guest post

5 Songs That Changed My Life

Screen Shot 2013-06-25 at 10.08.41 AMToday the lovely Melissa over at Press Play is featuring this post as part of her 5 Songs That Changed My Life feature. Melissa’s life is FULL of music, and she shares the same passion for it I do, except she gets to work in the industry and do things like meeting Ed Sheeran too!!

I had to sign up for it the moment I heard about it. Nothing has had a big an impact on my life as music. I’m a pretty emotional person, and it’s something I’ve struggled with most of my life – I always liked to imagine a sort of emotional spectrum, and where I think it’d probably be easier to lay close to the centre, in the neutral zone far away from the depths of feeling (because things can get pretty dark sometimes), I don’t think I ever could, because you can’t have the soul-igniting, heart-exploding highs in life without also experiencing the lows. And I wouldn’t trade those for anything. I am going somewhere with this – and it really does tie in to music. For every experience I’ve ever had in life, every feeling, every hope or dream or period of exhilaration or loneliness… for every emotion this heart is capable of feeling, there’s a song that can speak straight to it. Music isn’t just the language of love, it’s the language that penetrates your very soul if you let it, and I cannot convey the amount of enthusiasm and respect I have for those who’ve written words and put them to music in such a way that it’s like a direct channel to my soul. (I swear I’m not this weird in real life… just incredibly passionate about the magic of what us humans can create and express in this form of art.)

1. Frank Turner – If Ever I Stray

It was really hard for me to narrow it down to just one Frank Turner song, because he’s one of those modern day songwriters that just gets it. Just gets exactly how it is, exactly what’s wrong with the world, exactly what’s worth singing about, exactly what’s important in life, and there’s no overproduction or forced melodies – it’s a simple English bloke singing songs about what really matters, and he has a way of doing it that just makes me want to ingest every lyric and with them wallpaper the insides of my head. A couple of favourite lines from other Frank songs include “it doesn’t matter where you come from, it matters where you go; no-one gets remembered for the things they didn’t do”, along with “I face the horizon, the horizon is my home”, and “It won’t last, so be bold, choose your path, show soul, live fast and die old,” but I find this track a great reminder for when things may get difficult in life, or you’re feeling low or questioning choices you’ve made… this song always helps me really re-focus on the good things to be thankful for that exist every minute of every day.

“If ever I stray from the path I follow
Take me down to the English Channel
Throw me in where the water is shallow
And then drag me on back to shore!

‘Cos love is free and life is cheap
As long as I’ve got me a place to sleep
Clothes on my back and some food to eat
I can’t ask for anything more”

2. Kate Bush – This Woman’s Work

I knew I’d have to pick a Kate song, and though this isn’t my favourite of all, it is the one that without fail always leaves me absolutely sobbing. As you listen to her remarkable voice sing a chorus that absolutely penetrates your heart, you can’t help but feel a sense of urgency in life, to not let it go to waste… to tell those you love how much they mean to you, to live these moments we’re given and build a life you can look back on without regret… to always express. Always, always express.

“I should be crying, but I just can’t let it show
I should be hoping, but I can’t stop thinking
Of all the things I should’ve said that I never said
All the things we should’ve done that we never did
All the things I should’ve given but I didn’t
Oh, darling, make it go,
Make it go away”

3. The Cinematic Orchestra – To Build a Home

This song just stirs something within me that transcends the lyrics themselves, which I wouldn’t go so far as to say have “changed my life”, but every time I hear this song I feel drenched with a cold awe. Every once in a while a song will come along, stop you in your tracks and burrow its way into your ears, then your heart, then every fibre of your skin, making every hair stand up straight on the end of a thoroughly haunted and mesmerized goosebump. This is raw and beautiful, and something about this voice, and the soaring beauty at the chorus end as it fades into the softest of next few words… it’s beautiful. I don’t think there’s an official video, so I wouldn’t read too much into this one, but just close your eyes and turn this up and lie down somewhere comfortable and enjoy something magical for the next six minutes.

4. Mumford and Sons – Roll Away Your Stone

Again, it was far more difficult than it should be to narrow it down to just ONE Mumford song… this is my all-time favourite band. I remember when I first got Sigh No More… it was  the perfect balance of heart-wrenching, goosebump-inducing, earnest longing with a heavy dose of bluegrass and roots, dominated by thumping kick drums and a killer banjo (yes, really) that had me cranking my speakers and jumping around the living room. It was an extraordinary debut; a stunning combination of the expertly crafted upbeats and raw, emotionally ripping passion, each song fully able to stand alone as a fabulously crafted masterpiece… I went to see them before the first album was released in North America at an intimate little venue in Toronto back in what must have been 2009? It was one of the most magical experiences of my life. I remember writing at the time: There was an excited, energetic buzz filling the room; they commanded the crowd dressed in vintage waistcoats, rotating instruments, and had the crowd jumping up and down pumping fists while on the edge of their seats two tracks later in awe at the raw passion, soul and mastery of lyricism in front of them.  It was nothing short of stunning, and I hope they get the worldwide recognition they deserve. I’m SO glad they exploded.

This song is one of my favourites not just because of the build up that leaves you breathless, but because of the artfully constructed words, the melody, the combination of everything all in one song that hit really close to home. To me, it’s about being afraid… the fear of being isolated with only your own heart for company. In the past, that’s been a daunting, dark, prospect, and I think the verses capture the fear incredibly. And then the song just builds up into a “fuck it, there’s a whole world out there and it’s brilliant and I’m going to fill my soul with that instead” crescendo of awesomeness that just makes you want to shout YES right along with it.

“Stars hide your fires, for these here are my desires
And I won’t give them up to you this time around
And so I’ll be found with my stake stuck in this ground
Marking the territory of this newly impassioned soul
And you, you’ve gone too far this time
You have neither reason nor rhyme
With which to take this soul that is so rightfully mine”

5. The toughest one! There are at least another twenty songs I could probably list; but I’m trying really hard to focus on ones that have had impact rather than ones I’d just love to broadcast to the world because they’re damn good songs. The honour of the last spot I think has to go to Laura Marling, because her words, especially from such a young girl, are so incredibly wise and beautifully poetic. Hope in the Air was a close second, and is a brilliantly written tale that’s a story in itself (and contains one of my favourite lyrics and haunting melodies ever):

“Our hearts are small and ever thinning,
There is no hope ever of winning,
Oh, why fear death, be scared of living”

But I ended up choosing Rambling Man – it speaks to me on so many levels, from the opening verse to the defiant chorus all the way through (excerpts below).

“Oh, naive little me
Asking what things you have seen
You’re vulnerable in your head
Where you’ll scream and you’ll wail till you’re dead”

But give me to a rambling man
Let it always be known that I was who I am

Beaten, battered and cold
My children will live just to grow old
But if I sit here and weep
I’ll be blown over by the slightest of breeze

And the weak need to be led
And the tender I’ll carry to their bed
And it’s a pale and cold affair
I’ll be damned if I’ll be found there

But give me to a rambling man
Let it always be known that I was who I am

It’s funny how the first chords you come to
Are the minor notes that come to serenade you
It’s hard to accept yourself as someone
You don’t desire

As someone you don’t want to be

Transformation is an incredible process, and I adore her determination in this song to become more than those negative voices in our own heads that tell us our limits, not our capacities. To get to the other side, and above all, to be known.

I hope you enjoy these as much as I do!

These Photographs

If you’re anything like me, you’ll have cupboards, boxes and bookshelves full of photo albums, forever immortalising the journey from youth to adulthood in a haphazard mishmash of a life chronicled. The first few will be full of the initial endeavours of a young photographer; snapshots of dandelions, paving stones, clouds and windows, captured on a chunky, green plastic camera that began as rolls of film, sent away in an envelope to arrive weeks later on the mat inside the front door. Grainy shots of this and that, the world through the eyes of a child makes way for those of a teenager. Shots of friends, sights, and streets once played upon start to fill boxes to be looked upon a decade later in a quest for evidence: the validity of memories so vivid inside a mind can come into question when an old haunt is visited again. The reality of what is remembered from childhood can be harsh.

I remember each December, as a child, the thrill of getting the boxes of decorations down from the loft; the past eleven months seeming an eternity since I’d last seen them. My parents used to literally deck the halls, stringing up garlands of greenery around the ceilings, covered in red bows and golden bells. The tree would always be huge – always artificial, so nothing had to be cut down, but bushy, big, and covered in lights and ribbon. The memory of everything was so vibrant that, finding those boxes of decorations years later, and seeing them through the eyes of an adult, was disappointing: those same decorations were, in reality, so small and sparse that I had to wonder how they ever seemed so vibrant and rich so many years ago.

The same thing happened to me recently, when I visited home. The streets I grew up on had in childhood seemed so big and full of adventure; we’d gather up all the kids on the street and use the green as our stage, putting on singing, dancing, gymnastics and talent shows for all the neighbours. One side of the street was on a hill, the houses on a slight incline which, years ago, seemed the most exciting thing in the world – we’d gather up all the kids and take our bikes and rollerskates to the top, climbing on the grass, only to hurl ourselves down the pavement as fast as we possibly could. There were cuts and scrapes and bruises, but they proved no match for the exhilaration of the ride untumbled. Walking those same streets only a few weeks ago, I wondered how I ever thought it was so vast, exciting, or dangerous. The hill wasn’t steep, or long, and the walks from my old house to the town centre which had been an entire day out were over within ten minutes. How did the world ever seem so big?

I look to my photos in their books and boxes, and see the evidence en masse. My mind has been playing tricks on me while I wasn’t looking, taking the reality of memories and enhancing them, like a fine wine, making them better, more full of life and character over time than they ever were in the beginning. But I swear it was all real. It was always that way. But these photographs prove otherwise. Do we see the world differently, as a child? Before the world takes a hold of us, shapes us and gives us rules by which to abide, thrusts responsibilities and life lessons upon us along with bills and a work schedule which leaves little room for exploring and imagination? Or was it always that way… and something happens to the memories the further we get away from them. Fact gets mixed up with nostalgia, history with homesickness, reality with reflection, and memories get manufactured into something far brighter and more wonderful than the reality perhaps ever really was. Or perhaps as children, our minds take note of what was considered important at the time. Not the rubbish lining the streets, the jagged paving stones or the neighbours your parents didn’t get along with, but places begging to be filled with adventure. The way the wind felt in your hair as you pedalled as hard as you possibly could.  Finding what now would look like two ordinary hills a few minutes from home, which at the time were huge forts just that little bit further, and thus hidden from the world, a secret playground you could run to when you didn’t want to be found.

I’m still not quite sure if the streets, the parks, and the boxes of decorations changed over time, or if the memories did. But I know I can’t be the only one who remembers things in a slightly rosier hue than perhaps was real. And though these photographs attempt to prove otherwise, there’s something quite magical about memories kept from childhood. Have you revisited somewhere, or something, that you’d remembered differently, and been surprised by the reality?

You can also find this post at Becky’s blog, Love Everyday Life, where she ever so kindly asked me to step in today. 🙂

The Emotional Spectrum

“Don’t you think it’s better to be extremely happy for a short while,
even if you lose it, than to be just okay for your whole life?”
– Audrey Niffenegger, The Time Traveller’s Wife

I am an emotional creature. Many a tear has been shed in my lifetime, that psychological water that flows in streams down cheeks, physical echoes of the yearnings of the heart inside. They accompany movies, books (tell me I wasn’t the only one who bawled for an hour after reading The Time Traveller’s Wife?), songs, weddings, goodbyes, stress, love and pain, and sometimes, the act of crying can be cathartic. A good sob, we’re told, can allow pent-up feelings of sadness, loss or frustration to be set free, leaving more room inside for more positive, forward-moving feelings. But sometimes, being more emotionally sensitive than The Norm can make you look like a total sap.

The same goes for the other end of the spectrum: joy. During my first Skype conversation, after hearing some good news, I was asked: “…Was that a happy clap?”  Yes, was the answer – when I hear something awesome, or have something to look forward to, I will run shamelessly up and down my stairs, start applauding, or otherwise have one of those Laura Linney moments in Love, Actually where the compulsion to run around the corner, stamping your feet and squealing like a schoolgirl proves impossible to ignore.

The yawning gulf of my emotional spectrum has been the subject of many a debate with friends and loved ones. “If you didn’t get so excited in the first place,” I’d be told, “then you wouldn’t be so disappointed now!”  “Don’t rush into things.” “If you stayed closer to the middle, not too high or too low, you’d be much better off.”  I had to wonder. If I tempered myself a little – refrained from showing too much excitement, would things be less disappointing if they didn’t work out? If I didn’t give my whole heart out so openly, would I have saved it such ache in the past? If I didn’t become too emotionally invested in people so quickly, would it be less painful when they moved away? And if I didn’t allow myself to cry so often, at the mundane and the painful, would life be that much easier?

Perhaps. But a bigger part of me says that these are the things that allow you to experience life to the fullest – drinking in every drop; allowing yourself to feel the heights of pure joy even if that means risking the lowest of the low.  I’ve heard of many people who’ve worked on themselves, making sure what would be their instinctive, automatic reaction is moderated; socially acceptable, not so extreme, guaranteed to save them from disappointment or funny looks. But is being too emotional such a bad thing? Surely, if naturally, you wanted to shut yourself in your bedroom, hide under a blanket, pound your pillow and wail from the bottom of your lungs, allows all that sadness to escape? We’ve all seen what happens when things get pent-up inside; the feelings of sadness give rise to feelings of anger; as they grow stronger and get further pushed inside, they can only be repressed so much until something snaps. And that’s never pretty. On the flipside, why would anyone deprive themselves from living with their heart caged in by self-constructed walls? Because we’ve been hurt before. Because there’s a risk of everything falling apart. Because people might think we’re strange. I get it. But what we devise to protect ourselves can sometimes deprive us of the heights of happiness. The true depths and heights of human emotion can be amplified when exposed to the outside world, but moderating them takes away the potential for greatness. Why not show the world your true colours, even if that does include jumping up and down and shouting from the rooftops every now and again? When we look back on our lives, do we want to say we lived a sheltered life, never too excitable nor too down, or do we want to be able to say we gave it our all, and lived?

After all, as the old saying goes, it’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.

Are you, too, an emotional creature? Or do you tend to be more even-keeled? I’m interested to hear your thoughts. 🙂

Lean On Me

When Brittney asked me to guest post for her, I was so excited I started clapping right there at my desk (one of many “cool” things I do when I get exciting mail, along with verbal exclamations and actually asking questions out loud) – then she mentioned the topic, and I was totally sold. One of the many reasons I love Britt is her love of animals and her huge heart for their welfare, so when I was asked to write about my own little cat, I was all over it!

This, ladies and gents, is Miss Rose Kitten. She was named Rose after the Doctor Who character (told you I was one of the cool kids!), but answered more readily to “Kitten”, and has since become kind of a hybrid, although she mostly goes by “Kit Kit”.  It’s pretty fitting – though she’s grown from a little puffball who sat in my hands to a sleek, well proportioned lady, she still has a total kitten heart. She’s definitely got her own voice and personality, so much so that I left a “how to” guide for my dad when he was cat-sitting in January – complete with instructions on batting, cat volleyball, and hide and seek.

I have a ridiculous amount of love for this cat. Honestly? I’ve actually had conversations with my boy about what we’re going to do if I end up loving the cat more than my own child!!  I’ve never had a pet I’ve felt such a link with before – as a kitten, she’d hop into the shower with me, get totally soggy and come our wrapped in a clean towel, and get blowdried along with my hair.  She wants to be involved with anything I’m doing – reading the newspaper? She’s ON the paper. Marking papers? On the pile.  Watching TV? She has her own designated Movie Spot on the couch.  And don’t even get me started on unpacking the groceries. When I get home in the evenings from work, it’s Postbox Time. She’ll run over to the front door and wait for me to take of my shoes, open it up, and carry her outside for 30 seconds to get the letters. In summer she’ll come out on a leash.  If she were a person, she’d totally be an athlete. Games are her favourite thing in the world – we have a fluffy ball hanging from a string from our banister, and every night we’ll hear little thuds of cat leaps as we’re watching TV.  Paper balls, tennis balls – anything that rolls, she’ll play football with, batting it along the ground as I tackle her down.  We’ll go to one end of a room together where she’ll flop down on her side, ready for me to scoot her along the carpet as she “paddles” her way forward. It’s PRICELESS. And she even helps with the cooking!

What I love most about my little miss isn’t just her adorable little quirks. Or the fact that she will always be there for a hug after a hard day, or to cuddle under a blanket with while I’m cold. It’s the way she just seems to tune in to what’s going on.  I don’t know how many times I’ve been sad, or ill, or crying, and she’ll just trot on delicately over and rub her head on my shoulder, or lean her forehead on mine. How she’ll flop down and start paddling across the floor by herself to make me laugh when I’m feeling stressed.  How she’ll sacrifice the “fat lap” (she ALWAYS cuddles up with the boy, not me!) if I’m feeling a little low and come over to snuggle with me instead.  Our pets may not be able to speak English (you have no idea how badly I wanted a talking cat as a kid. Salem was my hero!), but I’m certain, especially Miss Rose Kitten, they’re more in tune with our ups and downs than we think.

I was told once that pets’ personalities reflect those of their owners.  And if it’s true, it makes me smile to wonder what this says about me.  I know no matter what, I can count on my little cat.  I don’t know what I’d do without her. And seriously? A default Scrabble partner? I think I’m just about the luckiest girl in the world!

How Do You Define Success?

Today I have the honour of guest posting for ItStartsWith.Us, an incredible project whose goal it is to build a global community of individuals focused on making a positive impact in the lives of the people around them.  You can read the post here, and if you’d like to comment, just click on the link below. 🙂

I first moved to Canada when I was fifteen years old, leaving behind England, the country that had raised me, enveloped me in rich culture, history, and left an insatiable appetite for all things British.  My childhood was filled with visits to old cathedrals, quality time with my grandparents, and spending as much time as I possibly could outside.  When I wasn’t playing football with other kids on the street, we were choreographing dances and orchestrating fundraiser talent shows for the neighbours.  I remember feeling an incredible sense of pride when letters from the British Red Cross and the World Wildlife Fund arrived, thanking us for our donation which, looking back, could only have been miniscule – but we didn’t care.  We were helping, and it made us feel like pretty decent kids.

Soon after I landed in Canada, I turned into a little bit of a recluse.  Overwhelmed by culture shock, I retreated into a shell, worried about being judged, about being different – all the while observing just how different things were here.  I’d come from a school where students were scolded for having their shirts untucked, or for wearing more than one pair of earrings.  Here, kids were in designer hoodies and jeans, with highlights in their hair and fake tans, their faces masked with heaps of lip gloss and eyeliner.  At the time, I remember feeling so different, so out of the social loop.  Everyone was so focused on being popular and liked, and I didn’t know what to do.  Every teenager wants to fit in – but I’d come from leading groups of kids where we’d spend our spare time singing, fundraising, and trying to make a difference in the world – and here I was, surrounded by people spending their parents’ money on fancy clothes and trying to look cool.  Our priorities clashed, and I was overcome with a longing to fit in, but to also stay true to my beliefs. I kept quiet and observed.

I got my first job at sixteen, and like many teenagers, worked my way through a series of corporate, hierarchical retail jobs where emphasis was placed on money, and success was determined by the number of additional things you could sell to people who didn’t want or need them.  It made me uncomfortable, but it paid the rent for years before I landed my first office job.  It was in a little print shop, and I was the graphic designer.  I was told I was to charge customers “by the minute”.  Sweet old ladies would come in asking for Christmas letters to be typed, and I’d do it with a smile – but was punished if I made their couple of word changes without charging them extra.  I stayed there for two years before landing my current job – at my first non-profit organization.

The culture shift was incredible.  There was zero focus on money – this place was simply in existence to help people, to teach them skills they could use to move forward in life.  Success was determined by the number of people who found employment – people whose lives were changed for the better.  I’ve never been happier – in a world which seems so focused on climbing the corporate ladder, on being popular, on making more money – society seems to be dominated by a self-focused mentality.  We have to be more attractive, thinner, live in bigger houses, make more money than everyone else, and then what? We’re “successful”?  As I’ve grown up, especially in the last few years, my definition of success has changed drastically.  Success, to me, is no longer defined in monetary terms or by possessions.  I’ve seen so many people in my work whose lives are affected by bad circumstances, poor choices, peer pressure, domestic abuse… the list goes on.  There are so many people out there who face such hardships behind closed doors, and in this self-serving world in which we live, sometimes a shift in what we deem important can make all the difference on earth.  Your smile may be the only one someone sees all day.  Your small act of kindness or compassion – asking them how they are, holding the door open, carrying their bags – may just be the most touching thing they experience all week.  Taking a few minutes in a day to take the focus off ourselves, and onto making a small difference in someone’s life, can go a long way.  That’s why I was thrilled when I heard about the ItStartsWith.Us project.  The more people making small changes in the world, the better off the planet.  We’re so privileged, sitting in our warm homes, accessing the internet with anything we desire at our fingertips.  There are so many people out there affected by so much adversity, and I think if we could all make a little shift in focus, from ourselves to helping others, the world would be a very different place.

I encourage you to take a moment today to really count your blessings, because despite the curveballs life throws our way, we have so much in our lives for which to be thankful.  Take a moment not to think about what you’re going to have for supper tomorrow, or where you’re going to go out on Friday night – but about what you can do to make someone else’s day that little bit better, no matter how small.  You never know how much of a difference it could make.

If you’d like to comment directly at ItStartsWith.Us, please click here.

Guest Post: The Power of Choice

This post is part of the Guest Blog Grand Tour over at Life Without Pants – an epic journey of over 75 guest posts. Want to learn more about Matt Cheuvront & see how far the rabbit hole goes? Subscribe to the Life Without Pants RSS feed & follow him on Twitter to keep in touch!

2009. What a year, huh? As December winds down, Christmas and New Years on the Horizon, we take time to reflect on the year that was. Throughout the year we get so caught up in our fast paced lives that we neglect to see how much has really happened. But as it all draws to a close we reminisce over the good times and the bad, the obstacles we’ve overcome and challenges that have come before us. And then, at least for me, I give myself a pat on the back, because odds are, the year behind me was a lot more productive than I thought.

This year has been especially difficult and also extremely rewarding for yours truly. If I used one word to describe everything that happened, it would be “transition” – changing jobs, changing homes, getting engaged, leaving friends and family and making new ones. There’s been a lot of change – it wasn’t easy – but I can sit where I am today and tell you that I’ve learned more about myself in the past year than I have in the past five.

I’ve reflected on life lessons learned this year over on my blog – but I wanted to take a different approach and share with you one of, if not the single most important and empowering thing I’m taking away from this year: The power of CHOICE.

We talk so much about a belief in fate versus free will. Fate will tell you that when you’re born, your path is pre-determined, that no matter what you do, the man upstairs has his mind made up for you – and you’re simply here to serve in that purpose. Free will takes the opposite stance – encouraging that you have the power to do anything you want in life, that your fate it what you make (Terminator, anyone?)

I believe in neither.

Instead, I believe in choice, the only thing that we CAN control. Let’s face it, we don’t have a say in everything that happens in our life. But it isn’t about fate – I’ll never admit that my path is predetermined. Life is going to throw you a shit storm from time to time, it’s not all slow pitches over the plate, there are going to be curves and sliders – things that will throw you off your game and keep you guessing – sometimes even striking out.

But what we CAN control is the choices we make every single day. Options are put before us and we have the power to make the right (or wrong) decisions – to mess up and learn from our mistakes, to overcome great obstacles through perseverance and persistence. Once you start believing in yourself and the power you have to make those choices, the sky is the limit for what you can achieve.

2009 has been an amazing year – not an easy one – but one I will never forget as a turning point in my life. And I know that I will never regret the choices I’ve made that have gotten me to where I am today.