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’ve started this post a dozen times now, each time with a few words, a sentence, a line or two. Then… delete, delete, delete. Truth is, I have no idea how to appropriately express what’s going on at present.
But I’m going to try one more time, and I hope you’ll forgive the lack of detail… Someone extremely dear to me has been admitted to hospital and is in a serious condition. Beyond that, until there is detailed feedback from the specialists and an indication of possible next-steps, all there is, is uncertainty. I am bereft, and overwhelmed, and doing everything I can for the person I love.
There’s another thing too. By inconvenient coincidence, I was scheduled to have a growth (a disruptive but nothing-to-worry-about growth) excised from my lip, for which objective a minor operation took place last Wednesday evening, involving local anaesthetics and lasers and a wasted hour in bed, when my blood pressure shot through the roof (hardly surprising, considering). Since then I look like I’ve been in a fight. I have four stitches in my lip and for a few days at least, this most fragile flesh blew up like a puffer fish, then oozed and bled a little (keeping me from the hospital for a day) before at last settling down to a raw, then crusty blob. I would be hibernating under normal circumstances, though I guess the one place where you can actually blend-in with stitches and bruising… is a hospital.
If you will allow me a moment’s wry observation, there’s nothing like a personal crisis to disrupt a weight-loss plateau. Whether it’s stress, distress or anxiety, lack of sleep or loss of appetite, disruption of routines, tail-chasing or all the above – I don’t know. But in the first two days, I dropped four pounds and almost three more since then, in just over one week. If I took the time to breathe, I would be weirdly appreciative of this.
I’ve lately been thrilled to be picking up new readers every day for this blog. It seems to have caught a wave with people at last, some maybe seeking inspiration for their weight-loss journeys or support in making lasting lifestyle changes; and others, well, just… people of the blogosphere, engaging, connecting. Now I need to ask you, readers new and old, to bear with me please. I may be gone a little while, or sporadic in my blogging. I certainly won’t be my usual chippy self.
I’ll be here, now and again, or in a while, or posting ‘lite’. I’m not sure yet. But I do so hope you will stay with me. For what it’s worth, I’m firmly and resolutely in my healthy zone, and very determined that this disturbing turn of events and disrupting period won’t upset the ‘new normal’ of good eating habits I’ve established over recent months. (Not so sure about the exercise though, unless you count power-walking a hospital corridor every day.) I know I’m already coping better with what’s going on than I would ever be, were I still hauling around those surplus 70+ pounds.
Welcome to Part Two of my journey through a few of the places which have special meaning for me. Here’s Part One if you missed it, in which I picked out a few places from my childhood and career. In this second geographically inclined post I’ve focussed places which have connections from a relationship or social perspective. This was meant to be just one post, but the more I thought about it, the more places I found.
Beer, Devon, UK
One place that is all about quaint streets and sumptuous scenery is the pretty village of Beer in Devon. Here I took my first grown-up holiday with a steady boyfriend (who, a few years later, was to become my husband). We paid a thrifty £10 for a week’s hire of a static caravan with no umm… facilities (for these we had to stumble down the hill to a communal toilet/shower block – not much fun in the dead of night). So small was this caravan that we had to fold the bed away every morning (and whenever we wanted to take a photograph that our parents might see). We fed a very hungry electricity meter with absurd amounts of coin and charcoaled the rear-end of a chicken in an oven the size of a matchbox. We walked a few miles of the Jurassic coastline each day, found delightful pubs to sit outside, ate our fill of crab sandwiches and cream teas, and had the best time.
My husband is now my ex-husband, but we are fortunate to remain good friends. The village of Beer is intimately entwined in my mind with simpler times, and an enduring connection, which is very important to me. I’ve been back once or twice – it seems hardly to have changed, and that is much to its credit.
I’ve loved every minute I’ve spent in Turkey; I’ve never had a bad holiday there. It’s a beautiful country and a wonderful place to relax and revive. On my first trip, I spent a week in the hectic port town of Kusadasi, but thereafter I picked small towns and villages along the Lycian coast and Gulf of Fethiye, and around the Bodrum and Bozburun Peninsulas. I also took a couple of week-long gulet cruises, which cannot be beaten for away-from-it-all bliss.
I set ‘Singled Out’ in a fictional village – it’s a fusion of several of the places in which I’ve stayed. I had this idea that I wanted the story to immerse the reader in the setting – make them feel as if they were on the holiday themselves – and to do that, I drew on all my recollections of those earlier holidays. In 2013, I made a special trip back to Turkey for research purposes, to update and refresh my memories and gather some specific sensory data to ground my story. I visited the ancient city of Ephesus, just as my characters do, and I took a day-trip on a gulet; not the same as a week drifting the sea with no shoes on and nights lying under the stars, but not bad, given the time constraints.
‘Singled Out’ was, I now realise, my practise novel. It explores the dark side of the kind of holiday where not everyone is who they seem. I think I’ve made a decent fist of it, but now, when I dip into its pages, I can see the journey I’ve been on and the things I’ve learned in its shortcomings. A few agents expressed initial interest, but it never made the cut, so I self-published in 2015. Readers have so far been extremely kind in their feedback. You can check it out here, if you feel so inclined.
Sanibel Island, Florida, USA
In January 2015, after having prevaricated, pushing back on her generous invitations for three years, I went to Florida to visit my cousin Martha. The reason for my prevarication was my grossly overweight state and the simple fact that I couldn’t face the discomfort of a nine-hour transatlantic flight and all the other fun-and-games of a transit into the USA. As it turned out, and entirely to my expectation, the journey was a gruelling one. I was at my very heaviest (it would be nine months before I began to get to grips with my healthy/weight-lossy project). But I’m so very glad I bit-the-bullet and overruled my fears.
Martha was a New Yorker, lately moved to Connecticut. On retirement, like others with sufficient funds for a holiday home, she began to fly south, to Fort Myers, Florida, for the winter. There she made a beautiful second home to which she welcomed a seemingly endless succession of guests. My visit began a day late (I wasn’t joking about the gruelling journey), but it was sunshine and smiles from the moment I arrived. Martha was the most wonderful, thoughtful and generous host.
One of her favourite places was Sanibel Island, and she treated me to a day trip. We crossed the endless road-bridge and drove on down to JN ‘Ding Darling’ Nature Reserve, where I got a little too close for comfort to a basking alligator. We dined on fresh seafood at Traders Gulf Coast Grill and Gifts (yes, and Gifts – those American’s never miss a retail opportunity).
Then we mooched around taking photographs in the botanical gardens and on the beach at Sanibel Moorings and stopped by the lighthouse before heading home. It was a special day, as everywhere we stopped was either a favourite place for Martha, or it harked back to holidays of her youth.
My lovely, wonderful cousin was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer just six months after my visit. She died in September 2016. I can never express how glad I am that I made that trip when I did, and was able to spend such special time with my ‘sister of the heart’.
Home, Greater London, UK
Talking of hearts, home is where the heart is, so they say. Cliches notwithstanding, I love my home. It’s just an ordinary suburban house in a quiet street, with a small courtyard garden. As well as being my home, it’s my workplace – and it’s my sanctuary.
Over the years I’ve renovated and redecorated, so now the whole place reflects my personal style. It’s calm, neutral (too neutral for some) and uncluttered. It’s geared around my needs and activities too. I have a room set aside for my Pilates and exercise equipment, and another which is my workplace and writing space.
I like things just-so (call me obsessive if you will), and nothing pleases me more than to arrive home after a busy day with a client or up in London, to leave the world on the other side of my front door, and sink into my comfy curly-uppy chair in front of the TV.
I have a personalised relaxation recording prepared by a hypnotherapist a few years ago. In it, she urges me to picture the safest, most relaxing place I’ve ever been. For ages, I would try to picture lovely beaches where I’d been on holiday – they’re relaxing, after all, aren’t they? But it was when I realised that the place where I feel safest and most relaxed was my own home, that I began to use this recording most effectively. I would lie on my sofa, or recline on a chair in my garden, and I wouldn’t have to imagine myself anywhere, because I was already in my safest, most relaxing place.
In the last few months I’ve reconnected with a couple of people I used to know well, but had lost touch with. As a result of this and other things, I’ve been in a reflective mood. I was talking one evening about a particular place l had visited only once, but had loved for its raw, natural beauty. It made me think about other places which have special resonance for me – some because of the things that happened there, others because of the way they made, or still make me feel, or the associations and emotions they bring to my surface. I thought I’d share them in a post (but having got to writing, it’s turned into two posts). Maybe it can encourage you to think about your own special places too.
‘But what’s this got to do with healthy lifestyle, Jools?’ I hear you ask. For me, it’s about a healthy mind. And what could be more healthy than to feel connected to places which hold meaning for you, or put you in touch with your memories and emotions, or speak to your soul?
So to the tour of the first few of my special places – these ones from my childhood and career days:
Church Stretton, Shropshire, UK
Even in England, many people don’t quite know where the county of Shropshire lies. Well, it’s a little to the left of Birmingham but if you get to Wales, you’ve gone too far. I spent my childhood mid-term holidays in Shropshire, in the small town of Church Stretton, where lived my great-aunt. She had arrived in England a refugee from Hitler’s Holocaust, just before the outbreak of the Second World War. Arriving with nothing, my great-aunt made Church Stretton her home, providing a haven for her extended family and other refugees for many years.
By the time we visited in the 1970’s, she was widowed and lived in an apartment in an old house on the outskirts of the town, a few minutes’ walk from the beautiful Carding Mill Valley, on the edge of the Long Mynd. We would walk there whenever the rain clouds parted for long enough. In her 80’s by then, my great-aunt was nearly blind, and I remember walking with her into the town centre, stopping time after time as people greeted and conversed briefly with her, only for her to say every now and again as they walked on, in her still richly accented voice, ‘Now you must help me, Julie, who would that be?’ before demanding a detailed description of the mystery acquaintance.
Years later I returned to the area for a family reunion with several relatives of my generation now scattered across the world, all of whom had holidayed with my great-aunt at different times. We visited familiar haunts and shared memories of our childhood holidays and my wonderful great-aunt, and it was a thoroughly life-affirming weekend.
Whitstable, Kent, UK
I lived in Kent, in one of the Medway towns, as a young child. Cousins lived further along the coast in the seaside town of Whitstable. Even the name is quaint, isn’t it? We would visit several times a year and I remember the excitement on the journey as we got our first glimpse of the sea (we knew exactly the place along the route where that distant strip of blue-grey appeared), and as we traversed the landmark bridge and spotted the red post-box that stood on the corner of the road to which we were headed. I remember a cavernous outbuilding and a giant weeping willow half way up the garden; there were extraordinary ‘eggy sandwiches’ (made, apparently with salad cream – try it) on every visit, and I especially loved those days when we made it down to play on the pebble beach at Tankerton.
I’ve been back, or passed through, several times since those days. The town has swelled with the addition of several housing developments around its fringes but it remains, by the seaside at least, quintessentially and quaintly English.
Chateauneuf du Pape, Provence, France
We holidayed just once as a family in Chateauneuf du Pape, deep in one of France’s premier wine-producing regions. At a guess, I’d say this may have had something to do with my parents’ enthusiasm for the area, as there was much ‘tasting’ going on throughout our stay.
We bought blocks of ice and French bread in the village every day and enjoyed picnics of luscious French cheeses, charcuterie and spit-roasted chicken. And whilst said ‘tasting’ took place in the wineries and caves nested in nearby hillsides, my brother and I spent contented hours at the village swimming pool (that would be in the days before Health & Safety would have had a fit at the idea of two pre-teens playing in water, unchaperoned).
My father, who sadly died many years ago, loved the area for its climate, its wines, and the gentle pleasure of sitting outside a bar sipping aniseed Ricard made cloudy with a jug of water, and watching old men play boules. He was an accomplished choral singer too, and participated in numerous concerts at the Roman Amphitheatre in the nearby city of Orange, all of which added to the richness of his experience of the area – and in turn to mine.
I’ve not yet revisited Chateauneuf du Pape, but it was a special place to him, and thus it became special to me too. Today, at Christmas, we always toast my father and other loved-ones no longer with us, with a bottle of Chateauneuf du Pape.
Tiffany’s, New York City, USA
I made my first and so far only visit to New York City in the mid-1990’s, staying with my cousin at her home in what is known as Peter Cooper Village. These distinctive apartment blocks were built for soldiers returning from the Second World War, of which her father had been one. Every day I would grab my roll of quarters and jump on a bus, heading south to the financial district, or north to theatreland, retail nirvana and the kind of landmarks you see every day in the movies. I went to the top of the World Trade Centre and the Empire State Building; I walked Wall Street and Times Square and I crossed Delancey Street in honour of one of my favourite films (that would be Crossing Delancey); I dodged noisy Yellow Cabs and I listened to a choir sing in St Patrick’s Cathedral; I bought lunch at a Subway (long before they appeared in the UK), so bewildered by the infinite choices that I just ordered the same as the guy in the queue in front of me; I ate it on the hallowed steps of the New York Public Library.
But before all that, on my very first day in the city, I had got off the bus for the first time and found myself outside Tiffany and Co’s flagship New York store. What could I do, but wander in for a green-eyed look around? At the very first counter, rings of course, I overheard a brash young man addressing his girlfriend with the words, ‘Honey, you can have whatever you want!’ and I felt the vibe of Fifth Avenue. I didn’t have an affluent city slicker waiting to spoil me, but so help me, I’m a shopper. I spotted a pretty ring – probably the lowest-value item of jewellery in the whole store – and, dressed in my tourist scruffies, I asked to try it on. The sales assistant was curt to begin with, no doubt imagining I would waste her time; but she must have seen how my face lit up when it slid on to my finger. It was a sublime gold band with a smooth ‘infinity’ loop.
I bought it because I could – and it is this feeling that I remember. After my divorce I’d made a significant career transition (mainly because I couldn’t bear to spend the rest of my life making coffee and running the diaries of stuffed-shirt executives) (and because I needed to earn some real money). For the first time in my life, I had a little spare cash. Not only that, but I was beginning to see myself differently. So I saw a ring, I liked it, and I bought it. At Tiffany’s. That meant I got the full Tiffany’s treatment, and I remember how it made me feel to this day; how the sales assistant first polished the ring, then inserted it into its silk and suede box, then wrapped the box in tissue paper, and slid it into the duck-egg blue Tiffany’s box, then bound it with blue ribbon, tied into a neat bow, then dressed a duck-egg blue mini Tiffany’s bag with more tissue paper, before nesting my perfectly wrapped purchase in the middle. What a treat, that wrapping ceremony! Though as I exited the store, I immediately realised I needed to shove my conspicuously crisp duck-egg blue bag with its white cord handles and silk ribbon deep into my rucksack, to save telling the whole world I was carrying something in a flimsy carrier, which might have value on the street!
Atlanta, Georgia, USA
Ah… Hotlanta… I made several trips to Atlanta in the 1990’s, as I worked for the UK arm of companies which were based there. Atlanta was a significant feature in my expanding career horizons. My overriding impression was how incredibly friendly and hospitable everyone was. I was invited into homes, taken out to parties and barbecues, escorted around sights and landmarks and guided to the best retail emporia. I made friends on my visits that remain friends to this day. Being the ‘Deep South’ and at the centre of the American Civil War, Atlanta has history as well as a certain style – it’s an energetic blend of its elegant if uncomfortable past and high-tech present.
Incidentally, the New York Tiffany’s story has an Atlanta connection… A few years after my ‘infinity’ impulse purchase, my beautiful, simple ring was stolen in a burglary. As I still had the receipt, the insurance company let me replace it, which I managed to do during one of my business trips to Atlanta. Shopping at the mall (even the posh one) wasn’t quite the same experience as stepping inside Tiffany’s flagship Fifth Avenue store, but that identical repurchase cemented the connection that this ring has always had for me, with my hard-won career shift.
I will never forget how it felt to enter my room on the 32nd floor of the hotel and look out through floor-to-ceiling plate glass across Hong Kong Harbour.
An unexpected and hastily organised business trip had taken me on my one and only visit to this unique region in the years before it was handed back to China. I spent days in business meetings and evenings being treated to delicious though frequently unidentifiable food. I had enough time-out in my short trip to get a couple of made-to-measure suits and take the vertical cable car up to Victoria Peak and enjoy the magnificent views. Barring the streaming cold I got from the incessant transitions from humid outdoors to chilled, air-conditioned offices, it was a invigorating and exciting experience on many levels.
* * *
Next time… A little more family history, a village that sounds like a drink, and the setting for a certain psychological suspense novel… 😉
I attended an industry awards event this week with a client. For a large-scale ‘rubber chicken’ lunch (500+ seated) the food was unusually good. We began with a delicious sweetcorn soup accompanied by a delicate and tasty crouton dressed with sour cream mousse, chives and a sprinkle of popcorn flavoured with lime (very imaginative). That was followed by succulent suckling pig with all the trimmings, including a piece of very nearly crispy crackling (quite the achievement for a large-scale service).
Dessert was offered – another pretty plate of some kind of mousse and sorbet mix, with shortbread. I don’t know what it was precisely, because I didn’t eat it. When coffee arrived, it came with a bowl of unctuous looking chocolate truffles, which I duly passed around the table. There were puzzled glances as I not only refused dessert, but passed the truffles around without dipping into the bowl. When I explained, I don’t eat added sugar, which rather excludes me from mousses, shortbreads and anything coated in chocolate, jaws dropped in amazement and breaths exhaled in uncomprehending awe.
That’s the kind of response to which I’ve become accustomed over my added-sugar-free months.
It didn’t happen over this particular lunch (probably because my dining companions were clients and their business associates, several of whom I was meeting for the first time), but in addition to stunned silences and sharp intakes of breath, what usually follows is TheTemptation Game.
It’s that moment when the sugar-eater needs you to join them. They need you to succumb; they need you to be powerless to resist temptation. Because that’s the whole point of sugar – isn’t it?
Typical Temptation Game responses to my too-restrained (in their opinion) added-sugar-free status include:
“Just this once won’t hurt.”
“Oh, go on, just the one – treat yourself!”
“It’s only got a little bitof sugar in it”
“It’s not sugar, it’s honey/agave – that doesn’t count!” (Yes. It does.)
If anyone used those sorts of phrases to encourage a drug addict to score, or an alcoholic to hit the bottle, we’d be horrified. But sugar is the acceptable face of addiction – and that makes it okay to push it.
I know, not everyone regards sugar as physically addictive, but just try and give it up yourself before you take issue with me.
One day I might (but only might) let a very, very little of the sweet stuff back into my diet, slowly and very, very carefully. But for now, with at least 30 more excess pounds to deal with, and a compelling desire to do whatever I can to limit my risk of type two diabetes, I’m quite happy with my uncompromising approach to desserts, confectionary, cookies, cakes and other sweet-treats.
And whilst I don’t at all mind the looks of uncomprehending awe, I’d be happier if I didn’t have to keep on justifying myself and politely rebuffing the tempters and temptresses, when a platter of what other people think I should be incapable of resisting, lands in front of me.
There you go. Grumpy Old Added-Sugar-Free Woman signing out for the weekend.
With the quieter days between Christmas and New Year comes a great time for reflection and planning, and I’ve been using those days as best I could (through the brain-fog which descended on me along with a nasty winter virus). I thought I’d share something of how I’ve gone about this, in case it’s useful for anyone else.
My Vision Board
Have you ever done a Vision Board? I hadn’t until this year, but, inspired by a friend, I gave it a go. It’s basically a collage, a visual representation of the things you want to welcome into your life, or make the most of, or channel your energies into, in the coming months. I created it on a whiteboard which is around 60cm x 40cm. The pictures come from my personal collection, and from magazines and the web. They may look random to you, but each one means something to me – be it a goal, a mood, a theme, or an intention. Look closely and you will see my board includes references to family and friends, to health, to writing, to work plans and projects… and there are one or two other more obscure references (for me and my private headspace!). I was quite pleased with how it came out although since I completed it, I keep finding other pictures and words I want to include, so it may be an evolving thing.
The Big Question
Imagine it’s the last few days of 2017. You’re sitting in your favourite armchair, looking back over the year. The question is this – what needs to have happened, what do you need to have achieved, or brought about, or changed, in order for you to feel satisfied, fulfilled and above all else, happy with the year? You can have any number of statements (write them down…), which will begin with “I will have..” or “I will be…”. They will not be things which you cannot influence. These will be your most important projects, missions, goals – and pleasures – on which you’ll focus your energies in the coming months.
My vision this year includes continuing my healthy lifestyle changes and losing another 30 pounds, achieving clarity on some personal issues, maintaining my client work at a specified level, learning to jog (and getting into 5k Parkruns), getting back into writing fiction, being more socially active than I was last year, embarking on my new coaching venture… and a few other oddments. When you take the time to visualise, it’s surprising how quickly the thoughts begin to flow. My statements are all precise, not woolly, which is all about committing to them and more importantly, calibrating success and achievement.
Themes for the Year
Lastly, I choose a few themes for the year ahead, usually something between three and six words. Last year, my themes/words were: Health, Vitality, Self-respect and Connection. For 2017, in line with my ‘Big Question’ thinking, I’m going for: Health (again, for obvious reasons), Inspiration, Renewal, Social, Creativity and Love.
Maybe this has given you a few ideas for yourself, so it just remains for me to say, Happy New Year to all, and I wish you success in all your goals and ambitions, for health and beyond, in 2017.
I’ve never felt able to wear leggings of any kind. I haven’t had the right legs for them, not since they were invented. My calves have been far too big; my thighs elephantine; my bum… well, the less said about that, the better. I’m not perfect yet – not by a long way – but lately I’ve been converted. With my steadily diminishing frame, I’m embracing the leggings culture.
A Kind of Magic
It turns out, that with the modern-day application of hefty doses of elastane/spandex, good-quality leggings are tough, really tough. It turns out they can constrain my wobbly bits quite adequately, with no challenge to fragile seams. Elastane is truly a miracle fibre. Careful selection of tops can minimise the look of my far-from-flat stomach, and the overall result is… not bad.
Do I sound vain? If I do, I make no apology. For years, I’ve stared at myself in the mirror, overwhelmed with defeat and negativity. For years, my response to my own image has been ‘that’ll have to do’. I’ve always dressed carefully, presented well… for my size. But big, is big. And in the privacy of your own bedroom mirror, you can’t escape it. So, as my size continues to diminish, work-in-progress though I still am, allow me the thrill if you will, of looking in that mirror and… feeling good about what I see.
West End Girl(s)
Back in the day, in the eighties, when I was in my twenties and hovering around the 11-stone mark (that’s 154 pounds/70 kilos), I had a wardrobe full of what we used to call stirrup pants. The forerunners of leggings, these were stretchy, up to a point, but instead of tightly gripping the calves, they were held in place by the addition of elasticated stirrups, which hooked around your heels. Pop these on and pull on a pair of knee-high boots, and the effect was exactly like you see today with leggings. I loved my stirrup pants – I had several pairs. I worked ‘Up West’ (London’s West End). I went out a lot in those days – and I wore them all the time.
Here Comes the Rain Again
But as my calves expanded over the ensuing 25 or so years, knee-high boots became impossible to wear. If I could get the zips up, they would cut off the blood supply to my feet, but more usually, the zips wouldn’t even meet. I went into my new favourites – calf length ‘slouchy’ boots. These look like boots that are meant to be knee-high, but are slouched, ending just below the widest point of the calf. As the leather around the ankles is rumpled, the look, even for someone with fairly large calves, is quite nicely balanced. They’re also pull-on, no zips. I wore these for years until… yes, you guessed it, my calves expanded beyond the fit of even this style, and I could no longer pull them past my widening feet.
I’m Still Standing
I ended up in ankle boots, as I could usually get the zips up. When I could no longer achieve even this, there were stretchy pull-on ankle boots, which looked okay, so long as you covered them with boot-cut trousers, which I always did. Eventually, with ankles permanently puffy and the zips on even these short boots straining, only shoe-boots, which finish below the ankle, would achieve anything like the boot look for me.
Alive and Kicking
With the arrival of leggings in my wardrobe over the last month or so, I realised that in my transitional (and still quite cuddly state), the leggings-and-ankle-boots look preferred by the slender ones and teens, wasn’t going to work for me. They seemed to magnify the proportions of my calves and thighs – the opposite of what clever styling is supposed to achieve.
I found a pair of flat suede booties, loose fit, Ugg/Emu style, which worked ok with leggings, but only in a very casual, outdoorsy way. But earlier this week… I tracked down a pair of old-style slouchy calf-length boots at John Lewis. They fitted! They pulled on easily; they slouched stylishly around my ankles; they even reached the right point of my calves, balancing the look just as it should be. Better even than that, I had £80 worth of John Lewis vouchers squashed into my purse, itching to be spent.
I bagged my prize boots and hauled them home.
Walking On Sunshine
I can’t describe how comfortable I felt, trying on my leggings with these new boots; trying on a variety of tops and jackets, just to see what worked with what. It all felt so… natural… harking back to the type of outfits I would put together in my twenties and thirties; things I would wear all the time, modified just a little for the few more pounds I still carry, and for the extra two or three decades I’m also wearing. I felt more confident, more poised, more relaxed, more… sexy.
Never Gonna Give You Up
I spent the rest of the day breaking-in my boots at home, and they were immaculately comfortable and supportive for hours – I just didn’t want to take them off. Every time I passed a mirror, I stopped to reassure myself I wasn’t just imagining it.
Girls Just Wanna Have Fun
And with those wonderful slouchy calf-length boots, my winter wardrobe… is complete. Now all I need is to take my worked-in-the-eighties-but-is-somehow-also-weirdly-on-trend-today look for a rocking good night-out.
Last autumn I was just a couple of months into my new healthy lifestyle programme. I’d lost perhaps 20 pounds – not that much off what was, back then, a very ample frame. This autumn, with over 70 pounds having relinquished their fleshy grip, I’m feeling the cold more than I’ve done for almost two decades.
For the last several years, I’ve needed nothing more than a scarf about my neck on all but the very coldest days. For the last three years my favourite winter outerwear was in fact a sleeveless waistcoat (big buttons, asymmetrical – I love weird clothes). I never wore hats of any kind (in fact the only one I own is an aritsan bobble hat that I keep in the car in case I break down and have to sit out a frosty night at the wheel). My fingers hadn’t seen the inside of a pair of gloves since those ones you used to get sewn on to a string and threaded through your sleeves as a small child.
So it’s come as some surprise – in a good way – that this autumn on frosty mornings and blustery afternoons, I have been properly, seriously chilly, right into my bones. My built-in duvet – those flumpy folds of laid-down fat – has shrunk from a heady 13-tog to a lightweight 5 or 6. My internal central heating appears to have shifted to an economy setting. In short, I need winter layers like never before!
Yes, friends, that means… shopping (see – there’s an upside to everything). I reason that in the long drawn-out autumn/winter/spring chilliness that we get here in the UK, I’ll get probably 6 months wear out of my purchases, even if I am still on the way down the size ranges. So I’ve gone to town a bit. I’ve treated myself to a faux-fur jacket (sublime and tactile to the point of naughtiness), a leather jacket (my first in thirty years, buttery soft and the colour of a Werther’s Original – sorry!) and a slate grey padded high-neck wind and shower-proof zip-up thing (stylish enough for my vanity, but practical for windy walks). Add a snug pair of woollen gloves (which wouldn’t have squeezed over my chubby digits last winter) and I’m all set.
I have the scarves already, you see, a whole drawer full…
Oh, but there’s still the question of my ears; I seem to have what I can only describe as… delicate ears; they’re temperamental, capricious… unsupportive. As a child I remember being prone to ear infections. As a grown-up I’ve had occasional problems when I went swimming or took a long flight. That was all, until I started walking more regularly. Now I find that if the cold gets into my ears, they protest and deliver me days on end of painful gumminess; and when they’re really playing up, I get bouts of vertigo. In the summer, it’s sufficient to plug in my headphones and walk to music or an audiobook, but the colder weather demands a little extra protection. So I’ve invested in a pair of earmuffs.
Don’t laugh – they’re not the fluffy ‘Princess Leah’ kind, but far more workaday flat-to-the-head ones which hook around the back of my neck. They do the job, even if they do look a wee bit silly. My vanity can bear it if it means my fragile ears stay toasty (but before you ask, that same vanity won’t allow me to upload a photo of me actually wearing the darned things).
Anyway, with my new outerwear, my old scarves and the pragmatic application of silly earmuffs, I’m all set for the cold months ahead and I’m looking forward to my winter walks.
I’ve spent far too many years interpreting certain events and experiences in my past in a way which allows me to heap blame, reproach and criticism (and a whole lot more besides) on to my own shoulders. But as I lose weight, I’m gaining back my self-respect, and with it, a little perspective.
I’m a work-in-progress as much with this as with the weight-loss, but with my diminishing physical burden has come the ability to see emotional things differently; to acknowledge that certain situations and the outcomes that wounded me, were not my fault, or my doing; they were not about me being weak or careless, stupid or naive; they did not come about because of some failing in me, something I did, or didn’t do, some expectation I failed to meet. Those situations were not, in fact, about me at all.
I make no excuse for speaking in general terms. Blogging is a very public thing, and the events and experiences to which I allude are intensely personal in nature. They involve a thankfully small number of people who have passed through my life and who have, in one way or another, wreaked some degree of havoc for me – physically, psychologically, emotionally.
On those occasions, my default position has been this: That I had somehow brought this problem, situation or person’s behaviour on myself; that it was something about me that caused this or that reaction or behaviour.
On one level, when you think like this it makes you feel weak and pitiful. It’s like in a violent relationship where the victim accepts the rationale of the bullying partner when they say, ‘you made me angry’ or ‘you made me do this to you’. Within the diminished self-esteem that characterises such situations, you let yourself believe that your weakness, contemptibility, failing or fallibility, your unique propensity to irritate or anger, somehow brought about whatever happened.
On another level it makes your own indignation and anger rise up, sometimes in quite uncontrollable ways. Here’s the thinking that has sent me into palpable (but so far private) rages; has seen me ranting at the four walls of my house, bashing out blistering pages of irrational fury on my keyboard (well, I am a writer, it’s the natural place):
“What is it about me, that makes you think it’s ok to do this to me?”
“What is it about me, that makes you behave in this way?”
“What is it about me, that makes you take advantage of my kindness/generosity/… etc.”
“What is itabout me, that makes you have so little thought for my feelings?”
Thankfully those perverse pages, filled with purple prose, pouting and profanity, rarely see the light of day – though it has happened once or twice. When I calm down, perspective rebalanced, I see them for what they are, and delete them. Maybe the process of writing is the exorcism of emotion that I need.
The thing is, when people hurt you, behave badly towards you, steal from you, take advantage of you, manipulate you, treat you dismissively, patronise you, bully you, lie to you, cheat you, let you down – it’s not about you. It’s about who they are or the situation they’re responding to. It’s about them.
Bad people do bad things to others; the narcissists, the sociopaths, the liars, the feckless, the cheats, the lazy, the ruthlessly ambitious, the dishonest, the selfish. That’s easy enough to understand, once you realise what you’ve been dealing with.
But good people do bad things too, and that’s a little tougher to handle. Good people can be thoughtless, come under pressure, get stressed, make poor decisions, judge situations wrongly, let stuff overwhelm them, prioritise other people and things over you. When these situations arise, normally good people can inflict hurt, damage those they would normally treat with far more care. But even then it’s still not about you – it’s about them.
So this is my thought for the weekend; a healing and calming mantra, for when you’re tempted to feel indignant, hurt or angry when someone’s actions wound you, or their behaviour falls short of what you hoped it would be – it’s not about me.
I began my new healthy lifestyle – falteringly – exactly a year ago, on Wednesday 26th August 2015. The day before, I’d had my first of eight lifestyle coaching sessions. I say falteringly because I note, with a degree of embarrassment, that my first few days of so-called healthy eating weren’t oh, you know, actually all that… healthy. They included:
50g bowls of sugar-loaded Honey Nut Shreddies for breakfast
Leftover spaghetti carbonara (white pasta, shop-bought carbonara sauce, leftover chicken pieces and a dollop of double cream)
A meal of crackers loaded with butter and seafood cocktail
Clearly I had a lot to learn about healthy eating, and many, many adjustments to make.
On my first day, I managed two 15-minute slow walks on my treadmill. The second day, I noted a 20-minute round-trip walk to the post box – a circuit which would take me half that time today, if I ever went on a walk which was quite that short (it is, literally, just to the end of the road and back).
My lumbersome weight on that first day was 270 pounds, or 19 stone 4 lbs (that’s 122.4 kilos in new money). Yet despite the Honey Nut Shreddies and spaghetti carbonara, I must have done a few things right; I lost 6 pounds in my first week, and a further 8 pounds over the next 4 weeks, which was a big boost.
I see from the notes alongside my food diary (which I have kept in detail every day since then – it helps to keep me accountable to myself), that in those first few days, in addition to my coach, I drew support and positivity from a variety of sources:
The encouragement of several lovely friends
Positive feedback on my work from a couple of clients
Some time spent reflecting on the comfort and calm of my home and garden
My Pilates habit and the gains I’ve seen from embedding this in my life, and sticking with it even when I got very overweight
A personalised hypnotherapy/relaxation tape given to me a couple of years ago by a hypnotherapist, whose help I had sought with my menopausal/health anxieties
My twin nephews, so happy, positive – and very, very active
I didn’t go sugar-free until the middle of October 2015. I gradually stripped away the more obvious treats (biscuits, confectionary etc), but until mid-October I was still making my breakfast Bircher muesli with Rachel’s Coconut Yoghurt, which is very, very highly sweetened. Pranita had visited my home and we’d done a helpful store-cupboard and fridge audit, which had made me think about why I was holding on to this last sweet-treat. My rationale – that it was an organic yoghurt, and therefore healthy – was all wrong. Yoghurt of the right kind is indeed healthy, but sweetened yoghurt, bio/organic or not, is… dessert.
That was a huge turning-point for me, finally acknowledging and then laying my sugar compulsion to rest. Once I replaced the sweetened variety with natural Greek yoghurt – bio, full-fat and proud, since you ask – I didn’t even miss the sweet taste. And the die was cast. Today, at a guesstimate, I would say I am 99% added sugar free. The odd microgram creeps in here and there, usually when I don’t read a label carefully enough. That’s about as much of a success as I can claim – but I’m more than happy with it.
Giving up added sugar was… massive. It freed me from hunger pangs, insulin spikes and a mass of barely controllable temptations, requiring extremes of willpower which I struggled to muster. In the weeks and months since then, I have read voraciously about the sugar-free and LCHF (low carb healthy fat) approaches. Whilst I haven’t gone 100% for LCHF, I totally bought the sugar-free message and I’ve succeeded in abandoning not only added sugar in all its many guises, but processed ready meals (where the sweet stuff hides in quite astounding volumes) and big stomach-stretching bricks of simple carbohydrate – bread, pasta, white rice and potatoes. I’ve lowered my general carbohydrate intake very considerably – and I feel so much better for it.
Not only that, but it’s extraordinary and thrilling to me that the sweet stuff is now… too sickly sweet. My taste-buds rebel when in the vicinity of anything remotely sugary. And unless you’ve been released from sugar addiction yourself, you’ve no idea how truly magnificent that feels!
Exercise is… Hard Work
Ah… exercise. I have tried hard to exercise more often, but even after a year, I still struggle with this. Simple walking, the odd bit of swimming and of course, my Pilates, form the lion share of my exercise habit – but even now, I have to push myself out of the door.
I’m told there should be a joyous shift towards actual enthusiasm for exercise at some point, but all I’m experiencing so far is an ebb-and-flow. Some days or weeks are better than others. I hired a Personal Trainer to come to my home for a few weeks, and that has propelled me into episodes (whole minutes at a time!) of laboured jogging, and some more constructive cardio and strength exercises. I swim, usually once a week, with a friend. I enjoy walking more than I ever have before, but it’s still a big heave-ho to get myself out of bed for a walk at 6:00am, and I don’t always manage. I make that effort more frequently, I seek out opportunities to leave the car behind and walk instead, and I’m definitely more active than I was; but exercise is something I fear may never come easily or naturally to me.
I do it though, I do it – and it’s helping me become fitter. My resting heart rate has dropped more than 10 BPM, as my stamina, flexibility and general energy level has improved. All these are great rewards in themselves, and they contribute to a significantly diminished experience of health anxiety, which was quite the thing for me through my menopause years.
A year down the line, and the weight-loss component of my new healthier lifestyle is a little over half done. I’ve lost 65.5 pounds (that’s over four and a half stone, or 29.7 kilos). I wanted to be under 200 pounds by now, and currently at 204.5 pounds I’m not quite there (until the last few days, I’ve been frustratingly plateaued for nearly two months – like my body was trying to sabotage my ‘anniversary’); but I’m not far off. I last saw this weight in 2002, but only briefly, and before that, it would have been around the early 1990’s.
I’ve dropped 5 dress sizes, a shoe size, 3 ring sizes and 2 bra back sizes (but not even one cup size – hurrah!) and lost at least one chin. And there have been many other payoffs too.
Indulgence – Just Modified
Don’t run away with the idea that I’m living some sort of parched, fat-free existence, devoid of culinary interest. I enjoy all sorts of indulgences. I still eat butter (although without bread/toast in my diet, a packet of the stuff lasts me weeks and weeks); I still eat cheese almost daily (limiting quantity – mostly – to a few slivers). I choose full-fat over low/fat-free options, which I’ve always done, but it’s interesting to note that opinion is swinging towards this as the healthier choice these days; I eat plenty of eggs (another healthy foodstuff, long demonised). I try new recipes regularly and have added several healthier, more nutritious meals to my repertoire in recent months.
I still snack on savouries every now and again, but having lost my taste for crisps (USA: potato chips) I’ve found one or two alternatives which don’t press my guilt-button. The beauty of these is that they’re not addictive in the way that old style crisps are. I make my own toasted and seasoned seeds, crispy seasoned kale and small bowls of lightly salted air-popped corn.
I still enjoy the odd dessert-like treat too. I’ve made added-sugar-free banana and almond cake; I even (very) occasionally make an unbelievably indulgent ‘ice cream’ from frozen banana, organic (no-added-sugar) peanut butter and Greek yoghurt. There may be substantially more vegetables and a broader spectrum of nutrients in my diet than ever before, but my taste-buds have not been utterly deprived of naughties.
Onward and Downward
So to the year ahead. I have another 30-50 pounds to go. I’m deliberately vague about this, as I shall see how I feel about it as I progress. But the big change for me – re-educating my taste-buds and my insides to welcome healthy food and reject sugar and processed junk – is something I now dare to feel confident I have nailed. I’ve dieted before, but I’ve never felt this lifestyle victory until now.
I’ve been so very grateful for all the support and encouragement I’ve received through my blog. It’s clear that my experiences have inspired others to keep going with their own healthy changes, and that thrills me. I cannot imagine anything more positive (apart from the fact that I’m improving the quality, and perhaps even length, of my own life) than to inspire others to do the same for themselves.
So the journey continues. Stay with me, if you will – and I hope you do. It won’t be dramatic, but it will continue to be frank and honest – a true account of a very ordinary battle to re-establish good habits, achieve a healthy weight and – hopefully – set myself up for a longer, healthier and more active middle- and old-age.
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I love hearing from people who follow my blog, and respond to every comment. If you have any questions on how I’ve gone about my first ‘healthier’ year, please post them through the comments and I’ll do my best to answer.
Coming next: My Top Ten experience-based tips for sustainable and healthy weight-loss.