Moving

Being in Oslo is enjoyable but hectic; some restorative time in nature is called for. So Peter and I spend a week in Telemark: countless lakes with lilies, wooden houses, granite boulders, pines clinging to impossibly sheer cliffs, and vast stretches of fenceless forest – in which we know deer and elk are moving around, mostly at night. During the long days, we move around too: from the central hills to the high plateau of Hardangervidda, to the south coast with its rocky islands. We’re exploring; prospecting.

In Oslo we went to a talk about moving to Norway, and discovered it could be quite easy – as long as we’re willing (and able) to do paid work. A small percentage of Norwegians are self-employed, the speaker tells us – but with the rise of a small enterprise culture, that’s changing. It’s not the only thing. “Norwegians traditionally help each other. That’s changing, but they still do.” “ On weekends, people head out into nature; not so much lately, but they still do.”

We’re exploring possibilities for entering a culture that still persists. I have felt an increasing urge to withdraw from that which saps my soul. This includes (but is not limited to) the pervasive noise of civilisation, and the selfish and aggressive behaviour that inevitably erupts when too many fish are trapped in a diminishing pond. My instinct is to respond by moving away from the destruction of unbridled consumerism, towards more freedom, peace, generosity of spirit, unspoilt wild places; more room for everyone, human and otherwise. If we all had the same urge, such resources and qualities would quickly diminish, as when birds find a fruiting tree and quickly strip it. But few seem to, or at least not so urgently or persistently. Ultimately, most people choose to live in cities – or feel they have no choice. Anyway, to move towards something perceived as more desirable doesn’t guarantee total comfort or contentment, by any means. This isn’t a rational urge of mine; it’s a deeply instinctive one, watched, tempered and planned for by the rational mind.

Travelling in an older EV with a small range has necessarily kept us loosely tethered to main roads and towns. And we see evidence of constant change:  prosperity brings more glass, more concrete, more steel, more tarmac, more ad boards selling lifestyles. We would hope to participate in Norway’s traditional community as well as its unspoilt land, and the former appears to be receding faster than the latter, though much of both is (as yet) largely untouched. We’ll need a car with a bigger range, if we want to find and be in places where community, as well as land, is not yet dominated by left hemisphere functions.

At Hardangervidda National Park Centre, we learn about reindeer. An interactive display shows how populations have travelled over the millennia from North America, to Siberia, to southern Europe, to Scandinavia – moving with the edges of advancing and retreating ice sheets, always staying with optimum reindeer conditions; exploiting newly exposed land bridges from one continent to another – perpetually on the move towards more desirable conditions, and away from that which threatens survival. No border control, no immigration policies. But there’s always new terrain to learn; new weather patterns, and food sources – and maybe some new predators to contend with…

Today, the Hardangervidda herd can move only within the boundaries of the National Park. Whether or not they know it as they migrate west to calve, or south for the winter, they are an isolated population: prevented from leaving by ‘infrastructure’ (mostly motorways and railways). As the edge of the cold north retreats once more, they will experience a strong, ancient prompting to move with it. But doing so will be impossible – unless that infrastructure has by then fallen into disuse and disrepair. Until and unless such a time arrives, they are (like so many trying to live in an increasingly controlled world) effectively trapped. Although they may survive for much longer, they will thrive only for as long as they can hear, and respond to, the voice of their inner wisdom.

www.gillcoombs.co.uk 

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Totnes to Oslo: last leg!

Totnes to Oslo: last leg!

On Saturday we rejoin the Leaf on the mainland, after a restful stay at the Hankø Hotel.

We get a charge at Vestby, and at the nearby service station we enjoy a colourful plate of salad from a buffet that reminds me of Seeds2 in Totnes. There are Leafs everywhere, and Teslas. Throughout the trip we’ve had chargers pretty much to ourselves, but we now have to wait our turn.

It’s time to go to Baldron in the Woods, and we’re a little nervous. We park on the forest track and walk up to the cabin, to find our new colleagues having a clear-out of shoes. Over a welcome cold drink on the veranda we share stories and passions, and find we have much in common. Raphael is smiling, observant, thoughtful; Marianna vivacious, caring, determined. Both have researched extensively in many areas of health and education.

We’re joined by Alberto, a Mexican architect, and Iuuk, a Dutch photographer, both here to explore volunteering opportunities. After a tour of the steep garden with its pines, cabins, lilies of the valley and panoramic compost toilet, we look at two challenges: a possible greenhouse site, and a pump that isn’t sucking, though its motor works. Alberto comes up with ingenious ideas, and we stand by, ready to assist if needed. If this was a recruitment test we wouldn’t get interviews, but we’re relaxed about that, as this isn’t the job we came to do. Peter will have IT projects, and my first job will be refining the English on labels for herbal essences, and I’ll be carrying on my coaching practice via Skype.

The sun’s still hot when we turn in at nearly 10pm. Our cabin is full of spare mattresses and boxes of Baldron merchandise, and the roof is waiting to be repaired, but we’re comfortable, and we sleep well.

In the morning Raphael makes an excellent green smoothie with dandelions, seeds, and various foraged herbs before going off to an event. Marianna comes with us in the Leaf to the Oslo flat where we’ll live for the next three months. The more we talk, the more I enjoy her company.

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We spend the rest of Sunday getting our room straight, and exploring the area. The clinic and flat are on the ground floor of a big old house in a quiet street. There are lilacs and fieldfares outside our window, a park at the end of the road, and a health food shop two streets away. Peter has spotted slow chargers that are free to use, but we’ll need to get a pass.

We’ve arrived: Peter navigating, researching charge points and finding places to stay; me driving, doing handwashing and finding inventive ways to dry it. The Leaf has been a joy to drive. Our Mk2 has an average range of 80 miles, but new EVs have a range of up to 250 miles, which would make a journey like this a doddle.

Total miles: 1662

Average speed: 35mph

Approximate cost: £95.49

Tomorrow we start work, and in three months we’ll think about the journey home…

 

Totnes to Oslo in an EV: 4

We’re finally out of the lowlands and into the hills. We’ve had six days of flat landscapes and broad skies, abundant tall beech trees leaning in to meet across long straight roads, and miles of windfarms. These countries get the need to address climate change; objections about turbines spoiling the view would be secondary, if not laughable, on mainland Europe.

Now we’re travelling through a land of islands in sparkling seas; long, spanning bridges, tiny unfenced fields, wooden houses amongst granite outcrops, and pine forests.

All the way there have been sinister-looking barns, with ventilation shafts and silos, housing cramped, stressed, and often diseased hens or pigs for the massive non-free-range market. Since France there’s been the constant anticipation of vehicles bursting out of side roads, assuming priority – unless you can see a yellow diamond telling you otherwise, and numerous city cyclists who either wait at zebra crossings or don’t, so that you can never tell (unless you’re local, presumably) whether stopping will cause more problems than not stopping.

But it’s a relaxed and beautiful journey from Lund, hugging the west coast of Sweden up to Norway. Chargers are predictable, and located very sensibly at service stations (or MacDonald’s). On Wednesday we visit Victorian Gothic coastal castle Tjoloholms Slott, where Peter came in 2005, and we camp on the coast at Gullbrandstorp. Our tiny blue Highlander is the only tent.

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I have to get up during the night, and a thrush is singing softly in anticipation of the dawn chorus. This soon swells to glorious surround-sound, accompanied by the enthusiastic percussion of a corncrake.

On Thursday the Leaf takes time out, and we walk round the island of Marstrand from another campsite where we’re the only tent, occupying an area of green amidst a sea of camper vans and caravans.  ‘Camping’ these days seems to mean parking your mobile home on a site with facilities, or visiting your second home, permanently pitched on the site.  Maybe the people who like to throw up a little tent and light a fire, and talk, and maybe sing, and don’t mind not washing for a while, know places not shown in the tourist information camping guide. We’ll find such places in Norway.

We cross the border into that country on Friday afternoon, and find a rather fine place to stay for the last night of our journey. Booking on the same day means we’ve been able to get some good room deals, and that’s how we’re now at the Hankø Hotel and Spa, on an island reached via a little ferry with an Icelandic captain. The Leaf stays in a carpark on the mainland, fully charged and ready to go.

After supper we discover we’ve been invited to stay tomorrow in a lakeside cabin at Baldron in the Woods, where our hosts for the next three months run a biodynamic farm. Then we’ll travel on to Oslo, where we’ll be living in a flat above the Baldron Health Clinic.

Although tonight feels like the end of a journey, and tomorrow a new beginning, we’re not quite there yet…

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Totnes to Oslo in an EV: Part 3

We get up for an early walk in the park, and come across two young deer playing tag amongst the trees until they lie down exhausted. The hotel breakfast isn’t appealing, so we decide to get something at our first charge stop.

We enjoy a nice country run to the outskirts of Hamburg, but there we find our first out-of-order charger. Being Sunday, there’s no-one to call. We have 30km in hand, and following the postcode to the nearest charger takes us to a quiet square in inner Hamburg. No charger. Peter gets out and walks around using Google maps as if searching for Pokémon, while I stay with the car and watch a dog play tirelessly in a pond while his middle-aged male owner sits knitting. There’s no-one we can call to find the exact location; however, where it should be stands a brand new ‘pissoir’. So we drive across the city, grateful that it’s Sunday, and find a charger that works. It’s outside a big residential block, right beside the stink pipe.

Leaving Hamburg seems to take forever, with every light (and there are lots) red. The drivers are the most aggressive we’ve encountered yet. The biggest trials, I tell Peter, always come in the middle of a journey. Tomorrow will be better.

The next destination is a small out-of-town shopping area, all closed up for Sunday. But there’s a rapid charger, and it works…

We’d been hoping we might get to Denmark today, but we both realise it’s not going to happen. Remarkably it’s late afternoon already, and we suddenly recognise that we’re hot, tired, hungry and a little dehydrated. We pick a random place to stay in Eutin – it looks okay and the room is cheap.

It turns out to be amazing. In the midst of busy trunk roads, flash car showrooms and industrial estates, within a wall is the Hotel Straßenmeisterei, with cobbled pathways, old apple trees, a pond full of lily pads. The food is superb, the hostess delightful. We’re celebrating: we’ve passed the Trials of Hamburg. But exhaustion has caught up with me, and I sleep for ten hours straight.

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We leave Eutin mid-morning, and stop for a precious lakeside walk before driving to our next charge point: a giant shopping centre on Fehmarn. From this island in the Baltic Sea, we take the ferry to Denmark. Crossing the country (with its many sea bridges, and more undulating than I expected) we stop for two charges: one at a small roadside Kro Hotel, and one at the Crown Plaza in Copenhagen. From there it’s a short and easy trip to Malmo, where we spend a delightful evening exploring the city streets, parks and trees with friend Terese, and then a conversation with her husband Alessandro about a project in Italy where land and even castles are being given to projects that guarantee ecological sustainability – a bit like Wales’s One Planet Development, only free. It’s conversation that could go on, but it’s getting dark and we have to get to Kävlinge… so we get back in the Leaf for one last short stretch before bed.

Total miles travelled: 1180 in seven days

Average miles per day: 168

Remaining miles to Oslo: approx 343

Due date: Saturday 28th May

Piece of cake?

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Totnes to Oslo in an EV: Part 2

Did I say ‘a piece of cake’? Ha! I can think of more apt phrases, but I must remember this is a family blog.

The conference-goers go, and we start charging. Overnight I wake to flashes: thunder and lightning  right above us and pelting rain, but the Leaf isn’t electrocuted; its charge port is well designed.

We have an easy and swift trip of 114 miles to Arnhem; I’ve got my European eye in. We pull into a Van der Valk hotel  to charge while we have lunch. With wet roads and a cross-wind, we’ve arrived with the lowest charge yet: 18%. But there’s a hybrid Volvo hooked up to the charger. A sign says ‘Max 30 min’ so we wait. And we wait…

There’s another rapid charger showing on Plugsurfing’s map in the town centre, so we creep down the cobbled hills to the location, which turns out to be an office block. ‘There was a charger here,’ they tell Peter, ‘but it’s moved 200m up the road.’ He goes to look but finds only a slow charger, already in use. As we creep back up the cobbled streets to the hotel, the displays go ‘flatline’ but we make it. At 4pm I cancel my skype session, and we eat lunch. When we come out the Volvo has gone, and we get our charge.

We discuss calling it a day, but decide to press on. The rest of the trip goes smoothly, with two charges taking us 152 miles to Anderen in Holland. We’re staying in a beautiful national park, and Peter has found a new charge network: Fastned, conveniently based at Dutch service stations. Happy days…

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I wake with the dawn chorus, and find a lovely walk round this picturesque village, paused in time. The sun is out, and we decide to do the walk together before leaving at about 11am. It takes about an hour to drive cross-country into Germany and to Rhede, along narrow, tree-lined roads beside canals where coots are raising chicks and herons are fishing. Conditions are excellent for the Leaf: dry and warm, with a following wind.

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From Rhede it’s a tense drive to Oldenburg – the charger has disappeared from Plugsurfing’s map. The satnav takes us to a vast carpark surrounding a vast shopping complex. Peter gets out to look around, and miraculously finds the charger almost straight away – not only does it exist, but it works, and we can use it with our Plugsurfing card.

Now we have to decide: stop overnight in Bremen where there are only slow chargers, or go on to the next fast charger, 113km away?  I’m getting tired, so we play safe and opt for ‘7 Things: My Basic Hotel’, in the middle of Bremen’s university campus.

We’ve done over 800 miles. Our car is filling up, we are full up, sunshine is promised for tomorrow – and what’s more, there’s a rookery outside the window. Another early walk is on the cards!

 

From Totnes to Oslo in an electric car

It’s been a full week: clients fitting in a final session before I go; storing, charity-shopping or recycling personal things so tenants can move into an empty (and clean) house; poignant goodbyes, and packing.

16th May has long been in my diary as cause for anticipation and excitement. Today, I would have been facilitating The Kitchen Table’s annual Conversation Café with Natalie Bennett, but she had to withdraw due to having an important campaign to run… which means we get to set off a day early, which means we get to spend a night with Peter’s sister Sue and family in Kent.

It takes us 7 hours to do 200 miles (this includes stopping for four charges and getting lost twice), which may be a benchmark for the remaining 1200. The UK’s motorway network is well covered thanks to Ecotricity, but the A303 is sparse: we charge at the shiny Nissan showroom in Wincanton, and a petrol station in a suburb of Andover. Other than Ecotricity there’s a lamentable lack of joined-up thinking both here and abroad, with different councils, networks and providers all doing their own thing; some overlapping, some not. This has meant considerable homework on Peter’s part – searching websites, downloading apps, sending off for cards…

Before supper Mark helps us plug in for a slow charge from his garage, and remarks how hot the cable gets with so much energy passing through it.  After an evening of champagne, kittens and lively conversation, and a leisurely morning, we take the scenic route (also the shortest) to Folkestone. We stop at Benenden’s village shop/café for coffee and then lunch, and send off our requests for postal votes. At Bonnington, on the edge of the Kent Downs, we get out to listen to warblers and woodpeckers in the forest, unable to resist the random summery day. We arrive at Folkestone in plenty of time to get a full charge before boarding the shuttle. On the other side, we’d planned a short run up to Wisques. A diversion means a slightly more bendy route and our first right-hand driving near-miss – but we arrived at La Sapiniere cursed but intact, and with plenty of juice in the battery.

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On Thursday morning I meet a new Skype client on the patio, and have a session with an existing one – cut short when the laptop cuts out. A late start meant a short day’s driving across flat Belgium: two charges and 122 miles. We get excellent mileage, largely from being sucked along amongst the astonishing number of trucks on the E32. We’re staying at the Beveren Hotel for its slow charger. So we find ourselves in a huge conference hotel with suited receptionists behind an imposing desk, and the toxic smell of synthetic interior décor throughout. We can do that, but both chargers are in use. Both cars are hybrids, which have small batteries and must have finished charging hours ago, but no-one knows how to find the owners… they’re probably here for a conference, so the likelihood of their moving the cars tonight is probably low.

But there are fast chargers in Antwerp, so that’s our first stop when we head out for an early start tomorrow. I have a client on Skype at 5pm so we’re aiming to be in Anloo, at the far end of Holland, by then. 186 miles – should be a piece of cake…

For the geeks:

Miles: 440

Charges: 6 fast, 1 slow

Cost: approx £10 (thanks Ecotrocity, Nissan, and Sue and Mark!)

Average speed: 35mph

Average energy use: 13.2kwh per 100km

High or low? You choose…

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Michelangelo apparently said that ‘the greater danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it, but that it is too low and we reach it.’

Well, it’s all very well for him to say that. I don’t know how many misses he had, but I’m guessing his hits made up for them. Once you have success under your belt, past failures become much easier to accept. They no longer define you. And new failures are easier to sustain, knowing that you have achieved something; that you can.

The odds (and Thomas Edison’s many experiments with light bulbs) might suggest that the longer you keep trying, the more likely success becomes. But eventual achievement is, of course, never guaranteed. Waiting for that success can be a bit like ‘the boy stood on the burning deck’. If you intend to hold out on the deck as the smoke grows thicker and the flames lick higher, you need to increase your chances of avoiding the boy’s fate. You need to build good resilience to disappointment: a bounce-back-ability that will enable you to sustain the bruising from all those misses. To do this it helps to develop a deep sense of being ‘good enough’ no matter what you fail at, or how many times you ‘fail’.

It can also help to know that not all hits are palpable or immediate. What you have done may appear to be worthless, but could catalyse something powerful in the world without you ever knowing. Trusting in such a possibility can be a comfort, but doesn’t help your self-esteem or pay your bills. Your work may achieve something powerful in the world not now, but next year; in ten years’ time or even after you have died. But it may not.

Sometimes there just isn’t enough resilience to draw on; bounce-back-ability gets squashed. It just does. Self-awareness is priceless, because these are the times to notice and attend to. You need to decide whether you will keep playing in hope of winning, or concede defeat and walk away before your resilience goes overdrawn. There is never a right answer, and no-one else can tell you which you should do. But if your soul can be still and curious and open enough, your intuition may let you know through a deeply felt sense, or perhaps through your dreams, whether the time is right to keep striving, or whether you need space to rest, grieve and replenish.

When you feel robust enough to stand yet another disappointment, it is good to keep aiming high – even when you repeatedly miss. Sometimes it’s worth a thorough and non-self-blaming exploration of what the missing factor could be – which is when kind, honest and generative input from others can be invaluable. And sometimes it’s just a case of persisting. But when you need to restore your confidence, or need time for your wounds to heal, it is usually better to design your life in such a way (at least for now) that you aim low, and hit.

www.gillcoombs.co.uk

The Referendum and Diversity – but not how you might think

A big question for me over the last few days (as well as ‘REALLY??’) has been: how to respond? Not just at the collective level of action but personally; emotionally. I’ve heard and read many ventings and views, and each has slightly moderated my emotional state and my comprehension of facts. I’ve no doubt this is true for lots of us, impacting and affecting each other as we work out our individual and collective, evolving response to the Leave vote.

I’ve seen awesome posts from people who have surprised me with unanticipated wisdom, eloquence and leadership. And others, some of my usual ‘go to’ sources of wisdom, have been quiet – at least on Facebook, at least for now – no doubt for very good reasons of their own.

Posters have used versions of the psychological change curve (Shock, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance, Rebuilding), sometimes explicitly and sometimes not, to describe where they’re at in processing the immense Leave news and the jolting chunks of fallout. I personally have flipped round the Curve several times as the Leave story unfolds; right now I’m in a place of creative response. All of us have journeyed through and around this curve in their own unique way.

I’ve directly experienced love and commiseration from Leavers, and anger from Remainers, as we work through what all of this means for friendships, family and community. I’ve felt humility, surprise, anxiety, gratitude, concern and love each day as the collective discussion continues.

In this discourse, our differences are manifest. Not just our Remain/Leave differences, but our ways of responding, our ways of communicating. That’s natural, as we are all unique; all innately and adaptively different.

Harmony seekers are calling for love and tolerance. Warrior spirits are calling angrily for fight. Some seek and envisage good outcomes; others tend to the worst that could happen, alerting everyone else to the darkest dangers. Hearts are grieving for tattered values and precarious relationships; heads are pointing out flaws in the procedure. Those seeking closure are imploring the nation to accept (or reject) and move on; those who want to keep possibilities open are seeking ways to evolve the outcome, transform it into something new. Those who naturally see the immediate are considering the personal impact on them; those drawn to the bigger picture are mulling concepts such as the trajectory of the human race.

Complex as we are, our personalities cannot but colour and flavour what we bring to the round table of discourse.  In such a shocking situation we tend to revert strongly to type. Think Princess Diana, only on a different scale, because we are all directly affected and so we all care (although I have seen a couple of people laugh, shrug, and say they don’t do politics).

In this week of heightened emotions, many of us (myself included) have been judging or criticising others’ natural patterns , or the pace of others’ journeys along and around the Change Curve (how can they be feeling that already? Or, why are they stuck there?) It’s another symptom of our distress, but one which adds – perhaps unnecessarily – to what is already a difficult and turbulent time.

If we are to emerge from such a seismic national shockwave in a positive, constructive way, it seems to me that we’d do well to acknowledge and respect everyone’s unique way of dealing with it, even as we continue to disagree about what’s happened, and debate what happens next.

We are diverse for a reason. In diversity lies great strength and resilience. All our responses, our rich and varied personalities, are not only inevitable but essential. We need to not just accept each other’s differences but to recognise them as gifts: actively use our rich mix of glorious quirkiness and broad offerings to build and shape the best collective response we can to such a bewildering mess.

If we can unite rather than divide over this challenge to society, we stand a chance of emerging into a positive future with some hope for this country, humanity and all of Life on Earth. Call me an optimist…

 

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www.gillcoombs.co.uk

Working for Nothing?

Last week I ran a ‘Meaningful Work, Fulfilling Life’ workshop. It was a small group, which was good for strong Introvert Gerda, who felt able to speak of her dreams: her problems turning them into a living, and her uncertainty about what she could offer and to whom.

She spoke of her absolute commitment to the natural world, and her low carbon life. She was planning to walk two miles home through dark lanes in the rain. She was 61, and although robust, didn’t have long striding legs. I was happy to be able to offer her a lift.

On the way, she tentatively asked about coaching, and how much I charge. I detailed my sliding scale depending on people’s income and resources. Her shoulders dropped, resignation crossing her face. I went on to explain that I also work for less sometimes, if someone has little expendable income. ‘I have a very tight budget’, she told me, shaking her head.

‘Whatever budget you’re on,’ I assured her,’ we can work together. You give whatever you feel you can, and whatever you feel coaching is worth compared with other things you spend money on.’

She laughed. I looked at her. ‘I never dreamed coaching would be within my reach’, she said. ‘I’ll email you.’

That exchange has stayed with me, and has actually made me angry. What kind of world is it where someone like Gerda – someone of deep integrity and desire to make a positive difference – can’t get the support she needs to realise her vision, because the extended family community that would once have supported her has now all but broken down in today’s society, and she can’t afford to pay anyone?

‘But she deserves it,’ I have kept thinking, which led me to question: what do I mean by that? Who ‘deserves’ free coaching, counselling, mentoring, therapy or any sort of support that would once have come from within the community? Well, it’s not that Gerda’s ‘earned it’ by contributing so much to the greater good through her lifestyle (though for me, that makes her case all the more poignant and necessary).

Many of the clients who find me are already seeking to make a positive contribution to the world. But anyone who comes earnestly to 1:1 work is at the very least hoping for positive change in their own life, and one thing I’ve learned is that when people do that, it usually ripples out to those around them, and sometimes much further.

I’ve done long-term work with a young person in debt, and in exchange he sometimes offers me the gift of his practical skills. One of his goals for our work is to get out of debt, and various other goals he sets himself will help contribute to this. He’s worked on personal issues in order to develop his professional dreams, and he finds the discipline of someone keeping him on track useful. He now has a long term plan, and once he’s out of debt our work together will probably be finished. And this I am quite happy about. Maybe he would have never developed that plan had it not been for the ability to access regular support. And he will likely ‘pay it forward’ over many years to come.

I’ve switched from paid work into free work temporarily when someone’s circumstances have meant short term hardship – and then back again when her situation improved. It’s a matter of having the conversation; finding out who needs what – and continuing to have it.

Working in this way is has its own rewards. I meet richly various people: with exciting plans, or with no clue but a passionate desire for something. But working  on flexible principles isn’t always straightforward or comfortable. When I had regular income from a large commercial client, I felt well-off enough to offer no-charge work quite freely. And my gosh, I learned some significant things from that experience.

Beautiful gifts included a huge fossil, a handmade wooden box and a jar of honey. But… I found I had a much higher proportion of no-shows, or last minute requests for changes of time or day, with free clients than I had with paying clients. I realise now that a lot of this was about how I set it up initially: interestingly, I felt that I should adopt a less structured approach with unpaying clients, which was a mistake as it didn’t help anyone.

One client told me she wasn’t able to pay, and I accepted that – until she started describing the holiday in the Caribbean she was planning. This led to an uncomfortable and then powerful dialogue about money, value and relationship which was most insightful for my client (and me!) Another unpaying client brought me a lovely goodie box more than a year after we worked together, a beautifully touching reminder that instant appreciation isn’t necessarily the best indicator of how useful or valued 1:1 work has been.

This ongoing experiment has caused me to reflect on how my work is valued, and what that means to me. It’s important for me that the work is approached with some commitment – otherwise there’s no point in doing it. And in our monetised world  it’s important for me to earn an adequate income.

When I tell new clients my sliding scale, I now have a brief conversation with them about their situation, and invite them to pick the figure that feels right for them.  Those who pay more make it possible for me to work at a lower rate with those who have less. And so indirectly and disparately, the community supports itself in making the positive changes it seeks.

Do people ever take advantage? Possibly; occasionally. But my sense is that mostly people are mostly sincere. I’m happy to be part of a new economy based around trust, circumstance and fluidity, working ultimately for the greater good, rather than the old fixed, exclusive, transactional model working primarily for financial gain. I’ve been on the receiving end of others’ free assistance when I needed it, and likely I will be again.

I haven’t had that email from Gerda yet. Maybe she’s decided to carry on ploughing her solitary furrow; maybe she hasn’t yet walked the two miles into town to use the library’s computer. Either way, I’m grateful to her for reminding me of those who think 1:1 work is ‘beyond their reach’, and for prompting me to write this piece.

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www.gillcoombs.co.uk

Good Work!

‘What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?’ – Mary Oliver

Hands bleeding, shoulders scraped raw, arms hanging limply by my sides, I slump down on a bench next to my friend Nina’s father and open my packed lunch.

‘Ha ha, cosying up to the boss, love?’ winks the hard-muscled, sun-wrinkled man opposite me. I flush and smile politely as I hungrily gobble my sandwiches. I’m not going to cut it as a steel fixer – that’s already clear from my half day’s work at a new sewage works near Swindon.

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I’d left school before I was sixteen, when the owner of a local riding school offered me a job: heaven on a plate, in the shape of horses all day. But eventually I noticed that my friends (the ones I still saw) were buying clothes, going clubbing and meeting boys, while I worked long hours for very little money. It was time to get a ‘proper job’.

Over the next ten years, I went for jobs in the paper or the job centre that I could do without any qualifications, or I followed up leads from friends (such as Nina) in my new world. This approach took me into roles as various as accounts clerk, waitress, van driver, administrator – and steel fixer. I wasn’t very good at most of these jobs – and neither did I like most of them (though I loved the van driving!), which is hardly surprising in hindsight. I physically couldn’t carry around huge bars of steel, and twist wire with my fingers – but equally I couldn’t juggle hotel bookings, car hire, petty cash, stationery supplies and reception duties without forgetting or losing something important occasionally.

If you have ever done a job you’re not very good at, you’ll know how bad it can be for self-esteem. I don’t know which was worse: the mistakes and sense of failure, or the criticism and teasing. I came to dread performance appraisals; the hot-faced embarrassment of taking a call from a manager who’d arrived at his hotel to find he wasn’t booked in; the moral dilemma of whether topping up an inexplicably impoverished cash box from my own pocket would suggest that I had deliberately stolen from it.

And all the time, I had this sense of bewilderment: I’d been quite bright at school; how come I was so awful at everything I tried?

My saviour came in the shape of a breakfast cereal factory manager, who co-opted me  to the Investors in People steering committee. He saw my instant passion for working with people. He funded me to have a whole lot of training in recruitment and psychometric testing, and had me shadow the management development manager. One proud, memorable day I co-ran a leadership workshop, and that was it – I’d found my niche. At last: work I not only loved, but was good at!

I spent the next few years learning avidly. I worked for three years with a mortgage company, adding to my knowledge and practise of communication skills, leadership models, personality types and coaching. Meanwhile, I was delighted to realise I could learn to get better at things I’d never be a natural in – such as developing my planning and organising skills (but not lifting steel bars). It was a time of great personal growth. Performance appraisals were sometimes even enjoyable. But to my surprise, I began to feel unfulfilled again…

I realised that although I loved the work I was doing, I didn’t love what I was doing it for. At team pep talks I found I honestly didn’t care how many new mortgages were in the pipeline, any more than I’d cared whether our breakfast cereal was the best seller. I wanted to do work I loved – but I wanted do it for outcomes I cared about.

I moved to higher education, the charitable sector and then a housing association, gaining valuable experience as I went. But as fast as I moved, a creeping commercialism followed me… Eventually I went self-employed, using the skills I’d learned to benefit truly ethical organisations. As long as I could earn a living, I could take the reduced income.

My career journey taught me how much happier and fulfilled we can all be when we’re doing work that we love, we’re good at and we care about. It makes such a difference: not only to self-esteem, but also to mental health, and therefore relationships with family and friends.

I spent the next few years researching and writing about work (and obsessing, my friends might say!) I discovered that everyone  has a particular, unique set of skills that they can use not only to make a living, but to make a positive difference in a world of societal and environmental crises; a world so full of need and opportunity.

Of course, finding the right work is easier said than done: some people’s natural talents are buried under layers of social conditioning; others ‘do their thing’ so naturally, they don’t even realise how good they are at it. Others know perfectly well what their thing is, but struggle to make a living from it in today’s commercial working world.

I dream of a world in which everyone has work they love, and that makes full use of their unique skills. I dream of a society in which the main purpose of work is to benefit people and planet, in turn creating vibrant, resilient local economies.

The work I do now – coaching, writing and workshops on the topic about which I’m so fervent – is my contribution to bringing about such a world. After five years I’m still learning, and still out of my comfort zone sometimes (that’s where the best learning usually is). But, I count myself so very fortunate (especially when I look back on my steel-fixing day!) to have work that I love, that I’m good at – and that makes a positive difference in the world. There are some very capable steel fixers in the world, and some excellent administrators. They have their gifts; I have mine.

organisations hawkwood pic

With all that we’ve achieved as a species, surely it should be possible for everyone to be so fortunate in their work? We can all create a better working world, starting with ourselves.

The first steps are to  identify, clarify and believe in your gifts – and yes, we all have at least one! The next steps are finding the best way, or ways, for you to use those gifts, and turning that into reality.

As far as I know, we only have one life. We might as well make it count, and enjoy ourselves along the way!

www.gillcoombs.co.uk