Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Some Sort of Standstill

Image created by artandwords on polyvore.com 

I made this polyvore collage (above) for the very first post I wrote for this blog in October 2011. I can't tell whether I've come full circle: whether this post I'm using it in now is the last. 

For all the reasons explained on the "about" page, I've found it really valuable to write the collection of seventy-something musings this blog has become over the last year and a half. I've also loved hearing when those things have struck a chord with someone else - it's nice that writing things down can be worthwhile for more than just myself. So perhaps it's more likely that I'm just pressing pause.

But either way, almost overnight it doesn't quite fit the phase I'm in. I fished out the 'Love & Work' collage because it sums up where my energies are going to be directed over the time I'm not writing in this context. It's a worthy interruption - love in its largest forms: in a smattering of other creative projects, in faith, friendship and family life, in love of work in corporate law. It's life being good and not so good and needing my full attention.

Obviously, I still have things to think on, things to grow into and out of. Now more than ever I'm squirreling away a stock of all the thought-provoking inspiration and encouragement I can find. I still really, really need it. I just need it to be private again. 

That might change. At any rate, I will keep inklings & afterthoughts online so the archives are available for anyone who may want to dip into it from time to time. And as a parting gift, I'd love to point out (in no particular order) a few of the blogs I'm excited by and enjoy learning from: Cath Loves..., Lawfully Chic, Ellie Speaks and the incredible art of Elizabeth Chapman are my top four finds of the last two or three years. Maybe have a read?

"Finally, whatever is true,
whatever is noble, whatever is right,
whatever is pure, whatever is lovely,
whatever is admirable 
- if anything is excellent or praiseworthy - 
think about such things.
 Whatever [goodness] you have learned or received or heard from me,
or seen in me - put it into practice.
 And the God of peace will be with you."

(Philippians 4v8)  

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Songs in Season - Natasha Bedingfield "Try"

I'm not ashamed to say that the way Natasha Bedingfield wears her heart on her (album) sleeve completely resonates with me. I've heard her songs dismissed as pop-y gush, but to me they are odes to authenticity: honesty distilled into sing-along anthems.  I have several of her albums, each one with a particular song that transports me back to a really distinct season in life. 

On reflection, each phase seems characterised by some kind of longing. I listened to "Wild Horses" incessantly in my late teens when I was learning to let go of a beautiful friendship/crush and hoping for something even better from love in my future. And I listened to "Say It Again" endlessly when that love eventually caught up with me and left me speechless. It was "Love Like This" that kept me celebrating when long-distance was taking its emotional toll, and "Pirate Bones" that reinforced my principles when short-term pain threatened to eclipse long-term gain.

But the story behind "Try" is bittersweet. The first time I heard this song its lyrics inspired me to persevere and hope for the best in a situation that seemed less than ideal. Be steadfast: "if its something you love, you don't leave it / if it's something you care for you keep it". That was the message I heard on second, third, multiple listening until one day, instead of being inspirational, it started to feel like it was only highlighting the futility of holding out for the unattainable.

As much as I used to want things to be different, there are now other lines lingering in my thoughts:

"To everything there is a season,
and a time for every purpose under heaven."
Ecclesiastes 3v1 

Now, instead of looking for solutions, I find myself looking for the grace to celebrate that some things are not forever. And that's okay too. The song served a great purpose in its own time, as did the situation. But maybe it's time to move on.

Friday, 17 May 2013

Modern Marriage - Red Magazine May 2013

The idea of writing to a magazine in response to something I've read
 rarely occurs to me, but I really respected the discussion Red magazine were having through Sophie Ward's article.

This was my thank you note:

To: red@redmagazine.co.uk
Subject: Modern Marriage

After reading the profiles in Sophie Ward's article, I'm writing to say thank you for such an honest and rich reflection of modern marriage. 

So much of the attention paid to marriage in the media seems to either be in celebration of the superficial, or aimed at undermining the idea altogether. It's refreshing to see the realities of marriage validated instead. It's inspiring to be reminded that there are all sorts of people in our society whose stories reflect a similarly more nuanced understanding of marriage like my own: the glories of finding true intimacy and peace with another person, the grind in the daily outworking of love through compromise, conflict and interdependence.

There's just one additional perspective I would love to have seen covered: the lifestyle I'm lucky enough to be experiencing.

At 25, I'm already approaching my third wedding anniversary - something that never fails to be an extended talking point when I meet people (particularly peers) for the first time. But my story tends to be categorised as "traditional" because our relationship is heterosexual and our decision to get married was inextricably linked to our faith.

I completely appreciate that, taken at face value, I seem to be following somewhat unthinkingly in the religious footsteps of my parents and their parents before them. But I actually consider myself privileged to live in an age where the decisions we took were made for personal reasons, completely free from the fetters of social expectation. For the first time in generations, our choices about the way we conducted our relationship in the years before we were married were made out of nothing else other than our trust towards God. Not convention, not cultural pressure, not lack of options or education. 

My husband and I are intellectual, sexual and above all - in the grand scheme of life and marriage - we're still young. We're still growing into our professional lives, our creative outlets and our place in the world. We live lives full of work and friends and appreciation for the adventures we're in a position to make the most of. Our marriage is a part of that: a big part, a bedrock. But beneath that is our understanding of the love of Jesus, the claims he makes on every aspect of our lives, and our aspiration to reflect that authentically in all the choices we make - from finances through to family-life.

And it's true - that desire to follow Jesus is as old as the hills. But there are people, like myself, learning to live and love in modern life with those values in mind.

I just wanted to give a voice to that as yet another facet of modern marriage.

Thanks again to Sophie Ward for so eloquently describing her own perspective and the views of the other couples featured. Thank you for being the kind of magazine where those kinds of thoughts can be shared. And thank you for listening as I've expressed my own.

Best wishes

Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Simple Pleasures

I bought this book for a friend's birthday but slightly wish I had a copy for myself: it's just such a good idea! Edited by Ivo Dawnay, it's a collection of short essays that celebrate "the small, often unconsidered things that make life worth living."And even though I haven't read it, just the concept itself has been enough to motivate me to be on the look out for the simple pleasures in my own life. It's a habit worth forming.

Today I want to celebrate travelling. Not back-packing or big adventures, but getting from A to B on coaches and trains. Alone, off-peak journeys of maybe an hour or two are my favourite: sitting next to a window, watching the scenery change, transitioning from towns to fields and back again, seeing the urban jig-saw of buildings and backstreets from new angles, skies shifting, all the while with some kind of soundtrack that speaks to my mood in the moment... it just makes my insides soar. I am literally transported. It's almost an out of body sensation - I feel like I'm flying.

And it's a treat. I don't close off like that all the time: I try not to overuse music to entertain and isolate me when I'm out and about because it can take away the chance to interact and make me dangerously unaware of my surroundings. But the times I do let myself be cocooned in a sound wall and watch the world rush past my window are...exhilarating. Definitely simple, but such a pleasure.

Simple Pleasures is a series celebrating everyday joys. 
Inspired by the National Trust book "Simple Pleasures: little things that make life worth living" edited by Ivo Dawnay

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

The Art of Smiling at Strangers

Image created by artandwords on polyvore.com

Last Friday's Evening Standard Magazine ran an article called "How to Live Forever": a  light-hearted list of twenty healthy habits to adopt for enhanced living based on a bizarre mish-mash of research findings. It made for entertaining - rather than revolutionary - reading, but there was one throw away comment that stayed with me:

Londoners aren't exactly known for our warmth (smiling at a stranger on public transport? Just creepy), but if you want to live longer you might want to rethink.  

The article then moved on to talk in brief about the biological benefits of altruism, but it was the assertion about the weirdness of smiling at strangers that I found interesting.

Today a member of staff at my local tube station complimented me by saying that they liked the way I smile at them as I come through the barriers each morning, and I'm convinced that most people appreciate being on the receiving end of a little bit of warmth and personality when they're out and about in a crowd. Even so, there are definite cultural norms to navigate and I've realised that over the years I seem to have honed my skills in this area.

Smiling at strangers began as a personal project in my teenage years. I decided I wanted to interact a little more with people. I set about trying to be friendlier, but almost immediately realised I was indeed coming across as "creepy". I have a big smile, and on closer analysis I realised that grinning at people for no apparent reason makes them uncomfortable, is perceived as mockery or leads to unwanted sexual advances. Over the years I've also noticed that smiling whilst maintaining eye contact with someone seems to imply that you want to interact with them in some other way. It can make some people suspicious.

These days I generally make eye contact with most people I pass at close range, giving a small, fleeting smile at the point I begin to look away. Sometimes I see them smile back. Sometimes I get a blank stare. Sometimes I'll see them again and get a repeat smile, perhaps leading to a regular hello, maybe even a "how are you today?". I get told things: mundane things, grievances, stories. I get asked for things: directions, money, dates, to be in people's photographs (...which is, I'll admit, incredibly strange).

But I also, increasingly, get asked why I'm so happy. I have my reasons. I try and communicate them as appropriately as possible. And I've realised this is probably the most important aspect of what makes smiling at strangers a bit more socially acceptable. It has to be authentic and agenda-free. Perhaps being singled out for the attention of a stranger is odd, but just being encompassed by someone else's sense of well-being can be a welcome boost: happiness by osmosis. So far, I haven't met anyone who has a problem with that.

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Magpie Moments

I've been luxuriating in a few days of free time and, now that it's winding down, it's humbling to sit back and reflect on how many life-altering things I've gleaned from in such a short space of time. Life-altering in lowercase: the kinds of things that allow someone else's genius or gift or perspective to rub off in a small way and spark or confirm an interest for me to carry forward.

In amongst a lot of eating and sleeping and that kind of conversational dreaming where I get to bounce ideas around with someone wonderful and be excited for all that could/should be, I've also been to exhibitions, watched documentaries, witnessed great art in at least three different forms. And I've finally organised a backlog of articles I've been building on-and-off over the last five or six years: articles on business, politics, women, social attitudes - things I agree with, things I don't; things I want to know more about, things that horrify me into remembering.

Sometimes I feel (probably too acutely for the tender age of 25) that life is too short for all the living it deserves. In that context it's encouraging to remember a Leonard Bernstein quote relayed to me recently by a good friend:

"To achieve great things, two things are needed:
a plan and not quite enough time."

I'm definitely giving it my best shot! It helps to have an abundance of examples to learn from.

Monday, 25 March 2013

"The Lonely Londoners" - Sam Selvon

I read this book on a city break to London last year (before we moved to live here) but it's come to mind again recently and, without claiming any expertise whatsoever, I wanted to celebrate it. 

This is the second novel I've read that has delved into the stories of Caribbean migrants in Britain after the second world war; the first was Small Island by Andrea Levy. Levy's book was every bit as brilliant as the reviews made out, but The Lonely Londoners caught me by surprise and surpassed my expectations. For me, Small Island was an education; The Lonely Londoners was an experience.

That distinction was in part created by the language and form of Sam Selvon's novel: its episodic writing style, the use of non-standard English in the narrative voice. From the outset I found myself involved in a sensory and emotional immersion into alien London, feeling the characters' estrangement from places that are in reality fairly familiar to me. And I loved it.

I loved this book because, in some small but significant way, it gave me a greater love for my maternal Grandad. It allowed me to look with empathy on complex choices that I've previously judged from the comfort of my own perspective. It gave me a framework for actually seeing, not just knowing on an intellectual level, that there is more to our family story than personal egos and agendas. We do have choices. Undeniably. But those choices are made in the very real context of our circumstances. I would be wise to show the sort of grace I might want to receive when my culture and convictions are judged by someone else's standards.

I've said before that fiction is great in my eyes if it makes me reconsider reality. I'll be forever grateful to The Lonely Londoners for making me think twice about a story I thought I understood.

My first reading of this book was all about my emotional response, but I'm learning more about the novel from a literary perspective using a free Open University unit available here.

Saturday, 16 March 2013

Tricky Topics

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The most appealing thing about the blogging process for me has been challenging myself to digest information/experiences and have a constructive reaction, instead of letting life wash over me. As part of that, I've thought a little more deeply about some tricky topics having an impact in the public sphere and shared the beginnings of my reactions in a few posts.

This is really just a note to say that I've decided to take those discussions off-line. For a while my personal musings on topics like big business and the economy were a side-line activity, but I'm now privileged to be in a position where I get to learn about those things as part of my career. It's a really exciting avenue to be going down and not one that I would have predicted I'd have the chance to embrace. But here I am. And there's a lot to learn.

Two things are easy. It's easy to make assumptions: to form ideological stances on the basis of very little information. On the other hand, it's also easy to be apathetic: to switch off and distance from tricky topics because the volume of information is so daunting and the content so dense. I don't want to do either. 

I genuinely believe in taking responsibility, in the reality of interconnected consequences and in trying to be part of solutions. There is, however, such disparity between that belief and my actions. The awareness of falling short in that respect is both discouraging and motivating.

With that in mind, I am entirely committed to continuing to think and pray and learn about the big questions surrounding finance, corporate governance and the like, as well as the mechanics behind it all. I'm thrilled that I get to call that "work" for the next little while in my life. But while I'm in the very early stages of that knowledge-gathering process, and while I'm potentially employed along those lines, I think a hiatus from splurging about it all is probably appropriate.

 "The more you talk, 
the more likely you will cross the line and say the wrong thing; 
but if you are wise
you will speak less and with restraint."
Proverbs 10v18 

 (the Voice Bible translation)

Who knows, one day I might have grounds to make a legitimate contribution to the debate. In the meantime, there are a lot of knowledgeable people writing about interesting ideas in accessible ways.

Thursday, 28 February 2013

Thank Goodness For... Poetry Corner


Poetry Corner makes me happy. 
I love looking out for the new verse or quote, making myself chew it over for a few precious seconds before I plunge back into the commuter flow. It gives a spark of personality to what can sometimes be a pretty dehumanising travel experience. 

I keep meaning to ask who is behind these nuggets of wisdom, wit and insight - I will ask. 
And say thank you.

'Thank Goodness for...' 
Posts that celebrate the positive impact people and organisations are having on everyday issues

Saturday, 23 February 2013

366 days of kindness - Bernadette Russell

It's been a week since I heard Bernadette Russell interviewed on a BBC Radio 4 programme, Saturday Live, but I've been thinking about it on and off ever since. The interview explored her 366 days of kindness project which started as a response to the London riots in 2011 and has continued beyond its target timescale. Listening to her talk, and to the responses that were read out by the presenters, I realised that my own concerted efforts in the kindness department could probably do with redoubling. There were two home-truths I distilled from the discussion, and I want to remember them as I move forward.

Kindness asks for nothing in return

Bernadette admitted that quite early on in the project she decided to give up expecting gratitude and act kindly for its own sake - a stance I have nothing but admiration for. In various past experiences, I've found it really difficult to live generously without external validation or recognition. It's costly; looking for ways to put others first can be a genuinely depleting experience. But being on a constant look out for their reciprocation or approval is even more exhausting. So I've stopped (or, more honestly, I'm trying to). It was good to be reminded that the only healthy way to sustain an outward focused life is to be in it for its own sake: to believe that there is intrinsic value in being loving. And leave it at that.

Kindness takes time
This is an even bigger challenge for me. I like to flatter myself that, on a basic level, I'm a kind person. I believe in making eye-contact, smiling, small talk and paying appropriate compliments. Daily. In the little things. I was raised on mottoes like 'a smile is a universal language' and 'do unto others as you would have them do to you'. But in the week since the interview, I've noticed more opportunities to go further than my default of just being relatively pleasant.

I've seen people struggling with luggage on the underground; I bought a Big Issue from a lady who was clearly freezing cold - she probably would of appreciated a hot drink; I've been acutely aware that someone in a sales role seemed to want to break away from the script and have an actual conversation. But I've been busy. This week, I have been so busy. Next week, I will be even busier. And it continues. I'm entering a profession where time is (someone else's) money, where hours are long and - allegedly - even my friends and family will be lucky to hear from me. 

That's my reality, and to a certain extent I can't do that much about it. But I do have some freedoms. I can leave the house in good time to get where I'm going without resorting to getting my elbows out and treating everyone else like an obstacle or inconvenience. I can even try and give myself an extra five minutes for that optional chat, that detour to a coffee shop that gives someone a little extra dignity. I can block out some time in my diary to write that letter/card/email instead of watching TV. I can pick up the phone. 

I know I can.

I can't address everything, but some kindnesses are well within my remit. So here's to re-committing to making the effort.

Sunday, 3 February 2013


I'm enjoying a small slice of Sunday morning peace in the new flat. The boxes are slowly disappearing and our stories are re-appearing: our books, wedding gifts, furnishings all finding their spaces. 

But best of all, beyond the fact that our possessions are being integrated into our new surroundings, is the way this feels like a longed for homecoming on many, many levels. This feels like a place of belonging. It is dreams that are coming home to roost here: tricky to articulate, even harder to make materialise but they are beginning here and now. And not because my life is anymore significant than anyone else's; not because I knew what I was doing all along, had it all perfectly planned out and have it all together all the time. Things are working out because with Love* they just do. And sometimes we get to see it:

"I'll take the hand of those who don't know the way,
who can't see where they're going.
I'll be a personal guide to them, 
directing them through unknown country.
I'll be right there to show them which roads to take,
make sure they don't fall into the ditch.
These are the things I'll be doing for them - 
sticking with them, not leaving them for a minute."

Isaiah 42v16 

*"God is love. When we take up permanent residence in a life of love, we live in God and God lives in us." 1 John 4v17

It's good to be home. 

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

System Addict - UK Vogue Jan 2013

Image created by artandwords on polyvore.com

Being in the middle of a move has disrupted some of the things I take for granted on a daily basis - like internet access. The semi digital detox has made me remember an article I found really interesting in the January 2013 issue of British Vogue by Kathleen Baird-Murray:

"Outsmarted by smartphones; too Pinterested for our own good; over-pecked by Twitter... Kathleen Baird-Murray asks: is it time to pull the plug on 'anti-social' media?"

The article explores a cross-section of experiences where technology could be said to impinge, rather than enhance, our lives; weaving personal anecdotes together with scientific evidence, the author makes a persuasive case for a more thoughtful approach to social media use.

It's a topic that caught my attention because it has recently been brought up in conversation by different friends from different social groups: it seems to be one of the questions of the moment, and one that is definitely on my mind as I continue to try and make sense of how I use my time.

My own answer has been to create a kind of 'personal policy' - something flexible enough that allows me to respond to changes in circumstances, but disciplined enough for me to feel like I'm in control of my social media use, instead of being dictated to by it.

Elements of this 'personal policy' encompass blogging, facebook and even email use. At the heart of what I want to achieve is being able to use technology to improve myself and the relationships I value in a constructive way, without opening the door to the little insecurities I know I'm prone to. 

One example has been the decision to largely check facebook via my email account so that I'm only responding to the interactions that are actually relevant to me, instead of being sucked into spying on other people and comparing my life to theirs. I also try to avoid checking facebook more than a couple of times a week, unless I know I have a reason too, otherwise I'm all too tempted to feel neglected if there are no messages or notifications. 

Similarly, although I have a smartphone, I deliberately don't receive email and facebook alerts on my mobile so that I can preserve some semblance of blissful ignorance and attention to the present throughout my day.

Distancing myself a little from the 24/7 availability of social media enables me to be a bit more focused about what I want to achieve through it. I can more easily keep a sense of perspective and it's easier to appreciate the good things access gives me, the things I enjoy and benefit from - a creative outlet and opportunities to write, the chance to catch up with or encourage people spontaneously and with very little legwork.

The article was a reminder that these kinds of decisions really do matter, and I'm not alone in grappling with them. 

Thursday, 17 January 2013

Wardrobe Stories

Preparing to move flats has given me ample opportunity to reassess the clothes I own: what to keep, what to donate, what can be 'up-cycled' and begin again as something new. This dressing-gown is a keeper for sure. Normally my wardrobe stories are about clothes that have been with me for a while - things that have earned their place. But this is an item I love largely because of the future I imagine for it.

I adopted it recently out of necessity. Staying at my parents' house on the morning of my sister's wedding I needed something to wear whilst running around dealing with bridesmaid duties before getting all dolled-up. This had been lurking in the back of my Mum's wardrobe for close to three years - a seldom worn charity shop purchase that very nearly suffered the indignity of being cut up and turned into a fancy dress kimono costume when we went to a 'world themed' party at her work.

Maybe it was the glamour of the occasion when I first wore it, or the fact that I'm currently watching Mad Men box-sets and being inspired by a more sophisticated fashion era, but somehow this dressing gown suddenly makes sense in my everyday life. I love throwing it on over joggers or pyjamas and feeling instantly presentable and polished with minimum effort. I love that the scent of my cocoa butter lotion has irreversibly seeped into the fabric and the freedom of the birds in flight across the print.

Its labels were cut out before it came my way so I'm not sure what material it's made with or the shop it originally came from. Even though I know very little of its history, it feels like an heirloom in the making. It reminds me of my Mum, my sister, of intimacy and comfort. I feel so well within myself when I wear it that I can't see myself getting rid of it anytime soon. And I wonder whether its distinctive pattern and scents will lodge themselves in the early memories of any children I might have one day - in the same way that certain 'house clothes' my Mum wore repeatedly when we were young are indelibly impressed on my own mind.

Beautiful thoughts.

'Wardrobe Stories' are a string of posts helping me to appreciate the clothes and accessories I own in an atmosphere where it's easy to end up taking things for granted.

Monday, 7 January 2013

Picking Sides

When I rocked up to the bank half an hour before closing time, I expected to just carry out my transaction and go home. What actually happened was a little more interesting: I got to see two distinct sides of human nature played out in response to the same situation, and it got me thinking about how easy it is to exceed or fall short of our best selves in a split second.

The bank seemed short-staffed: two cashiers were tied up in dealing with one person's complicated affairs, leaving one lone woman to handle the rest of us. The queue extended out the door, but I was close enough to the service counters to witness an elderly lady try to convert her bags of loose change into larger coins and notes. When the bags were weighed, she turned out to be 10p short and after rummaging around in her purse and pockets she didn't have the extra money.

Enter Exhibit A: the man behind her in the queue, maybe in his late 20s or early 30s, who immediately fished the missing money out of his wallet and offered it to her. After some hesitation, it was accepted and the coins were changed into a note. The lady then stepped aside and was on her way out, only to be called back by the same man who noticed that she had forgotten to take the money she had just converted with her. He joked that he could have kept it and made "a tidy profit"; she joked that - judging from his honesty and kindness - Christmas clearly wasn't over; everyone in the queue laughed and smiled at each other and for once it felt like we might live in a community after all.

Enter Exhibit B: a man, same demographic, who was one of the next customers in the queue. When it was his turn to be served it transpired that - after waiting all that time - he hadn't brought the correct things with him, at which point irritability surfaced and the cashier's face fell. The situation was resolved relatively quickly and he tersely thanked her and huffed out.

Queues are inconvenient. They derail and hinder us and stop us from being the centre of our world. When I'm forced to queue, I'm forced to acknowledge that other people's agendas are also important, and that certain things are outside of my control. Without wanting to make metaphors out of molehills, queues are just one minor example of a whole range of situations it's possible to have to endure when we'd rather not.

But isn't it always said that when we can't choose the circumstances, we can still choose our attitude? It struck me that I have been both these people. I have been alert enough to others to recognise an opportunity to randomly step in and help. I have also been self-absorbed or targeted my frustrations at someone else, making their day that little bit worse.

I don't know the reasons why being held up was so annoying for Exhibit B - he was probably completely justified. But I do know I'd like to be more consistently like Exhibit A because - let's face it - who doesn't want a little more kindness and community in everyday life?
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