The wisdom of the Sat Nav…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Still water…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Raspberry Mindfulness…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Mindfulness stuff works, even with 5 hr train delays…..

Mindfulness. Easy if you’re sitting cross-legged on a beach, as the sun rises… but how about on a Friday night when a 50 minute train journey home from work spirals into 5 hrs of chaos?

After a hectic week, a curry, a film and the sofa beckon. Instead you get freezing cold platforms, inaudible and contradictory announcements, hours of delays, diversions and the frustration of not knowing when or how you’ll eventually get home.

After 2 hrs of waiting, finally sardined into a train. Not that it’s moving. People are complaining loudly on mobile phones, ‘Why are they doing this to me?’ It’s tempting to join in and wallow, getting more stressed and irate. But what if you can press pause instead?

I first stumbled upon Mindfulness in a book in a Japanese tea shop when I was just 15, and have been practising it since then. I say practising, because I’m not a saintly figure wafting barefoot through inner city chaos wearing silk robes. I have my moments. Plenty of them. But 30 something years later, mindfulness is still ridiculously useful at avoiding melt-downs at stuff you can’t change.

So, back to the train. I breathe slowly and deeply for a few minutes and resist fantasising about where I should be at this minute, or how this has ruined my Friday night. Instead focus in the moment, start where you are.  I’m warm, that’s a bonus. Trains are much cosier than January platforms. I have water and the Hoxton hipster next to me is reading Murikami, so we chat about his writing. A group of teenagers on the table opposite are flirting with each other. Yes they’re loud, but they’re giggling and sharing M & M’s. And did I mention the flirting? Daring and sparking off each other. I grin at one encouragingly and he smiles back, slightly shy and probably thinking I look like his mum.

Focusing attention on where we are helps ground us in the present. Engaging with it helps pause the endless stories of future, past, wrongs and ‘should’ and we can relax into the moment. This train journey is like life, we never know how long we’ve got, and we don’t always have control over it. But we can always choose to find ways to enjoy whatever is going on, when we notice that. My Nan had never heard of Buddhism, but she always taught me ‘Count your blessings’. And she made the best chips in the West Midlands.

How lucky are all of us on this train. To have homes we’re heading to. Loved ones we’re missing. To be used to such order in our worlds that these hours of travel chaos are unusual. To have the freedom of choice to be grumpy or cross about it, and the right to express it. Or we can choose acceptance of what is going on, right at this moment.  That line-side fires mean trains can’t run to normal timetables.  That it’s not the train companies deliberate attempt at ruining our nights.

Think of a fashionable ‘mindulness’ image, of someone calmly sitting cross legged, in what’s called Lotus position. The lotus flower is beautiful, but has roots in the mud. Where’s your mud right now? It could be an irritable boss, a poorly toddler, stroppy teenager, demanding elderly parent, or travel delays. It’s easy to react with impatience, we’re all human. But to think, press pause and respond with mindfulness can be calming and helpful to ourselves and the world around us.

My expert chip-frying Nan used to count to 10 to avoid shouting at my Grandad when he’d ‘borrowed’ her green dish sponge to make trees for his model railway. By the count of 9 they were usually giggling that if it rained, there’d be Fairy Liquid bubbles on the track.

On our train we were mostly kind to each other. Reassuring ourselves that it was ok, and we’d get home eventually. Five hours later than planned, including an hour stranded in a carpark in -3 C which really tested this whole mindfulness business;  we finally did get home. Appreciating it all the more. The curry tasted just as good the next night. And I washed the plates up with a green dish sponge that could one day be a tree.

 

 

14 L

14th January, and I realise I’ve not been searching for 14L.

Usually January would involve peering at labels – plastic, fabric and cardboard ones.  All elusive. Often hidden, or with print so tiny that I squint to decipher if they’re the holy grail of sale bargains:  the perfect black trousers. The kind that fit, flatter, are as comfy as pyjamas, and don’t require ironing. I’m allergic to ironing. Self diagnosed when 18 and realised that I’d done enough of it for a lifetime, but that’s another story.

I do love a bargain. Trained to seek them out by my one-handed Grandad in Bearwood Market. The broken biscuits & mis-shaped chocolates at Franks Sweets stall were our reward to tuck into on the bus home. They tasted even better than the perfect ones, because you got twice the amount!

I’ve finally learned the same logic doesn’t apply to trousers though. Buying 4 pairs that don’t quite fit isn’t such a bargain. And when you’re 6 ft tall, most trousers don’t fit.  It is tempting though, when they’re only £9 in the sale….. Let’s just say that my local charity shops have enjoyed my bargain mistakes over the years.  Fossils that marked my evolution. Many mistakes, many years.

Not any more though. This year I resisted the lure of January Sales, and didn’t miss the short lived adrenalin rush of the red ticketed trophies. Certainly didn’t miss the crowded aisles, fluorescent lights and grumpy partners and children arguing in the long queues for the till. Focusing instead on the hygge joys of curling up at home with him indoors. In size 14L pyjamas of course.