Mindfulness First Aid kit & plankton.

When it snows, the advice is to pack the car with a warm coat, snow shovel, flask of tea & a giant bar of chocolate. Or more sensible emergency food supplies…

Well, here’s 3 things for a Mindfulness First Aid Kit to help cope with January, as we approach ‘Blue Monday’. (Not the amazing New Order song, but that third Monday in January when we’re months away from a Bank Holiday, it’s cold & dark… actually I’ll stop listing & get onto what might help with it!)

You know how sometimes on your phone screen, something is so tiny that you have to zoom in to enlarge it & see it more clearly? Well, with January, try the opposite. It can help to zoom out & get a bigger screen perspective, blurring the tiny annoying details.

The words of Pema Chodron, an American Tibetan Buddhist nun are worth sticking on a post-it note at any time of the year, but especially in January. Perfect for us Brits, who love to focus on the weather.

‘You are the sky. Everything else – it’s just the weather.’

Brilliantly simple & absolutely accurate. Life will continue to move, like clouds rolling across the sky. That sense of you remaining larger than any current dramas in your life and holding the space to contain it all.

The good stuff and the less welcome events in our life. Change is the only certainty. Impermanence. Like the weather.

In Australia or Vietnam it’s currently much hotter than in the U.K. The seasons are different. Wherever you live, the weather can show off the full range of sunshine, rain, gale force winds etc. in a single day.

Usually that day you’re working outdoors or at a festival, with a soggy new hairstyle & inside out umbrella.

You get the idea… So it’s knowing that January lasts for 31 days, not 31 years, and the seasons will evolve into warmer days when the garden will have paintbox colour splashes to cheer it up again.

But let’s go further with this. I invite you to write your own version of the words. So if you love swimming in the sea, ‘You are the ocean. Everything else, it’s just plankton.’

Or if you love knitting, ‘You are the needles, everything else is just balls of wool.’ or ‘You are the hotel buffet breakfast, everything else is just bread rolls…’

Then when things pop up this month that you don’t like, you can think of them as plankton, balls of wool or bread rolls. Useful to think of your boss as a bread roll…

On to part 2 of the First Aid kit.

Maybe as a child you were forced to spend the days after Christmas writing Thank you letters to people for gifts you may have received.

As a 5 yr old, trying to find enthusiasm for Lily of the Valley bath cubes was an interesting challenge…

But gratitude freely given is a different matter. It can help to nudge our brains away from the negative bias of January. The National Science Foundation estimates we can have up to 50, 000 negative thoughts a day. Perhaps more in January…

So start small. 3 things to appreciate today. If you’re somewhere with a boiler that works and hot water, start there. I type this having not had hot water for several days now… it’s minus 1 celsius and still frosty at 3 pm, but at least I have water!

Gratitude that your child ate a vegetable, for a change. Thankful that the dog’s tummy troubles have eased & you still have a carpet.

Appreciating your neighbours who cooked curries for you & the family when Covid hit & you couldn’t get out to the shops.

Seeing a cheerful little robin on the gatepost, posing for next year’s Christmas cards already!

This also helps with the bigger scary things in life. In a noisy MRI machine, alert with the pure terror of serious illness where each test reminds us of our potential impermanence. I found it does help to be thankful we live in a world where scientists create these machines.

To appreciate the overworked & patient staff who guide us through the system. The porter with their gentle jokes that keep us distracted. I’m sure they design the backless gowns specifically to avoid us running away in these situations…

You can write these down in a ‘Gratitude Journal’, or just notice them & appreciate them. It’s good to have a regular time to develop this practice, i.e. when brushing your teeth, or in the shower, or when your head finally nestles in the pillow at night.

With a silent ‘Thank you’, if you’ve got a comfy pillow & a clean pillowcase to rest your head. And the luxury of a bed. Maybe even with a loved one curled up next to you. That’s 3 or 4 right there.

If you want to aim for more than 3 Gratitudes, just keep going. A friend aims for 100 a night. It’s a truly advanced practice to appreciate the snores of your beloved partner or cat.

Which brings us on to part 3 of our Mindfulness First Aid Kit.

Something you do without thinking 20, 000 times a day. Although often we don’t do it that well. Shallow even.

Yes, breathing. A simple core practice of Mindfulness, but one that really helps. If you’ve ever found yourself overwhelmed, stressed or furious, and tried to calm yourself down… it’s not easy.

Often it’s easier to calm your breathing first, then that gives you a bit of ‘wiggle room’ to focus on calming down the other primal emotions, once you’ve caught your breath.

Athletes know the power of breath, and using it for maximum performance.

But we’re more interested in using it to calm and ground us in this moment. Not panicking about the hundreds of possible future things that terrify us. Or dwelling on messy situations from the past.

I could list all the evidence of how deep nourishing breaths can begin to regulate our blood pressure, boost our immune system, or help switch off the Adrenalin rush of the ‘Fight or Flight’ emergency system of our bodies. That urge to out run the woolly mammoth that might have been lurking outside the cave..

It’s ok, I’ve checked, no woolly mammoths at this moment.

So just giving our brain a little ‘popcorn snack’ of paying attention to the air entering through the nostrils of the next inhalation, following it as it goes into the lungs and fills the belly, before the ‘letting go’ of the exhalation as the air flows out again… can help distract our brain from the endless cycle of worries and thoughts, like a washing machine full of scrambled eggs. Or maybe that’s just my brain…

As little as 3 long, deep breaths, where we pay attention to gently calming & deepening our breathing can help kick in the parasympathetic nervous system. 3 minutes of this, perhaps counting your breaths can help enhance all these good benefits to our bodies in a mini ‘Mindfulness First Aid’ kit way.

And actually I think you’ll know from experience, it just feels calmer and much nicer to be settled quietly for a moment in this state. Take your cue from a purring cat, positioning themselves on a comfy cushion, near a radiator and just squinting into the winter sunshine.

Or that moment when a baby has been screaming & crying, but finally settles down. Snuggled in your arms, their breathing starts to calm and slow down until the exhale becomes a soft snore and you both rest in that blissful moment.

Rest.

Another good added extra for the First Aid kit, resting in the moment with that Pema Chodron quote. Imagining plankton or bread rolls for the minor irritations. And maybe put the kettle on as well.

Cups of tea or coffee are a natural way of giving you a few moments to gaze at the sky, be thankful that the milk is still fresh and just rest in the moment with some good deep nourishing breaths.

And if you’ve still got that chocolate in the car from the snow, well… I’ll leave that up to you.

**If you’d like to know more or join one of the monthly ‘Mindfulness, Writing & Journalling’ sessions I run on Zoom, drop me a line from the ‘Contact Charlie’ bit of this website. They’re a welcoming & accessible place where we look at some big ideas with small scribbles & creativity, learn new techniques & Mindfulness practices that work in the real world. And where daydreaming & giggling are encouraged… it’s never about perfection or being po faced!

Photo thanks to Unsplash, Kowit Phothisan.

How to do New Year: one carrot & cutlery drawer at a time…

As it’s already January, Happy New Year greetings to you! A time of optimism as we look ahead, and ‘dwell in possibility’, as the poet Emily Dickinson wrote.

But don’t expect too much from yourself, be gentle.

Baby steps.

When a ship wants to change course, the rudders shift by small amounts, but gradually the ship turns and heads in the right direction.

So if you plan to get healthier, don’t try running 10K on 1st January & existing on kale smoothies… Just try scrubbing a carrot & crunching on it while you make dinner. Or throwing a handful of frozen peas into a pasta sauce to add an extra portion of veg towards your 5 a day.

If you plan to declutter the whole house & live a stylish minimalist life worthy of Instagram, just start with the cutlery drawer. It’s a 10 minute job that gives you a tiny win straight away & a natural hit of dopamine to mark the achievement.

Just don’t get rid of the hamster or the children, no matter how messy they might be today…

It’s tempting to imagine January 1st on the calendar signals a whole new You. Been there & done that. It didn’t work.

How could it? January can be a bleak, cold & dark month… especially if you’ve given up chocolate.

Again.

I’ve lost count of the years that 31st December would be spent polishing off every Quality Street, Roses & After Eight in the house… swearing that the following year would be one free from chocolate.

Then Cadburys would bring out the first Creme Eggs in early January, and it would be rude not to!

Growing up in Birmingham, with family & friends working in Cadburys chocolate factory, & having a name like Charlie, associated with a proverbial Chocolate Factory…

So from my 40’s onwards, I’ve figured out that this is never going to work. Instead I aim for the slightly healthier option of darker chocolate.

Baby steps.

Initially it was 70%. But then I worked my way up to 85%. And occasionally the hardcore option of 100% cocoa. But work your way up gradually to that, it’s not for the faint hearted.

Lots of small decisions are yours to make over coming days, weeks, and months of 2022.

So start small, but be consistent. Be realistic. And before you judge yourself harshly as needing major improvement, first try a little Gratitude.

Sprinkle that on with the goji berry/linseed sprinkles on top of your Acai bowl, or whatever the trendspotters predict we’ll be noshing this year.

Appreciate that you’ve made it through whatever 2020 & 2021 hurled your way. And let’s be honest, they were not the easiest of years for any of us.

So whatever you’ve personally been dealing with, and might be utterly exhausted by, you made it through. So reward yourself with a New Year’s Honours list title of your own. I’m sure the Queen won’t mind.

What will you name it? The, ‘I home schooled my kids while juggling work Teams meetings, delivering shopping for vulnerable neighbours & not throwing a tantrum when the petrol stations had a petrol crisis that wasn’t really a petrol crisis, but the pumps were empty?!’

Actually you could try doing less.

In fact, try doing nothing.

How radical would that be?

Just for a few minutes a day. No laptop or phone screen, just set a kitchen timer if you want to mark the 5 minutes.

And maybe carve out a few minutes of chill-out time every day just for yourself. No expectations of achieving anything.

Not doing anything.

Just being.

It doesn’t matter if you call this Meditation, or daydreaming, or just sitting.

In fact, if you’ve got a chair or sofa to curl up on for these sacred 5 minutes of peace, with a view of a tree – you can call it Tree time.

Or Cat time, if you’ve got a cat who would love to be adored for 5 minutes of your undivided attention. Just relaxing and giving yourself a break will help.

You can try focusing on your breathing. Nothing fancy, just noticing the air as it goes in through your nostrils, then down into your lungs, and finally filling your belly.

Let it rise, without judgement of the size or shape of your belly.

Be like a toddler who feels pure joy and wonder at their curving tummy, do not use tabloid journalist body shaming.

Allowing your belly to softly fill with air helps you to deepen and gently slow down each breath, making it more relaxing & nourishing.

This gentle attention on your breath helps give your brain a little ‘popcorn’ to snack on. This is less stressful than you trying to completely empty your mind & clear out your busy brain.

But it subtly takes your attention away from the 1001 worries that can swirl around your head like scrambled eggs in a washing machine.

Just giving you a few minutes breathing space can help calm your system down. This can boost your immune system, slightly lower your blood pressure a little and help to sooth the primitive part of the brain that may have been on constant Fight or Flight response mode in recent years.

Think of it as smoothing over a design flaw from centuries ago, as you help yourself trust that no woolly mammoth is about to chase you. Back then we didn’t have phone screens & 24 hour news channels that constantly flashed up woolly mammoth equivalents…

So that’s a good way to begin your New Year’s resolutions, by doing 5 minutes less every single day of 2022.

You may come to relish these few minutes as total bliss. Looking forward to a chance to de-stress and chill-out in peace no matter how demanding the rest of the day is.

Oh, and don’t forget the carrot.

Or the cutlery drawer. But only if you want to… baby steps.

**Would you like to try a monthly Mindfulness & Journalling session on Zoom? In small friendly groups where beginners are welcome alongside more experienced writers.

Where we practice new techniques that work on your Superpower of Mindfulness, in a relaxed & creative way. Where giggling & daydreaming are encouraged alongside fresh inspiration. Where you’re always welcome to share the things we think & write, but there’s never any pressure to do so.

If so, drop me a line & you’re welcome as a guest on the 2nd Sunday morning, or 2nd Monday evening of each month. Next sessions are 9th Jan at 10.30am, and 10th Jan at 7pm. All you need is pen & paper, and maybe a cuppa. Oh, and chocolate if you like… the higher cocoa content the better!

Photo thanks to Green Chameleon at Unsplash.

Solstice, the gradual return of the light. And chips for breakfast!

Photo from Unsplash, thanks to Niklas Hamann

Wiser women than me state that around 3.59pm today (UK time) is a good time to focus on the Solstice.

To let go of the difficult stuff from this year, taking note of what we’ve learned from it, & appreciate our resilience. Then to focus our intention & attention on the coming year ahead. What matters most for us, the people & endeavours that are worth our precious time & energy.

Change & impermanence are the only certainty; something most of us truly understand as we age. But throw in a global pandemic and even toddlers are fully aware that everything can and will change in a heartbeat.

The world weary 3 yr old daughter of a friend of mine now suggests or blames ‘the Rona virus’ as a potential reason why she can’t have or do whatever she pleases. Why can’t I have chips for breakfast or a unicorn for Christmas? With a theatrical sigh, ‘Oh, is it the Rona again? It’s not fair!’

It’s something that has hurled a spanner into the works of many of our plans & assumptions over the last 2 years. From work, school, family gatherings, holidays and more, so is it foolish or naive to even think about how we want the next year to be?

I’m world weary enough, like the 3 year old, to know that it’s not as simple as wishing or imagining something we want, and in some magical way, it will appear or manifest. Otherwise Jason Momoa, aka Aquaman would be helping with the washing up as I type this.

But aside from all the stuff in the universe we can’t change, and have no influence over… there is the small matter of ourselves. We do have some sway here.

Some.

So we begin here. In whatever small way we can. In some December Mindfulness sessions we looked at the idea of ‘Worth’, the title of the Michael Keaton film about how insurance companies assessed the worth of a life of those lost in 9/11.

But more broadly, considering what you consider ‘worthwhile’ for your time, and what really matters to you. How we spend our days is how we spend our lives, as the saying goes. In 2021, when you look back at the year, as we tend to do in December, what was really worthwhile for you?

Maybe it was the tiny things, keeping a potted plant alive, reading more books, getting to know neighbours or distant family better, baking your first loaf of bread, or growing your first tomatoes.

Or the sustained efforts, like daily 10,000 steps, whatever the weather, volunteering for a local community group, or learning a new language online, even though travel abroad was tricky this year?

Or the bigger things like navigating a divorce, a job loss, serious illness or the death of a loved one. The things that forever alter the fabric of our day to day existence and may have found you sobbing on the bathroom floor at 4 am, wondering how to go on.

Sometimes the notion of getting through the next 24 hrs is overwhelming, so just figuring out how to get through the next hour or minute can be enough. When things are this tough it might seem too much to contemplate what matters to you for a whole year.

But sitting for a few moments, with a cup of tea, reflecting on what your values are, what really matters when things get this challenging can give you an anchor. Or a vague sense of where North is on your own personal compass.

Love & kindness are pretty central to mine. No matter how many bad things happen, and these last years have seen the loss of work & money, the ill health & depression of loved ones and the death of a beloved friend. Love & kindness remain my home base. Almost an act of rebellion!

These things that nearly break us can also break us open with a tender vulnerability that helps us connect with others who are struggling.

I’m nowhere near perfect, like most of us, just a foolish imperfect being who is trying my best. With a lens of love or kindness, I can see what everyone else is trying to do, and know that we’re all just stumbling along, hopefully walking each other home, as they say. With cake and tea-breaks sometimes.

So whilst we can’t yet know the details of 2022, we can start from the tiny centre of ourselves and where we’re going to focus our time and energies. What really matters to us, and to let go of the other stuff as much as possible.

Solstice seems like a good chance to sketch out this line in the sand, and remember the gradual return of the light bringing a little hope even on the darkest days.

Who knows, although we might not get a unicorn for Christmas… we can choose to have chips for Breakfast. Solstice chips… maybe with a fried egg to symbolise the golden sun & the gradual return of the light!

Photo Unsplash, thanks to Scott Eckersley.

Autumn Wisdom from Children’s TV

Do you remember Bod?

When there weren’t endless channels of choice, we had just one programme at lunchtime each day for us kids. Well, that’s how I remember it.

Bagpuss & Pipkins were good, but my favourite was Bod. A triangle shaped person with their own theme tune. In fact every character had their own theme tune. Perhaps you can choose your own theme tune for today?

Anyway, Bod had mellow adventures, and once there was a snippet about trees losing their leaves as the seasons changed. (We didn’t have Mutant Ninja Turtles back then, or Zombie pizza games… )

I remember Aunt Flo was sad about the trees losing their leaves, but Bod offered an alternative way of looking at it. Without the trees losing their leaves, they wouldn’t be able to grow cherry blossom next Spring, or the Cherries in the summer after that.

The nature of ‘impermanence’, and how things are always changing was a simple yet profound insight for someone like me, who’d had something of a chaotic start to life, with 5 different families and homes in my first year alone. Perhaps a first glimpse of the Mindfulness traditions that would continue to be a foundation of my life.

As a grown up, I notice on a sunny Autumn day how you can see more of the blue sky with fewer leaves on the trees. Nearer winter, you can even see the birds more clearly on sparse branches. I practice this stubborn optimism to nudge out the winter blues!

It’s all about where you focus your attention.

I later discovered the creators of Bod, Joanne and Michael Cole had Taoist beliefs. Bod has a slight look of a monk, now I think about it. Serene face, bald head & a stubborn optimism.

As a kid growing up in Birmingham in the 70’s I’d not heard of Taoists or Buddhists, but this stuff made sense to me. Perhaps I was a ‘Bod-ist’ long before I set foot in a Buddhist temple years later. (Excuse the pun!)

Finding the wisdom in the everyday is where the gold in life is. It could be from Kids’ TV, a line in a favourite song or film, something your 6 year old says when the cat gets sick, or watching the dog relish every sniff on a morning walk, discovering the same park anew; all things can remind us of these simple but profound truths in life.

Seemingly endless huge changes in all of our lives over the last 18 months for sure, but hopefully if we look up, still some glimpses of blue skies to tide us through the colder months ahead.

Having changed the clocks last night, tonight’s earlier darkness will be noticeable. But we can keep our focus on the light, whether it’s candle lit pumpkins for Halloween, or scouring Youtube for a clip of Bod, perhaps that Cherry Tree episode…

Photo thanks to Unsplash, as our pumpkin is already roasted & half eaten!

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.