Sunday, 19 February 2012

Assuming I'd have time, assuming I'd grow old

Recently, a combination of hearing about an article reporting on a nurse who recorded the most common regrets of the dying, and - yes, they are connected, I promise - watching (actually re-watching, for about the tenth time) an episode from season 6 of Scrubs called 'My Musical' resulted in me wanting to write a no doubt sickening but nevertheless true post about chasing what you truly want in life.

Watch it.
There's dancing and everything!

According to the article, the top five "I wish I could..." regrets of the dying as recorded by Bronnie Ware, a palliative care nurse in Australia, are as follows:

  1. Have had the courage to live a life true to myself;
  2. Not have worked so hard;
  3. Have had the courage to express my feelings;
  4. Have kept in touch with friends;
  5. Have let myself be happier. 

All of these probably strike a chord somewhere in you on reading just the list, because of the potential for regret that any human being fears. It is an even stronger sensation if reading the full article, or even Ware's book. For me, though, it is the last item on the above list (and possibly the first, too, as it is inherently linked, in my opinion) that really knocks the wind out of me.

"I wish that I had let myself be happier." Let myself. Imagine that: you could have been happier but you stood in your own way; you had too much fear to make changes that, although possibly risky, could have resulted in greater joy during what is a limited time of being alive.

Now, I am not about to start preaching to you. There is no way on earth that I would a) want to do that or b) allow myself to be so presumptuous as to think random internet people - or any people - need my advice on how to be happy. However, I am going to share my experience of letting myself be happy, albeit the abridged version (which is best for everyone concerned, I think!).

For some reason, I spent a good portion of my twenties not being happy. Lots of good things happened, and there was much to be grateful for during that time. Obviously bad things happened too, but they certainly didn't outweigh the good, and they didn't merit how not happy I was being. It was like I was in some kind of trance.

About 18 months ago, and I still don't really know why, I woke up. I wasn't letting myself be happy. I was so concerned with what I thought was "me", so worried that I might offend, upset, or even lose people by changing paths, and so fearful of my own weak self-concept, that I had trapped myself into a mindset of trying to just maintain a semblance of contentedness, which in turn resulted in less and less pushing myself to chase even the smallest of dreams.

There is a Spanish saying that I learned a long time ago when watching Baz Luhrmann's film 'Strictly Ballroom': "Vivir con miedo es como vivir a medias." This translates as, "a life lived in fear is a life half lived". I've always loved the phrase but I've never really, until that epiphany a year and a half ago, lived up to it. I was spending all my time being afraid and had lost the girl that, once upon a time, believed that all you had to do to go for something, anything, you aspired to was try your damn hardest and hope for a bit of good luck along the way.

So, I told Ben that I was in love with him. *checks number 3 off the list*

Then we met up, a few months later. We got engaged. I quit my job. *checks number 2 off the list* I spent the summer travelling around England and Italy with him, enjoying time together and with my family and beloved friends. No one disowned me. Not one person showed anything more than loving concern by way of any negative observations about my sudden life upheaval. People celebrated us. We had the joy of sharing our joy with so many special people, who we are infinitely lucky to know.

By the end of 2011, I had moved to North Carolina, and Ben and I were spending our first Christmas together as a married couple. On top of that, due to a combination of contacting several photographers in Charlotte earlier in the year (trying my damn hardest), I had started an internship with a brilliant and generous photographer only 15 minutes down the road from our apartment (a bit of good luck). Thanks to the magic of the internet and my enjoyment of "real" post, I was and continue to be successful in maintaining regular contact with the people I love both back home and around the world. *checks number 4 off the list*

I know that I am writing from a point of privilege, and from the perspective of my risks paying off. I don't want to come across as though everyone's life can be changed with a snap of the fingers or wave of a proverbial wand. I'm also nowhere near to checking numbers 1 and 5 off that list. There are days when I am anxious, and days when I don't push myself, and days when the nasty little voices are a bit louder than they should be.

But the funny thing is, that doesn't actually make me worry. Because once you've taken one risk, big or small, the positive loop you start just by trying to change things is a reward in itself. You don't want to just sit back any more, and allowing yourself to stay sad or stagnant is no longer an option. So you push yourself again. And again. And again.

There's not a whole lot of time allotted to an individual person on this planet, so having the courage - giving yourself the courage - to let yourself be happy, to choose happiness and your own personal path, is all you really can do. That and be nice to other people as you go. The musical episode of Scrubs really focuses more on this aspect of choices, rather than the more definite (or perhaps abstract!) idea of making yourself happy. Through the story of a patient taken suddenly ill with a cerebral aneurysm that manifests itself by making her hear everyone who talks to her as though they are singing, the episode illustrates the importance of taking the time to enjoy life, and doing the things that you really want while you can. But I thought that actually that concept ties in just fine with letting yourself be happy, and one of the last lines in the final song really brought together both ideas - allowing yourself to be happy and making sure you do the things that will make you so while you have time - rather perfectly:

From where I stand now, it's not really a risk to try to be happy. One way or the other, you will be fine. You might try and things don't work out, but you know then that you have the strength to try, the ability to choose to and let yourself be happy. On the other hand, you might try, succeed, and get everything you ever dreamed of.

You're going to be okay.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012


I think it's reasonably obvious why I'm excited. And I am SO excited!

If you need further information on why this woman is so bloody awesome and how much I love her, please read here.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

MOL: A début and a new adventure

MOL in print

Event flyer
Last Saturday night, my photographic moniker My Other Limb and I had the privilege and pleasure of showing my photos at the Bizarre Bazaar & Variety Show, held in Plaza Midwood in Charlotte, NC. It was an event meant to showcase the work of young artists in the Charlotte area, and to raise money for Burners Without Borders.

It was extremely exciting in the midst of the show, with artists and acts like live painting and glass blowing, to open mic acoustic jams, to belly and burlesque dancing, to DJing, to silk acrobatics, to photography. There was such an incredible energy in the place, and the two studios were packed with people for the whole night. I got to show a "wall" of photos by presenting the printed images on a curtain divider in the middle of one of the studios, gave out business cards, and had a lot of fun meeting and photographing the other artists. One of the other photographers shooting at the event was someone I had already chatted to on Facebook, so it was a real pleasure to meet with him in person.

I was also very sweetly supported by the attendance of Ben, Christine, Ryan, Cassie, Josh, Sam, and Leah, the last of whom brought along a colleague from her new job who is originally from England, so I got to meet a fellow Brit, too! This might sound a bit daft, but I actually really enjoy both the immediate comfort I get from hearing a British accent in the midst of all the American ones (much as I love the southern sound of an NC voice), and the identification of unusual American things that are just automatically understood between English people. I don't want to be back in England per se, but it is without a doubt my home proper, however much I love Charlotte.

New MOL stamp for photos!
The event was a huge success, and massive kudos to Liza, the organiser, and everyone who was involved who made it such a smooth, invigorating, and entertaining event. For me personally, it meant a huge amount to be asked to show my photos, and I hope it brought some extra publicity to MOL, which is generally a good thing and hopefully will also be useful as and when I can push forward with MOL as a company, not just a name. Part of my "deal" with myself when moving to Charlotte was to have a decent crack at being a (at the very least part-time) "real" photographer, and this is a very happy step forward in that process.

Another step I've taken is to join the Charlotte Photographers Meetup Group (CPMG), and I attended my first meeting with them last night. It was their monthly meeting, so consisted of a review of the last month's activities, a projection of the next month's, announcing January's competition finalists and winner, and a talk by a professional photographer.

This month's speaker was Les Saucier, a nature photographer and teacher, and was absolutely brilliant. The energy and humour with which the presentation was given was really infectious, and though the information was not all new learning, it was presented in such a way that really made you think about the craft of photography coupled with making it an art, not just thinking shot-by-shot. Emphasis was put on the three elements of creating a photograph: recording, expressing, and connecting. There was a lot of visual psychology involved, in terms of drawing the viewer in, and I was reminded of lectures back in Reading when we were studying how the human eye processes and interprets images.

Saucier spoke a lot of the importance of practice, of learning your craft, so that the way you see and feel the image can shine through, using you as the medium. Hearing someone with so much experience and skill speak of heart in photography was inspiring and exciting and, even though I thought I was already pretty energised by the mere prospect of picking up a camera, I am even more so now. I guess it's a combination of an already existing love for photography, an inherent appreciation of academic presentations, and an excellent teacher. I will definitely be going back for more!

Saturday, 4 February 2012

Neighbourhood news

Our local residential streets
Park Road

Since moving to our new neighbourhood, we've had the privilege of being able to walk to our local, well, everything. We have a supermarket, bank, post office, and hardware store within a mile of our house, not to mention a cake shop, garden centre, greetings card store, and pizza place in the same shopping centre. Along the road to the right of the shopping centre are about five bars and restaurants, a Starbucks, a Taco Bell, a Ben & Jerry's café (yes, really), Chick-Fil-A, a sushi place, a deli... the list goes on. Add to that the fact that we've had gorgeous and unseasonably warm weather, and you have the perfect recipe for a going out mood, so below is a brief summary of the goings on since moving to the Madison Park region of Charlotte.


Just can't lose my stride
Yes, I may have mentioned this before. And definitely once already in this post...

One of the main advantages of our new area, other than being gorgeous and peaceful. is that we have both quiet lanes and bustling shops within walking distance. I know I go on (and on) about it, but it makes me feel liberated and satisfied to be able to walk. Maybe it's being British, both because we're much more inclined to walk places (a combination of things being less spread out and the significant reduction in alcohol intake if choosing to drive, I imagine) and because I can't bear to "waste" sunny days, but I am loving being able to meander along a 20-minute route to all manner of fun and/or useful things, or meander aimlessly and just enjoy the seemingly endless residential spider web. It's an absolute joy and I am so happy to have this pleasure back.

Sleepy Poet Antique Mall

Cassie and Brad (left, sporting some "antique" Hulk hands) introduced me to the brilliance that is the Sleepy Poet Antique Mall on South Boulevard. It is, to quote the website, "55,000 square foot of shopping fun". They're not wrong! It's got antique everything, from furniture to vintage clothing, from cameras to socket covers, from statues to railway announcement boards. There's also some more modern stuff, like an art gallery and one particular stall that sells gorgeous hats that I can't afford but covet nevertheless. There's also free popcorn to all browsers! It's amazing, and you could spend hours in there. The shop is divided into booths, and it reminds me a little of the Department of Mysteries in the Harry Potter series: seemingly never-ending and interconnected in all manner of unexpected ways! I highly recommend a visit.

Duckworth's Grill and Taphouse

This was one of the first places I went to in the area, with my beloved neld (our totally appropriate word for a new/old friend; although we've not known each other long, it feels like it's been a very happy lifetime of friendship already) friend Christine. It's a bustling place with a great vibe of people chilling out and catching up, with what seemed like a regular Friday night crowd. I also had my first Philly cheesesteak, which was another delicious discovery!


 I am pretty sure that I have mentioned this place in previous, as it does tasty pizza by the slice (that you can buy by the slice, ha ha - actually one of their slogans), and because Kate (the other intern at Studio1212) and I frequent the Plaza Midwood branch more often than is probably healthy. Happily, there is a Fuel local to us, so root beer and cheese pizza may now abound.

Family dinner

A couple of weekends after we moved in, we had Ben's folks and siblings round for a big lasagne dinner and various desserts (cake, pecan pie, and shortbread - oh dear!). It is such a pleasure to be able to have people we love over to dinner at our place, and to share time and food and fun with them all.

Family dinner #2

We also had the pleasure of the company of Ben's cousin and his fiancé (and also hair stylist of wonderfulness) Johnny last week. Ben made a delicious creamy chicken pasta, and Charles and Johnny brought possibly the most decadent gelati I've tasted outside of Italy, in pistachio and chocolate flavours, along with brownies for dessert. A fantastic time was had by all!

Bill Spoon's BBQ

Traditional eastern-style BBQ pork and chicken. It's not quite the perception of BBQ that a Brit might have, as it's quite sharp and made with vinegar (not the sticky sweet sauce we've come to use), but it's absolutely delicious. If you come to NC and don't try pulled pork and hush puppies at least once, you're missing out!

Sir Edmond Halley's

This would be what I would class as a "proper" pub. Yes, it's a restaurant too, and has an excellent kitchen, but it's a freehouse with a proper bar, low lighting, and they know how to pour a pint of Guinness correctly. Winning in my book!

The food here is absolutely top notch. I've had Irish stew with julienne vegetables and mash, and it's to die for. Ben's tried a turkey burger (very good) and we've shared an incredible starter of goat's cheese fritters with apple and cabernet jus. Just lovely. There is a great variety of cooking styles and dishes from a worldwide menu, as well as some great veggie selection. It's becoming a weekly ritual to eat here, and I'm not going to stop it any time soon. On Sunday and Wednesday nights they have half price bottles of wine (on ALL wine), trivia on Monday nights, and on Friday nights there do pints of Stella and Harpoon IPA for $4 a pop. There's a lot more for us still to try here, in several senses...

More walking

Okay, it might sound daft, and I am pretty sure that I didn't crave walking quite some much back home, but I reckon it's because a) it was always available and b) the weather was often horrible. But it's gorgeous here, and we have walking opportunities. So we've walked some more.

The Flying Biscuit

This is a café in Park Road Shopping Centre, and is a relatively new discovery (we had breakfast there for the first time yesterday), though it comes highly recommended by word-of-mouth. It's a big place, with high ceilings and lots of activity. The service is polite and efficient, and the coffee is endless. Always good for an early breakfast! The food is very good; I had blueberry pancakes (served with a biscuit (essentially a scone), which was a bit weird as an accompaniment to what is essentially flatter dough, but I guess that's the food they're famous for), and Ben had eggs and turkey on rosemary potatoes. We will be back!

More walking!

That about sums up our 2.5 weeks of adventures here so far. We will of course be doing some more walking soon. Really. It's spring already!

Friday, 3 February 2012

Hairy birthday!

Perhaps not the most well thought out of post titles (!), but it pretty much sums up what happened after the biometrics appointment: I got a hair cut, and then got older. Edging dangerously close to 30 now, and not needing to have my hair super-long to enable flexible wedding styling, I decided that I needed a new look for 2012.

Okay, all of that is mostly just a big fat lie. I really am not that bothered by my age, and it's not actually in any way related to my hair. It is related to my birthday - I wanted to treat myself - but I get bored with my hair cut/colour pretty frequently, so changing it isn't a huge deal. However, going to the awesome stylist and general legend that is Johnny Keane of Salon du Monde is a relatively new thing, what with him being based in Charlotte and me only having been here for 3.5 months. So, along with making my head look like something out of the movie 'A Cinderella Story' for the wedding, Jonny more recently managed to transform my dry, split-ended long blonde hair into a volume-tastic, sexy new shorter 'do. I barely even recognise myself, and the extra bonus is that, while I certainly don't have the skills to make it look as fantastic as Johnny did on the day, it isn't impossible to style when you're a cack-handed ungirly girl like me when it comes to hair. Ideal!

Long hair; hair off; less hair.

The weekend of my birthday was an absolute joy. Don't get me wrong, the day itself was, while wonderful and spent quietly with Ben and catching up with family, possibly the weirdest thing I've yet experienced here due to being so far from home. I guess anniversaries are just going to be like that due to emphasising the people you miss and providing a juxtaposition of what is "normal" for e.g. a birthday versus what actually happens when you've moved countries. Not that it's bad, just different.

Anyway! Ben and I held a game night (nearing 30, remember?!), involving us cooking up a huge vat of chili con carne, inviting a load of friends to come over to our new place, consuming wine and other beverages, and playing epic rounds of games like Settlers of Catan, Go, and Apples to Apples. It was so lovely!

Chilli + friends + games + wine = amazing birthday! 

Kitchen's always where the party's at.

On my birthday proper, we spent the day just hanging out (what with the wedding, Christmas, and house move, we've not spent much time being together without anything else we have to do), chatting with UK family on Skype, drinking coffee at Starbucks, and ignoring stuff not in our immediate vicinity. I'd placed a new order for a MOL treat, which managed to arrive right on time, so that was another fun part of the day, and we had dinner plans in the evening.

Skype with bro' and sis'-in-law

Ignoring the online world for a whole
day may have been an error... 

Happy birthday to me!

Italian dinner out was
definitely authentic, if the
statues were anything to go by

Dinner was Ben's treat at a local Italian place renowned for its excellent cooking and modern menu. It's called Villa Antonio, and it's pleasingly close to our new house. We had an absolutely delicious meal there, complete with amuse bouche and palette cleanser-style courses, and it was magical to just have a date night that was not only special due to birthday-ness, but also because it marked the end of a hectic (though happy) few months for us as a couple. After dinner, we went to one of our (new) local bars and, over a few drinks, enjoyed an hour or so of shouting at footballers and chatting inane babble to each other. I couldn't have asked for anything better. 

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Biometrics and more waiting

After posting my AOS paperwork in the latter half of December, we were informed unexpectedly promptly of the acceptance of said paperwork and the scheduling of my biometrics appointment. In fact, we heard within about 10 days of the forms being mailed, and were pleased to find that the appointment was scheduled for less than a month after the original AOS filing took place - surely a sign of swift processing?! I've been hearing some encouraging whispers from the online K-1 ex-pat community about how fast I-485 forms (application to register permanent residence) and their accompanying permission forms, the I-765 (permission to work, or EAD), and the I-131 (application for travel) are going through at the moment, and so with a bit of luck, I might be able to do work - paid work - in the very near future. For now, though, I will do a quick post on the post-AOS submission, pre-AOS interview requirement: the biometrics appointment.

Not very 'Minority Report'
Photo from Google Street View
As per Anthony's (Englishman in Atlanta) post about his biometrics appointment, the futuristic drama implied by the term was not fulfilled by either the location or the process. The building itself was in a quiet corner of a set of nondescript offices, and the process was pretty much a case of handing over my appointment letter and ID (if you haven't changed your maiden name on your ID at this point, bring your marriage certificate, or they won't let you take the appointment - and they don't mention this on the appointment letter!), filling in a form, getting in a numbered queue, then having a photo taken and my fingerprints scanned into a computer. It took all of about 20 minutes, including waiting time with 7 people ahead of me. The ladies who dealt with me were all very polite and quite friendly (I got two compliments; one on my earrings and another on my perfume!), and extremely efficient. You leave with your original appointment letter stamped with the date of your attendance and signed by one of the officers for your records.

Now we have to wait on either a letter calling us to interview, or a letter stating that our case has been approved without requiring an interview. I have read that it is unusual for K-1 applicants to be called for interview, but that it does happen either through statistical requirements and/or red flags in specific cases, so I'm not counting my chickens. But the fact that we've been through a lot of a bureaucratic immigration processes now means that I no longer feel totally overwhelmed or intimidated by such a prospect. So, I am just going to get along with being able to actually be with Ben and be "normal" for a little while! 

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

New house and removals adventures

Two weeks ago, over the course of about three days (plus a couple of extra hours around the sides to grab miscellaneous furniture), Ben and I - with the help of family and friends - moved into our new place. As you might have read in the post "We're in!", this was actually two weeks before our original closing date, which was already super-fast in UK property market terms (just over a month - purchasing a house in England, even without a chain, can take 2-3 months and that's considered reasonable).

Fortunately, Ben and I were in a position that allowed us to leave our apartment (and break our lease, thanks to a wonderful friend of ours wanting to take over the contract!), and have the time to take a few days to do the actual moving ourselves. We'd already started buying furniture we didn't have and packing to get ahead of the game for the first closing date, so we just upped our efforts there to be ready on time for the new, earlier - and let's face it, very exciting - mid-January closing date.

Soon enough, the Big Day rolled around, and we drove to our attorneys' offices to meet with them, our realtor, and the seller to exchange and sign the final contracts. It was a 10-minute affair, all very straightforward and it was absolutely fine for me, a-not-quite-yet-green-card-holder, to be named as an equal partner in purchasing the house. Phew! With the signed documents in hand and a promise of our deeds being in the mail ASAP, we made our way to our new place. Ah! It's all been such a whirlwind that looking back on it now seems kind of dream-like (almost like the wedding I guess!), but getting into our new home for the first time was exhilarating, joyful, surreal, and had a huge impact on my feeling like a real part of this country now, too. The biggest part of it is knowing that Ben and I have a home together, that we chose and are now getting to build into a place for us and, one day, our family. We spent the first day there cleaning it all down: scrubbing the oven, fridge, bathroom and so on, and unpacking what small things we had been able to fit in our cars on the journey over.

As part of the deal with our realtor, we were offered free use of their "van" to help us move and, as we weren't hiring a removals company, we took them up on their offer. The "van" turned out to be absolutely enormous; it was actually more of a truck that was so big it was pretty much the largest size vehicle you could drive on a car license without needed to upgrade to an HGV license or similar. Fantastic! So, pretty much the entire contents of our apartment, plus a couple of extra pieces from IKEA that we picked up en route, fitted beautifully into the monster moving truck of awesomeness, and we managed (with a couple of car loads) to empty the entire apartment over a 24 hour period. We were also lucky enough to get the van a day early, so our friend Ryan was kind enough to use his day off (the second day we had the house) to help out with both carrying the heavy stuff out of our old place and building the flat-pack stuff at our new place, along with Ben's brother Scott who joined us that evening. By the end of the second day, the house was looking surprisingly and pleasingly homely. We even managed to move the dog over that night, to allow him ample time to settle in and get used to the new space.

Recycling soon!
Day three rolled around and we mainly spent it unpacking what we could and putting together any remaining flat-pack items. Scott came round again (thank you!) and, by the end of Saturday, everything that could have been built was built, and the mountain of cardboard reached potentially world record levels. We stopped at around 4 that day as we had the happy excuse of going out for dinner for Ben's mum's birthday that evening. We also nipped out to get Ender some dog booties which, aside from looking ridiculous, served to help him learn to walk on slippery tile and wood surfaces. These kinds of floors were a tough (though not previously unencountered) phenomenon for him, especially as he has old legs, being 13 going on 14 now. He has since learned how to walk in the house without the booties but we've kept them just in case he starts to struggle again. As you can see from the photo, he wasn't exactly impressed, but seemed to work out that we were trying to help him. Y'know, as well as cooing over how wonderfully daft he looked. Poor puppy!

U-Haul, me haul, we all haul!
Over the course of the next week, we had essential house-related issues attended to (internet, insurance, roofing, alarm system etc.), and went out to pick up some dining furniture we had on order that arrived later than we had hoped, resulting in us needing to hire a U-HAUL van to fit it all in. We also got our sofa delivered a few days afterwards, pretty much completing the house in time for a big family dinner at the weekend.

All in all, it has been a crazy but satisfying moving experience. It didn't seem as stressful a thing to do as moving often does (possibly because we had the time available to us to do it ourselves, and the sweet help of people around us), even with moments of fatigue, pain, and frustration in the actual physical parts of the move. The end result has been incredibly fast, and wonderfully happy, so I have no complaints. Not bad for only having been here 3.75 months! We've had a fortunate and joyful start to 2012.