Monday, 30 November 2009

Gratitude

Inspired by reading Thanksgiving posts and an exercise in Liz Miller’s Mood Mapping (more on that tomorrow) I’ve compiled a list of everything that I am grateful and thankful for:

· Being reminded of my only ‘Thanksgiving Dinner’ – a double cheeseburger at a McDonalds in Shanghai’s Old Town, which we settled on with relief after having been shouted at for asking if the baozi (dumplingey buns) at a booth were pork. My friend then bought what looked like a hotdog, only to find it was some form of candied fruit that tasted like a toffee apple which had been doing crystal meth in parking lots
· The opportunities I have to travel and work abroad, especially to work and travel freely around China
· Being born in a wealthy country, and one with free (at the point of use, anyway) schooling and health care
· Being born in a time and place where as I woman I can access education, health care, contraception and have the freedom to work, travel and choose my own path in life
· Living in the internet age
· The support and love of my family and friends
· The attention demanding antics of my felines
· Getting into the MA programme
· The three bars of Green and Black’s chocolate that are sitting by my computer
· A comfortable, warm bed to sleep in, sometimes with the addition of a ginger cat
· Being able to read and write
· Having levels of mental and physical health that allow me to look to the future with optimism
· Having some secure to live
· Knowing what I want out of life
· Having developed a robust sense of self worth


Photos are some less touristy views of the Old City area of Shanghai. I miss seeing people out on the streets or in the park playing badminton (although having to duck the occasional stray shuttlecock not so much).

For other views around the world, visit My World Tuesday.

Sunday, 29 November 2009

Thank You

I got in! As of January 11th, I’m going to be an studying for an MA in Professional Writing at University College Falmouth. I am so excited to have this opportunity to learn, to meet new people, to develop myself, to become a better writer.

And I would like to thank all of you who visit my blog, follow me and leave such wonderful comments. Since I’ve started posting here, my confidence in my writing and photography have grown immeasurably – this time last year I would not have believed that people would be interested in my writing or photos. Without your interest, your support and the glimpses into different lives around the world, I wouldn’t have the confidence to follow what had become a long hidden dream.

Thank you.

Saturday, 28 November 2009

Turning Off The Shoulds, And Other Lessons


Yesterday was my last day of working for the school. Although in some ways perhaps a bit of a disaster, I have learnt some lessons that, I think, made all the times I was sworn at and had things thrown at me worthwhile.

Teaching and leading v. controlling. This job wasn’t really about teaching or leading, but controlling. I don’t enjoy that. I don’t want to control people purely by fear. I don’t see having power over people as a desirable item in itself. I love teaching and I love leading. I can create environments where people know that if they step out of line there’ll be a whupping delivered, but also know that they can learn, flourish and even (whisper it) enjoy themselves. I want people in a team I’m leading to follow my directions because they respect me and know that I care about them and want them to succeed.

Relationship building. I love building relationships, and this job had little scope for that. I’d make a breakthrough with a student, but then it’d be weeks before I saw them again, meaning the whole process had to start again.

Ownership. Never being able to follow up properly on problems or questions was incredibly frustrating. I need to do something that allows me to take ownership of situations.

Ignore the ‘shoulds’. I kept thinking, I should think myself lucky to have a job at all. And then I realised: who thinks themselves lucky to do something that makes them miserable every day? It made me review what I think I deserve – do I really think that I deserve to do something I don’t really want to, do I deserve to be miserable? I realised that if I didn’t challenge the mindset that ‘I should be lucky to have a job, any job, no matter what it is and how unhappy it makes me’ that I’d probably spend most of my life stuck in similar situations. And, although it might sound harsh, it often seemed that the people shouting the message the loudest were the most miserable themselves.

In many ways finding myself in this situation has been the kick up the rear I needed to make myself reassess what it is that I want out of life and have the courage to say ‘I want and deserve better’.

I want to make a living doing what I enjoy, and I will. I want to live my life according to my own values, and I will.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

Dreaming


These ethereal hues were gracing the November sky for a few fragile minutes, fortuitously I happened to steal a glance out the window at the same time. I had time to get my camera out, open the door and take two photographs before the pink and blues started fading to grey.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Reasons Why I'd Rather Be A Cat In Winter


Most of the time I manage to restrain my desire to post endless pictures of my cats, demanding that you all recognize how exceptionally adorable they are. But, every time I have to leave the house and venture forth into the wind and rain, I think - 'How come I didn't decide to be a cat instead?'

Monday, 23 November 2009

Doorways: Into Qingdao


I still have so many China photos that I've never posted, including plenty of doorway photos from Qingdao, a city that was blessed with so many photogenic and inviting doorways that I'm surprised I didn't get into trouble for losing all self control and investigating what exactly was tucked away just out of view.

Here, I could only peer and imagine, but now I'm enjoying exploring doorways more metaphorical.

Sunday, 22 November 2009

Horizons Shrink To Fit Expectations


One of my ‘to dos’ on my Before 30 list is to write a book. For years now, I’ve had a nebulous idea for a novel and its central character floating around inside my head, but I’ve never started writing out any of my ideas. On Saturday night I sat in bed with an old school notebook and pen and finally began to turn the main character into a person, with a voice and a history. (Yeah, I’m not sure what happened to the twentysomething rock n roll lifestyle either.)

The title phrase was one that appeared about half way through my writing session, and whilst it perfectly describes the conundrum my character has found herself in, as soon as I wrote it I realised that is a problem I see every day, in myself and people around me.

Why has it taken me years to even start sketching out preliminary ideas about characters? Because my expectations, had, over the years been shrunk by the drip-drip effect of people saying that there was no point pursuing writing, as there was no way I’d ever be able to make a living out of it, or get published. It’s too hard, impossible, a fantasy. And I made the mistake of allowing other people to control my expectations, to fix my horizons.

Perhaps this haze of characters and ideas will never become a finished novel. Perhaps it will and it will never be published. Perhaps it will just be, well, rubbish. But at least I will have tried, overcome the most debilitating hurdle of thinking that you can’t do something and set my expectations of myself MYSELF.

I saw the same problem in most of my Chinese students. The real problem was not that they were incapable of decent spoken English, but that they had convinced themselves that it was too hard, that I would laugh at them, that it would excruciatingly embarrassing, that they JUST COULDN’T DO IT.

This wasn’t only the case with my high school students, where it took the entire first semester working on mainly overcoming the ‘I can’t do it’ block before we could really start working on their speaking itself, but even with the IELTS* classes I taught. These students had some of the best understanding of English I came across in Shijiazhuang, and were capable of formulating and expressing very sophisticated ideas in English, but stumbled because of their self-doubt and the ingrained belief that Chinese people are no good at oral English.

I could tell when a student, or even a class, had started to overcome their own externally imposed sense of limitations – suddenly there were smiles, an eagerness to talk to me outside of class, students volunteering to take part rather than having to be (almost literally in the first few weeks of class) dragged to their feet, a mischievousness and sense of fun in answers, even answers and opinions shouted out. To watch and to help this was one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done in my life, and has not only inspired me to overcome my own ‘I can’ts’ but made me aware that they exist in the first place.

What are your ‘I can’ts’, how have you overcome them, was it worth it?

*IELTS is an exam that non-English speakers need to take before being admitted to universities in English speaking countries. Most of my students were aiming for postgraduate study in Australia or the UK, where the requirement of gaining an average of 6.5 across writing, reading, speaking and listening requires skills beyond those developed at university, with speaking being the area that often dragged down the average mark.

Friday, 20 November 2009

Bucket List - Before 30


A while ago, I wrote a personal life wish list. It was pretty helpful in focusing me on where I want to be going with my life, but I still need to set myself some goals to get me to the place I want to be. I know that with these things it's kind of traditional to have 100 or 101 things, but I feel that these 40 something things will keep me busy for the next three years or so, espcially as a lot of them are going to be comprised of many mini goals.
Also, I hope this is going to kick me into not only doing the obvious things I need to do, but the more boring but equally essential things. You'll notice that there's a whole 'living space' section tacked on the end, which I have to confess, is how I think of my living space - a rather neglected appendix to the rest of my life. But how on earth can I expect to achieve when I'm living in disorganised sty, let alone study writing and make a living from writing when I don't have my own table to work on, let alone a functional computer of my own.
Writing this reminded me, sometimes cliches are cliches because well, they're true, and sometimes you really do need to start at the beginning.

Emotional/Personal

1. Create some versions of my favourite Chinese dishes
2. Take an art/drawing class
3. Go ice-skating
4. Do MindMapping for a month
5. Get a decent haircut
6. Design and sell a T-Shirt

Writing

7. Write a short story
8. Enter a writing competition
9. Complete MA
10. Publish a non-fiction article
11. Write a book
12. Research non-fiction freelancing writing markets

Photography

13. Gain LRPS
14. Sell a photograph
15. Publish a photograph
16. Photograph a wedding
17. Do a portrait session

Samaritans

18. Complete recruitment campaign
19. Compile an database of organisations who will display our information
20. Do a radio interview
21. Do a walkabout awareness raising session
22. Take part in creating a major publicity event

Travel

23. Go on the London Eye
23-28. Visit 5 new places.
29. Return to China.
30. Visit Wales.

Blog/Web

31. Finish web design course
32. Design my own blog
33. Design a blog for someone else
34. Be active on twitter

Cultural

35. Go to the ballet
36. Go to the V+A Museum

My Living Space

37. Organise clothes and shoes
38. Organise paperwork
39. Organise books
40. Sort out other possessions

41. Redecorate/theme
42. Put in a desk, chair and working space area
grey = unstarted blue = in progress purple = nearly done orange = finished

Thursday, 19 November 2009

November You Say?


I took this on Sunday, about twenty minutes before the overwhelming blueness, which was featured earlier in the week. I was struck by the unusual silhouettes of the palm trees, but it was difficult to find a shot that reflected how dramatically incongruous they seemed on a windswept November promenade. It wasn’t until I started tweaking in Photoshop that the photo really came alive, and gave me a chance to pretend this wasn’t really northern Europe in winter – perhaps I’d slipped away to a balmy tropical island for the afternoon instead.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Snowy Shiz


One of my friends just emailed me this picture from Shijiazhuang. Last week they had two feet of snowfall and the school was closed for four days, which no doubt came as a welcome break for my former students, whose night classes (after a 7.45 am start to lessons) are now finishing at 10pm.
I'm hoping this picture is going to make me feel warmer in comparison!

Monday, 16 November 2009

Sometimes Reality Is Stranger

I promise I did not edit this in Photoshop (well, apart from to crop some shingle from the bottom). Walking along the beach at dusk yesterday, the muddy sand, sea and sky were all this intense blue colour. I've lived by the sea almost all my life, and never seen this light effect before. And to think I nearly didn't take my camera!

My World Tuesday.

Sunday, 15 November 2009

Confession

Working in schools for most of the last year has made me very aware of what we think of as ‘smart’, as in booksmart, and the things that is assumed go with it: good behaviour, roughly equal talents across the board, ability to spell, social skills. But, a confession. I always did well at school, and was placed in top sets, yet I did (and still do) have difficulties with things that would have made a nonsense of early years National Curriculum Targets*, and still befuddle people I meet today.

I cannot tell my left from my right. And please, don’t tell me that my left hand makes an L-shape. It doesn’t help. It’s a bit like telling people who don’t read mandarin characters that they are pictograms: yeah, I can see how the character for ren (people) looks sort of like a human, but please tell me how that works with bei, the character for north.

It’s not that I can’t remember which is left and right, I just don’t understand the concept at all. How can left and right swop places when you turn around? How can your right and left be different if you’re standing opposite me? I just don’t get it.

People tend to react disbelievingly, as if it’s against the laws of the universe that an intelligent person can’t understand something so (allegedly) simple. I hate having to give directions to people I don’t know very well, especially when in a car, as despite my warning, people inevitably get frustrated. A few weeks ago I even had someone who was giving a left screaming at me. Strangely enough, screaming does not magically make me realise my left from my right.

I always thought that I was alone in this, until I learnt to drive two years ago. One reason that I didn’t pass my driving test until I was 25 was that my previous instructors had just become angry when they’d said right and I’d gone left, meaning that I went through each lesson in a perpetual state of nervous tension. And, being a teenager, I’d just taken it instead of telling themselves where to go.

My last driving instructor was the first person to tell me that, actually, there are a lot of adults who can’t tell their right from their left but that people are too embarrassed by not being able to do such a ‘simple’ thing that they don’t tell anybody. Now, I’m much more confident about telling people that, actually, when they say ‘go left’ there’s a reasonable chance that I’ll go the other way, and that if people scream at me when I’m doing my best then it’s their problem, not mine.

Incidentally, I’m a fantastic map reader and have an excellent sense of direction, and despite going the wrong way on my driving test, I still passed.

Other ‘dumb’ moments:

· I can’t remember not being able to read, but I can remember not knowing the order of the alphabet until well into primary school. I mean, why is c after b? Why?

· I also remember my dance teacher being horrified that at seven years old I couldn’t tie my own shoelaces. I remember a lot of practice. Knots still aren’t my thing. I still prefer slip on or buckle shoes.

· I was really good at maths in primary school, but I couldn’t tell the time using a regular clock. When I was 8, I persuaded my teacher to let me skip the time telling section in maths, telling her I already knew how to do because I was too embarrassed to admit that I didn’t understand it. I didn’t buy an non-digital watch until I was WELL into my twenties.

Anyone else out there have any similar confessions?

* For non-Brits, these are government educational targets that say each child should be able to do such-and-such by a certain age. I would’ve been judged both advanced and remedial at the same time!

Saturday, 14 November 2009

Rain, rain, go away


This has been my weekend view. A wild wind that shrieks through the letterbox like there’s a demented spirit stuck in it, accessorized with rainy squalls and darkness before five, has announced that autumn has gone and winter is most definitely here.

Some people start to rhapsodize about snuggling indoors, hot drinks, fires, snow, big woolly jumpers, Christmas preparations, and all sorts of wintery goodness at this time of year. I, however, seem to turn into a cold toed Grinch railing against the weather, the crowds, the darkness and Christmas music.

I am literally not designed for Northern European winters – even the mild ones of Southern England. One doctor once told me that the best thing for my health would be to live in the Bahamas, although sadly one way tickets to the Caribbean and Bahamian residence permits don’t fall under the remit of the NHS.

Apart from daydreaming about sunshine, and wishing I was a cat able to spend all day snuggled up on the sofa, I’ve decided to try and find things about winter that I enjoy. Let’s see if I come up with anything by February!

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Mellow

Today I trudged through the rain and the last of the skimpy November daylight to post my application form for the MA course I want to do. If I think about it, I get a little butterfly sensation in my stomach, because I want it to work out so much, but I had a bit of a life disaster with my last postgraduate application, where I managed to get into a course I never thought I would but the funding all went horribly awry, which meant I couldn’t do it.

Sometimes I have to remind myself that after I certain point, there’s nothing I can do, and that worrying about is a waste of my life. So I’m going to try and channel the mellow serenity of this photograph and concentrate my mind on the beauty and good in the here and now, rather than something that might go wrong in the future.

Did I just sound too much like a self help book? Maybe. As a reward for my form filling and getting wet feet on the way to the post office, I’m going to contemplate the beauty and good in a some brie and grapes and a bottle of cider.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Remembrance


Worthing’s war memorial is both ugly and nondescript, a by-numbers marble pillar topped with a forgettable statue. It’s so forgettable that, although I’ve lived in this town for most of my 27 years, I cannot actually tell you what it depicts. I’ve often thought that the young men who died deserve something more likely to make you stop and remember.

Next to the memorial is a raised grass area, edged by marbleish looking slabs, normally attractive yet blank space. Not now though. Now it is studded with smallish wooden crosses, each one representing a battalion or military unit. In front of these stand clusters of smaller crosses, each one decorate with a poppy and a name, written in plain black capitals.

This was something that made me stop, consider the lives the crosses represented, remember that most of these men were younger than I am now. I wondered about their characters, their hopes, the people who mourned them.

I watched an elderly man, perhaps in his late seventies or early eighties, who was pausing in front of each cross-and-poppy crop. I wondered about his wartime memories, if he was thinking of brothers, cousins or friends who never came home, or someone who was in the way of a bombing raid.

It reminded me of being in the Turner exhibition at the Beijing City Art Gallery, when I was surprised by a heroic style painting of the Battle of Waterloo. Despite the Roman detailing and cherubs and general lack of mud and gore, there was a power in the painting which reminded me that these figures were real. Real men had died, and died horribly, in a battle that I was more used to contemplating as an abstract historical event to early 19th century literature.

At 11am this is what I’m going to remember: that people who’ve died in war zones aren’t just chiselled names, or flag draped coffins, or a sentence in a history book, or symbols of valour or patriotism, they were real, broken off amidst their cherished, imperfect, human-like-me lives.

Monday, 9 November 2009

Interrupted

sometimes things don't quite work out they way you thought they were going to...

Today was a ‘I meant to do this and then life intervened’ day. I spent a considerable part of my school day dealing with a student in distress. It’s a situation that took my mind over a bit, and I could write reams about it, but it’d be completely inappropriate to share on such a public forum.

I was meant to go to an after school meeting, but no-one was there when I turned up. As I was feeling emotionally and physically drained, in severe need of some orange juice and paracetamol, I went home after hanging around for five minutes. Which may result in some interesting consequences tomorrow…

Then I came home and called up the University of Falmouth about a course I’m interested in, their MA in Professional Writing. I had thought the start date was September, but for the distance learning option I want to do, it’s actually January, and places are still available. So cue frantic scribbling of a personal statement, and looking up finance options.

So, the MWT post that I intended to write kind of got pushed aside. Now my brain is buzzing but tired, my throat is sore and I’m going to find something to read or something low on the TV to watch…

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Weekend Fun

Today I was meant to be going to a regional publicity meeting for Samaritans, the charity that I volunteer for. Unfortunately, I’m ill. Again. Since the middle of August, I seem to have had one cold or virus after another. I’ve been left feeling completely drained and exhausted – a quick trip to the supermarket earlier left me feeling bone tired.

I had to cancel my attendance at the meeting. I felt really bad doing it, as I think it would’ve been very useful, and I’m a bit worried that it won’t give a great impression to the Regional Publicity Officer. But, I know from bitter experience that pushing too hard will only make the situation a lot worse in the long run, so I’ve spent most of my weekend snuggled up reading or watching low TV.

This afternoon though, I broke open Photoshop to design some new adverts that I’ll send out to local media. It was quite a challenge, as I had to pore over the old and new branding guidelines, to create something that can be easily read and understood by as many people as possible, even when it’s quite small.

This is my first attempt, which has been sent out to be our Christmas advert:

Friday, 6 November 2009

Miss Mentor


Every final year student in my high school is assigned a mentor, and had my first ever mentoring session today. I was torn between a ‘I hope I do this right and don’t inadvertently screw up this boy’s life’ first time nerves, and bleak amusement at the idea that me, of all people, was going to sit down and advise someone on what to do with their lives.

It went surprisingly well, and, for the first time since I started this job, I actually left the school feeling like I might have done something worthwhile. It was so good to sit down and talk to and get to know a student, reminding me of what I miss about teaching in China.

Even better was working out a plan together to help him solve a couple of problems he was having with his work, and resolving quite a major anxiety he had about one subject. His thanks at the end went straight to my heart, and I felt the powerful jolt of be recognised as and recognising a full human being rather than another fleeting, one-dimensional face.

I also realised that maybe I need to mentor myself. I know this is in serious danger of tipping into a swamp of ‘self-help’ clich├ęs, but… I’m very good at deciding that what I want is quite ridiculous and impossible, before I’ve even admitted to myself that I want it, let alone tried to work out how I could go about getting it.

It doesn’t help that the last few months have meant that timeworn insecurities have resurfaced, knocking my confidence and faith in myself back down like a practiced prize fighter. I need to start assessing myself realistically, and stop chasing suitable chimeras – things that I will fail at, because I have no real desire or passion for them, that only reinforce the voice in my head that says ‘Don’t even think about, save yourself the disappointment, it’s not worth the time just to fail’.

As I was congratulating my student on his achievements, I realised that had these been my GCSE grades, I would’ve considered myself a complete failure. Leaving aside any differences in ability, why can’t I treat myself like I treat other people. Talking to a friend or student, I would never obsess on their weakest point, blowing it up until it eclipsed everything else. But yet I seem to find that a reasonable way to treat myself, and then I wonder why I end up frozen with self doubt.

I need to follow my own advice, and set some targets, and actually do them rather than just thinking about it, see what I can do.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Doorways: Dog Days


Ok, so there's no actual doorway seen, but this is the view through the doorway of the pier amusement arcade. It's something that I cast my eye over without really seeing, until my brain processed the unusual addition of the toy spaniel.

I wondered if he'd been selling the family valuables to fuel his addiction to the penny pushing machines, although it must be terribly difficult operating the button with paws... I hope at least the attendant provides him with some steps, and perhaps let him swop his winnings for dog chews.


I couldn't really decide whether I liked this best in b+w or colour, what do you think?

Monday, 2 November 2009

The Power of Photography

I wasn’t sure what to expect from a photographic talk about Rwanda, given by Gail Ward, although I was prepared for it to be grim. I remember it as gruesome slivers seen on the news and I’ve become familiar with articles in the weekend magazines of broadsheet newspapers, the brutalised bodies of survivors illustrating horrific stories. I once went to a lecture on forensic archaeology, given by someone who had investigated the Rwandan genocide, where 30 or 40 people struggled not to throw up.

Instead of having me despairing, I was surprised to find myself uplifted. The focus was on business opportunities being developed so that women can support themselves and their children (there is a population imbalance as a result of the genocide) and shelters for street children, which give them the basics to survive and skills to support themselves as adults.

Seeing the teenagers from the shelter bursting with life and energy as they danced, radiating hope and joy in the moment , despite their poverty and either having run away from difficult family situation or been abandoned, was inspiring.

My favourite story was that of a young woman, who’d been taken in by the shelter and had become a skilled sewer. She sat at her market stall, beaming with self-sufficient pride over her sewing machine. I recommend checking these photographs out on her website.


Photography can be enormously powerful, and whilst it’s often photos of people that can change other’s perspectives and create support for humanitarian projects, Gail Ward is currently running a project where children in a Moroccan mountain village will use photography to directly enrich their own community. They will be given cameras, and the photographs they produce will be sold as postcards, cards and books, with the proceeds going to their schools.

If, like me, your old film camera has languished unused in a drawer since you went digital, this is the perfect opportunity to let it finish its life by helping these children develop skills and support their communities. These communities don’t have electricity or running water, so for the moment the project only uses film cameras, preferably compacts. They also need film and batteries.

If you can help these children help themselves and their communities, then contact Gail, on: info[@]gailwardphotography[dot]co[dot]uk , or visit the project’s Facebook page.

Interesting glimpses at MyWorld.
photo credit and copywright Gail Ward, 2009.

Sunday, 1 November 2009

Through a Garden Darkly


I have a weakness for photographing roses, but my photographs were all coming out rather samey and, honestly, a little bit boring. By speeding up the shutter it all became darker and more interesting. It seemed a suitable treatment for the last rose of autumn.

Woken this morning by the first storm of the year, I’m glad I managed to capture those last lingering coat free days before winter!