I wasn’t going to write this post. If you’ve lost a loved one you might be able to relate. I wanted this day to be just another day in the long line of days that is my life. I’ve grieved all my grief and healed my pain, and he remains in my heart but as a friend of lifetimes. I miss him sometimes, and once in a while i’ll find myself wondering what we’d be doing now if he was still here. I don’t even know if we’d still be together. Perhaps not, who knows? But as it is, he and I are still in touch, through the dreams that have never left me. The feathers he lays in my path wherever I happen to be in the world. The books with his messages. The random things I find in impossible places. Eight years later and I’ve let go of all the anger and frustration i once felt towards him. I’ve learned the lessons of our relationship, and built a life around me that’s honest and independent and all mine. That I don’t share it with a significant other is less to do with my attachment to him (for I no longer am) and more to do with circumstances and fate.
I flew to New York last week for a few days, my 40th birthday present to myself. While there I got my new tattoo, the one I’ve been planning for months. I’ve been searching for years to find the right artist, and when I discovered the work of Cris Cleen I knew I’d found my man. His style, his philosophy and the integrity I see in his work drew me in immediately, and when I saw his interpretation of a swallow, I just knew.
Swallows are a traditional tattoo motif — historically sailors used them to show off their sailing experience. From Wikipedia:
“Of British origin in the early days of sailing, it was the image of a Barn Swallow, usually tattooed on the chest, hands or neck. According to one legend, a sailor tattooed with one swallow had travelled over 5,000 nautical miles (9,260 km); a sailor with two swallows had travelled 10,000 nautical miles (18,520 km).Travelling these great distances was extremely difficult and dangerous in the early days of sailing, so one or more swallow tattoos denoted a very experienced and valuable sailor. Another legend holds that since swallows return to the same location every year to mate and nest, the swallow will guarantee the sailor returns home safely. A sailor would have one swallow tattooed before setting out on a journey, and the second swallow tattooed at the end of their tour of duty, upon return to their home port. It is also said that if the sailor drowns, the swallows will carry their soul to heaven. The swallow also represents love, care and affection towards family and friends, showing the loyalty of the person always returning to them. The bird also represents freedom and hope.”
To me, the swallow represents my independence and my freedom, a reminder of qualities I will always posess even if I fall in love again. She marks the completion of the healing journey I have taken, flying in the direction of my heart to show I will always return home — to myself and to my loved ones.
On a purely practical note, I placed her on my right forearm to balance the tattoo I have planned for my left arm. She’s my most visible tattoo to date and that feels right to me. I know tattoos aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, but to me they are bold and beautiful, permanent adornment infused with meaning.
My love didn’t have any tattoos himself but he appreciated mine as they were a part of me. In the last eight years there have been many changes: my weight has fluctuated, my eyesight has worsened. My hair has sprouted grey in places and creases have formed where they weren’t there before… But this bird inked on my arm is the most radical change of all and it’s one he will never see — at least not with physical eyes. And that is as it should be, for this swallow will be appreciated by another lover one day, his fingertips tracing the outline that ghostly hands cannot.
And I welcome that day’s arrival with an open heart.
five years | four years | two years
“One of the secrets of a happy life is continuous small treats.” – Iris Murdoch’s protagonist in The Sea, The Sea
The quote above was number 27 on my list of 40 lessons learned in 40 years — I like it so much it’s even mentioned in my book. I’m a passionate believer in the wisdom of giving oneself regular small treats. It ties into my philosophy of showing myself kindness whenever I can. Because I’ve spent a lot of my life being decidedly UNkind to myself. Honestly, no one could ever say anything meaner to me than some of the rubbish I’ve told myself — still tell myself, on the bad days. But these days I try to do better by myself. I consciously try to be kinder. And it starts with the many layers of self-care.
The first layer: the quick fix
I have a tendency to spoil myself as if I were my own overly indulgent relative. If I want a latte I go get a latte. I spend an absolute fortune on books. I buy myself flowers and scented candles occasionally. I own a ridiculous amount of perfume. On really icky days I get out the big guns: new music on iTunes.
I know I buy myself presents to make up for the fact that I’m single (“I haven’t had sex in *cough* a long time — I deserve this Diptyque candle!”) When I’m no longer single I’m sure there’ll be other reasons to justify the presents. Self-care that involves spending money in this way is more of a quick fix, though one that’s certainly pleasurable in the moment. And I’m okay with the occasional quick fix — it always brightens my day.
The second layer: the reactive
The next layer of self-care is responding to how I’m feeling at any given time with a kind action. Sometimes I worry this type of self-care is simply laziness. When I stay in bed an hour longer… when I go to bed an hour earlier. When I take a long bath instead of dealing with my inbox. When I give in to the mid-afternoon chocolate craving… it crosses my mind that I’m far too lenient with myself, because somewhere inside me is this twisted notion that Hard Work is the only way (and this applies to everything, not just paid work). But experience has taught me that it’s better to attend to my needs rather than push through and ignore them. This means that if I wake up with a headache I’ll do the bare minimum needed in the morning then let myself have the afternoon on the sofa. If I’m feeling upset about something I’ll be extra gentle with myself, doing whatever I need to work through the issue (phone my sister, go for a walk, journal); often I just need to get out of the house and reset my brain.
The third layer: the self-investment
This last layer takes a bit more effort but the benefits will be felt for years to come. At the moment my biggest self-investments are my weekly sessions with a therapist, my gym membership (I’ve been 3 times, people! I’m going to make this happen!), and going back on antidepressants. I view all of these as the absolute best way I can take care of myself right now. Working with my therapist gives me space to unravel my head; going to the gym will eventually bring health and stamina (I hate going but the smug feeling afterwards is worth it); and the tablets are helping to bring me back up to the surface so I can function in this world like a normal person.
At this time in my life I am my own biggest responsibility which means I have the time and income to invest in self-care, but even when my circumstances change I hope I’ll be able to maintain this practice of attending to my needs — I know it makes me a more considerate sister, daughter and friend. To me, self-care is really self-kindness, and I find the more self-aware I become the more I recognise what I need. In my twenties and early 30s I was less clued in to how I felt, and as a result my self-care rarely went deeper than the first layer. These days my deepest desire is to feel calm, balanced and safe: my three layers of self-care help me get closer to this.
This post is part of Mara & Tam’s fabulous self-care blog hop — inspiring posts from 19 bloggers telling the truth about their own self-care. You can read all the posts over here!
It’s my 40th birthday today. Entering a new decade of my life feels like a big deal, and while I feel exactly the same as I did yesterday, there’s something bubbling in me — the no more rules I mentioned last week. Forty sounds really thoroughly grown-up and I like it.
Rather than compiling a list of things to do before I turn 41, I spent a leisurely few hours this afternoon putting together 40 lessons I’ve sussed out in the last 40 years. Sidenote: I only wanted to do things I love today, and blogging was definitely on the list. Still so grateful to have this space to play in. Happy Nutella Day!
40 LESSONS FROM 40 YEARS
1. Your relationship with your self is the most important relationship you’ll ever have. It forms the basis for every other relationship in your life, making you the mother, sister, partner and friend that you are.
2. On that note, there is nothing wrong with being ‘self-centered’. I’m a firm believer in putting your oxygen mask on first. If you can’t breathe you’re no use to anyone else. That doesn’t mean ignore everybody else — just don’t ignore you.
3. Only shop in shops with flattering lights in their fitting rooms. Life is too short to look like shit when shopping for a new bra.
4. Find the type of words you like to read. Doesn’t matter if it’s fiction, non-fiction, self-help, instruction manuals or comics — just find the pages you can’t wait to turn.
5. Anything anyone says about you or does to you is about them not you 99% of the time.
6. Invest some cash in a really fabulous handbag (men: find a really cool wallet) so no matter what you wear, you always looked pulled together. Ditto a good pair of boots.
7. Speaking of wallets, I bought a Fendi wallet 10 years ago. I’ve used it every day since and it still looks new = best £150 I’ve ever spent.
8. Take photographs every single day. Snap the things that catch your eye, the faces you love and the moments you want to remember. Records the bits of your day that you might forget — in years to come you’ll love this glimpse into your routine.
9. Play with digital and film. iPhones and Hasselblads. Canon and Nikon. Try everything to decide which translates your eye best. Learn a few rules so you know how to break them.
10. Always ALWAYS buy free-range eggs. Preferably organic if you can.
11. Figure yourself out. Investigate the Enneagram. Do the Myers-Briggs test. Get your tarot cards done. Get curious about yourself. Unravel!
12. On the other side of that, don’t bother drinking anyone else’s kool aid. Make your own concoction instead — it’ll always taste better.
13. Make the effort to protect your leather bags and boots with leather gel. Trust me on this.
14. Start a collection. It doesn’t matter what it is — buttons, cameras, art, first editions, model cars, retro lamp shades. When you collect something you’re more likely to keep your eyes open when you’re out & about in the world. You never know when you’ll find a treasure — life becomes a treasure hunt.
15. Learn how to enjoy your own company. Go on dates with yourself often. Watch this again for ideas.
16. Investigate poetry. Poems are like awesome word snacks that nourish your brain. Find the poets who transcribe your experience of the world. Then look for the ones who show you another side of life entirely.
17. Find the music that makes you get up and dance. Play it often, especially when you’re on your own.
18. If you’re self-employed, put aside more money for tax than you think you’ll need. I always save 40% of everything I earn. If your tax bill comes to less at the end of the year you’ll have a nice little nest egg to play with or enough to cover any earnings you “forgot” to save tax for. Either way you can’t lose and you’ll sleep better at night.
19. Everybody should get at least six months of therapy. It’s one of the best investments you’ll ever make in yourself.
20. “I believe that by being the best and most healed version of ourselves we can truly make a difference in the world. I’m not an activist or politician, and I’m not able to have any direct impact on the areas of the world where help is needed. But what I can do is make a difference in the small pocket of the world I call home. I can live with integrity and be honest about my feelings, even when they hurt. I can put my whole heart into my work and pay forward the generosity that was shown to me when my world fell apart. I can look after myself, knowing that by healing my own hurts I won’t be passing them on to anyone else. In a society like ours, filled with so many emotionally wounded people acting out their pain, this is possibly the most important work we could ever do—heal our hurts so we don’t pass them on.” From This I Know, page 271.
21. Slow down. Take a breath. Look again.
22. Your senses are the way back into the present moment. What can you smell right now? What do you see? What’s touching your skin? What tastes do you want to experience today? What can you hear? Pay attention. Give yourself over to this moment, right now.
23. Writing a book is exactly as hard as you think it will be. But it’s not impossible. Not at all.
24. Sharing your heart with people will make you feel vulnerable at times — most of the time, in fact — but it will help you feel less alone when you see that others feel the same. By hiding the truth about how we feel we isolate ourselves.
25. The camera is only a tool — it’s your eye that really matters.
26. You can’t THINK your way out of depression. If you’re an over-thinker like me you will try very hard to do this but it won’t work. Explore all paths to find your way through the storm. Be gentle with yourself.
25. Listen to your body. It will tell you what it needs, and it will tell you what it doesn’t need, too.
26. Try to remember that everybody is doing their best with the tools they have and life experiences they’ve had. You never know what happened that morning, that day, that month or that year. You never know when somebody is putting a brave face on something that’s making them crumble inside. Give them the benefit of the doubt.
27. “One of the secrets of a happy life is continuous small treats.” – Iris Murdoch
28. Kill your expectations and assumptions. They are such a phenomenal waste of time. Most of the disappointments in my life were the result of expectations and assumptions. Keeping these in check is a life-long practice.
29. You can’t change anyone, no matter how much you want to. But you can lead by example. You can inspire them to want to change.
30. Celebrate your sensuality. Take hot scented baths and sunbathe nude in your garden. Buy lingerie that delights you and wear more silk. Take pleasure in your body.
31. If, like me, you can’t wear wool (itchy nightmare!) invest in a cashmere sweater every couple of years. If you look after them properly these babies will just get softer and softer and keep you warm for years to come. I like Brora.
32. Breathe in the sea air every chance you get.
33. It’s okay to protect yourself from the people who trigger you. Unsubscribe. Unfollow. Avoid. Make your excuses. Sometimes we just have to protect our hearts, and if there’s someone who makes you feel crap you don’t have to let them into your world.
34. Having said that, be sure to look at WHY they trigger you once you’ve filtered them out of your day-to-day. We can learn a lot from feeling uncomfortable — what’s the bigger message here?
35. When you look in the mirror, try smiling at yourself. Especially first thing in the morning.
36. Show yourself a little kindness every day. Find ten minutes to read a chapter. Listen to your favourite song in the car. Savour a cup of coffee in the garden. Lock yourself in the bathroom and do yoga on the floor. Whatever it takes.
37. Keep a journal. Write down your thoughts. Make lists. Draw mind maps. Stick in pictures that make you dream. Write when you feel inspired. Write when you feel sad. Write when you want to remember. Write when you don’t know. Just write it out.
38. Believe in something. Whether it’s science, nature, god, spirit, kindness, gratitude, politics, the universe, atoms or love, believe in something.
39. Believe in yourself. There’s nobody else in the entire world like you.
40. Go gently.
I’ve been reading through my archives with the intention of cutting out any deadwood and tidying up the photo sizes. Ten minutes in I realised this is a much bigger job than I’d first anticipated and will need to be done in short bursts (so my head doesn’t explode). Twelve minutes in I read this post from August 2007:
When there’s too much to be done, I tend to do nothing. I’ll have a to do list as long as my arm, and every evening more gets added, as tasks from the day are carried over to the next. I could provide an equally long list of things I can’t stand about myself, my lack of motivation being one of them.
As luck would have it, it’s about this time of the month when my hormones start to take over and my mood plummets, down into the cosy basket of the black dog – you could set your watch to my cycle it’s so regular. But this week I’m fighting back, this week I’m trying something new. Enough with the to do lists and procrastinating and excuses. Enough with the fear of failure.
I’ve made a deal with myself – I will do either one thing, or work for one hour, towards my dream, every day. That’s it. Just one thing or one hour. The idea is to break through the fear, push past the inertia and overwhelm, and do something, anything, that takes me one tiny step closer to what I want. The rest of the day I can lie on the sofa if I want to (which obviously I wouldn’t do) so long as I do my one thing.
I started this cunning plan at the weekend, and I’m pleased to report that so far it’s working really well. I can’t do everything; I can’t create what I want in a day. But I can do one thing (one thing which morphed into several things today before I even realised what I was doing). I’m also noting down what I do each day in my journal at night, to make the point to my subconscious that it IS possible to do things and move forward, and not slide down into the ‘I’m not good enough, so why bother’ crap that my mind spews out so easily. I’ve had thirty-four years of this fear and it hasn’t worked, so now I’m trying something new.
Back to 2012 where I am sadly no longer 34 years-old *ahem* ::
I’m sharing this post again because I realised it’s proof that if you chip away at your dream, you really can make it happen. Which sounds so bloody obvious, I know, but when you’re right at the beginning, or stuck in the quagmire of doubt, it’s hard to have any faith. So very hard to trust in the process. Back in 2007 i started chipping away at my dream and did, in fact, make some of it happen. So if that’s the case, maybe if I keep chipping away at my new dreams for London and beyond, I can make those happen too.
One thing at a time.
This is also another example of the blog-as-time-machine thing. Thirty-four year-old me wrote this message I needed to hear today. Amazing.
What one thing could you do today towards your dreams? Share it in the comments below if you’re feeling inspired!