Grief, marriage, life – ruminations

I’ve just finished reading Nora McInery Purmort’s book It’s Okay to Laugh (Crying Is Cool Too).  It was one of those impulse buys in Waterstones – and a compulsive read (I’ve now passed it on to a friend).

There’s an awful lot in the book which reflects things I have thought and written myself, albeit triggered by different events and reasons.  She comments in one chapter on how grief makes you quite self-centred: I had been thinking recently how introverted and rather insular I had been as I moved through my depression.  To a certain extent I beat myself up for not thinking about others more, but I think it’s probably a survival of the fittest thing – face up to your blackest thoughts and moods on your own and come through them the stronger for it, and also give yourself the time to do so in order to recover.  Sadly, one of the things which stopped me being quite so self-centred was a friend’s husband leaving her: I began to think about her and supporting her rather than being quite so wrapped up in myself, although having said that I have only been able to do so as I had moved on enough from my blackest place.

I’ve always believed that too much time on your own engenders being self-centred in any case, but I also now think that sometimes it’s just necessary.  It’s like the passage I have previously referred to from Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow, about walking into depression.  Recognising such feelings and living through them, instead of trying to sweep them under the carpet and pretend they don’t exist, is just sometimes what you have to do.  Nobody can be happy all the time: though Nora Mc P’s title is significant in that it is perfectly OK to laugh even in the middle of the worst grief you’ve ever suffered.  I’m sure the inmates of the concentration camps managed to laugh at times despite the appalling conditions in which they existed – they made the effort to form orchestras and play music, so why not also to laugh, difficult as that may seem?

There were a handful of passages in the book which I noted down as I wanted to keep them.  One chapter was, I think, perhaps as much as anything the writer wanting to make herself feel better – it was full of positive self-belief comments, and was about how you’re doing a good job.  I especially liked “you’re single because you just cannot be tamed right now”.  She also had things to say about marriage (I’ve always loved the comment that marriage should be to someone you can’t bear to be without, and also what she says which is “don’t marry a friend” – something which I’ve realised for myself (you need passion in a marriage): “Marriage isn’t supposed to feel like a cage, it’s supposed to feel like a hug that lasts just a few seconds too long”.

Related to that was her philosophy about life generally, and about giving up certain things, and taking risks: “the world will keep spinning, and your life will get a little bit better every time you give up on the shit that is taking you away from your one wild and precious life”.  And along the same lines, I can’t remember whether she wrote this or quoted it or I read it somewhere else: “Life’s journey is not to arrive safely at the grave in a well-preserved body, but rather to skid in sideways, totally worn out, shouting ‘holy fuck, what a ride!’ “.

The book was a fantastic reminder to live life to the full – to follow dreams and take risks (without being stupid about it).  Most of us still have to pay the mortgage and be responsible for our children, but we can surely do so whilst being true to the very essence of who we are.  And usually when you take the (sometimes brave or seemingly foolhardy) step of following a different path, of taking what appears to be a risk, things just amazingly slot into place and you find a happiness and fulfillment you never dreamed possible: your one wild and precious life.

One wild and precious life

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Three weeks of (not) blogging…

It’s been three weeks since I last wrote a post.  When I started to write this post two children were upstairs shouting and the other was downstairs watching some rubbish on television… by the time I got round to finishing it, the following day, I had the house to myself and all was quiet.

I haven’t felt terribly inspired to write, do much singing practice, do marketing and promotion for either of those things, nor indeed be motivated to do much other than the day-to-day things I have to do, recently.  I’m not depressed – I have moments of sadness and of tears and also moments of joy and I have three musical/singing projects to start work on – but I do sometimes just feel tired, and sometimes rather devoid of any emotion, or at least any emotion which takes any energy, whatsoever.  I work; I look after my children; and I try to sort things out in terms of pensions, house, divorce… oh, and I must sort out my broadband and phone (landline and mobile) provider…

So what have been the highlights recently?  Well, the children all got good school reports, which was great, and we had a lovely weekend down in York at the Royal York Hotel with my parents – thanks to my parents.  I don’t think I’ve ever been somewhere where the service has been so consistently brilliant.  The hotel staff gave the impression that nothing was too much trouble and that loud, bouncy children were no problem whatsoever (in fact when I discussed it with one of the waiting staff in the restaurant he said that a drunk stag-party reveller is worse as at least my children are polite).  Bella rated the food as the best ever (and only days before she had been saying that Capernaum bistro in Brampton was the best ever – my cooking gets 7/10 compared with Capernaum’s 10/10, whereas the Royal York exceeded even that!).  Maybe it’s Yorkshire (or York) people generally as the staff at Pizza Express were also lovely.  Everybody seemed happy, and to be enjoying their work: perhaps the hot sunny weather had something to do with it.  Whatever the reason, I really enjoyed spending the time with my three children and we all enthused about the hotel.

The weather has been incredibly changeable – hot and stuffy for a couple of days followed by chilly and rainy.  Perhaps the most striking – and exciting – days were when we had thunder.  Edward and I had been feeding the neighbours’ fish while they were on holiday and for several days the weather had been almost perfect: dry, sunny and warm without being too stuffy.  Then it got heavier and thunder was forecast.  I woke up one morning to an amazing sky: dark, dark grey clouds but the morning sun making the houses shine red-gold.  I took a photograph, but it really doesn’t do justice to the incredible light and the contrast between the lowering sky and the brightness of the brickwork.  Just moments later the entire sky had darkened, the sun had disappeared, the rain was pouring down and it was thundering… exciting stuff!  (I love a good thunderstorm, particularly when we really need one when the air feels oppressive).

On another day when the outdoors was calling loudly to me, instead of being inside working I had cabin fever, and by the late afternoon/early evening I decided I had to go up Talkin Fell.  Previously I have described how the sky was blue above me but that I could see a band of rainclouds in the distance: it was similar this time but the other thing that struck me, which often strikes me, on starting the walk, is how noisy it is.  Not the urban noise of traffic and people and resonance from hard surfaces, but birdsong, dogs barking, cows mooing and the odd aeroplane high up but quietly clear.  I suppose there’s not that continual hum of background noise you get in a city so the individual noises are that much more distinct.

Once you’re at the top of Talkin Fell it’s quieter, and I know I’ve described before that ‘top of the world’ feeling.  This particular day I experimented with different settings on my camera, taking photos of the lovely white cottony flower thing (I have no idea what it’s called), which Phil Robbins used in the foreground when taking those fantastic photos of me on Caldbeck Fell.  My camera has loads of different settings and I have used only a few of them, but I want to get more experimental – I’m hoping I’ll get some good photos when I’m on holiday in Italy in September.  I particularly like the dark, almost black-and-white one, for this particular plant, though it looks better taking up an entire computer screen than reduced to fit in a blogpost.

Before I go to Italy we have the school summer holidays lying ahead of us.  We’re well into week one (week three for Alex) and with any luck we’ll get some decent weather and be able to enjoy being outdoors – or perhaps, as we did today, enjoy being outdoors even without decent weather: splashing in puddles remains fun even when you’re 12, and Bella’s white leggings had to go in the bin as I could not get the grass stains out (even with multiple doses of Vanish) from where all three children had repeatedly slid down a grassy/muddy bank at Carlisle Castle

My divorce has turned painful and costly; but even though I’m worried about how much it’s going to cost me in solicitor’s fees and whether I can really afford to go on holiday, I’ve blown my savings anyway on fulfilling a long-held ambition of going to Italy to learn Italian and then my birthday money from my Mum has been spent in advance on a holiday to Lanzarote later on.  I’m hoping getting away in the autumn will prevent any autumnal blues or depression… and money always turns up from somewhere when you really need it…  I can’t wait – it’s been 6 and a half years since I’ve had a holiday without the children and more than eighteen months since I went abroad skiing with them.  Last time I went to Club la Santa on Lanzarote I was pregnant with Alex.  I’m really looking forward to once again doing aerobics outdoors overlooking the Atlantic, and swimming in an outdoor 50m pool in November!

So however difficult things may feel from time to time, I have plenty to look forward to: and can’t help thinking that somehow everything has a way of sorting itself out for the best.  Such a change from how I felt even only two or three months ago!  Look out for news of my two new music projects on my ‘projects’ page before too long (and fingers crossed I also get more writing commissions soon).

Meanwhile from time to time… dolce far niente!

 

 

 

 

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

 

Places for contemplation

This blogpost has been some time in gestation.   I’ve been travelling around the north west, and travelling always makes me contemplate life: I’m also currently reading Jostein Gaarder’s novel-come-philosophy book, Sophie’s World, and have just finished Lyn Thurman’s The Inner Goddess Revolution.  All heady stuff (I’m going to read about the Crusades next… one middle-eastern originating monotheistic religion fighting another… don’t they think that maybe they worship the same God, who would be disappointed in the squabbles and blood shed over the detail of how to worship him?).

I want to quote from Thurman’s book as it relates in part to world philosophies and religions, and is relevant both to men and to women, as well as echoing many other things I have read over the past year or more.

“The time we have on this planet is precious and so very short.  We have to live each day in a sense of awe at the gift we’ve been given, and to treat each day with joy [Me: sometimes more easily said than done…].  Imagine how you would feel if each morning you were on a holiday…

You can do that, you know.

A holiday is a ‘holy day’; a day that’s spiritual and sacred… You’re given a brand new holiday with each sunrise… you can choose your path forward.  You can follow your dreams and be outrageously authentic… 

You change, the world around you changes, and you become the change.  The world needs that.”

What is clear to me from all this reading and thinking is that the majority of mankind has always felt that there is a spiritual side to us human beings; but also a consciousness that we are somehow both small and great at once – part of a larger universe and yet each of us capable of greatness, should we choose and should we follow our ‘true’ path and let ourselves shine.  Perhaps for some that’s almost an impossibility: for some day to day survival is the priority, and profound thinking is a luxury. On the other hand thank goodness there are those who do think profoundly, and have done over the centuries, as it seems to me that those who don’t think strategically, altruistically and wisely enough are those who at times have led us into meaningless wars.  There was a fascinating programme about the Crusades which I caught on catch-up TV a couple of months ago, which made me consider how blinkered in their thinking the medieval Crusaders were.

The travelling has also made me think about the ‘spirit of place’, however – the Genius Loci as the polytheistic Romans called it.  Even nowadays there are some places which draw us more than others: some draw many thousands of people (look at Stonehenge over the ages); some are more personal.  I’ve written about my special places in this blog many times, but out in the warm sun – for the first time this year I could just have worn a t-shirt – for a run this morning I thought about it again.

I love living where I do.  I love this wild borderland, further north than the north, and its deep sense of history, even if it has been a troubled history of conflict and death.  I also loved living in the Pyrenees, for similar reasons: I lived in an area which had swapped backwards and forwards between France and Spain, was a great distance from the capital city (and therefore ‘misunderstood’ if not ignored) and also which has the hills and the sea.  And today it made me think about places for contemplation.  They seem, for me at least, to be places with a strong sense of the physical as well as being soulfully uplifting.

The other day I was in Southport on business.  I’m rather nosey about places anyway – I’m not very good at just going somewhere directly and then turning round and heading home again – I like to explore a bit.  There was the long, long pier, just begging me to walk to the end of it, out over the sea.  As I walked the wind got stronger until I stood at the end feeling as if any moment I might be lifted up and blown away.  The sun was out but over the land to the north rain clouds could be seen: in fact as I travelled home that day there was snow on the top of Shap Fell.  From where I was standing I could see North Wales in one direction and Blackpool in the other.  The power of the wind was exhilarating.

A few days later I ran up Talkin Fell.  Again, the power of the wind was incredible but lifted my spirits.  This time I was, of course, high up and the sea was distant – and I stood on the top of the hill and shouted.  Despite the force and strength of the wind, I felt strong: rooted to the ground and yet with my head in the clouds (well, almost).  It’s an intoxicating feeling and in fact it’s always with some reluctance that I leave the top and start my descent.  In Ridge Woods I’m in amongst the trees and it’s they who are rooted to the ground with tops in the sky: funny how strong they seem and yet after a gale or storm there will be those which have fallen.

And then I sing.  An act which is physical (you can’t sing properly without some physical effort) and yet which is also effortless… I find my voice soaring high thrilling but I have to be firmly rooted to the ground to let it do so.

Which makes me think that life is all about balance and contradictions – which is just what I’ve been reading about in Sophie’s World.

What or where are your places for contemplation?

 

 

 

From Darkness into Light

Easter 2016 (5)
Down in the valley bottom

Down in the valley bottom

The cows ambled in an orderly line returning from milking,

Hugging the field edge.

Evening spring sunshine burst goldenly –

Suddenly – (then faded)

Against the grey distant rainclouds feathering the further hills.

 

Twin souls shone in the summer, and

All basked in their glimmering goldness.

Did it rain that year?  Nobody could say for sure:

Their adoration glowed so brightly

Happiness poured forth, a warm bright sun

Covering everything in the miracle of new love.

It was a marvellous, wondrous, majestic time.

 

Then early one morning on the cusp of winter

He left.

The door banged shut and the house echoed emptily.

She tumbled blindly, cascading, spiralling

Down

Down

Down

Into the deep dark pit

Stripped of appetite, of flesh, of energy.

Desolation and despair engulfing, smothering her,

Their thick heaviness stifling all feelings.

Null and void

She gave up the struggle of grappling with her inner fears

And closed her heart to pain; to love;

Felt nothing.

 

And yet too much.

The torture of a broken heart;

Too great a pain, this time, to cover it and walk away;

Too deep a love, too profound the lessons to learn

To ignore it.

 

Yet not forgotten, not alone:

The miraculous hands of friendship reached out;

Pierced the walls with kindness.

Brick by slow brick they pulled her, lifted her;

Stone by hurtful stone she clambered,

Climbed, scrambled, hands bleeding,

Heart bursting –

Eventually raised her arms, spread her wings

And flew

Free

Up and out of the blackness.

 

It was dazzling out there in the world, in the light,

In the unaccustomed brightness.

But the strength of emotions

Was life coursing richly through her veins:

An awakening; an opening; a rebirth.

 

Up in the woods on the hills the trees stood black and stark.

An exhilarating icy wild wind

Blew away the remnants of winter.

Through the devastated woods – nature’s clutter

More beautiful than mankind’s –

Yellow bursts of jubilant daffodils shone,

Shouted joyfully against the brown of the earth,

The grey of the sky;

Nodded their heads, “yes, look closely!”

Buds on trees;

The glorious green shoots of spring underfoot;

The colour of the heart opening: a widening door.

 

Everything in its season.  Live life.  Fly free. Shine.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If this was the last day of my life…

Out running in the woods the other day, I felt as if there was something on my mind which I couldn’t quite grasp: some concept or certain thoughts were just out of reach of my consciousness, but I knew they were there.  I was worrying about money (more specifically my income) and in the end the only thing that came to me was ‘what would I be doing if this was the last day of my life?’

I wouldn’t be worrying about money.  That’s not to say that I don’t need to try to ensure that I have enough money coming in to cover my costs and for some treats (I would very much like to take the children on holiday abroad, as much for my own sake as theirs).  But I wouldn’t be running around Ridge Woods with ‘money’ prying on my mind and preventing me enjoying my run.

I didn’t completely come up with an answer to what I would be thinking about or doing if this was the last day of my life other than in one way or another I’d be trying to live life to the full, and to be happy.  I also concluded that I would rather live each day as if it were my last just in case it is.  A friend is fond of the saying ‘we’re not here for a long time, we’re here for a good time’.  Whilst there is something which could be taken as quite selfish about the last part, it’s a saying that’s always made me think: we’re only here temporarily – and, as far as we know only once – so make the most of it and be happy.  On the same day or the next my Italian calendar also had a saying of the Dalai Lama’s about being here to be happy (there are loads more fantastic quotations from the Dalai Lama at GoodReads.com and it’s also worth looking at his website).  It’s something I’ve been struggling with recently – I did feel happy and felt I had regained a certain equilibrium, until my ex-husband threw a comment out the other day and then my daughter did something which hurt me.  And I think we’re somehow brought up to think that there’s something wrong with being happy: that we don’t deserve it or should feel guilty for feeling happy when others don’t.

This morning I was getting ready to go out for a bike ride when I picked up a book which I bought as a complete spur of the moment purchase when I was buying some music online.  It’s called The Untethered Soul (by Michael Singer) and the chapter I opened it at was talking about happiness.  Now – if you think anything a bit spiritual is mumbo jumbo and claptrap, you may as well stop reading this blogpost now.  I happen to think there’s an inner part of us, call it spirit or soul or awareness or whatever you will, and I believe we’re capable of somehow tapping into that deep well of greatness inside us and not only being happy but also of being altruistic.  Self-esteem comes from there (the saints are no pushovers) but so does the ability to transcend potentially negative experiences and turn them into positive ones, by learning from them and using them to develop ourselves.  This chapter was talking about the way to achieve that, by opening up our hearts (or our heart chakras, if you want to use a yogic idiom).  I remembered one time recently when I had done just that, I had had a very positive reaction – but I had failed to carry it through.

Interestingly, the book starts with the exact same Shakespeare quotation I have used on the Eight + 1 concert programme: one which has always felt as if it held a profound truth for me.  “This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.”

Being true to oneself means having the self-esteem and self-awareness to do so and not being afraid of the ups and downs of life or of what other people may do ‘to’ you.  I also think that by following this ‘open’ type of path you truly become a ‘free spirit’.  That is, not someone who is careless of other people or selfish but who ultimately can transcend the things that hurt him or her and make life better, not just for him/herself but for those with whom (s)he comes into contact.

The difficulty is, of course, doing that all the time, particularly if your past (your ‘baggage’) has taught you to close up and become defensive or detached when you’re hurt by something or someone.  The chapter I was reading was talking about opening up, facing up to the pain, and using it.  In the same way as you would be aware of the pain in your body telling you something is wrong, pain in your heart or mind is telling you something is wrong in your psyche.  I think this is why I came off my anti-depressants sooner than the Doctor would normally have recommended: I felt I wanted to experience my feelings, even those of pain, in a more genuine way and not just to camouflage them.

I’m sure there will be plenty of future times when I want to run away and hide from pain; when my reaction is anger, removal or detachment.  But if I can at least remember to be more often conscious of what I am doing and to stop myself, I hope I may learn to be a more loving, relaxed and happier human being, beginning with with my beautiful, feisty, gorgeous, bright daughter whom I love to bits whether or not she thinks she loves me.

So, if this was the last day of my life I would be trying to be loving and to be happy: to enjoy whatever I was doing.  Part of that is also to be brave; to be fearless and open – to face up honestly to things that I’d rather not face up to and to be open to all experiences that life can throw at me.  I would be trying to live with an open heart: and I would start by apologising to all those I have hurt, intentionally or unintentionally.

I was lucky that today I had a great bike ride – which I’m hoping to turn into a feature soon – in the Good Friday sun, and a conversation at the end of it which seemed, synchronistically – even serendipitously – to confirm my thoughts.

And I hope that there will be many more days for me to live my life yet.

Aim for the clouds

Valentine's Day on The Ridge (2)
Snow on Cold Fell

We have fab. skies in Cumbria: you can’t help but stand and stare at them sometimes, and feel your inner self somehow being tugged up towards them, whilst your feet remain on the earthy – and often wet and muddy – ground.  The trees at your side reflect your stance: their roots deep into the earth but their branches reaching up for the clouds.  When I sing I feel the same: my feet are rooted to the ground, giving me a firm base, but my voice and my heart are trying to reach the sky.

The weather has been simply stunning recently and the outdoors has been calling all the more loudly than usual.  Whilst I’m desperate to get out on my bike, I know that I’ll find it uncomfortably cold: and also rather than cycling for hours I do have plenty of other things – including work – which I’m meant to be doing (and have, in fact, done quite a few of).  I have however been out for a run for the past three days.  Each time I’ve run up to the Ridge and to Ridge Woods, my breath short in my chest to start with as it’s so cold, my fingers and toes icy.

Valentine's Day on The Ridge (1)
Looking north

I had my camera with me yesterday and took the photos here: I wish I had taken it today.  As I got to the top of the first hill and glanced across to the north, to the Scottish hills, I exclaimed ‘Wow’.  The white frosted icing covered mounds in the distance shone in the sun under a bright blue sky; and once again I was struck by how much I love living in the countryside, as the scenery changes from one day to the next and you’re so aware of the seasons.

I’ve said it so many times before: my spirits feel lifted (and also calmed) when I’m out running, particularly at the tops of hills.  I feel a strength in me to overcome all obstacles, whatever they may be.  Yesterday all the times I’ve been told I ought to or ought not to do something had been spiralling in my mind before I went out, and whilst I was running I was aware how completely disregarding them had not resulted in complete disaster but often taking what had appeared a risky step had resulted in something positive.

Almost as a poem they listed themselves, the do’s and don’ts which had come sometimes from my own worries and insecurities and sometimes from other people:

“you said I was crazy to switch to music…”  Look at me now – I’m a singer; a good singer…

“you told me I was not to chuck in a well paid job and go to be a holiday rep…”  But I had one of the best experiences of my life, and came back with a calmer attitude to ‘career’ and continued up the career ladder more quickly, confidently and successfully than previously – it got work into perspective

“you worried about me having children in my 40s, even saying ‘was it wise’ when I was pregnant with Edward…”   Look at my three gorgeous, healthy, lively children, who have given me so much self-confidence and love

“you said a freelance lifestyle wasn’t reliable enough; that the income wouldn’t be steady enough…”  It’s scary but it feels like exactly the right thing to do, it feels as if I’m getting the balance right, and I’m convinced it’s going to work

“you told me I wouldn’t be doing mountain biking ‘in a few years’ time’; that I was too old to be entering long runs…”  Well, I don’t see why not.  I’m still trail running and skiing and this year is the year that some of us ‘from the old days’ are going to get back together for a mountain biking weekend – the only question being whether we drag our children along as well.

“you said my husband shouldn’t leave me…”  But he did, and what a gift he gave me: more freedom to be myself and for us both to be happier.

I loathe 9 to 5; what I ‘ought’ to do; what is ‘wise’; what is ‘sensible’.  All too often I get wound up and worried by thinking too much about what I ought or ought not to do – things always work best when I follow my gut feeling, my intuition rather than listening to insecurities and doubts.  I’m not a crazy risk-taker but David and my sister certainly always thought I was more likely to take risks than they were.  Some of the people I most admire are those old people (aged 80 or so) who still run marathons or do parachute jumps.  Many of them are far braver than me and take far greater risks than I ever will: I have no desire whatsoever to do a bungee jump or a parachute jump (the thought of either terrifies me).  However give me an invitation to try out some off-road 4 wheel driving, or to drive a rally car, and I could be tempted.

As I ran home the low winter sun rested at head height and blazed straight into my eyes. “Il cuore ha le sue ragioni che la ragione non conosce” – Blaise Pascal, from my Italian calendar for this weekend.

Follow your heart.  Your heart – not anyone else’s.  And aim right up there – right up to the sky.  As someone said to me on Saturday, “you only have one life”.  Make sure it’s a full one, and live it with as much joy as you can muster.