Seeking patience and the whole truth

So, living in Iceland, four months in. A watched pot never boils. Waiting to feel settled and at ease feels like waiting for your hair to grow, tugging expectantly at the ends everyday: for a long time, things don’t seem to change at all. Then sometime later you look up into a mirror, brushing your teeth, scrambling to be ready in time for whatever it is next: and notice that your hair has somehow shot past your shoulders and reaches down your back. Wasn’t it just yesterday barely long enough to tie back? So it is, here.

At first I had acres of time to fill up, with wandering and drawing and writing and thinking. Nowhere particular to be; no threads. My feet didn’t know my way home. Still a stranger in a strange land. I was on the outside looking in to this city with so much going on. Yet I was so eager to build a life here, I wanted everything at once: friends, a job, a favourite café, the whole tapestry. But I have had to weather my haste.

It took four weeks to find a place to live in the city. It took six weeks to find my job. Oh it sounds so little time now, in retrospect! But days stretched with uncertainty, with ‘maybe I’ll never make friends’, with ‘what if I can’t find a job’, with the creeping underlying worst doubt of all ‘maybe I’m too old, too sad and too tired to start from scratch’. Over the top, but there you go. That’s worrying for you.

A treat when delivering things from one cafe to the other branch

Then, after two months, I found I had enough threads to begin to weave together. I go to wonderful, challenging, nurturing yoga classes three times a week (which started as a perfect birthday present from Jóhann). I navigate the city enough to get where I need to go without checking my phone every thirty seconds. I go to work, I stumble over the same Icelandic phrases everyday, I know the recipes by heart and the quirks of the equipment: the sieve that leaks from the handle at a certain angle, food processor with lid that needs a little help to close. I know where tea and skyr and pesto are in the supermarket. I rack up library fines like always (bad habits don’t get left at the airport, unfortunately). I sleepwalk through the changing rooms at the swimming pool and am in my favourite hot pot before I know it. These routines, the paths I tread everyday grow like a cocoon around me. I am home, now.

And it seems that when I got busy working full-time, and going to yoga after work, and taking a trip out of the city at weekends to see nature, and so on, I stopped thinking so much about whether I would ever feel at home. And I just did.

On the road to Akranes

Acceptance of what is. Patience. Letting go of worrying. Lessons I learn and forget over and over again. Sometimes I rage at myself for making the same mistakes repeatedly, but my wise one reminded me once that when I learned to ride a bike, I most likely fell a lot of times. So every time I fall I get back on the saddle and one day, without even noticing it, I will just keep on going.
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In a perfect example of the tyranny of perfection, I wrote this post six weeks ago aiming to post it as a four months on review. But I thought I needed a drawing to go with it and I never got around to doing one, so the words were left by the wayside. I think that I will try and take my own advice: I will accept that to keep this blog going, I cannot wait around for the time and inclination to write the best words and make the best pictures I can. Because the expectations I have of myself get bigger and bigger in the meantime and then I can never meet them, and so another project is left in the dust.

So I return to this post. What I wrote for four months stays true for six months. I will add a little more. I have my moments of wailing ‘I want to go home!’ but more often than not I find my heartbeat slowed, and a calm feeling of familiarity here. I start to feel fond of Reykjavik. Fond; it feels almost like a sense of nostalgia for something that is still in existence. Perhaps in my heart I anticipate that I will leave in the not too far future, so I guard myself from a fatal head-over-heels tumble for the city. I feel affection for Reykjavik, not the zealous crush of a tourist, not love at first sight, but an amicable balance. I rather enjoy my walks to Sandholt bakery to pick up bread for work, I enjoy them even more when I go first thing and the streets are mine. I like hearing the relentless creak of the neighbourhood trampolines and the distant squeaks of children making the most of the summer sun. I like having a library card and wandering round the fleamarket on a Sunday and the routines of the swimming pool: card beeping at the turnstile, yellow rubber wristband opening locker with a click. I even like the showers where washing naked in the company of women of all ages and shapes and colours has become for me an unexpectedly affirming, relaxing and positive act. To undress and shower in a communal space is to say silently, I have nothing to hide, my body is acceptable, I am valid and the more I say it with actions, the more I believe it. Practice.

But let us be brutally honest, because I’ve been thinking a lot about the veneer effect of sharing things via social media and this blog and even in conversation too. Life seems all very wonderful on Instagram and I have had some time off sharing things on it because I became aware of a growing disconnect between what I posted and the totality of my experience. Not to negate what I have posted there, the coffees and sunsets and rhubarb and waterfalls, that all happened and is true, but I am guilty of editing. I tell the truth but it is not the whole truth. I make rhubarb tarts and custard-based ice cream and dandelion green pesto at work and then I plod home and I cannot face cooking anymore, cannot even face being in the kitchen where I might have to interact with other humans. Johann picks up the slack, all the time, makes dinner and washes up and brings me tea and porridge in the morning. Maybe we get a pizza. Maybe I spend all evening pondering the meaning of life and work myself up into a black hole and feel utterly despondent and lost and hopeless – and then, hey, I get up in the morning, feel a little silly for being so catastrophic the night before, go to work, and take a picture of the swirls I make on my latte. Who am I cheating with this narrative? EVERYONE. Myself, because I am hiding the sad and bad and mad aspects of my life and in doing so I am unwittingly telling myself and everyone else that it is unacceptable to feel sad and bad and mad. But it is okay. This practice of hiding the negative aspects of my life and showing only the sunny side of myself is not in keeping with my swimming pool shower revelations. It seems that as in yoga, I learn first with my body and it provides the gateway to learn with my mind. Or do away with the thinking mind altogether, perhaps.

Instagram me
Normal me

Moving to another country does not mean leaving your issues behind, though it might feel that way at first. They are written over with novelty and might take a few months to appear. Then the same old patterns emerge. I have struggled with my mental health, wellbeing, equilibrium, whatever you like to call it, this whole year, since Calais broke my running streak of ‘good times’. In fact, I would consider that this year marks the second round (ding ding ding) of depression for me. It’s something that I could have expected, I think it’s commonly held that people who have one major depressive episode (2014-2015, holla) in their lives will be likely to have another one. To cut a long story short last time around I dropped everything and thanks to the incredibly loving and generous support of my family and large dollop of luck I was able to concentrate only on getting better- figuring out what that meant for me. There was swathes of time to simply learn to ‘be’ without the usual pressures of everyday life: work, a social life, a relationship.

This time around I am trying to do things differently. For the past six months I have been finding a home in a new country, attempting to make new friends, working full-time in a different job, and building a strong relationship with the one I intend on sticking with (aforementioned porridge-bringer). I have simultaneously been attempting to find my way out of depression and anxiety and back to full health again. Progress is slower and at many times seems non-existent. However, I have an inkling that recovering this way will give me even greater resilience;  I will have learnt how to nurture myself whilst keeping a foot in the maelstrom of everyday life, rather than needing to drop everything and hibernate.

A moment of beauty at the sea near our house. May I always have eyes for them.

So now I have aired all my laundry (metaphorically only, of course it’s all in a heap on the floor) I will sign off. I am intending to post some photos and words soon about some nice things that have happened this summer – funny that acknowledging the rubbish times makes me feel happier and more ready to share the good too. Honesty is the best policy. It’s hard to find the right words to talk about these things but I feel that it’s important to try so I will keep trying. Thanks for reading if any eyes make it this far 🙂

 

Learning to rest

My mind feels like a pot brimming with thoughts, brewing for hours as I go about my day, then too heavy to lift and pour into this space when I get home and slump into the armchair. Too many to put into action, at the moment, when I feel tired after work. A snapshot of the pot contents:

Start fermenting things: sauerkraut, beetroot kvass, kimchi. Pot on some of the herbs on the windowsill. Sow more seeds indoors and out. Clear the outdoor bed of weeds and cover in compost. Start collecting food waste in the kitchen for composting. Draw more. Write about all this. Bake bread. Acquire mushroom spawn and start growing mushrooms at work. Make a plan for growing herbs and salad at work. Test new recipes. Meet a friend for coffee. Go swimming. Meditate. Make a planting plan for my former wwoof hosts, Greyhound Brewery. Write letters.

These are the things I daydream about doing, as I wash up, as I walk home, as I stir soup. Still, I think I am learning to prioritise and thus most of these seeds remain unsprouted (and in the case of the gardening plans, quite literally unsown). The most important thing I need to do at the moment is work out how to rest, and how to lose the guilt that slips like a shadow stuck to the heels of these ‘things to do’, a shadow that grows darker when they aren’t done.

I need to rest because I’m working 40 hours a week, at my new job, which I love, and which takes concentration and effort as I make new routines and learn how to get things right. I need to rest because my mind still fizzles with a hum that comes from making a home in a different country, where there are new sights and sounds on the morning walk, where my brain tries to unscramble the language constantly, where I am making new connections with new people, where I don’t know where to find toothpicks in the supermarket. It strikes me, writing this, that actually I need to learn that I don’t have to justify my need for rest.

However, I’m trying to pull this thought from the pot and share it – that learning how to be at peace with resting feels like the greatest task of all. To be at ease with yourself when you are not doing something that makes you feel useful, successful, or beautiful means to find fulfillment within your own being and not from external sources. Which is helpful when everything outside you crashes to the ground, as I have known before and think I will know again sometime.

Recently, in a low mood, I had the vision of a bottomless hole, a black hole into which a jug of water pours, but never fills. The spiritual equivalent of ‘in one ear and out the other’. This image comes closest to making sense, for myself, the importance of working towards (living towards, being towards) finding peace in myself. Because everything else is fleeting, and I’m so tired of being tossed on stormy seas, being elated then despondent then joyful then miserable.

So this week, under Johann’s suggestion, I have tried to prioritise rest, in whatever form that takes. And wonderfully, it’s kind of great finding a real, day to day, way of tackling the ‘how to find peace’ question. Whenever these exciting, creative, action thoughts have bubbled up in the evenings, I have tried to choose what feels like ‘rest’ over action, which for me means reading and yoga over everything else. In a confusing way writing this blog does not count as rest so I am currently not obeying my own guidelines. On the other hand, I am feeling much less guilty than usual about that, so I’m doing something right. Oh, what a minefield.

This is all big people stuff that I am in no way trying to present myself as an authority on. Nothing here is original gems of wisdom from yours truly. For genuine gems, I have found Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now to be most eye opening book on the matter of learning how to be. And I learn a lot from talking to Johann who is the real sage. Yoga shows me a path out of despair, and so many other patchwork pieces of experience have led me to this point. Rather, I present my credentials as human being who struggles but sees there is another way. In talking about my journey, narcissistic and utterly pointless though it sometimes seems, I hope maybe another person would find something that helped them on their own journey.

On a side note: I so often think of big problems in the world in contrast to my ‘struggle’ and I feel immense privilege and, yes, a great big anvil of guilt, that I have a warm home, food and safety, yet I often feel so despondent. Many people are struggling for warmth, food and safety, and don’t have the ability to launch into a navel-gazing, inner peace-finding experiment. Then I try to hold on to the idea that to transform the world, you have to transform yourself first. I think that’s not worded very well, and the change I want for myself is not an adding but a sloughing away of unnecessary habits, thought, action, and a radical return. But that’s the essence, and it’s my lived experience, from being in Calais, that without re-finding the peace that is in all of us, I am not able to work towards peace outside of myself either.

If you’ve read this far, thank you. I hope something resonated somewhere, for someone. The photo at the top is of lava cooled into rock, in the Rift Valley, where two tectonic plates meet. Hot flow in the tempest finding stillness.

 

 

 

Foodie Fridays: growing in the far north

It gives us a lot of happiness to watch our plants grow. The windowsill garden is lush now. I’m really surprised how fast everything came up – rocket, mustard, dill, coriander, and chives within days. The parsley hung about and took a week at least; still far quicker than I thought! Then again, the days are getting longer than I’ve ever experienced before. The sun is up around 4 and sets at about 10.30, with light still in the sky a while longer. Our plants are on our bedroom indoor windowsill, between the window and the curtain so they soak up all that light. They’re also advantageously placed over a radiator. In the first week of their little lives it was snowing and cold outside, we had the window open to get air into the room and I feared for them. But with some radiator heat and the overall warmth of our flat (permanently toasty) they did fine.

2017-05-12-06.40.11-1.jpg.jpgAt first they all seemed quite leggy but they don’t look so bad now, maybe as we’ve had some actual sun lately. We are yet to eat them: I think this weekend I will start snipping the rocket. All this grew in three weeks. The basil and tomato we bought as plants, as I thought we wouldn’t be able to grow from seed and get them to fruit before winter sets in, given that we started this tiny plot at the end of April.

This is about food, yet these plants are worth so much more than just their nutritional value. In a city where the trees are straining to open their buds, still, in mid-May: I can see green leaves soon as I wake up. When I stand over them the basil releases its scent first, reminding me of warmth. Having something to look after is a balm for the soul too, telling me in small but profound ways, that my actions matter. The water I give them is gratefully received. I turn the pots sporadically so they grow straighter and stronger. I will learn to care for myself the way I care for others.

2017-05-01-07.00.31-1.jpg.jpgI love the way the chive seeds sprout, sending up one tall limb that holds its own seed aloft; look what I came from. We have so many of each plant that we can conduct experiments, which was half the purpose of growing things here, to learn. Some chives might make it outdoors where our landlady has, to my delight, given over a couple metres squared growing space to us. It’s tucked around the corner so I hadn’t seen it. There’s even two compost bays! I was so gleeful to find out. So, this weekend I hope to have a look at the patch, do some weeding and get things going.

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Japanese giant mustard

When you’re staring at empty pots and full seed packets, when the garden is an idea not a touchable reality, it is so hard to imagine that anything really, truly, grows. And yet, it does. That is a thought I need to take to heart, for the times I fall into a gloom and can’t see past it. Day always follows night. Small seeds turn into plants with fruit and flowers to seeds again. I know this; I lose it, find it, lose it but I know it deep down. I will grow to know it always, I hope.

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The romance of maintenance: keeping well when you’re feeling fine

The ‘romance of maintenance’ comes to mind to describe the last week. The phrase was introduced to me on my permaculture design course, and used to describe what we don’t have in our society: a love of keeping things going once the initial excitement fades. I can’t remember who coined the phrase and a cursory Google reveals only that one episode of a TV series about architecture was titled as such. But the phrase really stuck in my mind. We need to develop a romance of maintenance in order to keep our gardens healthy and productive, and the same is true of our lives.

I am a person who has struggled very much with depression and anxiety in the past, and the present. Over winter, when old blues reared their heads again, I determined to focus on what helped me regain wholeness last time around. Yoga, meditation, eating healthily, exercise. Last time around I also took an extended trip through the world of pills and therapy, with variable results. I came out the other side and won’t deny that part of my journey, but this time I chose to try and regain my balance using the tools that I felt had helped me most to maintain it for a year. 

The very fact that I had to start again at yoga, meditation, exercise and good food indicates why I was in the slump once more. I had stopped doing them. Over the spring and summer of 2016 I was a practising yogi, a smug blender of nut-based snacks, a gardener. I had already without noticing dropped meditation, which had been so helpful to me the year before when I recovered from major depression. Still, I was always active, working in a plant nursery, wwoofing in a vegetable garden. Things were good. I started going out to Calais and volunteering in the Help Refugees warehouse. I was full of fervour and energy and future.  
In August I moved to Calais full-time and threw myself into work. There is so much to say about this time – precious and brilliant and joyful and terrible and sad. For the purposes of this post, I will focus on what I wasn’t doing while I was busy falling in love and working six days a week managing a team of people packing thousands of food parcels a week. 

I wasn’t doing yoga, that’s for sure. I most definitely was not meditating. I wasn’t taking breaks in a day that started at 8 and finished at 7. I was living in a caravan on the warehouse site and for days at a time I wasn’t leaving the compound as I semi-affectionately called it. I was eating delicious food, to give credit to Johann who cooked some magic from tins every night on a little camping stove. But I was also shovelling sweets and chocolate down all day, as a substitute for rest, a short term energy boost that needed pepping up every other hour. Things I hadn’t eaten in months and had come to regard as toxic were being merrily consumed for the tiny bubble of well-being the brain received on first taste. 

I was taking on more and more and not only taking on but taking in, taking the responsibility of the need in to my heart and feeling it crack under the weight. When I made mistakes I lacked the ability to stand back from them. The presence that meditation and yoga had brought me had slipped away, without maintenance, and my mistakes became burdens. Old thought patterns snaked up like roots that had just lain dormant. Lack of confidence, lack of belief, blaming myself for not being good enough, strong enough, tough enough. 

I was working myself into a hole, in a routine that couldn’t be sustained. People around me told me to take breaks, buoyed me up when I felt down, but I’d gone too far and couldn’t claw myself back in that environment. In the aftermath of the eviction and destruction of the camp, I left. 

I’m sharing this with anyone who’ll listen, with some trepidation, because it hurts to admit how I crumbled, when many of the people I worked with stayed strong, stayed there, stayed helping. But what I have learned in retrospect is the utmost importance of maintaining the things that keep you well, even when you feel well. Especially when you feel well! Because those times when I felt on top of the world: when I met and bonded and worked with the most incredible people, every day, when every part of my being was looking forward, looking outward, looking to save the world one Aldi bag at a time: that was when I neglected to look after myself.  

It’s not that my self is more important than the other people I was trying to help; it’s that I worked myself into a state in which I could no longer help others. I took my eye off the ball. What I should have learned from this is to find what works and stick to it through thick and thin. Treat it not as a cure but as a preventative measure. Make what keeps me sane an immovable part of my daily life.

But guess what? It’s still so darn tempting when I’m having a good day to say, I’ll just do the yoga tomorrow. I’ll let myself fall asleep without using the Headspace app for meditation first. After all, I’m good. I’m fine! 

Some days later, after my routine slips, my composure slips too. This week I’ve had a wonderful time, walking and exploring and swimming and drawing and meeting people. But there have also been some deep dark moods, as if out of the blue, and it’s only when I wail ‘what’s wrong with me!? I’m doing everything right!’ and look back that I twig. Yes, for the first two weeks of moving here I did yoga and meditation every single day. Then I guess I skipped some days of one or the other. The past week, I did yoga twice and meditation twice. I completely forget to stop several times a day in my thoughts and find presence. And just like that, my protective routine is no longer study enough to keep out the black holes. 

So this week, my focus is to appreciate how good my life situation is right now, without losing sight of the healing routine that keeps me calm. I think the difficulty is in accepting at the peak of your happiness that you have within you the capacity for such darkness. It’s more comfortable to pretend that things are good and will always be that way. Much harder to accept that things are good, but they haven’t been in the past, and they might not be in the future without facing your truth and accepting the work you need to do to be ok. 

So I need the lesson more than once, that’s okay. I have hope that eventually I’ll learn once and for all that to keep myself well, some things are non-negotiable. I need to find in myself the romance of maintenance, the every-single-day dedication to the yoga and mindfulness that I believe can bring me balance.