I sat down to write this hours ago after being inspired to blog while on a freezing cold bike ride. Since then I’ve checked the news, checked instagram at least ten times, browsed Rightmove and Zoopla, googled books on being an Empath (more on that later), changed the music three or four times because it was bugging me, gone downstairs to refill my hot water bottle, gone downstairs to get a blanket from the sofa, gone downstairs to ‘check’ the cat (Really? He’s fine!), and fidgeted endlessly. In other words I have procrastinated and exercised an extreme lack of focus. Which in a way was what I’d planned to write about, at least in part.
In the UK we have just begun another lockdown, most likely to last 6-8 weeks, meaning Boris’ tired rules will be enforced a bit more strictly than before – shops/pubs/restaurants closed, work from home where possible, only go out if it’s essential, no household mixing etc. Exercise is allowed and it was on my daily bike ride that I thought about the handful of things that have got me through the last nine months. Things that have truly saved my sanity, helped me focus, kept me creative. I know this has been written about endlessly and I may not be offering you anything new, but as with most things I do, I put my own spin on things. So maybe my version of these old ideas might strike a chord with you.
I want to share a few very simple suggestions that may help you as we trudge through what will hopefully be the home stretch of this terrible ordeal. Obviously I’m writing from my own unique point of view because what else can I do? I’ve got a bit of money in the bank, I live near green spaces where I can exercise, my family and I are healthy. I’m not a doctor or other frontline worker, overworked and at risk. I don’t have small children to homeschool, in fact I have no kids at home at all right now, and I don’t have a full time job that keeps me glued to Zoom all day, stressed and worried. As a freelance stylist and set designer I have the opposite problem – absolutely no work. My days are wide open to fill as I please and I’m trying to do my part to stop the spread of covid by staying home. I know many would love to trade with me. It will sound idyllic to some I’m sure. But of course I have no income and only vague plans for future shoots which may or may not go ahead depending on the virus. So there’s that.
I worry constantly. For my kids future, for people I don’t know. I worry for the world as a whole. Just because I’m fine for now doesn’t mean I don’t empathise with those who aren’t. I know worrying is pointless but knowing that doesn’t make it go away. After 45 years I’ve finally discovered a label that explains a lot about the way I am – apparently I’m an Empath. I read this article and let me tell you, I feel SEEN! Have a read if you feel like you take on the world’s problems as your own. It’s this endless worry and uncertainty that have driven me to weave the following practices into my daily life as a way of coping.
Throughout the entire year as I, like many, scrambled to salvage something of my career so that I could literally feed my family and pay my bills (thanks government for excluding me and 3 million others from your rescue plan!), new patterns emerged that have now become essential to getting through the days. They might seem silly to some of you and to others they may reek of privilege: some may say that if a bike ride can fix your problems, your problems must not be that big. Take what you will from my words and know that my goal is to reach people in similar circumstances to mine. I can’t speak to everyone. Working the following ideas into my days has helped me fight anxiety and maintain a sense of purpose at a time when my purpose and my work has disappeared. Even if a couple of people feel inspired, that’s good enough for me.
1. out of your head/onto the page
During lockdown 1 last year I made an IGTV video sharing my 3 notebook method for staying clear headed and organised. Like many, the initial novelty of lockdown and the desire to keep busy inspired a lot of creativity at that time so the 3 notebook method was well justified. Have a watch to see what I mean. June 2020 Emily seems so much more enthusiastic and goal oriented than the January 2021 version 🙂 Right now I’m in a one notebook phase and my only goal is stay sane. Every day after I get my coffee, I scribble about 3 pages of whatever is in my head into a notebook/journal. Stream of consciousness rubbish, worries, repetitive thoughts, anything that comes out. As with most things, negative thoughts are better out than in! Inspired by Julia Cameron’s book The Artist’s Way which I read more than 20 years ago, it’s a practise that can help whether you’re an artist or just a person living through a pandemic! She recommends doing it as close to waking up as possible when you’re still in that dreamy half conscious state. I don’t always achieve this, being the coffee fiend that I am, so I’d say do it as soon as you can. Some days if I can’t get to it it for some reason in the morning, I try to write later in the day. Other days I write as soon as anxiety and repetitive stressful thoughts arise. Think of it as an outlet, a way to help clear the mind even if it feels like you aren’t actually solving the problems that plague you. Trust me, it helps.
It’s also a good way to have a record of your experience, your feelings and emotions. Over time you can go back and see how far you’ve come, how you were feeling at a particular date in time (always date each entry). I frequently wrote in a journal after my divorce and it’s really helpful to have an account of things as they were happening. Sometimes if I’m feeling a bit shit I re-read my entries from that time and see how far I’ve come in terms of personal growth, strength, mental wellbeing and so on. I highly recommend making this practise regular if not daily.
2. change your scenery/change your mind
This is the bit where I talk about daily exercise and how important it is. Obvious I know. Except, for me there’s more to it than just getting an endorphin rush, as much as I benefit from that (endorphins fuelled the idea for this blog post, so they work). I used to train regularly at the gym and became a devotee of weight training. I tried to carry on with some weights at home when Covid hit, but it only lasted a couple of months and it wasn’t the same for me. Now I walk and cycle. 60-90 minutes a day although I did have an amazing 3 hour bike ride last month on a slow business day (i.e. no business day)
The most important part of this for me is that every time I take a slightly different route. It might sound small, but after nine months of walking the same parks and cycling the same roads, altering your view even a little bit, makes a big difference. While I was grateful to live near a nice park where I was allowed to exercise even during lockdowns, I got so bored of the same views. I craved newness so I started to take different routes. Eventually I skipped the park altogether and zigzagged all the side streets in my neighbourhood and beyond. When I’d done all those, I got on my bike so I could go further and I’d find myself in a deserted central London seeing sights I’d never noticed. My insistence on taking a slightly different route even if my destination was the same led me to discover green spaces I didn’t know about, beautiful architecture I’d never seen, and snippets of history I was unaware of. Even this morning, after many months of cycling around London, I found the most beautiful crescent of houses on a street I’ve been near but not on many times. I took a left when usually I take a right and was rewarded with a beautiful and uplifting sight. When very little changes in our daily surroundings – same four walls, same laptop view – these little moments of newness, whether you’re in the city, countryside or anywhere in between, somehow lift the spirits.
3. food and how you eat it
I’m not going to lecture you about what to eat. We all know that fresh, non-processed diets fuel our body in the best way possible. But we also know that sometimes the body craves a spicy msg laden korean ramen from a packet or a jumbo size bag of wotsits (who me?) But I do want to talk about how you eat. Starting last year when it was just me and the kids in lockdown, meals became the highlight of the day – what else was there to look forward to! Friday nights were especially fun because sometimes we’d choose a theme and dress up (silly and sillier). Since then meals have held a more special place in our lives. Credit where it’s due – my boyfriend now lives with me and he’s Italian, so food naturally plays a starring role in his life, and now by association, mine too. He puts a tablecloth down for morning coffee for heaven’s sake. What I’ve learned from him is that every meal should be savoured and honored and enjoyed, no matter how humble. So whether dinner is a tin of soup and cheese on toast or homemade lasagne, treat it like an occasion. I’m not saying you have to set a full table or even sit at a dining table – maybe your coffee table is where you eat and that’s fine too – but make eating dinner an event. I know that if you live on your own it sometimes doesn’t seem worth cooking for one, but even if you’re having a microwave ready meal, put it on a nice plate, light a candle and savour it.
Can I also suggest an aperitivo hour? Hear me out. I know it sounds indulgent and properly middle class poncy, and my photo of broad beans and pecorino isn’t helping the cause. But really it’s just another way to treat yourself and to mark time – when treats and time management are hard to come by. The Italian tradition of enjoying a drink and a small, usually salty snack before dinner is well worth adopting, either to mark the end of your working from home day or if like me, you’re currently out of work, to have something to look forward to. It doesn’t have to be much and it doesn’t have to be alcoholic – a bag of crisps and a glass of fizzy water counts, but put the crisps in a bowl and some ice and an orange slice in your glass and enjoy it like you’re outside a bar in Rome in the May sunshine.
4. home comforts
This last point is a trickier one for me to talk about because home is so different to so many. I live in a world where through my work I see beautiful homes constantly and I know a lot of people with very nice houses, some of whom have lost touch with just how lucky they are. Home is very important to me and even though I don’t have a huge house and a big garden I am still one of the lucky ones. So whatever your situation I hope you can find a way to make your home a place to comfort and cocoon you in this horrible and upsetting time. A few things that have helped me get used to spending so much time at home are decluttering and simplifying my surroundings. This year I discovered the joys of selling on Ebay and even though I’ll never be a minimalist, 2020 pushed me to get rid of a lot.
‘Things’ can make you feel good, but they can also weigh you down. Take a look around and see if your home suits your current needs and if not, purge. I’m currently fighting the urge to get rid of all my summer dresses because it feels like it will never be summer again and we’ll never travel again! Don’t be dramatic like me, but do get rid of things that take up valuable space and whose maintenance may contribute to your stress and anxiety. In its most primitive form the home is meant to offer shelter. If we’re lucky it might also look nice. I’ve rediscovered the value of the basics of a good home – comfort, function, cleanliness. Forget the perfect coloured sofa you’ve got your sights on or the new wallpaper you covet, right now make sure you’ve got a soft throw to wrap yourself in by the sofa and clean sheets on the bed. These are the things that your soul needs right now.