I have lovely news! I’ve just been appointed ‘Writer in Wellbeing in Residence’ at Dilston Physic Garden near Corbridge. I’ve been leading Writing for Wellbeing workshops there for some years, and it is wonderful to have a closer association with this wonderful place and the dedicated people who make it happen. The Physic Garden is truly a magical spot which gives inspiration to our writing in the workshops, and leaves visitors with feelings of calm and peace. It is a place filled with medicinal herbs, gorgeous flowers, beautiful trees, astoundingly creative sculptures, and the charming Herbology House where we do our workshops. They have a full program of amazing workshops about plants and all types of wellbeing – including Writing for Wellbeing. Do take time to visit the Garden if you can – or come to one of my workshops there!
You can read more about my appointment as Writer in Residence here, including one of my poems inspired by the beautiful colours in the Garden: http://dilstonphysicgarden.com/writer-in-residence/
And here’s where to find lots more info about the Garden: http://dilstonphysicgarden.com/
When I was a child, I had an uncle who wasn’t all that good at talking a lot, but he was just what I needed – because he listened to me. He listened to me tell him about the books I was reading, my young dreams, and whatever else was on my mind. He used to respond with a drawn-out ‘Oh, yes’, which made me feel like I was a terribly important person.
I don’t think he had had much of a chance to read many ‘children’s books’ when he was a child, educated in a one-room schoolhouse in rural Saskatchewan in Canada. But he gave me two of my most treasured books I had as a child.
One was Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats by T.S. Eliot, the beautiful old hardcover version (not that inadequate little paperback they peddle now). It had the most vibrant illustrations (with the charming attribution on the cover ‘Nicholas Bentley drew the pictures’). I read those poems over and over with great joy and deep satisfaction that a topic as important as cats was getting its due. The other volume was The Big Green Book by Robert Graves, quite a naughty tale about a child getting magical powers. The illustrations this time were by the great Maurice Sendak.
I had no idea at the time that T.S. Eliot and Robert Graves were two giants of modern literature, and when I grew older I encountered their adult books with surprise – ‘Oh, did they write something else?’. I realized later that it was my uncle’s way of introducing me to the masters, and he had given me more than just the gift of a couple of children’s books. T.S. Eliot’s poems, particularly, have since become guideposts on my journey through life.
I still have both copies of those books he gave me, with his inscription to me in the front. He died nearly 20 years ago, but I still feel my love for him every time I open them. And I remember my uncle who gave me the greatest gift of all – his attention.
[Written on International Children’s Book Day 2018]
When my Mom was in her 70s, she had a stroke which affected the speech centre of her brain. Not only did she have difficulty in speaking and in finding the right words, she also found herself completely unable to read. The words were just black marks on a white page with no meaning. The doctors said there was nothing to be done about it. But while she was in hospital, we were chatting with the woman in the next bed, who quoted a few lines of poetry applying to what we were talking about. My Mom perked up immediately and said, ‘I know that poem’. This gave me an idea.
The next day I came in to the hospital with an anthology of poems – old poems, the kind my mother would have read and learned when she was in school. I opened the volume to Wordsworth’s poem ‘I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud’. Mom looked at the page and said she couldn’t read it. ‘But you know this one’, I said, and as I started reading it aloud, I pointed my finger to each of the words. My mother started to speak the lines with me, reciting from her memory. It seems that the area of the brain which stored her memory of poems was different than the speech centre which had been damaged by her stroke. And then the magic happened. Suddenly she began to be able to relate the words she was speaking to the words my finger pointed at on the page. The incomprehensible black marks started to make sense again, and formed into written words in her mind. She could read the poem.
That moment was a breakthrough. After practicing by reading more poems, in time she was able to read the newspaper, other books, and do her favorite crossword puzzles again. She could even beat me playing Scrabble. Her speech also improved to the point that most people didn’t know she had any issues with it.
This memory came back to me today on World Poetry Day. That’s why I use poetry in some of my Writing for Wellbeing workshops – because poetry really can heal us in all sorts of ways.
Today I was thinking about the quality of silence, and a memory came to mind of a winter walk I took some years ago when living in Robin Hood’s Bay. It had started to snow. Great fluffy blobs of snow, made up of moist snowflakes stuck together. There were no tourists in Bay that day that I could see — if there were, they were hunkered down inside the holiday cottages with central heating, or perhaps a coal fire. I had the shore entirely to myself. Conveniently, it was low water, so I walked as far out on the scaurs as I could. There is always an agreeable feeling of danger when doing this, for the scaurs form long pointed fingers of rock stretching far into the sea. The sea reached around me on either side as the scaur narrowed, so that soon I was far from the absolute safety of shore, nearly surrounded by water. Only a slender band of rugged rock to bring me home again. Yet I had checked my tide timetable, knew there was no risk, and the sea was calm enough that day. But still — that little prickle of danger in my veins, the instinct that warns me to take care.
All the while I had been walking through the quiet fall of the giant snowflakes. Somehow all sound from the shore was blotted out, I could have been alone in the world. But for the gentle wash of the lapping of little waves, there was utter silence. How could it be silent when there is still that small sound? Yet it was. For the waves were equally a part of the silence as the absence of other sounds, because the waves belonged here and had always been here. Were they perhaps the first sound ever, when primordial seas moved across the face of the earth like the breath of God? Unlike the noise of traffic or people talking or machinery, the whisper of water was interwoven with the silence, as if silence could not exist without it.
The great flakes covered my long hair, caught in my eyebrows, blanketed my jacket. It was like being taken up into the silence, absorbed by it. Curiously, there was no feeling of loss of identity — it was more like becoming part of something greater, where I was still myself, just more so. I stayed there a long time, wishing to remain a part of that silence. But low tide does not last forever, and judiciously, I picked my way over the rocky scaur back to the not-so-loud and friendly noise of the village. In the end, we always come back home.
Some time ago I was walking along a beach in Donegal and stopped to pick up a white shell. The shell was so beautiful and pure, exquisitely formed, absolutely perfect. It was only when I turned the shell over and looked underneath that I discovered a piece had been broken off the underside. So the shell was not completely whole after all – yet somehow, even though it was broken, it was still perfect.
And so it is with people – on the outside at a first glance, we can appear to be quite fine and nothing wrong with us. But when we look deeper, look underneath, we find that all of us are a little bit broken in some way. We become practiced at hiding it, thinking that it’s not okay to let others know if we have problems, particularly involving emotional and mental health issues. Yet really, it is always okay to say if you are having difficulties coping.
So let my little story about the shell remind you – that you can be a little bit broken, and still be absolutely perfect.
This thought for you on World Mental Health Day.
On International Literacy Day, I am reminded of something my mother used to say – she said that it is not enough just to teach a child to read and it is not enough to read to children. Your child must also see that you read, that books are an important part of your life too. In this way, your child will try to emulate you – be like mommy and daddy – by reading. Parenting is the most busy job in the world. But don’t forget that taking a little time to pick up a book isn’t just a pleasant pastime for yourself – it could make all the difference in turning your children into readers. And then what worlds will open up to them!
Oh yes – and get both yourselves and your children library cards! Free access to – well, all the knowledge in the world. And using libraries will help keep them open. Every person registered as a user, every book checked out, gives the government a concrete reason to keep funding libraries.
My favorite book of poetry is not a book of the conventional sort, not one I can hold in my hand, nor read online. It is, nonetheless, the poetry anthology of my earliest memory, containing the poems which helped to shape my life. Unprofessional, incomplete, and wildly random as this anthology was, I trace every poem I have ever read or ever written back to this collection. This ‘book’ was composed of the fragmentary poems which my mother held in her memory.
My mother was educated, if such a word be appropriate, in a one-room schoolhouse in the rural prairie region of central Canada. There one teacher struggled to control a varied group of children of all ages, with only a small portion of any teaching time being dedicated to each grade daily. Inevitably, there were long periods of inactivity between lessons and assigned work, and my mother found refuge in the tiny collection of books owned by the school. She read and re-read the few books of poems many times, until the words found their way into her memory, creating a singular anthology which filled her childish dreams.
Decades later, childhood dreams were replaced by the pragmatics of raising four children of her own, yet to assuage the boredom of housework, she often recited poems from this ‘book’ in her mind while hoovering or cooking. It was many years before I realized that all children’s mothers didn’t do this, to me it had been normal for the Lady of Shalott to be in our home, or for the adventures of Horatius defending Rome at the narrow way to be declaimed. There were, however, often pages missing from the anthology in my mother’s memory, and I was left asking what happened when Horatius flung himself into the river beseeching the Tiber, ‘A Roman’s life, a Roman’s arms, / Take thou in charge this day!’. Thus was laid a pattern of learning, when I was compelled to search the local library for the full text of this or another poem. Lacking even the author’s name, and in those days before the ease of Google searching on the internet, my quest took me through so many volumes of poetry that I nearly forgot my original purpose in the wealth of verse which I discovered. Indeed, to the present day, I still stumble across a poem, a verse of which will suddenly sound in my mother’s voice — and I find that another missing page has been restored in her personal anthology.
In the eulogy I gave at my mother’s funeral, I recalled her love for poetry and recited a portion of her favorite poem ‘Ulysses’ by Tennyson. In those words live both the hero Ulysses and Tennyson himself, but there my mother still lives also. Because of this ‘book’ of poetry in my mother’s memory, in my life poetry has not been merely literature or entertainment or a subject for study in school — it is the living connection between myself, my mother, and everyone who has ever read and loved any particular poem. And I think my life would have been the poorer, if not for the knowledge that ‘With weeping and with laughter / Still the story is told, / How well Horatius kept the bridge / In the brave days of old.’
[**A shorter version of this piece has originally appeared in the writing magazine MsLexia.]
Reading can reduce stress by two-thirds. Reading a book is even more calming than listening to music, going for a walk, or having a cuppa – according to research carried out at University of Sussex. Even only 6 minutes of reading slows heart rate & eases tension in muscles. Dr David Lewis says, ‘This is more than merely a distraction but an active engaging of the imagination as the words on the printed page stimulate your creativity and cause you to enter what is essentially an altered state of consciousness.’
Research confirms what book readers always knew – reading is beneficial for you in a great many ways! So never feel guilty about taking time to pick up a book – it’s good for your health.
It’s an interesting fact that you always see fewer men than women at Writing for Wellbeing workshops, as well as at things like yoga classes. I’ve asked the men who do come to my workshops why they think this is so – and the answer is usually that they think men are wary of the idea of being seen to seek emotional wellbeing. This is quite topical now, as it is #MensHealthWeek.
In respect to writing for health, Ollie Aplin, founder of Mind Journal, says: “I think that, sometimes, guys just don’t like the idea of looking after themselves. If you look at journalling as being a self-help thing, I think guys still feel that self-help – apart from exercise – is not a manly pursuit.”
An unfortunate idea – that taking care of one’s emotional & mental health is not manly. Somehow there is the fiction that, for men, mental resilience should be inborn, that they should be strong without any help (even from themselves). Is this ingrained from childhood when boys may be told ‘Big boys don’t cry’, ‘Stop acting like a baby’, or name-calling which tells boys they aren’t measuring up as a male (wuss, sissy, jessie, pansy – I’m sure there are many more in modern slang)? Words do have power – and if children are humiliated when expressing their emotions, they will learn to bottle it up as adults.
But words are also a way for men to regain their own power in accepting themselves and treating themselves well. The advantage of expressive writing (even beyond the use of journalling) is that no one else ever reads your writing. Your notebook is your friend, there for you all the time, and you retain control of what you want to write about. If you have someone to guide you in this process, whether in workshops or one-to-one, all the better.
One of my clients (who will remain anonymous) had been experiencing huge losses in his life – the death of a young child, the consequent break-up with his partner, the loss of his home, and finally – when it all became too much to bear – the loss of his job. He was focusing on how weak he felt, how powerless. But through doing some simple Writing for Wellbeing activities, he was better able to express his grief, to treat himself kindly, and to begin focusing on all that was good in himself. From where I was sitting, I saw a man who was incredibly strong and courageous – willing to work through his emotions in order to come to a place where he could start moving forward again. This is true courage.
During #MensHealthWeek, and every week, I encourage men to choose to look after themselves emotionally and mentally, as well as physically. Support and guidance of all sorts is out there for the asking.