It’s amazing how the simple act of trying to make some kind of order out of what feels like mental chaos can be immensely cathartic. Feeling overwhelmed - write it all down - fashion a few lists - complete one or two small actions from these lists - check the items off - et voila! Everything feels better already. Everything feels calmer.
There are times in one’s life when there is nothing for it but to lie on the bed and listen to Joan Armatrading. Her eponymous album is my favourite record and would without a doubt be my first Desert Island Disc choice. As a teenager, I would listen to the LP over and over, loving the sssssh of the needle on the vinyl followed by the opening strains of the first track, Down to Zero. Back then her lyrics spoke to my condition even if she sang of experiences beyond my sphere of understanding. Her worldliness was something I admired; here was a woman, I thought, that had been around the emotional block a few times. One day, I imagined, I would have those encounters too, dreaming of some naively vague romantic future.
And here I am. Battered, bruised, surviving, healing. It’s not easy, but life is more extraordinary than I ever could have imagined. When you get down to zero, there’s only one way out of it: upwards. Plus knowing that Joan’s been through it all before too is comforting.
"We can never know what to want, because, living only one life, we can neither compare it with our previous lives nor perfect it in our lives to come."
From Milan Kundera’s amazing novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being
Maybe I have Valentine’s fever, but this beautiful short had me in tears. So simple, so heart-warming. Paperman - Full Animated Short Film (by disneyanimation)
Last night, I tried to map out all of my current commitments and activities. This is something that I like to do every now and again, to get a sense of what’s going on in my life and see which areas seem a bit over-burdened and which are a bit neglected. It’s a simple exercise that never fails to generate some useful insights – and undertaking a version of it at the ‘Letting Go’ retreat made me realise that I’m not alone in finding it helpful.
Yesterday’s results felt different. They also looked different. Rather than being a crazy, labyrinth-like page crammed with tasks and “to dos”, it was almost, well, sparse would be pushing it a bit but it was certainly a less crowded vision than usual. There is space for new things to come in. Moreover, it is getting to the stage where everything left feels good. I even felt inspired to draw little heart-shaped balloons around the subject areas, a doodle that seems to symbolize a growing sense of lightness, positivity and love that I’ve been trying to nurture since the retreat.
The change is the result of not only relinquishing certain roles and responsibilities, but also simply taking a step back. As well as not rushing in to “sign up” for new stuff immediately, I am endeavouring to let go of expectations that I place on myself. For example, I love crafting, particularly knitting, but so often I end up feeling that it is another chore to have to complete as I take on too many projects and set too many deadlines. I want to move back to a position where it’s about creativity and not trying to prove myself (to whom? I don’t know. Probably myself).
Another area where I am trying to let go of pressure on myself is with my happiness project. All this month, I have been working on a series of daily goals about health and wellbeing, which I have been enjoying and feeling the benefits of. However, the larger targets have somewhat fallen by the wayside, mainly due to a lack of time. Normally this would generate a lot of angst and a sense of failure: “I have let myself down because I haven’t ticked these things off a list that I have made up.” Instead, I’m letting go of the self-reproach and the pressure. I’m going to keep going at it for another month, to see how I get on. Perhaps I will find the time in February to do these things. Perhaps I won’t. Either way, I want to enjoy the process of doing it, rather than fixating solely on the end result. A lesson that I would do well to apply more widely - particularly into the new spaces that are emerging as the letting go continues.
Another ‘proverb for living’, pertaining to one of life’s great and unsolvable mysteries:
No matter how many bookmarks one owns, one will always mark the page with a train ticket.
The other weekend, I went on a retreat at a beautiful, peaceful place called Charney Manor in Oxfordshire. The theme for the weekend was ‘Letting Go’ and I discovered so much during my time there that if I’d had to come home on the Saturday morning, rather than the Sunday afternoon, I would have still felt I’d gained some valuable insights. Individually and as a group we explored various aspects of ‘letting go’, from mental clutter to time commitments to bigger issues about who we are and what our lives are about.
Since my return to ‘real life’, I’ve continued to reflect upon my time there and have felt inspired to act upon much of what I’ve learnt. Yet part of the ‘letting go’ process for me has been loosening my tight grip on the desire to do everything, sort everything, change everything immediately, now, sooner - so not rushing in and overturning too much all at once has been a lesson in itself. Instead I’m recording all my thoughts on what to let go of in my journal and hope to release them gradually, trusting that a time will come when it’s clearly the right moment to lay them down.
Some things, though, have been let go of already. Often these have not been snap decisions, but the result of several months of wrangling and angsting - with the retreat giving me the final push that I needed. In other cases, I thought I’d let go of something only to reconsider. Case in point: my tidy top drawer, in which I keep jewellery and some toileteries. It is usually very neat, like all my drawers. Only it had been getting steadily messier. Not horrendously so, but enough for me to notice my usual standards were slipping. What does it matter?, I thought, It’s no big deal. I’m letting go and learning to let things be. This thought process has been liberating. Rather than chastising myself every time I’ve opened the drawer over the last week, I let go of that inner dialogue that goes something like You must tidy this drawer, you great big fat slob. You are so messy and untidy and disorganised that you fail to qualify as a successful, competent adult. You are a slovenly, immature and useless loser. Quite a relief, clearly, to not have that thought sequence every time I’ve gone to moisturise. Funnily enough, letting go of beating myself up about what is a fairly inconsequential matter (an untidy drawer isn’t going to kill anyone) has had a strange contrary effect: tonight I got up from my desk, seized by an overwhelming to sort the drawer out. No musts, or shoulds, or feeling that my entire self-worth is bound up with the end result; simply a desire to restore order to the bottles and tins. It seems I can let go of the self-loathing without having to let go of the tidy drawer - a classic case of not chucking the baby out with the bathwater.
I knew I should have got up from my desk and gone for a walk when I had the urge for fresh air at 3 o’clock. I knew I shouldn’t have gone back to my desk after dinner. I knew I should have stopped working about thirty minutes before I did. I knew, I knew, I knew. Yet despite this deep sense of knowing, I let the ego-driven part of my mind (the part that says go on, keep pushing, just do a bit more; the part that knows what I want but not what I need) dictate my behaviour. And I knew I would be paying for it later, which I am - lying wide awake in bed at gone midnight, exhausted but mind racing too much to be able to get to sleep. I knew, but I wouldn’t listen.
One of the goals in my happiness project targets for January is to get some fresh air everyday. I work from home a lot and it’s amazing how easy it is for a day, or even two, to pass by without me having to set foot outdoors. The motivation behind this specific target came from a sensation I noticed a couple of months ago whilst out walking. After about twenty minutes or so, I felt my shoulders drop and my entire body relax, as if letting out a corporeal sigh. The feeling was so heavenly that I didn’t dare hope to experience it again, but sure enough it happened next time I walked for that length of time too. The knock-on effects of this feeling must be good, I concluded. And yes, I’ve had the same sensation when out getting my daily dose of fresh air during this last week too. Furthermore, I’ve noticed another positive side-effect: gratitude. In particular, thankfulness for the richness and variety of my life - something that I am mentally aware of, but don’t always truly appreciate. Consciously endeavouring to go outside has focused my attention on this because the sights I’ve seen on each sojourn have been so different. Last week, I developed a newfound fondness for two parks near to where I live. So far this week, I’ve been up and over Waterloo Bridge, through Covent Garden and into Bloomsbury (all at dusk - the best time of all) and along some quiet lanes and a canal towpath in rural Surrey, with the added joy of watching little children excitedly on their way home from school.
Gratitude is, fortutiously, a major contributor towards happiness. So the project seems to be working, albeit not always in the ways that I was expecting.
Throughout The Happiness Project, Gretchen Rubin refers to the little rules and mottos that she uses to guide her life choices and the ones that she picks up during her year dedicated to becoming happier. She gives these various names, such as her twelve commandments and the secrets of adulthood. When I first read the book last month, I didn’t think I had any such dictums but I’m beginning to realise that there are a few - the kinds of phrases that appear in my journal over and over, or I find myself muttering under my breath when stressed or fed up. “Proverbs for living” sprung to mind when thinking about how to describe them, so that’s the label I’ll give them. Three have been relevant in the last couple of days, so they’re the ones I’ll share in case they should resonate with anyone else too:
Location does not maketh the lifestyle
Intelligence is a gift, not a virtue
Change is the only always