Wellness in unwell places

I’ve not long recovered from a nasty bout of sinusitis, and I know from experience that whenever infection goes anywhere near my sinuses I’m in for the long haul. So I hunkered down and let myself properly rest, taking all the time I needed to fully recover.  And in the end it was one of the most restorative periods of illness I can remember experiencing in a long time.

But it’s not always been this way. Like so many of us juggling busy jobs, families or other commitments, periods of illness can often be inconveniences to be pushed out of the way as quickly and efficiently as possible in order to get back on with the business of life. As a therapist I am also aware that illness can be a time many people struggle to maintain emotional wellbeing. One of the things I found myself thinking about while I was poorly, therefore, was how we can look after the whole of ourselves during periods of ill health.

Emotional wellbeing covers many areas – a compass of valued domains, if you will. These include our intimate, familial and broader social and community relationships, our occupations, study and personal development, our spiritual lives if we believe, and our recreation and downtime. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy also believes that emotional health is maintained through balancing both thought and action, and that there are links between physical and emotional health, too. Of course many of these areas are compromised during illness, however there are small things we can do to look after our mental health even when we are not at our physical best.

The first and most important thing, I think, is preparedness. Whenever I finish a piece of therapeutic work with a client, we create a relapse prevention blueprint; a reminder of all the tools they can use should they start to experience difficulties again, and a list of early warning signs to alert them to the fact that they may be struggling. The idea is to catch things early, while there are still plenty of resources to hand. The principle can be applied here, too. While we are well we are much more able to think about the sorts of things that might help when we are not. Think of it as stocking up our mental health first aid kits just as we would those for our physical health. What might we need if we were struggling? What is important to us when we are well, and how could we engage with those things in small ways if we were ill? And it goes without saying that we remember things better if we write them down.

The first stages of illness can of course feel quite overwhelming. We’re often feverish or in pain or simply needing to sleep for much of the time.  This is often the most challenging time for maintaining emotional health, too. Mindfulness and self-compassion can help enormously here, and not least because their practice allows us to focus away from the negative thoughts that so often accompany ill health. How would we treat our best friend if they were ill in this way? What can we see from our bedroom windows, and how does this change throughout the day? The pattern of the hours, their weather, the changing light and the sounds from outside, and giving ourselves permission to experience these, can help locate and soothe us at a time that we might otherwise feel very dislocated and alone.

Which brings us on to relationships and community. We know that at least 13% of us live alone, and this can make any period of illness even more of a struggle. But it’s worth thinking about the people we have in our lives who we can reach out to when we are ill, and gently challenging the beliefs and fears we have that may make us reluctant to do so. It can often help to turn things around and imagine what we might do if someone we knew and cared about were poorly – most of us wouldn’t think twice about picking up a prescription, dropping off some shopping or simply checking in by text or phone, and there’s no reason to suggest the same isn’t true of how our friends and family think about us. And while social media can be unhelpful at times, it can also help maintain vital social connections when we aren’t able to do so face to face.

Periods of illness also allow time for us to revisit the relationship we have with ourselves. In many ways they are enforced retreats, and if we let them they can provide opportunities for review, recalibration and resolution. Along with the mindfulness discussed above, occupying ourselves with forward thinking and planning provides a structure and focus that can help us avoid unhelpful negative thoughts and rumination. But more than this, there are few similar opportunities in our busy lives for extended pauses, and the new ideas, plans and dreams those pauses often give rise to.

But a word, here, about pacing. I can be terribly impatient when I am ill, and will often try and get back on with things at the first sign of returning health, particularly if I have found myself planning lots of exciting things I want to do when I am better. But this of course runs the risk of keeping us sicker for longer. That said, we know that mood is linked to activity levels, and so as we start to feel well again it can help to reintroduce small day-to-day tasks – a shower, making the bed or doing the washing up not only create environments of health, they also reassure us that things are improving. But it’s important to match every chore with a pleasurable reward and time to rest.

And we can think of rewards more broadly, too. Something I have been trying to do more of is treating myself at the end of a period of ill health.  If we’ve spent a long time in bed it can be enormously refreshing for example to buy a new pair of pyjamas, if we can afford to, once we are better – even just changing the sheets will help. My recent period of illness included my birthday, and although I wasn’t well enough to do anything to celebrate on the day itself, it was incredibly comforting to spend some of the day planning belated birthday treats I could weave through the rest of the year. Practically it can also help to replenish supplies of tissues, pain-killers and other medical items as soon as we are better again (and don’t forget to refresh the mental health first aid kit if necessary, too).

In many ways, this is the point at which we realise the gift of health, isn’t it? Emerging, blinking, into the bright fresh air for the first time after a period in bed can be one of the most delicious experiences, with all of our senses heightened, energised and more fully aware. Because it’s at these points that we realise what really matters in life. Which isn’t about rushing forward into busyness, but is instead about pausing and gratefully, healthfully, experiencing this moment, and this moment, and this moment, now.

Bright copper kettles and warm woollen mittens

Today has been one of those slow, milk-sky January Sundays. The sort of Sunday that calls for good nourishing heart food. And honestly, very little else nourishes my heart the way vintiquing* does (I'm quite sure my heart is part-textured in reclaimed wood, embroidered antique linen and burnished copper). So I'm not sure how I've missed the gem that is Maltby Street Market until now, particularly given that it is home to LASSCO Ropewalk. But that's what right now is for, right? 
___
*I can't lay any claim to this wonderful word, but am very grateful to Kay Prestney of Kinship Creative for conjuring it up.

Using What We Are Given

On New Year's Eve I discovered that a tour of my flat featured in one of Apartment Therapy's Best of 2016 - a roundup of their favourite posts about making the most of your rented home. Interestingly, the post in question is one all about colour.

I don't know why I didn't post the original tour when it was published back in June. Maybe because, like so many of us, I can sometimes struggle to have the confidence in my own light to fully let it shine. But something is changing in me - maybe I didn't post then because it needed to wait until now.

Last year, rather than resolutions, I chose one single word to define what I wanted to commit to in 2016. Both concept and word worked well for me, so I have decided to do the same again this year. And the word for 2017 is unapologetic. In my writing, in my creativity more generally and indeed in all aspects of my life it's time to come out from behind those dark curtains of maybe and say a full-toothed yes.

I spent New Year's Eve itself at a glorious supper party hosted by my dear friend and creative partner Cathy Pyle. Before the other guests arrived Cathy gave me my Christmas gift, a gorgeous book by interiors stylist Hilary Robertson - The Stuff Of Life. As I opened the first pages we both remarked on the serendipity of being given both the book and the Apartment Therapy news on the same day - and not just any day, on New Year's Eve; commenting that it almost felt like the universe itself was giving me a sparkling message. This really is the stuff of life. Because, of course, part of the gift is in the receiving, and part of receiving is using.

Happy New Year everyone. May all your gifts shine.

The Key

Late Fragment

And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.

I've encountered this poem by Raymond Carver so many times before: in poetry anthologies, in workshops, as an easily sharable meme on social media. I have also, of course, encountered death many times in fiction, and encountered both reported and metaphorical death in poetry. But this Friday morning just gone I had my first encounter with a real-life poet's death through his poetry. 

As I started reading All Of Us, Carver’s collected poems, I knew that he was dead. I knew that he'd almost died of his alcoholism at 40, detoxed, and then had another ten good years (gravy he called those years in his poem of the same name). But I also knew from his wife Tess’ introduction to the collection that cancer found a way to sneak in and take him anyway, when Carver was still so young at the age 50.

I remember first learning about dramatic irony for my English GCSE. But I’ve never felt it so keenly as I did reading Carver’s work. Every time he fished for steelhead, or felt the resonance of foghorns on the Washington State shoreline, or fought with or kissed a woman, I almost couldn’t breathe in case somehow he might hear the future whispering from outside his tea-coloured pages.  But eventually the reader forgets, just as we all do with each turning year.

Until Friday. I read most of my poetry on my morning commute through Croydon, on my way to my work at The Bethlem Hospital. Grey skies. Tramlines. Little scraps of green gardens. Always my tiredness. Perhaps I should have heeded the warning of Wake Up – a piece of writing that is far more flash fiction than poetry, in which Carver and his woman, his South, role play at an executioner’s block in a dungeon museum. But I didn’t. And so I landed at What The Doctor Said (“he said I counted thirty-two of them on one lung before / I quit counting them”) and realised I was, quite suddenly, in startlingly new territory, and that through the handful of poems that remained I was going to witness Carver die.

And isn't it so much worse to die as a poet? When the task we set ourselves is to notice and contain the essential moments of life; to somehow create an architecture in which those moments can persist? I certainly feel that. The pressure and responsibility of it sometimes makes me feel like I’ve cracked a rib.

Recently one of my poetry mentors asked me why it is that I write. I was embarrassed not to have an immediate answer, especially when she then rattled hers off quite fluently. Of course there is a sort of intuitive feeling (isn’t there always) that has been with me for as long as I can remember, but in that moment I struggled to put that feeling into any kind of words – though perhaps that precise struggle was the beginning of my answer. I have thought a great deal about the question ever since, and of course there are many strands to my answer. And I would be lying if I didn’t acknowledge that one of those strands is my own desperate greed for life; the ravenous wish to somehow survive my own death through my words (I like the idea of peering out from my own tea-coloured pages, held in 22nd Century hands; of somehow continuing to experience the world through them).

But in his final poems Carver takes a braver route. There aren’t many poems after we learn of his terminal cancer diagnosis, and those that are included are sparse. He writes a lot about holding hands and about kissing. And why wouldn’t he? Because, of course, in poems like No Need (“I see an empty place at the table. / Whose? Who else’s? Who am I kidding? / The boat’s waiting.”) he knows that it is not about the telling, or even the leaving behind, but about making those last moments count. (“I’ve left the key / in the same place. You know where.”)

Earlier in the collection Carver tells a story about a job he had as a teenager, working as a delivery driver for a local pharmacist. On one of his deliveries he met an elderly gentleman in a cravat whose home contained the first private library Carver had ever seen. The man also had stacks of poetry magazines piled on the floor, and while he was waiting for the man to bring payment, Carver leafed through one these magazines, a whole new world opening up in his hands – the possibility of sharing his poetry with others, and of his poetry becoming a living thing in other people's minds. The man ended up giving Carver the magazine, along with a poetry anthology, and as a reader I was left moved by that exchange of wisdom; moved as I always am by the act of passing something down from one generation to the next.

Here is the poem that follows that story:

Poems

They’ve come every day this month.

Once I said I wrote them because
I didn’t have time for anything

else. Meaning, of course, better
things – things other than mere
poems and verses. Now I’m writing
them because I want to.
More than anything because
this is February
when normally not much of anything
happens. But this month
the larches have blossomed,
and the sun has come out
every day. It’s true my lungs
have heated up like ovens.
And so what if some people
are waiting for the other shoe
to drop, where I’m concerned.
Well, here it is then. Go ahead.
Put it on. I hope it fits
like a shoe.
Close enough, yes, but supple
so the foot has room to breathe
a little. Stand up. Walk
around. Feel it? It will go
where you’re going, and be there
with you at the end of your trip.
But for now, stay barefoot. Go
outside for a while, and play.

I cried three times reading All Of Us. The first was at Carver’s poem Heels (“A man with socks over his hands / under the night sky.”) And this was the second. Because I realised that of course the business of writing, to borrow Carver’s metaphor, isn’t about the leather vessel but the living flesh inside it. After all, haven’t I seen shoes in museums, and don’t they only ever carry the faintest stain and scent of their previous journeys (as moving as that nonetheless is)? And I cried because in that moment I felt the still-warm flesh of Carver’s hand take the living flesh of mine and place something very important into the vessel of my palm.

And so I arrived at Late Fragment, the final poem in All Of Us, one bus stop away from work, and grateful to have the top deck to myself and the privacy that allowed me to cry for the final time – the sort of tears you shed, not for the passing of a fictitious character you’ve fallen in love with, but for a real person who inhabited a real space in this life, and whose death is therefore just as real. I almost felt, in that moment, like I was beside Carver’s bedside watching the fish-shape of his mouth take its last breath.

It’s a ten minute walk from the bus stop to the therapy centre I work at, along the perimeter fence of The Bethlem’s generous grounds. A line of old oak trees stand like fatherly sentinels, and beyond them the hospital's orchards and wildflower meadows wait for the day, so often still damp with their morning mists as I arrive. The hospital welcomes dog walkers onto its grounds, and so I am used to the huffing sounds of Labradors against the early morning quiet. But suddenly on Friday morning there was a different sound. Birds cracking out of the treetops like gunshots. And then, just like that, the streak of two greyhounds low against the grass, all grey flank and speed and terrifying beauty, naked muscular feet kicking up the earth. I couldn’t do anything else but stop, my mouth falling open.

My god, I hope you saw that Raymond. I said, right out loud.

I’ve left the key in the same place. You know where. He replied.

Bicycle bells

"I'm going to take Victoria Pendleton on!" You beam. Your old step-through, wicker basket heavy bicycle wobbles to a halt next to me. "I only learned to ride this thing two weeks ago!" You emphasise the two weeks the way small children do and my cheeks ache with the empathy of your proud smile. You tell me that your children were the ones who made you learn, about how scared you were, about the kindness of your instructor. Above all you tell me about how it only took you one lesson to be able to ride. "And now I am going to take Victoria Pendleton on!" And with that, you and all your 50 odd years in soft curvy lycra are off again, bouncing onto the grass of the park, one hand flung triumphantly into the air.

It is the end of a long clinical Monday, I am utterly exhausted with my shopping, and I have never met you before. But you  glorious, delicious, right out loud you  have made the whole damn day worthwhile. You are fucking amazing. And yes, yes, yes  you are totally going to take on Victoria Pendleton. With bicycle bells on.

Living Out Loud

The phrase image crafting is often used in quite a pejorative way. And while I would agree that feeling in any way socially obligated to present a perfect image of ourselves is far from healthy, I would also argue that allowing ourselves to inhabit the best and fullest versions of ourselves can only be a good thing.

Indeed, this is the central idea behind this blog, and one of the philosophies I endeavour to live by. We all deserve to Live Out Loud.

What a delight it was therefore to spend a day recently shooting photographs for my new website with my dear friend and creative partner Cathy Pyle. Cathy and I share an aesthetic that is rooted in emotionally-resonant found moments  those often overlooked every day details that can elevate us beyond ourselves if we let them  as well as a friendship and working relationship that is honest, easy, supportive and fun. I knew I could trust Cathy implicitly to help bring my vision for this site to life.

So with the generous sash windows of my flat open to the cowslip-bobbing summer morning, Cathy and I took time designing each of the banner photographs for the main pages of this site. Working from a limited palette of colours and textures (as well as with some delicious props) it took an hour to set up each image. And I had so much fun playing stylist (especially with that burrata!) But I also learned a great deal, and not just about composition and light  I also learned about myself. As each of the images came though via live-feed to Cathy's laptop I realised I was seeing a visual narrative of who I aspire to be as a writer, therapist and human being. And that was quite a moving experience I can tell you. Living Out Loud always is.

Here are just a few out-takes from our lovely day:

The scene behind the image. Photograph © Cathy Pyle

The scene behind the image. Photograph © Cathy Pyle

Small details, like handwriting in pencil rather than pen, make such a difference to the texture of an image. Photograph © Cathy Pyle

Small details, like handwriting in pencil rather than pen, make such a difference to the texture of an image. Photograph © Cathy Pyle

Not only did this image pose challenges compositionally, it was also pretty hard not to consume the props... (we did, later, of course!) Photograph © Cathy Pyle

Not only did this image pose challenges compositionally, it was also pretty hard not to consume the props... (we did, later, of course!) Photograph © Cathy Pyle

Little lights, shining...

I have this thing about light. We all, do, right? But for me it has all sorts of emotional connections  the way it glances across rust-red Italian rooftops in February, the ache as I watch it soften to indigo from my writing desk, and how it always conjures up memories of my late father.

I'm sensitive to it in interiors, too. In fact, it's become a bit of a joke that each year when the Christmas tree comes down I have to buy a new light source to fill the darkness left by the soft-white fairy lights. So when a friend recently offered me a couple of lamps she no longer needed, I couldn't refuse.

Before

My friend is kind of awesomely steam-punk, so her home is able to rock all sorts of black accessories in a way that my sea-toned flat cannot (these were originally from Ikea). But I love a bit of upcycling. So I headed down to my local Annie Sloan stockist to pick out a tester pot (my nearest stockist has painted wooden spoon heads with all the different shades and it's always a complete treat to hold all of those warm tones in my hands, just like lollipops). I settled on Chateau Grey, a lovely olive-tinted grey that I planned to lighten further with some left-over Old White and that I knew would compliment the existing duck-egg accents in my living room.

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Back at home I set about removing the black shades and cleaning all the stubborn remaining glue from their frames  a fiddly but important task  before spray-painting the frames in delicious metallic copper. By the time I'd finished both this and painting the bases, it was, appropriately, dark.

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Oh, but then I had to wait! The lamps came with their existing Ikea E14 bulbs, but I knew I wanted lovely vintage filaments to complete the exposed cage lamp look. And here's the thing  vintage filament bulbs with E14 screw bases are actually quite hard to come by. But eventually I found  Dowsing & Reynolds  a divine vintage lighting and accessories store.  And I am not in the least bit exaggerating when I tell you that the day these babies arrived, complete with their gorgeous vintage boxes, felt just like Christmas.

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All of which is kind of fitting, given that the pair of newly upcycled lamps now sit on the piano, with one right next to the gap left by last year's Christmas tree... 

After

A rhapsody in radishes

The last little while has been all sorts of crazy – in the best possible way. I've finally decided to take my life-long love of interior design seriously and Do Something About It. So as a starter for ten, I agreed for my dear friend and creative partner Cathy Pyle to photograph my flat for Apartment Therapy. All of which sounds deceptively easy. In reality it has meant a snag list that has entirely consumed a month's worth of weekends, trying to organise urgent deliveries of upholstery supplies in snatched breaks between patients at work, and generally losing track of which end of the day is up. (But my gosh, I've had so much fun!)

Anyway, what on earth does any of this have to do with radishes? Well, here's the thing: when we're busy it is just so very easy to just shove a ready-meal in the oven, right? And I'm not judging (people in glass houses and all...) But I love cooking, and I love it even more when I take the time to cook after I've been hectically immersed in other things all day. So tonight, rather than settling for something less than nourishing, I dug out one of my old faithfuls, a quick and easy supper, tweaked from Diana Henry's fabulous A Change of Appetite (which you really need to go and buy right now if you don't already have it). And honestly, even just chopping the radishes made me happy. Though unfortunately I ate it all far too quickly and joyfully to even think about a photo. Sorry about that.

Poached eggs with Puy lentils and radish salad (for 1)

2 eggs
100gm Puy lentils
300ml veg stock (or 3x the volume of the lentils)
a good handful of radishes (or maybe three good handfuls), sliced
3 spring onions, sliced
2 teaspoons capers
a handful of fresh mint, shredded
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
1/2 teaspoon dijon mustard
Salt
Freshly ground black pepper

Rinse the lentils to rid them of any remaining husks. Boil in the veg stock until al dente (approx 15 minutes). Meanwhile make the salad by mixing the sliced radishes, spring onions, capers and mint. Make a vinaigrette with the oil, white wine vinegar, mustard, salt and pepper. Toss half into the radish salad, reserve the rest. Poach the eggs to whichever consistency you prefer (I tend to poach mine in barely simmering water, with a dash of white wine vinegar, for 4 minutes  so that the yolks ooze into the lentils). Serve the lentils, tossed in the remaining vinaigrette, with poached eggs on top, and garnish with the radish salad.

Fresh Beginnings

A dear friend's eldest daughter started her undergraduate degree at Oxford last week. I felt all sorts of fudgey softness at the thought of her just beginning  entering one of those autumn-lit collegiate squares, arms full of books and all the future just there waiting in the long shadows of old oak trees. Of course the reality also looks like a student bar with a carpet sticky with beer and the prospect of completing far too many essays in the shadow of its hangovers. Nostalgia never has a fully fleshed out, evidence-based narrative, after all.

Still, sometimes I wish I had just begun sooner. Instead, I often feel like I am sailing upwind, trying to catch up with people half my age, attempting to squeeze double the amount of stuff into half the amount of time, never quite sure that I've found quite the right tack. That sort of squally breathlessness that can tread close to panic, at times.

I felt a little like that reading the winning poems for the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award. Because gosh, they're good. At an age I had yet to figure out friendships and fashion choices in my life let alone my writing, poets like Maud Mullan, and her excellent poem Locket, are already handling complicated decisions about line breaks and metaphor with maturity and wisdom. It's inspiring.

Actually, maybe inspiring is a better way of looking at it all. Because it's never too late to begin, is it? Especially when there's the excitement of such a fresh new wind at your back...

The Family Of Things

As both a writer and a psychotherapist, it was sweetly serendipitous to receive news that my application for provisional professional accreditation had been approved on National Poetry Day.

And so I open with one of my all-time favourite poems, by one of the most gently psychological poets of them all, Mary Oliver.

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
In the family of things.