Reflections on 2015

Another year has passed, and for me it’s been a year of firsts: the first year of living abroad, the first working for a PR agency, and also the first as an engaged lady. As I sit here reflecting on the last twelve months I feel an overwhelming sense of gratitude. Many people do not have the wonderful things I have: loving and unswervingly supportive family, fiance and friends, a good job, a great apartment in a city that I have come to love, and the means (well, almost – thanks to the expense of our 2016 wedding this point is a work in progress) to pursue the lifetime of adventure that I crave.

Many of this year’s events have highlighted the shocking disparity between those of us who have, essentially, ‘lucked out’ in life’s lottery, and those who have never even had the opportunity to buy a ticket. I have been particularly affected by the refugee crisis, which, as residents of Brussels, has been literally on our doorstep – both in Brussels and in the ‘jungle’ of Calais that we pass by so regularly on our Eurostar trips home to visit friends and family. How easily we Europeans take for granted our freedom of movement, when our brothers and sisters from Syria and Sudan have nothing but doors slammed in their faces when they try to pass through borders and seek escape from persecution and a better life for themselves and for their families. Their plight is heartbreaking, and the ability of so many to turn the other cheek nothing less than horrifying.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. Sometimes, just as I am about to despair of humanity altogether, something will come along to restore my faith. And the many ordinary people who have been galvanized by the refugee crisis into coming together to help have done just that. I have been following in particular the activities of The Worldwide Tribe, a fantastic group of young people from the UK who have been documenting the experiences of those in the Calais jungle, and in the process raising money to help improve their situation. Such dedication and commitment to this important cause is awe-inspiring, and goes to show that anyone can make a positive difference in the world, if only they have the drive and determination to do so.

I hope that those for whom 2015 was challenging will find fresh perspective, hope and happiness in 2016. And for everyone else, keep doing what you’re doing! May your year be filled with peace and love.

imagesCL4QUQ7C

The Word is Out: Onwards and Upwards

So, it’s official: Five weeks on Saturday I’ll be moving to Brussels. Why? Because my other half’s job is taking him there, and also because I know enough about both life and love to know that when opportunities come up you have to follow them – as well as your heart. To say I’m terrified would be an understatement, but the overriding feeling is one of excitement. I’ve lived in London for the past twelve years, and whilst I love this crazy, vibrant city and will miss it – not to mention all my friends here – more than I can say, I feel ready for a change.

Whilst ‘what will I do’ and ‘where will we live’ are pretty high up on the list of burning questions, ‘will I write more when I’m away from the distractions of London’ is the one that’s really running on a loop through my mind. It’s no secret that reducing my working hours by one day a week to give me time to write has been less successful than I’d hoped. But you know what? After a lengthy hiatus I’ve started meditating again and I’ve done some thinking, and have decided that it’s time to stop beating myself up for what I haven’t achieved, and start taking steps – no matter how small – towards what I am capable of achieving. That may be a published novel, or it may not, and for the first time in a long time I can honestly say that I’m okay with either. My new plan is to ease some of the pressure I’ve been putting on myself and fall back in love with writing, hopefully at the same time as I fall in love with the new city that is to become my home for the foreseeable future – and I’m excited.

Life is for living and the world is for exploring. And whilst Belgium might not be all that exotic, or, in distance terms, all that far away, it’s certainly a start.

motivational-quotes-through-week--large-msg-13523186561

“He who tires of London tires of life”

When you live in one of the most famous cities in the world it’s surprisingly easy to forget the myriad reasons why it’s so famous. The views, of course, are self-evident (nothing beats the London skyline as dusk falls over the South Bank), but it’s the hundreds (if not thousands) of attractions, exhibitions, walking tours, wine tastings, cake makings, tea drinkings, secret supper clubs, underground speakeasys [sic] and quirky activities that often get disregarded by the folk who reside here.

Why? Because, after spending five days of the week battling through the crowds on public transport to and from the office – not to mention attempting to juggle catching up with friends, working late and working out – they’re usually too exhausted and/or hungover to do anything other than throw themselves into an arm chair with a cold beer and vegetate for two days.

Most city workers don’t even contemplate a trip to the National Gallery, a cruise on the Clipper boat from Greenwich or a cocktail making master class on their long-awaited weekends. Or, if they do contemplate it, it’s usually too late in the day to actually make it a reality.

And on those rare occasions when they do have the energy for a weekend excursion it’s usually to somewhere outside of London – because after the week they’ve had the last thing they want to do is run the gauntlet of tourists in Piccadilly or Oxford Circus, or any of those other tourist meccas.

But Londoners really should take the time to appreciate the city in which they live. Especially the young professionals who know their time here is limited, that they’ll move on in a few years when another opportunity – possibly the desire to start a family – presents itself. Because it’s often only when you leave a place that you realise how incredible it really was – and feel nostalgic for the things you never did, even though you had the chance.

411654_10151162262550057_238806214_o

 

Bound for the Big Apple

I’m just about to leave for the airport to catch my flight to New Jersey, and in the unlikely event of not being able to get online when I get there I’m writing today’s post before I go. The last few weeks have been such a whirlwind, I can hardly believe I’m sitting here now, my job and big race behind me and only a week until I start my new job and part time career as a freelance writer.

I never thought I’d say this but being told my job was at risk of becoming redundant was the most fantastic turning point in my life. Granted, at the time it was a bitter pill to swallow, but I’d been thinking of leaving for so long and never had the courage to take action. It just goes to show that opportunity can come out of even the bleakest of situations.

So here I am; suitcase packed and ready to board a plane to America, where I will be spending six days with a girl I met in an Indian ashram two years ago. Life is so wonderfully random. I know I’m going to sound like a raving hippy saying this but it does feel like there’s a reason for my going on this trip. I’ve felt a strong pull to New York and the friend whom I’m visiting ever since she moved there, and I can’t wait to find out what that reason is. And also to eat lots of pancakes with maple syrup, OBVIOUSLY.

Time out

I probably shouldn’t admit to being short of inspiration today, but there you have it: My confession. It’s been a taxing start to the year, to say the least, and I’ve exhausted all of my energy stores – both mental and physical. Training for next weekend’s 16 mile run isn’t helping on the physical front, but it has at least given me a focus for which I’ve been grateful in my lower moments; hard as it is to get out and running when the axe of redundancy (or any other challenging life event) is hovering over your neck, it really is true what they say about exercise making you feel better. Though I’m still not convinced I’m going to enjoy tomorrow morning’s scheduled 12 mile run in the rain….

But this is not to be a negative post, far from it. I’ve found a new job that I’m itching to start, have already got some freelance irons in the fire and genuinely feel this period of change will be the making of me – I’m just looking forward to the change phase being over and the new phase being underway, because it’s the change phase itself that’s so very tiring.

Rather than go home and slump on the sofa this evening (as is my body’s inclination) I’ve decided to be proactive in beating the tiredness, and am planning a return to the Sivananda Yoga Centre in Putney for its evening Satsang class. The Centre is a branch of the ashram in Kerala (southern India) where I did a two week residential yoga course in 2011. Satsang is a free class which comprises a twenty to thirty minute group meditation session, followed by 45 minutes of mantra chanting and a talk on the philosophy of yoga. It sounds a bit crack pot, I’ll admit, but I actually find the whole thing very relaxing, and a great way to ‘switch off’ the mind after a long day or period of stress. To any disbelievers reading this post I will say only this: Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it!

253850_10150652395545057_7385012_n

Writing this post reminded me of the few days post-ashram when I and two of my fellow ashramees [sic] spent a few days on the coast, in Kovalam. This pic was when we were still full of the enthusiasm of regular yoga practice – how times have changed (for me at least, I can’t speak for the others!)

Desiderata

Three weeks ago I was informed my role at work was being made redundant. Well, the official line was that there was a business case for it to cease to exist and that I would therefore be entering a period of consultation, during which I would be quite welcome to put forward a counter proposal should I feel disinclined to agree with the reasoning for terminating my employment.

I felt no desire whatsoever to oppose the business case, in part because I knew I could never continue working for an employer that valued my contribution to the workplace so little they had held the metaphorical axe over my head in the first place. In the main, however, I didn’t wish to oppose it simply because I felt my time there was up.

It’s never nice to feel you’re not wanted, especially when you feel you have worked hard and delivered everything that was expected of you – if not more. But it’s vital for your sanity not to take it personally and to try and move on. You know your value even if they can’t see it, so instead of waiting around for your turn in the hangman’s noose find a new opportunity and avoid it.

It’s this attitude that’s helped me to see my impending redundancy in an entirely new light. I’d been looking (albeit casually) for other jobs for several weeks before the news came, and whilst it was a bolt out of the blue it’s a plain fact I wouldn’t have stayed for that much longer anyway. Being faced with redundancy was exactly the catalyst I needed to make the change I’d been craving, and fortunately my employers have at least been accommodating when it’s come to needing time off for interviews.

Speaking of interviews, I’d forgotten just how much I hate them. It’s horrible having every aspect of you put under the microscope and scrutinised; I’ve often wondered how introverts cope. A good interviewer can put you at ease in a moment – to some extent at least – but a bad one can leave you traumatised for years. And it’s not just down to how skilful the interviewer is, it’s as much about how well you ‘fit’ with the organisation itself.

Take the interview I had this morning as an example. On the face of it there was nothing wrong with either the organisation or the people. In fact, as my preparation had progressed I felt increasingly excited by it. But as soon as I walked through the door something felt amiss. There must have been nearly forty people in the room yet you could have heard a pin drop. Then, when I sat down in the interview room and reeled off my ‘pitch,’ I felt I had impressed them to some extent, but simply didn’t feel any rapport with them. We were all smiling, but to me those smiles felt empty. Something wasn’t right, and I knew in that instant I could never be happy there.

In stark contrast last week I had a second interview at another, smaller, organisation, where I felt I had clicked instantly with both the CEO and the lady who would be my boss were I to be offered the role. The atmosphere was relaxed and even though the interview itself was rigorous I didn’t feel at any point I was being deliberately caught out or put on the spot. Afterwards the PR assistant took me for a coffee to find out more about me. I knew they had seen ten people at first interview and were seeing me and one other people at the second stage, and I was told at the end of the day they were going to take the weekend to decide and come back to me on Monday.

After this morning’s interview I must admit I felt despondent. I knew if they asked me back for a second interview I wouldn’t want to go, but I also knew if the place I really wanted to work came back with a no I’d be back at the drawing board; not a drawing I was keen to start from scratch.

I walked along the river thinking about all I’ve learned over the past few weeks; how much of a difference it makes to at least try to be positive (even though it’s sometimes hard) and how important it is to make the most of every second, and not take people for granted. By the time I got to the train station I was feeling a lot better, and ready to rationalise whatever eventuality came my way.

Fortunately it was exactly the eventuality I’d been wishing for. And I’m now not only going to work for an organisation I think I could really, truly love, I’m also going to have time to pursue my dream of becoming a freelance writer.

To conclude I’m going to use the final verse of my favourite poem, Desiderata, by Max Ehrmann:

And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be, and whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul. With all its shams, drudgery, and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful.

The bag like any other

Before Christmas I went shopping for a new handbag. Not being a materialistic person I had waited until my previous handbag was, in wardrobe years, the equivalent of an incontinent 90 year human before accepting it was time to move on, so the task at hand was pressing to say the least.

So there I was in the handbag department of Debenhams, surrounded by row upon row of leather, pleather, patent, snakeskin, dogtooth – the list goes on – searching for the one bag that would accompany me home.

I said I wasn’t materialistic and that is true, but it’s not to say that on the rare occasions I do treat myself to a pair of shoes or handbag I don’t want them/it to be special. Not expensive, but a bit different – original.

But on this day, try as I might I just couldn’t find what I was looking for. This put me in a considerable dilemma, for my current bag was on the verge of popping off to handbag heaven, and waiting for a future shopping excursion may well mean risking an embarrassing wardrobe malfunction (which, let’s face it, would almost certainly happen on a packed commuter train to or from work).

After quite some time deliberating, and with extreme reluctance, I chose a small black tote bag made of shiny rain mac material, with light brown leather handles and bottom, and a silver buckle clasp. It was, I knew with depressing certainty, a bag like any other bag – the kind you see ten a penny of every single day on the underground. Worse, it was the style of bag often touted by posh girls from Chelsea with names like Tallulah and Cheska (only without the designer label and obscene price tag theirs would obviously have).

Feeling glum, I trudged towards the counter with my selection. I stopped half way to take one last glance around the room, hoping by some miracle the perfect bag which had up to this point evaded me would somehow make itself known, before it was too late. And there it was. On a low hanging branch of a display unit, the last of its kind – tasteful dark brown leopard print material with a dark two tone leather flap and silver buckle. In that moment – and many moments since – I truly thought it was the most beautiful bag I had ever seen.

I stooped to pluck it from its perch, checked the price tag and, delighted to find it more than affordable, beat a hasty path to the counter to complete the purchase. Needless to say, the bag like any other was returned to its original location for some unsuspecting soul with lower aspirations than me to pick up and buy.

You will probably be wondering by now why on earth I’ve written five hundred words about buying a handbag. Well, it’s because last night, as I waited for my tube train to arrive, it occurred to me the bag like any other wasn’t just a story, it was an analogy for life. So many people pick a job like any other, a partner like any other – they take the path of least resistance, the one that will provide a decent return but won’t excite or challenge them.

We only get one shot at life, so why do so many of us settle for less than the best for ourselves? Why don’t we take risks, pick partners that excite us, occupations that challenge us? Why do we let ourselves drift and then feel surprise when we wake up one day wondering where our lives went?

I’m so glad I didn’t settle for less than I wanted that day, and I’m determined never to settle for less than I want – and deserve – in life.

After all, who wants a bag – or a life – like any other when, if you search a bit harder, you can find one that’s unique?

Image

This bag signifies so much more than just a handbag – it signifies the importance of waiting for the right opportunities in life to present themselves, rather than reacting to the most obvious ones. It’s also very pretty, right?

The write read

It’s a well-known fact that, for the most part, writing doesn’t pay. Or at least it doesn’t pay until you make it big, though you might be surprised by how few authors ever reach the heady heights of JK Rowling’s wealth, despite being on the best seller lists for weeks on end.

So what do aspiring writers do to make ends meet? Some sacrifice luxury and get a part time job in a cafe, devoting the rest of their time to writing in the hope they’ll have that much needed break and be catapulted out of their Hackney bedsit into a Hollywood condo.

Others, like myself, who have fallen into a relatively comfortable way of living and aren’t keen to suffer for their art to quite the extent of living below the poverty line, get a full time job. Days, therefore, are spent in an office, doing someone else’s bidding for eight hours or more at a time, and nights are spent trying to fit writing in amongst the other many competing priorities.

But I’m not complaining, and nor should anyone who is serious about making it as a writer, because if writing is your passion it shouldn’t be difficult to make time for it. What can be a problem for the aspiring writer, however, is what they choose to sacrifice to make time for their writing. In my case, I’ve realised that what’s all too often being sacrificed is reading.

I take my Kindle to work every day, but on the journey there often struggle not to be distracted by the free newspapers. I therefore spend the duration engrossed in the latest drama in Rihanna’s love life instead of making a start on the latest Booker Prize-nominated tome I’ve downloaded.

Before conceiving my 365 day writing challenge I would at least spend the return journey reading a good book, but in recent weeks even those few precious snatched minutes have been compromised, as I’ve spent them drafting that day’s blog post. What this means is that although I am now (at long last) writing regularly, when it comes to reading I’m not getting much further than the odd sensationalist tabloid press story – hardly inspirational stuff.

What’s troubling me is this: How can I even hope to be a good writer if I’m not seeing how it’s done by learning from the best? To use an analogy, imagine trying to ride a bike without seeing someone else do it first. It’s not that you couldn’t do it – if you had instructions you’d get there in the end – but the whole experience would be harder, and you might not end up cycling to the best of your ability.

The realisation that I’m not reading enough has made me see I need to reassess my priorities again; rather than substituting reading for writing I must make time for both, or risk my writing being so badly compromised that the heady heights of JK Rowling will always remain out of reach.

Image

This little badge represents me having completed my fourth National Novel Writing Month. It serves as a reminder of how important writing is to me – perhaps in light of today’s post I need a similar talisman for reading?

The path to dotage

It’s a depressing fact that my generation will be required to work well into what was, by previous generations, considered to be the dotage period of life. I for one am particularly aggrieved by this knowledge, because hand on heart I can’t say I have ever had a job that I have ‘loved.’ I’ve come close once or twice, but generally speaking ever since I left university I’ve been drifting from one job to another, each time hoping it would be the ‘dream job,’ each time being disappointed.

At times I have questioned whether the ‘dream job’ does, in fact, exist at all, but I believe for a lucky few it does. My best friend, for example, works long hours and is often dog tired, but she enjoys her job enormously and freely admits it. Now don’t get me wrong, I’ve only had one job that I could say I hated (with every fibre of my earthly being, but that’s another story that we won’t go into here). All the others have been good in some ways, but ultimately not fulfilling enough to stay. But maybe, as I say, such a phenomenon is rare, and those of us who aren’t blessed with the perfect job pairing in our lives should seek fulfilment elsewhere, through hobbies, volunteering and so forth.

One thing I have learned in the course of my ten year (has it really been that long?!) career is that it’s better to be too busy than too quiet. If you have to spend eight hours (and the rest) a day in a soulless, strip lit office, you may as well fill your hours as much as possible to make them go quicker. There is nothing, and I mean NOTHING worse than being bored. And it’s just as well I feel that way, as this week most days I’ve  been in the office by 8am every day and haven’t seen daylight until gone 7pm, notching up an impressive 13+ hours of overtime.

Of course the downside of being rushed off your feet at work is that the days tend to just merge into one long round of waking before it’s light, commuting, frantically trying to plough through everything on the to do list, commuting back, eating, sleeping and getting up again.

But I shouldn’t complain. In the current financial climate I’m lucky to even HAVE a job, and the world of PR is a fickle beast – when I’m flat out busy it’s downright exhausting, but it’s also exhilarating when all the hard work of selling in a story pays dividends.

Nonetheless, I’d rather like to make my millions a la JK Rowling in the not too distant future, because the thought of spending the next 39 years with my nose to the grindstone, slogging my guts out for somebody else’s reward, just isn’t that appealing. And living in a beach hut in the Philippines, well, that really rather is…

Image

This photo was taken towards the end of my travels last year, whilst languishing on the private balcony of my friend’s 5* hotel room in Koh Tao, Thailand. I remember thinking as I lay there that my freedom was nearly at an end, and revelling in the twilight of what had been an amazing adventure. The book, The Beach, has always represented to me the ultimate freedom, a form of escapism (as reading itself is), and so when I look at this picture I feel somehow this is what I’m aspiring to get back to, if that makes any sense. It’s been a long week.