Solitude

It’s been a long old while since I’ve practiced meditation, or indeed any form of mindfulness; two of the many things I mentally flagellate myself about daily. This weekend, therefore, has been a blessing. Not because I’ve done either of those things (obvs), but because I have had the chance to spend some quality time with myself, and with nature. And because, as cheesy as it sounds, it has given me a much needed opportunity to reconnect with myself.

Life rushes by at such an alarming rate – especially, as I’ve discovered in recent months, when you have a wedding to plan. Lately (or, to be truly honest, forever) I’ve felt so time poor it’s taken all my effort just to get home from work at the end of the day, run a bath and crack on an episode of Eastenders (weird new guilty pleasure – clearly a sign of stress) before falling, exhausted, into bed. Meditation? Ha. As if. I’ve never felt less calm or more busy.

But then, last week, the soon-to-be-husband (eep!) announced he would be going back to the UK this weekend, sans moi (well, I had the choice to accompany him, but after last week’s boozy and nocturnal antics in Las Vegas the thought of spending 16 hours in a car only to hold a paint brush all weekend – they are renovating the family home, yes, I know, I’m a selfish cow – was too much to entertain). At first I was put out (see previous selfish cow comment), and sad at missing the opportunity to spend a quiet weekend together. I hastily scrambled some social options together in case I needed back up, and prepared to bunker down for a weekend alone with the bottle of Chianti hubby-to-be bought me to soften the blow (a welcome gift, and further proof, it it was needed, that he’s a keeper).

Yesterday (Saturday), I lazed around in the morning then went shopping all afternoon. So far so good. In the evening, feeling more confident about being alone (Jesus, you wouldn’t think I’ve travelled alone for months at a time in the past would you?), I declined all social plans, heated up a Marks and Spencer ready meal (God how I’ve missed those – totally forgot an M&S opened up here a few months ago. Result) and downloaded a gratuitous chick flick from Amazon. But it wasn’t until today that I felt a change occur. Yesterday was enjoyable, but in a shallow way (not that there is anything wrong with that, in my opinion, at least from time to time). I was gratified by material purchases and ‘guilty pleasure’ TV consumption, but that was as far as it went. Today I somehow knew as soon as I woke up it would be different. And it has been.

My recent back injury having put paid to any hope of a pre-wedding gym comeback, I have to make sure I still get some exercise each day. I decided, therefore, to go for a walk, the timing of which was fortuitously impeccable. It had just rained heavily, and the sun was beginning to nudge the clouds aside. I walked to Tenbosch Park, just ten minutes from home. I don’t know what it is about that place, but as soon as I get there I always feel an overwhelming sense of calm descend upon me. It’s so beautifully kept, unusual in that it is both small and spread over several levels – sort of landscaped over a small hill – and feels to me like a secret garden, a tiny oasis amidst the sprawling metropolis. I just love it, and after visiting today by myself my mind feels clearer than it has done in weeks. I spent a while just standing and listening to the birds tweeting, watching as a parrot (yes, really, apparently Brussels is famous for them) flew overhead from tree top to tree top. It was wonderful, and a welcome reminder that even if I’m not meditating every chance I get, it’s still possible to find a little piece of peace in this frenetic world.

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Life Lessons

As Mary Scmich once wrote (and Baz Luhhrman subsequently recorded), in life one must accept certain inalienable truths. One of those truths, in my own meandering experience, is that people are apt to let you down. Rarely will they act a certain way or say a certain thing because it is the kindest response; because it would make you feel better. No, humans are inherently selfish creatures so, more often than not, they will say what makes them feel better, even if that same thing will make you feel worse.

The key to coping with this is learning to accept without internalising; don’t allow the words and actions of others to hurt you; to affect your belief system about yourself and your place in the world. Easier said than done if, like me, you are a sensitive soul who does take things to heart. Even the smallest off the cuff comment meant as a joke can cut deep to the core of you, and make you question yourself. But don’t.

When others react badly it is often a sign of their own insecurity. If they are rude, or they ignore you altogether, so what? It says more about them than it does about you. You are the bigger person. You have love and compassion in abundance and you know who you are, warts and all. Never allow someone else to call those facts into question. You are you. You are unique. And the only thoughts, words and deeds you have any power over in this life are your own. The rest is out of your control.

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The Ivory Tower Conundrum

I’ll admit the tragic aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines has got to me – badly – and that in part this is because I am due to go there in a matter of weeks on holiday, and I am concerned not only about what we might find there in terms of broken communities, but also whether the infrastructural damage will be so great that we may not be able to go there at all.

Selfish reasons aside, the devastation wreaked by natural disasters such as this is on such a massive scale it’s almost beyond comprehension. The only thing we westerners in our comfortable homes and offices can do to help is make a donation to one of the aid agencies that are working in the affected areas. In the case of the Philippines these include World Vision, Oxfam, the Red Cross, Unicef and the United Nations World Food Programme, all of whom have teams on the ground who are working tirelessly to deliver much needed food and supplies to those who have lost everything.

Yesterday, after making a donation to World Vision I suggested on social media that others might like to do the same. I was disappointed to see five people immediately un-follow me on Twitter, and unsure in what way I had caused offence by pointing out they could do something to help their fellow humans in dire need. Maybe they don’t believe in charity because they doubt its efficacy, or maybe they already give to different charitable causes and weren’t interested in this particular one. Whatever their reasons, it got me thinking what a luxury it is for those of us in the first world to pick and chooses which causes (if any) we support, and how easily we can choose to change the channel and ‘switch off’ from things that are happening on the other side of the world, right now, to people just like us, who just happen to have been born in a different place, into a different level of privilege and wealth to ourselves.

To my mind (and I apologise in advance for sounding sanctimonious as I stand here on my soap box), anyone who is able to support themselves with something to spare for entertainment purposes (drinks after work, theatre tickets, the occasional holiday) can afford to donate a few pounds to help people whose lives are in danger, whose livelihoods and families have been ripped apart in front of their very eyes. We may complain about having no money, but it would do us well to consider what having ‘no money’ really means, and to spend some time thinking about how lucky we are as we sit in our ivory towers, turning the other cheek as we pour ourselves another glass of wine.

Typhoon Haiyan: residents of Tacloban city

Acts of charity

I’m currently reading Khaled Hosseini (he of Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns fame)’s wonderful new book, And the Mountains Echoed. In it (don’t worry, no spoilers ahead) there’s a character who makes great gestures of kindness, but who only ever does so in a very public way. In other words, it could be said that were he not to get recognition and praise for his actions, he might not feel it worth doing them in the first place.

This morning I rose early to run from my flat in Clapham to the flat my boyfriend’s just moved out of in Camden. I needed to do the run as part of my half marathon training, but had selected the route as I’d been asked by my boyfriend to pick up the last of his things, and latterly also by his flatmate to pick up the sofa cushions from the dry cleaners. None of this was any trouble as far as I was concerned, I was happy to do them a favour and help out.

When I reached the dry cleaners and discovered there was an outstanding charge of £35 on the cushions, however, I’ll admit my spirit of generosity waned somewhat. Fortunately I had brought my cash card and was able to pay, after which I duly traipsed back to the flat to put the aforementioned covers back onto the cushions – which turned out to be far from an easy task given their size and the amount of feathers that flew out with every squeeze. Fifteen minutes and several swear words later I was standing in the living room triumphantly surveying my handiwork in successfully reintroducing the cushions to their covers – the downside being that I was now ankle deep in feathers and the living room looked like an illegal cock fighting ring. Cue an impromptu tidy up mission and more cursing, whilst the part of me that had so happily agreed to do the favour in the first place steadily began to regret the decision.

The main – rather uncharitable -thought that went through my head at that final moment was “they’d better appreciate this,” which is when I drew a parallel with the character in the novel I’m reading, and also when I wondered the following question: Is doing someone a favour any less charitable if it’s not the act of doing the favour that gratifies you but rather being thanked for having done it? Furthermore, do we as human beings have a deeper desire to help one another or to help ourselves? Which is the most prominent driver?

Those who do favours for others gladly and happily without grumbling or expecting thanks are clearly the most admirable. But surely there’s still something to be said for the rest of us mortal beings who do favours for others and do then expect thanks in return? After all, there are plenty of miserly souls out there who would rather stab themselves in the eye than do a favour for someone else in the first place….Right? Or wrong?