Why I’m embracing being a student of life

I’m writing this straight after doing a really good life writing class (over Zoom, of course). For those who don’t know I am now doing these classes regularly, which is a big thing for me because I have always wanted to do it but thought I would be laughed away for not actually knowing how to draw. Until I finally braved it, I didn’t fully realise that the beauty of life drawing is you learn by doing.

Taking part has really been one of the most empowering things I’ve done this lockdown. It is definitely on a par with getting confident on my bike in the first lockdown. There's just something so powerful about being a total beginner and really leaning into that and not trying to be perfect. I'm just giving it a go for the sake of it giving it a go rather than with the aim to get good. Having said that, the beauty of drawing is you can really see how far you have come because you can look back at your pictures from the first session and see how clumsy they are.

Even so, as with anything you are learning, there are set backs and classes I do where what’s in front of me and what’s in my head just will not translate to the page. It can be frustrating and disheartening but because I’m embracing the beginner mindset and embracing letting go of perfection, I am not letting that put me off. It does also help that the organisers (Shout out to the amazing Brixton Life Drawing!!) are so supportive and encouraging. Plus my friends and I have a dedicated Whatsapp group (which is actually made up of friends of friends and even people’s mums) where we share our work and cheer each other on.

Recently I have been feeling frustrated with myself for still not 100% feeling settled into my new life. I am struggling to keep on top of everything I need to do to make my home - and myself - a happy. That includes things like keeping it clean and tidy to making the time and space for things like yoga and bubble baths. The latter can be hard to do when you have the urge to fill the house with noise to counteract the silence. I don’t know if any other live-aloners relate? It could just be the fact I find it hard to relax at the best of times! In my head when I fantasised about having my own place, it was a haven from the outside world that I would spend my days relaxing and being incredibly zen in. Obviously in my head I thought I was going to be living in an actual spa when the reality is far from that! On top of the practicalities of dealing with water outages, boiler problems, rats in the garden and slugs in the kitchen on my own, my outgoings have increased with all the new bills I’m paying (like council tax and TV licence which I never paid myself before because I always had inclusive rent).

Aside from the elephant in the room (hello global pandemic), I realised that actually I have only been living on my own in a proper house for six months. I am still a beginner at this! I have had periods before where I've lived alone or partially alone. I lived alone in South Korea for a year but I had a boyfriend in that period so he was always there and plus it was the world’s smallest studio flat and my work were paying the rent so it didn’t feel like such a responsibility on my shoulders to pay for and maintain. Twice, I've lived in “granny flat” type situations and then I lived alone for three months in Berlin. During that period, I had a really bad bout of depression which kind of tainted the whole idea of solitude for me.

That fact is I am still all fairly new to this experience. And I am without the moral support of having either a boyfriend or an overbearing but loveable Greek landlord always in my business (and always willing to have a cuppa and a chat and to try and force feed me cake). I am laughing as I type this because I moaned so much about her to my friends when I lived there but of course now I really miss her and that feeling of knowing there was someone downstairs. Isn’t that always the way? You don’t realise what you have got until it’s gone. I was also thinking about the positives of having a flatmate this week when a friend shared a picture of the bowl of treats her flatmate had put together for her which reminded me of one of my flatmates who would often bring something nice back from the shop or text and ask if I wanted her to put some extra fish fingers in the oven for me. I felt a pang of envy seeing that photo. This doesn’t mean I am about to go find a flatmate because I know I am better and less stressed without living with one. It’s OK to know you want one thing and be happy with your choice and then still sometimes miss or mourn the other thing you didn’t choose.

What I am trying to say is that I think I need to let myself off the hook and stop beating myself up for not feeling as settled and on top of everything as I would like. And as mentioned above we are still in the middle of a pandemic – and things in the UK are particularly shit still – and sometimes I have to remind myself that this isn’t normal and so it’s no wonder I am feeling out of sorts. Just this morning, I had a friend from London ask how it's going to be back in Shrewsbury and I was like, ‘Well, I do I love my house, which is good because I spend so much time in it, but it's kind of hard to answer that question when I haven’t been able to do much here or establish a routine.’

A post shared by Brixton Life Drawing (@brixtonlifedrawing)

It’s kind of a weird experience to move back to your hometown. Everything is familiar and you know people and yet you still feel new and like you have to settle yourself in. This is also my first time living here in adulthood when I’m not just temporarily staying with my parents (I’ve had several periods back here in between work abroad stints). I haven't worked out everything I need to do to make myself happy living here – and a lot of things are just totally off the cards because we are simply not allowed to do a lot while still in lockdown. Essentially I sit at home working on my own every day (apart from my daily walk) and then sit on my own every evening. It will get better when I can socialise properly with old friends and join yoga classes and book clubs to make new friends and have a weekly routine.

I have also recently become totally freelance without a part-time gig to anchor me so I also am feeling a beginner in this respect too. My last job filled a lot of my evenings and so when I left I was suddenly faced with lots of empty time. I went through a period of joining loads of courses and classes to fill my evenings up but that felt too exhausting so I eased up and went through a stage of just watching TV. Even though I do love TV I sometimes feel antsy doing it for long periods. I just find it difficult to sit in the same spot on the sofa and concentrate for long hours on end (still waiting on that ADHD diagnosis FYI!).

I know from the emails and messages I get that some readers have also moved during the pandemic or changed jobs. Some are newly single or have been single a while and have recently decided to dip their toe back in the dating world. Some have messaged me about being newly single parents, losing loved ones, leaving abusive husbands and being made redundant but people are also experiencing smaller changes too. Any kind of change can make you feel a bit weird and maybe even anxious at first, especially if you are the kind of person who likes to have everything figured out. I guess my point is that, as with my life drawing experiment, it is OK not to feel like you know what you are doing all of the time and it’s OK for life to sometimes feel like you have taken two steps forward and one step back. It’s OK not to be an expert. It’s OK to admit you need to learn or grow more. And if you lean into it, it can actually be really empowering to let go of expectations and wanting to be perfect and really embrace being a beginner.

This reminds me of something the writer Elizabeth Gilbert posted on social media ages ago. She wrote about writing the word ‘Student’ on her hand to remind herself that she is a student of life, not an expert. You can see it there in this picture if you squint:

A post shared by Elizabeth Gilbert (@elizabeth_gilbert_writer)

For more context, here’s part of the Facebook post she did about why she writes it on her hand.

Dear Ones –

My friend Pastor Rob Bell once gave me this beautiful piece of advice, which I will now pass along to you.

He said that whenever he starts to beat himself up for not being good enough at life, he simply writes this word on his hand — STUDENT — and reminds himself to look at that word several times a day, and to meditate upon it.

He said that this one word — STUDENT — is his best defence against self-abuse, shame, perfectionism, failure, and regret.

Whenever he fails himself, or falls short of his ideals, or doesn’t know how to handle a complicated situation, he just looks at that word — STUDENT — and then gently allows for self-forgiveness.

Because we are all just students, after all.

We are all new at this.

We’ve never been here before — in these bodies, in this lifetime, in this world. We don’t always know how to handle things in the best way. We don’t want to suffer, but we don’t always know how to avoid it. We long for closeness and peace in our relationships, but we haven’t necessarily learned yet how to find it. We want meaning, but lose sight of it. We want revelation and transcendence, but don’t always know how to reach for it.

But we are learning.

We are always in the process of learning — and it’s not fair to expect that people who are in the process of learning should automatically always get things right.

Nobody always gets things right during the learning process.

That’s OK.

We are merely students, after all, and students — by definition — are not masters. We will be students for as long as we live. We wake up every day and take a deep breath and back go to school in the world all over again. That’s what dedicated students do.

Every. Single. Day. (you can read the full post via the FB link above)

I just think that that's such a powerful way of looking at life and I find it really comforting. Life is all a bit trial and error. I hope that some of you will find this comforting too.

It’s also a good way of looking at the pandemic. We might feel like old hats to it now we are nearly a year in but really we are not. For example, I had 35 years experience of life before the pandemic and not yet a year of experience of life in one. When you think of it like that, we are just babies at this!

Anyway, have a good week!

lots of love,

Nicola

Twitter: @Nicola_Slawson | Instagram: @Nicola_Slawson

What caught my attention

How I Learned To Move Forward After My Ex Gave Me HIV

This is quite a shocking article as the writer’s ex was found guilty of recklessly transmitting HIV and sent to prison. In the article she talks about the impact on her life (and love life) and the stigma she faces. This is important: “I think a lot of women out there think HIV will never be a problem for them. Before I was diagnosed, I had no concept that HIV could ever touch my life. But you should never presume, and if you have any kind of doubt, go and get tested. Because I found out really quickly, I was able to get treatment before it made me ill. I was able to take control of the situation and keep on living my life the way I want to.”

Young adults hardest hit by loneliness during pandemic

Quite often when loneliness is discussed in the news, the focus is on the elderly. It’s obviously important to provide solutions for that demographic of people but it’s a misconception that only the oldest generation can experience social isolation as Harvard have discovered. This hit a nerve: “The new report also points to the way such feelings can lead to a downward spiral. Many young people who reported serious loneliness also said they felt as if no one “genuinely cared” about them. The survey also suggests that lonely people often feel they’re reaching out or listening to other people more than other people are reaching out or listening to them.”

Single women worry pandemic reducing chance to have children – experts

Sorry that none of these articles are particularly cheerful this week. I’ll make it my mission next week to look for more positive stuff! Nevertheless, this is still important and there isn’t enough focus on this in my opinion. This quote stood out to me: “Time is important. If people are looking to start a family then every month counts, every year counts. And when there is no prospect, because we have no idea how long it will be until society returns to normal, that’s why there has been a lot of people [joining dating services].”

The lowdown

  • Above I mentioned living in Berlin. What happened while I was there is the topic of an episode I did with Katherine May for her podcast Wintering. It’s coming out soon so I will share the link but in the meantime, check out the other episodes.

  • I was mentioned in an episode of the Storyteller podcast and even without that mention, it’s one I think you should all listen to. The guest is Tiffany Philippou who I mention a lot in this newsletter (sorry not sorry). She is talking about her life and work but also opens up about the subject of her upcoming memoir. Do listen to this episode, it’s great and I cried through it (but in a good way!)

  • Luckily for me, I didn’t lose all my subscribers after writing a whole newsletter about Grey’s Anatomy! In fact some of you really loved it and sent me nice messages so thank you! And for those who couldn’t care less about Meredith and Christina, thanks for sticking with me!

About me

For those who don’t know, I’m Nicola Slawson, a freelance journalist who lives in Shropshire, UK. If you would like to support what I do, please consider subscribing to be a paid supporter of The Single Supplement. If you would prefer to make a one-off contribution, you can also buy me a coffee, here’s the link to my Ko-Fi page. Follow me on Instagram and Twitter.

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