Week 13: The Gift of Light

As I sit down to write, it’s a proper grey December
afternoon.  Ostensibly still in the
middle of the day, there’s been no sign of the sun even though science tells me
it is actually still there, hidden away behind the thick blanket of cloud.  It’s a good job physics et al have a
reasonable track record in being correct about this kind of stuff else right
now I’m not sure I’d believe them.

Returning to my computer after lunch, I immediately flicked
on all the electric lights in the room.
Then, in an action that has been repeated innumerable times in countless
locations over many a long year, I struck a match.  I struck a match and lit the lone candle that
sits on my office desk.  Suddenly the gloom
lifts.  Illuminated by the flickering
wick near the window, the scene outside takes on a new atmospheric hue, making
me almost want to bundle up and head out for some of its fresh, crisp air.  Inside, the room assumes a golden glow, an
aura of festivity and sparkle.  My mood
is lifted and I am ready to write and work.
The little candle will remain my constant companion in the hours ahead,
the flame seeming to burn even more brightly once the grey sky drifts to black.

Of course in the same way that I know the sun is there somewhere
behind the clouds, the rational part of my brain knows that the 100w
bulbs overhead are doing more to light the room than the one small votive.  But what we know to be true does not always
correspond neatly with what we feel, or what we would like to believe.  And perhaps that is never more true than in
the depths of winter.  For good or ill, magic
and mystery lurk in the dark shadows that embrace the northern hemisphere
during these months.  

It’s perhaps no surprise that so many faiths have a major
festival during this fourth quarter of the calendar year.  Our souls, whatever label we attach (or
none), long for a flicker of light and a glimmer of truth about what it means
to be alive when so much around us seems to be dead.  In this context, a cylinder
of wax can take on a huge weight of symbolism,
from the advent candle to the Hannukkah menorah.

In this thirteenth and final week of The Fourth Quarter seasonal journey, I’d like to encourage you too
to light a candle.  It doesn’t have to
mean anything other than being a pretty twinkle on a tabletop.  Or it can be a light in the dark in the most
profound way you can possibly imagine.
It might be somewhere in between the two.  

Ignite a candle this week and in the weeks ahead if for no
other reason than to bring another source of light into your life, however
small.  We all need a bit of extra light
sometimes, and we have the ability to give that gift to ourselves as simply as
with striking a match.

As with over the previous twelve weeks, you can share your
thoughts and images either the A Life Of One’s Own
Facebook page
or using the hashtag #fourthquarter2015 on Instagram and/or
Twitter.  This is it in terms of The Fourth Quarter autumn and winter
journey.  I cannot believe how quickly
the months have passed!  I’ve loved
sharing my seasonal reflections with you and hope that they’ve bought comfort
and joy, to hijack a currently seasonal phrase.
From the new year I’ll be back to sharing regular blog posts but if
there’s anything in particular you’d like to see me write about (or indeed
*read* me write about!) then get in touch.
Suggestions are always welcome as I want to be as much help to others as
I can be.  

Have a happy holiday season all, and I’ll see you back here
in 2016.

Week 12: A Christmas Story

An extract from Louisa May Alcott’s ‘Little Women’

When I sketched out my ideas for the thirteen weeks of The Fourth Quarter seasonal journey, I
didn’t plan on doing any explicitly about advent, Christmas or the festive
season in any guise.  Twelve weeks in,
all I can say is what was I thinking?! Even as a child I don’t think I’ve spent a
December in such a state of excitement.
Maybe I should have guessed when, before moving in with my partner back
in April, I expressed a desire for a real Christmas tree.  Clearly the ideas and feelings that are
coming out now have had a long germination process!  I think that moment when I first mentioned
the tree also gives a big clue as to the roots of my seasonal joy; it means a
lot to me that we have our personal space in which to create a Christmas of our
own as a new family.  There is now a
physical environment and an emotional context in which I can try out all of the
wishes and desires I’ve ever harboured about Christmas.  

I didn’t realise that I *had* so many wishes
and desires about this time of year, but it seems that I kept them tucked away
safely somewhere until the time came where I could unleash them.  Now I’m embracing them as firmly as I can,
seeing what works and what doesn’t, what has meaning for me and what I can
happily accept as just meaningful for others.
This is requiring a hefty dose of mindfulness and conscious attention on
my part, for fear that I could descend down a never-ending candy cane spiral of
Christmassy Things To Do (if you’re in doubt about how infinite the
possibilities are, enter the search term Christmas on Pinterest!).  When I found myself contemplating making my
own pate, I knew time had come to take a deep breath and relax about it all.  Swept along by my own enthusiasm, I was in
severe danger of reaching peak Christmas well ahead of the day itself.  There was a good chance that by 25th,
my internal pendulum would have swung and I’d have become a Scrooge like
figure, wrestling the crutches off any well-wishing Tiny Tim and chasing them
down the street with them.

Ah, Scrooge!  It seems
entirely apt that I should fall back upon a famous festive novel to provide the
right imagery.  Is Dickens’ A Christmas Carol the most famous book
about this season?  Maybe so, but there
are others that contain equally evocative festive scenes which have become
lodged in the collective Christmas memory – Louisa May Alcott’s glorious Little Women, featured in this week’s theme photo, to name just one.  And what could be better at this time of year
than curling up with a good book, particularly a well-thumbed old friend?  Whether you love Christmas, loathe it, or
don’t celebrate it at all, December afternoons were made for a spot of
reading.  When it’s cold and grey and
often kind of crazy outside, we can find a warm corner and curl up under a
blanket with familiar pages open on our lap, drawing us into a different world
whilst comforting us with a story we already know well.  Unlike films, the quiet hush of reading can
be a soothing balm to the razzmatazz and glitz of this time of year.  Like all the best things, a good book in
December is a paradox: an antidote to festivities but not a refusal of them; a
moment of escapism but also often part of our Christmases, whether because we
associate a story with the holiday or because they were always our favourite
kind of present.

So give yourself the gift of a good book this week.  Pick up an old favourite and snatch as much
time as you can, whether five minutes or five hours, in its company.  Think of it as your own Christmas story.

And please do share with us your favourite festive
read!  I’d love to get some more
suggestions as well as the examples above.
You can share your thoughts (and your reading moments) either the A Life Of One’s Own
Facebook page
or using the hashtag #fourthquarter2015 on Instagram and/or

Week 11: As with tea, with life

When I came up with the idea for The Fourth Quarter seasonal journey through autumn and winter, a
list of weekly symbols quickly emerged, as did what felt like the right running
order for them.  I didn’t plan them out
in detail, but I had clear thoughts about the themes behind each one; last
week’s reflection
on bathing
, for instance, I wanted to represent quietness and moments of
solitude.  What has surprised me as the months
have passed by, though, is the extent to which the meanings and metaphors have
evolved.  I *thought* I knew what each
week would be about, but the journey has taken on a life of its own (apt given
the title of my site and coaching practice!).
This perhaps isn’t surprising, but what is notable is that each symbol
has remained completely apt.  If anything,
the symbols have become even more pertinent.
In an Elizabeth Gilbert Big
Magic kind of way
, it is as if I have been the vessel through which the
concept and symbols found form but my real world brain has taken a while to
catch up with what they all actually mean.

This week’s focus, tea, has proved a particularly strong
example of this, what I can only inelegantly describe as ‘not what I thought
it’d be but totally right’.  In my
original human thinking, it was going to be all about a relaxed form of
hosting, offering people tea as a gesture of hospitality and forging
connection.  That would have been totally
fine, I’m sure; maybe even good.  Yet the
mysteries of creativity have another agenda that is forcing its way on to the
page.  Let’s see where it takes us…

This time two years ago, I developed a dairy
intolerance.  Seemingly out of the blue,
I literally could no longer stomach milk or cheese.  Adjustments to my diet followed, and I swapped
cow’s milk for first soya and then almond milk.
This generally worked well, only I didn’t like the taste of other kinds
of milk in tea.  As a result, English
breakfast tea, a former staple of my day (and one of the few attributes of the
British nation that I was happy to share), vanished from my life, replaced by
herbal varieties or coffee without milk.

Strangely, despite years of heavy consumption, I didn’t miss
it – so much so that even as my tolerance for dairy products has improved, I
haven’t returned to drinking it.  Then
the other Sunday, I was out with a friend and we were having old fashioned
cake.  Coffee just seemed like a weird
accompaniment, so English breakfast tea it was, served in a proper cup and
saucer too.  And just like that, proper
tea was back in my life, like a lost love or the prodigal child, reunited at

What does this symbolise?
Of course it may mean nothing at all; it may simply be that I went off
tea and now I like it again.  This is
undoubtedly partly the case, but I think there is something figurative going on
inside those cups of char as well.  The
lesson I’ve drawn from it is that things change, and not just once and for
all.  Life is a constant ebb and flow.  Sometimes we’ll like tea, at other points we
won’t, there may be occasions where we can’t have it – and then it could all
shift again.  As with tea, with life:
people come and they go, relationships blossom and wither, jobs are started
then finished.  And the same is true of
identities.  Certain labels may serve us
well at one time but down the line they may no longer suit.  The danger comes when we cling on, refusing
to let go or allow the cycle of change to continue.  I was a tea drinker, then I wasn’t.  I couldn’t drink tea, then I simply didn’t
drink tea.  Now I get to choose: maybe I
will, maybe I won’t.  I don’t need a
definite position on the issue.  

I hope these thoughts resonate with you over the weeks
ahead.  December is a month packed with
annually occurring events and traditions that can make us feel like each year
is – or somehow should be – the same as the one before or one when we were kids
or one that occurred way back in some mythical past before that.  Except it isn’t like that.  This December does not have to be the same as
the last one.  Things change, you change,
the world changes.  Today you may have
coffee; tomorrow you might have tea.  As
with tea, with life.

I’m off to put the kettle on.

Tell me what it is that you are drinking right now,
literally and metaphorically!  You can
get in touch via the A
Life Of One’s Own Facebook page
or using the hashtag #fourthquarter2015 on
Instagram and/or Twitter.

Week  Ten: The ordinary pleasure of bathing

Let us begin by going back in time several years to a cold,
dark winter’s afternoon much like the ones we are having now…

The hot water was beginning to steam as I emptied two capfuls
of expensive oil into the tub.  I
stripped off my clothes, climbed over the side and slipped under the
surface.  After a long walk beside a
frozen river, I could feel the warmth ease my tightened muscles.  I squeezed my eyes tightly shut, hoping for
the water to have the same restorative effect on my mind even if deep down I
knew that no elixir, however fragrant, could cure my psychic woes.  But nonetheless I hoped.  I lay there in the stillness until my fingers
wrinkled and the water turned cold, half-believing that when I stood up and
reached for a towel, I’d be cured – my troubles washed away, my soul as clean
as my skin, a fresh start all round.  

Of course the act of bathing provided only the clean skin
part.  Once I got out, I was still as
worn out, run down and miserable as I had been before I turned the taps
on.  Now I was shivering and disappointed
too, despondent that the transformation I’d imagined hadn’t taken place.  I had invested that eighty or so litres of
water with a powerful combination of magical and baptismal qualities and then
felt indignant when all it did was give me a wash.  Why didn’t it save me?, I wondered.  Where was the answer to all my problems if
not in the mythical relaxing bath time so highly recommended by women’s
magazine advice?

Let us now skip forward in time.  It is just last week.  Again I am running a bath but in another
bathroom and what seems like an altogether different life.  I feel the bubbles tickling my chin and the
hot water stinging the tops of my thighs.
The temperature soothes the small of my back, easing away the lingering
remnants of a chill that has kept me housebound most of the week.  I enjoy listening to the stillness, albeit with
an ear half-cocked to possible scuttling mouse noises from the loft above.  I relax knowing that I cannot do anything but
lie here until I decide to get out.  When
I make that decision, I have a tingle of anticipation as I step onto the mat.  Getting out the bath means that moment has
arrived – the one I’ve been waiting for and looking forward to since the
thought of having a bath crossed my mind: the time has come to trim my

Was that the statement you were expecting, dear reader?

Perhaps not, but that is the truth of my bath time last
Friday.  Things have changed so very much
since the first scene I described, and one aspect of this is my perspective on
bathing.  I used to believe that I could
live at break neck speed, surviving variously on too little (sleep) or too much
(alcohol), with a food intake that swung rapidly between the two poles.  As a periodic crash hit me, as it inevitably would,
I’d take to the bath as if that would solve everything, a kind of self-care
cure-all to call upon in times of emergency.
Little wonder the experience was always a disappointment.  

Now I enjoy baths for just what they are: the opportunity to
lie in warm water and let the world drift by for a short while.  Nothing more, but nothing less either.  A simple pleasure, one to be grateful for
when the world outside is cold and dark.
And when the world outside is also in full throttle party-shopping-party-eating-party-drinking-party-visiting-party-hosting-party
mode (as it is for the next five weeks or so), perhaps it time to be especially
grateful for baths.  They can’t
counteract all the damage we can inflict on ourselves over the festive season
but they can offer a brief period of respite.

Whenever you need some kind of relief either this week or in
the month ahead, take a bath (or a long, luxurious shower is an equally good
alternative).  They won’t fix you, or the
world.  But you can enjoy it anyway, just
for what it is.

You don’t have to share your bath time pictures, but you can
if you like!  You can share any other
thoughts on the joys of bathing too – either via the A Life Of One’s Own
Facebook page
or using the hashtag #fourthquarter2015 on Instagram and/or

Stir it up Sunday…or any day

This coming Sunday, 22nd November, is what is traditionally
known as ‘Stir it up Sunday’.  This is
the name given to the last Sunday before advent begins and apparently the name
comes from a prayer for the day which begins ‘Stir up, we beseech thee’ (thanks
Elspeth Thompson’s The Wonderful Weekend
for that tidbit of
information).  However, this is also
customarily the day to make Christmas cake, so I like to think that the ‘Stir
it up’ name is as much linked to the baking action as the church liturgy.  Am sure the coincidence is no accident!

This year will be the first time that I’ve observed this
seasonal ritual and I will be attempting to make a Christmas cake.  I’ve always wanted to do this and when
mapping out themes for The Fourth Quarter
it seemed too good an opportunity to miss.
Alas I’m already busy on Sunday itself so it’ll be ‘Stir it up Saturday’
for me – and I’m inviting you to join me!
Whether it’s Saturday or Sunday or any other day of the week ahead, why
don’t you stir it up too?

You can be literal about the theme and make some kind of
baked goods that need stirring – whether that is a Christmas cake or another
creation.  Or you could interpret ‘stir
it up’ more broadly.  Where in your life
could things do with mixing up a bit?  

Think about your life in terms of a recipe.  What ingredients do you have?  What is missing?  Where can you get those items from?  

What about the ratios between different ingredients?  Maybe you’ve got all the necessary elements
but the proportions don’t make for an appetising whole.  What changes do you need to make?

Or is there one specific area where things need stirring
up?  What’s the wooden spoon that you
could use to do that?

Whichever you choose, whether stirring literally or
metaphorically, don’t forget to make a wish!
This is central element of the ‘Stir it up’ tradition, with whoever
helps to mix the ingredients getting to make a wish.  May all of our stir it up wishes come true,
whatever form they take.

Also don’t forget to share your reflections on this week’s
theme, including any pictures or thoughts about stirring it up, either via the A Life Of One’s Own
Facebook page
or using the hashtag #fourthquarter2015 on Instagram and/or

We all need bonfires

Okay, so the photograph doesn’t show a bonfire.  Just shows I didn’t plan this before *last* Bonfire Night!

Thursday 5th November: Bonfire Night in the
UK.  I’m hesitant about trying to
describe this seasonal event to anyone unfamiliar with the concept because
having once tried to explain it to two New York shop assistants, I’ve become
extremely aware of what a crazy celebration it is: we light bonfires and set
off fireworks to commemorate the foiling of a 1605 plot by some Catholic men to
blow up the Protestant Houses of Parliament.
Sometimes we even burn an effigy of the plot’s ringleader, Guy Fawkes.  

It’s a strange tradition; pretty gruesome and distasteful
when you think about it in the context of twenty-first century terrorism.  It also seems to be on the wane somewhat,
pushed out by an increasing emphasis on Hallowe’en.  Yet part of me still hankers after a good
Bonfire Night get-together (this year I’m happily attending two, one on Friday
and one on Saturday – like other festivals that fall on weekdays, it gets stretched
to the nearest weekend).  I suspect that
its continuation over the years, and the reason that people still enjoy it, is
less to do with the political background and more because it fulfils some of
our deepest needs in the same way that Hallowe’en does (for more on that, see here).  It’s an excuse, a prompt, to spend time with
friends and family.  Little traditions
associated with the fire-and-fireworks element (largely food related: jacket
potatoes, toffee apples, cinder toffee) support an atmosphere of warmth,
conviviality and ritual.  We remember
these nights fondly from when we were children and want to share that sense of
joy and wonder with our own children too.

There is something quite magical about the occasion.  You huddle up in coats and scarves and
gloves, trying to keep warm through liquor or a loved one, and ‘Ooo!’ and ‘Aah!’
at the fireworks.  You write your name
mid-air with a sparkler and watch as that word, those letters so integral to
your identity, evaporate without a trace.
You stand beside the bonfire, chatting merrily to a friend, then find
yourself gazing at the flames, transported through memories of all the times
you’ve stood there before, perhaps in a different place, but still simply staring
at the fire.  

There’s something so mesmerising about the way it licks and
curls, rages and burns.  Fires draw us
closer, attracts us nearer, but also keep us away, fearful of their fierce
power.  We relate to them on a primeval
level, as our ancient ancestors must have done when their very survival
depended upon them, yet we live lives so far removed from them as a
source.  Nowadays we are as likely to
encounter fire in negative ways, such as when they tear through our homes or
land, than we are the positive – the gathering together in a small circle,
sharing its light and heat.

Where would you like to start a fire in your life?  Where could you use the power of its flames?  

Maybe you crave the communion of bringing those closest to
you in a coven around the hearth.

Maybe you need to set alight your passion, to strike a match
and let it take hold.  

Maybe you need a bonfire to burn some detritus in your
psychic garden, letting it drift in plumes of smoke up to the sky and

Fire has the power and the potential to help us secure
whatever it is that we need most in our lives.
And if you can work it into a fire-fireworks-food combination, then even

Happy Bonfire Night to you all x

Please do share your reflections on this week’s theme,
including any pictures or thoughts about Bonfire Night specifically or fire in
general, either via the A
Life Of One’s Own Facebook page
or using the hashtag #fourthquarter2015 on
Instagram and/or Twitter.

Week Five: Rest

It is late afternoon on a clear, crisp October day.  The light is beginning to fade and so am
I.  The clock on my screen says eighteen
minutes past.  I glance at the cyclamen
on my desk for what seems like a few seconds, then suddenly I notice that the
clock now says twenty-five past.  I am
struggling with motivation and energy at towards the end of a long day.  I’m lucky enough to largely set my own work
schedule and I tend to focus on more challenging tasks in the morning because
that’s when I’m at my best.  I know that
a lull always hits around this time, yet still I try to push on; still I try to
do more of the hard things that I began earlier in the day.

I glance away from the screen again, this time gazing at the
view outside the office window.  The canopy
of the old oak trees is dwindling more with each passing hour.  The ground is covered with fallen leaves and
crushed acorns.  The scene reminds me of
so many sights evoked during this The
Fourth Quarter
autumn journey: trees, plants and hedgerows offering up
their goods before laying themselves down for the quieter months of
winter.  During this dormancy, it can
seem like nothing is happening but that is far from the case.  Nature is not dead, simply resting.

Oh what quiet!  Isn’t
that what so many of us long for?  The
pause, the interlude, the break from our frenetic, frantic pace of life.  Even if we don’t crave the quiet, often we
need it.  Our hearts, our bodies, our
souls try to get the message across.  Our
computers crash, forcing us to sit still patiently (or not) for a few minutes
whilst its system reboots.  We get ill,
forcing us to stay in bed for a few days whilst our system reboots.  This,
comes the whisper, this.  This is
what we need. Rest.  Rest.  Rest.

The entire ecosystem is in on the act too.  The scenes outside our windows at this time
of the year join in this whispered message.
Each tree, each bush, each plant is telling us the same thing: it is
time to rest.  Lay down as much as you
can, strip yourself back until only the bare bones of your essence remain, and
rest until spring stirs new life within you.

Even the much-maligned dark nights can be interpreted this
way: what if longer nights were literally a sign that we need more sleep right

So that is what I offer you this week: permission from the
universe to get some rest.  And because I
can feel the resistance to this emanating through the ether, I even offer some
specific suggestions as to how:

#1 This weekend sees the end of British Summer Time in,
well, Britain obviously.  This means the
clocks go back an hour on Saturday night/Sunday morning.  Think of this as bonus extra sleep time!  And if you’re not in the UK, then sleep an
hour longer anyway and think of it as international solidarity.  If you let us know when your clocks change
then we can return the gesture.  Maybe it
could become some kind of new peace movement!

#2 Use this shift out of official ‘Summer Time’ to change
your sleeping patterns more broadly – perhaps move your usual bedtime earlier
by an hour.

#3 If the second suggestion seems a bit much, how about
getting aboard ‘the Ten O’clock Angel Train’ for a few nights instead?  Yes, you did read that correctly.  I did just use the phrase ‘the Ten O’clock
Angel Train’.  Those of you who have
worked with me before or did my 24 Days Before advent journey last December already
know that I’m a bit obsessed with this amusingly named concept.  Some years ago, as I began my A Life Of One’s Own journey, I
worked my way through pretty much every self-help book in my local
library.  On its shelves was a copy of Happy For No Reason by Marci Shimoff. I don’t remember much else about this book
except for the concept of the Angel Train.
To feel happier for no reason, Shimoff recommends that you go to bed for
ten o’clock for three nights in a row.
She promises that by the fourth day, you will feel better.  She also gives reasons for this based ancient
Indian wisdom, including the proverb that an hour’s sleep before midnight is
worth two after.  Shimoff claims that she
and her husband are huge fans of this idea, and labeled the practice as
catching the ten o’clock angel train.  

The phraseology has given me many chuckles in the time since
I first read it, but wording aside, I can vouch that it really works.  Whether this is because of circadian rhythms,
I don’t know.  What I do know is that I
always feel better for it – thus this suggestion to you.  

Try it.  See if you
can get to bed for 10pm three evenings this week – or at least an hour or two
earlier than your usual bedtime.  Even
better, try it for three nights in a row.

Remember that it isn’t just me that is suggesting you should
do this.  Right now, the whole universe
is conspiring to tell you, me, us all, that we need more rest.

Don’t forget to share your reflections on this week’s theme,
including letting us know how you got on if you tried any of the suggestions,
either via the A Life
Of One’s Own Facebook page
or using the hashtag #fourthquarter2015 on
Instagram and/or Twitter.