Finding stillness, living in the present, and looking after a baby

Here in the UK we’ve been in ‘lock down’ for nine weeks (I think, I have lost count). In the Magpie household we entered lock down with a two and a bit week old baby to look after, and little real idea about how to do that. While this may sound like it is a difficult situation, I think that it has in fact been a real blessing.

Babies grow and change really fast. Everyday brings a new skill, a new sound, a new facial expression. In the last few weeks we have had new smiles and a whole new range of babbling sounds, each seeming to have their own meaning. While many others who are enduring lock down at the moment see the same thing everyday, for us each day brings a new challenge, and a new surprise.

One thing I have really appreciated while looking after a young baby during lockdown in how he forces us to be present in the moment. Everything is literally new to him. He see the light coming through the window, or touches the cat’s fur for the first time, and if we are paying attention we have the privilege of seeing these moments with him.

Some evenings are of course very stressful, if he cries and we are unsure what will help him feel better. Some nights truly are sleepless. However, I still can’t get over our luck, and often look at him and think, with surprise yet again, that he is so very beautiful. It reminds me of the principle of mindfulness, just to sit in the moment and allow ourselves to see things as if they are new.

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.

Lessons on listening

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I’ve been thinking about what to put into this post for a week but have struggled a bit in working out what it is I’m trying to say exactly. I suspect there will be more than one post as I try to tease this out.

Over the last 5 years one of the most significant things I’ve learned is the importance of listening. In all of the important roles I’ve adopted at different times (researcher, manager, volunteer, artist, partner, daughter, sibling, friend) listening has been an important part of what I do (most of the time more so than any of the ‘talking’, truth be told). There has been a growing public conversation about the importance of talking in the mental health world in the last few years. There have been significant efforts to encourage people to reach out, to talk, and these are really important. There are multiple platforms through which we are able to connect, digitally or otherwise, but often little thought is given to the ‘listening’ that this assumes. For someone to reach out and actually find some comfort there needs to be a Listener. I think for these efforts to be truly successful we need to develop not just the capacity of our community to talk, to express themselves, but also the capacity to listen. And ‘just listening’ isn’t as easy as it sounds.

Listening well is actually an important skill. I once had a boss who huffily told me ‘pah, listening. What is listening? I listen’. In doing so interrupted me mid-sentence and failed to hear the complete thought I had at that moment about the importance of being heard. This was not a good example of listening. During the past few years I have done some training on my listening skills, and volunteered for a time to have long, careful conversations with people who are suicidal. Here are a few things I have learned:

  1. Everyone has one infuriating friend who will continually tell you the same story over and over, or make the same point over and over. Think for a moment. Is it possible that this person feels like they have never truly been heard?
  2. Listening well is an act of mindfulness. Truly listening to someone requires you to be present in the moment. It requires you not to sit there agonizing over what clever witty thing you are going to say next.
  3. It’s ok not to know what to say next. Silence can sometimes be your friend.
  4. It’s ok to ask ‘I know you are going through something. Are you ok? do you want to have a cup of tea, a little talk?’
  5. It’s ok not to have any answers, to not know what to advise. Often people, both in their good times, and in their bad times, aren’t asking for advice, they are asking to be heard.
  6. Listening well, listening carefully to a person without a personal agenda, is an act of profound kindness.

On this blog I talk a lot about creativity and arts practice, and maybe this post seems a little left of field. But in my own arts practice I have found listening to be an important part of it.If you listen to other people well you will inevitably end up learning something interesting about the world around you, or about yourself. Listening is fundamentally rewarding, in that it adds richness and depth to your understanding of the human experience.

Pleasure in working my craft

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I’ve been blogging over the last week or two about how making has been helpful to me when it comes to mental health and managing anxiety. When I first began to contemplate this subject on this blog I drew the link between mindfulness and making, and wrote about how I manage to reach my most mindful state when, well making. I’ve been thinking a bit more about this and while I think in principle this definitely holds, there are ways in which my arts practice diverges significantly from the practice of mindfulness.

In a course I recently completed on mindfulness we were taught to experience things without ascribing value to it, or to become attached to it. The mind has a tendency to attach to things that are pleasurable and to try to prolong that sensation while trying to avoid sensations that are uncomfortable or distressing. One of the ideas behind mindfulness is that the pursuit of pleasure and the attempts to avoid pain are one of the root causes of anxiety, addiction and mental distress. Mindfulness teaches us to sit in the present moment with either pleasure or pain and to acknowledge that it is temporary. The good and the bad both will soon pass. So saying you enjoyed something or found pleasure in something is giving it a value, and from what I understand, not really what mindfulness is about.

While I would say that the moments in which I am making things are probably some of the moments where I am most present, I would also say I derive a deep pleasure from some of the making activities. A lot of the work I’ve been developing involves silhouettes, and I am particularly attached to the use of strong curved lines. I find drawing or cutting a really satisfying curved line to be particularly enjoyable. To be a sensual experience. I am happy, possibly driven, to repeat that experience over and over. When I was studying for my PhD a few years ago now I came across the concept of ‘flow’, which is described as a psychological state in which a person is fully engaged in an activity, is deriving pleasure from that activity and feels energised by it. I think for many people doing art work may provide that state, and this is a positive, healthy state to be in.

I think that it may not be the norm to talk this way about craft. I’ve seen people, particularly (but definitely not exclusively) women, being belittled for their enjoyment of their creative work, as if what they do is trivial. I think I’m lucky. I come from a family of artists and it is totally normal to speak this way about doing something creative. My mum and dad can get pretty caught up in describing a painter’s use of light, a particularly well set up shot in a film or a good solid line. We take creative work seriously and being surrounded by that environment as I grew up was a helpful thing I think. It taught me that putting effort and thought into creative work, whatever that creative work may be, is not trivial.

Business Bites: the ‘getting started’ to do list

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I think I’ve been blogging for about a month now and I thought it would be a good time to take stock of where I’ve got to on this ‘I’ll just set up my own business, that’ll be simple’ path I’ve taken myself down. So far I’ve done the following;

  • Bought a domain name
  • Set up a blog
  • Had a few people actually read the blog (eeek)
  • Read a few books on business
  • Bought some other books, not all on business
  • Outed myself as having both anxiety and a strange affection for kissing gates
  • Started to work out what it is that I actually want to do with this whole business thing (probably should have started here but never mind)

There is much more to do, and each time I learn a new thing I find a door opens to a whole new set of possibilities, and that my ideas evolve all the time as a consequence. This week I have come across 2 things that have helped me enormously. The first is this book on tax and accounting by Emily Coltman called ‘Refreshingly simple finance for small business’ which has already answered several questions I had about tax and what I would need to do about that. I do recommend this to anyone who is just starting out. I think one of the anxieties that stopped me from getting started sooner was being put off by the idea that the paper work would be really complicated, and this book was pretty re-assuring on that point.

The second is this website called Puttylike.com, which is run by Emilie Wapnick. She talks about a category of people she calls multipotentialites, who are people who have multiple interests and never quite fit into a particular niche. She strongly encourages people not to try to force themselves into a niche, but rather to find a way of bringing those interests together into what she calls a Renaissance Business. This works for me, I think I’m one of those people. In my time I have studied medicine, psychology, social sciences, animation, and film making. My parents are both artists so my childhood was like being in art school. And I like walking in the woods. And kissing my boyfriend at each and every kissing gate we encounter. So I think the next thing for me is to wok out if these things can be bought together into something co-herent. It’s really helpful to know there are other people out there doing this stuff, but at the moment I’ve only really discovered American peeps talking about it. Any UK multipotentialites out there?

In a recent mindfulness course I took my tutor spoke quite a lot about the ‘beginners mind’ which is the stat that you are in when you encounter something for the first time. What does it look like? What it it’s texture? Does it smell?  At the moment I am encountering all of these new ideas and it feels very much like I’m frequently in a beginner’s mind state, which is having some knock on effects that I hadn’t expected. It’s also motivating me to go back to some unfinished projects and take another look, which can only be a good thing I think. It feels like each new little thing I discover is one small pebble, but over time I’m going to have enough stones to build something pretty cool. Exciting times…

Making and mindfulness

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I recently did a mindfulness course to help manage the anxiety I’ve been experiencing around work and other aspects of my life (mostly work at the moment). We did lots of meditations and breathing exercises and lying on the floor, and it was helpful. But taking the practice out of that classroom and into my everyday life has been a bit of a challenge. The one place I have found that mindfulness fits quite naturally with what I do is where I’m in the middle of making something.

I find I can sit and cut the little beauties above for quite some time and keep my sense of presence with the motion of the scissors and the curve of the petal. I use these flowers or stars or whatever you want to see in them in several ongoing projects at the moment, accumulating bagfuls of different coloured flowers as some painters may accumulate paint.

I know many people are finding colouring books helpful, and I have some really beautiful ones, but I have to say that they are not for me. I don’t seem to be able to focus in the same way when I’m working to someone else’s design. The other creative space I have found for a mindful practice is crochet. I’m only just learning this one, but there is something calming about the process of producing loop after loop, and working those looks into a growing creative whole.

There has been much said about the mental health benefits of creative work. I suspect that the mindful element to it is only part of what is happening and the way in which art can provide a useful channel for expressing, sharing and understanding emotions is potentially far more powerful in helping people. But I’ve found in my own creative space, a little work on mindfulness has been very helpful for me.