Stepping gently into 2021 with three little words

As the sun rose on this first day of 2021, I could almost hear a collective sigh of relief as 2020 moved into our past.  For sure this has been a year that none of us will forget and one that we will remember with a mix of emotions. A year which shocked us to the core, exposing the world’s vulnerabilities and inequalities while bringing countless examples of dedication, selflessness and incredible courage amidst the destruction of COVID-19

When I selected my three words a year ago, I had no inkling of what 2020 would bring and the very different lives we would be leading throughout the year. On Hogmanay last year, I landed in Edinburgh after a a few days visiting Prague, a dream which I had held for decades. I would bring in the New Year in my new home in Scotland. Little did I know that I would spend every single night in my new home since then, a whole uninterrupted year under the same roof.

In October I reflected on the words I selected a year ago, oblivious to what lay ahead. I was particularly taken to read my thoughts as the year started:

“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”.

How important that was to be as we entered isolation and lockdown in March, and I focused in especially on new priorities, and taking delight in the new discoveries which the passing seasons gifted in my garden. The fact that the words proved to be so eerily apt, was an affirmation of this practice of choosing a three word mantra.

Selecting three words this year brings a new dimension, knowing that the months ahead will see continued challenge as the new strains of COVID-19 and winter fragility test us to the limits. It has been strange to choose my words with COVID-19 looming large, and I have been striving to see beyond the immediacy yet I find it impossible to ignore it. The bigger picture sees COVID-19 very much embedded in it.

I trust that my words will carry me through any eventuality, whilst acknowledging the significant one of COVID-19 underpins a great deal. As always, there has been a great deal of thought and deliberation over several weeks, with numerous variations being tried and tasted as this mantra has taken its final shape. And now, my three words are ready to share. The three words to guide and protect me through 2021 are:

Patience, calibration and stardust

Patience

My first word  is patience. This reminds me that a great deal is out of our hands, yet we have to take charge of how we handle what happens to us. Similar to that cancer diagnosis of 2009, when I quickly realised that while I could not control the diagnosis and its implications, there were many options open to me in how I responded. We need continued patience in these covid times as solutions and improvement take time to reach the wider community. We have been living in isolation and fear for months already, and we need to be patient as medical science brings solutions to the most vulnerable first and gradually reaches more widely.

While this is not purely about covid and is much more widely applicable, it is hard to see beyond this. Patience brings with it the suggestion of kindness and respect. We have been living in a protracted crisis and this has brought out the best and worst in us. This is challenging us in ways we could not have imagined and many of us are struggling. The magnitude of this pandemic means that it is hard to lean on others as we know they are also being tested to the limits of their resilience. So we need to be patient with each other, kind to each other and respectful. And in particular we need to be patient and kind to ourselves.

I am again reminded that as I face new and different challenges, I need to let go of that urge to have all the answers to hand. These months have tested my health and I need to be patient as answers and, hopefully, solutions are identified. I need to be guided by the natural world on my doorstep and learn how to be patient.

Calibration

My second word is calibration and is also brought to the surface by the covid context. Like many others I am highly appreciative that I have my own safe space, and I have been able to continue working. However, this new predominantly online world has brought a contradiction. Thanks to Zoom and other platforms, we have been able to carry on with most of our tasks and activities both professionally and personally. My book group and writing group soon moved online, and were critical to my mental well-being particularly during the early months of isolation. And indeed, there were added bonuses that were only possible online. Our book group were able to invite the writers and translators of some of the books we were reading – so much easier to ask an author to pop into a Zoom call for half an hour from several hundred miles away.

Gradually though, I have found that many hours online, initially in an unsuitable space (the kitchen) brought aches, pains and a weariness that saw a shift in balance. I am not alone in finding it hard to join an online group in the evening after a day of Zooming. I found myself increasingly Zoom-scunnered (not a word I want to take into 2021) and creative activities, especially writing, have suffered.

Calibration will remind me to keep a close eye on maintaining a healthy balance and fine-tuning regularly to ensure that the wires do not snap if they become too taut. I am eager to retain this renewed sense of what matters most and embrace those everyday, simple treasures. This year has shown us how fragile we are, as well as how strong we are.

Stardust

I have long found the expression “we are all made of stardust” to be intriguing and I have never really sought to properly understand it. I just hold on to that wonderful idea that we are all somehow magical and other-worldly. For some reason, I have kept returning to this word as I have been shaping my three word mantra. And that has entailed trying to find out what it actually means. Happily, Professor Google has enlightened me and explains the detail in this article, and notes in particular that:

“most of the material that we’re made of comes out of dying stars, or stars that died in explosions. And those stellar explosions continue. We have stuff in us as old as the universe, and then some stuff that landed here maybe only a hundred years ago. And all of that mixes in our bodies.”

Being made of stardust both reduces and elevates us. It reminds us that we are very much part of the natural order. This is an important equaliser as we are all composed of the same matter. Yet it also makes us feel special, each of us is a star in our own right.

We know that the stars become visible once the sky darkens and gazing into the night sky is hypnotizing. Covid may have brought a great deal of darkness, yet we do not have to look far to see a universe full of stars. As we move forward into 2021, stardust reminds me to see beyond the darkness and to delve deep to find that stardust that we are made from. It is in each of us. As we look up at the night sky, we are reminded that we are tiny and insignificant in the universe and that nature is incredibly powerful. My mantra will remind me that each of us is unique and extraordinary, yet ordinary. Consistently contradictory. And we dwell in a shared universe.

The promise of spring, a sign of hope in the snow

Now my three words are in place, and I am ready to move forward into 2021, with patience, calibration and stardust in and at my heart. May the year be kinder to us all.

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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