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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.

Slowing down is the fastest way to get where I want to go

After stepping down from my busy, stressful – but rewarding – job a couple of weeks ago, I gave myself the best leaving gift: time. Three months, to be precise. A Quarter Gap Year. It’s the second time I’ve done it – the last one involved more long haul flights, scuba diving and temples; this time, the quarter gap year has come to me.

As I enter the second full week of the Quarter Gap Year, I’m learning an important lesson: slowing down.

Last week was a heady mix of feel-good productivity: a Johns Hopkins online epidemiology course, dozens of articles on managing pandemics, a couple of blog posts written, and a book on the impact of childhood trauma. I can think of worse ways to spend my days; in fact, it’s really wonderful to feel my brain stimulated, pinging off in different directions. I’m a strong believer in the power of intellectual free-styling.

It was too much too soon, and wasn’t helped by my over-enthusiastic (and age inappropriate) embrace of Peleton online HIIT classes. While Shakira may have warned us that the hips don’t lie, for me it’s all about the neck and shoulders. Thursday it was a slight twinge. Friday needed a husband rub. Saturday extra pillows for my neck. By Sunday the battle was lost and I spent all day yesterday with my left arm supported, sitting upright on the sofa doing nothing more taxing than TV.

Neck and shoulder issues have plagued me all my adult life. The time I almost had to cancel a holiday (and then spent the first 3 days in bed immobile); when I spent a couple of months with a bag of peas on my neck; the frozen shoulder that necessitated opioids and steroids; the countless other times I’ve had to carefully choose my sleeping position to minimize the stress on my neck. It comes, it hurts, I stop. Rewind and repeat.

Acupuncture, physical therapy, massage, sports massage, deep tissue massage, osteopathy, pilates, yoga. You name it, I’ve tried it. I even had calcium deposits extracted from my shoulders with a very large needle a couple of years ago. I’ll spare you the visuals. Some have helped – deep tissue massage and pilates are stand out stars – others didn’t do a thing – acupuncture and physical therapy were a waste of money (for me).

As good as any of these things are, they treat the symptoms not the cause: stress. Stress impacts my posture, which strains my muscles, which are then vulnerable to the slightest tweak, leading to a disproportionate strain, I compensate by changing my posture, and so the cycle continues until I’m in agony.

Meditation isn’t something you do to take you out of your daily life – it’s something you bring into your daily life to cultivate perspective

I’ve found meditation to be the only effective way to treat the cause. In 2017/18 when I was going through undoubtedly the most stressful period of my career, Take Five Meditation studio opened near my office in Washington DC. I’d wanted to try meditation for a while and spent a long time getting round to booking my first class. I hoped it would offer an escape from my daily stress. It did.

More profoundly, after a couple of years practice I came to understand that meditation isn’t something you do to take you out of your daily life – it’s something you bring into your daily life to cultivate perspective. When I feel my stress levels rising, when I have to make a difficult call, when a donor falls though; stop, breathe, focus inwards – and let go. Your mind is clearer, you can focus more easily, and your response is likely to be strategic rather than reactive. It’s something you learn in a meditation studio, but put into practice at your desk.

For me right now, the challenge is not stress as I’m used to – I’m blissfully obligation-free for three months. It’s the stress of change, transition, the unknown. It’s the task of letting go of many years of stress and finding what normal looks like again. Unwinding.

As week two of the Quarter Gap Year gets underway, I realize that slowing down is the fastest way to get where I want to go. Realistically, I know I won’t be able to sit still reading novels and watching Netflix for three months, but a little more idling might just be the most productive thing to do. And if all else fails, Omm…

 

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