01 October 2014

Books to Read When You Don't Have the Patience to Ease People's Emotional Problems

A few years ago, in the midst of one of my semi-regular career crises, I thought about training as a therapist. I'm fascinated by the ways in which people think and behave and develop over time - and what could be a better job than helping people to seek and sometimes achieve contentment?

I looked into courses and everything.

Then I realised that I was playing a fantasy in my head in which each of my client sessions went like this:

ME: So, what seems to be the problem?

CLIENT: I feel sad/anxious/other unpleasant emotion and I don't know what to do about it.

ME: Oh, that's easy. [Explains best course of action in three to five sentences]

CLIENT: Oh, wow! I feel so much better now! Thanks so much! I'm fixed!

And I realised that that's not how therapy goes. It's not a chance for the therapist to prove how smart they are - it's a chance for the client to talk about the same issues over and over and over again until they finally reach some resolution.

I don't have the patience for that.

But I do still have a fascination with how and why people think and behave the way they (we) do. And I love books which sum those things up quickly.

Here are two I've read recently which I've particularly enjoyed: The Examined Life: How We Lose and Find Ourselves by Stephen Grosz, which is a fascinating look at typical forms of troubled thinking written by a psychoanalyst, and Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Someone Who's Been There by Cheryl Strayed, which is a collection of advice columns which I didn't always 100% agree with but which did all make me pause and consider my own beliefs.

That's it. That's all I'm going to tell you. Because you're either the sort of person who loves these books or you're not. And if you are: just take my word for it and read them.

And if you are: I'd love some recommendations of your own.

P.S. Those are Amazon affiliate links. I really should update my T&Cs to make that clear...

21 September 2014

Stick With Me. Or Skip To The End. I'm Going Somewhere Important With This One.

I had a moment this morning when I cried about Facebook. Burst into tears on Steve's shoulder, cried.

Now, clearly, this had a lot more to do with referendum disappointment and general fatigue than it did with social media, but at that moment the utter banality of "inspirational" quotes was just too much for me.

For the last few weeks, I've really enjoyed being on Facebook. The people who "don't do politics" had all abandoned ship and my news feed was filled with people raising awareness about social inequality, discussing the flaws in our country's current system of government, and debating the best way to take things forward.

In between all of that, there were updates about weddings and babies and charity coffee mornings and quitting jobs to start exciting university courses and tradespeople recommendations and a whole host of other important living-our-life events.

But there were no George Takei quotes or "I Fucking Love Science" shares or offensive "what women say vs what women mean" jokes or hourly updates about which form of housework people were undertaking at that exact moment in time.

It was exactly the Facebook I always wanted it to be.

Which, obviously, is not everybody's ideal version of Facebook - there wouldn't have been so many conspicuous absences recently if it was - but it is mine and I'm the one whose crying fit I'm explaining and I am going somewhere with this (stick with me).

Anyway, after several hours of trying to read a book but really just milling things over, I realised that there's nothing I can do about what other people post; that things which irritate me are going to appear and I can either unfollow people or scroll past their updates; that the awareness raising may well fade back to its normal level and that that is largely outwith my control.

But I also found myself thinking about my own experiences of homelessness and unemployment and needing benefits to top up my minimum wage income, and I got to thinking about the friends who helped me through all of that.

I put the two things together and I decided it was time to say thank you to them. Publicly. Sincerely. On Facebook.

I posted one long status update which thanked the three people who gave me places to stay when I didn't have a home of my own; which thanked the person who gave me somewhere to go one lonely Christmas Day; which thanked the two friends who saw me through my worst period of health; which thanked the two friends who have helped me brainstorm when I felt desperate; and which thanked Steve because he has done all sorts of brilliant things along the way.

And I urge you to do the same.

Take ten minutes to go through your friends list and think about the people who have been there for you when you've found life tough.

And thank them.

You don't need to go into enormous amounts of detail - one sentence is enough.

But don't let self-consciousness put you off. It doesn't look naff. It doesn't make you look weak.

I've rarely felt as relieved as I did when I posted that status update. I've had teary responses and friends deciding to write thank yous of their own.

It makes you feel good (happier than a holiday would, apparently!). It makes them feel good. It makes them think about the people they value in their own lives.

And, quite simply, it's something a little more lovely to appear in friends' Facebook news feeds.

Go and say thank you today.

17 September 2014

Going to the Polls Without a Blog Post? Unthinkable.

It feels frivolous writing about anything other than the Scottish referendum on independence this week.

I, like most people I know, have pretty much heard enough about it now. We've made up our minds; we're ready to vote. But it's an enormous decision and I wanted to mark it here somehow. So:

The vote is tomorrow.

It has been amazing watching (almost) an entire country getting so fired up about politics. There have been proper debates about things which really matter.

People have talked about poverty and inequality as real things which happen to real people, not abstract ideas from old Dickens novels.

People have talked about migration and immigration, right wing racism and the importance of foreign nationals to Scotland's economy.

People have (largely) accepted that that economy is based on a lot more than just oil and American tourists.

Opinion polls put the votes at almost exactly 50/50. A lot of Scots want to stay; a lot of Scots want to go. For that matter, many other Brits want us to stay, many have told us to shove it and many have asked to tag along. 

My own social circle is about 90% "Let's do this!" but I'm not putting money on either outcome.

But, as somebody who believes that getting a chance in life should be a universal right not a rich person's privilege, I am voting yes. Westminster has a track record of tearing apart the things which I hold important while the Scottish Parliament has a track record of protecting them. I've done enormous amounts of reading up on both sides of the argument; I know that neither option is flawless but I can't, ethically, vote for a status quo which punishes the vulnerable and exacerbates inequality.

Perhaps you have reached a different conclusion from me; there are people I respect who have, too, and I'm not going to try to change your mind. But I do believe that every person who walks into a polling station tomorrow has a responsibility to have done their research and talked and thought things through. At length. It's too big a decision to make on a hunch.

And that's why, as tired as so many of us may be of hearing about this, I decided to write this post. Because we can all cope with one more day of referendum rhetoric if it helps the last few people decide.

31 August 2014

How I Bought My Own Home

Recently, Janet nominated me for one of those "11 Things" memes and... well... I haven't got around to it, largely because a lot of the questions were about my blog and most of my blog has been archived.

One of those questions was about my favourite ever blog post and that got me thinking about this one (down below).

Now, honestly, this wasn't one of my best written blog posts but it was one which got a big positive reaction at the time. It's also a topic which has been coming up in both my online and offline lives recently.

So here it is: how I went from a minimum wage job to being a homeowner in the UK's second most expensive city without a huge inheritance.


When I was twenty-seven, I was working a minimum wage shop job.

I had moved twenty-seven times by that point; I was single; I had no clear career goals; the only thing I knew for certain was that I wanted to own my own home. I wanted an anchor. I wanted somewhere which was mine.

Unlike most of the homeowners I knew and know, I didn't have a large inheritance or wealthy parents to cover my 10% deposit. Between the deposit, legal fees and general costs of making a new flat a home, I estimated I needed about £15,000. I also needed a higher salary. And I was going to have to do it all myself.

This isn't a how-to post. If you're saving for a deposit, a wedding, a round the world trip, to start a business or you're trying to clamber out of debt, you will find the way which works for you. But, when it seems like an insurmountable task, I think it helps to know that other people have managed it.

It took me three years and this is what I did:

I got in the habit of saving

Working for minimum wage (at that point: £5.35 per hour), it was often a challenge to make ends meet, but I set myself a goal of having something left in my bank account at the end of every month, and of putting that spare money aside. Every single month I managed to save a bit.

I lived within my means

I lived in a cheap flat in a less desirable part of town. I relied on my feet and on public transport. I did without satellite TV or foreign holidays or endless racks of new dresses. I didn't live without luxuries entirely - I stuck to some brand name products and I bought the odd album here and there - but my priority was to save, not to own sparkly shoes.

I changed my job but not my budget

I realised I was never going to save much whilst working on minimum wage; I also wasn't earning a high enough salary to get approved for a mortgage. I switched to temping in offices which gave me the equivalent of a 50% pay rise right away; within a few months, I had been offered a permanent job at an even higher rate. Rather than adjusting my spending to my new salary, I continued living as though I was on a low income and I put the difference straight into savings.

I had a second source of income

For the first year, I continued working in the shop part-time. It gave me a safety net whilst temping and a financial boost thereafter. When the store closed, I started doing freelance writing - it was never a great earner for me, but some money was better than none.

In the interests of full disclosure

For six months, I had a boyfriend living with me. I wouldn't suggest moving in with somebody just to reduce your bills, but it did let me put more money aside.

Living on a budget and increasing your earnings are not revolutionary new ideas. I'm sure you could come up with them yourself. But that's how I went from minimum wage to home ownership in the space of just three years.

17 August 2014


Recently, I've been leading a very blogworthy life. I've been baking my own bread and eating it with the neighbour's homemade jam; I've been sewing cushion covers and laying my own bright yellow polkadot lino; I've been transitioning to more eco-friendly cleaning products and having an enormous cull of my wardrobe which included drawing felt tip pen pictures of every single item of clothing I own; I've been nurturing plants (with varying degrees of success) and weeding the garden; I've been taking photography seriously and talking interior decor with my sister.

I've been ticking off the cliches and basking in my photogenically minimalist watching-Parks-and-Recreation DIY lots-of-vegetables sort of life.

But if there's anything which spoils relaxed fun, it's having to document every single moment of it so I can teach somebody else how to have relaxed fun, too. My coffee dates don't need a storyboard.

And I'm pretty sure you all know how to sit in a cafe and drink camomile tea without instructions from me.

That said, of course I'm still taking lots of photos of my life. Because that's what I do. And I'm still putting one picture a day online at Two Days the Same so, while I neglect this blog, you can always find out what I'm up to over there.

Yellow shoes, yellow polkadot floor

That said, the neglect has to stop. I've poured years of effort into building up this blog and it saddens me a little that I've let that slide.

Why have I done that? Well, I've been busy; I've been dealing with assorted crises; I've been a bit disillusioned with the blandness hiccup the blog world's been going through... but it's not just that. It's also in part that I'm now working in Aberdeen's oil sodden, personalised license plated, absolutely minted private sector. This is a city where it's not unusual to earn six figures in your early twenties and to have more bathrooms than family members.

I do not earn six figures. I barely earn enough to pay taxes. Which is all my own doing: I chose a creative (as opposed to, say, an engineering) field; I chose to work part-time; I regularly choose to turn down interviews for better paid roles for a whole assortment of reasons. And, compared to a lot of the more hidden people in this city, I'm well off; I have a job and a mortgage and food on the table.

However I spend a lot of time dodging questions about why I'm not having any foreign holidays this summer (can't afford it) or buying the empty flat downstairs (can't afford it) or going to any of the £80-per-head charity galas (can't afford it). I feel baffled that those are serious queries. I feel self conscious that I can't afford new work clothes or a hair cut or somebody to lay the lino for me.

And that has seeped into blogging. If I blog about flogging old clothes on eBay or free ways to have fun or making my own... anything at all... are people going to read it and feel embarrassed for me?

But, actually, one of the things I originally loved about blogging was the acceptance that we were all a bit broke and most of us had money-making schemes on the side and we all furnished our homes from charity shops and kept Wednesdays aside for cheap cinema trips. There was an acceptance that things could be much worse and a shared belief that feeling fulfilled by our lives was more important than feeling financially flush.

One of the things I've disliked about blogging recently is the emphasis on working with brands, on encouraging each other to go out and buy loads of new clothes and subscribe to "beauty boxes" full of products we'll never get round to using. I don't feel blogs should be making me feel bad about my budget.

So perhaps it's time to stop worrying about this. Perhaps it's time to be one of the voices saying, "If you can pay your bills, you're doing okay. You do not need a new car every year. You do not new clothes every season. You do not need designer handbags. If you like where you're living and you have friends who will bring round a bottle and watch movies with you, you have enough."

And while I'm getting on my high horse, perhaps I should be adding, "If you can afford one more tin of beans than your meal planning requires, bung it in the foodbank bin in the supermarket." Because I shouldn't be embarrassed that I'm earning less than the local millionaires; I should be embarrassed that people are earning less than me.

13 July 2014

Moments Recently. Moments Ahead.

I was surprised, when I looked, that it's only a few months since I last posted on here. It feels like much longer. But I suppose things had been petering out for quite a while before that.

Earlier this year, I came back to this blog full of grand plans. After a few really rough months, I was going to be more positive and more productive and write an awful lot more.

Oh, the optimism, thinking that the really rough months were over! My description of 2014 so far is "deaths, near deaths and incurable diseases". It has been hard going. I'm more than a little bit sick of it.

Flowers fading in a jam jar

Although I'm usually great at seeing the bright sides and focusing on the good stuff and feeling lucky despite any evidence to the contrary, I've been really having to squint and strain to notice anything positive.

But rough times can help to focus us on what's important. One day, I might write in greater depth about that process, but for now here's the result: I've started taking my photography much more seriously.

I don't want to bludgeon you with advertising (because, gaaaaaah, the commercialisation of lifestyle blogging!) but there are a few hundred regular readers of this blog and, frankly, I'd be a fool not to point you all in the direction of my website and the photography blog which goes with it. Oh, and the Facebook page. Gotta remember the Facebook page.

If you know anyone in Scotland seeking a photographer, you also know me: hook us up! Gimme a shout out! Help me make this photography thing a success!

Sun through leafy branches

In the mean time, life's looking up (*touches wood*). I'm looking forward to a few days with my family. I'm looking foward to a couple of mystery dates I'm taking Steve on (the last one was Derren Brown and I'm a teeny bit smug about how awesome it was). I'm looking forward to a workshop in the Trossachs and a weekend visiting friends down in Edinburgh. I'm looking forward to a couple of big Aberdeen events I'm going to be involved with and I'm looking forward to my sister visiting in August. I'm about to finally start driving lessons which I can't in all honesty say I'm looking forward to but I am glad to be getting done. And I'm looking forward to the cup of tea which is brewing in the kitchen.

14 April 2014

Springtime in Paris

River Seine and Eiffel Tower at night

Two weeks ago, Steve and I were in Paris. In the springtime. With buds starting to appear on the trees. Visiting our friends.

What can I tell you about Paris? I can tell you that one couple we know love it so much they go back there every single year on their anniversary. I can tell you that a lot of people warned me that they hated Paris on their first visit but "got it" after that. I can tell you that my reaction to it wasn't particularly strong either way; I utterly loved both Prague and Copenhagen, but Paris made me give a Gallic shrug.

But that might be because we were trying to cram an extremely large city into just three-and-a-bit days. I would have loved to have spent whole days exploring just one area (the seedy ones; the crazy 80s one); I would have loved to have slowed down and taken thousands of photos; I would have loved to have spent a month crashing in my friends' spare bedroom and wandering the city on my own (or with Steve, of course, but, as patient as he is of my photography, I think that might have made him reach breaking point).

Still, we managed to cram a lot in. We, at the very least, walked past all of the main tourist sites - the Arc de Triomphe; the Eiffel Tower; Sacré-Cœur; Notre Dame. We stood in very long queues and visited the Catacombs and a Cartier-Bresson exhibition at the Centre Pompidou. We passed through Jardin du Luxembourg and ambled along the Promenade Plantée (where naturally a ballerina was doing stretches). We drank lots of wine and just about mastered the Metro and watched thousands of people on rollerskates zipping through the city at dusk. We giggled at the fish in the aquarium.

And I did take 400 photos. But I've picked out only my favourite... oh... thirty-odd to share with you today:

Graffiti saying "Vous etes ici et maintenant" / Jellyfish
80s architecture
Boat in a pond
Bridge over River Seine
Cat sticker
Graffiti of chickens
Sticker reading "Crepe City"
Burnt out building
Eiffel Tower lit up at night
Lots of hearts painted on the ground
Paris rooftops
Lion statue
Loads of padlocks
Notre Dame / a creepy sticker of eyes
Derelict building
Graffiti reading "Love Me"
Metro train shooting out of tunnel
Pigeons on somebody's hand
One pink fish amid school of white ones
Huge queue
Paris rooftops
Shark eggs
Parisian window / poster of a hand holding a rose
Tiny vineyard
Green shutters on windows
Roller skaters
Optical illusion
Tourists at Eiffel Tower
Steve and me hugging at Wall of Love
Picture of Steve and me at the Wall of Love (on our fifth anniversary) by our friend, Bruce.

08 April 2014

The Past Week (and the Books I've Read)

Black cat dozing in the sunlight

I feel like I should warn you that all of my April outtakes so far are pictures of Polly basking.

If you follow me on Twitter, you will already know that the only souvenir I brought home from Paris was gastroenteritis. A particularly vicious dose which, a week on, still has me grabbing my stomach and getting out of breath if I walk across the flat and tossing and turning all night with an acid reflux cough. Nice.

But I am on the mend.

A long, long time ago now, I had pneumonia. I was ill for what felt like forever. A couple of months, anyway, and then I had a phased return to work. All because of a bit of damp and some air freshener. Seriously, folks, just clean up your mess and open your windows!

So: I had been very ill and, once the worst of it was past, my GP told me to start leaving the house each afternoon and walking just a little bit further than the day before. The first day, I made it to the garden gate. The second day, I made it to the end of the road. The third day, I made it to the shop around the corner. So it went on.

Well, I'm nowhere near that sick at the moment but I still think the theory is sound. I don't want work to come as a total shock to the system on Monday. So, for the last few days, I've been trying to do a little bit more and a little bit more and a little bit more.

On Sunday, I did the dishes. On Monday, I put proper clothes on and framed some photos. Today, I went to the bakery and tidied some shelves and gifted some fabric scraps to a woman on Freecycle.

But mostly I've been sitting around reading (and sleeping. Let's not forget the sleeping).

I've read A Tale for the Time Being and Life After Life and Affinity and they were all pretty decent. And I've reread Woman on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown .

I almost never reread books. I know this about myself; I find it easy to give them away once I'm done because I know I'm not going to return to them. There are too many new ones to get through; who has time for repeats?

But I loved Woman on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown when I first read it in 2008 and I knew it was one to hang on to.

The book is the author's account of spending a year in therapy. At the start of the book, the author is a successful journalist with a close family, good friends and a pretty cocky attitude - but she's involved in an unhealthy relationship and keeps bursting into tears for no apparent reason. Despite this, she's convinced she doesn't need any help; twelve months later, she's changed her mind.

The first time I read the book, I wanted to buy copies for just about every woman - and most of the men - I know. So much of it is familiar - the games people play with themselves and their partners; the unhealthy attitudes towards careers and relationships; the shaky self belief and doubts about our abilities. I loved it. I have no doubt that I was emotionally healthier for reading it (and that that led to me leaving a well paid but insanely tedious procurement job to re-start my creative career).

I'm in a much happier place in my life now than I was in 2008. Much happier. But, second time around, I still feel like I got a huge amount of it and I still feel like I want to give copies to everyone I know.

Well, I can't afford to do that. So I'm doing the next best thing and blogging about it instead. Let me know what you make of it.

07 April 2014

Sarah B's Two Days the Same

The first month of Two Days the Same finishes today.

Taking part this month was (another) Sarah. Sarah and I first got chatting on Twitter because she knows my cousin, Susan (the smartypants behind Shop Scotland). I think our first random blether was when she suggested running a regular #sarahhour; we talked about it so much that we got the name Sarah trending.

I still think we should have followed through on that idea.

But at least I got to enjoy launching Two Days the Same with her input: fab photos and funny emails.

Here are some of my favourites from Sarah's snaps:

Chopped veg
View from Edinburgh bus stop
Rainbow reflected in pond

Don't forget to follow along throughout April when I am being joined by Aberdeen-based lawyer, Emma.

06 April 2014

On Being an Individual (Just Like Everyone Else)

Back in the late 90s, my then-boyfriend had a copy of The Official Slacker's Handbook . I'm not sure how seriously the book was supposed to be taken and I'm not sure how seriously he - who already had long hair and a goatee and a copy of Clerks - took it either. I always read it through eyerolls, with a studied look of, "Chuh! What sort of slacker needs this explained to them?" tiedyed onto my face. But I read it multiple times and, really, honestly, truly, I will admit that I saw it as a validation of a lot of my choices. Secondhand XXXL men's T-shirts? Pierced nose? Job in a video store? Check, check, check! I was getting this slacker thing right!

I've written before about the benefits of a subculture identity for those of us who don't feel that we fit in (and Janet touches on it here), but for anyone who hasn't memorised my every archived blog post, here's the gist:

Subculture identities allow those of who feel different from the crowd to identify a crowd (albeit sometimes a small one) of our own. We slackers may have called ourselves "individual" but what we really meant was "not following the conventional life path". There was never anything individual about my shaved head, Doc Martins or my love of Faith No More, but they were the easily recognisable markers of an indie-grunge-slacker-kid. They helped people with similar outlooks identify me and those people's dress sense helped me identify them. There was a point when I could go into one of two slacker dive bars on any given night of the week and be sure to find a gaggle of slackers just like me.

Except that we were never really just like each other. We were only ever amplifying the similarities because they helped us to feel connected.

I read and loved Jeff Noon and Douglas Coupland and Peter Bagge, just like everybody else [said they] did, but I kept quiet about quite enjoying my flatmate's stash of chick lit and hating American Psycho. I played up the parts of myself which made me part of the group and kept some other parts of myself hidden away from view.

I don't suppose that's entirely healthy but I would bet that, for many young and insecure "outsiders", it's perfectly normal.

Sometimes I notice the same sort of subculture homogeneity on lifestyle blogs. Bloggers emphasise their peach and aqua dress collection, kitten-faced porcelain and nostalgic gadgets but a solitary few ever write about how their favourite film is Crank and cupcakes make their teeth feel funny.

Perhaps this is all genuine. Perhaps I'm putting my own youthful neuroses onto newbie bloggers but I tend to think this is an attempt for shy young things to feel like they fit in on the internet.

But don't we eventually all have to grow up into ourselves? Or shouldn't we, at least?

One of the things which most appealed to me about Steve - and which I still admire in him - was his quiet certainty in his own tastes. He has shades of games geek, with his IT job and his weekends shooting CGI skeletons, and he has shades of metalhead, with his love of roary music and his scary T-shirts, but he never tries to change his look or fake enthusiasms just to fit in with the scene; he has never apologised for his more obscure hobbies just to make the cool kids like him; no amount of pressure from me will ever make him wear a checked shirt or like The Moldy Peaches. He's just Steve.

Being an individual is something that I had to learn to do. I always thought I was doing my own thing. I was proud to like L7 instead of Take That. I was proud to wear Cons instead of Nikes. I was proud to pierce my nose before my ears. But, within my group, I was always a lot more open about the differences we shared than the ones we didn't.

Somewhere along the way, I've got past a lot of that. I'm not going to claim to be immune to pop culture because that's nonsense - I still find myself looking at Pinterest suggestions and thinking, "But... didn't I come up with that first?"; I am obviously, absolutely influenced by the things which I see around me (and a lot of those things are blogs) - but these days I'm a lot more open about which bits of it work for me and which bits don't.

Copper pipes and marquee letters and macarons? All good. Dip-dyed clothes and brussels sprouts and intricate nail art? Not for me. I don't fancy Ryan Gosling and I don't like sushi and I think sometimes you can have too many items with kawaii faces on them.

But what I realised most, when I sat down to write this, was that I'm not even sure what my subculture is any more. I've long since left the "slacker" path behind me; I'm not a "geek" although several of my friends would describe themselves that way; I don't feel like a "hipster" even if I do write a blog; I don't consider myself "mainstream" despite the career and the mortgage.

On the other hand, I'm a little bit of all of the above.

So what does that make me? An individual? Or adaptable? Or desperate to please?

You know what? I don't think it matters any more. I feel utterly secure in saying that I'm "me".