Monday, 13 June 2016

Secret to happy - a good waterproof

And the winner of least sexy blog title ever goes to........

But I'm actually serious. There's two parts to this great joy:

Firstly it's about not getting soaked to the skin, or being limited to what you do due to the weather.

The second is about liking yourself enough to not worry about how you you look in a cagoule.
I totally - unironically love this cagoule

I know that these days there are some really nice cagoules out there. In fact I own a lovely grey number by Rain that I love. But I think we can all agree that when I say nice - I mean comparatively. There are some really really ugly cagoules out there - and there are some inoffensive ones. There has not to my knowledge yet been a drop to your knees beautiful cagoule that has caused riots in topshop or appeared on the cover of Vogue.

Cagoules are very much function over form. And for me that is part of their joy. Wearing a cagoule shows a level of self care that I think is kind of beautiful. A suspension of vanity, of worrying what others think about your physical appearance in order to keep yourself dry. It's a good thing.

And not a thing I've always done. I can remember countless occasions when I've chosen to leave the house in a denim or leather jacket when it is absolutely pouring - because while I might arrive a shivvering drowned rat of a girl, at least my sense of style will be intact. At least no-one would see me in *gasp* a pac -a - mac.

These days I just want to give that shivvering, drenched, very prone to colds girl (I wonder why?) a massive hug. I want to hand her a pac-a-mac and tell her to see it as a kind of sorting hat. Cos the people who wouldn't rather you were warm than stylish are wankers worth neither your time or the small fortune you are spending on aloe vera kleenex. 

And actually the best boys - they fancy girls in cagoules. Because the really nice ones - they find a sense of adventure sexy - certainly sexier than the ability to do a perfect eyeliner flick (though there is a certain allure to sporting both at once). And even if they didn't - you miss out on so much of life if you can't head out in the rain.

Is there anything more beautifully passionate than a heavy rain drumming into the sea? Or more fun than getting the park to just you, your dog and a giant stick? More capable than walking into the festival knowing it doesn't matter if it shits it down you'll see who you want to see, cos you have your waterproof, and your wellies and you are ready to rock and roll.

That's why I love my cagoule - cos it loves me back & I can take it anywhere and it'll look after me. The ultimate Jane Bond accessory.

This day would have been shit without my old faithful. With it - all kinds of awesomeness.

Do you have a story about your waterproof being a hero? I'd love to hear it!

Sunday, 5 June 2016

Secret to happy - hugs

Now I'm not the most tactile of people. I can know you pretty well and like you a lot and still have less than no interest in hugging you.

I hold my right to decide who I have physical contact with and when very sacred. I am that person who won't hug a child if they are told to hug me - but only if they want to - because you know what? Hugs are only good if there is mutual consent.

When I want a hug and when I'll allow it is pretty unpredictable. The lady we rented an apartment from for 1 night in Croatia who didn't speak a word of English, massive hug to say goodbye. Some people I've been friends with for years - never hugged them, would literally rear way and offer a hand to shake if they tried!

But I do know the value of a good hug. A really good hug is better than any medicine created. A hug that doesn't seek to give, or take, to change or influence - but is quite simply two people squeezing to show mutual affection and comfort is a really wonderful thing.

Sisterly hug with Noo

Sometimes hugs don't obviously contribute to your immediate happiness. In fact when things are rubbish, I often find the immediate affect of a good hug is to make me cry. To make me quite literally collapse into someone else's arms. But if you've ever been really sad you 'll know that there is the benefit to a good hug. That someone will quite literally hold you up when you're collapsing. That they may not be able to change your situation or change a single bloody thing for you - but they will while you need it keep you from falling to the floor.

And then for me, when things are better, I remember those hugs and they make me feel braver, more confident, and safer because I know that people are essentially good and that I am not alone.

Of course hugs aren't only good when you are sad. I love a big squeeze from a good friend I haven't seen in a while, and I can physically feel myself calm and de-stress when Matt & I have a hug when I get home from work. There are some friends that I'm always hugging just out of the pure joy that they exist.

I think the thing with hugs for me is that that are essentially giving - you don't hold people for your own sense of self in the way you can with some physical comforts. No-one has ever had a revenge hug, a sports hug or indeed a rebound hug. Because it doesn't have a status, there is no permanence - it's an in the moment expression of support or joy.

Face licking isn't an entirely necessary part of hugging....

And that's why at the right time, from the right person a hug is one of my secrets to happy.

Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Secret to Happy - Carry your own bag

Lessons that carrying my own stuff taught me 

When I first went to India back in 2005 I was travelling with my husband. We'd packed up or sold everything we owned, quit our jobs and headed to India, as so many people do in search of an adventure.

 A couple of days after we arrived my back started to hurt, and so I handed my backpack to my husband and he - lovely guy that he is -  carried it for me for the next 18 months – from India through Sri Lanka, Thailand, Malaysia, Cambodia and eventually into China.

This January I returned to India, without my husband and I carried my own bag. And honestly - it changed everything for me-  I can’t recommend it enough.

That red backpack there - that's mine & it's awesome

I love travelling, on my own, with friends and with my husband – I enjoy tramping around unknown streets to find somewhere to stay, somewhere to eat alongside the locals, to people watch or to have a drink. One thing I’ve noticed over the years is this: the more self sufficient I am when I’m away – the more I enjoy myself. 

I’m not saying we should always go everywhere alone. Being by ourselves is valuable, but so is sharing experiences with other people. Different things will feel right at different times and that’s ok. But I am saying that when we decide to be dependent, physically, emotionally or financially on another human being it’s going to negatively impact on the way we experience our travels. It certainly did for me.

So it’s no exaggeration to say I fell in love with my backpack this time round. When I planned the holiday, I was worried my skin had got too thin for India. I knew that I was older than last time I went, and was also less fit. I knew I’d be climbing on and off buses, and hunting for hostels whilst carrying every single thing I had with me on my back. And I would only be away a month - I didn’t want to waste a single moment of that time resenting my possessions. So I packed light and I packed sensible, and as a result every time my bag needed to go on a high shelf it was easy to clamber up onto a seat and lift it up there. 
Walking from the train stations into towns was very little effort. I even got to the point where I could unthinkingly hold my balance in a squat toilet with my fully packed backpack still on (maybe not an image you want to conjure up – but something I’m bloody proud of none the less).

And that made me feel really positive about my body, which was unexpectedly still sturdy enough to allow me to clamber around with my stuff on my back, without aches and pains despite having spent most of the last 10 years sat at a desk under strip lighting.

Here’s what I got out of it: I felt powerful knowing how much I could carry but also how little I needed. I felt brave and I felt independent, and I realised no matter how sweet it is to get doors opened for me or my bag carried –  that having someone else ‘look after’ me doesn’t make me feel any of those things.

Carrying my own bag gave me back a sense of what I could do on my own, and of the opportunities that were available to me if I would only reach out and grab them. Not things gained for me by the kindness of others but by my own tenacity and strength. I’ve been home months now and that sense of being able to do anything and go anywhere on my own still hasn’t left me.

And as a bonus – that new confidence in my independence and self-sufficiency made the time I spent with other people on the trip better too. 

The friend that I was away with is also a really keen and independent traveller. We had intended to see how it went on the trip and give ourselves the option of going our separate ways for days or weeks depending on how we got on. And we had such a good time we ended up hanging out together for the whole trip.

I think the reason we found it so easy to be together for the whole month was because of both of our determination to carry our own weight in every possible sense.

And that was a part of what I realised was missing from that first trip. When I cheerfully handed Matt my backpack I wasn’t just robbing myself of a feeling of strength, independence and possibility. But I was robbing Matt of the sense of being free of dependents, able to make brave choices, and of the choice to leave behind anything he didn’t want to carry (ie every bloody thing I was carrying) – and that’s a shame. Because travelling isn’t just about getting a sense of a new place. It’s about getting a sense of ourselves in it. A sense of who we are as individuals without our stuff, without our support networks or the people we in turn care for. 

So here is my advice. Next time you have a chance to explore somewhere new – push yourself to find a way to depend on yourself as much as possible – do you need that lift from the airport, that loan of cash so you can stay somewhere a little nicer? Or would you have a happier more life affirming trip if you proved to yourself you can negotiate those buses, and live within your budget. Imagine how you’ll feel when you realise that on your own you were able to carry what you needed, get where you were going and sleep the deep and happy sleep (no matter how poky your room) of someone who’s explored their own potential and found that they can do more than they ever expected.

Because for many of us travelling is about knowing who we are when we are in freefall. And it is easiest to do that alone. But it is also possible to do it in company – just as long as you carry your own bag.

Sunday, 29 May 2016

What I'm wearing until September

I've been so excited about breaking open my summer wardrobe!

My year long charity capsule challenge ended on my birthday. This made me feel like every single thing in my summer capsule was my birthday present. 

And actually a fair proportion of it is - some lovely and generous people gave me vouchers for my birthday which I headed out and spent before the beginning of the month. 

I have so much stuff here - I'm slightly ashamed to call it a capsule. After a year with 35 things 4 months with 43 feels like untold luxury.

It's been great to be able to include some things that just won't work for every occasion but will be perfect for just one thing. Those extras have allowed me to build a wardrobe that feels little bit more me. That said I wasn't even a little bit tempted to dump the capsule format altogether - it really is easier to dress well when you have less stuff - or at least it is for me.

 Anyway here is what I've ended up with:

7 t-shirts:

Yes the mickey mouse is an indulgence. But the others are all pretty classic right?

7 shirts:

I didn't really get it with shirts until last year - but that beautiful denim shirt was a game changer for me. So now I have 7 in the capsule. It's probably more than I need & the red flannel one will only get worn on cold days - but I'm delighted to have my grandad's gardening shirt back to wear!

6 bottoms:

Only the navy crops are new/new (present from my mum), others I've had for years except for the pencil skirt & the cropped jeans which were my loot from the clothes swap party back in February.

5 Jumpers:


Again - I could probably have got away with the 3 thin ones - but I like to feel prepared for chilly weather.

10 dresses:

So excited by how colorful these are. The red one on the top left is far too big for me - but that'll be my summer sewing project - turning it into a fitted number.

6 pairs of shoes:

Gold boots & red sandals. Heaven.

2 jackets:

1 smart & 1 denim. Can't go wrong!

43 items for 4 months. It looks like mountains of clothes right? It feels like mountains of clothes. So many options!

Happy happy me *skips off into garden in lovely red sandals*

PS this year is all about happy - you can get involved here

Friday, 27 May 2016

The end of the capsule wardrobe challenge

I turned 36 on Monday - this marked the finishing line for the clothes off my back challenge

So it's done.



365 days of living with 35 items of clothing. There have been holidays, changes of jobs, 5 weddings, a hen & a stag, a funeral, a month in India, hundreds of dog walks, dinners and trips to the pub. I haven't had the final total through from Contact a Family yet but there is an amazing £3,527 on the just giving page, plus gift aid (which most of you contributed - well done!), and close to £1000 raised by the close swap which means the grand total is likely to come in well over £5000. Thank you all for that really. Thankyou. That money will make a real difference.

How did it feel to wake up on my birthday with no restrictions at all on what I'd wear?

It was alright - there were a couple of things that were nice:

  • It was really nice to be wearing clothes that don't look worn out.

  • It was really, really nice to have bright colors back.

  • It was really, really, really nice to be able to grab a thermal on my way out without mentally calculating what this meant for my wardrobe for the rest of the year.

And just a bit of a relief - not to feel like I had to wear particular things for someone else's sake. To dress selfishly if you like.

On my birthday. Dressing just for me.

And I'm looking forward to a year of dressing selfishly this year. 

Yes, I've put myself on a shopping ban from the 1st June until mid September. And yes, I've packed away a lot of my wardrobe so I'm limited to 43 items for that period.

But that's for me. It's to get me away from wasting time online researching clothes, and back to enjoying wearing them. Every day I'll get to make the choice of what I'm wearing. And if I break the rules that'll be about me, not you and not fundraising for charity.

And let's face it 43 items isn't going to feel like a hardship. It isn't a hardship - there are loads of clothes there. I could easily have edited down to 30 for the period and been fine - but the 43 I ended up with allowed me some silly choices, a skirt I've owned for 12 years that only goes with 2 other things in the capsule but makes me happy everytime I wear it, my Grandad's gardening shirt, some warmer clothes I probably won't need - but knowing they are there makes me comfortable that if I want to go camping I can. 

And on top of that I haven't counted scarves, or waterproofs and stuff in that, so I can wear any of those I already own - anytime. And I can wear different stuff to weddings etc. I feel like this is an almost dangerous amount of excess. Except then I look in my lovely small wardrobe, that still has loads of space in it and think about how far I've come this year, and realise that this experiment has been a success.

I look at that wardrobe and feel confident in my choices. Last year I made some huge mistakes when choosing what to put in the capsule - but I look at what I've selected for the next 4 months and I feel like they represent me really well. And me now. Not me when I was 18, which is what lots of my shopping choices before seemed to be aimed at (I'm looking at you off the shoulder tops & crocheted belly tops......).

So what now for me? 

It's been really interesting this year to have something to structure my life on. To know that when people asked what I did when I was 35 - I'll have a clear unifying memory of the year to bring my experiences together.

And it's been good to have an excuse to write. I took years off writing for pleasure - in fact I took writing off my list of things I knew how to do. And this year that has changed. I've enjoyed blogging, I've enjoyed thinking about things more deeply in order to allow myself to express them clearly. I've enjoyed having conversations with you guys about this stuff.  It's been helpful. It's made me happy. And I don't want to stop.

I learnt a lot about myself this year, and have got significantly better at making choices that make me happy. And so that's my project for next year - to learn my own personal secrets to happy. And- when I think they'll interest you- to share them with you. So when I look back on 36 - I want to be able to say that it was my happiest year yet. Here's hoping!

Friday, 20 May 2016

What should I wear?

So I’m in bed writing this post and wondering what to wear.

This time last year I was preparing myself for a year with just 35 items of clothing. I was curious about how it would go. Nervous that I’d find it really tricky, and that I’d try to bow out 6 months in. I thought I might hibernate for the year because I’d lost one of the ways I could express myself. Thankfully that didn’t happen. This year has been great, I’ve learnt loads, I’ve shared loads & you guys have shared with me too – it’s been a genuine pleasure.

So the last week or so has been really weird – I’ve felt more constrained by my wardrobe than I have at any time in the last year. Today with 3 days left to go I’ve mentally put away lots of the over worn, stained and tatty things I’ve been wearing for the last 12 months. I’ve let myself get excited about the fresh, new, and precious older things I’d packed away. So getting dressed has been harder.

Particularly at work. Yesterday was my last day of the challenge where I had to go to work and I breathed a huge sigh of relief at the end of it. At least for the next couple of days I can be comfortably scruffy before finally bursting out of my cocoon on Monday one superbly over excited butterfly.

So a full year and 34 items down (though it will be 35 – cos I’m going to let myself wear a new frock for my birthday BBQ) I’m feeling pretty good about having got here.

I did have an (almost) cheat on Tuesday.

I thought I was doing a phone interview on ATU’s. Turns out it was a filmed one – and I was wearing head to toe denim – so I had to borrow a workmates jacket for an hour in order to look smart enough to represent the organisation. I’ve popped that in the activity category though – alongside the time I had to wear a Contact a Family t-shirt at an event. After all it defeats the point if my wearing less clothes to raise money for disabled children ends up negatively affecting those children in other ways. Still I am looking forward to having a jacket that kept on the back of my chair for just such emergencies again. There is something comforting about keeping an emergency smart outfit at work ‘just in case’. But I’m looking forward to more than that:

I’m looking forward to wearing my cape!

My sister made me a cape for my birthday last year, she’d started making it before I decided to do the challenge and so I’ve had it in storage all year. It’s lined, and embroidered and a bit of frivolous marvelousness & just not something that you could justify putting in a year round capsule. It’s felt quite odd having something made for me with such love just hanging there without being worn. I’m a big fan of the velveteen rabbit and that idea that something gains life once it’s loved is meaningful to me.

And I kind of feel the same about clothes. They are meaningless unless they are worn. I feel the deepest affection for some of the clothes I’ve worn this year – more than I’ve felt for anything I’ve had in years – because being well used has somehow leant them personality. And that cape won’t really come alive until it’s worn – which means so far Julya’s work was for nothing. But come my birthday it’ll become the life and soul of the party

I’m looking forward to colour.

I wrote about how much I missed colour here. I really have felt the lack of it all year.  The temptation was to dress like a rainbow once the challenge was over. But I don’t want to overdose so most of the stuff I’m wearing through the rest of spring and summer is blue, grey or white still. But there is also red in there, and rust and orange, and even a pair of gold boots. And that makes my heart sing! 

I’m looking forward to the weather not dictating what goes on my feet.

One pair of sandals is doable. But it’s not interesting. I wear sandals all summer. I’ve been wearing mine nearly everyday since mid March and fully expect to have my toes out until October.

So while I still love the brown pair I’ve been wearing all year I’m excited about having a white pair (that I’d put into storage), and a red pair (my birthday present from Matt) to wear as well. Because actually the same navy dress will look really different depending on which I wear. And hopefully I’ll have slightly less stark tanlines if I change up my footwear too!

I’m looking forward to not halfway housing my outfits for every occasion

I want to be able to properly dress up for weddings (I wrote about that here). And properly grunge out at weekends. And actually 40 items rotated 3 times a year will let me do that. No more work clothes at weddings, no more working out what I  need to wear to work in the week to identify what I can walk the dog in on a Sunday without doing an extra wash. Bliss.

I’m looking forward to not shopping

Ok this is an odd one. This year I’ve definitely bought less clothes. But I’ve probably spent more time researching them. Because I allowed myself to pick things up as I went along – I was always researching the next item – and then getting overwhelmed by choice and making bad decisions in a panic.

I might make bad choices for the next capsule. But the difference is – I’ll only have to live with these choices for 4 months, and that the whole capsule will be there from the beginning – so with the exception of something for Jo’s wedding – I won’t shop at all from June until September. That’s going to free up a load of book reading, dog walking, thinking and writing time. And I’m really excited about that!

I’m also looking forward to not asking you guys for money anymore. But I’m not quite done yet – there are 3 days left to donate – it’s a wonderful cause and you can make your contribution here.

Saturday, 7 May 2016

the value of friendships

I’ve been thinking lots about friendships recently. In fact that was why there was such a big gap between posts last month – because I was trying to work out how to write this one.

We all know that friendships are a hugely important element of happy lives. Because friends choose us. They choose us, and them making that choice boosts our confidence. And those friends that choose us, and stick with us are our touchstones, our sense of self worth, our happy memories, and the people that make us roar with laughter. Theirs are the hands that hold ours when we’re sad and broken, that pick us up and dust us off before they tell us it’s all going to be ok, and because they are our friends we believe them.

Friends let’s face it are kind of magic.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot in the last month for two reasons.

Firstly in my new job I’ve been hanging out with lots of young people with autism. We’ve talked about all sorts of things but whatever we start off talking about the conversation always comes back to friendship. Young people have spoken to me about loneliness, about bullying, about the enjoyment they get from friends, and about the difference it makes to their confidence to be truly seen and truly accepted.

And children and young people with additional needs can find it hard to make friends. Our education systems are busy teaching children to conform – it’s hard to get 30 five year olds to do stuff, so we reward them when they fit in. And so children believe that fitting in is good – and they can consciously or unconsciously punish children that don’t. And so really unfairly those children who have to work hardest to manage the school environment, are often also the children without the comfort of friends. And that’s tragic.

As an adult I have several autistic friends who I value really highly – but was I a nice enough, brave enough little girl to have built those friendships with these people who don’t (thank god) conform even a little bit back then? I really don’t know. And that’s a shame – because knowing the joy these friends bring to my life now, I can’t help but think they could have made my childhood even more of a riot!

Which brings me to the second reason I’m thinking a lot about friendship at the moment. My best friend left London in March, and it’s going to change my life.

The best Friend

As a 35 year old woman I know I sometimes get judged for talking about my ‘best friend’. I’ve had people ask me if I think I’m still at school – tease me about whether I list people in order of preference, or if we braid each others hair (never) and have sleepovers (sometimes).

And I get it. I do. There is something very primary school about having a named best friend – but at the same time there would be something very dishonest about referring to Cat as anything else.

I am lucky to have some wonderful friends – the ladies in women’s hour, my Sheffield gang, Bob & Laura, my sisters. I’m not short of people. But Cat is different.

She’s different because she’s the first person I chose that I’ve kept, and I’m the same for her. We’ve been friends now for more than 25 years. We were friends when we were largely unformed as human beings, and we’ve stayed friends through primary and secondary school, through parental illness, family strife, boyfriends, marriages, pets, jobs and houses.

I distinctly remember when I first noticed Cat. We went to a small school where there weren’t quite enough children for a 2 form intake, so some classes had a mix of two year groups in them.In gymnastics one day our (slightly hot tempered) gym teacher, let off at a girl I hadn’t seen before. He shouted at her for going to get something before she was given permission. The girl had long blond hair in a plait and looked like butter wouldn’t melt, she didn’t answer back & did exactly what she was told, but I noticed her face set and her fists clench, and saw in her a bit of the steel there was in me.

Massive Geeks - but best bud geeks
I was a good little girl. Worryingly good really. I was shy and quiet and I read in the playground. My school reports referred to me as kind, and helpful and well behaved – and that was certainly partly true. But I was also a very angry little thing who had seen that there was unfairness in the world and really didn’t like it. At ten it’s difficult to express complexity in emotions. There were the good children, who were happy. And the angry children who were naughty. And I thought those were the options. I thought I was the odd one out for being confident but quiet, angry but well behaved.

Cat was the first other child I met who I saw that complexity in. She was never the loudest, but she was self confident to the point of cockiness, deeply imaginative, and darkly funny. She also believed in fairness just as much as I did.

We made friends after she invited me round to see her horse. I believed that no-one in real life actually owned a horse – and basically went round to catch her in a lie. Instead I spent the evening picking up her (totally non fictional) horses poo. Picking up poo might not sound like the most fun thing for two 10 year olds to spend the evening doing – but it was brilliant. We made jokes and the other person laughed – it was a bit of a miracle really – because we even then had wonky senses of humour. Anyway I walked home confident I’d made a friend for life.

Yes - we were exactly that cool

Cat and I made our way through secondary school, with shared friends, shared crushes, shared late night/ early morning walks home from indie clubs singing at the top of our lungs. We walked our parents dogs together every day of our childhood, and then when I got my own dog we walked her together every Saturday morning. The rhythm of our lives is in those walks and the evenings drinking cider and talking about nothing at all. We featured heavily in each others weddings, we’ve career counselled each other, and listened to one another figure out our lives long after everyone else has lost interest and walked away.  

So when I claim Cat as my best friend – it’s not a transitory term to be given or taken away on a whim. It’s an official title and it’s lifelong.

At the end of my hen night

I know I’m lucky to have had the same best mate since I was 10. I know it’s rare – but I’m also pretty sure that women like me- those of us with the same best mate since childhood – we can spot each other in bars. We might not make a huge amount of effort because we’re confident we’re likeable – I mean we must be, right? Because our favourite person in the world picked us years ago, and still unequivocally thinks we rock.  We remember our teenage selves as likeable – because we’ve heard our friend tell those stories and we come out of them sounding ok – so it can’t have been as much of a car crash as everyone else says.

Knowing our friends like us helps us like ourselves. And every embarrassing story from my teenage years – I’ve heard Cat reframe with me as the hero. Because she’s my best mate so I’m always a hero. And I don’t have to reframe a bloody thing for Cat – because to my mind she’s always been the smartest, funniest person in the room even if sometimes she doesn’t remember it that way and I have to remind her.

Hanging out in India this year

And when she decided to move to Scotland I was delighted for her. There is no doubt in my mind that it is the best possible choice for her.

But I must admit I’m finding it strange, and sad to see less of her. I’m terrible at speaking on the phone (barely do it even with my family), and I worry that we’ll lose that rhythm of comfortably walking together saying nothing, or talking with such urgency that we trip over ourselves and each other in our anxiety to get the words out. And if I’m finding this tough I can only imagine how tough it is for the teenagers out there who say they don’t have a single friend (and there’s lots of them).

So this month I’ve been thinking a lot about friendship. About its value to me and to everyone. And about how different my life would have been without it. And it has made me determined that every child no matter how different they are has the best possible chance to make real and lasting friendships.

How to get this done? I’ve no idea. Answers on a postcard folks?

It's not too late to donate to Contact a Family - the link is at the top of the page.