Parting Gift

The following post was written in response to the Creative Ink Writing Prompt on 15 Dec:

The present sat, unopened, for weeks. As if preserving its integrity would bring him back, somehow make it all un-happen. But it wouldn’t, obviously, she knew that.  They all did. But nonetheless they had formed a tacit agreement that the gift would not be touched, nor moved from its place on the living room floor, despite the tree and all its fallen needles having long since been cleared out.

And so they carried on with life, or at least some semblance of it; Matt going to school, Abi to her part time job to make some cash for uni. Philippa painted on her face and cooked them dinner each night. But she spent her days wandering the heath with Barney the dog; bare faced and aimless. She kept it together for the children, thanks to the prescription drugs she had tearfully begged her doctor for. They blurred the edges, made the pain a little less acute. But when they started to wear off reality crept back in, and she was faced once more with the abject terror of being alone, in an empty bed. And an empty life.

He had been a healthy man. An active man. And yet. Cancer could be so indiscriminate. Sometimes no amount of spinach smoothies and early morning workouts could stave it off. When it’s your time, it’s your time. That’s what he’d always said. What a tragedy that his time had come so soon. Just past the post of fifty, the milestone Philippa had dreaded for years. But not him. He was ever the optimist. And now he, and all his optimism, had gone.

Today the children were both out; Philippa couldn’t remember where although she knew they would have told her. She made a cup of coffee, her brain on autopilot, and carried it through to the living room. As much as she wanted to avoid looking at the present, her eyes were drawn to it like magnets. He had known, when he bought it, that the time he had left was short. She knew he had made peace with that in a way she couldn’t imagine herself ever doing. After twenty years of marriage, losing him was like losing the use of her limbs. They had so much still to do, so much still to see. How could she do any of it without him?

Their big plan, once both kids had left home, was to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. They had talked about it often, sat at the kitchen table late into the night, drinking Malbec and plotting out the route they would take. Philippa couldn’t imagine herself climbing a mountain, but with him by her side she knew she could do it. With him by her side she could do anything.

She was on the floor now, kneeling with the present on her lap. Hot tears rolled down her cheeks, splashed onto the Christmas wrapping paper. Whatever was inside would, she knew, break her heart. But it was time. For the kids’ sake she had to move past this. It was part of the process. So she steeled herself and started to peel back the layers. Inside was a head torch, a pair of hiking socks and the Dr Seuss book they had read to the kids when they were little. He had marked one of the pages with a yellow sticky note. Philippa opened it on that page and laughed aloud when she read the rhyme:

You’re off to great places! Today is your day! Your mountain is waiting. So get on your way!

As sad as she felt, the pain that had held her in its thrall since his parting loosened its grip just a little. She took a deep breath and exhaled. With his parting gift, he had set her free.

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Thoughts from the here and now

I’m sitting in my living room, propped up on cushions with my laptop on my knee so I can work. It starts to rain, and the sound of the rain drops tapping against the window catches my attention. I stop working for a second and listen. It occurs to me that in my hectic city dweller life I rarely hear the pitter-patter of raindrops as they fall from the sky, nor any other natural noises, save for the occasional burst of bird song when the weather is nice enough to sit outside on the terrace (which faces away from the road, mercifully shielding us from the constant blaring of car horns). As I listen I make a conscious effort to breathe; in and out, long and slow. And I realise, too, that such moments – living in the moment – are rarer still.

Why do we race through our lives with such careless disregard for what is happening in the here and now? Are we really so desperate to get to the end of the book of our lives that we are prepared to flick through entire chapters?

Just thoughts, really. From the here and now.

Fin.

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Proof of Life / Life Lesson

Last night I took my external hard drive from its safe spot in the bottom of the wardrobe, plugged it into the computer and switched it on, with the intention of finding a photograph of me and R to use on our wedding website. Minutes later, on being asked to do something, I jumped up, and, forgetting the wire was in in my way, walked into it and sent the hard drive crashing to the ground. My heart stopped. And, sure enough, when I tried to turn it back on the computer failed to recognise it. It also made a beeping noise (which, as I later read, is never a good sign). A brief call to a data recovery specialist confirmed that paying for professional help was not an option (500-800 Euros? You have got to be kidding me). In the end we whacked it in the freezer for good measure, on the advice of one website that admitted it was a dubious and last ditch method but might possibly work (yeah right), but it is with a heavy heart I am forced to accept that it – along with about five years’ worth of photos – has gone. And most galling of all is that I’ve been here before, having done the same thing a few years ago (and failed to get the data back after parting with 50 quid).

I feel ridiculous admitting it but I’m devastated. Last night I was inconsolable, and couldn’t stop crying. Rightly or wrongly, I value photos enormously. They are a means of remembering all that’s happened in my life, of connecting with my past and demonstrating how I’ve made my mark on the world. Perhaps it’s that last point that’s the most psychologically interesting. People sometimes tease me about how prolific I am on Facebook, and I have often questioned my need to share the details of my life on social media. However, I don’t believe I am a narcissist. My motivation in sharing pictures in particular is not about boasting, or at least my conscious mind disputes that notion. I suppose I do feel a strong need to make my existence in this world tangible, and posting pictures is akin to sticking a sign in the ground saying ‘I woz ‘ere’.

Photographs are, essentially, proof of lives that have been lived. Loath as I am to admit it, on further analysis there is almost certainly a link to my fear of death – of dying, and of people I love dying. I guess I feel somehow that by capturing images I’m keeping myself present, real, alive. And similarly, by capturing pictures of my loved ones I am keeping them alive, and if, God forbid, anything bad should happen, to me or any of them, at least those memories will exist and can be treasured. Is that morbid? Perhaps. But it’s also true.

But what’s done is done. I must move past the sadness, anger and frustration that I’m currently feeling. I’m glad I’m so prolific on Facebook now because I do at least have low resolution copies of the lost files; the memories are not gone forever. But even if they were, what’s most important is the fact I have my health and I have my loved ones – here, in the present, not in the past, which now no longer exists, except in my heart, my mind – and a few low resolution images on Facebook.

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Thoughts, as they happen

It’s quarter past eight in the evening. Outside the wind is raging almost as much as the commuters who were forced to endure today’s tube strike, and will have to do the same tomorrow. Only tomorrow’s nightmare commute will be wet as well as windy, for the weather reports speak of more torrential rain and flooding on the way. It is February. It is cold. We Brits are not, it must be said, at our best under these conditions. And yet we know them all too well.

I’m sitting in a state of panic-induced inertia; surrounded by ‘to do’ lists with a thousand thoughts careering around my head, like rockets let off by mistake at a fireworks display. In this state it’s hard to think in a rational way; what to do first, where to start. So tonight I’ve taken a new approach and lit a candle. Apple pie scented. As I type this I’m watching it burn, the wax becoming molten, like lava: My own Vesuvius. But when will it erupt?

Life is like a Sudoku puzzle; you reach a point when you think you’ve got it sussed, and then you realise that you haven’t and have to start all over again. So many questions, yet so few answers. So many options, yet so little time. I sometimes wonder if the God in whom I place my faith of there being an afterlife is watching us from Heaven and laughing at the tangles that we get ourselves into, weaving thread upon thread into impenetrable webs; fortresses of our own making.

My hands are cold.

Still, the candle burns.

Man’s best friend

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When the alarm clock beeped Maurice groaned his customary groan and stretched out like a tiger waking from a snooze. He rubbed the sleep from his eyes and blinked several times. Then, with a whoosh of excitement that coursed from the top of his head to the tip of his toes he remembered: Today was his eighth birthday.

He leapt out of bed and ran out of the room and all the way down the stairs into the kitchen. There he found his mother, his father and his baby brother Teddy sitting at the breakfast table waiting for him.
“Happy Birthday Maurice,” his parents said in unison. Teddy just grinned and waved his rattle. “Here,” said his mother, “sit down and I’ll make you a special breakfast before school. Eggs and bacon okay?”
Maurice beamed and nodded as he took his seat at the head of the table where, he couldn’t help but notice, there sat a large box with a ribbon on it. His father smiled and nodded so he ripped off the paper and shouted “yes!” and punched the air when he saw it was the remote controlled rally car he’d been wanting for ages. “Can I take it to school?” he asked,but his father shook his head. “I think it’s best kept safe at home for the moment,” he said.
Maurice kicked his chair under the table in silent protest, but was soon distracted by the plate of fried breakfast his mother had put in front of him. She sat down beside him, pulled her purse out of her bag and fished a shiny pound coin out of its depths. “Here you go,” she said, handing the coin to Maurice, “I know we normally say no sweets at school but as it’s your birthday why don’t you pick up a little treat from the shop at break time.”

As his mother had suggested, Maurice went to the shop around the corner from school during his lunch hour. When he arrived there was a little dog tethered outside. Maurice didn’t know much about dogs but he thought this was what his father would call a Scottie dog-a Scottish Terrier with charcoal grey fur, a long body, short little legs and ears that looked too big for its head.
As Maurice bent down to pat the dog the shop door opened and an old lady came out. She was wearing a thick wool coat even though it was warm outside and she had a scarf wrapped around her head like a turban. The skin on her face was baggy, like it was too big for the bones and sinew underneath, and she had drawn thick black lines around her eyes.
Maurice stood up and the old lady smiled. “Oh don’t mind me dear,” she said, “Colin loves the attention.” Maurice knew it was rude to stare but he couldn’t take his eyes off the old lady. “Colin?” he repeated? “Yes,” the lady said, “it’s a silly name for a dog I know but it was my husband’s name, you see.”
The old lady stopped to cough, and Maurice noted with alarm that when she pulled her tissue away from her face there were spots of what looked like blood on it. “Are you alright?” he asked. The old lady straightened herself up as best she could and forced her withered lips into a thin smile. “Yes,” she said, “I’m fine, thank you,” though Maurice was far from convinced. “What brings you here, anyway?” She asked. “Shouldn’t you be in school?”
Maurice grinned and pulled the coin from his pocket. “It’s my birthday,” he said proudly. “I’m eight years old today and so my mum gave me this to buy sweets.” The old lady coughed again and winced in pain. “That’s nice,” she said. Her breath was shallower now and Maurice was scared. What should he do? Call the shop owner? Call an ambulance?
As he was thinking trough his options the old lady pulled a small black coin purse from her pocket and began to root around in it. “Drat,” she said, coughing again. “I’m a pound short.” “For what?” Maurice asked. “For a taxi to…it doesn’t matter.” Maurice looked at the pound coin in his hand, hesitated, then held it out on his palm.
The old woman smiled through her obvious pain and took the coin. “That’s very kind of you little boy,” she said, “what’s your name?” Maurice, who had been told never to tell strangers his name, replied without hesitation, “Maurice Brown.” “And you go to the school next door?” He nodded. “Well Maurice,” the old lady said, “I promise to repay you for your kindness today. Though it may be in a different way to that which you might expect.”
Before Maurice could ask what she meant she had flagged down an approaching taxi and climbed unsteadily into it, coughing and wheezing all the while. Colin jumped in after her and she shut the door and drove off. Maurice returned to school empty handed.
That evening, after his birthday dinner there was a knock on the front door. When Maurice’s father came back into the room he was carrying a large box. “Another present?” Maurice asked. “From who?”
His father put the box down onto the table with great care and handed Maurice an envelope with MAURICE BROWN written on the front in thick marker pen. Inside there was a piece of paper, upon which was written:
Dear Maurice, if you’re reading this it means I’ve gone to a better place, so please don’t be sad for me. When we met today I could tell you were a special little boy. In return for your kindness I would like to offer you first refusal on this gift. I hope you will love and care for it as I have, and that it will bring you great happiness. God bless you, Annie (the old lady outside the shop).
Maurice put the note down and stared at the box, and as he did a scratching noise from inside made him jump. Suddenly he knew what was inside, and began tearing at the wrapping. He opened the box and, sure enough, inside it sat Colin the Scottie dog. When he saw Maurice he jumped up and licked his face, making everyone laugh.
“Can we keep him Dad?” Maurice asked. His dad looked at his mum, and his mum looked back to him. “How could we say no?” she said with a smile. “We’re so proud of what you did today Maurice.” Maurice beamed back at her. “This is the best birthday ever,” he said, and Colin barked his agreement.

The warped perceptions of time

In a moment of distraction from the task at hand (aka job searching) I watched this video from my expedition in Borneo at the start of 2011, all the while scarcely able to believe that it was two years ago, and all the while wishing (with every fibre of my being) I was back there.

In times of uncertainty and stress it’s only natural to look back at past experiences and wish we could re-live what we remember as being a joyful and uncomplicated existence. Back then, we tell ourselves, we are able to be fully present in the moment. We had no concerns about what lay ahead of us. Why can’t life be like that now?

But it’s all too easy to look back with rose-tinted glasses at times your brain perceives as ‘happier’ than the time you are currently experiencing. If you take a moment to fully re-live the past experience in question – rather than just skimming your memory for the highlights – you will often take a more ‘warts and all’ approach, acknowledging that there were difficulties then in just the same way as there are difficulties now.

The positive take out from this is that you overcame those previous difficulties and now reflect on them as minor – almost completely insignificant – blips in your life path. Surely this would, therefore, suggest that the difficulties you are facing now will be viewed by your future self in much the same way?

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I love this picture from Borneo, taken during my ten days in the Taliwas region with a group of venturers. We had to get two of these barrels up an enormous hill on physical strength (or lack thereof!) alone. A challenge to say the least! It was such a beautiful place and we lived in a camp beside the river, cooking over fires and sitting out at night under the stars. It was a really magical experience and one I’ll never forget.

Putting theory into practice

Tonight I unintentionally put Professor Daniel Gilbert’s theory (which I mentioned in yesterday’s Bea article about happiness) into practice. Having woken up with a sore throat I spent the whole day feeling increasingly less keen to go to my first running club session after work. As the day progressed I thought of every excuse under the sun to not have to go. The front runner (if you’ll excuse the pun) was the fact I felt worse after running 3k at the gym last night, so running 8k outside would almost certainly make me more ill. Fortunately my sensible Twitter followers coerced me by citing the ‘below the neck’ rule, and as my lurgy was most definitely above the neck I decided I had run out of excuses and would give the run a try (I can’t deny the scone and slice of cake consumed at a colleague’s leaving do in the afternoon was also a contributing factor to my need to exercise).

I digress. So how did I put Professor Gilbert’s theory into practice, exactly? Well, I did the run, and at the end of it I thought how much I had enjoyed it and how glad I was to have done it. I even wondered why I’d made such a big deal of it and spent so long trying to talk myself out of going. What Professor Gilbert would no doubt say about this is that when imagining the run – in what was then my present – I was feeling unwell, and was only able to imagine doing the run whilst feeling unwell, which led to me overestimating how bad I would feel whilst actually doing it. As it turned out I felt much better by the time I started the run anyway, and so when the run became my present I was able to enjoy it far more than I had imagined.

Realising this has been a revelation. I’m actually rather stunned!

By the way, in case you’re wondering, I’m thinking of amending the ‘past post’ rule of this blog so that I occasionally post something I’ve written before, but it doesn’t have to be every week. I’m delighted to say I’m enjoying writing something new every day so much I’m finding I don’t want to post old pieces of work (most of which I’m now viewing with a more critical eye anyway and deciding they’re not up to scratch for publication).

Tomorrow’s the last day of January – one month done and still going strong! Who says New Year’s Resolutions are hard to keep?

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Here’s the image that comes to mind when I think about things that weren’t as bad as I imagined. I’d built myself up into a frenzy of worry when I did my first triathlon in 2009, but on the day of the event (as you can see in this pic) I quite enjoyed it! Bar the swimming. I bloody hated that part.