Striking

Nurses striking outside the
Northern General Hospital, Sheffield Jan 2023

Over the past year I have sensed a challenge to be ready and willing to join political demonstrations. We have been sold a lie that these never affect any change. I commend Rebecca Solnit’s book Hope in the Dark (2016) to anyone who believes this. Strikes and protests have been more effective than the establishment would like us to believe over decades across the world. So it was that last week I found myself standing in the cold with the nurses striking outside a hospital near to where I live.

I joined them because I am livid about their needlessly awful pay and conditions and the unacceptable dearth of nurses following Brexit and years of “austerity” policies that have seen staff numbers drop and investment in them and their work cut.

I also joined them because these are some of our most compassionate people and I really admire compassion. My impression is that you would not survive long in nursing unless you had a sense of vocation to the work. You have to really care about people to do this. Why would we not listen to these people when they tell us enough is enough, and the Royal College of Nursing reaches the point of voting for strike action for the first time in its 106 year history? (Though thanks to a blog reader who reminded me the nurses have actually striked before in 1979, 1982 and 1988).

During the hour and a half I spent on the picket lines, I listened to them tell me story after story about the reality of their work, and about their exhaustion in the wake of the pandemic, of the number of staff off sick long term or off and on. Of the unacceptable and unsafe staffing levels.

Nurses strike
Hallamshire Hospital, Sheffield (Jan 2023)

Trigger warning: some people may find the next paragraph disturbing (regarding the pandemic)

They told me they get flash backs of the trauma they saw in the early stages of the pandemic. They are used to dealing with trauma. This hospital is a Major Trauma Centre, so the Accident & Emergency staff see terrible things routinely. But from the little I understand, one of the most traumatising things about witnessing trauma is inability to help. At the start of the pandemic, before anyone knew exactly what Covid 19 was or how it could be treated, nurses were using all their skills to find ways of helping patients, but they were working in the dark, with little information or clarity about what would help. They saw many patients die in terrible circumstances.

“What do we want?: Safe staffing! When do we want it?: NOW!” was the chant I heard a lot of (and joined in with) when I was on the picket line. These women (and they were nearly all women) are mostly worried that they aren’t able to do their jobs properly, because there simply aren’t enough of them to do the work. And they are seeing patients suffer and sometimes die prematurely because of the unsafe staffing levels we now have in hospitals.

And of course their pay has dropped in real terms. Despite us being so so grateful to them in the height of the pandemic, this is how we have rewarded them.

I was already really angry before I arrived, but having stood with them, yelled with them, and cheered at all the honking traffic passing by with them, I experienced a whole gamut of other emotions, perhaps the most powerful of which were shame and hope.

I felt a really strong sense of shame at the decisions we have allowed our government to take that have so diminished the work and motivation of these people, when surely all of us will have cause to be so grateful to them at some point in our lives. Of all the people we could undervalue why on earth would it be these people? One of the senior nurses I spoke to had an answer for me; “It’s because we are mostly women, and we’re here because we care about others. So they get away with it. Do you think if at least half of us were men our pay would be this low??” She went on to say she is striking because she wants the NHS to be protected and still be there for the young ones coming up now, and because she wants to be attracting more men and all kinds of people into it, because they need more nurses. But she recognises that we will never attract more people into the profession unless we pay them right and value them with decent terms and conditions and actually invest in recruitment as well.

The hope I felt, I found in listening to the combination of really experienced nurses explaining point by point just what they needed to be able to do their job well, and young nurses yelling at the top of their lungs with impressive vim and vigour having been there since 6:30am that morning. (Apparently they were a lot shyer at 6:30am, but by the afternoon they’d really found their voice!) They were so ready to listen to me as well. Their demeanour was lovely! Their motivation is good; they really care about this work. No one gets up that early to strike unless they believe in what they are doing. And none of them wanted to be there. They all wanted to be working inside the hospital. I told them their job of work that day was to be exactly where they were, striking, and I thanked them for bravely doing it.

As I walked home I cried. My tears were a prayer of lament. How long? How long will it be before good people enacting love in the care of their fellow human beings are valued, listened to and prized as they should be?

Pandemic fatigue

I woke to snow this morning, which reminded me of what a gift the lockdowns seemed at first to my introverted, home-loving self. It was like an extended « snow day », when everything was cancelled and no one was going anywhere, for once. I loved that about it. For the first time I could hear the birds chirping even during the daytime in our urban area, and there was hardly any traffic and no planes overhead.

I remember someone wise, about half a year into the Covid 19 pandemic, saying that we would need a « season of healing » in the wake of it all. It’s been obvious the toll it’s had on some people through their particular work or personal lives, and truly tragic things happening. But I do think that others of us, who have not faced tragedy or massive overwork directly, are also now in need of healing.

Whether it’s been through accompanying other people who have been up against it, or through living with a lot of uncertainty ourselves, and having to make multiple adaptations to how we lived, things have been anything but normal for a very long time. And in many parts of the world all of this has gone hand in hand with some pretty extreme political changes, and a rapidly growing appreciation of the very present threat of climate crisis as well.

Given the extreme suffering of many people in the pandemic and also from natural disasters around the world precipitated by climate crisis, it feels pathetic to admit that we are struggling. But it is a struggle now, I think, and most of us are tired, myself included. Bring on that season of healing, somehow, alongside the ongoing work of changing how we live and the political will to get serious about investing in renewables, removing any money from fossil fuel extraction, and also finding more creative and equitable, kind ways of sharing money and resources to enable everyone, and our planet, to thrive. 🙏💕

Moonlit revelations

Last night I went for a magical walk through a wood. It was the last full moon before Christmas. Having had a day of crisp, clear, sunny winter skies, the skies clouded over, and I feared we wouldn’t be able to see the moon at all. But actually we could see it throughout, framed beautifully by thin bare branches and a halo of soft cloud.

At one point the three of us chose a path which took us to a place we had never been to before. (Or maybe we just didn’t recognise it in the dark?) We felt like somehow we had stumbled through a portal into another wood beyond the wood. (Curiously, there was a four way signpost nearby on which most of the text appeared obliterated.) We resisted the temptation to locate ourselves with GPS, and instead relished the moment of mystery, grateful for each other’s company.

I love this quote which I saw today:

“…If a forest is a sacred grove, not timber…” May I always see forests like this. And my “brother sun, sister moon” (as St Francis is said to have put it). I believe we are all creatures of the same Creator. May I always enter the woods with awe, asking of my kin “In the name of your Creator and mine, am I welcome here?” And may I always listen keenly, without assumption, for the trees’ response.

On the pulse of the morning

« …Lift up your eyes upon
This day breaking for you.
Give birth again
To the dream
Women, children, men,
Take it into the palms of your hands,
Mold it into the shape of your most
Private need. Sculpt it into
The image of your most public self.
Lift up your hearts
Each new hour holds new chances
For a new beginning.
Do not be wedded forever
To fear, yoked eternally
To brutishness.
The horizon leans forward,
Offering you space to place new steps of change.
Here, on the pulse of this fine day
You may have the courage
To look up and out and upon me, the
Rock, the River, the Tree, your country.
No less to Midas than the mendicant.
No less to you now than the mastodon then.
Here, on the pulse of this new day
You may have the grace to look up and out
And into your sister’s eyes, and into
Your brother’s face, your country
And say simply
Very simply
With hope—
Good morning. »

from On the pulse of the morning
by Maya Angelou, 1993

Waiting

Well, so much for posting every day this month!! Scuppered when I’d barely begun. Various practicalities got in the way, as they do. Then I read something about being speechless. It was a comment about social media and a question to ask oneself; “Am I saying something because I think I have to say something or because I have something to say…?” (Paraphrasing Gideon Heugh in his little new book of advent reflections, Darkling.)

Ah. Hmmm…

Everyday hope

I have just had an idea that I might live to regret…! I will share it here as a way of encouraging myself to carry it out. Every day in advent (the season of hope and expectation leading up to Christmas), why don’t I write something here? I love writing and often find things out only by writing them. It’s my « thinking aloud ». Each day what I offer here will be hopeful, though I hope it will also be grounded firmly in reality.

At an event about sharing pandemic stories the other day, I was reminded about this video that was made in 2020. It is a bit saccharine, but it had a big impact on me at the time, and says things that I think it’s important for us not to forget:

Mirrorball 🪩

My friend Sally Livsey recently shared this picture along with a revelation that has come to her while travelling:

« I heard the long beep of a car horn and it sounded like a cello tuning up before a concert. Two different stories arise in my mind from this single experience…
Surely we can choose between stories?
Perhaps today I will go with the cello; calling out from literal experience to the silent violins of my heart.

« I need the whole orchestra, to walk into this day fully awake; before the mystery that God is infinitely in love with me. »

As soon as I read this, a song popped into my head. I have sung this song to God and heard God singing it to me as well. It’s as though we sing it to one another, over and over. There have been moments in my life where « everything has changed » in this most beautiful of ways. The ordinary is revealed in all its unspeakable miraculousness. And today was a good time for me to be reminded of the miraculous, and of Love, in the midst of difficult and intractable worries relating to what is happening in the world and to the people I love the most.

When someone beeps their horn at us, may we somehow manage to hear the cello…

Mirrorball, by elbow (Seldom Seen Kid)

Lyrics here: https://g.co/kgs/SLcnP8

Thanks, Sally.

Faith

7 years ago at this time I was reeling from the news of my cancer diagnosis. I still remember how encouraging this particular card was to me then and remains now. I am so grateful for my journey of healing, for my friends and family and for the faith that has come to me as a gift 🙏💕

Joy

How come the dying vestiges of autumn
look so much like joy?
A paean of praise
all dressed in yellow.
The forest floor littered
with a million drifting and dropped
forms of gold.
Treasure that cannot be earnt, bought, bartered or won
but comes
each year
as gift.

“Stillness. One of the doors into the temple.”

This is a line from a poem called Today, by Mary Oliver. The context is:

…I’m taking the day off.
Quiet as a feather.
I hardly move though really I’m travelling a terrific distance.
Stillness. One of the doors
into the temple.

Mary Oliver (Today in “A Thousand Mornings”)

Bearing it in mind has led to my beginning again to share contemplative short videos on my YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCLGIrKgiMCpkOyOAvKB4wUg

Even the process of uploading the videos, which involves watching them again, has brought a kind of stillness, settling over me at the beginning of a new season. It seems to me that we are living in increasingly anxious times. This stillness sparkles like a jewel when you find it. I hope these little videos will help many people to find stillness. Without it, I fear we will inevitably find ourselves making decisions out of anxiety, which will rarely, if ever, be good decisions for us or for the planet in general.

Gaia by Luke Jerram

I had the extraordinary experience of encountering Gaia, by Luke Jerram, hanging in mid air outside at Greenbelt Festival recently. It’s an inflated globe, with NASA images of the earth from space somehow projected on it. It glows at night. During the day, you could hear recordings of the astronauts’ astonished conversation as these images first came into view for them as you walked under the globe.

Then there were these other worldly golden beings giving everyone pause for thought about the sun, global warming, this year’s increasing droughts, wildfires and the looming reality of climate crisis. I can’t really articulate in words the effect all of this had on me. But it was something to do with awe, wonder, stillness and a commanding of my attention in a beautiful way. May this stillness lead to compassionate and creative action that will make a difference. That is my prayer, which I am seeking to live out, keeping open to possibility of how I might embody it.

https://www.greenbelt.org.uk