Monday Meditation: The End? Absolutely Not!

CA6CD8E5-4285-419D-B9C2-01DAECA3E688I lost a dear friend last week, she had just turned 103 and I have been thinking about The End a lot.* Until relatively recently, we used to share a daily short walk, which inevitably reached its halfway point at the cemetery where her husband’s memorial stone stands and my dad’s tree lives. She, too, has now left her physical form, but whenever I go on that walk, I shall be thinking of her when I visit her husband and my dad’s tree. I am continuing our walks, I will visit her, too, when she joins her husband, and have a chat. I will tell her about the latest exploits of my grandsons, about whom she always inquired. There is no ending yet.

Her house is being sorted, her clothes given away, but her possessions will have a new life with others and so too will the house. It will be renovated and look spanking new again, ready to enter its new era. And it will contain all the memories created there by her and her family, who have occupied it for over half a century. There is no ending here.

I visited Barbara on her birthday a few days before she died. She was half-sitting in bed. She hadn’t seen me for quite a while as she had a fall on the stairs in the autumn and then developed a chest infection. Her sight had deteriorated and I was wearing a different coat, with a black scarf around my neck. She hardly knew me. I helped her open the card I had written for her, in which I had mentioned my grandsons in case I didn’t get to talk to her that day. Things began to come clearer at the mention of the boys’ names and now she knew who I was. I sat with her while her daughter had a break to make some calls. She looked tiny and frail. She was not happy. I asked her what the ETA was on her being up and about again. She grimaced and looked towards her daughter and her carer, whispering that they wouldn’t let her attempt to walk up and down the hall with her walker. She said, ‘You don’t get better lying in bed!’

She was right of course. She had such spirit, such determination. Her daughter told me after her mum had slipped away in her sleep that she knew her mum had somehow got herself out of bed a few nights before and she had found her in the hall by the radiator because she was cold. She had got there without her walker.

Three days before Barbara died, this heron came to visit on her roof.

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A few years ago, in her 90s, Barbara broke her hip. The authorities wanted her to stay in hospital and then go to a care home. She was having none of it. She insisted they send her home. We all feared the worst, that she would never manage and would injure herself or catch an infection. We should have known better. Up to that point, she was still weeding her own garden, going to the shops, to church and to the hairdresser, she was a member of the Townswomen’s Guild and held a coffee morning every Thursday. There was to be no ending because of a pesky broken hip!

Every winter she developed a chest infection and we all shook our heads and thought she was unlikely to survive the winter. Barbara had other ideas.

5A2D5BF6-5273-4FC7-9254-99C3D1D17ADFThe day before she left us, I had decided to make some cards. Barbara and I had established a tradition of sending each other notecards when one or other of us – often both – were confined to barracks – in my case when my back had given up the ghost. I had run out of cards with the one I sent just before Christmas. This time I chose a picture that was an image of a garden, as she loved hers. I had no idea I would be sending it as a sympathy card next day. I happened to take the photo to write about the smoothie I was having at the time. I had no idea it would be featuring in her eulogy. I finished the card, and sent it on its way to convey my thoughts and some memories to her family. No ending here either. Barbara’s daughter has found all the cards I sent to her mum and is going to let me have them. I will be able to relive the memories I shared with her, of my family as they grew, and smile at her own quips in response.

I am sad for her daughters and son, I am sad that I will no longer look over at her windows when I get up to check her curtains are open, or see her with her carer slowly taking her afternoon stroll, stopping to chat to the schoolchildren as they hurtled past. But I know she was not happy at being confined to bed. She was rapidly losing her strength (she wasn’t eating), and was adamant she didn’t want to go into the local Cottage Care Home. She was relieved to have her daughter back staying with her, from her home on the Continent, and she was ready to go.

But there is no End here. So many people looked out for her. She was loved by all her neighbours, a few of whom had known her for several decades, us included. Her death has brought us all together, we are all talking about her as we pass in the street. Some of us are used to seeing each other in passing and saying ‘good morning’ or commenting on the weather, but haven’t really got to know each other. Barbara has brought this small community even closer by our common bond of friendship with this tiny, frail-looking woman who was as strong as steel and insisted we all – young and not so young – call her by her first name.

The rain has stopped and the wind has dropped, I’m off to put on my coat and boots. I will wave to Barbara’s daughter and if I have the chance, I’ll invite her over for a cup of tea and a change of scenery. She looks so tired. Having only exchanged a few remarks when she has thanked me for writing to her mum, we are getting to know each other a bit more. There is no ending here.

Au revoir, Barbara. You continue to be an inspiration and I am grateful you came into my life. Thank you for all the walks and the memories.

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Inspired by a post called Conversation With The End by Cathi at Over The Hill On The Yellow Brick Road

Copyright: Chris McGowan

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Monday Meditation: Mindfulness and Rock Painting

A few weeks ago I wrote about finding a small painted rock by the canal with instructions to post a photo of it on Facebook and rehide it.* It made me smile when I was in a lot of pain. Since then, I’ve discovered painting and hiding rocks is quite the thing. At the end of the school summer holidays, I saw some young children leaving their out-of-school club holding small painted pebbles and looking very proud of their efforts. One little boy was so over-excited, he wanted to hide it straightaway and despite his grandma’s efforts to dissuade him, he couldn’t contain himself and just had to hide it there and then: he put it under the privet hedge of the house right next-door to the school. I loved his enthusiasm and it made me smile.

Soon after, my neighbour’s two young daughters came back from their holidays and told me about sitting on the beach painting stones. I said I’d like to have a go but couldn’t find any smooth stones as it’s all gravel around here. They brought some back from their next trip and we are going to have a joint rock painting session one rainy day in the half-term holiday.

29668112_UnknownSince then, I have really acquired the rock-painting bug! Every time my mum phones, she asks me what I’m doing and I reply, Guess! My first efforts were not much to write home about: I just tried out different media – acrylic v. poster paint, felt tips, matt or gloss varnish, glitter glue – just to see what worked and what didn’t.

I eventually learned that acrylic paint is best, poster tends to lose its intensity and can smudge if you put varnish on with a brush, but if you use a couple of coats of poster paint and a fine spray sealant, it can work well (be aware of solvent fumes and use in a well-ventilated area. I’m going to buy some paper face masks and spray outside!) Permanent markers work better than ordinary felt-tips which tend to bleed.

I soon discovered you can make it as simple or as complicated, as cheap or expensive as you like. I used 20 year old acrylic paints and varnish, 15+ years old paint brushes and a metal water pot I’ve had since I was at school! You don’t have to be an artist, there are many stones out there painted by very young children and not so young adults that have a few stripes or spots on or are sprinkled with glitter. What matters is the doing, the hiding and finding and giving people a smile. It’s a great activity to do with children, especially on rainy days or during winter months.

Painted rocks can make lovely gifts too, and even send a message: many people are painting Halloween stones at the moment but also ones with red poppies for Remembrance Day (see my poppy ones below), others like to write uplifting or humorous quotes on them. I’m thinking of giving the neighbours Christmas stones instead of cards.

The benefits of this activity are many: When I’m painting, I am totally focused. After some time, it comes as a surprise to me that I am no longer repeatedly turning over current family concerns, I haven’t looked at a screen or a clock and I am smiling. I am completely relaxed.  

I liked the goldfish above, and hid it on the girls’ front door step while they were out for the day. They have since rehidden it on a woodland walk. Remember Henry, the young boy next-door whose rabbits kept escaping?** I left my first effort on his rabbit hutch. He was so pleased to find it and then so disappointed when the next thing he found there was a bag of our homegrown tomatoes!

We have since found 2 stones and hidden 5 of mine (see below), one of which turned up on Facebook a couple of days ago. I can’t describe the joy and surprise of seeing it in a child’s hand with the message that they had rehidden it.

(This sculpture of the hares was made with a chainsaw).

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My second crop are a little more adventurous:

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I am particularly proud of the hedgehog and may have to keep him!

Any time I’m on my own, have time on my hands or feel a little overwhelmed, I hide away with my rocks and paints. I fear my supply will soon dry up and like any addict have taken to the (occasional) illicit purloining of rocks from neighbourhood driveways! I decided that couldn’t go on, it was a very slippery slope, so the other day, I traded baking apples from our tree for a few gorgeously smooth pebbles by our friend’s back door!

Here’s my latest batch:

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IMG_4101Why not have a go, leave them on benches, in parks or on woodland trails, in your or your grandchildren’s garden  – anywhere where people saunter or children play; tag them and write a message with instructions to rehide. I even left one in a bistro recently. Join or form a Facebook group so you can track them and other people can join in. Currently I belong to #shropshirerocks and #staffssmilestones . It’s a great way to make friends through a shared hobby, swapping tips and recommending brands of supplies.

It’s a wonderful way to switch off, get creative and relax. The result can also give someone a lift who is not having the best of times: the stone with the lopsided smile and mismatched blue eyes (above) went to a dear friend in hospital last week. She loved it and it made her smile. 

*Laughter Really Is The Best Medicine – Paint a Rock & Give a Smile to Someone Who Needs It!

**Ever Tried Wrangling Young Rabbits?

Copyright: Chris McGowan

Monday Meditation: Taking Time Out To Just Be

 I had a whole week’s ebreak. Rather greedily, I was hoping to make it longer: it takes a couple of days to get used to not checking for mail/posts etc. but then I really enjoy the liberation that comes from being unfettered by phone and iPad. However, I generally have to email a company about a product I need to return, or do some online banking or some such thing, and it’s impossible to avoid noticing there are a gazillion emails awaiting my attention, and that’s just the inbox I use for my blog!

But even just a week away from screens is enough to make me feel calmer, and it’s good to take time out to reassess and plan changes.

A week away from all the negative news works wonders, lifting the spirits and renewing a deep-seated faith in human kindness, friendship and compassion. And there is so much more energy and motivation to tackle things that have been ignored for too long: you know that growing mound of paperwork that needs attending to, but with which you vainly try to avoid eye contact? I attended to mine! It felt so much better to have that done and dusted and no longer have it in the back of my mind, gnawing away.

We spent a lovely day collecting our Bramley baking apples and cherry tomatoes, swapping them with our neighbours for eating apples, beetroot, advice on growing potatoes for Christmas. I say ‘we’ collected, I just pointed and tried to stop him falling off the ladder!

 

We had so many face-to-face conversations with neighbours and enjoyed catching up with old friends, recently returned to our street.

We – or rather, my husband, again, I just supervised! – did some work in the garden, dead-heading, pulling up the sweetpeas and collecting seeds for next year, planting potatoes and ordering a pear tree from our local nursery. Time outdoors is never wasted time, whether it be just sitting watching the birds, the ants, or children running about, or walking in the woods or park. I feel my shoulders relax and my mood lift; my breathing slows and I take time to really look and absorb what’s around me.

When indoors, I painted and crafted, made cards and wrapped presents. On sunny days, I went for walks, collected leaves, watched squirrels, took pictures (the squirrels were too fast so excuse the poor quality!)

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I did get one to sit still though:

 

This sculpture was carved from a tree trunk with a chainsaw! Such talent. There is another sculpture of two hares in a circle, but I’ll save that for a future post about my rock painting as I hid one there.

I met this friendly little chap. We communed for quite a while, he posed quite happily for photographs before eventually hopping off through the hedge.

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Such a lot of butterflies around this past week, too, of varying colours. I saw the one below on a walk near my house. It alighted on the lamp-post as I approached. My 2 year old grandson sent me some conkers he had collected. We planted 2 as well as the acorn. On another afternoon I sat in the garden and watched the various layers of clouds moving and changing shape, brightening and darkening by turns.

 

So much achieved in a few days away from that ever-hungry screen, that devours so much of our time and attention. Yet, I didn’t feel stressed or overworked. I highly recommend it.

Copyright: Chris McGowan

A Surprise Christmas Present

Today, I was minding my own business, helping my husband make up the Christmas Ocado order when the postman arrived. There were the usual cards and statements,  but also a small padded bag. I looked at the back and saw the name and address of my old friend and former primary school teacher, Evelyn. Many of you will have read my tribute to her earlier on in the year. She had emailed that she had sent me card and so I was expecting to see her writing any day soon, but not on a padded bag.

I opened it and out fell a hard object wrapped in bubblewrap. The envelope had originally come from a bead and crystal shop and I thought she had sent me a crystal for Christmas. I carefully unwrapped it and to my astonishment out fell a very old fountain pen and propelling pencil – do you remember those?!

I couldn’t speak. I sat there with my mouth wide open and nothing coming out. When it did it was ‘Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god’ on a loop (my apologies to anyone offended by this) accompanied by my husband’s ‘What, what, WHAT?! I imagine we looked like a couple of goldfish in a bowl.

img_2735I held in my hand the very fountain pen and pencil Evelyn had used to mark the class register, write reports and letters to our parents, the same white and gold pen I had coveted all these years. I was only thinking about it quite recently and wondering if she still had it. And here was the set, looking a little the worse for wear, sitting in the palm of my hand. I was in shock.

This means so much to me, I don’t have the words to explain.

I looked inside the bag for a note, but all I found was a Christmas card wishing us a Merry Christmas and a Happy 2017 followed by the words ‘Over half a century now!’

Nothing about the pen and pencil. I desperately wanted to speak to her. I tried Skyping but there was no response. She is probably at her sister’s for Christmas and I will have to contain my excitement and inquisitiveness until the New Year!

I don’t quite know why I was so fascinated by this pen. I loved the gold pattern on it and I loved the black Indian ink Evelyn filled it with. I was 9 years old and this was my first experience of a fountain pen at close quarters. I was inspired by it. I loved her handwriting, big and loopy, very informal, arty and friendly. I would recognise it anywhere. To me, this pen set was symbolic of her youth and style, it was modern, unusual, fun. It is so slim and light. It also looked very posh to my impoverished eyes!

I have always loved using a fountain pen and I can’t wait to clean this one out and see if it still works. Wouldn’t that be something, after all these years?!

Needless to say, my husband had to finish off the shopping list all on his own, he didn’t get any sense out of me for the rest of the day!

Copyright: Chris McGowan

A Monday Kind of Post

I had a bad day yesterday. At least, it wasn’t my bad day at all and I feel bad for feeling bad if you see what I mean. Of course you don’t, I haven’t told you anything yet!

First, a jar fell out of a cupboard, hit a dish – dish was ok, jar was ok – bounced onto the counter and onto the floor – jar was still ok. Contents intact.

Phone wasn’t. I had left it on the counter.

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 I am convinced there is a malevolent phone genie operating within our family. 4 of us are currently awaiting an expensive phone repair and my husband has had to replace his a month ago after dropping his old one on our newly-laid floorboards!

You can’t see all the damage, it’s cracked all down the black screen, too. Virgin quoted us £404 ie the cost of a new phone! Apple said £109 and in both cases I would be without my phone for up to 10 days. We found a local company that will come to my home and repair it there and then, for £84. An expensive accident.

But worse, much worse, I had some bad news about the health of a loyal, lifelong friend and I can’t stop thinking about it and him. It knocked me sideways. Of course, I told myself at regular intervals, you can’t make this about you. He’s the one dealing with it, and dealing with it very positively. I sent a hopefully positive and supportive response to his email. But my head is full of this news and I don’t know to deal with it. I didn’t sleep last night. I kept thinking of all our exploits when we were young. His songwriting friendship with my brother after I left to go to uni, his ongoing support after my brother’s fatal accident. How he always makes me laugh.

Today all I could do was sit and eat! I tried distracting myself with a very bad comedy film but it wasn’t as diverting as the fridge! Let’s just say the almost full peanut butter jar is no longer almost full.

Then my ever-weather-optimistic husband began hanging out all the white bedding despite the black clouds and the rain warnings on the weather app.

This happened:

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Now, a very long time ago he bought one of those washing lines that you pull out from the wall and fasten to a tree or something and then it recoils when you no longer need it. Of course it’s still in a cupboard while the existing washing line was tied together having broken once already. It was bound to happen. And it chose today.

So, this afternoon, I had words with myself and decided to watch La Vuelta, the pro-cycling Tour of Spain. I am leading our family Velogames Fantasy League, having chosen the winners of the first two stages. My son is not a good loser and is not taking it well that I tweet about my wins each day and I looked forward to extending my lead.

Within minutes, I lost a rider! He didn’t even crash – an acceptable reason for abandoning the race – no, he has sinusitis. Now, he arrived with sinusitis, a very painful, debilitating condition. No-one is going to get through an uphill 3 week race in the upper 30’s with sinusitis! Why would they start him and why couldn’t they have told me before I chose him?!

I looked up out of the window and saw this:

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I burst out laughing. My husband had been awol all day, I presumed mending bikes in the shed, he hadn’t mentioned anything about chopping down ash trees. I’d assumed he was just giving me some quiet time.

Anyone who knows us knows that the only tools my husband is safe to be left alone with are bike tools. If he so much as looks at a drill, we all run for the hills. He is accident-prone, falls off ladders, bikes, has flooded the kitchen trying to decorate behind a radiator, so no way would I have let him near a saw unsupervised haha.

But yesterday, I had remarked that I could see an ash sampling sticking up well above the height of the shed and growing behind it in a very inaccessible position. I said we needed to ask someone to get it down, we couldn’t allow it to get any more established.

Today, he was beaming from ear to ear, brandishing the saw in one hand, the 20′ tree in the other. I couldn’t believe it. And no injuries or damage to property.  He’s even more pleased with himself because he’s going to chop it up and dry it off to add to the woodpile.

Even better, he finally solved a problem with his bike that has been taxing him for several months – I’ve had to listen to endless descriptions of the problem and to no end of YouTube videos purporting to show him how to resolve it and his frustration when they didn’t. He’d stripped it down and replaced lots of bits. In the end, as often in such cases, all it took was a £3.50 part!

Now I just need Sky to get the win on Stage 3.

Copyright: Chris McGowan