Category Archives: Personal experience

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.

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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.

Musical escapism

field of dreamsEveryone has songs or pieces of music which they associate strongly with certain times and places in their past and which automatically spark memories or emotions long forgotten. For me there is one piece in particular which awakens all of my senses, instantly transporting me to a grassy field, miles from anywhere, on a perfect spring day…

I lie on my back gazing up at a blue, blue sky watching occasional feathers of white cirrus drifting slowly by. My fingers brush the cool, soft grass and the scent of fresh “green” is intoxicating. Overhead, the sun is warm, while a cool breeze brings both a pleasing tactile sensation on my naked arms and a delicious smell of meadow flowers and May blossom. My eye is distracted from the clouds by a sudden speck in the blue, rising ever higher. I tune in to the song of the lark, complex, beautiful and joyful. My heart fills with the perfection of the moment and I am moved, almost to tears as I am swept away by the achingly beautiful and emotional music of  “The Lark Ascending”.

This Vaughn Williams’ piece affects me the same way every time I listen to it, even in a windowless office, plugged into my iPod and pondering some tricky conundrum of information management. It has an actual physiological effect on me whenever I listen to it. My heart rate lowers, my shoulders relax and my breathing slows because this sublime piece of music has the power to take me to a very personal and private place in my head where nothing, nothing matters apart from The Moment. And how precious these moments are. No fretting about the past, no worrying about the future, no distractions from the bustling, noisy, insistent “look-at-me-listen-to-me!” world around me. The demands of work, friends and family are forgotten as I close my eyes to lie on the grass in my field, absorbed in the gentle, sensory pleasures of being alone outdoors in a field in May, utterly relaxed and at peace with the world.

In absolute honesty my reverie is not rooted from a single, specific memory but rather a nostalgia for a time in my life when I lived in rural Lincolnshire and was lucky enough to enjoy many an idyllic afternoon lying in a field, reading or walking across open country and listening to the glorious song of the skylark. The moment I first heard Lark Ascending I was taken back twenty (plus!) years, to that period in my life which was filled with big open skies, fresh country air, and birdsong. Of course it is easy to view the past wearing spectacles of the rose-tinted variety, and in reality there are many things that I don’t miss about my few brief years living the rural lifestyle. For a start our unheated and distinctly chilly farmhouse suffered a regular influx of spiders, which, judging by their size, could only have been the offspring of some unholy union between Shelob and Aragog. There are stories there for another time… In the interim I’m going to hit rewind, listen again to Vaughn Williams and enjoy fourteen minutes of sheer bliss.

The farmhouse we lived in  in North East Lincolnshire in the mid 1980's

The farmhouse we lived in in North East Lincolnshire in the mid 1980’s

Bosom Buddies

"Everybody needs a bosom for a pillow..."

“Everybody needs a bosom for a pillow…”

I recently read an interview with Miranda Hart, actress and comedian, in which she bemoaned what a nuisance her large breasts were and how mortified she was when on one occasion they actually made a clapping sound as she rolled over in bed.  “That’s no biggie sister ” I thought to myself “it happens to all of us who couldn’t fall flat on our faces if we tried…”  Usually when dashing across the bedroom floor from the en suite and trying to hop into a pair of knickers at the same time. Slap, clap. Not very dignified but hey ho – any pretensions I ever had of being dignified, elegant and sophisticated went the way of the dodo after experiencing childbirth anyway.

No-one really spends much time talking about noses or belly buttons but opinions about breasts proliferate.  I’m sure that no other part of the human body is written about or photographed more whether from the perspective of gender politics, health, sexuality or child development. I won’t rehash any of that here because it’s all been said and done (and frankly I can’t be bothered)  but I will share a few of my personal experiences and observations.

I have always had a somewhat complicated, love-hate relationship with my breasts but I suspect that many women do. Certainly I have had many a conversation with my girl friends in which we sound like sheep of the “grass is always greener” variety. There is a mutual envy between those with  small chests and those more well endowed.  I’m not sure that I know many women who claim to be in their own personal  “goldilocks zone”…

Anyway, a short history of my own breasts goes as follows:

  • Early teens – when the time comes to purchase my first 30AA a chorus of angels sings “Hallelujah!” and I know that I’m on the path to womanhood. It was a rite of passage and I clearly remember my first pack of two bras from BHS, white and embroidered with pale blue and pink flowers.
  • Mid teens – they develop at a slightly alarming rate and begin to attract more attention from greasy, spotty oiks than make me comfortable so I employ disguising strategies. Baggie T-shirts and jumpers etc.
  • Late teens – they continue to develop but now I begin to appreciate the awesome power they provide me – I can make grown men (well slightly less spotty-and-greasy-nearly-grown men)  weak at the knees with a well timed stretch of the arms or by leaning over wearing the right blouse.
  • Early twenties – still growing (!) and back to the self-conscious “these are attracting too much attention and therefore I must hide them in all manner of shapeless sacks”. On one occasion a complete stranger walks up to me as I’m minding my own business whilst mooching around in HMV, reaches out and squeezes both tits before marching off grinning, leaving me speechless and horrified. If that happened to me today I’d probably attempt to land a sharp right hook or a knee to the groin but at 21 (ish) I was too shocked and embarrassed to respond quickly…
  • Late twentiesstill growing (good grief!!!) and tailoring becomes a pain in the ass. Shirts, blouses and dresses which fit perfectly under my arms and around my waist, gape or pull across my chest. Buying a larger size doesn’t help because though they then fit across the chest, I’m left with huge flaps of excess material under the armpit, across the shoulders and around the waist.  More seriously, I hear of women in my network affected by breast cancer. One of whom died leaving two small boys and another who chose to have a double mastectomy rather than risk the disease which killed a number of close female relatives.
  • Early thirties – A period of relative stability (hurrah!). Well fitting clothing is still a problem and underwear is either beautiful or comfortable but never both. The  prettiest/sexiest bras tend to provide insufficient support and look awful under clothes. They also feel  like instruments of torture after a couple of hours. Whereas the bras which provide the firmest and most comfortable support are engineered like a Sherman tank,  making it impossible to wear anything with a lower cut front. I may be comfortable but I look like my Nanna rather than a sex goddess… Oh and I have a mammogram after finding a lump, which mercifully turns out to be a cyst nothing more sinister.
  • Mid thirties – pregnancy and breastfeeding make my already ample bosom look like comedy breasts, ballooned to Les Dawson in drag proportions. But for the first time in my life I don’t give a monkey’s. I love the feeling that they have a purpose in life and the time I spend bonding with my baby son at my breast is precious to me. It wasn’t always easy, with sore nipples, mastitis (twice), leaky boobs and another lump scare (and mammogram) caused by a blocked milk duct, but breast feeding is an experience that  I’m glad I went through.
  • Late thirties and onwards – they shrink back to almost, but not quite, pre-pregnancy proportions and sadly begin to make a gravitational move southward…

Now, as I approach 49,  and whilst they don’t quite resemble “spaniel’s ears” just yet,  they definitely need a bit more lift than they did. With age I have finally learned to love my boobs irrespective of their size and shape and these days I can even buy clothing designed to fit over them properly (courtesy of Bravissimo). I do still get irritated when trying to talk to a man whose eyes are firmly fixed at my chest rather than my face but I’m not embarrassed or flustered anymore. Let him stare – they are worth looking at. And I give the best cuddles because, in the immortal words of Cornershop (Brimful of Asha) “everybody needs a bosom for a pillow”. Remember that and rejoice in your big breasts Miranda.