How did I ever live through it all before Buddhism?

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Last week I was checking in at a Buddhist Group and I found myself wondering aloud, “Just how did I get through everything before Buddhism?”.  Before the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha came into my life?  Before I knew to go to refuge in these Three Jewels? How did I manage to survive this life before I was introduced to Buddhism?  How did I get through the constant struggles that life always presents us with?  How did I enjoy the good times which I knew would end?  How did I manage to be any way near happy and content through the struggles which seem to have hit over the past couple of years?

I can say how I attempted to do all of that.   Some of the ways were good or, at least not dreadful!.  I am fortunate that I have some incredibly good friends and we support each other.  My girls always helped just by being there just as my lovely Pretzel, JD and Smirnoff did.  A walk with Pretzel is always a great mood enhancer.  Having a cat or two on my lap is always lovely.  I would book holidays and have things to look forward to …  this was a good strategy as long as there was always something to look forward to.  It did mean that a lot of life wasn’t appreciated as I was always awaiting Friday evening or the holiday in the sun.  This strategy involved a lot of living in the future or recalling pleasant memories of the past but helped to get me through. There were other strategies too – alcohol was definitely a big help!  Not in large quantities but a few glasses of wine to numb the senses and dim the worry for a while.  I got involved in things – running, Power lifting….  exercise is always a good thing to do (unless done to excess which may have been a problem at times).  Boxsets were a feature – a way of forgetting about life for a while. 

These ways of living life weren’t bad in themselves – unless taken to excess.  Friendship, pets and family were always a positive feature in my life.  But now, looking back, a lot of my ways of coping seem to be very short-term strategies. They were strategies which took me away from my life, emotions and thoughts.  They took me away from me.  Life was passing me by because I wasn’t living in it properly!  I was always trying to numb it or to be somewhere else! 

Those of you who have been reading my blog for a while will know that I now try to live my life differently.  I don’t always succeed in living in the present but I am at least trying to do so.  Buddhism has given meaning to my life, a sense of purpose.  It also gives me ways of thinking about my life and thoughts on how to live it.  Buddhism doesn’t provide me with a step by step plan – I have to work all of that out for myself!  But it does provide pointers and methods!  All that I have done to change my life in the last year has been down to my new world-view – simplifying my life, putting myself and those I love ahead of convention and the supposedly safer way to live.  I still have a fair way to go but I have made a start.

Because I see life differently now, it feels more full of meaning.  Life is so precious!  It is so short and can end at any moment.  So I need to build a life which I love living rather than trying to escape it.  I need to live life fully and gratefully rather than craving something else.  And everything changes – those things which make us suffer will end at some point, or at least change.  And when something happens (the first arrow strikes), I don’t need to make it worse by firing that second arrow of worry and “why me?” at myself.  I now try to face it all head on and work my way through it.  (I try – doesn’t mean I always succeed!!).

I still use strategies for dealing with life when things aren’t going as well.  I still take Pretzel for a walk.  I still talk to friends (and my friendship circle has increased so much in the last year).  I still look forward to things.  I do all of that.  I still have the occasional glass of wine or watch a Boxset (NCIS is the current favourite) but I don’t do these to escape my life any more.  I do them because I want to do them for a little while.  But I have other ways now – meditation!  I never thought that I would be that person who has meditated at least once a day for over 130 days.  Meditation is so powerful – it calms my mind and provides a sense of peace and stillness.  Not always!  Sometimes meditation throws up important truths which bring temporary discomfort but lead to me being a better person eventually.  Mindfulness – trying to live in the present…  living with intention… trying to make each moment count.  This has led me back to doing some of the things I used to love to do but haven’t been able to concentrate on or have the energy for (reading, sewing, embroidery….). 

Yes – I am grateful to the Three Jewels and to the man who introduced me to them.  I definitely have a way to go but I am living my life a little better than I used to do.  I feel more.  I am living in my life more.  I am not just “getting by”.

Sangha Evening

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Usually Sangha evenings are led by Order Members – those people with the Kesa around their neck with special spiritual names who have spent years in training.  I am in training to be one of those ordained members but am nowhere near there yet.   But this evening was led by a group of us Mitras.  A Mitra is a term meaning “Friend”.  Not all of us are planning to be ordained but we have all gone through a ceremony in which we say that we see ourselves as Buddhists in the Triratna tradition and pledge to follow the five precepts as well as we can.

I arrived at the Deerfold Centre tonight not in the best of moods.  I wasn’t feeling well and I was having doubts about what I am doing (not in terms of Buddhism but in terms of work etc).  There are a few things that are worrying me.  If I wasn’t involved in the leading of the meeting, I might well have not gone this evening.  I am so pleased that I did.

So this evening started as always with the Sangha Night Team which includes Order Members and Mitras setting up the shrine, meditation mats and chairs.  We all do a check in before the rest arrive.    So we checked in,  I shared some of my worries and doubts – and was met with such love and kindness.  By the time the evening started I was already feeling more balanced and at peace.

The two guys leading the first half were fantastic.  One led the salutation of the Shrine and the Refuges and Precepts.  These are difficult because they have to be timed just right and are in Pali!  One led the Mindfulness of Breathing meditation – he had a difficult job because there were a couple of new people there this evening so it needed a proper introduction and commentary.  Both did so well!  A female Mitra led the second half giving a fabulous talk on Puja.  Puja means worship.  I have had difficulty connecting to Puja in the past – it is going beyond the intellectual and the emotional to the spiritual.  We split into groups to discuss it further before I led the Worship and Salutation in call and response.  One Mitra had the job of leading the mantra – he had been practising it all week.  It has a rhythm and tune to it which has to be done precisely – he did it perfectly.  I ended the evening leading the Transference of Merits.  It was a first for us all but we had such great support from the Order Members and the rest of the Sangha.

It was a truly inspirational and beautiful evening which demonstrated perfectly the benefits of practising together.  I left the evening feeling much more relaxed and less stressed about the decisions I have made and those which I will have to make.  I left feeling supported and held.  I feel so grateful that I was introduced to Buddhism and the Dharma (just over a year ago).

This life is a thing of beauty

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I have been thinking more about mindfulness.  Mindfulness in the Buddhist context – what it means for me, for my life.  The part that mindfulness plays in my Dharma Life, in my journey.  I wrote about it a few days ago ( but last night’s Sangha Evening led by the newly ordained Akāśhanandi on the Four Reminders (see below) inspired me to explore further.

The Four Reminders
This human birth is precious,
An opportunity to awaken,
But this body is impermanent,
Ready or not, one day I shall die.

So this life I must know
As the tiny splash of a raindrop,
A thing of beauty that disappears
Even as it comes into being.

The karma I create
Shapes the course of my life,
But however I act
Life always has difficulties;
No-one can control it all.
Only the Dharma
Can free me and others
From suffering forever.

Therefore I recall
My hearts’s longing for freedom,
And I resolve to make use
Of every night and day
To realise it.

The first noble truth is that to be human is to suffer.  Suffering (Dukkha) is inevitable.  We all know that – Buddhist or not.  Every human being experiences pain, suffering and loss.  A lot of our time and energy is spent trying to relieve, cover or forget this suffering.  Sometimes we choose good ways of relieving suffering – talking with friends, meditation, going for a walk etc.  But some of the time we choose less skilful methods.  Addiction is often seen as a way of coping with suffering – Russell Brand has written and spoken a lot about this.  We can become addicted to anything – food, Box sets, exercise, online shopping. Addictions are unhealthy habits and attachments.  Many activities which we do for long periods of time may not be addictions as such, but we do them to fill time, because we are bored, because we feel tired and lethargic – Eating a packet of biscuits, watching endless box sets, flicking through FaceBook …

So there is suffering which we all try to deal with or avoid in many ways.  But human life is precious as is shown by the first line of the Four Reminders.  It is an opportunity which should not be missed.  Life does have difficulties, there is always suffering but it is also a thing of beauty.  We must make the most of it as this life is fleeting like the tiny splash of a raindrop.  We never know when it might end.  So – in comes mindfulness!  Am I being mindful about how I am living my life or am I just drifting along with no purpose?  Am I wasting precious moments?  Am I engaged in looking for true freedom from suffering for myself and others or am I just covering it up with mindless, possibly harmful activity?

The way to freedom is the Dharma – “only the Dharma can free me and others from suffering forever”.  The Dharma is the teaching of the Buddha – but it is not a set of laws and commandments which are written down and must be followed to the letter.  It is a teaching which has to be internalised and lived by each individual Buddhist.  The Buddha just said, “I am a human being, and I’ve had a certain experience.  Listen to what I have to say, by all means, but listen to it critically, test it in your own experience” (Sangharakshita – the founder of Triratna Buddhism) –   There is a story of the Buddha’s aunt / foster mother coming to him very hurt and upset because the Buddha’s disciples were giving out different versions of the Dharma.  The Buddha was unperturbed – and said (in a much longer and more poetic way), whatever you find conducive in practice to finding the goal of Enlightenment – do that.  The Dharma is a raft, a means to the other side of the river, it is a finger pointing to the moon.  The Dharma is not an end in itself.  As one of the Order members said to me – I have to discover what the Dharma means to me and live it.

I am still in the midst of exploration and discovery – but I do know that mindfulness is and will continue to be central to my practice, to my life.  One of the five precepts which I follow as a Mitra concerns mindfulness – not being clouded by intoxicants (which, to me, can be anything which stops me from being fully present), “With mindfulness pure and radiant I purify my mind”.

Human life is precious and fleeting – so we must appreciate every precious moment.  There has been much written about living in the present moment.  One of the first books I read on it was Eckhart Tolle’s “The Power of Now”.  The present moment is all that we have – it is not a stepping stone to another moment.  The Now is the most precious thing there is.  To be present in the Now is to be extremely mindful of what I am doing and not to be distracted by regrets from the past or dreams of the future.  I also need to take advantage of every given moment – is what I am doing at this very moment serviceable / beneficial to myself and / or to others.  I need to take heed of the last lines of the Four Reminders – recall my heart’s longing for freedom and resolve to make use of every day and night to realise it.  Now that does not mean that I have to be busy every moment of the day and night!  It does not mean that I can never sit down and watch television. Rest and relaxation are important physically, mentally and emotionally.  For me, being mindful and being in the present means that I need to know why I am doing what I am doing in a given moment and to be fully committed to that activity.  Am I watching NCIS Season 3 because I am actively interested in the story and the characters or just because I cannot be bothered to get up and do anything else?  Am I actually watching it or am I flicking through my phone looking at Instagram, responding to messages etc at the same time?  Have I sat here watching it all day (not very likely at the moment to be honest as my mobile WIFI is a bit unreliable)?  Am I taking time in the day to develop myself?  Am I reading, learning about the Dharma?  I want to hone my writing skills which were a little rusty but are coming back slowly – have I done anything to achieve that today?  I lost the creative side of me for a while so what am I doing to get that back (another blog post coming in a couple of weeks).  Have I been in contact with my friends and family?  Have I done my daily meditation?  And what have I done today to be of service to others – and how can I do more?  I am intensely aware that, as I am not working at the moment, I could easily waste my days doing nothing in particular – which would be a great shame as I am so fortunate to have this time.

Before I end this post – I do need to make it clear that I am a work in progress!  I am trying my hardest to practise mindfulness in the way that I have described.  It’s hard!  Even writing this, I have found myself distracted by the bleep of a text message which I answered…  and, having picked up my phone I saw that I had a FaceBook notification…  well you can probably see where I am going with this!   I would say, however, that being more mindful does make me feel happier, more fulfilled and calmer.

Thank you for reading!


Decisions… Decisions… Decisions

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I started this blog to look at and document my journey to “becoming more Tee”.  I wanted to change myself, change my life, change my path.  I had seen that that was possible.  That was back in November.  Since then a lot of my life has changed.  Much that has changed has been caused by the decisions that I have made; other changes have been caused by other people’s decisions or to the undeniable fact of impermanence.   And I have changed – hopefully for the better.  I have walked further down the path, moved forward in my journey and now I am at a crossroad not exactly sure of the best way to go.  Actually “crossroad” may not be the best analogy – that sounds too clear cut!  Choose whether to go right, left or straight on (never backwards).  I think that it is more as if I am in a campsite at the edge of a wood with several entrances.  I can stay here for a while.  I can enjoy it here for a while, living in the present, seeing the joy in the present.  But, at some point my resources will run out and I have to choose an entrance and a path.

Making a decision about how to live is hard!  How is it best to make these decisions?  Agonise over them?  Write endless pros and cons lists?  Talk with friends – risking boring them to death?  Jump in quickly without too much thought trusting ones instincts?  Procrastinate until a decision is made for you by circumstances or other people?  Follow the common, normal, accepted path (e.g. get a job, house, partner, have children, retire….).   Have an end goal to which everything is directed?  Looking back I have made decisions by all of these methods at one time or another!

Last year I thought outside of the box, ditched the route that I was on and made a somewhat (to me) radical plan.  I made the plan quite quickly but thought about it from as many angles as I could.  Now I have achieved the plan as far as it went – I have sold my house, bought and moved into a caravan, resigned from my job and taken my youngest daughter out of school.  The boxes are ticked.  I have done what I set out to do.  But what now?  What do I do now?

There are some certainties.  I will be home schooling my daughter from when term would start for her in September.  And I am so determined to do that to the best of my abilities.  Get her out and about, help her with studying for GCSEs, involve everyone I need to in order to make her schooling as interesting and beneficial as possible.  . I also want to be available for my oldest daughter who will be starting college studying for her A levels – a wonderfully exciting time for her as she approaches adulthood.  So any work I do will need to be part time.

Another certainty is my training for ordination.  Practising the Dharma, immersing myself within it, following it – that helps to shape my life.  The Dharma is my raft towards Enlightenment.  So my way of living my life is clear to me in a broad sense – I want to live a life of service to others, following the precepts as best I can and deepen my practice as best I can, however I can including through meditation, spiritual friendship, reading and retreats.

So there is a lot of certainty.  But so much is still unclear to me.  When do I start to look for part time work?  What do I look for?  What do I want to do?  And – I have no idea!!  None at all.  I have decided to take July and August off completely, but July is nearly over….

I was messaging an old friend today.  And this made me think how decisions I have made have affected my life – including those times when I let circumstances and other people make those decisions for me. 35 years ago I was madly in love with this friend.  But I was a very timid teenager with very low self-esteem.  He was funny, good looking and extremely popular – there was no way that he could be interested in me!  So I never let him know  (well until years later) – and eventually he started going out with some one else and I got together with the guy who would become my first husband.   Yes – some of my decisions were not (in hindsight) the best I could have made – including choosing marriage over the opportunity to do a PhD….

But all of the decisions (good or bad, skilful or unskilful) I  have made (or have not made) have led me to now, to the person that I am today.  And that is okay.  I also know that I am extremely fortunate to be in a position where I have choices – so many people are trapped.  So I know that I am lucky.  I am enjoying my life at the moment.  I have just got to decide where to go from here!

Tonight I saw more of the beauty of the Sangha

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I have been thinking about this evening’s Sangha meeting all of the way home and then when I took Pretzel out for her evening walk.  Trying to process it all – trying to push through the confusion, sense of shock and deep sadness that I felt, feel.  I have no real understanding of how many of the people at the Sangha night were and are feeling.  The shock, confusion and sorrow were plain to see on their faces and in their words but I cannot comprehend the depth.

An Order Member had taken her own life at the weekend.  I had met her only briefly, once and not really to say more than “Hello”.  For some of the people there tonight, she was a beloved friend of many years.  They had been together in study groups,  Going for Refuge groups and in Kula groups.  They had shared so much.

The evening was devoted to her.  A recent picture of her with her beloved dog was placed on the shrine.  Many spoke of their memories of her. She seems to have been a remarkable woman – energetic, determined, so committed to the Dharma.  She appears to have been very creative, imaginative.  A woman with ideas flowing from her, a woman who saw things differently from others.  Apparently she could be outspoken and forthright.  One Order Member described how everyone always knew when she was in the room.  I wish that I had known her – she seems to have been such an inspirational woman.

Those who knew her well looked after each other this evening, as they will continue to do for as long as is needed.  They mostly sat together, sometimes touching each other, holding hands, sharing their memories of her.  As one spoke, others nodded in agreement and, often, they smiled.  One memory would lead to another.

Throughout the evening there was a distinct air of sadness, shock and confusion, as I have already said.  Tears ran down the faces of many. This lovely woman had seemed to be excited about new projects; she had given no indication that this would happen.  If anyone had noticed anything, she would have had their love and support to help her and cherish her.  I know the process of becoming an Order Member is long and intensive.  The would-be Order Member has to look deeply within her or himself; undergo counselling if needed.  I am just at the start of this journey and know that I will have to go through a lot of soul-searching, delve deeply into my own story and resolve issues that I may have once preferred to keep buried.  And those in the Sangha are so caring and supportive of each other.  There are always opportunities to “check in” and say how things are feeling today, at this moment.  It is so rare for an Order Member to take her / his own life – so rare.  Which makes this so much more tragic, so much more confusing and so very sad.

The Sangha evening was filled with Metta.  I could tell that even those people who had never met her were so touched by the memories of her.  The love that  these women and men have for each other shone through this evening.

As I sat this evening, joining in with the meditation, the chanting of the refuges and precepts, the threefold puja, the mantra, I realised a new love for this Sangha, for those people who are in the Sangha with me.  I am in the Sangha.  I feel its warmth and affection.  The Sangha is one of the Three Jewels – one of the three refuges – one of the three “things” that I can trust to be there for me along with the Buddha and the Dharma.  I feel so honoured, so fortunate to be part of this group of men and women.

A very sad yet beautiful evening.  One that has touched me so deeply.  I know that I will remember those couple of hours for a very long time, probably forever.  I hope that, in time, this remarkable woman’s friends and family come to terms with what has happened to her and manage to achieve some peace.

To Karunabala – with metta

Mindfulness – a poem

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This poem was the the result of a project I did for my Dharma Study Group.  I looked at the fifth precept:

“With mindfulness pure and radiant, I purify my mind”

It began with a mind map which is the main picture at the top of this post.  I love mind maps.  I first came across them when I was teaching in Milton Keynes.  Tony Buzan has written several books on the subject of mind mapping – well worth a look.  Mind mapping is a great technique for brain storming any subject and organising your resultant thoughts.  It also lets you use all of those colourful pens!!  Then there was a stage when I tried to organise my thoughts in a more linear way.  I was bored by that though and it didn’t seem like a good ending for the project.

In my mind map and more organised writing, I looked at mindfulness as being multi faceted:

  • being present, in the now, in the moment.  Not worrying about the future or being anxious about the past.  No regret, no fear.  Be in the moment, enjoying whatever it is I am doing without distraction
  • knowing the purpose of the activity to my life, my goal, my direction.  Is this activity beneficial to me?  Am I benefiting myself or others by doing this?  In the words of the Olympic Medallist, Ben Hunt Davis, “Will it make the boat go faster”?
  • being vigilant.  Guarding against unskilful actions of body, speech and mind.  Am I acting with metta?  Am I being generous?  Am I being truthful?

And whatever I am doing, even if it does not seem to be a “good” thing to do; it might be a frivolous thing, just fun or something to do at that moment.  But whatever it is – am I actually noticing what I am doing?  Am I actually watching Netflix?  Am I actually tasting the bar of (vegan) chocolate?  Am I actually listening to my friend?  We all seem to spend so much of our lives multi-tasking!

Somehow – I am not sure how exactly – this turned into a poem.  I haven’t written a poem in years – probably since school.  And at school, there were always rules to follow – make sure it rhymes or “write it in the style of….”

So here it is – the completed poem.

This moment is a precious gift.
Imagine a butterfly drifting in and perching gently on your hand.
Use your eyes to photograph her beauty.
Be gentle ….  Don’t move your hand or make sudden movements.
This is a special moment.  This butterfly trusts you to do the best by her
Don’t harm her
Don’t scare her
Treat her well.
This butterfly will never come back to you again…  Her life is short as it is.
She will fly off – don’t try to stop her.
Do not chase after her.
Just let her go.

This moment is a precious gift.
A present given to you by a special friend to use well.
Open the present with attention and care.
Read the hand written card.
Notice the beautiful wrapping paper and ribbon.
Fold the paper carefully so that it can be treasured and used again; Tie the ribbon in your hair.
The present is fragile; it will not last.
But is given with such love and devotion.
Use the present wisely.  Use the present with love.
One day that gift may be broken – do not weep.  Do not cry.
Your friend loves you still.

This moment is a precious gift.
Imagine a special bunch of flowers ready to be placed on the shrine.
They have been picked with loving care.
Look at their bright colours; notice their green leaves.
Arrange them with care
Show them to their best advantage.
Treat them gently – they are delicate.
When they begin to fade, remove them from the shrine
Do not mourn their death
They were never going to last more than that brief time.
The shrine will be beautiful again.

This moment is a precious gift.
Use it well.
Use it wisely.
Use it with intention.
Use it without distraction.
This moment is a precious gift.
Use it, be deep within it then…

Let it go.

A Farewell – Part 4 Exciting Years

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I had my exit interview yesterday.  It was a strange thing.  But it brought back so many memories and made me recollect how much I used to love my job.

Moving to the central team did bring change.  It was a move to the County Council.  There were more rules, more conformity, less improvisation, more hoops to jump through.  But I enjoyed the years from 2006 to 2016.  These were the years where I had a very varied role.  I was involved in strategic, operational planning.  2016 onwards was just about data, data and more data.  The previous 10 years were much more fulfilling.  One of the highlights was managing the Wealden Community Development Workers – a dedicated and diverse set of people.  Also running workshops on how to do evaluations – I met some truly fabulous people.  And the Ofsteds – about 24 of them.  My team were always heavily involved – late nights, stress and anxiety.  We ran on cake, coffee and pure adrenaline.  We had one fabulous inspector several times who was tough – but he taught us so much. And then there was the Ofsted Inspector who was more concerned about his own agenda  – I had to make an official complaint during his inspection – that was tough.  But we all pulled together as a team.  The energy of everyone involved was incredible.  We were all so determined to do well.   The day we got “Outstanding”….  well words still do not describe it.

And my team…  three amazing people.  So dedicated.  So interesting.  I loved managing them.

Mixed into all of that were the restructures.  We had to save money.  I managed to cling onto my job somehow – although it became more and more restrictive and involved a paycut.  Times of trauma and upheaval. We lost some excellent people because the whole thing was about the job role rather than the capabilities of the people.

The last two years have been hard.  I have been hemmed in by data and have often felt the pressure to skew it to make things look better than they are.  I have never given into it but it did not make for an easy life.  I cannot blame people for that – they were just trying to protect their job, the services they offer and the families they serve.

Three more days to go…


A Farewell – Part 3 Getting the job!

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In the November / December of 2004, a job came up at Eastbourne SureStart (is it one word ore two?  I never could work it out!).   It was a job that I knew that I could do.  It was as a Reseacher / Evaluator looking to see if the programme was making an impact on the families.  In those early years, a lot of time, money and resources were put into looking at the impact of the programme; both nationally and locally.   It was really difficult to prove an impact as the work was preventative so no one truly knew what would happen without the interventions and, just to make the job harder, any results would not show up for many years.  Anyway, the job came up and I applied and was offered an interview…

Now, at this point, I should mention that I had done loads of interviews in the past.  A two day round of interviews for my job at Equitable life involving presentations, group interviews, psychoanalytical tests, numeracy and logic tests etc etc.  A gruelling set of interviews for teaching jobs – the first time I taught a secondary school class was in an interview for a job as an Information Technology Teacher at a secondary school.  I had done my fair share of interviews.  But my self esteem was low.  I had been in pain for months.  I had had a baby.  I had been out of the job market for 18 months.  And the offer of an interview came through – I had to do a presentation.  I almost turned it down.  It was a close call.

Yes – I almost didn’t go for that interview.  I was so scared of the presentation.  I remember getting the letter, crying and then putting Callie into a pushchair and going for a long walk. I gave myself a good talking to.  By the time I returned I had decided to go for it.

Over the next week or two I prepped for the interview.  It was the days of projectors and laminates.  I drew up the laminates.   I practised my presentation over and over again with a borrowed projector.  I rehearsed it in my head as I went about my daily life.  Never had a presentation been so rehearsed.

So I got the job.  Researcher / Evaluator at Eastbourne Sure Start.   I can still remember the excitement.  I was so happy to have got a job with people who had helped me so much in an organisation which did so much good.

I loved that job.  The team was so fantastic to work with – and everyone just mucked in and did what they needed to do to help the families.  There was no “that isn’t my job”, “you are stepping on my toes”.  Everyone just worked together.  It resulted in such a rich and varied working environment.  I loved doing evaluation, trying different ways of measuring impact.  I enjoyed talking with parents.  Writing the reports was just my cup of tea.  But I did much more than that.  I helped in the groups when needed, sometimes running the singing sessions at the end; I ran a group myself for a while; I helped run the parent forums.; I helped at a Dad’s group in Hailsham on a Saturday morning.  It was a lovely, enriching time.  New Children’s Centres were opened.  Dora the explorer came and visited Willingdon Trees Children’s Centre with her sidekick, Boots.  New services and activities were constantly being introduced as the needs of the families became apparent.

I worked at Eastbourne Sure Start until April 2006.  I did take 3 months out when I had Lexie.  Lexie was introduced to Sure Start at a very early age.  I took her to groups when she was just a couple of weeks old.  I wasn’t really away for those 3 months I must admit.

Then in April 2006 Sure Start became Children’s Centres and I joined the East Sussex Children’s Centres central team.  I was sorry to leave the Eastbourne team but I was ready to move on.  So began 13 years of surviving restructures (just), differing job titles and Ofsteds.

A Farewell – Part Two The Early days

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So the coffee morning was my first contact with Sure Start.  The number of services and activities available to families grew in the next few months / years.  Drop in groups – Pop in & Play, Music Groups, Messy Play.  Training courses with creches running alongside – Parenting, First Aid, Back to work, Story Sacks.  There were groups for Dads often held on Saturday mornings.  Grandparent groups… So many activities for families.  There were services for those with more specific problems – Family Outreach Service (FOS later to become the Keywork Service).  A Dietician, Midwife, Dentist and assistant, Librarian (sorry Deborah, I cannot remember your title!).  So many excellent services provided by dedicated staff.  I attended as many as I possibly could (sorry, not sorry).  These services became my lifeline.  I made so many friends and learned so much.  I made story sacks – one of which included a knitted giant, pink Stegasaurus.  Callie benefited enormously making friends (children and adults), developing her social skills.  She just had fun.  My back slowly got better but in the days when it was playing up, there was always someone to help.

One of the most valuable aspects of those early days was that services were founded and adapted to ft the needs of the local community.  Local organisations were involved in the decision making as were parents.  I spent many an happy hour in Parents Forum  and Local Programme meetings.  This all meant that the services in Eastbourne were different to those in Hastings or Lewes – because the needs were, and still are, different.  The services in Eastbourne Town Centre were different from those in Willingdon Trees.  The whole context of the local community was taken into account – transport, deprivation, existing services, employment….

Eventually, before the days of the 12 week volunteer training course, I became a volunteer.  I worked with a lovely friend running a fruit and veg store at the Pop in and Play session on a Friday morning at Willingdon Trees.  Hence the lead picture.  Clare would meet a fruit and veg supplier early on a Friday morning and would buy a pile of fruit and vegetables – whatever he had.  We would then make up mixed bags and sell them to the families attending the session.  We supplied cooking directions and recipes.  Great fun 🙂

So that was my life until December 2004 when I applied for a job at Eastbourne Sure Start as Researcher / Evaluator….

A farewell – Part 1 My first contact with Sure Start

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Two weeks today is a big day for me. It is my last day working for East Sussex Health Visiting and Children’s Centres.  I have been immersed in Children’s Centres for over 15 years.  A long time.  On my first encounter, my eldest daughter Callie was a few months old and Lexie wasn’t yet thought of!  My last day will be the same day as Callie’s prom.  A long time indeed.  So I thought that I would take a look back at my time there. I will break it down into small sections – as usual I have a lot to say!

It was Eastbourne Sure Start back in those days. The Sure Start programme was amazing. It provided much needed help and support to families with children under 5. In the early days, it only served families living in the most deprived postcode areas. I always saw this as a bit of a problem because we all know that your postcode / money situation doesn’t always equate to the number or depth of problems you experience. But that changed over the years so that any family with a child under 5 could get help and support when needed. But not only that – there were provided with top quality play groups (Often called Pop in & Plays) where families could meet up, experience excellent quality play and create much needed networks of friends. At these free, open to everyone sessions, parents had the chance to talk to highly qualified, skilled, kind, supportive practitioners; this led to problems, worries and niggles being picked up and sorted before they became deeply rooted and damaging.

So on to my story.  When my daughter, Callie, was around 6 months old I managed to get to a coffee morning put on by Eastbourne Sure Start.  It was one of their first services, the first in the area where I lived anyway.  I said “managed”.  This word does not quite convey the painful struggle I had to get my baby dressed and into the push chair to go for the short walk across to the community centre.  During Callie’s delivery I had slipped a disc (my second. The first had resulted in an operation to remove part of a disc. The op has a fancy name which I can never remember!). I had been in all sorts of pain ever since.  For months I could barely pick up my little girl.  I had been taken into hospital, had the doctor out giving me morphine injections etc etc.  I was very good at fooling the Health Visitor into thinking that I was coping ok and I was actually as ok as I could be.  I did get through it but thank goodness for Callie’s Dad who definitely stepped up to the plate and looked after us both whilst still working full time.  But despite my natural resilience and stubbornness, Andy’s help and the support of friends, I was feeling pretty rubbish.    I can truly say that that activity with the unassuming name of “coffee morning” changed my life.

As soon as I stepped through the doors of the community centre I was greeted with warmth.  The lovely Community Development Worker (CDW), Clare, sat me down and gave me a much needed cup of coffee.  She gently took Callie out of her push chair and put her on the floor with some toys.  I was soon happy and relaxed chatting to other parents and staff.  Callie was her giggly self. (She is going to hate me if she reads this – sorry, Callie!)

Before I go on – I should say that the focus of these drop in services later changed.  First of all, before anyone runs around shrieking, I should stress that it was all handled very safely.  There was no danger of any baby or toddler being scalded by hot drinks.  Just to make that clear!  A while after, hot drinks were not served at these drop in sessions.  Secondly – I said that Callie was set on the floor whilst I sat on a chair.  In fact all of the mothers sat around on chairs whilst their babies and toddlers played on their own, together and with the practitioners.  That all changed later when the drop in sessions became Pop In & Play sessions.  The chairs were taken away and the focus became on parents playing with their children; lots of time, thought, knowledge and experience was put into making sure that these sessions were of the utmost benefit to the families.  But, in the early days they were coffee mornings.   And – I am sure that I am going to upset a few people here – I believe that they had their place.  For many stressed out mums, dads, grandparents, carers (including myself) that cup of tea, coffee was the first and probably only one we drank hot for the entire day.  At home, most of my cups of coffee were left cold and half drunk on the side.  Also -myself and many other parents needed – yes needed – some time just to chat with other parents.  Most of us spent 90% of our time playing, feeding, changing and thinking about our precious children.  We needed a little bit of time to talk with adults, to get our sanity back a little.  Well, I did anyway.

Another thing I feel the need to say (and it’s my blog so I will!) is that, on the surface, I did not look like the type of mum that needed the help of an organisation like Sure Start.  I was married.  My husband had a good job. We owned a nice house with a garden.  I had the qualifications and experience to return to a good career when Callie was older.  But I definitely needed help and support which I got.  That’s why Sure Start was amazing – even though I didn’t tick the boxes I got the support that I needed.

So that was my first contact with Sure Start.