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Turning 40 – What’s it all about Alfie?

20 Jul

40th birthday

It seems I’m in good company – recent celebrities to hit the big 4.0. include Heidi Klum, Gwen Stefani, and Jennifer Aniston; and what a fine stable of fillies they are too. Back in the real world, I know I need to put some effort into getting into shape; my excuse of post-baby muffin top some two and half years after giving birth is stretching it a bit.

Of course, keeping fit and healthy isn’t driven by vanity alone. (Although I’d be lying if I said I didn’t care about my appearance. Then again, life’s too short to spend time worrying about the circumference of your thighs). It’s more that I’m daunted by the fact that as an older mother I’ve got a heck of a lot of running around ahead of me in my 50s and, eek, 60s.

But what are my long term health prospects (assuming I don’t get run over by a bus, or more likely a tractor, here in rural France)? Well, the UK average life expectancy for women is 82 years, but of course old age is likely to bring with it a variety of ailments, typically osteoporosis, arthritis or heaven forbid, dementia. That’s assuming one of the five big killers: heart disease, stroke, cancer, lung and liver disease (which account for more than 150,000 deaths a year among under-75s in England) don’t get me first.  As such, a healthy living regime of a sensible (preferably Mediterranean) diet, regular exercise and daily flossing is a must – it’s not exactly rocket science. As long as I can still indulge in a cheeky vino a few times a week and the occasional devilish dessert, I think it’s a reasonable ask.

But my physical decrepitude is not the only thing worrying me about entering the dreaded mid-life phase. What do the next 40 years hold? How can I live a happy, healthy and fulfilled life knowing what I know now: that ‘the best laid plans [of mice and men] go oft astray’?

Financially, I’m neither destitute nor financially buoyant, but with no mortgage and little savings, a ‘secure’ future seems like an abstract concept. Currently living with my mother and venturing into the world of self-employment, I am undoubtedly at an interesting crossroad in life – but which direction it will ultimately take, I just don’t know. A full time job may well be necessary (and practically, more possible) when my daughter begins statutory education, but the astronomical cost of paying somebody to look after my child whilst I work full time seems nonsensical when there’s an alternative to be explored. And with 1.52 million people claiming job seekers allowance in the UK currently, setting myself up as a sole trader until the economy improves is probably not a bad option. In addition, the process is sure to be a valuable, if not personally fulfilling, learning curve.

On a more philosophical level: What’s it all about Alfie? Really, what should I be doing to ensure that my middle years make for a ‘good life’. How do I ensure that I meet my own need for friendship and love, while retaining my re-established sense of self? When I’ve provided a roof over my head and food on the table, how do I go about meeting that burning desire to see more of the world and feel I am making my mark (remember Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs from school?). I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I do know that money isn’t necessarily the route to achieving these simple goals (although boy, can it help!).

Although I’m far from being a wise old crone yet,  the most valuable lessons about life, I’ve learnt thus far are:

don’t sweat the small stuff;

be kind to yourself;

true love is a ‘doing’ word;

and laugh, sing and dance at every opportunity

So, I’ll try my best to eat my five a day, while working towards a secure future and looking after those I love. I’ll also be celebrating entering my 5th decade by doing some unashamed ‘mum’ dancing with a few friends, and looking forward to another 40 years filled with meeting new people, seeing the world and creating more happy memories, because, although it’s a cliché : life really isn’t a dress rehearsal.

Related links:

European men lag behind in life expectancy

ONS – Measuring National Well-being – Older people and loneliness, 2013

Unhealthy Britain: nation’s five big killers

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs

Gingerbread – Campaigning for single parent families

What’s it all about Alfie, song Lyrics

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My old notebook and learning to be happy

5 Jul
A Banquet Piece Artist: Frans Snyders, courtesy of the National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin, Ireland

A Banquet Piece
Artist: Frans Snyders, courtesy of the National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin, Ireland

A few days ago I discovered an old note-book containing ‘thinks’ from my early 30s. Inside the cover I had clipped a quote from the ancient Greek philosopher Epitetus, a former slave whose teachings focus on the path to happiness – through learning to accept one’s fate and letting go of negative ‘judgements’  which can lead to disappointment. Here’s what it read:

Behave in life as you would at a banquet. As something is passed around, it comes to you; stretch out your hand, take a portion of it politely. It passes on; do not detain it. Or it has not come to you yet; do not project your desire to meet it, but wait until it comes in front of you. So act toward children, so towards a wife, so towards office, so towards wealth.

           The Enchiridion, By Epitetus (born 50AD)

On re-reading, I realised how pertinent these words were to me….how often do I want some new success right now, yet fail to reflect on how far I’ve come; how often do I fail to appreciate the simple moments of pleasure and contentment, as I’m too busy moving onto some new quest for fulfilment; how often am I too eager to please others and equally, too susceptible to disappointment if my plans fail to come to fruition?

So I’m going to try change my mindset as Epitetus suggests: I shall enjoy positive feedback about my work, whilst being more pragmatic about business endeavours, and embrace the love and friendship that I am lucky to be surrounded with. I will also try to accept the ‘place’ I’m in right now, albeit putting in place stepping-stones towards a new arrangement. For therein lies the key to happiness.

Related links:

The Philosophy

An inspirational female entrepreneur and my budding idea

21 Jun

The germ of a business idea

The germ of a business idea

A business idea is forming in my mind. It’s a small seed which needs feeding with plenty of research, a sprinkling of expert advice and watering with gallons of motivation to help it germinate into a viable proposition.

With this in mind it was fascinating to watch the fabulous Laura Tenison, founder of the hugely successful JoJo Maman Bébé, being interviewed on BBC 2 by entrepreneur and Dragon’s Den investor, Peter Jones, about the story of her success.

A market leader in maternity and children’s fashion Laura’s first shop was perfectly located to appeal to the Yummy Mummies of Clapham – or ‘Nappy Valley’ as it’s otherwise known. Her success is largely down to a good concept done well – beautifully crafted clothing with a Gallic influence, marketed to aspirational and affluent parents. But where gazillions of others have failed, Laura has prevailed, and this she puts down to a blinding conviction in her business model, combined with the courage to challenge, or ignore the naysayers.

It transpired that Laura’s determination to succeed boils down to a desire to prove her worth to her mother. No major revelation there … wanting to make our parents proud is a trait instilled in many of us. Conversely, many people set out to shake off their parents’ expectations or do something in the opposite direction. The point is, the spirit of entrepreneurship must be nurtured at a young age, as we begin to formulate ideas about our own capabilities and the future person we will become. The importance of learning to pick oneself up after a fall, gaining valuable experience from mistakes and taking risks, are other vital traits for business success.

“It’s not because things are difficult that we dare not venture. It’s because we dare not venture that they are difficult.”
― Lucius Annaeus Seneca

But Laura’s success came at a price, right? Peter duly probed Laura about what she’d sacrificed to achieve such heady business heights. She conceded that she often brought her babies into the office and the interview cut to a scene of Laura whipping up the kids’ tea whilst asking them about their school day. But in reality, how many tea-times and sports days has she missed due to meetings or work issues requiring her input?

I’ve ruminated about this for a few days and wonder if I’ve really got what it takes to be an entrepreneur and still achieve work-life balance?

The next step will be to get down to the nuts and bolts of developing a business plan. With this in mind, it was timely to see that Yasmina Siadatan, former Apprentice winner, has been promoting Start Up Loans via Mumsnet earlier this week. Great, I thought, advice tailored to women entrepreneuers – until I realised that at 40 years of age I do not meet the criteria!

So, lots more research for me on the horizon and for now this project will run parallel to my ‘bread and butter’ freelance PR and writing work.

In the meantime, I’m delighted to see that a report recently published by the Women’s Business Council (WBC) is promoting the notion that women should be given better information and guidance on how to pursue entrepreneurial ventures. In particular it stresses that there should be a broader definition of what an enterprise is and ensure marketing of support services is inclusive, in recognition of the differences between men and women entrepreneurs.

A recent report by Dell revealed that the UK only ranks 6th place in a study of 17 countries and support for female entrepreneurs – with America leading the way. I applaud Laura Tenison for being such an inspirational role model in the UK, but the government and employers would do well to heed the WBC report if they are to give more budding female entrepreneurs the support and encouragement we deserve.

Related links:

BBC 2 Peter Jones meets Series 1 Episode 1
http://www.startuploans.co.uk/

The Telegraph – Best place for female entrepreneurs? It ain’t the UK

BBC Business – From thought to profit: How ideas become viable
businesses

‘Franglais’ and the international sign for chicken

25 May

Our temporary sojourn in Brittany has brought with it the inevitable challenge of speaking French. My GCSE level French is rusty to say the least, and in reality I’ve not yet had to ask someone how to find the railway station, or if I can buy a kilo of bananas. I have however, mimed a chicken lying down for the night in order to obtain some wood shavings for the hen coop, and casually asked the assistant in an electrical store where I can find the weapons (‘fusiller’), only to be asked whether, in actual fact, I might be looking for fuses (‘fusible’)!

These minor embarrassments are all part of the learning curve, but there’s no doubt that some dedicated study is going to be needed to help me contribute more than a cursory: “It’s sunny today” at the school gates. My two and half year old daughter on the other hand, is becoming ‘au fait’ with basic words and phrases with relative ease – thanks to a couple of weeks at the local pre-school. Admittedly she’s not saying very much in French, but she’s comfortable uttering ‘bonjour’, ‘au revoir’ and ‘merci’ and more importantly, she’s following the teachers’ instructions and interacting confidently with the other children. Additionally, while playing on her own, she will sometimes imitate French speaking or read to her teddy in ‘French’, which is basically gobbledygook but with a distinctly Gallic melody. That, of course, is exactly how she began to speak English – by practicing different sounds until they gradually morphed into recognisable words and groups of words.

It’s well known that language acquisition is a natural part of development, much like walking; and that learning new languages comes more easily to children than adults. It is, however, a common misconception that the adult tongue somehow become less able to pronounce the sounds of another language. The key distinction is in ‘acquisition’ and ‘learning’ – i.e. the gradual development of an ability in a language, through regular exchanges, as opposed to a more rigid classroom-based accumulation of vocabulary and grammar, which is altogether a more arduous process. Despite this uncomfortable truth, I must continue to try to re-familiarise myself with verbs and tenses learned by rote over 20 years ago, for fear of getting left behind as my daughter’s comprehension and vocabulary effortlessly grows.

Mulling this over, I consulted a few friends who are married to partners that speak a different language and are therefore raising children that are bilingual. Their experiences confirm the notion that learning multiple languages in infancy is a relative breeze. Their toddlers are not only learning two (or more) languages at pretty much the same rate as their monolingual counterparts, but in some cases, they actually act as a translator – taking one parent’s question and putting it to the other parent in their (the other parent’s) native language. Apparently, this ability to switch from one language to another has been proven to help the bilingual child to outperform monolingual children in cognitive tests. So an added benefit of my little one learning two languages at an early age is that being bilingual can actually make kids smarter, and I’m all for that.

For me, I think it’s definitely back to the proverbial classroom if I’m going to survive the forthcoming school trip, on which I’ve boldly offered to act as a help chaperone. My ‘Franglais’ simply won’t cut the ‘moutarde’.

Related links:

Bilingual children ‘better at problem-solving skills’ BBC News

Why bilinguals are smarter, New York Times

TED talks: Patricia Kuhl on the liguistic genuis of babies

Reading for inspiration

17 May

Bathsheba Everdene - a true heroine  © all rights reserved Bathsheba Everdene on Flickr from Yahoo

Bathsheba Everdene – a true heroine
© all rights reserved Bathsheba Everdene on Flickr from Yahoo

I’m feeling slightly bereft this week after finishing reading the excellent Sea Glass by Anita Shreve. The story is both a tale of unrequited love and personal fortitude, as well as an historical account of the economic crash in 1930s America. The journey of the central character, Honora, from unsatisfied newly-wed to single mother, sustained by friendship and the sense of purpose brought about by her baby, couldn’t fail to resonate with me.

Undoubtedly, many people read simply for entertainment and escapism without a thought for whether they particularly like, or agree with the central protagonists.

For me however, a good book, and in particular the characters in fictional narratives, can rattle around my head long after I’ve turned the last page, as I try to make sense of the emotional responses, actions and comeuppances of those whose lives I’ve inhabited for several weeks.

With this in mind, here’s my list of the top five books which have influenced my thinking, or inspired me in some way, particularly when the going’s got tough:

1. Far from the Madding Crowd, by Thomas Hardy

This key A level text made a huge impression on me as a shy teenager desperate to cultivate an air of sophistication and confidence. The main protagonist is a naïve but head-strong young woman holding her own in a man’s world. The novel charts her personal growth as she contends with the trials and tribulations of running a big farm and a tumultuous love- life, each knock back teaching her a valuable life-lesson. A true heroine, flawed and yet, self-knowing. Bathsheba Everdene, I salute you.

2. The Whole Woman, by Germaine Greer

As a young woman in my twenties and in all honesty, in hot pursuit of men, the notion that I might be a feminist was faintly ridiculous – didn’t they burn their bras and have dodgy haircuts? Needless to say, as press officer for Nottingham Trent University I was required to report on a lecture she was giving and was so buoyed up by the experience I swiftly went out to buy her latest book. Although I don’t fully embrace all of Greer’s opinions, The Whole Woman made me question things I’d never considered before about women, gender and equality.

3. Lovely Green Eyes, by Arnost Lustig

This gripping story centres on a teenage girl sent with her family to Auschwitz. Using her red hair and green eyes as cover, 15 year old Hanka poses as an Aryan to gain work in a German military brothel. Her unfaltering self-preservation and cunning enable her to escape death. This was quite a harrowing read, but Hanka’s survival reminded me of the immense strength, dignity and unfaltering hope of those who suffered at the hands of the Nazis. I can recall reading this at a particularly trying time in my early married life, dealing with family and financial problems, and realising how insignificant my woes were in comparison to those living through wars or persecution. Humbling.

4. Eat, Love and Pray, by Elizabeth Gilbert

This book, which preceded the no doubt smaltzy film, heralded a fresh mind set for me during a very difficult period of hurt and confusion about what direction my life should take following my separation. Very few of us can go to such great lengths to find inner peace, but like Liz, learning to allow myself to step off the treadmill and ‘just be’ has been hugely restorative.

4. Wouldn’t take nothing for my journey now, by Maya Angelou

I chanced upon this book earlier this year, whilst I was struggling to juggle my demanding job and look after (single-handedly) my young daughter. Maya’s lessons on life are poetic, humourous and forgiving of human fallibility. Her guidance is as much about loving thy neighbour, as the importance of self-preservation and dignity. Take this nugget: “Whining is not only graceless but can be dangerous. It can alert a brute that a victim is in the neighbourhood”. Sage words indeed.

So dear book lovers, now it’s your turn – which books have inspired you, helped inform your life philosophy or given you succour when you needed it?

Related links:

Top 100 Most Inspirational Books

Love Reading UK

An Awfully Big Blog Adventure

The f word – contemporary UK feminism

A gentle reminder

3 May

baby bracelet

Last week, my former landlady sent me my daughter’s hospital bracelet. The bracelet must have fallen out of the shoe-box stuffed with baby mementoes as they were hastily packed away ready for the removal van.

I was so touched by this gesture, I immediately emailed her to thank her for her trouble. It would have been so easy for her to simply throw away such a small and apparently, trivial item (particularly as I had left the country), but instead, she reflected on what this small plastic band, bearing my daughter’s name and date of birth, might mean to me, and took the time and effort to package it and sent it on.

Every day is filled with these small, fleeting opportunities of goodwill which have the power to restore someone’s faith in human nature, help someone put their problems in perspective, or let someone know that they are appreciated. Sadly, we are often too busy and pre-occupied with our endless ‘to do’ lists and own needs to act with kindness and compassion to others. This thing is, it’s amazing how a small gesture such as sending a greeting card, or stopping to pass the time with a neighbour can boost your own happiness and wellbeing too.

Simply smiling, not only makes those around you happier but has been proven to release endorphins – chemicals which help reduce stress.

Here in France the word for kind is ‘gentil‘ and their ‘gentilhomme’ was originally synonymous with ‘nobleman’, this is, a man of wealth and status. As with our ‘gentleman’ it now describes any man of good, courteous conduct.  Today, ‘gentle’ behaviour is less about etiquette, but is still essentially about acknowledging others, being courteous and putting aside your own wants and needs for a moment.

Far from being a paragon of virtue myself, I have a caustic tongue to rival Anne Robinson when I’m riled and admit to a streak of schadenfreude, especially on ski-ing holidays despite being a novice myself (admit it, unless there’s any real damage it’s pretty hilarious watching people fall over). As such, I know that there are frequent times when I should, or could, have acted more ‘gently’ towards others – especially now that I need to show a good example to my DD (‘darling daughter’ to the uninitiated). I have no doubt that every ungenerous word or sarcastic eyebrow raised is being processed by that cute little brain, only to be regurgitated, usually at an inappropriate moment.

In my defence, teaching the importance of kindness to a toddler can be a challenge, especially once your little cherub begins to realise that they have desires and ideas of their own. Deprive him/ her of that extra biscuit and you are branded a ‘meanie’, and why on earth would any sane two year old want to relinquish the biggest, noisiest percussion instrument in the playgroup when they‘re having so much fun? Also, how can you teach your two year old to be forgiving, when some great oik twice their size pushes them for no apparent reason other than to get a reaction? On these occasions its okay to say ‘stop that’ very loudly , tell a grown up or walk away – bad behaviour should never be tolerated.

The general principal is this: life can be unfair, and bullies do need putting in their place, but on the whole, you’ll not only rub along more easily with others if you’re kind, life will just feel better if you’re polite, treat people the way you expect to be treated, and act without prejudice. Above all, the joy and gratitude generated by seemingly small acts of kindness should never be underestimated – as I can testify by the surprise return of my precious little plastic bracelet.

Letting go to let in new possibilities

19 Apr

crochet web image

I’m about to begin a new chapter in my life. It’s time to step off the treadmill. A temporary hiatus in Brittany will allow me time to take stock and investigate how to set myself up as a freelance PR consultant and writer. It will also give me a precious opportunity to spend more time with my two year old daughter.

Surrounded by empty packing boxes a few days before the removal van is due, I survey the task in hand. I am struck by how much ’stuff’ I have accumulated, not only in the last year (since my separation), but in the last 20 years, when I first flew the nest.

As I contemplate this uncomfortable truth, I spy a green and blue striped vase, a relic from university days, staring pleadingly at me from the corner of the room. But its not just a sad old chipped vase, which has overstayed its welcome, there is a plethora of much less functional items filling up drawers and cluttering shelves.

Of course many of these odds and ends have a sentimental, if not functional value: old photographs of loved ones (taken before the advent of digital cameras); a miniature reproduction Christ the Redeemer (dear Rio de Janeiro, how you stole my heart); and ‘yellow bunny’, who has ‘stood’ by me, literally, for as long as I can remember.

My argument being that one man’s junk may be another man’s precious memory, point of reference, or inspiration.

I tentatively open up cupboards and peer under beds to discover that this theory has its limits.  I am in denial about much of my possessions such as clothes that no longer fit or are suitable for a 40 year old mother, or the fantastical notion that I will become a dab hand at crafting. And please tell me I’m not alone in getting only as far as actually watching the pilates DVD from the comfort of my sofa – admiring the tutor’s rippling abdominals and the stunning backdrop?

But there are bigger ‘skeletons’ in the closet. The wedding dress, stuffed uncomfortably into a small box, a reminder of my ill-fated union. And the moses basket, now functioning as an oversized day-bed for my baby’s doll. But its not just letting go of the crib, is it? It’s accepting that my baby-making days are dwindling.

Biting the bullet, I quickly snap and upload photos of the dress and crib onto Ebay. Bags of trashy novels and baby toys are bundled into carrier bags chartered for a charity shop. Now that really wasn’t so hard was it? Energised, I start throwing away shoes – yes shoes, for heaven’s sake!

The decluttering is far from complete, but at least I’ve made a start. The need to reduce my physical baggage forced me to address the mental baggage I was still carrying – of shattered dreams from a previous chapter in my life. So as well as reducing removal costs, my mental ‘decluttering’ has created the space for new possibilities that may be just round the corner…

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