Four AM Thoughts: On Self-Acceptance and a Two-Year Trajectory

Sometimes I still have a hard time sleeping. Sometimes. As I sit writing this at 4AM on a Monday morning I know that three floors below me in our unusually hot kitchen, there’s a cupboard containing five different boxes of chamomile tea. Five kinds, which is probably overdoing it. They don’t really help, but they’re better than the whiskey ever was. When I find myself staring at the ceiling at in the early hours, knowing that sleep shall evade me for a little longer, if not for the entire night, my mind drifts. These days, it normally drifts to good places – to friends, or to memories, or towards lines that might make for decent poetry if turning the light on to save them wouldn’t set sleep back further as a possibility. My mind used to drift to some pretty crappy places; I find that it doesn’t anymore.

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1,151 Words on Happiness

Yesterday morning I graduated from University. It took me a year longer than it probably should have, but I got there in the end. It was a highlight in a long weekend of highlights, catching up with old friends and revisiting old haunts. Prior to the receiving my certificate, I sat through a ceremony introduced by the vice chancellor of my (old) University, who meditated for a minute on the idea of happiness, wishing it upon us moving forwards. In reference to a Buddhist monk declared the happiest man in the world, she used him as a model.

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Although not new information, and offering little In the way of motivation, she touched upon a topic I’ve been toying with for a few months now, and maybe on a less conscious level, years. Across three days I found myself telling people over and over again that, yes, I’m happy. Happy to see them, happy to have been back in Chichester, happy in general, and every single time I found myself meaning it with utmost sincerity. I’m not the happiest man in the world by any means, but I think I’m up there. There have been times in the past that I’ve told people I was happy and not meant it. Sometimes to avoid further questions, and sometimes to make myself feel better. I was often conscious of admitting to unhappiness as if doing so might make me weaker in some way, or lower me in their estimations. I didn’t want to talk about it so didn’t. These days I still don’t, but these days I’m not unhappy. I haven’t been unhappy for a long time, and part of overcoming that has been accepting that it was okay to be unhappy while acknowledging the reasons why. In doing so the impetus was on me to do something about it. I can be happy just as long as I let myself be.

I don’t have a great reason for unhappiness. I was unhappy because I thought too much about certain things and constantly saw myself from the perspective of others. I learned to accept my imperfections and try to work on them. I stopped looking in mirrors because they bummed me out. I accepted that I’ll probably never be a famous writer, but I can read and write okay. Unhappiness was discontent, and happiness was contentment. These days I am mostly content.

I think that the VP was right when she used someone else’s words to vocalize the notion of happiness. I think that those words were right, particularly given their rooting in Buddhist thinking. I think happiness is a purely internal product. It’s not something we receive from other people but find in our response to other people. I don’t count on other people to make me happy, I try to do it for myself. I wondered for a while if the only way to be happy was to aspire to what everyone else was aspiring to – a good job, a wife, a family, a house, a wide circle of friends but a small circle of tight friends. This year I think that I don’t need any of those things to be happy. They are avenues to happiness, and sometimes they are avenues to unhappiness. I’m happy being lonely, or alone, and I would like to think I’d be happy in a mediocre job. My American Dream in recent years has taken on a different dimension – happiness found in everyday living, contentment, understanding. Understanding of self, understanding of the world I live in, and understanding of my place within it. As such, I have plenty to be happy about, and very little to be unhappy about. I consider myself exceptionally lucky, all of the time.23244492_10155068314086547_4132117244376484708_n

Happiness isn’t a set mindset or a set of goals waiting for completion. It’s a minute by minute consideration of gratitude. For a long time, I was happy just so long as I could swim eighty lengths in under an hour. Happiness wasn’t always clean strokes and deep breaths, but it was easier to focus on one thing in order to keep on moving/swimming. I’ve always been better at writing sad poems than happy poems, prefer songs about death to songs about love. I find myself appreciating them more because of their confessional nature. I don’t listen to many sad songs anymore. The last time I wrote an openly confessional blog post it was about what I always figured would be the happiest night of my life. Looking back now, I don’t know if it was because there’ve been plenty of equally happy nights in the time since. That night stands apart because it was the first step towards the mindset I occupy today. I try to make everything I do a matter of happiness.

So I have plenty of reason to be happy, and everything is good. That being said, I can’t offer a definitive view of happiness. Happiness is seeing friends for the rest time in what seems a long time but hasn’t been real. If it’s seemed a long time, it’s because you’ve realised you’ve missed them dearly, which contributed to the extremes happiness found in seeing them again. Happiness right now is a Bon Iver song and intermittent glances at passing fields on a train back to Norwich. Happiness is finding decent vegan food in a restaurant.  Happiness sometimes takes the shape of forty-five beers in three days and eight hours of sleep in between. Happiness is students enjoying your lessons.

Lately, I’ve found that my level of happiness general corresponds to how busy I am. If I’m on the go, I don’t have time to dwell on negative thought processes, and so happiness becomes interlinked with constant distraction. Sometimes I find myself wishing it didn’t have to be that way, but such is my mind. Give it enough time to stagnate and it’ll do so in a dark corner, and the shadows seem to lengthen with exceptional speed. It’s a flaw in my character, but I’ve grown to live with it over the last few years. Now I try to do things that make me happy, and I look forward to things that might.

Mostly, more than ever, I just want to be happy. Now, more so than ever before, happiness seems ultimately achievable as a long-term possibility. For the last five years, happiness has been incremental. The distance between intermittent positivity has gradually lessened, and it’s currently at a minimum. I don’t make time for sadness anymore. I used to make too much time for it.

  • I want to have a daughter, one day. I think that would make me happy.
  • I’d like to hit one hundred and fifty lengths in ninety minutes without having to stop for a rest. That would make me happy.
  • I want to move to China and teach there. That would make me happy.

Honestly Vegan – Part Four (Expectations Versus Reality)

There are plenty of ways to prepare yourself for a switch to a vegan lifestyle. There are many a blog far superior to this one for a start, as well as plenty of TV documentaries, books, newspaper articles and YouTube videos etc. Friends and perhaps family may also have some recommendations and guidelines. If it’s a change you’re interested in there’s plenty of places where help can be found and utilized. When I made the lifestyle change I didn’t really consult anyone or anything aside from friends who’d made the change before me, and were therefore far more knowledgeable about the subject. I trusted their advice regarding what to do and what not to do, so took their words on board and added them to my own ideas about going vegan. As such, my expectations were shaped by my own prior experiences of vegetarianism and the helpful insights of my social circle. Looking back, I’m not entirely sure what I expected to come of the change. I know that I wasn’t naive enough to assume that I’m wake up after that first tofu stir-fry and feel like a new man (I didn’t). I guess that what I expected was a gradual change and, in the end, that was what I got.

As with most major lifestyle changes, it took some time to really notice the benefits, and perhaps that’s because the benefits weren’t, and still aren’t, that great. Maybe I was actually healthier than I thought I was beforehand because I didn’t notice much at first in line with my health. It took me a couple of months to realize that I was sleeping better, that I was less lethargic, and that my stomach wasn’t bothering me as much as it used to. Even when vegetarian my stomach used to give me a hard time. After most meals, I’d feel queasy and bloated without really knowing why, but this problem cleared itself up the further I progressed with the vegan lifestyle. I never really thought to think about why that was. Because my stomach was better I went to bed feeling more positive and, as such, I had a better time falling asleep and staying asleep. Sleeping wasn’t always that easy, and from time to time it’s still something I struggle with now. I’ve gotten into the habit of taking sleep aids to help, and for the most part, they do the job. I had expected it to be harder to shop for food, and I’d heard horror stories about people who dropped weight like they were shaving it off themselves with kitchen knives. I’d heard about people collapsing from vitamin deficiencies and the like. I didn’t expect any of these things to happen to me, and they didn’t. I probably actually put on weight in the early days just because I was enjoying finding so many unhealthy vegan sweets and chocolate brands. I expected to stay reasonably healthy, and I did. I’d hoped that my skin would get better, and it did. What I’d hoped for happened, and what I was afraid of didn’t.

Vegan ExpectationsPrior to going vegan, my mental health was considerably shaky, and I had issues every now and then with basic daily life, overanalyzing and letting negative thought processes affect my manner. At the time I chalked it up to a number of things, and my diet was very far down the list of possible causes. Even so, I hoped that in making the switch to veganism I’d be able to feel more positive about at least one aspect of my life – an assumption that did turn out to be true. It wasn’t necessarily a sense of righteousness in what I was doing, but I felt better about myself almost immediately, and a lot of the self-doubt and self-hatred ebbed away gradually over time. I put that down to other factors as well, but I think that my mentality and outlook was affected by the change – positively. I’m not saying that a plant-based diet is an offset to social anxiety or anything like that. It was like having a nice new pair of shoes that made me feel better on the outside and therefore impacted my internal workings. It was good to feel that way about something.

At the time, I expected lots of questions and, in reality, I got a lot of questions. I didn’t always have the answers, but I tried to. It was hard to put myself at the center of something like that, to take a step back and really contemplate something in order to give a satisfactory answer. Truth was, when I made the change, I still wasn’t entirely sure why I had myself, so to be drilled with questions about it was difficult. I did my best, and when questions come up now I tend to have better answers. Growing into the lifestyle and learning to appreciate the reasons helped with that. The alteration to small social situations like meals out and such was also something I found a little hard to deal with originally, and it took me a while to be okay with ‘making’ people change their plans regarding where we ate and what we did. I’d expected to feel guiltier about it than I actually did.

I guess that what I didn’t expect was the way in which the vegan label quickly seemed to become one of my defining characteristics to others. Throughout my life, I’ve been identified in many ways – “tall and ginger,” “music aficionado,” “a guy who can hold his drink,” “the northern dude at a southern university” to name but a few. It was weird to be thought of as “Craig the vegan,” but it seemed quickly that this was now who I was. To people I’d never met I was sometimes introduced as a vegan, especially if the other person was vegan/veggie. I’m still not sure how I feel about that. Maybe it shouldn’t have surprised me that way it did. At the end of the day, I don’t mind the label, but I think it does define me somewhat, and that wasn’t really what I wanted. Still, it remains better than some labels I’ve had in the past.

Honestly Vegan – Part One (An Introduction)

I’ve been vegan for long enough to know that I’m sticking with it. I was vegetarian for a few years beforehand, and slowly adjusted to that lifestyle, before deciding I could do more than I was at the time. As much as I liked mozzarella, I came to realise that I didn’t like it enough to make it compulsory. My “going vegan” wasn’t a move influenced by friends or family, but by cold hard facts and insightful Netflix documentaries (see Food Inc. and Cowspiracy as the two most influential). It was a switch flicked in a previously unaware mind. There was a point at which I worked out that I could live without meat, and then there was a later point at which I worked out that I could live without dairy and other animal products. I don’t feel bad about the time it took me to get to that point. That’s all there was to it really. I woke up one morning, finished the last of my milk with some cereal and then went out and did my first fully vegan shop. Every food shop I’ve done since has followed suit. That’s all there was to it, an empty semi-skimmed milk container in the recycling bin and a carefully curated shopping list. I haven’t looked back.

Before going veggie/vegan I was very much the average guy – reasonably fit and physically healthy with shifting (but not precariously shifting) mental health. I got bummed out every now and then and was prone to the occasional sleepless night. I was often exceptionally happy also. Throughout education, I was a good student, kept up a decent social life, and stayed within budget from day to day. I ate three meals a day and went out often for lunch with family and friends. I made it to all of my university lectures on time, worked a part-time job, swam three-hundred lengths a week, and cooked for myself with varying levels of success. I read a lot of books and wrote a lot of things that weren’t books. I went to the gym, dated girls, and enjoyed my fair share of comfort-eating. I wrote weird blogs on the internet and thought people might like to read them. I couldn’t grow a beard.

Since going veggie/vegan I’ve been pretty much the same. I tend to use the toilet more often and take vitamins in the morning with my cereal, but that’s about it. The main change, aside from my diet, was in my levels of curiosity regarding the subject. I found/find myself increasingly intrigued by the many opinions on modern day veganism – the constant debates, pointless arguments and crappy internet memes. I can’t help but take an interest, being of the dietary demographic myself. I find that I’m interested in what other vegans are up to, and in the perspective from which meat-eaters regard their lifestyle. It continues to both amuse and sometimes disappoint me, the way a person’s diet is such a hot topic in the 21st century. The divide between those who eat meat and those who don’t is a strange one to perceive (from either side), and often it’s a divide that makes me wonder if I should address it at all.

I figure it’s time I do. So here I am, talking about my diet on the internet because I figure that everyone else is.

I’m normally quite quiet about my diet. I don’t start conversations about it, nor do I carry a list of facts in my pocket to use when someone wants to point out issues with my ideology. The vegan existence isn’t a badge I wear and flaunt, nor is it normally a banner I promote, and most of the time talking about it only ends up boring me. I have conversations about it daily, but these conversations are often quite repetitive, and sometimes divulge into a series of questions regarding what I can and can’t eat. I tend to take enjoyment from these guessing games, but don’t normally have the reasoning to justify some of my answers. I see no reason for my diet to be neither a big deal nor a point of curiosity, but I discover that it normally is – more so in recent years with the term coming to cultural prominence. People either want to know about veganism, or ignore it completely, and it seems difficult to do either of those things very effectively. Every city you visit is prone to pro-vegan graffiti, and every social media friends list has at least one person proudly vocal about the topic. Researching the field of veganism only leads only to further questions about fields, and conflicting sources from the world of science only further confuse. I try to avoid reading articles about veganism and now find myself writing one about the very subject – if only for personal reasons.

What I want to do here, is talk about my own experiences. To provide insight, information, and perhaps satiate the curiosity many seem to have about what it means to actually be vegan. I intend to consider the way in which certain areas of my life have been influenced my diet, and why that is. I want to analyze my own position as a person on a plant-based intake. Maybe I’ll learn something in the process about who I am now. Maybe I’m not actually the same as I used to be, toilet references aside. I’d like to think that I’ll reaffirm my choice and find some confidence in my decisions through self-discussion. Maybe I’ll realize I could still be doing more. I’m not a model vegan by any means, I am flawed in many regards, and I’ll address those flaws as well. End of the day, I’m just a guy who made a change and wanted to take some time to reflect on what that change entailed.

Maybe you’d like to consider it with me.

 

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-Surely This Is. (A Tattoo Tale)

 

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I could have just bought postcards. Doing so would have saved me money, time, and a small amount of pain in small doses. I could have collected baseballs again like I did the last time I was in America, or I could have accumulated key rings, or seven-inch records from local record stores instead. Losing lottery tickets or fridge-magnets in the shape of states. Maybe I should have done some of those things as well as what I actually I ended up doing when it came to sorting out souvenirs. Instead of those things I got tattoos, one for each of the nine cities I visited when travelling up and across North America in May / June of this year. It felt like the right thing to do. Of course, buying postcards, keyrings or baseballs probably would have spared me the regular questioning of what those tattoos mean as well, each tattoo vague to those without the context. They don’t make a great deal of sense except to anybody but myself, and I like that about them. The tattoo’s I had done while travelling are better souvenirs than anything else I could’ve picked up, and none moreso than the one on my forearm.

‘-SURELY THIS IS.’ Bold and black and just above my wrist, a curious phrase with a curious story to inspire it. It’s cryptic, and it tends to be the tattoo which people ask about the most frequently. Maybe by writing this I can just refer them here in future – like buying postcards, it’d save me the time. I had it done Philadelphia, two weeks into my travels, where I was staying in an airbnb in the Fishtown area about five minutes away from the Delaware River. I checked in, dumped by stuff, and then walked down to said river, perching in a park by the pier, where families were hosting barbeques and college kids were out playing football (American Football that is). I was already thinking about the tattoo, after having work done in Washington and Atlanta. I spent a lot of time thinking about them prior to having them done, and they often revolved around music in some way. I was searching for a song to solidify something by the water, and I thought I had it worked out as I wondered into the city afterwards – accompanied by my most-played mewithoutYou record. I was in Philadelphia after all, home to the band, amongst others such as Hop Along, Modern Baseball and Little Big League. I could’ve opted for something Philly-centric, like the liberty bell, or a cheese-steak (not the best option for a veggie), or the LOVE symbol from that skate park from that one Tony Hawk game. I could have opted for a piece inspired by my favourite TV show, ‘It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia’ maybe. Hell, I could have had Danny DeVito’s face tattooed onto my left ass cheek (my parents definitely wouldn’t have approved of that one). In the end though, I decided on none of these options, after spending a long night in the booked-up Airbnb accommodation I had booked.

I think the main disadvantage – as well as the main advantage – of  travelling solo is that you spend a great deal of time going it alone. You see the sights alone, and spend long train journeys alone unless you happen to meet people on the way, or unless you happen to meet people in the places you stay in between. I met people in Philadelphia, and I had one of the most memorable nights of my life there, crammed into a tiny basement room in a house on East Girard Avenue – five-thousand miles from home. Travelling the way I was didn’t allow me a great deal of opportunity for socialising, so fixed was I on seeing the cities and taking it all in. There’d been strangers in bars who became friends for the night on hearing my accent, and there’d been the fellow travellers I’d been sat next to on long Greyhound rides between states, but nothing like the nights out I’d been accustomed to at university. I think that by the time I got to Philadelphia I wanted a night like that, so I bought a six-pack of beer and hoped that something might come of it. I think I got lucky that night, lucky in that people happened to be around, and lucky that they felt like being social also. By midnight I was drinking and chatting with a host of fellow travellers from around the globe – girls from Germany, a group of friends from Korea, and a quiet 20-something from Iran who’d been vegan since the day of his birth. There was ———, who’d come into town for a wedding from Portland, and there was ———-, who seemed content enough just to run the Rocky Steps before heading back north. There was ———, who couldn’t speak a word of English, and there was myself, sandwiched amongst their varied cultures like the happiest guy in the northern hemisphere. And I was happy, happy to be there, and happy to be with who I was with. I was happy that I’d made it that far, and grown so much in the process, and as I knocked back dollar-beer after dollar-beer I started to think that maybe another music-based tattoo wasn’t the way to go this time. Maybe it needed to be something situated around this moment, this moment of sweaty bliss in a packed Philadelphia basement. That moment of total calm and realization, where I was as content as I could hope to be in a new city with new people.

So three AM rolled around, and we turned our collective attention to the walls of the basement room, which were covered in writing of some kind, the kind of writing you expect to find scribbled along the walls of back alleys off of Main Street. Rambling, incoherent noise, lacking any meaning, and instead rejoicing in a substantially skewed vocabulary and penchant for obscure metaphors. Politically topically but not supporting any real form of politics, poetic without structure, eclectic and excruciatingly vague in purpose. I wish that I could remember half of what it said, or even select passages. I half-remember lines about vegetarian horses, about the communist party, about vanilla spinach, and about centrefold pictures. I remember little of it, so overwhelmed was I by how ridiculous it all seemed – the ramblings of a mad man. But at three AM, sense can found in even the most incomprehensible of writing, so we thought about it all, and three turned into four, and then into five, and I swilled the last sip of my Kenzinger and contemplated it. I know that the conversation took us to some strange places, theories flying about that basement room, and I know that I felt myself to be in a seminar or a lecture, reading the work of Dostoyevsky or Woolf, the words on the wall suddenly carrying layers and layers of meaning as my drunken mind tried to wrap itself around them. The whole passage, after paragraphs and paragraphs of block text, ended with two lines, standing apart from the rest of the words. Two lines: ‘-Surely this is.’ and ‘-I loved your centrefold.’ As my watch hit half-four those statements, the first in particular, suddenly seemed exquisitely profound, definitively final after an infinite amount of confusion. I latched onto those lines, mumbling them to myself as the room gradually emptied, and I thought them fitting.

We never worked out what it all meant, in the end, never settled on something tangible, nothing at all. The night had provided the most pointless of pointless conversations, in which I talked too much and listened too intently. We messaged the owners the next morning, trying to trace the origin of the writing, but they were reluctant to tell us anything, enjoying the mystery of it all. We never found out what it meant, which means then that I have words on my skin I still don’t understand. It doesn’t matter that I don’t though, because they matter to me now. I went out that afternoon after a quick Google search on the area and found a tattoo parlour with solid reviews around the corner from the accommodation I was staying in. I showed them the picture, had the tattoo done, and then caught the bus to New York the next morning, leaving Philadelphia and that basement room behind.

img_1302-2I didn’t really leave them behind though, not really. I wake up every morning and run my hands through bed-head hair in front of the bathroom mirror, and I see those words there reflected back at me. Almost immediately, I think of Philadelphia, and I think of my fellow travellers, and I think of the recycling bin full of beer bottles. I think of wedding guests from Portland and the guy who insisted on speaking in Portuguese all night even though nobody could understand a word of what he was saying. I think of myself, sat on a sofa bed, reading the walls and feeling immensely happy. I think of the stab of the needle in a Philadelphia tattoo parlour, and what it meant to have something to remember that night by whenever I needed to be taken back. I think of it more often now that I’m back in England, and I think of the other places I went to, and the tattoos I got there. I think that that’s why I have no regrets about the work I had done, and I can’t see myself ever regretting them. They’re reminders above all else, more than just souvenirs, and they always will be. Tattoos for travels. Postcards couldn’t do that for me – not really.