Tag Archives: life

Dues

28 Jan

Henk working

If you want to do something interesting in Life, you’ve got to pay your dues.

This is called experiential learning. I have huge respect for autodidacts (my Father), bodgers, make-do-and-menders, the makers of happy mistakes – in other words those humans with a pioneering spirit.

Too much formal education leads to closed minds in my experience.

Way back in January 2002 I went to see a specialist careers advisor-come-psychometric consultant in London seeking help for a new career direction.

I was asked to send in my curriculum vitae. At the appointment the first thing the consultant said to me was: “Looking at your resume I would say that there is a cyclical pattern occurring over about a three year period throughout your career. You seem to start a new job, be very productive for a while and then, sooner or later you torpedo everything and move on. I’d say you were probably manic depressive.”

I was a bit shocked to be honest.

“Funny you should say that” I said, ” but I have just been diagnosed with Manic Depression.”

I had recently been discharged from a Psychiatric Hospital with a prescription for Lithium carbonate, regular cognitive therapy and ….no bloody job. I was facing some hard decisions about how I was going to make a living. The psychiatrist had advised me that teaching (my erstwhile job) was the worst possible thing I could do – because of the particular pressures experienced by all the people in a school. A person with MD (Bipolar Disorder) is under constant emotional stress (because of the lack of an internal ‘governor’) and therefore finds it difficult to maintain psychological stability.

I had to accept teaching was off the menu.

“But I can’t do anything else!” I wailed to Clare, my wife, to which she responded:

“Don’t be so stupid, Henk! You can do anything you want with your brain you wally.”

 

Impressed by my wife’s pithy rebuke and the  insightfulness of the consultant I asked what job I might be suited to other than academia or teaching.

The careers consultant said “What do you really like?”

I rambled on about challenges, problem solving, team working, communicating and so on and so forth…

She said “This is not a job interview, what do you really like to do?” A tough question because I did not like anything about myself.

So I thought about it long and hard and said:

“I like being outside and I like making things with my hands”

“Well why don’t you think about environmental conservation? You’ll never make much money, but you will get a lot of job satisfaction. With your background knowledge of Natural History, your experience as a teacher and your woodworking skills you should fit right in”

So I did some research and found out that the only way to get into conservation work is by volunteering.

The way you pay your dues in Conservation is by giving your own time for no pay to learn the trade – it sorts out the committed from the merely curious. Since the majority of conservation jobs involve working with and managing enthusiastic volunteers you have to have been one to earn any credibility in this trade.

This made perfect sense to me, and after a little bit of searching I discovered a voluntary position with the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers (now TCV – The Conservation Volunteers) in Wirksworth, Derbyshire as a Biodiversity Officer.

I flogged my motorbike – a beautiful Honda VFR –

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to learn about billhooks, biodiversity action plans, tool talks, brewing tea with a storm kettle, endless hacking away at rhododendron bushes, how to drive a mini bus, tow a trailer… and in return was able to contribute my carpentry skills to making and hanging gates, wooden bridges, styles, steps and all manner of access barriers – all in the glorious Derbyshire Peak District with a lovely team of young volunteers – project officers and TCV staff. Outdoors, working with my hands.

Fresh air and friendship. The best head juice I know.

Very slowly it began to dawn on me that I could be happy perhaps for the first time in decades.

The door that was opened in my mind by this Zen-like slap to my forehead has led ultimately to me returning to my boyhood passion, via a joyful 10 years as a countryside Ranger. Believe what everyone says, it is the best paid job in the world.

It is remarkable to me that, through great good fortune I now find myself hosting an enthusiastic young carpenter/artist who is paying her dues to the traditions and practises of a road less travelled.

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Esme McCall, December 2017

“Two roads diverged in a wood and I – I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”   Robert Frost

 

 

 

Epiphany

15 Nov

Every moment is an epiphany for a 7 month old baby boy. Joseph has wears a hilarious frown when he is trying to absorb something new, like his grandfather’s goatee for example.

As an adult it is less common to enjoy such a ‘Road to Damascus’ moment – sensu stricto it means a complete and dramatic reversal, from an enemy to an advocate – as in the conversion of Saul of Tarsus in the New Testament.

I envy babies their credulity.

Many years ago I had my own epiphany in relation to my mental health. My dear wife, Clare, after months of trauma, had been forced to call a Doctor to have me sectioned. She tells me it was the hardest thing she has ever had to do.

In the late summer of 2001 I had been acting very oddly for months. I had not been sleeping, I was delusional – living through a protracted manic episode which ended, finally, in full blown psychosis.

To put it into context, when the Doctors and Social Workers arrived at our home I was wandering about the garden, butt naked trying to deduce the square root of pi from the proportions of the hat band of my Borsalino Fedora.

I was, not to put too fine a point on it, bonkers.

Two years prior to this Clare had gone through another awful period caring for me after I had made a suicide attempt, and, when I finally admitted it, she could not risk leaving me alone for a single second.

Imagine the pressure on her, the immense responsibility of worrying all the time that if she let me out of her sight for a second, I would be lost for ever. The knowledge that if I succeeded in extinguishing myself, she would feel completely responsible.

Mental illness is that cruel – the anguish suffered by the patient is multiplied exponentially in the carer of the loved one.

My own moment of great and profound revelation did not occur until I was in the psychiatric wing of Chesterfield Hospital in 2001.

I had decided to appeal my section under The Mental Health Act 1983 – thus, a social worker came to see me to discuss my case. In context, and to quote a conversation between Dr Ravi Lingam, my first psychiatrist and Clare at the time of my admission:

Dr. Lingam “What is Henk’s worst trait?”

Clare “He doesn’t listen.”

Dr Lingam “Why should he listen when he thinks he knows it all?”

Back in the Hospital the Social Worker said to me:

“Henk, if you are successful in your appeal you can walk out of here and continue to behave like a complete pain in the neck and suffer the consequences. If you are not successful then we can keep you here indefinitely. What you have to consider is, what right have you to continue subjecting Clare, who loves you, to your mental illness and to make her suffer?”

It was this last question that gave me my epiphany.

What right have I to make the one who loves me suffer?

I withdrew my appeal and was immediately taken off the section. I stayed in hospital voluntarily  for 5 weeks and received a clear diagnosis of Manic Depression – or BiPolar Disorder – from a straight talking Psychiatrist, Dr Zaman.

I became in that instant my own advocate and no longer my own (or my loved one’s) enemy.

 

 

 

 

Tide

15 Nov

Sitting on the beach at Linda Mar, Pacifica, California watching my neice dig a hole in the fine sand with my wife, her mum turning cartwheels, her baby sister sleeping by me – I witnessed a rare conjunction.

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I have seen such a marine symphony only once before when my daughter was young. She and her mum (my first wife) and I had cycled along the coast of Northumberland camping along the way. One August eve, after supper on an open fire at Goswick sands, my daughter and her mum ran through the surf. The water was laden with Noctiluca and their shins and knees splashed ice blue phosphorescent fire under a starlit sky, unveiled in deep purple as the sun dipped blood red below the horizon. I was spellbound with the sheer beauty of the scene.

At Linda Mar my four women; two nieces, sister-in-law and wife animated a vibrant landscape with their own potency. Soft and strong, clever and loving, witty and warm, Littlewoods all.

The resonance with my early fatherhood was powerful, but it was the peace in me which their activity and conversation created, which moved me the most.

I have always preferred analogue to digital, tidal to linear flow – like breathing in and out, thoughts come and go. So when you can actually still your mind sufficiently to slow your racing thoughts – at the apogee of inspiration or the final moment of expiration, only then can you finally allow your true purpose to surface.

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Care for the women for they bring you laughter, sustenance and the best reason to live.

Tread Lightly

15 Aug

It is only five months since I left my job as a Ranger working to conserve Sheffield’s lovely green spaces and yet I may as well never have been there. This does not make me feel sad at all. In fact I find it curiously liberating to know that all the work I did for Parks, Woodlands and Countryside, local school children, citizens and the landscape has already yielded to the ministrations of Mother Nature, the Green Man, Gaia or the Great Spirit – name it if you will.

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I came across this verdant patch of brambles and nettles today, replete with self set sycamore and dense vegetation in Chancet Wood, Sheffield.  I had kept it clear for ten years, by careful felling of sycamore, coppicing the hazel and strimming back the nettles and brambles every season. I used the wood regularly with local school children (Greenhill Primary) to explore wildlife, the changing seasons, green woodcraft, science and creepy crawlies.

Part of the Sheffield Round Walk, this lovely old wood leads walkers from the grander expanse of Beauchief Abbey and Parr Bank wood through Greenhill to Woodseats and Meadowhead to the splendid Graves Park. A cathedral of tall, drawn oak trees – some springing from ancient coppice stools march along the steep sided bank creating a peaceful respite from the busy city roads. Green and lesser spotted woodpecker, chiff chaff, Great Tit, badger, fox, myriad invertebrates (including some truly monster leeches in pools alongside the stream in the valley bottom) and lots of unusual fungi can be found in this urban green corridor – if you are quiet and prepared to visit very early in the day.

Today’s experience was a timely reminder of our transience. I build furniture and tools to outlast me, this is how I make, so why should I care that the woodland had forgotten my presence?

I think it is because despite trying to suppress my ego, I had forgotten how identified I was with my old job. To be a countryside or urban Ranger is, for all of us who have been privileged enough to be so appointed, a vocation. But is such a role sustainable in a climate of local government cuts and retrenchment?

The Wood will always adapt to human intervention – it will continue to just ‘be’ provided enough people care about it – it might even be able to ‘pay for itself’ to a degree with very careful practical management, limited timber extraction and partnership working.However, its true value cannot be measured. It is the very fact of its immanent ability to regenerate, grow over footpaths, wipe out our footprints that reminds us of our true nature. Hopefully there will always be Rangers working to protect, encourage, educate, show, care about The Woods and The Green.

Whether Rangers or Ramblers, Children or Pensioners, Chancet Wood belongs to all of us and … in the end, to no-one, because she belongs to herself.

Just like the lovely daughter (Polly) I had the honour to ‘give away’ to her handsome fiancé (Alan Howden) on Saturday August 4th.

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Let the dance of life begin……

Fi and the band Polly’s mum, Fiona (in blue) singing Sam Cooke’s “Don’t know much about History….”

Daughters

24 May

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This is my daughter, Polly. Once a year we try to get together and do something neither of us has done before and meet on unbroken ground. We discovered that this was a marvellous way to share a bit of time together without the tedious dynamics of parent and child, because in the situations we choose we are both kids again. Sure, I am the dad and may be called upon to give what P calls ‘dadly’ advice – a delicate technique involving listening carefully (not my strong suit) and delivering wisdom (saying the right thing), which is bloody tricky. Yes, P is the daughter, but at 30 years of age is an experienced and successful business woman in her own right, so she provides the good humour.

I have come to the conclusion that, for me the most attractive quality in daughters is their ability to make us love and laugh.

This one is an absolute genius at it:

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Here is my wife, Clare, taking the piss out of me collecting a hazel rod, which I had cut to make a walking sticks …. “I’m Gandalf!”

Her wit literally saved my life 13 years ago at a time when I was experiencing depression – in a park in Barcelona this acutely shy woman perfumed her ‘Special Ballet’ – just for me – to bring me out from a very dark place. It worked then, I am a sucker for physical comedy, and it works now.

She is of course a daughter too, the youngest of four children from a working class Welsh family, brought up in an atmosphere which promoted earning a decent wage above all else (from the age of 14 in Clare’s case) and limited ambition. Barren ground for a fierce intellect.

Clare’s favourite ‘daughter’ is her niece Percie:

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Percie lives in California, here she is explaining to me that “It’s not SUMS Uncle Henk, it’s MATH” ….and making me laugh, a fine quality. Her other Aunt, Anna is no longer with us. I commemorated Anna in the blog ‘In Memoriam’. Here she is chatting up a handsome friend, using her wit to his advantage.

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This daughter burned very brightly and she is still greatly loved.

I’m going to give my daughter away in August, when she gets married. A very odd concept, since she was never really mine to give, but I will try to do it with the same dignity as Fred seen here with his daughter, Whitney (Percie’s mum) to my youngest brother Simon.

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Whitney was a stunningly beautiful bride on the day, but Fred was the class act. He managed, during his speech, to argue that because his family was descended from the Pilgrim Fathers, and had left Plymouth all those years ago, that Simon (who grew up in Devon) was actually marrying the girl next door. In this way he cemented the bond between two families in a laid back, unruffled way and allowed his daughter to be her lovely self.

If I can emulate this in August I will have honoured my daughter. For she, and all the daughters I have known give us life.