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.

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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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Irene Lawford – My Mother, my Inspiration

Yes, it happened. My mother died earlier this month following a short but intense period of illness.  In late February a series of minor falls had resulted in a trip to A&E and a scan, which revealed a large and rapidly growing brain tumour.  Called a glioblastoma multiforme, this is a Grade IV malignant tumour. No treatment plan was offered, as it was deemed inappropriate for a woman in her 80’s, and in any case, the tumour was too far advanced and in too inaccessible a part of her brain. She was given steroids to bring down the swelling which had brought about the falls, and once she had temporarily recovered some of the lost capacity that had given rise to those early falls, and had a little speech and mobility therapy, she was sent home. To die.

We, my brother and I, knew this from that first day in A&E. But my mother chose not to acknowledge the fact, though we are assured she understood it. She deftly side-stepped words like growth, tumour, malignant and cancer. She didn’t ask us to Google glioblastoma. When told there was to be no surgery, she pronounced herself relieved that she didn’t have to worry about that any more. When introduced to palliative services, she would begin her sentences with ‘when I’m up-and-about again’. Her approach throughout the whole period of rapid decline was extraordinarily stoical and positive in a way that made us wonder more than once whether she truly understood her predicament. Her strategy, to continue as normal, calling her reduced mobility and changed circumstances ‘the next phase of my life’, showed a resolve and strength that amazed us. Though when you read about her life, you may see the roots from which sprung that courage and determination.

Tumours of this kind grow faster the more advanced in age the patient is. Nobody would tell my brother and I ‘how long’. But we got the picture when the hospital consultant made an outpatient appointment to see my mother, at her request.  We couldn’t understand why a hospital consultant would agree to see an untreatable, incurable former patient in an outpatient clinic. Though when we realised the appointment was for July, we understood. And we got our ‘how long’.

In actual fact, things moved rather faster. A month in hospital, and a month at home, was all she got.

As I process the feelings of shock and loss, I may write more. But for now, I wonder if you will gain inspiration, as I do, from my mother’s life. She was a wonderful and unique woman, though occasionally light on some of the qualities one traditionally associates with motherhood. But when you understand her life, you may understand why, and the energies that drove her, as I do. She determined to overcome a traumatic and lonely childhood and carve her own path in life; she strove to make her mark and ultimately, to ensure her German Jewish family’s contribution and heritage was revived and restored; she was a person who saw what she wanted, and pursued it, relentlessly, but always charmingly. She was engaged, sociable, connected around the world; an intellectual, a music-lover, a writer; a giver of talks, a traveller and a student of whatever sparked her interest.  She loved her family and her children and grandchildren, and she had a real zest for life. Right up until a month before her illness made itself known, she was travelling, learning, and meeting new people.

My wonderful, amazing mother. I give you my thoughts on a truly inspirational woman, one who knew no boundaries.

Irene Lawford was born in 1935 in Leipzig, Germany to Max and  Marie-Luise Hinrichsen.

Her father (my grandfather), was from a large family, there were seven brothers and sisters in all. The family was prominent in Leipzig society, being the owners of a music publishing business, C.F. Peters.  The young composer, Edvard Grieg, published by Peters Edition to this day, was a family friend and a frequent guest at the imposing building at Talstrasse 10, which housed both the offices of the business, and the family apartments. As well as being a successful music publisher, Henri Hinrichsen, (my great-grandfather) was also a philanthropist, whose projects included funding the purchase of the collection which became the heart of Leipzig’s Music Instrument Museum and becoming a founding benefactor of the Henriette-Goldschmidt Schule, a college for the further education of women.

But the union of a Catholic mother and Jewish father in the disturbing pre-Holocaust era made my mother a ‘mischling’ in Nazi eyes – that’s like saying ‘half-breed’ today. In 1937, at just two years of age, along with her parents, she emigrated to England to avoid the worsening Nazi persecution. Most of her family believed that ‘things couldn’t get worse’, and chose to remain in Germany, trusting that some kind of sanity would prevail. In all, 17 members of her family, including her grandfather and grandmother, would subsequently perish in Nazi concentration camps, or as a result of restrictions placed on Jews by the Nazis.

Max and Marie-Luise’s foresight led to them leaving Germany with the means to establish a life elsewhere. They set up home in Hampstead – though during the war years they were forced to move frequently, being ‘enemy aliens’ and ‘bloody foreigners’. My mother attended several boarding schools, where she would have to learn quickly how to settle in unfamiliar places, connect with strangers, and make friends.

She spent the largest period of her education at St Christopher’s School, Letchworth, a forward-thinking establishment which even today boasts that ‘We treat young people as individuals, encouraging them to develop into capable, imaginative, responsible people with a zest for life’. At the time the school was vegetarian, something which underpinned her enthusiasm for healthy eating. I well remember being dragged along to health food restaurant, Cranks, when on trips into London in the 60’s, long before clean eating was fashionable. By her own account, my mother enjoyed St Christopher’s School.

My grandparents’ marriage was unsettled to say the least, and the life of a music publisher’s wife proved too unexciting for the impulsive and bohemian Marie-Luise. She met a Hungarian pianist and when my mother was just 14, made the inexplicable (to me) decision to leave her husband and daughter, to live with her new love in Hungary, behind what was to become known as the Iron Curtain. My mother was to see her own mother only once more, before she died when Irene was just 22, committing suicide when it became impossible to access the drugs she needed to treat her advancing multiple sclerosis. One can only imagine the impact maternal desertion must have had on a 14-year-old girl already parcelled off to boarding schools, let alone the suicide that followed – but equally to conclude that her stoicism, impenetrable defences, inner strength and self-reliance may well have had its roots in this period.

Her Auntie Lotte, also escaped from Nazi persecution, settled in the lovely town of Church Stretton, in Shropshire, and it was here that my mother spent her school holidays. She always retained an immense affection for her aunt, for the closest she came to ‘normal’ family life as a child, and for the beautiful Shropshire countryside.  As a family, we returned often to the area, staying with Auntie Lotte and walking the Long Mynd and Carding Mill Valley.

In the intervening years, her father Max had established his music publishing business in London, originally as Hinrichsen Edition, and now Peters Edition. On leaving school, my mother was apprenticed – sent around Europe staying in different cities for a few weeks at a time, with other music publishing houses, to learn the trade. She describes being unsettled by the thought that her father, just six or seven years after the war had ended, thought fit to dispatch her back to Germany, alone. Whatever else, this time reinforced her sense of self-reliance and allowed her to hone her communication and rapport-building skills, as she sought to settle into life in different places and different countries every few weeks or months. When she returned to London, hopeful of a key role in the business, she took up the simple clerical job offered by her father in the office of Peters Edition.

Disillusioned by the mundane nature of her work responsibilities, she set about building a social life for herself in London, and it was here she met the man who was to become her husband and my father, Derek Lawford. They married in 1956. My mother would maintain that it had always seemed to disappoint her father that his daughter preferred to marry and create a family of her own, over pursuit of a career in music publishing. In fact, Max’s second marriage would lead to this opportunity being withheld indefinitely, and a distance engineered between them that would have lasting consequences for her.

With two young children, the family spent several years living in Sittingbourne, Kent, before returning to North West London, where my father established a successful business. But my mother was never destined to be just a housewife – throughout her life she always pursued a vast array of hobbies and interests:

  • Evening classes in languages, art/history, pottery and other creative skills, and carpentry (the garden shed/workshop with its workbench, heavy-duty tools and stacks of miscellaneous woods and veneers was always her domain)
  • Courses at the City Lit (City Literary Institute)
  • Over six years, she worked dilligently for, and achieved, a BA degree through the Open University
  • She drew up her own family tree with pen and paper, long before these could be done on-line – her interest in family history would be an enduring theme of her life
  • She was a passionate collector and, having inherited her father’s love of music stamps, set about amassing a comprehensive collection, from which she would regularly exhibit. She has also at times collected, amongst other things, antique visiting card cases, musical postcards, art nouveau prints and dolls in national dress from all over the world
  • She learned languages – speaking German fluently, but also French, Spanish, Italian and even a little Russian
  • She was a passionate correspondent, always writing to and receiving letters from people all over the world – all this in the days before email and social media
  • Latterly, she enjoyed many activities with the U3A, though for years she pronounced herself not old enough yet to join them. Once persuaded, she immediately felt at home in this network of active, intellectually engaged friends and acquaintances. She very much enjoyed giving talks on music history, and leading a German Conversation group which met at her house on alternate Tuesdays.

Back in the late 1960’s, her interest in stamps spawned an even greater passion – the Philatelic Music Circle. Along with a friend, she founded this organisation dedicated to the interests of people who collected stamps around the theme of music. Fuelled by their enthusiasm, ‘The PMC’ became the largest thematic stamp club in the world, with its quarterly magazine (edited by her) and annual convention. It remained active for upward of 30 years, with my mother at the helm.

She had always been an confident traveller and her PMC connections gave her a wonderful excuse to visit other countries, knowing there were people everywhere with whom she could connect. Her love of travel would underpin her later years and she toured places as far afield as Peru, China and Russia, as well as the USA and Canada, the Caribbean and just about every country in Europe.

My father died in 1988 after a long illness, through which my mother had nursed him at home. At around that time then, her life was undergoing dramatic change.  Also undergoing dramatic change was the landscape of Europe, with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the end of the Cold War and the separation of East/West. My mother was to use this opportunity to make her first ever visit to the city of her birth, Leipzig, which had up until then, as part of what was East Germany, been behind the ‘Iron Curtain’.  And it was here that she discovered what would become her mission for the next 25 years of her life.

She found a city that had largely lost a sense of its Jewish cultural heritage, with what knowledge there was, buried, quite literally, in basements.  She realised her own grandfather’s family, his achievements both commercial and philanthropic, had been erased from history during the Nazi era, and not in any meaningful way rediscovered throughout the Cold War years. She found a depleted Leipzig C.F. Peters office unsure of its heritage.  She set about reviving the history, re-establishing the heritage and ensuring that her grandfather, Henri Hinrichsen, and his family, received due recognition for their contribution to Leipzig society.

My mother visited Leipzig several times a year thereafter, researching, canvassing for support, assisting anyone and everyone who showed an interest in reviving the city’s Jewish cultural heritage. At the Music Instrument Museum, she discovered the plaque naming a room in the museum after her grandfather, in a basement – it was soon to be reinstated. She spearheaded the setting up of a memorial stone to the family in the Südfriedhof cemetery – and many, many more notable achievements. And on every visit, she would give interviews to whoever requested, and talks to the students at the Henriette-Goldschmidt Schule, on the history of their city and the Holocaust, as it impacted the Hinrichsen family.

As a result of her visits to Leipzig and her growing involvement with her family heritage, she began researching and subsequently wrote two books; the first a detailed history of C.F. Peters over 200 years, and the second, tracing her Jewish heritage back a full 500 years, an account of the family’s migration from Spain and Portugal in the days of the Spanish Inquisition, through Germany and onward across the world.

 

She was a keen speaker, giving her talks to whoever would invite her – Jewish societies, clubs, music societies including the Grieg Society, the U3A and more – on her books and their topics, and on many aspects of music appreciation and music history. Writing, recording history accurately, documenting and educating remained her collective mission right to the end of her life.

My mother always enjoyed travelling. She had a passion for new places and experiences. Her trips always involved expanding her mind; exploring history, architecture, art or music, learning Pilates, cookery, yoga, writing, and more and her year would always be one filled to the brim with adventures, education and experiences.

Apparently undaunted by the trauma of cancer, when it impacted, she began planning her autobiography and set about instructing my brother and I on the changes she wanted to make to her garden, ideas she had for home reorganisation, redecoration and future travel plans.

She celebrated her 82nd birthday in early April and was thrilled that we had managed to organise a small party for her in secret. Though bed-bound by then, she enjoyed the sociable afternoon chatting with her guests. We were blessed with a beautiful day, sunny and warm, and her new downstairs bedroom overlooked the garden, where guests could come and go from her bedside. After they left, she pronounced it her ‘best birthday ever’.

My independent, strong, kind, generous mother, passionate about music and her heritage, and with a deep enduring love for her family, died peacefully, just three weeks later.

Note: Anyone interested in my mother’s books can find them on the website of Peters Edition, here. Both books can be obtained from the USA and UK Peters Edition companies. If you have a passion for classical music or an interest in Jewish or European history, I commend them to you.

It’s good to talk

Since the latter part of February, my life has been upturned. My mother is extremely ill with, it transpires, an inoperable brain tumour. This is impacting her mobility amongst other things, whilst her mind remains largely unaltered; though she is now bed-bound, is increasingly weary and sleeps a great deal.

I’m not going to dwell on the distress of all this, which is extreme. I want to focus on one thing today, which is the strange privilege afforded to the loved-ones of someone in my mother’s condition.  And that is, that we are – at last – beginning to say to one another the sort of things we don’t normally address in our regular daily lives.

Wholly independent for all of her now 82 years, my mother has lived alone since my father died almost 30 years ago; she has travelled extensively, written two books, given talks and spearheaded an incredible 20-year project to re-establish her grandfather’s and her family’s heritage in Leipzig, Germany, the city of her birth. I will write more on this in due course, as it’s an incredible story. But for now, I want you to know that my mother is a unique lady, an intellectual, a reader and writer, who lives life very much on her own terms. And as she faces this most challenging of times, not much about that has changed.

We’ve never been a particularly emotional or overtly expressive family when it comes to affection and so on; and we’re still not. But my mother and I are now talking of how much we love one another, how proud we are, how we admire and respect the way we have each chosen to conduct our lives. I love that I can say these things to my mother, and that she can also hear them from the many friends and acquaintances who are taking the time to visit with her. I love that I can hear from her, what she thinks of me, and how happy I have made her through so many aspects of my life, and lately through achieving something I’ve never managed before, to lose so many excess pounds and ‘get healthy’. (In fact, an aside, I have no idea how I could be managing the present circumstances, were I still hauling around that extra 70 pounds.)

The situation and its inevitable consequences are what’s driving this bittersweet aspect of our conversations, and whilst I would wish it away with all my heart if I could, I am strangely grateful for this opportunity and the words we are exchanging.

Whilst it’s exhausting, physically and emotionally, I’m acutely aware of the other privilege afforded to me, of being able to care for my mother at this time.  As a self-employed/freelancer I have been able, through the kindness and forbearance of my clients, to take a temporary break from work.  Periods during which I could concentrate and focus on work projects are minimal and diminishing, and I’m very grateful that I have extremely understanding clients, and that no employer is hopping from one foot to the other somewhere, expecting me to balance what has become the most important (indeed the only important) thing in my life, with business matters.  I know it might seem strange that I’m regarding this all-consuming and discomforting challenge as a privilege, but I have recently learned of a friend whose mother has just died, with absolutely no warning at all, and this friend is in shock at having been robbed of their mother so suddenly. Meanwhile I’ve been granted the privilege of care, and of loving conversation.

So this is today’s contemplation; that there are grains of positivity and comfort in even the most traumatic circumstances; that it’s good to talk; that you shouldn’t really ever put off saying the things you always mean to say, but never quite do; that there is nothing, nothing at all, as important as loving, comforting, reassuring and caring for those who are dear to you.

I’ll be back sometime soon, internet friends.

Guest Blogger: Davey – Learning to Live Life

IMG_0995This week’s guest blogger has a truly inspirational story – and I’m so glad he agreed to venture on to my blog to tell it. Davey has turned his life around with a quite phenomenal weight loss – and he’s still going.  I stumbled across Davey’s blog by accident a couple of months ago. He’s been documenting his life-changing transformation (more than that, I’ll leave him to explain) and his incredible attitude to walking off his surplus pounds.  I commend Davey’s blog to you – he writes with emotional intelligence, insight and honesty. He speaks right to the heart.  Without further ado…

DAVEY – LEARNING TO LIVE LIFE

When Julie asked me if I’d like to write a guest post I was extremely flattered – but also suddenly a little overwhelmed. I looked at Geoff and Ritu’s excellent pieces – and realised that in order to be a passing contributor I’d have to explain who I am – which is something that sometimes I’m still honestly not sure about myself.

The reason for this is that I’m still very much in transition as far as weight loss goes – and I still have a long way to go. At my last reckoning I still have lose the weight of a fridge freezer.

However, let me wind the clock back to January 2016 where, in a period of personal crisis surrounding the death of my mother I had received a stark wake up call.

My mother was a committed smoker and a stubborn lady. She’d never even tried to stop – or for that matter wanted to as far as I can remember – and even when she knew it was killing her she carried on regardless. Over several months I sat and watched her tied to oxygen tubes and slowly drowning in her armchair – yet even this failed to dampen her resolve to have a cigarette.

I wasn’t angry with her though – and it was this realisation that proved to be my turning point.

I understood her. 

As I sat and watched my mom trying to breathe I realised that I was doing the same to myself with alcohol and food. My drinking had always been generous. I’d over imbibed as long as I can remember – and by the time she passed I was (in part due to the increased stress surrounding this event) regularly consuming three bottles of wine in an evening.

I later worked out that my food and drink intake back then was around 8000 kcal a day.

I did no exercise, had a sedentary lifestyle, oedemas in my feet and lower legs, sleep apnea, continual bouts of cellulitis, high cholesterol, borderline high blood pressure, type two diabetes that was spiralling out of control and I was becoming practically immobile. I only moved between my living room and my office (with my car this was probably less than 100m a day) and everything else in my life required home delivery.

A number of things happened in those moments sitting at her side.

Firstly I decided to give up drinking. This was pretty much immediate. The last one passed my lips on the 26th January 2016.

Secondly I decided to give up my job – which oddly enough worked out quite well because I was unexpectedly made redundant.

Thirdly I needed to get fit and healthy – but this would be a long road. I’d tried exercise very early on after giving up alcohol but it was a massive struggle. I couldn’t walk to the end of my road (around 200m) and back without being in agonising pain. When I did so the first time I tore both calf muscles and ended up with long term plantar fasciitis.

By the time April rolled around I was still alcohol free and my clothes actually felt a little looser. I decided it was time to join some form of group and happened to notice that my old next door neighbour was running a Slimming World meeting nearby. I went along, and listened to the plan and the group talk. Then – when everyone had left the room – I stood on a pair of scales capable of weighing me for the first time in about 8 years.

The consultant quietly read out my weight.

I was 34st 8.5lbs (approx 220kg).

When I arrived at the meeting that day this is roughly how I looked and these were also the clothes that I was wearing. The waistline of my jeans was 66 inches and my shirt was an 8XL.

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In order to reach my ‘healthy’ BMI (12st 7lbs) I would need to lose 22st.

I went home and cried. I honestly couldn’t believe how bad things had managed to get and how low I’d sunk.

Although I had a slow start with Slimming World I eventually got my head around the plan and started to embrace their approach to grouping foods as ‘speed’ ‘free’ and ‘syns’ (amongst others).

I – like many others had tried a lot of diets over the years – and in all cases had lost weight, but then almost immediately regained it and more. I’d been to Weight Watchers (twice), followed the Atkins plan (twice), did the Cambridge Diet (twice), the Harcombe diet, Juicing diets, NHS healthy eating plans, Slim-Fast (on this one I lost count of the number of times), and I’d even been to Slimming World before.

Any progress I made was destroyed when I stopped dieting.

Although I can’t claim to have arrived at my current approach immediately I began quite quickly to treat my new membership in a slightly different way to previous attempts. This couldn’t be a diet. It had to be a wholesale lifestyle change. I had to develop a new way of living.

I wanted ‘a new normal‘.

Slowly but surely I began to view all pre-prepared meals and the vast majority of processed food as the enemy. I have either completely stopped eating it or have it very occasionally. I don’t do ‘fakeaways’ (SW friendly versions of takeaways) which are a big thing in my group – because a fake kebab or a fake pizza just reminds me of all the bad things I used to like to eat and maintains my taste for the types of food that got me into trouble in the first place.

I don’t want to crave them in any form any more because if I at some point ‘fall off the wagon’ I want to have re-trained my palette so much that when I falter – I reach for cottage cheese and olives rather than calling for a Dominos Pizza delivery.

For this reason I also don’t do snack food like crisps or chocolate, and I usually (but not exclusively) use my syns within my cooking instead of on treats. If I feel like adding avocado to a salad or a drizzle of olive oil to a vinaigrette then thats where my points for the day normally get used.

As I started losing weight and began to feel more active I started trying to walk around my local park – which has lots of benches, a flat circuit and is exactly a mile long.

The first few times I did this resulted in way more time sitting than standing – and a lap took over an hour. I used to refer to my early attempts as ‘bench pressing’ – because sitting down to recover occupied the lion’s share of the time I spent there.

Gradually however things improved and bit by bit my recovery time (I was continually struggling with injury) got better and better. After a while I was able to walk seven miles in a week – but still couldn’t do a whole mile in one go without resting along the way.

As time went on and I lost more and more weight I found that I sat less, and my recovery time increased. I could do more things in a day and my sleep was improving. I felt better all the time. Before I knew it in the space of a few months I could walk seven miles in a week, then 14, then 30!

It was still hard going – but I had started to really enjoy walking.

Oh – and remember the fridge freezer? Due to all the activity I’d lost the seven stone that this item represented by October.

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It wasn’t until I got out and about that I truly appreciated how small my world had become.

I can now walk over 70 miles in a week – and have been plotting my cumulative distance travelled on foot since last April. By the time December had rolled around I’d walked further than the distance from Land’s End to John o Groats (it’s 847 miles or thereabouts according to Wikipedia).

Now, nearing the end of March 2017 I’m probably about a month away from having walked back again and I can do a mile in around 16.5 minutes.

As an added bonus while my exercise levels went up my blood sugar levels went down.  Previously I had to take five tablets a day to control my levels, but gradually I’ve managed to bring my HbA1c readings under control. They’ve dropped from 94 mmol/mol (the stratospherically high level I had when I was first diagnosed) to 30 mmol/mol at my last test.

Currently I take no medication and can manage my condition by diet and exercise alone.

My blood pressure has also massively improved. Previously I was on the cusp of it being classified as high but now it’s now 124/70. This is less than the level of a man of a lower age group than me (the 25-34 bracket is expected to be 131/72 and I’m in my mid 40’s.)

I still have the clothes I was wearing in those earlier photos (in case you wondered) but they now look a little different on me. I currently weigh 22st 5lbs and I’ve lost over 12 stoneThe waistline of the jeans I’m wearing as I type (which are also under my old clothes in this photo) are a 50 inch waist and are falling down. I’ve ordered some 48’s.

My shirt size is now 4XL and I’m able to get into some larger 3XL tops, depending on the shop.

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It’s not been an easy road though, and while I can say that I am now both the fittest and healthiest I have ever been in my entire life there are other emotional and mental hurdles to overcome related to this massive change.

My journey has made me question everything about my life, and examine every decision that I make now and also made in the past.

I’ve made choices in my life for so long with weight and mobility as my primary motivator that I’ve not stopped to think before what I’d do if they were no longer a problem.

The worry that’s always with me though is will I manage to keep off all the weight I’ve lost?

I have to believe I will. I can do anything I want to do. All I have to do is want it enough.

Now I can sit in restaurant booths and normal cinema seats, I can wear a seatbelt in other people’s cars, I can sleep on my back, I can stand for hours rather than minutes, I can wear the upper end of clothing from high street shops, I can put my socks on while I’m standing up, I can get into my bath and have a soak, I can cross my legs while sitting in my armchair, I can use a laptop on my lap, I can walk further and for longer than a lot of my friends.

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So what do I do with all of this? Who do I become? Who will I love, what will I do for a living and what will I learn about my new life?

I honestly don’t know – but I’m currently very much enjoying trying to find out. If you want to figure it out with me then pop over to my blog (link) and say hi!

Davey

Guest Blogger: Ritu Bhathal – Positively Poetic

It is my great pleasure to introduce you to prolific blogger and the cheeriest, most up-beat and positive poet I’ve ever encountered – Ritu Bhathal.  Ritu finds so much to smile and be positive about. Her blog is a wellspring of optimism and good cheer, liberally sprinkled with her delightful poems, stories of her life, family and friends – to say nothing of the spiritual musings of Spidey and her cat, Sonu Singh.

But the reason I asked Ritu to guest on my blog is that she has recently been – yes, you guessed it – losing weight and getting healthy. I hope you enjoy Ritu’s inspiring post, lovely photographs and intriguing breakfast recipe, which I shall be trying very soon (though, I have to say, without the sweetener or the chocolate sprinkles).  Ritu – it’s over to you…

Ritu Bhathal – Positively Poetic

Hi there!

Thank you Jools for welcoming me to your amazing blog for a post!

For those of you that don’t know me, I am Ritu, of www.butismileanyway.com

A happy go lucky blogger, who like to find things to smile about in life. I might even be classed as one of those annoying people who seems to be perpetually happy.

And you know for the best part of life, I am. There are, of course, times when I can’t be smiling, like when I wrote my car off on the motorway the other week… but other than that… no, I generally will try and see the brighter side of situations, and smile through them.

What does this have to do with weight loss, I hear you ask? Well, there was one other time recently when I felt my smile melt away. We had planned a surprise family trip to Finland for my Pop’s 70th birthday, and part of his surprise was a whole family photo shoot. This was a brilliant idea, and we got lots of pictures. My brother arranged that we all get individual photos taken too, as he suggested they could be used for my author profile. Great job!

So off we went, posed for photos and created some lovely memories for that week.

Fast forward a month and the photos came through. They were lovely… but I was horrified! My face looked so puffed up, compared to how I usually look. I was actually disgusted with myself. How had I managed to let myself go to that extent?

I mean, it was a perfectly lovely photo, just not what I thought I looked like.

My mum politely confirmed my own thoughts, telling me to try and do something now, while still young and able. As age creeps up, it becomes harder to shift, she knows…

It was the kick up the backside that I needed to be honest.

A few years previously, I had tried the JuicePlus+ diet system, with some form of clean eating, and shakes for a couple of meals for three months. I did amazingly! Lost lots of weight, and was weighing in at 9½ stone for the first time since before I had married in 2001. There was a wedding I attended, and I felt amazing. All those compliments… What girl doesn’t like to be told she is looking good?

But let’s get realistic for a moment here. Reduced calorie intake, shakes twice a day… it’s not sustainable, is it? Unless, of course you’re made of money… (these plans can cost quite a bit too…)

It didn’t take long for the weight to pile back on… and oh my, did it pile on. I stopped standing on weighing scales, but I knew things were going backwards.

After the photo shoot realisation, I had a Doctor’s appointment to get my pill prescription. The obligatory weigh-in was done, and I left that surgery red faced. For the first time since I’d been pregnant, I was over eleven stone. That was… awful!

Something had to be done. So I started the school holidays with a plan. I would lose two stone. Somehow.

I don’t mean that I was going to lose it in six weeks. No, I knew I needed to take my time, be sensible and aim to get there, slowly but surely, and in a manner that I could maintain the lifestyle and eating habits after hitting my self-imposed target too.

I went for walks, was very conscious of my food intake and I even included exercise. My exercise bike and the walking track near our house got used plenty. Five weeks in, I’d lost around five pounds. Not bad.

But I was starting school again and I knew how easy it was to fall into bad, convenience food habits. Plus, exercise, aside from running around the nursery after 20 3-4 year olds, was pretty hard to fit into my schedule too.

So, I took a step I hadn’t planned on taking initially. I joined Slimming World. Several of my colleagues were following their eating plan, and my best friend had also been losing weight with them, so I figured it was worth a try.

I signed up on my 41st birthday, and it was one of the best decisions I ever made. Having a target to aspire to was one thing, but my written promise to myself, and the fact that I was blogging about my Healthy Eating Journey every week, gave me the added boost to do something properly, and not to fall into the weight gain swamp again. #icandothis

I’m not going to sing the praises of Slimming World too much here, after all, this post isn’t sponsored! However, it is a fantastic plan, and way of eating, and it has helped me to reach that target of mine in six months.

There is a lot of common sense in the plan, with regards to the good foods you should use, and reach for. But you are allowed your ‘naughty’ treats too, referred to as ‘Syns’. Each day you’re allowed 5-15 syns. And you HAVE to eat them! That can include certain chocolates, crisps, cakes, alcoholic drinks, and anything not included in their ‘Free Food’ lists. But guess what…? You can eat potatoes and rice and pasta! Also you are to eat most proteins, as long as they’re lean, and all fruit and veg. In fact, there’s no reason you should ever feel hungry, as there’s so much you can eat.

It’s very much about how you cook and prepare meals too. Less eating packaged meals and more preparing them yourself, so you know what you’re putting into your cooking. It may sound like a faff, but cooking from scratch means you can bulk cook and freeze meals for another day. It’s also good as you plan what you’re going to make for the week so you don’t over shop.

Here are some photos of examples of breakfasts, lunches and dinners I have eaten over the last six months.

I’m a bit of a chocoholic, so I checked the Syn values for the treats I could have, and made sure I had everything handy, for those craving moments.

Did I manage to exercise? Well, the running around after my class and family tended to be my only form of physical exercise still, but I also started a Bhangra Dance class (which I can’t attend at the moment, due to my whiplash). I’ll get back onto it as soon as I’m able.

And now? I’m 9st 3lb. Exactly two stone down from where I began.

I feel so much better in myself; my clothes fit much better, and I think I may have to give my wardrobe a complete overhaul, getting rid of some of those larger sized clothes. People really notice the difference, which feels good, and makes me know I’ve done the right thing.

But now the hard part starts… that’s maintaining the loss.

My next goal is to keep the weight off, and not stray above 9½ stone at the very most. I think it’s always good to have a little goal in your mind, nothing too crazy, but something to keep you on track. I know I’ll be seeing many of my dear Blogily in June, at the Annual Bloggers Bash in London, and I want to be able to show my newly-svelte self off to everyone. That’s one reason to keep to my target!

I think it wouldn’t be fair to not share a recipe at least, for something that feels rather naughty, but is a wholesome, healthy breakfast, that I love to make. It can be kept simple, or you can ‘syn’ it up a bit, depending on how you feel!

Baked Oats

Ingredients

  • 40g porridge oats
  • 1 tspn sweetener
  • 1 small egg
  • 85g (½ pot) Vanilla Muller Light yoghurt, or fat free vanilla yoghurt
  • (I sometimes use the vanilla with dark chocolate sprinkles)
  • Selection of fruit or berries
  • 12g chocolate chips (if you fancy being a bit decadent!)

Method

  1. Preheat oven to 180 degrees Celsius
  2. Combine oats, egg, yoghurt and sweetener
  3. Pour into small oven proof dish
  4. If you wish, sprinkle chocolate chips on top
  5. Place in oven and bake for 20-30m minutes until golden brown on top.
  6. Place cut fruit on top and serve hot!

I tend to not cook the fruit as once cooked, the fruit takes on a ‘syn’ value, but if you wanted to, you could combine the berries into the mix and bake them too. Either way, a yummy breakfast!

And I am a poet, so I’m leaving you with a little poem, penned about my struggle with the belly.

Middle-aged Spread

Oh my God I can’t stop eating
My waist-line’s seriously taking a beating!
Last year I got myself so slim
In fact I’d never been so trim!

I exercised, I dieted
My stomach fat, oh I got rid!
Bye bye size 14, hello size 12
Into my old clothes, did I delve…

Then something happened, I began to relax,
Enjoying my life to the max.
Exercise? Sorry what was that?
I’d rather sit and have a chat?

So happy was I, that I began to eat
I ate a lot, it’s no mean feat!
And then the pounds, they crept back on
Oi ! You! Waist-line! Where’ve you gone?

The jelly belly from days of old
Is, not so firmly, standing bold
And no amount of hula hooping
Will, back to me, my waist-line bring.

You see, in order for that to work
In the kitchen I mustn’t lurk
This snacking, oh I’ve got to quit,
And I really must get fit!

This, along with other verses, can be found in my poetry anthology, Poetic RITUALs, available from Amazon. myBook.to/PoeticRITUals

My author page: Author.to/RituBhathal