Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Challenge 15th April and #1000Speak Nature or Nurture

This 99-word Flash Fiction was written in response to this week’s prompt: Nurturing a neighborly relationship and also #1000Speak on the topic of Nature or Nurture.

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The Adult Education Centre where I work is in a low income neighbourhood with rampant unemployment and social problems. There are many families living in tiny dwellings in ugly blocks of flats trying hard to make ends meet. Social security is often not enough to cover their needs, and those closest to them, their neighbours, frequently decide to help out, as well as, or instead of, their families. The Red Cross, and many other charities and religious and volunteer organisations are also offering some relief. My schools regularly collects food for a food bank in the neighbourhood, which gives it to families in need.

I believe it is in human nature to be compassionate and help others, even though you may be struggling yourself. It’s easy to look the other way, but it’s also easy to ‘chip in’ however you can, and lend a hand to someone who needs it. The events narrated in my flash are not uncommon, in fact it was inspired by an event a colleague of mine told me about which had happened recently, and I know it is not an isolated case, there are many more generous people altruistically helping each other.

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Chipping in

‘Where are you taking that roast chicken and the cake you baked?’

‘Down to Dolores.’

‘Stop meddling. It’s none of your business.’

‘But he’s done it again.’

‘He’ll be back.’

‘Not this time. It’s been over two months.’

‘She’ll sort it out.’

‘How? She’s got three children under eight, and she’s unemployed.’

‘She can claim social security.’

‘She has. She gets 400 Euros a month and she has four mouths to feed.’

‘Do you really think we can feed four more people?’

‘Just once every two weeks. It’s our turn today. The neighbours have all decided to chip in.’

****

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Have a look at some of this weeks other stories on the Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Challenge

Look at some of the other #1000Speak stories, too by following the blog  and twitter hashtag  and facebook Page

 

Stream Of Consciousness Saturday #SoCS: ‘Peace’

This post is written in response to Linda G. Hill’s prompt on Stream of Consciousness Saturday. Today’s theme is “piece/peace.” Make one or both your theme or just include them somehow in your post. Anyone can join in! Enjoy posting and/or Reading other posts here!

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Inner Peace versus World Peace

I used to think about world peace.

When I was young(er), I thought big; the world was my oyster. Ironically, at that time, in the 1970s, Internet, google, smart phone, low-cost travel, etc. were not in our vocabulary. So the information we had about the rest of the world was reduced to documentaries, and occasional news from a few friends and relatives scattered around the globe, but that didn’t matter, I thought very big. Why not?

Anything and everything, such as world peace, was possible, although I never really thought about how it would ever come about, as if just willing it would be enough.

I would talk about it, take part in debates, sometimes even marches. I also wrote letters to newspapers, or my local MP, as if it were possible just by talking and writing about it.

When I started working, in the 80s, I was busy paying my bills and bringing up a family, and in spite of still having the same ideals, I was no longer doing anything towards them, except believing. I still believed world peace was possible. Why not?

I can’t pinpoint exactly when it all started, but as I’m approaching my retirement, I no longer believe in grand issues such as world peace. Don’t get me wrong, I wish it would happen, I just no longer believe it will in my lifetime, and I’m even more convinced that I’ll never have anything to do with it, if it does happen.

It doesn’t mean I don’t have dreams any more, I do. It’s just that in spite of all the technological and digital innovations and massive worldwide communication, my dreams have become more realistic. Despite having friends and acquaintances (some I’ve met, others I never will. I say this knowing it doesn’t matter, or does it?) in New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, India, Canada, as well as Europe, the US and parts of South America, my dreams have become intimate and local. Very local.

Now I dream with my own inner peace, because it’s the only one which is in my hands, and it’s the only one I now value.

I’m aware that ‘peace’ is an arbitrary word, so I feel obliged to clarify what it means to me.

Being at peace with myself and my surroundings means I’m not interested in races or arguments, being right, or being perfect. I just want to be at peace with myself and those I interact with and care about.

I try to do the things that make me happy, and I also make sure I feel happy about the things I do, so I make sure those around me don’t sweat the small stuff, and look at the bigger and nicer picture, as I do.

I’ve found many things which make me feel at peace:

Reading and writing, talking and thinking about reading and writing, meeting other writers and like-minded people, being with my children and grandchildren, going to the cinema, for a walk, or a coffee with my friends, and valuing the routine, wonderful, little things I enjoy as often as posible, such as a walk by the beach, a stroll in the countryside, an interesting conversation, or an occasional glass of wine.

And when I have to do things which are not my choice, I make an effort to enjoy them. I refuse to argue about unimportant things. Fortunately, my job does not involve life and death situations, so very few things are important enough to argue about. I make an effort to see people’s good points, and work at them, overlooking their worse points, and if I really can’t see any good points (I’m still an optimist, so this doesn’t happen often), I make sure I avoid them as much as possible.

I’ve come to believe that if I’m at peace with myself and can transmit that peace to those around me, locally and internationally, by paying in forward and having as my only aim to bring peace to myself and those around me, then the world will be a more peaceful place.

I take part in initiatives such as #Speak1000, which posts on compassion, bullying, etc. and I occasionally cooperate with local volunteer organisations and initiatives, too. I can manage that. Can’t we all?

If we all brought peace to our lives and those around us, world peace might be posible, might it not? So perhaps I do still believe in world peace after all, don’t I?

What gives you peace?

How do you avoid or cope with things or people who take away your peace?

 

 

Building from Bullying. #1000Speak 20 March

A Peer Mediation Project

While I was a High School teacher, I witnessed a lot of bullying. Mainly seemingly minor incidents such as: name calling, hiding or stealing personal objects, excluding by ignoring, spreading cruel gossip, etc. More recently, cyber bullying also became popular, where the same actions were performed on social media.

Although teachers are often the first to identify these events, a great deal of bullying goes unnoticed by adults, including parents, because the bullies are devious, and they have many accomplices, or people who are prepared to turn a blind eye, and even take part in the torture by watching and enjoying.

I started a peer mediation project at my school, which I’d like to share with you today, because it helped with many cases, but first, I’d like to share a piece of flash fiction on this subject, which I believe illustrates the point dramatically.

****

Mary was Alone

Miss Smith wrote the five words on the blackboard: Mary was alone at home.
“Now let’s finish the story together,” she invited the students.

Mary trembled. It was happening again in broad daylight.

“Mary? Stop daydreaming. Could you give us the next line?” ordered the teacher.

How could she know the child was struggling with a recurring nightmare?

“Let’s give Mary some ideas to proceed with the story. Can I have a second line from someone else?”

Mathew put his hand up and spoke, “She saw him watching her from across the parking lot, opposite her bedroom window.”

“Sounds good. Does that help, Mary?”

She shook her head, thankful that her hair covered her tearful eyes.

“He took pictures of her as she undressed,” continued Mark.

“He shared them with his friends on Facebook,” volunteered Peter.

“Can you continue now, Mary?” asked Miss Smith.

“She’s a nervous wreck, because she can’t eat, sleep, or study.”

“Change that line for: ‘she enjoyed the attention she’d never had before’,” Luke smirked.

“How does the story end, Miss Smith?” Mary asked desperately.

“She tells her teacher, who helps her understand she’s a victim of bullying and needs help.”

“She better not, Miss. Teachers’ bedrooms have windows, too,” warned Shirley.

****

I wrote this in response to a photo prompt on today’s Flash! Friday Contest, check out the other entries here:

It is my opinion that children, including adolescents, cannot cope with bullies on their own. They need the help of understanding and experienced adults, especially teachers, and other students, too. I became interested in this topic after taking part in mediation training courses for teachers. Students at my school also took part in similar courses.

I realized we needed students in the school mediation project because students who are being bullied can be more easily identified by other students, and students can understand and relate to each other more easily and willingly than with an adult.

We established various stages:

Pre-Mediation

  • Building awareness, and making the mediators and project known to students. Mediators were allocated a room, a mail box, and information was given to the community.
  • Reception of information /cases. This could be done by means of an anonymous or identified written communication by a third party, or a personal request by someone who was experiencing it directly.

Both parties have to agree to take part in mediation.

This is the best part and the biggest drawback. You can’t force someone to take part in mediation, and I hate to admit it, but I believe that the worst cases can’t be solved by mediation, because the bully refuses to cooperate.Fortunately, once they agree to take part, 50% of the work is done.

We offered all parties involved absolute privacy in all proceedings and a reduced (or even no) reprimand if they agreed to take part and reached an agreement.

Stages to mediation:

  • Separate interviews. Peer mediators speak to each party separately about the events.
  • Joint discussion. Mediators guide a session where both parties speak in turns about (i) what has happened, (ii) how they feel about the events, and (iii) what they ask of each other.

Active listening is encouraged by asking each party to rephrase what the other has said, immediately after each intervention, to make sure they are listening and understanding each other’s feelings and motivations.

Surprisingly, we sometimes discovered that the victim was doing something, unknowingly, that the bully interpreted as an offence, or that the bully had got the wrong end of the stick. Amazingly many of the cases were, or had started as misunderstandings.

Closure. Finally, an agreement, which could be total or partial, was reached by both parties.

  • The worst scenario was that they agreed to ‘ignore’ or ‘keep away’ and not harm or provoke each other in any way.
  • The best scenario was a mutual understanding and a return to normal relations between both parts.

Post Mediation Stage

  • Students (mediators) follow-up informally to make sure the situation hasn’t worsened.
  • Students who insisted on bullying after mediation suffered harder disciplinary measures. This rarely occurred.

The only drawback is that this works with ‘reasonable’ children who suffer or indulge in ‘routine’ or simpler cases of bullying, however, more serious cases which often go beyond the school walls need much more specialized and coordinated action with families, psychologists, social workers, and even law enforcement.

I’m convinced that the vast majority of incidents of bullying in schools, which I have witnessed, are not of the complex type, and therefore can be improved with peer mediation projects.

Have you had any experience of similar projects at your schools?

Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Challenge: Ways to Unplug a Bully’s Power

There’s often no easy way of stopping bullies, unless they decide to stop themselves.

Bullies have the advantage over those who are bullied. They usually exert their tyranny because they are in a situation of power over others, or they inspire fear in those around them.

We’ve all come across some of them at some point in our lives, usually at school, or at work. In fact bullies themselves have often come across other bullies who taught them how to play the macabre game.

There is no trouble-free solution, so sometimes action is needed. I’m not suggesting this action has to be violent, but sometimes we need to stand up to the bullies and say, ‘No’, or teach them a quiet, but clear lesson with actions they may not like.

Although I never recommend provoking bullies, sometimes standing up for ourselves is a feasible alternative, as the following extract from The Help illustrates.

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I read The Help by Kathryn Stockett, some years ago, but it is a book that is not easily forgotten.

It is the moving story of three women speaking out against racial discrimination in the Us in the 1960s.

Aibileen is a dutiful albeit bitter black maid. Her friend Minny is her outspoken friend. Skeeter is a well off white girl who is socially conscious and has just graduated college. The three of them write a book about what it was like to be a black maid in a small town in the South, at that time. It is alternately sad, and funny, and shocking, and cruel, and full of hope, too.

There is an unforgettable extract in which Minny tells Miss Celia, her current employer, about the secret ingredient in the chocolate cake she used to cook for her previous employer, Miss Walter’s daughter, the cruel and spiteful, Miss Hilly.

“And that’s how come I did it.”
Miss Celia blinks at me. “What, Minny?”
“I tell her to eat my shit.”
Miss Celia sits there, still looking dazed.
“Then I go home. I mix up that chocolate custard pie. I puts sugar in it and Baker’s chocolate and the real vanilla my cousin bring me from Mexico.
“I tote it over to Miss Walters’s house, where I know Miss Hilly be setting round, waiting for the home to come and get her mama, so she can sell that house. Go through her silver. Collect her due.
“Soon as I put that pie down on the countertop, Miss Hilly smiles, thinking it’s a peace-offering, like that’s my way a showing her I’m real sorry bout what I said. And then I watch her. I watch her eat it myself. Two big pieces. She stuff it in her mouth like she ain’t ever eaten nothing so good. Then she say, ‘I knew you’d change your mind, Minny. I knew I’d get my way in the end.’ And she laugh, kind a prissy, like it was all real funny to her.
“That’s when Miss Walters, she say she getting a mite hungry too and ask for a piece a that pie. I tell her, ‘No ma’am. That one’s special for Miss Hilly.’
“Miss Hilly say, ‘Mama can have some if she wants. Just a little piece, though. What do you put in here, Minny, that makes it taste so good?’
“I say ‘That good vanilla from Mexico’ and then I go head. I tell her what else I put in that pie for her.”
Miss Celia’s still as a stone staring at me, but I can’t meet her eyes now.
“Miss Walters, her mouth fall open. Nobody in that kitchen said anything for so long, I could a made it out the door fore they knew I’s gone. But then Miss Walters start laughing. Laugh so hard she almost fall out the chair. Say, ‘Well, Hilly, that’s what you get, I guess. And I wouldn’t go tattling on Minny either or you’ll be known all over town as the lady who ate two slices of Minny’s shit.’ ”

*****

Here’s my take on stopping bullies in their tracks which I wrote for Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Challenge!

“What’s this?”
“It’s apple pie. Don’t you like it?”
“I like the chocolate cake your mum makes,” she shouted gobbling it up. “Bring some tomorrow, or I’ll kick you again till your legs turn purple.”
“She’s working double shifts this week, so she hasn’t got any time to cook.”
“Make it yourself.”
“I’m not allowed to cook when mum’s not at home.”
“Find a way if you know what’s good for you,” she warned.
The following day, I watched her swallow greedily and whispered, “I won’t tell anyone whose shit you just ate if you stop bullying me. Deal?”

I do apologise if I’ve offended anyone, but I couldn’t resist writing this 99-word flash, shamelessly inspired by the previous scene in The Help.

 

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If you’d like to read some of the other entries for this week’s carrot ranch stories on showing the bully mentality countered with a different, unexpected or kind action. We’ve all thought of ways to unplug a bully’s power, and show characters with strength and dignity and even humor, here are our stories.

If you’d like to take part in the next upcoming #1000Speak for compassion blog events — “Building from Bullies.” After a successful launch of compassionate blogging on February 20, bloggers are asked to write about the anti-bullying theme on March 20.
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Compassion in Jane Eyre

Jane Eyre was an orphan, who was brought up first by an unloving aunt, Mrs. Reed, and later at an institution for poor orphans, Lowood, before being employed as governess at Thornfield Hall.

Although Jane suffered hardships and humiliations, and found very little compassion at that time, her life was not in danger due to unbearable social circumstances until she made the decision to leave Thornfield Hall and venture into the world practically penniless, without any friends or family to turn to.

At that point in the novel, Jane Eyre’s life was in serious danger. Her life was saved thanks to the compassion and generosity of the Rivers family.

When Jane Eyre left Thornfield Hall at dawn, after discovering that Mr. Rochester was already married to Bertha Mason, she took only some bread and twenty shillings, which she spent on travelling as far away from Mr. Rochester as she could.

Jane’s life was seriously in danger, with no possibility of claiming the social benefits we are accustomed to today. In my previous post, I have already discussed some of the social injustices which were commonplace in the 19th century.

 

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St. John Rivers admits Jane to Moor House, by F. H. Townsend, 1868-1920.

 

Jane tried in vain to find employment as a servant in the villages she passed. Days later, starving, cold, exhausted, and desperate she says:

‘My strength is quite failing me,’ I said in a soliloquy. ‘I feel I cannot go much farther. Shall I be an outcast again this night? While the rain descends so, must I lay my head on the cold, drenched ground? I fear I cannot do otherwise: for who will receive me? But it will be very dreadful, with this feeling of hunger, faintness, chill, and this sense of desolation—this total prostration of hope. In all likelihood, though, I should die before morning.

She finally arrived at the door of the three Rivers siblings: St. John, a clergyman and his two sisters, Diana and Mary, who fortunately took her in out of compassion. It was in their house that Jane was finally allowed to rest in a warm bed:

I contrived to mount a staircase; my dripping clothes were removed; soon a warm, dry bed received me. I thanked God—experienced amidst unutterable exhaustion a glow of grateful joy—and slept.

The following morning, by Jane’s bedside, Mary and Diana discuss her condition, and her desperate situation is confirmed:

‘It is very well we took her in.’
‘Yes; she would certainly have been found dead at the door in the morning had she been left out all night. I wonder what she has gone through?’
‘Strange hardships, I imagine—poor, emaciated, pallid wanderer?’

Jane admits that if it had not been for them, she would have probably died.

I owe to their (Mary and Diana) spontaneous, genuine, genial compassion as large a debt as to your (St. John) evangelical charity.’

However, the Rivers had problems of their own. Shortly after this event, the three Rivers are forced to shut up and abandon Moor House, where they had lived all their lives, because their financial situation after their father’s death was precarious. St. John took over the parsonage, and Mary and Diana had to leave their home and their town in order to find jobs far away as governesses.

Jane is procured a job at the local Parish School. Months later, when Jane is informed, through Mr. Briggs, the solicitor who interrupted the bigamous wedding farce, that she has inherited twenty thousand pounds from her deceased uncle, John Eyre, she shared it in equal parts with the Rivers. She also recovered and renovated Moor House, where the Rivers, who were her discovered to be her cousins, returned to live with her.

She received compassion and returned their compassion by sharing her inheritance with them.

In the sequel I’ve written, All Hallows at Eyre Hall, Jane has grown into a socially conscious manager of the Rochester Estate, who spends a great deal of her time and money on the education and employment of poor children and orphans. I am convinced that she would have used her privileged financial and social position to help others, especially having experience much hardship herself.

Compassion cannot be taught, but it can be learnt from experience, or developed by building awareness.

Compassion in 19th Century England and Today

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Today, 20th February, bloggers are taking part in the 1000 Voices for Compassion initiative, by blogging on the topic of compassion. Have a look at #1000Speak on twitter to read more about what other bloggers are writing about compassion in our lives today.

I’ve been thinking about compassion over the last two centuries, and how the concept has evolved, and finally what it means to me in my daily life.

There was little in the way of social security in the Georgian or Victorian era. In fact, the orphans, homeless, and unemployed of the time, were in danger of losing their health and their lives, by literally dying of cold and starvation. Another option was stealing, which they often inevitably had to indulge in, and could lead them to prison or the workhouse. Another option, especially for women, was prostitution, which would most often be a protracted death sentence.

 

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Dickens at his desk, 1858, by George Herbert Watkins

 

Compassion was the only option. Families, friends, neighbours, and generous and compassionate people had to be understanding, feel empathy, and assist those in need.

There are plenty of literary examples in fiction in novels many by Charles Dickens (Bleak House, Oliver Twist), Elizabeth Gaskell (Mary Barton, North and South), and Charlotte Bronte (Jane Eyre).

Other international authors such as Emile Zola, Balzac, Tolstoy, and Mark Twain, were also writing novels based on social issues.

There are also history books which sadly confirm these fictional accounts such as: Ideas of Childhood in Victorian Children’s Fiction: Orphans, Outcasts and Rebels  The Workhouse  Social issues in Victorian England

Nowadays we take the welfare state for granted. The social benefits we all share in Europe, by giving into the system through our taxes, and later redistributing it back into the system, with unemployment benefits, pensions, national health system, education system, etc., have greatly improved the quality of our lives.

This does not mean the system is perfect, or that we can shrug off our responsibility by saying, ‘I pay my taxes, I don’t need to be compassionate.’

So many people in the world, even in our own, developed countries, are experiencing the harshness of the economic recession. We cannot close our eyes to the severe social deprivation and injustices happening around the world. On the other hand, we cannot solve all the world’s problems.

But we can all do something which can help to make the world a better place. If we each do a little, we’ll all do a lot. In Spain people say, if we each add a grain of sand, we’ll all build a mountain.

 

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Everyone needs to be compassionate, and everyone will be in need of compassion at some time.

The great thing about compassion is that you don’t need to go out of your way to be compassionate. It’s not something you have to do outside your daily life, because compassion is part of our lives.

I’m fortunate to be able to help many people every day in my job. I help adults who didn’t finish school, to get their secondary school-leaving certificates and learn some basic English. I also help others who have completed their Secondary education to pass their university entrance exams and improve their English, and thus their job prospects.

First I need to walk in their shoes, and then I need to help them reach their goals. None of them have had, or have, easy lives. Many are unemployed, have very low self-esteem, or serious learning difficulties.

It’s my job to teach them, but it’s my vocation to be compassionate, encouraging and caring.

We’ll all need compassion at some moment in our lives. We’ll all need a compassionate doctor, teacher, friend, colleague, etc., If we each care for those near us who need some, hopefully someone will also care for us, when our turn comes.

Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction: Compassion

This week’s Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Challenge deals with a much-needed topic: Compassion.

Charli reflects upon the meaning of compassion,  bringing up such definitions such as “sorrow for the sufferings or trouble of another or others”. She points out that compassion unlike pity is “accompanied by an urge to help”, whereas pity “sometimes connotes slight contempt because the object is regarded as weak or inferior.”

She reminds us that “compassion is kind. It is merciful. It is loving. It is not withheld for the privileged few. It can even extend to horses and peat moss and all of life.”

She also introduces us to Rough Writers, Norah Colvin and Anne Goodwin, who bring our attention to two words that extend from compassion. Weltschmertz: “world pain” or the grief we feel at how the world keeps falling short of our expectations. Meliorism: having a belief that the world can be improved by the actions of humans. Anne sums up the interaction of the two words:

“Both are useful: weltschmerz enabling us to care enough about what’s wrong and meliorism driving us to try to do something about it.”

Charli concludes that this is what compassion looks like in action.

I also learned from her post about #1000Speak. It is a call for 1000 voices blogging for compassion on February 20. We are all encouraged to join in and post on compassion on our blogs and twitter accounts.

So this week’s Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Challenge proposes stories that reveal compassion.

February 11, 2015 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that demonstrates compassion. You can explore weltschmerz (enabling us to care enough about what’s wrong) and meliorism (driving us to try to do something about it) if you want to explore those specific terms. Consider posting on February 20, too.

Respond by February 17, 2015 to be included in the weekly compilation. Rules are here. All writers are welcome!

My own reflection is about how ‘far away’ and ‘unreal’ suffering may seem to children, thanks to the mass media, video games, Internet, etc.

As a teacher, I have often been amazed at how young people living in the comfortable and cozy ‘western world’, regard how many other homeless, hungry and war-stricken children live.

You can’t teach someone to be compassionate, but you can make them aware of how other children, just like them, are suffering in other parts of the world, and hopefully, compassion will grow…

This is my 99-word contribution:

I closed the storybook.
“The writer depicts a poor, hungry, and frightened little match girl with bare head and naked feet in the snow, lighting matches to keep warm, before finally dying while sitting against a wall on the pavement.”
“That happened a long time ago, Mrs. Smith. It doesn’t happen anymore.”
I turned on the projector.
“The journalist was killed after watching a little baby’s horrific death. She saw shells, rockets and tank fire during the massacre.”
“Wars are different.”
“It’s never different. It’s the same over and over; greed, hate, violence, suffering, and worst of all…. indifference.”