When Knowledge Isn’t Everything

I’m probably doing somebody I know and care about a great deal a lot of disservice in admitting this; but I can’t remember which one of them told me the most mind-blowing fact about our universe that I’ve ever heard:

“All of the light you see from the stars in the night-sky is thousands of years old”, said he or she, in a conversation probably influenced by a large carafe of wine and a ramekin of peanuts in a dimly-lit bar, “the stars you see tonight probably died many years ago, but because of how far away they are, they still look alive to us”.

The accuracy of the second part of that statement is prone to a lot of debate, usually by people with a greater vat of brain cells than I, who can rigorously punctuate each part of their explanations with the kind of knowledge you’d usually expect to find in a green-leather bound book with yellowing pages found on the bottom shelf of your local library.  (The book was probably written by somebody called Quentin H Pugh and first published in 1929.  It probably hasn’t been exposed to fresh air since 1931 and its main purpose today is residence for a small army of silverfish.)

Yet people are pretty unanimous about the first half of the statement.  Looking into the night sky is, indeed, like looking through a lens to the past.  Consider this: the light from the closest star to Earth (Alpha Centauri) takes four years to reach us, and that’s as quick as it gets!  By contrast, the light from the stars furthest away from us take thousands upon thousands – if not millions or billions – of years to reach us.  How crazy to think that whilst we can’t travel through time, we can effectively view different epochs of history in tandem with one another from the modern comfort of 21st century windows, all because of a bunch of science that the majority of us find difficult to truly understand.

In the past I have tried to engage with all that might have helped me understand all the what’s, why’s, how’s and when’s of everything there is to know about astronomy, but on each of those occasions my brain has switched off as soon as we started to transcend into the realms of Mathematics and other related gablurble.  Mrs Green’s GCSE Physics classes would have been the prime place to learn about things which I didn’t realise would interest me so much nearly twenty years later, but back then I gave up on trying to learn because all I really wanted to do was make hats out of paper-towels for everybody in the class – including Mrs Green – and call them ‘Moon Hats’.  The idea was that we could parade them in the corridors with all the cheap pride you might expect of pupils from the bottom set for Science; except I think the vast majority of them ended up in the bin.  (Moon Hats unanimously failed the generic teenage ‘Cool Test’, so I cancelled the patent application and gave up my dream of a career in fashion design.  I hope that, over the years, those toffee-nosed classmates have been able to find a way to cope with the guilt of this).

Trying to make me understand the rules of Science is like trying to  vacuum up a desert’s worth of sand in a pipette.  I just don’t get it; and if I were to even try it would only explode into a thundercloud of general mess and confusion that would rain havoc on all beneath it.  Yet, I am fascinated by the night sky, to the point where I’d even say that my ignorance and lack of knowledge only makes the whole concept even more exciting.

I’m pretty sure that if somebody was ever able to have the patience and tenacity to get me to understand the finer details of why the light from stars takes so long to reach our vision, it would no doubt satisfy the part of my brain which is hungry for knowledge, and possibly even make me feel vaguely intelligent for a moment or two.  On the other hand, I feel it would serve as something like a cold bowl of porridge to the part that enjoys being able to wonder, and imagine.  Like all magic, once you know how the trick works it’s never as entertaining again.

And then you can’t help but transfer that concept to the more emotional elements of life.  Many of us are so concerned by the idea of not being ‘in the know’.  We like to feel informed and aware because it helps us to feel in control of the things going on around us (or we just enjoy being nosy), and there’s a sense of safety and security in that control.

And that’s all well and good, for sure, but sometimes it can be just as gratifying not knowing or understanding why things are the way they are.  Finding answers isn’t always an easy task.  It can take a very long time, cause a lot of stress, feed you inconsequential information that doesn’t really make you feel any better at all, and not lead to anything of any real substance.  In fact, you can get so side-tracked by searching for answers that you forget what your question was in the first place, because the things you found out along the way multiplied it into a dozen more questions.

I have often been guilty of over-thinking which has lead to worrying and nothing has made this more apparent to me than a recent circumstance.  I know that this is perhaps my way of trying to gain control of a situation, by identifying possible risks and working out how to overcome them in advance.  It can be a really good tool at times, which has probably saved me from a lot of embarrassment and/or broken bones, but much like your favourite pencil it can go blunt and become useless if overused.  When I think back to how much time I’ve probably spent worrying about things that never came into fruition it’s hard not to feel frustrated with myself, so I’m actively trying harder now to stem some of these thoughts and only think about what I need to, when it presents itself to me.  Because if you think the scope and the science of astronomy is what makes light-years hard to comprehend, the human brain is even more complex and easier to get lost in.

And there’s actually something quite comforting about recognising that.  Something relaxing about just stepping back and letting nature and fate do whatever it is they need to do.  More time to enjoy the beauty, mystery and adventure of it all rather than expending all your energies on navigation.

When I look up at the stars I don’t want to think about a bunch of algebraic formula that will never make any sense to me.  I just want to think about how tonight’s light is a gift from the past, and how amazing and mysterious the Universe is for supplying something that on the surface of it sounds so impossible.  And that’s where I want to merrily leave that thought.

Pugh and co can take their answers elsewhere...

Song of the Day:  Dreamgirl – Bollywood

Dream-pop from Kansas.  This is one of those amazing songs that you might feel a little indifferent to at first, but then you hear the inexplicable ‘it’, and the song is subsequently stuck on loop for a week or so.  The sort of rare song that makes you want to cry and smile all at once.   Enjoy.

An Afternoon in the Great West

It’s a balmy Friday afternoon in May, the weekend of the first Bank Holiday of the year, and I’m sat on board a Great Western Railway train at Paddington, waiting to depart for the long journey down to Cornwall, the southernmost tip of the UK.

I’m content because I have my snacks, my notebook, my MP3 player, my train wine and most importantly – my seat.  Had I not booked the tickets in advance, this would not have been guaranteed, and as the carriage becomes increasingly busier with the bank holiday rush I have to say an internal grace to good old Trainline.com.  Not only am I – and everybody else who’s seated –  the envy of the masses who are having to stand awkwardly in the aisles, but they took on board (get it?) that little tick I put on the booking form about preferring a window seat.  That almost never really happens.

A young, smartly dressed gentleman asks if he can sit at the seat next to me, just until Reading, from which point it has apparently been reserved by somebody else, according to the little ticket sticking out of the headrest.  Obviously I say yes, and have a giggle to myself about how quintessentially British that brief exchange was; we ask for permission to sit at seats as though the passenger next to them owns them, or brought them in from home.  I have never before wondered why we do this, and cannot think of the reason even now.  It’s not like we can really say no.

Mind you.

Mind you…

As the smart young gentleman suddenly produces a Tupperware of what can only be described as an acrid-smelling food stuff of some dreadful orange mushy sort I begin to wish that I had made up a fib about having an acquaintance who had “just nipped to the loo” when asked about the empty seat.  My nostrils are being completely violated by his lunch, and as the train meanders through West London suburbia I begin to count down the minutes until Reading, and am aghast at just how bottomless the content in the Tupperware appears to be.  I know those things can hold a lot, but sacre bleu!  The mound of mush is just not getting any smaller!

My heart reaches a lofty level of delight never previously encountered when we finally arrive at Reading, and a lady who looks like she should have taught me English Literature in the late 1990’s approaches row 35 and finally displaces the man with the smelly food.  This lady seems far more easygoing a train buddy, for all that she has to whip out of her bag is not a Tupperware of vomit but a book about Queen Boudica, complete with laminated bookmark that has a calendar printed on it.  Fortunately, bookmarks don’t really have a scent and I am able to continue gazing out the window without any further nasal disruption, as she quietly enjoys her book.

I didn’t research this train journey prior to making it so am largely unaware of the route, but slowly I begin to recognise the names of places we pass through, and gather that we are in Somerset.  The scenery – a sprawling patchwork of greens and yellows – is expansive and synonymous with what I would have always imagined it to look like.  A mum and her young son, in matching wellies, wave at us from an allotment as planes leave their cloudy trails in the skies above.  The lady next to me takes a break from her book to finish off a packet of M&S mature cheddar and red onion crisps and then – to my awe – produces a Wet Wipe to clean the crisp dust from her fingers.  “WET WIPES FOR CRISPS?! How incredibly organised!”, I think to myself, recollecting all the times I’ve eaten crisps on a train and never been quite as responsible.  If you should find Frazzle dust on your seat next time you travel with South Eastern then that would be my lethargy at play and for this I apologise.

The clouds pick up and the grey skies begin to contrast with the acidic yellows of the rapeseed in such a way that it seems reminiscent of what is a fashionable colour scheme in contemporary kitchens and living rooms.  We pass a cricket field somewhere in the Taunton area that represents just one of many that we will pass by on this journey, and when we stop at the station there, the main observation will be that almost all of the women on the platform are wearing a floral top.

The population of the train increases by about a third at Taunton, and in a carriage that was already busy enough it goes without saying that there is to be an issue with the seats.  A lady who has just joined us squabbles with the girl in the row behind me about who should be sitting where and for the first time on this trip, I begin to pick up on that West Country dialect so long associated with this part of the country:                                

“Aye think yerr sittin’ in may seat”

That curving accent and visions of pink sunsets over freshly harvested fields are pretty much all I knew of Somerset before making this journey, and, well, remain all I know of it now.  Cider too I guess.  Apples and all that jazz (jazz apple. Ho ho).

harvest(Image taken from Miriadna.com)

Before too long, the train is stopping at Tiverton, Devon.  Lots of people seem to disembark here and so I conclude that there must be lots of Activerton this weekend.

…One of the few setbacks of traveling alone is that there is no audience for any dreadful puns you may concoct in response to funny place names, so I log it in my notebook, and vow to include it in my write-up instead, where even then I will probably remain the only person amused by it.

The landscape of the Devon that runs alongside the railway line reminds me of something from Postman Pat, with all its hills, single-track roads, and perfectly-rounded red brick footbridges that cross over the line.  Absorbing all of this beauty, I start to question Kent’s usually undisputed status of the Garden of England.  Right now, Devon is giving that title a run for its money, and its endearing sequence of streams and rivers are almost starting to give it the lead.  My eyes are loving everything they’re seeing right now, especially the sheep roaming around happily on the hillsides.  As fields go, I bet they’re happy they live on these ones.

Civilisation resurrects itself when we stop at Exeter St David’s, a station that hosts all the hustle and bustle on the platforms that you would expect from a University city.  Commuters scroll through their phones as they stand waiting for their trains, and Pumpkin’s double doors swing back and forth in time with needforcaffeine related emergencies.  On the walls of a nearby pavilion building, somebody has spray-painted the words, ‘Devon Knows’ in bright yellow.  A later Google search will tell me that this particular piece of graffiti was commissioned by Exeter City Council a few years’ ago, and pays homage to Ambrosia custard, as well as a couple of other things that perhaps only locals will appreciate.  I only understand the custard part, but it’s amusing enough.

Powderham Castle comes into view to our right as we head south towards the coast, in parallel with the marshy banks of the River Exe.  The castle grounds are speckled with large oak trees that immediately conjure up images of our ancestors galloping to battle on horseback in heavy winds.  I have absolutely no idea whether it was that kind of castle, but it satisfies my imagination to believe it so.

A short while later and the expanse of water within the River Exe that had been running alongside us has transformed into a full-blown sea.  This signifies that we are reaching Dawlish, and the part of the journey that many people enthusiastically encouraged me to pay particular attention to.  For several minutes, all you can see out of the left hand side of the train is the sea, and it’s pretty impressive.  This is the part of the UK that you have no doubt seen on the news during periods of heavy rain and flooding, for back in February 2014 much of the track was swept away in the storms, requiring significant levels of repair that virtually annexed this part of Britain from the rest of it.

Dawlish                                                 (Picture from official Met Office site)

We are rattling through the stations now.  As one of the main modes of transport down here in the South West, the stops are becoming more inclusive, taking in places like Newton Abbot, which seems to be a popular place for people to get off, and Totnes.  Amongst our travels round here we go past a miniature platform for the South Devon railway.  It’s decorated in bunting, a telltale sign of a quaint English visitor attraction, and there’s a steam engine nearby too no doubt.

The carriage is full of activity.  The lady next to me (not the probable English teacher.  She and her Boudica book got off at Newton Abbot and her seat was swiftly re-occupied) asks me if I know in which carriage she can find the buffet cart.  The man in front of us overhears, and tells us it’s out of stock anyway.  It seems that this really is a much busier service than usual.  Clearly everybody else here is also looking for a sunny weekend break with an ice-cream.  In the meantime, two pals from the University Rugby Club (a massive assumption, I admit) bump into one another unexpectedly in the aisle, and say hello with shoulder slaps so hard it’s a miracle that neither of them will alight the train with a dislocated scapula.  I gather they haven’t seen one another in a while.

As we approach Plymouth, my nostrils are overcome with an intensity of scent not felt since vomit-in-Tupperware guy, who by now – as we enter what must be the 3rd or 4th hour of the journey – seems like a feature of a previous century.  Instead all I can smell now is a mass of waterproof jackets that have probably spent the past Winter in the confines of damp, under-stair cupboards, next to boxes of spare washing powder and kitty litter.  It’s not an unpleasant odour by any means, more the smell of childhood holidays and the outdoors; and cottages you might have once rented by the sea that were furnished with worn-leather armchairs in shades of deep maroon.  We’ve all stayed somewhere like that at some point, I’m sure.  We took our buckets and spades but it ended up raining every day so we stayed in a lot watching the likes of Casualty and This Is Your Life whilst mum struggled to work out how to light the hob in order to heat up a tin of soup that nobody was expecting to eat.  We all know that smell.

Plymouth is a city of varying gradients; and so the slate grey roofs – from certain angles – are a little akin to the scales of freshwater fish… or the brushed up sequins of a dodgy silver skirt; either or.  There’s a particular street just after the suspension bridge at Saltash that makes my legs hurt just looking at it, in fact it would probably be a miracle if no parked cars had ever rolled down and submerged into the River Tamar!  I’m glad that Kent is comparatively flat by these standards.  I’m also delighted that I don’t live on a hill, and vow never to do so.  I can’t bear to imagine a life in which the daily walk from the doorstep to the local shop requires copious amounts of Lucozade and Kendal Mint Cake, fair play to those who manage that.  You’re good.  Really good.

It’s difficult to distinguish the point of the Devon/Cornwall border, but when the conductor announces our impending arrival at Liskeard we can gather that we must have passed it.  Where my ignorance of Somerset meant my understanding transcended little beyond accents and combine harvesters, my ignorance of Cornwall is probably even greater.  To me – right now – it’s a place full of beautiful beaches and Kelly’s ice cream that seems to have a language of its own, made up of words that all have ten thousand syllables and begin with the letters TRE.  I don’t quite know why.  Other than that, I am Cornish-ly clueless.

“Liskearde – for trains to Looe”  reads the sign at the station.  I could do with being at Looe right now after this whopper of a rail journey, but you can never be entirely sure what you’re sitting in when you use the on-board facilities so I’ve held off…

(There we go with another dreadful joke that nobody was around to hear at point of origin)

I’m very excited to finally be in Cornwall and satisfying the frequent hunger to visit new places.  Several people have told me that everything changes once you reach this county.  They speak of a single road that seems to serve the whole area, and now I guess they were probably talking about the A30.  There are certainly no motorways in these parts, and whereas in Kent (that ‘Garden of England’ remember) many of us are sandwiched between the M2 and M20, the nearest motorway to Cornwall is the M5, last seen way back in Exeter, some sixty miles away.  Now there’s a sign that you’re truly out in the sticks.

The next stop is Bodmin Parkway, which proudly proclaims itself a part of the Bodmin and Wenford Railway.  Bodmin became famous in the 1970’s when there were several reported sightings of an unusual panther-type creature (‘the Beast of Bodmin’) roaming around the area.  The case was never truly resolved, though the most likely explanation is that the creatures were pumas set free by animal trainer Mary Chipperfield upon the closure of Plymouth Zoo in 1978.   I highly doubt the Beast of Bodmin still exists, but it adds interest to the visit, and it makes it more fun to imagine that the ‘person’ who’s just got on the train will suddenly open their trench coat to reveal four legs and a body of thick, black fur.

‘Lostwithiel’ is one of the final stops of my journey.  Lost with what now?!  In my head, I assume that this is probably one of those regional words pronounced completely differently to how it looks phonetically, and with that, the train departs the place I will personally refer to – rightly or wrongly – as ‘Lozule’ forevermore.  I’ll remember it as the place with the beautiful barn conversions that sit between the railway line and the river behind them, that gave me considerable amounts of home-envy.

With only a further twenty minutes to go of my journey it is around this point that I decide to pack my notebook away and spend the final part of the ride sitting back and gazing out at this unfamiliar land.  It’s approaching 7pm and having got on this train at 2pm I’m feeling somewhat numb and ready for a pint of holiday Doom Bar by the harbour with my friend.

I go to bed later on thinking about all the places I’ve seen, and remember why I always prefer to travel by rail or road if I can.  The beauty of longer-distance journeys is seeing how the landscape unfurls with each mile that passes by.  A plane would have got me here much quicker, but I’d have only seen the clouds and smelt the choking mixture of fragrances on sale at the Duty Free.  In all honesty, I think I’d rather have smelt a pungent Tupperware and seen the sea, a dozen cricket grounds, and a bunch of happy sheep…

I won’t forget this journey.

Cornwall1
Song of the Day: BOAN – Babylon

BOAN are an American synth-pop duo who released this song about 5 years ago.  I have only just discovered it.  Good song to drive to.

 

 

The Indonesian Effect: Eight Years On

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For about the first year after returning I could think of nothing else.  Indonesia had gripped my heart and I tried to create any opportunity to bring a small part of it to the UK.  I would go to the local oriental grocers and stock up on imported Indomie noodles with which to make nasi goreng, order Indonesian films from the internet, and read books written by the 19th century explorer, Alfred Wallace, who had traversed the islands collecting the skins of exotic birds.  I would get cross anytime people mistakenly proclaimed that the likes of batik and satay sauce originated from Malaysia, and filled many notebooks with countless graphic accounts of what had happened out there so that I would never forget a thing.  No encounter.  No scent.  No awkward occasion of getting lost in translation. No entertaining bus journey.  I would forget nothing and kill no memory.

I was desperate to go back, and so I did go back – twice – but never to Padang, where I had stayed whilst volunteering.  Instead I went only to Jakarta, the capital, which was far less enchanting a place but which was home to several of the good friends I’d made.  After graduating, very few of them stayed in West Sumatra.  These were among some of the most determined and ambitious people I’d ever get to meet and they were keen to evolve from the humble lifestyle of rural homes to lucrative careers in finance, working in the country’s biggest and most modern buildings.  And that’s where they are now.

Catching up now is not the same as the original experience.  Of course it wouldn’t be; life changes and it changes fast.  Nowadays they tell me about their marriages and their children and the relatives I met who have since passed away, like the sweet old man who came to pick me up from Padang airport as I arrived into the country dazed and sweating my jeans off in May 2010.  They ask me whether I am married and I remember the tip from my guidebook that advised me to say “Not yet” as opposed to just, “No”.  It is very surprising to them; not because they think I am a prize catch but because over there, everybody gets married.  And they don’t hang about to do so either.

Whilst gossiping with a friend in front of a mosque one warm evening in 2015 – when I last visited Indonesia – she told me about her new boyfriend.  “We will marriage soon” she declared, “and then we will be able to sex”.  It reminded me of a conversation I had had with her five years earlier as we sat on the cool tiles of a classroom floor waiting for an Earthquake project meeting to start:  “Kak Sophie, do you kissing boyfriend with tongue? How does it feel?  Kak Sophie, what about sex?”.  Fortunately, she inadvertently timed her question with the moment that the meeting got underway and I remember feeling silently relieved that an answer was now redundant.  She has since married and had a child; so will at least know now the answer to her own question, and perhaps when we next meet, I’ll be asking her what childbirth felt like.

I am not being hyperbolic or mawkish when I state that Indonesia changed my life.  I said it countless times during that initial year after, when each and every day I would experience an intense longing to return.  Every time I bought those noodles or ignored the story lines of the Indonesian films in order to focus on observing the scenery I was trying to satisfy a need to go back that was emotionally hard to manage and was stopping me from feeling happy.  I was miserable because I didn’t want to be in England, but the truth is I probably did, I just wasn’t doing myself the favour of living in the present.  I taught myself some Bahasa Indonesia and dreamt of working in the charitable sector doing a job where I could help develop the part of the world I had fallen in love with.

Whilst I was away, I went from being somebody who didn’t really know what they wanted out of life to somebody who absolutely did.  I was able to identify the things that meant the most to me and conjure up plans on what I would do to keep those things present in my day to day life.  I knew I needed a career that wasn’t about money but about daily meaning and purpose.  I knew I needed to keep writing because it made me happy, and I knew that I needed to keep exposing myself to new things because it tantalised me.  Prior to Indonesia, I knew none of those things about myself, and that scares me.

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The perverse thing is that these days I no longer have that same burning desire to go back.  Well, I do, but it’s an occasional desire to go back to the moment, not necessarily the place, and such an opportunity is – and always will be – impossible.  I am still in touch with my friends, though nowhere near as often as once was.  A birthday message here and there, the odd ‘Memory’ flashing up on Facebook, congratulating them when I see they have a new addition in the family.  It’s a world away from those deep conversations about life and dreams on the beach at night whilst eating barbecued corn, watching the moon shimmer on the surface of the Indian ocean.  When paths cross – which they fortunately do every now and then – we get together and reminisce, usually over a coffee or dessert, before we bid one another goodbye again, and that tends to be it.  But that’s fine.

It’s fine because no matter how occasional the contact, and no matter how much things change, nothing can interfere with the memories or the moment.  Nothing will change the fact that one day we had to wade through a rice paddy because our Leader knew of ‘a shortcut to campus’ that turned out not be a shortcut.  Nothing will change the time my host sister and I spent a whole bus journey home laughing together about two (unknowingly) different interpretations of the same sight.  Nothing will change the fact that one afternoon a group of us spent hours in the river in our t-shirts and shorts, or the way that when we started walking home one of the girls realised I didn’t have a bra on underneath my shirt.  Nothing can change the way she then asked a lady living nearby if I could get changed in her hut, next to her little baby who stared at me wide-eyed as I started to undress, in a situation awkward for both of us.  Nothing can change any of those things; but even putting the same people in the same places we would not be able to replicate those moments.  Our lives have changed too much for that, and the river that we once bathed in has since disappeared from the landscape completely owing to natural disaster.

Every now and then something might trigger the memories rushing back.  Bollywood songs like ‘Maahi Ve’ – though not Indonesian, but popular within its pastimes – will evoke graphic images of colourful wedding parties and the taste of luminous green pandan cake.  Sweetened black tea makes me think of waking up to Equatorial heat and having a plate of noodles topped with a fried egg for breakfast.  There will be fleeting sounds that remind me of extremely loud television sets with fuzzy screens blasting fast Indonesian speech into the dark evening air, or waking up to the sound of prayer as it reverberates around the neighbourhood from the nearest mosque.  And when the memories come back, so do the feelings.  All of them: The initial uneasiness, the awe,  the laughter, the paranoia that comes as part of spending time with strangers, but above all that feeling of “wow” that is so hard to define.  The thrill of being thousands of miles away from your comfort zone and realising that – even though it may not be easy – you’re coping.

Nothing will ever interfere with that, the Indonesian effect will always be there.

But I’m glad I think about and miss it less, because I will only ever be able to travel back to the place, not the moment.

IndonesiastrawberrryFriends Reunited – 2015

Song of the Day:  D’Bagindas – Apa Yang Terjadi

One of the few things to be the same in each of my three visits is the popularity of this band and songs like this that are played everywhere, and I mean everywhere.  In homes.  In restaurants. On buses.  At market stalls…

 

Some More Little Things I Love…

A continuation of one of the posts I most enjoyed writing.

The welcome arrival of Spring always seems to make the little things stand out even more.  The first little shard of sunlight through the window reminds us of how much of an impact the weather has on our emotions, particularly when it immediately follows weeks of particularly grim weather.  That first glimpse of sunlight is just another one of those little things I love.

Along with these:

…watching re-runs of old British sitcoms and the warmth of the memories that the opening theme tunes and the canned laughter evoke:  Late ’80s/early ’90s decor – velvet sofas, fluffy carpets, and an array of unusual knick-knacks that clutter up the living room.  Marmite drizzled crumpets and Sunday evenings.  This particular sitcom was one of my favourites, and watching the theme tune brings it all back….

(used to giggle so much as a child at the bit where the maid both drops and catches the vase… would almost choke on my crumpet from laughter)

…Spontaneous adventures in good company: when you find yourself doing something with your day, that you hadn’t intended on doing, and it doesn’t even have to be anything costly!  A road trip to the beach.  A walk in the woods.  A cheeky takeaway…

…The moment when one of the few songs that you and each one of your friends absolutely loves comes on during a night out, and you all go mad with the excitement.  For my group of friends this is usually ‘Life’ by Des’Ree, or anything by the Vengaboys (but preferably ‘We Like to Party’.  Because we like to try and create a makeshift Vengabus using whatever chairs happen to be in the vicinity.  And yes, we are mostly all in our ‘dirty thirties’ with real life responsibilities and what have you…)

…When somebody who has clearly taken a shower in the last couple of hours brushes past you, and you get a fleeting scent of shower gel, and it makes everything around you suddenly feel fresh…

…Being a little bit lost somewhere in the great outdoors, but not having to care because you’ve not got to be back in time for anything in particular…

…The yellowy-brown Victorian brick so characteristic of Kent and its history.  My main mission in life is to end up in a house made of this brick.  I can’t explain it; it just makes me feel warm.  Like a brick in a kiln…

…Night-time drives when the roads are empty, the surroundings are ghostly (bar the bright lights of the BP garage), and the car rumbles with a heavy bass-line from the music you enjoy.  To me, this song is the epitome of a perfect night time drive:

…The first lunch out on a European city break in Summer.  Sat on a square sipping Coca Cola served from a frosted glass bottle.  The best tomato soup (with a swirl of fresh cream) served in a bowl you hope to never reach the bottom of, and maybe a naughty chocolate sundae with plenty of squirty cream too…

…Those moments when you literally do cry with laughter about something that has just happened or been said (in other words, not because of something staged on television or in theatre).  One of the best things about keeping a diary is that you record all these things permanently so that you can laugh at them all over again years later.  The other day I found myself recollecting a particularly lewd comment somebody made in class in 2003.  I cried with laughter all over again…

…Butterflies in your stomach.  For whatever reason.  And remembering that you just don’t know what amazing adventures you may be about to stumble upon, because nobody ever does, yet for every amazing thing that anybody in this world has ever done there was once a day when they didn’t know it would happen…

littlethings
(Herne Bay seafront, UK, April 2017)

The little things in life.  They really are the best.

 

Dusty Tapes

“Play”…

…An arrangement of sounds, not heard in years, return.  This time in full crescendo.

Background notes, that were never acknowledged back then – in those comparatively unpracticed ears – now dance around in the jubilant joy of finally being heard.

Maybe in a different setting, it’s just a cataclysm of nostalgic noise.  The kind that chews up the past and present and spits it out – full force – against the nearest pane, and leaves it there.

But once upon a time this same song was the soundtrack to the present tense of what would turn into a long-lasting memory:  A family holiday.  A day trip to the beach.  One random – otherwise non-descript – bus home from work, when you caught the first glimpse of that year’s sunshine reflecting from a rain-sodden rooftop.

And now, here it is, being heard again.  The same notes now juxtaposed with something new.

Dusty tapes, polished notes.

[The inspiration for this piece came during a particularly wet, grey and windy 12 mile walk I did a couple of weeks ago.  I did it alone in order to gauge a true level of current fitness, and so had just my headphones for company walking round one of the most remote parts of the county.  I’m not sure why it was, but the music all sounded so fresh that day, almost like I was hearing my favourite tunes for the first time ever.  I loved it]

Song of the Day:  The Cribs – The New Fellas

In the spirit of the piece above I’m posting one of my all-time favourite songs as ‘Song of the Day’.  To me (and many may disagree) The Cribs were the flagship of  the UK indie scene when it peaked during the mid-00’s.  I would regard their music as the soundtrack to my three years studying in Lancaster, and when I listen to it I can feel it all again.  Those dark, freezing October evenings in the North, smoking through a pack of Benson & Hedges in my room, poring over a set of text with a highlighter pen.  Looking out the window and seeing people cooking in the kitchens of the next block.  Cheap cottage pie and garlic bread for dinner.

 

January-cycling

 

Propel

 

^No, we all know that’s not true all the time.  Some things are just rubbish dressed as…rubbish…, and no amount of positive thinking, green tea or vinyasa yoga can change that (though bacon frazzles… they might stand a chance).

But, if there’s one good thing about rubbish, it’s that a lot of it can be recycled into something better.  Something stronger.  Something unrecognisable from its previous form.

Exactly the same could be said for some of life’s most ‘rubbish’ experiences.

Yes they can be tiresome.  Difficult.  Emotionally draining; maybe heart-breaking.  There’s no quick fix, and they’re often unavoidable.

Sometimes you can work through life’s rubbish experiences in a matter of hours, but other times it might take weeks, months or years.  Maybe sometimes you can never recover from a rubbish experience completely, maybe you can only increase your ability to exist alongside it.

Now I’m no psychologist and so I can’t explain the science, but what I do find wonderful – despite the paragraph above – is that often, you can only work out what it is you really want by learning to identify what you don’t. This understanding usually comes as result of…you’ve guessed it… rubbish experiences.

(On a similar note if anybody is at a stage in life when they have no idea what they want to do for a career, like I was a decade ago, then you could do worse than read a book called, ‘I Could Do Anything If I Knew What it Was’ by Barbara Sher.  For one of the exercises she asks you to list everything you’d hate about a job, e.g repetition, office work etc.  You then write the antonyms on the other side of the page and – huzzah – from that second list you have a pretty good summary of the characteristics of the kind of jobs you should be looking at)

Sometimes it’s only through experiencing a problem or feeling sensitive to upset that you think about what could help.  What’s the opposite of this feeling?   What’s the pathway to that?

If you’re unhappy with your state of physical fitness but use this negativity to develop the drive needed to stick to a disciplined exercise regime which consequently makes you feel tonnes better, then that unhappiness was worth recycling.

If a relationship breaks down and – after crying in your cornflakes and hiding from the world for a month or two – you become determined to get back into the big wide world, only to meet some amazing new people you wouldn’t have had the chance to meet otherwise, then that heartbreak was worth having, and worth recycling.

If something suddenly happens to expose some vulnerabilities in some context of your life, then you’ll identify the areas which you can make stronger and so that stress becomes…. (take a wild guess why don’t you)… yep, worth recycling.

No, not all rubbish can be recycled, but so much of it can.

Song of the Day: Sidney Gish – I’m Filled With Steak, and Cannot Dance

I discovered this lady last week, on Spotify, and have been listening to her new album on repeat ever since.  Her genius lyrics and jazzy, upbeat tunes have had me bopping around in many a traffic jam this week and the craziest thing is she’s only 22!! I am so envious of her youth and talent!

There’s a lot of tracks Song of the Day-worthy, but because the album is brand new it doesn’t have much of a presence on YouTube yet.  I think this one wins on account of the title alone though.

Things I Learnt in 2017

The dawn of any new year always manages to throw about those same range of emotions whilst we recap the past twelve months before anticipating the ones ahead.

Our pot of 2017, which bubbles away on the stove whilst we prepare to pop the cork of 2018, is bound to consist of the same ingredients as ever, just in different quantities, perhaps.  No doubt there’ll be a few spoonfuls of personal achievement, several slices of regret, a bit of cringe purée and some handfuls of frustration, as well as whatever else you decided to throw in this year to spice up the recipe.

These recollections serve as a good time to sit back and take stock of everything.  You will naturally ask yourself whether or not you enjoyed this year, and in doing so replay the happiest and the most challenging times that you experienced.  From those, you may find it easy to say whether or not you’ve had a “good year”, but perhaps just as importantly, you might ask yourself what you have learnt.  What lessons will you take forward to make the next year, an even better one?!

When I was about fourteen years old, the internet – and by default instant messaging programs – were just taking off.  The importance of completing Biology homework was suddenly rivaled in priority by deciding what font to best represent yourself with on MSN Messenger (I eventually settled on bold orange Trebuchet, after a lot of soul-searching and experimenting with other styles and hues, none of which ultimately felt right).  Of equal importance to this, of course, was your selected username.  For most, these were usually the self-deprecating lyrics of some nu-age metal band; for others, a range of lip-kissing emojis and asterisks (*)(*)(*) – input here for nostalgic effect).  Every now and then, though, somebody might present an inspirational quote, something which nowadays we see everywhere and take for granted, but which back then were a little more unusual to see…

It was the Danish nineteenth century philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard, who originally observed that, “Life can only be understand backwards, but must be lived forwards”.  The first time I saw that quote it was as the selected username of a contact on MSN Messenger, some random girl from school (everybody added everybody back then).  I really didn’t think much of the quote at first, but something about it stood out, and with each passing year, the greater the appreciation I have that there’s some semblance of truth within it.  No matter how well we are taught during infancy and our younger years, we only really learn about life with experience.  It’s only through trying things out that we can begin to understand who we are, how we work, and what the big wide world is truly about.  And I don’t for a moment believe that we will ever really stop that learning, because all the whilst the rest of the world around us is changing, so are we.

The lessons I learnt in 2017 will be different to those of everybody else, but regardless, I think that it’s good to share these with one another.  We can learn a lot about life just by understanding what’s going on in everybody else’s worlds, and how they choose to deal with it.

1. If You Really Want It – Keep Moving for It!

In 2017, I achieved a couple of things – huge to me – which took a lot of hard work and patience to get.  A Triathlon was a classic example; I have never been a person synonymous with sport, I even got rejected from the Ultimate Frisbee club at Lancaster Uni because in the trials I couldn’t demonstrate that I knew how to throw the damn thing; so in signing up for a challenge which would comprise of a whole day’s relentless exercise I knew that I would either succeed or – most likely – be an embarrassing wreck of a failure.  I was so convinced by the visual of the latter, that I became even more determined not to fail.  So, with the help of the nice man at the gym I set a training plan and stuck to it.  For over a year, exercise was central to the calendar of the girl who had never really set foot in a gym beforehand; and the ultimate result was that I completed the Triathlon perfectly fine.

The secret? I just kept going.  There were many occasions when I was tempted to abandon my scheduled bike-rides or gym trips, but I knew that if I did so I ran the danger of lulling into the bad habits of my former laze of a self.  So, I just put one foot in front of the other repeatedly, until I was twenty miles away on a bike, with no choice but to cycle another twenty miles back.

I am not intending for this to read as a ‘yay for me’ post.  Yes, I am proud of myself, but I am also aware that people complete athletic feats like this all the time, many of which eclipse my own.  I’m sharing this only because I want anybody who is reading this who perhaps feel that their own ambitions are beyond reach, to know that they are not.  If I can complete a Triathlon, you could probably open up a gin bar on Mars if you wished to.

In knowing what you want to achieve, you have taken the first step towards it.  Now, you just need to take the next one.  And the next.  And the next. And you need to keep on taking those, regardless of the voices within that may tell you otherwise, until finally you’re there.  Just keep moving.

2. Silence the Questions, Thrive in the Reality

Perhaps a more personal one here, but one that may resonate with others.

I learnt that I am done with wondering ‘what if’, as is so tempting to do all too often.  I don’t want to waste any more time considering whether or not to do the particular things I’m inclined to do in fear of the range of impacts they might have.  A little rationality to prevent us making silly mistakes? Sure.  But sometimes… in fact… increasingly often… I have discovered it far better to know and to deal than to ponder and avoid.

I think most of us, generally, are far better at dealing with the things we’re aware of than the things we’re not.  It’s the not-knowing, and the questions, that tend to give us the biggest headaches, cause the most anxiety, and waste the most of our precious time.  So it’s time to take that step out for good.

Much like if somebody gives us their opinion on something we have said or done that they disapproved of, it may not always make for the nicest hearing, but it at least enables a sense of trust in what that person has to say.  If they then reassure you that your new outfit doesn’t make you look like a jammy dodger you can cut out that period of worrying that they’re just being polite, because they’ve already demonstrated they’re not afraid of being honest with you.

In life you can only really find things out by seeing them for yourself.  And I would far rather do whatever it is I feel like doing, and learn from the experience – even if it doesn’t result in the kind of outcomes I thought I was after – than sit and wonder ‘what if?’ forever.

So in 2018 it’s time to think much less, do much more.

3.  Reach Out; Keep Connected

This was not a new lesson for 2017, but rather an annual e-Learning refresher course of sorts.

Going back to Kierkegaard’s sentiment about understanding life retrospectively; back when I was teenager I was extremely fortunate to have pretty much the same people around me for years and years.  Perhaps the biggest change might have been that somebody would move to a street on a different side of town, or that my best-friend would move up a set in German meaning that I no longer had a buddy to share forbidden snacks with under the table (we’d have to indulge at recess instead).  The everyday company was consistent, and that was welcome in so many ways that I perhaps didn’t even realise back then.

“When we all leave here tomorrow, we’ll just be a bunch of lights scattered around the UK”, said my good friend, mawkishly, after several glasses of wine (and probably a few shots of sambuca), on the last night of University, a few years later, before we all left that little town in the North-West that was to brand itself into all our hearts permanently.  We had lived in each others’ pockets for a whole three years, but it was now time to disperse, and until she made those comments, I don’t think I had ever really appreciated how nice it had been – nor how lucky I was – to have had that consistency each day.

In adulthood, I struggle to think of any recent years in which the people I feel closest to or see the most of haven’t physically moved around.  People are moving in and out of this neck of the woods all the time, re-settling here, there and everywhere until before you know it you’re visiting old friends in new UK towns, and meeting up with new friends in the trusted old surroundings of your local pub.  We may move around ourselves too, or change jobs, or meet new people that introduce us to other new people, who introduce us to other new people, and so on.  It’s nice to meet new people, but any change that involves saying goodbye is still hard.

It’s life; and to some extent it’s what happens, but the saddest thing would be to let so much change turn the vision of a loved one’s face from colour to sepia print before you’ve even realised (to put it in an unashamedly maudlin, Birds of a Feather opening theme-esque way.)

This year I have remembered why it’s important to reach out to those you haven’t spoken to in a while, keep connected, know what’s going on in their world.  Don’t be idle, and let the people you quite like having in your present end up in your past.  And if that does happen, be reassured that you can easily bring them back with just one small message, so send it.

It’s not the newest lesson, but it’s probably one of the most important.

Wishing you all a wonderful 2018.

Song of the Day:   Suburban Kids with Biblical Names – Do It All or Don’t Do it All

Suburban Kids with Biblical Names were a sweet little Swedish twee-pop band that churned out a number of classics in the ‘00s, when the genre saw a resurgence of popularity.  I have recently started listening to them again; and this is one of my favourites:

Melburnian Coffee

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To tell you the name of this street would be ruining it for the both of us, not that I even know its name, mind.  I suppose I could take a look for a sign of some sorts, but there’s a special feel to this place that makes the thought of turning it into just another thing we can reference on the internet somewhat unappetising.  I’m not sure I want this location to be something else we can process and place into a systematic order of some mundane variety, like a map…

…So let’s just leave the context as a tiny back street in central Melbourne which is decorated in a range of interesting graffiti and art, not far from the prominent Flinders Street.  I discovered it accidentally whilst trying to find a sweet looking spot for some coffee, and am now sat on a wonky stool on the pavement with my notebook out.  Perfecto.

Nosing at the graffiti it begins to stagger me how when it comes to street art like this, we seldom see it until it’s complete.  Until it’s done.  Finished. We are left wondering who imprinted these images upon these walls, and what thoughts were going through their minds when they decided that they wanted to put them here?  What are the messages they were trying to get across to those passers by, and those who wanted to sit on the other side of the road drinking coffee?

Just as I find myself starting to get a bit deep, I’m distracted by the overwhelming smell of cardamom.  In this particular moment it comes across as an unmistakable sign of being abroad, much like how the skies over the CBD match the metallic greys of the skyscrapers which penetrate its landscape, yet the air remains so hot and humid.  Typical Southern hemisphere city.

The Hispanic cafe owner approaches my table and pierces the bubble of solitude that has encased me for the past hour whilst I’ve been lost in my notebook by serving up a warm pastry and explaining that it’s on the house.  Time alone in a city comprises of a staggered sequence of the briefest of interactions, to the point where they become the subject of a closer focus.  This was one of today’s more pleasant ones. Earlier on, whilst walking north along Swanston Street, a lady had tapped me on the shoulder to tell me that my dress was tucked up at the back.  Mortified, all I could think to do was stutter out the fastest of thank you’s, avoid eye contact, and fixate madly upon a menu on display in the window of a nearby dim sum cafe in an attempt to hide my face and compose myself.  Why do these things always happen when we’re alone!

That said, I doubt anybody really noticed or cared anyway.  That’s the mistake that we’re all guilty of making sometimes.  We assume that we attract an audience whenever we slip up but the truth is that everybody’s probably too busy dealing with their own dramas to even have seen, let alone care.  People are too busy thinking about what to have for dinner, or the wording they should use in a text message they’re apprehensive about sending.

The older I become the more I understand that worrying about what others think is a bit like having a vaccination to protect you from contracting a disease.  A shot of Hepatitis into our system will help our immune system to fight off a more prolific onslaught of the stuff, should we become infected.  A small fragment of worrying about what people think helps us to become self-aware and identify the impact our actions can have on others, and that’s a very valuable thing, but if you worry too much, it can be pretty dangerous.

As I think about this, the street art catches my eye again, and I find myself considering these mystery artists with even more respect than I did when I first set foot down this street and admired the talents on display.

This recollection, over coffee, of the time I unknowingly flashed the people of Melbourne because my dress had caught onto my bag suddenly seems to be not too dissimilar to the time when these artists imprinted their hearts and souls onto a brick wall here in the city centre, on display for a thousand sets of eyes to cast judgment upon.  In the act of expressing themselves, they knew that a lot of people would love their work.  They also knew a lot of people would hate it and, most certainly, they knew that not everybody would understand it in the way it was intended.  But, there the images are anyway, unable to conceal themselves in the window of a dim sum restaurant in the event of shame, unlike me.

And the other beauty?  Everybody will find a different meaning within these images, and everybody will have their own personal favourite.  Everybody will walk away thinking about what they’ve been looking at and considering the messages within…

A lady with a big yellow umbrella leads a group of tourists around a corner and into the street.  “And so this street is….” she begins to explain.  I close my ears because I don’t want to hear.

Sometimes it’s nice to just not know.

It’s time to go and meet my friend at the station.

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Song of the Day: Amanda Palmer – Map of Tasmania

Amanda Palmer is best known for being the front lady for the Dresden Dolls, but as part of her solo work she produced an entire album of songs about Australia.  This is my favourite.  For many months I genuinely thought this was a song about her fondness for a navigational device.  It’s not.  At all.  See if you get it quicker than I did…

Das Dunia J’Adore pt. 2

“The World I Love part 2”

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Roatan (pronounced ‘rower tan’) is an island in the Caribbean that drifts around 40 miles away from mainland Honduras.

It’s a paradise that would arguably make anybody question why they don’t love the world, but aesthetic beauty alone is not enough to merit being the subject of my World I Love features.  If anything, I’m usually more taken by the scriff-scraffy places that might seem cold and uninviting on the outside, but which present you with an hospitable warmth or interesting story that take you by complete surprise; and in turn remind you why it’s never a good idea to make assumptions about a place, ever!

Nonetheless, Roatan Island, despite being undeniably beautiful, still managed to surprise me.

I was there on a group trip in 2013, and we had two nights to enjoy on the island, meaning that there was a full day with which to make the most of the surroundings… to eat fresh shrimp, to party it up in Tiki bars, to laze around in a hammock… essentially, all those things you associate with a stay in paradise, and more.

The Utopian surroundings were quite juxtaposed to the atmosphere within the tour group, however.  Unlike most of these kind of trips I’ve been on, there was a lot of politics on this one, and whilst there were some incredible people on the trip who I’m still friends with to this day, the underlying atmosphere between a couple of others, which bubbled away in the van we spent most of our time travelling around in, was particularly rigorous around the time we went to Roatan, following a petty argument about dinner arrangements.

So, when the prospect of a free day on the island, with no travel, was presented to us, I immediately decided that I wasn’t going to bother seeing what everybody else was planning and was just going to spend the day by myself.  Just me, my MP3 player, my notebook, and silence.

I took a towel onto the beach and lay down for what must have been hours, marveling at the beauty around me.  I thought about the contrast of reality – my rainy commute on the train and how hard I worked at a job which wasn’t always sunshine and singing, realising that only through that could I facilitate this.

And then I made a friend.  This little bee-themed fish, in the photo above.  He was flapping around near to the jetty not really moving anywhere from the undercurrent he was trying to swim against, and he was doing so for a long old time.  He was separated from the rest of his shoal (I half wondered whether there’d been a petty argument about dinner arrangements), and didn’t seem to have any intention of finding them.

Throughout the day, I would take a snooze and then walk along the jetty to see him, then take another snooze, and another walk, and see he was still there.  Whilst he wasn’t always in exactly the same place each time, he was always close to the jetty, and always alone… and in no apparent hurry to change that, either.

It sounds bizarre, but I became somewhat attached to my fishy friend.  Each time I took that walk along the jetty, I became increasingly fearful that he’d have moved on.  I wasn’t ready to leave the beach yet and with nobody else being anywhere close by, he was my companionship that day.

So, when I went and noticed him no longer there, I knew it was probably a sign I should get back to my hut, get changed and go and meet up with everybody else again.

There was a lot of laughter, loud music, dancing and cocktails that evening.  But if it weren’t for the photos I’d barely remember a thing of those.

My time on the beach, however…

Song of the Day: The Rentals – Elon Musk Is Making Me Sad

The Rentals are basically a tributary of Weezer so if you like either band you’ll like the other.  This piece is their latest offering, and I love the tune but having been perplexed enough by the title to look up the lyrics and meaning, I love it even more.

Frontman Matt Sharp, having recently lost his father, has been using his music as a form of escapism for his grief, and in this particular piece has conjured up an entirely fictional tale of childhood competition with science pioneer Elon Musk.  It’s music that’s come purely from the heart, and it shows…