Apologies for the long time since my last email. I could cite not enough time, or other obstacles, but it might just be that I haven't been encouraging myself enough!
A few weekends ago I was in Foyles, at a reading by Carol Ann Duffy, the current Poet Laureate. Short, stocky and not-to-be-messed with, she read from 'The World's Wife', a hilarious collection of poems about the wives of famous men - meet Mrs Midas, Mrs Faust, Mrs Aesop. (Imagine the alarm of Mrs Midas, when she observed that everything her husband touched turned to gold.... The encouragement by an avaricious Mrs Faust to the husband who was wavering on whether to sell his soul in exchange for riches... The aching boredom suffered by Mrs Aesop, at the receiving end of endless moral tales... ) At the end there was time for questions and someone asked how she came to be a poet. She said that she had a teacher at school who encouraged creativity in the students by giving time each week for them to do whatever they wanted - draw, paint, write, design, anything. Carol wrote poems and one day her teacher took several of her hand-written poems, typed them all out, and bound them together with a shoe-lace. She presented them back to her. 'That was it,' said Carol, 'seeing my poems in a published form was all it took to make me think that perhaps they were worth something. I never looked back.'
A programme on television a while back observed Leanne, a sixteen year old girl living in a run down council estate in the midlands. All you could see of Leanne was the top of a hoodie pulled down over her face. Rarely at school, she roamed the streets with her two mates, dipping in and out of doorways to avoid police, shop-lifting for the hell of it, and giving sullen lip to any adult who spoke to her. None of this, though, could hide her sharp intelligence and, just under the surface, a quiet determination to make some kind of life for herself, rather than get pregnant like her friends. But it was hard to see how this was going to happen. Everyday on the streets was a day of education missed. Every item stolen was a step nearer to prison. Every day of withdrawing from life was another day when her talents weren't used. And her sullenness pushed away the very people who could help her.
In the next programme it was six months on. An astonishing transformation had taken place. The hoodie had gone, the head had lifted to reveal a sweet elfin face, the hair had turned from a harsh crop into a short bob. She was going to school every day. 'What happened?' asked the interviewer. 'Um,' she said, 'er, I went to live with my aunt.' 'And so?' asked the interviewer. 'Well she wouldn't let me wear the hoodie anymore and she said I had to go to school.'
Studies of young people have shown, just like Leanne, that all a young person needs to turn them around is one loving and attentive adult. Just one.
Jude Kelly is the arts director at the South Bank in London, a position of enormous influence, which she uses to give voice to the great unheard. Speaking at the end of last year's Women of the World festival, she said how much we all need support, and especially women, to achieve our potential and that the reason she was in this job was that she had had the unstinting love and encouragement of a father who spotted her talents, told her she could do anything, and supported her each step of her journey.
If you had this kind of support you know how valuable it is, how in everything you do, however challenging, you feel a wind at your back, gently pushing you forward. It feels natural to you to follow your dreams and you may have trouble understanding why others falter and worry. You probably know how to give this same love and support to yourself, and to others. It's been modelled for you and given to you, so you know both how to give it and how to receive it. You have been very lucky!
If you didn't get much loving support in your endeavours as a child and young person, you probably think that you have to do everything yourself. Instead of feeling a gentle wind at your back, you believe you need to drive yourself to succeed. The road is tough and you may be quite harsh with yourself when you falter, and especially when you fail. It rarely occurs to you to ask for help. You do well, but some things are just too scary or too difficult so you avoid them. As a result you live with a gnawing sense of not having quite reached your potential.
So what can you do if you weren't one of the lucky ones?
I met a friend the other day. He looked happier than I think I'd ever seen him. I was curious. He agreed that yes, he felt great, joyful in fact. How so? I said.
'One morning,' he said, I woke up and the word 'convoy' came into my mind.
I lay there and thought about convoys. I watched them in my mind's eye. Then the question came to me, how fast does a convoy travel? Almost immediately came the answer. They travel at the speed of the slowest vehicle.'
'Suddenly,' he said, 'I got it. I have many parts to me - my adult, my parent, my brain, my spirit, my critical voice, my inner sceptic. And my child. My adult makes sensible decisions, my brain analyses, my parent scolds, my spirit dreams, my critical voice rages, my inner sceptic disbelieves everything. But my child is vulnerable and frightened. I realised that my child is the slowest part of the convoy. Always I've been trying to pull ahead, go faster, do better, but in that moment I realised that I had to slow down to the pace of my child. Since then, he said, I've felt whole, integrated, because we're all going at the same pace.'
What did your parents model for you in terms of following their dreams, acquiring skills, self-discipline? What kind of support and encouragement did they give you? How do your early experiences play out in your adult life? Have you followed your dreams or have you pushed yourself? Do you view setbacks as helpful learning, or as personal failure? Do you find courage to keep going, or do you give up easily?
Think of something you'd like to do, but haven't yet. It could be a dream about what you want to do with your life, or it could be a smaller thing like... cook something you've never made before, write a poem, get up half an hour earlier everyday. Imagining you are a convoy, what different parts are there in you? Which bit is keen to do this thing, which bit criticises and judges, which bit is rational and sensible, which bit is resistant or scared? Which is the slowest part of your convoy? Slow everyone down to the speed of that part, and ask, what does that bit of you need? That part may need to be told that it is good enough and that it can do this thing. It may need its hand held, practical support, a plan, or a strategy. It may need to learn a skill, to be shown how. It may need a kind but firm chat on the subject of discipline. Or it may need time. Or a smaller step. Or a break.
Where could this support come from? Can you provide it? Do you need someone else's help, and if so whose? How could you get that help?
Imagine you could choose anyone to encourage you in this endeavour, who would you choose? It could be someone you know, that you see supporting others in a way you'd like to be supported. It could be an imaginary parent or teacher. Or Jude Kelly's father! Or all of these. If you could recruit these supporters, what would they do, say, advise? What would it be like to receive that support?
Surround yourself with your supporters and make a plan together.
Encourage yourself this week.