Sometimes I forget to breathe. I’ll notice that I haven’t taken a deep breath in the last hour (or week) and, standing by the sink in the kitchen or staring into the pixels of my computer screen, I’ll consciously make the effort.
I’ve spoken to plenty of people who feel the same: we’re shallow breathers. But given how wonderful that first deep breath feels, wouldn’t we love to breathe a little deeper all the time?
After all, the air is right there, waiting for us to swallow it down to the bottom of our lungs. There are deep, inexhaustible breathfuls of air all around us, all the time. And breathing can do wonderful things.
Air doesn’t care whether we clear landmines for a living or make bullets for child soldiers in the Central African Republic. No matter: air is there for us.
Air gives us breath in abundance: we take as much as we please, almost without noticing. And, on the exhale, we pump out that sweet, sweet carbon the trees thrive on.
Breath in, breath out: the atmosphere is kept in balance. It is the base unit of our existence—and the existence of every living being on the planet. Air must be circulated. Without circulation, the whole system breaks down.
This is exactly like love.
Love is nothing special. Love isn’t something that we have to mine from the sweat of our brow. Love isn’t something tangible like fruit or clothing. It’s not even something purely conceptual like war or money.
It’s like the air: almost ludicrously abundant, the fundamental currency of life. Intangible, but real; everywhere, but invisible.
We might not be able to see the air, but we can all feel it: the rustle of the wind in the trees or the almost imperceptible caress of a zephyr on our cheek. At other times, the air is master of our existence: trapped inside a hurricane or in a storm on the high seas.
So too love: if we stop we can usually feel love even on the calmest of days. But love is no less there even when we can’t perceive it, in the same way that the air is no less there because we can’t feel the wind or see the trees swaying.
We don’t need to notice or think about the air in order to breathe. All we need to do is let our autonomic system do its thing.
Like the air, love is always there for us, unconditional. We only need to open our nostrils, throat and lungs and breathe: love in, love out.
Of course, neither air nor love are always entirely wholesome. We have polluted air and we have polluted love. Most people some of the time have moments when they find it hard to breathe—most people some of the time find love hard to feel, detect, receive or return.
But tapping off another living being’s supply of love is akin to standing on the hose that pumps oxygen into the lungs of a ICU patient.
Maybe, I thought one morning as I awoke from an aural dream, maybe I’m worrying too much. Maybe I’m trying too hard. Maybe I don’t have to do anything for love except let my autonomic system do the easy work: breath in, breath out.
The out breath is important. We can’t stockpile air: we’d explode. We can’t stockpile love either. Love is desperate for circulation. Without circulation, the whole system breaks down. So we don’t hold our breath: we breathe out.
My breathing is shallow. Next time I’m standing by the sink or staring into the pixels, I’ll imagine I’m breathing in all the love in the world—wouldn’t I breathe deeply then?
And wouldn’t I breathe out as deeply, because I want to share this carbon with the trees and this love with all living beings.
A monologue, delivered by a young woman to her friends (and, incidentally, the rest of the carriage) on a GWR train from Cholsey to Paddington.
I got Netflix last night. It represents a real turning point in my life – basically an admission that I’ll be lonely the rest of my days.
I’ve always borrowed Netflix off my girlfriend or the person I was seeing so not getting Netflix forced me to continue the pursuit of love. Now I’ve got my own Netflix I don’t need to go out anymore. I’ve given up.
On the plus side, though, getting Netflix means I don’t have to stay too long in toxic relationships – that’s worth £10 a month!
Actually it was £6 because I got the individual account. They boosted me to premium for the first 30 days – I only wanted it for Christmas.
So I spent all last night watching Don’t F*** With Cats. Everyone’s talking about it – where have you been, under a rock or something?
I don’t know anything about animal cruelty, so I thought it’d just be that woman who put the cat in the bin, but it wasn’t.
What, if anything, makes you fall in love with a person?
I reckon we can climb that fence. Yes!
Here, try this. She hands me a forkful of mozzarella.
At 2 a.m. we are still sitting out on the rocks overlooking the Bay of Naples.
Kindness where kindness is unexpected. What’s mine is yours. Sharing private moments together, even in public. Saying yes. Eye contact, smiles, easy laughter, a light touch. Conversation that burrows deep. Lingering.
There is magic in play and even more in secrets.
My companion on last week’s Neapolitan food tour was a woman from Texas. For the sake of this email, let’s call her Sylia because, quite frankly, that’s her name and it becomes impossible to conceal later on in the story…
I only knew Sylia for the 64 hours it took us to eat our way around Napoli. After our final espresso breakfast, I was travelling back to England via Milan and Paris, and she was flying to Dubrovnik before flipping over the pond back to California.
She told me that she had a layover in Paris too. In fact, less than a week separated my overnight sojourn in the City of Light and hers. We parted.
I walked down to the Seine to watch the sunset. I’ve been here before. Crowds milled around Notre Dame, taking selfies in the golden hour.
Below the busy streets, nowhere-steps led down to the river’s edge where a few of us enjoyed a private showing of the day’s final rites.
I sat on a polished stone wall and let the sun soothe my travel-tired face.
Then I had a thought.
Sylia felt like more than a fleeting acquaintance. For 64 hours, we behaved as if destiny played our hand and, as ever when destiny gets involved, much had gone unsaid.
For 64 hours, we had sailed that soft shoreline between the moment now and the future then, saying nothing that might come too close to broaching our pleasure.
But now I wanted to feel my feet on solid ground; and I wanted her to see me standing there too.
So what if I wrote a letter and left it for her, here, in Paris?
I had a notebook in my bag, but no pen. I heard an Australian voice a couple of steps down: a middle-aged woman and her Belgian lover sharing a dusky pique-nique of ham and torn bread.
‘Excuse me, do you have a pen I could borrow?
I sit back down and tear a single sheet from my notebook. I promise myself no more than one side of A5. That is surely enough for me to say what I need to say. I’m not a schoolboy any longer.
So I begin, sure that I will find the right words as a rhythm starts to flow.
Sylia – Did you know that your name means ‘If there is…’ in French? It’s a question I’ve been asking myself since I met you…
I fill one side of A5, but it’s half baked, scatter-brained. I promise myself the second side and turn over.
There are so many things I haven’t said here – and the ones I have, so poorly expressed…
It doesn’t quite happen on this side either. I say some things, I fill the space, but it’s not right. Oh well. My promised time is up.
I origami myself an envelope, write her name on the outside, and fold the whole into a dart of paper. Then I feel the stone walls for a crack that might hide my letter until she arrives.
I look around. Everyone is either on their phone or with their back to me. I slip the letter into the wall and smile.
I return the pen and share a few words of thanks before sitting back down on my wall.
It’s not right. A writer and I never found the words.
‘Sorry, I don’t suppose I could borrow your pen again, could I?’ Mild surprise, mid-mouthful. ‘I’m writing to a friend, and you know when you realise that you haven’t said a word of what you meant to…?’
I unfold the origami envelope. The inside of the envelope is blank: enough room for a dozen lines, no more. The mind is focussed and I write.
I fold the envelope back over the letter and squeeze it back into the letter box, certain now that someone has seen me and is only waiting for me to leave before tearing open the letter for a laugh. I hope they return it instead of chucking the feeble paper into the softly infinite river.
But I have said almost exactly what I wanted to say to Sylia and the rest is now in the hands of fate.
I brush my hand over the wall where the secret is hidden, casting a spell. We can turn the city into a place of magic so easily. A place of games and play, of secrets and love, that stretch across time and space.
I walk back up the steps and into the gloaming night. The streets are still busy, but now everyone’s clutching at home.
As I walked, Sylia, the person at the heart of the story, became almost irrelevant. I sent her a few photos that I hoped might lead her to the location. Notre Dame in the background. A distinctive piece of graffiti. The crack in the wall. Enough that, if she wanted to find the letter, she could.
I returned to London, and then Wales for a week of writing with friends.
In among the laughter, the work and the dog walks, of course, I didn’t entirely forget about the letter, or the woman; but as time passed, the immediate sensation that we were close enough to touch faded.
I sent her a message on Saturday: Are you in Paris?
Lime trees wrap their greenery in a metaphor. The buds, with one small and one large scale, look like mini boxing gloves, spoiling for a fight. But they unfurl with the light into perfect heart-shaped leaves for loving.
The flowers are hermaphrodite so, perhaps understandably, the lime tree is well-known to aid fertility. And, like the toughest love, lime wood doesn’t warp. It’s still used to make piano keys.
Pick the leaves for a summer salad, particularly when covered in aphid poo, which makes them all the sweeter.
If the day after Christmas is nicknamed ‘Boxing’ and the Friday before
Easter is supposedly ‘Good’, then what shall we call the day after Saint
Love is something of an empty word, in that it means so many different
things to different people with no one agreeing on much aside from its
It’s the perfect hook for a marketing campaign.
Even the local British Heart Foundation are leveraging the season to
hoick donations from people looking to advertise their love in the shop
window on Gloucester Road.
But what I never hear about is the relationship between love and ambition. Bear with me.
You can’t love someone unless you truly love yourself.
Not only do I disagree with this card filler, but I actually think it is much easier to love someone else than to love yourself.
Do you love yourself? I don’t. Quite a surprising revelation if you’ve never properly entertained the question.
It doesn’t mean that I loathe myself, but I don’t love myself as much as I love other people in this world.
Think of how you feel when a loved one walks into the room.
If you’re anything like me, then you’re absolutely THRILLED. Your face
lights up and you feel a ripple of excitement about how the next ten
minutes are going to play out.
That is not the feeling I get when I wake up in the morning. ‘Ooh, look – I’m ME again!’
No. My first thought on regaining conscious control of my higher
faculties is more along the lines of: ‘Ugh. How can it be morning again
If you do react with unalloyed delight every time you realise
that you’re inhabiting your own skull, then all credit to you. That must
be a pretty special place to be (if a little disturbing for the rest of
The people I love, I love unconditionally. If there’s one thing about
love that we all agree on, aside from its enormous marketing potential,
it’s that it should be unconditional.
No matter what your loved ones do, you’ll always give them the benefit
of the doubt, you’ll always support them, you’ll always think that what
they’re doing is awesome and deserves to triumph.
But hold on. Always?
Actually, no. On serious mathematical reflection, I estimate that I
unconditionally love my loved ones about 95% of the time (and yes I am
aware of the contradiction in that sentence).
But 95% of the time is still pretty amazing, and sufficient that we all use the shorthand ‘love’ to account for such madness.
wildly exaggerate their positive qualities. In particular, you
overestimate their intelligence, sense of humour, beauty and profundity.
much all the time, you can’t see their faults. When unambiguously
confronted with their faults, they’re charming – or at least off-set by
the fact that they own a Lexus.
You unfailingly interpret their intentions as good, even when bad things happen. Again and again.
You talk them up to others, who may or may not roll their eyes.
You feel completely comfortable around them (this might be a good test for whether a feeling is love or infatuation).
are astonishingly patient with them. So patient are you that you can
bear to live with them in the same house. Sometimes even the same room
or – in exceptional circumstances – a two-man tent.
are proud of what you see as their stunning achievements. Maybe not
always in their presence because no one likes a braggart, but if anyone
challenges them on their stunning triumphs, you’ll knock them out.
do shit for them that no one in their right mind would do for another
person. You find yourself doing things that you’ve never done for anyone
ever before. Like their laundry.
You want to be close to them, physically. You miss them when they’re gone. Sometimes this hurts, physically.
You believe in their dreams and are pretty confident they’ll get there, unless the universe conspires cruelly against them.
Based on this list, I reckon that I ‘unconditionally’ love myself about 30% of the time.
I definitely overplay my strengths and I’m as susceptible as anyone to
the cognitive bias that makes me overlook and excuse my own faults.
I don’t, however, own a Lexus.
I also give myself a much harder time than I do the people I love. I’m
less likely to cut myself some slack, trust my good intentions, or even recognise, let alone be proud of my triumphs.
However, where I think our struggle to love ourselves harms us most is
in the arena of ambition, life goals or dreams, as you prefer. After
all, these are the momentous things that end up changing the world.
It scares me to think of all the dreams and glorious futures that go
unrealised because no one ever thought that they were worth believing
in. That belief comes from love. It’s called the astronaut test.
The Astronaut Test
Someone comes to you and says: ‘One day, I’m going to become an astronaut.’
If that person is just another Joe, then you’ll say, ‘Really? That’s
great. Good luck.’ And in your head you’re probably thinking, ‘As if!’
If that person is someone you love, however, then you’ll probably say
something like, ‘YES YOU ARE. THAT SHIT IS AWESOME.’ And give them a
In your head, you’re probably thinking, ‘Fucking hell, that’s amazing! I love this human!’
Further back in your head, you might also dimly recall that the last
time they got on a plane they had to be stretchered off while it was
still on the runway because ‘It was a little bit high up’ – but
overcoming such adversity only goes to show how incredible they are.
Now. Which of those two reactions do you show yourself whenever you dream big?
If you’re anything like me, it’s hands-down the first – to such an
extent that I mostly keep my dreams buried deep down in the mudflats of
my heart where no one can see them, least of all myself.
That seems like a bit of a shame. It’d be cool to get my love-of-self up
to more like 50% unconditional and see whether there’s a corresponding
rise in ambition.
The Day After Valentine’s Day
This is where we come back to that silly homily: You can’t love someone unless you truly love yourself.
But if it’s easier for me to love another than it is to love myself,
then I’d bet it works the other way around too. (Standard exclusions
Valentine’s Day is all about showing our love to others – and I’m all in
favour of that. But today I’d like to dedicate to ourselves.
What dreams and ambitions could we discover and realise if we all took February 15 to recognise and actually acknowledge the love-of-ourselves in the eyes of someone else?
Is there a Saint Narcissus*?
Thanks to the PTA for conversations leading to this. Love ya!
* Narcissus would be a totally inappropriate patron saint of
love-of-ourselves. Narcissus was actively disdainful of the love people
showed him: the exact opposite of what I want to encourage. But I really
needed a flippant sign-off to this post. Sorry.
It’s not every week that I read a book cover-to-cover in under 48 hours.
Admittedly, at only 200 pages Rejection Proof by Jia Jiang is a quick read, but I absolutely guttled those pages.
Why? Because Jiang offers a creative solution to a problem that I think almost every live human being struggles with: rejection.
This video is how I first heard about Jiang’s 100 Days of Rejection experiment. It’s a good primer for what follows. Enjoy.
Dave’s Short History of Rejection
My history of rejection is short not because my life has been an endless cavalcade of glorious successes, but because, for the most part, I have gone to great lengths to avoid sticking my neck out and asking for anything, you know, worthwhile.
Example 1: Romantic Rejection
It took me until 2013 before I first told someone I really liked that I really liked them. Terrifying.
They did indeed reject my approach, but frankly by that point I didn’t care. The panic over saying anything to this person far outweighed the disappointment of the negative response by about a million to one.
This million-to-one ratio is about the same for ‘Love interests I longed to approach’ against ‘Love interests I actually approached’.
Combined with my everyday fear of social rejection, the number of missed opportunities for connection with other human beings is staggering, and all because of an egotistic, and unnecessary, fear of rejection.
Example 2: Book Rejection
For the most part, I have avoided professional rejection by not taking a profession. When I have held jobs, I have tended to do the work and then go home, not doing anything that would call attention to my work and thus invite rejection (or, indeed, approbation).
I have, however, written several books. Occasionally, I have sent the manuscripts to agents and publishers and have been rejected every single time.
I think I’ve received about 5 rejection letters in my life, ever, including the following unexpectedly expensive one.
J.K. Rowling famously received 12 rejections for Harry Potter alone; William Golding got 20 for Lord of the Flies; Carrie by Stephen King garnered him 30 rejections before selling over a million copies in its first year and being turned into, not one, but three feature films, and, improbably enough, a musical.
It’s pretty easy to avoid rejection if you don’t put your work out there. I think it’s fair to say that I haven’t embraced professional rejection despite knowing full well that it is an essential part of the process.
Example 3: Rejection on the Road
Hitchhiking has taught me a lot about rejection. Standing on the side of a busy road with a smile and a sign, or walking up to strangers in service stations and begging for a lift: it’s a cold recipe for relentless rejection.
Even so, somehow I’ve always managed to get where I was going. Somehow, as Jiang says, ‘rejection has a number’ and persistence usually pays off if you’re willing to be flexible.
My least successful hitchhike involved about 3 hours of rejections – but I still got a ride (after changing my approach). How’s that for rejection? Pretty good, I’d say.
In most of the rest of my life, however, I give up after a single rejection (if I even get that far). Why is that?
Example 4: Critical Rejection
When me and Beth took Foiled to Edinburgh in 2016, we wanted to be judged. So much so that we actually paid a PR company to get critics in to review our show. We positively invited rejection.
The hefty weight of that judgement was shared between us, but it still wasn’t very nice when we got a stinking review from a well-respected critic.
I don’t think we ever seriously doubted our material, and it helped that the audiences didn’t seem to either, but the review was (and still is) there in black and white on the internet. A fulsome rejection of everything we’d worked so hard to create.
In this case, there was nothing we could do except rationalise what he had to say (it’s just one opinion, it was based on a preview, and we’d already addressed some of his criticisms) and use it as motivation to make the show the best it could be.
We didn’t shut down the PR company and tell them to invite no more critics. Thankfully, the critics kept coming and Foiled ended up with a couple of phenomenal reviews, which we could use to sell the show to producers and, ultimately, to the BBC.
Example 5: Reader Rejection
My Friday newsletter is a weekly opportunity for people to reject me and my work. The unsubscribe button is right there at the bottom of every single email.
Even if people aren’t unsubscribing, I can still see who is opening the newsletter and reading to the end. It’s usually just under half.
After over 2 years of newsletters, I have become comfortable with the fact that some people will unsubscribe and no longer read my words of comfort and joy.
I have eventually come to see unsubscribes in a positive light. It’s not that I’ve failed them, or that they are repulsed by the very essence of my being; it’s just that we weren’t a good fit for whatever reason.
Indeed, with the unsubscribers gone, my reader percentage numbers should go up – and that’s a good thing. Seen this way, unsubscribes are a gradual honing of my audience to the shape of my work.
Notice that, unlike my approach to publishing, I have persisted at newsletter-writing, drilling through the prison walls of ‘rejection’ to the green pastures of unbounded creativity.
(Whereupon I abuse my freedom and write ridiculous sentences like the foregoing.)
The lesson is that avoiding rejection can be incredibly damaging – not in the short term, perhaps, but certainly and abundantly in the long term.
What opportunities have I passed up through fear of rejection? Could I be a published novelist by now? Could I have found the loves of my lives?
Fear of rejection is a crime of omission. If you give yourself no chance of rejection, then you also have very little chance of progress.
In pursuit of 100 rejections, I put myself forward for opportunities I’d previously thought were for smarter, funnier, cooler people. And sometimes I wasn’t rejected. I wrote for new publications, got a joke-writing gig on my favorite comedian’s radio show and interviewed guests on my podcast who I’d thought wouldn’t waste their time on me.
Emily ended the year with 101 rejections and 39 acceptances.
[O]ur experiments weren’t a magic solution. Andy is still unattached, and I’m still living paycheck to paycheck. But we’ve taken more chances and come closer to getting the things we want. So I don’t regret committing to this masochistic rejection project. It made me feel embarrassed, depressed, overwhelmed and self-indulgent. But I also felt that I was moving forward instead of standing still.
I wrote this last night after reading a passage in Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy – where he writes so beautifully it makes you want to give up trying – on the subject of an unrequited love. But it got me thinking about the phantasma that is the imagination and specifically about the water and powder of fantasy and memory…
I have a fantasy about lying in the summer grass with a girl – we lie at right angles to each other; she rests her head on my chest, and plays with a piece of grass, laughing sporadically and gazes, twisting her head back, into my eyes which focus on the skies above. One hand rests, cradling her head; the other, holding a straw, casts a swathe across the heavens.