on Instagram think they are protecting themselves by having private accounts, and certainly this cuts down some of the risks they are exposed to. However, there is no protection from what I see as problems with social media for adults, let alone inexperienced pre-teens.

For example, everyone is having a fantastic time at a party. Except you. You had been feeling a little flat about not having an invitation, but seeing who was there, including people you didn't even really think the host was friends with, and then fun photos they took, feeling a little flat turns into feeling absolutely gutted. Not a biggie? An emotional roller coaster for a sensitive child.

There are many other reasons why social media should be treated with caution: comparing how many followers you have with someone else; how much you expose yourself to negativity of the very worst kind (sickening comments lacking in any ounce of humanity from people hiding behind anonymity); exposure to sexualised content; addiction to being constantly stimulated and connected, forgetting to appreciate what else life has to offer.

Of course there are wonderful things about social media too: creativity, humour, connecting with friends across a distance, finding people with common interests.  You prevent access to all of that while you act in what you believe are the best interests of your child, because the dark side of social media is dark indeed. At the same time you know you are creating a different problem: preventing them from being in the 'in' crowd, turning them into a 'have not'. I do get that, I really do.

On the positive side, we've had lots of discussion about it and our parent-child relationship continues to develop as there is awareness of problems with either approach. While we are a 'have not' family when it comes to children with phones (and things like TVs in bedrooms), we are a 'have' family when it comes to books, dancing, pens and paper, and after school activities, not to mention cuddles and love.

For when push comes to shove, surely a loving home environment is the most important thing to provide for everyone in your household?

Whether your child is networked or not, I'm sure you will continue to want the best for them. We need to keep setting examples of the behaviour we hope them to follow. We need to make sure we are not constantly on devices ourselves, and above all teach them kindness and sensitivity to deal with difference - whether that is being denied access to social media by an interfering parent, responding to someone who isn't allowed the same freedoms, or being a have or have not in some other sphere of life.

The irony is that if you are reading this, you probably chanced upon a link I posted on Facebook or Twitter! I can now assure you that I am now about to go out with my daughter for some real life experience - probably getting wet as we walk into town, buying some new jazz shoes for her, a newspaper for me, and talking to each other. We may laugh, we may bicker, but we'll rub along together without needing to share pictures of it with the world.

A final word for any parents who haven't had to give social media much thought yet, there is an excellent review of some networking sites you may be personally unfamiliar with produced by the NSPCC: http://www.nspcc.org.uk/ShareAware

Saturday, 9 May 2015

Don't despair, do something


What a depressing night. I stayed up long enough to sense that the exit polls were right, but it was only in the morning that the full horror was apparent.

It would appear that the British  English electorate fear economic instability more than they fear the dismantling of the welfare state and the ruining of individual lives. They've put corporate before people.

How could they?


I feel a bit sick when I think about how much worse things could get now that the Tories are in with the kind of endorsement they've had in this election. It seems to me, that those of us who are strongly opposed to the cuts, the devastation of lives, and the threat to the environment by our current practices are going to have to work harder than ever.

I have not so far lived the life of an activist. My first peace protest was earlier this year. I sign on-line petitions, and I've been an active fundraiser for charity, but until relatively recently I've been fairly benign in a political sense. Anyway, family life keeps me busy enough...

Well, yesterday after seeing what had happened I was convinced that more and more people are going to need to be engaged in stitching together the holes in the safety net for society's most vulnerable. Food banks - which should be unnecessary in a country as wealthy as ours - are going to be relied upon more than ever. Charity will have to provide where the government fails to.

So, yesterday I became a woman on a mission. I decided that I would take my first action to make a difference. A small action, but a symbolic one.

I went to the local supermarket and shopped for the food bank. As I'd decided to cycle the goods over to our local food bank (at a guess 3 miles away), I didn't want to overload the basket with heavy items, but I bought everything highlighted in red on their proposed shopping list which for Milton Keynes can be found on-line here.

I hadn't reckoned on having to change a bike tyre along the way, but this made my determination even greater - frustration and disappointment turned into focus and action.

I was happy that this also became a sociable activity as Hannah joined me for the bike ride and also brought some items raided from her cupboard at home. 

And you know what? I felt so much better about having done something with my morning: doing something that will help someone in need, getting out on the bike, meeting up with a friend and having a sense of purpose.

So, my friends, please don't forget that the re-election of a Tory government is not the end, but a continuation. We need to find something, anything, to counteract the negativity, to protect what we believe in and to make a positive difference. I hope this doesn't sound trite or preachy, but I think even small actions can make a difference. Even something as simple as a smile.

So, let's not despair, let's do something. Let's get out there and smile again. x



Monday, 4 May 2015

Please vote for change (thank you Scots)

I started getting more politically engaged with the whole Scottish referendum thing last year. I was impressed by the passion of those debating. For the first time in a long time, it felt as though politicians were talking from the heart, putting their values first. The impact of voting one way or the other was real - votes counted and hearts and minds had to be won. Of course there was a bit of propaganda thrown in, but mostly the politicians were standing up for what they believed in because they truly believed it was in the best interests of their electorate.

It is hard to believe that all of our UK general election candidates have their electorate's best interests at heart.

The Conservatives said that with the scale of the deficit cuts were necessary and we were all in it together. In what way are the top 1% of earners in it together with the poorest in our society? They were given a tax cut on their earning, while vicious benefit cuts have been inflicted on the poorest on our society. The lowest earners, doing their best to make a decent living, have lost any safety net that was available to them.

You may not think that your vote will make a difference, but really, would any other party (save, perhaps UKIP) allowed such an expansion of the wealth of the elite at the same time dependency on Foodbanks has rocketed?

As for the promises they made about the NHS (no top-down reorganisation) and what happened subsequently... well, it beggars belief.


If you are asking the question 'who has the best policies for introducing the scale of change necessary to make a fairer, more equal society' I don't think the answer is Labour. If your question is simply how do we makes things a bit better and prevent another Tory government, then in this constituency, Labour is the answer.

In my opinion, Labour aren't taking a strong enough stance on TTIP, fracking and trident. They aren't radical enough about environmental, transport and welfare issues, and too recently they took us to war in Iraq. It won't surprise you that I think the Green Party most closely matches my values.

Some will say that a vote for the Green Party is wasted, but it will not be wasted to me because I know I will be voting for what I most closely believe in. Hopefully, there will be enough people in my constituency voting Labour as they are best placed to give the Tories a run for their money, but if they are unsuccessful I hope they will look more closely at some of their policies and campaign tactics. In particular, I disagree with the £bns proposed for Trident renewal, which could be so much better spent on things this country needs now.

Also, I was impressed with the women in the leaders' debates: strong, constructive, and supporting each other where their policies overlap. 
 In Scotland, the referendum engaged hearts and minds. It was a moment in history. I was excited about the prospect of a 'yes' because of the values the independent Scotland would have been trying to build its society on. I was fearful of a 'yes' because of the major upheaval and disruption to the whole UK, and the rift it could cause in communities on either side of the border. But I don't like the politics of fear.

Make a choice, make a choice for reasons you believe in and keep working towards a better society whatever the outcome. If you don't vote, you have no influence. Reducing the majority in a safe seat is still better than not turning out and allowing an even greater majority for someone you don't believe in. If you don't believe in any of them, keep voting for change until you get an MP who is voting the way you want on the issues that matter to you. Please.

Friday, 23 January 2015

Stuck in the biscuit aisle

There are many reasons to get stuck in the biscuit aisle: looking for a special treat, plummeting for a favourite that happens to be on special offer, perhaps checking ingredients to make sure you are not going to present a veggie friend with animal fat. On the other hand, there are good reasons to avoid it altogether. Who needs those empty calories and that extra fat anyway?

I am a relatively thoughtful shopper - sometimes this means I have habits that I stick with so it doesn't take long, but more often I'm annoyingly slow. I pore over the labels, maintaining a mental dialogue. Where has this fruit come from? ("Peru! I can't justify the air miles, let's move over to the in-season Coxes", "Israel? Put it back, I don't want to support a country which bullies its neighbour with military might"). Was this now dead animal free range when it was alive? ("Yes? Organic? Even better"). Look at this ridiculous amount of packaging. Oh, and what's the expiry, we may not eat that until Tuesday...

At the weekend, though, I'm afraid there was yet another reason for getting stuck in the biscuit aisle: palm oil.

I had already picked up some bargain Rocky bars - a handy, cheap packed lunch box treat even cheaper at half price - and I was now looking for something else to share with some friends. I thought chocolate digestives might be the answer, or perhaps a packet of Fox's Golden Crunch.

Why, oh why did I take it upon myself to look at the ingredients? Palm oil. And also vegetable fat (palm). Can you believe it? When did palm oil become so widely used? Biscuits were perfectly delicious in my childhood without the need for this exotic ingredient.

I managed to find some shortbread biscuits that relied almost exclusively on butter for their fat content so they became the choice for the day. Sadly, it turned out that the much loved Rocky bars also contained palm oil so back onto the shelf they went. 

For the uninitiated, having palm oil in everything is bad news for the environment. Having started this blog post I decided to look for an article to link to about it and came across this article from the Independent a few years ago:
http://www.independent.co.uk/environment/the-guilty-secrets-of-palm-oil-are-you-unwittingly-contributing-to-the-devastation-of-the-rain-forests-1676218.html

Basically, you are talking about the devastation of rainforests.

Although some retailers/brands are now claiming to use sustainable palm oil, I still question why it is even necessary to use it in the first place? We have other locally produced vegetable oils. Can these not be used?

You could say what difference does one individual shopper make when faced with ethical versus cheap. But it is not as simple as that. A company, Nestle for example, will not know that I have boycotted their products for about 20 years because of distrust about their marketing policies and tactics in the developing world unless I tell them; as one lone shopper in the millions they target they won't care much. However, it is not all about them. It is about me and my wish to live in a harmonious way. To knowingly support companies and practices I disagree with disrupts my own integrity. I don't want to contribute to the destruction of wildlife on the other side of the world (not to mention the impact on the indigenous population and their dependency on the forests being destroyed). It is better for my spiritual well being to carry on with my picky ways.

Now I know how many biscuits contain palm oil, I'll be more selective than ever (and if I buy fewer that's going to be good for the waistline too, right?). I'll try reminding myself to bake from scratch - at least I'll have control over what goes in - and enjoy a weekend treat from the local bakers even more.

I suspect this may sound sanctimonious. It isn't meant to be like that - I am just trying to navigate the best way for me to live my life well, in the best way I can for me.

By the way, the company making dorritos have come under fire too. They say that they are adopting sustainable policies which will protect against deforestation, but I'm afraid that I don't trust them to have the planet's best interests at heart. For now I'll be making different choices in the crisp aisle too!