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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New Endings

Today I am tired: dog-tired. Lately I’ve been burning the candle at both ends and the outcome is not pretty – bad skin, concentration span of a gnat (not intimately knowing their cognitive capabilities, I acknowledge this may be unfair to gnats) and the general feeling that I am clinging to my raft on the fast-flowing river of life by the tips of my fingers, with only moments to spare before I fall off and am pulled beneath the murky depths (that last bit was the hungover melodrama speaking, best to ignore it).

But today four things happened that snapped me out of the downward-spiralling torrrent of my own selfish emotions:

  1. I read the news from Calais, where fire is ravaging through the Jungle camp as I type this, and, at the very same time, unaccompanied minors are being sent back there to wait until they can be processed.
  2. I heard a piece of  news from England, which nearly made my heart burst with happiness and joy.
  3. I received my fourth book through the Facebook book exchange I signed up to a couple of weeks ago, which has gone some way towards restoring my faith in humanity.
  4. I watched this video by Prince Ea, which made me realise that those of us who are lucky enough to live in relative freedom are the masters of our own destiny. We can make as many excuses as we like for why we don’t put ourselves out there, but in the end all that will come of our procrastination is regret.

Too often we let our minds wander, thinking of all the paths we could go down but failing to take even the first step along one of them. Fear is a paralysing force, and a toxic one. So many of us stay in the trap our fearful minds have set for us, instead of facing our fear head on and saying, you know what? I’m not falling for this. Not again.

Collectively, as Sapiens (I urge you to read that, by the way, it will change your perspective on everything), we’re not doing that great a job of things: segregating ourselves by our countries of origin and religious beliefs, killing our planet, killing one another. But individually we can still make a difference. For all our faults, we humans have such capacity for kindness, for love, for hope. Even in the Jungle, where those awful fires are burning and people’s future is so uncertain, people are dancing. I’m sure those very people could teach the rest of us a lot about what it means to be happy, and how little we really need to find happiness, and peace in our hearts.

As Prince Ea says in his video, you cannot go back and make a new beginning. But you can start now, and make a brand new ending. It’s not too late to change ourselves, or to change the world. All it takes is courage: to feel our fear and do it anyway. I don’t know about you, but I plan to do exactly that.

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Perfect Moments

In this recent post by Shakeclouds it was posited that the very notion of perfection can be damaging, especially when relating to the achievement of goals, because perfection itself it is such an elusive creature. And whilst I agree with that sentiment entirely, today I discovered that, every now and then in life, there ARE moments of pure and unadulterated perfection, it’s just that often we are so caught up in the whirlwind of our own existence and myriad pressures to perform at the optimum level that we fail to spot them.

What was this moment of pure joy and perfection? In actual fact it was the simplest moment of all. After taking the afternoon off work to pick up my Belgian ID card from the town hall, I came home early, set myself up at the breakfast bar with my laptop and selected the coffee house playlist on Spotify. Then, all of a sudden, the clouds outside parted and the whole apartment was flooded with sunlight.

It was, in that moment, so arrestingly beautiful that I just sat, focusing only on the lovely music and the beams of light coming into my living room, and I felt overwhelmingly grateful-not only for the music, the apartment or the sunshine, but for everyone and everything in my life. Having recently got engaged it isn’t hard for me to appreciate the positives at this point in time, but this was such a wonderful instance of stillness and appreciation that I felt moved to share in this blog; a rare moment of genuine mindfulness, a true oasis of calm. Such moments are not only perfect, they are as precious as the diamond I am lucky enough to now have on my finger. And I have a sneaking suspicion they don’t just hold the key to this crazy thing called life; they are its very essence.

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Grey Skies, and Blue

Today in Brussels it is grey and rainy. I really can’t complain; since we got here last Saturday the weather has been nothing short of glorious. Both weekends were spent wandering around parks and suburbs in t-shirts with our faces raised to the sun like flowers. You’d never know it was November.

But today it seems the harsh winds and lashing rain have brought with them a kind of malaise. Or perhaps it’s a melancholy of my own making, made more prominent by the sudden onset of such inclement weather. In large part I’m caught up in sadness over the recent deaths of two people; one, a dear family friend who last week lost her battle against cancer, and the other this brave soul who yesterday chose to end her life at the age of 29 before the cancer that was invading her brain brought it to a close.

I didn’t know Brittany Maynard personally, but her story and the videos she made documenting her decision to end her life were so personal and inspiring it was impossible not to be moved. Or at least that’s how I felt. I know there are many who criticised her stance on the right to die movement, but I’d hazard a guess none of them have been in her position or been close to someone who has, or else they would most likely feel somewhat differently.

I have some personal experience of watching someone with brain cancer lose their fight, having seen a colleague pass away some years ago. And I can honestly say there are few things more traumatic than seeing a person’s personality and joie de vivre decline day by day, watching as they lose the ability to speak, to function, as their body wastes away and their face puffs up with all the drugs that are pumped into their system in a futile attempt to keep them alive. What is most distressing is seeing in their eyes that they know exactly what is happening to them, and understand how things will play out. Having witnessed this first hand I could never agree that someone in that situation should not have the right to die with dignity, should they so choose. I think the real tragedy is that more people don’t have this right.

Today I made the decision to go back to England next week to attend the funeral of a dear family friend, Fran. I have hugely fond memories of the many family holidays we took together in France and Italy when I was a child; me, my mum and stepdad, Fran, her husband Paul and son Matt, playing boules and listening to Dire Straits on repeat. I was distressed to learn of Fran’s cancer when it first reared its ugly head a year or so ago, even more so when it was discovered the cancer had returned, this time terminally. She passed away last week with her family beside her, and when I found out her funeral was next Wednesday I knew in my heart I had to attend. So I’ve booked my Eurostar and will accompany my parents. It feels right for us to be together as a family at such a sad time, and I’m so glad we will be able to show our support for Paul and Matt, with whom we share such happy and joyful history.

I suppose it’s not surprising that I’m feeling a bit homesick in light of the above. When people die it shakes your foundations, especially when those people are so close or, in the case of Brittany Maynard, so tragic and reminiscent of other sad losses.

But instead of being sad I know both Brittany and Fran would say come on, buck up, be happy; this life is short but full of love, and hope, and joy – so go out there and enjoy it, be good to people, make a difference. And don’t let a bit of rain and grey skies get in the way. There’s always blue sky on the other side, after all.

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New Beginnings

On this Christmas Eve I’m thinking about new beginnings. More specifically, the new beginnings that two of my friends are making – one, in fact, who at this very moment is on a plane from New York to Hawaii to start the next chapter in the rip-roaring adventure that is her life, and the other who is spending Christmas in Bali after losing her boyfriend to a tragic accident earlier this year and returning to Australia without him to rebuild her life.

Both these friends are brave beyond all measure. They have endured the most testing of times and yet have still stood up in the face of tragedy and adversity and said to life, you know what? You won’t beat me, because I won’t let you. Their strength of character both astounds and inspires me.

Jen, the friend en route to Hawaii, is the fellow wanderer and writer who I met in India in 2011. She forged a fantastic life for herself in NYC from nothing, but she knew in her heart it was time to move on and has ignored her misgivings and the doubts of those around her to make this change happen. She is a free spirit in the truest sense of the word and is my muse and spiritual twin (as cheesy as that sounds it’s true).

Sarah, meanwhile, has been to hell and back in recent months after the loss of her wonderful Paul, and yet has borne her loss with a huge amount of dignity, poise and humility. It was incredibly brave to return to Australia so soon after Paul’s death and resume her life there but it seems, from the outside, at least, that the sun and her wonderful friends over there are beginning to work their magic, and whilst I’m certain she will never get over the loss of her love, I’m hopeful she will find in life many other much deserved joys that will bear testament to the fact it can still be wonderful.

So here’s to new beginnings, fresh starts and adventures-may they take us where we want to go, and may they make us richer in spirit and strength than we were before.

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Diversity in Action

This morning I ran from Stockwell to Hyde Park and back (via Battersea Park) – an 11.3 mile route that saw me take in leafy open spaces, vast expanses of water (in both river and lake form) and the crowded shopping streets around Sloane Square and Knightsbridge. The sun was shining and the air was crisp; perfect conditions for a long morning run.

As I ran I made an effort to observe my surroundings, noting a dead fox by the roadside with a trickle of blood escaping from its mouth (poor little fellow), a cluster of canoes making their way determinedly along the river at Battersea, a dog that was exactly half white and half black and a group of ponies being ridden around Hyde Park.

I was particularly struck by the diversity of the other runners I encountered along my way – they were all shapes and sizes, from the larger lady running with her husband and children to the lanky boy with the bobbing head, the older gentleman with the grey hoodie and the numerous more professional looking runners in their state of the art gear.

Today more than ever before I felt part of a wider running community, and had a sense of kinship with my fellow runners that I hadn’t hitherto experienced except in races. The most wonderful thing was that it didn’t matter what size, shape, colour or creed they were, or how fast or slow they were running; people smiled at one another as they passed and gave each other right of way.

Put simply, there was a lot of goodwill on the running circuit in London today. Whether because it’s Christmas time I don’t know, but it was a pleasure to behold and be a part of, and it reinforced – for me at least – the joy that running can bring, and how wonderfully inclusive it can be.

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Canggu

She had come to this place in search of solitude. It was not so far from the beaten track, a mere fifteen minute taxi ride out of the heaving metropolis that was Kuta. But it was far enough to feel cleansed of the inherent grime that everything in Kuta seemed somehow steeped in, not least the throngs of intoxicated teenagers who lined the street each night after dark, preparing their drink-addled bodies for round after relentless round of vile neon shots. She was far from being a prude or a bore, but something about Kuta had unsettled her, made her feel unsafe and ill at ease. It was as if the town itself was intent on self-destruction and, as such, was taking all who resided there along for the downward spiral of a ride.

The taxi pulled up outside a delicate set of wrought iron gates. She climbed out and paid the fare, hoisting her rucksack onto her back as the taxi pulled away. Set into the lemon-washed wall was a buzzer, which she duly pushed. Moments later a man in a white linen uniform appeared to unlock the gate. He apologised that the owner of the property would not be back until later, and took her to her room. It was a decent size, with flagstone flooring that was cool under foot and a beautiful handmade patchwork quilt on the bed. But it wasn’t the room she had been promised – the room above the swimming pool, which looked out across the paddy fields. This was what she had come for.

The room – her room – would be occupied for a further night, she was told at reception, where two western tourists lounged on oversized cushions beside the small yet beautifully maintained swimming pool. She had felt a stab of disappointment to find other westerners in residence, having naively believed that she alone had found this calm oasis. This was not what she had expected, and a knot of anxiety formed in the pit of her stomach which she repeatedly tried – and failed – to ignore. She asked after food, was told she would have to venture out or order takeaway as they didn’t prepare food on site.

There was nothing else for it. She would go for a walk, explore the local area. Find food. After twenty minutes she realised she was walking in a big circle. She had not passed a single food vending establishment and was beginning to feel tearful when she saw a sign further down the road from where she stood. On closer inspection she saw it was a café. Relief flooded through her as she sat on a red plastic chair and waited to be served. But there was no sign of the owner. Instead, a curtain behind the counter twitched and two high pitched giggles could be clearly heard from the other side.

First one face, then the other, came into view. Two little girls peered out at her. She smiled and they disappeared in a fit of hysteria behind the curtain. The curtain moved again, this time revealing a man with a broad smile. He served her as the children ran around the table, occasionally stopping to sing her a song or involve her in their game. They shared no language but it didn’t matter. The girls were such absorbing company that she was lost in the moment, unselfconscious and somewhere near happy.

Once she had eaten, she regretfully took her leave, the girls waving sadly until she was out of view. When she returned to the homestay the owner had arrived. She too was a westerner, though she made a point of stressing she had been here for many years. She was apologetic about the room mix up, promising to get things sorted as soon as the current inhabitant checked out the following day. In the meantime she suggested her new guest might like to hire a scooter and head down to the beach.

In the absence of a better plan she did as the owner had suggested, and as the wind whipped through her hair and the sun beat down on her tanned skin she had to admit it was a good idea. After ten minutes she arrived at the beach. She parked the scooter and kicked off her sandals, stooping to pick them up from the golden sand. In front of the beach was a restaurant. She took a seat on one of the wooden benches outside and ordered herself a Coke. The beach was long and virtually deserted, save for a handful of surfers frolicking in the shallows and a couple of ponies trotting up and down, their owners on their backs.

Feeling restless, she drained the Coke as soon as it arrived, left a note under the bottle and walked down to the beach itself, covering a fair amount of ground before allowing herself to sit down near the shore. She wiggled her toes in the sand, took a deep breath and lay back with her arms flayed out either side of her. The sky was completely devoid of clouds, and she had to squint to prevent the sun from blinding her. What a ride this past few months had been. She could hardly believe it was almost over.

By the time she returned the late afternoon sun was beginning to set, reflected in the perfectly still surface of the pool. The man in the white uniform appeared with a key, handed it to her and pointed to the room above the pool – her room. The occupant had left not long after she had gone to the beach, he explained in broken English. She beamed at him and ran back to her other room to pack. Ten minutes later she was installed in her own private paradise. She flung open the shutters to catch the final rays of sun as they took one last careful caress of the green shoots of the paddy field. Then, quite overcome, she sank to her knees and wept tears of pure joy.

She had come to this place in search of solitude. It was not so far from the beaten track. But it was far enough. 

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This was that place. I remember it still.