Christmas Post…

You may have noticed that my writing productivity has reduced year on year (no shit Sherlock) and I have no one to blame but myself. The excuses I have rolled out in the past (see the aptly named “Excuses, Excuses”) are still applicable but I guess the single biggest cause is my own lack of self-discipline.

The only reason I have put virtual pen to paper now is because I have been shamed into it by a newcomer to my blog, a work colleague in the team I joined 2 months ago. So Mickey, this one is for you. I hope you appreciate the pressure and stress you have burdened me with, to produce 1000+ words, a week before Christmas. I return the guilt you have smashed into my court for my failure to write anything new, with a backhand slice in the top corner for bullying me into a new blog. Thanks a lot.

Seriously though, it is great to hear the feedback of a new reader and does inspire me to start waffling again. Waffle being the operative word as I have no clue how I am going to fill the page this time. In the early days when I was writing, oooh let’s say 6 or 7 times a year, I maintained a mental list of topics I thought might be interesting to delve into. But I seem to have lost the habit. I did actually begin a post in October, after a particularly inspiring trip to Rhossili Bay in South Wales. I managed to produce a half page that I was reasonably happy with and resolved to complete the piece before the end of the year. I wrote about how totally stunning and beautiful the landscape was, even in the appalling, squally aftermath of Storm Brian and how I find coastlines and beaches wonderfully calming and good for the soul, irrespective of the weather conditions.  I was feeling quite pleased with it and thought I had made a great start to what could have been a rather lovely and gentle exploration of how the natural world makes me happy.

Rhossili Oct 2017

Rhossili Bay under the tail end of Storm Brian, October 2017

I am sure you have guessed there is a “but” on its way here and indeed there is. The work is gone, lost, disappeared and nowhere to be found. It has ceased to be. It is an ex-post. I have no doubt that this is due to my own technological incompetence and that I have somehow failed to save my work or have misfiled it somewhere. Very frustrating. And now, instead of conjuring images of big, glowering skies, rolling, white-tipped waves and facially exfoliating walks along wide, windswept beaches, you have this poor excuse for a pre-Christmas blog. But a promise is a promise (curse you Mickey) and so as we rapidly approach the climax of eating, drinking and making merry, I will share a seasonal memory or two.

When my son D was five years old we took him on a trip to Lapland to see Father Christmas. It was the most fantastic, magical experience and I enjoyed it almost as much as he did. Lots of snow activities (riding in a reindeer drawn sleigh, racing through a lantern lit forest on a husky drawn sled, sledging and a snow mobile ride), not to mention seeing the Northern Lights, visiting the Elves’ toy workshop, Santa’s Post Office and meeting the Big Man himself.

Lapland 3

Meeting the man himself in Lapland

At one point, our tour guide asked D what he wanted for Christmas. My then Harry Potter obsessed son replied “…a Nimbus 2000”. Blank faces all around. The guide follows up with “what is a Nimbus 2000?” to which he replied, with a distinct note of incredulity in his voice, “it’s the fastest broomstick in the world of course!” Much hilarity from the other parents in the group, and a mental note to myself for the top tip gift idea.

Fast forward ten days to 25th December and D is over the moon with the Harry Potter paraphernalia provided by Father Christmas. He dons the Gryffindor cape, the glasses and waves the wand with glee before mounting the much desired Nimbus 2000 and rushing into the hallway. After 30 seconds of running around excitedly, suddenly there are floods of tears because the “fastest broomstick in the world” doesn’t actually fly…Hubby and I go from smugness to guilt faster in the blink of an eye. We try to explain that it was just a toy and that broomsticks don’t really fly. D sniffles that, as he had been to the North Pole and seen the real Father Christmas, he thought that Santa might have “sprinkled some of the magic dust that makes the reindeer fly” upon it.  Guilt times ten and a real struggle to wriggle out of that one. I think I babbled something about magic dust being in short supply with all rations needed at Christmas to make sure all of the presents were delivered. Combined with other distraction techniques we did manage to stop the tears and enjoy the rest of that particular Christmas but boy was it an example of pride before a fall.

Christmas 2016 was memorable for another reason. For many years my husband has made a half dozen or so Christmas puddings for family and friends, using an old recipe handed down his parents’ line. He enjoys doing it and for him it is the star of the Christmas day feast.

The K Clan Xmas Pud recipe

Love the old lady handwriting…

Last year we travelled to North Tyneside to spend the holidays with his side of the family. It was only as we were preparing to go to bed on Christmas Eve that he realised, oh calamity, that we had forgotten to bring the blessed pud with us from our home 160 miles away. He was devastated and our “don’t worry, we won’t starve” and “there are plenty of other sweet things we can eat” did little to sooth his bitter disappointment. Such is the esteem in which this family recipe is held that he decided, unbeknownst to everyone except me, to save Christmas! He set off home at 4 am on Christmas morning, making good time on the deserted motorways, showered, shaved, dressed properly at home and made the trip back with the pudding, while we were still in our pyjamas. Christmas was back on track and boy did that pudding taste good.

Well Mickey I hope you are happy. You may be new to the world of work in a big corporate environment but you already know how to press someone to meet a deadline, even if the end result is somewhat mediocre compared to what might have been.  Well done, you will go far my friend 😉

No idea when I will next write but if my latest blog follower keeps nagging me it may be sooner that you think. In the interim I wish you all a very merry Christmas and health and happiness for 2018. Enjoy creating the memories.

 

Winter is coming, but first…

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Taken at a reunion of friends at Ullswater, October last year

Spring may be the time of rebirth and renewal but I always find autumn is when I am most likely to hoy myself off my ample backside and crack on and DO stuff. I suspect it is a hangover from 16 years of full time education and the whole “new academic year”, fresh start thing which became ingrained in my psyche. I always feel a restlessness and an urge to plan ahead, tidy and clean everywhere, turn a new leaf etc. Toes tap, fingers twitch and brain works at 19 to the dozen. I am at my most productive, focussed and creative as the leaves turn gold and the days shorten.

A new academic year was always a chance to wipe the slate clean and to try harder, do better. I have to confess that my enthusiasm at school wasn’t always sustained beyond the October half term but as an adult I feel energised in the run right up to Christmas. I have been lucky enough to have this past week off work and it has been a luxury to have the time to tackle some of the a million and one jobs that need doing in the garden at this time of year. I have written before about the pleasures of gardening in autumn and the weather has been great this month so I have loved all of the pruning, clearing and planting of spring bulbs that I have managed to tick off. But I have also managed to clean my venetian blinds, paint the garden fence, catch up with two friends I haven’t seen for ages (years in one case), go for a run twice and finally complete the blog post that I started last December. Ok so I admit it…by going for a run I mean wheezing while I jog for 45-50 minutes on the treadmill (long enough to watch a full episode of “The Sopranos”) but hey – it’s more than I’ve done for six months so I’m feeling smug.autumn-clean

I think perhaps there is something more primitive driving my activity levels at this time of year too. Maybe the fact that autumn is a season of change has a subconscious affect, making me want to change with it. The drop in temperature and light levels give me a sense of urgency. I want to get things done before the onset of winter when it will be so dark and grim that I know all I will want to do then, is hunker down in front of the TV with the fire on and a mug of tea in my hand. Winter is coming and I might not survive ‘til spring so I’d better get a wriggle on and do all of those things I’ve been procrastinating about for months. And if I do survive I need to make sure I’m on the front foot so investing time in tidying the garden now will make it easier to manage come March. Why do I feel the urge to reconnect with friends in the autumn? Is it because my inner Neanderthal thinks I might need my buddies to see me through the hard times to come? It’s a weird thing your sub-conscious…well mine is anyway. Still, my autumn mania has at least it chivvied me into writing again so I am not complaining.

Perhaps there is a biological explanation rather than a psychological one. Like birds knowing it’s time to migrate or leaves to change colour, maybe the reduced hours of daylight  affect my own diurnal hormone levels which in turn affects my behaviour? Although I guess if that’s the case then everyone would feel the same way come October (in the norther hemisphere at least) and I’m not sure they do. I wonder if there is any research on the matter…hang on… (returns ten minutes later)… nope. My Google search reckons people feel more depressed and fatigued in the autumn, mourning the departure of summer and dreading winter. So it’s just me then and a personality quirk rather than a natural biological instinct. Well that’s a shame and I am sorry if autumn is not your thing, it really can be stunningly beautiful, as the photo I took this time last year (at the top of this page) will testify.

autumn-lawn-careRight – less philosophical rambling next time and more substance Trowers. Until then, stay cheery my friends and enjoy the “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness” however you choose. I recommend catching the last of the year’s sunshine in the garden or on a country walk, with a beer at the end of the day to reward your labours.

Angels and Drunks

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Dear Friends

This is a thank you letter from me to you. If you are not sure if I mean you personally, then ask yourself “have I laughed/cried/been hugged by or pissed with, this woman on several occasions?” If you can answer yes to at least two of those options, then chances are that yes, I do class you as a friend and therefore, yes, this applies to you, so pay attention.

At the risk of making you feel like inserting your fingers down your throat in disgust at my over sentimentality, I would like to tell you all how much I love you.

We may have known each other since childhood or for only a year or so. We may have shared a house at some point, been on holiday together or merely bonded in the 8 hours a day, 5 days a week proximity of the office. I may have spoken with you yesterday or (and sadly this is more commonly the case) not in the past 18 months. But I truly do love all of you, the old and the new, genuinely and sincerely.  You are, each in your own unique way, very dear to me and I feel lucky to have met you.  You have made my life richer and more enjoyable and whenever I despair of how cruel, heartless and unsympathetic so many people in the world can be, I remind myself that there are good, kind and decent folk still and that you, my friends, are testament to that.

Now that I have nauseated you/completely freaked you out (delete as applicable), I should hasten to add that I am not only sober, but also free from any other mind-altering substances and not in any imminent danger of dying, as far as I can tell.  The fact that this is written in (mostly) coherent sentences and then, glory be, actually posted on the dust bowl that is my blog, will add to the sincerity of my declaration, as you all know,

a) how long it takes me to write anything

b) how infrequently I post my musings and

c) how my usual declarations of affection for you are preceded by us sharing copious amounts of alcohol.

This sudden urge to publicly share my affection has been brought about by many months of musing on the nature of friendship and how blessed I am to know so many lovely people. Ok, I admit that some of you drive me nuts on occasion with your weird likes and dislikes, your stubbornness or irrationality etc. but I know that you must feel exactly the same about my own foibles. Perhaps the ability to cope with occasional mutual irritation without any lessening of fondness and respect is what makes an enduring friendship. And being able to take the piss out of each other, good-humouredly and without malice, is for me, one sign of a healthy relationship.

This is not only a thank you letter but an apology to those of you I rarely contact. I do not invest half as much time in our friendship as I would like and or as much as you deserve (which sounds uncannily like something Bilbo Baggins said to his guests at his birthday party!).  Nevertheless I am constantly amazed at how it is possible to go months or even years without seeing or speaking to some of you and then still be able to jabber away as if it were yesterday, when we finally do catch up. How lovely it is to feel so at ease and comfortable with each other,  to be reminded of that shared sense of humour and affection, and to know that if we needed to, we could share our deepest hopes and fears or our guiltiest secrets, without being judged.

This came to mind a year ago when I met up with my old university housemates for one of our bi-annual reunions. Here was a reasonably diverse group of people thrown together in a student flat in 1982. We all had different personalities and varied tastes and interests but somehow we bonded and became close friends who loved and supported each other.

After graduation we scattered across Britain and indeed, the globe. Nonetheless, in those early years we all kept in touch regularly and met up whenever we could. As mortgages, marriages and children came along, it became increasingly difficult to find the time to sustain the level of intimacy we had once all shared. But we never lost touch and still managed to get together every couple of years to catch up, reminisce and share news.

This particular reunion was especially poignant as we had lost one of our group to ovarian cancer earlier in the year.  Our dear, lovely, kind, intelligent and thoughtful Lizzie was probably the matriarch in our little gang. Indeed she was the first person I met on my very first day at university.  I arrived, scared and overwhelmed, and sat for ages in my breeze blocked, cell-like room crying. When I finally plucked up the courage to go into the kitchen to make a cup of tea, this quietly confident young woman came in, introduced herself in her lovely Yorkshire accent and started chatting. That was the start of our 33 year friendship.

Lizzie had always been the voice of calm and reason and the one who would organise us and gently whip us into shape while the rest of us procrastinated. She was the one to go to in a crisis, the one who shone the light of perspective and good humour. She was an amazing woman and will be sorely missed.

Meeting up with the rest of the gang for the first time since losing Lizzie made me appreciate them all over again. The ease with which we talked and laughed (and cried) was actually profoundly reassuring and filled me with love and gratitude.  I was reminded that although we all have busy and very different lives, we have a bond that will last a lifetime.

lennon-quoteI have close friendships beyond that little clique though. One set of friends (again 30 odd years in the making) are still so very dear to me even though I see them once a year at best these days. I still count them as some of our closest friends and fantasise about retiring next door to them somewhere, or at least holidaying together again as we have done on and off over the years.

But I stress again that I love ALL of you, my friends, in your own way. I have known many of you for my whole adult life and with good reason – you are awesome.

There are newer friendships too, such as those that have developed with the parents of our son’s friends. Our boy is a pretty good judge of character so his close friends, who are the nicest, funniest bunch of young people you could wish to meet, tend to have equally lovely parents, who have become our friends in their own right. These people are no less dear to me.

And of course those of you I met through work have kept me sane over the years. When you spend 8 hours a day, 5 days a week in the same environment with someone you laugh with, discover similar interests and worlds views with, it is almost impossible not to become friends. It is not unusual to spend more waking hours with your colleagues than it is with your family in the average week so workplace friendships are most definitely important to me.  In the enforced intimacy of an office environment, I have met some brilliant, supportive, funny and kind people (and you all know who you are).  I have even managed to sustain friendships with a good number of you when we have both moved on work-wise, assuming you count intermittent emails, messaging and dinner once in a blue moon of course.

So there you have it – my love and gratitude to you all, dear friends. Although Mr Guy Garvey and his colleagues sum it up much more eloquently in one of my favourite Elbow songs (and incidentally one I want playing at my funeral as and when it happens!)

Dear friends
You are angels and drunks
You are magi

Old friends
You stuck a pin in a map I was in
And you are the stars I navigate home by.

Today it will be mostly…scorchio

What is that strange yellow orb in the sky?

What is that strange yellow orb in the sky?

A couple of weeks ago, I took a cup of tea out onto the sunny 10th floor balcony of the office I work in, for a quick lunch time break away from my desk. It was like stepping out of an aeroplane on the first day of a Mediterranean summer holiday – a wall of heat hit me as soon as I opened the door. I’m talking truly scorchio here, the kind of temperature more commonly felt lying on a sunbed with a good book, a cold beer and the tss-tss-tss of cicadas in the background. Bear in mind that I work in the centre of Manchester, the rainiest city in England and you will understand my shock. Much as I enjoy the heat, I think what I love even more are the expansive clear blue skies. There is something about the quality of light and the glint of sunshine sparkling on every reflective surface, be it the water of a swimming pool in France or the roofs of the cars on the city street ten floors below me,  which lifts my spirits even if I did not realise they were down. The joy of a clear, sunny day is a rare treat in my neck of the woods and one to be treasured irrespective of how many layers of clothing I have to wear to be comfortable outside in it. I have felt my heart sing under a crystal blue sky with ice on the ground in January, as loudly as it does when I hit the tarmac in Turkey or Crete.

I am not sure if there is an evolutionary reason why sunshine is such a pleasure, a release of
endorphins to make sure I soak up enough Vitamin D perhaps?  I should probably research it but I’m feeling lazy (sorry). Or maybe it’s just the shock of the new? A novelty because, having lived most of my adult life here in the north west of England ,truly clear, sunny days are precious gems. Perhaps if I lived in Australia or Africa I would take it for granted and never ever appreciate that little thrill that comes from turning my face tfacing the suno the sun, closing my eyes and taking a moment to enjoy the warmth. If I had to live and work every day in a hot, sunny climate would I crave a cloudy, rainy day instead? Would a grey sky thrill me as much as a cloudless one does now?  Somehow I doubt it. There might be relief from heat and light, but no joy surely.

Admiring the sunshine and shadows on my legs on a beach in Turkey this year

Admiring the sunshine and shadows on my legs in Turkey this year

I also find that I slow down a little on sunny days, irrespective of temperature. Those lovely deep blue skies are such a pleasure that I always relax and enjoy it, knowing how fleeting they may be. My pulse and breathing slow down and the tension in my neck and shoulders dissipates. It makes me want to stay outdoors, and to sit for a while with a chilled beer (if it’s hot) or if it’s in December and cold,  a cup of tea and a McVitie’s digestive biscuit. Bliss. Sometimes I’m just so English…

Excuses, excuses

 

ExcusesI always know it’s time to start writing a new post when I find myself scribbling random notes on whatever piece of paper happens to be at hand, making lists of potential topics, or jotting down thoughts and observations which might spark a blog post. Time to bite the bullet and get busy typing. I have not had a productive year I know. The dust devils have been blowing forlornly across my blog for some time now and the few followers I have, must surely have despaired of reading  any more of my wit and wisdom. But, here I am, older, wiser, rested and ready to dump my brain onto the page once more. I have a list of subject matter ideas as long as a gibbon’s arm but I thought I would return with a light-hearted look at the excuses I have employed for NOT writing. Actually I suspect that these very same excuses have been used by many people for NOT doing many other things but I didn’t say I would be original 😉

  1. Too many quality box sets / TV series. I mean seriously – have you not seen Breaking Bad? Game of Thrones? Sherlock? Line of Duty?? Horizon??? Even Springwatch???? Superb stuff. I get quite cross with intellectually snooty “Oh I don’t watch TV” people in the same way that I don’t trust “non-readers”. Good TV makes me think just as much as reading a good book does and is no more anti-social. I have enjoyed many a stimulating conversation with friends and family comparing opinions on a character’s motives, or guessing what will happen next…
  2. Too much time spent playing Candy Crush. What started out as a “this is a fun way to spend 5 minutes while I’m waiting for the kettle to boil” has led me to level 347 where I have been stuck for some time. It is an addiction that I cannot bring myself to give up. I know I should go cold turkey and just uninstall it but it’s so damned compulsive and oh the pretty colours…
  3. Too much time spent on Facebook. I’m not as fixated as some people I know (I am mFB logoore of a reader than a commentator) but I do like to see what everyone else is up to and to check out the articles from the pages/people I follow. It’s another one of those things that begins as a “I’ll just have a quick look” and then before you know it, a whole hour has disappeared.
  4. Emotional overload. Regular readers will know that I had a pretty grim time last winter when my manager very sadly took his own life. I have written about this before so won’t re-hash it here but the emotional aftermath has taken many months to recover from. Eventually I made the decision to leave not only the project I had been working on with him, but the company itself and I made a clean break two months ago to take up a new job elsewhere. Which in turn led to…
  5. …intellectual overload. I always forget how exhausting it is starting a new job. The effort to concentrate and learn new processes, methodologies, cultural norms, people’s names and who to call when your PC doesn’t work, is physically and mentally tiring. For 8 weeks my brain has been on full alert and it is only just beginning to relax and allow me headspace for other things.
  6. Uncharacteristically long periods of decent weather. I live in the north west of England and most of you will know what that means… it rains – a lot. If you are not British and are unaware that the north west is any wetter than the rest of England then let me tell you that in 1982 when I first came to Manchester as an undergraduate, it rained every single day for 48 days on the trot. I genuinely contemplated building an ark. Happily,  this year our spring and summer have been fair and warm. The rain we have had may have been torrential but it has lasted for only a relatively short time (less than a week goddammit!) and consequently I have been spending a lot of my spare time pottering in the garden or relaxing outside with a cold beer rather than glued to the sofa with my laptop.
  7. Domestic demands. You know the sort of tedious stuff that you have to do to maintain a steady supply of clean knickers, your plate replenished with fresh food, the rats out of the kitchen, yaddah, yaddah, yaddah. There is a school of thought that a tidy house is the sign of a wasted life, but I cannot relax for long in a dirty, messy home. I am a martyr to my anally retentive personality and have to spend time cleaning and organising my home environment otherwise I develop a nervous tic and a bad temper. I’m not completely OCD about it and my home is far from pristine but I have an acceptable level of tidiness and order which causes me distress if not sustained.
  8. Family demands. Aside from actually having to talk to the immediate loved ones in the same house, maintaining happy relationships with an extended family means investing time too. There is always someone, somewhere feeling neglected and left out or passed over in favour of someone else. It’s a fine art trying to keep everyone happy, not unlike twizzling flat, round ceramic objects on long poles. Don’t get me wrong, I love them all dearly and don’t begrudge time spent with any of them, but inevitably it means that I have less time to myself.
  9. Social demands and maintaining enduring friendships. See the previous point. If my family think I don’t spend enough time with them they should talk to some of my friends…years can go by without so much as a phone call. Happily, my true friendships survive anyway and it is always a delight to catch up with people I may not have seen for eons and find that we slip immediately into easy banter and chatter as if a mere week had elapsed.
  10. Personal health and fitness. I am not naturally sporty so keeping fit and healthy is a bit of an effort but I do think it is time well spent, even if it means I have less of it to write in.
  11. Not a trait I like to admit to but if I am being brutally honest with myself then there are plenty of times when I just can’t be bothered to think that hard and I just want to put my feet up in front of The Big Bang Theory.
  12. Sometimes it’s not the lack of will but the lack of energy caused by points 4,5,7 8 and 9!
  13. Provide me with two equally tempting (or equally dreadful) choices and I’m liable to dither a very long time. Provide me with more than two and you could be waiting for hell to freeze over. When I said that I had a list of writing ideas as long as gibbon’s arm, the downside of that is that I have to make decisions – not one of my key strengths.
  14. This is slipping further down the list of excuses as I am less sensitive to criticism in my old age but I do still feel anxious writing a new piece. What if I make a complete arse of myself? What if it’s just self-indulgent waffle? I am getting better at saying “what the hell, just go for it anyway it’s worth the risk”, but long gaps between articles doesn’t increase confidence!candy crush

So there you have it. A whole litany of sad excuses for not writing. I am sure I could think of a few more if I thought a bit harder or longer but I want to get this thing out there so I can crack level 347 – oops sorry – crack on with the next post…

 

Ripples and Reflections

reflectionsIn November I wrote a post (For the friend that never was…) in the immediate aftermath of the suicide of my line manager. Friends and followers of this blog, even those who had never met him, contacted me to say how deeply moved they were and to express their condolences and sympathies for Simon’s family, friends and colleagues. Now, nearly five months on, I feel the need to share my reflections with the sense of perspective and equanimity which only comes with the passing of time. Obviously I am writing from the point of view of a colleague and would-have-been friend, not on behalf of his family and loved ones. I cannot speak for them and should any of them ever read this I would ask them to forgive me for any sense of “intrusion”. It is not my intention at all to intrude upon other people’s private grief, particularly those close to him whose bereavement must be magnified many times beyond my own. I am fully aware of the fact that I have no right to compare my own emotional journey with theirs.

One of the many things I have learned in recent months is that grief is a deeply personal thing and everyone reacts and deals with it in their own way. I know this sounds like a cliché but it is, just like the other old cliché about time being a great healer, perfectly true. There are no shortcuts to coming to terms with loss and it has been an intensely painful and stressful period, but many of us, on the periphery of Simon’s life at least, are slowly, slowly “getting back to normal”. He is by no means forgotten and every single day someone in the team will mention him and we will pause and wonder, for the millionth time, how different things might be if he had not done what he did. But our tears are less frequent and our conversations less emotional. We can at least talk about him now without breaking down. Most of the time anyway.

Personally I dream about him less too. The first few weeks my dreams were frequently punctuated by vivid, intense images and emotional feelings of running after him as he escaped out of a ground floor office window, or drove away down the spiral exit to the multi-storey car park at work, whilst I shouted to a colleague below to stop him from leaving. All very meaningful and heart-breaking. Once a team-mate dreamt that he came up to her and said “It’s alright, I’m not really gone you know. Nothing really goes, it just turns into something else”. That one had us both snuffling into our paper hankies again the next day I can tell you.

Talking about Simon and sharing memories and feelings with my colleagues in the team he led, has been enormously helpful. We have drunk an awful lot of tea, shed countless tears and dispensed and received many hugs since November. I think he would be amazed and probably a little embarrassed at the depth of feeling we have all expressed at his loss. In conversation with one of my team-mates and obviously in one of my more contemplative moments, I likened the impact of his death to someone throwing a large stone into a pond. The immediate splash affected those closest to the centre, but the ripples spread out a very long way, from his immediate family and close friends, to extended family and friends, then on to neighbours, colleagues and casual acquaintances and finally even to people he had never met. I know that I was not alone in taking my grief home and offloading onto my own family. They were distressed by the news, saddened and sympathetic for Simon’s loved ones and also concerned about my emotional and physical health. They had never met him but his death touched them too and I’m sure he never could have imagined how complete strangers would be affected.

Don’t get me wrong – this is not an accusation or criticism and I doubt very much that even if he had known how widespread those ripples would go, he would have changed his mind at the crucial moment. But it was an observation which set me thinking about life as well as death. We all touch and affect so many more people in our lives than we ever realise and this is actually a rather beautiful thing. One of my favourite films, “It’s a Wonderful Life”, sort of sums up what I’m trying to say; that no matter how bleak, hopeless or meaningless your life may seem, you will have had a positive effect and changed the lives of many, many people for the better, even if you do not recognise it.

Of course I will no longer be able to watch that film without thinking of Simon and wishing that rippleshe had had his own personal Clarence to show him how meaning-full and positive his life actually was. It was obvious from the attendance at his memorial service (standing room only) how very many people cared about him and wanted to show their respects and celebrate his life. Clearly his kindness, consideration, sense of fun and personality had also rippled a long way from the core of his being. I mentioned in my first blog, how deeply private and introverted he was but he was loved and treasured by many, as a dear friend, father, husband, brother, son, neighbour and colleague. Listening to his close friends and relatives reminiscing about happier times and their affectionate memories of him was heart-rending but beautiful. Personally, I am trying to take some comfort from that – from the knowledge that so many people are the better for having known him and that despite the tragedy of his early death, his time with us will always be treasured and remembered fondly, even by those on the distant shores.

The Pros and Cons of Navel Gazing

I think I am suffering a recurrence of that interesting and absorbing medical condition known as “omphaloskepsis” (Greek) or “umbilicum spectans” (Latin) which results, as ever, in a crick in the neck and a perceived excess of belly button fluff. Alternatively known as “navel gazing”, this is a common problem for many people and can strike at any time although I myself am most often affected by it in the cold, dark days of January.  Everywhere I turn I am being urged to adopt a “New Year, New You!” lifestyle, or to resolve to become a fitter, healthier, happier, kinder, tougher, more adventurous, more successful person and this annual bombardment always makes me a little introspective and self-critical.

January is when I most often look at myself and notice the flaws that I try to gloss over most of the time. I pick over old scabs and rattle the skeletons in the closet. I ponder my weaknesses and lack of self discipline. I sigh over past failed resolutions and wonder whether this will be the year that I finally, finally shed that extra stone, break the sub 60 minute 10k run, pluck up the courage to read “The Road” (I have an aversion to “misery lit”), write a novel, spend noticeably more time with my family, catch up with friends that I have not seen for years, find a job that ICalvin & Hobbes love and that pays me enough to sustain my current lifestyle etc, etc. These are all ambitions that I have held or resolutions that I have made and broken over time. The only New Year’s Resolution that I have ever kept was the one resolving NOT to make any more. I know, in my heart of hearts, that I am too lazy and weak-willed to stick to anything else.

I have read untold articles and features about how to make resolutions that stick and how to achieve your dreams/how to succeed in life. I also have enough self awareness and knowledge of psychology (in fact I have an honours degree in the subject) to know that part of the reason why I refuse to make New Year Resolutions is because of my fear of failure. I expect to fail so why bother trying? Yes I know that sounds pathetic and before you suggest it, yes I have read “Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway”. Quite an interesting read but as with all self-help books I generally come to the conclusion that self-awareness is all well and good but inspecting your navel for too long can actually be a self-defeating activity. It’s too easy to become depressed at (insert your own personal demon here – mine is “lack of drive and resolve”) if you poke around in your belly button fluff for any length of time.

Usually by the second week in January I become bored of the crick in my neck and of sighing in self-disgust and my natural cheeriness and optimism kicks back in. I stop beating myself up for lack of resolve and reflect upon my past achievements and my potential instead. 2013 was a year of small, personal triumphs which are probably insignificant to most people but of which I’m proud nonetheless; I edited two novels (for my friend, the writer Michael J Holley), proactively sought out and acquired a new day job (as I’d been so bored in my previous one), kept off the extra stone in weight I’d lost the year before, ran sub 30 minute 5k on more than one occasion and… I didn’t give up writing.

Unlike many other activities I’ve started on a whim and then set aside over the years, writing is something I feel compelled to continue. For me,  it is often a response to navel gazing and a head full of noise, bursting with words that I must see zipping across the page to describe some inner contemplation, reflection or emotion. Expressing my thoughts and feelings in black and white helps lift my navel gazingline of sight up from my sagging, middle-aged tummy and clears my head. I am painfully aware that this sometimes leads to random, unstructured streams of consciousness for you, dear reader, but I make no apologies as the therapy is better than any self-help book I’ve ever read and much more creative than examining lint. Ooh perhaps my 2014 resolution should be to waffle less in my writing? Now there’s a thought…

For the friend that never was…

grief1I received some devastating news a week ago today, so this post will be in contrast to my usual light-hearted musings.   My lovely and amazing boss of nearly two years, tragically committed suicide on the evening of Sunday 17th November and I have been going through a maelstrom of emotions ever since. I decided that writing about my grief would help me, although I suspect it will be a tediously long and incoherent ramble to anyone else – sorry.

This is a letter to him, one which I know he will never read but which I needed to write anyway…

 Dear Simon,

They say that there are 5 stages to grief and in the seven days I have been through them all bar “acceptance”. I think that will be a long time coming. The others are on a continuous loop at present, on rewind and playback.

The first stage is “denial” and predictably enough when M took me into her office on Monday afternoon to break the news to me, I shook my head and cried “No – it can’t be true! It can’t be!” I did not believe that you would ever do that. I did not believe that you would ever let the stresses of the job and the organisation overwhelm you so much – not you, who always shone perspective onto any issues we had with a calm “It’s just a job, it’s not Syria, it’s not that terrible at the end of the day”.  I did not believe that you would ever desert your family, that you would not want to stay to see your children grown and safely independent in the world. I did not believe that you were so unhappy, that your despair was so absolute, you felt death was the only option.

If you had died in an accident or had a sudden heart attack, my grief would still be profound, but somehow easier to accept and come to terms with.  Even now, a week on from being told, I find it hard to believe. Last night I dreamt that I found you in a meeting room at work. I hugged you joyously and told you that I had known all along that it couldn’t be true, that we could sort this out and things weren’t so bad. You just looked at me and said “I’m sorry” and I don’t remember anymore, but I awoke in tears. Again. Mornings are not good.

The next stage is “anger” and boy, have I been furious, both with the organisation you worked for most of your adult life and with you yourself.  I have railed at the ruthless indifference of our workplace, the incomprehensible lack of support for good people trying to do their best under difficult circumstances. The culture whose values seem to be on a divergent path to those I know you held dear. The brown-nosed schmoozing of those who only manage upwards and the wilful ignorance shown to anyone whose integrity is greater than their ambition.  I have never been a violent person but there were times this week when I would have welcomed the opportunity to punch our glorious leader quite firmly on the nose.

And I have been angry with you Simon. I have wanted to shake you and ask how you could be so stupid, so selfish, so proud and so blind that you could not see how much pain you would cause by committing such an act. How could you desert your wife and children? How could you possibly think that they would be better off without you? Did you not consider the impact this would have on their lives? On the lives of all those you left behind? The one thing we are definitely NOT, is better off without you.

Admitting to being stressed and reaching out for help is not a shameful thing to do.  You would not have let anyone down.  How did your self-esteem and confidence sink so low that you could not see how much you were admired and respected by everyone who worked with you and had the pleasure of knowing you?  How could someone with your intelligence and commitment to do the right thing, the right way, take their own life?

But my anger, with you at least,  is gradually dissipating and being replaced instead with a profound sadness. I keep coming back to the mental pain and anguish you must have suffered, to reach the decision you did. You were a thoughtful, kind and decent man and you must have been in torment. That breaks my heart.

Bargaining” is the third stage but for me it is inextricably bound with “guilt”.  I knew you were stressed and had been for a while. Your whole team recognised it and we each did what we could to try to relieve the pressure, volunteering to pick up additional responsibilities and working longer hours to try to achieve tight delivery timescales.  But no-one knew the true extent of your unhappiness and distress. We have all, every one of us, looked at our own recent actions and behaviour and wished we could turn the clock back, to do and say different things. We are full of “if only’s”.  I know that feelings of guilt are a normal part of the grieving process, but my regrets seem almost countless.

I regret… not being more assertive about managing the plan, as you had urged me to be. When you were unhappy about it not being robust enough and I emailed you to say how bad I felt for letting you down,  you wrote back and told me that there was no need to apologise, that we were under-resourced.  Although that helped me at the time, I feel terrible now. I should have pushed harder and prioritised this above other activities. You trusted me to do something important and I failed.

I regret… not taking more time to talk to you last week when I recognised your stress. I wish I had taken you aside and said “Stop. Calm down. It’s not your fault and we can get things back on track, together with the help of the great team of people you have around you.” In fact, I did say those things in a long email I wrote to you from home that same Sunday night. Another letter you will never read, one intended to be a supportive and caring message.  I wrote to tell you not to be so hard on yourself, to have more confidence in your abilities and to reassure you that you were one of the best managers I have ever worked for. I regret… that I did not write and send it sooner.

I regret… not telling you that I was worried about you and not giving you the big, squeezy hug my instincts told me you needed. Not much practical help I admit, but in times of distress, physical human contact can be immensely comforting. But you were always a very introverted, shy and private person and your body language shouted “keep your distance”.  I wish I had ignored that and hugged you anyway, to let you know that I recognised your unhappiness and was there to support you.

Of course, even if the collective “if only’s” of your team had somehow been achieved through some miracle of time travel, it may have made no difference to your ultimate decision.  We will probably never know what the final straw was, what tiny, insubstantial piece of golden chaff landed on your shoulders and made the burden simply unbearable.  Or whether there was ever any chance of gently blowing it away, so that it settled elsewhere and kept you safe, kept you with us.grief3

And so to “depression” which is the final stage before “acceptance”. And I guess this is where my sadness comes in – I am, quite simply, heartbroken. I have wept more tears than I thought possible this past week.  It is hard to concentrate on anything more than the simplest tasks and I am emotionally drained and exhausted. I am not alone – you have left a gaping hole in the team. Our grief is immense and I have seen more grown men cry in the last few days than I have in my entire life. Such is the esteem in which you were held. I know that you would be upset at the pain you have caused us, but proud of the way we are pulling together to support each other. You collected a good bunch of people around you and I do know that you recognised that.

Of course our grief is utterly irrelevant compared to what your family must be going through and my heart aches even more when I think of them. I wish them strength, courage and love to carry on without you, though they neither know nor care that I exist, and nor should they.

I keep asking myself if you would have gone through with it if you had realised how much people truly cared about you and for you? I think that perhaps you would, that perhaps you could not help yourself because you were ill and needed expert intervention. All week people have told me that no amount of well-intentioned support from us would have stopped you, because once someone is in that frame of mind, reason and logic go out of the window. My fear is that this is a form of denial, to help us cope with our, and here we go again on the emotional rollercoaster, guilt that we did not do more. A way of making us feel less culpable. I want to believe that you could have been saved, that your death was not inevitable and that we could have protected you…if we had only known how profoundly distressed you were and how much you needed help (bargaining again). The small consolation that comes from being told “it’s not your fault, there was nothing you could have done” may assuage guilt but instead it replaces it with more sadness and a bitterness that there was no hope for you.  I find that just as hard to accept.

It may seem strange to an outside observer that I am so distraught by your death. I feel guilty and worry that it is self-indulgent when we were not family-related. We did not even socialise outside of work unless as part of a team event.  You always kept your work and home life distinctly separate and I never dared to offer my friendship beyond the office, at least not while we were still working together on the same project.  I often said you were a tough nut to crack, but after nearly two years of working closely with and for you, I truly believed we had developed a mutual trust and a bond. I gleaned that we had similar values in life and similar frustrations with the ways of the world, although I never told you so. I learned, at one team social event, that you liked both reading and writing and that you had read Thomas Hardy and John Steinbeck whilst studying in Germany. I was thrilled – I loved both of those writers and wanted to talk to you about literature and to compare favourite novels. Sadly I didn’t interject at the time and somehow the opportunity to discuss this disappeared, never to arise again. Nor did I ever tell you about my own love of writing. I thought about sending you a link to my blog several times, but always chickened out at the last minute as I was afraid you would not like it and my ego was too fragile to cope with your possible indifference or disdain – I always wanted your approval.

If I admired and respected you as a manager, I also came to see you as a potential friend, someone I wanted to know better. I loved your calm, reasoned approach, your incredible intellect, your humanity and kindness.   You were principled and had a quiet, understated, but razor-sharp, wit and sense of humour. Your smiles were rare and all the more precious to those you bestowed them upon. Thoughtful and considerate, you were a sensitive soul, perhaps too much so…

And so now, a week on from first hearing the news,  I still look in disbelief at your empty chair, I still rage,  I still wish I could turn back time, I still weep for you. But I am slowly, slowly coming to accept your death and to cope with my grief. I am proud and privileged to have worked for you and grateful for the too short time we spent together.  I am a better person for having known you and I will always treasure your memory, Simon, my friend that never was.

Lian

grief2I do not believe in heaven or hell or any sort of supernatural afterlife and I suspect, knowing him as I did, as a man of science and logic, that Simon didn’t either, although I confess I do not know for sure. Please do not write with any well intentioned, but to me, trite and offensive, platitudes about him being “in a better place”, or being “chosen to be with God”. I am too tired to explain all of the reasons why that would annoy me, just here and now. He is gone and I am slowly coming to terms with that. I will not meet him again in years to come, but I will think of him, often and with fondness.

Simon’s family have asked for donations to the mental health charity, MIND in his memory. If you are feeling generous then please do make a contribution. Or if you are suffering from depression, stress or any other mental health issues yourself and need help, then please, please do reach out to them.

Living in the Past

rose-tinted-specsNostalgia is a bittersweet thing. Sharing happy memories  and sighing wistfully about simple pleasures which we seem to have lost over the years, is undoubtedly a pleasant and entertaining activity, particularly when undertaken socially with friends or family.  We all enjoy looking back fondly at our childhood or youth when things seemed simpler, free-er and less stressful.  Being able to play outside unsupervised by adults,  until the street lights came on; eating sweets and fizzy drinks without an accompanying sense of guilt; never even thinking about wearing sunscreen or worrying about  paedophiles. And later as students with all of the carefree optimism, energy and idealism of youth, skipping lectures to spend the afternoon in the pub, or in bed with a lover. Staying up to the wee small hours talking, drinking, listening to music and still being able to get up and go to tutorials the next morning with only the teensiest hangover. Ok, so I lied about the last bit… I meant the next afternoon.  But you get the picture and it is one best viewed through spectacles of the rose tinted variety. This is the fun side of nostalgia.

The not so fun side of nostalgia is that invariably when discussing the past with other people, the conversation moves from  how great things used to be to “what is the world coming to” and tut-tut-ing about “the youth of today”.  The whole sentimental yearning for times that have long gone tends to focus the mind on what has been lost rather than what has been gained and a lot of people seem incapable of looking back without complaining about the present.  I am as guilty as the next person of mourning the loss of certain aspects of my past but I refuse to succumb to the “whatever happened to the good old days/the world is going to pot today” philosophy.

For every moan and groan about the state of the world today I can think of a dozen more reasons to be grateful.  I feel sorry for those people who are so obsessed with the things that we can no longer do (or at least feel that we can no longer do – and there is a very real difference) that they are blind to the many things that have improved.  As a small example, had I been born a hundred or even fifty years earlier than I was, into similar circumstances in a small northern town, I would not have had the opportunity to continue my education beyond 15 and social mobility would have been nigh impossible. I would probably have died from the appendicitis that I experienced aged 37.  My Dad would not have recovered from his heart attack and my sister would also have died as a consequence of the difficult birth of her daughter.  Even if, by some miracle I had managed to escape a life of working class drudgery, I would not have had the same career opportunities and would have been paid less for doing the same job as my male colleagues.  Within living memory prejudice and sexism were far more overt and widespread than they are today.  Three things I remember from my late teens:

  • Whilst shopping in the local market with my Mum, just before I left home to become a student, the stall holder tutted and told us what a waste of time and money it was letting girls go to university because they only got married and pregnant anyway (!)
  • I was advised never to use “Ms” as my title on job application forms because it implied I would be a bolshie feminist trouble-maker and that it would go against me (!!)
  • A friend of a friend was discouraged from going to university by her family because they said that not only would she be left on the shelf and be too old to marry by the time she graduated but that men didn’t like intelligent girls anyway (!!!)

The fact that we no longer have to put up with shit like that is reason enough to not be too nostalgic for the past and to be more grateful for the present.  I would not want to turn the clock back. My son may not have some of the freedoms that we had as children but he is growing up in a world which is more open, diverse, tolerant and where he is likely to live a longer, healthier life.  He is not being forced up a chimney or to work in a mill for 12 hours every day for a start.

Of course we have a long way to go before everyone feels these benefits globally but I truly believe that the world is a better place today than it was a hundred, fifty, even twenty years ago. By all means reminisce about your happy, carefree past but wear those rose-tinted spectacles with caution and remember…

“The reason people find it so hard to be happy is that they always see the past better than it was, the present worse than it is, and the future less resolved than it will be”  Marcel Pagnol.

DON’T Curb Your Enthusiasm

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There are occasions in life when everyone asks themselves “Is it me? Am I abnormal or what?” I have asked myself this question lots of times over the years and have come to the conclusion that I am most definitely NOT “normal” (in the sense of “similar to most people I know”) with regard to…well quite a lot of things actually. I will give you a few simple examples and then explain further.

  1. I like classical literature. I also like detective stories, fantasy and sci-fi, light comedies, young adult fiction, biographies, mysteries, ghost stories, holiday trash and general modern literature. In fact I’ll read the back of a cornflake box given half a chance.
  2. I listen to an eclectic range of music. Nirvana, Ella Fitzgerald, Justin Timberlake, Stravinsky, Wham, Pink Floyd, Bob Marley, Adele and Youssou N’Dour. There is something listed in every single genre on my iPod.
  3. I enjoy world cinema. And big blockbuster events, rom-coms, zom-rom-coms, period dramas, action, sci-fi, small indie films and old black and white weepies.
  4. I like food. Period. There is not a single cuisine that I will not eat with relish. Indian, Chinese, Mexican, English, Spanish, Italian, French, Greek, Middle-Eastern, Japanese, Thai, Turkish etc., etc. Sweet, savoury, sour, salty, bitter. Fishy, meaty, veggie, spicy, crunchy,  smooth and creamy. Love it all. Except beetroot of course. Food of the devil.
  5. I am interested in history. And art. And the history of art. And cosmology, botany, geology, social sciences, dance and drama, astronomy, natural history, psychology, physiology, language, etc., etc. Basically I fascinated by the whole world and all of the wonders of life.

Well,  what am I getting at?  The fact that I am constantly surprised, and often disappointed and a little saddened by other people’s rather limited and restricted interests and enthusiasms. I struggle to understand how some folk can be so narrow in their likes and how wide their dislikes spread.  I get that everyone has personal preferences and tastes and I am not so un-discerning that I don’t have personal favourites, of course I do.  But (cliché alert #1) variety is the spice of life and if you have only a few “likes” then life must be pretty dull and uninspiring.

I have friends, dear, intelligent, thoughtful people, who refuse to read anything written more than 50 years old or to watch black and white films. Others that only read (or watch) non-fiction, or a single genre of fiction/film.  I know fussy, faddy eaters who won’t try anything with a hint of spice or herbs, or sniff at one pot dishes where the ingredients are “mixed up”. Lovely, funny, kind people who disdain ALL sciences. Or arts. My own beloved brother shocked me last week by admitting that he had no interest whatsoever in natural history. I could write a whole separate blog entry about why I think that is weird but getting back to my original point…personally there are not many topics that I am not interested in, not many genres of books I would refuse to read, films I’d refuse to see, music I wouldn’t listen to at least once and few foods I’d refuse to eat. Except beetroot  – it really is deeply unpleasant.

Why am I so enthusiastic for so many different things? Well I have a natural curiosity, a greed for sensory pleasure, and a fear of missing out on anything. I also suspect that there is a deep,  sub-conscious reason…I want to avoid being pigeon-holed or becoming a stereotype. You know the sort of thing I mean; I am a middle-aged, middle class, white woman in suburban Cheshire and therefore I must prefer to read “chick lit” and “aga sagas”, watch rom-com films, listen to Michael Buble, and to drink only white wine and eat grilled chicken with a light salad. Bollocks. It’s not that I don’t like doing those things (I am quite partial to all of them) but I don’t want them to typify me. So, I enjoy  the odd pint of Guinness as well as a glass of sauvignon blanc, I read “A Game of Thrones” as well as Jane Austen, watch “Boardwalk Empire” as well as “The Great British Bake-Off”, and listen to Linkin Park as well as Take That. I am not contrary or rebellious by nature but I hate being pre-judged…

The diversity of my enthusiasms is genuine and I honestly do have way more likes than dislikes in life. Anyone who is a personal friend and linked to me on Facebook will testify that I click “like” an awful lot more than I moan and groan. The odd rant slips in but I like to be a “radiator” not a “drain”.  My favourite people are the ones who are happy and enthusiastic about life – their energy and warmth is contagious. I tend to hide from the energy sapping “I don’t like THIS, THAT is boring and the OTHER is not my cup of tea” brigade. My philosophy in life is that you’re a long time dead and that you should make the most of every opportunity.  There is so much to enjoy and enthuse about so (cliché alert #2) open your mind, broaden your horizons and don’t be dismissive of new experiences … yaddah, yaddah, yaddah. Sorry – I know that you’ve heard it all before but in short,  as my old Dad is fond of saying, “don’t knock it till you’ve tried it”. You never know, you might LIKE it. Unless it’s beetroot – yuk.

Evil foodstuff...

Evil foodstuff…