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.

“Catherine, your life is chaos” – The Grump

A local woman weaving in the Sacred Valley of the Incas.
Peru, January 2020.
[Written at the beginning of February.]

On the aeroplane between Lima and Cusco I tell my parents that I’m staying in Chile. I’ve asked my boss and he’s written the most wonderful recommendation letter and it’s confirmed, all I need to do is renew my documents and I’m sorted. I feel pretty chuffed with myself. As a dear South-African friend would say, I’ve got my ducks in a row.

It doesn’t last

A few days later whilst I’m on the plane from Lima to Santiago my boss sends me a message. Something in the bureaucracy has gone amiss. Perhaps funding’s been cut, perhaps there’s been some disagreement somewhere up the line, it’s not clear but either way, it’s nothing personal, but I don’t have a job.

This upsets me.

In the current jumble that is my life, the idea of some stability was soothing

I had a plan. I knew where I was going to live. Then reality struck.

Although I try to maintain a routine, reality doesn’t work that way. Ever since I arrived in Chile I’ve been battling to create a routine. I arrived in August. When we had a week of holiday in September, everyone else was overjoyed, I was frustrated and wanted to go to work because I’d finally begun to settle into a rhythm. A month later, when protestors took to the streets and the military curfew was placed upon us, I was the one who kept hoping that we’d soon get back to normal and I’d be able to go back to class.

It never happened.

Nope. We’ve gone from protests to online examinations to summer holidays

And I’ve felt like I’m spinning from one thing to another. Last week I was on holiday with my parents, then I was back in La Serena for the weekend and now I’m miles and miles and miles further south, wearing the most ridiculous pink woolly hat about to go hiking in the mountains.

It’s all proving quite a challenge.

This morning I was shaken awake by a bus conductor

In a friendly kind of fashion of course. I’d woken up in the bus station in Santiago which was where I was supposed to be, but disorientating all the same. Tonight, I’m in a hostel. Already this year I have slept in 12 different beds and home has not yet been one of them. By the time February ends it’s going to be twenty-something different places.

My poor body has no idea where it is or what it’s supposed to be doing next.

Despite all this, I am, more or less, managing it all

Me. The same woman who was only a few years ago struggling to manage simple tasks like cleaning one’s teeth is now juggling all this uncertainty. Tonight I am tired, but when I woke up this morning on the bus I knew what I needed to do. I knew how to look after myself.

I stepped off the bus and ate my banana and a cereal bar. I cannot make decisions on an empty stomach so don’t try to. It’s helpful to know one’s limits. Once I was thinking better I headed to the bathrooms to clean my teeth and get changed. I put on my make-up. It’s not that I wear make-up every day, but sometimes doing so makes me look more alive and therefore feel more alive.

There’s nothing elegant about doing your morning routine in the bus station’s toilets, but elegance is a luxury.

Then came the next bus, this one to the airport where I found myself squeezed into one of the few remaining seats. I didn’t head straight to check-in but stopped off first for coffee and a media-luna (croissant to you and me). Now I was feeling human.

Then came the first attempt at check-in where I found that I wasn’t on the passenger list

This led to a short debate with a woman at the (“this is not a”) help-desk to be reinserted on the passenger list, and a second more successful attempt at check-in. No surprise, I slept most of the flight down to Puerto Natales.

Nobody would have guessed that I nearly screwed up the whole thing by imagining that my flight was the day after it actually was. However, at the bus station back home in La Serena, the helpful man at a (“how can I help you”) help-desk came to my rescue and sorted out my wrong bus tickets without a fuss. So, in the end, there was no grand disaster.

What’s noteworthy here is that having made a mistake, I could have chastised myself. I could have played at criticism, but instead, I got myself a cup of tea and sorted out the problem. I dealt with what I could deal with and I did it whilst remaining calm.

For me, managing chaos comes down to not expending energy on the useless

Always, it’s a lack of energy that’s going to trip me up. Without energy my willpower is diminished and my decision making becomes disastrous. Amid chaos, there are so many decisions to be made. You need willpower to choose the helpful route rather than the easiest. This is why, in my experience, you should take a banana to your therapy session and eat it immediately afterwards, or consume a tower of marmalade sandwiches, just when your energy levels are crashing and you’re feeling rather raw.

Or before you head to the supermarket so that you have the willpower to choose the food you need over the food you want. Or when you wake up in a bus station and need to keep yourself from freaking out.

In fact, thinking about it, my management technique for chaos might come down to three ideas:

  1. When you’re tired prioritise sleep. If you can’t sleep, eat a banana. If you have to do something taxing, eat a banana. Don’t make decisions on an empty stomach. Bananas are great.
  2. If you have no idea what you’re doing or how you’re going to solve a problem, sit down and have a cup of tea. Don’t multitask here, simply have a cup of tea. If you’re so overwhelmed you can’t think straight to make a cup of tea – and it happens – simply sit down on the floor. If you have to sit down on the floor of the bus station, that’s okay too.
  3. This one is based on Rapunzel’s guide for intercontinental flights. Whenever you have a connection (maybe a metaphorical one rather than an airport style one), change your socks and knickers and don’t forget to brush your teeth. The father would add, wash and comb your hair. Clean hair helps a lot.

And it seems I have to throw the dice up in the air again, but the intention is still to stay in Chile a while longer…

Cultivating focus (and moving towards craftmanship)

Narrowing the focus
Narrowing the focus.
Asolo, Italy, May 2018.

When you listen to teachers talking, in low desperate voices, it’s often about the inability of children to focus. There is a palatable fear of the children who are, at this moment, entering primary school. They are the children who had access to mobile phones and tablets as babies. Giving a toddler a video to watch in a restaurant might keep them quiet, but what is it teaching them about paying attention? Maybe this is scaremongering. The ridiculous idea that the next generation is always worse, whatever.

It’s easy to switch into a blame game, but it’s all of us who face a challenge here. Teachers struggle to get students to focus on the lesson at hand. They also struggle to focus themselves on their endless marking in the crowded distractive den of the staff-room.

For me, cultivating focus has become a bit of an obsession

Or, to be more truthful, the obsession is how I’m not focused. I keep finding myself sabotaging my attempts to concentrate. I want to concentrate because I’m pretty sure an ability to concentrate is essential to doing great work. However, sometimes my mind feels very fluttery. I do think that I am improving but it’s a slow process.

Some factors have a significant impact on my concentration.

First, I know I need a tidy environment

What you’ll find, if you enter my room today, are two suitcases heaped high, paperwork scattered across the surfaces and precarious stacks of books. Hence, I cannot work with any efficiency in my room.

Second, I know I need a routine

And yet, should you look at my calendar, I seem to be doing something different every day. I had this week scheduled as the week to get back on task, and instead found myself on a trip to the Chilean Embassy in London. This took three days.

Third, I know I need to be well-rested and yet I am not

Instead, I’m grumpy, achy and wasting time curbing my desire to whinge. Some people drink a strong coffee and then power through, I am not one of these people. Take away my sleep and I’m like the toddler who’s had YouTube snatched from their claws.

My desire for focus comes from a desire for craftsmanship

To me, craftsmanship is a beautiful word because it immediately brings to mind the engraving of a master carpenter, the smell of sawdust scattered on the floor, dark barns and intricate design. Or mighty wrought-iron gates, their bars entwined and the how flames in which they were born. Then the smell of oil paints drifting through an open window, the grain of a canvas and glistening colours dabbed on a wooden palette. But more than that, time and effort, brought together, create something to be proud of. Craftmanship.

This is not so far from something I noticed when I was tutoring

Having listened to a teenager talk about her schoolwork, week after week, I recognized that projects which took a lot of steady time created a genuine pride. Perhaps because they’re more personal. It’s your creativity showing through. And, it’s easier to share engender enthusiasm about a project from your parents, than another test on irregular verbs.

Pride matters.

After all, I too want to have a life of things I’m proud of

I don’t want slap-dash success or in at the last-minute signs of relief. I want to step back from my work, look at is as something whole and complete and feel something from deep inside me that says it was worth every minute.

So, I need to tidy my space, sort out my routine and get some sleep

And then, once I’ve worked out how to do it myself, I shall return to the question that haunts teachers. How do you teach a child to work?

I somehow feel that scrumpled homework and a cram-for-the-exam attitude fails.

Can you focus well? And if so, how did you learn to do it?

What do I want from a friendship?

Walk with friends
Exploring the Portuguese countryside with friends.
More or less near Porto, Portugal, November 2018.

Sometimes friends apologise for not staying better in touch. Perhaps this is because of some sociata idea of what it means to be friends. Sometimes, when they say this, I want to instead thank them for not being too much in touch. If every friend I had wanted to know about the minutiae of my life I’d not have any stories to tell. I’d spend my life glued to my phone and miss out on what’s in front of me. I find myself thinking, please don’t say that you’re sorry when it’s unnecessary and don’t do something because friends ‘are supposed to’. See me from time to time. Smile when you do and share some laughter. Take occasional moments to show me you love me, as I love you.

Yes, it’s true that I’m like anyone else and sometimes fear missing out. Sometimes I hear about a group of my friends meeting up and doing something together. I contemplate for a moment, how, if only I had taken a different path, I could have been there too. Nostalgia grips tight and I shake it off, like a dog shaking off the water after climbing out of a muddy lake. We can’t live all the lives laid out in front of us and I’ve chosen this travel-focused one. It’s pretty sweet. The dog still smells but you can hose it down later. Its tail is wagging.

Each friendship, of course, is different. The nature of some involves more frequent conversation than others. Some friendships work well though instant messages – the conversation is vibrant, funny and natural. Others seem to me to never quite get flowing through on a phone screen and yet, face-to-face they glide, effortless. Some in-person conversations leave me feeling rejuvenated. Some take some time to process. Most though are a mixture of both: a flood of warm feeling towards the other person, the delight of connection, followed by a readiness again for my own space.

As much as I fear missing out, I don’t need to know everything about my friends’ lives. I prefer to know what is devastating them or what they are celebrating. The extremes at both ends. And I prefer to be told direct, rather than through some other person in passing, although I’d also prefer to know than not know at all. I like long walks and conversation. I like sharing good food and bouncing thoughts and ideas back and forth. I like exploring somewhere new: a monument, a mountain, a bookshop or an idea. I like art galleries and museums and slow meanders through airy rooms where conversation flits back and forth in low voices: yes, history, politics, art, philosophy, but gently so.

I like people making me laugh. Hysterical giggling and hula hooping.

I like friendships that look forward more so that backwards. People who suggest places to visit next year and things meanwhile I could read this year, because they saw it, read it, and thought of me. I like seeing photos of job offer emails and chickens.

I love gifts, like hand-knitted socks.

But most of all I love when I can be with someone and feel comfortable being neither more nor less than me.

You all know who you are and I’m grateful for you all.

‘Adulting’ (Is that even a word?)

When she had grown-up, I took the Midget travelling. As you can see by the date, this was a long time ago.
The Dragon Bridge Ljubljana, 2014.

My little sister, the Midget, put three loads of washing on, one after the other, pinned them out on the washing line which stretches the length of her back-garden and commented on how, with the wind and the sun, it was perfect drying weather.

I rolled my eyes a little because she sounded just like the Mother, adult-like.

A little while later we headed out of the house and went for a walk

It rained.

However, as we were walking, she mentioned how being an adult still surprises her. Like being an adult was something as peculiar as being a fairy. Something unnatural and kind of weird.

Of course, I was curious about what she meant by the term she used, ‘adulting’, and being grown-up. After all, my little sister is a house owner with a stone carrying ring on her finger. I might be the one without the regular job and traditional lifestyle, but I’m not ‘adulting’, I’m an adult.

I dug a little deeper wondering what all of this meant.

The other night one of her colleagues came to visit

We played the board game Carcassonne and I cooked dinner. Early in the evening, the Midget sighed, declared it was time for some ‘adulting’ and disappeared out to the shop. Her colleague shook his head with bemusement. He finds her comments about growing-up funny and totally out of character as her supposed incompetence is in sharp contrast to her behaviour at work, which he described as confident.

So, on our walk, I asked my sister about how she feels at work and if she feels like she’s ‘adulting’ when she’s there. The look she gave me said no before she even opened her mouth.

At work, she said, she just felt inexperienced. There was so much more knowledge to acquire. At work, she feels like an adult. She’s an adult who’s learning what’s required for the next step in her career.

I moved the conversation onto sport.

Sport has always been a big part of her life

She’s not doing quite as much as she’d like to right now perhaps, but for the last however long, she’s been in and out of physiotherapy after being taken off a pitch on a backboard and in a neck-brace.

For a few months, I could lift heavier boxes than she could. It was incredible. But, in general, I’ve become used to the idea that she’s fitter and stronger than me. At one stage I could beat her on a long-distance run, but I’m not so sure now.

But because of the injuries, she’s feeling unfit. She might be unfit, but she knows what she’s doing. She’s got the first-aid kits, the tape, the punch bag and the tackle pad. When it comes to sport, she feels like an adult. She’s an adult who’s training to be faster and stronger.

So where is all this ‘adulting’ happening?

I pinned it down to right here in the house. What my sister seems to mean by ‘adulting’ is form filling and kitchen floor sweeping.

It takes time to learn to do these ‘adulting’ tasks

I think the real issue here is she hasn’t accepted the learning process and expects perfection from the get-go. She’s so good at almost everything that she believes something so ordinary and everyday as writing a supermarket shopping list should come easily. And then it doesn’t.

I’m reminded of my Great-Nonna’s housekeeping book

The one where she systematically made a tiny amount of money feed and clothe the whole family. The difference between the challenge facing my sister and the challenge my Great-Nonna faced is vast. My little sister, confident and capable at work, respected and admired within her sporting circles, doesn’t have to worry about looking after the individual pennies. She just needs to get enough food in the fridge to eat during the week.

The Great-Nonna had to treat budgeting like an art form. It demanded time, patience and took time to learn.

I think this is the step my sister is missing. Her to-do list doesn’t include ‘learn to write a shopping list’.

And I think the Midget is doing herself an injustice with her terminology

She’s not playing at being an adult, she is one. Her theory is she makes too many comparisons to other people. Not to me, because I’m ‘unconventional’, but to other people who seem to manage to keep their kitchens clean and refrigerators stocked.

Well, one of the many things I love about my sister is how she is not the same as everyone else. I love how she has priorities and she’s fierce about putting them first. You can’t prioritize everything, so some things fall to second place. If we run out of food, the supermarket is probably open 24 hours. It really is not a big deal.

But comparison is a hard-to-break habit.

The other week we watched a chunk of a home video

In the video, my sister was a cooing baby and I was toddling around bashing things. Our parents were the age we are now but seemed to look younger.

Except it’s all perspective, and how old we look tends to relate more to a context than anything else. Children can’t guess the age of adults without clues like grey hair and such a clue is less viable when so many people dye their hair. At work, I’m often assumed to be younger than I am. I doubt this would be the case if I was in a different job, but many language assistants tend to be just post-university age. Not all, I know a fair number who are the Mother’s age, but many.

What’s more, I’d look quite different wearing a formal jacket, my nails manicured, and my hair styled. Or if you could also see a photograph of me ten years ago.

I look in the mirror and see my grey hairs and contemplate that I am getting older

Meanwhile, whilst the Midget fusses about ‘adulting’, the Mother is ageing backwards. Having got the art of ‘adulting’ pretty much perfected, she’s likely to be found running around the garden in her welly-boots, swinging on her wooden garden swing, or trying to hula-hoop on one leg.

Truly, my family are the best.


As a side note here, this post came about because I asked the Midget what she wanted me to write about and she said herself. If you have something you particularly want me to write about, let me know.

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

Details in the walls of the Alhambra, Granada. Arabic Designs.
A glimpse of light in the dark: details in the walls in the Alhambra in Granada.
March 2019.

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

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

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

I’m going to briefly cover…

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

Sometimes the most important is what you don’t do

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

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

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

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

So what does this mean that I doing?

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

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

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

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

In the afternoon I went out for a walk

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

Which I guess doesn’t seem all that mad…

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

What matters is how I approach each activity

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

I’ll give you an example

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

Or another example

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

But of course this is not easy

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

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

Living here in Spain the pace of life is slower

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

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

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

And now I am prepared for Monday morning.

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

Written a few weeks back.