Allowed to feel

I’m looking after Jenson, my son, as my husband goes to London to spend the day with his mum. The morning started off a little sketchy, with Jenson calling out for his daddy and the slightest thing setting off tears.

I tried to distract him and get this day going by suggesting a trip to the park. But I realised his trousers and his coat were soaked from playing in the garden earlier on.

I couldn’t leave him like that. I had to change him before we could set off to have a bit of fun and adventure for the morning.

He wasn’t keen on getting changed, and so I tried the parenting advice of offering him alternatives to give him some sense of choice.

“Do you want me to dry your clothes with the hairdryer? Or do you want to change into something dry?” I asked him. And after a bit of to-ing and fro-ing – tears and tantrums he said that he wanted to change his clothes.

So off we pattered into the bedroom to get him changed and ready.

But as I tried to undress him and put him in something more appropriate, he lost his cool. He was screaming, clutching his clothes, almost throwing up with the effort of crying. Furiously resisting me taking off his damp clothes.

Sometimes I’d think “ok, you can stay in your wet clothes” – for example, he hates having the rain cover put over his buggy, so quite often he ends up getting wet as I push him around. The screaming and tantruming is often not worth the price of him getting slightly damp in the rain.

But this was different, I couldn’t let him stay in something so wet with the cold weather outside.

It wasn’t a choice to just go with the flow this time.

And so I continued onwards in my wrestling to take off his clothes. Cajoling and begging and pursuing the removal of his clothes regardless of how he reacted.

It just kept getting worse.

Until he was almost naked, screaming and red-faced.

And so I did with my friend Laura Grove had suggested when he was a newborn, stripping down on top myself and hold him in a skin to skin embrace to calm him down.

I held him as he cried and went through cycles of sniffling and then wailing and then calming and then crying, finding peace, then going back to some more crying.

And eventually, he fell asleep, deep asleep, in my embrace.

I kept on humming deeply all through this, not ‘shushing’ him but instead making a sound which I hope expresses to him I hear you, I’m sad with you, I understand.

I thought about all the other times that I have tried to work through similar situations. Usually this involves getting us out of the house ASAP to provide Jenson with some distraction of the outside world.

But this situation today is revealing something deep inside me, the belief that it’s important for him to learn that it is safe to feel.

In a world where masculinity so often involves the denial of feelings in the pursuit of toughness, being constantly strong and capable, focusing on nothing but logic, thinking and reason, I need him to know that it’s okay to feel.

Is it okay to feel sad, frustrated and to express that whatever way is appropriate, even in tears.

Part of me worries about how he will fit if he grows up sensitive when the world doesn’t show kindness to delicate boys.

How can he be someone who feels when his friends and peers might mock him for this?

And how can I parent consistently in this way – encouraging Jenson to feel – when my husband has a different approach of distraction, himself actively avoiding feeling any negative feelings? 

How do we co-parent consistently and with compassion to him and with our different styles?

I don’t know.

But what I intuitively feel is that it’s important to allow Jenson to feel so that I bring forward a future with more space for the full spectrum of human feeling in him and for men of future generations – joy, suffering, wonder, anger, peace, frustration.

I want Jenson – and other children around him – to know it’s okay to express their feelings instead of bottling them up.

Because I know all too well what bottling things up results in – looking for distractions, afraid to be with the discomfort, paralysis in not knowing how to feel, discomfort with others feeling the emotions that you’ve deprived yourself the ability to feel.

It’s hard to stay in the feelings with Jenson, to not not try to make everything okay. Especially when I can’t always put things down to just focus on him.

But I think this is important and I feel that the foundations I’m building now – of him knowing it’s safe to feel – will be helpful for him in the future. 

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Catharsis

I’ve just finished reading a book about parenting that my mum gave me, parenting forward by Cindy Wang Brandt.

She warned me in passing it to me that it was written by a Christian but said she didn’t think it would be too heavily about Jesus or God that I, a ‘spiritual being’ who doesn’t believe in a God of any religion, would find offence with it.

Far from that, it’s been an eye-opening read.

It’s affirming in how I’m choosing to parent my son – allowing him to have a voice and opinion even at such an early age – and has also served as catharsis for the unspoken feelings and thoughts about my upbringing in fundamentalist religion.

The fundamental Christianity of my youth – by no means ‘fundamental’ compared to other types of churches – left its mark on me.

But I didn’t have a way to voice this until I heard my story told in that of Cindy’s.

Fundamentalism taught me to accept what was taught to me – believing was about unconditional acceptance of what I was told instead of a grappling of what was spoken about. A tidy faith, a believing faith with limited room for disagreement and only belonging, support and community if I could agree with what was taught.

Fundamentalism showed me a white, middle class faith that didn’t challenge the racial prejudices in the system. Jesus was white, he looked like me and our congregation was mostly white. We didn’t use our privilege to challenge the dominant culture, we kept safe in it. Race wasn’t discussed.

Fundamentalism taught me that women weren’t equal to men and that the feelings that so keenly came up inside me – anger, frustration, rage – were not acceptable to God or to the community I belonged to.

Fundamentalism taught me that my purity was the most important thing about me and I didn’t feel I fit once that purity was no longer ‘in tact’. As Cindy says ‘Fundamentalism failed my relationship in that I was taught to hold back even when it was good and appropriate expression of emotional connection‘.

Fundamentalism gave me no option other than a heteronormative view of sexuality and a narrow parameter with which that could be explored. And while happily married with a beautiful son, there is a ‘what if’ that I’ll always carry for the non-binary, more nuanced parts of my sexuality that never had a chance to come out of the closet.

And yet I came off pretty well all things considered – my privilege protected me as a cis-gendered, predominantly straight, white woman.

I didn’t have to suffer racial micro-aggressions or white washing of my culture. I didn’t have to hide all of me to fit in. I was resilient enough to temper myself. I came from an economically well-off family so always had more than enough to eat.

And I recognise that people in the church served me as best they could with what they had. All the above would have been (mostly) true if I hadn’t been brought up in the church – the times in which I was raised were when the inkling of sexual freedom, feminism, awareness of systemic racism and self-awareness were starting to bubble to the surface of our consciousness after being buried for several decades.

But it’s just nice to be able to read something and think ‘so it wasn’t all just me‘ – to have a story told in which I can see myself reflected.

So thank you, mum, for the book. It’s one I’d recommend to anyone who was brought up in the church and wants to be deliberate in the choices they now make, as a parent or just as an adult.

And I want to leave you with a sentence that hit home with me from the last chapter of Cindy’s book:

Children propel us into fighting for a better future because we belong to one another. We can see ourselves in the reflections of each other – our childhood in them, their future in us. 

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Good boy

I’m just on my way back home from a gorgeous wedding of close friends, Jake and Ash.

It was lovely to have a few hours away from parenthood as my husband and I danced up a storm and didn’t have any parental responsibility for an afternoon.

But despite being away from my little poppet, I was still thinking about him.

More specifically about the phrase ‘good boy’.

I’ve heard Jenson’s nursery workers use that phrase when praising him for something he’s done and I’ve heard others tell him that he’s a ‘good boy’ for similar circumstances.

But it sticks in my throat when I hear someone say ‘good boy’ to him and it’s not something I say to him when he’s shown skill or kindness or compliance.

Because I want to know that he is intrinsically good.

Regardless of his skill, kindness or compliance with my desires.

Don’t get me wrong, this doesn’t mean I’ll give him a free pass to do whatever he likes or that I don’t acknowledge what he’s done well.

If he does something out of line, I’ll say ‘that wasn’t nice’ or ‘be gentle please’.

And I say ‘bravo’ (I speak to him in French, this isn’t a reflection of my gentleman’s english!) or ‘bien fait’ – well done when he’s done something well.

I say the behaviour is out of line instead of saying he is out of line for doing something I disapprove of.

And I say the behaviour good instead of telling him he is good for doing something I approve of.

It’s semantics, but I think it’s important nevertheless.

Because I want him to grow up knowing that he is good.

Regardless of what he has done or not done.

Words do not do justice to the strength I feel for these words and the intensity of desire I have for him to know that he is good.

Because I believe this is a foundation – the belief that he is good – which is key for him to stand strong in life.

To feel able to follow his heart instead of hustling for the approval of others.

To not overly question his decisions but to trust his instincts.

To be happy in his own skin knowing that he is ok just as he is.

Part of me thinks ‘is this really important enough for me to raise this with his nursery?’

It’s just semantics.

And it’s not the only thing that will decide whether he has good self-esteem or a knowledge that he is fine as he is.

It’ll be Gregg and I showing him that we love ourselves, trust ourselves, believe we’re intrinsically ok.

It’ll be us respecting him and giving him enough freedom as he makes decisions for himself.

It’ll depend on us engaging in dialogue when he questions our boundaries.

Not to bend to his will, but to show him that he has a voice, is important, is intrinsically worthy of love and respect.

But stopping the ‘good boy’ comments seem like a good start.

And my gut tells me to raise it with his nursery.

I’d be interested to hear your thoughts, dear friend.

Self-care

I’m finding it really hard to write this post. I’ve written and deleted, written and deleted but still nothing seems to be coming out right.

My words seem mundane, I’m worrying about who might take my words personally and read into them more than I intended, I question whether these are words to share or if they would be an overshare.

And this all points in one direction – I haven’t been taking care of myself as I should have recently.

It’s been a mentally and physically exhausting time and the effects are taking their toll on me.

You see, the start of this year has been wonderful – celebrating my son’s first birthday, having two full weeks off work to spend with family – but it has also been trying beyond my limits with my routine out of kilter and, most distressing, Jenson not settling into nursery.

It was hell to leave him screaming with distress at our nursery ‘settling’ sessions and difficult to come to terms with the fact that our little monkey might not be ready for being separated from us. For a week Gregg and I were left in the unknown of whether we would both need to reduce our hours at work to provide full-time care for our son since he was finding the transition to nursery too distressing.

And as life as we knew it hung in the balance, it was unbearably hard.

Did we parent him in a way that made a transition to nursery more difficult for him? Would Gregg still be in support of all the parenting decisions that are so important to me – co-sleeping, extended breastfeeding, sling carrying – with his desire to support Jenson to be ‘independent’? How would our lives be if we were to cope on one salary? Would this impact plans that I dream for us as a family – plans that rely on our savings.

And the stress was too much for me.

Despite the fact that we turned a corner, he settled into nursery just in time – I’ve been left feeling broken and out of kilter.

My back was agony since I was carrying so much tension and I turned back to my old habits of eating too much.

Eating for comfort when things were too much.

Eating sweet stuff at work when this is something I’ve rarely done over the years.

Supplementing my lunch with crisps and other food that I didn’t need for hunger.

Eating more desserts than I usually would.

Eating more in social situations to squash my awkwardness or just because I was not being mindful of what I was eating.

And I’ve been worried more about what other people think of me.

I’ve clung onto the things that haven’t gone well at work and with friends and family.

I’ve pulled out all the things from my past that I didn’t do well to beat myself up with.

I’ve worried that I’m going to be ‘found out’, found wanting and that people will see me for the failure I am.

I’ve felt not enough.

I feel like my internal axis has shifted and suddenly I feel intrinsically ‘not ok’. I feel like my foundations have been shaken with the force of an earthquake and are full of cracks.

So how do I get back to where I was before all this happened?

The first thing is admitting that I’m not ok. I’ve been telling people – speaking to friends, telling my mum about how I’m feeling this weekend, sharing with my sister about what’s going on, speaking up when topics are causing my anxiety to spike to protect myself, talking to my husband about it all.

The second thing is reminding myself that food is not the issue. It’s the manifestation of what is going on underneath. And so, while I need to pay attention to the food stuff and try to not stuff myself silly, the most important thing is what’s going on underneath – not loving myself, not expressing myself, not having a release for the emotions that I am feeling, not being kind to myself while everything is a bit trickier than normal.

The third thing is remembering that this is just a moment in my life. It’s a hard moment, but just because I’ve gone a step back doesn’t mean that life will always be like this. It feels all encompassing at the moment when it’s just a short period of my life.

The fourth thing is that I need to put my self-care at the top of my priority list. I need to take a lunch break at work, find some sort of exercise (apart from running around like a headless chicken to get everything done in life!), I could benefit with doing some short meditations, writing a bit more than I have recently, painting my nails, reading a good book, cuddling up more with my husband, checking in with close friends, spending time with my son doing nothing but playing, putting down my phone more, having some ‘cave time’ cooking alone in the kitchen with a podcast on.

And finally I’ve requested some counselling through work to try to work out how I can be kinder to myself and how I can cope with my anxiety when everything feels a little bit harder than usual.

I hope this post can help you if you’re going through a hard time. I hope you can take comfort from knowing you’re not the only one who has a dysfunctional way of coping with hardship – I’m in the same boat as you!

It certainly feels better to have everything out in the open – to say I’m not ok, but that’s ok.

Life is full of ups and downs and just because this bit is down doesn’t mean that it always will be.

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Taking my own advice

I’m sat here, quickly typing away at this post before I go to London for my birthday weekend. I thought to myself this morning, as I was looking after Jenson at 5:15am, “what a different place I am this year compared to last year”.

In some ways it’s the best different in the world but in other ways, I desperately miss my old life. Miss being able to lie-in. Miss hours at cafes to blog. Miss having time as my own when I get home from work. Miss having more energy for things. Miss not having to feel pushy to have some time to myself.

Motherhood is beautiful but I’m also finding it brutal.

I want to do the best thing by Jenson – want him to have the best start in life – but I also know that this comes with a price for me as his needs stand firmly above my own.

For now at least. 

And so I just quickly looked back at my birthday post from last year and couldn’t believe that what I had written there spoke so clearly to me. 

I had written about how great my life was – job I loved, happy place with relationships, feeling I was starting to let go of people pleasing and start prioritising my own wellbeing – and shared my wisdom from when I had been in a darker place:

  • Reach out to someone
  • Take steps for the better but accept the present
  • Find gratitude
  • Know that this will pass

I couldn’t have known that I, a year later, would so desperately need these words of encouragement and support.

But my advice was spot on.

So I’m going to reach out and share that I’m struggling a bit – I suppose even writing this is me doing that.

I’ll think about what ‘steps for the better’ look like  – I think it means taking more time at the weekend to take care of myself, continuing to work from home as much as I can to have longer in bed and a gentler day, perhaps having one evening a week where I don’t snuggle down to watch a TV programme with Gregg but do something that is extra specially nourishing for me.

I’ll spend some time on my trip to London with Gregg reflecting on the gratitude I have for being a mum and for the lives that we’ve got. We’re pretty damn lucky. 

And I will take heart that this will pass. Jenson won’t always be so reliant on me and I’ll be able to be a bit more independent. Breastfeeding will end one day, and while I love nourishing him, it will lead to more independence for me. Just this moment too will pass. I’ll feel less loss for my past life and will be swept up in joy of my son’s laughter, love for my family as we cuddle and play together, pride as people remark what a sweetie he is. 

Relief

I’m part laughing to myself writing this – as soon as I took the pressure off myself and said that I wouldn’t be writing to you until my Christmas break, I have something that I want to get off my chest…the relief I’m feeling about Jenson’s feeding.

I’ve been fretting for a while now that he isn’t eating enough. He just doesn’t seem that interested in a lot of food and isn’t fitting into the pushed mantra that he should be eating three meals by now and two snacks.

We’ve seen a nutritionist partly due to Jenson’s vegan diet and partly due to the small variety of food that he’s eating…and it’s been on my mind more than it should.

Why won’t he eat?!

In my head, every other baby I know is eating. I see babies stuffing their faces with roasted vegetables, full-blown meals and fruit pieces when Jenson is just not there.

He eats a massive breakfast and then picks at this and that throughout the day.

It had got to a stage where we were almost forcing food into him (despite the alarm bells ringing in my head that this was not respectful to him as an individual) and were putting so many thoughts on him:

  • He is mistrustful of the new food we’re giving him
  • He’s holding out for sweet food
  • He isn’t open to trying new food
  • He’ll never get better at eating

But then a few things happened.

My good friend, Charlie, recommended a book called ‘My Child Won’t Eat’ which has been so interesting and a real relief, talking about the realities of childhood eating.

She shared with me that eating is not always easy for her with her son – making me feel not alone in this.

Another good friend, Jess, talked about how her son doesn’t fit into the NHS approved regime. She’s spoken before about how her son loves pasta (something that Jenson has no interest in) and I’d envisaged him eating it by the bucketload and eating everything in sight while I’m at it. It turns out that it’s not the case – he’s a bit particular too.

I suddenly felt not alone and saw the ‘three meals and two snacks a day’ exactly as it is – a framework, a guideline, a theoretical model which will not fit every baby.

What a relief!

And so I’m sharing this for all the mamas and papas out there who are maybe worried about their baby’s weight (or future mamas/papas) so you know that you’re not alone if you go through this.

Not the perfect mum

I’ve had a lovely weekend. A good friend of mine took Jenson for a few hours and this allowed Gregg and I to have an afternoon to ourselves. Time to reconnect, which is so important. It used to be a given. We could go out on dates, spend time together late into the night (not worrying about a certain someone who might wake up at 5am), have impromptu weekends away and spend so much time together.

It was wonderful to have time together, but as a result, I don’t feel like I’ve spent loads of time with Jenson.

And I’ve got the guilts about it.

I don’t want to be the ‘perfect mum’ but I find myself judging my choice to make lunch for Gregg and I for the week instead of rushing to spend hours watching and playing with Jenson. I feel less than adequate because I asked Gregg to get into the bath with Jenson tonight so that I could have a few moments alone, not doing any tasks, to write this.

And as I’m reflecting on all this self-judgement, here’s what comes up for me:

  • I am someone who needs time alone to process and reflect and breathe. And that didn’t stop when Jenson came into this world. So it’s natural that sometimes I’m going to want some time alone.
  • We went to a birthday party today – our first of many baby parties – and it was lovely. But it involved a lot of small talk with people I don’t know and that tires me out. I’m reminded that needing extra time alone hasn’t been a need in isolation. It’s partly because of the surrounding circumstances, needing a bit of time to boost up my energy and resilience after spending 3 hours with lots of people I don’t know.
  • The ‘perfect mum’ doesn’t exist. She doesn’t have to deal with tiredness or full-time work. And so she’s not someone I want to judge myself against.
  • I don’t have to find each and every experience with Jenson fascinating. I love the boy – he is my world and I’d be adrift without him. But watching him play with a plastic ride-on toy is sometimes (ok, mostly) boring. I don’t have to be in rapture at everything he does and it’s ok if I’d rather watch a film or read a book instead sometimes.

Just getting all this out in the open is enough to shelves the guilt. It reinforces that I don’t want to be the perfect mum and reminds me that even if I wanted to, I couldn’t be her.

So I’m going to enjoy the remaining time of peace whilst Gregg and Jenson are in the bath together.

No judgement whatsoever.

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Tender

I shared with you recently about a lot going on in my life. Connecting so strongly with the grief in my heart, feeling the call to more, returning to work after the life changing event of becoming a mum, learning all the lessons in store for me about mothering my beautiful, spirited son.

I was lying next to him tonight, feeding him and missing Great British Bake Off (thanks, my little joker. You knew I was wanting to watch it, I’m sure!) and once I accepted the reality that I was going to miss it, I stopped fighting the frustration and tapped into what I was feeling.

And here’s what I felt – a tenderness inside me like a bruise.

Being bashed around so much with exponential personal growth, changes to everything I know and the uncertainty and unpredictability of being a mother and not knowing what the future holds for me.

I am tender and a bit battered and a bit bruised.

There’s no denying how I feel – if just is. And there’s no real changing what’s going on for me – it’s my journey.

What I do know is that I need to show myself kindness and gentleness. I need everyone around me to show me the same gentleness and kindness too as I live this season of my life.

I know if won’t always be this way. But it’s this way at the moment.

There’s no great reveal or revelation about what I can do about where I am. But just expressing it – sharing it with you, dear friend – lightens the load and helps me walk the path that I’m on right now.

It’s not the easiest of roads but I’m sure it’ll lead to somewhere great.

Six months

I’ve been a parent for six months…bloody hell! How did that happen and how did this time pass both at a snails pace and in the blink of an eye?!

From a sleeping, crying, mewling little baby to a little being looking more and more like a toddler with each passing day. It’s incredible to see how much he has changed and how much I’ve changed during this time.

He now stands (sometimes unaided when he’s holding onto something), sits with such core strength, grabs anything in his reach, beams for us, strangers and for the camera…and yet some things don’t change. He’s still as determined as ever to sleep curled next to me, to feed or be rocked to sleep.

And he’s still as spirited as the very first day when he screamed the hospital down. The loudest, most determined baby on the block.

What about me? My changes are less perceptible, more internal but life changing nevertheless. My ability to be patient has increased, I now know I am stronger than I could have ever believed (from pushing his 4 kilo heft out of me to surviving on little sleep and getting twice done what I would have before), I have less tolerance for bullshit and for getting involved in those silly games that people play in life (psychological ones, not things like buckaroo or uno 😜).

And I feel a new steeliness inside me. If I’m going to leave my little person in someone else’s care, it better be for a job I am passionate about – something that lights me up. Otherwise why would I leave my little one?

And my decisions have more weight than before. Staying binge free and dealing with what’s going on underneath the surface is not just for my own good but for him too. So he doesn’t take on the practices that have been so harmful to me in the past. Sure, he’ll have his own struggles, but as much as I’m able to, they won’t be passed on from me.

And I’ve found joy in the small things. Seeing him smile, making him laugh by singing silly songs, watching Gregg being a better father than I could have ever dreamt him becoming, seeing the love of our families for Jenson.

I’ve also learnt to reach out and ask for help, to maintain boundaries and say no. To ask for what I really want instead of just wishing people could read my mind.

All in six short months.

And I find myself asking what the next six months will bring for both myself and my little half-Birthday boy. Adding in work to the mix for me, him spending most of the time with his father who will be on shared parental leave…

What I do know is that it will go by in the blink of an eye and that I will share what is happening with you, dear friend.

Only a few days left

Just shy of a month ago I started an adventure of my dreams – a trip around Asia with my husband and five – now soon to be six – month old baby boy. I’m now sat in the north of Vietnam, surrounded by beautiful rice fields and mountains with only a few days left of this trip and am reflecting on what this time has given me and my family.

I think that I’ve mostly enjoyed the space that these travels have given me. Time away from the normal humdrum rhythm of life where there is washing to do, cleaning to avoid and constantly things to do or fix around the house. With Gregg by my side, it has been lovely to co-parent our son instead of being chief in charge of his care, snatching minutes to do little things for me or my coaching business here and there when Gregg gets back from work.

It’s also given me a glimpse of the reality of going back to work as, even with his daddy showering him with love, Jenson constantly reaches towards me for comfort when he’s tired, restless, upset or feeling any difficult emotion. And it makes sense because I have solely fed him, spent 90% of his life with him, slept curled around him. So I’m aware that, as much as it’s right for me to go back to work in just over a week, it’s going to be brutally hard at times. For Jenson, for Gregg and for me.

The new reality of parenthood has firmly sunk in (even more than it had before – if that’s possible!). Our trip away has been wonderful, but it has been at Jenson’s pace. We’ve been tucked up in bed by 10:30 at the latest, I’ve only had a few sips of the delicious alcohol over here and there has been less time for personal reflection as I would have done before, no hours spent journaling in beautiful cafes or reading for hours on beautiful beaches. It’s not bad or lesser or not preferable. It’s just not the same. And even though life will go back to a more similar version of what was before as Jenson finds his independence and grows up, I firmly know that my life has been changed forever as a mum.

And the life change has been wonderful in ways as we have been welcomed by the Cambodians and Vietnamese people we have met so warmly all because of Jenson. We’ve been engaged with so much more, had Jenson spirited away into a person’s arms so we could eat a meal as a couple and at times couldn’t walk 10 meters without someone coming up to talk to us about Jenson. He’s been cherished, loved and has enthralled the people we’ve met and has opened peoples hearts to show us more of these countries than I could have ever hoped.

This time has also shown me all that is possible with a baby. How it is possible to travel with children. How it is possible to live life as a parent without being in constant state of fear about what might happen. How parenting is about trusting my instincts instead of some ‘how-to’ book. How I can write my own rules as a mum. And that has been refreshing and eye-opening.

Finally, this trip has shown me that I’m not finished adventuring. As I said when I left Cambodia, I’ve loved exploring this part of the world, seeing new things and learning about other people and myself. While Gregg has shared with me that he is ready to come home, I’ve got a few more countries in me still. I feel that I could continue onto Laos or spend another month going to China to explore different cultures and places. There is so much of this world to explore and I am keen to see more of it!

Oh how I could go on – there is so much more I could reflect on as this trip as brought so much richness into my life but for now, this is enough. I’m off for a final walk of the day around this beautiful area of the world.