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

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