Author Archives: Julia

thank you friends

It’s always good to recognise the dappled patterns of one’s perspective. ‘The way it is‘ contracts and expands. Memories come coloured with emotion.

I wrote in my last post about the environment in which I grew up – one of middle class privilege and relentless competition. This was the 1980’s and the Reagan years, a time when America rode a wave of material prosperity and the promise of evermore: endless growth and profit, bountiful rewards for joining the rat race and playing the game. I called it “the belly of the beast” and indeed, when I imagine myself as a teenager walking through the local shopping mall, with its designer boutiques and its trendy brand logos, its parquet floors and potted trees and fast food courts, the picture takes on the discordant atmosphere of uneasy dreamtime.

However: even in the midst of the spectacle and the striving, there were lifelines of human warmth and belonging. A few days ago I was reminded of this when I received an unexpected greeting from an old friend and neighbour: one of the little girls I used to babysit for, now grown up and a mother herself. It threw me into reminiscence.

The girls were three years old and three months old, respectively, when I first met them – and I was only thirteen myself. It’s easy to say I watched them grow up but really, we grew up together. Mr and Mrs H took a regular and well-earned weekly break: an evening out to the movies or dinner with friends; sometimes if their calendar was full I would be at their house twice or perhaps even three times over the course of a week. When I learned to drive I was entrusted to take the girls on outings to the library or the swimming pool. I was invited to join their birthday parties, and occasional holiday gatherings, introduced to visitors and relatives, and I was always, always made to feel welcome in their family.

Some stray memories: sitting on the couch in the evening with the girls in their pyjamas, watching Fraggle Rock or Fairy Tale Theatre. Playing Rainbow Brite. He Man and She Ra. Smurfs. Drawing pictures with coloured markers, and making a game of mixing and matching the pen caps with the pens. Sitting on the carpeted bedroom floor, back leaning against the bed, choosing bedtime stories from a pile of picture books. Angelina Ballerina. If You Give A Mouse A Cookie. The Berenstein Bears. Plastic bags full of gorgeous handknitted sweaters that Mrs H passed on to me from her mother. Mr H walking me home, along the pavement to my own house down the street, the dark summertime air heavy with humidity.

All just ordinary snippets of ordinary American suburban life. Nothing dramatic. No crises or conflicts, no serious accidents or notable difficulties. When I imagine myself as a teenager, in connection with this family, the picture takes on the gentle atmosphere of nostalgia. Fondness and gratitude wash over me. A Big Star tune comes to mind: thank you friends.

the soul of money

I grew up in an affluent suburb of Chicago, a place of large houses with expansive lawns, and two or more cars in every driveway. I was educated privately, among peers who were the children of doctors and lawyers and financial executives. Leisure took place in tennis clubs and shopping malls. I think of it now as “the belly of the beast.”

But everything is relative. I never felt secure in that setting, and my family didn’t especially fit into the surrounding culture. My parents both worked hard to earn enough for that private education – no stay at home mother, no home help to manage the domestic chores. We belonged to no clubs, took no summer holiday trips, and shopped at Sears. (Unless you grew up there you’ll miss the cultural reference. Suffice to say that the kids in our family wore Toughskins brand denim rather than designer jeans – and it marked us.) To our minds, we weren’t rich: we lived modestly and we got by.

The message drilled into me by this place was simple: achieve, make money, achieve, make money, achieve, make money. Self-worth? Achieve, make money. Relationships with others? Achieve, make money. The meaning of life? Achieve, make money.

It wasn’t until I left for university that I found some relief. Leaving the country was even better. I discovered people with less onerous value systems, places with less privilege and pressure. I made connections and assembled my tribe. And I made choices about how to live that would have terrified my younger self: even now, I own no house or property, I find my clothes in charity shops, I take the bus or walk.

In The Soul of Money, Lynne Twist explores what money means to us, and how to change our perceptions. As a tireless fundraiser for the Hunger Project (an international development organisation which aspires to end world hunger) Lynne has worked with people from myriad economic backgrounds – from wealthy philanthropists to backwater villagers, from bejewelled trophy wives to starving street beggars. In this beautifully written book, she “demonstrates how we can replace feelings of scarcity, guilt and burden with experiences of sufficiency, freedom and purpose.” She calls scarcity “the great lie” and sufficiency “the surprising truth,” and digs into these assertions fully with a rich mix of personal experience, sincere reflection and above all, warm compassion.

Since reading her book, I’ve been able to look back on that high-stakes environment of my upbringing with gentle regard rather than anxiety or resentment. I can recognise the pain behind the habits of spiteful judgment, and the need behind the relentless competition. To have so much, and still feel so driven – to own so much personal wealth and yet feel so little personal wealth – is living in a fairy tale curse for sure.

When my friend and I named our social enterprise Personal Wealth, three years ago now, we received many confused responses. Were we a financial services provider? Were we money advisers? Did we play the stock market? No, no and no – we worked with people and organisations, and tried to open up the conversation about what wealth really is. It usually took a moment for our response to sink in, and then typically our inquirer would say “ah-ha” with a delighted light in their eyes.

I will be revisiting the conversation on Saturday 1st April, when I host the first of four experimental workshops. Participants will be invited to play with the phrase “personal wealth”and we will learn more about the ‘great lie’ and the ‘surprising truth.’ If you are in Edinburgh and fancy coming along, please do add your name to the event list here.

healing crisis, one person at a time

My lovely friend Steve of 21st Century Soul has been a broker of healing in my life.

I met Steve through our mutual dabblings in the Dark Mountain Project – we exchanged emails in the runup to the second Uncivilisation festival in August 2011, an event that I helped to put together from behind the scenes. We communicated about event-admin details over the summer and then I must have met him briefly there at the festival – though I was in such stressed-out misery I could barely function, let alone make any real connection with anyone. I didn’t understand it at the time, but Dark Mountain was the instigator of the deepest and most difficult crisis of my life.

In her new memoir, Tristimania, Jay Griffiths writes beautifully about her own experience of crisis:

Do episodes of madness have causes? What do they need, to unfurl themselves? They unfold like tragic dramas and, just as tragedy needs a tragic flaw, a backstory and the dramatic incident which kicks off the drama, so chapters of madness also need a tragic flaw (genetic vulnerability), a backstory (long-term stress) and an incident (a trigger).

Genetic vulnerability? Tick.
Long term stress? Tick.
Trigger? Happened like this.

… And then he wanked all over me.

Gosh, that’s almost exactly what happened to me too! Only with Dark Mountain it was mansplaining intellectual ego-wanking that splashed all over me and left me stunned and vulnerable. For them it was nothing out of their own ordinary, so why on earth did I have a problem with it? No doubt they wished I would just go away quietly and leave them to their important job of shaping the cultural narrative.

Like Jay, however, the trigger had been sprung. Like Jay, I headed into a period of bipolar madness: long descents into terrifying depths and later, spinning dances among the stars and the angels.

It was during this time that I became better acquainted with Steve. We mingled in some of the same online circles and he contributed wise, and humble, contributions to the issues that were getting hashed over in the discussion threads. And then, eventually, by way of his Unpsychology project, across my threshold fell his invitation to join him in Soulmaking.

There was something about this invitation that tickled at me, something about Soulmaking that spoke to me, and beckoned me with its gentleness. It was the right thing at the right time, as so many things often are, when we look back in hindsight – even the painful things, like Dark Mountain. If I’d spent much of my growing up and adult life in building up scar tissue around a wounded psyche, then my experience with Dark Mountain was like ripping off the scab and setting the blood flowing, and now it was time to take a gentle swab to the sore spot. The wound was open but it needed a healer to tend it. Steve stepped gracefully into that role, and the Soulmakers Gathering of spring 2014 served as triage. Some wonderful and inspiring people came into my life there, and I felt a shift under the surface.

My journey with madness was far from over, but my story turned toward resolution, and began finding a path of restoration.

So this brings me to now. Steve recently published a series of essays which started with a cry of distress and discouragement at our current state of affairs, and then worked their way in – like a surgeon making an exploratory probe. In the course of this he made the following comment:

…this crisis cannot be done away with by pills and talking. It can’t be healed one person at a time…

and this pulled me up short. It felt so out of place, coming from someone who in my own life had contributed to healing – to my one person at a time‘s worth of healing – that I felt I must engage him in finding out where that thought had come from, and if it was true. It led to this dialogue between us, published today on the Unpsychology site via Medium. Please have a read of it, and join us in the conversation if you feel inspired.

I’ll end this here, with a heartfelt thank you, Steve, for Soulmakers and for Unpsychology, for your friendship and for your healing ways. xxx

in case of emergency

Whenever we have made our plans and laid down the path of our future the trickster will come along and play a trick on us.
F. David Peat, Blackfoot Physics

A few months ago I was in my front room when I heard something outside on the street. It took me a moment to make sense of it, and when I did, my adrenaline surged. Someone was crying out for help, repeatedly: “Can anyone hear me? Please help me, please help!” I grabbed my phone and went downstairs into the street, where I found three other people assembling at the curb just beyond my door. They were looking up, at the window of the flat beside mine, where my neighbour had somehow caught and trapped her hand in between the panes of the window when it had dropped down as she’d been opening it. She couldn’t move it without further crushing her fingers – she was already in great pain, tears rolling down her shocked white face.

I rang 999 while the others talked to her and tried to soothe her. Then one brave/foolhardy young man took it upon himself to climb up the drainpipe and along the narrow ledge of the brickwork – like a mountain goat perched along a cliff-face – where he managed to shift the window and free her hand. But here’s the thing: she was freed but now he was stuck, clinging to the window frame and trying to work out how to get back down. When the emergency crew arrived a few minutes later, it was him they had to help. They used a long ladder and assisted him back down to the pavement, where they chided him good-naturedly for his heroics.

We all experience crises of some degree at various points throughout our lives. Illness or injury, unemployment, relationships ending or relatives dying, or even the central heating going bust midwinter or the cat needing urgent care at the vet. Or getting ourselves painfully stuck in a window. Crisis occurs in many shapes and sizes, with its main flavour being urgency. The calm routine of a more-or-less comfortable existence is rudely interrupted. Our perspective is drawn sharply into focus upon a very particular issue, and at the same time we are jolted out of complacency and reminded that life is much, much bigger-and-beyonder than our own small stuff.

When there is an emergency, we pull up and pay attention. We become ready, poised to spring, and in most cases we step out of ourselves and become available to others in need. We go downstairs or across the street, we phone for help, or we climb a drainpipe. When there is an emergency, our better natures emerge.

Crisis is what it is. At worst, it causes suffering; at best, it allows for emergence. And Trickster knows this.

hearth cricket wisdom

So I’ve finally organised a project that has been simmering in the background for some time. This spring I am launching a pilot series of workshops which explore ideas which deserve some space to grow.

All my life I have loved playing with ideas, whether browsing the library and bookshop shelves searching for hidden treasures, or sharing conversations that transcend small talk, or writing blog posts that dig into places that interest me….

I know I’m not alone in this. Sharing ideas is the hallmark of humanity, it is our pride and our joy, and the fuel that feeds our souls. Perhaps the most courageous and astonishing thing a person can do is to venture into a new idea.

If you’re in Edinburgh and fancy coming along for one or more of these Saturday mornings, please add your name to the list and bring your thinking cap with you.

who owns wellbeing?

Two different mental health events fell across my radar this week. They both arrived by email, in their different ways. The first landed in my inbox at work: a slick mass mailing with graphics and corporate logos and link buttons, leading to an even slicker website dedicated solely to promoting a full-panel plenary of high-ranking, primarily white male, mental health policy professionals and public officials. The second was a personal message from someone who had read my piece in the LSE Surviving Work blog series, inviting me to attend a small conference on wellbeing in which “the central concern is a question of whether the wellbeing policies of large organisations actually come to undermine the very people that they are designed to support.”

Mental health is a political issue: it boils down simply to power, that is, who holds the power to define what constitutes “normal” and “sane” and indeed what is meant by “wellbeing”. The Icarus Project has written an incredibly insightful (or should that be inciteful?) publication entitled Madness and Oppression, examining the critical factor of power in the context of mental health.

When I was growing up, mental wellbeing didn’t figure in any public discussion. The fact that there are now conferences of all types to consider our wellbeing is a welcome development of the new century. It is also a sign of how distressed we have become as a society. Pick up any paper these days and you’ll find headlines about the multiple crises facing our mental healthcare services as the need rises while the resources dwindle. I’m not convinced that the professional and political classes can solve this predicament; it is going to take a quiet and creative revolution on many levels to dismantle the powers which enforce a standard of normality upon the person.

I can’t help but think of Krishnamurti’s observation: “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” I know which conference I’d be going to.

on wordpower

“A word after a word after a word is power.” Margaret Atwood

My favourite bookshop in the world – WordPower – is moving into the next stage of its life. Its lovely founders have given 22+ years of intense loving slog into raising this baby, which has grown into not just a shop but also a hub of progressive thinking. As well as individual author events, they have also hosted the Book Fringe every August, International Women’s Day dinners and the annual five-day-long Edinburgh Independent Radical Book Fair – a massive undertaking just by itself!

Now they are planning to move on to pastures new, and WordPower’s future is on the table. A fundraising campaign has been launched with the idea being to transition the business into a social enterprise and to develop its role as a community resource. Needless to say I am wholeheartedly supporting this and want to see it succeed.

WordPower and its fine selection of books have seen me through my own journeys of discovery, up dark mountains of unknowing and back down into light valleys of understanding. WordPower gave me Derrick Jensen and Joe Bageant when I needed to rage; Tom Hodgkinson when I needed to rest; David Edwards and Erich Fromm when I needed to believe; Carol Gilligan and Inga Muscio and Laurie Penny when I needed to be believed; Jane Bowles when I needed to laugh; Joanna Macy and Rebecca Solnit and Margaret Wheatley when I needed to hope; oh and there’s just so many other good friends there on those bountiful shelves in that purple painted place.

If you love books and you love the joy of reading and writing and sharing ideas, please consider pledging something toward the WordPower crowdfunding effort.


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