Rest and Play

I’m getting really good at resting. I can make a whole morning disappear in the blink of an eye and all I’ve done is eat breakfast, look at the sky, read a chapter of a book and snuggle a cat. Before I know it, lunch time arrives and then I can maybe go for a walk, read another chapter, have more cat snuggles. You get the drift. But why did it take so long to learn this particular skill? And how come I still need to shake off a dusting of guilt now and then when I finally stop working or doing ‘useful’ things, and just sit?

It could be a mix of Protestant work ethic, patriarchal expectations and my own sense of self. I need to do something to feel reward; I need to be useful before I deserve a rest. And there’s the rub – resting feels different when it’s a choice, when it follows a fulfilling time, whether that be work, social engagements or anything in between. To stop and say ‘ah, that was good, that went well, I think I’ll have a cup of tea and a chocolate biscuit now’. Those are the precious times of rest when our minds, as well as our bodies, get the recharge they need. We come out ready to move once again.

But if times of stopping are pushed on us – through redundancy, or unemployment, or ill-health – it feels very different. The lingering lie-in is depressing (because it happens every day), the collapse onto the sofa is sad.  It’s as if guilt and low self-worth rob our rest of its potential for fulfilment. 

Psychologists have a term for this: resting guilt. When we stop to take a break, sit down, put the kettle on, whatever that looks like for each person, the accompanying guilt takes a seat beside us and shakes its judgmental head. We rush the tea, can’t concentrate on the book, don’t notice the clouds in the sky. And soon ‘get back to it’ without feeling refreshed at all. 

So now that I’ve mostly learned how to enjoy a day (or even an hour) off, I only need to watch the cats for a quick reminder lesson in how it’s done. Talk about relishing the joy of a lie-in, the happiness of a wintery afternoon wrapped in a blanket, the swaggering ease of a mooch around the garden. 

It’s never a waste to stop and make a cuppa. And your body, not to mention the people around you, will thank you. I’m reframing any ‘wasted time’ as ‘resting time’. Take this as your permission slip to do the same. 

Just a Number

This might sound strange but I have a favourite mirror in the house. It’s more flattering than any other (and don’t get me started on changing room mirrors – what were they thinking? Fluorescent tube lighting?) The bathroom mirror is beside the window and since it’s a small, dark room there’s only a little bit of natural light, so when I catch sight of my reflection it’s as if there’s a generous filter and (if I don’t squint too hard) I can’t even see too many wrinkles. Needless to say, this is the mirror I gravitate towards to fix my hair or makeup – it just makes sense.

But now and again I get a surprise when I catch sight of myself in another mirror, or when big birthdays arrive, or even when interacting with someone younger. I know that answering the question ‘how old do you feel’ is going to remind me of sore joints and grey hair and time ever-fading away. I’ll probably give a sad (and large) number in response. But how about this question: how old am I in my head? Not how old do I feel, but how old do I really think I am? It’s a great question. Think quickly and find your own answer. 

If you’re over forty, odds are that you’ve chosen a number that’s at least twenty per cent younger than your actual age. This is incredibly common in the western world. It’s a mixture of trying to stay young and the pressures of modern youth-oriented culture, of course, but there’s more to it than that. Maybe a traumatic event has stalled us at a certain point in our minds. Or a moment in time that changed us forever. But there’s also a sense of optimism and hope involved in believing that you’re younger – life is ahead, you’ve lots left to give, all those inspiring things. Rather than admitting defeat and zooming in on grey hair and wrinkles, we can look inwards and find a fount of eternal youth that keeps us skipping along the path.

One word of caution though: social interactions can get weird. If you focus too much on that youthful number in your head, you’ll forget that you’re not the same age as your younger friends. So step carefully when taking part in things. For instance, I won’t be joining Adam and Sally on their wakeboarding trips, but I’ll be around on their return to sit by the fire and have a nice chat.

And for the record I’m thirty five.

Art is Life

I wish someone had told me at school that I’d never need to do quadratic equations ever again. Or know how to calculate the angles on an isosceles triangle. Instead, I sat in maths class and sweated and strained under those hideous numbers until nothing at all made sense. Luckily I avoided Mr McCart’s eraser missiles (other mates were not so fortunate – I’m looking at you, Louise) – an old-fashioned teaching technique that seemed to assume that terror, and a little bit of violence, would suddenly make the ‘maths light’ come on in our heads. All it achieved was chalk marks (I know, I’m a certain age) on our wool blazers and a sense of encroaching dread before and during class. On one memorable occasion my friend Karen was asked a mental arithmetic question and simply cried out “Seven? I don’t know!”, before slamming her head onto the desk and moaning loudly. We all sat with widened eyes as Mr McCart, for once, remained silent.

I’ve been thinking about those terrible classes recently because of the noise out there surrounding ‘useless’ degrees. You know, the ones that don’t lead to big-earning careers. I’m all for STEM education (and we need to get more women and girls onto these courses) but it’s making my heart sad to hear my beloved arts so maligned. Recent cuts to the arts are painful here in Northern Ireland. Of my two degrees (English Literature and Psychology) only one is a science and is now considered ‘useful’ but I haven’t gone on to earn big bucks as a psychologist. Instead, I studied the topic for the love of learning. Nonetheless I’ve used my new knowledge to great effect in my (charity) job working as a story teller with people in the criminal justice system. Both degrees have come together in the most unexpected way. It’s a small salary but the impact packs a punch. Who knows, it might even change the world. 

The arts not only change our hearts and minds but make the world go round. They speak truth to power. And there’s the rub – writers and artists are always feared by the establishment. It’s no surprise that dictators quickly go after artists and burn books. Art opens our minds to questions, philosophy, semantics, ideology and all things in between. Without William Shakespeare how could we know how to cope with grief, ambition, fear? Without Charles Dickens how could we know to question a society that leaves the vulnerable to starve? Without Margaret Atwood how could we get a glimpse of dystopia and the harm it can cause? Caravaggio showed us the divine. Van Gogh broke our hearts. Picasso opened our eyes. 

If we focus only on money and numbers, we humans will lose something very precious. Art, put simply, is life. 

Belonging

I recently spent a few days in Liverpool to attend a work gathering – they’re called Think Days at The Reader (isn’t that a great name?) and we did lots of thinking, but also lots of reading and chatting and laughing. It was such a pleasure to be at a work event and feel like I wanted to be there. Getting paid to read poems in the garden? Yes please. Clearly, I’ve found my tribe.

Looking out at the sunset from the plane on the way home I started to think about how much this means. For so long I’ve been doing jobs in the voluntary sector that just didn’t sit all that comfortably with me. Square peg, round hole kind of thing. I did the work, sometimes working very hard, but it never clicked. I needed to find my people – somewhere I felt like I belonged and where my voice would be heard and where my skills made sense.

It’s only in the last couple of years that I’ve started to unfurl and stand up to be counted. I tended to hide in the background, assuming it was safer, but it was lonely too. And then I had one of those lightbulb moments during an online coaching course that quite honestly opened my closed heart. I’m sure I’ve talked about Mel Wiggins before (find amazing stuff here) and this six week course was my attempt to shake off past fear and step into the light. Meeting for a few hours every week with a small group of amazing women was transformational. Maybe the fact that they were strangers to begin with allowed me to be myself? I didn’t have any preconceptions about how I should or should’t behave, or things I shouldn’t say. I could just be myself. It was very freeing. 

And then on the last session something extraordinary happened.

Mel had asked us all to think of a phrase to say to one another as we went on our way into the future, almost like a blessing. Mine was relatively simple: ‘I wish for you bright hopes, deep breaths, hugs on dark days, and a sense that you matter and you belong.’ Sounds good, doesn’t it? We duly read them out to one another and they were received with grace and much gratitude. Then Mel asked us to read our own blessing out loud, but this time changing ‘you’ to ‘me’. 

Well.

When it came to my turn I spoke as confidently as ever, but then suddenly on the words ‘matter’ and ‘belong’, I couldn’t speak. It was as if my mouth was physically clamped closed. Time slowed down as my fellow members raised their eyebrows and kindly waited for me to finish. It was excruciating. I could have closed my laptop and run away but I somehow found the courage to just sit with what was happening. Emotions bubbled up from somewhere (very deep down, I think) and after gentle coaxing I was finally able to whisper those two words to myself. I matter and I belong. A simple phrase that plumbed the depths for me that day three years ago. It’s one that I still hold onto. It’s personal, spiritual, emotional. And it’s a phrase worth repeating. 

Say it with me (out loud if you dare). I matter and I belong.

Superpower

What’s he from? Did he play the bad guy in that film? I know that face!

Watching a movie in my house is clearly fun (although normally I say this stuff in my head). Sometimes it takes a while but I tend to identify the face pretty quickly. I didn’t know until recently that this is an unusual gift and I’m in a small percentage of people who can do it. It comes so naturally that I never thought about it. 

Chris, on the other hand, is the opposite. Even after hours of pondering over faces he can’t pick them out of a line up. This is probably handy if you’re thinking of committing a crime in his presence – he’d never know it was you. Apparently I’m what’s known as a ‘super recogniser’ while Chris suffers from ‘face blindness.’ Takes all sorts…

Super recognisers were identified in 2009 by psychologist Richard Russell who stumbled on the phenomenon while studying prosopagnosia – a disorder in which people struggle to recognise faces, even their own. And then Scotland Yard took notice and set up the UK’s first dedicated super recogniser police unit – the perfect marriage of science and service.

One got away dammit…

Neuroscientists aren’t quite sure why some of us can do this so well, the brain is as elusive as ever. It’s a complex process within the temporal lobe (a region of the brain just above the ear) and sometimes it just works like magic. I can see a face for a fraction of a second and identify it days later. It’s my superpower but I don’t know what to do with it yet, apart from shouting out loudly during movie nights. Who knows, it might reveal its purpose in due time. Shall I contact Scotland Yard?

Meantime, what’s your superpower?