If a vegan diet is good for a septic tank, then it might just be good for us…

I’ve just had an interesting conversation with a man who shovels poo for a living. More accurately, he has a machine which slurps waste from septic tanks and cess pits. Not the best job in the world, perhaps, but someone has to do it. On the plus side, it took him half an hour to stand by his machine while it sucked the smelly stuff from the septic tank in the field and  educated me on the vagaries of cess pits.

It was his conversation that interested me most. We had a lovely chat about waste: he knew all about it, the ups and downs, the best sort, the worst sort, what to put in a septic tank to make it function well and what never to put in. He was a real expert.

I’ve lived in the house for a year and had paid no attention to the bog-standard septic tank covered in nettles and briars in the field adjacent to my garden. I’m very careful what I put down the drains of course: no detergent, no washing powder, no cotton wool or plastic, just gentle stuff which biodegrades, a bit of food waste, water, that sort of thing.

So I uncovered the tank and invited out the man to clean it. What he said really surprised me. Not the bit about the tank being old, that he had no idea how it functioned so well at such a great age, that it would benefit from installing a smart new system, and everything else you’d expect him to say. What was really interesting is that he said ‘You don’t eat meat, do you?’

I was impressed: he could tell things about my diet from my cess pit? Now that’s a real professional.

It turns out that meat, the cooking of it, the disposing of residual bits of it through drains, the residual oils, all contribute to clogging and to the general bad condition of the system. Basically, it’s greasy and likely to make the drainage system function less well.

Now there’s an allegory.

If regular meat intake clogs drains and is bad for them, I wonder what it does to the human digestive system and to arteries?

I hear a lot from non-vegan people about vegan diets being inadequate and how do we ever manage to survive without meat. I am asked frequently what I eat and how I get enough protein, vitamins, how I maintain a high level of energy. I agree, whatever you eat, vegan or otherwise, it pays to have some understanding about the value of what you’re putting in your body. I take vitamin B12, and vitamin D in the winter. I consider what goodness I am getting from my food at each meal. I try to weigh up the balance of nutritional benefits and avoid foods high in sugar and bad fats, palm oil, too many empty calories. Doesn’t everyone?

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Nowadays, some people want to veganise everything, so they can enjoy burgers that bleed, authentic sausages, and cheese which tastes exactly like the ‘real thing.’ I can understand why these products are popular; it’s impressive when people who love meat and dairy give it up and it’s understandable that they want to replicate their favourite flavours and textures in everyday vegan fare. It’s useful to have ready-made standby foods in the freezer too. 

On social media, I read about a lot of vegans who are thrilled to find ‘sfv foods’: safe-for-vegan stuff is really just food not originally intended for vegans but that just happens to contain nothing which is non-vegan. Such ‘accidental vegan’ foods include things like Oreos, some makes of custard powder, pickles, some types of pot noodles, some crisps, bourbon biscuits, Skittles. Some vegans’ delight when discovering Oreos are vegan is touching. Vegan pizza has been a huge success, as has vegan ‘fish’ and chips. Now people can be vegan and not give up fast food and treats they crave from their pre-vegan diet.

 While I’m happy that ‘accidental’ foods like vegetable extract, baked beans, peanut butter and hummus are vegan, I’m cautious about commercial high sugar, salt and high fat foods and the long-term effects of eating too much processed fare, vegan or not. I’m happier cooking something from scratch, with simple ingredients that I know and that I can be confident are good for me. While I understand that people can live off a diet of bourbons and kettle chips and still be vegan, and that fast food takes less time to prepare and it’s great to have an indulgent cruelty-free sweet treat occasionally, ready meals are perhaps best as a stand-by.

Of course, it’s a different kettle of hummus when it comes to alcohol – in moderation. There are great vegan wines to be found, beers too, and supermarkets are starting to understand what makes alcohol vegan and label it accordingly. I still find myself in trouble in bars, restaurants  and shops when I ask ‘Is the wine vegan?’ There are still many places where I’m greeted with confusion, horror and the question ‘Why, isn’t all wine vegan?’ Why, indeed.

Back to the neglected cess pit in the field. What if our bodies are similar to septic tanks: we put stuff into them and they reflect our lifestyle- choice back by being in good working order or less so, depending on the nature of what we put in? The better the quality of ‘stuff’ that goes in on a daily basis, the better the tank functions long-term.

Of course, there’s no scientific correlation between the cleanliness of a septic tank and the health of the human digestive system; I’m being facetious: it’s just a thought. I’m delighted that the meat-free septic tank is hanging in there. I will continue to feed it a diet of biodegradable waste, detergentless cleaners and good vegan manure. I certainly won’t be adding any Oreos and custard into the mix, but there may well be a recycled glug or two of good vegan Merlot every so often.

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Revelling in life’s little pleasures…

Happiness is about enjoying the small things. It’s about getting the most from each moment and not letting an opportunity pass to feel grateful and blessed. Of course, there is happiness to be found in the big things: presents, promotion, pastimes, but perhaps real happiness is something we can connect with every day.

It’s true, external things bring pleasure. We aspire to something and then when we attain it, we believe we are happy. Why not? I know plenty of people who are exhilarated by the excitement of a new job, or a shiny car, a new relationship, a new home, a holiday: all these things bring the possibility of happiness and fulfilment. For me, completing a novel, beginning a new one, holding my finished book in my hand with its wonderful front cover design and title has the capacity to make my heart sing.

Things which happen by accident make us feel blessed. Winning the lottery, for example, would open up many new doors, offer new horizons and the chance to change. Things which happen to us externally, which are not fully of our making, are exciting because they present us with instant opportunities to make life better. Similarly, a promotion to a better job defines us as successful and it’s natural to feel that our achievements make us more exciting or more complete people.

But the problem with chasing happiness is exactly that: we are always seeking the next buzz, the next chance of fulfilment. While there’s nothing wrong with that, there has to be interim happiness which doesn’t depend on luck or someone else’s benevolence.

The base line  for happiness is our own good health and the health of those we love. Bereavement or constant worry about sickness will put a huge barrier in the way of happiness.

However, if we are blessed with life and energy, happiness can be found all around us. It is about taking the time to relish in the small things that promote sustained happiness. I suppose it’s back to the old concept of the half empty glass, and whether we can celebrate that it’s half full.

Today, it’s cold and raining. Usually, that doesn’t initiate a feeling of euphoria. But to be able to put on warm clothes and step outside, feel the wind, the water on your face, to come home and have the luxury of a fire in the hearth, a warm cup of steaming tea in your hands. That’s happiness.

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It’s easy to let immediate opportunities for happiness pass us by. We struggle through each day, busy with deadlines looming, technology pulling us in and absorbing us. How often do we take time to watch the sun rise or set? If it’s only when we’re on holiday, then maybe that’s not often enough. Maybe we should do it more frequently, taking a small drink, breakfast  or supper with us, and think about savouring every bite.

We have music all around us, but when do we stop everything we’re doing, turn up the volume and really listen to every note? We see people we love daily, but how often do we enjoy deep conversation or the time to take someone’s hand, look into their face and completely appreciate every moment we share?

As a fan of the beautiful game, I find it easy to fall into the trap of being governed by the lottery of  a result. If my football team win, I believe I’m happy. If we lose, I’m disgruntled and look for someone to blame: the ref, the goal keeper, the manager, the weather, the fixture list. Perhaps that’s a metaphor for life: it’s too easy to invest in superficial things we can’t control and which don’t really matter, then fall into the trap of blame and anger when it doesn’t go our way. But it is the people we love and the beauty within the moment which really make us happy.

Doing things for other people, making them smile, being kind, positive actions and thoughts towards others makes us happier, not just because we bask in being good, but because there is genuine pleasure to be found in making others’ lives better. Joy lies in reciprocating and sharing more than in allowing some external gratification to wash over us in a passive way.

Unless it is a beach, the waves from a vast ocean washing over us in the warmth of the sun. Or climbing hills, playing in the snow, squelching our boots in mud, alone or shared with others whose company we love. Not much beats grasping each transient moment life gives us, inhaling scent, savouring the taste and listening to the unique sounds. Perhaps nature is always there for us, offering us the opportunity to enjoy being alive in the present.

If that is so, if we can find joy in the duration of each moment, then we are truly blessed.

 

 

 

 

My top ten to bring us in from the January cold

January isn’t most people’s favourite month. I’ve heard a lot of people complaining about it. It’s cold. Christmas has gone and won’t be back for a long time so it seems like there’s nothing to celebrate. It hasn’t snowed. It probably won’t. A holiday to somewhere warm would be nice but….

So, with a brief nod to a lovely woman I worked with once, who said I was ‘horribly positive,’ here’s my top ten of things to warm the heart this January. In no particular order other than random selection …

  • VEGANUARY. So many people are trying a plant- based diet this January and 61% of them, according to statistics, will still be vegan by December. The Bosh! Cookbook will be out soon and, having followed their blog for years, I know there will be some sumptuous recipes to make everyone happy, whether they are looking for a Christmas dinner, a delicious burger or a chocolate cake.
  • BOOKS. There are so many good books to read. Mary Beard. Sarah Winman. Patrick Gale. This is just my January reading list. On the exercise bike, it’s amazing how many chapters I can whizz through in an hour. I’m so lucky to have good books to read.

  • FOOTBALL. After Liverpool’s monumental win over Manchester City last week, (a team I admire for their attacking football and excellent players such as De Bruyne,) the future for the Reds looks good, especially if we can sort out the goalkeeper conundrum. Plus we have signed Virgil Van Dijk, and the Fab Four (Salah, Mane, Firmino, Ox) continue to amaze. Football is theatre, a performance in two halves. Which brings me to the next one on my list.
  • THEATRE. Last year ended on a high, seeing Josie Lawrence in Mother Courage. This year promises to be brilliant too. Hamlet is on in Plymouth next month and it will be really good. I must sort out tickets and then I’ll look forward to it throughout January.
  • MUSIC. I’m enjoying Spotify while I work at the computer and my current writing backing track is Humble Pie. I love Steve Marriott’s voice and the stomping rhythm makes sure my writing is pacy. Check this one. I know it’s from way back in 1973 but who cares if it’s this good…
  • WORK.  My book cover is out. My novel follows soon and I am so excited. I’ve had a wonderful review and such kind words and real enthusiasm blow me away. It’s a joy to work with people who aren’t just incredible professionals, but truly lovely. We are blessed if we find ourselves alongside people we trust, who are supportive, efficient and completely totally nice. Kiran, Rachel, Sabah, the Avon Team – they know who they are.

  • NATURE AND TRAVEL Whatever the season, whatever the weather, being outside, travelling, going somewhere the wind blows the salt of the sea in your face, or somewhere there is nothing but silence and a deer peering behind a tree, or somewhere you have to try a new language and rethink your own lifestyle, or somewhere you can be lost in bustle and noise and culture. It’s good for the soul.
  • ANIMALS (CATS). Last year, my best cat, Pushkin, was knocked down on a lane where three cars pass daily. She was so unlucky and of course, I said, as we all do, ‘No, I won’t get another cat. Ever.’ My daughter persuaded me to adopt Monty and Murphy, two mad clowns who had been feral and will now scrounge hummus on toast. Colin is just starting to tolerate them. They are lovely and cats make such great company. I love the way they slap their bottoms full-on the keyboard when I’m editing and give me six pages of dzzsmk..rrrtlgggggggggggg

  •  FRIENDS. My friends are scattered everywhere from the North to the South. I don’t always see them all as often as I’d like. I know we have email, messenger, Facebook, Skype, Twitter, phones. When we do meet up it’s rock and roll. I have happy friends, mad friends, friends who need a hug, who give hugs. I have funny friends, talented friends, kind friends. Where would life be without friendship? I love you all.
  • FAMILY. Family is at the centre of everything I think and do. Without them, it would all mean so much less. They are my backbone. They are my smile when I wake up each morning.

You don’t choose your family. They are God’s gift to you, as you are to them. Desmond Tutu 
I’ll tell you what I’m grateful for, and that’s the clarity of understanding that the most important things in life are health, family and friends, and the time to spend on them. Kenneth Branagh.

Is nostalgia good or bad?

Christmas is over and we have finished celebrating the arrival of a new year. It’s now a time when we can look forward to the wonderful gifts 2018 can bring. We all hope for health and happiness for ourselves and for those we love and we wish for world- wide peace and an end to discrimination, disease and destruction. We consider changes to our lifestyle, wanting to be instrumental in making positive developments. We decide to eat healthier food, join a gym, spend more time outside, and help others. Such plans are admirable: we all know of people who will run a marathon in 2018, land a new job, find the perfect partner, raise money for charity or, simply, be more content with their lives. It doesn’t really matter if it’s January or July, looking forward confidently and with optimism is a good thing.

Yet we spend so much time looking back. Christmas time is a good example. We all love White Christmas, the archetypal festive 1950s film showing how perfect life used to be, and the Irving Berlin song dates back to 1942. We sit around the dining table, reminiscing about previous Christmases, missing people who are no longer with us, and old childhood memories of past years are stirred up and savoured. Many people yearn for aspects of bygone times, when food tasted better, everything was cheaper, we were less focused on commercialism, and people’s lives were less complex and perhaps in some ways happier. I remember as a teenager hearing a woman in her seventies talk about the Second World War with fondness. I was horrified. What about rations, bombs, the sacrificed lives? But she simply looked misty-eyed and said ‘Ah, but you had proper neighbours then. We all looked out for each other.’

I wonder if nostalgia is a bad thing: if we are always looking backwards through rose-coloured glasses, does it prevent us from looking forward clearly and determining our own destiny? But then, there are things we learn from the past. Life experience enables us to make decisions focused on a knowledge of likely outcomes. But the future is ours to determine, so why would we want to hold on to memories which have long gone? Perhaps that is it: like an old photograph, a letter or a school report found at the bottom of a drawer, the pages yellowed and the ink faded, perhaps the past provides us with a soft fuzzy feeling that makes us happy.

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Finding joy in nostalgia is not always easy to achieve. I have returned once or twice to the place I grew up and several times to towns and cities I have lived in. Much has changed and I feel no impetus to relive the past there. Yet I spoke to someone recently who went back to a town they left just over a year ago and they were filled with a sense of having belonged, having grown up there, having developed and become the person they are today against a backdrop which was important, which was in some ways formative. Memories such as those are tangible, important and cannot be taken away.

Music and the media are quick-fire ways to start a nostalgic conversation. Hearing The Clangers theme tune takes me back to childhood. Certain rock songs remind me of adolescent mischief. I know exactly where I was when I heard about The Twin Towers tragedy. Similarly, smells take us back to happy times, whether it is the lavender perfume of Grandma’s handkerchief, the smell of hot dogs at the fairground or the aroma of Mum’s apple pie in the oven, we are transported instantly and memory is picture- clear.

But is nostalgia good for us? A 17th Century medical student first used the term nostalgia for the anxieties displayed by Swiss mercenaries fighting away from home. It was thought of as an illness, caused by demons. The word derives from the Greek nostos (return) and algos (pain), suggesting suffering due to a desire to return to a place of origin. However, modern thinking is that nostalgia makes people feel more socially connected to others.  This social connection boosts people’s positive feelings about themselves.

One of my neighbours has an old Ford Cortina she wants to sell and another neighbour longs to buy it, as it was the first car he drove when he was 18. Of course, he could own a modern car, one which is much easier to drive, more economical, but the idea of owning a defunct banger matters, quite simply, because nostalgia makes people feel good. Nostalgia is not merely for the older generations, either; I have heard twenty year olds wax lyrical about Pokémon, Beyblades, Wispa bars. People are nostalgic because reminiscing makes them feel happy about old times, and it allows us to share common feelings and experiences.

But nostalgia isn’t real, is it? Every time we recall an experience, the memory becomes a little distorted. It can be more positive, more negative; we even have the capacity to change things unintentionally. As time passes, the memory becomes further out of touch with reality and so it is hardly accurate or reliable, especially where emotions are concerned. But sentimental recollections often include anecdotes and memories of loved ones, which reinforce the social web that extends across people and across time. There is also evidence that nostalgia works towards counteracting depression. The act of reminiscing has been shown to neutralise loneliness and anxiety. When people speak fondly of the past, they also tend to become more hopeful for the future. So nostalgia can in fact be a healing and a bonding experience.

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So, on that note, I’ll wish everyone the very best for 2018. But when you find yourself reflecting back on your life, on those special moments, remember that you are finding value and meaning in it. You are reminding yourself that life so far has not been unfulfilled and you are looking forward to creating more fond and wonderful memories. So, enjoy remembering the past: and here’s to the future!

When you see something you disagree with…

There are lots of things we disagree on. Some things are inconsequential – a matter of taste – tea or coffee, cats or dogs. Some things are cultural, embedded in our way of life, important to us morally, such as choices about religion, matters of lifestyle. We all know that we have the freedom to make personal choices and we understand about respectful disagreement and the right to an opinion. But what about when the situation isn’t so clear cut, we disagree with something we think isn’t as it should be. It isn’t right, but we don’t know how to respond.

My mother hated injustice. She worked as a dinner lady in a school for a while, and in a soap factory. Both jobs had a hierarchical management system and the expectation was that supervisors were workers with a lot of experience who were paid a little more than the other workers to make sure that the job went smoothly. In both cases, my mum noticed supervisors humiliating inexperienced members of the team and my mum spoke out and made the point that the supervisors’ behaviour was unacceptable and demanded that they changed the way they treated individuals in public. Although she was just an ordinary worker, my mum felt it was the right thing to defend someone who was upset and couldn’t speak up for themselves.

It has taken a long time for rules about how we treat each other in relationships to become clearly defined. It wasn’t until 1993 that the United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against women affirmed that violence against women also violates their human rights. We know attitudes about domestic violence have been slowly changing – it was only in 1994 that rape in marriage was made a crime, and that was after fifteen years of hard campaigning.

We’re not there yet, and sometimes things happen to remind us that not all partners in a relationship enjoy equal rights or are fairly treated.

Last weekend, I was in a DIY store and needed some assistance – with door knobs, as it happened. I approached an assistant who was helping a man and a woman and I intended to wait until they’d finished. The man was explaining to the young male assistant what he wanted and the woman quietly chipped in, to help. At this point, the man turned to the woman with an angry face and said, too loudly,  ‘Shut up.’ She recoiled and he leaned towards her and said ‘Go away and do some knitting or something.’ Who would even speak to their dog like that?

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We all know that’s abusive. It worked. She did shut up and she moved back and waited in silence. I wondered what to say. The man had help from the assistant and moved off and she trotted away behind him. Later in the store, I saw them both again, walking along in silence side by side in silence.

My point is, what could I do? What should I have done? I wasn’t intimidated, but to intervene with ‘That’s not very nice’ mightn’t have helped at all. I could have said to the woman  ‘Are you all right?’ but how would that have helped? How could she have replied?

The interchange was not part of a humorous role play, not a bit of intimate banter or fun between the couple. It was aggressive and meant to hurt. I wondered why the woman didn’t walk away, why she couldn’t.

Had the roles been reversed, and the woman had said to the man ‘Shut up. Go away and play with your golf clubs,’ would it have been met with a similar tacit public reaction? (Is the insertion of golf clubs as demeaning as knitting? What is the equivalent?) Hopefully, we have the same attitude to domestic abuse whether a man or a woman is the recipient. Abuse isn’t acceptable, no matter who is on the end of it. I wonder how many people -men, women or chidren – are used to this type of constant  bombardment on their emotions and end up feeling being unworthy of anything better. How can we speak out to help them?

It’s not just partners who indulge in repeated emotional abuse. It happens in the workplace, in schools, in families. The point is, how should we react when we see it? Are we nosy parkers if we speak up or cowards if we don’t?  Are we just making more trouble for the victim when they get home or do we owe it to them to help them realise they aren’t isolated?

I remember a story about a friend of mine carrying his four-year-old child out of the supermarket over his shoulder because she was having a tantrum. The girl was screaming ‘Put me down, you horrible man. I want my Mummy.’ But no-one challenged him, not for the three minutes it took him to leave the store. He said he’d have welcomed intervention, just in case he hadn’t been the parent. He’d have been pleased to see someone speak out for the safety of his child.

I don’t have an answer to this one, but perhaps we’re living in a time where our social lives are such that it’s easy to retreat into thinking it’s ‘not my business’ and then make a judgement afterwards. If we don’t know someone personally, perhaps we don’t think we should try to help. Perhaps we live in our own little worlds and are afraid or detached or just not interested enough to support others.

I’m not wholly happy that I don’t know how best to help a stranger who is being badly treated in a public place. Perhaps the man was able to be rude to the woman in the DIY store because he knew no-one would care enough to ask him why he was so abusive. Perhaps some teachers are regularly disrespectful to some children, perhaps some bosses take liberties with workers’ self-esteem  because they don’t expect anyone to speak out.

Perhaps we’ve become too self-absorbed and we’ve lost the concern for others which would make a challenge against injustice the norm, the right thing to do. There is the case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, the British-Iranian citizen in prison in Iran on trumped-up ‘espionage’ charges. There are things we can do to help. We can write to our MPs and urge them to take immediate action. There are countless cases of women abused by men in postions of power. Where are the people who know what’s happening and can speak out to support them? There are more than 250,000 homeless people in our country, and 1.2 million older people who are chronically lonely. Is there something we can do beyond a moment’s empathy and a cursory glance at our debit card?

The incident has given me a lot to consider. I will give it much more thought.

When witches wove their spells

In 1878, in the area where I now live, a house was being demolished and a secret room was found. Inside, a witch’s ladder was discovered, an armchair and six broomsticks. The ladder was made of knotted cord, with feathers woven in to it. It was used to cast a death spell. The local area is famous for the witch trials of 1664, when Sir Richard Hunt, JP, presided over a trial of seventeen people, six of whom were men, four of whom were husbands of accused women. The trial followed a zealous eight year hunt, during which victims were arrested and confessions were extracted by torture, along with ‘evidence’ such as blemishes, birthmarks and spots. These areas were pricked by professional witch finders armed with bodkins to see if the ‘witch’ felt pain.  Interestingly, ‘prickers’ could earn up to twenty shillings for finding a witch, so the use of retractable needles was prevalent.

There was widespread victimisation. It was easy for a woman to be accused: someone would blame her for any ailment or local tragedy and hysteria would follow, evidence would be contrived and the woman would be thrown into a river, hanged or disposed of in a variety of other dreadful ways.

Many innocent women were targeted: the elderly, anyone who lived outside the community, even someone who owned a pet would be under suspicion. Incidents such as accidents of weather, petty jealousies, unfortunate deaths would result in a poor unfortunate being singled out for blame. Wise women, healers, herbalists and midwives were often met with mistrust. The last witch to be ‘discovered’ in the county in which I live was in 1707. The Witchcraft Act was repealed in 1735. The death penalty for witches was replaced by penalties for the pretence of witchcraft. Attitudes had started to shift.

We consider Hallowe’en to be an exciting and imaginary night when witches venture during the night to wreak final havoc before All Hallows’ Day on November 1st. But old attitudes still prevail. On 31st October, ‘Secret midnight hags’ are said to roam at large and images of witches usually fall into one of two simple stereotypes: crone or temptress. The old witch with a hooked nose, warts, straggly grey hair and a broomstick is renowned. It appears that it’s still acceptable to view old women as hags.

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We have a problematic attitude to age in our society. Phrases like ageing population don’t help. Adverts bombard television screens with creams and cosmetics which claim to reduce wrinkles The expectation that we can turn time backwards and the belief that being older is unattractive doesn’t support the idea that people can grow old and still be worth looking at. Prejudice towards the old is not only rife, but it’s not yet entered the pc radar sufficiently to become the contentious issue it should be. Old people are viewed as less active, feeble even, both mentally and physically. Their contribution is marginalised, as if younger people can do everything  better. Which is not to say that young people can’t excel – it is the widespread assumption that age means that people are past their best which is erroneous.

Look at adverts on television. Older people seem only to be represented when someone is selling pension, retirement and funeral plans. Actors are silver haired, smiling and bland. Nothing defines them other than just being old. Not sage, not experienced, not – God, forbid – interesting, attractive,  intelligent, with a sense of humour or an opinion. Just old. And a bit doddery.

I researched attitudes to older people, and the ‘cut off’ point from young to old was interesting. People above 50 were deemed to be ‘old’ generally. People above 35 were ‘ageing’ when it came to mental or physical prowess or fitness, as their ability was already believed to be diminishing.  Yet I know of people much older than 50 who are athletes, students, thinkers, geniuses. Lovely people. I fail to see why age is an issue at all in many cases.

Age is a blessing. Isn’t the point, though, that we all want to grow old? We don’t want to die prematurely. We are struck with horror when someone passes before their time. We all have a right to hope for our four score and ten – or much more now, in this age of medical science, prevention and cure. We all want to live to a ripe old age. We want to be as physically and mentally strong as possible, to work, to create, to be active, to be attractive even and, certainly, we want to be able to have a laugh with our grandchildren, help them with homework and beat them at paintball and drinking competitions. So, why all the denigration of old people when that is exactly what we all aspire to being?

I’m wondering how far we have come since the witches were hunted and shunned? An old lady in her cottage, alone with her cat, her fingertips blessed with healing skills and a sound knowledge of potions was viewed with suspicion and then she was blamed for every natural disaster. Now, perhaps, a similar old woman is ignored, ridiculed and viewed as a member of the ageing society, a burden on the state. That’s a long way from the respect older people – all people – deserve. It’s about time we treated others with care and empathy rather than wrongly assess the cost of their usefulness to us and then shove them to one side. That was also true of the convicted women in the trial in 1664. Blamed, victimised and then forgotten.

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I have affection, an affiilation even, with the women who healed and charmed, who harnessed the powers of nature four centuries ago, followed as they worked by a lone black cat. I wonder what they would think if they were able to visit the 21st century. I wonder if tmodern ageing counterparts are treated with more respect and dignity. Perhaps if they were here now they’d blend a potion to redress the balance and dispel the continuing prejudice. It’s a nice thought.

 

 

 

Mellow Fruitfulness

It is autumn now. There is something new, something sharp, a scent of change in the air every morning and the fields are damp. A soft mist rises and leaves are already falling from trees. Autumn is a time when, if it’s not raining, it’s good to go for a walk and breathe cool air, watch crows whirl and pull clusters of blackberries from the prickles to take home and cook into something delicious, courtesy of autumn.

Or it’s a time to sense winter’s first ice on the wind and contemplate the bite of the cold, whether the central heating will work this year and then start to chop firewood.

Summer months are long and fickle, some days gloriously warm, some much less so, but although the weather controls much of what we do – and it’s at this point that it’s appropriate to remember those people whose lives are caught up in storms,  hurricanes, avalanches and forest fires – we are lucky that we can decide whether we allow the weather to dominate our moods and actions.

Pathetic fallacy is wonderful in literature –the storms on the moors in Wuthering Heights, Frankenstein‘s violent lightning, Ophelia’s broken willow branch in Hamlet –but of course, it is a fallacy. Nature isn’t a metaphor for human emotions.

I went for a walk last Thursday, a three mile stroll along the country lanes, and the rain was drumming on the hood of my coat, but it was exhilarating. It’s interesting how the imagination works in time with the rhythm of squelching footsteps, and how new ideas form when we force our heads to become empty. Ted Hughes’ brilliant poem  Thought Fox explains it so well: prints begin to form in the mind and then on the blank page at the point when we don’t force them.

Image result for Fox in snowMy thoughts during the walk drifted to think about people who will find the winter’s temperatures challenging. People who live in damp accommodation, who can’t afford heating bills. Many people have nowhere safe to live: communities who travel are in need of warmth and welcome; those who are homeless are really at the mercy of the elements. For those of us who are fortunate, winter is about log fires, toasted crumpets, steaming mugs of hot chocolate and it is precisely that feeling of being safe, warm and comforted which we all need. As the cold weather approaches, wherever we live in the world, adequate food and clothing are important, shelter, someone to visit and talk, to help break the monotony of loneliness.

My garden has a great quantity of fruit this autumn and I have a freezer full of stewed apples. I’ve given bags away, to friends, relatives, the Amazon driver, anyone who will benefit. My neighbour has a bowl of Bramleys at the bottom of the lane, for anyone who wants them. And that really is a metaphor, sharing our abundance with those who have none.

When winter comes, being cold is part of the fun. We all hope for snow: not the snow which is hazardous to drivers, but the white drifts which pile high in the hills and we can walk for miles, our breath like mist, and go tobogganing on tin trays and come home with red cheeks and melting clumps of ice on our boots. Winter is not to be feared, as long as we look out for each other.

Of course, if we are lucky with our health, another spring will come around. Crocuses will peep through the hard soil, the pale sun will deepen to a rich yellow and then summer will be with us again. There will be more apples to share, more long evenings around the barbecue with friends and more days strolling on the beach with that special person.

So each moment, whether warm or cold, is to be welcomed, embraced and enjoyed. We are fortunate if we can watch drizzle from the warmth of a room, behind a window, our feet too hot against the radiator.

I spend a lot of time writing during the winter months . My desk is in front of the window and I can see pigs, sheep, fields, trees, brambles. The pylon. I spend a lot of time not looking out of the window. On the computer screen, the thought fox is pressing its little prints on the keyboard and there are pictures, images, ideas, wild and whirling words. But when I glance up and see the rain battering the glass or the grey sky hanging like a tarpaulin, I realise I’m lucky. I can always go and put the kettle on, sit in front of the fire, have a cup of tea.

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Remembering always

Sometimes I think the world has always been crazy. If I go back to the time of my parents, their parents, I find story after countless story about those who are on the inside and those who are on the outside. It doesn’t always matter who the insiders are – they often have different faces and different policies – but those of us on the outside are always aware of being a bit different. When my mother said ‘You are as good as they are,’ the starting place was inevitably that some people didn’t think I was.

As Nietzsche says, that which doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.

The problem is, it does sometimes kill. And not just kill. It maims, incarcerates, deforms, destroys. And it doesn’t matter how long ago it happened, whether it was over seventy years ago or seven days ago, it goes on. In memory. In history. In blood. It is always there.

Today  we have heard justification of waterboarding. Justifying torture. Justifying abusing outsiders because the insiders think it is necessary. Prejudice makes those who are outsiders just a little less human, their lives a little less precious. Then it’s easier to erode humanity, to hurt it, to destroy it in the name of difference.

Today I will stop thinking the world is crazy. I will hold that breath for a moment and  remember those who were victims of the craziness. And those who still are victims.

Na bister 500,000

I got those viral infection blues. Thank goodness for cats.

It doesn’t matter what you call it: flu, man flu, fever, viral infection – it’s not serious, there’s not much you can do about it, but it feels miserable. Symptoms include a high temperature, fatigue, headache, sneezing, coughing, diarrhea, abdominal pain, sore throat. I have all of these symptoms, plus aching joints, aching ears, swollen glands and apathy. I’m not a person who reaches for the painkillers: up to a point, it’s useful to know how bad you feel.

I haven’t eaten for four days and I’ve hardly seen a soul, unless you count spluttering over the postman yesterday morning. It just happens, fortuitously, that everyone else in my house is away at the moment so hopefully they’ll dodge the virus, plus I don’t want friends calling round and catching a dose of my germs. So I’ve slept, or tried to. And this brings me to the main problem with viral infections. In addition to the high temperature and painful aches, there is the inescapable feeling of being utterly useless. I can’t write, I can’t exercise, I can’t go out. There’s no-one to talk to, but I can’t talk anyway. I can’t think. Standing up is difficult and lying down is probably a wise choice before I become unintentionally horizontal.

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Medical advice for those with viral infections is to rest, eat light meals, keep hydrated and avoid infecting others. The resting part is obligatory as I can’t move. The avoidance of infecting others is easy as I am isolated. Food is not an option. I tried eating a toasted  bagel yesterday and the first mouthful tasted like wool so I threw it away. I’m simply not hungry. I exist on ten cups of green tea a day, so I’m hydrating, but oh, how nice would it be to have a Mum, someone who’d bring me the drink  or a bowl of soup served up with a word of sympathy and a cool hand on my raging head. Those were the days and, of course, I took it all for granted.

There are no good by-products of viral infections. I don’t have time to work because I feel ill. I am not getting thinner despite not eating, as I’m not using any energy other than to toss and turn under a sweaty, germ- filled duvet all night. The bad by-products are an unhealthy measure of lethargy and self-loathing. Nobody looks good in a baggy dressing gown with a hot water bottle tied under the belt, matted hair and limbs which won’t move. It’s the fat Medusa look. Friends send sympathetic messages and texts but, of course, we patients have to underplay our symptoms. We can’t tell our friends we feel at death’s door.

Which is why I’m grateful for my three cats. They don’t judge me when I look even worse than usual. They know I feel bad. They are healing creatures, supporting us in their own way. Colin Feral curls on top of me – probably on top of the hot water bottle – all night long, and purrs non- stop. He’s keeping the bed warm for me now and, as I bash away on the keyboard, little Pushkin is lying around my neck, revving like a mini motor and nuzzling my cheek. Of course, she probably wants more food, but it’s the attention that counts when you feel unwell. I stagger to the television from time to time to watch something really pointless, to let the body and mind rest in a kind of oblivious unconsciousness. I watched Twins yesterday, starring Danny De Vito and Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Majick snuggled on my knee and purred while I rubbed his ears. Of course, that resulted in two dead legs, but it’s the thought that counts. Cats know when we need their help.

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I’ve just had a coughing fit and popped a rib out. Time for bed again.There is a lot of it about, as they say, in cold weather and I don’t envy anyone who catches a winter viral infection. At least it will be out of the way before Christmas and the New Year festivities. In my case, I hope it’s out of the way before the weekend. There’s a limit to how much A Place in the Sun anyone can watch. Maybe tomorrow I’ll have the strength to hold a book? But until then, I’ll send sympathy to anyone who has a bout of flu, and recommend the healing paws and purrs of cats, who have our best interest and their next meal at heart.

As I sign off, Pushkin has jumped down from my neck, caught me with a stray claw, landed on the printer and started printing off copies. Oh well. Swings and roundabouts.

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Winter blues? This will help to sort it out.

I have been massively impressed by the recent efforts of Planet Rock’s DJ, Wyatt, who has cycled over a thousand miles in the bitter cold and raised well over forty eight thousand pounds for CALM. Not only was it a plucky journey in punishing conditions, but it was also an excellent way to raise awareness of the work of the Campaign Against Living Miserably, and of the crippling effects of depression and anxiety.

I frequently read messages on my Facebook news feed that people I know and care for are feeling low, anxious, experience regular panic attacks and it’s ironic that, as we rev up for Christmas fun and the feeling of good will, there are people out there who feel isolated, unhappy and detached from the positive Christmas spirit. I have seen depression hammer people I care about and it is very sad.

For those of us who have been bereaved, have lost someone we love, Christmas is bitter sweet. We remember the good times but there is an empty chair at the dinner table. The mundane gifts we bought for that person every year stay on the shelves in the shops and supermarkets  now,and we pass by, remembering what we took for granted.

It’s no surprise that, as everyone shifts up a gear towards celebrating, so many people feel a little bit left out in the Christmas cold.

The answer is always to talk to someone, to ask someone to help. Of course, not everyone has someone they can turn to, a party to go to, money to spend. Not everyone will speak out about how they feel; part of being alone and miserable is that it is very hard to tell someone or even to admit it to yourself. It is easier to believe that isolation and anxiety are a by-product of lack of self worth, one’s own fault.

I am a great believer in yoga, meditation, and the healing power of touch, whether it is family, friends or a hug from someone you have just met, as long as it’s well intentioned and given without any expectation that there will be a payback. Conversation is a good starting point. We can all do more to include others, to make them feel good about themselves, to take them out and experience a more care free environment and to share time with them inside their own homes, to listen and not preach or trivialise.

For me, music is an absolute positive energy galvaniser and it is quite possible that, when I’m on my own and not exercising, walking, thinking or writing, I might put some music on and dance like there’s no-one else there. Which there isn’t.

Here are a couple of suggestions to get you in the mood for Christmas, an alcohol free, energising pre-party celebration.Of course, no-one would ever suggest that a few happy tunes can remedy real depression. People experiencing anxiety and feelings of low self worth should seek advice, a friend, a doctor. Ask for help – it’s out there. But music can be a small therapy. It has the power to lift the spirits and also to bring on the tears. Avoid morose songs like Bobby Goldsboro’s Honey or Clapton’s Tears in Heaven or Joy Division Love Will Tear Us Apart. Don’t go anywhere near lachrymose lyrics like Leonard Cohen’s Thin Green Candle.

Try these tunes, if you want to celebrate music and you’re by yourself and need cheering up. Play them loud, really loud. Sing along, enjoy them. And dance. Here’s half an hour of good bopping which will help you dance the light blues away and banish the cold gloomy weather. A happy dancing play list, ready to go. Enjoy. It’s an early Christmas present, to yourself.

Dropkick Murphys. Shipping up to Boston

Johnny Winter. Rock and Roll Hoochie Koo..

Dropkick Murphys. State of Massachusetts.

Gogol Bordello. Madagascar Roumania (Tu Jesty Fata)

Burning Spear. African Postman.

Gogol Bordello. Through the Roof and Underground

Robbie Williams. Party like a Russian.

Undertones. Teenage Kicks.

Gogol Bordello. Forces of Victory.

White Stripes. Icky Thump.

Big Mama Thornton. Everything Gonna be Alright.

White Stripes. Jolene.   (Angsty but full of energy.)

Queen. Don’t stop me now.

Nirvana. Smells like Teen Spirit.

David Bowie. The Jean Genie.

Althea and Donna. Up town top rankin’

Motorhead. Ace of Spades.

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