Looking for Bright Spots

How taking more mindful walks can help

Enjoying a mindful walk in my neighbourhood, I often take a random picture of something I like: a flower or a tree in bloom, a kite caught in wires. Reflecting on my gallery from the Summer, I can see the optimism I have tried to find in my area.

Sure you will see more professional photographers, but I love to look for bright spots that catch my eye when I am out and about. This may just be the modern habit; I am guilty as the next of putting a photo of my coffee on the gram, and I do think we have an instinct to capture our lives more than I had growing up. It helps that there is practically no limit on how many photos I can take on my phone (you remember 36 photos on a film too, right?) So when I am out on my walks, I might take a picture of something I think is pretty just because.

My Instagram is MumWriteNow although don’t expect regular content, it’s more like a place to sporadically remember to post photos. I have started a series called #treesnearme It’s a feature of the fact in recent months I have been on short walks to the same places over and over, gradually building some stamina in my exercise without crashing from a long walk. Though I walk the same way regularly, having this vague project to notice the trees around me, whether their blossom or bark, it’s just being mindful to my surroundings.

I have set it as a goal to continue mindful walks throughout the Autumn so expect a lot more leaves and bark patterns from me in the next months. I have plans to learn more about foraging too so that next Spring I am ready to identify elderflower over cow parsley and other berries than blackberries. This ties in well with the research I have been doing around folklore and woodland life but it is also a simple and achievable way for me to take Artist’s dates.

If you haven’t come across this idea before, Julia Cameron in her book The Artist’s Way recommends that you take two hours out each week to explore, create and play. I have a list of great Artist’s dates you can do on the cheap and woodland walks have definitely become important to me in nurturing my inner artist.

I can’t say it’s a full digital detox but for me it is a good compromise to go for quiet and mindful walks, just occasionally getting my phone out to photograph something that has caught my eye. I am hoping as I gradually build up to longer walks, I can spot some more interesting finds. It is also one that I can do with my little man alongside me at times. Often, he finds a really good stick or brings home a pine cone. It is fascinating to me that part of what I am learning to do on my walk, – whether I take photos or sit up in a tree – is what comes so naturally to children. I really think that the creative mind is playful, looking at the world with fresh eyes. In taking these observant and mindful walks we can do more than appreciate nature, we can find that natural and playful side to ourselves. And if you want to build your creative practice, being more playful is a great place to start.

Autumnal Ambitions

Planning to be a bit more productive in my favourite season

As soon as I get a sense of the sharper cold of autumn in the air, I get excited. I have written before there is really no better season to get inspired. A time of finding inspiration in nature and curling up in warm socks to write. But this year, Autumn feels even more important. My life is shifting to our new patterns, my husband back to full time in the office and for me managing my condition knowing I have little help for childcare. I am seeking now to establish the baseline level of energy I have, in the hopes that soon I will not crash every weekend and feel able to socialise a bit again.

I am getting asked a lot how is my “long covid” but like many invisible conditions, it’s just there, in the background and for now part of my life. Usually when people ask you about illness they want you to say you are better but instead of saying “I’m getting there” with the usual passive politeness. I am respecting the condition and fatigue “I am learning to manage it.” I am more comfortable with this honest answer even if most people what want you to say is you are fine. Coming in the next few months I have some medical appointments which may help but in the meantime, Autumn will be the time for me to work out what works for me. I need to continue to listen to my body, but also listen to my mind which is calling out to be more creative.

For now it may be more quiet craft sessions though there are added issues I didn’t have to think about before: my markers now trigger asthma, planning out a card to make can be surprisingly fatiguing, I don’t want to add to my tidying up duties by making a mess. Being more aware of what is tiring is interesting. I know my Mum has said to me a number of times that it is very similar to ageing. Simple day-to-day tasks like taking a shower are just more noticably tiring than before. Equally you have to make plans to build in rests more often even if you do manage a busy day.

As I sit to my journal and make some Autumn goals I try and identify what exactly has held me back from writing. I then have tried to add in the element that might make the task easier in my current condition.

Plan a few research trips. It will need to be a Friday so have the weekend to recover. I love exploring the Newspaper Archives for the historical elements of my work in progress. At the British Library, there is free access and I just find being closeted amongst the books so inspiring. I know already that I probably have to build in a rest if not a sleep to travel into London so I may choose to make my next trip on a day my husband could help out.

Continue mindful walks These have helped so much whilst I recover. Getting out in nature continues to be good research particularly as I have gradually been teaching myself about the wildflowers and plants. Finding bright spots of nature nourish part of me that rejects my urban lifestyle and gives me much needed alone time.

Carry a notebook around I noticed that I have written less in notebooks in the recent years. I find that writing by hand really helps. In addition it means I can do just a little work, sketch out ideas and not feel like I have to sit and edit work in the same way because as I type up whatever I have written, I polish the words.

Re-read my work-in-progress It’s been so long since I have been working on my longest, unwieldiest project that I can use this as a chance to look at it all with fresh eyes.

It probably doesn’t sound like I am pushing myself much in the next few months. I haven’t set word counts or minutes per week. Instead I have defined the things that can help me gradually build up to doing more. Knowing that I adding a few things into my life in a realistic way is far more helpful as I recover. It feels like the right next step to get back to what I love.

How do you make progress when life gets in your way?

Life Post Covid

Six months on from getting infected, I pause to reflect on what life looks like now

As I wrote back in January, I was lucky to contract a mild case of covid. I still consider that I was lucky to have had a relatively easy time. I was at home and managed my symptoms with help of tablets and extra asthma inhalers. I even managed to work at first though I was mildly weary. It lasted about ten days and, for a few days after, I thought that was that.

But like many people who have had covid-19, I have ended up with a much longer, more complicated picture and at six months I can’t help but consider how it has completely changed my life. I have what is colloquially called Long Covid or Post-Covid Viral Fatigue. It has meant learning and managing fatigue far beyond the tiredness I have been experiencing before now. It has stopped me and forced me to do things differently in a number of ways.

Not everyday, but on a bad day I block out the world. I have had to strip back what I do, prioritising my activities and often managing to work for a few hours or maybe play for short bursts with my son. If I socialise I can be thrown off for days because I am getting post exertional malaise that knocks me off my feet, leaves me achy and able to do little. Never has the feeling of being hit by a bus felt so accurate.

I often spend hours on my bed although I now try and meditate not just nap. I have had to reduce exercise to the point of tracking that I don’t do too many steps, rather than counting them up, on my Fitbit. All of these changes are hard-won lessons I am still learning. Trying to find what I can and cannot handle has become my preoccupation. I am reading and watching a lot about the condition (and related advice for people with chronic fatigue syndrome) trying to get the game of pacing right.

I have had to tune into my body much more. Listening to a podcast or watching the tennis I may discover suddenly it’s far too intense. My tolerance for stress, even the pleasurable kind of tension we choose to put ourselves through for entertainment like a thriller, overwhelms me. Instead I look for things that are light, funny or soothing. And use the meditation practices that help me listen to my body more clearly.

Really doing these things has been a lesson in what I wasn’t doing for myself before. Like a lot people, my stress increased in pandemic times. I became more anxious and felt some of the losses of not seeing family, feeling isolated, very keenly. Now I am seeking help both medically and for my mental health. Actually I don’t really have a choice.

The whole world stopped for a while in 2020 and that was a lesson about how we cope with modern life. Everything too fast, too consumerist, not to mention too close, stopped and stripped back to what was essential. Well, it seems I still have to learn this lesson. My body has chosen to stop me in my tracks. I can’t be grateful for every difficult moment in the last six months, nor for all the sadness and loss in this pandemic, but I am starting to get very grateful for the chance to assess what is really important to me. To spend my energy where I can, doing what I most value. To reassess and prioritise.

And top of my list, for the first time in a long time, I am having to look after me.

Ways to Work With Pain

What if, even at our most difficult times, we could still make time to create?

I have been preoccupied with the bone-tired fatigue and various symptoms for months now but even as these lift, I can’t help think of the many times I have created when I am in some sort of less than perfect state. Creative living is less finding the perfect moment and more about working with what you have got. So what can you do if you are experiencing pain, physical or emotional?

Firstly, the Morning Pages method that Julia Cameron teaches us in The Artist’s Way has worked for me. Most days I get all those grievances down on the pages, this has been a massive part of my practice over the last few years. I recently watched a great video on resetting your goals half way through the year and Strussed’s advice was to always brain dump before you start on exercises. Journalling as an artist and particularly a writer can be a powerful place for ideas to pop-up.

Often old memories do surface as they would in any therapeutic practice. In week nine of The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron asks us to do some archeology to uncover old dreams and even old hurts. As an exercise, I would be cautious to follow this without a therapist if there are any childhood traumas that could resurface. But I do find these exercises and other journal prompts can spark ideas or surprise you with memories. I listed some of my favourite journalling ideas last week.

In my pages I was revisiting a memory just recently and realised how strong my emotions were still towards a more adventurous child. I watched as she fearlessly swung on a tyre off a rope swing. She may or may not have leapt over some water, the memory is fuzzy but my envy was clear. How odd to have held onto this after so many years. This innocuous tale had remained in my mind and wound itself in to my adventurous protagonist probably without me realising.

Childhood memories sometimes resurface in your writing

I found this quote from the French Artist Annette Messager who explains how we must uncover our emotions…

“Being an artist means forever healing your own wounds and at the same time endlessly exposing them”            

Annette Messager

She has worked around greatly traumatic themes of assault and violence.  I hope it is clear from my example that I am sharing something lighter to illustrate the point but clearly all pains and emotional experiences can’t help but influence our work.

So what I would say in some ways we have no choice but to uncover some of our experiences in order to be creative. In fact, we may find they come out anyway. In order to express our true selves, maybe we also need to be mindful of doing so safely.

Even using journalling practices, which we might use as therapy, you may wish to seek help from a professional. Or if not, give ourselves space and time to recover. Build in whatever practices work for you so that you can be safe. I have shared how I have learned to meditate over the last decade. But I would also add that working through these emotions, if done safely, can help us heal. I am not trained in psychology and, please do seek support of a licensed professional if practicing exploration of pain causes you difficulties.

The final way I think I work through emotions that surface, perhaps despite of the pain, is to play games with any idea from different angles. If we have a memory that is feeding our work, how can we change perspective. How did that girl feel when I cautioned her from swinging out over the water? Her perspective may have to see me as annoying or she may well just have been living in the moment, oblivious to others. And this is the fun isn’t it of being creative? We can work through any image and explore it with fresh eyes.

Meditation For Fidgets

It occurs to me it is a decade since I first took a mindfulness course. I still can’t sit still.

If you are like me and struggle to do nothing there are simple soothing activities I recommend and also ways to make yourself feel cosy. But alongside these suggestions I am, after all this time, still trying to meditate daily. It’s been a crucial practice this year as I cope with my ongoing illness but it’s often the main thing I will do to relieve stress. The problem is I have never been good at staying still.

Here are my to five ways to meditate for fidgets like me:

Guided Meditation

By now I know that lying or sitting waiting for bells to chime gets me making to do lists in my head. Instead, I will listed to Guided Meditations by Richard Latham, use Hay House podcast or Growing Mindfulness by Michelle DuVal. I know most of these recordings by heart now, but the opportunity to either follow instructions or even better go on an imaginative journey works best for me.

Lying Down

Though it makes me feel lazy to admit it, I don’t do well sitting for meditation. Even in a class when I did attend, I would sit on my knees rather than criss cross because, again, can’t sit still. I love this cartoon about all the thoughts that go through your head as you try and meditate. I get so preoccupied by my discomfort that I feel a failure at meditation. Of course, that’s part of the experience but honestly I wouldn’t have stuck at the practice so long if I was only allowed to sit.

This quote is on Jill Conyers website which explains mindfuless indepth

The Shakti Mat

For years I have lain down for meditation but this year I really upped the practice with a Shakti mat, ie an accupressure mat and pillow. I think this has really helped with my recovery in most recent months. The theory is that after about twenty minutes dopamine reacts to the mild pain of lying across the spiked mat. You lay with a thin layer of clothing on so it is only a very mild pain. I will often shift and move and having that discomfort makes you more mindful, rather than relaxing so much you fall asleep. I find often it helps with emotional release. It may not be what you are hoping if you want to meditate to relax, but often the reason we don’t like to stop is to avoid our emotions. Mindful meditation is a lot about being present and watch as emotions drift over us like clouds.

Lavendar Eye Pillow

I love lavender as it has some happy memories of my Grandma as well as always been considered a restorative. For someone so easily distracted, blocking out light with a lavender eye pillow really works. Often I will listen to meditation on my headphones, a hygge headband adding compression and the eye mask blocking the light. Sensory distractions reduced, I have just about a chance of staying mindful.

Mindful Walks

Another great way to meditate is to take mindful walks. Again there are guided meditations I use. But you can also take in you surroundings, observe the feeling of your feet hitting the ground and the sensations of the air, sounds around you. It is a good practice to concentrate on sounds because it is so interesting to find out that something irritates you. Some days you only hear noisy cranes and parakeets near by others, when you tune in to the birds, and hear a woodpecker. Again you can watch you emotions and sensations pass over you.

For me, meditation has been a lifeline. I am not sure that all teachers would say I am doing it in any orthodox way but by finding ways that work for me, I help myself be calmer even if I will never learn to sit still.