life

So long, 2015

2015 has been an incredible year for me.

On New Year’s Eve 2014, I stood on the brink of a four-month voluntary placement in Bangladesh and I had no idea what the year would have in store or how things would work out.  And here we are, a year later, and somehow I’ve managed to achieve what I set out to do when I left the RAF fifteen months ago!

I just want to say thank you to everyone who has helped me reach my goals this year.  It hasn’t been easy and it definitely wasn’t always graceful but, with your love and support, I have ended up achieving more this year than I hoped for.  I’m definitely ending 2015 on a high 🙂

I also have to apologize for complete neglecting the blog over the past few months.  For those in the know, it’s largely down to me starting an amazing – but very challenging – job.  I have some great ideas for 2016 so please keep checking in and I promise you’ll be hearing more from me soon.

In the meantime – to paraphrase a new podcast I came across recently – I hope something wonderful happens to you today and every day in 2016.

Happy New Year!

happy new year

 

choice, text, definition, dictionary

Making hard choices…and loving it

This week marked my first anniversary of life as a civilian.  It has been a whole year since I formally left the military and embarked on a whole new way of life.  And what a year it’s been!  There have been a whole lot of ups and my fair share of low points but I wouldn’t have done anything differently.

It’s easy to look to back with the benefit of hindsight and see all the dots joining up.  But I’ve had to make some really difficult choices along the way to get here – to a point where it feels like life is working itself out.  Ironically, one of the reasons I left the military was to have more choices, to be able to make my own choices for a change; having made what I thought would be the hard decision – the decision to leave a successful ten-year career with no real plan, to be honest – I’ve been a little surprised at how difficult these choices can be sometimes.

In my RAF days...

In my RAF days…

I met with one of my career advisers this week, a woman who I now consider a friend, who reminded me of the dilemma I thought I faced when I was offered the opportunity to go and volunteer in Bangladesh with VSO.  I don’t really remember that now; almost as soon as I had decided to go, it felt like exactly the right decision.  And I guess that’s how you know you’re making the right call.  You sleep on it and when you wake up, it just feels right.

I’d love to give you all some sage words of wisdom about how to tackle your own tough choices.  But I’m really not sure I’ve figured it out, if I’m honest.  I generally feel like I’m bumbling along, just trying to put one foot in front of the other and hoping – believing – that it will all fall into place.  If you want some good advice, I strongly recommend you head over here and check out Ruth Chang’s TED Talk.  As for me, I suppose I would just say a couple of things.

Opportunities don’t just come along.  You have to create them for yourself.  But when you do, don’t take them for granted.  Seize them with both hands and squeeze absolutely everything you can from them.

Every choice has an opportunity cost; by going down one path, by definition, you can’t go down another.  It’s really difficult to weigh up the pros and cons of different options but, as a rule, favour ‘sure things’ over ‘may bes’.

Talk to people.  Don’t keep going round and round the same thoughts in your head.  But don’t abdicate responsibility either.  It’s your choice: you have to live with it so you have to make it.

If in doubt, do it.  I firmly believe that you only live to regret the things you don’t do in life.  Better to be able to look int he mirror and say ‘I tried’ than ‘if only I had…’.  Yes, it’s scary (see my post on The Fear from a couple of weeks ago) but it’s also invigorating and exciting.

The principle I try to live by at the moment is that I want to have stories to tell when I’m an old lady; I am going to bore the pants of the other residents of my nursing home one day!  What will be important to you when you’re ninety?

Just some of the memories that have made the last year so special 🙂

I can, hand on heart, say that making that decision to leave the military was one of the best I’ve ever made.  I still have no idea where I’m going to end up but I am loving the ride!

excited, little girl, roller-skates, black and white, 1940s

Not actually me but pretty much sums up how I feel about life right now!

You Are Amazing

After I published a post a couple of weeks ago, talking about The Fear, I have had lots of beautiful messages from my friends and family.  Partly, I think, out of concern – don’t worry, I really am kicking life’s ass at the moment!  That post wasn’t meant to be negative at all; I just wanted to be honest about how scary life can seem sometimes because I don’t think we admit to being human enough.  But I was so touched by the messages I got from all sorts of people.  There was one from a dear Bangladeshi friend, who’s words were so poetic and heartfelt that they made well up.  There was the little message from a former colleague just letting me know he enjoyed the blog.  Or the reassuring comments from old friends: you’ll be fine, chick.

Why am I telling you all this?

To remind you how amazing it feels when somebody takes the time to reach out and say “well done”, “good work”, “you’re pretty awesome”.  Especially for me blogging, when it feels like you are putting all this energy out into the world, to get an acknowledgement or a compliment makes it all worthwhile.  But it doesn’t just have to be the big stuff or even people you know: how good does it feel to get a compliment on your outfit from a stranger on the tube?!

As this gets published, I will be at a festival with two of the most gorgeous women I know – gorgeous is all aspects of the word, just beautiful people – and I’m going to make sure I tell them that.  So here’s my challenge to you: pick up the phone and call/text/What’sApp/tweet/Facebook etc somebody and just say something lovely.  It doesn’t need to be huge but I guarantee everybody has The Fear every now and again and maybe all they need is a little reassurance from a friend.

Friends forever

Friends forever

I always welcome feedback on the blog, good and bad, so please leave a comment below or get in touch!

The Fear…and How to Face It

The fear comes at night mostly, although it can extend its grip whenever it likes.  Its icy fingers chill my heart and make it difficult to breathe.

The fear.

The fear of failing.  At life.  At love.  Failing.  The fear of never being gainfully employed again.  The fear of never meeting ‘THE ONE’.  The fear of not being successful.  Of not being happy.  Of failing.

As if that’s a thing….failing at life.  I mean, really, get over yourself.  But the fear still lurks there.

It’s funny though, how sometimes fear can be a great motivator.  Anyone who has left an essay until the last minute and is desperately hammering away on the laptop at 3am will know what I’m talking about.  But this kind of fear is paralysing.  There is so much I could be doing, should be doing…but I am becoming an expert at procrastinating.  And it’s so hard to explain to people.  Not that I really admit this to many people (except my lovely blogging audience!); in addition to becoming a professional boxset watcher, I am also now something of an expert at putting on the happy front.  And I so desperately want to be that person.  The brave, fearless woman who changed careers to follow her heart and turns down lucrative offers at major banks so she can change the world instead (okay, so maybe I won’t be unemployed forever but that’s not really what I mean).  The women who, whilst doing her masters degree, got ribbed for getting more done by 10am than most people would manage all day.  That’s the person the world sees so why don’t I feel like her.

I think it’s because this type of fear can be really debilitating if you don’t master it.  And I do have to point out that these attacks are really rare.  But here’s a few ways I try to get over it.

What Are You Scared Of

It’s really easy for your fears to become this huge conglomerate mess where the apocalypse is nigh and you might as well just give up now.  Except the world isn’t going to end anytime soon and you still have a life to live.  So get specific about what you’re afraid of.  I am not really worried about never having a job again; I’m pretty confident that I could find a job within the next month if I wanted to.  What I’m terrified of is not being able to do what I want to do, of not finding a way to make passions pay enough to cover my rent.  So get a piece of paper and write down what scares you.  In detail.  Be precise.  Suddenly, those fears don’t look nearly as big and bad as they felt, which brings us on to…

Take Action

Having got a handle on what your fears actually are, you are now in a position to start to do something about it, because I guarantee sitting at home worrying about it won’t change anything.  Personally, I love a to-do list but again it needs to be really specific.  “Get a job” is not a smart to-do list goal.  Break down everything into tiny, tiny steps: write a CV might be a good start, or register on a jobs website.  For one, these things are actually manageable and, secondly, you will feel an exorbitant amount of satisfaction when you start crossing them off (well, I do!).  But, as I said before, this kind of fear – the heart-stopping, panic-attack inducing fear – can be paralysing.  So just do one thing.  One tiny little thing.  If that’s all you do today, then you did one thing.  But maybe after doing one thing, you’ll feel like doing one more.  And another.  Until you’re on a roll.  As my mum always says to me “How do you eat an elephant?  One bite at a time”.  Pro to-do list tip: don’t let your actions roll on week to week.  If you’ve still got stuff left over from last week, you’ve probably made the action too big.  Can you break it down into smaller bits that you can do this week?

Get a Routine

I, for one, cannot live without a routine.  Maybe it’s all those years of military discipline but I just can’t do it.  Even though I don’t have a job to go, the alarm goes off at 7am and I get up, get dressed and have breakfast.  At which point, I feel like I might as well do some of the jobs on my list.  Set the conditions for your own success.  Sitting around in your pyjamas all day will not make you feel like accomplishing things.  Get a diary and put things in it – yoga classes, going for a walk, go and sit in your favourite coffee shop for two hours on the condition you will do those three tasks on your list.  And don’t forget to schedule in some fun.  One of the hardest things I find about working freelance is that I don’t have an office full of people to chat to everyday so I have to work a little harder to make sure I’m seeing my friends and that I’ve got enjoyable things to look forward to.

Have Fun

Which is probably a good time to remind ourselves that you only get one shot a life so you might as well enjoy the ride.  Whether it’s work or play, find things that make you happy and keep doing them.  One of my fears, at the grand old age of 32, is that I won’t find love, that I won’t get married.  Well maybe I won’t, maybe I will, who knows.  But I’m not going to wait around for him to show up to enjoy my life.  I’m going to live life to the full so if he never comes along, I know I had a ball; and if he does come along, hopefully he will see a happy, vibrant person doing all sorts of cool stuff and say ‘hey, I want to be part of that’.

Be Realistic

When I was at boarding school, I would call my mum after exams in floods of tears.  Through the sobs, she would eventually hear “I’ve failed, I’ve definitely failed this one”.  Time after time, she would gently point out that I hadn’t failed one yet, in fact, I had a pretty good track record of As.  But I guess what I meant is that I was worried I hadn’t got that A, that I wasn’t going to be perfect (we’re back to that thing about being specific about your fears).  I have no idea where I got the idea that I had to be perfect.  My parents never demanded perfection but I always have.  What an idiot!  What a totally unachievable goal to have in life.  I’ve mellowed somewhat over the years but I still have the most ridiculous expectations of myself.  If I’m not running sub 9-minute miles every day of the week, I’m failing.  If I’m not practising yoga and meditation EVERY DAY, then I’m failing.  If I’m not an overnight success as a freelance consultant, then I’m failing.  Life doesn’t work like that.  It takes time, it takes effort, and it’s not about achieving perfection.  Nor does every day off, or every slower mile, mean that you should just give up.  Choose your metaphor – life is a rollercoaster, or like being in a lift, or even a box of chocolates – but there will be ‘good’ days and ‘bad’ days.  Days when it all feels easy and days when everything little thing feels like a marathon.  The only thing you can do is go with it; survive the tough ones and thrive in the sunny ones.  That’s how it goes.  So make sure your goals and ambitions fit into that.  By all means, decide you want to be an astronaut, but maybe deciding you want to be a drummer in a rock band when you don’t have any rhythm isn’t quite going to work, just like deciding to be perfect when you’re just human isn’t really going to go your way.

Your Friends Aren’t Wrong

I am not an Oscar-worthy actress.  Nor are my friends gullible.  I have not managed to convince them that I am an entirely different person.  Alright, they don’t hear my internal monologue, but it’s my monologue that’s wrong, not my friends.  I am the person that they see.  I don’t know why that inner voice is so mean and destructive.  I would never talk to anyone else the way that I talk to myself.  So I’m going to stop listening to that voice and start listening to my friends instead.  They’re a pretty fabulous bunch of people and if they think that I’m doing okay, then I’m going to trust that.

Friday Favourites

A selection of highlights from around the internet this week plus a couple of personal favourites.

I loved this article by Hadley Freeman in The Guardian this week.  Green Is The New Black looks at the rise of wellness bloggers and whether you should really believe all that they say.  Personally, I think it’s great that there is so much more discussion about healthy eating but I’m really not a fan of fad diets of any kind.  All the evidence seems to suggest that genuine food allergies are very rare and that cutting out entire food groups is detrimental to your long term health.  Not to mention that this is a booming industry – the gluten-free food market alone is now worth more than £175m – and a lot of these bloggers and recipe books call for some really expensive ingredients.  I think the best thing you can do is get to know your own body and experiment with works for you.  If you have concerns about the effect of certain foods, then do your research and get professional advice.

And whilst we’re on the topic of food, The Guardian also came up with this really interesting article about how to eat healthy and save the environment.  The US Department of Agriculture are due to publish their latest dietary guidelines and the advisory panel have, for the first time, have recommended that the guidelines include environmental sustainability.  I’ll be keeping a keen eye out for what happens; one of the reasons I decided to go vegetarian 18 months ago was because of the environmental impact of global meat production.

If you need some inspiration this week, head over to TED and check out these eleven TED Talks…perfect when you’re feeling in a bit of a rut.  I’m signing myself for those thirty-day challenges – as soon as I decide what!  Please share your ideas for thirty-day challenges in the comments section – either something you want to do more of or a habit you want to break – and let me know what your favourite TED Talk is.

My favourite things this week have included the hottest day of the year so far (I just love London in the summer, even if it did get a bit sticky), some beautifully sweet nectarines, and spending time with some good friends.

deckchair, stripy, regents park, sunshine, empty

The London sun shines on empty deckchairs in Regent’s Park

Six Weeks In

I can’t quite believe that I’ve been in Bangladesh for six weeks already and the halfway point is fast approaching; in fact, in less than a week, we will be heading back to Dhaka for a couple of days and our Mid-Phase Review.  In some respects, the time has just flown by; in others, life in England feels like another lifetime ago.  With the temperature and humidity starting to rise here, it’s hard to imagine London in the cold February rain.

The six-week point is an odd one.  The novelty factor has definitely worn off but, at the same time, I feel very settled now; the rhythms of life here now feel very natural.  The drumbeat of each day marches me gently through each week.

It is very easy to live life one day at a time.  There is just so little to worry about: no cares about the latest fashions or trends, no comparisons with friends or strangers, no pressure to be ‘seen’ doing exciting things or in the right places.  The only plans I really have or care about are those around the project but, even then, there is only so much planning one can do in Bangladesh!

I’m also learning to practice gratitude and mindfulness in a way that I always struggled with back home.  When there are so few comforts in daily life, you become incredibly grateful for the small things.  You really appreciate the small kindnesses people show you, the feeling of clean feet after walking in the dust all day, hearing from friends and family back home.

I don’t know how I feel about the reality that people here face every day of their lives.  I suppose they don’t know any different but it’s hard not to feel bad that I get to leave after three months and go back to my comfortable life in England.  Because life in such a poor, rural community can be really hard and it’s funny the things you miss.  I miss choice and variety, especially around food – 84 meals involving rice so far!  I miss the conveniences of modern life – I can’t tell you how much you suddenly start to appreciate washing machines when you’re working up a sweat washing bed-sheets and towels.  There are times when I miss being able to walk down the street anonymously or sit at home without a crowd of people staring at me as if I were an alien or an animal in a zoo.  I try to take it all in my stride – I know I will miss being able to smile at strangers or say hello to old ladies or play outside with children when I go home – but I guess there are some things you never quite get used to in such a different culture.

But when it’s all said and done, I wouldn’t change it for the world.  It’s just the reality of life in Bangladesh, in a developing country, where nearly forty per cent of the population lives on less than $1.25 a day.  This is, hands down, the most rewarding and satisfying experience I have ever had.  Making the decision to volunteer overseas wasn’t easy but my being here almost feels like destiny, like this is completely the right place for me to be right now.  And that feeling is simply indescribable.

So it’s worth it.  Every cold shower.  Every mosquito bite.  Every plate of rice.  They are all worth the opportunity to work with a wonderful team of volunteers, to help shape their experience and their futures.  They’re all worth it to be part of the global fight against poverty, to have the chance to help some of the world’s poorest people, to create job opportunities in a community where more than a third of the people have no regular source of income.  Nobody said volunteering overseas would be easy.  It isn’t.  But I am so glad I’m doing it.