Monday, 24 April 2017

When the world gets too loud

When I'm in the middle of uni assignments and other pressing matters, I find myself turning off the WIFI on my phone more and more consistently. Otherwise, when a Facebook notification comes through while I'm trying to concentrate on an essay, I'm likely to let it distract me. But I'm starting to think that it's not only when I have an essay that I should be turning off the Internet. You see, my phone is almost constantly in my hand, and I switch from app to social media site to app, wasting time and brain space on things that don't really interest me.

Don't get me wrong, social media has its virtues. As someone who has travelled a lot and spent time studying abroad, Facebook keeps me in touch with people I can only see once in a blue moon, Twitter tends to be a place where I can keep up to date with more specific topics, while Instagram, Tumblr and the like serve to feed my creativity. But when these sites and apps are constantly clamouring to be heard, and habit leads me to give them my attention despite other more pressing needs and desires, it becomes a problem.

Our phones and technology are so insistent that we remain up to date and in the know that, without turning off our phones or spending time changing our settings, we can't escape notifications. I've wasted many an hour or two when a five minute social media check turned into a discussion or a conversation about something inane. When those discussions are more heated, I waste a lot of energy thinking about them even after I've left my phone alone. Yes, it's important to be up to date with the news and the goings on in the world around us and to take part in that, but it should be on our own terms and at times when we feel ready to listen. The likes of Facebook in particular are the biggest killers of my productivity, creativity, even my desire to relax or spend time with loved ones, and this has to change.

It's not just the fact that it's a distraction. I think these habits can also be partially to blame for many of the mental health issues that sneak up in us nowadays. The thing with the Internet, and with social media especially, is that we suddenly have all this information and all these connections at the tips of our fingers, and if you think about it, we are the first generation to have that. Because of this, there is a lot of noise entering our minds that humans never had to deal with in the past, and unless we refrain from using the Internet as often as we do, it's impossible to shut it out. To give an example, let's talk about news pieces like Brexit and the election of the latest US president (to avoid mentioning his name). During those times, I was almost constantly emotionally exhausted, stressed and bordering on depressed. Yes, I was unhappy about the news. But if something upsets us, normally we shut it out if we can, except that without isolating myself from all media and news outlets, I couldn't shut it out. Even when I tried, it would come up in conversation, and then I felt like I needed to get "up to date". Many, many times in the past year I have felt like becoming a hermit. Back in the day, it was easy to switch the TV channel or close the newspaper. But now, when our lives are so intricately intertwined with the Internet and, by extension, the world around us, it's difficult to close ourselves off. Even while watching a TV programme, the channel encourages us to engage in social media while we watch, urging us to use and search for certain hashtags.

So if you feel like social media is taking over your life, don't be afraid to withdraw. At first I feel isolated, or anxious that I might have missed something important. But eventually I realise that I appreciate the quiet time, with my own mind and my tangible life.

Wednesday, 17 August 2016

Summer isn't over, yet.

Cue rant.

This year, I've been working in a school. In the UK, the school holidays don't begin until the last week of July (which is ridiculous, but that's another rant for another day). So, while I managed to enjoy a spot of good weather when the sun deigned to shine on days I wasn't working, my summer didn't officially start until it was almost August. Which would be all fine and dandy, if I could actually enjoy it in peace instead of being constantly told that summer is practically over.

Case number one:
When I went shopping for swimwear for my long awaited trip to Spain in MID-JULY, only one high street shop still had a decent stock of bikinis. The rest of the shops I visited had racks of odd tops and bottoms, mostly in sizes that would barely cover a twelve year old's breasts, never mind mine.

Case number two:
Those same shops already had their "Autumn Collection" in. I repeat, it was JULY. And I'm pretty sure stationery shops and the likes of George at Asda crack out the "Back To School" rubbish before the kids have even finished school nowadays.

Case number three:
Not just the shops, but the media are telling me that summer is over, and people I follow on Instagram can't wait for Autumn (which is fine, but could you, you know, not remind me so often that after summer comes gloomy days and colder, wetter weather?) Well let me tell you, media, summer is not over. Where I used to live (Spain) August happens to be the hottest month of the year. And that's when everyone goes on their SUMMER holiday.

Last year, I wrote a blog post about how I found it hard to accept Autumn's arrival (even though I love all the colours, fashion and tasty things it brings once I finally embrace it). In the post, I explained how I'm a spring-summer kid, and I love it when the sunshine arrives with its warmer weather. So when I have the message being thrown at me from all sides that summer is over before it's begun, it doesn't make for a very happy me.

Some time ago, I read an article about how the media and the shopping industry  basically wish our life away, to the point where we're living in a constant panic to get things done. I'm already seing restaurants urging me to make reservations for Christmas, and the Christmas shopping season will start pretty much as soon as September arrives (barely squeezing in Halloween). I, for one, constantly feel like I'm being left behind, and I remember last year being convinced for a moment I was still in September when it was, in fact, November.

Once upon a time I was sheltered from this sped up passage of time. Now, thanks to the internet and shopping, I can't hide from it. I want to live in the moment, in peace, without someone or something urging me to get on with the next big event of the year. I don't want to see hot cross buns and Easter Eggs in the shops on the 1st of January, when Easter isn't until March/April. I don't want to think about Valentine's Day until February. I don't want to buy my swimsuits in March and my winter coats in August. I would like to have the option of buying and eating pumpkins for the duration that they are in season, not just for Halloween, and I don't want to be urged to make Christmas plans in the summer.

So, shops, media, et al: summer is not over yet. Stop trying to convince me otherwise.

Monday, 27 June 2016

Simple Pleasures

Life lately has been a bit... meh. I don't like my job, I'm still having trouble finding friends in the place I moved to six months ago, and I'm constantly frustrated by tiredness and a lack of time to dedicate to things I especially enjoy (blogging among them!) But even though I'm constantly "living for the weekend" and counting down the days until the end of my job, I have to keep reminding myself to see the positives and grab the happy moments. So rather than having a rant, I thought it was time I made a list of all the little, beautiful moments I come across each day.

Pockets of sunshine:
The weather has been up and down this summer, but when it's beautiful I'm sure you can all agree how depressing it is to be cooped up in a stuffy building for eight precious, sunny hours each day. But thankfully the days are also longer, so I grab that sunshine whenever I can. In the mornings on my way to work, on the way home, and either sitting on my balcony (this is a nice novelty indeed) or in the back bedroom which gets the evening sun. It's not much, but what little I get certainly puts me in a better mood :)

Natural beauty:
I know it sounds like a bit of a cliché, but when I spend all day in a gloomy work place the beauty I see on the way to and from work or through the windows really does cheer me up and gives me a little something to wonder at each day. What with the blossom turning into every shade of rich, full green, the appearance of flowers, the way the morning sky looks on a sunny day (or even a grey day), I have enough inspiration to paint several paintings if I had the time (and half the talent) to do so.

A big cup of tea:
My post-work ritual this year so far has been to make a nice strong tea in a good sized mug (I bought several of those large Cath Kidston mugs for this very reason) and to put my feet up for half an hour (or longer, if I have time) with a good book. My go-to tea for this purpose has been Hampshire Tea, which is a blend of Assam from All About Tea in Southsea (if you're a local tea lover and you don't know about this shop yet, you need to check it out). And, as mentioned earlier, if the sun's out this ritual is that much more blissful.

I mentioned in my last post that we've finally acquired a pair of bookcases, and I've got to be honest, few material objects make me happier. I know I'm a bibliophile when just the sight of all my books together on their shelves make me feel good, seeing all those adventures I've lived and all the new stories just waiting to be discovered. And book-buying has also become quite a regular thing, although that's not so great for my bank account :o

Spinnaker Tower:
For those of you who aren't familiar with Portsmouth, Spinnaker Tower is a tall, sail-inspired landmark that can be seen from quite a way away. To me, it's a symbol of a city I grew to love when I studied at Portsmouth University, and since we've moved back to the area, I was chuffed to find that we can see the Tower from the balcony of our new apartment. It's comforting to be able to see it every day, and I always feel a tinge of nostalgia and affection. I've done so much moving around throughout my life, but Portsmouth is still one of my (many) homes.

Coffee dates:
I once said that no weekend is complete without a trip to a tea/coffee shop, and maybe a piece of cake. For some reason, my partner and I don't seem to do this as often as we used to, but it's still a pastime I love, and it's an extra special treat on the off-chance we get to do this on a week day after work. Combining tasty things, a nice atmosphere and good company is a great way to while away some minutes and have a good old catch up.

Six months after moving, I expected my home to be how I want it by now. But it turns out that "decorating" is taking longer than expected. We took on a furnished rental apartment, and while the furniture is nice, it's just not really me. Nevertheless, I've managed to combine the minimalistic vibe the furniture demands with hints of the brighter colours and art styles I enjoy. It's slowly coming together, and while I still have pictures to put up because I have yet to borrow/acquire a drill (so adult), it's finally starting to feel like my home (and when it's technically my first home, it means so much more). So it's those little objects and details that are "me" that make my home all the more lovely to spend time in, whether it's the pictures I collected over the years, little ornaments and stationery items, or the likes of bedding and cushions that are mine (I sound like a fussy old lady, hehe). As of a couple of weekends ago, I also now have my collection of crystals dotted about, and whether or not they do have special vibes or powers, the flat certainly feels more positive, and I finally feel like we've landed, like this is our home.

So if you're in a similar situation and you find yourself living for the weekend, just remind yourself of the little things :)

Sunday, 22 May 2016

Reading Material

We all have dreams, right? This is a bit silly, but one of my dreams from a young age was to have my own bookcase. This seems like a simple thing to want, but somehow we never had the space for me to have my own bookcase growing up.

A short while ago, my simple dream became a reality. I've been living with the future Mr for almost a year now (has it really been that long?) and we finally made that trip to Ikea to get a couple of their 7ft tall (ginormous!) bookcases. My behaviour, from going to Ikea to getting the furniture delivered and built, was that of a kid in a sweet shop. All my beautiful books, which have lived in boxes, wardrobes or split between my new home and my parents' place, now finally have their own home, where I can look at them, have them readily available and order how I please. A bibliophile's dream come true, right?

I read the usual books as a child, especially fantasy: Roald Dahl, Enid Blyton, Narnia, and of course, Harry Potter, which quite honestly changed my life. Following on from Harry, I sought out books to fill that Harry-sized hole, but eventually I fell into a reading slump. I had reached that awkward age where I felt too old for kid's books but thought that adult books must be boring. Perhaps now, with the abundance of YA on the shelves, things would have been different, but instead, my studies and my discovery of the internet took up most of my time.

Over a period of two or three years, the most riveting thing I read happened to be Twilight, until the final book of the series put me off for life. There was a stream of half-read books, pulp fiction that people told me to read, and books that had been given to me but that I just didn't bother with. Suddenly, the girl who loved to read had become a listless eighteen year old too interested in watching bad TV shows. I felt like I'd lost a big part of who I was.

It was in my final year at university when a chain of events took place that led me to want to rediscover myself and my interests, and the reader in me made a vow to finish every book I picked up, and that I would read all of the so-called classics. There were just too many lists of "books to read before you die" for me to carry on without delving deeper into the world of literature. And do you know what? Four years later there have only been two books I have abandoned. It's not a bad knock.

I also managed to put my time-wasting on the internet to good use. Tumblr turned out to be a good way to discover new reading material, as the sort of people I followed were fond of reblogging literary quotes and poetry, and discussed great literature regularly. My shelves gradually filled up with everything from the Bront√ęs to the Beat Generation. Some books I liked, some I was indifferent to, some I absolutely adored. I have such a long reading list of books that have stood the test of time that it's difficult for me to incorporate more recently released works, but I managed to squeeze in a spot of YA along the way (The Hunger Games and The Fault in our Stars were perhaps the best, and the sort of books that can still appeal to someone who no longer takes much interest in teen fiction). I've probably only made a dent in the "books to read before you die", both classics and more modern treasures, but I can certainly say that my collection is slowly growing and great novels have been ticked off my list. So if you're in a similar situation to what I was in a few years ago, take a trip to your local thrift store and pick up a few books that catch your eye, or else check out bookish social media sites such as Goodreads (or Tumblr, or Pinterest, or search hashtags like #bookstagram over on Instagram). You may be surprised by what you find and be able to kickstart your reading habits again.

Happy reading :)

Sunday, 14 February 2016

Valentine, be mine.

We've heard all the excuses: "Valentine's Day is too commercialised", "I don't need one day of the year to show someone I love them, I do it all the time", "it's not fair on the singles", "it's a waste of money", etc. But while I can agree with (some of) those statements, I don't think that's a reason to not celebrate Valentine's Day.

It may just be hopeless romantic, in a relationship, me, but I both love Valentine's Day and I believe it should be celebrated, even if the day is marked by something as simple as giving cards (even handmade ones, they're the best) and spending time with the person you love, whether that's a candlelit dinner or a completely free stroll on the beach or in a park. There are a million ways to celebrate Valentine's without pouring away your money, and unless there is some important commitment or an issue of distance, there is no reason why you shouldn't spend the day with your loved one (and hey, the cost of a card and a postage stamp is only around £2!) And what about the singles, you say? Well, why not use the occasion to let that person who has stolen your heart know how you feel about them? And if there is no one, well, did you know that in Finland Valentine's Day is known as Friend's Day? The first Valentine's letter, sent from St Valentine himself on the day of his execution, was for a friend who had comforted him in his final hours, after all. (If you don't know the story of St Valentine, he was a priest in Roman times who performed forbidden marriages. You can't get more romantic than that!) So arrange to meet your fellow single friend, write them a card about how awesome they are, take some flowers, chocs, sweets, or whatever you think they'll love and spend an evening watching great movies, cooking together, having a natter... the possibilities are endless.

And to those of you who don't think you need one day of the year to show that person how much you love them, well, here is the reason why, above all, I love Valentine's Day: it's the one day of the year when I'm surrounded by people openly showing their affection, whether that's on social media or in public. Seeing the things couples (and friends) are doing for/with each other makes me feel all gooey and puts my faith back into love and romance.

So don't be cynical today. Show your loved ones how much they mean to you, ask out that special someone, call up your best friend. There's a lot of love in the world, and even if it is shared all year round, this is the one day of the year I can truly see it and appreciate it.

Happy Valentine's Day, you beautiful people <3

Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Dreams for plans

It's that time of year when everyone is posting reviews of how their year has gone, and when it came to deciding what to write for my final post of 2015, I thought I would do the same. In fact, I felt obliged, but every time I considered it, it felt like a chore. A lot has happened this year, a lot of amazing, beautiful memories have been made, but I have also learned some valuable lessons, and one of them is to stop living in the past.

It's something I've done for a long time, looking back, and while I will continue to make a record of good moments and memories, I've also let the bad memories come back to haunt me too. There is always something I want to change or take back, but it's time I stopped thinking that way. I need to stop looking behind me, which is why I will be entering 2016 looking forward, making plans and living dreams and living in the moment with my loved ones.

So we'll get the review out of the way in a nice quick summary, a little paragraph where I tell you just how special 2015 has been to me. I spent the first half of it in Hamburg, Germany, fulfilling the little dream I was working towards since the first time I went to Germany back in 2011. I met some wonderful people (many of whom will surely be friends for life), learnt some beautiful and valuable life lessons and built up my German to the point where I now feel confident I can use it in a job. In the second part of the year I did a lot of moving around, but most importantly, I moved in with my partner, discovered a new city which I was very sad to leave, learnt I'm actually not that bad at cooking and worked a great deal on my writing. Before I knew it, September rolled around, and I ticked another dream off my bucket list with a visit to the Alhambra Palace in Granada, combined with a beautiful, relaxing holiday by the sea, where a certain somebody popped a certain question. I fell in love all over again, moved back to the place where I went to university (which also happens to be my fiancé's hometown) and launched into Christmas preparations. We bought our first Christmas tree (I'm like a kid at Christmas) and had a little fake Christmas on which I cooked a Christmas dinner I'm pretty proud of. And now, after spending Christmas itself with my family, I'm looking forward to welcoming the new year with all my nearest and dearest.

2016 has so much to offer. My new year's resolution is to get back into painting (I replenished my oils stock a few days ago with my Christmas money) and to continue work on my latest novel (and hopefully finish editing my last one). In April I am planning to revisit Hamburg and all the lovely people I met there. I am starting a new job at the end of January which will hopefully, finally be a step in the direction of the career I want and later in the year I will hopefully be ticking yet another item off the bucket list and having my dream trip around Italy. The planning for that holiday starts next week. Aside from that, we have a wedding to plan and money to save, and while I admit I buried my head in the sand for a while during the house move, it's definitely time to get the ball rolling on that front.

So I have a new year, a new home and a new job, basically, a whole fresh start. I have friends new and old to get in touch with and trips to go on and a life to plan, but I'll remember to leave room for plenty of spontaneity as well (in my experience, that's when the best memories are made). And I will stop looking back.

Happy New Year to you all!
Out with the old and in with the new :)

Thursday, 3 December 2015

NaNoWriMo - an overview of November 2015

My last post here was just before I dived into NaNoWriMo which, along with moving house and leaving my job, took over my November. You may recall how excited I was to get started, to begin writing a story that had been bubbling away in the background for years and to revisit characters I loved and didn't want to lose. Well, that excitement produced a nice, fat 6,404 words on November 1st, a NaNoWriMo first day personal best. I stayed two or three days ahead of target for the first two weeks, which is just as well as the stress of moving plus a couple of unforeseen obstacles set me back. Towards the end of the month, two five-hour-long train journeys between Liverpool and Portsmouth got me back on track, and I finished nicely with just over 50,000 on November 30th.

But I'm not writing this post to talk about my word count, even if this has been the nicest, easiest Nano I've done so far (not to mention the quickest, where did that month go??). Instead, I'd like to talk about some of the things I've learnt through winning Nano a 4th time, and this time it's after I've successfully finished a first draft of an earlier work in progress and moved on to the editing process.

In the past, I always stuck to the traditional values of NaNoWriMo: write something, anything, lock away your inner editor, unleash your creativity, get those words out and onto the page. Most importantly, in fact, get those words out. Write your 50,000. It doesn't matter how you get there. While I agree that in some cases sticking to these values is enjoyable and surprising (you never know what your imagination is going to produce when working to such a tight deadline), thinking this way has also let me down in the past, or else left me with a mess I have to untangle. My first two Nano wins were useless, once I got passed the beginning I had planned and realised I didn't have a middle. While I agree that some of what I wrote is better than I expected, it doesn't always match the plot I planned, and I'm left with a story that has gone off on a tangent, down a road I didn't want it to walk down. My third Nano win was more successful, and this is the draft I went on to finish and subsequently revise. But even then, even though I stayed closer to the path, I had huge gaps and threads of story that I somehow had to bring together, and it took me two years on and off to finally turn it into something I was happy with.

So, when putting pen to paper for this year's novel (which, for those of you wondering, is a complete overhaul of my first attempt at Nano back in 2009), I knew I didn't want to mess it up. This novel has been a baby I want to bring up the right way, and after years of waiting and feeding it ideas bit by bit, I've finally had another shot at getting it right. I occasionally found myself forgetting the true goal of this novel and getting caught up in the Nano rush, and once or twice I fell into the trap of writing any old thing to achieve the word count, but I pulled myself up on it before it went too far. I let the inner editor out once, to cut 700 words (which I got told off for by a fellow Wrimo and vowed to use the "strikeout" feature from now on, as per her instruction), but my novel is better for it. And in the past my tactic had always been to skip ahead when I got bored or blocked with what I was writing, and while I agree that this is a good way to keep the writing going instead of getting stuck, I often made the mistake of skipping too far ahead and struggling to link the scenes together later on. I've learnt my lesson from that and made the gaps smaller this time around, writing as lineally as possible. But please don't avoid writing later scenes altogether. If you already have the climax or the ending unravelling in your head, or even a scene you just really want in your novel, make sure you write it down while it's fresh in your mind and use it as something to work towards. Just make sure it fits in nicely with the rest of your story during re-writes!

So at the end of this year's NaNoWriMo, I've really understood how to make Nano work for me. As I've always said, the programme is a great way to kickstart your novel, and it goes without saying that the atmosphere, the people you meet both online and in write ins, the tips and tricks and moral support are invaluable and make for a wonderful experience. But, if you know how you want your novel to go and intend to edit it later on (instead of just writing for enjoyment and creativity's sake like I know a lot of people do), make sure you remember what the end goal is. It's not too difficult to write 50,000 words of just anything. Keeping your novel on track and producing something you want to show the world is much harder.

So I hope you all had a good November, whether or not you joined in with NaNoWriMo. If you are a regular participant or you are thinking of joining in next year, I would love to buddy up with you and hear how you do. My account can be found here:

All the best and happy holidays :)