I shall live badly if I do not write, and I shall write badly if I do not live.’ Francoise Sagan

Thursday, 17 November 2016

What's Your Story?

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"If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change." Wayne Dyer 


I have come to see that it is not so much what happens to us in life that determines the quality of our existence, it is the narrative we construct around the events we experience. We all have a filter through which we interpret and try to make sense of our lives, but what matters most is whether our interpretation of 'reality' is beneficial or detrimental to our well-being. 

One of the most influential people in helping me grasp this concept and understand how my 'story' was influencing my experience of life has been my good friend and life coach, Linda Ford. Linda has not only helped me to see that I had created a narrative around my life that disempowered and entrapped me, she also made me aware of a tendency to portray myself as a victim of circumstance; this had become a self-fulfilling prophecy, ensuring that I kept attracting more of what I didn't want in my life. This is because one of the fundamental principles of the law of attraction is that you become what you think about most of the time! So, if you are constantly dwelling on what's missing from your life or how difficult things are, you will just keep experiencing more of the same. Furthermore, even if you are consciously striving to secure a great job, find your soul mate and create material abundance, if your default mode of thinking is of the 'glass half empty' variety, none of the things you are seeking will show up in your life. This is because you cannot be a vibrational match for love, success and material abundance if you continually dwell on the lack of these things in your present reality or make negative affirmations such as: 'knowing my luck it will never happen!' or even worse, 'it's the story of my life!' And that expression, often so thoughtlessly uttered, is particularly illuminating in this context because that is exactly the point: what we tell ourselves about what happens to us is just that - a story

To give you a concrete example, I could look at the events of the past two years of my life in two entirely different ways. The events themselves remain exactly the same, but how I choose to interpret them is completely different. During this period, I lost my mother and former boyfriend to cancer within a year of each other, my father was admitted to a care home, I lost my job and my marriage came to an end. Added to all this, I found myself trying to sell two properties during a year of extreme political volatility and instability. These are all incontrovertible facts and they make my life sound pretty awful but how we feel about what happens to us, particularly those events outside our control, is always a choice. So, I can choose to feel trapped and disempowered or I could make a different choice, one that liberates and empowers me! I am not suggesting that these losses have not been deeply painful, but rather than allowing them to overwhelm me, I have learned to use them as a powerful catalyst for personal growth and transformation. 

For the first time in my life, I am learning to become truly self-sufficient - both emotionally and financially. Following the loss of my nine to five job and a regular income, I found a number of less stressful and more creative ways to make a living. This included becoming a host mother to a number of overseas students, some of whom have become friends for life. I also took advantage of this career break to learn Italian and dedicate myself more fully to my practice of yoga. But the most significant development for me is that I have learned to enjoy solitude rather than fear it. I have also discovered, after years of bouncing from one drama-fuelled relationship to another, that I don't actually need a man to be happy. This has been an unexpected revelation to me. Learning to look within for my own sense of self-worth and not to continually seek external validation is still a work in progress, but I might never have started the process were it not for this period of enforced solitude. 

I have also come to see that although many of the losses I have experienced have been devastating, they are not unusual: after all, we all have to face losing our parents someday and jobs and relationships come and go. This awareness has made me reassess these events, causing me to reflect that perhaps I am not the victim of a malevolent universe or some particularly harsh karmic payback!  The world is not perfect and few of us go through life completely unscathed, what matters in the end is how we interpret and respond to the challenges we face.

On this note, I recently heard an inspirational podcast by Deepak Chopra, broadcast in the aftermath of the recent US presidential elections. Deepak was talking about how to restore our collective peace of mind and wellbeing in such turbulent times. In this context, he admitted that he had struggled to accept the recent choice of the American electorate. However, he had some powerful words of wisdom to share about how we might begin to make peace with an event that had caused him, and many others, such concern. For him, the first step in this process was to recognise that whilst he was powerless to change what had already happened, he could change how he felt about and reacted to it. In describing how he shifted his consciousness from a state of anger followed by uncomfortable resignation to a state of calm acceptance, he made the following analogy. He asked us to imagine being on an aircraft that was being flown by a pilot that we didn't like or entirely trust. In this scenario, most people's initial reaction would be one of fear and unease - understandably so, since our lives would depend on the pilot's ability to get us safely to our destination. But although we might be powerless to change who was in charge of the plane, we would all share a collective desire for the pilot to get us home safely, and with that objective paramount we would offer our full support and cooperation. So, even though we didn't chose the pilot, our priority would be to help ensure the plane arrived safely at its destination. 

Deepak's point was that rather than wasting our time and energy arguing with what is - in this case the incontrovertible fact that Donald Trump is now President of the USA - we should instead focus our energy on what we can control, namely our own response to this reality. He also asked us to remember that even if we did not elect this president, it is in the country's interests for him to succeed and all Americans need to get behind him in this endeavour. For my part, although I have often struggled to practice non-judgement and acceptance of what is, when I have managed to achieve it, I have enjoyed much greater peace of mind. 

It is important to emphasise here that acceptance is not the same as resignation. We can and should stand up to injustice in the world, just as we have every right to express sadness and disappointment when we suffer any kind of personal setback. But the important thing is not to get stuck in this level of consciousness. It is normal and healthy to grieve for the loss of a loved one or to denounce any kind of injustice at the top of our lungs, but ultimately we have to accept what is and move on. Otherwise, we run the risk of becoming victims of adversity rather than masters of life. 

Ever since I was a little girl, I have loved a good story. But until quite recently I had never fully considered how the narrative we construct around our experiences is in itself a form of fictitious story. The key events and circumstances forming the backdrop to our lives may be fixed, but our interpretation of them is completely subjective - hence one person's tale of disaster may be another's tale of triumph. The fact of the matter is that we always have a choice: we can either present ourselves as victims of circumstance, or we can consider ourselves creators of our own destiny; we can either live in fear of adversity, or we can learn to embrace the opportunities it brings; we can either focus on the problems, or we can look for the blessings behind them. I believe that this is what it truly means to be free.

When I look back over my turbulent and unconventional life, I sometimes wish I had had an easier, less drama-fuelled existence; yet, had things been any other way, I would almost certainly have never become a writer. I would definitely have had far less material to inspire my creativity! So, instead of comparing myself to others or wishing things had been different, I have decided to appreciate the uniqueness of my own life and use it to create a story of hope and inspiration. 

Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Plenty more fish….




Until recently, internet dating was not a world that I had ever considered entering. At the risk of sounding smug, this is because I had never felt the need to do so. Throughout my adult life I have rarely been short of male company or attention but following the break-up of my marriage and the sudden loss of my parents, I have found myself in an unexpectedly solitary place. Although this experience has been devastating on many levels, these painful losses have also brought some unexpected gains. For one thing, adversity has forced me to develop greater self-reliance, determination and resilience - qualities I never knew I possessed until they were put to the test.  As a result, I no longer worry so much about the future because I know I am strong enough to deal with whatever life brings my way. Furthermore, being alone during a period of such intense emotional upheaval has also had its benefits because it has meant that I have only had myself to consider. This has allowed me to take my time to heal, unencumbered by the need to worry about the potential impact of my grief on a husband or partner.  In fact with the benefit of hindsight, I can see that this period of mourning has almost required me to take extensive ‘alone’ time. For the past year I have had very little appetite for company, much less for any regular form of socialising, so the fact that my only bed fellows have been an elephant and two bears has actually been something of a blessing! They may have looked on impartially as I have drenched my pillow in tears night after night, but equally they have made no demands on me whatsoever. And as it turns out, the freedom to grieve unencumbered by the expectations of others has been vital in helping me navigate through my dark night of the soul.  

Nonetheless,  as I have gradually begun to emerge from my hermit's cave, I have discovered that the once familiar contours of my personal landscape appear to have contracted and distorted, to reveal a bleak and barren panorama.  This uncomfortable confrontation with reality has made me realise that I have been living in a bubble for many months, insulated from the world by the force of my grief; and while my attention has been diverted elsewhere, Solitude has crept unnoticed into the vacuum left by so many losses - stealthily insinuating herself as a permanent resident in my life. Although this uninvited guest has served me well during some very turbulent times, in recent weeks she has started to outstay her welcome. In fact, I have begun to resent her pervasive presence, stalking me like a shadow from dawn to dusk.

This has recently led me to conclude that the time has come to infuse some colour into the grey landscape of my life - a little laughter to lighten the mood, with a touch of playfulness for good measure. My time of grieving is over and like a modern-day Persephone, I must reemerge from the shadows of the underworld and step into the light, so that winter can end and a new season begin.

With this in mind, a few weeks ago I decided to stop waiting for someone to come and rescue me from my (mostly self-imposed) loneliness and take matters into my own hands. So I began to look around for a playmate: a like-minded soul with a reflective nature and a spirit for adventure – the sort of male equivalent of me. I soon realised that this was an ambitious expectation for a woman living in a small Dorset town where there are few single men and even fewer who might be considered ‘dateable'. In fact, the only person who could have become a serious contender for my heart during this period turned out to need more personal space than a herd of wild bison and a social schedule that the Queen herself would envy! Unfortunately, it took me a while to realise that settling for the odd scrap of attention in the hope of something more – the crumbs from the table instead of the whole cake – was the worst form of self-deception.  A painful lesson after a year of hard knocks but apparently one that had to be learned.

I soon realised that the only way forwards was to free myself from the constraints of unrealistic expectations and unsatisfactory attachments and take a more practical approach. Given the lack of potential in my immediate environment,  this meant that I would have to broaden my horizons: cue my first foray into online dating!  This is an option I had never considered as I have always believed it to be the least appealing way of meeting someone - not least because it offers a convenient forum for the deceitful and the desperate! But given the lack of alternatives, I realised I would have to put my prejudices to one side.

And so it happened that a few weeks later, in a moment of frustration at the thought of another weekend alone whilst my happily coupled friends were otherwise engaged, I decided to join Match.com. In retrospect, this may have been my first mistake but a girl’s got to start somewhere and let’s not forget that I was new to this whole online dating thing! Anyway, having created a reasonable profile summary – which in just 200 words, fell short of adequately describing the complex, multi-faceted creature that is me but still managed to convey something of my personality –  I uploaded a recent photograph.  That done, I got on with my day and thought little more about it. Until later that evening, when I picked up my mobile and saw that I had nearly 100 new messages in my gmail account! This was simultaneously both flattering and intensely annoying, as the last thing I wanted was to have my email account swamped with messages from a dating site. But after briefly reviewing their content, I realised that the majority could be deleted in one swift cull. For the simple reason that most of the men who had written to me were overweight and thinning on top, and some of them had chosen to upload a profile picture which displayed more of them than I wished to see. After all, most of us prefer to wait until we have at least dated for a while before seeing the object of our desire semi-naked. Or am I just being old fashioned?! Then there were the comments. Two in particular are forever emblazoned on my memory. The first read as follows:

‘Hi there. My name’s Matt. You are a real stunner – love the photo! You don’t give much away in your profile though. About me, I have been told I look a bit like Leonardo DiCaprio. I’m an easy going, straightforward kind of bloke. The kind you can trust: guaranteed to break your bed frame not your heart.’

Once I had properly processed this, my response was pretty much: ‘umm, …next!’

Sometime later I was contacted by a man named Gideon, whose message made me want to pack my bags and leave the country! It went something along the following lines:

Hello gorgeous. I saw your photo on here and think you’re beautiful. I don’t have a profile picture on display because one of my teenaged daughters is doing her GCSEs and I don’t want her to find me on a dating site. Her mother and I have separated but we’re still involved in a legal dispute over our property and land. Long story short, she has moved out but is trying to get custody of our younger daughters. Anyway, perhaps I could inbox you with my photo and if you like me we could arrange to meet?’

I was tempted to reply with something like: ‘Hello Gideon. Thanks for your message. Do you mean you are worried about your daughter finding you on a dating website or your wife? As for meeting up, thanks but no thanks. I have enough complications of my own!’

These were probably the two strangest and most memorable messages in about 100, but combined with little evidence that there was anyone I would consider dating amongst the remaining 98, the decision to cancel my membership forthwith was a no-brainer! Amusingly enough, I met up with a friend of a friend the following week whose reaction on learning that I had signed up to Match.com was something like:

Match.com?! Reeeally?! Don’t you know that most of the men on there are builders or window cleaners?! You need to try a more upmarket site. A friend of mine met her husband a few years ago on Guardian Soulmates.’

Apart from the obvious intellectual snobbery of this comment, what made me laugh most about her remark was that I had been frantically seeking a window cleaner to tackle the numerous windows of my parents’ large Georgian house in the hope of attracting a buyer. Had I known that Match.com had a lot of subscriptions from window cleaners I might have stayed, if only to get myself a discount on my window cleaning bill!

After this brief trial period of internet dating, I really thought that would be the end of my adventures in this arena until about a month later when I found myself at a loose end once again. What to do? The options weren’t exactly numerous and going to see a film unaccompanied in London is one thing, but in a small provincial town where you can’t easily slip unobserved into a seat – you tend to stand out at the Regent Centre if you are tall and striking and under 60 years of age! – the appeal of this idea was minimal. As I was considering whether to accept a last minute invitation from someone I had long since decided was not only bad for my liver but also my peace of mind, I recalled that a friend of mine had met her partner on a website called ‘Plenty more fish’. So I ditched the idea of going out with Mr Right Now (but you’ll regret it later) and settled in for the evening with a glass of red in one hand and my iPad in the other to undertake the tedious process of writing another profile summary. This time I was a little more hopeful, but mainly due to the triumph of optimism over experience than for any logical reason. Fast forward one week and my experiences on this new dating site were already beginning to closely resemble those of the first. Furthermore, some of the profiles of the men who had shown an interest in me were far from appealing to my feminine sensibilities. Many of them appeared to understand very little about marketing themselves to a female audience and some of their comments suggested that any sane woman would be well advised to give them a wide berth! By way of example, I give you Steve from Southbourne, who wrote something along these lines:

Although I’m not exactly Brad Pitt, I’ve been told I’m quite handsome. I have been around the block a few times and done some things I’m not proud of but I’m happy with my life right now. I am no saint but I do know how to give a woman a good time. Just one thing, if you decide to date me, don’t do what my last date did when she sent me a message saying ‘nobody home’ just before we were due to meet and when I got to her house, sure enough there was nobody home!

If this was his profile on a dating site, I would be fascinated to read his CV! Steve clearly had no idea how to endear himself to a woman, which was made all the more apparent when he sent me a message (by way of introduction) which just said – Yes or No? This did not require too much thought on my part. My immediate reaction was to respond with: ‘Well lover boy, I hate to break it to you but it has to be No!’. I don’t recall the exact response I gave at the time, but I must have said something uncomfortably close to the truth because he immediately blocked me from contacting him, which was more than fine by me!

Perhaps I am a little harsh and also a touch impatient – after all, few people encounter their Mr Darcy on the internet or anywhere else that quickly. However, I am at a stage in my life where I have neither the time nor the inclination to kiss any more frogs and if my Prince Charming is still out there somewhere, he is clearly riding a lame horse in the wrong direction. If you happen to come across him, do please let him know that the lady of his dreams is getting a little weary of waiting and point him in the right direction!

Luckily none of this has been wasted experience and I have learned a little more about myself in the process. It seems that when it comes to dating, I tend to veer between the extremes of settling for way too little (which always happens when I default to my habitual pattern of falling for an unavailable man) or being so fussy that I refuse to consider someone unless there is an instant attraction. So clearly I still have some work to do on myself in this area. But one thing I have learned is that whenever I settle for less than I want in any area of my life, the universe tends to respond with ever diminishing returns. This is how the law of attraction operates: if you hold a deep-rooted feeling or belief that you don’t deserve to have your needs met, that will be the reality that you experience.  Outer experience mirrors inner thought and from what I have observed, this is a universal truth as unquestionable as the law of gravity!

As for internet dating, although it clearly works for some, I think I can conclude that it is not for me.  I don’t believe in the idea that we only have one ‘soulmate’ and I stubbornly refuse to share the widespread view among my single female friends that all the good men are taken. Yet, whilst I recognise that there is some truth to the old adage that there are always ‘plenty more fish in the sea’, I also know that I’m not casting my bait for your average fish. I am hoping to meet someone unusual… someone a bit like myself, and that person is likely to be as adverse to sifting through profiles on cyberspace in search of love as I am!


Thursday, 17 December 2015

The Power of Union

Towards the end of 2014, I finally decided to stop procrastinating and get myself to a yoga class. The reason I had been avoiding taking up yoga for so long is that I had mistakenly assumed that I would find it too slow paced and gentle, especially as my usual exercise routine consists of rigorous workouts of the ‘no gain without pain’ variety. I have since discovered how wrong I was to dismiss this ancient form of exercise as some kind of gentle stretching routine for those who don’t like breaking into a sweat! I have also found that my rather presumptuous assumption that all yoga devotees are uptight vegans whose preferred beverage is a carrot and beetroot smoothie is not entirely accurate! Furthermore, I soon discovered that there are many forms of yoga and that some of them can be very challenging, both mentally and physically. In fact, trying to hold some of the more strenuous postures in Ashtanga yoga for any length of time, whilst simultaneously remembering to breathe correctly, is a lesson in concentration and endurance unlike any other!

I am not sure why I felt such resistance to learning yoga because in many ways it is the perfect form of exercise for someone with a passion for dance; in fact, the graceful flowing movements are very similar to the ballet poses I spent hours practising and perfecting as a young girl. But the greatest benefit I have gained from my yoga practise - in addition to greater strength, flexibility and balance - is an improved sense of well-being and calm. The end result is that I sleep better, my concentration has improved and I am generally less anxious. In fact, following a good yoga workout I often feel as though I have been cleansed from within.  I have also learnt to breathe properly so that whenever my mind starts racing and spiraling out of control, I have the skills to calm myself down just by focusing on my breathing.


The meaning of the word ‘yoga’ is union – signifying the union of body and mind. And in a year that has been marred by one loss after another, I am deeply grateful to have learnt the skills to quieten my raging mind and aching heart – bringing some much-needed balance to my tempestuous life. 



Friday, 27 November 2015

Silver linings…for Lola


As yesterday was Thanksgiving, my housemate and I decided to honour this date by sharing some of the things we are most grateful for over dinner. This got me thinking about some of the most significant events of the past year from a new perspective; one that is more focused on what I have gained during this time, rather than what has been lost.

I have always had the tendency to be a ‘glass half-empty’ kind of girl but I am acutely aware that the key to contentment is being grateful for what you have – never taking good fortune for granted, however fleetingly it may occur. So in my final post before the beginning of a new year, I would like to review some of the most salient experiences of 2015 from another angle. If only to remind myself that in this most difficult and unforgettable of years, there have also been some wonderful moments…

Spring

The first and most memorable of these was the birth of my beautiful niece, born in early March. I will never forget the elated expression on my mother’s face when she came to tell me this wonderful news.  By this stage in the year, she was very seriously ill but nothing could detract from her happiness at knowing she had a new granddaughter. Looking back, I feel certain that she must have used every last vestige of her formidable mental strength to remain with us for this major event. I also know that she could not have left this world in peace without being certain that her granddaughter had arrived safely. Although the baby’s birth at such a difficult time caused us all to swing between extremes of joy and sorrow, it gave us a new focus that helped shift our attention from the spectre of illness and death.  Eight months later, now that my brother’s daughter is beginning to reveal her character and grow into her features, I realise that nothing is ever completely lost – things just change their form. I say this because this gorgeous creature has a little piece of my mother indelibly written into her DNA, as can be observed from her big blue eyes and forceful character!

One of the most enduring outcomes of my mother’s passing has been the way it has transformed the relationship between me and my brother. The shared experience of caring for her has brought us closer in ways that I could never have imagined. During the final week of her life, an unprecedented kind of role reversal occurred as we assumed the responsibility for caring for her, like parents watching over a young child. We barely left her side for five seemingly interminable days – taking it in turns to stay awake at night and when things got really bad, looking after her together. The shared responsibility of supporting her, and each other during those tough times has created a bond between us that I have not felt since we were children. I can only feel gratitude for our newfound closeness – no matter how difficult the circumstances that brought it about. I am also profoundly grateful that we were able to honour my mother’s final wish of dying at home. So many people spend their last days in the clinical environment of a hospital, far from their friends and family – instead she was surrounded by love until the very last moment of her life.

Summer

By early summer, my life had acquired a veneer of stability following the emotional turmoil of the preceding months.  Nonetheless, I was conscious of a lingering fragility just beneath the surface. My main concern was my son, who had become uncharacteristically withdrawn following the abrupt loss of both his grandparents. He had always been very close to both of them, and inevitably their sudden departure hit him hard.

So, I decided that what we both needed was a change of scene and a dose of la dolce vita: sunshine, good food and beautiful people. Over the last few years, Italy has become my favourite European destination and fortunately my son loves it as much as I do. So in mid-July, we arrived in the beautiful medieval town of Assisi. What I hadn’t known when I somewhat arbitrarily chose that particular destination is that our visit would coincide with the Umbria Jazz festival. This annual event is arguably one of the best Jazz festivals in Europe and we soon discovered that it was taking place in the renaissance hill city of Perugia – just half an hour by train from Assisi. The atmosphere at this 10-day event was electric as some 200,000 people thronged the streets to enjoy the free concerts, which continued all day and long into the night at both ends of the old town. The cafes were rammed with people watching lesser known musicians conducting impromptu jamming sessions, while the headline bands followed a more orderly schedule in the main square. Christian and I soaked it all up and even got up to dance to the lively melodies of one of the best Italian Jazz bands I have heard to date: ‘Accordi Disaccordi’. Formed by a trio of two guitarists and a double bass player, their music is best described as a mixture of gypsy jazz and swing, heavily influenced by Italian traditions. Hearing them play was one of the highlights of our holiday – reminding me that some of the best things in life occur unplanned.

One month after our return from Italy, events in my life took another unexpected turn: on the 31st August, I finally came face to face with my soulmate! This was probably the greatest surprise of a highly unpredictable year, not least because the person in question did not conform to my romantic ideals. In fact by virtue of her gender, she did not take the form I was expecting at all! Perhaps I should clarify what I mean here by the term ‘soulmate’. Like most people, I had associated this concept with the idealistic notion that for every person there is just one other being in the world, who is their perfect match.  But it now seems that romantic love doesn’t necessarily play any part in it – a soulmate is just someone who gets us like nobody else does. For me, the only reliable indicator that we may have met this significant person is an inexplicable sense of recognition and affinity – for reasons that obey no apparent logic. This perfectly describes my first encounter with Emma. Instead of conforming to the standard form of an initial greeting, along the lines of: ‘Hello, nice to meet you’. Our first exchange was more like: ‘Hey there, nice to see you again. By the way, where the heck have you been all this time?!

As time went by, many unlikely parallels between our lives emerged. To begin with, sometime in mid-October while idly discussing our plans for the following week, we discovered that we share a birthday. Although this was a surprise, it may account for some of the striking similarities between us. But, in addition to being born on the same day, we also found that our interests, aptitudes and family backgrounds are closely aligned. One thing is certain, I have never met anyone whose thoughts and emotions I can read so easily, and who needs no words from me to know what I’m feeling. Whatever the explanation for this apparent synergy, our meeting could not have happened at a better time for either of us. For my part, Emma’s presence has helped lift my spirits during some very challenging months; while from her point of view, living with me has given her somewhere to find her feet and spread her wings. Either way, this is something I could never have envisaged when I decided to rent a room in my house!

Autumn

Following an eventful but restorative summer, autumn heralded the arrival of another series of unanticipated events. In early October, an email appeared in my inbox advertising a healing workshop in Glastonbury.  Within minutes of receiving it, I made the rather spur of the moment decision to attend. I didn’t want to give myself too long to think about it as I sensed that this was something I needed, even though my natural scepticism was already telling me otherwise. It is perhaps understandable that I felt apprehensive about sharing my feelings with a room full of strangers or being forced to partake in a series of hippy healing rituals! But, I am glad that I chose to ignore the promptings of my inner cynic because the weekend involved a substantial number of just such activities. And had I known this for sure, I would probably have run for the hills! But by trusting my instincts and not my doubting mind, I gained more than I could have imagined – not just in terms of healing but also in the form of unforeseen opportunities. The most exciting of these was being invited to talk about my writing in a radio interview. Watch this space!

Winter

As late autumn gave way to winter, further unforeseen developments brought new challenges in their wake. In mid-November, my boss called me into her office to tell me that she had decided to extend my probationary period. This was not what I was expecting to hear, especially within weeks of being given a pay rise in recognition of my achievements. I was aware that my energy levels and concentration had been less than optimal but this announcement was still a bombshell. I have never failed to get through a probationary period in any job I have had to date, so this was very hard for me to accept. On the other hand, I have never had to learn the ropes of a new job whilst simultaneously having to manage so much adversity in my personal life. To her credit, my boss was very sensitive in her delivery of this news but after a week of minor vicissitudes, this additional setback hit me hard. Since then, I have begun to see the possibilities that this apparently adverse turn of circumstances has revealed. To begin with, I now have the option of working flexible hours so that I can try to regain the balance and focus needed to function effectively at work and beyond.  I have also been given the unprecedented opportunity to decide what direction my job should take.  But the greatest benefit to arise from this apparent setback is that it has reminded me that the support I need is all around me – I just need to slow down and allow myself to accept it.

I always know that I have been touched by the presence of grace when events conspire to nurture and support me, without my active participation in seeking them out.  I can only feel gratitude for the many manifestations of grace that have been bestowed on me during such a turbulent year. I say this because throughout this period, I have the impression that I have never been alone in my struggles – even when it might have appeared that way. On the contrary, during the toughest times I have been supported through unexpected channels and in unforeseen ways, bringing me all that I have needed to whether the storm. As one of my favourite quotes reads: 

I do not understand the mystery of grace – only that it meets us where we are but does not leave us where it found us.

In the wake of so much change and transformation, I know that I have reached a major turning point in my life. But as I stand at the crossroads between my past and my future, instead of suffering for what has been lost or worrying about what is yet to come, I finally feel free to embrace the gift of the present moment. For the first time in many months, I feel a sense of hope and anticipation. This is because whatever happens in 2016, I know that I will not be alone. And for that I am truly grateful.

 






Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Looking back...moving forwards

With Christmas just over 5 weeks away and 2015 soon drawing to an end, I have been reflecting on some of the events of the past year. I can say without hesitation that this has been one of the most challenging and life-altering periods of my entire existence. I hope that with time and distance I may be able to see the blessings that have arrived in the wake of so much loss and sadness, but I am not there yet. Like the survivor of an unexpected natural disaster, I find myself standing in an altered landscape surveying the destruction of what was and wondering if I dare to trust the ground beneath my feet. For this reason, I am not going to write about my experiences in any detail until I have gained the clarity and sense of perspective that only comes with time and distance. Instead, I would like to share some of the things that have helped me get through the lowest points of my journey. I do this in the hope that those who have been through something similar may gain some comfort and inspiration.

At the beginning of the year, a close friend gave me a copy of a book called ‘Broken Open’ by Elizabeth Lesser. At the time, I was so preoccupied with what was going on in my immediate environment that I had little time or inclination for reading; I was still coping with the painful realisation that my mother was losing her battle with cancer and that my marriage was over. But, in fact it turned out to be the one of the most valuable and timely gifts I have ever been given. In the intense weeks following my mother’s passing, this book soon became my favourite bedtime companion, my inspiration and, at times even my saviour. It is no exaggeration to say that reading it has helped keep me grounded and stable during the most arduous moments of the past year. For this reason alone, I would not hesitate to recommend it to anyone who has suffered a major loss.

In essence, ‘Broken Open’ is of a series of beautifully written essays that document the many ways that we may be broken open by events such as the death of a loved one, divorce and illness – and how we can emerge from these life-changing events, altered but strengthened.  It suggests ways that this involuntary breaking open can actually be beneficial if we allow ourselves to embrace rather than resist the process, so that we emerge from the ruins as stronger, wiser and more compassionate individuals. 

A central theme of the book is something the author refers to as the ‘Phoenix Process’  in honour of the mythical phoenix, which is said to burn itself to nothing and then arise transformed from the ashes. She speaks with unflinching honesty about her own major Phoenix Process, which arose from the demise of her marriage and how this led to the birth of a self that had lain dormant for years. There is a paragraph in this section that particularly struck me. It reads as follows:

"I have seen people crumble in times of trouble, lose their spirit and never fully recover. I have also seen others protect themselves fiercely from any kind of change, until they are living a half- life, safe yet stunted. But I have also seen another way to deal with change or a painful loss. I call this other way the Phoenix Process - named for the mythical phoenix bird that remains awake through the fires of change, rises from the ashes of death, and is reborn into his most vibrant and enlightened self."

Reading this served to remind me that we always have a choice as to how we respond to life’s trials and tribulations: we can either allow them to break us or we can use the suffering they cause as fuel for self-development. But one of the most timely and useful lessons I gained from reading this inspirational book is the idea that you have to lean into your grief rather than seek to avoid it. There is one particular paragraph that neatly encapsulates this concept, which reads as follows:

"If we do not suffer a loss all the way to the end, it will wait for us. It won't just dissipate and disappear. Rather, it will fester and we will experience its sorrow later, in stranger forms."

This caught my attention because it made me see that I had become so adept at containing my emotions that I could no longer feel anything much at all. I was so busy trying to mask my grief so I could function like a ‘normal’ person that I had scarcely noticed the gradual numbness enveloping me, like a dark and very dense fog.  Reading this made me realise that unless I gave myself permission to really feel my pain, I was going to end up reliant on sleeping pills or antidepressants - for a very long time. This may sound simple enough but in practice, allowing yourself to feel following the loss of a loved one can seem much like jumping backwards off a cliff without a harness. This process requires trust and courage in equal measure: courage to face the sadness and allow it to flow through you, and trust that the painful feelings will eventually subside. I think of this as something akin to stepping into a metaphorical ring of fire – where you just surrender to the process and allow it to burn away and purify the painful emotions. I now know that allowing such feelings to come up helps them to subside more quickly than trying to block them, which actually takes a phenomenal amount of energy! And it definitely works better than trying to force them into submission with all sorts of diversionary tactics.


I will end by saying that although this year has been one of intense and difficult changes – leaving me feeling at times like the victim of a series of very bad car accidents! – I am aware of having gained something valuable from this experience. This is because from time to time, I have been able to gain just enough distance from all the turmoil and drama to appreciate my own remarkable resilience. At such moments, I have been filled with a great sense of reverence and respect for myself. For what these hardest of times have shown me is that even though I may sometimes doubt myself and even though I may still stumble and fall, I will never allow myself to be defeated – no matter what life may throw at me. 


Thursday, 12 November 2015

The Story of a Woman

I am a woman in search of her tribe
the fearless wayfinders who can see from afar 
the steady brilliance of their own North Star

I am a woman in search of an ally
a brave warrior of steady gaze and noble mind
whose love does not alter when it alteration finds

I am a woman in search of peace
a state of serenity without bounds
where conflict and turmoil can hold no ground

I am a woman in search of balance
a way to keep thoughts, words and deeds perfectly aligned
to free the soul from the stormy tempest of a fearful mind

I am a woman in search of transformation
a new way of seeing through enlightened eyes
so the sting of adversity becomes a gift in disguise

I am a woman in search of acceptance
a way to withstand life’s harsh lessons but to let the pain go
to bend without breaking when the heart contracts in sorrow and the mind screams ‘NO’!

I am a woman in search of carefreeness
fewer hard times and a little more bliss 
songbirds at sunset... a serendipitous encounter...the exquisite tenderness of an unexpected kiss