The coffee moment

Yesterday I spent a couple of hours at the Freud Museum in Hampstead.

I was in my element. I got to potter around half a dozen rooms packed to the gills with mementos, curios, antiquities and furnishings that belonged to the great Sigmund Freud and his daughter Anna. It took me right back to my psychology studies at university and as I listened to the audio guide and wandered through each room, I marvelled at how one man and his ‘couch’ (below) could remain so relevant for so long – his methods are still at the heart of many of the ways and means we use to handle the world we live in today.

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Two hours later, and with a head full of Freud (make of that what you will), I headed back down to the main road to have lunch, enjoying a tasty meal then settling in to read for a bit while I drank my coffee.

But the coffee was awful. Bitter and watery and absolutely undrinkable. So I returned it to the waitress, paid the bill (sans coffee but I did leave a tip – after all, my return was well-handled and the rest of the meal was great) and walked down to the bus stop.

I’d been standing there for a few minutes when it occurred to me that I had let the ‘coffee moment’ go.

It might seem a strange thing to say. There had been no shouting nor were there any angry exchanges and the whole thing was dealt with very smoothly.  But I’d had a plan – to enjoy some reading time over a nice cup of coffee – and that had been thwarted. I did not get a nice coffee and I’d left rather than stay to read. If things had been handled in a similar way previously, by now I would have be stewing over the whole incident, despite telling myself not to. And even though I’d try to get over it, past it or whatever, it would have put a definite dent in my day.

But it didn’t. I’d let it go. Even thinking about it again did not wind me up. It was just something that had happened.

I got on the bus and as we trundled along Finchley Road I found myself wondering, could there really be something in this mindfulness caper?  Let me explain.

About five weeks ago, I went to an Introduction to Mindfulness workshop. It was offered as part of my outplacement and it turned out to be quite interesting: Lots of discussion about what it was, questions about what we thought we might get from it (or not for the cynics among us) and information about the science of it.

Just in case you’re wondering, here’s a definition:

Mindfulness is paying attention on purpose in the present moment non-judgementally    Jon Kabat-Zinn

We also tried a couple of short meditations. I liked the calmness that I felt afterwards and thought ‘maybe this something I should try’. But I have a tendency to get charmed by something, go hard after it then not be able to sustain it in the face of all of the other interesting things life has to offer. (The peeps-who-know-me-well will be nodding – or even chuckling – knowingly at this point.)

So I set myself a challenge: If I could do the 8-minute Body and Breath meditation – the one that we’d done in the workshop – every day for a month, then I would consider buying the book and committing to its 8-week mindfulness program.

Every morning I sat on the couch with a soothing, gentle voice in my ear that encouraged me to pay attention – to my body, then my breath and then to my wandering mind. Some days it was noisy in there – thoughts, memories and feelings clambered insistently over each other in their eagerness to get my attention, shouting at me to plan, to remember stuff, to dwell on things. Other days they just drifted around aimlessly, taking me away from the thing I was supposed to be paying attention to – the moment and my breath. Yet when the gong sounded at the end, there was always a stillness, however brief.

No-one was more surprised than I when I reached my 1-month target. But did a month of 8-minutes-a-day really make a difference? I have noticed that I am generally calmer and also paying attention better and for longer. However I’m also enjoying my out-of-the-rat-race time while I look for what’s next so was not totally sold that this daily practice was the cause.

Today convinced me otherwise. It was that blinding flash at the bus stop – a mental ‘holy s**t’ – that made me realise that it’s possible, that the shift is palpable and that it’s pretty awesome and worthwhile when you notice it. I observed the moment and let it go. That’s definitely worth practising.

So I’ve embarked on week 1 of the 8-week program. There’s a range of tasks to complete and one is choosing an activity to do mindfully every day.  I’ve chosen brushing my teeth and let me tell you, it’s really hard to keep paying attention to it – and only it – for the whole two minutes that it takes. I have to close my eyes so I don’t get distracted by myself in the mirror or the sink that needs wiping down or the dehumidifier switching on and off in the background.

It also has me continuing with the 8-minute meditation but now twice a day. And I’m to do one Habit Releaser: Changing a habit is meant to make us realise how automatically and unthinkingly we do things – so this Habit Releaser is to change where I normally sit. For the last month, my comfy couch has been the place of stillness so now I sit in my new quiet place – the second bedroom – for 8 minutes when I get up in the morning and 8 minutes before I go to bed at night. And I’m changing my position on said comfy couch too.

To be honest, I’m not sure where this all will lead. My coffee moment was so unexpected that I’m wondering what stumbling about in this new wilderness will uncover.

Path - Dollis Green Walk (Hendon Golf Course)

What will I confront and will I even make it through the 8-weeks?

I’m curious to find out.


Resources I’ve referred to (in case you are interested):

The book – Mindfulness: A practical guide to finding peace in a frantic world by Mark Williams and Dr Danny Penman

The website – www.franticworld.com – which also contains the Body and Breath meditation, among others.

York: People and a pastry

My last day in York dawned bright and blue-skied, a welcome sight after my wet Wednesday, so I was up, checked out and ready for a cruise on the Ouse (pronounced ‘ooz’ peeps – just to explain my rhyming turn of phrase) only to find that all trips for that day had been cancelled…due to flooding.

Hmmmm…

So I wandered around the Yorkshire Museum Gardens for half an hour – to make the most of the sunshine (in case it disappeared)…

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…before deciding to head into the Museum itself.

The Yorkshire Museum turned out to be my favourite thing-to-do of the trip – and that’s in a trip full of great things to do. I loved walking through the early years of York – or Eboracum as it was originally known – reading about its people and each era’s way of life. I walked in the steps of the Romans then uncovered some Viking and Anglo-Saxon treasures…

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….before meandering to the Normans (from 1066) and into the reign of King Richard III (during the late 1400s). There was so much to pore over and read about as I wound my way through all of these exhibits. It was fabulous.

And that wasn’t all. The museum had a fascinating exhibit on Extinction. Did you know that 99% of all species that have ever lived are extinct? The exhibit began with an overview of the Five Mass Extinctions and how they happened. What followed was a range of cases displaying fossils from each period which brought each extinction chapter to life – here are just a few:

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The story ended with a showcase of the conservation efforts aimed at some currently endangered species as well as examples of where re-introducing species had not worked. It all led to the final question of the exhibit: ‘Should we just let nature take its course?’. It was a thought-provoking note to end on.

After a bite to eat, I decided on a slightly more modern turn for the afternoon and headed over to Treasurer’s House. The property is tucked away behind York Minster and was donated to the National Trust by Frank Green in 1930. Green was the son of a wealthy industrialist and although he did not always restore faithfully ‘to the period’, the house is a testament to his passion for architecture and antiques. It was also the Trust’s first fully furnished property.

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I spent a pleasant hour or so admiring and reading about each of the rooms and the house’s grand visitors which included King James I and the future King Edward VII.

I also enjoyed learning about Frank Green’s vision for the property. His vision was incredibly specific, so much so that his gift to the Trust came with a condition – that the house would always be displayed as he’d left it. One example: While he had lived in the house, he’d had studs placed in the floor to ensure that the furniture was always positioned exactly where he wanted it.

This practice is still adhered to more than a century later.

This might seem to be – okay it is – the legacy of a control freak but what I ended up seeing was his home exactly as he lived in it and not some version that had been tinkered with over time. It poses a number of interesting questions about the restoration of historic properties and how far this should go before they move away from being ‘original’.

I had a couple of hours before my train back to London and I could think of nothing I wanted more than a return visit to Betty’s Tearooms. I lingered leisurely over some home-made soup and then all but inhaled the most heavenly vanilla slice I have ever eaten. Seriously peeps, I do not have enough words to express just how delicious it was. Needless to say it was my favourite thing-to-eat for my entire stay.

Then it was back to the hotel to collect my bag before trundling back across Lendal Bridge to the train station.

River Ouse from Lendal Bridge (l) (sml)

A sunset-kissed farewell from York while standing on Lendal Bridge

So that ends my marvellous minibreak in York. I hope you’ve enjoyed it. I’d especially love it if this series of posts has inspired you to go and discover its treasures for yourself. Please let me know if you do…

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My four York posts:

Photo tour: A walk in York

York: The tower, tour and tearooms

York: Amus-(eum)-ing myself

York: People and a pastry

York: Amus-(eum)-ing myself

Let’s begin by establishing that my second full day in York was a wet one. The skies grizzled ominously and gushed forth in turn so it was just as well there were plenty of indoor activities to keep me amused.

After a bracing walk along the river, I spent the morning at the York Castle Museum. Located just by Clifford’s Tower, it’s comprised of two buildings – the old Female Prison to the left and the old Debtors Prison to the right – with a gift shop (there’s always a gift shop) and cafe in between. The museum weaves an eclectic route through York society and culture during the 1800s-1900s and all it takes is a tenner to get amongst it.

I began with the Female Prison Building – containing exhibitions covering the changing nature of homes and living – and a nod to one of York’s great pillars of commerce, chocolate.

York Castle Museum - chocolate montage

The Rowntree’s company in York invented the Kit Kat and the Terry’s Chocolate…Apple?

I wandered through the toys exhibit…

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…passed a number of rooms set up to show life in York’s different social circles…

York Castle Museum - Cottage 1 (sml)

A single room cottage – cosy!

…and ended by meandering around the museum’s indoor streetscape, Kirkgate.

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There was also an exhibit called Shaping The Body covering the history of body shape and size, the advent of fashion and food trends as well as an overview of various exercise fads over the last 400 years. I had a little chuckle at the irony of this given York’s chocolate connection!

Next I headed across to the Debtors Prison Building for the exhibition on The Great War (World War I). If you like war history this would be right up your street. I spent 45 minutes or so wandering through but to be honest, I struggled to stay interested.

I also visited the old prison cells in this building and learned about some of the people incarcerated there – you can actually stand in the cell where highwayman Dick Turpin was held before his execution and hear ‘him’ speak.

As I was heading out to the museum exit, I saw a sign pointing to a ’60s exhibition. A peek outside confirmed that it was still raining buckets so I dashed across to the annex and enjoyed a brush with a replica lunar module, pondered fashion and homewares from the decade and listened to a blast from the past – the theme tune from Doctor Who.

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At this point more than three hours had passed and I was well and truly ready for lunch. Brolly up, I emerged into the downpour and headed over to Castlegate for a pleasant (and dry) spell at Source.

With the rain looking like it was going nowhere fast, I decided to spend the afternoon at the National Railway Museum. This is free and contains an extraordinary number of trains and related exhibits. I am no trainspotter and I still managed to spend just under three hours here…

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I especially liked the display on the warehouse mezzanine floor which showed all of the technologies used to manage the rail network. Of particular interest was the signalling system – anyone who uses the tube and train network in the UK is familiar with ‘signal failure’ being a cause of disruption in their journey. But for the life of me, I could not work out how to read the computer screen showing the real-time ‘ins and outs’ of York Station. Best I stick to my day job.

The damp squib continued outside and the thought of a pint of something somewhere warm was growing in appeal. While strolling down Stonegate a couple of days earlier, I’d come across a sign pointing to an intriguing alleyway so that was where I headed – to Ye Olde Starre Inne, one of York’s oldest (and supposedly haunted) pubs…

It was here that, as I relaxed by the open fire and sipped my pint, I read the news about the Westminster terror attack. Feeling thankful that I was well away from it all (and that I could reassure family and friends I was safe), I was taken back five months when that very place had been part of my daily commute. I shed a few shocked tears at the horror of it all yet tucked safely in a warm and cosy corner of an historic city that had survived so much, it felt like I was in the perfect place to reflect.

And as I fell into an(other) exhausted sleep that night, I thought about the importance of living life to the fullest and being present to life’s many joys every day.

Then Thursday dawned, crisp and sunny…

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My four York posts:

Photo tour: A walk in York

York: The tower, tour and tearooms

York: Amus-(eum)-ing myself

York: People and a pastry

York: The tower, tour and tearooms

As a history buff and fan of the city break, a visit to York has been on my to-do list for quite some time (okay, since I moved here thirteen years ago). So in March, I finally got my act together, booked a bed and a spot of breakfast for a few days and hopped on a train for the two hour journey north.

I had three days to spend and a list of things I wanted to do. The weather managed to mix it up too – bursts of sunshine book-ended drizzle, rain and even a flurry of snow. But it was blue skies that beckoned as I got off the train, bouncing off bobbing yellow daffodils and brushing the distant Minster tower with soft light. So I checked into my hotel (Marmadukes Town House Hotel), dumped my stuff and headed out to explore.

York Arrival montage

I spent the last few hours of daylight wandering through the walled city’s cobbled streets and when the light finally faded, I found a cosy spot at the Lamb and Lion Inn (right under the old City Gate, Bootham Bar) to prepare my plan of attack over a quiet pint of something local.

It was a full three days – a wonderful mix of history, curiosities, architecture and breathtaking views – and I have so much to share with you. So I’ve split my York warblings into three Armchair Tours to cover the things I loved about each day.

Here’s Part One…enjoy!

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Photo tour: A walk in York

I went to York for three days in March. It’s a city that’s absolutely chock full of history – which I love – and is wonderfully walk-able – which I also love. Quite frankly, I’m astounded that it’s taken me thirteen years to get there.

True to form, the English weather prevaricated between gloriously crisp blue-sky days and a grey drizzle that bordered on menacingly unfriendly from time to time.  Needless to say there were lots of layers-off-layers-on moments as I adjusted to these changes. But that did not stop me doing loads of great stuff and taking oodles of photos.

To whet your appetite for the posts to come, I thought I’d share some of the pics that take me back and even now, take my breath away. Enjoy!

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Going back to basics

Some days you just can’t win a trick.

Today started well with eight minutes of meditation, something I’ve been doing every day for the last three weeks. My target has been to do this for one month before deciding what’s next.  A small steps kind of approach. I followed this with a brisk clear-the-cobwebs-and-get-things-moving kind of walk before tucking into a bowl of porridge.

All good so far.

It was then off to the hairdresser to get the mane cropped back to its smooth, slicked-back self. My hair is an important part of determining how I feel – I am a Leo after all – so this is a regular and important part of maintaining my positive sense of self. Let’s just say there was a significant amount of said mane on the salon floor and that I left lighter and eminently cooler.

In other words, still looking good.

Feeling virtuously productive, on the way home I dropped into my local jeweller to get the battery replaced in my ‘work’ watch. And here’s where things started to go awry.

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The road to motherhood

Today is Mother’s Day in the UK.

I am close to my Mum and always have been. Even though I now live on the opposite side of the world, we still keep all the connections going and spent time together just recently when I was in Melbourne over the Christmas / New Year period.

Others are not so fortunate. Some will spend the day in remembrance whilst a great many more will fall somewhere between the luxury of close proximity and feeling separated emotionally. For still others, this is just another day.

In Australia, we celebrate Mother’s Day on the second Sunday in May so today is a bit of an awkward one for me. There’s the flurrying around me here but my official nod happens in May. I’ve been grappling with how best to acknowledge this UK version for the last couple of days.

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A taste of Spring

I ate a plum today.

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I took it from the fridge

and left it to warm in the sun

as I read on the patio.

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When I picked it up, I stopped

 to admire the shine

of its bruise-purple skin

before I took a bite.

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I leaned forward

and brought the round glossy fruit

to my lips.

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I felt the skin resist

then split under my teeth

surrendering

its lush golden flesh.

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It was firm – “al dente” –

keeping the juice softly wrapped

in the meat of the fruit

as I took each cool, sweet bite

around its stony heart.

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In five bites I was done

and the seed tossed casually away

under the rose bushes.

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I ate a plum today

and it tasted like Spring.

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When enough is enough

Last Wednesday, I was horrified to read a mother’s plea for advice upon learning that her daughter had been bullied. As I read her Facebook post, she described that nasty phone calls had escalated into an incident where her daughter had been followed home from school by two girls from another school. She had been subjected to a barrage of obscenities and comments that to film it all ‘would be funny’.  Her daughter’s threats to call the police made no difference and it wasn’t until a woman jogging by intervened that she fled home and revealed all to her mother.

I felt inspired by the way this Facebook conversation developed. Many reached out with words of support and some with experience of handling this – parents and teachers – offered practical advice about what to do next. To date it sounds like positive steps have been taken in partnership with the school. But it was shocking to read. And all the more so given the date of the post.

Wednesday was 8th March. International Women’s Day.

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A question of culture: Assimilate or die?

This week I attended a evening of talks at China Exchange, a charity based in London’s Chinatown whose mission it is to create ways of exploring Chinese culture and China’s influence on the world. I fell across them late last year in attending a provocative discussion between Sir David Tang and Mr & Mrs Smith CEO James Lohan and have been keen to attend something else ever since.

This one-night-only event featured five speakers who had eight minutes each on their allotted subject followed by questions from the audience. They covered a range of topics from Chinese medicine (and what is it really?), Hinkley Point C and the role of Chinese investment, feminism in China and the opportunity that Chinese tourists represent for the British economy.

I know very little about China and Chinese culture. During an emerging market project about 18 months ago, I was surprised by the level of Chinese investment in large infrastructure projects in Africa and I’ve only had limited exposure to ‘Chinese’ medicine. Needless to say I found it an educational and thought-provoking evening.

But the eight minutes that really left me thinking were delivered by Dr Victor Fan, a Senior Lecturer at King’s College. His topic was ‘white washing’ in the entertainment industry i.e. non-Asian people playing Asian roles. It was every bit as interesting as the others but it was when he spoke about his experience of getting a visa to live and work in Quebec, Canada – one that specified that he would speak French and adopt local practices – that something struck a chord.

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