Mindfulness First Aid kit & plankton.

When it snows, the advice is to pack the car with a warm coat, snow shovel, flask of tea & a giant bar of chocolate. Or more sensible emergency food supplies…

Well, here’s 3 things for a Mindfulness First Aid Kit to help cope with January, as we approach ‘Blue Monday’. (Not the amazing New Order song, but that third Monday in January when we’re months away from a Bank Holiday, it’s cold & dark… actually I’ll stop listing & get onto what might help with it!)

You know how sometimes on your phone screen, something is so tiny that you have to zoom in to enlarge it & see it more clearly? Well, with January, try the opposite. It can help to zoom out & get a bigger screen perspective, blurring the tiny annoying details.

The words of Pema Chodron, an American Tibetan Buddhist nun are worth sticking on a post-it note at any time of the year, but especially in January. Perfect for us Brits, who love to focus on the weather.

‘You are the sky. Everything else – it’s just the weather.’

Brilliantly simple & absolutely accurate. Life will continue to move, like clouds rolling across the sky. That sense of you remaining larger than any current dramas in your life and holding the space to contain it all.

The good stuff and the less welcome events in our life. Change is the only certainty. Impermanence. Like the weather.

In Australia or Vietnam it’s currently much hotter than in the U.K. The seasons are different. Wherever you live, the weather can show off the full range of sunshine, rain, gale force winds etc. in a single day.

Usually that day you’re working outdoors or at a festival, with a soggy new hairstyle & inside out umbrella.

You get the idea… So it’s knowing that January lasts for 31 days, not 31 years, and the seasons will evolve into warmer days when the garden will have paintbox colour splashes to cheer it up again.

But let’s go further with this. I invite you to write your own version of the words. So if you love swimming in the sea, ‘You are the ocean. Everything else, it’s just plankton.’

Or if you love knitting, ‘You are the needles, everything else is just balls of wool.’ or ‘You are the hotel buffet breakfast, everything else is just bread rolls…’

Then when things pop up this month that you don’t like, you can think of them as plankton, balls of wool or bread rolls. Useful to think of your boss as a bread roll…

On to part 2 of the First Aid kit.

Maybe as a child you were forced to spend the days after Christmas writing Thank you letters to people for gifts you may have received.

As a 5 yr old, trying to find enthusiasm for Lily of the Valley bath cubes was an interesting challenge…

But gratitude freely given is a different matter. It can help to nudge our brains away from the negative bias of January. The National Science Foundation estimates we can have up to 50, 000 negative thoughts a day. Perhaps more in January…

So start small. 3 things to appreciate today. If you’re somewhere with a boiler that works and hot water, start there. I type this having not had hot water for several days now… it’s minus 1 celsius and still frosty at 3 pm, but at least I have water!

Gratitude that your child ate a vegetable, for a change. Thankful that the dog’s tummy troubles have eased & you still have a carpet.

Appreciating your neighbours who cooked curries for you & the family when Covid hit & you couldn’t get out to the shops.

Seeing a cheerful little robin on the gatepost, posing for next year’s Christmas cards already!

This also helps with the bigger scary things in life. In a noisy MRI machine, alert with the pure terror of serious illness where each test reminds us of our potential impermanence. I found it does help to be thankful we live in a world where scientists create these machines.

To appreciate the overworked & patient staff who guide us through the system. The porter with their gentle jokes that keep us distracted. I’m sure they design the backless gowns specifically to avoid us running away in these situations…

You can write these down in a ‘Gratitude Journal’, or just notice them & appreciate them. It’s good to have a regular time to develop this practice, i.e. when brushing your teeth, or in the shower, or when your head finally nestles in the pillow at night.

With a silent ‘Thank you’, if you’ve got a comfy pillow & a clean pillowcase to rest your head. And the luxury of a bed. Maybe even with a loved one curled up next to you. That’s 3 or 4 right there.

If you want to aim for more than 3 Gratitudes, just keep going. A friend aims for 100 a night. It’s a truly advanced practice to appreciate the snores of your beloved partner or cat.

Which brings us on to part 3 of our Mindfulness First Aid Kit.

Something you do without thinking 20, 000 times a day. Although often we don’t do it that well. Shallow even.

Yes, breathing. A simple core practice of Mindfulness, but one that really helps. If you’ve ever found yourself overwhelmed, stressed or furious, and tried to calm yourself down… it’s not easy.

Often it’s easier to calm your breathing first, then that gives you a bit of ‘wiggle room’ to focus on calming down the other primal emotions, once you’ve caught your breath.

Athletes know the power of breath, and using it for maximum performance.

But we’re more interested in using it to calm and ground us in this moment. Not panicking about the hundreds of possible future things that terrify us. Or dwelling on messy situations from the past.

I could list all the evidence of how deep nourishing breaths can begin to regulate our blood pressure, boost our immune system, or help switch off the Adrenalin rush of the ‘Fight or Flight’ emergency system of our bodies. That urge to out run the woolly mammoth that might have been lurking outside the cave..

It’s ok, I’ve checked, no woolly mammoths at this moment.

So just giving our brain a little ‘popcorn snack’ of paying attention to the air entering through the nostrils of the next inhalation, following it as it goes into the lungs and fills the belly, before the ‘letting go’ of the exhalation as the air flows out again… can help distract our brain from the endless cycle of worries and thoughts, like a washing machine full of scrambled eggs. Or maybe that’s just my brain…

As little as 3 long, deep breaths, where we pay attention to gently calming & deepening our breathing can help kick in the parasympathetic nervous system. 3 minutes of this, perhaps counting your breaths can help enhance all these good benefits to our bodies in a mini ‘Mindfulness First Aid’ kit way.

And actually I think you’ll know from experience, it just feels calmer and much nicer to be settled quietly for a moment in this state. Take your cue from a purring cat, positioning themselves on a comfy cushion, near a radiator and just squinting into the winter sunshine.

Or that moment when a baby has been screaming & crying, but finally settles down. Snuggled in your arms, their breathing starts to calm and slow down until the exhale becomes a soft snore and you both rest in that blissful moment.

Rest.

Another good added extra for the First Aid kit, resting in the moment with that Pema Chodron quote. Imagining plankton or bread rolls for the minor irritations. And maybe put the kettle on as well.

Cups of tea or coffee are a natural way of giving you a few moments to gaze at the sky, be thankful that the milk is still fresh and just rest in the moment with some good deep nourishing breaths.

And if you’ve still got that chocolate in the car from the snow, well… I’ll leave that up to you.

**If you’d like to know more or join one of the monthly ‘Mindfulness, Writing & Journalling’ sessions I run on Zoom, drop me a line from the ‘Contact Charlie’ bit of this website. They’re a welcoming & accessible place where we look at some big ideas with small scribbles & creativity, learn new techniques & Mindfulness practices that work in the real world. And where daydreaming & giggling are encouraged… it’s never about perfection or being po faced!

Photo thanks to Unsplash, Kowit Phothisan.

How to do New Year: one carrot & cutlery drawer at a time…

As it’s already January, Happy New Year greetings to you! A time of optimism as we look ahead, and ‘dwell in possibility’, as the poet Emily Dickinson wrote.

But don’t expect too much from yourself, be gentle.

Baby steps.

When a ship wants to change course, the rudders shift by small amounts, but gradually the ship turns and heads in the right direction.

So if you plan to get healthier, don’t try running 10K on 1st January & existing on kale smoothies… Just try scrubbing a carrot & crunching on it while you make dinner. Or throwing a handful of frozen peas into a pasta sauce to add an extra portion of veg towards your 5 a day.

If you plan to declutter the whole house & live a stylish minimalist life worthy of Instagram, just start with the cutlery drawer. It’s a 10 minute job that gives you a tiny win straight away & a natural hit of dopamine to mark the achievement.

Just don’t get rid of the hamster or the children, no matter how messy they might be today…

It’s tempting to imagine January 1st on the calendar signals a whole new You. Been there & done that. It didn’t work.

How could it? January can be a bleak, cold & dark month… especially if you’ve given up chocolate.

Again.

I’ve lost count of the years that 31st December would be spent polishing off every Quality Street, Roses & After Eight in the house… swearing that the following year would be one free from chocolate.

Then Cadburys would bring out the first Creme Eggs in early January, and it would be rude not to!

Growing up in Birmingham, with family & friends working in Cadburys chocolate factory, & having a name like Charlie, associated with a proverbial Chocolate Factory…

So from my 40’s onwards, I’ve figured out that this is never going to work. Instead I aim for the slightly healthier option of darker chocolate.

Baby steps.

Initially it was 70%. But then I worked my way up to 85%. And occasionally the hardcore option of 100% cocoa. But work your way up gradually to that, it’s not for the faint hearted.

Lots of small decisions are yours to make over coming days, weeks, and months of 2022.

So start small, but be consistent. Be realistic. And before you judge yourself harshly as needing major improvement, first try a little Gratitude.

Sprinkle that on with the goji berry/linseed sprinkles on top of your Acai bowl, or whatever the trendspotters predict we’ll be noshing this year.

Appreciate that you’ve made it through whatever 2020 & 2021 hurled your way. And let’s be honest, they were not the easiest of years for any of us.

So whatever you’ve personally been dealing with, and might be utterly exhausted by, you made it through. So reward yourself with a New Year’s Honours list title of your own. I’m sure the Queen won’t mind.

What will you name it? The, ‘I home schooled my kids while juggling work Teams meetings, delivering shopping for vulnerable neighbours & not throwing a tantrum when the petrol stations had a petrol crisis that wasn’t really a petrol crisis, but the pumps were empty?!’

Actually you could try doing less.

In fact, try doing nothing.

How radical would that be?

Just for a few minutes a day. No laptop or phone screen, just set a kitchen timer if you want to mark the 5 minutes.

And maybe carve out a few minutes of chill-out time every day just for yourself. No expectations of achieving anything.

Not doing anything.

Just being.

It doesn’t matter if you call this Meditation, or daydreaming, or just sitting.

In fact, if you’ve got a chair or sofa to curl up on for these sacred 5 minutes of peace, with a view of a tree – you can call it Tree time.

Or Cat time, if you’ve got a cat who would love to be adored for 5 minutes of your undivided attention. Just relaxing and giving yourself a break will help.

You can try focusing on your breathing. Nothing fancy, just noticing the air as it goes in through your nostrils, then down into your lungs, and finally filling your belly.

Let it rise, without judgement of the size or shape of your belly.

Be like a toddler who feels pure joy and wonder at their curving tummy, do not use tabloid journalist body shaming.

Allowing your belly to softly fill with air helps you to deepen and gently slow down each breath, making it more relaxing & nourishing.

This gentle attention on your breath helps give your brain a little ‘popcorn’ to snack on. This is less stressful than you trying to completely empty your mind & clear out your busy brain.

But it subtly takes your attention away from the 1001 worries that can swirl around your head like scrambled eggs in a washing machine.

Just giving you a few minutes breathing space can help calm your system down. This can boost your immune system, slightly lower your blood pressure a little and help to sooth the primitive part of the brain that may have been on constant Fight or Flight response mode in recent years.

Think of it as smoothing over a design flaw from centuries ago, as you help yourself trust that no woolly mammoth is about to chase you. Back then we didn’t have phone screens & 24 hour news channels that constantly flashed up woolly mammoth equivalents…

So that’s a good way to begin your New Year’s resolutions, by doing 5 minutes less every single day of 2022.

You may come to relish these few minutes as total bliss. Looking forward to a chance to de-stress and chill-out in peace no matter how demanding the rest of the day is.

Oh, and don’t forget the carrot.

Or the cutlery drawer. But only if you want to… baby steps.

**Would you like to try a monthly Mindfulness & Journalling session on Zoom? In small friendly groups where beginners are welcome alongside more experienced writers.

Where we practice new techniques that work on your Superpower of Mindfulness, in a relaxed & creative way. Where giggling & daydreaming are encouraged alongside fresh inspiration. Where you’re always welcome to share the things we think & write, but there’s never any pressure to do so.

If so, drop me a line & you’re welcome as a guest on the 2nd Sunday morning, or 2nd Monday evening of each month. Next sessions are 9th Jan at 10.30am, and 10th Jan at 7pm. All you need is pen & paper, and maybe a cuppa. Oh, and chocolate if you like… the higher cocoa content the better!

Photo thanks to Green Chameleon at Unsplash.

Would you like a cup of tea? How to get through Christmas…

A cup of tea… the panacea for most things in life. 62 billion cups of it are drunk by us Brits each year, so it must help. When we don’t quite know what to say, or when we’re trying to avoid loved ones spoiling for a fight, we go and put the kettle on.

Perhaps you usually get your hot drinks from a local artisan coffee shop, with a Barista who’s part coffee alchemist, part therapist. But for the next 48 hours, it’s family, friends or yourself doling out your caffeine fix.

Over your lifetime you’ll probably have many different types of Christmas. Some surrounded by people, and some alone. Some with family, some with friends. Some at work, some needing care from those who are at work. Some happy, some sad.

You get the picture… and actually most will be a mixture of all of the above.

Throw in a global pandemic, where travel plans are thwarted by lines on a testing stick or government regulations, not forgetting the services cancelled by staff having to isolate etc.

This festive season is still uncertain for many of us, perhaps with loved ones in hospital or undergoing chemo & suffering the side effects at home, or with family preferring not to meet up indoors.

Or maybe this year your partner has the children and the house echoes with emptiness, and even the cat is sulking.

However your festive plans have changed, whether you’re downsizing your Christmas day to a microwaved curry for one, working double shifts to cover for poorly colleagues, or have invited the neighbour you don’t really get along with, but don’t want to see them alone this Christmas day… putting the kettle on might be a useful refuge.

Making yourself a cup of tea, or offering one to others gives you a simple task to do and a few minutes to yourself in the kitchen. Both are useful.

You might find yourself silently swearing with the stress… in which case try going through the alphabet for new words! Or if you’ve got a bird feeder outside the window, gazing at a thuggish robin chasing away a peckish blue tit might give a moment of escape.

You can be lonely in a crowd, and perfectly happy and content in your own company. But if you’re dreading the loneliness of a solo day, then having a rough plan is a good start. Knowing when you’ll wake, shower, put the radio on, eat, go for a walk, and perhaps phone a friend, what to watch on TV etc, can help.

Break the 24 hrs into manageable chunks, and remind yourself that this too will pass.

Some days are like this, and some Christmas days are just like this. Know that you’re not the only one. Behind many other front doors in the street where you live, this will be echoed. Perhaps next year, well in advance of 25th December you’ll have a different plan in place and invite someone else to join you for some part of the day.

Or you may be someone who is perfectly happy all year round, but dreads the forced party time with certain family members or friends who bring out the worst in you. In which case, a few things to remember that can help:

Offering cups of tea, or assorted snacks can help, if there are moments of awkward silence, or when it seems someone is about to burst into tears or start an argument with the same relative that they usually disagree with. It’s like distracting a toddler in a supermarket on the verge of a tantrum…

Like Noddy Holder in that Slade song, you can always shout, “It’s Christmas’ as another way of nudging the family away from cross words or soap opera style fights!

Or try playing ‘Tennis Questions‘. When someone asks you the question you find unbearable… perhaps the same person and question that sets you off every single year.

It might be about when you’re going to start a family, when you’re already on the edge of tears due to failed IVF, or ‘What’s wrong with you, why aren’t you in a relationship?’ when you’re the only single one in a family where everyone else is married before they reach 20.

For any of the above, you can play ‘Tennis Questions‘, where you bounce it right back to the person doing the asking. In the simplest form, this means saying, ‘That’s interesting. Why do you ask that?’

Or if you want another type of tennis move, if it’s a question about why you’re not having children, you can ask that person why they had children. Or when they’re making you squirm asking why you’re still single, ask why they got married.

Or if it’s something you’re fed up of facing every year, and have had enough of, you can try saying something like, ‘I know you love me, and wouldn’t want to upset me… but I find this too upsetting to talk about, so I don’t want to answer that and can we change the subject. Would you like a cup of tea?‘ And we’re back to our saviour, the kettle!

Also, worth searching online for the writer Martha Beck, and her ‘Dysfunctional Family Bingo’ for an idea… but let’s call it Creative family Bingo. Where you guess in advance the particular things that might annoy you about your own family gathering, and put them on a bingo card.

Ticking them off then gives your brain a mini dopamine hit of success, & a giggle, without it making you quite so angry.

For many years, I worked on Christmas day hosting live radio programmes. Often in phone-ins, we’d hear from those with non-traditional festive plans. Some might be feeling sad or lonely, especially if it was a first Christmas since the loss of a loved one. The comfort of a fellow human being live on the radio to talk to, or listen to can never be underestimated.

But we’d also hear from those quite content to be alone, and who would tell us with relish their plans for the perfect day. I’ll never forget one caller.

A lady who’d been widowed that year, so knew about sadness and loss. She said that several family & friends had invited her to join big family gatherings, that she was grateful for their kindness, but wanted to be alone that day.

She needed time and space to herself, and held cherished memories of the love of her husband on a long walk on the Yorkshire Moors with her dogs. Following this with a microwave curry, glass of a single malt & a box set of 24 was her perfect solo Christmas.

She sounded truly happy and content with the day, and phoned us to say how the radio had been on in the kitchen to keep that background noise as well, and thanked us for our company.

As we thanked her for listening and phoning in, and her wisdom. Finding something to be thankful for is a really useful skill at festive celebrations and all year round.

Let gratitude be one of your Superpowers. For waking up today with a roof overhead. For the ability to see the sky, even if we can’t see the sun today. For the love of family & friends, even the slightly grumpy ones that might be irritable today.

Gratitude for those no longer with us. Amidst the sadness at their loss, nurturing a sense of appreciation that they lived and we were lucky enough to love them. Gratitude for a box of tissues when we need to have a Christmas cry. Or for this year’s Covid symptoms.

Thanks for the cards, texts, emails, whattsaps, Skypes & any other ways that we communicate with each other to send our love.

For the tin of chocolates to dip into by the kettle. For Christmas TV shows. For the happy times we can remember, and the fact that we still have more ahead, even if we can’t see it yet.

For everyone helping in a busy kitchen to prepare a meal for a table squashed full of all the generations of your clan. Just taking a split second to notice and appreciate it all, with love.

Or for a Christmas cosy in pyjamas, eating pizza & chips…

However you plan to spend your Christmas this year, I wish you the best for it. Punctuated by several cups of tea, with the kettle as your saviour. Not to mention the mince pies & chocolates.

We cracked open a box of After Eights yesterday lunchtime, confessing this blatant breaking of the rules of the universe (as it was before 8pm) in jest to our pub quiz Whattsapp group.

Pub Quiz Andy replied that we’d been spotted by the Mint Spies!

Take that as your early Christmas cracker joke…

See, it’s nearly 26th December already & time for that first cup of morning tea.

Photo. Thanks to Rumman Amin Unsplash.

Solstice, the gradual return of the light. And chips for breakfast!

Photo from Unsplash, thanks to Niklas Hamann

Wiser women than me state that around 3.59pm today (UK time) is a good time to focus on the Solstice.

To let go of the difficult stuff from this year, taking note of what we’ve learned from it, & appreciate our resilience. Then to focus our intention & attention on the coming year ahead. What matters most for us, the people & endeavours that are worth our precious time & energy.

Change & impermanence are the only certainty; something most of us truly understand as we age. But throw in a global pandemic and even toddlers are fully aware that everything can and will change in a heartbeat.

The world weary 3 yr old daughter of a friend of mine now suggests or blames ‘the Rona virus’ as a potential reason why she can’t have or do whatever she pleases. Why can’t I have chips for breakfast or a unicorn for Christmas? With a theatrical sigh, ‘Oh, is it the Rona again? It’s not fair!’

It’s something that has hurled a spanner into the works of many of our plans & assumptions over the last 2 years. From work, school, family gatherings, holidays and more, so is it foolish or naive to even think about how we want the next year to be?

I’m world weary enough, like the 3 year old, to know that it’s not as simple as wishing or imagining something we want, and in some magical way, it will appear or manifest. Otherwise Jason Momoa, aka Aquaman would be helping with the washing up as I type this.

But aside from all the stuff in the universe we can’t change, and have no influence over… there is the small matter of ourselves. We do have some sway here.

Some.

So we begin here. In whatever small way we can. In some December Mindfulness sessions we looked at the idea of ‘Worth’, the title of the Michael Keaton film about how insurance companies assessed the worth of a life of those lost in 9/11.

But more broadly, considering what you consider ‘worthwhile’ for your time, and what really matters to you. How we spend our days is how we spend our lives, as the saying goes. In 2021, when you look back at the year, as we tend to do in December, what was really worthwhile for you?

Maybe it was the tiny things, keeping a potted plant alive, reading more books, getting to know neighbours or distant family better, baking your first loaf of bread, or growing your first tomatoes.

Or the sustained efforts, like daily 10,000 steps, whatever the weather, volunteering for a local community group, or learning a new language online, even though travel abroad was tricky this year?

Or the bigger things like navigating a divorce, a job loss, serious illness or the death of a loved one. The things that forever alter the fabric of our day to day existence and may have found you sobbing on the bathroom floor at 4 am, wondering how to go on.

Sometimes the notion of getting through the next 24 hrs is overwhelming, so just figuring out how to get through the next hour or minute can be enough. When things are this tough it might seem too much to contemplate what matters to you for a whole year.

But sitting for a few moments, with a cup of tea, reflecting on what your values are, what really matters when things get this challenging can give you an anchor. Or a vague sense of where North is on your own personal compass.

Love & kindness are pretty central to mine. No matter how many bad things happen, and these last years have seen the loss of work & money, the ill health & depression of loved ones and the death of a beloved friend. Love & kindness remain my home base. Almost an act of rebellion!

These things that nearly break us can also break us open with a tender vulnerability that helps us connect with others who are struggling.

I’m nowhere near perfect, like most of us, just a foolish imperfect being who is trying my best. With a lens of love or kindness, I can see what everyone else is trying to do, and know that we’re all just stumbling along, hopefully walking each other home, as they say. With cake and tea-breaks sometimes.

So whilst we can’t yet know the details of 2022, we can start from the tiny centre of ourselves and where we’re going to focus our time and energies. What really matters to us, and to let go of the other stuff as much as possible.

Solstice seems like a good chance to sketch out this line in the sand, and remember the gradual return of the light bringing a little hope even on the darkest days.

Who knows, although we might not get a unicorn for Christmas… we can choose to have chips for Breakfast. Solstice chips… maybe with a fried egg to symbolise the golden sun & the gradual return of the light!

Photo Unsplash, thanks to Scott Eckersley.

Always tuck things in your pockets…

Unless something is about to go in the washing machine, then empty your pockets…

But if you hop off the train after lunch with a friend that went on for 3 hours, tuck the ticket in your jacket pocket.

If you’ve been to the cinema, slip a popcorn smudged flier in the side pocket of your rucksack.

Or keep a scribbled loved-up post-it note from the other half, and slot it in the pages of a favourite book.

Simple things like that.

One day you might stumble on them accidentally, and happy memories come tumbling back.

Like tonight, I just found the receipt for a Thai takeaway & time travelled back to a summer night of torrential rain. (Well it is traditional for a British seaside holiday, and we were in Cromer.)

Drenched by soggy downpours, we stood outside Bann Thai and awaited our order, huddling together under a tiny umbrella and joking about being soaked by more water than they used in the film Aquaman.

Then like a magic spell, our name was called & we dashed back to the Air BnB carrying steaming tubs of ridiculously delicious green & red curries. Wrapped in towels, we feasted & warmed ourselves from the inside out.

Who needs sunshine on a Norfolk beach, when you’ve got the chilli heat of the finest Thai food outside of Bangkok. Free chocolates too.

It’s the last half few minutes of November, I can hear the rain outside now. But if I close my eyes, I’m back in Cromer… wondering if they deliver to the Midlands this late…

Photo thanks to Unsplash, Natural Chef.

Autumn Wisdom from Children’s TV

Do you remember Bod?

When there weren’t endless channels of choice, we had just one programme at lunchtime each day for us kids. Well, that’s how I remember it.

Bagpuss & Pipkins were good, but my favourite was Bod. A triangle shaped person with their own theme tune. In fact every character had their own theme tune. Perhaps you can choose your own theme tune for today?

Anyway, Bod had mellow adventures, and once there was a snippet about trees losing their leaves as the seasons changed. (We didn’t have Mutant Ninja Turtles back then, or Zombie pizza games… )

I remember Aunt Flo was sad about the trees losing their leaves, but Bod offered an alternative way of looking at it. Without the trees losing their leaves, they wouldn’t be able to grow cherry blossom next Spring, or the Cherries in the summer after that.

The nature of ‘impermanence’, and how things are always changing was a simple yet profound insight for someone like me, who’d had something of a chaotic start to life, with 5 different families and homes in my first year alone. Perhaps a first glimpse of the Mindfulness traditions that would continue to be a foundation of my life.

As a grown up, I notice on a sunny Autumn day how you can see more of the blue sky with fewer leaves on the trees. Nearer winter, you can even see the birds more clearly on sparse branches. I practice this stubborn optimism to nudge out the winter blues!

It’s all about where you focus your attention.

I later discovered the creators of Bod, Joanne and Michael Cole had Taoist beliefs. Bod has a slight look of a monk, now I think about it. Serene face, bald head & a stubborn optimism.

As a kid growing up in Birmingham in the 70’s I’d not heard of Taoists or Buddhists, but this stuff made sense to me. Perhaps I was a ‘Bod-ist’ long before I set foot in a Buddhist temple years later. (Excuse the pun!)

Finding the wisdom in the everyday is where the gold in life is. It could be from Kids’ TV, a line in a favourite song or film, something your 6 year old says when the cat gets sick, or watching the dog relish every sniff on a morning walk, discovering the same park anew; all things can remind us of these simple but profound truths in life.

Seemingly endless huge changes in all of our lives over the last 18 months for sure, but hopefully if we look up, still some glimpses of blue skies to tide us through the colder months ahead.

Having changed the clocks last night, tonight’s earlier darkness will be noticeable. But we can keep our focus on the light, whether it’s candle lit pumpkins for Halloween, or scouring Youtube for a clip of Bod, perhaps that Cherry Tree episode…

Photo thanks to Unsplash, as our pumpkin is already roasted & half eaten!

Soap malfunctioning & a belted laundry basket.

Did you ever hear of soap malfunctioning?

Maybe that conjures up images of soap refusing to lather into bubbles… Or being so slippy that it keeps sliding out of your hands & onto the bathroom floor, resistant to any attempt to pick it up again.

To be precise, it was the soap dispenser that malfunctioned.

I know, I know. You’re right. Why do we need a soap dispenser, when a bar is the natural way for soap to dispense itself?

Well, mostly we do just use bars of soap the traditional way, in our ongoing attempt to use less plastic. But we’d got the in-laws staying recently, for their first visit since the Pandemic. And I’d found an old plastic pump bottle of liquid soap in the cupboard, and thought as all four of us would be using the same bathroom for the weekend, it might be a good time to use it.

So I put it out on the sink.

It worked just fine for the weekend, and about a week beyond that. Then it started sulking. Requiring several pumps before any actual liquid soap spluttered out onto my hands.

Then it retired as a useful means of getting the soap out, and just sits on the sink shaming me for the needless plastic. Mocking any thought that it might have saved me a few seconds with that pump action.

So we’ve returned to the bars of soap we’ve been happily using for the last few years. You know, the kind of soap that doesn’t malfunction.

Meantime, the plastic bottle glares at us. Daring us to use up the liquid soap inside it, and challenging us to repurpose the container.

Any ideas? Like most of us, we’re not perfect, and do have plastic things in the house. But, like most of us, we’re trying to reduce them, and not buy more.

The laundry basket is proof of this. Handles that broke years ago were first replaced with some old luggage ties. Hooray!

Then further cracks appeared deeper down. Boo!

They have been threaded through with an old leather belt that holds the basket together, and becomes a new handle. Hooray!

I love the ingenuity of my beloved, one of my favourite things about him. Never throws things away.

He looks at an old bed base, and sees kitchen shelves.

A broken suitcase, and sees a courgette planter.

Sees his old belt as a laundry basket handle.

I’m curious now, what will he see the plastic soap bottle becoming?

Give him time… he’ll think of something.

Meantime I’ll apologise to the trusty bar of soap. Sorry for doubting you, and thank you for never malfunctioning. Simple is often best.

Simple soap, I’m sure we’ve got one of those in the cupboard.

Tutu & Wellies, a Hand fasting & cups of tea.

What to wear for the last day of July, an outdoor celebration & a mixed weather forecast? After life on endless Zooms, we’ve forgotten what to wear.

Tutu & wellies was the brilliant choice of a practical little ballerina today. Five year olds are so smart!

Wolverhampton & Essex’s finest were all dressed in their most glamorous outfits. The first glimpse of a party for over 18 months was something to relish.

The occasion was a Hand fasting & Broom Jumping for a phenomenal couple, who’ve had to postpone their wedding three times.

But they haven’t postponed their love!

It was my pleasure & honour to be their Celebrant, delivering a ceremony I’d written to celebrate their love & love story so far. And a great excuse for a party to bring the two families together.

You could sense the deep love shared by the couple and their families & friends gathered in the garden, and the love was matched by the laughter. Luckily they giggled at all the jokes I’d written, as well as the ad-libs. We all used to work together, so there was plenty of ‘material’, and the sun finally peeked through the clouds to shine. The groom had faith, as he kept his rock n roll shades on for the ceremony!

Such an uplifting afternoon, where we celebrated the love of everyone present, as well as the happy couple. Concluding with a ‘Jumping of the Broom’ by the couple, followed by jumps from friends, family & all the little ones who’d behaved beautifully throughout the ceremony. Like a mini Olympics with Wine Gums for medals.

Then before heading home, I met up with a lovely friend & former colleague. Over a few cups of tea we caught up on the last few years. Toasting her success finishing a degree in lockdown.

It’s important it is to have these ceremonies & celebrations, big or small. The bigger dressed up ones take a bit more planning, but worth it for the shared happiness.

The smaller ones, like meeting a friend for a cuppa are every bit as treasured. For many of us, something we’ve not done much of recently. Perhaps we can elevate them with a mini ceremony of our own? Even a simple ‘Cheers’ to signify the occasion.

We can remember to tell the other person how much they mean to us, how we’ve missed them and how good it is to see them.

We can wear a tutu & wellies. A cup of tea & a dance in a back garden, the simple pleasures.

Kissing, as a Mindfulness Practice?

Can you remember your first kiss?

Maybe it was a poster on your wall, or someone in your class at school?

Or maybe you’re thinking about your most recent kiss? Or your next one, given that the Pandemic has delayed many things, and dating has not exactly been easy for anyone…

Is there a significant kiss that springs to mind? A memorable one, such as the first one after proposing to your loved one, or just after marrying them? So significant, that we even make that part of a traditional wedding service.

Or that tender kiss on the forehead of a newborn baby? Or perhaps it was a gentle kiss on the forehead of someone seriously ill, and you gathered up all your love and meaning into that precious moment as you connected with them.

Anthropologists are about 90% sure that kissing is instinctive behaviour, but the other 10% (the unromantic ones) believe it to be learned behaviour.

But another way to look at kissing, is as a naturally mindfulness practice. Something we do with care and attention for the other person means being present in that moment without distraction. This is a perfect and pleasurable practice of mindfulness.

Mindful kissing. Wonder if that’s what the Prince song was really on about…

If you’re distracted by watching television, scrolling your phone or making breakfast, then it’s not the same. Still lovely to have a quick kiss when things are hectic, not complaining about those.

And we’re not just talking romantic kissing, but those affectionate kisses to beloved relatives of all ages. Maybe you’ve missed the slight bristle of stubble & aroma of freshly doused Lynx, as you greet teenage nephews or grandsons, or a hint of ginger biscuits mingled with aniseed balls from a great Aunt, as she pecks you on the cheek with such care.

But when you consider the memorable kisses in your life till now, they will be the ones where you’re fully in the moment. Maybe eyes closed. Yes, that’s a great way to focus the senses on a good kiss.

A wise Zen teacher, Frank Ostaseski talked about kissing as a way to explain mindfulness to teenagers in a school, and he’s right. Mindfulness isn’t just something to do for a set time each day, sitting cross legged on a meditation cushion, or on a retreat in the Himalayas.

And it doesn’t have to be practised with an incredibly serious look of concentration or frowning. A relaxed awareness is a good thing to aim for, while paying attention to the present moment.

So you might notice this when you kiss someone you love. Or it might be when you’re baking a Birthday cake, fully focused on weighing ingredients, & stirring it with love, or when tending your garden and gently weeding around thorny rose bushes. Or when taking your ageing dog for an evening walk and noticing how you’re both getting a little slower, but still relishing the fresh air and exercise.

A kiss may not last for hours, but with mindful attention, and hopefully with love, it lingers. Maybe even for years. Like a photograph, the memory can be conjured up years or decades later. Perhaps you can enjoy thinking back over an early kiss. Or three… Wondering where that other person is now, and remembering the details of that moment.

I remember once walking past a teenage couple on a canal towpath. They were engaged in full on snogging and one shouted out ‘sorry’, as if I’d be offended. I reassured them that it seemed like the most wonderful thing to be absorbed in on a grey Tuesday, and to go for it! I may also have mentioned that I was a teenager myself once, many years ago…

Do you remember your own teenage kisses? Late at night, with a salty tang from the shared bag of chips, on the night bus home? At the back of a gig by your favourite band, when they played that special song? Or at a train station or airport saying goodbye, or hello? Those Richard Curtis moments from ‘Love Actually.’

It might be a golden seal of protection that we feel we’re wrapping our loved ones in when we kiss them goodbye. Imprinting them with a homeopathic hint of our love to keep them safe and well until we see them again. That visceral sense of touching their skin and connecting our separate selves as one for a brief few seconds.

That’s something we’ve missed so much with Lockdown. Zooming, Skyping & Facetiming are the most amazing inventions that have kept us all feeling a sense of closeness despite the lengthy isolation.

But we can’t kiss or touch on a screen. Although many of us may have had to wipe lipstick or tears from a screen, having tried.

The isolation has added to the sense of loss for many who couldn’t be with loved ones when they died. It felt wrong or cruel, and unnatural. That primal longing to touch had to be denied, when countries, cities and hospitals all had lockdowns at various times recently.

Something we can never underestimate or forget.

So perhaps that’s the most precious freedom for many of us at the moment. Not the opening up or restaurants & bars, but that chance to get closer to our loved ones, gradually. Perhaps waiting to make sure we’ve been double jabbed to protect those most at risk, and then finally being able to get close and hug those we love. Before keeping a safe distance apart in the garden while sharing a cup of tea & a ginger biscuit.

Maybe a gentle kiss on the forehead, or cheek of relatives & friends we’ve not been able to touch for over a year.

Eyes closed, and paying attention with a relaxed awareness of gratitude. We’ve missed those Lynx or aniseed ball whiffs, and that connection to those we love.

Enjoy the precious chance to add a new memorable kiss to our list… happy Mindful kissing x

(Kiss sign photo thanks to Tim Mossholder on Unsplash.)

(Kissing Otters photo thanks to Ryan Hyde on Unsplash.)

When did you last…

Photo by Arno Smit on Unsplash

When did you last sit underneath a tree full of blossom? Preferably with a picnic and maybe with a few of your favourite people in the universe… as you gaze up at the flowers in awe?

Hopefully you’ve been able to do that in the last few weeks, or if not, that you can find an hour or two next month to squeeze in this delight. In Japan they have the Sakura festival – the festival of Cherry blossom. A time when no matter what else is going on, however busy or stressful life can be, the effort is made to spend time wondering at the majesty of a tree in blossom.

In fact they even have a word for this most essential centuries old activity – Hanami. This means the act of observing the flowers. Preferably also eating, drinking and even barbecuing whilst relishing these transient flower displays.

Poets have referred to blossom as Spring snow. Deliciously pale pink or blushed white petals of ‘snow’.

Cherry blossom is revered as a symbol of renewal and hope, hence the urge to spend time near them and treasure them. The time in flower is brief, perhaps only a week or two depending on the weather. And it varies.

In Birmingham, Oozells square outside the Ikon Gallery in Brindley Place has a few of these exquisite trees. Last year they were already in blossom as the first Lockdown was announced. A lovely friend who works nearby vividly remembers gazing at them as she left the office with a bag packed, stumbling into the unknown.

Quite literally, as she tripped down a step while unknowingly performing ‘Hanami’ and enjoying the blossom. Maybe this is why a picnic/barbeque with friends is the tradition, safety in sitting down to gaze up above. (As someone who is incredibly clumsy, with the co-ordination of a tipsy baby giraffe, I’ve made a note to stop and stand still next time I attempt Hanami, just to be on the safe side.)

The anniversary of Lockdown this year, and no sign of a flower on the same trees. Perhaps they’d missed the human connections we all have, and that may have combined with the weather to delay exuberant flowering this year?! Eventually they did blossom with jaw dropping beauty…

The transient nature of blossom makes it all the more precious. Knowing it won’t linger, we have to take ourselves outside and look up to notice and appreciate it. Or if you’re not able to be outside, maybe friends and family can bring the blossom to you, with a phone video? Or Google will find you countless hours of the world’s most aesthetically pleasing blossoms to enjoy.

Or maybe it’s not Cherry blossom, but Lilac on a tree near you that is just getting ready to burst into flower. Or a tulip bulb or rose bush in the garden getting ready to splash full colour and bloom radiantly?

Or wild primrose, bluebells or dandelions that spark joy, as they carry on doing their own thing, modestly flowering closer to the ground. Still every bit as beautiful once we notice and appreciate them.

So this Spring, Hanami is the way to go. Noticing and appreciating any and every flower in your garden, your neighbours, or your local park. Watching Gardener’s World and seeing Monty, Carol and the gang of experts tending and nurturing seeds, cuttings and plants to spread beauty throughout coming months.

It might even be getting the brightest colours from your wardrobe and dressing yourself in the radiant colours of these blooms to feel that pop of colour cheer you up, or liven up the next work Zoom meeting. Or slicing fragrant mango for breakfast to add a burst of golden sunshine to porridge.

If Hanami and Sakura are about making a little time and space for beauty, colour and nature, then we can do that throughout Spring in a myriad of different ways. My partner is colour blind, but has trained himself to notice or remember colours in the garden.

I point out which flowers are peeking out this week and remind him which colours are where, as we share a cuppa in the garden. A goldfinch lands in the birdbath, showing off the red and yellow feathers that look as if they’ve been coloured in by a child in a drawing book.

Hanami might refer to gazing at flowers, but we can echo this sentiment by gazing in wonder at the birds. Or worms. Did you know that worms can ‘taste’ sunshine? Since I read that, I’ve been marvelling at the humble worms as much as the robins do when we’re digging up the garden. Although I’ve not been eating them, as the robins love to. Well, just the sweet jelly worms they sell in the local shop. They are bright jewelled colours, one as pink as cherry blossom…

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash