Bridge painting meditation

Burn and blue bridgeI painted a bridge in our garden this morning.  It was a meditative act.  When I say this, do not picture me in a state of Zen-like calm, mindful of every brush stroke, the warmth of the sun on my shoulders and the sound of the water flowing under my feet. No, I mean a meditative act much like any of you who are also stumbling novice yogi/meditators will recognise.  Something like this:

Isn’t this nice.  Empty my mind and just paint.  Listen to the water.

Why do we get so few glorious days that there are always a million things you could do, and you have to pack all these chores in?

It’s not a chore.  It’s nice.  I’m lucky to have a garden, a burn with a bridge over it, and time to paint it in the sunshine.  I don’t want to climb a mountain or swim in a loch today anyway.

Breathe.

Amy would love this.  I wish she was here.  It would be too hot for her, but she’d lie in the sun till she panted then move up to the shade of the gable end.  Every so often she’d come to see how I was getting on then have a wee drink and a paddle in the burn.  I miss her.

Next slat.  Sweep of paint.

I wonder if I’ll get both coats done before I have to go to the hairdresser.  Then if it’s good weather again tomorrow, I could do the other bridge.  But there’s still the deck and the bin frame and oh no the shed.  I wish Son1 was back this summer, he’s a big help with things like this.

Listen to the water.

That’s interesting, there’s hardly any birdsong.  The nesting frenzy must be well and truly over.  The cuckoo has gone and the swallows have started sitting in rows on the lines.  Summer will soon be over…I sound like a Stark of Winterfell*.  Shut up already with the ‘winter is coming’.

Paint.  Listen to the water.

I’m getting too hot.  But it’s very satisfying seeing how much better the bridge looks already.

Oh.  I forgot to hang up the yoga mat.  Better put another one in to wash…I’ll only need 9 at the most on Saturday, so I could wash 5 today.  Then the rest next week.  If the weather holds.

Back again, get in the flow.  I could write a blog post about this.  I wish I was blogging more.  I feel bad about not writing but I’d feel bad writing too because I’ve got so many other things I need to do.  Like finding out how to do self-assessed tax returns.

Ssh.  Paint.  Listen to the water.

What’s Son2 shouting about?  Oh no, Henry** is in the house!  Damn, better shoo him out the garden.  How does he get under the gate still when he’s getting so fat?

Phew.  At least he didn’t crap in the house.

I’ll do all of both sides first then finish the base.  I like the colour Drhusband chose.

Water flowing.  Brushing.

I love this garden.  It could be a full-time job though.  It would be nice to do it justice.  How much edible produce would I need to grow to compensate for not having any school teaching income?  But then, maybe I’d miss teaching kids.

I wonder what’s happening with my school contract next year.

Breathe.  Paint.

Maybe I won’t be able to teach at all next year.  Maybe this ultrasound will be the harbinger of doom.

If I knew I was going to die suddenly a year from now, but would feel well until that day, how would I spend the last year?  Gardening wouldn’t be a bad choice.  Are there places or people I really really want to see?

Back to the painting.  Listen to the water.  Don’t think about Drhusband being left all alone for the second time.  Even he says ‘deal with what is, not what might be’.

Water noise.  Shade of the willow trees.  Swish of the brush.

Hello, puss.  No, just stay there.  NO – I mean it, stay there.  Ah dammit.  Blue pawprints up the steps, run and shut the house door before he tracks them all over the floors.

Painting.  Breathe.  Nearly done the first coat.

Doesn’t it look good?  Hmm, I’ve dripped some paint in the burn.  Sorry, fishes.  It’s meant to be a less toxic paint, but I wonder how bad that still is?

I wonder why I feel happy painting but don’t like spraying weedkiller?  Perhaps one is as bad as the other.

Water flowing, rhythmic sound of brush strokes.

Breathe.

Isn’t this nice.

Just breathe.

Et cetera.

Of course, that’s a tiny fraction of what I was thinking and feeling.  And of course, lots of it was on a tedious loop, repeating again and again.  But although I’m by no means an experienced or regular meditator, I’ve practised mindfulness enough to know I’ll feel better for my bridge painting meditation.  Even if I only got as far as noticing what was churning and wallowing about in my head, I noticed, and I managed to bring myself back (with patience and kindness) over and over to the present moment.  Every little helps.

Blue bridge

 

*Game of Thrones, for those of you without teenagers in the house.

**Henry is a bottle-reared lamb who supposedly lives on our neighbours’ croft across the road but currently prefers to hang out with us.  He deserves a post of his own another day.

 

 

 

Just keep breathing

Greyhound learning about the sea

In the past, when I have hit one of those life patches which go into an overdrive of busy-ness and stress, yoga has slid out of my life.  Even when a little bit of me was aware how silly it is to think ‘I’M MUCH TOO BUSY AND STRESSED TO DO YOGA RIGHT NOW’ (and yes, definitely in capitals).  This time round, I couldn’t backslide from my daily practice, because doing teacher training was part of the busy-ness and stress.  So I can now officially confirm, from my scientific study into a random sample of me, that a daily yoga practice helps.

Seated meditation has helped me not so much.  Probably at least in part because I don’t have a well-established meditation practice.  Frankly, it’s erratic at the best of times, so I’ve only managed to include meditation in my daily practice occasionally in the last few months.  But I also think it suits me, particularly when I’m worried or sad, to move.  So doing physical yoga poses, walking, or breathing exercises that include movement all seem to work well to bring me back to the present moment, calm me, and lift my mood.

My silver lining discovery in this last period has been that I am indeed a person with a ‘daily practice’ now.  On the worst of days, I still want to spend even just five minutes stretching my shoulders or taking some calming breaths.

What slid from my life this time around was writing and reading in the lovely WordPress community.  Hello, I’ve missed you…and once I’ve written this short post, I will take myself off to read around and catch up with your news.

My busy has been some good, some bad.  At the start of the year, I was given the opportunity to do a pilates teacher training qualification.  The timing was dreadful, coming as it did right in the middle of final yoga exams and assignments.  The pilates training itself was a ‘360 hour’ level course normally undertaken over 6-9 months, but we had to complete it in 4 months – and because I have no UK fitness industry qualifications, I had to do extra assignments and an exam before we began.  However, none of the yoga training weekends/exams clashed with the pilates days, the course fee was being paid by the local authority (meaning I only had to meet travel, accommodation and loss of earnings costs).  I knew an opportunity like this was unlikely to come up again and also that the course would complement what I’ve been learning over the last three years of yoga training.  So I went for it.

The bad was the enormous workload.  It was quite amusing being part of two separate training groups, both of which were full of people complaining about the workload, while I was doing double.  Ironically, for a couple of weeks I had the worst back pain I’ve had in years, because I was having to spend so much time driving long distances and sitting at the computer meeting tight deadlines.

The good was the people I met on the pilates course and the many interesting things I learned.  Both tutors were qualified yoga instructors as well as pilates instructors, and had between them nearly 50 years’ teaching experience.  I feel I’ve really consolidated my knowledge of anatomy and also developed my teaching techniques and my own practice.

Also good is that I have now completed all requirements for both courses.  My pilates instructor certificate arrived in the post last week and I will get my yoga teaching certificate during the final course weekend at the end of this month.

The pilates course coincided with me being offered a couple of regular primary teaching days a week and some other supply teaching work too.  This was good in terms of maintaining my skills and confidence, keeping doors open for next session, and earning money…but bad in its timing, as I really didn’t want to be working a 7 day week!

The extra bad was that my mother was suddenly, unexpectedly ill just after I wrote my last post.  She was in and out of local hospitals on an emergency basis several times and then had to travel 3 hours to the nearest large hospital for tests.  It was a shock to all of us as even though she is in her early 70s, she is always full of energy and seems younger.  For the last 20 years, I think we’ve been expecting this kind of emergency for my dad, so when the first phone call came, I was repeating stupidly ‘my mum?  You said my mum?’ and it took a while to sink in.  The good is although she is still on some medication and under investigation, she is looking and feeling just like her usual self again.

The awful is that our lovely, gentle, affectionate greyhound died.  I actually can’t bear to say too much about that yet, although I’m sure I’ll post more about her in time.  She would have been 7 at the start of July so we thought she’d be part of our family a good while longer.  It was a sudden, shocking and miserable decline, although we managed to minimise her suffering.  We got the vet to come out and put her to sleep in familiar surroundings.  She died gently in our arms, and we know she had a joyful two and a half years with us.  Her liver was full of tumours so there was nothing we could have done different or better, but I am heart sore and missing her – the house and garden seem so empty without her and there’s a huge gap in the routine of our days.  I’m just starting to try and fill that gaping time with something positive – in fact, I’m feeling quite an urge to create things, even if it’s just home-made granola or a short blog post.

So.  That’s me.  How are you?

 

Greyhound meets lambs

 

 

Spring in my step

I’m not keen on Christmas, or Hogmanay, or New Year’s resolutions which involve giving up things with a judgmental self-control bordering on self-hatred.  We had a very nice old new year get-together on the 11th of January this year, but generally speaking, if I was left to my own devices, I’d probably just celebrate the winter solstice.  Perhaps by dancing round a bonfire with a few of my nearest and dearest.  Maybe there would be candles and feasting, too.

Anyway, I don’t make new year’s resolutions as such, but I do feel excited at the prospect of longer days returning.  And I’m happy to use the dark, wet days of December to take stock of how my life is and think what I want to add to it while I have the energy and optimism of the coming months.  I also quite like the yogic tradition of sankalpa – setting an intention, a bit like a resolution, but more positive and present-tense.  Here is one short article explaining sankalpa: http://www.yogajournal.com/lifestyle/1526

In yoga terms, my sankalpa over the last few years has been about establishing a daily home practice.  It’s moved from something like ‘I do yoga at home most days’ to ‘I do yoga every day’ to ‘I do my yoga home practice when I get up’.  The last one is not happening often, but I just keep setting the intention – without beating myself up for not managing it yet – and I know I will get there.

This spell of long dark nights, Drhusband and I decided we’d be more sociable in 2014 and also spend more fun time out and about together (without our giant children).  Hence the old new year gathering, which I reckon is only the second party I’ve ever hosted.  I was definitely more relaxed about it than the first party I hosted!  I like people but I’ve always coped better with small groups, and I like plenty time on my own too.  Because Drhusband and I are quite contented in each other’s company, or reading books by the stove (yeah, I know, sounds like we’re 103), months can slip by and we’ve just been hanging out together.  So, we’ve been to the cinema a couple of times, visited friends, and arranged a rare night away together in March.

Because it was particularly gruesome weather over Christmas and the whole family were lying about like slugs, I also reached a tipping point where I could feel all the cells in my body screaming BRING BACK WALKING.  I used to walk loads: ten years ago when everyone in our school was given a simple pedometer as part of Healthy Highland Week, I discovered I was clocking over 10,000 steps without thinking about it on every standard day.  But in the last couple of years I moved out of the village (so instead of walking to work and the shops I have to drive), stopped primary teaching (which involves constant movement), got a new dog who needs much less exercise than my old dog did, started blogging/studying at the computer, and began using most of my daily exercise time for yoga.  Result?  I hate to think how few steps I took some days last winter – certainly under 3,000 on days I was writing.

10,000 steps a day for health may be to an extent a rather arbitrary figure, but I reckon human beings are meant to be doing more than 6,000 a day.  That’s only about an hour of every 24 spent on your feet!  I wanted to get moving again, and our routines have been so up in the air we’ve not been making it to the gym or fitness classes, so I clipped on my old pedometer and got going.

For the last few weeks, I’ve been aiming to get over 7,000 steps per day.  I’m noting the daily tally in my yoga practice journal, and at a quick glance, I’m averaging 9,000 a day.  I’m noticing changes already – I feel a bit fresher and more energetic, and also more physically tired – I’ve been sleeping really well.  I never weigh myself, but my trousers seem to be a bit looser round my hips and thighs.

Last week I discovered my mum had independently come to the same conclusions.  For years, she walked 25 minutes to work and 25 minutes home, and spent a fair amount of time in between going up and down flights of stairs in the old, lift-less building she taught in.  Now that she is retired and lives even further from the village than me, most of her time is spent sitting, driving or gardening and she felt she was seizing up.

I have given her my simple pedometer and bought a slightly fancier one for myself:

 

Photo credit: www.white-medical.co.uk

It has a few advantages over my old one, including – crucially – that wee guy who pops up, arms waving in cheerleader mode, when you go over 10,000 steps.  This is just like the ‘rewards’ you get in maths computer games for 8 year olds and I find it very amusing that it makes me feel chuffed every time I see the wee guy going ‘yaaaay!’ for me.

Because I’ve known for a while that I’m anatomically wonky, I’ve also been doing a bit of browsing the internet research into walking ‘right’.  An osteopath – skilled in his profession, but not blessed with much tact – told me last year “you’d be a great clinical case study for osteopathy students, because you look all tall and slim and fit, but you’re actually all compacted and lopsided”.  He also told me that my hips are healthy and my hip function is excellent – but they are squint, which affects my range of movement and might have implications for longer term wear and tear on my joints.

In the course of my research, I came across this book:

Joanna Hall's Walkactive Programme: The Simple Yet Revolutionary Way to Transform Your Body, for Life

Photo credit: http://www.waterstones.com/

I just loaned it to my mum, and had to say ‘ignore the horrifically jolly cover – there’s good stuff inside’.

I’ve been following Hall’s walking technique tips for nearly a fortnight now and I am impressed and also quite surprised by what I’ve learned.  As a long-term yoga practitioner, I have better proprioception than many people, yet I was almost oblivious to three important aspects of how I was moving:

  1. I know my feet and ankles are quite flexible, and I roll through my feet quite well when I walk.  I know my right foot is slightly larger than my left.   And I’ve felt, with all the yoga over the last couple of years, my toes have been spreading and lengthening.  But I hadn’t noticed that my right toes were really squashed up in almost all the shoes I own!
  2. I knew I sashayed about a bit as I walked but I’d never noticed that was because my poor left hip is shoogling all over the place, so my left leg goes round and round like a porridge spurtle.
  3. I have a mental image of myself striding along, arms swinging, because that is how I used to walk.  The combination of walking a lot less and then for the last 18 months mainly walking with a lead in one or both hands seems to have gradually resulted in the top half of my body becoming almost motionless.  A sort of Irish step dancing version of walking.

Photo credit: feisonista.net

So – it has been an education, and I can only say ‘thank you, Ms Hall’ because by paying attention and learning her techniques, I already feel more easy, smooth and energetic as I walk.

While I’m on the subject of thank-yous and sankalpa/resolutions/intentions, this post was partly inspired by chatting to then reading the writing of a friend and fellow blogger.  See Hope versus Optimism…  Then tell me – do you take stock at this time of year?  Are you making any changes just now?  Or do you like to mull your life over some other time of year (your birthday?) or on a different cycle (every autumn?  Every Tuesday?) – or not at all?!

I am off down south again tomorrow, for nearly a week, including three days’ yoga training.  I’m travelling light as I’m going by public transport, which is quite a long slog involving inconvenient changes between buses and trains.  Packing my stuff made me realise anew that the great thing about yoga and walking is you need so little specialist space or ‘kit’ – I will be able to fit both yoga and walking in and around my days while I’m away.  Though I will need to buy a pair of bigger shoes, I suppose…

Make do and mend

In the run-up to Christmas, I spent a good while cutting up an old pair of socks and using them to patch three other pairs.  While I did it, I was thinking about how weird I was being – in the UK, in this day and age – yet how absolutely standard such behaviour would have been in my granny’s day.  Unlike my granny, I’m no seamstress, as you can see from this photo of my finished efforts:

Patched cashmere socks

It was a relaxing and satisfying thing to do, though.  I bought these socks a few years ago in the Brora sale.  They are mainly cashmere – quite the most luxurious socks I’ve ever owned.  They were enormously comforting last winter when I was working from home, at the computer, trying to keep warm.  Although they’re 15% nylon, I should have resisted ‘just popping along the road with the dog’ in them.  Having said that, I wore each pair in turn pretty much continuously for months and months, so it’s not surprising they went transparent at the heels.  Anyway, I couldn’t bear to chuck them out, so I cut patches out of the blue pair and sewed them over the worn places.  And now they are strictly bedsocks, so they should last for years to come.

I tend to be a bit frugal.  I’m still using or wearing many things I’ve had for decades.  I like to reduce, re-use, recycle.  I’ve never lived the lifestyle I see many of my contemporaries live – I’ve always been happy to live well within my means.

In affectionate recognition of this trait, Drhusband gave me this book some years ago:

Photocredit: amazon.co.uk.  But, you know…do consider getting it from an independent, tax-paying bookshop.  Or your local library :-)

It’s fascinating.  I recognised some things my grandparents did, some of which were passed on to my parents and then me.  I also learned how to do ‘invisible darning’ from it, a new skill I tried out on one of our jumpers – it worked a treat and I’m still wearing the jumper, years later.  The book also reminded me how unconscious most of us are about energy use.  Yes, I know to use our tumble dryer as little as possible – but it had never occurred to me that you can often switch your hob off before what you are cooking is absolutely done – there will be plenty residual heat to finish it.

One of the items in the book tells you how to get longer use from a bedsheet that is worn in the centre by cutting it down the middle, turning the unworn sides to the centre and re-sewing it.  Can you imagine anyone doing that now?  Yet I distinctly remember in the 1970s seeing a sheet like that at my grandparents’ house, and my granny explaining to me what she had done to it and why.

But, in just a couple of generations, we have such a culture of accumulation and disposability.  It’s all-pervasive, so even Son2 (who has spent all his life with adults who value living modestly and looking after things) will initiate conversations like this:

S2: I need new jeans

Me: Oh, why’s that?

S2: These ones are no use any more

Me: What’s wrong with them?

S2: The button has come off at the waist so they’re too loose and they fall down

Me: *silent facepalm of despair*

(I’ve now shown all the menfolk in the house how to sew a button on and we are agreed that EVERYONE needs to know how to look after themselves at a basic level, whether that’s sewing, using a hammer, cooking, or cleaning.)

While I was patching my socks and thinking of these things, it occurred to me the wool I was darning with belonged to my granny.  Most of my sewing kit was originally hers.  She died when I was 20 and my grandfather died when I was 25 and just setting up my own home, so I inherited lots of useful household stuff from them.

Just look at the kit I was using, it should be in a social history museum!

ye olde sewing kit

Those little wooden tubes are Victorian or Edwardian needle cases, given to me by friends of my grandparents.  They contain the original needles which are in perfect working order.  I had to laugh when I looked more closely at the darning wool and pins – actually made in the UK!  And 10p for the tin of pins…

Then it occurred to me the very chair I was sitting in came from my other gran.  She always sat in this Parker Knoll rocking chair – it was a treat to be allowed a wee shot in it when I was little.  When she died, it was one of the few things I chose from her belongings.  I carted it from flat to flat and about ten years’ later when I had more money, I got it re-upholstered.  It has had the same cushion – made by a friend – on it for more than 12 years.

Nearly 40 years on from when I first remember it, the chair is still super-comfy and one of my favourite places to sit.

rocking chair

I hope I’m not sounding worthy and annoying; I’m certainly not meaning to.  I may do a wee bit to tread lightly on the earth, but goodness knows I could do more.  It just makes me sad that we chuck so much away when there is nothing really wrong with it.  And I love having these little mementos of my grandparents.

Ha – while I was inserting that photo I noticed the little stool I use as a coffee table.  It belonged to my great-grandmother and my mother remembers seeing my granny mending one of the struts by binding it with string.  The repair and the stool are still going strong more than half a century later – my granny must have been the poster girl for ‘make do and mend’!

Blog serendipity

Just days after I was mulling over my socks and ancient sewing kit, Goldfish wrote a great post on similar themes:  http://fishofgold.net/2013/12/28/the-decline-of-durable-goods/  (the observant will note I had a wee rant in the comments section).

And today, when I googled ‘make do and mend’ to find a picture of the book, what came up first but a WordPress blog: http://mymakedoandmendyear.wordpress.com/about/  The author is spending a year not buying anything new…I’m off now to read more about how she’s been getting on.

Happy 2014, everyone!

Mushroom stroganoff and a flying giant

Do you ever have days where you feel like a character in someone else’s novel?

I had one at the start of this week.  I felt slightly surreal from first thing in the morning, and the day was capped by a magical experience.

I’ve recently started supply teaching.  It’s 18 months since I resigned my permanent teaching post and I want to keep my hand in, not lose my hard-earned skills and confidence.  I don’t have all that many days free in which to teach and they vary with my yoga teacher training commitments.  So going on the supply list (to cover staff absences) seemed the best option for now.  As nearly all of my 9+ years of primary teaching were done in the same small town school, it is also a good chance to experience different schools.

On Monday I was in a really rural school, 40 minutes’ drive north from my home.  There are about 20 children and nearly all of them are in Gaelic medium education.  My charges for the day were the two – yes, you read that right – children in the English medium class.  Spending all day with two children felt nothing like any teaching I’ve previously done – more like being Mary Poppins or Jane Eyre or Mrs Doubtfire… insert any governess/nanny who fits your mental image of me!  It was an interesting experience, and the first teaching day I can remember where I was able to arrive ten minutes before the children and leave ten minutes after they left, with everything marked and work planned for the next day.

All of Highland schools follow the same dinner menu rota, and when a classroom assistant came round that morning to check our dinner choices, I made a joke about having come on the wrong day as I preferred the menu later in the week.  She said ‘I don’t fancy today’s either, I’ll ask the cook if she’ll make us a sandwich’.  I was horrified – you don’t want to rock the boat when you’ve just set foot in a new school – but she insisted the cook liked to rustle up extras and it would be no bother.  Five minutes later she was back, saying the cook had picked up some nice mushrooms in Inverness at the weekend and would I like a mushroom stroganoff?  Bemused, I said ‘eerrrr…yes, fine, if it’s really no trouble’.  And at lunch time I was given an enormous plate of beautifully garnished stroganoff, which I’d have paid at least four times as much for in a fancy restaurant.

But the absolute best bit of the day was driving home.  I left the school about half three and it was already getting dark – well, it had hardly got light all day, what with cloud cover and rain.  The further north you get in Scotland the fewer trees there are, and even 20 miles north of where I live is a noticeably starker landscape.  Everything was tinted in shades of sepia, beige and grey, with a choppy, slate-coloured sea.  The road south winds along between dramatic rock formations on your right and sea cliffs on your left.  For most of the journey, I didn’t see another car.  The wind was coming in strong gusts, so I was driving along slowly, admiring the almost abstract geometrical shapes of headlands and mountains.  I was passing a stretch of forestry plantation on my left when I saw a bird rising out of the verge ahead of me.  It was one of those moments where time slows down and your brain can’t quite compute what you are seeing.  Mine went ‘seagull? No – too big – heron? No, too big – oh my goodness – eagle – huge – must be – yes-‘  And while that was happening, the bird had risen to windscreen height and I had caught up with it, so it was literally just a few feet ahead.  And wider than not just my windscreen but the whole car.

The wind must have been so noisy the bird hadn’t noticed me, but just at the moment my brain went ‘yes – a sea eagle!’ it heard the car and glanced back over its right wing.  I saw the huge heavy yellow beak (so different from the golden eagle) as it looked directly at me through the windscreen.  The bird’s head gave a startled jerk, in a way that would have been comical if I hadn’t been so awed, and it instantaneously tipped up its left wing and soared up and over my car.

Photo credit: www.ebirder.net

The sea eagle, or perhaps more properly the white-tailed eagle, is the largest bird of prey in the UK.  It is sometimes called ‘the flying barn door’ due to its wings, which are both broad and long.  The wingspan is generally 6.5 to 8 feet (that’s over 2 metres).  Here’s one being hassled by a fearless or perhaps just foolhardy gull:

Photo credit: www.bbc.co.uk

I have scrolled through hundreds of images of sea eagles and I can’t find a single one taken from the angle at which I saw ‘mine’.  I suppose it’s not often anyone gets to see one at eye level, just ahead of them.  I have spent all week since wishing I was an accomplished enough artist to create what I saw with paint or charcoal or pastels.

I was back in the same school the next day and shared my story.  Everyone in the school had seen eagles off in the distance, but it’s rare to get a closer look.  The other teacher told me a few years ago she was driving the same stretch of road when her windscreen went suddenly black.  She had no warning and got the shock of her life.  By the time her flinch was over, the windscreen was clear and there was nothing to be seen ahead or around her.  Only afterwards did she realise it must have been a white-tailed eagle taking flight directly towards her – as she said, ‘nothing else could have been big enough to black out the whole windscreen like that’.

When I was telling the two children in my class (both big dinosaur and bird fans) what I’d seen on the way home the day before, I heard myself saying ‘it was so huge and fierce looking – it was like seeing a dragon, or a pterodactyl!’  And it was.  Even if I can never do it justice in words or images, it’s an experience I will hold in my heart forever.

Winter relaxation

I’ve travelled hundreds and hundreds of miles in bad weather in the last couple of weeks.  Mainly to do worthwhile stuff – teaching in remote rural primary schools, taking Son2 to his first ever piano exam, and delivering yoga classes.  Today I had three people come to the house for private yoga sessions – and they all want to come back.  So I am tired but happy.

But the best thing in winter is our cosy evenings by the stove.  There’s a storm coming tonight, so we got in plenty logs and settled down with the dog and cat.  Look at this for a happy greyhound…

happy greyhound smiling

Nothing better, in her view, than a warm stove and her favourite human cushion down on the rug.  The human cushion feels much the same, though the addition of a good book and a dram don’t go amiss.

How do you like to spend a wintry evening?

Writing flagging? Try writing flags

Everyone who wants to write will have heard the advice that writers write.  Every day.  That writing is a muscle which develops with use.  I’ve spent my first ‘year to live a little differently’ working towards developing a daily writing habit.  Back in February, I was very happy to finish a 67,000 word manuscript of a children’s novel in time to send it off to a competition.  I allowed myself a little break, to do some blogging and plan another book.  Then I set off on a week’s holiday in Cromarty, promising myself I’d start writing the new novel as soon as I got back, regardless of whether I felt ready.  Two weeks later it was the end of April and I was annoyed with myself.  Every passing day, there was a litany of important things I ‘had’ to do before I could embark on a new novel.  Yeah, right.  There was no hiding from the fact I was procrastinating, for all the usual boring reasons… What if the idea isn’t strong enough, or interesting enough, to last 100,000 words?  What if I’m no good at writing and it’s a rubbish book? and so forth ad nauseam.  Even though I’d told myself countless times the answer to these questions was ‘It doesn’t matter.  I’m going to do it anyway.’

On the last Saturday of April, the weather was terrible and I was sitting by the stove in our cosy sitting room, listening to the rain battering off the windows and watching a contented greyhound snoozing by my feet.  I decided, well, I’m letting myself off until Monday, but if I don’t start then, there is no way I’m going to achieve what I wanted to do by July.

For motivation, I read some blog posts on writing and came across this, in which Kara talks about those days when you have the stuck feeling and would rather do anything than write:

Instead of fighting it and avoiding what had to get done, I just sat with it, whether I liked it or not. This ‘like it or not’ mentality was used by Jerry Seinfeld when he was working as a touring comic. He had a special system, which forced him to write every single day. He believed that if he wrote daily, he’d create better jokes. His system involved a big wall calendar for an entire year. He placed a big red “X” when he wrote that day. Over time, this created a pretty impressive chain of big Xs. [...] The other bit of advice that I found helpful, is this – skipping one day makes it so easy to skip the next, so that’s why it’s important to make that commitment and write every single day. It doesn’t have to be something that you finish and press publish on. Think of it as practice, like working out.

http://myjoyfulpath.wordpress.com/2013/04/24/dont-break-the-chain/

You can read the full post by Brad Isaac about Jerry Seinfeld’s writing productivity techniques here.

From my infants’ teacher perspective, I instantly understood the appeal of a visible chart showing my daily progress.  I didn’t need a whole year’s wall calendar to try it out, though.  I nipped through to the kitchen, got a sheet of scrap A4 from the dresser drawer, and wrote out all the days from Monday through till the end of June.  I didn’t like the idea of big red crosses so much, but it was already late and the dog was giving me doleful looks, wanting her bedtime walk, so I set the paper aside.

The next morning, I looked at the A4 sheet of dates again and thought ‘I need something more positive than red crosses like the ones teachers used on my maths mistakes when I was a wee girl.’  Inspiration struck when I looked out our bedroom door and saw the prayer flags that hang along the corridor wall.  It’s the only part of our spacious, light house that feels gloomy and narrow, so we hung the flags there to cheer it up.

Photo credit: thecareyadventures.com

Perfect!  I drew chains of flags, one for each date, and allocated colours to a writing code.  Real Tibetan prayer flags are rectangular, so I made mine more like bunting, although I used the same colours as prayer flags.  Red would be the book: the colour of passion and danger seemed right for the writing I was scared of throwing myself into.  Blue would be for my blog posts, green would be for yoga teacher training homework (i.e. essays – counting my brief daily practice journal entries would be cheating).  Yellow would be for any other writing, such as a short story, or morning pages (google Dorothea Brande and Julia Cameron and you will find a ton of stuff about ‘morning pages’, should you wish to!).  White would be the empty flag, breaking the chain and signifying no writing at all.  If I did more than one kind of writing in a day, I could have extra fun doing a multi-coloured pattern on that day’s flag.

I found and sharpened four pencils and stuck the flags sheet onto our bedroom mirror at eye level, where I would see it many times a day as I walked round the room.

Here’s the first A4 sheet I did:

writing flags

It’s a rough-and-ready design; I know lots of you could make a much prettier one.  If you do, please link back to me here, let me know how you get on, and maybe even make the template available for anyone to use?  But if you do one on a computer, keep in mind that the actual physical act of colouring in a flag each day feels like a satisfying and significant part of the process!

I found it very effective – I wrote on lots of days that I’d have otherwise excused myself from.  I kept it going from April until I went to Orkney at the start of August.  Just by looking at the completed flag sheets, I learned stuff about myself: the more disrupted my normal routine was, and the more people who were hanging round the house during the day (even if they weren’t directly making demands on me), the more blue and green appeared, red dwindled and white crept in.

My intention had been to resume in September, when the house settled into term-time routine.  But I’ve been overwhelmed (in a good way) with all the things connected to being in the final year of my yoga teacher training, learning about the business side of being self-employed, and the unexpected level of demand for my yoga classes.  So, although I’m keeping a daily practice journal and maintaining a yoga website and facebook business page, I am itching to get back to fiction writing and more frequent blogging.  This post is my first step.  Set the intention, declare it in writing…and now I’m going to sharpen the red and blue pencils!

What writing techniques and tips have worked for you?  Please share them with us!