Smile, love and be kind

Although I never met her, I have been following Emmy Coates’ battle with cancer ever since she bravely announced it, hoping beyond hope that science would find a way to save her from its clutches and keep her reunited with her childhood sweetheart Jake for longer than the all-too-short time they had together. The sad news of her recent passing at such a tragically young age, and the incredible poise, eloquence and honesty of her grieving husband in the immediate wake of what must have been the worst time of his life have affected me deeply.

These two people and their bittersweet love story (quite honestly, they achieved more in the last year than most people manage in a lifetime, which is surely testament to their jaw-dropping positivity and utter amazingness-if you haven’t been following their story get yourself over to their Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/ejtandemonium/ immediately and catch up-thats an order*) epitomise what it means to live life fully and in the moment, to cherish the very existence of love and appreciate that, in the end, nothing else matters.

Emmy’s catch phrase of “Smile, love and be kind” will stay with me forever. As will Jake’s words in the blog he bravely wrote after her passing, when he said:

“I wish with all that I am, that I could have just one more day with her. To laugh with, to hug, to kiss, to hold tight.

So make me this promise. Go out. Go to your husband or your wife. Your partner or your lover.

Tell them that you love them. Embrace them. Hold them that little bit longer. Squeeze them that little bit tighter. Whisper sweet nothings and try to forget, just for a moment, those small irrelevant worries. You’re only here in this world for the shortest time and you never know when it might all disappear.”

We take so much for granted in this life, and spend so much time worrying about things that likely won’t even happen – or, as in Emmy’s case, might eventually happen but there is nothing that can be done about it anyway.

In response to Jake’s blog, therefore, I for one promise both Jake and Emmy that I will carry their positivity in my heart for ever, and that I will try my best to not take those I love for granted.

God bless Emmy, you were a shining star in this world and I’ve no doubt you will be a shining star in the next one too.

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*If, like me, Emmy’s story has touched you, I would urge you to make a donation to the Royal Marsden hospital, for whom Emmy and Jake tirelessly fundraised. You can do it through their fundraising page: http://ejtandemonium.com

New Horizons

I alluded in a previous post that it hadn’t been the easiest start to the year. For various reasons it’s felt as if things have been in a state of limbo, and the planner in me has found this hard to handle. But one thing that is very much pressing ahead – whether I like it or not – is my Masters degree in Applied Positive Psychology and Coaching Psychology, which I am undertaking alongside my full time job on a part time, distance learning basis with the University of East London.

For years since graduating from my original Psychology degree (in 2002 – scary) I have had an itch to return to psychology. I’m pretty sure my friends and family thought it was a ‘grass is greener’ situation, and at times I thought the same, but something kept making my mind return to the idea. And now, almost fifteen years later (better late than never), here I am, enrolled on an MSc and already four days in.

I won’t lie, it’s terrifying. All the old feelings of inadequacy have already begun to surface, and I find myself thinking ‘I can’t do this’ and ‘Everyone else is going to be better’ at least ten times a day. But, at a deeper level, there’s excitement; a spark has been ignited after years of being dormant and it’s filling me with hope for the future. I’m older (a lot), wiser (a bit) and ready to give this everything I’ve got.

It’s not going to be easy. The social butterfly in me is already pining for fun nights out and carefree weekends. But this is important. It’s my chance to see if I’ve been right to harbour this longing; if I’ve really got what it takes to succeed in this field. If I wasn’t scared alarm bells would be ringing. That’s how I know I’m on the right track.

My first term module is coaching, and already I’m expected to be recruiting coachees (more info on that here), which is sending my imposter syndrome into overdrive. At the same time, I’m feeling a healthy curiosity about my ability to coach, how quickly I’ll pick up the skills and how much of a rapport I will build with my coachees.

Ultimately, what excites me the most is that this could put me on a totally different career path. Hopefully soon the limbo phase will be behind me once and for all.

 

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The Resistance

Today things feel a little bleak. On a global level, in five days of office Trump the Tyrant has ridden roughshod over the environment, women’s rights, freedom of speech and now refugees, ushering in a new era of legitimised fascism along the way. On a personal level, my spirit is feeling dampened not only by the events in the US, but also by the plummeting temperatures across Europe which signal further devastation for homeless refugees, the crazy levels of air pollution in my old home town of London where many of my friends still live, and the fact I am under too much pressure at work and don’t know how I’m going to juggle it with the masters degree I’m starting next week (next week!!). In short, I feel helpless, and also a little hopeless.

But – as life sometimes has a way of doing to drag us out of our despair – a chance encounter with my local florist this afternoon when I stopped by for tulips for our cleaning lady (whose brother recently passed away) reminded me why it’s so important to have hope. We got chatting about how beautiful the flowers were, and she told me she had quit her office job some years ago for a simpler life. Despite earning less money now, she told me she is far happier. She then asked about me, and, when I told her I was soon to start an MSc in Positive Psychology and Coaching Psychology and had aspirations to be a freelance wellbeing coach she said “the world needs people like that more than ever now.” I felt a surge of optimism at that, and a renewed sense of purpose. And to remind myself of that I bought this beautiful pink orchid.

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Hope springs eternal

When I got home I was delighted to see that Greenpeace had unfurled a ‘Resist’ banner right outside the White House, and to read that a group of scientists are coming together to march on Washington in protest against Trump’s gagging order against employees of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Also heartening was the Badlands National Park Twitter account which sent out three messages on Tuesday promoting climate science despite the Trump administration crackdown on agencies communicating on social media. Since then they have been forced to delete the tweets, but an alternative Twitter account has sprung up which already has 575,000 followers.

This growing groundswell of angry defiance in response to people like Trump must spur us all into immediate action, because action is all there is now if we are to stand up to what is so patently wrong – to save ourselves and our planet.

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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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Midnight Musings

Despite it being the season to be jolly, I’ve been feeling pretty serious of late. As world events continue to astound and upset, I find myself constantly calling into question where we as a species will end up. I fear I already know the answer. It is incredible to think we have so much knowledge and power at our disposal, and yet we are on a crash course to destroy ourselves. We have not learned from past mistakes, and we are rapidly destroying and outgrowing the planet we call home. Even if we do manage to colonise another planet, how will any but the richest survive? And what will we be? Destined to live forever more as the Universe’s parasites? We have evolved so much and yet we cannot free ourselves from corruption and greed. These two things are threatening our existence, yet most of us prefer to stick our heads in the sand rather than acknowledge what’s happening and fight for change.

What is our purpose, here, on this planet? Were we really created by chance? I know the evidence seems stacked against there being a ‘God’, in whatever guise He/She may take, and yet I find myself questioning if it might just be conceivable that we aren’t alone in all of this; that something is watching us, guiding us, pulling our strings. Maybe ‘God’, maybe a superior species. For all we know we could be some alien experiment; a whole world in a snow globe on an alien life form’s office desk. I kind of like that idea.

If there is a God, it’s hard to understand how such terrible things can happen without some sort of intervention. Or maybe it’s not. Maybe it was never God’s role to save us from ourselves. Only we can do that. But will we? As things currently stand I’m just not sure.

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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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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!