Doing What We Can

Tonight was my third consecutive week volunteering with Serve the City ‘s Food 4 Friends iniative to help the homeless (refugees and other misplaced people) sleeping rough around Gare du Nord station. I took eighteen sleeping bags, bought with money generously donated* by my lovely friends. At the start it was tense. The temperature has plummeted and tonight it was barely above five degrees. People are cold and worried about the impending winter. And understandably so. As we began to distribute the sleeping bags tensions rose still higher, until at one point a fight broke out. Fortunately it petered out and we resumed the distribution, but even then there was a lot of pushing and jostling as people desperately tried to make a claim for a sleeping bag. It was heart wrenching.

I was so happy to give my Sudanese friend, Bakare, the sleeping bag I promised him. I was also, thanks to the generosity of a friend, able to buy him some new shoes. He said “when I see you, it makes me happy,” which made me feel amazing. It feels so good to be doing something at last, even if it is just being a ferrier of sleeping bags and offering good cheer. What made me less happy was meeting 13 year old Alaudin, who arrived in Brussels two months ago after making the long three month journey from Sudan with his brother. Alaudin is a tall boy, skinny and quiet, with huge doleful brown eyes. He was wearing only a thin jacket and was shivering. I was happy to see he had managed to get one of the sleeping bags I brought, but I was still worried for him. So I took him to the volunteer serving chai and got him a cup, and then went back to another volunteer who was handing out clothing donations (tonight we were very lucky as a church group who had gathered a lot of clothes and sleeping bags made the journey into Brussels to deliver them – without those donations it would have been much harder to manage giving out mine) and managed to grab him a fleece jumper, pair of gloves and scarf. The gloves weren’t warm enough though, he needs some better ones. I promised to bring some next week.

There were more people tonight than the last two weeks. The fight at the beginning aside, I saw only smiles despite the plummeting temperature. It is so clear that people appreciate the volunteers and the work they do. And being able to speak with everyone and find out their stories is so humbling and such a privilege. I feel almost ashamed when people ask me where I’m from and I say “England,” because I know that all they want to do is make it to my country. It feels so unfair that I can hop on a Eurostar or drive through the tunnel without a care in the world, when they can’t even dream of such an easy life.

But we stay strong. And we stay cheerful. And we continue to help our friends all that we can.

*Cash donations will continue to be gratefully received to help provide some comfort during the cold winter.

00824514295541c9cf6e0128c2b8f47d

Advertisements

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.

winter-blues

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…

Reasons to be winter-ful

Unless you have been living in a cave for the past few days it cannot have escaped your attention that the nights are drawing in. Winter, dear friends, is coming – as we all knew it would (although we clung to the warm weather like limpets to a rock). But the demise of British Summer Time need not send us spiralling into a depression. Summer has gone, that much is true, but far from being summer’s miserable cousin, winter brings with it a whole new list of reasons to be happy. Reasons like:

1. We can invest in new bedding

When winter arrives and the sunlight hours decrease it is more crucial than ever that we get a good night’s sleep, not least to fight off the threat of Seasonal Affective Disorder. So as the colder months approach what better way to prepare than with some goose down pillows and a nice 13.5 tog goose down duvet? S.A.D? Not me. I’m Z.Z.Z…..

2. We can buy new clothes

Last year’s wardrobe’s been eaten by moths? Never mind, you can always clear it out and invest in some new choice threads to keep your smile white hot when the temperature drops…

3. Animal hats are back in vogue

…and animal slippers, ear muffs, slipper socks…

4. We have an excuse to get the hot water bottle out of retirement

What can be better than retiring to bed with a miniature heater and a good book? Cosy.

5. We can drink hot chocolate like it’s going out of fashion

For the rest of the year it would seem gluttonous, but when winter rolls around it’s perfectly acceptable to drink hot chocolate every day. Yum.

6. It’s CHRIIIISSSSTMAAAAAS

Okay, so not everyone loves the festive season, but surely everyone appreciates having some time off work?

7. Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow…

Snow crocodile anyone?

See? Winter’s not so bad after all – embrace it!

Don’t be S.A.D

Much as we may hate to admit it the signs are becoming increasingly harder to ignore; daylight hours are waning, the sun is slowly starting to retreat out of our reach and there’s a desperate aura surrounding the pavement drinkers that says that they know their outdoor drinking days are numbered. In the words of my beloved Game of Thrones (the most amazing TV series since 24, for those of you who may not be familiar with it and have clearly been living beneath a rock for the past year): Winter is coming.

It’s not as if we can bemoan the lack of decent summer weather this year, though as a nation of moaners I’m sure many people will. After last year’s wash out the past few weeks have been almost entirely pleasant – we’ve even had a mini heat wave for goodness’ sake! (Bless). You can’t say fairer than that, eh? And so as the nights draw in we must accept the fact that no matter how well the weather gods treat us, the summer season will never feel long enough.

There will never be enough days spent languishing bare-legged and brown-skinned in the park, or sipping cocktails on a rooftop at the many pop-up bars that spring up like rabbits as soon as there’s a hint of summer blooms scenting the air. We will never eat enough ice cream (FACT), nor spend enough time building sandcastles on British beaches like we did when we were five years old. We will never have our fill of wandering by the river on a hazy summer’s eve as the sun starts its unhurried journey towards the horizon, pulling a veil of pink across the sky.

It’s true that winter creeps up like a thief, wrapping its cloak of darkness around our shoulders almost before we know what is going on. But lest we complain about the changing of the seasons we should remember the positives that each season brings. Winter may be cold and dark but it also offers cosy nights in pubs drinking mulled wine, and even cosier nights in sipping on hot chocolate. It also boasts the accolade of being the festive season, which brings families together and puts delicious food on the table. So you see, it shouldn’t be feared but rather embraced.

The changing of the seasons is Mother Nature’s way of showing us just how wonderful this world we live in really is. Granted, the seasons in this country tend to be particularly harsh, but if it was always summer and never winter would we really appreciate the summer as much as we do? What would we have to grumble about then?

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..

Spring has sprung

It’s been a long old winter this year, one that’s greedily stretched its icy fingers all the way into April. Roads have been closed, leaving cars shrouded in snow looking like strangely shaped, grotesque and faceless snowmen. Homes have been without electricity and thousands of elderly and vulnerable people have been housebound and alone.

And all the while an overwhelming, cloying, crushing malaise has settled on the dwellers of London, this city I call home, as I’m sure it has across the many other towns and cities in our fair (or, let’s face it, not so fair in recent months) land. The kind of malaise that leaves you wondering with alarming regularity why you don’t just move somewhere with guaranteed sunshine and be done with all the greyness and the bitter cold once and for all.

But we Brits are a hardy bunch, and our impressive ability to moan is surpassed only by our ability to bear the weight of such an oppressive spell of poor weather. The lack of Vitamin D has no doubt been a factor in our collective mood this past few weeks, but deep down each and every one of us has been stoic in the face of the Big Freeze, purely because we knew it wouldn’t – couldn’t – last forever. We have been playing the waiting game.

And if today’s weather is anything to go by, that waiting game may soon be at an end. For when I stepped outside this morning for my run something felt different. There was still a slight chill in the air, granted, but as I ran I could feel the warmth of the glorious sunshine on my face and I just knew in my bones that winter was finally losing its war against spring. Clapham Common was full of runners, their gloves and hats stowed away at home for the first time this year, as were mine. Parents pushed prams lazily, without rushing or wincing in the biting wind. The collective malaise had lifted, at least temporarily, and in its wake were cheerful people blinking in the light like newborns, ready for whatever life saw fit to bring. 

Though we dream of jetting away from it all, we Brits are a hardy bunch.