I feel like a cool writer today.
I’m sitting outside under a parasol with a cool drink and my laptop, listening to birdsong and the faint hum of traffic. It’s surprising how easily you learn to tune out some sounds, leaving more room to hear cawing crows and squawking nestlings.
When we look back, these are the days we remember. The patchwork greens of spring burst with life and Demeter’s promise renewed, warm sun on my legs and a soft breeze stirring the pages of my book.
My daughter spends the day inside, hunched over her laptop. She refuses my call to come and sit out, to enjoy the sun, to simply be. She’s certain there are many more opportunities waiting for her. She doesn’t see the point, because the wi-fi signal is better inside and the sun is slanting in through the windows just the same.
It’s not the same.
I remember a scene from The Simpsons, with young Homer pulling hairs from his comb. Plenty more where they came from, he says, and we laugh because we know what he does not, yet.
The future is not promised and all our days are numbered, whether that number is large or small.
So I allow myself to enjoy a fine day like this, storing it up in memory. It’s a blessing to live it now and will be a future joy to relive it with a smile. I will turn it over in my mind like a smooth water worn pebble, warming my heart, hearing only birdsong.
Someone is sitting in the shade today because someone planted a tree a long time ago. Warren Buffett
We often make resolutions and set goals at the turn of the year.
Thinking about the future and planning for it is crucial to success. As a gardener and a writer, I know this is true. I can’t harvest what I did not sow, nor can I sow where I have not prepared the ground.
As January’s list of goals is forgotten and our resolve crumbles, there is one thing we all can do every day to get ahead. It is not cold showers, waking at five o’clock to meditate, or wearing the same outfit, which no doubt work for some but fill me with horror. Especially the cold shower.
Do one thing your future self will thank you for.
It could be a big thing or a tiny thing. It could be for the long-term or for tomorrow. But sometime between waking and sleeping again, despite being consumed by the busyness of the day-to-day, cast your mind forwards. Here are a few ideas.
Lay out your clothes for the next day
Write down that story idea or line of dialogue
Check your insurance is up to date
Make that call you’ve been avoiding
Exercise for ten minutes
Read a chapter
Drink a glass of water
Make your bed
Cook double quantities of meals and freeze half
Take the stairs
Put the laundry on before you leave
Tell them you love them
The gardeners reading this will nod sagely, already thinking ahead to a new season in the natural calendar. Years ago I braved a bitter day to plant a few bulbs that didn’t look like much. The pay-off was not immediate. But now, with little to no extra effort, the snowdrops above cheer up dreary winter days. And every year there are more.
We underestimate the power of compounding
The billionaire Warren Buffett is a financial legend. He buys carefully and holds for the long-term, much like a gardener planting trees. The value comes in compound interest and re-investing dividends. In the same way, daily actions add up over time to a significant return. Whether we invest in ourselves or in external achievements, starting early and persisting is the key to finishing our novel or building up a pension plan.
Often we think that it is the big gestures, the grand flourish that gets the winner to the podium. But more often, building one small deed on another over time brings the biggest rewards. No deed is too small, provided we keep doing it.
We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit. Aristotle
So, what will you do today, and tomorrow, and on into the future?
Whether it’s saving £5 a week, or kissing your SO every day, you’ll be delighted with the return on your investment. Start now.
It’s Friday, finally.
The end of the week for me, and what a week it was. A week of turbulent news, both in the world at large and my little corner of it. Unwelcome developments, painful separations, and unexpected changes came thick and fast.
It’s been a hell of a week, actually.
So now I can relax, yes? Not really. My brain feels stuffed full and yet strangely empty at the same time. I cannot be mindful with a full mind. Little fragments of song play over and over. Weariness tugs at my limbs, and the to-do list dances in front of exhausted eyes.
It’s time to slow down.
So, I go out into the garden and sit. Just sit, nothing more. The sun is pleasantly warm on my skin, and the distant roar of traffic fades as I listen to birds chirping, and wind sighing in the trees. There are so many shades of green, if you only look. More birdsong, and if I am really still a brave robin approaches, his proud orange chest bright.
If I sit still enough, long enough, maybe I could become invisible. I pull my feet from sandals and curl my toes around cool grass, and watch cheerful daisies turn their faces to the sun. A blackbird hops by. The breeze brings a memory of roses.
Breathe, slow down, unwind. I drop my knapsack of cares so I can stretch shoulders bent under heavy burdens too long. I am Atlas released, Sisyphus freed, and for this and every moment that follows I will drink in the green refreshment of earth.
Sit still enough, long enough. Here tall trees give shade, blue sky exists, and thrushes sing in the warm sun because they must. I can be grounded and yet soaring, separate and yet whole.
Green will nourish and revive, and the earth will heal my torn and quivering heart. After a time, I will go on. But for now I let everything go.
We can gaze at the night sky and marvel at the constellations. But sometimes brilliant stars can be found in the daytime too. All photos taken in my garden.
There is something about the combination of spring green and white that lifts my spirits. It is hope and possibility and a fresh start. It is the promise fulfilled, Demeter rejoicing at Persephone’s return, the reward for enduring winter. Now, past the balancing point of the equinox, gardens are truly awake.
I look out at young growth everywhere and know that despite everything, the seasons turn. Birds will sing, flowers will bloom, fruit will come in time.
It’s time to turn my face to the sun, so the shadows fall behind me.
Last time, I talked about how new beginnings can come from what seems like disaster. In the space cleared by the end of one idea, another may find the space and light it needs to germinate and grow. Sometimes, an idea (or a thing, which is just an idea made concrete) has a limited life span. It flourishes for a while and then disappears when its job is done. Its beauty lies in its temporary nature. Isn’t that the glory of flowers?
Gardeners know the turn of the seasons, and that few deaths are final. We bury our plants in the compost heap, and they nourish new life. Sometimes they are born again, in unseen seeds that burst into triumphant life.
But what about grief?
Mourning what is past is both necessary and healthy, as long as it doesn’t replace the act of moving forward again. When winter grips the garden, and it is but an array of brown empty earth, dead stems, or snow-huddled mounds, it’s easy to think that this is a permanent state. But it is just a phase; it’s not permanent.
Spring is coming
Whether you know it or not, life lies below the surface, waiting for the right moment to emerge. Those first green shoots are tender yet they are the toughest, willing to push out of cold soil into chilly air or even snow. They are the most precious, because they are eagerly awaited signs that the spring is coming, and with them comes the promise of better days. But to get there, a winter must be endured.
The only way out is through.
The only way to avoid grief is to never love.
The only way to avoid endings is to never say hello.
The only way out of life is to push through its many winters.
The only way through winter is to push out again, to risk exposure, to seek the sun.
We do, eat, read, and watch the same things. My supermarket online order page has a feature called ‘Your Usuals’ because apparently, 80% of my order is the same every week. If I don’t pick these items, it reminds me before I reach the checkout. Strange that in a world dominated by the latest new thing, we cling to the tried and tested. Maybe that explains the dominance of the movie franchise, the re-imaginings and remakes and tired sequels. Much less risky than something completely new, but ultimately not very interesting either.
A new challenge
When you have worn a rut following the same path, strike out elsewhere. It’s often best to start small, that way the risks are less, but the payoff is still worthwhile. It could be the start of something really worthwhile and rewarding.
To use an example from gardening; I grow or make something new every year. This was easy in the early days of the garden, when it was a blank canvas. However, I had no money, and so it was often seeds rather than plants. I tried different seeds, and found out what worked with minimal outlay.
I grew things that were almost impossible to buy, like the red leaved castor oil plant Ricinus communis carmencita. I grew things that were so easy, the prices charged for small plants made me angry. For example, Verbena bonariensis proved easy and beautiful, and as a bonus seeded itself. Since I raised many seedlings, I could afford to dot them around the plot and see what worked, and where. I tried plants that were said to be too tender for my garden. I still have Geranium palmatum, which tolerates my clay soil and also seeds itself, against the odds.
It would have been nice to have the money to just buy whatever I wanted, but it would not have taught me much. Time and money are always inversely related, if you lack one you must put in more of the other to get results. I grew sunflowers with my children when they were young, but I used the opportunity to grow more interesting cultivars as well as the skyscrapers they loved to measure. The time investment paid off several times over.
Last year, I made wine with a heavy crop of rosehips from my Rosa glauca bush. This year, I planted Musa ventricosum maurelii (bought from the supermarket for £10). It did very well, and has just been lifted to overwinter in the porch. Well worth taking the chance, and it should be even better next year.
Cultivating the beginner’s mind
Maybe you’re quite good at something. Not at the level of mastery, because who has 10,000 hours to commit to something? (Even if this pop theory has been debunked.) But pretty good, and it’s started to get easy. We want easy, we don’t want difficult. Maybe it’s not any one thing that’s well within your capabilities, but life’s activities in general. Problem is, it can also get boring. We start to lose interest. At this point, you can go one of three ways.
Spend less time and effort, and probably give up after a while.
Spend more time and effort, challenge yourself to improve with a new goal.
Put the thing aside, and do something different.
Any of these could be a valid option, depending on the activity and how important it is. Above, I talked about the second option. I’d like to argue here for the third option. Why? Because starting from scratch is liberating, fun, playful.
Beginning without expectation or judgement is freeing. At the start of school, we’re eager for knowledge, full of questions and ready to make mistakes. We are willing to fail.
We end school downcast and oppressed by expectations, testing, targets and curricula. We cannot afford to fail.
In the process, all the fun of learning is stripped out, all our enthusiasm squashed.
How about starting again?
It could be a return to something you did before, or not. It could be learning a new language, fixing a car, making bread or curries or furniture. For me, it was art. I needed something completely new, but it was also a return to the girl who used to design clothes and matching shoes in a sketchbook. I took a life drawing class, and picked up a pencil for the first time in decades.
Having made the conscious decision not to judge my work, nor compare with others, I relaxed and concentrated. How to show a three dimensional object on a two dimensional page? How to shade the folds in fabric? Which softness of pencil? What kind of paper? I asked questions and enjoyed the novelty of knowing nothing, learning from ground zero.
In short: I played, and it was good.
We do not stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.
George Bernard Shaw
Adults can learn. Our brains are much more adaptable than we think.
Adults should learn. It keeps us energised and interesting.
Adults must play. It keeps us young and puts a smile on our faces.
Adults benefit from play. Our newfound energy will boost the rest of our activities.
Letting go of outcome, focussing on the process and the journey, could be the best thing you ever did.
No matter how detailed, or how loose, start with a plan. You cannot reach the destination without a goal and at least a few markers set along the way.
“bury the treasure well”
The plot twist, the clues, Chekhov’s gun. They must be planted ahead of time, before anyone realises, while they are thinking of something else.
You of course, are following the plan. You know what is coming.
“right plant, right place”
You may fall in love with something gorgeous.
If it does not fit, you must either provide the right conditions for it, or put it somewhere else. Remember my space pirate last week? He awaits the right plot.
You may create beautiful prose, so lovely you weep tears of joy when you read it back. You need not kill your darling, this post tells you what I do with mine. Nothing wasted, in a garden as in writing.
“subtlety is underrated”
A bold swathe of colour is lovely to see, but hard to pull off in a garden. It can also leave the plot looking a bit bare in other times and places. It works, if well supported by action elsewhere. Whether writing or gardening, a single bravura flowerbed or scene is not enough to sustain interest.
A quiet gradation with one plant leading gently to another can have great impact, as well as ending a long way from the starting point without jarring. Not everyone will appreciate the thought behind it. But some will, and it is satisfying to add another layer of meaning, to challenge your own skills.
“enjoy your harvest”
My garden’s variety of plants and purposes leads to this. Fruits and vegetables to savour, knowledge for next season, compost made from those that didn’t make it.
My story, long or short, leads to this. Plots, subplots, character arcs, the seeds of a sequel, must all culminate in a satisfying conclusion.
It’s hard work, but let’s not forget why we do it.