A lesson on Christmas traditions

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Picture me aged 3. I’m making a snowman from cotton wool and toilet roll. I proudly present snowman to Mum and Dad when I get home from playgroup, and then again the following Christmas when he emerges from a dusty box of decorations. And just like that, a tradition is born. Snowman is a running family joke every Christmas, with his green fez and droopy eyes. Every year, he reminds us how much we’ve grown, what’s changed and what will never change. He represents the purest kind of innocence and he is protected and preserved the way we wish we could preserve time. He is a fond memory, and yet he is still there for us to touch, display and laugh at every year.

Well, he was there. This year, 23 years later, something quite terrible happened. This year, my dog ATE SNOWMAN. And I cried. And so did my mum. My mum and I cried over a small pile of cotton wool and toilet roll.

Admittedly, a part of me felt like Christmas would never be the same again. That silly tradition of unveiling snowman every year was gone. Which is ridiculous because the sentiment lives on regardless – I’d still have the memory without the physical reminder. Perhaps what we’re really afraid of is forgetting the small things; the forgettable things that are actually quite lovely to keep safe. After all, the moment an object jogs a memory (that might otherwise have been lost forever) is far too wonderful not to protect.

But still, why the hell do we want Christmas to be the same every single year? What is our relentless obsession with reliving the past?

After a couple of hours grieving over poor old snowman, I started to think about the impact personal traditions can have on our ability to cope with change and embrace the unknown. The truth is, there have been some big changes in my life this year, and seeing snowman in little pieces was like a visual reminder that my life, like most people’s, is subject to uncontrollable change and unplanned disruption. Shit happens, basically.

My mum and I were faced with two choices: a) to feel extremely sorry for ourselves, or b) make a bigger, better snowman, rebuilding him and adding to the story he represents. Our story. Which is of course guided by the way we respond to the unplanned. Sometimes all we can do is laugh and carry on.

We become so dependant on our traditions for things to feel ‘right’ that we often forget the bigger picture or fear life without them. Wrongly or rightly, we assign a great deal of profound emotion to the most useless physical objects or rituals. Cut yourself loose and you’ll be surprised how well you cope on the other side.

Christmas also has a tendency to make us EVEN MORE dependant on material things. We feel like we’re being sentimental, when in reality most of the sentiment is just another dose of consumerism in disguise. I mean, what is the point in crackers? Sure it’s ‘tradition’ but isn’t it also a royal waist of money? I love Christmas as much as the next person, but it does a bloody good job of distorting our perception of things. We run the risk of doing the same things over and over and over again, without pausing to stop and think about why. Christmas is a prime example of our susceptibility  to finding security in nostalgia  which is no way to live in the long term.

The lesson? Take Christmas and all your traditions with the biggest pinch of salt you can afford, take the pressure off yourself and remember what’s important. Shared traditions are a big part of celebrating a certain culture, but having the ability to break free from them when necessary is essential for culture (and your own sanity), too.

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Lesson 28: hoarding the past

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If, like me, you’re a hoarder, you’ll understand the excruciating pain I was in when I had to throw away loads of stuff because of the damp in our stupid flat. Amongst the wreckage: Zara heels I’d worn once, trusty worn-out Kurt Geiger sandals and a pair of Jones Bootmaker brogues I wore everyday at uni and not once since. I have moved house four times since I graduated four years ago, and I’ve  taken these old brogues with me every time. The Zara heels I quickly got over, the Kurt Geigers I mourned and thought about constantly for a couple of days, but the brogues I never wore… I actually found throwing these away really hard. I felt sad and guilty, like I was letting go of some tiny piece of a past life. I’m not sure I’m particularly materialistic, just ridiculously sentimental.

It fascinates me how much we assimilate meaning from objects that have no purpose. They were just sitting there, collecting dust (and mould, apparently), and somehow they posed as an unlikely comfort, a reminder of the everyday stuff that often becomes lost. I seem to attach this sort of meaning to pretty much everything. It extends beyond the whole ‘I might need it one day’ philosophy. Half the stuff I keep I know I will never need. So why do I do it?

Fear. It’s as simple as that. Fear of forgetting the past, of forgetting a crucial part of the journey, of forgetting a piece of my history, or of someone else’s. All the time I’m hoarding things, I’m subconsciously living in fear.

Perhaps this is why I often dream that my house is on fire and I have to choose what to save, or why I have an irrational fear of being burgled, or why I take a photograph at every opportunity. The truth is, when you have too many belongings, or put too much pressure on yourself to capture and retain every moment, you lose sight of what is really significant to you. Your physical space is crowded and mixed up, and your brain does exactly the same. Tidy room, tidy mind. It’s so true. Your space eventually becomes too full for anything new, and you end up sacrificing your future trying to save your past.

Although it was horrible throwing my beloved brogues away, it was also quite liberating to have faced my fear. When we’re forced to live without something, or do things a little differently, we often end up wondering what we were so afraid of. Change is necessary for moving forward. Everything has to keep moving, whether we like it or not, so better to embrace it than attempt to dwell in the past via mouldy old shoes.

In the ever-evolving consumer culture we live in, it’s ALWAYS necessary to question how much shit we actually need. One of the easiest ways to stop accumulating too much stuff is (believe it or not) to stop buying so much stuff in the first place. Like any addiction, constantly buying things only leaves you wanting more. It’s a cruel trick. A hunger that’s never satisfied. I guess what I’m trying to say is that the happiness we think we get from material things is incredibly short-lived. We are too fickle for our own good. It stems from a constant stream of consciousness that tells us to focus on the things we don’t have, ignoring the things we’ve already got. Similarly, my fear of losing my possessions depends on the idea of absence. Forever focusing on the absence of material things, aligning our happiness with their presence, is simply not healthy or practical. And the truth of the matter is, while you probably don’t need another pair of shoes, someone out there really, really does. Someone out there, lots of people in fact, don’t own any shoes. So what makes you think you need another pair? Or that you can’t live without one of your 30?

Yesterday, I visited my nan, who’s preparing to move out of her three-bedroom house and into a little flat. She wanted my sister and I to ‘choose some things to keep’, and together we went through a big pile of potential ‘things’ my nan was happy to part with. Glassware, tea sets, ornaments, cutlery, pottery, jewellery, ash trays, photo frames. Everything had a story, and yet she was willing to let them go, if not to us then to charity. She made the brave decision to sacrifice a few pieces from the past to make some space for the future, moving forward and embracing a huge change. I will forever take my inspiration from that. The useless brogues (among other things) I threw away left more than enough space for a few things from my nan I will forever, rightfully hold close.

 

Lesson 27: turning 26

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So last week, I turned 26. That’s four years from 30. That’s too old to get a young person’s travel card and, let’s face it, it’s too old to fall asleep on the night bus and wake up in Orpington, with no phone and ketchup down your front. I am no longer in my early twenties, and do you know what? I quite like it. Here’s why.

Often one to let nostalgia lure me into believing that things were so much better in the past, I was all set to feel a bit weird at the prospect of leaving my early twenties behind. I had an absolute blast, and, more importantly, I had an excuse for when things didn’t quite go to plan. Ignorance and lack of experience in youth are the best excuses we ever have. And then, quite out of nowhere, we suddenly accumulate enough mistakes to know better. It’s not that life has to start being serious, I don’t think we should ever have to take ourselves particularly seriously; it’s more that I want my life to start having a different purpose. I want to reach a new level of productively, to embark on a new type of challenge; one that comes from hangover-free weekends and spending less time worrying about what to wear.

During my birthday celebrations, a friend and I had a conversation about whether we’d rather be 21 again. He said he would, and I disagreed. In fact, I can’t think of anything worse. He argued that back then, life was one big party, a party we were entitled to and expected to participate in. We didn’t have a care in the world. We were self-assured and the future felt far away. We could dream of being whatever we wanted to be. We were arrogant without reason.

It’s not that I’m necessarily happier at 26. I just feel like I’m more the person I was supposed to be. At 21, I couldn’t see past my degree and my next night out. My life feels a whole lot fuller now. Complex and challenging sure, but it’s grown and developed in ways I never expected. I look at pictures of 21-year-old me and feel like it’s not me at all. That hair, that place, those clothes, those relationships etc, etc. I was having a great time at the time, but with everything I’ve learnt and experienced since then, I would never want to go back. For anyone who is wondering why, here are 10 reasons why I think being 26 is better than being 21:

1. I look better
After so many years of experimenting with my hair and face, I have finally worked out what suits me, and it’s definitely not a side-swept fringe, heavy bronzer and skin-coloured lipstick. In fact, I now look more like me at 17 than 21, I’ve reverted back to a more natural me (but with bigger eyebrows). At uni, I never quite looked the way I wanted to look. Lack of extra cash had quite a big part to play. I couldn’t always afford nice food, a decent hair cut, and skin-care products that actually work. All my money went on booze and books. Somewhere between graduating and finding my first proper job, I started to feel much more at ease with my appearance, more so now than ever.

2. I can dress myself
The same goes for clothes. I would rather go naked than trade my wardrobe with the one I had five years ago. Being 26 and earning a decent salary means being able to buy the things I always wanted but could never afford. It also means I’ve worn enough what-the-fuck-was-I-thinking outfits to know better.

3. I can drink responsibly
Kind of. In comparison to how horribly drunk I used to get anyway. Vomiting from too much alcohol has thankfully become rare and I actually remember my nights out now. Plus, I drink in much nicer, less cheesy vicinities. I go to places for the music, rather than getting wasted because the music is so awful.

4. I’ve found ‘the one’
I am now capable of being in a serious relationship and I no longer question whether I’m too young to properly settle down. Being so excited for your future with someone gives you very little reason to look back. I couldn’t imagine life without Joe.

5. I’m more interested in the world around me
Which has brought on a burning desire to travel and volunteer. I actually feel guilty about how little I’ve experienced of the world, and how much I could be doing to make some sort of difference. If I had travelled at 21 (which I’d originally planned but couldn’t afford to), I would have partied my time away.

6. I can picture my future
The future is no longer the bleak, scary place it used to be. I’ve worked hard and can see where my career is going. The thought of marriage and babies isn’t terrifying and there’s a slight possibility I might someday own my own house. Although, there are quite a few things I still need to get out of my system.

7. I have a more positive outlook
Which has largely come from learning to let go of the things I can’t control. I also care a lot less about what people think of me. There is very little point. Converting negative energy into positive isn’t easy, but I think it becomes more possible with age, confidence and experience. We have a limited amount of energy, what we spend it on is up to us.

8. I know who my friends are
I’ve discovered what true friendship is. I’ve met many of my closest friends in the last five years. We’ve come together through shared experiences, tastes and values. I’ve learnt that sometimes people drift apart, and that’s ok. Very few things last forever, and that’s what makes the things that do so amazing.

9. I’m no longer a junior or assistant at work
I’ve worked for successful brands, going from intern to editorial assistant to copywriter to senior writer. I’ve been rewarded and promoted and I now have a level of confidence and authority I couldn’t have dreamed of at 21. I used to worry that hard work and ambition wouldn’t be enough, but it turns out, it was.

10. I’ve made so many amazing memories
In the last five years, I’ve graduated, fallen in love, lived in three different London boroughs, covered London Fashion Week, doubled my salary, been to countless festivals and far too many crazy nights out, visited Paris, Ibiza, Aruba, Fuerteventura, Cape Verde, Austria, Egypt, Venice and Lisbon. I’ve written thousands and thousands of words and read hundreds of books. I’ve discovered the music that really moves me, and people I’d do anything for.

There have unavoidably been lows as well as highs: unemployment, uncertainty, loss, illness, mistakes, sadness and big changes. In fact, the hardest things I’ve ever had to deal with have happened in the last five years. The most important thing is that regardless of the darker times, it’s the positive things I hold close. I’ve learnt so much, and I hope reading this encourages you to always look forward. Keep learning from the lessons life throws at you, and the good will always outweigh the bad.

Lesson 22: learning from Dad

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More than just a Daddy’s Girl, I am my father incarnated in female form. We are identical in so many ways it’s actually quite weird. Our eyes, mouth, nose, ears, legs (cheers Dad) and feet all look exactly the same. And more than that, we often think the same. We’re moved by the same things. We’re not afraid to say how we feel and we like to think we’re pretty in-tune with our emotions. We’re over-thinkers and people watchers, happiest either staring out to sea and pondering life or dancing to loud music with an endless supply of beer.

I have learnt more from my dad than I could ever say. Not only did he perform the miracle of ensuring I got an A in GCSE maths, he’s had me believing I can achieve the unthinkable ever since. Almost 10 years on, I might have forgotten Pythagoras’ Theorem, but I’ll never forget the importance of working hard to get what you want. My dad’s ambition, work ethic and motivation are qualities I feel incredibly lucky to have witnessed firsthand. They are the reason my sister and I went to good universities and followed our dreams of living and working in London. They paid for family holidays to beautiful places. They ensured we all lived in a spacious house in a nice area. They provided security, health and opportunity. The very foundation of my life has been outlined by my dad’s hard work, which is pretty amazing when you think about it.

My dad is really good at giving advice, but, like most of us, he doesn’t always practise what he preaches. When he dropped me off at my halls in Exeter for the first time, he handed me a note that told me to work as hard as I could whilst having as much fun as possible. My whole life still revolves around this rule, but I’m not convinced that my dad, or many people of his generation do the same. And there is absolutely no reason why they shouldn’t. If I’m not still dancing until sunrise on my 50th birthday, then something has gone horribly wrong. If anything, once you reach your 50s and 60s and your children are able to support themselves, you have more of a right to have a good time than the average teenager. You’ve brought up happy, ambitious children who love and respect you. Surely the rest of your life should be one big celebration?

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Father’s Day seems like the perfect time to document some of the most valuable lessons my dad has taught me, whilst hopefully reminding him and others to take his wonderful words of wisdom on board.

  1. Do things today, not tomorrow. It’s easy to push back the things you want to do. Life gets in the way far too often. Some things we can control and some we can’t. It’s so important to be impulsive no matter what, making the most of the opportunities in front of you and continuing to dream big through the hard times. My dad taught me the value of having a life plan, and together we’ve learnt that plans are often only made to be broken. Expect the unexpected and learn from the surprises life can bring. Change is terrifying, but it forces us to grow in ways we didn’t realise we could.
  1. You can’t please everyone. And you should never aim to. You can only spread yourself so far. Trying to fit into different moulds of expectation will only leave you wondering who you really are and what you really want. Save your loyalty and energy for the people who really appreciate and deserve it, because otherwise you’re in danger of being all used up by the time the ones you love need you.
  1. You are never too old to do fun, crazy, ridiculous things. At the end of term at university, my dad would drive all the way down to Exeter to collect me. On a few occasions, I took him for a night out. Like a proper night out. I took my dad to Timepiece. And we didn’t just go upstairs, we went upstairs-upstairs. Only Exeter goers will understand the significance of this. But just imagine my dad discovering that Jager bombs are only £1 after he just withdrew £100 at the cash point. He stayed up drinking cans of cider with my friends while I passed out. I find this weirdly inspiring. My dad is cool. My dad rides a motorbike. As he gets older, I want my dad to embrace this fun, carefree side of him more than ever. And I hope reading this inspires you to do the same.

Lesson 19: celebrating festivals

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Festivals have different rules to reality.

At festivals, I wear gold Lycra. I fall over in the mud and genuinely don’t care that it’s in my hair. I wee in strange places. I talk to strangers. I survive on warm cider and cereal bars. I’m drunk as a skunk at 11am. I dance with my eyes closed like no-one is watching. I’m covered in glitter. Glittery mud. I’m on a permanent high from hearing my favourite songs. With my favourite people.Feeling so much love as a collective. I’m part of a group. Part of an atmosphere. Utter contentment.

Festivals aren’t for everyone, but for me they are the epitomy of the Great British Summer. The anticipation, the planning, the unpredictability – all shrouded with hope and excitement. We unite in a mission to make this year the best-year ever. It’s addictive, infectious and something to focus on. There is nothing I enjoy more than packing up four outrageous outfits and heading for the fields with a crate in my arms, breaking away from the monotony of everyday life, if only to learn how to fully appreciate flushing toilets again.

I love festivals for exposing a part of me that remains hidden for most of the year. The part that doesn’t worry over the tiniest problems, like chipped nail varnish, or hoovering, or holes in my tights. For a few magical days, the most important things in the world are who’s on stage and who’s on next. And beer. And burgers. And more beer.

Some of the most memorable moments in my life have taken place at a festival. I sparked up an instant friendship with my now long-term boyfriend, bumping into him as I emerged bleary eyed from a porta-loo. I cried to Elton John singing Rocket Man on my birthday, while dressed as Elton John.  I danced for 12 hours straight and forgot to eat, covered in sequins and wearing a blue wig. There is something magical about being with a huge group of friends and knowing, just for a minute, you are all thinking and feeling the exact same thing. You’re all detached from real life but not from each other, and the bond you already shared is eternally stronger.

There is no hiding at a camping festival. Everyone sees you in all your glory. For someone who never leaves the house without makeup on, this is both incredibly scary and profoundly liberating. You remember that it’s ok not to care sometimes, and to take yourself a little less seriously. Suddenly there are more important things in life than deadlines, work and money. For four – maybe more – blissful days, having fun becomes your sole occupation. You’re a teenager again. The beauty of it being that you eventually crave the routine and cleanliness of your old life, ready to return to your bed and dry clothes.

Anything that encourages creativity is to be commended. To ensure people learn to let go, dance, have fun with their friends and listen to amazing music. Life really is too short not to. If you haven’t already planned to go, to treat yourself to a few precious carefree days this Summer, I can’t stress enough how much you should.

 

Lesson 10: appreciating mums

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When I was seven, my nan was in a pretty horrific car accident. She swerved on ice in the pitch black, crashing into a tree that quickly crushed her car. By complete chance, two kind men found her in the dark and saved her life. She had reconstructive surgery around her eye. I can still see it now. I drew pictures of her because her poor broken face scared me so much. I remember, quite clearly, climbing into bed with my mum and sobbing with her when we heard of the accident. For the first time in my short life, it dawned on me that this person, Nanny, was my mum’s mum. And for the first time, my mum was no different to me. We were just kids together. She was vulnerable and scared. I wanted to protect her the way she protected me. I felt like it was my duty because suddenly, we were the same.

Whatever way you choose to look at it, our lives form complete circles. We start by being completely dependent on our parents, before our parents eventually and rightfully often become heavily dependent on us. From start to finish, we are connected by a beautiful bond as old as humanity itself. So, whatever my mum has given to me, I vow to give to her. Maybe this is why I feel I can tell her everything? Or maybe that’s just because she is so patient and understanding. When my mum goes to cross the road, I reach out to take her hand. I open the marmalade lid for her, I help her choose an outfit for a night out, I do her hair, I take her to fun new places, I tell her how beautiful she is, I laugh with her when she says something ridiculous, and I do these things because my mum has dedicated her life to doing them for me. I say ‘do’. I don’t actually live at home anymore, so these things have become planned events rather than everyday occurrences. Can you imagine how it must feel to bring someone into the world, someone that is entirely yours, and then one day have to let them go? Well, my mum did. And to me, that’s the most amazing thing of all. The purest act of selflessness; something nobody will fully understand until it happens to them.

My mum gave us the best childhood. My strongest memories consist of weekends spent eating packets of crisps on park benches, chasing chickens around farms, making sandcastles, constructing elaborate dens, painting pictures, nursing dolls back to health, sleepovers with friends and family, 100s of presents on Christmas day, birthday parties, zoos, ice cream, bouncy castles, dance classes, books and games. I wasn’t spoilt, but I was given everything a child needs to have the very best start in life. My parents didn’t have a great deal of money when my sister and I were young. When my mum was my age, she did a lady’s shopping for £5 a week, walking for miles into town and back again, pushing me in the buggy. My mum quite literally went the extra mile.

It’s weird and difficult to say this, but growing up, my family unit was so close I thought nothing could change it. Not ever. How privileged we were to be able to depend on something so much. Some people never have that. Recently, I’ve come to appreciate two major things: one being just how much my mum has sacrificed for us, and the other being that my parents, like all parents, are human. My mum has just turned 50 (sorry Mum) and more than anything, I want her to start doing things just for her. She is free, for the first time in 25 years, to do whatever makes her happy. I can categorically say that without my mum, I would be nothing like the person I am. Not in the slightest. Everything good in me is because of her, which makes her kind of magical. If she has the power to do that, she can do anything. Only when she feels that powerful will I have come close to giving her everything she gives to me.

Lesson number 10 is completely and utterly dedicated to my mum, because near-enough every lesson I’ve ever learnt has been shaped by her. So, when you think about it, not only is the motherly bond an eternal one, every individual mum kind of lives forever in some beautifully unique way too.

I would love to hear about the lessons you’ve learnt from your mum… Please feel free to comment below.

Lesson 6: treasuring friends

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At secondary school, I was lucky enough to have a big, happy, supportive group of girls around me at all times. All those teenage discoveries – alcohol, smoking, makeup, clothes, sex, heartache, exams – were a group conquest. We were in everything together, all the time. Growing up, this was just what we all needed. Nothing was too daunting. However, being a tad introverted is a challenge when you’re never alone. Whereas my friends would spend the whole day together and the whole evening talking about it on the phone, I would start to crave a bit of solitude. On girly holidays, I would slink off for a walk or spend an extra hour in the hotel by myself. I loved them, loved being with them. I still do. But I like to be alone sometimes, too. Not in a miserable, feeling sorry for myself kind of way. I just generally need a few hours to recharge my batteries. Quite simply, if you’re an introvert, you feel energised by being alone, whereas extroverts get their energy by being around other people. As I grew up, and learned a bit more about myself, I realised I was never going to be a central part of a huge group of friends my whole life. Don’t get me wrong, I have so many amazing friends. I can’t believe how lucky I am to have them – true friends that understand that sometimes life gets in the way, but will never let you drift too far. Being surrounded by people who care about you when you need them most is an incredible thing. However, having a best friend in times of crisis is quite literally life changing.

Becky was part of the same all-girl group as me at school. She was always kind of ‘the naughty one’. At 13, we shared a pack of Mayfair, got horrendously drunk on bottles of Red Square and had a competition to see who could kiss the most boys (some things never change). At 15, we both fell in love with a boy for the first time (different boys, thank god). At 18, we had a joint birthday party at the local rugby club and planned it meticulously for months. At 19, I went off to get a degree and Becky went off to be a ski instructor. We didn’t speak. We drifted apart, like a lot of people did. We were never the closest friends in the group. We found other friends. Then, after I moved back home, our paths coincidentally crossed and we ended up working in the same pub together. Becky quickly filled a gap I didn’t even realise was there. 4 years on and I honestly can’t imagine life without her. We are polar opposites and yet completely and utterly the same. Becky reminds me every single day that although I often feel an overwhelming urge to be alone, friendship is one of the most important and beautiful things anyone can have. We went off, did our own thing, changed, and found our way back to each other. Now we’re closer than ever. We text each other the same thing at the same time, we pine after each other after a week of not talking, we have THE most fun on a night out together, we’re quite sickening really.

Becky isn’t the only close friend I’ve reconnected with during the last couple of years. In short, if you miss someone, need someone, or feel like someone might need you; it is never ever too late to tell them. Growing up, I was so close with my family I never really felt dependant on other people. My sister is my soul mate and I can honestly count the arguments we’ve had on one hand. It has recently dawned on me that after a certain stage in life, it’s your interaction with the people outside of home that truly helps you learn and grow as a person; whether that’s people you meet from completely different cultures, or simply people you confide in outside of your family unit. If family are the foundations, then friends are the bricks. Without the bricks, you can’t grow upwards. My closest friends aren’t necessarily the people I’ve known the longest, but the people who bring out the best in me, who inspire me, who make it all worthwhile. We’ve shared our darkest secrets and trusted each other to keep them safe. They’re the people I clicked with instantly, and all of a sudden couldn’t manage life without. I would fight for them, cry for them, and probably even die for them. You know who you are, and I don’t thank you enough for being such an incredible influence in my life. And special thanks to my beautiful sister, my original friend. It’s Valentine’s Day, and I’m declaring my love to you.

A simple lesson I’ve learned: even your closest friends are only human. If you neglect them, hurt them, push them to the edge or simply make zero effort, they will slowly let you go. Recognise the people you can’t live without and treasure them until the end. Enrich their lives the way they have yours and live forever safe with the satisfaction that if nothing else, you have each other.

 

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