Seventeen things that absolutely ARE worth your time

Welcome, friends, to winter.

Let me just say here, I don’t care if you think it’s not winter until December 21st, until the first snows, or the Christmas tree goes up. For me, winter starts when the sun slides below the trees at the primary school before 3pm and you hurry home before the night slams down on the village. It doesn’t seem to gradually darken here at this time of year, it’s like a lamp being extinguished. It still shocks me with its suddenness.

I’ve been quiet of late. My dislike of, and worry about, these colder months is well documented and I don’t fear about speaking openly about them, particularly if my experiences might be a help to someone else. I have, however, found myself at something of a loss at what to say that might be useful and not sound trite. To be honest, I’ve been coping. Getting my head down, doing my tasks – volunteering at the school on a Tuesday, leading our Beaver Scout colony on a Wednesday (and all the planning that takes), working three mornings a week. Anything else is a bonus – a bonus I am so glad of that I am enjoying myself to much to want to stop doing it to write about it. I have been doing things that have made me feel so contented I sometimes just want to purr.

The only thing casting a shadow on the past few weeks is the concern that I ought be writing about it – and other things, besides.

As part of my Coping With Winter plan, I have been collecting oddments of beauty, inspiration and words of wisdom and storing them on Pinterest. I could literally lose months to Pinterest, so I have to ration myself. After a while you realise that most of the lifestyle/mindfulness how-to guides are all very much of a muchness, thousands of Instagram-ready, perfect home dwelling lifestyle bloggers all preaching from the same hymn sheet. I find this both infuriating and comforting – they don’t have anything new to say, either!

I stumbled across this post – 17 things that aren’t worth your time and yes, whilst I agreed with it, I thought that now is maybe not the time to look at things so negatively, and instead look at 17 things that absolutely ARE worth your time.

Walks: I’ve not felt great, physically, for a while now. I feel as though I have something working away at me, slowly, sapping my strength. I think it’s winter to blame, but massive stomps are a thing of the past. I still get out for a wee walk every day though. I take my time, listen to the radio on my headphone (Radio 4, bit addicted!), and even if it’s just a stroll to the school gates, I feel so much better for the fresh air. Even when it’s pouring.

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Books: Three amazing novels I’ve read recently – Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent, Melissa Harrison’s All Among The Barley and Polly Clark’s Larchfield. I’m currently reading Malachy Tallack’s The Valley At The Centre of the World. I haven’t felt so warm, contented and happy curled up with a book since Friday evenings as a child, just back from our tiny local lending library, eagerly clutching a new selection of Enid Blyton or Arthur Ransome to devour.

Coffee: Make time for good coffee. We only have a wee cafetiere, nothing fancy at all, but I like to have a coffee I feel I deserve after completing something. After a morning of work, household chores or a long walk, it’s become something of a ritual to steer away from the jar of instant and indulge myself in something a little more special. Favourite mug, check. That wonderful smell of the coffee when you open the packet, check. Water just before boiling, check. Waiting just long enough before pushing down that plunger-thing, check. Sitting on the back step, eyes closed, hands wrapped around a mug that smells divine and tastes even better is one of life’s tiny pleasures that shouldn’t be denied.

Crap TV: Whatever it is, if it takes you away from worry and buggering about on social media for a wee while, indulge yourself. I watch very little TV, I prefer the radio, but in the run up to Christmas I do love a truly dreadful Christmas movie to escape into. It’s a treat. It doesn’t hurt anyone else. Don’t feel guilty.

Early nights: Early to bed is the new staying out late. Really it is.

Spotify playlists: I live for these at the moment. I get freaked out by how spot-on their algorithms are for being able to tell what I’d like, but maybe I am just depressingly predictable. Spotify always give me new things to listen to and fall in love with though, so I never get bored.

Cake: Making, particularly. Also eating. Cakes are calorie-free when the weather is cold.

Hot chocolate: With an extra sugar, lashings of squirty cream and a scrunched up Flake on top. Because to hell with Type II diabetes.

Friends, real-life ones: Reach out beyond social media. Plan a week-night get together for dinner and a chat, if you can. Pub quiz? Bingo? Walk? Whatever floats your boats. We are too reliant on social media these days, but nothing beats a good chinwag catch-up.

Hobbies: Whatever they are. Crochet, cake decorating, cheese-rolling, bog-snorkelling. Does it make you happy? Yes? Then do it more. Even if you’re not very good at it. Four years ago I was utterly hopeless at crochet, I couldn’t even chain, but I decided I was going to teach myself and I wasn’t going to stop until I had learned. Why crochet? Because everyone else in my family are good knitters, but can’t crochet. I’m a trend-bucker like that. Also, my knitting is bloody atrocious.

Sending kind words to someone you think a lot of: For no reason other than that your life is better for having them in it. Send them a text, a Twitter DM, a card. Just say it.

Politeness: It costs nothing. Smiling and remembering your pleases and thank yous sounds like something you’d remind a five year old; but you’d be amazed how many people don’t think it’s important anymore.

Turning off the news: I like being informed. I have children who often ask me difficult questions and, as a parent, I owe them an answer – or at least a discussion on a subject. But there is nothing to be gained from watching 24 hour news or dwelling over headlines. We can do what we can do – we can educate and inform and share advice and resources. Worrying and getting paranoid and upset about what the news decides suits their agenda helps nobody, and only distracts from what we can do.

Buying local and buying from craftspeople: Going out for something to eat? Go to a local restaurant/cafe run by people in your community rather than the big chains. Buy your veg at the greengrocer, your trinkets, cards, jewellery from crafters not production lines in China. Help support a local business or a talented craftsperson. Yes, you will pay £40 or so for one of my crocheted baby blankets, for example, but they will be a quality you can pass down as an heirloom and every stitch will have been made – by hand, not machine, with care and love, because I love my craft.

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Volunteering: I’m going to write a more detailed post about this soon, so I shall just say that volunteering has brought me so much joy and personal satisfaction, as well as great talking points for my CV, that I would recommend it to anyone and everyone. Whatever you like doing, would like to learn, or cause you support, you will be able to volunteer to help. Do it!

Cooking from scratch: I find cooking is brilliant for anxiety. The slow, careful preparation and weighing of ingredients, the combining, the cooking, the watching, the clearing up (I am an ‘as you go’ person rather than an ‘at the end’ person), there is something mindful and meditative about it, and whenever I’m feeling at odds with the world, I take great pleasure in the whole process, from planning and buying to the finished dish. I know I’m really lucky to have the time to do it, I’m not rushing in from work and juggling taking kids to various after-school activities, but if you can find an hour in your week to potter about in the kitchen, you won’t regret it.

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Plans: When the nights are long, nothing feels nicer than making plans for the future. Whether that be plans to budget for your summer holiday, plan what you want to do to your house, plan your new career or – my personal favourite – plan what I’m going to grow for food next year, now is the time to get everything down and see how you can convert them into more than just dreams.

I hope you’ve been able to take something from this wee listicle; it’s certainly helped me to get something written after weeks of beating myself up for not being able to do so, and I thank you for reading it. I have my fingers crossed that it won’t be so long next time!

 

 

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The Survivors’ Guide to Early Autumn, Part Two

Well, I have been absolutely blown away by the responses to my last post, in which I garbled on incoherently about Autumn. It has generated a lot of chat about how we cope with the change of the seasons, and I shall be dedicating a post to your thoughts and experiences in the very near future. Thank you so much to everyone who contributed, it means the world to get your thoughts.

I’ve have a morning free whilst I wait for a missing scarecrow (don’t ask…) so I thought I would strike whilst the iron is hot, as they say.

And so, without further ado, I am delighted to present to you, as promised, (insert drumroll noise here) Part the Second (Letters M through Z) of The Early Autumn Survivors’ Guide (Without Mentioning That Scandinavian H Word) in Glorious Listicle Format.

*takes bow, with flourish*

 

M is for Meditation. Well, what did you expect?

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Meditation still often conjures up images of people in orange robes sitting omming in the lotus position; or can be marketed as something you need to invest time and money on learning from a mentor or there’s no point in it, or you might ‘do it wrong’. Fortunately, meditation is for everyone and is within everyone’s budget, whether you choose to look at some of the YouTube videos available that teach you the essentials and foundation of the practice, or you have the opportunity to attend meditation classes (which are becoming a lot more popular). I use the fantastic ‘Stop, Breathe and Think’ app for my phone (Android), and I know many others who love the Headspace app.

Taking time to meditate takes as long as you’d like to give it, or as long as you have. Sometimes I will have a session that will last thirty or forty minutes, sometimes I meditate for five minutes.

The longer sessions are a treat for my brain, a chance to really shut down my crazy-fast mind buzz and just float in the awareness of my breath. The shorter sessions tend to happen when I really need them, when I need a breather and a chance to refocus and regather so in many respects I think these frequent, shorter sessions are actually the most useful to me.

Meditation, for me, is a wonderful way of gathering my thoughts. I like to imagine my ‘busy’ brain as several big, tangled balls of yarn; and the act of meditation is me taking the chance to slowly and gently untangle all the balls of yarn. I tenderly tease the knots apart, untangle the thought-yarns and then make a decision whether to keep this yarn out for use, or pop it away into my mental stash-bag. The decision is mostly subconscious – I trust myself to make the best choice as to whether having a snooze is my most pressing mental need, or whether I should carry on with whatever tasks have been occupying me. Other people I know have described meditation as a ‘mental massage’, and I love that. You’ll come to find your own metaphors that will describe how it feels to you.

The most important thing to remember about meditation is that no, it doesn’t come naturally, so don’t worry if you feel as though your mind is pinging around your skull at a million miles per hour. Yes, you are encouraged to settle down and concentrate on your breathing and use that as a focus; but it is absolutely perfectly natural and absolutely OK if your mind wanders….just gently bring it back to your focus and keep going and, most importantly, enjoy it.

 

N is for Nature. 

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Recently, several scholarly papers have been published linking interaction with the natural world with a significant improvement in mental health and outcome and, I think for many of us, this is something we have known for some time. Pop ‘Nature and Mental Health’ into Google and you’ll be able to read experts telling us that getting into the great outdoors can have a huge impact on both our mental and physical health. There seems to be evidence that even looking out at a natural view can speed up physical recovery times in hospital patients; and even looking at paintings or photographs of land or seascape can have significant effects on mood.

I am a walker, and I will walk in any weather (though obviously I have my preferred walking weather). I favour wild places, but I have also become slightly obsessed with finding the wildness creeping back into our urban environment, or those tiny pockets of our pastoral past that has hung on whilst land all around it has been developed. For easy, low-level walking, canal tow-paths are a fascinating wander through our industrial past and are an intriguing natural habitat to explore.

I am, however, aware that not everyone is able to get out as much, or for as long, as they would like; so let us not underestimate the importance of bringing nature to us. A coffee on your back step, or just looking out of the window. If you live in a built up area, look up at the sky. If you have a garden, consider planting bulbs for the Spring. Do think about feeding the wild birds throughout the colder months, during the Winter the sight of so many birds thronging around our feeders fills me with joy however hard my day is being. If you don’t have a garden and are unable to find nature easily due to location or personal circumstances, don’t dismiss the power of beautiful photographs and paintings – Pinterest is absolutely fabulous for this. I can sit and gaze at a painting for ages, allowing myself to submerge myself into the image itself as though I am wandering through its landscape, sensing the weather, smelling the scents and absorbing the sounds. Make prints of images that resonate to look at when you need to, or take a few moments to try your hand at sketching them, or sketch your own perfect landscape. If you’re not particularly artistic (not that THAT matters), you could daydream a perfect walk; make it a place you can mentally retreat to when you need it.

 

O is for Open.

Be it. Throw off your preconceptions, look past what other people think and say, and do things FOR YOU (within reason!). Don’t listen to other people’s opinions as law, what’s right for them might not be right for you.

A good example of this is medication – I make no secret of the fact that I take both antidepressants and beta-blockers. I take these in the same way as I wear an insole in my shoes to protect my Achilles tendons, or I take warfarin to keep my blood flowing. Other people choose to go without medication and have different methods of dealing with things, and that is fantastic – but they are no ‘better’ than me.

We are all individuals, we all have our own complex issues and past experiences, and our treatment should be personalised to our needs. Maybe mindfulness and meditation isn’t for you, perhaps you think walking in nature is a waste of time, you might be thinking that we are poisoning ourselves with brain-numbing pharmaceuticals. We are all different, and that needs to be remembered when you are giving your opinion just as much as when you are looking for advice.

 

P is for Planning.

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When you’re having a truly crap week (and we all get them, you’re absolutely not alone), it can be really helpful to make some plans of something to really look forward to. Easy things that don’t have the potential to be a massive, depressing let-down are usually the best to aim for. A visit to a favourite restaurant, a wander around a museum, a catch-up with a friend, a film night, a night in with a good book. Don’t hold back on your planning, you could even combine them with lists (see last post).

 

Q is for Quiet

When was the last time you were enveloped in true silence? How often do you sit without music, a TV or radio, traffic noise or any other interference, however small? How much does other people’s noise impact on your life, without you even really noticing it on a day to day basis?

I’ll leave that with you. Quiet is worth seeking, even if it’s only for a couple of moments. Cut the chatter.

 

R is for Rest

Take it when you can. Nobody ever got a medal for battling through the day when they didn’t have to. Need a snooze? Listen to your body and have one. No time for a snooze? Try a ten minute ‘Bodyscan’ meditation where you relax your muscles in turn, you’ll feel refreshed afterwards, or just leave what you’re doing for a few moments and get a change of immediate scenery for a quick fix.

 

S is for Self-Care Package

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These are one of these wonderfully indulgent things that you’ll enjoy putting together as much as you’ll enjoy using, and everyone should have one. Ideally kept together in a box, it’s a wee treasure-trove of goodies for when you’re feeling as though you need a boost; and what you put in it is up to you – they can be as basic or as lavish as you’d like. Some popular items include: Favourite childhood books, nail polish, pampering skincare treats, sachets of hot chocolate, scented candles, magazines, cosy socks, lip balm, notebook, memory stick of music/photos, crafting kits, herbal tea.

These kits also make lovely gifts for friends who might be having a tough time and who might benefit from a big mental cuddle. The first one I ever received was from a beautiful friend F, who sent me a box of wonderful goodies when I had finished the West Highland Way with a wee card that made me cry. It was such a beautiful surprise and it remains one of the most wonderful things I have ever received.

I am very conscious that this particular tip is very ‘female’ – I’d love to hear what men would like in a self-care kit. Do please comment….

 

T – Is for Taste

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When the nights draw in and it gets dark so ridiculously early food takes on a new significance in our days, so why not head to the kitchen and try out some new recipes? Rediscover the joys of taste. Some of my favourite memories of wet Winter Saturdays involve baking with my youngest, the kitchen warm and cosy, smelling of cake and spices. What beats a hearty stew or a curry when it’s freezing cold and raining stair-rods? The importance of gathering together for food goes back many, many centuries. Preparing, cooking and eating food together with family and/or friends gives it a ritual, makes it an event, a memory rather than just a chore to be completed. Cook together, chat with your partner or teach your children something new to make. Turn off the TV and eat together, chat together. Give quiet thanks that we’re no longer storing our harvest to last us through until next year, be grateful for this time shared together and our bodies’ sense of taste meaning that meals can be a sensory experience rather than just an essential daily task.

 

U is for Unique

You are. Please stop comparing yourself with others. That is all.

 

V is for Volunteering

Another thing that is really good for mental well-being, and something I’m going to dedicate a whole blog post to at some point in the near future but, in the meantime, read this.

 

W is for Weather

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I live in Scotland so I feel well qualified to comment on this, living as I do with four seasons in one day. The great fellwalker and writer Alfred Wainwright once sagely said that there’s no such thing as bad weather, just inadequate clothing and, as much as I want to headbutt him when I’m caught in the middle of a torrential downpour in a denim jacket because the sky was clear blue two minutes ago, he has a point.

If you invest in two things this Autumn, make it a decent waterproof coat and a pair of decent boots. I have walking boots, but I spend most of Autumn stomping around in my wellies. Why? Because I don’t have to be precious about my footwear and my wellies mean I don’t have to worry about my feet getting damp so it massively increases my potential areas of exploration.

Don’t let the weather hold you back from getting out in it. Rain can make for wonderful photographs of clouds, of raindrops, of reflections in puddles or sparkling, shimmering cobwebs.

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For further inspiration on the beauty of walking in ‘bad’ weather, Melissa Harrison’s ‘Rain: Four Walks in English Weather’ will have you donning your Gore-Tex and seeking muddy puddles.

X is for X-Ray your daily life

We spend so long assessing our physical state – our size, our hair, our skin, how we appear to others; we can often forget to check inwards. Take time every day to check in with how you are feeling. Are you tense in your shoulders because you’ve been hunched over with stress, or clamping your jaw because you’re tense? Are you jittery and nervy because of pent-up anxiety? Stretch, do some very simple yoga moves, get out for a walk round the block. Check into your mind and heart, because what’s happening inside shows on the outside.

Y is for Youth

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Oh, look at those happy, enthusiastic faces, would ya?

Your youth. Another thing I intend to blog about in the near future (get me, huh?) is the importance of not letting go of our youthful exuberance, our enthusiasm and wonder at the world around us; our desire to learn and develop. Becoming jaded and cynical seems to be the scourge of the modern world, when did we decide we were too old to believe in the power of beauty and the magic in the world? The beauty of a view, piece of music, a piece of writing. The magic of an evening out with friend, a delicious home cooked meal or an incredible night’s sleep. When was the last time we laughed at something so hard we thought we might burst?

Z is for Zip

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Zip it. When you’re on social media and it’s like International Whack A Troll Day, or when – shock horror – someone is wrong on the internet, then just take a big, deep breath and then move on. Don’t stress yourself out arguing however much you want to. It’s taken me months and months to resist rising to the bait but now I just move away and do something else. You’re not giving the trolls the oxygen of attention, which is what they crave; and arguments on the internet seldom change opinion – your passions are better suited to different methods of communication, so don’t waste your energy. Look, instead, for a way to use your energy to force real, positive change.

 

And there endeth my first alphabetical listicle and, I confess, I enjoyed it more than I expected I would. Join me next time as I let you into some of my friends’ secrets on coping with seasonal changes, things that make them happy and probably me adding two thousand words of pointless waffle.

Be lovely to each other.