2019 in Review

I wonder if you’re the same. Whether all the years since the start of real ‘adulthood’ just blur together into a mess of colour and sound. I sometimes picture the year in my head like a circle, with each day, week, and month with its own section. For some reason, December is darker than most months in my mind. Anyway, 2019 has been no different. Just another circle, full of good days and bad. Yet thinking back now it’s only moments and scenes which really jump out at me. It’s a bit like a TV show; you don’t see the mundane scenes, only the ones that matter.

A few years ago, recognising that I am hopelessly forgetful when it comes to this stuff, I started noting down in my notes app a little ‘Review of the year’. Mostly so that I could sound well-informed when people asked for recommendations, but also so that I could impress you all with just how cultured I am. No wait. That’s not it… Just so I can remember. Ahem.

So here are some memorable scenes from 2019.

Books

Catch and Kill by Ronan Farrow

A fascinating and detailed account of Farrow’s investigation into the Weinstein scandal. Shocking and saddening, but also hopeful.

Unfollow by Megan Phelps-Roper

A moving and thoughtful autobiography from a member of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church. Phelps-Roper does an amazing job of showing both how she loves and cares for her family, while also comes to see through the hateful beliefs of the church.

I recommended some more books from 2019 in an earlier post which you can check out here.

Films

Beautiful Boy

Even for those not slightly obsessed with Timothee Chalamet, this is an excellent and heartfelt exploration of a father-son relationship and battle with addiction.

Aladdin

Worth it for the wacky humour alone (jam anyone?), this seemingly inevitable remake of the Disney classic is worth your time. For my money, better than the new Lion King (sorry Beyonce!)

Long Shot

I had pretty much zero expectations for this seemingly wacky comedy with Seth Rogen and Charlize Theron, but it won me over instantly.

Marriage Story

So emotional. So good. I already loved the director (Noah Baumbach) of this wonderful Netflix movie about a torturous divorce, now I am fully behind this film getting all the Oscars (especially Adam Driver for his amazing performance.)

Knives Out

I’ve always been a fan of a murder mystery and this is a wonderful reinterpretation of Agatha Christie for the 21st Century. Both a love letter and a refreshing change of pace. Even Daniel Craig’s accent can’t ruin it.

Little Women

I challenge anyone to not be obsessed with Timothee Chalamet after this film. He and Soirse Ronan are simply wonderful. A rare film that is both joyous and finely crafted. Go and see it!

Music

Maggie Rogers

Elton John

Sufjan Stevens

Harry Styles

This list of some favourites from this year covers some old favourites and new discoveries. Maggie Rogers’ debut album was one of the most fresh and catchy pop records I’ve heard in years. After watching Rocketman, I have enjoyed going back to listen to some classic Elton. Also, after a recommendation from a friend have discovered some new deep cuts from Elton’s old stuff. Harry Styles’ beguiling pop/rock persona has won me over despite myself. I love his new album. Sufjan will always be close to my heart…

Other

Dear Evan Hansen

I went to see this wonderful and thoughtful musical before Christmas and can’t recommend it highly enough. So much empathy and love, especially powerful for those who have anything to do with teenagers.

Dolly Parton’s America

This podcast series has also been a highlight of my year. Who knew that everyone loved Dolly so much? It’s an exploration of just why which touches on some powerful and unexpected themes.

The Unlived Life

As I’m sure many of you have been (and SHOULD BE), I’ve been watching the wonderful series ‘The Crown’ over the last week. As a Brit who feels fairly ambivalent about the monarchy most of the time, it’s incredible how some patriotic pomp can bring a tear to my eye, like some kind of collective memory. Perhaps they’re tears for some bygone age of Britishness, perhaps out of a national pride which feels all too rare these days. In one of this series’ best episodes, Aberfan, it was simple grief and horror at the terrible tragedy portrayed. Yet I think what gets me most is the simple fact that it is a drama about family. About a family in an extraordinary situation, but a family none-the-less.

One of the moments that stood out for me as I have been watching was when the Queen spoke of her dreams of the ‘unlived life’. It’s been an ongoing theme of the show that these people are stopped from being who they could otherwise be by the situation they find themselves in. Yes, they have extraordinary privilege, but also overwhelming pressure. The pressure to be completely visible and yet completely unavailable. To have no opinions and no slip-ups. Ever.

For the Queen, it is the simple dream of an unlived life as a horse-breeder. For Prince Charles, to be free of the pressure and expectation of waiting for his mother to die, and to be able to marry the woman he loves. For Princess Margaret, it’s simply to find personal happiness.

This theme of the unlived life struck me as it’s something I think we all feel. We all dwell on the roads not taken, the choices we might have made. That feeling of ‘everything would be better if…’

Perhaps a difference for the Windsors is that there is no way out for them. For us, these feelings often take the form of regrets. We always wonder if there’s a way to change our situation, to rectify mistakes. Of course, as we are not under the incredible pressure the characters in The Crown face, there’s a sense in which we always can.

Not that I’m saying we should live a life full of regrets. Not at all. I’m just noticing something about my thinking and about our culture, especially as I seem to have reached the end of any predetermined path. We tend to obsess about which way is the right way. We wonder whether there’s some abandoned path which would have been happier, more successful or more fulfilling. I think this robs me of contentment where I am, just as it robs happiness from some of the characters in The Crown.

What’s the answer? We’re not stuck in our situation like the royals. We can make changes and, when something is making us unhappy, make a course correction. But at the same time, I think we can choose to be happy where we are. I think we need to. For dwelling on roads not taken is an invariably destructive course. A course that will lead us to view our lives now as a poorer reflection of some other reality. When really, we need to see the beauty and wonder around us to keep going.

We need to recognise the ways in which this is the best of all possible lives. We need to try to be the best versions of ourselves. Or else we’ll be tipped, flailing, into the uncertainty of never-knowing, always looking for the better option.

So be sure to watch this wonderful show, but remember to recognise and appreciate the ways in which you are living, for want of a better phrase, your best life right now.

It’s People

What makes you happy? How do you relax? What’s it all about? What are you doing this weekend?

All questions of varying depth and seriousness, which I’ve come to think have one common theme in the answer. It’s people.

It’s not really about opinions, beliefs or preferences, it’s just common sense. When it comes down to it, we are made to love and to live with other people. Not just to succeed as ambitious individuals, to just look out for ourselves, or even to prioritise ‘self-care’. We’re made to be part of a community of people, some the same and some very different, taking steps along the wandering road of life together.

What that looks like is different for everyone and at different times of life. For me right now, it looks like a community of individuals, couples, families and others, doing life together. It’s frustrating in many ways, especially trying to navigate different cultural expectations and backgrounds, but rewarding in more.

I still feel lonely much of the time. Does that mean I haven’t found ‘the one’ yet, or the right community even? I’m not sure it does. I think it means that I’m learning that there is no such thing. That everyone carries with them a burden of loneliness. We’re the only ones inside our own heads and there’s no way to change that. Yes, having a significant other is good. That burden can feel lighter. But the burden can be even lighter if we have a community of people who know and love us, both friends, lovers, and family.

That’s where our cultural reverence of romantic love falls short; one other isn’t enough. We need people. Lots of people. Diverse and wonderful and difficult people.

Yes we need the friends who are easy, who don’t challenge us very much, with whom we can quote ‘Friends’ endlessly and sing along to Celine Dion, but we also need the friends who are older and wiser, who can question and confront us. Who can push us when we need it, or hold us back.

To be quite honest, I feel some pity for myself in the past. I feel my past loneliness more now that the heavy load has been shared amongst trusted companions. I wonder what my future self will feel when he looks back on me now. I hope he will feel similarly. That there is more and deeper sharing to come. I have to admit that one of my greatest fears is that this is the best it’ll get.

I worry because it’s people. The best and hardest part of life. How to love and live and relate with those so similar and yet so different from us? I am hopeful and thankful and joyful because of the people I’m blessed to know, excited about those I’m yet to meet, already mourning those I’ll lose. I’m willing to take the risks.

I take comfort in the fact that now my heart has known so many wonderful souls, there’s no way back to the loneliness I might have felt. Not truly. For as I’m known and loved and walked beside, my burdens and stories are shared, remembered, treasured.

People can move on, let us down, disappear, but we are blessed with the chance to be friends, if even for a short time. Let’s make the most of that.

My Bookshelf

It’s been a long time since I shared some of the books I’ve read and loved. For the last few years, I’ve made a point of noting down, just on my phone’s notes app, the books I’ve read with a brief review.

There have been too many times when people ask me – what are you reading? Any recommendations? My response used to be a stunned silence while I was racking my brain for the names and authors, but now I can share my ideas and tips with confidence. I’d recommend you give it a go! I’ve also been noting down films, theatre and gigs but I’ll save those for another post.

So here are a few recommended titles for your perusal.

Chernobyl – Serhii Plokhy

Like many this year, I watched and enjoyed the TV series about the Chernobyl disaster. Diving much more deeply into the event itself, the people involved, and the short and long-term effects, this absorbing read comes highly recommended. A Ukrainian who lived in Minsk at the time of the accident, Plokhy makes a more or less chronological account of the events both technically accurate and gripping. I couldn’t finish quickly enough.

A Game of Thrones – George R. R. Martin

Another TV series I have enjoyed over the last few years (as have many people…) is the epic Game of Thrones saga. I decided to finally read the original books this summer, hoping for an engrossing holiday read. I was not disappointed. I read the first four volumes over the course of my summer travels and loved every moment. The depth, complexity and thematic richness of Martin’s text is remarkable. Also, I enjoyed how the violence and other naughtiness was much less distracting when in book form. You just know the ending is going to be better in the book…

The Testaments – Margaret Atwood

I read the original Handmaid’s Tale some years ago and was in equal parts riveted and disturbed by the dystopian classic. I was therefore eager to read the newly Booker Prize winning follow-up. I enjoyed how the story was an unashamedly hopeful fable, a gripping escape tale, and a family saga. Highly recommended, though make sure you read the original first.

Dreamers – Snigdha Poonam

I was lucky enough to visit my sister in India earlier this year. I was recommended this fascinating read to help me understand something of the quandaries facing young Indians – the world’s largest generation. Poonam captures their hopes, fears and frustrations effectively through this non-fiction account of various lives across India. I would encourage anyone to read this to understand India today, including the rise of Hindu nationalism and Modi. Yet it is also a very human story of individuals, making their personal struggles very real.

Notes on a Nervous Planet – Matt Haig

I’m an unashamed Haig fan, enjoying both his fiction and non-fiction work (and his social media presence). This book of short essays, poems and thoughts is a wonderful book to read and to share. Talking about anxiety is so needed in our lives and Haig does a great job of making clear things we’ve all experienced, as well as offering wise and common sense advice.

Factfulness – Hans Rosling

Another book looking to counter some of the anxiety we’re facing as a society at the moment is Rosling’s fascinating non-fiction book ‘Factfulness’. Rosling breaks down many of the negative and counter-productive assumptions we make about human progress and development, showing us we have reasons to be hopeful about the future. The book is excellent at making clear where the big problems still are and what progress has been made. A must read!

Uncertainty

Certainty is easy I think. Not easy to find, but perhaps easy if we hold it. If we know what we think and believe then we have a security which is unshakeable and real, often reinforced by the people around us who share that certainty. This can make us, and has made me, feel a measure of contentment which is hard to find in our busy world.

Recently, certainty has been harder for me to reach. The relative contentment of my twenties giving way to a more listless and wandering heart in my thirties. It’s hard to point to reasons, but I wonder if my earlier contentment was in part based on expectations, on patiently waiting for something that would seal my certainty and hold me fast for the rest of my life.

The fact that the people around me were, for want of a better term, conventionally progressing through the stages of life (marriage, kids, promotion, cat…), led me to expect the same I think. When these stages didn’t materialise, or looked different from expected, some of that certainty began to change. Almost like I had stepped off the conveyor, or perhaps onto a different conveyor entirely.

Partly this was because I literally stepped out of my comfort zone in moving country half a decade ago. As I reflect on what led to this decision, I feel peace about it, like it was definitely the right thing to do, yet I also feel that in ditching the beaten path I’m a bit lost in the woods.

Not that the woods are unpleasant. I am fortunate to be in a stable and prosperous stage in my life in so many ways, feeling successful and valued in my decade-long career, yet I just find it difficult to know what next.

It’s often discussed how we millennials were raised with the dual expectations of continual success and personal happiness. These things seem hard to reconcile sometimes, and the way I’ve often viewed is that in my extra-curricular life I can pursue the personal part and in my job the success part. I think the lines are more blurred than that in real life. To be honest, those blurry lines are making themselves apparent everywhere and perhaps that’s the origin of some of this uncertainty.

Whether it’s the ongoing Brexit mess, the divisions over nationalism and liberalism, personal and political, everywhere it seems people are seeking certainty and security in one extreme or other. I feel caught in the middle, in the grey and blurry, both personally and politically.

In this grey place though, I think some things become clearer, even if one of those things is not the future. The really important and vital things in life become crystal clear sometimes in these circumstances. Things like community, like laughter, like family, like vulnerability. These things transcend my current quandaries and in fact help me to make sense of where I am and where I’m going.

Because that’s another interesting thing. I’ve begun to wonder if uncertainty is actually what we should expect. What we should learn to accept and even use. Uncertainty can mean that we are cautious as we don’t know quite what to expect. Gentle with others wandering through the trees with us, who are dealing with their own questions. Brave enough to make our own paths through the trees when there is no clear way forward. Patient to wait for the next thing, rather than rushing through.

Uncertainty is perhaps more real than certainty. Not that holding fast to beliefs, ideas and plans is bad, but that when you hold so tight you can’t deal with questions or challenges then maybe you’re actually cutting yourself off from others and new opportunities.

Holding fast to an expected life plan to seal your certainties similarly cuts you off from opportunities and experiences. I’ve been blessed with unexpected twists and turns, which I’m trying to learn to be thankful for and to embrace the uncertainties.

(Sort of) Arabian Nights

On a recent trip to Morocco, I read the book ‘In Arabian Nights’ by Tahir Shah.

Through this remarkable book, many of the things my friends and I were noticing about the culture we found ourselves experiencing came into focus.

Marrakesh feels like an assault on the senses. Every narrow alley and bustling square is filled with market stalls, donkeys, motorbikes, and every kind of person. From gormless tourists to hippies, traditionally dressed bedouin and berber to innumerable Moroccan traders seeking to entice everyone else into their shops crammed with goods.

It can be an uncomfortable place – squeezing through impossibly tiny spaces, having menus and goods thrust at you, not to mention the catcalling my female friends experienced. In his book, Shah talks about the formidable Moroccan women who rule the roost at home, but it’s an unpleasant realisation that many men see western women as completely different.

Interestingly, the favourite name that the sellers called at me was ‘Ali Baba.’ For a rather pasty Englishman I found this quite hilarious. Ali Baba is one of the characters that we in the West associate with the ‘One Thousand and One Nights’ – the collection of tales told through generations in the deserts of Arabia and North Africa.

In legend, these stories would be told around the campfire to keep the minds of shepherds and merchants alert as they travelled the trade routes and pilgrimage trails, all the way from Baghdad to Timbuktu. Each story is viewed as a vessel for some lesson or message, passed on from a time before writing.

The historical art of storytelling still holds sway over many in Morocco. You can see how the past in much closer to the surface in the crumbling, donkey-filled streets of Marrakesh. We are very good an sanitising our cities in Europe. In some ways, the markets of Morocco have not changed for a thousand years. The goods made and sold, the leather and metal and wood, have been made for generations.

‘In Arabian Nights’ is in part the search for the story ‘in the heart’ of the author. It is also a panorama of life in Morocco for an outsider, albeit one who speaks the language. You can see in its pages the way that superstition and stories permeate the streets of this ancient kingdom, like the sun streaming through the geometric roofs of the covered markets.

One of the highlights of our trip was a tour with a local guide to the local countryside. We visited the High Atlas mountains and the desert, rode on camels and wandered through abandoned villages. Talking with our guide, we learned about how Moroccans pride themselves on their religious tolerance, as well as their Muslim heritage. Our assumptions were challenged, even as we were acutely aware of our whiteness and foreignness.

Shah discusses the phenomenon of mass tourism in his book. How the locals are very happy for the money tourism brings, and thanks to the high value they place on hospitality, are wonderful hosts. Our riad had it’s own cook, who was one of the most wonderfully kind and caring people we met. She prepared us delicious food and copious amounts of refreshing mint tea.

I can’t help but worry that Morocco is being spoiled by tourism, yet at the same time something about the country seemed remarkably ancient and unchanged. Shah talks about ‘rivers of words’ flowing below the streets and the sands of the country, deep enough that they are untouched by the modern world. These rivers link Moroccans together and back in time to their ancestors.

The love that bonds the people to each other, to their community, and to their past, goes beyond our Western conception. It is tied up with obligation and family in a way that our individualism has turned away from. Undoubtedly their are negative aspects to this and it was very noticeable how different, often negatively, gender relations were on our short visit. Yet the bonds of love and community seemed so much stronger, so much deeper, than we experience. It got us thinking about how new our ‘western’ way of life is. How so much has changed so fast. What have we lost?

I can’t recommend this wonderful book highly enough, but you should be sure to read it in Morocco. Let the rivers of words and the ancient charm wash over you and see what you learn.

 

beauty in the ordinary, even amidst the frost and snow

I don’t know about you, but I find that it’s all too easy to close in on yourself in these wintry times. To sit around and feel small. To feel like after the feasting of Christmas, already fading into memory, that there is nothing to do but plan adventures in the far-distant summer.

That is how I feel at the moment. Like the coming weeks are merely obstacles between me and the next dose of escape from normality.

Why do I think this way? Why when I have just had a day with colleagues I love? With students I care about? Why, when I have beautiful people around me? People to eat and drink and laugh and talk with?

Looking through some pictures this evening, some good and some very ordinary, I am reminded of the generosity of community and friendship I have received. I am receiving.

I need to learn to be more grateful. To them and to God for his goodness. To recognise that beauty in the ordinary, even amidst the frost and snow.

That is my hope.

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2018 on Film

So I have finally got around to developing some film shots from 2018 and I wanted to share a few of my favourites. Shooting film has been a relatively recent development for me and I just love the excitement of seeing what you’ve got (and which shots you forgot you even took.)

Shots on Kodak Ektar 100 with my much-dropped Canon SLR.

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Obligatory shot of the Brooklyn Bridge – it doesn’t capture just how sweaty I was at this point.

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Beauties on a throne of hay

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Wood wandering with Anna in autumnal Prague.

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My favourite Father-Son duo – Jake and Sam.

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Luke & Anna

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Jessica in Summery Prague

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The Brooklyn Bridge

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Day drinking with Karly in Virginia

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With the sister at Luke & Anna’s amazing wedding

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Still wandering

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Anna & Ellie

What to Write When You Don’t Know

I enjoy writing. I really do. I like the way that we can weave these artificially constructed letters and words together to make something fun, moving, entertaining or beautiful.

That’s why I started this blog. I just wanted some incentive to write. I didn’t really know what I wanted to write about; I just thought I’d try it and see what happened.

On the whole, I have enjoyed writing about travelling and ‘growing up’ and just life. Yet recently, just having the page hasn’t been much of an incentive to write. The last post was almost six months ago.

Why haven’t I written anything in a while? Well, busyness and laziness both play their part. It’s hard to make time for something like this when life is so full that extra time feels like it has to be downtime. But I think I’ve been forgetting something I’ve written about here before – writing is restful.

Yes, being creative with words is restful for me. Creativity is vital for us all to rest, in whatever form that takes.

It’s all too easy to ‘switch-off’ and binge. Whether on food, TV or even sleep. Rest like this doesn’t reach all the way down into my centre. Doesn’t calm those stormy depths of my soul which can lead to me feeling so exhausted.

Choosing to spend an entire weekend in PJs with the TV remote is sometimes needed, but doesn’t help me to process or make-sense of all the things that are inevitably playing on my mind.

Big things like ‘where am I going?’ or ‘how can I be more fulfilled?’ and smaller things like ‘what do I need to say to them?’ or even ‘what am I going to cook this week?’

So here I am.  At my keyboard. Typing. Attempting to turn letters into something that makes sense. Trying to help my swirling thoughts attain some kind of coherence.

I need to keep reminding myself that I have a reason to write. I have thoughts that won’t leave me alone. Hurts big and small which need to be faced. Things that need to be addressed, even if it feels like chipping away at an Everest of uncertainty.

I know that writing about these things, whether publicly or privately, can help. So I’m reminding myself to try. To pick up the pen, to make time, to marshal my thoughts and my words into something that might just make sense. That might just help me to calm those stormy waters.

So if I haven’t posted anything in a while, ask me why. Remind me to try. Ask me what I’m thinking about. If I say ‘oh, I’m OK’ then press on, because I’m probably just putting off something. Aren’t we all?

Composition in Valletta

A little poem I wrote a while ago.

 

Ancient walls the canvasses

for shafts of light

and beams of sound.

 

Streets leading you

(corks under the table when necessary)

and chasing around corners.

 

Wine by the glass

more wine?

Also olive oil.

 

Naked eyes and also through a screen

sunsets witnessed and ignored.

Searching (probably for a bathroom.)

 

Have you tried the rabbit?

The mussels are good too.

Buses and horses past tables on the pavement.

 

Shrines to the fallen light the way

justice will not be silenced

they will be remembered.

 

Talk more than skin deep

listening for a while too.

Where is Malta again?

 

I’m ready for some more travelling.