All Posts Filed in ‘From The Heart

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An Experience Only Counts When It’s Shared

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I’ve always tried to have a positive outlook on life and make the most of it when I can. To that end I’ve made a point of spending as much time as I can doing interesting things be they climbing mountains, riding a mountain bike, sitting on tropical beaches, eating at nice restaurants (and some rubbish ones), going to see good (and bad) bands, fishing small rivers in the middle of nowhere, camping in beautiful surroundings, being torrentially rained on while camping and a thousand other things big and small. Rather than spending a life watching TV, staring at a computer screen (now doesn’t count as I’ll switch it off when I’ve written this), I’ve always wanted to go outside and live a life full of experiences.

But experiences alone aren’t what drive me. What matters to me is sharing those experiences with someone else and it’s something I’ve only recently realised I do.

Whenever I go hiking on my own my mind seems to switch into “training mode” and I use it to test and improve my fitness. I’ll have one earphone in listening to podcasts and push myself to my limit (to firstly see what it is) then I’ll keep pushing until I’ve gone to the top, back down and am taking my boots off at my car. I don’t even stop at the summit, I just keep moving along, resting when / if I need to. Sure I’ll take some pictures and admire the scenery, but to me it’s training – all physical and mental.

Contrast that when I do the same hike with someone else. This time there’s no earphones. No test of fitness. No pushing myself (unless I’m hiking with Nick who’s always fitter than I am). And I definitely do stop at the summit. When I’m on my own the objective is the mountain, but when I’m with someone else the aim of the day is to spend time with that person and enjoy that time with them.

Experiences only last a fleeting moment and they’re gone for ever. But the memory of those shared experiences is what stays with you and if I can sit having a pint with that person years from now and re-live them (like getting stuck in a bog and having to crawl out of it) and laugh then that’s what counts. That’s why I love taking photographs – you can capture a shared moment and relive it for years to come (click below to see a full-sized picture of ‘The Many Hairstyles of John’):

Team Photo Montage

I suppose it comes back to the way I make “important” decisions. I picture myself lying on my deathbed decades from now going over my life in my head while staring at the ceiling. When I need to decide something now I try to see it from that point of view – knowing that my life had been lived and I can dispassionately make the right call. In the same way I ask myself what memories will stand out for me? It’s not the mountains or the beaches or the camping or the food or the drink or the bands or cleaning out that blocked sink. It’s not the things themselves, it’s the people I spent those times with. It’s them I’ll remember and the places and events were merely a backdrop to that most important and easily overlooked thing in the 21st century – human contact.

So the next time we’re out for a drink or something to eat, hiking up a mountain, buying a new pair of shoes while I complain that my eyes hurt from the bright store lights or anything else, remember that it’s not a race or a competition for me and what we’re doing doesn’t matter so much. I’m living my life in the moment and sharing that experience with you. And to me that’s all that matters.

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Passengers That Ship In The Night

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This story goes back to my second stint working in Leeds way back in 2004-2005. The small village in which I live – Silsden – is about a 35 minute train journey from Leeds so I would generally catch the 07:56 or 08:04 train in and most likely the 17:20 train home at night.

Like most young, red-blooded males I’d play the “who’s the best looking girl on the platform?” game every day and over time I’d start to recognise pretty much everybody who got on at my station. I’d see Mr. Sharp Suit who always buys a ticket each day, cute blonde and cuter black haired girl who drive to the station car park together and put on their make-up on the train, Miss Always Running Late who day after day would have to sprint to the platform, student boy who really needed a haircut and then of course there was Silsden Station Girl.

She was very attractive. Small. Slim. Always caught the same train in as me and the same train home. She drove a silver Vauxhall Corsa. She had a really cute laugh when on her phone to her friends. She had a lovely smile. Beautiful eyes. Great skin. Fantastic taste in clothes. And for day after day, week after week, month after month we’d always catch each other’s eye, smile, maybe even say hello, but never actually have a conversation. I even found myself sitting next to her one time and she was reading some gossip magazine about Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston which was the perfect opportunity for me to use my trademark humour to strike up a conversation but I never did. I bottled it.

Silsden Station - the left-hand platform goes to Leeds

I was of course in the middle of a relationship with my now-wife (who usually took an earlier train) so I wasn’t exactly going to start running off with her but my in-built good manners made me want to break the ice and talk to her – we were both taking the train to and from Leeds every day, we might as well have someone to chat to. Maybe I was scared of rejection, or of the dilemma of us being unable to keep our hands off each other and what to do about it (remember, I said I was a young, red-blooded male back then – logic didn’t come into my thinking). Whatever the reason, I spent a long time wanting to talk to her and never taking the opportunity. I let friends in on my secret shame, even my long suffering girlfriend (as she was back then) knew all about her, who she was and what a wuss I was.

Eventually in late-2005 I handed in my notice and was to start working in another town. This meant I’d be driving to work and no longer taking the train into Leeds. This was my chance. I decided that I absolutely would talk to her and find out her name, I’d make her laugh describing how it had taken me until I was leaving Leeds to actually talk to her. Even though I may never see her again it was beyond a joke that I’d never said more than “hello” to her – it was time to be a man.

And you know what? I never got the chance!!

For the full 3 weeks of my notice period she never once took the train into Leeds or back again. Despite metronomically taking the same trains for the past year she’d vanished off the face of the earth. Even stranger, my good lady still takes the train into Leeds and she’s never once seen her in the 3 years since.

I missed my chance. I’ll never know her name. I’ll never know anything about her. On the plus side I think the poor girl probably had a lucky escape. However it’ll always sadden me that I’ll likely go to my grave never knowing who Silsden Station Girl actually was…

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Some Thoughts For Mother’s Day

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When I was on holiday on the Isle of Arran back in August of 2007 I sat down and wrote an article I’d written many times over the years about the death of my mother. I’d wanted to explain what the process of losing her had been like from the first days up until years later when I’d come to terms with it. But every time I sat down to write it I just wouldn’t be happy with it and hit Delete. Not so this time.

I never bought my mother flowers much but wish I could buy her some today

I hadn’t really thought about the loss of my mother for a while but for some reason after a day out walking on the hills I just sat down and wrote Losing My Mother (what I believe to be the best piece of writing I’ve ever done) in about half an hour. When I read it back to myself with tears streaming down my face I realised I’d captured the essence of what the experience of losing my mother and learning to live with it was and is like. I handed it over to my good lady (who knew my mother very well and felt the loss almost as much as I did) to proof read (she proof reads most of what I post here believe it or not) and she soon had tears running down her face before agreeing that it was “a lovely article”. Almost immediately I felt like a weight had lifted off my shoulders having put into words what I’d spent the previous 5 years learning to live with.

But it wasn’t until a couple of months later that I actually published the article here and was very tempted to just post it with comments disabled. Fortunately I thought better of it and left comments open and I’m so glad I did. If you have a look at the comments people have left you can see that I’m by no means the only person this has happened to and a lot of people have thanked me for expressing the same things they’ve been feeling and offered their own thoughts too. From my point of view it’s so nice to realise that I’m not alone with other people out there having gone through the same thing as me. It’s given me a great deal of comfort and those people have often said they feel some comfort from what I’ve written.

Friends often ask me why I have this site and why I talk about my life so openly and I can never really answer them other than to say “because I do”. But writing a very personal post for me more than anybody else on a subject I’d not often talk about in the real world (it’s not a good topic to bring up at dinner parties) and getting so much positive feedback, connecting with people I’d never have touched otherwise is a pretty damn good reason if you ask me.

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Thank You Sparkie

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My dad has had a cat named Sparkie for the last five years, since just after my mother died. Sparkie’s been his constant companion and given him purpose, routine and been someone to talk to who never talks back (only meowing back which is much nicer) for all that time.

We’ve had a few cats over the years but Sparkie was originally brought up on a farm before my dad got him from the cat protection league so was a bit of a wildie, fighting off the local cats, bringing in mice from time to time and jumping up on every surface in the house. Whereas my dad’s getting on a bit Sparkie’s always been full of youthful exuberance in the way that only a young cat is, which I’m sure has been good for my dad. I took the following picture of him a couple of weeks ago when I was home and he was just his usual lovely, entertaining self and being very friendly:

My Dad’s cat Sparkie

Unfortunately a few days ago little Sparkie died. Cut down in the prime of his life at the age of around 8 it all happened very quickly in the end. It’s such a shame as he was a wonderful cat with a fantastic personality and he did my dad no end of good – I don’t know how my dad would have coped over that last few years without him. But the real shame is that I could never thank him for being there for my dad when he needed him because he was a cat and wouldn’t have understood the positive impact he had – he was just being himself. So thank you Sparkie, you will be sorely missed.

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Losing My Mother

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My mother in her 20'sMy mother died just over 5 years ago from cancer and not a day goes by that I don’t miss her. I thought it was about time I wrote about how losing her has changed the way I see the world, has changed me and what it’s been like trying to get my head around it all.

It’s true what they say, you can never really understand what it’s like until it happens to you. I once described losing my mother as like the sky suddenly falling down. My mother carried me for 9 months, gave birth to me, was the first sight I ever set my eyes upon, fed me when I was hungry, got no sleep for months when I woke her up crying at night, changed my nappies, watched me smile when I recognised her face, start to crawl, take my first steps, say my first word. She was always there for me, every memory I’ve ever had growing up has her in it. When I was upset she was there to cheer me up. When I needed advice it was her I sought out. And when I stepped out of line it was her who put me back in step. She was a strong, loving mother who I always knew was on my side, would do anything for me and my brother and gave us the perfect upbringing that made us the men we are today. I’d known her as my mother and as I became an adult I knew her as the woman Jean Conners with a devilish sense of humour and a certain innocence about her. She was the most wonderful person I’ve ever known. She had always been a huge part of my life and now that she’s gone I realise that I’d always assumed she would be.

You never expect the sky to fall down, the sky is always there and always will be. And that’s exactly how I felt about my mother.

When my father phoned me early one morning to tell me my mother was dying the first words I said to him were “you’re joking”. Obviously he wouldn’t, but my instinct was that it couldn’t be happening. Him phoning me again later (I can’t remember if I’d left to drive home or was just about to leave) to tell me she had died just didn’t seem real – I was numb. I arrived home before my brother (who’d been staying with me that weekend and was driving himself to my dad’s) and stepped into the hall. My dad came over to me and something I didn’t expect then happened. All my life my dad had been the one to comfort me in times of sadness but this time he was the one holding onto me and I was the one comforting him. It’s times like that you realise when you’ve grown up and become an adult. We were both inconsolable and if you ever find yourself imagining what a situation like that is like, imagine it a million times worse. And then when my brother turned up, well think a British billion times worse (that’s a million million). Even then, I still just couldn’t believe it.

In the months after her death I just couldn’t grasp that she was gone. I’d walk past an arts and craft shop and my first thought would be to take her there the next time she was down. I’d see something on TV that I knew she’d be interested in and I’d go to pick up the phone and call her before reality hit me. It was as though my brain just wouldn’t accept that she was gone forever.

Whenever I’d visit my father’s house I’d come down in the morning before anyone else was up and watch TV in the lounge like I always did. I’d be sitting there waiting for her to come in and sit next to me like she always did (we were early risers). I cried far more while she was suffering with cancer than after she died but on mornings like that I could never hold back the tears, sat there sobbing on my own waiting for someone that was supposed to always be there who I started to realise never would be again.

After some time – I couldn’t tell you how much – my brain dealt with things in a different way. I seemed to accept that she was gone and didn’t find myself about to call her any more. Instead she kept turning up in my dreams. Sometimes the dreams would be set in my childhood and it was only when I woke up that I’d feel sad, knowing I’d seen her again, or feel happy because it felt like I’d spent some more fleeting moments with her. More upsetting were the dreams where I knew she was dead in the real world, and in the dream she did too and I was just talking to her telling her how I missed her. Waking up would just take me away from her. If I were a spiritual person I’d feel comforted that maybe she was reaching out to me from beyond the grave, but unfortunately I know better and it’s my mind coming to terms with her death showing me what it thinks I want to see – or something like that. Odder were the ones where in the dream I saw her and was really upset knowing that when I woke up she’d be gone. I’d wake up with tears on my pillow but had left the sadness in the dream and didn’t feel upset at all.

The dreams started to fade away (although they do come back from time to time) and I found that my mind seemed to understand that she was gone. It was as though in the preceding years (and it took that long) my brain had been drip-feeding me little bits at a time rather than trying to get my head around the concept that my mother was gone all at once. It’s a good job I didn’t take it all in at once – because it’s such an utterly terrible thing to have to get used to and live with. I feel so bad for friends who lose parents because I know that it actually never gets any easier with time – you have to carry the pain and burden for the rest of your life. The only thing that changes is that you learn to live with it in your own way.

As I said at the start, not a day goes by that I don’t miss her. I still get upset from time to time but my mother was exactly the same decades after the death of her mother. She never hid the tears from us and as a result we were brought up knowing that it was perfectly normal to miss someone you loved and it’s nothing to be ashamed of.

She wrote me a letter when she knew she wouldn’t make it and in it she told me she’s always admired my positive outlook on life and to make the most of life as it’s so precious. Every day that goes by that’s exactly what I try to do.

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The Power Of Love

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Steve and CarolineI had the pleasure of attending my good friend Steve’s wedding to his sweetheart Caroline at the weekend and it was lovely.

I was lucky enough to work with Steve in my first “proper” job (i.e. not for a University) and learned a great deal from him on both a personal and professional level. For anyone who’s ever heard me utter the words “phenomenal attention to detail”, you can thank Steve for drilling it into my head. His methodical approach to problem solving rubbed off on me and I continue to this day applying the same lessons I learned from him. Although I try to lose my temper and swear a bit less! 😉

I remember when he first met Caroline. They were set up at a wedding they both attended and he came back beaming about what a lovely girl she was. And he pretty much carried on talking about her from that point until the day he moved in with her! When I first met her I was taken aback at firstly how damned attractive she was and secondly what a lovely girl she was – funny, intelligent, genuine, a real catch. Steve had clearly been doing something right!

However the best was yet to come. Having moved down south to be with her, every time I met up with them again it was plain to see the positive effect she was having on him. It’s rare to see two people who become so much more than the sum of their parts. And great guy though Steve was I realise now there was a part of him missing until he met Caroline. To see the story have a happy ending and be there as they were married was a real honour.

Oh yes, and it was a good excuse to finally buy myself a dinner suit and learn how to tie a bow tie properly. Trouble is, I can’t think of anybody else I know who’s likely to get married so it may be a while before I get to wear it again. Although you can wear dinner suits to christenings can’t you? 😉 (And before you ask, I don’t mean for me).

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Brother In Another Country

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My brotherSeveral years after the low of living with me in Yorkshire my brother (right) has finally hit the big time. To be fair, things went really well after his ill-fated stay with me. He’s spent the past year or so living in Edinburgh and making the most of the rich and vibrant night-life. He got a great job that’s much more interesting than mine (i.e. it’s not writing software) and he’s been having a whale of a time.

He stayed with us this weekend for the last time because he’s moving to California. San Francisco to be precise. I’d normally say he’s a lucky git but to be honest he’s worked hard and deserves everything that’s coming to him. If I were a betting man I’d have said that I’d have been more likely to move to the centre of the software world before he would but it’s funny how life surprises you some times. And how settled I am living in Yorkshire!

For one thing, I’m going to miss him. He’s my brother and my best friend. Barely a few days go by that I don’t speak to him, so for him to be on the other side of the world seems a long way away. However with modern technology like Skype we’ll be able to talk just as much as we do now. It also means I now have a holiday destination for early next year. We did a California road trip a couple of years ago and loved it and I can’t wait to go back.

So to my younger brother Jamie, good luck, all the best and stay off the burgers! 🙂

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4 Weeks To Go

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Exactly 4 weeks from today I'm getting married.

The process of planning a wedding hasn't been exactly what I expected it to be. I knew there would be pressure and I was fully expecting to battle it all out with family members as to who was cut from the list. I knew that lots of people would be saying "well they invited you to their wedding 10 years ago so you should invite them" even though we'd not even spoken to them since.

But I was wrong. That part turned out to be pretty straightforward. What I wasn't prepared for was spending time thinking about the wedding and not about each other. I guess it's easy to forget that you have to work at relationships and you can't keep burying your head in the sand. If I'm honest I was starting to look at the wedding as a chore, a formality to get out of the way and everything would be fine once it was over and done with. But that's no way to approach a wedding.

After much soul searching and low points, we both realised that we'd stopped communicating, stopped spending the time together we should have, stopped doing the fun things we used to do and had slowly slipped into a rut. We were wondering if we should even carry on with the wedding at all. But once we realised what the problem was we picked ourselves up and starting doing things together rather than her watching TV, me going on the computer. We started being a couple again and we're much happier. Suddenly we both remembered why we wanted to get married in the first place!

When I was younger I always assumed that relationships between people who were meant to be together just worked. Everything clicked, things never went wrong and there were never any lows. But that's ridiculous (well certainly after the first couple of years – prior to that it's all a honeymoon period). All relationships have their ebbs and flows – when things are good they're great, but when things slip you start to notice all the flaws, all the negatives and can easily get consumed but it.

I remember watching a program about relationships a year or so ago. They had a young couple who'd just met, a couple about to get married, one that had been married a short while right up to a couple in their 70s who'd been married forever. What I found most interesting and endearing was the elderly couple. They said that the secret to their staying together so long and being happy together was that they knew that they had to work at their relationship and would have their ups and downs, but to always keep in mind what brought them together in the first place. They said that all too often these "young folk" hit hard times and gave up to easily – hence the high divorce rates these days. They may have been in their 70s but they were still young at heart with their outlook on life and sense of humour. And after all these years they were still very much in love – seeing photos of them when they met you could still see the sparkle in their eyes now. They were really lovely.

We know that once we're married we've still got to work at it, and if we stop doing that we'll end up right back in a rut again. So often couples come back from the high of a year of wedding planning, the perfect wedding day, an awesome honeymoon to the reality of their former lives. They're under the illusion that the rest of their lives will be like their wedding day, but of course that's not the case. As that elderly couple said, you've got to keep working at it!

But in the meantime, I've got a party in 4 weeks to look forward to! If you want to buy us a present from our wedding list, my good lady has put one up on Debenham's website – just search for my name! 😉

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A Weekend At Home

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I spent the weekend up in Scotland. Normally my girlfriend would go with me but she deserved a few days to herself so for the first time in a long time I got to spend some quality time with my father talking, taking photos and reminiscing. It was one of the nicest weekends I’ve had in a long time (and the sun was shining – something I haven’t seen in Yorkshire for a good while).

watchingoverme

I’ve been thinking about time a lot lately. I look at my girlfriend and know that I want to spend the rest of my life with her. But I realise that much though I’d like to stop the clock and stay as we are forever, it ain’t gonna happen. Time will pass, we’ll age, get old and eventually die. It’s an inevitable aspect of life that I’m all too aware of but sometimes it saddens me. Youth is wasted on the young and wisdom is only earned by the old. Oh, to wind back the clock! Having said that, sunsets are the most beautiful parts of the day:

sunsetoverthetay

There’s no stopping the march of time, only making the most of it. The trouble is, most people don’t truly understand it until it’s too late.