A life well lived

When I look back on my life (hopefully as an old woman), what will I want to share with my loved ones before I go? This is the question I am asking myself, as I venture into the unknown with my life writing project.

Will I want them to know my favourite colour? What and where I liked to eat and drink? How about the things I liked to read, the places I travelled to, the things I did as hobbies? Or would I rather they knew about my friendships, how deeply I loved, and the way it made me feel to watch the sun set and and birds swooping over the sea?

My heart tells me the latter. What good is it to know the surface attributes of a person? They are nothing but veneer and gloss. You have to scratch a little of it off to find the soul that’s underneath, and to get to the one thing – I would argue the only thing – that really matters: love.

Maya Angelou summed it up beautifully when she said: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, [they] will forget what you did, but [they] will never forget how you made them feel.”

So, with that in mind, what would you tell your loved ones that would impart just a fraction of the way you made others feel during your lifetime, and the way they made you feel in return? What questions could you answer that would tell them who you truly are, that would leave an imprint of your essence long after you are gone? I’d love to know.

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Therapy Talk

At the beginning of 2015 I had a strange and unsettling episode that harked back to my days as a stressed out third year in university. It was a panic attack, full blown and frightening. Brought on, I think (it’s always hard to pinpoint), by a lack of direction in my life at the time. I had moved to Brussels with my boyfriend and was loving life in Belgium, but my nine month maternity cover job contract was coming to an end and I didn’t have anything else lined up. I was also conscious that my status as a girlfriend rather than a wife in this international setup was somewhat lacking in security. And so, after weeks of internalising my emotions, they built up and burst out of me in a tidal wave of fear. I hyperventilated myself silly, cried and panicked for the best part of an hour. Fortunately my then-boyfriend (now-husband – as it turned out I didn’t have to worry about that part) was on hand to offer words of support and encouragement. I calmed down. But I knew something inside me had awakened, and that I would need to find the courage to face it.

And so I did something I never thought I would actually do: I found a counsellor. And I went to my first session feeling embarrassed and stupid, like I was wasting her time and my own. And thinking surely counsellors are for people with real problems, not women whose biggest issues are which job to choose next and whether their boyfriends will decide to pop the question. But as I sat and talked, in the first session and the next, I realised this was about so much more.

We humans are like onions. When you start to peel away the layers you find layers you never knew existed. Each represents experience, and emotion. And until you have uncovered them all it’s hard to appreciate why you are the way you are, why you interact the way you do with others, with the world. And, most crucially of all, how you can adapt your behaviour to bring about positive and lasting change.

Almost eighteen months later I had my final session. It was tonight.

My counsellor asked me what three things I had learned from our sessions. I said, firstly, I’ve learned how to get some perspective. When I feel myself getting anxious, I now have the tools to dissociate myself from the stressor – even if just for a moment. I can then ask myself how big the problem is, really. If it will matter in three weeks, three months or three years. If it’s worth fighting or losing sleep over. And the answer, of course, is usually no. Secondly, I said I’ve learned some valuable coping mechanisms in response to specific situations. The best one was the victim-perpetrator-rescuer scenario, which I have used successfully to navigate occasional tricky patches in relationships. Finally, I’ve learned to be more empathetic towards others, to appreciate they have layers of their own (layers sometimes even they don’t know about). I have a propensity to be oversensitive, but now I have the capacity to realise that people don’t do things with the aim of upsetting me. It’s just the way they are, the way they have been conditioned. Just as my response to their behaviour is the way I have been conditioned.

It’s been a great experience.

I’ve learned a lot: About the person I was, the person I am and the person I want to be.

Now it’s time to take back the reins.

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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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The Wonder Years (or why ageing maybe isn’t so terrible after all-maybe)

Today I was listening to Radio 1 Xtra (I know what you’re thinking – isn’t she a bit old to be listening to that?) when the dj, an enthusiastic chap with a penchant for substituting every other word with “cuz” (yup, definitely too old) began bemoaning the speeding up of time as people get older. “I mean cuz,” he said, “I’m only twenty six and already it feels like a week goes by in a day. Imagine being, like, fifty! How bad would it be then?” How bad indeed.

When it comes to whining about ageing I’m hardly one to talk. Until I reached my current age of *coughs* thirty two I’d always enjoyed lavish birthday celebrations, but as my thirty third hurtles towards me at alarming speed (that dj was right, dagnamit) I must confess I’m feeling hugely (and that’s an understatement) underwhelmed (I am also aware, at this point in proceedings, that older readers may well be gnashing their teeth and branding metaphorical claw hammers positioned directly above my skull). The logical part of my brain is constantly telling me that there’s nothing I can do to stop the process so I may as well accept it, yet I can’t stop fixating on my frown lines long enough to listen to it.

If it’s true that you’re only as old as the man you feel then I’m twenty seven all over again. Though, in all seriousness and as great as it is, being a woman who is five years older than her partner is not without its challenges. Fortunately I’ve always been young for my years in both spirit and looks (an old soul I most certainly am not) and so, for the time being at least, it suits me to be living a youthful and relatively unencumbered lifestyle. But that’s not to say I don’t continually worry whether what I do is age appropriate, or draw constant comparisons with my peer group, many of whom are now playing out the traditional marriage and 2.4 children scenario with aplomb. Don’t get me wrong, I want that myself desperately, and not in the TOO distant future either (cover your ears darling), but right now the thought of sleepless nights, snotty noses and nappies is enough to bring me out in a cold sweat. I want to go on more adventures before I settle down, to live a bit more and eke out just a bit more time for being selfish. But what about convention and my biological clock? Wahhhh!

Then, in the midst of all these brain-churning thoughts, I stop. And a realisation dawns on me. No matter how old we get, those of us who do keep ageing are the lucky ones. So many people’s lives are tragically cut short before they have a chance to worry about worry lines, or contemplate the future of their relationship or career. As the Buddhist way of thinking goes, when all is said, done and worried about (I made that last bit up), all we have is this very moment – so what’s the point of worrying about a future that we cannot guarantee?

And so, in light of the above (and ignoring the current agony I’m in with no doubt age-related back issues) maybe it isn’t quite my time to switch over to Radio 2 after all. Isn’t that right, Cuz?

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Past tense

If you get a chance to see the soon to be released Kings of Summer, one of this year’s Sundance Film Festival’s offerings, you won’t be disappointed. Unless, that is, you don’t like American coming of age dramas, in which case you might be best advised to steer well clear. But, for the purposes of this post, let’s assume this type of film does float your boat. Reminiscent of Stand by Me and set, in the main, in a house in the woods that three teenage friends built together, it covers the well-trodden territory of friendships made and broken, turbulent parent-child relationships and first love. The script is both funny and poignant, the setting charming and the actors superb; in particular the three boys who are the focus of the film. In short, it’s an engaging snapshot of the innocence of youth.

Ah, the innocence of youth; a time when everything seemed possible, the endless road of life stretching into a distance too far away to see and therefore too far off to worry about. There were immediate concerns, of course – like who was going on dates with whom, how you could get out of gym class and whether you could procure some vodka for the party at the weekend – but in the main it was so simple then. Wasn’t it? Or was it?

Remembering the past with fondness is a good thing because, whether good or bad the things that happened to you then have shaped the person who you are today. But clinging onto the past and believing that things were better than they are now isn’t healthy. What’s even worse is if you feel the best phase of your life is past, that you’ll never look as good again, or be as carefree, joyous or happy-go-lucky.

The passage of time makes it all too easy to forget the negatives and re-paint the past with a rosy hue that wasn’t always (if ever) present. When things go wrong in life it’s easy to revert to happier times in our thinking and to ardently wish we could rewind the clock and do it all again – only this time making different choices to avoid making the same mistakes.

But if you find yourself flooded with nostalgia about days gone by, ask yourself this: If you could choose to flick a switch and be your fifteen year old self again, go through your adolescence again, warts and all, would you take it – really? Or would you rather keep the memories of roaming the woods with best friends, long summers and first kisses as just that – memories to be treasured, but not pored over as examples of better times?

No matter how old you are the future seems far too far away to see. Who knows what adventures still lie ahead of you? And how many opportunities you’ll miss by always looking back?

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what’s mine is yours?

At the end of last night’s Satsang class at the Sivananda ashram (which I mentioned in yesterday’s post) the yogi leading the class discussed the importance of not getting too attached to material possessions. In the Bhagavad Gita, the Hindu scripture that underpins the philosophy of yoga which the ashram teaches, Swami Sivananda refers to humans as the ‘caretakers’ of everything they come into contact with in life, rather than the owners. We are all, he says, ‘passing pilgrims’ in this world, which is why the whole concept of ownership is one that he discourages.

The yogi gave the example of someone saving up to buy their first house, who feels that in the exchange of deeds they are laying claim to that property and making it their own. Yet the reality is that such an arrangement is only ever temporary because, ultimately, the end of life will sever all such ties. It follows, then, that everything else we humans like to stamp our ownership on is also merely temporary – including our relationships.

I really like the idea of being a ‘caretaker’ rather than an ‘owner.’ To give an example of why, when a person borrows an item of clothing they generally take care of it more than if it were their own, because they know at the end of the day (or week, or month) they’re going to have to give it back (after all, it would be pretty embarrassing giving something back in a much worse state than the one in which it was loaned).

I think that as a society we would do well to stop and think sometimes about the way in which we regard the things – and indeed people – closest to us. If everyone had in mind that they were ‘passing pilgrims’ the world might, I believe, be a better place to pass through.