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

Lessons from the swing…

(photo thanks to Justin DoCanto at Unsplash)

This afternoon I had a long to-do list, on the last day of a hectic March. It was sunny outside. People say if you put your laptop in a cardboard box, you can still work in the sunlight, without it making the screen illegible.

But that hasn’t worked for me yet. Squinting through my varifocals, I still can’t see the screen clearly.

And did I mention it was sunny outside?

I’d already put the washing on the line, a simple Spring ritual I relish. Living in a flat for most of my life, with no garden, means I still love the novelty of a peg. Pegging clothes for sunlight & fresh breezes to dry is still a joy. Even when the entire wash seems to consist of 137 socks, I love to peg. One sock is always hiding, ofcourse…

After the washing, I should have been getting on with my to-do list. Emails to reply to, emails to write, emails to send, articles to write, sessions to plan etc. But it was sunny outside. And the forecast for tomorrow didn’t have big yellow cartoon sun symbols on it, so it probably won’t be sunny tomorrow.

So it would be rude not to go outside, wouldn’t it?

I wrote a funeral service last week, for my work as a Civil Celebrant, and wrote a line about how important it is sometimes in life to ‘turn our faces to the sun’. And right now, so many loved ones are struggling with all sorts of things, and life in 2021 is far from simple for any of us at the moment. We’re all just doing our best.

Sometimes we really do have to turn our faces to the sun. Not just metaphorically, although that is certainly true. When things get really difficult, stressful and broken, sometimes we have to remind ourselves to try and find that chink of light that Leonard Cohen wrote about. ‘There is a crack in everything… that’s where the light gets in.’

Over the last year of lockdown, many of us have had to repeatedly remind ourselves, or nudge ourselves to turn our faces to the sun, to try and find some light in the darkest of days, as that is the only way we can keep going. Finding our way out of the dark one tiny bit at a time.

And sometimes you just have to go and sit in the sunshine in the garden, on the swing and enjoy the sun. It can be rare in the UK, so if it’s at all possible, when we can, to go out and relish and appreciate it. Even just a half hour break, with a cup of tea.

Humans are a lot like plants… some sunshine, and water helps us grow in places where we’re welcomed. Just sitting in the garden, hearing the chattering of bird song, watching robins, blackbirds, sparrows and blue tits at the bird feeders and then splashing around in the bird bath.

Seeing the signs of new leaves growing on the lilac and blackberries, and last year’s chard getting a spurt of new growth. Gazing at the cuddly furry bees waggling around, and spotting butterflies just doing whatever they were doing fluttering round our little garden.

Bliss. Utter bliss.

I’m not so important that my to-do list couldn’t wait till tomorrow. Sometimes we just need to sit and do nothing at all, other than observe what is going on around us. Notice the world carrying on quite happily in spite of whatever dramas are currently consuming us.

Then I went for walk and called a friend who is still recovering from surgery. She sounded a lot brighter and much more herself than when we last spoke, and is able to go for short walks or hobbles. This is the good stuff. All part of that sunshine we turn our faces towards, with gratitude. Finding the cracks where the light gets in won’t always involve actual sunlight. Although on days like today it does.

I took a book outside, ‘The phonebox at the edge of the world’, which a friend had kindly sent as a gift. One of those exquisitely written books that you want to read just a few pages at at time and savour each phrase like a morsel of the finest chocolate truffle.

So after a few pages, I marked the page and tucked it in the shade under the swing and savoured the last few minutes of sun. I had to move the swing around a few times as the sun moved, or tucked behind buildings. This reminded me of that phrase ‘turn our faces to the sun’. Sometimes it takes a bit more work than that, like getting up and moving the swing, or chair.

Sometimes it takes walking to the local park, or driving to somewhere open, or flying off on holiday to be in the sun… maybe one day in the future we’ll be able to do that again. But for now, if you’re lucky enough to have a garden, or local park, and we’re lucky enough to get some sunshine through April… we can turn our faces to the sun and let it shine on us.

If you take your chocolate eggs with you, keep them in the shade, or you might need a teaspoon to enjoy your chocolate smoothie!

September dip.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what can we do?

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

Pause.

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

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

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

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

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

Press ‘Pause’ and breathe.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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