A few weeks ago, I was waiting for a hotel lift so I could descend for breakfast. When the door finally slid open, I saw a fat middle-age man with a suitcase, and a young woman standing behind him. I stepped forward. “Nein!” Barked the fat man, waving his arms in front of him to stop me getting inside. “Why don’t you just let her enter?” Demanded the woman. She and I looked at each other, baffled. She clearly didn’t know him either. “Nein” he blocked the door. As it slid shut, I eyeballed him. “You are a really mean person!” I shot back, then laughed out loud, because it was all very silly.
Down in the restaurant I told my colleague about the fat man. Her eyebrows shot up. “I know, but you are so cheeky!” I took this as a compliment and gleefully retorted, “Ah, you have no idea how much fun it is being me.”
As this intense year draws to a close, I feel lucky: 2023 has been a good year for me. I’ve travelled a lot, especially for work, including in Ukraine, where I slept in a warehouse in the town of Pryluki some 140kms North East of Kyiv (see the photo above) and helped distribute food, hygiene products and power tools to villagers across the North eastern regions. I don’t kid myself about the impact of what we did, but I do know many of the Ukrainians we met were very glad to see us, and that the power tools in particular were bloody useful, and that’s enough for me. At the end of that trip I spent a few days in Poland to decompress, and loved the city of Krakov.
Just before I left Ukraine, one of my best friends called to tell me she was getting hitched, just when I needed the spark of good news. I flew to her wedding, in Washington DC, in August. It was a small, joyous affair in a sunny back garden, with Champagne, dancing and an Ethiopian feast. I was actually quite well behaved.
I recovered from the return US flight at a log cabin in the Scottish Highand with my bloke. We swam in a cold, clean sea loch, ate salty oysters and spotted darting red squirrels in ancient woodlands. That’s my kind of bliss. Afterwards, I worked intensively on, then facilitated, a conference in Berlin, with peacebuilding activists from 19 countries. It was exhausting, good fun, and gave me a long, cool drink of hope I was desperately thirsting for.
Finally, at the end of November, bloke and I bounded off to Riga, Capital of Latvia, (where half the country is forest). I can best sum up our trip as a mix (or cocktail) of snow, beer, dumplings, rye bread, and the sublime Latvian Black Balsam liqueur. We even found a sauna where you can drink beer in the hot tub afterwards, oh yeah.
Bloke and I have just celebrated a year of living together, and admitted we are both very happy (most of the time). Middle-age love is a slightly knarled beauty that merits lots of laughs, and daily multi-vitamins. And that my friends is a story for a later time.
But this year also cast long, chill shadows; the war in Ukraine has rightly been centre stage, but this ‘hierarchy of conflicts’ took our eyes away from other long-standing wars. Like Afghanistan where more than 70,000 civilians have been killed as a direct result of the US war, and the Taliban stare down the ‘international community’ as they bleed womens’ rights dry.
One of the participants at ‘my’ conference referred to this last couple of years as ‘a winter for activists,’ perfectly summing up the intimate fear many of the brave people I know live with as they doggedly campaign for justice and protections. This is where a well-placed poet can offer sparks of hope. Pablo Neruda wrote, ‘You can cut down all the flowers, but you cannot keep Spring from coming.’
My plan for next year is hopefully fool-proof: to be more intentional in everything that I do. And to be more tender with people I meet along the way (bar men like him in lifts). I intend as many adventures as I can fit into 2023, to embrace complexity (including the shifting straits of political violence and how to confront these with more success), to spend more time reading (my book of the year is Caroline Van Hemert’s ‘the sun is a compass’ because her descriptions of walking 4,000 miles seduced and terrified me), more writing in depth – I also intend to absolutely carry on having fun just being me.
And I need a new job! So if you’re looking for a spirited conflict analyst, mediator, trainer, travel guide, or a writer, just let me know! I wish you each a happier 2023. See you on the other side….