Freak Out

In my third year of university I suffered from panic attacks, which were the physical manifestation of my guilt at having been so lackadaisical in attitude towards academic study for the preceding two years. I vividly remember one afternoon when I was attempting to start work on my dissertation and my housemate and best friend bounded into my room and informed me we would be attending a house party that evening. Summoning some hitherto unknown strength of will I declined the offer and explained the likelihood of my failing my degree if I ventured outside the house between that very moment and the end of term, but my protestations fell on unsympathetic ears. “You’ve got 15 minutes,” my friend said, “by the time I get out of the shower you need to be ready to go.” As it happened, by the time she got out of the shower I was about as far from ready as could be-I had, in fact, become so distressed by my predicament that I had unintentionally hyperventilated myself into unconsciousness and collapsed backwards onto the bed. Needless to say, by the time I came around I was so disoriented that work was not an option-and alcohol, and indeed the house party, won out (as so oft they did in those halcyon days of my early twenties. Oh who am I kidding? They still do more than ten years later).

Why did I tell you that story? For two reasons actually. Firstly, because today I had a moment when I felt the same chest-crushing anxiety I felt that day at university, as it hit me in a tidal wave of realisation that this move to Belgium really IS happening two weeks on Saturday, and I suddenly and acutely felt a sense of loss for all the loved ones that I’m leaving here in the UK, as well as a sense of panic about leaping into the great unknown without the security of a job or social network where I’m going. Don’t get me wrong, I’m 100% committed to this move and can’t wait to start this new chapter in my life. I suppose trepidation is just a natural part of the process of acclimatisation to change.

The second reason I told that story is that tomorrow is my thirty third birthday, and as I sit here reminiscing about my uni days I find it difficult to accept they were more than a decade ago. I always thought by the time I reached my early thirties I’d feel grown up and would have life all figured out. But the reality is there is no ‘magic age’ at which we humans become ‘grown up.’ And whilst I waste a lot of breath moaning about my advancing years, I have to say that’s one realisation I’m glad to have had.

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Graceland

In 1996 I discovered the joy of Graceland* – the album by Paul Simon, not Elvis’s former home (after which it was named). I remember driving along dusty Kenyan roads with the windows wound right down, staring at the spectacular landscape with its peculiar upside-down Baobab trees and feeling a surge of pure bliss as Diamonds on the Soles of her Shoes belted out of the tape player.

I must have listened to that album a hundred times during that trip alone, but when I came back to England the tape was relegated to the back of the wardrobe and all but forgotten. Until a couple of days ago, that is, when Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes started playing in the restaurant where I was having lunch. It caught me completely off guard, but as the first few bars of the song wafted out from the speakers I felt that familiar wave of pleasure – a feeling that the vast majority (though admittedly not all-I am partial to the odd mass-produced ditty) of modern ‘popular’ music these days couldn’t hope to elicit.

How, I wondered in that moment, could I have become so desensitised to such wonderful music? The same applies to so many other incredible songs that I’ve stumbled across, then walked away from, over the years. What at first sweeps you up like a heady affair soon turns from lust to love, from love to like, and from like to mere indifference.

It occurred to me, then, that this was a rather neat analogy for relationships. Just like with music, where true classics may wear thin with constant repetition, but will, ultimately, stand the test of time, so the initial flush of relationship lust can wax and wane when we become used to it – but if the relationship is right for us it too will stand the test of time. It will ‘come back into fashion’ in just the same way as our favourite tracks and we will be all the more grateful for its, as with their, existence.

Put another way, we may not always be overly enamoured with one another – the classic “I love you but I just don’t like you very much at the moment” scenario that comes about when life gets in the way, giving rise to stress within our relationships – but if we are truly ‘meant to be’ we can be quietly confident the situation will right itself before long.

We humans are magpies by nature. We like things that are shiny and new, and get bored of the things we know too well, so start taking them for granted. But, rather than spending all our time chasing the new, it’s well worth taking a moment to look around sometimes. Because it’s only then you can appreciate the many wonderful things and people that you already have – and feel thankful.

*For any other Paul Simon fans out there, Graceland is currently available on Google Play for £1.99-absolute steal).

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Remembering a Friend

A year ago today someone very special was taken from this world in the worst possible way, leaving a deep chasm of grief in his wake. For his family, his girlfriend and his friends life would never be the same again; there would forever be a Paul-shaped void. Of course life does, inevitably, move on – it has to, for despite its power even grief can’t stop the world from spinning on its axis – but time, though a healer of sorts, can never erase the pain of such a shocking and untimely loss.

I only knew Paul for a short time, but he made a big impact on me, as I know he did on all the many others that he met along the rollercoaster ride that was his life. Yesterday I was so happy to be reunited with his girlfriend Sarah, for whom the past year has been difficult beyond words, but who has shown such admirable strength of spirit in the midst of her grief. Nothing will ever make up for the loss of Paul, but one thing is certain: He may be gone, but his exuberance, charm and joie de vivre will never be forgotten.

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Philippine Dream

Today I have been mostly planning holidays. Well, one holiday to be specific, which has been booked on a carpe diem whim and is now shaping up to be something rather special. The catalyst for this trip was, as regular readers of this blog will know, the tragic passing away of a very special person who recently came into our lives. Now, in memory of his adventurous spirit, we are intending to have our very own adventure.

Starting in Hong Kong to celebrate the arrival of 2014, we’ll then fly to the Philippines where I’ll hopefully begin to tick off two items from my newly created bucket list; swimming with whale sharks and diving with sharks. We’re also going to do some trekking through rice terraces, visit a village that suspends its dead in coffins from the side of a cliff and, if time allows, also go to some bat caves and take a zip wire down from the highest bridge in the Philippines (a particularly tough challenge for me due to my fear of heights, but hell, why not. After all, you only live once).

I really couldn’t be more excited. It’s an opportunity to break away from the normal routine and recapture the essence of travelling that I miss so much in my everyday life. It will also no doubt give me a huge amount of inspiration for my writing – something that I’ve felt, much to my immense frustration, has been lacking in recent weeks. It may take a very (very) long time to pay this holiday off but I know it will be worth every penny. Life is for living and it is trips like this that make it feel so much more exhilarating.

Raw

Why do they say that the air is crisp, as if it were something that one could bite into, that one could touch? The air’s no crisper than the sun, though that at least would burn you to a crisp if you could get close enough to touch it.

It’s funny what thoughts pop into your mind, unbidden, after a traumatic life episode. Here I am, lacing up my boots – the ones with the dodgy soles that let the water in, which are really altogether pointless as it’s almost always wet outside – and instead of thinking about what’s happened I’m ruminating on the physical qualities of the air and the sun. I suppose this could be called a ‘coping mechanism,’ in which case I should probably be glad of it. Lord knows I’d rather think about the air and sun than all the other jumbled mass of thoughts and emotions that are swirling around in the background of my mind.

I call Betty and she tears into the room with her trademark boundless enthusiasm. Betty is a cocker spaniel. She’s brown with white splodges of various shapes and sizes that look as if someone’s used her as a canvas to try and recreate a Jackson Pollock painting. She’s named after the landlady at the bed and breakfast where we got engaged. With hindsight that’s ridiculous, but when we bought her we were sickeningly in love and blind to sense.

I’m walking down the road now, treading the path that’s been so well trodden over our ten year marriage. The tarmac’s hard and unforgiving beneath my feet. Betty’s straining at her lead; she may be an old girl but she’s got more life in her than I’ll ever have. But I won’t let her off the lead until we’re on the footpath. Can’t risk anything happening to her – she’s all I have now.

Charles Reginald Harper (prefers to be known as Reg).

Likes: Arguing (loudly), snoring (ditto), mustard on rare roast beef, red wine, cherry jam, walks in the country, art (except, ironically, Pollock) and obscure foreign literature.

Dislikes: People not agreeing with him (always), his wife (most of the time).

As we veer off the road onto the footpath – Betty scrambling over the muddy terrain as if her life depends on it – I run our last argument through my mind. It was over nothing, as always, something as inconsequential as him not having done the dishes. But then it wouldn’t have killed him to do them, would it? Once in the whole damn marriage?

But I digress. His not doing the dishes aside, all of those silly, petty arguments aside; he was a good husband. It’s funny how it takes something like this to make you realise the good things about a person, to see them in a light that has been dimmed for far too long.

Still. We walk on, Betty and I, through the fields of corn that sway in the light breeze like lovers clasped together in a slow dance. I remember then the dance of our wedding day, the way his hand rested on my waist, the reassuring weight of it.

Where did we go wrong? Somewhere along the journey of our lives together we took diverging paths. I’m not sure either of us knew it at the time, but by the time we did realise it was too late to go back; weeds and thorns had grown across the paths behind us.

When we return from our walk I unclip Betty’s lead and pour myself a scotch; his favourite drink. I sit in his favourite chair and look out across his favourite view. And then it hits me. A tidal wave of grief that I have hitherto suppressed rises up and catches in my throat, emerging as a roar of emotion. Or should that be a raw of emotion, because that’s all I now am – raw.

I don’t blame him for leaving, how can I?

I just wish I’d had the chance to say goodbye.

I took this picture yesterday in East Stratton, Hampshire. It was the inspiration for this story.

Multi-tasking madness

Today I’ve been thinking about this article which I read in last week’s Stylist magazine which claimed that, rather than being a productive use of our time, multi-tasking can actually make us less productive – and can even be damaging to our health.

According to the article, when we stop what we’re doing and redirect our attention to something else – for example if we stop writing an email to check a text message – the first task can actually end up taking twice as long as it would otherwise have done. What’s more, when we’re interrupted from a task it can take a whopping 25 minutes to get back to our original task – talk about a waste of time!

Multi-tasking, therefore, isn’t really doing multiple tasks at once but rather switching between tasks, which, apparently, makes us more stressed and less able to focus – in all areas of our lives. And speaking as someone who falls firmly into the multi-tasking camp – I’m not exaggerating when I say I’ve usually got at least three to do lists in my line of sight at any one time, all of which I’m simultaneously attempting to complete something from – I have to say it does.

I’ve always thought that skim reading emails whilst heading off pushy sales calls was a genius way to save time, but when the email’s been sent and the sales call closed down I’ll often struggle to remember what either was about. In fact, I’m going to make a confession – just a moment ago I saw an email had popped into my inbox and switched my attention completely to that. And you know what? When I first came back to this and tried to remember what was in the email it completely escaped me!

So, it’s a fact; multi-tasking does make me feel stressed, and if the example I just gave is anything to go by it may even be damaging my cognitive health. But how can I extricate myself from this cycle? They (whoever ‘they’ are) say the first step of recovery is to acknowledge you have a problem, in which case I’m already on that bottom rung.

From now on when I think I’m being super-organised by trying to do multiple things at once I’m going to check myself and realise I’m just working myself up into a perpetual state of anxiety. I shall take a step back, prioritise the items on my list(s) and work through them in a logical and methodical way. When I start each new task I’ll put my mobile phone on silent and turn off the alerts on my email, only allowing myself to check them once that particular task is finished…Hang on, this is all getting a bit complicated. Maybe I should make a list. Will someone pass the Post-its?

Question: When shouldn’t you multi-task?
Answer: When you’ve been drinking cocktails on San Antonio beach in Ibiza all afternoon and MTV approaches you to record a message for their viewers….Yes, we did, and yes, it was aired. Repeatedly. Though thankfully I don’t have Sky.