Please click on this link to read an article that was just published online in the Chicago Tribune about my show, “Chicago Lights”, which has its grand opening on Friday 16 November at the Zhou B Art Center in Bridgeport, Chicago. I am thrilled and chuffed to bits with this. I was thinking about writing a blog piece saying what I’ve been up to this last year and wonderful Rick has done the job for me! Now that’s what I call perfect timing! He has really captured the essence of what I’m doing and he even spoke to some of my subjects about the experience so you really get a proper overview. Anyway, here it is. Please have a read. It takes about four minutes.
I recently lost my sense of humour, hence the reason I’ve been away from this blog for a while too long. My humour is a well worn blanket, a comfy pair of slippers, a friend when I’m in need and an asset when a conversation is flagging or steering into the “woe is me” domain. Without my friend, humour, I’ve felt stranded. Here follows a rather dramatic story behind it’s loss and finally, it’s thankful return…
It was a regular Monday morning back in April – school run, quick dog walk with my two dogs (one, Ginger, adopted the day before, quite by surprise, from a photo shoot) and then a car ride to a shoot. I was off to photograph a gospel singer in a church on the south side so I was driving at a snail’s pace as it’s an unknown area for me. For about ten minutes, the roads were eerily quiet and empty of cars. I was ambling across an intersection just two minutes from my destination when WHAM! CRASH! WHACK! SPLAT- I was HIT with horrendous force by a speeding car and flipped over and over.
My life did not flash before my eyes and I didn’t feel fearful. Instead I felt absolutely, indignantly furious. “What?!” I thought “this is NOT happening to me! I’m on my way to a church for goodness sake! I’ve been putting money in the karmic bank of goodness for years and THIS is how I’m repaid?” Well all these thoughts and more were squashed together into one enormous “NO!” and then suddenly, out of nowhere, I was surrounded by a large bubble (not sure how else to describe it) and felt like I was floating in very slow motion. I heard loud and clear in my head “I am protected. I am ok” and then, as I hung upside down, I found myself wondering how big the car was. Yes dear readers, that utterly prosaic observation was what I thought about at my junction with life and death and life again.
Then the car stopped, stank of smoke and the panic began. I’ve seen all the films where, at this point, the car blows up, so I got out as fast as I could (I don’t know how) and scrambled through a broken window to an arm reaching out for me. Once out and surrounded by at least 40 gaping onlookers, I proceeded to spin about and wail very loudly in my very English accent, wearing my neat mac and tidy shoes. I could see people staring in wonder. “How could this happen to me?” I cried. ” I am doing a project for this city and THIS is my repayment. I am so upset! I am furious! I can’t believe this!” I continued for a while until my inner voice interrupted “How much longer are you going to wail you drama Queen? I think it’s time to quieten down- you’ve made your point- be quiet!”. I must say it’s quite odd to have such a loud inner voice and even stranger for it to be so entirely and utterly sensible. I may have heard it whisper in the past but now it had taken charge and it had the tone of a bossy headmistress! I decided to ignore it until two nice ladies with the look of social workers managed to sit me down on the pavement and calm me.
Then, when everyone decided I was sane, out came the endless questions “Do you have insurance? Were you wearing a seatbelt? Where were you going? Can you call your insurance? Shall we tow your car?” I quite fancied a cup of tea and a hug but needs must so I found myself taking charge from my pavement seat. Then came the police- two very cool looking ladies with mirrored shades. “You are lucky to be alive” they said in unison “hardly anyone gets out of these accidents alive- ever.”
With that, I was strapped onto an ambulance bed and rushed off to a trauma unit. Once there, I was surrounded by doctors who told me they needed to cut off my clothes to check my spine. “Cut my clothes?” I asked them incredulously and in a tone as bossy as I could muster whilst lying down. “You will do no such thing. I have just bought this outfit in London and you are not going to cut it.” “Oh” they replied, looking surprised and chastised. They let me take control and take off my own garments. Once checked from top to toe, I was declared ready to go home and took an uber. Yes really. Friends rallied round and my husband was flown back shocked and shaken from his trip in Hong Kong. For a while my sentences came out a bit topsy turvy and I had a few flash backs but my main thought was one of relief, wonder and gratitude.
Three months have passed and my sense of humour has finally returned. It took lots of small steps, love, friends and a very conscious effort to live in the present and really appreciate every moment, to finally get it back.
My neck still hurts but I do have a great place to go where I get my bones cracked into place by a cheerful lady and then a handsome young Physiotherapist gets me to make double chins endlessly and then laughs AT me whilst I do them, which I find quite endearing.
I look back now and feel like my excess emotional baggage from the past that I was quietly dragging about, exploded on that road and I walked into my present life clean , shiny, free and ready for new adventures.
Always wear a seatbelt!!
Valentines Day is nearly upon us. How does that make you feel… excited, indifferent, desperate, desperate to be indifferent?
I received my first Valentine’s card from a boy when I was fourteen. I met him when I was home for the weekend from boarding school and he was visiting us with his family. For some reason we had to go to the local shops together. I remember him being quite excitable about being with me, which as a slightly mean 14 year old, I found slightly vile. In his sweaty excitement, he took a lunge and tried to kiss me! Heaven forbid! Yuck! I managed to duck just in time behind a red letter box (the days of snail mail!) He must have found my indifference alluring as unfortunately on Valentine’s Day he sent me a card. I was sharing a dormitory with about six girls in an old fashioned, creaky, cranky English boarding school set in large, spooky grounds. I’m not sure why I refer to it as a school as it was more akin to a prison. We were watched over by unloving, brittle old matrons with enormous pointed bosoms who marched up and down the corridors to check we were in bed on time and not disobeying the many rules laid down for us. Above and beyond the formidable military atmosphere, it was the relentless tedium that I un-fondly remember.
The “Day Girls”- those lucky girls who actually lived at home – raced off at the end of each school day to their families, decent meals, hugs and comfy beds whilst us boarders stayed at school. It was in this heady atmosphere of teenage hormones and blistering boredom that I opened the aforementioned card. He had written his words of admiration on lilac paper and I do believe he must have poured a whole bottle of perfume on it. I was horrified! I could hear my friends snigger but could also sense their watchful longing. When would they get one they wondered? I on the other hand hoped I would never get one again! Romance – Pah!
As boarders in an all girls’ school, sightings of the opposite sex were rare and enough to get our hearts fluttering. The thought of romance and boyfriends started to permeate the hormone drenched atmosphere – nearly everyone wanted one or at least pretended they did. By this time I had taken to secretly reading books by the notorious writer Harold Robbins (look him up! 70s filth!) and was being informed by the pill popping, sex addicted, drug and drink fuelled fantasy lives of his shady heroes and wild heroines (so much more raucous and exciting than Fifty Shades of Bore!) I have no idea how I came across those books in the sterile atmosphere of school or how I managed to hide them from “matron” but I must have been quite wily.
With all those lurid and decadent images racing through my mind, my very funny friend Jo and I decided to write a novel. We spent a whole month fighting over the first page, both determined to make our mark on it and equally determined to include some “naughty” scenes of our own- what were we thinking? We had absolutely no idea- we were just two completely naieve 14 year olds with only heresay to go on and our imagination as fuel! We finally gave up our burning desire to be literary heroines but not without the thought of romance brewing in our hearts.
My poor maths teacher took the brunt of this. He was one of only two men who taught at the school (brave, brave man!). I remember with shame (and I have to admit, some mirth) how he used to teach me and Jo (yes her again- definitely a trouble maker!) and my great friend Rozanne, an after school club entitled “Skills of the Darkroom.” We certainly had some skills to show him! He was a bit lacking in the looks department, was probably in his late 20s and was sweet and very shy. Each time he turned off the lights to process the image (which was at least 10 times a session) we took it in turns to pinch his bottom! The poor man! He never, ever mentioned it (and we did it every single week) whilst we giggled relentlessly.
Yes, I admit we were awful, but when you lock up loads of girls together, you have to expect some mischief!
Now you might be able to tell from these stories that I wasn’t particularly romantic. On my journey through life, until I met Leo, young men did try and lure me with flowers and romance, one even hired a yellow rolls royce to take me out – but I wasn’t having any of it!
When I finally found Leo I was so relieved that he had no idea at all that he was supposed to display his affection like that. He gave me flowers if he saw some he liked but never on Valentines. The thought of us two going for a romantic dinner with candles surrounded by other couples being “Romantic” would just make us cringe. Even on our honeymoon we went out of our way to avoid the typical, exotic, far flung location with secluded beaches, private bungalows and nightly rose petals adorning our beds. Instead Leo chose Turkey (Air miles! He was so chuffed!) where we filled our days with action packed adventure – from mountain climbing and yoga to swimming and sight seeing. We even joined a tour group who were very surprised we were with them – “Are you sure this is your honeymoon?” they kept asking “Really sure? Here with us?” “Yes” we laughed, “It’s perfect!” We then hired a car to race about the coast line, stopping to stay the night in little places we liked the look of. Yes, this was much more “my cup of tea”.
I am happy to say I think my 14 year old self would definitely approve of the woman I’ve become. So if you have kids (nieces/ nephews/ God kids), take a good look at them now (especially teenagers) as they are already showing you clear signs of exactly who they are going to be!
Are you worried about life? Do you think it’s all going belly up and/or down the tubes? Are you looking for help and a clear answer amidst the unfolding chaos? Yes? Well you won’t find one here BUT you will find some stories that might just make you feel better about your own life, even if it is at my expense!
So it started like this; here we were staying in a fancy big house for our opening number in Chicago. I’d like to say that we were happy and cheery and embracing change but that would be a huge false positive and my current mood embraces honesty. So we were moaning, homesick and having adjustment issues. In desperation, Leo decided to fly in my sister Gemma and her son George to help us settle in. She has a soothing and gentle personality and laughs joyfully at ridiculous things, which is deeply infectious- so yes, her presence was an immediate and very gratefully received tonic.
Chicago, through her eyes, sparkled and shone and we all felt hopeful again. We took ourselves off to the lake, swam, frolicked on the beaches, hired bikes and ate in the elegant Lincoln Park cafe near the famous Chicago zoo. We spent hours in the incredible Art Institute, admired the sculptures in Millenium Park and wandered around our neighbourhood feeling happy and jolly.
We noted how smiley and friendly the people of Chicago were and our spirits lifted. We could make something of this time here! It was ok. Then they left and we fell into doom and despair. When would we see them again? We didn’t know and our hearts bleeted like lost lambs looking for safety.
A few sullen days later, I heard a huge shout from the scarily stylish sitting room in our air B and B house. “Mummy” screamed Anoushka “there’s water pouring through the ceiling” I ran in and there it was pouring all over the yellow velvet chairs. We dragged them to one side and found a bucket, but not before it had throughly soaked me.
I sprinted up the stairs to find the dastardly culprit, imagining it was an overflowing sink but to my horror it was the toilet-yes toilet! It poured all over my feet and wooshed and flowed like a tsunami over the floor and down the expensive polished wooden stairs, heading for the sitting room rugs with a horrid determination. I felt my insides flip over with fear and mild disgust. I found a plunger and whacked it up and down in the toilet like Superwoman (it’s remarkable the strength you have when in “fight or flight mode!) and thankfully the water resided.
I inspected the damage and saw a large crack beginning to appear on the sitting room ceiling. I would have to call the owners. I felt sick. I mustered up the courage and got on with it and was surprised by their very relaxed response. Leo’s work were paying a very large amount of cash to them each week so I presumed that accounted for it! I managed to clear up the house and the ceiling didn’t cave in – we had had a lucky escape!
A few months later, when we had moved into a more permanent rental, I was woken up on a Saturday morning at 6am by enormous shrieks and shouts. I came flying out of bed in my nightdress, hair squashed to my head, glasses left beside the bed so the world was slightly out of focus and found my feet drenched as I ran up the recently cleaned, carpeted stairs.
There was my husband looking seriously stressed by the small ground floor bathroom and there was that water yet again pouring out of another toilet. Even without my glasses I could see he was wearing a frantic expression. “Plunge that thing down it!” I shouted “What thing?” I pushed past and grabbed the toilet brush “This!” I screamed, whilst bashing it up and down inside the toilet bowl. “Oh no!” I cried “What?” shouted Leo “the brush has got stuck!” There was nothing I could do – I plunged my arm down into the bowl to retrieve it. This was too awful. I handed the brush to my husband -“You do it!” I shouted again, this time adding a string of colourful expletives (well wouldn’t you? I hadn’t even had a cup of tea and my feet were soaked in wee!) He took charge (hooray!) and with enough pummelling the water finally retreated- the battle was won!
The kids by this time were standing watching us in bewildered bemusement. “Go back to bed!” I shouted at them too. It was a very shouty morning. “Where are you going?” Leo asked “I am going right back to bed myself. You can sort this out! That was the most disgusting start to my day ever!”
We recounted the story to our lovely upstairs neighbours “But” noted Andrew, a Pilot and all round brilliant and practical human with great cooking and gardening skills “Why didn’t you just turn off the valve?” Yes dear friends, next to the toilet was a little tap and if turned, the water stopped. Well you live and learn!
About six months later (yes, there’s more) just before we were due to move into our new and just decorated house, I noticed that water was pouring through the bathroom ceiling. I rushed upstairs and knew immediately that it was the devilish toilet but this time I was too quick for it – I reached down, turned off the valve and defeated it! Under advice we replaced all the malicious toilets, thereby averting any future potential catastrophes – what a relief.
The moral of this story is that sometimes life throws a pile of filth your way (in our case, literally!) but once it’s faced and washed away, things start to look a lot brighter. I’ve learnt from experience that there is normally a silver lining in most situations and if in doubt – laugh it out!
We arrived in the USA and for the time being, we were here to stay. Were we ready for this? No. Did we know what to expect; have any friends, family or ties – No. Yet here we were; every step we took would be a step towards creating our new life. It was a daunting and interesting position to be in. Suddenly we were in a city where people had no preconceptions about us. We could, if we wanted to, literally reinvent ourselves. I wasn’t quite ready for that but I did find myself wondering if there were outdated parts of myself I could eliminate and if fresh parts might emerge in their place.
With those thoughts pinging through my mind we arrived at our air B and B house, where we would be staying for the next six weeks. It was super slick and fancy. The walk in wardrobe was packed with colour coded shirts, post it notes with tiny instructions for us were affixed to every cupboard, a heated toilet seat graced the master bathroom (yuck! Who wants a hot bottom?) plus there were seven television sets scattered around the house including one in aforesaid bathroom… maybe TV watching whilst having a hot bottom was all the rage in Chicago? As if that wasn’t enough to worry me, downstairs in the beautifully decorated reception area were four elegant, orange velvet chairs nestled under a horrifyingly expensive looking chandelier.
Now, we happen to have two very lively kids who quite like a spot of indoor ball throwing (when I’m not looking) plus occasional sofa gymnastics, so I felt mildly nauseous as I pre-empted all the potential disasters just waiting to happen, but my tummy cried out for food, which was a welcome distraction, so off we trotted, Skyla in tow, to find some.
The first thing I noticed was that Chicago was so hot and steamy it felt tropical 🌴, which really surprised me. We were staying in Bucktown, a trendy area bustling with life, people and activity. There were upmarket boutiques, vintage stores, record shops, guitar shops and enough bars, restaurants and cafes to keep us busy for years. It was heaving with strong young couples in fitness gear, some of them racing along with their prams (don’t those kids ever feel dizzy?), bearded hipsters (beards of all shapes and sizes from neat and trimmed to animal like long bushes!) tattooed ladies (I’ve never seen so many tattoos -ever!) and dog walkers – basically just my cup of tea!
A friendly soul guided us to Big Star, the hippest Mexican restaurant in town, packed with humans of all ages, blaring rock music and super cool staff. It was here we ate our first Chicago meal, Skyla sitting comfortably by our feet.
That weekend we explored the neighbourhood, finding ourselves in a street festival, Chicago style. There was great live music, international food and various stands selling everything from clothes, organic toiletries and home made candles to cheeses and bric a brac. Chicago really comes alive in the summer and now I’m experiencing their beautiful but brutal winter, I can see why! Once the sun shines, the restaurants and cafes fling open their doors and dining al fresco becomes the norm. It was this Chicago that greeted us on those first days and looking back, I’m so relieved it was as we had, what you might call, a “soft landing.”
We would spend August acclimatising to our new world before Leo started work and the kids started school. That month (and the ones after) were to prove challenging, in what had already been a challenging year, yet I remained resolutely hopeful and sometimes just a glimmer of hope is all you need.
The Chicago Botanical Gardens
This really is a place of wonder and immense beauty for all the family. You can stay there all day and it has a great restaurant serving healthy food. If the weather is good you can eat on the terrace overlooking the gardens. http://www.chicagobotanic.org
Goorin Brothers Hat Shop, Bucktown
This is the best hat shop in Chicago. They host regular parties here, with food, live music and a great atmosphere. Their staff are well informed, interesting and great to talk to. It’s really worth a visit. http://www.goorin.com
Fun, trendy Mexican restaurant with a large terrace that’s open for as long as the sun shines. This place is packed day in day out and always has a lively atmosphere. Dogs welcome! http://www.bigstarchicago.com
Buzz Killer Espresso
Buzz has the friendliest young staff, great cappuccinos, fresh pastries and is dog friendly – heaven when it’s a brisk -15 degrees Celsius outside and you need a quick warm up whilst out walking your dog!
Next up… Trials and Tricky Tribulations in Chicago…
What a year it has been – I’m sure for most people, not just me. I have to admit that I will look forward to putting this year in a box entitled “I’ve had enough of you already, go away and don’t come back!” then closing the lid and never looking in it again. Fortunately, there are some tiny nuggets of usefulness that have emerged out of the chaos and I have decided to share them, just in case anyone else needs a quick boost……
Be the change you want to see in the world. Really. You can do this.
You can’t make people like you.
Happiness is a state of mind. Take charge of your state of mind and your mind will take charge of your happiness.
Worrying gets in the way of progress, as does pettiness.
If you don’t exercise and you eat lots of chocolate, your bottom will grow. It has no choice.
True friends honour you. Honour them and honour yourself.
You can’t have a successful relationship with someone if you don’t share the same principles and morals.
Laughter is definitely and without a doubt, the best medicine. I definitely need more of it.
You can’t always help people, even if you want to.
Sarcasm is a good tonic for the soul. If you are looking for some, find a Brit and tap them and out it will pour.
Get a really good hairdresser. A really good haircut will transform your mood/life. Same can be said for a really bad one.
You can tell a man by his shoes.
Don’t make excuses.
If you have to lie, make it convincing or don’t bother.
Learn to forgive but don’t forget.
Forgiveness is the best form of revenge (success helps too- never give up!)
Life sometimes throws a pile of 💩your way. See it as fertile manure and grow something good out of it because within every pile of 💩is a lesson.
Your thoughts create your world. Literally. So clean them and make them sparkle! Get them shiny and ready for 2017. As I’ve been taught this year- “what you focus on you get more of!” So change your focus!
A bit of moaning is a good thing. Relentless moaning is really dull.
If you are feeling down, here are my top tips for instant mood enhancement:
1. Eat dark chocolate (70% does the trick) One small bar is enough to lift your mood and get your heart racing. 2. Eat eggs – any style 3. Eat hot chilli. You can even have the chilli in your chocolate or on your egg! 4. Watch a comedy. Anything with Bill Murray, Martin Short or Michael McIntyre works for me. 5. Call a friend who really likes you and doesn’t mind you moaning. Just remember, they will need to be able to moan back. 6. Have a good cry and/or shout (preferably somewhere private) and then walk in a park or go to a beach or hug a tree- just get outside and exercise! 7. Find a pet to stroke 8. Find an old person to help (not stroke). 9. Give to charity. 10. Every single time you walk past a mirror, give yourself a compliment – not just of the superficial kind, although they are pretty good too.
By the time you’ve done that lot, you will be too tired to moan.
And that folks, is what I’ve learnt this year.
So here we are in a blog about Chicago and yet here I am telling stories about Madrid! It’s definitely time to pack up this part of the story and shift countries, but just before I do, let’s just neatly close this European chapter of my life….
Four months into our stay in Madrid and life was beginning to go well; we had all made friends and somehow I could make myself understood in my odd pigeon Spanish with accompanying wild gestures and vivid facial manoeuvres. Leo bought himself a fancy car and his new man mobile seemed to improve his happiness levels by at least 90 percent. Meanwhile, mine were increased by all things botanical- namely our gorgeous garden bursting with colour from the red roses clambering up the walls and the striking green ivy worn proudly by our house to the fresh rosemary and mint growing in abundance around our pool- yes pool! It may have been small but it provided enormous amounts of pleasure to the kids, who threw themselves with joy into its refreshing waters each sweltering day after school.
Friends and family were starting to visit from London and did I mention that the food was great- I mean mouth wateringly, exceptionally, extraordinarily delicious. Eating was almost a spiritual experience! So all in all things were looking up and that’s the moment that Leo got the call from his Chicago based clients, inviting him to join their team and take off for yet a(nother) new life. It was an offer he couldn’t refuse but it meant uprooting ourselves all over again. How many new lives can one have in a year, I asked myself. I thought one was quite enough but now we had to tell the kids, who had finally started to settle after months of tears and drama. It certainly wasn’t a conversation I was looking forward to.
“No!” they shouted in unison, followed by more shouts and tears of disbelief. This was definely going to take some serious persuasion on my part. These kids were not happy, no, not happy at all. “We can’t move again! We’ve got friends! We like school!” Their anguish made my heart hurt.
We were heading to the land of dreams, myths and legends. This was the country where you could reinvent yourself, start from scratch and carve out a whole new life, yet here were we, a middle aged couple with two kids and a small dog – did we really have the stamina to pursue the “American dream?”
Leo could see we needed some encouragement so decided a virtual tour of Chicago would awaken our yearning to move there. We squeezed around him as he charged up the computer to show us Chicago in all its glory. “Look” he cried enthusiastically “there’s Chicago freezing. Can you see how cold it gets. Oh wait -here are photos of Chicago snowing- just look at that – can you see how deep it gets? Oh wait- here’s some of Chicago with really terrible Arctic winters. Do you know, last year they had to close down the schools as it was so cold.” We all looked at the screen then looked at him. Was this supposed to inspire us? Really? I hate being cold and have avoided ski trips passionately throughout my life. I’m what you could call a temperate girl – I like being luke warm and this was definitely not luke warm weather. “Look at this site” he cried with vigour, undeterred by our lacklustre responses, “it’s dedicated to showing you how many layers to wear in Chicago winters so you don’t get hypothermia! They even have balaclavas! Do you know that your eyeballs can freeze when it gets really cold?” Leo laughed – yes laughed, in a slightly frenzied way as he dispensed this information like an unsavoury tonic.
“What’s summer like?” I asked desperation gently bubbling up and threatening to break the surface, “It’s great! It’s so hot! Really hot and humid but pretty short! You’ve basically got eight months a year of winter!” Now, I’m not sure about you but this tactic wasn’t working for me. “Leo, for goodness sake, show me something positive!” I was probably a touch shrieky by this point. “Look Abigail, they have loads of beaches and the people are really nice. It might just be the friendliest big city in the States and I won’t get another chance like this- ever. We have to do this.” “Oh” I replied, at a loss for words. And that, dear readers, is how we ended up moving to Chicago.
Next up… those first chaotic weeks…