12/8/20 After I got back from Wiltshire a few weeks ago, I made a list of things that might help me to keep up my spirits and think positively. The break had done me a huge amount of good, but I could already feel that it wouldn’t solve the problems of being at home again. I was going to have to work hard at maintaining the change in mindset I had experienced in those few days away. I had already identified one thing that would give me that sense of wellbeing and excitement about life which had been so lacking in recent weeks: to go looking for chalk streams in Norfolk. But at least a whole free day was required for that kind of adventure, and I needed things I could do every day, at home, even on busy days.
I looked back at the list yesterday. Even though I had already implemented many of the items, I had forgotten it was so long. As well as obvious things such as planning to see friends and getting out regularly, the list read as follows:
Sit in the boat on the pond
Swim in the rain
Walk at dusk
Write at the reservoir
Sleep in the garden
Make a campfire & seat area at the top of the garden by the moat
Get up early (walk/bike ride)
Go into the hedge/stream area beside the meadow
Go for a new walk twice a week
Seeing this list again, it is clearly all about new perspectives: seeing and doing familiar things in new ways, and taking advantage of novelty available close to home.
I hadn’t been in the little rowing boat for months, perhaps a year. There isn’t much rowing to be done right now as the water is so low; but there is no doubt that sitting on any kind of water is calming, and sitting in the middle of a pond gives you an unusual view. A seating area by the moat, out of view of the house – where I have been planning for some time to put a hut – would help me to experience the garden differently. In fact, sitting anywhere in the garden that I never usually sit would do this job. The other items on the list would provide new perspectives on the everyday, and on my local surroundings.
Getting up early felt slightly different. It was certainly still about novelty, as well as taking advantage of a freely available delight, but it was the only idea on the list that appealed and didn’t appeal in almost equal measure. I love summer mornings, especially when the weather is good. But when you are waking up feeling low and worried about facing the day, it seems counterintuitive, and difficult, to bring that moment forward. Evenings are usually the better time, when the anxieties of the day are over. The effort would be in both getting to bed – earlier – and getting up. I was uncertain which would be harder.
The appeal outweighed the reluctance just enough for me to give it a try. At first I had to set my alarm, each day a little earlier, and I struggled some days not to simply turn it off and go back to sleep, especially when it was overcast or raining. But then a spell of hot weather arrived to help me. Since moving to Suffolk – or more precisely, moving out of the city, which I will never go back to – hot weather makes me feel like it’s the summer holidays even when I am working. It brings a sense of excitement about the day ahead.
For nearly a week I have slept in the garden, and the birds and the daylight have woken me between 6 and 7am. Although I would love to get up even earlier, as my dad used to do, sitting by the pond and watching for water voles from 5am, I know I would get too tired for that to be a sustainable arrangement. This time of day is special for so many reasons. I love the quality of the light and shade, the smell of the air, the coolness before sweltering heat. A walk or bike ride is a special treat: there are few people about and many hares out on the fields. There is also a feeling of secrecy. I can read or write in peace for two hours or more without feeling I am taking time out of the day that I should be using for more practical purposes.
The world hasn’t started yet; the phone won’t ring; no one can demand anything of me. There is a sense of freedom. And the day feels so much longer.
Early morning is also the best time to observe wildlife in the garden. Sleeping and sitting at the top of the garden have brought rewards. I haven’t yet created the campfire area, but there is a bench nearby, facing the house. Although the view is partially obscured by an overgrown juniper these days, it’s not the house I want to see. A goldcrest – so tiny – hops about in the crab apple tree ahead of me; a great spotted woodpecker taps in a tree to the left. A tawny owl nearby wakes me in the middle of the night, and I see and hear the dramas of the dried-out moat behind me. The moorhens alert me to any disturbance. The first is a false alarm: a rabbit running up and down in front of a large rabbit residence in the bank. The second – a real threat to their babies – is a stoat.
I woke around 6am this morning and lay for a while looking at the trees above my head. It occurred to me that perhaps I shouldn’t sleep under the dying chestnut tree again. It would be inconvenient to get squashed by a falling branch.
I have implemented seven out of the nine ‘familiar-novelty’ items on my list so far, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I feel infinitely better than I did two weeks ago. Perhaps of all the small changes I have tried to make in my approach to daily life this summer, getting up early has made the most difference. Hot weather and early daylight have been crucial ingredients; but while they are here, I am able to feel excited instead of anxious about starting the day. And perhaps by the time they depart, the change in mindset will be strong enough to last.