2013: one step forward, two steps back

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2013 has been… interesting. Not as full as emotional whiplash as 2012 which remains both the best year of my life and the worst. But 2013 was still challenging and wondrous in it’s own ways.

I started this year in Budapest courtesy of lovely best friend Debs.

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Really this year I hung out with my best friends, a lot. Losing Lianne has really pushed home the importance of having regular meet-ups to eat yummy food and wear silly hats.

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I spend most of the spring shut inside reading all the books and writing my final essays in between trying to get enough hours on my placement.

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Shortly after hand-in HWSNBN and I flew out for the holiday of lifetime and our honeymoon to Cuba. It was three of the most amazing weeks of my life and I was on a high for most of the summer. (And I still haven’t blogged about it. GUILT!)

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And in July I graduated qualifying me to pursue my dream career as a counsellor. I still can’t believe that not only did I complete the course (when at times things were so tough) and I got a distinction!

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Over the summer I swam in the sea so much HWSNBN christened me the mermaid.

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I came out of the feminist closet with a bang!

And in August I spoke about losing Lianne one year on.

I went to France with the family and ate many crepes the size of my head. Sea salt caramel FTW!

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HWSNBN and I started househunting then thought fuck it we are never going to be able to afford to move let’s go on holiday to Tokyo and Australia instead! To say I am excited is the understatement of the century.

And after spending most of the year not blogging at all, in December to raise money for charity I spammed everybody with cat gifs and by completing 30 blogs trying out 30 hairstyles in 30 days. And with Ros cut off my hair for charity raising over £600.

before after

It’s been a good year. But the latter half of this year, ugh it’s been tough. I struggled with health issues. The last six months there have been two things I’ve been pursuing with every fibre of being. And although I haven’t exactly fallen flat on my face, in different ways I’ve failed to make the changes I wanted. The thing about change nobody tells you is how much it sucks. It’s uncomfortable, it forces you out of your comfort zone, and mostly it’s slow.

Feeling so stuck has led to some big emotional revelations. I started setting boundaries. I began counting my blessings and letting go of guilt. I cut down on the amount I took on. And this, really surprises me sometime this year something shifted within me and I started being kinder to myself.

Would I have learnt those lessons if everything hadn’t gone exactly to plan? Probably not. Would I preferred it everything had gone smoothly? Hell yes! But so it goes…

So for the 2014 in the grand tradition of making overly ambitious resolutions and giving them up in a strop within a week, I have three resolutions:

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1. Make a recipe a week.

I need to expand my repertoire beyond pasta and studenty stir frys before I contract lurgy. So I’m committing to cook something new every week in the hope that come 2015 I will have 52 new dishes to add to my repertoire.

2. Write and submit the Lost girls. a story

I miss being creative and writing had to take a backburner while I completed my degree. But now I have all this free time (haha) my plan is write and submit my story about ghosts anything by the end of 2014

3. Complete five things from my much neglected life list

First up I’m trying out veganism for a month. As I said then:

I don’t talk about it much on the blog, because I don’t want to preach to anybody, but I’m a lifelong vegetarian. I’ve never eaten meat and I gave up eating fish when I was ten. But although I’ve always toyed with the idea I’ve never tried veganism. As a vegetarian I’m finding it increasing hard to justify consuming milk and other animal products given the intensive and often cruel farming practises involved. I know this will be really difficult, particularly as HWSNBN is a coeliac (meat all the way), but it’s something I’ve always wanted to do.

Plus I also want to stop putting cheese on everything. It’s day 3 now of being a vegan and I would shiv you for some aged cheddar. It’s going to be a long month…

Overall if there’s one wish I have for this year, it’s that I surprise myself again.

Smelling the flowers

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I’m gloriously happy at the moment, happier than I can remember being for a long time. My cynical alter ego is squinting up at the sky waiting for it to start falling but the rest of me is enjoying lying back and smelling the flowers. In some ways it’s not a big surprise:

  • I qualified with honours in my dream career and, perhaps more importantly, got my evenings and weekends back;
  • I celebrated my first wedding anniversary with the love of my life HWSNBN;
  • I’ve recently returned from an awesome honeymoon trip to Cuba – full blog, when I can be arsed soon;
  • I’m working on a new novel;
  • Plus there are a couple of exciting and TOP SEKRIT projects on the horizon.

Any one of these events would be enough to account for my happiness. What makes this different and blog worthy is that a couple of my closest friends are struggling through some very difficult times and I am so desperately sad for them. But although that sadness is present and I am mourning for them I also feel a surge of deep joy for myself and neither feeling lessens the other.

I can see some of my well-adjusted readers shrugging as they read this: ‘doesn’t everybody emotionally multitask?’

But this is very new for me. Two years ago I would not even have been able to register the thought of being happy when people so close to me weren’t. Like a human sponge, I had so little boundaries I found it difficult to separate my feelings from the people I loved. Can you say enmeshed, fucked-up and unsustainable? Last year I would have been able to acknowledge my happiness but only momentarily before the guilt would set in. How could I be happy when others were suffering?

It has taken two years of counselling but I have finally learnt the difference between feeling empathy and responsibility. I can finally let go of feeling like I don’t ‘deserve’ to be happy because people around me are struggle. It is one of the horrible secrets of life that if you look hard enough, somebody around you will always be struggling. It seems like such a minor change but for me it has been fundamental. If I lived by my old rules, it was never OK for me to be happy.  So I am able to not only recognise but revel in how amazingly lucky and blessed I am at the moment. And I am fully conscious that this too shall pass and it will be my ‘turn’ soon enough. But until it does I am going to enjoy every moment. As my bestie Kurt says:

“I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point “If this isn’t nice I don’t know what is.”
– Kurt Vonnegut

And in case that quote gives you the mistaken impression that I am cultured innit. Look, cat fonts!

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Loving myself

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Over the next couple of days I will be posting my three new years resolutions in the hope that declaring them publicly will give me an incentive to keep them!

The first is deceptively simple (and a little hippy dippy): work on loving myself. However, I expect that this may be more of a lifelong struggle than a one year blitz.

I know I am not alone in having trouble with this. At the end of my first counselling session with a new client I always set them a task. To do something during the week, just for themselves, that makes them feel good. It shocks most people that they cannot think of something. Most of us spend our lives focused externally, never considering how we can best take care of ourselves.

One of my favourite meditations metta is focused on offering up loving kindness to groups of people. First you visualise loving kindness surrounding your loved ones, then acquaintances, strangers, enemies, all beings and finally yourself. Always I struggled with the last part of the meditation offering myself the same love and respect I easily offer up to other people; even my ‘enemies.’

Throughout my adolescence and through my twenties, I hated myself. And I was really good at it. No matter how hard I tried I was never good enough. I would compare my insides to other people outsides and always find myself wanting. I had to hide away that sad, bitter, angry, jealous, judgemental side of me because if other people saw they would never accept me. But I knew that shadow self was there: an empty void I would do anything to hide.

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I strongly believe that loving and accepting ourselves improves our relationships with everybody we encounter. If you hate yourself and are constantly striving to hide aspects of yourself how can you possibly connect authentically with others. If you do not respect yourself, how can you reinforce boundaries and ask for what you need. If you cannot love yourself how can you ever love another. As the Buddha said ‘You could search the whole world over and never find anyone as deserving of your love as yourself.’

Counselling is an ongoing process of learning to accept myself.  Falling in love with HWSNBN was a great healing process . I love him and respect his opinions. And if he could love me unconditionally then surely I could try too. I suspect loving myself will be something I always struggle with but this year I really want to work on getting rid of self hatred and start loving and respecting myself. Here’s how I am going to do it.

Be kind
Act as if you love and respect yourselves and your thoughts will begin to follow your actions. Take care of yourself: eat well, move your body, give yourself the time and space you need. Make sure you do something you enjoy everyday.

Silence your inner critic
Often we catastrophise, ‘I am such an idiot, I always get it wrong.’ Stop. Take a deep breath and reframe the thought. ‘I did an idiotic thing. Sometimes, I get it wrong. But that’s OK.’ Daily affirmations can help replace the inner cycle of negative thoughts. For example: I am always learning and growing. I am good enough.

Be honest with yourself
If you are sad or angry or frightened, acknowledge it. Feelings are not good or bad, they just are. And they are all valid.

Forgive yourself
When I client is being particularly self critical I ask them to flip the perspective. ‘If your best friend was telling you this story what would you think and feel.’ It is much easier to extend kindness to others rather than ourselves. Reframing allows us the distance to examine our actions.

In one of my favourite chick flicks Bridget Jones Diary, there is the following exchange:

Mark Darcy: ‘I like you, very much.’
Bridget: ‘Ah, apart from the smoking and the drinking, the vulgar mother and… ah, the verbal diarrhea.’
Mark Darcy: ‘No, I like you very much. Just as you are.’

When she tells her friends they are amazed ‘Not thinner? Not cleverer? Not with slightly bigger breasts or slightly smaller nose?’. ‘No just as I am.’

Like Bridget, I am worthy. I am good enough. Just as I am. And you are too.213217363578654495_1af7TTu6_c

Don’t settle.

I learnt a lot of things at University the first time around, but not the things they wanted me to learn: about postmodernism, Spain in the twenthieth century and epistolary novel. Nope at University I learnt far more valuable lessons like: never drink in the club, 102 pasta recipes, that baggy purple jumpers are not my friend, nothing good happens after 4am and, most importantly, why you should never settle.

I’ve talked before about my personal happiness mantras but I thought that ‘don’t settle’ was interesting enough to deserve its own post. It was a phrase coined by me and my awesome flatmate Sam at University. There was a certain type of girl at Uni: gorgeous, smart, kind. Basically the type of person who only exists to make the rest of us feel bad about ourselves. This perfect girl would introduce you to her boyfriend and Sam and I would like at each other like ‘Him, really? She’s totally settling’*

*Except not out loud we weren’t that bitchy and judgemental. Yet.

Because despite all the aforementioned amazing qualities that girl was terrified of being alone. We were younger then and I don’t think either of us knew about the particular kind of loneliness that comes when you are all alone in a relationship. But we knew then that relationships were tough enough when you loved that person. And you were settling, not willing to invest everything you had? You were so screwed.

So ‘Don’t settle’ was a mantra we whispered to each when either of us was tempted to give up on our dreams and aim for something for more comfortable. Settling was one of the worst things you can do. It meant aiming for mediocrity wasting you potential on people and opportunities you didn’t care for. ‘Don’t settle’ we whispered as we kissed frog after frog and jumped from crappy job to crappier job.

And I listened and I waited and I never settled for anything else but love. But in my career? Guilty…

In Steve Jobs Stanford commencement speech, which you should watch, he says:

Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don’t settle.

But I did settle. True confession: I’m almost 30 and I have never had a job I loved. Growing up, I never wanted to be one of those people living for the weekend. But until this October, I was. I’ve had a lot of jobs: good, bad jobs and jobs so horrifically awful its almost funny. I was the klutziness waitress ever for a short-lived period where I thankfully avoided scalding anybody. I was a crappy PA, double-booking meetings like there was no tomorrow. I worked in supermarkets and libraries, with the police and beauticians. Until I finally got a job, in my dream field, publishing.

Ever since I was a little girl I wanted to be a writer. However, until I made it I needed to find a way to buy quills and other writing accoutrements. So I settled for the next best thing editing other people words by aiming for a job in publishing. It took me two years but when I finally got that dream job, albeit at a non fiction publishing house, I was ecstatic.

It took me two years to realise I was settling, 23 months longer than it should have done. I wanted to work in publishing so much I ignored that the commute exhausted me, the work bored /infuriated me, the pay was a pittance. In fact I hated everything except my colleagues who were lovely and saying I worked in publishing. Saying I worked in publishing made me feel like somebody and that brief blush of joy at achieving a lifelong goal almost made everything better. But then there was that other sensation like I was constantly holding a balloon after water, pushing myself to be something unnatural.  I ignored the signs and if it wasn’t for one thing I’d probably still be there: the boss from hell.

He still is the worst boss I’ve ever had: mercurial, selfish and mean and I thank him everyday. Because if he hadn’t been such a horrific example of a human being I would have settled. I would have sacrificed a large part of myself just so I could say I worked in publishing,  while everyday I died slowly inside. Instead I left for a better job where I stayed for years, colouring inside the lines not risking everything for another career as a  counsellor because I could not bear it if I hated that too.

Yes, I was an idiot and finally I faced my fears and took the plunge. Best decision ever. Thankfully, I love being a counsellor and I don’t have to cut off or ignore parts of myself to do it. I’m no longer settling. Best.feeling.ever. But here’s the thing I still feel guilty admitting. Much as I love working as a counsellor I don’t just want to do that. Saying that one job is not enough, it makes me feel greedy as if the world is a cake and I’m demanding the largest slice. I’m almost ashamed to admit how ambitious I am. But I want so much for myself and I’m not going to tear myself apart pretending that is not true. I won’t settle not anymore.

So I’m putting it out there. I want to be a counsellor.  I want write books. I want to blog. I want to be a good friend, wife, daughter and eventually mother. And I want to live a full life.  And I’m not going to apologise for wanting all those things and so much more. Here’s to having ambitions goals and never settling. What do you want?

What’s your happiness mantra?

Happiness is a form of courage

Via Print pattern

I’m fascinated by happiness. If I can define what makes me happy and unhappy and start doing more of the former and less of the latter, my life will be perfect. Right? I jest, but if our emotions are the prism through which we perceive the world then it makes sense that I try and do everything I can to make mine rose tinted.

I’ve blogged before about the specific things I try to do to increase my happiness: reorganising my wardrobe, scheduling some fun and drafting a life list. However today, I want to talk in more general terms about creating a happiness mantra inspired by this post on creating personal happiness commandments. For me the word commandments implies something strict and punitive, so I prefer happiness mantra. As I learned in yoga camp (no joke), a mantra is a word or group of words capable of inspiring a transformation.

My personal happiness mantras really sum up the principles by which I try (and fail) to live my life. Like lyrics or often quotes they get stuck in my head and like running my fingers over rosary beads repeating them in times of crisis gives me solace. So here are my personal happiness mantras:

Be Rowan

Via Advice to Sink in Slowly

To be me means knowing who I am and what I like and dislike.  I like reading young adult fiction not Russian literature. I am remarkedly ignorant on world affairs but I know everything about Sweet Valley High. I am have the hand and motor coordination of a slug but am agile at writing words. Sometimes I really want to change these things, write a great work of literature, become a crafting genuis, dance like without falling over my own feet but this is just the way I am.

It becomes harder when we move out of the realm of the practical into the emotional. Can I accept my anger, my perfectionism, my addiction to cheap cornershop sweets? (‘Aaah sugar, my old nemesiseseseses’. I’m on week two of no sugar and it’s sloooowly getting easier) Acceptating myself as I am: a flawed work in progress is terrifyingly hard. But do any of us really have a choice? Sing it Oscar…

Via Emily Mcdowell

Let be

I am limpet-like in my ability to cling to memories and concepts long beyond normal people would have relaxed their grip and let the waves take them. This is simultaneously a virtue and a curse. I perservere, I am a natural born tryer, but sometimes I need to give in otherwise I’ll break. This mantra has been stuck in my head for over ten years when midday through an English class in college I heard Hamlet’s last soliloquy. Yep, it’s quote time:

‘Not a whit, we defy augury. There is special providence in
the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to
come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come—the
readiness is all. Since no man, of aught he leaves, knows what is’t
to leave betimes, let be.’

Hamlet, Shakespeare Act IV II

To paraphrase the Dane, we do not know and never can what shapes our fate so why worry. Sometimes we just have to let be. Oh but it is hard.

This too shall pass

I find this tragic and comforting all at the same time. When I linger in the depths of a black mood I tell myself ‘This too shall pass’ and eventually it always does. Consequently even when I am so happy my body cannot contain it I think ‘This too shall pass’ and that knowledge of the finiteness of the moment gives it bittersweet tinge that makes me appreciate it even more.

Enjoy the process

I love lists and goals and destinations. Which is why I have to constantly remind myself to enjoy the journey. To be present in the moment. To slow down and smell the flowers. Or the poo 🙂

Be kind for everybody you meet is fighting a great battle

I am not always kind. I can be sharp. I can be impatient. But I try and remember that I can never know the contents of another person’s heart. That person who’s just cut me up may have a sick child. Or they may be an arsehole. All I know is the smallest acts of kindness have made a major difference in my life.

First things first

Via designspiration.net

Or as take you shoes off before your tights, you eejit! Sometimes known as lessons I learnt from being hangry (not a typo hangry= anger caused from hunger, an affliction I suffer from mightily). If I don’t eat I turn into RowanHULK: ‘COMPUTER NO WORK, SMASH STUPID COMPUTER. COMPUTER DEADED. SAD NOW.’ So to mollify my inner Hulk I eat regularly, I make sure I get enough sleep. First things first means eat before an exam. Go to bed on time the night before a big meeting. By taking care of the little details such a sleep, food and drink I’m much better prepared to deal with whatever life throws at me.

And with that in mind, it’s time for an afternoon snack 🙂

Scheduling some fun: curry night, date night and me

Cake = joy

Over the last year, I’ve worked really hard to try to be happier. At the best of times, it’s easy to feel out of control of your own life. To place your locus of control, (the extent to which you believe your direct your destiny) externally; viewing yourself as a puppet of cruel fates. Or to blame other people for the emotions they incite within you.

Yes, sometimes life sucks. Tragedy falls out of the sky and there is nothing you can do to evade it. However, what we can control is how we react, how we process events and how we recover. From examining my life I know that focussing on simple things – like getting enough sleep, eating well and exercising, and spending time with those I love (for me the single most influential contribution towards my mood) – makes a big difference to my overall resilience. But what larger changes could I take to make my life happier?

Scheduling some fun

As part of my ongoing happiness project, I’ve been thinking this week about scheduling some fun.

The idea of scheduling fun seems paradoxical. By definition fun is a spontaneous pleasure, why do you need to build in time to have some fun?

So much of our lives are already scheduled.  I work 9-5. I have to sleep eight hours a night otherwise I become the grouch muppet from hell. I need to make time to see my family, He Who Shall Not Be Named (HWSNBN), friends and me time. With all these commitments, if I don’t schedule something it will not happen.

An example of how scheduling fun works in my life is my love of writing. I find it enriching to spend my time making up imaginary world’s populated by characters with whom I get to torture (all writers are sadists, I’m looking at you George R R Martin). But if I don’t commit to that from 19.00 every evening I will sit at my computer until I have written 1,000 words, no matter what (if I have a headache/it’s sunny outside/or all I really want to do is watch Jersey Shore, damn you Snooki and your addictive antics!) a month can lapse without me writing a word. Us fancy writer types like to call this the Butt in the Chair method.

There is another example of schedule some fun in action. Dearest reader, let me induct you into the archaic rituals of Curry Night.

Curry night

Yeah it is!

I was not there at the beginning but the principal of Curry Night has remained broadly the same. Every Thursday a group of friends meet at each others houses to celebrate the (almost) end to the week with a takeaway and copious cans of beer.

When I started dating HWSNBN I became initiated into the ranks of the Curry Night faithful. The first Curry Night I attended: there were cocktails, chinese food, party games and more girls than boys. What fun, thought I! It wasn’t until I attended the next Curry Night that I realised I had been tricked. There was only curry (my least favourite food), beer (bleurgh), no party games instead an episode of a strange TV show called Space Ghost (which was sort of amusing (until we watched it again, and again, and again…), I was the only girl and I knew nothing about Windows operating systems.

Despite this less than auspicious start, for the last seven years I’ve become a semi regular attendee of Curry Night. Ruling out brainwashing, (maybe the enervating discussions of Windows operating systems had a sinister undertone?) there can only be one answer. Curry Night is the brilliant example of scheduling some fun in action.  It’s changed slightly over the years. There’s less Space Ghost and more talk of the Budget. In honour of the Dude sometimes beer is replaced with white Russians. Cheapskates like myself eat beforehand or bring their own grub while the faithful stick to their weekly diet of madras. Cats, dogs, and babies have entered the equation. Sometimes Curry Night is so packed people eat on the floor, sometimes it’s just a couple of hardcore members. But at its core Curry Night hasn’t changed from its abiding principle: a weekly commitment to meet up with friends.

Date night: the return

When HWSNBN and I started dating, he was studying at University in Brighton and I was working back near my parents home in Surrey. Even though we saw each other every weekend, in the first flush of love that wasn’t enough. So every Wednesday we would take the hour and half journey to visit each other. I’d take the train down, or he would drive up. Our Wednesday date night became the highlight of my week.

We didn’t do anything elaborate (he was a student and I had a crippling book addiction so we were always strapped for cash :)). But I really valued the time we spent together doing silly little things like cooking for each other, going for walks or watching crappy films. After we moved in together two years later we still kept our date night tradition, moving it to Tuesday nights.

However, in recent months date night has begun to lapse. I injured my foot and our date night default activity, walking on the downs and the beach (free, outdoorsy and good for you) was off the menu. Although me and HWSNBN saw each other every day, and drove to and from work together something was missing. We didn’t have each others attention, there was no (ugh, how I hate this word) quality time.

Then we started the weekly pilgrimages to Pevensey to visit the one ring of power. After our visits to the jewellers, and to avoid the rush hour traffic, we’ve do something else afterwards. Whether it was skim stones on the beach, or guard our chips from the feral seagulls, or clambering all over the ruins of Pevensey castle,  it was great to spend time together.

So, we’re bringing back date night.

Coordinating diaries

I’ve also been thinking about how to extend the schedule some fun resolution into other areas of my life. I see my Mum regularly. It’s partly because HWSNBN parent’s and my parent’s handily live in the same town now. But I think it’s mainly because before we say goodbye my Mum always asks when am I going to see her next. Before I leave we always put at least one date, sometimes many dates in the diary. Even with my abysmal habit of double-booking people, (sorry mum), having a date in the diary means that I get to see my family regularly. I have the best friends in the world. But as time goes on and people get busier sometimes months can sometimes pass before I see really good friends who live in the same city as me.  So what I’m going to try to do when I meet up with people, is coordinate diaries and schedule a date for next time. Because, for me, spending time with the people I love, better than any book – and I do not say that lightly!

So any tips about how you schedule some fun, or do you prefer to be more spontaneous?