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.

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

img_0850

img_0827

img_0795

img_0806

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?

Breakfast with Holly

“You call yourself a free spirit, a “wild thing,” and you’re terrified somebody’s gonna stick you in a cage. Well baby, you’re already in that cage. You built it yourself. And it’s not bounded in the west by Tulip, Texas, or in the east by Somali-land. It’s wherever you go. Because no matter where you run, you just end up running into yourself.”

You know the situation, we’ve all been there.

You’ve just been let out of the police station on suspicion of passing messages from a convicted mobster in jail, but rather than staying safely put you decide to take a flight to Rio with the ticket your Brazilian not-quite-fiance gave you, even though your not-quite-fiance has just broken it off, owing to the aforementioned crime. Hmmm.

Not really the most universal of experiences is it?

This is one of the climactic scenes of the classic film version of Truman Copote’s ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s.’ A film, that for me, has always been overshadowed by the undeniably iconic performance Audrey Hepburn gives as Holly Golightly. When I recently decided to watch the film for the first time, pretty much on a whim, I was expecting an experience of style over substance, really just interested in ticking the film off my list. I was pleasantly surprised therefore when I was struck by the timeliness of the film and the thoughtful questions it poses about how we view our lives and relationships.

If you don’t know the film, a brief summary of the plot is as follows. Holly Golightly is a good time girl living in New York, ‘a phony’ perhaps but a good one. She parties the week away in her sparsely furnished flat, with an adopted stray cat named ‘cat’ (because why should she name a cat that she doesn’t own?) The plot revolves around her pursuit of rich suitors, with the aim of being able to provide for her younger brother Fred who is about to get out the army. It is also about her life intersecting with her neighbour, writer, kept man and possible gigolo, Paul Varjak.

What struck me most when watching the film is just how modern the story seemed. When I say modern, I mean how relevant the questions it poses are. While we may not have the glamour and charm of Audrey Hepburn, we all face questions about the future. We all have to think about how we view ourselves and our relationships. Holly is confronted with her fear of being caged, changed against her will, by entering into a loving relationship. She is held back by her fear in a way that so many in my generation seem to be all the time, myself included.

We look to the future and see bright possibilities, if not rich suitors then new jobs and relationships we might gain. We feel that our lives have not really started, extending adolescence well into our thirties, always looking for that opportunity that will make us suddenly truly ‘grown up.’ We complain about the mundanities of ‘adulting,’ seeking to be wild and crazy to avoid responsibility, while also having a desire for stability and a longing for ‘normality’ in one form or another. We fear making the wrong decision, anticipating future regrets before we’ve even done anything.

Like Holly, we are presented with a dizzying array of entertainments and distractions, an endless stream of possibilities for our future. Like moths fluttering between flames, we are drawn hither and thither by the different future lives and future selves we might have or become.

In my case, I know that I am torn between desires for my future. Desires for relationships, for home, for dreamed of careers and wealth, and for stability. I often find myself thinking thoughts along the line of ‘when will my life begin?’ The decision about where to live has taken up a lot of my thinking, as I know that my instinct is often to move on, looking for new places and experiences. This desire is tempered by another thought along the lines of ‘staying is good.’ I worry about making the wrong decision and fear the consequences in a way that is honestly irrational.

Holly Golightly seems to have a similar struggle at the heart of her character; stay or keep running. Commit or flit away. In her case, it takes a decisive intervention for her to see that staying put might be the best decision, for her to see that she can stay and still be the joyful, fun-loving person she has been for the whole film. In her case, she also sees that a loving relationship doesn’t have to be a cage. That she can be free and honest with another in a way she never could be with her rich suitors. A danger of always moving on to the next thing is that our relationships become increasingly shallow.

All these swirling ideas, dreams and goals that we experience all the time can become, like they did for Holly, a cage we build for ourselves. We can end up tripping up as we stumble from one thing to the next. We nave no roots or even fear becoming too attached to where we are. While holding out bright hopes for our futures we are actually overcome with fear of failing. Of making the wrong choice.

Like Holly, I am glad to have people around me (though not currently any writer/gigolos) who tell it like it is. Who see me and my dreams, encouraging and cautioning me. Pushing me to stay, pushing me to go, reminding me of the bigger picture. That is what Holly needed and it’s what we all need.

We are a generation brought up to believe we can do anything, be anybody, see everything. Yet we are also a generation with unprecedented levels of anxiety for ourselves and for the future. We need people in our lives who can put this self-belief and this fear into perspective, helping us to live lives free from fear.

We need to remember that making ‘sensible decisions’ can be joyful and freeing, just as making crazy choices can be liberating and exhilarating. We should make sure that we have people around us who can wisely push in either direction.

#Goals

So I’ve left school.

Graduated university.

Started and finished my first job.

Moved to a new city.

Visited most of the places (in Europe, at least) that I want to go.

What next? What now?

I often feel like I’m just strolling (or sometimes hobbling) onward down the path of my twenties, with my thirties looming large on the horizon, without much thought of where I’m going. I’m progressing in my career, but am not especially upwardly mobile at this point, enjoying life with friends and community which comes and goes, and reading a seemingly ever-growing wishlist of books; yet I often don’t seem to be very good at choosing and meeting new goals for myself.

It’s very easy when you’re a teenager. Your goals are to go to university, to get a good job, to go travelling or to just start out on your own. Once you reach thirty however, it seems like many of those goals have been achieved/don’t matter so much anymore. Sure, there are so many things that I want or wish for my future, but choosing specific things to work towards is hard when the options seem so broad.

For someone in my position, who is essentially still untethered, the question of what to do and where to go just seems impossibly open and the future hard to see. What is easier to see, easier to focus on, are those smaller, more achievable goals that I can set for myself.

Perhaps to get really good at making that one thing I love to make. I’ve got scones down, but what else can I learn to bake?

Or improving my photography skills; something that has brought me lots of joy recently.

Watching or reading that thing that everyone is talking about. The Handmaid’s Tale has proved particularly engaging and terrifying to me.

How about pro-actively making a new friend or working on that friendship that has proved difficult?

Even signing up for a 10k. This proved very motivational for me – and I even got a medal at the end of it. It’s rare as an adult that you are rewarded for your effort in such a concrete way, but the feeling of achievement and success certainly made the training worth while.

The feeling of achieving a goal, of getting slowly better at something or completing the task that you set yourself, is a positive and self-esteem growing feeling. Even as my future remains somewhat nebulous and uncertain, I know that I am better able to navigate the road when I set myself goals, big and small, to achieve along the way. Small successes remind me that I am growing, changing and still learning. I may not be in my twenties for much longer, but I pray that I will keep on learning and growing during all the years ahead.

All the light we can see

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” John 1:5

I love the light.

I love how it transforms things all around us.

How flowers bloom in the sunlight, brightening the grey streets and bare trees, reminding me that Spring is truly on the way.

How sunlight, even through closed windows, makes me feel warm in a way quite unlike anything else.

How it transforms everything it touches.

How it makes me feel like I just want to hit the beach (even when it’s March and I’m in a land-locked country.)

How fireworks turn darkness into a canvas for awe and wonder.

How light enables us to capture images of beauty, wherever we are, whether it’s people we love, things that make us laugh, or incredible natural wonders.

How the sunrise represents a brand new start, a new hope, a new opportunity to experience God’s goodness.

I was reminded of this viscerally while celebrating Christ’s resurrection at dawn this Easter Sunday. As the sun rose over Letná Park, the rays broke through the trees (and eventually the fog) to flood the city with myriad shades of light. Even though we were all shivering, the sheer wonder of the vistas opening before us were cause for great joy. Just as Jesus is victorious over darkness and death, darkness we are constantly reminded of in these times of fear, the dawn is victorious over the darkness every single morning.

Even if the view isn’t as spectacular as it was in the park, the dawn is inevitable.

Even when we lie awake full of anxiety and fear, the dawn is inevitable.

Even if the darkness feels so deep and so long, like a winter night, the dawn is inevitable.

Christ has risen. The darkness is defeated. The light I can see reminds me of this. It reminds me to love boldly and fiercely, it reminds me to laugh, it reminds me to cry with those in pain. It gives me hope. The dawn is coming and the darkness cannot overcome it.

The dawn is all the more amazing after the dark and cold nights of winter, just as the great dawn to come should seem sweeter in these dark times of fear and hurt. May I remember that when the sunlight isn’t shining. May we all.

As Spring truly takes hold and the days are more filled with beauty and wonder, as the trees blossom and the beach calls, I pray that I remember the wonder of dawn on that cold morning. How the darkness was defeated, how it gave me hope.

Time to be

  • Mark those maths books
  • Check those emails
  • Grab a cuppa
  • Research flights
  • Make some slides for a science lesson
  • Cook something healthy
  • Arrange a catch up or 3
  • Write a blog post
  • Do the ironing
  • Etc

Who doesn’t love a good list?

They are undeniably satisfying to cross things off from. Sadly, there’s always something new to add. Sometimes I wonder whether all of these self-organisation apps, these good ideas for being more organised, serve to make me more organised at all, or whether they just draw attention to my lack of organisation. Surely they shouldn’t serve to increase my stress? I’m beginning to think something needs to be done.

I’m thinking of, in a crazy and reckless manner, abandoning my list making ways  and risking that (shock!) I may forget something once in a while. I may forget the odd bit or bob, but I will be able to make more time for that person who needs to chat. I may forget to buy more pasta or loo roll, but I will be able to take time to read one of the many books I am looking forward to. I might not reply to that text as quickly, but I will hopefully be freed from being anxious about needing to reply quickly.

Maybe I will be able to think of time less as space to fit all my tasks into, but as space to be. To be who I am. To be me enjoying God and his goodness. Sure, to be me doing the stuff I need to do as well. But also feeling free to change it up. Free from the to-do list.

It seems lots of people struggle with feeling guilty about taking time to just ‘be.’ It would be easy to think; ‘How could I waste all that time?!’ ‘Think of all the things I could be doing!’ I feel that way sometimes. But I have also come to feel freed and able to spend time doing something I enjoy, even if that doesn’t look very productive. Truth be told, it’s probably not going to be productive at all. But that’s good! We aren’t supposed to be productive all the time, and I know I’m more diligent and productive in my job when I’ve had real downtime.

So when was the last time you had time to be? Just be. I encourage you to give it a go. Switch your phone off first.