Too Eager for the Future

"Always too eager for the 
future, we pick up bad 
habits of expectancy.
Something is always 
approaching; every day
Till then, we say," 
Philip Larkin, Next Please

Sometimes I feel as if I’m always in a hurry, rushing from one task to the next with barely a breath between. What’s the rush? It’s as if I think something more important, or something better, is just around the corner – once the dishes are done, that is.

Like most children of the seventies I had a beloved collection of Ladybird books (they’re still on my shelves today, still beloved) and Aesop’s fables were a particular favourite.  For here be villagers crying wolf, foxes without tails, geese atop golden eggs. And a tortoise who won the race. Needless to say most of Aesop’s clever morals passed me by for some time, I even identified more closely with the hare (I was a sprinter, so obviously it is the fastest who wins) and simply resolved never to fall asleep during a race and thus allow a slower contestant to overtake.

With apologies to bookworms – I wrote on the cover with felt tip pen. Oh the ignorance of youth.

But soon enough I worked it out: kindness often gets things done more quickly than force; it is wiser to be content with what you have. And the race is not always to the swift.

Slow and steady is the key. Like the pre-schoolers of Mischel’s Marshmallow Test in the early seventies at Stanford, we try to learn patience, delaying gratification so that appreciation follows. Rather than rushing through life trying to get to something else I can treasure small moments, listen to birdsong, maybe even enjoy washing the dishes. In short, I can be here. Now.

R.S. Thomas was right – life is not hurrying on to a receding future, nor hankering after an imagined past. It is life and it is now. Likewise with lockdown easing, vaccine rollout, getting back to ‘normal’ – slow and steady wins the race. We’ll get there.

And waiting at the finish line will be a happy tortoise who reaches out his wrinkly hand to congratulate us on our slow journey and shared wisdom.

Watch a video reading of ‘The Bright Field’ by R.S. Thomas, from The Emergency Poet edited by Deborah Alma, Michael O’Mara Books, 2015, p.163

Words Heal

What is it about poetry? I’ve found myself holding onto it for dear life lately, picking up volume after volume in order to escape the fearful – and unordinary – days all around us.

Alongside a daily visit to The Emergency Poet, edited by Deborah Alma, I’m spending most mornings with Brian Bilston who has become Twitter’s unofficial poet laureate. Amanda Gorman’s spellbinding recital of ‘The Hill We Climb’ at Biden’s inauguration continues to speak of both admonishment and hope, while Margaret Atwood has a new volume out (‘Dearly: Poems’ – on my wish list). Breakfast, lunch, dinner and supper – words are food.

And so to the Twittersphere’s laureate, Brian Bilston and his Serenity Prayer. Read or listen and if a smile doesn’t creep across your face I’ll eat my hat.

The Power of Touch

I’m not a hugger. Generally I exist in a fairly wide expanse of ‘personal space’ and feel quite content. But this last year of years has brought some surprises – turns out, I miss hugs. Who’d have thought?

Of the five senses, touch is perhaps one of the most forgotten. As soon as we’re born we know that it’s required for our survival (newborns flourish with skin-to-skin contact) and it’s one of the last senses to leave during our last moments. Put simply, touch keeps us alive.

Neuroscience agrees: social touch releases oxytocin and lowers heart rate, reminding our bodies that we are here, reminding our minds that we are not alone.

When I got back from a year of travelling I was catching up with people in a noisy bar (remember that?) and hugged a close friend, one of those hugs that lasts longer than normal and transforms into an embrace. And among the noise and laughter we realised we had started to cry. Something happened in that moment that brought emotion to the surface, and allowed it to break – no words were needed. Cara had gone through a tough time and I had missed her. Simple really.

We make things complicated when they’re not. Reaching out is how we’re made – the unforced trust that children place in those around them when they run towards us with open arms. It’s devastating that the pandemic is taking something so important away: instead of reaching out, we recoil; instead of brushing an eyelash off someone’s cheek, we leave it there.

Lockdown for those who live alone is hard to bear and it’s no surprise that pets have been keeping us going on these dark days and nights. Dogs and cats all over the country have been cuddled like never before.

I wish I could end by saying it’ll all be okay soon, that we’ll be back to close contact and crowded rooms any day now. Maybe the best thing for now is that we are learning lessons, and as ever they are hard-won.

A hand to hold, a stroke of hair, a rest of head on shoulder, all combine to keep us alive and well. I for one can’t wait to wrap my arms around loved ones once more. I took too much for granted. Hugs are brilliant.

It’s Raining, it’s Pouring

It rains in Ireland. It’s now been three days straight of non-stop rain, with flooding in places and all-round general soddenness. The emerald isle wouldn’t be so green without it I suppose, but a break from the grey would be welcome.

Most of us feel a bit down on these dark days – why does the weather affect our state of mind? Perhaps it’s linked with food production when it can be a matter of life and death and the success, or otherwise, of crops. Maybe the mind sends warnings when the sun disappears since the body needs Vitamin D. Or maybe we just hate having wet socks.

A group of American tourists enjoy Bergen’s summer weather

Not long ago I spent some time in Bergen in Western Norway and came to understand what was meant by the phrase ‘coming down in stair-rods’. The heavy, solid rain just did not stop. Apparently Bergen, known as the city of the seven mountains, is the wettest city in Europe.  And yet Norwegians, and Scandinavians in general, are among the happiest people on the planet and regularly top the happiness index. What’s going on?

Talk to anyone from any of these countries and they’ll simply shake their heads and wonder what the problem is with darkness and cold and rain. Danish hygge has had a bit of a moment in recent years as us Celts try to learn from our Viking neighbours: snuggle under blankets, light candles, bake cakes and most of all – get outside.

No matter the weather, wrap up warm, grab an umbrella and hat and gloves and just go out the door. It keeps our Nordic neighbours sane and we can do the same. This could also lead to an important mind shift as we prepare for the challenges of winter, seeing them as an opportunity to hibernate, rest, and appreciate simple pleasures like sipping hot chocolate while listening to the rain on the windows.

On these dark days, with continuing uncertainty and fear, I’m embracing my inner Viking and the Nordic way of life – I’m off now to jump in some puddles. See you out there!