Five Weeks to Wed: Reflection on Youth

By the time I was seven I had the whole marriage thing wrapped up – my husband would be tall (at least a head taller than me), dark and handsome, I would be bedecked in lavish jewels and wear a big meringue dress (almost exactly like the one Jennifer Connelly wore in Labyrinth – see below). The ceremony, no less lavish than the dress (naturally), would take place in a beautiful church, with the reception in a grand country mansion. Guests would eat plentifully (mostly chocolate), and I would spend the remainder of my days tripping the light fantastic and dancing on sunbeams with unicorns. Or something like that.

Fast forward 27 years (ouch) and the reality isn’t so far from the dream. My husband to be is indeed tall (not quite a head taller, but let’s not, if you’ll excuse the pun, split hairs) and handsome, if not quite dark (but red haired will do nicely). The lavish jewels are out (clearly my seven year old self had no concept of money), the dress thankfully not quite in the meringue league, and the ceremony will not be in a church (this part I’m sad about, but as we are not Catholic we weren’t allowed to marry in the on-site chapel, and will instead do it outside on the lawn, weather permitting…). And much as I’d have liked a meal made entirely of chocolate, my 34 year old self has to acknowledge it’s not to everyone’s taste. But on one front I’ve trumped seven year old me entirely, for we are not getting married in a grand country mansion, but an actual bona fide castle (albeit because our original, far less grand and ergo far less expensive venue cancelled, but still..). And in Austria, land of stunning lakes and mountains.

With five weeks to go the nerves are kicking in, not about the marriage itself (fortunately), but rather about the plethora of things still to be ticked off the to do list. And the weather. Such a thing shouldn’t matter, of course, but as putting up a marquee will cost us an extra grand I would dearly love to see a forecast devoid of rain when it comes to marquee decision day (two days before the main event). And also, given that our loved ones are making such an effort to be there on our special day,  I would love to have sunshine as much as for them as for us. But what will be will be. I’ve learned a lot during this process about not stressing over things you can’t control. It hasn’t always been easy but it’s another part of growing up. And on the whole, I think we’re both doing pretty well. Next stop: tripping the light fantastic and dancing on sunbeams with unicorns. Bring it on.

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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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Gratitude, Acceptance and Umbrellas

It’s been a while since I last updated my blog. This is, in part, because I’m currently focusing on addressing some of the issues in my life that are blocking my path to fulfilment and success. At the moment I’m reading two neuropsychology books, one on Hardwiring Happiness by Dr Rick Hanson (whose TED talk on the issue can be viewed here), and the other on conditions arising from neuropsychological damage, The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, by the brilliant (and, sadly, now also suffering from terminal cancer) Oliver Sachs. Alongside the Chopra Centre guided meditations that I am trying to do on a regular basis (which I think I mentioned in a previous post), these books have been helping me to understand some key facets* of the human condition that need cultivating in order to experience true fulfilment. These are:

Part One: Gratitude

It sounds obvious, but how many of us really take the time each day to count our blessings? I think I’ve touched on this before, but now more than ever I am realising how important it is to consciously feel gratitude in order to overcome negative emotions like anxiety, jealousy and fear. It is only by recognising the value of what we have – primarily the people in our lives who bring us joy and make us feel secure and loved – that we can create a sense of calm and acceptance. Which brings me onto…

Part Two: Acceptance

This morning I walked past the elderly homeless man who sleeps in a doorway along my route to work. For a time, during January, he disappeared, and I hoped he had found somewhere warm to spend the rest of the winter. But no such luck. Recently he has been back, huddled with his worldly belongings on the grey concrete step. I have wanted to do something for him ever since I first saw him, but was unsure whether he would welcome being approached and offered charity. Today I had my chance, as I had slipped into my bag a slice of the delicious tarte au sucre that was left over from the dinner party I hosted on Sunday night. As I passed him I had the urge to offer it to him. He declined. And you know what? I stifled the selfish compulsion to feel rebuffed, and in that moment realised that acceptance is an important part of coming to terms with life. We can’t change other people; we can only change our own thoughts, deeds and actions. I’m glad I offered him something, even if he didn’t want it, because generosity is part of being human – it connects us to one another, and it makes us feel less alone.

Part Three: Umbrellas

Also on my walk to work today, the air was damp with the drizzle I’m coming to learn is characteristic of life here in Brussels. But rather than putting up my umbrella the second I felt a droplet of water on my forehead, I deliberately waited until the rain was sufficiently heavy to warrant me being protected from it. And in that moment it occurred to me the umbrella could be used as an analogy for life:

Life is about learning when you need an umbrella to protect yourself – and when you are strong enough to walk in the rain.

The path I’m currently treading makes me feel ever more keenly that it isn’t possible to protect ourselves from the negative things in life – they are an intrinsic part of it. What matters is working on our ability to face them head on; to be humble, selfless and brave.

*Interestingly, one meaning for the word ‘facet’ in the dictionary is ‘one of the small, polished plane surfaces of a cut gem’ – it struck me this was also a good analogy for life, which has so very many different aspects, hence the image I have chosen to accompany this post.

Justin-Maller-Facets-90

I never knew facets could be so beautiful.

The Reluctant Runner

It’s 6pm and I’ve just walked back from the tube station in the peeing rain without an umbrella (after leaving it in the office). It is also cold – bitterly cold – and so I have put the kettle on and am about to crank up the heating. And eat a biscuit. What could possibly spoil this perfect picture of cosy winter bliss? An eight kilometre marathon training run in aforementioned peeing rain, that’s what.

This is a watershed moment, I know – one I will look back on only hours from now (once I’ve stripped my sodden clothes away from my smarting skin and stopped sneezing, that is) with a sense of pride and achievement. I will congratulate myself for having had the strength of character to succeed where countless others would have failed. And, after a hearty and well-deserved meal I will retire to bed with a peaceful mind and a happy heart. (I may also, it must be said, wake up with pneumonia and spend the next week doing no exercise at all as a result, but for the purposes of this blog post – and indeed the likelihood of me making it out of the door in the first place – positivity is key).

I cannot, and therefore will not, fall at the first hurdle of winter, for I am made of sterner stuff. Somewhere beneath this thick blanket of resistance and lethargy there is an athlete just bursting to get out and pound those pavements…Maybe she’s hiding under this biscuit…

Summer’s out

Summer is officially over, and its passing couldn’t have been more definitively marked than with this recent spate of gloomy, wet weather. It seems churlish to complain given that this year we had the first prolonged spell of summer sunshine for quite some years, but since complaining’s what we Brits do best that’s clearly not about to stop us.

The thing is, whether people* (*by which I primarily mean men) subscribe to the concept of weather influencing people’s moods or not, the fact is that, well, it does. I may not be able to offer up concrete evidence of this, but it’s just so obvious when you look around on a warm, sunny day and compare it to a cold, grey one that people are noticeably happier on the former.

Once Summer has officially handed the baton over to Autumn and we’ve settled into the routine of darker nights and colder days it’s not as hard to cope with. The worst bit is the transition period, when we can’t quite bring ourselves to let go of the memory of long, lazy days in the park and picnics on the beach. Such a disparity builds up, then, between what we want the weather to be like and what it actually is like that we start to feel out of sorts, irritable and downright grumpy. Until, that is, we partake in either of two fail safe antidotes to post-summer sadness: 1. Start looking forward to Christmas
2. Book a holiday somewhere that guarantees sunny weather
Or, in my case, both…

 

Great Britain? There’s nothing great about this weather..

With the exception of the usual glorious solitary week in April, so far it’s been a pretty average spring. There’s been much cloud, much rain, much grumbling. Snatched snippets of conversation on the commute to work bear testament to the disaffection of the masses; everyone agrees that they feel cheated. But what, exactly, have they been cheated of?

Anyone who has spent any length of time in this country will know the weather systems are at best erratic, at worst downright awful. Granted, they are becoming increasingly harder to predict with each year that passes, but that doesn’t change the fact the weather in Britain has never, in fact, been Great (apologies for the awful pun). And yet, hearing people whinge on about the substandard weather day in, day out, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the climate in the United Kingdom is usually on a par with the Seychelles, and that the current weather systems are playing havoc with the ‘norm.’

One can hardly blame the steady stream of Pac-a-mac clad tourists for feeling deflated as they traipse from one London monument to the next, rain pouring off their visors. But those of us who’ve lived here our whole lives have no excuse. We were born into this soupy greyness, punctuated only occasionally by phases of clear blue. We are familiar with the short-lived summers, the breezy autumns, the freezing winters and the dreary springs. We know the drill, so why do we persist in complaining? Because complaining is what we, as a nation, do best.

When you think about it, it’s probably just as well the weather never quite lives up to expectations in this country. Why? Because if we did have an unbroken summer of tropical heat, what would the commuters have to complain about then? The heat and lack of air conditioning on the trains, that’s what. When it comes to complaining we Brits are nothing if not consistent; and not even a change in weather front can alter that.

No wonder inspiration’s thin on the ground today..

Bank holiday ramblings

Today is an April showery-May-the-4th. Not having anticipated this in the wake of several glorious days of sunshine, this means I am umbrella-less, and therefore at the mercy of the weather gods. The situation is further compounded by two factors. Firstly, not only is today April showery in nature, it is also blustery. This, perhaps, bodes not well for a rooftop (ergo ‘open air’) party in East London. Secondly, sleep deprivation levels are high, my fail safe plan of having a quiet night in to prepare for the weekend having been woefully unmatched by the plans of the other residents in the abode in which I slept. Hence there has been no morning run around Regents Park (though see earlier point about rain-does this let me off the hook on that one?)

In short, conditions for embracing a full on weekend of social engagements are far from optimal. But you know what? It doesn’t even matter. Because not only is it a bank holiday weekend (I’ll admit it smarts slightly that I won’t be paid for Bank Hol Monday, since Mondays are my official days off now I’m part time), I’m also en route for baby cuddles in Herne Hill. And everyone knows baby cuddles make EVERYTHING better.

As i don’t have a snap of today’s cuddle, here’s one that was made earlier (ie last time)

April showers

The alarm goes off. You open one eye, wary of the encroaching day. One foot hangs over the edge of the bed and you wiggle your toes to determine the air temperature before reluctantly throwing off the covers and getting up. As you trudge towards the bathroom you pull back the curtain and grimace. The sky is full of dark grey clouds, pregnant with rain. You fight the urge to return to bed and continue on your slow pilgrimage towards the shower mecca (which may not make you ready for the day but will at least erase the fug of sleep from your head and the dried spittle from the corners of your mouth).

You shower and dress in sensible clothes that are appropriate for the gloomy weather; a woollen dress, thick tights, a cardigan and jacket. You grab an umbrella and head out of the door. It starts to rain as soon as you step outside the door but you’re prepared, and so you open your umbrella and continue on your journey to work.

By lunchtime the wind has got up, rendering your brolly useless against its mighty power. You battle your way through the hurricane to buy your lunch and retreat back to the office, thankful that you were at least sensible enough to bring your winter coat.

After work you step out of the office to find the wind has died away and the sun is shining brightly. It’s several degrees warmer and there’s not a raincloud in sight. As you’re going for drinks it seems ridiculous to take your winter coat with you, so you decide to leave it in the office, along with your umbrella which is also hardly required in these conditions.

The alarm goes off. You open one eye, wary of the encroaching day. Your head is pounding from the previous night’s excesses. As you trudge towards the bathroom you pull back the curtain and grimace. The rain is beating down so hard the street is barely visible. Still, at least you’ve got your winter coat and umbrella. Oh no, wait…they’re at the office. You admit defeat and retreat to bed.

The view from my office window demonstrates the unpredictability of April weather – one set of white fluffy clouds and one set of foreboding grey ones, with a strip of blue sky inbetween. Talk about confusing – how’s a girl ever meant to know what to wear?!

“The icing on the turd” / Support network special

My group of friends from university is rather unconventional. Ever since those fateful first few days, thirteen (has it been so long?!) years ago we’ve had an odd method of supporting one another through hard times. We call it the “Support Network,” though each of us is fully aware of the irony of that title. Essentially how it works is that when something goes wrong in one of our lives the rest of us take the piss relentlessly until we see the funny side (please note that we are selective in what we deem to be an event worthy of humour – general misfortune is fair game, break ups generally so and deaths absolutely never. We aren’t completely inhumane).

Yesterday a few of the old gang got together again in London. Having foolishly believed the weather forecast we’d made plans befitting of a glorious summer’s day; a stroll around Greenwich in the sunshine. Unfortunately this plan was not to be, since the heavens opened at 4pm and torrential rain poured down for several hours. Undeterred (well, mildly deterred), we ventured over to Greenwich despite the disappointing conditions but, after finding that it wasn’t all that fun to walk around knee deep in puddles, we duly ensconced ourselves in the nearest pub. From there we sank some pints, ate some pies and headed into London Bridge for beers, card games and karaoke.

When today dawned beautifully bright and clear, we hastily made plans to revisit Greenwich, this time certain that the sun would shine and all would go to plan. We’d start, we reasoned, with a trip on the cable car from North Greenwich, then head over to Greenwich Village afterwards. And so a plan was borne, and we assembled our merry gang at North Greenwich tube and headed over to the cable car base station. After queuing for twenty minutes to purchase tickets we went through the barriers and queued up for a car, excited about our imminent flight over London in clear skies. But it was not to be, for as we reached the very front of the queue and were but inches from our car, the staff told us regrettably high winds meant it would have to stop. Dejected and incredulous we trooped back down the stairs and through the ticket barrier and headed to the ticket window to ask for our money back. No such luck; we would, we were told, have to call the number on the back of our Oyster cards to file a claim.

In an attempt to salvage the afternoon we walked over to the pier and purchased tickets for the boat to Greenwich Village, realising too late that the next boat was not due to depart for 30 minutes. After what seemed like an eternity we boarded the boat and reached our destination, disembarking beneath the impressive Cutty Sark and all agreeing things were looking up. After a short stroll we saw a sign for the ‘best sausage rolls in the world’ – a claim we felt duty bound to verify. We sought out the shop in question and requested five of these world-class sausage rolls – and were informed they only had four left. Feeling slightly short changed we purchased and shared all four, then walked across the road into the park.

Spotting a sign for ice cream we ventured inside a shop and joined yet another queue, confident that when we reached the front there’d be a plethora of delicious flavours to choose from. Again it was not to be, for there were only two flavours left; strawberry (my least favourite ice cream flavour) and pear sorbet (who eats pear sorbet? Well, nobody by the look of it seeing as it was all that was left). We grudgingly settled for strawberry and walked back outside – by which time fat grey clouds were rolling in and obscuring the sun. As we walked up the hill to Greenwich Observatory holding our ice creams rain drops flecked our cheeks like little warnings to turn back – which is exactly what we should have done, given that we reached the top only to find we’d missed the last entry to the Observatory by 15 minutes and couldn’t go in. It was at this point that Frank remarked, “Well, that’s just the icing on the turd” – a fine phrase that perfectly encapsulated the mood of the moment.

We finished the day with a pint by the river, taking in the last of the sun and both reminiscing over and revelling in our own misfortune. By the end of it we were hysterical with laughter, as we always are when we’re together.

Another Support Network Special – and I wouldn’t have had it any other way 🙂