Banishing the Blues

Last week, I felt as if the dark days of winter had manifested themselves across my face.

Besides having dry skin, an eruption of spots, and dark circles under my eyes, a glance in the mirror at work one day revealed what I had already suspected- that I was wearing a perpetual grimace. Despite all my best intentions, I’d once again succumbed to the dreariness of January and allowed myself to feel as if the apocalypse was imminent. Like so many people throughout the northern hemisphere, I was experiencing a serious case of the January blues.

After a few days in hibernation mode, I felt that it was time to force myself into some action. Although getting plenty of rest can be a good thing, I’m the type of person who thrives on positivity, creativity…and a project. So, in addition to my 30 Before 30 reading challenge, I decided to start a Positivity Project. To be honest, it’s not so much a project- rather a short list of things to do in an effort to help me maintain my sanity until winter is over, and endeavour to embrace some metaphorical sunshine. It’s all quite obvious, but as it seems to be working, I thought I’d share it…

           The Positivity Project

           1. Visit a new place

January can be a difficult month to visit somewhere new; generally it’s the time when we have the least amount of money, and are most reluctant to enter the outside world due to our tendency to slip into ‘snuggle’ mode.

Travelling to a previously unexplored place really lifts my spirits though; it reminds me that there’s an exciting world outside of my mundane existence, and the change in scenery energises me in a way that nothing much else can. Last weekend, I visited two new places: Lincoln, a quaint city with an amazing cathedral and castle, and Penistone, a lovely little town in Yorkshire with some cute cafes and plenty of countryside. Though they were very different experiences, both contributed to a much more positive mood; clearly I just needed to escape!

Lincoln Cathedral Lincoln Castle

            2. Plan things to look forward to

Generally, nothing much happens in January- everyone’s waiting for their bank balance to recover from Christmas and/or for spring to blossom. Planning things to look forward to is, therefore, a necessary way of ensuring you don’t descend into craziness. Without the prospect of future fun, how are you supposed to endure the seemingly endless bleakness?

Focusing on the fact that I have numerous 30th birthdays, a hen do, a wedding, and some potential trips away on the horizon has definitely made me feel much brighter. It may be a bit monotonous at the moment, but it’s definitely going to be an eventful year overall.

     3. Spend time with people who make you happy

It’s pretty obvious, but sometimes we become so immersed in our own misery that we forget that the simple answers are often the best.

Catching up with the people who make me smile, including some friends that I haven’t seen for months, has been conducive to a much happier state of mind over the last week. Though it’s easy just to cancel in favour of an early night/a day at home at this time of year, we can’t allow SAD to win!

4. Get creative

What works for me is not necessarily always going to be effective for others, but as a creative type, I find that a session of focused creativity every once in a while really enhances my spirits. Last year, I started a Craft Club with a friend in a conscious attempt to be creative more regularly and try to develop new skills. Whilst I’m definitely not the world’s best seamstress (and believe me, there have been some disasters!), getting creative with my sewing machine allows me to indulge a passion and feel like I’ve achieved something (providing it goes to plan!). To banish the January blues this week, I customised a bag. It was a simple task, but it instantly brightened my mood.

Customised bagCustomised Bag 2

5. Be positive!

So many people don’t actually realise that the language they use is really negative. Until I had some professional coaching, I’d never noticed that I was constantly saying things like ‘no’, ‘don’t’, ‘won’t’ and ‘shouldn’t’- words that, ultimately, have a detrimental impact on our state of mind.

Anyone who’s ever read Danny Wallace’s Yes Man (one of the funniest things I’ve ever read) will understand the power of ‘yes’. Being positive opens your eyes to new experiences and can have a magnetic effect on the people you meet. I appreciate that many people don’t believe in the effects of positive thinking (and even find it annoying), but relatively new research does show that happiness and health are linked, therefore the more positive you are, the more likely it is that you’ll live through many more days of January…oh joy of joys!

Wherever you are in the world, I hope you’re enjoying a positive January!

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30 Before 30: Norwegian Wood

Norweg 1 Norweg 2

Many of Haruki Murakami’s readers were disappointed by Norwegian Wood when it was first published in 1987, believing it to be a ‘betrayal’ of what his work stood for. In a departure from his usual form, Murakami seemed to be embracing Japanese mainstream autobiographical fiction and a conventional love theme, his narrative uncharacteristically simple and realistic. As a newcomer to Murakami, I can, of course, only judge Norwegian Wood on its own merits- and far from being just a simple love story, I would describe it as a lyrical and evocative example of modern Japanese literature.

When 37 year old Toru Watanabe hears the opening bars of an orchestral version of the Beatles’ ‘Norwegian Wood’ during a flight, he instantly feels pain. The favourite song of Naoko, his first love, transports him back to a time during his adolescence when love and grief were painful yet necessary rites of passage. Though Toru ‘often tried to write’ about his experiences, he ‘couldn’t produce a line’. It is only with the passing of time and the fading of memories that the novel’s main character is able to truly reflect upon and start to understand his experiences as a young man.

The rest of the novel takes the reader on an interesting linear journey into Toru’s past. Set against the backdrop of late 1960s Tokyo, Norwegian Wood tells the story of a young student who is seemingly torn between the emotional ties of the past and the possibilities of the future, as embodied by two women- fragile Naoko, the girlfriend of his dead best friend Kizuki, and vivacious Midori, who he meets at uni. While one woman is mentally unstable and sexually reticent, the other represents modern woman- sexually free and unconventional. Whether Murakami was intending to make a political point about the social and historical evolution of Japan through these two characters is unclear, but the Japan of his novel is certainly one that is undergoing a period of turbulence and transformation.

Norweg 3

Haunted by the suicides of both Kizuki and, it later emerges, her older sister, Naoko is unable to survive in the world of student uprisings and casual sex that the Japan of the Sixties has become, entering a mental ‘retreat’ in an attempt to remedy her problems. Just as Kizuki died at 17, Naoko seems to undergo a metaphorical death which prevents her from maturing into adulthood- failing to progress, and actually becoming increasingly rooted in the past. Although Toru tries to support her through this with regular letters and visits to the retreat, Naoko eventually takes her own life, hanging herself in the surrounding woods- the place where she last walked with Toru. Finally, the bird has flown (those Beatles fans among you should understand that reference!), leaving Toru free to continue his journey into adulthood.

While Naoko’s death is the catalyst for a bleak period in Toru’s life, you can’t help but feel a sense of relief that he has finally been released from a romantic purgatory to pursue a future with the unconventional Midori, whose love for him is obvious from the very beginning. In contrast to the dark and dismal presence of beautiful but troubled Naoko, Midori, whose name means ‘green’, brings colour to the story with her lively exuberance and overt sexuality. From the moment she was introduced to the story, I couldn’t help but hope that Naoko would somehow ‘disappear’ to make way for a blossoming relationship between Toru and Midori!

In typical literary fashion, however, Murakami doesn’t provide a clear-cut ending; there is no certainty of a ‘happy ever after’ following the death of Naoko. Ringing Midori from a phone box in the final paragraph of the novel, Toru is left confused and bewildered when she asks ‘Where are you now?’ Unsure of where he is, the novel ends with Toru calling out for Midori ‘from the dead centre of this place that was no place’. Like Naoko, it seems that the grief he has suffered through the suicides of two of the people closest to him threatens to engulf him. While we know that Toru reaches adulthood, Murakami never clarifies whether he embraces the future through a relationship with Midori, or remains stuck in the past, metaphorically walking in the snowy woods where he spent his last moments with Naoko.

snowy-woods1

This is part of the book’s ultimate appeal, however. Philosophical in its exploration of grief and the way that the past affects us, Norwegian Wood raises ideas that adolescents and adults alike can relate to, provoking questions about the nature of love and life. Intensely readable and emotionally engaging, it never disappointed me. In fact, quite the opposite; I loved it! Though I am aware that most of his work is very different to this, reading Norwegian Wood has definitely instilled a desire within me to read more of Murakami’s books. I’m just not sure when I’m going to find the time…

30 Before 30: The Odyssey

Poseidon calling up the winds to destroy Odysseus

As I’m hoping to go on my own Greek Odyssey this year, starting my 30 Before 30 book challenge and New Year with Homer’s The Odyssey seemed pretty apt. Whilst I’m hoping that I don’t encounter any monsters, sea-gods or amorous females along the way (although if I happen to venture to Lesbos there’s a slight possibility that the latter may be plausible!), a journey to the Greek islands will certainly allow me to appreciate the full beauty of Homer’s poetic descriptions.

Generally hailed as the basis of all Western literature, The Odyssey is, despite its literary prestige, a story that many modern readers can relate to. In its simplest form, it’s the story of a war hero’s journey home from the battlefield of Troy; the perils he faces along the way; and the miseries his family endure during his absence.

Not all soldiers have to face the challenges that Odysseus is presented with on his trip home, however. Having incurred the wrath of the sea god Poseidon after blinding his son, a cyclops, Odysseus’s journey across the sea is no easy ride. Braving, among other things, tempestuous winds, cannibals and a seductive witch-goddess who turns half his crew into swine, Odysseus goes to hell and back, quite literally. From the depths of the underworld to the lofty heights of Mount Olympus, residence of the gods, Homer’s epic poem (which, in the translation I read, had been converted into prose) takes the reader through virtually every geographical area associated with the Ancient Greeks. Repetitious phrases like ‘When tender Dawn had brushed the sky with her rose-tinted hands’  help to root you in that ancient world, and the beauty of beginning many chapters with a description of the morning lies in reminding the reader that, despite his mortal condition, Odysseus has lived to see another day.

Overall, two things ensure Odysseus’s survival: the protection and intervention of Athene, goddess of ‘the flashing eyes’, and the cunning of Odysseus himself. While most soldiers who have spent the best part of twenty years endeavouring to get home would want to embrace their wife and son on returning to their homeland, Odysseus decides on another course of action. Having heard of the intrusion of many rich suitors vying for the hand of his wife, Penelope, he, with the help of Athene, tricks his entire household into believing he is a beggar, and executes a bloodthirsty plan to kill the men and some of the maids who’ve dallied with them. Although I can see why Odysseus may have been a little vexed, I’m not entirely sure I agree with the gratuitous violence. Couldn’t he have just threatened to let the dogs loose and sent them packing?!

Apparently not. Throughout The Odyssey, there is an overriding concern with men attaining fame through ‘brave’ (a.k.a violent) means, and Odysseus is no exception. Although my attitude towards the character is ambivalent, the death of Nelson Mandela during my reading of The Odyssey made me realise how many parallels there are between him and Odysseus. Both men were perceived to be great by most people of their generation; both could be described as being ‘favoured by the gods’ to some extent; both were radical in their actions (at least by today’s standards). Yet, despite my admiration and respect for Nelson Mandela, the jury’s still out on Odysseus. His pride and cunning may mark him out as a mere mortal, but, try as I might, I can’t overlook his failings. Perhaps the feminist within me is outraged by his brutal murder of twelve of Penelope’s maids. Or perhaps I just don’t like glory hunters. Either way, I can’t say that Odysseus will ever be included on my list of favourite fictional characters.

Nelson mandela

That is not to diminish the greatness of The Odyssey as a piece of literature. Yes, Odysseus is not a particularly likeable character (or at least not to me). Yes, it is very dense, and can be quite a tedious and laborious read. Some of Homer’s descriptions are enchanting though. What word-lover could fail to be enthralled by ‘From the flowing waters of the River of Ocean, my ship passed into the wide spaces of the open sea, and so reached the Island of the Rising Sun, where tender Dawn has her home and her dancing-lawns.’?

What’s truly beautiful about it, however, is the way it speaks to all of us of the human condition, reminding us of what it is to be mortal: the trials and tribulations we have to endure in life, and the spirit and resilience we must all find within us to overcome them. If nothing else, I recommend The Odyssey as a thought-provoking and mentally stimulating read.