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The face of Janus: thoughts from the other side of 2016

illustration by Sharon Court

Towards the end of December I noticed a common theme to the tone and content of my friends Facebook comments. They read basically: “Good Riddance 2016 – you were all kinds of awful and I’m glad to see the back of you!”

To be fair, I can kind of understand their point of view: we saw the deaths of a number of well-known and well-liked celebrities (perhaps no more than previous years but the loss of these individuals seemed to resonate with a lot of people my age). And let’s not forget the shambles of the EU Referendum or the US election… But in addition to that, I know of personal tragedies that people faced: the onset of cancer, the sudden death of a close family member, heartbreak, loss and disappointment. Perhaps 2016 does have a lot to answer for?

I was taking my dog for a walk one day, amongst the mulch of dead leaves and the shadowy silent figures of sleeping trees, and I thought about how much people wanted to reject the year – to push it away and maybe even pretend it had never happened, and I wondered whether we could actually do that? Turn our backs on it completely and simply refuse to accept the pain, disappointment and grief.

I looked at the landscape around me and it occurred to me that nature doesn’t do that. It doesn’t turn its back on the year just gone, but in fact it draws from it intentionally.

During the autumn we see the spectacular effects of nature preparing itself for winter: deciduous trees draw back into themselves any unused chlorophyll and any remaining sugars show in the amount of red in the leaves – the more red there is, the more sugar is present. Yellow or golden leaves have much less sugar.

That chlorophyll becomes the storehouse for the following year, allowing new buds and leaves to be grown, drawn from the growth of the previous season. Nature doesn’t turn its back on the old year when the new one comes; it doesn’t disdain or despair. Rather it keeps the good and uses it for renewal.

Now this is where my analogy starts to get a bit wobbly, because of course if the soil quality is poor, or the local water supply is tainted, the trees might also draw in bad things as well as good. Trees, you see, can’t make choices about their water supply or soil quality.

But we can.

We can choose to keep what is good, wholesome, healthy and encouraging and we can choose to let go of the pain, loss and disappointment. Certainly we will be impacted and changed by it – the rings inside a tree bear testament to the rainfall of previous years – but even loss and bereavement can bring strength and hope after a time.

2016 may have had its challenges, but there were good things too: the long-awaited pregnancy, the chance to go to university, the security of a permanent job, the reassurance brought by making new friends at a new school. These are the chlorophyll moments of 2016: the life-affirming experiences which bring joy, hope and peace.

So will we take our lessons from social media, or from nature, whose quiet presence offers a consistent reminder of the opportunties and choices before us?

The choice is up to us.

 

 

 

Does it add up?

A colleague within the Church of England recently sent me information from the Children’s Rights Alliance for England. Towards the bottom of the email, which was a summary of a variety of reports from 2016, was this list of statistics:

Children’s Rights Alliance for England

CRAE findings from their State of Children’s Rights in England 2016 report:

  • 3.9 million children were living in poverty in 2014/15 (29% of all children)
  • £2.4 billion cut from children, young people and family services over six years
  • 3,390 families with children are living in bed and breakfasts
  • 39,388 recorded sexual offences against children in 2014/15, an 84% increase in the past two years
  • 30% financial decrease in support for asylum seeking families with children
  • 1.4 million more pupils are taught in good or outstanding schools than in 2010
  • Less than 25% of white British boys from lower income backgrounds are achieving five GCSE grades A*-C
  • 14% of looked after children achieved five GCSE grades A*-C compared to 53% of non-looked after children
  • 202 children under 18 in adult mental health wards last year (43% increase since 2011/12)
  • 200 million a year cut to the public health grant in 2015 with a further £331 million cut by 2020/21

There are a couple of things I want to comment on in particular:

The number of children living in poverty was almost 1/3 of the population two years ago. I wonder what the figures would be now?  Just to clarify, the poverty line is defined as “the estimated minimum level of income needed to secure the necessities of life”. The Children’s Society website has a calculator which shows what level the poverty line was at, between the year 2000 and 2015. In 2015, an average household of two adults and two under 14s might be expected to have an income around or above £336 per week (after housing costs). Anything less than that would mean they were living below the poverty line.

Think about that for a moment: there may well be families you know, ordinary ‘normal’ families, who are actually living in poverty, but you wouldn’t know it just by looking?

It will come as no surprise to anyone, that the needs* increase as the funding for support services decreases. Public funding continues to be slashed and services cut or relocated to the voluntary sector (but on a smaller scale) and yet the levels of need are clearly not in line with the services available.

*particularly of vulnerable families

202 teenagers with mental health problems were cared for in adult mental health wards. This highlights how stretched adolescent mental health services are (teenagers are only admitted in specialist, high need circumstances such as attempted suicide, severe weight loss or being a danger to themselves) and also raises questions about how well equipped mental health services are to deal with the diversity of needs from different generations?

These statistics makes sobering reading for anyone, but many of us who work with children and young people may feel it more keenly as we see the faces which these disembodied numbers represent. I think it’s important therefore, that we keep reminding policy makers that these numbers are real people, with real faces, who deserve to be valued and treated with respect, and not reduced to a dot on a graph.

Pay attention: life lessons from nature

Connections

I am the world’s worst person to go on a walk with.

You see, one of my hobbies is photography, and even if I’ve only got my mobile phone with me, I still want to stop and take pictures – my family often feel exasperated when they have to wait for me, as I’ve gotten distracted by something which caught my eye. I notice things and I wonder and I ask questions…

We hear a lot about mindfulness these days. In case you’ve been stranded on a desert island and haven’t heard of it, mindfulness is the practice of choosing to be more aware of your environment and yourself, in order to promote wellbeing. Some of the oldest world religions have been practising mindfulness for some time – Buddhism, Judaism and Christianity among them, encouraging followers to set aside time aside for quiet reflection and meditation.

It’s become a very popular trend over the last couple of years. As a society, we’re told we are experiencing more stress than previous generations, and the consequences of not dealing with stress properly – anxiety, depression, anger and other manifestations of poor mental health can be considerable. Looking after yourself and your mental health is important and mindfulness can be a healthy part of that, but I try and use it in a slightly different way…

As a Christian, I operate on the assumption that God can and does speak to us and that he has things to say. The challenge is not whether God can communicate as much as whether we’re actually listening! For me, mindfulness – that intentional act of stopping to pause, reflect and listen, is a key part of how I hear from God when I pray and I will often look to the natural world for inspiration.

Variety

For example, some time ago I was taking our dog for a walk, and I felt God say I should pay attention to the leaves I saw along the walk. To be honest, I’m usually paying most attention to the dog as he’s a beagle and has a habit of getting into spaces he’s not supposed to, or eating things he shouldn’t. The route was a familiar one and I didn’t expect to see anything special…but I was wrong.

Scale

 

I have included some photos I took on that walk and some observations and questions it raised for me:

Connections (top of the page): where are you connected in? Who or what do you connect to? Are there some connections which need nurturing, or some which need pruning back?

Variety (middle of the page): each leaf is different, unique. They have their own version of the variegation which makes the whole plant  distinctive. That difference is what makes the plant stand out. Do you celebrate your uniqueness, or do you try and hide it? Do you feel uncomfortable with being different to other people, or are you content to be yourself?

Scale (towards the bottom of the page): some of the ivy leaves in this photo are small, others are huge! Yet each one is necessary to the plant. Each leaf’s ability to function and contribute to the life of the plant is not determined by it’s size, but rather it’s ability to access the sun. Do you value the contribution you make? What would be missing if you weren’t there?

I think that whether or not you hold a faith, these questions would still resonate with you, and invite you to reflect on aspects of your life which you might want to change or value differently.

This year’s theme at Portsmouth Cathedral is all about ecology and the environment and it’s called All Things Bright and Beautiful. I’m involved in the planning and management of the project, and will be running some sessions, writing blog articles etc. My aspiration is to create a series of mindfulness reflection activities, based on things found in nature and along the coast, which can be shared during the year. Ultimately, I’d like to compile them all into a little book and have it properly printed – watch this space for further updates!

Enjoying the view…

img_20150725_153152-01

There’s something about seeing a place or an object from a different vantage point, which can change the way you think about it.

The photo  shows a view of the city of Portsmouth, but from Portsdown Hill.  From here it’s easier to see the green spaces and in the distance the sea is just visible. But from the heart of the city, surrounded by tower blocks and the noise of traffic, those green spaces and sea views seem a million miles away…

Our view of things can be challenged and changed – if we’re prepared to consider new ideas and be open minded. This was part of the theme of the Viewpoint project at Portsmouth Cathedral which ran from September 2016 to July 2017.

During the course of the project, there were five artists in residence, exploring the theme of faith & spirituality through their chosen practice. I was not only curator of the project, but also had the opportunity to be an artist in residence myself, as creator of the Viewfinder, a sculpture created from a recycled spinning wheel.

You can find out more here: Viewpoint project (The link takes you to a series of blog articles, describing the artists and their work.) The evaluation report and accompanying paper should be available online shortly.

 

The Potting Shed – how and why?

cropped-thepottingshed.pngSomeone sent me a note recently saying how much they liked the sound of what I’m doing in The Potting Shed* and wondered how I got into it.

*The Potting Shed is the page on Facebook where the exploits of my freelance work are shared more frequently. It’s only a virtual shed at the moment, but it seemed logical: if you’re going to grow things you need tools and resources and a place to nurture them!

It was lovely to be asked 🙂 I had a little ponder and this was my reply. Perhaps you might find it interesting too?

Megan: Sharon, I completely love the sound of everything The Potting Shed does. How did you get into doing that? What is your background? (if you don’t mind me asking!!) xx

Hi Megan!
Thank you very much! I don’t mind you asking at all!
I’d like to say that it’s part of some kind of carefully planned career path…but that would be a complete lie! The reality is entirely more haphazard and accidental. My background is in youth & children’s work. I’m a qualified teacher and youthworker, but I have a real passion for heritage, arts, communities and storytelling.

This means that I tend to get drawn to projects which touch on those kinds of areas…Children and young people are part of communities and they interact with and affect each other (whether they know it or not!) Heritage is about the story of a place and the people who have, or are currently living in it, and the arts (such as storytelling) is how we can share and explore the locality and community where we live and begin to understand our place in it.

I think my core motivation is around valuing people: I believe everyone has inherent value, because each person is unique. Our DNA, our fingerprints, the combination of character, personality, skills and experience are not to be found anywhere else, or in anyone else.
That makes you uniquely valuable and irreplaceable.

The work I’m involved in – which has come along haphazardly and sometimes almost by accident, doesn’t bring value or worth to the people or places I work with…but perhaps some of what I bring helps to draw out the value of what’s already there?

Does that make sense?

I love what I’m doing, even though at times it feels very stressful (like now when I’ve got two chaplaincy visits this week and an exhibition opening on Friday!!) and I sometimes miss being part of a team with other people. Being freelance can feel lonely and isolated at times and I sometimes feel like I bear a heavier responsibility than if I were an employee in a bigger company. There are times when I feel like I’m dangling on a string above a rather cavernous ravine, and it wouldn’t take too much for the string to snap…

But on the other hand it’s a tremendous privilege to be able to work with people and make a big/small difference in their lives! Who can say that they get to do that? I love the variety, the creativity, the opportunity to direct and hold and shape things…And it means I can be very flexible around the needs of my family, which is the most important part.
So that’s kind of it really….!

Got any more questions…do send them my way

CUExpo – canals and dams

Rideau canal house

The Rideau canal, near Charleston university campus – such a peaceful spot!

Ottawa in June was surprisingly warm! I really wasn’t prepared for it, having been to Corner Brook in Newfoundland two years previously, but it was, frankly, glorious!
Having the 2015 CUExpo in the nation’s capital was a wonderful opportunity to get to know more about the country and its heritage. The conference opened with a traditional smudging ceremony and the host for CUExpo made the point that the university and indeed much of the city was located on unceeded Algonquin land, one of the First Nation peoples in Canada.

The Great Hall at the National Museum of Canada

The Grand Hall in the National Museum. The totem poles are made from whole trunks of cedar wood and tell the story of a person’s life.

I was able to visit the National Museum in the French Canadian section of the city, and travelling on the bus enabled me to see a wide cross section of the city and what modern life is like for Canadians living there. I particularly enjoyed the enormous totem poles and the First Nation style of artwork, which was bold but also sometimes disturbing!

I was also very touched and challenged by the newly released Truth and Reconciliation Commission report summary which detailed the ‘cultural genocide’ of First Nation people’s which took place in the 1960s and 1970s. Some of these harrowing stories of young aboriginal children separated from their families and housed in institutional schools which sought to erase all their cultural heritage, was a shock to many Canadians, who simply didn’t know these things had even happened.

I went to the conference on my own, as a practitioner in my own right and was booked to do a storytelling session. This was instead of going as a member of the UK Community Partner Network (UKCPN), which is how I’d been able to attend the previous conference in Newfoundland. It was nice to see some familiar faces and to learn new things about community engagement practice, but travelling alone to a conference is also hard work (especially for an introvert!) and I think it would have been nicer to be part of a group.

My storytelling session entitled The Castle of Mystery went down well and those who came really enjoyed it, which was great! Storytelling is part of my creative practice, and a useful way to both challenge and reflect back to people, some of the dynamics of an organisation, situation or project.

It was useful and interesting to hear about other engagement practice elsewhere, but to be truthful it was also frustrating because the university I’m connected to doesn’t have a coherent community engagement strategy, or a team of people who might push that forward. In each successive session I went to, I heard about Chancellors and Vice Chancellors and Faculty Deans who’d put their weight and support behind a community engagement initiative, with fantastic results. Sadly the university closest to me seems to lack that vision at the moment, and although there *is* work happening across the institution, it’s fragmented and lacks punch. And without the weight of the executive behind it, it will only ever be thus.

I completed my own paper, ‘The Greenhouse Effect’ about the value of community engagement and a potential strategy for working with local groups, for the faculty I’m working with, but regrettably, nothing further seems to have come from it. Again without the weight of leadership behind it, community engagement will remain ‘off the edge of my desk’ for most of the academics there.

In the meantime however, I am co-authoring a paper about community engagement with two colleagues from the University of Portsmouth for the Research For All journal, which will hopefully be published next year and I have been invited to take part in an Interreg funded project called PONToon. So all it not lost….perhaps rather like a canal boat, these things take longer to move and longer to turn than anyone could have expected!

The expanding horizon…

After I got back from CUExpo in Canada (which I’ll write about in a separate post) I was straight back into the thick of it – ‘it’ being the end of one project and the launch of two new ones.

Students at Charter Academy. creating minature stained glass windows for a quiet area at the school.

Students at Charter Academy. creating minature stained glass windows for a quiet area at the school.

The FE Chaplaincy project packed up its’ stuff and moved in with the Deanery Youthwork project and in August 2015 I was appointed as the Creative Engagement practitioner for the newly merged Youth Chaplaincy project. Seeking to bring together the best of both worlds, Youth Chaplaincy works in local secondary schools and colleges and the aim is to ‘create a space for the bigger questions in life’.  More about that in another post!

Children weaving into the community tapestry, one of the activities which took place during LoLou Morris' residency.

Children weaving into the community tapestry, one of the activities which took place during LoLou Morris’ residency.

In addition, I’m delighted to say that the Liturgy Project was also finally brought to birth, but it’s now known as Viewpoint. Based at Portsmouth Cathedral, the project aims to explore faith and spirituality through the arts, and the Cathedral link takes you to all the blog listings, which take you through the journey the project and its artists’ have been on. More about that in another post too!

One of the noticeable changes in recent months, is my decision to give more time over to my own creative practice. This is hard as there’s always a list as long as my arm when it comes to ‘paid work’ and always something else ‘more important’ which I feel I ought to be doing…

But the truth of it is that making makes me happy, and when I’m making it helps with my sense of calm and peace and also enables me to have more ideas which feed into the projects I’m working on. You can find some of my making here on Instagram

So here’s to doing what you love, and being happy whilst doing it!

The Castle of Mystery – raising the portcullis on community engagement

The Rideau Canal, showing Ottawa locks and the Canadian Parliament building

The Rideau Canal, showing Ottawa locks

Well, after a hectic week of travelling, listening, talking and sharing, I’m back from my trip to Ottawa. I had a great time and met some interesting people, but I’m also glad to be home again!

I’ve never been to Ottawa before and I enjoyed wandering round parts of the city in-between conference sessions, exploring some of its history, as well as acquainting myself with the history of the nation itself. The Truth and Reconciliation report on the indigenous people of Canada was on the brink of being released at the time of my visit, and even to an outsider, it feels like this will be a momentous and sobering moment for a nation which views itself as ‘Canada the good’ and has, on the whole, a well-earned reputation for kindness and generosity. I think its going to be a tough road ahead for Canadians of all descent, but also perhaps a hopeful and honest one. You can find out more here: Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission

 

The reason for visiting Canada was so that I could participate in the biannual C2UExpo conference, which took place this year at Carleton University. This year the conference organisers have made an effort to include local colleges as well (hence the C2 title adaptation), and we had the opportunity to visit Algonquin College, which, like much of Ottawa, is sited on unceeded Algonquin land. (The Algonquin are an indigenous people group who originate in this part of Canada). In 2017 the conference will move to Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia.

There are increasing efforts to make universities more accessible and for research work to become increasingly more grounded and relevant to the felt needs of local communities – hence the idea of castles and raising the portcullis. This isn’t always easy, and the university might often find itself pulled in different directions between the expectations and standards of academia and the aspiration for more engaged and diverse community engagement.

However, in varying ways, individuals, teams and departments are seeking to find more creative and reliable ways of

The Great Hall in the Canadian Museum of History. The Hall houses a number of original Totem poles, carved from single trucks of cedar as well as a wealth of First Nations artefacts.

The Great Hall in the Canadian Museum of History. The Hall houses a number of original Totem poles, carved from single trucks of cedar as well as a wealth of First Nations artefacts.

doing this in a wide range of fields and disciplines, and we heard a lot about this during the 3/4 days of the conference. One of the things which really struck me was the reality that unless a Vice Principle or someone else at executive level within the institution, pro-actively takes up the mantle of community engagement, then this kind of work is resigned to being ‘off the edge of my desk’ and will never achieve the quality and impact which such work is capable of. There are many universities within the UK who fall into this category, and whilst the REF Impact agenda* did something to raise this issue and force universities to engage with it, there are still wide-ranging disparities about the effectiveness of this work.

*The ‘Impact’ agenda refers to a decision made by UK Funding Councils, who fund universities, that up to 20% of their core funding would only be awarded on the basis of community engaged research work 

There are challenges to forming mutually beneficial and sustainable research partnerships, not least becoming acclimatised to the different cultures and practices found within universities and community groups. This is something of what my story ‘The Castle of Mystery’ aims to highlight. I told the story to a room of about 30 people on the first full day of the conference and I’m pleased to say that it was very well received, which was very encouraging!

As promised, the audio version and the script are available below, and if you ave any comments or feedback, please feel free to drop me a line: sharon.court@gmail.com or via Twitter @sharonaverona or Facebook: The Potting Shed on Facebook

listen to ‘The Castle of Mystery’ on audioBoom


The Castle of Mystery script

Up, up and away!

A while ago someone asked me about my fundraising efforts to attend CUExpo2015, the bi-annual university-community conference in Canada. I explained that whilst I’d had an encouraging level of interest in my online auction, I hadn’t raised enough money to be able to go.

“Unless something falls out of the sky,” I said, “It looks very unlikely that I’ll be going.”

Part of the famous Ottawa skyline, showing the Canadian Parliament building

Part of the famous Ottawa skyline, showing the Canadian Parliament building

Well, late last week something did fall out of the sky and I’m delighted to say that I’ve been awarded a bursary so that I can go!

The CUexpo conference is taking place at Carleton University in the capital city of Ottawa. It runs from Tues 26th to Fri 29th May and I’m going to be doing a storytelling session on Weds 27th starting at 11am. This is one of a number of concurrent sessions running throughout the conference. The story I’m going to tell has been specially written for the conference and is called ‘The Castle of Mystery’. It tells the story of a girl named Lily and her experience of encountering the Castle and its occupants for the first time. Those of you familiar with trying to navigate the complex nature of a university might find some intriguing similarities between Lily’s experience of the castle, and your own experience of a university.

The story script and audio version will also be available here on the website, after the session.

Find out more about the conference here:  www.cuexpo2015.ca

Online auction: catalogue of items

This entry contains details of all the items available in the online auction and will be updated regularly, so remember to scroll down and see what’s new!

Just as a reminder for the reason behind all this making: I’ve been invited to do a storytelling session at a university conference in Canada in May this this, but I need to raise the funds by April 6th! I am therefore creating and auctioning a range of unique, handcrafted items, as well as stories and audiobooks, to raise for the trip.

If I’m unsuccessful in raising enough money to go, I will contact the highest bidder for each item and offer it to them at a special price, so you’ll still be in with a chance to own that special something you had your eye on!

Thanks in advance for all your support!

 

a-forest_sunlight-1573690Day 1: Audiobook recording of ‘Emi and the Lion’. Starting bid £20, Link to hear the first chapter here:http://www.apple-seed.org.uk/?p=308

 

 

 

bed glass candle holders

Day 2: Trio of upcycled beaded glass candle holders ‘The Elements’ representing earth, fire and water. Bidding started at £8 and will close at midnight on Mon 16th March, We have a bidder on this item already but there’s still time!

 

 

coastal maps series

Day 3: ‘Coastal Maps’: a series of framed maps embellished with real seashells. Bidding starts at £20 for the set. Other images can be found here: http://ow.ly/KpBCZ

 

 

 

 

swirl clay pendant

Day 4: ‘Swirl’ handmade clay pendant with leather lace. Bidding starts at £3

 

 

 

P1070229Day 5: ‘Peonies’- pair of candles in matching ceramic candle holders with white/lilac design. Bidding starts at £8 for the pair

 

 

 

 

story

Day 6: (This is the one you’ve been waiting for!)

Original short story, recorded and delivered either on CD or as digital download, including 3 elements of your choice. I invite you to suggest three things and I will create an original story which includes those three things* The story will be delivered within 5-10days, exclusively to you. Bidding starts at £30

*family friendly suggestions please 😉

P1070201Day 7: Holding cross – hand-finished in either white or terracotta clay. There are a range of designs, as shown on the Facebook page. Please specify if you have a preference. Bidding starts at £5

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