Ageing and such like

I have come across various quotations recently, including one today which said ‘it’s never too late to become the person you want to become’ and another – an advertisement by the Sanctuary Spa – encouraging women to relax and to ‘let go’ .  As I am just starting a college course, aiming for a change in career and it’s my birthday next week, both got me thinking.

Changing career is both exciting and daunting.   I am old enough to be the mother, if not the grandmother, of some of the other students.  But for some while now I have wanted to do something more creative.  Singing and writing were never going to pay the bills; cooking on the other hand, although at most levels not as well paid as surveying, could do.  I am torn between wanting to do something which is fulfilling for me; having to provide financially for my children; trying to balance work with looking after my children (picking them up from school, not too many hours in after school club, trying not to ask their father to look after them more than I do, etc. etc.).  I don’t know whether I’m doing the right thing – I’m definitely stepping out of my comfort zone in many ways – but I do know that drifting along as a surveyor is not satisfying, not fulfilling and, ultimately, doesn’t seem to be providing the right opportunities to make of it either a career or a vocation any longer.  I’ve applied for jobs and got nowhere, whereas already opportunities for catering are coming my way.

The other issue I’m debating in my head is whether it’s selfish to find something which is fulfilling, career-wise (which is why being able to provide for my children financially is an important factor).  The Sanctuary advert popped into my consciousness at just the right moment: my Thursday evening run had been cancelled (partly by me – the weather was atrocious) and I was feeling a bit sorry for myself and a bit low.  Straight away I was thinking about my ‘to do’ list and how, as I wasn’t going running I then ‘must do… singing practice; learn/practice Italian; sort out my college folder; write all the features I’ve been meaning to write; go out for a run anyway…’ as if the suddenly empty time had to be filled.

The Sanctuary advert pulled me up short.  I roamed around a bit on Facebook, finding an inspiring clip about a man who had started running at 95 and long jump at 97; I lit some candles and had a bath (I normally have a shower as it’s quicker), lying there for ages not even reading but with bubbles about a foot higher than the surface of the water, just day dreaming; I eventually did some singing; and then I roamed around a bit more on Facebook and pinterest before writing this post.

I haven’t done all the things I could have done; but instead of feeling sad and sorry for myself I’ve enjoyed having some contemplative, peaceful time on my own.  I’m happy that I’m following my dream of being more creative, and excited about my change of career and where it might lead me: and I’m glad I’m doing it before I’m too old.

I still have a list of things to do, or that I wish to do, and I don’t want to live to regret not doing anything – but at the same time I know that sometimes it’s OK just to take some time out and do nothing.  As the Italians say, “la dolce far niente”.  And at those points, when you’re happy enough and confident enough to stop – to have a break from the rushing around we all do – you can look into yourself and see who you really are.  And you know what?  I like who I am (phew!).

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Comfort Zones

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I’ve never really been one to stay in my comfort zone for too long: though people’s attitude to me has varied between ‘what the hell are you doing that for – are you an idiot?’ and ‘good for you’.  Funny, isn’t it – how people’s reactions to the things we do can be so diametrically opposed.  Just confirms that you have to do what your own heart/ head/ senses/ conscience tell you to do, not what other people think you should do, as some people will think you are right and some – probably, if it was analyzed, about 50% – will think you are wrong.

I can’t remember the first time I stepped outside my comfort zone and did something someone thought I shouldn’t, but I do remember my father saying something along the lines of daughters doing incomprehensible, rash things like switching to degree courses in subjects such as music.  I also remember a musical friend saying with surprise, about one of my music essays, “you sounded as if you knew what you were talking about – even though I knew you had no idea what a diminished 9th was” (actually, I might have known what a diminished 9th was – I probably looked it up purely for the purposes of the essay).

Later on of course I went for a safe-ish option and became a chartered surveyor.  At that point the unemployment rate for surveyors was very low, although to become chartered as a non-cognate graduate and as a woman (shock, horror – ‘they’ didn’t even approve of women wearing trousers to work when I began my surveying career in 1986!) was more unusual.  Someone from one of the long-established West End firms wrote in response to my job request, that they might have a job going managing their fleet cars – and that they (he) thought that often it was best if people ‘stuck to their own last’.

That sort of comment was, of course, guaranteed to make me stick to becoming a chartered surveyor rather than giving up – as with the guy who I had worked with previously who said what on earth made me think I’d stick to it when I’d stuck to nothing else work-wise up until then… what made me stick to it was that I had something to prove, not only to other people but also to myself.

After about 8 years in surveying I’d had enough however and decided to chuck it all in and go to work as a holiday rep., firstly in France (where I would have liked to have stayed) and then in Norway.  My father said “You’re not to give up a well-paid secure job to become a holiday rep.”.  Did I take any notice?  I had no mortgage, no children… and left a job paying £30,000 pa for one paying about £3,000 pa.  I had a great time and have seen bits of rural France that I shall probably never see again – and I could also speak fluent French when I got back.  My French is no longer fluent, but it gave me a confidence in speaking it which I think probably also helped with, later on, learning Italian.

I fell into a comfort zone after that though – my career progressed; I bought a flat; I earned (compared to my mortgage) a lot of money.  Then I met David, settled down, had children, moved to Cumbria… life was steady.

Or was it?  Don’t you think Life has a way of surprising you?  I am well aware that it really cannot be planned for – some things you wish for do indeed happen, but the effects of them are never quite what you expect and there are all the other things which happen which you didn’t even dream of (or the things you wished for happen, but turn out then to follow a different path from the one you’d expected or hoped for).

So there I was, plodding along, doing a job, taking redundancy as I hated the job and assumed I would just walk into another one as I always had… and I ended up pregnant, aged 48/49.  The creative side of me, which had been somewhat under wraps since graduating, had started rearing its head as well: I was singing and writing and started doing more of both.  The baby arrived, and provided a huge amount of joy and a fair amount of media interest.

Then my husband left.  After a few months of adjusting to it and having unexpectedly inherited a bit of money, I found I wanted to spread my wings and enjoy my new-found freedom and my 45% child-free time.   About a year later I got a job as a surveyor again, having thought I’d never go back to it, and had the most passionate and intense love affair of my life, with a guy who tapped right into the essence of me – the creative, free me which had been trying to escape the comfort zone for so long.

And now… after the pain (I still miss him); the acceptance (my kids have to come first) and the realisation (I am a creative person, and a people person)… I am about to step out of my comfort zone again.  I have a new job as a part-time chef, and am about to start a catering course in September.  Because of time restraints it is unlikely, come September, that I shall work as a surveyor again – after 30-odd years in the profession.

But, as I said in my college interview, I have 12 to 15 years of working life left.  I want, and intend, them to be enjoyable and (therefore) successful.  On an emotional level it feels as if I’m doing the right thing; on a practical level it also makes sense as there is far more demand for chefs than there is for surveyors and I have experience (e.g. in management and also in promotion) which is transferable.  I may go ‘backwards’ initially (in terms of starting again at the bottom, having to retrain, and not earning much) but it’s in order to go forwards more.  And the opportunities and openings are enormous – I wanted to live and work in France but didn’t manage it – becoming a chef my only restraint to where I work is my children.  There’s also a whole history to how I got to this stage, but it’s not necessarily relevant: suffice to say that when a friend suggested I get a job as a chef I mulled it over and eventually realised that she was talking a lot of sense and picking up on something which had been within me for a while.

She also suggested I start a supper club, so that’s exactly what I’ve done, with the profit going to charity.  If you feel like ‘sharing’ this and encouraging friends who live in or who are visiting Cumbria to come along, it would be great if you could – I would love to get really booked up.  And guess what… my new website also has a blog!

Visit: Brampton Supper Club

(and on Facebook: Facebook page for Brampton Supper Club)

Creativity requires the courage to let go of certainties

– Erich Fromm

flowers for courage

Obscure jewels

The great thing about Cumbria is that you can find almost unknown treasures just off the
beaten track.  Sometimes you wonder how they survive; others seem to be thriving
despite not being anywhere obvious, nor well-signposted.

1. Brampton to Longtown (7)An example is the delightful little museum at Bewcastle – out in the middle of wild, almost-unvisited, haunted Reiver country.  It doesn’t take long to look around, but it tells the story of Bewcastle for those lone visitors who trek up to this remote part of north Cumbria.

 

Today we went to Threlkeld Mining Museum, which sits within the Lake District National Park just outside sometimes-crowded (relatively speaking) Keswick.  It represents one of the contradictions of the Lake District, even of Cumbria itself: this now idyllically rural county once made its wealth from industry, the landscape being gouged to free various valuable minerals.  Copper, lead, slate, graphite and even coal have been taken from the fells, valleys and coast that sheep now roam over and walkers ramble across.

Threlkeld Mining Museum appears not much more than a collection of rusty excavators in a quarry at first glance, but spending some time there is rewarding.  There’s a short ride on a narrow gauge steam train which takes you up to a quarry which is still worked – perhaps recently most significantly to help repair the road past Thirlmere (Keswick to Ambleside) which collapsed when the side of Hevellyn suffered a major landslip in the floods of December 2015 – and a tour of the old mine workings.  The guides are informative and enthusiastic and you come away with an enhanced understanding of how unsafe and unhealthy conditions were working underground – children carrying large tubs of excretia away at the ends of shifts; pit ponies and men falling down shafts, to be left at the bottom to rot; poisonous lead; children laying explosives, made from goose quills filled with powder, at close range because they were more expendable than adults… the social history is fascinating and humbling.

The Museum has no flash modern cafe facilities but during the gap between our train ride and our underground tour, one of the Museum staff pointed us in the direction of the cafe in Threlkeld village (the excellent Village Coffee Shop).  This was another ‘find’.  The village is bypassed by the A66 but if you bother to turn off the main road and head into the village there is a sign for a cafe.   This is situated in a beautifully refurbished village hall with superb views across to the quarry and the fells beyond.  It’s a community enterprise project (I can’t remember the exact name) so the cafe is run by paid members of staff but any profit it makes is ploughed back into the community.  It’s no amateur tea-room either: the coffee was lovely, the cakes looked superb, and the toilets were clean and nicely decorated with fresh flowers.

And friends I Threlkeld Mining Museum April 2017 (1)worked with at British Waterways may be amused to see that one of BW’s rusty excavators now lives at the Mining Museum!

 

A Snowy Journey

OK, so I took down Chapter One (London) and I haven’t yet finished Chapter Two (France).  But here is Chapter Three in all its glory for you to enjoy or not… if you want to provide some feedback that would be great…  and if anybody knows Joachim from Munich, please say Thank You for the postcard but I didn’t have an address for him by then – and that I think this demonstrates that some of my best memories from Norway were of skiing with him.   I haven’t even mentioned the stave churches, or Lillehammer… One day I shall go back to Norway.

snow-sculpture-norway

It was early February.  It was raining yet again in London.  It had been raining in London, it seemed constantly, for weeks.  I gazed out of the office window at the cars, buses and pedestrians splashing up and down Fleet Street and wondered for the umpteenth time what I wanted to do with my life.  Cycling into work at the moment was a pain: one arrived covered in filth and soaked to the skin having narrowly missed death by motor vehicle on several occasions and I was still in a temporary job, having seen no others I fancied applying for recently.

Lack of sunlight always depresses me.  It had got to the point where the rain was making me angry – I was beginning to take it as a personal affront.   Even on the days when life dawned bright and sunny, as soon as got on my bike to cycle home the heavens would open.

So the surprise phone call from the holiday company I had previously worked for was rather timely.  They needed a cross country ski rep in Norway as the rep who was already out there wanted to come home.  In some ways I knew straight away that there was no decision to make: this was my chance to escape.  I had never done any cross-country skiing, having seen people plodding around in circles around frozen lakes in France and having regarded it as rather boring and tame, but as I wasn’t too bad a downhill skier I thought I could master cross-country.  Being the insecure person I was my worries and doubts began as soon as I started thinking I’d probably go, of course.   Would I really manage to cross-country ski to a standard high enough that I could not only keep up with, even guide, the holiday clients but also teach the beginners some of the basics?  I spoke to a colleague who had skied in the police or the army or something before returning to a more sedentary civilian life.  His response was typical of him and put me at ease: “Well, you can skate can’t you?  And you’re one of those sickening sporty types – all muscle and bone.  No problem!”  I hasten to add that he always exaggerates and says I’m built for speed rather than comfort, but in fact I’m not as fit as I was and if nothing else this would, I hoped, be an opportunity to become fitter.

The following day I bought the Bike mag February edition.  Not only was there an article about Norway and how difficult it was to buy replacement inner tubes, but also a brief clipping on how cross-country skiing was excellent cross-training for cyclists.  Apparently Olympic cyclists use it for their winter training.  I had also read somewhere that it was more physically demanding even than swimming, and my worries and fears began to be surpassed by excitement.

For a while at least I would have no more office or tube claustrophobia (there were days when the rain was so off-putting that there was no way I was going to head off by pushbike into the vehicle-splashed-up dirt of the London streets with early morning rain pouring down on me); and, best of all, I would get away from this blasted rain.  I went mountain biking in the Peak District the weekend before I left and both days we had glorious sunny weather.  Oh well.

From the start Norway was different from any other country I had previously visited.  When I’ve been skiing in the Alps I have travelled from greenery up into the mountains, getting higher and higher and increasingly worried about the fact that there seems to be NO SNOW.  From the moment I landed in Oslo I was surrounded by snow and ice.  I had never seen so much snow, and found it difficult to believe that it could continue to fall, sometimes for days at a time, much the way the rain does in England.  A Norwegian woman I was talking to in the hotel one evening said “oh yes: it snows from November to May here.  We get as fed up with it as you do with your English rain!”

The plane came in to land immediately over a fjord on which people were skating, and the sense of anticipation and excitement I always feel to a greater or lesser extent when travelling, but which often diminishes when I reach a half-way point in the journey and am exhausted with the emotion of it all and the sheer movement from A to B, continued unabated.  I had none of that sense of ‘well, I’m in the country, what now?  Where do I go next?  Have I done the right thing?’  Everything was a delight, from the miniscule size of Oslo airport compared to Gatwick, Geneva or Paris, to the easy ride on the ‘Flybuss’ to Olso Central Station, through the wait at the clean and enclosed (i.e. not windswept and freezing) station – where time flew by as I people-watched and which was quite unlike the wait I had had when crossing Paris once, in a grubby station served coffee by a grumpy French waiter – to the train journey along the edges of icy and sometimes frozen lakes and rivers, with a train window sill to rest against which seemed to be heated.  Luxury.

Venabu, where I was to live in the FjellHotel, turned out to be nothing much more than a couple of hotels surrounded by holiday huts in the middle of nowhere, not too far to the north of Lillehammer.  However it was friendly and comfortable and many of the meals were buffets: I could eat as much as I liked and have gravad lax every night if I really wanted.  I do love smoked salmon and this was some of the best…  Alcohol was hideously expensive but what the hell – I was going to be healthy and this was meant to be therapy of a kind.

The basic cross-country ski technique proved to be fairly easy to pick up and I am sure that being able to skate and having strong quads from cycling helped.  What I did find difficult initially was keeping my arms straight and this was where, eventually, being a swimmer as well as a cyclist helped: remember the ‘tricep kickback’ in front crawl?  The other difficulty was hills.  Not the ascents, which just took extra effort (especially with the wrong wax on the skis) but the descents.  Where, oh where, were my alpine skis and boots?  These flimsy, long, thin skis with no heel attachment felt at first as if they had minds of their own!  Braking and turning sharp downhill corners seemed impossible: except I saw other people managing so was determined I would too.  Needless to say one improves with practice until alpine skis are the things which feel odd – heavy, cumbersome and unwieldy.  And I loved the daily ritual of waxing your skis each morning: taking off the old wax, the smell of the wax warming up, and then getting a fresh layer on your skis, the pots colour-coded according to the outside temperature.

Around Venabu there is a wide choice of tracks, cut and uncut.  The ‘railway lines’ not only go all over the plateau but also up into the mountains.  One of my favourite routes went up around Svartfjell (Black Mountain,) from where there was a magnificent view across to the Rondane National Park, and then across the saddle between Swarthammern and Tverrhogda.  From there it was downhill nearly all the way back to Venabu, the first bit down to Fremre Uksan being a ‘go for it whoosh’ – get in the tuck position at the top and don’t stand up until you come to a natural halt at the Fremre Uksan signpost, quads-a-quiver.

It’s amazing how your speed can vary with the quality of the snow (or ice), especially on ‘off piste’ sections.  Towards the end of my stay I sampled different types of conditions just in a single day trip from Venabu to Masaplassen, about 25km along the Troll-loype.

I find I notice small details when I’m away from home, especially when I’m alone.  The time is clearer and more defined; it takes on a new dimension.  There often seems to be much more of it and little details which in the humdrum routine of a week at home and in the office would slip by unnoticed, become vividly alive and important.  Day-to-day experiences somehow have more emotional impact: seeing a vole burrowing in the snow is a moving and memorable experience and I could watch the vole for minutes on end.  At home it would be all too easy in the daily rush to miss the vole completely.  On another day when a group of us had been out skiing in rather misty conditions, we had all jumped out of our skins when a snow ptarmigan had suddenly taken off between me and the skier behind me: it had been so well-camouflaged we had had no idea it was there.  Or there was the time when I was out on the tracks on my own one afternoon, and it was so quiet I could hear a bird’s wings beating as it flew overhead.  The latter was a moment which I think will stay with me for the rest of my life: that sense of absolute aloneness (even though I was hardly any distance from the hotel) and peace, apart from the gentle pulse of the wings.  That was a moment when my worries about what I was going to do with my life just melted away and were completely unimportant: solely what mattered was the here and now.

 

My trip along the Troll-loype was an opportunity to enjoy these small details and again to forget about my ‘real’ life in England.  It was sunny but bitterly cold when I set off with a German, Joachim, to whom I had got talking at dinner one evening.  He was skiing the entire Troll-loype, staying in ‘DNT’ (Norwegian Mountain Association) huts and some hotels en route.  The hotel at Venabu had promised to arrange for someone to collect me from Masaplassen while Joachim continued along the Troll-loype to Lillehammer.  Needless to say he was far more heavily weighed down than I, with a large backpack of his necessities for staying in the basically-provided huts as well as in the luxury of an hotel.   We’d been out skiing a couple of times, one day in temperatures of minus 15 which with a strong wind must have taken it down to about minus twenty or more with the wind chill factor.  In fact that day not only was it bitterly cold but we could hardly move either because of the wind, and it wasn’t long before we gave up trying to get anywhere and went back into the warmth of the hotel.

But Joachim had to move on, so on a relatively fine day we headed out of the hotel and joined the Troll-loype.  Bamboo posts mark the route as the Troll-loype is not usually cut, although there may well be tracks from other skiers who have passed the same way.  The wind was quite strong and cold as we departed, heading north, and the snow had become icy.  But the sky was blue, the sun was out, and we knew that as soon as we turned east the wind would be more or less behind us and would help us along.  So optimistically we battled around the edge of the frozen lake which Venabu overlooks, then cut away from the tracks and down into the little valley of the Myadalen, one of the many rivers and streams which cross the mountain-ringed Venabygdfjellet plateau.  Joachim suggested skiing up the river valley as it was more sheltered than the route the marked track took along the top of the adjacent slope.  Feeling a little apprehensive in case we suddenly plunged through the snow into icy water, I followed: which was when we saw the first spectacular view of the day.  Some discussion of which words would be used in German or English to describe such views ensued, Joachim summing it up neatly by concluding “I normally just say ‘wow’!”

The river beneath our feet was barely perceptible but the snow-clad valley walls reached above us, startlingly white against the blue sky, the snow folding over on itself like a blanket.  I think the biggest revelation for me in Norway was the sheer variety of the snow: not only the difference between new powdery snow and older stickier snow, but also the way it lies.  Sometimes it can be like skiing on icing sugar, fluffy and compacted all at once; sometimes it is like meringue as your skis cut through a crust into soft powder underneath; and sometimes it is icy, alternating often with powder so that you shoot along faster than you intended and then suddenly and unexpectedly slow up as the powder takes you by surprise and puts the brakes on for you (in my inexperienced case all too often leading to a fall).

The snow also forms all sorts of different patterns.  Some are like waves of drifted sand, and especially when the wind is wispily brushing away the surface you can believe you are in a cold and white desert.  Some patterns look like white semi-buried bones; some like rock strata; and some have a small, mossy pattern.  The same route rarely looks the same twice, as I had discovered even in the short time I had spent in Norway.

We joined the Troll-loypa proper at Brennflya, marked, like all junctions in this area, by a wooden signpost.  In other areas they have signposts accompanied by a map of the entire region and a red circle with ‘you are here’ distinctly marked on it.  To me the latter spoils everything: it makes it too easy, and is far too similar to being a tourist in a strange city.  I enjoyed trying to match up my map to the signpost, which sometimes doesn’t point in quite the direction along the trails one might expect.  “Troll-loypa” the Brennflya signpost said in red on whitened wood, “Osksendalen 22km”.  Oh good – we’d completed 3km of the trip and just had the remaining 22km to do.

 

Joachim’s ‘real’ map of the area had informed him that we could see a waterfall from the Troll-loypa near the next signpost at Dorfallet (which means, unsurprisingly, ‘Waterfall’).  We could see nothing, and as there is the danger of avalanches due to the snow overhangs on the edge of the canyon which runs south from Dorfallet, we decided to play safe and not to go too near the edge (a brief aside: the canyons were created when a lake went ‘down a plughole’ in the sandstone at the end of the glacial period).

We realised soon after this point that we were not the only ‘explorers’ on this route: a lone skier caught up with us and overtook us, soon vanishing into the distance and leaving us alone again (much to the chagrin of my competitive spirit).  But then he wasn’t carrying a heavy backpack nor stopping to take photos at every ‘wow’ view, but possibly training for the race which was due to take place along the route in a fortnight’s time.

We could see back to Venabu and also across to Kvitfjell (the downhill slope near Ringebu, used in the 1994 Lillehammer Winter Olympics).  We weren’t just out in the middle of nowhere, but explorers in the Norwegian mountains, dwarfed by the white wilderness around us which stretched for miles but which at least had some definition (unlike skiing in a white-out) and reference points in terms of peaks and valleys which could be named and located with the aid of the map.

We stopped at a brook for lunch, with interesting ice formations above the rushing water.  We took shelter behind some trees nearby which were so deeply buried in snow they were more like bushes, and turned our skis upside-down in time-honoured tradition to use as a bench.  I discovered that the thermos flask I had been carrying had failed in its duty of keeping hot liquids hot, and tried to mix my ‘choc’n’orange’ powder into a drink with tepid water.  It was not particularly drinkable – in fact it was vile – and I tipped it out in disgust, feeling guilty at making an ugly dark brown stain on the pristine white snow.   Fortunately my German friend had brought with him that most English of drinks: tea.  And it was hot.

I had provided myself with two bread rolls as a packed lunch, while Joachim had packed a lunch which seemed to consist mainly of dried fruit and chocolate.  Having proudly told me that ‘Milka’ chocolate was German (I always thought it was Swiss), he made the mistake of offering me some.   When has a girl ever said no to chocolate?

Fortified by lunch, we set off once more and we soon arrived at the next signpost which bore the surprising news ‘Masaplassen/Oksendalen 7.1km’.  We had a cold drink to celebrate which tasted to me like a rather nasty form of Lemon Meringue Pie, but which Joachim insisted was orange.  The conversation turned round to a time when Joachim had been staying in a B&B in the Lake District and the landlady had insisted on giving him cornflakes with the milk already on them, so they went disgustingly soggy.  After a brief conversation about various countries’ culinary oddities (going to Munich and being served just a huge slab of meat loaf; baked beans; frogs legs and snails), we set off again.  At the next signpost we joined what in summer is a road.  The snow – or rather lumps of ice – meant that it was bumpy and quite hard-going, but we were rewarded by views across the Gudsbrandsdal valley to the mountains of ‘Peer Gynt’ land: breath-taking.

We turned right and decided that it might be easier to ski off the road rather than on it, only to find that the open ground was nearly as icy.  At one point, my downhill skiing on ice being a little more hesitant than Joachim’s  – or perhaps ‘more uncontrolled’ would be more accurate – I found I was flying down a slope in the wrong direction, moving further and further away from my skiing companion and the next signpost.  It didn’t take long to cover the extra ground, to discover that the signpost only stood about 15cm above the surface and that the writing had faded so as to be almost invisible.  With the help of the map we worked out that one way indicated Masaplassen and the other Pulla.

Turning in the Masaplassen direction we found ourselves on the most wonderful fast but soft, compacted icing sugar track, with deep powder either side.  My pride was somewhat appeased when Joachim, definitely the better skier, suddenly fell over backwards in some deep snow which had taken him by surprise.  It always makes me feel better when the experts fall over too: there must be hope for me yet.  I was also pleased not to fall over in the way I had done a few days’ earlier, when, taking a corner too fast, I lost control of my steering completely and flew off the track head first into a snow drift, just to lie there laughing while several other skiers whistled past, probably wondering what on earth I found so funny.

The track wound its way prettily up and down amongst some trees, until it suddenly came out on a four-lane cross-country skiing motorway which took us up to a road.  After a fairly short and level track you then turn off the Troll-loypa onto a steepish downhill, at which we shot quickly but safely and enjoyably to the bottom and across the road into the café at Masaplassen for coffee and cake.  I felt a sense of achievement at being there, of pleasure at having completed a real tour, albeit to some people a short and non-challenging one.  It was such a pleasant place to end a journey: the wooden buildings snuggle amongst the trees in direct opposition to Venabu’s windswept position in the middle of a plateau.  I liked them both.

But whilst I loved being in Norway and skiing nearly every day, rather than being confined in an office in London, I missed my friends and my social life.  I can still clearly remember the day I was skiing along on the loype near the hotel with a client who happened to be an architect.  I suddenly realised that what I really wanted to do with my life was return home – to London – but that my main purpose for working was that I could then afford to travel to some of the many places in the world I wanted to, and to go on activities holidays.  After all many outdoor sports take place in some of the most spectacular scenery this world of ours can offer: and whilst sometimes progressing up the career ladder has some appeal, what is the point in arriving at the pearly gates and not having done many of the other things you wanted to do?  Someone once said to me that if you don’t experience the wider world then your own world shrinks, and the very truth of that rang clear to me straight away.

Meanwhile whilst Joachim was set to stay a night at Masaplassen and then ski onwards tomorrow, I had Venabu’s Norwegian buffet supper to look forward to.

And at least it would be spring when I got back to England

 

Balance

 balance

Sometimes it hurts to follow your heart.  Sometimes however it can take you years to hear your heart properly – to trust the essence of who you are – and it takes several traumatic events happening at once to get you back on the right path.  Your heart can be yelling out at you to take a risk and do something you know feels right; but you ignore it because you ‘ought’ to do something else; you ‘ought’ to play safe; you ‘ought’ to be so-called responsible.

Sometimes responsibility is about being apparently irresponsible.  For me it’s the work-life balance and how much creativity I ‘allow’ myself in my working life.

Having been going through a separation leading to divorce, and just as I started a new job with a long commute, I fell in love last year – passionately, deeply in love – and was loved in return.  In many ways it was rather unreal and yet that was its very life-giving, mind body and soul reality: it was a wonderful, magical, romantic time.  The ‘real me’ was already stirring – this awoke it further and pushed it out into the world.

I flew high but I crashed hard.  For the past few months or so I’ve been working back towards balance: balancing the me I know I really am with the practicalities of life.  On an emotional level, getting a balance between self-esteem & self-awareness.  Not getting put down and falling to bits as soon as somebody criticises or attacks me, but being able to admit my own faults as well… seeing that in all relationships, apart from perhaps with your children, ‘it takes two to tango’.

Having the confidence to believe that my singing is good (it wasn’t years ago and it’s taken a long time not to have that little voice in my head saying ‘who do you think you are, standing up here and singing to people?’) and that Deborah and I have different strengths when it comes to singing. I think she is a far better singer and performer than me, but my voice appeals to a different section of the audience and has a totally different quality – but we now should have the confidence that we are good enough to be paid for singing.  Again, the man last year was a huge part of that as he always supported my singing – as did, also, the friend who came back into my musical life having not seen him for 35 years.  A huge Thank You to those two men: and to the man who kissed my hand when I last sang in the restaurant in Brampton; to the man who said it was ‘classy’; to my choir master for letting me sing the solo in Stanford’s Bluebird; and to my friend Clare and her family… etc.

Accepting that I can’t do everything – there just aren’t enough hours in the day – despite the fact that I want to live life to the full.  Life is an enormous playground and I’ve only tried out some of the rides so far, and I’m greedy to try more!  I want to learn Italian (that’s been an ambition for goodness knows how many years – I think it may possibly get fulfilled this year… watch this space); do lots of long bike rides and write them up; travel; sing; write.. and of course there has to be time for my surveying work, which is what, after all, pays the bills (and I have a great boss who again is supportive by being understanding).  And I want to fit in some time for trail running out on those lovely hills or along by the sea; for yoga; and for meditation.  But again – it’s getting the balance.

Going through a divorce is making me reconsider my financial and childcare balance – perhaps I have to let child tax credits provide some of my income in order that I have more time with the children.  My ambition last year was to work full time and not need any child tax credits at all, and I wanted to be able to afford to take the children abroad on holiday with me.  I failed miserably but I was trying to do too many things – to be too much to too many people – and hence I crashed, letting down in the process my children, the man I loved (though he then failed to help me up when I was down and when I needed him most), my boss, and also myself.

The last point, about looking after yourself, is important because it reflects so much wisdom that is ‘out there’ – if you don’t look after and love yourself first and foremost, you’re pretty useless to other people.  It’s not about selfishness – it’s about (going back to the beginning) being who you truly and genuinely are, and being happy, in order to give happiness to other people.  And when you’re deeply, profoundly, happy in your own skin then it’s no effort to give to other people (I was good at that at the beginning of my love affair but then got insecure and tried too hard/gave too much; and with my ex-husband I always felt I gave a lot and then got resentful… and didn’t appreciate what he was doing (giving me freedom; being a good father)).

As a child – a good, going-to-church on a Sunday and singing in the choir-child – I was brought up to think that I should think about others first and that if you didn’t you were being selfish.  Years later I was at a church in Brighton where a friend sang in the choir, and the sermon was about ‘love others as you love yourself’.  It was a pivotal point for me as the vicar was saying that if you don’t love yourself you’re useless to anybody else… (though not in quite those words).  It’s not always easy to put into practice when deep down inside you think you ‘ought’ to put others first: but actually I’ve seen what happens when you identify too closely with others and put their needs and feelings before your own.  When you lose yourself, you are completely lost.

In relation to children again a balance has to be found, of course: they need to learn to grow up to consider others but have enough self-esteem to look after their own needs.  And whilst a parent has to look after their children, and to a certain extent put his or her children first, again showing them how to look after themselves and be kind to others as well is a fantastic lesson to teach them (and a difficult one if you struggle with it yourself).

So over the past few months I’ve been trying to scramble back up the mountain of self-esteem and happiness – but now I’m beginning to realise that I was making too much effort even to do that, although I’ve had some success.  It’s about letting go – truly letting go – and that’s when things fall into your life; abundance will return in due course (and it’s perhaps also about seeing that it is indeed abundance and joy – seeing that the glass is half full, not half empty – i.e. perception).

If you have constantly to make too much effort for anything and it’s not happening – if you feel as if you’re banging your head against a brick wall and you’re miserable for years on end (as David was in our marriage) – then you’re on the wrong track.  Having said that, my friend Clare wisely said she had realised that when things felt hard it wasn’t so much about giving up as working out how to keep the things in her life that she wanted (she works full-time;  has a very ill husband; has a lovely boyfriend and other people in her life she cares and worries about, and has got to the stage where it works) – again, balance between putting in the effort to keep what you really want and letting go at the right time.

So this week, after feeling incredibly low again on Monday morning, has been about letting go.  I’ve read some useful things which have helped (thank you to the facebook pages and writings of Lyn Thurman* in particular – and also to Phil Robbins whose fantastic photos of me on Caldbeck Fell made me feel better about myself than I have for ages**) and then I burnt a whole load of paperwork yesterday and deleted some files on my computer.  I think that will do.  Again, balance – making too much of an effort to let go is again too much effort!  I have to just let it happen (and not beat myself up for the times when sadness overcomes me).  I’m hoping that letting go will let me fly again – this time in a stronger and more controlled way than I did last summer.  To soar, as my voice has been described as doing in The Bluebird.

There’s a passage at the beginning of one of the chapters of Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow (Peter Hoeg) where she says that she just walks into the tunnel, the blackness, that is depression: she lets herself fall.  It’s always stuck with me.  There’s no rule which says that you ‘ought’ not ever feel depressed.  Yes, life is amazing and we’re lucky to be here and to experience its rich, colourful tapestry – but if there are times when you get depressed or low, go with the flow (just don’t wallow).  There are events in life which are sad, and the unhappiness is a sign that you are human and have emotions – but learn from them, let go, and move on. Everything passes; everything changes.  Again, there was a short features in Psychologies magazine once which pointed out that bad times pass – and so do the good ones! – just to come round again (the wheel of fortune).

At least, that’s what I’m trying to do!

 got-balance*  I’ve previously recommended Lyn’s book The Inner Goddess Revolution but will again here in case anyone who might be interested in it has missed it.

** I can highly recommend Phil for professional photographs – if you’re looking for a photographer for any reason whatsoever, contact him via his Facebook page.  He’s based in Carlisle.

Bringing up baby

Growing up

 

Several years ago a colleague at work was lamenting how badly her daughter was doing at school; she wasn’t achieving the standard she should in numeracy in particular.   I commented that perhaps she should concentrate on what her daughter was good at.  A few weeks later she came in glowing because her daughter had recited a poem really well.

I’m not the best parent from that respect myself – it’s all too easy to nag at your children about petty little things and to criticise them for not doing this that or the other, particularly if you’re feeling wound-up or stressed about other things in life.  The sun above is a useful reminder from a course I’m currently on.

What’s interesting for me about the course is it’s also bringing up lots of things from my own childhood.  I so often felt criticised: “but I was only trying to help”; “why can’t I do anything right?”.  I was then conscious of it with various managers in the workplace as well – fortunately I’ve had a lot of excellent managers who have focused on my strengths and trusted me to get on with my job.  The ones I have clashed with (and we all know them) would be breathing down my neck – usually the task-focused type who for whatever reason feel insecure and stressed themselves.  Some people perform better with that sort of dictatorial, rules-driven approach, and like the certainty of knowing precisely what they should and shouldn’t be doing.  Whilst I need to know clearly what is expected of me, I don’t expect someone to check every single little thing I’m doing – if I’m unsure I’ll ask and something inside me rebels against nit-picking.  It happens in your personal life as well: if you feel someone is picking on every little thing you do, it destroys your confidence and ultimately your happiness.

Without good self-esteem, feeling as if you’re just being criticised can break you, or at least create stress and depression.

Which brings me back full circle to the sun at the top.  If we bring up our children to feel good about themselves, through descriptive praise, highlighting what they are good at and why/how, we will, it is hoped, develop a good sense of self-esteem in them.  And with a good sense of self and of self-esteem (as well, importantly, as good self-awareness – not just a blind belief that they’re perfect in all ways) then with any luck we can produce a generation of children who go on to do amazing things in this world.  And, I know it’s something I’ve rabbited on about rather repetitively recently, but they will do those things from a position of confidence and love rather than fear and aggression.

 

 

Musings from my Travels

Carlisle Cathedral 10th March 2016It’s not quite the European travel I’ve always dreamed of, but the recent alteration to my work means I’ve been travelling to Lancashire and to places I have never been before.  I have always enjoyed the ‘getting out and about’ aspect of surveying (British Waterways in particular was great for that and I used to get trains, planes and automobiles all over our island) and as I headed down the M6 just over a week ago I was glad I worked and glad that my profession gives me the opportunity to get out rather than to be in one place.  It goes a little way towards soothing my itchy feet, even if at the same time it whets my appetite and increases my desire to travel further afield.

I like the sense of freedom which travel brings, in whatever form.  I had never previously driven down the A65 and as I headed towards the villages and hills of the Yorkshire Dales, I couldn’t help contrasting it with the more dramatic scenery of the A66 as it winds through County Durham.  I must admit I prefer the more open and wild scenery further north but the road passed through some lovely villages which, if I had had time, I would have stopped to explore.  One route I do love when travelling this way is the Carlisle-Settle railway however: there’s something distinctly eerie about the tunnels and viaducts, in addition to the grandeur of the engineering enterprise as it passes over the fells.

I’ve always thought of this as the real ‘north’: as a southerner Manchester, Leeds and the surrounding conurbations were what were depicted on television as ‘the north’ and for someone whose experience was very much orientated in the south, these seemed a long way from London or from the South West.  When we moved to Cumbria, a couple of hours’ travel further north still, it felt as if we had moved somewhere completely different again: some wild borderland beyond the North, if that was possible.  As a large part of Cumbria is a holiday destination there’s also perhaps a sense of unreality about Cumbria; it’s not ‘real life’ but something you escape when you’ve opted out of the Rat Race.

It struck me, as I drove round sprawling towns and suburbs with cars everywhere that the North – in the sense of Manchester, Leeds. Liverpool etc. – is not so different from the South.  Our small little island is built up nearly wherever you go until you reach the latitude of about Preston (my parents always comment on how the traffic gets a lot lighter on the M6 at Preston).  There is beautiful scenery everywhere but it’s not until you get properly north, to Cumbria, Northumberland and Scotland, that you find the big open countryside and an immense feeling of space.  Even the skies seem larger, and you can travel along roads and tracks where you don’t see another soul for hours at a time: the landscapes are dramatic rather than just a contrast to the urban sprawl and semi urban sprawl and general clutter of masses of human beings.

It’s good to have the contrast though and to escape to the urban bustle for a bit.  Perhaps it makes me value Cumbria all the more.  And whilst it’s easy to lump everywhere urban in together, the different town and cities obviously have their own characteristics and personalities.  I loathe Preston.  I’m sure it’s fine if you live there and know your way around, but I always get lost in Preston.  I find this incredibly irritating as I generally have a really good sense of direction: good enough that I don’t always need to look at a map more than once and I consider satnav is for idiots who can’t read maps.  But Preston throws me and throws my innate sense of direction into turmoil.  It doesn’t help that for years I was convinced it was to the east of the M6 – but now I still find I’m going the wrong way wherever I am, or it takes ages to get around the city because the roads just don’t go quite where I expect them to.  I’m never going the way I think I’m going – I’ll be convinced I’m going north and then I come to some sign or other which tells me to go right in order to head north, meaning that in fact I’d been heading west all along.  And what sort of a name is Preston?  It’s abrupt.  Perhaps that’s why that nasty dog in the the Aardman Animation films was called Preston: perhaps the animators don’t like Preston either.  Sorry Preston.  I’m sure if I got to know you better I’d love you.

(p.s. 22/3/2016 – I do like Preston railway station).

On this particular day however I forgave Blackpool at the times I’ve been there and thought how dire it looked.  As I got to Blackpool the sun came out, the houses looked well-cared-for: and I met a singing fireman.  It’s always good to have a chat with a fellow singer – the other week it was a singing estate agent, and previously I’ve had my hall decorated by a guy who used to sing and been in a business meeting which has turned into a chat about singing.  Funny how the subject always seems to come up.

As I drove back to Cumbria, having seen crocuses bursting out colourfully in the spring sunshine in Lancashire, and having met lots of lovely firemen (the fire service people all seem so lovely – laidback and friendly; relaxed without being unprofessional) I was singing along to Mozart and my heart soared.  The Howgills loomed dramatically black and white: I love seeing them in any season as they change from being velvety to bright to lowering, and their colours change so drastically.  Today they were in shadow but snow on their tops created a harsh contrast.  The Lake District Fells were similarly contrasting except that in the middle ground there was a layer of gold as the evening sun caught some of the hills and in the foreground they were green with spring; whereas over on the Pennines dark bluey-grey clouds hung low, making the hilltops disappear into haze.

I returned to Carlisle, to get to the music festival on a bright spring evening as the warm red glow of the cathedral lit up all around it.  It had been a day of colours and of exploration.  And there had been one slogan, on the side of a school in Lancaster, which stuck with me: aspire not to have more but to be more.   Not to have more worldly goods, but to ‘be’ more in the sense of being true to yourself; expressing your creativity; and being compassionate and kind to others – of being the best you can be and of never stopping trying to learn and to develop yourself.

Landing on my feet…

I’m a great believer that we get what we want – what we aim for or ‘ask’ for – in life. However quite often the things you want to happen don’t happen quite the way you expect.  But then I’ve always known it was never any good planning life in too much detail.  All you can do is be brave, follow your heart, and take some steps on the path you want to follow.  Sometimes you don’t even realise that you’re taking those steps.

I walked out of the office last week.  It wasn’t so much that I hadn’t done anything wrong – I had – but the offence was relatively minor (and highlighted certain security weaknesses) and what especially annoyed me was the way I was spoken to.  There have now been three recent occasions when I haven’t liked someone’s tone so I’ve been quite blunt about what I think – which is unusual for me as I always think I don’t like confrontation.  However I have stuck up for myself and tend to think ‘good for me’ – I’m not going to be put down by other people.

The thing is, I had breached IT policy by looking at (my home) gmail on the office laptop, and it had introduced a virus – so I was completely in the wrong.  But the worst thing about it is that I have put my long-suffering boss in an awkward position.  First he has to find someone at short notice to cover for me while I’m off with stress/depression at the end of last year; then he re-arranges his own diary so I don’t have to work so many days in Whitehaven; and then on top of it all I go and upset the apple cart like this.

So today I was working at ‘head office’, a pleasant and short car journey from home along winding country roads.  When I arrived my boss told me that I was basically persona non grata in Whitehaven and that they won’t let me ever, ever, ever back on the network.  However he didn’t sack me on the spot but has plenty of work for other clients.  He seemed concerned that he can’t guarantee that into the future, but in fact I’ll take that risk – and we also agreed that I could go on to a zero hours contract.

So in one fell swoop something which could have resulted in my being in the queue at the job centre has instead provided me with different work, in a pleasant environment, the flexibility to work more or less when I want to and at the times of day I want to (if I want to work from 12 noon until 12 midnight I can, if I don’t have meetings: the freelance lifestyle I’ve always wanted), and also confirmation that my ‘insanity’ in November was indeed down in part to Whitehaven, and it’s not just my being completely loony.  I also have a kind, supportive boss of the same type I had when I worked for Ian Jarvis at British Waterways (one of the best bosses I have ever had): he doesn’t make me feel that I’m a silly, overemotional angst-ridden fool but seems to value my work (even if it is because surveyors are hard to come by in Cumbria – on the other hand some people are too much trouble to keep however highly qualified they are).

I drove home along lovely country lanes tonight (in the dark!) and tears of gratitude and relief suddenly rolled down my cheeks.  Thank You, God!

 

 

Signed off Sick

One of David’s friends once said that I sounded happy from my blog: and yet he didn’t think I was.  This was at a time when my marriage was nothing more than parallel lives and I was building up a huge pile of resentment because I felt as if I was doing everything and David was doing nothing (obviously in my mind I was exaggerating things, but that is where we had got to).

I was brought up that to think that I shouldn’t be unhappy about anything – who was I to be unhappy when I had so much – health, money, brains… and more recently three children at an age when many women have given up child-bearing.

But all through my 20s and 30s I suffered from mood swings and at my lowest was conscious of a black hole of loneliness in the pit of my being.  By the time I met David I had gained the self-esteem to have filled in that black hole: even so when I met David I felt truly loved for the first time in my life, and having the children increased that feeling and led to an enormous feeling of fulfillment.  And people kept telling me I was amazing…

It was great.  I felt amazing.  And so I took on more and more.  When David left I still felt amazing, but amazing and single.  And so, ultimately, I got a full-time job (just as Edward started school), even though I knew that in the past that had turned me into a horrible person and that I had always felt vehemently that while the kids were little I only wanted to work part-time: but I wanted the money to be able to take the kids on holiday abroad.  My singing increased: I started my own singing group and accepted almost every offer to sing which I got given.  And I fell in love with a man more whole-heartedly than I had ever fallen in love with anyone before: he made me feel so incredibly and fully feminine and so much that I was my real self.  In addition the job has a long commute over to West Cumbria, which a friend of mine had told me she found hard.  In my pig-headed way I thought I was different from her.  And I also tried to keep up my running…

In September, with the start of term and the sense that autumn was looming, I suddenly began to panic and to feel that everything was about to change.  On some days sheer paranoia set in; I began to feel unhappy about how little I was seeing my children and about the long journey to work and to worry about and question all sorts of things in my life.  I gave myself several kicks up the backside; thought it was perhaps to do with my unsettled past; started checking tarot cards.  Singing still went well and gave me joy and relaxation, but quite often I would get stressed out by my children and end up shouting at them angrily and then feeling guilty.  My daughter said she wanted to go to live with her father.  On a couple of occasions I couldn’t face going to work: one time, driving, I got almost as far as Cockermouth before I pulled into a layby, burst into tears, and then drove home and back to bed.

Last week after a tearful day in the office I finally made an appointment to see my Doctor.  I felt pathetic: why couldn’t I just pull myself together.  She signed me off for two weeks.  The sense of relief was huge but my moods still swing from calm-ish to tearful and even worse.  I have never felt so low in my life before.  The black hole isn’t there: there’s no need for me to be lonely nor to feel I’m doing everything alone, as I am surrounded by good friends, including – perhaps to my surprise – my ex-husband, who has stepped in with understanding and helped with the children, both in terms of having them and in terms of talking about them.  And thank goodness for text messaging and emails which can be of almost instantaneous reassurance (and if they’re not, you just delete them!).

David has lent me a book his girlfriend Rebecca had lent him, called I Had a Black Dog (Matthew Johnstone).  It opens with ‘looking back, Black Dog had been in and out of my life since my early twenties’: how spot on.  My Black Dog hasn’t been around for a few years but he seems to have been gathering a huge amount of strength over the past month or so – and who knows, perhaps for longer – and has leapt out at me and knocked me over.  I’ve been trying to make decisions about major things in my life, and as David says, now is not the time to do that.

I’m only at the beginning of this journey: whilst I feel more optimistic as I write this, I have spent most of today in tears and didn’t even manage to get the kids their breakfast until it was almost lunchtime.  And yes, there are times when I think it would be easier to jump into one of the fast-flowing near flood-level rivers around: except I have three children and I want to see how they turn out, and I also want to see what happens next.  In addition there is a tiny bit of me which never gives up hope that everything will actually turn out OK, one way or another: that dreams can come true.

There is no conclusion to this blogpost as there is no conclusion to this part of my story at the moment.  I just wanted to share it openly as it’s something which has almost taken me by surprise; I always thought you could talk or work yourself out of feeling low but I’m not managing it with this bout.  I’ve always remembered a bit at the beginning of a chapter in Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow where she says she walks into depression and accepts it.  That’s how it is: like an illness which I have to accept and which will pass.   And for now, that’s all I can say.

A new singing dress and other new things

Yet again time seems to have passed me by – but I really mustn’t complain as I’ve been busy and (mostly) having fun: and boredom is the bane of my life.  For those who don’t know me who are reading this, I tend to live life at full pelt and will then collapse in a little heap once in a while, either with low feelings or just because I’ve got ill.  Touch wood other than a couple of low-ish days a couple of weeks ago, I’ve been fine for months…

Singing is again playing a significant part in my life.  Work obviously takes up a lot of time (especially travelling to Whitehaven four days a week) and it goes without saying that my children are the most important thing to me: but singing has also over the years been important to me emotionally and now seems to be taking off in a way which I could only have dreamt of not so long ago.  And, of course, with more solo performances, my confidence has grown: although I have to admit it almost got a severe knock back when I sang in the Tithe Barn at a Civic reception on Thursday (the acoustics in the Tithe Barn are hideous – really dead – and on top of that we were almost the final item of a very long-drawn out evening, so people didn’t actually want to hear us but wanted to go home).

However the first music night at Capernaum was a huge success – far better and more enjoyable than either Anthony, the Chef-Proprietor, or I, had anticipated – and I’m looking forward to the next one.  Eight + 1 is now booked in there for 14th January as well, but more imminently we are performing at St. Cuthberts (fab. acoustic) in Carlisle on 22nd October.  We had our first practice in ages last Saturday and I had forgotten how lovely the music is – in addition we also make a nice sound!!!  One of the things I really must get on with (tomorrow evening, after I’ve written my Off the Wall press release which was meant to have been written a week ago?) is the programme as it’s going to be slightly different from last time.

September, being my birthday month, generally is also a time when I get to go shopping though.  I’ve had the hall decorated (finally) and am going to look for new curtains, with help from the children, tomorrow.  But I’m rather more excited about the new dress I Singing at the Tithe Barn civic reception (2)bought last week.  I felt I was entitled to a treat but even so it was obviously meant to be as it was almost the only dress in my size in the shop (it was the only one I tried on, and it fitted) and the retailer let me have it for half price.. I felt I needed a new dress to sing in and that I wanted something rather more diva-ish.  I think you’ll agree that this fits the bill rather well: it certainly makes me feel fantastic.

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I’ve also added my ‘Capernaum flowers’ – the bouquet I got from the restaurant when I had my birthday lunch in there – they are such beautiful colours – I love the dusky pink of the roses.

Singing rocks!!!