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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The Happy Place

Despite the wonderful Thanksgiving dinner that our friends hosted last night, I woke up this morning feeling sad. R only got back from five days away at 6.30pm last night, and left again today at midday for a work trip. Lately we’ve been like ships passing in the night, and the next couple of weeks promise to be just as tough. It’s hard sometimes living the crazy life we lead, but at least we both recognise the importance of staying emotionally connected as much as we can, despite the challenges. There is a lot going on and potentially some big changes afoot for us both – all very exciting, but transition always brings with it a certain trepidation.

So anyway, I woke up feeling sad and when R left felt even sadder. But instead of sitting around moping I gave myself a much-needed kick up the arse and went for a walk to my happy place, Tenbosch Park. There is one specific spot where I love to sit and listen to the birds tweeting and just breathe. In. Out. Until I feel calm again. It works every time.

Sometimes the world comes crowding in and it’s hard to get perspective, but there is always a way to get back to what matters, and, for me at least, it usually involves seeking out nature. Trees have a particularly calming effect on me, I think because so many of them have been there for so long, standing tall and strong. Nothing moves them, or riles them. I find them inspiring, and always think when I’m amongst them that I need to take a leaf (excuse the pun) out of their book and not let things get to me so much.

Life is crazy. The best way to deal with it is to accept it and enjoy the ride. Happy Sunday 🙂

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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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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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5 Ways to Beat the Winter Blues

Anyone who tells you they don’t feel a bit more crap than usual in January is either lying, or is an alien from the planet Zog (you want to watch them). Trust me. The post-Christmas slump (when your body finally holds you accountable for going entirely off-piste where its wellbeing was concerned for the entire month of December), coupled with plummeting temperatures and a severe lack of sunlight leads to a collective form of exhaustion tinged with malaise – a nagging but non-specific feeling of ‘what now?’ We try to shake it off and kick start the year with enthusiastic resolutions like: “I must eat less!” “I must exercise more!” “I must work harder!” “I must take up that hobby!” Ad Nauseam. But by the end of the month those who started dry January are tearing out their eyeballs and those who didn’t are checking into rehab.

Those of us who live in places that experience prolonged spells of cold and dark each year employ various coping strategies to get through them with our sanity intact. Some choose to avoid it altogether by booking a one way ticket to Australia (and who can blame them?) But for the majority this isn’t a feasible option, so we stock up on Vitamin D tablets and sun lamps (well, those of us that can be arsed do – can’t say I’m one of those people), book holidays to warmer climes to titillate our ailing imaginations (guilty) and let every nanosecond that the sun succeeds in elbowing its way through the thick nimbostratus clouds be reason for unbridled celebration (after all, it is nearly spring, sort of). And for the rest of the time we pull our woolly hats down over our ears, slip our chilly fingers into gloves and leave the house each morning, in the dark, with grim determination etched across our faces.

But there is hope. In the wealth of personal experience I’ve gleaned through the endurance of numerous winters, I am now in a position to share with you a handful of things that really can alleviate the symptoms of this gloomy time of year:

  1. Read a good book – by which I mean a book you enjoy so much it’s like having a love affair; you want to be with it every moment of the day, and can’t stop thinking about it even when you are apart.
  2. Have a lot of baths – soaking in hot water with scented bubbles really does melt your worries away. The deeper the bath and the longer you spend in it the better.
  3. Do guided meditations every day when you wake up – I’ve recently discovered these ones from the Chopra Centre in California, and I find it helps a lot to take a few minutes after waking to focus on breathing in the context of which ever topic you have chosen.
  4. Keep a daily morning journal – as advised by Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way. I’ve struggled with this a lot over the past couple of years because I often tell myself I’m too exhausted to write as soon as I wake up. But after a hiatus of a few months I have today started again, because I’ve noticed the difference in my stress and creativity levels since it last tailed off.
  5. Live life more mindfully – this is one I struggle with on a daily basis. There are always so many distractions that it’s often hard to create space to observe and appreciate the minutiae of life. Last year I did the #100HappyDays challenge which involved taking pictures each day for 100 days of something that made me happy. And you know what? I found I was being a lot more mindful – always looking around for something beautiful, striking or inspirational. That’s why I’ve decided to start my own #MindfulnessMonth – every day in February I will document, by way of image, blog or both, something that I have taken the time to stop and appreciate.

Those are my ways of coping with the winter blues. Good luck finding yours.

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Celebrating Life – and Good Friends

Today I went to Birmingham for the funeral of my good friend’s dad. It was sad and uplifting in equal measures, sad because Brian no longer walks amongst us and he will be sorely missed by those who loved him, and uplifting because so many people turned out to pay their respects. Brian was a larger than life character, and it’s always those people who leave the biggest hole when they pass away. I didn’t know him well, but I knew him well enough to know he would have thoroughly appreciated every moment of today, from the sympathetic vicar who delivered the ceremony in exactly the way he had specified before he died, to the inordinately large volume of champagne that was drunk in his beautifully sunny garden afterwards. I know he would have loved the fact that everyone had come together to raise a glass in his honour, and above all else I know he would have been hugely proud of his son, my friend, who has borne his father’s untimely passing with such strength and courage, helped in no small part by his gorgeous fiancé and wonderful family.

It’s on occasions like today I realise how important it is to count blessings. When I looked around me in the crematorium, which was lined wall to wall with people, I really felt the value of the life that had been lost. I like to think I live my own life well enough to ensure a decent turn out to my own send-off, whenever that might be, but that’s not to say I can’t do more in whatever time I have left on this mortal coil to positively contribute to others’ lives, to make them feel valued, supported and loved as they have me. I felt particularly grateful today at the wake, when I recognised the fantastic and extensive support network of friends I still have from university – not something everyone can claim to have sustained a decade after graduation. This friendship group is special and, despite not getting together nearly as often as we’d like, it is also lasting. I know I’m being a soppy cow but sometimes it’s just nice to take a moment to reflect on all the good things. And I’m sure that somewhere up there in the ether, glass of champagne in hand, Brian Simonite is doing just that too. Cheers, Brian.

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Spare a Thought

For those of us lucky enough to have family and friends around us, Christmas is a magical time of year; a time when work is forgotten, food is lovingly prepared and gifts of appreciation are given. It’s also a time when the weather outside doesn’t matter one bit, because everyone’s wrapped up warm and cosy beside the fire, nursing a mulled wine or glass of fizz as Christmas tunes play in the background.

But every year at precisely this time I can’t help but think of the thousands of people for whom Christmas is a miserable experience; those who have no one to care for them, no roof over their head and no food to eat. Being homeless is a dreadful thing at any time of year, but at Christmas in particular it must exacerbate the feelings of loneliness and sadness that come with being in such a terrible situation.

And it’s not just the homeless for whom Christmas is a testing time. Each year there are also thousands of people who are forced to endure the festive season after losing a loved one, or who are elderly, housebound and alone. There are thousands more still who are penniless, clinging onto the roof above their heads but unable to heat their homes or feed their children, let alone buy them expensive presents from Santa.

My purpose in mentioning all of the above is not to make those who are fortunate this Christmas feel guilty or sad, but rather to encourage them (myself included) to be grateful for what they have; to realise what a blessing it is to be healthy, happy and loved, and to spare a thought (or maybe more) for those who have comparatively little.