WISE 100 : what women (and men) may bring to Social Enterprise

strong woman.jpg

Very pleased yesterday (but sorry I’m behind the times, it was announced on the 12th and I missed both the announcement and the party!) to find I have been listed in the WISE 100, a list of 100 women working in Social Enterprise.

All lists are silly, I might say in another mood, but this was one I was glad to have made, not so much for myself as for my work at The Reader, not a women-only organisation though many  of our readers are women. And many of The Reader’s staff members and volunteers are women.  And all of  our leadership group at The Reader are (currently) women.

This interests me, as in my twenties I spent some time living in a women-only commune and strongly identified as a feminist. Being that feminist helped me become a woman in my own right and I’d recommend some feminism for all beginner-women – you want to be able to knock your own nails in, lift  heavy things, play in your own band, fight your corner, learn to knit, read books by women, stand on your own two feet, know your own experience and live without a lover for as long as necessary.

These days I wouldn’t describe myself as a feminist, though I still get bothered about the problems of a male world view as the norm and the  resulting problems women (and some men) face.  And though I wouldn’t use the word (or any sort of  classification ending in ‘ist’) for myself, yet I have built or accidentally stumbled into or attracted a woman-only senior leadership team. If I was a man this would be called ‘unconscious bias’ (you pick people like yourself whether you mean to or not). It is more practical than that, I hope.

As someone who has struggled to get toddlers and pushchairs and bags of shopping on and off the bus, if I were a designer I’d design buses and pushchairs and shopping bags to work differently. If I were the Prime Minister, parents of new babies would be issued with 3 camo-boiler suits and  encouraged to wear them until after their children start school. What time and energy that would save, what smears, what slarts would go  unnoticed.  How quickly you could get dressed each day. Maybe the babies and children  could also  have the same kind of  overalls! Dirt-hiding, food-concealing, coveralls – just pull ’em on and start the day. Massive savings to the economy/new industry developed in the design and manufacture of the suits.  Get them made from some self-composting green fabric and we have an eco-solution to the problem of some laughing child chucking  mushy weetabix at you at 7.10 a.m. Etc.

Ok,  but I do know the practical problems posed by pushchairs and shopping and buses and getting up in the morning . As someone who has had children and a job, I’m naturally trying to design work differently.  There are five of us in  The Reader’s Director Group: we all take advantage of flexible working, and the majority of us are not full-time.  (I haven’t worked in the camo-boilersuits yet but give me time). At The Reader, since our staffers started having children, we’ve had a bias towards making a sympathetic environment for working parents.  As Benedict cries in Much Ado , ‘The world must be peopled!’  We’ve also tried to make a flexible  working environment for those of us who live with physical and mental health conditions. These are basic matters, which any  organisation dependent on people must face, and which help us retain brilliant staffers, if we  can get it right.  Utilise what we’ve got. Make the most of our talents. Create workarounds.

CC cooking lunch
Chris, our ex-MD, one of The Reader men, cooking Friday lunch  in the basement of our first-ever office. Shared Eating has always been important at The Reader. Think this was Chilli  con Carne.

But does this  go further? I mean, into the actual work of The Reader?

Is Shared Reading, and the reading and Social Enterprise community we are building at Calderstones, influenced by woman-experience?  Thinking of some of the men I have worked with over the years, I know it is not just a woman thing.  Ah, this is all  too complicated for an hour’s thinking.

These are horribly crude generalisations, but I’ll go on with them for a moment.

I’m thinking about feeling and access to  the emotions, and whether – generally, roughly, crudely speaking – women are  closer to their own feelings, and to expressing them, than men. That’s not necessarily a given, it is just the way we’ve worked it over the last  few million years. Some of us got muscles and hunted meat for weeks on end, others stayed on the trail, picked the daily  berries and roots, looked after the children and held the tribe together.

Of course this is not fixed – it is learned and cultural,  but learned and cultural  is a powerful inhibitor. Yet, what is learned and cultural may be changed, is changeable. I think Shared Reading helps to change it, both for men who don’t speak much of their emotions, and for women who struggle with them, too.

There are three elements here :

  • feelings themselves as they exist in our hearts, guts, brains – wherever they are
  • consciousness of feelings or the willingness to allow consciousness
  • the ability to get feelings into words.

Of course this process is dependent on getting emotion into the reading room.  That’s not an easy ask –  much easier to stay with talking about the ‘characters’, the ‘poet’, the ‘Victorians’ ‘Shakespeare’s time’ and other distancing measures.  But  this is a mistake. Dangerous as it may seem, we have to make feeling happen.

This morning I have been back-searching the blog to see if I’ve written about Matthew Arnold’s poem  ‘The Buried Life’, which came to mind because Helen commented yesterday  on my absence here for the past two weeks saying ‘we’re all human, wander off our line and back on to it’.

It was the idea of everyone having a line they were on (or off) that reminded me of ‘The Buried Life’.

While I was searching I came upon an old post, from 2012, back in the days when we still called Shared Reading ‘Get Into Reading’.  It’s about what can go wrong (or is it right?) in a Shared Reading session and I think it is worth a  look because it talks about one of the key  things about Shared Reading: the need to get emotion into the room. (‘Trust and the Risk of Reading’,  find it here).

Feel as if I have wandered into dangerous and spouty territory today.

Here’s The Buried Life, by Matthew Arnold, which I’ll start reading tomorrow.

The Buried Life
Light flows our war of mocking words, and yet,
Behold, with tears mine eyes are wet!
I feel a nameless sadness o’er me roll.
Yes, yes, we know that we can jest,
We know, we know that we can smile!
But there’s a something in this breast,
To which thy light words bring no rest,
And thy gay smiles no anodyne.
Give me thy hand, and hush awhile,
And turn those limpid eyes on mine,
And let me read there, love! thy inmost soul.
Alas! is even love too weak
To unlock the heart, and let it speak?
Are even lovers powerless to reveal
To one another what indeed they feel?
I knew the mass of men conceal’d
Their thoughts, for fear that if reveal’d
They would by other men be met
With blank indifference, or with blame reproved;
I knew they lived and moved
Trick’d in disguises, alien to the rest
Of men, and alien to themselves—and yet
The same heart beats in every human breast!
But we, my love!—doth a like spell benumb
Our hearts, our voices?—must we too be dumb?
Ah! well for us, if even we,
Even for a moment, can get free
Our heart, and have our lips unchain’d;
For that which seals them hath been deep-ordain’d!
Fate, which foresaw
How frivolous a baby man would be—
By what distractions he would be possess’d,
How he would pour himself in every strife,
And well-nigh change his own identity—
That it might keep from his capricious play
His genuine self, and force him to obey
Even in his own despite his being’s law,
Bade through the deep recesses of our breast
The unregarded river of our life
Pursue with indiscernible flow its way;
And that we should not see
The buried stream, and seem to be
Eddying at large in blind uncertainty,
Though driving on with it eternally.
But often, in the world’s most crowded streets,
But often, in the din of strife,
There rises an unspeakable desire
After the knowledge of our buried life;
A thirst to spend our fire and restless force
In tracking out our true, original course;
A longing to inquire
Into the mystery of this heart which beats
So wild, so deep in us—to know
Whence our lives come and where they go.
And many a man in his own breast then delves,
But deep enough, alas! none ever mines.
And we have been on many thousand lines,
And we have shown, on each, spirit and power;
But hardly have we, for one little hour,
Been on our own line, have we been ourselves—
Hardly had skill to utter one of all
The nameless feelings that course through our breast,
But they course on for ever unexpress’d.
And long we try in vain to speak and act
Our hidden self, and what we say and do
Is eloquent, is well—but ‘t is not true!
And then we will no more be rack’d
With inward striving, and demand
Of all the thousand nothings of the hour
Their stupefying power;
Ah yes, and they benumb us at our call!
Yet still, from time to time, vague and forlorn,
From the soul’s subterranean depth upborne
As from an infinitely distant land,
Come airs, and floating echoes, and convey
A melancholy into all our day.
Only—but this is rare—
When a belovèd hand is laid in ours,
When, jaded with the rush and glare
Of the interminable hours,
Our eyes can in another’s eyes read clear,
When our world-deafen’d ear
Is by the tones of a loved voice caress’d—
A bolt is shot back somewhere in our breast,
And a lost pulse of feeling stirs again.
The eye sinks inward, and the heart lies plain,
And what we mean, we say, and what we would, we know.
A man becomes aware of his life’s flow,
And hears its winding murmur; and he sees
The meadows where it glides, the sun, the breeze.
And there arrives a lull in the hot race
Wherein he doth for ever chase
That flying and elusive shadow, rest.
An air of coolness plays upon his face,
And an unwonted calm pervades his breast.
And then he thinks he knows
The hills where his life rose,
And the sea where it goes.


Later life, running and reading

cherry blossoms in Calderstones
Cherry Blossom in Calderstones Park 6.00pm 24 March 2017

A day with Paul Sinton-Hewit, founder,  parkrun

For those who come for the poem, here it is:

From Later Life: A Double Sonnet of Sonnets


We lack, yet cannot fix upon the lack:
Not this, nor that; yet somewhat, certainly.
We see the things we do not yearn to see
Around us: and what see we glancing back?
Lost hopes that leave our hearts upon the rack,
Hopes that were never ours yet seem’d to be,
For which we steer’d on life’s salt stormy sea
Braving the sunstroke and the frozen pack.
If thus to look behind is all in vain,
And all in vain to look to left or right,
Why face we not our future once again,
Launching with hardier hearts across the main,
Straining dim eyes to catch the invisible sight,
And strong to bear ourselves in patient pain?

Christina Rossetti

Searching for a copy online, I came across a great 2012  blog post from Casi Dylan who was the person who set up our training at The Reader – always a good read, anything Casi writes about her reading.

I wanted to read this poem this morning because yesterday I spent the day with Paul Sinton-Hewit, ‘father, husband, runner, parkrun founder, Ashoka Fellow and CBE’, as he describes himself on his twitter homepage.

We met last year following Paul’s election to Ashoka, when I realised, hearing Paul talk about the parkrun set-up, that The Reader could learn a lot from him. Yesterday he spent the day with us at Calderstones, talking to staff about developing a truly volunteer-run model, answering questions about log-ins and quality control and race directors and sponsorship, and later we held an open event for people – mainly parkrunners – who wanted to come to meet Paul and hear his remarkable story. You can read it here.

There are many parallels with The Reader, not least the mid-life crisis, to give it a shorthand title, that we both endured in our different ways and from which our respective vocations emerged.

‘I had no plans for this,’ Paul said, yesterday. ‘I didn’t set out to  create this movement. I just wanted to spend time with my friends and I couldn’t run because of injury.’

I have a similar relation to  The Reader – it grew organically from something I wanted , or perhaps needed, to do. I didn’t plan to set up a charity, didn’t think of creating a Shared Reading movement across Europe, I didn’t imagine ‘one day we’ll build the International Centre for Shared Reading at Calderstones.’  I just wanted to read with people who weren’t into reading and to get them into it. I had very powerful personal reasons for wanting to do so. Necessity, as they say, is the mother…

Certainly it was for Paul, who spoke to Reader staffers about a broken relationship, having lost his job… and the one thing he relied on for mental wellbeing, running, being lost to him because of injury. In such a crisis, you might have flopped into misery, got bitter or given up and turned to drink. Instead, Paul created parkrun, by getting mates into a park and timing their runs…

Almost everyone , by the time they are thirty, forty, fifty… will have experienced what Christina Rossetti describes , looking back

Lost hopes that leave our hearts upon the rack,
Hopes that were never ours yet seem’d to be,
For which we steer’d on life’s salt stormy sea
Braving the sunstroke and the frozen pack.

What a waste of time! What a waste of effort!  What a mess! That is how things were, when I started The Reader. Partly in my professional life – my teaching life at the University of Liverpool was unsatisfactory for reasons I won’t go into here; my life as writer (I had written five  novels over a fifteen year period and they  had all been rejected by scores of publishers); and in my personal life, for a decade or more, I was living with grave and distressing life-rocking problems.

I had no sense of future with anything in it, and the day I decided to stop writing and give up the defining mode of my life to date,  I had no sense of a future that I longed to bring about or could imagine. I did love my garden and worked on it. But professionally, I had nothing.

I had – I can see it now, but it didn’t look like that then – a blank slate.

On that slate, slowly, and without a plan,  The Reader began to be formed. In 1997, the first issue of The Reader magazine was launched, and by 2003 the first manifestation of Shared Reading – 11 groups  meeting weekly in Wirral – was happening. I do not know what it is that makes a person willing, able or desperate enough to create a future. It is partly the trappedness of nowhere else to go, as Christina Rossetti says;

If thus to look behind is all in vain,
And all in vain to look to left or right,
Why face we not our future once again,
Launching with hardier hearts across the main,
Straining dim eyes to catch the invisible sight,
And strong to bear ourselves in patient pain?

Can’t go back, can’t go left, can’t go right…there is only either stop and be frozen or keep going. She puts it, as she must, as a question;

‘Why face we not our future once again?’

And some hard answers follow.

Sometimes when we can’t act, it is because ‘Launching with hardier hearts across the main’ (main=sea) is too hard, because our heart is not hardy, never mind ‘hardier’.

Sometimes, it is because we are tired and ‘Straining dim eyes to catch the invisible sight’ is  just asking too much of our tired selves.

Sometimes we are simply not strong enough to be ‘strong to bear ourselves in patient pain’. Sometimes the pain is overwhelming.

Later life is not easy. The sense of ‘something missing’  and having no idea what that ‘something’ might be can become more than painful;

We lack, yet cannot fix upon the lack:
Not this, nor that; yet somewhat, certainly.

You feel juddery. You can’t concentrate. Things go flying off. You feel your facial expressions give you away. You feel scared. At those times we  need to hunker down and wait, (see George Herbert, ‘The Flower’), let time pass, get stronger. ‘Grief melts away/like snow in May/ As if there were no such cold thing.’

During those down times, I found, regular hard reading built up my mental and spiritual muscles. Still find that. Also, good people.

‘I needed to be with my friends,’ said Paul yesterday. ‘My friends were runners, those people suited me.’

‘Parkrun and The Reader do the same thing,’ said Paul. ‘We do it through running, and The Reader does it through reading. It is about community.’

I woke up with that thought of Paul’s in my mind. My reading friends ( Phil, Angie, Brian, my colleagues at The Reader, you people here reading these daily poems alongside me, the hundreds of people I have read with over the past thirty years…) as much as my reading, have given me strength and purpose, meaning and community. My hard-won advice to the stuck: connect, realise, change – through Shared Reading, or parkrun or whatever it is that offers connection. It is finding the connector that matters.