Chaos and Connection: Travelling in Italy


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I went to a Catholic primary school. And although I was a terrible Catholic, I was an excellent student. So in grade seven, when our Italian teacher informed us that she was holding an ‘Italian prayer competition’, I knew I had to win. (Naturally.)

It didn’t matter that the prize was something that I didn’t care about; or that I wasn’t particularly keen on learning Italian, I simply knew that there was a competition in the offing and I had to win it.

The contest? Reciting the Hail Mary off by heart in Italian, with a textbook as the prize for whoever pulled it off the best.

I spent that weekend repeating the prayer over and over and over and over again. ‘Ave Maria, piena di grazie, il signora e con te.’ I learned it so friggen well that it felt embedded in my very pores.

I won the competition (I’m still considering adding this momentous achievement to my email signature) and nearly twenty years later, the words have never left me. I can still recite the entire thing perfectly — albeit with a very Aussie accent.

So it was a moment of supreme surrealism on my very first day travelling in Italy, when I was wandering around Rome by myself and stumbled into a church that happened to be in the middle of mass.

I’d been wandering around Europe by myself for 6 weeks, and was feeling a little lost and alone. And then, as I walked in, they all started chanting aloud those words that I had ingrained in my brain so long ago:

Ave Maria, piena di grazie…

With tears in my eyes, I repeated the words along with the congregation. I cried not for any religious reasons. Not because I felt close to God or a spiritual being in that moment. But because I felt close to people.

Through all my travels in Europe, Italy was where I felt the most at home. It could be because some remnants of my primary school language lessons surfaced and I was able to converse with more ease there than anywhere else. (Don’t let these words mislead you, though – my Italian is still limited to greetings, ordering pasta, and vague pronunciations about the weather!) It could be because I look quite Italian, and did not stand out as a tourist. (Everywhere else I went in Europe, people would assume – before I opened my mouth – that I was Italian.) It could be because so much of our Western history stems from those Roman roots and the symbols, themes, and motifs were therefore so familiar on an archetypal, Jungian level.

It could be any of those reasons, but I don’t think so.

I think it was that I understood Italy, in the way that you understand the quirks of an annoying sibling. It was chaos, but I got it.

Ask anyone: travelling in Italy can be an exercise in extreme frustration. Public transport time-tables exist only as an approximate guide. Different sets of rules (and prices!) apply to tourists than to locals. Completely random things are accepted as ‘the way that things are done’ and although no one can explain them, they are followed like law.

Case in point: the tobacci near our hotel in Positano opened at 9am most days. But not all days. And it is usually but not always opened on Mondays. And it usually sells bus tickets, but only in lots of two – even if you only want one. But sometimes they run out and don’t have tickets for weeks.

(As a sidenote, they also sell bottles of wine which they will open for you, and they’ll furnish you with two plastic cups free of charge for your drinking pleasure. Maybe that’s another reason why I love Italy?!)

Whenever I tried to fight this chaotic flow, I struggled to enjoy Italy (Positano was particularly challenging). But it doesn’t make sense! But that’s not the most efficient way for it to be done! But… just… why?!

But whenever I stopped trying to make sense of it — to dissect and analyse and categorise and assign meaning to it — I liked it a whole lot better. In fact, I loved it.

The sibling analogy kept popping into my brain: Italy is like an annoying little brother – even though you can’t quite figure out why they won’t take out the rubbish or return your text messages within a reasonable timeframe, you accept those quirks and love them anyway. Wholeheartedly.

In fact, sometimes, those quirks help you to connect with them even more, because it means you know them more intimately. It means you’ve seen their real face and met their real self.

For me, Italy was a lesson in surrender – one which I needed and appreciated and ended up loving. So that first day in Rome, when I stumbled into an insignificant church and was able to pray alongside a group of people that I had never met before and whom didn’t share my language, I was moved to tears.

And moved enough to send up a prayer of my own. While my lips murmured the words of an age-old Italian benediction, my mind offered up a message of intense gratitude and overwhelmed-ness.

Dear God/The Universe/Whoever’s out there,

Thank you so much for letting me be here, in this moment, with these people, on the other side of the world.

Although we may not speak the same language, or follow the same rules, or see eye-to-eye on issues of public transport… I think we understand each other.

Thank you, thank you, thank you…

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Keep scrolling for my Italy travel tips…

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2013-04-04 15.37.12(One of the lesser known Roman Emperors — Lord Julius Voldemort)

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Random Nuggets, Must-knows and Must-do’s when traveling in Italy…

+ If you are in Positano, you simply MUST do the hike along the top of the cliffs from Nocelle down to Bomerano, known as the Path of the Gods. This is the most stunning walk I’ve ever done in my life. Take water and a hat. If you are afraid of heights, also consider taking along a brave boyfriend who can coax you through the scary bits. Make sure to visit the abandoned monastery along the path and enjoy a cool (if surprisingly expensive) drink. (That’s the monastery in the photos above, with the basket of lemons in front, and the two photos beneath it too.)

+ In Florence, the family-run restaurant ‘Il Latini’ is amazing. Make sure you book a table, and get there with plenty of time to spare (people mill around outside for up to an hour before their allotted sitting, to make sure they get a seat). We ordered the set menu, and proceeded to be presented with plates and plates and yet more plates of some of the best home-style Italian food we’ve ever had. The various roast meats were out of this world.

+ I fell in love with two Roman specialties: Cacio e pepe — spaghetti with cheese and pepper, and Carciofo alla giudìa — Jewish-style artichokes, essentially a deep-fried artichoke that is the epitome of salty delicious goodness.

+ If you can, get outside of the big towns to see some of the countryside. We fell in love with Orvieto — a tiny hilltop town about an hour and half out of Rome, in the south west of Umbria. Sitting atop a giant bluff, the town has dramatic views of the surrounding countryside. The hill itself is riddled with man-made caves that the residents built more than 2500 years ago during times of warfare (a guided tour of the caves is a worthwhile distraction between glasses of wine). There’s also a giant licorice-allsort of a cathedral, a charming main street, plenty of great restaurants, and loads of cute cobble-stoned paths to wander. Bonus points if you order pigeon for dinner — a local delicacy.

+ If you’re feeling game, try a ‘Corretto’ — a traditional Italian drink consisting of a shot of espresso mixed with a shot of grappa or sambuca. However, do NOT try it at 10 a.m. in the morning — no matter how hard the barista insists that that’s how the locals do it. #HelloHangover

+ We had four days at Villa Sofia in Nocelle (up the hill from Positano) and LOVED it — the best view I’ve ever seen, an entire villa and sundeck to ourselves, and gorgeous hosts who brought us fresh home-grown vegetables and who stoked our fire every night. We’d return there in a heartbeat.

+ When in Rome, devote an afternoon to wandering through Trastevere, on the west bank of the Tiber near the Vatican. The endless winding cobble-stoned streets are dotted with restaurants, pubs, cafes and awesome people-watching opportunities. We had the best pizza of our lives there in a random little ma-‘n-pa eatery — cheesy, oozy Diavola pizza, topped with chilli and spicy salami.

+ Though it will cost you a ridiculous amount, it’s worth having a Bellini (prosecco and peach puree) in Harry’s Bar in Venice. A Puccini (prosecco with mandarin juice) is also a good choice. (Just as a side-note, everything will cost you a ridiculous amount in Venice. It’s still amazing though!)

+ In Rome, we stayed right near the Campo dei Fiori, which was an awesome spot from which to explore the whole city. We also loved hanging out at the pubs and restaurants around the square itself.

+ If you can, get thyself to a Serie A football match — the professional Italian soccer league. My boyfriend (a staunch rugby devotee) and I (a soccer novice) both had an amazing time watching the insane, balls-out passion of the crowd. Oh, and the game itself was good too.

+ Gelati is its own food group, and it’s important to get your ‘5 serves a day’. Kidding. Sort Of. Make sure to ask a local where to go so you can avoid the touristic offerings and get straight to the good stuff.

+ Awesome Italian books to read while you’re travelling: Miss Garnet’s Angel by Salley Vickers and The City of Falling Angels by John Berendt (both set in Venice), My Brilliant Friend and the rest of the Neapolitan novels by Elena Ferrante (set in Naples), Eat Pray Love by Liz Gilbert (the Italian portion is set mainly in Rome), The Confessor by Daniel Silva (set in Rome), and Brunelleschi’s Dome: How A Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture by Ross King (set in Florence).

Now it’s over to you!

Where’s your favourite spot in Italy? Any good travel tips or pointers? I’d love to hear them — let ‘er rip in the comments below.


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The modern wisdom that gets me through the tough times


Modern Wisdom

Sometimes you encounter a nugget of wisdom that stops you in your tracks.

You might have heard variations of that same message a million times before, but for some reason, in that precise moment, you finally hear it properly for the first time. It sinks into your cells in a way that hasn’t happened before and it helps you make sense of the world — and yourself — in an altered (and awesome) way.

Here are two such pieces of modern wisdom that stopped me in my tracks when I first read them, and that I’ve gone back to time and time again when I’ve found myself sliding into a sinkhole…


‘What is for you will not pass you by.’

– Sarah Wilson

A few months ago, my website got hacked. (Apparently this here little corner of the interwebs is highly attractive to people selling knock-off handbags and replica Rolexes. Ugggh.)

Unfortunately, this is not the first time that I’ve been hacked, so this time I decided to find some big guns to help me out. With a ‘hack repair specialist’ and a security expert on my team, my website quickly got deloused, and some hardcore security measures were put in place. (My site now has more security than Prince William.)

In the process, however, a few different digi-bits and bobs stopped working while we tried to get all the new measures to function and interact properly.

One of the casualities was my email account.

For four days, my professional email account could not send or receive emails… FOUR DAYS.

I fully understand that in the grand scheme of things, this is nothing big. In fact, it’s not even a blip on the radar of Things That Actually Matter.

But in the moment, after a week of techno-nightmares and not having any idea what was going on and HOURS spent trying to sort through the detritus of my blog, this seemed like a Massive Deal.

I was really concerned by the fact that my clients couldn’t get through to me, and me to them. I was intensely worried that they’d think I’d abandoned them or was being a slack-ass.

I was also really concerned that ‘emails with opportunities’ wouldn’t get through to me. You know, things like a potential client with the coolest project in the world. Or that one of my creative idols would suddenly, completely out-of-the-blue reach out to me and I wouldn’t get the email. Or just some other ill-defined Awesome Opportunity that I wouldn’t even realise I’d missed out on.

This may sound completely insane (and it probably is) but it kept plaguing me for those few days – What if I’m missing out on something amazing? Yes, my friends: FOMO was well and truly ruling my roost.

Every single time though, as soon as I was able to catch myself in what I was doing, I repeated one thing to myself, that I read long ago: What is meant for you will not pass you by.

I chanted it to myself like a mantra, a crutch, and it was equal parts reassuring and perspective-giving.

It’s awesome advice:

When you feel the need to read your entire Facebook feed in case there’s the ONE article that will ‘change everything’…

When you feel compelled to finish reading a book even though it’s not turning you on at all, just in case there’s a nugget of gold in there somewhere…

When you say yes to projects/invitations/opportunities that you don’t really want to, just because you’re worried that you’ll miss out on some other, flow-on opportunity if you refuse…

When you’re scared to listen to your body and step back, switch off…

When you’re scared to take some time away from your inbox…

What is meant for you will not pass you by.

What is meant for you will not pass you by

‘Daring to set boundaries is about having the courage to love ourselves, even when we risk disappointing others.’

– Brené Brown

My final year of law school. End of semester one. Exam time.

Like every other student in the world, I’d left my study much later than I’d intended to. (‘This semester is going to be different, I’m going to be organised.’ – ha!)

A week before swat vac started, a family friend asked me to babysit their three children for three days straight while they went away on a business trip.

The kids would be at school each day, they reassured me, so it wouldn’t be too hard or take up too much time. ‘We know it’s short notice, but can you do it?’

Immediately running through my body was a giant shiver of ‘Hell no!’ I had about 13 weeks of Evidence Law to catch up on, not to mention a massive caseload for all my other subjects. I knew I was going to struggle to get everything done in time for my exams even if I worked 24/7 during the time I had available, let alone with three children in tow for three days.

But at the same time, running through my mind, was a fierce flash of fear:

If I don’t say yes, I’ll disappoint them.

If I don’t say yes, I might lose them as a babysitting client.

If I don’t say yes, it’ll be really hard for them to find someone else at such short notice. (Which for some reason, I’d taken on as my own concern.)

If I don’t say yes, they mightn’t like me anymore… (?!)

So I said yes.

The timing couldn’t have been worse. I had two exams during the three days of babysitting. I spent the entire time feeling resentful, indignant at them for asking me, and so angry at myself for agreeing to it. I’d pick up the kids from school at 3pm, go through the motions til they went to bed, then stay up til 2, 3, 4 a.m. studying to get everything done.

By the time it was all over, I was a zombie. An angry, disappointed zombie.

I still managed to do well in my exams (those anger-fuelled 3 a.m. cramming sessions paid off), but the experience was highly unpleasant for everyone involved (including the three kids, who did not deserve a cranky, caffed-up army seargent supervisor).

Not my proudest moment.

All because I was too scared to assert my own boundaries out of fear of disappointing someone else.

These days, stuck on a pink Post-it note above my desk, there to help me write awkward emails, stand my ground and speak my truth, is this:

‘Daring to set boundaries is about having the courage to love ourselves, even when we risk disappointing others.’

Word, Brené. Word.


Got a nugget of modern-day wisdom pinned somewhere that helps you get through the tough times?

I’d love to hear it. Let ‘er rip in the comments below.

Also, did you enjoy this post?

You might also like this one on how we’re losing our spaces and my introvert’s guide to saying no.

Reading recommendations for creative peeps


Reading recommendations for creative people

This year, one of my New Year’s intentions way back at the start of the year was to create more space in my life for deliberate, proactive reading. Meaning: big, glorious books. I fell off the wagon with this goal, but recently decided to get my ass back in gear. So I’ve been giving myself permission to go a little very wild on Amazon and stock up my shelves so that I’ve always got something interesting on hand to read.

So, if you’re after some reading recommendations (particularly if you’re a creative and/or have a passion for business), here are some of the best tomes that have tickled my fancy over the past few months…


The Creative Habit — By Twyla Tharp

It took me a while to get around to this book, despite raving recommendations from a bunch of friends. If you haven’t read it yet and you have the heart of a Creative thrumming inside your chest, get ye over to your chosen digi-store tout-de-suite and buy yourself a copy. I recommend getting a physical copy for this particular title because it’s one of those ones where you’ll want to scribble in the margins and flick back and forth between the chapters. It’s also beautifully designed, and though I haven’t seen the ‘e’ version, I’m guessing a lot of the impact would be lost on a kindle screen. (Actually, I read all the books on this list in hard copy, which is a marked departure from how I’ve done my reading over the past few years. For some reason, everything analogue is calling me right now — books, pens, paper, people…)

Tharp’s discussion of morning rituals is often referenced by other writers, and her own routine is nothing less than inspiring:

‘I begin each day of my life with a ritual; I wake up at 5:30 A.M., put on my workout clothes, my leg warmers, my sweatshirts, and my hat. I walk outside my Manhattan home, hail a taxi, and tell the driver to take me to the Pumping Iron gym at 91st street and First Avenue, where I workout for two hours. The ritual is not the stretching and weight training I put my body through each morning at the gym; the ritual is the cab. The moment I tell the driver where to go I have completed the ritual.

It’s a simple act, but doing it the same way each morning habitualizes it — makes it repeatable, easy to do. It reduces the chance that I would skip it or do it differently. It is one more item in my arsenal of routines, and one less thing to think about.’

Seriously, I cannot overstate how much I loved this book.

[Get it]

 

Committed: A Love Story — By Elizabeth Gilbert

I read this years ago when it first came out, and loved it. After recently listening to the audio version of Big Magic, Liz’s latest book (yes, we are on a first name basis, and I’m pretty convinced we would be besties if only we could meet), I decided to revisit this one again. Committed tells the story of how Liz came to grips with the fact that she ‘had’ to marry her partner (‘Felipe’, the man she met at the end of Eat Pray Love) due to border control issues. She looks at the institution of marriage from various perspectives — legal, historical, philosophical, feminist and psychological, as well as working through her own emotional response to the idea of getting married after having been through a painful divorce.

If my description has made this book sound in any way boring or academic, it’s not. Gilbert is masterful at weaving facts and figures — and, of course, feelings — into a narrative. On this most recent read-through (which is actually the third time I’ve read this book), I attacked the pages with a highlighter pen and a heap of sticky-notes — I just love studying how she pieces her stories together and how she can make things that could be boring (say, the socioeconomic effects of marriage as they relate to gender) so ridiculously interesting. From a writer’s perspective, it’s gold; from a reader’s perspective, it’s all kinds of delicious. (On a side-note, this book also happens to contain the most thoughtful, articulate argument for gay marriage that I’ve ever read. LOVE.)

[Get it]

 


P.S. Elizabeth Gilbert’s ‘Big Magic’ is also amazing and well worth checking out. I’m only at the halfway point, but am already in love. It’s all about living a creative life no matter what fears or doubts are niggling at your soul. #SoGood


 

Yes Please — By Amy Poehler

Amy is *funny*. She’s also whip-smart, perceptive, and heart-searingly honest. My favourite part of the whole book was when she discussed a comedy sketch she’d been involved in where she’d unknowingly offended some people — rather deeply. Reading her account of her shame, her anger, her resistance, her ego, and the eventual resolution, was one of those experiences where you get so completely immersed in the storytelling (and can so clearly identify that exquisite, awkward pain/shame within yourself) that you almost forget that the incident actually happened to someone else and not you.

More like a series of vignettes and bite-sized stories with a hint of scrapbook, this is a book that fuses fun AND meaning. LOVE.

[Get it]

 

Oranges — By John McPhee

Oranges by John McPhee

“The sex life of citrus is something fantastic. Citrus is so genetically perverse that oranges can grow from lime seeds.”

If that sentence doesn’t thrill the pants off you… then you’re not quite as nerdy as I am!

I picked up this book after repeatedly hearing writers (including Tim Ferriss and Ryan Holiday) recommend John McPhee as a towering giant of creative non-fiction writing. The author has been a professor at Princeton for decades, teaching students that very subject, so I decided I wanted a piece of the (key lime) pie.

I could have chosen his book about canoes, or the one about Russian art, or the one that details a single tennis match (yep — an entire book on one match). But I felt called by Oranges, so snapped it up.

It takes a certain type of writer to keep you fully engaged for 160 pages on citrus fruit, but McPhee does it (seemingly) with ease. There were so many nuggets of trivia gold (like the fact that a citrus fruit is, botanically, a berry) and writing gold (like the aforementioned ‘citrus sex’ sentence), that I began to piss my boyfriend off. The poor guy had to listen to me rattle of all my new-found orange-knowledge, and put up with me exclaiming loudly every time I read a passage that was particularly exciting.

The impact that the book (and the writing) had on me is probably best demonstrated by the fact that I currently have a glass jar sitting on my kitchen counter with four or five citrus seedlings growing in it. The seeds all came from a single Valencia orange, and I am so-freaking-excited to see what its offspring actually turn out to be. You can already tell that there are different types growing, due to the different shaped leaves.

Here’s my jar, complete with McPhee-inspired Post-it warning…

Citrus sex

Caution! Citrus sex in progress.

Makes me so. damn. happy!

[Get it]

The Rise of Superman — by Steven Kotler

‘Most of us have at least passing familiarity with flow. If you’ve ever lost an afternoon to a great conversation or gotten so involved in a work project that all else is forgotten, then you’ve tasted the experience. In flow, we are so focused on the task at hand that everything else falls away. Action and awareness merge. Time flies. Self vanishes. Performance goes through the roof.’

Thus begins this book about creative flow and ‘getting in the zone’. Using extreme athletes as examples, Kotler walks us through the various aspects of flow — why we enjoy it, why our brains need it, why it is essential for human progress, and its often overlooked dark side. I found it absolutely fascinating, particularly the part about ‘flow triggers’ — the environmental, social, creative and behavioural prompts that can help us consciously and deliberately cultivate a state of flow.

There are loads of case studies and stories to demonstrate the scientific principles he’s discussing, so a topic that could have been dry was actually highly engaging. (Again, my boyfriend had to listen to me regaling him with all sorts of flow stories: But this time it’s about surfing! You’ll actually like this paragraph, I promise!)

I’ve already started actively putting the author’s ideas into practice, and I know I’ll have to go back and read some sections again to really soak up the insights. Highly recommended all round.

[Get it]

 

Have you read any great books recently?

I’d love to hear your recommendations. Give me an excuse to let loose on Amazon; let ‘er rip in the comments below! 😉

 


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Has it always been this noisy?


Has it always been this noisy?

 “Happiness can only be found if you free yourself from all other distractions.” ~ Saul Bellow

While knee-deep in writing his best known book, Henry David Thoreau felt that there was too much clatter and distraction going on. In order to focus, he fled the city for his rural cabin, saying “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what I had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

The year was 1845, but Thoreau was seeking to do what so many of us right now, in the year 2014 are struggling to do: switch off. Find solitude. Disconnect from the hubbub and engage only with what’s real.

This is definitely my struggle.

I’ve been noticing a disturbing tendency in myself, one that I’m guessing is present in your life too: obsessively checking Facebook and emails. Of course, I’ve developed elaborate justifications for this social media habit: it’s an ‘important networking tool’, it’s for my business, it’s totally legitimate.

My relentless habit has even escalated to the point where sometimes I am driven by a feeling of Oh My God, I need to check Facebook because I could be missing out on the Next Big Thing/ Connection/ Client and if I don’t check RIGHT NOW, my business will wither and die.

You know, totally rational-like.

Obsessively checking emails or Twitter or ye olde Book of Face is the modern equivalent of going to the fridge when you’re not hungry. It’s a dumbing and a numbing and yet another way that our brains fill up with crap and froth, instead of settling into peace.

Old Man Thoreau proves that this numbing-and-dumbing is not a recent invention at all. We’ve long been filling ourselves up to drown something else out. It’s just that now, the sources have changed. I would venture that they’ve also become more insidious since 1845 – more ubiquitous and harder to escape.

I mean, perhaps Mr Thoreau could bugger off to the woods to write his book, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a modern day writer who isn’t simultaneously managing a blog, a Twitter account, guest interviews, and a Facebook page as well as their actual focus. (You know, the book.)

I don’t think that the modern day answer is to disconnect completely. I think it’s to manage the connection. Consciously. Mindfully. And to occasionally switch off completely.

It’s to figure out how those incredible technologies can serve you best, rather than you serving them.

So rather than running away to the woods and forgoing the incredible business (and social, and educational) benefits of social media, here are the three things that are helping me to manage them mindfully.

1. I do not check any emails or social media for the first hour of my work day.

Meaning, I launch into my day by continuing on with whatever project or client work that I have been working on.

When I start my day by checking my email, I end up wasting an hour reacting to whatever’s landed in my inbox. It means I waste that burst of fresh, brand-new-day energy on admin stuff and mere trifles… Not the most strategic use of that precious energy.
One straight-up banned hour, first thing in the morning, has increased my productivity drastically.

2. I now take meaningful breaks during my work day.

It took me a while to realize that when my brain was reaching its concentration limit, I was automatically flicking over to social media. What I was really craving was a few minutes of proper rest, but what I was giving myself was a needless topping up of irrelevant information.

Now, when I’m working and notice that the desire to start randomly web-browsing or status-checking is creeping up on me, I just step away from the computer. Sometimes for five minutes, sometimes for an hour. But the essence of what I really need is a proper, quality break. Preferably involving fresh air, a downward dog and a cup of tea.

That’s what I was craving all along, but I wasn’t aware enough to realize it. And a deliberate, meaningful break is far more refreshing to my mind and my wellspring of creativity than Tweeting or Linking or Facing.

3. I have trained myself to become aware.

I’m now better able to catch myself in that moment when I reach for my phone or tablet to check on all those feeds and updates. Just like I am now aware enough to catch myself opening the fridge when I’m not hungry. Doesn’t mean I always succeed, but awareness is an excellent first step.

The more aware you are in such moments, the greater the gap becomes. You know, that sacred, blessed gap where you are actually conscious in the moment and can choose your course of action.

In that gap lies the power to transform everything – your relationships, your work, how you react to everything… and yes, how you use social media.

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I would love to run away to the woods and write, just like Mr. Thoreau did so many years ago. But now, with these few little tweaks, that log cabin can have WiFi and I can still find peace and quiet.


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Real Love


Real Love

Last week, my man and I celebrated our four year anniversary.

He was away at work (as he is every second week), but that didn’t matter — we’re not big ‘celebrators’ of these kinds of events anyway. Well, not in the traditional sense. I did my usual thing — found him a cheesy card, tucked a lotto ticket inside, then scrawled him a message, ending with “I hope you get lucky tonight”. (Referring to the Powerball of course — what did you think I meant?!)

But even though neither of us are ones for big gestures, and even though anniversaries don’t actually mean anything, or correlate in any way to the quality or strength of a relationship, I still like having one day each year that’s ours. That forces us to reflect on our partnership.

At the four-year mark, the gloss has well and truly worn off — the delusions we were both under in the first few years have been completely blown out of the water. (Case in point: for 12 whole months, my sweet man did not realise that glossy, pin-straight hair was not the natural state of my head. Ha! I’m definitely closer to Hermione than Gwyneth!)

Of course, those sorts of superficial masks naturally fall away the longer you’re with someone. We shed the pretenses layer by layer, as we feel more comfortable, or as circumstances dictate, or because we simply can’t be arsed anymore.

But deeper than the shedding of perfect hair (ahem… or perfectly hair-free legs), this year, I’ve had reason to take even bigger pause.

Without exaggeration or doubt, it’s been the busiest year of my life — running your own business will do that. There were way too many times where I didn’t have time to shower, let alone sit down for an engaging conversation or a proper dinner. There were weeks (months?) where my confidence, my bank balance, and my sanity took a beating. I’ve had breakdowns and breakthroughs, massive highs and tear-filled lows. It truly has been the year where he’s seen me at my most raw — at my worst and my best, sometimes in the space of ten minutes.

And yet there he is. Here he is. And it makes me so incredibly happy and grateful. Yes, we’ve farted, fussed and fought, yet we’ve still always found our way back to each other.

Every year, when I think about what love actually means — what love is — I always come back to one quote.

It’s one of the most powerful passages on love that I’ve ever read — even though it’s from a children’s picture book. It refers to the love between a child and their toy, but I think it applies just as much to the love between two partners…

“Real isn’t how you are made,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.’

‘Does it hurt?’ asked the Rabbit.

‘Sometimes,’ said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. ‘When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.’

‘Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,’ he asked, ‘or bit by bit?’

‘It doesn’t happen all at once,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

― Margery Williams, The Velveteen Rabbit

Amazing, isn’t it?

Here’s to real love…