Kissing, as a Mindfulness Practice?

Can you remember your first kiss?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Something we can never underestimate or forget.

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

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

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

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

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

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

When did you last…

Photo by Arno Smit on Unsplash

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

Firsts, Lasts & Mini Eggs. Not quite that Barry White song, although ‘My First, My Last, My Mini Eggs’ could be a karaoke classic this Easter…

As Winter gets ready to exit stage left, the last week of February brought a sneak preview of Spring. Sunshine. Warm enough to close the laptop & eat lunch in the garden while gazing at the first bees nuzzling the crocus flowers. Happily pegging washing on the line for the first time this year, as a ladybird landed, enchanted by my partner’s Star Wars socks. You’d love the films, I thought, while gently moving the tiny spotted one away from Chewbacca & onto the daffodils.

Bliss.

Rehearsing these Spring rituals of outdoor ‘firsts’ lifted the tail end of February. Particularly welcome, after a long winter lockdown that saw many of us weary and fed up. Longing to meet family & friends for lunch & hugs and all the many things we’ve missed for the last 12 months.

We can never be so sure of the ‘Lasts’ in life. Whether it’s smaller things like the last time we went to a cinema, gym, or hairdressers. Although a quick glance at my recent home haircut tells you it’s been far too long…

Or the bigger things, like the Last Time your youngest child wanted a bedtime story. Or the last time you held their bike seat until they could pedal off independently to freedom, leaving you trailing behind in the park. Or the Last Time you juggle ‘home schooling’ in lockdown. Something difficult & challenging now, but in years to come you might remember with fondness & even nostalgia.

Or the Last Time we got stuck in rush hour traffic heading to work, only to be made redundant. Or the Last Time we took our health for granted, before that hospital diagnosis that changed everything. Or the Last Time we saw a loved one. The minutiae of daily life that precede major life events acquire added significance.

First Times & Last Times, big & small mark all of our existence. As we’re nudging into Spring, ready to let go of Winter losses & restrictions, we try to focus on the optimism of the ‘First times’. Practising what Liz Gilbert describes as ‘stubborn gladness’; we can see clouds in the sky, but continue to tilt our heads towards glimpses of sunshine.

It doesn’t mean we’re ignoring the losses wrapped up in our ‘Last times’ list. By fully acknowledging the sadness of them, we eventually find an impetus to savour the details of these ‘ordinary’ moments that become extraordinary with hindsight.

David Kessler’s book about the 6th Stage of Grief notes how the vulnerabilities of loss can ultimately lead you to you find extra meaning in the everyday. Moving through intense pain & suffering heightens sensitivity, but can also attune you to appreciate the sweetness of a simple moment.

You may know this already. The loss of loved one highlights how precious other family & friends are, and you prioritise time to cherish them. Or a serious illness helps to shift priorities in your daily life. Following months in hospital, the gratitude of waking at home to greet another precious day, where just watching the cat yawn seems wonderful. Literally full of wonder, in our new state of gratitude.

All of us will have serious losses to deal with in our lives at some point, as well as the Pandemic experience, which has been likened to a form of bereavement. The loss of those everyday freedoms we took for granted, and to be with loved ones. As Winter fades away & we welcome Spring, let’s learn to trust in First Times again. Notice & appreciate them more than ever.

Celebrate with a toast to friendship & laughter when we return to a favourite cafe, or greet the Landlady with a bunch of tulips when back in the pub for a pint. Hold hands & hug for much longer than usual when we greet much loved family again. Savouring & supercharging all our senses. I’ll be overjoyed to feel the warmth from the oval Pyrex at the first roast dinner at the in-laws & hearing the mini avalanche crunch as the Vienetta is sliced will be glorious!

Let’s practice these rituals to relish the everyday throughout March. We’ve got a few more weeks at least, before we’re fully able to reconnect with loved ones or return to Hairdressers or cafes. But we can still notice & appreciate what each day brings us for now. That’s what Mindfulness helps with, staying in the moment and becoming aware of where we place our attention or focus. Like taking a Kodak Moment snapshot & tucking it close to your heart.

Rituals to relish the everyday, not always knowing when will be the First or Last Time, but appreciating this time. Now. Today. In this moment. This cup of tea. Or this bag of chocolate Mini Eggs. Don’t judge me, they were by the till when I did the shopping! The First bag of Mini Eggs this year has become something to celebrate & add to the list of Spring Rituals.

I think Einstein would’ve liked chocolate Mini Eggs. He once said ‘There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.’ Your choice, but I know which I prefer. The harshest losses may have dented my armour to teach me this, but I stumble forwards with stubborn gratitude.

Seeing the first bees and ladybirds & taking a moment to marvel at them. Which reminds me, I’d better get the washing in. A simple domestic task, but one I still relish after decades of living in flats, where washing dried indoors & underwear would stare at you from the radiator. Now I delight in the impromptu ballet of the duvet cover twirling in the breeze, or a tea towel tumbling into the birdbath.

So here’s to Spring. And us enjoying stretching our crumpled wings to gradually explore the world afresh. Like the ladybird & the Chewbacca socks. Perhaps I’ll show it the Star Wars films this year? That would be a First Time, for me and the Ladybird.

P.S. if you’d like to know more about this Mindfulness stuff, and join one of the regular sessions I run, just message me from the ‘Contact Charlie’ bit of www.charliejordan.co.uk There’s one coming up Sunday 7th March at 10.30am, or Monday 8th March at 7pm. You’ll have to bring your own chocolate eggs though, as they’re on Zoom…

Rummaging down the back of the sofa for Love…

Photo with thanks to Lesley Juarez at Unsplash.com

February brings shop windows full of scarlet hearts, chocolates & roses. But Love is so much more than Valentine’s Day, glorious though it can be. Enjoy celebrating love alone, with your partner or family, or with friends on Zoom. With Pizza & Prosecco, Pringles & pink champagne, or a pot of builders’ strong tea and a piece of fresh buttered toast. The home menu of your choice, or whatever is accessible in Lockdown. But Valentine’s is only a tiny part of it.

You’ve probably got hundreds or thousands of snippets & scraps of Love given and received; hidden away & forgotten about like loose change down the back of the sofa. If you can remember & locate them to stitch together like a patchwork quilt, it will warm & snuggle you for longer than the fleeting embrace of a lover.

This is true for even the most cynical among us. If you’re lucky, you grew up surrounded by love from your family of origin. It might have been a Parent, Sibling, Grandparent, Aunt or Uncle who first showed you complete acceptance and love in a way you hadn’t known before. Or was there a neighbour, a friend’s parent, a foster carer or someone at school or in a local sports or drama club who cared about you and showed you a safe, supportive kind of love?

Maybe at school or college, or the day you left, if that wasn’t the ‘best time of your life’, you finally found your ‘tribe’ and found your true home. Some ‘families’ we create from friends who also didn’t fit in at home or elsewhere. Looking out for each other in difficult situations and genuinely wanting the best for each other helps us to create bonds thicker than bloodlines.

Consider your ‘first love’ or ‘crush’ – perhaps a pop star who articulated that sense of alienation and feeling like an outcast. You may have felt a connection with their artwork, and the songs you ‘loved’ really spoke to you. Did you blue-tack their poster to your bedroom wall, so you could see their perfect face before sleep, to try and programme your dreams about them?!

Maybe a teenage romance that didn’t last. It wasn’t meant to. But for those weeks or months you felt utterly loved and adored in a way that melted through double maths lessons at school as you daydreamed, almost Shakespearean in your early swooning. Enjoy laughing as you cringe, if your tastes have changed!

Our adult relationships may have been complicated or messy and sometimes broken our hearts, but they still helped us to know and understand love. It takes courage to love and be loved by someone, and even if it ends, that doesn’t have to dissolve the love we shared. Like a week long holiday that ends with a weekend of rain; it doesn’t negate the weekdays of sunshine or our first flush of love.

Collect up all these snippets and fragments of love that still reside within you, and gather them together. Add in the love from and for your child or children, if you’re a parent. Or the children of those close to you, if you’re a Godparent or Aunty or Uncle. Love isn’t about ownership. If a little hand reaches for yours to hold on walks in the park, that love bridges the gap and might give their parent a chance to drink a coffee in peace.

And when someone else’s puppy in the park runs excitedly towards you, that moment is yours to collect. The pets you care for, or friends, neighbours, colleagues, and those in any local community you feel connected to. Many of those may be via Zoom or Social Media currently, but still provide powerful nourishing bonds of kindness. Include anyone you’ve ever loved, including those no longer with us, but whose kind words and affection you keep tucked deep within your heart.

Whilst ‘rummaging’ down the back of this metaphorical ‘sofa’ for forgotten bits of love, please don’t forget the places you inhabit. That Raymond Carver quote springs to mind, from Late Fragment. ‘And did you get what you wanted from this life….To call myself beloved, to feel myself beloved upon the earth.’

When you walk on the earth, as many of us have regularly during Lockdown, as it’s one of the few things we’re allowed to do, you can feel yourself ‘beloved’ on the earth. Noticing the sky, feeling the trees are standing there for you and the February Snowdrops are flowering just for you, to show you their love.

Enjoy this privilege of feeling loved by whatever place we call home, whether it’s a big noisy city with graffiti hearts on the pavement to appreciate, & pockets of green parks to perambulate, or a wild landscape deep in the countryside where badgers, owls and deer outnumber us.

Until travel is permitted again, we can scroll back through favourite past holiday locations remembering the pleasure and love we experienced there. Maybe that quiet little beach we walked miles to discover, skinny-dipping for the first time, or that scruffy little cafe with the warmest welcome and such sublime food… that is all ‘Love’ to stash away today.

Your bookshelves may hold more Love you can dust down into your treasure chest of Love, with favourite authors who feel as though they hug & comfort you as you read familiar words and stories. Or Netflix. Many us have felt the ‘Love’ of Bridgerton recently, or more precisely, enjoyed the Duke from Bridgerton!

Simple pleasures in life like really good coffee or tea, a boiled egg and planks of toast, or a Zoom pub quiz with friends all translate into love, so tip them into the Love pile as well. Anything at all that gives you that warm glow counts, so add it into your Love Stockpot and keep stirring. Maybe I’m getting carried away with the Love images here, but you know what I mean! Stockpots make use of lots of forgotten bits & pieces to make something delicious & nourishing.

Whether you’re currently happily single or in a long term loving relationship does not define how much love you can gather up from all your experiences. This February is the time to celebrate and cherish each moment and experience of love so far in your life.

And throughout 2021, to continue to look and find Love in unexpected places, just like rummaging down the back of the sofa. Worth a look there too, you never know… there might be a souvenir of love. Maybe an old cinema ticket, restaurant receipt or a Love Letter or Post it Note. If not, write one now, and tuck it away behind a sofa cushion for someone to find one day in the future… Signed with Love. xx

Photo with thanks to Guillaume Lorain at Unsplash.com

To New Beginnings…

Photo by Joe Caione on Unsplash

Dogs are very smart. And toddlers. You know how a puppy gets excited every time you take it for a walk in the local park? Sniffing all the different smells and racing towards other dogs to say hello. Or if you take your toddler to the playground, the thrill of the swing, or patiently clambering up the slide before ‘wheeeeeeeeeeee….’ and the split second slide back down again.

Beginner’s Mind.

That’s something toddlers and dogs are outstandingly good at. They do it naturally. It must be in their DNA to explore the world in awe and wonder, finding magic in the ordinary. As grown ups, we need a little nudge to remind us. To give it a try and see how it feels.

In Buddhism, the concept of Beginner’s mind brings a freshness to the everyday. Next time you take a walk the park, keep an open mind and notice the present moment as if for the first time. See the mischievous squirrels scampering high up the trees, the little dogs proudly wearing their Christmas gifted winter coats, or how the winter sun highlights rooftops as the chattering bird sounds draw your gaze to the sky.

Staying mindfully in the moment helps with this Beginner’s Mind, even in chilly January. New Years offer us a chance to let go of the old. And quite a lot to let go of, the baggage of 2020! So it might take a little time, some practice at letting go of it, and finding the optimism and hope to look afresh at each day as a new beginning.

‘Beginnings are often scary, endings are sad, but it’s the bit in the middle that counts, and if you give it a chance, hope floats’. So said a cheesy film years ago. A film I really enjoyed actually, with Sandra Bullock and Harry Connick Jr, called Hope Floats. I take my nuggets of popcorn wisdom wherever they nestle!

So however scary 2021 might be, whether it’s family stuff, work worries, health struggles, financial uncertainties, home schooling, and just how to keep facing each day with grace, optimism and equanimity. Maybe that notion of Beginner’s Mind can be helpful.

There’s an Osho Zen image of a wizened old man gazing in wonder at a grasshopper. Such wisdom in one picture. No matter how old or seemingly mature we may be, to never become jaded. To still gaze out at the world in amazement at the beauty of nature, the kindness of people and to actually notice the details of familiar things and see them anew.

If we share our lives with partners we’ve known for years, even decades, to be able to truly see them as they are now. Shaped and chiselled by all the experiences, good and bad, challenging and glorious, and to appreciate them. To love them right now in this moment, and know that surviving 2020 together has engraved details on us all that we may not see clearly just yet.

However scary this new year might be. Beginning a new business or studying for a new career. Moving house to a new part of the world. Bravely setting out to meet someone new and begin a relationship, or extend the family. Beginning with baby steps and finding support and encouragement from others.

Maybe getting a rescue dog, and with love and time, helping it forget any ill treatment it might have experienced before your family welcomed it. Like us, learning to forget and drop the hardships of last year. And at the same time the dog can train you in ‘Beginners Mind’ each time you get to the park.

Dogs are smart, not just puppies but old dogs too. Let’s go and sniff some trees, shall we?!

What to put in your ‘Festive First Aid’ Kit?

Not ideal news from the government the week before Christmas… your plans for festive celebrations may now be crumpled up and chucked in the recycling bin. Meeting up with loved ones may be postponed till next year, families and friends separated by the Tier system and even the turkey is now sulking in the freezer.

Scrolling the list of what we’re not allowed to do may prompt tears of frustration, anger and sadness. So what can we do? Tiny things might help. If you could pack two or three simple things into an impromptu ‘Festive First Aid kit’, what would you choose? Not including people – sorry, we know that’s been forbidden so much this year. But have a quick think and see what tops your list.

It could be ‘Netflix, Coffee & Doughnuts’, or ‘Cheese, Wine & a Karaoke machine’, or’ Pizza, a knitted Dalek and a Rubik’s cube’. (One of those answers is from the man I love!) Whatever gets you through these strange times, there’s no right or wrong answer. Books and chocolate are two things that make everything better. In my world anyway. There’s usually several of each on the go at any one time, and both have helped me survive the uncertainties of 2020. So far.

Hopefully over these festive days, you’ll be able to enjoy some contact with those you love. If a little differently this year. Maybe you’re meeting up in permitted bubbles, to enjoy food and muffled giggles in well ventilated rooms? Or a brisk walk in bracing December air and if you’ve got really long arms, maybe a socially distanced hug? Or this might be the year of virtual connection. Skyping with a mince pie & mulled wine, while your Santa jumper jingles, or a cosy phone call wearing pyjamas & chatting with family in different Tiers or Time zones?

Not how we’d choose it. And not easy for anyone. But ‘this is how it is for now’, as my friend Sue concludes, for this year. She’ll be on her own this Christmas, and has practical plans to navigate the big day. Hopefully a walk by the sea when others are having lunch, so it’ll be quieter and safer for someone who’s had to shield for much of this year already. A good book to read, a film on Netflix, and cooking something from the freezer for a late lunch. In between, Sue will be talking to friends and relatives spread around the globe, with gratitude to technology for the connection. She will muddle along through stoically. As many of us will aim to.

Because this is how it is, for now.

It might help to remember that simple phrase & repeat it to frustrated loved ones who are sad, angry and upset at the change of rules ushered in this weekend by the government. Not the first time they’ve done a U-turn, and we’ve all had to delete our plans this year. And for many it does feel heartbreaking. But even if it doesn’t feel like it, this will pass. Not just because of the vaccine, but because eventually everything does pass. From the serious stuff to the more ridiculous like 80’s haircuts; everything in nature will pass, including each of us one day.

We’re approaching the Solstice, and Winter echoes this, the season of letting go. Like the leaves effortlessly released from tree branches that turn to mulch and eventually return to the soil to help new things grow and flourish. So this year we’re having to practice letting go of the Christmas we usually have; we planned to have; we wanted to have. And hopefully some good things will grow and flourish next year.

Because this is how it is, for now.

In the meantime, we muddle through as best we can. For those who have lost loved ones this year or any year, Christmas is never easy. To deny the human instinct to hug each other, feels wrong as we seek to sooth each other in our grief . It’s easy to feel powerless and overwhelmed at the prospect of more uncertainty ahead for months or years of the unknown.

But for now, let’s just make a tiny plan. Not a Baldrick style ‘cunning plan’, just a simple plan. What small things in a ‘Festive First Aid kit’ might help you get through the surreal 2020 ‘festive days’ ahead? Whether you’ll be alone, or with family or housemates, trying to keep to the rules and create the best possible celebration for those close to you.

Make sure you’ve got access to a few simple treats that make your world just that tiny bit brighter. Something comforting to eat or drink, which can be as simple as your favourite teabags or crisps. Maybe stash away a few of the purple foiled chocolates from the big tub if the kids usually grab your favourites first. I won’t tell! And try to find something that occupies your mind or hands, like a book or jigsaw, maybe knitting, or your favourite funny TV show, and carve out some time to enjoy them.

If you’re able to, take a short walk and notice charcoal silhouetted tree branches, and robins permanently auditioning for a Christmas card photo shoot. Even if you’re not feeling full of festive joy, you might smile at how the neighbours’s children have drawn snow scenes on their front windows. It is just a short few days, and these little things might help get you through.

This is how it is, for now.

Books and chocolate are always my First Aid. A current favourite is ‘The Book of Joy’, by the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu. Both leaders have lived through decades of unimaginable horror for their countries, with so many people suffering. Yet these two wise friends can still find hope and joy in the world; and they make each other giggle like naughty schoolboys at times! It’s a delicious read, and highly recommended. I’ve sent a few copies as gifts this year and hope they help loved ones that are struggling.

Good luck with your Festive kit. I’ll find a zip bag, squish my books and chocolate inside and stash it away for my ‘Festive First Aid kit’. If the chocolate melts, I’m sure the Dalai Llama and Desmond Tutu won’t mind. It’s always Fair Trade chocolate, and would make them laugh with pure joy.

Shouting at plastic & the healing power of fried eggs…

Have you ever found yourself shouting at plastic objects? Or more precisely, shouting at a new printer you’re trying to assemble?

If so, you’ll understand why last Thursday saw me doing just that. I never shout at people, knowing that it rarely improves a situation, and usually leaves people feeling worse. But shouting is particularly ridiculous when the recipient is a collection of plastic printer parts. Despite being one of the calmest people I know, (thanks to practising mindfulness stuff for decades) I’m still a massively imperfect human being and not skilled at setting up technology.

Understatement.

After 3 hours it still stubbornly refused to print anything; instead swallowing pristine snowy sheets only to crumple and shred them like a Banksy at auction. Every possible light was flashing, to demonstrate how unhappy this machine was; affronted at the notion of printing a simple document on a single A4.

Brokering a peace treaty, where both sides agree to take a break, I escaped to the kitchen. The simple comforting pleasure of a golden sun in an opaque cloud gently sizzling in a pan, with a flatbread into the toaster. Add a squirt of tomato & chilli sauce, a freckle dusting of coarse black pepper and behold the magnificence of the ultimate healing concoction. A fried egg sandwich.

After devouring the messy remedy and washing up, things seemed a little better. I could laugh at how absurd this printer drama was. I wasn’t shouting at the printer, but myself, frustrated by my own technical ineptitude. Us humans are highly skilled at reminding ourselves of our many past failures, and projecting this into the future as proof that we’ve never been any good with certain things and never will be.

Not helpful though, to wallow like this. Letting go of the past stories of how rubbish I am with computers, just for a moment, enabled me to stay in the present and find some optimism. Instead of being frustrated, I could marvel at the technological advances of the world since my first printer encounter at work 30 years ago.

There was now something on the table that might… one day… allow me to print at home. And not just in black & white, but in colour. Imagine the photos and cards to send to family and friends, and the bespoke scripts for my work as a Celebrant. Weddings, Handfastings, Vow Renewals and Baby namings; Memorials and Funerals; services that sum up all encompassing loves and lifetimes. Things even more magnificent than the fried egg sandwich.

And it will print plans, ideas and running orders for Mindfulness sessions- the thought of which makes me giggle. The printer can be a wonderful teacher and reminder of all things Mindfulness related. How to accept the world calmly as it really is at any given moment, and make peace with it. Things aren’t always as we’d wish them to be, especially in 2020, but by staying present with reality in this moment, we can find our way forwards one tiny bit at a time. Or one flashing light at a time, as I approached the printer again.

With a few simple breathing techniques to remain calm, this time I work with the printer. Instead of shouting at it, I decide to ask it politely if we can work together and patiently resolve each problem in turn. Diagnosing each strange flashing light and attempting the individual solution in turn finally reaps rewards. Printer inks removed and reinserted. Paper tray removed and replaced. Several times. Switched on and off. Several times. Log-in reattempted and Set-up repeated. Several times. Finally the swirling lights that echo the Northern Lights in their awe and wonder, as the printer finally emits hopeful spluttering sounds. A single A4 splutters out of the printer, anointed by ink on both sides.

Hallelujah!

‘Thank you, and sorry for shouting earlier’, I whisper to the printer. Hoping this is the last time we’ll experience this hiccup in our long and happy relationship that lies ahead. If we do hit a bump in the road, I’ll remember to signal Time Out for a fried egg sandwich.

*If you don’t eat eggs, I can recommend scrambled tofu, with turmeric to keep that golden glow, and a splurge of chilli sauce of course.

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?

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…