Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Still a Brit, after all these years

I’m thinking back to an exchange I had with a neighbour when we lived in Cape Town. He owned the lovely stone cottage we rented, and lived in a much larger, grander home a bit higher on the hill. The area we lived in was called Kalk Bay, a gorgeous old fishing village in the southern suburbs of Cape Town proper. Still functioning as a place for catching, buying and eating fish, Kalk Bay had by then also become a bit of a hippy-chic place. And we were into it, I tell you. The slightly run-down feel hid a brilliant book shop, a tiny and fabulous theatre, a film club and countless others touchpoints for creatives and wannabe artists: heaven on earth!

And I felt like a local. I loved nothing better than walking down the hill in my flip flops, after a trail run on the mountainside, to buy fresh croissants from the bakery and exchange a few words with familiar faces. I’d pop into the small supermarket for some milk and coffee, or to post a letter at the post office. This was home to me and it felt like the best fit of anywhere I’d ever lived.

So when my neighbour dropped a throwaway comment about my true identity, I felt as though I’d been caught as a fraud. He said something about how British we still were, after several years living in Africa. Well, what does that mean? I grumbled to myself. Both our babies were born in South Africa, all our friends were South African. We were doing a pretty good job of blending in, dammit!

Since that time, we have spent a couple of years living back in the UK, where I felt less British than ever in spite of the ease of the familiar. And now of course we are in Spain, where I just feel culturally muddled! 

So I got to thinking: in what ways am I still culturally very British in my ways of interacting with others? What does it mean to be British, anyway?! Here are five things I came up with.

1. As a rule, we tend to be more private than some other cultures.
I have lived in group cultures where everyone knows everything about one another and it makes me a feel a bit nervous! After all these years living out of Britain, I have retained a pretty private approach to life (Facebook notwithstanding!). I probably won’t talk freely or easily about my finances, or my marriage, for example. And my private space - my home, and in my home, my bedroom - are the places where I feel most at ease. It's always a relief to withdraw to my own space at the end of the day.

2. A cup of tea really is the answer to most situations.
It’s an instinct that's hard to break: if someone is upset, or something difficult or shocking just happened, something deep within me wants to put the kettle on! And no, it doesn’t matter if it is 35°C outside, there is no wrong time to have a cup of tea. Of course, as an abject snob I am snobby about my tea; loose leaf Lady or Earl Grey really is the way to go. In caf├ęs around the world, getting used to being served a cup of tepid water with the tea bag on the side has been one of the harsher realities of living cross-culturally. There are just so many things wrong with that.

3. It comes naturally to downplay either a crisis or an achievement.
Brits are mostly brilliant in a crisis, quite simply because they don’t make a big deal about it but just get on with it. Making a big deal about anything, really, is slightly frowned upon. Which is why we have to learn to celebrate achievements (I have been practising this one, believe me). We prefer to downplay things, especially our own moments of brilliance. This is where Brits and Americans can really part ways - Brits tend to see the ra-ra of bigging up achievements as a bit fake, not really sincere. Unless it’s football, that’s quite different.

4. It is normal for us to cheer on the underdog.
There is something hard-wired within us that somehow sees this as a justice issue. We don’t want the winner to always win, we think it’s bad for their ego, or something. No, we want the underdog to have a fair go, and all the better if they actually win (just not too many times, obviously). I think this is connected with downplaying achievements, but I haven’t figured out exactly how. It might also be connected to football.

5. Rules and queues are there for a reason.
In general, we do like things to be done properly. Properly means in the way that’s been agreed upon. Why would you agree a certain way to do things and then not do them that way? This is why we prefer to be told the way to do things, because then we can do them the correct way. Having to discover, by trial and error, the right way to do things, is a real pain in the neck. And potentially thoroughly embarrassing because you might get it wrong. These things matter, somehow. Some of this is to do with things working smoothly and efficiently. Which is why we like queues (that and our penchant for justice; it’s just more fair than having people butting in).

So, if you see me around and about, queuing for hours because everyone else keeps getting in line ahead of me, don’t make too much of a big deal of it. Just offer me a decent cup of tea and all will be well.

Tuesday, 13 February 2018

Top 5 Titles for Today

You know you've read a good book when you find yourself recommending it to several friends, right? I tend to have a few titles on my bedside table at once - a book for every mood, you know? This morning, I thought I would share with you those recently read books that I keep returning to.

1. A book about the Spiritual Journey

This is a great book if you want a clear perspective on what life as a follower of Jesus (or indeed, as a human) is all about. It's straightforward and clear, and the second section takes you through a number of practices to help you grow. Plus, anything endorsed by Ruth Haley Barton gets my vote - I am listening to her podcasts at the moment, and there are always at least of couple of mic drop moments in there for me.

2. A book about Failing

If you find yourself in the middle of a difficult season of life, one you wonder if you will ever exit from in one piece, this is the book for you. It can be a little dense, but Rohr shares some invaluable lessons about the meaning - and indeed the necessity - of coming to the end of our own resources. There is life after failure, crisis, bereavement, wilderness. And if you surrender to the process, you might just find it!

3. A book about Desire

I cannot remember how many times I have recommended this book! It makes sense of why my life is the way it is, of what I can do to invite change, and of how the things I do on a regular basis form and shape my life. If you want to toss out the endless need to drum up motivation to do the 'right' thing, by finding ways to nurture good desires, this is the book for you. For a sneak preview, search for the title on You Tube which has a bunch of great videos by the author.

4. A book of Poems

I know not everyone considers herself a poet, or even reads poetry. But this anthology is a treasure trove of beautiful words that speak to the human journey. I have used these poems to open teaching times, as meditations, and as inspiration. If you want to take a peek into the world of poetry, this would be a great place to start!

5. A Novel

This title is probably more familiar to you and it is well worth the rave reviews. Beautiful, lyrical and a great story. If your stack of bedside reading doesn't contain a novel, add this to your list.

Happy reading, friends! And I am always on the lookout for great books, so feel free to comment with your own fave reads of the moment!

Wednesday, 7 February 2018

If you are a young mum, this is for you

I remember what it was like to have my first baby. I felt powerful and exhausted, all at the same time. It was a season in life of learning to surrender my own desires - for sleep, for time alone, to be able to run without boobs that felt like melons - to the journey. 

In other words, I had to grow up, put up and shut up!

I’ve always been someone who’s a little too ambitious for my own good. I thought I could do everything - have this new baby, adjust to this great life change, and still get to the gym to work out, or go for an early morning bike ride.

In some ways, it’s true. Where there’s a will there’s a way: by making it a priority, I did manage to work exercise into my new rhythms. I lost the baby weight and made time for the things that were important to me. A super-supportive husband helped a lot, of course! All this was part of my own coping strategy; physical exercise helps to moderate the emotions, flung this way and that by hormones and lack of sleep, and it strengthens you mentally to do something that is just for you, when the rest of life is all about your new little human.

On reflection, though, I think I could have been kinder to myself, a little gentler. I would have stayed in my PJs more often, taken more naps, read more books. I still would have worked out - being comfortable in your skin is a huge gift you can give yourself - but I would have found a way to do so that was kinder, less hard work.

If only I had known then what I know now.

If I could give one gift to all new mums it would be a subscription to Beachbody On Demand. I’m not just saying that. At that season of life, I would have loved to have had access to dozens of different workout programs, put together by excellent trainers, streamed to me in my own home. There is even a program especially for this season of life, along with many others you can progress to in your own time.

The biggest advantage of this is that when you get 30 minutes in the day when your baby is taking a nap, or their dad is on hand to help, you can invest in yourself. You can get your blood flowing, re-energising your body with all that oxygen, elevating your mood and helping you to sleep more deeply when you get the chance. I guarantee that this energy expenditure will increase your energy throughout the day. And it is priceless, really, to know that in the midst of the maelstrom that is new parenthood, you are strengthening yourself to be the best parent you can be. 

Heck, you can workout in your PJs if needs be!

There are a few young mums who have joined our Whole Fitness group on Facebook. So now they’re not only exercising, but they are also part of a supportive community of people who will cheer them on and celebrate their progress.

If this sounds like something that would help you in this season of your life, do message me. I’d love to get alongside you in your journey to be a great parent and a great YOU!

Friday, 2 February 2018

Mental Health for Runners

I’m distracted and fragmented. My mind is all over the place. I imagine myself as some figure made from magnetic filaments who is pulled first in one direction and then another, particles trailing in the wake of the latest magnetic tug.

My running clothes are still there on the floor, where I left them last night. I told myself I would head out as soon as I woke up, but I had a disrupted night’s sleep and coffee was all I could think about this morning. The pile of brightly coloured kit taunts me from the corner of the bathroom, pestering me to get dressed and get moving.

It’s almost dusk when I finally capitulate. I feel like I am gathering puddles of myself from here and there, scooping the bits together until I fill out the snug contours of the runner’s uniform. Even so, the centre is vacuous; something is missing.

I make my way into the gathering gloom, legs heavy, struggling to find my rhythm. For a while I think of turning back, of giving up. The street is littered with these flyaway parts of me - thoughts and feelings, obligations and concerns, comparisons and fears. All chasing me, trying to catch up, to cling on.

Demands, responsibilities, concerns. They cling; they pull. Distractions, an overload of stimulation that thins me out. My soul yearns for something robust enough to hold me in all of this; something still enough and quiet enough to hush the inner noise.

Somehow, as my body shakes down into this rhythmic pavement beat, my thoughts and feelings do too. There is some kind of drawing together, the centre becomes once again sufficiently weighty to hold all the disparate pieces - not in a way that makes sense but in a way that has form.

When stillness is illusive and silence hard to find, give me a pair of running shoes and I'll pound my way into a settledness for my soul.