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story telling

I like raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens as much as the next child of the 1980s, having spent every Christmas holiday re-watching Julie Andrews bring joy and music to the Austrian Alps. I never planned my viewing in advance; somehow, year after year, I turned on the TV just as it started. As they say, timing in life is everything.

I longed to be a von Trapp child, to sing my heart out as I walked the beautiful hills with the sun on my face and a dress made from curtains on my back. That’s where the similarities would have ended, though; nice as they are, raindrops and whiskers will never fall into my “favorite things” category.

My friend, Constance, re-introduced me to the concept a few years ago. I came back from vacation and she asked me to play the vacation game with her: I had to name my favorite sound, smell, taste, touch and color from my get away. I was hooked, and found that each time I traveled after that, having the game in the back of my mind helped me to look harder and notice better in a way that enhanced the experience considerably.

As I sit with bags packed beside me reflecting on five – FIVE! – years in Washington DC, I find myself playing the game again to help fix in my brain the truly wonderful, exciting, sometimes difficult life I built here. I arrived on a Saturday afternoon at the end of September 2015, checked into “The Compound” as we would come to call Constance’s house on P St, and set about building a nonprofit from scratch. They say charity begins at home; mine started in the office but brought home to me a new way of seeing myself and the world that has been truly life changing. I got good by doing good.

So, here are a few of my favorite things (about DC and my life here):

Sounds:

  • The bull frog in the tree in the garden at P St that kept me awake, but whose presence made me strangely happy as if he were standing watch over me as I slept (or would have done if he’d been quiet)
  • The Super Soul Conversation podcast which brought me comfort and enlightenment on my darkest days
  • The sound of my sister’s voice as we had an impactful conversation walking the streets of DC

Sights:

  • Paul’s face in the morning on the pillow next to mine
  • The sparkling and twinkling of the river in the sun, as if diamonds were dancing on its surface
  • The persistently strange sight of someone wearing a face mask in this new pandemic reality

Colors:

  • The blue of the big wide sky of DC
  • The aqua marine of my big sparkling engagement ring
  • The grey of my husband’s eyes

Touches:

  • The sun on my face as I sit in the garden of P St on a gloriously hot August day
  • Paul’s hand as it locks into mine
  • The feel of freshly washed sheets on my skin after Paul has washed them (he always insists)

Smells:

  • The dark wood of Martin’s bar
  • Grown Alchemist body wash in our beautiful honeymoon hotel in New Orleans
  • Paul cooking dinner in the kitchen as I sit on our sofa drinking a G&T and we catch up on our day and plan the next adventure

Tastes:

  • That first mimosa of the night (or morning, or afternoon)
  • The burger at Le Diplomat – hold the salt on the fries
  • The meals I found in my fridge when I returned from travels, lovingly left by Constance so I would feel loved and welcomed home

Places:

  • The bright, sunny nook at the Clubhouse
  • The garden on P St
  • The middle of the Mall – the Capitol on one side, the Washington Monument on the other – I never tire of that view

Experiences:

  • Learning to meditate and calm my busy brain
  • Taking a memoir writing course – and realizing I was good at it
  • Learning to speak American

People:

  • My husband, the love of my life
  • My Compound Crew: Katie and Constance
  • Friends, too many to mention them all, but you know who you are

Achievements:

  • Building an organization
  • Learning to say no
  • Finding balance for the first time in my life

US destinations:

  • Portland, OR – East London on the West Coast
  • LA – much better than I was expecting
  • Miami South Beach – Art Deco heaven

Books read:

  • The Century Trilogy by Ken Follett, read in bed over Christmas 2015/new year 2016, the story of the American century as I settled into my new American home
  • What I Know for Sure, Oprah Winfrey – she set me on the straight and narrow when I needed it
  • A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles – one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read and a different take on “captivity” from my day job

Music:

  • Jake Bugg acoustic set in Nashville on my 41st birthday – that guy brought be back to life after a difficult year
  • Christine and the Queens with Kelly at the 9.30 Club – sheer wonder and delight in a 5-foot creativity pocket rocket
  • Impromptu blue grass gig with Constance at her neighbor’s place in VA – she pulled me away from the TV, I danced in my PJs

Occasions:

  • My wedding
  • My 40th birthday weekend
  • Leaning in on my first date with Paul

Wow moment:

  • Being the Saturday Profile in the New York Times

And that, as they say, is a wrap. Thanks, DC, it’s been a blast. London – Brace! Brace! I’m coming to get you.

Three weeks into my Quarter Gap Year, everything about Julia Hobsbawn’s new book appeals to me: The Simplicity Principle: Six steps towards clarity in a complex world.

It’s the book for our times and Julia walks us through the data; we pick up our smartphones 80 times per day or roughly every 12 minutes, we are on the internet six hours per day or one-third of our waking time, and being ‘on’ 24/7 is the norm at work. All this when we know the human brain cannot hold more than about seven things at any given time and research shows that it takes 23 minutes and 15 seconds to regain attention and focus after being distracted.

It’s not surprising that over 15 million working days were lost to stress in the UK last year, stress costs $300 billion annually to the US, and – sadly – the WHO reports one death from suicide every 40 seconds. Our lives are too complicated for us to keep up with ourselves, let alone the Joneses. [For more on these refs, read the book!].

Having spent the last five years relocating from the UK to the US, standing up a new nonprofit and building it to the point of it having a solid year’s worth of running costs in the bank (handy during a global pandemic), I know all too well the picture being painted here: always on, constantly multi-tasking, dozens of plates spinning, pressure to succeed, and no social support structure. The ends are hugely rewarding, but the means to get there have taken a toll.

Lucky for me, I’m in a position to take a break, step back and reassess my priorities. So while it’s most definitely the book for our times – it’s also come at just the right moment for me.

Julia outlines six sides of a hexagon which together encapsulate the six sides of simplicity: clarity, individuality, reset, knowledge, networks and time. Each has six ideas within it, which come with six fixes or takeaways and calls to action.

I can’t say the narrative structure of the book worked for me – bees, hexagons, nature – but that doesn’t detract from the central idea and the practical suggestions about how to incorporate the simplicity principle into your own life.

Here are the key things I’ll be building into my life:

Clarity:

  • Minimize the number of decisions you have to make and make them swiftly
  • Take a technology break at a regular time each week
  • Say no much more than you say yes
  • Declutter and have a designated place for everything

Individuality:

  • Distinguish between your online and offline identities
  • Pay attention to place – where you live, work and your journey between the two are critical to have you live and work

Reset:

  • Make sleep a big priority
  • Find ways to switch off, whether through meditation or more active ways that take you out of your day to day
  • Seek out a change of scene regularly
  • Spend time in nature
  • Make time for fun in your life

Knowledge:

  • Always bring what you know already to new situations – it’s your wisdom
  • Focus on your soft skills
  • Use a Knowledge Dashboard to streamline the information you receive
  • Don’t have too many things to focus on at once

Networks:

  • Make time for face-to-face
  • Organize how you communicate with someone according to the quality of the relationship
  • Approach networking as a relational activity, not a transactional one
  • Create social capital by being part of communities
  • Create small intimate gatherings and generally avoid large conferences
  • Identify your ‘social six’ – the people who really matter to you

Time:

  • Don’t do deadlines unless you’ve set them yourself
  • Keep control of your calendar and be intentional about how you spend your time
  • Organize your day in the way that makes most sense for you and your body clock
  • Don’t bother with offices unless you have to

I’d recommend this book to anyone asking themselves why life seems relentless, whether it could be different, and how to get started. It’s a great read, much more accessible than your typical ‘self-help’ book, and offers a practical roadmap for how to make change happen.

“For the first time in my life, I have shed ‘survivor’ or ‘victim’ as my identity. I was having to survive on being a ‘survivor’, because that’s how I was making money, speaking about what happened to me. Now I want to talk about coding.” [Quoted in Wired magazine]

Catie Hart was 18 when she was coerced into being a sex worker by a man she met soon after arriving in San Francisco. She eventually broke away and now, aged 40, has a degree in Sociology from UC Berkeley, worked as an advisor on human trafficking for the San Francisco Police Department, Shasta County and UC Davis and is currently a lecturer at AnnieCannons, a Bay area nonprofit where survivors of human trafficking can learn to code.

Our adult lives couldn’t have started more differently; when I was 18, I was heading to Cambridge University and then on to a successful career in London and Washington DC.

Around the time Catie’s life took a turn for the worst, I had too had a formative experience: my uncle was kidnapped by terrorists in Colombia and held hostage for 7 months.

I spent the first two decades of my career dedicated to setting up Hostage UK and Hostage US, nonprofits to support hostage families through the ordeal and help returning captives rebuild their lives after they are released. I recently stepped down as Executive Director from Hostage US and would describe my time there as doing the right thing, in the right place, with the right people. Anyone who gets that once in their career is doing really well. I’ve had it twice.

There is no more effective way to convince people to donate or partner than to connect them with survivors like Catie. After hearing a hostage speak about their experiences, I have watched people instinctively reach for their check book or business card, moved to do whatever they can to help. These personal stories help build the infrastructure and resources that make nonprofits sustainable.

And yet, I always struggled to make the ask.

Telling your story can be therapeutic; one former hostage told me writing a book helped them to process what they had been through, ensure their story was told in their own words, and move on with their life. In every telling, it becomes someone’s else’s story until you can cast it aside entirely, like shedding a layer of skin. The late, great Maya Angelou said, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”

For many, the telling and re-telling of the most traumatic experience of their life has a negative impact. In the most extreme cases, it can re-traumatize, triggering a range of symptoms, such as flashbacks and nightmares, anxiousness, trouble sleeping and concentrating, negative emotions and social isolation.

It can also lead to ‘identity groundhog day’. One former hostage told me she had stepped off the professional speaking circuit because she was fed up of being “hostage girl”. Everywhere she went – dropping the kids at school, attending church, over wine with friends – her identity was dominated by two months of her life five years previously. She just wanted to be a mom, wife, humanitarian, and bad karaoke singer again.

With care and thought, we can create environments for survivors to tell their stories in ways that have a net positive impact; let the survivor set the ground rules about what they do and don’t want to talk about and whether they will answer questions; ask if they would prefer to sit or stand, be interviewed or deliver a speech; help them to feel comfortable in the space by sharing photos of the room or arranging a visit beforehand; and designate someone to shield them from prying audience members afterwards. The best survivors’ organizations do this.

Catie’s quote struck a personal chord with me, too. Over the past two decades, I have told and re-told my own story countless times; to donors, partners, and bored conference attendees alike. Often, I felt good knowing something positive resulted from my family’s suffering.

At times, I resented it.

There were the times it seemed like ‘entertainment’ and left me feeling hollow knowing my story was little more than next weekend’s titillating dinner party fodder for audience members. What’s worse is feeling like I conspired in commoditizing my story; the same old patter, recycled anecdotes, and jokes in all the right places to ensure the mood didn’t dip into ‘awkward and uncomfortable’.

I also became “hostage girl” and watched the boundary between my professional and personal identities vanish. I’ll never forget sitting at a rooftop bar enjoying a balmy Washington DC evening, glass of red wine in hand as I tried to unwind after an especially stressful week at work. Introducing me to a new group, my friend said, “Rachel, do you mind if I tell everyone what you do for a job?” I wanted to scream “Yes I do mind – just let me enjoy my weekend!” I didn’t have the energy to object and inevitably spent the rest of the evening being asked questions about hostages.

I have no doubt that personal stories change the world. They help us to ‘cross the line’ as donors, volunteers and partners; they generate the compassion, energy and will to make a difference; and our instinct to share them helps raise awareness. As Dorothy Allison said, ‘…stories are the one sure way I know to touch the heart and change the world.”

There comes a time when storytelling needs to stop. We are more than our worst experiences and we cannot move forward if we can’t let go of the past.

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