How to give your brain a break

Seeking soothing activities recently, I have found some things are much gentler on the brain than others

I was writing recently about how important audiobooks have been over the last year. It has been really important to give myself permission to ‘count’ these books as reading. It motivates me to have a reading goal but the realistic picture has been I can concentrate much less at the moment. Since getting ill in January, I have had post viral fatigue to manage. And this includes giving my brain a break.

In fact I haven’t had much choice about giving it a break as I often find apart from first thing in the morning, my brain is sluggish. Learning more about pacing to cope with fatigue, I am realising that this early morning burst of reading or writing is most likely impacting my ability to do more the rest of the day. Reading is an activity. Sounds such a simple thing to say but until you realise it has an impact on your cognitive functioning, you may not appreciate lying on your bed reading is doing something!

Another revelation that may be of no surprise to anyone else, you have to relearn how to rest. Again, at times, I have no choice but to rest. Lots of lying down at the moment! But we are so used to being busy, cramming in our friendships through social media, using any spare time to read or listen to podcasts to learn something. Stopping it all and prioritizing what you want to spend your energy on is a real skill.

Find What Soothes You

So, to give my brain a break, I am becoming very aware of what soothes me and also what takes too much brain power. Here are some ideas of my soothing swaps:

  1. Audiobooks: A lot of relistening. I have recently started the complete collection of Jeeves and Wooster read by Stephen Fry, not only do I know the stories, they are light fippery that I can enjoy without worrying too much about concentrating. Gentle humour keeps it light but means I am not bored.
  2. Classical music: there are a lot of soothing playlists readymade on Spotify and Classical Chillout has helped me relax. Sometimes even lyrics are too distracting. Short pieces of classical music often whisk you away somewhere.
  3. Short bursts of reading: where I can manage reading, I try to tead from my “comfort reading” list such as a Maisie Dobbs mystery which though often tender, have also a cosiness about them. It’s the perfect time to revisit old friends.
  4. Beautiful costume drama. I enjoyed the steamy romp of Bridgerton earlier this year, but honestly right now I am more in the mood for the gentler stuff. Rewatching, like relistening and rereading is very soothing because there are no suprises. You can’t beat the BBCs Pride and Prejudice or the Emma Thompson Sense and Sensibility.
  5. Doodling in a sketch book. I am even finding colouring in detailed patterns in a colouring book too much at times. I have been doing warm up drawing exercises in a sketch book, shading and drawing circles. Circles are actually a zen practice and I can see the appeal as you never truly know until you finish how well you have drawn it.

What I discover as I write a list of what helps me is that I am looking for comfort in familiarity. But also, that my brain is one that still has to be entertained. As I find this balance of what does and doesn’t work for me, I wonder if I will ever find I can just do nothing?

It may be time to revisit the Bored and Brilliant project again and consider Manoush Zomorodi advice that “Boredom makes people keen to engage in activities that they find more meaningful than those at hand.”

Do you ever just do nothing?

Rain or Shine?

Do you go out whatever the weather?

A little soggy from this morning’s walk around our local streets, I can see the sunshine has now come out too late for me. Mere minutes ago, rain was dripping off the fur on my warm but not completely effective hood on that blessed of all things, my big coat. I walk in and deposit various layers on the floor, including my sweater which is a bit damp too. My husband looks bemused at my wet hair which has clung to my face. My gear is definitely not quite up to the task.

I wish this was my view when I went for a walk

I got a lovely photo of my nephews on the wet and windy beach a few weeks before lockdown 2 started with the caption from my sister, “There’s no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothing.” It occurs to me that she is much more game than me, probably generally more adventurous, but she’s not wrong. And whether it’s the wrong clothing, or just general wimpiness, I don’t tend to go out in all weathers. I might write off a rainy door as one when we can’t get out.

And isn’t that the perfect metaphor for life at the moment? Learning to dance in the rain. Or at least trying to push ourselves to go out in it, even if we don’t feel much like dancing at the moment. I do love an extended metaphor (see my thoughts on swimming) but I will stop now and explain what I mean.

The last few weeks, months really, I have felt so stuck in the quagmire of anxieties about the pandemic, and changes that are happening in my life that I have hardly been creative at all. It is all-consuming to be caught in anxiety and even though I know there are things I can do to make it better, sometimes I am not doing them. So then I have to dig deep and go for a walk, meditate, try and get enough sleep. And even more, I need to direct my creativity somewhere.

Guilty confession time, though I have been carrying around my own personal rain cloud, I have found some time to be creative. Why guilt? I am shamelessly working on a new project, a few thousand words a week. I know the allure of newness is a problem. I know that I will probably end up with two large unfinished projects rather than one. But for now this my way of dealing with the weather.

Tripping up

Things go wrong in life sometimes just to remind you to find the humour

Today I walked in the woods. This is a common occurrence, the setting of my work-in-progress is wooded so I get to call it a research trip. Though I haven’t actually worked on it or made progress for quite sometime, getting out in nature was calling to me. So in the interest of research, -or just indulging my passion for the best season, Autumn– I have been out and about amongst the trees again.

I took a shot of a fairy door, the oaks twisted me around so I got a little lost and there were acorn galore to crunch on..so far, so perfect. And then, the puddles starting to seep through my trainers, I decided to make my way back another way. Winding through soggy earth to spot footholds I made it back to the main path. But my way was not clear, the path was flooded but I couldn’t face going back on myself. Instead I performed a spectacular leap across the path in a bid to jump over a pond-like puddle. Rather than fly effortlessly to the other side, I landed in it, cracking my knee and getting water all the way up my leg. All the way. I might as well walked back along the river.

The worst thing about falling over as an adult is you are not supposed to cry but laugh it off. Alone,there was noone to pull me up, noone to hear me gamely laugh along. Actually, that may be the best thing today. Looking around, I had got away with it. Not a soul to see my fall or more importantly how pathetic my leap had been. I managed an awkward limp along until I established my legs were working alright. I got back mainly unseen in very muddy clothes, stripped off at the door and found a dramatic scraped knee but little else to show.

But you have got to laugh. And I did at myself for being a clutz. And also because I think scraped knees are supposed to be something that happens to children and if I hadn’t been taking pleasure in nature for the sake of it, this wouldn’t have happened to me. I remember someone who read a scene about my main character said to me “I think she’s quite witty.” A compliment, for sure. But also because seeing adults doing childlike things there has to be some comedy there.

When I do something ridiculous (which happens more than it should) I think I can “use this” in my work. Not necessarily to write comedy, but because if life isn’t tripping your characters up then what are they even doing in the woods in the first place?

Taking some time

Take the time that you need, that’s what I am learning more each day

As part of my bid to have more compassion for my anxious brain I have taken some time off from work, including blogging. Sometimes it is joyous to feel part of the #WritingCommunity and sometimes it feels like a constant reminder that I am not doing enough. I wrote just before we went in lockdown as a country that I was taking simple steps to make life a bit easier. But I have also been doing what I can just to survive.

As this pandemic takes hold in parts of the world with far worse conditions than I live in, after the horrendous explosion at the Lebanese docks, as the economic impact starts to wreak havoc on many lives, I find increasingly connecting to the outside world is overwhelming. Yes to keeping abreast of the news, being a member of the community, a charity-giver, but no to the constant barrage of The News.

In reality this has mainly meant stepping away from Twitter. I took a break to censor Wiley after his heinous anti-semitism a few weeks ago and am now using it very little. Helped along by the fact we have come to a remote spot to enjoy a week’s peace and relaxation. I have never felt luckier to be able to do this. We always staycation (hate that term) and love a countryside holiday from our usually busy, urban lives. Last year I wrote just how much a change of scene can give you new ideas. But I think it also helps with a new perspective on what you need in life.

With this in mind I have a new practice to add to my list of Artist Dates (that I have described in previous posts) which I would recommend to chill out more.

Stone-stacking on the pebbled beach while I am on holiday whilst my son played with his trucks (and knocked over my towers) was both playful and mindful. To take time, flattening the space around, searching for nearby rocks that are smooth enough to stack absorbs your mind completely. Then placing each stone took time and care. A lesson then on taking the time you need to create something beautiful.

What quiet thing do you do to take time out?

On Photography

This week as part of my Bored and Brilliant project I tried to take few photos to mixed results

Last week I attempted with some success to reduce my phone addiction and become Brilliant and Bored using the advice from Manoush Zomodori’s book Bored and Brilliant:How Time Spent Doing Nothing Changes Everything. The challenges I faced this week were to not only put my phone to one side but also stop trying to capture every moment with photos.

You would have thought that having studied Susan Sontag’s On Photography, I would have found it easy to understand why taking fewer photos forms part of the Bored and Brilliant project. Photography is about trying to hold on to a particular moment, but Sontag argues at the same time not really live it. This ultimately chimes with the idea of our distracted lives which Zomodori is showing impacts on our creativity and concentration.

“Photographs are a way of imprisoning reality…One can’t possess reality, one can possess images–one can’t possess the present but one can possess the past.”

― Susan Sontag, On Photography

The fact that the image is captured on camera seems to play into Sontag’s claim that a photograph is “imprisoning reality.” Her book was a series of essays from the 1970s but her ideas have become more prescient in the way we live our lives now. Instagram (which I do use) and Snapchat and TikTok, (which I don’t) rely on us communicating via image more than anything.

I do have a MumWriteNow insta but I am not very good at keeping it up and I didn’t think I was too bad at taking photos, only sharing on there and my personal account from time-to-time. That was until the first day I tried to live, not just capture reality. My son had been grumpy all morning, it was hot, so I decided to set up some tubs and toys for water-play in the garden. Without thinking, I took out my phone to take a photo of him playing. Part of me knows I wanted to show off that I had engaged him outside (not on a screen!) but worse still, he has grown to expect photos and often wants my to take short videos.

This was a wake-up call that even I am not immune to needing to capture everything, whether or not I needed to share my Mum humble-brag with friends online, or just because I felt I needed to have a record of our lockdown life, it was still quite mindless. I started instead to try and watch him, asking him questions and he ended up making up a story. This may well have happened even if I took photos, but it was interesting to see the change. I wonder also if the play lasted longer as I was definitely more present.

clouds hang on a blue background
Be. Here. Now

I know of course I idly scroll through my feeds which includes photos of friends, but also people I don’t know like celebrities, housewives and book-lovers of course. Quite often I think of Instagram as a replacement for magazines, a way to keep up with style, gossip, for example. But in watching my stats and admitting my addiction was greater than I assumed, I put my phone away again and stayed away from social media too. It was only then that I felt I was being more mindful.

By the end of the day, perhaps in a stroke of brilliance, I was watching out of the window, knowing sunset must be soon. I had a book in my hand, not quite able to give up all my crutches as yet, and my son who was supposed to be in bed disturbed me. Irritably, I hurried him back to bed worried I would miss it like it was a TV show back in the old days. Then as I came back into my room, my heart-lifted in triumph, the curved cumulus clouds were surrounded by the deep orange-red of sunset. I had just made it back in time. I watched it until the sun went down, and felt lifted by it. I had actually experienced that moment, on that one day.

If only I could show you what simple beauty there was in the evening sky, but I didn’t get a photo, sorry.