“… he’s not drearily whacking at the metal like a miner with a pickaxe: Every hit, though forceful, is carefully controlled. He peers intently at the metal, through thin-framed intellectual glasses (which seem out of place perched above his heavy beard and broad shoulders), turning it just so for each impact.”
Cal Newport in his book Deep Work describing the blacksmith Ric Furrer of Door County Forgeworks
Whenever I read about someone doing physical labour with a
sense of love I’m reminded of my time on the farm in France. Whilst on the farm
in France isn’t the only occasion when I’ve worked the land, it was the most
prolonged period I’ve done so, and the most rewarding.
I’d be up early, to share breakfast with the children before
Grandmére walked them to school. Fresh French bread and homemade jam. Then, whilst
Grandpère was checking his email, I’d head over to the polytunnel to water all
the vegetables growing there.
Anything ripe and ready for eating I’d take to the kitchen
Plus, any eggs I’d wrestled from the want-to-be mothers in
the hen coop. After this, I’d collect grain from the barn and drive out to the
sheep. They would come running at me, the largest, a sheep I nicknamed ‘bully’
at their lead. It would take creativity not to end up rolling down the
Then I’d go and join Grandpère
By this time, he would have settled on a plan for the day,
and would be, you could be sure, wielding some sharp implement. His favourite
was the chainsaw. We chopped down trees, chopped up trees and built wood piles
great enough to heat the uninhabited chateau if necessary.
I learnt to love stacking logs
There is a rhythm to it: You’re working alongside one
another in almost silence. Nothing is happening fast, but you’ve engaged mind
and body, and you think, one more trailer full and we’ll finish-up, just a
little bit more. You ache, but you’ve got the rhythm working for you and the
ache is part of the harmony.
After working all morning, I’d take a solid siesta
I would be exhausted. Not just physically, but mentally too.
I was learning something new every day, like sharpening chainsaws and driving
Under scrupulous supervision, I learnt to prune fruit trees
Including, the apples in a neat espalier style. I’d cut a few branches, with great care, and then Grandmére would appear and point out what I’d missed. I’d trim a bit more, then she’d suggest another branch, explaining each step of the process as we went along.
I fell in love with it.
And whilst I am very wary here of romanticising manual
labour, for me, it was a magical experience. A feeling that never came to me
when I was working in an office.
Although of course, many people don’t work the land out of
I will never need to exhaust myself with full days of
physical labour. For me, it’s a choice and came with a guarantee of a good
hearty meal. Grandmére being an excellent cook. You can’t go and work on a farm
for a couple of months and understand what it’s like to make your livelihood
out of manual labour. You don’t have a clue.
When the time came, I could take a flight to my next
destination and go try something else.
But there is something about seeing a patch of land you’ve
dug or a tree you’ve felled, and saying, that’s what I did today. I did learn
Ric Furrer, the blacksmith described at the top of the page,
chooses to make swords
Each one is a piece of art, crafted with care. When he
thrusts the hot metal into a pipe of oil to cool it, he doesn’t know if it is
going to crack, which does happen sometimes with the dramatic change of heat.
The oil catches fire and momentarily wraps the sword in flames.
Part of the reward is the process. It’s making something happen with your own hands. It’s having something you can look at when the sun begins to set and say, with pride, that’s what I did today.
From the archives there’s also this post about a day on the farm. You know, should you be looking for even more.
My little sister, the Midget, put three loads of washing on,
one after the other, pinned them out on the washing line which stretches the
length of her back-garden and commented on how, with the wind and the sun, it
was perfect drying weather.
I rolled my eyes a little because she sounded just like the Mother, adult-like.
A little while later we headed out of the house and went for a walk
However, as we were walking, she mentioned how being an adult still surprises her. Like being an adult was something as peculiar as being a fairy. Something unnatural and kind of weird.
Of course, I was curious about what she meant by the term she used, ‘adulting’, and being grown-up. After all, my little sister is a house owner with a stone carrying ring on her finger. I might be the one without the regular job and traditional lifestyle, but I’m not ‘adulting’, I’m an adult.
I dug a little deeper wondering what all of this meant.
The other night one of her colleagues came to visit
We played the board game Carcassonne and I cooked dinner. Early in the evening, the Midget sighed, declared it was time for some ‘adulting’ and disappeared out to the shop. Her colleague shook his head with bemusement. He finds her comments about growing-up funny and totally out of character as her supposed incompetence is in sharp contrast to her behaviour at work, which he described as confident.
So, on our walk, I asked my sister about how she feels at work and if she feels like she’s ‘adulting’ when she’s there. The look she gave me said no before she even opened her mouth.
At work, she said, she just felt inexperienced. There was so much more knowledge to acquire. At work, she feels like an adult. She’s an adult who’s learning what’s required for the next step in her career.
I moved the conversation onto sport.
Sport has always been a big part of her life
She’s not doing quite as much as she’d like to right now perhaps, but for the last however long, she’s been in and out of physiotherapy after being taken off a pitch on a backboard and in a neck-brace.
For a few months, I could lift heavier boxes than she could. It was incredible. But, in general, I’ve become used to the idea that she’s fitter and stronger than me. At one stage I could beat her on a long-distance run, but I’m not so sure now.
But because of the injuries, she’s feeling unfit. She might be unfit, but she knows what she’s doing. She’s got the first-aid kits, the tape, the punch bag and the tackle pad. When it comes to sport, she feels like an adult. She’s an adult who’s training to be faster and stronger.
So where is all this ‘adulting’ happening?
I pinned it down to right here in the house. What my sister seems to mean by ‘adulting’ is form filling and kitchen floor sweeping.
It takes time to learn to do these ‘adulting’ tasks
I think the real issue here is she hasn’t accepted the learning process and expects perfection from the get-go. She’s so good at almost everything that she believes something so ordinary and everyday as writing a supermarket shopping list should come easily. And then it doesn’t.
I’m reminded of my Great-Nonna’s housekeeping book
The one where she systematically made a tiny amount of money feed and clothe the whole family. The difference between the challenge facing my sister and the challenge my Great-Nonna faced is vast. My little sister, confident and capable at work, respected and admired within her sporting circles, doesn’t have to worry about looking after the individual pennies. She just needs to get enough food in the fridge to eat during the week.
The Great-Nonna had to treat budgeting like an art form. It demanded time, patience and took time to learn.
I think this is the step my sister is missing. Her to-do list doesn’t include ‘learn to write a shopping list’.
And I think the Midget is doing herself an injustice with her terminology
She’s not playing at being an adult, she is one. Her theory
is she makes too many comparisons to other people. Not to me, because I’m ‘unconventional’,
but to other people who seem to manage to keep their kitchens clean and
Well, one of the many things I love about my sister is how she is not the same as everyone else. I love how she has priorities and she’s fierce about putting them first. You can’t prioritise everything, so some things fall to second place. If we run out of food, the supermarket is probably open 24 hours. It really is not a big deal.
But comparison is a hard-to-break habit.
The other week we watched a chunk of a home video
In the video, my sister was a cooing baby and I was toddling around bashing things. Our parents were the age we are now but seemed to look younger.
Except it’s all perspective, and how old we look tends to relate more to a context than anything else. Children can’t guess the age of adults without clues like grey hair and such a clue is less viable when so many people dye their hair. At work, I’m often assumed to be younger than I am. I doubt this would be the case if I was in a different job, but many language assistants tend to be just post-university age. Not all, I know a fair number who are the Mother’s age, but many.
What’s more, I’d look quite different wearing a formal jacket, my nails manicured, and my hair styled. Or if you could also see a photograph of me ten years ago.
I look in the mirror and see my grey hairs and contemplate that I am getting older
Meanwhile, whilst the Midget fusses about ‘adulting’, the
Mother is ageing backwards. Having got the art of ‘adulting’ pretty much
perfected, she’s likely to be found running around the garden in her
welly-boots, swinging on her wooden garden swing, or trying to hula-hoop on one
Truly, my family are the best.
As a side note here, this post came about because I asked the Midget what she wanted me to write about and she said herself. If you have something you particularly want me to write about, let me know.
Watercolour is an unforgiving medium. It demands patience, which is something I tend to remember once I’ve messed it up a bit. In the cherry above you can see a dark line on the edge of the cherry, which came about because I wanted to make the cherry darker, but wasn’t patient enough to wait for each layer to dry.
The banana has some ‘cauliflowering’ from where I failed to create a decent shadow and left too much water sitting on the page. And the artichoke has a soft blurry edge from where again I struggled to create a shadow.
All the fruit was drawn from life, but the apples, as you can possibly tell from their odd shapes, were moved from the table for dinner, and then I finished up the painting elsewhere, fruitless.
There is an obvious lack of colour theory in the single landscape picture – painted from a photo I took on an evening walk. The hills in the background ought to be cooler. The thing that looks like a stick is supposedly a path, but it doesn’t seem to sit in the grass.
The lavendar is crisp, simply because it’s from a tutorial I was following. Tutorials are good, you can learn a lot from them, although it’s also important to mix in some of your own constructions.
I have an awful lot to learn, but I feel like despite (or because of) all the mistakes, I’m making progress.
In her twenties, the nun in the book
went to an interview for a place at the National College of Domestic Subjects
to study cookery. In front of the panel, she was asked to read a section from
The Times newspaper. Having been born to wealth and educated by her mother to
become a lady, she read with what she describes as a ‘cut-glass accent’.
A chap on the panel whispered, “I
don’t think Sister Agatha will be much good in the East End of London.”
At which point she realised her error
and broke through the ice around them by adding, “Now, me ‘ole Dutch, where we
Smiles appeared throughout the panel,
which decided to accept her. She’d proven she could adapt her tone.
Speaking in an inclusive manner can be
Conversing isn’t always easy,
especially across cultures, across differences in educational opportunity and
across generations. I think those of us who seek out opportunities to converse
across such barriers don’t give ourselves enough credit for what we do.
Just the other week I was reminded how
hard we must work to get the most out of a conversation.
Imagine a very tidy living room and a
I was sitting upright, body lent
forward, alert because I was having coffee with my friend´s mother – a tiny
woman with strong eyes. Such a situation can be a little daunting even if you
speak the same language, but here I was having to converse in Spanish. Spanish.
That language which has me dancing on the edge of my comfort zone on an almost
This time, I was talking about France
I have within me a repertoire of short
stories to which I have learnt, through perseverance and embarrassment, the
relevant vocabulary. Good conversations involve stories or at least interesting
examples the other person can connect to. Stories also fill time and make a
conversation feel fluid.
What’s more, I quite enjoy trampling
over people’s assumptions about me. I enjoy eliciting surprise. You need a bit
of wonder sprinkled in a conversation to keep your audience paying attention.
During this conversation, however, I
was doing nothing artful with my language
The anxiety that strikes me whenever I
must speak to someone new in Spanish had entered my bones, and the cogs in my
brain were overheating. The Spanish grandmother didn’t ask complex questions,
but her Spanish is drenched in dialect, which frustrated our translator and aid
(her son), who desperately wanted me to understand for myself.
I was speaking particularly badly
I was nervous. So out of necessity,
the Spanish grandmother was taking responsibility for the structure of the
conversation. I hate this, but whilst I can structure a conversation in
English, doing the same in Spanish is beyond me.
From the start, she knew I taught
Like many people, she was curious as
to how I’d ended up where I was. I explained how I’d worked in a ‘proper job’
once upon a time. In an office, at a desk, next to a window. And I explained
how I’d watched Spring come from behind the glass pane, summer pass by, and
eventually autumn arrive. Then I told her about France. I told her about
working the land, driving diggers and feeding the sheep.
Now lost between a historic
frustration and a series of memories, I described my nostalgia for that
physical sensation of labour. I tried to avoid romanticising it because hard
physical labour is not romantic. But I did contrast the physical work on the
land to the labours of the mind. And all this in broken sentences with the
verbs conjugated aloud.
The Spanish grandmother frowned
Her eyes communicated her recognition
of my naivety, not in a patronising manner, but in the way that a teacher might
look at a child who just hasn’t quite got it. A maternal look, but not a soft
Her voice, however, when she spoke,
was soft and steady. She said that outside work is both, body and mind.
I felt that she was navigating through
some of her own memories
Even now she works on the land and has
done I believe for much of her life. Her skin is golden, showing a lifetime of
being drenched in sunlight. The previous week she’d been picking flowers. She
knows more about the land than I ever will, but when she spoke, her words were
more like poetry, describing the relationship between the worker and the land
as a form of art.
This was not what I had expected
As I learnt about the woman I was
speaking to, I was reminded of how although she had little formal education,
she possessed immense wisdom, and it gave me an insight into my own child-like
self. In her eyes, I am not much older than a child.
Although, she acknowledged with a
little surprise, I have experienced a lot for one so young.
Her school life had centred around the
Every morning in her school she’d had to start with prayers because her school life had happened under Franco’s Catholic Nationalism. A complete contrast to my upbringing. I declared myself an atheist at the age of 7. The only people who argued the case for religion with me were my father (whose beliefs don’t appear to include an almighty being) and much later, Grand-père (who went to mass every Sunday and brought me back gigantic meringues).
She asked about my religious beliefs
or lack of belief
And I fumbled through my vocabulary,
trying to find the words to describe something I’m not sure I could articulate
in English. All the time she watched me with immense curiosity.
Religion in Spain is a dangerous
topic. Some people talk about religion as a pillar holding up the rest of life,
whilst others have an audible snarl in their throats when they mention the
church. I’m fascinated by these attitudes to religion, but I know I must tread
with care. The girls at school describe my Yorkshire influenced accent as being
cute, and although I’m sometimes conscious of the childish sound of my voice,
sometimes I’m grateful for it.
She listened though, receptive to what
I was saying, and I was grateful.
And then just before she was about to
leave, she motioned to my ebook reader
It lay on the coffee table where I’d
discarded it when she’d arrived. She told me she didn’t read on phones and
suchlike, she reads books printed on paper. A literature lover. Despite all the
differences we might have, we are fellow bibliophiles. My heart felt lighter.
Which brings me back to my
Grandmother’s book about a nun
I started off sceptical. Reading about
a rich young lady who gave up her fiancé and dedicated her life to her God, I
wasn’t sure how well I’d connect. At first, I found her story a little
And then, in her fifties, she decides
that she’s going to travel. She doesn’t have much in the way of cash, because
nuns don’t, and yet, her passion to travel forced her to find a way. And that I
could relate to.
What’s more, when she talked about her
terrible driving, I couldn’t help but think of the habit-wearing nun who nearly
ran me over the other day.
The book was A Nun’s Story by Sister Agatha and Richard Newman.
The environmentalist, Dr John Francis, didn’t speak for 17 years. It wasn’t that he couldn’t, it was that he’d got sick of arguing with everyone. To tackle this, he decided to not speak for one day. That one day proved a bit of a shock. What took him by surprise was how much he learnt about listening. And so, the next day, he didn’t speak either.
This continued for 17 years.
I thought about John Francis the other morning when I woke up unable to speak. A silence they call ‘afónica’ in Spanish. A curse that teachers, who depend on their voices, are susceptible to. It was not that I felt unwell. As far as I could tell, the rest of me was fine.
Yet when I opened my mouth there was no sound
Since my job is to teach conversation this presented a unique challenge. And, like for John Francis, not speaking proved educational.
I discovered that:
I hadn’t been aware of how frequently I’m speaking
The students help each other more when I’m not getting in their way
It’s not hard to give corrections on paper, but effective praise is always difficult
Luckily, my first class was of twelve-year-olds
It’s a good class and the students and I have a nice rapport. They don’t have an expansive vocabulary and grammatically they’re just learning the past tense, yet, due to their less aggressive hormones, they have more freedom of expression than some of the older students.
They’re all different from one another
And I’ve become rather attached to them all. One child responds to every question by exclaiming ‘oh my god’ (in Spanish), before collecting himself and answering the question. They make me laugh.
The morning’s task was a role-play about an ice-cream shop
They take it seriously as it’s preparation for their exam. The work in pairs. One child has some question prompts whilst the other holds an information leaflet. This is partly a reading comprehension exercise, but I focus on their ability to construct questions. Most errors are derived from incorrect word order or missing auxiliary verbs (do/does, am/are/is, can).
Unable to speak, I listened and jotted down corrections in my notebook
The pages filled with scrawl as the children spoke. Unless they stopped and looked at me, unable to continue without a prompt, I didn’t interrupt. I waited until they’d completed the task before sharing my notes.
Normally once they have finished, I go over the questions out loud. The children tend to lean forward in their seats to see the paper and to watch my lips. I trace over the relevant points on the paper with my fingertip. This systematic reading, after correcting for their mistakes, allows the children to hear everything joined together. It’s the point where it’s easiest to identify between those who are genuinely engaged and those who are bored. I read through the role-play at natural pace letting them feel the language in action.
But this was impossible without a voice. Instead, I used the prompts I’d scribbled down to help the children themselves find the correct phrases. Correcting pronunciation took some creativity, but somehow we managed.
Surprisingly, they needed fewer prompts than I’d supposed
Which made me question how much of my speaking is for them and how much it is for me. The truth is, I enjoy speaking. I like telling stories. But what about them? Their eyes light up when I’m telling a story, but their eyes also light up when they’re the ones with the tale to tell.
When they laugh, giggle and share their own eccentric ideas I know they’re enjoying themselves. Part of this confidence comes from my own story-telling – I make the unconventional permissible. But perhaps I’ve not been taking this far enough?
Now, I find myself wondering how can I shift back and forth between them and me in a more balanced fashion?
My second discovery was that I get in the way of them helping each other
Knowing I wasn’t going to leap in, there were a few students who started taking more responsibility for their partner’s learning.
This is something I believe to be valuable but I have been struggling to encourage.
I’ve tried mixing up the pairs of students
I was hoping to find pairs who are willing to challenge each other and push each other a little further. This is more difficult than it sounds. Sometimes the intention is there, the students want to help one another, but they do so in Spanish which isn’t helpful. Other times their kind advice becomes telling. Occasionally it takes a stronger tone and comes across as posturing. But then, there are some stunning partnerships where the peer support is wonderful to see.
And although I’ve thought about all this before, I’ve been rather blind
Because having not spoken for a day, it’s obvious that one of the biggest reasons why one child doesn’t speak up and help their partner, is me.
I’m getting in the way of the children helping one another
As without a voice, I was unable to make instantaneous corrections, they leapt in to explain things to one another. And in English. My inability made them act as if they were me. They momentarily took on my role.
It seems I need to think this over. The children are able to help one another out but often don’t. What is it they lack? Is it a sense of responsibility to their partner? Is it something to do with permission? I know I’m getting in the way here, so what is it that I need to do differently?
On reflection though, I’m proud of them and how they handled themselves.
Which brings me onto my third point, praise.
Regardless of what you do, criticism is easier than constructive praise
Constructive praise is difficult. As the conversations progressed, I took notes of the incorrect grammar, the misused vocabulary or the pronunciation errors. These mistakes stand out to me as if they were painted in vivid colours.
Praise-worthy constructions don’t flash so boldly in my awareness
Since when we’re thinking about praise, we’re thinking about incremental improvement. Especially when it comes to language acquisition. The changes from one week to the next are tiny. And yet, it’s this progress that needs to be praised. It’s the journey of continuous learning, which is so hard to stick at, that deserves commendation.
Ideally, I like to give specific praise
It is more memorable for the student. Sometimes using a phrase on the paper allowed me to do this, but I found that without a voice it was tricky.
General praise can be given through body language
Although… I already tend to smile a lot.
Excessively it has been said. And I guess in the back of my mind I have the image of a ‘cool’ person who doesn’t grin like a mad cat at everyone shouldn’t be. I’m not that person. When I’m happy it’s impossible for me to hide my smile.
Once upon a time, I worked as an au-pair
My own advice to new au-pairs, who would despair at the children they had to somehow care for, was don’t force the children to like you. We all want to be liked, but it’s important that we also respect not everyone is going to like us. When we try to be likeable, we are doing so because we’re driven by fear. We present something fake and are therefore being dishonest.
Trying to get everyone to like you is the surest way to screw-up
Already, working with teenagers I worry that they think I try too hard to make them like me because of my wild grin. Losing my voice made me more conscious of my facial expressions. I didn’t have much else to communicate praise with.
What reassured me though were the questions I’d asked earlier in the week
A teacher hadn’t turned up, so I’d taken the opportunity to ask the students for feedback. They wrote down some thoughts and suggestions.
We don’t like speaking in English but, when we have to speak with [Catherine] we feel so comfortable because she is always smiling.
[Catherine] smiles a lot and I feel safe when I talk with [her] in class.
Maybe all my worry had been for nothing
And when my voice disappeared knowing that my smile had been regarded positively gave me a bit more confidence. Which meant, that on occasion, I went further and beamed with a thumbs up at times to make my point clear.
They are all remarkable individuals.
I remember when I was reading The Ragged Edge of Silence
That’s the book John Francis wrote on his experience of being silent. He describes teaching a discussion class without speaking. It seems so contrary to my own university experience where all my teachers at university did was speak. It lodged in my mind as remarkable. In his TED talk he says:
“Now this was a discussion class and we were having a discussion. I just backed out of that, you know, and I just kind of kept the fists from flying. But what I learned was that sometimes I would make a sign and they said things that I absolutely did not mean, but I should have. And so what came to me is, if you were a teacher and you were teaching, if you weren’t learning you probably weren’t teaching very well.”
Dr John Francis
If you aren’t learning you probably aren’t teaching very well… Leaving space and silence for the students to develop their own voices shouldn’t be remarkable, it should be part of what it means to teach.
Moving onwards, what I can focus on here is:
Varying how much I am contributing to the conversation
Staying quiet and letting the students correct each other
Investigating what is important about praise
And I can smile plenty.
Not being able to speak didn’t prove to be much of a problem
My job is one where speaking is taken for granted. But being ‘afónica’ for the day was a good lesson in the importance of speaking less.
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.
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
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?
Lack of energy management
Absence of triggers
There are many fears that influence how we structure our
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
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
The mixture of adrenaline and anxiety comes together and…
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
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
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
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?
Where I let fear dictate
Where I don’t manage my energy
And where I don’t compensate for an absence of triggers
Which means I’ve got some planning to do.
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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.
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
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
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:
I’m going to talk about what I do on a bad day
Then I’m going to talk about having a formal foundation
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
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
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
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
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!
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
Maybe you practice for some time and then your brain says
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.
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
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):
On a bad day, I lay down until I have a solid plan.
But meditation isn’t a quick fix, you need to build a solid foundation.
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.
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…
The things I drop from my to-do list
The actions I take to get me back on track
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?
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?