Sunday, 15 March 2020

From Inside a Bubble

Sat at a desk in the corner of a luxury hotel room, classical music playing on the quirky box radio alongside me, it is easy to float away on your imagination. Float to a time and place hovering somewhere between historical and romance novel. As I write, I would like to inhabit that time and place, far from social media, news headlines and scavenging supermarket customers. 

It’s not from a desire to deny all that is happening or to be adopting a head in the sands approach, for we deliberated a fair amount before going ahead with this trip away. Having booked it at the start of the year, to celebrate a special anniversary, we were indeed torn and in somewhat of a quandary about the wisdom of proceeding. August this year will mark 30 years of marriage for us and this break was partly in recognition of that fact and partly planned for the two of us to grab some time together ‘far from the maddening crowd’ to quote Thomas Hardy - a most eloquent expression of how it feels right now.

To focus on each other and the inner calm that is blossoming as we settle into our temporary surroundings, is just what is needed for both of us. I have actively put my phone to one side in an attempt to disengage from the world, albeit for just a few short days. I have not had the space to focus like this for a while and I think this ‘centering’ process can only ultimately be positive. There’s jazz playing now - we have moved to the lounge bar. There’s an abundance of plush armchairs and soft lighting. I have closed my eyes to allow it all to be absorbed - the ambience of a touch of decadence. Oh how I wish I could bottle it and take a sip in times of stress and worry. Right now, that feels like a much more attractive proposition than the failed quest for hand sanitiser.

The world seems a particularly scary place and yet, simultaneously, this insidious threat has highlighted how interconnected we actually are. Sure, we can focus on the statistics and the selfishness of those who seem to have adopted a’first come, first served’ attitude, but fear is obviously the driving force behind it all. A fear of what might happen next, who may fall ill and of loosing control of all that was previously taken for granted in our lives. Our routines, our work and home life, our social activities. I can not control any of that and so I guess, a few days attempting not to confront it, makes little difference in the grand scheme of things. Instead, I am writing and imagining characters, plots and scenarios. 

The hotel has a long and varied history and is surrounded by vast parklands. Scattered throughout the building are little nods to its history: artefacts, pictures, fixtures and fittings to conjure up the past. A costume drama or murder mystery would not be out of place here. I find myself wondering how the plot would play out, if I began to write one. 

When pen is put to paper, it often has no clear objective or ending in sight and I trust that the flow of words will fulfill both. Sadly our time within this bubble will soon end but it will have achieved a few objectives - those of relaxation, celebration and appreciation. As a bonus offshoot, it has given me a chance to channel energy into writing and to regain some perspective as to where else that may take me. Whatever else may be ahead for us all is too scary and too vast to dwell upon, so perhaps for me, it is best to write. We can all only take one day at a time at the moment and I’ll just write my story one page at a time.

Friday, 31 January 2020

Open Spaces

It’s true that I have neglected this blog lately. It’s not that I haven’t been writing, for there’s been quite a bit of that going on, but the type of writing I have been working on is different and not really what belongs in the content of these pages. It has taken me the whole month of January to put pen to paper here though. 

A very long month.

Many talk of the January blues, the long slump after the festive indulgences that usually accompany the end of the previous year. This year I have definitely found myself struggling to get out of the hole I have found myself in. I began sliding into it weeks prior to the New Year and there have been days when pulling up the duvet to block out the daylight has felt like the best option.

Though I refrained from making resolutions at the start of the year, for fear of failing with them at the first hurdle, I did use that period of reflection time to give myself a metaphorical kick up the butt. Much of my writing last year, particularly in my books, looked to the positive strategies I had employed and moving forward in developing such a mindset. Yet I knew that I was slumping and wallowing again. The old tune of “Mud, mud, glorious mud,” comes to mind but I needed to get out of that mud pool because it didn’t feel glorious at all.

I have read a lot about menopause, how depression and anxiety are frequently inextricably linked to it yet often not recognised as such. In my reading I have also discovered that this change in a woman’s life, this transition stage involves learning to accept the changes to become at peace with the new or reinvented version of the woman you were. I felt it was time to try to embrace this acceptance concept and for me, that has meant asking for help and pushing myself to step out of my comfort zone in a few ways. 

Without giving myself time and space to overthink and procrastinate I did three proactive things at the start of this month. I took three steps to pull myself out of that hole.

It is quite apt to be writing this today - on the 31st January- as the first step was that I signed up to Red January. In doing so I made a commitment to be active every day of January and as well as it being a fundraising venture for the Mind charity, it was a personal agreement to get outside, be in nature, feel the air and the weather - good or bad - as all of that would benefit me and my wellbeing.

The second step was booking a GP appointment to force myself into discussing what has been going on. No longer choosing the route of struggling alone, feeling that I should be able to do it all without support. Instead, though I was close to cancelling the appointment the day before, I allowed myself to tell the GP that everything wasn’t actually fine. The feeling of relief in having done so is good, as is the fact that we are working on a plan to move forward.

The last of my three steps was to sign up to a creative writing course which I began mid-January and which has stimulated some of the different writing that I mentioned at the start of this piece. The night before the course started I questioned my decision, the morning of the course I asked myself why I was struggling to walk through the door and as my husband dropped me off I resisted the urge to take flight and hide in a coffee shop. But I went into the course, met new people, learnt new things and am starting to write in a new way.

I am not out of that hole yet but I have had a few glimpses of the open space above and around me. I have had a few days when that space is at my fingertips and days when it fades away as I slide again. When I start to doubt my abilities in any way, it is all too easy for the sky to start falling in and to feel incapable of completing the simplest tasks. It has taken me several days to find the words to write this piece and I took two weeks to reply and complete a form that was needed for a commitment later in the year but I did manage to do both eventually.

That’s the trick of it all isn’t it? Never mind what the struggle was in getting there, allow yourself to feel good about the fact that you arrived. For now I am taking one step at a time, ticking off items on my ‘to do’ list and writing down one positive thing each week to add to my jar of 2020. Give me a few more months and the promise of a little summer sunshine and I’ll be up and soaring in that sky. I’m sure I will, won’t I?

Saturday, 28 December 2019

The Ties That Bind

What holds us back from moving forward at those crossroad points of our lives? These past two years I have found myself thinking, some might say overthinking, and writing about choices we make in life and the directions that we take. Often the image replays in my head of a lone girl stood in a clearing in the woods with two or three possible pathways opening up infront of her. Such imagery serves to illustrate the dilemmas we face as we make particular choices in our lives but then again, such choices are rarely presented to us in such a clear cut manner.

It’s not like life gives us a series of signposted options where each path is marked to lead to a particular destination. Mostly I have stumbled around and only part-way along the path discovered my new surroundings and begun to guess where I might be headed.

There are obvious key moments in life where I have stood at the metaphorical crossroads and made a conscious decision to follow one particular path. At the end of school, choosing to study for a degree, saying yes to a marriage proposal, committing to having a family and most recently, walking away from my teaching career- all of these were definite pathway choices. Other aspects of my life feel more akin to being in stumbling mode, trying my best to stay upright as I keep moving forward.

Mostly we keep our momentum moving forward until we hit an obstacle blocking our way, don’t we? Sometimes we have the courage and reserves of resilience to keep pushing on until we break through the obstacle to continue on beyond it. Sometimes the obstacle stops us in our tracks and forces us to look around and notice details previously unseen. These are the reflective moments when we maybe appreciate what we already have and perhaps take some time to re-evaluate who we are and where we are going. I have probably spent most of this year doing that, if truth be told.

I am writing this as the last few days of the year play out their tune, whilst waiting for the fresh melody of a new year to begin. It’s that time when resolutions are discussed, set and more often than not, broken and discarded as quickly as they were established. That’s my backdrop to my thoughts tonight. Like many others, I am wondering what may be ahead for me and what choices I might be able to make in the next twelve months. For unlike the lone girl in the woods, free to skip off along any path that takes her fancy, I feel inhibited. Invisible yet very tangible ties bind me and can make any progress feel impossible at times. I find myself asking what is it that binds me? Confidence issues, circumstance, indecision - all are playing a part. None of us can really go skipping off into the woods without a second thought though, can we?

There is a pressure at this time of resolution making to be better, to reinvent yourself and become a new model, as if the current one has become outdated and defunct in some way. We’ll all have days when we feel defunct or deficient in many ways but is the concept of reinvention, striving for that yet unobtainable you, is that really a healthy option? I recently read somewhere that we  shouldn’t be looking for the ‘new you’ but instead be accepting of the ‘you that you are.’ This may prove to be my biggest challenge for the year ahead.

I started this piece with an idea that I would write about what might be holding me back from seeking work next year. As has often been the case, the process of writing down my thoughts served to clear the pathway for me to take a few more steps ahead. Those steps just might not be going in the way I had first thought. If I stand still for too much longer, I am afraid that the creeping ivy of self doubt will entwine my feet to leave me forever rooted to the spot so I feel a growing sense of urgency to move soon, in one direction or another. For now though, I’ll pause to raise a glass this New Year’s Eve and make a toast to unknown destinations. Cheers everyone!

Thursday, 19 December 2019

Charity Begins at Home

I’ve thought hard about this and deliberated for a while before starting this blog. Although this title phrase kept drifting in and out of my mind along with fragments of what I might write, I have been struggling with my writing recently. There may be a layered cake full of reasons for that, waiting for me to delicately pick at with my cake fork but perhaps now is not the time and I should push the whole cake to one side with a determined action, saying “that’s too rich for me right now.” I may well return to a forkful of it in a moment though, for both cake and self-doubt have that way of tempting you back to them.
For now then, I wonder what you think of when you read or hear this title phrase. I know in the past I have heard it said and felt saddened that those extolling the virtues of such sentiment have somehow arbitrarily decided that one chosen cause or charity is deemed to be more worthy than another. Historically speaking, I am sure that insular-facing politicians exclaimed that the problems of people in far away places were of little concern or relevance to us. That is, of course, until those problems began to be shared by a growing number of people and then the very fabric of freedom was threatened so that such problems were shared and indeed the focus of attention.
History lessons from the 1930s may not seem relevant, conversely others may warn of stark and compelling parallels to the dark, political landscape we now find ourselves in. Either way, the point I am seeking to make is that now, more than ever, we are all inter-connected, whether we like it or not. To dismiss the hardship and struggles that people may have because they are far away from us is both short-sighted and to deny ourselves the value of helping others, whoever they may be.
Moving away from what could be seen as contentious or political the concept of starting with what you can effect in the here and now, in your local area, is ultimately positive and proactive. Trying to take a whole world, wide lens view is daunting and potentially overwhelming.
I cannot be the only one who has noticed more homeless on the streets, been struck by stories on social media of families in poverty, or had a moment of reflection in the run up to Christmas to consider the ill, the tired, the hungry and the lonely. How individuals choose to support those vulnerable in our neighbourhoods is not for me to comment on. Suffice to say I have thought about it and taken different steps in recent years to help. It may feel like a drop in the ocean, but every positive act helps.
In writing this, I considered how we truly do need to look at ourselves before we can move beyond that. Perhaps that is the real crux of the phrase “Charity begins at home.” I always thought it was concerned with helping out your own, supporting your family, friends and neighbours before being in a position to help those further afield. Now I am thinking it is imperative to look at myself first. If I am not being kind to myself, not charitable enough to allow myself to fall down a little, then how can I begin to help anyone in any way at all?
I return to that writing dilemma that I mentioned at the start. Am I being too harsh on myself and expecting too much from the very act of writing? Self-imposed deadlines or constraints, perceived expectations of what I should achieve are all not allowing me to be kind to myself. It’s that time again when we look to new year’s resolutions. I think I need to stop expecting and anticipating certain results, cut myself a little slack and see if that can help me to find my own light in the darkness. Just as I wish that the many who will have far less than me this Christmas, will find their own light and hope for the year ahead.

Wednesday, 27 November 2019

The Weight of Expectation

I find myself in show week again, which has happened twice a year since 2005. For those of you reading this who know me well, you will be used to hearing about how each show is going, what is going on behind the scenes to get the show ready and how I am feeling about whatever part I am playing in it. It is my norm every May and run up to December. You would think I had it all cracked then wouldn’t you?

Yet thanks to the influence of the ‘Perimenopause fairy’ I have found this run particularly difficult. Each show I have always had my role to play on stage alongside many tasks to complete as the show producer and often choreographer. Most years, although often stressful, I have felt in control and capable of meeting the demands that all of this has set for me. At this time last year, I recall writing a blog piece where I talked about standing on the stage waiting for the curtains to part and the show to start and feeling a sudden dread and urge to run offstage - far more than the usual stage fright that everyone in this strange world of drama experiences. I am wondering now if I shall feel the same again as I get to my cue.

Beyond that though, I have had a few problems along the way as this run has rumbled along. When trying to teach dance routines I have become easily flustered, often unable to quickly recall the next steps that I need to show the cast and as a result, felt low in self-confidence. My part this year is a main one and learning a sizeable amount of script has indeed been a challenge. It feels like I have been saying my lines over and over for months now and parts of them still elude me when the spotlight is on. I ask myself if I am getting too old for all of this?

We all have expectations of ourselves and when we feel that we cannot match up to them that is distressing at times. Then there are the expectations that others have of you and how that impacts upon them and your own self-esteem if you fall short of such expectations. As far as this show week goes, I don’t want to let down my fellow cast and my director who had the belief to cast me in the role. Talking to a friend this weekend about how we both feel, as we both have main parts in this show, it is apparent that we are both under pressure to meet the expectations of coming up with a good performance. Most strikingly though, is that we were both able to complement each other’s performances and yet were not able to see the merit within our own. Doesn’t human nature do that to us? We are blinded to the achievements that we are making and often unable to recognise just how far along a path we have managed to go.

I think my thoughts for this blog piece are also being coloured by my perceptions of what others think of me right now. Almost a year has passed since walking away from my job and I feel an expectation is hanging over me, one that I should move on from this cosy little career break and back into the world of work. After all, I have had the chance to dabble in the daydreams of a writer and to publish a couple of books that have found their way onto the bookshelves of a few friends here and there. I should probably tick that adventure off now.

Do we always do what is expected of us though? I wonder how much we make our choices in life through efforts, conscious or not, to meet these expectations. Do we do things we want to do or what we feel we are expected to do? I don’t have the answers to any of that and perhaps that’s the stuff of a high level philosophical debate. I do know that people are often quick to make their judgements of others and to say what they think is the best course of action for them to take. Each individual has their own set of circumstances surrounding their choices though and nothing in life is clear cut.

As for me and what I am expecting of myself at the moment, I have a few answers and a lot more evaluating to do. I may feel after the show that I should stick to doing everything as before or I may step away from some of it for a while - let’s wait and see. To be honest, that is probably a good attitude to adopt to more than just my role within a local drama group. To continue writing, to look for a job, to challenge myself in new directions, all of those need me to take time to consider further and I have to tell myself that I shouldn’t expect to have all the answers.

Sunday, 3 November 2019

Middle-Aged Spread

I have decided that I have reached an age where all the clichés heard as a youngster are starting to come true. The phrases that we have all heard but dismiss as meaningless, actually start to matter when they are applied to you directly. The ones about contentment levelled at people as an obvious spare tyre appears around their middle, for example. I don’t know whether a bulging midlife tummy is more acceptable for a man than a woman, more likely to receive a smile and a knowing nod of “oh he likes his food” almost as a badge of middle-aged honour. For my part, a similar middle-aged spread signals a heap of negatives.

Outfits that I was feeling good about wearing now begin to feel ‘a bit snug’ in places so I find myself moving them along the rail in my wardrobe and reaching for more comfortable and less conspicuous choices. That wish to fade into the background starting to creep in again, the one that I had pushed away with my red shoes and splashes of colour and the mantra of being fabulous at fifty, showing my true colours in my ‘Autumn years,’ all of that swept aside along with the offending outfit. Weight gain is often linked to negative mood, it seems that way for me anyway. It is so easy to slide down that spiralling helter-skelter of grabbing comfort food at a low moment and then feeling low because you have had that ‘naughty treat’ and then feeling the need to grab another, and on and on until somehow you can jump off that ride.

Lately, the phrase ‘you can’t have your cake and eat it’ feels ironic. It seems that I only have to glance sideways at a Victoria sponge and the calories are being absorbed by osmosis and joining hands to dance around my middle whilst sticking out their tongues in a joint act of defiance to say we’re not going anywhere. Motivational messages might extoll the virtues of feeling positive and guilt-free about having that slice of cake but then scales don’t exactly play a fanfare when I step on them in the morning and watch the numbers steadily rise. I may be giving the impression that I am addicted to cake but it serves as a mere example to the many items that I should eat less of.

Recently I have tried to do just that and to up the exercise, all the measures recommended by all the experts. I do seem stuck right now though and that is when the motivation factor is crucial. Some days I feel that I have two doors that I can choose to go through. One door allows me to continue on a path of willpower, with fruit and vegetables scattered amongst the righteous flowers on either side. The pathway is strewn with options of low fat, low sugar - dare I say low interest! The other door looks more attractive from the outside, with a sparkly sign on it saying temptation. Behind that door I can imagine a feast laid out like a banquet, cake stands piled high, chocolate fountains, warming pastry goods, roast potatoes, breads and cheeses. I could go on but I think you get the picture and you might be drooling like me at the thought of it all. Tempting though all that might be, as plates are cleared from this metaphorical feast, labels are revealed - guilt, self-loathing, no control, fat, worthless. That’s the trade-off I guess. The decision I have to make each day, of which door to open.

As middle age engulfs me, it has certainly felt harder to shift weight, to make an impact upon my body shape. Alongside this, emotions can often overwhelm me. So to move forward requires a two pronged attack. I need to deal with both the physical and mental well-being. Sometimes that needs support. The mere act of writing this feels a little like waving a white flag to ask for that support. I have a goal to achieve within the next four weeks. I have a costume waiting to be worn, my evil fairy outfit for my part in a local drama group’s production of Sleeping Beauty. I have to keep visualising that as I stand each day before those doors. I would love to look good in that costume. I would love to own the stage in it, full of sass, not cake. Maybe I should print off a picture of an evil fairy and stick it to my fridge. I will have to give it a good go anyway.

So I am trying to make an impact within those next four weeks. I am trying to keep motivated and not give in to the temptations presented at family birthdays, coffee stops with friends, convenience when rushing to be somewhere. There’s one more cliché coming into focus here: ‘mind over matter.’ I have to work hard on that and also on telling myself not to mind when comments may be made by those who shouldn’t matter to me. I’m working hard to ditch the comfort food and take comfort from the results that I hope come from that effort. I’ll just have to keep you posted on that one.

Sunday, 20 October 2019

Screen Time

Have you checked yours this week? My phone now gives me a weekly report as a measure of how much time I have spent and how productive it was too. Who would have thought that we would be willingly scolded for our choices by a handheld device that simultaneously makes us use it to tell us that we are using it too much? The irony. These little screens have seeped into so many aspects of our lives though and the data that is held about us is scary if we take a moment to consider it. Think back to a few decades ago and the very freedoms that were hard fought for then and predicted as a dark future by dystopian writers have become reality. 

Every time we click one of those seemingly fun quizzes on Facebook or allow access to a new app, we are willingly giving up personal details and our location, in fact we are often waving a big flag and shouting to all that we are currently away from our homes should anyone be interested, as we post stories and snaps of our days out and holiday adventures. Even our watches conjure up motivational messages or award a quality score on our sleep patterns and the number of steps we have made. Suffice to say, technology has seeped into all aspects of our lives through these screens. We have definitely opened the metaphorical ‘Pandora’s box’ and there is no turning back with it now.

Although I know all of this to be true, and somewhat resenting that fact, I find it hard to consciously move away from my screens. Now I have to rely upon them as a vehicle for my writing. Not only as the medium for creating written pieces but also where I have to trudge through the treacle-like experience of promoting that work, on all the social media platforms that exist through said screens. I have to accept that I need to use my laptop and my phone frequently but I am aware of how addictive this practice can become.

If you look away from your screen right now, the one you are using to view this, what do you see around you? Are you at home with other family members staring into their own devices? Perhaps, like me the other week, you are on public transport, crowded into a tube carriage with armpit odour as company or squashed on a bus with windows steaming up as the rain rivulets run down the outside of them. If so, I’m guessing a high proportion of your fellow travellers are engaged in their own screen time. Last week I stood in the High Street for a few minutes and just watched how many people were walking and screen watching at the same time, oblivious to their surroundings, some narrowly avoiding trip hazards. It conjured up a sci-fi plot where all inhabitants of a future earth are born with a phone screen instead of one of their hands, but I digress.

Recently at a hair appointment, I had to check my phone for a text message from a family member and I started talking about this very subject with my hairdresser. She brought up an interesting point, which is what really got me thinking about this blog post. Her bugbear, as she described it, is when she has made arrangements to meet with someone for coffee or lunch and the first thing they do is to put their phone alongside them. They then continue the time being distracted throughout, glancing at what floats across the screen and not giving full attention to the social meeting that both parties had signed up for.

It made me stop and think. How often have I done that? Does that mere act signify from the start that I am not fully committed to the occasion and the people that I am with? Perhaps it does. It is certainly something to think about. I need to work on separating my social and relaxation time and activities from my ‘work’ related ones. Keep my phone in the bag when I am spending time on the first of those, so that I can fully engage in them. Just as I have previously extolled the virtues of being in the moment, usually connected in my mind to being outside, close to nature, it is true that I should devote the same courtesies to connecting with the people in my life.

That all sounds fine and uplifting but I guess I am not alone in thinking of times when I have been the only one to put away the phone and to look around to see everyone else glued to theirs. Some evenings in our house, the television is on whilst every family member is either tapping on their phone screen or engaged in a screen activity on a tablet. Still, I guess we can all start somewhere. I can put away my screen and start a conversation, one where we actually look at each other too. It is all too easy to talk with our thumbs, to tap away and be drawn into screen chats, emojis and gifs. There's a lot of research out there about the negative effects of screen time, about the wisdom of putting screens out of sight for a while before bedtime, perhaps I need to take all of that more seriously. I am going to make a conscious effort to reduce my screen time. How about you? I wonder how many people can you actually engage with today. There’s my challenge, but don’t put your answer on social media!