The lost art of attention (and how maybe we’re all screwed)

To pay attention to another person is to be deliberate. It’s to say, unapologetically, I’m here. I’m listening. You matter more to me in this moment than whatever else I could be doing (or if not, I’ll try to make it seem that way).

To pay attention to the world is to be consciously bowled over, smitten. Dismayed quite a bit, sure, but completely engaged.

To pay attention to yourself is to admit that there’s only so much racing from reality one person can do. There’s only so long you can keep the door of distractions and extraneous crap closed, without peering at what’s really going on behind it. (And yes, I know it’s like Monica’s secret junk closet back there.)

Simone Weil shook something in me by saying, “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” But she died in 1943. So while she might not have been talking about this specific society and how social media is screwing us all over (and clearly our propensity to not pay the utmost attention has been a thing for a while), I do reckon that what she said remains pertinent.

My friend reposted a brilliant piece on Facebook the other day:

“Pssst. I like the photos of your lunch. And your baby. And your dog or cat or bunny or snake. I like your selfies and your crafts. I like seeing your house renovation and your garden. I like to see your book and the article you got published. I like seeing the photo of that view from that place you visited. I like to hear about your brand new niece and the amazing milkshake you had and that matte lipstick you tried. I like to see the cocktail you had or the beautiful stained glass in that new church you’re going to. I’m glad you’ve been sober for a while. I’m glad you’re working out more. I enjoy seeing your face, sweaty and pink after that 5k. I like your selfies with make-up. I like your selfies with no make-up when you’re wearing those comfy new PJs. I’m glad you voted. I like your new haircut. I’m glad you’re sharing. I like it. I like you. I like your lunch.”

That’s appreciation in its purest form. Letting people share the big and the small stuff. Letting people be happy. Letting people notice their own happiness and exclaim or murmur through their online sharing, “If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is” (kudos, Kurt Vonnegut).

I love when I see snaps of my friend’s legs on a watermelon beach towel, because it means she’s contented enough to document it. I love when I get the lowdown on my mate’s Parkrun, because it means he’s proud enough to post about it. I love when my former schoolmate and now faraway Facebook-friend shares pictures of her kid on his first day at school, because it means she’s pleased as punch and wants everyone to know it. But, to go back to our mate Simone, there comes a point when all that glad-feeling and appreciation detract from my actual life, which is happening in this actual moment. I’m just not paying attention.

I look down to double-tap a stranger’s selfie, and when I look up, it’s past 12 on a schoolnight and tomorrow’s mood is already shot. Or six months have passed and I still haven’t pitched that website or posted my portfolio or got any further ahead in the ways I’m pining for.

Also? It takes a saint to always always see other people’s selfies, belfies, lunches, brunches, performances and publications in an entirely graceful way. To always think, “I see you, I’m thrilled for you, and I’m sure as hell not comparing myself to you…” I’ve been nearing overkill and – FYI, this isn’t very PC/feminist/ “artists must support other artists” of me – I’ve been getting jealous. Mad, even. Resentful. Full of bitterness towards people I don’t even know, who are presumably super-nice and lovely and probably insecure, too.

I need to stop watching other people and pay attention to myself. To what’s happening right now, that I can touch and see and feel. To the rainstorm on the skylight and Santigold on Spotify. To the begging in my belly and the mania in my chest – the wanting of more. To how I’m using my time and whether it makes me feel tip-top (spoiler: it doesn’t).

So as a generous gift from me to me, I deleted the Instagram app from my phone on Monday, just for a bit, in an effort to quit comparing and take up true attention-giving as a serious sport. We’re up to day four of no scrolling now. There’s been no viewing of other people’s daily moments of frustration or joy, no being led by the pull to capture my commute-coffee, no constant exposure to how everyone else is crushing it. Because that’s the thing. A boss brunch gets a double-tap, but it doesn’t punch me in the gut in the same way as news that someone’s bossing it in their career. The punctual peeks inside other people’s routines are nice; it feels like I’m going about their days with them. But while I’m living life vicariously rather than literally and comparing everyone else’s notable moves with my own, it’s too noisy for me to hear what’s actually going on.

And if I want to pay true attention, it’s got to be quiet, even if the quiet does expose the ugly-as-sin contents of my closet of crap.

I’ve been running from the junk-closet for ages, filling my outer life with the coolest things and then showing them off online. Getting caught up in the fake competition of it all. Being seduced by the bright sensations over the broad ones, never letting myself go too deep because when you’re busy adjusting the saturation of a 2D snapshot on a smartphone, everything can only be surface-level. It’s harder to focus, harder to decide on things (and god knows I have enough trouble with that as it is), harder to go full-pelt at life, which is what I want to spend my days doing, always. Social media can shrink me. It condenses the most mind-boggling of sunset views, which genuinely made me gooey inside, to a flat photo that someone flicks past as they sit on a train and which only becomes worth something if they bless it with a ‘like.’ It weakens my voice as I try to make it heard among everyone else’s, and I just want to feel like I have conviction.

I’m not expecting miracles from simply deleting an iPhone app, but as Jonathan Safran Foer said, “One needn’t believe in miracles to experience them. But one must be present for them.”

Me encanta Granada

My first impression of Granada came via Ani. Ani was my AirBnB host at a flat she’d described online as “artistic.” I’m inclined to concur. The keys she gave me were attached to red castanets, there was animal-adorned wallpaper covering the kitchen cupboards, and I had a mannequin wearing a polka-dot flamenco dress at the end of my bed. It was muy extravagante, but muy bonita. Ani herself creates music videos from home for a living and danced a little jig in her hallway when she told me she’d achieved her life’s dream. Her parting message to me was an instruction to follow my dream, too. Ani’s great.

Travelling to a new place is never truly about the place itself. It’s not about the views (though Granada’s are BREATHTAKING, SPECTACULAR and ALL the superlatives), the streets (though Granada has plenty of chaotic, winding and wonderful ones) or the spots on the tourists’ tick-list (though Granada’s maze-like Albayzín and its buzzing bodegas and the majestic Alhambra(!!) are first-class).

It’s more about the people. It’s about Ani and her colourful home, where she provides croissants and air-conditioning. It’s about José, the Spanish gypsy whose girlfriend lives in Guildford and who called me a princess as he waited for me to leave the tapas bar so he could take my table. It’s about Damien, the French dude I befriended as we both took a wrong turn on our way up to the Alhambra and who stayed with me for the whole tour. We chatted in broken English, French and Spanish and he laughed at all my jokes. He pointed out ‘granados’ (pomegranate trees) and made fun of my factor 50 suncream, and I said “Je suis chaud” instead of “J’ai chaud,” which made him blush and chuckle a lot.

It’s about the shy waiter at La Parrala who served me paella and a selection of cheese that was way too much for one person as he told me that my Spanish was better than his English. It’s about the flamenco singer at Mirador San Nicolás whose clapping companion offered to take my picture with the unreal vista as my backdrop – and then held eeeveryone up as he took his damn time. A perfectionist, it would seem.

It’s about the group of carefree Spanish girls I spied as I was having tostada for breakfast… again. They’d just ordered chocolate sauce and giant churros. At 9am. I was impressed.

It’s about the guy who served me fresh juice in 40-degree heat and took an unsolicited photo of the tattoo on my arm, before showing me all of his own (well, the ones he could decently show me, at least).

It’s about Bei, who’s Senegalese but moved to a Granadian hillside, picked up the local lingo, and opens his cave-casa to a different tour group every week. When we arrived on my last night in Granada, which I’d warily dedicated to an “adventure tour” (turned out to be 25€ extremely well spent), he was listening to British pop music and drinking beer with some friends. He let us look around and take snaps of his self-sufficient home. He beamed and joked and showed off his Latin-inspired dance moves. We were in good spirits; right before Bei’s house, we’d climbed up shrunken streets and precarious dirt paths to San Miguel Alto and witnessed the most staggering sunset any of us had ever seen IRL.

It’s about all of those people, their openness, their exuberance, the way they are who they are because of Granada – and yet they make Granada the place that it is.

And, of course, it’s about the food, too. It’d be remiss of me to leave that out. The massive churros, the piononos, the post-midnight helado, the tinto de verano that comes with FREE FOOD!!! Granada is the city for complimentary tapas. Free food you haven’t even asked for = my idea of happy hour. One night, I had two drinks and three plates of food for 5,50€. Erm, hellooooo heaven.

Granada, you were rougher around the edges than Seville. Your streets seemed more bustly, your people a bit more brusque, your walls more gaudily graffitied. But good god, you were equally gorgeous. My three days with you will stay with me for a long time – and not just because you wooed me with free carbs. I’ll remember the conversational slip-ups, the heart-stopping views, the sensation of sweat-beads dripping down my belly. I’ll remember the insistent old ladies thrusting indistinguishable flowers in my face and the abrupt way of the waiters tied up in your teeming tapas bars, with their punters spilling into your cobbled alleys. It was fantastic, all of it. I can’t wait to come back.

Hasta pronto, preciosa. Gracias por los recuerdos.

Solo in Seville

I have a habit of keeping daily diaries in the Notes app on my phone whenever I go away. I don’t want to forget a second, you see. Being in a new place can feel like a distant dream once you’re back home. And my memory is pretty shocking as it is.

As I type this into the keypad on my iPhone, I’m sitting on a coach, somewhere outside Antequera, on my way from Seville to Granada. It’s 35 degrees outside. Inside, it’s a little cooler. I can hear someone loudly crunching some crisps up in front and it’s reminding me and my empty belly that I should’ve brought more snacks than just a croissant, which I ate two hours ago.

Anyway, I didn’t write those daily notes while I was in Seville; I figure Instagram acts as my visual diary these days – not to mention the 340+ photos I snapped but didn’t share during the 2.5 days I was in town. I can’t read on coaches. Something about the bumpy roads and the motion and the word-skimming makes me queasy. So, since I can’t bury myself in my book before I touch down in Granada and meet Ani, my second AirBnB host of the week, I’ll do my documenting and give you the lowdown on my stay in Seville.

Solo travelling is partly THE BEST THING, and partly not at all. It’s not the best thing when you see a Spanish house so pretty or eat a croquette so tasty that you want to share the experience out loud with the person next to you, except you’re all on your own and you don’t speak enough Spanish to gush to a total stranger who might look at you funny anyway (and they’re already looking at you kinda funny just for being foreign, and female, and alone). It’s also not the best thing when your phone overheats on your first morning in Seville, taking its dying splutters just as you’re about to tour the oldest (and widely regarded as the best) bullring in Spain, where they still stage fights to this day. You’ll wander around in a slight panic, half listening to the bilingual tour guide as she tells you how successful matadors are presented with the ears and tails of the bulls they slay, and half freaking out at your inability to take pictures of this place that, yes, is culturally quite amazing, but that also has you surprised that such a practice still exists.

I did ask a Belgian lady on the tour, whose English was mighty good, to take my photo with her phone and email it to me. Hopefully it’ll land in my inbox soon. I feel like it was a decent pic.

I tried to be all chill about my phone being dead, but really it was both my camera and my only connection to the world I best understand, and I was sad that pressing the power button over and over wasn’t achieving a damn thing. So I drank a glass of sangria on an empty stomach and went to tipsily ask tourist info where a phone shop was. (Yes, I’m a tad ashamed that I didn’t just embrace being disconnected. But, pictures!!)

What is great about being a solo traveller is that you’re pretty much forced to speak to strangers, waiters and locals – bueno para practicar tu español! There were two waiters in particular who took it upon themselves to speak to me exclusively in Spanish when I told them I was trying to practise. The first was Alejandro at La Cucaña. He fetched a “special table” so I could sit outside when all the other al fresco tables were taken. He taught me to say ‘olives,’ ‘nice to meet you’ and ‘can I have the bill, please?’ He asked me my name and called to me when I passed by the following night. The second waiter was at Las Tablas and I don’t know his name. But I do know that he served me some good patatas bravas, paid his sympathies to me and my dead phone, and told me that my Spanish accent was very good. I don’t know whether he was being sincere or just wanted a tip. Clearly my ego prefers the former.

I stayed at Rafa and Sandra’s flat in Triana, a neighbourhood in Seville that’s lauded as the birthplace of flamenco. It has the world’s smallest theatre inside its market, where I saw an hour-long flamenco show that knocked my socks right off. Also, I happened to land in Triana just as they were kicking off Velá de Santiago y Santa Ana, a festival for the patron saint which sees Rafa and Sandra’s street become party central for a week. It meant I had the sound of people having a great time keeping me company until I fell asleep for three nights running, which was actually lovely.

The centre of Seville is magical. The architecture and the tiles (the tiles!!) are A+. Plaza de Español had me swooning for hours and Real Alcázar de Sevilla was like no other place I’ve been before. Honestly, there aren’t words for how stunning these spots are. Metropol Parasol is worth a go, too. It’s the world’s biggest wooden structure in a historic area, and it was amazing for the three euros I paid to go up and see the view (PLUS you get a free tinto de verano (or non-alcoholic beverage) once you’re up there – bargain!).

What else? I had delicious tapas at a top Trip Advisor-rated restaurant (another solo-travelling bonus is that you can snag a lone seat in the window or at the bar while bigger parties have to wait for a table). I ate photo-worthy ice-cream, despite not being able to take a photo of it. And I met a wonderful waitress at Corral del Agua. She took her restaurant job so she could meet new people and practise all the languages she speaks (two of which she taught herself while she was a housewife – real stay-at-home-mum #goals right there). It was while working in the restaurant that she met the guy with whom she’s now in the first flushes of a relationship. He’s English. She’s over the moon. It all sounded muy romántico.

Seville, you were a dream. I wish I could’ve got to know you even better. Maybe one day I’ll be back and I’ll stay a while longer. I’ll sip my café sin leche with the locals over desayuno (no one gets takeaway coffee – it’s for the savouring). I’ll take even more pictures of sus casas and las calles (like 340 weren’t enough). And I’ll be more fluent by then, so we can have proper chats about the day and the world and whatever else your locals like to talk so animatedly about as they lounge outside your cafeterías. Sorted. Hasta luego.

The moments that make up a “good” life

My name’s Rebecca and I’m a self-help addict.

I have shelves stacked with tomes dedicated to my betterment. Email newsletters give me the hottest hacks to squeeze aaalll the juice from every second of my day. Fridge magnets remind me that I’m doing great! and that everything is progress. Hundreds – nay, thousands (no lie) – have been spent on courses and programmes that promise to make me a better writer/entrepreneur/human being.

And now I’m two days shy of 30, with no life plan, and wondering what the point of it all is.

Because I’ve been reading/learning/buying this stuff for a long time now, but I still feel the same. And beneath all those promises of self-improvement, there’s the implicit message that what my existing self is and the mundane moments my self lives out? They ain’t good enough.

“Dream big!” they say. “Hustle hard!” “You’re just this very simple step away from being your best self!”

What they don’t tell you is what happens when you work like a mofo and your life still looks, well, distinctly average at the end of it all. When you up sticks and move cities and make new friends, all without fireworks and fanfare. Or when you clock one too many Insta quotes telling you to KEEP GOING and that LIFE’S SHORT and then you burn out, knackered from the non-stop pressure to hustle and convinced that you’ll never be up to scratch.

The closer I inch towards 30, the more inclined I am to call BUUULLLLLSHIT. Only thing is, this stuff started early. It started when I got praised for my grades in school, when I got taught to compare my marks to my mates’, when I was asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, with the unspoken expectation that it’d better be something special or what was the point?

It’s not easy to undo all that conditioning. But now I’m hitting 30 and finding that my life, while gorgeous for the most part and one I’m largely OK with, feels pretty regular. I don’t have a sell-out business bringing in six figures a year. I haven’t been model-scouted in Primark. I’m no Instagram influencer and I haven’t published a bestselling memoir on the strength of my personal blog.

I’ll never be a supermodel or a leading lady. I don’t know how to contour my face. And when I talk on Twitter, pretty much no one replies.

I figured that life is nothing without the boldest and biggest adventures, that being the brightest and the best is all that counts, all the while forgetting that the most epic times can come disguised as the most everyday.

I’ve travelled solo to the States and moved cross-country, barely knowing anyone, but my favourite thing is still just going for a coffee down the road from my flat. Taking a home-cooked dish (OK, a shop-bought dessert) to my neighbours’. Getting a voice message from my best mate. Watching Saturday-night telly with my dad. Walking my mum’s dogs on the same riverbank I took my dog as a kid. Spending the night on a nondescript dancefloor crammed with a hundred faceless strangers. Underlining the bits that grab me in a good book. Going to bed before 10pm. Getting a ’99 with strawberry juice from the best ice-cream van back home.

None of that garners a round of applause. No one shares in the satisfaction I get from a precisely made bed or the shiny draining board I’ve just cleared of clean dishes. But those things make me happy (I’m sad, I know). And they’re the moments that make up my life. It’s a life that might not rank with those of the blogger who’s getting press attention or the business-owner who’s working poolside today. But it’s the life of a woman who’s learning (slowly) that what looks good to her, not to Instagram, is the life that’s really worth living.

The space between here and 30

Today, I’m a 29-year-old hunched over her laptop in the heart of Clapham Common, exposed to the try-hard sunrays and the gusts of wind for which her short shorts are wholly unsuited (heatwave’s over, yo), listening to Jay Z’s Reasonable Doubt and chomping on Tesco’s pineapple fingers (OBSESSED).

Two weeks from today, I’ll be a 30-year-old set on spending four hours of her birthday on trains so she can drink to the dawn of a new decade with three of her oldest friends in the north of England.

Between now and then, there’s a lot of important stuff I want to remind myself of. Because there’s so much I neglect to remember every day, so many thought spirals I fall into, so much overthinking and overworrying and overstressing about the inevitable passing of time and my lack of any semblance of a plan.

Because not having a plan is OK.

That’s the first lesson. The first of a few more to come. The first thing I know for sure, yet the thing I forget day after day after day.

Did I plan on being a nanny at 30? Erm… if you look back at the goals of 15-year-old me, you’ll see that ‘actress’ and ‘journalist’ were legit dreams (ahhh, what it is to dream). While I ADORE having two little pals who make me laugh on the school-run every day, this isn’t where I planned to be. Did I plan on being single at 30? Well, it wasn’t what I pictured. Did the Sex & The City gals make being single in your thirties look like the best party in town? Pretty much. But did I ever think I’d be a guest at that party? Nope. Nope, I did not. Was it ever in my imaginary life plan to move to South London and spend my days coffee-drinking, road-running, yoga mat-dwelling, park-picnicking and sober-dancing, both solo and with the wildest, most wondrous of folk? No. Two years ago, I didn’t even like coffee, and I once thought I’d live in Yorkshire my whole life.

My twenties have been a mess of highs and lows and loud thoughts and lonely moments (don’t believe all that Instagram tells you), and I have this hope that 30 will bring with it a sense of calm and knowing and being rooted to a space in life for the first time… However, given that my life has failed to follow any sort of predetermined direction so far, I can’t imagine the rest of my years on this spinning lump of rock will be much different. These next two weeks until 30 hits likely won’t reveal some great secret to figuring it all out. All I can do in the space between now and 30 (plus when I actually hit 30, and then for the rest of eternity) is go with the flow. Keep getting jazzed at the prospect of more living, more learning, more freaking out, more fooling around, more finding out cool things about the world and my place in it and all the people inhabiting it with me.

Not everything has to be planned to the nth degree. Not everything will go how we thought it would when we were 12 and our perception of grown-ups was one of totally together people who knew exactly what living meant. Turns out, not even 52-year-olds have that luxury (according to my mum, at least). It’s all just a fun experiment, this thing we call life, in which we throw different careers and cities at the wall to see what sticks. And I’m becoming more and more convinced that that’s actually the coolest flipping thing.

All out at sea

I’m writing this on a slow train from Margate to London St. Pancras. It stops at ten stations in total and it’ll take me about two hours to get back to the city – two hours in which to revel in this full feeling, this warm-and-fuzzy feeling, this feeling of being (as somebody just described me) one smitten little kitten, before the London Underground starts to smother it all.

I hadn’t been in Margate twelve hours before noting that you can rent a one-bedroom flat (a whole flat! not a studio!) for less than I’m paying for a single room in South London…

Granted, I was blessed with a weekend that boasted Mediterranean-esque temperatures and picture-perfect sunsets, the likes of which even the locals hadn’t seen in a while. Mid-January in Margate is probably a bit grimmer. But it was the way people kept saying “good morning” to me. It was the way the cafés and coffee shops that would’ve been rammed in East London were almost deserted. It was the way I could walk for a mile along a stretch of unspoilt coastline with a caramel brownie and only see six other people the entire time.

It was the coffee shop that’s also a record store that offers yoga classes upstairs. It was the way everybody seemed to know everyone else. It was the locals’ gripes about gulls nesting on rooftops – the same gulls that woke me from sleep each morning.

It was the fresh seafood in a sun-trap of a restaurant garden. It was the converted double-decker bus, now a café serving brunches with views across the sea. It was the abundance of dogs and the absence of car horns. It was the ice-cream cone as big as my face and the fish and chips on the sand. It was the solo glass of red wine on Saturday night, which I forced myself to enjoy without scrolling through my phone, despite being hyper-aware that I was alone in a bar.

It was the swathes of uninterrupted hours to lap up Amy Liptrot’s memoir, The Outrun, stopping every couple of pages to fold down another corner and underline another sentence. (I’ve finally become a person that annotates her favourite books and I couldn’t be happier about it.)

Amy writes about moving to London from the wilds of northern Scotland, about wanting to rub the city into her skin, about running headfirst at her new life, about seeking connection with a fired-up fury, about flitting from one thought/flat/job to another, about feeling rejected by her new home, about waiting to feel normal every day.

They were all bits I underlined.

I’m not done with London yet and I don’t know that I will be any time soon. But the sea air has seeped right into my skin and I’m giving this much more forgiving town the eye.

London’s hard.

Almost four years in and I nearly always feel adrift.

I flung myself, full-pelt, at my London life from the get-go. I know all the cool coffee shops and all the best poetry nights and all the top places to see all the prettiest views. I know writers and photographers and designers and businesspeople – whether they get paid to do these things or they define themselves by their side-hustles. I know people with children and people without, people who’ve found their ‘ones’ and people riding solo. I know people who love London and people who hate it, people raised in the city and people born on different continents. And each and every one of them is brilliant and interesting. I’ve met some of my favourite humans on the face of this earth on the streets of that grimy, shiny, difficult city. Looking at my own Instagram feed gives me chills at how fantastic my life can be. But none of that stops me from feeling stranded, like every day is just a new chance to wake up and try to feel normal, settled, OK at last.

I’m still high on a weekend of sea breezes and salty chips, so my perception may be skewed. But this past year in particular, aside from presenting circumstantial shit-shows that knocked me for six, has been a weird one in the ol’ head. Thankfully, I’m learning to be more self-aware. I’m learning to self-soothe with nice things and fun times (hence the hellooooo to Margate). And I’m learning to take the rough with the smooth and not to blame a certain city for a messy life.

London and I ain’t done yet. There are way more walks to be had where I’ll get a buzz off the view from Waterloo Bridge or crane my neck to see the tip-top of the tallest buildings in Canary Wharf. There are so many more black Americanos to have made for me by bearded baristas. There are a hundred more long Sunday runs to be done with my newest favourites in my running club. And while thoughts of the seaside make my insides all squishy, fleeing to a one-bed in a town where I know no-one isn’t the answer to any of my problems.

For now, Margate is a mere 75 minutes away on a fast train. I can leave work at 6.30pm and be on the beach in time for sunset. And I’ll settle for that pretty damn happily for now. Meanwhile, one sunny afternoon in the park and one portion of plantain at a time, me and London will make peace with each other again.   

On being human and awkward AF

Awkward: causing or feeling uneasy embarrassment or inconvenience (synonyms: embarrassing, uncomfortable, unpleasant, humiliating, cringe-making)

While (God willing) I might never put on a display of sheer awkwardness quite as public, dumb or astounding as that of Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway at the Oscars last night as they unwittingly robbed the makers of Moonlight of their moment to revel openly and undisturbed in their greatness… hoooooooly hell, I know awkward nonetheless.

Awkward is being complimented on the fragrance you’re wearing and then rambling at the poor girl with the kind words as you tell her that it’s a natural deodorant and you really love it but the scent is a bit strong, no? Oh and the thing about natural deodorants is that their antiperspirant qualities are really rubbish, so you hope she doesn’t mind the profuse sweating but you had to rush to get here and you were very hot and flustered when you arrived and you’re really, really sorry about it. (Note to self: whenever complimented in future, consider responding simply and graciously with the words, “thank you.”)

Awkward is telling a lovely author leading a writing masterclass that writers procrastinate with a lot of unnecessary “stuff” that holds them back on the route to getting published (or whatever the holy grail might be), such as researching more heavily than is needed, or watching every single interview with an author on YouTube, or – oh yeah! – attending classes just like this one.

Awkward is ordering two slices of pizza to go and then receiving them in an 11″ pizza box and having to wander the streets of Soho in the pouring rain and eat the enormous slices of oozy, sloppy pizza as quickly yet nonchalantly as is humanly possible while seeking shelter under any canopy that won’t leave you standing outside a packed restaurant full of people eating their food while watching you eat yours. (You will find that this is impossible in Soho.)

Awkward is getting to a PACKED cinema when it’s dark and the trailers are on, stepping on the toes of the usher who’s silently showing you the way, grabbing the back of a seat as you stumble along the aisle and simultaneously yanking a tuft of hair attached to the head of the person sitting in said seat, and then almost landing in the lap of the lady in the seat next to yours who’s seemingly out on date-night with her husband and was very much minding her own business until you showed up to claim the only remaining spot in the place, which happened to be next to her. (She will get her own back by munching VERY LOUDLY on VERY CRUNCHY SWEETS throughout the whole showing of 20th Century Women.)

Awkward is doing all of the above in one afternoon, as I did this past weekend.

My mum lovingly says I got all the intelligence but none of the common sense (or, by default, the grace). Somehow, I’ve reached almost-30 without grasping a lot of things that a lot of other people apparently have – things to do with make-up and DIY, and political/historical stuff. I drop things and bump into things and get my headphone wires caught on door handles. I mishear people, I don’t speak up when I don’t understand things and I don’t retain information readily. And I sometimes forget there are other people in the world, like when I speak to myself on a crowded train-station platform because I forget that the loud music in my ears is drowning out the existence of the people around me. I’ve been likened in the past to a Disney character with bluebirds fluttering about my head and precisely zero perception of what’s going on in “the real world.”

All this isn’t to say that I’d award La La Land the Best Picture Oscar* in front of millions, but hey, if it said it on the special card in the golden envelope, I can’t pretend that I’d question it.

Awkward is the feeling that comes when you know you’ve said too much, or you’ve said the wrong thing, or you’ve done something that other people might think weird and will probably stare at you for. I get it a lot. Faye Dunaway maybe got it when the paps kept yelling questions at her at the Vanity Fair after-party. Warren Beatty doubtlessly got it when he double-checked the contents of the Oscars envelope and then heard Faye utter the words he had to know weren’t right.

The trick, I’m coming to learn, in dealing with an awkward AF moment is in acknowledging it. Staring it in its flushed red face. Shrugging it off as NBD (or apologising if it truly messed up someone else’s night…). Paying no mind to what other people think – even if you need to call on your very best pretending skills in order to do so. Talking about it as if it’s nothing to be ashamed of. Because it isn’t.

The other trick in dealing with an awkward AF moment, you see, is in remembering that EVERYONE has them – some people are just better at executing them than others. Your moment might have a pretty far reach and have its awkwardness measured by the number of tweets and think-pieces it prompts. Or it might simply make someone wish they had the temerity (or pure lack of a wider awareness) to be as forthright with the truth as you are.

We’re all human, is what I’m trying to say. We all make really big messes sometimes. We’re all a little bit weird and a little bit quirky and a little bit different from the next person. But, honestly, that’s what makes us great. It’s the way we don’t let such a thing as public decorum stop us from enjoying ourselves. It’s the way we say what we feel in the utterly wrong moment, but then realise that no moment is truly wrong. It’s the way we write in run-on sentences to make a point and then discover stuff about ourselves in the very process of writing them.

I’ve never cocked up on quite such a grand scale as on the Oscars stage. But small snafus and slip-ups happen to me almost daily. And I’m learning to love that I come across as giddy and talkative and a bit over-the-top, and that my new favourite thing is dancing in my seat to Lykke Li on the Overground. Because that’s who I am and that’s what makes me happy. We all have our weird things. And they’re only awkward if we allow them to be.

 

*Yes, La La Land is buoyant and brilliant and bouncing with a romance that only fellow dreamers might understand, but I’m so damn happy Moonlight won. I mean, it’s just… [insert sigh of awe and devotion here].

On the saving graces of 2016

I’m writing this with a dwindling packet of Lockets to my left, a wad of snotty loo roll to my right, and a kitchen full of food waiting to be turned into for my ace flatmate to turn it into tasty canapés ahead of the neighbours arriving for New Year’s Eve. I’m multi-tasking, taking stock as I prep a party playlist for this evening’s probably-bigger-than-anticipated festivities. And I’m sitting on the brink of a new year, trying to cling to the loveliness of 2016 wherever I can find it.

Aside from the despair felt on a global scale this year, 2016 sucked personally, too – from the detachment and depression that kicked in for me around February, to the loss of a true giant of a man in August – the last of my grandparents – and the subsequent unravelling of a family. Loss and hopelessness have shaped the past 12 months. But it wouldn’t be a new year for me without an attempt to salvage some goodness from the one just past. To look back and try to make sense of the good, the bad and the in-between. To set some intentions and aspirations for the year ahead – whether they’re destined to materialise or not.

This year, above anything else, was the year I saw the most beloved of men be ravaged by illness – his skin be turned to paper, his body scarily thinned, his voice silenced – and then be snatched away, quicker than I ever thought possible. But I’m left with constant reminders of my Grandad Charlie’s life. Cards, letters, photographs, the beginnings of a book manuscript, and a swallow-shaped tribute forever etched into my skin. Yep, in 2016, I got my first tattoo. I say ‘first’ because I sensed the impending addiction as soon as I walked into the tattoo studio. I’m still formulating ideas for my next piece, and I won’t go ahead willy-nilly with a design that doesn’t shout at me with pure certainty, but hey, watch this space. For now, I’m still pretty much obsessed with my first one.

In January, I took a short course in DJing. I bought my own decks soon after and genuinely can’t remember a time I’ve been so delighted, either before or since. I squealed and jumped around my living room, for god’s sake. I’m not exactly about to take to the stage at Ministry of Sound or anything, but it feels good to have found something that makes me excited to lose myself in it and learn.

This year, I did lots of running. I mean, I’ve been a runner for almost my entire 20s, but I’ve not run this much in a while. I ran four half-marathons, scored a 10k PB AND joined an actual running club. I start training with them next week. I was a bit beside myself when they accepted me as a new member, to be honest.

I visited another new country. Me and my flatmate somewhat spontaneously booked ourselves some autumn sunshine on the Greek island of Kefalonia. I spent an entire afternoon on a beach, doing absolutely nothing but napping and reading and eating foreign snacks. And I never do that. It was delicious. My bank balance will dictate how much more travelling I can do in 2017, but I hope it’s at least some. This girl and her ever-expanding mind are forever seeking new cities and sunsets and stories.

Other cool things that happened this year: I expanded my yoga practice beyond YouTube videos, found a teacher whose classes I adore and finally got to grips with Crow. I got taken to Paris for the day. I went on my first girls’ holiday. I swam outdoors. I developed a serious liking for coffee and red wine. I ate a lot of brunch. I interviewed footballers and Formula One drivers on camera and got paid for it. I read more books this year than in the past three years combined. I learnt how to make cocktails (well, two). I went to concerts and theatre shows and stuff all by myself. I had a sleepover with my sister, went to a hip-hop club with my brother and got drunk with my new-to-London younger cousin. And I referred myself for therapy.

And as for other wonderful things that weren’t directly my things but were wonderful nonetheless? I celebrated my little brother becoming a fully fledged firefighter and I saw one of my best friends from childhood get married on a day that swept me up in its pure awesomeness like nothing else could.

So, 2016, you did your worst. But it would seem that I’m leaving you a wiser, fitter (minus the lurgy), wider-read and further-travelled woman than when I met you, with richer experiences under my belt and better friends and close family than I could ever dare hope for. I’m clearer on what’s important and where I want to go. And more than anything, I’m learning to be OK with what is. To appreciate what’s in front of my face, accept when things aren’t great and trust in my own ability to make them better. 2017 better watch it, that’s all I can say.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, there are some uncooked meatballs that need cocktail stick-ing and a Betty Crocker brownie mix with my name on it.

What helps me

Last year, I shared a post that listed some of the things that make me happy. In light of the fact that this week we had World Mental Health Day, and considering that I’ve had a slightly wobbly time of it this year, I wanted to revisit the list. Update it. Let it reflect what helps me feel better today.

Solo coffee. Solo walks. Solo a lot of things, actually. Cake in the window seat of my favourite local cafe. A whole row to myself in the cinema. The front seat on the top deck of a Routemaster. I adore people. I’m fascinated by them. I gain so much energy from the buzz of others. FaceTime with my sister and texts with my brother and chats with my mum and my dad and my mates. But being by myself is ridiculously important and key to me feeling OK.

Long stretches of time with nothing to do. Where I get to choose when I wake up. Where I have no need to leave the house unless I want to. Where I have no need to leave my bed unless I want to. Where the cupboards are stocked and there’s unwatched Netflix to binge on and unread books to devour. (I need to get better at this, granted. Better at not imposing obligations on myself. Better at just letting myself be, without checking my phone or keeping a mental note of the time.)

Running. Running before work. Running at 6am. Running before the world and its mother wake up and join me on the streets. When the sky is still black and most windows still dark.

My mornings. Making the same breakfast of porridge and berries every day. Eating it in my bedroom with a podcast or music on in the background. Cycling to work and sailing past the stationary traffic like see yaaaaaaaa. Feeling a new day stretching ahead of me, never quite knowing what it’ll bring but knowing that I mostly get to decide.

Doing something nice for someone else. I don’t really know how to say this without sounding like a sanctimonious git, but I’ve bought hot drinks and a sandwich for two separate homeless guys this week and it made me feel really, really good when I did it. I admitted that I had no cash but I asked what they wanted to eat or drink. Went to the nearest shops to buy cappuccinos and a tuna sandwich. Left them with some sustenance and told them to take care. I feel like Joey in Friends when he insists that there’s no such thing as a selfless good deed, but I think that’s OK. And it’s kind of the whole point. Because when we do something nice for another and spread some love, it’s supposed to make us feel good, too.

Reading. Reading really, reeeeaaaally slowly. As in, taking an hour to read a book made of paper and doing nothing other than focusing on its pages. Just paying attention to that one thing for a relatively long time. Preferably in a busy cafe. Or in bed.

Parks in the afternoon. Parks first thing in the morning. Parks in the evening as the sun’s going down and a chill’s setting in. I’m pretty lucky to live in one of the greatest cities in the world but also have super-easy access to some gorgeous green spaces. Must remember that sitting on a park bench with a takeaway latte is one of life’s loveliest things.

Early nights. Note to self: sleep is magical. End of story. More of it, please.

Even making this list helped me. Picturing myself doing all these things. Making mental plans to do them soon. Remembering that even when I feel really, really bad, I can still help myself out of it.

Tattoos and belly rolls

Last weekend, I did one of the most exciting things I’ve done in my whole life (IMO).

I got my first tattoo.

I say ‘first’ because, even in the moments I was having my arm inked, I already knew I’d get another. It’s just a matter of deciding what it’ll be.

I’ve wanted a tattoo since I can remember. There’s something utterly cool about people who have tattoos though… The way they just pull them off. Like, “oh this thing? I forgot I had it.” It’s part of them and their aesthetic. It just fits.

Turns out that tattoos aren’t things only the cool kids have. I just needed some help from life to figure out what I wanted…

My grandad was in hospital all summer. His terminal diagnosis in July shook everyone, and the way all of our lives changed so quickly was dramatic. My time was immediately split between London and home (Yorkshire), countless hours spent at my grandad’s bedside as he shared life stories, discussed the failings of politicians and, later, slept for hours on end. As sleeping became his default state, I got used to sitting with him in silence – me and my mum, brother, aunties, uncles and cousins taking turns to make coffee or give Grandad water when he gestured for a sip.

I took a book with me one day, anticipating my grandad’s snoozing and the ensuing silence. It was as I was sitting alone next to Grandad’s bed, not concentrating whatsoever on the book in my hands, that I looked over at him, taking all of him in. The whiter-than-white skin clinging to his resting bones. The full head of hair he was once so proud of, thinned from the prolonged bed rest of recent weeks. The distorted bird tattoo on his forearm, hue faded, typical of those teal tattoos you see on old men.

My grandad loved birds. He once gave me a book to help me identify the different species. He loved to feed the birds in his front garden; he’d put out seeds and scraps and leftovers after cooking enough food in his kitchen to feed the whole street. He named the birds that visited him (there’s a crow out there – Arnold – who’ll doubtlessly be missing my grandad (and his food!) almost as much as I do). Aside from that, my grandad was in the Merchant Navy. Once upon a time, he’d spend days upon days away at sea. I’ve discovered that many seamen would get pictures of swallows inked onto their skin; these were the birds whose presence would assure them that they weren’t far from land – and, therefore, home.

On the day I spotted my grandad’s bird tattoo, despite having seen it countless times before, something clicked. No more wondering, debating, umming or ahhing. I knew what I wanted. A gorgeous, tattooed friend of mine put me in touch with an apprentice, whose artistic talent completely surpasses her level of experience. I sent her some inspiration and she sketched something that, as soon as I saw it, made my heart flutter and my head go, YEP. THAT. THAT’S IT.

It was perfect.

And so is the finished product.

tattoo

My cheeks ached from smiling the afternoon I had it done. My friend took me to a beer festival afterwards (I hate beer but I drank cider and danced to a brass band who covered 50 Cent’s P.I.M.P., so it’s all good) and I grabbed every opportunity to slip down my shirt sleeve and show off my arm with pride. And yet, when I later checked the photo the tattoo artist had taken of my new ink, you know what stopped me from sharing it online with everyone I know in that very same minute?

Bloody belly rolls.

*does the most exaggerated eye-roll ever at self*

I passed my phone across the restaurant table to my friend as we waited for pizzas as big as both of our heads. Her gaze was drawn to the stunning new art on my skin, and she couldn’t understand why mine was drawn to the discernible bulge around my middle. But it became all I could see. Forget the fact that I could clearly blame it on my stance or my outfit. Forget the fact that I’m in training for my fourth half-marathon of the year. Forget the fact that I shouldn’t even need to bring that up as proof that I’m fit and healthy “despite” having belly fat. That bulge was all I could focus on.

It doesn’t make sense, but our unreasonable brains rarely do. Those ugly thoughts permeated what should’ve been a night of tribute to the man who impacted my life in a way I can only wish he was still around to hear me explain. (I told him I loved him every time I visited the hospital, but now it just doesn’t seem enough.)

Logically, I know a clean silhouette and visible abs wouldn’t make me a better person. Logically, I know people still fancy girls with belly rolls and thigh dimples and skin that spills over the tops of their bras. Logically, I feel like a traitor to basically all women for thinking otherwise. But such is the mind of a girl who sucks her navel towards her spine and tilts her head just so whenever a camera appears.

You wouldn’t think I had an issue with my body image. I don’t talk about it at all – although much has been made in the past about my “photo smile” and my need to vet all pictures of myself before they leave the safety of my friends’ phones. Another friend was surprised when I told her I was fretting and that this is what goes on inside my head pretty much every day. I asked her to tell me I was being silly. “All [your grandad] would see is love,” she assured me. “That’s all I see. And that’s all anyone else will see.”

And that’s what I need to remember really. That the picture is of the tattoo, not of my body. And the tattoo stands for something way more than the superficial. My grandad never let belly rolls stop him from keeping a stocked tin of biscuits in his kitchen, or from enjoying his favourite Liquorice Allsorts, presented to him routinely each birthday and Christmas. We won’t remember him for what he looked like (although his smile was truly a knock-out). We’ll remember him for being clever and for being kind and for saying what he thought in every situation. For having had insanely rich life experiences and sharing them with a level of detail that my rubbish memory can’t even comprehend. For his tales of growing up abroad and working at sea and staying holed up in the cinema to watch back-to-back films in the days when it cost mere pennies to do so. For being so caring and so generous and so protective of the people he loved most.

As far as I can tell, this life is the only one we get. And I really don’t want to waste another second of mine worrying that my belly might stick out a bit. I mean, I know I will, because such conditioned thoughts don’t evaporate overnight. But at least I now have a permanent reminder on my skin of there being way more important and special things to be bothered about.