Thursday, 28 February 2013

The 39th Step, And The End Of My Challenge Year

So that’s it. My Beethoven piano sonata was the 39th Step. And just in time, as I turn 40 next Wednesday. There's just the little matter of a special birthday lunch remaining before I tick off the last of my 40 challenges. It's all arranged for the Saturday after my birthday - we just have to hope that the little lady doesn't start vomiting 20 minutes before we are due to leave.

Over the past year I have:

..completed an introductory British Sign Language course, translated a chapter of Die Vipern Von Montesecco from German into English, played a Beethoven piano sonata, learned about the history of chocolate and sweet manufacturing in York, written Charlotte a short story, solved a medium level Sudoku puzzle, learned to count to 100 and three swear words in Welsh, read Hard Times by Charles Dickens, drunk cocktails in a party dress and heels, drunk German beer in Leeds, eaten lobster for the first time, eaten something different coloured for breakfast every day for a week, grown broad beans, cucumbers and tomatoes, had an Italian cookery lesson, burnt raspberry jam, made and iced Charlotte a birthday cake, baked over 40 loaves of bread, organised for a new window to be fitted in our attic, built a table and two chairs for Charlotte all by myself which are still standing nearly a year later, learned how to knit and make stained glass, sacked my hairdresser, snogged Dave on the back row of the cinema, volunteered at a couple of NCT nearly new sales, been to the Olympics and my first international football match, bathed in a Lakeland tarn, swum over 40 lengths of a swimming pool, done pilates every day for a month, stood in mist on the summit of Snowdon, seen the Queen drive past in a car, met an Olympic torch bearer, been to Clifford’s Tower, been on the Settle-Carlisle Railway, spent a week on Jersey, been to Clapham in North Yorkshire and Clapham in South London, been to my former home towns of Bishop’s Stortford and Crouch End, taken Charlotte to The Deep no less than three times, and made a Christmas box for a needy child.

I did not get to meet Noel Edmonds. 

Oh, and I wrote a blog about the whole thing. Which I have absolutely loved doing. And don’t really want to have to stop. Thank you to all those who have taken the time to read it. I wasn’t really expecting anyone to be interested so I was surprised to see how many of you were. There was a definite trend towards people reading posts which involved me doing something ridiculous – dressing up, having bad hair, wearing a swimming costume. But the entry that has been read the most times (nearly 200 hits) was the one about chocolate, so I suspect that one is being picked up by a few tourists on Google. Which is quite exciting really. Either that, or I owe a lot of people KitKats. Anyway, I hope that you have learned a little bit more about me by reading the blog. And I hope that everyone who set me a challenge found it completed.

Without wishing to turn this into some sort of Oscar-acceptance speech slush, I must also say a big thank you to my lovely husband for all his support during the challenges, for driving me across the country on my mad-cap missions without a word of complaint, and particularly in the latter months, for taking Charlotte away from me for a few hours here and there so that I could write and learn as required. Dave is turning 40 in December, and while he won’t be doing 40 challenges himself, he does hope to run 40K spread over four 10K races, for which he is now in training. 

But at least three friends that I know of have taken up the challenge mantle in a similar form. Nice to know that I have inspired some of you and that the idea lives on. (I in turn was inspired by a friend so can’t take any credit for the challenge idea anyway.) One friend is doing 13 challenges for 2013, one is doing 40 challenges for the year after her 40th birthday, and one is going to take a decade over it and do 40 challenges in her 40s. I wish you all the best of luck! It’s all about what’s comfortable and manageable for you in your current circumstances  – challenges in this sense are all about new experiences, having fun and – if you are a mother – perhaps attempting to reclaim a bit of your own identity and a little time to yourself. Though of course if your children participate in your challenges and enjoy them, then they are all the more rewarding.

What did I learn about myself while doing these challenges? Primarily that I have a small child (not that I was unaware of this previously), and my life is never going to be my own again. Without Charlotte, I could have swept through the challenges I set myself in no time – and would have therefore been able to have been far more ambitious. But it doesn’t matter – I’ve so enjoyed the sense of accomplishment that completing each task has given me. It’s an important lesson in overcoming perfectionism – you can get a far greater sense of achievement over the tiniest of things than all the big things put together.

And I’ve learned that I need some sort of structure in order to be able to pursure sports or hobbies – like a set goal, or the knowledge that people are watching and waiting to read about it. Whenever I have been at work, I’ve craved free time to do arts and crafts, to write, to get fit. Yet when I do actually have a moment, I haven’t taken up these things as readily as I should have. It’s certainly a lesson for future retirement (should any of us be able to take it) – activities do need to be mapped out and formalised, otherwise days can slip by in apathy. But at the moment, my priority is always going to be sleep if I get a second to myself.

I also realised that I am also not very good at doing things for charity. I prefer paid employment to voluntary work, it seems. But as an update to my “do something for charity” challenge, I believe making the Christmas box for a needy child fitted that bill nicely. I have also been volunteering as the local representative for the NCT coffee group in our area for the past few months. Not that pro-actively, it must be said, but volunteering nonetheless.

It certainly struck me how much my mind went back to my school days while writing about these challenges. Is that in fact where I left my true self behind, or is it just because that was really the last time when the world was my oyster and could do anything I wanted, even though it definitely didn’t feel like that at the time? I certainly wouldn’t want to go back to being the person I was then, totally lacking in self-confidence and in a horrible transatlantic relationship. Though I was someone who still had a touch of creative flair, had foreign languages at the height of their powers and was still competent at playing the piano. I just didn’t believe it at the time.

Am I any nearer to knowing what I want from life? Yes and no. To be physically stronger, to make time for that hobby, to go back to work, to translate. To not hang out at toddler groups and manage tantrums over sharing every day of the week. But what the challenges have done is shown me that despite all the limitations of motherhood I can still do all sorts of things when I set my mind to them, and that lurking within me are all sorts of abilities that I thought I might have lost. But it must be said that no matter how hard I have found the past two years, Charlotte will always be my greatest achievement.

This year has been a fantastic journey for me. But looking back further, a lot can happen in ten years. On my 30th birthday, my mother paid for me to spend a day at the Sanctuary day spa in Covent Garden. The following day I went out with her and my godmother for lunch (also in Covent Garden) to a smart French brasserie, then Mum came back with me to my rented one-bedroom flat in Earlsfield to help me set up a party I was having for my friends, a party which involved juicing piles of fruit and making cocktails. That weekend, I headed off with my boyfriend Dave for a luxury weekend break at the Hotel du Vin in Winchester. I was working full-time as a translation project manager for the European Captioning Institute in Fitzrovia. Dave had moved into the flat just three months prior, having got a new job as a political assistant for Surrey County Council. Which was just as well as paying rent for a one-bedroom flat (the first time I had been able to live by myself) was killing me financially, even though I was getting mates’ rates as the flat belonged to a friend. That year Dave and I got engaged, Dave proposing beside the harbour in Stockholm as the sun set into a very late-night dusk, with dozens of hot-air balloons flying overhead. Then Dave got another new job as a cabinet officer for Barnet Borough Council (which is in itself a sign of the times – local government vacancies were in abundance). His new job and increased salary meant we could afford to buy our first home together, our one-bedroom flat in Crouch End. Once we moved into the flat, I quit my stressful job a few weeks later and went freelance. Briefly, everything seemed to be working out perfectly (I wasn’t facing eviction, was happy at work, happy in love), but it was a short-lived happiness as the following summer, Mum was diagnosed with cancer three weeks before our Lake District wedding, and died six months later. My godmother, also present at that 30th birthday lunch, now has Parkinson’s to battle with.

So a lot of cruel things can happen in ten years, but a lot of good things can too. In the past decade I have seen so many amazing sights – the Pyramids, Petra, Pinot Noir growing on a New Zealand vine, the Pedrera in Barcelona, the peaks of the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau. And those are just the ones beginning with P. Though none of them can even come close to the moment when we met Charlotte for the first time. All of these things mean that I have never doubted that this is a beautiful world, even at the hardest of times. I hope that this belief will remain as steadfast over the next ten years.

Who knows what they will bring? I take nothing for granted, and will endeavour to take the rough with the smooth, the good with the bad. And I will continue to set myself challenges along the way. Because this has been just great.


  1. A great read, thoroughly enjoyed following your journey. Happy Birthday for tomorrow, old girl! Marshy