Absent Friend

A birthday tribute to my very dear friend. It’s been fourteen years since she died, but I still miss her…

1968, summer holidays: Elspeth (on left) and me aged 12

Elspeth would have been sixty-years-old on the fourteenth of June this year. I thought about her all day on that Tuesday just over three weeks ago. I shed a tear and I raised a glass to her memory.

I first saw Elspeth when she arrived as the new girl in my class at South Morningside Primary School in Edinburgh in 1965. She stood at the front of the class and the teacher explained that she had come all the way from England and was going to be in our class. The teacher asked me to look after her. We were in primary 5 and nearly nine years old. It was the start of a 37-year friendship. As nine-year-olds I literally looked up to her – she was tall and skinny and I was small and plump – this size difference persisted over the next 37 years! At the time we met Elspeth seemed very exotic to me – with her strange English accent, a mum who drove her own car, and her family lived in one of the brand new houses in the area.

For the rest of our primary school careers we were inseparable. We played piano together, went to ballet lessons, ice-skating, had tea and sleepovers at each other’s houses. I went to all her birthday parties at Gullane beach, getting there in her Uncle Kenneth’s van. We were very loyal to one another and fought each other’s battles – woe betide anyone caught speaking ill of one of us in the presence of the other!

We developed a rather quirky, mutual sense of humour and shared our own special vocabulary and linguistic shorthand, which persisted into our adulthood. Our mothers told us the “facts of life” when we were 11 and we immediately compared notes and assessed our respective mothers’ performance of this duty – with a mixture of incredulity, amusement and horror.

We went on to different secondary schools. My family had moved to the other side of the city. We therefore made regular trips on two buses across town to see each other. Throughout our teenage years we shared our most intimate secrets – especially our experiences with boys! Then Elspeth family left Edinburgh to settle in Gullane, about fifteen miles along the coast, when we were both 17. This meant that we spent weekends living at one or the other’s house in order to keep in constant touch.

University meant even more distance apart –Elspeth at Edinburgh and me at St Andrews – but so what – we just travelled that bit further to keep in touch. Boyfriends became more serious. Elspeth met her Ian. Her Ian had a 21st Birthday party and Ian’s best mate, Graham invited his brother along. Elspeth invited me. I met Graham’s brother at the party. I had met my Iain. In 1978, I married my Iain and Elspeth married hers.

We spent the 1980s having babies and then Elspeth moved – not just out of town but to New Zealand and then Australia.

But we kept in touch – we knew that for best friends distance doesn’t matter.

In 1998 we were both diagnosed, within weeks of each other, with cancer. Elspeth with a recurrence of the breast cancer she first had in the 1980s. For me it was ovarian cancer and I was scared stiff. I called my friend in Australia and she calmed me down. She made me believe cancer could be beaten. She was incredibly brave and strong.

In 1999 I travelled to Tasmania to see her. We were by this time both in the clear. We laughed, reminisced, shared all our intimate secrets once more – giggled like the daft wee lassies we always reverted to being in each other’s company.

Tasmania 1999

Then in 2001, I travelled to Tasmania again – this time my Iain came too. By now Elspeth was ill again – with aggressive secondary cancer – but again she was fighting – refusing conventional medical treatment but fortified by her great Christian faith and a timely visit from her sister Frances. We had a wonderful time together – sometimes we even included the menfolk! We talked about everything – life, death and everything in between. Her strong belief in the power of prayer and her amazing spirit sustained her for almost another year.

Tasmania 2001

I had no such strong religious faith and although I hoped she would not be taken from us just yet, I guessed our farewell at the airport would be our last. And I think she did too. We held each other just that little bit tighter as we said goodbye, both of us in tears.

She died in May 2002, one month before her 46th birthday, leaving Ian without a wife and their three young sons without their mother.

Elspeth was also a much-loved daughter, sister, and friend.

She was one of the kindest, funniest, most generous, most loyal people you could meet.

She will always be my dear friend and I still miss her terribly fourteen years on.

I will raise another glass to her memory on my own 60th birthday in August.

 

 

 

 

Learning: Taking The Plunge

diving in

Every week the folks at WordPress set a weekly challenge. I’ve not taken up the challenge before, but this one inspired me. It is to write about a time I learned something new.

In January 2015, aged 58 and a half, I learned to swim.

Now teaching and learning is something close to my heart. I was a primary school teacher for 36 years and I met all sorts of reluctant or struggling pupils. It’s easy to teach someone who’s ready to learn, who’s receptive to what you’re showing them. However, it’s not so easy to coax someone’s who’s afraid to even give it a try, who has decided in advance they’re not capable of learning. But I thrived on such challenges and persisted and tried everything I could think of to persuade reluctant pupils to just give it a go.

Then, nearly eighteen months ago, the tables were turned. I was now the reluctant learner, the one of was afraid, who didn’t believe myself capable. I had never learned to swim. But I’d set myself some personal challenges when I retired from teaching and top of the list was ‘get in the water and swim, woman!” An additional motivation, on top of the personal challenge, was that I wanted to be able to swim with my grandchildren on a family holiday to Cyprus later in the year.

So I booked a one to one hour long session with the swimming teacher at my local pool.

Now, I should say I’m not afraid of water. I’ve always liked bobbing about in the (warm) sea and when my children were wee, I’d always go in the pool with them when we were away on our annual holiday. I made sure they learned to swim – by delegating the task to my husband.

So, no, not afraid of water. It was just I believed I was the only human being in the history of our species who couldn’t float.

But I was wrong. With the confidence building teaching of my wonderful teacher, Yvonne, during that one hour in the pool I eventually took my feet off the bottom of the pool and with a few feeble and styleless strokes I swam. I swam a couple of widths. I went out of my depth and I treaded water. Me! the least buoyant human ever – could both float and swim.

I walked home through the January snow, oblivious to the cold, wrapped in a coat of smugness and pride. An Olympic medallist couldn’t have felt more proud.

I’ll never be a water baby, but yes, I swam with my grandchildren last summer.

I did it. I took the plunge and learned something new. And boy, did it feel good.

The Stories We Tell Ourselves

‘Nothing can harm you as much as your own thoughts unguarded’ Gautama Buddha

Thoughts are just that: thoughts. They’re not facts or artefacts. They’re not necessarily true or correct. But, boy, are they powerful!

I believe storytelling and listening to stories is part of what makes us human and it’s something people have always done. We do it to make sense of our world and how we experience it.

As a writer, stories are my thing. I love the whole process of crafting a story from initial thought to finished novel.

As a reader, I love to be told a story, to be transported, taken out of myself by someone else’s thoughts and words.

But there’s an aspect of storytelling that’s not so positive and not so enjoyable. And that can be the uncrafted, unedited stories we tell ourselves.

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The Story Goblin

Many of us succumb to the goading and taunting of our own thoughts. I know I do. The story goblin in our heads knows all our baggage, all our triggers, all our awful ‘what if’ scenarios and it’s all too ready to jump right in there and take control. Next stop: horrible, out of control anxiety or a drastic drop in self-esteem.

However, if we’re aware of what’s happening, then we can take back a bit of control. Otherwise those powerful stories will sabotage us and may seriously affect our mental health.

While it’s true we can’t control everything that happens, we do have some say in how we react.

So if you make a mistake, or get hurt, or are presented with a stressful or unfamiliar situation, it’s healthier not to go off on one. Don’t follow that goblin down the route to ‘I’m such an idiot,’ or ‘I should have expected it and I deserve it’ or ‘this is going to end unbearably badly’.

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Edit or delete

So what can we do? How can we get a bit of control over the stories we’re telling ourselves? Well we can:

*STOP. RECOGNISE WHAT’S HAPPENING. BREATHE. PUT THAT NEGATIVE STORY AND THE GOBLIN IN LIDDED AND LOCKED BOX. LEAVE IT THERE.*

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THEN

Redraft and reshape

Show yourself some compassion. Forgive yourself. And don’t have catastrophe mode as an automatic, default setting. Be realistic.

We can’t prevent our thoughts. We all have them. We can’t function without them. But we can employ an inner editor. We can decide on what are the useful, truthful and inspiring stories. Yes we can still get stuff wrong, hurt or be hurt, find ourselves in scary situations, BUT we are also the editors of the stories we tell ourselves about our lives. We can control our reactions. We can shape our own stories.

Are you stalked by a version of the story goblin? Or have you learned ways to be the active author of the stories you tell yourself?