For better or worse

I’ve had something in my mind for a while now, helping me navigate each day.

It was something Brené Brown said in her Power of Vulnerability audiobook, and it was basically this: “Are you trying to make the world better or worse? There is no in between – it’s binary.”

Sometimes the simplest of lines hits home hardest. It’s made me reassess every action or word since I heard it. Perhaps in my previous life I would’ve been sharp with someone on the end of a phone who is trying to sort out a problem for me. Now I think, “Perhaps they get angry people all the time and would appreciate a kind word.” Perhaps before I might’ve stood steadfastly in a queue for the checkout because it was ‘my turn’, but now I check behind me to see if the person there is only carrying a carton of milk. I let them go first.

It’s all those small actions that add up to a whole day of making things better or worse.

On yesterday’s solo hike, I sat outside a café in a small village and watched a woman in her eighties helping people. She appeared to be a community volunteer wearing hi-vis armbands.

If someone looked lost or confused, she got up out of her deck chair in the shade, put her hand on their arm and asked, “Can I help you?” Even if she couldn’t, I noticed that each person she approached looked so happy after the encounter.

That lady. That’s who I want to be.

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Herd community

One of the best things about solo hiking for me is not knowing who I’m going to meet along the way. I often end up chatting to someone, briefly, and there is something special about meeting them on the open road, away from any distractions.

Last weekend I met a woman with a dog called Bonnie (sadly I’d didn’t get a picture of her but I feel awkward asking someone for a pic in the moment).

Bonnie was a sheepdog – a border collie. Normally these dogs are too intent on herding some unseen sheep to pay attention to humans but Bonnie came up and pressed her head against my leg.

I got chatting to her owner who said Bonnie has a gift for seeking out people who need a dog hug. In the woods near where they live, she told me, Bonnie has twice tracked down people who are crying and feeling lost and stayed with them. Perhaps she is using her herding instinct to look for humans who need contact with other beings to feel good about themselves. That certainly applies to me.

I love to walk alone but I love the people and dogs I meet even more.

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Dark Horses Ride is a story of midlife reinvention, of friendships, relationships and a working life all put to the test by the seismic effects of menopause. 

​​​​​​​But it is also a story of love and homecoming. It is about the healing power of walking and meditation, the therapeutic process of writing and one woman’s determination to redefine what success and happiness look like.

Living the dream isn’t all she hoped it would be when Lisa swaps a high-flying job in London for a freelance life as a writer, editor and yoga teacher by the sea in India. She struggles to control the tide of emotions that hit her as the red mists of menopause descend and she begins to question whether her new life – and her relationship with a much younger man – are all she hoped they would be.

When the pandemic hits, Lisa decides that the universe has made the decision for her and back in England, she falls for the charms of a man her own age. However, he is not who he appears to be. Neither are the friends she’d hoped would support her when she publishes her first book and releases her ‘dark horses’ for all the world to see. 

After travelling back to her homeland in Wales and reconnecting with ‘The Most Handsome Man in Goa’ in India, Lisa is forced to confront her dark horses alone when her health and hormones threaten to derail the happiness she’s learned to live for.

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Wholehearted

This past week I have been listening to Brene Brown talking about the Power of Vulnerability. She is a researcher who has found that people who live ‘wholehearted’ happy lives have several things in common, many of which relate back to the yoga lifestyle. Her data shows that these people are spiritual in one way or another, that they believe that we are all connected by something bigger than ourselves. It also shows that wholehearted people engage in creative pursuits and practice gratitude.

Santosha is a 5,000 year old Sanskrit word for ‘contentment’ – being happy with whatever you have. As a yoga practice, it’s being grateful for specific things in your life. On my morning walks I find it improves my emotional state so much if I list these things in my mind. They can be as simple as finding a new path to walk on or having a chat as I buy a coffee.

Today I met Valerie, a lady who told me she’d been evacuated during the war to Shropshire, near the Welsh border. We talked about how much we liked wildflowers and the tamarisk bushes by the sea, even though they’re overgrown. Each person who walked past us said, “Ooh they need to be cut back, don’t they?” but we grinned at each other and said the bushes were lovely, filled with bees on the tiny flowers.

Thank you, Valerie, for reminding me that the obstacles in our path are sometimes worthy of the space they take up in our lives – we can simply walk around them, gazing in awe at the sight, rather than raze them to the ground.

Give and take

I’ve been thinking a lot about transactional friendships and relationships, where one party always expects something in return for a deed done.

I’ve found it occurs a lot in female friendships, from remembering to send a birthday or Christmas card, inviting someone over for dinner or even deciding whether or not to end a text with a ‘x’.

Sometimes I’ve given someone a gift or bought them a coffee for no reason, just because I want to. It pains me when days or weeks later, they ‘pay me back’, leading to a neverending cycle of giving and taking where each party has to remember their place in the queue.

What would happen if we just gave and received without expectation?

Stroppy Cow

I went hiking at the weekend with a good friend and whilst we chatted, she remarked that I seem so much softer than when she first met me; less spiky.

I know I am because I feel it.

I underwent a massive life change in 2018/19 when I went through therapy, yoga training, giving up alcohol and opting out of a stressful corporate life. All of those things had combined to make me somewhat ‘scary’ to those who encountered me, as I tended to bark at people, online and in person.

What I didn’t realise until this year, though, was how much I was governed by my hormones at that time. I was 51 and going through peri-menopause – the stage before full menopause where your hormones are adjusting after a lifetime of monthly cycles. But like many women, I didn’t realise. I look back now and can see that I had a suite of symptoms that are completely in line with perimenopause and menopause.

I had trouble sleeping for years, which did improve when I gave up drinking, but remained intermittently, manifesting at 3am most nights where I’d find a TV show to binge on to quiet my brain. I felt anxious about things that in retrospect, shouldn’t have caused anxiety, but they felt very real. I recognised that feeling from years of PMS.

Much of my anxiety stemmed from an inability to control my emotional responses to things, be they work scenarios or relationships. I’d lie awake at 3am thinking about whether I’d burned my bridges by having a red-hot response to something. I knew I was doing it but couldn’t seem to help it. A red mist would descend and I’d say the thing I’d hoped not to say, and then spend days and nights worrying about its impact. It scared me a lot, and now I think I remember my mother going through a period like this, and it made me wonder if it was the reason behind her retreat into an almost hermit-like existence.

I also had horrific joint pain in my shoulders and hips. It was, as I explore in my memoir, a manifestation of the stress I was experiencing at work, but it was also result of falling oestrogen levels. No one tells you that oestrogen is a painkiller, and when you lose the levels, you gain the pain. I went for countless clinical tests and x-rays to determine the problem, when the obvious answer was hormonal change.

It was only in the last year or so, when my symptoms heightened during the second lockdown, that menopause was suggested to me by a friend as the possible cause of my issues. A year ago I’d made a list on my phone of everything that was causing me anxiety and I’ve kept it because now it seems so ridiculous. I cried over things that now generate barely a raised eyebrow and got angry over nothing. I was a stroppy cow.

In the new year I sought help and I was lucky enough to be assigned to an HRT nurse in my local practice who helped me determine what I needed. I started off on a patch (Evorel Sequi) that mimicked a ‘normal’ cycle with a period, but I found I was still feeling anxious in the weeks where I was deprived of progesterone. I moved on to a continuous supply of oestrogen and progesterone (Evorel Conti) and immediately felt better. Literally on day one.

It was only then, when I started to feel better, that I realised what a slave I’d been to my hormones. I noticed physical changes as well as emotional ones too: I hadn’t noticed that my hair had begun to thin quite alarmingly until it started to thicken again. My shoulders stopped hurting and I stopped having to lie in a weird position to reduce the pain. I started sleeping better – just feeling more normal. I still can’t believe I spent so long living with all the symptoms, living with my inner stroppy cow.

Now that everyone is out there talking about menopause, I’m adding my story to the mix. Now, when I meet any woman describing any of the above symptoms, I tell her about my HRT experience straight away and tell her to take the name of my patches to her doctor. I tell her not to trust them if they palm her off with anti-depressants, which has happened to friends in the past.

Menopause has been described as a kind of reverse-puberty. I think about the heady mix of me and my mother living together when I was 14 and she was 52. I couldn’t understand why she was irritable and downright miserable and now I wish I could have got her to use HRT, although then it wasn’t trusted as much.

So, I hope my story helps one woman out there who has read this and realised that her symptoms align with mine; joining the dots and realising that they all stem from one source – hormonal imbalance. I hope she gets the help she needs and stops putting up with pain, sleeplessness and anxiety that are completely unnecessary.

Because she can.

I wandered lonely as a cloud…

…except I didn’t. I love walking alone but I also love bumping into incredible people on the way, especially when I’m a bit scared in a white-out on a narrow path on a Lake District fell! As always, a guardian angel looms out of the mist to guide me on. It has happened so many times…

Lisa Bergerud is a fell runner who has done the Bob Graham round twice – once in her twenties and once in her forties (42 fells/66 miles in 24 hours).

She also fell off Sharp Edge ridge on Blencathra and smashed her entire body up. She recovered with physio and now works as a ranger for John Muir Trust, dedicated to the conservation of wild places. As we walked along (fast) she was picking up litter as she went.

She left me as I found a place for lunch and I watched her run off down the heather-covered mountain. She’s not supposed to run for her job but she loves it too much. What an amazing woman.

Fade to Grey

I’ve been ‘Redwoods1’ in the social-media sphere since it began. It’s my trademark. I like the name for all sorts of reasons.

First of all, I like where it was created. I was in a hot tub in Russian River, Sonoma, outside San Francisco, sipping local sparkling wine and wearing massive earrings with my halter neck bikini. I was thinking about breaking out of my marriage and trying out a newer, more confident version of myself out on holiday, with friends I felt comfortable with.

For years, people pronounced my name not as Lisa Edwards with two separate words, but Lisaredwards because of the two vowels being next to each other. Redwoods. The hot tub was surrounded by them. One of my friends looked up and cried, “Redwoods! It’s you!” Red hair, redwards, redwood trees, redwoods.

Someone had already taken the name ‘Redwoods’ on Twitter so I just stuck a 1 on it. Now I’m @Redwoods1 everywhere and even my own publishing company is called Redwood Tree. I like it – it implies longevity, standing tall, consistency, growth, beauty, strength and freedom.

Red hair became synonymous with my identity in the 00s and I took pains to make sure the colour was just right. I was born with chestnut-brown hair that started going grey when I was in my late 20s, early 30s and I’ve been colouring it for as long as I can remember. I tried blonde for a while in the ’90s, to better manage the grey grow-out, but I felt like I’d lost my identity and disappeared into the crowd. Being red helped me to stand out, and I needed its help, I thought.

I’ve spent hundreds, probably thousands, of pounds over the years keeping the roots at bay. I’d have to think about the timing of holidays, work events and birthdays, to make sure the dreaded badger stripe didn’t make an appearance. The horror!

Then everything changed. Last Christmas in Goa I noticed that there were lots of women my age (50s) with beautiful silver hair on the beach. They were mid-transition or fully transitioned and they looked fantastic. They were just themselves – being. I started to look at myself in the brilliant Indian sunlight and saw the fakery very starkly. The red hair, the make-up I wore at night. It made my face look green. Something about the Goan sunshine highlights anything that’s fake, including yourself.

After I’d given up drinking in January and started yoga teacher training in May I had an urge to be fully authentic. Who was I trying to be? Somehow my red hair was synonymous with the publishing powerhouse persona I’d cultivated over the 23 years in the industry. As I asked myself questions about why I craved professional success so much when I’d already proved myself, I started to ask myself why I needed to be Redwoods1 at all.

How much of her was the real Lisa and how much was she a persona I adopted to make my way in the world? Underneath the extraverted redhead was there still an introverted Welsh girl who was happier living a simpler, less exhausting life?

My roots started to show as I completed the yoga training because I hadn’t planned to be in India for so long. I had, of course, booked a hair appointment in May and had planned my visit to Goa around my root growth. FFS. Imagine a man having to think about that.

I started to wonder why I’d panicked so much about missing my hair appointment and some other insignificant events back at home when I’d decided to do the training. I looked at my silvers coming through and quite liked how they glittered in the sun. I joined an online forum for women transitioning their hair and realised there was a trend for grey hair, inspired by Game of Thrones. Young women were colouring their hair grey because it emulates powerful female fictional heroes. If ever there was a moment to do it, this was it.

I’m five months in now, and the pictures I’ve posted here show me as a freshly coloured redhead, still drinking, still wearing makeup, through to my latest hair appointment. I have about four inches of grey growth now, and my wonderful hairdresser, Nick Bland at Haringtons Soho, has been managing the transition by toning out my red and adding silver highlights.

I like this shiny, new me. A male friend recently remarked that I look ‘brand new’ like I’ve been ‘reborn’, and I think my hair is part of it. Friends’ reactions have been interesting – men are the first to say my new hair suits me, women either don’t comment at all or say that it doesn’t look any different, I just look sun-kissed. It’s as if, as women, we’re programmed to deny that grey exists at all. When I had my first transition hair appointment, another female hairdresser went past and asked me what was happening with my colour. “I’m growing out my grey,” I said. She put her hand on my shoulder sympathetically, “No, you’re going blonde…”

Men often used to ask me if my red was natural and it made me squirm. Now I can honestly say that yes, this is the full natural me. All I’m hiding behind is a bit of mascara. No concealer, no foundation, no blusher, no eyeliner. I like the first picture of me, all made up with my red hair, but I like the last one a whole lot better.

Bring on the silver because I can’t wait to sparkle again.

You’re the Voice

I’ve been doing a three-week 200-hour yoga teacher training course in Goa and it’s coming to an end tomorrow. I can scarcely believe that this is my life but somehow I’ve been directed to Agonda, this beyond-special place, to study at Sampoorna Yoga School for Mind and Body. And it is a body- and mind-altering experience.

I can also scarcely believe that the one note I’ve been given from the start about my teaching is that my voice could be louder and more confident. What?? This is me!! The person who regularly chairs and appears on panels in the publishing world, who has presented to large, industry audiences, who loves to talk confidently in front of her teams, her colleagues and her peers. It’s my thing, if you will.

And yet here, in this jungle behind the beach, my voice was diminished. I knew when I was asking questions of the teachers that they couldn’t quite hear me and were screwing up their faces in that way that people do when they’re trying to hear someone. In my head, my voice sounded sonorous but clearly it wasn’t. On my first teaching assignment, I thought I was projecting loud and clear, but no – I’d done well but the one comment was that my voice needed to be louder. This came back in the feedback from my fellow students. Of all of the things I thought I’d need to think about, this was not it.

I thought about it during our breathing and mantra meditations. I heard my voice omming and repeating the Sanskrit mantras and I knew the feedback was right – there was something tentative and weak in my voice. My throat felt a little choked like there was something trying to get out. This was new. I always felt like I had a voice. It was the one thing I ‘did’ have.

Last night at dinner a group of us were talking about the way the world celebrates extroversion over introversion and how many of us loved our Silent Day because we love to be quiet, and with ourselves alone. I told them that I’d arrived in London as a quiet, introverted young woman and I’d had to work hard to adopt the extrovert practices of the people around me in publishing. Introversion appeared to be frowned on and only extroverts got promoted. I did two lots of training in one job where we did the Myers Briggs personality colour test twice. In the first year I did it, I was a quiet, calm, harmonious green. After working within an extroverted management team for a few years, the chart showed that I was now leading with my red leadership side. I was proud of that transition and of saying that I wasn’t the woman who arrived in London all those years ago. Who wanted to be green when you could be red?

The aim of yoga is to unite the mind, the body and the self, but more specifically, its goal is to unite the self with one’s true nature, which is unconditional joy. How beautiful is that? Over the last eighteen months where I’ve been practising it, I have found myself returning to a person I was years ago, when I was still in Wales and not working in London. In a previous blog post about giving up alcohol nearly five months ago, I refer to feeling like I’ve had a ‘factory reset’. I now realise that yoga (and a very good therapist) has led me to this place and giving up alcohol was just part of the journey.

Here, in Agonda, I have started to find a voice again, beyond the words I’ve written in my book and in this blog. I realised that my voice had been internalised over the past few years and I was swimming around in the noise I was making inside, some of it spilling out into this blog. It is a different thing, to stand in front of people and speak as your true self, no microphone to amplify you, no industry framework to prop you up. You are just you, standing there, trying to communicate with your students in the clearest, simplest way possible. I couldn’t believe, at first, that aside from my volume issues, the one thing I found most difficult about the teaching was finding the words to guide people into asanas (poses). I can talk very fluently about children’s illustrated books, but suddenly I found myself unable to find the words to guide someone who’d never done downward dog before into the pose. The simplicity was the problem.

Slowly, slowly, I have started to find the words, and the clarity and the volume needed to communicate effectively. I almost feel like I’ve had to learn to speak again. I’ve had to learn to look people in the eye again and talk to them from the heart. These have been the hardest things. I caught myself not being able to look our course director, Sudhir, in the eye when I first asked him a question in my weedy voice. I was horrified. This isn’t me! I thought. I wanted to sound strong and competent and clever and I just sounded like a woman trying to ask a question and not finding the right words or volume.

In the final week of training I noticed that my voice had changed in the chants and in the teaching. It felt easier to think of the words I needed and to find the voice to communicate them. Yoga practice is a humbling experience, especially the ashtanga we’ve been studying, and I’ve examined my need to be the strong, competent, clever one and realised that this needs to be laid aside (not least because Sudhir told me this ‘intense craving’ is one of the Bhagavad-Gita’s three gateways to hell).

I am simply a woman trying to ask a question and finding the right words and volume.

Shine Even Brighter

As part of the International Women’s Day 2019 celebrations, I attended a preview of Maiden with a live Q&A. It’s a documentary telling the story of Tracey Edwards, the woman who skippered the first all-female crew in the Whitbread Round-the-World Yacht Race. I vaguely remember her 1989 story but I have to admit I’m more familiar with Ellen MacArthur’s solo circumnavigation in 2005.

I didn’t know that not only did Tracey and I share a name, but also a past history. She lost her father at 10 and it derailed her life. My derailment at 10 was more long-term and hidden away with later repercussions, but hers led to a difficult teenage life with an abusive alcoholic stepfather, expulsions from school and eventually an ‘escape from everything’ working on boats.

This is a woman who wore, and still wears, her heart and her opinions on her sleeve. There she was in 1989, telling the TV interviewer that no way she was a feminist, but she wanted to prove that women could do anything a man could. Last night she put her head in her hands at that statement and said she wanted to shake her young self. She looked straight into the camera and declared, “I’m a very big feminist.” Her ‘difficult character’ had apparently led to two divorces. “Sorry to both of you,” she said to camera, again.

Difficult women, eh?

In the film, she says that the more the media tried to make her and her venture into a ‘sidebar’ story, the more determined she was to win. They said they were a group of women who wouldn’t get on, who wouldn’t last without a man on board, who wouldn’t last without waterproof mascara or lip salve, they were just a ‘tin full of tarts’.

She and her crew won two legs of the race.

Over and over the word ‘determined’ came up. Determined to win, determined not to give up, determined to prove something. This is someone who reacts to attempts to bring her down by shining even brighter.

I recognise myself in her. The idea of shining was something me and my therapist discussed a lot last year. It kept coming up. I was describing times in my life when I’d felt knocked down and how they just resulted in me getting up and shining even brighter. Sometimes these were men who couldn’t bear the glare of successful woman, others were women who tried their best to put the lights out. I sat in front of her wearing a Swarowski-encrusted jumper as she said, “I think shining, and reflection from other people is important to you.” I laughed – I joked about how my wearing shiny things and living in a gold building were things I associated with being a northerner. I do like a crystal or a sequin, but so do most women in the north-west.

But she said no, and said it was a part of me that was still looking to be seen by my dad. That is was beautiful, and I was like a constantly lit candle for him. Here I am, see me. I came out of that session knowing she was right, that I loved the strings of small mirrors dangling from beach huts on that Goan beach, the sparkling necklaces I bought from the man on the beach in lots of different colours that I accessorised with my bikini every day. I liked wearing them in the sea, like a mermaid.

I often refer to the amazing women in my life as ‘sparkling’. We walk together in the crystalline spring light by the sea and they make my heart happy. I often think their glare is too bright for the men around them who seem slightly intimidated by their presence.

These are the women whom I choose to celebrate today. Those sparkling women, whom when life gives them lemons, buy sparkling shoes.

Guilty, your honour.