Rising from the Ashes

Dad told me I should write more. At the very least some updates on my blog. His dream of having an award-winning novelist of a daughter seems to be dying by the day. And, yet, from the glowing embers of this dream a phoenix (of sorts) is rising. It’s small and scraggy now, stumbling on Bambi-esque legs amongst the ashes, coughing and shielding its eyes from the light. But it exists, this spectre of old, only now coming into being after years of steady manifestation.

By ‘It’ I am referring to my venture back into the world of psychology, and, simultaneously, my journey into the unknown-and-terrifying-yet-also-exciting world of coaching – in the form of a combined Master’s degree.

It’s not exactly how I’d planned it. We thought we’d be in New York City by spring. I’d envisaged endless cups of coffee, walks in Central Park with a new puppy; days stretching out with nothing but study and writing and play. But life doesn’t always work out how you planned. Which means that sometimes you just have to play the hand you’ve been dealt.

We’re not going to New York anymore. Already it feels like a pipe dream blowing in the wind. At first I shed a lot of tears, and then berated myself for mourning a life that never was. The tears dried up. Reality bit. I’d signed up for this Master’s safe in the knowledge I’d have ample time to devote to it. At most I’d have been working on a part time basis. Now, things have changed. We’re still in Brussels, and will be for the foreseeable future. I still have a full time job (really a full-and-then-some time job). Suddenly the very thought of finding more than twelve hours a week to do my course work has me coming out in hives. Right now I’m barely managing six.

I am exhausted. There have been more tears, for this and other – more personal – reasons that I won’t go into here. I am struggling to find my equilibrium. I tell myself that I should meditate and then remember that ‘should’ is a performance inhibiting thought; a thinking error. I’m learning all kinds of new things like this, even though I make such errors daily, sometimes hourly. I tell myself I’m not good enough on a constant repetition loop in my head. Compare myself to others. Panic. I do a LOT of panicking.

And then I switch on my computer, turn on Skype and I become a coach. I listen attentively and empathetically. I silence my inner chatter and focus on another person for a whole hour. And I take them through a process, and share with them what little I know of concepts like self-limiting beliefs. And, like magic, almost always there’s a moment when their faces light up and they get it, really get it. And in that moment I’m suffused with so much joy and energy. Which is how I know that even though it’s hard, and will likely get harder, and even though I don’t know where I’m going to end up, I’m on the right path.

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2017: The Year of Cautious Optimism

Despite the many terrible world events that happened in it (Brussels, Paris, Nice, Orlando, Syria, Turkey, Brexit, Trump, Berlin to name but a few), 2016 was a great year for me personally. I married the love of my life after five years together, had the most joy-and-love-filled celebration with friends and family followed by a two week trip around my favourite places in northern Italy. I also had not one, not two, but THREE fantastic hen celebrations in London and Las Vegas (!), a relaxing break with friends in the beautiful Belgian Ardennes and an amazing holiday to Vietnam (thanks to Tom and Lily for having their wedding there!), plus numerous other special moments shared with special people. And for all of this I feel incredibly thankful.

The instability in the world has proved our future is far from certain, and that every day is a blessing and not a guarantee. I am therefore approaching 2017 with an attitude of cautious optimism. From a personal perspective there is much to look forward to, and potentially big changes afoot, not least my MSc in Applied Positive Psychology and Coaching Psychology starting in February.

From a wider world perspective, I do believe that we can, to some extent at least, be the change we want to see in the world. Even if it’s only on a micro rather than a macro level, when individuals come together to realise a common goal – whether it be helping other humans, animals and/or the environment – something magical happens. If we never look outside of ourselves and our own immediate concerns we not only lose perspective but we also fail to make a positive impact on the world around us. Whenever my time comes to shuffle off this mortal coil I hope it can at least be said I made some progress on that front.

So here we stand on the threshold of a new year. The future may be uncertain, but it is also what we make it. I don’t know about you, but I plan to make 2017 the best year yet. Happy New Year.

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Update from Gare du Nord

Last week I didn’t go to the Gare du Nord for what has become my weekly visit. I had a cough and wasn’t feeling myself, and as it’s so vital to bring positivity to that situation I decided to stay away. Tonight I knew for sure that was the right decision, as I felt recharged and was looking forward to going back. I had the last five sleeping bags from my fundraising effort to take down there, along with a bag of brownies, oranges and fruit that I picked up on the way to work this morning. As soon as I arrived the food was hoovered up in seconds! On Tuesdays the charity provides hot drinks but not hot food, so people were hungry. As it took some time for the drinks and donations to be handed out, I stood to one side with the sleeping bags. I got chatting to a man called Abdamune Sidiq [sic] from Sudan. He told me how last week the police took away his blankets, and since then he has got sick. This made me really angry, and even more glad that we created this petition last week to try and stop the police taking away people’s sleeping bags, even though I don’t know if it really made an impact.

Tonight, in addition to the normal donations there were 100 goodie bags for St. Nicholas (here in Belgium they celebrate Sinterklaas coming on 6 December – our office is full of chocolates!) from the students of ISB Service Learning/CAS. They were full of sweets, and it was so lovely seeing people patiently queuing up and then sharing the contents of their bags with others – I was given sweets by three people, they must have thought I needed fattening up! There was a happy atmosphere despite the cold, and some new faces too, although I didn’t see my friend Bakare, which has worried me a little. I hope he’s okay.

So all in all another positive experience, although it’s true that people are getting sick now that the temperatures have dropped, and even though we try to bring as many sleeping bags and warm clothes as we can, there is always a need for more. I’m worried for these men as winter progresses, what will they do and where will they go when it starts to snow? Surely they can’t sleep in the park then? All we can do is try to keep their spirits up, their tummies full and their bodies as warm as possible, and hope this is enough to get them through. I’m so happy that from January they will have more support from Unless, the wonderful new non-profit organisation which has raised money to rent a nearby building, where people will be able to have hot showers and get their clothes laundered. Hot food will also be available five times a week instead of the current twice a week arrangement, which is just fantastic. They are seeking donations to raise the monthly running fee of 5,000 Euros, so if anyone is feeling generous as Christmas approaches, I can personally guarantee this would be a brilliant and worthwhile cause.

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The Happy Place

Despite the wonderful Thanksgiving dinner that our friends hosted last night, I woke up this morning feeling sad. R only got back from five days away at 6.30pm last night, and left again today at midday for a work trip. Lately we’ve been like ships passing in the night, and the next couple of weeks promise to be just as tough. It’s hard sometimes living the crazy life we lead, but at least we both recognise the importance of staying emotionally connected as much as we can, despite the challenges. There is a lot going on and potentially some big changes afoot for us both – all very exciting, but transition always brings with it a certain trepidation.

So anyway, I woke up feeling sad and when R left felt even sadder. But instead of sitting around moping I gave myself a much-needed kick up the arse and went for a walk to my happy place, Tenbosch Park. There is one specific spot where I love to sit and listen to the birds tweeting and just breathe. In. Out. Until I feel calm again. It works every time.

Sometimes the world comes crowding in and it’s hard to get perspective, but there is always a way to get back to what matters, and, for me at least, it usually involves seeking out nature. Trees have a particularly calming effect on me, I think because so many of them have been there for so long, standing tall and strong. Nothing moves them, or riles them. I find them inspiring, and always think when I’m amongst them that I need to take a leaf (excuse the pun) out of their book and not let things get to me so much.

Life is crazy. The best way to deal with it is to accept it and enjoy the ride. Happy Sunday 🙂

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Food with Friends

On Thursday evening (aptly also Thanksgiving Day) I went down to the Gare du Nord with five more sleeping bags, five winter coats and three boxes of (homemade!!!) chocolate brownies for the community dinner. Funded by the International School of Brussels and fantastic new charity, Unless, it provided a proper sit-down dinner for around 150 people, who, for whatever reason, have found themselves in hard times without a roof over their heads. There was a delicious curry with rice and lentils, salads, fruit, cakes, brownies and tea. The students from the ISB helped the regular volunteers to serve food and spread cheer. Everyone ate together, talked together, laughed together. It was without doubt the most inspiring evenings I have ever had the privilege of being involved with.

I met some more lovely people, a new Eritrean friend called Taha with a cheeky smile, and another man from Afghanistan, who told me that he fled his home three years ago to escape the Taliban, after his brother was killed. He arrived in Brussels on Thursday after being made to leave Sweden, where he had settled, because he had originally been fingerprinted in Belgium (apparently once you’ve been fingerprinted somewhere that’s where you have to stay – can you imagine?). He showed me pictures of his friends in Sweden, told me that he had resigned himself to staying in Belgium now, even though he wanted to go back. He had tried to go to the office to sort his papers on arrival but they had told him to come back the next day. Who knows how long the process will take to be registered here, let alone to have somewhere to sleep that isn’t a park bench or a doorway?

It’s so hard to comprehend how so many people, purely by virtue of the place where they were born, end up in such difficult circumstances. But I am constantly inspired by the hopefulness and cheerfulness of the people I encounter in the face of such difficulties. It makes me realise that so many of my ‘Western’ problems are not really problems at all. I have the freedom to go where I want, when I want. I have a place to call home, documents to prove it, and a support network to help me when I struggle. And for all those things I am truly thankful.

This morning I read this article from the Irish Times about homelessness, and it brought home to me more than ever the importance of helping others wherever we can. You never know how much it means to someone if you just take the time to have a conversation, or to buy them a coffee. Though a small gesture to you, it might just be enough to help them get through the day without turning to drink, drugs, or worse. And as Christmas approaches – surely the hardest time of year for those who have fallen on hard times – it’s more important than ever not to look the other way. Because, to me, the true spirit of Thanksgiving is not just being thankful for what we have, but, in turn, offering whatever help we can to those who aren’t so fortunate.

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A snap from Thursday’s Community Dinner – volunteers and friends alike. Such a great night!

 

Critical Mass

Until this point in my life I’ve never identified with ‘activists’, the very word conjuring up images of bra-burning, flag-waving hippies intent on ‘sticking it to the man’ but with limited success. Now, however, I’m noticing a change. Not only in myself but in those around me, in my social networks, and also in the wider world. The change is this: It’s no longer just the ‘activists’ who feel the need to take to the streets and decry the social order. The rest of us are beginning to wake up to the need to have our say. Because it’s becoming increasingly clear that our governments and world leaders aren’t going to be the change we want to see. And, more than that, we are realising that time is running out.

According to the UN Refugee Agency Global Trends Report,  65.3 million people, or one person in 113, were displaced from their homes by conflict and persecution in 2015. Wars and persecution have driven more people from their homes than at any time since UNHCR records began. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi: “At sea, a frightening number of refugees and migrants are dying each year; on land, people fleeing war are finding their way blocked by closed borders. Closing borders does not solve the problem.” Until now, in the ‘West’, we have had the luxury of turning a blind eye to the suffering of so many on the other side of the world. But now it’s getting more difficult. Because those people are on the move. Our governments and leaders have driven them from their homes for their own political gain, and now they are on our doorstep.

The situation is compounded by the critical situation with the environment. Despite the landmark signing of the Paris Climate Change Agreement, a terrifying number of world leaders don’t believe the threat of climate change is real. On the website for the recent documentary Before the Flood we learn that “Earth has been warming steadily now for over 100 years. After decades of carbon pollution and deforestation, we are now regularly witnessing record-breaking hot months and hot years. 2015 was the hottest year on record and 2016 is hotter.” Furthermore, “Most experts believe we have locked in at least 1.5 degrees in temperature from the carbon pollution we have already emitted, and we are fast approaching the dangerous climate threshold of a 2°C rise in temperature rise.”

In many respects the damage is done. The world is already on course to heat to unprecedented temperatures that will have catastrophic effects on humanity (I say humanity, because, as my husband constantly reminds me, the world will be just fine once we humans have killed ourselves off). It is true that it’s already far too late to reverse the changes, but there is still the narrowest of windows to prevent total disaster – if we act NOW.

So back to my original point. There are a growing number of people who, like myself, are starting to wake up to the need to do something – however small – to stop the bad stuff happening, instead of sitting in front of the (warped) news reports with our heads in our hands thinking that it’s all so hopeless. We don’t want to watch from the sidelines as humanity implodes. We want to get out there and (here comes that classic cheesy phrase) make a difference. Because no matter where we are born or the colour of our skin, we are all human beings. And, for the foreseeable future at least, this planet is the only home we’ve got. Why must we abuse it, and one another, when these facts are so inescapably true?

I’ve recently joined a Facebook group of like-minded women, one of whom made the following wonderfully eloquent comment which resonated deeply with me:

“As I say, regularly, to my clients: our job is to do the best we can with the corner we’re in. Chase the causes in our own heart. Show compassion to those we find around us. That’s actually enough. Everyone’s corner is the size that it is. Just because you see someone with global reach doesn’t mean yours, that reaches a few houses down, is any less important. I also wax lyrical about how wonderful it is that every person I meet has different passions! My own efforts have always been for social justice, children in developing countries, and care for families touched by poverty, but I love meeting people whose passion is care for animals, or saving historic buildings, or sponsoring artists whose work makes no sense to me… because I think “thank goodness, it’s all covered!”. We are all unique, and I am grateful for that!”

Sometimes we all feel hopeless. But my own recent experience of raising money to buy sleeping bags (65 so far – yay!) for the homeless refugees in Brussels, and volunteering alongside other motivated individuals with Serve the City and now also the fantastic new NGO Unless – has made me realise how much better it feels to be in it, instead of watching it, or worrying about it but ultimately doing nothing.

So whatever your cause, whatever your passion, don’t be afraid to live it, to get out there and wave your flag – whether metaphorically or physically – and make a positive difference to the world and those around you. Because if enough of us care – and I truly believe enough of us do – then we CAN be the change we want to see. With or without our governments and leaders.

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Doing What We Can

Tonight was my third consecutive week volunteering with Serve the City ‘s Food 4 Friends iniative to help the homeless (refugees and other misplaced people) sleeping rough around Gare du Nord station. I took eighteen sleeping bags, bought with money generously donated* by my lovely friends. At the start it was tense. The temperature has plummeted and tonight it was barely above five degrees. People are cold and worried about the impending winter. And understandably so. As we began to distribute the sleeping bags tensions rose still higher, until at one point a fight broke out. Fortunately it petered out and we resumed the distribution, but even then there was a lot of pushing and jostling as people desperately tried to make a claim for a sleeping bag. It was heart wrenching.

I was so happy to give my Sudanese friend, Bakare, the sleeping bag I promised him. I was also, thanks to the generosity of a friend, able to buy him some new shoes. He said “when I see you, it makes me happy,” which made me feel amazing. It feels so good to be doing something at last, even if it is just being a ferrier of sleeping bags and offering good cheer. What made me less happy was meeting 13 year old Alaudin, who arrived in Brussels two months ago after making the long three month journey from Sudan with his brother. Alaudin is a tall boy, skinny and quiet, with huge doleful brown eyes. He was wearing only a thin jacket and was shivering. I was happy to see he had managed to get one of the sleeping bags I brought, but I was still worried for him. So I took him to the volunteer serving chai and got him a cup, and then went back to another volunteer who was handing out clothing donations (tonight we were very lucky as a church group who had gathered a lot of clothes and sleeping bags made the journey into Brussels to deliver them – without those donations it would have been much harder to manage giving out mine) and managed to grab him a fleece jumper, pair of gloves and scarf. The gloves weren’t warm enough though, he needs some better ones. I promised to bring some next week.

There were more people tonight than the last two weeks. The fight at the beginning aside, I saw only smiles despite the plummeting temperature. It is so clear that people appreciate the volunteers and the work they do. And being able to speak with everyone and find out their stories is so humbling and such a privilege. I feel almost ashamed when people ask me where I’m from and I say “England,” because I know that all they want to do is make it to my country. It feels so unfair that I can hop on a Eurostar or drive through the tunnel without a care in the world, when they can’t even dream of such an easy life.

But we stay strong. And we stay cheerful. And we continue to help our friends all that we can.

*Cash donations will continue to be gratefully received to help provide some comfort during the cold winter.

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