Some photos: Jueves Santa

By Posted on Location: 1 min read
Jesus on the cross.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This article however is less about facts and more about feelings

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

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

Monday morning arrives and I head to school

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The teachers have an inkling that their biology demands more

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

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

Frankly, such attitudes terrify me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the past I didn’t make the connection.

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

The Dalai Lama

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

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

And nothing makes me defensive as quickly as not sleeping properly

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

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

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

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

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

But that’s another article.

So, just to summarise what I’ve written here

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

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

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

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

More information

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

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

By Posted on Location: , , 7 min read
The river in Strasbourg

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

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

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

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

Here I can just eat.

Sometimes though, life ain’t quite so easy.

“So—do you know what you want?”

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

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

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

The stages so far:

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

Stage 1: Recognising I didn’t have a clue

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

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

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

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

It didn’t.

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

I needed these two parts of my brain to cooperate

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

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

Stage 2: Accepting my long term goals

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

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

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

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

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

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

At which point it hit home

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

Here steps in the Crabbe and Goyle of my brain

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

At first I fought them.

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

I needed to commit myself to doing what I love.

Stage 3: Writing down the next step

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In summary:

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

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

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

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

Life ain’t so different.

Do you know what you want?

How to teach a child public speaking (without pretense)

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

She wasn’t one of my students

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

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

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

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

The group of students smelt of fear

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

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

The poetry reading began

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

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

I contemplated the microphone

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

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

I took the microphone with a smile

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

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

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

My work however was not yet complete

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

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

It was shaking

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

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

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

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

I wear jeans and a t-shirt for school

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which brings me to a final question

Why is such a simple approach remarkable?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I have never been good at mornings

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

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

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

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

I learnt to be a heavy sleeper.

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

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

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

Which, I admit, was at first a challenge

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

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

Now I wish I could give a profound reason for it

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

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

Which brings me to: people change

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

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

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

My mother says, “Have a productive day.”

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

People change.

And if people change, then I can too.

But the question becomes, to what?

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

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

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

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

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

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

These little lessons began to congeal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I challenge you to do it.

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

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

My first foray into meditation was accidental

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Things changed though when my mother started using the Headspace app

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

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

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

She started aging backwards

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

By this point I’d dabbled again in meditation

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

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

And I was envious

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But we become the sort of person we practice being today

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Directing your attention towards what really matters (without resorting to a battle cry or tears)

I have a bit of an affinity for building log piles. Throwing logs around forces you to focus on what you’re doing. Otherwise you bash your fingers.

If your ugliness was remarkable, and you lived in Milan at the end of the fifteenth century, you might have found yourself invited over for drinks with the handsome Leonardo da Vinci. He was keen to meet ugly people.

Leonardo was a gifted story-teller and could induce a plethora of emotions in you though his tales. He’d make sure you were well entertained. His stories would make you crease up with laughter. Laughter so violent your face would contort into extreme expressions.

And then, he would disappear. He’d scamper straight back to his studio, where in painstaking detail he would recreate your fantastical features into drawings designed to entertain his patron and make the Milanese court howl with laughter.

His magic came from his intense ability to focus his attention on your face. As he was telling his stories he would be observing your movements until he knew your expressions better than you’d know the expressions of your own lover.

Such intense attention isn’t something many of us are very good at. Which is a pity really, because intense attention is at the crux of a good life.

In this article I am going to skip speedily through three ideas that changed how I structure my time so that I would be more attentive (and therefore lead a better life):

  1. The relationship between happiness and attention
  2. The ‘attention residue effect’ (or why distractions are doubly bad)
  3. The aim for greatness

Let’s start.

Of the many books I have read, Flow by Mihalyi Cskiszentmihalyi might have had the biggest impact

In his book Cskiszentmihalyi talks about that elusive sensation where we are so immersed in a task that it feels almost like a different reality. We are doing something that’s difficult enough to challenge us, but at the same time is just within our abilities.

For me, painting, when it’s going well gives me some of this feeling… or writing a story, where the characters seem to be leading the way and I am compelled to follow along. Or a conversation with an old friend who knows the right questions to ask and so time disappears.

It’s in this state of activity that people report being the happiest.

This was a bit of a ah-ha moment for me, because I figured that if I could work out how to get to this ‘flow’ state, I could make myself happy more consistently.

As you might have guessed though, attention is a prerequisite for flow.

This point was hammered home again when I was reading Cal Newport’s book Deep Work

He quotes a science writer called Winifred Gallagher who after discovering she had cancer decided to put more effort into choosing what it was she was paying attention to.

Like fingers pointing to the moon, other diverse disciplines from anthropology to education, behavioral economics to family counseling, similarly suggest that the skillful management of attention is the sine qua non of the good life and the key to improving virtually every aspect of your experience.

Winifred Gallagher, author of Rapt (Quoted by Cal Newport in Deep Work)

For me this translates to setting time aside, free from distraction, to do the things I love.

So I know now that I have to fight to create a distraction free zone within my life

I have complete sympathy for the teenager at school who explained that she waits until her parents and sister have all gone to bed before getting out her books and beginning her homework and exam revision. This is obviously not an ideal situation, but it drums home how if a fourteen-year-old can make it happen, we can too.

There are small steps you can take

For me, having a meditation practice has been a great instructor. It has shown me the difference between trying to control yourself with willpower, and surrendering and accepting. Battle cries, even internal ones, are exhausting.

I also keep my phone at a distance, play dull background music and try to keep a clear desk. Little things, but each contributes to keeping me on track.

This however isn’t enough

I thought I was doing well, but in reality I was still struggling. No surprise really as the brain is terrible at separating one task from another.

When you switch from some Task A to another Task B, your attention doesn’t immediately follow – a residue of your attention remains stuck thinking about the original task.

Cal Newport, Deep Work

It sounds obvious when you read it like that

Before sitting down to write this article I was listening to a podcast, and now, although a bit of time has passed, a small part of my mind is still drawn back to the ideas of the podcast. Part of me is thinking ‘how do I share this information I’ve learnt with my sister’ whilst another part of me is trying to write this article. My attention is subtly divided.

Cal Newport goes on to explain that this residue is worse if Task A was a light task that was not definitively ended… all that instant messaging is bogging down our brains. I can easily be thinking about a number of different conversations at once, but the truth is, I can’t do this and also write this article well.

I try to soften this attention residue effect with a cup of tea before I start working on a new project

Does that sound counter intuitive? Before I thought the best idea what to jump straight into the next task and not waste time. Take my tea to my desk. But now I’m beginning to think that maybe there is a benefit to ‘putting the toys away’ and having a moment of calm before starting something new.

Meditation and moments of calm might make you a little uncomfortable

And some people get a bit embarrassed by the pseudo-science and the self-help label of some of what I read, but what I’m searching for are techniques I can apply which make me better at what I do. Once I have the idea from the book, it’s time to test it.

After all, the end goal of this is that I want to do some solid work
I want my life to be meaningful. I might believe we’re just a speck of dust in an incomprehensibly large universe, but ambition resides amongst these particles of mine.

I imagine you have ambition too.

Not being mediocre, but being great is the main purpose for profound attention

The biggest theme of the Deep Work book is that if you want to be great at something, you need to spend time deliberately practicing in a focused manner at a deep level.

Which led me to my next book.

The church at Sella. Got to practice my painting!


My current read is Walter Isaacson’s biography of Leonardo da Vinci

I picked up this book not because of the artistic merit, but because Cal Newport wrote about how Walter Isaacson could fall into a deep, writerly trance and focus with incredible detail on the work he was doing at any moment. This was a skill that he picked up from his journalism career. It’s not an easy skill to muster.

Of course I was curious. I want to be able to focus intently on writing, even when my life is chaotic because I’m in the midst of travelling. However this ability requires a lot of practice. You can’t just sit down and write at this depth as a matter of willpower. You’ll just exhaust yourself trying. Instead you have to train your attention like a muscle.

I admit, I’m motivated to read the book by envy

I marvel at that crisp elegant writing style. But it’s not enough to stare at the phrasing longing for the skill. My job is to keep on creating distraction free moments for myself. I have to deliberately practice the skills that I want to acquire. With time, and deep attention, I will, inevitably, get better.

But of course, reading the book I am also envious of Leonardo himself. Let’s take the odd piece of work of his known as the Vitruvian man, the famous image of a man stood in a circle and a square, arms outstretched. And briefly look at how Leonardo’s obsessive attention managed to create the version of the Vitruvian man we recognise today.

The first thing I was amazed to learn was that Leonardo wasn’t the first man to try creating this image

It was not a novel idea. There was plenty of competition. He had multiple friends (or colleagues) working in Milan at the time, who also took an interest in the old writings of the Ancient Roman called Vitruvius and set about drawing out the proportional image Vitruvius described.

Each of them drew a man, stood with his feet touching the base of a square, head touching the top. From there though things weren’t quite the same. Some artists took the measurements of the ‘perfect man’ straight from Vitruvius’ writing. Leonardo gave the challenge more attention. He got out a tape measure and corrected the measurements, producing an image of a man with incredibly accurate proportions.

Leonardo was great because he paid such greater attention to the detail of his work

He’s great despite barely finishing anything at all. He’s great because with that power of attention he developed a incredible skill. The skill was recognised for its greatness.

And so history has picked a winner, and the version of the Vitruvian man we know today belonged to Leonardo.

And don’t we all want to be winners?

Which brings us to the end.

To quickly recap what we’ve covered here:

  1. If you want a rewarding life, you need to have skillful management of your attention.
  2. Skillful management of attention includes being aware of what we do before we sit down to work because of the ‘attention residue’ effect.
  3. Greatness typically requires committing our focus to the activity we want to be great at, probably almost obsessively so.

One last thought. Remember those ugly people? Well one of Leonardo’s ‘grotesques’, those super ugly pictures, went on to inspire the image of the vile-looking Queen of Hearts in the original illustrations of Alice in Wonderland. I find it quite formidable to think that the incredible expression of her face (I hated her image as a child) came from a real woman, living in Milan in the 1400s, and her momentary emotion has been shared now to entertain so many children.

If you enjoyed any of these ideas, you might enjoy one of the following books:

  • Walter Isaacson’s beautifully written Leonardo da Vinci
  • Cal Newport’s easy to read Deep Work
  • Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s a bit heavier, but totally worth it book simply called Flow

Or perhaps Mihalyi Csiksentmihalyi’s TED talk

Reducing phone dependence (and not getting stabbed)

By Posted on 6 min read
Imagine the conversations that happen here. Greece, 2016.

It is not unusual to hear that there has been some sort of problem with a child at school. These students weren’t born with silver spoons in their mouths. They aren’t hand-held. They are discovering how to get on within society by trial and error. Sometimes a lot of error.

Occasionally though, a story you hear doesn’t seem to fit.

One morning I found myself sitting chatting with a teenager, practicing exam questions. Her English was smooth, her answers grammatically intact, she had a clean face, her hair neatly brushed. The sort of student you don’t worry about.

But behind the scenes I knew that her story was more complex

That week she’d brandished a kitchen knife at her mother.

Because?

Because her mother had tried to take her phone away from her.

At first I couldn’t believe it

But then I began noticing how frequently the students were touching their phones in class. How when they were straining to find the vocabulary to speak with me, beneath the desk they were caressing their phones like a comfort blanket.

In our heads we might think, how can a child be addicted to her phone, but in our hearts we know a deeper truth. As a society we’re more dependent on our phones than we would like.

When we’re happy, when life is going well, this phone-reliance doesn’t necessarily strike us as a problem

It might strike us as annoying when conversations with friends get derailed by a bleep or a flash, and sometimes we find that more time has slid by than we intended, but by and large we’re just doing as everyone else around us seems to be. It all seems pretty normal.

But life isn’t all butterflies and sunshine. There are days where the phone feels like an anchor and we are terrified of drifting away. Fingers flick across the screen as if it were an activity as necessary as breathing. We’re seeking out notifications, a moment of acknowledgment of our existence, and a balm for the discomfort of reality.

This article will talk about two techniques I started using when I was in therapy, and one used by my sister.

  1. A desk drawer
  2. Knitting
  3. De-notification

I love writing and so writing was always going to be a big part of my therapy

Recording how I was feeling, finding words to express the inexpressible, pounding the keys and seeing the words appear on the screen, all this gave me a sense of being me again. But it was touch and go at one point, because beside my keyboard I would place my phone.

My desk is one of those beautiful green-leather topped creations

I rescued it from a junk shop in Wales, telling the man that if he could fit it in my car I would buy it from him. He grinned. Of course the desk would fit. The two legs, thick blocks of ornate wooden drawers detach from the surface, making it easy to slide straight into my car.

It was these drawers, the top ones which are lockable, which I turned to when my mind was a mess. My technique was not complex. All I did was move my phone from resting on the green leather surface to laying in a drawer amongst my papers.

This created a barrier

And the barrier made me think, it made me realise how frequently I was reaching out to my phone. It didn’t stop me looking, but it made me more aware of how often I actually did so. Which made me see how ridiculous I was being, and so, slowly, I stopped.

And began to write more.

But not everyone is trying to create more writing space

My sister doesn’t write in the same obsessive manner as I do. And so the technique she has taken up is slightly different. I visited her for Christmas and was astounded to see a large ball of white wool squished between the sofa cushions.

“My psychotherapist suggested I find something to do with my hands,” she explained

I could understand this. She’s always been a fidgeter, tapping surfaces, wobbling tables, tearing serviettes into tiny pieces. And touching her phone had taken a similar role. Like drumming her fingers on the dining-room table, her constant phone use had become rather anti-social, but unlike tapping her fingers, her phone was just making her feel more and more anxious, whilst simultaneously becoming more and more addictive.

Knitting seems to have stepped into this role

At Christmas she was simply working on white squares. White was the colour wool she’d found, a remnant of when the Nonna taught us both to knit as children, but since then the Mother has provided her with different colours, and my sister has developed her squares to include different stitches.

It’s a simple way that she keeps her hands busy in the evenings. She doesn’t, after all, want to lose count.

But what do we do about the bleeping screams of our phones?

My second technique (the third in this article), and the one that felt more ruthless, involved saying no to notifications. At first this felt like something rather rude. As my life is moving from solely revolving around being my mother’s poorly child to an independent adult I am having to be a little more lenient in some respects, but in general I don’t have a half-hearted approach for notifications.

I want to choose when you’re allowed to interrupt me.

So I went into the app notifications part of my phone settings and turned off everything

If an email arrives, nothing happens. If someone comments on an Instagram post, the first I will know about it is when I open up Instagram. And if you have me on WhatsApp, unless I would consider myself one of your emergency contacts (i.e. you are my sister), you can assume that you are muted.

Basically, the only people likely to ever get an instantaneous response are my parents and my sister. If we have plans in the next day or two I might unmute you, temporarily. But otherwise my phone behaves as if I had no friends whatsoever.

Now I have a boss and a few clients, I occasionally make a few additional exceptions. When a lesson is cancelled I do want to know. But in general I still stick to my approach of limiting instantaneousness to the moments when I’m the one choosing to chat.

Maybe this lack of availability strikes you as crazy or selfish

Or worse, like I’m avoiding life, running away from people who just want to chat. But this is not the case. This technique allows me to have bigger, substantial chunks of time which I can dedicate to the people I love in a meaningful manner. Instead of a constant pattering back and forth I tend to invite my friends to come visit me, schedule video calls and write longer more in-depth emails.

I have many friends at home with whom I want to maintain a deep and meaningful relationship, but I don’t need to know what they’re doing today, or tomorrow, or even next week. I need to clear time in my diary for them, and then I need to live my life so that when we do talk, I have something worthwhile to say.

You might imagine that ignoring people upsets them

But I actually get more people apologising for pestering me than complaining that I’m ignoring them. And those people who do complain that I’m ignoring them, or not being a very good friend… well I start to question how healthy our relationship actually is.

These are just three tiny techniques

But by using an array of tiny techniques we can start to build a better relationship with our phones.

To recap:

  1. Put your phone behind a barrier such as in a drawer or separate room
  2. Occupy your hands when you’re most likely to mindlessly flick back and forth
  3. Switch off all but the most essential notifications to remove the flashes and beeps that steal your attention

But where does that leave our knife wielding teenager?

We can’t know. I cross my fingers and hope that someone in her life will demonstrate how to have a healthy relationship with technology to her, and in the meantime, her dependence will be treated with kindness and as the serious addiction, the illness, that it has become.

So what can you do today?

Get mindful about who’s watching how you use your phone. Are you setting a good example, or do you need to experiment with some of these techniques?

Changed by a conversation and then changed again, and again, and again

By Posted on 3 min read
An evening walk and time to reflect.

I have a delusion in my mind that life will somehow become a little simpler. It is a delusion because life does not unfold that way. Each crease brings out a more nuanced view of the world. Every person you meet complicates matters. You realise that you are more than you thought, and less than you thought, and that these two, logically contradictory thoughts are simultaneously true.

When you are child existence is only that which you can see and feel

The idea that your parents might have another life outside of you is something that creeps upon you slowly. At some point I realised that the Mother was a nurse, which was good because nurses are good, that she looked after poorly children, which is also good because looking after poorly children is good. And then, sometime a little later, these thoughts coalesced in my brain and I realised that there were other children in the Mother’s life, children who were not me or my sister, and I was jealous.

At first such a jealousy is acute. However, as time passes, whilst it remains, and will most likely always remain, it merges into something else. My mummy is a nurse. She looks after poorly children. The words circulate and embed themselves. Jealousy meets pride and the two emotions, which at first seem to point in opposite directions – I both want my mummy to be saving these poorly children and I really don’t want to share her – collide. More emotions build up, I am simultaneously happy and sad about the Mother’s other existence.

In conversations, the deep moving ones, the ones that put a course correction on our lives we often walk smack bang into these contradictions. For example, you find yourself listening to someone relaying something that it difficult to hear and whilst you are terribly uncomfortable with the listening, you appreciate being the chosen one who is trusted enough to hear.

Hearing great stories of resilience, humbly told, we realise how small our own achievements really are

Just this week I felt the shock hit through my chest as I reflected upon a recent conversation. I pride myself on my resilience, my insistence on loving my life, my determination to appreciate and be grateful for that which I have. The sensation that I felt in my chest, the shock, reminded me how many other, incredibly resilient people there are out there who don’t have things as easy as I do, who don’t have the same levels of support around them, who don’t have a strong foundation of a loving family, who have no anchor, but at the same time are carrying much heavier responsibilities.

And yet, at the same time, that conversation was a dialogue not a monologue. I had earnt that conversation by being me, by trusting, by listening, by being open to a reality that is not so splendidly shiny as we sometimes imagine life should be.

Occasionally someone walks through my life and in the process of assimilating their story, which is not just a moment of listening, but involves deeper reflection and awareness, I am changed. Conversation redirect my thinking. It’s a two-way game. Being heard gives me the confidence to take a step forward. Listening teaches me where to take that step.

A friend who listens reflects my voice back towards me

The more people we encounter and converse with like this, the more stories we immerse ourselves in, the more complex our vision of the world becomes. Through such challenging conversation we can, if we chose, begin to learn what we sound like. It’s not always easy listening. I frequently get the difficult things wrong and have to adjust the acoustics. Time and time again I say the wrong things in the wrong moments, but I know that if I keep adjusting, keep subduing the need to defend myself from every uncertain whisper, then I learn. If you are lucky, you spend your life adjusting the acoustics of you own voice.

Voices after all aren’t found, they are grown.

A miraculous transformation to being a morning person (should it last)

By Posted on 5 min read
No, I didn’t set an alarm. Yes I really did just wake up to this.

I am in trouble.

You see I was rather loud in my breaking of a glass, outside of the Casera’s bedroom door, at seven in the morning. Making noise at 11pm is normal here. The kids in the apartment above run up and down the hallway. The ‘grandmas and grandpas’ in the ‘grandma and grandpa club’ hold a weekly disco. At seven though the apartment block is in silence. As there are no carpets, and few curtains, every sound, especially my clunking door reverberates throughout.

When you smash a glass of yogurt and then proceed to clear it up, cut your finger and wrestle with the cat who is very much awake and bored, you get into trouble.

History would suggest that I wouldn’t even think of being up this early

However something has changed. For reasons unknown to me I’m doing morning. I’m up early drinking coffee made in my new, tiny Italian moka (pot that you put on the hob to brew coffee). I eat breakfast. I have a short yoga routine. I practice my Spanish. And all before heading out to school.

Waking up, doing yoga, meditating before bed…

These are all things I have wished to do in an elegant habitual fashion for many years. Doing them though didn’t happen. I lacked the willpower to force any of it to happen. There were odd days, once every six months or so where I would wake in a spritely fashion and have a remarkable morning. Odd days. A good intention of executing efficient and energetic morning routines everyday would gestate in my mind. I’d tell myself that this would be a new beginning. The beginning would never get started. The next day I would find myself wondering what devil possessed me to set my alarm clock so early.

So when, at the beginning of January I found myself waking up, and feeling awake before seven, I figured that it was a temporary aberration. I would soon revert to my clumsy bear-coming-out-of-hibernation style getting out of the front door. Brushing my hair would return to the wayside. My hair would revert back to its messy bun. Coffee would wait until break time.

A few days later, when I was still getting up early, I began to worry. Yes, I could now touch my toes, what with all the yoga, but the awake-ness was weird. It was abnormal.

The teachers at school were still recovering from Christmas

They bumped into students as they passed them in the corridors, eyes not quite open, cheeks limp. In classes, the students folded their arms and lay their heads down to rest. The teachers forgot what they were supposed to be teaching and their already Spanish timekeeping took a turn for the worse.

Meanwhile I was bouncing. The children were drinking chocolate milk and eating cookies for breakfast, but it was me who exhibited the characteristics of a nine am sugar high. I experimented with decaffeinated coffee in the mornings, but it made no difference.

I began to worry. When I have too much energy, or when I sleep for fewer hours, I tend to be charging into a wall. I decided that with so much energy, the outcome could only be a catastrophic crash and so, wiser than I once was, I decided that I needed to implement emergency measures.

I figured my emergency measures needed to reflect my resources

I’m practical like that. And January has been sunny. Daily, I have a bright blue sky, a warm yellow sun and I have to wear a moisturiser with UV protection. On a tangent here I’ll add that it would be embarrassing to burn. The colloquial Spanish word for a Brit is ‘gamba’, which means prawn. Back to my resources, I have sunshine and access to a balcony. So, on arriving home from school, I pop the kettle on and migrate to my plastic chair in the sunshine. The heat can be so intense that I have to turn my back to the sun, but it’s a place good for relaxation.

Here I engage in the very serious task of winding down.

This is important as at school I am a fountain of energy

I have no idea how to persuade a teenager on too few hours’ sleep who hasn’t had a decent breakfast to tell me about his life in a language he feels foolish speaking in without spurting stories. My tactic is visible, genuine fascination. I smile; I laugh. I am a caricature of the English. They tell me that in their free time they play football, see television and play video games. I tell them they watch television and ask what position they play on the pitch and how they win their favourite video game.

In England I would be pretty self-conscious about the bursts of extroversion that spew from my mouth each day. I cross the threshold of the staff-room each morning with a cheerful doubling up of my welcomes: “¡Hola! Morning! How’s thee? ¿Qué tal?” When I do speak Spanish, I find that putting it across with a bubbly extroverted spring is much more successful than with self-doubting, quiet articulation. Nobody understands doubt within a voice. Everyone understands grandiose gestures.

All this is exhausting

Exhausting, excessive bubbly behaviour and changes in my sleep pattern are to me like a sick canary in a mine shaft. They’re a warning of trouble.

Hence, when I arrive home I curl up in the sun and read. I choose to slow down. Sometimes I have a siesta. I cook and listen to a podcast. Instead of writing on my computer, I pick up my journal. In fact, I avoid my desk. There are so many ways to get sucked into the computer that feel good, but are, after a while, quite draining.

Sometimes I go for a walk.

I have no idea how regular folk manage their energy

I work less than twenty hours a week and it still takes me a lot of effort to manage that small demand on my time and energy.

So far though, I haven’t crashed. I’m still doing yoga each morning. I’m still meditating before I go to bed. I’m still making a fool of myself at school in such a way that the children can’t help themselves but engage. I am happy.

I’m wondering, if, maybe, just maybe, I’ve cracked this morning thing…

As long as I don’t disturb the Casera’s sleep with any more broken glassware.