Engaging with others

An old school friend of mine (Friend A) is in New York this week to celebrate her thirtieth birthday and whilst there, her boyfriend of eight years has proposed.  I know this because another friend (Friend B) text me at 7.16 this morning with the news.  I was absolutely delighted to hear this.  I was of course pleased that Friend A is now engaged, especially as she has wanted this for a long time.  My pleasure also came from Friend B’s text.  I was touched that she made the effort to tell me at a time when she was probably busy enough getting herself, her two month old baby and her four year old ready for the school run.  The fact that she’d bothered means a lot.  She thought she’d text me, she said, because I’m not on Facebook anymore. 

Funnily enough, whilst not being not being on Facebook may sometimes mean you miss out on hearing announcements as quickly as others do, closing my account has resulted in a major reconceptualisation of what friendship is and who my friends are.  This is a case in point.  I may have learnt of Friend A’s news sooner on Facebook, but instead I’ve had a real sense of connection with Friend B.  I feel like I am important to her – a feeling that no social networking site can achieve in the same way.  Furthermore, I may not being amongst the tens of friends and acquaintances that are no doubt writing ‘Congratulations’ on Friend A’s wall, but I do know that the card I’ve posted this morning will be one of the first on her doormat, landing there before she touches down from her trip.

Despite the months seeming to roll by enormously quickly, I can’t believe it’s only been two months since I embarked upon my little project to record all the cash I spent. It seems like ages ago, although the weather today isn’t dissimilar to the balmy July temperature when it began. In the month that’s passed since, I’ve had time to reflect on what I learnt from noting every penny and one big change has now been put into effect: I withdrew £40 less for the weeks ahead as I haven’t made a beautician’s appointment. This may not be a permanent change, as I do enjoy her visits, but I need a break to think about it. Having to admit that I spent that much every four weeks seemed to jar against my feminist principles. I know all the debates about women and beauty as I research this area and have serious doubts that I need to think through about what is my choice and pleasure and what is social expectation.

There is also a clash with my values in other ways. I’m not so puritanical that I want to deny all indulgences – far from it – but I do want to make sure that my use of money accords with what I feel is important. A key goal in my life is to give 10% of my income to charity. At present, I’m way off that, giving around 2.5%. I’d really like to increase it to 5% next year, then 7.5% in 2013 and hitting my target in 2014. With a bit of rejigging, next year’s increase is possible and the £40 beauty money per month could help with that. I guess it’s a case of judging which is my priority, which means more to me, and I know full well the answer is charitable giving. So I’ve made that change, even if I choose to have the odd treatment in future.

As if to support me in making this decision, on the same day that I withdraw less cash I also read encouragement in this direction in the book I’m reading. In “The Art of Non-conformity”, Chris Guillebeau clearly states on several occasions that it is essential to make your money chime with your values. Some other things in the book I don’t agree with, but I’m with him all the way to the ATM on this one.

Popped into my local wool shop and discovered that they’ve just become Debbie Bliss stockists. Spent a happy five minutes fondling her cashmerino blend and chatting with the propietor and another customer who was also lusting after the beautiful shades and soft, silky texture. Even better than admiring the fab new Debbie Bliss diplay is seeing an independent store flourishing and going from strength to strength. Long live Wool Mountain! Especially as I might have to pop back next week and indulge in their “knit your own reindeer jumper” kit.

Today I went to my cousin’s baby’s christening on the far side of south Birmingham. It was a lovely day, where you come away knowing that lots of happy memories have been formed. The day also made me realise three things: (1) I couldn’t be any other denomination than Quaker. The christening service was obviously a crucial part of the day, but I found myself railing against so much of what was said and done. The conceptions of “god”, Jesus etc being expressed were so far removed from my own feelings that it only reinforced my severe doubts as to whether I’d call myself a Christian or not. (2) My family are now an important part of my life in a way that I would never have imagined several years ago. The ties that bind an extended family are such a strange, unnameable force. I don’t know what it is that supports the sense of connection, but whatever it is, it seems to be growing stronger as my generation watches the next begin to flourish. (3) Maybe I would like children of my own. I’m not saying definitely, but I’m certainly beginning to sense that I’d like to create a new sub-section of my own within my family. Although this may only be because all five little ones today were impeccably behaved – especially the newly christened baby who, after being bounced by me in a very vigorous song with actions, managed to hold his sick until I passed him back to his mother. God bless him indeed.

I’ve just on the train coming out of Euston, winging my way to a 30th in Altrincham via home to pick up my car and a change of clothes (these two events + christening at 930 tomorrow in south Birmingham = logistical mare). It was a Quaker event called “Economic justice and the sustainable global society” and it was amazing. I’ve been through every emotion from anger and disgust at the world we’ve created to hope and inspiration that we can change it. I was particularly struck by what one of the speakers said in the final discussion. Every decision you make, he observed, is building up or taking away. Furthermore we can view our consumer decisions as “prayer practice” – if spirituality is about “right relationship” (with our conception of “god” and with other people), then we can use these decisions to work towards achieving this right relationship. I came out feeling invigorated and exuberant, but slightly fearful that returning to the “real world” would immediately dash my optimism. I, perhaps surprisingly, needn’t have worried. I popped in M&S food for some tea. Spotting the guy with the reduced tickets labelling packets of sandwiches, I fancied a bargain. However, I quickly realised that this clashed with my efforts to eat less meat – no vegetarian ones were ticketed. I tentatively asked if any would be and was delighted when the chap immediately rummaged through his trolley and found the one single solitary pack of meat free sandwiches to be reduced. I actually wanted to kiss him, but resisted. The encounter made me realise that right relationships can be built even in the most unlikely settings.

Simon Mayo’s Drivetime Show

Most Fridays I have the same idea for a blog post that, for various reasons (usually a combination of forgetfulness/tiredness) I never actually end up writing.  The post is about encouraging people to listen to Simon Mayo’s Friday evening ‘Drivetime’ show on Radio 2.  If you’re familiar with Mayo’s Friday afternoon film review show on Radio 5 with Mark Kermode, then let me start by saying that it is nothing like that.  Whereas his film show often has an air of surrealism, with rambling sardonic commentary to which Mayo is the fall guy, the Friday night drivetime programme is straightforward, wholesome family listening.  The premise is that it is an all-request playlist, with only people who ring in getting to ask for a song.  This usually involves small children nervously trying to ask for Stepphenwolf Born to be Wild (with parental prompting going on in the background), women asking for songs that remind them of their partners (I Need a Hero, Bonnie Tyler, and I’m So Excited, the Pointer Sisters, were two that were picked last week – the latter for someone getting married this Saturday and the former by a woman waiting for her partner to return from a week working away), and families embarking on a weekend break where they are meeting up with another family – presumably they are hoping that the other family, in another car in another traffic jam on another motorway, will be listening and hear their shout-out.  Thrown into the mix are reader texts about what they are up to and what their plans are for the weekend.

If it all sounds a little bit twee and naff, then that’s because it is.  But that is also where its strengths lie.  It is the most heart-warming, reassuring couple of hours that one could ask for.  With all the talk of ‘broken Britain’ and general media pessimism about the state of British society and particularly British families, this show is clear proof that the doom-mongers haven’t got it all right.  Out there are still hundreds of thousands of people, hundreds of thousands of families, going about their usual, unremarkable, entirely ordinary lives and taking great joy and delight in doing so.  It makes you smile.  If you’re lucky, it makes you think of your own childhood.  Take a listen later, from 5pm on Radio 2, if you can.