Life Affirming Literature

Capture

I love books. Some books I love more than members of my family. In my 30’s I’ve found myself asking a lot of big questions about life, death and grief and these books have been my saviours. The connective tissue between them may be death but if anything each one of these memoirs make me believe in the beauty of life itself.

Wild: A Journey from Lost to Found by Cheryl Strayed

In 2014 I was raw from grief and on the verge of a mental breakdown when I found Cheryl Strayed’s book during my sleepless nights Googling “how to cope with losing a parent.” My grief had alienated me from my friends who didn’t understand how to deal with my suffering and I needed reassurance that I was going to survive this despair.

I was immediately gripped by Strayed’s story of hiking 1100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail in 1995 and how that journey helped mend her broken heart, over losing her beloved mother Bobbi and the end of her marriage. Whole passages of the book could have been plucked from my own brain as the realisation dawned that I wasn’t alone. The memoir echoed my own experience of a family torn apart after losing one of our own, “without my mother, we weren’t what we’d been; we were four people floating separately among the flotsam of our grief, connected by only the thinnest rope.”

In the years following her mother’s death Strayed hit the self-destruct button hard, something I can relate to. On the adultery that contributed to the end of her marriage, “It seemed to me the way it must feel to people who cut themselves on purpose. Not pretty, but clean. Not good, but void of regret. I was trying to heal.” Some parts of the book were painful to read because the sense of recognition made me weep and I wouldn’t wish that pain on my worst enemy.

The paperback copy I bought three years ago is tear soaked, crumpled around the edges from being taken on every subsequent holiday and even made on a 700 mile round trip to a literary festival where I got to meet the author herself. Thankfully the session was recorded so I can re-watch at my leisure as I was too star-struck and excited to absorb the moment fully.

The book taught me a lot. That it’s ok to forgive yourself, even when you’ve hurt people you love. I learned that grief is messy and painful but you will survive. Just getting up every day and taking tiny steps to be kind to yourself can help rebuild the hole in your heart. The book also helped me to write about my own grief and is one of the reasons I started this blog.

Late Fragments: Everything I Want to Tell You (About This Magnificent Life) by Kate Gross

Late Fragments started life as a blog chronicling the last two years of the author’s life following a terminal cancer diagnosis aged just 34. In different hands the book could have been mawkish but the joy comes from Gross’s way with words, she explains her predicament without endless medical jargon and with little sentimentality. I’ve lived with a dying relative so know the reality of impending death can be as life-affirming as it is heartbreaking. Gross wrote the book for her twin sons, who were only five when she passed away on Christmas Day 2014. The dedication alone had me in tears, “There are two adult hands which I hope will hold a battered paperback when others have long forgotten me and what I have to say. I write this for Oscar and Isaac, my little Knights, my joy and my wonder.”

Despite the bleak diagnosis Gross finds happiness in her limited time left on earth: “For starters, there is a feeling of being alive, awake, which powerfully reasserts itself in the moments of wellness that punctuate a long illness. I have experienced joy – perhaps even the sublime – in an unexpected and new way.” Gross tells her life story with elegance, wit and just a touch of bitterness (anger would be my primary emotion if I found out I was dying in my mid-thirties).

Although Gross’s life was short it was extraordinary. She spent four years working for two Prime Ministers in her twenties, then founded a charity rebuilding essential structures of government in post-conflict Africa. Thankfully her legacy lives on – not only in print but in the fundraising and building of the inaugural Kate Gross Community School which opened in Sierra Leone in 2016. Many of us could live to 100 and only hope to leave such a legacy.

The book never fails to inspire me with its spirit and determination to embrace life (however short) and on the days when I am moaning about being tired/in pain/have a cold I glance at the cover on my Kindle and tell myself to get a grip. I’ve read the book on multiple occasions and gain new insight every time. And the postscript, written by Kate’s mother Jean following her death always make me howl with emotion.

I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes With Death by Maggie O’Farrell

A life story with a difference – one told entirely through near death experiences. I was so captivated by this audiobook I devoured the memoir in a single day. The narration by Daisy Donovan was spellbinding and at points I found myself listening with my eyes closed so I could fully immerse myself in the words. I’ve since listened to the book again and now own a hardback copy with my favourite passages highlighted.

The book is broken down into episodes zig zagging across decades and destinations, beginning with an encounter on a remote path that chilled me for days afterwards. As O’Farrell observes we are all closer to death than we may realise: “We are, all of us, wandering about in states of oblivion, borrowing our time, seizing our days, escaping our fates, slipping through loopholes, unaware of when the axe may fall.” The book is thought provoking and conversation starting – while our stories may not be book worthy a cursory count in my close family unearthed 13 near-death experiences between five of us.

O’Farrell is a natural storyteller and skilfully describes everything from devastating childhood encephalitis to an encounter with a machete wielding mugger with a lack of sentimentality which allows for more empathy than a constant stream of self-pity. There were stories that made me hold my breath, moved me to tears and filled me with rage (I wanted to find the consultant who denied O’Farrell an elective caesarean which almost lead to the death of her and her baby to give him a swift kick in the nuts).

The final section – Daughter – is set in the present day and is one of the boldest and most startling chapters of a book I have ever read. O’Farrell’s daughter was born with a severe immunology disorder and the threat of anaphylaxis means her fight for life is something the family are faced with on a daily basis. The final chapter ramps up the sense of danger and urgency and whilst O’Farrell may have downplayed her own struggles you cannot help but feel the passion for her child leap off the page. It’s a book that makes you appreciate your every breath and be thankful that the author managed to survive this long to tell her tale.

Advertisements

Top of the Pods

ImageDisplayServlet (1)

Hi, my name is Cath and I am a podcast addict. It’s been 30 minutes since my last download. I’ve already written at length about my love of the spoken word and podcasts help sustain me between Audible credits. My tastes are diverse but I love listening to writers, hearing about films, beauty, music and am fascinated to know what makes humans tick.

Having given up booze and men in 2017, I need some stimulation in my life so here are my ten essential podcasts of the 50(ish) I currently have on rotation. I am almost as promiscuous with my listening preferences as I am with men…

Kermode and Mayo’s Film Review

In a Nutshell:  Two middle aged men bicker, occasionally discuss films.

Why I love it: I am a huge film fan and when I bought an iPod Classic in 2005 this was my first download. The show has seen me through a divorce, the loss of a parent, multiple health crises and is my longest commitment to date. Simon Mayo hosts and acts as the voice of reason when Mark Kermode goes off on one of his infamous rants about everything from the loss of human projectionists in multiplexes to the rampant stupidity of Michael Bay films. The duo have nurtured a worldwide community with their own code of conduct, acronyms and in-jokes. I don’t get a chance to listen live but if you can, try to catch the studio webcam feed, it’s always nice to see Kermode’s flappy hands in full flow.

Desert Island Discs

In a Nutshell:  A guest is invited to choose eight discs, a book and a luxury to take with them as they’re cast away on a fictional desert island.

Why I love it: Desert Island Discs is valium in audible form. The show has the ability to calm my foulest mood and the theme tune alone can instantly lower my heart rate. The concept is so simple and the joy comes during the interview, when the host delves into the Castaway’s life and reasons behind their music choices. The online back catalogue boasts over 2000 episodes and includes royalty, prime ministers, movie icons and musical legends but I delight in discovering humans who are extraordinary but not famous and often find myself moved to tears.

All Killa No Filla

In a Nutshell:  Two British comedians discuss serial killers. Funnier than it sounds.

Why I love it: I have a morbid fascination with murderers, perhaps because I have met more than one in the flesh (a story for another day). I could blame coming of age in the 1990’s when Fred and Rose West, Aileen Wuornos and Dr Harold Shipman crimes were tabloid press fodder. The podcast is hosted by comedians Rachel Fairburn and Kiri Pritchard-McLean and each episode is devoted to a different killer with their crimes described in a style that is often hilarious, but never at the expense of the victims. Not one for the fainthearted but after nine years working in a hospital I am not squeamish and my dark sense of humour ensures very little offends me. I’ve heard each episode at least twice and can often be found cry laughing while listening on public transport.

Full Coverage

In a Nutshell:  A podcast for beauty addicts, by beauty addicts.

Why I love it: Despite my low maintenance appearance I love beauty. I can spend hours on blogs and forums researching products and rarely impulse buy cosmetics after some previous costly mistakes. The show, hosted by professional makeup artist Harriet Hadfield and author (and beauty junkie) Lindsey Kelk, gives no-bullshit reviews of new beauty releases, Holy Grail products and interviews with beauty insiders. The pair are brutally honest and hilarious; this isn’t the regurgitated PR fluff you may be used to from some Vloggers.  You may not believe a show about beauty would translate to audio but the descriptions are so vivid it’s like you are in the room as they test out products. And if you follow either presenter on Instagram you will often get a sneak peek at some of the goodies they’re trying out.

The Emma Guns Show

In a Nutshell:  Writer Emma Gunavardhana’s show features interviews with celebrities, brand creators, editors and authors on a wide selection of topics.

Why I love it: Spending time with Emma and her guests is like hanging out with old friends. The range of interviewees is huge, from well-known faces to knowledgeable health and beauty professionals. Emma tackles tricky subjects with ease – anxiety, ageing, hormones, diet, motherhood, work ethic and entrepreneurship – no topic is off limits. In a world of facetuning and filters there’s a joy in the way Emma engages with her listeners on social media on bad days as well as good. Every episode leaves me a little bit inspired and with another girl crush to add to my ever increasing list.

Anna Faris is Unqualified

In a Nutshell:  Interviews with celebrities and cultural figures followed by advice calls with listeners.

Why I love it: On paper the show shouldn’t work – a famous actress interviews celebrities and gives (unqualified) advice to members of the public. I’ve watched enough shitty chat shows with “personalities” to know that fame doesn’t always equal talent. Unqualified plays to Faris’ strengths – she has personality, humour, intelligence and empathy in buckets. The show is unfiltered, foul mouthed and candid with no subject too delicate for Faris, her producer/co-host Sim Sarna and their guests to discuss. The shows are often chaotic and hysterical, even when tackling difficult topics.

Made of Human

In a Nutshell:  Sofie Hagen chats to a guest about life and how to cope with being an adult.

Why I love it: The world has gone a bit batshit crazy recently. My faith in humanity is at an all-time low but when I need to top up my belief in Good People I listen to the Made of Human podcast (or MohPod). Danish comedian Sofie Hagen talks to fellow comics, activists, academics and celebrities to get to the heart of what makes us all human. Spoiler alert – nobody knows what the heck they are doing, but that’s ok. Thought provoking, often funny, sometimes heartbreaking and always emotive. Just like real life.

The High Low

In a Nutshell:  Writers Dolly Alderton and Pandora Sykes present a weekly pop-culture/news roundup.

Why I love it: This fast paced, quick-witted take on the week’s events could feature anything from period poverty to Taylor Swift and the hosts cover all cultural bases from highbrow to lowbrow. The duo are prolific readers, host regular author specials and I have yet to disagree with a book recommendation from either presenter. In a world where podcasts can ramble on for 90 minutes or more it’s always nice to download an hour long show that takes me from home to office and leaves me educated and entertained instead of bored.

Soundtracking

In a Nutshell:  Edith Bowman sits down with film directors, actors, producers and composers to talk about the music that shaped their work.

Why I love it: I adore this show because Bowman is clearly a huge film and music fan and her enthusiasm comes across in every episode. Her relaxed interview style puts guests at ease and if she’s ever been starstruck it never shows. I have learned more about the music of the movies than I ever did through years of listening to director commentary on DVDs. The range of guests – from composers to directors and producers helps us understand how a soundtrack is constructed, how it weaves through and shapes the narrative and you’ll find yourself picking up more musical cues when you’re at the movies than you ever did before.

Griefcast

In a Nutshell: A podcast hosted by Cariad Lloyd, comedians talking about death.

Why I love it: Regular readers will know how much I enjoy wanging on about grief, it’s pretty much why this blog exists. I found the experience of losing a parent so isolating and responses from friends and family so polarizing that I actively sought out stories from others in “the dead mum/dad/sibling/friend club.” Comedian Cariad Lloyd, who lost her father at 15, talks to fellow comics, writers and actors about death and grief in a way that is funny, touching and real. Each episode brings comfort from knowing that although grief is unique so much of what you experience when you lose a loved one is universal. There is still so much taboo around death that I recommend this podcast to friends who have suffered loss and those who haven’t as the show can also teach you about empathy and how to be a better human.

If I had to pick my own Desert Island downloads I’d be happy with any of these. What’s your “must listen” podcast? I’m always on the lookout for my next great listen so feel free to drop me a comment below!

Now for something a bit different…

Hello lovely blog readers 👋🏻

There are some new posts ready to publish which are a bit different to what you’re used to from me. I’m writing about my passions: books, music, podcasts, beauty, film and future posts may even contain some humour 😉

I’ve discovered that there’s a lot less drama to write about once you eliminate dating and alcohol from your life…

The Last Vice

Capture

This month I decided to take a break from dating, whilst still fully in the throws of my latest fling. I realised I’d had enough while weeping onto bedsheets that still smelled of a man I’d known a month, having flown to another country to meet up with him. This was not the first time I had travelled hundreds of miles for a man. Once I become attached to a mate I get drunk on lust, high on dopamine and engage in sleepless nights of frantic sexting which render me useless at everyday tasks. Please don’t expect me to concentrate on work when I have a hot man to fantasise about.

I have given up so many of my vices this year (I am nine months sober from alcohol and even drink decaf coffee, I’m practically a saint) but men are much harder to shake. I haven’t been in a serious relationship for years but I can’t seem to let go of casual entanglements. I get giddy on stomach flipping kisses. My fragile ego gets a boost from being looked at the same way Homer Simpson looks at beer. The couplings may last a few weeks or months but I always end them before any declarations of love are made. I try to keep civilian casualties to a minimum.

There’s nothing wrong with serial dating, it’s just not right for me. I have a whole set of emotional baggage, am damaged from years in an abusive relationship, have low self-esteem and a habit of picking men who need to be “fixed”. So many men have gone on to marry the girl they dated immediately after me that I should start charging for my services or open a Centre for Wounded Males. Need the rough edges of your potential life partner smoothing out? Send them here, I’ll happily talk through their daddy issues until the early hours or buy them beard oil when their face is rough enough to sand timber. Once they’re feeling better about themselves I get bored and inevitably boot them out of my life. I will pick fights or change my behaviour, letting my dark side out and quickly extract myself from the relationship. I’ll tell them we can stay friends, without meaning it. If I stay friends with them I am treated to happy status updates, engagement announcements and wedding pictures. I don’t need to see that shit. Most of the time I block their number and social media profiles before they’ve even had a chance to digest what’s happened.

Why don’t I settle down with one of these suitors? Well, the person they are dating doesn’t really exist. The perma-grinned, perfectly made up girl who will laugh at their jokes and is never too tired for sex is pure fantasy. A friend once compared this version of me to Disneyland, somewhere that’s great fun to visit but eventually you get tired and want to go home. Once the initial high of the first flush of attraction wears off I suffer crushing low mood, debilitating paranoia that I’m about to be hurt and am a weeping wreck. That’s when I know it’s time to end it.

I did come close to falling in love when I met a guy a couple of years ago who was funny, sweet, already in therapy and wasn’t scared of my darkness. Eventually I got scared he’d hurt me so I pushed him away. It was a test, I wanted him to fight for me, but he didn’t. We reconnected this year and after a few flirtatious coffees where we struggled to keep our hands to ourselves we ended up in bed. It should have been Happy Ever After except for one thing – he has a live in girlfriend. I would love to say our hookups ended as soon as I found out I was the other woman but they didn’t. Sadly my moral compass must have gotten lost in my last house move and I let things continue longer than they should have. Told you I was damaged.

But no more, I’ve gone cold turkey. Full on man detox (mantox, if you wish). I need time to heal. I’m losing the fake smile and suppressing the overwhelming desire to please everyone because I am hollow after years of giving parts of myself away – my heart, my money, my time, my energy. I’ve got nothing left to give and after putting myself last for almost 10 years I am going to claw back some of my dignity, self respect and maybe I can start to forgive myself for the way I’ve treated others. And myself.

The Kindness of Strangers

635999257015757101-206990663_FacebookFriends.jpgI met my soulmates online. Not through a dating site but through a Facebook group spawned from a Guardian column. I can hear the eye rolling and screaming “online friendships aren’t real!” from here. But they were real enough for me to travel 200 miles in 2012 to meet 30 women I’d never encountered anywhere but online. My mum called them my imaginary friends but those women gave me the glue to hold myself together after her death.

It all happened completely by accident. In early 2012 I turned 30 and decided to overhaul my beauty “routine.” I use the word routine loosely because at the time my twice daily ritual involved washing my face with soap and using whatever cheap moisturiser I could pick up at the supermarket. My makeup skills were nonexistent and this was before the ubiquity of YouTube tutorials. One Friday night I Googled “How to apply flicky eyeliner” and found this Guardian piece by Sali Hughes. A bit more digging and I found a Facebook group called Sali Hughes: Get The Look. Little did I know that joining the group would change my life.

There’s a feeling that the anonymity of the internet can bring out the worst in people, you can say things online that you would never dare to say to someone’s face but I found that posting under an alias, as I did on the Facebook group, allowed me to be more honest than I would be in person. I could openly talk about my mental health battles, relationship woes and embarrassing topics without fear of judgement. The group was the first place I posted about my mum’s terminal cancer diagnosis when I was still raw and weeping. I received private messages almost immediately from supportive women and the transition from virtual to “real” friend began.

I found myself checking in on the group every day and the friendly faces became a constant source of support and humour during the most horrific period of my life. Like any community things constantly evolve and I became a member of spin off groups where friendships deepened. The GTL Facebook group closed in 2013, moving to a proper online forum which made following threads and topics a lot easier. Facebook is a great and easy tool to use on the go but near impossible to search for a thread on a group with 5000+ members across the world posting throughout the day.

The first meet up I attended in 2012 was truly the beginning of some amazing friendships. To anyone who tells me that these aren’t “real” friends I will remind them that I have drunk with these women, danced with them, held their babies, met their partners, slept in their homes. I spent my first motherless Mother’s Day travelling back from a weekend in the Lake District with a group of these friends and one in particular held me as I quietly cried at the radio dedications to mothers who were very much alive. After mum passed away in 2013 I received sympathy cards from all over the country and the most amazingly generous gifts, including a spa day and a Tiffany necklace, the result of a whip-round from the women I’d met and some I was still to meet. One of the friends I made online came to mum’s funeral, an act of kindness I will never forget. In the years that followed when my sanity was hanging by a thread these women offered me emotional and practical support. When PTSD nightmares disturbed my sleep and my waking hours were spent in a fog of disordered thoughts I always found someone willing to listen to my ramblings. Sometimes I just needed to rant at the world (there’s a “Can We Have a Fuck Off Thread?” on the forum that I hang out on a lot) and sometimes I wanted to celebrate the small achievements like going outside when anxiety had rendered me housebound for days on end. The group were there for me through it all.

Of course, this being the internet it’s not all sunshine and rainbows, utopia doesn’t exist online. You simply cannot have a space with a large group of humans where everyone agrees with each other. There have been fights and flounces and I’ve even been guilty of both. But if you ever feel your faith in humanity slipping, join the Sali Hughes Beauty Forum and search for Carey Lander or Sarcoma UK. Carey, a talented musician and member of Camera Obscura was a SHB forum member, close friend of Sali and was given a terminal cancer diagnosis in 2015 at the age of 33. She wanted to leave a legacy by raising money for a woefully underfunded rare cancer, setting up a fundraising page which eventually totalled over £100,000. The forum rallied with prize draws, members selling valuable items for the charity and the forum’s fundraising efforts were in the thousands. On the day of Carey’s funeral forum members posted on a selfies thread wearing Carey’s signature red lip and animal print. Over 200 faces flooded the site, including many members who’d never posted pictures of themselves before. It was incredibly moving and I often find myself scrolling through, reading the messages and feeling proud to be part of such a group.

The main criticism I get when I tell people I met some of the Best Humans Ever TM on a beauty group is that we must be a bunch of vacuous twats. Firstly, don’t talk shit about my friends. Secondly, the women I have encountered have been some of the cleverest, funniest, most talented people you will ever (or never) meet. Beauty may be in the name of the forum but it’s so much more than that (just like Jaws isn’t about a shark and ET isn’t about an alien). I see acts of kindness on a daily basis and my social media streams are full of pictures of friendships forged online. Some of the women I speak to almost daily I may never meet in “real life” due to geography or circumstance but that doesn’t make them any less important to me.

Did I change my beauty routine? Yes, I thankfully don’t wash my face with Dove soap anymore. I sometimes splurge more money on a lipstick than I used to spend in a year on supermarket moisturiser but that’s my choice. What I do with my face and body is and will always be for me, not for anyone else. Do I have any regrets? Well, despite it leading me to the best friends I could ask for, I never did master that flicky eyeliner…

Disclaimer: In this cynical, cynical world we inhabit I would like to point out this is not some kind of ad or puff piece. I have never met Sali Hughes or been asked to write this. I just really love these women and wanted to celebrate them.

Dear CC

broken-heartI am so sorry I didn’t say goodbye properly. I found out you were really sick on Friday and by Saturday night you were gone. I wrote a short message that didn’t even begin to explain how much I wanted the news about your failing health to be an ugly rumour. I needed to tell you how much you meant to me and how much you will be missed. You were my first real friend. Two doors down the street and born three weeks apart, it was almost inevitable that we would be buddies, especially given how close our parents were. Inseparable during their pregnancies, our mothers were delighted to give birth to two daughters in the same month that would grow up together.

We weren’t just friends, we were family. We called each other’s mothers “Mum” and became the sisters we both craved so much (I was big sister, you were little sis). We spent weekdays together at nursery, then school and at weekends had sleepovers at each other’s homes. You had a Christmas stocking and an Easter egg to look forward to every year at my house. I put more time and effort into our friendship than I have with any subsequent romantic relationship. Although we looked so different we always dressed alike and I laugh now looking back at pictures of your long slim body in the same outfits as my short round frame.

I still remember the day 26 years ago when I broke your heart (your words, you always had a flair for the dramatic). I told you I was moving house. Not very far away but enough of a distance to move school and for everything to change. We both wept and vowed to be friends forever, in a way that only nine year olds can. I promised to phone every day and write letters every week to tell you what I was up to. You told me that no one would ever replace me. We continued to have sleepovers, although they went from weekly to monthly and eventually stopped altogether.

Neither of us wanted to admit we’d outgrown each other. When we met up things seemed strained and we couldn’t just pick up a conversation where we’d left off, there was so much explanation of “who’s who” in stories that it was too much effort. Also, the differences in our personalities became more apparent as we got older; you loved a party and I loved staying in with a book, you looked like a model and loved fashion, I looked like a hobbit and was sporting hand me downs (from my brother).

We went years without speaking and I regret not making more of an effort. There were times I would see you on a bus or on the street and I would hide behind a book or scarf to avoid your gaze. Your life always seemed so fabulous and glamourous. You travelled for a living and I was stuck in the same city in a dead end job. I thought being around you would make me feel like a lesser human.

I thought of you often and when I joined Facebook in 2009 you were one of my first friends, just like when we were born. You ended up amassing 10 times as many friends as me and I do admit to the odd pang of jealousy. We exchanged the occasional message, particularly in times of crisis. When your dad passed away I had to let you know I was there if you needed to chat and you were one of the first people I heard from when my mum was diagnosed with cancer. I will never forget the kindness of you coming to mum’s funeral when you didn’t even live in the same country as us anymore.

I was speaking to dad about you just over a week ago. We were both wondering aloud how you were, you had been uncharacteristically quiet on social media and I hoped it was because you were loved up and enjoying life offline. I didn’t know you were fighting for your life. When I found out on Friday night what was happening I wanted to give you the biggest hug. I wanted to kiss your forehead the way our mums did when we were sleeping over at each other’s houses. Or I wanted to make you laugh, you had a bloody ridiculous snorting laugh and I can’t believe I’ll never hear it again. I also can’t believe I am referring to you in the past tense. I am so sorry.

Love always, BS (Big Sister)

Chills, Thrills and Penis Pics 

Was one of your resolutions for 2017 to find love? Then you may be one of the thousands who signed up to Tinder in January. If you have no concept of Tinder, perhaps you’ve been living under a rock or recently released from a cult, here’s the deal; it’s the world’s simplest dating app. All you need is a Facebook account and a smartphone. You enter basic details of what you are seeking: gender, age range and distance from your location and Tinder will find singles in your area. It’s stunningly superficial, users have 500 characters and six pictures to sell themselves. You swipe through a series of profiles – right to say you are interested and left to say you are not. If you both “like” each other you have a match and true love can blossom 😂

Read More »