As the year grows older, is autumn everyone’s favourite season?

The sharp scent of autumn has been on the air for several weeks now; it began before the first of September. My social media feed is inundated by glorious russet-coloured photos, pictures of damsons and apples, posts rejoicing in autumn, the cooler weather, the beauty of falling leaves, the abundance of berries and fruits. It seems that many people love the mellow richness of autumn months, the way the cooler weather heralds opportunities to have fun, such as Hallowe’en, Bonfire Night, Thanksgiving and eventually Christmas. (I’ve already heard the first Christmas song on the radio.) (Slade, of course!) I know people who live abroad in beautiful climates who long for the changeability of an English autumn.

I think that, to a limited extent, there’s a lot of love for the autumn months because, this year, everyone’s spring and summer have been heavily affected by the gloom that surrounds Covid-19; naturally, there is hope for some improvement in the latter half of the year. But also, there seems to be an optimism and joy that comes in September that I find fascinating: despite autumn bringing the end of holiday times and warmer weather, people enjoy the arrival of moderate temperatures and the opportunity to experience the changes in nature.

I used to have a theory that people are happiest in the season they were born. I love the heat; I could spend the entire summer on a beach; I can laze happily under the sun and, in truth, I don’t like being cold. I was born slap-bang in the middle of summer. I know a woman, born in October, who loathes the sunshine; another friend, born in spring, loves the soft rain, the pleasant weather and the sense of new beginnings that comes in April. Whether my theory had any sense behind it or not, many people seem to love autumn unless, of course, they’re worried about going back to school. There must be a lot of trepidation felt by students, teachers, parents at the thought of the new term – that’s for another blog post, however: I send them all my very best wishes.

Autumn has wonderful bright weather when it’s not raining; it’s ideal temperature-wise to go for brisk walks, twigs crunching underfoot, leaves whirling and tumbling. We can enjoy the taste of hot soup, hearty casseroles, log fires, hot chocolate drinks for months to come. The football season begins; we can binge-watch a whole series in front of the television; we can read for hours by the fireside; we can wear chunky warm clothes; we can bake; we start making plans for Christmas, for a new year, hopefully for future summer holidays. What’s not to like?

Each season brings its own special form of happiness; it’s important to enjoy spring for its freshness, summer for its warmth and relaxation, autumn for the gift of mellowness and winter for the pleasures of hibernation and comfort. It’s lovely being outdoors in all weathers; there’s something cleansing about rainfall, celebratory about sunshine and thrilling about intense cold, as long as we are healthy and safe.

When I’m writing, my desk is next to a window and I look out on trees, a field and the sky. I’m constantly reminded of the changing weather and evolving seasons, and I love the chance to use the power of the weather in my writing. In A Grand Old Time, Evie travels to France in her campervan during the summer months; naturally, the story ends as the first flake of snow falls. Nanny Basham’s adventure is in the late winter months, finishing at Easter. The Five Hens hit Paris in springtime. In The Old Girls’ Network, Barbara and Pauline meet Bisto in summer, where Winsley Green is at its most active and exciting. In Heading Over the Hill, Billy and Dawnie arrive at ‘Maggot’ Street in June, with plans to move into their dream house by Christmas. As seasons change, so do characters’ circumstances and lives, and their progress is often reflected by nature and external changes. All seasons are wonderful, as are all stages and ages: change is natural and we hope that change can be beneficial, rewarding and positive.

Most of my central characters are older people; I love the fact that they share optimism about the future and that, as the seasons change, they often change too. They may become more rounded people, happier, healthier; they may find new love or friendship or new learning; they may experience new places, fun, laughter, mischief and a few tears on the way.

My main hope is that the protagonists in my novels will be received as characters, wise characters, experienced characters, characters who’ve lived a long time, but not just  ‘old’ characters. I recently had a discussion with friends about age, asking them at what age do we ‘become old’? Answers included the following replies: ‘forty’, ‘sixty’, ‘seventy’, ‘eighty’, ‘a hundred,’ ‘when you feel old’, ‘when you get your pension’, ‘when you give up trying’. No-one was really sure. My own response is that I don’t really care about numbers: what I do care about is challenging the perception of less opportunity and worth that sometimes goes with ageing. When we reach a point in time where age isn’t seen as a reason to make negative judgements about people and the word ‘old’ isn’t seen as detrimental or an insult, we’ll have arrived at a place where it doesn’t matter what age people are; it only matters that they are healthy, safe, happy and loved.

Like the seasons, the stages of life change from fresh to warm to mellow to cool. We can enjoy being all ages as we enjoy all seasons and all weathers. Each time brings something wonderful, fulfilling and good; it just depends on how we embrace and accept it and how we support each other.

Happy autumn. May all your seasons be abundant, safe and joyful.

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How can we change patterns of behaviour through practising self-nurture?

Much of what we think, feel and do, I suppose, is acquired or learned, nature or nurture, and goes a long way to make us who we are, to make us happy or sad, to define us in some small way. Along life’s paths, we acquire some good patterns of behaviour and some we’d be happier without.

The first step to changing behaviour patterns that are entrenched in our normal practice is to identify them: the second step is to want to change. I’m going to try doing this in a small way, as an experiment, to give it a go.

I’m going to start with something seemingly insignificant, which I think I can change. If it works, I can step up to bigger challenges and change huge things that have affected me since childhood.

So, starting small and identifying the problem, I have a habit of skipping lunch when I’m by myself. I might eat a rice cake or a handful of nuts. This doesn’t seem like a bad habit: I’m not consuming vast amounts of bad calories although it may mean that I fancy a slice of toast by four o’clock or that I justify a big meal at six.

But if I examine the underlying factors, the following points come to light: I miss lunch because I’m alone. I can’t be bothered to cook something just for myself. Probably, I don’t think I’m worth the trouble. If I had a guest or family or friends, I’d push the boat out. But if it’s just for me, nah, why would I bother?

Having three light nutritious meals a day is better than what I’m doing now. Breakfast is at half six, usually oats or wholemeal toast and beans or cereal. Then I eat in the evening: vegetables, protein, grains, fruit. For twelve hours in between, I graze on walnuts, a piece of toast, grapes. I will change this.

So, on day one, after scrambled tofu on toast at six, I decided that at one o’clock I’d cook something or at least make something that would be tasty, healthy, good for me, that I’d enjoy. In fact, I’d make myself something special. So, I made a lime-dressed salad of walnuts, pear, mixed leaves and vegan cheese followed by roasted courgette and garlic soup. And, in all honesty, it felt good.

I sat down properly at the table as opposed to munching a hand full of nuts at the laptop. I used a favourite bowl and presented the meal well and I ate slowly, enjoying every morsel. I know I have learned bad behaviour from childhood – wolf it down before someone else gets it, so I tried to savour every mouthful. It was great.

The result was that I felt a bit special, a bit looked after, cherished, important. And nourished too. I hadn’t eaten a lot – calorifcally, it wasn’t a hearty lunch and it was balanced protein, a bit of carbs, good fat. But I left the table satisfied, not just in terms of no longer feeling peckish, but my eyes and taste buds had enjoyed a feast too.

It’s not my general pattern of behaviour, to put myself first, to feel that I’m important. My mum served herself last at mealtimes with the left overs and it’s engrained in me to do the same. If I’m the least important member of a family, then why would I bother making lunch for just myself? And, of course, the knock-on effect of lowered self-esteem is to believe that I’m not worth cooking for.

But all that has changed. Or rather, it is changing: I’m currently working on it. Small things first, then bigger self-esteem things.

It has to be said, most people who know me wouldn’t think my self-esteem was low. I’ve even been called arrogant once, although I think that was a long time ago and probably unfairly, simply a euphemism for being a confident female who, in the view of someone with even lower self-esteem, needed taking down a peg. (That phrase was used too, as I remember…). But as women, as older women, as people, as human beings, don’t we all have occasional problems with self-esteem?

I do think self-image might become worse as we get older and, dare I say it, more invisible. Nowadays, I manage on photos and videos to look like the worst possible version of myself. It won’t ever get any better. I don’t edit or think about lighting, so the results tend to be very careless and random. I recently made a video of myself reading an excerpt from a novel, with lockdown hair and poor lighting. It was just ugh! While other people tell me the photos are ok, I think they are horrendous and assume the other person is being kind or not really looking. It’s about perception, yes, but it’s also about self-worth.

So, on day two, I made celery and onion soup. It was simple and tasty, and I added a seeded roll that I’d baked myself. On day three, I made a raw salad dressed with sesame and miso. Day four, I had a buddha bowl with nuts and quinoa. It seems to be working … I feel a little more valued by myself and, of course, if we value ourselves then others are more likely to….

I’m going to try to continue this and to find ways to extend the good practice of self-nurture. It’s having a positive effect on my mood: I’m feeling cared for. I’ve a long way to go before I start treating myself to  holidays and designer footwear. That’s not really me – I’m a two-hours-in-the-gym-a-day person then I loaf around in shorts or leggings and a tatty t-shirt – and post-Covid, who knows where or when we’ll be able to travel, so perhaps holidays are not likely to happen. To some extent, the uncertainty about the future is part of the current anxiety we all share. But, for me, living in the present is the answer and so that means treating myself well and with respect each day.

I still have changes to make but starting small is a good way to begin. Let’s see what happens at the next mealtime…it certainly won’t be toast and marmite.

 

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A message for everyone suffering from Lockdown Blues

This morning I heard on the news that stress, anxiety and depression in lockdown times was a real issue shared by so many people. And a few days ago, I noticed a message on my Facebook feed that asked friends for tips about how to cope with mood swings and depression. I was surprised to see that there had been 169 responses and I read each one as I was interested to find out what people recommended. In every case, the responder agreed that they felt low and depressed at the moment, and the advice was pretty much as you’d expect: be kind to yourself, try to meet up with friends if you can, get plenty of sleep and lots of exercise. One man wrote ‘I cope with depression by being cynical about everything. It works.’ Suddenly, I understood every cynic I’d met in my life a lot better.

The impact of lockdown on people’s lives has been quite devastating: things we took for granted, like meeting friends for a coffee or going to the gym, were not possible for a while. Isolation, one of the biggest problems when we are trying to be cheerful and positive, became commonplace. Many people couldn’t go to work and socialise, they couldn’t meet friends and families, they couldn’t have a social life. All the things that cheer us up, hugs, conversation, sharing, were suddenly a luxury or out of reach.

Uncertainty contributes to anxiety. When you’re not sure when you will be able to find work, embrace your relatives, meet your friends, go outside or buy toilet rolls, it is normal to feel fretful. We all know that wearing masks in public places and social distancing are important, but it feels unnatural to be around people who look like bandits and who move well out of the way when you pass them in the street. We’ve had to get used to a lot of change very quickly, with uncertainty about jobs, rules, safety, health and what will happen in the future. Already a second lockdown has been forecast: I can understand how the cynical person on Facebook survives by expecting the worst.

For me, however, it became important to notice the negative thought patterns that arrived with lockdown. Anxiety about friends, family and health were soon followed by negative thoughts about so many other things. Practical worries such as shortages of pasta or how the family will afford the next meal or if family and friends who are key workers will be safe soon metamorphose into a state where anxiety becomes the new normal way of being.

So, I’ve thought carefully about the way forward. The advice on the Facebook post holds good: eat well, be aware of basic safety measures, take regular exercise, all these are all very important. But perhaps there are other ways of keeping ourselves safe too.

In a way, we may now be grieving for the past, for times not so long ago when shopping was a chore and meeting friends was routine. Now these things are treats, opportunities, even fun. Once they were boring and normal. Now we long for the normality before everything changed and now, we embrace tasks we took for granted as being real pleasures. But that in itself can’t be bad…

First of all, I think it’s important to identify any negative thoughts, especially those that are frequent visitors that refuse to shift. That voice in our head that whispers that we are not good enough should be listened to only in order to identify that it is there and then we can try to find ways to neutralise it. When does it happen and how can we change the pattern? Thoughts that tell us that we are responsible for mistakes, that we are hopeless, we are not interesting enough, popular enough, beautiful enough, nice enough or even just enough need to be questioned and opposed. We are enough. Past mistakes and past troubles are in the past. Yes, we are human, we get things wrong; we learn from them, we are better because of them, we apologise, we move forward. We are not defined by the past; we are here now, in the present. We have a future.

So, how can we change omnipresent negative thoughts when we have been so willing to listen to them, to believe them? Why will we listen to a voice that tells us that we are failing rather than one that tells us we can succeed? It’s probably all to do with past habits, but we are in the present now and, COVID-19 or not, we can do more than survive, we can be happy and spread our happiness to others. We are enough. We are more than enough.

Firstly, doing yoga, meditating, taking exercise will get our bodies moving and make our minds calm. That’s a good place to start. Not everyone likes to go out for a run or a bike ride, but going outside, being in a quiet place, walking, dancing to loud music, simply stretching muscles: it all helps.

Telling others how you feel is useful. For some, a confidential counsellor is important, being able to tell someone you don’t know who will listen empathically is so helpful. To say to a friend or a family member ‘I’m struggling with this…’ can be a step forward. A good cry, even letting off a bit of steam, can be a catalyst for change. The important thing is to know that negative thoughts are simply our minds telling us our worst fears and kidding us that it’s reality and perpetuity. Then perhaps we can start to throw a few of the unhelpful thoughts away. We can change our minds and listen to a new voice, one that tells us we’re ok, we’re better than that; we are respected, liked, nice, able to move forward. We’ve got this.

Solidarity is important. We are all going through similar things. Some people have it very tough now, working in key roles where their safety is constantly under threat. Others have no job at all, or they are furloughed, or they have been separated from loved ones for a long time. Others are very worried for their own safety or that of someone they love. Many people have lost their livelihoods, their hope for the future has been shaken. We need to stand with those people: they are friends, family, neighbours, people in the community who have businesses, people we are yet to meet.

There are friends and family members who will put on a brave face to hide the anxiety they really feel and we can reach out to them; a chat, lunch, a smile, sharing feelings: we need to find ways to make others happy too. After all, we are the same; we share the same anxieties; we are all in it together. By being there for other people, we are often there for ourselves.

We don’t know when this current weirdness will end or how it will end. But we are here now, together, and we are doing our best. Suspicion, feelings of hopelessness, negative thoughts about ourselves and others won’t help us to move forward. It’s natural to experience negativity, ups and downs, caution and mistrust, but we can keep ourselves safe and others too. At this time when so many things are not as we’d like them, it is important to keep mind and body and soul together and to stay safe.

It won’t be like this forever. And perhaps we can all emerge from COVID-19 stronger, happier and ready to revel in the wonderful things the world can offer. Why not?

 

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How can we deal with the whispering voices of doubt?

‘You’re doing fine. Keep going. You’re nearly there. You’ve got this.’

I remember repeating this to myself on a long walk in the Lake District a few years ago: having climbed Scafell Pike and Great Gable, I ran out of energy on the descent with three miles to go. It took sheer willpower to drag myself back to the carpark.

Developing a supportive voice inside your head, imitating the soothing, coaxing tones of a parent or a best friend, is something perhaps we all need to do from time to time to keep ourselves balanced. Often, the face we present to our friends, the confident one with the positive thoughts and attitudes, is not the same face as that of the anxious individual who sometimes doubts his or her own potential. It’s no surprise that we often hear how people who show a self-assured, cheery exterior are, in reality, quite vulnerable and alone in their darker moments. Think Robin Williams, the most ebullient and talented of comedians. Apparently, even Lady Gaga suffers from low self-esteem.

It is interesting that, often, when other people appear so assured, they have all the answers, they seem to understand the world, say the right things, make all the right moves, it’s no wonder that we sometimes feel isolated, exposed and less capable of doing what is expected of us. The inner voice, less welcoming and supportive, tells us we will mess up, we don’t deserve success: it’s the voice that says we are impostors, we have taken a place we don’t merit and soon we will be found out as frauds, with embarrassing consequences.

I only heard the term ‘impostor syndrome’ relatively recently and, on hearing it, I had one of those moments when things seemed to click into place. It explained exactly what I’d felt on several occasions and, all of a sudden, there was a name for it.

As a child in the playground, joining in with all the others, I knew my family were ‘different’. At grammar school and beyond, surrounded by many lovely people, most of whom were very privileged, I often felt that I had no right to be there, I didn’t really belong and, at some point, someone would jump out from behind a curtain and explain that to everyone.

As a teacher of theatre, my central impetus was for every student to achieve their best, more, if possible, and I was always aware of the injustices that might hold the less privileged kid back. It was something I sought to identify and change.

Now as I writer, I’m still occasionally revisited by the familiar voice that asks me what I’m doing here. I have a smart and brilliant agent; my publishers are wonderful; the editors are kind, astute, cool people who are so self-assured. Everyone is glamorous, talented, warm and friendly and they all have every right to be where they are, bathing in the soft light of well-deserved success. The negative voice whispers in my ear that I must be an impostor.

Of course, the friendly voice in my head takes over at this point. I’m not out of place; I work hard; I can write and my books are selling well. I’ll be ok if I just keep going.

Then realism kicks in; these beautiful, talented writers who publish brilliant books that drip from their fingertips like magic spells are really just like the rest of us:  they sit at the laptop into the early hours of the morning, writing and editing and searching inside their heads for the right phrase, the clever ending, the smart plot points. They wake up in the morning with a head full of stories and they lurch for the black coffee before stumbling towards the laptop, not even having brushed their hair. They have moments of self-doubt which happen on the day before their new novel is released, wondering what will happen if no-one likes it; what will happen if this is the one where everyone thinks ‘Why is she even here?’ Then the sweet voice whispers to be calm:  all this anxiety is completely normal and will fade away soon.

Nowadays, I’m so much better at positivity. Equality, inclusion and fairness are my priorities and I’ll go out of my way to encourage and support others. If I’ve ever experienced impostor syndrome, then other people will have experienced it too. Moreover, there are so many talented people who don’t know or believe in their own potential or have something holding them back, so others should be more often  the focus of my energies.

Of course, self-doubt is normal; we’re all vulnerable, flawed, imperfect, human. That’s what makes us ultimately better at what we do. It’s the very nature of being human that makes us want to Improve our own skills and, at the same time, to reach out, to support and encourage others, to remind others that we deserve to be where we are, that we can aspire beyond the present moment. And, I have to say, my agent, publisher, editors, fellow-writers are all blessed with the ability to inspire and reassure: I couldn’t be luckier.

So, back to the voice in our heads, the one that soothes and cajoles, the one we should listen to more often, and the other voice, the one that criticizes and says that we are impostors who have no right to be here, the voice we should mostly ignore: I have developed the ability to switch them on and off. I know which one to listen to and believe, and which one to discount, to use as the voice of criticism which is there simply to keep me on my toes.

When I sit at my laptop and begin a new novel, the voices are quiet: I’m utterly consumed with a brand-new idea. I can hear conversations between characters; I can imagine settings, feel emotions. I’m off and away when I’m writing. There’s no time to stop and doubt what I can achieve. Hard work and rampant enthusiasm are brave companions.

But it is the quiet time, the time alone, the moments of emotional vulnerability when things are not going as well as they might or the biorhythms have taken an almighty dip that I have to be vigilant. It’s then that the doubt can arrive, the underlying feelings of being an impostor. We are all the same: we all feel similar emotions and suffer similar insecurities. Everyone understands both the feeling of strength and surging confidence and the opposing feeling of self-doubt.

We need to remember that whatever it takes, with the help of friends, family or our own sheer bloody willpower, we can reach our goals. Let’s replace the ‘impostor’ with ‘I deserve to be here.’ Let’s change the sense of being out of place with a sense of equal entitlement. Solidarity is so important. As we join hands and support each other, we realise that together we are stronger, whatever the journey. Let the voices of doubt whisper what they will, we can shout louder. We’ve got this.

 

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Appreciating ‘Dappl’d Things’ during lockdown

During the difficult lockdown moments when the sun isn’t shining and the world looks quite bleak, when people no longer have a reliable source of income and they can’t buy some foods or they have to queue at a distance to get them; when we all miss the simple things like going out for a coffee with a friend or watching the sport on TV, I find one of the best answers is to try to engage in some positive thinking.

I’ve always thought it was a good thing to make a list of positives when we feel a bit low, and there are some definite positives at the moment, one of which has to be the glorious weather we have been enjoying these past few weeks. I’m also enjoying reading wonderful books and watching a serial on TV I’ve never had time for in the past. I’m getting lots of writing done and there is time to tend to the garden, to listen to music, to go for long walks and to stop and think about and discuss the fascinating issues our communities are faced with right now.

Two of the many things I love and am most grateful for are words and nature. I’ve always been fascinated by words and languages and I enjoy reading and writing poems, blogs, songs and articles where I try to choose the right words for the right effect. Being able to walk outdoors in nearby woodlands gives me time to think and often words and ideas come to me and start to gel into some sort of plan. 

Yesterday, I was walking in my favourite stretch of woodland when I came across a dappled area, where the trees were filtering the sunlight on the grass and I began to think about how much I love dappled things. It’s the idea that something isn’t just one colour: everything is marked with darker spots or rounded patches, dark against light. I began to think of other dappled things that are beautiful: horses, cows, cats. Shakespeare uses the word ‘brinded’ to mean dappled, patterned or tabby, as in the witch’s line ‘thrice the brinded cat hath mewed’ in Macbeth. It’s that shade again, light on darker brown, a mottled effect.

Then as I trudged through the dappled glade, I thought of my favourite poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, who wrote Pied Beauty, a lyric poem or curtal sonnet praising God for creating beautiful variegated things. His poem implies that the world is transitory; he suggests that  everything in the universe is destined to end or alter apart from the unchangeable beauty of God. It struck me that, whatever our religious beliefs, the poem is apt. We live in uncertain times and yet nature is always there for us and, of course, we need to take good care of it in return.

What I love most about Hopkins is his striking choice of language and the ‘sprung rhythm’ he uses when he writes, a clever use of stressed and unstressed syllables. For great examples of this, look at the poems The Windhover and God’s Grandeur by Hopkins. I love the way he uses powerful words that have visual impact; he uses language cleverly, selecting evocative words and choosing effective repetition such as alliteration, assonance and rhyme. 

A Victorian poet, Hopkins’ life was tragic. He went to Balliol, Oxford, a promising academic. He became a Jesuit priest; he was probably bipolar and never published his poems in order to subdue any feelings of egotism. He was forty four years old when he died of typhoid in Dublin. Despite bouts of severe loneliness and melancholy throughout his life, his reported last words were: ‘I am so happy, I am so happy, I loved my life.’

Against this background of sadness and self-denial, Hopkins’ love of nature and his religious fervour, which is often written so powerfully that it seen akin to physical or erotic love, is astonishing. The Windhover, for example, parallels the flight of a bird of prey and the glory of Jesus’ life and crucifixion: it is a poem rich in symbolism: the bird buffeted in the wind is a metaphor for Christ’s divine revelation to mankind.

I digress: this blog post is about a walk in the woods, thinking about words and looking at pretty colours from the sun as it filters through the trees to the shadows on the grass. Dappled things are wonderful to look at and, during these times when pasta and rye flour may be in short supply, you will find me down in the woodlands walking in a glade where the sunlight falls onto the ground in attractive blotches. 

The poem below will explain it much better than I can and I hope you will enjoy Hopkins’ choice of language as much as I do. Whether the reader is religious or whether he or she just likes a good walk outdoors and enjoys the feeling of being immersed in nature, it is a poem that might bring inspiration or even comfort in these troubled times.  

Pied Beauty

Glory be to God for dappled things 

For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;

For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;

Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;

Landscape plotted and pieced –

fold, fallow, and plough;

And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;

Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)

With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;

He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:

Praise him.

 

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It’s a time of surreal and vivid dreaming…

Many of us might have noticed that we are dreaming a little differently in these strange times. These dreams are often surreal, often presenting the most unlikely scenarios. They are very vivid and packed with detail. These have been called ‘pandemic dreams’ and the reason we’re experiencing them is because the situation we find ourselves in currently is very different to what we’re used to. 

Basically, we are now experiencing more REM sleep (our eyes move more rapidly) in the second half of the night and REM sleep gives us more emotive and visual dreams. It is good that we’re able to dream this way, apparently. It is because we are reverting to our natural state: we seem to be more relaxed and unstressed, something which makes it more likely that we will have vivid and powerful dreams.

I used to write a blog called ‘Dream Catching’ under a pseudonym, in which I interpreted other people’s dreams (or sometimes my own). People are very interested in having their dreams analysed. Often dreams can be powerful experiences and they sometimes influence our moods when we wake up in the morning.

People are fascinated by the content of their dreams and many think that their mind has not just simply thrown out some random combination of  subconscious thoughts and waking experiences. Instead, people believe that a dream reveals something meaningful from their psyche and they will often hope for an interpretation that includes a message or some sort of prediction.

The idea that dreams are full of symbols is a popular one. I’ve heard people suggest that a house may symbolise the heart or contentment; that shadows may symbolise death. My mother used to say that dreams were an inversion of reality: if you dream of death, there will be a birth announced soon, that sort of thing. There are many thoughts about why we dream. 

Dreams may represent some people’s hopes and fears; other people may think that their dreams can be visited by others: that if you dream of someone, they are sending you some kind of astral message. Some people think dreams help us to cope with life’s stress; other people assume that a dream is a random jumble of thoughts we have during sleep.

My starting point when I’m asked to interpret a dream, having listened to the person offer me a description, is to enquire about the overriding emotion of the dreamer during and after a dream. If you dream that you are falling from a great height, it will mean something different if you are feeling afraid in the dream or if you are laughing. 

Some dreams are clearly based on anxiety. Something like the dreamer’s  teeth falling out implies that normal waking worries about any sort of thing from meeting deadlines to disapproval may still be lodged in the mind. These anxieties infiltrate dreams. Context is everything, as is emotion experienced during and after the dream.

Those people suffering from the worst stresses of Coronavirus – being jobless, concerned about managing money, family stresses, loneliness, working long hours, feeling unwell – are less likely to enjoy the benefits of these vivid dreams. In fact, they are more likely to suffer from sleepless nights and periods of restlessness.

While many of us are experiencing wild and whirling dreams and are benefiting from the best sort of sleep, many other people are wide awake, keeping the rest of us safe and well. I wish them safety, good health and I send my thanks that, while we are all enjoying the peace of vivid dreams, they are out there, allowing the dream of returning to normality to become possible again by keeping us safe in the interim. To selectively quote Hamlet, my favourite Shakespeare play, “What dreams may come… must give us pause.”

How does lockdown affect creativity?

I read something a few days ago about a writer who couldn’t work during the Coronavirus lockdown period because she couldn’t think straight with all the current change and restriction: basically, she said, her brain was in ‘flight or fight’ mode. She said that it was hard to concentrate on creating something new and exciting with her thoughts all over the place, anxieties about Covid-19, wondering how long the self-isolation will continue and what might happen next. 

That is very understandable: I can see how the writing process might be affected by anxiety. Her situation led me to wonder how the current situation and the separation and lack of social interaction might affect other people who work creatively. How much do we need to interact with other people beyond our households to be better creators? Is it possible that some people work best in isolation? Will our period of lockdown, however long it may last, result in a glut of exciting new novels, poems, art of all kinds, or should we be prepared for a dearth of them? (I heard from someone connected with the writing industry that there will be so many novels about lockdown romances and murders emerging in several months’ time. Why am I imagining gritty inner city crime thrillers about people visiting the local Morrisons twice a day?…)

Many of us who are writers or artists tend to work from home in isolation. There is an old stereotype of a writer wearing glasses, perhaps perched on the lower bridge of the nose, bent double over a clanking typewriter, typing away in a garret with a small slice of light seeping through the window. Complete the image with a wine or gin or whiskey bottle not far from view. It seems quite normal for writers and some other creative artists to work alone, to use what’s in their heads as inspiration for their work and from that place create something innovative. Should the lockdown change anything?

I have several friends who are painters. One of them has joined a national artist’s group to share her work on a website that helps to sell paintings; it’s a great idea, to support artists to make a living during these difficult times and to profit from the solidarity of a group of like-minded people. Another friend was finding stimulation difficult, being home alone, but by joining a scheme online in which a group of artists painted at the same time every day, she was able to respond to a schedule and she has produced some wonderful work. What both of these artists have in common is that a collective group has given them the encouragement or structure to work towards a common goal, despite being alone.

For writers and novelists, although many wonderful and encouraging collective groups exist, we find it easy to work in isolation once we have our initial idea. Editing and upgrading work requires focus and a clear mind but it is, for the most part, easy to do that type of work alone. Creating a novel from scratch, however, demands energy, enthusiasm and the belief that an idea can readily transpose itself on the page to something substantial, entertaining and satisfying.

For me, being outdoors is a great aid to writing. Ideas come quickly and blow through my mind as new and exciting thoughts when I’m outside; being able to roam around, surrounded by nature, is where I think best. And many of my novels involve travel or journeys; I like to be on the road, in the camper van, going to old places or new places, talking to people I’ve never met before, experiencing different locations. Ideas come from new things.

I’m sure some people will say that their ideas come from inside their head, from wide reading, from past experiences, from who they are, from dreams. All that’s probably true. But, for me, the richest resource is beyond that, the resource of new experiences and interactions.

I don’t have the necessary background in psychology or anthropology to understand what effect the lockdown will have on the creative mind of any individual. I am aware that enforced isolation will bring about loneliness, anxiety and all the ensuing problems for many people: we are all naturally social animals. But it’s interesting to consider what effect it will have on our potential to think, to innovate and to create.

I’m lucky – my next novel is out in June. I have already written the subsequent one; I’m editing the one after that to improve it and I’m 20,000 words into the one after that, so I’m well ahead of the game. I’m also good at working for long periods. I’m very focused and I seldom procrastinate. If I wake at four in the morning and end up planning for three hours, it’s not a problem – it’s part of the writing process. Similarly, if I take a day off and go for a walk in the woods to get an idea in focus or a character into perspective, it’s part of my working day. I never feel guilty if I do nothing at all if I’m allowing thoughts to ferment: it’s all part of the working process.

The lockdown has given us a chance to rethink who we are and what we do each day, to evaluate the times we used to enjoy, to look forward to appreciating the future when normality is restored. More than that, I think we are emerging with a better sense of the people we can be and, most importantly, the social animals we are meant to be. And that involves sharing with others, including them in our plans and considering their well-being more than perhaps we did before the virus.

A couple of things I’ve learned from lockdown 

These are interesting but difficult times as the country, indeed much of the world, learns to deal with Covid-19, and it will be fascinating to discover at a later date how we’ll all emerge from the current state of lockdown. There are things happening now that I’d never have thought possible several weeks ago, before all of this started. For example, I didn’t imagine that a local shopkeeper would be mugged for some toilet roll. He’s fine, as it turns out – he hurled the mugger onto the street by the scruff of his neck! In fact, I felt a bit sorry for the assailant who’d reached a crisis point of panic, faced with the insecurity of having to deal with the prospect of a lack of toilet hygiene. People are anxious now about normal things they took for granted two months ago.

I didn’t imagine there being a time when I wouldn’t be able to see my friends or family whenever I wanted to but, all of a sudden, we can’t. I didn’t imagine living in a world where there was no football on telly. I had no idea how lonely some people might become in such a short time and it didn’t take long to realise that I share responsibility for others’ welfare. I now message and ring friends more regularly and that I try to find nice things to do to make others’ lives better. Some have lost jobs or are still working under intense pressure. I know some feel lonely or stressed or in need of human contact or unsure about the future as, indeed, we all do. But how suddenly grateful have we become for all those things we took for granted.

All people manage anxiety and deal with problems in different ways and it’s not fair to judge those who deal with the situation in ways we wouldn’t do ourselves. For example, I have been inundated with friends who want me to share hugs on Facebook or post a photo of something silver; others have asked people not to send such requests. It’s about trying to reach out but being safe at the same time – there are plenty of scams attached to opening chain mail, and plenty of fake news being bandied around on WhatsApp.

I live in a place where it is possible to roam about outside without meeting another person and, because it’s a rural area, those I do meet by chance can stand at a distance and even chatter before we move on. I’ve noticed how much people want to socialise now. I met a great couple in the woods while I was collecting firewood (culling herbs, listening to birdsong…) who simply wanted to pass the time of day with another human. I would have invited them round for a cup of tea but… of course, that’s for future times.

I am delighted that everyone is now saying openly that they are fully behind the NHS workers: whether it is an opportunity for weekly applause or for supermarkets to allow vulnerable people early access to shops or for publishers to give away free novels, it is good that indispensable key workers are in a spotlight and that we are all united in appreciating what they do. 

More importantly, if and when we return to normality, it would be good if their work could be rewarded by better pay and conditions. They deserve much more than a retracted promise on the side of a bus and a few well-meant words of recognition for the immense job that they do.

Lots of other people deserve credit too: teachers, police officers, care workers – how tough must it be to work in a supermarket or a shop at these times. I’ve always been in awe of postal and delivery drivers who bring communication, food or goods to our doors and, in these difficult times, it has become normal to wave thanks to someone as they rush out of the gate, having left the parcel on the porch.

I wrote to my MP six times about better pay and conditions for Amazon delivery drivers before the lockdown; sadly, she never found the time to replied to me. I live in hope that things will change for the better for all key workers who have done so much for society during these hard times. Our representatives have a responsibility to step up and make that happen.

The rest of us have probably found a daily routine which is so repetitive that  we can’t tell one day from another. I received a great poem from a friend of mine recently that simply repeated words like ‘wake eat phone eat phone TV phone sleep’ on many lines, suggesting that for herself and possibly other people in lockdown a routine was emerging which didn’t necessarily inspire challenge and opportunity.

One thing which is really important is that we use this time to try new things that will  improve our lives, taking us away from humdrum repetition and boredom. We need to make each day as meaningful as we can.

People are reading more, cooking from scratch more often, spending more time planting vegetables in the garden or making quality time to talk with their families, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There are so many things people are doing that are inspirational.

One friend is learning to play the guitar; another is crocheting blankets for homeless people; another is learning Italian; another is painting each day. I’m writing another novel – I wonder if it will be finished by the end of lockdown. One thing is for certain – none of us know exactly when that will be or what it might look like. 

And that is my point. We wished for more time with those we love; we wished for a cleaner planet, more leisure time, to be able to work from home. Now that we have the chance to make some of those things a permanent part of our lives, how can we integrate them into a future world that we’d most like to live in? How can we turn this time of challenge into a time of opportunity?

The most important factor is that we all come through this period of time as healthily as possible, through staying indoors, through being sensible about contact with others, sharing resources, shopping carefully and wisely, talking to others at a distance and keeping those who are alone as safe and happy as possible.

But when the dust clears, we may have the opportunity to make the world better. We can care more for isolated people than we did; we can try to see the positives in new situations and try not to spread fear and negativity; many people can now work from home, spending less time travelling to work in their cars,and we can appreciate all the friends and family and freedom that we already knew we appreciated but perhaps we needed to remind ourselves.

For many people, these are times of fear about our own well being and that of those we love; fear of the unknown and a panic and anxiety about things we’d taken for granted which is, in the case of some people, so powerful that it sends them into the streets to accost the shopkeepers. 

However unprecedented this may be,we can channel what we have experienced to bring about improvement. We can use the situation to spread cheer and solidarity, to practise neighbourly behaviour, to be kinder, more appreciative of others and to find ways to retain both quality of our own lives and ways to improve the lives of others. We can find better ways to care for the planet, which appears to have become healthier after just a few weeks of lockdown.

Whether it is baking for the lady next door or giving away free books, distributing food parcels or phoning someone who lives alone, we all have the chance to move forward and make the world a better place for us to share. Dickens wrote about the best of times and the worst of times. It would be nice if, out of a bad situation, we could create the best of times for everyone making such great sacrifices now, especially those who have been so profoundly undervalued until this lockdown. We owe them so much.

Stating the obvious about anxiety and the virus

There have been some incredible changes this week that affect everyone in ways we couldn’t have predicted. Two weeks ago we were making jokes about ‘car owners’ virus’ and now we’re grumbling about the lack of pasta in supermarkets and being seriously concerned about what the future holds. Most of us aren’t as worried about our own health and what will happen if we get the virus so much as the wider social implications and the health of the vulnerable. I have friends who have been self-isolating for a while now as they have underlying health issues. It’s especially tough for them. In two weeks, life has changed considerably and few of us have any experience of how to deal with the ongoing situation. Things we’ve always taken for granted have shifted and, at times, it feels like we’re in a dystopian novel.

People are reporting overwhelming anxieties about all sorts of things. I know people who are anxious about going outside into their communities and are already asking friends to do their shopping. People are anxious about how they will feed their families over the next few weeks and this leads to panic buying and greed. Some people are just plain scared. Anxiety occurs when we don’t know what will happen and we can’t predict or prepare for change.

The rate at which things are shifting now is very fast: almost daily, theatres and cinemas and cafés are closing. Sports games have been suspended. A lockdown situation may be likely in the near future and schools will probably close or partially close, which is a great strain on all concerned. Kids are worried about their education, their exams. Working parents are worried about who will look after their kids. Many people express anxiety about when and how it will end. Clearly, the most important concern is others’ physical and mental health and wellbeing. We need to make everyone else around us our first priority. We’ll make sure we’re all fine.

I can’t imagine how it would be to be seventy-plus years old and isolated in my own home for twelve weeks. There are only so many books you can read, so much television you can watch, so much cross stitching and jam making and garden digging you can do. I know people can go out for a walk but we all crave human contact: being with others, chatting, empathising. It’s what keeps the world going round and loneliness can be crippling. A friend of mine said she’d ‘go mad’ if she had to spend twelve weeks alone. There are schemes for others to write to lonely people, to Skype them or phone them. It’s a great idea: let’s make friends.

We’ll be all right for toilet roll. The daily tabloids can stop sending out scaremongering news: forget the printed words that whip up fear and hysteria and change the use of the paper: it’s perfect for lavatory tissue. It’s so important to stop spreading fear and start to reassure others that we are equal and in this together and that we’ll all keep each other as safe as we can.

We can all share food; we can Skype or phone our friends. Most of us will be all right. It’s those at risk, the vulnerable and the lonely who need our practical help. What about the number of beds we’ll need in NHS hospitals: where will extra ones be found? What about the health of all those who continue to work in hospitals, who are risking their wellbeing by currently supporting the wellbeing of the entire country? And what about the economic repercussions for all the people laid off from work, the unpaid flight crews and football ground stewards, those who work in shops, cafés, theatres and the many places that will be closed? The retail, hospitality  and leisure industries who have inadequate insurance. How will everyone pay their rent, afford their bills, find food? How will the owners manage? We have to support each other.

People such as Roman Abramovic have been impressive, allocating space from the football club for the use of health workers in the Chelsea area and paying for it. That’s a perfect example of using what resources we have to support others. The best thing that can come out of this difficult time is that people make thoughtful gestures such as this.

I hope the government will put workable policies in place now to support those in greatest need first. I’ve heard a lot of talk about infection and unnecessary contact and how ‘we’re leading the way,’ and that we should ‘expect loved ones to die,’ but not enough calm and focused practical advice and support for those individuals who don’t know how they will feed their kids. I hope this will be put in place soon: extra anxiety isn’t what we need now. I will listen to the daily updates with interest and hope that those people now worse off will be the first in the queue for government help. Political difference and political parties are not important now: call it socialism, call it caring capitalism, call it common sense. We have to help each other.

A few weeks ago, we were all talking about kindness and how we should be more positive. We have to make this a priority. I know a young mum who was scolded in the supermarket by an assistant because she asked for a second bag of nappies for her baby; I know a dad of two who has lost his job yesterday and an elderly gentleman who was shouted at because he coughed in a queue. It’s about supporting each other now, thinking of each other’s wellbeing, both in terms of avoiding the virus and in terms of practical, emotional and economic support.

Each of us has our part to play more than ever. We may not be able to see as much of our dearly loved family and friends as we want to, but we have to make sure we support everyone we can, and when it’s all over we’ll have a massive party and hug each other. There will be lots of things we can volunteer to do over the next few weeks and supporting others’ anxiety is high on the list. Let’s hope something good can come from this difficult time and we can take this opportunity to become a really caring nation. It’s time to put the ‘you’ in community and the ‘I’ in friendship!

Don’t blame the goalkeeper

I was watching my team play in the Champions’ League this week and, I suppose, I was feeling a little bit confident. We had a one-goal deficit, conceded away from home and, on our own territory, I was sure we’d win. The captain was back from injury and we had a full team of strong players, including the second-choice keeper because the number one was suffering from thigh strain. But I was confident that we’d do it. We’re a better team.

We scored the first goal, they got one back and the game went into extra time, two fifteen minute halves. We were playing better than they were – they’re a defensive team anyway and the commentator repeatedly reminded listeners that they don’t play well or score away from home. That was the hex.

We scored a cracking goal in the first part of extra time and I’m sure all the fans thought that was it. But the opposition got one back, then another and, in the final moments, yet another and we rolled over and that was that. We lost 4-2. Unbelievable, given the calibre of our players: there were thirty five shots on goal. But we didn’t score and we leaked too many goals at the other end.

Then, after the game, the pundits picked over the bones and the goalkeeper came out as being reprehensible. In a way, maybe he could have saved the goals: he was entirely responsible for one or two howlers.

But I believe the culture of blame that sits fault squarely on the shoulders of the keeper or blames the last man standing or the weakest player isn’t fair. A team is exactly that, a team. And once the team has lost, it has to move forward. Part of that process may be to improve on mistakes, analyse how to improve based on prior errors, but that’s not the same as blaming one person and repeatedly rubbing it in.

Paul Robinson, a goalkeeper who played for Tottenham and England, said that an error he once made in an international game cost him sleep and made him under confident for weeks. Fans reminded frequently of his mistake as he played on the pitch and it did nothing for his performance. It stayed in his mind and made him doubt himself, which impacted on his game.

So, in defence of Adrian, our second keeper who let in a couple of goals the other night and who has been a good deputy all season, I’m suggesting that we don’t blame the keeper or anyone else for that matter. Here are my top ten reasons.

  1. He’s only human. He made a mistake. We’re all human. We will make mistakes.
  2. We need to move forward, not pick open wounds. We need to heal.
  3. A team is a team; family groups stick together and support each other. There are ten other players in a team, plus those on the bench – how well did they play their part and help the goalkeeper? Win or lose, a fan supports a team. We are there for the glory and for the grief.
  4. Negativity is harmful. To focus all the time on what is wrong won’t make it right. We need to focus on the positive and how we can improve.
  5. We can’t win all the time. Nor should we want to: it would be dull.
  6. Making mistakes is, in fact, a positive. That’s how we improve. Let’s support our team to get better. After all, people make errors for all sorts of reasons. We don’t know what’s happening in somoene’s life.A judgement based on little or no background information is harsh.
  7. ‘Thanks’ is a good word. Thanks for the goals you saved; thanks for the times you did really well. And the times that are less than perfect, we expect them to happen.We plan for them and accept them. And, by the way, one reason we watch sport is for the thrills and spills, the ups and downs. We are there for the ride.
  8. Oh, and we’re winning the Premiership, by the way.
  9. And we could well win the Champions’ League next year. The competitions happen again and again and we’ll be there to enjoy it.
  10. This one may be unpopular but – it’s only a game. I had a friend once who used to smash his fist against sharp objects when our team lost. Please don’t do that. I know we invest in the tension and the excitement but, once the final whistle blows, it’s gone and we think about the next game.

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Of course, this blog post isn’t just about football. How can it be? There are too many times when the ‘goalkeeper’ is blamed, faults are picked over, repeated, blown out of all proportion. Sometimes, if you let a goal in and let your team down, you’ll feel bad. It’s up to others around you to support you then, to help you improve, to remind you of your good points and to help you move on. There are ‘goalkeepers’ in every family, every office, every factory, every industry, every school, every street, at every level. We are all goalkeepers. At the end of the game, we need to be a strong team and help each other. There will be more games, more opportunities and, if we show solidarity, there will be more wins. We’re in it together for the glory and the grief, the wins and the losses. Enough said.