I’ve always admired poets, admired with envy as I gaze upon their words, the way they flow, the imagery they conjure, the emotions captured and delivered with subtle grace and ingenuity. Hell even just getting a few paragraphs that follow some form of cadence is a miracle to me.
Oh yes, I’ve tried my hand but beyond a few rhyming couplets I start to stutter.
My Dad on the other hand was, it turns out, quite the prolific poet and songwriter. From his early days performing folk songs to writing odes for departing colleagues, he kept on writing and, taking no small inspiration from a well-kent Scottish bard, he wrote frequently for the numerous Burns suppers he attended and performed at, sonnets and speeches, toasts, and retorts, all were well within his grasp.
Latterly he took to writing about all sorts of daily gripes, family life, and anything that came across his view.
I’ve read a few of his creations over the years, shared a few here and there as well. When I sat down to write for my sister’s wedding it was Dad that I had in mind, Dad that I was really trying to impress.
Before he died, my father had started collating all of his poems and songs into a book. He’d done virtually all the work, even gotten as far as ordering 20 copies to test the process. Unfortunately, he passed away before more were required.
I’m currently revisiting this little project of his, and we are hoping to be able to publish some copies in time for the 1st anniversary of his death.
I’ll be honest, I’ve been putting this off as long as I can, but I find that re-reading his words is bring more solace than I expected. I can hear his voice, know where he would put emphasis, and where he’d pause for a laugh, and whilst it’s still torturously sad that he won’t write or perform again, the fact we have all these words of his at all makes me smile; a small part of him retained.
I wonder if that’s now the reason I’m writing more in my journal, and still publishing things here, as a way to capture things for my family when I’m gone. A way to give them this same feeling of sad comfort.
Category: <span>Personal Musings</span>
I’ve always admired poets, admired with envy as I gaze upon their words, the way they flow, the imagery they conjure, the emotions captured and delivered with subtle grace and ingenuity. Hell even just getting a few paragraphs that follow some form of cadence is a miracle to me.
The end of lockdown looms, and life as we knew it will start to re-emerge, like a wonky butterfly from a cocoon.
I know that things won’t be exactly the same again, a new normal will be established and that will take a little time to settle in and I’m ok with that, I welcome it and retain some hope that others will allow people to find their own way into the post-COVID days.
I know masks will remain, public gatherings will be limited, and that there will no doubt be some weird panic buying of some random household item at some point too if news of more spikes in infection rates should arrive (seriously, what was with the loo roll thing?). I am still wary of the masses but I am trusting the scientists.
Regardless of all this, I’m choosing to remain upbeat and looking ahead at what life might be like in the coming months and what I can best do to hold onto the things I’ve grown to love throughout this global pandemic, the things that got me through the harrowing realities and shrinking habits that lockdown inflicted on us.
There is much to forget too; Long queues in the rain for basic provisions, stepping off the pavement AGAIN because THOSE people MUST walk side by side, that guilty feeling that descends when I nip across an arbitrary border to visit my Mum (even though we are bubbled), that moment when you arrive at a shop and realise you’ve forgotten your damn mask, and don’t even get me started on the constant feed of misinformation to the addicted doom scrollers, the idiot anti-vaxers, and even more selfishly stupid non-mask wearers that claim civil liberty infringements, ohh and anything to do with the Tories.
All of those are things I’ll be leaving behind as best I can but on the whole, I’ve been very very lucky through lockdown, it’s not always been easy but there have been more good days than bad and, like most of you, most days have turned into what-day-is-it-anyway days with weekends blurring into weekdays which is both a good and a bad thing all at once. Do I prefer the arbitrary nature, that strange holiday feeling, of not really being sure what I should be doing because I can’t recall if it’s Sunday or Monday, or do I need the structure of a working week to give my weekends some meaning? I am undecided but more and more leaning to the former.
One thing I am determined to try and hold on to is working from home. Maybe not full-time but ideally only a couple of days in the office a week would be the max. I’ve been lucky enough to work throughout most of the lockdown periods and it’s not made a huge difference as most of the people I had worked with were in different buildings or different parts of the country anyway so most of my time was spent on calls and IM chats even when I was office-based 5 days a week.
Another thing I want to take forward is being outdoors. Such a simple pleasure, but one I used to cast aside for no good reason. Having two dogs, one of which needs a ‘good walk’ every day meant that for a lot of lock down it was my only form of exercise outdoors, and ohhh how wonderful it is to be able to walk around in the fresh air, regardless of rain or sleet or snow (there is no thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothes after all). The feeling of fresh air on your face, watching clouds scroll overhead, and even occasionally basking in the glorious warmth of the sun. What a tiny little dot of a planet we are, what fleeting moments we exist for, I need to focus on being happy.
There will be changes of course, I will adapt but part of the reason for noting these things here is to remind myself of what I truly value. My family, my closest friends, a good coffee, a walk in the sun, a meandering cycle through the countryside.
I know I will read fewer books as some evenings will be spent visiting and eating out, I know I will experience moments of anxiety too, the return of live music gives me a pause which saddens me as so many wonderful nights have been spent enthralled and jostled as we all dance and move as one, yet the idea of being surrounded by so many people again is one my brain is struggling with.
We will find our way. Of that, I have no doubt. Things will be different, of course, yet I am aiming to retain these simple core values, aiming to retain the new habits and little pleasures I’ve found during this past strange year. There will come a time when we look back on this (hopefully) once-in-a-generation experience and maybe now is when I’m realising that it can mean something more than just death. We will mourn, but we should always look forward.
Life can be simple and if I only take one lesson from all of this, let it be this; find what is truly important to you and focus on it, everything else is just noise.
As with most of my hobbies, I tend to fling myself into them wholeheartedly from the get go. I’m the guy who signs up to the forums, does copious research on the internet, takes notes as he goes, learns as much as he can as fast as possible, and then goes and buys the gear. The topic doesn’t really matter as long as it’s something I’m interested in; as a teenager a friend got me into fly fishing and so (as this pre-dates the internet) I got the books and magazines, talked to the owner of the tackle store, and got the best rod and reel I could afford, and enjoyed a couple of (mostly unsuccessful) years wading into the River Leven and casting away to my hearts content.
Looking back I know I spent a lot of my pocket money on that hobby, hundreds of pounds just to get all the things I thought I needed only to find out that I didn’t need them at all. Fishing can be a very expensive hobby (can’t they all) but the basic satisfaction of standing in the river, the quiet burbling of the water as it flowed around me, and the simple setup I started with remains a fond memory.
I’ve dabbled with other hobbies, been through the DSLR camera stage, with multiple lens and filters and goodness knows what else, and today I solely use my iPhone because the best camera you have is the one you have with you.
More recently my hobbies have had a more serious bent and have largely been based around my fitness. Driven by my advancing years and expanding waistline, not to mention a much keener sense of self that has developed over the past few years; I now have an established (almost) daily meditation practice, I’ve managed to get back to running again and, thanks to lockdown, I realised just how much I enjoy cycling. It’s something I’ve mentioned here before, the simple joy of freewheeling down a hill bringing that instant return to a truly child-like state (with all the OHMYGODWHATIFICRASH background noise of being adult, of course). And man, oh man, if ever there was a ‘hobby’ ripe for geeking out on, cycling might just be at the pinnacle.
Not being a millionaire, I’m a league away from the top of the range carbon road bikes (unless anyone has £10k to spare?) but with some research I found a ‘budget’ road bike with a good set of components, lots of great reviews from seasoned cyclists and trade websites, and so the geekery begins….
This can be as simple as looking at any accessories your bike came with – mine came with lights but they are more ‘to be seen’ than ‘to see with’ and so I’ve upgraded them. Same for the bell (although I went for style over substance and I’m already regretting that a little, a quiet bell isn’t much use), and I’ve already changed to clipless pedals over the standard flat pedals provided. With a dark blue bike with very subtle orange accents, I’ve also gotten two bright orange bottle cages, and two orange end caps (the bits at the end of the handlebars, oh yes, there is nothing you can’t customise on a bike!), just to make it look a bit smarter.
Then there are the practical things you’ll need, inner tubes should you get a puncture and a pump, or perhaps it’s time to look at CO2 canisters which are faster (a real consideration if you are fixing a puncture on a rainy day). You’ll need tyre levers too, and it’s probably wise to have a small multi-tool just in case something works its way loose. Ohh and where are you going to carry all this? Do I get a handlebar bag? Or perhaps an on-frame bag? Or one that mounts under the saddle? Or maybe a carrier that I can throw in one of the bottle cages for shorter rides??
What’s next? Ohh yes, clothes! Yup, I’ve joined the ranks of lycra wankers. Why? Because it’s the best thing to wear if you are on a bike for more than an hour, because you need padded shorts and something that won’t chafe. And yes cycling tops are specifically useful too because you can’t really have pockets in your shorts, so those pockets at the back of the top are super useful, holding a lightweight waterproof (hey, it’s Scotland, even on the sunniest days it still might rain an hour later), my phone, and a few snacks to keep me going.
Ohhh snacks, a banana is fine, but maybe it’s time to look into gels, and is that just water in your bottle or is it an electrolyte replacing, caffeinated combo to make sure you don’t run out of energy?
For the safety conscious among you, yes I wear a helmet, and the rest of my ensemble includes cycling gloves, and cycling shoes (that clip into the pedals), and glasses with interchangeable lens (including clear ones which stop your eyes drying out too much on dull windy days). And yes, all of these little things make a difference, I’ve got the research to prove it.
And so it goes.
Truth be told there isn’t really much I need to add and the only thing I’m considering next is a proper bike fitting – a couple of hours with an expert making sure my seat height, handlebar height and position are correct – and this is only because in September I’m tackling Etape Caledonia and will need to do a fair amount of training for that, so I’d rather not open myself up to niggles and injuries just because my seat isn’t quite at the right height.
After that, who knows? With bikes still being largely mechanical and easy to upgrade there are all sorts of things to consider. Do I want to upgrade the chainrings to something with a wider range? Will a new saddle make a difference to my comfort on the bike, would it help me go faster? I have not, yet, gotten a bicycle computer, nor have I added power meter pedals as that seems a little OTT, and anyway the next key component should really be the tyres, or maybe the entire wheels could be lighter and faster. There really are so many things to consider.
My geek is well and truly on, it’s true. The more I read the more I wonder if changing THAT thing will be worth it for me or whether it’s only really the pros that would even notice. There is an entire subset of cycling geeks obsessed with the weight of their bikes, with each single component examined for any potential gains that could be made. It’s the kind of thing the Sky/Ineos team do, look for the smallest gains everywhere and by the time you add them all up you’ve made a leap forward.
I’m not quite there yet, although this all does feel a little different to my past deep dives into various hobbies. At the simplest level I have a bike, I know how to ride it, and all I really need to do is get out on it for as often, and as far, as possible. Everything else really is just noise, something you realise when you are cycling and all you need to do is focus on the road ahead. To that end the instant enjoyment is what I think will make this a longer lasting hobby, and in time I may even start to consider myself a cyclist.
I know myself well enough that I will make little changes and tweaks to my bike over time but I’m doing my very best not to fall into a well known cycling equation that is (semi) jokingly used in every cycling forum I’ve looked at.
The correct number of bikes for you to own is n+1. N equates to the number of bikes you own, therefore you should always be looking to acquire your next pride and joy.
Given that my new bike is still less than a year old I think I’ve got a ways to go before any n+1 thoughts. Although I’m largely going to have to ignore the fact that my (to be) in-laws are all cycling enthusiasts and will very much be prime enablers of any future bike purchases.
For now I’m more than happy with the bike I have, the joy I have using it, and the eagerness to which I look forward to my next ride. That’s the key for me, get to a place where I’m happy and comfortable and I know this hobby will become more than that, if it hasn’t already. With warmer days approaching I know I’ll be itching to go out more and more often, and my bike is always waiting patiently to whizz me along on the next adventure.
6 weeks = 42 days = 1,008 hours = 60,480 minutes = 3,628,800 seconds.
That’s how long it was from the 18th of January to the 28th of February.
I mention this with purpose as I set myself a little challenge which lasted for – can you guess? – 6 weeks, but I confess it wasn’t wholly my idea.
At the start of the year I wrote that I didn’t have any aims for 2021 and that’s still true; this year will (still) be mostly headlined by the pandemic and whilst life goes on, I’m not really looking to upset my own apple cart. What worked for me in 2020, the habits I built and which I get the most benefit from, will continue on through 2021.
However it’s fair to say that over the past couple of years I’ve had a much longer term plan forming in my mind, the type of thing that starts off as a vague notion then slowly starts to crystallise into something more solid until one day, all of a sudden, you realise you’ve already decided what it will be. This plan may, or may not, have something to do with the fact I will be leaving my forties in a few years time.
It was just over six weeks ago that, with 2021 stretching in front of us, Becca and I were chatting about some of our longer term desires as a couple, where we were hoping to end up in the next few years, and what our own individual thoughts and dreams were alongside that. While I had some vague ideas for myself and certainly knew roughly the direction I wanted to head, it was only when we started discussing our joint future that things started to take shape.
Throughout 2020 I’ve been slowly building habits that will stand me in good stead for the future, more outdoor exercise (the dogs help with that obviously), daily meditation and the like. And my general fitness levels definitely benefited from the increase in cycling mileage as well. I’d even gone for a few runs and enjoyed it more than I realised. But talking about my long (very long) term plans and trying to explain my thinking and some of the ideas I had to make them happen, well the more I talked the more impossible it seemed, and I definitely do not want to set out to try and achieve the unachievable, why set yourself up for failure like that?
So Becca made the simple suggestion to not focus that far out, and look at something in the near future. “Maybe try six weeks”, she suggested and rightly posited that it’s long enough to see progress (sometimes a month isn’t) but not so far in the future to be unimaginable. It also meant that if I started the following Monday, those six elapsed weeks would take me to the last day of February.
You know that way when someone says something that clicks in your brain and all of a sudden you have the urge to smack yourself upside the head for not thinking of it in the first place, well this was definitely one of those moments, one of those can’t see the forest for the trees moments that makes you feel both grateful to the person who thought of it, and a little peeved with yourself because it’s kinda obvious… why yes, I WILL break down my long term plan into smaller achievable goals. OF COURSE! *smacks self upside head*
Of I went to figure out what that would all mean and how it might work, and it got me thinking back to the times I’ve set myself challenges in the past, knowing how quickly I can get disheartened and how I tend to be a little unrealistic, so with that in mind I decided to give myself plenty of leeway to reduce those pressures, to remove as much of my fear of failure from the outset.
I picked up where I’d left the Couch to 5KM training plan at the tail end of last year but I decided to only run twice a week and ‘do something else’ for a third activity (turned out to be indoor cycling using a turbo trainer and Zwift). That was it, anything on top of that was a bonus, and I deliberately left my weekends free to either be active or not.
As a perfectionist, this all met my deep-seated need to ‘plan the crap out of everything’ but left room for changes to the plan as and when required; for the few days when we had bad snow and ice I only used the indoor bike, then did three runs the next week to catch back up with the plan.
And whaddya know, six weeks later I’ve finished the Couch to 5KM plan and completed my first 5KM run for over 10 years, I lost weight consistently throughout, my blood pressure is lower, and I’m giving myself a hearty pat on the back for completing the challenge I set myself. I’m also giving Becca a big hug for listening to me talk about it and nudging me in the right direction (I’m telling you, she’s a keeper!).
For the record, I did skip a few of my planned sessions, one time because I just didn’t want to do it. We also order takeaway once a week (twice one weekend), and I still eat cake too. My point is that the plan was a guide, not a schedule, and I deviated from it now and again because LIFE. Yet I navigated my way through the last six weeks happy that I was ‘just doing it’. Sometimes that’s all that matters.
Looking ahead it’s likely I’ll do the same throughout the rest of the year, break my fitness plan down into 6-week blocks, and by this Autumn, with a bit of luck, I should’ve gotten my running distance up to 10KM, and I’ll also have completed the 65KM Etape Caledonia (in Sept). And hey, if I don’t manage all of that, I’ll still have been way more active and thinking about my health more which will automatically have the effect of lowering my weight, and more importantly, my blood pressure down to much healthier levels.
Isn’t it amazing what you can do in 3,628,800 seconds = 60,480 minutes = 1,008 hours = 42 days = 6 weeks.
It’s been six months since my Dad suddenly passed away. Since then I’ve been working through my grief and, somehow, stumbled across an Instagram account by Dr Laura Williams who shares writing prompts as one way to help people process their grief. It immediately struck a chord with me as my go-to method for dealing with things is to start writing. What follows is a suggestion from one of her prompts (sort of mish-mashed into a couple of others).
I’m sharing this with you all because grief is odd and weird, but maybe you’ve had similar thoughts to me about your grief and that’s ok. It’s also ok if you haven’t or are still figuring it out, no matter how long it’s been.
I’m writing you this letter in the hope that my grief will give you some solace. I’m writing you this letter although I know you will never read it. I’m writing you this letter to help myself because you aren’t able to anymore.
I still can’t quite believe it’s only six months since you left us. Six months since those final days in the hospital, six months since the last goodbye, six months since the phone call from the hospital telling us you were gone.
We’d only left you an hour or so before, looking calm and peaceful and already at rest as we told you how much we loved you, and stifled the worst of our tears. We left the hospital and drove back to your home, then the three of us sat together in the living room, waiting for the call. I answered my phone and repeated the awful words to Mum and Jennie.
We all paused as it sank in.
Then we all gathered around Mum and cried together, the depth of our love growing with each sob as reality tried to push in; but we weren’t ready for it yet, so we held each other close and pushed it away, a closed circle of quiet strength, it was just too awful to consider our lives without you in it.
This was the form my grief took for the first few days, a constant battle of pushing away the horrible truth, keeping it as far away as possible so as somehow to keep it from being true. It just wasn’t possible, you couldn’t be gone, not yet, not with so much more life to witness, so much more love and joy to give. It wasn’t fair.
It still isn’t.
Since then my grief has morphed and moulded into something else, a constant companion waiting in the wings to interrupt at random moments; it’s odd the things that trigger memories of you, of us, but I take comfort that they are all happy memories even though they are now tinged with the sadness of losing you.
I cry sometimes without warning and give myself willingly to those moments, whether they are just a few silent whimpers or deep anguished sobs. Sometimes a single tear is all there is to mark another day without you in my life.
My grief is not constant.
Sometimes I catch myself realising that I didn’t think about you at all the day before. Is it a good thing that the time passed without you in it? Does it signal a lessening of my grief? Or is it a bad thing, marking the beginning of your slow removal from my conscious thoughts? I ask you these questions even though I know you can’t answer, even though they aren’t the kind of thing we’d even have discussed before. Before.
It’s funny now to think of the clichés that I’ve read and seen repeated too many times to count, all rendered true by your passing. I didn’t spend enough time with you, that’s for sure, but such things are clichés for a reason, no-one ever spends enough time with their loved ones. I don’t regret that, I have nothing but fond memories, joyful moments shared, to look back on and they always bring me the solace I expect.
I always thought my grief would be a huge mess of emotions, days of surviving, of clinging on to any scrap of love or happiness to get me through this unthinkable event. Then at some point I’d move into the humdrum days of the life of the fatherless, crying would become less and less frequent, thoughts of you would start to dim, a slow fade to black, sands dropping through the timer until empty.
But it isn’t like that at all. I knew this, of course, I’ve read enough accounts of grief to know that there aren’t defined stages, that they don’t follow or loop or arrive in any order, nor do they stay distinct, and nor are they the same for everyone. It is one thing to read about grief, quite another to experience it so profoundly but please know that I’m finding living with it is both harder and happier than I imagined, more bearable than I thought possible.
It’s odd to be learning about something new when all I want to do is walk in to the living room and see you sitting in your chair.
I learned a lot from you, inherited other things. My curiosity, my love of books, my propensity for tears, my silly sense of humour, my kindness, my geekiness.
I find myself diving deeper into my grief at times, not to wallow in it but to better understand it. I get an odd comfort from dredging up long forgotten memories, and I can feel the relief of still having those available to me, the emotions washing over me despite the cold melancholy that accompanies them. These moments are not a wailing, sobbing, grief but a nurturing one, a balm on my rawest emotions, a salve of all the love you gave me whilst you were with us. It’s nice to still be able to feel that, to sense you and know and trust the love you had for me, to keep you with me that way.
It’s been six months but we are coping, we are learning how to live without you by, I think, keeping us with you. We talk about you still, laughing at some things, bemoaning others and it makes me understand, now more than ever before, just how much I am my your son. The realisation makes me smile and cry all at the same time.
This is my grief, these constant combinations of emotions, never distinct, always tumbling over each other for attention, a morass of frustrated glee and quiet discomforts. A few times I’ve embraced the sadness completely.
One day I was overcome by the fact that you weren’t here anymore. I can’t recall what triggered it but it overwhelmed me so deeply. I sat on the edge of my bed and waited for the tears to arrive, but grief cannot be forced, my eyes remained dry and the lump in my throat, the rock lodged there, refused to yield. Later that day, walking Dave in the evening gloom, a line from a song suddenly brings tears to my eyes. I walk on and let them fall willingly to the ground.
I miss you.
I’m still trying to understand how to deal with this grief and all the maelstrom of emotions it brings from day to day but that’s ok, I have so many wonderful memories of you to lean on that as terrible as it is that you are gone, I console myself knowing that my life would’ve been far worse without you as my Father. It’s a constant whirl, a raging hatred of the world that took you away from us, and a blessed calm that we knew you at all. How rich our lives are now, how poor we would have been.
In the midst of all this there are realities we face as well, we know your IBM was worsening and soon you’d lose the ability to walk, to care for yourself and, undoubtedly more importantly in your eyes, to care for Mum. We know you’d have hated relying on others, to have carers fuss over you, and ultimately we know your end would have been a miserable one as you slowly lost all muscle control. It is not a life I would wish for anyone let alone my own Father, and I think we all take some tiny comfort that whilst your death was too soon and too sudden, at least it spared you that ignominy.
I spoke at your funeral. The words came easily at the time and still hold true, but I wanted to say so much more than I did but that day wasn’t all about me, after all I was speaking to, and for, others. I hope you would’ve been proud of me, I think you would. It took a lot for me to stand there, a fatherless child, but I knew it was something I had to do for you, for me.
I will say these things again, I will say how proud I am to be your son and I know you were proud of me, proud of the man I have become. These recent years, with my own happiness something you commented on, a rare occurrence in itself which made the impact all the deeper, the richest of them all. I learned so much from you, have inherited your penchant for bad puns, questionable colour choices, and a trend towards silliness to make people smile. I have your warmth and care stored deep in my heart, I echo your curiosity for new things, and hope I have your light caring touch when needed.
The more of you I recognise in me the happier it makes me, yet I still remain sad that we can’t sit down and discuss these things, not that we ever would.
Returning to cliché then and I’ll say that I hope I can become half the man you were, and if I can manage that I’ll have done well. And no, no jokes about your height, not this time.
I still can’t look at a photo of you without bursting into tears, I don’t think that will ever change.
I hate that you won’t ever read these words.
I miss you so terribly.
Your boy, always.
The new year rolls around and as the Weightwatchers adverts start appearing I find myself looking back over my aims from 2020 and wondering what to do next. I try not to fall into the ‘New Year New Me’ thinking but I think it’s natural to have a sense of looking ahead.
That said given everything we’ve all just lived through last year, right now thinking ahead is tricky and feels almost futile. What’s the point of planning anything when we are still living through last year?
I’m aware that a new year actually means nothing, it’s just another turning of a page in a diary, yet pushing all that aside when I focus on how well I held on to the things I aimed to do, I feel proud and content that I created some new habits and held on to them even through the worst days.
Changing habits is hard so I started small:
- Write in my journal every day.
- Meditate for 10 mins every day.
- Stretch every day.
First things first, I knew ‘every day’ was a stretch, I even said so at the time – “I’m presuming I’ll be able to hit the primary aims every day but I know that won’t hold true. Life will get in the way at times and that’s ok, I’m just going to go with the flow and see what happens” – so it’s heartening to look back and see that I managed to stick with these more often than not, good enough to meet the larger goal of forming new healthy habits that have stuck.
I guess that was the point of these being aims and not goals, and whilst it may just be a trick of language, it still allowed me to be more than happy that I was going in the direction I wanted to, as the destination was never really the point. Having these as aims removed the pressure and any (self) perceived sense of failure that could’ve landed if I’d stated them as definitive goals. It’s a subtle trick but one which let my perfectionist brain be ok with not marking things complete every single day.
Throughout 2020, as the world changed around us, I found these three things to be very grounding and they’ve definitely played a big part in maintaining my mental health throughout lockdown and beyond. The intention was to create some good habits around things I knew would benefit me, little did I know in January just how crucial and helpful they would turn out to be.
Equally they’ve helped me discover more about who I am, and helped me listen to myself more and put more trust in my own values. That has, in turn, let me start to relax and take on new challenges, things which in the past I’d have set out as goals and built plans around and likely have failed at meeting, but as these are a knock-on effect of the aims then I feel much more relaxed about them, letting myself take my time as I know that just doing them is all that matters, the achievement will or will not arrive, and that’s ok.
Looking ahead at the coming year, and presuming that it will continue to be a year full of challenges, the usual hopes and fears remain but I already know that these three habits will remain as a foundation to build on. It feels good to finally have gotten them bedded in, habits that are now part of who I am, and how I define myself. I am a person who writes in a journal, who meditates, and spends time stretching every day, and I feel better for it.
So what lies ahead in 2021 then? What are my aims?
The short answer is I have no aims I am looking to achieve in 2021.
As I said at the top of this post, not only does it feel futile to set out aims or goals given we have no real idea of when things will return to any kind of pseudo-normality (personally I doubt it will be this year if at all) but I managed to get through 2020 without anything more specific than the aims I’ve already mentioned so why push to set new ones?
There is an argument that, as arbitrary as it is, even using the change of year is a good marker if one is so inclined as to look at the self as a thing that can be gently improved day to day, month to month, and year to year. A new year means one cycle is complete, so it’s time to start another. What I have learned this past year, outside of anything I aimed to do, was that by freeing up my mind and attention I ended up doing a lot more for myself than I have for a long time. I’m running again, I’m cycling regularly, I’m eating well, my mental health is good, my relationship is good, and I might even dare to suggest that I’m starting to love myself for who and what I am. All of that from a language shift and an ability to trick my own brain into allowing part of my aims to be negotiable.
As an example, in my post last year I mentioned that my long standing goal to run a 5K was exactly that – it may take me all year, or it might not happen until 2021. I am not putting a time scale on it, but it is where I want to get back to in time – and I whilst I did get to a physio who helped with my knee, I quickly fell away from running during the early weeks of lockdown as I turned to cycling as a preferred method of exercise. Yet in the past couple of months I’ve gotten back into running (I don’t mind running in the cold, hate cycling in it!) and am half-way through the Couch to 5K program and I’m enjoying it all.
If I’d set ‘Run a 5K’ as a goal for last year I would’ve failed it early in the year, likely by getting a small injury, and that would’ve been me. A failure because I didn’t plan/train properly and meh blah ‘what’s the point’? The very negative, self-loathing mindset that I’ve managed to avoid pretty well all year.
Don’t get me wrong, goals can be positive things, I’ve no doubt about that (even if you cheat and game yourself and call them aims) and if pushed I will admit there are three things I want to do this year but they all just feel like extensions of the journey I’ve been on through the last year already.
No I won’t list them here, they are just things that will happen. And if I don’t achieve them for whatever reason, that’s ok too. Which, in turn is probably the one true aim I have for myself this year, the one thing that I’ve been subconsciously building towards throughout last year.
And thus I hereby declare that, in this year of 2021, I will aim to cut myself some slack.
What about you? Are New Year’s resolutions a bunch of nonsense? Did you set some but have already fallen off track? Or are you excitedly progressing yours already? Whatever you choose, I hope that you are good to yourself first and foremost.
2020 was a year, a year like no other but still just a year.
For many it was a struggle just to get through each day, the toil of lockdown on the mental health of many is something we won’t fully appreciate for some time, and tragically many didn’t survive at all. I don’t think we will really know the full impact of the coronavirus for a few years at least, as the effects on society will linger long in the memory. What an awful awful time.
Whilst there is much to say about the horrors of 2020, for now I want to turn and look at some of positive things that came out of the last few months, they may be harder to see amongst the onslaught of bad news but there was good news and good things were happening.
It’s been well reported that, for some, the enforced lockdowns and stay-at-home orders let them explore new hobbies and get to know themselves better and, by and large, I include myself in that category whilst acknowledging all the privilege that I have at the same time. I know not everyone was tuned in to Joe Wicks, or perfecting their sourdough.
Personally there was a lot of good in my 2020 so I’m going to focus on that, and I already have reasons to believe that 2021 will be a better year for me, even though I will need some patience as some of the things will only happen when they happen!
First things first then, and I have to start with how grateful I am for my partner. I think this year has brought us even closer, made us even stronger, and although we have been tested in many different ways we’ve come through it supporting each other and spent a lot of time smiling and laughing (at each other). She is a constant source of calm and understanding, and her patience and compassion are things that still catch me.
Sticking close to home, as we all had to, I definitely have to mention the fur babies. Walks with Dave and snuggles with Sasha have made even the worst days tolerable.
As a family, we had to deal with the sudden passing of my Dad, and the love and support we all gave each other is something I will cherish.
Other things stick in my mind, with a lot of the year spent at a slower pace it meant I was able to question my approaches and attitudes to some things; being more mindful with what I bought and where I shopped (I’m not Amazon free yet but a lot closer), checking in on friends more than normal, and taking time to sit quietly and enjoy the silence are small changes that will sit long in my memory, things I will take forward into the coming years.
I also managed more time to read and while it took a while for my concentration levels to return I managed to read 41 books last year. Highlights were:
- The Water Cure
- The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
- Goodnight Mister Tom
- The Binding
- Things I Learned From Falling
- My Sister, The Serial Killer
- Magpie Lane
Music-wise I didn’t really spend much time listening to much other than the radio and some tried and tested playlists, I’m hoping in 2021 to find a bit more energy to seek out new artists.
I also watched some great TV, including the wonderful Ted Lasso, sci-fi in the shape of The Expanse and The Mandalorian, and more recently the increasingly lovely and funny Schitt’s Creek.
Add in climbing Ben Lomond, many glorious walks, long cycles, embedding a meditation routine into my day, and many other small moments of happiness and I can quickly start to build a picture of 2020 that isn’t dominated by COVID.
And I’m not alone, there were many other good things that happened around the world last year, many reasons to be cheerful.
On balance, despite the world shifting around us, and with a lot of luck and privilege, I can look back on 2020 with some level of happiness. It will, of course, be the year of lockdowns and of a shambolic Prime Minister, but at least Trump is on his way out and a vaccine is coming.
I think 2021 will be a year of adjusting to a new normal but I’m hopeful that there will continue to be good things around, we may need to seek them out or carve space in our lives to allow them in, but I think it’s worth reflecting back and carrying what positivity we can into the coming months.
It’s World Mental Health Day, which falls at the end of a rather crap week for me, but which weirdly has re-enforced some of things I’ve developed throughout the last few months, and reminded me why I did them in the first place.
What are you good at? What have you learned and practiced? I don’t mean through lockdown I mean in general? Nothing? How modest, but ok. What are you ok at? What are you good enough at? What are you able to do quite well and, more importantly, what is the one thing you enjoy doing no matter how good or bad you are at it?
When I was younger I took piano lessons. I say took, it was more a decision made by my parents for me and I wasn’t old enough to say no; they also managed to get me to cycle to my lessons at 9am on a Saturday morning come rain, shine, or snow, I must ask my Mum what her technique was!
I bought an electric piano a couple of years ago and, to my delight, found that I still had a basic level of knowledge and after a few weeks was able to play Fur Elise. I wasn’t great at it but it was good enough to make me smile and give my heart and soul a little lift. Then it’s on to the Billy Joel songs my Mum loves and next thing I know I’ve been sitting there for an hour thinking about absolutely nothing and having the best time.
It’s a little like the focus moments that sometimes arrive when you are working, or those glorious gigs that grab hold of you and make you forget anything else exists in the world, the ones where you and everyone else leaves grinning and happy and ready to take on the world!
Alas gigs aren’t happening just now and my mood for playing the piano ebbs and flows – although it’s a fair bit more ebbing than flowing – so as we continue to learn how to live in the middle of this global pandemic and with fewer distractions provided by the outside world I find myself turning more and more inwards, exploring my own self. I’m not alone in this of course and, as the deluge of articles and posts and instagram stories suggest, it’s also creating a marketplace. Adverts in my social media feeds are almost wholly now about exercising BETTER, living CLEANER, being MORE, and all of these notions seem to include downloading a new app and subscribing to THE program that will finally unlock your FULL POTENTIAL.
Ugh. It’s all so boastful, and all seems destined to push you into the path of comparison and right now it’s the last thing I think anyone needs. So, being somewhat contrary I’ve been looking at all of these things and decided to push against them. I do not want to compare myself to others (been there, done that, it’s not a nice place) and so thanks to the laws of physics, as I rail against the very notion of being told to live BETTER, CLEANER, MORE, to my FULL POTENTIAL I’ve head off in an equal and opposite direction.
Welcome to the world of good enough. Turning up is good enough, doing the thing badly is good enough, trying and never doing it again is good enough. It costs nothing, there is no subscription, and you can do it yourself! I know, this is nothing you don’t know, but maybe if there were more adverts that said things like that we would need World Mental Health Day at all?
For the first few weeks of lockdown I struggled with my attention span. I’d be ok for a while but would then drift off and spend hours of my day doing nothing other than flit between social media channels (something I had aimed not do at all back in January!), and the various tasks and chores of day to day life. Social media was ablaze with people learning sourdough (do you learn it?), knitting for the first time, starting up daily yoga routines and more. And there I was, striving to do nothing of much at all.
Now before I go on, to paraphrase Kottke, I realise what I’m about to talk about sounds a bit woo-woo bullshit (and like him, a younger me would’ve been rolling his eyes by now), but after taking a step back from social media and focusing on myself I found a couple of things that I did enjoy doing, and when I coupled those with my new ‘good enough’ personal mantra I realised I had something I could hopefully pick up and use, something I’d been doing on and off for a few years and which I was contentedly, already, good enough at, meditation.
My meditation journey started almost four years ago.
Like most journeys it’s had to endure all manner of incidents, changes of direction, endless roadworks, and the odd puncture, all played out to the soundtrack of the niggling voice from the back of my mind that continually whines “Are we there yet?” and, like many journeys, it turns out that it’s the journey itself that I’ve enjoyed more than the destination because, and it’s taken me a while to figure this out, meditation doesn’t have a destination.
A few years back, when I finally started to explore meditation properly, it took me a while to land on a method that worked for me. Every now and then I’d meditate, trying my best to make it a habit and doing my utmost to become good at meditating like, somehow, it was a competition, or a life skill that I could work on until I perfected it.
Yet the harder I tried to get better at meditation, the harder it got to meditate well, it became a chore, lost its effectiveness and slipped from being something that I thought was well embedded as part of my day to day existence, to something akin a passing acquaintance that I’d forget about for weeks at a time.
I can still remember the sensation of lightness I felt after the first guided meditation I had attended, and I was lucky to have been able to recapture that feeling a few more times on my own. One time I found myself sat on a rock halfway up a hill, the sun shining down, and quite happily zoned out during the meditation. It wasn’t until I tried to move that I realised I’d been sitting there, in a state of blissful calm, for about 45 minutes and I had a very numb bum! A small price to pay for that lovely state of being that relaxing into meditation can bring.
Yet the practice fell away from me and whilst I revisited it sporadically, spurred on by the knowledge that it was something done by people who I aspired to be like, ohhh and that it was also good for my mental health. But it never really stuck and I ended up falling back on the less fulfilling routines of self-care I had unwittingly been cultivating for most of my adult life, the usual social media scrolling, playstation playing, emotional eating routines all happily stepped up to fill the void. Meditation became something I did now and then, and more and more infrequently.
And then I stopped altogether.
The app I was using sat on my phone staring at me, but it had a few niggles that created just enough friction to stop me bothering and, for some reason without an app, without a guide, I found myself standing at the crossroads of the decision to meditate or not and, rather than get completely lost, I’d just turn and head for the same well trodden paths as before.
I was happy though and didn’t really miss meditating all that much, so it drifted away from me and joined the ever growing pile of ‘things that I’ve tried’ (don’t get me wrong, I’m proud of that pile and aware of how lucky I am to even have such a pile). Somewhere in my brain the idea grew that meditation was a useful tool for when I wasn’t too happy or feel overwhelmed and, as my life was (and still is!) in a good place, I had no real need for it anymore.
Yet as I took stock of my own actions over the course of the latter half of 2019 I realised that I wasn’t as happy as I could be. It’s a weird thing to realise that, despite being generally happy with my life, there were aspects of it that I didn’t like and so I set myself some aims for 2020. I didn’t realise it at the time but this was really about focusing inwards, as it’s entirely possible to look out upon the constituent parts of your life, see how good they are and presume you are happy because you should be, all whilst ignoring the little voice inside you.
When you start thinking about your own happiness it’s important to understand that that isn’t a selfish thing to do. You’ll have no doubt seen and heard phrases that suggest you have to learn to be happy with yourself, to love yourself first and foremost and I think it can be easy to presume that you do, just because so many other parts of your life are going well.
So there I was, with 2020 looming, and I was focussed on building new habits, thinking I’d lean on some things I new worked for me in the past (hello writing, hi meditation, howdy exercise!) – to try and temper the habits I didn’t like (bye bye endless scrolling of social media). Surely then I would achieve some form of satisfaction with myself?
Well it’s October, and we all know that 2020 has been a bit of a year and yet here I am, happier than ever and with a meditation habit again and it’s been a constant throughout lockdown, and the death of my father, and all the mental strain many of us have been feeling.
So, how did I do it?
It started with a snippet of advice I read somewhere, it’s been repeated in a few articles I’ve read since:
“Changes that seem small and unimportant at first will compound into remarkable results if you’re willing to stick with them for years.”James Clear, Atomic Habits
Looking back at how I meditated in the past I knew I would need some guidance, and whilst I’d used Buddhify in the past, I decided to look at some of the alternatives like Headspace and Calm. The latter is the one that stuck, offering daily 10 min guided meditations, and longer ad-hoc ones available whenever you wish. So, there was my first aim, start doing a daily 10 min meditation. Other apps are available.
The key for me was dedicating myself to this, making it an important part of my day and so I set up a 30 min part of my day that was for meditating. 10 mins to make sure I can relax into the meditation time, turning off notifications and alarms (and making sure the dogs have been out for a pee!), and then I can start the meditation app and, 10 mins later, my mind feels quieter, and I have another 10 mins to just sit in that state and let it rest within my mind.
That’s the plan at least. Some days I achieve that, some days I don’t, and some days I don’t meditate at all. Some days when I do meditate I can’t seem to focus, my mind wanders, and I lose track. Sometimes I’ll start a meditation and not finish it, some days I’ll restart it when I’ve finished as I realise I wasn’t really participating.
However, most times, even if my mind does wander I still feel some of the benefits and that, for me, is the entire point. I am not the best person at meditating, I don’t always finish it feeling refreshed and ready to take the world, and I don’t even do it every day.
But when I do, it’s wonderful, and that keeps me trying it, and the more often I manage it, the better I feel and the keener I am to repeat that the next day, it’s a joyous circle.
This past week has been a hard one, and I haven’t had the inclination to meditate until today.
It’s apt, given it’s World Mental Health Day, that as soon as I was done I felt that sense of calmness flooding over me and realised how much I’d missed this simple practice that I’ve developed over the past few months.
Meditation isn’t for everyone, but if you’ve always felt like trying it then try not picture the zen monk, sitting cross-legged atop a mist covered mountain, instead think of me, a middle-aged balding overweight man, in shorts and t-shirts, sitting in his office chair, headphones in, who spends half of his meditation time with his mind wandering all over the place.
But when it works, it’s a wonderful release, a freedom, and a lifting of unknown tensions and stresses and I’m so happy it’s now part of my own wonderfully selfish routine.
If you are struggling today, or any other day, there are resources available, people you can speak to, you are not alone. Reach out to any of the organisations in the link above, or drop me a line. I’ll help if I can.