Less is More

In Your PrimeI used to be a New Year’s Resolution person but slowly came to the realisation that I’m not terribly good at keeping a list of instructions over a twelve month period. I was a little like going to confession as a child – I always had the same things on the list and I probably thought about them to the same extent.

A few years ago, I began my devotion to Gretchen Rubin and her Happiness Project. I followed the blog and then ate her books whole. She’s very true to herself – one of her commandments is “Be Gretchen” – as well as practical and descriptive in her books. She explains what she actually does rather than encouraging you to find your own way without concrete examples.

Gretchen isn’t one for resolutions either, but a new motto for each year. A guiding principle to the year. Ideally just a word. Previously I used YES or BRAVE or BETTER and found them very helpful.

This year, having thought about it quite hard, my motto is three words: Less Is More

This came about over Christmas. I was on a bus in Belfast on my way to do some Christmas shopping. The bus was filled with women on their way into Belfast to do some Christmas shopping and we were all contributing to the general conversation (this is quite a Belfast thing. I didn’t know any of these women) and we were all saying that we were going into town to “get some bits.”

We’d all bought presents, but were about to buy more things to put into the pile of presents for people. We were buying MORE. I am not physically capable of purchasing ONE thing for a person. Not entirely sure what that’s about, but if I buy an expensive thing for someone, I will add “silly little things” alongside. My friends and I exchange piles of gifts – this year we either scratched gifts or instigated a budget and it was supremely helpful – all lovely things, but not always necessary. If you took one of the things away from the pile, it wouldn’t detract from the joy of receiving the gift.

Last year, doing my accountability project with Fee I noticed that I spend a good chunk of change on “little things” for people. Growing up my mom demonstrated her affection through gifts and I’ve clearly absorbed that. The more things I give you, the more I love you. And yet it’s also a little bit sneaky. Socially, it’s a lot harder – or less acceptable, perhaps – to be annoyed by someone who has given you a gift. It’s one of the reasons why a bunch of flowers tends to fast-track the acceptance of an apology. You look ungrateful if you stay angry despite them and the emotional weight in that situation shifts. I’d like to not feel like I’m bribing friends to like me, which they would be horrified to think.

Anyway, I thought about spending less to better demonstrate my love for people. If I give you a CD that I think you will love, it makes more impact than if I give you a CD, a pair of socks, a bar of chocolate and five lipbalms. I will spend less to give more.

This extrapolated outwards to more things. I would do less to achieve more – both in my social life, my work life and my home life. I would eat less to enjoy more. I would buy fewer things to appreciate what I have or did buy. I would spend better time with friends by not rushing around and trying to cram everything in. I would eat less junk to appreciate the deliciousness of it when I did (mmm, pork scratchings!). I would do less in my day so that I could sleep more.

I have a whole issue with being busy constantly and then crashing when I just can’t take on any more. When I don’t have enough sleep I get a migraine and my anxiety shoots through the roof. I feel hassled and annoyed even though I am doing interesting things and spending time with my favourite people. That is a ridiculous luxury problem to have and one I know I am lucky to be able to have at all. But it’s still a problem, and one only I can solve for myself.

And so, this January I have made many many To Do lists. And I have made a point of taking two things off each list. Things I am not going to do and won’t feel badly about. I want very much to send thank you cards to my ski instructors, but I have accepted this is something a crazy person would do and taken those off the list. They know I was grateful because I told them at the time. sending them post would be weird.

I’ve also made lists of my stockpiles and come up with alternate plans for them:

– the many moisturisers and toiletries I bought (on offer!) over the last few months have been donated to a women’s refuge. Now I don’t feel hassled by them languishing unused and someone else benefits.

– the Christmas chocolates I hoarded for a “fun night in with a box set” have been shared at work because there simply aren’t enough nights available to munch them before they expire (plus, the amount of candy I hoard is verging on criminal).

– the to-watch list on my iPlayer list has been decimated when I deleted McMafia and Hard Sun. I didn’t actively enjoy or look forward to watching either and life is TOO short. Silent Witness stays because I genuinely want to know what happens next, rather than feeling I should watch it because it’s a cultural touchstone.

 

I’m trying to fill my days with shorter bursts of things that are worthwhile – to me – now. I don’t watch two episodes of House of Cards, barely paying attention because I’m on Instagram, having dinner and sorting my calendar – I’ll watch one episode, thoroughly enjoy it and then either go to bed so I can have more energy for the next day or spend twenty minutes organising myself so I am less stressed later. If I can’t walk five miles in a day, have dinner and get enough sleep, I’ll walk around the park at lunch time and listen to a podcast. It’s an hour, it’ll do. It’s plenty. It’s more because it’s less.

It’s not particularly startling, but I find that it works for me. I can’t do or be everything. I can only do what I actually can. I’m doing less, but I’m doing more.

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20160329_110457At the moment I am struggling somewhat with messiness and procrastination. If I really sit and think about it, I’m afraid. I’m afraid of all the things that are going to change in the next few months, so I’m just not going to think about them. I’m also not going to think about anything else. Or rather, I shall think about everything, all at once, all at the same time.

I am utterly swamped in junk at the moment. In my office at work, I have an L-shaped desk. My stuff is all over that desk. No matter how often I corral the pens together and put them back in the designated pot, there are always at least three on the desk. I have also spread my stuff across the two other desks in the office that aren’t technically mine, but *are* available. And I have two tote bags on a chair and three large boxes – full of things! – under a desk and a chair. At home, my Crap Box (you know, the box you throw things into that you either Have To Deal With or don’t have a place, yet somehow don’t deserve to have a place made for them?) has exploded into two designated Crap Boxes and a Crap Tray and a Pile O’ Crap.

And then there are The Lists. If I’m not sweeping junk into boxes or rearranging piles of papers, I’m making lists – on my phone, in a notebook, on a random page, on a post-it that is never big enough, on the back of my hand. If I don’t write it down, I’ll forget it. If I do write it down, I have to highlight it or else I’ll not notice it. So now everything is scrawled and highlighted and I still become distracted and all over the place and I’m overwhelmed and suddenly I’m doing a Buzzfeed quiz about what kind of potato I am based on the shape of my belly button lint or some such nonsense.

It’s all very irritating.

It’s all very predictable.

In November, Fritz and I got engaged in Paris. It was lovely, we’re very happy.

And now the next stage starts. The stage where I have to pack up my life and move to Germany and be Me In Munich. And it took me so long to work out who Me in London is. So long.

I procrastinate and I awful-ise. I was in a business meeting the other day with a German chap and the whole way through I could only be jealous of his language skills. How fluent his English was, how his accent was Upper Class and he had business jargon at the end of his tongue. If anything, his English was probably better than mine. My German is nowhere near that level. And my brain automatically shifts from “his second language skills are better than mine” to “you’ll never get a job in Munich, you’ll never be able to hold your own in a conversation and you’ll hate all of it and ruin everything.”

There’s an episode of Buffy in which Giles tells her not to jump to conclusions and she replies “I didn’t jump. I took a tiny step and there conclusions were.”

I remind myself of that often.

I am also incredibly well aware that the only way to improve my language skills is to use my language skills and to actually make an effort. Obviously, I don’t want to because then I’ll realise JUST HOW HARD I will have to work and I’m beginning to think I’m quite lazy.

On top of all the moving-to-Germany-to-be-unemployed-and-friendless-forever is the realisation that I will have to plan a wedding. A wedding in another country. And I don’t know how to do that either. I don’t know how to do that in the UK, but I feel that Google could help me. For some reason I don’t think the same of Germany, which is ridiculous because people plan weddings in Germany every day and they certainly use Google as much as we do.

Plus, I’ll have to move house! Moving is the worst!

I know, I really do know, that everything will be fine. Life must move forward, change is inevitable. All new things are opportunities. My immediate future has many new challenges and opportunities for growth and development and fresh starts.

I’d wanted to write here about my new motto for the year: LESS IS MORE, but I’ve to run for a flight. I’m going skiing again. Who would have thought I’d be a “person who skis”? I mean, I’m not – not by a long shot – but maybe the Me in Munich is a person who might ski.

Or at least wear a ski jacket.

Things to do when you’re Anxious, if you’re me.

Life moves Pretty FastAnxiety is a tricksy bugger. At times it seems so normal that it sneaks in beside stress and picks away at you until you’re an empty shell of anxious and hadn’t noticed until it’s too late and you’re crying that your pen just ran out.

When I am busy, or tired or worried or stressed, anxiety likes to walk with me and be helpful. I makes me jittery and wired, which, at first, is great for banging out tasks and staying up late to be productive. But eventually it leads to indecision and doubt and distraction and a constantly vibrating thrumming feeling in my chest even when I’m trying to relax. It’s thinking about things to do next month when I’ve particularly set aside twenty minutes to read or watch tv so as to NOT think about my current to do list.

I know how to recognise my anxiety a little faster now. Not all the time, but often. I know that I can’t make it go away. I’m an anxious person who suffers from anxiety and pretending I am not is helping no one. What I can do is try to manage it. When I can see that anxiety has a grip on me like a too tight sweaty itchy jumper, I try one of these:

– lying down on the floor for ten minutes and just not moving. It feels like torture to be thinking and not doing, but it gives my body an actual rest in an usual place which is mildly distracting. Even if it does make me need to hoover the moment I stand up.

– putting on a stand-up show while I buzz about and do things on my To Do list. Hearing someone else’s voice and humour distracts me from having second or third thoughts about my decisions. It also makes me laugh, which is more important than I would have expected. I like to listen to the same shows again and again. The wordy clever ones with minimal visuals. I like to hear one person talk for a solid hour. I also like to listen to the Six Music podcasts of Jon Richardson & Russell Howard because they are so wonderfully balanced. Jon is grumpy and curmudgeonly while Russell is enthusiastic and ridiculous. Russell Howard once described his mum as “not the full tambourine” and l just love that.

– walking quickly along the river while listening to loud music. The light on the river soothes my eyes and rests my head while my body is physical and productive. The music distracts me from the endless repetitive thoughts and takes me out of my brain.

– sitting on my bed in the dark watching a fun story dvd. The bed supports my whole weight, so my body rests. The dark prevents me from doing anything else. The story dvd is usually a comedy or a crime drama and it commands my whole attention. A lot of people put a lot of time and effort and heart into making this story. It would be rude of me to only pay half of my attention. I light candles for the scent and the atmosphere and immerse myself.

– eating a lot of carbs. When I’m anxious it is really hard to make and stick to a decision – even about what to eat of an evening. That’s when I have to take away the decisions and focus on one thing at a time. To watch potatoes boil and mash them, to chop a stack of vegetables and make lasagne with its many layers, to bake a cake and not do the dishes, some laundry and download four podcasts at the same time. To eat something warm and filling and just for me.

– saying a mantra reminding myself I am safe and that the to do list has no impact on who loves me or how they love me. Anxiety can feel like panic. And panic lies. Panic tells you that everything is life or death and that the wrong decision or action is fatal. I try to play Worst Case Scenario and see how bad it could possibly be. Logically, I know it won’t be terrible, but emotionally it does not feel like that. I try to connect my logic and my emotions by saying the words out loud.

– having a gimlet and singing along to some Beyonce. She’s powerful and takes no prisoners while being fun and vulnerable. The gimlet knocks me on the head and lets me try and be silly for a half hour.

– painting my nails. It takes a lot of concentration because I am clumsy. I choose a red and I watch it deepen with coats. I glide a top coat on over that and wonder how to get the colour out of the brush. And then I have to either sit still or only type for an hour or else I will smudge my work. Throughout the day, I notice the coloured fingertips and remind me that I am worth a little bit of colour and attention.

– finding a cat and stroking it utnil it becomes bored or threatens to follow me home. Fur therapy is excellent. I miss having a cat so much that I am quite the crazy cat lady out and about. Luckily, the universe sometimes sends me a cat on my way to Sainsbury’s and I thank the universe.

– rereading an old novel. Security comes from the known. Give me a tale I already love and let me enjoy it again and again.

– communicating with friends. I am unlucky to have so many wonderful people scattered across the globe and not within reaching distance. I am lucky that these people have whatsapp and email and facebook and I can text them or call them or leave them a voice note and some photos to stay in touch no matter how far away they are. I’ve recently gone on a massive voicenote kick and I’m loving it. To hear their accents and expressions and backgrounds is everything. They remind me I’m not alone and that there’s always something going on, but friends are a constant.

Good Grief!

Let me tell you a little bit about handling someone’s grief: IT CAN’T BE DONE. They handle it, you carry on and try not to make it worse.

As a British-Irish person, I come from a very reserved background. As a person under 40, I don’t know a lot of people who have experienced grief. As a person under 40 who has experienced grief, I can tell you that our age-group are BAD at dealing with it. Grandparents and pets are about as much as we’ve experienced. We do not know what to say. We do not know how to be quiet either. Older people don’t know how to say the right things either though, so it all works out.

My uncle died unexpectedly. He was on his way home from an engagement party, some young men attacked him for no reason and he died. There was a funeral. There was a court case. He was a big man with a big heart and a big spirit and he left a big hole.

I did not have the language to explain this to people. My dad broke the news to me over the phone on my birthday. He didn’t have the words either and made a hash of it. It was all awful. My dad was a medic. He was not unfamiliar with trauma and loss and tragedy. It was all just dreadful.

Being Catholic, even culturally Catholic, was a relief for the weeks around this incident. There was a procedure. There were Things To Be Done. There were reassuring motions to go through to give your body something to do and your mind something on which to focus.  The Church has it worked out. Grieving people aren’t good with decisions or thinking, but muscle memory is forever.

There was a church ceremony (“reception of the body to the Church” which sounds ghoulish to my mind, but is exactly that) the evening before the funeral. The coffin is brought to the church to remain overnight. There is a service with prayers and movements and everyone knows what to do. There is an activity. You have a leaflet to hold, you have a hymn to sing, you have reassurance for the next hour as to what you will be doing and what is required of you. The family (“chief mourners”) stand in the front pew of the church and the people attending the service queue up to give condolences and shake their hands.

We did that for my uncle. It went on for hours.

Irish people, myself very much included, love a chat. We’re not great at Twitter, we need more characters. These people I did not know shook my hand and shared a story about my uncle, how they knew him and what he had meant to them. This included an elderly couple he met in a supermarket and explained to them about reduced stickers and how to bag a bargain when the chap goes round with the sticker gun. He was a journalist, he had a lot of friends, he knew a lot of people. A lot of people knew him or of him.

That day I learnt a stunningly useful expression that the Irish have for funerals and wakes.

“I’m sorry for your trouble.”

It’s good isn’t it? Encompasses a lot. Doesn’t require a response.

When my dad died of brain cancer (there’s a  sentence that never gets easier), I had to learn a script to give to people I met. It wasn’t for me. It was for them. People didn’t know what to say, so they said stupid things. How old was he? What did he die of? What kind of cancer? How long did he have? When did he lose the battle? I would be furious and there was nowhere for that to go.

Are you keeping a database on mortality? Why do you need those details? Why are you making me say these things? What on earth are you doing asking me this?

I developed a script so that I could say I was sad, but I was fine and then we could move the conversation onwards to less rocky waters. If I didn’t, there would be a hugely awkward pause where someone tried to apologise that he was dead (it’s not your fault, let me make you feel better about this), where they would share a story of cancer (it’s not a competition!), where they would suggest God had a plan (I doubt that very much, but let’s not begin a theological debate), where they would say “at least” we had some time (true! But not enough!), where they would say that “God doesn’t give us anything we can’t handle” (oh, HELL no) or say things involving the words “better place” (to be frank, the only better place for my Dad would have been St Andrew’s Golf Club, so you are entirely incorrect there, stop talking immediately).

I’ve been that person. Awkwardly trying to let you know I understand you feel sad and I want to make that better. People feel pressure to fix things. They want to comfort. They want to make it better. That’s not for people to do. Grief comes and sits with you and it hangs around whether someone say something trite or not. Young (or younger!) people don’t like to wait. We want things quickly. We have iPhones and streaming and netflix and Amazon Prime. We are not excellent at waiting things out.

Worse than the people saying stupid things, were the people who didn’t say anything. Where I would tiptoe through conversations thinking, “Does this person KNOW he died? Do I have to break that news? Or are they just awkward?” and would try to drop it in “casually” (HOW IS THAT EVEN A THING) to see how they responded, so I knew what I was working with, so they wouldn’t feel bad. That says a lot about me as a person, I know, but it’s something a lot of Young Grievers (that’s not a real term, I just made that up) have to deal with.

When someone dies, you feel incredibly sad. For most of the time. But there are still laughs and smiles and anger and fury that there are never any clean tea towels in this bloody house. Grief binds people together. Outside people don’t necessarily understand that. They hide the fun away for fear of seeming disrespectful. Luckily, my family is quite crazy. We would take it in turns to be cracking bon mots about how my dad would be horrified at all the visitors or how my uncle’s funeral would predominantly be populated by ex-girlfriends. We had a proper Irish wake for my uncle with guitars and whiskey and Irish singing and spontaneous poetry (I kid you not, it was like something out of a Beckett play) and it was hysterical and tragic and helpful and made me wish I could play an instrument. The English don’t really go in for that. Too many emotions, perhaps. It’s a shame, because it helps. The emotions are channelled. Aired out.

The funeral is a ceremony. In the Catholic Church it’s irritatingly not about the person who died. It’s about GOD and the Church and the coffin is not the focus of the room and there is no Eulogy like you see in films. That’s what the church-less wake is for the night before. Where you don’t have to behave because the priest is there (or, in my uncle’s case, he WAS there and I got into a heated argument with him because “I’ve been writing prayers of the faithful since I was a child, I think I can write them now, thank you very much, Father!” and my nother kicked me under the table and I had to go drink outside with the Bad Cousins who smoke) and can say what you think and feel about the person who should be in the middle of that room, but is not.

I sent an email to my friends about my dad. It basically said “This happened. I’m going to be away for a while. Let people know.” Very modern. Very weird. How do you even find a subject line for that? Most people responded with something comforting and/or blissfully minimal. My friend Dan wrote a massive email about how he knew my dad loved me and it was perfect. He’s a dad to two little girls now and I hope no one ever has to write an email like that to one of them, but I see it now.

A lot of people did not know what to say.

This is what you say: “I’m so sorry for your loss. It must be terrible. I’m here.

You have to acknowledge it. Don’t try to fix it. It is remembered when you don’t say something. It does not go unnoticed that you put your comfort above the social awkwardness you think you’ll feel. Be around for them. Check in with them. Check up on them. If you are not good with real time, send a card. Send an email. Maybe don’t send a text, it seems a little gauche, but if that’s Your Thing, then go for it. Do not make this about you. None of this is about you. Have your feelings somewhere else. F*ck off with YOUR feelings, it is not your f*cking turn to have a feeling.

It’s also very strange later. People think you’ll get over it. They expect you to be Done being sad now, because the funeral happened and that’s the end of that, right? That it’s three years later, so it should all be finished now. Circle of Life, etc etc. They aren’t totally sure what to do when you mention that person. Flinching occurs. You learn that’s a thing that happens outside books. They talk quickly to change the subject.

Newsflash: you do not stop being sad. It just becomes a little less unwieldy with time. I have school friends who grew up with one parent and I have only recently DECADES LATER talked to them about it. They’re still sad. I appreciate a little more how hard their being a child was. How hard their becoming an adult is.

I am not rebuking anyone here. This isn’t a massive subtweet to someone who wronged me and for whom I hold a grudge.* Humans are complex and messy. Emotions are hard. Maybe let’s not make it harder on those who are having a rough time.

*so few people read this it would be a particularly useless way of making that known!

Nosce Te Ipsum*

I haven’t written for a while because I’ve been busy. But then again, hasn’t everyone? That’s #oldnews

I had a birthday and a conversation with a doctor that began with “for a woman your age…” and ended with my shocked face declaring I had “only just” turned 34 “actually!”

My last post was how I am an adult now. There’s no escaping that. The age-box I tick on any official document is squarely in the middle of the options. That’s okay. What’s not really okay is that there is still so much I do not know.

This list includes, but is not limited to:

– how to sew a hem
– how to format tables in a Word document when they skitter off the page
– where to put illuminator on a face
– if I’ll ever be able to get away with bronzer
– what kind of shoe to wear in the summer, with a dress, when it’s raining so my feet won’t get wet and are not trainers or brogues
– why everyone is so damn keen on brogues
– what exactly the Israel-Palestine conflict is, really in detail
– how to read the Financial Times markets pages
– why I can never quite get meat cooked spot on
– how to buy soft fruit (raspberries, I’m looking at you) without one of them being a bit weird
– how to properly remember the genders of the most commonly used German words
– how to set boundaries with someone you don’t really enjoy
– how to ask for a pay-rise
– why I’m always so nervous of everything
– how to fix the alarm clock that just stopped working, but still ticks
– how to stop biting my nails (that’s actually a lie, I bite my cuticles, which is even worse)
– how, actually, to archive my emails instead of asking my boss to use my account as an example for everyone else
– how to do a plank
– how to keep trainer socks on my feet
– how to back up my personal computer other than copy&pasting the entire hard drive into another hard-drive
– how to do nice calligraphy
– how to go to Wilkinson without spending money
– where counties in England are
– world geography, generally
– how to access the blue dot on my google maps and follow it in real life
– why there are some people I just Have a Problem With and I think it could be jealousy but I’m not sure what I’m actually jealous OF
– where to buy trousers for work that are neither a weird shape or made from flammable fabric
– how to prevent a freezer freeing up (supposedly keeping it full, but that hasn’t worked for me)
– if there is a decent dry shampoo or whether it’s a conspiracy by everyone who spent money on it
– how to make it through an episode of News Night without wanting to watch a fluffy 26 minute American comedy
– what third wave feminism is
– whether the priority is on protein or vitamins or energy or fibre or fun in food.

These days I am happier to admit when I don’t know something. I’d rather ask and know than chance it and look silly later. But it is so against my grain. As the bright kid in the class and the eldest child of two bright parents, it was not encouraged to ask questions. Don’t hold people up. Don’t let down the side. Don’t show ignorance. Often I find myself nodding along when someone says “obviously you know, xyz…” and I think “OH NO, I HAVE NO IDEA, LET’S SEE IF I CAN COAST THIS” because I don’t want that person to think less of me. How arrogant is that? I don’t know about opera. I don’t know about 17th century Christianity. I don’t know how octopus breed. I don’t know who the Mayor of Chicago is. But I do know that I won’t google it later. I do know that if I ask, you might explain enough for me to want to google it later. I do know that I’d like to follow this conversation rather than waiting for someone to change the subject and hoping it’s not related. I do know that I don’t spend my time with people who laugh at those who don’t know everything they do.

I’ve tried, gently and in my own awkward way, to ask more questions. “I see you have a knife sharpener, could you show me how that works?” “That’s fascinating that you are going to Surat next month. Where is that exactly?” “Actually, I don’t know if Croatia has the Euro, let’s look that up.”

So now, I know the theory behind the knife sharpening wand (but chickened out and bought a table top sharpener), I know Surat is in India and the Croatia has the Kuna. Soon I’ll be a lot more useful on the Guardian Saturday quiz.

Okay, maybe not soon.

* I googled this, OBVIOUSLY

DONE

Everything I've Ever Done That WorkedI recently turned thirty four. I am definitely an adult. This month has solidified a lot of nebulous thinking about Adulting into the feeling that actually, I got this. I am adulating.  I may not know what I’m doing, or LIKE what I’m doing most of the time, but there we are.

The next time I freak out and or forget that I felt like this, I hope I remember a few things here.


Successful Adulting:
While my flatmate was away, there were ALL MANNER of heating system problems. Essentially, everything with water in the flat went wrong at the same time. Me and youtube had a stressful evening that left me incredibly grateful to the Garys and Steves of the world who make videos of boilers and explaining them to non-plumbers. I also did a pretty good job of writing firm but polite emails to the letting agent that this was a real problem that I could not fix and so he could not ignore it. And also fully handing over all responsibility for the leak affecting the downstairs flat. I did not do my usual trick of hoping it would magically fix itself so that I wouldn’t “get in trouble” with anyone (which is what happened with the boiler the last time. Except, obviously, that did not work in the long run).

I had a birthday celebration. I had a multi-stage celebration with many people and minimal stress on my part. I’ve mentioned before that socialising makes me very nervous. Particularly socialising that has the sole purpose of celebrating me. I worry people will feel obliged to come, that they won’t fit into the place I’ve chosen, that the place I’ve chosen will go horribly wrong, that people will die or hunger or thirst or my inability to speak to them properly. Fritz came over from Germany, we had a lunch with one of my best girls and then we were late to the pub I invited people. It was all fine. Fritz was very good at making sure everyone had drinks, I tried really hard to have some quality time with each guest and I made an effort to not push refreshments on people or be unnecessarily stressy. There was a small boy inhaling Colin the Caterpillar cakes, so that was an excellent distraction.

Without getting into too many details, I had a number of social events this month that I was particularly nervous about. Big groups of strangers and small groups of people with whom I have difficult relations at the moment. I put on my big girl pants and just HANDLED it.

A book I have found especially useful lately is WE by Gillian Anderson and Jennifer Nadel. From the website “We’s Manifesto is a call to a way of living that puts compassion at its heart. A declaration of intent to live differently — to heal ourselves so that we can create lasting change in our own lives, in our communities and on a global level.” I love it because, while they’re both American, they’ve lived in the UK for a long time, so the happy-clappy is kept to a bracing minimum, whilst remaining inspirational. There’s a whole section in the book about your Inner Girl which really spoke to me. Anderson says in an interview, “I find that very often when I’m refusing to accept something, or I’m having difficulty in relating to other adults, it’s often because my five-year old girl somewhere inside is having a tantrum about the fact that things aren’t going the way that I want them to go.” And that is very definitely the case with me. With social situations sometimes I need to ask myself what it is that I want to feel and how do I reconcile that with what’s actually happening.

Related to that is that I’ve said YES and NO to things and people this month where I really wanted to say yes and no, rather than what was expected of me. I went to things I wanted to. I saw people I wanted to. I did not do things I did not want.

I also learnt that I cannot say YES to everything. This came about through an argument with Fritz where I exhausted myself to the point of illness and we had a Firm Discussion about Not Doing Everything. He made the point that people will still love me even if I don’t do all the things I plan that they have no idea about. I made the point that I LIKE doing those things for people. We had a tough chat but it worked out. I’m trying not to fear these important conversations, not to say “don’t be mad at me/I’m the worst” or apologising without having grounds to. Sometimes people aren’t going to like what I think or what I say. Sometimes I will be an idiot, sometimes I will phrase things poorly. Sometimes I’m just going to have to take that. I’m going to have to live through the consequences of speaking too quickly or having someone think differently of me. I cannot always be perfect for everyone. And sometimes that’s actually not my problem.

This month I confirmed that I have not worked out the summer shoe conundrum, that spray sun lotion is not the best idea for my Irish complexion, that I can’t always wing it in the kitchen and that my memory is affected when I have more than five espressos in a morning. I realised I can just invite myself places if I really want to be there. I discovered that it is possible for me to make a crazy expensive fun purchase and not freak out about it when it’s something perfect. I think I might even be ready to have a haircut in London.


I feel like I’m there. I feel as though I’ve reached Level Adult. I know what I know and have a medium level of confidence in that. I know what I don’t know and that I can try to source the information. That I can set boundaries and ask for help. I might not LIKE all these things, but I can do them.

On some level it would seem this would be a natural conclusion to end the blog. The blog I have neglected for so long with nary a thought. I won’t though, because I am VERY aware that my life is not going to stay the same. Assuming Fritz and I stay together, I will have a whole new adventure ahead of me wherein I know next to nothing and haven’t always the words to explain. If I move to Germany I will gain so much but lose a lot. I’m going to keep this running to explore my fears and challenges ahead and to hopefully put down on virtual paper things I would like to crystallise in my own mind.

A Beret Good Read

Helena Frith PowellLately I’ve been going through my books. I’m considering, but not committing to, downsizing my bookshelf. I’m loath to do so because, I mean, books!

I’m a huge fan of libraries. I think you get a real sense of a community by the stacks of its local library. Wimbledon, for example, has six books on beekeeping, a whole self of IVF and far too many books about the grieving process. It has a huge section on financial advice, every new feminist book as soon as it’s published and a massive stack of books in the children’s geography section.

I can’t buy every book I want to read, as I have neither the money nor the space, so my strategy is to only buy books I have already read at least twice from the library. Looking through my bookshelves, I realise that I have a lot of books on style. And, as a subsection, a lot of books on French style.

I’m not the only one who has books like these. They are best sellers. On the whole they fall into two types:
– gawky young English/American woman moves to France, learns from the locals and becomes chic
– dumpy middle aged English/American woman moves to France for work or her husband’s work, learns from the locals and becomes chic.

They have delightful titles like “Two Lipsticks and a Lover – all you need to be impossibly French“, “How To Be Chic And Elegant: Tips From A French Woman” and “Entre Nous: A Woman’s Guide to Finding Her Inner French Girl.”

From my extensive research of books and blogs about French style, all the advice can be summarised as follows:

– accessorise with a scarf

– never ever wear underwear that does not match

– wear red lipstick – never leave the house without makeup, even to take out the bins

– perfect “le no make-up” look which involves a minimum of eight products

– spend a small fortune on beauty at the parapharmacie

– buy classic cut, good quality items for your minimalist wardrobe

– buy traditional French brands like Dior and Hermes

– dress in an androgynous way, but display your femininity

– quality over quantity in everything

– be thin, but enjoy food

– be intellectual, but not overly opinionated

– be attractive to men, but in a dismissive fashion

– avoid French women as they will steal your husband – only socialise in couples.

Please don’t mistake my pithiness for disregard. I read those books, I inhaled those blogs, I wanted to be a French girl. The number of faded stripy t-shirts and dead ballet shoes in my wardrobe are testament to that.

Now that I’m contemplating possibly moving to Germany in the future, I am stressing about it like an exam. I want to start revising now, before the course has begun. I’m looking into replacements for my skin products that I can’t get there, I’m researching recipes for making baked beans (they take FOREVER. I’m just going to import them). I’m panicking about phone contracts and data plans.

What I’m not doing is trying to look German. Mainly because I don’t want to. I don’t want a Dirndl (and a colleague has kindly pointed out that I “don’t have the bust to carry it off” which is surely some sort of sexual harassment?), I quite like my non-funky glasses, I don’t want to wear orthopaedic shoes or Birkenstocks (there’s just too much naked foot on display, I can’t explain it) and I like wearing the colours I wear now, I don’t want to break into patterns or mustard-coloured hosiery.

When I moved to London, I ate those books and blogs on how to Look French. I watched so many videos on how to tie silk neck scarfs, despite looking ridiculous in neck scarves. I wore red lipstick. I had three berets which itched. I bought a lot of classic items for my minimalist wardrobe, but I actually need more than ten items of clothing with my job and I couldn’t afford to buy proper classic items, so bought the next best thing available in Dorothy Perkins which usually had a non-classic ruffle or decorative detail. Obviously I looked a hot mess, rather than French because I did not follow the rules. That was my fault, not the fault of the books. I was a disaster.

You don’t find a lot of books about dressing like other nationalities in the lifestyle section of Waterstones (you can find them in the fashion section though). There aren’t many “Dress like a Mexican” or “Great Greek Style” books. Mainly because you can’t really the style of a nation into one book, and mainly because the French have very good PR. French girls and women are chic, are classy are stable. They are seductive even if they are jolie laide.

When you’re lost and you don’t really know who to be, it’s very easy to want to be French. French girls eat croissants, but are slim; are sexy, but don’t have to wonder if they look like a slut or if you can even call yourself a slut if you aren’t ever getting any; are intellectual, but not geeky; are attractive, but not shunned as clothes horses. It’s easy to dress like a French girl. You can be pretty and girly in skirts or chic and sexy in cigarette pants. They always wear matching underwear. They have their lives so together that they can wear matching underwear without having to plan the laundry rotation in advance.

When you’re lost, you want clear instructions on how to dress and how to look, because maybe that will help you fake it until you make it. If you dress attractively, maybe you will be attractive. If you dress like a French girl, then you won’t have to be a dumpy girl from Milton Keynes or a middle aged mum from Slough whose kids have left home. If you look like it, you can become it. If you just sort out how you LOOK, you can sort out how you FEEL and how you THINK and how you BE. If.

I did not become French. I travelled TO France and discovered that these books and blogs are selling a very particular type of well-heeled (in both senses) Parisian woman who doesn’t eat much and is constantly struggling to fit into the mould society has caught her in. She must be sexy and slender and not mind that she never has dessert except when out with guests or that her husband is having an affair with a neighbour and the whole boulevard knows. Those women don’t last. No one can last like that.

I don’t need those books any more because I know who I am at the moment. In a few years that might be different if I live elsewhere, have a family, have a different career, am happier or more stressed, or have a different haircut.

At the moment, I am the kind of girl who wears a lot of pleated skirts and swishes them about her knees. I’m the kind of girl who can’t get her calves into most trousers and wonders when she’ll stop referring to herself as a girl. I’m the kind of girl who buys and wears the lipstick but forgets to reapply it. I’m the kind of girl who’s happy, for a change, with what’s going on in her life and has found a balance between her work  and her friends and her family and her worries and will sometimes dare herself to wear the short shorts to Tesco and be stunned that no one stops her crossing the street, so stunned in fact that she VERY NEARLY starts discussing the shorts with the busy and nervous Indian chap behind the counter until she remembers that she comes into this Tesco a lot and it would be nice to still be able to come here without being mortified the next time.

I’m still a bit of a mess, but I’m not wearing an itchy beret any more. I might keep one or two of the books though…