blog, garden, Pat Aitcheson writes

It’s time for something completely different

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skeeze via pixabay

We are creatures of habit.

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.

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early leaf growth, Musa ensete v. maurelii

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.

creative writing, from elsewhere

Long story short

I found this wonderful piece by Jake Lira on Medium. Enjoy.

 

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Life isn’t a fairy tale. Hell it’s not even a book. If it were, the cover would be bent and sentences would run right off the page. Most chapters would wander and fail to pick up where the last left off. The plot? Heartbreakingly thin more often than not. No, life isn’t a book. Much more a collection of short stories fervently scribbled on whatever happens to be on hand. Sometimes a bar room napkin or a stolen post it. Perhaps penciled in a calendar or permanently penned on a bicep. And if we are lucky, from time to time end up etched in kindred spirits.

– Jake Lira

blog, Pat Aitcheson writes

From one human to another

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Bellis perennis, the common lawn daisy

What does it take to brighten your day, restore your faith, ease your suffering, or make you smile?

It might seem that only the biggest things can turn a rotten day into a better one. One scratchcard win, one £50 note discovered on the ground, one declaration of undying love, one letter of acceptance for that thing you’ve been hoping for and dreaming about. These things would certainly make you feel better.

They’re also almost certain not to happen.

What are the odds, right?  But consider this.

Even the smallest candle can light up the dark.

Work has been difficult, and then last week I caught a horrible cold. Think congested, feverish, head stuffed, can’t breathe, can’t sleep misery. Well, still gotta work, so I slogged on. After surviving one long morning in which all I wanted to do was run away home and hide under my duvet, there was a knock at my door. I expected another claim on my time and fading energy, and my heart sank.

Instead, the receptionist brought in flowers. A pink bouquet with a card that read ‘your (sic) in our thoughts’. It had been left by someone I had seen earlier. Well, I was so moved by this, I could have wept.

I work in a so-called caring profession. I have colleagues, family and friends, some of whom knew how ill I felt. Yet this came from a near-stranger, who went to some trouble to help me feel better. And, as I type this, I look at my flowers and I still feel better.

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pink bouquet

 

It takes so little to shine a light, and you never know who needs it most. It need not be flowers; it can be any small, authentic kindness. Eye contact and a smile, a sincere enquiry followed by active listening are often missing in daily life. If we can supply them, and if we can be genuine then we connect on a basic human level, and that’s what we all crave.

Even a humble daisy would have been enough to let me know she cared. And yes, I will be sending a thank you card, to let her know I appreciated her gesture, more than she knew. It made me smile on a tough day, and that can be the greatest gift of all.

Maybe something I write will do the same for a reader one day. I hope so. In the meantime, I will look for an opportunity to pay it forward.

Remember, when backed by action, the thought really does count.

blog, Pat Aitcheson writes

It doesn’t matter

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Helleborus

I said before that I stopped writing.

And I have, except that I am compelled to make my weekly blog post. It doesn’t matter whether I do it or not. It doesn’t matter if I break my commitment, made by me and for me. It doesn’t matter if anyone notices, or not.

The sun rises, rain falls, darkness descends, without my input. The flower pictured above was not planted by me; it was a chance seedling, happened upon one afternoon when I wandered down to the bottom of my garden. I saw it, but if I hadn’t, it would have been there just the same. It would be no less beautiful, no less worthy of close examination, or of digital immortality.

It doesn’t matter. Everything is temporary.

Barren places hide seeds that may yet bloom, more gorgeous than anything deliberately nurtured. You just have to shine some light, go down to the further corners, and keep your eyes open.

I’m finished now.

And that’s okay, for this, too, will pass.

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Scattered

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photo: cocoparisienne via pixabay

I should be having a mini-celebration, of sorts.

I challenged myself to start a proper blog in 2016 and then to make one post each Friday. This, my 25th post of 2016, should have been posted yesterday. Instead I’m writing it on Saturday. I’ll still meet my weekly goal, because by now missing it feels wrong. I know I have only a few readers, but I want to keep up momentum, build muscle for the future, create a body of work.

At this point, I’m still doing it for myself. I have not excused my efforts with the distractions of work, writing for my writers’ group anthology, editing and rewriting, entering competitions occasionally, writing short stories and submitting to journals. My second novel is so cold, forgotten on the back burner, that I will have to perform Frankenstein levels of reanimation, once I get around to it again.

Then, an unexpected two-week deadline for an ongoing project hit. Due on 4th July, a day of meetings starting with a presentation I have scarcely started yet.

I feel scattered. I remind myself to breathe, take it one step at a time. Deadlines stretch away into the future, a gauntlet that must be run before I can rest.

This is life. I’d like a win to encourage me, but though it doesn’t come I keep working anyway. Because without the work, no win is possible.

Breathe.

I’m still sending my wishes out into the world, hoping that one or two seeds will take root. Sometimes the biggest victory is simply to try again, to get up one more time.

I will allow myself to cheer quietly, when the presentation is done. Sometimes we forget to mark the mini victories in our quest for the big one. I’m off to put that saved bottle of pink champagne in the fridge, where it will remind me daily that a celebration is overdue and I earned it.

Meanwhile, breathe, work, breathe, repeat.

blog, creative writing

On her birthday

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image:pixabay

Today, I realise it has been a while. Now and again I catch sight of a fading scar, an old wound. My hurts are my history, locked in the past.

Today, I remember. I look past the anguished latter days, and I see laughter, a book shared, easy times cooking side by side. I leave the arguments and disagreements behind, in favour of sunlit moments on the beach, walking in step. Those were times to savour, and we lived them carelessly, as though we could always go again to the seaside in search of treasure.

Today, I choose to forget. I toss the sharp edged complaints and criticism in the sea of experience until they glow like sea glass, tumbled smooth, transformed, revealing care and concern at their core. Something worth keeping.

Today, her photograph smiles without reproach. There is no gift to give save to myself; the gift of forgiveness, that journeys from love, through pain, to loving remembrance.

Today, it does not hurt. And I can move on.

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Thinking space

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image: pixabay

Our lives are full.

We’re all busy these days.

Whether employed, homemaker, retired, student, schoolchild, not employed… ask anyone, and they will tell you. “I’m so busy, I haven’t got a minute.” Doing what, exactly? Well, stuff – you know, my job/studies, my family, my children, my friends, that lawn won’t mow itself.

It has become okay to say that every moment is crammed with busyness, even if it only consists of online shopping and Candy Crush on your phone. And conversely, it is usual to muster a pitying smile when people say, “Oh, not much these days, life’s pretty quiet.” How idle, how pathetic, how friendless are you, with a gap in your diary.

This is death to creativity.

I too live a frantic life, mainly because of a job that demands much for long hours. Since December, I have worked through a series of work crises that have left me exhausted and singed from fire-fighting. Not to mention the family issues. I struggle to keep my writing going. My NaNo project lies neglected on my hard drive. I am proud to have posted here every week this year, but I am wrung out. What should be fun (writing) feels like another job.

I went for coffee with Sarah, and she listened to my tale of woe kindly. Then she told me to book a holiday, and I listened.

It was time to take a breath.

So on holiday, I slowed down. Without adrenaline digging its spurs into my flank, I collapsed. (Sarah saw that it would have happened in any case, and soon.) I let it all go. I forgot that I had neglected to eat clean and hit the gym, and I wore a swimsuit anyway. I accepted a fresh omelette each morning that I had not cooked, and lay in a bed that I had not made. I dipped in the sea and looked out at boats on the horizon, let the sun warm my skin, and unclenched. I made no plans. I did nothing, for hours at a time.

I needed space.

Space to think. Space to shift my brain into neutral, not with the junk food of mindless entertainment, but with simplicity and being in the moment. Space to switch off the chatter, and in the quietness of wind and waves hear little voices bubbling up.

Here’s an idea. Here’s another. What if? Try this. Why not?

These voices are drowned out in the hubbub of a busy life. Eventually, if not listened to, they fall quiet. Or worse, they morph into resentment, frustration, bitterness that leaves us sour and somehow numb.

My life has become utterly lopsided. I try clinging on to fragments of daydreams, but who has time for dreams when there is so much to do? And then, when work ends, I am spent.

It is time to nourish the little seeds. I have to find  space in my everyday life and protect them from myself, the left-brained, busy, concrete self that schedules and plans and extracts maximum effort. We all do.

Whether we are creating art, or creating a life, the principle is the same. We need the gaps. We need to find space, no matter how small, not just on holiday but within the 168 hours of the week. To empty our overflowing brains so there is space for something new.

It is in the empty spaces that stars are born, and so emptiness is balanced by brilliant flashes of light.

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The grit in the oyster, the pearl in the shell

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The art of living is to make use of suffering.

This tweet by Jonathan Carroll caught me off guard because it rang true and at the same time, recalled a memory. To be more precise, it recalled a feeling. How wonderful that we can revisit the past, how amazing and terrible and comforting and scary.

A while ago I sat with colleagues, friends and strangers in a cold cathedral. Church pews remain my least favourite seat; cold, hard and shiny enough to slide off. I planted my feet firmly and folded my hands, my childhood lessons well learned. The priest intoned, we sang. Jewelled sunlight filtered through tall windows, and we listened.

He spoke about ‘Ava’ and her battle with ill health, that had ended shortly after her husband retired to spend more time with her. The priest spoke about many things, but one idea caught in the folds of my mind and stuck.

Suffering bravely borne is often bracketed with religious faith, but here the priest went further. He talked about her suffering as an action that achieved something more than heavenly approval. ‘Ava’ did not let her issues define her, and she lived her best life in spite of them.

“She turned the grit into a pearl.”

If there is a piece of grit in your life, and you can’t eject it, and it won’t leave of its own accord, then what? You can toughen up and stop feeling, you can numb yourself and stop feeling. Or you can acknowledge the discomfort or pain, and make something else of it.

Perhaps it will make you more empathetic. Perhaps it will nudge you to help others deal with their grit. Perhaps it will simply allow you to go on, without being broken.

Or perhaps you are an artist, which is to say, you can perform magic.

You can take the merest wisp of an idea, an image, a sensation, and make it into something new and different. You can add substance and polish until you have something that is better. Being an artist and creator does not wholly depend on mining the suffering  which touches us all in some way. But art cannot always be fuelled by joy either.

Transmute the base metal of distress. Hold it, feel its sharp edges until it is intimately known, accept the pain. It is art to show, by how we live or what we make, that hurt can be survived and there is more to life than tears. We artists can only hope that people will see and understand our message.

Art is life’s alchemy.

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…so shall you reap

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Crocuses

If you want to be happy for a lifetime, plant a garden.

My garden is necessary to me, as vital as writing. It is my long form of creation, and when all else fails me the garden soothes and restores.

I go into the garden and feel the warm breeze brought up from the south. Outside my door, I am greeted by the sweet perfume of Daphne odora aureomarginata. Bought as an overpriced, football sized clump of leaves, it now overflows its bed and rewards my patience with weeks of gorgeously scented blooms.

From there I stroll under the beech tree, where crocuses and narcissi dance in the wind and open their faces to the sun. I am reminded to do the same, after long hours hunched in front of a screen at my chosen work of writing.

I stretch and feel the sun on my face, watch clouds scudding across the sky and remember the real world. After hours or days spent in the insubstantial realm of stories and ideas, here is something that can be photographed and touched.

And the lessons learned, of planning, patience, planting a seed and going on with the rest of life, of physical effort, are just as relevant to the storyteller. Great things can come from small beginnings, and if the season disappoints there is always another chance, another time to experiment.

Beauty is no accident, but the result of hard, dirty graft.

The ground must be dug, the bulb must be planted, the weeds pulled, so that much later something gorgeous catches your eye, glimpsed from a window. The work is forgotten then in the simple joy of colour, pattern, movement.

My idea has come to life, and it’s beautiful.