More adventures in YouTube: Slow TV

A few weeks ago I wrote about how I have been exploring how to use YouTube as one of the characters in my novel is a YouTuber. I’m taking a bit of time to think about what I want to do, and in the last few weeks have been exploring the idea of Slow TV as it looked likely that there would be a new lock down.

My approach so far has been basically to pair films of things that are nice to look at with sound recordings of things that are nice to look at. My first three films were of sunrises, in real time that I recorded while away recently in the cotswolds. I then added in a sound track of my cat having a nice purr.

The effect is strangely relaxing. If this sounds like something you would like to see you can have a look at one of them here:

Thank you for reading. I also make art and films. You can see my films at my YouTube channel here. You can see things with my designs on at my shop here. Could even treat yourself if you wanted to. Just saying. If buying art is not your thing, but you would like to support what you see I also have a Patreon Page here.

My cat is nailing social distancing

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In the UK we have been ‘social distancing’ for eight weeks now. I don’t think it has come that easily to many humans. People like to hug each other, even in socially uptight England. Social distancing prevents that for many people. I feel very grateful to be in lock down with my partner and baby, who I can hug all day should I want to, although they may find this very annoying.

My cat, in contrast, has developed social distancing into an art form. I think he has taken a bit of time to get used to us being in the house all the time. He now spends most of his day sitting in this basket high up on the top of a dresser. He spends his time sleeping, with occasional breaks to scowl at us or clean his bum. So at least some of us are having an ok lockdown.

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I also make art. You can see things with my designs on at my shop here. Could even treat yourself if you wanted to. Just saying. If buying art is not your thing, but you would like to support what you see I also have a Patreon Page here.

Thoughts on Radical Kindness: Why writers and artists should practice it (Part 3)

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[This is part 3 of a series of blogs about kindness. Please see parts 1 and 2 here]

When I began writing these posts I kind of thought this would have been one of my ‘here are my random thoughts on this’ kind of posts and that would be it. However life rarely turns out as you expect. I have been thinking a bit about my own journey as a person, and as an artist and writer, and what I’m about really through these posts.

I actually wanted to write and make art when I was a teenager, but I also wanted to ‘help people’ and somehow got it into my head that being an artist/writer would mean that I wouldn’t be doing that (I have seriously revised my view on this now!). Instead I went off to university to study medicine, thinking that doctors ‘helped’ people so that was what I should do. While I really loved learning about the science, and believe that having the opportunity to study human anatomy through full body dissection was one of the great privileges of my life, it turned out that the practice of medicine was not for me. I left after four years to do a PhD in psychology, during which I studied things like advertising, persuasion and the impact that stories can have on us. I still wanted to write and make art, but some how I wasn’t ready, because I hadn’t really found my subject.

Later I did research into mental health and genetics, and I left a long term relationship because my then partner would not even talk about having children (hence I am quite late to the baby party). After this I had a bit of a break down really, although I would not have called it that at the time. I was depressed, very anxious, and drinking lots. I was in a bad way, and (cliche alert) I became attached to a number of men who were not attached to me.

I continued to work in mental health but the kind of work I did changed so that I was doing research with colleagues who also had mental health issues. We talked a lot, and I listened a lot, and in the middle of all of that, I found I was ready to make things and write things. I am now writing a novel in which people have experienced trauma and who live with those things. It’s also a fantasy novel, so I am trying to weave in strands of myth and magic, which makes things a bit complicated, but and I think I finally found my subject. I think this is the many splendid forms of being human and all the emotional consequences of that. 

So why do I think that artists and writers in particular should practice radical kindness? I think that, beyond just being a good person, there are a number of reasons. I think to create art, or convincing characters that really speak to people, it can really help to understand people. It can really help to understand the rich and varied emotional lives many people live. To understand people, you need to connect with people on an honest level. To connect with people, it really, really helps if you are kind. People will tell you things about themselves, and help you, incrementally, to better understand all the different ways of being human, if you are kind.

I also make art. You can see things with my designs on at my shop here. Could even treat yourself if you wanted to. Just saying. If buying art is not your thing, but you would like to support what you see I also have a Patreon Page here.

Thoughts on Radical Kindness as a Daily Practice: Part 2

img_0390[This blog is Part 2 of a series blogs – see Part 1 here.]

When I started writing this blog series I just wanted to express a general thought about kindness; that posting nice quotes or stories is not enough. We need to think about it like yoga, as a kind of daily or weekly practice to actually make a difference. I see this a potential political movement, not just a personal practice, although perhaps more developed thoughts on that can wait for later.

In writing that post I realised that I had learned a few specific things in the last few years working in mental health that were helpful to me. You may or may not find them helpful to you, so I’ve made a little list:

  1. Listening to, rather than talking to, people. I think this has been my major learning in the last few years and it’s also something I keep banging on about. I have even blogged about this in the past here. Learning to listen carefully to people, and to be able to show that I am listening to them has, I think, been the thing that has made the biggest difference in being able to really connect with people. I have learned a whole set skills that relate to listening over time. I will write a separate post about them at some point.
  2. Resisting the urge to ‘fix it’, and understanding that is often not what people need anyway. I think that ignoring or avoiding the urge to immediately jump up and try to fix something for someone when they are having a difficult time is really important. I am not sure if this is a British thing or more broadly applicable, but in the UK we are socially accustomed to avoiding difficult conversations. This often leads to the impulse to jump up and ‘do something’ when one arises, rather than giving someone the full extent of space and time they need to explain themselves. While practical is often help is very much appreciated, if offered too early it is often inappropriate and may just demonstrate that you weren’t listening in the first place.
  3. Resisting the urge to interrupt, or finish people’s sentences. Actually I have a really hard time with this one, because I find myself doing this quite a bit and then being cross with myself. But it’s also the biggest indicator for me that someone is not listening, or has lost patience with me when they do this. So this is an area I am working on.
  4. Don’t dismiss someone’s feelings, or suggest someone may be overreacting or making it up. Just don’t. It’s not nice. It’s not kind.
  5. Understanding that kindness may look different to different people. You can’t always get it right. I have often said things or done things that have landed badly, often when I was too tired, or took too little time to understand. It’s ok to get things wrong. It’s not ok to stop trying, or to avoid understanding why things went wrong. Try, try again. 
  6. Try not to give advice. Lots of people with mental health problems have heard all the advice before. I have found asking people what they have tried, and not tried out is a much better way to get into a conversation about what to do next. For example don’t tell people with anxiety to try a puzzle book, or a colouring book. They very probably have six of each sitting at home, half finished. Please don’t tell people to ‘go for a nice walk’. It’s not that simple. I always come back to listening. A lot of people feel a little bit better when they feel heard, and that they can trust you to keep a confidence.
  7. Don’t assume you know what someone is feeling. Even if you have been through the exact same thing, which you probably haven’t, you don’t. Let them tell you instead.
  8. Understanding my own boundaries, trying to protect them. Again this is something I have really struggled with in the past because I thought being kind meant being there for everyone else all the time, at the expense of what ever may be going on for me. Then I got really ill for a while with anxiety, drank waaay too much, and realised that this approach, amongst other issues in my life at the time, were not working. Now I try really hard to limit the time spent in social situations as I find these very tiring, and to basically give my self a sensible amount of time to do things like replying to emails and texts rather than being ‘on tap’. I think some people may have felt that I have become very anti social because of this, but I’m happy with the focus on quality over quantity. 
  9. Don’t consume things that are cruel. As a rule I don’t buy gossip magazine or tabloid newspapers, I try to avoid clickbait type articles online (with partial success). I don’t follow people like Katie Hopkins or Piers Morgan on Twitter. Most of these media forms have, in part or in full, cruelty built into their business model. Let’s think about that. They make money by spreading things like racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, disability hate, rape myths and assorted forms of ignorance, and untrue stories about people’s private lives. These things make the lives of ordinary people harder, and those people are often people who had a difficult run in the first place. It that what you want your hard earned money, or your precious time, to be doing? We can make things better, collectively, by refusing to reward anyone who makes money from this kind of content. Don’t pay for it. Don’t click on it. Don’t follow it. It’s like adding poison to your own well. As a happy side effect, you’ll feel a lot better without that kind of influence in your life. I have not bought a single ‘woman’s magazine’ for ten years, and I have not missed them at all.

I will have missed loads of things so please add your thoughts in the comments below.

I also make art. You can see things with my designs on at my shop here. Could even treat yourself if you wanted to. Just saying. If buying art is not your thing, but you would like to support what you see I also have a Patreon Page here.

Thoughts on Radical Kindness as a Daily Practice: Part 1.

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It’s almost ten years since Amy Winehouse died. I really liked her music and was lucky enough to see her perform twice during her first album. She was a wonderful, funny, forceful presence on stage. In later years I saw filmed footage of her at concerts and performances, and could see that things were going wrong for her, although niavely, I did not understand the extent of her distress. The world was not kind to the beautiful, talented, Amy Winehouse.

I do remember a point in time where I had bought myself a magazine and they had printed paparazzi photos of her out in the street, seemingly after having a fight, with only one shoe. At that point the penny dropped for me that I had bought a magazine that had effectively paid someone to stalk women. I have not bought ‘woman’s magazine’ since.

Not long after this Amy died. I was at a wedding with friends and we found out over breakfast with the morning papers. One of the people there said something to the effect of ‘well we all saw that coming.’ I remember thinking at the time how unkind this was, and how I didn’t really know my friend so well after all.

Over the last week or so press intrusion has been sited as a causal factor in the death of another woman, Caroline Flack. I didn’t really want to write about her, because before this happened I confess that I didn’t know who she was. I can’t comment on her work, or what kind of person she was, although the coverage suggests that she was very human, struggling along like the rest of us. One of the things I noticed in the last week that prompted me to write this post was a quote attributed to her circulating on social media. The quote went something along the lines of:

In a world where you can be anything, be kind.

It’s a really nice quote, and it’s nice to see it circulating. I’ve also seen a lot of those ‘inspirational, pay-it forwards’ stories recently, like some one paying for someone else groceries in the checkout when they are short, and they are really nice to see too. However, sometimes I despair at quotes and stories like this, because it feels a bit like posting the quote is enough, and then we can go back to ‘business as usual’, which is not always particularly kind. Here’s my problem:

Posting the quote, or the story is not enough.

I have been working along side people with sometimes significant mental health problems for the last four and a half years, and I also spent a good amount of time talking to people who were thinking of suicide as a volunteer. This certainly doesn’t make me an expert on kindness, but it has given me a crash course in what practicing kindness can mean. In my experience genunine kindness is rarely about paying for a stranger’s shopping at the supermarket (although it can be about that). It is often about small gestures, and is as much about what you don’t do, as what you do do.

It means not interupting someone when they are trying to tell you something, even if you think you know what they are going to say. It means not giving advice, even if you are sure you are right, before you have taken the time to really try to understand the other person’s experiences. It means actively showing you are listening, that you care. It means putting down your phone. It means acknowledging you don’t know the answers, or that you don’t understand something. It means avoiding sentences that begin with ‘At least…’ It means not consuming click bait on the internet. And it means doing these things every single day, even when you are tired, or stressed, or distracted.

In a world where our politics and our media are becoming increasingly macho and frequently cruel, we, on mass, have a role to play in changing the direction of things. It means practicing radical kindness with each other, everyday, and it means refusing to support or consume things that are cruel.

This has turned into a rather lengthy blog post and I still have more to say – I will publish part two to this blog next week, so look out for that.

I also make art. You can see things with my designs on at my shop here. Could even treat yourself if you wanted to. Just saying. If buying art is not your thing, but you would like to support what you see I also have a Patreon Page here.

 

Reading to scare you while very pregnant: This changes everything (Naomi Klein)

So I have, while heavily pregnant with my first baby, been reading ‘This Changes Everything’ by Naomi Klein (here be affiliate links, fyi) and I have to say it is simultaneously the most terrifying, and hopful book I have read about Climate Change (by which I mean it’s the only book I have read about climate change so far – I plan to change this!).

As I blogged about just after Christmas, the closer I get to having my baby, the more I worry about the world I am bringing him into. I look around and feel like society as we have designed it right now isnt good enough. It doesn’t work well for so many people. In the UK if you have a mental health problem, a disability, if you are poor or from a marginalised community, your opportunities are automatically limited by the many punative systems we have designed.

The book was written in 2014, and I am at least one book behind now, so I have some catching up to do. But I am glad I have made a start on better educating myslef about what can be done.

I think what I like about Klein’s book, so far, is that she positions the fight against climate change within the fight against many forms of social injustice, so that building a society that can address climate change will also mean building a society that works better for everyone. I think this is the big message I will be taking away from this book. If you have not read this already (and if you are interested in, or worried about climate change you probably have already!) I suggest thinking about opening this one up.

I also make art. You can see things with my designs on at my shop here. Could even treat yourself if you wanted to. Just saying. If buying art is not your thing, but you would like to support what you see I also have a Patreon Page here.

More thoughts on mental health in the theatre – point me in the direction of better stories.

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Just so you know chaps, Spoilers ahead…

Two weekends ago I went to see the play Equus with a friend of mine. I don’t want to turn this blog into a ‘review of psychological plays’ blog, or indeed give the impression that I am more cultured than I am, always off to the theatre. The reality is more sitting in bed watching telly with my partner and cats rather than glamorous outings to the theatre. However I do have some more thoughts on this issue after seeing this play.

A few weeks ago I wrote a post on Cypress Avenue by David Ireland (which was on at the Royal Court Theatre) but now I can’t seem to find the blog post, only the title – did anyone see the text? – it was a good post (even if I do say so myself) but wordpress seems only to have saved the title. I don’t know what happened, and I don’t think I’m going to re-write that post. Basically by thoughts were: was very funny, and probably has a lot to say about the legacy of violence in Northern Ireland. It’s the kind of play that middle class people  who are mostly untroubled by violence or poverty (I say this being a middle class person) come out of saying things like ‘shocking’, and ‘very powerful’. However from the point of view of talking about mental health, it’s really problematic. I’m really fed up with the ‘traumatised man goes mad and kills his whole family narrative’, it’s time for the ‘person goes through trauma and then turns that experience into something positive for them and their community’ narrative’, or the ‘person goes through trauma, and it’s pretty horrible, but they end up ok, and don’t kill anyone narrative.’ So that’s a summary of what that was about – I am sorry if you ended up seeing a blog post with a title and no content (especially after I claimed I was going to be a bit more consistent with my blogging again).

Cypress Avenue was a relatively new play compared to Equus, which was written by Peter Shaffer in 1973. I liked this one better, performed at the Stratford Playhouse, as I will explain, but I have different issues with this one. So basically it’s a play about a boy who blind’s six horses with a spike, which was a real world event in the 1970’s. Apparently the playwright wanted to think about what would drive a person to do such a thing. The story is of a boy who has built a vivid inner mental world that results in the blinding horses situation. It’s quite an intellectual play, based on a psychoanalytical perspective that ultimately manages to tie (because it’s freudian after all) everything back to some sexual event. I’m being a bit glib and a bit brief here but that’s the jist of it – I enjoyed the play and think it’s worth seeing/ reading. There were some really wonderful physical performances by the actors, and it very much treats the young man as a person, as a human being in pain, not as some kind of monster. I liked it for that. I also like that it kind of raises the question of whether it is right to take away someone’s belief system, just because it does not align with the majority view, although it does not answer this question (I am not sure that it could).

But here’s my problem with it. Many times through the play we hear that ‘the boy is in misery’ but we don’t actually see much of that on stage. So it’s a bit of sanitised view of that misery, and mostly we just have to take the word of the ‘professionals’ on the stage that this is the case. The boy has built an elaborate belief system around horses, and he then goes on to violate that belief system by attempting a sexual act in the stable (the symbolic Temple of Equus). The whole play basically treats mental illness as a puzzle – if you can just solve the puzzle then you will fix the person. I just don’t think it works like that in real life for many people. It’s an intellectual approach to mental health that I don’t think really respects the kind of pain and distress that people live with and go through. Many people who experience mental health problems (including myself) haven’t built elaborate belief systems that can be analysed and ‘solved’ in this way. Many people have been through understandable trauma, or live difficult, stressful lives, or are bullied and belittled on a regular basis or made to feel by society that they are ‘wrong’ in some fundamental way. It’s not a complicated secret to them where their pain comes from, what is complicated is how to alleviate that pain. For most people experiencing mental distress – it’s not a puzzle that can be solved and fixed, it’s an ongoing, day by day experience that they continue to endure. Understanding your own story can be the start of a healing journey, but it’s rarely the whole solution.

So, I still think we need better stories about mental health. However, as I confessed to at the beginning of this post, I am someone who mostly sits around with her partner and cats watching telly, it’s very likely that I have missed them. I would very much appreciate it if anyone has any good recommendations for plays, films, or books that give a more nuanced picture of mental health. Drop your recommendation in the comments – at some point I will write a post about the results.

Swimming the distance: mental health as a endurance pursuit

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If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you may (or may not!) know that I’m currently training for a long distance swim in June. I’ll be swimming 5K, which is just over 3 miles (not an insubstantial distance for a swimmer), in lake Windermere during the Great North swim in June. At the moment I’m a bit concerned that I’ll be pulled out of the water half way through as I’m a little slow, but I have a bit more time to train and have been putting the effort in. Last year I swam a 2 mile event in about 1 hour and 20 minutes so if I can up my pace a bit and keep it going I should be ok, but I have the nerves all the same. I am already fitter than I was for last years event, but the distance is longer so on balance I am probably not as far ahead of myself as I would like to be.

Over the last few weeks I’ve been putting in a session in the gym one evening a week after work, as well as the swims. It’s a bit awkward to swim before or after work as the timings of the appropriate swim sessions don’t quite fit with my commute, and I don’t have enough discipline to quite force them to work! I’m trying to build up my stamina in just being able to do the same uncomfortable thing, mostly on the elliptical machine, for extended periods of time. I am concentrating on building up endurance and stamina, not so much speed. That is a gradual game. Little by little I get a bit stronger. Little by little each time I go a bit further. While at the gym a few weeks ago I was thinking about how the same principle applies to many of the other things I’ve been doing. I’ve been making the same film for at least 4 years now, and slowly I accumulate new bits and pieces for that until suddenly it starts to look like something that makes sense as a whole.

I think that working on my own mental health has been a similar process. I have a stressful day job. In the past few years I had some considerable anxiety about a range of things, and a bit of depression tagged along with that. Living like that is really tiring. Getting physically fitter now is probably really helping with that, but that has come as part of a general effort towards a healthier way of living at home. We now eat predominantly (but not exclusively) healthy plant based food, and have been doing so for over a year, but it took some time to work out how to make that work for us. I started working part time last year, dropping one day to enable me to swim and make things, which was quite a big little step in the right direction.

I wouldn’t say that I now spend all my time walking around in a state of ecstatic energetic creative contentment. But little by little, I think my ability to endure for the less enjoyable stuff of life, and look past it to the next fun thing is growing. Mental health isn’t a sprint to the finish line, it’s a long distance game.

On building a complicated relationship with gratitude

I wanted to write a quick post about something that has been troubling me for a few days. I was watching a YouTube video the other day that I thought was on personal finance but turned out to be on ‘manifesting wealth’ using the law of attraction philosophy popularised by the book The Secret (have not read it, and I don’t plan to). In this video, (which I cannot find the link to and don’t want to promote anyway) a very attractive wealthy looking woman explained that you needed to behave gratefully and respectfully towards the universe if you wanted to be successful in life. The Universe is basically an authoritarian Victorian patriarch handing out sweeties to the most pious and well behaved among us. Apparently.

For some reason this just really annoyed me. Most of the people I know who are successful have got there through differing combinations of luck, various forms of privilege, and hard graft. Many of them (but not all!) are very grateful for their success, but it was, for most of them, the work that got them there. I think the universe, in it’s infinite beauty and chaos, (and working on the unlikely assumption that it has some form of unifying consciousness) has better things to do that to check in which my savings rate and make adjustments according to my gratitude. I just don’t think it cares. It has better things to do. Like build planets and ignite stars. To scatter about the raw materials of life itself.

Having worked in both psychology and mental health I have also been aware for some time of positive psychology idea that keeping track of the things you are grateful for may help ameliorate symptoms of anxiety and depression. This was also something I was uncomfortable with because when you have anxiety or depression that is disruptive of your ability to do or enjoy things, I think you legitimately have a something to be really pissed off about. Telling people in that situation to sit and count their blessings feels patronising and a failure to grasp the severity of the situation.

That said, since the beginning of January I have actually been making more of an effort to take stock of the things I am grateful for. Things like having a boyfriend who cooks me lovely vegan food when I am sick, or being able to swim outside in the silvery UK sea. I can afford to reduce my hours at work in order to indulge my creative parts, when most people cannot. I have been having fertility treatment for about 5 months now (which is kind of rough) and I have just found out that I have access to more options than I expected on the NHS, and I am grateful for that too. And you know, I have been feeling kind of better lately….

Taking the rail replacement bus

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This morning I went swimming with my sister for the first proper training session in preparation for swimming in the Great North Swim in June. I have signed up to swim 5k (which is just over 3 miles), which is the furthest distance I will have swam. Eventually I want to work up to swimming a 10k, which is a marathon style length for swimmers. We swam a mile, and it was pretty tough going. I think it will take 2 swim sessions a week, and an additional session in the gym a week to build my stamina between now and then. So we have work to do. I will try to keep track here I think.

On my journey there this morning, one of my trains was replaced by a rail replacement bus. I normally travel on the train, and which is a relatively direct route. The bus takes a less direct route, and as a consequence I was able to see parts of London that I do not normally see. London is a huge city that has developed and evolved over time, slowly swallowing up towns and villages as it expand outwards. This process has left a patchwork of buildings of different styles, sizes and ages, with different parts of the outer edges of the city having distinct atmospheres and styles of their own. While it took me longer than i expected to get to the pool, I was great to spend some time looking at these bits of this city that I do not always feel at home in.

It got me thinking a bit about doing things differently, or what I may try to do differently last year. Over that last year and a half I have been working on just trying to finish things, which has been helpful in getting me to a place where I feel my creative work has purpose. I have also begun to really appreciate that doing things slowly, and building things over time, is actually the better way for me. I can be comfortable with this. However some of the work has felt, if not trivial, at least a bit light, or thin. In the last few months I have begun working on some pieces that are emotionally more close to home. I’ve been avoiding finishing bits of work like this in the past, as putting it out there is a bit anxiety provoking. When you already have anxiety, adding in more sources of anxiety is a bit of thing. So this year, I will be trying, gently, to push my self a bit more in that direction. Stay tuned to see how that goes…

Is there anything you’ll be having a go at doing differently this year?