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.

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Learning to let things go…Week 1 of ‘The Retreat’

Disclaimer: If you’re reading this on social media, it’s because WordPress cleverly posts for me without me having to be there.

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It’s 1pm, I’ve just finished work for the day. It’s a new project, a new client, and I’m just finding my feet; but that’s me done for today. I’m sat at my desk, the August afternoon sunshine is bright and deliciously warm through the window. Outside, children are playing, a lawnmower sounds in a nearby garden. Clouds – a combination of fluffy white meringues and darker, more ominous grey forms, both threatening rain – drift past. Washing hangs on the line, blowing gently in the same breeze that rocks the plum tree and causes a few thirsty leaves from the oak across the way to drift gently, silently to earth.

I am calm, I am quietly planning the rest of my day. This in itself has come as something of a daily surprise, as usually at 1pm I am mentally exhausted, unable to keep my eyes open and desperate for a nanna-nap.

It’s so difficult to try and explain how different this past week has been – a week without the lure of either social media or alcohol – and how much I feel as though seven short days have started to change me. I’m not known for being particularly superstitious but I will confess that I am frightened to death that too much early crowing may, indeed, throw the proverbial spanner in the works; so, for the time being, I will share what I have learned so far.

Learning to breathe

As ridiculous as it may sound, I have learned to breathe. You might indeed consider this a quite ludicrous statement and, a couple of weeks ago, I would have been inclined to agree. However, daily meditation, and a daily session of at-home-yoga with the amazing Adriene on YouTube have taught me not just how to breathe properly, but how badly I breathed before. Why? Anxiety. Major causes of anxiety: social media (friends bickering, the dramas, the bitching, the one-upmanship, the upshitting, Brexit, more Brexit, trolls, Brexit, ignorant numpties, Brexit), wine, not enough sleep. Reasons for not enough sleep: social media, wine.

Never, ever underestimate the power of breathing properly. It’s incredible. Also, yoga with Adriene. That’s incredible too. I am learning to love downward dog and plank, honest.

I really like sleep.

I mean, REALLY like sleep. No more the 2am winehound dragging out the last few sips of wine whilst scrawling through the various dramas on social media, I have been tucked up in my bed by 11pm with a book. I have (mostly) slept brilliantly and been up and raring to go early rather than dragging my sorry arse out of bed at the last possible opportunity. I even got up at daft o’clock on a Saturday morning to go on an eighteen mile stroll with a pal, and I wasn’t crying for a sleep come midday. In fact, I had an amazing time and I cannot wait to go again.

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Saturday 9am, Loch Ard. It’s been a while since I saw 9am anywhere on a Saturday

My dreams, I should add here, have been mental. Who needs alcohol when you can control meteor showers using the power of your mind, have blazing arguments with everyone you know, dismantle an escalator, give birth to twins on a Ryanair flight, divorce a man you never married, deal drugs to Prince William and set fire to a china shop? Note: Any amateur psychologists might want to stay quiet about any dream analysis they are thinking of conducting, thanks-all-the-same.

Evenings and weekends are much longer without wine and/or social media

Genius, huh? It’s quite amazing what you can get done when you’re not involving yourself in someone else’s drama, arguing with trolls, verifying someone else’s well-intentioned ‘facts’ or getting upset about politics. It’s even better without wine because you can:

a) watch things on TV and actually remember them, therefore possibly even learning something.

b) not worry about spilling anything on pyjamas / laptop / duvet / floor

c) eat chocolate / gooey desserts without guilt because you’ve saved valuable calories you’d have wasted on wine.

d) Be able to get up early the following morning with a spring in your step and no mascara on your chin ready to have another fantastic (and amazingly long) day doing all the things*

*you may also end up clearing out kitchen cupboards, de-filthing children’s bedrooms, pruning roses and ironing. You have been warned.

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Tea. Is fab.

I’ve not been unhappy in a week

I know, right? Oh, there have undoubtedly been minor frustrations, arguments, headaches, grouchiness (hi there, week-early period!) and the odd wobble of nerves; but nothing at all like I have become used to over the years and considered quite normal. This, of course, is probably a combination of things – giving up social media and alcohol has meant that I’ve been sleeping much better, doing more interesting things, drinking a lot more water, eating more healthily and doing a lot more exercise – including yoga – and I think the cumulative effects of these have led to me massively reducing my stress-load and being able to handle life’s little wobbles a lot more calmly and effectively.

My relationship with alcohol definitely needed to change

I’m going to say it here, because it’s nothing to be ashamed of and it’s taken far too long for me to come to this (some might say startlingly obvious) conclusion:

You might not consider yourself as having a ‘drink problem’. Like me, you probably don’t need to drink every night, or drink vast quantities, or drink at odd times of the day or to ‘settle your nerves’. You might not (you probably won’t) have the shakes, the black-outs, red face. You won’t be clutching a paper bag in the park or eyeing up the cooking sherry.  Forget the old cliches – the cliched image of the drink-addled jakey sitting in a park is what the drinks industry, and their various hangers-on (advertisers, marketers, PR bods etc) want you to think of as someone with a ‘problem’.

It’s not about what you drink, or how much you drink. It’s about how that drink makes you feel, whether you feel artificially happier, bolder, stronger with it; whether you feel unhappy, angry, guilty or anxious during or after it (not to be confused with a raging hangover). It’s whether it is stealing your joy.

Here’s one for the women (not exclusively, but certainly predominantly). Take a look at social media. How many times do you read ‘HURRAH FOR GIN!’ or ‘IT’S WINE O’CLOCK!’ or ‘PROSECCO TIME!!!!!!’. It’s normal to drink. It’s normal to blame / thank your day by having a drink. Bad day – wine. Good day – wine. Naughty kids? Commiserate with gin. Good kids? Celebrate with gin. How many people do you know post almost constantly about being spangled/shit-faced or joke that they need a drink? How many people seem happy to promote a particular type of alcohol with their personality as though it is the most vital part their personality? Why do we do this? Do we realise what effect we might inadvertently be having on someone who might be desperately looking to cut down or stop drinking as we advertise the glory of being at one with the bottle of joy, as we glamorise it into something luxurious we deserve? Can you imagine if the same glamour, the same coolness, was still applied to having a cigarette? “Ooooh, it’s Berkley Menthol Time!!!!!, time to indulge in increasing my chances of developing cancer, what a crazy kid I am!”

Anyway, that’s an aside. That’s just something to think about when you’re next scrolling through social media. That’s why I have chosen to take a few weeks away from social media. What I actually want to say is this:

If you do actually worry about how much you drink, you’ve got a problem with alcohol. Problems can be fixed.

That’s what I have started to learn this week. I stood at a crossroads with an off-licence in one direction and the hills in the other.

This week, at least, I chose the hills. And, my god, they were glorious.

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Sixteen days in….

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Would you look at those happy, enthusiastic faces? That, dear reader, was March 27th, first day of British Summer Time and day 1 (as you can tell by our fingers) of the 5 x 50 Challenge / The Great Pootlathon and a very pleasant (though somewhat parky) walk around Strathclyde Loch….

 

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So, how has it been, considering I not only opted for a 5km walk, cycle or run every day but also decided to do it without the restorative powers of alcomafrol for fifty hellishly sober days? Well, we are on day 16 now and I must admit I am very surprised with – so far – how much I am enjoying it.

April hasn’t started off as the warmest I can remember, to be honest, but the weather has, on the whole, been kind and we’ve only had to contend with a couple of rainy days thus far (one, admittedly, was pretty torrential and even too wet for me to consider getting my trusty phone out for a madness selfie). I will usually be walking or cycling alone, armed with forementioned trusty phone with the MapMyFitness app and – when walking – BBC Radio 4 for company (OH MY GOD, THE ARCHERS! More about that at a later day, I’m sure….) because I am the sort of multi-tasking chick who likes to learn things whilst wandering aimlessly around the place (also, I learned through bitter experience of a completely wrecked knee last year that walking to music is no good for me as it leads to dancity-stomping and shin-splints, which then lead to stress fractures, wrecked tendons and damaged cartilage). However, Him Indoors and The Tiny Support Team have been absolutely wonderful in keeping me company on stomps recently – a big shout out to the TST who have racked up over 50km already just walking with their old maw. Considering I know many kids of their ages who couldn’t walk the length of themselves, I am really pleased and proud that I have two children who love the outdoors and stomping around in it.

For the record, I am eating pretty healthily at the moment too; and I’ve started up my yoga practice again (the Mindful Yoga lessons from Palouse Mindfulness can be found on YouTube – Part 1 and Part 2 are both nice, simple lessons in stretching and relaxing the body for the total beginner; and I am also working through Adriene Mishler’s brilliant 30 Days of Yoga which you can also access through the magic of YouTube – Day 1 can be found here. I’m also trying hard to remember to do my meditations – I use the ‘Stop, Breathe and Think’ app for Android the most because the meditations are quite short and very easy to pop into your day, but there are also some fantastic longer meditations on the Palouse Mindfulness website if you have a little more time to spare – I particularly like the Mountain and Lake meditations.

Physically, I feel fantastic. My clothes are looser, my skin is clearer, I am drinking much more water and herbal teas than I usually would and I don’t seem to be craving things like sweeties and crisps like I used to. The walking is toning things up nicely, and the yoga is stretching things out (you have no idea how excited I was to be able to do a forward bend and put my hands on the floor – I am the most unsupple person in the world!). I am also sleeping brilliantly – I’m finding myself wonderfully cosy and tired at around 10pm rather than keyed up and anxious at the back of 1am, and I’m falling asleep and waking up refreshed before the alarm goes off.

Mentally, I feel even better. I know that with me and my various ‘issues’, psychologically things may suddenly swing quite violently from one pole to the other, so I am enjoying this period of busy, pottering contentedness very much. I think I am the sort of person who thrives on a degree of routine with ‘treats’ for doing chores promptly and thoroughly, and I like to get my tasks out of the way early so I can indulge myself in things I adore to do, so working in the morning and then getting out for the walk and thus ticking the as challenge box early on as possible has let me relax and really enjoy time, well, pottering.

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There have been cupcakes baked…..

 

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….And brassicas sown in the polytunnel at the community garden….

 

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…much crocheting of the (now finished) Labour of Love Yarn Bag whilst swearing at Rob Titchener in The Archers…..

 

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….and much indulging in excellent bookage and fine cups of tea…..

Most interestingly of all….(is ‘interestingly’ even a real word? I’m not convinced it is, but hey, It’s my bloody blog), my horrible menopause symptoms have all but disappeared, with the exception of the hot flushes and night sweats, but even those have improved and are happening a lot less frequently. The crippling sudden exhaustion, bone aches, headaches, palpitations, nausea, sore eyes, water retention and hideous anxiety have all but gone, and long may that continue!

So now…a thank you, and a plea.

Thank you to everyone who has donated to Parkinson’s UK so far. I am absolutely thrilled to have raised just over £400 – that’s almost 50% of my target!

I might be enjoying this challenge, but it ought to be remembered that I AM doing it for a very good cause indeed. I know how blessed I am to have my mobility and to be able to do all these things without even giving them any mind.

We take so much for granted, particularly when it comes to our bodies and what we expect them to do, without grumbling or protesting, every day. People with Parkinson’s do not have that luxury. Even the simplest task, the thing we just do without even thinking about it, like putting on shoes or making a cup of tea, can be an uphill battle when you have Parkinson’s.

If you haven’t yet contributed, I would love you to consider donating even a pound to this very, very worthy cause. Parkinson’s UK aren’t one of these charities who jump on every passing bandwagon and fill up your Facebook feed at every turn, so they often get overlooked in favour of the bigger charities with the biggest marketing budgets and the social media specialists working for them – in fact, some of the bigger charities often ‘borrow’ smaller charities’ ideas and promote them under their own names until the smaller charity is all but forgotten. (Anyone actually remember who the Ice Bucket Challenge was originally in aid of before a certain charity hijacked it?).

My JustGiving page is right here. Thank you so, so much.

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