Last week I posted a very short ghost story, rather than the longer blog I had intended to share. All that piece needed was some final editing, some smoothing and perhaps a spot of gentle carving, but that was it. Unfortunately I ended up with some sort of virus, a heavy cold that moved down to my chest. Not a problem for writing, thought I. But I was wrong.
As soon as I started the final edits I realised that it was not only my nose and throat that were congested, but my brain and, especially, my word-gland that had also become infected. Simple things became a challenge, words would not spell themselves (I never use a spell-check until the final posting), grammar became tricksome, whole sentences would suddenly lose their way and meander into dark and dank places. The screen, despite being dimmed, was making my head hurt and this, coupled with a cold burning behind my eyes, made me pause.
I probably coughed a little, maybe felt a little sorry for myself, then stopped editing. Instead I posted the ghost story in true Blue Peter fashion; “Here’s one I made earlier.”
Flexibility is something I have only realised the true value of this year. In the past I would have pushed on, Taurean stubbornness convinced I could embroider with a spear, or carve a chess piece with an axe (actually, thinking about it, I might be able to do the second one — axe carving can be surprisingly subtle and delicate at times). When all failed I would brood. (I could win prizes for brooding — I am wont to gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirths, as Howard described Conan possessing.)
This year I have tried to remove the brooding, or at least confront and control it. I have made a conscious effort to find the positives in everything. On this occasion, I knew I was not truly ill, it was just a small thing. As irritating as it was (and irritating for others — I have a terrible habit of sharing the fact I am unwell whenever I have something of this ilk — bigger things, true problems, they go silently, with the wings of the owl and tread of the cat), this virus, however, I knew would quickly pass. So I posted the ghost story and got on with other things. Namely, reading books.
At the beginning of the week I read, and read — and read. Perhaps the greatest pleasure of being ill is time to read, without any small voice whispering that I should be doing something else (see — finding the positives). Guilt free reading time is a powerful prize, one I have deliberately and slowly been striving to recover. I will return to the subject of reading another time, explain what it means to me and how I have finally regained my ability to read fiction without internal (or external) voices telling me I should be using that time for something else. Although I should never have allowed myself to reach the point where I felt that guilt, I am pleased with my progress in overturning and crushing this feeling.
It may seem a strange, paradoxical, thing to say, but flexibility (for me) goes hand in hand with habit-forming. As I mentioned earlier, I can brood. I can waste far too much time obsessing over seemingly inconsequential matters. I have wasted too much time. And I have wasted it doing things I do not want to do (slight tip of the hat to Amanda Palmer there). I have never had a “proper job” that I love — they have always just been jobs, ways to raise funds (and here I edit out a large section about “work ethics” and other increasingly annoying right-wing phrases). I do not begrudge all the hours I have spent thinking over the last few years, examining who I am and what I want from life, but it now is the moment to spend my time in a wiser fashion, filling my days with more and more.
I shall write about the particular habits I have tried to cultivate this year at a later date. Suffice to say, early on in this endeavour I learnt the value of flexibility, not berating myself for missing a day exercising, for example. I recognised that the damage I can do to myself is far to great to allow this. Looking at myself objectively, out-with emotion and self, I realised I was almost trying to sabotage myself, trying to undo whatever good I was achieving. I would make excuses, allow myself to slip back, miss days or deadlines — then I would wallow in the misery I had created for myself, forcing myself even further back in a schedule. A damaging cycle.
If I look back at my journal I could probably find the moment I realised I was doing this. Off the top of my head I remember I had been reading something when I joined the dots and made the connection. My mind is a curious thing and I do not claim to understand it.
Instead of beating myself up over slipping from my path, I realised, I needed to allow myself room to wander, room to wonder. I would not worry if I missed a day. I would not worry overly much if I missed two days. Instead I would look at why this was the case, try and find a way to better my habit — was there a better time of the day to do something particular, for example? Could I swap things around? Was it too soon to introduce this habit or that routine? Allowing myself this time to assess, the flexibility in my plans, meant I could build stronger and deeper foundations for what came later. As long as I was being honest with myself, then it would all work out.
New Year’s resolutions are a good idea done badly. Introspection, reassessment — these are good things, but I do not think I have ever upheld any I have made at the turning of the year (and I stopped making them a long time ago). I suppose I could argue (with myself?) that this year I have held to my resolutions but, in truth, these were set before Christmas and slowly layered and laid down over many weeks and months. I have yet to reach an end to this process.
To give you an example of this slow habit-forming, coupled with flexibility, this week I am waking earlier and taking the dog out for a four mile walk before breakfast. Not a big thing really, but one I have been meaning to incorporate for months. I had set last week to do this, but I knew I needed rest and warmth to recover from the virus, so I waited. Not a problem. What’s a week when you’ve been planning for months?
This walk, incidentally, is simply a matter of going fast. I am deliberately leaving my camera at home, deliberately not stopping. It is as far from woodland pace as can be possible — and an odd struggle to deal with. In some ways it is a shame — the sunrises have been glorious, the low light rippling across the river and reeds, the birds far more animated and active than later in the day. Trails cross ours here and there, Orlando’s nose finding where the fox or deer has only recently left the path. It would only be too easy to take the camera, but then I would slow down, pause, stop. There would be benefits, but they are not the ones I seek at present. Yesterday I returned in the afternoon, to take several hundred photographs of the river walk as I have done every month this year. Only three more months to go and I can decide exactly what I want to do with this project. This will have to suffice and I must also use words to capture what I see. Not a bad thing really — nearly all of my most intimate encounters with nature have been lacking a camera.
(This morning the river was smoking with mist, the air cold and the dawn stunning. A sparrowhawk hunted, using foggy blanket as cover, a trout leapt out the water completely to snag a stupefied fly, several thrushes tap-tap-tapped a rhythm with their snail-drumsticks, the gorse was enshrouded in webs of purest liquid diamond glitter. The world was beautiful and fresh and new. Yet as the sun rose, there was an increasing sound of traffic. At times like this the magic slips and falls and I long to be somewhere truly, blessedly ignorant of our intrusive mechanical ways.)
Here I pause, thinking back to the scent of the dawn-lit valley, the sudden clatter of duck wings, the kee of the buzzard and the questing cool fingers of a season turning. I shall leave this piece here — in draft it is longer and perhaps wraps itself up in a more satisfactory manner, talking of discipline in habit, explaining how I try to remain flexible whilst following a plan. However, adding in the above paragraph has shifted my concentration. Other words are calling, words that have little to do with flexibility or illness, but everything to do with life and wonder and what it means to be human in a world so many seek to misuse.
One final, brief, thought — this should have been posted yesterday, replacing the other piece I mention earlier (which will probably now be posted next week). Flexibility. You would not have the paragraph about this morning’s walk had I posted it when I had intended and I think that would have been a sad thing.
Remain amenable to change, to slight alteration, to bending instead of standing firm. Know when to resist, know when to flow. These are deep truths I have somehow failed to truly grasp until this year. But timing does not matter to the seeker of truth, only the discovery of what is real.