Some photos: Granada and the Alhambra

Posted on 2 min read

Every now and again I spend a day being a real, proper tourist. In the case of my visit to Granada it was an entire weekend, a good part of which was taken up by the Alhambra.

You have to book tickets well in advance so I was all prepared for a crowded space, filled with hot and bothered tourists talking too loudly. Which meant that I was pleasantly surprised, when, having slogged my way up the hill, I found that the Alhambra wasn’t chocker-block with people, but, actually, especially in the gardens, was peaceful.

It’s not to say there weren’t people, yes I had to queue a while to use the ladies, but the space is so large, there’s just so much of it, that you can find yourself in a peaceful corner. And, if it just so happens you find yourself in a crowd, you just have to wait for them to pass by. They come in waves. As long as you move at a different pace, it’s alright.

My knowledge of Spanish history is… improving. The Romans were here, they built a fort. Muslim Emirs with very long names were here, they built the palaces – hence all the stunning, intricate design work – and Catherine of Aragon’s mum was here. That’s Isabel I, Queen of Castile, husband of Ferdinand. The mother wrote an essay on this royal couple at school. Christopher Columbus was here to get his travel documents signed off. Napoleon tried to destroy it and some poets wrote about it.

When you get tired of history and wander back down into town, there are plenty of tea rooms to quench your thirst.

Sometimes it’s good fun being a tourist. Sometimes you need to really holiday.

Time for a transition: Mistakes I’m about to make

Posted on 8 min read
Cliché for you: It’s all about the journey not the destination. But on a road trip, it’s undeniably true.
European Road Trip, The Italian Alps, Summer 2018.

Feeling ill this week I took to the sofa and immersed myself in Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. It’s a book that I’ve been meaning to read for a while. One that I see recommended in various places and given praise, but at the same time I was a bit wary. I expected a rather dark book.

Victor Frankl was an Austrian psychotherapist. His personal experience in a concentration camp during the Second World War forms the backbone of stories for his psychological theory that is shared in the book. I read it front cover to back cover in one afternoon. I found it surprisingly optimistic.

As well as being an autobiographical account of his ordeal in the concentration camps, Victor Frankl’s book dealt with the transitions that framed his imprisonment. He wrote about the initial humiliation and the shock, and then, at the end, he wrote about the vast unease that came following liberation, and how the psychologically, this didn’t happen in an instant.

And transition periods fascinate me. They feel like something we don’t pay enough attention to. Too often we concentrate on the big reason for changing and miss the details of the change in the process.

Not quite yet, but soon, I’m moving to far and distant lands

Already I can feel the tension in my body increasing. I say that, and I haven’t yet got back home to England. I’ve got two steps ahead planned, multiple transitions, and as much as I love novelty, my body does not.

Before therapy I described this as a change funk. Now I’m a little more attune with what is going on. I know that my hunger is all or nothing. I know that my sleep is lots or little. I know that my skin is about to object in the only way it knows how, and that the chances are that within the next month I’ll have mouth ulcers.

It they were only spots, I could ignore them

But with stress there’s an emotional side to too. The extremes of my emotions are more likely to raise their heads these next few months as I switch countries and continents.

After all this moving around is not a holiday; holidays come with less admin. This is a restructuring. It includes everyday things like:

  • Where and what food I eat.
  • Where I wash myself.
  • The bed in which I sleep.
  • The weather (and season).

And what’s going to happen is that many of my wonderful habits are going to get shook up. They won’t feel quite so automatic, so habitual. I’ll find myself swinging off-course, which is not where I want to be. Therefore, I’m writing this article to get my head around how much effort it’s going to take to rebuild my routine.

So why am I going to struggle here?

  1. Fear
  2. Lack of energy management
  3. Absence of triggers

There are many fears that influence how we structure our lives

The fear of missing out is one of these, but when we think about the fear of missing out, I believe we often skip a step. The truth is that when I’m joyous and focused I don’t have this feeling. If I’ve spent the day loving what I’m doing I don’t worry that I didn’t happen to go with some friends to see some film. I’m content.

It’s when I’m not content that the fear of missing out comes into play. So, if I have this fear arising in me then I know what I do. I need to look back a bit at what I’m doing with my time, and recognise that there is, somewhere in the mix, a lack of self-satisfaction. I need to self-soothe. I need to take time and care for me.

When I first landed in Spain, finding friends was a priority

I felt very much like I needed to pour a huge amount of effort into my social life immediately, or that I wouldn’t have one. After all I was going to be living in the country for eight months.

At the time this seemed to make complete sense

When I look back, that’s bullshit.  Hindsight is a good teacher. Looking back, I can see that although those first weeks introduced me to some people I go out for coffee with, my social life isn’t built around them. The meaningful conversations and relationships I’ve built came from investments of time I made much later, at my own natural pace.

The fear of missing out also drives me when I’m back home

Moving back to England, for a few weeks, I know what it is that I most fear. It’s not having enough time for all the people I love. This there-is-not-enough-time belief comes from the fact that the number of days is short. Such a belief instils me with fear and puts me at risk of doing a very typical Catherine screw-up.

I’m going to try and do too much.

You see, I am still an introvert

Sometimes people who have recently met me find this funny. What with my broad grin, direct eye contact and enthusiasm for hearing my own Yorkshire voice I don’t always come across as an introvert. But I recharge alone. People exhaust me. My energy builds back up when I am quiet, working on my own projects, writing, reading, tidying my bedroom. It can be frustrating, since I love being with people so much, but it’s important for me to recognise that this is how I work.

For me, although my time is short, energy management is more important than time management.

But you know what I’m going to do the moment I reach far off lands… I’m going to forget how exhausting new colleagues, new students and new house-mates are. I’m going to say yes to every invitation to coffee I get.

You see, moving to a new country is all very exciting

Meeting new people kicks out a burst of adrenaline. I underestimate how much energy gets sapped seeing someone can be. Long-term friends who you haven’t seen in a while are a perfect example of this.

The excitement builds, I bounce, my speech gets to almost the same speed as a Spaniard, my mind goes wild as it tries to connect everything together. It feels like the past, so familiar, yet also new. It’s a precious sort of conversation.

All this excitement acts as a mask for how tired I am

Unfortunately, even the everyday becomes more exhausting when you move about.

Habits, scientists say, emerge because the brain is constantly looking for ways to save effort. Left to its own devices, the brain will try to make any routine into a habit, because habits allow our minds to ramp down more often.

The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

But what I’m doing is upsetting my routine

My brain has energy saving routines well engraved into it, but I’m going to change things up. Eating breakfast takes more energy when you have to decide what to eat. Shopping for food is more effort when you don’t know where the pasta isle is. Getting money out from the cash point makes your mind spin when you’re remembering different codes for different accounts and paying attention to avoiding currency conversion fees or ATM charges.

Everything I do takes more energy that I presume.

There’s a lesson in quality over quantity that I should pay attention to

I pretend to myself I know it. Most of the time I’m pretty good at abiding by my belief that it’s not seeing someone a lot that matters. What’s important to me is having a genuine connection when you do. However, prolonged absence, or a bout of loneliness, tends to make me question this belief.

The mixture of adrenaline and anxiety comes together and… boom!

So I’m going to fall flat on my face because I’m inadequate at managing my energy.

But now I want to talk about habit triggers

When you twist your life around and change things up, you lose some of your routines and habits.

Whilst I sit on my bed each morning and have my breakfast, I practice my Spanish flashcards. But in England I have breakfast at a table because we’re all very proper like that in my family.

Lunch time here is about three on a weekday, because I finish at school at half past two. But lunchtime at home will be after twelve… where therefore does a siesta fit into my routine? Not at half past three for sure… And it’s not that I always sleep in my siesta time, but I do tend to take a moment to relax. Sometimes I write in my diary, paint or read, but I make sure I’m not rushing into the next activity.

Then there’s exercise. Here, I have combined riding my bike into my life by making it part of my commute when I’m teaching in town. In England I tend to run or cycle, but in all honesty the hills of home, after the flatness of here, are quite intimidating.

Part conscious, part unconscious, these triggers are built into my routine

At home it is inevitable that I will settle back into an old routine. The triggers of the past are still wired into my brain. I have some good home-habits and some bad home-habits. Here I wake up at half six. At home it used to be more like eight.

My wonderful luck means I have a mother who will knock on my door and say something helpful like “When are we doing yoga?”

Maybe I will have breakfast in the kitchen, but maybe I can do my flashcards there instead? A siesta at half one, or two is plausible, especially if it’s collapsing on the sofa with a book (this is how I read so much). But the environmental triggers aren’t the same.

The harder challenge will be in far and distant lands

I have more space and more options. What form does exercise take, what does my diet look like, what hours am I working, is lunch eaten at home or at work? But this itself is part of the challenge, it’s part of the fun. It’s the time where you get to start over, test out a new structure, consider what is important and then make your days the evidence of those values.

There you are.

That’s what’s swirling around in my brain right now

That’s my teaspoon of awareness that I’m stirring into a whole lot of unknowns. I’m going to react too much to fear, I’m going to mismanage my energy and I’m going to have things that seemed easy, habitual, become a whole lot harder.

And reading Victor Frankl’s book has given me something to think about. Transitions are hard. Change doesn’t come easy and there’s always a cost.

But overall, my transition is a beautiful opportunity, a gift, and something I shouldn’t complain about but should be grateful for.

Where am I going to screw up?

  1. Where I let fear dictate
  2. Where I don’t manage my energy
  3. And where I don’t compensate for an absence of triggers

Which means I’ve got some planning to do.

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How being crap at meditation is beside the point

Posted on 9 min read

A chap messaged me recently because he’d read what I’d said about my ‘bullet train’ mother, and he wanted to know more.

And since I am not an expert at meditation and all that, (although yes, I do it daily), I asked my mother, who happened to be visiting me in Spain. I created a mega mind-map, and this has resulted from that conversation. I wrote it, the mother edited it, and here it is.

From a walk with the Mother over the easter holidays. Spain, April 2019.

Travelling means bumping into other travellers

This week there’s a woman staying in the house with me, another Brit, another fed up soul who decided that the office didn’t suit her. She’s on her journey and I’m on mine, and for a week or two our paths run parallel.

The inevitable exchange of stories took place. Not where and who and what – although we dropped some place names and mentioned some activities and described some memorable characters – but the story about how we each became who we are, and how we’re going to become the people that we will be.

And it’s these people, running parallel, sometimes for a long time, sometimes a short time, who feed us with stories, who open our minds, who influence where we go.

And this woman, a yoga teacher, is one of the many who have reaffirmed that my journey involves meditation.

In this article, I’m going to talk about how meditation fits within my life:

  1. I’m going to talk about what I do on a bad day
  2. Then I’m going to talk about having a formal foundation
  3. Finally, I’m going to speak about how being crap at meditation is beside the point

To begin, I want you to imagine I’m having a bad day

My head is whirring. I’m thinking all the thoughts I shouldn’t. I feel small and vulnerable and helpless, yet at the same time as if I must act now. I crave the reassurance of busyness and chocolate cake. No… give me chocolate cake on the move. And yet, if I had chocolate cake, I would be bewildered by it, and were I to move, I’d end up going in circles.

On occasion I seem to lose all my marbles and I have no idea who I am or what I am doing. It’s possible I’m not the only person who does this, maybe there are other people as dramatic as me out there.

So feeling terrible, I lay down. On the floor. And I breath. First out, then in, but slow, gentle, soothing breaths. Like the air is caressing my insides. And I don’t bother moving. I want to, but I know it would only make things worse. It would fuel the need for more movement which, in turn, would make me more likely to break things or upset people. Plus, when I’m overwhelmed, my body has an awkward habit of giving in anyway, I become dysfunctional.

So instead of moving, I focus on breathing

Exhalation follows inhalation, one after another. I let the manic thoughts dance through my brain, kicking their legs up in a conga line until my mind begins to quieten down.

I stay there, lying on the floor, until I have felt calmness in my mind, a period of tranquillity, and then I lie there a bit longer. Now though, I begin to let myself plan what I will do when I stand up. More Cuban dancing starts up, and I let that die down, breathe, and then return to my planning.

I wait until I have a solid plan

That means I know where I’m going to move, how I’m going to move and why I’m moving. Only then do I let myself sit up. I take my pulse, check it’s normal, and breathe-in, breathe-out, repeat a few times. The pulse checking is an oddity that came about from the PTSD, but it does make me more aware of how my stress affects my body. Once I’m happy that I have a sensible heart rate, a plan and steady breathing, I stand up.

If you aren’t as bananas as me, maybe your mind doesn’t flake out with such drama. Maybe you can continue (or at least sustain yourself) through the overwhelm? But what with my amygdala having a trauma shaped dent in it, my brutal truth is, I can’t.

There’s no point pretending otherwise

If necessary, I would lay down on the floor multiple times a day, building up space within my mind. Much of what trauma taught me is wrapped up in this idea of getting myself lined up for what I want to do next. Now I can generally calm my mind much quicker. Now I am better prepared to go after bigger goals.

But I get the fundamentals back in place first. Yes, it sounds odd, but when I was fighting trauma, and things were particularly rough going, I did need to fight for the fundamentals. I don’t think people place high enough value on them.

Which is why having a system for emergencies is all well and good

But it’s not enough. You want car insurance before you drive into the lamp-post. As you want a foundation in meditation before life has a hiccup or big, unanswerable question starts to grow in your mind.

I believe that regular formal meditation helps

After much reading, I’m convinced that it strengthens my mind in such a way that I can be less reactionary and more deliberate in my actions. My mother has a wonderful formal meditation practice, whereas mine is less disciplined. I tend to, but not always, meditate before bed, seated, with a straight back, bum raised on a cushion, on my bed. I can meditate for hours if I have people around me, for example on a retreat, but in my own bedroom, with distractions abound, I sometimes find ten minutes to be hard work.

What though do those ten minutes look like?

Once comfortable, I either set a timer, or start an audio track, or load up a video. Then I stay there, fidgeting as little as possible, until the timer goes off or the media ends. If, when I sit down, I know I’m going to have a hard time concentrating, I make sure that I either have a guided meditation playing, or a sing-a-long meditation. My sing-along meditation involves repetitive finger movements. These stop me fidgeting. And the instructions in guided meditations (such as Headspace) were particularly useful when I first started.

When it’s me and the egg-timer (and yes I might peek at it every now and again if I’m bored) I sit and observe my breath. Every breath in, every breath out.

It’s easy, isn’t it

Sit down, observe yourself breathing for a while, done.

Or maybe not. You’ve found a cushion, sat down, noticed your breathing and then, you find yourself thinking. Your mind is sabotaging your efforts. Which brings me to my final point…

Being crap at meditation is irrelevant

Sometimes, we run around because we’re scared of what might happen when we stop. The more scared we get, the faster we run.

When we stop thoughts explode in our minds, we realise that we’re feeling things that moments before we were oblivious to. Our organised life loses clarity. Uncertainty builds. Are we doing this right? Is this what happens for other people?

These thoughts are discomforting, and to ease discomfort, if you’re anything like me, you desire action. You want results!

(Exclamation mark there belongs to the Mother.)

You need to do something. Anything. Now.

And feeling this urge and letting it pass ain’t easy. Perhaps we feel it should be, because we’re not doing anything. Yet it’s not.

Our brains like things to be at an equilibrium

They spend much of their energy making sure that when we’re hungry, we eat; when we’re tired, we sleep; when we’re cold, we put on a jumper. Whatever our norm, our brains and bodies try to maintain it. However, when you start a meditation practice, you begin a journey of change. Your defence goes to full alert. Sirens sound. Your brain is going to fight hard to make sure that its equilibrium is kept.

Even if your equilibrium happens to be sending you to an early grave.

Maybe you practice for some time and then your brain says no

It doesn’t want to right now. It’s too busy. It feels like you have no choice. You tell yourself that if only you had time, you’d do it, but you’re very busy, too busy. There are other, more important things to do than meditate. There’s no time. Wait… is that the truth? There’s not ten minutes in the day where you can sit still? No, maybe that one’s a lie. Maybe, you can’t face the idea of sitting down, still, doing nothing. Not a nice truth, but better than a lie. Anyway, you don’t want to. So you don’t.

Your brain is so used to being full that it’s become comfortable that way. It wants to maintain that fullness, it isn’t happy about having space in there, let alone awareness. Your brain’s doing very well at keeping you safe by hiding you from all that awareness of what you feel.

So you struggle.

 ‘Cause you’re normal

And you signed up to becoming a tranquil person. You wanted your stress-reduced in a proven-by-scientists method. The free health supplement. You didn’t think about how this would mean living, for months and months, years perhaps, on the edge of your comfort zone, in a place of change.

You thought it was sitting and breathing

Inhale, exhale.

You thought it was something you did

It’s not. It’s something that happens to you, in you, whilst you’re building the space for it to take place.

You thought it was private

And it’s not. Because whilst you may sit cross-legged in a locked room, the fact that you are changing is going to affect everyone around you. Sooner or later, you’re going to stop being quite as predictable in your reactions as you once were. You’re going to have a little more space between the BAM of an event and your RARH of a reaction, and this may make some of the people around you uneasy. They’re expecting an instant RARH.

But as you progress with meditation you start to realise that things don’t stay the same, they are always changing.

Meanwhile, you may still sit down and, by accident, find yourself planning a holiday

Or writing a complaint, imagining an argument with the neighbour, sobbing, fidgeting, trying to roll your rr instead of singing the mantra, slumping against the wall, cheating yourself out of the last thirty seconds, starting the timer before you’ve settled, or whatever.

That’s the embarrassing truth of meditation. Sometimes your brain is like a monkey. However, and of course there’s a huge ‘however’ here, if you stick at it regardless of what happens, you do change.

And one day, when you’re least expecting it, someone will say something that makes you stop. Something sweet, like they wish they could live more in the moment, aware of what goes on around them, more like you.

So in summary (because as I said, we’re practicing writing articles here):

  1. On a bad day, I lay down until I have a solid plan.
  2. But meditation isn’t a quick fix, you need to build a solid foundation.
  3. And building that foundation can be a strange and uncomfortable process. Change always feels a bit weird.

But it’s worth it

You remember how, at the beginning, I said that the traveller passing though my life this week and I exchanged stories: the stories about how we each became who we are, and how we’re going to become the people that we will be. Meditation has been part of these stories, and it’s clear, when we listen to each other, that the change it has brought has helped us craft the lives we want.

And keeps on doing so.

As for the chap who wrote to me, what I say is this, get your bum on a chair, or on the floor, and start practicing.

Start today.

The Rescue Day: How I manage when my mind begins to unravel

Posted on 5 min read
Details in the walls of the Alhambra, Granada. Arabic Designs.
A glimpse of light in the dark: details in the walls in the Alhambra in Granada.
March 2019.

Here in my Southern Spanish town, you sometimes have to think ahead. On a Sunday or a festival day normality ceases. When it rains nobody goes out as, due to a lack of adequate drainage, the streets flood. During the working week, many places close mid-afternoon, and places like the post office simply don’t bother reopening until the next day.

Here you can’t depend on a 24 hour supermarket or the bus arriving on time. On festival days (or during rain) the bus may or may not choose to run. Living here means that you have to be prepared in advance.

Planning ahead is also how I manage my own, unpredictable mental health. Since last week ended with a random burst of unsleepable madness, I thought I’d reflect a little on my ‘recovery day’ process to make sure that Monday morning had no choice but to go to plan.

I’m going to briefly cover…

  1. The things I drop from my to-do list
  2. The actions I take to get me back on track
  3. The importance of good transitions

Sometimes the most important is what you don’t do

On Saturday night, before I went to bed, I wrote down a list of all the things I had to accomplish on Sunday. Then I removed everything I deemed unnecessary and could be put off. Writing this article wasn’t important enough to make the list, even though my original plan had it being edited by Sunday. Practicing Spanish was removed from the list too. Anything related to work was scribbled out. Any admin, scratched through.

It wasn’t that I was ruling out practicing Spanish, not at all, if I fancy practicing Spanish then that’s fine. But the thick black line removing it from my list affirmed that it wasn’t the priority for the day.

A rescue day, as I think of it, is not a normal day

On normal days I practice Spanish and I write articles. I stick to my bigger plan of learning goals and creative ambitions. On rescue days I rescue the little part of me that has been neglected and is screaming for attention through my sleep (or lack of sleep) and through all though ugly ways that stress makes itself known.

So what does this mean that I doing?

This morning I followed my morning routine, although much slower than normal. I had my coffee and my cereal. I watched a video about learning watercolour and I did yoga. Later I meditated.

Routine is important to me because when I’m working within a set routine I don’t need to waste energy making decisions.

Then I put my bedsheets in the washing machine and tidied my room. While the washing was whirring away I painted a pine cone and emailed my mother updating her on my life and my yoga practice. Keeping my mother vaguely in the loop is important.

The lady who I live with invited me to eat lunch with her.

In the afternoon I went out for a walk

It’s been raining here, most unexpectedly, and I perhaps lacked some fresh air. More importantly though, I needed to create space for my mind to mull over why it’s so upset. In the evening I went out for a coffee (descafeinado) and chocolate cake with a friend before going early to bed.

Which I guess doesn’t seem all that mad…

In fact it’s not all that different to what I normally would do. The difference comes in the transitions. When I’m picking myself up off the ground it’s rarely the activity that matters.

What matters is how I approach each activity

In one of his books I remember John Kabat Zinn suggesting we take special care to note the attitude we bring to the beginning of a meditation practice and the attitude with which we leave it. I try to apply this wisdom to each of my activities. Of course, it’s only possible for me to do this when I’m willing to slow right down.

I’ll give you an example

I posted my pine cone painting onto Instagram and was about to scroll through the feed, but noticed that I hadn’t consciously decided that this was what I wanted, so I paused, set a timer for ten minutes and then returned to Instagram. When the timer went off I stopped it. My thumb hovered over the feed for a moment while I thought. I knew I wanted to keep reading, but I also knew that I’d decided ten minutes was more than enough time, and so I stopped.

Or another example

At the end of the meditation track I play, the background soft noise continues some time after the meditation itself has ended. Normally I stop it playing and just get on with my day, but today I paid attention to my need to get up and be busy. I decided to wait until the very end and only stand up once I knew exactly what it was I was going to do.

But of course this is not easy

Rescue days might contain fewer tasks, but they are anything but easy. It is much easier to be busy. It’s easier to keep pushing yourself because that’s the muscle that you’ve spent your life strengthening. If you’re anything like me ‘more’ feels more natural than ‘less’.

But to slow down and catch myself, to not march but amble and take note, to set myself up for Monday morning and from there the rest of the week, this all means that I won’t just survive the week ahead but that I have the opportunity to enjoy it.

Living here in Spain the pace of life is slower

You can’t brutishly charge around expecting to have what you want when the rest of the town is busy having their extended lunch break. And you can’t expect that dinner is going to be an option at the moment you feel hungry. You have to learn to slow down to the pace of life around you. And you always have to be prepared for when, maybe, things don’t go your way.

So yes, I did less with my Sunday than I could have

I focused on what matters to my mental health most, and I made sure that I was aware of how I start and end each activity. I want to be the one choosing how I live rather than allowing myself to be led by compulsive desires.

And now I am prepared for Monday morning.

Do you actively change your behaviour to recover from a bad day? Or do you keep pushing on?

Written a few weeks back.

Some photos: Jueves Santa

Posted on 1 min read
Jesus on the cross.

The children at school instructed me that I had to see the Easter processions. It’s not necessarily that the children are themselves particularly religious. A few are definitely so, more are kind of uncertain, a significant number seem to be solidly atheist. As far as I can tell though, of those from a christian background, they’ve all been baptised and many confirmed. The church plays a significant role within the community here.

Let me tell you that it’s a spooky experience seeing the people weilding torches, wearing masked faces in rich robes. Some off them suddenly broke rank and leapt towards me. A voice spoke out to me, teasing me in English refusing to give their identity but rewarding me instead by putting their hands inside their robes and pulling out…

… huge handfuls of sweets. Yep. They might look like their wearing cushions around their middles, but it’s actually millions of sweets. I came home with my pockets stuffed full.

Things like this, however obsurd them might seem to me, remind me that community rituals have a value. What do you think of such processions? Have you ever taken part in one?

What I feel when faced with my sleep-deprived teenagers (not to mention their teachers)

Posted on 8 min read
The sun had set and so we hurtled down the mountain at great speed, but not so fast that I couldn’t click this shot.

When I was in Sicily I read a book about siestas1 and discovered that the siesta was, in the author’s opinion, the ideal time for either having sex or catching up on literature. It so happens that I once read a claim, in a Spanish newspaper, that the average Spaniard has more sex than the average Brit.

Maybe there’s some truth in the ‘more sex’ claim. After all, apparently 40% of Spaniards don’t read books and 35% only read one book a year,2 and yet many (at least here in the south) still do have some form of a siesta. Are they genuinely asleep, or maybe just watching day-time television? I wouldn’t want you to think that I was at all being scientific here. I’m not.

But some people are a bit more scientific about sleep than me

When he came to visit a few weeks back DeepThought brought with him a book entitled ‘Why We Sleep’ written by the sleep scientist Matthew Walker.3 DeepThought has not been taking enough siestas recently, or at least he hasn’t been reading during them, because last year when I saw him, he had the same book in his hands.

You’d be wrong to deduct from this that the book is a bore

It’s not. However, if you are one of the many who don’t get enough sleep you might find it a horror.

DeepThought and I did a deal. I think he was feeling guilty for reading so slowly. In exchange for being allowed to read the book before he had finished it himself, I would summarise my learning for him. Perhaps a mistake on his part. I’m not sure if he started regretting lending me the book before or after I informed him that not getting his eight hours a night would shrink his testicles.

This article however is less about facts and more about feelings

Here I’ll combine a few thoughts on how I feel about sleep:

  1. The tiredness in school: teachers and students alike
  2. The anxiety connection – a spiral
  3. The sadness of ignorance and the hope of awareness

Monday morning arrives and I head to school

Teachers reluctantly gather in the staffroom bemoaning the coming of a new week. Supposedly in the morning we are taller than at night, but at 8:25 am they seem shorter, as if moving with a slight stoop, their limbs longing to lay back down.

They wanted, it seems, to stretch their weekend out into the last moment – those Saturday and Sunday moments with family and friends are so precious compared to the chore of the week. I remind myself that this career that they’ve chosen wasn’t forced upon them but was something that they spent many years training for. They’ve sat through countless exams to be allowed this opportunity to teach, and yet they are going to start their week wishing they didn’t have to.

It would seem surreal perhaps if it wasn’t so normalised

Last Monday morning one of the teachers I assist didn’t turn up, so I took the opportunity to sate my personal curiosity. I quizzed the class on their sleeping habits. I discovered that at the grand old age of seventeen, out of twenty-five or so students, only two had managed to get eight hours sleep the night before.

I wonder if I’m the only person in the school with a fresh memory of what maintaining 8 hours a night of sleep feels like. When was the last time many of these kids woke up fresh faced? Last summer perhaps, when they reportedly sleep a good proportion of the day.

I reassured them that it wasn’t their fault that they were sleepy at half past eight in the morning, that it was just their circadian rhythm being out of sync with the city’s Department of Education. And then I apologised for informing them that if they weren’t getting 8 hours of sleep a night then they’d have to study a whole lot more because their memories were leaking like a patched-up bucket and their creativity was as strong as soggy cardboard.

They stared at me as if this was the first time anyone had said anything positive about our biological need for sleep. In other words, like I was mad.

They understand, I think, that sleep has some value – they do apologise to me, from time to time, when their brains fail them mid-conversation. They explain that they are sleepy. Some days some of them look like they’re going to slump over my desk. And yet, they wouldn’t consider their sleeping patterns to be abnormal. They don’t recognise the value of applying some change.

The teachers have an inkling that their biology demands more

When they talk about sleep, they at least talk from a perspective that they know they need to get more of it. The rhetoric is there even if there’s no follow up action. Societal norms call.

The students however are sceptical of sleep. Another girl described sleep as boring, as if the challenge was in fact to minimise the amount of sleep one could get by on because watching television or scrolling through Instagram is so much more exciting. One girl I asked talked about sleep being pointless because she wasn’t going to sleep anyway, she is too anxious to sleep.

Frankly, such attitudes terrify me

Being anxious, not sleeping enough, being more anxious, not sleeping enough… this is an interconnected spiral, and fighting this spiral becomes the central theme in some peoples’ lives. Bad sleep habits become ingrained and so freedom from anxiety, freedom to breathe easy, enjoy life and be creative is strangled.

If you are stuck in this spiral, then I feel for you.

And I feel helpless standing in front of the class knowing that sleep deprivation is so tightly linked to their mental health. These children are from a neighbourhood where the main industry is seasonal citrus picking, they are not privileged like me and their parents are not necessarily going to be able to fund their therapy and their recovery when tragedy occurs.

Bless their little cotton (or polyester) socks, because they’ve no idea what lays ahead

I am forever making mistakes when it comes to my mental health. Just this week I found myself fighting with an old friend and having to apologise for a badly worded comment to my sister. The friend was anxious and sleep-deprived, my sister was fretting, and I have been having nightmares.

Nightmares. And why, because I haven’t been honest enough with myself, because I haven’t been paying enough attention to my own emotional needs and in my own quickly spiralling way this of course meant that I wasn’t sleeping sufficiently which was making me grumpy and…

My body responds with a barrage of defences. I survive wonderfully, fighting down my foes, strategizing, analysing, making myself busy. And then I have a moment of realisation of what I’m doing to myself.

At this point I know I need to open up and slow down

I need to talk, and probably cry, and then I need to make the journey from my castle wall and back to my bed. I need to get my mind to somewhere safe where I can fall asleep and stay asleep because it’s in the night, when I’m dreaming that my mind can apply its magic. It’s in the night, when I’m dreaming that my mind can finally process how I’m feeling.

If that means I need a two-hour bedtime routine, so be it.

Nowadays I am slow to realise, but in the past I was totally ignorant of my needs

In the past I didn’t make the connection.

All suffering is caused by ignorance. People inflict pain on others in the selfish pursuit of their own happiness or satisfaction

The Dalai Lama

If I had been inflicting pain on others for my own happiness that would be a rather selfish and unkind way to be living, but the truth is that when I am ignorantly barraging myself against the world I’m not getting anywhere near happy. I’m occupied, busy, surviving, but happy… no.

Happiness comes from my moments of humility and generosity (to myself and to others) and depends on me having a gentle perspective of my state of being. There is no happiness when I am working from a place of defence.

And nothing makes me defensive as quickly as not sleeping properly

However, I am learning more and more about how my body and my mind are intricately woven together each day. This opportunity to be a little less ignorant and a little more responsible for my words actions is a gift.

And hence, when I see the students being led by tired teachers to a belief that sleep is almost an enemy of a good life, I feel helpless and afraid for them. They joke about their sleep-deprivation, but I can’t bring myself to laugh.

Yet, I can make sure that when I turn up on a Monday morning, I am awake

And sometimes, when someone is tired, I can say something gentle with the hope it might one day sink in. When the teacher didn’t turn up the class decided that I would have to teach them instead. Thankfully I’d got a good night’s sleep and was feeling suitably creative so I set about improvising a class.

After quizzing everyone on their sleep I asked if anyone could remember dreaming the previous night. Two hands shot into the air. I smiled, took a deep breath and surmised that it was interesting that the two people in the class who had slept their eight hours had also remembered having dreams. A coincidence perhaps, or…

But that’s another article.

So, just to summarise what I’ve written here

  1. Sleepiness pervades society, making us all a little more stupid.
  2. The teenagers I teach are sleep-deprived and don’t see the connection with their own mental health.
  3. I am luckier, my luck is the gift of awareness. Sometimes, not always but sometimes, I can recognise my unkindness as stemming from too few hours steadily sleeping.

The book ‘Why We Sleep’ is surprisingly non-lecturing

It’s sometimes even apologetic about the truths it breaks. It’s not one of these books that’s repetitive and fluffy. The author has a scientific way with words, being clear about causation and correlation and although the information he shares is sometimes horrifying, it doesn’t come across as sensationalist.

At the back of the book Matthew Walker includes a reprint of this list of tips for a better night’s sleep.4 You might want to check them out. After all, would you be happier if you got a little more sleep?

More information

  1. The Art of the Siesta by Thierry Paquot (Translated from French). I apparently only rated it 3 stars on Goodreads so don’t consider this as a recommendation.
  2. An article on how the Spanish don’t read (in Spanish) I tried searching Google in English but only got results about Brexit…
  3. Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker
  4. Tips on Sleep

How I worked out what I wanted (once I’d stopped fretting about it)

Posted on 7 min read
The river in Strasbourg

Strasbourg, France, March 2018.
On this day I treated myself to croissants and crepes… It’s important to try the local cuisine, right?

My favourite type of restaurant to frequent in Spain belongs on the edge of a small town. Outside on the road, or in an unmarked parking lot sits a collection of cars with the appearance of being unwashed, although the land here is so dry and the air swirls with so much dust that they could have conceivably been washed that morning.

Every time I approach such a restaurant I feel a little afraid. You can’t see too well inside, maybe older men sit outside, smoking, suggesting an all boys club, but on entering you discover the place to be loud with voices high and low. You take a seat, anywhere you want, and you’re offered the menu of the day: a selection of courses that will be brought out, one after another to be shared between you and your companions, all for a fixed (and very reasonable) price.

This is my favourite type of restaurant because it forgoes all that pesky decision making that comes from having to choose what it is you want.

Here I can just eat.

Sometimes though, life ain’t quite so easy.

“So—do you know what you want?”

This is the question my mother emailed me with after reading my previous blog posts (lessons from the mother), and by the question, she didn’t mean just for dinner, she meant in life. I stared at her email for a moment, considered my lists, my plans and the feeling that floods my heart when I’m doing something that I consider to be important and then my fingertips hit the keys in determined strokes. I wrote back, “Yes, I think I do.”

I thought, for my mother, as well as any other reader, I’d elaborate. I’m going to briefly elude to three stages of how I got here.

This isn’t guide to how to work out what it is that you want, I wouldn’t want to suggest that such a process would be the same for you, this is just a story of how things were for me. But, what with you being human too, chances are you’re going to relate to some part of my journey.

The stages so far:

Stage 1: Recognising I didn’t have a clue
Stage 2: Accepting my long term goals were my long term goals
Stage 3: Writing down the next step

Stage 1: Recognising I didn’t have a clue

Towards the end of my degree I proactively made an appointment to see the career counsellor. I was a few months off finishing my degree and hadn’t worked out what I was going to do after graduation. I had, in one moment, contemplated teaching, but after volunteering in a primary school for a while I came to the solid conclusion that teaching would be a long slog of me against the system.

This chap who was supposed to advise me was probably a great source of information for physicists looking to move into a hedge fund or academic department, but he didn’t excel with hysterical me. It was hardly his fault.

Wisely, in hindsight, he suggested speaking to a medical professional

Although he didn’t express himself very well. Of course I did not feel that not knowing what job to apply for constituted a mental health problem. I figured it was a very common challenge facing many graduates and that it would, in time, resolve itself.

It didn’t.

In fact I didn’t understand that not knowing what I wanted was a real problem until a number of years later when my psychotherapist pointed it out to me. Graciously she guided me into the understanding that my incredible, analytical, rational brain (the one that was at home in the world of quantum mechanics) was a bully, and that my emotional needs were being squished, surfacing only in inelegant spurts of anti-social behaviour.

I needed these two parts of my brain to cooperate

The compromise however would have to be from the rational side of me. The side of me that understands my bank balance, writes my CV and earnt a degree. I really despised this idea, but eventually, after much fighting with myself, recognised that my emotions are impossible to reason with.

Now I had surrendered some of my stubbornness it was time to move onto the second stage.

Stage 2: Accepting my long term goals

It surprised me to discover that what I want is nothing new. The things that make me the happiest are pretty much the same things that made me the happiest when I was at school.

The desire for travelling has amplified rather, and become more nuanced. Painting and drawing have been pretty consistent activities throughout my life. And I whilst my standards have risen, my writing has been prolific since I was a teenager. I might have started my diaries when I was in my twenties, but the Christmas holidays of my sixteenth birthday I churned out 20,000 words. A year later I’d created most of a novel.

My problem however was that it all felt pretty much like playing

I’d written that novel after stopping studying English at school at the grand old age of sixteen, and although I did art at AS-level it became a horrific endurance battle as the department entered civil war.

So whilst other people around me studied to be artists or writers, I played at both and loved both hobbies equally. Meanwhile I was pretty obnoxiously certain that I was going to become successful, well-off and influential because of my incredible analytical mind.

Thankfully, after a few false starts, I ended up amongst the psychotherapists cushions. She helped me think through some very important questions. What will being well-off give you? Successful in whose eyes? Influencing people to what goal?

At which point it hit home

I want to be immersed in the things which require a soft ego, gentle humility and that are driven by listening to the world, not shouting at it. I want to paint, I want to write, and I want to learn by opening myself to all the incredible people around me.

Here steps in the Crabbe and Goyle of my brain

Crabbe says yes, but you are going to have to get a proper job one day, and Goyle says, but don’t you want to be successful like your house-buying, PhD winning, money making peers.

At first I fought them.

Then I realised that they, like most bullies out there, need a bit of compassion. I was rejecting them and therefore they were going through a bit of a rough patch. This time it was my emotions that needed to get to work. It was time to show some compassion, to myself.

I needed to commit myself to doing what I love.

Stage 3: Writing down the next step

So, these fluffy goals of creating art, writing something and seeing the world aren’t exactly your business SMART goals. And I’m sure intelligent goals are very useful for some people, but what I need is a direction. At this stage, it doesn’t bother me that I haven’t got a clue where I’ll be in five-years time. I don’t currently know which continent I’ll be living in six months from now. I’ve kind of made a nest of uncertainty, and whilst it’s not necessarily plastic wrapped perfect, it’s tactile and stable.

I know that in five-years time what I will be doing is creating art, writing stories and conversing with strangers. Therefore, all I’m focusing on right now is getting really good at those three things. I plan on spending the rest of my life continuing to get really good at these same three things.

So all I need to know today is what small step I’m making

Each week, or every couple of days I review my goals, write down the next small step I need to take, and then I focus on doing just that. It’s simple.

In the future I assume I will need to put more emphasis on being more financially stable but I’m practicing my humility. I’m not in the place to do that right now. I’m practicing my generosity, I believe I’ll get there eventually. I’m practicing my self-kindness, I’ve just picked myself up off the ground after a rather nasty fall.

I need to get a stable footing before I try to cartwheel

And so today I wrote this article, and I painted a picture of a photo I took a few weeks back whilst visiting Granada and I practiced my Spanish.

So, yes mother, I know my life goals. And I’m achieving them every single day.

In summary:

  • For me, it’s easy to be so analytical that I forget to follow my gut feeling.
  • My gut feeling, what I like and don’t like, is actually surprisingly consistent. Therefore I pay attention to this and set goals that reflect what I actually enjoy doing.
  • Getting the next step written down helps me keep my mind focused on today, whilst moving along the path of creativity I’ve actively chosen for myself.

It doesn’t mean I know what I want to eat when I’m presented with a menu

So if I’m feeling overwhelmed, I ask the waiting staff for a recommendation.

Spain is a wonderful place for trying new food. You can pick at the food, share it, swap it, taste only a tiny amount of it and this is all considered to be polite. It’s how you’re meant to eat.

Life ain’t so different.

Do you know what you want?

How to teach a child public speaking (without pretense)

Posted on 7 min read
Poetry and flowers… I’m getting soppy.

She wasn’t one of my students

I generally teach the ‘bilingual’* half of the school and so we hadn’t met before. She tried speaking to me in Spanish, and I explained, in slow English, that I don’t speak Spanish. This is now a lie. I just don’t speak Spanish at school.

She nodded. She didn’t really speak English and yet, for whatever reason, she had decided that she needed to tell me that she was feeling nervous. The funny thing was that I was nervous too. I often feel nervous before standing up and speaking.

With the aid of some creative gestures and the assistance of another student we managed to communicate a little. But soon we were ushered towards the front of the hall, the seats were filling up and so we found ourself a place at the front facing our audience. I was given a seat, and the nervous girl and the student of mine who had asked me to partake in the event stood behind me. Both were visibly nervous.

In this short article I’m going to write about fear.

The group of students smelt of fear

This isn’t a smell I used to notice. I mean, I guess my body noticed, but cognitively I didn’t. They smelt something like the queue at airport security, but freshly so. Annoyingly my body was syncing up with theirs. Before entering the hall I hadn’t particularly been bothered about reading a poem. In fact I jokingly offered to do it in Spanish if my student read theirs in English.

However the tension of the students around me started getting to me. I smiled at them, told them to breathe deep. I took some deep breaths myself, sitting abnormally rigid in my seat, trying to pay attention to my fascinating body.

The poetry reading began

A microphone was handed to the first boy and he began his reading. After he finished I turned to the student who had asked me to read a poem in English for them and told her that I didn’t want to use the microphone. She gave me the look that said ‘it seems we’re using the microphone’.
I didn’t want to use the microphone.

The nervous girl was shaking. The microphone was passed to the next reader.

I contemplated the microphone

I didn’t like it. I didn’t want it. I didn’t trust it. Student after student lifted it to their mouths and spoke softly into it.

Then came the announcement that a poem would be read in English and Spanish. The student’s class and full name was read, and then my name, simply Catherine.

I took the microphone with a smile

As a rule I try to do all such things with a smile. Then I stepped into the centre of the stage and looked up at the students who were amassed in front of me. I knew the names of many of the faces. Every chair was taken and there was a gathering of teachers huddled at the back. I smiled at the students, gave a quick, but visible, playful frown at the microphone and held it out at a distance so it would be sure to not pick up my voice. Then I read the poem.

Slowly. Annunciating each word and throwing the sounds out to the very back of the hall, interrupting the whispered hisses of the teaching staff. The students listened. It wasn’t a beautiful reading, but it was purposeful. It commanded silence and it got it. When I looked up at the children, seated in their rows, I was surprised to see that they were grinning back. Rows and rows of them. I was so stunned they were paying attention I nearly forgot the last line.

When I took my seat, to a round of applause, my student who was reading the Spanish translation read her part. It was her second reading, but this was twice as loud as the first.

My work however was not yet complete

The nervous girl touched my shoulder and I turned to her amid the clapping.

“Look,” I said. And I held out my hand.

It was shaking

She stared at me amazed and I smiled at her. Her eyes widened with the sudden recognition of what I was trying to show her.

And then she took to the stage and gave the best reading of us all.

At this point, having told my story, I want to bring your attention to three specific factors:

1) I have an informal relationship with my students
2) This means I can be vulnerable around them
3) I’m teaching them how to overcome fear by demonstrating it myself

I wear jeans and a t-shirt for school

The children call me by my first name. Apart from the teacher who introduced the speakers, I was the only adult involved. I sat with the students and before and after the reading it was with the students that I chatted.

Generally the students know more about me than any of their other teachers, because rather than standing at the front of the class and giving instructions which they are then expected to follow, I engage them in a two way conversation.

One of the exam questions is, “Would you like to have a small or large family in the future?”

I’m expected to ask this personal question to a class of sixteen-year-olds, and they have no option but answer. Lying in a foreign language you don’t speak very well is surprisingly difficult. It’s a double translation. I regularly give them permission to lie to me, but I also try to respect that I have to earn the truth.

So while I ask questions, I also give example answers talking about myself. This is how I know the girls who write fan-fiction and the boy who plays in chess tournaments at the weekends, and they know I paint and write and take photos.

And that unlike my ancestors I’m not going to be having fourteen children. I’m already much too old.

I’m willing to show the children that I haven’t got everything in my life straightened out

Sometimes I ask students about their plans for the future, and they admit to worrying because they’re not certain. So I share that although I’m twice their age, I feel the same. I’m not certain where I’ll be a year from now, let alone five years from now, certainly not for the rest of my life.

When I showed the nervous girl my shaking hand I was telling her that she was not alone. Nerves are not something you necessarily grow out of, but you can change how you think about them. Many of these children have significant anxiety issues. They don’t have the skills to handle the constant internal fear they are generating.

So often we view our bodies as betraying us, letting us down

It’s easy to get angry at a shaking hand. Yes, my voice trembles sometimes. Sometimes my heartbeat is so forceful in my chest that I think other people must be able to see my rib cage reverberating. When I’m stood at the front of the class I have to take off a few layers because my body is wound up hot.

I used to see these behaviours of my body as a tremendous weakness

My body would overreact to ridiculous things. When my body would slam into panic attack mode I wasn’t exactly grateful. But then I recall that how my body has used these troublesome reactions to protect me, and I am grateful.

When I felt my hand shaking I didn’t see it as something that was going to stop me reading the poem I’d been asked to read. I saw it as a curiosity. I had a commitment to my students to fulfill but when I felt my shaking hand and I realised that this visible quiver could be an incredible teaching tool.
Without needing words, I said I see your fear, I know your fear, and I have faith in your ability to do stand up there and read your poem like it was written to be read.

And without needing words, the student simply said, I see your fear, and I believe you.

Which makes my informal, gentle approach, where I’m willing to open up a little and be realistic about my own uncertainty, worthwhile.

Which brings me to a final question

Why is such a simple approach remarkable?

I invite you to now read the poem I read by Rupi Kaur chosen by my students:

*The children are separated into bilingual and non-bilingual classes, based on a mixture of how good their grades are and how demanding their parents are willing to be. They all study English, but the bilingual students study an additional subject in English as well.

Lessons from my mother – part two: People don’t stay the same

Posted on 7 min read
We spent quite a while staring at the changing landscape here. The rock worn away by the river, the man-made dam, the broken bridge… Comunidad Valenciana, February 2019.

A few weeks back I found myself having a drink with an acquaintance, who turned out to be a reader of tarot cards.

I have a literary fascination with tarot cards, by which I mean I love a bit of magic realism sprinkled into literature and so my tarot card knowledge comes almost entirely from Chocolat (and the sequel the Lollipop Shoes) by Joanne Harris, and one of the Philippa Gregory historical fiction novels which touches upon the life of Joan of Arc.

So later that evening, quietly, I asked if I could possibly see the tarot cards for myself. Sate my curiosity. Which is how, in a mixture of English and Spanish (for the session was conducted in Spanish but I was instructed to think in English) I learnt that things in my life would change, in a good way, but not in the expected way. And that I apparently have issue with the patriarchy…

Which perhaps means nothing, but at the same time did get me thinking about how people change.

In the last article I wrote about meditation and how I’d slowly, and reluctantly, gone from random commitments to meditation to a more consistent approach. And that this idea of daily practice, had impacted my daily routine, forcing it to change.

Now I’m going to start part two of ‘things I learnt from my mother’ by looking at the early hours of that daily routine.

I have never been good at mornings

Going back a bit it used to be that I was simply grumpy in the mornings. Having a strong cup of coffee didn’t seem to help much. The only cure for my grumpiness was time, and so I simply got on with accepting myself as a grumpy morning person. My dressing-gown through my teenage years read ‘grumpy but gorgeous’ on the back, but I can assure you that in the early hours of the day, weighed down with so much grumpiness, I am far from gorgeous.

Things hardly improved at university and got progressively worse when I had a 9-5 job. Except my job was 9:30 to 6:30 because there was no paid lunch break and my boss recognised that it would be better for all concerned if I was given the extra half-an-hour to become more humane.

My mother meanwhile considers seven o’clock to be a lay in

As a child I would wake up to discover her taking a freshly made shepherd’s pie out of the oven, although it wouldn’t surprise me because I was used to being woken by my mother’s battle with the pan cupboard long before my alarm went off.

I learnt to be a heavy sleeper.

Back home as an adult, dealing with trauma, sleep became challenging in a whole new way. In the evenings I would have to convince myself to go to sleep, knowing that I would wake up amid engrossing nightmares. At times I feared sleep. Even now I occasionally have evenings where the idea of sleep suddenly fills me with a sense of dread. Although, I also believe good sleep to be one of the best things ever.

In my darker days, in the mornings my patient mother would wake me up gently with a cup of tea and slowly I’d emerge from my dreamworld. I couldn’t force myself out of the dreams, but having that moment of being cared for early in the day really helped. It gave me something less frightening to cling to.

And slowly I got better. At which point I moved to Spain and started working again. At a school, where my first class tends to begin at 8:30am!

Which, I admit, was at first a challenge

Which is why I’m obsessive about having a strict bedtime. I used to laugh at my mother for heading to bed at half past nine, but nowadays at half past nine you are very likely to discover me in my pyjamas preparing my coffee for the next morning, whilst my house-mates contemplate what they’re going to have for dinner.

But what’s much more surprising is that by 7am I’m no longer in my pyjamas. In fact, this morning at seven I was in leggings and on my yoga mat, as I have been for the last couple of months.

Now I wish I could give a profound reason for it

I wish I could give you a sensible explanation, but the only one I have found is that I finally got fed up of starting the morning trying to bully myself into waking up. I’ve seen the mother in the morning and she too has a dazed look about her. And yet, she just gets up and starts the day and bakes shepherds pies. And by 7am she’s shook off all grumpiness.

So, having surrendered in my morning battle, I have surprised myself by discovering, I love mornings.

Which brings me to: people change

When I was in the routine of therapy, nightmares and feeling sorry for myself I could have easily become stuck in the idea that ptsd was going to be who I was forever. My psychotherapist described it as a chronic pain, something that I would carry for life.

And then the mother would put on some eighties songs and we’d be hula-hooping in the kitchen and making up silly routines, laughing at ourselves and I would forget that I was broken and miserable and instead stare at the incredible woman in front of me who had taken the place of my mother. Because the mother of my childhood did not suddenly think three o’clock in the afternoon was the time for swivelling her hips to Abba. It was for work, jobs, lists and hoovering.

My mother’s mentality isn’t to say, “Have a nice day.”

My mother says, “Have a productive day.”

But between Super Trooper and Waterloo my mother taught me an incredible lesson

People change.

And if people change, then I can too.

But the question becomes, to what?

At the same time my psychotherapist was drumming home the importance of knowing what it is I want. If you know me quite well you might think this is a bit odd because I am always doing things and am clearly quite ambitious. The difficulty I have had has been that I’m not always sure what it is I want and what it is I think I should want.

My psychotherapist suggested that I needed to practice acting on my frivolous desires. She said that if I wanted to run up the hill to the ice-cream shop and buy an ice-cream then I should run up the hill and buy an ice-cream.

I pondered this. At the time I had no income, and even now my income is erratic. I’m lactose intolerant, so I could not have a milk-based ice-cream unless I took a lactase tablet. If I were to run up the hill for an ice-cream, as my psychotherapist suggested, was I supposed to tell her I’d done it, and could I also do it combined with another task such as posting a letter.

Which, you’ll gather is missing the very valid point

When you extrapolate these analytical thoughts into the whole of life you can begin to comprehend how knowing what I want from the start is a much healthier option. Life’s to short to waste on all this meaningless analysis. Rather than trying to please everyone and then having a tantrum and being manipulative to get my subconscious needs met, I need to pull my wants out into my conscious mind and act on them.

Tomorrow I will probably practice my having what I want by passing by the bakery on the way back from the market.

These little lessons began to congeal

And I began figuring out that I didn’t have to be the person that I’d planned to be when I was fifteen but that I could be the person who I want to be today. As my mother was vibrantly demonstrating.

Pulling together all these thoughts, here’s a quick summary:

In part one I wrote about meditation, and about how having a daily practice is much healthier than an ad hoc approach.

Then in part two I discussed my history of mornings, and how coming to terms with waking up in the morning and learning to love the early hours has been a process of surrender.

And finally, I wrote about how my mother gave me belief that people can change in the cliché of ‘show not tell’. And how my psychotherapist started me along the process of knowing how it is I want to change.

Okay, I admit it, despite not believing in magic, I want my own set of tarot cards

Old-fashioned ones, softened by age and use. The rational physicist in me says not to be silly or frivolous, but the girl who was fascinated by a book on witchcraft from the school library and stories of magic-realism wants the tactile ownership of the magic for herself.

Maybe, today, there’s something frivolous you can do, just for you. Just because you want to.

I challenge you to do it.

Lessons from my mother – part one: Learning to meditate productively (i.e. like my mother, not like me)

This picture is from my time in Sicily where I was in one of my ‘meditate lots’ phases. November 2016.

My first foray into meditation was accidental

As a child I discovered an engaging tome on witchcraft in the school library.

I remember being captivated. Somewhere in the book I came across what I would now call a guided meditation. Although at the time I would have more likely described it as brain magic. So one evening, when my parents were out of the way and the house was momentarily quiet, I opened the book, settled myself on the carpet with four candles (my smoke alarm took exactly five tea-lights to set off), imaginary pets and my favourite cuddly toys and set myself to work with the enduring seriousness known to geniuses and small children.

I woke from my disorientating trance sometime later, terrified and in awe of the magical powers of my mind.

And then after returning the book to the library. I forgot all about meditation.

My mother’s first attempt to get me interested in meditation failed

Fed up of me complaining about my skin and mouth ulcers when I called her from university she sent me a CD of meditation tracks. I tried it out, figured it was wonderful. With incredible enthusiasm I lent it to a friend, who promptly had terrible nightmares. And then it was popped on the shelf where it stayed. University life came at me like a tornado and between complaining about my skin and the consequences of my ad-hoc impulsive decisions I didn’t have any time for sitting still.

Plus, my father had once said I was a meditative person anyway, so did I really need meditation.

My skin and mouth continued getting worse. Stupidly, I fought on.

Things changed though when my mother started using the Headspace app

Which she has now used daily for years and years. And at some point I cottoned on to the fact that she was changing in front of my eyes. My loving but imperfect father would say things, spiky things, designed to taunt her. My sister and I would tense at the dinner table, waiting for a sharp retort, and that sharp retort just didn’t come.

My sister and I would exchange a confused glance. My father would try again but his comment would not stick.

It seemed like overnight, although in reality it was a process of years, my mother who had been almost as emotionally explosive as me had become grounded. The more stress was poured on her, the taller she seemed to stand.

She started aging backwards

I want to just make this really clear. My mother, version a, the one I grew up with, was like a bullet train. Then the meditation thing started, and well… she’s become aware of the journey she’s taking. She’s still clock orientated, but the seconds tick by slower. Instead of snapping back at things, she’s making astute observations about how other people might feel.

By this point I’d dabbled again in meditation

I didn’t have a regular daily practice. I would start and stop. I read about meditation, tried different methods and frequently decided I was too busy or tired to bother sitting.

As with many of my activities, I would meditate intensely and then stop. I did ten days in a silent retreat and then didn’t sit again for a month. The mother meanwhile incorporated meditation into her daily routine and made it a steady daily practice.

And I was envious

Because my mother was changing before my eyes, proving that complaining and whining and emotional tantrums were unnecessary if only I practiced daily. I was buying books on meditation and she was finishing them and applying them before I’d got through the introduction.

What’s more she was doing yoga every morning. And if meditation is hard to quantify, yoga really is not. When I’m next to her on the mat and my hips don’t bend but her head’s on the floor it’s obvious that her little and often approach is so much better than mine.
Little and often also has other benefits.

There is a saying in sports, ‘too much, too soon’

In my experience, most sport injuries can be put down to people trying to change their routines too quickly. Amusingly I understood this concept easily when it came to something like running. I’m perfectly happy to spend a few weeks doing short slow runs, getting used to the terrain, to my shoes, building up the muscles in my legs, and therefore I have relatively few injuries. I know I can run 15km over the moors, because I have done, but when I first go out I aim for three and avoid the hills.

Applying the same knowledge to writing, or meditation just seemed silly.

My biggest excuse for all the things that I haven’t been practicing daily was that I was the sort of person who does bursts of intense focus

I also used to say that I wasn’t a runner. I didn’t run between the age of 13 and 23, which I though proved my point. But when I did start running (and I only initially ran to prove I couldn’t) I realised that I was wrong

For years I used to not be able to touch my toes. Today I can.

Yesterday I recognised I was getting defensive, and I stopped myself, paused and made sure my next word was ‘sorry’.

Mañana… tomorrow, next week, next month, next year. It’s so easy to put off things because it’s not who we are…

But we become the sort of person we practice being today

So today, when I woke up I proceeded through my daily practices: Spanish flashcards, photography video, yoga, writing… and the last thing before I go to bed tonight I will, as I have done all year now, meditate.

And now to quickly wrap this all up, because I’ve babbled on enough:

My mother tried to persuade me to meditate, but practicing herself is what really got me paying attention.

If bullet-train mother can slow down and find ten minutes a day to meditate then surely I can find ten minutes of my day to do the same. Even if it doesn’t feel like it’s in my nature.

We can learn the concept of ‘too much, too soon’ from sport and apply it into our daily life to balance our enthusiasm and focus instead on a regular training plan.

Nowadays, I feel ever so guilty when I feel like complaining about my skin or mouth ulcers. And when I hear others complain although I am initially frustrated, I know I need to breathe and find some compassion. There are many excuses we tell ourselves for not practicing the things we want to be good at, but in the long term you will be the person you practice being on a day-to-day basis. Not the character you take on once in a blue moon.

I might not have continued meditating from my encounter with the book on becoming a witch, and I haven’t learnt to levitate either, but I have continued the habit I set up back then of obsessively reading. It is through this incredible practice of reading that I realise I can now write the things I write.

And that obsessive reading, I guess I also picked that up from my mother…

If you haven’t tried meditating, or have once tried my CD and it gave you nightmares, I suggest experimenting a bit, there might be a meditation out there that suits your needs.

My mother highly recommends the Headspace App and Andy Puddicombe’s voice. If an app is not for you, he’s also written a book and done a TED Talk.

Finally, thanks to the Mother and Jessika for the very welcome spelling corrections…