Journaling Out Loud: A Sacred Space

For as long as I can remember, I have loved stationery. As a young girl, I collected notepads, bookmarks, pencils, pens, sharpeners and erasers. I used to keep a old biscuit tin full of them under my bed. I can still remember the smell that puffed out of it every time I opened the lid – a sweetly warm combination of fruit-scented erasers and leather bookmarks. Even today, I am at my happiest when perusing the shelves in stationery stores.

Given all that, I’m sure you’ll understand when I say that today has made me very happy because today was the day that I started my new artful journaling notebook. Now, I’ve tried lots of papers and notebooks over the last few months, but I’ve finally settled – unsurprisingly – on 68gsm tomoe river paper. It’s thin, delicate and robust. It can take watercolour, inks, sprays, dyes, acrylics and all sorts of pens. You can smear stuff on it and rub stuff off it, yet it’s still beautiful to write on with a fountain pen. My only problem with tomoe river paper is that it is expensive and not readily available in the UK – you pretty much have to order it from Amazon and wait for it to arrive from Japan, or rummage around Etsy to find a supplier. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been really pleased with all the paper and notebooks I’ve acquired this way, but, because I write so much, I go through it all like the clappers, and it makes journaling a pricey pastime. This new notebook wasn’t cheap either – it cost £30, including shipping, from Taiwan, but it is going to be worth every penny, as it has 384 A5 pages in it, which makes it excellent value for money at 7.4p per page. (To put that into context, my current bullet journal is a Leuchtturm 1917 which cost me £20 and has 240 – that’s 8.3p per page.)

But I wasn’t just thinking about cost when I chose this notebook. When I write in smaller journals, such as travelers notebook inserts, I find myself getting bored about half-way through and rushing to fill the rest so that I can start a new insert – there’s nothing quite like that new notebook feeling! I won’t be doing that with this one though. There’s no way I’ll be able to rush through 384 pages! I’m also hoping this notebook’s larger size will not only help me slow down, but also help me decorate my pages more mindfully too. I want to savour every spread, to enjoy the process of painting and smooshing and spraying,  and to think carefully about what tipins and ephemera to include – the notebook could easily become unwieldy otherwise.

I gave up journaling when I was severely depressed because it became detrimental to my state of mind – I was just ruminating on paper – but artful journaling has got me going again. The act of decorating my pages has given me so much joy and allowed me to unleash my creative, playful side which, in turn, has made journaling a positive experience once more. I’m ready for even more now though. I’m ready to care for this journal in a way I haven’t cared for my previous journals. I’m ready to slow down and for it to become a beautiful, sacred space for both thinking and praying on paper.

#BohoBerryChallenge Day 28: Career

I currently have no desire to have a career, and I can’t remember ever having a career plan. I’ve really just floated in whichever direction the wind has blown me.

I remember wanting to be an archaeologist once, but that was only because Indiana Jones made it look cool. After that I wanted to be an architect, but I abandoned the idea when I discovered how long you had to study for. At some point, I also wanted to be Prime Minister, and I’ve always fancied being a rock star or a novelist.

Education wise, I focused on science because I was good at it, and I loved learning about how the universe works. I studied Biology, Chemistry and Maths at A-Level and Biochemistry at university. I worked in that field for a bit, with vague dreams of winning a Nobel Prize. I started a PhD, dropped a PhD and finally went to work in a candle shop. After a year of that, I trained to be a secondary school science teacher because I remembered that I’d once caught my Biology teacher enjoying her job and had thought: I’d like to feel about my job the way she feels about her job. After completing my training, I taught for a few years, then got a bit bored and frustrated, so took my honourable discharge and became a full-time mum.

Whilst mumming full-time, for the last 16 years, I’ve done all sorts of other things that have mostly involved the voluntary teaching of children and young people in various educational fields. I’ve also enjoyed some success as a short story writer and photographer. Now I’m getting into art again – Thirty years ago, I opted to study art at GCSE, but it was over-subscribed, so I had to do Craft Design and Technology instead! I’ve always been arty and crafty, but it’s only ever been a hobby. Now that I’ve found my creative side again, though, I am open to whatever might come my way. Currently, I make pin money selling my handmade cards, but who knows what the future holds?! Maybe I will start thinking in terms of a career, but for now, I’m happy (and lucky to be able) to just float in whichever direction the wind blows me.

(Image credit: Pixabay)

#amrecovering: be still

I bought this mug in April, about two months after I left hospital. It reminded me of something I felt God had said to me while I was in hospital: Be still and know that I am God (Ps 46:10).

Throughout my illness I prayed constantly, begging God to make me better, to take away my anxiety. At the height of my illness, I kept asking why, why wouldn’t he help me? But the moment I went into hospital, all that stopped. It was as if God was saying: hush, be still, stop trying, rest … which was also what my consultant said to me. As a result, I did stop. I even stopped praying, and I felt a sense of peace I’d not felt before. I believe that’s when my healing started.

Deep down, I knew God didn’t mind that I wasn’t talking to him; it was like there was a companionable silence between us. Later, the words of the hymn ‘Dear Lord and Father of Mankind’ began to play in my mind … just one phrase: till all our strivings cease. This has stayed with me ever since. I later found out that the word ‘still’ in Psalm 46:10 is better translated as ‘without striving’. I know there are things I need to do to stay mentally healthy, but I know I don’t have to strive to do them; I can rest in them with a sense of ease.

Incidentally, I am praying again, but in a different way, a more meditative way … I don’t feel I need to always verbalise my thoughts to God. He already knows what I want to say; I just need to listen.

“Hope shines brightest in our darkest hour.” Anon.

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Blinking In the Sunlight

WaterA year ago, almost to the day, I pretty much disappeared from the web. I hid my blog; I deleted my Twitter account, and I closed 1000words. The reason? One of my children became unwell, and I knew that I needed to have my head in the mum game. Some people can keep lots of plates spinning, even in a hurricane. I’m not one of them. I tend to stow my crockery below decks and batten down the hatches.

I won’t go into details – it’s not my story to tell – but a year has now passed, my little one’s health is turning a corner, and I can feel the urge to write returning.

I don’t expect the writing community to throw me a Welcome Back party; I’m just letting those who might be interested know that I am here, blinking in the sunlight, tentatively dipping my toe in the water again.

Love Natalie x

All Work and No Play

IMG_9595When I was young, I loved to draw, paint, cut, stick, glitter, build, mould, splat, scrunch, fold, print, sew, write, doodle, smear, cook, read, knit, dig etc., but somewhere along the line, I grew-up, stopped playing and started working, and those activities that couldn’t be classified as ‘work’ (or as ‘of benefit to others’) were left behind in childhood.

One of the bestest things about having little people in the family is that play becomes part of everyday life again. On Monday, I sat down with my four-year-old niece and a pot of playdough, and within ten minutes we had created a swarm of butterflies. We hadn’t planned to; we’d just squeezed the dough from its tub, rolled it flat, grabbed the first cutters that came to hand and while we chatted, the butterflies simply fluttered into existence. It didn’t matter that in a few minutes they’d be squished back into their pot and it would be as if they’d never existed – we were enjoying the moment and having fun.

When my own children were little, I spent hours and hours and hours playing with them, but now they’re older and more independent, we don’t play together nearly as much, and it wasn’t until I was cutting out our butterflies that I realised how much I missed it, how much I missed messing about, how much I missed making something just because I could. Sometimes it seems that everything we do should have a point and purpose outside of itself, but I’ve a sneaking suspicion that that’s a lie. (I hate the term ‘educational toy’!) Yes, play is an opportunity to learn about the world and to explore our passions and creativity, but it’s also an opportunity to be and do without the pressure of performance. Play for the sake of play is part of what makes life worth living, and I want to do more of it.

Do we really need the excuse of being children, or being with children, to make time for play?

What I Did On My Holidays

I learned several years ago that there is no point in me trying to write stories when the kids are home for the holidays. The constant threat of interruption that comes with having two little people hurtling around the house is enough to prevent me from entering The Zone, that single-minded state of consciousness I need to be in to write fiction. So, what did I do as the kids broke up from school? That’s right … I decided to write a load of summer-themed flash-fictions. Needless to say, I quickly relegated that idea to the proverbial back-burner and embraced the summer chaos instead. So, although I only wrote 2582 words, I also …

IMG_8810 V2webate in the region of 40 ice creams, fifteen picnics, five National Trust scones, four portions of fish ‘n’ chips and three barbecues,

supervised the construction of 97 sandcastles,

participated in the catching of 32 crabs,

IMG_8195refereed one game of pooh-sticks,

rode a bike,

flew a kite,

meandered around half-a-dozen different parks,

IMG_8289deadheaded approximately 10,000 flowers,

stroked eight cats,

donned my swimming costume for the first time in 3 years,

played ten games of ‘Count the Number of Airplanes Taking Off from Heathrow While We’re Stationary On the M25’,

IMG_8417endured watched a gazillion Minecraft demonstrations,

enjoyed innumerable cuddles and snuggles with the kids,

and even read SIX WHOLE BOOKS.

It’s been a wonderful summer of resting, relaxing and spending time with family and friends, but now the kids are back at school I’m back at my keyboard. I’ve written my ‘Things to Do’ list and it’s HUGE, but I’m ready and raring to go. Just one more coffee before I begin though …

My Journey Into Mindfulness – Part 4

16 May 2014 Uppa_047 V2webLast Friday, I spent the day with my sister on a Garden Photography Workshop run by Emma Davies at Uppark House. I booked our tickets weeks ago with no idea that I’d be on a journey into mindfulness by the time the workshop finally rolled around.

I began thinking about mindfulness after a frustrating photography session, so being able to go on a photography workshop so soon after starting to practice mindfulness was perfect. And it was perfect.

16 May 2014 Uppa_012 V2webMy sister and I were the only two people on the course, and Emma was lovely. She quickly assessed how much we knew about both the technical and artistic aspects of photography, gave us some appropriate tips and exercises and then let us get on with it. Together, we wandered around the gardens, meadow and outhouses, and, although we checked in and chatted a bit here and there, we gave each other the space and time to really look at our surroundings and capture what we were seeing on camera.

16 May 2014 Uppa_027 V2webIt was absolute bliss being able to take the time to see what was there, to frame an image, to think about the subject and its surroundings and to think about what it was I really wanted to photograph. As much as I love my kids, it’s virtually impossible to take that kind of time when they’re around which is why I usually just take pictures on my iPhone when we’re out and about together. It did take me a while to get into a mindful frame of mind though. It felt like changing down a gear, but eventually I managed to go from ‘busy mum’ to ‘mindful photographer’.16 May 2014 Uppa_068 V2web I let my thoughts scud in and out of my mind without judging them and simply looked at what was in front of my lens … not for the whole four hours though, just when I wanted to.

I’ve only been practicing mindfulness for a short time, but already it’s had a positive effect. I feel that my senses of smell and hearing have been heightened – I’ve been stopped in my tracks by the scent of a flower, and (although I have to be careful not to tune into my tinnitus) I hear and attend to all sorts of sounds that would hitherto have gone unnoticed. I feel calmer and less stressed even though life hasn’t become any less stressful, and I’m not jumping at unexpected sounds.

IMG_7128The greatest benefit though is that, on Friday, I felt as if I were actually there, in each moment, walking around a beautiful garden, looking at the flowers, listening to the birds, feeling the breeze and the warm sunshine on my skin and learning, laughing, living.

(You can see more of my photos from the day here, and you can see my sister’s photos here.)

My Journey Into #Mindfulness – Part 3

Morrisons’ Roasting Veg with Fruity Chipotle Dressing. (Add 1tbsp oil, roast in tin for 35min, stir halfway through.) Yum!

I love food. I love the way it tastes. I love the way it smells. I love the way it looks. I love the way it makes me feel inside. I love eating food alone. I love eating food with friends and family. I love food. Food is good.

But I don’t always use it for good …

Ever since I hit puberty, I’ve used food as a crutch. Because it makes me feel full inside, I’ve used it to fill the holes in my life. I’ve used it to medicate my stress, my anger, my irrationality, my grief etc, etc, etc. I became aware of this years ago and have had some success in overcoming it to the extent that for long-ish periods (months, even years) I do eat healthily – and by that I mean I eat to satisfy my physical hunger and to celebrate life! Right now, I’m mostly in that zone. I’m mostly eating healthily, but on occasion I still find myself responding to stress by mindlessly stuffing my face with high-sugar, high-calorie foods.

I think this is an area of my life that would benefit from some mindfulness, so I’m going to eat mindfully. I first came across the concept via Beyond Chocolate. It’s been a while since I read the book, but, if I remember rightly, the gist is to focus on what you’re eating – the taste, the smell, the look, the feel – and to focus on your body’s response, to listen to your body, to eat slowly and attentively so you can feel when you are not just full, but when you are actually satisfied. Also, it’s about stopping before reaching for food and asking your body if it is actually hungry or if you are eating for some other reason. Am I Hungry? defines eating mindfully as:

  • Eating with the intention of caring for yourself
  • Eating with the attention necessary for noticing and enjoying your food and its effects on your body

They believe ‘that mindful eating encompasses the entire process of eating:

  • Awareness of your physical and emotional cues
  • Recognition of your non-hunger triggers for eating
  • Learning to meet your other needs in more effective ways than eating
  • Choosing food for both enjoyment and nourishment
  • Eating for optimal satisfaction and satiety
  • Using the fuel you’ve consumed to live the vibrant life you crave.’

Sounds good.

Since starting this journey into mindfulness, a little phrase has popped into my head over and over again: one thing at a time. I believe I need to reduce the amount of time I spend multitasking and parallel processing and concentrate on one thing at a time, so for the next week, I’m going to focus on eating mindfully. I know this is not a quick fix. One week is not going to fix forty years of eating mindlessly, but it’s a start, and my first task will be to find a notebook to use as a food and mood diary …

My Journey Into #Mindfulness – Part 2

And so, my quest for a more mindful life has begun. I’ve read two books, numerous blog posts and am at the beginning of a 40-day study guide.

Mindfulness, it seems, is both simple and difficult.

It is simple in that it is nothing more (from a psychological point of view) than intentionally paying attention to the present moment in a non-judgemental way. Our thoughts are not who we are. They might be an expression of who we are, but they are also just habitual patterns of the mind. When we are being mindful, we not only notice the present moment through what we are sensing, we notice too the thoughts that pop into our minds, but instead of critiquing them, or criticising ourselves for thinking them, we just let them go by bringing our attention back to the present moment – what we are seeing, feeling, hearing, tasting, smelling. We let our thoughts be clouds that are scudding across our mind’s sky.

It is difficult in that this is easier said than done. I’ve done a few exercises now (from Sane New World by Ruby Wax) and am finding it hard to stay in the present moment. My mind is so used to analysing, processing, ruminating and rehearsing. But … I’m doing it. Slowly, but surely I am noticing those distracting thoughts and letting them go, and I’m focusing on being in the here and now, not exploring the past or future.

Dusty anthers. I noticed them while I was walking around the garden with my camera.

When I’m walking back from dropping Little S off at school, I’m taking five seconds here and there to focus on what it feels like to walk. I’m noticing the crows flying across the sky, the starlings yelling at me from the ridge tiles of the houses I pass. I’m feeling the wind burn my cheeks, tug at my hands and whip my trousers around my legs. When I’m out in the garden, I’m feeling the warmth of the sun on my back and seeing the pollen on the anthers of the fuchsias that I hadn’t previously noticed poking over the fence from next door.

This is going to take perseverance. It’s something I know I’ll get better at with practice. What I want from this type of mindfulness is to learn how to live my life in the present.

Which brings me on to the other type of minfulness I’ve been reading about: mindFullness. In his book, A Book of Sparks: A Study in Christian MindFullness, Shaun Lambert explains how being mindful (or watchful) is a universal human capacity, something that God wants for all His people and something the followers of Jesus should take seriously. Here are a few snippets:

The central insight of mindfulness – and Buddhists, Christians and psychologists all agree on this – is that we are bigger than our thoughts and feelings. (Loc 374)

In Romans 12:2, Paul tells us, ‘Do not conform any longer to the pattern of the world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.’ Our thoughts and feelings are often shaped by our culture into narcissistic, competitive, fearful or consumerist patterns. This verse enables us to witness our thoughts and enables us to decenter from them … Paul follows this us in 2 Corinthians 10:5, where he says, ‘take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.’ (Loc 381)

Christian mindFullness is awareness of the presence of God at work within our own God-given capacities for attention and awareness. (Loc 489)

There is so much wisdom in this book that I could happily quote the whole thing, but I won’t as that would be an infringement of copyright! Instead, I’ll leave you with one last pearl:

The way we take our thoughts captive is to disarm them. That’s Christ’s method, as with disarming the powers and authorities (Colossians 2:15) … We make our thoughts obedient to Christ by treating them much as Jesus treated people … We notice them with compassion and love, accept them for what they are, and then let them go, send them on their way saying, ‘Go and sin no more.’ (Loc 629)

As well as general mindfulness practice, Shaun Lambert advocates the mindful reading of Scripture à la lectio divina. Now, I’ve been a Christian for most of my life (I turned 40 last year!) and didn’t have a clue what that meant, so that’s something I’ll be exploring and reporting back on.

13 May 2014 Bird_012 V2web
This morning’s birdie visitor: a young starling. I noticed him as I was letting my breakfast go down.

There’s so much more I want to write about today – I want to talk about eating mindfully, about teaching my kids to be critical of adverts that ‘tell us we are empty unless we fill ourselves with their product’, about offering our bodies as living sacrifices, about using mindfulness to help Little S with her anxieties, about replacing icons of grace with idols to fill the space within us that God is supposed to fill, about writing mindfully, about using what I’ve mindfully noticed in my writing – but I’ve gone on long enough and my tummy’s rumbling again. It’s time for lunch.

My Journey Into #Mindfulness – Part 1

FroxfieldIt’s funny how things come together.

A couple of weeks ago, I organised an HBC Photographers trip to Froxfield. One of our members has an aunt who lives in half an acre of woodland there, and she kindly invited us to visit so that we could take photos of the bluebells growing in the wood. She’s moving home soon, so this was our last chance to go. How could we say no?

FroxfieldIt’s a beautiful place. Magical even. As well as bluebells, there are shacks and sheds and sculptures scattered throughout the woods. The cottage is thatched and surrounded by vegetable and fruit gardens. There’s a pond, a pagoda, and a bridge stretching over a patch of marshy land. It’s not hard to imagine the famous five having an amazing adventure there.

Unfortunately, we were up against the clock a bit, and as we walked through the woods snapping away, we chatted away to one another too. I left with a few nice pictures but also with a feeling that I’d just been skimming the surface of what was there.

FroxfieldDespite the rain and grey skies, I would have loved to have spent all day in Froxfield, wandering around with my camera, crouching amongst the foliage, taking pictures, and looking … really looking at what was around me. I’d loved to have had the time to smell the leaf mould, feel the drizzle on my skin, listen to the birds and the squelch of soggy soil under foot.

Froxfield
Don’t get me wrong. I had a lovely time with my friends, but I almost ache to go back there on my own, to just spend time there, to just be there.

This experience got me thinking. For a while now, I’ve had this feeling that I’ve just been skimming the surface of life, bobbing along fairly happily, but not really taking the time to stop and appreciate things.

FroxfieldI don’t lead a particularly busy life; I’ve slowed down a lot in recent years, but I have a butterfly mind and often have so much going on in my head that I don’t pay attention to what’s right in front of me, or what’s going on inside of me. I’m better at this that I used to be though. By paying attention to my moods, I’ve learned to spot depression’s advance and can usually head it off at the pass.

FroxfieldBut I’d like to slow my mind down even more, to stop thinking about so many different things at the same time, to stop flitting from thought to thought, to stop and smell the roses more than once in a while.

Which brings me onto mindfulness and how it’s funny how things come together. Last week, I saw a tweet about a course in mindfulness for writers and was reminded that mindfulness actually existed! I think I’d read something about it a while ago, but hadn’t looked into it any deeper.

FroxfieldThis reminder came just at the right time, just after the trip to Froxfield and that skimming-the-surface frustration I’d felt there. So, I looked into this course and had one of those light bulb moments. It sounded right up my street, although it wasn’t. It was in Brighton which is over an hour and a half away. I tweeted the instructor to ask if they ever ran courses near me, but they didn’t.

FroxfieldOh well, I thought, I’ll just have to read about it then. So, after a couple of days being distracted by life, I downloaded a copy of ‘Sane New World’ by Ruby Wax onto my Kindle. Why this book? Because I’d heard of the author and know Ruby is the ‘poster girl’ for mental health.

 

25 Apr 2014 Frox_028 V2webI wasn’t sure what to expect, but I found the book inspiring. I really like the idea of mindfulness (a way of paying attention to the present moment in a non-judgmental way, a way of mastering your mind instead of being a slave to it). I loved all the science that explained how the brain works – it took me right back to my university days and my degree in Biochemistry.

FroxfieldAnd I could relate to much of Ruby’s own struggles with depression. There are lots of exercises to try too, and I’ve already given some of them a go. The first thing I noticed is how judgmental I am about my own thoughts and how much time I spend rehearsing conversations that I might have in the future and ruminating over things I’ve said and done in the past. So much of the present is passing me by because I’m focusing elsewhere.

So, what next? Well, I’ve already downloaded my next ebook on mindfulness: A Book of Sparks: A Study in Christian Mindfullness by Shaun Lambert, a Baptist Minister from NW London. It’s a 40 day (We Christians do love our 40 day programmes!) journey into Christian Mindfulness based on Mark’s Gospel (which I’m currently studying using NT Wright’s Mark for Everyone – another funny-how-things-come-together moment) so I’m going to work through it, one day at a time.

Expect more posts on mindfulness in the near future!

(You can see more of my Froxfield visit photos over at Flickr.)