Tuesday, 29 September 2009

can you afford it?

I haven't been posting as much lately. Instead, I've been having a standoff with my husband; trying (and often failing) to get to the gym; carting my children back and forth; finishing a book by Anthony Robbins (which, if you read one book this year, read it!: written in the '80s, it still has the power to transform); and attending 'webinars' by Rachel Elnaugh, an entrepreneur and ex-Dragon's Den judge - who now has all sorts of lovely motivational and coaching stuff as one of the many strings to her bow.

I'd like to share with you a great comment from last week's webinar, a conversation with Nick Williams and Marie-Claire Carlyle (two equally fascinating and enlightened entrepreneurs/business gurus worth looking up. P.S. only thing, Marie Claire: your webpage title sounds a bit like a bra' ad...sorry!). During the discussion they touched on why the phrase 'I can't afford it' is (and I quote Rachel) "perhaps the most negative mantra you can possibly have around money...it keeps you stuck in a holding pattern of scarcity, lack and limitation".

To me this was something which really struck a chord. Because I had been telling myself the exact same thing for a while now. And the phrase is bandied back and forth so much in our family kitchen I'm almost surprised it's not written up on the blackboard! But if you've got ambition and a tad of self-awareness in life (got the first, trying to develop the second!) naturally this kind of self-limiting statement starts to grate. And you need to overturn it.

The irony in our family is that we'd found ourselves in this rather tight financial reality simply because, a year and a half ago, we decided to shoot for the stars and make a dream reality: by moving to a rather dilapidated home with a large garden. And, we actually couldn't afford it! Not by any permutation of accounts prepared by my husband, our resident accountant. But, we'd fallen in love with this snapshot of rural England, an oasis in what is basically still London town. A garden with more mature trees than you can shake a stick at. Purple buddhleia, the 'butterfly' flower, curling round and coexisting with ancient clematis. An old stone well hidden behind a mound of ivy (and still hidden, as far as the children are concerned!) Blackcurrent, redcurrent and gooseberry bushes, bitter bramley and sweet, perfumed pink apples. Lots of grass to run around on and kick footballs. Space for barbeques. Heaven.

But, inside the house, there were holes in the walls, a 1930's, hideous old-folks' home-gone-wrong-decor/layout, and a kitchen barely suitable for cooking in. This all said to me: "It has potential!" (If I've got one skill in life, as an architect's daughter, I can see potential. Where's there's potential, the nasty outer wrappings don't matter).

Now, we "couldn't (really) afford" this house. But we WANTED it. So desperately. So much that we somehow begged, borrowed, sorted through financing options, and squeezed ourselves into the deal. With the result that we really couldn't afford the removal van to move us to the new house! I spent three weeks, with the children at their grandparents', carting boxes back and forth from seven a.m. until three (a.m.). Alone.

Still on the subject of the house, whether or not the price was right (it was a deal at the time of contract, but that was the height of the housing bubble...) our quality of life has been immeasurably improved as a result of shoe-horning ourselves into this move we wouldn't accept we couldn't afford. Despite my fight with the grim interior!. And, even as we agreed we had no money for furniture (we'd inherited much from the old gentleman who sold the house to us - much in the same vein as the rest of the decor), I wouldn't admit defeat: I'm rather wired like that. I resolved to improve our lot with what we'd got. One half-term, armed with paint-stripper, new season paint colours and textures, varnishes and a lot of inspiration, I transformed grotty 1930's art-deco and dingy cracked 1960's pieces into items which any interior designer would be proud of. And all practically for free. The result gave me far more satisfaction than being flush and going to BoConcept with a budget (well, almost!). The satifaction of taking action, mainly. Because if you take action, results are sure to follow. And from not being able to afford furniture, visitors now ask me where I got my sideboard and coffee table.

There are endless permutations to what you can get out of twisting the "I cannot afford it" situation to your advantage. Here's another. Recently I discovered a truly fabulous painter. Whose paintings I coveted, every last one of them. With no budget, I was so determined to buy a particular inspiring picture I'd fallen in love with, that I asked if - as a stranger, over the internet - possibly, I might pay in installments. This type of 'lateral thinking' - creative solutions as a result of pure stubborness ("if I can't, then I'll find a way"!) - is a great exercise in how to achieve what initially may seem impossible in a given situation and in life in general. Rarely is there a problem which cannot be solved by some form of creativity, or by taking small steps to 'bite' off chunks of the problem bit by bit with a view to resolving it entirely in the future. Sarah, the painter, said "yes"! And I'm going to enjoy saving up for it so much, knowing I own a little more each month... and I'm going to treasure it especially when, eventually, this seascape graces my wall and the power of the waves remind me of the inherent power in life and nature. And how we, as human beings, can harnass latent power to improve our lives too.

The key is often how we conceptualise obstacles to ourselves: how we represent problems. As Rachel says, if we think we "can't afford" something, we are telling ourselves that we are not capable of finding a solution. That we are unable (un-able, un-deserving) to afford it. If we tell ourselves that there might be ways and means to enable what we want, we unlock great reserves of creativity. We unlock the subconscious to work with our rational mind to help 'dream up' ways of achieving our dreams. We're telling ourselves we're capable and competant enough to overcome the odds.

Never forget the power of words. Language is important. How we talk to ourselves is important. So, I won't tell myself again "I cannot afford it". But, instead, "How can I afford it?" It's a much more productive, and positive, way of looking at financial obstacles - or any other problems.

Similarly, after writing (and telling myself) for the past few weeks that: "My husband and I aren't talking...my marriage is crumbling!" I realised that perhaps he wasn't talking to me because I wasn't talking to him - and that our relationship was "crumbling" as a result! So I talked to him, overcoming my pride, my stubborness, and my pre-conceptions. And, hey ho, things have been resolved! We still have incompatibilities, but it's better to think: "We have incompatibilities. How could we harnass these to make life easier? and how can we overcome these to make life less difficult?" than: "We have incompatibilites. We're doomed!"

...Sometimes in life it's not about what we cannot afford to have or do. It's about what we can't afford NOT to have or do... let's make it happen!

Monday, 21 September 2009

castle in the sky

I went to a children's birthday party the other day. At this house. Suffice to say, it's not mine. (I could say: "in my dreams"...)

People talk about dreams in the abstract, far away in the distance of another reality- or unreality. But this house was - is - the embodiment of someone's dream. The couple who built it, had also built another one - and at some point, prior to finishing it, came upon major financial problems, and ground to a halt. A big halt. It was all documented on "Grand Designs", a popular TV reality show we have here in the UK which - yes! - documents the architecture of dreams. Literally. People who build their dream properties from scratch. Who watch, day after day, as the fabric of imagination takes shape in bricks and mortar (or vast expanses of glass, metal, cement, wood). Very addictive.

Well, this couple (in Clapham, London) had built their house around a protected tree: an innovative solution to wanting more space but being unable to chop it down and extend into the garden. All very interesting. But, what is more interesting to me is that once obviously wasn't enough, problems and all. Sometime later, they built a second ground-breaking house (the one I was honoured enough to visit. They're not there, by the way. It's rented out.) It had become a habit, dreaming. And then making dreams reality.

Now, I hear you - "this is a different planet!", you scream, "not my little life, of mortgage payments, credit crunch misery!", etc. "These people could afford it! This is the world of people who have serious cash!" But: listen up! We can all dream, can't we? 'Cos only by dreaming do we give ourselves the first lift up the ladder to making imagintion reality - one day, somewhere, somehow. If you believe all is possible, I'm not saying you'll make it possible - but you'll certainly lay the groundwork to bring it nearer. Hard work, self-confidence, and a mad, mad belief in turning straw into gold, then have to be added to the pot. Stir, keep on working hard, don't lose sight of your goals, and sometimes - just sometimes - you'll achieve what you thought was impossible.

Dreaming and persisting are all we have, those of us with ambition (and if you don't, I envy you - truly! - you're at peace, are you not?). To dream is easy enough. To persist is harder. Even when your purse-strings are long, to undertake major innovative projects still requires balls. So there you go. It's just all about the varying degrees involved. But the two key ingredients, the dreaming and the persistence? - the substance of those doesn't change, whatever your starting line.

Myself, I persist in dreaming, in laughing, in seeing the silver lining. Even when, at home, my once-perfect marriage flounders into dull silences and shoulders turned as we pass in darkened corridors, wordless. Live on mumbled acknowledgements or falsely upbeat matter-of-fact discussions involving kids, logistics, dates. Disinterest numbs the air. Two parallel but diverging lives, bound by the glue of two little children who love their parents equally. Yet I persist in believing it's all for the best, persist in finding light where there's shadow. I can't allow myself to give up. Things will get better. And so I walk round smiling, outside and inside. Because I know there are plenty of dreams left to make me smile.

And, I persist in stirring up those bubbles of social enthusiasm, even when friends slowly return to work (the kids are at that age now) and the school run gradually becomes vacant of familiar faces. And when long-lost souls from recent reunions seep back into their lives over the ether, reminding me the past is the past and the present's entirely separate. Again, when my chosen vocation accessorizes one silver laptop and a cup of green tea as companions over hours of the day. But I won't be reduced to feeling lonely! Oh no, siree!! It's all temporary. I'm working towards my dream...the parties will return, summer will swing back round, there'll be fun and laughter and new faces to discover. Believe. I do.

Life isn't instant. It's blocks upon blocks upon blocks, and sometimes you lose sight of the shape you're creating for the piles of rubble (emotional, psychological, you name it) you're surrounded with. True both when you construct a real house, and true too when you're building castles in the air. Often, you cannot see the stars for the clouds. But you still know they're there.

You just have to keep building and keep believing. The journey's no fun, sometimes. There'll be obstacles and tears and late nights and despair.

Welcome, my friend. Keep on dreaming. Keep on believing.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow...

The loneliest occupation in the world, I think, is being a writer. It's all about delayed gratification (a phrase and concept I relish, but the reality's tougher to enjoy). You're a virtual recluse, alone in front of a desk as the autumnal slate gray sky glowers menacingly outside,and the taupe computer screen glows dully inside, numbing the vision. And you write. And write. Tap, tap, the soundtrack to those moments, hours, days of your life. There's no excitement, bar what you put down on the page. There's no social activity. Your words are your friends, and if there are characters, you almost grow into them - they're your only companions. And all this, hoping to get a kick ONE DAY - cradling that book with your name emblazoned on it, something in black and white (or black and red) for posterity.

It's better, I presume, if you've got a deal in hand (where holding that book with your name's an undisputed truth - but the how you're going to fulfil all those expectations, and within what time frame, becomes your bugbear intead... life's never perfect!). If, on the other hand, there's no contract on the table, you just write. You tap. Sometimes disconsolately. The words and images regurgitated out with hard, long retches. Sometimes you tap in the equivalent of furious scribble, like a bitch on heat, desperate to reach satisfaction and an eventual birth. For your sake, and for the sake of hope. Tapping out your dreams. And all the time suspecting that those hours of solitude (and days, and late evenings, and time stolen from family, and curt brush-offs to children's insistent queries - and associated guilt, the bindweed of who works from home); and the multitude of stifled yawns, of stiff backs, of tea breaks and cereal bowls balanced by the keyboard - may, quite possibly, may, come to nothing. A tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury...signifying nothing. Quote, unquote. Or perhaps, it's the detail that counts. All words pre-exist, most plots are re-hashes, most advice has been given before. You're almost like a window cleaner at times, trying to polish the surface of language to convince your audience they're seeing the view for the first time.

It's even worse if you are writing not a novel (that one's sitting dusty in the drawer waiting to be remembered, revamped, resuscitated, and have the breath of faith blown into it...), but a non-fiction work dealing with, how to put it?, how to eliminate compulsive behaviour through the power of the mind (yes, I'm also training to be an NLP practitioner - check it out). It means you can't even go for a slice of chocolate bar at the kitchen counter out of pure boredom. Because that's called 'displacment activity' - otherwise known as procrastinating (do you write - yawn?! or eat? or lie down and sleep?!) And if you're a writer, and you procrastinate, so will your career. (But I still desire that cocoa kick to offset the solitude, the backache and the nagging voices telling me I'll never make it).

Friday, 4 September 2009

no words

There's a lady I know - a fellow Mum. Her son is dying.

Just a few months ago, he was in my son's class. One of the eldest, but also the brightest, head and shoulders above the rest in reading and maths. Reluctantly, the school transferred him up a form, to the year above, mid-term. His mother thought his headaches were part due to the change in pace, but he was happier and more fulfilled. A grand future ahead.

The tumour, in that precious brain, is deep. Too deep for successful operation, or further chemo. A young brain remembers.

Pray for a miracle, you think: beg the gods, whoever they might be, whichever faith... what does it matter when the desperation and despair is beyond belief? The instinct of a parent goes beyond rational thought. I'd lay down my life, my everything, to save a child. Wouldn't you?

I don't pray, normally. But for this Mum, her husband, this child, his sister, their friends and relatives, I'm praying. Hoping for a miracle. Because I don't know, don't dare to imagine, what I'd do with myself in such a position. "It doesn't bear thinking about", said my mother. Actually, it does. You don't just walk your thoughts away from tragedy, glad not to be involved personally. Or I don't, I find it somehow cold. Ancient peoples didn't have the head-in-the-sand, dismissive attitude to death we - in our materialistic, headonistic, society - more often than not show today. It's selfish to believe that another's tragedy shouldn't touch us. It should. Part of what being human means.

Nevertheless, I too am a tad superstitious. For example, I'm not one of those people who vehermently wish to win the lottery, to be on the end of fate's outstretched hand. After all, it can go both ways: there can be random acts of generosity by the Universe's roll of dice but also the shadow and taint of tragedy, waiting to fall on...?. It harks back centuries to be wary about wishing too much for anything you don't create yourself.

I had a dream last night: my children in a car, careering away along a country road with no-one else inside, me peddling furiously alongside on a bicycle, screaming, a sense of horrible dread and powerlessness. Luckily, as often occurs in my nightmares, in my semi-conscious state, I was then able to direct the dream (like a movie) and have a team of police in a helicopter winch down to enter and stop the car (and I made the country road straight and empty, and the children asleep so as not to alarm them).

My son's classmate's mother doesn't have that choice and there is no dream to wake up from.

There's nothing I can say to my fellow Mum except: "I'm sorry. I'll pray for you". Not even - "be strong" (how can you?) And realise, deep within oneself, once again, that it's our duty to ourselves and to our children to make the most of our time on this planet: both ours, and theirs. And to teach them that nothing else is as precious as health, energy and life itself. Let's make the most of it.

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