Was it just me, or did you feel it too? That late September dip.
Last Monday we sat curled up on the swing, in the garden. Laptops protected from the sun, while we relished the Vitamin D gifts the sun anointed our skin with. Then by Wednesday, had to find raincoats, umbrellas and even boots. I’d forgotten what to put on feet to protect from the rain. Light airy trainers soon become soggy heavy lead weights.
We’ve been so lucky with the weather during this strange year, that normal Autumnal temperature dips felt cruel and unfair. ‘Not yet!’ We glared at the sky, and rummaged to find the heavier duvet again.
Lulled into the joys of dinners outside, and blue skies and sunshine from March; it seemed Summer this year would be endless. Would last till December. If only. Now it’s a little darker in the evenings. If working late, we need to put the light on, and even (whisper it) the heating.
Shops are full of Christmas displays, and we’re hearing yet more lockdown restrictions. Elderly relatives are already worrying about what will happen in December, and despairing of dark lonely months ahead.
It’s easy for any of us to sink down into this dismal swamp. Especially in 2020. Many of the usual traditions we punctuate our days and weeks with have already been erased. Big family Sunday lunches, drinks after work in a crowded bar, a surprise birthday celebration. I vaguely remember those. Do you?
Meeting friends at the cinema, or treating a loved one to a theatre show, to cheer them up. Squeezing in lunch with a colleague, chatting in the bustling queue and scoffing falafel. Visiting relatives and staying for the weekend…
I’ll stop listing, you know them only too well. But late September brings a particular veil of gloom once the weather turns chilly. The impending doom of icy dark mornings. Boilers going on the blink. And the sad sight of the garden beginning to shut down. Definitely mourning that…
I only discovered the joy of tending and nurturing plants in my 40’s. As a 20 something, I barely even noticed a tree. Time as a Radio 1 D.J. meant working in clubs or studios till dawn. If you’d told me that one day I’d be excited about our compost bin, or eagerly watching Monty Don’s ‘Jobs for the weekend’, I’d have thought that was as likely as throwing our fabric masks into the washing basket each day…
There is something sublime about sowing seeds. Watering and tending them patiently until one day you can harvest and feast on home grown produce. Or marvel at the flowers and the disco of bees waggling on them.
Gardens are not just for us humans; bees, birds, insects, hedgehogs and foxes, all are welcome to explore. Many of us have found solace outdoors this summer with our new eight legged ‘colleagues’.
It’s been an escape and haven from the news; and a great natural Mindfulness practice. We could write ‘Thank You’ letters to the gardens and window boxes of the world! So the thought of missing this hive of activity during long winter months can increase the impending doom. Especially this year.
So what can we do?
First press the ‘pause’ button. Before we get swept up in panicking about Christmas Day, and the cold, dark months ahead, and how nothing will ever be the same again. How we’ll never be able to see our family, how the kids will be stuck at University, or never be allowed back at school. How we might be queuing outside shops in the snow, and never find toilet roll on the shelves again.
I teach Mindfulness, and have lived with the practices for decades. It’s helped me survive all kinds of chaos and difficult times, yet even I got swept up in the September dip last week. The irony of it! But that’s o.k. I’m imperfectly human. In so many ways.
I’d got swamped in worry about older family and friends, and younger ones who’ve diligently shielded for health reasons this year and are facing more months alone. I was full of sadness for everyone I know who is already struggling, and feeling thwarted that it might be illegal again for me to visit them. Is kindness now breaking the law?
Those who adore huge family Christmas celebrations, and will miss all those festive traditions. Walking past theatres that are still closed, and empty shops and offices in my local city centre is a constant reminder of economic stresses. Endless worries about the future for all generations can consume you, as walk the streets or scroll the news on your phone screen.
Press ‘Pause’. Remember what helped to survive the chaos and dramas of life up till now. From a childhood as a young carer with adult responsibilities, up till this moment. Any of us who are alive and struggling with what is going on, have a 100% success rate of surviving whatever life has thrown at us so far.
We did this one tiny bit at a time. Mindfulness is something I stumbled on as a teenager, and have studied and practiced it for decades. Incorporating it with writing and creativity, I’ve been teaching it for years as well. But like the Satnav, I too can get lost. We all can, and this year has proved trickier than most. But can also be our greatest teacher.
Press ‘Pause’ and breathe.
It’s a good reminder of why just focusing on a few moments of calming breathing, and looking around at what’s actually happening in this moment can help. Today. ‘Right here, Right now’, to echo that Fatboy Slim song. If we can just find the resources within ourselves to deal with the present moment, that is all we need to do.
So press ‘pause’ on the ‘scrambled egg in a washing machine’ set of worries and thoughts that might be on a loop in your mind right now. You don’t have to deal with the next few weeks, months or years right now. So stop burdening yourself by trying. You might be juggling a lot this year, and caring for many. But it’s not your job to carry the whole universe, and you’re doing your best to keep going for today.
So just breathe for a few minutes. Maybe while looking out at the garden or a window box.
By resisting the pull of panicking thoughts about Winter, we can actually appreciate Autumn. It’s not yet snow and ice, and the trees are far from bare of leaves. So by wrapping up in warm clothes and taking a walk round the park, we can notice the colours of Autumn.
Recognise the beauty of scarlet, burnished gold and toffee coloured leaves. Enjoy the rustling sound of the leaves crunching as we walk. Focusing on these things helps us get out of our own heads and gives us a much needed break from the convoluted worry loop.
Science backs this up, telling us that trees give off Phytoncides. These chemicals are proven to boost our well being, improving mental health and immunity. Shinrin-yoku, or ‘Forest Bathing’ is the Japanese tradition of spending time in woodland and reaping the benefits.
The garden isn’t out of bounds yet. No bouncer on the garden gate saying, ‘Your name’s not on the list, you can’t come in.’ So planting a few bulbs now will mean flowers in the spring. It’s planting hope. If they’re snowdrops, you might even see their shy little heads bowing in January. The first flowers are always special and really do bring a renewed sense of optimism for the year ahead.
But now, just pause and find a way to rest in this moment. Maybe putting the kettle on, making a cup of tea and having 5 minutes to calmly drink it.
We deftly swerve the September dip by taking the coming weeks and months just one day at a time. Or when you feel really overwhelmed, just one hour at a time. There are many unknowns ahead, and we’ll deal with them best by keeping as calm and centred as we can now. By taking Autumn one leaf at a time, and knowing that sometimes the sunlight will catch a tree in such a beautiful way that we’ll understand why those poets often mused on it.
Eat the seasonal colours as well. Locally grown sweetcorn has that golden sunshine hue; delicious boiled for a few minutes, smothered in butter, sprinkled with salt and pepper. Or butternut squash makes soup the colour of a Space Hopper I bounced on in the 70’s. Spiced with ginger, cumin and chilli it is delicious and comforting. The soup, not the Space Hopper.
So here’s to relishing Autumn, not panicking about Winter. One day at a time. Would you like toast with your soup?