The unadulterated joy of having nothing to do

Image from vintagenatgeographic.tumblr.com: Canyon Walls of Jebel Akhdar in Oman|National Geographic | September 1981

How do you spend a day off? With nothing much to work on, no-one to see and no washing to get done (OK, there’s loads of laundry shoved in your wardrobe, but you’ve run out of washing powder)? Can you even remember the last time you had literally no plans for more than a few hours or so? Allowing myself to have a day off where I embrace boredom in all its nothingness is essential to my wellbeing, so I try and do it at least once a week. Boredom may seem like a less-than-covetable state of being, but it’s a state that we often have to force ourselves to be in. So why do we find it so hard to actually enjoy free time?

We’re lucky enough to live in an age where we can very easily record, publish and post anything and everything we do on the internet: whether it be photos, thoughts, rants, or covers of Elvis Presley songs – allowing us to create our identity through showing off our skills to a large (and hopefully accommodating) audience online. In recent months, I’d forgotten how to truly be on my own, in my room, doing my dreaming and scheming and crying and sighing (I’ll stop linking to stuff that your dad would like soon, I swear) and just exist as a solo thing.

A friend of mine recently told me that instead of switching off through meditation, she likes to take time out from the white noise of the world by listening to an album all the way through, while lying on her bed, without doing anything else whatsoever.

For the past couple of Saturdays I’ve done a pretty similar thing. I’ve planned absolutely nothing to do in the day, while still waking up early(ish – before 9am anyway) to experience most of the day. No guilty trot down to the supermarket at 3pm as to “not waste the day”, no listing all those pairs of shoes on Depop because you’ve been “meaning to do it for months”. Just free time. 

After an uncomfortable hour at the beginning of the day, you could well find yourself pretty excited about all of the hours suddenly at your disposal come lunchtime. It might compel you to complete a sudoku puzzle, moisturise your entire body to within an inch of its life, or sit at your desk and commit the lyrics to Who Am I? (What’s My Name) to memory (which’ll come in handy on your next date – trust me). 

Whatever you end up doing, you’ll be pleased to discover that taking an afternoon off from delegating tasks to yourself for the sake of it actually helps you become more productive in the long run. It creates the space in your mind that’s necessary to remember how you like to fill your time without anyone else’s influence, as you allow yourself to be drawn to activities you naturally feel like doing. Remove obligations, to-do lists and Twitter timelines, and you’re faced with the option to do anything you like.

Here’s how I spent last Saturday: after slathering newly-opened No7 creams all over my face that I got last Christmas, I sat down with a notebook and wrote down the names of 10 Bruce Springsteen songs I’d quite like to learn on the guitar. I then spent the next three hours with 11 tabs open on my laptop and a guitar on my lap (the extra tab was for YouTub-ing each song to revel in how glorious the music video was). I totally wasted the afternoon, but I had so much fun doing it.

The summer is really busy for all of us, with birthday parties, weddings, barbecues and the World Cup all making us into obliging attendees of gatherings and get-togethers (often with a six-pack of Kronenburg in hand). However, during those inevitable rainy evenings or lonesome Sundays you stumble upon, try to avoid the temptation to waste away the hours continuously dragging your finger from the top to the bottom of your phone screen in search of that yearning FOMO feeling that makes you thirsty for an Aperol Spritz.

Instead, embrace those precious few hours and enjoy the space that boredom brings – you might even find yourself with a 10-track cover album comprising Bruce Springsteen’s best hits (release date TBC).

bruce bored gif.jpg

One final thing: if you’d like to listen to the latest episode of Girl Chat, all about periods (tee hee hee), you can do so here.

Refresh refresh refresh: how to live a calm IRL existence when you’re constantly online

Illustration by Rosie Henthorn

I’m trying to look at mental health in the same way I look at physical health. When you read the words mental health, you associate it with bad things: mental health issues, mental health problems, ‘I am struggling with my mental health’. But just like our physical health, it’s simply a part of us. It is perfectly usual, I think, to have a succession of good days, then bad days, great days, and sad days, and then do that all over again. We all ‘have’ mental health, and some days it is better than others.

Of course, it would always be preferable to have weeks upon weeks of blissed-out carefree livin’, instead of days where you’re racked with so much anxiety you think everyone in the office knows you didn’t have time to brush your teeth this morning. Weeks where you ace the job, exercise regularly and always have the right ingredients in your cupboard to cook the thing you want to cook tonight.

Being organised and having things in order feels great, but having a minor panic attack in the middle of Lidl because you can’t remember if you need to buy spaghetti (or if you have more than enough already), does not feel great. And with women being twice as likely to be diagnosed with anxiety than men, I’m probably not the only one feeling like everything could go wrong at any given second.

Once things start spiralling downwards, the worst, familiar feeling takes hold, an inevitably that you will have to spend the next However Long It Will Take, trying and trying and trying to do things that will make you feel better.

We’re living in an age where we have all the right tools to lead a perfect life. Selfie filters and apps that tell you exactly how long a journey will be to the second, for example, mean it is so easy to blame ourselves when things go wrong. We have all the tools/apps/life hacks available within seconds, when things don’t quite click IRL, it can make you feel inadequate.

I’m an ambitious person, which, in the digital age, means you have unlimited opportunities to realise this ambition at your fingertips. I’m a journalist, but I’d love to write another play in the next year; I’ve been meaning to start a new blog about relationships for months; I want to host a podcast about female friendships; I want to post at least three blog posts on here this month; I want to become better at guitar, find a group of muso-girls, and start the next Slits; I want to write about the books I’ve read, the music I’m listening to; I want to send out a newsletter sharing all the best stuff I’ve seen online this week, and while I’m doing all this, I want to be sharing it on four social media pages and building up a community of literal followers that can, I don’t know, envy how busy I am!

So yes, I’m ambitious, but I’m having to learn to rein it in a little. Aim high, believe in yourself, but don’t promise three editors that you can send them over a pitch that same evening if it’s already 6pm and you’ve got a deadline for another thing that night (and you need to do your washing). Or actually, do pitch those three editors if you’re feeling really excited and pumped up by the prospect of it, but don’t knock yourself down if you don’t manage to get around to it this evening, or even by the end of the week. You took on too much, and now your other work has felt the impact of it. That’s OK. Whatever. Slow it down, and learn from it.

The same applies not just to productivity, but to playing all the different roles you have to play in life. Best friend, colleague, girlfriend, daughter, neighbour, even. (Ffs, our bin was toppled over by foxes the other night, and I had the misfortune of leaving the house at the same time as my cranky-ass neighbour. There was rubbish everywhere, and we caught eye contact with each other as we left our respective houses, and I said “I’m so sorry!” Why was I sorry! I wasn’t sorry! There’s a difference between being a kind and respectful member of the community, and being someone who apologies to your tutting neighbour when a brazen urban fox leaves half-eaten creme caramels on your driveway).

Trying to do it all, have it all, and please everyone isn’t going to make you happy. Setting yourself sky-high expectations isn’t going to make you happy. Anxiety is something I’ll probably have to deal with, on and off, for many years yet, but I can at least try to come up with small changes to change my outlook that will help me to handle things better, or, at least, reduce periods of anxiety in my life to last minutes, rather than weeks. It usually starts with stepping away from the internet.

Here’s some totally ill-informed, non-medical advice that has worked when I try to do so much, that I can’t do anything at all:

1. Hydrate. Turn off your phone. Grab the nearest book around you (not a newspaper – the news is utterly anxiety-inducing – something fictional if possible) and put it down on the table in front of you. Get the biggest glass from your kitchen cupboard (I believe the pint ones stolen from pubs work well for this), run the tap ’til it’s freezing cold, and pour yourself a crystal clear glass of water. Sit and the table and drink it slowly.

Once you’ve finished the glass, pick up the book and begin to read. If you struggle to concentrate, or had the misfortune of James Joyce’s Ulysses being the nearest book to hand, don’t get mad. Take a deep breath. Instead, enjoy the new-found hydration. It is good to drink water.

2. Do things you always used to do, but haven’t done in years. This is less of a mindfulness exercise, and more of a nice thing to do if you’re feeling a bit lost or existential. It is reminding yourself that you were a person who existed, probably really quite well, before you got into a spiral of bad thoughts.

For me, I like to do things that I used to do as a child or teenager. Without regressing into wearing a nappy or whatever, I like to sit and draw for 10-15 minutes, or get some paints out and dance my fingers across some paper. I really like to listen to The Beatles. Yep, I might have had Yorkshire puddings and chips for dinner, and no, I will never stop biting my nails, but I am a really fucking good Beatles fan. If the Beatles were a pub quiz round, you’d want me in your team. Guilty pleasures are your best friend. Spend your evening or weekend being truly kind to yourself, and play some ABBA.

3. Look at those around you. When you pencil in so much stuff, you’re often putting yourself first. You have to, babe, you’re the CEO of your Filofax! But when you’re smashing glass ceilings, working your fingers to the bone, but still feel like everyone’s got their shit together in such a coherent way, that’s probably when you need people around you, to realise that a) you’re doing a stellar job, b) everyone’s flawed. I’m pretty introverted at the best of times, and when I’m facing a lot of stress, my communication skills wobble. I’ve had a very slight stammer since I was a kid, emphasised by stress, nerves and tiredness. When I’m ‘busy’, I think I don’t have the time to ask someone how their weekend was, lest they go on about it for more than 30 seconds. But I think (and hope) we do all have time to do those little things. Adam J Kurtz wrote this perfect little motto to live by in his latest book Things are What You Make of Them: Life Advice for Creatives: ‘Whatever you think you are, be a person first’.

If the last thing you want to do is be around people, but you’ve found yourself in a situation where you have to, strive for kindness above all else. And maybe mention how you’re feeling to someone else. They might offer to buy you a pint.

My dear friend Rosie, who drew the image for this piece when I told her I wanted to write something about frazzled minds, gave me some great advice when I was feeling pretty self-important and sad. She said: ‘Make use of lovely people’. So, I implore y’all to look after yourselves, look out for your friends, and look at your diary for the week and write ‘REMEMBER TO REST’ in capital letters across the top of the page.

Buy some of Rosie’s artwork here. It is very good.

On not having constantly brilliant moments, and why that’s OK – 23/03/17

I’ve hit a bit of a low point during the past month or so, something I can now admit to with conviction (which means I must be coming out the other side). The reasons behind it I won’t disclose, but I felt compelled to share my experience of waiting for a bad period to pass, because being ‘strong’ or, like, going for a run, haven’t felt like viable (or at all possible) options. I began to come out of a drawn-out mopey period last week while I was washing the dishes. It sticks out in a blur of a week because I forced myself to remember how it felt, and it was only then, after days of feeling nothing, when I began to regain control of my thoughts and moods. I was washing up day-old plates looking out to the many back gardens I can see from my kitchen window, where a cat was licking itself clean on top of a shed. I could have been standing there for 10 minutes, just staring, although it was probably just a few seconds. I remember thinking ‘I’ve never felt like this before’. Or at least, not for a long time anyway, not since I was 16 years old, struggling at school, and kicked around the place just trying to get by every day. What did I have to worry about at 16? Well, nothing I suppose, in the same way I’ve got nothing to worry about today. Of course, there’s always minor things going on: money worries, relationship doubts, friendships drifting; although these things shouldn’t encapsulate your whole life and make you afraid to leave the house. But sometimes they can, and it’s really very hard to explain why. Mental health’s a difficult thing to open up about; you can’t see negative feelings, so will people even believe you? Will they care?

It’s also a hard thing to write about, because when I feel ready to form a sentence about tangled thoughts in a coherent way, I’ve usually come to resolve a tiny aspect of it. I can now detangle and rationalise how I felt and get it down in a way that half makes sense. But of course, when you’re at the bottom of the slump, nothing makes sense. I’ve been unable to write anything of any worth for weeks and although that sounds melodramatic, it hasn’t felt like it. I didn’t care. I’ve been feeling lousy, not in in a loud, hysterical kind of way, but in a very different way altogether. No energy, no desire to do the things I know that’ll make me feel better.

I think that’s the problem I have with dealing with spells of depression as I’ve grown older, I know exactly what would help me to feel better (getting out of bed before 8am, going for a run, showering, putting on a killer outfit to meet friends), but actually going through with any of the above is so out of reach, despite how routine it might seem when your mind’s being kind. Ellen Scott touches on this in a brilliant article posted on the Metro last week: ‘[Telling me to go for a run to fix my depression] is a reminder that I’m failing to do something everyone else finds simple, that I can’t do something that could help.’

And despite its immeasurable benefits on your self esteem, the endorphins released from exercise are more of a quick-fix mood boost than a long-term solution. Definitely – if I feel up to it – it can help, but it’s not always the answer and can make me feel worse about myself. It’s the horrible feeling of helplessness, knowing that getting your body moving will help give your overwrought mind some balance, but you’re stuck within yourself and your body and mind aren’t working in sync. So you just sit and maybe read and try not to feel, and think about perhaps having a shower (but then probably don’t).

It’s not as simple as doing something that might have worked before either – your circumstances might have changed since your last really low spell, so how you’re going to deal with it will have to change too. Perhaps once, your mental health hack was to pencil in some me-time where you could bob around in your own company, away from other people; but now you’re in a position where you need to surround yourself with others and feel more connected to your friends. If you have a bad day, but then those bad days merge into a string of bad days, and carries on into a bad month, you’re not going to feel that great about yourself. But as you’re already feeling shitty, beating yourself up for feeling bad and not your best self isn’t going to help you get out of that rut. It’s OK to feel quiet and tired and go through a bad patch without wearing make up and trying to put your game face on every day. Instead of constantly being angry at how you feel (‘Why do I feel so fucking awful! If I don’t buck my game up soon, how do I ever expect to achieve anything!’ etc) maybe try accepting that you’re not always going to be 100% fine with life every day of the year, and it’s a feeling that will soon and gradually pass.

I feel much better now, (the looming thing I was so dreading has passed, my friends are awesome, I’ve been extra kind to myself). I started reading fiction again, something that, in hindsight, helped me to crawl out of the hole a bit. I guess it makes sense, when you’re spending a lot of time with only your own thoughts for company – reading a book gives you another voice to listen to. And what joy at finding a sentiment within its pages that feels so right for how you’re feeling at that exact moment, and having that moment all to yourself (rather than seeing it’s already been retweeted hundreds of time). Ah, you think, someone knows exactly how this feeling-I-can’t-quite-articulate feels, and they knew how it felt in 2007, when they wrote this book. That always gives me a bit of a hope, if just for a second. It also makes sense that getting nose-deep into a book is a good way to spend time on your own, because people have been doing it for hundreds of years. Books are great if you crave company. My friend and I used to joke in A-level English that the only reason Tess of the D’urbervilles was considered a classic was because people’s attention spans in the ‘olden days’ could get through 600 pages of Hardy. Sorry if that’s sacrilege and it’s actually a really great read or whatever, I just lost interest four pages in and there was no going back from there. Anyway.

Spending less time in real company and more time scrolling through social media will rarely make us feel better if we’ve hit a bit of a slump and have been holed up inside with unwashed hair for three days. Ways to get around this: Switch off your phone, read for a little while, prioritise dental hygiene, try to leave the house today.

Writing this hasn’t helped me discover anything, really, I just had to write some words down to make something out of what’s been a pretty mopey fortnight. I feel like there’s lots of shareable/wannabe-viral ‘girl power’ posts on the internet that make you feel a little inadequate when you’re feeling down, rather than providing solutions to miserable moods. While the intentions are probably good, there’s less people going ‘I’m struggling right now… but that doesn’t mean I totally suck’. It’s unrealistic and boring to have constantly brilliant moments. Bad feelings will pass, let yourself feel how you have to feel for a little while and I promise, it won’t be forever. You’re doing fine; you are enough.

Here’s something suitably Neil Young to sum up the above:

I Me Mine: 3,872 characters of stuff that’s happened in June – 18/6/16

I have become so supremely talented at Twitter that I’ve started writing top-class tweets I don’t want to post (of which there are many) in my journal, as to not bombard my Twitter page with Dad jokes that no-one understands. Here is stuff I’ve been up to, in 140 characters plus:

I have been apologising to myself a lot lately for not writing ‘creative stuff’ as much as I’d like to. The two people that live inside my head, the cool, rational, laid-back one, whom I like to refer to as Tara (hoping that this rational, calm side is actually who I am, 95% of the time, when not riddled with anxiety), is all, DON’T WORRY, you write for your job, you continue to write religiously in your journal, you do not owe your life to a Tumblr account. And that’s fine. I trust that voice, with the safe knowledge that I’ll get back to writing again soon, and in a big way.

The other person that lives inside my head, whom I will call Martha (disclaimer: I do call her Martha, IRL), starts telling me I’m not doing enough, I need to be writing more, writing for every website, seizing every opportunity, paid or unpaid, time or no time. I felt quite glad the day I renamed my anxiety ‘Martha’, because now I can just tell Martha to shut up, get out of my head, and continue to listen only to Tara, to whom I have total loyalty to (as she always knows what to do, kind of. She’s done stuff before).

When I don’t know what in the hell I’m doing, when my brain does a wonk and I need to sit down and focus on singular thoughts, I heed these wise tweets of yore from Our Lady Caitlin Moran, one of which suggests: Just Listen to David Bowie. It has yet to fail.

Also, a wonderful, wonderful friend made me this reminder/poster, to de-wonkify my mind:

new 1.jpg

 

That being said, I have been well, despite the lack of productivity with writing-y bits over the last couple of weeks, and a week-long bout of cystitis that’s hit me worryingly Too Close for (Glastonbury) Comfort. Behold, some updates on me:

  1. My play Fitting Room showed to an audience of around 50 people – 50 strangers at that!- at the New Wolsey Theatre in Ipswich a few Fridays (3 June) ago, and the general consensus was that it wasn’t a total trainwreck. A few people even laughed! So that was really fun, and it looks likely to be developed in 2017. No, there’s no deal with Hollywood people, not yet. Yes, it will be re-written by me. Yes, it means I have to write some more of it. Seeing a new audience watch it for the first time and discuss it afterwards over tiny paper cups of coffee – as one only does at the theatre –  was enough for me to know it’s got something to say and people have latched onto that, whatever it is. (I kind of know what that is – being the writer and all – but only kind of. I was delightfully surprised at how much people had latched onto those initial ideas I’d had last July when I was writing the first draft, so something worked). And my friends came to see it, and we stopped off at Wetherspoons on the three-hour journey down, and I didn’t even get a parking ticket. However, I’m going to be taking a few months’ hiatus from playwriting as:
  2. …I’m moving to South London at the end of August to get some more journalism training as part of a six-month course with News Associates. It means I have to leave my current job – sob – (well, don’t I know it! I should be a poet!) but aside from all the changes and goodbyes, etc, I’m really looking forward to moving out and moving into London, something I’ve wanted to do since forever. And, by George, am I ready to continuing making magazines! Heck, yeah! It’s a risk, but I can’t wait. London!
  3. I wrote a review of Amy Rose Spiegel’s Action on that new site I was on about, Obviously a Hobby. Read it here. If anything, it’s become a lovely place for me to post scans from my sketchbook. I’d love for more people to contribute – my dear friend Ella got the ball rolling with this post – and I’ll get there, it’s a work in progress. Success is long patience, etc, etc.
  4. I’m off to Glastonbury in three days and 17 hours! I have that much time to get my kidneys back in action for a week-long binge of Strongbow. Wish me luck!

 

Until next time,

T.A.L x

Inbetween Days – 20/1/2015

John Baldesarri- I Will Not Make Any More Boring Art, 1971. This piece really struck with me because...SIMPSONS.
John Baldesarri- I Will Not Make Any More Boring Art, 1971.
This piece really struck with me because…SIMPSONS.

So, there I was, minding my own business, having a nothing sorta day when suddenly The Inbetweeners came on television, and something really touched me about the fragile nature of the human condition and the delicate relationships withi…. EDIT: Just kidding! I wouldn’t do that to you.

I feel as if I’m in a bit of an inbetween currently- but I don’t mind too much. At least not too much of the time anyway. I’d consider myself a generally outgoing, sociable creature, but I sometimes feel best at home, on my own in my room, drawing on my knees with felt tip or reading the same books I read when I was 13. I had a bit of a freak out last week when I realised the life I am currently leading is essentially that of a day off sick from school, but EVERY DAY, which is, like, so dreamy, but also: YOU CANNOT JUSTIFY TOAST AS A PART OF EVERY MEAL.

Something I have observed though, having given my brain a chance to cool down over the past couple of days, is that some of us don’t feel like we’re accomplishing anything unless we’re totally burning out. There is a sort of satisfication in total exhaustion, like *Oh, my little body is aweary of this great world, how will it survive if I ever take a day off from perfectionism and do a Ferris Bueller?* Take some time, if you need some time! The world will keep spinning, babe. Anxiety is so not the new black, and when hitting a bad spell of it, e v e r y fucking thing can feel like such a life changing decision.

I know I’ve hit a bad place when my mind is whirring through every bad-case scenario ever, all of the consequences of every decision I’ve made, and then, oh, I’m at the front of the queue and I begin to speak but don’t recognise my own voice, so speaking sounds (or as a medical professional might say: FORMING WORDS) becomes really difficult for me- and so commences the bouts of low self-esteem. For someone who has a shitload to say all the time, my stammer (which is infrequent but has persistently been part of my life since I was young) can feel quite devastating at times. In high-pressure scenarios especially (interviews, auditions) if I feel like a separate entity from my body due to a bad week, a lot of self-inflicted doubt, or a particularly condescending individual, finding my voice can be difficult. More often than not I struggle the most when tired or stressed, and then comes the frantic search for a synonym with a different consonant, but never quite being able to say the word you mean, thus sounding so-not-verbose, or whatever the opposite of verbose is (See, synonyms just ain’t my forté)

Anyway, that week has blown over now, and I am feeling much more like myself. I know I am in a much better place because I am out of bed by 8am, have applied for two jobs today and am writing this blog post. Interestingly, furthermore to what I’ve already said about ‘feeling 13 again’ *sigh*- it has not come totally without advantages. There is a fear of returning to the habits of our former selves, especially when we’re constantly striving for self-improvement. However, as long as I don’t return to any negative, self-inflicting natures of my younger years, surely it can only be a good thing to regain some of the aspirational ambition I had 5 years ago?

For example, I used to write a lot more when I was that age, but now I just…er..don’t…have the time? (I have a lot of time.) I mean, yes, I don’t have like, SEVEN unrequited crushes to write lengthy essays on – (these days, I tend to just draw huge, wobbly smiley faces on every page as a reference to my current beau) but I miss that feeling of just creating stuff as a form of release. I filled a scrapbook from the ages of about 12-16, it took me FOUR YEARS but I still filled it right to the end.

Some things are nice without deadlines. The immense sense of accomplishment once finished took me by total surprise, because I had no pre-conceived ideas of what it should look like, I just did it for fun.
Perhaps the best thing about this year ‘off’ has been the ability to have 24 hours totally to myself to read what I want, write what I want, listen to what I want. Truly things that I want to do right at that moment, not on a syllabus, not syllabus-related, not something that might make me look good on my personal statement. Sixth form totally starved me of enjoying learning, although I tried to at the time- but I felt really empty of positivity.

They say old habits die hard, I was (maybe still am) in a harmful cycle of perfectionism, comparison, pessimism. Feeling sorry for yourself is the easy way out of most situations, but self-pity can be so corrosive. This pattern can become so commonplace, but even changing your routine in tiny ways can slowly change your perception, which is a form of self-improvement that is more patient and more rewarding.

Repeating positive affirmations when you wake up could make all the difference, i.e “Take what you need from today”, or “You are totally shit hot, talented, and one of a kind and you must not settle for anything but the best” – whatever, each to their own.

This post totally didn’t turn out as I’d planned, but now I’ve forgotten what I was going to say anyway. I didn’t even realise I wasn’t talking about whatever I’d wanted to say for the last 40 minutes, so maybe the above is more authentic. Whatever. Who even cares? I’m gonna get a beer.

All my love,

T.A.L x

“To plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow.”- Audrey Hepburn