The First Harvest – Reflections

A rectangular cake nicely browned and studded with blackberries on top.
Blackberry cake

This weekend marks the first harvest festival, Lughnasdh in Gaelic and Celtic traditions, Lammas in Anglo Saxon and Christian traditions. It’s known as Gŵyl Awst here in Wales.

I can’t call myself a Pagan, but I do love marking the ancient seasonal festivals for the sense of natural rhythm and balance they bring to the year. We try and do something for each holiday, even if it’s just making a cake and cooking a nice meal. This year we baked a blackberry cake and ate salads made with seasonal ingredients.

I also use the festivals symbolically to punctuate my year, connect with myself and reflect on where I am. But it’s been such a strange one, I’m really not sure what I’m ‘harvesting’ at this point. My goal at the beginning of the year was to focus on healing. Work was going well and I was happy with my living situation. Even better, the thing that has been emotionally destabilizing for me over the last few years would finally be less present in my life. I was feeling hopeful, even optimistic.

Well, the relatively peaceful year of reflection and healing that I was hoping for hasn’t quite materialised for me, or anyone else. None of us are bringing in the harvest we may have expected as we start to move into the second half of the wheel of the year.

Personally, I feel it’s too soon to start talking about positives in relation to this situation. That would be insensitive when so many people are suffering terribly, with the grief of losing someone to this illness, with the long-term health effects from having had it, or with awful financial difficulties. It would also be a bit foolish. I may have been lucky enough, and privileged enough, not to have been badly affected so far, but that could easily change. My feeling is that it’s going to be very bumpy here in the UK for months, possibly years, to come.

But, at the same time, we are all meaning-making creatures and we have to work with what we’ve got, so I’m going to write about what I’ve learned from the last few months and what I can take from this experience that’s useful, while also wishing very much that it hadn’t happened.

This is what I can say. The crisis has reminded me of what’s important in life: relationships, connections, community. These are the things that matter and have the potential to get us through this horrible time.

It’s also reminded me that there’s no point in putting things off if I don’t have to. I might as well get on and ‘self-actualise’ as much as I can. Perhaps even more importantly, I may as well try and be my authentic self in all aspects of my life. One shift I have noticed in myself and other people is more willingness to share different parts of ourselves, to be more authentic and even vulnerable. Of course there are always people who behave badly, especially online, but I have seen many people being kinder and more compassionate both with each other and to themselves. I think this is good and I hope we can build on it to improve the way that we do things and relate to each other, just as I hope we will continue to introduce pets and small children on video calls. I know I’ve met some fabulous cats and seen some very good drawings over the last few months.

Lockdown has taught me a lot about myself, much of which is useful. It’s also encouraged a growth mindset and pushed me to try new things. I’ve been getting involved in various initiatives at work and trying to support my colleagues as much as I can. I’ve been working on my mental and emotional health and taking a lot of online dance and yoga classes. I plan to keep it up and take more classes in the autumn. I’d like to do a creative writing class and perhaps I’ll start learning Welsh again.

Reading this over, in a strange way, I wonder if I might be working towards my original goal for this year after all … In any case, I hope the rest of the summer will be gentle with you and that you get a break at some point.

Sunday Post: Sadness returns but the birds are singing

Early morning sun peeping through light clouds over a calm sea.

A difficult week, but the early morning birdwatching has been wonderful. I’ve seen flocks of linnets, starlings, goldfinches and greenfinches feeding on dandelion seeds. I’ve witnessed singing duels between whitethroats, sedge and reed warblers, black caps, wrens and ceti’s warblers. I’ve been surrounded by swooping sand martins. I’ve watched grey wagtails and, the highlight of my week, a handsome wheatear bobbing around on the rocks. It has been glorious.

But as the “excitement” of crisis mode finally wears off, grief has resurfaced. This week I found myself experiencing the attacks of sorrow and anger, mood swings and crying jags that have plagued my life since 2017. It’s strange to say it, but for a few weeks there, I amost felt like my old self again. I knew it was just a ghost and would slip away eventually. You can’t go back to being what you were before, although sometimes a past self might visit for a little while.

Despite the return of difficult emotions, I’ve been looking after myself quite well. We are doing online yoga classes several times a week and have found a dance class that we actually enjoy.

Since I’m in a position to do so, I’ve been trying to support local businesses by buying as much food from them as possible, which has meant lovely vege boxes being delivered and lots of good cooking.

A rectangluar roasting tray containing roast cauliflower, greens and chickpeas.

I’ve made curried new potatoes, a sweet potato and parsnip tagine, butter roasted leeks with bulghar wheat and feta and roast cauliflower with chickpeas, spring greens and tahini (pictured).

Reading

Picture of the following books, Poems 1962 - 2012 by Louise Gluck, Selected Poems by Sharon Olds and Hum by Jamaal May.

I’ve mostly been reading poetry because I find it helpful. I treated myself to collections by Sharon Olds, Louise Gluck and Jamaal May. I’ve also been enjoying the ‘Shelter in Poems’ selections being emailed to me every few days by Poets.org

I haven’t finished any books, but I’m currently reading The Heavens by Sandra Newman, which I feel ambivalent about, and Mr Loverman by Bernadine Evaristo, which is excellent. I’m working my through the complete Hercule Poirot stories at bedtime.

Watching

I watched the Netlix documentary A Secret Love, which is about the 70-year relationship between Terry Donahue and Pat Henschel. This really is a fascinating must-watch. If I have a criticism, it would be that I’d have liked a bit less centering of the heterosexual family’s feelings and rather more about the couple’s lives together. But it’s very good and I cried buckets at the end.

We also enjoyed the episode of Netflix’s Chef’s Table with Buddhist nun, Jeong Kwan, which is just beautiful.

Otherwise it’s just been trashy TV and comfort-watching.

Listening

If you like melodic, politcally aware folk music, along the lines of Joan Baez and Thea Gilmore, I can recommend Eliza Gilkyson’s new album 2020

But my album of the week has been Like, Love, Lust and the Open Halls of the Soul by Jesse Sykes and the Sweet Hereafter which was a late birthday present from my sister.

My COVID-19 Feelings Dump

I feel bad about writing this post because, honestly, we are in a much better position than so many other people right now. We both have steady jobs, which we can do from home. We have a pleasant flat to stay in and live in a quiet area where we can go out for some walks without getting close to other people. And we don’t have to try and cope with homeschooling anxious, upset children at the same time as trying to do our jobs. My mother is a worry, at eighty years old, but she’s being sensible and staying inside, and she doesn’t have any underlying health conditions. Overall, we are very, very lucky. I’m aware that it could be so much worse.

But the situation still SUCKS and we have to let ourselves feel our feelings. There’s no point in trying to repress the disappointment, fear, resentment, anger etc. So, I’m going to allow myself one feelings dump, after which I’ll do my best to be as positive and constructive as possible.

After a couple of weeks of stress and anxiety, during which most of my energy has been taken up by urgent tasks – cancelling everything, sorting out working from home, supporting colleagues and preparing my mother for self-isolation – reality has only started to hit me this weekend. I’ve been feeling depressed, tearful and resentful. Our routines are massively disrupted and we’ve had to cancel everything we were looking forward to over the next couple of months. Like everyone else, I’m worried about the future.

But for me, personally, the worst thing is feeling that my hopes for a peaceful year are now scuppered. I know this is self-indulgent and not important in the big scheme of things, but I had finally got myself to a place from which I thought I could start healing from the emotional battering I’ve taken over the last few years.

From January this year, though, the ‘thing’ that had been triggering all this emotional distress will be less present in my life. I was really hoping that I might get some mental peace, the chance to rebuild a bit of emotional resilance, perhaps even to start exploring the possiblity of healing. That now doesn’t seem likely.

So, that’s my self-indulgent FEELINGS dump. Now I’ll try and practice acceptance and think about what I can do from this point forward.

Sunday Post: Calming Down (or trying to)

Life

After last week’s anxiety-fest, I spent this week making efforts to calm down. I continued to cut back on caffeine and started a daily guided meditation for managing anxiety. I did have one anxiety spike on Friday, which then rolled over to Saturday morning, but in general, it has been a lot better.

I’ve been feeling irritable and a little depressed, though, which may be due to caffeine withdrawal, or perhaps the ‘anxiety’ has been masking other emotions. Otherwise, it’s been a very quiet week and I didn’t do much.

TV

We were looking for something calming to watch and settled on the 1980 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice dramatized by Fay Weldon. Despite seeming very dated now, I think this has a lot of charm and would be a favourite if only they’d cast a decent Darcy. I don’t know what was going on with David Rentoul’s performance, but it’s quite awful.

Books

I finished Melmoth by Sarah Perry. It’s very clever and beautifully written, but left me rather cold for reasons I’ll try and articulate when I round up this month’s reading. I’ve almost finished A Dying Fall by Elly Griffiths and it’s just good fun.

Music

The only album I listened to this week was the Joni Mitchell compilation, Songs of a Prairie Girl. My partner is a big Joni fan and I’m starting to get it. The song of the week is ‘Urge for Going’, which is just beautiful.

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.

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Managing Emotional distress

Ever since October 2017, I’ve been experiencing attacks of what I can only call extreme emotional distress. I don’t want to get into the details of what happened back then, but basically, a particular “event” seems to have somehow released emotional pain that I’ve been repressing for about twenty-five years.

This has made my life really difficult. I feel like I can be ambushed at any moment and plunged into a pit of grief, despair and rage. Once I’m in there, it’s very hard to climb out again.

After a few weeks of feeling okay, I had another attack yesterday. I felt awful all day, aching chest and head, depressed, constant intrusive, negative thoughts, and it ended with a full on meltdown in the kitchen.

I’ll give myself yesterday, but I really need to get on top of this. The first thing I think I have to do is accept that these feelings aren’t just going to stop or go away, which is what I’ve been hoping. The gaps between attacks do seem to have got longer, but I think that’s more down to me getting better at avoiding the things that trigger the feelings, then any actual healing. When the feelings do come, they are as overwhelming as ever.

I know could get more proactive about managing my emotional state on a day-to-day basis, but here are some things that I think I could put into place for those times when I do feel myself being dragged into the “pit of despair”.

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Three Essays about the Power of Stories to Save Lives

I’m increasingly interested in how children and young people use stories to create safe places during times of trauma. Here are three powerful perspectives.

Living through death with Harry Potter

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, Batwoman saved my life

Extra life: how I was saved by video games

Feeling better with butterflies

It’s been a stressful week and I was already feeling fragile when I woke up this morning. Then I went and logged into twitter, saw stuff that made me feel even worse and, by 8.00am, I was in tears #selfcarefail.

Determined not to spend my day off crying, I decided to go out and buy a new kettle because the old one no longer makes good tea. I walked to the supermarket and got the kettle, but I was still crying.

Luckily, we live close to an old cemetery which is also a lovely nature reserve. If there’s one thing that can usually improve my mood, it’s looking for wildlife. This is probably because it puts me back in touch with the happiest times in my childhood. It worked and I came home feeling much better.

Here are a few (not very good) photos from my nature walk.

Common Blue butterfly

So beautiful and even bluer in real life.

Image shows a British common blue butterfly sunning its wings while sitting on some dry grass. The butterfly's wings are bright blue with white edging.

Speckled Wood

Image shows a speckled wood butterfly sunning itself on a green leaf in a leafy hedgerow. It is a brown butterfly with pale yellow spots on its wings.

Gatekeeper

There were lots of these guys fluttering around, but they were very difficult to photograph. This was as close as I could get.

Image shows a gatekeeper butterfly sunning itself on a plant with yellow flowers. The butterfly is a bit distant from the camera but you can see it's orange and brown wings and brown spots on the tips.

I also saw plenty of meadow browns, large and small whites and one small skipper.

Cinnabar moth caterpillars 

There were plenty of cinnabar moth caterpillars enjoying the rag wort plants in the cemetery.

Image is a close-up of several cinnabar moth caterpillars feeding on ragwort. The caterpillars have yellow and black stripes around their bodies.

 

Grieving and Re-grieving

I’m trying to deal with unprocessed grief at the moment and wanted to share a couple of things that I’ve found helpful.

This little video, Why grief is not something you have to get over offers a perspective that really makes sense to me. The counsellor in the video talks about how the therapeutic model for working with grief is shifting, from seeing grief as something that gets less over time, to something that’s always there, but that other aspects of your life can grow around. So, while the grief doesn’t go away, it isn’t so all-consuming. But you can dip back into it at certain times, which brings me to the next point.

@hallygrace posted a long thread on twitter about the concept of re-grieving. Hallygrace makes the point that grief can be a life-long emotional process and you are likely to experience it again and again, especially at significant moments (anniversaries, life milestones etc). Here’s the tough bit, you have to re-process it every time. It’ not a good idea to repress the feelings or shame yourself for having them.

Bereavement, Depression & Capitalism

One of the difficulties with being bereaved is that the grief starts to kick in just as society expects you to be getting “better”. My father died in May and I didn’t really start to feel bad until August, since when I’ve felt progressively worse.  And I know it’s only just beginning; I don’t really believe that my father’s dead and still feel like I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop.

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Assertiveness Rights

Some basic rules of assertiveness, which I’m trying to live by these days. They’re from Anne Dickson’s book, A Woman in Your Own Right (London: Quartet, 1982):

1.       I have the right to state my own needs and set my own priorities as a person independent of any roles that I may assume in my life.

2.       I have the right to be treated with respect as an intelligent, capable and equal human being.

3.       I have the right to express my feelings.

4.       I have the right to express my opinions and values.

5.       I have the right to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ for myself.

6.       I have the right to make mistakes.

7.       I have the right to change my mind.

8.       I have the right to say I don’t understand.

9.       I have the right to ask for what I want.

10.   I have the right to decline responsibility for other people’s problems.

11.   I have the right to deal with others without being dependent on them for approval.