Sometimes things happen that seem to wrap what you thought were separate threads of your life together in a way that makes perfect sense afterwards, but which you never saw coming.
Until barely three months ago I did nothing that wasn’t about just getting through the day, working, eating, wishing I could sleep better and moaning about needing more satisfaction out of my days. Another frustrated middle-aged man. Ideal company.
I’d kind of lost the plot. A plot in which the opening chapters, the unreliable rear-view mirror told me, were full of fervent beliefs, risk-taking, challenge to what seemed wrong and a sense that the future was up for grabs. Mid-life crisis was in the post and I was a jaded ex-everything. Ex-optimist, ex-questioner, ex-believer in causes.
Then, somehow, I started to feel the ravelling of threads – if ravelling is the opposite of unravelling.
At work (I organise collaborative programmes between groups of schools in the Midlands) two of the many things with which I was involved started, more than usual, to take centre-stage and demand that I made a particular effort, did them ‘right’.
One was promoting the White Ribbon Campaign which encourages men to take a public stand in the fight against Violence Against Women and Girls and one was helping get a ‘Coaching Healthy and Respectful Masculinity’ Programme, run by A Call To Men UK, off the ground.
At work I spin plates, find grants, link people, and am well used to balancing loads of strands and just being glad that they happen and then moving on to the next. But these two projects just seemed to ‘matter’ more.
With a great network of local partners – teachers in schools, district council employees and student leaders we made the White Ribbon – the symbol of the movement that has spread from Canada across the Anglophone world – appear on the lapels of whole bus queues of teenage students, on the aprons of catering staff, the lanyards of cleaners and the suits of school governors and head teachers. We commissioned plays tackling the themes of domestic abuse and controlling relationships and we gathered two thousand pledges from students never to ‘commit, condone or remain silent’ about violence and abuse. It felt like the right thing to be doing.
The White Ribbon Campaign’s big push – the ‘Sixteen days of Action’ runs from 25th November to 10th of December. Normally – for me, if not for them – the day after it ends our materials are packed away, the displays cleared and the next project is under way. On the 11th December this year, instead, I rang the White Ribbon Campaign offices and said ‘I want to be a WRC ambassador, year-round’. Simple. In schools we preach to kids about volunteering and making a contribution to the wider community. I have done years of talking exactly that talk without ever actually walking the walk.
Before Christmas I was on board and at the end of January I got my first ambassadorial ‘posting’ – to a fundraising comedy night in Swansea. Rocking up at The Liberty Stadium to see nearly 300 people sporting the ribbons, sticking their hands deep in their pocket and shining a light on the grimly routine annual murder of 120 British women gave me, strangely, a long-forgotten sense of purpose – this was what I should be doing with my Saturday night, 100 miles from home! I should be standing up and being counted, connected to other people, struggling for something better. Of course.
Around the same time A Call To Men UK started to train me and colleagues from schools in the ‘Coaching Healthy & Respectful Masculinity’ programme. CH & RM is the fruit of collaboration between Kay Clarke, founder of Midlands Domestic Abuse Survivors’ group ‘Supportworks Foundation’ and Tony Porter, inspirational US speaker and Co-founder of A Call To Men (US). Their perseverance and inspirational presentations have won me over to their cause, too, and I am happy to do what I can, beyond the day-job, to promote their work. I currently manage their twitter feed which has been a steep and rapid learning curve for a twitter ingénue.
The Call To Men UK programme is nationally ground-breaking – a 10 week curriculum for teenage lads, delivered in school, in how to unpick language, media images, historical beliefs and their own attitudes towards women and girls and themselves as developing men.
A Call To Men’s key concept is the Man-box, a mental structure that keeps men and boys trapped in rigidly defined and self-policed versions of masculinity that lead them to disconnect from the experience of women, to undervalue them and to see them as objects. Although most men are well-meaning and not abusive, the shared codes of the man-box transmit a kind of collective nod and wink to abusers. Getting out of the man-box is therefore a key to happier lives for men and women alike.
So here I am – in the space of a few months I’ve gone from moaning about being directionless, frustrated and unsatisfied to volunteering for two organisations that I believe in and which give me energy. In the process I feel like I’ve rediscovered, in a small way, how I felt as a young man when the world was new. I look at my kids when we talk about the man-box (in traffic on the school run, like you do – you do, don’t you?) or as they help me get the stall ready at a White Ribbon event and I wonder only one thing – why didn’t I do any of this before?