Beauty Tips

The Sound Of Silence

bt-jo-fairly-september-inv-18

It’s miraculous how the brain adjusts to noise. When I lived literally spitting distance from the roaring Westway/M40 and the every-two-minutes rumble of the Metropolitan Line, in London, I barely noticed those sounds, after a week or two of ‘adjustment’.

Or so I thought. But when I moved out away from the metropolis to somewhere so silent that I can hear owls twit-twooing half a mile away, I realised how very precious silence is – and how constant noise can undermine wellbeing. According to the World Health Organisation, one in five Europeans is ‘regularly exposed to sound levels at night that significantly damage health.’ And those sounds go way beyond having us toss and turn at bedtime, making sleep elusive. Noise triggers the production of cortisol – which along with adrenaline, raise blood pressure, potentially causing cardiovascular problems if there’s prolonged exposure. As a result, according to some studies, those living in areas with the noisiest daytime traffic are 5% more likely to be hospitalised with strokes than those in quieter zones – a risk that rises to 9%, among the elderly.

So even though I wasn’t conscious of the vibrations from the Underground or the roar of the motorway, it was still having an effect on my body and psyche. And when you think about that, it’s not really surprising. Noise – from the internal combustion engine, diggers and drills, the bass thumping from your neighbour’s boombox – is a relatively recent phenomenon. Before the industrial revolution, the loudest sounds you were likely to encounter were the cheers at a wedding, the moo of a cow, the bleat of a goat. All of which sounds like a world straight from the pages of a Thomas Hardy – but truly, that’s what life was like as recent a couple of centuries ago. Loud noise was something so unusual that we responded to with a fight-or-flight response – so It’s hardly surprising that we haven’t yet evolved to deal with the almost constant background rumble and clang of life in the 21st Century.

I certainly consider myself incredibly lucky now to live somewhere so quiet. It’s all the more amazing to me because actually, my home’s in a busy town. However, since our bedroom is in the back of the house, facing a steep, woodedhill where badgers and foxes and owls still think they own the joint, we’re away from any road noise – and have just the rustling of the leaves and the hoot of that owl to disturb our sleep. Oh, and seagulls. (These, however, are now my equivalent of the Metropolitan Line: I never hear them. And because they’re a nature sound, they’re not undermining my wellbeing as artificial sounds do.)

But on nights when I have to stay in a city, or find myself in an otherwise noisy environment – hot-desking in a busy office, for instance – I’ve realised how vital it is ­to master techniques for blocking out the noise. Here’s what I’ve learned.

If you’re working in an open-plan office or a café and you need to focus, noise-cancelling headphones really help. A lot of us have to put up with background noise, at work. Sometimes, some days, it can be like water off a duck’s back. But a particularly loud colleague who likes to discuss their social life at full volume, or just the background buzz of a busy sales department, can also be very distracting. So it may just be easier to get yourself some earplugs or a pair of noise-cancelling headphones, to help you zone out. (In a really busy work environment, you may be able to get your boss to cough up for these in the interests of increased productivity.) Far better for your health than sitting there festering with resentment, that’s for sure.

Shut down electronic devices when not in use. The TV, DVD player, computer, printer; all can emit a low-level humeven on standby that you may not even be aware of – but which on some level affect your mind and body.

Turn off your ringer and notifications. Phone sounds are a constant interruption to our concentration: all those pinging texts, incoming e-mail alerts and other e-notifications. Switch your phone to silent unless you’re expecting an important call; leave it on vibrate and you should still be aware when someone’s ringing you – but even if you miss a call, chances are it’s not the end of the world.

Close the window at night if you live in a noisy neighbourhood. OK, so this is a trade-off: fresh air –v- the background noise of sirens, motorcycles revving, the pub opposite spilling revelers out onto the street after closing time… Much as I am a fresh air fiend, I’ll compromise on that in my quest for calm and silence. (And it’s quite astonishing, by the way, how much double glazing helps in a noisy setting – even if you only install it the bedroom.)

Download a white noise app or invest in a white noise ‘device’. So what’s the point of white noise – it’s still noise, right? Well, yes. But ‘white noise’ is specifically designed to distract the brain from focusing on other, louder noises; the ‘whooshy’ noise is thought to be effective because it mimics the environment of the womb. After a while, if you do this nightly, it can help to form a sleep association that lulls you to nod off. The No.1 white noise app on the iTunes store is called White Noise Deep Sleep Sounds, and it’s very good.(Alternatively, you could do what I’ve done and download ‘Owl Sounds for Relaxation’, from iTunes, which I now play when I’m away from home to drown out any background noise and in some way create the illusion of being in my own blessed bed.)

Read a book called ‘Silence in the Age of Noise’. Explorer Erling Kagge spent 50 days walking across Antarctica without radio contact. Much as I dislike noise, that would in itself drive ME crazy – but his account of that journey is a surprising bestseller, translated into more than 30 languages.Definitely makes you think about silence.

Look for appliances with the ‘Quiet Mark’. Kettles, hairdryers, washing machines, dishwashers; manufacturers can now apply to have the decibel level of their appliances measured, and certified as ‘quiet’. Certainly worth considering next time you’re replacing white goods.

Find a way to cultivate inner silence. I’ve written before about how meditation and yoga have helped me to find balance in a bonkers world. I’m not going to make a prescription for you – we’re all different (although those are darned good places to start). But when the world’s making a cacophany around you – the dog’s barking, the neighbours have the power drill out (and the neighbours on the other side are mowing a lawn) – it really helps to have a resource that enables you to find peace and stillness.

Because – whisper it softly – we live in a world that’s unlikely to get much quieter, anytime soon. So it may be time to stop focusing on the ruckus – and take control of our own individual capacity for silence…

Funerals

weeping beech tree

We need to talk about my funeral. No, really, we do. I’m not expecting it to be imminent (I REALLY HOPE NOT!) – but I’m not burying my head (or any other part of me) in the sand, pretending it ain’t going to happen. As the old saying goes, ‘Nothing is certain but death and taxes.’ (And having just paid my half-year tax bill, as many self-employed people have, I know just how annoyingly unavoidable those are!)

Now, I want to stay positive, here. I spend as much of my time as I can possibly carve out of a busy life on what I like to think of as ‘life extension’. That’s why I diligently walk 10,000 steps a day, try to stay as unstressed as possible in a world in which Donald Trump is the unlikely-but-true President of the United States, take all the vitamins that Shabir tells me I need to, do yoga, and so on. All the things I’ve written about in this column at various times, basically. (Well, not Trump; he doesn’t deserve the airtime.) Bottom line: I’m planning to stay around for as long as I possibly can.

But over the years, I’ve had the experience of planning a few funerals for friends, and going to various ceremonies at crematoria and churchyards memorials, for others. To say they were a mixed bag is a vast understatement. Some were terrible (and I’m not just talking tragic loss here, but actually terrible, impersonal funerals where – on one occasion – the celebrant got our friend’s name wrong). And some were downright fabulous – the most recent of which was just a couple of weeks ago, in a sun-drenched garden where 150+ friends gathered to say goodbye to one of the most life-enhancing women I’ve ever known, who had died at the ridiculously young age of 62 of a super-speedy brain tumour. My friend Sarah Charles was the embodiment of hostess-with-the-mostest, with more style in her little finger than most of us have in our bodies – and without an unkind atom in her body (though nevertheless, an acid wit).

I have rarely seen more Champagne at a wedding than at Sarah’s send-off. There was delicious food, laughter, and we all wore the bright, colourful clothes that Sarah so loved. Although Craig and I had to leave early (to attend my very-much-alive brother’s 60th), I’m reliably informed she was ultimately sent off into space in a rocket (or at least, her ashes – which had been previously obtained via the local crematorium – were). But in the hours counting down to that firework finale, we all stood around sharing joyous memories of our friend – very much that ‘don’t mourn that I’m dead, celebrate the fact that I lived’ vibe. And that’s what I want, too.

Actually, I already know where I’m going to be buried. (No fireworks for me, thanks.) Craig already bought me the tree and planted it on a piece of land we have. Nice birthday present, darling! No, seriously: I don’t at all mind contemplating a long lie-down under the shade of a beautiful (and what I hope will by then be really large) weeping beech, just a pine-cone’s throw from his Cedar of Lebanon. (I like to think of future generations playing hide-and-seek under its canopy of copper-leaved branches.) For the actual burial, I’ve got my eye on a very fetching ‘Beauty Bible pink’ glitter cardboard coffin (though I might have to do a bit of research into the eco-friendliness of the glitter). Music-wise, I’m having Carly Simon, with one of my friends charged with picking the exact track (preferably not ‘You’re So Vain’, but I’ll be past caring) – and Pharrell Williams’s ‘Happy’, because really, who can be miserable to that track? And I really, really, really don’t want people to be miserable.

And this is the point: I really think we need to stop thinking about death and funerals as something ‘other’ – something we only address when it hits us in the face. Elsewhere in the world, death is much more a part of life – as in the Day of the Dead, when Mexicans remember friends and family who’ve died, decorating brightly-coloured altars and wearing equally eye-popping clothes. (So much nicer than funereal black.) I like the South African idea of the ‘after tears’ party, more like an Irish wake, involving a lot of drinking and joking and focusing on comforting the surviving and remembering the deceased in the fondest way – as we all, surely, want to be remembered. And then, of course, there are Irish wakes themselves – life-affirming, laughter-filled and very, very hangover-inducing.

Ironically, when my mother received her cancer diagnosis (and a six-month death sentence with it), she said it was one of the best things that ever happened to her – because she felt really alive for the first time. (And how many times have we heard that?) She appreciated in sharper focus every day, every rainstorm, every sunbeam, every morsel that she put in her mouth, every bark of the bloody dog, every conversation, every laugh, every rose and every courgette she picked in a way she’d never done before. She went on to defy her doctors’ prognosis and live for six years longer than they’d predicted.

But when she did finally succumb, we discovered that my mother had planned everything about her own funeral: the music, the poetry, the readings (maybe that’s at least partly where I’ve got it from) – though even my father didn’t have a clue she’d done so till afterwards. The great thing is that it completely spared him (and us) from having to second guess ‘what she would have wanted’ – and if nothing else, that’s a huge kindness to the traumatised bereaved. I’m fairly sure that if she’d hung on until more recently (she died when I was 27), Mum would have gone for a wicker coffin and asked us all to weave flowers through it, as we did for a friend recently. Or maybe a cardboard coffin on which we could all draw, paint and write (as someone else in my circle wanted, for her not-so-long-ago funeral).

I honestly believe that if we spend a bit more time thinking about our own funerals, and about death, then gradually it works to take some of the fear and panic away; that’s surely why the network of Death Cafés is flourishing (there’s probably one near you), at which people sit around and bust the taboo of talking about it.

But for me, the really great thing about thinking about death – about pink glitter coffins, weeping beeches, Carly Simon, or whatever YOU would like for your last, great party – is that it also makes you think about life, and how precious it is.

And we could all do a bit more of that.

What Is Earthing And Will It Reduce Your Stress Levels?

chinese bells

When (to paraphrase Carole King’s lyrics on ‘Tapestry’) did you last feel the earth move under your feet…? Maybe not move – unless you’re in an earthquake zone – but experience its grounding, balancing and (literally earthing) benefits? Well, if it’s been a while, can I recommend that this lunchtime, you get out there, lie down on some lawn or in a park, and soak up the soothing vibes?

Oh, this is going to sound all very woo-woo, no doubt. Perhaps you don’t feel that you need ‘grounding’. But in a world in which I spend most of my time ‘in my head’ – thinking, looking at a computer, and thinking some more – I know that there’s almost nothing that makes me feel better, quicker, than a bit of earth energy. Without it, I feel vulnerable and liable to be thrown off balance at any time. A bit like a leaf, fluttering in the wind, sometimes.

But give me a good grounding session, and I’m rooted – like a big tree. Resistant to the daily equivalent of strong winds – those inevitable events which can throw you off course. I sleep better. I’m more focused, have fewer scattered thoughts (and am less likely to pick up my phone every two minutes to check something or other completely irrelevant). I am also probably kinder to everyone around me. Less snarly, more smile-y.

If you’re feeling cynical, think back to the last time you were on a sandy beach. Wiggling your toes. Walking along the shoreline. You were connected to the earth’s powerful energy. (Let’s not argue about this: gravity is what stops us from floating off into the universe, weightless as astronauts. It’s powerful stuff.) Didn’t it feel good? I’ve a hunch, actually, that one of the reasons we feel so good after a seaside holiday isn’t just the sea itself, but the time we spend with our feet on the sand.

As a child, there was nothing I liked more than going out and lying in the garden, looking up at the sky. My mother accused me of being a daydreamer – but actually, on some level I’m sure I knew I was soaking up the earth vibes. Crammed into shoes, sitting at a desk for much of the day, rushing from A to B, it’s easy to lose touch with how that feels. For me, my love of deep, vibrational music (see my article ‘Good Vibrations’) is part of that need to feel grounded.

I am drawn to essential oils with a grounding effect, too – resinous and resonant oils like frankincense, sandalwood, vetiver and patchouli (old hippie that I am), which to me almost thrum. (Myrrh, cedarwood, benzoin, black spruce, petitgrain and rosewood are said to have a similar effect, though I don’t have them in my arsenal.) Inspired by my friend Kathy Phillips (creator of the This Works range), I often wear a drop of pure frankincense oil on my chest. I find this incredibly ‘tethering’, particularly on days when I have to take the Tube (which may actually be beneath the ground but definitely doesn’t have a de-stressing effect on me, anyway).

And I now discover there’s an actual ‘earthing’ movement going on, driven by the belief that being isolated from the Earth – by rubber and plastic (our shoes), wood, plastic, laminate and asphalt – creates a disconnection from the earth’s energy that can result in a feeling of fatigue. They go so far as to call the earth’s energy ‘Vitamin G’ (and even Shabir hasn’t managed to find a supplement which captures that, yet!) My husband, meanwhile, is a massive devotee of ‘earthing’. I always poked fun at him for getting out into our garden in the morning for his regular dew bath, and wearing Vivo Barefoot shoes – but now I totally get where he’s coming from. (NB I’ve come to realise it is usual for Craig – as the man who introduced us to brown rice, sesame, patchouli oil and even the Afghan coat, for his sins – to be about two decades in advance of the rest of the planet. And indeed his wife.)

Earthing, or grounding, works – so it’s believed – because the body is mostly water and minerals, and is a good conductor of electricity (electrons). There are gazillions of electrons on the Earth’s surface – but synthetically-soled shoes stop us receiving that energy. The idea is to get out there, shoe-less, and connect with it as often as we can. Not easy, in a city or for someone who lives in a flat. But definitely not impossible.

Having said that, when I’m feeling particularly frazzled, I still find that I can still effectively ‘ground’ myself, just sitting in my desk chair – so long as I’ve got bare feet. (And as long as the weather permits, I always go barefoot at home. Winter? You’ll find me in tights, socks and furry slippers – and definitely feeling way less grounded, as a result.) I place my feet flat on the floor and b-r-e-a-t-h-e for a couple of minutes – counting to ten, with one for in, two for the out-breath – imagining the feeling of rooting down into the floor. When life feels overwhelming, I find it an amazing quick fix.

It’s not the only weapon I have in my arsenal for dealing with a crazy-busy, too-fast-paced life. I meditate, do yoga – also wonderfully, famously grounding – and listen to Native American drumming music, as well as gongs and handpan music (which you can find on iTunes if you’re unfamiliar with it). But more and more, when life threatens to overwhelm, I just like to get out there and make like a kid, lying flat on my back and staring at the clouds, or walking barefoot in the dew.

Carole King was definitely onto something.

Why We All Need A Telescope And A Microscope

pink pencils

We all need heroes in this world, and one of mine – notwithstanding the fact that she went to jail for insider trading – is Martha Stewart, creator of a homewares and mega-media empire in the States. It’s not because of her gorgeous floral arrangements, or her gardening tips, or the drool-worthy recipes in Martha Stewart Living, her glossy lifestyle magazine. (Sad but true: being a great believer in the power of home-making – as a solace not just for self, but for the family and much-loved friends who gravitate to ours – I still have every issue ever published, which means over 20 years’ worth!)

I like the way Martha’s made a business out of style, and taste, and reassured me that just because I may want to decompress from a week of 18 hour days by organising my linen closet or my gift-wrapping supplies, that’s OK; it doesn’t mean I’m not intelligent, and it doesn’t mean I’m not a feminist. It means I just like things to be nice, too.

But what I really admire Martha for is an excellent book that she wrote called The Martha Rules. It’s a brilliant how-to book for women, in particular, setting out on an entrepreneurial journey – so good, in fact, that I’ve gifted it to lots of young women embarking on start-ups. But the lesson I really took away from it is the importance of having two tools: a microscope and a telescope. Martha was referring to business – and how important it is to step back from working on the detail, to look at the bigger picture and how your business sits in the wider landscape. But what I took away from that book – and what I try to apply to my life, not just my ventures – is the telescope lesson.

Today, all of us spend our lives fixated on tiny screens, on problem-solving, on figuring out a way to deal with one crisis after another, whether it’s a sick kid who unexpectedly throws a spanner in the works (or rather the working week), a broken dishwasher (my current domestic status update), a lost bank card (er, actually also my current status update), whatever. Entire days – no weeks! – can disappear, simply dealing with everyday life, without us ever taking a moment to stand back and look at that bigger picture.

And it’s just so, so vital to do that – because it’s only by looking at things from afar that we realise a) what’s really important in life, and b) what needs changing. Fact: life is short. Way too short to spend it mindlessly dealing with trivia (trust me, nobody’s going to go to their grave wishing they’d spent more time on Twitter), or lurching from one crisis to another, or generally watching the days slip between our fingers. And this isn’t just about stopping to smell the roses (or right now, the lily of the valley which are flourishing near my back gate and I’m spending too little time up-close-and-personal with). How often have you read about someone with a life-threatening illness talk about how it was such a wake-up call, and it made them realise what really mattered (whether that was spending time with family or a partner, or quitting a job they didn’t enjoy, or maybe even ticking that climb up Kilimanjaro off the bucket list)? Answer: all too often, because for many of us it’s only when something dramatic happens that we get to look down that telescope.

So: how to do that more often? Well, one way is meditating. I’ve written about that before – and personally, I now swear by an app called Calm (check it out at calm.com). For ‘big picture’ stuff, perhaps think about taking an actual course in meditation – not just because it’s a great way to learn to focus, but because there’s something about signing up to learn anything that can make us think: ‘Shouldn’t I be finding time to do more of this, in my life…?’ Which can perhaps nudge us to do more new things, rather than just more of the same.

Holidays are great for ‘big picture’ stuff, too. (As in, perhaps: ‘Do I really want to be doing this stressful/unenjoyable/dull job that I am going back to next week/in a fortnight – or should I be thinking about looking for other challenges and new opportunities?’) For me, though, it’s daily walking that helps me with the big picture stuff. Almost as if I’ve got an invisible telescope packed in my pocket, alongside my phone and house keys.

Recently, I had a big challenge with one of my ventures. A tricky conundrum that nobody could seem to solve – not business-threatening, but something that needed a new approach so we could move forward when we’d been going round in circles. One morning, partly because it was just gloriously sunny, I absented myself from the office and my team and took myself off for a long, blustery, blue-skied seaside walk. A few miles. Instead of whiling away my morning answering what always feels like a deluge of e-mails, I chewed on my metaphoric pencil, as I put one foot in front of the other – and hey, presto: after a mile or so, I had the required brainwave. Ta-dah! I took the solution back to the team, we actioned it – and could move forward again. But I absolutely, 100% know that wouldn’t have happened if I’d been at my desk, sweating the small stuff and dealing with detail.

So I invite you: make this the month you invest in yourself – and your life – by trying to spend time looking at things from afar. After all, if Galileo could discover the moons of Jupiter (and more) by staring down his telescope, what heavenly future can you make for yourself, just by spending a little time standing back from the world…?

PS. In her intro to The Martha Rules, my hero Martha does acknowledge the jail term and the lessons it taught her – so it’s not like she’s brushing that under the carpet with some posh broom! She’s clearly not proud of what happened. But I also admire that she didn’t let a huge, image-damaging incident hold her back. Which might just be fodder for a future editorial, I suspect…

Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Perfume

toppled empty perfume bottle

A couple of weeks ago, following in the footsteps of Shabir, I did a fun-tastic Facebook Live with Trinny Woodall. Formerly one-half of ‘& Susannah’, she is now a Grade A beauty expert, bringing that same famous critical eye to all the beauty products she reviews – often HILARIOUSLY, by the way, but always informatively. What is less well-known is that she adores perfume, so we’d been workshopping the idea of me sharing the knowledge I’ve acquired over the years – which have led me down the path of founding The Perfume Society – with Trinny’s audience.

 

Boy, did we have a blast. (You can watch it on her YouTube channel – IN MY BATHROOM… with Jo Fairley.) I spent a lot of the hour-long chatathon answering the sort of questions that I hear time and again, about fragrance. So I thought for this month’s editorial, I’d address some of the things that people consistently seem to find most baffling, about scent. Read More…

Ayurveda: What Your Dosha Can Say About You

Ayuvedic tea

Health fads may come and go. But you can’t really argue with a mind-body health system that’s been around, so it’s said, for up to 5,000 years, when Indian monks were seeking new ways to be healthy. (For translation purposes, ‘ayur’ means life force, or vital energy, while ‘veda’ means science.)

Now, I’d always been interested in Ayurveda – in a magazine-reader-fun-questionnaire sort of way. You’ve probably done one yourself: answered a list of questions asking about body shape, energy levels, preferred foods, whether or not you tend to feel hot and cold, etc. I’d figured out that I was classified as ‘pitta’ – but never taken it much further than that. (Pitta is a ‘dosha’ – basically, doshas are your constitution. The other two are vata and kapha, more of which anon.) Read More…