Perfectly Ordinary

Jewel-bright hydrangeas at Thorp Perrow

You’d be forgiven for thinking it’s still summer, judging by the photograph above of hydrangeas still in full bloom, but if you look closer you might see the subtle signs of the start of decay. We marvel at the riotous colours of this season – deep green, mustard yellow, burnt orange, crimson, rich chestnut brown – and the rich, earthy smells, and we want them to linger; we want to soak up the warm autumn sun and wander endlessly through piles of crisp leaves. But Nature is never paused, and those crisp leaves will turn to soggy mulch after a few good downpours, the temperature will drop, and those rich hues will inevitably fade to leave the countryside a bit greyer. Once this crisp, clear, colourful part of autumn passes, we often feel sad that another year is drawing to an end and we want to hang on to it, we try to ignore the change and decay and focus on more uplifting thoughts, or are impatient for the next season. That’s totally understandable, and normal, but what if we looked at this from another perspective?

We could embrace the inevitable change and decline, accept the impermanence of nature (and indeed life), and be inquisitive about it all. After all, even though the flowers and leaves are dead and gone, their decay has fed the earth ready for next spring and there are still plenty of marvels around during later autumn and winter. The Japanese philosophy of ‘wabi sabi’ centres on an acceptance of the transient and unpredictable nature of life, and adopting the wisdom to live an imperfect life. It’s rooted in ancient Zen Buddhism and the tea ceremony which prizes not perfection, but imperfection, handmade tea bowls that are uneven in shape, with cracked glazes or discolouration. This isn’t about being gloomy, or not enjoying life; it’s not wanting to preserve that perfect autumn day with nothing to mar it. It’s about accepting that autumn and winter happen as regularly as spring and summer, birth and death carry equal weight, and that life has these balances. It’s not just about creating the picture-perfect life, of copying the sort of rustic simplicity we see on Instagram or glossy home magazines. We could invite a little ‘wabi sabi’ into our lives by slowing down a little, embracing the cycle of seasons, and enjoying the pleasure and simplicity of everyday life, without necessarily wanting to change or perfect it. Accept life for what it is NOW, don’t keep looking for some ideal that doesn’t exist, or you might miss the beauty in the everyday, the mundane, the ordinary.

The beauty of the ordinary
A mass of ivy hiding a tree trunk, gloriously messy

I have to admit to spending some time trying to get the ‘perfect’ pictures on our trip to Thorp Perrow this weekend, and arranging my haul of leaves and chestnuts into Insta-worthy photographs, but I did also visually drink in the atmosphere of the place, and breathe in the rich, musty aromas of the change of the season. In the West, we’ve lost the knack of simply accepting life as it is: we don’t often see the beauty in a messy house or garden; we try to clean up and prettify the mud and rust instead of being fascinated by their chemistry. Richard Powell, author of “Wabi Sabi Simple“, says, “accepting the world as imperfect, unfinished, and transient, and then going deeper and celebrating that reality, is something not unlike freedom.”

Moss and lichen clothing a weathered statue

That said, I’m not advocating for either ignoring your housework or monastic minimalism, but how about accepting the parts of your life and surroundings that aren’t perfect? Indeed, you could embrace the dents in your old furniture rather than polishing them to smooth perfection. They’re evidence of life in action – maybe you remember when you dropped the plate that made that dent, or the people who were around the table that day? Perhaps you could enjoy the few weeds in your lawn or path, and marvel at their tenacity in pushing through the soil and paving slabs, instead of automatically reaching for the weedkiller. There is something compelling about observing quite ordinary things; spend long enough doing it and you do become fascinated with them. When one of my sons was about 4, he was sitting on the doorstep deeply engrossed in something. I sat beside him to see what had caught his attention, and it was ‘just’ a woodlouse, apparently giving birth to baby woodlice. It was very ordinary but fascinating at the same time, and he sat there, watching, until the whole family had trundled off. On remembering this recently, I researched it and discovered that woodlice eggs hatch inside the mother, in a pouch similar to a kangaroo, where they mature until they’re ready to be ‘born’!

Patterns of decay

All this deep thinking isn’t to suggest that we sit around waiting for the inevitability of death, or live in drab surroundings because we don’t want to tamper with things – that’s far too depressing and we want to enjoy and immerse ourselves in our lives! There’s something joyous about observing natural changes and decline, without letting yourself become negative about those changes. You can live your life in riotous colour, with the loudest of music and friends, at the same time as being appreciative of the fact that you might not be able to do those things with the same vim and vigour at 80 as you did at 40. I simply invite you to notice those things which we often ignore. Who knows, that noticing and acceptance might add much greater meaning to your enjoyment of the louder, brighter, newer, and cleaner?!

This week, I challenge you to open your eyes a little to take in more of the mundane and imperfect, to give it more attention, and marvel in it. Let me know if you try it, and what you discover or experience!

Anna xx

Autumn beauty

Balance

Drinking in the beautiful autumn sunshine

After a shaky start to last week (being rear-ended by another car, insurance ‘phone calls, sorting my car to the garage, trip to A&E to record whiplash etc…), things just had to get better, and so they did. The 13 year old finally re-started school, the weather continued to be glorious, I had happy post from Karen (beautiful earrings that I’d bought) and Andrea (surprise book in the post), and managed to get out for TWO decent walks this weekend!! Oh, and said 13 year old’s football team won their match on Sunday! Now, I’m aware this week may go totally pear-shaped to compensate, but I’m hanging on to these blessings for now, in case I need to remember them to balance out any lesser days.

Beautiful hand made ceramic earrings by Karen Howarth

Maybe balance is what we could be striving for, instead of aiming for heady highs and dreading valley-deep low times, especially when our lives are subject to such uncertainty at the moment. Gentle ups and downs in life may be easier to flow with, and certainly they’re gentler on the mind and body than ecstatic lifts and catastrophic dips in my experience. I cope much better with moderate waves, rather than tsunamis of emotion and experience, definitely much better for my mental health which has been very rocky at times, to say the least! That said, the sort of natural ecstasy you sometimes experience in nature just can’t be beaten: that overwhelming bliss you feel in your special place, be it woodland, a wide open field, up a mountain, or at the coast. I find that if I take the time to drink in that experience, to breathe in (literally and metaphorically) the sights, sounds and smells, rather than rushing the day, then it’s easier for me to ‘come down’ from the experience, and not crash and feel down or saddened that’s it’s at an end. Laura, a mindful yoga teacher and passionate advocate for getting outside as often as possible, started a new class today, incorporating a short walk and some mindful time in one of our many local woodland areas. The rain didn’t detract from the pleasure of consciously walking through the woods, I think it even added an extra element – the pattering of raindrops through the leaves is incredibly soothing on a very deep level. For once, I didn’t take photographs (which I always do outside), but took the opportunity to simply be, to feel and hear my surroundings – highly recommend it, especially if you’re feeling out of sorts or unbalanced in some way.

A riot of brambles framing Castle Hill

As I was looking through previous photographs, and deciding which to publish here, I noticed how many of my shots are balanced in different ways. There might be balance in the amount of sky versus greenery, trees versus fields, coastline versus sea, colour versus shade. There’s often a bit of variation – I seldom plan the ‘perfect’ shot – but there’s something about a shot with even amounts of light and dark, or using the ‘rule of thirds’, that feels and looks ‘right’ to me. Sometimes it’s not obvious why a shot works, I’m unsure quite where the balance is, but you just have a gut feeling that it’s ‘right’.

WW2 anti-aircraft artillery gun posts near Castle Hill

Balance is also part of my yoga classes with Laura, and pilates with Jana: literally balancing on one leg, doing exercises on each side of the body to work muscles equally, and breathing deeply to balance your mind. And we all know about balanced eating, of course, even if we don’t always choose to do it! How about balanced working? That work/life balance that’s been the talk of recent years? Maybe you got yours to the right level for you and your family, and then Covid has blown it all out of the water. Has working from home blurred the lines between work and family too much, have you found yourself working until silly o’clock for your paid job because you had to help your children with online schooling, or become drawn into domestic tasks instead of the paid work you really needed to do? It’s become much harder for some of us to balance all these demands, because we’re at home so much, there are few demarcation lines between what’s paid work, and what’s home and family time. And just as we saw those compartments becoming clearer again our part of Yorkshire has had a tighter lockdown imposed, and now government tells us we need to return to working from home again – talk about becoming unbalanced!

Maybe these occasions are opportunities to breathe deeply and practise standing on one leg (literally if you fancy it!) before we get to that panicked stage where our minds and bodies have gone past the point of balance. There’s a distinct imbalance in our social connections right now, due to the restrictions we’re living under, leading many people to experience prolonged and severe loneliness for the first time in their lives. My friend Wendy, a respected psychotherapist, social worker, and wellness expert, talks about loneliness on her blog, even going so far as to describe it as “one of the least understood consequences of the Coronavirus pandemic.” Juliet, of The Curious Creative Club, very aptly describes these momentous times as a roller coaster in her current blog post, and talks about how to keep connected in different ways, as we can’t currently do things the same way as we were doing six months ago. She encourages us to look for other means of connectivity: Zoom calls, WhatsApp or Messenger chat groups, various social media groups and pages. I feel that this goes some way to address the imbalances we’re currently experiencing due to Covid, the lack of real, face-to-face contact with anyone: from the doctor (telephone appointments only) to my part-time job (internal exams being done differently, therefore no invigilation work), friends’ soirĂ©es cancelled (can’t go to someone’s house at the moment) to WOW meetings via Zoom (closed venue and some members shielding). As many of us are struggling with various aspects of our unbalanced lives, and we’re living with a high degree of uncertainty regarding the future, maybe we could also see this moment as a rebalancing in itself. Perhaps we’d become so used to rushing around every day, to filling every minute to the brim and seldom being still, that this sudden pause is the swing of the pendulum, and instead of feeling panic we could accept some of the space to steady our personal see-saws.

I wonder what weights you could identify and shift from one side of your scales to the other? Could you step outside into your garden for 10 minutes to have a break from your computer screen every hour or so, to balance all that artificial light with some natural daylight? Or maybe tweak some of your work hours so that you can have half an hour with your children when they come home from school? Perhaps you feel like getting up from the kitchen table-cum-desk at lunchtime, and having a kitchen disco to bring some feeling back into your legs?! We’ve forgotten what it’s like to be part of something natural, to balance being inside a modern ‘cave’ with getting outside and letting our inner caveman or woman feel the sun and rain on our skin, to re-set our systems and feel refreshed.

So my first ever challenge to anyone reading is to note where you feel your life may not be balanced for you (ignore that pesky comparisonitis!), and try one or two tiny ways of addressing that deficit. I’d love to know how you get on!

Vibrant purples at the coast

New Season, New Things

Blue skies and fairies dancing amongst the grass

We’re half way through September already, how did that happen?! The children are back at school, although it’s very different from this time last year, and the days are shortening a little bit now. It still feels like summer, especially with the warm, sunny weather we’ve had this week, but there’s that faint, exciting hint of autumn not far away: slightly fresher mornings, the smell of vegetation just on the edge between ripeness and decay, the way light and sound travel differently. I’ve dug out my extra fairy lights, checking whether they need new batteries, ready for darker tea times, and the wood burner will be cleaned out and laid this week in preparation for those cooler days when you need something cosy.

Before I’d even heard of hygge, I’ve always loved the idea of snuggling into a cosy blanket, candles lit, with a cuppa (or glass of wine!) and a good book or film, after a long walk outside in the crisp, autumn sunshine. It’s that consciousness with which you enjoy those little bright points, focussing on the gentle rituals of making coffee or tea, going around the room and lighting each candle in turn to brighten the gloom of a winter afternoon, that is at the heart of hygge. I think most Northern countries have such rituals, even if we don’t all have names for them.

How do you feel about the end of the summer, the prospect of an Indian summer before really autumnal weather arrives? Do you relish those warm, sunny days (as I do), still no jacket needed and being able to lie on the grass, soaking up the liquid gold of the sunshine through every pore? We had a walk along the canal late yesterday afternoon, calling for a beer at Zapato‘s pop up bar. Sitting on the warm grass, eyes closed and head up to the sun, was the best way to end a Sunday.

Warm September sun and a cold beer – lovely!

There’s much to love about the coming autumn, but this little pocket of almost-summer is special. The sun’s still strong enough to colour your skin and ripen the apples, and even to develop the cyanotype prints I’ve dabbled with for the first time this week. I’ve not tried this art form before, but I’m hooked! It’s a real antidote to the instant images I made using my ‘phone this weekend. There’s something mindful and magical about this way of creating an image, it’s almost alchemy. You need to be careful about the placement of your objects on the paper, and yet quick enough that the process doesn’t begin before you’re ready, and (unlike a mobile ‘phone photograph that’s instantly available) the waiting and curiosity to see the finished image is a great reminder of how to be patient. I even hid the images and rinsed them without looking until they were done because I wanted the magic and mystery to last that extra minute or two! Well worth the wait, though! The first couple weren’t what I expected, so I changed how I’d done them to produce a third – progress not perfection, as Deborah and Juliet say!

From this…
…to this…
…and, finally, this!

We know that time progresses, and that life itself isn’t perfect – far from it! – but these little pockets in late summer/early autumn are given to us to savour. Maybe it’s Nature’s way of easing us and herself into the next season, rather than a brutal downhill slalom. Why not enjoy a little of it for yourself this week, don’t rush back into work/school/old habits too fast? Let me know in the comments if you decide to try something new for this new season! 🙂

Creative Technology

Hello again, September is gathering speed now: my children will be back at school shortly, after 6 months of being away, and life will look different once more, not sure where we’re headed but it will be an interesting trip and I’m curious to see where we end up!

Just before the tower became really precarious!
Our local version of Monopoly – do you know any of these places?

My daughter’s been a bit obsessed with Monopoly and Jenga this week, which is very timely as I’m trying to reduce screen time for all of us, and playing games like these requires you to think more. My friend, Wendy, has published a very apt blog post on the subject of our interactions with electronic technology (here), inviting us to scrutinise our use of it, and suggesting that we could have a gentle detox from time to time. Goodness knows, we’ve used technology increasingly during the last 6 months (out of necessity mostly), and it may be a good thing to wind it in a little bit where we can to give ourselves a breather.

That said, if it wasn’t for technology I wouldn’t have been able to take part in some online coaching sessions recently, with their related social media groups and individuals. Nicola Rae-Wickham, of A Life More Inspired, and Andrea Callanan work in very different ways to encourage you to explore your life and shape it differently, and they’ve both taken advantage of technology to re-direct their businesses during these times when face-to-face seminars and workshops couldn’t take place. The Impact Club is another amazing (and local!) group, which is very friendly as well as professional, run by Deborah Ogden who helps people to to build their personal brand. Likewise, Psychologies magazine has used this period to launch some similar programmes (see here), with online video resources and social media support/accountability groups. Susan Yeates, of Magent Sky and the 30 Day Sketchbook Challenge, has also launched some online printmaking and art courses which you can access at your leisure. It feels incongruous and counter-intuitive to sit at a computer screen to take part in these courses, particularly creative ones, but I’m justifying it because the video content is always available for you whenever you have the time, so I think it’s a good alternative to attending a live class in an actual venue – remember those?! I find that, as I can go back to videos and other resources when I need to, I don’t feel pressured to remember everything or write it down; I can go away from it all, use the ideas to create something, and go back if I forget the brief. When you’re not feeling anxious about remembering ‘everything’, you enjoy the activity so much more, and really immerse yourself in it. Sometimes I saturate my senses with the resources – videos, groups, Pinterest, etc. – then leave it for a day or two, so that the visual information can percolate into my head and heart. I find that if I then surround myself with art or writing materials, and just sit with the mental afterburn of the images, the ideas seem to come tumbling out, and sometimes I can’t keep up!

Using technology this way means has also enabled me to collaborate with a local graphic design firm, Red Crest Studios, who’ve been great to work with, and I now have a shiny new logo for my brand!! You’ll see it popping up here and there soon, especially on new creative products and ventures. I’m starting work on designs for Christmas cards and other ideas (hint, hint!), and it will be exciting to see my logo as part of the products!

Little teaser of my new logo – all will be revealed soon!

Christmas may seem far away to most of you, but September has always been my new year or new start, as you know, and I’ve always begun Christmas planning at this time of year. It’s a family thing, as I remember my mum keeping a journal of sorts from year to year, detailing what she bought and made, meal plans, etc., they’re a fascinating bit of social history from my childhood! When my older children were young, we had very little money, so it was even more important to start preparing early: there was time to save those few pounds every week towards gifts and food treats without noticing it too much. Nowadays, technology tends to supplant a lot of this planning for many of us (there are even Christmas planning apps now!), but I find that ‘old school’ technology (aka some lush notebooks and pens!) is the best antidote to rushing and technology for me. It’s a time when I can indulge my stationery habit (not that I ‘need’ new notebooks, but then ‘need’ is a very subjective term…!), find some lovely pens, a pencil and ruler, and have a quiet, mindful spell of planning and writing, choosing my colour key for the year, and thinking about the people for whom I’m planning – remembering their interests, who likes what food, and often designing a unique and intimate card.

An unashamedly unseasonal photo from last year – except for the plaque and peg dolls everything designed and made by me

So, back to technology to round up: where do you sit with it, are you ok with the amount/quality of time it takes up for you, do you make it work for you rather than you being a slave to it, do you feel that you make effective use of it? Have a think, make some adjustments if you feel that’s right for you, no judgement from me (can hardly throw metaphorical stones when I’ve sometimes spent over an hour mindlessly scrolling with no benefit!) – if you have some ideas, let me know in the comments!

Autumn Colours

Return to Whitby, August bank holiday 2020

Hello and welcome, on the first day of September! We’re now two thirds of the way through 2020, with a new school term, autumn, Hallowe’en, and Christmas still to come. It was the last summer bank holiday here in England yesterday, and we had glorious weather after several days of murk. We had a much-needed day out in Whitby – fresh, sea air, wall-to-wall sunshine, cafĂ© lunch, beer, ice cream, doughnuts and a stick of rock (too early for a partridge in a pear tree…!). I’m so grateful that England is saturated with these green and blue lungs within fairly easy reach: getting outside into green spaces or to the coast are my best memories from childhood, and I realise how much more of these experiences I desperately need to help me feel more ‘me’! I feel so much more alive and creative after a day like yesterday, so I want to capitalise on that and make creativity a regular habit again, instead of letting myself ( and I do mean my SELF) become hidden and starved of all that creativity! (I know that sentence was poor English, but you know what I mean!)

Gorgeous amethyst-coloured flowers!
I love the way the beach huts perfectly complement the greys and greens around them
Little spots of daylight peeping through the nibbled mallow leaves

It was a long drive to Whitby yesterday, in miles and particularly time – I think a lot of people had the same idea and were longing for some sea air – and I just wanted to be there, NOW, after so long away from those natural surroundings. It was worth the wait and it felt like all those other visitors were also grateful for the sun and sea air. This anticipation of finally getting somewhere you want/need to be is a good analogy with other aspects of my life. It’s been a long trip to find out where and what I want to be, maybe I’ve followed too many wrong turns, but I think my internal sat nav’s finally got the update it needed and is working properly at last! I now recognise how much I need to be outside in natural spaces with the people I love, in order to function properly, and years of not doing so has caused some real damage, hopefully not irreversible. This week feels like a good time to be picking up the reins of creativity – as I said last week, September is the real ‘new year’ for me, and I’d like to hit the ground running when the children get back to school over the next couple of weeks! I’ve seen so many friends posting on their socials about this very same thing: that September feels like a more natural start/re-boot than January. I believe that this year it’s even more the case, as children and those who work in schools face a very different ‘new year’ from any they’ve ever known.

Bright green potato leaves, lilac potato flowers, and the black and rich yellow of a bee in my garden

Looking out of my front window this afternoon, although it’s mild and the sun keeps popping out, some of the trees and plants I can see are ever so slightly tinged with yellow and brown already, just a faint hint of autumn beginning to kick in. I love these changes in hue, a colourful reminder that nature’s always in flux, is rarely still, and that change is very often a good and necessary part of life. In Juliet’s latest live video for Psychologies Magazine she talks about colour, inspired by her recent visit to Cornwall. She suggests 3 different exercises around the use of colour, each of which could be interesting to do at this time of year. I remember that my lovely little mum loved autumnal changes – she would make displays from dried vegetation and flowers, cooked seasonally, and sometimes from foraged foods, and gently eased us children into autumn and then winter, as each special day/food/event approached. The changing scenery in our house served as a reminder of things always shifting, albeit at a gentle pace. Changing your surroundings is also a way to boost your creativity, to get you thinking about different things, or in a different way, without it being too much of a shock to your system. Last week, I visited The Flex Collective, to have a nosy and spend a bit of time away from my own four walls. Jayne has created a calm space, yet with zingy yellow pops of colour, for anyone wanting a professional environment without the massive costs that large offices can bring. Well, in just the 90 minutes I was there, I had some lovely conversation with Jayne and another friend who was there, and managed to knock out a simple poem – proof positive that getting out of your comfort zone, and being surround by subtly different colours, really can boost your creativity! Why not try it for yourself?! Here’s what I wrote:

The Flex Collective, Denby Dale, August 2020

I wonder if any of you reading this also feel that September and early autumn are the beginnings of your new year? Could these feelings and thoughts hark back to older ways and the gentle urgency of harvest times, and preparing for the slowing down and hibernation of winter? These days it might not be practical or possible to fill every single storage space with food and drink, to fend off lean food times and short dark days, but we can still enjoy the beginning of a new season. We can pay attention to the watering down of the sunlight, the brilliant hues of changing leaves, and immerse ourselves in it all, and see where it leads our creativity. Why not have a wander around your garden one morning with your cuppa, and really look at the colours of the plants you usually take for granted? Do those changes spark any creative ideas? Let me know how you get on and have fun!

Richly coloured Victoria plums bursting with flavour!