Reflections and glistenings

Each year since the start of 2010, I have found the practice of selecting a three-word mantra to be one which grounds and guides me through the coming year. This mantra accompanies me as the months pass, it reminds me of the priorities which I had seen as key for the year ahead and keeps me on track. As we now move well into the final quarter of this especially strange year, I am minded to reflect on my three words for 2020. Words which were chosen carefully, without any inkling of the times ahead. And words which now feel to be eerily apt.

I can still see the expression of disbelief when I described the world before the internet to my grandchildren a couple of years ago. Their faces displaying complete bewilderment. And as for myself, I too find it hard to remember having to search for information, in dictionaries and encyclopedias. Waiting for libraries to open for reference books, poetry quotes and other sources of facts and clarification. Back then, booking tickets and hotels on the phone or by post, and physically going into the bank on a regular basis were the way things were done. Now there has been this entity called the internet in most of our lives for less than half of my lifetime but it is hard to recall what it was really like before it became such an integral part of our lives. When we first got email addresses they looked odd in their lower case formats. Often we would have to share the internet connection and take it turns every day or so to access our emails. Then, when technology became more accessible, we had modems which connected us at home, through twanging phone lines which disconnected our phones while we spent short bursts of time online. How quickly we forget what it was really like.

When I think back to the start of 2020, I am not sure I had even heard of coronavirus. Those little snippets of news reporting that a new virus had appeared in Wuhan were yet to register in our consciousness. Far away, distant in miles, time zones and worlds. And although Asia was very familiar to me, this faraway illness and images of a deserted city seemed unreal and almost fictional. How quickly that was to change.

As the situation in Wuhan was intensifying, the three word mantra which I had chosen for 2020 had formed and was whispering in my ear. “Still, dwell and glisten”, it encouraged me.  When I went abruptly into isolation in mid-March, life did physically come to a standstill. While I was no longer venturing any further than the garden gate to put out the bin and had truly stilled, my mind had not. Anxiety dreams, shock at the impact of the pandemic and a major shift to a completely ‘work from home’ modality meant that my mind was in overdrive. Such an irony as the intent of the word “still” was to motivate me to pause, reflect and settle in my new space. While my mind has been more difficult to “still” I have found time and intent to meditate. and complemented this with a fascination in watching the garden grow around me. This has motivated me to pause and capture this in words and photographs. There is so much that I would have missed had I been living my pre-pandemic non-isolated life.

My second word was “dwell” and intended to remind and encourage me to make my little place a home, fixing the many tasks which need to be done and getting to know the community I had chosen. I had been working my way through those tasks, month by month, and hoping that many would be completed as the end of the year approached. I had become involved with the local writing group and other community organisations and with the lighter evenings arriving, I was looking forward to getting to know neighbours. Isolation intensified the focus of my second word. Being in total self-isolation meant that I was now dwelling completely in my new space, working from the kitchen table with my laptop at the wrong height and using a funky chair in bright and fun kitenge fabric from Rwanda. I was able to spend lunchtimes in the garden, and out of the corner of my eye I could see the hedge growing rapidly while on Zoom calls. And the more the situation continued and we normalised this strange new life, the more I was thankful that the timing of COVID-19’s arrival came after my move here. That I was able to dwell in a peaceful space, surrounded by reminders gathered on my path here. This word is central to my 2020 mantra, and central to maintaining a sense of being grounded through these months.

My third word is “glisten”. It arrived as a late surprise, when I was trying to decide between two other words with similar meanings (enlighten and illuminate). So often when I am selecting my three words, one comes along unexpectedly, and I wonder where it was hiding. Glisten was perfect as I started 2020. It was simple but extraordinary, and required an interaction and cooperation. As I revisit those words which I wrote as the sun was setting on 2019, in those long ago pre-COVID-19 days, I find them intensely resonant.

We all have light in us that shines, and we all have the potential to make things glisten. This encourages me to be creative, solution focused and optimistic and to keep my eyes open for those tiny, extraordinary moments we can miss when our minds and thoughts are dark.

As autumn progresses, and the northern winter approaches I feel the need to hold on to these words. The situation has been worsening over the past weeks and we know that this winter will have dark moments. More than ever, there is a need to look for glistenings of hope all around us, like raindrops gently held on the leaf of ladies’s mantle, and where we can, shine a little light to cause a glistening.

One hundred more days

A ladybird shelters on a raspberry leaf, before the rain comes.

Words have been hesitant on this space, for one hundred more days it seems. One hundred days passed by in June. Long, light, warm days where we could slowly connect in outside, safe spaces. The summer breezes softly shifted the raw edges of fear, placing anxiety a little to the side just slightly out of focus for many of us. And as midsummer has retreated slowly into the distance, somehow another hundred days have passed. Two hundred days since that Friday evening in mid March when I closed my door on the world I knew. Two hundred days in this new isolated living.

I am not quire sure where those days have gone. But in that time the fruits have grown, ripened and mostly been eaten, baked or frozen to bring reminders of sunshine in the coming winter months. The autumnal equinox slipped quietly past us last week and the light fades from the sky three minutes earlier each day. There is a chill in the air in the mornings, and the leaves on the trees are taking on warm colours as they ready to wither and drop.

We know that the coming northern winter will bring a darkness which is not just seen in the reduced daylight, but will be accompanied by a sense of nervousness and caution. As outside spaces become less welcoming and the prevalence of illness increases, our connection with others reduces. It is time to snuggle in and find ways of keeping our spirits warm.

As the days have marched on through this strange year, I have sought and found reassurance in the patterns of nature. The little cotton buds on the pear tree have formed into confident, blushing pears. Raspberries have generously formed week after week, finding their way into breakfasts, jams and the occasional glass of prosecco. More plums than I have ever seen, have formed from those tiny little promises and been transformed into pies and plum jam. The bees have continued their work untroubled by talk of the pandemic.

Being the first year in this new garden, there have been many surprises as blooms and colours have appeared. The greatest secret was held closely by the plum tree at the front. Those little plums were so slow to ripen, remaining hard to the touch so I brought a couple inside to see if they might ripen more quickly. A few days later, with no noticeable change, I bit into one. To discover that it was not a plum at all, but a mischievous tiny red apple in a very convincing disguise.

These little plums held a surprise for me
On close inspection – they are tiny, deep red apples.

Those patterns of nature continue, and the birds are the birds are gathering in preparation for their seasonal journey southwards. Lights are switched on a little earlier each day and soon it will be dark before the work day has finished.

We know that the days and weeks ahead will bring dark moments for many of us. Yet, we also know that the days will continue onwards. Every new sunrise and sunset, taking us towards a new season of regrowth and brighter, sunnier days. And as we move ever forwards, I am reminded that this too shall pass. We need to live in these days, not to wish them away, but to bring our own warmth and hope while we do wish for healthier, less precarious times.

The season transitions, leaves falling on the still green grass, as a bee gathers late season pollen.

Change of Scene

The past weeks have seen me on a journey of the mind, body and spirit. One journey has been a physical one. I have long yearned to visit Ireland, and previous visits have been short and never far out of Dublin or Belfast. I have also long hankered after a writing retreat and kept returning to the details of a memoir retreat in rural, western Ireland. My return to Europe provided the time and space to take that opportunity. And so, at the start of September I travelled to Dublin on a one way ticket, clutching my notebooks and writing, a train ticket to Galway and a booking for Bed and Breakfast on the way. That journey deserves its own story, and space and will be told here very soon. My story today is one closer to home.

I returned from Ireland a few days ago, to a realisation. As I had travelled northwards through the counties of Clare, Galway, Mayo, Sligo and Donegal I was taken aback at how quickly the trees were changing colour. Of course, I knew in my head that it has been many years since I have been in this part of the world as autumn takes hold, but I clearly had not absorbed this. Every corner we turned, brought a vision of yellowing and crimson leaves against evergreen and slower-to-turn green leaves. The colours continued to surprise me as I travelled Scotland-ward through Derry and Belfast and across the water to Cairnryan. The last time I experienced autumn was in 1999, and here we are 18 years later. And how I continue to be taken by surprise!

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The seasons in my years overseas have been centred around rains and the mirror dry seasons, pre-rains and cooler months. My returns to Scotland have generally been in the UK summer months, and so I have become conditioned to seeing green grass, leafy trees, heather and even bluebells while here. In Asia and Africa my only experience of a similar change of seasons was in Mongolia, where the flowers and leaves died in a matter of days as the temperatures plummeted with the first snows. This was the rapid transition into the long wintry period which would see -25C considered to be warm. Furthermore, the arid climate in Mongolia meant that the landscape was less forested and the steppe vast in its expanse of grassland. Not so many leaves to fall. While the season was called autumn, it was not visibly autumnal in my memory.

Now back in Scotland, as my being readjusts to the flora around me, I also realise that I need to become reacquainted with bird and animal life which was once very familiar. Gone are the sounds of sunbirds, mysterious singing warblers, chirruping geckoes and noisy frogs. Now I hear seagulls, starlings and other new sounds in the morning.

As I was walking through a nearby woodland park the other day, my friend pointed out a few of the Scottish birds around us. She is a bird and nature lover and able to identify the sounds and sights around easily. A little robin hid just from view on a tree above, his tutting call the only giveaway to his presence. My friend then spotted a pair of little grebes, the smallest diving grebe I learned. They seemed to be a couple, the male with his russet neck and the female in her more muted blackish grey plumage. From what I could see, he would dive while she bobbed on the surface. When he surfaced, often a little distance from where he had disappeared, they would speed towards each other and he would gently feed her, before diving once more.

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We continued to walk around the small loch, observing and trying not to intrude on life going on all around us as I learned and relearned about my Scottish surroundings.

No matter what the setting is, in which part of the world and whatever the climate might be I am humbly reminded of one important message. It is so important to pause, and to take in what is happening around us. We might think we have become used to our surroundings, but we can always look with new eyes, and listen with newly tuned ears. It is not physically what we see and hear, but how we look, listen and interpret what is around us that brings appreciation.

I must keep reminding myself of this as this period of adjustment leads to gradual settling.

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