Westward Ho!

I’ve realised that I’ve got a thing about the west. Not ‘the west’ as in globally, but I appear to gravitate west in all things.

I live in West Worthing in West Sussex and I walk in a westerly direction every morning. To go east doesn’t feel quite right, although I walk back in an easterly direction. I walk east in the evenings in order to walk back west and enjoy the sunset.

I’ve noticed that on the way out in the mornings, going west, I feel creative, imaginative, hopeful and dreamlike. Coming back in an easterly direction I am facing the reality of the day. I start to rush knowing I need to get back to ‘my desk’ (aka the kitchen table) and my brain starts to fill with my ‘to-do’ list.

It’s happened with holiday destinations over the years. I favour west coasts – often battered, dramatic, elemental – over east-facing ones: smooth, calm, unremarkable (I know – not all east coasts…). I’ve visited New Zealand and pretty much stayed only on the west coast, I’ve been to the west coast of Ireland many many times but never Dublin. I’ve visited the west coast of Costa Rica twice, driven the west-facing Skeleton Coast in Namibia and have lived on the west coast of India.

When I’m going west, I feel like I could just keep travelling, keep moving over the horizon, but when I’m travelling back in an easterly direction it feels like I’m on a return journey. I wonder what it is that drives me west so much. Is it something to do with me being left-handed, and therefore my brain veers left when faced with its internal north? Is it because I grew up on the north-west Wales coast? I’ve no idea, I just know it’s a thing that I do. It’s my internal compass. Even when I moved to London I went to university in the south west, later lived in the north west, and in between forayed into Buckinghamshire, to the west of London. When I moved to Brighton in the ’90s, I quickly moved west into Hove.

It simply feels ‘off’ to me in the east of anywhere. I can’t really put my finger on why. I can only stay for about an hour in East London before I want to go back west. Once, I was on a date watching a really bad comedian in an East End hipster bar and he starting making fun of me in the audience because I ‘looked posh’ (I was wearing a fake-fur jacket). Really, he didn’t like it because I wasn’t laughing. When I got up to leave, he said, “Are you going back west to the poshos?” “Yep,” I said in front of everyone. “Get me out of here.”

This week in West Sussex has seen some high winds buffeting the coast. They’re southwesterlies and they create, it seems, the biggest waves here. I’ve been watching the kite surfers out west – and out in force since lockdown rules allowed them out – and it’s a real delight to watch grown men (and some women) whoop with joy as the wind carries them high above the waves. I’ve seen videos of people jumping over the pier so it’s a thing here. God I wish I could join them. As I watch, I imagine myself skimming the waves, lit by the bright spring sunshine, grinning as the wind takes me. Having not long learned to swim, it’s probably not something I should leap into but I confess I’m tempted.

Every morning that I walk west, I dream of just carrying on going on the coastal path, all the way to Cornwall. I thing of Raynor Winn’s Salt Path and the epic journey she and her husband did around the south-west coastal path and wonder if I could just do that. Me and a tent. Maybe a small dog in tow. I dream of owning a small white cottage in a west Wales coastal village, where I can see the sea from my desk and walk in the wind every day. I dream of hearing curlews at dawn, just like Dylan Thomas did.

For the first time, some of these dreams seem attainable. Maybe not right now, but they’re within reach.

One thing I do know, I belong in the west.

Agonda diaries – week seven

People say to trust your gut, don’t they? I say it to people who are in the throes of a decision-making crisis, but so many of us question those pure instincts even when they are screaming at us. I’ve relied on mine so many times but this week I didn’t listen as much as I should.

I’ve had a week where my gut was telling me one thing while my head was telling me what it thought I ‘should’ do, based on what others might choose. I wrestled with the issue for a few days before listening more closely to my gut and realising that it had been right all along. The moment that clarity settled inside me, I felt so much happier, and when teaching my next yoga class, I realised how important it was for me to be happy with myself when passing on the joy of yoga to other people.

I find these moments of clarity most often when I am walking along the beach. For a week or so, I was working for a couple of hours at 6.30am and missing my morning walk to the river and back. On some days I even missed the sunset walk too, and I felt something die a little in my soul. Now I have them back I am feeling so much happier.

It’s so simple, that walk. The mornings are cool, now, and the sand is almost cold underfoot. I’ve found that the sand is warmer where the outgoing tide has just left it, and it feels lovely to walk on it after the cold touch of the dry sand. I like to step on the sandy ‘pouches’ – air-filled sand pockets that I thought contained a sea creature, but I’ve noticed that the waves cause them as they bubble onto the shore. It’s like a game of bubblewrap popping as I walk along – something about depressing one of these bubbles is so satisfying as your foot sinks down into it.

I love that part of the beach where the river waters meet the sea. There is something about the confluence that is calming when you’re grappling with a decision. I stand and stare at it for quite a long time, noticing how the waters flow over each other for a while, trying to compromise.

I’ve also started to run the same way in the evenings, when the tide is further out and there is a wider plain of hard sand. I’ve tried it with running shoes on, which offer stability and mean I don’t have to focus on random rocks or broken glass that might be in the sand beneath my feet. This week I tried it barefoot and it was actually lovely. I think I’m going to do that more.

I made a pact with myself to only run the beach if it feels good and if I can smile while I’m doing it. So far, so good. People seem perplexed as to why I carry a long bamboo stick when I walk and run – if you’ve been bitten by a beach dog you know that a stick is a great preventative measure. I don’t intend to use it – it seems to be enough that I am carrying it. Also Zimbo and Sanjo are less likely to jump up when I’m carrying it, I’ve noticed. A small win.

I worked out that Agonda is at least 50% down on its usual numbers of seasonal tourists, purely based on the numbers turning up to the drop-in yoga classes I attend. This time last year, they had two shalas full, running simultaneous classes. This year it’s just the one, and even that’s not full. I’ve noticed that some visitors feel the need to decamp to a busier place, but a quieter Agonda makes me want to stay here even more.

Of course it’s not great for those people running businesses, but my attempts to give prospective visitors some information about Agonda being open for business met with some criticism in a local Facebook group so I deleted the list and came out of the group. Sometimes people reject help and I have to accept it. Sometimes people like to cluster around negative comments and I have to accept that too. Thankfully some people really appreciated the list and approached me by direct message to glean the information.

My policy to date has always been to tell the truth about a situation, to present a scenario exactly as it is, no sugar-coating, no beating around the bush, but I have found that while most people seem to appreciate the honesty, others can’t bear to hear the words, often specific words. An interesting response to my Facebook post was that I ‘shouldn’t’ have used the word ‘demolished’ with regards to properties on the beach that have actually been demolished. Despite weeks of the word ‘demolished’ being used over and over again on every social media outlet with regard to Agonda. And me, warrior-like, trying to stop people describing this beautiful beach as a ‘war zone’. I say the word ‘demolished’ for the first time and suddenly it’s not ok.

You live and learn.

Agonda Diaries – week six

Whenever people say to me, “You’re living the dream! I’m so envious!” I always reply by saying it is possible to feel sad in paradise. Believe me, I’ve experienced it all over the world. I’ve cried on beaches in Thailand, Costa Rica and Egypt. Somehow these palm-fringed locations make a feeling of sadness or loneliness stronger because you’re not meant to feel those things here. But you can, and do.

I haven’t had a terrible week, I was just feeling sad and a bit lonely last weekend for reasons I won’t go into here. I started to do that thing of ‘wandering the earth’ that I do back home when I’m feeling like this, but this time the earth was simply Agonda. And then, just as I was at my lowest ebb, a motorbike came wobbling towards me carrying my friends Hannah and Dave and their precariously balanced luggage and guitar. It was so good to see them I nearly knocked them over with hugs on the street. They are just such great people – nice and normal. They love dogs as much as I do. Thank goodness for Hannah and Dave.

As well as his guitar, Dave has brought his harmonica and when he spontaneously began to accompany Taylor the guitarist at Silent Waves resort, it was a beautiful moment. He played along with guitarist Willem to Mr Bojangles – a song with such poignancy. I felt so proud of him as he shyly took to the stage. It takes guts to get up there.

Part of the reason for me feeling so discombobulated is that I’ve started teaching public yoga classes. I watched Dave get up on ‘stage’ (aka a raised bit of sand) and tried to channel a bit of his bravery. I think it’s the most terrifying thing I’ve ever done – preparing and teaching a class full of hopeful yogis. I tore myself to pieces beforehand and during the classes, feeling sure people would just leave or pick me up on something I’d got wrong. It turned out the only person who wanted to leave or criticise me was myself.

I’ve had so much encouragement from my friends at Sampoorna – hugs and kind words and “it’ll be fine” times a million. I’ve also had one or two people returning to my classes – thank you Daniela and Uwe. I have resolved to keep going and ‘screw my courage to the sticking-place’, but this whole week I’ve felt very emotional and I’ve hardly slept. There’s been another full moon, too. Perhaps that has something to do with it.

I haven’t spent as much time on the beach this week, but when I have it has more than delivered. Firstly sunsets to die for and secondly a sea otter, who emerged near Simrose last Wednesday at 8am, and swam all the way along the coast to its rocky home, accompanied by me alongside (walking, I might add). He, or she, swam silently by people in the ocean who didn’t notice they were sharing the ocean with such a glorious animal, and he stopped to come out of the water with a silver fish in his mouth at one point, to eat breakfast. I was pointing him out to people but few were interested. Vasudev (Captain Nitesh the boatman) was as excited as me, though, because he loves the nature in his home village.

I’ve also discovered the delights of Charlie’s street food van by Gita’s clothes shop in the main street. Gita introduced me to Charlie one day when she was having her lunch. I was persuaded to come back for a snack lunch the next day and sampled an omelette and bread roll for 25 rupees. The next day I had bhaji with bread roll for 50 rupees. Both were delicious and Charlie is so lovely. I like that you stand and chat with him while you eat. He’s there all day from 7.30am to 10pm at night serving delicious food. And for someone on their own, this is a way of bypassing the awkwardness of sitting somewhere on your own. I sense that I’ll be going to Charlie’s cart a lot from now on.

In dog news, Sweetpea has been spotted on the beach again and again, and I’ve just left her in the company of a Portuguese family, being fed titbits. It’s so lovely to see her out and about again. The old Sweetpea has returned. Zimbo and Sanjo are still my pack, but I saw Zimbo cosying up to a group of people at Jardim a few days back so I know I share him a bit.

Papaya, the Kopi Desa dog, has started to walk up to me for a cuddle whenever I stop by, after years of ignoring me. Same with Jerry (Gary? the jury is out on which name it is) at Simrose. He’s ignored me for years (apart from sitting outside my Simrose hut two Christmasses ago) and suddenly he’s butting my legs with his head. I don’t know what’s caused the change but I love it. More dogs to cuddle for me.

Ocean is growing bigger and stronger every day and now sits on the beach to watch the sunset with his human and canine friends from Love Bites. I saw the election news from back home and cuddled Ocean to remind myself that beautiful, innocent things exist in the world.

I have decided that I won’t let the news get me down. I won’t let it fill me with negative thoughts and feelings of helplessness. I will simply strive to live a life that is as good as it can be. Many people have been quoting Gandhi on Twitter and Facebook: “Be the change you want to see in the world.” I’m not sure if he said those exact words, but that’s what we were taught in our yoga teacher training at Sampoorna because it’s part of Indian philosophy (otherwise known as Hinduism). It’s all you can do when it comes down to it – be in control of your own thoughts, words and actions.

So that’s what I’m going to do. I’ve hit my 11-month soberversary this week and the fact that I almost missed it shows how much I’ve moved on from my drinking lifestyle. I’d rather watch a sea otter in the ocean early in the morning and say hello to a dog named Sweetpea.

Agonda Diaries – week three

This week began with an incredibly colourful visit to Chaudi market. Mr Happy drove me there and I wandered around for an hour or so taking in the sights under its yellow canopy. It was the yellowest place I’ve ever visited, and therefore one of the happiest, filled with stallholders selling every kind of fruit, vegetable and spice, plus a range of plastic goods from combs to soap dishes. Yet again I succumbed to the beaded necklaces and bought three silvery ones to wear on the beach. As you’ll know from previous blog posts, I like a bit of sparkle. They’re £1.50 a strand…

It was all yellow…

Like many people in Agonda, the purpose of my visit to Chaudi was really to use the ATM because the one here is closed indefinitely. Of course the ATM was broken in Chaudi too, so I’m having to use a local cash-exchange place that charges commission. I’m letting it go – it is what it is. Things could be a lot worse.

I’m keeping up my swimming practice at my Secret Swimming Location but I have now added a Not-So-Secret Swimming Location to my portfolio – the Wild Berry Resort just outside Agonda. I had the huge blue pool almost all to myself on Sunday, for three or four hours.

The lovely pool at Wild Berry

When I say ‘almost’ I mean I was accompanied by a huge domestic row between what looked like two guests but I gather they may have had more to do with the management, judging by the staff’s reactions. In extraordinary scenes, a woman beat her partner about the head while two other men stared at their phones nearby. He appeared drunk and she kept shoving a phone in his face, so I took a wild guess and thought he may have cheated. It was actually horrible seeing a man getting beaten like that – imagine if it had been the other way round? Would we have all sat around ignoring it? Thankfully the pair were encouraged to leave the pool area and took their argument elsewhere. Lord knows what happened to him.

Talking of men, I have met two extraordinary ones this week. Sven from Germany, who is the happiest person I have met in a long time, has joined me for breakfast at Simrose most days this week. It turns out that he has never touched a drop of alcohol (“Am I a real German?!”), and he told me he’d ordered a ‘Sex on the Beach’ cocktail the previous night “without the alcohol and without the sex.” He laughs like a drain at his own jokes and it’s infectious. He has two grown-up children and has their faces tattooed on his chest – he obviously has an amazing relationship with them and it’s so lovely to hear him talking about them.

Every day Sven climbs aboard a scooter and explores South Goa and I envy him his freedom. I’m still too scared to ride a bike here so it does mean my daily activities are restricted to Agonda unless I want to hire Mr Happy or a Tuk Tuk. He tells me he’s been mistaken for Bruce Willis by some Russians who asked for a selfie. Cue infectious booming laughter.

Then, as I was writing a piece on men doing yoga for Sampoorna Yoga School, I met Luke, a 35-year-old yoga teacher from Manchester. He’d been taken to a yoga class following a divorce and a period of depression. He now says yoga is a tool he uses to help himself cope in society and teaches other men back home who are struggling to cope, as he once was. He talked about the social pressure on men to be the ‘alpha’, to curb their emotions and act competitively and aggressively. On the yoga mat they can choose to step away from all that. As he spoke, I thought about Sven and his ‘alpha’ appearance, all muscles, earrings and tattoos, but how all of that is undercut by his clear-eyed grin and the way he talks about his children. We need more Svens and Lukes in the world.

My Chicas

I have continued to get to know the pigs who live behind me and have started to call them ‘Chica’ whenever I see them. They seem to like it and honk their approval. I met the guy who owns the house where the pigs ‘live’ and asked them if he had names. No, he said, but he calls them ‘Chico’. I’m not sure if he’d heard me talk to them but I like to think I just guessed their collective name correctly. I also found out that Orson the puppy is in fact called Ocean. I’d misheard Umesh say his name. He’s now got a tiny collar and is running about outside Love Bites cafe.

My name is Ocean!

My early morning walk on the beach was wild this morning. I didn’t have my phone so I can’t show you a picture, but the waves were crashing high onto the beach, almost into the buildings along the shore. I’ve never seen it like that and was told this is what it does during monsoon or just before a cyclone arrives.

Everything is much calmer now so I hope it was just a post-monsoon blip but you never know.

Agonda Diaries – week two

After the seismic activities of last week in Agonda, it’s been a fairly calm and restorative one. Partly because I’ve slipped back into doing morning yoga at Sampoorna Yoga School and using the office there a few mornings a week. It’s lovely to feel part of the yoga village again, and to catch up with a few yogi friends.

A dog that used to run in and out of class during my training has now been adopted by the school – it’s a bit sad to see him chained up in the morning, but I can see why he is. His unbridled joy when he’s let loose towards the end of breakfast time is a sight to behold – he sprints round and round the restaurant.

It’s taken a while for my beach dog pack to realise who I am again, but finally Sanjo and Zimbo (who live at Jardim do Mar on the beach) have resumed their customary massive run at me every morning and follow me down the beach. They caused a bit of doggy mayhem by following me all the way home this time, upsetting the dogs that patrol the main street outside Kopi Desa – Zimbo looks so upset when I don’t ‘save’ him from them as any good pack leader would.

Sanjo and Zimbo – the highlight of every morning on the beach

After last season’s dog bite, I’m not taking any chances, so I carry a bamboo stick in the morning on my beach walk. That’s the time when the dog population of Agonda is at its most lively and whilst they’re probably playing with me, sometimes that play turns into a biting match. They’re quite rough with each other, so you can see where it comes from. The stick works as a preventative measure – I don’t intend to start using it, but it seems to ward off unwanted attention just by having it. Even my pack are a bit wary of it.

One of the highlights of this week was walking past my two pig neighbours who were fast asleep and making cute snuffly noises. I heard that their piglet had died in a bike accident so I hope they managed some trouble-free sleep. Bless them…

Sleep well, Mr and Mrs Pig

This week I’ve witnessed the early morning catch a few times, when the fishermen of the village pair up to drag the nets in by man-hauling them ashore. I’ve only ever seen them when the nets are already in and on the beach so I didn’t know that this is what they did each morning. It’s like watching a silent tug-of-war as two teams of men haul each side of a net in to the beach.

One of two teams of men hauling in each side of a net, watched by dogs – 7am

The full moon earlier this week caused some really strange happenings on the beach. One on day, the tide seemed to be sucked right out all day only to be thrown back at the beach at sunset. Even Vasudev was worried about his boat – I saw it pitch violently as it came back to shore on the crest of a big wave. I knew it was a tidal thing, but it did an the eerie pre-tsunami feel to me.

The town has been very quiet in the wake of the cyclone and the demolitions that took place last week and I have spent some time fighting the scaremongering that’s going on about Agonda online. “It’s a war zone,” said one British guy, annoying me so much because it’s still the beautiful town and beach it always was, just minus his favourite bar. I can see people talking about not coming here because of what they’ve heard and it makes me so angry – Agonda needs the tourist business more than ever and people are so ready to desert it just because their favourite bar closed. I am pretty sure it will have recovered by Christmas.

Yet again I’ve met some interesting people this week. Peter the ex-teacher and psychologist who has a particular interest in left- and right-handedness, swam with me for a bit at ‘rock beach’. He talked to me about the ‘tyranny of the right’ and how we are all unconsciously persuaded to use our right hands to write. Being a leftie I am so glad my parents let me use my left hand after a short period of ambidexterity as a child. I think they did that because my uncle had been left with a stammer after being forced to use his right hand as a child.

At Sampoorna I’ve also met Meritxel and Adri from Spain who are running Yoga Sin Fronteras (Yoga Without Borders), a non-profit organisation bringing yoga to disadvantaged people around the world. I’m so impressed with their drive and optimism, I’ve been lending an editorial hand on their website. It’s one of those ideas that you think should have been done already. The best ideas are always like that.

And finally, I can reveal that I have found a Secret Swimming Location. I have found it difficult to swim in the sea so far (dolphins spotted right at the shore’s edge this week!) because of the huge full moon waves and general fear, but I have been granted access to a small pool where I can practise my new swimming skills in peace. I’m not sharing the location because technically I’m not supposed to be there, but boy, I’m glad I am. The water is freezing cold and when I float on my back I can see a circle of palm trees and eagles (they look like kites) soaring above them. Perfect after a hard day at the office…

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.

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.

Stories We Tell Ourselves

I’ve just received my DNA results and my ethnic story has slightly rewritten itself. For most of my life I’ve felt very strongly Welsh but always with a strong pull towards Ireland. The first time I ever visited there (Donegal) I knew it was my spiritual home and in many ways my journey on Ancestry.com has been about confirming that. I found the link quickly, on my mother’s side – a very clear line coming from Ireland to Liverpool and then into North Wales. It explains the Catholicism and the twinkle in the family eyes.

Growing up, my mother told me her family thought there might be some French blood in there – she had a French nose, she said. She also had glorious cheekbones. There had to be something else mixed in. There is – 26% Western European (likely to be Belgian, French, German or Dutch – even Swiss). Later in my life, I’ve wondered if there was some Jewishness in me – it turns out there is – 4% to be exact – probably from Eastern Europe.

As well as an unsurprising healthy dose of Scandinavian blood, there is the very small matter of 1% East Asian. A friend tells me I’d only need to go seven generations back to find a full Asian parent in my ancestry. I wanted a surprise and I got one – how cool would it be to track that parentage back?

One thing’s for sure, I am a woman who feels connected with the world beyond our shores and this DNA test confirms it.

I’ve had some friends take this test and been wholly blindsided by the reversal of the narrative around their ethnicity. Barring the Asian curveball, I am pretty much who I thought I was. Perhaps a tad less Celtic than I thought but a strong European mix. But other people have discovered that their family story isn’t quite as it’s been told over the years. It makes me think of the Alistair McGowan episode of the BBC’s Who Do You Think You Are? when the impressionist was blown away by his father’s Anglo-Indian roots and the fact that his name hails from Ireland, not his beloved Scotland, where he’d always felt a spiritual pull. As my mum used to say, it just shows to go you.

It’s made me think about how we construct narratives around ourselves to make sense of our place in the world. I’ve spent years trying to place myself – ethnically, professionally, socially – and this blog is part of that exploration. If you don’t fit a pre-set narrative, this is what you do. As a fifty-one year-old woman I ‘should’ be juggling my publishing career with a bunch of teenagers and mid-life crisis man at home. I ‘should’ be holidaying in a cottage in Cornwall with my family, not preparing to trek through Kyrgyzstan with a group of mostly strangers. I ‘should’ be spending Christmas in a chaotic household filled with multiple generations, not walking along a Goan beach, solo, with an occasional white horse for company.

I’ve compared my own story with other stories of like women. I connected with Elizabeth Gilbert and her Eat Pray Love story, but over time I realised mine was not going to end with the Love bit so I looked for a new narrative to connect with. I found another with Cheryl Strayed when I read Wild, and then saw the movie. A woman who’d lost her mother and then gone wandering off into the wilderness to find her true self. But again, that narrative ended with marriage and babies. I’m sensing that this is not my true path.

In the search for my own narrative I’ve found pieces of others’ that have resonated hugely but no one story arc that matches mine. I’ve tried to find an essential truth behind what happened to me and why, tracing from my happy childhood, through the pain of early parental loss and the fracturing of a family, to a coupling and decoupling, and an establishment of my solo self. I want to get to an absolute truth and tell the story, and not hide the reality.

Over a number of years, I’ve developed a habit of seeking out and telling the truth (as I see it) about situations. I’ve also discovered that sometimes people don’t really want to hear it and prefer to believe a falsehood to make themselves feel ok. Maybe because I had to face reality so early on in life I prefer to look at things square on, and not flinch from the truth. I want to prepare myself for the reality, and not believe in false hope. I like to know what the exact weather forecast is and be ready for it, rather than ‘hope’ for the sun to come out. That way disappointment lies.

In the workplace over the years, I’ve become the ‘meme destroyer’ – running around throwing proverbial wet cloths over flaming untruths that gather around rumour and conjecture. I’m always amazed at how far these will go and what people are willing to believe. And also, how disappointed they are sometimes when you tell them the truth – when there’s nothing to complain about any more (ditto the weather).

I once worked for a company that was described to me early on as a ‘dysfunctional family’, when in fact it was more akin to a domestic-abuse situation. The staff who’d worked there for a long time described office life there as ‘rough and tumble’ and the boss as ‘a bit of a character’ – I called it being bullied by a manipulative narcissist. People refused to hear it at first, but gradually, even now, after a few years, I received emails from them saying ‘you were right’. I could see that they had constructed narratives to be able to cope with the situation and told themselves they were true. They didn’t want to hear me state the reality out loud. But I had to. The boss hated that I walked around with a folder containing the facts, not willing to listen, let alone believe, the gaslighting.

I’m not saying that I’ll never fall for a falsehood ever again, because I do all the time, because I like to believe people when they stand in front of me, talking. I was in Gower in Wales earlier this year and met a woman running her own coffee shop. Her other job was being an editor on films like Wonder Woman. I excitedly reported the news to one of the guys in the group. “And you believe her?” he said. “Well yeah, of course,” I replied. He was amazed at my readiness to believe and I was amazed at his cynicism. I instantly recalled myself showing a picture of me holding a sloth in Costa Rica to a local: “How do I know it’s real?” he said. “Do you have a video to prove it?”

In many ways I’m glad I’ve retained a willingness to believe someone’s story, in spite of being spun so many falsehoods over the years. I’m rewriting my own narrative on a daily basis, but I try to root it in the absolute truth – and here it is, on the third anniversary of me starting this blog.

You can choose to believe my story or wait for a video to prove it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

This Woman Can

I’ve been thinking about writing a piece on women and the workplace for a while, now. My own experience has thrown a few things into relief, and as I’ve got older, I’ve found myself wanting to support and encourage younger women as they navigate through earlier stages in their careers. Ladies, women and girls, this is what I say to you.

In the words of Paul Weller, stop apologising for the things you’ve never done. Practically every woman I come into contact with in a professional situation starts apologising from the very moment we meet. I had a meeting last week in which a young professional apologised for being pregnant, having to eat because she was pregnant, and for generally, well, just existing. She was asking professional advice, and my ultimate advice was, stop saying sorry.

I hear it all the time. Sorry for interrupting you at your desk; sorry for having this idea; sorry for having to say something out loud; sorry for having an opinion. Sometimes I think it’s the only word I can hear women saying.

Stop it. Stop saying it. If you feel it bubbling up towards your lips, stop speaking. Say what you were going to say without the apology before it. I will then stop telling you off.

If someone asks you to speak on a panel, say yes. Hear your inner voice saying, ‘I couldn’t possibly do that’ and immediately crush it. Time and time again I’m told by organisations that the reason why there are so many ‘manels’ is because women say no to the invitation to speak. I nearly did it a year or so ago – and this is after many years of speaking at conferences. It was a topic I wasn’t completely fluent in, but it was within the realms of the industry I work in. I heard a voice in my head – it was a friend and mentor in the industry who had given me many platforms in the past to speak from. She was telling me that I’d be great at it, if I just did some research around it. I did, and I was.

I chaired a panel at last week’s London Book Fair and it was interesting in that the three women (it was a one-man, two-female panel, me chairing) were the most nervous about it and did the most prep. The guy turned up with no notes and just spoke from the heart (he had been given my questions though). We were all talking just before the event and I asked the panel if they could just walk in now and wing it, without any notes or prepared questions. We agreed we could. We know our stuff.

But women question their fluency all the time – it’s so-called impostor syndrome. ‘Am I really an expert in this?’ our inner voice says, even when our combined experience in the topic was over 40 years between us. The prep we did do made it a greater panel than it would have been, but I know we could’ve just started talking and made for an interesting discussion.

Let your voice be heard in meetings. I heard some advice last year from a woman on Radio 4 – her tip for women in meetings was to say something first in the room, even if it’s just about wanting a window being open or asking if anyone else would like a glass of water. Her theory was that sometimes the timbre of a woman’s voice came as a bit of a shock in a male-dominated group, and to get it out there first, made the situation less of one. I think it would also help a woman feel more comfortable with her first professional words in a meeting scenario. If she’s already conversed with members of the group in an open setting, then it would give her more confidence.

I’ve noticed something very interesting about men coming into meetings. Whilst women come straight in and find the nearest seat and sit down, men often stand at the door, surveying the scene, at once both waiting for everyone to acknowledge their arrival and seeing which seat is the most effective for them. I enjoy carrying on talking while they stand there, no doubt waiting for the trumpets to herald their arrival. I also think that maybe they’re wondering where the throne is…

I’m not really into meeting-room politics, but sometimes it does matter where you sit. Never be that person who just drags a chair in from another room and sits at the back of a room whilst everyone else is at the table.

Be at the table. Be seen. Be heard.

Remember what you are being paid to do. I once walked into a meeting with a top media entertainment firm where we were meeting with a female financial director and a range of male directors. As my group arrived, the FD sprang out of her seat and started making the tea and coffee, while the other directors made jokes about her doing it. If you ever find yourself falling into a pattern of expected behaviour like this, make a conscious effort to stop. If the guys aren’t making the tea or doing the washing up, check yourself. Don’t become the office housewife.

Know that women have been socialised to compete with each other.

We have. Because patriarchy.

You will encounter women who purport to be your friend, but are actually preparing to stand on your head or throw you under a bus to reach the next level in their career. There will be those that present your ideas as their own or bad-mouth you to the boss. Yes, this does happen between men and women but it comes as more of a shock when the ‘sisterhood’ does it to you.

Don’t let it stop you being a team-player, just know that it is a possibility and become more robust. It’s never going to stop happening, all you can do is protect yourself against it and try not to be like that yourself.

It would be hard to sleep at night, for one thing.