Soundtrack to Spring

Album cover is a colour photograph of Nick Cave in profile

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, Nocturama (2003)

While this may be Nick Cave’s happiest, soppiest album, I think it’s far from his best and don’t listen to it very often. But I do like a few of the songs.

Top tracks: Wonderful Life and Bring it On

Album cover is an abstract painting in blue framed with a cream border

VRï , Tŷ Ein Tadau (2018)

We saw this Welsh chamber folk band play at a local folk festival and loved them. Such a great energy. Here they are performing

Album cover is a sepia photograph of a artist's father as a young man in the army

Patti Smith, Gung Ho (2000)

Not one of my favourites by Patti Smith, but a perfectly decent rock album.

Top tracks: Glitter in their Eyes and New Party 

Album cover is 10 passport photographs of the drug dealer Howard Marks all with different filters

Super Furry Animals, Fuzzy Logic (1996)

Wow, this was a nostalgia trip. I first saw them supporting Radiohead (or was it Blur?!) back in 1998 and they were amazing. I still think Fuzzy Logic is a fab album – upbeat, anarchic and really, really fun.

Top tracks: Gathering Moss and Bad Behaviour

Album cover is a pen and ink drawing of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings surrounded by foliage

Gillian Welch, The Harrow & the Harvest (2011)

I seem to have made a thing of listening to some of my least favourite albums by some of my favourite artists this spring. But it’s Gillian Welch, so it’s still pretty excellent. I saw them touring this album in 2011 and they were brilliant live.

Top track: The Way it Goes (live)

Album cover is an image of a baby's head on a monstrous body

Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci, Gorky’s 5 (1998)

Another blast from the past here. Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci were a Welsh psychedelic folk rock band who made a lot of lovely music.

Top tracks: The Tidal Wave and Sweet Johnny

Kate_Bush_-_50_Words_for_Snow

Kate Bush, 50 Words for Snow (2011)

This is definitely a winter album, but I got in a last listen in March. 50 Words for Snow is a beautiful, meditative work. Elusive and a bit bonkers in a few places, but that’s Kate. 

Top track: Lake Tahoe (love that rolling piano riff)

Weekend Baking: Bread

A rectangular loaf of wholemeal bread sitting on a bread board

I’ve started baking my own bread at the weekend. This is something I’ve always wanted to do, but rarely managed, because patience is not one of my virtues. I think I’m getting into it now, though, and find it very satisfying.

My mother used to make a wholemeal loaf so heavy, dense and crusty that my sister and I called it “brick”. This sounds a bit mean, but she thought it was hilarious. I have no idea how she produced the brick bread and have never been able to replicate it. My loaves come out pretty normal.

The Left Hand of Darkness at Fifty

Charlie Jane Anders, The Left Hand of Darkness at Fifty

The Left Hand of Darkness was published fifty years ago, but still packs as much power as it did in 1969. Maybe even more so, because now more than ever we need its core story of two people learning to understand each other in spite of cultural barriers and sexual stereotypes. 

Managing Emotional Distress Part 2: Quick Fixes

I once had a therapist who kept asking me the question, “What are you going to do to support yourself?” I hated that question, but she had a point.

More recently, I’ve come to appreciate the importance of taking proactive steps to support myself, not least because this can prevent a full-blown crisis from taking hold.

Depending on the situation, here are a list of “quick fixes” which I’ve found helpful when I start to feel my mental health deteriorating.

  • Physical comfort

If I’m close to the edge and can feel myself beginning to spiral, the most effective thing for me to do is cocoon on the sofa with a blanket and a hot water bottle. I think this works because it has a whole-body effect and convinces the less conscious parts of my brain that I’m safe and being looked after.

  • Comforting media

This is not the time to watch a new Netfix documentary about serial killers. This is time for Stargate: SG1, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Poirot and Murder She Wrote. Stories, basically. I don’t think it matters what the media is, as long as it’s something that makes you feel safe and reassured.

  • Restricting/managing social media

Unfortunately, when you’re feeling fragile, I think that looking at social media can quickly trigger a downward spiral. This can be hard to avoid because we often want to go to social media sites to distract ourselves from lurking difficult emotions. If I don’t feel able to log off entirely, I do restrict myself to only looking at my “safe” lists on twitter. I also avoid the most problematic sites, which in my case is Facebook.

  • Stretch

My partner is into yoga and is a big fan of stretching in general. I resisted this for years, but I have had to admit that it really helps to do a simple stretching routine, especially if I have lingering anxiety.

  • Aromatherapy 

Yeah, I know, and I was resistant to this too. I’ve conceded defeat because a hot shower with a few drops of lavender is honestly one of the most effective things I can do to improve my mood. This is very good for those times when I get in from work and find myself having a dip.

  • Tidy up and put clean sheets on the bed 

If I’m feeling active and have some energy to burn, I often find that tidying up can be really helpful. It makes me feel like I’ve achieved something and having a pleasant environment lifts my mood.

  • Listen to Music

It does have to be the right music though. I have found that the wrong kind of music can make things worse if it stirs up negative emotions.

  • Do something creative 

If I have some mental energy, I find writing creatively or drawing is good.

  • Get out in nature

This isn’t always possible of course (we live in a city and don’t have a car),  but if I can do it, then it is usually very effective. We do have a local cemetery nearby which is good for birds, butterflies and flowers.

  • Do something positive

Ugh, this sounds annoying! I’m not a massive fan of positive psychology because I think it masks the reality of oppressive structures in society. BUT, again, I have found that when I’m feeling a bit shitty, just going and doing a couple of positive things, (e.g., something nice for someone) does make me feel better. I suppose it challenges the negative bias in our brains. I’ve even started trying to list three positive things that have happened every day.

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Reading this list over again, it strikes me how many of the actions work at the level of the body.  It took me a very long time to accept that starting with the body is a useful response to emotional distress and anxiety – how can stretching help when I’m freaking out??? Well, it does, because by calming my body down I take myself out of fight or flight mode and can start to address the real problems. Working at the level of the body probably also helps me to bypass my intellectual defence mechanisms which are actually making things worse by encouraging me to ruminate.

This post is a follow-up to Managing Emotional Distress 

Comfort Minestrone

Minestrone soup in a purple bowel with a dollop of green pesto on top.

When I was growing up, my mum would make minestrone on Sunday evenings. At least, she called it “minestrone”. It was composed from a dried packet soup, whatever vegetables she had lying around, and a tin of baked beans. The result was very salty and mainly tasted of baked beans. I loved it though.

I make my version slightly more traditionally, with real stock and no baked beans. It’s still one my comfort foods.

Nancy Kress, Yesterday’s Kin (2014)

Image shows the cover of Nancy Kress's novel Yesterday's Kin. The spherical alien ships hover over the river hudson with a DNA double helix superimposed in the front

The aliens have arrived! But then they just stay inside their spherical ship, sending out a repeating message saying that they are on a “peace mission” to make contact with humanity. After two months of this suspense, genetics researcher, Dr Marianne Jenner, is surprised to be invited aboard the ship for a meeting with these elusive aliens. When she and a handful of other chosen scientists arrive and discover the ‘Denebs’ true identity, they are in for a big surprise (hint: it’s in the title).

They have come with horrific news, an interstellar spore cloud is on its way towards Earth and, when it passes through the atmosphere, everyone will die a horrible, painful death. The Denebs say that they want to help develop a vaccine, but they are up against what seems to be an impossibly short timescale.

The story alternates between Marianne’s point of view and that of her youngest son, Noah, who develops a deeper relationship with the Denebs. This enables Kress to explore two very different and conflicting perspectives on what’s really happening. As the months pass, and social unrest increases, the scientists begin to question the aliens’ motives and Noah must make a choice.

Yesterday’s Kin is a pacey, entertaining sci-fi thriller. The story is gripping, and the characters feel like real human beings, especially the middle-aged, flawed, but determined, Dr Jenner. I like first contact stories and I thought this was a good one, plus there’s a nice twist at the end.

However, I did find it a bit rushed and plot-driven, and thought it lacked the character development I’ve seen in some of Kress’s other novels, such as Steal Across the Sky and Crossfire. In terms of the content, I was irritated to see the “dead gay best friend” trope again. It pops up in Steal Across the Sky as well and is used both times to push forward a straight protagonist’s emotional journey. Not cool or necessary in my opinion, although there are decently written gay characters in Crossfire.

Something else I would say is that after reading several of her novels and short stories, I get the impression that Kress thinks the worst of humanity in general. Some individuals might be okay, but on the whole, she seems to believe that we’re going to fuck things up and behave badly in a crisis. This “vibe” may not be to everyone’s taste!

Yesterday’s Kin is followed by a trilogy of books and I probably will read them when I get around to it.