Daffodils never make things worse

There’s a roadside bank I frequently drive past, and at this time of year, it’s awash with yellow daffodils. It’s a slightly dark section of road, but the flowers glow, and it’s a wonderful, uplifting sight after the long winter.

Driving past a few days ago, I was reminded of my situation 13 years ago. I regularly drove past this bank of daffodils, but on those occasions, it was to visit my dying father. On the way to see him, I’d be in a highly anxious state, with questions coursing through my mind. What state would he be in today? What news of his health would greet me? Would he be comfortable? I suspect there were many times I passed the flowers without even noticing them, fixated instead on safely navigating the road in my fretful, distressed state.

Hours later, on the way back home, I’d often drive in tears. Heart-broken at leaving him, wondering if it was the final goodbye, feeling guilt that I had to keep my own life going, and trying to hold onto the feel of his hand in mine. I was awash with grief at what was happening and terror about what I knew would come. He wasn’t going to get better.

As I reached the bank of daffodils, their brightness would slice through my grief, if not brightening me, at least calming a little. They were an insistent reminder of life, renewal, cycles, and presence. They couldn’t solve my grief or mend my Dad, but they never made things worse either, and on many occasions, soothed me and reminded me to appreciate the simple fact of being alive, even through the pain.

Even in those highly emotional times, when I felt such acute pain, I also connected to a sense of gratitude. I guessed it was council land, and council workers who had planted them and kept the brambles at bay. People unknown to me had planned the effect, secured budget, scheduled the work and maintenance. I’ll never know them to thank them.

How many other uplifting sights are offered by unseen and underappreciated workers? So, if you are one, know that your work is seen and appreciated. Because daffodils never make things worse and might just make things a little better.

Learning from Transitions

I’ve recently had reason to consider transitions in life. Now that I’m noticing them, I’m fascinated by how we manage them, how we consider them, and how it helps to honour them. The big transition for me currently, is in seeking a new strand to my career, but previous major transitions have been in relation to losses and gains: the adjustment after my parents died, or the gain when I met my now-husband. But transitions are not always so big or dramatic. We daily transition from sleep to wakefulness, from indoors to outdoors, and where this shows up with my clearest awareness, is the transition from everyday life into and out of my meditation practice. I believe we can learn from these smaller transitions, practice them, and see whether this helps us cope with the larger ones.

Take my transition as I settle into meditation practice. I feel my body slowly calm, fidgeting reduces, and physical ease increases. I feel the full range of emotions present, far more varied and changeable than I’m normally aware of, and I notice spaces forming between my thoughts. At the end of a practice, I notice in fine detail the moment my body begins to make larger movements, and even the moment just beforehand, when I can sense the intention to move travel through my body. I notice how it takes time to switch back into my everyday activities, and how the stillness in my body, emotions and mind continue, but gradually lessen, as I move away from the practice (unfortunately).

This level of awareness of transitions isn’t usually so available to us when in the rush and busyness of daily life. We might notice feeling hot when we come in from outside, dressed in our winter coat and entering the centrally heated house. That kind of transition is noticed because we’re uncomfortable. What about the transitions that are happening every day, as we move from task to task in our work, as we finish work and move into family life, as we drop a friend off in our car and continue our journey alone, as one TV programme ends and we flick through channels to find the next?

Transitions interest me because they are everywhere, largely unacknowledged, and offer countless moments through the day to pay attention and learn. If we rush blindly through transitions, what does that tell us about ourselves and our attitude to life? If we are impatient with our wish to arrive somewhere, what don’t we notice about the journey? Transitions are endlessly occurring, and when we remember, it can be helpful to honour them. If we respect them, not only as important steppingstones between activities, but as themselves worthy of our attention, maybe we can learn to flow with changes more gracefully, even the unwelcome ones. We can cope a little better.

Why I love Grand Designs

I don’t watch much television, but there are some programmes I can’t resist. Grand Designs is one. The premiss is that wonderfully ordinary people with creative and ambitious ideas for their home are followed as they turn a housing wreck into an architectural wonder. So popular is Grand Designs, it is in its third decade of being produced.

I love this programme for the presenter, Kevin McCloud. With schoolboy enthusiasm combined with middle-aged scepticism, he offers his incredulity for the plan, the budget, the time available. But by the end, he always finds something to marvel at and be positive about. Even buildings you sense he finds monstrous insults to his profession, can have something positive said about them, such as his thoughtful reflections about how we live conjoined to our environment, and how differences in taste offer richness of experience. I also love to see the houses themselves, their colours, panoramic views, use of materials, and to imagine a life living there.

There is an added intrigue to the programme for me, in the form of the shape of the storyline itself. There is a beginning, full of vision, promise, passion, and energy. There is a middle, where disaster strikes, rain floods the site, money runs out, the onsite caravan is cold, the children are fed up, and the couple bicker. And there is an ending, where smiles return, the increased budget is accepted, the building site is wrestled into a home, like a phoenix rising from the mud, and there is the declaration that “it was worth it.”

What we are seeing played out, in a 60-minute advert-interrupted programme, is the classic “man in the hole” storyline, and the getting out of the hole, is when coping skills and strategies are used. We see the family, rocked by crisis, the building steeped in debt, and the flooded site empty of workmen. And gradually we see the tears flow, we hear of the meeting with the bank and the agreement of extended credit. We see a woman planting a vegetable garden in the shadow of her half-built house and know it as hope and optimism. We see suppliers adapt their schedules to accommodate changes. We see ambitious plans curtailed to something more realistic, and we see meaning ascribed to the disasters and positives sought: “If the window contractor hadn’t gone out of business, we’d never have redesigned, and this new plan is so much better.” We see neighbours turn up with food, and friends arrive to help.

In watching Grand Designs, I’m awed by people, their ideas, and their endurance. I am taught about coping, and how we get out of holes. I’m inspired by the people surrounding such a project, the designers, project managers, builders, interior designers, and how they cope with the challenges and changes. It’s a slightly twee programme, almost always ending positively and with beauty. But it’s a helpful metaphor for our own life struggles, our own coping, and for building empathy between us as we learn from seeing others cope.

How it began

It happened eleven years ago. The flash of inspiration came and would not leave. I was sat in bed on a Sunday morning drinking tea. Tea features in many critical moments in my life, like when an angry man reversed his car into mine, and after hurling abuse at me (for apparently being in his way, which, for the record, I wasn’t) and driving off, I called my Dad, who’s first words upon hearing my shaken voice were, “have you had a cup of tea?”

On that Sunday morning, the revelatory thought was flavoured by awe. It had the whiff of wonder. It was like a spring day, when you breathe enlivening scents and marvel at new growth and feel the mild, fresh air that is filled with promise and possibility. In that moment, I had connected with the miracle that is our capacity to cope. It mirrored the Buddhist thought that life is suffering, but instead of guiding me to a rigorous suite of practices, lifestyle guidance and philosophy, I felt connected to all people through all time, who had coped with bereavement, illness, job loss, uncertainty, injury and natural disaster. Yes, it was a recognition of the challenge of being human and alive, but it was also pure amazement at the biological, psychological, and sociological coping strategies we use to survive.

These ideas floated around but did not go. They began to mature, to form into concrete questions, to guide my reading, and be endlessly absorbing. Eleven years on, through all the thinking, learning, reading, listening, and writing, I am still fascinated by our coping capacity. And the book about it is forming. It’s not quite ready for you, dear reader, but will be soon …