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!

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Aloha 2016

2015 watercolour

It was a project I started unintentionally in January with the aim of using my watercolour set to capture what that first month of 2015 meant to me. Somehow it continued through 12 months of ups and downs – small catchphrases that summed up 4 week interludes; brief snapshots of an unfolding story.

2015 has been better than 2014 – not that that was difficult. If I’m honest, it was a little bland overall. Nothing huge changed, I achieved quite a few of the things I aimed to achieve but I started out at such a low point that I didn’t really have time to make sense of anything or plan.

It’s been a middling year; a season in which the primary aim was for time to pass and wounds to heal. Sometimes, time just has to take its course without my plans or expectations getting in its way. 2015 carved its own course with little steering or focus from me and on reflection, that has set me up well for 2016.

If nothing else, 2015 has taught me how to relinquish some control over the direction of my life. It has taught me to live each day as it comes – not that I have mastered that quite yet(!) – and it has taught me that time brings with it its own challenges and hidden delights. Like a stream that picks up, carries and deposits the pebbles and debris it encounters, time continues to flow no matter what you try to do to stop or divert it, accommodating whatever life moments it stumbles across.

My aim for this month was to Look Up and Anticipate 2016 and I definitely enjoyed this time. I celebrated with friends and family in lots of ways from parties to carol singing to ice skating. I also read and re-read the Christmas story, which means so much more than the revelry, and I’ve given myself time to ponder the coming year so that the joy of anticipation isn’t lost in fairly lights and Lebkuchen.

I’m not expecting huge things from 2016 other than what the passing of time naturally presents – and I think I’m ok with that. I want to bake more, I want to have more time to myself, I want to read more and I want to move more towards that wonderful Hawaiian lifestyle we were privileged to experience in March. Here’s to hoping that the islands who gave birth to my name will pervade in 2016 with hellos, goodbyes, love and hospitality: Aloha 2016.

Trusting in…

I’ve entered a season in my life that is completely new to me by one definition alone: I don’t know what’s next. I have always had ambitions, aims, goals and planned paths to help me get to where I wanted to go but I find myself in the slightly baffling position of having achieved what I wanted to by this age. In one sense, that is an incredible blessing but in another sense it leaves me feeling a little lost.

So I ask – what’s next? I have no defined journey to work towards and no comfort from knowing where I’m going because I’m there. I got to my destination. I had never really considered much past this point.

I’m living life without knowing: without knowing where I’m going, what’s next, how I’m going to get there or how I’m going to feel like I’m still achieving and learning new things. I’m not trusting in my own ability to get somewhere nor am I trusting in time to work in my favour, which leaves me trusting in the only one who knows what’s next for me: God.

It’s probably a good place to be because in my ‘not knowing’ I am left with no choice but to place my life in His hands. I have no clue what I’m stepping into so I’m thankful that I have someone walking alongside me. I am hoping that I learn how to live life without knowing in a way that is fulfilling and I am also hoping that as and when a little direction comes my way, I don’t forget how to take each step in faith.

Everything becomes familiar

In time, all things become familiar. What starts off as overwhelming, uncomfortable, confusing, unnerving or discombobulating eventually feels like routine. A new job, a new home, any kind of change – even a new kitchen! – takes time to adjust for me. That’s not to say it’s bad. It’s just new.

Since everything will at some point start to feel like the norm, I may as well embrace the slightly bewildering emotion of change – the feeling doesn’t last forever.

August – Gaining perspective

P1030479 (1)August gave this introvert a wonderful gift – time. We had time away from work, away from the small frustrations that build in everyday life and away from the distractions that cloud our perspective. We had time with family, with friends and with each other. That time reminded me how much I need to escape on a regular basis, it rekindled in me a desire to prioritise and balance flexibility, people and quiet time, it challenged me to focus on rebuilding my patience, it refocused my perspective and it refreshed me to pursue the things that I realised were still important to me.

Perspective is a curious beast. It is so easy to distort and takes conscious effort to regain. It demands distance from a situation in order that it can clear its vision and re-evaluate. Thankfully, that is just what this month allowed me to do. The smaller frustrations that begin to consume daily life seem trivial when set against a broader view and you begin to wonder whether you’ve really forgotten how to let inconsequential matters slide off your back. The stubbornness in my nature is quick to focus on trivial details that I needlessly grant permission to require all of my attention. I reward such matters with a status of importance, which in turn allows anger and impatience to rise within me. Away from the familiarity of routine, it seems absurd that I gave such small things such great value and bizarre that those areas were where I willingly chose to place my energy. Gaining perspective and rebalancing energy is a huge blessing when small things have become such unnecessary burdens.

Needless to say, we had a great time on holiday. We had a few days of glorious sunshine and curled up indoors when the mist closed in. We spent a weekend with good friends and their little one year old and I got to pamper both my friend and myself which was a real treat. We celebrated me turning another year older, saw an impressive airshow and throughout the month I got to spend some one on one time with my Daddy, my sister and some of my best friends, over breakfast, shopping, cinema and bowling.

All in all, August was just what my soul needed and for that I’m really very thankful.

May – Resurrecting Life’s Detail

DSCF2150aPosting just once or twice a month isn’t quite what I had intended for this blog but it will do for now.

As hoped for, May has been a month that has given me space to appreciate time a little more. Evenings and weekends have been less crammed and there have been fewer demands on my time than in recent months.

I find it slightly amusing that my instinct when presented with time is to fill it but I am learning how to fill it with things I enjoy and that have a result that continues past the hour that was filled. When I’ve spent the morning writing, reading, painting, baking or photographing, there is a lingering sense of product and productivity that is uniquely satisfying. Then I’m happy to spend a couple of hours watching a movie or taking a nap because the hours of the day haven’t all been ‘wasted’.

May has reminded me of how crucial the role of detail plays in my life. Without detail, time rushes on and I’m left feeling like I never quite made the most of it. Details that have been resurrected (or established for the first time) in May include:

Freezing limes and lemons ready for iced drinks (hello G&T). They look pretty, they give an added level of occasion and they keep the drink cold, without watering it down. A small extra detail makes it a whole new drink.

Having flowers in the bedrooms. Whenever I have flowers in the flat, they are usually on prominent display in the lounge where any visitor would notice them. Having flowers in other rooms, where only my husband and myself will appreciate them frequently, creates a level of detail that isn’t affirmed by other people. All of our lives are worth giving care and attention to, not just the areas that the outside world sees.

Moisturising and painting my nails. I’m not one for spending an excessive amount of time getting ready but I notice that when I take the time to introduce a more detailed routine, I feel (and look!) better as a result. Emphasise on I feel better. Spending time making sure all the clothes I wear fit me well, spending time moisturising and taking care of my skin rather than just jumping out of the shower, into a non-thought through outfit and ploughing straight onto what’s next, all contribute to a sense of wholeness and wellbeing.

Eating more healthily. In the days of yore, being overweight was a good thing. It testified to your wealth and ability to afford the choicest food… and lots of it! Nowadays, being overweight (and I acknowledge this is a huge generalisation) is often akin to having little money, not caring about what you’re putting into your body, or both. Cheap food is often fast food, filled with additives, fat and goodness knows what else. Taking time to cook a good meal and make sure I’m not overindulging in the chocolate I’m so drawn to, makes me feel better. Planning the details of a good meal (and even good treats) gives me energy that I don’t feel when I speed through life.

Social media fast: seeing the world’s natural detail. Isn’t it ironic that what some would consider cutting yourself off from the world and the influences, opinions and events that define it, often results in us connecting with the world on a much more satisfying and meaningful scale. The world is full of detail. Birds singing, dramatic clouds, sunshine, people, life. Switching off from electronic communication not only gives me some time back in and of itself, it also opens my eyes to appreciate the natural detail and beauty that already surrounds me.

Experimenting: a break from routine. Whether it’s going out for a late night walk, trying a new recipe, going to a new restaurant or meeting someone new for coffee, breaking from the norm gives life the opportunity to show me new colours, new details, new flavours and most importantly for me, new memories.

I’m sure there are many more ways in which May was all about resurrecting life’s detail for me but instead of trying to capture it all, I’ll wait until the words come unprompted. I spent this past weekend baking, reading, painting my nails and taking a long bath. I’m starting to feel refreshed, the details I’ve had time to pay attention to are bringing me joy so I’m going to take an afternoon away from online distraction and appreciate some quiet time.

April – Keeping Pace with Time

P1020100aApril was hectic. It was chaotic, fast-moving, capricious – there are any number of words that could describe the speed and unpredictability of this month.

It started calm enough. The Hawaii Wedding Part 2 was lovely and we got to spend the long Easter weekend with my in-laws. Thinking about it as I write, I notice that Easter didn’t even make it into my painting. Many are surprised that, as Christians, we don’t really observe Easter. Instead, we had a Passover meal with my in-laws – it helps me to remember and be thankful more than chocolate eggs.

Then the new role really picked up and all of a sudden my work days grew longer, squeezing my evenings and resulting in very little time to recharge. Communication has become all consuming for me these past few weeks as my role has soared at a slightly unexpected rate.

In the in-between moments we celebrated our anniversary, visiting Rudyard Kipling’s house and Churchill’s house and generally having a very lovely weekend away just the two of us. Our lodger moved out after almost a year and quiet filled our flat once more. I’ll admit, it didn’t take all that long to adjust and I’m grateful to have both the physical and the mental space back again.

And then Nepal happened. A significant part of my job is disaster response so the past few days have been a haze of appeals, updates, information and urgency. I felt so blessed that I could walk into work on Monday and not have to leave behind or ignore the horrors I’d seen over the weekend but instead could do something to help. It puts a lot into perspective. I don’t think it’s right that we should feel guilty that it wasn’t us. I don’t think it’s right that we should put our lives on hold. I think we should absolutely pray, give financially and do everything we can to raise awareness of the disaster that has befallen the people of that nation. But I don’t think we’re called to stop our lives or stop experiencing joy in the good things we are blessed with because if we stop being joyful, what hope do we have to encourage and lift up those who are in despair?

We signed for our kitchen this week. In two months or so, the two year saga of our leaking roof will finally come to an end. I’m already planning what to bake, who to have round for dinner and how I can use our lovely new kitchen to make people feel at home in our home. I’m so excited. I was genuinely jumping.

And then of course we have British Summer Time. The evenings stretch out longer so that I don’t quite realise when time has run away with me until my eyelids droop and my energy dips. Those extra hours of light bring great promise. They beckon a season of extended time with friends when, hopefully, I will be able to sit back and relish that time again, rather than simply keep pace with it.

February – Preparing to Launch

P1010712aThe fleeting month of February was surprisingly filled with quite a few events and learnings.

On a very small (but exciting for me) level, I de-seeded pomegranates for the first time and realised how much of a delicious addition those ruby seeds are to my lunch, which became healthy and budget conscious this month.

We had a fantastic day with my family and in-laws at the start of the month to celebrate my hubby getting baptised. It was such a wonderful evening, filled with truth, promise and dedication. It made my soul smile.

We also went to a great friend’s wedding and saw her and her new husband celebrate the start of the next stage in their lives together. It was beautiful, joyful and I was so thrilled to share it with them.

February has of course been interwoven with rugby, with the Six Nations tournament filling most of our weekends. Yet somehow in between cheering England to two victories out of three, I also spent a precious Valentine’s Day morning with my Daddy over a long breakfast. I am so thankful that I have two such inspirational men in my life.

The second Tuesday in February is traditionally Shrove Tuesday, better known in the UK as ‘pancake day’ – the day to get rid of all unhealthy produce in the home before Lent begins the following day. We were treated to a spectacular dinner – it was the first time this particular friend has cooked for us and he set himself a high standard! The gorgeous meal was followed by copious (wheat-free!) pancakes. The best filling, in case anyone was wondering, is banana, nutella and vanilla ice cream. Divine.

The final weekend of February was brimming with music. We saw one of my best friends sing in the choir for Bach’s St John’s Passion (which, unbeknown to us in advance, also featured a great friend of ours as the tenor soloist!) and then I played in the second day of a charity Beethoven marathon, playing all of his symphonies over a weekend. We played through the seventh and eighth before performing the ninth to a small audience.

Somehow, between all of this time with friends and family and among such momentous occasions as baptisms and weddings, February has been a time of preparation. It has been a time to be still, to look ahead, to prepare for what we know is coming: My husband is going part-time in March to fulfil another of his passions, writing; my job is likely to change quite heavily in the coming season; we will be doing lots of work to our lovely home to restore it to its full beauty but in the middle of that, we have a refreshing two week holiday on the beautiful islands of Hawaii to look forward to.

February has served us well, giving us times of joy but allowing us time to take stock and prepare our hearts for the launch of a new season of change and discovery. My heart is almost ready for some goals again, to commit to new challenges and new experiences. Perhaps the Hawaiian sunshine will inspire me at the very least to write a little more and record in slightly more depth how our lives are starting to blossom once again. Let the adventure begin!

Changing character

ISFJ head and stress

It’s been a while since I wrote in my little corner of this seemingly infinite web space. It has been a pretty intense rollercoaster of a six months and too many of my thoughts were simply too raw, too unprocessed, to publish. In a relatively short space of time, I have learned so much about people and about relationships. I have learned an incredible amount about what it means to love and be loved. I have experienced situations I never thought I would encounter personally and I have come through them – not completely just yet but I’m certainly on my way to a lighter place.

In the process, I have discovered that the change in me is more apparent than I had thought. Many pay little attention to personality tests, the likes of Myers Briggs, but I find them useful in understanding myself and in understanding others, in order to bring out the best of both.

When I was first prompted to take the Myers Briggs test around five years ago, I was an ESTJ. I sat firmly in the category of someone who was logical, factually thinking, often quite opinionated, mostly unemotional and usually direct. If you wanted something from me, you would need to persuade me with sound and logical argument that it made good sense, before I would acquiesce.

After getting married, I changed fairly quickly to become an ISTJ. As my character developed, I placed an increasingly high value on time with myself, to process my thoughts, to understand the ‘why’ not just the ‘how’ and simply to be still. My husband is a very strong introvert and no doubt that has had a marked impact on who I am. Both of us are fairly confident, especially when it comes to public speaking, but to recharge, we are happiest in small groups, with each other, or even on our own. I still was very logical in my thinking but I had learned to be a better listener and not always feel the need to offer my opinion.

I took the Myers Briggs test again this past week and lo and behold, I am now an ISFJ. Slowly but surely, my character is leaning towards the simpler, more empathetic priorities in life. I am very quick to hold my tongue now, I consider the impact of my words before they are spoken, I listen more than I speak and the character trait in me that was so quick to step forward and lead has taken a step back, enabling those around me to take more ownership of their own paths, instead of being directed solely by mine.

I am still endlessly logical, organised and detail-focused and I can’t honestly see myself changing in either the ‘S’ or ‘J’ categories. I should also clarify that the point of these designations is not to pronounce a better or worse character, but rather to emphasise difference in character. The beauty of understanding personality is that we can learn to complement one another instead of antagonise, so that the weaknesses of one are overcome by the strengths of another.

We all change over time, but the circumstances of the past six months have brought about a change that is far more visible in the way I interact with people. I’m intrigued to see how that has an impact beyond the confines of relationships, especially as the new year approaches.

Brunch

Collage - brunchBrunch is the most wonderful way to enjoy food at the weekend. There is no need for an early start, nor is there an expectation of having to be hungry first thing in the morning, which I’m usually not. Brunch enforces a leisurely pace where time can be infinite and there are no deadlines or chores. All that is required is that you eat when you’re hungry and make the meal last as long as possible.

Brunch is at its best when shared with friends. The day stretches out ahead of you and you can take your time putting the world to rights. The food has to be good and hearty – after all, it is technically combining two main meals – but other than that, it can be nearer breakfast or nearer lunch. It is whatever you want it to be and therein lies its joy. It’s dictated by you, not by the time or routine or tradition.

Whether it’s smoked salmon and scrambled egg on toast, or granola, yoghurt and fresh strawberries, brunch is really the way all weekends should start.