Christmas in the (Brain) Fog

I am looking forward to the Christmas holidays and working out how to see through the fog

I can feel the pressure of making Christmas magic rising as I write. As a parent, I have a strong desire to make the young ones’ Christmas a special, sparkly time but what do you do when your brain is not at it’s shiniest best. Last year we couldn’t even see our families, so now we hopefully can socialise there is an expectation that this will be the best year. But amongst all that pressure I am trying to manage the planning and preparation with brain fog and fatigue. Here is what I have worked out may work for us this year.

A foggy winter ahead, photo in the public domain

Reduce your workload: We have planned to go to my mother-in-law so I do know already that I don’t need to cook, a lot of labour is saved and I think that having the main work on the big day taken from me will be a massive help, as well as being extra delicious that we can actually be together this year. In addition the familiar surroundings help me and my son and for that part of Christmas we will stay at home though go over on several days. This is really helpful to keep parts of the routine which keeps my soon’s energy a bit more regulated which helps us all feel a bit calmer.

Pace yourself: I know now that I need to pace myself, leaving a few days between each social gathering and taking it much more slowly on those days. I am so thankful to be back together with people this year but that doesn’t mean I can throw my pacing plans out of the window. January is depressing enough without having a massive crash. When I do socialise, I know already I might need to leave earlier than I might like to or take a little break part way through so that I can join in. It’s tradition to fall asleep after the turkey anyway, so won’t be too much of a surprise if I insist on a rest this year. I may also have some tougher days afterwards but I know if I do things that lift me, like being around people that I love, this will be worth it for me if I don’t go too far.

Buy online: When it comes to planning presents, I am doing tiny chunks and using a lot of lists on my phone so hopefully I don’t forget things. I have to say that I have seen statistics like 42% of people will buy their presents off Amazon this year and though I don’t like it, that will most likely be me. I know already that going to shops involves so many elements that are tiring, this time I need those items to come on delivery. I have been also trying to support a few friends with their Etsy crafts that I love but when it come to the plastic tat my son demands, it’s back to the five minutes ordering on my phone and along comes my friendly delivery lady the next day (who I am quite chummy with now.) Let’s hope that by next Christmas, I can be well enough to face the shops (and they are still there) but for now I have to be realistic about what I can do for us all.

Photo by Marta Dzedyshko on Pexels.com – probably less baking this year

Ask for help: Learning to ask for help has been a massive learning curve with managing fatigue. I have worked out what is more tiring now by listening to my body carefully and I have tried to ask for help in these areas. A friend came over this week to get the decorations out of our loft for us, she was lovely about it and though it seems a bit silly with my breathing issues and fatigue it is a massive load off me and I will be very slowly starting to decorate. In addition to asking for physical help, I have set my Mum the mission to find the impossible toy that my son has asked for. I was going round in circles online to try and find this “must have” and in the end I realised the brain strain is too much.

Keep it simple: The final thing is to avoid too much online content that drives me to want to make the magic so much. It is possible that I did “do a Pinterest” in previous year and make cards, bake mince pines with my son and make a Nutella Christmas tree for breakfast on Christmas morning. But it might be that this year is not that year. The Christmas tree may end up less trimmed – though it is one of my favourite things so I may choose to spend my energy on it – But really, what my fatigue is telling me right now, is that these things that seem so important are an image we get sold about what a perfect life can look like.

But if a chronic condition can teach us anything, there is no need for perfect, in fact pushing yourself is the worst thing you could do. After the year we have had personally and the pandemic era we have all gone through, I can only say that what is most important is to savour the time to rest and have fun together.  

Find someone to inspire you

Comparison online can be quite demoralizing, but it can also be a great place to find your mentors.

With Instagram accounts and other creators online, you can often find a tribe of people with similar tastes without even trying. By the time you have clicked on a few accounts that have insterested you, watched a reel or tiktok for a short time or followed certain youtubers the imperfect but still pretty savvy algorithm finds you a load of people to follow or see in discovery or FYP (for you page) and before you know it you are embroiled in a community you didn’t know that you needed to find.

I have seen this in action because I have a personal account as well as my account attached to this blog. The MumWriteNow instagram links me up to lovely bookstagram accounts, gothic images, nature imagery and other people interested in folklore. It’s a serene and beautiful place though I admit I only play at photography, looking for bright spots that inspire me, as I have shared before. Meanwhile my personal account is a messy place full of Real Housewives content. There is nothing wrong with either, we are all multitudes, but it is interesting how in modern life you can curate yourself into certain communities.

A random sample of my more aesthetic Instagram feed

In discovering these different areas, I have also noticed there are some accounts who are inspiring for me. Whether it is interiors and décor on my own account or book ideas or information about folklore, it is apsirational and inspiring if you are careful to follow those that give you what you are asking for. As long as we remember that this is a higlight reel, I find this open access to other creative people as well as other people with the same interests as me can act almost like a mentor even if you do not know that person.

There is a certain value in understanding what you admire in another person. They could tell you what you want to be doing, Though I do not pretend to have some of the time and patience of bookstagram accounts who feature décor and books placed beautifully, but I love it. I find the reverence for books, the atmosphere it creates is alluring. For me, taking time to appreciate the beauty in the art is important.

In the Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron shares that “Jealousy is a Map”. And I think that these things we are attracted to act in a similar way. Often what attracts us are things we have within ourselves and they can guide us to find more of that in our life. My experience of the Artist’s Way programme was that jealousy was pushing me to explore more in different types of writing, reminding me of my interest in drama as well as novels. I went away and wrote the first scenes of a play that has been whirling around my mind for a while.

In reviewing what inspires me in these accounts, I thought of a real life mentor that I met in my younger years. She was always so careful in the way she would lay out even the simplest thing like a snack, using beautiful crockery. She would have flowers arranged on a tray, her house had an artistic flare that stretched into the garden. When I browse through these curated images now online, it reminds me of that same attention for detail. I was told that she worked really hard at making everything so lovely and you could tell. I know just how much time to it takes to make things clean and tidy, let alone allow your artistic side spill into your everyday living. I can admire this aethetic lifestyle even more as an adult.

When we find these people, a community who cares more about aesthetics and beauty they can be so aspirational but we can also allow them to direct us to what is truly important to us. Making more of an effort, having attention to detail is hard but the rewards reach so much wider than we realise. Sadly the woman who inspired me passed away, but the strong and lasting impression she has left on me will stay with me always.

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?

Reminiscing is simple inspiration

Away at my mother’s house, I have been enjoying the items that bring back memories

It’s odd how the smallest thing can send you off into your memories. This last week we have been away at my mother’s house for a change of scene. Everyday I have been noticing things with a funny jolt of recognition. I suppose when you are home, your eye becomes blind to decorations or you are too busy to stop and look. Being here I have been more aware. We are not rushing around because my fatigue has stopped us from doing too much. Staying in a different home, I am aware of spending time appreciating the things from my childhood more.

A small basket of shells arrest me at a window ledge. We collected them on the Welsh coast thirty years ago. I trace my finger down turritella shell or towers as we would call them. I think I remember the time we collected it, we used to take old sandwich loaf bags out and on a particularly blustery weekend, we walked up and down the beach stooping for more and more. I think I filled two bags. At some point I had to choose my favourite as I was told we couldn’t take the whole beach home! The crystalline pink were always my favourite though it’s a lot smaller in my hand than I remember.

I think everyone scans the bookshelves of homes they visit, many of her favourites have stayed over the years but I am not sure I have read. I pick through the shelves idolly. There are some older volumes that I think have always fascinated me, probably because I know some were her childhood editions, some her father’s. Amongst them is the copy of Little Women from our trip to Orchard House, the Alcotts home. Like the other hardbacks, it’s not in fact an antique but I still hold it with reverence. Our day in Concord is a really special memory. The postcard of Alcott’s desk sits in my writing trolley still, reminding me to stop complaining about a space to write.

Sounds too are reminiscent here. This is not my old home, though we have been welcomed here in holidays for years now. But the pigeons sit in the trees outside the back of her house just as they did in my first house and I realise that I miss the sounds of the birds coo echoing down the chimney when I am at home. We have sat this week and watched the blackbirds who play in their garden and cheep loudly when they haven’t been left food. There’s a bush here they have occupied as their own and I remember back to similar times watching birds play in our garden growing up.

Often memories can feed inspiration for me and it occurs to me in my nostalgia there is the essence of something I have been trying to capture for a while. The hard work I have been putting in in mindful walks to notice nature and neighbourhood around me. It has been come a goal to slow our time, to appreciate life. To listen to the world around. But these were things that were, at least some of the time, part of my life as a child. These sights and sounds are a reminder for me that this mindful enjoyment of the simplest things is natural to us all.

Write from start to finish

I’ll never been a plotter, but I have been experimenting with writing from the start

“And what about your writing”, a kind friend asks as I recount my months of coming to term with chronic illness alongside my usual life stresses. What about it? Well, it’s clear that I always bristle against this question. But the truth I have been making small slow steps in the direction of finishing a draft. One of biggest, and hardest revelations has been that I may have been doing it if not wrong, then definitely the hard way.

While I confess I enjoy the spark of an idea leading me to write a scene, as inspiration really is everywhere, it might not be the best way of getting to the end of the draft. I have scores of words written on the same book. But will the end ever be in sight?

To disentangle my plot I resorted to an excel spreadsheet of scenes and started to see where there was too much jumping around. I stripped away these scenes so that I could follow the main character. It is a story told from more than one perspective, but I was unbalanced by the main character who kept insisting on her chapters. Once I had more of a handle on the chronology of the scenes, I was able to start again from the beginning and write, you know, what happens.

Photo by Teona Swift on Pexels.com – Time for more tea?

It has been a laborious process and I suppose it could be called rewriting really. I have been training myself to go through from start to finish – what a revelation! On the way I notice the gaps and write them. I also notice the
repetitions which are numerous and seem to be mainly based around having cups of tea. Set in a quaint English cottage, I suppose we have to expect that she would drink a lot of tea but I really did notice how much she used the kettle. I repeated the Word Cloud exercise I have recommended before as a technology that can help writers. Definitely a lot of tea and kettle!

And even in this systematic process, I am not at the end. Well, maybe I am. I have a scene written, but I am really not satisfied with how we ramble our way there. As I have worked through from the beginning, diligently start to finish, I come to another even more disturbing revelation; I am not happy with my start. My start is probably a middle, a twist midway.

So, since the beginning of the year, I am filling in the characters that been on the peripheral of the story and shaping much more to the journey where my original start comes in. And in the thickets and weeds of the story, I have started to pull out other elements and be merciless with others. What is it they always say about writing: leave early, enter late. Seems like this is the issue I have been wrangling with – where is the start, how do we get to the finish and hoping others will care enough about where this person is in her life. About the disruptions and problems she faces.

I have been writing, even in small fits and starts but “It’s difficult” I tell my friend. I have to keep my energy packets for my son, for work, leaving the house occasionally. But it’s also difficult because I have made it so. With other projects that have snuck in to take my attention, I am being much stricter now to give myself a chance. My writing process, though always likely to be slow for a variety of reasons, well now it goes from the start and plods on to the finish. Unless inspiration just happens to strike again, of course!