Grateful for humanity

In the wake of this week’s shocking attack in Westminster, it could be hard to feel grateful for this terrifying and uncertain world we seem to be living in. 

What I try to hold on to in these horrifying times is how despite the presence of such evil in the world, these people are in no way representative of the human race. The majority of people are not terrorists. The majority of people genuinely want to help, to show love and support and to stand tall in the face of adversity. It’s so important to focus on those who rushed to help the victims, rather than to give any more airtime to whoever the attacker was and whatever his insane motives were.

Watching the video of police yelling at members of the public to run for cover chills me to the bone – it’s extremely close to home – but then I saw MP Tobias Ellwood rushing to help; all the passers-by who dropped everything to try and do something, even if just to hold a hand and try to offer comfort in the face of such atrocity. The huge volume of messages of love displayed on social media for London and it’s people far outweighed the dumb, ill-educated remarks from the wannabe-Trumps (or maybe my brain just removed them from sight; I know they’re all over the place but these keyboard warriors really aren’t worth a single pixel of my phone screen).

And it’s of course not only the big newsworthy events that inspire humanity to show its best side; last week an elderly man had fallen over just near my house – and almost ten people were standing nearby or crouched next to him, most not really knowing what to do or how to help, but all just wanting to do something.

My Mum once told me that as a child, scared of the sound of an ambulance siren, my Grandma had comforted her, telling her that instead of ‘nee-naw, nee-naw, nee-naw’, the ambulance was just saying ‘come-ing , come-ing, come-ing’ as it rushed to the rescue. I always think of that when I see an ambulance. Its not a sound to be afraid of – it means help is on the way (and thank goodness here for our emergency services and NHS staff this week). 

Its so important in times of terror that we look out for each other, that we remember we are not alone. I recently watched an amazing Netflix documentary called The White Helmets (and don’t just take my word for it – it won an Oscar this year). It completely opened my eyes to the heartbreaking situation in Syria and made it very clear why air strikes are not the solution. The men in this programme – unarmed, neutral volunteers – dedicate their lives to being first on the scene following an air strike or explosion, and I defy anyone not to cry at the scene of a tiny month-old baby being found alive under the devastating rubble and gently pulled out to safety by one of the White Helmets. 

One scene from the documentary that really stuck with me was when a man had – having been alerted to the possibility – found out that his brother was not dead after all. Following the news he was no less upset, and said something like ‘it wasn’t my brother, but it was somebody else’s brother. It’s the same thing; we are all brothers’. This wonderful sense of solidarity, of sharing in the pain of others and of feeling each hit at their beloved country so personally is real humanity. I knew it already, but these are just normal people wanting to live normal lives, wanting their own country back. They’re willing to risk their lives on a daily basis to save their brothers and sisters, and never give up hope that they will one day live in peace again. 

To quote Hugh Grant in Love Actually (I’m actually very highbrow; I’m not sure whether you realised): When the planes hit the Twin Towers, as far as I know, none of the phone calls from the people on board were messages of hate or revenge – they were all messages of love. 

We must hold on to this sentiment; we must remember that even in the face of disaster it is in our human nature to help the wounded, to cry with the grieving, to stand in solidarity with our fellow humans; to send love and support when we can do nothing else. Love will always overcome hate. 


Grateful for the digital world

I’ve had several conversations this week about how difficult it must be as a young person in today’s digital world of apps; of real-time updates and viral videos and social media sensations. In fact, I even wrote in a previous post about how glad I was not to have grown up in a world in which every photo posted is hashtagged and filtered beyond recognition – eagerly awaiting likes and deemed a failure without them. But I also started thinking about all the benefits of the digital world, and – not forgetting the fact that the vast majority of my job is completely digital – how my week would have looked very different without them.

I have my everyday ‘essentials’: checking the news, using Google Maps to find a bar or restaurant (thank god for that blue arrow, guiding me to safety on a daily basis), completing an important Buzzfeed quiz about what my pizza choices say about my future husband; viewing train times (avoiding a daily game of Russian roulette facilitated by Southern Rail), and checking the location of my father and brother via Find Friends (not a stalker, just a worrier – since Dad’s stroke, this app provides me with so much peace of mind). But I think the real golden-nugget benefit of the digital age has to be how it facilitates human connections. Who cares if they’re made via Whatsapp of FaceTime or Facebook or Skype – if it means I can send a message of love to a friend who’s suffering, a message of support to someone who needs it – it’s worth its weight in gold. 

Of course, there were non-digital alternatives to all of these tools, that served their purpose perfectly well for many years – but I don’t think it would be unfair to argue that the presence of these apps makes modern life just that bit simpler. Sorry, I’m such a millennial – I didn’t realise this until now. 

Today I spent time with one of my best friends and her beautiful new baby. This little bundle of happiness simply would not have been born were it not for the online date my friend half-heartedly dragged herself along to two years ago, disillusioned by some of London’s finest scoundrels (to put it politely), but nevertheless hopeful that she would find the one. And she did! 

Eating dinner with my two friends and their two lovely fiancées (plus little old single me, not remotely jealous/self pitying/alone in the corner etc etc), I thought about how without the digital age, these two perfect pairings would probably never have found one another. How amazing that we live in a world so much larger than that of the past; how we’re not just confined to the people we pass in the street or might come across drunk in a bar. 

Don’t get me wrong, I’m in no way saying that online dating is the magical solution to perpetual singledom; my friends and I have collected enough horror stories between us to dispel that myth very quickly (off the top of my head – the guy who cried at the dinner table opposite a particularly unlucky friend (now happily married, thank goodness); the guy who offered me a drink then bought me a bottle of water from a newsagents; the one who lied about moving to Australia rather than endure a second date; and the millions who just never texted back…).

But back to friends. Thinking about it, I probably wouldn’t even have been friends with these girls without social media in the first place. When my long term relationship ended, Becky reached out to me, invited me on a night out. Georgie added me on Facebook the day afterwards – and before I knew it, I had a brand new group of friends; girls to travel to New York with, go to the races with, dance my shoes off in Chelsea with. Whilst I have no doubt that we’d have found a way to be friends without social media, it certainly made things easier at a stressful time in my life, and in a city that can be the loneliest of places.

So whilst I’ll continue to worry for the young people growing up with the added pressure of Kylie Jenner’s bum implants or Zoella’s makeup collection (not to mention the much more sinister side of the web, where a 14 year old girl might actually be a 60 year old man), I’ll also be grateful for the digital age. For the way it makes life easier and much more importantly for the way it connects humans with other humans. Yes, we look at our phones too much – but I bet the vast majority of people with their eyes glued to a screen aren’t aren’t texting messages of hate. The digital world doesn’t replace human contact, it enhances it. And if it means I can stay in touch with friends near and far, show them that I support and love them, share in both their happiness and sadness (and who knows, maybe even find a partner one day), I’ll take it. 

Grateful for spring, for daffodils, for Marie Curie

This week has finally felt like we’re clawing our way out of the dark, cold, bed-by-9pm marathon that is winter. I’m seeing tulips in the shops, I can leave the office at 6pm without needing a torch to navigate myself to the tube station, and I’m starting to sweat profusely during any tube journey more than a minute long, making regretful outfit choices and wearing too many layers on a daily basis. This can only mean one thing (and it’s not that I need glasses/am approaching the early menopause): Spring is nearly upon us.

Everything seems just that little bit easier when its light outside; when a sliver of weak sunlight wakes you up in the morning rather than a BBC news alert informing you the world has stopped due to the falling of a single snowflake; when your eyeliner isn’t spidering down your cheeks due to a perpetually runny eye thanks to the biting cold. A bunch of sunny yellow daffodils brings cheer to the dullest of corners; a reminder that there’s always hope, that we’re out of the darkness once more. 

It’s no surprise to me that the symbol of Marie Curie is a daffodil – and whilst it might be coincidence that we also celebrate the birthday of Marie Curie herself in March, it seems so fitting that this month should be the one that brings extra focus to the charity with their Great Daffodil Appeal, where we see volunteers on street corners selling tiny daffodils – little bursts of yellow, bright symbols of support and solidarity to be pinned to a collar or lapel. Springtime – a time of hope, of colour, of life. Despite being a charity for the terminally ill, a lot of what Marie Curie does is about making the most of life, not preparing for death – and that was certainly my experience of the charity.

My first encounter with Marie Curie was when my mother was admitted to the West Midlands hospice in September 2014, so sick and so exhausted from the chemo drugs which, although prolonging her life, were also causing so much pain. 

Walking in there for the first time, I was terrified – imagining something resembling a retirement home, a grey, lifeless space full of people just sitting around waiting to meet their maker. The hospice was absolutely nothing at all like how I imagined. No, I’m not sugar coating this – of course lots of people do indeed go to hospices to be cared for at the very end of their lives – but people also go there to feel better; they leave again and carry on with their lives for longer, and that was the experience we had with my Mum, more than once.

It sounds cliched, but the hospice really does have a feeling of calm. It’s bright and airy, and there are beautiful gardens bursting with flowers; there’s a cafe, a craft area, and the comfiest chairs you will ever sit in in your life. Each patient has their own en suite room, and every single room has patio doors that open out onto the garden. If you can’t get out of bed, they’ll wheel your bed through those doors so you can get a breath of fresh air.

The building is fantastic, but what really makes the difference is the staff: the doctors who are so kind and understanding, the volunteers (of which my father is now one), who will go out of their way to make sure a patient has something they want to eat, the nurses who show so much compassion whilst going about their jobs with humour and efficiency, the cleaners who will stop to share a story whilst they meticulously disinfect each room. Everyone who works as the hospice has life at the forefront of their minds: whether it’s to prolong life, to make life more comfortable, to distract from the pain, or to simply be there at the very end. 

Almost everyone I had contact with went out of their way to be kind: from the nurse who always offered an extra biscuit whilst doing the patients’ evening tea round, to the cleaner who held the door open so we could light the candles on Mum’s birthday cake without setting off the fire alarm. The member of reception staff who made sure my opinion was heard, having seen how upset and cross I was over the visitors smoking in the garden (something I’ll never ever understand and that will always make my blood boil), the doctors who tried their very best to get Mum well enough for a holiday (which sadly didn’t transpire, but it wasn’t for want of trying), and the physiotherapist who brought in cushions for a long car journey.

When I think back to the times Mum stayed in the hospice – that September and again the following Spring, then finally in June, just before she started to get very poorly – I don’t really think about the fact that she was gradually getting weaker, that the drugs were making less of a difference. I think about how relaxed she was in there, how she felt so completely safe and cared for. I think about how my family and I would spend every evening relaxing with Mum in her room – no visiting times or number restrictions, as long as the patient is happy – doing crosswords, watching TV, making too many trips to the vending machine. We genuinely spent quite a large proportion of time there laughing our heads off. I remember those happy times. Two days a week I would work from the hospice, a luxury afforded to me by my understanding employer and a great wifi connection. Mum and I would eat lunch together, watch Doctors (how apt), take a turn around the garden in the wheelchair and wait for whichever visitor was arriving, anticipating cream cakes or flowers or sweets (Mum was on steroids for much of that time, her appetite well and truly returned – what a joy).  

I know we were lucky – this isn’t the experience of many families. But it was our experience, and I’m truly thankful. From trying different pain relief and anti sickness drugs, to providing blood transfusions, physiotherapy and reassurance – whilst the hospice provides no medical treatment at all, it provides a sanctuary for those living through terminal illness – with emphasis on the word living. Of course home was where we wanted Mum, but the hospice was the very best next place. 

And this same place continues to provide sanctuary to my Dad as we get used to a world without Mum in it; he now helps others the way they helped us, and I couldn’t be prouder. 

So this month, if you see a Marie Curie volunteer selling daffodil pins on the street, I urge you to go up buy one – not only will you then be the owner of an enduring symbol of hope and support, a flash of bright yellow on a rainy day, you’ll also be helping make such a ginormous difference to the lives of people impacted by terminal illness. I’m so genuinely and eternally grateful for the care given to my mother by this charity, and for the hugely positive impact it had at the very worst time of our lives.

Grateful for Strong Women

As International Women’s Day approaches, I started thinking about all the strong women I know – and I realised that I really don’t know many women who I wouldn’t define as strong in some way or another. Strong women aren’t just women in leadership, they’re all of us. Whether it’s those who are battling personal demons or health issues whilst working a twelve hour day or making sure their children get their daily quota of fifty different fruits and vegetables, those slogging every possible hour to achieve their career goals, or those who are sick of waiting around for a man to come along so are buying that house alone. Whether it’s those who are fighting their way through all the frogs to find their Prince Charming (and my god, am I happy for the ones who found him – you give me so much hope!), those who are giving their lives to care for others, or those who simply look out for the other women around them – the listeners, the shoulders, the ‘can I get you a cup of tea’ers. We’re so much stronger when we’re strong together. 

On my journey to work this week, I had to smile as the woman in front of me – laden down with laptop and handbag – very nearly chucked her steaming hot cup of coffee into her face whilst trying to kick the door behind her open for me, rather than let it shut in my face. A stark contrast to the man who a few minutes previously had barged in front of me and done just that. This isn’t a post bashing men, I promise – I’m sure half the women in Canary Wharf would have done the same as him, and vice versa – but it made me think about how important it is for women to look out for other women; how in a world of men letting doors shut in our faces, it’s a whole lot easier if we at least help each other to keep them open.

I was also inspired this week by Iratxe Garcia Perez, the Spanish MEP who spectacularly stood up to prehistoric Polish MEP Janusz Korwin-Mikke. Having clearly lost his tiny mind, Korwin-Mikke told European Parliament that women are ‘smaller, weaker, less intelligent’ and should be paid less than men. Perez replied to this dinosaur with such passion and power, such fire in her belly that I felt really quite emotional watching the video. We need women like Perez. I wish this was just a post about strong people; that women didn’t need a special day set aside for them – but Korwin-Mikke proves we’re just not there yet. We need all the help we can get.

In today’s world of body shaming and cyber bullying and circles of shame, it’s horribly easy to find ourselves putting other women down. But what hope do we have of being treated equally, if we can’t do the same to each other? Strong women aren’t the women who only look out for themselves, they’re the ones who bring their friends along with them. 

I couldn’t write a post about strong women without mentioning my amazing Mum. She kept it together no matter what, stayed strong for everyone else around her. Her laugh lit up the room, and if you were in a room with her you’d hear it about 40 thousand times before you left it. When she spectacularly fell down the steps at my Grandad’s funeral, it wasn’t tears but laughter that followed – as always, breaking the ice, making everyone else feel comfortable (she was great at falling over, my Mum – nobody did it better). She would have done absolutely anything for our family, would have dropped everything for me, I have absolutely no doubt. 

Even when she was diagnosed with cancer and our worlds shattered in an instant, it seemed like she was the one comforting us half the time. Of course things got harder and sometimes there wasn’t a single thing to laugh about; my heart breaks in two when I think of her tiny little frame – finally able to wear skinny jeans, even though we would have given absolutely anything to have her back in her size 12s – battling with the mountain of tablets we laid out for her each day. Even when she was feeling so nauseous and weak, she still got up, still went out to whichever garden centre or coffee shop we took her to without complaint (fantastic places for trips with poorly people, garden centres and coffee shops), despite how exhausted she must have been feeling. Even when she was so relentlessly sick from her chemo, she still tried her hardest to eat, and even when she was so tired she could barely keep her eyes open, she would still text me back, regardless of whether it took half an hour and the message made no sense at all.

Just a few days before she died, and having slept through a visit from one of her best friends (as she was sleeping most of the time by that point), Mum woke up in time to say goodbye to her: ‘hopefully I’ll be a bit better next time you come’. And that was Mum through and through: always positive, always hopeful. She was the strongest person I’ll ever know. She stayed strong and positive throughout it all, and I like to hope I’ve inherited just a tiny bit of that from her.

That was a horrifying time in my family’s life, but it was made all the more bearable by the kindness of friends – Mum’s friends from the gym, from work, from my school days – the friends who continue to look out for my Dad, to invite him to their girls’ meals and take him for coffee; the friends back in London who looked after me too, invited me for a glass of wine at 9pm, made me lunch, sent me that all-important text. I’m really not discounting the kindness of all the male friends here either, but this particular post is for those women. The women who thought of someone else first, who dealt with the awkward or the uncomfortable or the downright sad in order to just simply be there. 

So regardless of what life throws at us, whether it’s death or illness or a rejection from a silly boy; whether it’s the worst thing that’s ever happened to us or just a bad day – whenever we’re not feeling on top of the world, and whenever we are feeling on top of the world – lets do it together; let’s support each other through the bad times and celebrate together through the good times. Because even if it is going to take another 24 years to reach gender parity (which I of course sincerely hope it won’t), it will be a darn sight easier if we weather the storm together.