Tag Archives: memories

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.

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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.

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

Confessions of a Tea Snob

Time for a brewThere it is in black and white in the middle of an ex-line manager’s description of me on a well-known professional networking site. And of course if it’s on the internet then it must be true. I am, officially, a “tea snob”.

In my defence I would argue that it is all relative. I drink bog standard builders’ brew and not lapsang souchong (well, not often).  My reputation as a tea snob arises from my refusal to drink the stuff that masquerades as tea in most vending machines in the corporate world. After many years working in various large companies, I have developed a sliding scale of drinkability for machine tea. From the “will drink it reluctantly in a moment of weakness but then whinge about it for an hour” to “I would rather drink my own urine or die of dehydration before letting that pass my lips”.

In this latter category comes the “instant” white tea made from some sort of artificially flavoured powder. Whatever alternate universe exists in which this passes for tea is beyond my imagining. Probably the same one in which carob is an acceptable substitute to chocolate.

Marginally less offensive is the instant black tea to which you add UHT milk from tiny plastic containers. However, you do run the risk of opening a damaged carton to find that you have inadvertently poured cottage cheese into your brew instead of milk. Nice.

Occasionally you will come across a vending machine which proudly dispenses one of the famous branded teas and you may be tempted to try it. Don’t. It will still taste like the sweepings from the factory floor. There is no substitute for making your own brew.

Real teabags, a hot water dispenser and a fridge to store your fresh milk. Best of all, water dispensed that is actually hot enough to brew tea and not just raise the ambient temperature of your mug to “warm”. If your office water dispenser is hot enough to scald you then you’re on to a winner and know that you have secured employment with a company that really cares about its staff. Heaven forbid that you do have a water dispenser related accident but at least then a friendly colleague would be able to comfort and calm you with a decent cup of hot, sweet tea which is, as everyone knows, the panacea for all ills.

My love of tea began in early childhood. Playing with my toy tea set in my den, underneath the dining table, I would copy the tea-making ritual I had watched my beloved granddad perform every day, but with cold milk and water instead. One day, desperate to make real tea in my own teapot, I subjected my granddad to the full force of my charms (knowing full well that he could rarely resist me) and begged him for tea leaves and hot water for the pot. There was a great pause while he weighed up the potential waste, mess and risk of scalding. Eventually he suggested a compromise whereby he would decant some of his already whitened, sweetened and cooled tea from his cup into my toy teapot. I readily agreed and with great excitement poured out three or four tiny cups of the amber nectar for my dollies. Surprisingly they wouldn’t drink it, so I downed the lot. Thus began the habit of a lifetime.

I have long since given up sugar and switched to semi-skimmed milk but my love of tea is undiminished and I drink it by the gallon, provided it’s the real McCoy and not some vending machine sludge. Does this make me a “tea snob”? Perhaps. Writing about it has certainly made me thirsty though…time to put the kettle on methinks.