Earlier in the month I mentioned my intention to spend as much time as possible out of doors this autumn. Various stresses outside my control have left me feeling very unwell indeed, so adventures away from home haven’t been possible. Instead I’ve been taking regular micro-walks in my garden. Thirty steps to the bottom of the garden and thirty back.

I often make that walk, but usually with my mind on a task – emptying the kitchen compost bucket, picking garden produce or finding the cat. On a micro-walk I’m focused on the walking itself and observation of my surroundings. How does my body feel? What is the weather like? What can I see, hear, smell? The senses of taste and touch are used less, but I might eat a berry or trail my hand over the worn wood of the fence.

I gather the things I encounter into my store of memories. Sometimes I pick up an object to bring it indoors or simply to look at it more closely. I might fetch my camera and take a picture. I note the progress of a flower from bud to seedpod. There’s a lot to take in in sixty steps.

This morning’s treasures included:

    A curled white feather by the back door – did it come from a preening seagull’s breast?
    Long-tailed tits whistling and cheeping in the viburnum tree above me as I examined some pieces of semi-composted fabric on the ground.
    A bright red poppy petal glistening on the lawn.
    Many shining orb spider’s webs – each occupant of similar shape, but different in size and colouring.
    The feel of cool breeze on my skin – taking a slow deep breath to relish the freshness.
    The golden gleam and temperate warmth of low-angled sun.

I brought the feather indoors and dropped it into one of my wonky papier-mâché bowls where it will catch my eye from time to time as I go about my chores. Maybe I’ll just sit and look at it sometimes while I drink a cup of tea. Soon it will loose its fresh beauty and will be replaced by some other artifact, but for now it is a thing of great pleasure.

feather in blue bowl

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Under the weather

September hasn’t brought the bright crisp autumnal days I was looking forward to. Instead it’s mostly been warm, muggy, overcast and airless. Except when it’s cold, damp, overcast and airless. There has been the odd spell of bright, fresher weather to tease us, but not enough. Not nearly enough.

During the cool spell at the end of August I started to come to life again, but now I’m back to feeling perpetually knackered and overwhelmed by tasks undone. This weekend I’m allowing myself a massive grump about having to let go of the various plans I’d made in anticipation of cooler weather and better energy.

Next week – who knows? Maybe the weather will freshen up, maybe it won’t. In the meantime I’ll keep on keeping on. Doing what I can and trying not to fret about what I can’t. Enjoying what I can and trying to accept what I have no control over with reasonably good grace.

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A bit at a time

papier-mache bowls

My goal for August was to focus more on creativity and, despite many challenges, I spent enough time on my sketchbook and papier-mâché to feel that I succeeded in getting my creative juices flowing again. They certainly aren’t flowing smoothly or sustainably yet, but a start has been made.

I’m avoiding any specific goals as I find I enjoy myself more without the constraints of a plan. What works best for me is having my materials spread out on the kitchen table so that I can do a bit now and then as I go about my normal daily chores. Collage lends itself to this ad hoc way of working very well. I do a lot of moving stuff around and pondering while waiting for food to cook or the kettle to boil.

My papier-mâché materials take up very little space on the kitchen worktop, so I can paste on a few layers with minimal effort. It’s quite a meditative activity that I enjoy doing standing up after a meal while my food settles in my stomach. I haven’t yet got the knack of making a bowl that doesn’t warp as it dries, but the third is better than the first.

Now that I’ve built up a tiny momentum, I’ll carry on with my sketchbook and bowl-making in September. Not with any specific goals except perhaps to create a collage that can be used as an image for this year’s Christmas cards. I haven’t made my own Christmas cards for a long time and it would be nice to do so again.

Until today my plan for this month had been to get going with my memoir-writing again, but I realised this morning that my goal is actually going to be to spend as much time as possible out of doors. And not just in my garden – I’ve been very housebound lately thanks to the very hot weather and consequent poor health, so I want to make the most of the autumn.

I don’t suppose I shall go very far, but it will be good to see some different sights before it gets too cold to linger outside and each small outing will help build up my stamina. I do have more energy than a year ago, but my muscles and confidence are still very weak.

The process of creating strong papier-mâché bowls from pieces of floppy paper and glue is helping me to accept that rebuilding my strength has to be done the same way – a bit at a time. Now I need to find a way of making it easy to do a bit of exercise when I have the energy for it. I’ve got far too used to a minimal-exertion way of life!

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A dip in the sea

One good thing about the spell of hot weather is that it warmed the sea up enough to make the thought of swimming in it seem appealing. Most of my good ideas never get further than my mind, but last Saturday morning my brother and I went to the beach and into the water. He had a proper swim in deep water, while I wallowed in the shallows.

The breeze that took the edge off the late morning heat made the waves far too lively for me and my weak over-sensitive body felt quite panicked at first by the rapid, unpredictable movement of the water. I had to accept that wading out to swim wasn’t possible. I felt much safer, if a little foolish, sitting down with the water just covering my legs. Leaning back on my elbows I enjoyed letting my lower body rise and fall on the waves until I began to feel cold.

shells 2I wrapped myself up in my bathrobe and sat on the warm pebbles to recover from the excitement. It’s nearly 20 years since I last got more than my feet and ankles wet in the sea! And it’s been a few years since I did even that. Naturally I soon started sifting through the stones to see what I could find, popping a few shells and a pointy stone into my pocket as a souvenir of the day. I rarely go anywhere out of doors without bringing back something that’s caught my eye. A shell or a stone, a leaf, twig or seedpod, pieces of metal or plastic.

shells 1I haven’t done any sketch-bookery this week (yet), but I have had fun inspecting and arranging my little collection of beachcombings. I’ve collected several tooth-shaped stones like the one on the upper right over the years. I call them shark’s teeth, though I always suspected they weren’t really of animal origin.

Thanks to the internet I now know that it’s most likely a trace fossil formed in the burrow of a creature that lived in the chalk sea. A long time ago!

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Depicting depression

Summer is never my best season and although I’ve been doing magnificently well in keeping (relatively) cheerful this year, it has been hard work. And last weekend I completely ran out of energy for keeping the black dog at bay. It had been snapping at my heels for a while and by Saturday I felt completely paralysed by inertia and misery.

Which isn’t a great state to be in when you have a sketchbook to fill… I’d planned to do some actual sketching, but couldn’t face the effort involved in even deciding what to attempt to draw. I stuck some layers on my papier-mâché bowl as that was a purely mechanical task and did some more lying around feeling utterly crap.

Eventually it occurred to me to try and depict how I was feeling. Thinking about it now a spiral of darkness seems a pretty clichéd symbol of depression, but at the time the idea animated me enough to send me to my pile of newspapers in search of suitable material. As it happened the first thing I picked up had a full page advertisement on the back which was mostly shades of dark grey. Perfect.

So I sat down at my blank page, tore some small squares from the sheet of greyness and started sticking them down. The relief of being absorbed in the task was immense. At first I was simply tearing and sticking – the only decisions I made were to work in an anti-clockwise direction and not to leave any gaps between the spirals. I didn’t pay any attention to the shading or to the shape of what I was making.

spiral 1

I only had enough energy for short sessions of tearing and sticking. So I did a bit here and there between long rests and doing all the shit that has to be done whether you feel like it or not. In session two or three I noticed that I was beginning to pay attention to the shading and shape. Instead of simply taking a scrap of paper and gluing it down, I was making choices about the balance and placing of darker or lighter shades. I had to get a compass and draw a guide circle to satisfy my need to create a neat shape.

spiral 2

I observed myself edging from just-doing to slight control-freakery with wry amusement. So typical! I also observed the calm that comes with being absorbed in a pleasurable task and the pain of simply not having enough energy to alleviate depression with activity for more than a short space of time. Yes, something is better than nothing, but that doesn’t make the grief of not being able to do more any less painful.

As the spiral got bigger the problem of how to end it began to loom. I started with a vague idea of filling the whole page, but my supply of material was limited and I was making something far neater than I expected to, so a slight tension began to build up about when to stop. I carried on on the basis that if you aren’t sure, add more, until suddenly I knew that it was finished. I’d pretty much run out of the lighter greys, so if I made another circuit I’d make a border of dark grey that would be visually unappealing.

spiral 3And then, rather than accepting that moment of awareness that it was done, I added one more small piece in a misguided attempt to make it look more “finished”. It didn’t work and I couldn’t remove that piece without messing up what should have been the last one. Sigh. Oh well, it’s a sketchbook. It’s about learning, not perfection.

The original “end” occurred at about the place where the two would be on a clock face, leaving the spiral open. After some deliberation I decided to close the gap up to the top of the circle rather than leave it with the fuck-up piece glaring at me every time I looked at it. If I’d been planning such a completion I’d have graduated the edge better, but I like it better than the fucked-up version. Though that bulge on the upper right will always be a reminder to STOP when I’m “told” to!

As a depiction of my depressive episode the piece is pretty much a failure – the reality is far more chaotic and much darker. Still, it was good therapy and an interesting sketchbook exercise. I learnt a lot from doing it and will experiment further with collaged spirals and circles. It might be a good way to decorate the papier-mâché bowl I’m making.

Have you ever tried to depict a mood as a creative exercise or as therapy? What technique(s) did you use? What did you learn from it?

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Summer sketchbook

July was mostly filled with preparing for visitors, enjoying their presence and clearing up afterwards. It was another big milestone in my recovery process and it all went remarkably well. Once that excitement was over I started on my plan to focus more on creativity.

Long ago I bought a fancy A4 sketchbook bound in scrumpled purple and blue two-tone fabric. It sat on my bookshelf for many years gathering dust because I couldn’t bear to sully its pristine pages with my pathetic scribblings… On the basis that it would be frightfully embarrassing to croak leaving a load of blank sketchbooks as my legacy, I finally persuaded myself to get the fuck on with filling it.

01 August - teabag drawingsIt’s now lying on my kitchen table with eight pages already adorned with my creative output – a couple of collages, one pencil drawing, some writing and some messing about with teabags inspired by Ruby Silvious whose website I found via Pinterest. I’m also making a papier-mâché bowl, but obviously that won’t be going in the sketchbook.

I’m struggling like mad with my perfectionism and impatience. I spend at least as much time deciding where to place things on the page as I do actually making them and my impatience often leads me to exceed my available energy. Perhaps, more positively, it’s my enthusiasm egging me on to do too much at a time. Either way I end up drained. Still, I need to engage with that struggle in order to find a balance that suits me mentally and physically.

I hope that as the days go by I’ll relax more about what I put into the book. It will probably be more scrapbook than sketchbook as I like cutting and sticking more than I like drawing, but the main thing is to fill it up! And to enjoy doing so.

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Pacing and priorities

The excuse I’ve been giving myself for not blogging is that I’m too busy doing things to write about them. And it’s true, the pace of change in my life at the moment is much faster than I’m used to and by the time I’ve processed one thing enough to write about it loads more has happened. So the moment passes and thoughts stay in my head instead of being written down. Which is fine, I have a lot to do to rehabilitate myself and try to create a more normal life at my improved (but still very impaired) level of energy. I’ve enjoyed being able to crack on with things that I need/want to do in addition to dealing with the basic necessities.

What has become apparent over the last couple of weeks though, is that I don’t cope very well when circumstances conspire against me and I have to deal with unexpected events. Nor am I very skilled at judging how much ongoing effort and attention will be required once I set something in motion. For example: Ordering a new pair of trousers is easy – I can do that lying on my bed. Trying them on, finding they are far too small, returning them to exchange for the next size up, trying them on, finding that they are ludicrously too big and returning them for refund uses up a considerable amount of time and energy. And the end result is that I still need new trousers, I’ve wasted a load of precious time and energy, and I’m miserable about being entirely the wrong shape for manufactured clothes…

Still, learning anything worthwhile involves making mistakes and, as I recovered from my latest set-back due to too many events outside my control colliding with my own over-optimism about how much I could achieve, it occurred to me that prioritising writing might slow me down enough to avoid overwhelm. On the other hand, it might depress me to observe too closely how slow my progress towards rehab actually is. Chronic illness hasn’t altered my fundamental preference for quick wins over slow and steady achievement. You can’t turn a hare into a tortoise by strapping a shell to its back.

My vague plan for the rest of the summer is to focus this month on enjoying having first my niece and then an old friend to stay. As I haven’t had house-guests since I moved here eight years ago the prospect is both exciting and scary. Still, I’m very glad I feel ready and willing to take such a big step outside my comfort zone AND in the month I usually find most trying health-wise. After that I’m hoping to spend August doing more art. I have almost completely neglected my creative life in favour of getting on with practical matters over the last few months, so I want to see what I can achieve if I make creativity my priority for a while.

I might write about it, I might not…

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