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!

Home Sweet Home

Working from home once seemed like a distant dream. Imagine, I would think, I could go to meetings without getting stuck in traffic jams. I could write reports in pyjamas. Pyjamas!

Like most dreams, once it’s achieved – or more accurately once it’s foisted upon you – it falls rather flat. Zoom gatherings (pyjamas just on the bottom half naturally), driving nowhere at all (thus avoiding any traffic), and then a surprising arrival in the form of lack of purpose. Turns out maybe I did enjoy the external working life after all. There’s really nothing like getting back home after a long day. Traipsing down the stairs to sit on a different seat is somehow not quite the same.

“Home is the most important place in the world” says IKEA (who should know) and I tend to agree. It’s a place of safety, shelter, comfort and filled with people and things you love.

Or it should be. I’m haunted by reports during last year outlining the rise in domestic abuse incidents with adults and children at risk trapped in their house. These places are not a home. There are wonderful organisations and individuals working around the clock to do what they can in these dire circumstances and I’m glad they’re there. I feel helpless.

What I can do, apart from give donations when possible, is find gratitude in this little terraced house I now call home. Yes it’s damp (the hall wall is mostly dispersed plaster on the stair carpet), yes it can be noisy (that’s terraced living for you), yes it’s small (I can sit at the kitchen table and reach out to the cutlery drawer without getting up) but it’s home. It’s cosy with a fire and candles lit, it’s got dark Edwardian green walls, it’s got a huge picture of Paris (ah Paris), it contains things I love (millions of books mostly), pictures from travelling days (remember those?), and of course a warm relationship with a lovely husband. 

Being in lockdown with someone you love and respect, in a cute little house with an overgrown garden (and the all-important shed for writing and thinking) is a blessing. I am safe.

And if I find myself drifting from this gratitude I can simply click my red heels together (or my red DMs) and repeat with Dorothy: “there’s no place like home, there’s no place like home, there’s no place like home.”

It’ll be Okay

Today feels like a poetry reading day. Press play and take a deep breath and repeat after me: “Everything is going to be all right.”

You can find this and other life-affirming, life-altering poems in The Emergency Poet edited by Deborah Alma (Michael O’Mara Books Limited, 2015) p. 118

Blue Monday

It’s dark out there. And it comes as no surprise that the second week of January contains what’s known as ‘blue Monday’ as we struggle to set aside the lights of Christmas and as resolutions start to fail. Add to that the continuing challenges of a global pandemic and it stands to reason that demotivation and despondency are in charge right now.

Light at the end of the tunnel is something we all seek, now more than ever. This particular tunnel has been long and dark and scary. And all too often those small glimmers of light dwindle before we can reach them. So we trudge onwards, heads bowed, feet dragging.

My granny used to shrug her (tiny but formidable) shoulders if I was to complain about something, saying “Haven’t you got two legs?” This wasn’t helpful at the time but I can see her point. Wellness advice suggests we show gratitude, but this can induce guilt – I should be grateful for what I’ve got – and the resulting comparative empathy is not good. Gratitude and mindfulness can be useful but if guilt grows around them it turns out to be counterproductive. It’s okay to say how you feel and find someone who will validate those feelings. Asking for help is courageous.

And right now, as winter bites and January shocks us awake, it’s more and more difficult to look ahead with hope. But I wonder if hibernation is a possible answer. I’m a winter person. I love the rain, sitting by the fire, reading a book while wrapped up in a blanket. Most of all I love the excuse to hide and lie low. “I’m wintering just now,” is a frequent refrain as I take lessons from nature and stop rushing around. In fact, hibernation itself is a wonder – hedgehogs are smart little beasts. This state of inactivity slows heart rates and breathing, lowers body temperatures and metabolism. If only humans could do the same during the winter months allowing us to emerge with the spring flowers ready to dance once again.

But life is not that kind and humans have created rules and responsibilities that simply won’t allow us to stop, no matter the season. Even hibernating hedgehogs have to get up now and again to look for food or respond to danger, so we can learn from them and hide just a little bit, without guilt. We can find comfort in warm blankets and warm drinks, seek togetherness with loved ones, search for good news stories among the murk of bad news, jump in puddles and never mind the wet socks.

Our darkness right now is both seasonal and personal. We are all weary. And it’s okay to admit it. Find your inner hedgehog and curl up somewhere warm and safe. And one day the sun will shine, the flowers will bloom and life will welcome you home.

Listen to the post here

The Old Oak Tree

I love trees.  Standing in a forest and looking up, resting my hand on a nearby trunk can ground me so much that I often wonder if nature is speaking.

Old Homer, Rostrevor. Picture credit:

There’s a tree in Rostrevor called Old Homer that leans alarmingly to the side and has done for almost two hundred years.  Did Finn McCool lean on it?  The oak is beloved of locals and as I write is being propped up by ladders and scaffolding while people in high vis vests tilt their heads in worry.  Finally, Old Homer might be about to break.

Resilience has long been associated with roots and trees and all things seasonal. We bend rather than break.  We adapt to change.  We cope with trauma.  If our roots are strong we will carry on.  But sometimes the uncertainty and challenge of the external environment can push us to our limits as we face the final straw that tilts the old oak tree one degree too far.

A new year has happened after a long and difficult old one.  But it feels as if nothing has really changed with more lockdown rules and closures and still the inability to meet in person.  I saw that picture of Old Homer this morning and immediately felt an affinity: tired and ready to fall over.

And yet, I also saw glimmers of light in the sky. I saw that those old branches are leaning into the wind and coming to rest on those who can catch them when they fall.  Community is everything, especially when things are tough.  Psychologists have identified its key role in finding resilience.  We are not alone.

Now is our time to lean and wait, find the courage in our deep roots to hold tight to each other until the storm passes.  Nature will teach us lessons as the year progresses – already I’ve noticed daffodil shoots popping up among the weeds. As Hemingway said ‘the sun also rises.’ 

I’ll leave you with this little piece of heaven from Wendell Berry:

And so the day will turn, the trees will move, and there we will be. 

Audio version here!