Getting back in the writerly zone

Well, here we are again, a little over a year since I last blogged. Every now and then in the last several months, I contemplated taking my blog down altogether. Various things stopped me – inertia, other preoccupations and, occasionally, somebody from across the world stumbling across an old post and making comment.  So more than a year after my last post, those words are still… live.

Long-time readers may remember, I published Singled Out in February 2015 and began writing Novel Number Two five months later. It was a faltering and ultimately false start. Life intervened over the next three years or so. Work kept me busier than I’d anticipated, then my mother fell terminally ill and needed all the care I could give. What came next, the clearing-out of her lifetime of paperwork, passions and possessions, was time-consuming and emotionally exhausting. By then I needed life to give me a boost. It chose to deliver a disruptive payload of gallstones instead, and surgery and hospital stays effectively wrote off the next few months.

But since then, things have picked up quite a bit, it’s fair to say. Life is good and positive again, in many ways.  One outcome of this is that I’m at last making time to get back into this funny business of… writing stories.

I write all the time. A self-employed marketer and copywriter for 20 years, I know I’m privileged to be one of lucky ones who is paid for their words. Those commercial writings, these days mostly for corporate blogs, event promotions and websites, have kept me in paper and ink and I’m not in the least ungrateful. But as I’m in a position to scale back a bit on the jobbing copywriting now, I want to reconnect with the joy of fiction and get started (again… again… again…) on Novel Number Two.

As a result of that faltering early start, I have seven short chapters, about 7,000 words. But they’re in not-bad shape – for a first draft. I have a whole, entire story outline too – and now I’ve read it through, I realise… I still like it. The theme is very in vogue and the story has legs.

So I’m going back in and alongside this endeavour, I’m turning this blog around and setting it back on its original track as A Writer’s Notepad.

My original writerly posts have been knocking around for upwards of six or seven years and they’re buried at the bottom of a deep blogging black hole. I reckon there’s life in a few of those old dogs, so I’ll be updating and reposting the odd one as well as penning a few fresh words too, on the second-time-around experience. I venture most of those early posts weren’t seen by more than a handful of people anyway.

Will it be any different this time, I wonder?

After that, we’ll just see how it goes.

Life Laundry

Julie Lawford Aug 18I’ve been having a bit of a sort-out and a clear-out lately; physical, emotional, psychological – and digital too. It’s come about through a combination of reasons. Dealing with the clear-out of my mother’s life, possessions and paperwork over the last 18 months has shown me, quite brutally, that just like her, I’ve been holding on to much more stuff (of every kind) than I should be.  It’s made me question what I’ve been keeping, and why, and look afresh at everything, challenging it to show me its value or its beauty.  Gallbladder problems over the last several months have made me feel, well… vulnerable… in a way I haven’t felt for a very long time. With this (hopefully) behind me, the need to reassert control over my life and environment has been compelling.  And for the first time in several years, some old stress symptoms were making a most unwelcome return.  Last time they’d proved difficult to shift and I didn’t want to make the same mistake again – ignoring the early warning signs, failing to deal with the stressors.

Time to think

Over the summer I had a lot of time to think, as I spent a few weeks doing little else whilst my insides settled down and my physical scars mended. This pause for reflection  helped me decide to use the remaining months of 2018 to consolidate, reassess and, personally speaking, regroup.

So as soon as I felt my energy levels pick up again, I got on to it.

Out with the old

I’ve been ruthless with the stuff that needed to go. I’ve been back and forth to my local tip with general and recyclable waste, garage, attic and cupboard clearance. I’ve been shredding… and shredding… and shredding more.  Old financial paperwork and old client work formed the bulk, but my philosophy has always been ‘if in doubt, don’t bin it, shred it’.  My local council very kindly told me it was ok to break the rules just this once  and put six bags of shredding out for the recycle collection in one go. My alternative was living with the six bags blocking my kitchen door, whilst I carefully filtered it out a little each week for, oh, I don’t know how many weeks, but certainly until long after Christmas. I’ve been clearing out my wardrobe and bagged-up stock of old clothes too, so local charity shops and Ebay have benefitted. Horror of horrors, I’ve even been thinning out my bookshelves.

I’ve dusted top shelves, reorganised cupboards, glued and sewed loose bits of stuff, consolidated a giant bag of travel-size toiletries and sprayed some noxious pink treatment all over my lichen-stained patio and decking. (I’m not at all convinced it will deliver the results the marketing blurb promises, but time will tell.)

Emotionally and psychologically speaking, I’ve been tackling issues which have lingered in my life for longer than they should have done. In one instance this involved a difficult conversation, but once the talk was talked, the weight that lifted was palpable. Another, a resignation from a thankless voluntary position I’ve been holding because nobody else wanted to do it. After too many years, I’ve decided it’s someone else’s turn, and that’s that. I’m giving plenty of notice, but I’m not intending to make succession planning my problem.

Other changes are taking place, enthralling and unexpected. In recent months one or two friendships have reappeared, repaired or strengthened in ways I could never have anticipated, whilst I’m consciously letting other less enriching connections fall away.

To the administratively mundane… There was the bundle of more onerous desk-based jobs which have clung to my task list for far too long. You know the kind of jobs I mean; the ones which you stare at on your list every day, knowing they’re on there because they need to be done; but you can’t face actually doing them because they’re too complex, or boring, or tricky, so you move on to do something easier instead. Three down, two more to go, and already I feel so  much more in control.

Digitally speaking, I’ve been busy on the keyboard too. I’ve reorganised my data files, culled my contacts list, sliced away at my slew of email folders, sent thousands of pointless photographs to the trash-can and checked my back-ups are working. Phew!

Somehow, I’ve made the time to have major electrical works done at my house too, the list of little things that needed doing having finally grown so large that it involved three precious weeks of my electrician’s time.  Next stop – finding a painter for the top-to-toe domestic redecorating project – and I’m on it!

To blog, or not to blog

One last thing though, and it concerns you, my lovely readers. I’ve made a decision about my blog. You won’t have seen that much from me lately – and that’s because I’ve let myself off the hook, freeing myself from the self-imposed burden of posting regularly.

The decision I’ve now made, is to stop blogging altogether.

I opened this blog to build an audience for my writing. Initially I wrote about the experience of writing, then of trying to get an agent, then of self-publishing. When I ran out of steam on that front, I began blogging about weight-loss and healthy lifestyle, and lately my blog has ranged all over the place – no core topic, no strong stand, no clear message… and perhaps (though I may be being very self-critical here) not much point at all. So I’ve decided, for now at least, to call it a day.

I didn’t want to disappear without a trace, leaving those who care wondering whether something ghastly has happened to me.  So this post will stay up for a while, perhaps a month, before I take down the whole blog and leave a holding page. Not sure if I’ll be back or not, but I think, probably, not.

I love writing, you see. But I don’t make enough time for it. And when you have a blog, and you find yourself with a couple of hours to write, the obvious thing to do is to write something for the blog. Net result – no actual writing of actual fiction, no developing of Novel Number Two, happens. And that’s another thing that I want to change in this great Life Laundry period.

The process of clearing out the old, makes room for the new. And that’s what I’m hoping – intending – will happen. That in reasserting control, clearing down some of the clutter of my life, I can make time for the things I want to do more of. One of those is to focus more consistently on my health and fitness, and another is to write fiction, properly, again.

So – and I hope you will forgive me – this is me, signing off. For now, or for good, I’m not sure. But I really, really am so very grateful to those people who have actually read (and hopefully enjoyed) my posts over the months and years. Thank you for reading, for making yourself known, for commenting, for interacting – it really has been a pleasure.

Adieu.

Ben Enwonwu #UnexpectedDiscovery

Ben Enwonwu’s Tutu (1974). Photograph: Ben Enwonwu / Bonhams Press Office

It’s an extraordinary experience, filtering through my mother’s personal archive. Many times, it has elicited a ‘what the…’ response from me. Why did she collect this or that?… What was she thinking of, when she put this or that at the back of a cupboard?…  How did she…?  Who was that…? What on earth is… this or that? If you’ve ever cleared-down the accumulation of a busy and engaged life, which, it’s fair to say, held the odd secret, you might relate to these feelings.

But every now and again, something rises to the surface which makes me stop and properly ponder.

Yesterday, I was listening to the BBC London News. There was a short piece on the recent discovery of a ‘lost’ artwork of considerable value, by the now renowned Nigerian artist and sculptor, Ben Enwonwu. It was fascinating, as this artwork had been gracing the walls of an apparently ‘ordinary’ North London flat for several years. You can read about its discovery, and the forthcoming auction here. The painting, dating from 1974, is of the Ife princess Adetutu Ademiluyi, known as Tutu.

What stuck out for me, was the artist’s name. You see, I recognised it. Not from being a connoisseur of art of any kind – I’m not!  I’d come across this name very recently. It took me a few minutes to locate what I was looking for amongst my mother’s profusion of paperwork and correspondence – the stuff she never threw away; an airmail envelope, containing three letters, two handwritten, one typed, along with a clipping from a newspaper. The sender of the letters – one Ben Enwonwu.

The two handwritten notes date from 1970, and it seems that Ben Enwonwu had noticed someone in a restaurant in London, who he believed to be my mother. He was not certain it was her, as it had apparently been some years since they were friends, and she was with a man he assumed to be her husband. So he had not approached her. He commented that she looked just the same as when he’d known her – an observation which would undoubtedly have delighted her. As he had only her maiden name and father’s address, to which he subsequently wrote, I assume their original acquaintance must have been prior to 1956.  My mother had apparently replied, and at some point had sent Ben a book relating to house purchase.  Whatever else happened between those two 1970 letters, and indeed after that, remains a mystery.

The third letter is from early 1978 and seems to have come as a result of my mother sending Ben Enwonwu a card, which had by then found its way to him in Nigeria. He updates her on the purchase and subsequent sale of that original house, and muses on how good it would be to live nearer to my mother. Well, I thought. Well, indeed.

It’s clear from this trio of notes that there was certainly a friendship, fondness and perhaps at one time, more, between my mother and Ben Enwonwu. It’s not insignificant that she kept his letters.

It’s an intriguing discovery on many levels, and it always delights me to see different facets of my mother’s life reflected in the accumulation of her paperwork, and I never judge what I find. But I’m a little wistful that we’re unlikely ever to know more of this unexpected friendship.

Meantime, the whereabouts of the other two of the trio of missing Tutu paintings remains a mystery. Disappointingly (from a purely financial perspective) all we have… is those letters.

 

 

Vision Versus Reality #2017 #2018

In January 2017, in preparation for the year ahead, I created and shared my first Vision Board. You can see the post about it here. As regular readers will know, 2017 didn’t quite go the way I had envisioned.  You can’t plan for the kind of disruption that comes from your mother getting a brain tumour. Life goals and good intentions go out of the window as every energy is directed towards the most pressing – and distressing – of circumstances. I rest my case.

My 2017 Vision Board reflected various aspects of my life on which I wanted to focus during the year; healthy lifestyle, relationships and family, work/life balance, creativity/creative writing,  travel – that kind of thing. In the end, by far the most important aspect was… family. We, my brother, sister-in-law, their children and I, pulled together as a family like never before. As the ties with our mother severed through her illness and death, the ones which bound us together strengthened immeasurably.  That was an incredible positive from last year. And set against all the sadness, the weary work of clearing down our mother’s life, those strengthened ties have been an overwhelming joy, and by far the best thing to emerge from the last 12 months.

At the start of 2017, I also had some themes for the year ahead: Health, Inspiration, Renewal, Social, Creativity, Love.  The two which resonate most with me as I look back at the year are Inspiration and Love. For all the difficulties and challenges which bumbled along over the decades, but don’t seem at all important any more, I see my mother as an inspiration to the kind of life I want to live in the years to come. For various reasons, her life changed course in her mid-fifties, and she made the very most of those last 28 years or so. I can think of no good reason not to take the very same approach myself, to the next however many years of life I get.  And love… of course. How can you care for your mother in the last weeks of her life without experiencing an overload of love. Frustration, pain, despair, anxiety; all the above, yes. But overwhelmingly, you experience… love.

This year I’ve broadened out my themes a little – you can see. I make no secret of the fact that after giving the last year to my mother and her passions and priorities, I’m looking forward to reclaiming my life.

To help keep me on-track, there are some Acid Test questions:

  • Is what I’m doing/eating helping me to become more healthy?
  • Is what I’m doing/eating helping me to get closer to my life-goals?
  • Is what I’m doing/eating aligned with my personal values?
  • Is what I’m doing/eating making me feel happy and positive about myself and about life?

I’m the first to admit, I’m not perfect – a long way from it. But I need to do better, hence those tricky questions.  I need to recover some of the mojo which powered me through an incredible 18 months of weight-loss and health improvement and get back on track with all that business. I want to reawaken my creative brain and I need to regroup, socially, professionally and personally.  It feels like a tall order at the moment, I confess.

I’m asking the universe for a break – no more all-consuming crises this year please.  Though if they come, they come, of course. But in the meantime, I’m going to set off along the path, the one I marked out a year ago, a little later than intended, and I’m going to give it my very best.

Leipzig: A Pilgrimage

My brother and I recently took a trip to Leipzig, Germany, the city in which our mother was born, back in 1935.  You can read here about the challenges presented by her dual/mixed heritage (Jewish father, Catholic mother in 1930’s pre-Holocaust Germany), and the important role she carved for herself in later years, before her death last May.

We’d always intended to make a trip at some point, but the opportunity came sooner than we expected, with an invitation from Edition Peters (the music publishing company, and our erstwhile family business), who were about to celebrate the 150th anniversary of their renowned Green Series.  We were asked if we’d like to attend some of the week-long series of events, in which our mother would most certainly have actively participated.

Contemporary design meets an historic brand, to great effect

My heritage might be immersed in the world of classical music (not only were my grandfather and great-grandfather proprietors of one of the world’s foremost classical musical publishers, and friends of Edvard Grieg and other composers, but my father sung for years in the New Philharmonia Chorus), but I’m more of a generalist when it comes to music. My tastes run from Abba to Zucchero, via classical, jazz, soft rock, ambient electronica, R&B and whole lot more. Nevertheless, it was a privilege to share in these celebrations.  We enjoyed a violin and piano concert in the Mendelssohn Haus (onetime home of composer Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy), and attended an impressive Reception (including, of course, another delightful concert – this time, piano and voice).

There, we were introduced to Burkard Jung, Mayor of the City of Leipzig, who had written heartfelt and warmly appreciated letters to our mother when she fell ill. We met many more of our mother’s Leipzig friends – their close relationships formed over the 25 years during which our mother laboured unceasingly to re-establish her family’s name in the city’s cultural heritage, and through her talks, educate students on the Holocaust through her family’s traumatic story.  We watched the 20-minute film created by Edition Peters, to mark the 150th anniversary of the Grüne Reihe, and were immensely touched to see in its final shot, a photograph of our mother, and a commemoration of her life and contribution. It would have meant so much to her.

Irene Lawford-Hinrichsen with the ‘Chronik’

We went to the Edition Peters offices, met all the staff, and had the opportunity to present a treasured book to them, which we had found in our mother’s effects. This book, a one-off, hand-typed, beautifully bound tome, chronicled the history of the company from 1800 to the 1930’s, and had been given to our grandfather as eldest son. He brought it with him when he emigrated to England from Germany in 1937, thus escaping the fate which befell so many of his immediate and extended family. It seemed more than appropriate that, with the company’s headquarters restored to Leipzig in recent years, and our great-grandfather’s name re-established alongside all of his many social and cultural endeavours, we should return this extraordinary ‘Chronik’ to its origin.

In our private time, my brother and I soaked up the modern-day city, with its traditional and its supremely modern architecture sitting side-by-side.

Thomaskirche Leipzig, resting place of J S Bach
Statue to the man himself
Leipzig University Library, an intriguing absence of symmetry
The Gewandhaus concert hall, Leipzig

We visited the family’s memorial stone at the Südfriedhof Cemetery – the stone which came into being as a result of our mother’s work.

Hinrichsen memorial stone, Südfriedhof Cemetery

It stands right by the central avenue.

Hinrichsen memorial stone, by the central avenue, Südfriedhof Cemetery

We found the 4 Stolpersteine outside Talstraße 10 (the family’s original home and location of the business, now once again home to the business) – yes, you guessed it, those cobbles were there for us to stumble upon as a result of our mother’s mission.

Hinrichsen Stolpersteine – we should have brought a cloth

We stood in what was once the family apartment in the same building, in the room restored to its original formal state and now housing an exhibition to honour Edvard Grieg.

On the afternoon when the weight of emotional tension twisted my gut and forced me to rest, my brother took a long walk across the city and found Hinrichsenstraße, the street renamed after our great-grandfather – yet another of the many projects brought about due to our mother’s tireless campaigning.

“Henri Hinrichsen: 1868-1942 (Auschwitz); Publisher, in 1900 took over the publisher C.F. Peters; Founder, City Councillor, Honorary Doctor, University of Leipzig” (My brother, chilled to the bone.)

The one thing we didn’t manage to do was visit the Musikinstrument Museum, where our mother had unveiled a bust to her grandfather back in 2012. Turns out that whereas everywhere in Leipzig still closes on a Sunday, the Musikinstrument Museum is just about the only place that opens on a Sunday… but stands closed to visitors on Mondays.

It was an extraordinary three days; reflective, and very heartwarming indeed. We met friends everywhere; we were hosted to a wonderful ‘traditional dinner’ by a group of our mother’s friends who had entertained her in the same way every time she visited for 20 years. We learned how much she was respected – and loved – by those with whom she connected in the city of her birth. We felt very proud – and just a little inadequate too, truth be told.

The ‘traditional dinner’ with new ‘old friends’

For both of us, the trip to Leipzig was far more than a tick-in-the-box, a part of the process of saying goodbye to our mother. It gave us valuable time and a place for reflection – together; it affirmed to us everything that our mother held so dear about family and her heritage – our heritage; it opened a window into her second home (I strongly suspect she felt more at home there in Leipzig than she did in London) and the close ties she enjoyed with friends and associates. And it has enabled us to push forward with what remains of the sorting-out of her life, with renewed love and understanding.

Now, it’s onward to 2018, and my sincerest hope that I can begin to re-establish my own life again, after this troubled and very sad year.

Is this a Metaphor?

So… it’s a lovely, warm autumn afternoon, and I thought I’d go out for a little stroll, just to get some air. I’d seen workmen in my local park recently, and it looked like they were laying a path.  ‘Yippee!’ I thought. They laid a path half way around the park a couple of years ago, which I’ve been enjoying several times a week. I have a nice circuit, half way round inside the park perimeter, and the other half out in the street. Now I’d be able to walk all the way around inside the park, and I wouldn’t need to go on the streets at all.  Three or four circuits would make a great little walk, and so close to home.

So I set off, in a more cheerful mood than is apparent from this picture…

The path looked interesting… promising, wouldn’t you agree?

It wound steadily downwards, following the shrubbery at the edge of the park.  Previously this area was boggy and sludgy – good for dog-walkers with wellies but not for me in my trendy, porous Skechers.

The path, I was already thinking, was an excellent addition to an already very pleasing local amenity.

Further along there are fifty yards of blackberry bushes.  I wondered if there would be anything left on them, musing that I should have brought along a tub or a bowl.  Foraged food…. nice.

But then…

Ah…

It’s back to the roadway then.

My 3 R’s of Ragdale 2017: Rest, Recuperate and Reflect

My first solo trip to Ragdale Hall, a place I enjoyed for years with my mother, was a bittersweet experience.

Every year since 2010, my mother and I have taken a 4-day spa break at the wonderful Ragdale Hall Health Hydro and Thermal Spa, tucked away in the Leicestershire countryside. I blogged about my 2016 visit here.

When my mother fell ill in February 2017, our April trip to Ragdale had been in the diary for several months. I rang to cancel, promising myself that I would return in due course, even though it was clear by then that we had made our last visit.

The months that followed were intense and exhausting. For several weeks I spent hours almost every day at her bedside in hospital. Then, when she was considered sufficiently stable to return home, I stayed with her, spending every day and many nights helping to keep her comfortable, and making her feel safe, secure and loved. After she died, a different kind of work began; firstly the organisation of her funeral, the management of her correspondence, and advising friends all over the world; then, and for the last four months, my brother, sister-in-law and I have faced the almost overwhelming task of clearing her house of the stuff of a long and busy life, that of a woman who came from a generation who never threw anything away in case it might come in handy later; that of a woman who wanted to be known, and for whom recording history, activities and accomplishments, and accounting for life and all its significances and insignificances was  paramount.

There were cupboards so tightly packed you could hardly imagine the quantity of things which emerged from them. There was paperwork going back decades; important archive material, the history of a family caught up in every aspect of the Holocaust, requiring careful and responsible handling; a mass of writings – published and unpublished articles, accounts of trips and holidays, study output from numerous courses, personal and emotional, factual and fictional pieces – dating back to the 1970’s, letters dating back to the 1950’s, thousands of photographs, greetings cards and postcards. There were brochures, maps and guide books, cruise, exhibition, festival, event, theatre and concert programmes; all records of a life spent travelling, absorbing history, art, music and culture around the world.  And books, books, books… and more books. And there was more – our battered old toys, shelves of unwanted gifts, oddments and ephemera, souvenir trinkets and costume dolls from far-flung places. And on it went…

From the outset we took the approach that we would minimise what went to landfill, so we’ve been diligent in rehoming, recycling and donating the kinds of things which would otherwise end up in a skip. That has meant a lot of to-ing and fro-ing, calling and emailing, lifting, carrying and hauling about, to say nothing of the hours and hours spent shredding, whilst carefully checking each file to ensure we weren’t inadvertently disposing of anything of significance. It’s not over either. There’s the house to sell, and the auctionable ‘house clearance’ stuff to see to in due course. Oh, and because it’s been summer, we’ve been trying to keep the gardens looking tidy too (nowhere near the way mum used to do, but passable).

So… it’s been a hectic time, respectful and conscientious too. A doing time, rather more than a thinking time.  And I confess, I was beginning to feel that I hadn’t done nearly enough thinking about my mum.

I had the idea that Ragdale Hall might be a good place to make the time and space to do a little thinking, as well as afford me the opportunity to release my weary body from some of the tension that had built up over recent months. So a month ago, I called and made my booking.  I knew exactly what to expect – care, comfort and service, experienced professional therapists, restful lounges and conservatories, yummylicious food, and the combined indulgences of sublime treatments and a multi-zoned spa and pool area. What I didn’t know, and feared just a little, was how it would feel to be there without my mother.

Ragdale had been our break. It was intended as a one-off, and it was an inspired suggestion – my mother’s, I should add – back in 2010 when she was about to turn 75, and I was heading for my 50th birthday. Our activities and interests were generally quite disparate, and it would be hard to envisage a holiday that could meet both her needs and mine.  The idea of a spa break, where we could spend personal time indulging ourselves with therapies, exercise classes, swimming, relaxing and reading, and yet come together for lunch and dinner, evenings and a lovely, companionable walk each day, was just about the perfect solution. And we enjoyed our 4-day break so much that we booked for the following year. And the next, and the next…

The lump rose in my throat as I pulled up outside the main entrance and the porter came out to pick up my luggage and park my car. The warm smile and friendly recognition I received at reception very nearly finished me off. I checked in, filled in my breakfast menu card, slurped my welcome coffee and high-tailed it to my room, to regroup.

Mum and I had stayed in every one of the spa’s small number of single rooms over the years. When I called this time around, none was available, so I booked a double room for single occupancy on the floor above. It was a very different experience, quite a bit more luxurious if I’m honest. I was, I confess, relieved that I wouldn’t be sleeping in a room previously occupied by either of us. Even the décor was different – and very pleasing.

At dinner on my first evening, I began to wonder if I’d made the best decision for myself.  It was very, very hard, sitting across the table from an empty chair. I’d chosen not to join what Ragdale calls its ‘social table’, as I didn’t want to chat with fellow guests. Nevertheless, that empty chair was very… empty.

I don’t know if it was anxiety or what, but I’d developed a tight knot in my stomach on the drive up to Ragdale. The result was a nasty bout of acid reflux across the next couple of nights, something that hasn’t troubled me since I started eating more healthily. I slept fitfully and uncomfortably as my stomach twisted and ached. More than once I wondered if I should call it a day and return home.

But the intense soothment of the Ragdale experience eventually worked its way in.  I swam and steamed myself… I enjoyed what was intended to be a gentle massage, where the therapist, noticing the crunchy tension across my neck and shoulders, offered to apply her skills more vigorously to the task of un-knotting me, to my delight and appreciation. The next day I had a lovely reflexology session with a kind and compassionate therapist, who didn’t mind in the least that I burst into tears as I tried to explain what had brought me to the session. Later, Jon, Ragdale’s exceptional shiatsu therapist was subjected to the same tearfulness, and he too delivered a superbly effective treatment to, apparently, liberate my gallbladder meridian. The expert pressure-point massage and stretching did wonders for my taut, twisty frame. That evening, the restaurant manager, on duty for the first time since I had arrived, recognised me and noticed the absence of my usual companion, which resulted in a gentle conversation as he took my order. I was struck by his kindness and his thoughtful yet unsentimental words. It meant something me that he had noticed my mother’s absence and taken the time to stop and talk in a very hectic service.

The next day, I received an extraordinary deep-tissue massage, and made time for more swimming and steaming. By the end of that day, I was significantly unwound, relaxed both physically and emotionally, and firmly persuaded that in making this visit to Ragdale Hall at this point in time, I had done a very good thing for myself.  I’d also given myself some much-needed time to simply be still and remember my mother.  On my last day, I let more thoughts and tears come, in Ragdale’s dry flotation tank in a semi-darkened room. By then, I was ready to be home again – just as well, as all that remained was an indulgent buffet lunch, before I packed my bag and got on my way.

When it comes to death and bereavement, it’s easy to be busy – because there’s so much to do. It’s easy to fill the hours and days with must-do’s, dutiful activities and responsibilities. It’s all too easy to let them clutter the space where silence and stillness has an important healing role to play. By the time I went to Ragdale Hall, my mind and body were clamouring for the silence and stillness and my tears were very close to the surface. Now that I’m home, I feel a calm that wasn’t there before, and I know my mother would have been proud of me, that I took myself away to do this, for both of us.

Ten Values-Based Life Lessons from a Tough Year

This year is turning into a strange one – unexpected, disrupted, traumatic, overwhelmingly sad, but ultimately… reflective. First the discovery of my mother’s advanced brain tumour in February, an intense period of illness, and her death in May. In the midst of caring for her and trying to prepare, emotionally, for the absence of her, a couple of minor medical issues of my own. Since May, the seemingly insurmountable challenge of sorting through my mother’s mountain of paperwork, treasured collections, historically significant archive material, miscellaneous oddities, personal possessions and general stuff-of-life. And another personal issue forcing its way into my head and my life; a piece of my history returning to bite me, painfully, defiling the period of my mother’s passing and my grief, bringing a layer of stress I could have done without.

But I said… reflective. And this is the subject of my post. These are some of the life lessons I’m learning from all of this, in this most unsettling of years.  These are my lessons. I know I’ve used the word ‘you’ right through, but I really mean ‘I’… Oh, and… you… too, if you like.

(1) Resilience

You are as strong as you need to be, and you always have been. You can deal with your stuff, take difficult – and sometimes seemingly impossible – decisions. You can rise to challenges, do more than you think you’re capable of. You can get up and do what needs to be done, even when you think your bones won’t carry you. You can put on a brave face when all you want to do is crumple and weep. You can push through grief, manage stress and bounce back after pain, deceit and rejection. You are… resilient.

(2) Standards

Hold yourself to a higher standard. Whether that’s about establishing better habits, being more selfless, working more diligently, being more honest, having more compassion or empathy, exercising more self-control or developing more self-respect – you have a right to expect big things of yourself. And when you hold yourself to a higher standard, you reap the benefits – in self-awareness and self-esteem.

Conversely, don’t allow yourself to become disappointed or disheartened when others don’t behave, or treat you as you hope they will, or as you would do in their place. Your standards are yours, and theirs are theirs. Only they can manage their behaviours, not you. You have no influence, other than your own good example, and that is easy for those with different standards to overlook. Don’t let lies and mistruths go unchallenged.

(3) Live in the Moment

Live the life you have TODAY. Stop waiting for things to be better when this or that happens, or when you achieve a certain goal, income level, relationship status, weight, or whatever. Burn your favourite candles, use your nicest sheets and your best crockery. Wear your prettiest underwear, your best shoes and your most prized shirts. Don’t save them for a special occasion – today is special. And if you want to ‘dance naked in the rain’, don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t. Just do it.

(4) Integrity

Say what you mean, and mean what you say. Stop dropping hints and feeling let-down when they pass unnoticed. If you want somebody to help you or do something for you, ask them directly. The men in your life especially, will welcome the absence of ambiguity.

Don’t let misunderstandings fester. If you’ve been misunderstood, offer clarity. If you can’t do what someone wants, for whatever reason, tell them. Be a person that others can trust.

(5) Forgiveness

Make peace with your past. This is first about learning to forgive yourself. We all make mistakes, but it doesn’t help to look back with regret. Instead, understand, recognise what happened and what has changed – about you, about others, about circumstances – and let the mistakes go. They are a weight you don’t need to carry.

Forgive others too. They may not seek your forgiveness – they may not even be remorseful for the harm they did you – but their intransigence shouldn’t stop you from letting-go whatever anger and pain you feel. Time is a great healer. But so too is the realisation that you are bigger and stronger, and you have more personal power when you let what others may have done fade into insignificance.  Nobody says it’s easy, but it’s infinitely better for your spirit to look forward, not backward.

(6) Forbearance

Whatever it is, this too will pass. Whether it’s work or family pressures, relationship challenges, grief, sadness, regret, memories coming back to haunt; whether it’s financial challenges, personal problems or health issues. We all have stuff sometimes, which we simply need to bear with calmness and restraint. These are loads that we carry for a while, until their time passes, or until we are ready or able to deal with them or set them aside. There is peace in exercising patience and cultivating inner strength.

(7) Positivity and Mindfulness

Be mindful. Notice what there is in every moment of life. Celebrate the dawn, a rain shower, a field of sunflowers, a canal-side walk, the sight of a bee collecting pollen, the taste of a good cup of coffee, the loving support of a friend or relative. Whatever is going on in life, there is beauty and positivity in it somewhere – and you don’t have to look too far to see it.

Appreciate your world and the beautiful people within it. Focus your attention on what you have, not on what you lack. Wherever you are in life, whatever the state of your finances, social life or domestic situation, there will always be things beyond your reach. You could be a multi-millionaire, in your dream home with your ideal partner, and still be chasing after something you don’t have. Ambition, plans and goals are fine, but don’t let your sights become so firmly fixated on some perceived deficit, or some distant future gain, that you forget to appreciate your now.

(8) Organisation

Overwhelm comes from disorganisation. When life gets chaotic, it’s easy to spend more time worrying about how busy you are than actually accomplishing the things you need to do. This is where practical planning comes in, along with task prioritisation and letting go of what you know in your heart you will never get around to.  It means handling each piece of paper only once – doing rather than shuffling the paperwork and the tasks.  It means focusing not on all the things you haven’t yet done, but each day acknowledging the things you’ve accomplished. Appreciate the progress you’ve made. That way lies a calmer spirit, the best preparation for tomorrow.

(9) Be You

Whoever you are today, wherever you are, whatever you want in life, whatever your personal priorities and preferences, you are fine, just as you are. You don’t need to pursue things you don’t really want, just because people like you expect you to be pursuing them. That means it’s okay not to want a career trajectory any more. Yes, it’s ok not to be ambitious. It’s okay to go for softer goals too, or no goals at all. It’s okay to be on your own if that’s how you like it. It’s okay to wear whatever you want to wear; it’s okay to shun social media or not drink alcohol; it’s okay to walk rather than run; it’s okay to cry, or not cry. It’s okay to break whatever rules you’ve made for yourself, whenever you damn well like. Whoever or whatever you think people expect you to be, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that you be you. Those who care about you will love you for it.

(10) And lastly… Follow your Dream

If not now, then when? If you want to change your life, change it. Do you want to travel the world, live in another country, or become a writer? Do you want to work for yourself, become fluent in another language, play a musical instrument, foster a child, learn to draw? Do you have a ‘bucket list’? Whale watching… a parachute jump… see China’s ice sculptures… the Northern Lights…? Don’t wait. You don’t know the length of your days – they may be shorter, or longer, than you imagine. However it turns out, don’t have regrets about what you didn’t do.

Some things are simpler than others to begin. A writer writes. An artist paints. If you want to be a writer, write something. If you want to be an artist, get out your paints.

What Goes Around…

There are some moments in life when the impact of karma feels particularly strong. For me, for reasons I must keep private, this is one such moment. I’m not a proponent of, nor an expert on karma from any philosophical or religious angle, I’m simply reflecting on the notion that thoughts, motives and actions in life – both good and bad, positive and negative – all have consequences.

Here, for the particular benefit of the very few people in my life who will understand the place from whence this post comes, a few words quoted directly from a couple of respected sources on the subject of karma (because they can explain it better than I); and (with a spoiler alert to anyone who does not know the story and has never read the book), a plot summary of Oscar Wilde’s ‘Picture of Dorian Gray’, which may make little sense to you, but is connected.  Thank you, lovely readers, for indulging me today.

Wikipedia

The theory of karma as causality holds that (1) executed actions of an individual affect the individual and the life he or she lives, and (2) the intentions of an individual affect the individual and the life he or she lives. Another causality characteristic, shared by Karmic theories, is that like deeds lead to like effects. Thus good karma produces good effect on the actor, while bad karma produces bad effect. This effect may be material, moral or emotional — that is, one’s karma affects one’s happiness and unhappiness. The effect of karma need not be immediate; the effect of karma can be later in one’s life, or even in future lives.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karma

BBC Website

The word karma means ‘action’, and this indicates something important about the concept of karma: it is determined by our own actions, in particular by the motives behind intentional actions. Skilful actions that lead to good karmic outcomes are based upon motives of generosity; compassion, kindness and sympathy, and clear mindfulness or wisdom. The opposite motives of greed, aversion (hatred) and delusion, when acted upon, lead to bad karmic results. Karma is not an external force, not a system of punishment or reward dealt out by a god. The concept is more accurately understood as a natural law similar to gravity.

In Buddhist teaching there is the concept of karmic ‘conditioning’, which is a process by which a person’s nature is shaped by their moral actions. Every action we take moulds our characters for the future. Both positive and negative traits can become magnified over time as we fall into habits. All of these cause us to acquire karma.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/buddhism/beliefs/karma.shtml

‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’

In Oscar Wilde’s celebrated novel, Dorian Gray, a handsome narcissist, has a portrait of himself painted whilst he is a young man – it is widely admired. But his is a hedonistic and amoral life, filled with moral duplicity and self-indulgence. Dorian Gray engages in ever more compulsive and dishonest behaviours, a process which takes him on a downward spiral from which he cannot escape. At first he believes he notices small changes happening to his face in the portrait; it appears to be becoming subtly less open and attractive, although he cannot be sure. All the while, he himself remains inexplicably handsome and youthful. As time goes by however, and he cannot escape from his own moral degradation, the changes in the picture are so obvious that they become a constant rebuke to him. He hides the picture from the world as his private guilty secret. By the time of his death, the picture depicts the grotesque portrait of his warped soul.

In the spirit of positive karma, join me today in celebrating the life-enhancing qualities of compassion, empathy, friendship, kindness and generosity of spirit.

Review: “Singled Out” by Julie Lawford

I met Christoph again this year at the Bloggers Bash. He’s just published this lovely review of Singled Out, which I hope you’ll forgive me for sharing. I know it’s blowing my own trumpet, but I could use a bit of cheering up at the moment and a positive review is just the ticket. I’ve even forgiven him for getting my name wrong 🙂 [By the way… I corrected it!]

writerchristophfischer

I’ve had the pleasure to meet Julie at last year’s Bloggers Bash and seeing her again this year reminded me that I still had her book on my kindle. This weekend’s sunshine provided me at last with an opportunity to indulge in this very accomplished novel.
What I’m talking about is a very well-written thriller set during a holiday trip to Turkey, catering to single holiday makers. You might immediately assume that this is chick lit territory, but that would do the character depth and writing style grave injustice. While certainly appealing to female audiences this novel doesn’t limit itself to pure light-hearted romantic interests but visits darker sides of the dating game and crime.
Using alternate narrative strands and voices we get insight into the characters, but we’re shown enough to be drawn deep into these characters.
Things are not as they seem and while you have an incling…

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