5 things I learned this summer

lessons-learned-SYLVIE

It is safe to say that 2018 is not going down as one of my favourite years. But, I am mostly through all the stressful stuff and safely on the other side, and it’s a very different place to where I was in the first six months of the year. So I’m in retrospective mode, because you might as well learn when you get the chance.

The sit rep is that I finally moved into my own house nearly three weeks ago. I’ve got the cats back and they have settled in here more easily than I’ve known them settle anywhere. If anything, they’ve been more affectionate since I got them back, and Charlie is already back to his one mouse a day diet.

Today, I’m going to a business networking event to introduce myself as a ‘business coach and accountability partner’ (the LinkedIn version), which basically means ‘helping people get the right shit properly done’. I’ve done a couple of planning and prioritisation sessions with a business owner who is prepared to pay me for my time, mostly because the first session contributed directly to a big uptick in revenue for her business. I spy a case study! A few more of those and I’ve got an income…

I turned 47 last week, which seems a weird number to apply to myself but, ok. I still think, overall, this is a good time in my life.

So, what have I learned?

  1. A lot about my own resilience. That it’s not about how you are on the way down, it’s the bouncing back that counts. I had a long, slow fall for the first time in my life but the come back has been quick. I’m tougher than I thought I was, and that gives me confidence for the next time round.
  2.  This year saw several of my big fears realised and when that happened, it was manageable. Not enjoyable, but manageable. I believe that in critical thinking, nothing is off the table for discussion and re-evaluation. And yet, I have shied away from objectively assessing my relationship with my job, and my huge fear about not having somewhere to live, and let those concerns dictate my actions. Now I know that all the worst things have to be faced head on, so that they can’t come and lurk around your bed in the early hours.
  3. What comfort zone? Someone blew up the boundaries to mine and it’s been liberating. From the art nude shoot, to sending in writing samples to a magazine, to attending the networking event today, I am stepping forward in ways that I would not have done six months ago. The thing about giving fewer fucks is that it’s positively re-affirming. It’s getting to the point where I don’t even think ‘Fuck it’, I just get on with it.
  4. Rolling with the punches. Oh, this is a hard, hard lesson for me, but I realised that my control freakery is increased in times of stress. Turns out, ‘time of stress’ has been my single mode of living for I don’t even know how long, until the situation finally hit critical and was so out of my control that I had no choice but acceptance. I’m going to spend my life learning acceptance, but at least I now have a huge, flashing neon example to remind me of the benefits.
  5. Get help sooner. I lived with clinically high levels of anxiety for a long time before getting a counsellor and I don’t ever want to feel like that again. My anxiety was situational, which I knew, but I should not have relied solely upon the certainty of future change to fix things.

And, here we go. Into the last quarter of the year with a whole lot working in my favour. Maybe 2018 will redeem itself yet.

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Reveal: Robbie Williams

Something of an unlikely book for me to be listening to, given that I wasn’t ever even much of a Take That fan and I’m not particularly interested in Robbie Williams. I was aware of Reveal but I’d assumed it was the usual ghost written celeb biography/hagiography and I wouldn’t have gone near it were it not for it being picked up on Simon Mayo’s Books of the Year podcast. I’m always on the look out for long books, too, and this clocked in at 17 hours.

The book is actually written by Chris Heath, who seems to have shadowed, interviewed and had a bunch of friendly chats with Williams over more than 10 years. Although Heath does make his own stance very clear, particularly when recounting the Twitter abuse Williams gets, the book is very much warts and all. Two things become clear very quickly: First, that Robbie Williams has no filter. Despite his years in the business, his tendency is to react first and then deal with the consequences later. But secondly, that despite or because of his success, he’s a hugely polarising character and plenty of people seem to hate him just for being there. They are very happy to express their hatred, for which we all have social media to thank, without any seeming realisation that there is a person at the receiving end of the invective. That’s disturbing and probably unhealthy and I’m sure studies are being done on the way that internet anonymity intensifies force of expression, and I’m equally sure that the results will tie in with those famous torture studies. Net result – people suck, unless they are very watchful of themselves.

Add to that the consistent and deliberately negative misrepresentation by the press, and there is absolutely no way Williams can win. His choice is either to work very hard at crafting a press friendly personality that then has to be maintained 100% of the time. Or just to carry on being himself as much as possible.

So I found Reveal very interesting, although less because of Williams himself and more because of the insight given into the damage that fame, money and the press can do to someone. In this case, particularly if that someone started as a 16 year old with pre-existing depressive and insecure tendencies. The book goes up to about 2016, by which time Williams is describing himself as agoraphobic. If this were an allegory, it would be one at which people could nod wisely and note the irony in being a hugely successful pop icon who yet prefers not to leave his own estate. But that’s his life, and if I had that kind of money and faced that kind of relentless scrutineering and abuse I wouldn’t go outside either. In fact, I would reinforce the bars of my gilded cage with something a whole lot stronger than gold, hire bodyguards with a zero tolerance policy and become a complete recluse. All of which means that I simply could not do the job that is ‘being famous’.

Fame just looks like an absolute nightmare, a game that is played with loaded dice. Robbie Williams is just a regular bloke, except with such incalculably huge insecurities that none of the markers of success manage to weigh in the balance against them. He loves his wife, he loves his kids. He falls out with people, his weight fluctuates, he’s a songwriter even during the period when he thinks he’s retired from the game. After making it through his wild years, about his only remaining vice is smoking. I lost track in the narrative but I actually think he quit that too. His job is to make music but it’s every single aspect of his life that is continually judged and usually found wanting.

There were times when I had to stop listening, usually when Heath was listing the troll comments Williams gets on social media. Experiencing the abuse third hand was overwhelming. The other eye-opening moments were when Heath unpicked various media storms. We all know that the tabloids are purely exploitative and will never let the truth get in the way of a damning story. Turns out, it’s not just the tabloids – everyone will run with the dominant narrative. So the take aways for me from this book were that I need to re-evaluate my own relationship with social media, and with the press in general.

As for the famous, it’s a reminder that they give us their talent. They don’t owe us their lives. As Neil Gaiman put it ‘G RR Martin is not your bitch.’

 

In which I discover podcasts

Yes, indeedy, cutting edge as ever. Next up, I discover Netflix. (Not necessary, the BBC currently has all of the last 10 seasons of Dr Who on iPlayer, so who has time for anything else when you can re-run David Tennant?) But while I was packing up all my belongings prior to moving, I wasn’t in the mood for music, had run out of audiobooks and couldn’t face daytime radio. And so, podcasts it was. Mr W, looking at you now you finally have a smartphone.

  1. My gateway drug to podcasts was, of course, The Archers Omnibus. It is an objective of mine to get back to spending 75 minutes faffing about on Sunday mornings, to the gentle accompaniment of The Archers. In the meantime, the podcasts serve me very well indeed. Will Brine and Jenny Dahling really sell Home Farm? Will Kate ever get her head out of her arse? Is Fallon really going to marry PC Plod? And who will win the Talented Pets competition at the annual Village Show? (For American readers who are not Mr W – I’m not making this up. The Archers laughs in the face of your so called long running soap operas.)
  2. Mrs Brightside – Susan Calman and comedian friends slash guests talking about depression, anxiety, mental health issues and often, how completely mad the Edinburgh Fringe is. If ever a podcast landed at the right time it was this one, because I started listening when my anxiety was at its absolute peak. It’s funny, insightful and incredibly down to earth about the issues suffered by the various guests and Susan herself.
  3. So I daringly branched out even further into Radio 4 territory and on to Front Row. This is R4’s week night arts review show, and it covers everything from 17th century play revivals to grime. The presenters are just as likely to enjoy Mamma Mia! 2 as the latest literary darling, and they venture beyond the M25, so I find it likeably ecumenical. Plus, I’ve developed an intellectual crush on Stig Abell.
  4. Which crush led me to the TLS podcast, Freedom, Books, Flowers & The Moon, because it turns out good old Stig is editor at the TLS. I can only assume the title of the show is a literary reference I just don’t get. If not, it’s a collection of Good Things One is Generally In Support Of.  I listened to their summer books special, and to an ad hoc episode of Stig Abell and that bloke who is the literary editor of The Spectator discussing why Lee Child’s Reacher novels are so good.
  5. Simon Mayo’s Books of the Year podcast is something he launched when the books bit got axed (boo!) from the revamped drive time show (which, separately, I’m not loving. Nothing against Jo Wiley, just it’s not working for me. Also, why axe the books bit? Fools). The podcasts are every two weeks, hosted by Simon and sports guy Matt. They’re only three in so far, but the pattern is two authors and two books each time, one fiction and one non-fiction. This gives the authors plenty of time to talk about their books. My sense is that Simon Mayo is pretty well liked and appreciated in the literary world and so far he’s been getting some great guests: Lynda La Plante, Robbie Williams, Louis de Bernieres. I’ve picked up a few recommendations for the TBR list (D B John, Star of the North) and I’m currently listening to Robbie Williams: Reveal on audio, which I guarantee wouldn’t have happened otherwise. So far, Simon Mayo is resisting being interviewed about his own recent novel (Mad Blood Stirring), but I think I’ll buy it out of sheer gratitude.

Of course, all this merry podcast listening goes to fuck when I hand back the Merc with its useful built in Bluetooth. My new car, which I really won’t be able to identify in a line up, does not have Bluetooth. But it’s cheap, not in negative equity and has room for both cats at the same time! 

I’ll fit Bluetooth.

 

 

London anti-Trump march

Well, shudder. Offer me London in the heat to join a huge crowd of people and I’d usually hide in a dark corner. But at the moment, if you’re a sane and normal person who doesn’t hate basically everyone who isn’t a Nazi or a dictator, then Trump is a lightning rod. One giant orange symbol standing for anti-climate change, anti-refugees, anti-immigration, Islamophobia, racism, sexism, lies, violence, bigotry of every stripe, misogyny… The list goes on and on, even longer than the march.

So, I was there. Not part of a Corbyn ‘rent a mob’ as the right wing gutter press will have it. No one offered to pay me and Corbyn is fucking useless. Just an individual, joining up with a lot of other individuals, because we’re really angry now and we’ve had enough.

People, and women in particular, are not supposed to be angry. Anger is so negative, so uncontrollable. But what, then are we allowed to feel? What is considered appropriate? Because I am angry about Brexit. I am angry about Trump. I am angry that May simpers at Trump (and for the love of all the gods, woman, find either a dress that fits or a fucking tailor. Michelle Obama could probably help if you ask nicely.) I am angry that we have no political leadership or opposition in this country, rendering me disenfranchised. I am angry that I wrote ‘we’ve had enough’, knowing full well that there is more to come and little to be done about it.

So I marched. Because, despite the rage and the fury, I’m not the sort of person who breaks windows or chains themselves to railings.

Yet.

Trump Putin
A picture tells a thousand words

 

Not our cup of tea

The queen thinks you're a twat
Not just the queen.

The finger

 

 

 

 

Seals!

I went camping for the weekend. We thought that S needed her spare room back for guests, and I desperately wanted to see the sea. I felt guilty spending the money but I bought a tent and a cheap camping stove and reasoned it was the most cost effective way of achieving a quick holiday. I decided on Norfolk because after blasting through all of Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway series earlier in the year, I’ve been wanting to see salt marshes. I booked a camping pitch for £15 a night, checked the weather and was hugely relieved to see it looked several degrees cooler at the coast.

As it was a back to basics weekend, I navigated via road atlas, which actually worked pretty well. I just needed to remember the names of the key destinations and road numbers along the way: Evesham (A46) – Stratford – Warwick – Coventry (M6) – Thrapston (A605) – Peterborough (A14) – Wisbech – King’s Lynn (A169) – Cromer. In this age of Satnav, does anyone still plan their route any more? When I can, I like to make the journey part of the trip rather than just a means to an end. This was not the prettiest route but there’s a kind of magic to a list of unfamiliar place names. Now I have the geography of another part of the country roughly laid out in my head for when I need it again. It also meant that I could listen to Everyone Brave is Forgiven without Siri interrupting me.

The heat has been so oppressive around here that when I stepped out of the car into a breeze, I barely recognised it. Suddenly, the sunshine was beneficent again. Plus, I love being on my own in places where no one knows me. It’s like being invisible and you just know you aren’t going to have to talk to anyone at a level beyond the transactional for days. I don’t know if that’s an introvert thing, but I find it really relaxing. After 5 hours of travelling, I was reinvigorated.

Even so, there’s not a lot to be done with Cromer, but I found the second hand bookshop and the first two Dalziel and Pascoe novels. Reginald Hill has been on my TBR list since I heard Mick Herron recommend him at the Oxford Literary Festival.

I’ve been camping plenty of times, but never on my own before. And tents are a lot easier these days but still come with exactly the sort of instructions that make no sense to me whatsoever. I had one tricky moment, then I figured it out and suddenly, I had a sturdy blue bolthole for the weekend! After which, I was overcome with laziness and decided to settle in with the default camping foods: Dairylea slices, bread rolls, red wine. I hung my torch up in the tent and read A Clubbable Woman. 

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My tent was definitely the smallest on site. Even the guy on the motorbike had a pop up tent that was bigger.

Now, admittedly an air mattress might have made sleep a more comfortable proposition, but it was ok for a couple of nights. Besides which, there was coffee. That little camping stove was amazing. I mean yes, it took a while to boil a litre of water, but it got there. And it was a gorgeous morning, so I was happy to wait.

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That was Dunkin’ Donuts coffee that S brought me back from the US.

Since it wasn’t a thousand degrees, I’d decided I’d try walking from Holkham Beach to Wells-next-the-Sea. The website said it would be a couple of hours each way, but I thought I could pick up the Peddar’s Way for the route back and get some shade in the pine trees.

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Holkham

Holkham Beach was a sight to lift the heart. I paddled all the way to Wells and there were barely any people. Turned out, they were all at Wells. By the time I got there and remembered why it’s called Wells-next-the-Sea not Wells-on-Sea, that last mile inland nearly broiled me. I bailed on the walk back and got the bus instead. Peddar’s Way will have to wait for next time.

Empty beaches were a theme. But I was warned by the locals that out of term time, everywhere gets mobbed and is horrible, so I guess I was lucky with my timing. This was Sheringham beach, I got in and out on Sunday morning ahead of their world record attempt for the largest number of Morris Dancers in one place at the same time. Shudder. I had idly wondered why I kept seeing lone Morris Dancers around.

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I don’t even remember where this one was (Cley?) but only a few miles away up the coast from Holkham, the sand shifted to shingle.

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Sunday was all about the seals, though. I was expecting a pleasant boat trip and maybe a few seal heads bobbing around in the sea at a distance. I’d booked my boat trip with Ptarmigan, based on nothing more than picking up their leaflet at the shop on the campsite.

They were great, one of the smaller boat trip companies so we had to wait for several boat loads of Bean’s Boat Trips to get out of the way first. But the boats all take the same route out to Blakeney Point – thankfully not open sea because I get seasick really easily. Not that I can tell port from starboard but I like boats and the seasickness banishes all Patrick O’Brien induced fantasies of sailing holidays, or even any kind of long trip. I barely made it to Block Island.

Ptarmigan’s was a traditional clinker built boat, and the guide pointed out various other, locally built boats as we headed out to the seals. Blakeney used to be a major shipping harbour in the Middle Ages and was still going through to the 19th century. Now it’s heavily silted up and there’s just one commercial shipping boat, which goes after crab and lobster.

And then, seals! There are a couple of colonies of common seals and grey seals, so maybe 2,000-3,000 seals. They weren’t afraid of the boats, they were curious, but they kept their distance.

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Grey seals in the water could disappear as soon as they went under, even though it wasn’t that deep. They merged with the shadows.

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The grey seals are darker and have the longer faces, ‘like Labradors’ our guide said.

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After all that, I got home sunburnt, salty, tired and incredibly relaxed. Bring on more camping, more Norfolk and more seals.

Tough times, strong women

Time is a little bit blurry for me at the moment, but the fact that we’re now in July means that I’ve been at S’s house for about 10 days. Wow. Which at least is enough time for some dust to settle. Life persists in feeling surreal, though, so I think I might still be in some kind of shock. I’m aware of waiting for life to get back to normal, so I have to keep reminding myself that this is the new normal.

What I’ve learned, or rather, been reminded of, is that when the going gets tough, it is the strong women in your life who you fall back on. For the practical stuff, for the pep talks, for the wine, the doughnuts and the kick up the arse to get out of the house or do some yoga. So it’s my sister who says ‘Don’t be stupid, of course you’ll get another job and in the meantime you could do this, and this, and this…’ It’s my friend S who cleared out her spare room, set up the air mattress, made space in the closet and the fridge and the freezer, and made dinner –  and all that on the day she got back from the US after an overnight flight and a painful journey home. It’s the friend who, amid her own crazy work and family life, makes time to call and check in on me; and the friend who said ‘If you need me, I will get on a ‘plane.’

These are the women who are keeping my head above the water, and I know damn well that I’m lucky.

Meanwhile, in the latest dramatic switchback on the hurtling coastal road of life, the house is back on. Well, maybe. I had a couple of conversations with my vendors, who have found a new house to buy and are pretty sure it can all happen by the end of July. That is the cut off point I’ve set, and if all goes tits up again, I will walk away and back to the grim world of renting. For now, it’s a holding pattern.

Which means, the cats are now in their second cattery. This is far and away the worst part of this whole life collapse business. I don’t care how luxurious a cattery is and how much people claim their cats settle down, it’s jail for kittens. I saw Belle and Charlie in their last, lovely, spacious place, where I know they were being well looked after by great people. Charlie would barely come out of his box, both of them were jumpy and wide eyed at every sudden noise. It breaks me to see them and it breaks me not to see them and I will never get over the guilt.

There are jobs to be applied for and some recruiters are calling. There is a certain kind of freedom and luxury in stepping away from the position of ‘Well, I earn x so I don’t see how I could work for less than y’ to ‘If I earn z then I’m covered.’ I’m lucky here, too, in that as my identity isn’t bound up in holding a certain professional position or earning a certain amount, any which way I can cover my costs will be fine by me. I’ve stacked shelves in a store before, and I’ve also been in meetings that are way more boring than that. Thank goodness for savings, though. I can hold the wolf from the door until the end of the year, and if I have to I will fucking kill and skin the wolf, the cats can eat him and we’ll all huddle together in a wolfskin.

So that’s a plan, right?

In which I do not have a home

Last week, when I started packing boxes for the move, it was tiring but it was also exciting. Because the boxes needed labelling as to which room they were destined for in my house, and so I had that image in my head of the unpacking and the sorting and the arranging. After months of waiting, my own place was finally in reach.

Now, I’m finishing the packing and I don’t know where the boxes will go. On Monday, the chain collapsed. One of the vendors further down the line doesn’t even have their mortgage approved; my vendors decided not to go ahead with the sale. While this saved me a decision, it also crash landed my hopes and wrecked the day dreams that have basically gotten me through the last few months. I had a lot riding on that house, and I am bereft of that vision of my future, of my own home.

On Tuesday, I had a conversation with my manager in which I negotiated my exit from my job. (I’ve just realised that was yesterday, but time seems particularly fluid at the moment.) I’ll take a few days to wrap things up, some paid vacation time and then three months’ paid gardening leave. It will see me through to October, and in the moments when I’m not panicking I think it must be perfectly possible to find a job, any job within that timescale.

Also on Tuesday, I took a lunch hour and spent it sitting in my car, phoning letting agents and trying to book appointments to see rentals at the weekend. The usual conversations ensued: ‘No, the landlord won’t accept pets’, ‘Oh, I’m really sorry we’ve just had references back on that one’, ‘Well, we’ve got four viewings on that today so I think it’ll be gone by the weekend’. And so the whole, tedious process began.

Then I came home to a half empty house because A had moved out. Odd how a half empty house can seem emptier than one that is fully vacant. I suppose because what is missing is emphasised.

Today I tricked the cats into their carriers and took them to the cattery. We all cried, until I realised that I would absolutely never forgive myself if I had an accident and they got hurt, and so pulled myself together. I don’t know when they’ll be coming home or where home will be.

If I could pack myself away in one of the boxes, I would. It would be dark, and cosy and safe. It would be time stolen from time, and I would just sleep, dreamlessly.