A gift of gratitude

Walking up to primary school in the morning gives me precious chat times with Child The Second, and the walk back gives me time to gather my thoughts for the day ahead.


Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat, the TV’s full of adverts for all manner of tat. Social media is heavy with expectation, with plans for elaborate Christmas dinners and lavish gifts. It is also, of course, teaming with one-upmanship, with photos of expensive toys that are this year’s ‘must have’ item, with plans for elaborate ‘Christmas Eve Boxes’ (when did spending a small fortune on a special box for the night before the little smashers get a ton of other boxes become a thing?). Everything is gearing up for the obligatory pile-of-presents-look-how-much-we-love-them Facebook photo late on Christmas Eve.

I’m glad my children are older and are past the idea that the bigger the pile = the more they are loved. This year they have asked for experiences, of things they can do together or we can do as a family. These things don’t cost a fortune, can be spread handily throughout the year, and will give the gift of memories long after Toy of the Year is languishing, broken, in the bottom of the toybox.

There are many positives to the idea of experiences for gifts. We have chosen experiences that support local businesses rather than the multinational chains so we are actively putting back into our local community. Experiences have no plastic packaging that ends up in landfill, don’t exploit workers in other countries, don’t break and don’t make a mess in already full bedrooms. We will make memories, we will talk and laugh and learn more about each other.

It has also meant that we have, essentially, been able to shift the whole focus of Christmas away from the giving of physical gifts, and more to spending time and making plans as a family. This has freed up a lot of time I would have spent stressing about what to buy, when to buy it and where to store it; and I hadn’t really noticed before how anxious the run-up to Christmas had left me, to the point where I was mentally exhausted by the time the day itself arrived.

I’m fighting a virus at the moment that has been causing me considerable fatigue; but thanks to our ‘new look’ Christmas, instead of making myself more ill stressing out about having X, Y and Z ready, I can take valuable time to take things slowly, fight the bug, relax and recover. It was during one of my ‘resting my eyes’ sessions (read: ‘nanna-nap’) that I started mulling over gratitude and how, once you come to a point in your life where you are content with it as it is, that gratitude just grows and grows and – I hope – spreads to others as well as to other areas of your life.

Earlier this year, I had a Eureka moment where I was suddenly overcome, whilst on the Hawthorn Path, with an intense and overwhelming sense of deep contentment and happiness. I realised, in a moment, that my life is one of peace, harmony and love. Yes, of course there will be sadness, and grief, and struggle at times, as befall us all; but that I am exceptionally lucky to have what I do, to be who I am, and to have the people in my life that I do.

My husband and I – maybe now we are married I should just call him by his name – Richard – are not and never have been particularly materialistic. We replace things when they wear out. Some things, like the microwave, we decided we didn’t really need. We have t-shirts that are fifteen years old. A blissful holiday is a fortnight in the tent on a quiet campsite with few facilities with some good places to explore nearby. Although Richard has to fly down south for work fairly regularly these days, we’ve not been on an international flight since 2001. I am grateful that I am this type of person, that I’m not a keeping-up-with-the-Joneses type; that I won’t simply die if I don’t get my foreign beach holiday every year; or long for perfect shoes or expensive gadgets. It just takes so much stress out of our lives, that’s the wonderful thing about contentment.

Social media – particularly Instagram – is currently obsessed with being ‘perfect’ for the festive parties. The perfect figure (‘How many calories are lurking in that canape, you failure of a woman, you?’), the perfect make-up, the perfect dress. Insta is full of women who have used so much make up and filters they look chiselled from stone (why do so many 15 year olds obsess about looking like 26 year olds? It’s just weird). Facebook is full of people fishing for compliments or stressing out because they’ve put on some weight. It’s easy to fall into these traps when you’re surrounded by these impossibly perfect, highly manipulated images. A wee while ago, I would be eating salads and googling diets because a size 16 is deemed unacceptable by so many.

Now, loaded with this virus, I am grateful that I am strong enough to kick it into touch when I have seen it deck so many people. I’m able, and healthy, and can walk for miles and can appreciate the places I wander through. I have so many friends and family fighting with illnesses that mean they can’t do what I have just been blithely taking for granted.

“Enjoy the little things, because one day you might look back and realise they were the big things” – Robert Brault

The list goes on and on, with so many examples. But with gratitude comes peace, and when you suffer from anxiety and depression, peace is a beautiful thing to be treasured. Who could want a better gift than that?

So this year, cut yourself some slack. Look about you with fresh eyes and appreciate what you have now. Relax, and know you’ve done enough.

Give yourself the ultimate gift, the gift of peace. 

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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.

The Survivors’ Guide to Early Autumn, Part One

Early Autumn. The leaves are just turning, the hedgerows are thick with bounty to be harvested, a fine dawn mist settles in the glens and, in houses across the land, people are rolling their eyes at the Christmas adverts, wanting to sell their children on eBay and  wistfully reminiscing about barbecues, warm lager and those few, brief weeks where Britain’s patio furniture wasn’t being carried down the middle of a rain-flooded high street.

It can be a tough time of year for everyone but the most hardened Autumn woodland pixie who loves pumpkin-spiced everything, Hallowe’en, Chris Packham in a sensible padded gilet and candles; so here is Part the First (Letters A through L) of The Early Autumn Survivors’ Guide (Without Mentioning That Scandinavian H Word) in Glorious Listicle Format

 

A – Is for Attitude.

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The attitude you wake up with is very often the attitude that lasts all day; so it stands to reason that the better a mood you can wake up with, the brighter the potential for the rest of the day, right? Just to get the boring old lady stuff over with straight away, yes, this means having a decent night’s sleep and waking up feeling refreshed. Everyone achieves this in a different way, but do please believe me (and all the experts) when I say that nobody finds a good night’s sleep at the bottom of a wine glass*. You might indeed sleep; but you won’t get the sleep you need. Believe me, I have several years personal research on this subject and chucking the evening tipple has improved my sleep and, ergo, my morning mood, more than I ever believed possible. Not having to get up in the night to pee is also a great help….

(*see also gin, vodka, lager, need I continue? Thought not. As you were.)

Set your alarm a little earlier than you need to – just a few minutes – and lay with your eyes closed and do a little early morning mental preparation. Don’t think about your work to-do list. Think about the good things that the day has in store. Don’t have any good things? Plan some. Just small things that you can really look forward to as little treats throughout your day – a real coffee instead of the usual instant; popping into the library to borrow a book; trying out a new recipe; something on TV that might be interesting to watch. We don’t have to try and change the world here, sometimes the promise of twenty minutes to ourselves to read a chapter of a book is all we need to change how we view the next few hours.

 

B – Is for Breathing.

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When I first started meditation – and I hear a lot of people say the same thing – I thought the whole concept of learning to breathe properly really quite ridiculous. For the love of God, I’ve been doing it since I was born, it comes naturally, money-for-old-rope quack self-help gurus and their fancy expensive books, yada yada yada.

Until I started learning to breathe properly.

Breathe properly, steadily, deeply and you can pretty much instantly step back from that dreadful anxiety that can creep up on you when you least expect it. The trick is, I think, to practice breathing regularly enough that you remember to employ it as often as you can; thus allowing yourself to slip into it before a full-on panic attack takes hold. Not only are you then already breathing more deeply and evenly (keeping adrenaline and cortisol at bay) but your mind is already concentrating on the process of breathing. This is actually how the ‘paper bag for hyperventilating’ works – it doesn’t do a thing other than distract the sufferer and encourage them to take deeper breaths because they think the paper bag is helping. True, dat.

 

C – Is for Create

OK, a lot of you reading this are already crafty wee buggers; that’s probably why we’re pals but, like me, you might notice that – when things get a bit gloomy – our creativity is the first thing to go. There are multiple reasons for this, I think – when our brains aren’t behaving it is very easy to do ourselves down, belittle our own abilities and compare ourselves, negatively, with others. Often, we consider creativity as something less important than all the vital, pressing tasks we have building up and so it gets sidelined to be picked up as some kind of luxurious treat when we feel like we deserve it.

I say bollocks to all that (and I speak as someone who taught herself to crochet to get through severe anxiety; and then had the unfortunate issue of crocheting actually triggering anxiety attacks as my brain must have been linking the two things together).

Your creativity – however you choose to express yourself – is part of you. You have part of your brain that absolutely needs to be fed, and without sustenance it will suffer.

We are ALL creative – it’s not just about art, writing, music. Unfortunately, due to the constraints of time and society, many people lose – or at least forget – their creative sides; and creativity and self-expression can often be portrayed as something rather luxurious, something selfish and indulgent. When you are already struggling with your brain telling you that you’re not good enough and that you’re wasting your time; the sense of guilt that you are indulging yourself in a pastime that could be taking your time away from something more pressing and important can be enormous.

You are not being selfish and indulgent. You are feeding that part of you that needs to express itself, however you choose to do that. Self-expression is ancient, it is not some modern evil designed to keep you from answering emails and filling in forms; and man has done it since man came to be.

If creating something, if expressing yourself creatively, brings you happiness and pleasure; then your happiness and pleasure will spread to others. Your immediate circle will benefit from your improved mood; you may at some point wish to join others in a social gathering or club, or even volunteer to teach your skills to others for the good of the community.

Do you have to be good enough? Good enough for what, exactly? Ask yourself that. Does it bring you pleasure? Do you lose yourself? Then that, my friend, is enough. Anything else is an extra Brucy-Bonus.

Don’t think you can do anything at all? Pick something, find some tutorials on YouTube. Have a go. Everyone starts somewhere! The book pictured above, Emma Mitchell‘s ‘Making Winter’ is also full of some gorgeous new crafts to try during these bleaker months.

 

D – Is for Disconnect

Social media is fab, isn’t it?

Except when it isn’t.

Not just social media, but rolling news channels, magazines, newspapers (if anyone still actually buys those anymore). Sometimes the world is a horrible place that seems to be full of horrible people and you just sit there helpless and/or angry at the injustices and the abject stupidity in the world; and then you look at social media and it’s full of kittens and trolls and people moaning and drama and……

TURN. IT. OFF.

Turn it all off. Start with an hour. Build from there.

Can you remember the time when we didn’t feel the need to tell the world what we had for breakfast and take some carefully filtered photographs of the neighbours’ wheelie-bins?

I recently took a month long break from social media. I did miss people, of course I did, and the first few days were very hard; but by the end of the month I had absolutely not missed all the negativity that bombards you, and I did so much more with my time. I honestly had not realised how much time I had wasted scrolling through feeds. More to the point, I hadn’t realised how detrimental the slow drip-drip of drama, negativity and hate from some areas had been to my mental health.

 

E – Is for Extra Time

This is Husband Dearest’s idea, and I confess that I loved it. I was also stuck on ‘E’.

Husband Dearest has, of course, got a wife that won’t sit still and tends to go slightly manic when her mood is on the wobble. Husband Dearest would like to stress how important it is to slow down and take extra time to do things.

I’ve just recently started looking into the whole ‘Slow Living’ movement as I stumbled across it on Pinterest and, to be honest, a lot of it is what we already do. Our family are superb potterers (hence the name of this blog) and whilst I am the undisputed queen of household multi-tasking, I do also like to take time doing things – a more mindful approach, if you will.

Cooking a lovely meal from scratch, gardening, preserving food, baking can take on a sense of quiet gentle ritual if you have the time to take things slowly and absolutely dedicate yourself to the task in hand. This has been a rather difficult process for me in many respects, as I am almost hardwired to try and do multiple things at once; but I have learned to take huge amounts of pleasure in these slow, gentle activities that are so absorbing and soothing to someone whose brain seems to gallop at a million miles an hour. I can see why blokes go fishing for hours and hours at a time, really.

 

F – Is for Forgiveness

Didn’t get up today? Drunk half a bottle of gin and texted a random stranger for a fight last night? Too anxious to leave the house? Burst into tears for no apparent reason?

It’s OK. This happens to everyone (OK, maybe not the texting bit, but…). The wheels haven’t fallen off, they just went a bit wobbly. Tomorrow is another day. There is nothing to be gained from giving yourself grief for it; but there is everything to be gained from accepting it as an experience you can learn and grow from. Had this never happened, you would never have gained this insight.

 

G – Is for Gratitude

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Sound the Cliche Klaxon, it’s gratitude time. Group hug, everyone.

Seriously though, it works. Use a little notebook or, for those of you who can’t drag yourselves off your mobile, you can get several apps that will prompt you to find something to be grateful for. Some of them even let you chat with a community of likeminded grateful types. Sometimes the simplest ideas are the best, and sometimes we do need to be reminded that we have so much more than so many others.

 

H – Is for Help

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“Ask for it” says person actually notoriously terrible at asking for it.

Also, keep your eye out for others who might be struggling and – whilst running up and shouting ‘Do you need help?’ is likely to scare them witless – an offer of a coffee, a chat, a stroll/bike ride or even just stopping for a cheery two minute chat might just be what they need. They might even put you in their gratitude journal.

 

I – Is for Instant Gratification

Sometimes a Starbucks Cappuccino or the shop’s biggest bar of chocolate or that gorgeous dress from Boden or that new Dremel multi-tool is the only thing that will hit the grin-spot. Fucking go for it.

 

J – Is for Jac Doesn’t Know Shit

I really don’t know much apart from my own experiences, and what I have learned through research and talking to friends; and you may well be screaming at this list in frustration and feel like I’m talking to you as though you’re six. GOOD!

It means I’m getting a response from you, so you go and write me a list of twelve things you would do, or how I could have expressed my list better.

And then we’ll collaborate, because writing lists of how to make yourself feel better is a bloody marvellous way of learning what might make you feel happier, and how to achieve it.

That was a trap, that was. Good, eh?

 

K – Is for Kindness

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Kindness to others, but also to yourself. 

If your children are giving you grief, as mine certainly are, remember that they too are possibly going through similar seasonal changes and uncertainties. Schools have gone back and many children are in new settings, with new goals and expectations. Some won’t have the experience or vocabulary to explain and express their thoughts and feelings succinctly and will instead bicker, fight, tantrum, sulk, flounce and deal with hormonal and emotional rollercoasters as best they can. Don’t rise to it, tough as that undoubtedly is.

Being kind, daily, to yourself is something that takes some getting used to when you are more used to putting others first and, like creativity, can at first seem self-indulgent and vain; but it really is vital. Put time aside to do things for you. A chunk of time once a week, five minutes in every hour, twice a day – the choice is yours and yours alone. You know what you need to make you smile, and we all deserve to smile.

Things I do to be kind to myself include:

Walking in the woods

Making lovely cups of tea in my lovely tea-pot and tea-cup for one set

De-cluttering the part of the room where I’m spending most time

Cooking something I’ve never made before

Yoga

Wandering round art galleries and museums

So they don’t have to be expensive or time consuming; just small things that make me smile and add to my gratitude journal.

 

L is for Lists

L had to be for ‘lists’, really, didn’t it? Not exactly a surprise, I grant you, but I think the usefulness of lists can be easily forgotten. When we are in an anxious, stressed mood with thoughts flying from pillar to post, writing lists is a quick and easy grounding technique that leaves you with – well, a list. But whilst you’ve been writing you have distracted yourself from anxiety (and may have staved off a panic attack, see ‘breathing’ above) and you have also reduced potential future anxiety by having created a list to refer to. Daily to-do lists (with timings, if you think that will help – it certainly does me) are fantastic anxiety-busters (plus you get that delicious feeling of crossing them out as completed); but lists can be for all sorts of things including longer term plans and daydreams. How about:

  • Things to do with the kids / other half / besties in October
  • Things I fancy cooking
  • Places I’d like to go on holiday
  • Items of clothing I no longer wear and could give to the charity shop
  • Bucket List of Dreams

 

Well, this post was only supposed to take thirty minutes and has actually taken almost three hours. I shall therefore chalk this one down as a fine example of ‘Slow Living’ and leave you with the promise of Part The Second, Letters M through Z to come soon. Ish.

In the meantime, what would you add to this list? Do you have any experiences that you would care to share? Any tips on getting through this peculiar time of the year? Do please feel free to comment, please!

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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Self Care September

 

I was mooching around on Twitter this morning, as I do, and I came across the hashtag #selfcareseptember . I will confess right now that it’s the first time I had heard of it, but it immediately struck me that a) this is a fabulous idea and b) I have been subconsciously using September as my own self-care month.

OK, I am getting married at the beginning of October; and part of this urge for self-care is, quite frankly, to stop me getting so stressed that I’m an absolute wreck and on three bottles of gin a day by the big event and also, in a rather uncharacteristically girlie way, a chance for me to feel and, hopefully look, the best I can. Although, let’s face it, given my usual look is slept-in-a-hedge chic, just having my hair brushed and no dirt on my face will be a vast improvement.

Just a quick disclaimer: I don’t have any medical training, though I’m very good at putting randoms in the recovery position, and I’m not squeamish about blood. I’m not trying to say that a bit of self-care is going to solve all your problems and ‘cure’ mental illness. It would be a gross and insensitive underestimation of all our intelligence to even imply that this could be the case. What I can attest to, however, is how various things I do at this time of the year personally help me.

For those of you who don’t know me, I suffer from a delightful combination of clinical depression and severe anxiety. I am currently on Citalopram for the depression side and beta-blockers and mindfulness for the anxiety and, touch wood, I have been pretty stable with only fairly minor peaks and troughs for the past few months. So yes, having lived with this for at least the past thirty years, I do get mental illness. I also appreciate that we are all totally different, and what helps some will not necessarily help others. Always remember that mental illness is a spectrum, and all of us are on it somewhere, and wherever we are can be massively traumatic and confusing – do try not to compare your emotions with those around you.

There are times where you might like to try some of these. There are times where you might be too scared to leave the house, or too wired to concentrate, or too sad to get out of bed. Don’t worry, there will be other days to try, if you want to. Don’t add to your troubles by feeling you somehow fail because you can’t always manage self-care. That defeats the purpose.

“Autumn casts a spell
and dying never was so beautiful.” – Amelia Dashwood

September is a strange time of the year for me. It is undoubtedly breathtakingly beautiful, with the myriad colours and early frosts and morning mists; but also tinged with sadness. It has always represented, for me, an ending of things. The close of summer, the death of warmth. I’m not sure why I was always so pessimistic about the changing of the seasons, I can only put it down to the fact that I love hot, sunny weather and, as a naturally outdoorsy type I love the long days and the buzz of nature.

Last year I decided to do my best to get a grip on how I dealt with the colder, darker months. I was already unwell, I knew that, and understood that I needed to knuckle down and deal with getting through that without being bogged down with additional seasonal depression; and the best way I could think to be proactive was to find things that I really enjoyed doing and fit them into a self care routine as a way of treating myself whilst my poorly brain rested and recovered.

Here are a few things that work for me:

Walking It Out

They say there is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing. They have obviously never spent November in Scotland. Nevertheless, there is a lot to be said for a stroll, whatever the weather. Some of my favourite stomps have been on the dreichest of days where I have sloshed through mud, felt icy rain batter my face, and watched the rippled circles from raindrops dance on the Clyde. Coming home and drying off and putting on my cosiest clothes and indulging in a cup of tea in front of the fire is a treat in itself. I also find frosty mornings when it is so cold your jaws ache hard to beat.

My pro-tip here would be to always carry your phone or a camera; and invest in a pair of small binoculars and take every opportunity to stop and investigate your surroundings, and notice things you might never have noticed before. I’m going to write more about this, and the concept of Awe Walks in a later piece, else I ramble on forever.

Cosy Crafts

Autumn and Winter are perfect times to curl up with your favourite crafts and get stuff done in front of the fire with plenty of tea on the go. As you know if you’ve read my blog before, I am an avid crocheter and spend much of the colder months working on longer projects – last year I worked on my Hebridean Islands ripple blanket (you can find Lucy at Attic24’s pattern and tutorial here).

Another really worthwhile thing I was able to do was to stay involved with the local craftbomb club, and we organised a Christmas craftbomb in the village – it wasn’t an awful lot of work, but it kept me in touch with friendly faces and I enjoyed our meet-ups and discussions very much. Craftbomb / yarnbomb groups are popping up all over the country and often meet in local cafes and libraries so it is worth checking out your local community noticeboards.

Emma Mitchell, blogger at the lovely silverpebble blog has a whole book on beating the winter blues coming out next month.

You should probably buy it, like I will be doing the moment I can get my grubby paws on a copy. (Actually seriously cannot wait!).

Kitchen Witchery

 

Once you’ve burned all those calories with a good, bracing walk; why not indulge yourself with cooking something wonderful? I can understand that many people work really long hours and have other responsibilities such as caring for relatives, but if there is any way at all you can lose yourself in a recipe, you won’t regret it. When I am feeling particularly anxious, there is something incredibly soothing and comforting about just pottering in the kitchen, radio on, prepping and planning and taking time to concentrate on every aspect. I will confess I am not a very good baker and can destroy a Victoria sponge with a single glance; but I love making main meals for my family and experimenting with flavours and modifying recipes; and I have a particular love for making jams and chutneys. There is something very zen indeed about leaning over the jam pan, and something deeply satisfying about seeing all those lovely jars of hot preserve cooling on the windowsill.

 

Also, did anyone mention rhubarb gin? Quite ridiculously easy to make….

 

 

Over to Facebook

I thought I would ask my friends on Facebook how they liked to prep for the colder months, and what they would include in their personal September Self Care packages:

“Make time for yourself every day. You’re allowed to. It’s not selfish” – EO

“I get my SAD lamp out around about now and read by it most evenings. I also batch cook on the Sunday after pay day and freeze healthy meals for myself and my daughter – great for those nights you come in late and/or knackered after work.” – AG

I let things go – coming up to winter and going into summer are the two times of the year where I get rid of unnecessary things that weigh me down. Declutter of everything really – people, stuff, worries. A wonderful fire purge around Winternights/Halloween/Bonfire night is always welcome. It’s done almost subconsciously I think now. For winter its preparation for all the fabulous Christmas/Jul things. But also…you don’t want dead weight following you into a hard winter and a new year.
I feel similarly about spring into summer – shed the layers of clothes and any unnecessary baggage.” – CMcH

“I make a point of watching the sunrise from the swimming pool/sunset while I walk by the river. I make sure I stop and stare at everything beautiful that catches my eye on my walks – from a dramatic sky to a tree bending beautifully to catch the light.  I write those moments down for my memory jar too – a lot of repetition to others reading them but each one is memorable to me and makes me smile. Listening to music and TED talks too. Classical tunes, folk music etc for quiet relaxation and proper rock songs to lift my mood.” – CM

 

“I walk, a lot. It’s worth it to pay more attention to the changing seasons. Even in the rain, the sounds and scents change. I also have a clear out and rearrange where I can. An organised space definitely brings me a call mind. I try to do seasonal crafts with the kids.. I’m lucky they are going enough to still be interested. If not, we bake.. and have our treats for movie afternoons. Reading is a must too.” – LH

Wise words from some very wise women, I think.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cheer up, goth.

So, dear reader, here we are again. Another post, another afternoon of sitting with a slightly anguished expression and another (probably unwise) coffee pondering on why someone who loves to write finds blogging so dreadfully difficult.

I wanted to write a piece on gratitude, and have managed to successfully procrastinate for several days on this particular subject, not because I feel I have nothing to be grateful for, you understand, but because I don’t know where to start without it all sounding rather twee and like I am giving you a lecture in stopping ruddy moaning and be thankful, thou churlish wretch. Which I would not want to do. No. Not at all.

So I shall just sit here and do the whole stream-of-consciousness thing and just type what comes into my head, or ‘doing a Virginia’ as I prefer to call it. Gratitude might certainly work its way into the whole word-soup eventually, it might not. It’s my blog, I can do as I please.

Shall we have a meme? One of those nice inspirational ones? Oh, let’s.

 

 

Oh, I don’t know about you; but I feel instantly 400% more inspired. Shall we have another? Shall we? Oh, OK then. If you insist.

 

There we go. That even has the ubiquitous brush-writing seen in every issue of Elephant Journal, every gift shop and certainly every branch of B&M Bargains in the UK. It would probably look pretty good on a mug, that, wouldn’t it? Maybe your Monday-morning-back-in-the-office-with-a-bit-of-a-hangover mug, the one that you really secretly want to throw at someone’s head. You’d read that and feel so overwhelmed with joie de vivre and a deep sense of oneness with the cosmos that you would leave a trail of eco-friendly glitter in your wake and a unicorn would come and fix the printer.

So yes, anyway. I was on the Facebook this morning and, as usual, up popped my memories from the days of yore – all those things that happened on this day in history (well, Facebook history). Shall we see what those things were, dear reader?

2016 – Ranty posts about David Cameron resigning, Brexit, more Brexit. Oh look, a barely concealed full-on panic attack about Brexit. Whinge about the children. A very real worry about chopping my fingers off with my new knife set (won in a pub raffle in Wales, in case you have always had a long-held desire to know where I get my knives).

2015 – Occupy Welfare wordy Nye Bevan meme cunningly disguising the fact I was panicking / ranting / have a sulky whinge about the cuts to the NHS. Something about the SNP opposing something (link no longer works and I have no clue what I was ranting about). Admission of being slumped on sofa for much of the day gripped with anxiety. Another moan about the children.

2014 – Moan about children, stress about indie referendum, uploaded some photos from when we were in Tenby (I complained that it was raining), comment about not having a very good day and ‘crashing to earth with a bump’. Brief interlude where I claimed to have enjoyed the Great Gatsby film.

2013 – Miserable semi-ranting about losing friends, why I shouldn’t have an opinion and having anxiety.

2012 – Ominous silence. That must have been when TalkTalk cut off our internet for no reason. Or I might have broken another laptop.

2011 – Was strangely upbeat and consisted mainly of friends posting up things with rude names on my wall. Yes, YOU, Emma. It was also the day I broke my ribs in a bizarre hanging basket accident, incidentally.

I think we’ll leave it there, shall we? I think we get the picture, don’t we?

 

I don’t think he does, yanno.

 

(Feel free to print that out and colour it in, if you’d like to. Mindful colouring is a thing, isn’t it?)

Next year, my Facebook memories from 2017 will include me asking:

Just been looking back on my memories, what a little ray of sunshine I have been all these years. Why didn’t anyone tell me to shut up with the incessant whining?!

And lots of lovely people telling me that I hardly ever whine, no, not hardly ever. Which was lovely and made me all smiley and a wee bit smug.

Thing is, though, it really rammed home to me today how much I took for granted, how I grinched my way through the days only commenting on the ‘bad’ things. The things that made me sad, or frightened, or frustrated or annoyed. Oh, there are mentions of the community garden, there are mentions of cooking, mentions of going out with the children.

But not one positive comment. Not one.

As someone who quite openly talks about the state of my mental health, and tries to advocate speaking up and shedding the stigma of mental health issues, I am not just shocked at my overwhelming pessimism in these posts, but also about my complete disregard for people reading who could have been having a far more awful time than me, and my complete and utter failure to link this pessimism and dissatisfaction with the state of my own mental health.

It would be easy to come out with something trite at this point like ‘If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem’, but that might imply that people are to blame for their mental health issues and that people struggling as I do with, say, anxiety and depression are ‘just not trying hard enough’ to get through it. And we all know that is a crock of shit, to not put too fine a point on it.

However…and there is a however (as well as the usual disclaimer of your-mileage-may-vary, the nature of spectrum disorders etc), I can certainly see a paradigm shift in my attitude to life over the last twelve months or so. So, what has caused it? Why am I so much more relaxed and positive in both my assessment and appreciation of current situations and my perception of the future, despite there no doubt being trouble ahead?

I’m going to hazard a guess that it’s actually a number of things, all working together.

Firstly, my meds. The combination of beta-blockers and Citalopram seem to be doing the trick – I have the mental energy to get up and get out and be interested in things – and anyone who has ever experienced depression will instantly recognise that ‘lack of interest in things’ as a major warning flag. I am able, thank God, to leave the house and go for a walk in the woods. I am confident enough to chat to a friend and say ‘Yes, that would be fantastic, I’d love to go walking with you / call round for a cuppa / have you over so the kids can play together’. I have been reading voraciously again – when I’m ill, I just cannot concentrate on even the shortest factual articles on a website, never mind get lost in a book. I have rediscovered the joys of art – drawing, sketching, painting, embroidery, silk painting. I’m not terribly good, but I wasn’t very good at crochet once. I persevered with it, I practiced over and over and over again until I got better.

They’re not very good but the fun I had was reward in itself.

 

Getting outdoors – this is, in so many cases, entirely dependent on the individual and I absolutely loathe that well-circulated meme along the lines that ‘nature is an anti-depressant, whereas as medicines are shit’. Can we knock that notion on the head, please? And may I respectfully add that, if all your mental health issues were miraculously cured by a stroll in the park, then I suspect you are mistaking ‘having a bad day’ with ‘a serious mental health issue’. Nevertheless, I am a great advocate of if you can get outdoors, get outdoors.

“I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order.” – John Burroughs

I cannot express how much peace I get from nature. It doesn’t have to be a long walk (though I do love a good stomp, it’s marvellous for shaking the stress and worries from muscles and giving you thinking space), just sitting in the garden listening to the birds and watching the bees busying around can be equally beneficial. I have taken much joy this spring and summer in watching the wild meadow areas around the village, and photographing and looking up and learning about the wildflowers, it has become something of an obsession. It has staggered me quite how rapidly life cycles, how the meadows look completely different week on week as different plants bloom and seed, attracting different insects, birds and animals. Maybe this is my mindful thing, this slow, quiet contemplation of the cycle of Mother Nature as she moves through the year.

There are other things too. My new habit of slowing things right down, my use of social media, my work/life balance, the people who inspire me; but I feel these should be saved for another day, another blog.

Just writing this has made me realise, actually, how lucky and grateful I am that I am responding positively to the meds, and that I am able to do these things; and I am painfully aware that not everyone is as fortunate. I do hope that this hasn’t come across as a brag about how jolly well everything is going in my life at the moment – that was not my intention at all. I just wanted to share some of the things that have helped me see the beauty around us, and to find a sense a balance in an otherwise pretty crazy world.

 

 

With thanks to Phil, who inspired this blog post.

Paths

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I thought that my voyage had come to its end
at the last limit of my power,—that the path before me was closed,
that provisions were exhausted
and the time come to take shelter in a silent obscurity.

But I find that thy will knows no end in me.
And when old words die out on the tongue,
new melodies break forth from the heart;
and where the old tracks are lost,
new country is revealed with its wonders.

I am a wanderer. I am fascinated by paths. I am overcome with a desire, like Alice peering down the rabbit hole, to follow new paths – paths, of course, that are only new to me. They have been trampled down, worn into the history of the landscape, by others for whom these are well-loved paths full of memories and dreams.
I speak often of paths, on multiple layers. There is the comfort I take from paths when I walk out, usually in the woods, to clear my mind and work through my problems or calm my nerves; or just to immerse myself in the beauty that envelopes me the moment I step into the shaded woods, a ‘hug of green’ as I like to think of it.
I think often, too, of the metaphorical paths that we are all on. The paths of our lives. Sometimes, often, the path underfoot is flat and comfortable, the going good, the pace is fast and our walk is carefree. Sometimes there is an unexpected obstacle – a fallen tree; a flooded area. Sometimes the path becomes difficult. It may become indistinct, lost beneath undergrowth, overgrown with nettles and brambles making the going slow and painful. Sometimes we struggle as a path leads us steeply uphill, leaving us breathless and weak and aching. Feeling like we can’t go on.
Sometimes we feel lost.
Sometimes we are lost.
Paths are, however, rarely ours and ours alone. Companions – if you are willing to ask them – will come along throughout your journey and help to clear the brambles; will help you work out how to move the tree. Will hold your hand to cross the flood.
They will show you the right direction when you are lost.
They may even walk with you awhile.
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