RIP Stephen Sutton / A lesson for us all

Today is a sad day, because it is the day that Stephen Sutton – the inspirational 19 year old who raised more than £3 million for the Teenage Cancer Trust whilst battling the disease himself – finally lost his fight and passed away.

What Stephen achieved in the short time he had far exceeded what most people achieve in a lifetime. Instead of turning his back on life as his body marched inexorably towards its tragic and untimely demise, Stephen made sure he squeezed every last drop out of the time he had left. Not only that, he turned his plight on its head and used it to help others in the same position. How many 19 year olds have the maturity and drive to do something like that? In fact, how many people of any age do? He also ignored the ignorant trolls who came forward when he was released from hospital after showing signs of improvement and accused him of being a ‘fake’ and lying about the seriousness of his condition – refusing to rise to their vicious bait about giving people their money back (something I for one would certainly have handled far less graciously).

Stephen’s story has got me thinking about selflessness and self-awareness; two qualities Stephen had in abundance but which so many people lack. You only have to look around a busy London office or commuter train to see people complaining – about their lot in life, or about the behaviour of other people and how it’s negatively impacted on them. True, everyone needs to let off steam once in a while, but in such moments it would do us all good to take a leaf out of Stephen’s book, think about how our negative behaviour and attitudes impact upon others – instead of the other way around – and realise that we all have a choice: To stay bogged down in our daily problems without bothering to raise our heads above the selfish parapets we inhabit, or to stand up, be counted and make the changes we want to see in ourselves and those around us. Thanks to people like Stephen Sutton, I know which I plan to do.

RIP Stephen: Wherever you now are please know that your legacy will live on in the lives of all the many people you have helped and inspired xxxx

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The Never-Good-Enough Club

What is it about the human condition that makes it so damn hard to celebrate our achievements yet so easy to lambaste ourselves for our failures? Take my experience of today as an example: After waking at 8am still feeling exhausted from my friend’s (amazing) hen weekend I decided to have extra hour’s sleep to ensure maximum productivity for rest of day. When I re-woke up at 9am feeling good I not only wrote my morning pages for the first time in weeks, I also wrote a ‘to do’ list for the day which comprised the following: 

  • Do physio exercises
  • Write short exposition scene for sitcom class homework
  • Devise comedy sketch show idea (as above)
  • Write first episode of sitcom
  • Write dialogue piece for tomorrow’s sitcom class (homework set by guest speaker)
  • Update short story competition spreadsheet
  • Write a new short story
  • Go to shops (to purchase shampoo, floss, Brita filters and dinner, should you be interested in the mechanics of my banal daily existence)
  • Go to gym for twenty minute cycle
  • Do washing

By 10am I had showered, completed my physio exercises, eaten breakfast and written the exposition scene. By 11am I had come up with an idea for the sketch and put the washing on. By 1pm I’d done my shopping and been to the gym. By 2pm I’d written the dialogue piece, and by 5pm I’d written three quarters of the first episode of my sitcom. As I sit here at 8pm I’ve all but finished (bar a few closing lines) the sitcom episode, updated the short story competition spreadsheet, caught up with my best friend in the US (on the phone) and my good friend in Hawaii (on Whatsapp), and am now writing this post. But do I feel a sense of satisfaction? Not really, because of the ten things on today’s to do list, I only managed to complete nine. And that one outstanding task (writing a short story) is hanging over me like a dark cloud – so much so it may as well be a neon sign over my head saying ‘FAILURE.’ If only I’d got up at 8am and used that extra hour instead of sleeping in, my inner critic reasons, I might have ticked that final box and ended the day with a very different sign over my head: A sign that said ‘SUCCESS.’

The reason I’m sharing this is because I know I’m not alone; there are many others like me. Perhaps it would be better if we lowered our expectations of ourselves and set easier targets that guaranteed success. But, in doing that, would we not just be letting ourselves off the hook and accepting there are limits to our capability? True, it’s no fun always feeling like you’re underachieving because you don’t meet your own high targets, but at least you have the ambition to set high targets in the first place, and the inherent belief that, in exceptional circumstances, you are capable of meeting them.

I think the real answer to this conundrum lies in acceptance; of ourselves, of our abilities and, perhaps most importantly of all, of the distance between our dreams and our realities. We may not always manage to tick everything off our daily lists, but as long as we’re keeping up enough forward momentum to inch ever closer to fulfilling our potential, that might just be okay.

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NaNoWriMo: Day One

It’s 1.14pm on day one of NaNoWriMo and as yet I haven’t written a single word of my new novel. Not perhaps the MOST promising start, but I’m not panicking just yet. Why? Because I HAVE A PLAN – and it goes a little something like this:

  1. Work like a demon (right through lunch) until 4pm
  2. Leave office and install self in caffeine-vending establishment (Café Nero and Costa both being less than 100ft from office)
  3. Write as if life depends on it until 6.55pm
  4. Walk five minutes to restaurant to meet friends
  5. Celebrate successful first day of NaNo with a glass of chilled Pinot Grigio

Of course the fact that a) I have about three days’ worth of work to cram into the next three hours and b) I’m still not at all sure how the first chapter is going to start are both somewhat concerning threats to the ultimate achievement of this plan. But as historically my best work has always been done under pressure I choose to regard these challenges as opportunities for greatness rather than barriers to success. The first day of NaNo is not a time to fall apart. It is a time to indulge in superhuman amounts of self-confidence.

I am a writing super hero. I WILL succeed.

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Epiphany on me

Every so often when I’m engrossed in a book, or lost in a song that’s so beautiful the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, I get a sudden rush of overwhelming anxiety. Why? Because in that moment it dawns on me that I will never be able to read all of the amazing books in the world, or hear all of the glorious music that’s been produced over the many years since music began. It’s obvious, of course, but whenever I think about it for any length of time it’s still a sobering enough concept to take my breath away.

Phase two of this bizarre anxiety involves my ruminating that I haven’t read the right kind of books, or listened to the right kind of music. As I’ve grown up – and I should point out at this juncture that I still find it hard to accept that I am, in fact, grown up. Indeed when the prodigal and only child of the family returns home for a familial visit my parents also often have some difficulty believing this – I’ve always thought my capacity and hunger for knowledge would increase and my tastes would mature, not unlike a fine wine.

By my early thirties I was certain I’d have moved beyond childish chick lit ‘novels’ and the kind of soulless popular music that’s relentlessly and indiscriminately spewed out by endless commercial radio stations. I would, I thought, be reading Proust and Tolstoy, listening to Beethoven and Chopin, spending my spare time studying philosophy and going on cycling holidays to French vineyards with my similarly-inclined peers.  

But alas, ‘twas not to be. At thirty one I’m ashamed to admit I still spend most weekends drinking cheap cider and falling out of clubs (playing – you’ve guessed it – popular music). I still haven’t read most of the Orange and Booker Prize-shortlisted tomes I acquired some years ago in a fit of pique at my own ignorance of the workings of the literary world (‘you want to be a writer!’ I’d scold myself. ‘How can you write without reading the works of the great writers?’)  And the sum total of my knowledge on classical music and wine would fit on the back of a postage stamp (and still leave room to spare).

The interest in politics and international affairs that I thought was a rite of passage of getting older never quite materialised. Nor the savvy business mind which would easily decipher tax codes, pensions and such like. Instead of a one woman dynamo I stand before you as an empty, muddled and ignorant shell. I am a caterpillar that failed to undergo metamorphosis and turn into a butterfly. I am a Monopoly piece that didn’t pass Go.

I suppose a psychologist would say that the root cause of my anxiety is my feeling small and insignificant, not knowing my place in the world and worrying I will never make my mark. And I suppose with that analysis they would be pretty spot on (in fact I’ve surprised myself by trotting that out without too much thought and whilst simultaneously wondering what to cook for my dinner – who says we women can’t multitask? Oh, I did, in yesterday’s post. Damn).

But hang on just one cotton picking minute. What about the things I have achieved, the books I have read, the music I have listened to? What about the friends I’ve made, the stories I’ve written, the places I’ve visited? I may never know my Beaujolais from my Fleurie, or be able to discuss the merits of Aristotle’s theories over Plato’s. I may not develop a discerning ear for classical music, know the background to every international conflict or be the next Jane Austen. But I’ll tell you what I will do. I’ll write for pleasure, read for pleasure and continue listening to music that makes my hairs stand on end – even if I heard it on Radio 1.

And above all else I’ll do my best to be a good person and make other people happy. Because no amount of knowledge, maturity and finesse can make up for not being able to do that.

I took this photo when I went on a walk by myself along the beach in Lombok. It reminds me of a quiet, reflective period in my travels – appropriate for this post, which actually made me feel surprisingly emotional as I wrote it.