In the days that followed

It seemed like a great chance for closure. It would be a final, wonderful send off, a chance to mourn but be grateful for the gift we had in the first place. It seemed that it would be a full stop.

And it was. But no one mentioned that the full stop would be the end of a sentence and not the story.

During the days that followed the finale, the sadness seemed to sink even deeper. Perhaps it was the stark reality of being in the room overwhelmed by the collective grief, yet leaning on each other for support. Perhaps it was the virtual friendships made – relationships forged in the intimate remoteness of the internet made tangible by the tactile bond of tearful embraces.

Whatever it was, everything got harder.

Sleep was intermittent, disturbed by dreams of normality, of a friend who would still be at the of the phone or have an updated Facebook status first thing in the morning. Waking hours were spent flitting between periods of intense concentration on the work that must be done, the life that must be lived, and the emptiness that creeps back into the mind.

The story continued far beyond the day we said goodbye, and I’ve no doubt it will continue far into the future. Many lives were eternally altered with the passing of a friend, but we cling to the positive change that entered our lives at her side.

Clichés abound when death visits our cosy lives and none does justice to the true feelings: to their intensity and to the constant, desperate wishing for more time, more smiles, more life.

Why I love stories

Everyone has a story. If you’re sitting there thinking to yourself, “But I don’t,” – you’re wrong.

If someone asks you where you were born, do you have any brothers or sisters, what you do for a living, you answer them with the start of a story.

How you got to where you are today is your story. Everything we do in life is part of our story, each individual moment just waiting to be put into the context of a whole life.

So don’t try to tell me you don’t have a story.

How interesting your story is depends on many things, not least how good you are at telling it. In the hands of a masterful storyteller even the most uneventful of stories can be fascinating; the phone book can surpass War and Peace.

But stories also depend on living a life worth telling people about.

That doesn’t mean we all have to drop everything and go skydiving or bungee jumping just to have a story to tell. A life worth talking about is simply a life filled with rich experiences, things that make us grow and develop as people, whether they’re good or bad.

Vulnerability can be one of the most powerful storytelling devices. We’ve all read (and got bored with) stories of people doing amazing things, of achieving incredible heights in their lives, or splashing their success on fast cars and globe-trotting. But failing creates powerful stories, too.

Stories are all about connection – connection between the teller and the listener (or reader, or viewer) – and connection comes from creating emotional empathy. So making yourself vulnerable and sharing the things that haven’t gone so well is something we can all relate to: at some point or another we have all failed.

It’s that connection that I love most about stories. They give us the benefit of other people’s experiences to empathise with and learn from. I get so inspired by other people’s stories and I love to share both theirs and mine with the world.

I would love for Smile Through It to become a place for stories of change, of people who are embracing their second chance at life regardless of whether it came about through a huge, dramatic, external force (like mine), or through sheer force of will where they recognised a need to change and set about doing it.

Do you have a story to tell (see above: of course you do). Email me and let me know; I’d love to share it with my readers.

Pressing reset

When I started this blog it was about trying to keep on top of things, those slings and arrows of outrageous fortune Shakespeare told us about. It was about charting my journey up to and beyond transplant and all the weird emotions and exciting opportunities it brought.

Now, though, I want it to be more than that. Partially because I’m now blessed to have a life that’s much like anyone’s: I have a full-time job making a real difference in people’s lives, I have a loving wife and a beautiful home to come home to every night, I have everything I ever wanted from my extra time in life, bar a few of the more outrageous and/or longer-term goals I came up with beforehand.

So I want this blog to be about more than just me and my journey, but to stay true to the principals under which it began.

This year, I’m going to set out to make Smile Through It a place where you can come for inspiration and education of all kinds. (Except the bad kind of ‘education’ that just made you suddenly wonder if you want to come back here at all, I won’t be doing any of that stuff.)

I want this blog to become a place where you can discover and share stories of living life in the most honest way possible. That doesn’t mean people going on crazy adventures: an honest life is simply about living authentically to yourself. And if that’s a little too ‘new age hippy’ for you, think of it like this: happiness comes from living the life that fits you, nothing more.

This, then, will be a period of adjustment for me as I work out how best to make all of this happen, but it will involve lots more storytelling (because I’ve not done nearly enough of that on here in recent months), it will involve a lot more of other people’s stories, and it will hopefully involve more than just reading.

I’d love to hear from you to know what you get out of this site and what you’d like to get from it. What posts really inspire you and make you want to do things, what bores you to tears and never makes you want to come back, and what would you love to see more of from me?

Please get in touch however you’d like: you can email me (or use the contact form on my personal website to be sure of passing spam filters), you can Tweet me, you can even find me on that weird and lonely place they call Google plus (however amazed you may be that it’s still going).

Smile Through It is a philosophy on life that I’ve let slip in recent weeks and months, and it’s time we got back to what mattered. So here’s to a 2015 full of growth and development for me, for this blog and, hopefully, for you, too.

Habit Change: Meditation

After the emotional overwhelm of 2014, I wanted to try to keep myself on a more even keel this year. I also want to dedicate myself to something that goes a bit deeper than “trying to be better”, so I’m going to take up monthly challenges to start changing my habits and giving myself the space and mindfulness to enjoy life and be grateful for my blessings.

I’m kicking off this month with daily meditation. I’ve been attempting to get into this for the last 18 months and have dipped in and out with varying degress of success. What I have picked up, though, is that it really, really works for me.

I’ve always had quite a temper, a short fuse that’s easily lit and explosions that could be quite uncontrolled. Granted, as I’ve got older I’ve managed to get them under control to the extent that they are usually aimed purely at inanimate objects, but I know they are a trait about me that K likes least.

Reflecting on that, and wanting to be the best husband I can, I set about trying to embrace mindfulness to keep things in check and I was amazed at the results. When I mediated regularly (my longest stint being about 3 weeks, I think), I was instantly calmer and more relaxed about everything. And that feeling stayed with me even when I let things slip.

I read a lot of the teachings of zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, who helped me see the impermenance and realtive unimportance of the wide variety of ‘things’ that happen to us in our daily lives. Maintaining a half-smile and letting other people worry about their own days is something that has made my daily commuting through the busiest of London stations so much smoother than it would have been even a year ago.

“Every breath we take, every step we make, can be filled with peace, joy and serenity.”
Thich Nhat Hanh

If things are going well, then, why do I need meditation to be my first habit change of 2015? Because I can always be better at it.

There is one more important element to it that reflects on my own skills and experience, too: I need a quick win. I’ve tried before to change habits – something that most experts will tell you takes a minimum of 30 days to do – and my best intentions fall by the wayside quickly.

Meditation is something I know I can do, but haven’t maanged to keep it up daily yet. That means through January I will not only see the instant daily benefit (the reward feeling that my brain will definitely need), but also be better able to keep it going.

I’m going to be using Headspace, an app I discovered for guided meditation that draws you into meditation without dumping you in at the deep end and expecting you to sit in the lotus position and float off into trancendental bliss in your first session. It’s simple, practical, and starts with just 10 minutes a day. It also has a huge number of extensions so you don’t end up stuck with the same old 20 minutes of guidance every day.

If you’re interested to join me, get Headspace for free and Tweet me that you’re joining in and how you’re getting on with it.

“Hope is important because it can make the present moment less difficult to bear. If we believe that tomorrow will be better, we can bear a hardship today.”
Thich Nhat Hanh

2014: A Year In Review

I don’t normally do review posts like this, but today I somehow feel it’s necessary.

I’m tempted to say ‘good riddance’ to 2014; the last 12 months (plus a few days at the back end of 2013) have possible been the worst of my life, filled with such depths of sadness as they were, not to mention other rocky patches I stumbled through during their course.

But that’s not the nature of this blog and it’s not my nature either. I may be wallowing in sadness a little longer than I usually might, but I’m not one to rail against the world. I don’t believe in a world with no redeeming features and I’ve continued to try to find life’s little silver linings, to smile through it all.

In that spirit:

This year I lost 4 friends:

Kerry was a friend I first filmed in 2012 who told her story so eloquently and beautifully it even made me tear up, which is tough for someone who has seen and lived through so many stories of life with CF.

Anders was a distant but no less sturdy rock for me when I needed support. Twice, when I was having a rough patch and knowing that I had zero music knowledge, Anders made me a mix tape (on CD) and sent it down for me to stick on to keep me tuned into the world around me.

Emily was the friend who was always one step ahead of me.

And Eugenie was someone who seemed never to ask anything of anyone in life, to offer nothing but her heartfelt support, love and affection to everyone she came into contact with, and to find out today that she’s no longer with us is almost too much for me to bear.

This year I saw my niece turn 1:

Isla is everything I could have dreamt of in a new niece, the perfect addition to the growing cadre of nieces and nephews that light up our life. And she’s the niece I never thought I’d see and, without the kindness of one person and their family, I never would have.

This year I lost my way:

Halfway through the year, after losing three friends in 4 months (Gareth, Kerry and Anders), I didn’t know what to do with myself and everything seemed a bit pointless. But having my wife at my side to guide and support me, not to mention my wonderful colleagues at World Vision, I got through the tough times and found my way again. Unfortunately for my colleagues (or fortunately, depending on your point of view…), it would be elsewhere.

This year I found a new home:

When I saw a job description looking for a master storyteller to join the charity whose work over the last 50 years is largely responsible for me being here today, it felt utterly perfect. How could I not put my name forward for it? Again, thanks to encouragement and support from my wonderful wife, I applied, was interviewed and was given the job. What a way to give back to the people who’ve helped me be here and what a way to help pave the way to a brighter future for all those going through what I went through.

This year I learned how to make mistakes (and recover from them):

K and I upped sticks to move to St Albans to be closer to the CF Trust office in Bromley and make the commute a little easier. We found a lovely little flat at the top of the high street and roped in a cohort of friends and family members to help us shift all our stuff from our 4-bed house to our 2-bed flat.

And then we realised how big a mistake we had made. We were miserable, and making each other miserable. So we reversed our decision. Quickly and quietly we gathered our things and five weeks after we’d moved out, we took ourselves back to our lovely Wellingborough dwelling and I discovered that a longer commute is worth the time if you come back to a place that feels like home.

This year I learned that grief is all-consuming, but that it will pass:

From moment to moment I’m am still struck by enormous pangs of pain in missing Gareth, who was such a big part of our lives and whom we loved so much. And as each death this year has started to mount up it’s become harder and harder to take.

But as I sit here and hope upon hope that 2015 will be kinder to us and to our friends and to our family than 2013 and 2014 have been, I recognise that all these things are fleeting. More importantly, all these things, these experiences, are what make us who we are, are what make me who I am and are what make each and every moment we share with the people we love most the most important moments of our lives.

Hug your loved ones close in 2015, and give thanks for the time we have with them. And if they are no longer here to hug, raise a glass and a smile for the light they brought, not for the shadow that remains in their wake.