10 meditations on 2017

Christmas is spent with ghosts.
Just like the three ghosts that visit Ebenezer Scrooge (or Frank Cross, played by Bill Murray in my favourite version, Scrooged), the phantoms of our past, present and future haunt us every year. I am not alone in thinking more about the big things in the days after the frivolity of Christmas while awaiting the shiny promise of a New Year.

If Christmas is for nostalgia, the Ghost of Christmas Past has been and gone by the 29th December, discarded like the turkey bones thrown into the food recycling bin. If you’re lucky to not be back in work this week it is like a no-man’s land, some call it ‘Twixt-mas’ or the in-between days before NYE’s fizz. We sit and watch repeats on the telly, internet shop and wonder what the future will hold. These days are prime hunting ground for the Ghost of Christmas Present, who asks questions about here and now, waiting the future to knock at the door as the clock strikes midnight onto 2018.

Every year I feel berated by the grace of John Lennon’s lyrics; “Its Christmas time and what have you done, another year older, a new one’s just begun”. I can’t help feeling he’s pointing accusations when I hear it. Yes, compared to a member of the Beatles, my life has been quiet from one year to the next. But I think it is fair to say 2017 has been a myriad of adventure between the UK and Greece – one which has given me a lot to be thankful for.

Here is my 10 tiny little meditations on 2017 from the Ghost of Christmas Present:

  1. Action: Things are learnt by action not by indecision. If I kept waiting for the right time – a momentary bliss when the earth aligned on its axis, the moon was cradled softly by a cloud in an open sky and there were no distractions, no moments in which my mind would wander and fill with the voices and dreams of other lifetimes. How long would I wait? Now is the time. Postponement is not a state to relish.
  2. Sunsets: by realising that sunsets are just an illusion of the end of the day as the world continues on round its path, I did not feel cheated. Instead I felt wonderfully relived, that these were not endings but merely intervals like curtains being drawn over one day to the next, they only had meaning when we see them collectively and gave power to them. 2017 was a year of many sunsets,  so many beautiful minutes of silence as the earth spun slowly round into the magic of the blue hour where the fading echo of the sun’s light turns the scene sepia gold  before turning away into darkness again. To witness this repetition is be sure of nature’s true hold of time.
  3. Language: I am still a beginner at Greek and need way more practice with the language. If I believed in resolutions for 2018, this would be high on the list. Instead I just believe in giving it a go.
  4. Sunrises: also pretty special to witness. Nothing can beat that feeling of excitement holding cups of coffee to keep our hands warm on the deck of the Blue Star Ferry in early April, watching a dawn rising up from the horizon of port buildings in Piraeus with no idea what would happen when we arrived on Syros. Reflecting against the jumbled architecture of Athens port, orange and pink light reflecting off silvery towerscapes and crumbling warehouses, we looked outwards and held expectations against the unknown, fears and hope, not realising the possibilities those months ahead would reveal.
  5. Cats: when a little black and white long-haired furball with a mottle tail and one eye permanently dilated, turned up at the house in Greece, I wasn’t sure what to make of it. It became obvious had moved into its territory and it eyed us up for a few days…slinking from one side of the terrace to the other, nose in the air and sniffing. Eventually she came closer, growing trustful when we responded with saucers of water at first, then later titbit snacks she would devour with her snaggled tooth grin. She sidled up to us and purred, played with string and sticks.  I think wherever she is now, she is still a little rebel-rebel like Bowie her namesake.
  6. Books: I have cherished the time alone this year with just a book. Some have moved me to tears, made me angry, hopeful and even disappointed – an act that felt voracious and needy, hungrily devouring their pages. It felt like a good year to a be a reader. I meandered through a range of fiction, biography, history, philosophy and poetry – losing count of numbers, but feel enriched and privileged by the worlds I have peeked into. I have already started hastily compiling a list for 2018. Please send me your recommendations!
  7. Writing: sometimes you come to the page with an intention, a fully-fledged idea and other times I come unstuck with just a few words, allow them to form and take you away. Anything can happen here. Practice, explore, mess around with structure – I am happiest doing this, easing off the pressure. Fight the will to compare or mediate or suffocate the process. Just let it flow. Anything creative with words will be a long battle.
  8. Noise: To take yourself away from the noise, not just the ever-present hum and whirr of traffic, over-crowded cities, distracted by the cacophony of digital attention and the rich/poor, left/right, good/evil, fake/true paradox that entrenches indifference. 2017 was filled with heartache, etched by news that broke at such speed and changed direction from despair to joy in seconds. Most of us prefer to keep up rather than check out – the competitiveness of being busy and misappropriation of information as wisdom. The only thing I needed in this year was to slow down and stop being afraid of what happens away from the noise. The internal noise of my own brain hasn’t yet shut up, chattering over long held beliefs and holding the stick of other people’s success up like a marker. But it is quietening down and allowing me to focus. I now like the sound of a ticking clock, the fierce meltemi wind, the sea waves crashing in a storm and the song of cicadas. This alone won’t solve much in the world but it allows me to think and process what I can do.
  9. Fear: I held so much anxiety inside me in the UK I didn’t recognise another sensation when I wandered round grinning ear to ear, walking over hills scattered with spring flowers and being on the verge of tears of what felt like happiness. The weight of fear and worry is mostly based on imagined threats. By taking away those tiny small stresses that pile up to a mountains, I found myself standing differently, shoulders hang freely and hands that don’t fidget. I found it took me a while to ease into the blankness of living without them. I mean blankness as the only way to describe the feeling when the heaviness goes away and the catastrophe of worry subsides. I will save my worry for things I can change.
  10. Family (and friends): the time I have had with them this year has been up and down, but filled with stories and laughter. The annual Christmas journey from Kings Cross has been done countless times with my backpack, balancing presents and cake tins on my lap on an overcrowded train. The same ritual since I was 21 is still being recreated year after year, a return to a home-town that you no longer know but all is still familiar and steeped in memory. Family waiting by the door, food stock piled, the aging Advocaat bottle in the drinks cabinet, the sprout jokes and plastic After Eight chocolate (apart from that one year it went ‘missing’?). This time of fervent celebration is shaped by nostalgia, that busy time when you try to see everyone, give presents and have long talks over bottles of wine. Amidst the calm currents, loneliness and grief bubble up to surface of our lives. I am thankful for their health, happiness, support and most of all…jokes.

When the clock strikes midnight and we collectively look towards a New Year wrapped up in possibility with its promise of newness, reinvention and satisfaction. I for one will be looking outward thinking about how I can do more in 2018 and keep the Ghosts at bay.

Enough: how I learned to live with less

I have a reoccurring nightmare when you die that you are confronted by everything you ever bought as a massive pile in a stinking landfill. A whole towering pile of plastic shoes, stringy vests and fancy dresses…I often wake up at night imagine being trapped under it unable to breathe.

It started October 2016, not a conscious act of rebellion but a small change of economic means, a way of saving money by not shopping. Not overnight and not completely, we all need to live, eat and function. But stop buying and accumulating the stuff that isn’t a necessity and having less by choice is something I have been working on since then. Progress has been made. My wardrobe is smaller despite getting out those clothes that were packed away in storage. But I have been again confronted by my self-created nightmare. I still have way more than I need.

I am a hoarder with emotional ties to objects and yet I am not one of those women who loves to shop.  I love the feel of a newly purchased top, sparkly shoe, statement coat as much as anyone. I hold such good memories with clothes and see them as a way of decoding ones past through dubious fashion choices. Fortunately, (*checks privilege) I live in freedom enough to decide this for myself and not fall for the constant bombardment of images women and men face. A UK woman spends on average £70,294 on their appearance in their lifetime…yes, £70K. That’s £1,352 a year or £112.65 a month. £70K could buy a plot of land somewhere and make that self-sufficient dream come true.

I don’t think I ever fell into that category of spending, but when I was in my early 20s on my first (meagre) wage, I did spend a lot of money on clothes, and shoes, and handbags. (I can’t be alone in the phenomena of earning so little but not living in London meant I had loads of disposable income. It frightens me, where did all my money go?)  The thrill of spending it on high-fashion, low-cost goods from Primark or H&M, where quality was an afterthought and all those mini-skirts, bo-ho noughties fashion, and party dresses have trailed around many parties and now long been recycled off or charity shopped. Sadly, these clothes are just fast-fashion-fads, made in dubious sweat shops, producing high pollutants in the atmosphere and most never get recycled. In more recent years I moved towards higher quality clothes in an effort to get my wear out of them. Zara, M&S for staples and second hand clothes for more interesting purchases that last longer, repurposing hand me downs and charity shop finds. I still get excited about my £100 second-hand wedding dress that made me look and feel like a millionaire. The landfill image as a thought alone has been enough to keep me away from the shops on my lunch hour, away from shops on the weekend, and from shifting through online browsers and click-bait shoes.

I think many of us are using purchasing things as an emotional prop, a browse online when feeling low grants an immediate hit, a sugar rush as you check out in 2 clicks to secure that delicious fabric print and high heel.  Then another glow when the purchase turns up and you twirl around in it. Social media means we wear more outfits, but repeat them less frequently for fear of being shamed. That makes me sad.

My problem was that high always faded so quickly. I ran through a shopping centre a few weeks ago to go to the chemist and I saw whole families treating shopping as it is was a genuine joyful pursuit of their hard-earned leisure time. Maybe it is. The endless accumulation of material goods is something people aspire too. But when is enough, enough?

I don’t feel my changes are a revelation, more a slow evolution. A quiet adult acceptance of money and spending what I work for. I went completely without buying clothes or make up for 6 months and only bought 5 items of clothing in 2017 (jeans, replacement trainers as I’d ran them out, leathers sandals and 2 shirts). Note: I am really hoping Santa delivers me some new underwear! My trick has been to think about buying something for long enough the moment passes, like anticipation is often better than the event itself. Which is a bit like my desire to write…I mull over it so long the argument against is lost. I take out my battles here on the page. Down-sizing, shedding, getting rid of the extraneous word and thought. I don’t want you to think of me as a puritan nor shameless hippie. Just someone who thinks economically! It is hard to define necessity but that definition helps set boundaries– I do need a travel card to get to work. I need to feed myself but I don’t need to spend £7 on lunch or a £3 coffee. I have ‘finally’ trained my master-of-all-skills-husband to cut my hair instantly saving £45, incidentally I stopped colouring my hair a year ago now – I have cultivated a natural ‘ombre’ look.  This isn’t all about appearances either.

In the year we finally spent 6 months living simply in Greece, we earned significantly less and yet lived more – swapping urban life for experiences and simplicity. Which is such a funny thing to admit isn’t – actively scaling back your earning potential marries quite well with stopping spending it on stuff you don’t need. Now we are back in London, the TV lies unplugged, books need to be read (library books encouraged) we make packed lunches, eat seasonal cheap food, shop sensibly and reduce wastage. All tiny little incremental steps.

Standing here almost at the dawn of 2018, with a pervasive global environmental and human crisis at our heels, so much of our consumption is in the endless pursuit of fulfillment and happiness – whole industries thrive on this need. I too seek happiness, but realise I won’t find that on the high street or in ‘self-help’ book or green juice diet.

For me, voluntary minimalism feels right in the season of excess and consumption. Clearing out, letting go and treasuring what we have. Because it is more always more than enough.