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A case of vanity or self-love?

When you get to my age you finally learn that whilst certain external agents are necessary, vital at times, to lift us out of anxiety, depression, loss or any other soul-destroying circumstance, in the end the only thing that can rescue us from the darkness is truly ourselves.

If there is one lesson I have tried to teach my kids time and time again is this one, because I know that the biggest battles we fight in our life are always the ones we win within, wrestling with ourselves.

I have fought many of these internal battles over the years. When I was young and easily influenced, I relied on other people’s opinion of me to give me a sense of worth and confidence. As an adult, I learnt that even the closest of friends can one day become enemies and that many people who come into your life dressed as sheep are in fact foe; that there are individuals who come into your life for a season to gain something from you and then move on when they got what they wanted. There are others who also identify themselves as friends and are so for a time, but then just like the wind blows in one direction one moment and then in another the next, they change alliance with the blink of an eye and once again, you get put on the shelf or back in the shadows as they move on to the next fool who cannot see them coming. And then there are the kind of friends who genuinely see the best in you, want the best for you and would drop everything to help you out when you need it. And yet, not even those can save you from yourself.

I have learnt that what I thought was vanity is in many instances self-love. When I was younger, I was judgemental, proud, arrogant. Now I know that we all have our own reasons for behaving the way we do. I am not seeking to justify any particular behaviour. I am simply saying that in the later part of my life I have learnt to respect other people’s space and freedom to do as they please. I guess when I was younger my outlook was limited, full of prejudice and blind spots. Now, at 51 I myself have been driven to tight spots I did not know existed, and I have had to alter my behaviour in order to survive, to move forward; a behaviour that my younger, naïve self would have considered totally inappropriate or undignified perhaps. It’s funny how life teaches us time and time again to never judge a book by its cover, and time and time again we ignore that advice and we fall into judgement and rejection of others based on our own prejudices and narrow-mindedness.

I have learnt that it is not worth giving of myself to those who have no empathy, interest or kindness to open the book of my life and read through the pages of the highs and the lows that have led me to be who I am today, before they pass judgement or give their opinion.

I have learnt that the only opinion I should trust when it comes to who I am and where I am going is my own, because even when given with the best of intentions, others’ counsel or guidance is based on their own convictions and experiences, and so what may suit them, does not necessarily suit me.

I have learnt that whilst friends and family are a really important part of a person’s life, the one constant we need to thrive during our time on earth is self-love. The advice given during the safety briefing on a flight to put on your own life jacket or oxygen mask before helping others is for me one of the essential keys to safe living. Sometimes we can be so caught up in looking after others, trying to help others or gaining direction or seeking validation from others that we forget to listen to what our own judgement and gut instinct is telling us; we forget to extend that lifeline to ourselves and in doing so we spend our life wrestling, perpetuating our predicament of a square peg in a round hole.

Today I am practising self-love or vanity, call it what you will. I don’t really care. It helps me to appreciate who I am and how far I’ve come. It reminds me that I am not who or what others may think of me, but I am the truth I see in the mirror every day, warts and all! I am imperfect, unfinished, scarred, blemished and very flawed, but I am authentic and beat only to my own drum.

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Love is a losing game

It is pouring down outside. Autumn is properly on its way and I feel the exuberance and zest of summer-living gently easing off and giving way to melancholy, days of endless reflection and dampness in the air; lazy afternoons of cosy cuddling up to myself in front of a warm fire binge watching my favourite series of the moment. I love the contrast in the seasons. Spring is without a doubt my favourite season, but I also love and nurture the symbolic meaning which transpires into our daily living carried by each of the other seasons too. I love how the smell of the air we breathe changes as we move from one time of the year to another; I welcome with anticipation how my soul is predisposed to feel differently as the sun no longer dominates the days, and heavy downpours and windy days take its place. Today is the perfect day to listen to one of my favourite artists: Amy Winehouse and one of my favourite songs of hers: ‘Love is a losing game’. Here are the lyrics:

For you I was the flame
Love is a losing game
Five story fire as you came
Love is losing game

One I wished, I never played
Oh, what a mess we made
And now the final frame
Love is a losing game

Played out by the band
Love is a losing hand
More than I could stand
Love is a losing hand

Self-professed profound
Till the chips were down
Know you’re a gambling man
Love is a losing hand

Though I battled blind
Love is a fate resigned
Memories mar my mind
Love is a fate resigned

Over futile odds
And laughed at by the gods
And now the final frame
Love is a losing game

Every time I hear the first chords of this song, I have to stop whatever I am doing. It’s like a familiar, gratifying voice; like an alter ego or an older me counselling my inexperienced self, a blessed invisible friend gently whispering: ‘I told you so’. I have often wondered what it is about this particular piece that touches me so. Love certainly is the most complex of emotions, and yet the one we crave the most, like manna in the desert. I guess I relate on a very deep level with the honesty in the song; the candid message; the acceptance of inevitability as we embark on a relationship; the inevitability of disappointment, unimaginable hurt and emptiness. And yet, and even though we know the odds and how much we stand to lose; how acute the pain can feel, we still choose the losing hand time and time and time again. Why? Oh why?

Well, I clearly don’t have the answer but I think the message in the lyrics of another one of my favourite songs by Rebecca Ferguson ‘Nothing’s Real but love’ may have something to do with it.

Standing in a line
Wonder why it don’t move
Tryna get a hand
Watching people break the rules
And maybe the man in charge
Doesn’t like my face
But then this world’s not always good

And nothing’s real but love
Nothing’s real but love
No money, no house, no car,
Can beat love

They watch us open-mouthed
As we joke around like fools
See who can be the worst
Watch what I can do
But then the door gets slammed,
Slammed right in my face
And I guess this world’s not always good

And nothing’s real but love
Nothing’s real but love
No house, no car, no job
Can beat love

It won’t fill you up
No money, no house, no car
Is like loveLa la la la la la la la
YeaaahI put it all away
Holding it back for a rainy day
But what if that day don’t come
I need loveNo money, no house, no car
Is like love

It don’t fill you up
It won’t build you up
It won’t fill you up
It’s not love!And nothing’s real but love
No money, no house, no car
Is like love

Nothing’s real but love

No money, no house, no car
Is like love

As I continue to try and figure out why to love and wanting to be loved is hands down a human’s deepest need and at the core of our being even though it is also the emotion that can destroy us from the inside out; it is the one experience that makes us feel so real, so complete, but also so broken and defeated, I hold on for dear life to what I know for sure: I love my dog and my dog loves me, and that’s good enough for now.

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Acceptance and Rebellion

With every day that goes by I am learning that a successful life is one where we learn to live each day on the assumption, the knowledge that acceptance and rebellion are two sides of the very same process of existence. Suffering as a result of our limitations and triumph based on our unique potential go hand in hand. When Acceptance’s work is done in us, it gives way to the unimaginable possibilities of Rebellion, and on and on the cycle goes until we come to the end of our beating heart. It is hard for me to imagine however, or even accept that there can be so many visible and invisible mighty forces that come into place whilst we live, but it all ends when we die. Surely when the limitations of our finite body get the better of us, all the other forces which we can clearly sense but cannot see whilst alive, come into the fore. Indeed, it is our finite nature that dictates in us we choose acceptance, so once our fleshly bodies are no longer holding us back, what is stopping our spirit from literally soaring?

Amazing image captured 10m from our house by my talented budding photographer son.

Living is like a game of tug of war, a perpetual tension of pulling and simultaneously letting go almost involuntarily, because we subconsciously know that in order to gather the strength to keep going, we have to ease off every now and then; we have to pace ourselves and put the emphasis and energy in all the right places or else we burn out before we even get a chance to discover why we are here; we have to accept that we cannot control everything and that we have certainly no power or rule over the outcome of most unexpected challenges thrown our way.

And yet, there lies the glorious part of this journey: we know we have no choice but to succumb to the inevitability of our sorrow predicament, but it is in the very act of surrendering our will that we become unstoppable forces for change, for altering the very course of events we feared were already written in the stars. The blessing comes when we come to the end of ourselves; when we recognise our insignificance; when we know our place in the infinite scheme of reality. Even though we all know where there is a beginning there most certainly is an end, our end, with every passing moment we become more present, more fully aware of the importance of rebelling against that final chapter; of making our time here count; of sieving the clatter that blinds us and deters us from being the best we can be; of getting the furthest we possibly can in our gifting, our dreams, our humanity and above all our spirituality, that dimension none of us can see but we all know deep in our soul, is what underpins everything we are and do.  

I have had to confront some tough shit this week. My initial and immediate reaction was to panic, to crumble under the pressure, to be suffocated by negativity. Like I said, it is a process of pulling and tugging, of wanting to control what is way beyond our control, but then comes acceptance, surrender. Sometimes we get too big for our own shoes. We convince ourselves we are superheroes, mini Gods that go around solving every problem, creating magic for ourselves and others. In reality, we are weak, flawed, and far, far from supernatural.

Days passed and I began to pull myself together again. When acceptance comes, a huge weight is instantly removed from our shoulders. So much so, that the coin is at that very moment flipped and rebellion begins to dominate the picture. And by rebellion I mean, the fire in our belly, the ability to remind ourselves that though there is much adversity over which we have no power, the key to living is simply shifting the focus to the things we can actually do and then we move forward one step at a time, never paying attention to our limitations on any given adverse circumstance but only to our strengths or gifting, or in other words, take the good and run. Run and never look back.

Life is all about choices. It is foolish of us to choose to feel defeated about those things over which we have no real say or power. Instead, there is immense potential in positioning ourselves in such a place where our attention is only given to the things we can actually change and improve around us. At the same time, ugly stuff, evil, decay, pain and sorrow are all of our companions on this journey. We may travel together but that does not mean we have to hold hands for the duration. Rebellion is all about the fighting spirit in us, having the humility to know who we are and who we are not, but accepting the challenge and growing the courage to be of use and a catalyst for transformation in the things and areas we have been gifted with. I think each of us knows deep down what those areas are, because it is precisely when we exercise them that we feel most alive, most fulfilled and at peace with ourselves and the world.

This morning I went on my daily walk with Jakey, our gorgeous black Labrador. I flipped the coin and instead of using that time to sink further into my problems and limitations, I homed in on the goodness that flows from acceptance and surrender. I became a rebel and drew incredible positive energy from the equilibrium, vibrancy and sheer extravagance of nature. Lord knows, I am no super-hero, but I sure felt like one by the time I got back home filled with hope and the loud echoes of the still small voice quietening my soul. There are so many forces at play in the universe. Some we see, some we don’t, but the greatest strength of all will never be dwelling in our limitations, but rather in knowing exactly where our transformative power lies and owning it fiercely and unashamedly.

Here are some of the moments I fed on during my walk.

Our life is what our thoughts make it

This morning I found another short but devastatingly profound quote. This one is by Marcus Aurelius. ‘Our life is what our thoughts make it’. When I read these words the immediate thought that springs to mind is the realisation that amidst a global pandemic that has already claimed so many lives, the real monsters I see devouring people in society are anxiety and depression. I have never suffered from depression or at least I don’t think I have. I have certainly felt depressed on many occasions and have been close to that cliff edge of darkness often enough, but have been providentially lucky to have never actually fallen. Anxiety is the demon I battle regularly. The battles rage in frequency and intensity but I am always fighting that war. Much of it is down to how I am wired, to my genes, but a lot of it is to do with the environment I find myself in and the external agents I choose to put around me or feed from.

Marcus Aurelius statement is so simple yet it encompasses such power, one wonders how so many of us inherently know this to be the truth and yet, we choose to feed our minds with all the wrong things, the very things that are triggers for our thoughts to go on a downward spiral of negativity and self-destruction. We spend so much time of our lives watching tv, feeding our brain with all kinds of images, thoughts, behaviours, responses and attitudes. We spend even more countless hours on social media gulping down negativity, hatred, vileness, insults, threats, misinformation, sheer aggression, scaremongering and endless other sources of fear and hopelessness.

And further still, what about the people that we choose to hang around with, invest our energy in or after whom we mould our psyche, our soul, our behaviour? Why are we all so easily influenced by others? Is it because it is easier to follow than to lead by example? Why do we care so much what others think and in doing so we train our minds to suit the needs of others, when in reality the golden key to an anxiety-free life lies within each of us? If we don’t put our bodies at risk by jumping in a car with someone whose driving skills are decidedly doubtful, why do we allow others’ flawed, damaging reasoning and pathological patterns of behaviour and logic to shape our own?

I have never been a social animal. Quite the opposite: the awkward child who struggled in large social gatherings; who always felt like I didn’t fit in. But why is it so excruciatingly vital to us that we fit in in the first place? I have punished myself mentally for most of my life for being that person that always stood out for hiding in the background in awkwardness. Growing up I didn’t have the ‘know-how’ of how to get out of that rut, but over the years I have been on this path to freedom from ‘outside influences’. Medical staff wear protective equipment when fighting a virus so that the assailant does not enter their bodies. And yet, we are perilous and irreparably careless with neglecting to put a protective shield round our minds everyday. We open up the gates and let all kinds of enemies trample in and rob us of our joy, our peace, our security.

Apart from my family, I have become a bit of an island in my later years. Disillusioned and disenchanted from the very sources of hope, guidance and encouragement most of us entrust our lives and our minds to: religion, the system, politics and even friends. I have learnt to wear that mental shield every single day; to filter carefully what I feed my mind with; who I listen to and whose truth I abide by. I am not lonely, though I choose to be alone in this process of soul-building. The power to overrule the thoughts that determine my quality of mental life resides within me and me alone, so solitude is for me the biggest blessing and not a curse as I have always been pushed to believe.

You are not a loser

Dedicated to Rainey

My friend, you are not a loser

You just lost and you lost big

But you never lost yourself in that engulfing darkness

You wore your dignity and your integrity through it all like a diamond harness.

My friend, you are not a loser

You have been dealt a rough card in the game of life

A game over which you have no control or might

You took a chance, gave it your best shot

But through it all give up on yourself you did not.

My friend, you are not a loser

Losers lack courage to endure self-introspection

They cannot bear to look at their own reflection

You are the overcomer who fights on for Day and night

Riding the waves of adversity driven by the allure of a new hope in sight.

Like the grain of wheat that falls into the ground and dies to bear a harvest

So has your spirit been pierced so that it is fully equipped to sail yet furthest.

The vessel is ready, its captain fully trained.

Sail on, my friend

And let the new adventures commence.