“I will be calm. I will be mistress of myself”

Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility

Calm is such a beautiful word, don’t you think? Just whispering it softly could make one believe that everything really will be ok. Words are such a passion for me. I have a “bag” of favourite words at home and in there you will find “grace”, “dignity” “serendipity” “cherish” “love” “epiphany” and my children’s, my grandchildren’s and my parent’s names. I’m actually not sure that there is anything quite as moving as the names of one’s own family. My Mother was christened Norah McKay – she absolutely hated it, but now I think it’s pretty cool.

Something I have discovered in this weird period of lockdown is a growing passion for some of the writers I’d previously spurned. Take Jane Austen, why did I not know how totally brilliant she was and that she knew everything you needed to know about being a woman at any age. And as I’m just into the first chapter of Middlemarch – I know I know I feel totally ashamed that I hadn’t read it before – I feel I’m on a whole new literary journey into the wonder and excitement of female writers throughout the centuries.

You see back in the day I was a Thomas Hardy girl all the way and can proudly boast to have read The Mayor of Casterbridge 20 times before I was 25. Yes really, and that was cover to cover. I was obsessed with Graham Greene, although I never got why anyone would actually choose to be a Catholic, and his treatment of moral ambiguities in political settings. I still relive the dark haunting magic of Brighton Rock, when I visit the South Coast seaside town. And yes I even had a thing for Hemingway (I know a bad choice for a woman’s woman but have you read Old Man and the Sea – pure gold).

I guess back then, as the brooding, lost and quite lonely young woman I was, I was deeply touched and strangely comforted by Hardy’s pessimistic view of the world. And I still weep at one of my all time favourite lines:

Susan is pretty, but her face often has the hard, half-hearted expression on one who expects the worst.”

And this line got me thinking is there really anything so wrong in expecting the worst? Sometimes my greatest emotional difficulties in life have been caused when life hasn’t lived up to my hugely inflated aspirations of what it “should” be delivering. I think I actually got happy when I stopped investing in the future and realised we seldom have any control over much at all. Terrible things have always happened and I’m guessing always will. Whoever would have thought that that COVID-19 would be such a close neighbour – well actually Bill Gates did but that’s another story.

This acceptance idea really isn’t as grim a thought as it seems. Having studied Yoga, and the philosophy of yoga, for many years (I’m still very much an amateur) I have worked continually, and often very badly, in the pursuit of trying to live in the present. It certainly is a hard gig this “present living” and so often I drift off course lamenting “oh why oh why didn’t I take that dream job that would have transformed everything …blah blah blah. And, of course, if I could just have that house, life, cake, handbag … then everything will be just fine.

But, like a stream gently pounding away as it slowly and surely changes the form of the rock, continually drawing back into the present moment starts to change the shape of the mind. In the sublime Hindu scripture The Bhagavad Gita the mind is likened to a chariot of wild horses. One has to keep drawing in the reigns to gain control and keep the whole thing steady. And this really is lifelong work.

If you suffer, and I mean to use this word, from a very active mind like I do, I wholeheartedly recommend that, like me, you meditate on this idea every single day for the rest of your life:) It seems that there is never so many quick fixes with this mind stuff – one just has to keep coming back time and again. But when the medicine starts to work boy it is the most life changing/exciting trip I’ve ever been on.

I’m here to tell you after 10 years of meditation, I have transformed myself from a ruthlessly ambitious, neurotic, obsessive worrying hypochondriac into a normal-ish person. Most beautiful of all however is that I now feel at peace in my own skin. I would not trade this feeling for all the tea in China. It is as good as it gets.

Now young people, listen up, maybe you are lucky and you already feel this – I don’t have the evidence but I suspect if you do you are in the very fortunate minority here. But do not lose heart if you haven’t. Do not believe them when they say you are so exciting, such fun, so attractive, make things happen. If all the air, life and joy leave your body when you close that bedroom door then I have something else way more beautiful for you to believe in.

On the outside I had great life in my 20s and 30s, on the inside I was like an empty shell. But due to the work I’ve done on the inside, I now steer away from drama but my life has never been so exciting. I’m getting old now, but feel so young, vibrant and curious. I rarely worry about things going wrong, because the worst has already happened to me and whilst life is great now at some point in the future it will all go wrong again. It’s just how it works. Whilst I’d do anything not to be alone when I was young, now I choose to spend a lot of time alone yet I’ve never felt less lonely. I have lines around my eyes, my hair is shimmering with silver white strands and I’m way podgier than I would like – yet I’ve never felt more beautiful.

Oh I wish I could bag these ingredients for a wonder cure for any kind of misery and angst and give them back to my young self. I wish I could give them to you if you are struggling at whatever age you are at. It really is there for the taking. I think I’m talking most about serenity and non-attachment. Of course one has to adhere to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – I’m not sure how much serenity can be found in Syria right now or any other war torn county. But if we have enough health, enough wealth, enough love we really have won the lottery. And yes even in lockdown.

So yup I’m getting bored now – maybe like you. I miss my family, my friends, my two little Grandchildren. But I’ve learnt, through my difficulties, that boredom is a great teacher and forces one to get creative. Apart from loving my new book I’ve taken to teaching my Grandchildren each night just for 15 minutes on zoom. We’ve done elephants, giraffes and planets and now dipping into biology. Seeing their little faces drinking in the weird and wonderful facts about our lovely lovely World, makes me feel like I’ve won the lottery. Reminder to self to write this in my gratitude diary.

If we get our mind right, everything else flows. And this is what I now have written above my desk. My mantra.

I will not let anyone walk through my mind with their dirty feet.”

Mahatma Gandhi

Stay safe, stay well and stay kind

Debbie x

Once we accept loneliness, we can get creative

Loneliness makes us more capable of true intimacy if ever better opportunities do come along. It heightens the conversations we have with ourselves, it gives us a character. We don’t repeat what everyone else thinks. We develop a point of view. We might be isolated for now, but we’ll be capable of far closer, more interesting bonds with anyone we do eventually locate.

The School of Life

I’ve always been lonely. I think it’s part of the very fabric of my character, as it seems to have permeated every stage of my life. I used to be embarrassed about admitting it – doesn’t it ooze the idea of the unwanted/the misfit/the pitiful – but for many years I have been working on accepting it.

I think that loneliness is very much central to the complexity of humanity. How can we be anything but lonely when we are born alone, die alone and really truly can anyone really understand us? And for that matter can we ever truly understand anybody else? Part of the rich tapestry of life – we are actually all so terribly interesting. And if we are all really lonely then surely that doesn’t make us feel so alone.

What I do know is that false company, false rainbows and false activities are a waste of this precious life and a one way street to misery. I ditched them long ago and I’m so grateful that I did. The phone didn’t ring so much, the party invitations dried up and there were a few hairy moments when people didn’t like the direction I was going in. I had to hold very very tight at times and keep my eye on the prize ahead – to live an entirely authentic meaningful life and, is Maya Angelou’s words, to live it with some style.

I spent 10 years working on myself – yup that long this internal stuff is hard hard work. I unwrapped, unpeeled, ditched, burnt all the messages that I didn’t want anymore. i went deep, and then when I was brave enough deeper still. I wrote, and wrote and wrote. I meditated and meditated some more. I spent years reading every psychology, philosophy, theology book I could get my hands on. My late husband once challenged the guy in the local Waterstones to” find one self-help book in here that my wife hasn’t read.” – to be fair he did, but it was a close run thing.

And then my daughter died and so did part of me. I had to start all over again.

But the work I had done permeated really deep and was a fundamental part of me learning to live again. They say you can only be as happy as your unhappiest child. I think that’s right and I’m still not exactly sure where that leaves us bereaved Mothers.

So there was me smugly thinking that all the work I’d done would kind of cushion me in this lockdown. I’ve made friends with loneliness and reframed it as an essential part of my creative mind. To be honest I’m not sure I’ve ever met a writer or other artist who shies away from being alone. I think the trick to all this is in the wording – alone/solitude good. Lonely – not so much.

But this lockdown thing presents a whole new challenge me thinks. As the external landscape has temporarily disappeared from view, the vaults of my mind seem to be swinging open again. And in there, for me at least, is a whole load of messy bits that could do with a good tidying up again. Above all else I feel the whispers of the past calling me again – back into the choppy waters of grief.

And so I will stay a while as I know so well that to do anything less would be a very bad idea. The School of Life (wonderful organisation) says insomnia is the revenge for all that we try so hard not to resolve in the daylight. I think the same applies to depression, unhappiness and loss of purpose/joy – our subconscious is such a powerful tool it will keep shout and roar at us until we stop and take notice.

I revisit so much of what happened with my daughter and I try and sit with the pain again and again. Sometimes it’s jagged edges soften a little, but other times I just have to take the stabs again and again into my heart. You see the pain of the loss really is equal to the strength of the love and it never goes away. But you know what that’s ok I never want it to. And this time I find myself planning a little gold pendant that I can wear around my neck, next to my heart, with her name on it. And that feels a really nice thought. And off I go again into the normal cadence of another day.

It’s all ok. It really is.

So many of us have our own griefs and losses don’t you think? Not always of a person, sometimes of a dream, a missed opportunity, our youth, our potential. This life thing is a tough gig. And maybe with all this space, your mind too is starting to crack open and invite you deep within….. terrifying/thrilling/inviting all at the same time.

Julia Cameron, one of the original self help gurus, says in her beautiful book The Artist’s Way “it feels like now is a good time for people to find their inner lives.” I half envy some of you who may just be starting out. You’ve got a cracking adventure ahead ..

In no way do I want to divert from the horror of this pandemic, of the lives lost in the most dreadful ways. But is it not also holding a giant mirror up to us all and our mad mad lives. Recent research shows that only 9% of people want to return to their pre-Covid lives. Whatever were we all doing that makes lockdown seem so appealing. Madness.

For me I have lived a gentler, quieter life ever since my daughter died. As I’ve said before it changed me at such a fundamental level. My brain was rewired then for kindness, compassion and connection. So strangely the more I let go of things, the more a beautiful space emerged where so many other things could grow and flourish. It was like I had stripped back some land and could now choose which crops to tend to create my life. The life I wanted to live.

I often retreat from the World to write and it gives me the deepest pleasure of almost anything else. And the more I have found my authentic voice, the more people talk to me, write to me, make friends with me. This all happened because I stopped listening to outside voices and instead made my own voice my best friend. So just as I was making friends with loneliness, I now have more connections with so many people across the World.

I also don’t mean to dismiss the pain of loneliness – and I am fortunate in so many ways as I so often choose this way of living. My heart literally breaks for the people who are trapped into lives where they have no human contact. Shame on us all for allowing any other human being to feel like this.

There’s this great new book out (I highly recommend it) Together: Loneliness Health and What Happens When We Find Connection by Vivek H Murthy. He repeats some of the dismal statistics on loneliness such as a 2009 study that showed the health impact of loneliness is the same as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. A 2013 poll showed that 76% of GPs in Britain said they saw between one and five patients a day whose visit was primarily driven by loneliness.

In my desperate times there have always been those magical people who just showed up and don’t go away. They haven’t tried to fix anything, they are just there and have walked beside me until things got a little better. And they are not always the people you expect – one of my greatest companions had been a work colleague I’d found an absolute nightmare. Another lesson there – let go of judgement – we really have no idea what other people are going through.

So like so many of my musings I come back at the end to love. To love, compassion and connection. If we all keep just showing up for our family, our friends, our community, I think that’s about as good as it can get. And just maybe so many more of us are being reminded of the real magic of this funny old life.

Please keep writing to me. I absolutely love hearing your thoughts and stories.

With all my love,

Debbie xx

“A Diamond is a chunk of coal that did well under pressure”

Henry Kissinger

Oh no my hair is going white. Yes, actually white! There are some little known advantages of having been a redheaded child. Once you choose to forget the constant claims that you have a bad temper (I don’t) and you suit green (I don’t). Apparently – and this is backed by research (not sure why they did this) – but us redheads feel less pain (true), have better immune systems (don’t intend to test this one in the current climate) and we lose our hair colour later in life and when it goes it goes snowy white (both true I’m now finding).

I’m guessing many of you out there are, like me, being re-acquainted by our midlife natural hair colour. And it’s proving a bit of a surprise, but maybe not as bad as we had once thought.

Ok I admit to a flicker of terror when the white first emerged. But then I caught a glimpse in a window, in the sunlight, and thought actually I can see a little Hollywood glamour there. Few days in I suddenly felt incredibly empowered – I can do this. I can go white and still be me and maybe even a better more authentic version of me. It felt not just ok, it felt good.

I’ve got this thing about the media narrative on age. The talk of demise, the horrors of menopause, decay, endings, empty nests, anti-ageing, turning back time … how boring and what nonsense. Sure things change and I do know some people have a horrible time with hormones. But for heavens sake there is so so much more to the un-chartered territory of age in this time – isn’t it all way more interesting than that?

With my history, believe me, I find it an absolute privilege to have reached the age of 56 and still feel (for now) in pretty good nick. I remember once shaving a couple of years off of my age for some fashion feature – yuck it just felt so horrible. It was as if I was lying to my own body and soul. The worst thing about not embracing one’s real age is the damage it does to our own authenticity and our own self esteem – it’s letting the shame message seep in and this is very bad for our mental health.

I’m so bored with sayings like “50 is the new 40″. It isn’t. Us humans last for a certain number of years and whilst this might be increasing, it’s not by much. I love that slogan “50 is the new 50” and really is there anything more sexy than that sassy confidence that comes with owning it and not giving a damn.

I’m not sure that there’s been a better time to celebrate just being alive, well and emotionally healthy. One of my life’s achievements is surviving. Trauma changed me completely. It made me: a better person, a nicer person and it gave me the ability to lead a better more joyful life. As they say “there’s a rainbow in every cloud” – but only if you want there to be.

Don’t we need a whole new truthful conversation about what it means to be the age that we are in. Speaking personally I want to know about the joy of being alive, embracing our lucky lives, being confident in our skin, passing down wisdom, falling in love again at any age, watching our families grow or loving our friends a little more each year as we know that this life thing is pretty unpredictable.

I look at the lines around my eyes and I can see pain, magic and love etched in each one. I have them because I’ve lived quite a few years and done quite a few things in that time – that makes me proud, not ashamed. I look at the tubbiness around my, once washboard, tummy and I feel so blessed that I was able to have two children. I look at my white hair – natural highlights that will save me a fortune – and think ah another mark of time moving on. I think of Helen Mirren, Honour Blackman (RIP), Emmylou Harris, Jamie Lee Curtis and how beautiful they all look. It’s all ok.

And then I think of that Kissinger quote and feel so passionately that the real loveliness of any human being so often comes out after really testing times. There’s such a dignity in resilience and survival and it’s all so interesting. Who knows what the challenge of these times will leave behind in our own bodies and souls.

I was enthralled by a beautiful article in this week’s Sunday Times by the palliative care doctor and author Rachel Clarke (I do think people who care for others at the end of life have so much to say about living one’s best life.) Titled “Finding light in the darkness” she points out that facing up to our own mortality is something many of us have never had to do until now. I was so delighted to hear her add, what I have believed for so long, that “when we do life becomes imbued with such joy”.

As I’ve said before I’ve spent many years researching, writing and thinking about death. At first it was forced upon me, but the more I looked and refused to turn away, the more interesting it all became. I can honestly say that it is this work, above anything else, that has given me the sheer grit and determination to never sweat the small stuff, forgive quickly, not enter anybody else’s drama and love as much and as often as I can.

It’s a great lesson. But I do know it can be too brutal an idea for many, especially in the current climate. So I will pipe down with my almost evangelical beliefs around daily meditations on death. Instead, if you don’t already, may I recommend meditating on the more gentle idea that time is short for all of us and we are all just passing through – as only then will the doors of your mind swing open and your real path – untarnished by external stuff – will make itself known. Peace and happiness are an inside job and we now all have the time to do the required internal work. How exciting is that.

And finally I leave you with thoughts of my two of my new loves – a 6pm gin and tonic (just one) and the English Poet Ted Hughes. I’ve always wanted to immerse myself in his work – and now in lockdown I’ve been able to do just that. I absolutely love what he says about living and I hope you enjoy it too:

The only calibration that counts is how much heart people invest, how much they ignore their fears of being hurt or caught out or humiliated. And the only thing that people regret is that they didn’t live boldly enough, that they didn’t invest enough heart, didn’t love enough. Nothing else really counts at all.”

Happy, peaceful Easter to you all.

Debbie xxx

We can’t direct the wind; but we can adjust the sails

summer house, paraffin light and a wireless – so 1970s

Oh I thought I was a city girl at heart. Now, I’m not so sure. London is my City, it’s rooted into my heart. The vibrancy, the cultural mix, theatre on your doorstep, the cool urban fashion, the arts, the people – in more normal times it is an intellectual and cultural nirvana. Sure, it’s a bit stand off-ish, reserved and maybe even a bit brash – but stay a while and look deeply and you will find it has a great big warm soul. It’s hard making friends in cities, but be sure if you make a Londoner your friend it will be for life. There’s a decency and honesty to this liberal City, which always makes me hopeful (even in the current situation). And I speak as a woman of proud Irish origin who has adopted this great City as my own – and if you know anything about the Irish of my generation this is a compliment indeed.

Now for the past month I’ve been hanging out in the English countryside (half necessity half choice) and I’ve found, to my utter delight and surprise, a whole new way of living and feeling.

Let me rewind a moment and set some context. I have history with self isolating so I’ve learnt a thing or two about living like this. Maybe like you dear reader, I’ve also seen life turn very dark and very frightening in the blink of an eye. I learnt long ago that one can rage and rage and the universe does not always speak back. Events unfold and us humans are so often left vulnerable and defenceless. There is no fairness, no justice – it just is what it is.

When my little girl was ill, I dared the Gods in heaven to take me on – a Mother half mad with grief for what she thought should have been. I almost heard them laugh and whisper “Who are you to think you are so special. Who are you to think you have any control.”

I didn’t and I was swept along in the debris that was left after they’d finished with me and my family. But I did learn something very precious, that is serving me well in these difficult days. In Maya Angelou’s words “if you don’t like something change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude.”

I spent three years in and out of self-isolation with my daughter. It was hell, heart-breaking and completely magical. It was all of those things – sometimes at the same time. But the real beauty of the moment only emerged when I gave up trying to change things and instead looked for the hope and joy in every moment.

And we found it – we found so much of it. First I had to drop any silly illusions of grandeur – nobody cared what I did for a living or how successful I thought I’d been – it was of no interest and of no help. Then I had to give up on time and any expectation that anything would happen. I lived for many weeks, months and even years in my house and quite often in her bedroom. The World kept on turning and I often didn’t know if it was day or night.

Here’s the strangest thing – looking back I had some of the happiest times of my life – they were certainly amongst the most deeply spiritual times where I saw up close and very personal what really mattered. Family, friends came by and stayed. Instead of clock watching, we stopped and nestled into each other. We talked, we read poetry, watched TV, played games, looked at the stars, baked and sometimes just did nothing.

And here we are again, but this time it’s all of us in it together – no place to run. To me this seems very familiar territory – again fate seems to be raging at us and reminding, should we need it, that this kind of pandemic has no respect for money, status or creed. Gosh it really is the ultimate leveller.

In the countryside I have been so enthralled to hear, and I mean really hear, the birdsong. Is there anything more beautiful? My daily rush hour tube crush (God knows how any of us will ever think that this is ok after all of this) is replaced by a morning yoga session with a growing community of people looking to start the day in a different way. I take time to call friends and family and really listen to what they are saying and likewise I feel really heard for the first time in a few years.

My partner and I have slotted into a gentle cadence of a new timetable. I used to hate him travelling away so much with work, now he’s with me and we talk like we’ve never done before. I feel a whole different connection and it reminds me that the most important gift we can give to another human being is our time.

I’ve always suspected that I am at heart an introvert, albeit in extravert clothing… my job, the City demanded a more assertive personality. With the slowness, with the silence I have found my inner introvert taking over and really embracing “her” moment in the Sun. I’ve found this Summer House in the garden – I’ve named it “my girl shed” – and I’ve been virtually living down there. Tucked in the corner of the garden it has opened up a whole new inner World for me .. and I’m peeking through into all of the rooms of my own mind. I’m not sure that there is anything more fascinating than how our minds work and if we just give them the space to open up you could find some real hidden gems there.

Ok I’m only four weeks in. I have four pairs of trousers and six tops. I can’t do my hair and I can’t wear my huge selection of high heels. And so far none of this matters. I’m more careful what I cook, what I throw away, I tut at the unnecessary packaging that everything seems to come in and I’ve been in a car twice. So far I’ve uncovered a happiness and peace of mind that I touched before when my daughter was ill – but for some God forsaken reason I chose to forget about the learnings when I returned to normal life.

Not this time. I vow. If I was a religious woman, which I’m not, I would feel that God was reigning down his/her fury on us for our selfish, uncaring way of life. But I am a deeply spiritual person and I do believe we are having a giant mirror placed in front of us and I certainly don’t like what I see.

I have been meditating on what I want my life to look like from here on in. As a student of Buddhism I already meditate on death each day – I find this a completely joyful thing to do as it helps one not sweat the small stuff. I want to live each day as it truly is my last and then I know I have lived every second of this precious life. And what better way to honour our own dead than to embrace each second.

So I’m off back to my girl hut for the evening to work on a whole new creative project – something incredibly close to my heart . Watch this space so much more to come……

Oh and a huge thank you to the kind people who ask me to write. Writing helps me make sense of the World, but if I think even one of you is listening that makes it even more worthwhile.

Stay safe, hold each other very tight and stay home.

Debbie x

To the women in my life – with love

I’ll tell you a secret my dear friends – I’ve never really felt that I’ve belonged anywhere. As a child I would stare through other people’s windows, see the table set, the dimmed lamps and laughter and shared love. I thought it was lovely, but I never felt that would ever be part of my life.

I’ve glimpsed it but never felt that family blanket of love that would catch you whenever you fell whatever you did. Just never had it – and take it from me if you do have it cherish it with all your heart. It is a gift indeed. My early lesson was that I had to be the good child, not rock the boat and to work as hard as I could to keep any kind of show on the road. I don’t blame anybody anymore it’s just how it was.

I loved my Mother very much. It broke my heart when she died and left me at 19 with no family support and -perhaps even worse – no female role model to shine a light on the path ahead. I feel so sad when I look back at the bewildered, terrified and isolated young woman that I was.

But – I got the point pretty quickly necessity is so often the “mother of invention“. We really are stronger than we think – but only if we choose to be.

I strapped my boots on, dusted myself off and made a clear intention – I was going to survive and in the words of the wonderful Maya Angelou I was not just going to survive, but to thrive and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humour and some style.

And reporting back from the grand old age of 56, battle-weary maybe from some of life’s most horrid hurdles and a little beaten and bruised, I figure it was a pretty good intention to live one’s life by.

I have survived and I have done so – I hope – without losing the ability to care, to be kind, to connect and to live with utmost integrity. This final point is, I believe, the magic ingredient that is always required if one wants to live a happy life. Your body and soul knows when you are mean, tell fibs, speak badly of others – every fibre of you knows this and it will come back to get you.

But there’s something else that I want to share. Something that has formed a critical pillar in my life and has given me strength when I’ve needed it and comfort too. It’s the thing that keeps me up and I know will never desert me.

It is female friendship. Throughout all of my life I’ve been blessed with the most wonderful girlfriends. Some are new – I’ve met somebody recently who I’m quite sure will be a friend for life – others stretch back to school days, first jobs, yoga classes, friends of friends, my children’s friends Mothers. I have had the most amazing joy and some sense of family through these relationships.

So a lady wrote to me the other day and said how much she enjoyed my blog. I was so touched. And then she said the magic words – she’d given my blog to her daughter’s to read and they’d so enjoyed it. She asked me to write more – so my dear reader this post is really for you.

And here’s why. My early path in life, with no female role models, was bleak. I probably chose a particularly ruthless path – newspapers, fashion journalism, TV journalism – but I never found anybody then who I could look up to. I so wanted to see the woman I wanted to be – but they weren’t there. Looking back maybe I wasn’t ready to find them.

There is something inside me so strong that I want to model for young women what good looks like as one gets older. The negative narrative in the media of empty nests, demise, becoming invisible does not speak to me as it just isn’t true. Getting older is such a privilege denied to so many, I feel so blessed that I can spend my life trying to do something good, memorable, helping others – however small those gestures might be.

I am so blessed to have so many great women in my life – but believe me I’ve worked at it. All relationships need work and, second only to being a good Mother and Grand Mother, is my desire to be a good friend. It is the best investment that anybody can make.

And there was I thinking I had a full complement of female friends and along came one of the most magnificent women I’ve ever met. Sue Woodd https://www.suewoodd.com/is a human dynamo, fizzing with vibrancy, energy and so much humour and joy. She has been a life saver for me and now a kind of spiritual guide. And now, through her, I’ve met a whole tribe of other women who I feel completely at home with….. dare I whisper it almost like a family.

There are so many kindred souls out there if we choose to open our hearts to them. In these troubled times, what really matters comes to forefront. I hold my friends hearts very tightly and never want to let go. They really are as good as it gets.

Stay safe out there and much love

Debbie x

Hey all my girlfriends out there please remember the real power is within

Photo by Retha Ferguson on Pexels.com

I swear I will never do this again! Last week I heard the totally amazing Debra Searle https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Debra_Searle talk about what she’d learnt about rowing the Atlantic single handedly (her husband bailed early on) in a plywood rowing boat. She was alone at sea for months and went half mad with loneliness – but she did it. God what a woman.

So afterwards I went up to her and just said: “Debra, why did you do this?” She answered briefly before looking me straight in the eye and saying “how do you get your hair to go like that at the back?”

I’m sure Debra won’t mind me repeating this as we both clamped our hands over our mouths “What are we doing?? What about the trip – the days at sea, not seeing anyone for months, how totally awesome she is…… who cares about the flipping hair!!!

Why oh why do us women give our power away like this. Why do we care so much about what we look like (I include myself in this) Sometimes I think we’re our own worst enemies. We look everywhere to make us feel stronger/better/more worthy – and guess what it never ever works. A hairstyle, a piece of clothing, a man, the right shoes/bag/scarf -none of these things will ever ever work longterm.

Debra Searle is magnificent! Look her up – she’s done an extraordinary thing. So are so many of the women I work with. But get them on the quiet and so many of them will admit to all kinds of insecurities. Is it that we are honest and it’s just human to express vulnerability sometimes – btw I think it’s an absolute honour when somebody trusts you enough to admit this side of themselves. I guess men do this too – I love Alain de Botton’s https://www.alaindebotton.com/. advice that if a man buys a Ferrari he just really needs a hug as it’s a sure sign of inner weakness. Maybe men just do it in different ways.

So this week I’ll be working with two of my favourite women – mainly coaching around media. I know I will be laughing out loud, be totally inspired by their courage and zest for life – I also know we’ll do a lot of talking about: how to be heard, how to be assertive not aggressive, how to tackle imposter syndrome…same old, same old.

And I’ll point to women I think do power really well. Mishal Husain, Emily Maitlis (her forensic, detailed, professional drilling into Prince Andrew’s ridiculous alibi was a masterclass in interviewing techniques) and, of course, Helen Mirren. I think this is largely personal preference: I prefer grace dignity and steely calmness, but I do think this is just one way of doing female power. Others do well with bolshy, loud, domineering – that just doesn’t do it for me.

So as I prepare for my week I’ve jotted down what I think female power/influence is and what it is not. Please feel free to disagree:

  • It always comes from the inside – when somebody really knows who they are, what they are prepared to stand for and when they are prepared to stand up and be counted – and most importantly when the fight isn’t worthy of you
  • It is often quiet, although not always, it is about gravitas, grace under pressure and direct/honest communication
  • It is never about bullying, humiliating others, blocking other women, blocking anybody
  • It is NEVER achieved through: a relationship, status, a job title, how thin/rich somebody is
  • It is firmly boundaried and there is clarity around who is allowed in and who is not. The woman knows that there are some very unpleasant views out there about what a woman should and should not be. She is never cowed, but only chooses the battles she wants to fight.
  • She only engages in social media when she is in control – she can delete what/who she wants/whenever she wants. Anything but this is complete madness.
  • she looks after all other women – young, middle-aged, old – and knows it can be an increasingly scary world and we so need each other more than ever

Like so many others I was utterly heart broken to hear of the death of the super talented, sassy, charismatic Caroline Flack. All I hope is that this gives us all a little nudge to be that tiny bit kinder to each other.

Have a lovely week

Debbie xx

In Dublin’s Fair City…. what my Mother taught me about the power of kindness

My Mother died when I was 19, but I’m not sure there has been a day when I haven’t thought about her, “spoken to her”, or missed her terribly. She was a beauty indeed – but in hindsight my abiding memory was of somebody who lit up the world with a childlike Irish charm, a female boldness at odds with the times and my world was filled with magical stories of naughty leprechauns, fairies at the end of the garden and endless tales of the antics of my many many Irish relatives (my Mother being the youngest of 14 children).

Oh the Irish are such wonderful storytellers don’t you think? I’m sure it’s in the DNA – that and a liking for the drink:) Great article on why there are so many Irish writers https://francishpowellwriter.wordpress.com/2016/03/19/why-are-there-so-many-great-irish-writers/

In truth my Mother was a complicated character – aren’t we all? And a family motto of “don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story” did not, I now believe, serve us well. But there was something deep and beautiful that cursed through the McKay veins – whilst she truly believed that there was nothing she, or any of her children, was incapable of doing, she extended the same belief in all living beings. I have never met anybody with such a complete disregard for status – she truly believed she was no better, or no worse, than any other living being – and that included the menagerie of wounded wild animals that would fill our home.

There’s good in the worst of them, and bad in the best,” Grandma McKay would mutter.

And it is this quality above all others that I feel has held me steady, giving me purpose, a reason to believe through all of my troubles. I think the greatest gift my Mother gave me was the ability to view life with “a light touch” – to never expect the worst or the best but to always try to find the connection. Oh and the humour. That is a must.

I look in the mirror now and I see my Mother within me. I see my daughter too. Maybe some hope for my dear friends just setting off on the path of grief – my experience has been that love does not disappear it just changes shape. I still have a very lively, full-on – painful yes – relationship with both my Mother and my daughter. They are in my veins. The women in my life have always been pretty bonkers, but they’ve also provided me with a blueprint of what real female power/energy looks like – it may be courageous, edgy and difficult but it is also kind, warm and graceful.

I feel my family story has shaped me so much and for that I’m so grateful. As a writer I want to capture it’s essence for the younger members of my family – my daughter, my grand-daughter, my Sarah and all my numerous younger relatives – oh and for any young woman out there who grants me the honour of passing something on. So here goes. :

  • Always give people the space and time to connect to you. A lot of initial bad/unfriendly behaviour is just a front for unhappiness. Look beneath – but if it’s still bad under there run like hell and never go back.
  • Build your tribe of people with gentle hearts and give everything you can to them. Female friendships are one of life’s greatest and richest gifts. I have friends of 25 and 85 – I have childhood friends and women I’ve met this year. Cultivate, grow and love your friends – nothing will compare.
  • NEVER let anybody or anything define who you are. Regret is a terrible thing to live with and horrible to die with. At all times be true to yourself and to your own values and integrity – and defend these with your life. It is this that gives you purpose.
  • Liars don’t heal – I heard this from a well known psychotherapist the other day – and it’s been running through my mind. If you lie, are deliberately cruel to another being – your body knows what you have done. You may try and justify it, but you are poisoning your soul and your whole system. Make amends quickly and vow to respect yourself too much to hurt anybody else.
  • Be humble and don’t feel entitled. I learnt this when my daughter was ill “why me” I’d wail. Why not you? I’d challenge myself. Why ever would I think I was so special that I wouldn’t have total heartbreak. Loss/death are part of life – my huge Irish family knew this well – I’m making peace with this now.

Oh and finally one of my favourite kick arse quotes:

We are the granddaughters of the witches you weren’t able to burn.” ― Tish Thawer,

Mary Mckay, Norma Mckay – I hope you can hear me up there

Have a fabulous week and please keep writing to me – I love hearing from you on here or privately.

Debbie x

Watch out when a woman changes her hair – something is up

Do you remember that scene in Fleabag when Phoebe Waller-Bridge says:

Hair is everything. We wish it wasn’t so we could actually think about something else occasionally. But it is. It’s the difference between a good day and a bad day. We’re meant to think that it’s a symbol of power, that it’s a symbol of fertility. Some people are exploited for it and it pays your fucking bills. Hair is everything.”

Yup so true. But something else I’ve noticed when I , or one of my gorgeous girlfriends, goes for a totally new look there’s trouble ahead. Women NEVER cut all their hair off for no reason.. Never.

So just before Christmas I burst into my local hairdressers and demanded “get rid of it all”. Reece – best hairdresser in London – was terrified as he knew my penchant for rage and regret when he’s been a bit too sissor happy. But this time he knew I meant business and off it all came.

I hadn’t realised it at the time, but a new me was ready to emerge. I should have seen the signs, my partner certainly had as he stepped gingerly around me. My long suffering mentor/coach realised too: “somethings going on….” she said smiling and knowing that her calm counsel was starting to take effect.

I’m a bold person by nature – I don’t like too much comfort and like to work at the edge of my comfort zone. It’s where I’m happiest. But over the year I’d somehow lost my passion and enthusiasm – I’d started to feel stuck and emotionally drained.

You’re a people pleaser,” my annoying coach kept pushing me “Just stop it – life is short. You know what you want to do. You’re fooling yourself thinking you’re helping anybody.” And, as usual she was right.

The key to my problem was I’d strayed well outside of my circle of influence (if you haven’t already pls read Stephen R. Covey’s book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People®, doing way too many things that a) I didn’t have any influence over and b) was totally emotionally draining and c) not aligned to my fundamental principles.

Bad. Bad. Bad. There are so many things I want to do and it was sheer arrogance that I could do them all. On one week alone I’d pulled two all nighters and almost a third – fine when you’re 25 not so good when you’re not. So this is my promise to the new me:

  • never say yes immediately. Check diary and strategic plan and remember the answer is way more likely to be no.
  • focus on what you love doing and ban yourself from looking away from your strategic plan
  • update strategic plan and stick religiously to what is in it. Put a scull on my desk – like the buddhists do to remember that, in the words of my Grandmother “you’re a long time dead”
  • remember you are a creative who needs managing and structure – ideas are great but without a plan they are meaningless.
  • work with people you love, trust and respect. Avoid people you don’t
  • value everything you do and put a value on it. If you don’t, nobody else will

Just the kind of thing I’d say to one of my best girlfriends.

Have a great day

Debbie x

But what exactly is acceptable vulnerability and what is not? – my thoughts

Like so many of you I love Brené Brown‘s work on vulnerability and shame. Her new book Daring Greatly is awesome too. I totally get the courage needed, and the subsequent terror afterwards, when we take off our armour and allow a little glimpse of the mess and chaos that lies behind most of our behaviour. The older I get the more I feel we are all just a breath away from that inner chaos and if too many life events topple us over – we lose our footing and that is indeed a terrifying place to be.

I think this is what makes us human, helps us to connect to each other and allows us to really live our best, most honest, most exciting life – together. Bad behaviour, nastiness, bullying always comes from a hurt place inside a human being. When ones gets that it’s so much easier to be kind, compassionate and not to take things personally. As my late husband used to say “hurt people hurt people.”

Bruce Springsteen talks about this with his usual tender, heart wrenching honestly on Springsteen on Broadway and admits that he isn’t sure why anybody wants to see the real him (God if only he knew!) He suffers from depression. This doesn’t surprise me, I think it’s the strength of our own self hatred and shame that often is the source of many mental illnesses. We all need to forgive ourselves a little more – I know I do.

And, in my humble experience, it often is the most lovely people who hate themselves the most.

I’ve written a lot about my life and I’ve talked on many public stages about what has happened to me and how it left me feeling. I’ve always worked as a writer and story teller – it’s how I make sense of the World. But I honestly can’t tell you that writing or talking has helped me in any way. I know I’ve been crippled with self doubt and terror at the thought of sharing too much or the thought of people rolling their eyes saying “oh not that tragic woman again.”

What I do love is when other people write to me and say “thank you. You made me feel better/less lonely/that I can do this if you have.” That makes it all worthwhile. I’m no saint but I’m fundamentally driven to serve a purpose in this world. Forget money/status/position – I want to have been useful to others in my life.

Charley Mackesy, author of the Times’ best selling book The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse (if you haven’t read it I beg you to get it now) was on Radio 4 this morning talking about the colossal success of his book and about being brave. . He said he didn’t ever see himself as a brave man, in the traditional sense, but when his friend Bear Grylls, who certainly is a brave man in the traditional sense, asked him what’s the bravest thing he’d ever done he answered “asked for help”.

I still find asking for help one of the most incredibly difficult things to do – I trace mine back to a very painful childhood memory when I kept asking and somebody I loved wouldn’t give it to me (feeling very vulnerable admitting this). Intellectually I get what happened, it wasn’t my fault or really their’s, but boy does that memory still have power to drive my behaviour.

I was a great newsroom reporter. I was little and blonde (so a bit of a target) and had to cope with what I saw, at the time, as necessary low level sexual harassment – although now view that slightly differently. I was tough, spirited and never, ever cried at work. Ever. I was so often credited for my “steely calmness under extreme pressure” – in reality I was totally disassociated from the world and everybody in it. I allowed nobody close so nobody could let me down again/or hurt me – but at the same time I couldn’t truly love anybody either. Sure it got me respect/ promoted – but personally and spiritually it was a horrible place to be.

So Brene’s work on vulnerability has been life changing for me and I try to practice every single day. I know I care deeply about my fellow human being and about being a decent person – but I have to fight that frozen feeling at all times.

A few weeks back I was at a conference and a person (I don’t want to reveal any details so as not to hurt) got up and told their story. It was a dark story indeed. Strangely I felt I wanted to leave the room, stop listening, run away… It wasn’t the content – this never phases me – I think it was the intent. These were unprocessed feelings/events that seemed to be being emptied out onto the audience – I felt emotionally drained and really sorry for the person. I felt like we’d all been used as therapists for something very difficult. If I’m really honest I kind of felt used and I’m quite sure this was not the intention.

But Brene says vulnerability is good – so I didn’t understand my reaction. I checked in with others and there seemed to be unanimous agreement that the talk had repelled rather than drawn people in. I read Brene more deeply and I think I got close to what had happened. She talks about the need to never use people you don’t know/audiences to relieve yourself of uncomfortable feelings. It doesn’t work and it makes another person run for the hills – leading to less connection/more loneliness. Relationships are built slowly and surely – trust so hard to win is so easy to break. It is crucial that we all respect the space and minds of others – we must never stand on stage and use it as a personal therapy session.

This makes pure sense to me. I do a lot of public speaking and over the years I’ve learnt to take time afterwards to focus inside and to really ask myself “how did that feel, why did I do it and have I helped anybody by sharing?”. I’ve talked a lot about my daughter and I’ve come to understand that my daughter’s memory is so sacred to me – that I need to tred extremely carefully around what I share and what I don’t. Her dignity in death matters as much as in life. And there is also a group of people who are allowing you into their space, giving you their time – I try to think very, very hard about what will help them not what will help me. I pay a therapist to help myself. My job is to give them something that makes them feel a little better about the world – however small that is.

So in short this is what I think practising successful vulnerability is and is not:

It is:

  • having the courage to be humble and admit that it isn’t all alright sometimes
  • sharing thoughts that we have already worked on and understand ourselves first
  • admitting when we feel scared and don’t know what to do
  • telling somebody we love them for the first time and realising they may not feel the same way
  • showing up when we’d rather stay shivering under the bedcovers
  • being honest when somebody has hurt your feelings and not covering up
  • not people pleasing
  • not rescuing
  • asking for help and knowing and accepting that somebody else may not be able to help – but to love them anyway
  • crying but with no expectation that anybody else will make things better for you
  • making friends, falling in love, telling your family that you love them

It is not:

  • sharing photos of yourself shaving your legs (I’ve seen this)
  • sharing your addictions, your affairs, the fact you hate your spouse/sister/best friend with people you’ve just met
  • expecting people to make something better for you
  • sharing too much too quickly
  • whinging
  • gossiping

Love to hear your views and have a fabulous weekend

Debbie xx

Unleashing the power of dangerous women

There’s this amazing TED Talk https://www.ted.com/talks/pat_mitchell_dangerous_times_call_for_dangerous_women?language=en

Former US news anchor Pat Mitchell, aged 75, makes a bold call to action to all us midlife, and beyond, women to roll up our sleeves and get back to work. “dangerous times call for dangerous women,” she says.

She argues us women of “a certain age” have built a lifetime of skills – juggling child rearing, negotiating sometimes quite terrible life events and doing it all alongside power careers- we are way too important a resource to put out to pasture.

In fact when is it ever appropriate to put people with brains, skills and experience out of the workplace. We can’t afford to and how nuts is it to spend years training people up only to say ok off you go now. Go play some golf, bridge – whatever takes your fancy. (oh and of course that’s only for the “lucky” ones who have some kind of gold plated pension.

I thank God that I don’t have this option as I think it would have turned me soft and lazy – and I would have hated that. So there is no choice but to keep on showing up and giving it your best shot.

There’s also something that can sometimes happen when you hit 50 – I appreciate it doesn’t happen for everybody but for me it did. Forget feeling invisible, I’ve never felt more visible or alive. I found that I knew stuff – loads of it in fact. I didn’t have to wing it or bullshit my way anymore – I actually understood a lot of stuff. And perhaps most importantly of all I learnt to understand myself at quite a deep level – to know when to lean in and when to back right away. (key lesson that backing away is sometimes the best and most courageous thing we can do).

I don’t think anybody can be effective, or helpful to others, if they don’t first do some serious work on themselves.

Oh and I’m pretty fearless nowadays too – and I keep meeting new dangerous women of that “certain age” and we nod to each other and recognise that fire within. It’s a truly wonderful thing. Sure I get hurt, knocked back, disappointed – all that life stuff – but nobody can keep me down anymore. I’ve learnt to do the right thing – always – not the popular thing – anymore. I made a pact with myself a while back that I was going to live full on and never apologise for standing up for the things I really care about.

Integrity, purpose and a mission in life are great ways of staying strong, confident and engaged. But humility, kindness and compassion matter just as much – I’ve been working on this for years and I can report from the frontline that this is the only way to live. Yes it is a work in progress, and I fall flat on my face way more often than I want to. But now I know the way to get back up and keep focussed in the right direction.

In the words of one of my pinup women Helen Mirren when asked what she regretted in life “not telling enough people to f**k off.” But, of course, this should really be done with a wink and a smile and a huge dollop of kindness:)

Have a great week

Debbie x

What I’m reading “Daring Greatly” by Brene Brown. Wonderful!