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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Pressure

Sometimes it gets a bit much, this world. And all the constant pressures on our time, energy leaking from our pores like sand through an egg timer; drip, drip, drip.

Of course we are the lucky ones, the ones who can afford to have hopes and dreams for the future. Or can we? What price must we pay for success? What price for failure?

We don’t so much follow our dreams as barter and fritter them away. As if tomorrow will never come. But of course it always does. Until, quite suddenly, it doesn’t.

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Birthday Wishes for an Absent Friend

Today would have been the 33rd birthday of a very special man who was in my life – and the lives of many others – for far too short a time: Paul Wickerson. The sole weekend we spent with him and his beautiful girlfriend Sarah in a bonny Scottish lodge for the wedding of our good friends Emma and Harry last August will stay in my heart and in my memory forever.

I didn’t know Paul beyond that short weekend, as two weeks later he was tragically taken from this world, but his spirit, sense of fun and his aforementioned love (the gorgeous Miss Sarah Rhodes) have loomed large in my life ever since.

I won’t profess to have known him better than I did, nor will I dwell on the obvious tragedy that his life was cut short in its prime. Because today is his birthday, and whilst he may not be here in body I’ve no doubt he is here in spirit, so it’s only right he should be celebrated. Happy Birthday Dude, I for one will be raising a ladle and a glass to you tonight x

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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.

The paranoid extrovert

Human personality theories tend to divide people into two categories; extrovert and introvert. Whereas once it was accepted that for an individual to rank highly on one scale they must automatically rank lower on the other, later theories such as those of Carl Jung claimed that it was quite possible for an individual to exhibit characteristics of both, though one would be more dominant than the other.

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, extroversion is “the act, state, or habit of being predominantly concerned with and obtaining gratification from what is outside the self.” Introversion, therefore, is “the state of or tendency toward being wholly or predominantly concerned with and interested in one’s own mental life.” It follows, therefore, that extroverts are generally more talkative, outgoing and gregarious, and their introvert counterparts quieter, more withdrawn and less at ease in social situations.

What category, then, would the world’s writers and artists predominantly fall into? Is the spectrum as wide for this sub-category of the human race, or do the lines blur into one another a little more, like watercolour paint bleeding onto canvas? I only ask because I am (or at least I like to think I am) one of these strange creatures, and because whilst I would put myself firmly in the extrovert camp if asked the question, on further thought I wonder to what extent this is really true. Or rather, whether it’s possible to be an extrovert on the surface, but an introvert deep down inside, where insecurities breed like cancer and one thought spirals into a tornado of many.

Sometimes, for example, I’ll be mid-conversation with someone and my brain will put the brakes on and whisper like a bully in the school playground, “They aren’t remotely interested in what you’re saying, you know, it’s only through politeness that they’re pretending to be.” Even if the person with whom I’m conversing does seem genuinely interested in what I have to say, the voice in my head eats away at my confidence, making every word seem – to me at least – more laboured, less relevant, or just plain wrong. It’s a type of paralysis – thought paralysis, if you will – that makes me want to stop talking and run away and hide. And it’s really rather odd, because if you asked any one of the people closest to me they’d laugh and say that isn’t me at all.

Perhaps it’s wrong to link introversion with insecurity and a general lack of confidence. Many introverts may be supremely confident in themselves and their abilities but simply have no interest in hogging the limelight in social situations. It’s quite possible that makes them more rather than less confident, because they don’t feel the need to seek praise and affirmation in the way the extroverts do.

The part of the definition of being an extrovert that both grates on me and resonates with me is the “obtaining gratification from what is outside the self” part. Why do we extroverts feel the need to seek approval and reassurance to validate our place in the world? Why can’t we accept what is and be happy with our achievements irrespective of praise? All questions that my inner introvert is just dying to answer…

Not sure this picture – taken on my Raleigh expedition in 2011 during filming of a ‘music video’ – quite illustrates my point about being an introvert….

Raw

Why do they say that the air is crisp, as if it were something that one could bite into, that one could touch? The air’s no crisper than the sun, though that at least would burn you to a crisp if you could get close enough to touch it.

It’s funny what thoughts pop into your mind, unbidden, after a traumatic life episode. Here I am, lacing up my boots – the ones with the dodgy soles that let the water in, which are really altogether pointless as it’s almost always wet outside – and instead of thinking about what’s happened I’m ruminating on the physical qualities of the air and the sun. I suppose this could be called a ‘coping mechanism,’ in which case I should probably be glad of it. Lord knows I’d rather think about the air and sun than all the other jumbled mass of thoughts and emotions that are swirling around in the background of my mind.

I call Betty and she tears into the room with her trademark boundless enthusiasm. Betty is a cocker spaniel. She’s brown with white splodges of various shapes and sizes that look as if someone’s used her as a canvas to try and recreate a Jackson Pollock painting. She’s named after the landlady at the bed and breakfast where we got engaged. With hindsight that’s ridiculous, but when we bought her we were sickeningly in love and blind to sense.

I’m walking down the road now, treading the path that’s been so well trodden over our ten year marriage. The tarmac’s hard and unforgiving beneath my feet. Betty’s straining at her lead; she may be an old girl but she’s got more life in her than I’ll ever have. But I won’t let her off the lead until we’re on the footpath. Can’t risk anything happening to her – she’s all I have now.

Charles Reginald Harper (prefers to be known as Reg).

Likes: Arguing (loudly), snoring (ditto), mustard on rare roast beef, red wine, cherry jam, walks in the country, art (except, ironically, Pollock) and obscure foreign literature.

Dislikes: People not agreeing with him (always), his wife (most of the time).

As we veer off the road onto the footpath – Betty scrambling over the muddy terrain as if her life depends on it – I run our last argument through my mind. It was over nothing, as always, something as inconsequential as him not having done the dishes. But then it wouldn’t have killed him to do them, would it? Once in the whole damn marriage?

But I digress. His not doing the dishes aside, all of those silly, petty arguments aside; he was a good husband. It’s funny how it takes something like this to make you realise the good things about a person, to see them in a light that has been dimmed for far too long.

Still. We walk on, Betty and I, through the fields of corn that sway in the light breeze like lovers clasped together in a slow dance. I remember then the dance of our wedding day, the way his hand rested on my waist, the reassuring weight of it.

Where did we go wrong? Somewhere along the journey of our lives together we took diverging paths. I’m not sure either of us knew it at the time, but by the time we did realise it was too late to go back; weeds and thorns had grown across the paths behind us.

When we return from our walk I unclip Betty’s lead and pour myself a scotch; his favourite drink. I sit in his favourite chair and look out across his favourite view. And then it hits me. A tidal wave of grief that I have hitherto suppressed rises up and catches in my throat, emerging as a roar of emotion. Or should that be a raw of emotion, because that’s all I now am – raw.

I don’t blame him for leaving, how can I?

I just wish I’d had the chance to say goodbye.

I took this picture yesterday in East Stratton, Hampshire. It was the inspiration for this story.

Credit where it’s due / Revolt of the monkey mind

I’m the sort of sensitive soul who spends a large part of her daily routine in mental flagellation. By this I mean I rarely focus on the things I’ve done well, preferring to (or defaulting to a state of putting) focus on the negatives. At the moment, for example, I’m repeatedly chastising myself for finding it hard to concentrate on a single task for any length of time.

Some years ago, during my first flirtation with the practice of meditation and its various literary companions, I remember coming across the term ‘monkey mind,’ which I felt at the time (as I do now) so perfectly encapsulated my own mind it could have been invented especially for me. People with monkey minds, like myself, are constantly jumping from one thought (or branch, sticking with the monkey metaphor) to another, barely pausing for breath before moving on to the next one.

I speak from experience when I say this is an exhausting way to exist, but despite numerous (albeit half-arsed) attempts to calm my monkey mind through meditation and other such interventions I’ve failed to ever truly conquer it. So you can imagine just how draining it is not only to be afflicted with a monkey mind but also a mind that tends to err on the negative side of just about everything – especially when it comes to acknowledging personal achievements.

So today despite the whisperings telling me I spent too long on this task, not long enough on that, or that I could have done things so much better than I did, I’ve decided to stick two fingers up at the negative monkey mind and recognise what I did well. Maybe I didspend too long procrastinating over my emails first thing, and maybe the wording of that email to those journalists wasn’t quite right, but you know what? I wrote some pretty punchy contributions to the Guardian’s live chat on pay by results funding which built some decent kudos for my charity and I created a kick ass spread sheet of media contacts. So there, stupid monkey, take that.

Whether you’ve a negative monkey mind like me or not, why not take a minute to think about the things that you did well today? I hope you feel a glow of satisfaction as you think about them – because you should. You deserve it.

I’ve been dying to find an appropriate blog post for this picture to accompany, and finally the day has arrived. He took rather a shining to me at Singapore Zoo, even copying my movements so we drew quite a crowd!