Back to school

I have enjoyed the last 3 weeks more than I have enjoyed summer holidays in years. There were no fancy international adventures and no lie-ins (coz, ya know, 16-month-old) yet these past few weeks have been defined by naps, ice cream, family and sunshine. We’ve spent tons of time outdoors, had our own mini local adventures and above all, we’ve simply woken up and decided in the moment what we wanted to do with our days. I feel like we’ve finally experienced a genuinely lazy summer and I’ve loved it.

Without the expectation of a perfect vacation or the internal pressure (self-inflicted) to make the most of the long days and warm nights, summer has managed to sneak up on us in the shape of an emotion I haven’t truly felt in a long time: freedom.

I’ve got to hang out with my hubby and our little boy in the way I had so hoped we would be able to while I was on maternity leave, but circumstances during that time made it impossible. We haven’t had colleagues – however wonderful or well-meaning – dictating our time and our priorities. We’ve had a precious few weeks of family independence and it has felt fantastic.

I don’t remember the last time I approached autumn with a smidge of sadness. ‘Fall’ is still by far my favourite season but this year, my joy at its arrival is punctuated by a hint of melancholy at having to say goodbye to summer. The unburdened liberty of choosing how to spend your time – even if subject to some family limits – is the part of maternity leave I loved most and this summer has reminded me of that.

I love the feeling of ‘back to school’ and routine and am always quietly disappointed that I no longer have a genuine reason to buy all new stationery. September is a month of new beginnings every year, almost as much as January, in its own way. I hope that the conversations and rest and joy and inspiration that have been so present these last few weeks will make the next few months even more crisp and new, with the memories of glorious summer days powering us forward.

The science of sunshine

The last few days have been really quite beautiful here in Blighty. The sun has been shining, the birds have been tweeting and the blossom is venturing out into the spring.

Everyone in our household is happier. We’re pretty content to begin with, most of the time, but in recent days it has gone up a level. We have more energy, we have more patience, we are more hopeful and I can only attribute all of these overnight changes to the weather.

It’s not a secret that sunshine improves your mood but the level to which it has done so this year has made me ponder.

It’s also not a secret that we Brits like to talk about the weather but on this occasion it’s a little deeper than that. I’m curious to know why this increase in natural daylight and warmth can have such a tangible effect on us. In the same vein, I’d like to understand why drinking water makes me feel better, why sugar makes me feel worse and why exercise is so difficult to start but so rewarding when done.

I know the basic principles of brain neurons and hormones but I’d like to understand it a little better in order truly to move towards a healthier lifestyle designed to treat my body the way it was created to be taken care of.

The problem is, I’m not quite sure where to start. I read a fantastic book recently, which I’ve blogged about before, called The Brain. It was informative but very accessible and what I learned helped life make a bit more sense. I’m looking for something similar, but that takes it to the next stage, looking at the science of sunshine and exploring what lifestyle choices we can make to give our bodies and minds the opportunity to thrive.

If anyone knows of such a book – could you link it my way…?

In the meantime, I’m going to soak up some Vitamin D, revel in this deeper-rooted calm that has taken up residence inside me and see if I can coax it to stick around.

Understanding fashion

For a fashion luddite like myself, the title of this blog in itself seems quite far-fetched. However, when you start at a place of zero understanding and not even a basic appreciation, the only way to go is up.

It occurred to me this week – for the first time can you believe – that when designers create clothing, they have a look or treatment in mind. They don’t design in isolation but they have an image and a style that they produce pieces to be a part of; their art is created in context.

When I treat my clothes as individual items, I miss out on so much of what they can offer. I will never achieve the looks or master the style that I see in my mind’s eye if don’t give more consideration to how they work with the rest of an outfit. Yes there is a level of personal creativity to mix and match within my wardrobe, but beyond that, a little forethought is required.

When I complained for the umpteenth time on a shopping trip with my sister this week, that all the tops in shops are really short right now, she pointed out to me that that was because most trousers are high waisted right now – that’s what’s in fashion – and so these tops are the perfect compliment.

I hadn’t even realised that my own style had changed. I thought I was basically wearing the same types and colours of clothes that I wore from the moment I was allowed to choose for myself. Again, my far trendier sister pointed out that my fashion has indeed changed over time and some clothes that I would consider buying now, I would have described as a rug or a shapeless sack just a few years ago. I even bought something with an animal print on it; whether it will fit or suit me or not is beside the point – I bought it!

I’m not claiming to have any understanding of the fashion industry, or much more of an opinion beyond the fact that trends seem to be cyclical and often fleeting, seasons return and what was ‘in’ at a certain point in time will likely come back around in a couple of decades.

But I do now have the beginnings of an appreciation of the possibilities for the clothing I choose to put on my body, the thought, skill and vision behind their creation and the hint of motivation to pull together some outfits that bring me genuine joy. Who knows, I may even be able to achieve that elusive Autumnal style I have been pursuing for so long…

Binge watching and soul food

I have written before about the addictiveness of box sets. They steal time and deprive us of beauty. They have their place but in an age where you rarely have to wait until the following week for the next episode, they fuel our instant culture and draw us away from creativity.

When I’m watching something on television, I almost always allow my brain to switch off and whatever is happening on screen to take over. Movies provide an escape but they also open my eyes to new ideas and help me appreciate narrative, light and language. After all, some of the best quotes have come from movies and they are ‘the best quotes’ because they stir something within us.

Box sets on the other hand are usually too short to offer profound soundbites, nor are they intended to make us think or question. They have no fixed ending (unless you’re nearing the end of the final series…) and so can eat away at our time with no marked completion.

Alternative methods of relaxation, such as reading and writing, are far more refreshing to me. They don’t overly tax my brain (unless the reading material is particularly academic) but turns of phrase and clever descriptions help me to figure out life and motivate me to pursue beauty and creativity wherever I look. They remind me that we were born to be creative so whether that’s a book, a painting or a movie, when they’re done well, they’re a significantly more satisfying way of letting time wash over me.

So in an attempt to rediscover beauty and creativity and to inspire those neurons in my brain to spark and dance, I’m giving up binge watching for Lent. That doesn’t mean I can’t watch one (two max) episodes of a box set, but it means that one hour is the limit at any one time and that I won’t allow myself to watch the seconds of an evening tick by until bedtime comes around and my heart is as heavy as my eyes. Instead, I’ll search for a balance between switching off and feeding my soul. We’ll see where that leads me in 40 days…

An accepting nature

“I’m not wise, Indy, I am just accepting. We cannot change what is, no matter how hard we try.”

The Midnight Rose, Lucinda Riley

That bad things will happen in life is inevitable. The world can be a cruel place, full of lessons to be learned and injustice to endure. It can also be an indescribably beautiful place, full of light, hope, love and opportunity. But even with copious amounts of the latter, the former still pokes its ugly head into our days and demands that we either run away or persevere.

To have an accepting nature is much more complex and harder to achieve than it sounds. It requires us to rid ourselves of comparison, ‘what if’s, envy and frustration and replace all of those with acceptance, joy and promise.

It doesn’t mean that our emotions remain steady at all times or that we don’t grieve, laugh, try or fail. It means that in all of that, we take a deep breath and choose to see the good, accepting what is and, in light of that, pursuing the best possible future for ourselves and those around us.

Silence and simplicity

“My own and others’ expectations of how my day is supposed to unfold guide my hours up until the hour when I lie down again to sleep [emphasis added].”

Silence in the Age of Noise, Erling Kagge

Each day can be walked through without conscious thought. If nothing goes awry, the day can unfold without effort, on autopilot, following set instructions or plans. But without waking up to the present moment and realising the impact of our own and others’ expectations, days, weeks, months and years will pass with no growth, no deep rooted contentment and no adventure. That’s not what I choose for my life.

“The present hurts, wrote Pascal. And our response is to look ceaselessly for fresh purposes that draw our attention outwards, away from ourselves.”

Silence in the Age of Noise, Erling Kagge

There is nothing new under the sun” and yet we search for it constantly. We crave temporary fulfilment and grasp at it when anything longer term requires investment. Dwelling on the past or living for the future have their places but living in the moment, finding silence and time for contemplation, prepare us better for life’s inevitabilities and nourish our souls.

“Experiencing rather than over-thinking. Allowing each moment to be big enough. Not living through other people and other things.”

Silence in the Age of Noise, Erling Kagge

It takes humility to declare that each moment is big enough. It takes discipline to accept and relish that our life is full of moments that may not all be monumental but that are big enough. It takes determination to experience the present and know that it is enough.

That’s a whole lot of things to work on but the pursuit of simplicity is, in my mind, worth it because it is one of the things at the heart of contentment – learning to be satisfied no matter our circumstance.

Age and achievement

People’s lives unfold at different rates. Some people gently stroll a lifelong marathon, others speed through a sprint and then relax into a jog while others trudge up mountains, run down into valleys and repeat. For some, huge achievements come early in their lives. Others work a lifetime to attain their dreams. Some hit milestones at an average age while others hit them out of order and back to front.

So why does the age at which you achieve, matter?

Achievement can mean so many things and is totally dependent on the individual: getting a big salary, buying a house, getting married, starting a family or any number of other life changing accomplishments. For some, achievement comes in the form of character, the fruits of which are in a life lived in the moment and for the people around them.

When I hear of others’ achievements, I instinctively find out how old they are; how old were they when they had a breakthrough, made their debut, or had a baby. Mostly I find out their age only if what they have achieved is something that I have achieved or would like to achieve.

Often I find they were younger than me when they reached their goals. It’s the curse of comparison all over again. If I were not proud, then what I have accomplished in my lifetime would fill me to the brim. I have a wonderful job, a fabulous husband and a gorgeous son. I want for nothing and am thankful that my biggest life moments happened in their own perfect time.

But somewhere in there is an edge of competition and it appears I always want to win. I want to get there first, have better stories, more kids and bigger adventures. For someone who isn’t competitive at all with board games, life it would seem, is another matter. What’s even harder is that that is not who I want to be at all. I chase contentment, simplicity, faith and humility – the polar opposite of what those desires conjure up.

Treatment is needed. Taking away the possibility for comparison is the first step – I will not find out ages any more. When the desire for bigger, better and younger bubbles up, I will remind myself that I am in the right place for this time and that the impact I choose to make in my spheres of family, friendship and influence is up to me. I can compare or I can choose to look only at myself and bask in the blessings that are there when I opt to appreciate them. I can feel defeated or I can look ahead to countless opportunities to live life to the full with the people I love.

Start the day right

Have you ever noticed that with all your best intentions, if something happens early in your day that derails your plans, the rest of the day seems inevitably to tumble?

Starting your day right takes discipline and isn’t simply a case of ‘sleep, eat breakfast, drink water’ although those things do help.

For me, it’s about the whole day; the decisions I make one day affect the next. Not sitting in front of the TV the night before so that my brain has time to process, declutter and wind down instead is the best way to start the following day.

Getting up with the right attitude is the next step. With the fog of sleep still resting on my mind, it’s easy to allow myself to get on the train of anxiety and not give myself a fighting chance to look after myself or my family well.

Starting the day right is a choice. Sometimes my headspace wins out and I lose the battle but the next day is a new chance to fight harder to start the day right. Because if I can make those early decisions well, the rest of the day usually falls in suit.

Stream of consciousness 2

On work life balance:

  • Going back on a staggered re-entry to work has its pros and cons. It’s great that I get to continue spending quality time with my son and have a gentle introduction into a new routine. It’s a blessing to be able to use a year’s worth of annual leave to be paid 4 days while only working 2 for a few months. But it’s also hard to leave your baby, even if only for 2 days, as well as try to explain humbly to colleagues that 2 days does not mean 4 days of work squeezed into half the time.
  • It’s hard to get your head back into a position where someone else tells you what to do and what your priorities should be. Even at my level, I still have a boss and that boss has the authority to dictate my time. Even though it’s done really nicely, it’s still a shift in thinking.
  • Returning to work after maternity leave also means a whole lot of extra stuff in your daily routine than was there before. Preparing food, bottles and schedules for the childminder, making sure car seats, prams and toys are all in the right place to get to the right person on any given day, getting up early to feed and get someone tiny ready for their day as well as getting dressed for your own and extending your commute to pick up said tiny person before getting dinner ready, baby fed, bathed and in bed are all new things that are now part of your routine before your working day is actually over.
  • So it’s not just a case of being in the office, then being at home and balancing the two, it’s also about finding ways to merge the two as seamlessly as possible so that the best of both worlds can be enjoyed.

On pride:

  • I want to be confident enough in myself that other’s opinions of me don’t matter. I also want to be confident enough in myself that other people’s opinions of my son don’t matter.
  • I want to be considered to be a good mum (as well as wanting to be a good mum regardless of others’ opinions!) and I need to find a way of believing that, without my son’s actions being the only reflection of it. He’s such a sweet, happy boy and  he’s so well behaved, even if strangers so often only receive his intense gaze as he figures them out and rarely catch a glimpse of the smile that lights up his little face. They don’t know him. I do.
  • I want to find a way of doing both my jobs well, in the office and at home. I want to accept help humbly but not use it as an excuse to be lazy.

On TV:

  • Television is addictive. In particular, box sets are addictive. It is all too easy to collapse after a long day and consume a few hours worth of our current favourite box set (West Wing, House, Friends, Scrubs…) The same quality that I love about movies and television – their ability to transport you away from your current situation and escape for a time – is the same quality that tempts you away from the real world, your life and the things in it that require more energy or thought.
  • Being able to switch your brain off and forget for a while is addictive. Ultimately though, it is less fulfilling than being present and more damaging long-term than switching off the box and reading, writing, listening, thinking or planning – all things I enjoy but put second when the screen beckons.
  • Relaxing by watching television is not the only thing that relaxes me but it’s so hard to remind myself of that. Other things not only relax me but actually rejuvenate me. Man was designed to work – it’s right there in Genesis – and putting some thought and effort into the things that relax me, while it may seem counter intuitive, actually makes me come alive. Overcoming temptation and addiction – even relatively mild – is hard. It will take some work and time but in the long run, will do all of us a lot of good.

My Ulysses contract

I’ve recently read The Brain: The Story of You by David Eagleman. I had asked my husband for a psychology type book for my birthday that wasn’t too academic but explored some interesting facts about the way we think. This book was just the ticket and one concept (of many!) that stood out to me was of the Ulysses contract. The author explains it briefly here:

 

There a few things I thought I could use such a contract with my future self:

  1. CBT – anxious thoughts
  2. Healthy eating
  3. Social media scrolling

Firstly, anxious thoughts. I’m a worrier. I went to an excellent seminar this year about mindfulness and resilience (the talk can be purchased here). One of the ideas that the speaker, Shaun Lambert, used, was of a train. We can choose to be the train and say to ourselves ‘I am an anxious person’ or we can choose to get off the train, stand on the platform and say ‘I have some anxious thoughts.’ As we watch the train go past, we can decide which carriages or thoughts to get on but we can equally choose not to get on at all.

The only Ulysses type contract I could come up with for this is to plan tasks and activities that bring me fulfilment and have to be done on a certain day – essentially not giving myself the time to get on the train. This contract needs work as it’s certainly not iron clad.

Secondly, healthy eating. There are two things I plan to do here. One is not to buy unhealthy treats and the other is to buy healthy treats. I’m a grazer. Snacks help me to concentrate, keep my energy up and also bring me joy. It’s not the sugar, it’s having something little to look forward to.

Finally, social media scrolling. It’s one of my worst habits. I’ve written before about how soul destroying I find this 21st century activity. Yet it doesn’t stop me from doing it. Humans can be so fickle. Ironically, the contract I’m considering here involves an app. Specifically, one that tracks the amount of time I spend on social media and potentially alerts someone if I exceed a pre-determined time. Essentially, pride becomes my contract.

I’m not sure the above are quite bullet-proof just yet, but it’s a start, right?