Losing makes you stronger

My dad said to me last night that he had been enlightened.  He realised he could apply Bruce Lee’s 3 principles of Kung Fu to Computer Architecture (his work) with life changing results. I watched beaming as he told me the story and all about his enlightenment and practical implementation. He finished by saying what Bruce Lee said -that to truly succeed you need to learn ‘the art of dying’. What he meant was that to defeat the enemy you have to learn from your previous defeats. We have all heard that you should learn from your mistakes, and that to succeed first you have to fail (sometimes many times to learn and perfect!). I know what he meant to tell me as I smiled nodding in agreement,  and it left me proud and excited to think how I might apply it. Yet at the same time as I later reflected, the thought of death was what was left hanging in the air.

I have always been a person who have never been good with birth or death. I never want to hold people’s newborns or swoon over them, it’s just not my thing. So I avoid people, even people I like when they have a newborn. (What is wrong with me!) Also I avoid people who have suffered a loss, a death of someone close be it a friend or family. So sure I would say something stupid, I’d rather say nothing at all.

It’s been a while since I’ve blogged, and that is due to the fact I’ve been lost for words, because I lost someone,  just a few months ago,  and it was the saddest thing I have personally ever experienced.

It all started October last year, I had just started doing some acoustic stuff with a guitarist at open mic nights, and we thought it would be cool to build a band. So I advertised on Gumtree (how I found the guitarist) and a bass player got in touch.

His name was Dan, he was quite enthusiastic via email, shy in person, at least at the beginning. Our first rehearsal went really well, we clicked musically straight away. I always told him what a great musician he was; we vibed well,  him interpreting my bass lines wonderfully for live. He couldn’t praise me and my music enough, and I always felt like he was my little angel, sat on my shoulder telling me only good things: giving me the confidence I never had.

The more time we spent together the more we realised how much we had in common. We had similar views  on environmental issues, and life in general. We both loved the sky and everything in it, and listening to music, live or not. We went out in Bristol, drinking cider (his choice) and sitting in parks or by the river (my choice) or at his flat if it was impromptu after rehearsal/gig chats.

I’ve never made friends with someone so quickly, so deeply. When I have friends I love them, and I really loved Dan to pieces. We’d text in the day about our jobs and funny things at work, he made me really happy. In person he would bring up deep topics of conversation and we’d debate often in strong agreement…it was awesome for us but I’m sure boring to anyone that could hear us blabbering on. I loved that we liked such different music, we played songs to each other and often didn’t even talk for whole songs, just happy to sit in each others company.

7 months later, and I really wasn’t ready for what was about to happen. On an afternoon in May I received a text that really scared me. I went straight to Dans flat, and his flatmate and mum were already there, looking as panicked as me. The next few hours were hell and the text was the last words I was ever to receive from Dan.

I don’t think I left the sofa for days. My family, especially my sister were wonderful. For hours my sister just sat and stroked my hair or held my hand while I cried for hours. This is what loss feels like, I realised, and like I guessed before, there really isn’t anything you can say. The band and closest friends were also a great support visiting just to force me to eat, go for a walk, or have a chat about random stuff. Everyone at work even put up with me being a complete mess, and my first day back my boss let me cry all over her top. I remember warning her with the words “I’m a woman of extremes: you know how happy I usually am – I think that’s how sad I’m gonna be.”

I spoke to his family often, our stages of grief seemed to be similar, though of course I know they felt the pain deeper than me. I learned that to cope you need a task, either for the person or in their name. For others it was sorting the funeral, making a video channel of Dan memories, putting on fundraising events, or going out to help the homeless just like Dan used to.

I  immersed myself in music. I wrote a new song (which will be on my new album) and finished the images with Unearthed and edited my Bristol Beat music video. I realised that many of the photos my friend had already taken of me were places where me and Dan had hung out, and I decided (with his family’s permission) to dedicate the video to him.

Every day I think of him, and every day I miss him. Most of the time now I think of him and the wonderful memories I have and smile. Other times I feel just like I did that first month, my heart sinks through my feet, my body feels empty and I cry a river. But I try to remember the person that he was, and what he would say if he could see me now.

Dan was an empathetic man, who always saw the best in people, yet he never saw the best in himself. You only had to be at his funeral to see how many people were touched by his presence, whether it had been one chance meeting at a party or a whole phase of his life. He was a gaming champion, a talented musician,  a showman in front of the camera, a comedian, a  loved brother, a perfect son, and a best friend to everyone who had the pleasure of knowing him. I always called him ‘the keeper’ the one I thought would be there for ever, that I never wanted to leave or lose, in the band and in life. But lose him we all did, and you could say our lives are so much more emptier without him – yet I prefer to say we are all the richer for knowing him. I know he made me a better person, and continues to do so, even though he is not here, at least not in the way we all knew him to be here. He now lives in all that knew him, all that benefitted from his wit, his charm, his charisma.

This is just a few of the ways he made me a better person when he was here:

– He made me question things

– He made me take risks

– I finally took the leap to vegetarian, something I always wanted to do, and seeing his commitment to veganism encouraged me to take that step.

And this is some of the ways he makes me a better person everyday that I remember him and all he was:

– Believing in myself. I valued his opinion on everything, so when he said such wonderful things about me I have to believe there was some truth to it. I see him on my shoulder, a little angel, encouraging me all the way.

– I took the step to veganism, it’s been difficult and not without hurdles, but I am so much happier with my choices and the impact it has for the planet.

– I have started learning to play the bass. His brother so kindly left Dan’s bass to me. (It was actually his brother’s but he says “Dan got more use in 6 months out of that bass than I did the years I had it.”) I said I couldn’t bare to see it hung on a wall never to be played, so I’ve been learning. It really hurt my shoulder the first time I hung it over me to play, but I couldn’t be a wuss now! I also started playing my piano again, after so long either just producing in the studio, and singing live with the band.

– I value every moment, even more so than I ever did before. I realise how special every moment was with my dear friend, and he must have felt so too from the things he said to me in the last few days and the day he went away and the things his brother and best friend said to me after. So whatever that guy saw in me, I want to be that person to those around me. I know I’m not perfect, and nobody can be, but I hope I can be that person he saw in me, as a relative, a friend, a musician, a human being.

Sometimes I feel guilty, that now most of the time, I am the happy person that everyone knew me as before it happened. But I know he hated attention (being on him), and I remind myself his last wishes to me:

– That I continue and progress my music

– That I forgive

– That I find happiness

I never knew those three things would be so hard for me, they were always the things that came easy to me before. That just goes to show how one thing can literally turn your world upside down and inside out, so that that everything that was once round is now square, and everything that was so easy becomes so hard. The little things in the first days after his death were so hard, eating, sleeping, smiling, talking, getting dressed. The first rehearsal after was so painful. Then it was the bigger things that were a strain, an effort, like exercise, socialising, performing. Now in the long term it’s those things he asked of, and I say them to myself everyday: make music, forgive, find happiness.

When it all happened I honestly couldn’t think how it would get better, you don’t get less sad about what happens you just get used to feeling the sadness when it comes, and then you just have to channel it somewhere. I’ve put it in a song, a video, and now what I am writing in this blog, and I’m sure every musical step I take from here on. I hope that anyone who understands this pain has found a way to turn the pain inside out and upside down. Your world will never be the same again, but you have to find your way to carry on. I know I made Dan happy and he made me happy, for those few short months that I knew him. I carry that thought with me every step I take, every song I make, every time I step on stage, every time I make a new friend. I feel him when I twang the bass strings, so I shouldn’t be sad, ’cause he is here really – he made everyone’s world brighter, and that will never fade.

Dan smiley

Buy Nothing For Christmas – say whaat???

So today I’m writing in a rush, as part of a blogathon organised by Bristol Green Capital. (Typo forgiveness please!) The task is to blog about a green christmas. Mine will be  about my ‘Buy Nothing Christmas!’

About twenty people are blogging at AtBristol and listening to xmas songs like that one that goes ‘when the snowman brings the snow’ – and like the penultimate line ‘why don’t you give your love at christmas’, that’s exactly what my Buy Nothing Xmas is about. I can show my love for those in my life, without spending money, getting in debt, stressing about bills, or adding to the need for mass production in the chain stores.

Working at Knowle West Media Centre  (KWMC) and the people and places and projects it has brought into my life, have changed me for the better and made me think about my actions, the impact an individual can have on the environment, and those around them.

I generally started to practice what we (KWMC) preached: or actually we don’t preach we ‘do’, so I practice what we practice : s.  Anyway…I’ve became more aware of how food, energy, nature, waste, thinking local, are all part of the bigger picture of sustainability.

So onto Christmas…
My previous xmas themes in the last few years included recycled (mainly from charity shops), ethical (lots of fairtrade, non sweat shop etc) and shop local (lots of independents in Bristol).  (P.S. Did you know about the Bristol Pound?)

The recycled xmas was the hardest  theme prior to this year and received the most criticism and misunderstanding from friends and family at first. I swayed about 80% in the end that I was not simply being ‘stingy’ when they saw the effort I had gone to, trawling charity shops every weekend for months, and I’m proud to say a few even started to follow my example (Ok someone did get a dodgy old omelete maker – but I made up for it the following year when he thanked me for my fab personal gift).

Throughout it all, it has been encouraging  that I knew people in KWMC were making presents e.g. alphabet biscuit quizes (what do your cookies spell – family game – re-arrange them on table, then eat…not for the hygiene particular!) and knitting socks; I wish I were that skilled!

This year I took it up a notch and decided to do a christmas theme of not buying anything. I basically don’t like that christmas has been about spending money on things people don’t really need, or could do without, or seem important now but will be forgotten, the mass production of it all. So I know it’s about the economy and jobs also (but that’s another argument that I’m really not equipt to make.) I just wanted Christmas to be so much more than what it had become.

So this year I searched online and found a website for Buy Nothing Xmas here. I didn’t find it particularly useful, but it was nice to know my concept was nothing new, and there was already a movement around it.

This year ‘Buy Nothing’ has got me even more taunts and comments, like ‘are you really that skint?’ asked my aunty. Once I start to explain it’s about not being a consumer, she looks at me with that “oh yeh your an ‘eco warrior’ ” look. And I must say I think it’s sad that people still have that way of thinking about acting more sustainably…but people are changing, one example is me. (Don’t get me wrong: 1. I love my aunty, she is awesome, and I’d be the same if not exposed to the things at KWMC. 2. I am by no means perfect, or at all an eco warrior, but I just know we need to be more thoughtful of how we are living our lives not just for the whole but also for ourselves (see my previous post on happiness).

So back to how I’ve been doing with buying nothing…
Well most people who have been curious rather than dismissive, have actually found they like the idea (even if it does all sound it bit too much effort). Below are some examples of what I’ve got people, and let’s hope no-one on my xmas list looks at my blog (other bloggers will know that’s extremely unlikely!!!).

[*Here’s the small print – I slightly cheat on my own invented loophole that if I spend money on an experience not an object it doesn’t count, if I only do this a little bit. Please give me a break…I’m trying!]

Here are some examples of the things I haven’t bought for family:
– Mum, Dad, any other family, if you are reading this, STOP NOW, or ruin the surprise! AND go on Santa’s naughty list forever!

• Baby sitting vouchers printed from the buy nothing website. These are for my cousin, who is a single mum and rarely gets a break from her little one and doesn’t want to burden people by asking. Just to clarify, I’m doing the babysitting, she cashes them in with me!

• A book from the library for my dad that I know he will love (and read before it needs to go back). Also I’m giving one of my books that I read and think my mum would really benefit from and enjoy. I’m also having them over Xmas day. Plus vouchers for 2 free nibble boxes full of yummy healthy snacks (worth £4 each, that I got for free from Graze as I joined them recently. Then they sent out more for their subscribers to give for xmas – so I can also give some to aunties and uncles. – It’s like the universe is helping me succeed!)

• A picture I painted for my sister, and an ice cream making machine won from a raffle (she loves sweet things but is diabetic, and so she can make her own with Stevia leaf sweetener rather than sugar). I also wanted to book her free tickets to Bath fashion Show in Easter time, but you can’t book until January…typical! … I may print out the page with a note to promise to book them : -/

• Cushions with my nephews names sewn onto them. The names are made from some of my old PJs! – they were in good nick. (No scrumpy bobbliness!)

• An unused laptop bag for another cousin, found de-cluttering my cupboards.

• Tickets to something locally for my man and little girl, and of course I will go too, and get us all dinner before. This was a hard one, trying to get him to book in the time in his diary as not free to do anything. I’m not sure how well I did at being vague and generally annoying him!

• Also a tip I got from another website was to save your kids school pictures and give them as presents rather than just when they come through. (Don’t worry this only applies to doting grandparents, I know pictures of your kids aren’t great gifts for your mates!).

And for my friends, my close friends (not everyone on my facebook list)…

• An extra Christmas day, wuhay! I take them to an activity, cook them dinner, play typical xmas songs and music, drink wine and generally have fun Christmas stylie. (I’ve done two so far, for different groups of friends, so it’s more intimate, and not just a repeat of my usual house parties).

One friend couldn’t make the group thing so we planned an afternoon, that really had no plan actually except an exhibition we both wanted to see. It kind of grew to an epic 16 hrs extravaganza. Here’s his post the next day on facebook:

“Life is good, had an amazing day with Makala Cheung seeing lots of friends reminding me what a great place Bristol is. Falun Gong exhibition at the Island, grub at Royce Rolls, walk around the docks, free wine at the Watershed, chips at Renatos, Wicked live act Stanz at the Louisiana, Latin boogie at Fiddlers, 2am bite to eat at The Mayflower, introducing Juan, a Spanish immigrant to Bristol and finding him a spot at The Full Moon, finally rolling off til 6am at a house party in Montpelier. Good times!”

Now how many people can say your xmas present gets that kinda response?

P.S. You can continue the Bristol Green Christmas conversation on twitter #greenbristol