Freak Out

In my third year of university I suffered from panic attacks, which were the physical manifestation of my guilt at having been so lackadaisical in attitude towards academic study for the preceding two years. I vividly remember one afternoon when I was attempting to start work on my dissertation and my housemate and best friend bounded into my room and informed me we would be attending a house party that evening. Summoning some hitherto unknown strength of will I declined the offer and explained the likelihood of my failing my degree if I ventured outside the house between that very moment and the end of term, but my protestations fell on unsympathetic ears. “You’ve got 15 minutes,” my friend said, “by the time I get out of the shower you need to be ready to go.” As it happened, by the time she got out of the shower I was about as far from ready as could be-I had, in fact, become so distressed by my predicament that I had unintentionally hyperventilated myself into unconsciousness and collapsed backwards onto the bed. Needless to say, by the time I came around I was so disoriented that work was not an option-and alcohol, and indeed the house party, won out (as so oft they did in those halcyon days of my early twenties. Oh who am I kidding? They still do more than ten years later).

Why did I tell you that story? For two reasons actually. Firstly, because today I had a moment when I felt the same chest-crushing anxiety I felt that day at university, as it hit me in a tidal wave of realisation that this move to Belgium really IS happening two weeks on Saturday, and I suddenly and acutely felt a sense of loss for all the loved ones that I’m leaving here in the UK, as well as a sense of panic about leaping into the great unknown without the security of a job or social network where I’m going. Don’t get me wrong, I’m 100% committed to this move and can’t wait to start this new chapter in my life. I suppose trepidation is just a natural part of the process of acclimatisation to change.

The second reason I told that story is that tomorrow is my thirty third birthday, and as I sit here reminiscing about my uni days I find it difficult to accept they were more than a decade ago. I always thought by the time I reached my early thirties I’d feel grown up and would have life all figured out. But the reality is there is no ‘magic age’ at which we humans become ‘grown up.’ And whilst I waste a lot of breath moaning about my advancing years, I have to say that’s one realisation I’m glad to have had.

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Birthday Wishes for an Absent Friend

Today would have been the 33rd birthday of a very special man who was in my life – and the lives of many others – for far too short a time: Paul Wickerson. The sole weekend we spent with him and his beautiful girlfriend Sarah in a bonny Scottish lodge for the wedding of our good friends Emma and Harry last August will stay in my heart and in my memory forever.

I didn’t know Paul beyond that short weekend, as two weeks later he was tragically taken from this world, but his spirit, sense of fun and his aforementioned love (the gorgeous Miss Sarah Rhodes) have loomed large in my life ever since.

I won’t profess to have known him better than I did, nor will I dwell on the obvious tragedy that his life was cut short in its prime. Because today is his birthday, and whilst he may not be here in body I’ve no doubt he is here in spirit, so it’s only right he should be celebrated. Happy Birthday Dude, I for one will be raising a ladle and a glass to you tonight x

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Happy Birthday to my Spiritual Twin

Today is a very special person’s 27th birthday, and as I can’t think of a better way to mark this most auspicious of occasions (plus I’ve only just learned of the occasion and therefore haven’t time to do anything else), I thought a blog post in her honour might just fit the birthday bill. Because, you see, this person is special for a number of reasons, and one of those reasons is writing.

Allow me, if you will, the luxury of a nostalgic trip into the past – May 2011, to be precise, on a lazy backwater tour of Cochin in India. That day I met a girl called Jen who hailed from Brisbane and was five years my junior, and with whom I instantly got on. We were both travelling alone, and it was most enjoyable to share our experiences as our guide negotiated the labyrinthine maze of aquatic waterways.

As fate would have it when I arrived at the Sivananda ashram in southern Kerala a couple of days later who should be there but Jen? It turned out we had both booked onto the two week ‘yoga vacation,’ although it quickly became apparent this would be about as far removed from a holiday as could be. Five am starts, ‘karma yoga’ duties and four gruelling hours of yoga a day was an exhausting regime, and if Jen hadn’t been there to laugh with in the moments when it all got too much I’m not sure I’d have lasted the two weeks.

Fast forward to January 2013, by which time Jen had moved to New York after her travels to start a new life, and was making ends meet by waitressing, spending her free time working on her novel. When I sensed from her messages that she was feeling a little flat I felt a strong urge to visit her, and before I knew it April had come around and I was on my way to New York City.

The six days we spent together were amazing, especially considering we didn’t really know each other that well, and almost two years had passed since our last face to face meeting. We were laughing from the second Jen met me at the airport, and we didn’t stop until it was time to say goodbye. We walked sixty blocks in an afternoon, searched for mystical horses in Grand Central station, ate pizza, burgers and cupcakes like they were going out of fashion and painted New Jersey and downtown Manhattan entirely new shades of red. We also discovered a shared passion for cheese, and whiled away a perfect afternoon in Murray’s Cheese Bar over a bottle of quality red.

Leaving NYC was a wrench, because I knew I’d found in Jen something so very rare – a spiritual soul mate, if you believe in such a thing, someone who is so much like yourself you could actually be related. We both love to write, we’re both utterly neurotic (!) and we share an interest in spirituality.

Since New York we’ve kept in touch via a series of endlessly entertaining Whatsapp messages, which often leave me giggling aloud in public (not a good look). And now as Jen prepares to leave the city she has come to love for pastures new (Hawaii, as it happens – not a bad choice of destination), I find myself wishing I could join her on her next adventure, and in ways I can’t explain feeling that in some way I am.

So, on your 27th birthday, here’s to you, my Spiritual Twin. Thank you for the laughs your friendship over the past two and a half years has given me, and here’s to the future and all it brings. Remember that no decision we make is ever wrong – because each one gives us so much new material to enrich our writing and our lives. Love you x

Restoration Time

I’m not going to lie, it’s been a pretty exhausting two days, so I’ve more than welcomed the opportunity to vegetate all day today, watching back to back films (Pacific Rim, Stoner and The Hangover 3, should you be wondering-an eclectic selection to say the least) and eating Dominos pizza with my boyfriend and his brothers on his birthday. Tomorrow when the clan departs it will be nose back to the grind stone time, starting with a ninety minute run to kick start the metabolism after a weekend of booze and carbs and followed by a long writing session to begin to make up the eight thousand words I’m now behind in my NaNowrimo challenge. But that’s fine with me, because life is all about the yin and the yang, and after tipping the scales heavily in one direction with this weekend’s birthday celebrations it’s high time to reverse the trend and get back to sensible pursuits and healthy living. Move aside Dominos and partying, vegetables and sleep are back on the menu for the foreseeable future…

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Just B

As today is my 32nd (gulp) birthday, I thought I’d entertain the idea that time travel was possible, and write a letter to the ‘Me’ of ten years ago:

Dear 22 year old Belle,

This is your older (and far wiser) self, writing to tell you a few things that might help you in the years to come.

Right now you are happy and believe you have found love, but things will take a turn for the worse four years from now. It will be the toughest time you will have faced up to that point, but it will be the making of you in ways you couldn’t previously conceive. You will find a strength you never knew you possessed, and you will discover what it is to be truly happy in your own skin, without the claustrophobic need for companionship you currently experience. One day, after your fragile heart has healed, you will meet someone with whom you can be entirely yourself, someone who treats you with a level of respect you never thought possible, who will show you what it feels like to be truly and unconditionally loved. Wait for that day in good faith, and trust that you need to experience the hard times to truly appreciate the amazing ones that will follow.

But enough on that, now a few words on your career: As your future self I feel duty-bound to tell you it seems possible you may never know what you want to be when you ‘grow up.’ You’ll drift from job to job and never quite feel you belong. The only constant in your life will be writing, and this is something you must do at every opportunity. Don’t doubt yourself or your ability, simply write and see where it leads you. Never give up, for it is only in persistence that success can be found.

Some general life advice: Don’t have regrets or harbour grudges; all they’ll do is eat you up inside. Instead please trust that things will happen as they should. ‘What’s for you won’t go by you’ is a phrase that you should heed. Love your family and your friends with all your heart. Be honest, open and sincere. Don’t let the bad times cancel out the good. Be adventurous, bold and brave. Love life and live it to the full, for every soul who didn’t have the chance to.

Don’t sweat the small stuff. Help people. Read widely. Travel the world. Make a difference. Believe in yourself. Live. Love. Pray. Be.

Yours,

32 year old Belle.

Oktoberfest in London: Epic times

When I convinced fifty one of my friends to accompany me to Oktoberfest in London to celebrate my birthday, I must admit I was a bit concerned it wouldn’t live up to my expectations. After going to the ‘real’ Oktoberfest in Munich in 2010 the bar was set extremely high, and I wasn’t convinced the true spirit of the event would translate all that well in an English context. But fortunately I was wrong, and as soon as we walked into the tent and saw hundreds of people dancing on the tables holding giant steins of beer I knew we had made a good decision to come. Before long we were dancing on our table too, singing along to all the cheesy songs and sloshing beer around with the best of them. It really was rip roaring fun, despite the ridiculous lack of beer taps and staff, which led to enormous queues for the bar and ultimately to our leaving early and returning to the pub we started in to continue the festivities. But by far the best bit of the day for me, besides seeing all my friends in Bavarian fancy dress, was when an East End gangster strolled into the pub and bought my entire party shots of jager bomb for my birthday. Utterly, utterly surreal, and absolutely bloody fantastic. Maybe thirty two won’t be so bad after all…

Prost!!

Today is my thirty second birthday party and, true to form, I have arranged a suitably ridiculous event to mark this auspicious occasion. From 1pm, fifty two lederhosen and dirndl-clad men and women, all between the ages of twenty five and thirty five, will be gathering in a pub somewhere near Greenwich. Once the motley crew has assembled, we will make our way to Milwall Park to collect our tickets for Oktoberfest London, where we will proceed to dance, make merry, drink beer and eat stew like they’re going out of fashion. If we can’t go to the real Oktoberfest in Germany this is the next best thing. As they say, if you can’t bring Mohammed to the mountain, bring the mountain to Mohammed. And if you can’t dress up and be silly on your birthday when can you?