This Day Forward

Life in a list: What would you say if you had to write a line a day?

My 35th birthday was more than just a mid-thirties milestone. 

It was the day I closed my five-year line a day book for the last time.

This little green book has been a great companion over the last five years. Every entryholds a memory of the day, a more thoughtful 'note to self' or life lesson and a rating (out of 10). I appreciate this may be stretching the definition of a list somewhat, but I do sit it firmly in my 'did it happen?' set of lists, the important ones that hold you to account and help you capture the past so you can shape the future. 

This little book has seen great happiness and success. This little book has seen cancer, loss and moments of real sadness. This little book has seen brilliant sunsets and terrible storms. This little book has experienced delicious dinners and skipped mealtimes. 

It may be small, but with more than 1,000 life lessons in here, this little book might just contain a pretty accurate definition of happiness - mine that is. 

Am I the same person who started writing in it at the age of 30? No. 

Am I happy about that fact? Absolutely. But, what is great about this book of moments is that it tells me exactly how I was feeling each and every day, which is a far more accurate record than a brain that can't even remember what it had for dinner last week. 

Rather than tuck it in a drawer with old diaries and 'I'm-sure-they-will-be-useful-one day' notebooks, I have started sifting through it. Typing out all the lessons, spotting trends and reminding myself of what it is that really makes me smile time and again will take time to explore. So, I thought I'd start with a few of the 'notes to self' or life lessons to give you a snapshot.

Here are some of my favourites (not all profound and without cliche):

1) Balance in life makes everything better (2015)

2) A good day at work can be as satisfying as a day off (2014)

3) Happiness isn't always fun (2015)

4) Just start and then you'll be excited to finish (2016)

5) Don't check email on the way to bed (a happiness hack right there and many a sleepless night caused when I didn't take my own advice) (2013) 

6) You can have cancer and be happy (2014) (obviously not a route I would recommend but an interesting observation for someone seriously ill at the time) 

7) Step back and enjoy the view (2016) 

8) Work those edges (2016)

9) Hard work isn't always enough (2012) 

10) The world is full of incredible people if you know where to look (2016)

11) Great flavours are not to be underestimated (2015) (Great to be documenting this more than a year after losing my taste buds to chemo) 

12) Knickers can be lucky (2012) (Maybe not a deep life lesson, but it made me laugh) 

13) If it's in the routine, it's easier to keep up (2013) (habits give you energy for other things) 

14) Anticipation is everything (2013) 

15) There is always time for friendship (2016) 

16) It is ok to not be ok (2014) 

17) The explanation is always better than the assumption (2012) 

18) You don't need butter to make a light and fluffy cake (2012) (not a metaphor for life, you can come here for baking tips too) 

19) You are the only person who can put you first (which is where you belong) (2015) 

20) Adventurous days make better stories (2016)

And the one that made me laugh out loud:

21) I'd pay to have Imelda Staunton act out scenes in my life (2012) (I had just seen her in a play so it wasn't as random as it sounds). 

I may not have analysed the last five years in detail, but I can already spot some interesting trends. I like things organised. I have a strange obsession with time and making the most of it. I like to push myself. Friendship and family are really important. I am quite fond of smiling and good food (particularly making bakes). I need to not procrastinate. Oh, and it seems I have a soft spot for Great British actresses. 

I think I am getting wiser (from lucky knickers to the importance of friendship). But, I think I still have much to learn. 

Ask me again when I've finished the next book! 

And, why not make 2017 the year you start your own 'line a day' book? More fun than a diary, less time-consuming than a journal and more insightful than not writing or remembering anything down at all! 

I look forward to hearing how you get on.

(By the way, I love Kikki K stationery if you're looking for a thoughtful brand to make record keeping even more enjoyable.) 

Life in a list: The Brighter Life list

There is something quite sobering about lying in a hospital bed before life-saving cancer surgery and wondering if you’ll last the day - let alone the next decade.

In that bed, with just a gown, some paper knickers (if you could call them that) and the tightest stockings you will ever wear for company, I didn’t have an image. It didn’t matter if I had a career or a house or a nice handbag. In that moment, I had just one thing and one thing only: my memories.

Illness really does strip you bare and remind you of all the things that matter. Lying there, I remember thinking about all the times I’d stayed at home to make something for a friend (a cake, a knitted dishcloth, a chutney), when really what I should have been doing was making time for that friend.

So that’s why, when I was discharged from the hospital in my body corset (to help me walk after they used my tummy fat to reconstruct my right breast), I didn’t dig out the knitting needles. I went straight for the notebook. 

And I wrote a list. A long list. 

As far as lists go, the ‘Brighter Life' list – a distillation of all that you want to experience in life – is one of the best lists you will ever write.

This is no bucket list. This isn’t a list about death, but a pledge to live life and make memories as often as you can. 

It’s not a finite list, but a work in progress. It started on my blog smallboobsbigsmiles.com and has evolved in a series of notebooks since then (it amuses me that I like stationery about as much as lists). 

And it’s not an outrageously ambitious list (with Everest scaling and skydiving on the agenda), but one with a good smattering of quick wins and activities within my control as well as hopefully-soon-to-be lifetime achievements. 

The Brighter Life list is one of my ‘make it happen’ lists, a group of lists designed to making achieving things a routine activity. You can either read the original list here or read the edit below (not doing too bad bearing in mind I started it two years ago:

Brighter Life list: the things I’ve achieved

  1. Make my own crumpets 
  2. Travel to the Amalfi Coast
  3. Raise £10,000 for breast cancer charities
  4. Do an overnight walk through London 
  5. Walk around Olympic Park (I missed out in 2012)
  6. Swim at the Aquatics Centre (50m of sheer joy)
  7. Get published 
  8. Stand on a cliff with no hair on my head (niche, I appreciate)
  9. Make my own lip balm (stick to the bought stuff)
  10. Buy a new sofa 
  11. Grow my own Gerberas
  12. Fill our garden with alliums
  13. Make a ferment
  14. Enjoy a carol service in the Capital
  15. Take a trip on the Orient Express
  16. Watch Shakespeare at The Globe
  17. Visit the Royal Albert Hall
  18. Win an award for me
  19. Make mulled wine
  20. Make a cake for Test Match Special (yes, but not quite ticked off thanks to a security guard) 
  21. Visit Kew Gardens
  22. Make sausage rolls
  23. Watch Cats
  24. Carve a pumpkin
  25. Visit the HMS Belfast 
  26. Go up The Shard
  27. Run a marathon
  28. Ride the Emirates line
  29. See Mona Lisa at The Louvre in Paris

Unfinished Brighter Life list business includes (won’t exhaust you with the whole list):

  1. Plan a wedding (ongoing)
  2. Make my own wedding cake
  3. Do the three peaks challenge
  4. Stay in a treehouse
  5. Travel to Lapland
  6. Write a book
  7. Make a piece of clothing from scratch
  8. Eat at The Fat Duck
  9. Stay at Center Parcs 
  10. Make proper lemonade
  11. Watch The Lion King and Book of Mormon
  12. Buy a whole salmon at Christmas and fillet it
  13. Visit the Greenwich Planetarium
  14. Visit Wimbledon and watch a game on Centre Court
  15. Make wine
  16. Conquer the macaroon
  17. Learn to pipe icing properly
  18. Make piccalilli
  19. Complete a trek
  20. Gain >2000 Twitter followers
  21. Climb a mountain
  22. Be quoted in an article/on TV
  23. Deliver a TED talk or equivalent inspirational speech
  24. Go skiing
  25. Learn to dive
  26. Make breast screen part of cervical screening test
  27. Go to New York 
  28. Travel business class on a plane 
  29. Help improve data collection for those with secondary breast cancer
  30. Make almond croissants
  31. Spend New Year’s Eve in a different time zone
  32. Encourage young women to do more volunteering 
  33. Plan and execute a big charity fundraiser
  34. Go abroad for lunch/dinner and back in a day
  35. Develop a signature bake
  36. Make jaffa cakes
  37. Wear a size 4 dress (not to be achieved at same time as 36) and 38) 
  38. Make pork pies 
  39. Watch a concert at the 02
  40. Enter poetry competition
  41. Become fluent in a language
  42. Learn chinese
  43. Make own cookbook
  44. Watch a live athletics event 

What’s interesting about this list (other than reminding me I still have A LOT to do) is that if you craft your own and try to spot themes, you can work out what you really love to do. For me that’s:

  • Health and exercise-related challenges
  • Cooking (mainly baking) and eating good food
  • Travel and adventure
  • Learning and creativity (particularly writing)
  • Charity

This interestingly matches my earlier blog about nurturing a hobby. The only thing missing is the people with which I hope to tick them off.

So, get listing and, if you think you can help me achieve any of the above, please do get in touch. 

Let’s raise a toast to the brighter life. May you find yours. 

Why I've decided to live from 'This Day Forward'

When my boyfriend Duncan proposed to me after 13 years together, I never thought I'd have to run 26.2miles to pick up the wedding ring. 

But then, being diagnosed with breast cancer at 32 wasn't exactly part of the life plan either.

Back in 2013, I was a girlfriend who wanted to be fiancée and start ticking off those landmark events that life tells us will make us happy. I thought life's big events were designed to balance out the many meaningless days and blur of busy to which we all are subjected.

Big events, however, do not a life make. When you're bald, weak and trapped in a chemo chair with toxic drugs coursing through your veins, you can't dream about one day in the future. You dream about the small things you can control - the smile that made you smile; the scent of a candle you'd saved for best; the sunshine on your face. 

Memories are for making every day, not once in a while.

Throughout treatment, I never feared death. What I feared was that I would rush back to my old ways and forget to live. 

If I was to remember the little things, I needed to make sure I was reminded of them every day. This Day Forward covers the stories and the strategies for success that have helped - and continue to help - me see all that is beautiful in the world. I hope that by sharing the things that make me smile, you'll find a way to add a bit of happiness to your day. 

This Day Forward is a name that works for me on two levels. Today is the only day you know you have. It's the only one you can control. It's the only one that matters. You have 24 hours to make it meaningful. You have 24 hours to bank a bit of happiness to carry with you for those moments that will try to knock you off course.

It's never too late to get started. You just have to start. 

And then, of course, there's the wedding that's been on hold for three years (and that famous vow: 'from this day forward'). When you try to make every day special, it's hard to look too far ahead. So, we have decided to get married in a way that celebrates the moments we find meaningful. That's why we're getting married at 7.30am on the famous Cutty Sark, before running the London Marathon (Duncan loves running and I started during chemo, which for someone with a hip full of metal from previous surgeries is no mean feat). That's why we're having a thank you party back onboard the ship to remind all our loved ones to make time for adventures and to live a life with purpose. And that's why we're trekking a part of the Great Wall of China for our honeymoon.

Charity, health, happiness, kindness, achievement, love and friendship - each and every day, not once in a while. That's what matters, and that's what This Day Forward is all about. 

In my 20s, I thought I'd be married with children by 30. Now, in my 30s, I see happiness in every page of my gratitude diary, in every smile from friends and family, in every moment that reminds me of all that is good in the world. 

Happiness is hard won... but rarely forgotten.