2014 has kicked off with appalling weather on both sides of the pond: freak snowstorms across the U.S. and the wettest January on record in the U.K. Midwinter can be pretty bleak anyway, so I decided to liven things up with some adventures and new experiences.
I’ve been wanting to join a choir for ages, and I finally got round to registering with London’s City Chorus. It’s a large classical choir which meets every week opposite the Bank of England, in the heart of the Square Mile. In my first week I had to undergo an audition, which I survived (just). The conductor was kind, and complimented me on my ‘wide range’ and placed me as an Alto, with the option of moving to Soprano as my voice develops. We’ll be performing a concert in April, and it’s a beautiful repertoire, including Stabat Mater and Pergolesi’s Magnificat.
Choir is strangely therapeutic. I haven’t sung since school, haven’t picked up my clarinet for about 15 years, and my sight-reading is very rusty. This means I really have to concentrate in order not to lose my way completely: I forget everything else, focus on my breathing, the black notes on the stave, the Latin words, the soaring voices all around.
Singing is thirsty work, and everyone repairs to the pub afterwards. I get talking to one of the tenors and ask how long he’s been a member. “I joined around five years ago,” he says. “I love singing, and I wanted to meet new people.” As well as meeting others, I’m realising I’ve joined the choir for myself. This has nothing to do with my work, relationship, or even self-improvement (I’m probably the most incompetent singer there!) For me, it’s about the joy of the music, total escapism from the rest of life. I find myself cycling home, singing Bach in the rain.
My second new experience is learning to cook. Just like singing, the kitchen is a great place to escape the stresses and strains of daily life. Or so I’m told. Because truly, I’m a terrible cook. I can make scrambled eggs, or heat up a carton of soup—apart from that, cooking doesn’t come into my life. I had a new kitchen installed in my flat when I moved in a few years ago, and the instruction leaflet remains in the oven, untouched.
But “cooking is an essential life-skill,” according to a friend of mine. He persuades me to join him for a one-day course at L’Atelier des Chefs taught in the kitchen by professional chefs. They offer a variety of cuisines including Spanish, Moroccan, French, Japanese and Italian, as well as macaroon- and bread-making classes. We’re on the “Mastering Thai Cookery” course; the starter is Tiger prawns coated in panko breadcrumbs, coconut and chili, deep fried and served with a homemade sweet chili dipping sauce. The main course is Massaman lamb curry with jasmine rice. Dessert is lemongrass and ginger crème brulee.
There are 10 students on the course; we don large white aprons, meet our French chef-teacher called Reggie, and head into the kitchen. Unfortunately my friend forgot I’m a vegetarian, so I end up making prawns and lamb along with the others, but the techniques are easily adaptable: Tofu instead of lamb would make a fabulous vegetarian Thai curry.
Despite the fact that I’m handling raw shrimp and chunks of meat, it’s surprisingly enjoyable—and very practical. We learning how to dice an onion into perfect, tiny cubes (the secret is not to remove the root when you peel the skin). We learn how to de-vein prawns; how to blend ginger, lime, garlic, turmeric, Tamarind, cumin and cardamom for an awesome marinade; how to deseed a fiery-hot chili; how to make perfectly fluffy Jasmine rice; how to handle a blow-torch… these are indeed life skills.
At the end of the course, we sit down at a beautifully laid table, along with plenty of wine, to sample the fruits of our labours. The lemongrass and ginger crème brulee, which is the only thing I can eat, is divine. I can’t wait to make this for my boyfriend, and I can’t wait to experiment with a vegetarian version of the Thai curry: I resolve to start using my kitchen more.
My final new year, new experience is a 2-day motivational course called The Life Event. Run by Olympic high-diver Leon Taylor, rock-climbing, ultra-marathoner Mike Weeks, and NLP Developer Daryll Scott, it promises to rev up our motivation, resilience and confidence. At this time of year, we could all do with some of that.
Around 40 of us assemble in a huge church hall in trendy Notting Hill Gate. The course begins, unexpectedly, by looking at the five regrets of the dying. An Australian palliative care nurse spoke to people in the last 12 weeks of their lives and this is what they told her:
· I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
· I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
· I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
· I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
· I wish that I had let myself be happier.
These regrets probably resonate with all of us. In small groups, we’re asked to define our goals—personal and professional—and then work out how we’ll know when these have been achieved. One of the key things about setting goals is to make them 100 percent self-defining: not dependent on other people, or factors outside our control. We look at how to break negative habits and knee-jerk reactions, and how to make sustainable life-changes. We look at ways to resolve dilemmas and indecision and inner conflicts, and tools to address ‘blockers’—those hurdles that prevent us from getting to where we want to be.
The course flies by, full of inspiring tools and NLP techniques for breaking self-limiting patterns of thought and behaviors. We analyze body language, and high-performance states, and how changing our physiology (chin up, chest open, shoulders back, big smile) can change our mindset. At the end of the course we’re told to look again at our life goals and make them bigger and better. I come away with a notebook stuffed full of ideas and plans: my life needs more singing, more crème brulee, more Thai spices! Most of all, I think of those regrets of the dying, and I resolve to let myself be happier.