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No, I’m not playing quidditch…

Quidditch hoops

No, not Yorkshire. This photo was taken one summer in Italy, but it does show you the three hoops that you can find at each end of the pitch.

This is another account of me admitting to being changed by a sport – played on broomsticks – that I do not play.

1. When the ball goes through the hoops, raise your arms

On a chilly Saturday in November, at the Northern Cup held in Sheffield, which, if you’re too muggle to know, is a quidditch tournament for those teams who are based in the north of the United Kingdom, I was a goal referee.

It was only for a couple of minutes as the previous goal referee was needed off-pitch. The snitch was already on pitch, held in its sock, bouncing off the bum cheeks of the snitch runner. The seekers were fighting over it. The beaters were attacking with their bludgers (dodge-balls) to disrupt the battle for the final snatch. The quaffle (a soft volleyball) had already leapt through the hoops thirty-eight times. All thirty-eight times being at the other end of the pitch to the three hoops which I monitored.

Now, if you know me well, you might think that I chose the hoops that had been so neglected because the chance of me having to wave my hands in the air to indicate a goal, or at my knees to indicate no goal, was slim. But no. I had no idea who was winning (or even playing) when I went on pitch. The low, incredibly bright, winter sun was my bigger concern. I didn’t want to screw up the first time I did anything quidditchy. I needed to be able to see.

There was one moment, when a chaser had the quaffle (I only really watched the quaffle as it was the only ball I was responsible for knowing about) and seemed to be heading in my direction. I tensed ready, determined to know with certainty if the ball went through a hoop (forwards or backwards, both count), but the chap was tackled before he got close enough to lob the ball in my direction. I was kind of disappointed.

Then the sock was pulled out of the snitch runner’s shorts. The snitch was held up in the air, and the game was suddenly over.

If you’re overly interested, there are some excellent photos depicting the role of a goal referee on the QuidditchUK website. Goal refereeing is apparently something that anybody can step in and do, and when these big tournaments happen, there’s always a great demand for referees. Which brings me to the weird realisation that even I, with my unexplained aversion to team sport, have managed to find something that possibly makes me more than just an awkward person sitting on the sidelines. I wore a skirt and boots. I didn’t have to dress up strange or demonstrate my inability to throw a ball. And it was all kind of nice.

2. They/she/he… a gender rule violation

Quidditch is a mixed gender sport, with a maximum of four of any one gender playing for a team at any one time. When I first, sceptically, discussed this rule with my sister, I assumed that, because life’s unfair, the team on the pitch would almost always contain four guys and three lasses. Watching one of the matches though on Saturday, I heard the whistle blown and it was announced that there was a gender rule violation. Too many women on the pitch at once. I laughed at myself, and shook my head. Wrong again.

I’m learning a lot about gender through quidditch. Gender is not the same as sex. Sex is biological. In most cases it’s binary, but not always. Gender is a choice.

If, like me, you are privileged to never have needed to actually think about what gender you are, because you’re quite comfortable being the gender that matches your sex, it’s likely that, like me, you’re lacking the mental flexibility to really get your head around the genders represented on the quidditch roster. It’s not easy. There are many players for whom gender identity is not what was originally written on their birth certificate. All those normal indicators that we cling to for defining gender, and not just long hair and pink nail varnish, but the contrast between a bobbing up and down walk and a wiggling side to side walk, have to be put aside in favour of the individual’s preference. Which you aren’t going to know unless you’re explicitly told. Some people define and own their gender for themselves. The rest of us accept what our elders assumed.

On the quidditch pitch, whatever you feel your gender to be is how the others are willing to see you. That makes a quidditch tournament somewhat unique. I asked my sister how the referee knows who counts as what: the captains tell the head referee before the call for brooms up. Simple really. I don’t know why I felt it would be more difficult that that. No, perhaps I do. I like to think of myself as an open minded, inclusive person, but the truth is, that much like everyone else in this world, I am inclusive when it regards things I know. What I don’t know, and aren’t comfortable with, makes me feel uncertain. I naturally gravitate towards people like me.

Until recently, nobody has ever asked me what it means to be a woman. For me, gender and sex have always been one, interchangeable idea. When it comes to talking about being female I’m at a loss. I’m missing the vocabulary. Looking at my nails, which are practical nails, a guy recently remarked that I wasn’t very girly. My soft hands are apparently rough. There’s a callus on my finger. I’d prefer to be chopping logs to painting my nails, but that, I’m sure, makes me no less girl. Are girly and feminine synonyms? Clearly not. So when people talk about gender, what are they actually talking about? Is it more about perception? Could someone be female in one culture and male in another based on how they are more comfortable dressing and working? Ancient Egyptian men wore jewellery, make-up and excessive perfume. They didn’t have trousers. Three and a half thousand years ago, Hatshepsut gave birth to a daughter but was portrayed as a man. It was what fitted her role and the needs of her people at that time.

So maybe what I really took in was this: I don’t need to know the gender of the person I’m sharing brownies with or gossiping about the game with to share brownies or gossip about the game. If in doubt, I can always use peoples names instead of assuming they/she/he or whatever other pronoun is in the mix. The captains and the head referees need to know peoples gender to make sure that the game is played to the rule book. But really, what difference does it make to me?

Previous things I learnt through quidditch:

On quidditch

 

 

 

 

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You’re only as strong as your willingness to surrender

Pyramid

Realising a vision takes discipline. Photo of the first of the Egyptian pyramids – Djoser’s step pyramid at Sakkara 2700 BC.

I have scribbled ‘you’re only as strong as your willingness to surrender’ on a post-it note above my desk.

Mad methods

I like to keep my desk uncluttered, but beside the monitor, in a pint glass, is a drink of screwed up pink paper Hello Kitty heads, each with three tasks on. Their only purpose is to remind me of progress. I like how the glass fills slowly, day by day as I tackle more and more minor challenges which otherwise would just feel like an ache behind the eyes.

Pink paper Hello Kitty heads with three items on. If I’ve more than three actions listed at a time I become overwhelmed. Three tasks at a time is a good limit. It gives me focus.

Dedicated discipline

Jim Collins, in his book Good to Great, describes a paradox thus, “You must maintain unwavering faith that you can and will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties, AND at the same time have the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

Discipline is the how. My discipline is under scrutiny; the Hello Kitty pint glass, the ticking timer, the check lists and plans all conspire to get me my dreams.

Surrendering – stopping resisting authority – is not a natural strength of mine. I am a fighter, perhaps not always for the right things at the right time, perhaps sometimes somewhat blindly, but you can be assured that I’m going to sit up and act.

Appropriate acceptance

This whole idea of surrendering or accepting, comes up again and again, especially in mindfulness. Wise man John Kabat-Zinn tells me very kindly in his book Meditation for Beginners, “No one is saying, ‘Just accept it.” As we have seen, especially with horrific occurrences and circumstances, coming to acceptance is one of the hardest things in the world. Ultimately, it means realizing how things are and finding ways to be in a wise relationship with them. And then to act, as appropriate, out of that clarity of vision.” Stoic philosophers, such as Seneca, remind me that there are things I can control and things I can’t and trying to sway those I can’t is a waste of my limited resources.

“I can be resourceful,” I say. “Let’s double check.”

The ‘most brutal fact of your current reality’ is often this need for acceptance. And the discipline required to accept isn’t something that can be tossed into a pint glass, or confirmed with a tick. It’s never-ending. You’re always accepting, always forgiving, always surrendering.

And yet, you can’t give up. There’s still that need for unwavering faith. Hope.

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It’s like a game: pattern building my life.

move forward in life with good habits

Ten years ago, I had a list of things that I believed if I just did them each day, would make me happier. It included clean my teeth, which was easy; have a tidy bedroom, which I haven’t discovered ticked in any of the tiny Hello Kitty notebook pages; and do my homework, this one normally came with exclamation marks stating that my attitude here really needed to change.

I must have known it then, but not really understood it. Habits are everything.

By which I mean, if you have good habits, happiness will undoubtedly come following. If you have bad habits, you’ll climb into a small box and sit there until you start doing something good again.

Habits are patterns so routine you do them because that’s what you do.

You don’t want a friend who was kind once, you want a friend who’s habitually kind. For whom kindness has gone from a series of small actions to the reason why you now trust them and will be there for them when they need you.

Again, I have created a list of things I must do each day. This happens whenever I find myself feeling a little lost and confused about what I’m supposed to be doing with myself and wallowing. Wallowing doesn’t make me a nice person to hang around with. It’s marked by an internalisation of all my thoughts. Everything I do and think is based on an abundance of feelings of inadequacy. The ‘wicked’ problem of being me saturates my mind.

Wicked problems are those like life, the universe and everything, where the answer, 42, does nothing to help, and isn’t really an answer at all. You can lose a lot of time tangled in such problems.

Anyway, out of this mud. Because whilst occasional wallowing is inevitable, there are ways of turning that internal mooch into creativity. I must assure the worry that whilst I’m listening, and I care, it’s got to share my attention with other people, paper and pens. I need a clear head so that I’m able to sit and listen to others without projecting my own frustrations.

A simple but important habit for me is to draw something every day. I must draw, because if I don’t draw, I don’t make any money. Drawing yesterday and today makes drawing tomorrow easier. This is partly because drawing is something that happens best without words passing through my mind. It’s instinctual, but it requires that little voice in my head to be sweetly dozing. It’s agitating to have my own voice narrate stories in which I am both protagonist and antagonist whilst I’m working.

In a way, drawing is like meditation. In both you feel better about the outcome if the voice is still, but you can’t silence the voice by force. Meditation doesn’t necessarily get easier, like drawing doesn’t get easier. But with practice and persistence you reap greater and greater rewards.

I need to be able to step from a place of negative, or numbed thinking, and into a serene productivity that’s outward looking as well as inwardly aware. My list is a set of habits I want to have that mirror my dreams. My focus now is not on the end goal. It’s to practice those habits that I know, in the long run, will get me to who I want to be.

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Without imagination, how can we achieve anything?

cycling

This isn’t about cycling, but…

Cycling has become interesting over the last few days. At one point, my cycling buddy pointed out, the section of hill I’d just come to the top of would have been coloured black on the Tour De France magic map. And black means steep. I was too exhausted to respond with anything remotely intelligent. My thighs were burning.

Not every hill has been a successful climb. Luckily on the rural roads there’s nobody who could hear me curse, loudly, as I struggled to push my bike up the last few metres of a particularly steep section in my cycling shoes. It’s like trying to walk with a pair of heels on back to front.

Côte de Goose Eye
A short and savage little 20% ramp, yes 20%, that will hopefully catch many by surprise. There will be those powerful riders who will eat it up like a ripe apple but the rest will grind to halt on its savage slopes that rise, twist right then left and will hopefully provide one of the highlights of the whole weekend.

Cycling Weekly

I’ve cycled most of Goose Eye, but ‘grinded’ to a halt not far from the top of the particularly steep initial ramp. However, by the first twist right I was climbing back on my bike with my determination to keep on going.

Jelly babies I adore you.

…imagination…

The other night, I watched the Imitation Game, the film about Bletchley Park which is a place I’ve visited a number of times and is held in a warm place in my heart because it reminds me of watching the father excitedly talking about valves and British genius and maths and logic and secrets. Such excitement is infectious.

The repeated quote in the film is:

“Sometimes it’s the very people who no one imagines anything of who do the things no one can imagine.”

Which is a beautiful way of saying that sometimes people surprise. Now I wouldn’t make any comparisons with people who are real cyclists or real geniuses, but the one person I can compare myself to is myself. A number of years ago, I remember having a big stress about a hill which was 0.8km, had 26 metres of elevation gain and an average gradient of 3%. This week I’ve done much more than that, much more than I could have imagined anyone imagining me doing.

However, I don’t believe The Imitation Game quote really works. I struggle to believe that if you are someone ‘who no one imagines anything of’, then you will ever gather enough self-belief to imagine much of yourself at all. If you can’t dream of having a success, how are you going to walk the path? Alan Turning had Christopher, Joan and presumably his mother, not to mention he was generally known to be incredibly intelligent from a very young age which inevitably results in academic support (even if he was a pain to teach).

I couldn’t cycle the route I’ve cycled without believing it might be possible. I’ve looked into a pair of eyes which taunted ‘you can do this’ and this made me believe.

Failing to imagine the possibilities of life keeps us grounded at the bottom of the hill looking down at our chubby thighs. Perhaps the step between the ego driven dream and the impossible ‘just do it’ is imagining ourselves actually pushing through the pain. It’s easy to laugh at our inadequacies; it’s harder to imagine that you could actually have success.

The friend, the colleague or the coach who believes is the catalyst. Maybe the biggest gift anyone can give to another is to believe in their potential.

…and belief

At the beginning of the week I considered Goose Eye, laughed and said no. Despite this, and despite failing to get up it, I believe I will climb that hill.

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How To Survive The Inordinate Terror Of Leaving University

terror of leaving university

[The view from outside.]

I felt like I was stepping back in time.

A too cold house. So much washing up that you couldn’t find a place to put your mug without toppling the entire kitchen and late nights of drinking, laughing at music videos and avoiding talking about any real dreams in case they’re too much.

Turns out, by visiting the past you learn a lot about how you’ve changed.

And I’ve really changed.

I was stunned. Obviously I’ve been in this position, and made my own inelegant execution of post-university life. And yet something substantial has altered in how I think about the future.

There’s a palatable fear associated with being a final year university student. The balance between ‘how am I going to get all this work finished and the haunting question on everyone’s mind of ‘what’s next?’.

To my great relief, I’ve lost much of that fear.

What if you fail?

What if I fail to get this job? What if NOBODY wants to employ me? Is getting my degree even good enough any more – everyone has degrees so they’re pretty much worthless, right?

What if I choose a PhD (or post-doc) and then can’t do it, or don’t find it interesting, or don’t like my supervisor, or have to spend the rest of my life in this totally boring going nowhere niche? What if I can’t get funding?

What if I get funding?

What if the only job I can get is in London, and I don’t want to live in London? Or what if it’s in Hong Kong, and I’m scared of flying? And what if I start this job and nobody likes me? Or what if I’m really awful at it?

And right now it feels like everyone has already started applying.

Just being snuggled under a blanket listening to so much uncertainty was unnerving.

No. No. No.

If you know what you want, go get it.

If you don’t know what you want, stop wasting your energy being frightened and give yourself a chance to discover what it is you do want to do.

There isn’t a deadline.

When September rolls round, you don’t have to have your desk marked out.

Life doesn’t have to feel like complex jigsaw where you don’t know what you’re trying to build. Or even why you’re bothering.

Your education is a great gift. But when it comes to the future, your degree is a sunk cost and your skills are your immovable assets. There’s no point pondering sunk costs, and just because you own something, doesn’t mean you have to use it.

You need a vision and a strategy before you plan your next investment.

What If I hate what I do?

If you don’t get a graduate job, if you don’t get funding for your PhD, if you start a job and hate it, if you start a PhD and hate it. It doesn’t matter.

If you don’t like it, quit, try something else.

Quiting isn’t failing. It’s a recognition that you’re ready to head in a different direction.

If someone’s going to hold it against you that you’ve screwed up a few times in your life, committed to stuff you realised was wrong for you and changed track, they’re the fool.

If you can take responsibility for removing yourself from a situation that’s not enriching your life, then you should be proud of yourself. Not ashamed.

Shame is unhelpful.

But what you mustn’t do is do nothing.

Stagnating is the only real failure. Not learning. Not trying. Not dreaming. Not doing.

Commit to something small – reading a relevant book, talking to someone with influence, consulting your peers and family, applying for a temporary job or internship. Get momentum, then use it to keep moving.

Keep learning. Keep improving. Keep falling down and getting back up because otherwise you’ll sit and stagnate and never go anywhere.

Throw all the cards in the air, shuffle the deck and deal yourself a new hand.

Take up improvisation theatre classes or climb a mountain.

But, my parents?

Here’s the bit I screw up.

If your parents love you, they’ll worry about you, a lot.

They’ve got the right to do so.

There’s a lot of ‘well-meaning’ people in the world but just because people love you doesn’t mean they necessary know what’s best for you. It’s easy to exclude everyone with a heart at this point.

The trouble comes when you think you know what they expect or want from you, but you don’t really know because you haven’t asked and they’re too polite to project their desires on you anyway. Mostly, people who genuinely love us want us to be exactly what we want to be: smiling as we engage in doing something that makes us feel worthwhile.

It doesn’t harm to listen to parents once in a while. They’ve already invested a large proportion of their adult lives in you. If you care about them, give them the benefit of the doubt and keep them in the loop.

Take the time to explain your decisions. Don’t they deserve to know where you’re going and what you’re doing?

Leadership starts with a clear vision. You’ve got to lead your own life, but also need supporters, and for them to follow you, you’ll have to share your vision.

I say this, and I’m rubbish at it. When I get scared I fill ‘My Documents’ with files and leave the blog looking sparse. This is the wrong way round. When you’re terrified, that’s when you need to vent and articulate your feelings. When this stuff is out in the open it’s easier to recognise the fear for what it is.

The Mother told me her worst fear was that I’d join a commune, chop off all my hair and take up drugs. The worst fears of some of the students I’ve spoken to over the last week were much more grounded in reality – like mental breakdowns and depression.

The worst case scenario

What is your worst case scenario?

Mine involves not doing the work I believe in. It involves not having something to be proud of. It involves being so distracted by my own insecurities and fears that I forget to invest time in the people I love.

What will you be proud of when you’re old and grey?

Work really hard at something you believe in, invest in the people you love, and you’ll have plenty to be proud of, whatever you do.


Something has changed in the way I think.

I’m no longer being driven by fear. I’m not paralysed by fear. I’m overwhelmed by the possibilities and the freedoms that come with being in control. But this overwhelm isn’t a deadening overwhelm.

It feels more like eating a whole bag of Jelly Babies.

My mind is bouncing, energetic, excited by today, thrilled that tomorrow is going to happen too.

It’s my life. My choice of pace.

You have the choice too.

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