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I wrote my first complaint letter in a long while, possibly ever, a few weeks ago. OK, it wasn’t a letter, it was an email, but same difference. Anyone who knows me will know how out of character this is – I’ve got to be pretty damn angry to take the time to channel my fit of rage through a laborious internet feedback form. But this was serious, near-blind, blood-thumping anger. The kind that you can’t pass over.

The source? An innocent pack of Always pads.

Here’s a warning to anyone squeamish about periods – look away now – though having said that if you do have an issue then you should get over it 🙂

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This isn’t a new video, but I watched it for the first time today despite having heard about the book it’s based on (Religion for Atheists, 2011) when it first came out.

Alain proposes that, rather than dispose of religion altogether, atheists should put aside the doctrine but keep the ritualistic, social and moral elements that make religion such a comforting and helpful tool for so many people.

He argues that we should bring back the sermon as much more effective model of communication than the dry lecture, and that we can use ritual, art and social spaces to encourage reflection on the big truths or virtues of life – love, generosity, compassion, for example. For me Alain’s talk makes a lot of sense on so many levels. He asks us not to reject thousands of years worth of social innovation simply because we don’t believe in the ideas that are being conveyed by it anymore, but to keep the infrastructure and instead infuse it with what makes most sense to us now. As he says, there is no reason why the mystery and wonderment of modern science can’t provide the same sensation as that of a “spiritual” experience, which helps us put our own lives and problems into perspective.

I would love to hear other people’s responses – are you religious? What do you think about his ideas? If you’re an atheist, do his ideas reflect your feelings… are you an atheist 2.0? If there was one positive quality in religion that you’d like to keep what would it be, and how would you use it?

I’ve just found out that 20th March is International Happiness Day. It seems like there’s an international day for pretty much everything now (the 20th March is also shared by “Snowman Burning Day” in the USA and Switzerland), but there is something rather nice about the first day of spring, the spring solstice and international happiness all coming together on the same day. It feels appropriate that as we welcome in the Persian new year (Nowrooz) we also celebrate happiness, and encourage it in our lives.

But what is “happiness”? It’s something we all want, but it’s not always clear how we get there. Here are some thoughts…

While the coming of the 13th Baktun of the Mayan calendar failed to bring about the end of the world on the winter solstice of 2012, other voices came forward to suggest that it was not an absolute ending that the ancients predicted, but the beginning of a new era. In particular, the Mayans of present-day Guatamala believe that this new era will be one in which big social and environmental issues will find resolution.

While I’m not one to jump to superstitious conclusions, it does seem that with the advent of the global financial crisis, enduring poverty worldwide and the rise of climate change as a pressing issue in our social consciousness, more people are questioning the values we live by and seeking to improve them.

At the very heart of this process of enquiry is our understanding of happiness, and the means by which we try to achieve it. A recent documentary, The Happy Movie, is a fascinating insight into the conditions in which happiness thrives in cultures across the world. One of it’s most poignant conclusions (taken from recent cross-cultural studies into happiness) is that a middle class American person has the same level of average happiness as a rickshaw driver in India, working 16 hours a day and living in a tiny shack with a large family and only basic possessions. In one fell swoop this documentary, and other similar films and writings, undermine the line our modern economy has been built on – that happiness and prosperity are won as a result of accumulating more, whether it be wealth, sexual appeal or Facebook friends. Instead, they present a version of happiness which is based on a basic level of financial sustainability and deep social connections.

It’s no secret that mental illness, particularly depression, is on the up in time-stressed Western societies as communities become fragmented and families get smaller and dispersed across the world. Think tanks like the new economics foundation (nef) have advised on the inevitability of shorter working weeks to encourage more time outside of the office participating in community-focused activity, and also wider distribution of wealth. What that means in practical terms, very few companies have figured out yet, but thought leadership like this is like a seed freshly planted – it takes time for them to develop root. But it seems like more and more people are in on the game of re-imagining how we might organise our social and economic systems to encourage more people-focused, rather than wealth-focused, priorities. Bhutan’s decision to adopt GDH (Gross Domestic Happiness) over GDP as their primary measure of national prosperity is one macro example of how these ideas are manifesting.

The key seems to be that in happier societies, people come first. Social relationships are valued over financial wealth and material possessions. People are content with owning less because their lives are enriched by strong, cross-generational emotional bonds, and collaborative social activities. Both the ancient mystical traditions and science tell us that compassionate and empathetic activities don’t just help other people, but also make us happier and healthier.

As Rumi says: “When we practice loving kindness and compassion we are the first ones to profit.” There have been several campaigns and initiatives I’ve come across in recent years which have tried to galvanise more compassionate action, from Karen Armstrong’s Charter for Compassion to the (perhaps more gimicky) Free Hugs campaign. And of course there are all of the individuals, organisations, carers, spiritual movements and religiously driven initiatives that work on local, national and international levels to bring happiness into people’s lives.

These are great and necessary, but at the end of the day, the only thing that can make us truly happy is ourselves – we have to work at it and, as the Dalai Lama says, “Happiness is not something ready made. It comes from your own actions.” We can’t buy it off the shelves, or receive it from a friend. It’s something we cultivate; it’s a state of mind. Abraham Lincoln once said that “People are just as happy as they make up their minds to be.” And I think it’s true. Happiness almost always seems to walk hand in hand with contentment; be happy with what you have and you will always be rich. Seek riches and you will never have enough.

So, I guess my new years resolution is to value more what I already have, and try to find happiness through positive action. Happy Nowrooz to all my Persian-speaking friends and family… and make the new year/spring solstice bring good health, new adventures and happiness to you all!

I would ordinarily in this first paragraph be making some excuse for why it’s been so long since I posted anything on here, or remarking on how fast time flies, but I think I should probably just get over it and get on with the writing. I won’t make any promises about writing more often – I think it’s about time actions spoke louder than words.

So I just finished watching Fair Game, the 2011 film that depicted the true story of Valerie Plames, the CIA undercover operative whose cover was blown by her own government after her husband, Joe Wilson, accused the Bush administration of lying about WMDs in Iraq. I felt compelled to share Wilson’s great speech on democracy towards the end of film, which reminds us of our duties as citizens, subjects or whatever we are within a democratic state, to play an active role in our democracy – to hold those who claim authority over us to account in order to maintain a fair and uncorrupt system.

I think too often a democracy is assumed to be a healthy and self-sustaining system, that the fact that it is called “a democracy” is enough to ensure that it remains truly so. But what I feel around me is a distinct sense of mistrust and lack of control over our societal trajectory – it’s nothing new to say that our society is by comparison a politically apathetic one. Perhaps, because we’ve been allowed for too long to feel that the ways things are is stable and not in need of our time and effort to improve, and meanwhile the system has become too market driven to be easily affected by the will of its people, disempowering us further.

Listening to Wilson’s (Sean Penn’s) short speech reminded me in a nutshell about all the great reasons why it’s important to stay engaged, and not get swept up in media storms, which portray a politics more akin to Big Brother than a serious endeavour to responsibly govern our country/city/town/constituency. It reminds me most importantly why it’s worth risking the consequences to speak out for truth, and that it’s ok to believe that another way of being is possible.

 

Today I am 24 years old. I will never be 23 again, ever. I will never be the age I am while writing this, ever. I am already older than when this entry began. That’s a thought I’ve tended not to preoccupy myself with, but as I inch toward completing a quarter of a century, it seems that the value of time becomes increasingly more important, especially as it seems to be speeding up as well!

I will never be as old as I was this morning when I wore my favourite tights – the ones with the most colourful pattern of flowers you’ll ever see – and stepped out into the crisp morning, enjoying the sun on my face and the breeze through my hair as I took a walk through Shepherds Bush and Notting Hill to my morning meeting.

As I walked through Shepherds Bush Green a man walking towards me turned his head away very suddenly and only returned to normal as he passed my line of sight. A strange occurrence; as I could see there was nothing in particular that would have distracted him so suddenly and for such a prolonged time. Then it struck me that perhaps his ridiculous head movement was simply to avoid meeting my eye, which made me sad. Isn’t it very sad that this man was afraid of meeting my eye? What’s the worst that could happen? A smile?

Thus the first of my birthday vows was born: this year I will endeavour to meet everyone’s eye, to smile and stare life full on in the face, to make sure I don’t miss a single connection. I will try never to avoid someone’s gaze unless there’s good reason for it (i.e. they’ve been stalking me for several blocks and don’t need any more encouragement), and especially not if it comes from a lack of confidence in myself or a feeling of pity or guilt towards the other person.

After another 20 minutes of the London tube and slow meandering through the sunny streets of Notting Hill Gate, I breakfasted at Charlie’s Cafe with a friend, Rima, and enjoyed a perfectly cooked breakfast butty of bacon, cumberland sausage and egg with an earl grey tea – perfect. We sat by the window looking out onto the most beautiful pink flowers in bloom in the cute little courtyard outside the cafe, and this is when the second birthday vow was born – to start learning the names of plants and flowers. It’s such a shame not to know because it’s rather bland to have to reduce specific species to their colour. Nevertheless, the pink flowers and the wonderfully simple ambience of the place convinced me that it wouldn’t be long before I returned. The staff were particularly friendly and sang me ‘happy birthday’ as we exited, having overheard Rima wishing me many happy returns upon arrival.

I then walked through Portobello and took the tube to work for a brief visit before heading to lunch at another wonderful discovery, St Clements Cafe, with my dear friend, Pets. St Clements is on Middle Temple Lane and is a scrumptious place which looks out onto a pristine lawn which, as Pets mentioned, would be the kind to play croquet on! Customers at St Clements can get picnic blankets from the bar and take lunch outside when the sun shines, so we’ve promised ourselves to go back and do just that. We had a terrific roast chicken and couscous main and shared a brownie and pistachio meringue, topped off with a lovely glass of wine. Divine!

From Temple I made my way home to Hammersmith, reading and dozing on the train. I’ve almost come to the end of a truly wonderful book, Any Human Heart, by William Boyd. It’s a fictional diary of Logan Mountstuart whose life spanned the 20th Century and was, as the blurb says, a ‘life lived to the full’. An Oxford contemporary with the likes of Evelyn Waugh and Virginia Woolf; a published writer and new york art dealer in the 70’s; a spy in the second world war and a newspaper-seller in his old age for an underground cell fighting fascism ‘in all it’s forms’, Mountstuart’s life is a testament to living spontaneously by the heart’s desires. It’s profoundly inspired me.

After an afternoon of music rehearsals for the Davoud Azad concert I’m taking part in, my parents joined me on a short stroll round the corner to dine at the third and final culinary adventure of the day, Chez Kristof. Having read rave reviews about the place (and some not-so-rave ones too), I thought it time to see for myself what this neighbourhood joint had to offer. Though I wasn’t overwhelmed, I was pleased with the food and had a lovely time. My pimms aperitif was satisfying and the duck confit I had was deliciously tender, literally peeling off the bone. The lighting was a little too dim for my liking and the music was a little erratic, but that added a certain charm to the evening in it’s own special way.

So it seems like this birthday has been one of trying out new eateries, and so I shall make the third birthday vow to continue the explorations; I’ll continue to seek out the perfect hang out and share my favourites with my favourite people.

The fourth is, as always, to write more. To write something every day (and to do lists don’t count), even if it’s 100 words before I collapse into bed.

And so, bonjour 24! Here I go…

After watching Avatar a couple of weeks ago I have been living in my imagination’s recreation of my life as it would be on Pandora. A return to life reunited with nature, an understanding and connection with all living things, the training of becoming a warrior and making the most of our body’s capabilities, and of course the flying with dragons part – that was just unbelievably cool.

There’s something so timelessly attractive about the stereotype of the enlightened “native”. The concept of knowledge being based entirely on necessity, and utter the immaterialism of rural life seem to erase everything that we negatively associate with the modern world of capitalism which, for want of a better word, SUCKS. On Pandora there is a sensitivity, an attention to detail, a respect of all things as they are and a brutal honesty which, sometimes, I feel is lost from our urban metropolises.

I remember one wise man who asked, in response to a friend musing on the simple, pure spirituality (in the human sense, not necessarily the religious one) of rural dwellers, what would happen if you took a villager and placed them in a city? Chances are that after a few weeks they would be no different from any urban dweller with their lack of attention to the environment, their surroundings and other people. What is it that the city does to us that grates away our humanity in such a subtle, but present way?

I don’t want to suggest that everyone who lives in an urban environment is an asshole, but I think many would agree that life in the metropolis is a hectic game of travelling as fast as possible from A to B, working hard to afford a decent lifestyle, and forces one to develop a resilience to human suffering which can allow us to walk past the several homeless people we inevitably see suffering each day as we rush about our business, and not be devastated by the thought of it. The fact is we don’t have time to. Why? Because in capitalist societies the metropolis is the centre of individual opportunity, achievement and success. As long as capitalism is our economic paradigm, we will continue to flock to the cities to pursue personal gain and development, at the expense of our energy to care about much else and remembering the core human values that our native predecessors survived on: collectivism.

My question is this: as the percentage of the world population living in urban areas begins to overtake rural populations, how will this massive migration affect human nature? Will we evolve our urban lifestyles to accommodate a sense of societal gain as priority over individual gain? Will we ever be able to return to a place where our leaders make decisions based on what is best for the whole community, rather than a select core group of elites? Even in a period of financial recession, which has threatened the current economic model world-wide, can we wake up and smell the cheese?

I doubt it. Watching Tony Blaire at the Chilcot enquiry gave me no hope of our paradigm of existence ever changing. A couple of nights age I went to see a talk called “Neuroesthetics Conversations: Improvisation, Creativity and Music” which featured the renowned jazz saxophonist, Gilad Atzmon, in conversation with neuroscientists Jessica Grahn and Stefan Koelsch at UCL. Gilad spoke about how good jazz musicians play without thinking, experiencing the whole essence of the music rather than being concerned about the details of their technique or technicalities of the piece they’re playing, which would put a damper on the quality of the music produced. He then compared this to the Chilcot equiry, saying that the enquiry was entirely tied up in the legalities of the case rather than considering the bigger picture of the ethics of what happened. It seems that this is becoming a more common trait in political and societal behaviour; getting caught up in the legalities and details of why and how atrocities happen, trying to unpick step by step what’s right or not by law, rather than making it simple and discussing the morality of our actions and their repercussions on our quality of life.

The following video perfectly expresses the notion of how possession, which is ultimately what capitalism comes down to, can ruin us as human empathisers:

I know that most people I interact with are good human beings, or at least we try to be. We care about others, we donate to charity, we buy the Big Issue… but it’s our political systems that are ultimately failing us. How can we change them? We can vote, yes, but a scratch performance based on verbatim interviews with people in the UK on their voting habits revealed to me that most people don’t feel as though their voices, or the votes, count in really making a marked difference in the governance of this country.

So what can we do to prevent our cities becoming the evaporating ground for empathy and the breeding ground for the need to possess? How can we stop the movement of human nature reaching the stage of the corporates in Avatar on their merciless search of ‘unobtanium’ (the only truly cringe-worthy part of the film – what an obvious and utterly uncreative metaphor)?

Maybe the answer is to paint ourselves blue and flash-mob Canary Wharf and the Houses of Parliament, showering petals on confused politicians and bankers, before releasing our army of fire breathing beasts and stray pigeons, and arming our bows with arrows to show them whose boss…

Married Life

Having tied the knot just over three weeks ago, it seems the opening line of conversation for almost everyone with me is… ‘So, how’s married life?’ 

It seems like a reasonable enough question, except that I always go blank when the expectant face looks at me with a smile waiting for me to overwhelm them with emotion. The smiles vary based on the marital status of the person in question: single friends are either genuinely curious or slightly cynical; married people have a knowing edge to their smile, as if to say ‘Yeah, that’s right, I know what you’re going through and it (a) bliss, or (b) a let down’; and divorced people have this sly smile, the ‘just you wait a couple of moths before reality sets in’ smile. In each case I can’t help but think ‘what do they want to hear?’ and then a stream of thoughts about what this person might have experiences to influence their intonation of the question runs through my mind, instead of the answer that should come from me! That thought will stay with me for a long time I’m sure. 

Being the (sometimes) naively romantic person that I am, I imagined that after marriage we’d step into a new world together, one full of light where anything we’d ever disliked about each other, and any niggling annoyances we held on to would evaporate in a golden cloud of fairy dust. Marriage was this marshmallow cocoon of love where everything we did was tinted with ecstasy and passion. In my marriage world dirty dishes and bills didn’t feature. Round-the-world tickets, cosy nights by the fire and moonlit walks took their place. 

In short, I have to wonder that perhaps I was high the three months while I was planning my wedding. Either that or I’m a hopeless optimist 🙂

But the euphoria of that dream filled my being at our wedding. It was absolutely the happiest day of my life. Surrounded by many of my family, friends and faces that I have grown with was exciting enough, and then to think that they were all here to celebrate our union (oh, and the food, cake and party time) was so heart warming that I spent the day strung between tears and elated dancing.

After the wedding day, however, married life is much the same as life was before. We still share the same apartment and all of the things we love and hate about it. We still argue over the washing up and hoovering, and still choose to watch Live at the Apollo over a river-side walk along the Thames. We’re still wondering where next month’s rent is going to come from and those round-the-world tickets are still hiding under the pile of tea-and-pizza-stained bills that we tend to conveniently forget about. We still have the same history and relationship past with all its highs and lows. We still have the same families and friends. The same jobs and responsibilities. 

But there is a magic to all of it that wasn’t there before. There is an invisible thread connecting our hearts and minds together. Now everything we do, we do for two. We’re no longer two individuals living out their individual lives in the same space, we are a unit that works together to create a life that both of us aspire to. That’s a daunting and beautiful thing all at once, and it’s that mixture of commitment and knowing why you decided to commit to it that brings butterflies every time we look at each other’s rings and say ‘My God! We’re married!’ 

It’s also what has given our tolerance levels a boost 🙂

So, married life is wonderful and wonderfully mundane. We are still who we are, living our lives much the same as before. But beneath it all is a current of togetherness and an infinite investment of love that carried us through each day. 

In three years everything could be different, but then we shouldn’t forget that life is sweetest when lived in and for the moment…

Anyone care to share their experience of newly married life?