Headsets on. Own little worlds. Filling in the fractured waiting spaces with Computer chess, Netflix and different time and place playlists on YouTube. Not quite re-emerging from Winter hibernation. But almost… I need for it to end now – Winter. It’s not fully over yet but the earliest, bare-branched-hardy, pink blossoms whispered their promise, more than a month ago that – sometime soon – it will be. The stirring snowdrops are stretching their slim necks up through the unfrosted litter-fall and the blackbirds and other ground feeders are bustling. It only half-heartedly snowed this week and this morning’s breaking sun pulled back the soft glistening sheet to wake more sleeping violas and the first pale, garden primrose.
I’ve been trying and failing for weeks to write something. To write anything. Anything other than the clinging, decanted dredge of the Grinched despair of late-last-year’s doom and gloom, that is. But the writing habit, wilted and cold, stubbornly refused to look upwards for inspiration in the darkened anteroom of my mind that annually curtains itself off when the long nights draw in.
I spent December, like all recent Decembers, hating on Christmas. The faintest whisper of the word before the strike of midnight on the last day of November I met with unapologetic hostility. Because it just brings out the very worst in people, myself included. It kills my creativity along with what little faith I have remaining that there might actually be some goodness somewhere in the world. I despise religious self-righteousness and secular seasonal excesses alike. Fake charity and artificial Joy. All just garish sycogiftophantic land-filling; shredded plastic and torn tales – discards of things that once were but probably should never have been, adorning the newly dumped waste heap by the solar farm – a burial ground blotting out the long view. But Decembers and Christmases come and go. And thank Christ they’ve gone again; not wholly distant memories – yet – but certainly faded by the dank fog of January’s hangover and proddingly punctuated by the longed-for lengthening light of a mid-February Seasonal shift.
Sparkling frosts graced the outgoing mornings of 2016. Quiet, silver mists which intermittently soothed my irritable soul. The outdoors was in detox and it inspired me to strive for the same. I began by rinsing my insides clean with alcohol and then very consciously and purposefully constructing new mentally and physically healthy habits for myself. Proactive antidotes to Seasonal affective disorder, entrenched clinical depression, absurdist despair and that recurring tendency to just be sucked through the vortex of my own hollow navel like the colourless lithograph of Munch’s Scream.
I walked close to three figures of miles during January, my permanently reddened knees bearing the brunt of the cold – my boots being not quite high enough and my coat being not quite long enough to afford them any kind of all-weather protection. My jeans welded to me at the joints. An over-sized hood blocking out intermittent ramblers, twitcher-photographers and menopausal women’s walking groups, along with the wind and rain. Keeping me focused forward. Photochromic lenses darkening even further the dullest of short days and screening out all unnecessary conversations. Exchanging polite smiles and brief acknowledgements of near like-mindedness but nothing more. Walking out frustrations. Walking for solitude. Walking to think.
My footsteps percussive beats along the tautened skin of the raised hollow earth, edging and confining the still sodden fields where only tractors are able to trudge. Wishing I could maintain an equal level of energy throughout each day, for whole days, but inevitably giving into midday sleeping like the droop of last Summer’s seedless Sunflower heads still hanging on the hill. Negotiating slopes of time and incline. Strolling through ancient woodlands and around man-made lakes. Inhaling the quiet calm of forests and the scent of rains. Stopping. Closing my eyes to take in the shine of the sky, low Winter suns like morning moons, giving glorious starts to otherwise dreary days. Sucking in and swallowing down all the open space. Delighting in instances – a shy moorhen reflected as an abstract in a puddle, a kestrel’s quiver and dive, a grebe resurfacing with a skewered fish, a robin perching on my wing mirror as I walk back to my car and the breath-taking awesomeness of driving home beneath a swirling, whirling starling murmuration. All missed photo opportunities – because I’m neither quick nor quiet enough – but precious moments of privilege nonetheless, imprinted on the screen of my mind’s eye.
Barbed wire fences and thorny, coarse scrubland. Wild, stinging vegetation, hacked back. Temporarily tamed. The crumbling urn, frozen like a stopped clock, in the shrunken, cracked pond. And a dented number plate – all that remains of the burnt out motorbike on the charred, blackened heath. Contradictions in life’s uncertain landscape. Like changing weather. Changing moods. The only way through it all is with careful compromise. Life itself is a circumstantially forced, unconsidered compromise. Evolution has no end point, selection pressures just are, “God is dead” and “Hell is other people.” And it’s all been said over and over and over again. Ideas and ideologies rehashed. Unoriginal, dragged needle points of no departure. Capitalist-communist binary bullshit. False dichotomies. Double talk spewing over into hateful intent – calls to cruel, senseless action and reaction. Humanity on its knees beneath the crushing metal-spiked boot of non-compromise; bludgeoned and bewildered by the “banality of evil.” It’s all too easy to over quote Nietzsche and Sartre but it is immediately and acutely terrifying to find oneself so easily and post-presciently quoting Arendt. A world in perpetual turmoil in which attack masquerades as defence and where stunned impotence frantically breeds more of its helpless self. A place where the incredibly lucky just about get by so long as injustices keep happening to others. Shots ring out across the fields and distant dogs bark in anticipation. Pheasants shrill.
Sitting in the spaces outside my circular thoughts, inside my car, on a heated seat with hot coffee, I’m mostly in danger of morphing into a one-woman Simon and Garfunkel, albeit presently slow and staccato, tribute band. When the weather warms up people might actually start throwing loose change through my open window. But only if I up the tempo and improve my flow between now and then.
I’m trying to be a gentler version of myself. Starting with self-compassion. And tending to my microbiome. After more than one past failed attempt, I have finally and fully made the long overdue dietary switch from vegetarian to vegan – in an attempt to sterilize a lifetime’s worth of dairy guilt. Now I get to feel guilty about the exploitation of quinoa farmers and fret over the questionable hows and wheres of coconut harvests instead.
I’ll never be able to describe myself as a fully fledged, hard-line vegan for all kinds of reasons, not least of which being that I’m a dog owner. I love my dog and, in all honesty, I prefer his company to that of most people. I take care of his physiological and psychological needs as best I can and, as a family, we invest in him heavily, both emotionally and financially. But it is that very investiture which, though it secures his welfare, sets me on very shaky ground when it comes to positively promoting animal rights. He is an incredibly important and valued member of our family. We don’t buy into sketchy theories of pack hierarchy and we happily proffer him equal access and claim to the sofa. But the awkward fact of the matter is that we purchased him as a commodity, with the very specific utility role of ‘autism therapy dog’ in mind. And he really had no choice in the matter. The fact that his kibble is PETA approved and his tuna steaks are dolphin friendly is of little comfort to the animals who were unceremoniously slaughtered to make it into his daily food bowls.
The rightly wary sheep who flock up the hill behind the church, in a manner reminiscent of an old Penguin Classics cover of Far From the Madding Crowd, whenever my dog bounds exuberantly down the adjacent avenue, have no idea where they or the innocent offspring they will birth this year are really headed.
Social hibernation affords me space to clarify my clouded thoughts and time to conscientiously tend to my fracturable mental health; prioritising my own wellness, or as close as I will ever come to it – without excusing myself or apologising for it. I didn’t always feel entitled, or worthy enough, to take time to tend to my own mind, body and soul. That’s why I repeatedly fell apart. I seem to have made it through this Winter relatively unscathed, however. Relatively. The clouds of smudged charcoal are perceptibly dissipating, like the early morning mobs of crows, and are being replaced by puffs of catkins. The weather could still change of course. Last year it snowed in April.
A doctor recently reminded me that 60mg per day is as far as my current medication will take me. Beyond that there’s nowhere left for it to go. I know. It’s left me stranded all the way out there before. But I’m a full 20mg closer to home than that right now. And I’m walking and driving in the right direction.