To New Beginnings…

Photo by Joe Caione on Unsplash

Dogs are very smart. And toddlers. You know how a puppy gets excited every time you take it for a walk in the local park? Sniffing all the different smells and racing towards other dogs to say hello. Or if you take your toddler to the playground, the thrill of the swing, or patiently clambering up the slide before ‘wheeeeeeeeeeee….’ and the split second slide back down again.

Beginner’s Mind.

That’s something toddlers and dogs are outstandingly good at. They do it naturally. It must be in their DNA to explore the world in awe and wonder, finding magic in the ordinary. As grown ups, we need a little nudge to remind us. To give it a try and see how it feels.

In Buddhism, the concept of Beginner’s mind brings a freshness to the everyday. Next time you take a walk the park, keep an open mind and notice the present moment as if for the first time. See the mischievous squirrels scampering high up the trees, the little dogs proudly wearing their Christmas gifted winter coats, or how the winter sun highlights rooftops as the chattering bird sounds draw your gaze to the sky.

Staying mindfully in the moment helps with this Beginner’s Mind, even in chilly January. New Years offer us a chance to let go of the old. And quite a lot to let go of, the baggage of 2020! So it might take a little time, some practice at letting go of it, and finding the optimism and hope to look afresh at each day as a new beginning.

‘Beginnings are often scary, endings are sad, but it’s the bit in the middle that counts, and if you give it a chance, hope floats’. So said a cheesy film years ago. A film I really enjoyed actually, with Sandra Bullock and Harry Connick Jr, called Hope Floats. I take my nuggets of popcorn wisdom wherever they nestle!

So however scary 2021 might be, whether it’s family stuff, work worries, health struggles, financial uncertainties, home schooling, and just how to keep facing each day with grace, optimism and equanimity. Maybe that notion of Beginner’s Mind can be helpful.

There’s an Osho Zen image of a wizened old man gazing in wonder at a grasshopper. Such wisdom in one picture. No matter how old or seemingly mature we may be, to never become jaded. To still gaze out at the world in amazement at the beauty of nature, the kindness of people and to actually notice the details of familiar things and see them anew.

If we share our lives with partners we’ve known for years, even decades, to be able to truly see them as they are now. Shaped and chiselled by all the experiences, good and bad, challenging and glorious, and to appreciate them. To love them right now in this moment, and know that surviving 2020 together has engraved details on us all that we may not see clearly just yet.

However scary this new year might be. Beginning a new business or studying for a new career. Moving house to a new part of the world. Bravely setting out to meet someone new and begin a relationship, or extend the family. Beginning with baby steps and finding support and encouragement from others.

Maybe getting a rescue dog, and with love and time, helping it forget any ill treatment it might have experienced before your family welcomed it. Like us, learning to forget and drop the hardships of last year. And at the same time the dog can train you in ‘Beginners Mind’ each time you get to the park.

Dogs are smart, not just puppies but old dogs too. Let’s go and sniff some trees, shall we?!

What to put in your ‘Festive First Aid’ Kit?

Not ideal news from the government the week before Christmas… your plans for festive celebrations may now be crumpled up and chucked in the recycling bin. Meeting up with loved ones may be postponed till next year, families and friends separated by the Tier system and even the turkey is now sulking in the freezer.

Scrolling the list of what we’re not allowed to do may prompt tears of frustration, anger and sadness. So what can we do? Tiny things might help. If you could pack two or three simple things into an impromptu ‘Festive First Aid kit’, what would you choose? Not including people – sorry, we know that’s been forbidden so much this year. But have a quick think and see what tops your list.

It could be ‘Netflix, Coffee & Doughnuts’, or ‘Cheese, Wine & a Karaoke machine’, or’ Pizza, a knitted Dalek and a Rubik’s cube’. (One of those answers is from the man I love!) Whatever gets you through these strange times, there’s no right or wrong answer. Books and chocolate are two things that make everything better. In my world anyway. There’s usually several of each on the go at any one time, and both have helped me survive the uncertainties of 2020. So far.

Hopefully over these festive days, you’ll be able to enjoy some contact with those you love. If a little differently this year. Maybe you’re meeting up in permitted bubbles, to enjoy food and muffled giggles in well ventilated rooms? Or a brisk walk in bracing December air and if you’ve got really long arms, maybe a socially distanced hug? Or this might be the year of virtual connection. Skyping with a mince pie & mulled wine, while your Santa jumper jingles, or a cosy phone call wearing pyjamas & chatting with family in different Tiers or Time zones?

Not how we’d choose it. And not easy for anyone. But ‘this is how it is for now’, as my friend Sue concludes, for this year. She’ll be on her own this Christmas, and has practical plans to navigate the big day. Hopefully a walk by the sea when others are having lunch, so it’ll be quieter and safer for someone who’s had to shield for much of this year already. A good book to read, a film on Netflix, and cooking something from the freezer for a late lunch. In between, Sue will be talking to friends and relatives spread around the globe, with gratitude to technology for the connection. She will muddle along through stoically. As many of us will aim to.

Because this is how it is, for now.

It might help to remember that simple phrase & repeat it to frustrated loved ones who are sad, angry and upset at the change of rules ushered in this weekend by the government. Not the first time they’ve done a U-turn, and we’ve all had to delete our plans this year. And for many it does feel heartbreaking. But even if it doesn’t feel like it, this will pass. Not just because of the vaccine, but because eventually everything does pass. From the serious stuff to the more ridiculous like 80’s haircuts; everything in nature will pass, including each of us one day.

We’re approaching the Solstice, and Winter echoes this, the season of letting go. Like the leaves effortlessly released from tree branches that turn to mulch and eventually return to the soil to help new things grow and flourish. So this year we’re having to practice letting go of the Christmas we usually have; we planned to have; we wanted to have. And hopefully some good things will grow and flourish next year.

Because this is how it is, for now.

In the meantime, we muddle through as best we can. For those who have lost loved ones this year or any year, Christmas is never easy. To deny the human instinct to hug each other, feels wrong as we seek to sooth each other in our grief . It’s easy to feel powerless and overwhelmed at the prospect of more uncertainty ahead for months or years of the unknown.

But for now, let’s just make a tiny plan. Not a Baldrick style ‘cunning plan’, just a simple plan. What small things in a ‘Festive First Aid kit’ might help you get through the surreal 2020 ‘festive days’ ahead? Whether you’ll be alone, or with family or housemates, trying to keep to the rules and create the best possible celebration for those close to you.

Make sure you’ve got access to a few simple treats that make your world just that tiny bit brighter. Something comforting to eat or drink, which can be as simple as your favourite teabags or crisps. Maybe stash away a few of the purple foiled chocolates from the big tub if the kids usually grab your favourites first. I won’t tell! And try to find something that occupies your mind or hands, like a book or jigsaw, maybe knitting, or your favourite funny TV show, and carve out some time to enjoy them.

If you’re able to, take a short walk and notice charcoal silhouetted tree branches, and robins permanently auditioning for a Christmas card photo shoot. Even if you’re not feeling full of festive joy, you might smile at how the neighbours’s children have drawn snow scenes on their front windows. It is just a short few days, and these little things might help get you through.

This is how it is, for now.

Books and chocolate are always my First Aid. A current favourite is ‘The Book of Joy’, by the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu. Both leaders have lived through decades of unimaginable horror for their countries, with so many people suffering. Yet these two wise friends can still find hope and joy in the world; and they make each other giggle like naughty schoolboys at times! It’s a delicious read, and highly recommended. I’ve sent a few copies as gifts this year and hope they help loved ones that are struggling.

Good luck with your Festive kit. I’ll find a zip bag, squish my books and chocolate inside and stash it away for my ‘Festive First Aid kit’. If the chocolate melts, I’m sure the Dalai Llama and Desmond Tutu won’t mind. It’s always Fair Trade chocolate, and would make them laugh with pure joy.

Shouting at plastic & the healing power of fried eggs…

Have you ever found yourself shouting at plastic objects? Or more precisely, shouting at a new printer you’re trying to assemble?

If so, you’ll understand why last Thursday saw me doing just that. I never shout at people, knowing that it rarely improves a situation, and usually leaves people feeling worse. But shouting is particularly ridiculous when the recipient is a collection of plastic printer parts. Despite being one of the calmest people I know, (thanks to practising mindfulness stuff for decades) I’m still a massively imperfect human being and not skilled at setting up technology.

Understatement.

After 3 hours it still stubbornly refused to print anything; instead swallowing pristine snowy sheets only to crumple and shred them like a Banksy at auction. Every possible light was flashing, to demonstrate how unhappy this machine was; affronted at the notion of printing a simple document on a single A4.

Brokering a peace treaty, where both sides agree to take a break, I escaped to the kitchen. The simple comforting pleasure of a golden sun in an opaque cloud gently sizzling in a pan, with a flatbread into the toaster. Add a squirt of tomato & chilli sauce, a freckle dusting of coarse black pepper and behold the magnificence of the ultimate healing concoction. A fried egg sandwich.

After devouring the messy remedy and washing up, things seemed a little better. I could laugh at how absurd this printer drama was. I wasn’t shouting at the printer, but myself, frustrated by my own technical ineptitude. Us humans are highly skilled at reminding ourselves of our many past failures, and projecting this into the future as proof that we’ve never been any good with certain things and never will be.

Not helpful though, to wallow like this. Letting go of the past stories of how rubbish I am with computers, just for a moment, enabled me to stay in the present and find some optimism. Instead of being frustrated, I could marvel at the technological advances of the world since my first printer encounter at work 30 years ago.

There was now something on the table that might… one day… allow me to print at home. And not just in black & white, but in colour. Imagine the photos and cards to send to family and friends, and the bespoke scripts for my work as a Celebrant. Weddings, Handfastings, Vow Renewals and Baby namings; Memorials and Funerals; services that sum up all encompassing loves and lifetimes. Things even more magnificent than the fried egg sandwich.

And it will print plans, ideas and running orders for Mindfulness sessions- the thought of which makes me giggle. The printer can be a wonderful teacher and reminder of all things Mindfulness related. How to accept the world calmly as it really is at any given moment, and make peace with it. Things aren’t always as we’d wish them to be, especially in 2020, but by staying present with reality in this moment, we can find our way forwards one tiny bit at a time. Or one flashing light at a time, as I approached the printer again.

With a few simple breathing techniques to remain calm, this time I work with the printer. Instead of shouting at it, I decide to ask it politely if we can work together and patiently resolve each problem in turn. Diagnosing each strange flashing light and attempting the individual solution in turn finally reaps rewards. Printer inks removed and reinserted. Paper tray removed and replaced. Several times. Switched on and off. Several times. Log-in reattempted and Set-up repeated. Several times. Finally the swirling lights that echo the Northern Lights in their awe and wonder, as the printer finally emits hopeful spluttering sounds. A single A4 splutters out of the printer, anointed by ink on both sides.

Hallelujah!

‘Thank you, and sorry for shouting earlier’, I whisper to the printer. Hoping this is the last time we’ll experience this hiccup in our long and happy relationship that lies ahead. If we do hit a bump in the road, I’ll remember to signal Time Out for a fried egg sandwich.

*If you don’t eat eggs, I can recommend scrambled tofu, with turmeric to keep that golden glow, and a splurge of chilli sauce of course.

September dip.

Was it just me, or did you feel it too? That late September dip.

Last Monday we sat curled up on the swing, in the garden. Laptops protected from the sun, while we relished the Vitamin D gifts the sun anointed our skin with. Then by Wednesday, had to find raincoats, umbrellas and even boots. I’d forgotten what to put on feet to protect from the rain. Light airy trainers soon become soggy heavy lead weights.

We’ve been so lucky with the weather during this strange year, that normal Autumnal temperature dips felt cruel and unfair. ‘Not yet!’ We glared at the sky, and rummaged to find the heavier duvet again.

Lulled into the joys of dinners outside, and blue skies and sunshine from March; it seemed Summer this year would be endless. Would last till December. If only. Now it’s a little darker in the evenings. If working late, we need to put the light on, and even (whisper it) the heating.

Shops are full of Christmas displays, and we’re hearing yet more lockdown restrictions. Elderly relatives are already worrying about what will happen in December, and despairing of dark lonely months ahead.

It’s easy for any of us to sink down into this dismal swamp. Especially in 2020. Many of the usual traditions we punctuate our days and weeks with have already been erased. Big family Sunday lunches, drinks after work in a crowded bar, a surprise birthday celebration. I vaguely remember those. Do you?

Meeting friends at the cinema, or treating a loved one to a theatre show, to cheer them up. Squeezing in lunch with a colleague, chatting in the bustling queue and scoffing falafel. Visiting relatives and staying for the weekend…

I’ll stop listing, you know them only too well. But late September brings a particular veil of gloom once the weather turns chilly. The impending doom of icy dark mornings. Boilers going on the blink. And the sad sight of the garden beginning to shut down. Definitely mourning that…

I only discovered the joy of tending and nurturing plants in my 40’s. As a 20 something, I barely even noticed a tree. Time as a Radio 1 D.J. meant working in clubs or studios till dawn. If you’d told me that one day I’d be excited about our compost bin, or eagerly watching Monty Don’s ‘Jobs for the weekend’, I’d have thought that was as likely as throwing our fabric masks into the washing basket each day…

There is something sublime about sowing seeds. Watering and tending them patiently until one day you can harvest and feast on home grown produce. Or marvel at the flowers and the disco of bees waggling on them.

Gardens are not just for us humans; bees, birds, insects, hedgehogs and foxes, all are welcome to explore. Many of us have found solace outdoors this summer with our new eight legged ‘colleagues’.

It’s been an escape and haven from the news; and a great natural Mindfulness practice. We could write ‘Thank You’ letters to the gardens and window boxes of the world! So the thought of missing this hive of activity during long winter months can increase the impending doom. Especially this year.

So what can we do?

First press the ‘pause’ button. Before we get swept up in panicking about Christmas Day, and the cold, dark months ahead, and how nothing will ever be the same again. How we’ll never be able to see our family, how the kids will be stuck at University, or never be allowed back at school. How we might be queuing outside shops in the snow, and never find toilet roll on the shelves again.

Pause.

I teach Mindfulness, and have lived with the practices for decades. It’s helped me survive all kinds of chaos and difficult times, yet even I got swept up in the September dip last week. The irony of it! But that’s o.k. I’m imperfectly human. In so many ways.

I’d got swamped in worry about older family and friends, and younger ones who’ve diligently shielded for health reasons this year and are facing more months alone. I was full of sadness for everyone I know who is already struggling, and feeling thwarted that it might be illegal again for me to visit them. Is kindness now breaking the law?

Those who adore huge family Christmas celebrations, and will miss all those festive traditions. Walking past theatres that are still closed, and empty shops and offices in my local city centre is a constant reminder of economic stresses. Endless worries about the future for all generations can consume you, as walk the streets or scroll the news on your phone screen.

Press ‘Pause’. Remember what helped to survive the chaos and dramas of life up till now. From a childhood as a young carer with adult responsibilities, up till this moment. Any of us who are alive and struggling with what is going on, have a 100% success rate of surviving whatever life has thrown at us so far.

We did this one tiny bit at a time. Mindfulness is something I stumbled on as a teenager, and have studied and practiced it for decades. Incorporating it with writing and creativity, I’ve been teaching it for years as well. But like the Satnav, I too can get lost. We all can, and this year has proved trickier than most. But can also be our greatest teacher.

Press ‘Pause’ and breathe.

It’s a good reminder of why just focusing on a few moments of calming breathing, and looking around at what’s actually happening in this moment can help. Today. ‘Right here, Right now’, to echo that Fatboy Slim song. If we can just find the resources within ourselves to deal with the present moment, that is all we need to do.

So press ‘pause’ on the ‘scrambled egg in a washing machine’ set of worries and thoughts that might be on a loop in your mind right now. You don’t have to deal with the next few weeks, months or years right now. So stop burdening yourself by trying. You might be juggling a lot this year, and caring for many. But it’s not your job to carry the whole universe, and you’re doing your best to keep going for today.

So just breathe for a few minutes. Maybe while looking out at the garden or a window box.

By resisting the pull of panicking thoughts about Winter, we can actually appreciate Autumn. It’s not yet snow and ice, and the trees are far from bare of leaves. So by wrapping up in warm clothes and taking a walk round the park, we can notice the colours of Autumn.

Recognise the beauty of scarlet, burnished gold and toffee coloured leaves. Enjoy the rustling sound of the leaves crunching as we walk. Focusing on these things helps us get out of our own heads and gives us a much needed break from the convoluted worry loop.

Science backs this up, telling us that trees give off Phytoncides. These chemicals are proven to boost our well being, improving mental health and immunity. Shinrin-yoku, or ‘Forest Bathing’ is the Japanese tradition of spending time in woodland and reaping the benefits.

The garden isn’t out of bounds yet. No bouncer on the garden gate saying, ‘Your name’s not on the list, you can’t come in.’ So planting a few bulbs now will mean flowers in the spring. It’s planting hope. If they’re snowdrops, you might even see their shy little heads bowing in January. The first flowers are always special and really do bring a renewed sense of optimism for the year ahead.

But now, just pause and find a way to rest in this moment. Maybe putting the kettle on, making a cup of tea and having 5 minutes to calmly drink it.

We deftly swerve the September dip by taking the coming weeks and months just one day at a time. Or when you feel really overwhelmed, just one hour at a time. There are many unknowns ahead, and we’ll deal with them best by keeping as calm and centred as we can now. By taking Autumn one leaf at a time, and knowing that sometimes the sunlight will catch a tree in such a beautiful way that we’ll understand why those poets often mused on it.

Eat the seasonal colours as well. Locally grown sweetcorn has that golden sunshine hue; delicious boiled for a few minutes, smothered in butter, sprinkled with salt and pepper. Or butternut squash makes soup the colour of a Space Hopper I bounced on in the 70’s. Spiced with ginger, cumin and chilli it is delicious and comforting. The soup, not the Space Hopper.

So here’s to relishing Autumn, not panicking about Winter. One day at a time. Would you like toast with your soup?

What would you say to the bees?

It must have been the first week in January. Although it feels like much longer ago, given the way that 2020 has unfolded. It feels like a different era, a wild carefree one… Anyway, I bought a diary from the local Oxfam. Always love a paper diary, for scribbling in, to wedge post-it notes into, and to remember where I’m supposed to be on any given day. Although Zoom is the most consistent entry for location since March. To think I got fed up of endless crowded train stations and sweaty tube trains in London last summer… now I’m almost nostalgic for them. Well not quite, but I do miss demolishing Ottolenghis cakes on the 7.50pm from Euston.

The dairy has a blue cover, with golden honeycomb and bees printed across. When choosing a diary for the year, it can be a talisman for what you hope for in any given year. Maybe you’re happily single, but choose one with hearts printed across, to echo the love you’d be chuffed to find and share. Or yearning for a move to the seaside, a diary with beach scenes and surfers hits the spot. Something business-like, if you’re launching a new venture, or something that’s cute and will make you smile. These decisions are often made in bleak, chilly January. Well for me it’s usually January, when I stumble on the lack of pages in last year’s diary… you may be more organised and have one by December’s beginning. Or if it’s the academic ones you use, then in the scorching heat of August, as you write ice cream and barbecue lists, the new diary appears.

I’ve had a thing about bees for a few years now. Love watching them waggling across the blackberry blossom in the garden, or rescuing them with a saucer of water in sweltering heat. The poetry of Jo Shapcott is a favourite, with many mentions of bees to savour. It’s thanks to her work that I learned the notion of telling your news to the bees. Not having grown up with country wisdom, but in inner city Birmingham, with concrete towers closer than trees and beehives, I devoured this idea. What a beautiful tradition, that you go and whisper your news to the bees in the garden. So what better motif for a diary than a bee. Hoping for a busy year of work as a freelancer, and for plenty of news to pass on to the bees.

Then 2020 continued to unfurl into the strangest year so far. So what do we whisper to the bees now? Where to begin? How long have they got to listen, as they’re busy making honey. The sticky joyful stuff in jars from our local farm, delicious drizzled on thick greek yogurt, dolloped on top of the blackberries just picked from the garden today. A full circle, as the bees waggled happily across the bramble’s pink blossom recently, now their honey anoints the fruit.

But what to say to the bees? They’re far more experienced at living with uncertainty than we are. Hostage to weather fluctuations, the effects on plants, and the continued destruction of much of their natural environment by us humans. Einstein believed we would have just four years to live, if the bees became extinct.

We should thank the bees, and maybe listen to what they have to say. It’s always a good place to start when you don’t know what to say. Even in the most difficult times, there is something to be grateful for and appreciate. Even with the deepest loss, there may be staff at the hospital who showed such care and kindness to our loved one. Or as we stumble through dark days, friends and family may not have magic wands to wave or the perfect words to sooth – but we can be so glad they’re still there by our side, putting the kettle on and listening. As many countries throughout the world begin to tiptoe out of lockdown, unsure of so much of what lies ahead, we can help support each other in a million tiny ways.

At the beginning of each day, if the sun rises again, and we are still here to greet it, Thank You. It means we have a 100% success rate of surviving everything life has thrown at us so far.

Someone once said, ‘If the only prayer you ever say is ‘Thank You’, that is enough’.

Thank You. To the bees, without whom, none of us would survive. Thank You. And to you, for what you have done so far, and what you will continue to do. Thank You. I’ll put the kettle on for you.

Photo with thanks to Katja from Pixabay.

The wisdom of the Sat Nav…

Sometimes you find wisdom in ancient teachings. Or by spending time in nature. At other times, the car Sat Nav barks a single word that sums up the state of the world right now. Recalculating. Recalculating. Recalculating.

Thanks to roadworks, on a rare car trip to deliver food shopping to poorly friends, the car spoke perfect sense. Recalculating is what we’re all currently doing. From Wuhan to Worcester. From the Italian village of Nerola, to Nuneaton. In tiny bedsits, shared flats, busy family houses, and in spacious mansions. For those who’ve had solo quarantines, and those who’ve had housefuls of all generations, with home schooling squished into the same space as ‘home office’-ing.

We are all recalculating and recalibrating, as things change daily. Most of us still trying to figure it out as we go along, and make the best decisions with whatever information we have each day. It’s not easy. Understatement. Change and uncertainty can be frightening; and there are still so many unknowns in the road ahead.

So, what can we do? Our best. A daily choice, to keep doing what we can. And practice not focusing too much attention and worry onto the stuff outside of our control, or else we’ll dissolve into puddles of fear. It’s not easy. That understatement again! Especially if some of our loved ones are still shielding. Instinctively we want to visit family and friends, invite them into our home and hug them tight.

But instead, we recalculate and do what we can. We might deliver food cooked with love, and sit outside the window, waving and talking to our favourite people on the phone. Perhaps it’s hours of FaceTimes, Zoom quizzes and WhatsApp messages; any means of connecting with our loved ones.

And for ourselves? When the landscape of work is unrecognisable, we might seek temporary solace in the land instead. Marooned in the desert island of our own homes for months, you may have noticed the trees, flowers and birds changing as Spring evolved lazily into Summer. Whilst we’ve been ‘recalculating’ our route around the delays of the pandemic, daily meanders to the park might have been a chance to breathe, and escape the worries of our own heads by focusing on the changing skies.

You think social media updates itself regularly? Try scrolling the sights, sounds and smells that change as you walk the same streets. It’s calming and reassuring to note that nature isn’t phased by the same events that have smashed up the world as we knew it. In fact it’s been quietly flourishing in our quieter streets, and more noisily at times. Our nest of scruffy baby blue tits know that home schooling is rarely a tranquil time…

When the world at large is overwhelming, do something small. Bake a cake, fiddle with a jigsaw, plant some seeds, write a letter – where did you put the envelopes in this world of email? But don’t feel obliged to learn mandarin, set up a new business, or have everything figured out just yet. We’re still in the recalculating, recalibrating phase of life. Making it up, one small thing at a time. Tidying your sock drawer might feel like a huge achievement. And that’s ok.

And while you’re taking baby steps, maybe a little daydream of what changes you’d like to keep from these strange lockdown months. Or how you’d love your life to be different in the future. ‘Dreaming, after all, is a kind of planning’ Gloria Steinem once said.

Worry is a terrible waste of your imagination. They taught us that on a meditation retreat years ago in Brighton. Remembering those words reminds me to press ‘pause’ on the worry loop inside my head. I also remember the amazing cake they had at the Kadampa centre. Cinnamon spiced carrot cake with juicy raisins, and the sweetest banana bread, dappled with walnuts. Something practical, like baking gives your hands something to do; following a recipe gives your mind something to gently focus on; and there’s plenty of time to daydream as you wash up. I’m sure there’s some carrots looking lonely in the fridge, they could soon be ‘recalculated’ into a cake…

Still water…

I once wrote a poem called ‘Still Water’. Don’t worry, I’ve forgotten most of it – so you’re spared. But there was a line about ‘not being able to see yourself in running water, only still.’ As we’re still in semi-locked-down, land-locked Midlands , not much chance of seeing a home cut fringe reflected in any water bigger than our Aldi birdbath.

It’s as if we’ve all stumbled into ‘The Reflection’, don’t worry, it’s not another poem, you can relax. Nor an introspective Escape Room. The Reflection is an important time in many ceremonies and rituals you’ll have been present at. Probably dressed in your finest outfit, surrounded by relatives you only see at functions like weddings, baby naming or end of life occasions.

Times when we all press the ‘pause’ button on our hectic schedules, stop looking at our phones and all focus our attention on the stuff that really matters in this world. You know, that love thing. Yes, Love. Steadfast, soppy, romantic, frustrating, enduring, evolving, the thing they write songs about, sonnets about… don’t worry, no poems here, I promised. If pilates helps exercise your core muscles, ceremonies remind us to focus on what’s at the core of our worlds. Love.

Having trained in 2019 to be a Civil Celebrant, with the phenomenal people at FOIC, I learned about the importance of building a ‘reflection time’ into a service. A way of uniting those present, perhaps to reflect on how each of us can help nurture and guide the baby at a naming ceremony. Or witnessing a wedding, the power of seeing two individuals pledge their love to each other, and taking time to treasure those we live our lives alongside. Or at the end of a life, as we say goodbye to someone we’ve loved. A chance to remember good times shared, giving thanks that we knew them, and vowing to live life in honour of their memory. Three months reflecting like this would be bliss…

But this virus had us dressed not in our finest wedding outfits, but in comfy t-shirts & pyjama bottoms, working from home and juggling home schooling. This virus shut shops, cafes, gyms, cinemas, theatres and pubs.  But the hardest to bear – worse than any home haircut – this virus banned gatherings of families and friends for months. Having to keep our distance from loved ones has been the toughest thing to endure. Dropping shopping off on the doorstep, and not being able to hug our favourite people in the universe (including Jason Momoa) has just felt wrong. We’ve had three months of the ‘pause’ button pressed on our normal day to day life, without feeling the benefit of a tranquil reflection.

The virus didn’t guide us gently through the rituals we know and trust in a good ceremony. The calendar didn’t give us several months notice, and reminders to get the suit from the dry cleaners. We didn’t gradually take our seats at appointed times, chatting quietly amongst the rows gathering before the music nudged us into readiness. Nobody took charge welcoming us with warmth, humour and family stories, as we united in our sacred purpose. Celebrating love is the role of the Celebrant, and we’ve been unable to serve, with weddings and baby naming cancelled, and funerals curtailed.

But as some restrictions are lifting, and we nudge our way tentatively into the new world of Summer 2020, there has been an evolution. However subtle. We’ve united in our isolation, and connected online more than ever before. Shopping for neighbours, Zooming family quizzes and checking in on single friends. We all know ‘how fragile we are’, as the song by Sting reminded us. And we all know that Love is all everything pop songs, films and greetings cards told us, and so much more.

People are the thing we’ve missed more than hairdressers and clothes shopping. As we ‘bubble up’ and venture into gardens to share picnics and laughter, we truly know how much we care about each other. Maybe the stillness of the outside world meant that under the surface, beneath the worry and fear, amidst home schooling & home office-ing, we did get a chance to reflect. We are emerging differently, focusing our attention on what really matters, or I should say, on those that really matter.

Now it’s up to us, to nurture those connections more than ever, and celebrate those we love. It doesn’t need to be champagne in fancy crystal flutes, just a cuppa and a jam tart will do. But next time you’re able to sit 2 metres from someone you’ve missed for months, propose a toast and create a ritual of your own. Tell the other one what they mean to you, how much you love and cherish them, and enjoy a moment of reflection together. Before the tea goes cold. Cheers!

Raspberry Mindfulness…

Thinking of Prince’s song, ‘Raspberry Beret’, I venture into the garden, wearing pyjama bottoms and a t-shirt. It’s Sunday morning and I don’t want to frighten the neighbours…

Squinting in the July sunshine, I begin. The front rows are easy; a few deep red trophies are on display. Last year’s bargain ‘3 for £5’ raspberry canes, have sprouted into a waist-high spiky forest, several layers deep. I glimpse scarlet hiding under many green stems and leaves, that I gingerly bend out of the way. Navigating without horticultural Satnav…

Tiny thorns on stems create red blobs, if my thumbs and fingers aren’t careful. Kneeling, I brush against a web reminding me that a spider could anoint my forehead at any second. I’m a city girl, a novice playing at this garden lark, with much to learn.

Raspberry picking becomes a mindfulness practice. Little scratches on my arms are already smarting, reminding me not to get distracted. Pulling me into the present moment, paying attention to what’s right in front of me.  Gentle pressure, or I’ll squish the ripest ones into jam between my fingers.

Nodding to the bees, I thank the bushes and head inside to make breakfast with the ‘homegrown’ berries from supermarket bought canes – the irony! Long sleeves might be a good idea tomorrow…

Random jobs you forget you’ve done, I was a human coat stand at Wembley Arena.

I once got paid to hold Waylon Jennings’ pony skin coat while he sang on stage at a Country Music festival. Well, not just hold the coat, I confess I actually wore it for a while. In my defence it was as heavy as some of the maudlin lyrics, and I had no idea how long he’d be singing for.

I wasn’t just hired as a human coat stand. Us promotion girls were sorting tickets, arranging signing schedules and doing anything else required at the North West London pilgrimage for Country music fans, most of whom had dressed up like extras in a Clint Eastwood B movie. (One that went straight to Betamax video.) But I loved it.

At 18, just moved to London as a student, and having answered an ad in the Evening Standard, I suddenly found myself in this alternative universe for the Bank Holiday weekend. As a hip-hop music fan, I had an instant education into Willie Nelson, Tammy Wynette, Asleep at the Wheel and the man who wrote the Dukes of Hazard theme tune, Waylon Jennings.

They were all friendly, as down to earth as Dolly Parton, and loved their fans who were every bit as dressed up as Comic-Cons. Middle aged Milky bar Kids from Milton Keynes, with dreams of the Wild West on a Sunday while mowing the lawn.

I had never seen anything like it, but my response then, as now when confronted by something completely outside my comfort zone was to smile. Try not to look shocked, keep your ‘game face’ on. A tactic that’s worked well in prison workshops, hospital visits, working with survivors of domestic violence and as a DJ hosting events on stage in front of 25,000 people. Smile, try to ignore the fear inside and hope that inspires confidence in others that you know what you’re doing, even if you haven’t a clue and are trembling with nerves inside.

So why did I suddenly remember something from nearly 30 yrs ago? Well it was another gig….last weekend in Liverpool, the boyfriend’s band were playing at Kazimier gardens. A sublime venue in summer, but an outdoor stage in February?? Shivering while wearing my own coat, as the band went on stage I reprised my human coat stand role and gratefully added my boyfriend’s silver parka on top. My body flashed me back to Wembley Arena. It was warmer back then in the West. The Wild West of North West London that is.