sadness

“We are here to live our lives so well that Death will tremble to take us.”

“It is a curious thing, the death of a loved one. We all know that our time in this world is limited, and that eventually all of us will end up underneath some sheet, never to wake up. And yet it is always a surprise when it happens to someone we know. It is like walking up the stairs to your bedroom in the dark, and thinking there is one more stair than there is. Your foot falls down, through the air, and there is a sickly moment of dark surprise as you try and readjust the way you thought of things.”
Lemony Snicket

It happened slowly. That’s the worst kind. When my time on this Earth is up, I want it to be over and done with. I don’t want to have my life warp into one I no longer have control over. One where my control and senses are stolen from me, where I can no longer function independently. One spent in a hospital bed. When I go, I want it to be quick. Being eaten by a tiger would be pretty terrifying, but it would make for a fantastic story. My future imaginary grandchildren would be the coolest kids in the playground. I’d take saving a cat from a burning building, too, or maybe having some kind of spaceship malfunction and getting sucked out into the lethal atmosphere of some planet far away. Once my time here is up, I don’t want to stay any longer than I have to. Not because losing control of your life sucks in itself, but because of how hard it is for others to watch, and not be able to do a thing about it.

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My nan passed away last week. It’s taken me a few days to find the words to put to paper, and I’m still not sure I have them, but after life in every sense of the word stopped on Tuesday night (and a couple of days becoming a bit of a solitary wanderer), I’m finally able to get something down. I’m thirty next year, and I guess in a sense I’ve been extremely fortunate that by this age, I’ve only ever lost one person—my grandad; “Guggs,” as I’d called him, and I was too young to really feel the magnitude of what it meant. I remember it happened around the same time as my first cat died, and I remember with great clarity how much that affected me. With my grandad, I remember him going into hospital, and making him a card with the silhouette of a cat on it. He never got it. He never came out. I vaguely remember deciding at eleven years old that even then, I knew if I went to the funeral, never having been to one, that I’d fall into a pit of despair and tears from which I feared I’d never escape. My parents had decided my brother was too young to even ask, and I don’t remember what we did or who we stayed with during it, and I don’t remember much after that.

No, losing someone as an adult is a first for me. Although my reaction was to fall into just as big a pit of despair as I would have twenty years ago. My nan was a huge part of my life. When I was young, I spent most of my time with her. We lived in a cul-de-sac, houses surrounding “the green”; my parents’ house was on one side, my nan’s on another, and my other grandparents’ on the other. We were all thirty seconds away from each other at any given time. I have so many memories of time spent at her house. I remember when she build the aviary and started raising quails and budgies in the back garden. Choosing a budgie, a bright yellow one, whom she named Sparky and taught to say things like “who’s a good boy,” “Where’s Emily?” and “cuppa tea, Charlie darling?” The bird sounded exactly like her.

I remember her teaching me to iron with tea towels and socks, and that a good cook never left any batter in the bowl when cooking. I remember her Welsh cakes, and making figurines and fridge magnets out of plaster of Paris and painting them with her. I remember her bedrooms; each with a terrible carpet and curtains that didn’t match and dressing stands with her gold chains on them and mirrors I used to sometimes be a little scared of at night. She kept two money boxes for my brother and me; one in the shape of a globe; that was mine; the other, a wooden church for my brother. She’d put a pound coin into each every week, and despite us moving halfway around the world, whenever I’d go back to visit, I’d find she’d been putting the pound coins in every week anyway. Her Sunday dinners were to die for. She’d boil every bit of nutrient out of the vegetables, but she’d cook lamb and introduced me to mint sauce and apple sauce with meat and potatoes. I was always in charge of the potatoes, putting in a bit of milk and more than a bit of butter, and then margarine on top of that once they were on the plate. And there was always a pudding. Rice pudding and jam, or custard if it was a particularly good day.

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She hated The Simpsons. “Them yellow people,” she called them, but she watched it with me anyway. I’m certain it was a pretend hate. I remember after school watching Trap Door and SuperTed and Neighbours with her every day while we had tea. She taught me that if you stirred milk and sugar into your tea and you had bubbles on the top, it meant you were going to be lucky and get some money. I used to drink them all up from a teaspoon. I remember her first e-mails, and being so incredibly proud of her, having gone for computer lessons on her own at the library after we’d moved. They were all one big sentence with no punctuation but were always full of so much love. I remember how excited she’d get, throughout my whole life, whenever I visited. It was all the time, but I adored her and I was infinitely as excited as she was. I remember finding a card I’d made as a child on a visit maybe four years ago now, in one of the spare bedrooms, apologising for not being allowed to visit every day any more but saying how much I loved her anyway. It had an outline of my hand on the front I’d drawn and coloured in.

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The decline happened slowly, over years and years, but her spirit was the strongest I’ve ever known. It was horribly unfair. She broke one shoulder, had surgery that went wrong and that meant she couldn’t use that arm any more. She started falling; in the street or in her house, and hitting her head. I remember coming home and finding her at the bottom of the stairs in her nightgown one night after a day in London and being so, so scared. Despite it all, she still cooked, came out to the seaside and down to the shops with us, out for a curry or fish and chips, with a smile on her face.

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She was in hospital a few years ago for an extended period, and went through a really worrying few months, but she emerged, resilient as ever. This time, she fell again, and the damage to her other shoulder meant she couldn’t use either arm. Couldn’t use a walker. Surgery. Surgery during which she had a heart attack. Again, she woke okay… but then the infection started. The skin began necrotizing, and antibiotics weren’t working. She was too fragile to operate on again, and we found ourselves terrified that either the infection or being put under again would kill her. Eventually she became strong enough to have surgery attempted again… and it was successful. My dad visited, and gave her a burst of hope and love after months of being stuck on a hospital ward with no wireless phone… but then her blood pressure started to drop. It kept dropping and wouldn’t stabilize.

This time last week, we got the news that she probably only had a matter of days. I couldn’t sleep. I lay there that night, my heart and mind racing, worrying that somewhere almost 4,000 miles away, my dear nan was laying there alone, her consciousness on the verge of disappearing into oblivion. I got maybe two hours and dragged myself up in the morning, but I felt like I was going to throw up at any moment. I was wide awake and exhausted and nauseous and anxious, so I called in and said I’d work from home. I’d been working that weekend, and I had a pile of things to catch up on, so I dove into it from morning ’til night to try to catch up and distract myself. The next day was spent at the office, waiting for any news. Again, I ploughed through; couldn’t eat for nausea and still had an enormous amount to do, and did as much as I possibly could. That evening I had to work an event too, and in the middle of it, I got a phone call from my dad I couldn’t pick up. I knew then that that was the call.

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He messaged me asking when I’d be home, and I said it would probably be over by nine-ish, so probably 9:30. I called as soon as I was able before even getting in the car, and got no answer. My mind started to panic, so I drove home, and found my dad outside my apartment building. It was a bizarre moment—I knew why he was there, but he didn’t seem upset. I said I’d tried calling him, and he said “let’s go inside.” I knew why, but my brain was working on two different levels and I blurted out something stupid about it being messy. At that point, he looked at me, his eyes welling up, and he choked out, “it doesn’t matter,” and put his arms around me. I cried, and I shook, and he cried with me. He’d only found out a couple of hours prior, and I’d been stuck on a tour bus taking photos of “ghosts” and “spirits” unable to be there for him when he did. We talked. We hugged. The grief came in waves. It was something we knew had been coming for a long time, but my nan had always been such a fighter. She’d always pulled through.

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We talked about how the most important thing was that she was no longer suffering. She’d suffered for so very long, and her quality of life was just gone. We cried as my dad said she’d never have to be in pain again, as we both thought inside we’d never see her again. The part that pierced my heart was when he had a moment after which he said quietly, “I’m an orphan now.” I couldn’t bear it. After a little while and many tears, I knew I had to call work to tell them. I spoke with the CEO who was incredibly kind, compassionate and comforting. I’d had no idea she was travelling, but she talked to me for a while and showed a kindness I’ll be eternally grateful for. The next night, my beautiful sweet friend came over to keep me company. She brought food and drinks and we told stories to each other and shared several heart to hearts. She held me as I cried and I felt such incredible gratitude. The next few days I found myself embracing the I in INFJ (uncharacteristic for me), on day one just driving with no particular destination in mind, looking for somewhere completely isolated from other people. I went south, and eventually an abandoned old barn popped up. I had no makeup on and a dress I’d worn the day before and looked as rough as it did, so I ventured through the long grass and sat inside. There were holes in the roof, which was collapsing; doors had fallen down, and it was a graveyard of its former glory. It was perfect. I sat there in the silence for a while, took some pictures, and tried writing. I just wanted my mind to stop racing for once, and for a moment, it did. The next day I spent alone in a bookstore cafe type place I’d never been to. I wrote for hours, and I found it therapeutic. My soul felt a tiny, tiny bit better after those two days.

As much as I’ve written here, it could never be enough. There could never be enough words in this language of ours to do justice to just how much she meant, and how cherished she was to the very end. I hope with all my heart she knew. And cherished she always will be. If it weren’t for her, I wouldn’t be a) here today and b) who I am today. Her gift of love was one I’m beyond lucky to have been given, and I’ll keep it safe in my heart forever.

My Nan, Guggs, and my Dad as a little boy. One of my favourite pictures ever.

My Nan, Guggs, and my Dad as a little boy. One of my favourite pictures ever.

I love you, nan. 

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A slightly sad post on life and the philosophy of happiness

It’s kind of ironic I sit here today writing about happiness when recently, I’ve felt so sad. I’m sad that every day I feel I’m running at a thousand miles per hour just to achieve the tasks assigned to me and feel myself slipping under the tide. I’m sad it’s all had such an effect on my wellbeing – I find myself doing, doing, doing, just to do what’s right and what’s needed – with the side effect of having lost all appetite for weeks, being unable to eat breakfast, not having time for lunch, and eating something quick and full of crap in the evenings if anything at all because I am obsessed with always needing to be doing. Since February, I now find myself at 104 lbs. And I feel it.

I know everyone says you need to take time to nurture yourself if you’re going to have any chance at functioning as an optimal human, but I can’t do it. I know I need to relax. I need nothing more than a good night’s sleep, a few hours and a glass of wine to do some reading or writing, an empty apartment so I can sing my heart out, or an evening free tasks and chores and fretting to just do something I love. Apparently I’ve  started grinding my teeth at night “with such intensity it’s a wonder the teeth didn’t fall out”. I looked it up to see if it had anything to do with the jaw pain I’ve developed lately – it hurts to open my mouth wide, affecting chewing, singing, yawning – minds out of the gutter – but apparently this is something that happens with stress. And it’s affecting some of the things I really love to do. That video I posted last week? I was so excited to try out my new equipment. But it hurt like hell to just get the words out.

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I know, attractive, right? I want my other vampire tooth back!

I’m going to stop whining and being such a bloody sad panda here because I said this was a post about happiness – though it’s more a philosophical one than one relating to my own. Despite this manic busy-ness that I’ve either stumbled into, taken upon myself or had thrown at me (I’m really not sure), I still have time to think. And there’s always so much going on inside my head.

Two happiness-related questions came up in conversations recently:

1. If a person lost their altruism, stopped caring/doing things for others above themselves, and became utterly selfish, would they be happier?

2. Is it better to live in ignorance of a certain knowledge or truth if it means being happier?

I think with both these hypotheticals, there’s a difference between day-to-day happiness and longer term, “ultimate” happiness. There’s also the defining factors of happiness that fit in as well, but I’ll get to that in a bit. If I remember.

The first question really stopped me in my tracks. I know my tendency to always put myself at the bottom of the priority list should be a good thing in a person, but lately it’s become harmful. I can’t take a bath without getting out after five minutes because there’s dishes or ironing to be done. I cancel social obligations and plans with friends if there’s an important deadline at work and I can take an extra few hours in the evening to work on it. But my problem is that I see everything else as a priority. Everything. In the moment, this is causing me harm – I’m becoming more anxious, losing weight, skipping meals, losing sleep, and feeling overwhelmed – because I insist on putting everything above my own wellbeing. But in the end, I’d hate myself if I did anything else. Taking an evening to do nothing but get a takeaway, read a good book, or go to the movies is a foreign concept to me right now because there is so much that needs to be done. I’d feel like I was letting everyone around me down if I took that time to “self-nurture”. For the first few weeks at my job I’d feel guilty going to the lunch room to get a glass of water or some lunch because it might look like I have the time to do it. I’m fully aware this is crazy. Short term? It is. But long term… even if this is wrong (and you can tell that somewhere, I know it is)… I think it makes me happy. Knowing I did everything I possibly could for others gives me a sense of enormous wellbeing. But in the current moment, I’m burning out.

I think back to the question and think of examples of people I’ve encountered who were exactly the opposite. They put themselves first in every situation, took two-hour lunch breaks, charged every fancy meal to the company, and manipulated and bullied others to get them to do what they desired. And they were completely content with living this way. Yes, to many they came across as selfish and arrogant, but day to day, they seemed perfectly happy with their life, because they get what they want.

I spoke to a friend recently who makes an incredible impact on the world. A lot of you will know who this person is and will probably have spoken with this person numerous times. This person is an incredible soul whose life consists of doing enormous things to change people’s lives for the better in the biggest ways possible. This person’s entire life is comprised of efforts of continually making the world a better place. But speaking to this person, there’s a sadness. This person has no time to for self-nurturing, or spend time doing the things they love. But this person keeps doing it anyway, because (and I’m guessing here), of a similar personal value system. Leave the world a better place then when you found it, whether on the smallest scale of doing errands for somebody you love simply so they don’t have to, or by organising global fundraisers to help those in desperate need of help and making headline-breaking news in doing so.

From a study I was reading (a backwards take [does happiness result in selfishness, not vice versa], but still an interesting read:

Does temporary mood influence how fair or selfish we are in interpersonal situations? These three experiments predicted and found that when people have the power to allocate scarce resources between themselves and others in the dictator game, positive mood increased selfishness, and sad mood produced greater fairness. In a public setting (Experiment 1), happy persons kept more raffle tickets to themselves when making allocations, and Experiment 2 confirmed this effect in the laboratory. Experiment 3 showed that mood effects on selfishness were strongest when the external norms for fairness were relaxed. The results are discussed in terms recent affect-cognition theories, suggesting that positive mood recruits more assimilative, internally focused processing, while negative affect promotes more externally oriented, accommodative processing and thus greater concern with social norms. The implications of the findings for everyday interpersonal decisions are considered.

I will always advocate for altruism, maybe at the expense of immediate happiness, but with the hope that ultimately, it will make me happy. I’d feel like a terrible person if I did anything else – even if it does seem that selfish people are generally happier on a day to day basis. I just need to learn to figure out how to fit my own immediate happiness into the equation. (I kind of want to go off on an evolutionary tangent on why altruism is part of our programming in the first place, but that’s a discussion for another day.)

As a certain Ms. Keller once put it: “I would rather walk with a friend in the dark than alone in the light.” 

2. So, onto the second thought – is it better to be happier in ignorance of truth, or be aware of your entire reality, even if it lessens happiness? I had this debate with a friend last night, and I – now, at this point in my life – am firmly on the side of always being informed. I’ve lived life in the past believing things and keeping myself in the dark because I knew reality would hurt, and I liked believing something I didn’t quite question, but generally made me feel better. Coming to the conclusion that there is no cosmic, divine force or afterlife hurt, but ultimately, it’s made me happier. It’s made me value every minute of every day. Blissful ignorance goes against the value I place on knowledge and education. Again, there’s an element of short-term happiness and long-term in play here – and it comes down to a matter of how much weight you place on what you value. I imagine a scale of knowledge versus happiness existing in the present moment – there are so many things I’m certain I’d be happier not knowing – but if you don’t know about the things that could potentially upset you, then you can’t do anything about them. You can’t grow as a person unless you keep learning and experiencing, and I don’t believe hiding knowledge at the expense of happiness is a good thing.

This discussion came about as a result of informing people about his condition. He’s a very private person, and I think the main reason he didn’t want people to know was because knowing would equal them worrying and being less happy. But if it were you… if someone you loved and cared about hid what life was really like… wouldn’t you want to know, so you could do something – even if that did mean a temporary decrease in overall happiness (purely from the knowledge that someone you care about is suffering)? I thought back to some past relationships, and some of the things I found out after they ended. Yes, they were tough things to learn – and at the time, I felt a fool, I felt stupid, and of course I was unhappy – something I thought was real for a period was most definitely not the whole picture, and it made me sad – but ultimately, the learning experience has led to personal growth, experience, and ultimately, strength… all resulting in my being a more informed, and thus happier, person. Maybe short term pain really does translate into long term gain. As long as your intent is never to actively hurt someone for the sake of hurting them, educating and informing is always worth more in the end. I think.

I’m going to wrap up this philosophical stuff and actually end on a few happy notes. The darkness, after all, defines where the light is, and there haven’t been days without some pretty awesome positives. Firstly of which, I suppose, would be my new car!

After talking with a good friend, who’s actually visited me at my new job, my work location also came into play. I’ve worked in dodgy areas before, and it’s not like I haven’t had hobo snotrockets fly into my actual mouth (welcome, new friends!) as a result – but I’m back out of the corporate world and into another area of downtown that isn’t exactly the most… comfortable, and it’s a ten minute walk from the bus stop. (Okay, there was a pile of poop and some vomit at the corner of the building for three days last week, and the streets are scattered with zombie-like street folk on substances half the time.) She affirmed my necessity of a vehicle – if not just to be able to see people, but to decrease my likelihood of actually getting mugged (or thrown up at) on the way to work.

After one god-awful experience with my first ever dealership, I went somewhere recommended – and it was amazing! No pressure, completely friendly and respectful – it was like going to visit old family friends more than salespeople. After much budgeting and deliberation, it was decided – I was getting the car I literally squealed at when I first drove into the lot. Oh, and it matches my lime green handbag exactly. Hello, Being a Grown Up!

I’ve also re-taken up (there’s a real word for that, I’m sure) an old hobby of mine I always enjoyed: photo shoots. I’ve developed a love for the more creative, conceptual shoots moreso than any other – pictures that go beyond the norm and tell an entire story. I’ve met some amazing people in the process, too, and already have some dates planned for things that evoke more of me… including a neo-goth type runway show sometime later in the year!

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I’m also going to see my favourite band in the whole world next month. Around this time last year, I took a road trip down to Minneapolis to see another excellent, excellent band, and it was the most fun ever. I’ve already seen Mumford and Sons, but it was in a tiny venue before they’d even released Sigh No More in North America. The electric feeling of absolute eagerness and anticipation was indescribable – those couple of hundred people, if that, all gathered in one place to experience something magical together. Passion is always best when shared with fellow enthusiasts, and this time there’s going to be thousands of them. On top, I discovered I had enough travel points accumulated through my Visa that I scored as three nights in an extra-fancy hotel, minutes from the stadium, for absolutely nothing. And this time, it’s domestic – meaning we can take his medication. Last year was a risk. This year – as with anything, really, may still be a risk, but that reassuring factor at least is there. It’s going to be one of those life-changing, soul-stirring, breathtaking experiences I’ll never forget, and I’m excited beyond words.

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And lastly, I can’t go without addressing the generosity of friends, family, colleagues and complete strangers. I wanted to do something big for The Professor as a result of our recent situation – a fundraiser of some sort, but he was having none of it. “There are people who need help much more than I do, and if I can make it work on my own, then shouldn’t they be the ones to receive it?” Boys. I understand the pride component. I’m generally horribly awkward when it comes to even borrowing money from people, and I can’t imagine how uncomfortable it would be to have an entire group of people just giving it to you – I wouldn’t know how to thank them, and I’d feel, probably, a certain degree of embarrassment – so I understand where he’s coming from. But at the same time, I couldn’t do nothing. So I signed up for the Brain Tumour Foundation of Canada’s Spring Sprint, with the intention of power-walking my way across 2.5k (really, can you imagine me running?) one day in June and maybe getting a little financial support along the way to go toward the charity. It’s kind of exploded – and I now have a team of fellow runners, and we’re sitting at almost $1,000 thanks to the incredible generosity of some of those we’re lucky to have in our lives – and from people who read the story and spread the word in their communities, retweeted, etc. and felt compelled to help. I do wish the fundraiser was going to have a direct impact on him, to get him the medication and to allow him to come home – but knowing that in this way, I’m kind of honouring his wishes, and that in some way, maybe the funds raised will go toward the kind of research and programs that will help people like him – and those others affected by this monster of a disease.

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To read the story of why I’m doing this, to join our team, or simply to make a small donation, please click here. Anyone who helps in any way at all is an absolute rock star.

So yeah. Sadness… happiness… philosophy… life. Forgive the stream of consciousness.

“There’s always going to be bad stuff out there. But here’s the amazing thing — light trumps darkness, every time. You stick a candle into the dark, but you can’t stick the dark into the light.” – Jodi Picoult

Heartbreak

Sometimes I just absolutely hate being a part of this world.  I try and fill my life and as many other people’s as I can with optimism and positivity, but when I see things like this I just about die inside.

I received the email from my PETA subscription, and I can’t even describe how hard it is to read about things like that.  I know animal cruelty goes on in this world.  I know people kick their dogs and tie cats in bags and throw them into the river.  I know chicks get their beaks chopped off so they can squeeze more of them into confined spaces without them pecking each other to death.  The thought of every one of these things breaks my heart and when I saw the article yesterday, I spent most of last night in tears, with my poor boy trying to console me.  

Last week we were driving down a residential street, and we saw what looked like a guy kick and hit his dog.  We couldn’t stop, but if I’d been driving I would have pulled a 180, got out of the car and started screaming at him.  Last night I was this close to booking a flight to Utah, with a mission of punching the asshole doctor condoning these horrors straight in the face.  Try injecting and jamming things into your own kids’ brains.

How can people live with themselves or allow this sort of thing to happen?  I try and do all I can to support people who live in extreme poverty and disease-ridden areas because they don’t have a choice in how they live.  I pick World Vision over United Way because I prefer to do something to help those who have no other choice.  And I feel and advocate for animals for the exact same reason.  It’s not their fault they can’t speak. They need looking after too. 

It’s tough to see the images and read the stories of what’s happening in the world.  Every time I read an email I contemplate hitting the unsubscribe button.  But it fuels my determination to do everything I can to try and put an end to this horror.  I’ve spoken to Sweet, and we’ve decided instead of wedding favours, we’re making donations to World Vision and PETA with little cards informing our guests of our decision, and why.  I’ve already signed up for next year’s 30 Hour Famine and we’ve agreed to rescue another cat from the Humane Society.  Once the snow’s been and gone, I’m going to start volunteering.  I wish I could go climb Kilimanjaro and raise millions for malaria nets, or model in a campaign to stop the fur industry like Christian Serratos.

I just wish I was in a better position in this world to be able to do more.  Sometimes, lots of people in this world really break my heart.