The Quality of Mercy

It was my mum’s 91st birthday this week, or it would have been, if she’d still been alive. I’ve been thinking a lot about kindness recently, and it always brings to mind one of her favourite quotes, from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice:

The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes…

Merchant of Venice, Act IV, Scene I

I always hear it in my head when I experience or witness an act of kindness and for a moment, I see the gentle rain, and realise why I quite like it falling on me from time to time. It’s beautiful.

It fell on me recently and unexpectedly when I was on a hiking weekend in the South Downs with friends. Uncharacteristically, I hadn’t brought a waterproof jacket with me because the weather forecast hadn’t predicted any rain at all. And here it was, going from gentle to persistent downfall in a matter of minutes. I spoke to Sue, the manager of the Eastbourne YHA we were staying in to see if she had a bin bag I could fashion into a poncho. “Just a minute,” she said, disappearing into the office. She came out holding her own waterproof jacket, “Just post it back to me when you’re done. Here’s a jiffy bag with the address on it.”

I was utterly amazed that someone would offer such a thing and thanked Sue for her kindness. “Well you’d do the same for someone, wouldn’t you?” she replied. No, I’m not sure that I would, actually. And a straw poll of my friends revealed they probably wouldn’t either. I wished I was more like Sue. We all did.

I felt a warm glow for the rest of that day, especially as the rain dissipated after an hour or so and the sun came out. I remembered the last time this had happened – the woman who bought me a coffee when I didn’t have any cash in my local coffee shop and their card reader was broken. “I’ll buy you one!” she’d said brightly, stunning me, the staff and everyone around her with this random act. I felt that warm glow all day.

Why are these moments so rare and so surprising? Maybe it’s because I live in London and everyone is surprised by someone even talking to a stranger. One of the many benefits of my recent yoga teacher training is that it introduces and reinforces the idea that we are all connected – human, animal, plant, elements – in one vast totality that is the universe. When you look in someone’s (or something’s) eyes you witness a ‘divine light’ that resides in all of us.

In our first week of training we took part in a partner yoga session that had us all moving slowly from one person to another, holding their hands and looking into each other’s eyes for a few seconds. That’s all it takes. You look, you see, you connect. Most of us cried our eyes out for a reason we couldn’t quite articulate. It seemed to me that we rarely look at each other in the eye, especially in London. Truly seeing someone or being seen is to be vulnerable. I know, because it took me a week to be able to look our course director, Sudhir, in the eye. Maybe I was worried about what he would see…

I turned up at the training desperate to impress. Surely, with my track record of professional presentations and ballet teaching I will shine at this. Then Sudhir started to talk about how we are all plugged in to a life-force (prana) in the totality and how we express its energy differently. If we imagine it as electricity, then we can express it as a lightbulb or a fan, even a fridge or a hairdryer. The important thing to know is that we are all unique expressions of the same thing and we are all connected by it.

I asked Sudhir why I was so desperate to shine, even to outshine others. I didn’t want to be a regular lightbulb, I wanted to be the biggest, best, shiniest Christmas light and I was exhausted by trying to achieve it. He looked down and smiled, “You have to realise that you are enough already. What are you trying to prove? And to whom? It is done.”

I didn’t have an answer to that. It was literally a lightbulb moment. I realised that I didn’t have anything left to prove, to others or myself. I could just be. I could just be a lightbulb who shares its energy with all the other bulbs around it, who could shine alongside them and be happy. There is no need to outshine anyone else or even my own achievements (I have always found my biggest competitor is myself and I’ve asked her to retire gracefully.)

I have found that the really good yoga teachers always have the ability to look into your soul. They don’t shy away from a direct gaze and there is an indefinable openness to their faces (I call it ‘yoga face’). While I was training I realised that one or two teachers I’d had back home were not kind or merciful and in fact, they were edging towards bullying. They didn’t seek any connection with their students either before or after class, and in fact, only bestowed their gaze on a few chosen ones. It felt like a cult. On my return I sought out the opposite and I have found two teachers, one in particular, who sees me. The lightbulb is shining clear and bright within her and now I see it, it’s obvious that it was there from the start, and very much missing in others.

Once you truly see people (and animals…and inside yourself) you can’t go back to averting your eyes from them. They’re there, connected to you, urging you to be a better person. Not better than them, but better because you share something with them. The Sues, the coffee-shop ladies and the good yoga teachers of the world remind you that they’re right there next to you the whole time – when you’re being jostled on a busy tube or in the supermarket checkout queue.

Or even in the gentle rain falling on you on the South Downs.

Photo credit: Mohammed Salik 2019

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Ahimsa

I didn’t expect to not hike when I booked this holiday in the Svaneti region of Georgia. I am with my hiking group and they have gone off ahead of me, booted and rucksacked, as I take in the view you see at the top of this blog post outside our guest house for one of the four nights along the route.

I managed to get a severe blister on my heel at the very start – a combination of not having hiked for a couple of months while I was in Goa, hot weather and boots that are slightly too big for me. I have been unable to walk uphill without the various compeed plasters and tape coming off so I’ve given up.

Instead of feeling devastated and down about this turn of events I have felt calm and peaceful – joyful even – at this new opportunity. An opportunity to have the restorative holiday my body was craving after two months of intensive yoga training. I feel broken physically, but very healed on the inside.

One of the values we learned on our course was that of ‘ahimsa’ – non-violence. This is one of Sage Patanjali’s ‘yamas’ – values attached to emotions in his ‘eight limbs’ (‘Ashtanga’) of yoga and I have thought about it a lot this week.

This non-violence applies to thought, word and action as they are applied to other humans, animals and plants. But perhaps the most important of these is non-violence towards oneself.

I began to apply this philosophy whilst yoga training because I had a shoulder injury that had come about by throwing myself punishingly into yoga classes during my first month in Goa. I tried to be kind to my body and allow the shoulder to rest. I could almost hear it thanking me.

In Goa and here in Georgia I have been struck by our need to punish our bodies in order to feel happiness. We have to do exercise in order to ‘deserve’ the food we’re eating or the drinks we have afterwards. Yet the yoga philosophy says that happiness is our true nature and that we don’t need to deserve any of it. It is our birthright and we just need to access it by stripping away the obstructions to it that our minds put in its way. This is the entire goal of yoga and it has worked its magic on me.

In Kyrgyzstan last year I had a terribly painful hip but was determined to hike up mountains until my body told me otherwise. The moment I allowed a horse to take my weight was one of the happiest of my life. Why did I have to climb every mountain pass to feel worthy?

Here in Georgia I was once again given access to a horse and this time took it gladly. I stopped thinking of this week as a hiking marathon with its rewards of cake and khachapuri (cheese bread) and started to allow myself to have the holiday I needed – a restorative one.

Good things happen when you give yourself permission to stop. You spend time with local people and that time slows down. You find that you enjoy riding a horse and are not so scared of them next time round. You learn to trust them when they take you through rivers and up steep hills. My horse this week was called Tornado – a name that filled with me with fear when I first heard it but it turned out the family he belongs to named him ironically.

Gegi, his owner, guided me around the paths the hiking group were taking and I got small insights into his world as we clip-clipped along. He knew every Georgian on the route and they greeted him like family, warming us and drying Gegi’s clothes when it poured down and giving me a seat by the stove, pressing hot coffee into our hands.

And now I have practised a little yoga in front of this glorious view while one of the young guys who lives here plays trance music that seems to match the mountain view. I am waiting for a car to pick me up to transport me to Ushguli but while I’m waiting I have created my first new vinyasa yoga class after getting my first call as a cover teacher.

I like this flexibility of thinking: turning what could be seen as a disaster into an opportunity. How great if you could apply this philosophy to your whole life.

I remember two things from the yoga training that really have become useful in my life. One, that we have the freedom to choose how we respond to any situation -I choose to reshape this holiday for myself into a restorative one. Two, that to avoid stress and anxiety we should simply do what needs to be done and get on with it. The simplicity of this last statement blows my mind. Just do what needs to be done: in my case, stop walking, take care of my open wound, hire a horse and enjoy the moment in this incredible landscape.

Ahimsa. Try it.

Silent Day

As part of our yoga teacher training at Sampoorna, my group was offered the chance to have a Silent Day as part of the course. Initially, led by an apparent lack of study time, the answer from the group was riddled with panicky ‘no’s. But a few of us were thinking, ‘I bet this is going to be one of the most profound experiences of the whole thing’ and backed the plan. In the end we agreed to go for it and I’m so, so glad we did.

One of the five ‘Niyamas’ or personal practices, in Sage Patanjali’s eight limbs of yoga established 3,000 years ago (ashtanga means eight limbs) is Tapas. It refers to the practice of removing yourself from your comfort zone so you can understand and harness your desires. Fasting, silence, giving up your smart phone – these are all part of the same practice. We were to have a day where we could not speak to each other, we could not even look at each other, and were not allowed to read anything, listen to music or look at our phones. The wifi would be switched off. The only thing we would be allowed to do is journal the experience. We were free to absorb the nature around us and to reflect internally on ourselves.

I was intrigued to see where my mind would take me. It’s already pretty active so what would it do if it was given a whole day to run riot? I would write it all down in my little peacock-covered notebook. I’m looking back through the notes now and can remember the day panning out from breakfast, where I found it so difficult not to even look at my friends, through to dinner where I was bursting with things to tell them – discoveries I’d made that day – and could not.

The day began with a mysore practice of Ashtanga – self-conducted but all together in the same shala. I had been nursing a shoulder injury throughout the whole course and I needed to modify everything. I realised, in my silence, that I need to be kinder to my shoulder, to my body. It can do so much, so beautifully. I wanted to be grateful to it.

I got to savasana – corpse pose – at the end and I cried. I had a sudden overwhelming joyous memory of being at university in a contemporary dance class with my friends. I felt the joy then of moving as one unit, and I’d felt it return in this shala. Perhaps I don’t like being alone in the world as much as I think.

Whilst lying there, hearing my fellow yogis breathing and completing their last asanas, I thought of ‘Rock Beach’, the place in Agonda where I could swim in calmer waters with Karma Joy, and how she’d encouraged me over and over to come to Sampoorna. I thought of baptism and rebirth, and thought ‘this is the place I have done it.’

Later that day I forced myself into the midday sun. For many people this is their comfort zone, paradise even, when the sun is high and they are most likely to tan. For me, it is extremely stressful. I have to be slathered in Factor 50 because I burn so easily. I have to coat my hair in coconut oil before I get in the water to stop it drying out and I don’t like stickiness or sand on my body. Despite my recent swimming lessons I am still afraid of the waves (although less so) and I don’t like how you have to repeat the slathering every time you come out of the water. I had spent other middays until now in my ice-cold air-conditioned room, hiding and studying.

I wrote in my book: “why can’t I be one of those women who just strips off and gets in the water?” Why was I worrying about everything? I even started to think I’d gained weight, just to add to it all. But I just sat there, in my bikini in the blinding white light, forcing myself through these difficult thoughts.

And then Chris appeared. Chris is a woman on my course whom I grew to love over the three weeks. In the very first week, there was a connection between us. We’d done a very emotional introductory session where we had to go round the room and look into the eyes of every person and hold their hands. I still don’t know why that elicited so much emotion but it did. Who knew that just properly looking at someone was such a profound thing? When it was her turn, Chris stood silently before me with my hands in hers, squeezing them and nodding her head, as if to say, “it’s ok, I am here and you are calm.” It was really beautiful.

And now, in that blinding midday light, she came walking up the beach towards me. She gestured without looking at me to move over on my beach throw and stretched out beside me. We lay next to each other and I was smiling. What a connection. This woman – wise, funny, beautiful – was yet another spirit guide in my Agonda journey. Everywhere we went that day we crossed paths, as if we were dancing.

I got up to go into the water and later, Chris told me that she didn’t know I had gone – she could still feel my energy next to her. I had thought she might join me, but when I looked back she was gathering her things and walking back along the beach. I smiled.

The waves were strong that day due to pre-monsoon weather and standing in front of them I felt baptised and renewed. I remembered that I’d had a fantasy, brought on by my ex-husband’s Endless Summer surf movie poster, of being on a bright white beach with a surf boy. Now I began to wonder if the fantasy was only meant to have me in it. But then the image of a tall handsome Indian man joined me in the light, with his dark eyes that shine into my soul and a smile that lights up my heart.

I had stood in the waves holding hands with him a few weeks earlier and had tried to commit the image to my memory because I could not accept that this could actually be true. That I could be happy. I’ve got so much wrong in this life so far – especially spending years with the wrong man – that I could scarcely believe it could ever be right. But I couldn’t deny that every time I thought about him I felt happy and it made me cry with joy. He makes me want to be my natural self because that’s who he sees in front of him.

On that beach, in the blinding white light, I allowed myself to plan a future that includes him and makes me happy. “Everything seems so aligned here,” I wrote, “so right. Maybe it was always meant to be be like this. I am literally bursting with happiness. This is how you shine even brighter in your life – you come to a place you love, to people you love, doing a thing you love.”

Later that day I went up to my favourite shala, the one from which I could see Rock Beach in the distance, and lay on my mat, notebook beside me. This shala is surrounded by swaying palms with birds and monkeys all around. You can hear the waves crashing on the beach below.

I knew that Lucie would join me. As with Chris, I’d had a profound connection with her in the ‘circle of tears’ as I now refer to it. We had held each other’s hands right at the beginning and Lucie’s tears set me off. I felt moved to give her a hug. After that moment we were never very far apart. We would find ourselves sitting near each other in class or in the restaurant, so much so that it became a standing joke. I’d often have Chris and Lucie on either side of me, wherever I was. And here they were again, at my side on Silent Day.

Lucie padded into the shala as I lay there and assumed her position on her mat, journal in front of her. I lay there with my eyes closed, smiling, as I had done with Chris, glad that my two kindred spirits had managed to communicate with me on this day. At one point I considered getting up and going to give Lucie a hug because I could hear her softly crying. But I decided that it was enough to be with her there as she worked through her own stuff. I tried to broadcast love and support from where I lay.

And then I realised something. I realised that it didn’t matter how much we knew about the Sanskrit names for every asana or chakra – what was important as a yoga teacher was to know yourself. The practice of yoga is about discovering your true nature – unconditional joy – and physical practice is about 20% of the action required to get there. What Silent Day had done was give us all a chance to meditate, consider and better understand ourselves.

I had done mine under the blinding white light of the Agonda sun, and later I mused on how the state of enlightenment is often linked to seeing a white light during meditation. I don’t claim to be enlightened after Silent Day but I liked the symbolism of the light and I had managed to make some conclusions and decisions about my life in that time.

Before bed, we meditated with our course director and he asked us to consider the gentle moon. All I could think about was this gentle man in my life. He is working on a cruise ship and in my mind, I could see it sailing under the moon on the ocean wave. I couldn’t wait to get to bed so that I could wake up the next morning and tell him how I felt about him.

I woke at 5am and the wifi was still off.

It would have to wait.

You’re the Voice

I’ve been doing a three-week 200-hour yoga teacher training course in Goa and it’s coming to an end tomorrow. I can scarcely believe that this is my life but somehow I’ve been directed to Agonda, this beyond-special place, to study at Sampoorna Yoga School for Mind and Body. And it is a body- and mind-altering experience.

I can also scarcely believe that the one note I’ve been given from the start about my teaching is that my voice could be louder and more confident. What?? This is me!! The person who regularly chairs and appears on panels in the publishing world, who has presented to large, industry audiences, who loves to talk confidently in front of her teams, her colleagues and her peers. It’s my thing, if you will.

And yet here, in this jungle behind the beach, my voice was diminished. I knew when I was asking questions of the teachers that they couldn’t quite hear me and were screwing up their faces in that way that people do when they’re trying to hear someone. In my head, my voice sounded sonorous but clearly it wasn’t. On my first teaching assignment, I thought I was projecting loud and clear, but no – I’d done well but the one comment was that my voice needed to be louder. This came back in the feedback from my fellow students. Of all of the things I thought I’d need to think about, this was not it.

I thought about it during our breathing and mantra meditations. I heard my voice omming and repeating the Sanskrit mantras and I knew the feedback was right – there was something tentative and weak in my voice. My throat felt a little choked like there was something trying to get out. This was new. I always felt like I had a voice. It was the one thing I ‘did’ have.

Last night at dinner a group of us were talking about the way the world celebrates extroversion over introversion and how many of us loved our Silent Day because we love to be quiet, and with ourselves alone. I told them that I’d arrived in London as a quiet, introverted young woman and I’d had to work hard to adopt the extrovert practices of the people around me in publishing. Introversion appeared to be frowned on and only extroverts got promoted. I did two lots of training in one job where we did the Myers Briggs personality colour test twice. In the first year I did it, I was a quiet, calm, harmonious green. After working within an extroverted management team for a few years, the chart showed that I was now leading with my red leadership side. I was proud of that transition and of saying that I wasn’t the woman who arrived in London all those years ago. Who wanted to be green when you could be red?

The aim of yoga is to unite the mind, the body and the self, but more specifically, its goal is to unite the self with one’s true nature, which is unconditional joy. How beautiful is that? Over the last eighteen months where I’ve been practising it, I have found myself returning to a person I was years ago, when I was still in Wales and not working in London. In a previous blog post about giving up alcohol nearly five months ago, I refer to feeling like I’ve had a ‘factory reset’. I now realise that yoga (and a very good therapist) has led me to this place and giving up alcohol was just part of the journey.

Here, in Agonda, I have started to find a voice again, beyond the words I’ve written in my book and in this blog. I realised that my voice had been internalised over the past few years and I was swimming around in the noise I was making inside, some of it spilling out into this blog. It is a different thing, to stand in front of people and speak as your true self, no microphone to amplify you, no industry framework to prop you up. You are just you, standing there, trying to communicate with your students in the clearest, simplest way possible. I couldn’t believe, at first, that aside from my volume issues, the one thing I found most difficult about the teaching was finding the words to guide people into asanas (poses). I can talk very fluently about children’s illustrated books, but suddenly I found myself unable to find the words to guide someone who’d never done downward dog before into the pose. The simplicity was the problem.

Slowly, slowly, I have started to find the words, and the clarity and the volume needed to communicate effectively. I almost feel like I’ve had to learn to speak again. I’ve had to learn to look people in the eye again and talk to them from the heart. These have been the hardest things. I caught myself not being able to look our course director, Sudhir, in the eye when I first asked him a question in my weedy voice. I was horrified. This isn’t me! I thought. I wanted to sound strong and competent and clever and I just sounded like a woman trying to ask a question and not finding the right words or volume.

In the final week of training I noticed that my voice had changed in the chants and in the teaching. It felt easier to think of the words I needed and to find the voice to communicate them. Yoga practice is a humbling experience, especially the ashtanga we’ve been studying, and I’ve examined my need to be the strong, competent, clever one and realised that this needs to be laid aside (not least because Sudhir told me this ‘intense craving’ is one of the Bhagavad-Gita’s three gateways to hell).

I am simply a woman trying to ask a question and finding the right words and volume.

How Does It Feel?

I wanted to follow up my post about being newly alcohol-free with a few thoughts about how it feels, and the social, physical and mental changes I’ve observed. Today is day 66 for me – I’m heading towards my 10-week anniversary in a few days.

Clarity. I’ve already described how it feels in your head to go alcohol-free – like moving from a pixellated phone screen to hi-definition. Especially in the first few weeks. It may just be the crystalline spring light all around me, but the world literally feels lighter and brighter. Many recovering people report an improvement in eyesight which may well be due to rehydration. Whatever it is, it’s a wonderful sensation. I feel like I’ve had a factory reset.

Positivity. I used to feel as though I was dragging myself through the world, meeting challenge after challenge, obstruction after obstruction. Now I find I can meet the world head on, whatever it throws at me. I can see the positives and the opportunities, whereas my former self would feel sorry for herself. My former self would cry a lot when she drank too much. That’s all gone. Now I only feel like crying during yoga – but only because of the emotion it releases.

Productivity. I feel like I am chewing through my to-do list very quickly. I met a person recently who said I should ‘eat the frog’ each day – do the difficult thing I’ve been putting off first so I can enjoy the day. She was so right. It feels easier to do that, and move on to the next thing. I used to find it very hard to get out of bed, which brings me on to…

Sleep. I used to say that I was an insomniac. For some weird reason I always woke up at 3am and stayed awake for a couple of hours. I blamed age, I blamed stress, I blamed my low-carb diet. Even though those things played their part, the biggest culprit was alcohol. I knew that regaining blissful sleep was one of the key outcomes of giving up drinking but it took 45 days for it to kick in for me. If you’ve been drinking for about 27 years, and not even every day, it takes a while for your body to readjust to its factory settings.

Social life. I socialise more. You think that your social life will disappear if you stop drinking, but the exact opposite happens. You can go out for multiple nights in a row because you don’t have to build in recovery time. You don’t have to arrange your nights out around what you are doing the night before. Suddenly Monday night becomes a social prospect.

Friendships. I feel much more engaged with my friends when I’m with them. I feel less selfish in conversations. There is something about alcohol that made me more self-centred and I’m very glad to see the back of that. I can concentrate on the things my friends are telling me and ask them about them the next time I see them, rather than casting about for a memory of what they may have told me the last time I saw them. It’s more about them than me and that feels good.

Self-respect. I’ve stopped doing bad things that make me anxious the next day. No more drunk texts, ill-advised encounters, minor injuries, lost memories, inappropriate social-media posts or arguments with friends. No more ‘Lisa likes a drink’ comments or presents involving prosecco. I have my self-respect back.

Back to my youth. I do feel like I’ve had a factory reset to the age I was before I started drinking in earnest (around 25). My brain is sharper, my head clearer, but I am also slimmer, fitter and for some strange reason, my hair has thickened and feels bouncier. Apparently that’s also an unexpected bonus side-effect. I have spent way more time in the yoga studio which has taken me back to a level of fitness I was at when I was studying contemporary dance every day, but also back to a time when my head was less addled with anxiety.

Sugary sweet. Another unexpected outcome is a massive craving for sugar, which I’m told will subside. But for now, Cadbury’s Mini Eggs are my nectar. The advice is to be nice to yourself and get yourself through these weeks and months in whatever way you can. So my first move is a return to Goa – the place I said I’d never return to. My therapist asked me why I was giving myself that rule, why I wouldn’t want to return to a place that feels like home, with friends and animals I love, yoga and a place to write my book.

As always, she was right.


Shine Even Brighter

As part of the International Women’s Day 2019 celebrations, I attended a preview of Maiden with a live Q&A. It’s a documentary telling the story of Tracey Edwards, the woman who skippered the first all-female crew in the Whitbread Round-the-World Yacht Race. I vaguely remember her 1989 story but I have to admit I’m more familiar with Ellen MacArthur’s solo circumnavigation in 2005.

I didn’t know that not only did Tracey and I share a name, but also a past history. She lost her father at 10 and it derailed her life. My derailment at 10 was more long-term and hidden away with later repercussions, but hers led to a difficult teenage life with an abusive alcoholic stepfather, expulsions from school and eventually an ‘escape from everything’ working on boats.

This is a woman who wore, and still wears, her heart and her opinions on her sleeve. There she was in 1989, telling the TV interviewer that no way she was a feminist, but she wanted to prove that women could do anything a man could. Last night she put her head in her hands at that statement and said she wanted to shake her young self. She looked straight into the camera and declared, “I’m a very big feminist.” Her ‘difficult character’ had apparently led to two divorces. “Sorry to both of you,” she said to camera, again.

Difficult women, eh?

In the film, she says that the more the media tried to make her and her venture into a ‘sidebar’ story, the more determined she was to win. They said they were a group of women who wouldn’t get on, who wouldn’t last without a man on board, who wouldn’t last without waterproof mascara or lip salve, they were just a ‘tin full of tarts’.

She and her crew won two legs of the race.

Over and over the word ‘determined’ came up. Determined to win, determined not to give up, determined to prove something. This is someone who reacts to attempts to bring her down by shining even brighter.

I recognise myself in her. The idea of shining was something me and my therapist discussed a lot last year. It kept coming up. I was describing times in my life when I’d felt knocked down and how they just resulted in me getting up and shining even brighter. Sometimes these were men who couldn’t bear the glare of successful woman, others were women who tried their best to put the lights out. I sat in front of her wearing a Swarowski-encrusted jumper as she said, “I think shining, and reflection from other people is important to you.” I laughed – I joked about how my wearing shiny things and living in a gold building were things I associated with being a northerner. I do like a crystal or a sequin, but so do most women in the north-west.

But she said no, and said it was a part of me that was still looking to be seen by my dad. That is was beautiful, and I was like a constantly lit candle for him. Here I am, see me. I came out of that session knowing she was right, that I loved the strings of small mirrors dangling from beach huts on that Goan beach, the sparkling necklaces I bought from the man on the beach in lots of different colours that I accessorised with my bikini every day. I liked wearing them in the sea, like a mermaid.

I often refer to the amazing women in my life as ‘sparkling’. We walk together in the crystalline spring light by the sea and they make my heart happy. I often think their glare is too bright for the men around them who seem slightly intimidated by their presence.

These are the women whom I choose to celebrate today. Those sparkling women, whom when life gives them lemons, buy sparkling shoes.

Guilty, your honour.

My Naked Mind

I wasn’t intending to give up drinking alcohol forever, but somehow that’s what happened. And this is Day 50 as alcohol-free Lisa.

Day 50.

I am almost annoyed that I haven’t said goodbye properly, or had one last blast – although I did, on the last day of my Christmas holiday in Goa. I just didn’t realise it at the time.

Like many people my age, especially women who came of drinking age in the ‘90s ladette culture, I’ve been toying with the idea of cutting down or stopping drinking for a while. Last year I joined online forums where people discussed it and I paid particular attention to feature articles talking about it – so much so that algorithms started supplying me with more and more to read.

At first I congratulated myself for increasing my non-drinking days to three, four and eventually five days a week. I even got to eight days at one point. I’d go out once or twice a week and know that I was going to blast through a bottle of prosecco. I couldn’t seem to stop at one or two glasses – I had to keep going. I was a binge-drinker. I admitted that to myself at least.

But I excused myself too. I watched the Adrian Chiles drinking documentary on the BBC, and thought, “at least I don’t drink that much”. I’d started tracking my drinking on an app and being truthful about it. With my one or two days per week drinking I wasn’t exactly a raging alcoholic, but I was at least double the recommended 14 units per week for women (Chiles was well over 100 even when he’d cut down). I kept coming in at ‘increasing risk’ on the health-monitoring part of the app but I so wanted to achieve ‘low risk’ status.

By the time I went on holiday to Goa at Christmas, I knew I didn’t want to spend every day waiting for cocktail hour (which I’d done the year before). I was mildly ill for two days which meant I couldn’t drink, and decided I’d stick with it to see if it suited me. It did. I was going to bed early and getting up early to play with the dogs on the beach and go to yoga classes. I liked the way I felt in the morning. I wasn’t annoyed and anxious. I was smiling and friendly. People smiled back a lot.

On a few nights I had a couple of cocktails and regretted it as soon as the second drink touched my lips. It just didn’t seem to contain the same joy it once had. And it spoiled my beautiful mornings. I went back to drinking nothing. Then came the last night at my favourite bar and I went for it. “I’m on holiday!” I thought. I spent two days after the flight recovering.

Then a chance meeting changed everything. A woman I’d just been introduced to told me she was trying to cut down on her drinking. “Me too!” I exclaimed. She immediately recommended a book she was reading – This Naked Mind by Annie Grace. “I don’t want to stop completely,” she said. “Oh me neither,” I replied. “Just cut down a bit.”

But, dear reader, I stopped as soon as I started reading the book. It was instant. No looking back. Seriously – this book should come with a warning sticker. It promises to resolve any cognitive dissonance you may have around drinking – your conscious brain telling you you don’t want to drink and your subconscious telling you you want a drink very badly. In summary, it works by telling you the science behind your cravings and what alcohol actually is and what it’s doing to your body. Now I know what I know, I can’t go back. It’s very weird – I seem to have known all along that alcohol is a highly addictive drug, but I also didn’t. I also seem to have known it was toxic, because your body rejects it and hangovers happen – but I also didn’t know. When I was on holiday in Goa I read an article that described alcohol as a ‘toxic depressant’. Those words really struck a chord with me, even to the point that later that evening at the bar, I ordered “a glass of your best toxic depressant, please!” in my head.

But it is. It was a depressant for me. I didn’t know that it was the alcohol that caused it. I thought drinking helped feelings of anxiety and worry but in fact it created them and then pretended to resolve them. I didn’t know that the happiness I felt when I picked up that first sparkling glass of prosecco wasn’t the effect of the alcohol – it was the impending satisfaction of a deep craving. A craving that had got worse and worse as the years went on and the addiction grew. There is a reason why people around my age are struggling with their drinking – it’s because we’ve built this addiction up over decades. Although never tipping into full alcoholism as some do, it started to become something we needed and depended on. Anyone who opts out is eyed with deep suspicion. “I don’t trust anyone who doesn’t drink,” we’d say. I said that. I said it last year. I’m horrified at myself now I know what I know. I wish I’d never touched a drop because I never needed it.

Well, my body never needed it but the pain in my heart did. I now know that I drank to self-medicate – to numb the pain of existence. I can almost trace the journey back to that moment in the ’90s when my mum was on a downward trajectory with dementia and I’d already lost my dad. I couldn’t wait to get home to the wine in my fridge each night. I didn’t connect the two things until now.

Once the pain had been dealt with during therapy last year, the reason to anaesthetise disappeared. I knew I didn’t need to do it any more. The book simply gave me more ammunition – it confirmed what I’d subconsciously known all along. Alcohol is not good for me. It’s not good for anyone.

What’s crazy is that I’ve always prided myself on opting out of substances that are harmful to me, even if they’re socially condoned. I’ve never smoked, I’ve never taken drugs apart from one puff on a special cigarette, and I don’t take the pill because it makes me suicidal and not ‘the natural me’.

Turns out I was never the natural me under the influence of alcohol either. It takes ten days to fully leave your system. Ten whole days. Which means, in reality, it never really left. I can’t believe I’ve been in the grip of this addictive poison for over twenty-five years, ‘enjoying’ something that is hugely carcinogenic whilst simultaneously feeling smug that I’m not a smoker.

In sobriety, I’ve rediscovered someone I used to be years ago. I remember this clear-headedness and this ability to smile at people and not feel annoyed about everything. It feels as though I’ve gone from a pixelated screen existence to hi-definition. This is me at around 25, almost 27 years ago. I could cry when I think of all that time wasted.

I can’t say I regret everything I’ve done after having a drink – some of my best friendships have been forged in the pub and some of my best lovers have been met at pubs, clubs and parties. I have done bad things as a result of drinking, like proposing to a man that didn’t love me, but also things I’ll never regret.

But now, at this stage in my life, my relationship with alcohol is over. We had good times, we had bad times, but we’re done. In the first few weeks it did feel like a mourning period, looking back on those sparkling moments through rose-tinted glasses (which I now know is a thing called Fading Affect Bias or FAB).

There is also a thing recovering people call the Pink Cloud. In the early alcohol-free days your body and brain are rejoicing in their new-found liberty and they make you think it’s all going to be easy. It’s wonderfully euphoric and it doesn’t last. I know I have some testing times to come but I know I won’t cave in. I know I can now go to gigs on my own without booze, can be on holiday without booze and go to bars with my friends without booze. And all of those times are still fun. More fun, even, because I’m not trying to stay to the end, or go on to another bar or have a seconds night out when my friends go home. I go home to my bed and sleep.

In my first month I read voraciously – apparently it’s a thing, this obsessive reading about sobriety in the early days and weeks. After This Naked Mind, I moved on to Alcohol Explained by William Porter, The Sober Diaries by Clare Pooley and then The Unexpected Joy of Being Sober by Catherine Gray. Where Annie and William both gave me the science behind what I’d been doing to my body, Clare and Catherine put it into context. As women from media backgrounds, they’d both fallen prey to the ever-present alcohol. Their journey had been speedier than most as a result and their recoveries nothing short of epic. They reminded me of extreme versions of me and my friends and helped put everything I’d learned into a relatable context. My voracious reading is not unlike every other sober person I’ve encountered in a forum, including the order in which I read those particular books.

That initial frenzy of content imbibing has now slowed and I don’t need to read other people’s stories any more, but I know they’re there if I need to go back (I read This Naked Mind twice).

The reaction from my friends has been interesting – a couple of them stopped drinking as soon as they heard my news. Some reacted by immediately telling me how I was different to them – they didn’t drink that much, they could handle it, they like the taste, they could never give it up. One thing I’ve learned is that this is a deeply personal journey but one that does touch other people if you dare to share. I read in one forum that people are just waiting for permission to stop drinking, because the social rules are so strongly weighted towards it. If you mention you’ve stopped, pretty much everyone tells you what their relationship is to drink straightaway. They know it’s a problem.
I have always prided myself on acting on choices – to not have children, to not stay in a loveless marriage, to remove toxic people from my life. Just because everyone else is doing something doesn’t mean you have to. The social pressure to join in drinking is perhaps the greatest pressure we experience in the west, along with to get married and have babies, to get a good job and a mortgage. Opting out is hard, which means we often keep it a secret. On my 50th day of sobriety I have decided to share my story – I don’t do secrets. (Well, maybe just a few, but usually to protect other people.) I’ll see you at the bar because I’m still going to be there. But I promise I won’t be making you stay until the end.


 

Because I Did

This truly feels like the end of an era. The era of essentially going to the same beach around the world, time and time again. The beach towns even look the same: Dahab, Agonda, Tamarindo – to name but three of my regular destinations.

This is the end of an era that lasted eight years, of losing myself in in far-flung beach towns, sometimes taking days to leave the place I’m staying in. Often crying hard, sometimes behind sunglasses on the beach, I now think of it as a form of self harm. Why not take myself to an incredibly romantic location to ‘really’ feel lonely and out of place?

Meanwhile I’ve been learning that wherever the sun goes down over the sea, there are always good people trying to make their way in the world. They just have different resources to hand and a different way of looking at things. But they all love animals, children, the sea, the sun and their friends and families.

I have journeyed back to the places I’ve loved twice, sometimes more times, happy to find a familiar place, a familiar face. I’ve said I’ve done it because I’ve wanted to really get to know a place, but it’s usually because the first time in a place I’ve spent days on my own feeling scared to go out. When I finally do, I kick myself for not getting out earlier and immediately plan to return. I want to experience a place properly from the start. And it’s always worked beautifully the second time round.

This is the first holiday I’ve had where I haven’t cried. Not once. Last year I sobbed all the way to the airport – the driver said, “madam, please control yourself!” This is also the first holiday where I haven’t drunk a lot. I’ve gone to bed early and risen early to go down to the beach to have coffee, say hello to the dogs and walk on the beach. Then I do a yoga class and have breakfast. I read books and eat ice cream. I buy beads and beach dresses and swim in the sea. Because I can now, having learned to swim this year.

I sit at the bar more for the company than the anaesthetic of booze. I find it don’t need it to chat to people any more. Even last year’s White Horse, with whom I completely identified as she roamed the beach and bars every day, has disappeared.

In 2018 I did an extraordinary thing. I pushed myself so far outside my comfort zone I was in a galaxy far far away. I went to Kyrgyzstan, with my hiking group. A trip that involved trekking, horse riding, camping, bitter cold, nomads, ‘natural toilets’. I knew there would be ups and downs (literally and spiritually) but didn’t know they’d be quite so up and quite so down. I had had a hip problem that flared up even before we’d started, on a walk round a market. I convinced myself I’d have to go home. I got my period on the first night in a yurt – two weeks’ early – no one tells you that altitude can do that. I cried and was convinced I was turning back.

My companions urged me to maybe get to the next stage before deciding, and little by little they brought me along with them.

Reader, I did it. I rode horses with nomads and climbed to 4,000 metres in the most epic landscape I’ve ever seen. I ate yak stew and drank vodka with Kyrgyz horsemen who laughed at our toilet humour. I am forever grateful to that group of people, and to Gary from Go London who organised that trip and knew I could do it. The ‘well done’ hug he gave me at the end of the trip made me cry, but this time from pride, relief, and joy.

Something switched in my brain on that trip and I’m not the same person I was at the start of 2018. I am discovering my boundaries and they are greater than I thought.

I am discovering the boundaries I need to put in place to ensure a happy and fulfilling personal and working life. I have seen a therapist who helped me beyond all expectation. She knew that I was carrying around a sadness deep inside of me that needed to be released and comforted. And so it is. She is. The ten-year-old little girl who lost her daddy and has been walking the earth ever since, looking for him. That girl lives with me, now.

I haven’t blogged this year because all of this was in progress. I couldn’t think of what to write down because it was in flux in my head and I couldn’t form a coherent set of ideas.

But do you know what? I think I’m ready to write my book.

The Love Landscape

I’ve been wondering for a while now, about how to encapsulate the particular state a late forty- or fifty-something single woman finds herself in with regards to relationships. Every time I go on a group hike, there is the inevitable conversation with a woman around my age, who is confident, intelligent, attractive, adventurous – I’d even go as far as to say ‘sparkling’ – and before we’ve even discovered each other’s names I know what she’s going to say.

She’s going to tell me that she’s tried dating men her own age (the rare ones that don’t want to date younger women), but they can’t quite keep up with her in terms of get-up-and-go or sex drive. They don’t want to get out and do things as much as she does and she ends up leaving them behind to join hiking groups at weekends.

She’s going to say that she has her eye on someone a bit older, but then discovers that they’re dating someone twenty years younger than them, because they can. She’s going to say that she gets quite a lot of interest from younger men, but she wants someone to share a present and a future with and they don’t offer much in that way, because they’re just after the ‘mature’ experience. And they’re largely immature.

Then she’s going to share a recent experience where she’s been chatting to a guy her age online and it’s been going really well, but then he mysteriously disappears, reappears, then disappears again. In search of answers, she’ll tell me that men have called her ‘scary’ or ‘out of their league’ and I’ll nod in agreement. I too am a scary woman.

We then walk along together, chuckling in solidarity as we watch the guys our age and older chatting up the young women, sometimes the hike leader, and the young men chatting with anyone but us (for more than a few minutes). Interest from them comes in secret, by private message, maybe after the hike – but it can never happen in broad daylight. They can’t be seen to be into us. The horror!

Not that hiking is about finding people to date, but that is an inevitable sidebar of a group that is mixed and into the same things. (I laughed yesterday when one thirty- or forty-something guy was talking about not wanting to be part of outdoor groups where fifty- or sixty-somethings hung out. I didn’t bother telling him my age.)

I recently went to an event where a late-forties guy friend turned up with his girlfriend of twenty-seven. Another older guy friend discovered the news and had that look on his face when he reported back to our group – the one I’ve seen before when the same topic comes up among men. The “I didn’t realise we could do that” face. You can almost hear their brains working out how they could trade in their old model for a new one. I remember one of my ex-husband’s friends starting to date a girl in her twenties when he was nearly forty and it was like he’d scored a try for Scotland when his friends found out. I didn’t realise back then what a ‘coup’ it was. I also didn’t realise back then that I could play those guys at their own game.

Older men say to me that they want to date younger women because they still want children, but I don’t believe that to be true. I believe that they don’t want to date someone who is their equal in terms of ‘social power’ so they look for someone who is below their perceived standing. I’ve made my peace with that. I don’t want to date someone who is scared by my social power either. It’s really unattractive.

I seem to have recently acquired a crop of younger guys who can only message me when they’re drunk or high. Some are in relationships, some not, some are struggling to come to terms with being attracted to an older woman. In it comes, the text or WhatsApp message in the morning, sent at 2am. Sometimes they’ve been up all night and I get the ‘hey babe’ at 10am. We never meet up, and nothing ever happens.

For some reason the message frequency ramps up around early spring and autumn – I’m told it’s something to do with testosterone levels. I quite enjoy seeing what the morning brings when I switch my phone on, and I can’t seem to bring myself to block their numbers either. There’s a fascinating increase in messaging when I’m on holiday. Suddenly when I’m thousands of miles away on my own, I’m incredibly attractive. The minute I arrive home the silence descends. It’s a thing.

One guy who has appeared and disappeared from my life for over a decade, always seems to get in touch when I’m on holiday. We’re not connected on social media, but he seems to have a sixth sense for when I’m away. He’s suddenly telling me that he thinks he fucked up by letting me get away, that there might be a relationship there. He is four years younger than me but obsessed with the age gap. Like every younger man, he wants to know the age of the youngest guy I’ve ever slept with. I still don’t know why that matters (give me wine and I’ll tell you the number).

What was fascinating, before his predictable disappearance on my return, was his reaction to my saying that I have a lover. He kept coming back to the topic over and over, but not saying the word. He referred to my ‘friend’, my ‘boyfriend’, my ‘fuck buddy’, my ‘friend with benefits’ and over and over I corrected him. “He’s my ‘lover'”, I said. Why could he not comprehend it or type the words? Was it because it sounded a bit ’60s or ’70s?

‘Lover’ accurately describes the state of being with someone you care for deeply – not in an official relationship, not seeing them every day or even every week, but they are in your life and you acknowledge and love their space in it. My lover is thirty-two and Muslim and we know it can never be a thing, but I’d rather be with him – a man who is straightforward, kind, sexy and not scared of me in the slightest – than with a man whose idea of flirting is relentless ‘teasing’ (aka bantz).

Perhaps what I’m doing – maintaining my adventurous independence but with a love interest on the side – is a female version of the ‘I didn’t realise we could do that’ face. As more and more women my age opt out of marriage and into independent lover-dom, I feel like we’re the ones scoring the tries. The more I talk about it with other women, the more I think that we’re scary to more conventional men because we’ve discovered the big secret – we have a choice, and it doesn’t need to include them. Sure, it would be nice if it did, but if it doesn’t, our worlds don’t end.

In fact, they open up.

 

 

 

 

Walk a Mile in my Shoes

I walk everywhere. I walk to work, I walk home from work. I walk into the city centre, I walk out of it. I hike in the countryside, I hike abroad. I hike on my own, I hike in groups.

Almost imperceptibly, I adjust my behaviour according to location, daylight hours, who I’m with. I’ve found places where I can walk alone in confidence, but still hold my breath when the figure of a lone man (or group of men) comes into view, and blow it out in relief when I get a cheerful ‘hi!’ from them.

I do what every woman does when walking alone – I make sure I’m in a lit area at night, I hold my body in readiness for potential assault, I sometimes hold keys if I feel under threat, I avoid eye contact with men, my pace quickens.

Now that the nights are drawing in I’ve had to adjust my route home to avoid a lit, but lonely path that runs up the side of a park. I’ve tried walking it as darkness falls, and it is simply too long for me to cope with the rising panic as I rush through it. There are sometimes couples who walk it and I make the most of the company, but in the end, it’s worth the extra half-mile walk to avoid it. That’s what I did last night.

I’m used to hearing men shouting as I walk – shouting into their phones, shouting at each other, shouting at me. I push my earphones in further and comfort myself in a great podcast. Sometimes they mouth obscene things at me while I’m listening to Woman’s Hour – “Ssh, the women are talking,” I think.

Last night, a man shouted things at me. I could sense, outside the busy tube station, that he’d singled me out for his unique attention. He had the mark of the crazy, and I told him to fuck off. Not content with just shouting, he slapped/pushed me on the back, twice, and I turned to the nearest person in the crowd, a man, to ask for help. He looked at me blankly, as though I wasn’t actually there.

I had to run, fast, into the nearest Sainsbury’s. Thank goodness I’ve ditched trying to walk in man-pleaser heels and now wear trainers when I’m travelling. I was able to sprint headlong into the supermarket, where the high-vis-jacketed security guard muttered, “he’s always out there”, and followed me out. His response was to slap/push him on the back to move him on.

A man I’d originally asked for help joined us, saying, “oh he’s always here, he’s harmless.” “Is he?” I say, “because I can put up with men shouting because I’m wearing earphones but when it comes to hitting me, I don’t think that’s harmless.” Cue blank looks from both men. Another man joins us and watches the crazy stumble up the road. He recognises him too, and tells me he’d have ‘punched him’ if he’d witnessed what he’d done.

“He’s harmless, he’s gone now. Are you going to get the bus?”

“No I want to walk home.”

“Ok, I’ll watch while you walk.”

My brain momentarily processes a stream of men passing me, making eye contact, as potential attackers but it doesn’t last for long. I ponder the look on the guys’ faces back at Sainsbury’s – like they were holding their breath, waiting for me to get angry, hoping I wouldn’t. Maybe hoping I wouldn’t have a massive rant about men who attack women on the streets and men who make excuses for them.

I wonder if I should’ve phoned the police, or if that would just making a fuss. The same thought passed through my head when I was flashed at a few years ago while on a solo walk. A man I’d asked for help told me I should. This time online friends (pocket friends!) tell me I should. I call the non-emergency line of the Met Police. They log the crime and promise to call me back.

I get home and post a quick description of what happened on Facebook. The comments are so predictable. Instant support and outraged comments from a stream of female friends and that same handful of supportive gay and straight male friends whom I know won’t shy away from the topic. Then the silence from all the other men who don’t want to get involved.

They don’t know how much it means to a woman just to have this stuff acknowledged. Just to have a man say, yes, this happened to you, yes, I think it’s shit, and yes, I stand next to you in outrage and I do not like that it happens. For some reason they often feel personally responsible for it, as though they themselves have committed some outrage for which they should feel ashamed.

I wonder if the silent men are thinking, “What was she doing to attract that attention? Why didn’t she just shrug it off and walk on? Why is she sharing it on here? Why didn’t she just get on a bus?” A little bit of victim-blaming to ease their consciences. For the avoidance of doubt, I am not getting on a bus because women should not be getting off the streets just to stop men attacking them. It’s not us that need the curfew.

A man did it. It’s always a man. It’s #notallmen but it’s always a man. As soon as I got into the office today a colleague told me about her story of being chased along a tube station platform by a man. When I was flashed at, women of my acquaintance reported that it had also happened to them, some of them THAT DAY. They hadn’t bothered to say anything because it’s such a regular occurrence, let alone report it.

Men we know can’t believe it happens, and that it does so so frequently. I once live-tweeted my street harassment throughout the course of a day. It happened, on average, every half an hour, on a lone walk. My followers were astonished.

These men get you when you’re on your own. Not necessarily in a lonely place, but you’re on your own. It can happen on a bus, a tube, in a crowd, in a shop, in darkness or in full daylight on a busy street. But you are always on your own. Every woman I know has a story like this.

Just believe us. It makes it all so much easier.