Why I Quit.

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Let me start this by saying I am an incredibly practical person. My sensible head is always on, I kill myself through rationality, and never make spontaneous decisions. Even the suggestion of having people over for dinner needs to be run by me with at least 24hours notice. But six weeks ago, I quit my job. Albeit not completely spontaneously – I’d been thinking about it for a while. But it was not the reasonable decision and it most definitely was not sensible. Because I don’t have a new job to step into. It’s my last day tomorrow and I still don’t have a next step (yet)… Nevertheless I can say it was one of the easiest decisions I’ve ever made, and here’s why.

I got this, my first full-time, job 5 days after graduating. As I’ve probably mentioned before. It was in my chosen industry and seemed like the best possible start to a career. Plus, it was what I’d been intending since the January of my final year at university. I was determined to have a job by September at the latest, because that’s what you do. You leave your studies and enter the real world. So after barely a breather from throwing my cap, I was a London commuter paying taxes. The job was easy, and the pay was amazing compared to the hourly part-time rates I’d been used to. Within three months I was promoted – largely out of convenience for the management as I was already there, but they also recognised my ability to do well at work. This was a good thing! And made a great anecdote on the old CV.

What was a bad thing was the job itself. After a couple of weeks learning the ropes, I realised I could finish everything by 11:30am, and spent the rest of day twiddling thumbs. That’s pretty much what happened most days of the week. The ‘easy’ work was proving mind-numbing and soul-destroying. My brain wasn’t being used, and the intense frustration that I find comes with boredom was increasing. I arranged meetings, discussed my problems and lack of motivation, but nothing changed, because there was nothing more for me to do. Before too long, the stress (and yes, I get stressed when I have nothing to do), was building up steadily. I was getting headaches every day despite downing water religiously. I went to the dentists and they said I was grinding my teeth a lot, and I should try meditation. Body Balance once a week (yes, I know I keep harking on about it), did wonders, but it wasn’t enough. I found myself crying on my walks home. One evening, heading back from the station, I felt a stab of incredibly intense pain throughout my jaw, and realised I’d been clenching without noticing. That’s when I decided enough was enough, and my happiness and health was more important that whatever ‘security’ this position was providing.

I wouldn’t recommend you just up and leave a perfectly acceptable job. It is very seldom the clever or appropriate choice. But for me it was the right one, at the right time. I’m moving into my parents’ house to save for a house deposit, so I don’t have any immediate financial obligations for the foreseeable future. Plus, commuting from theirs would be atrocious. I doubt I’ll have the opportunity to be that bold (or stupid!) again, and I’m glad I took such a leap for the first time. It’s giving me time to reflect, re-evaluate, and work out what’s important to me. What I want to be doing and where I want to be doing it. I won’t have it all figured out next week, month, or year, but for now I’m happier than I was, and excited for the future. Whatever it may bring.

Long live spontaneity!… with good reason and a clear head.

 

Dealing With Your Head

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This piece was first published – in a shortened version – as a guest post on River and Rock.

 

With 12 years under my belt I should be a pretty good climber. But I have a problem – my head. If there’s one thing that gets in my way time after time, it’s my own brain freaking out when there’s no reason to. I went from leading 6c+, to backing off 5s, to now being able to work 7a moves (on toprope) on very exposed routes. As you get older the way you climb changes, but I’m determined to make that change a positive one. I’ve learned how to get my head in the right place so my body can do what it does best – climb. And I’m sharing my tips with you.

Techy climb on Serengeti

Techy climb on Serengeti

Relax

It seems obvious, but seriously, try to relax. A stressed mind causes a stressed body, and a stressed body is a nightmare on the rock. It’s a vicious circle – you’re stressed, so you get pumped, so you stress more feeling like you’re going to fall off. Find a way to calm your mind in everyday life, and this will move into your climbing life. I’ve started Body Balance classes – a combination of Thai chi, yoga, and Pilates. Initially this was to help strengthen a bad back, but it also allows me to let go of mental tension – it’s not necessarily meditation, it’s just about allowing your mind to switch off and consciously relieving tension. Plus the class ends with 7 minutes of literal relaxation, where you just lie on the floor in a dark room while twinkly music plays and a soothing voice tells you to stop clenching your jaw. Sounds bizarre, but it works.

Breathe

I mean this in the most literal sense. Do not stop breathing! I have a tendency to climb too fast and hold my breath, which isn’t conducive with good climbing. Slow down your movements and remember to keep your breathing regular. This will encourage oxygen to your muscles, helping to reduce pump, and allowing you to think more clearly about what you’re doing. Reading Natalie Berry’s tips for de-pumping made me realise I climb in a completely inefficient way – every step was the opposite of how I move naturally. However she has some real wisdom in there, so do check it out for additional insight!

Monsoon Malabar (6a), Blacknor Central

Monsoon Malabar (6a), Blacknor Central
An exposed arête – completely against my style but climbed clean!

Focus

Focusing on each move rather than the end result can do wonders. I was getting hung up on the fact that halfway up a climb was a move that looked horrible and scary and I don’t think I should even try because I don’t like dynamic moves and what if I fall and even if I do make that move there might be something worse higher up and and and… see the problem? Focus on the first few moves. Then the next few. Each will flow into the other and before you know it you’ve used mental momentum to get passed that ‘horrific dyno’ and onto easy ground. A few weeks ago I was climbing on Portland, and faced two exposed arêtes. Not my style of climbing at all – they required technical skill, balance, coordination, and a clear head in the face of quite gusty wind. My tendency is to pull hard and use my (not-inconsiderable) strength to haul myself up. But there were clear sections. I just focused on each part – broken up by wonderful ledges – and managed to get up both of them clean, with no fuss or faff, and with a great sense of satisfaction.

Cut yourself some slack

My final word is this – let yourself have your moment. It’s not the end of the world if you have an epic on that juggy 5+. If your head’s telling you to back off, maybe listen to give yourself a chance to evaluate why it’s told you to do that. Everyone has off days, weeks, months. I’ve had about 3 off years if I’m completely honest with myself. And do you know what? It’s okay. I’ve stopped focusing on the negative, on the fact that “I used to do this…” or “5 years ago that would’ve been easy”. For whatever reason, it’s not easy anymore, so it’s time to start again and probably develop some better technique as I go along. No-one’s going to know your journey but you (unless you tell them), so cut yourself some slack, and remember that climbing should be enjoyable. Unless you’re in it to win some big competitions, as long as you’re having fun, you’re doing alright.

Book review: Random Acts of Heroic Love

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“even though we know we are mortal, we live as if we are immortal”

 

Two stories, hundreds of years apart. Leo is in South America, devastated, confused, and falling into a deep, dark hole. More than 70 years before, Moritz is struggling across Siberia drawn by a passion so deep it seems to keep his heart beating by will alone.

Random Acts of Heroic Love is possibly one of the most deeply moving books I have ever read. Danny Scheinmann takes love, tears it a part, and rebuilds it with a depth of understanding and complexity unlike anything I’ve read before. I found myself weeping at Mortiz’s desperation. Despairing for Leo and wondering how anyone can ever come back from the brink. Then just over half way, it all changes. The previous pages take on new meaning, and all the heart-ache has a new poignancy.

Throughout this book, we flit between the darkest moments in a person’s life to the wonderful highs that can come so soon after. We learn how to cope with loss, death, frustration, self-loathing, confusion at the universe, and everything in between. It might seem strange to place war-time suffering next to a travelling twenty-something, but Danny is able to do so with a great heart, and not an ounce of patronisation.

Modern-day wanderlust is curiously examined through Leo, where despite his incredible pain, we are still able to see the beauty and intrigue of exotic lands. A love so pure and fresh is depicted that you find yourself smiling down at the pages, chuckling at the anecdotes of mating ants, and thinking fondly of those you yourself hold dear. Random Acts of Heroic Love also provides an intricate depiction of the other side to World War One, the side away from the front line where men still fought their own personal battles of survival. With remarkable descriptions of the landscapes, people, and trials of a trek across Siberia, we follow Mortiz’s journey and uncover what might not be written in history books. His desire to return to his sweetheart pulls him to survive far more than the call of duty, and proves just what strength such devotion can provide.

When I need to grieve, I should read this book again. When I am grateful for love, I should read this book again. When I need to be reminded of the beauty of the universe, I should read this book again. If you haven’t read it yet, you should read this book.

Book review: Us

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I’ve never really related with male lead-characters before. Possibly unsurprisingly – I’m a 22 year old woman. But Douglas Petersen, a 50-something scientist, felt remarkably close to home in David Nicholls’ Us. A devastating story of loss, hope, love, frustration, and family, Us tackles a number of my biggest fears through several of my favourite European cities. I was captivated, at times immensely moved, at others laughing out loud, by what is yet another Nicholls gem.

Douglas Petersen loves his wife dearly – they are chalk and cheese, but he doesn’t care. She an artist, free-spirited; he a scientist, methodical and sensible. Their son Albie drives them both crazy, but Douglas finds the boy a mystery – could this grungy photographer who ignores every good piece of advice really be his? With a destructive revelation from his wife Connie, Douglas packs the family up on a last holiday before Albie goes to university.

What drew me into this book was not only the depth of character which Nicholls wrote into this family, highlighting many of my own fears of never understanding my own children, and being unable to express the intense feelings of love and protection I would have for them. Douglas is a sensible man, rational, given to practicality over emotion – I relate to his pragmatic nature, and feel his disappointment when his free-spirited and artistic wife and son misunderstand his every word. But Us covers a journey across Europe, split into sections pertaining to cities and countries, and gives a beautiful insight into the cultures and wonders of some of the most delightful holiday destinations. The holiday is secondary in this struggle to maintain some semblance of family connection, but the descriptions nevertheless are filled with knowledge, wisdom, and wanderlust that had me itching to get on a flight. The ability to make a reader desperate to jump into the pages is a real gift, and having been to a couple of the cities cited I felt transported back to those trips.

This book tackles insecurity, the frustration of not being understood, changing family dynamics, heartache, and maturity. It also allows you to travel the continent from your living room, taking pauses to explore and embrace the wonderful experiences that comes with inter-railing. Having read One Day and fallen in love with it, to being sadly disappointed by The Understudy, I’m so glad to have picked up Nicholls’ latest and found it bigger, better, and brighter than before.

Keep Your Head Up

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Being a commuter to London – or to any big city – can leave you feeling like a bit of a zombie. Heads down, gazes averted, we spend our morning journey avoiding eye contact and absorbing ourselves in our own little world. This might be a book, music, or technological wizardry that allows you to watch TV. The number of books I’ve read since starting a job in the city has trebled, and I do enjoy it. But it makes me sad too. By the time I get off the train, I’m not feeling energised and ready for the day – I’m in just about the same state as I was when my alarm went off, if only a little better dressed. The day isn’t set up for productivity, but instead begins with a bleary eyed stagger from the carriage to the office, the train bubble burst so rudely and suddenly you can’t quite remember where you are.

So I’ve decided to make a change. It probably seems small and silly to even mention it, but it’s a change nonetheless and one that I’m already feeling better for. In the mornings, on my 8:43 train, I try not to read my Kindle (gasp!). Instead, I look out the window, with eyes wide, and take in the trackside scenery. Coming home now the evenings are getting longer, I sometimes do the same and admire the sunset. Just yesterday I spotted a beautiful rainbow towards Kennington – looking around my carriage, not a single other person had shifted their concentration from their lap. So that rainbow was my own, beautiful and vibrant for those who dare to look up. The rain storms produce some spectacular cloud displays, and as the sun fades to a dazzling orange, they’re lit up like a painting.

This probably sounds a bit bizarre. A bit airy-fairy, and not the ‘down to earth’ writing I tend towards. Perhaps it’s because at the moment I’m feeling stressed and deflated by work and so am grasping at the little things to keep me going. In fact, I’m sure that’s it. For the last few weeks I’ve woken up with a feeling of dread and nausea; just the simple act of engaging with my surroundings stops me from bursting into tears or turning in on myself. I can face the day knowing that my return journey will show off the sky in a different way. The little things that make each day move slightly easier, at the very least bookending the office with a ray of sunshine.

So take from this what you will. The random scribblings of someone who has a lot to say and few to say it to. Or insight into how to make each day a little bit more special, a little less grey, and less likely to turn you into the undead. Even dark skies have a dramatic tale to tell if you just keep your head up and read them…

© Ben Howard

Book review: Chaos Walking trilogy

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This series of books by Patrick Ness delves into a world of conspiracy, power, and hidden thoughts. A world where the minds of men are open, leading to a constant conflict of honesty and secrecy. Thrust into this mix are two young people. Children, forced to engage with adults in ways they could never have imagined, and try desperately to save the world from itself.

The first in the series, The Knife of Never Letting Go, introduces us to Todd Hewitt, a boy just one month away from the birthday that’ll make him a man, living in a town without women, the youngest male left. The first thing that strikes you is the odd vernacular with which Ness writes – part phonetic, part illiterate, it sends the reader right into the mind of Todd, feeling every emotion in the raw, open manner of an innocent child. We also discover The Noise – an infliction that only affects men and leaves towns loud, malicious, and violent. There are discoveries to be made, and secrets that the Mayor of Prentisstown has kept hidden for far too long. Secrets that will see Todd lose everything he’s ever known, and uncover more than he could have imagined. Throw into the mix a mysterious young girl, the first Todd’s seen, and what follows is a journey fraught with danger, frustration, and adventure, but not necessarily the good kind.

There is a war building, a conflict between Todd, Viola, and the powers that be. And that war spills through everyone they meet in the second book, The Ask and The Answer. Finding more questions in response to the ones they’ve already had, Todd and Viola are continually tested. This second book did feel a bit long. At every turn, they came to yet another obstacle, which started to feel repetitive. Every iota of hope was dashed before it could become fully formed. Of course, that is the way life goes. It is not fair and it does not always reward the good. I suppose this is a trial we all know too well, and perhaps that is why it felt a bit dry at times. I longed for the innocents to succeed. For the triumph over evil. For the underdogs to find their paradise. But by the end of The Ask, you can’t help but root for them more due to the trials of the past 400 pages. Their bond, their lives, and their consciences made better by this continual struggle. Knowing that it would lead them to something better. Continue reading

Flexibility and Flapjacks

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As I’ve mentioned once or twice – or enough times for you all to be rather bored – I’ve got a bit of a dodgy skeleton. Nothing major or particularly difficult to live with, but nevertheless noticeable for someone whose chosen sport requires the body to be put into all sorts of weird and wonderful shapes.

The main issue I’ve had when climbing is the ‘rock over’ move. This is when you are on the wall, and need to get your foot or toe on a hold about level somewhere between your waist and chest, and rock all your weight over (hence the name) and stand up on said foot. It sounds ridiculous written down, but comes quite naturally – just imaging stepping onto a hip-height wall from the floor. Nothing too strenuous on a wall, especially when at least one arm is pulling you in the right direction too. However, I’ve struggled with this as my hip muscles don’t quite engage properly. The over-rotation means there are tiny muscles that haven’t been activated my whole life as other parts (like my lower back) have over-compensated, and so the motion of pulling my body in towards my toe just didn’t make sense. My brain said “go” but my leg wouldn’t budge. Not great, especially when I’ve been trying to hit those upper grades which tend to use this move.

When I was at university my gym was the Surrey Sports Park – a multi-million pound facility that hosts the Harlequin Rugby Team and was the training base for a number of Paralympic teams in 2012. It’s a great centre, and I was fortunate that I could get student membership. Before lectures on a Thursday a friend of mine suggested going to Body Balance – a class by Les Mills that incorporates Thai chi, yoga, and Pilates. It’s great for strength, flexibility, and toning, and you can make it as easy or difficult as you like by just pushing a bit harder. When I graduated and started working, I found another class local to me, and the benefit of Les Mills is the classes have standardised choreography across the world. What I love are the focused hip and back tracks which allow me to really work my hips in similar positions to all my physio, and carry on strengthening the bits that up till now haven’t worked properly.

Today, after a few days off sick and feeling pretty rubbish, we went for a Sunday morning climbing session at White Spider. And it was the first time I’ve noticed the positive effects of Body Balance. I was making rock over moves almost without thinking, and finding my legs able to pull myself across in a way that they’ve never been able to. That’s 22 years of weakness being undone in just 3 months of yoga! I’ve still got a long way to go, but it’s encouraging to see this progress finally come to fruition.

As a reward for my new-found flexibility, I treated myself to a double chocolate brownie. But no, I wasn’t undoing all the goodness of climbing – it’s the newest flavour of BattleOats, a healthy alternative flapjack made with coconut oil toe ensure maximum protein, minimum fat. This new bar is nicely indulgent, however it is a little drier than their plain chocolate chip one. Perhaps save it to have with a cuppa as an elevenses snack to make you feel better at work when you’re really dreaming you’re up some mountain somewhere…

Not a bad Sunday after feeling like I would never be well again on Friday. I would highly recommend yoga to any climbers out there wondering why they’re not progressing – with all the strength in the world, sometimes what you really need is the ability to put your foot by your ear.