Paddington at the Palace.

Thanks to Carter Baran at Unsplash for the bear photo.

What an enchanted idea, for the world to focus on a bear slurping tea straight from the teapot, with a marmalade sandwich tucked under his hat. And another sandwich in the Queen’s handbag; so that’s what she keeps in there…

I’ve been working non-stop the last few days, but thanks to social media I’ve caught up on snippets from the Jubilee. Like former President Obama’s words, comparing the Queen to his Grandmother. And the cakes… many people were busy baking to share tea and cake with family, friends and neighbours. That sense of community is worth celebrating, whether you’re someone who supports the monarchy or not.

A friend who is hosting a family from Ukraine loved the symbolism of the Queen welcoming Paddington, who was himself a refugee. Michael Bond spoke of how he’d seen children from the Kindertransport arriving at Reading station during the war, and drew inspiration from this.

Creating the story of Paddington, a bear from Peru, all on his own at a railway station, with a label attached that said ‘Please look after this bear. Thank you.’ Michael Bond once said that he wrote the opening line from Paddington one morning without really knowing what he was going to write, but he wanted to get something down on paper… 

“Mr and Mrs Brown first met Paddington on a railway platform…” 

In the Mindfulness & Writing sessions I run, we meet each other on Zoom and scribble down new beginnings and bursts of ideas. Who knows where they will lead, in the days that follow, when all sorts of thoughts might spring up. Often inspired by something another participant has mentioned…

I like to think that Michael Bond would be proud that we look after each other in our sessions, listening with kindness and curiosity. And sometimes cups of tea. All Grandmothers know that cups of tea are incredibly important, as they give you five minutes to take a break or listen to someone who is struggling with something. And all Grandmothers know that looking after each other is probably all that really matters in life.

In my work as a Celebrant, I’ve been writing funeral services this weekend to honour two Great Grandmothers who were both in their 90’s. Deeply loved and cherished, each had known the pain of sadness and loss in their lifetimes, and stressed the importance of looking after each other. Family, friends, neighbours, dogs, cats, the birds and probably bears as well… Both Great Grandmothers also had magic biscuit tins, that never seemed to empty… 

So we should celebrate a sense of looking after each other in the myriad ways we do; often beginning with a cup of tea. Especially after the Pandemic years, that were difficult for all of us around the globe. When grownups take five minutes to enjoy a cuddly bear with a marmalade sandwich tucked under his hat, the world is definitely a better place.

It’s a great example of Mindfulness in action, that importance of where we place our attention and focus. I needed that reminder last night, and a welcome few minutes of light relief, thanks to focusing on Paddington and his antics at the Palace.

No matter how many difficult things we’re all juggling, a few minutes to take a break, have a cup of tea and marvel at a bear gives us all a brief respite. A mischievous and wise bear, and the sublime voice of Ben Whishaw as an extra bonus. If you’ve never watched a Paddington film, I highly recommend them. And they star Julie Walters, a national treasure herself!

Every home should have a bear to cuddle. We found ours by accident when buying book shelves in a charity furniture shop a few years ago. This solitary bear was sitting on a shelf by the till, looking very lonely and was just £1.

He didn’t have a label attached, just a £1 price sticker. My 6ft 5” partner (who looks a bit like a viking with his long hair & silver beard) picked the bear up and we took it home, where it has been cuddled by many of our visitors in the years since then. Cost us a fortune in marmalade, but worth it!

If I’m writing something particularly serious, the bear often sits nearby. Seeing his cuddly paws helps, I’m sure. Keep a look out, there might be the perfect bear for your household for £1 in a charity shop window this week…

Meantime, I’m off to make marmalade sandwiches and put the kettle on. There’s a laptop that needs to be switched off to avoid overheating, and a bear in need of a cuddle…

p.s. if you’d like to know more about the June Mindfulness & Writing sessions, just send me a message from the ‘Contact’ part of this website. Good luck finding your bear…

Valentine tips: Writing about Love. What I’ve learned as a Celebrant, Poet & Radio Presenter. And why a pineapple is the perfect love token!

As a Celebrant, I listen while people light up, telling me their real life Love stories. Then I write them into bespoke ceremonies & rituals that mark the big transitions in our lives.

It’s such a privilege. 

Like Love, it also comes with a responsibility

To tell their true Love story and for it to touch the heart of each person gathered. We might catch a glimpse of our own love reflected in the words at a wedding, turning to snuggle our beloved, while testing our waterproof mascara… 

Love spreads like this. I would say Love is ‘contagious’, but given recent events let’s think of Love as spreading like the aroma of baked apple pie with cinnamon freckles. Or freshly cooked chips with a vinegar top note. Delicious.

Maybe you or your partner don’t like apple pie or chips, but what do you love instead? Details matter, they make things personal and real.

So think about the one you love…what’s their favourite smell, or taste? Which song do they sing aloud to on the radio? If the words you write capture some details, it will help to make the message unique & the recipient feel special. 

You’ve noticed them. We all love to be noticed, and seen & heard.

Years ago, I used to present late night Love Zone radio shows, which meant sifting through hundreds of hand written letters from listeners every week. (In the dinosaur era, we didn’t have email or texts.)

Real life love stories were stuffed into each envelope. Sometimes 3 identical letters with requests for different names, but all from the same person, declaring to each, ‘You’re the only one for me’. Being truthful is a good idea with love stuff, so you can guess where those letters ended up…

Some stories were messy & complicated, but over 7 pages of green biro scrawl, the depth of feeling was clear. Love really can be ‘The Sweetest Feeling’ as the Jackie Wilson song goes.

We always had far more letters than time in the shows to share their story, so had to choose which dedications made it to air. Some stood out clearly, often thanks to the details which made them come to life.

For your Valentine, write something personal, that only they will get. You don’t need to be Ed Sheehan or Warsan Shire, but if your partner loves the work of a singer or writer, you could quote from them.

If your first date was at the cinema, write a soppy message quoting a line from the film on a home made ‘cinema ticket’ & stream that film.

Talking of films, if you’re in love, first think about your ‘Meet Cute’, Hollywood speak for how a couple first meet. I love asking couples about how they met. They don’t always have the same answer… but you can usually see their faces change. They often blush and sneak flirty glances at each other with a beaming smile, or a filthy laugh!

Maybe just thinking about when you met your beloved has changed how you feel now, softening into a smile widening across your face as you remember.

Tap into that feeling as you pick up a biro to scribble a few thoughts down… anything you remember from those first blushes of love?

What did you notice about this person? Maybe you were nervous & had that awkward self conscious teenager feeling, despite being 42? Or you fell off a chair & talked about how giraffes have the largest hearts of all land mammals? 

That was me on all counts. Luckily he didn’t run away.

Be yourself. If you haven’t scared them off already, with clumsiness & talk of giraffe hearts, then they like you just as you are. One of the sexiest things Mark Darcy said to Bridget Jones in that film, that he liked her very much, ‘Just as you are.‘ Swoon.

‘To thine own self be true’, as some scribe from Stratford wrote. Having watched ‘Upstart Crow’ on TV., I now only see David Mitchell as William Shakespeare. 

If someone loves you, then they want YOU to shine through any words you write.

So write what you’d say to them. If you’re not a natural silver tongued wordsmith, but put up amazing shelves & always do the washing up, then write about that, as your way of showing love. 

There’s a book about the ‘5 Languages’ of Love, the first of which is ‘words of affirmation.’ But there’s probably 5 million different ways we demonstrate our love. All can be amazing. But writing a line or two about what you love about that person is going to result in a warm glow for your beloved. 

For advertisers, 14th February is all about expensive bouquets of flowers, chocolates & champagne. But it can be about pineapples & onions. 

Bear with me here… 

I remember a Grook poem from Danish mathematician & scientist Piet Hein, I read it on the bus to school one day & it’s tattooed in my memory. It’s short & sweet, like all the best poetry, as my non-poet friends say…

Love is like a pineapple

Sweet and undefinable.’

So you could write that on a card, and give your love a pineapple, saying ‘I pineapple you.’

A memorable Valentine, and you can serve fresh slices of pineapple, then compost the skin for zero waste.

Or how about gifting your beloved an onion?

Bear with me again…

There’s a poem called ‘Valentine’ by Carol Ann Duffy. It begins, ‘Not a red rose or satin heart. I give you an onion. It is the moon wrapped in brown paper…’ 

Search it online & quote her to your Loved one. Then chop & cook the onion later in the week. Romantic dinners often start by caramelising an onion…

The poem goes on to talk of ‘Its’ platinum loops that shrink to a wedding ring, if you like.’ An original way to propose!

If this year’s Valentine’s Day leads to a proposal, as a Celebrant, I’m always thrilled to listen to a real life love story. We could even use an onion or pineapple in your ceremony, perhaps to hold the ring?!

My Aunty Doreen got married on Valentine’s Day. Her prudent husband thought it a good way to remember the date for anniversaries & save on extra cards or flowers each year!

A heartfelt post-it note & breakfast in bed can work wonders, so no need to splash the cash. Or a bar of Montezuma’s dark chocolate with orange & geranium, sublime flavours & £2.50 from our local shop. That’s my traditional Valentine treat. Hopefully my hairy viking partner has already got one stashed away ready. 

That’s another thing – don’t expect your partner to be a mind reader. They’ve probably got a lot on their plate already & it’s not been the easiest couple of years lately. So a huge act of love is not putting pressure on the one you love to plan epic or expensive surprises, lovely though they might be. Instead you could just talk about Valentines or any other time of the year & what you’d both like to do.

Happy Valentine’s, however you’re celebrating it this year. In a relationship or happily single, I hope you feel a glow of all the love you’ve had from family, partners & friends through the years. Tuck it close to your heart, and in remembering the details, it might sneak a smile from the inside out. 

And perhaps treat yourself to a delicious pineapple.

p.s. A real life love poem is below, commissioned by Julie Boden for ‘Love in Leamington’. It mentions all true life details, from thread veins to the Giraffe heart thing. Music by the outstanding Steve Tromans. Excuse me waddling like a duck, buying a red dress on a whim just before the gig wasn’t my smartest idea, given that I don’t usually wear dresses. You see, be yourself – I should have known!

The first snowdrop. Or is it bird poo?

January can be a bit bleak. Dark, cold & goes on for 100 days. 

So when you catch a glimpse of ‘the first snowdrop’ in the garden, your soul might do a little happy dance as you trust that Spring will return again. 

But then you look again, with your varifocal glasses on and it’s not the first snowdrop after all. 

It’s a blob of white bird poo, nestling on the end of the snowdrop stem that is happily growing just by the gate. 

The bulbs planted there so you can notice the first signs of this wonder of nature.

The wonder being the snowdrop bud, not the bird’s little gift!

Is this a sign of something deep & spiritual? Or just one of nature’s little ironies that can make you despair or laugh out loud. 

It depends.

You see, we feed the birds. A lot. And friends & family buy us extra bird feeders as gifts.

So this January the ‘all you can eat buffet’ for our feathered friends expanded with even more cleverly designed hanging containers that swing near the bird table. 

Not forgetting the bird bath, which has an old ridged frying pan wedged across it. 

Sounds strange, but the teeny tiny birds enjoy the shallow puddles & lines of nibbles it offers them. We think of it as the ‘junior pool’ but don’t ask if they’re wearing verruca socks, as we had to for school swimming lessons!

No bird feeder has yet designed a way to swerve the Jackson Pollock style splashes that decorate the garden wherever the birds are.

So if you’re going to feed the birds, what goes in one end has to come out of the other. Pardon me if you’re eating your breakfast right now… but it’s just nature.

It was funny, realising I’d seen what I long for in January, a sign of Spring. I was willing the sunshine to return & buds to blossom, and trying to fast forward nature.

So that’s what nature does, it reminds you who is boss. Sometimes it’s not a flower, it’s a blob of bird poo.

But it’s also a sign of love. If we choose to look for it.

The love of friends & family who buy us the new bird feeders.

My partner’s love of feeding the birds that nudges him to buy regular supplies of all their favourite selections.

My love for how patiently he cleans & fills up their feeders, and scrubs the swing clear of unfortunate splashes, before we sit on it.

Our love of watching the birds, a habit cherished more since the Pandemic changes. Thuggish robins facing off mischievous blue tits & the occasional excitement of a goldfinch or goldcrest. 

Or the thrill of spotting a woodpecker that looks like he’s wearing red pants on a black & white feathered frame. 

Maybe that’s the solution, bird pants? From the same shop as the bird verruca socks!

My habit of getting things wrong is funny. As we get older it’s good to be able to laugh at our own foolishness & rubbish eyesight. 

And yesterday as I walked past the pot & glanced down at the snowdrop bulbs, guess what? 

Yes, another white blob.

This time, it really was our first snowdrop flower of 2022.

So next time you see something that isn’t quite what you’re hoping for, can you find a way to see Love in it? Even the process of trying that might make you giggle.

But also kept an eye out for any birds that might have just eaten too much from the buffet & are about to Jackson Pollock…

**If you’d like to know more or join one of the regular Mindfulness & Writing Zoom sessions I run, where we play with ideas like this, & chill out with relaxing & restoring meditations… message from the ‘Contact’ bit of this website. They are friendly groups where giggling & daydreaming are encouraged alongside the practically useful & more inspired stuff. No experience of Mindfulness or Writing are needed, and beginners & those more experienced are equally welcome. Happy snowdrop seeking meantime…

Photo with thanks to Yoksel at Unsplash.

Hot orange squash & enlightenment.

As a 15 yr old from Birmingham, the height of sophistication was drinking hot orange squash. Tesco’s own brand usually, but occasionally the luxury of Kia-Ora.

I wasn’t a proper grownup, so didn’t drink tea or coffee. We definitely hadn’t heard of herbal teas back then… the stuff of wizards & alchemy, if you’d even suggested it!

So when I stumbled on a Japanese Tea shop on a day trip to London it was mindblowingly exciting.

The black lacquered interior was beguiling… the aroma of the tea selection lent it the air of an apothecary from an ancient text.

I was so eager to buy something, but as I didn’t drink tea, and couldn’t spy a bottle of orange squash on a shelf, what to choose?

I circled the space, bewildered & trying to find something to spend my £2 an hour part time wages on. Finally I spotted it.

A high up shelf, so my 6 ft height, often the subject of name calling at school – lanky, lamp post, chopstick, giraffe… the usual, was useful.

Above the glass domes of straggly herbal teas & boxes of mysterious potions was a line of books.

Many were not in English, as I gently traced the unfamiliar characters that lined the spines. One stood out, with a bright red cover.

My favourite colour, maybe a sign?! I was clutching at straws here.

Before I shyly pulled the book out, I vowed that if it was in English, it would be mine.

Phew.

Result, I’d be taking a piece of this exotic emporium home. Devouring the words on the ‘London Liner’ within hours, on the cheapest coach service back then.

‘The Sun My Heart’ was this book, by Thich Nhat Hanh.

A friend, disguised as a book.

My copy is so well thumbed, read many times over the last 35 yrs.

Clutched on flights, when turbulence terrified me. Turned to when life was chaotic or seemed unfair. A source of solace in times of loss. Gentle poetic wisdom when inspiration was needed.

A deceptively simple message on every page that illuminated each day beyond the ordinary into something to treasure.

I’d been through the care system, rejected by 4 families before I was even a year old, but this book was somewhere I felt at home.

I stumbled upon my first introduction to the ideas & wisdom of Buddhism, all thanks to drinking hot orange squash rather than tea.

It’s a beautiful book that I’ve bought for friends over the years, and recommend to you if you’d like an introduction to Mindfulness practices. (You don’t need to have a Buddhist faith or belief to find many treasures in the pages, and it’s definitely not out to convert you.)

That sense of being present in this moment; enjoying a cup of tea & not getting lost in endless worries or struggles of the past or future is something we can all benefit from.

Especially after a time of global pandemic.

Thich Nhat Hanh was a phenomenal man. A peace activist who opposed the Vietnam war, he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Martin Luther King.

Exiled from his home in Vietnam for decades, he knew what it was like not to feel at home anywhere in the world, & had to create a new home.

He helped to set up the deliciously named Plum Village community in the South of France, which has become home & refuge for many. He’s often described as the Father of Mindfulness in the West, and even appeared with Oprah Winfrey on TV.

His teachings are of kindness & compassion but also actively helping each other through this lifetime & standing up to injustice. It’s impossible to sum up here just how significant his life has been for so many of us.

He died this week, at 95.

You can search online to find out more about his life, or just sit peacefully with a cup of tea right now & enjoy this moment. I think he’d like that. Always with a soft smile.

Or take a slow walk & gaze at the trees around you. ‘Kiss the earth with your feet’ he once wrote, about how to walk mindfully. ‘We walk for everyone, always hand in hand’ he said, appreciating each step.

I’ve always been clumsy, all uncoordinated long arms & legs, often stumbling or falling over. I once fell over a hoover, breaking it & the bin & my ribs… not recommended!

But as I get older, have learned a little about this walking thing. I even appreciate the trees that were invisible to me as an inner city girl, until I was at least 40. Now I LOVE trees & can tell you which ones in the local park still have a few leaves left on them. Even in January those determined yet crinkled dried brown leaves, clinging on no matter what…

‘Walk with me’ is a gently powerful film, narrated by Benedict Cumberbatch, that shows some the work of Thich Nhat Hanh. How this sense of living in the present moment is embodied by the monks & nuns who live in the community at Plum Village, and those who visit on retreat.

When I first began studying Mindfulness practices & went on retreats, I longed to visit Plum Village. To walk the ground he’d stepped upon, to sit meditation in the halls near to him, & feel the calming presence of those who follow the teachings.

As if being there would trigger some magic transformation, after which I’d be able to concentrate for hours in silent meditation & always be a perfectly patient human being…

As if!

And the complete opposite of the humble man himself, who had no intention of becoming a famous guru or rock star of the Mindfulness world.

I once read of a Meditation teacher who’d planned a visit to the delightfully named Plum Village, only to be furious that Thich Nhat Hanh himself wasn’t there, but was travelling.

The irony!

So however wonderful it might be at Plum Village, and lovely for those who do visit… it’s not a necessary part of a Mindfulness practice.

‘Start where you are’, as Pema Chodron wrote.

The simple wisdom & practices themselves are enough, and easily available. Like watering & weeding a garden, or nurturing those you are near to, wherever you are.

A beloved teacher, Thay, as he was affectionately known, will be much missed. I’m so grateful I stumbled upon his words, that have enlarged my understanding of the world and how to exist in it.

All thanks to the love of hot orange squash! You never know when some random detail will lead you to something big in your life.

Thich Nhat Hanh loved to drink tea, and distilled his core wisdom of paying attention to the present moment into the simplicity of ‘When you drink tea, drink the tea.’ Meaning to pay attention to the tea and enjoy it, and to pay attention to whoever you drink the tea with. Not your phone.

I wonder if he ever tried hot orange squash?! Or hot Ribena, if we’re being posh or you’re feeling poorly.

Thank you Thay, for so much. As you become the bud on the spring branch (as you wrote of becoming, beyond this life), I’ll put the kettle on.

**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!

Thanks to Laura Adai, at Unsplash.

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!