Resolved and Resolute

happy-new-year-2017

No new year resolutions, but three inspiring initiatives to share…

First of all I’d like to wish all the readers of the blog a Happy New Year and to thank you all for your loyalty, interest, likes and comments.

This year I haven’t made any traditional resolutions as such – no promises to myself to get slimmer, fitter or wiser. Although if any of these come to pass I’ll be delighted.

However, there are three New Year related initiatives that have caught my attention and they’re all ways of bringing a little joy into our own and other people’s lives – something much needed after the battering of 2016. So let’s hear it for the power of positivity and individual action in 2017…

#ScotSpirit of Kindness

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Firstly, I’m quite taken by the idea of 21 days of kindness being proposed by Visit Scotland.

The idea of the 21 days came from the fact that on the 25th January Scots, and indeed many non-Scots, celebrate the birth of Scotland’s national poet and bard, Robert Burns and in 1788 Burns wrote Auld Lang Syne, a song still sung nowadays, often as part of the New Year celebrations and other celebratory occasions. The song praises the value of friendship, and one of the lines in the song is we’ll tak a cup of kindness yet- a lyric which expresses a promise to be kind.

Visit Scotland is suggesting that on each day from the 5th of January until Burns night on the 25h people commit to doing one random act of kindness per day and sharing it with the hashtag, #ScotSpirit. Suggestions include complimenting a stranger, feeding the birds in your garden or paying for the coffee or bus fare of the person behind you in the queue. Apparently it takes 21 days to change a habit or form a new one, so the hope is the kindness will persist after the challenge itself is over.

Happiness Jar

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The second suggestion that I like the sound of is the setting up of a Happiness Jar. Again it could be a good way of defusing stress. The idea here is to write down one thing each day that has made you happy and to put the note in a jar. So you not only take a moment to focus on the positive every day, but you can also recall all these moments at the end of the year when you re-read them.

Reflective Reading Challenge

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And the third suggestion is the 2017 Reading Challenge. There are a few of these challenges around, but I particularly liked the sound of this one as it’s ‘only’ 26 books and doesn’t necessarily require a commitment to read more. It’s more about reflecting on one book per fortnight over the 52 weeks of the year and then to ‘inspire your world’ with your reflections. The full list of suggested categories is below and it comes from Hannah Braime at hannahbraime.com So I hope to inspire you as members of my blogging world with my own reflective recollections.

The 26-book 2017 reading challenge

  • A book you read in school
  • A book from your childhood
  • A book published over 100 years ago
  • A book published in the last year
  • A non-fiction book
  • A book written by a male author
  • A book written by a female author
  • A book by someone who isn’t a writer (think Paul Kalathani or Richard Branson)
  • A book that became/is becoming a film
  • A book published in the 20th Century
  • A book set in your hometown/region
  • A book with someone’s name in the title
  • A book with a number in the title
  • A book with a character with your first name
  • A book someone else recommended to you
  • A book with over 500 pages
  • A book you can finish in a day
  • A previously banned book
  • A book with a one-word title
  • A book translated from another language
  • A book that will improve a specific area of your life
  • A memoir or journal
  • A book written by someone younger than you
  • A book set somewhere you’ll be visiting this year
  • An award-winning book
  • A self-published book

 

Have you made any resolutions for 2017 – perhaps reading, writing or reflecting related? Have you considered any of the above initiatives? Do share in the comments below.

Now I am Sixty

Happy birthday

Ageing is a privilege and having just had my sixtieth birthday has reinforced that fact for me

In Now We Are Six, the collection of poems for children by A. A. Milne the little boy, Christopher Robin, says:

‘But now I am Six, I’m as clever as clever. So I think I’ll be six now forever and ever!’

And I think as I have just turned sixty, I’d say something similar.

I’m not sure that at sixty I’m as clever as clever, but I think wanting to be the age I’m at now at forever and ever is a sign of acceptance and contentment.

Yes, being sixty can seem old, though less so to those approaching or beyond this landmark birthday, than to those not yet twenty, thirty, forty or even fifty.

But I don’t have a problem with turning sixty––for one thing it sure beats the alternative. Having survived cancer in my forties, having my sixtieth birthday was definitely something to celebrate.

To me it’s not the new 40 or 50. It is 60––and there’s nothing wrong with that, nothing to be ashamed of, it doesn’t need to be dressed up as something else.

I don’t want to be 40 or 50 again––been there, done that.

 

My lovely 60th birthday cake complete with photos from significant life stages, my book covers, my parents and round the other side my children and grandchildren. Thanks to Mr Anne and to cakemaker, Nicola.
My lovely 60th birthday cake complete with photos from significant life stages, including childhood with my four wee sisters, my graduation,  my wedding, my book covers, my parents and round the other side my children and grandchildren. Thanks to Mr Anne for commissioning and to local cake-maker, Nicola for baking and decorating.

 

For one thing, at 60, there’s retirement, I took it early after a thirty-six year career in primary school teaching, so I’m now two years in––and I can find nothing not to like about it. I miss the children, but not the endless politicking and paperwork. And I’m still working as a writer but, finally, I’m the boss of me.

And there’s my bus pass which allows me to travel anywhere in Scotland by bus free of charge––I was so excited to get that. Receiving it was the true mark of my long held ambition to officially be an old bag.

­But mainly, there is now time – time to do what matters to me – to write more books – both for children and adults – where the ages of the characters are no barrier to having adventures, hopes and dreams – to spend time with the people I love, to take care of myself – and to just stand and stare.

It’s not an end but a beginning – as with any day, it’s the beginning of the rest of my life. I’m not much wiser or less prone to worry and anxiety than I was before. But reaching sixty has helped clarify what’s important. Our numbered days are not endless and there really is no time but the present. A new day is a present––a gift not to be taken for granted at any age.

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Yes, I have to face up to the implications of approaching old age whenever and whatever that may be. I’m sure I’ll recognise it when, and if, it comes. But every age has its challenges and requirements to plan ahead. Sixty is no different.

And apart from when I look in the mirror, I really feel no different. Of course I’ve aged physically, but my six-year-old, sixteen-year-old, twenty-six and thirty-six-year-old selves along with their forty and fifty-year-old counterparts are all still there inside, all part of the me I am today. I’m happy with that.

And what advice would I give my 16 year-old self?

  • Follow your dreams.
  • Do what you love.
  • Seek new experiences.
  • Have no regrets.
  • Be kind to yourself and everyone you meet.
  • Do your small bit to make the world a better place.

And remember these 3 things

  • You will be strong enough,
  • You will be brave enough
  • You will be good enough.

 

Here’s to getting older. How do you feel about big birthdays and about getting older?

Absent Friend

A birthday tribute to my very dear friend. It’s been fourteen years since she died, but I still miss her…

1968, summer holidays: Elspeth (on left) and me aged 12

Elspeth would have been sixty-years-old on the fourteenth of June this year. I thought about her all day on that Tuesday just over three weeks ago. I shed a tear and I raised a glass to her memory.

I first saw Elspeth when she arrived as the new girl in my class at South Morningside Primary School in Edinburgh in 1965. She stood at the front of the class and the teacher explained that she had come all the way from England and was going to be in our class. The teacher asked me to look after her. We were in primary 5 and nearly nine years old. It was the start of a 37-year friendship. As nine-year-olds I literally looked up to her – she was tall and skinny and I was small and plump – this size difference persisted over the next 37 years! At the time we met Elspeth seemed very exotic to me – with her strange English accent, a mum who drove her own car, and her family lived in one of the brand new houses in the area.

For the rest of our primary school careers we were inseparable. We played piano together, went to ballet lessons, ice-skating, had tea and sleepovers at each other’s houses. I went to all her birthday parties at Gullane beach, getting there in her Uncle Kenneth’s van. We were very loyal to one another and fought each other’s battles – woe betide anyone caught speaking ill of one of us in the presence of the other!

We developed a rather quirky, mutual sense of humour and shared our own special vocabulary and linguistic shorthand, which persisted into our adulthood. Our mothers told us the “facts of life” when we were 11 and we immediately compared notes and assessed our respective mothers’ performance of this duty – with a mixture of incredulity, amusement and horror.

We went on to different secondary schools. My family had moved to the other side of the city. We therefore made regular trips on two buses across town to see each other. Throughout our teenage years we shared our most intimate secrets – especially our experiences with boys! Then Elspeth family left Edinburgh to settle in Gullane, about fifteen miles along the coast, when we were both 17. This meant that we spent weekends living at one or the other’s house in order to keep in constant touch.

University meant even more distance apart –Elspeth at Edinburgh and me at St Andrews – but so what – we just travelled that bit further to keep in touch. Boyfriends became more serious. Elspeth met her Ian. Her Ian had a 21st Birthday party and Ian’s best mate, Graham invited his brother along. Elspeth invited me. I met Graham’s brother at the party. I had met my Iain. In 1978, I married my Iain and Elspeth married hers.

We spent the 1980s having babies and then Elspeth moved – not just out of town but to New Zealand and then Australia.

But we kept in touch – we knew that for best friends distance doesn’t matter.

In 1998 we were both diagnosed, within weeks of each other, with cancer. Elspeth with a recurrence of the breast cancer she first had in the 1980s. For me it was ovarian cancer and I was scared stiff. I called my friend in Australia and she calmed me down. She made me believe cancer could be beaten. She was incredibly brave and strong.

In 1999 I travelled to Tasmania to see her. We were by this time both in the clear. We laughed, reminisced, shared all our intimate secrets once more – giggled like the daft wee lassies we always reverted to being in each other’s company.

Tasmania 1999

Then in 2001, I travelled to Tasmania again – this time my Iain came too. By now Elspeth was ill again – with aggressive secondary cancer – but again she was fighting – refusing conventional medical treatment but fortified by her great Christian faith and a timely visit from her sister Frances. We had a wonderful time together – sometimes we even included the menfolk! We talked about everything – life, death and everything in between. Her strong belief in the power of prayer and her amazing spirit sustained her for almost another year.

Tasmania 2001

I had no such strong religious faith and although I hoped she would not be taken from us just yet, I guessed our farewell at the airport would be our last. And I think she did too. We held each other just that little bit tighter as we said goodbye, both of us in tears.

She died in May 2002, one month before her 46th birthday, leaving Ian without a wife and their three young sons without their mother.

Elspeth was also a much-loved daughter, sister, and friend.

She was one of the kindest, funniest, most generous, most loyal people you could meet.

She will always be my dear friend and I still miss her terribly fourteen years on.

I will raise another glass to her memory on my own 60th birthday in August.

 

 

 

 

Learning: Taking The Plunge

diving in

Every week the folks at WordPress set a weekly challenge. I’ve not taken up the challenge before, but this one inspired me. It is to write about a time I learned something new.

In January 2015, aged 58 and a half, I learned to swim.

Now teaching and learning is something close to my heart. I was a primary school teacher for 36 years and I met all sorts of reluctant or struggling pupils. It’s easy to teach someone who’s ready to learn, who’s receptive to what you’re showing them. However, it’s not so easy to coax someone’s who’s afraid to even give it a try, who has decided in advance they’re not capable of learning. But I thrived on such challenges and persisted and tried everything I could think of to persuade reluctant pupils to just give it a go.

Then, nearly eighteen months ago, the tables were turned. I was now the reluctant learner, the one of was afraid, who didn’t believe myself capable. I had never learned to swim. But I’d set myself some personal challenges when I retired from teaching and top of the list was ‘get in the water and swim, woman!” An additional motivation, on top of the personal challenge, was that I wanted to be able to swim with my grandchildren on a family holiday to Cyprus later in the year.

So I booked a one to one hour long session with the swimming teacher at my local pool.

Now, I should say I’m not afraid of water. I’ve always liked bobbing about in the (warm) sea and when my children were wee, I’d always go in the pool with them when we were away on our annual holiday. I made sure they learned to swim – by delegating the task to my husband.

So, no, not afraid of water. It was just I believed I was the only human being in the history of our species who couldn’t float.

But I was wrong. With the confidence building teaching of my wonderful teacher, Yvonne, during that one hour in the pool I eventually took my feet off the bottom of the pool and with a few feeble and styleless strokes I swam. I swam a couple of widths. I went out of my depth and I treaded water. Me! the least buoyant human ever – could both float and swim.

I walked home through the January snow, oblivious to the cold, wrapped in a coat of smugness and pride. An Olympic medallist couldn’t have felt more proud.

I’ll never be a water baby, but yes, I swam with my grandchildren last summer.

I did it. I took the plunge and learned something new. And boy, did it feel good.

The Stories We Tell Ourselves

‘Nothing can harm you as much as your own thoughts unguarded’ Gautama Buddha

Thoughts are just that: thoughts. They’re not facts or artefacts. They’re not necessarily true or correct. But, boy, are they powerful!

I believe storytelling and listening to stories is part of what makes us human and it’s something people have always done. We do it to make sense of our world and how we experience it.

As a writer, stories are my thing. I love the whole process of crafting a story from initial thought to finished novel.

As a reader, I love to be told a story, to be transported, taken out of myself by someone else’s thoughts and words.

But there’s an aspect of storytelling that’s not so positive and not so enjoyable. And that can be the uncrafted, unedited stories we tell ourselves.

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The Story Goblin

Many of us succumb to the goading and taunting of our own thoughts. I know I do. The story goblin in our heads knows all our baggage, all our triggers, all our awful ‘what if’ scenarios and it’s all too ready to jump right in there and take control. Next stop: horrible, out of control anxiety or a drastic drop in self-esteem.

However, if we’re aware of what’s happening, then we can take back a bit of control. Otherwise those powerful stories will sabotage us and may seriously affect our mental health.

While it’s true we can’t control everything that happens, we do have some say in how we react.

So if you make a mistake, or get hurt, or are presented with a stressful or unfamiliar situation, it’s healthier not to go off on one. Don’t follow that goblin down the route to ‘I’m such an idiot,’ or ‘I should have expected it and I deserve it’ or ‘this is going to end unbearably badly’.

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Edit or delete

So what can we do? How can we get a bit of control over the stories we’re telling ourselves? Well we can:

*STOP. RECOGNISE WHAT’S HAPPENING. BREATHE. PUT THAT NEGATIVE STORY AND THE GOBLIN IN LIDDED AND LOCKED BOX. LEAVE IT THERE.*

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THEN

Redraft and reshape

Show yourself some compassion. Forgive yourself. And don’t have catastrophe mode as an automatic, default setting. Be realistic.

We can’t prevent our thoughts. We all have them. We can’t function without them. But we can employ an inner editor. We can decide on what are the useful, truthful and inspiring stories. Yes we can still get stuff wrong, hurt or be hurt, find ourselves in scary situations, BUT we are also the editors of the stories we tell ourselves about our lives. We can control our reactions. We can shape our own stories.

Are you stalked by a version of the story goblin? Or have you learned ways to be the active author of the stories you tell yourself?

 

 

 

 

Alive, Alive Oh!

I recently read a great wee book called Alive, Alive Oh And Other Things That Matter. It was written by Diana Athill, a literary author and memoirist and it was an inspiring and reassuring read. Athill will be 100 next year and wrote this book, reflecting on her life and the joys of being alive, in the latter half of her nineties.

This post is partly a book review, but it also comes under the ‘Reflecting’ category here on the blog.

My take on getting older

As I’m approaching my 60th birthday later this year, the above book was an especially reassuring and joyful read. I felt positively young for one thing. But it also caused me to reflect on my own feelings about ageing and yes, about life coming to an end.

‘Dream as if you’ll live forever. Live as if you’ll die today.’ So said James Dean and given that this 1950s actor died aged only 24, it’s especially poignant. It’s also wise.

While there’s something to be said for living in the present, being ‘mindful of the moment’ as current speakers of wise words put it, on a practical level we all have to plan – even if it’s just what we’re going to have for dinner. We also need to have our reflective moments about the past and we need our dreams for the future.

We can’t ‘live every day as if it’s our last’ – another popular slogan. That’s one sure way to madness and exhaustion – and perhaps an early grave. But we can be aware of possible ‘lasts’. That is we should part on good terms when we say goodbye to loved ones, we should communicate our feelings, finish things, enjoy people, places and things as we encounter them, spot and create opportunities as the chance arises.

Although, I can’t treat every day as if it’s my last, if I knew I’d die today, I do know how I’d want to spend it.  It would be with those closest to me and to be able to say goodbye and tell them how much I love them before I departed.

In my head, I’m still in my mid-thirties – at least until I look in the mirror. Life really does seem to have passed very quickly. Each decade has had all the normal ups and downs. I’ve had births and bereavement, gained an M.A. and an M.Sc., had a thirty-six year teaching career, and an even longer marriage. I have two grown-up children who have made me very proud and I’m now a grandma to two more wonderful little human beings. I’ve travelled all over the world, survived cancer and depression and, after a long apprenticeship,

have become a writer.

And in my writing for adults, I write contemporary fiction where the main characters are no longer young. They are – gasp – over 45, but they still have a life, they still live and love, make mistakes, start anew – regardless of their age. And I have readers who range from twenty-somethings to those in their nineties.

And in my real life there’s still stuff I want to do. I want to write more novels, do some more travelling, see my grandchildren grow up. I know, I don’t want much! And I’ll do my best to stay healthy in order to achieve these remaining dreams.

I suppose what I’m saying is yes, age is more than a number. The number is significant, of course it is. There’s no denying that the mind and body are affected by the passage of time. Ageing is inevitable. It’s the price you pay for surviving – and it sure beats the alternative.

I’m also saying cherish your past, it’s what has made you; nourish the present, it’s all you can hold in your grasp; and plan so you can look ahead with excited anticipation to your future. And yes, with equanimity, look to life’s end.

 

Review

Alive, Alive Oh! And Other Things That Matter by Diana Athill

Genre: Memoir

There’s a sense of having experienced a life well-lived that pervades Athill’s book. In this memoir, she looks back over her life from childhood until the present. Now resident in what sounds like a wonderful care home she’s sustained by her memories, but also enjoys a life that’s as full as she wants it to be. She talks about the friendships of old age and how they differ from those we experience when younger. She talks about the end of her sex life, about relative frailty, but also about getting out and about and taking part. And she is honest and candid about the approach of her own death. She doesn’t view death as the end, but as just another part of life.

The book has humour, poignancy and honesty. It is indeed life-affirming. And I recommend it whatever age you are.

Type of Read: Reassuring and inspiring. Read it with a glass of champagne and celebrate the sheer joy of being alive, alive oh!

Alive, Alive Oh! And Other Things That Matter is published by Granta and is available in Hardback and as an e-book.

 

Your Thoughts on Ageing

How do you feel about getting older? Does it scare you or do you embrace it? Do leave your comments.

Writers as Travellers in Time

Marking Time

image via shutterstock
image via shutterstock

Writers as travellers in time.

How do you like your history? Do you prefer it linear or layered?

As writers we get to move freely through time. We can set our fiction in the past, present or future and our characters can even move from one time period to another as we allow time to shift or slip around them. If we write non-fiction, it can be a personal record of the past by way of a biography or memoir, or an analytical record of past events; it can involve speculation about the future by extrapolation form where we are now, or  it can chronicle the present as, for example, so many bloggers do.

Then there’s creative non-fiction. Writers in this genre can really blur the timelines. Some blur them beautifully as they muse on past and present – H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald and On the Shorelines of Knowledge by Chris Arthur – being two fine examples. My current personal favourite is Robert Macfarlane who just writes so beautifully about the etching of time on our landscape, in its high places and in the rocks beneath our feet.

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image via shutterstock

 

Many sunsets and moonrises ago ( a less brutal way of putting it than admitting to the forty years that have passed since I started uni) I studied history as part of my MA degree. My other subject was psychology. So I suppose it’s not surprising that I’m fascinated by the nature of time, by how we humans measure it and perceive it. And I’ve also noticed as both parent and grandparent, and of course as a teacher, how children often perceive time in a more intense way than adults, but also in a more fluid way. The year between a seventh and eighth birthday is much longer than the year between a fifty-seventh and a fifty-eighth one. Last week is as far away as a decade ago. It’s no accident that so much of children’s fiction involves flexibility in the laws of time and space. And yes, that’s what I do in my soon to be published novel for children – but more of that in a future post.

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image via shutterstock

 

On the subject of time and space, I was equal parts enthralled and bewildered by Professor Brian Cox’s BBC television series on quantum physics and its relation to time. But what the programme did confirm for me was that there’s more to history than the linear approach. And on a less highbrow note, I LOVED the recent movie Interstellar in which Matthew McConaughey travels through a wormhole and through vast amounts of time in an attempt to (what else) ensure humanity’s survival. The movie gave a first class and very entertaining portrayal of time travel.

But back on Earth, when considering history whether in terms of personal, national or world events, we tend to think in a more practical and yes, down-to-earth way about time, i.e. in terms of a timeline. Even when going very far back to pre-history and the beginnings of human life, we still tend to view all that has happened in a one-event-after-another sort of way. Days in history in one long line.

In each twenty-four hour period things happen, have always happened. Some of these things are considered important enough to be noted down. Long ago they may have been recorded as cave paintings, chiselled onto stone tablets or scribed on parchment scrolls. More recently they’d be published in newspapers, journals and books, and of, course on the internet.  And those recorded events provide reference points on the timeline. They’re there to be read, understood and interpreted. They’re there to give structure and meaning and a bit of an underpinning to our lives.

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image via shutterstock

 

I find it fascinating, in a weird sort of way, that there’s a date every year that will become the anniversary of my own death. Yes, I’m at an age where I’m aware of time passing, of my own mortality and the end to my own personal timeline. It’s not something that scares me exactly, but I don’t want it to come around just yet.

I try to make each day count, I try not to waste time and I try to be mindful of this day in my own history. I strive to enjoy the gift of the present and to leave my own tiny, but positive, marks in time.

This day in history, its moments, its joys and disasters, it’s all we ever truly possess. However, we can be so pressed for time that we often experience our days as fleeting. We wish we could fit more in, wish we had more leisure and more time for our loved ones. On the other hand, on some days the hours pass too slowly, filled with yearning for days gone by, or perhaps with impatience for days still to come.

So, what of all those other days? Days of past and future history. Are they truly inaccessible; the past behind us and the future further on up the line? What if we imagine history as layered rather than linear? So instead of looking back, or even forward at a particular day in history, we look down and through.

Time for some lateral thinking.

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image via shutterstock

 

We live on a small but beautiful, very old planet that spins in an ancient and vast universe. Contemplating history and the passage of time on a planetary or universal scale is truly mind-bending.

Astrophysicists view time as a fourth dimension. They suggest not only that time can bend, but that it flows at different rates depending on location. They posit that its rate of flow is relative to the other dimensions of space and to the amount of gravity that is present.

The everyday, human version of time is just a construct. A useful construct, and one that facilitates the organisation of our lives, but a construct nevertheless. Our clocks and calendars measure something that is relative and is organised in neat lines and circles by a shared understanding and agreement. But it’s not fixed and it’s not absolute.

Supposing I left the Earth today and travelled on out of our solar system and our galaxy. Suppose I went through a wormhole – a bend in time and space that would let me travel hundreds of thousands of light years in a blink, perhaps even to another of the possibly many universes – I would be far away, not just in spatial terms, but in terms of time as well. And then, after maybe a couple of years holidaying on a far away world, I return to Earth. I would be two years older but it’s theoretically possible that fifty, a hundred, maybe five hundred years would have passed here. My days in history would be very different from, and totally  out of step with, those of you who remained earthbound .

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image via shutterstock

 

I don’t fully understand the astro-physical concept of time and space, but I like the idea of it. I find it comforting that time isn’t fixed and that the atoms that make up our bodies have existed since time began, and will always exist in some form as long as time continues to be.

I love that when I walk the Earth’s surface my footfalls connect me with all the layers of life and time on our wee blue planet. Layers of geology, topography, ancestry, experience and time. Layers not limited by days, months and lifespans.

I love the possibility that all my days could exist simultaneously and forever, all of them layered up, down and through the planet’s physical layers and throughout all the multiverses. I love that I might magically get a glimpse of these other days. I love that, even if it’s just in theory, there could be places in time and space where my days in history have other and infinite possibilities.

I love that time is immeasurable, and I love that the marks we make on it are immeasurably small.

I love that as writers we can, at least for a short while, make time do our bidding.

 

 

 

 

Sanctuary at the Open Book

Glad we could help…

'Our' bookshop
‘Our’ bookshop

I’m just hoping the elderly gentleman who we gave shelter to in the shop this morning is okay. He appeared in the shop doorway around ten o’clock and was obviously distressed.

He was waiting to be picked up by patient transport to go to hospital in Glasgow for surgery. The original time for his pick up was 8.00 a.m. but the driver had been delayed. So a new rendezvous was arranged. To make things quicker and easier the man had offered to make his way into town and wait for his lift at the cafe across from the Open Book . Unfortunately the cafe was closed, the weather was atrocious and there was still an hour to wait.

We took him in and gave him tea and biscuits and chatted with him while he waited. What an interesting man he was. He shared some of his life story with us, including his birth and early life in Africa, his working life which took him all over the world, learning several languages along the way and his more recent past as a shop owner in Wigtown. It also turned out he’d done his national service on our home island of Skye and it was fascinating to hear tales of how island life was back then, before mains electricity amongst other things. We also discussed Scottish cuisine, the sourcing of good local ingredients and the pros and cons of living an eco-friendly life.

He told us his wife had recently passed away and that he’s having work done on his house which means he has no water in his kitchen. But there was no self-pity, just a stoical acceptance and a great sense of humour.

Eventually at 11.15 his transport arrived and following his early rise at 6.00 a.m for an operation originally scheduled for 11.00, he was off on the two hour journey to hospital.

It was humbling and a privilege to meet this man and hear some of his story. I do hope it all went  well.

Kicking Winter’s Ass

 

Go to it and then park up in the comfort zone layby…

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So, yes, I know I’ve been banging on about getting out of the comfort zone a fair bit lately. But I haven’t abandoned it completely. We all need some comforts, some down time and relaxation. And, here in the northern hemisphere, probably more now than at other times of year.

A Jan day of snow 2011 008

 

Here in the Hebrides, we had a couple of bad storms in January with gale force winds gusting around 100mph. We lost roof tiles––all repaired now–– and we’ve had a few power cuts. But that sort of goes with the territory and we have a full power-cut survival kit to hand every year at this time.  I don’t even really mind the cold, or the bad weather particularly––as long as we don’t have to drive anywhere when it’s all ice and snow on the roads. I do hate the shortness of the daylight hours. However, the days are beginning to lengthen and there are already bulbs coming up in the garden.

A Jan day of snow 2011 015

And this time of year isn’t all bad. It can be a time of fresh starts, of bracing walks, warm firesides, and hearty soups. And after all, all our days are precious and are there to be savoured–– even if it isn’t always easy to remember that.

 

Below are my five tips for getting the best out of this time of year, and for parking up for a bit of a break in the comfort zone lay-by.

  1. Get outdoors for a time on most days. Dress for the weather and just go for it. I’ve managed to get a walk every day this month except one – when the weather was extreme and I wasn’t feeling so good. Even if you’re at work, try to get out for even a short time during your lunch break. 

    looking down the croft, across the loch to Trotternish ridge

  2. Get reading. When the weather is truly atrocious and you’ve nowhere else to be––curl up on the sofa or on top of the bed with a nice soft blanket and escape into a good book.

    image via shutterstock.com
    image via shutterstock.com
  3. Eat well. I do try to buy local and in season produce whenever possible, but at this time of year I make exceptions. Freshly squeezed orange juice at breakfast time and a mid-morning tangerine bring a bit of the sunny Mediterranean to the kitchen, blueberries and grapes from South America and asparagus from Egypt also add some much needed colour and variety to the winter diet. But I also enjoy excellent Scottish root vegetables and kale and other greens––all local and in season. Now is the best time here for hearty vegetable soups and rhubarb (early forced) or apple crumbles.

    image © Andrey Stasotin via shutterstock.com
    image © Andrey Stasotin via shutterstock.com
  4. Pamper yourself. A hot bubble bath by scented candlelight is a weekly treat for me. The candles came in handy when my scheduled bath time coincided with a recent powercut.

    image © Marilyn barbone via shutterstock.com
    image © Marilyn barbone via shutterstock.com
  5. Spring clean. Yes, you read that right. Why wait till Spring to get tidying? You’ll have better things to do then. Instead use this time of enforced indoorness to have a bit of a clearout and a declutter. And it can be a very therapeutic thing to get rid of no longer useful or beautiful stuff. So, put on some favourite music and get stuck into those cupboards and drawers.

    image © moomsabuy via shutterstock.com
    image © moomsabuy via shutterstock.com

How do you feel about this time of year? And, if you’re in the southern hemisphere what is it like for you?

Go Grandma!

Report from outside the comfort zone

Biker chick. Me well out of the comfort zone  - riding pillion on the husband's bike a couple of years ago.
Biker chick.
Me, well out of the comfort zone – riding pillion on the husband’s bike a couple of years ago.

In my first post of 2015 I did a bit of a preachy thing about taking the road less travelled and staying out of the comfort zone. So now I think I should give you an update on how good, or not, I am at taking my own advice.

In that earlier post I said that I intended to improve/maintain my fitness level by taking regular exercise, but that I didn’t see it as a New Year’s resolution as such, more as a continuation of something already started that I wanted to become an even more embedded habit.

Having taken early retirement from my teaching job is a bit of a double-edged sword fitness wise. I have more time to exercise, but I don’t get the incidental walking time I had when I walked to and from work and I’m no longer on my feet all day, but spend a lot of time writing at my desk.

image copyright DeVisu via @shutterstock.com
image copyright DeVisu via @shutterstock.com

However, I can report that it’s a case of so far, so good. I’m averaging thirty minutes a day of brisk walking, plus 30 minutes of yoga on five days out of seven, plus my 90 minute, once per week yoga class. I’ve also done a bit of an archaeological dig down through the depths of the bottom of my wardrobe and unearthed my long buried hand weights. So I’m also doing a ten minute stint a couple of times a week with them.

image via shutterstock.com
image copyright iQconcept via shutterstock.com

As far as getting out of the exercise comfort zone goes, yoga is new to me. I did a taster course while I was still teaching and then took it up in earnest last autumn. I really love it and it’s no chore to do daily practice in between the weekly classes. What I really like about it is its non-competitiveness and the fact that the philosophy is very much ‘even a little is fine’. So, as a recovering perfectionist this is especially good for me.

Along with healthy eating––again not a New Year resolution but an already established habit, I’m hoping that all that moving about will, keep the old muscles and bones strong, maintain flexibility and balance and keep the heart beating efficiently.

I’ve not lost weight, but I have lost some inches round my middle in the last year or so. And that’s fine by me. I’m so over the whole dieting thing.

image copyright Vova Shevchuk via shutterstock.com
image copyright Vova Shevchuk via shutterstock.com

I’m no fanatic. Running of any sort–– let alone marathons, eating only cabbage-based meals, and saying no to a bit of chocolate or a glass of the bubbly stuff are not for me.

But being fifty-eight years old I value my health more as time passes. I want to be fit enough to play with my grandchildren and to be around for sometime yet to annoy my husband and kids–– and I reckon whatever age you are it’s a case of use it or lose it when it comes to physical ability.

What I find very encouraging is that recent research seems to suggest that it’s not so much a daily hour in the gym that matters, though it’s still worth doing, but that what matters even more is the small regular amounts of movement that we should all be doing. The most recent advice is to get up from your desk/sofa every hour or so and move about a bit, or to do some in the house stair running in the ad breaks while watching TV, or to do some squats and lunges while waiting for the kettle to boil. There’s also a new trend for standing desks where, as the name implies, desk-based work is carried out standing up at a lectern height table top.

So I’ve decided my kitchen worktop shall henceforth be called my standing desk as I work at preparing meals, working out menus and shopping lists and check over the household accounts.

I haven’t tried the staircase gym. By evening, when I’m doing my TV watching, I feel I’ve done my exercise for the day––and  nor have I done any lunges in the kitchen, although I have done the odd tree pose (yoga) while waiting for the toast to pop­­­­–– as my probably traumatised neighbours could probably confirm.

shutterstock_247671976
image copyright Cherryjuice via shutterstock.com

 

As for really getting out of my comfort zone, this month I finally learned to swim! I overcame a virtually lifelong fear and, following a private lesson with a wonderful instructor at my local pool, I swam a width. What a buzz it gave me! I was in a right state beforehand but determined to go through with it. Taking my feet off the bottom of the pool and then finding myself able to float while doing probably the weirdest breast stroke ever was just awesome.

image copyright Suriya KK via shutterstock.com.
image copyright Suriya KK via shutterstock.com.

And in my writing I’ve been trying new things too. I’ve been working on several competition entries mainly ones set by the Scottish Association of Writers whose annual conference I’ll be attending at the end of March. This has meant trying my hand at a short story for adults, a children’s short story, a review and an opinion-piece article. All are forms of writing that I find more difficult than novel writing, but it’s very good exercise for the creative muscles and having a deadline certainly helps.

I’m also having a go at life-writing which is akin to memoir––again it’s for a competition––this time for the Edinburgh Writers Club, of which I’m a long-distance member. I’ve not done this sort of creative non-fiction type work before, but it’s something I enjoy reading and I must say I’m enjoying the process of writing it.

But it’s not all work and no play. The comfort zone still exists, but it’s a layby off the main track. However, it’s one I do pull into regularly. More on that in my next post…