Best bun, ever.

Those of you who have been following this blog as it takes its infant steps across the digital carpet* may have noticed that it has had a makeover recently. Before then, I was reduced to weeping and swearing like a Clydeside docker at my laptop. What the hell was a widget? How was I supposed to know if I needed to tag things, or use a standard format and how come my illustrations wouldn’t fit on the welcome page?

A friend helpfully pointed out that my blog looked a bit corporate, then confessed that she hadn’t a clue how to help make it look better. Cheers, mate. Other friends made soothing sounds and muttered something encouraging about how it was the content, not the packaging that counted, but…och. I mean OCHHHHHH. I’m supposed to have a degree in graphic design and illustration for heaven’s sake. So what if it was handed out in a bygone age when we ( I kid you not) learned our typography skills by slotting little tiny metal legs with individual letters impressed on one end into other metal slotty things ( technical term) which were, in turn, slotted into big metal clampy things ( another arcane technical term) and then inked up and slooowwwwly thudded down onto bits of paper. At which point, I’d invariably discover that I’d put the d or the p or the q or the b round the wrong way. And out it would all come, and I’d begin again. Oh, how we suffered, just to put together one single paragraph of type. This single post, back then, would’ve taken three miserable afternoons in the Case Room, enduring the wrath and scorn of the grumpy printer whose karmic destiny it was to instil the rudiments of typography in a group of delinquent art students. Poor man.

Where was I? Ah, yes. Making my WordPress blog look good. So. On I went, trying to ignore the mess of the home page, the fact that I seemed to have spawned not one, but three blogs and the feeling that I was adrift in a sea of technical jargon, surrounded by much evidence that every single other person using this site appeared to be terrifyingly accomplished, design-savvy IT gurus. I’d landed on WordPress like a newbie at Wimbledon armed with nothing other than a burning ambition to play using  an old, saggy Slazenger. Oh…Miss Joan Hunter Dunn. Oh, do shut up, Gliori.

Until…an email arrived from my friend the Bookwitch. Being a Witch, and not just a common-or-garden Witch, but  a witch who blogs, she had divined that I was making a mess of my attempts to prettify my blog. And offered help. Real, practical help. Hers plus the assistance of her husband, the Resident IT Wizard.

Really? I mean, why would you want to be trapped in your own gorgeous sunroom with a waffling, flapping and deeply confused illustrator who can barely recall her own password, let alone decide what template she’d like to use on her new blog? Why? This, friends and neighbours, is an important question. Why would you do this to yourself?

I think the answer lies in kindness, in all of us working together, sharing skills, giving up of our most precious commodity ( time) and also, I may be alone in thinking this, but it was fun. I really enjoyed spending an afternoon in the company of a BookWitch and an IT Wizard. We talked of many things ; politics ( how could we not?) long-distance walking, far-flung daughters, how long a kilo of pasta can stave off starvation and finally, of buns. Vanilla tea was poured, followed by a plate of buns.

Ohhhhhhhhh. The buns. Imagine, if you will, a brioche-type dough, but denser than that. A reinforced bread/cake hybrid. Imagine it baked to a shyly golden hue, then cooled and its little top sliced off. Imagine it is then gently filled with a grainy paste, something like marzipan ( I love the old word ‘Marchpane’ for this sweetmeat) but far more granular. On top of this is piled a pillowy, billowy cloud of whipped cream, whereupon the little lid is replaced on top.

Behold. The Bookwitch’s Lent bun. My illustration doesn’t even come close to doing it justice. A thousand thankyous to you and your husband for making my day. It was, as the young people say, MIGHTY.

*Apologies for this. Digital carpet? Who writes this stuff?

Lost & Found

IMG_3287Atop a hill near Peebles, contemplating heading onto higher ground into snow, we paused to take stock. Note the dog. The dog with the amazing, finely-tuned nose. She is smelling the wind, delicately picking out each and every scent that it brings her. The wind smells of snow and heather, of sweat and goretex, of sheep and rabbits and, hang on, of guinea pigs?

But I’m racing ahead here. Let’s just stick with the dog for the moment.  Her name is Cara, and we love her extravagantly, all the more so because she’s nine and we are also, probably in dog-years, close to nine too. In short, none of us are exactly in the first flower of youth. Anyhoo – I digress. This day had been pre-arranged, inked in diaries, put off and rescheduled but finally fixed upon for a long hill-walk, and we were packed and equipped for a good day out on the hills ; sandwiches, fruitcake, tea, oatcakes and if we peered through binoculars, we could just about see the splendid frontage of Peebles Hydro which, if we felt in need of rescue by way of tea and scones, we could try to walk the miles between us and it and hopefully get there before they stopped serving such delights.

However, the fates had something different in mind. A little curved ball for you? Or, how about two? An hour before this photograph was taken, we’d been getting our boots on in a car park about two miles from Peebles on a very B road. In fact, it was so B it was probably a C road. The car park was, regrettably, full of trash and dog shit, and we were mincing our way around it, tying laces and complaining about the fecklessness of gaiters and the gruesomeness of dog owners who don’t clean up when Cara ( the dog? remember?) dived off into the bushes and something black and white bolted out ahead of her. The men in our company gave chase and found that what Cara had uncovered was a very small and terrified guinea pig. What to do? As we debated what on earth to do with this squeaking, tiny creature, Cara lunged back into the bushes and flushed out another, larger, cinnamon and black guinea pig. AAAARGH. Just how many of them were in there?

Fortunately, only two. Faced with the prospect of pretending we hadn’t seen them and releasing them back into the wild ( no, too cruel) or calling off the hill walk and going home ( no, we’d taken three months to synchronise diaries to actually get to this car park, let alone up the hill) we decided to make a cave for them in the back of M’s car, leave them some of Cara’s dried food and a few oatcakes and a dish of water, and head up the hills anyway. At least the car was safe and warm.

The hill walk was glorious, but we did fret. There was much training of binoculars on the car park to check that nobody was standing over our car with an axe, full of self-righteous guinea pig liberating wrath ( there wasn’t) and we worried that they might find the car too warm after their time in the snow in the car park ( they didn’t appear to). M did also consider that by the time we returned to the car, he might find its wiring and electrics somewhat compromised, but we needn’t have worried. All was well when we returned. There was an unbelievable quantity of what guinea pig owners coyly term ‘magic beans’ released all over the boot of the car. Who knew they could produce quite such copious amounts of the stuff, but it’s an old car and M is a kind man. Much kinder than I, since I wouldn’t have been anything like as sanguine if it had been my car they’d used as a latrine.

So. What to do? Well, we took them home, of course. In a bag for life. Guinea pigs for life. *Sigh* But seriously, how could their previous people do that? Peebles was Baltic. The car park was full of Jack Russells when we got back to the car. It doesn’t bear thinking about…

Look – here they are, about to emigrate from Peebles to the Lothians, the poor wee mites.

IMG_3297Found is the black and white one and Lost is cinnamon and black. M took them to the vet and discovered that they’re both boys and they were very undernourished. They lived for a few days in an old steamer trunk and then we cracked and bought them a luxury condominium with two bedrooms, in which they enjoy hot and cold running straw, herbal forage, and copious amounts of spring greens and kale interspersed with a little chef’s salad of red peppers, cucumber and carrot.

Everyone who’s met Lost and Found says the same thing – oh, boy, those are two lucky guinea pigs. And yes, I suppose compared to what might have happened in that car park, yes they are. Sort of. But… many years ago, when we buried the last of the children’s tiny caged animals under a tree in the garden ( Ruff, the beloved hamster) we both swore that we’d never, ever, ever have a small creature in a cage as a pet again. It’s just too sad. I mean who the heck do we think we are, subjecting animals to that kind of half-life?

Plus, please don’t judge me, but part of me wants to stamp my feet and sob –  we’ve only just released our last child into the wild. After forty years of parenting. ( She’s not forty, but we do have five children. ) Surely we could have  a little time where we aren’t subject to the needs of small creatures? A little time in our lives where we could, at the drop of a credit card, decide to go away for a weekend up North. Unplanned. Oh, the heady freedom of it, thwarted by two little guinea pigs. And then I hear Found’s mellifluous fluting chirrup, or I see Lost lying on his side, so full of straw he’s in danger of being classed as a paliasse rather than a rodent, and I…er…um. Melt. Soften. Make some pretty rodent-like fluting sounds myself.

Just don’t, I beg you, don’t say – oooh, they’ll give you some good ideas for your next book. Because I’m there already. Thinking. Chewing. Nibbling in fact. I appear to be trying to turn straw into gold. Or magic beans. Or something…

Night Shift : 12

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An antidote to the internet. A walk in the winter sun at high tide. An attempt to still my thoughts and gain some perspective. I keep thinking ‘this too shall pass’ and of course, it will, but… So I took my own advice and went for a walk – to this exquisitely beautiful part of East Lothian which rarely fails to lift my spirits.

Except, as I squelched along the shoreline, I wasn’t enjoying it. I wasn’t feeling grateful for being fortunate enough to live near to such beauty. I was awash in a complete information overload, horrified at events playing out across the other side of the world, aghast at our own government’s lack of spine, moral compass, ethical stance…

In the face of current affairs, I feel powerless. There are events afoot in the wider world that make me so afraid, I’m amazed that sleep is possible. There are events afoot near to home (  the looming spectre of a vast housing development ) that make me feel besieged. If it all goes according to the developers plan, our little single-storey houses on a leafy lane will be overlooked by the upper floor windows of three hundred identikit three-quarter of a million pound executive homes with their massed entitlement to the best part of the sky, light and view. For the past umpty decades, we’ve filled our eyes with that sky, that light and best of all, that view, and counted ourselves blessed.

Caveat. Blessed when I haven’t been wrangling with depressive illness ;  at such times it’s impossible to feel anything other than star-crossed.

Back to the walk along the wintry shore. My tangled thoughts carried on twining and snaking around inside my head, jumping from one bleak prospect to another ; a series of what-ifs leading off into some grey and dystopian future. With five children, I can’t just write off that future knowing that I won’t be around to see it. In truth, we have a massive stake in ensuring that there still is a decent future for all children, whether they are related to us or not. Then I had a short pause while I beat myself up for overloading the planet, diverting more resources to looking after my family, publishing books that entail chopping down trees, running a car, burning yet more trees on a woodturning stove, occasionally eating meat and generally being that hackneyed thing; an eco-hypocrite. Never let it be said that I don’t know how to have good time when out for a walk. Oh, the thinks you can think.

The high tide made walking along the shore quite a tricky proposition. At times, I had to head inland into deep mud and leaf mould, weave under jaggy branches, risk soggy boots and slither over rocks. In short, I had to pay attention to something other than my own thoughts. And at such times, solutions can suggest themselves to you. Precisely when you’re not looking for them. Solvitur ambulando, as the Romans said. It is solved by walking.

What came to me was that we are always out of control. We are always powerless. To accept this is to take a step towards true freedom. To acknowledge that no matter how tightly you cling, or holler, or clutch the sides of the river, or try to keep things from changing,  in the end, everything changes and everything is swept away. And to cling to keeping things unchanged is to waste time and energy that might be better spent experiencing the full heft and breadth of right here and now.

So ; in that vein, today is the proper launch day for Night Shift. My publishers at Hot Key in association with the excellent booksellers at Blackwells on South Bridge, Edinburgh are having a proper launch event tonight complete with a Q&A, drinks and signing of books. It’s a big day, I’m slightly nervous ( actually, make that very) but also looking forward to releasing my book into the wild and hearing what people say. And remembering that ultimately, I can’t change anyone’s opinion of the book, or my ‘take’ on the subject. All I can do is let it go and allow it to find its own path.img_2811

Night Shift : 11

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It’s almost imperceptible, but night-time is happening later and later each day. The year has definitely turned. Buds are budding, birds are singing and green shoots are poking up through the earth…you get my drift. Why this should be a cause for joy inside my head is another matter – as the light returns, I draw closer to my own particularly perverse seasonal affective disorder ; namely, the more light there is, the worse I seem to feel. Go figure. Perhaps it’s the frequent disappointment of yet another dreary Scottish summer ( sorry, Scotland, nothing personal, just…you could try harder) coupled with the knowledge that I seem to be locked in perpetual combat with myself at a time when it feels as if everyone else is looking forward to holidays, sunshine, barbies and time off…

So why am I posting this? Why advocate something I don’t feel works for me? Getting out there and looking for signs of spring? I think I’m doing it because I’m convinced that taken one day at a time, this gentle medicine works. Instead of trying to look ahead to tomorrow and worry about what’s happening on the world stage ( no, no, no, let’s just not) perhaps we need to take each day one at a time. Each hour, if necessary. Heck, let’s break it into easily assimilable minutes. So, in this minute, the birds are singing their hearts out. The grey sky is disappointing a restful  pearly grey. This moment is good. I am breathing. Nothing hurts. Well…after today’s session with the energetic yoof and super-fit people at the gym, actually everything hurts, but we’ll gloss over that, shall we? This single moment is amazing. I’m grateful to be here and now.

And hold that thought.

The small things that bring pleasure, the vanilla moments of semi-contentment ; these little things vanish when we suffer from depression. In fact, they almost turn against us, taunting us with a faint memory of what used to be, whispering in our ears that such moments will never return and it’s probably our fault for not appreciating them enough in the first place. When I had my first encounter with depression, I looked back to the postgrad year I’d just finished and couldn’t connect with who I’d been then. She ( the illustration post-grad) was made out of an altogether different substance from the soggy mess I’d become. She was busy, happy ( I thought) and looking forward to a future which seemed to be opening out like a flower. (Which it did, but not until I’d gone through a year of illness.)

A dear friend cajoled me into coming out to dinner with her and some of her women friends. ‘It’ll cheer you up’ she said, thinking that being in the company of these amazing women would somehow rub off on me, or that they could accomplish what I’d clearly been unable to do. By then, I was on a hefty dose of amitriptyline, which I suspect I wasn’t supposed to mix with alcohol. I forget what the contraindications were. Anyhoo – I was too ashamed to say to her a. I’ve actually had to go and see a psychiatrist and have been diagnosed as being clinically depressed and b. our family doctor has prescribed an antidepressant medication that appears to have turned me into a zombie. I couldn’t even tell one of my closest friends that this had happened. Such was the stigma back then. I felt, deep down that somehow it was my fault that I was in this state.

So we took our places round a large table in a restaurant. The women ordered wine, I tried to bleat out something about how I’d rather not drink, but due to a combination of my newly-acquired stammer and the general noise levels in the restaurant, an unwanted glass of white wine appeared in front of me. Since the whole meal was a gift to me from my friend, I didn’t want to appear ungrateful, so I tried to sip it very slowly. The meal finally came and the conversation flowed around me. The women were bright, funny, clever and kind. They tried to include me in their group. They brought me in on topics, threads, jokes but nothing seemed to enable me to speak. I felt as if I were a large, silent rock on which every little conversational wavelet, every big frothy surge crashed and ebbed upon. In the waves came, and out they went, leaving me mute and still. I simply had nothing at all to contribute.

Then I began to feel very unwell. I managed to flee the table and made it to the bathroom just in time to lose medication, wine and supper in one go. I washed up, tried to make myself look less ghostlike, and returned to the table. I don’t think I’ve ever loathed myself as much as I did that night. Back home, my partner asked how the evening had gone, obviously hoping that I’d miraculously ‘snapped out of it’ or that the company of some good women had helped return me to myself in a way that his best intentions and efforts were clearly failing to do. I knew how much I was letting him down when I said that I hadn’t enjoyed it much. I saw myself through his eyes and, if anything, felt even worse.

The main problem then, as now, was a lack of communication. I couldn’t explain how I felt without appearing to sound as if I was either criticising,  being ungrateful or just pathetic. I was ashamed at myself for succumbing to this illness. Nobody had actually said to me that depression wasn’t my fault, or that it wouldn’t last forever, and I, in turn, couldn’t explain how terrible it felt. Words were letting me down. In extremis ( and depression fits that category) I became inarticulate. Yet I needed contact – I desperately needed to feel that I wasn’t alone. The isolation brought about by depressive illness was the loneliest place in the world.

Thirty two years later, in drawing ( and writing) Night Shift, I wanted to try to assist  communication between the spheres of the ill and the not-ill. To facilitate a signal boost between worlds. To let the birdsong back in and allow us to take one day, one moment at a time. To reassure us that this will not last for ever. To be able to point to an image in the book and say – this is how I feel right now. Help me. Give me a hug.

Help us. Remind us that depression lies. Remind us that this will not last for ever. Remind us that we are not defined by this illness any more than a pool is defined by the action of the wind on its surface.

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Night Shift : 10

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Today, of all days, it would be good for all of us to release ourselves from our digital tethers. After all, what, if anything will be served by watching a rolling newscast beamed straight into our homes? No matter what your political persuasion, you’re going to find something to be upset about. Accept that right now, we can’t do anything other than try to be kind to one another, starting with ourselves.

Sitting and fretting on the other side of the world or even Stateside isn’t going to help your mental health. Anger, powerlessness, disbelief – all these contribute to raising our cortisol levels and that in turn makes us more stressed. Why on earth would we want to do that?

Online, there will be fights aplenty. The btl comments will be vicious. The trolls will be out in force. Facebook friends may become fiends. Just step away from the fray. You’re not going to miss anything important. It’s out of our hands at the moment ; we have to accept this and move on. Nothing to see here.

Today, tomorrow and tomorrow there will be demos, marches, protests and heaven knows what. We are certainly living in interesting times. But living through such times and coming out the other side intact requires you to be strong. You will not find that strength by watching events unfold on a screen. The strength you need is inside you, waiting to unfurl. To give it the absolutely optimal conditions for growth, you need to look after yourself. Today might be a good day for curling up with a book. Actually, every day is a good day for that.

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Books have been a lifesaver for me ; they’ve fed my head, filled my thoughts, fired up my imagination and allowed me to empathise with the lives of people I’ll never meet except through the medium of a page. Through them, I’ve discovered who I am and who I’d like to be; I’ve found myself reflected back at me from a multitude of paper mirrors, and in the distance, caught sight of the me I aspire towards.

I couldn’t seem to read a book properly when I had my first brush with depressive illness. I call it a ‘brush’ but in fact it was more of a vicious sanding down with the harshest grade of sandpaper. Apologies ; given an opportunity to mangle a metaphor, I’ll always rush at it headlong. Books with their stories and plots didn’t stick. Music grated. Food was shovelled down without pleasure. All of the things in my life that had hitherto made me happy to be alive, turned into ash. For some bizarre reason, the one thing that did seem to anchor me to some foggily recognisable version of who I’d used to be was listening to the late night shipping forecast on Radio 4. Its mantra of Viking Forties, Dogger, Fisher, German Bight seemed to act as a calming device, a reminder that  perhaps ( although I personally doubted it) worse things happen at sea. It most certainly didn’t feel like it at the time. I was caught in the middle of a tempest. My little boat  was heading for the rocks and I had completely lost control of the tiller. But some words helped. I could just about manage short poems. Nothing too tricky, but ones that revealed their meaning without too much effort on my part.

I can’t recall which ones, but I’m sure that for today, there must be words that will help us all. Here’s a few that are helping me.

‘Fill your Heart’ by David Bowie.

‘The peace of wild things’ by Wendell Berry.

and finally – ‘Shovelling Snow with Buddha’ by Billy Collins. I love this.

 

 

 

Night Shift : 9

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Offering to help isn’t easy. It requires courage to speak up, courage to face rejection, courage to realise if we’ve taken on too much and courage to be able to admit it. When you’re in the throes of feeling barely able to drag yourself though the hours in one day, let alone turn up and volunteer for several hours a week, offering to help can seem like a Herculean task.

There is also the question of self-worth. Eroded by depression, we can feel that we’re simply not up to the task ( whatever that task may be). Actually speaking up and offering to help can be terrifying. What if…? And then, what might…? And I’m not very good at…And they might think…I mean, who needs me?

Trust me. You’re exactly what’s needed. Currently, with the state of our world ( let’s not go there, huh?) we’re desperately in need of all hands on deck. The SOS is sounding from all directions. It’s entirely possible that holding back will probably leave you with even more regrets than stepping forward would.

Helping can be the slightest thing: smiling at a stranger; picking up litter that wasn’t yours ; stepping to one side and allowing pushchairs, dog-walkers, old people, cyclists and runners to go first ; sharing a bit of a blether with the grumpy guy or woman working the till at the corner shop. It can be more, depending on your confidence levels ; your local library and supermarket will have posters on the notice board asking for help with all sorts of things : sorting clothing for refugees; volunteering at food banks ; distributing pamphlets asking for old clothes, books, bric-a-brac for charity sales… you know the kind of thing. If you’re feeling particularly brave and focussed, you can ring your favourite charity direct and ask to be put through to whoever is in charge of volunteering, explaining that you would like to lend a hand.

When I had endless awful days to fill, back during my first episode of depressive illness, I had no idea what to do with my time.  I couldn’t find a single idea in the wreckage inside my head that I wanted to draw. Had I been asked to paint how I felt, I’d’ve filled in a small black rectangle with a very overloaded brush and then tilted the paper in such a way as to make the ink run.

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Clearly, I was no longer an illustrator, despite the previous five years of training. Suddenly cast adrift from the heavy workload of a freelance, the vacant days felt like weeks. Weeks dragged past, no longer demarcated by weekends and workdays. Seasons elided into each other. The empty years seemed to stretch out ahead of me, pressing on my chest, squeezing out my life. I had no idea how long I was going to feel this way. After a few months, I knew that I couldn’t carry on being so isolated and  feeling so useless, so I screwed my courage up and spoke to another mother on the school run. She was considerably older than me ( not difficult, since back then, I was the  child at the school gates waiting for her child) and I knew from the grapevine that she had a job with Save the Children. So I stammered with my new depression-gifted speech impediment something along the lines of wanting to help. Fully expecting that she’d turn me away.

To my utter terror, she said ‘Great – when can you start, how much time can you give, and have you got your own transport?’ And thus began a job of sorts with Save the Children. To this day, I cannot remember what I did. I just know that I did something and it helped someone. Maybe. I do hope so. It got me out of my house and back in the world of people who didn’t appear to be beset by my particular brand of darkness. I was trying, even then, to turn that dark feeling into something that might be useful to someone else even if I felt that it was destroying me. Sorry, that’s not very clear ; it’s that thing I keep banging on about ; the alchemy of despair – taking the raw, base leaden metal of depression and trying to change it into gold. And in the end, the gold I found was an abiding love of the paintings of a Swedish artist called Karl Larsson. My boss lady at Save the Children introduced me to his work, and even down in the depths of my depressive pit, I loved his family-orientated watercolours. Larsson drew what he loved from what was around him. He loved his house and his wife and his children so he drew them. Over and over again, with such tenderness and precision it’s almost as if they’re breathing on the page. I longed to be able to paint like him. I longed to be able to paint ; I was distressed beyond measure by not being able to put brush to paper and get my feelings out.  I drew a couple of black and white posters for Save the Children’s local branch bake sale or similar, but they didn’t fill the yearning inside.

Volunteering isn’t a cure. Helping out doesn’t always make you feel better, but it might help someone else. And the more kindness we extend to others, the more pre-disposed to think better of ourselves we become. So, in a way, it will make you feel better.

Today’s adventure ( totally unplanned) took place during Cara’s daily walk. We took her to my favourite beach at Tyninghame. She ran ahead, her tail describing circles of joy until she disturbed an oyster-catcher. This poor bird flew straight up and then crashed onto the sand, dragging a wing behind it. We called the dog off and Mike ran to the bird.  It was clearly injured in some way. Carrying it carefully back to where, by a ridiculous coincidence, we’d just been having a conversation about ‘what to do if you find an injured bird’ with the Ranger, we found that he had gone elsewhere. So we had a wild bird on our hands and no real idea how to proceed other than to take the bird home with us. Back to the car we went, belted Mike and bird into the passenger seat, drove back home and gently put oyster-catcher in a high sided cardboard box. By this time, the poor bird had gone deep into itself, its eyes closed, its breathing barely visible. Mike phoned the SSPCA and to our amazement they arrived in under an hour.

We’d been so sure the bird had died of shock in the intervening time, tiptoeing into the quiet living room where we’d put the bird in its box and peering in to see if its little breast was still moving. To actually have such a wild bird in our house seemed at once preposterous and miraculous too. We were wracked with guilt ; if it was dead, had we hastened its end? Should we have left it to die on the beach, in the winter night, surrounded by its own kind? One last check to see if there were any signs of life and –

Amazing. It was standing up. Wobbly on its little pins, but upright, blinking, a goodly amount of bird shit decorating the box…the woman from the SSPCA tucked it into a very professional bird box and bore it off into the night. We wish it a speedy recovery and a swift return to its  family and friends.

Night Shift : 8

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This is the first of six hastily drawn ( and I mean at race pace) suggestions for things to do to lift your mood on a blarfg ( technical term) January day. Or even a February one, or March or… The idea being that something you could do is to make soup. A simple soup, but something that would nourish you, keep you warm and stop you craving things you might regret later.

Oh, like chocolate, halva, biscuits, crisps, chips, dips, tortillas, gin, wine, bowls of coco pops – whatever your Achilles heel might be. I’m sure your tastes are more refined than mine, but being a native Glaswegian, you can buy me for a bag of salt and shake.

Anyhoo, it’s only a suggestion, not a command. The cooker in the picture above looks exactly like the one I used to use way back when I was a new and very depressed graduate. Every time I turned it on to grill something or make toast, the most appalling stench filled my kitchen. Stomach-turning, vile and clingy, it was a mystery pong that eventually went away. Along with any appetite I may have had for toast or grilled things.

Brace yourself people. You may want to skip to the next paragraph. Several months down the line, the grill packed in completely, and lacking the funds to get an electrician out to look at my ailing cooker, I called in a favour from a friend. He produced a formidable set of screwdrivers and prised the back off the cooker and burst out laughing. God knows why. Crucified across the live electric wires at the back of the grill were the desiccated remains of a large mouse. Ewwww. Heaven knows why I’m enshrining that particular cooker in this particular drawing, but I imagine because it relates to that time when my first episode of depression descended.

Soup, though. It’s cheap. It’s good. There are probably a gazillion recipes out there for all manner of soups but I’d recommend anything by A Girl Called Jack who is Jack Monroe and tweets as @MxJackMonroe . She is currently one of the most accomplished practitioners of the art of cooking on a shoestring. She knows all there is to know about the horrors of heat or eat. And food banks. She has a ton of recipes for good, supercheap, easy food ; food to make you feel human; food to remind you that life is worth living.

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Of course, you know this already. It’s that old saw. ‘Get outside’. It’s true though. The Ancients said ‘Solvitur ambulandum’ which roughly means ‘it is solved by walking’. It’s not the cure to depression, but it’s part of a package of coping strategies. And if you walk far enough, you’ll have a good appetite for  your soup when you return.

I’m feeling a lot better than I did yesterday, mainly because I took my own advice and went outdoors rather than squeezing in another two hours of tippy-tapping on a computer. Our dog got utterly filthy, the path was slippery, sticky and awash in mud and on the way back, we met a young lad out walking two Jack Russells in the most pristine pair of white trainers I’ve ever seen. I had to ask him. He looked down at his feet and laughed. ‘I don’t know,’ he said, ‘It’s a miracle.’

Lovely. The little miracle of the dog walkers. Out of such things a life is made.

 

Night Shift: 7

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Today, I’m turning off anything with a voice or lyrics. If it was summer, I might be able to hear the distant buzz of insects, but for now, on a January Monday, I’m simply going to sit with my thoughts for a while. There’s traffic outside, a little bit of birdsong and a ticking Ikea clock that measures out the hours in a workmanlike fashion.

I’m struggling a bit, at the moment. Partly due to recalibrating Ye Olde Work/ Life Balance ( swinging wildly towards too much of the former, and little of that productive – more administrative stuff that eats away at the hours of daylight till I reach darkness without once having put brush to paper), partly due to not enough regular running ( how dumb am I, to have discovered a coping strategy, then not grab it with both hands?) and partly because on a daily basis, the fog rolls in and the fog rolls out and some days are far better than others and today isn’t one.

Sitting quietly with my thoughts? Who am I kidding? That’s for when the lights go out. For now, there’s a to-do list gnawing at my arm and an insuperable mountain of endless, tedious, probably pointless admin blocking access to my watercolours. Apologies for such a short offering today, but longer ones will follow.

One good thing to do for yourself today? Give yourself permission to take time out for you. Supper can wait. The dog will sulk, but she/he can wait too. The child/children won’t die of neglect if you plank them in front of some brain candy for a while. Your partner ditto. Allow yourself the space to think about what you’d really like to do this time next week ( within reason) and book it. That thing on aircraft  instruction sheets where it says, first fasten the seatbelt around yourself then around your infant? That. Look after yourself.

Night Shift : 6

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Tomorrow is the fabled ‘Blue Monday’ where, if the media is to be believed, we are all in it together. The whole nation is allowed to bandy around the term ‘depression’ as if a temporary trough in our finances and thus access denied to our Gadarene consumer stampede equates to an illness that sucks every bit of joy out of our lives.

For those of us with depressive illness, we’d gladly trade a month of Blue Mondays just for a respite from the fog, the black dog, the dragons or whatever flavour our illness takes. Because, trust me, I’m not for one second arrogant enough to imagine that every single page of Night Shift will resonate with everyone’s experience of depression. And for sure, not everyone will go running to save their lives ; that’s my route, I don’t expect it to be yours. And I use the word ‘run’ in its loosest sense. I plod, bouncily.

I’d be the first to agree that January weather can contribute to our feeling a bit miserable, low light levels don’t help, the after-holiday sluggishness is hard to shake off, not to mention the possible weight gain from too much slothery ( I may have made that word up) and that unhelpful feeling of ‘surely there’s more to life than this?

So we hear people saying – I hate January, the weather’s crap, I’ve maxed out my credit card , the boiler’s on the fritz, my rent’s going up, I’ve put on four kilos over Christmas, oh aaaargh, I’m so depressed.

Like Jon Snow, they know nothing.

This isn’t even remotely like depression. Sorry, but it doesn’t come close. Perhaps the media’s uptake of the Blue Monday schtick is contributing to the misapprehension that all we need to do is pull ourselves together, dial back on the overspending, get our finances in shape, join a gym, get some exercise and stop whining. Certain media commentators certainly seem to think so. There are small things we can do to try and make ourselves feel better, but in the throes of a full-blown depressive period, the main thing you have to do is hang on.

Hang on, even though there’s little left to hang on to. Hang on and trust that this will NOT last for ever, no matter what lies your own depression is telling you. Three years ago was the last time my personal fog rolled in, and all I could find to hold onto was my own breath. In the middle of the night, when I woke up, I’d roll onto my back,rest my hands flat against the top of my breasts and breathe.

I’d been given a copy of Thich Nhat Hanh’s ‘Peace is every breath’ subtitled  ‘A practice for our busy lives’. I’m not a Buddhist, but I was so very grateful for that slim little volume and return to its easily understood text whenever the need arises. I am so glad that there are teachers like TNH is our world. Anyhoo -within the book I’d found and liked  two very short gathas (little verses that are designed to return our minds to a state of quiet contemplation) The first one was what I clung to, breathing in the oppressive darkness, trying to quell my panic in the middle of the night.

Following the Breath

Breathing in, I calm my body.

Breathing out, I smile.

Dwelling in the present moment.

I know this is a wonderful moment.

Trying to drag that smile onto my face was almost impossible.  At times, I’m sure it was little more than a rictus, but somewhere I’d read that engaging your facial muscles in a smile caused other muscles to relax, so… And for sure, I knew the night terrors were not ‘a wonderful moment’ but I also knew that if I persevered, I might turn them round. Breath becoming the alchemist’s crucible. Some nights I had to repeat this ‘Following the Breath’ gatha many times before I slipped back into sleep.But it worked every single time.

The other gatha was

Waking Up

Waking up this morning, I smile.

Twenty-four brand new hours are before me.

I vow to live fully in each moment

and to look at all beings with eyes of compassion.

Several challenges there. First of all, the smile. ( See above). Then the contemplation of twenty-four hours stretching out ahead. Especially when you’re down there in the abyss. But the hours are brand new. They are all yours. Yours to interpret, yours to live, yours to breathe in. Living fully in each moment means opening yourself out like a flower, even if it’s agony. I could only manage small attempts at full engagement before I sank back into a dull and numb nothingness, but the more I tried, the longer I could feel alive. Difficult as this was, it was nothing like as hard as the last bit ; looking at all beings with eyes of compassion? That means everyone. Pols and mouthy hate-crimers and people-smugglers and world leaders? Yikes.

However, the hardest bit is looking at yourself with eyes of compassion. You. You are worthy of love. At which point my brain would explode.

And back I’d go to the first gatha. Breathe.

Today’s little thing to help : Let’s help each other? First of all, if you’re out among people today, try smiling at a stranger, even if you’ve never felt less like doing so. With your eyes as well as your mouth. We can never know what goes on in another human heart and the people who look least like they’ve ever gone through a depressive period might just be in the throes of one right now. The people who don’t smile back might be having the worst time ever. Sometimes we have no idea if our little signals of human kindness are picked up, but I’m sure nothing good is ever wasted.

And secondly – help me out here – what little things do you do to lift your mood? All suggestions welcome.

Night Shift : 5

img_3179Yesterday, eldest daughter and I headed up into hills and high moorland for a much-needed walk. It was cold enough to require full winter hillwalking kit, plus ( on my partner’s insistence) I carried a bivvy-bag, just in case one of us fell down and broke something and the other one had to go for help. Plus spare food, more layers, a balaclava and snow goggles.

You can’t be too careful. Hills kill.

I’d been somewhat dismissive of all this caution until we got up on the plateau ( I use this word loosely, it’s just the high moorland, but still, the views are amazing) and the wind buffeted us. Actually, it knocked us sideways and we stopped to put on more layers. At which point I realised that I was very cold indeed, despite Goretex, down, merino and everything I’d wrapped myself in in the hope of staying toasty. I’d forgotten to bring a proper hat. I was only wearing a fleece headband. I had packed a balaclava, and they’re all very well when you don’t have to bail out your streaming nose every five seconds, but otherwise they’re useless. My head was freezing, and despite gloves, my hands were so cold they were almost unable to work zips or fastenings.

On we marched, through a patch of spindrift ( you can just about see it in the photo above)  looking forward to the halfway point where we planned to stop for sandwiches and a cup of tea before heading back.

It was so cold, that even down off the moorland, tucked in a river valley, we only paused for five minutes before the temperature drove us back onto our feet again. And if anything, after lunch, I was even colder than before.

But oh how beautiful it was. To be outside, in winter, to simply be walking and breathing – it felt like a gift. Despite the bits of me that weren’t feeling quite so appreciative of all this beauty. To my frozen hands and head, I added the grinding of hips and wailing and gnashing of knees. And after we stopped again for a cup of tea and a slab of leftover Christmas cake with a dentist-dismaying layer of icing so thick it looked like the snowdrifts around us…well, that kicked off the siren-song of a distant migraine.

But we were on the way home, supper had been discussed and decided upon ( eldest daughter and I talk about food a lot) and we were both beginning to feel that glow inside that comes after a grand day out on a hill. Any physical effort that pushes me beyond my comfort zone seems to do the trick ; running, walking, sobbing my way up mountains – they all have the same net result. Contentment.

And sometimes if you’re  winter walking on clear days yore given the extra reward of twilight skies. Like this –

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Then we headed home to the agony/bliss of a hot shower and a well-earned bowl of pasta.

Small thing to do to make yourself feel a bit better – If you’re able to, take yourself out for a long walk. It needn’t be with anyone ; in truth, most of the time my eldest daughter and I spent up in the hills was in companionable silence broken only by the swish swoosh of her weird gaiters, but just letting our feet carry us while the landscape unspooled around us was quite enough. It most certainly doesn’t have to be up into high moorland either – it just has to be longer and further than you would ever go on a normal day. I’m certainly not advocating that you undertake anything that would put you in any danger. Plan it in advance, look up your route on a map and see how far you intend to go. Don’t attempt anything heroic – this is meant to be restorative, not draining. Pack a picnic and suitable clothing and anything you feel you might want or need on a mini-expedition including a calorific reward to get you through the last few kilometres before home. Leave a note saying where you’re going and when you hope to return or let someone know that’s what you’re doing.

It’s your journey. It begins when you shut your door and step out into the world. You can see a small part of the path ahead of you, but despite your planning, you cannot see further than that. ( I tell children about this when I visit schools ; I liken the photograph below to the process of allowing yourself to write a story. You can see the first part, but the remainder winds off enticingly into the forest.) Trust your feet to carry you forwards, and open your senses to all the winter world has to give you.

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