Obviously, this is being written on a Saturday rather than a Friday, to the accompaniment of ferocious purring from the spoilt, silken pawed cat who has decided to curl up on my 'work' cushion and cosy fake fur lined hoodie. Yesterday I went out for pay day wine and nachos, my first social outing since New Year's weekend, a cause for gratitude in itself.
I'm also grateful that the post viral fatigue that laid me low last weekend and at the beginning of the week seems to be easing off, and I'm glad that I was able to resist my inner workaholic and tell myself that taking a few days off from MA work was not going to lead to me failing the course.
Gratitude item number three is that I've been getting on well with my work colleagues. Although I'm not the most extroverted person (on Myer Briggs personality tests I'm always on the I/E borderline), before this autumn I always took it for granted that I tend to get on well with most people, even if I occasionally had to bite my tongue. And then I started working at the school where none of the other staff would talk to me. I know that you 'should' say that I'm indifferent to other people's opinions of me, but being isolated like that was incredibly depressing and somehow dehumanising. So I've been doubly appreciating the gossipy, giggly re-entry into work place banter, where the works of SClub7 suddenly becomes a completely viable topic of conversation.
And there's the stunning glimpses of sunrises and sunsets I've had on my walks to and from work. One sunrise was this incredible fuchsia colour bomb, just what I need to perk myself up on the chilly trek home.
My last item is probably going to mark me out as a big cat scaring meanie, but seeing Stanley (white and ginger cat) running away from the clockwork mouse he was meant to be chasing...well, how could you not laugh?
The sun came out on Saturday, suddenly making the idea of frisking about the countryside sound rather appealing. Almost twelve hours of sleep the night before had rebooted my perkiness levels too.
But by the time we got out to our chosen bucolic spot, the sun had finished teasing us and retreated to put his feet up and have a cup of tea. The river bank got muddier and muddier, the stiles more difficult to get over, and as my energy levels went into a vertiginous decline the sky took on a steely hue and a bitter wind blew up. The landscape looked so bleak that by the time we decided to turn back, I wouldn't have been surprised if we'd stumbled upon some Dickensian urchins living in a shack.
It was one of those moments, which if you put into a story people would slate it as unbelievable overkill - look we can see she's exhausted and feels like the piffling distance back to the car might as well be 10 miles, we don't need to see her struggling to remove her wellington boot from a patch of particularly glutinous mud, and as for the general sense of desolation, come on! What I was thinking, however, was more like, OK universe, YOU HAVE TO BE KIDDING ME.
I'm grateful that someone was walking down our quiet suburban road at 4.30 am and saw that some crazed arsonist had set fire to our neighbour's car. Luckily, the horrendous scenario where the fire spread from that car to their car and our car, and then leapt the few feet to our houses, and then the houses that we share party walls with, exists only in anxiety seized imaginations.
Apart from that this week has been a bit...blank. I spent most of last weekend fighting off some sort of immune invasion that made one of my tonsils swell up and ulcerate. I can now say that I've actually coughed up a bit of tonsil, a (hopefully) unique experience that I was not particularly looking to tick off my before 30 list.
And then I've spent most of the last week in that kind of dazed post viral fog where your brain drifts off halfway through a sentence...like it just did there, and I find myself zoned out and staring into space...with no idea how to end this blog post...
I keep forgetting to share these photos, although (or perhaps because) they are one of my favourite sets that I took whilst I was in China. Behind the hostel where I was saying was a hutong – the warren of traditional Chinese one storey houses that have been replaced by new high rise apartments. Apparently there are all sorts of ‘special’ hutongs worthy of sight, and around the Forbidden City rickshaw drivers compete to see who can get tourists to pay the most for a journey. But I wanted to quietly savour my last weekend in Beijing, so I picked a residential street and decided to see where it would take me.
Just a few minutes walk away from the frenzy of Western labels that is Wanfujing, I returned to the China where the presence of a foreigner was met with curiosity and puzzlement. As I photographed such boring everyday items as a bicycle-with-trailer filled with baozi steamers, I could feel benign ‘crazy laowai’ thoughts brewing about me.
I was surprised by how quiet the streets were, used as I was to navigating Shijazhuang’s happy chaos of children playing, adults gossiping or gaming, dogs going about their canine world and impromptu businesses. I guess that people were sheltering indoors or in courtyard gardens, but the impression that remains in my mind is of almost eery shaded quietness, relieved occasionally by a decorously subdued motorbikes seeking shortcuts from the congested main roads.
On a more prosaic level, I was delighted to find that every street had free, immaculately clean toilet and shower facilities, although I imagine that the residents must find venturing forth in the bitterness of winter somewhat less delightful. I also imagine that that is why, despite the destruction of the hutongs being loudly decried in Western media, so few Western residents actually live in them.
Online, offline, I've read so much about the Haiti earthquake this week, and two posts stood out, for illuminating the everyday life of the country which is facing disaster piled upon privitation: Elizabeth Briel and Owen both brought to life the Haitian people in a way that no sensationalist news report can ever hope to.
I started my MA this week. After having previous plans for postgraduate study go hideously wrong, I never thought I'd get the chance to do an MA because I just couldn't afford the fees and living costs. Even though I think it's going to be really hard to work full time and study part time (ok, I know it's going to be incredibly hard) I just glad to finally have to chance to try and pull it off.
Being able to walk into work - I might be a little chilly at first, but I'm getting exercise, looking at the sky, and most importantly do not have to sit on an aged, smelly rail replacement bus, which has condensation running down the inside and puddles of water in the aisle, whilst listening to fellow passengers talking about stabbing people up. (I also just had to share that little vignette of my week.)
Working in the same building as one of my favourite friends, and the resulting delicious lunch we had today. Chicken + bacon + avocado + gossip = happy me.
I'm noticeably lacking in the yoga-photo department, so you'll have to live with the ribbon ladies
This is where I could be super obnoxious and be all 'I've been doing yoga since I was three years old, so take my enlightenment and suck on it, because clearly you are never ever going to catch up with me'. Luckily for both of us that would not be true, and I like to think that if I did write something like that, you all would smack me upside the head.
But there might be illumination. Just perhaps not the kind that you would think of first. And if there's not that then there's a story of sorts.
So, yoga take one:
When I was maybe about three or four my mum starting practising yoga, and obviously I had to join in. I like to think that I did this in an adorable, mother-daughter bonding type way, not in a making my mum wish she kept taking the pill type way.
It is fun, slightly mysterious and I got to spend time with my mummy, which to my three year old self equals sweet.
Yoga take two:
I start accompanying my mum to classes at a local yoga loft. Yoga is not fun, it is Very Serious. Also, pain equals good and you are meant to force yourself into a position, ignoring your body's warning screams of anguish. It is also super competitive: I still remember the outrage and extreme vexation of my self-created rivals in the class when I could do the lotus position and they couldn't. Being able to do more advanced poses made you superior, and how dare this whippersnapper come along and disrupt the hierarchy of who-can-do-what, especially when said whippersnapper isn't even that great at some of the basic poses.
As time went by, the levels of superiority and oddness just seemed to get more, well, odd. The superiority wasn't limited to whether or not you could become a human pretzel, it was all about the self-righteous vegetarianism too. It irritated me, and I was vegetarian at the time, so I'm surprised that no-one got bopped on the nose by an infuriated meat eater.
There was also the strange equation between neglecting your appearance, or flouting norms, and spirituality. I don't care whether or not you shave your armpits, but please stop waving them in my face and banging on about it. And no, I don't think not shaving them has any relation to how spiritual you are. Similarly, I also fail to see the link between tramp-like laxity with personal hygiene and spiritual elevation.
A new male teacher wore shorts that were so brief the mouse was truly out of the house when he demonstrated certain poses to his all female class. There were complaints, the owner spoke to him, he refused to wear anything more covering, and continued teaching. Then the owner started telling us about how you didn't need food and could live on light. It will probably not surprise you that this is the point I stopped going to classes and retreated with horror from anything yoga related.
Yoga take 3:
I'm now in China. I often go to the gym at lunch time, and whilst I work out watch the yoga classes taking place. They look like they'd be a good way to relax between my morning and afternoon classes, and although it takes me a few weeks to pluck up the courage, eventually I do.
I can't understand what the teachers or my classmates are saying, and they can't understand me, but I watch, and if I'm getting tangled up the wrong way or need an adjustment, the teacher will come and help me, without making me feel like I'm in danger of dislocating anything vital.
Beginners come clad in tight jeans and t-shirts with unintelligible English slogans and laugh with their friends because they can't do anything. Occasionally only one or two people can glide into postures that I'm sure are defying laws of physics, and possibly anatomy. Everyone else watches, tries to imitate the early steps, and then falls over or goes 'ouch', and we give each other 'omg, we must be crazy to be even trying this' looks.
In one class, the first ten minutes after the meditation is spent doing moving your head from side to side. My friends who are more into lifting weights don't understand how that can even be exercise. It is one of the most relaxing things I've ever done, and afterwards my back muscles ache in a good way.
The classes can be tough, but instead of holding one position for ages, we move fluidly through sets of different postures. And just when I thinking 'I'm done, is it not time for shavasana yet?' we repeat a set again, and I do it even though I think I'm spent, and somehow it still manages to be fun. But if you are spent and just want to sit it out, that's fine too.
Things in the class aren't perfect: sometimes you can hear the pop music from the work out area, or machines clanging, or weightlifting men grunting. Sometimes someone's phone goes off, or they have to leave before the end of class. But there was no hysteria, and neither did the God of Yoga smite us.
I cannot tell you how vexed I was when the gym replaced my favourite yoga teacher's class with some bizarre yoga-t'ai chi hybrid. Although at least I gave some passing entertainment as I flailed like someone suffering from a particularly uncoordinated case of St Vitus's Dance.
And now I've got the point where I think I'm supposed to draw a moral, but I'm assuming that you're more than capable of doing that yourselves. And besides, the drawing is always too easy, it's the living that's difficult...*
*Yes, I just realised I totally drew a moral there. Gah!
I've been thinking of making a weekly list of posts/sites/any thing else that attracts my magpie-esque self for a while, and this week I have finally be motivated to get of my behind and do it. I've just kept reading things that I really want to share. Has anyone else noticed that there seems to be a lot of high quality posting going on this week?
In no particular order, these are some posts I've particularly enjoyed this week:
Tina on the joys of coming home, leaving for far flung places and everyday life in your 'exotic' locale.
Esther is one of my favourite bloggers. She has recently adopted two Nigerien barb horses and wrote a funny, fascinating and heart warming post about their interactions with the four horses Esther already has and their progress so far.
Owen's dramatic photographs of a storm at sea approaching land made me glad to be snuggled up warm inside!
Louciao charts the progress of one of her collages - I'm in awe of how she sees the finished work in the fabric scraps she starts with!
Holly writes about starting a new business, and her post on pricing and giving yourself permission to charge a decent rate will resonate with most people who've even thought about going down a similar route!
Pat shared photos and videos of Mayan ruins, which are manna to this lapsed ancient history student.
Havi is the blog equivalent of crack, so be warned if you decided to read about how ephiphanies can be small and they all add up.
Whistling Fire is a non-profit literary magazine site, that boasts an interesting and varied selection of poetry, non-fiction and fiction. If you're interested in submitting, their February theme is birthdays/anniversaries.
Everett on those common sense but sometimes hard to do (is it easy to avoid) tips for moving into making a living in a way that isn't just existing.
And last but not least, Mountain Mama's icicle studies have been (just about) getting me to smile on winter.
Gratitude is kind of a loaded word for me, as is grateful. I know that really feeling gratitude can be incredibly powerful and life affirming, but I also have quite a lot of internal resistance to the word.
I would guess because the way that the concept of gratitude often seems to be used to try and negate or invalidate your own feelings, but telling or implying that you should feel bad about x that's happened to you because of y that's happening to someone else, which is clearly a lot worse.
This happened to me a lot as a young teenager, when I had terrible eczema. It was horribly painful, and I I had areas of permanently raw skin, and even just walking upstairs hurt, as semi healed cracks reopened. The embarrassment of taking my tights off in the changing rooms at school and having a whole load of skin flakes fall out too was almost as excruciating. (In the end it got so bad I couldn't do PE, which at least solved that problem.)
Inevitably well meaning people would try to console me by telling me it at least I didn't have another ailment or disease. The result that I still felt unhappy about my skin falling off, because, really, who wouldn't, but also felt vaguely guilty about the fact that I wasn't grateful for being afflicted by it, instead of something else.
So, having got that off my chest, I hope I've established that what I'm going to be doing is being grateful for things that have actually happened, rather than for disastrous things that haven't befallen me. Positive gratitude rather than negative gratitude if you will. There will be a list, every Friday, and I'd love it if you shared your positive gratitude too.
Starting my new job and finding out that everybody seems a lot nicer than at my previous job
Having a really easy journey home from training on Wednesday, despite the snow causing most of the trains to be cancelled
Seeing a crazy beautiful pre dawn sky on Wednesday, where the whole horizon was tinged with pink and the bowl of the sky was an intense blue
The snow covered landscapes I've seen from the train
Quality cat snuggling time
Having that fizzy excitement feeling about starting my MA next week
One of John Tenniel's beautiful illustrations of Alice in Wonderland
Why is it transitions can seem like voids to be leapt into rather than an alteration or addition to our current situation? I've been thinking about this because as well as the topical transitions of New Year's and the movement from waning to waxing, I started a new job on Monday and am starting my MA next week.
And despite knowing the gist of what my new job was like, and the study requirements for my course, it seems surprisingly easy to imagine that the change is some sort of rabbit hole that needs to be fallen through and who knows where you might end up? Is this one reason why change tends to freak people out?
And yet, I know from one of the biggest changes I've ever made, going to live in China, that this rabbit hole is often our own construct. Before I stepped out of that plane in Beijing, I couldn't imagine what my life would be like once I was there. I didn't speak any Chinese, I'd never taught before, I didn't even know that much about China (and what I did know turned out to be embarrassingly out of date). When I first got off that plane and found myself on the other side of the rabbit hole, I couldn't have been more culture shocked if there HAD been Cheshire pussy cats or croquet played with flamingos.
Then, sooner that I could've imagined on that first, overwhelmed day, everything became ordinary. I did what I do here: I went to work, I met up with friends, I went to the supermarket, I grouched about public transport, I ate, I slept, and surfed the internet and watched films. In just a couple of weeks, I'd completely normalised the situation, and suddenly going to Beijing for the weekend was no more exotic and strange and unknown than popping up to London is in England. Things that looked like flamingoes at first, just turned out to be pink mallets when I'd been used to blue ones.
Seemingly big changes often don't seem to be that significant - who hasn't felt a slight deflation after a supposed milestone event? But, conversely, the really big changes, the ones that have changed how I look at and feel about myself, other people and the whole universe shebang, seem to creep up on you, sometimes without you even realising. You don't notice that you've fallen down the rabbit hole until you've played a couple of rounds of croquet with your flamingo. Or sometimes, perhaps, that you're the flamingo that 's being used a croquet mallet - which might be stretching the whole Alice in Wonderland metaphor somewhat, but seems quite apt for situations where you realise that you've lost control and ended up feeling sad and lost and are thinking 'how the hell did I get here?'
I've realised that making changes even potentially big scary ones like going to live in another country or doing a postgraduate course, the course of my life might bend, but it's not going to suddenly becoming an unrecognisable land overnight with me going 'I don't understand anything, how did I get here?' Ok, I did have a few moments like that in China, but I had friends, and people willing to help, and phrase books, and maps, and how could I forget the 18 hour slog that was my London-Beijing journey. And there might have been a brand new backdrop but 'I don't know what to do' or 'I'm lost' seem to work much the same the world over. Conversely, I'm intrigued by finding out how I can know when I'm on a life bend before I'm surprised by those damn flamingoes again.
So, this year, more noticing of the bends as they're happening than making rabbit holes. How to do this? Private journalling, mood mapping, listening to my intuition rather than steamrollering it with what I think I should be feeling - these are my first ideas, if any of you would like to share what you do, please go ahead.