Muppets Rule OK

Photo: BBC News

Something weird happened at the end of January. A muppet asked everyone a question on Twitter (that’s weird enough, you’ll agree) and received a barrage of pain in response. 

It was a dark Monday (of course) so it’s maybe no surprise that the innocent question – how is everybody doing? – resulted in over 13,000 replies and almost 150 million views. So how are we all doing? Turns out, not well. Some people talked about losing their jobs, ongoing anxiety about world affairs and even existential despair. 

Elmo, with his red fluff and sweet smile, is probably the kindest muppet out there, so I do worry that this unloading of despair onto his little shoulders must surely have given him his first frown lines. 

Soon enough, of course, the memes arrived and Elmo appeared to be staring into a fiery abyss or widening his eyes at the scale of despair he’d unleashed. Even Cookie Monster got involved and offered to help – ‘me here to talk it out whenever you want, me will also supply cookies.’

It was funny and weird and interesting, but it was also profound. We’re all coping with stuff, all the time, and the world is on fire right now. We need to share the burden with each other, to ask for help and to admit that some days it’s all too much. 

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. 

Alarm Call

Not to make this blog a middle-aged moan but…something else has annoyed me and the New Year is still quite new. Sorry.

For many years now I’ve been woken from slumber by a soft whisper of Classic FM. I’m so clever that I set the alarm for four minutes past the hour so that I won’t hear the news. When I have to get up early, especially to get ready to lead reading groups in prison settings around the country, I need to awaken slowly and gently. I also have to admit that I tend to feel most unsteady in the mornings, when MS is taking its sweet time to bring my head into alignment. Slow and steady is the aim.

This detailed preamble is clearly leading to a terrible shock, isn’t it? One morning recently, instead of stringed instruments, a hideous (and loud) BUZZ shook me awake. It was incessant and just didn’t stop. It took several seconds to work out where (and who) I was, before I reached out and thumped the alarm. What was going on? I was cross all morning, grumpy over my bran flakes and even grumpier in rush hour traffic. It was just a terrible start to the day.

On researching the issue, having assumed my alarm clock was broken, it turns out that Classic FM no longer transmits on DAB radio. You need DAB+ now. Apologies again for sounding like an old biddy, but there’s nothing wrong with my little radio alarm – why do I need to get rid of it and buy something new? The answer, of course, is simple: capitalism. We live under its thrall and it’s ruling our lives with an iron fist. Built-in obsolescence? Check. Gadgets that no longer work after a year? Check. Inability to talk to friends and family, or do some work, until you buy the latest model? Check. It’s a bit depressing. In my day (sorry) we could open something up and get it fixed, keep things going for years. Now bulging landfills, everlasting plastics and cobalt mines are the only option. 

I was continuing to rant to myself until I approached the prison gates and remembered why I was there. Leading reading groups in these difficult places has opened my eyes to so much – about the world and about my place in it. Perspective is everything, and my hill of beans is very small indeed. 

Happy New Year

I never really know what to say at these times so I’ll leave it to John O’Donohue. Read or listen, and thank you for joining me in the shed throughout 2023. I wish you all good things as another year arrives on the horizon.

At The End of the Year 

As this year draws to its end,
We give thanks for the gifts it brought
And how they became inlaid within
Where neither time nor tide can touch them.

The days when the veil lifted
And the soul could see delight;
When a quiver caressed the heart
In the sheer exuberance of being here.

Surprises that came awake
In forgotten corners of old fields
Where expectation seemed to have quenched.

The slow, brooding times
When all was awkward
And the wave in the mind
Pierced every sore with salt.

The darkened days that stopped
The confidence of the dawn.

Days when beloved faces shone brighter
With light from beyond themselves;
And from the granite of some secret sorrow
A stream of buried tears loosened.

We bless this year for all we learned,
For all we loved and lost
And for the quiet way it brought us
Nearer to our invisible destination.

John O'Donohue from Benedictus, To Bless the Space Between Us

Unexpected Item

Is it just me or is life speeding up? I’ll put the bins out and five minutes later have to do it again. I know this odd sensation comes with age, but who’d have thought that a big birthday would send me hurtling down the ramp of life at such high speed? 

So yes, I am now fifty years old. Fifty. Some days it makes sense (sore knees, grey hair) but some days, I think of that number and shake my head in disbelief. Youth really is wasted on the young. And some odd behaviours are creeping in too: grumbling about loud noises, enjoying a wee nip of sherry, annoyance about self-service tills. 

My local superstore (I won’t name names) has taken away most of the manned checkouts and installed these self-service tills. Even for trolleys. I suppose this is the future – robots are taking over and I just have to get used to it – but still, I feel a bit sad and frustrated. As I was beeping items through the other day, and trying to set them down and yet avoid the loud announcement about an unexpected item in bagging area (another one? Really? But I just bought the thing!) I couldn’t help but notice lots of staff members jumping to attention every time the red light of doom lit up. Customers cannot really do this alone, can they? Is an avocado a fruit? Where’s the barcode on this thingy? Oh hang on, that’s my toilet roll toppling off the edge and rolling down the aisle. 

It’s all a bit fraught now. I thanked the helpful staff member who came to my rescue (again) and realised that it’s not really the technology and clumsiness that I’m struggling with, it’s the lack of human interaction. Every time I did some shopping here over the last few years I would chat with a lovely lady on the till who had admired my handbag (you’ll not be surprised to hear that it’s covered in pictures of books) and we soon got to talking about all things literary and bookish. Her daughter is a writer too. We would joke about holding a launch in the store if my book came out soon, and making sure I brought a signed copy in just for her. Before I knew it, I was looking forward to catching up and sharing news. It meant a lot, in the end, to have someone ask me how things are going with the writing and wish me luck with it all. 

I spotted my book friend that day and waved sadly in her direction as I fought with all my groceries. She waved back and smiled. The machine told me to check I hadn’t forgotten my receipt and thanked me for coming. But of course, it wasn’t the same. No smile, no laugh at my handbag, no wishing me well. The self-service world is removing something precious from our human lives. Loneliness and anxiety will surely be the end result.