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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Five Weeks to Wed: Reflection on Youth

By the time I was seven I had the whole marriage thing wrapped up – my husband would be tall (at least a head taller than me), dark and handsome, I would be bedecked in lavish jewels and wear a big meringue dress (almost exactly like the one Jennifer Connelly wore in Labyrinth – see below). The ceremony, no less lavish than the dress (naturally), would take place in a beautiful church, with the reception in a grand country mansion. Guests would eat plentifully (mostly chocolate), and I would spend the remainder of my days tripping the light fantastic and dancing on sunbeams with unicorns. Or something like that.

Fast forward 27 years (ouch) and the reality isn’t so far from the dream. My husband to be is indeed tall (not quite a head taller, but let’s not, if you’ll excuse the pun, split hairs) and handsome, if not quite dark (but red haired will do nicely). The lavish jewels are out (clearly my seven year old self had no concept of money), the dress thankfully not quite in the meringue league, and the ceremony will not be in a church (this part I’m sad about, but as we are not Catholic we weren’t allowed to marry in the on-site chapel, and will instead do it outside on the lawn, weather permitting…). And much as I’d have liked a meal made entirely of chocolate, my 34 year old self has to acknowledge it’s not to everyone’s taste. But on one front I’ve trumped seven year old me entirely, for we are not getting married in a grand country mansion, but an actual bona fide castle (albeit because our original, far less grand and ergo far less expensive venue cancelled, but still..). And in Austria, land of stunning lakes and mountains.

With five weeks to go the nerves are kicking in, not about the marriage itself (fortunately), but rather about the plethora of things still to be ticked off the to do list. And the weather. Such a thing shouldn’t matter, of course, but as putting up a marquee will cost us an extra grand I would dearly love to see a forecast devoid of rain when it comes to marquee decision day (two days before the main event). And also, given that our loved ones are making such an effort to be there on our special day,  I would love to have sunshine as much as for them as for us. But what will be will be. I’ve learned a lot during this process about not stressing over things you can’t control. It hasn’t always been easy but it’s another part of growing up. And on the whole, I think we’re both doing pretty well. Next stop: tripping the light fantastic and dancing on sunbeams with unicorns. Bring it on.

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Blocking Time

Do you ever feel there isn’t enough time to do the things you want to do outside of your day job? Are you often just so tired at the end of the working day that all you want to do is lie on the sofa and watch crap TV just to relax your mind? But then the guilt sets in, because such activity feels like it actively diminishes your intelligence rather than bolstering it, and if you don’t use your time wisely how will you ever finish that novel/Open University course/improving tome etc.?

If you do feel that way, you’re not alone. I for one experience this cycle of worry and guilt on a daily basis. Even though I know that being a published writer is my goal, somehow it seems that writing at the end of a full day’s work (and, when I can be bothered, a post-work gym session) is always the last thing I want to do.

But then, yesterday, I struck on the most blindingly obvious and simple concept: Instead of telling myself that I had to spend the whole evening writing, with no time to do anything else (the usual mantra due to guilt at not having written enough in the preceding days/weeks), I told myself to spend just one hour working on my screenplay, at the end of which I could spend an hour watching any TV programme I liked. And at the end of that, I would go to bed and spend an hour reading my book (because, in my experience – and somewhat ironically given the benefits – when you’re feeling overtired and too busy the first thing to go is the luxury of reading before bed).

And you know what? It worked. I didn’t do a huge amount of my screenplay, but I did more than I had done in the past few days. And, more than anything, it felt like I had removed a big obstacle that had been standing in my way. I no longer felt scared of the enormity of the task I was facing, because I had broken it down into a manageable task. Moreover, I didn’t feel (as I so often do) that writing meant having to sacrifice all other enjoyment, or that I had to choose between writing and reading (a horrendous choice for a writer because without reading how can you improve your writing? Catch 22).

So often we tell ourselves that we are useless, that it’s impossible to realise our dreams. But what if we’re just framing things incorrectly? What if the problem is not our lack of talent, or even commitment, but rather the very simple and easily corrected issue of time management?

We all know that if we want to do something we must make time for it. But what makes so many people stumble at the first hurdle is the misguided view they must devote every spare moment to the pursuit of that goal. Wrong. Start small, with ten, twenty, thirty minutes a day – whatever feels achievable to you. And make sure that you stick to doing it – simple. It takes time to form a habit, and it isn’t always easy. But if you don’t start, the only person you’ll have to blame for not achieving your potential is yourself.

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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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Pressure

Sometimes it gets a bit much, this world. And all the constant pressures on our time, energy leaking from our pores like sand through an egg timer; drip, drip, drip.

Of course we are the lucky ones, the ones who can afford to have hopes and dreams for the future. Or can we? What price must we pay for success? What price for failure?

We don’t so much follow our dreams as barter and fritter them away. As if tomorrow will never come. But of course it always does. Until, quite suddenly, it doesn’t.

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Bucket List

I’ve been hugely fortunate in my life to have already done some incredible things, among them: living in a mud hut by myself in Kenya; spending a week on a desert island in Borneo; going on safari in the Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania; taking in the wonder of Halong Bay in Vietnam by boat; diving with green turtles in Malaysia and watching the sun rise over the Taj Mahal. So when I decided to sit down today and write my bucket list, it’s fair to say the bar was already set extremely high.

Why write a bucket list? Because in two and a half weeks’ time I will be turning thirty two – an age that two of my friends who tragically passed away this year will now never grow older than. It’s a desperately sad and sobering experience when people the same age as you die. It brings a lot of things into sharp focus and makes you realise what’s really important and what’s of little or no significance at all. It also makes you want to squeeze every last drop out of life that you can, because heaven only knows when your time will be up too.

I’ve spent a long time coming up with this list. Whilst experiences and travelling make up most of it, I felt it was important to also have some personal life aspirations and altruistic goals thrown into the mix. I’m pleased as I read it back now to see that only one thing on the list (no.14) is about ownership of something, which should hopefully help me to achieve no.37…

And so, without further ado, I give you…Belle’s Bucket List:

  1. Swim with whale sharks in the Philippines
  2. Dive with sharks
  3. Complete a marathon
  4. Go to Las Vegas and fly over the Grand Canyon in a helicopter
  5. Go husky sledding, see the northern lights and stay in an ice hotel
  6. Go on a writing retreat
  7. Have a novel published
  8. Dance in Rio for Mardi Gras
  9. Trek Machu Picchu
  10. Go up, up and away in a hot air balloon in Burma
  11. Visit Tibet and Nepal
  12. Rave at Burning Man festival in Nevada’s Black Rock desert
  13. Volunteer on Christmas Day
  14. Own a house
  15. Learn a choreographed dance
  16. Stay in a hut on stilts over a tropical sea
  17. Hula in Hawaii
  18. Stay in at least five homestays in remote villages
  19. Read 100 Booker Prize-winning books
  20. Take a trip on the Orient Express
  21. Exchange wedding vows with someone I love
  22. Have someone call me “Mummy”
  23. Get back to nature in the Galapagos Islands
  24. Go on a cruise
  25. Canoe in the Amazon rainforest
  26. Float in the Dead Sea
  27. Party in New Orleans
  28. Give blood
  29. See a polar bear in the wild
  30. Ski in the Canadian Rockies
  31. Stay on a ranch and ride horses
  32. Go on a road trip
  33. See Ayers Rock
  34. Eat in a world class restaurant
  35. Be an extra in a film or TV series
  36. See the pyramids in Egypt
  37. Stop worrying about money
  38. Overcome anxiety and self-doubt
  39. Take a giant leap of faith
  40. Make someone feel less lonely

Chasing dreams

Lottie was born different to most little girls. She knew this not because people regularly told her so (although they did), but rather because she could see with her own eyes. Not that she could ever understand why it mattered – apart from identical twins like Janey and Suki at nursery nobody looked exactly the same. And anyway, wasn’t there a famous phrase about variety being the spice of life?

As she grew up Lottie’s parents tried to manage her expectations of what she could achieve in life. She would never, they told her, be an athlete. But Lottie took exception to this. Why couldn’t she be an athlete? If she didn’t see her disability as insurmountable then why should anybody else?

For a while, during her early teens, Lottie towed the line. She concentrated on her grades at school and had a couple of boyfriends, pretending to have given up her wild ambition to be a sporting legend.

But behind the scenes she was as determined as ever. She found an academy and worked hard to win a scholarship. The day the letter came through her mother found her jumping for joy in the kitchen. Her jaw nearly hit the floor when Lottie explained what it meant.

“Running?” she’d said, a look of total incomprehension on her face.

“Yes Mum,” Lottie had replied. “Running.”

“But you don’t have….”

“Lower legs. No Mum, I don’t. But I do have these.” She pointed to her blades.

Her mother sighed and shook her head, and in that moment Lottie knew they’d crossed a boundary in their relationship that could never be uncrossed.

They couldn’t understand why she did it, given how hard she had to work at it, how much it took out of her.

But Lottie knew exactly why she did it.

She ran to chase her dreams.

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I’m ashamed to admit I can’t remember the name of this beautiful boy, who I met whilst volunteering at an orphanage in Tanzania in 2007. He was wheelchair-bound and required daily physio in the form of his fellow orphans and myself and my fellow volunteers following a set routine of arm and leg bending exercises. I never felt he was getting anywhere near the level of treatment he required, and he often looked as if he were in pain, but he never complained and always had a wide smile on his face. I felt so sad remembering him just now that I cried. I pray he’s somewhere happy and safe, receiving the care he so desperately needs.