Trapped in the shadow

My husband possesses what I consider to be a quite remarkable character trait: he doesn’t worry about something until it happens, at which point he sets about dealing with it.

I on the other hand am capable of worrying about the most random, usually highly unlikely but equally highly imaginative scenarios, with great passion and backed up by research which I am quite certain is based on profoundly reliable sources.

He sees today and how today will impact tomorrow. I see a year ahead and wonder how I’m going to get there. Both have their merits but his method allows considerably more room for joy in the present.

If I turn off social media and answer the question my infinitely wise big sister asked me: “If you had nothing and nobody to compare it to, would you be happy with your life today?” The answer would be a resounding ‘yes!’

But this life and our culture forces its timings on us and its ticking hand and encroaching demands fool us into believing that something else is better. It robs us of our patience and tempts us towards things we never needed to know.

So I shall turn off social media for the next little while and instead of looking at other’s lives, I will try to divert that energy into rediscovering the beauty in my own. For it’s only by false comparison that my life looks dull. By returning my attention to my immediate surroundings, I have realised that the only reason my life had lost its shine was because I had trapped it in the shadow of another.

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Memory triggers

Scent is the biggest memory trigger. As I was making breakfast this morning, I caught the smell of fresh coffee and it made me smile. In fact, it made me very happy for that moment. There are other smells that have a similar effect on me:

Brewing coffee or fresh coffee grounds – my Oma and Opa always used to put on a pot of coffee first thing in the mornings and my happy holidays in Germany always started by waking up to the smell of coffee. It made me feel like I was waking up to a new day, to new possibilities.

Freshly cut grass – I mean, who doesn’t? I even have hayfever and I still love it! It reminds me of carefree summers, of innocent play, of the loaded possibility of fun that the summer months promised.

My mother’s perfume – a simple comfort. My mother always smells good.

Roast dinner – coming home from Church on a Sunday to the house smelling of a roast was so wonderful. It was a routine, it was familiar and of course it smelled delicious!

Bonfires – Autumn is my favourite season so the smell of bonfires is a welcome reminder of the joy that is to come

Crisp air – some may say it doesn’t have a smell but I promise you it does. When I’ve been cooped up indoors all day, then emerge into the cool evening and inhale deeply, my shoulders relax and my head clears. Especially when I’m in Germany by the woods where the air is steeped in oxygen, this smell simply gives me some perspective.

I could probably add to this list indefinitely but for now, those are what trigger happy memories and remind me that the simple things in life are, without doubt, the best.

Escapism and the importance of creativity

Creativity is critical to contentment. It makes sense when you think about it. This world is a thing of beauty, designed by the ultimate Creator. It is inspiring by its very nature.*

The joy of creativity is that it offers us an escape from the rubbish of this world by transporting us temporarily to another reality. Really good creativity returns us to our lives with either renewed resolve or at least a clearer perspective. A good book, film, piece of music or art all have the power to reach a part of us that is untouchable by the rest of the world.

I find my escapism in movies – it’s why I’m so interested in film production and why, when I was younger (and still today), I used to sit in the cinema and wait until all the credits had rolled before leaving; I wanted to see the names of the people who had created this story that had pulled me in and made me ponder life.

My husband’s creative outlet is writing and he’s outrageously good at it. When I read his words, I am transported to Cairo, to France, to a time when life was different; not necessarily better or worse, just different. As well as entering into another world, there are phrases hidden throughout his work that capture elements of life beautifully. Through artistic prose, he explains what usually cannot be articulated.

This realisation of the importance of creativity has been quite ground-breaking for me. As Elspeth Thompson writes in The Wonderful Weekend Book: “We neglect our creativity at our peril.” Whatever our medium, we are all creative – be it in an acknowledged art form or simply in the way we find solutions to problems and use our initiative. If we suffocate this instinct in ourselves, it can have quite grave consequences. I’d go as far as to say that neglecting our creativity can be one of many triggers of illnesses such as depression. When we’re forced to conform to a rhythm of 9-5, sat at a desk in an office, many of us are moulding ourselves into something we were not born to be.

It’s no wonder then, that when my previous jobs have narrowed the scope for me to use my creativity, I have very quickly grown bored, stifled and moved on. When I’m not allowed to use my brain, to find a way to practice my creativity, my inner calm becomes agitated and I look for ways to rediscover that balance.

I’m thankful that my husband realised all of this long ago and has been pursuing ways to use his creativity. He has rejected the contemporary lifestyle of 9-5 in favour of living a life that far closer resembles one that is lived to its fullest. He is embracing his God-given gifts and creative instinct and he has made himself and our marriage more joyous in the process.

*pun completely intended

Why I love the American lifestyle

…as told through my rose-tinted glasses.

Ask me when I have been at my happiest and I will tell you, when I’ve been in America. Recently I’ve been trying to figure out why that is.

Standard American workplaces get c.10 days of holiday a year. We get around 25.

Until Obamacare kicks off properly, Americans have to pay for their health insurance. We have the NHS.

Americans have a work ethic that is fierce compared with the European work-life balance.

So what is it?

I think, for me, it’s that people and family always trump money. The generosity of spirit across all of the Americans I have met has been overwhelming. Their hospitality is genuine and all-encompassing and ultimately, certainly for the Americans I know, real life and real relationship take precedence over whatever demands this world makes.

I realise that my perspective is warped and that Americans as a nation are pursuing a Western dream and are often completely oblivious to the rest of the world. But even in their naivety they prioritise family and people.

I’m not sure how I, as an introvert, would truly survive state-side but I’d like to think that I’d embrace a work hard, play hard lifestyle, frequently interspersed with alone-time of course!

Winter wanderings

Winter WanderingsWinter is a strange season as it bridges the gap between the year’s polar opposites. While spring, summer and autumn all have a unique flavour that is usually predictable from beginning to end, winter embraces many emotions and characters. It is the only season where the mood and mindset change dramatically in the middle. At the beginning, the warmth, hope and joy of Christmas are all-consuming and they wrap up the year, offering time to reflect on the highs and lows of the past 12 months. But the season’s end welcomes in a New Year which, although cold and often marked by post-Christmas blues, is also ripe with possibility. For me, January often ends up as a strange month without any discernable purpose, so if you’re like me, here are some ways to stay in the moment through the whole of this coming winter.

  • Food & Drink: Toffee nut latte with chocolate hazelnut loaf
  • Bake: Snickerdoodles & Pflaumenkuchen
  • Places to visit: Germany
  • Play in the snow (if we get any!)
  • Do some Christmas crafts – most of mine involve Cinnamon sticks!
  • Watch lots of movies: The Holiday, Miracle on 34th Street, Muppet’s Christmas Carol, It’s a Wonderful Life, Love Actually
  • Experience a Christmas market – Köln Weihnachtsmarkt is just perfect
  • Buy a calendar for the New Year
  • Start on some New Year goals – make plans for the year, book tickets to shows and search out new restaurants
  • Go to a museum – it’s low season in January so much quieter and you can take your time
  • Go to coffee shops and watch the world go by
  • Have a long hot bath with candles and a good book
  • Prepare for spring – get ahead of the game with a pre-spring clearout
  • Make the most of the slower pace of life by sipping wine (or, my preference, G&T) late into the night with friends, dreaming about what the year ahead might bring

Winter may be the odd season out, but it can still bring joy if you live it in the moment!

Autumn jaunts

IMGP0491bMy favourite season of all is fast approaching. For me, Autumn (September to November) is the perfect temperature, the perfect speed of life and the anniversary of me meeting my hubby. For me, Autumn is synonymous with joy. If you’ve lived life in the moment in spring and summer, here are a few ways to make sure the delight of this new season doesn’t pass you by.

  • Food & Drink: Pumpkin spiced lattes & Butternut squash… everything!
  • Bake: Chocolate torte with autumn leaves
  • Places to visit: New England
  • Walks, walks, walks
  • Splash in puddles (who says this has to be confined to spring?)
  • Wake up early and go for a sunrise walk
  • Drink Baileys hot chocolate while watching November 5th fireworks
  • Make S’mores
  • Gather acorns and pine cones ready for Christmas decorations
  • Take a photo surrounded by Autumn leaves – or throw them in the air!

Probably because a school calendar is hardwired in my brain, Autumn for me is still a time for new beginnings, a hopeful fresh start as the temperature too becomes fresher. We’ll see if any new challenges or opportunities arise for this favoured season.

A girl of opposites

I am a confident introvert, a creature of routine who thrives on change, an adventurer rooted at home, a healthy-eating chocoholic and a believer who questions. I’m a leader who happily follows and a musician who loves the quiet. I love simplicity but my thought processes are usually complex, I save money but enjoy spending it, I adore tradition but not for the sake of it, I appreciate photography but rarely art and I stick to the rules, but rarely recipes. I seize opportunities, carefully, I seek out challenges, cautiously and I set goals, flexibly. I am a strategic thinker who lives in the moment, a 21st century technology advocate with a paper calendar and a meticulous planner who loves spontaneity.

On wheat-free, low-calorie, cheap eating

It’s hardly surprising, as a self-confessed chocoholic, that I had very little awareness of what foods were good and bad for me growing up. Of course I knew the basics: meat and two veg, lots of fruit and vegetables and not much sugar right? But somehow the details of carbohydrates/proteins/calories/poly-unsaturated things all passed me by. I wouldn’t have been able to tell you for the life of me what was high in calories and what was basically ‘free’ from calories. Except maybe water, I knew water didn’t have calories.

I also assumed that carbohydrates meant your basic staples: potatoes, bread, pasta, rice. I had no idea it extended beyond that.

Now I’m almost 6’2″ and fairly slim so losing weight isn’t high on my agenda, but taking care of myself is. Feeling healthy, alert and like I’m treating my body well, impacts my mood and general outlook, so recently I’ve been finding out a little more about food. Being wheat-free has also meant that I’ve become far more aware of what is in what I eat as I have to check ingredients all the time to make sure they haven’t somehow snuck wheat in (you’d be amazed, it’s in so much)!

Those of you who are already wheat-free will know that with this particular diet, similarly to many other intolerances, often comes a high price tag. But I’m starting to find ways to eat healthy, wheat-free, low-calorie foods for a reasonable cost so I thought I’d make a note of them in case, as is likely, I forget these little tips I’m learning.

Breakfast

Simple: fruit, yoghurt, occasionally granola if made with pure oats and natural honey

Lunch

Here’s the fun one. I’ve only recently discovered that sandwiches are unnecessary calories, which isn’t so bad because gluten-free bread is not anything worth shouting about. Get rid of the bread but don’t get rid of the delicious and the filling. There’s no point in being hungry because if you’re anything like me, you’ll just keep snacking on whatever is close at hand.

Here’s my plan: Salads, but not your traditional lettuce, cucumber and tomato (although sometimes they’re fine too). I’m more interested in quinoa, lentils, chickpeas, feta cheese, pomegranate seeds, sundried tomatoes, roasted courgette and pepper, sweetcorn, dried apricot and beetroot. You can pick and choose whichever of those you like the most and add in extras or change the basics but it’s healthy, it’s low calories, it’s wheat-free and it’s pretty cheap when you spread it out over a week of lunches. It’s also easy to get variety in there. I’m easily bored.

Dinner

The two biggest things I have learned about keeping dinner healthy and cheap are:

  1. Lots of vegetables (seriously, lots)
  2. Fish

I’m certainly not a vegetarian but most of the time I can give or take meat so we only have it once or twice a week and intersperse it with veg meals and fish (the cheaper fish types, rather than salmon or seabass despite our esteemed Prime Minister mistakenly believing the latter to be a modern staple of the society he governs). I also only have pasta about once a week, if at all. I’ve become more of a rice and potatoes girl.

Lots of vegetables is crucial as they tick all boxes: they’re cheap, most of them are low in calories, they’re healthy, they’re filling and they’re naturally wheat-free! I have felt so much better since I switched to eating so much veg.

Overall

There are some principles that apply across the board:

  • Reasonable portion size – you always feel rubbish when you overeat anyway.
  • Figure out how to tell the difference between hungry and thirsty – not as easy as you’d think.
  • Don’t eat when you’re bored because you’re not really enjoying it anyway – I’m a sucker for eating a ridiculous amount of chocolate when I’m bored even if I’m not hungry.
  • Don’t take the fun and yum out of food – I definitely haven’t cut out my chocolate, desserts and snacks. I eat little and often but I’m simply more aware of what it is that I’m snacking on, what actually fills me up and asking myself whether I really want what I’m eating. You don’t need to cut out on the fun stuff to eat healthily and cheaply.

So what have I learned?

  • Vegetables fill you up and tick all important boxes.
  • Eating fish at least once a week and meat a little less often really does make you feel better and saves the pennies.
  • Lunch doesn’t have to be a monotonous calorific sandwich, nor the incredibly boring daily recurrence of soup. It can be fun and filling without being expensive. It’s all about the pulses and the variety.

So. It turns out ‘meat and two veg’ and ‘lots of fruit and vegetables’ weren’t so far off the mark after all.

Inspiration versus Envy

At what point does something that is intended to inspire, morph to provoke envy?

I really quite like Pinterest. I wouldn’t say I love it and I certainly don’t hate it so I’m somewhere in the middle. I go through phases of spending hours on the site and then won’t look again for months. Partly that’s because I find it difficult to pick out the posts that inspire me and spark my style or creativity; partly that’s because I am very conscious that too much time spent on it and I begin to wish I had more money to carry out some ideas or I start to become envious of those who seem to have limitless time to create beauty.

There is definitely a line when my heart crosses over from excitement to try out new ideas, to descending into an obsession on the material or a sense of disappointment that I don’t have what I see (or the time to create it).

Pinterest can quickly clutter my mind with too many ideas and it fills up the space I would usually use to process those ideas. A few concepts at a time that I can make my own and put into action works much better for me.

I want to be inspired. I don’t want to spark a discontentment with what I have or what I can achieve so I’ll start small. A few little projects at a time and I’ll see where I get to.

A series of ‘nows’

Hubby and I had coffee with a colleague of mine on New Year’s Day. Somehow the two boys, both quite philosophical and driven by a sense of justice, balance and opportunity, began talking about culture and lifestyle. Some of their chatter was concocting a liberal utopia, acknowledging that humans were not designed to work 9-5 at a desk – work hard, yes, but not to the confines of a modern regime. This developed into a discussion around mindfulness, meditation and how our minds have been cultivated into viewing the world through our own unique filters. We perceive everything around us in relation to our beliefs, understandings and knowledge – the combination and design of which is different for everyone and therefore how we perceive the world is also unique to the make-up of our minds.

According to my colleague, there is no such thing as the past – it does not exist as a physical reality – nor is there such thing as a future. Rather, life is made up of a series of nows. While many flaws can be found in this simplistic idea, it does change the way we perceive our days. My colleague took this one step further to say that there is, as a result, no such thing as a problem. There is simply a choice to be made and if something arises from the choice, it becomes a situation that you are dealing with in the now. Problems and how we perceive them are, again, a creation of our culture.

Whether or not you adhere to his ideology, there is certainly something to be gained from it. If nothing else, it encourages us to live in the moment and truly experience our every day and I, for one, am all for a little more present-mindedness in this competitive, future-obsessed society.