Back to Basics

I have somehow managed to put my back out. Again. The frustration is almost too much to bear, though I know I need to put it into perspective. It is not (yet) as bad as the last two times, which means that if I’m careful there is a chance it could recover without going into full blown paralysis mode. And although in the current (acute) phase, it is somewhat debilitating, it is far from a life threatening condition. I must, I know, stay positive, although when you’re not yet 35 and it takes a full three seconds to straighten up each time you stand, plus you have shooting pains down both your legs when you walk, it’s kind of hard to keep that top of mind. Still, I must try, because nobody likes a whinger – least of all me.

I’m realising now more than ever the correlation between physical and mental well-being. When I’m feeling stressed with work or life it doesn’t take long to manifest itself in my body. This time has been textbook. Two boozy weekends, a patch of work stress and a ridiculous ongoing drama with our cleaner (of all things) have taken their toll on me mentally, and bang! There goes the back. I have also, I admit, become complacent with my core strengthening exercises of late, doing increasingly watered down versions each morning to afford myself additional, precious moments in my bed. This, combined with increasingly prolonged periods of desk sitting, has once again proved to be a recipe for disaster.

I know this is my body’s way of telling me to sit up and take notice, to find a way to redress the imbalance that has been created. My recently ended counselling has helped me to clarify the things that are important to me. Now I need to start taking active steps towards achieving them. Because if I don’t, I fear back pain will be but the tip of a very big iceberg.

So it’s time to make some changes – physical and mental. Firstly, I must get the stand-up desk my boss sanctioned weeks ago that I haven’t got around to sorting yet. Secondly, I will sign up for the eight week mindfulness course I have found, to try and get my mind back into alignment with my body. Hopefully with a bit more commitment and a bit less complacency I can get back to full health more quickly this time around.

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Solitude

It’s been a long old while since I’ve practiced meditation, or indeed any form of mindfulness; two of the many things I mentally flagellate myself about daily. This weekend, therefore, has been a blessing. Not because I’ve done either of those things (obvs), but because I have had the chance to spend some quality time with myself, and with nature. And because, as cheesy as it sounds, it has given me a much needed opportunity to reconnect with myself.

Life rushes by at such an alarming rate – especially, as I’ve discovered in recent months, when you have a wedding to plan. Lately (or, to be truly honest, forever) I’ve felt so time poor it’s taken all my effort just to get home from work at the end of the day, run a bath and crack on an episode of Eastenders (weird new guilty pleasure – clearly a sign of stress) before falling, exhausted, into bed. Meditation? Ha. As if. I’ve never felt less calm or more busy.

But then, last week, the soon-to-be-husband (eep!) announced he would be going back to the UK this weekend, sans moi (well, I had the choice to accompany him, but after last week’s boozy and nocturnal antics in Las Vegas the thought of spending 16 hours in a car only to hold a paint brush all weekend – they are renovating the family home, yes, I know, I’m a selfish cow – was too much to entertain). At first I was put out (see previous selfish cow comment), and sad at missing the opportunity to spend a quiet weekend together. I hastily scrambled some social options together in case I needed back up, and prepared to bunker down for a weekend alone with the bottle of Chianti hubby-to-be bought me to soften the blow (a welcome gift, and further proof, it it was needed, that he’s a keeper).

Yesterday (Saturday), I lazed around in the morning then went shopping all afternoon. So far so good. In the evening, feeling more confident about being alone (Jesus, you wouldn’t think I’ve travelled alone for months at a time in the past would you?), I declined all social plans, heated up a Marks and Spencer ready meal (God how I’ve missed those – totally forgot an M&S opened up here a few months ago. Result) and downloaded a gratuitous chick flick from Amazon. But it wasn’t until today that I felt a change occur. Yesterday was enjoyable, but in a shallow way (not that there is anything wrong with that, in my opinion, at least from time to time). I was gratified by material purchases and ‘guilty pleasure’ TV consumption, but that was as far as it went. Today I somehow knew as soon as I woke up it would be different. And it has been.

My recent back injury having put paid to any hope of a pre-wedding gym comeback, I have to make sure I still get some exercise each day. I decided, therefore, to go for a walk, the timing of which was fortuitously impeccable. It had just rained heavily, and the sun was beginning to nudge the clouds aside. I walked to Tenbosch Park, just ten minutes from home. I don’t know what it is about that place, but as soon as I get there I always feel an overwhelming sense of calm descend upon me. It’s so beautifully kept, unusual in that it is both small and spread over several levels – sort of landscaped over a small hill – and feels to me like a secret garden, a tiny oasis amidst the sprawling metropolis. I just love it, and after visiting today by myself my mind feels clearer than it has done in weeks. I spent a while just standing and listening to the birds tweeting, watching as a parrot (yes, really, apparently Brussels is famous for them) flew overhead from tree top to tree top. It was wonderful, and a welcome reminder that even if I’m not meditating every chance I get, it’s still possible to find a little piece of peace in this frenetic world.

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Sink, Swim or Self-accept

Self acceptance is a wily old beast. I’ve been chasing it around for years with no success, lying in wait to ensnare it. But it’s always a step ahead, just out of reach. Tonight, though, I had a breakthrough. Because, just as it came barreling past me (as it is wont to do, teasingly), I reached out and grabbed its tail. Just for a second. I let go, obviously, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is I managed to touch it, to make it tangible and real.

Last week I wrote a list of all the things that make me feel guilty. It was long, with the obvious (obligatory) entries about health and diet and exercise. It also mentioned my penchant for a bit of crap TV from time to time, my lack of discipline to write and my lack of ambition.

This week work is ramping up. I’ve been given more responsibility, a new client and the chance to earn a promotion. I didn’t think I was ambitious, yet all of a sudden I feel hungry for it. In two days I’ve racked up several hours of overtime, but instead of feeling downbeat, put upon and weary, I feel calm, confident, happy. Why? Because I realised earlier that it is possible to just let things go; to not worry about coming home late, eating cake, not having time for the gym, not writing, occasionally watching something crap on TV (once in a while, I’m not advocating an unhealthy lifestyle, everything in moderation).

Almost none of the things I guilt over incessantly really matter. In fact, in those rare moments when my vision clears I realise that beneath the layers of guilt I am actually profoundly serene. The things on my to do list can wait until the weekend. I don’t have the mental capacity to worry about all of that as well as working this hard. I can’t do both. Or maybe I can, but I don’t want to. I choose not to. Because ultimately everything in life is a choice. And choosing to accept yourself, with all the foibles that make you who you are, is the best decision you can make.

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The Baby Monkey Metaphor

This is an honest post about an emotion that clings to my back like an orphaned baby monkey every day of my life. That emotion is guilt.

To give examples, here are some of the myriad things I feel guilty about on a daily basis: Not working hard enough; Not being ambitious enough; Not being a good enough fiancé; Not being a good enough daughter; Not being a good enough friend; Not writing; Not pursuing my life goals; Watching too much crap instead of writing/pursuing life goals; Caring too much what people think about me; Being so privileged when so many are not; Not appreciating being so privileged when so many are not; Never being satisfied/always wanting more; Eating badly; Not going to the gym; Not being mindful; Worrying about everything/sweating the small stuff; Being too apologetic; Wasting too much time on social media. I could go on. In fact, I daresay I could fill ten pages with all the things that I feel guilty about from one moment to the next. But I won’t (because I’d only feel guilty about the time I wasted writing it). It’s a depressing (if somewhat exaggerated, for the purpose of this post) truth that the only time I don’t feel guilty is when I’m sleeping, although if I remembered more of my dreams I wouldn’t be surprised if I felt guilt in most of those as well.

It never fails to amaze me how humans can be so intelligent and yet so utterly stupid at the same time. Unless felt in a justified context, for example when we have genuinely done something to upset another person, guilt – like worry and anxiety (which I could also fill a small tome about, let’s not go down that road here) – is a useless emotion. After thirty four years of living with it I can vouch for the fact it does not increase productivity – far from it, it is productivity’s antithesis. It also doesn’t improve personal relationships, or indeed help other people in the slightest. I wouldn’t go so far as to label it a selfish emotion, because it is usually underpinned by a sense of duty towards others or towards our true (non-egotistical) selves, but it sure is good at making a person introspective to the point of being boring.

So in the spirit of the age old ‘new year, new me’ mentality, it’s time to face the truth: the baby monkey on my back, whilst cute, has never led me anywhere positive; in fact, it has only led me into procrastination, anxiety and paralysing self-doubt. In short, cute or not, it’s time to ditch the monkey. Life is too short to be paralysed by useless emotions. It’s time to start fostering the useful ones.

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The Inevitable Resolution Post

I’m not a big believer in New Year’s resolutions – primarily because I’m not very good at keeping them – but given that my wedding is now fast approaching (six months? Where did the last nine go?), it is imperative that I start as I mean to go on where health and fitness are concerned, because, funnily enough, I’m not that keen for people to remember my fat arms more than anything else from my wedding day. Having spent most of the festive season stuffing turkey, roast potatoes and mince pies into my face at staggeringly frequent intervals – all washed down with cirrhosis-inducing quantities of alcohol – I am actually feeling ready for the challenge.

What I am less ready for is the inevitable January gym scrum, but I suppose that goes with the territory. Given my current bad back situation, however, it may be a while yet before I’m doing sprints on the treadmill and lifting my own weight on the LAT pull down machine. Hopefully a few chiropractor sessions and some gentle exercise and Pilates will do the trick, because I’m not enjoying feeling more like 94 than 34, and it depresses me no end that last year I was training for a marathon and now it hurts to stand up and walk to the toilet. But hey ho, we all have our crosses to bear.

Where food is concerned I am aiming to keep fresh and healthy as much as possible in 2016 (or at least up to the wedding in June, after which I’ll have nabbed him and can pile the pounds back on – only kidding, my love). Last night I managed this admirably, whipping up a quinoa rice pilau with dill and roasted tomatoes for dinner, as well as a mackerel, quinoa and watercress salad for today’s lunch and overnight oats with red berries, almonds and chia seeds for breakfast. As tasty and virtuous as this is, I can’t deny it was a struggle getting everything prepared. Dinner wasn’t ready until 9.30pm, and once the oats were boxed up and put in the fridge it was 11pm and time for bed. Healthy eating, it would seem, is not conducive to having a life. Hopefully I’ll get better at it with practice…

And then there’s booze. We all know it’s the devil (albeit an alluring one), but I can’t quite bring myself to partake in the misguided (in my opinion) saint-fest that is Dry January, so instead I will be sticking to one tipple for the whole of this month – red wine, whose wide-ranging health benefits have been widely touted in official studies like this one. So there.

And finally, there’s my biggest nemesis: Procrastination. To kick off the year in the right frame of mind I have unsubscribed from all the crap emails I receive daily into my Hotmail account which my FOMO had until now prevented me from doing (it’s all very well being kept abreast of the latest pop up tiki bars and arty plays in your favourite corner of south west London, but when you now reside permanently in another country, it’s kind of pointless continuing to receive a stream of constant updates about them). I’m not quite ready to eschew social media, but I do plan to cut down in my eternal quest to make room for writing. I’m sick to death of making promises on that front, but I really hope that 2016 is the year I get my head back in the writing space once and for all. There is already one exciting project in the pipeline (more on this tomorrow), so I am at least starting as I mean to go on.

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Q: What do Gyms and Puppies Have in Common?

A: Like puppies, gyms should be for life – not just for Christmas (or, for the purposes of this blog post, January).

Over the Christmas holidays, as I was midway through my second helping of bubble and squeak (whilst simultaneously eyeing up the chocolate log and mince pies) my mother unsubtly dropped into conversation – with a meaningful stare – that her diary for that same day the previous year documented that I had completed an 11 mile run. I lowered my fork momentarily and glared at her over the mound of food between us, feeling thoroughly hard done by – I had, after all, had to pull out of the marathon I’d been training for with nine days to go, after suffering a prolapsed disc, so it was hardly appropriate to make me feel bad about it, especially at Christmas. Honestly.

But, much as I hate to admit it, Mum was right to bring my lack of exercise up. True, I did have a nasty injury that required several months of physiotherapy (although if I’m honest I can only blame myself, seeing as it was the result of overtraining – a concept that right now seems entirely alien), but the physio ended with the summer, and even my physiotherapist told me I was ready to get back to exercising – so why didn’t I? Because I was afraid – of how much I had lost my fitness, and of how much work I would have to do to get even a fraction of it back again.

Fortunately the new year has, for me as well as thousands of others, brought with it fresh resolve. No more the upward creeping of the scales, whilst my blind eye is turned the other way. It’s time to face my fears and get my thigh gap back. It is also, I have decided, the year I manage to prove my abdominal muscles really do exist – no small goal. There shall be no excuses, just regular exercise and a predominantly healthy eating regime. If I can train up to 17 miles for a marathon I can surely claw back some of that enthusiasm now?

So, I’ve joined a gym, which is conveniently located about a minute’s walk from my front door (greatly helping with the ‘no excuses’ side of things). And so far this year (today being the 12th of January) I’ve been a whopping SEVEN times (never mind that two of those times involved the sum total of about 30 minutes of cardiovascular exercise – everyone has to start somewhere, right?) But this post is not intended as a gloat-fest, I actually wanted to discuss something that has been amusing me no end since I joined, and that is ll the New Year Resolution gym goers (I realise I could well be placed into that category given my recent hiatus, but trust me, I know I’m in this for the long haul).

I’d genuinely forgotten how hilarious these people are. The other day, for example, I saw a man on the step machine who, instead of using the machine correctly and stepping as if stepping on air, was just standing on the floor and lifting each step up in turn beneath his feet. Not far away another man was using a weight machine on the lowest possible weight setting (which would barely develop muscles in an ant), and another still (this one VERY overweight after the festive season’s over-indulgence) was cycling at the most leisurely pace possible on the sit-down bike – whilst reading his book.

My favourite new-year-resolutioner of all was the girl who came to the gym in full make up and an outfit that would have been more appropriate in a bar, and proceeded to spend ten minutes pulling the bar of the rowing machine with as much gusto as a weak fart, before getting up and leaving. It really is no wonder these transitional folk don’t last beyond the first couple of months of the year – with such minimal exertion they can’t possibly see any results. Maybe they’d have more luck with a puppy…

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New Year Musings

It’s with a surprising degree of trepidation that I return to Brussels today after the Christmas break. With hindsight I think the first eight weeks of our life abroad were made easier by the fact of our imminent return, whereas now I have no such trip back to the UK planned to anchor me here it feels somehow more final. Which is of course so very silly when you consider that it only takes a little over two hours to get from Brussels to London-the same time as a trip to Manchester, no less. I guess it’s especially hard to return anywhere after spending the festive break catching up with friends and family and having such a wonderful time. The past two weeks have been ridiculously busy but enormous fun and I’ve loved every minute. But life can’t be all about the parties and family time. If it was we wouldn’t appreciate it half as much when we do get a chance to enjoy it. So enough of the sentimentality. I know once I’m back in our gorgeous flat I’ll settle back into the routine in no time.

I’m not a fan of new year’s resolutions as I think people all too often set unrealistic goals and in doing so set themselves up for a fall. But having said that I do feel a sense of optimism about 2015. My goals are simple and, I believe, achievable:

1. Make writing a daily practice again, even if only for 15 minutes each day. Discipline is everything where writing is concerned, so this is non-negotiable if I really want to achieve my writing ambitions for 2015 (finish screenplay, get back into short story writing, start new novel).

2. Make meditation a daily practice again, even if only for 5 minutes each day. Mindfulness is such a valuable way to still the mind, reduce anxiety and help focus on the ‘bigger picture’. When I practised meditation daily in India I reaped the benefits, and I want to get back to that calm state of being.

3. Exercise regularly. This one sounds so simple, but as someone who one year ago was training for a marathon and who now can only comfortably run about ten metres for a bus, I’m acutely aware of how easy it is to lose fitness and get stuck in a rut of no exercise and low self-esteem as a result. My own inactivity has in large part been due to the prolapsed disc I unfortunately gave myself through overtraining for the Rome marathon (which I was subsequently forced to pull out of), but it’s been months now and I’m physically quite ready to get back on the horse. The only thing stopping me is my own fear and laziness, so a new year is the perfect time to kick those inhibitors into touch.

4. Make time for reading. As a writer this one seems obvious, but all too often reading is something that gets relegated behind a million and one other things each day, whether it be cooking, washing, ironing, watching TV, writing-the list goes on. The only way I will get better as a writer (which I certainly need to do) is to improve the breadth and scope of the materials I read. Not only that, reading others’ work is refreshing and inspiring, not to mention relaxing (there are few nicer feelings than being swept up in a story you never want to end). So this is my final goal for 2015. I don’t have to read every classic ever written, but I do have to make a concerted effort to read something every day. I know my mind will feel all the better for it.

Having set those goals out en route to  St.Pancras station it seems fitting that I’m now waiting to board the Eurostar and continue the adventure that began some ten weeks ago. Who knows what this year will bring, all I hope is that my loved ones stay well and happy and that I do myself, and them, proud in whatever ways I can.

Happy New Year to you all from this wandering muser. May 2015 bring you one step closer to your dreams. Xx

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