Ready to ditch the commute? Here’s how to WFH like a badass

If 2016 is the year you hand in your security pass and turn the spare room into an office, you should probably read this.

According to stats from the ONS, in June 2014 13.9% of people in work did so from home. Of those, two-thirds were self-employed. It seems reasonable to assume that these figures have since increased, given the progression of employer attitudes towards home working and the slightly better economic conditions for entrepreneurs.

And for many, it’s the dream; flick two fingers to that horrendous commute, wave goodbye to noisy co-workers and swap endless Pret sandwiches for cheaper, healthier things. Yes, this is frickin’ it. I am WFH.

Until you’re doing it. It’s 9.15am and you’re still in pyjamas. You might have done an hour’s deeply productive work already, but now you’re scrolling aimlessly through Twitter and you’re trying very hard not to think about the fact that Jeremy Kyle starts in ten minutes. As you microwave your fourth undrunk cup of coffee of the day, you realise it’s 11.30am and break into a slight sweat as the reality of how much you need to achieve today bites you on the arse, hard. 2.30pm and, woozy from a massive home cooked lunch you pop another load of laundry on and boost the cat’s self esteem while congratulating yourself on your impeccable work-life balance. A conference call at 3 knocks this on the head, as you resentfully wait on hold for it to kick off while Kenny G assaults your ears. Traditionally, 5.00pm til 6.00pm is spent shuddering at the memory of commuting and smugly popping your jim-jams back on. Oh, hang on, you’re still wearing them. Cherry pick a couple of easy tasks from the to-do list and my god, is that the time? A glass of wine is surely in order. But then, it’s 10.00pm and maybe I’d better just check my email and actually finish that presentation because I really don’t want it hanging over me and oh my god this is exhausting.

If the ONS had dug a bit deeper, they’d probably have found that while many of us are choosing to WFH, many of us are finding it’s not what it’s cracked up to be. Whether self-employed or in thrall to a salary-paying boss, the challenges are similar: Friday afternoon FOMO when you just know people are in the pub and you’re not. To get dressed or not to get dressed? How to stay focused? And who moved my boundaries?

If you’re planning on making 2016 the year you break free from the tyranny of the security pass and embrace the WFH lifestyle, I encourage you. But I encourage you to do it like a badass. Because working from home and whining about it is like marrying David Beckham, then complaining that he’s too nice.

In the three or so years I’ve worked from home (both as a salaried worker and as a freelance), I’ve experimented with numerous ways of doing it, all in the hope of one day cracking the secret formula to badass WFH success and serenely gliding through each working week feeling relaxed, positive and effortlessly productive. I’ve tried setting up a desk in almost every room in the house. I’ve scheduled every waking moment and I’ve tried the three-point-max to-do list. I’ve allocated set days to different clients. I’ve tried freestyling it. I’ve spent approximately a billion years in conference calls. I’ve played music scientifically proven to promote concentration (Vivaldi). Hell, I’ve even burned essential oil grapefruit to keep me pepped up and ready for anything. Hear me roar.

Spoiler: I have not yet found the formula.

But bear with me because I do have some advice to offer would-be WFH badasses. And it’s this:

  • Know why you do it. Are you WFH to avoid people? To save money on bus fares? Because you’re emotionally scarred by the toilets on the 6th floor? Because you want to do other stuff with your life, too? (These are all eminently reasonable motivations, by the way). Knowing why helps you design your working life around your motivation, which gives you your best possible chance of GETTING WHAT YOU WANT. There’s usually a rub; yes, you save a fortune travel costs, but there’ll be a lot of conference calls and a lot of Kenny G. So when you hear Songbird for the zillionth time while on hold to Milton Keynes, think of the cash, time, personal space (and best-selling sax) you’ve traded that commute for.
  • Set some boundaries. What are your working hours? Decide, and at least at first, stick to them. Tell your boss (I guess in this case it’s more of a discussion, but one worth having), make it clear to your clients and schedule your time accordingly. I find putting everything in my calendar helps. You might want to set an alarm when it’s time to start work and one when it’s time to finish. A scheduled half hour at the end of the day to finish up, prepare tomorrow’s list and close down any email conversations for the night can be effective. Try it and see what works. Amend it if you need to. Also know your red zones: for example, I won’t take a call before 8am because I’m far too busy shouting at my children to hurry the bejasus up and neither I nor my cherubs would ever want to miss out on that special bonding time. Some things are sacred.
  • Have a lunch hour. Hey listen. You’re working from home, the very least you can do for yourself is have a proper lunch hour. Eat something good – shop specifically for lunch food as well as other food. You can whip up all manner of excellent things, enjoy it and clear up in an hour. You might even squeeze in a restorative bit of Jeremy Kyle on catch up.
  • Get out. This one took me ages to grasp. I think, because I was salaried and other colleagues worked in the office every day, I suffered survivor’s guilt. While they were incarcerated, I was free. I atoned by working harder, longer and more intensively, lest anyone should think I was slacking. These days, I work more or less the same hours every day but I go out for coffee or to walk the dog. It’s vital talking and thinking time, so use it and don’t feel bad.
  • Listen to your energy. Sometimes we’re in the right headzone for spreadsheets and filing; other times we need to talk through ideas and try stuff out. Let’s get real about concentration – even though you should find it comes easier now you’re out of a noisy and distracting office environment, it still comes in fits and starts. Where commitments allow, work with your mental flow and ask yourself, what kind of task is my brain up for, right now? Then do it.
  • Get dressed. Honestly. Even in the depths of winter when I work from bed, writing under a cocoon of duvets, I get dressed. That way, those PJs come to represent something special – a day’s work, well done, and now at an end.

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2017-05-19T07:10:25+00:00 8 January 2016|Being, Freelancing, Living|0 Comments

Five things I learned about myself in 2015

I just can’t help myself; the end of the year makes me even more introspective that usual, egging me on to calmly observe myself like one of those spooky therapists who doesn’t talk much and is totally comfortable with silence while you squirm away and then, just when you can’t take it any more, casually enquire: “And what do you think this tells you?” So, yes. I’m introspecting, and I can recommend it because if you do it right, your inner monologue plays something like Michael Aspel on This Is Your Life, relentlessly regaling the past year while you simultaneously laugh and cry and nod and think “Oh, hang on a minute, the bad bit’s coming up. Shit.” Believe me, it’s fun, so without further ado, here’s what I learned in 2015 for your, but mainly my, entertainment:

  1. I’m an official weirdo (but I’m OK with it)

Buckle up, because I’m kicking off with a full on epiphany. Turns out I’m a rare breed of weirdo! Aren’t we all, but indulge me for a moment because there’s sort-of science to it. Somewhere in the middle of the year I was aimlessly trawling Facebook because it felt like a better option than actually talking to people and stumbled across a post about undecipherable things like ENTPs and ISTJs and it came with cute cartoon pictures of people pointing and having ideas. Turns out it was about Myers Briggs personality types—the 16 personality types that the world’s population can roughly be categorised into (I know, right?). I’ve done one these tests before but I don’t think it counted because I was an unwilling participant on a company training course in Woking in 2007 at the time and had literally no idea what anyone was on about because I’d spent a lot of time hiding in the toilets and looking for coffee. Who knows what I ended up as but it’s null and void because this time I boldly logged in to take the test (take the test!) and found that I was in the estimated 2% of the population who can call themselves an INFJ—an introverted, intuitive, feeling, judging sort of person who actually sounds like a nightmare but apparently Nelson Mandela was one, so bite me. It’s not the rarity that thrilled me though; it was the fact that it summed up in one free internet test and accompanying explanation what makes me how I am, explaining all kinds of things that I’d paid a spooky therapist to help me unravel, unsuccessfully, as it turns out. I’ve since done loads of reading about it because there is honestly nothing better than understanding yourself—good bits, weird bits, bad bits—and getting more skilled at choosing and reading your own interactions with others. For example, I now know that when I’m convinced someone is lying their ass off, they probably are, and that the things that I value aren’t necessarily the things that other people value and that I don’t need to judge them on that, just understand. I also know that I worry way too much about how the dog is feeling and whether I offended the postman by being out and whether this paragraph is way too long because you might be bored by now. Don’t worry, if you are, because here comes the next blinding flash of insight dressed up as neurosis.

  1. I’m getting no younger

In 2016, I turn 40. It feels weird, saying that, because despite having a mortgage and a successful reproductive track record and my very own cantilever-lid toolbox, I still feel like I’m 19 and I don’t know my arse from my elbow. And despite never having given age much thought, 40 has put The Fear up me a little bit. Not because it feels old, but because it feels like a point of no return. I’m stepping into the second half of my life and I’m not sure if I’m ready. But the thing that’s hit me hard is the sense that time flies as you get older and I better hurry up and get on with it. I have spent a lot of the past 40 years politely waiting and procrastinating and hiding in the toilets and being too scared and worrying about being good enough and repercussions and other people’s feelings, without giving my own much credit. I’ve realised that I can’t afford to do that any more if I’m going to achieve the things I want so badly to achieve, to claim my infinitesimal bit of the history of the world. Which means Des’ree had a point after all. I gotta be bold. I gotta be tough. And joy of joys, finally I get to be badder.

  1. You’re never too old for heroes

The kind of hero-worship I indulged in as a kid was all fairly nebulous. It was all about fantasising about being best friends with Winona Ryder or kissing George Michael (I WAS 8, OK, WE WERE ALL INNOCENT THEN) or writing out T-Rex lyrics in the back of my jotter, which in retrospect might have got my teachers a bit worried if they weren’t Marc Bolan fans and recognised it as such. Anyway, none of it was useful, so I stopped all that nonsense when I became an adult. However. In the past year, I’ve realised that I do have heroes and they’re not as distant as they once were. And that you can do something useful with heroes: you can watch and listen and learn something from them—turn it from adulation to inspiration. You can also heart their style hard and spend many a happy hour trying to emulate their perfect eyeliner technique. There are several totally badass people who have inspired me this year for various reasons. For example, through my brilliant, badass, inspiring friend and hero Liz Goodchild, I discovered the brilliant, badass, inspiring Jen Pastiloff whose honestly and fearlessness never fail to encourage me. Watch her videos and fall in love. There are people like my brilliant, badass and inspiring friend Gabbi whose clarity of thinking and sheer force of personality make me want to soak some of that up and say “fuck it” and do daring things. And there are the brave, brave friends who keep on trucking even when the world is unfair to them. I’ve learned that these are the people I need to look to, surround myself with, and unashamedly learn from.

  1. I’m never as bad as I think I am

The whole personality type thing was a revelation for me. I’d never realised what a judger I was, even though I really should really have seen the signs. Being a judger and overly concerned about other people’s feelings can only lead you to one place—judging yourself, looking yourself up and down and tutting over your shortcomings like a built-in Patti Stanger overseeing the scales at a Weightwatchers meeting.

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I’ve called myself terrible things and done myself down, acting permanently disappointed with my performance. But the truth is, I’m never as bad or underachieving or fat or selfish or unappealing as I think I am. This year, I’ve learned to call out that judger and even more importantly, give myself a break. I’m alright. Sometimes, I’m better than alright. Sometimes, I am bloody marvellous. I’d be prepared to fight Patti on this point.

  1. Some things, you can’t do on your own

‘Single’ has played a large part in my life over the past few years. I’m a ‘single mother’, my relationship status is ‘single’ (I prefer ‘multiple choice’, however), and I’ve paid for a fair few single supplements on single my travels. I’ve got good at it. I cherish my own company, I’m not afraid to be alone for periods of time, I can get stuff done all on my own (I do have a cantilever-lid toolbox, after all). But I’ve learned that while there are some things I can competently do alone, there are some things that are better with a bit of help. Or better still, conscious collaboration. My recent project Only Do One Thing started out as a cathartically joyful thing and ended up feeling like the equivalent of shovelling coal with a teaspoon for no pay, mainly because I was doing it alone and found asking for help incredibly hard. Because people say ‘no’, or worse, they say ‘yes’ and then don’t deliver. It sucks. But I’ve learned it’s still no reason not to ask, because when you find people who are willing to help and who do so generously and without fanfare, it’s a very lovely thing. I really want to find a writing partner for a screenplay project but I’m scared: What if my ideas aren’t good enough? What if I hate my collaborator’s ideas? What if they’re flaky? What if I’m flaky? What if they’re better than me? For me, asking will always be hard. Sharing the load doesn’t come naturally. But it doesn’t mean I’m not going to do it, because some things are just better done together.

2017-05-19T07:10:25+00:00 30 December 2015|Being|0 Comments

Motherhood and introversion: the story we don’t tell

11 January, 2005. I’m at the checkout at Sainsbury’s, making small talk with the cashier as I pay for my groceries and slowly pack them in my bag. Ordinary enough, except I’ve given birth just hours before.

This is no act of Wonderwoman-style heroism or supreme nonchalance. It is mental survival. I’d found it hard to convince my husband half an hour earlier that I’m fine to walk the half mile there and to do it on my own—hell, we don’t even really need more milk—but all I know is, I have to get out. Anywhere. I have to leave that warm fuzzy cocoon of a house filled with the hushed care of family and friends and efficient strangers and find some time and space alone to make sense of the gigantic thing that has just happened to me.

A few years ago, a friend gave me a book that not so much changed my life, as made sense of it. Quiet by Susan Cain explores the secret power of introverts, offering a sensitive definition of introversion and explores what that means in the world that we live in. Cain describes introverts as ‘people who prefer quieter, more minimally stimulating environments’. Not necessarily the shy, nor the unsociable, but those whose energies are sapped by highly stimulating scenarios and environments, to the point that (often solitary) recharging is needed. To read Cain’s wonderful book was to finally feel valid and seen. I was an introvert. And that was OK.

What spoke so loudly to me was the level of sensitivity that Cain recognizes in fellow introverts. It made sense of my intense hatred for loud noise, my need for order and visual calm, the occasional but overwhelming desire to withdraw during, and certainly recharge after, social interactions, no matter how enjoyable they may have been.

Armed with this new knowledge about myself, puzzle piece after puzzle piece seemed to drop into place. In the process, I was reminded of that cold Monday morning in 2005 when I was propelled by a seemingly counter-natural yet utterly powerful urge to leave my newborn bundle at home in the care of others and seek solitude in the dairy aisle. That seemed to me the greatest pointer of all towards my own particular shade of introversion.

Then, something struck me, and it shocked me to the core. On the face of it at least, motherhood and introversion seem entirely incompatible. Motherhood is about the unexpected, the loud, the needy, the sociable, and the intense. But these were the things that I’d found unexpectedly hard about motherhood all along—genuine discomfort and discombobulation about a house full of constant mess and disorder, physical tension and mental panic in response to noise, conflict and high-gear emotion, the overwhelming sensation of being needed and, in their early years, literally and physically attached. They could now be better explained, but they were no easier to reconcile.

Had I chosen wrongly, by becoming a mother? Could I ever find the kind of easy joy in parenthood that others appeared to manage? When would it get easier? How different would life have been, if only I’d understood this deep-rooted aspect of myself before I’d started a family? Would I have handled it better? And why don’t people talk about this stuff? Surely I’m not the only one.

Today, there is probably more recognition than ever before of introverts and their needs—in society, in schools and especially in the workplace. This is due in large part, I suspect, to Cain’s book and well-loved TED talk on the subject. Governed societal spaces such as workplaces and schools can quite realistically implement the changes needed to cater for the introverts’ needs, but go outside of these spaces and the waters are murkier. What does the introverted mother, at home for most of the day with a tiny baby, do? And what if she never knew she was an introvert up til now? What then?

When that mother was me, I didn’t recognize my struggle as being (in part, at least) to do with my introversion and high sensitivity. The source of the struggles I experienced so intensely, at my very core, remained a mystery until Cain’s book came along. I have wanted, for several years now, to pick up the baton, where Quiet stops, and talk about the impact of introversion on motherhood. Yet so far, something has stopped me, time and time again. Something akin to taboo.

After all, it is hard to say, yes I chose motherhood, but it challenges the core of who I am, every single day.

I know I am not the only one juggles those two facets, every single day. I am not the only one who feels strangely off-kilter as a mother, unable to experience and express an easy joy that is the commonly accepted face of motherhood. For me, that joy is often replaced by something altogether pricklier, more jarring, albeit still deeply rewarding. My deep-rooted needs jostle with those of my children and it’s a toss up as to which wins on any given day. There are rarely joint victors. Mainly I’m concerned that my daughters feel safe and loved, and I think I do a good job at that. Playground mothering has always been anathema to me: mass, obligated social interactions that bring back the horror of my own school days. But I befriend a few parents on my terms and arrange playdates and coffees and it’s OK. Sole parenting is grueling and sometimes tedious, but brings a bittersweet boon in the form of the weekends my girls are with their father. Typically, I miss them like hell every second they’re gone, but I need the time to recharge, enjoy the silence and move in my own gear for 48 gentle hours. Sometimes it feels like a wasted opportunity to party like it’s 1999 rather than come down with The Archers and some soothing laundry. But it rarely is wasted.

It’s not about gloom. Far from it. There is joy, just not in the traditional places. And I have tried, over the past few years, to uncover the gold in all of this. And it has manifested in different ways: the chance the get to know myself better, and recognize my introversion for what it is; the chance to teach my kids something about being sensitive to other people’s needs and to recognize—and express—their own deep-rooted needs.

Looking my introversion straight in the eye has also prompted me to dig deeper about motherhood and its idiosyncratic nature, what it means, and how we respond to standards and expectations. It’s forced me to think realistically about my own experience as a mother and face some uncomfortable truths. The starkest is this: perhaps my time as a mother—when joy flows easiest and our needs co-exist more comfortably—will come not now, as my children’s ages slide into double digits, but later, when they approach or even meet adulthood. And while on the face of it, it might sound like a sad state of affairs not to be able to bathe limitlessly in the joy of their childhoods, it’s also quite heartening. Because maybe the best is yet to come.

 

 

 

2017-05-19T07:10:26+00:00 15 March 2015|Being, Living|1 Comment

What if you were freer than you thought you were?

Imagine a woman. She’s incarcerated and defeated. She stares at that closed door and wishes with all her heart that she could open it. She dreams of all that lies beyond it—and it seems fantastical, otherworldly, beyond reach. Years go by like this, with her counting the days, resenting that door, wishing for what she cannot have. Until one day, something occurs to her. She tries the door. And it opens. She was free all along.

Imagine how pissed off she feels.

A few months ago, I conducted a highly non-scientific experiment. I asked Twitter, ‘is your life how you would like it to be, and if not, what’s stopping it?’. An awful lot of people tweeted back to tell me they were spending their lives doing a job that didn’t fulfill them and that the major barrier to changing that was money/security. Quite a few were resigned to never having the lives they wanted. It was pretty sobering, really.

We all get stuck. Locked in. Resigned and defeated. And just because I’m writing about this stuff doesn’t mean I’m exempt. I was having a Big Think yesterday about my working life and how I wanted it to be. I want to balance my copywriting business with my self-development project and write books and one day, in my wildest dreams, episodes of The Archers. ‘Never gonna happen’, I was thinking. ‘Need to pay the bills. Need to keep on keeping on. Better get back to work’.

But then I asked myself for the facts. And the fact is that I have made a major change in my life that has resulted in lower financial outgoings. Another fact is that I have worked my arse off at a job I’m actually quite good at, and there is money in the bank. (And even if there weren’t, I’d find a way. Humans are resourceful – we just forget to be, sometimes). No-one is going to starve. Another fact: there are loads of people in this world who would gladly help me if I were to just ask. Another big clanging ‘HELLO CAN YOU HEAR ME?’ fact: I am freer than I think I am.

The problem is, we are all somehow programmed to look to the struggle, rather than the chink of light. To imagine a closed door won’t open rather than believe in our ability to bust that thing open. We get used to struggling, and forget to notice when we don’t need to, anymore. Life is hard. That’s the point. But imagine being convinced you’re stuck, unable to move to where you want to be, when all along you could have made it.

Ask yourself, how many of the barriers in your life are self-made, or hangovers from a struggle that ended long ago? Which ones are real? And what are you going to do about them?

I’m the sort of person who’s greedy for life. My biggest fear? Not meeting my potential for happiness, achievement, experiences, love. Even if your appetite is smaller than mine (and seriously, I don’t believe it is), question the barriers that you think are holding you back. Sometimes they’re real, and still surmountable. But at the end of it all, wouldn’t it be terrible to waste a single opportunity, because you didn’t realise how free you really were?

I know I’d be seriously pissed off.

2017-05-19T07:10:26+00:00 19 February 2015|Being, Living|0 Comments

There’s something I want you to know about me

There’s something I want you to know about me.

I think about love all the time.

I think I always have. I can’t help it. Love, after all, is the pinnacle, isn’t it? It’s what we were born to do.

Love is scary, though. It’s where you’re at your most empowered, and most vulnerable. And often, through this odd dichotomy, we live in half-hope, half-fear.

Love has nourished me, and love has broken me. Love has grounded me, and love has sent me terrifyingly, spirallingly crazy. Love has found me, and love has left me lost and drifting. Love has inspired me and love has held me back.

But love has done one important thing: it has given me purpose.

When I was a child, maybe aged five or six, I was asked what I wanted to be when I was a grown-up. I found it hard to answer, because I didn’t know the name for what it was. But I found myself tentatively describing a role that involved helping people. Just little things. Carrying bags, making sure people were safe when they crossed the road, helping people feel better. Turns out, I just wanted to give love.

As I grew up, I never forgot this childish vision—although I kept it to myself. I told people I wanted to be a journalist instead, or a teacher, or a shopkeeper. Because what if people didn’t want my love? What if I didn’t get love back?

But I know now: that’s not the point. The point is to use this energy force I possess as generously, as productively, as meaningfully as possible. Because I want to make the most of my life. And that means helping other people do the same.

Last year, I found the place to put that love. The manifestation of my purpose: Only Do One Thing. It’s me, putting my love into something that I hope will help people, help them feel safe, help them feel better. It did, and still does, make me feel incredibly vulnerable. The old questions apply: what if people don’t want that love? What if I don’t get it back?

But here’s another thing you should know about me. My capacity for love, it turns out, is relentless. Knock me down: I keep loving.

I’m not saying love is easy. It’s the hardest thing in the world, sometimes. Love for the self is the hardest of all. To accept yourself, to love yourself no matter what, and to assert that in all that you do. It’s a tough call. It takes effort and courage and determination. On that front, I haven’t made it all the way, yet. Most of us haven’t.

That’s why I’m suffusing my purpose, Only Do One Thing, with love right now, to run ProjectLoveYou throughout February. This month, the focus turns to loving ourselves. Wholeheartedly. Joyfully. Harder. Relentlessly. Unabashed. Undeterred.

Love yourself a little harder and your capacity for love, for a full and brilliant life, for happiness, grows. Scary though it is, there is literally nothing to lose and everything to gain. So will you accept the challenge? Say yes, and know that you’re not alone. Say yes, and that’s the first step to loving yourself harder, right there.

www.onlydo1thing.com brings you simple daily nudges (with a lot of love) to help you make the most of your one, wonderful life.

2015-02-01T11:04:14+00:00 1 February 2015|Living|0 Comments

What happened when I quit reading for a week

Cold turkey is a cruel, cruel mistress.

As a writer, I often say something along the lines of “reading is an essential part of writing”. What I often really mean is, “I have PMT and all I want to do is stay in bed and re-read Love In A Cold Climate”. There is truth in it, though; reading is vital for writing. But it can also be a gigantic great barrier.

I’m working my way through Julia Cameron’s excellent The Artist’s Way, a 12-week programme designed to unblock creativity and help artists become the artists they are meant to be. I’m on week five, and it’s both hard work and deliriously enlightening. I’ve been heartily recommending it to anyone who’ll listen. Until I reached week four.

“If you feel stuck in your life or in your art,” advised Cameron, “few jumpstarts are more effective than a week of reading deprivation.” Cameron then goes on to set the challenge for the week: no reading. Do something else. Anything else.

I was horrified, but immediately realized that Cameron has a point. “For most artists, words are like tiny tranquillizers.” She’s right. I greedily swallow words down when I need comfort and distraction. They are friends that soothe me, but they also stop me from facing up to what’s happening, right now. My little friends, it turns out, are actually frenemies.

So, a week of reading deprivation. No books. No blogs. No magazines. But what happened was kind of surprising. I liked it.

I had real conversations with people.

I stayed off Twitter for the week and felt an enormous sense of calm as a result (thank you to all who checked up on me – I’m not dead, after all).

I walked more. Hung out in the garden and noticed the apple blossom.

I tidied and tamed the out-of-control cupboards in my kitchen.

I pitched a piece to an editor (“I’ll pass” she said, like I’d offered her a potato chip right after she’d brushed her teeth. It was OK, though).

I got rid of a million outfits I hate.

I did a heap of work.

I watched way too much Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.

I daydreamed.

I went to bed at 10pm and actually slept.

I discovered new music.

I watched an obscure Argentinian film about homicidal people (it was surprisingly funny).

I felt mental clarity.

I felt present.

I couldn’t wait to start reading again.

We all have our ‘thing’—the thing we fall back on, to avoid facing stuff—whether it’s TV, sleep, drink, an ex, social media. My thing is words. I’m addicted to words. And yes, words are my job, but words are also an escape. A handy shield to hide behind, when real life feels a bit too close for comfort. A distraction when I know that there are things on my mind that need my attention, but that I don’t want to confront just yet.

So I’m rethinking my relationship with words. I will always have a voracious appetite for reading, but I’d like to think that my appetite for life itself—my life—is just as voracious. Knowing that I can steer clear of reading when I need to, and go back to it when I want to, is powerful. I know that I’ll experiment with reading deprivation in the future, because I know that in doing it, I can bag myself a tonne of free time, of energy, of presence. I can get shit done. As epiphanies go, this is right up there with when I learned that Evelyn Waugh was actually a man.

But for now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a date with some comforting Jilly Cooper. It’s been a while, you see.

 

 

2017-05-19T07:10:26+00:00 26 April 2015|Being, Writing|0 Comments

Socks and singleness: what we take for granted

I suffered a ginormous pang earlier this evening, at the checkout queue in M&S. The sort of pang that makes you breathe funny because if you don’t you might cry and the strange thing about it all is that a few seconds ago, you were absolutely fine. I was waiting, at the end of a sunny day, to pay for stuff I was grabbing for dinner and happened to glance to my left.The woman in the queue after me had a similarly cheerful haul of chilled wine, flowers, bags of salad. And a multi-pack of men’s socks. For her partner, I presumed.

It was the socks that did it. The sign, in the form of a five-pack of spring-hued machine washable size 7-11s, that she had someone to care for. To pick up socks for. As a casual afterthought with the Chenin Blanc, maybe. And maybe he’d take those socks for granted. Maybe they’d appear in his sock drawer and he’d vaguely think, “oh good, new socks” and it would be no big deal. It was probably no biggie for her, either. Just a thing you do. I wondered, as I waited and breathed funny, what people might presume about me. Maybe they assumed I too had a partner to buy socks for and go home and join in the garden and share wine with and breathe in the last of the day’s sun. Fact is, I do not.

For the record, this isn’t a whine about single-ness. Far from it. It isn’t a claim to loneliness (which I have written about in an earlier post). It’s this: a thought. If you have someone to buy socks for, how lucky you are—and how easy it is to forget.

I was married for nine years and have been divorced for four (and I am fine with that – we both are). I’m single and I’m lucky. Lucky that I can support myself. Lucky that I’m not in a joyless marriage, or in a damaging relationship or half-heartedly with someone while wishing to be somewhere else. I know plenty of people who either are, or have been. And I’m under no illusions. My sock-buying checkout mate might have been buying that five-pack for herself, or her dad, or a man she is married to, yet despises. I know that even great relationships are, by nature, challenging and imperfect and at times very, very hard. But what I do know is how easy it is to become blasé about having someone, especially in a long-standing relationship. I know I was.

In four years, I’ve frequently felt as though I’m paying my dues for nonchalance when it comes to love. Scenarios keep pulling me up short like a big, exasperated slap of reality. The men I’ve fallen for, who turn out not to be ready. Those who are not free, much as they’d like to be. Those who, actually, I’m just not that into. And vice versa. In four years, I’ve been alternately indignant, bewildered, angry, hurt and resigned that nothing has stuck. And increasingly, I wonder how I ever took things for granted. But I didn’t know, of course, what it’s like on the other side.

Don’t get me wrong; the other side has its incomparable benefits. It’s by no means a bad place to be. But if I had known to what extent love and commitment and companionship are not like something you just pick up at M&S—because it’s there, because you can, because you may as well grab it with some croissants and a litre of milk—I would have said this, to someone like me:

Not everyone has someone to buy socks for. To worry about. To really know. To be truly known by.

Relationships are hard, so you put in the work.

Love is scary, so you face up and be brave.

Partnership is a privilege, so prize it.

Just as singleness is the most valuable time you will ever have with yourself.

Whichever you have, know this. Use this to make good decisions. But don’t take any of it – not even the socks – for granted.

 

2017-05-19T07:10:26+00:00 15 April 2015|Being|0 Comments

One person’s walk in the park is another person’s marathon

At the very start of my old run to Greenwich Park, there is a long, moderate yet fairly relentless hill that finally, once you pass the brow, deposits you in genteel Blackheath. I’d sometimes pass an elderly woman, shuffling her way painstakingly up the hill, leaning over her stick. She’d carry a small shopping bag as she made her way in almost painfully infinitesimal increments of progress and as I jogged past, I’d imagine she was making her weekly trip to the butcher or greengrocer.

And, six or seven miles later, when I was on the return leg of my run, I might see her in the middle of Blackheath village; sometimes she was still only at the brow of the hill. Not there yet.

It’s been nearly a year since I last ran up that hill, but today I was thinking about that woman. What commitment she showed in that epic weekly journey. What patience, when most of us would have given up. What dogged determination. After all, presumably she could have taken the bus. I’ve come to suspect that her weekly scaling of that hill was about more than just bagging a decent lamb chop for tea; it was something she had to do.

And each time, I blithely ran past—because I could. And buses, pushchairs, runners, children, dogs, bikes whooshed past, oblivious to her epic journey. Everything was faster than her. Did she notice the velocity at which the world passed her, as she made her slow, slow progress? Did she lament her lack of speed? I don’t know.

But I do know that she is both a lesson and an example. The lesson: one person’s walk in the park is another person’s marathon. My hill was her mountain. While we do the things we do, the way we do, we must never forget what the same act costs another person, with their own set of challenges to conquer along the way. We must never underestimate what it takes for them to accomplish the same, no matter how insignificant the task may seem. While we’re at it, we should also thank our lucky stars we can.

And the example? Well, the hero in all of this is not the person who runs up a hill and for another seven miles and maybe even smashes a PB into the bargain. It’s the person who conquered that hill, no matter how long it took—driven by an iron will that proved far stronger than frail legs, spurred by a spirit that was no match for that mountain of a hill. I’ve never climbed a mountain yet. But when I do, I’ll remember her.

2017-05-19T07:10:26+00:00 3 February 2015|Being|0 Comments

I’m rewriting this scene

When I was about eight, I was knocked over by a car. I say ‘knocked over’, but the reality was that I was picked up and carried while weighed down by the heavy clunking rollerboots I was wearing at the time. I sprawled on the bonnet for probably a few metres, being being unceremoniously deposited on the ground.

It felt like a pretty dramatic scene, but I remember having the fleeting thought that this was not the way it happened in those 80s public safety television adverts that warned you of the dangers of everything. I didn’t fly through the air. There was no ambulance. True, though, that my sister, standing on the opposite verge, was screaming. That bit was authentic.

In the aftermath one thing we did agree was that the ballast of those rollerboots saved my life.

When the car did stop, just after those shocked, post-tyre screech seconds, a woman passenger got out began to shout at me as I lay on the tarmac. “You stupid girl! What were you DOING?” (Because sure enough, I had started to clunk across the road on those eight little wheels, without looking properly). I think I apologised.

We were outside the house of a family friend who was looking after my sister and I at the time. It was decreed that my mother wouldn’t be informed; she was overseas and it would worry her. This definitely wasn’t anything like those sorrowful safety ads, with their broken-legged children lying wanly in hospital beds and concerned parental vigils.

After, we never talked about it. Ever. It became, for reasons I didn’t understand at the time, a secret. A slightly shameful secret. So much so, I began to wonder if it even happened at all.

If you bury a secret well enough, it becomes all but forgotten. But over time it started to creep into my consciousness in strange and unexpected ways. Constant obsessive mental calculations of stopping distances when travelling by car, driving or not. A lurking mistrust of my recollection of events. Not knowing quite what to feel. A near-pathological need for openness.

It was only much later that I started to remember it properly. Nagging back and shoulder pain in my adulthood had been blamed fairly unilaterally on my hunched-over-a-laptop lifestyle. But then a physio asked me, “have you ever had a bad fall? Or some kind of impact injury? There’s trauma to your pelvis, here”. It took me some weeks to figure it out and return to the scene. Yes, it was probably that.

I still prod that memory cautiously. That’s what I’m doing right this instant, and now you’re party to it, too. I’m testing it to see if it’s alive, if it’s real. To see how much it hurts. And more importantly, how much it hurt, past tense. As a memory, it feels suffused with ‘wrong’. I did crossing the road wrong; the woman who shouted was wrong; keeping it secret was wrong. Even my performance as a child road accident victim was, my those safety ad standards, very very wrong. All that was right was those life-saving roller boots. But what do you do with that, thirty years on?

All I can do, maybe: look it in the eye.

We are human. We are careless. We make bad decisions. We say horrible things because we’re shocked or afraid or angry. We keep secrets. We stay quiet even when things are leaping within us like jumping beans that just won’t quit. We are hurt. We carry sadness. We are afraid to scratch the surface for fear of what may be uncovered. We are human.

As I write this, I’m going back to that unforgiving tarmac that received me, bruising my butt and scraping my elbows as it did so and confirming that I was indeed alive. I’m getting out of that car, and I’m asking if I’m alright. I’m breaking the shocked and sudden silence. I’m soothing my sister. I’m calling my mum. I’m telling anyone who’ll listen. I’m checking my bones for breaks. I’m remembering and forgetting all at once.

I’m rewriting this scene.

2015-02-01T10:57:20+00:00 9 January 2015|Being|0 Comments

Finding yourself in an unfamiliar bookshelf

Scanning the unfamilar shelves, drinking in the detail of spines. Mind whirring, processing what’s on offer, calculating who might have left these books here (for they are mainly left; rarely brought especially), I silently debate what to read next. Hunched in pyjamas, clutching a coffee mug rendered exotic purely by its unknown-ness, I survey the bookshelf before me. It offers not just reading matter; it offers the chance to adopt another persona altogether. Perhaps the sort of person who reads Kafka before breakfast, polishes off slim volumes of Alice Munro stories in the bath and goes to bed with P.G. Wodehouse.

Times like this, in a holiday cottage, instinct takes over, fired by devil-may-care impetuosity. Why not tackle Of Mice and Men? Who’s judging if I read The Da Vinci Code over breakfast? Can I stomach chick-lit in my jaded, cynical, wary late thirties? (yes, I can). Who the heck is so-and-so (let’s find out) and is my French good enough to do Le Rouge et le Noir justice? (tiens… qui ne tente rien n’a rien, n’est-ce pas?*).

For a reader, someone else’s bookshelf is a source of irresistible joy, but a holiday cottage bookshelf – you could say, no-one’s and everyone’s bookshelf – is like a journey through the looking glass. Anything could happen, for here lies the evidence of holidays past, clues as to their protagonists (who brought Jeffrey Archer? which worthy lugged Crime and Punishment here and who could possibly finish it before the merciless 10am check out time, a week on Saturday?) and the flotsam and jetsam of their fleeting literary escapades. A few worthy titles are here by design, of course: a guide to local flora and fauna; a dusty edition of historical scenes from the local town; usually some poetry and the odd Enid Blyton for visiting children.

Us readers can be fairly set in our ways. No matter how voracious, well-read, discerning or open-minded we are, the fact is that by and large, we actively choose what we read. But that foreign bookshelf, that shelf which cannot possibly be predicted or foreseen, can throw well-laid plans into disarray and leave holiday books languishing, unloved, in your overnight bag. It’s like turning up with a picnic and finding an unexpected buffet laid on. Of course you’re going to get stuck in. But where to start?

Where indeed?

Anywhere. On this bookshelf, there are no rules. There is nothing to lose and everything to discover. Indulgence wins; nostalgia is forgiven.

I recall an August in a Provence gîte, hunkered under a tree heavy with ripe figs, steadily gorging on Dan Brown thrillers and gurgling at the reassuringly formulaic set-up, every time. “There it is!” I’d hoot to anyone who’d listen, “page 5 and there’s his brainy-yet-vulnerable love interest, right there.” I recall a solo week in a remote Pembrokeshire cottage, holed up reading (uncharacteristically, for me) ghost stories that made me shiver, night after night. I remember new year in a Scottish cottage, dutifully ploughing through Anita Brookner’s Booker-winning Hotel du Lac and hating it. Gleefully lighting upon a stash of Famous Fives and antiquated Pullein-Thompson pony novels in Devon. Falling unexpectedly in love with Janet Street Porter after finding her tattered memoirs – the only English language book there – in an Andalucian mill house.

For me, these days, the lure of a holiday cottage lies as much in the promise of an unexplored bookshelf as in the chance to potter, unfettered by everyday duties, in a kitchen worthy of an interiors magazine. Read the small print as closely as you like, pore over the photos on the website, and you have a pretty good idea of what you’re getting in a country break. But rarely can you – nor would you want to – foresee the literary gifts on offer. There is no science to it. Bohemian décor does not guarantee Anaïs Nin. Vintage hideaways are as likely to yield Andy McNab as Nancy Mitford. And that’s the magic. That’s the invitation to be another kind of reader for a weekend, a week, a holiday. To suspend habit and judgement.

When you prepare for your next escape, know that the literary picnic you’ve anticipated and brought along for the ride will most likely lose its shine alongside the promise of the unknown and unforeseen. Don’t resist. If you’re brave, leave the picnic at home, and gorge on the quirky and unexpected pot luck dinner that is a holiday home bookshelf. It might not wind up being a meal you’d choose, but it can be oddly satisfying and sometimes shockingly delicious. Lose your preconceptions, and you could find yourself in that unfamiliar bookshelf.

*Nothing ventured, nothing gained, or more literally, ‘he who risks nothing, has nothing… right?’

2017-05-19T07:10:26+00:00 1 January 2015|Living|1 Comment