My attempts to ‘garden’…


Very not much my garden, sadly but that of the garden of the stationhouse at the disused Highgate train station. One of my recent trips outdoors… And many thanks to Hidden London and the London Transport Museum for the opportunity to see it.

I’ve had the idea of ‘nature’ in my head for a while as the subject of a blog post, and it’s take all that while for me to sit down and start typing. It was triggered by my walk to my local train station as part of the commute as one morning a few weeks ago the council began pruning the trees on one of the streets. It’s a street I’ve walked up and down almost daily since I moved to where I now live nearly two years ago, and one of its great pleasures is the care and attention some of the residents pay to their front gardens, and that the street is lined with trees. A particular favourite is on a corner with amazing purple/red leaves (someone did identify it, I think my mum as she knows stuff like this, and if she doesn’t she has a very good guess which I’m inclined to believe as correct not least because she’s my mum), and this was the first tree that the council hacked at. As it had been blossom season barely a few days before this, a beautiful sight and one that always makes me feel a little more joyful, it seemed an even greater shame for this destruction to be taking place just as everything was coming into full leaf. (if that’s the right phrase, I’ll hold my hands up now and say I’m not a writer about nature…)

The consequence of this was that I genuinely changed my walking route to and from the station. Walking up the street where the tree branches were disappearing daily, along with their leaves made me want to cry. It was a reaction I wasn’t really expecting, and given everything else happening in this world, one that may seem like an overreaction. But it was most clearly linked to the joy I had felt watching these trees move from their winter undress, to glorious blossom that sheds to look like snow on the road, to be replaced by their summer dress. Spring brings a lift to my mood, and I’m even more conscious of that since acknowledging my depression. To have someone remove that joy was heartbreaking. Blossom is forever associated with cherry tree blossom that decorated my local park where I grew up – we walked through it and back every day as part of the trip to school. That image of glorious marshmallow pink trees have stayed with me ever since I was little.

The street running parallel to that one which I now walk up and down has some beautiful trees, mainly in gardens and I can only assume that the latter fact is why they haven’t been pruned to within an inch of their wooden lives. It has brightened the commute again.

The emotions that have been attached to this connection to the environment have prompted me to start filling my house – balcony first – with plants. I am remarkably lucky to have outdoor space, and though it is small, it is sunny and there’s enough room for a few pots of colour. I have not managed to keep plants alive during my adult life, for reasons I don’t know really know as I was excellent at keeping several plants alive when I was a child. Possibly the lack of any other responsibility at the time… I managed to keep herbs alive last year on a windowsill and then they died while I was on holiday. I’d left them in water but they gave up much to my disappointment. And for the past few years, I lived in such a small space that plants would have found it hard to survive as they’d have probably been killed by books falling on them or yarn getting wrapped round their stalks preventing valuable nutrients from travelling upwards. When I was 8 or 9 my class spent a week staying at Paignton Zoo (goodness knows if such things still take place – a week with a bunch of 9 year olds in a B&B, our poor teachers) and one of the memories I still have is the plants we grew from seed and were able to take home at the end of the week. I would imagine one reason for the memory staying with me is that the plants survived because I cared for them, until I left home around 18. Aside from the tomatoes – they had reached the point where they could be planted out in our garden and duly were, and then my parents decided to move house and we couldn’t take the tomato plants with us. I don’t know why, the injustice, as you can tell, remains with me to this day. The pay off, it should be said, was my own room for the first time in my life, and to be fair, I think the tomatoes were a sacrifice well-made… The survival of those other seedlings should now provide me with inspiration that I can achieve the same miracle during adulthood. I may even try to keep some tomatoes alive.

Where this culminates is that every article you read on maintaining good mental health tells you to be outside, to do exercise, to leave the house for a walk, go to a park, be surrounded by nature. I spent my childhood being outside a lot – we would regularly visit local woods, the beach, parks, playgrounds, and the ultimate: Dartmoor. You can tell me of mountain ranges, of valleys, of lakes, of rolling hills, and I will likely love them all, but Dartmoor remains the place I love most. I think it is in part related to its centrality to my childhood and time spent there with my family, associated with the colours of so many browns, greens, greys and purples, and the lack of people and buildings, with landscape stretching as far as the eye could see. If you get the chance, go there. And back to that being outside for your mental health – London has plenty of outside space. It also has journeys to that space, filled with people, and I cannot, often, summon up the energy to deal with that. Which is ridiculous because when I do make the effort, and find a spot to sit, or walk, I feel better and happier and tell myself to remember that feeling the next time I feel as if I cannot be arsed to get off the sofa. Of course I do remember that feeling the next time I cannot be arsed to get off the sofa but it still doesn’t make me get up and leave the house. With flowers out on the balcony, herbs on my windowsills, and (if it ever happens) hanging baskets outside my front door, I can bring some of the outside in.

If you’re finding it hard to get out, don’t beat yourself up. You will, and until you do, get some flowers (cut if planting is not an option) every now and then as that’s guaranteed to make you smile when you walk in a room. And if you have a park nearby, know that there is the possibility of green, and when you get the opportunity to be in it, remember that. Even the memory might lift a bad day when you can’t be outside.

Keep looking after yourselves, and if you need some help, links are in About.

Knitting and its therapeutic benefits


Knitted ladybirds for an amazing friend of mine. Many thanks to the pattern from Stitch London Blog.

Things have been kind of busy round here. Easter was supposed to be days of writing, knitting and seeing family, and instead I got sick (not, you and I both relieved to know, the shitty illness, but a bog-standard cold). And then life stuff took over for a few weeks, which is what happens, but I have missed writing, and realised I need to carve out time for it. And also that it’s ok if I don’t write for a couple of weeks so I shouldn’t beat myself up about it. Plus I wanted to finish a knitting project, and knitting has been therapy over the past few years. Writing and knitting, both creative activities and ones that require very little in the way of equipment or space, and inexpensive too.

I learnt to knit from my paternal grandmother, and still have a memory of sitting in her living room on a sofa patiently, and badly, making a scarf under her supervision. I don’t recall exactly how I felt as I knitted, or attempted an approximation of knitting, and I don’t think I’d have been more than 7 or 8, but mostly my memory is being happy spending time with my gran and making something. I remember a blue knitted jumper she made me which was one of my favourite items of clothing. Handmade items are made with love, made for a particular person in mind, and that love and care radiates from whatever that item is.

It was many, many years after that time on the sofa that I picked up knitting again, and I forget what entirely inspired me to re-learn. I knew I wanted to do something creative, that could occupy my hands, that might be useful in some way, and the memory of knitting stayed with me. Not the memory of how to knit though, aside from it requiring knitting needles and wool (yarn, people, yarn. As I now know. Wool is yarn, but not all yarn is wool). I bought such items and ‘Knitting for Dummies’ – yes, it exists – and set about trying to teach my fingers to repeat the stitches I’d learnt to make decades before. Unfortunately all that happened were incredibly tight stitches, holding such tension on the needles that it was a physical effort to knit into them, and rather than creative relief, it was mainly creative frustration that resulted. And so while I prefer to learn by myself, I knew I needed to find a teacher. It’s the kind of skill that is best learnt watching someone.

And so the needles and the yarn sat around for a while as I procrastinated about how to find a teacher (one of my strengths, procrastination), veering from being too busy to fit in classes when they were running, to why would I think I’d be any good at it, and back again. Until I needed a distraction, and knitting came to me as a possible solution. The distraction was needed when Original Acquaintance announced his depression, and started to ever so slightly withdraw, and the slow creeping pain of not hearing from him was a hole that I needed to fill. Knitting became therapy, and it is heartening several years later to be reading about how this form of creativity has helped others and provided the same relief to many people in the same way it did for me. Knitting allows my hands and my mind to be occupied, the latter being the most important. It requires attention to be paid to the task at hand, looping yarn round needles, counting stitches, following a pattern, counting rows. You can’t do that if you are thinking about anything except the knitting. The knitting itself isn’t a difficult thing to concentrate on, it doesn’t cause you stress (unpicking 6 rows because you went wrong is annoying, but you pick yourself up and start over), it doesn’t hurt you (I’ve stabbed myself with a sewing needle a few times, but I can live with that without it causing me sleepless nights), and when you have finished, you have a beautiful thing that you, and only you, have created. Despite whatever was keeping you awake once you finished the knitting, whatever you had felt during the day before you got home and picked up the yarn, there was something lovely and special, and an achievement when very little felt like it was worth doing.

And it inspires such wonder – ‘you’re so clever’ is one of the most frequent compliments you receive – especially on trains, as I am unashamed to pull out my knitting, mainly on trips to the south west of England, when you catch someone across the aisle looking across to watch, flicking their eyes back to the other direction when I look up, because, y’know we’re British, and that wouldn’t do. And I smile and go back to the knitting, not caring if someone is looking because they’re watching the craft, not staring because they’re judging me (which is my usual and wholly unjustified fear, and is, you are safe to believe, utterly insane and somewhat egotistical if you think about it.) And it inspires joy and calm, and I feel peaceful when I do knit.

It has been up and down, my relationship with knitting over the past few years. It was truly my therapy for about 3 years as I tried to deal with the grief of Original Acquaintance’s disappearance, and it was only when I couldn’t even find the energy to knit (its other advantage, you don’t need much in the way of physical fitness to pick up some knitting needles) that I started to realise that maybe something else was going to be needed. For several months I didn’t knit, I think partly because I was so tired that once I got home, it was a relief to do absolutely nothing, and partly because I knew that everything I had been trying to keep at bay was no longer staying away by knitting. But it has returned as my good mental health has, and while sometimes I can go several months without knitting, I feel so much more positive about myself when I pick something up and start again on a project. An excellent friend gave me The Mindfulness in Knitting (by Rachael Matthews) for a very recent birthday and I read the first 2 chapters with pleasure sat out on my balcony in sunshine (sunshine is also very therapeutic). That also sounds more glamorous than it is, but in London any outside space is a joy. And I am far from the only person to think knitting is therapeutic.

The picture with this blog is the project I was aiming to finish, for another incredible friend and her school class (I told you there might be pictures of knitting at some point). My next creative skill to master is crocheting. That only requires one hook, so even less equipment… 

If the thing you’ve been using to hold stuff at bay isn’t helping at the minute, then links to help are in About. And if you’re a knitter or some other crafter, whether you share what you do or not, hold your head up high, and be proud of yourself, especially when it shows you light.

For the love of reading

I live in stories. From a time I can’t remember except as brief glimpses of a blurred snapshot I have lived in stories. And been the heroine. Jo of Little Women, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Anne Shirley, Nancy Drew, What Katy Did, Pollyanna… I read and re-read and dreamed and retold the stories with me in the centre (mainly as Laura Ingalls Wilder. Why I thought living on a prairie in the 19th century would be marvellous I don’t know. But I wanted to). And it never occurred to me that the oh-so-romantic Katy recovering from a terrible fall and paralysis did happen to me. Sure, not a fall, and not paralysis, but life-threatening and months of recovery. Not as splendid as in What Katy Did though, languishing on a chaise-longue… (and I cannot remember if there was a chaise-longue, but did I mention I’m a romantic?)

For some, a lot, most of my life I’ve wondered did all the stories I read when I was a child lead me to have such a romantic view of what I thought my life would be that I ruined any hope of that romance. The happy stories that always resulted in the girl characters becoming women who then had husbands and families, and despite the occasional life-threatening disaster, always ended up healthy and well. But then I starting thinking differently about these girls who became women with husbands and families. Those characters in those stories were and are good (not too good, even with Pollyanna in the mix), witty, kind and loving girls and women. Many of the stories I read were from the 19th and early 20th centuries featured women who, if the stories followed them from childhood, fell in love and married. 

And there will have been many arguments that these stories provided few role models to girls reading them except to set up the expectation that what women did was get married and have families. Now in one sense, that was what women did do when those stories were written. But women wrote those stories, so women were also female authors as role models. All those characters already mentioned and more – Jo March, Laura Ingalls Wilder, What Katy Did, the Abbey School women, the Chalet School girls and women, Anne Shirley (if I wasn’t going to be Laura, Anne was a close second) – were strong, imaginative and creative. And the girls and women they wrote about married for love, with men who were not necessarily perfect but who loved the women they married, treating them with respect and care. And for many of the series I read, the men were not the centre of attention, and often on the periphery, but they were mindful of the women who supported, cared for, advised their sisters, friends, children and family. Those women who were all sisters, friends, daughters before being wives, and very clearly remained as such. So perhaps what I took away from those stories was that women are central to family, society and their communities, and are equals to men in contributing to that society.

Which, when you think about it, provides bloody good role models for men and women. And I’d much rather my romantic view of life too. 

If you fancy some reading nostalgia, all of those books can be tracked down one way or another – give your local library some support for starters. And if reading, or something otherwise life-distracting isn’t helping at the moment, links to help in About.

Joan, a life lived

You may or may not have read my second post – ’tis here if not – in which my childhood illness came up. I have only a few memories of being in hospital but I’m fairly sure Joan would have been with me. And must have been with me after that blood transfusion. Joan is a bear, a koala bear (on reflection, koala bears may not have plastic faces and hands, one of which allows said bear to suck its thumb, but at the very small age at which I received Joan, she became a koala bear, and you’ll never convince me otherwise), given to me by one of my beloved grandmothers, picked up from a jumble sale (if I recall correctly), so she was pre-owned and pre-loved before she came into my possession. I don’t know why she’s called Joan, I have no idea where the name came from. Absolutely none. Maybe there was a now forgotten children’s character in a book I loved.  But she is Joan and she has been with me for my entire life that I remember. She came to hospital with me, and she has lived with me in every place I have moved to, keeping the connection with home and family and love, and reducing the distance from all of that just a little. Toys, dolls, teddy bears, those tokens of childhood that so many of us had, are disregarded and put aside as years progress. Their ownership is mocked, and in adulthood we are made to feel small, inferior and emotionally stunted if that evidence of childhood is revealed or noticed. Such items evoke such power over our emotions and comfort when there is pain; if we place faith in an unseen god, keeping one small bear from childhood to keep faith seems unremarkable.

She is still with me. A happy and cheerful memory of childhood, security and a reminder that you can carry your family with you everywhere you go. She has been to Australia and New York and Ireland. And must have been to France, and various parts of the UK. She will always stay at home now – I went away for a trip to get away from work and emotional blah several years ago, up to York (York may be down for you, or across an ocean, but it’s up for me in London), and on the journey up my suitcase was stolen. I know! Who steals a suitcase? from a train? Of all the luck. I survived, although probably arriving only a few hours from home in a country where I already spoke the language and in a city in which there was an M&S and Boots from which to get supplies, I was hardly in the Sahara. I digress. I decided to stay up in York for the week I had planned, even though my first thought on realised my belongings were not with me was to turn round and go home again. I had a really lovely week despite it. I didn’t want to worry my mum or anyone with the suitcase story until I got home, so I didn’t. And the first question my mum asked me on my telling of the story was ‘Was Joan with you?’. I’m sure she asked how I was too, because she would definitely have done that. But she was right to put Joan first. I would have been distraught if Joan had gone. Nothing else in that suitcase couldn’t have been replaced. Except Joan.

So now she stays at home. A little sad, as I like to think she enjoyed being stuffed into a rucksack in a rather undignified manner to travel halfway across the world. Of course by leaving her at home when I go away travelling she is left at risk of me leaving a grill on and the flat burning down, but I’m pretty sure that won’t happen… Even though I have an uncanny knack of carbonising toast.

If you have a childhood toy/doll/Star Wars figure (I don’t have the latter, but I imagine a lot of people do), treasure it/her/him and don’t make anyone make you feel less for doing so. And as always if you need help, links are in About.