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AofA People: Elizabeth Carter – Leadership Development Coach

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Elizabeth Carter is a transformation lead at NHS England, working on a campaign to promote nursing as an aspirational career of choice. A change leader, feminist, and radical, Elizabeth is determined to enable young women in education and their careers to unlock their full potential. In her discretionary time, she coaches and writes with a focus on her passion, women in leadership. She is a fierce advocate for living well until dying and sees this fourth quarter of her life as a time to embrace the inevitability of death and preparing for a good death by living a good life. Elizabeth is appearing at the Stoke Newington Literary Festival as part of the AoA session on Sunday, June 9th at 5pm in the Mortuary Chapel. She will be reading a piece she wrote – with Nadia Chambers – for AoA on Living Well until Dying.

Age (in years)  

59 ( 60 in October)

Where do you live?

Oxfordshire right now.  I moved here last April having spent 5 years in Spain.  I have lived all over – longest I have ever lived anywhere ( since I left home at 18) is 5 years.  I always know when it’s time to move on and I act on it.

What do you do?

I walk my dogs, I dream a lot, I write stuff.  Oh and I coach leadership development especially women in leadership and coach narrative to leaders.

Tell us what it’s like to be your age?

I feel exactly the same as I did when I was 17.  I sometimes feel like it’s a bit of a joke that I am actually the age I am but clearly it’s true!I think the best thing about being this age is that I am incredibly kind to myself and allow large amounts of selfishness to keep healthy emotionally and physically.

What do you have now that you didn’t have at 25?

An ability to sit still, to meditate, do yoga.  I was so full on then.

What about sex?

I like sex! I am very comfortable with my body and have no shyness or hang-ups.  Great sex is wonderful and I have had some great sex!

And relationships?

Hmm – someone recently said we are hard-wired to be in a relationship – I don’t agree.  I think society tells us that. I am currently single and very happy and fulfilled.

How free do you feel?

Totally.  I really do as I please.  It’s like being at a permanent festival.
I love it!

What are you proud of?

My friendships and the feedback I get when I coach.

What keeps you inspired?

Other people – my faith and trust in young people – I think that Gen Z is amazing.  i am so hopeful for the future in their hands.  And the night sky.

Wherever I am I gaze at the stars – always amazes and inspires me.

When are you happiest?

Pretty much all of the time! Particularly if I am having a great one to one with a friend or family member.  Sparking off each other.  When I am dancing and listening to music

And where does your creativity go?

On paper – I write and I write.  Also into the work that I do – I love thinking up cool ways to engage people.

What’s your philosophy of living?

Do it – every day.  Live it well with kindness and thought for others and always smile and say hello to elderly people – you might be their only contact in any given day.

And dying?

It’s inevitable.  Embrace it and lean towards it using every living breath well.

Are you still dreaming?

All the time awake and asleep.  I am a master day-dreamer!  Or should I call it visualisation?  My night and sleep dreams are wonderful.

What was a recent outrageous action of yours?

I don’t know that I do anything outrageous.  I am prone to spontaneity and follow impulse and it usually works out ok!

How a Good Life is Connected to a Good Death

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We have been focusing on living and dying, noticing that something our society struggles to accept is one simple and clear fact – all of us are going to die. 100%. No exceptions. We start to die the moment that we take our first breath and we stay steadily on that path until we take our final gasp. With that degree of certainty in our lives, haven’t we got an amazing opportunity to pick and choose from an exciting vista of options in terms of how we live that life, love that life and be that life? Of course we do! We have control over this. Every single element of it.

Why does this matter to us? I’m Elizabeth and at the grand age of 44, there I was, summer 2005, at The Big Chill, up at The Castle Stage looking at the night sky and listening to some lovely music. And I said aloud to that sky, to those stars – I hope I see you again next year. Something very real was happening to me. I was halfway through six months of chemotherapy having been diagnosed with breast cancer. I had a massive lump in my breast that we were reducing before my surgery. I was bald, although sporting a very glamorous black and gold headdress that I had fashioned for the look and for warmth. I genuinely didn’t know if I would make The Big Chill the next year and it was just too soon for me. I wasn’t scared of dying, I just wasn’t ready! The NHS served me amazingly and 11 years later I am still here, still going to festivals but with a renewed perspective around living so well in order that I can die well.

And yet, and yet – we can spend a lifetime looking over our shoulders at something that is no longer there. Attempting to stave off the ageing process, hankering for youthfulness and languishing in nostalgia. However, it doesn’t have to be that way. We could instead be exploring, reinventing, recreating and most importantly building a world alongside those who are younger than us. We could be helping them to appreciate and enjoy ‘now-stalgia”. We could be increasing our contribution to society as we grow older, in new and creative ways, instead of quietly letting the possibilities slide by.

I’m Nadia. I’m 55. Today I felt a significant era of my life was ending. My daughter, the youngest of my 3 children, was packing the last few essential items that comprise a life lived in 20kgs of baggage allowance and heading off, with her boyfriend, to live and work in Berlin. I’ve marveled at these brave and bold millennials as, over the past six months, they’ve used the family home as a base while they’ve worked insane hours, commuted hundreds of miles and spent weekdays on London sofas to enable them to undertake internships in creative industries, slog it out in minimum wage, part-time jobs and somehow, save up enough money to get them started on their dream. We all cried tears of frustration and bewilderment on June 23rd as it seemed their aspirations for the future might be ripped away from them. But if I know one thing about the women in my family, it is that we’re tenacious. We don’t give up. We refocus and get on with our plans. So this morning as I cried into my daughter’s soft shoulder, squeezing her tight as if I may never see her again; I recalled the steel and strength of my mother, my grandmother and felt secure in the knowledge that it flows in our veins too. I’m going to miss her company and gentle presence around the house. But empty nest syndrome? Hell no! I’ve got work to do and a lineage of whispering women urging me on to do it.

So, let’s begin by asking ourselves; “If I died tomorrow – not at some distant point in the future, but tomorrow – how would I like people to remember me? How many versions of me would there be to remember and what would be the legacy of each and every one?” It’s is possible to live our lives with meaning and integrity while keeping our intentions simple: we can pursue so many activities, from the altruistic to the hedonistic ( think volunteering at one end of the week and festival or spa at the other!). We can make, and share memories that, layer upon layer, create a patina of a life well lived.

As you read this now, take a moment and consider how you would begin to explore the possibility of giving your attention to your end of days and to look back upon the fourth quarter – however long you think it is going to be – and how you see yourself having lived and loved. Have you cried, hugged, made magic, made mistakes, showed vulnerability? What’s important to you?

So then we saw the poster featuring the lineup for Campfire Convention. So many people whose work we admire. And there were our names. On that poster.

“I felt suddenly overwhelmed and out of my depth. A sense of panic swept over me and yet, underneath that, I could feel a strange excitement. It all seemed strangely familiar so I sat observing for quite a while, trying to understand what was going on with me. I gradually realised that I’ve felt this way before. A few times. No. Change that to lots of times. Every time I’ve stood on the edge of a part of my life that is dying and set to re-emerge as something new. The sense of dread that one way of living is over accompanied by the quiet, insistent exhilaration that through this ending, another beginning is being made possible. In my hidden shallows, I’ve glibly called it re-inventing myself. I’ve come to know that it’s actually becoming myself. I’m learning how to live because I’m learning how to die. And, as I move towards my last quarter on this earth, I’m loving every moment of it,” said Nadia.

“Well my immediate reaction was Woah! Dying in order to live? What have we started here?  And then I remembered a recent conversation with my 15 year old nephew, Alex.  I was telling him about Campfire Convention and he asked me why I had agreed to do a workshop instead of just turning up with friends, joining in, listening to music? I’d told him that sometimes it’s important to go outside your comfort zones,” said Elizabeth.

This phrase is now a part of the lexicon of Alex who probably has about 60 years of living to do. And it’s firmly part of our learning to live and learning to die.

These are ideas that we have been kicking around for some time – usually whilst walking dogs and when in contemplative mode. But latterly, we have found ourselves being increasingly energised by our conversations and drawing others in. Sometimes the response is nervous, however generally we are finding that there is a real receptiveness to thinking in a generative way about what it means to live a good life towards a good death, particularly as we enter what we are calling the fourth quarter of life. And so we have come together to facilitate a bigger conversation with more people about these very ideas. We have been invited to run a workshop at Campfire Convention 001.

Campfire Convention 001.UK takes place from August 12th to 14th in the beautiful spot in the Golden Valley on the English side of The Black Mountains (just a few miles from the original and inspirational first Big Chill Gala event which created history 21 years ago). It is in one of the most spectacular pub settings in the UK, surrounded by a stream and open fields leading to the Cat’s Back and the foothills leading to Offa’s Dyke. Campfire is the chance for people to experience and contribute to a lively mix of talks, debates, thinkshops and discussions. When we first heard about Campfire we were really excited – this was our thing. A festival in beautiful countryside with friends, music, conversation, fire. But a chat with the founder, Pete Lawrence convinced us that we had to take ourselves outside of our comfort zone and so when asked to produce and deliver a thinkshop on this subject we stepped into a very scary space and said ‘yes’.

We are calling our thinkshop ‘A Good Life and a Good Death: The Fourth Quarter’. During this interactive thinkshop, we will be taking a lighthearted and yet profound look at our attitudes to life and death.  We will be using stories, provocations and exhortations to develop an engaging conversation through which growth and a new perspective may be possible. We hope the shared experience may even be life changing. We are expert coaches in narrative and will be sharing some of our stories, opening a safe space for surprise, shock and compassion. We will challenge, tease and help to connect each of the participants to the values that matter, then to articulate them in a way that will guide them through a fourth quarter that will really count.

Campfire Convention takes place 12-14th August. For tickets and more information go to:

Campfire Convention 001

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