The gift of presence

I hope it doesn’t sound mean-spirited to admit that I sometimes approach the festive season with trepidation. After all, there’s loads of things that I love about the middle of winter; candles and greenery, sharing good food and favourite carols to name a few.

But, with the heightened excitement and expectations, it can all seem just a little bit ‘extra’. Know what I mean?

I wonder what would happen if we let go of some of our busy-ness and replaced it with a little more intention. If we took time to consider what we really value and made space for more of that.

I’d like more time to have good conversations with those I love. Less time worrying about what stuff to get them and more attention to the present moment. I know that many of my casual conversations gather only half of my attention. I’m nodding along, but in my head I’m busy composing a text, a shopping list, a better retort to that thing that happened earlier.

Apparently we live in an attention economy. Even our language acknowledges what a precious commodity it is. We pay attention, waste time, spend energy, lose focus. A quick walk down the street, watching heads bent over magic rectangles, and there’s no question whose economy we’re investing in. We feel starved for time, yet willingly give what we have of it to the digital world. We while it away on endless scroll mode, unable to sit in the here and now.

In my work as a Speech and Language Therapist I often chat with parents about embracing the awkward silence. It’s incredible what gems crop up when we give people just a little more thinking time, rather than rush in to fill the space. The gift of our full attention; no new device or toy can ever replace that.

Everything about this midwinter season tells us to draw in, slow down, hit ‘pause’ on the everyday hustle and simply be together. Time to gather round and share stories, listen to each other and reflect on the year closing in. What story or song could you share? What do you want to pass on to those you love?

Put down your phone, leave it where it is. Go find someone to talk to. And pay attention.

Stitching harvest

Recalling the annual harvest school assemblies of our youth, it’s easy to take for granted the bounties of our soil. But with recent warning of depleted soils worldwide and UN estimates of only 60 harvests left, it feels very timely to pause and appreciate all that grows at this time of year.

We took this as an opportunity to do a little harvest stitchery. A simple heat transfer design and basic back stitch makes this is a quick and easy craft that lends itself to sitting down with a friend and having a good chat. There’s no pattern to follow or stitches to count. The design is right there on the fabric, so there’s just the usual challenge of threading the floss through the eye of the needle.

Cross Stitch hoop

All you need for this craft is:

  • some lightweight cotton fabric
  • an embroidery hoop
  • embroidery thread
  • tapestry needle
  • We also used some heat transfer designs from Sublime Stitching. Alternatively, you could draw on your own design with a soft pencil or trace a design by laying your fabric over an image on a tablet.

Our usual weekly delivery of fresh veg from Living Larder arrived on our doorstep just in time to catch a few photos. Considering the fragility of our soil and the incredible efforts of local growers to sustain and nurture this valuable resource, choosing local organic produce feels like a good way celebrate the harvest.

Adversity training

On a recent family trip to the Lake District for some fell running, I came across the term ‘Adversity Training’: to seek discomfort and challenge in order to build strength and stamina. It’s an idea easily adopted by the outdoor-loving folks of Keswick. In their Northern climes, if one waited for good weather, every planned adventure would be infinitely postponed.

Regardless of the fancy title, adversity has always been a part of family trips. I’m sure you can recall a few of your own. For me, it dates back to camping in snowy mountains as a little kid, right through to the muddy, storm-bound and semi-lost adventures that my little family of three seek out still.

We had lots of fun during our recent Lakeland trip, but it wasn’t without adversity. We got lost aplenty, tired to the bone and so soggy wet that we practically dissolved into the landscape.

I can even say that the rainiest day of our trip, a run around Thirlmere Reservoir, may well have been my favourite. The rain battering down the peaks of our hats, eating snacks on the go (too cold and wet to bother stopping) whilst people in warm dry cars splashed past us with baffled expressions. I’m not sure what makes this so fun. Perhaps it’s the sense of achievement, prevailing in less-than-ideal conditions. Perhaps it’s the hilarity of an almost ludicrous mission.

Getting lost is always a huge part of the picture for us. On a sunnier day, we went awry on our descent from Place Fell, almost walking off a sheer cliff facing down into Ullswater.

We sat down at the edge, heads bent collectively over a Clif bar and OS map, taking a minute to choose our next steps and remind ourselves of the many hours of daylight still remaining (i.e. don’t panic!)

Of course, we made it back to the car in the end. If we hadn’t gotten lost, we wouldn’t have been able to practise the challenge of staying calm and kind to each other amidst this right-royal-muck-up. We wouldn’t have had that moment of unexpected joy, tramping across the springy landscape amongst clouds of butterflies, discovering a hidden stream and soaking up that wild view. Those kind of moments don’t happen when you stay on the beaten track.

The focus and exhilaration that comes from attempting something a little scary is hard to beat. The teamwork required to haul ourselves up a steep arête, followed by the collective relief of making it to the top without tumbling off, is all part of how we build our bond. Just the three of us in the elements, reliant on ourselves and each other to get us through the landscape, safely and cheerfully.

Feeding Rollo the dog

However you choose to spend your time as a family, few adventures are devoid of adversity. And what better preparation for life? To encounter these things together and learn that it’s not about avoiding the challenges, but rather choosing how we respond to them. There’s few phrases more beautiful than “Let’s figure it out together.”

Transient Art

Shells on branch

We often cry “Process, not product!” Both Tom and I work with children (he’s a teacher, I’m a therapist) and we often chat about how the process of doing something (and the conversations that crop up while we do it) is where the magic happens.

‘Process over product’ is a catchy phrase, but it’s not always easy to put into practice. After all, we like a pretty end result. We all have an idea of how something ‘should’ look (thanks Pinterest).

When I was a kid I’d often give up on art projects because they didn’t look like how I imagined them in my head. Perhaps if I’d focused a little more on enjoying the process I would have got further. I might have enjoyed selecting the paint colours, figuring out the shapes, telling someone else about my idea.

Shells in hand

I’m no artist, but I enjoy making things. Part of that enjoyment has come from abandoning hope of a perfect product. Focusing on what I enjoy about the process.

Transient art is a perfect project for adopting this mindset. By its very nature transient art is impermanent. So, you needn’t worry about how it looks. Just focus on enjoying the creative flow. Gather together and arrange a bunch of natural objects that are appealing to you. Enjoy the fact that this isn’t your lasting legacy.

We wandered down to one of the Island’s many hidden little beach to play and create. We had in mind a few ideas and talked about them on the long grassy path down to the beach.

Reaching the shoreline, we spent time sifting through the shells and pebbles, absent-mindedly filling hands with the things we liked. The searching and sorting is half the fun of a transient art project. It’s like gathering a giant box of craft materials, gifted by nature.

In fact, it’s only loaned by nature. We aren’t taking anything away. Only rearranging it until the high tide comes to reclaim and rearrange.

We had a go at several different projects, each in our quiet corner, with the dog running between and reminding us that chasing sticks is his favourite art form.

Shells on bush branches

Tom decorated a driftwood tree with shells, playing with gravity, balancing shells on the tips of each twig. We made zentangles in the sand, clearing the space like a bird of paradise, moving each twig and leaf out of the way to create a clean blank canvas. This appealed greatly to the dog, who thought we’d simply cleared a nice patch of smooth wet sand for his belly. Thankfully, paw prints have their own kind of beauty. And we’re not aiming for perfection.

We also stacked stones and laid out shells. I had a go at my first mandala. This geometric design intended to symbolise the universe and our connection to it seems a good choice for a natural art project. I must tell you I really enjoyed the process. I am focusing on that because I wasn’t too sure about the final product. But the process was fun enough that I’ll definitely have another go in the future. And perhaps I’ll even get better at it.

However you choose to gather and arrange the things around you, I hope you enjoy the process and embrace the beauty of impermanence.

Hidden Bays

We have some wonderful majestic bays here on the Island. The ones that feature on national award lists and end up on all our tourism posters. They’re the striking, instantly recognisable spots: that long smooth stretch of sand across Compton’s low tide, those steeply shelving sands of Alum Bay, the bright white cliffs at Yaverland.

There’s also plenty of smaller hidden treasures. Small bays dotted around the Island. Ones that you quietly collect over time as the Island becomes your familiar playground. They’re the discoveries that you share with a friend, like passing on a gift. The ones that determine your local-ness and connect you to your neighbours.

When I mentioned to people that I was planning to write about some of the Island’s hidden bays, they were keen to add their own favourites to the list: Red Cliff, Whale Chine, Binnel Bay.

Some aren’t exactly hidden, but the effort required to get to them does give them a special feel. When you can’t simply tumble out of the car and onto the sand, it feels like you and Nature are conspiring to do something marvellous together.

The extra effort means that you rarely have to share. If there’s a boardwalk, an overgrown path, or even an abseil required (hello Rocken End!) then you’ve earned the peace and quiet.

And it is incredibly peaceful. Hidden bays invite contemplation. Give in to the rhythm of the waves, the pace of the gentle breeze. Even in a storm, it’s worthy of pause. Being whipped about in a salty gale feels just as good.

I like to look out for the different the textures, the shoreline and the cliffs. Sometimes it’s good for a photo. Sometimes it feels good to leave the phone in your pocket. Maybe you want to keep this hidden treasure a secret for a little while.

And pack snacks. Always snacks. I can’t tell you how many times we’ve ended up on a journey longer and epic-er than anticipated and been rationing out the odd raisin we find in the bottom of our bag. (The dog’s always fine – there’s dog treats in every pocket.)

We’ve lived on the Island for over 12 years. My dad grew up here. It feels more like home than anywhere I’ve ever lived. We delight in our Island knowledge and how much there is still to discover. I’m constantly surprised by how our mental map grows, purely by dint of keeping an open and curious mind. What’s down that track? I invite you to find out. I bet there’s a path near you that is new to you, or perhaps new in the direction you take it, or the season in which you cover it. Look up, look out. And then share your discovery with a neighbour.