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.

phoenix

Tat’s Life

I’ve been fascinated by tattoos for as long as I can remember; intrigued by the stories they tell, by their boldness and their permanency. I had my first one done around the age of nineteen, and whilst I can’t say it was the most profound of experiences (if I recall correctly I’d imbibed at least two pints of cider after a university lecture and had dragged my reluctant friend to the tattoo parlour with me intent on getting a dragon on my hip, but when we got there and they didn’t have any dragons in the book I opted for a four leaf clover instead – lucky I’ve never regretted it. But then, how can you regret luck?), it set me on a path of discovery that I’m very much still following today.

Each tattoo since that first one has held more emotional significance. The second, a literal translation of ‘inner strength’ into Cambodian script on my lower back, was done after a long term relationship ended badly in 2007, and I wanted to mark the start of my recovery by remembering the happy time I had spent alone in Cambodia before news of my ex’s infidelity broke. The next one came along after a stint of travelling in 2011. Written in English on my foot, it is the last line of a Buddhist prayer (‘May all beings be free), the full version of which my parents kindly gave me as a talisman on a necklace before I commenced my travels. On that trip I had a magical experience with a green turtle whilst diving in the Perhentian Islands off the coast of Malaysia, which I felt was relevant to the last words of the prayer (and hence also to the meaning of the tattoo). I also happened to meet the person I sincerely hope to spend the rest of my life with, who makes me feel more free to be myself than anyone I’ve ever known.

And then there’s the newest addition to the tattoo clan. I’ve been toying with this one for a while, and it’s been particularly difficult because it is related to the thing I’ve struggled most with for the majority of my adult life: Writing. Some of you may know I went part time a year ago to focus more on my writing, but due to a severe lack of discipline on my part, ‘success’ (whatever that means) hasn’t materialised in quite the way I’d hoped it might. So I’ve recently decided to take off some of the pressure, to try and write ‘for love’ instead of fame and fortune. And to help me both with my writing and with the new transition I’m about to make to life as an expat in Brussels with my partner, I decided one more tattoo was appropriate – this time the unambiguous word ‘Believe,’ written as if by a feather quill, which is also included in the design, and which stretches over onto the top of my arm.

I’m sure none of my tattoos will be to everyone’s taste, but all that matters to me is that they are to mine. Not only that, each one (with the exception of the clover, but I love it nonetheless) marks important stages in my life – beginnings, endings, declarations of hope. Each to their own, I say. Maybe I will be embarrassed by them one day, when I’m old and wrinkly and they no longer look as good as they once did. But, like my wrinkles, my tattoos will go to the grave with me, and they will tell the story of adventures, of love, of aspiration: They will tell the story of a life well lived.

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Why I will (sadly) never play the Dane

This may well be my time of the month talking (they don’t call it ‘The Curse’ for nothing, boys. Sorry, too much information), but over the past couple of days I’ve found myself musing on the nature of ambition and, well, wondering how it is that somewhere along the way I managed to lose mine. Don’t get me wrong, I still have crazy dreams of writing a best-selling novel and retiring by the age of forty (forty five at a push) with millions in the bank. But back in the real world – the one where I have to work to earn money to put a roof over my head, avoid starvation and so forth – as my best friends forge ahead with their careers, so my drive to excel in the field in which I work has all but dried up.

Thinking back I’m not sure I ever was enormously ambitious in a wanting-to-set-up-my-own-company-and-be-a-CEO sort of way. I just had a quiet confidence that I would eventually establish a niche for myself and be happy. And, after a few blips along the way, I’m glad to report the happiness part is very much a feature of my life as it is today. The niche, however, has very much still to be carved and, much as I try to deny it, this is much to my chagrin.

There was, a few years back, a moment when I stood (metaphorically speaking) at a fork in the road and surveyed my options. The road on the left would take me further along the corporate path I was treading, with higher financial rewards but, in return, higher personal sacrifice. The road on the right would see me take an altogether more altruistic journey. Of course my moral compass won out and, on the whole, I don’t regret my decision. Working in the charity sector has its rewards – how many people can honestly say they care about what they do? – but it’s not without its limitations.

Next week I’ll turn thirty two – gulp – and yet I still have no idea what I want to be when I grow up, not really. What I do know, with depressing clarity, is how Montague Withnail felt when he said the following:

“It is the most shattering experience of a young man’s life, when one morning he awakes, and quite reasonably says to himself: I will never play the Dane.”

If Carlsberg did overtime…

This weekend we’re recording a short film with some of our young people which will be shown at the charity’s annual supporter event in November. Tonight was the first stage; getting everyone together to rehearse their stories so they feel comfortable in front of the camera when we shoot for real tomorrow.

I knew it would be a powerful experience but in reality it blew me away. Even though they’ve all faced so many challenges in their relatively short lives, every single one of them was able to open up and tell their story honestly and from the heart, which was testament to how much they trusted and felt supported by one another. The rapport between the group and the strength of positive feeling towards the charity – all the young people without exception attribute it to changing their lives for the better, some even said they didn’t know what would have become of them without the intervention – was so incredibly moving, my words can’t even do it justice.

The whole experience left me full of admiration for these astonishing young people, who are taking their negative experiences and turning them into positive ones – literally turning their lives around with our ongoing support and encouragement. I feel humbled to have been present as they shared their stories, and so excited to see them again tomorrow as they do it again ‘for real.’

And, most of all, I feel incredibly fortunate to have myself had such a comparatively trouble-free life. Hearing some of the young people’s stories really made me realise just how trivial some of the things I’ve been through really were, even though at the time they may have seemed horrendous (I always have been good at melodrama). That’s not to say at times I haven’t been through tough times, just that I’m so grateful to have always been supported through those times by people who loved me.

Wow, what a night. Sometimes working overtime isn’t a chore at all – it’s an honour and a privilege.

Riding the wave

This week my first paid commission as a freelance writer has come to fruition – in the August issue of Venture Travel Magazine – and I have to say it feels amazing to finally see my name in print. More amazing, in fact, than I’d dared to imagine, and all of a sudden I feel a renewed sense of enthusiasm and purpose where my writing is concerned that in recent weeks and months had begun to dissipate.

Much as my inner critic would like me to believe I’m not good enough to be a ‘proper’ writer, and my monkey mind would have me swinging endlessly from one type of writing to another (never able to decide which one to pursue and therefore never pursuing any at all) this little victory tells me my writing is good enough, and that the only person blocking the path to success is me.

My beautiful friend Emma Charlotte Bridget Bailey, who is getting married next weekend and who, as coincidence (or fate) would have it I also happened to meet on the same travelling adventure as the one from which my article for Venture Travel Magazine was gleaned, sent me this quote today as encouragement to keep going with my writing:

Brutus:

There is a tide in the affairs of men.

Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;

Omitted, all the voyage of their life

Is bound in shallows and in miseries.

On such a full sea are we now afloat,

And we must take the current when it serves,

Or lose our ventures.

“Ride the wave and see where it takes you” was Emma’s advice, and I see no reason whatsoever not to take it 🙂 xx

How to cope in the age of commuter rage

When I left London to go travelling in 2007 I was at the end of my tether with the rudeness of people on my daily commute. I genuinely feared one day I’d snap and scream in someone’s face, and it was the day I finally felt that fear about to become a reality that I knew I had to get away for my sanity’s sake.

Don’t get me wrong, I love this city dearly but it never ceases to amaze me how normally civilised people can become ruthless savages the second they step onto the northern line in morning rush hour. Though I’ve never seen a fight I have heard tales of suited businessmen coming to blows over perceived acts of rudeness, and the sighs and grimaces of people who refuse to move down the carriage to let you on when there is patently room because they’d frankly rather have the space to read is an experience I’m certain we’ve all shared at one time or another.

Similarly, there are the people who push and shove and rant and rave when there clearly is no space, and their getting on the train will most likely mean at least one person suffocating to death in their sweaty armpit. But why should they care? They’ve got to get to work, because being so much as five minutes late would obviously be completely unacceptable.

I have seen occasional acts of kindness on the tube-indeed once a man who was well over six feet tall fainted on top of me on the Piccadilly line on a particularly hot day and I myself became a Good Samaritan, shouting for water and asking people to step back and give him air-but on the whole the daily commute is an ‘each to their own’ affair that is to be endured rather than enjoyed.

Take yesterday’s tube journey home as an example. Me and another girl were standing equidistant from a seat when the occupant stood up to disembark at the next station. I felt her body go rigid, and my own do the same in response. This was all out war, and there could be only one victor. But just as I braced myself for the pushing, the shoving and the glaring that would ensue when I beat her to the seat (as I surely would) I stopped and asked myself why it was so important to me to win the seat. After all, I was only going a few stops. If she wanted it so badly-as her reddening cheeks proclaimed she did-couldn’t I just let her have it? And so I did. And I got more satisfaction from that gesture than I ever would have in winning the seat.

So what’s the moral of my story? Perhaps that every now and then it’s good to take a step back from the madness of the morning or evening commute and make a conscious effort to be nice to a fellow commuter instead of automatically scowling at them. Give it a try-you might just like it.

The power of OW!

I’m currently re-reading The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle. This morning, just as the train doors opened and an army of angry commuters elbowed their way onto the already packed carriage with scant regard for their fellow passengers’ comfort or wellbeing I read the following sentence about the present moment:

“It is as it is. Observe how the mind labels it and how this labelling process, this continuous sitting in judgement, creates pain and unhappiness.”

Before I was able to observe how my mind was labelling the process, however, someone stood on my toe, which meant the pain I felt was rather more tangible than the pain to which Eckhart was referring. But nonetheless I read on:

“By watching the mechanics of the mind, you step out of its resistance patterns, and you can then allow the present moment to be.”

Easier said than done, Eckhart, I thought, when the woman to your right is coughing directly in your face. But still, must try…

“Accept – then act. Whatever the present moment contains, accept it as if you had chosen it.”

At that very moment, as if to test me, the train stalled. I looked around at my fellow passengers, their gloomy faces pressed into one another’s sweaty armpits. Could I accept this moment as if I had chosen it? Could I really?

“Always work with it, not against it.”

Right, I can work with this. It’s not so bad. Focus on your breathing. Enjoy the moment. The train will move soon. Embrace the Now!

“Make it your friend and ally, not your enemy.”

Why is this train not moving? Don’t they realise there’s a serious lack of oxygen in here? Oh thank God, it’s moving. But wait, hey you CHUMP don’t stand on my bag! Aarrrghh! Stampede! I’m being crushed to death! HELP!!”

“This will miraculously transform your whole life.”

Hmm. I guess this mindfulness takes some practice to master…

This was the lake next to the ashram in southern India where I first learnt how to meditate. It was certainly a lot easier to do it there…