Thursday 11 July 2013

Guest Blog #1 - Antonia

First things first – it was my birthday yesterday. And I mention this not for attention or gifts (cheques can be addressed to 'CASH', P.O. Box....) but as a blatant excuse to post a pic of the ace card I got from Lisa last year. I missed her card this year. Just as Lisa's brother posted on Facebook last night, "Purchasing the new Jay-Z album without having my Sis to get excited about it with just don't feel right.", I've been feeling similar.

We all have. We all miss Lisa, and it makes sense that we all have a part in what's to come with this blog.

Which, without further ado, save a really hackneyed segue, leads me to proudly post the first of what I hope will be a fine collection of guest posts here, this one from the lovely Antonia Blyth. Enjoy.

Half terrified, half laughing

When I was 12 I developed an irrational fear of flying. Well I say irrational but really, hurtling through the air at 600mph suspended only by a pair of wings that aren’t actually flapping seems so stupid it should be illegal. But instead of protesting, there we all are like a a bunch of lemmings, calmly saying, “ooh I’ll have the chicken tikka...and a white wine...and have you got any of those nice red socks?”.

I digress. While the science of air travel has never really seemed legit to me, the plane jitters are really about the fear of what might happen. They’re about feeling your life could fall to pieces if you don’t have a vice-like grip on the hand rests. Lately I’ve been thinking about this fear. Why do we start life without it, carefree and cavalier, only for it to creep in, ultimately controlling us? What will help us to forget the fear, remember to take risks and reach for things we really want?

Aged 18 we might set off with backpacks and do things like white water rafting! Hot air ballooning! Moving to Australia! Eating toasted insects in Thailand! Then, in our early 20's, we meet people and fall in love without ever pausing to ask if they have mummy issues/plan to wear hideous pants once they hit 30/ will at some future dinner party morph before your eyes into a rather dull, slightly bigoted twat. We don’t worry that everything in our joint future might just be ‘ok’, a bit grey, motionless, with nothing left to say at forced anniversary dinners. No, we leap in and hope for true love, because how else will we find what we truly want?

Then, somewhere around the late 20's mark, there it is, creeping in: the fear. A paralysing safety valve that appears once we’ve been bruised a few times, it’s usually accompanied by thoughts like, ‘if I leave this job I won’t find another’, ‘if I walk out on this shitty relationship, I’ll be lonely so I’ll make do’, or ‘I’ve always wanted to do that but I can’t now’. Gradually we find ourselves clinging to a comfort zone, no matter how dissatisfying it may be.

When I was 27 I went to Colorado to visit a friend. I’d recently experienced a nasty heartbreak with a side order of extreme ugliness. For the first time I truly understood that taking the wrong leap could really be bad news and that living a little too much could have frightening consequences. It seemed better now to play it safe.

We went skiing in Vail. As a kid my family were always more Vienetta than Val D’Isere (it was the 80's), so I’d never even been on a chair lift before.

I sat at the top of the mountain, taking my time adjusting my boots, laughing and acting like ‘a fun person’, but I didn’t want to be there. I definitely didn’t want to try skiing. Taking a risk, flying down a mountain for a thrill didn’t seem fun that day, yet a few years before, I’d gone hang gliding, scuba diving, even learned the flying trapeze. In fact – and I believe Lisa would approve of this analogy – when I first watched the episode of Sex and the City in which Carrie tries again and again to make the catch on the trapeze but can’t get the guts to do it, I’d shouted ‘oh you twat, just reach out and grab it!’ Now I understood her a lot better. Life was scary and dangerous. Up on that mountain in Vail, I just wanted to go to the bar and drink hot chocolate.

I remember sometime later a boyfriend bought me a skydiving experience for my birthday and even though I’d done it before years previously, I was so frightened just reading the voucher poking out of that envelope that for days afterward I had butterflies, trying to think of a way to cancel without seeming like a boring loser.

I had this idea that there was a finite capacity for bravery, like I was maxed out on my scaring-myself card by the time that skydiving invite arrived. Now I needed to be more careful, more worried. I still got on planes, but this time with drugs. “Take one xanax as you check in, have a glass of wine as soon as you can and pop an ambien with dinner,” my doctor said.

The life experiences that led up to this risk-reticence were just the average things that happen to a person moving into their 30's.

A couple of years ago, Lisa invited me to go with her on a book-signing mission to Guernsey. Her nerves were already stretched because she’d been invited to read from The C-Word and give a speech to a room filled with fabulous ladies at an elegant luncheon.

Then she saw the plane.

It was tiny. It sat maybe 12 people tops and the cockpit didn’t even have a door. Watching the pilot develop sweat patches as you taxi down the runway isn’t the most heartening of experiences. Lisa literally white-knuckled her way through the flight.

Once we made it to our beautiful hotel though, we really felt like we were on holiday. We lay on the bed eating crisps and watching crap telly while Lisa made notes for her speech. But she was a bit quiet. She told me it was just her back and arm bothering her from her previous injury and lymph node surgery, but looking back, maybe she had some worry that it was more than that, I’m not sure. But she said nothing more and I didn’t ask. Instead we strolled down to the sea, where the sun was setting behind a tiny beach shack restaurant in an otherwise empty, pebbled bay.

Inside the shack was a fisherman’s cave of memorabilia and classy quaintness: scrubbed wooden bench seats, flickering candles and those funny glass balls in nets. The little place was packed and we were told reservations were made weeks ahead – the food was incredible apparently but we were out of luck. Then, miraculously, we were waved toward a perfect table for two by the window. They’d had a sudden cancellation they said.

As we sat there sipping wine and grinning at our good fortune, a sailboat dropped anchor in the bay, the sky pink and violet behind its creamy sail. We just couldn’t stop smiling at each other and at this view, so happy with our perfect evening. We talked and talked about life and love and everything else. We drank and ate until closing, then finally, we stumbled onto the beach in total blackness, armed with a torch our waiter had given us for the walk. Somewhere on the wooded pathway, Lisa got Pete on speakerphone and he was treated to our shrieks as dozens of bats dive-bombed us.

The next day, after a beautiful reading and speech that reduced the whole luncheon to tears, we got back on that miniature plane. I looked over at Lisa. Her eyes were squeezed shut, she was petrified, but still, she took that rickety ride without complaint. The plane lurched wildly in the wind and gripping her hand, I promised her nothing would happen to us. She never said a word, but I’m pretty sure she was secretly maxed to the hilt with the worst fear a person can possibly know. Her internal scared-credit-card was already way over the limit, making that turbulent plane ride intolerable.

Months later though, with a diagnosis that made her worst health worries into reality, I watched Lisa actively choose to live every day in the present moment, so she could enjoy what she called her ‘lovely life’. For her, the fear of what was to come and how it might encroach upon her had no business interfering with things she wanted to do now. She fronted up to the fear and forced it to stand down. A year after Guernsey, I was meeting Lisa and Pete at Barcelona airport because sod it, we were all going on a Spanish holiday. I saw them across the concourse before they saw me. Pete was wheeling Lisa in the wheelchair, both of them laughing uproariously at something. She was pulling a large suitcase on wheels alongside her chair, because, she later explained, she “had a system”. I just looked at her. Only Lisa would enthusiastically develop a system for wheelchair-with-suitcase travel in the midst of terminal illness. There would be no slump into ‘what’s the point’ for her, not ever. No avoidance of risk was going to get her to stay at home.

Personally, I’m at a crossroads in my life right now and am asking myself what to do next. Often while I’m contemplating the decisions ahead, the fear creeps in and I think ‘oh that would be scary’ or ‘it’ll never work’ or ‘it’s too late, why bother?’. But with Lisa forever nudging me forward, fear is, as they say, not an option.

I happened to snap a picture as we took our seats on that tiny plane in Guernsey. It’s one of my favorites. Directly in front of Lisa you can see the back of the pilot’s shirt. She looks beautiful. Her hair is platinum, her eyes are bright. Her expression is half-terrified, half-laughing – she looks like like a person really living life should look.