All Posts By Catherine

Supermarket shopping and flamingos

By Posted on Location: , 5 min read

If you or someone you know is interested in having online Spanish classes, let me know (kate@happenence.co.uk) and I’ll put you in contact with my teacher here whose plans, like so many people’s, have fallen through.

Andean flamingos. Highly relevant to the story I promise.
Wetlands in the Atacama Desert, Chile
January 2020
Photo by the Father, used with permission.

When my friend and colleague, the other language assistant in the city, flew back to England, she left me some curry paste. She explained that all I had to do was add coconut milk and I’d have my curry sauce. Which would have been fine, but I had no tins of coconut milk.

Which meant that I was heading out to go to the supermarket

Now I know we are all supposed to go to the supermarket alone, but I took Lady Patricia with me. Virtually. Physically, she was actually a quarter of the way around the world, safely snug in her apartment with a warm cup of tea.

But together we walked through my very quiet suburb, there was nobody about except a police car with two chaps, and an army truck with six soldiers (not-wearing masks, not 1.5 metres apart), but otherwise barely anyone. Luckily nobody seemed in a shooting mood at 9 am on a sunny Saturday morning so all was well.*

As we neared the supermarket though I noticed a long queue

There was also a long line of cars.

“So, Lady Patricia,” I explained. “There’s a long line of people here, some in masks, some with gloves, some really not seemingly with no idea of appropriate distancing, some risking getting run over in their enthusiasm to stay apart. Everyone looks rather serious.”

And my fellow shoppers did look rather serious. They looked almost panicked. I was aware that my grinning face and occasional spurts of laughter were a little out of place. Not to mention the fact that I was talking loudly and joyfully in a language that most people here do not understand.

I gleefully announced to Lady Patricia that we were being led in

I was going to be allowed to touch a trolley. I thanked the security guard who seemed entirely taken aback by the gesture. His face contorted like he wasn’t quite sure if he had permission to smile back. I think he was trying not to lose count of ho many shoppers her had allowed in.

Lady Patricia mistakenly thought we were in the supermarket. I explained no. The queue before had been to enter the supermarket grounds. This was the second queue: the queue for re-education and actual entry into the supermarket.

Lady Patricia said, “Oh.”

I explained that there was a man with a megaphone

He was playing a special coronavirus recording to different parts of the queue. Lady Patricia said she could hear it but she only caught the end of the reel. That, I said, was the number to call if you have any problems. The bit she missed was on handwashing, the symptoms of the virus and the correct way to behave in the supermarket, how we must remain 1.5 metres apart from one another.

Lady Patricia said, “Oh.”

Other men, dressed in black, wandered up and down the line flapping their hands at us making us all space ourselves out to the allocated social distancing standard. Sometimes it’s 2 metres. Sometimes in the foreign press, its 6ft. In the supermarket, it’s a trolley length and a bit.

Then we waited

I explained how I felt reassured by the multitude of security guards. Lady Patricia thought I meant because nobody was likely to violently loot the supermarket. I said no. And explained that security men in jobs are men in jobs which is helpful because it means that they are people getting paid. My greatest fear is the number of very desperate people there are going to be here in Chile as the economic situation worsens.

We waited to sanitise our hands and enter the supermarket

And I explained the requirements for our shopping trip. First that we were going to buy coconut milk, second lactose-free milk (because it’s always a good idea to stock up on milk), third, chicken for the curry, and fourth knickers.

Lady Patricia said, “Oh.”

We said a happy ‘Gracias’ to the woman guarding the hand sanitiser. Her face did that same contorting thing. And then headed to the clothes department. I admitted to Lady Patricia that all this lining up and being counted made me want to rebel and go charging down the aisles with my trolley. I didn’t. I refrained. But I wanted to.

Normally I wouldn’t buy my clothes from the supermarket, but since the mall was closed and Chile is a bit behind on the whole online shopping idea, I didn’t have much of a choice.

A Chilean flamingo.
Wetlands in the Atacama Desert, Chile
January 2020
Photo by the Father, used with permission.

You see, when I packed for Valparaiso, I had lots of knickers

In Peru I had plenty. In Torres del Paine I hand-washed the same few pairs, and I didn’t have to worry when I was in the countryside near Santiago because there too, I seemed to have enough. However, on moving back into my room in March I discovered that a number of items of underwear and all my trainer socks had somewhere, in some country, disappeared. Now we were in a crisis situation.

The shop’s offering wasn’t exactly exciting, but the more I explained the different designs to Lady Patricia, the more we giggled. The shop assistants huddled together and avoided looking.

After much deliberation, I chose six pairs of not very exciting knickers, except for Lady Patricia’s top choice: a pair covered in pictures of pink flamingos.

Just to prove I also saw flamingos…
Wetlands in the Atacama Desert, Chile
January 2020

I wheeled my shopping through to the checkout, loaded my knickers and my coconut milk onto the revolving counter. The lady manning the checkout re-sanitised her hands.

I said, “Gracias.”

And to my great delight, she smiled back, contortion free!

*It was probably entirely a coincidence that I saw both the police and the army within 5 minutes of each other. When I ran along the beach Sunday evening as the sun was setting in the most beautiful orange glow, there were no officials around to reprimand the few gathering groups…

Trying out different teaching techniques

By Posted on Location: , 4 min read

This post has been hiding in my drafts. I wrote it just before the social unrest flourished into mayhem in October. It was written back when we taught students in real, chair and desk classrooms.


Unearthing a traditional Pachamanca cooked dinner
The connection is that I mention cooking somewhere in the text below…
Ollantaytambo, Peru
January 2020

“Ask her some questions.”

New class, new teacher, the same routine. Silence but for the rustling of backpacks and papers. Two minutes ago they were all looking at me, now the students stare at anything but me.

Then some timid voice dares sound. What sports do I do?

I beam an encouraging smile

It never changes. Every time we do this it’s just another awkward interview.

I gesture at the floor, “Now,” I say, “ I do yoga. I do yoga twice a week.” I gesture behind my shoulder. “When I was a child, I went ice-skating.”

A few more students ask questions, and then one young man asks, “What is ice-skating.”

I write the word on the board and draw an ice skating boot, all laced up. The students find my drawing amusing. I could have just given them a translation, but it wouldn’t have the same effect.

I’m on a mission to learn how to teach well

Teaching, after all, is very different from learning, and although I know something about how I personally learn a language. Teaching one is a constant challenge.

The sad reality is that many of my students won’t ever reach a conversational level of English. Before they get to me, many have spent ten years learning and forgetting the same things over and over again. When I ask them how their weekend was, they still draw a blank.

Although I have limited formal teaching education (for now), I do have a bunch of teachers who keep educating me on teaching theory.

One idea which has invaded my mind is the idea of scaffolding

I hadn’t heard such a word in the language teaching context until a couple of weeks ago when I was reviewing some text for a fellow teacher. He’s all very serious studying for a masters in this stuff.

Scaffolding is giving the student a helping hand that gets them further than where they could get on their own. It’s practical support. It’s what an active teacher is likely to do, frequently on a one-to-one basis, although the rest of the class may well be listening.

To think about what it means to me though, I have decided to take my imagination out of the classroom and into the kitchen.

This weekend, at the English Club where I help out, we’re doing baking with the children

They range from four to eight years old, so have different levels of skill – both in terms of egg-breaking and English speaking

As a tiny child, I used to cook with the Mother or with the Grandmother

There are pictures of me happily baking, stood on a chair in my Grandparents kitchen, and pictures of me sitting on the kitchen floor with the cake bowl on my head as I try to lick out the last of the mixture.

Send a small child into the kitchen with the instruction to bake some buns and leave them to it, and you won’t come back an hour later to the sweet smell of fresh-out-of-the-oven baking.

And yet, with some assistance, a small child can do most of the work

They can measure out the ingredients and mix them together. You might not want them to operate the oven quite yet, but they can load the bun cases with gooey-mixture.

As the adult, your job is to provide a safe environment and guidance so the children can do almost the whole thing by themselves.

The same goes for the classroom

The space we want to be teaching in is just beyond where the student can function by themselves. It has to feel safe. Sometimes we need to just give an occasional prompt, other times we need to say more, like holding the wooden spoon with them to give them enough power to blend the mix. Sometimes the support is visual, as in a drawing of an ice-skating boot, or takes on a physical gesture, such as indicating that there is a change of tense that they should be aware of.

Once the student can do something by themselves, the teacher should stop prompting. You don’t want the students to rely on prompts, you want them to practice creating their own phrases by themselves. When the child can bake for themselves, you can leave the kitchen and just enjoy the cakes once they’re done. No need for fuss.

For me, this is tricky

There is a point where I have to keep my hands still, my mouth shut, or speak lazily, with my accent, at my natural speed and with the vocabulary that I would normally use.

For teachers in general, doing this work is exhausting. It’s active and intense

No wonder many teachers set an exercise and then withdraw. I guess this is where having a language assistant helps. I can go through the class, often pair by pair, listening and correcting and encouraging the students to extend their conversation a little further.

And yet, it’s not enough. Despite my drawings and my enthusiastic pretending to skate across the classroom, the same student may well have forgotten what ice-skating is by next week. If he remembers, it was his question, his curiosity, so there’s hope, the other students in the class are still unlikely to. Ten years of English lessons and they’re still on the basic building blocks of the language.

It continues to bewilder me how some students speak and others don’t. It’s still a mystery.

The Hello Kitty notelet method for dealing with overwhelm

By Posted on Location: 3 min read
Looking down towards the campsite on the second day of our Torres Del Paine trek.
Such a trek took some planning, but at the same time, we had to be flexible because the weather could change at any moment and the John Gardner pass would be closed.
February 2020

The other week, I was lazing out on the terrace of the house of the psychotherapists, with no other company than that of the cat, the occasional stray dogs who came to drink from the swimming pool, and the horses in the field beyond. I figured that it was good to rest and have a little solitude before recommencing my teaching responsibilities at the university.

Plans are of little importance, but planning is essential.

– Winston Churchill

So many plans must have fallen through these last few weeks, worldwide, which has possibly left us all reeling in shock. My mother told me about the supermarket delivery man who is struggling because he’d just been about to head off to Greece for a month and re-plan his life. A dear friend had handed her notice in at work and to her landlord (land-person?) and was about to head off of a cycle ride around Europe. I know I am angry about my plans not going to plan. As are many other people. Dreams have been paused. We’re left with tremendous uncertainty.

I was about to learn how to do a headstand with my yoga teacher and then classes were cancelled. I shall have to wait for the opportunity to return. In the grand scheme of things, not yet learning to do a headstand seems a rather ridiculous thing to become annoyed at. There are people losing their livelihoods. And yet, for me, it is a big deal. It was something I had been diligently working towards. Small things matter to us as well as the big ones.

When my mind was having a hard time of things, I would easily get overwhelmed. I think this is true for any of us who had a fixed idea of what we do and what we should be doing and suddenly find ourselves not entirely sure what the hell we are doing. There are so many questions, so many options, so many decisions that we have to make that we simply do not know which way to turn. We believe we should make educated, rational choices about our lives, but we do not have sufficient information and our minds are easily emotionally clouded.

I reclaimed control with a set of hello kitty sticky notes. On each one I would write three tiny tasks at random so that my notes would read something like:

  • Wash hair
  • Draft CV
  • Ring Dentist
  • Clean window
  • Trim lemon tree
  • Outline article
  • Email agency
  • Change bedsheets
  • Paint nails

I would try to avoid any tasks that I was particularly anxious about from clustering together on a single note. Whenever I didn’t know what to do with myself, I would simply reach over to the pile of half-completed Hello Kitty faces and choose something. Then, when I had struck a line through all three tasks, I would crumple up the pink paper and toss it in a pint glass. Over time, the pint glasses began to fill and when a row of them sat on my windowsill, I started feeling like I was making progress. That I had some momentum.

I do feel quite like the whole of March has almost gone by and I have done nothing. This is perhaps the consequence of not being able to go anywhere. One day looks very much like the next. Exercise is keeping my mood reasonably balanced, but I am missing the highs I get from face-to-face social interaction. The truth is I feel much better after teaching a face-to-face class than I do after teaching an online class. Although thank the gods I can teach online as it means I have something useful to do with myself.

So I’ve decided to go back to my pint glasses of Hello Kitty faces approach. Just this time, I have a vase and each time I go for a run, I’m bringing home a single small rock to drop inside it. A visual record of the miles I’ve run.

If you or someone you know is interested in having online Spanish classes, let me know (kate@happenence.co.uk) and I’ll put you in contact with a teacher here whose plans, like so many people’s, have fallen through.

Let’s throw rocks at the sea

By Posted on Location: 7 min read
The Pacific Ocean, La Serena
August 2019

This morning I have spent way too much time searching the internet for a statistic in a book. The statistic is that “Depression affects as much as 80% of the population [of Inuit peoples of Greenland]” the book is Andrew Solomon’s The Noonday Demon.

As you might have thought, I started this investigation in the notes section of the book, but for this statistic, nothing. There were references to papers on suicide – and just googling Greenland suicide rates brings up a multitude of scary reports declaring Greenland’s suicide rate to be particularly worryingly high. Depression is referenced in such papers as a factor in suicide. However, I have nothing on the actual rates of clinical (also known as major) depression in the Inuit peoples of Greenland or any context on the original statistic.

Then again, I am sceptical about rates for such things anyway

After all, there is no official record of me ever being depressed and the only official record of me being sexually abused is the little red flag that I asked to be placed on my health record.

During the winter months, the Inuit people stay inside, in their usually small houses keeping close to keep warm. The book explains that “In these circumstances of enforced intimacy, there is no place for complaining or talking about problems or for anger and accusations. The Inuit simply have a taboo against complaining. They are silent and brooding or they are storytellers given to laughter, or they talk about conditions outside and the hunt, but they almost never speak of themselves. Depression, with concomitant hysteria and paranoia, is the price paid for the intense communality of Inuit lives.”

The other day, I stood in the living room and jumped up and down

A grand simultaneous two-footed stomp – and made an angry noise. My housemate glanced up from his phone and gave me a questioning look asking, ‘What in heaven’s name are you doing?’. I apologised and said, in Spanish, that I had to release some of my frustration at our current situation so that it wouldn’t pop up in my dreams. He nodded and went back to his phone.

The next morning our conversation went something like this

Him: How many people did you kill last night?

Me: Zero. I told you. With the ‘ragghh’ no bad dreams.

‘How many people did you kill last night’ is a reference to a morning some months back when I looked worse for wear and couldn’t speak Spanish very well and eventually explained that I was shaking off an unpleasant dream in which I’d become rather murderous. ‘How many people did you kill last night’ means ‘how did you sleep?’. It’s an invitation to express how I am.

If we don’t have safe, civilised ways to acknowledge our emotions, they will either show themselves in unsafe, less-civilised manners or submerge themselves silently within and we will become numb. Acting in an unsafe, less-civilised manner is a shortcut to relationship destruction and becoming numb is the highway to depression.

Last week I stood on the beach and threw rocks at the sea.

All of us have just lost an incredible amount of our freedom

Many of us have lost much of what gives us meaning in any given week. There is a tremendous amount to feel angry about, frustrated with and much to grieve. Then there’s the anxiety that’s churning through our bloodstream. I have ulcers in my mouth, my skin looks horrific and those muscles around my neck and shoulders are stupidly tense. Routines have shattered and relationships (both with those people whom we can’t see and those whom we are now seeing much too much of) are going to be tested. Rationally I understand the need for social distancing. Yet it’s against my instincts. My body believes that acceptance is conveyed with touch and that if no one is picking the fleas out of my fur then something is terribly wrong.

The fact that everyone is currently facing the same horrible challenge doesn’t negate any individual’s emotions. It is not self-pitying to grieve the loss that we are going through. It’s entirely reasonable to be ridiculously anxious when faced with tremendous uncertainty.

There was a dead sea lion on the beach. The vultures had gored out its eyes.

Someone else being worse off than you is not an excuse not to grieve your own pain

My sister and I had a long conversation a few weeks back about the difference between complaining and expressing negative emotions. Smashing a plate on the patio is expressing emotion. Verbally, when you’re expressing an emotion you probably are referring to the name of an emotion. I feel sad. I feel frustrated. I feel hurt. If you can say the sentence using the word feel, you’re probably closer to expressing emotion. Except ‘I feel that’, is possibly ‘feel’ masquerading as ‘in my opinion’.

The wonderful lady who led the yoga retreat I went on with my mother recently wrote:

View this post on Instagram

I wanted to check in. After the news of lockdown last night in the UK I wanted to see how you were. Maybe I am still processing my own feelings. When I closed my classes down a week ago I felt devastation. So sad for the people I was going to miss, grieving for the 9 years of hard slog I had put in to build the classes up. And overwhelmed by the thought I was going to have to stay away from family. And yet people kept telling me to stay positive. I felt like screaming at them. This for me was not the time. I had to let the other emotions in and give them time to leave. If I didn’t, if I put a fake smile on and posted positivity that I didn’t feel, those emotions would get stuck. And if they were still there, how does the positivity grow? So it’s okay to cry, to feel overwhelmed, to be angry. Let them all in. Go with them. They will leave when they are ready. Then you can get your positive pants on. And let me tell you, those pants will be stronger and more elastic, they will hug you in and they won’t give you a wedgy! 😉😉 #howareyou? #lockdown #stayathome #covid_19 #stayhome #stayhealthy #staysafe #emotions #itsokaynottobeokay #muchlove

A post shared by Elizabeth Hawkins (@lemontreeyogauk) on

Not everyone is articulate about their emotions

‘We’re doing fine’ or ‘surviving’ might possibly actually mean ‘I have uncomfortable feelings but I haven’t got a clue how to speak them’ or perhaps ‘I feel ashamed of admitting what it is I am feeling’. Or it might mean ‘my feelings are none of your business’.

My dear friend Jessika recently wrote a whole lot about her struggle to express how she feels sometimes.

Complaining tends to focus more on a series of events

And has much more to do with ‘you, he, she, it, they, the virus, the government, the economic reality’. Sometimes, when it can spark positive change, it is vital. Sometimes it does nothing but wears down the people around you. Think it’s fair to say that we are all a little thin-skinned right now.

I feel frustrated that I cannot work. I am worried about what is going to happen. I hate having my freedom restricted. I feel sad that I may not see my friends here for a long time. I am angry at my own helplessness and how this crisis is going to have such a harsh economic effect on those who were already struggling.

Finding a balance between speaking and staying silent is going to be challenging

Inevitably, we’re all going to sway too far into unhealthy complaining, excessive inward absorption of our emotions and spew few too many unkind comments or stay too silent. This is the reality of being forced into this new, uncomfortable, unnatural way of living. However, regardless of the accuracy of the statistics, it’s clear to see that if we don’t manage our situation, there will be a noticeable mental health cost further down the line.

Yet, although we are undoubtedly scared, maybe this is a moment where we can learn the names of some of those tricky words: sadness, grief, loss, anger, hatred, fear. Maybe this moment where we are forced to readjust can be a moment where we learn to see our emotional states a little clearer. Maybe we can look after one another and learn to ask and answer those tricky questions like ´how many people did you kill last night?’.

Let’s throw rocks in the sea.

For some not-so-light reading:

Last semester, revolution; this semester, a virus.

By Posted on Location: 5 min read
Uncertainty.
Machu Picchu, Peru, January 2020

Unsurprisingly, the university has shut, again

This time due to coronavirus although our region still has no confirmed cases. As of Wednesday, the country’s borders will close. I cannot begin to imagine the social, economic and psychological impact that this is going to have upon people here. We’ve already had a tough time. I haven’t taught a full week of classes since the beginning of October, a result of the continuing social unrest of which there is likely to be more in the lead up to the referendum on the constitution – coronavirus depending.

The attitude at the university last week was to work fast as to get as much done as possible before any more chaos hit us. Unfortunately, the term lasted only a week before the emergency closure. I taught in two classes. Now everything is being adapted to online teaching. With my unenthusiastic students learning conversational English, I’m not convinced how well online teaching is going to work. Especially if they are all panicking about pneumonia.

It isn’t easy to organise one’s life when the structure that it was built upon crumbles

I spoke to my father last night – I was bitterly angry about my life plans being shunted around all over again – and what my father kept going on about was making sure that I have a routine.

Personally, I feel that I have had a lot of practice at structuring endless time – all those months when I was in therapy, all that time where work was closed because we were terrified anarchists would burn down the building with us inside, all that time travelling with no particular itinerary. What I’ve learnt though is that it’s not easy at all. It might take a lot of effort to make yourself get up in the morning to go to work, but when there’s nobody expecting you to be anywhere, getting up at a sensible hour becomes much trickier.

It has taken me years to build an independent routine

One that is adaptable to whatever circumstance gets thrown at it. Sometimes, I grouch about and have no interest in following my routine. Sometimes my emotions get the better of me. However, in other moments I look at the clock and my overwhelm dissipates because I know exactly what I have planned to do. All those scraps of to-do list written month after month whilst fighting the post-traumatic gloom, they’ve all built up into a series of strings of habits.

This means that this morning I woke up, had breakfast, made my bed, got dressed and sat down to edit this article. At about 11 am I will have coffee and something to eat before continuing to either write or study. After lunch, I will read or paint. I will go for a walk. If I siesta it will be post-lunch, but before 3 pm and only for 25 minutes. Undoubtedly, I will call someone back home for a chat. In the evening I will light my candles, meditate and fill my hot water bottle. All of this is automatic. Between it, I will stomp and rage.

There is a surprising amount of comfort in habit and routine

Not knowing what to do next can be freeing, or it can be overwhelming. When you can’t plan what to do next week, there’s a danger that you’ll end up doing nothing. We forget how much we depend on our lives being safely regular. Our bodies work tremendously hard to maintain inner stability, and they get exhausted if our external worlds change too rapidly. Adaption takes time.

With such a sudden shock to our systems of living, we are all at risk of becoming too gloomy. Depression often occurs when emotions overwhelm us and we fail at processing all that we feel. As much as the virus is a risk, so is depression. We are all social animals. We depend on human touch and comfort to psychologically thrive. Typically, we need a variety of interaction. Perhaps I take the threat of depression so seriously because I have had to put so much energy into fighting against it.

The other day I was reading a book on this morbid topic

In the book, the writer says how many people ask him why he’s on anti-depressants when he is no longer depressed. He explains that he isn’t depressed because he maintains his mind’s chemical balance by using anti-depressants. This got me thinking about the many changes I made to renormalize my life after trauma. A thousand tiny choices, like choosing to make my bed. Tiny choices which maintain my sanity, my balance.

As hard as I try, my life doesn’t seem to want to be normal

Frankly, I am pissed off that I have spent so long working to get to the point where I can steadily work and rely on myself to turn up to work and do a decent job every time, only to keep having my opportunity to work cancelled.

This though is just one more frustration that I will have to overcome. I must remember that in comparison to the monsters I’ve already slaughtered, it’s not such a big deal. Sometimes I feel silly writing out on a scrap of paper that today I am going to brush my teeth and have a shower. It seems ridiculous to write drink coffee, eat lunch, write a blog post. And then possibly crazier to systematically work through my lists and cross out the things I have done. Make my bed, tick. If I had great responsibilities then maybe a list would seem less silly, but since I don’t silly is going to have to be the way forward. Tiny choices, every day. It works.

The worldwide psychological impact of coronavirus is going to be huge

And in many cases, it’s going to be devastating. I believe it’s going to be the tiny, innocuous choices which make the big difference as to how we cope.

As for me, I’m sticking to my silly lists and repetitive self-care and self-soothing routines. I intend to take this ordeal as a challenge from which I intend to thrive.

A hazy summer: thoughts on solitude

By Posted on Location: 4 min read
A road somewhere near the El Tatio geyser field near San Pedro de Atacama, Chile.
January 2020.

I have a few days alone. I like having some time to myself. I sing songs from musicals, using parts of my vocal range which would otherwise never sound and keep myself entertained. And yet, whilst I value the quiet as a precious necessity should I want to be a sane contributor to society, I do not deceive myself and believe that being alone is a comfortable experience.

Sometimes it is; sometimes I stamp my foot and get angry. There’s nobody else’s voice around, just the thoughts that bob in my mind, clashing up against one another. I can make a choice, either to be miserable with the situation or to be more tolerant of being me and show myself some love.

Which is where the real value of having some time alone comes in. For me, its necessity comes from the inevitable discomfort it brings. The day stretches out in front of me, and there is nobody else but me to fill it. My actions will be judged by nobody but myself.

Often when the opportunity of solitude arises, I choose to take a deeper look in the mirror and I choose to follow or wrestle the thoughts which have tripped me up in previous months. So when I first headed to Valparaiso, alone, I focused on why Christmas proved so emotionally challenging. It’s easy to assume that the obvious answer is the only answer, but it is rarely so. I was ratty the entire week because of an accumulation of stresses.

However, what for me was worse was how irrational it made me feel. The irrationality itself is much more threatening to me than any homesickness. Overwhelming irrationality is something I associate with my memories of mental illness. A fog of emotion blinds you, making sensible thought impossible.

In such situations, the first step is to recognise I am thinking in a delusional manner. The second is to accept that it’s defensive and that in some way or another, I feel threatened. The third step is then to focus on doing kind, loving things for myself. This includes calling the right person to listen to my needs, someone who is going to have the guts to speak to me bluntly and honestly and whose love for me isn’t conditional on me saying the right thing. By this I most often mean my sister.

Later I can return to consider why my defences have been triggered.

It is incredible how difficult it is to do any of these steps, but I have come to the decision, with the help of my moments in solitude, where I have time to reflect upon my hiccups, that this is the only method that works for me. When my mind’s a mess, there’s no point pushing onwards, I have to stop and slow down. If I don’t, I will hurt people.

One of my missions this weekend is to write out again my self-care instructions. This is where I list exactly what I need to do to ensure that I am healthy, safe and cared for. This isn’t mad, it’s how to survive my madness. This process is how I grow resilience as part of my everyday life.

It might sound excessive, but it seems, to me, a small effort to go to if I am going to avoid having a relapse into any emotional prison. I live in a country undergoing a social uprising, a long way from any long-term friend or family. I can’t afford to not be resilient and this simple method works for me.

I was particularly inspired to rewrite these instructions and think my process through from scratch, because of a conversation I had with a prison psychologist recently. He said one of the shocking things about the female inmates was how ugly they let themselves become. He was referring to the lack of self-care they showed themselves. How they gained weight in prison and abused their flesh, not bothering to show themselves any love.

My choice is to be better prepared for when the inevitable bad days happen. To have a series of habits and routine activity which keep me from getting too lost. Have a guide as such, so that I automatically know to make the phone call to someone with the capability to listen. Having days or weeks of emotional fog is part of the human condition. It doesn’t make me, or anyone else a lesser person. we do the best we can. However, it does pay to be prepared.

With such preparation, my defences take on a different appearance. They are no longer merely impulses, amid the chaotic thoughts bombarding my mind, I have some rational, safe mechanisms for looking after myself.

This well worth a few days of not always comfortable solitude and a bit of hard thinking.

At the end of the world: thoughts on friendship

The Moon Valley, near San Pedro De Atacama, the opposite end of Chile to the blog post…
Chile, January 2020.

Despite being the sort of person who is called towards hours solitarily reading or writing, who’s happy spending hours or even days with little company, who finds a large group of people delighting and exhausting, I’ve been blessed with many friends. Maybe because if you want to be my friend, I am likely to accept with very few conditions. I have an expectation of mutual kindness and interest; however, I do not measure the depth of friendship by contact hours.

For me, what matters is a meaningful intent to have an authentic relationship

It doesn’t have to be complex, just real. Some people mistakenly imagine that to be my friend requires a certain level of education or worldliness, mistaking values I cherish within myself as what I need from other people. Similarly, my concept of friendship is not limited to people of my age. Some of my most treasured conversations within any friendship have been with people decades older than myself. And, at the same time, there is a teenage girl who I am looking forward to having to visit as soon as I am back home. We are going to bake a cake together, and she, I know, will have me in fits of giggles.

One dear friend once remarked how lucky I was to meet so many interesting people. Yes, it is true I do have such luck, but, still, there is something also about having the willingness to be interested.

However, meeting an interesting person is not the same as a long-term friendship

When I meet people who are also travelling, they often have strong opinions regarding the difficulty of staying in contact with friends back home. I have been known to be like that. Sometimes there develops a feeling of obligation, the idea that a ‘true’ friend would behave in a certain way. And, to my cost, I have worried about the necessity of knowing the detail of what was going on with my friends’ lives. Nowadays, thankfully, my cares are less rooted in my own ego. I have changed my mind. Such a style of friendship might well work for other people, but it doesn’t really work for me. This change of attitude doesn’t stop me being a good friend, if anything, it leaves me the room to be a better friend because I am less worried about my own inadequacies and less frequently overwhelmed.

People often talk about the need to stay in better contact; sometimes less is better

I recently went away to a national park here in Chile, a place where there is zero phone signal. I was away for nine days which is a long time to go without touching the internet. When did you last spend nine days internet free?

On the bus home, my companion exclaimed at the number of messages on her phone. I looked and saw lists of lit up notifications. At first, I felt bad about my own lack of popularity. When I’d switched it on, my phone had no notifications showing and only, I believe, three quiet messages waiting to be read.

But once the initial emotion of comparison subsided, I smiled

One of the things I had to do during therapy was to take control of when I was receiving information. There was little coherence in the pattern of my emotions and everything that could send a sharp prod of emotion through me generally did. Whilst I’d still say it’s better than feeling numb, it’s not fun. To deal with it, I became very strict with how I used the internet and particularly my phone, habits that, with time, have strengthened to the extent that now in a nine-day period it seems not one notification gets through.

And yet, I have to admit that I enjoy my friendships now much more than I used to. Both those friendships that are many years old and those which are much newer.

And technology obviously still plays an important role in maintaining these friendships

One of my three quiet messages, by which I mean only visible when I opened a particular app, was a long thoughtful email, another was a friend marvelling at the fact that I’d bumped into his brother-in-law at the top of a mountain the day before. I laughed. How miraculous it is that on top of a mountain at the far end of Chile, a place where the road is called ‘the route to the end of the world’ I bump into a guy who once kindly walked me home.

It has not been an easy journey to change my way of thinking about friendship and switch from insecurity (which inevitably, regardless of the volume of contact, leads to a sense of loneliness) and towards a sense of general trust, yet I have to accept that I have done so. Knowing that I care for a number of people scattered across many countries who in one way or another also care for me feels like a miracle. It is freedom.

Someone else’s home (somewhere or other)

By Posted on Location: 4 min read
I don’t have my camera to hand here, so you will have to use your imagination and enjoy this picture from the north of Chile instead.
Near San Pedro de Atacama, Chile.
January 2020

I wake up at 07:30 as the white light comes through the curtain-less window. It’s white because outside hangs a thick mist, which hugs the landscape for much of the morning, although come afternoon there’ll be nothing but blue sky and scorching sun. Between the dark of the previous night, and the mist of this morning, I’m left with only a hazy idea of where I am. I know I’m not far from Santiago, although I feel knowing the village name and seeing the bob of my global positioning satellite assisted blue dot moving on a digital map doesn’t constitute knowing where I am. If there is a village here, I still can’t see it.

I get up and wander around the house

It’s an amateur build, a creative project, a mixture of a building site and a home. I cross the terrace and enter the open front door of its non-identical twin. The owner has gone to work already and I’ve been left here alone. I wander in and make myself a cup of tea. The part where I live lacks functionality.  

It takes time, but after rooting around this stranger’s cupboards, I start to understand where to find what I need. I take avena, an apple and a stick of cinnamon to make porridge. I load my clothes into the washing machine, switch a tap, prod around and hopeful water noises begin. A fluffball of a grey cat rubs against my leg affectionately.

I find some tools to remove the concrete floor

Concentrating on the area closest to the front door to begin. I work for a short while, trying to gauge the difficulty of the problem and then pause. It’s going to take some thinking. I step back outside. The mist directly above has developed a blue tinge and looking out I can see a small lake or rather, with this dry summer, a pond. There’s a suggestion of hill. In a neighbouring field stands a nonchalant piebald pony.

I figure it’s time to explore and so take the keys, hanging on a hook, and head down to the pyramid building below. Yesterday, it was just a glimmer of light, pointed out to me as the biblioteca, but now I discover that it’s a tower roof, missing the tower. By which I mean if you imagine a tall tower, with a triangular roof the colour of terracotta, then what I look down at from the terrace looks like the decapitated point. It slants up from the floor and in beautiful Egyptian form rises to a perspex skylight.

There is a door on one side

Inside is a small coffee table with a notebook lying atop, a few worn chairs, an old-style school desk and shelves with books: Oscar Wilde and The Little Prince, an English dictionary and the complete works of Dostoevsky – which is a coincidence as I am reading The Brothers Karamazov.

With the washing hanging, the sun appears and casts the garden in warm light

I marvel at the sudden appearance of hills, or mountains perhaps is the word. Now seems a sensible moment to start thinking about lunch, for I am going to have to eat. It’s a game of ready, steady, cook, which has me delving into the back of the fridge wondering if what I pull out is a courgette or a cucumber. There seem to be an endless supply of tomatoes and enough pasta to keep even me going a while. This though is a game I am quite adept at. I have practised many times before. Frustratingly there appears to be no evidence at all that anyone here drinks coffee.

Outside a horseback herdsman guides his cows to the lake

I watch him and his dogs and smile at the sound of an indignant cow before returning to scrambling in broken concrete. I whack a large hammer systematically at the weakest points of the floor trying to make it shatter, I prise it up slowly and occasionally tumble over. I’m surprised by my progress. I’m going to need wire cutters and a dustpan and brush, but soon the door will swing open freely and there will be space to begin my masterpiece. Meanwhile I place my tomatoes in boiling water to remove their skins and plan how I’m going to make a peach tart. There’s no need to rush anything here and nobody to rush me.

Torres Del Paine

Glacier Grey, taken by my hiking buddy on her phone.
February, 2020.

When I was about fourteen, I cried my way up Snowdon

It was foggy at the top, and I could barely see my family as I wolfed down a pasty and with cold wet tears declared I was never hiking again. Why anyone would go through the ordeal of climbing a mountain, especially a mountain with a perfectly functional train going up it, I had no idea. At the bottom, we drank the most delicious hot chocolate and I satisfied myself with the thought that I would never have to do such a horrid thing again.

This last week I went on an 8-day hike around Torres Del Paine National Park

Not only does this park contain train-less snow-capped mountains, but a number of snow-queen-blue glaciers. There are two circuits to choose from, the W and the O and my hiking buddy decided on the O before I had the chance to stick the place name into a search engine and discover that it was definitely the more challenging route.

Furthermore, we did this hike not just carrying pasties, but all the necessary food

That’s eight days’ food, a tent, mats, sleeping bags, cooking equipment, coats, clothes, woolly hats, sun-cream, insect repellent and everything else you might need to survive out in the wilderness. Not only did we clamber up mountains and scramble down them, but we also camped beside glaciers and mosquito-infested ice-cold turquoise lakes and in the middle of a knobbly floored forest.

At twenty-nine, I am different than when I was fourteen

It’s not just that my hair is turning grey, but my body is more muscle and less squidge. I cried my way up Snowdon because it was a physical ordeal. My mind did not know how to process the work and I had no idea how to control my breathing or how to motivate myself to be cheerful. When I climbed up Snowdon all the agony was clearly the Father’s fault and the more I blamed him, and the more he refused to accept responsibility, the angrier I became.

Climbing up to the John Gardner pass this last week (which is higher than Snowdon), my legs certainly ached. I’d already done three days of hiking up to this point. What’s more, I’d risen at half five so that we could strike camp for seven and be on our way. The start of the trail closed at 8 am to avoid anyone trying to get over the pass during the afternoon when the wind has a trick of trying to throw people off the mountain.

I knew that there was a steep uphill followed by a steep downhill, both which threatened to be tricky. The previous night I’d slept badly, as we’d been camped close to the Los Perros glacier on a forest floor made of rocky gravel in a campsite where the shower only came in the cold variety.

Yet, there was nobody to blame for me being there other than myself and so I accepted responsibility for the situation without causing myself a fuss. There wasn’t any complaining – other than a grunt of hatred towards the sounding alarm clock. There was mud. There was clambering. My hands were dirty and my blue boots became a dusty brown. My legs ached. My feet ached. My bag was heavy and my clothes stuck to my body with sweat.

My legs ached, but they didn’t hurt

And it was the same with my feet. My boots are getting closer to worn out than worn in, but I love them dearly as with them on my feet I didn’t get a single blister.

Slowly but steadily throughout the morning, I nibbled at cereal bars and toffees, nuts and dried fruit. I sipped at my water, fresh from the glaciers above, and the hot coffee kindly prepared by my hiking buddy in my tiny thermos flask (me being too slow in the mornings for her general approval).

We’d been told to expect rain, but the sun shone bright, giving the mountain snow that crisp white look, and we had to pause when we left the forest to make the final craggy climb, as we needed to plaster on the sun-cream.

And my legs continued to ache, but the ache seemed irrelevant

They were working hard, and expected to ache. If they hadn’t had been aching after all that climbing, I’d have been surprised. Mentally, I’d prepared myself for much worse. The pass proved not to be as difficult as I’d once imagined. Sure, I was tired by the end of it, but taking it all one step after another, it didn’t seem so important. After all, there was sunshine, the wild Patagonian wind was sleeping and we had the sort of view that makes you giggle with exhilaration.

In no time at all we were stumbling into the campsite (which had no showers at all), removing out boots and boiling water for a cup of tea.

When I was about fourteen, I cried my way up Snowdon

I felt defeated by the mountain but I was being defeated by myself. At the time I had no idea of this, I could not see where the anger was coming from and I did not understand my own role in my emotions. It’s not just my body that’s changed, but the way I think has altered in a fashion so radical that I laugh at the thought that both that girl and I are one and the same.

Now, of course, I am greatly thankful for the father taking me up Snowdon. It’s put a marker in my brain identifying the person I don’t want to be. The person I keep on growing away from being. And yet, also it reminds me, whenever I hear someone’s ridiculous complaints, how real such complaints do feel. It makes it a little easier to forgive the stranger who can do nothing but complain about their situation. Every one of us has been there. We’ve all had those days.

It’s just some of us get the wild luck of being guided to grow beyond them.

On staying in Chile

By Posted on Location: 4 min read
Somewhere near the El Tatio geyser field near San Pedro de Atacama, Chile.
January 2020

I’m currently in the process of working out how I’m going to stay in Chile. Not forever, just for longer than my current visa allows. My Chilean friends think I’m mad. Why would I stay somewhere with such an unreliable social and political system? Why would I want to live here where the police are hostile and the government corrupt?

My family I think also struggle to understand why I would live somewhere that makes me so poor. We are living in different worlds, in more ways than one, and I’m like the squirrel Ratatoskr in the world tree, running up and down through the different places, only really belonging to the tree itself. Luxury hotel to shared dorm in a hostel, neither really fit me.

But why stay in Chile?

The truth is it being Chile doesn’t really matter. If the cards had fallen in a different pattern last year, it might have been a different country, but they fell as they did and I ended up here. I ended up beneath the military curfew in a house of Chileans and with friends who are Chileans and I watched as people began to speak about sadness in a way that I have rarely ever seen.

That squirrel in me that scurries around collecting stories, peering into other people’s lives, stopped and stared. Here there was something new, something as yet unseen but something incredibly familiar.

Deep sadness resides in all of us, even if we don’t often recognise it as being there

For me, recognising my own submerged sadness has been a battle of therapy and self-love. I do not always find it easy to identify sadness, but being resilient and strong depends on my willingness to put the effort to accept the sadness within.

Now the volume of my sadness has, I believe, reached a natural and healthy balance. Whilst I will never be ‘over’ my trauma, the event has been relegated to history. I have mourned that shattering of my being and I have rebuilt myself in a different fashion. Through that rebuilding, I have changed. Unsurprisingly perhaps, I now have a great curiosity about this post-trauma period of change that is necessary to rebalance the self.

Chile is a place of scars

Graffiti covers the walls in town, screaming the people’s pain. The fear and the hurt are real, the question for me is how do the people recover, redevelop their own sense of their own identity. Is it possible to do it in a healthy manner, or the more this goes on, is it to be more of the same, more of the ‘us and them’?

It’s not just Chile where such an attitude leaves scars behind, the whole world is bathed in a painful mixture of fear of the other. It gets more complex in Chile because of the history of the dictatorship and the current role of capitalism, which has a weird Stockholm syndrome like effect upon the people. Nurseries in my town are advertised with pictures of smiling girls with yellow pigtails when in the yard such children rarely exist. Similarly, the smiling faces on my university notebook have had the colour zapped from them, leaving a set of images behind which would not be accepted in England anymore – they would be considered unrepresentative of our genetic diversity. Pale skin is also associated with those who are better off. Those who wield power.

Chilean Flag
Praying for Llamas
Near San Pedro de Atacama, Chile, January 2020.
(Dear Mother – do you have the place name?)

When we were in the Atacama desert, an indigenous lady, in jeans and a t-shirt, showed us carvings in the stone walls of the craggy valley that ran beside her small town, pictures like llamas and birds. The engravings were done slowly, with rituals and deep meaning, focusing the people on what it was that they desired, focusing the community on the needs of the whole community. I asked if the people still make such images and she shook her head. Why not? Her face changed. She hesitated. Vergüenza. Because they were ashamed. They didn’t want to be laughed at.

But did she believe?

Undoubtedly. And as we drove back from the river I saw the flocks of sheep shuffling along together with feathers marking their woolly coats with signs of protection, protection that would spread from the sheep to the earth and to the environment and which would look after the people who depended upon the land.

In a world crumbling under climate change, I would suggest that such shame is dangerous. I listen to the stories and I hear about how much damage is being done to the wildlife through mining, or how taking sea-kelp from the ocean to give bathroom products that gel texture is destroying the wildlife beneath the waves, and I wonder who ought to be ashamed?

And I’m caught in my own curiosity

All this, the traumatised country trying to understand what it is, the fact that here there are people who really understand how to live with nature, the fear, the shame, the sadness. The contradiction of adulating and fearing the other. The continual struggle that goes on. All this adds up to a fixation on my part. A fixation that I cannot simply walk away from.