The Hello Kitty notelet method for dealing with overwhelm

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

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

Plans are of little importance, but planning is essential.

– Winston Churchill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A hazy summer: thoughts on solitude

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A road somewhere near the El Tatio geyser field near San Pedro de Atacama, Chile.
January 2020.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At the end of the world: thoughts on friendship

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But once the initial emotion of comparison subsided, I smiled

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

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

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

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

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

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?