How to look after yourself in exam term

IMG_3849Gladstone Park, London, Spring 2017

Hello, my dearest (and potentially imaginary) readers. I have compiled a list of tips to help you hack your way through a tricky time. I have often wished someone had sat me down in my first exam term and told me to be gentle with myself, and not to work an unhealthy amount. The bottom line with academic work is that everybody is different, and you’ve just got to find a rhythm that works for you. Nonetheless I hope you find something in here that is worthwhile. Nothing is more important than your mental and physical health.

  • Listen to angry music. Music increases testosterone in women, and decreases it in men. I don’t care what it is, just turn it on, please (with the exception of anything with misogynistic lyrics; that shit is BAD for the soul). I’d however recommend Danger Days: The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys, by My Chemical Romance. Listen to what makes you feel empowered and in control. You have got this.
  • Have a bath. PLEASE. Get out the bubble bath, the ducks, the half eaten Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the floating ship if you feel compelled to uphold your masculinity (gratuitous tip: let it go) the white wine, even another human being. Just get in the bath. It’s so hard to feel stressed when your body is submerged in warm water.
  • Play sport. You do not have to be good. Fall over. Injure yourself and your tennis partner. They’ll heal fine and the bruises will give you a cool story, bro.
  • GO OUTSIDE. Whoever told you you can’t revise in the sun was lying. Sun is good for the skin. Also, we’re not in Troy anymore – everyone looks good with a tan.
  • Have breakfast. I don’t care what it is, cereal, a lone banana, eggs on toast spread with a subtle combination of mashed avocado and lime and a sliver of prosciutto, WHATEVER, Aldi is ten minutes out of town. COOK.
  • Cuddle your friends, yourself, your secret dog that college doesn’t know about. Touching your own chest with a tender palm releases the same comforting hormones as it would if someone else was doing it.
  • Lie on the grass for ten minutes on your college lawn. Cambridge is beautiful. Look at it.
  • Doodle endlessly, without psychoanalysing your doodles. It’s good for you.
  • Go to bed early and don’t work past 6pm when you can. There’s no need. Your body needs rest.
  • Get the hell out of your college library. Cambridge offers itself up to you. If you think you need complete silence to work in, try another library. AMES is great and always empty because so few people study AMES!!!! Once I had to move because a lady came to water the plant I was sitting in front of. Yes AMES! Nature over academia any day.
  • Wear unnecessarily sexy clothes to do menial tasks. Who says you can’t look like a princess just because all you’re doing is picking up some flour from Sainsbury’s? You’re gorgeous. Own it.
  • Listen to songs you’re embarrassed you used to love. I’ve just rediscovered Unfaithful by Rihanna and it is the. bomb. You Belong With Me by Taylor Swift is something you should play exuding an almost offensively fearless and apologetic air as you stride, swaying slightly, down King’s Parade. Same goes for MCR, Paramore, Green Day, Avril Lavigne. Crack out those classics when you need a lift; you used to love these songs for a reason.
  • Keep a diary. Not a work diary, obv. Just something where you can catch your future self up with how your day’s been whenever you feel like it.
  • Above all. Listen to your body. If it’s crying out for rest, get into the bath or into bed. If it wants to go outside take it for a wander. A 20 minute walk can work wonders. As can a 5 minute cycle. Feel the sun on your face. Try not to walk into any lampposts or other moving humans.
  • Be kind. Remember everyone else is worried about work too. Open a door for someone, smile at someone you suspect hates you. Look after your friends, and remember to call your mum. You got this.

13716200_10206945176448188_8976145232205075916_n 

Guilin, China, Summer 2017

Image credit: Hannah Chukwu

***

and finally the longed for arms, longed for eyes

are here with me and all 

effort flies free it is easy as breathing

we sit and look at each other and the fear

The fear of not being known falls away 

our June voices stretch though the 

haze of darkened memories, darkened time

breaking through, sun 

kissing a plant after a long time kept in the dark

***

A.W. Spring, 2017

IMG_0399

On Mindfulness

I have sorta wanted to write an article about mindfulness ever since I did the university course in Michaelmas term of my second year, but hesitate; this is mainly because mindfulness means different things to different people, and one of the greatest joys of it for me has been creating my own version of it, tailored to me, and exploring it on my own terms. So I am wary of prescribing what it is, and I am sure that there will be many things I have taken from mindfulness that other people haven’t, or that other people have picked up on but I haven’t. I am writing nonetheless because I think that it could do a lot of people a lot of good, really; it has done me a tremendous amount of good, and at this stage I feel the compulsion to share this goodness.

So what is mindfulness? At the heart of mindfulness for me is the practice of compassion. It starts with yourself. In a mindfulness meditation, you take the time to concentrate on all the physical sensations available to you, starting and ending with the feeling of the breath moving in and out of your body. You pay attention to the way it feels to be sat on the chair or lying on your bed, focusing on all the places your body makes contact with the bed or chair beneath you, and feeling the ground beneath your feet. This process is called ‘grounding’, because the practice of feeling the earth beneath you grounds you physically and mentally. Feet on the ground, bum on the chair you are safe, the earth holds you, and that physical security translates into mental security.

Grounding achieved, the idea is to continue focusing on the physical sensations available to you, as these ground you in the present. Of course, this is not the easiest thing in the world, and inevitably thoughts will arise, positive or negative, as they tend to do. The idea is to accept these thoughts as they arise, listen to them, and return to focusing on the breath when you can. The key is rather than getting frustrated with the lapse in attention you are wholly accepting of your tendency to get lost in thought, and respond by gently guiding your attention back to your breath and corporeal presence but only when you remember to.

One of the tenets of mindful practice is that thoughts and feelings are there to help you. Anger, sadness and anxiety exist not to just make you feel horrible but to highlight unmet needs, so that you are looking after yourself, body and soul, as well as possible. A useful image is to see these feelings as guests knocking on your door, whom during a meditation you take the time to lovingly welcome in, give a cup of tea, and listen to.

This is not an easy thing to do. Often our gut reaction is to reject sadness, anger, fear and anxiety. But by welcoming them and seeing them as things that exist to make us happy we can do ourselves a world of good.

One mindful practice that makes this easier is changing the way we think. Rather than thinking ‘I am sad’ we isolate the emotion within our psyche and think ‘part of me is sad’; this image is hugely helpful, because we are able to remember that the rest of us is available to embrace the sad parts of us and give them the love and attention they need.

The more we are able to master the practice of self-compassion, the more we can feel compassion towards the people and things around us, starting of course with those closest to us who gain a great deal from our love and attention. With the ability to love ourselves generously comes the ability to love other people generously. Understanding your own needs gives you a great deal of insight into other people’s, and you are more able to respect other people’s needs and love them for exactly who they are, rather than just for the good things they bring to your life. During formal meditation, another tenet of mindful practice is to take a moment to think of those closest to you, hold awareness of them in your heart, and send love in their direction.

Having compassion for all other human beings is the next step. Sending love to those closest to you comes naturally; it is not as easy to extend love to everyone else in the world, but again, from empathising with your own needs comes the awareness that everyone on this planet has their own internal universe, their own worries and joys, and they are as deserving of love as yourself or your boyfriend or your best friend.

To make a slightly more questionable next step I would say the ultimate move is to extend your love to all the other living beings in this world, including the animals and the trees and the lakes and the mountains, respecting their own individual beauty and loving them for themselves, not for what they can do for you.

Not that loving things for what they can do for you is an impulse to be ashamed of. Shame gets in the way of compassion. Selfishness is a natural thing; it is about self preservation, really, and as such serves its purpose. Like every other emotional impulse, it is something to be accepted.

me in sea (1)

Image credit: Hannah Chukwu

Yangshuo, Guilin, China, July 2016

On music as therapy

I did not have a huge variety of music played in my house when I was growing up. It was mostly classical: my father is a talented pianist and has been playing ever since I can remember, he himself falling in love with Chopin and Beethoven at a young age. I used to take the piss out of him for listening to recordings of HIS OWN piano playing in the car, but now I totally understand that impulse; how lovely to listen to recordings of your own take on somebody else’s beloved work of art, a moment otherwise exclusively irretrievable through memory, something that fades over time?

I enjoyed classical music as a child, but the first time I remember feeling profoundly moved was when I listened to Dido’s album No Angel. I was five or six; Dido worked in my father’s office so my mum said that it was only fair we give her album a listen. I listened to that album, and Life for Rent, into my early teens; and even now for me they capture an innocent longing. I had the dimmest sense of what love and heartbreak were, but even then, my heart swelled with emotion at certain lyrics. These lyrics from her song Life for Rent were the ones I sang to myself most often when I was little:

I haven’t ever really found a place that I call home

I never stick around quite long enough to make it

I apologize once again I’m not in love

But it’s not as if I mind

that your heart ain’t exactly breaking

 

It’s just a thought, only a thought

 

But if my life is for rent and I don’t learn to buy

Well I deserve nothing more than I get

Cos nothing I have is truly mine

Looking back, it figures that as a child I sought this freedom, this independence: yes mum and dad were always right, and I shouldn’t cross roads without them or eat tooooo much cake, but the longing for personal autonomy is something that I feel is natural to us even at a young age. Thence Dido.

But possibly the most important musical epiphany I had was this one. I was in the car, driving up and down some hills in the Brecon Beacons with my mum and my dad and my sister, listening through my headphones to Bulletproof Heart, from My Chemical Romance’s Danger Days: the True Lives Of The Fabulous Killjoys. I felt the warmth of elation in my veins as I listened to the lyrics:

Gravity

Don’t mean too much to me

I’m who I’ve got to be

These pigs are after me, after you

Run away, like it was yesterday

And we could run away, if we could run away

Run away from here

I was 14. There was nothing in my life that I had a particular desire to flee from. Or was there?

I didn’t think about anything apart from My Chemical Romance for the entirety of the next two years. I wasn’t really interested in starting relationships with the young boys growing into men around me. I didn’t think deeply about my appearance, about what people thought of me, about sex, which seemed like a hazy but exciting promise waiting for me in my latter teenage years. Other musicians entranced me at this time, sure. The purity and honesty of Taylor Swift’s voice; Paramore, Green Day, Beyonce, Shakira, Eminem. But they were nothing on this band, who I felt I knew as deeply if not more deeply than the people around me.

Things changed for me a little bit when I managed to get my heart broken twice during the summer after I finished my GCSE’s. I won’t pretend it didn’t hurt, like fuck. I won’t pretend there wasn’t a lot of crying, that I didn’t focus on all of the things I thought were wrong with my mind and with my body for the next five years and, on some level, blame the failures of every romance and relationship I embarked on upon them. There was a lot of loss, that summer, and in the next two years. But during that time, and for years to come, MCR’s song Cancer from The Black Parade constituted the catharsis I needed. The first verse goes like this:

Turn away

If you could get me a drink of water

Cause my lips are chapped and faded

Call my Aunt Marie

Help her gather up my things and bury me

In all my favourite colours,

My sisters and my brothers still

I will not kiss you

Cause the hardest part of this is leaving you

The you here was at once my beloved school, myself, every one of my closest girlfriends, the boy who hurt me so casually that summer, and indeed every boy who had let me down up until the age of 16.

I remember thinking that summer, mere hours after having my heart broken, listening to music alone, that nothing could truly harm me if I always had my music to soothe me and express the anger and hurt I felt in a nonviolent way. Yes I was angry. But I had no blueprint for the expression of anger that could be damaging to other people; it bled out safely through my headphones, when I was alone, or dancing around in my friends, or at the top of the 210 on the way up to the places where I spent my teenage years.

My Chemical Romance broke up on March 23rd, 2013. I cried solidly for six hours. I’d loved every song on every one of their five albums and the knowledge that the people I felt so close to had decided that they needed not to make music anymore broke my heart more deeply than any breakup I’d had up until that point. I still think of that awful rainy day as the end of my childhood.

But somewhere I understood. If they no longer wanted to make music as a group, it didn’t feel true to them, they had every right to withdraw, every right to end that artistic union. What was special about MCR was that when you listen to the music you can feel how deeply they have all been in pain and the strength with which they have fought and are fighting that, and learn something yourself about the sheer resilience learnt through suffering.

As I get older, I feel more and more resistant to the term ‘pop music.’ Pop – short for popular – comes from the Latin populus, meaning simply ‘the people’, as opposed to the non-elite. At its root meaning, all it means is the music of the people. Something to embrace, rather than something to look down upon. I think the difference between, say, the supposedly ‘popular’ Taylor Swift’s earliest albums and MCR is simply the nuance of emotion. Or perhaps the intention with which (some, not all) modern pop music is created; to make money, a starting point that is inevitably liable to tarnishing artistic integrity.

We hear millions of lovesongs and breakup songs. Yeah okay, love is painful and hard and you’re always afraid of losing it. I have needed these songs very badly in my time. But I have also needed to feel anger, sadness, envy, resentment, joy, fear, in all their different and infinite combinations, and that’s what MCR gave me, and that’s what I take from Frank Turner, Lana Del Rey, Laura Marling, Johnny Flynn, Bon Iver, Jeff Buckley, Frank Sinatra, Nina Simone, Ella Fitzgerald, Vivaldi, Chopin, Debussy and even the genuinely glorious and life affirming piece of art that is the La La Land soundtrack. Part of me is always gently pissed off when someone comments on my musical choices with anything but absolute respect. I think it’s clear why. Own what you love. My Chemical Romance was never cool. That’s what made it so cool.

thumb_IMG_1735_1024