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?


"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!