I’m sitting in a clearing, in the woods at the top of the hill. Other than a flash of white or grey among the branches, I can’t see the birds, but I can certainly hear them. Birdsong forms an arc around me. There is no breeze, and it is unseasonably warm. An almost balmy day in mid-November. What a treat! Albeit a guilty one: it’s not okay for it to be this warm on the cusp of winter. As a human with utility bills to pay, my perspective is tinged with relief at being able to delay putting the central heating on. It’s becoming a cliché to talk about that, isn’t it? I’m so fortunate to not have to choose between heating and eating. But still, most of us must tighten our purse strings. These are such difficult times.
As I picked my way along the meandering path to the clearing, an insect bumped right into my cheek. I imagine it was startled to encounter a face on its flight path. Not many people walk this way, although there are picnic tables. I am here because… Why? I am a bit tired, and untethered, and I want to be among trees. Sounds of civilization filter through from the nearby allotments – the thud of a mallet, an axe splitting wood, voices. Beyond the thicket, two dogs are squabbling. A light aircraft hums overhead. With the sun on my face and my flask of hot chocolate warming my hands, I am entirely unperturbed by these noises.
The trio of squirrels scuttling from branch to branch appear delighted by the mid-teen temperatures, but to equate their leaping with joy may be naive. Squirrels tend to bounce a lot anyway.
Am I really untethered? No. Stretching on tiptoes, perhaps, hanging onto the madly flapping kites in my head that are my plans for the future: ways to earn a living that will make me happy.
The awareness that I need to stop translating has been creeping alongside me, on the periphery of my vision, for so long. More than thirty years of bashing away at my keyboard, churning out words by the thousand, that’s another hundred quid in the bank, ka-ching! Even when the physical drawbacks of my sedentary lifestyle began emerging, still I pressed on. I’m a translator, it’s what I do, I’m not qualified to do anything else. In payback, I now have osteoarthritis developing in my fingers. A couple of them already have visible bony nodules. I can hardly bear to look at them. My lovely hands. Apologies for this moment of self-pity, but my slender hands are the one part of my body that I’ve always found attractive. Like most of us, sadly, I have readily and repeatedly found much to criticize about my uneven face, imperfect teeth, scarred leg, stretch marks like slug trails, stubbornly protruding tummy… So many ingratitudes towards this marvellous body it has been my privilege to inhabit for fifty-two-and-a-bit years.
Arthritis is accepted as an inevitability on my dad’s side of the family; Grandma’s fingers were as gnarled as tree roots by the time she died. Dad’s hands are going the same way, but he is in his eighties. As far as I was concerned, it was some distant possibility, not an imminent risk. I never considered what all that tap-tap-tapping on my keyboard was doing to the soft tissues between my joints, to the squishy, stretchy bits of stuff that keep my fingers moving, keep the words clattering out like nuts and bolts on a production line.
Anyway, I’m not sitting about ruminating like some maudlin old toad by a stagnant pond. As a motivating force, grief over the changed appearance of my fingers may be superficial, but it is no less powerful for it. I found a book that looks legit on how to alleviate arthritis by, in essence, ditching all nightshades (potatoes, tomatoes, peppers and the like) as well as dairy, and avoiding the delicious stuff that you can make with wheat and sugar. For the last fortnight, my son has gamely chewed his way through a Bolognese that was basically spaghetti with a pebbledash of mince and onions; vegetables in a thin, yellow-stained gravy trying to pass itself off as a curry; and a chili made with beetroots, carrots and horseradish – which, to be fair, was rather ingenious and reasonably tasty.
This diet change has knocked me for six, if I’m honest, purely because I don’t react well to change, and the comfort blanket that food has always been to me now looks rather threadbare. However, when a friend pointed out the wisdom of choosing food that will make you well in preference to food that is making you ill, I began to see the new way of eating as a kindness to myself and my hurting hands. As comfort of the enduring kind. But I’m not giving up buttered crumpets. Apart from anything, they’re ‘in season’ right now (remember when they were only available in autumn and winter?) and we should all eat more seasonal food, right?
Meanwhile, I am envisioning a more fulfilling future. I’m training as a celebrant, learning how to use the tarot as a therapeutic tool, studying to be a palm reader, and will be working towards a coaching certificate next year. My natural tendency is to be passive and pliant (a typical water-handed person, the palm really is a map of our deeper selves). Just occasionally, however, I get the wind at my back and – well, I get carried away flying metaphorical kites.
I confess I am too self-absorbed right now – as in, wrapped up in my own aspirations and inner being – but I’m at peace with that. Sometimes we have to burrow down and sit quietly with ourselves, reabsorb who we are so that we have plenty of ourselves to give. Besides, it is only a matter of time until I grow bored of all this introspection and become more outward-looking. One could say I am busy finding myself, but I’ve never found that to be a helpful expression. In my admittedly narrow experience, we don’t so much find ourselves, as let go of the person we think we OUGHT to be. I don’t believe we ever lose ourselves to begin with, we just squirrel our ‘self’ away for some indeterminate other day.
Anyway, there is a point to all my navel-gazing; I’m not foraging about for fluff, but for any tiny pearls of wisdom that could benefit other people. Hehe, there’s some slick self-justification for you!
Brambles form a barbed and matted carpet beside the path. I’d draw some analogy with how my head feels, but I’m stuck with the mind-as-kites metaphor now. And besides, my head isn’t tangled. There’s plenty of gloriously fresh air between those kites (final mention, enough with the flapping bits of fabric…!)
To keep the wolf from the door and my feet on solid ground while my mind is flitting about in the air, I’ve invested in some dictation software. It is taking some getting used to, particularly the need to speak every bit of punctuation. It’s quite a learning curve comma I can tell you full stop
At first, it felt hopelessly clunky, and I despaired of being able to work efficiently. And yet, something interesting is now happening: I’m rather relishing the slower pace of dictating. I thought it would be like stepping barefoot on sharp stones semi-colon that all that punctuation would lacerate my thought process exclamation mark
In fact, being compelled by my sore hands to work more slowly has been an unexpected gift. The measured pace at which I now dictate my words has a spacious, respectful quality to it. By extension, I am finding that I am more respectful of every pound I earn, more measured in how I spend it. Is it fanciful to suppose it might nudge me further into a gentler way of living? Like sentences without punctuation, a life is garbled without pauses, full stops, new paragraphs.
Like right now, sitting in the woods.
Since turning fifty, I have of course wasted too much time fretting about the accelerating passage of time. With every week, month, year scribbling past in a blur, it is easy to panic, to visualize the blind being drawn on some distant window of opportunity rather than treat each new day as its own window.
I haven’t come here because I am tired and untethered. I’m fine, really. I just want to stop for an hour or two, remind myself that my timeline is illusory. Be a punctuation mark in the relentless chatter…
That is what I hope to become for other people who might be tired and untethered. One day. Soon.
These woods really are special. This straggly, narrow strip of brush and nettles, oak and birch… I can’t accurately name many other trees. Does that matter? The trees are indifferent to being greeted by name.
The description of this woodland on the Woodland Trust website is a little dismissive: ‘Nowhere is it spectacular or particularly beautiful, but for a family outing it is more than adequate.’ Some children have just walked by with their mothers, one of the boys waving a branch longer than he is tall. He was excitedly telling his friend how he could plant a new tree with this stick. Children instinctively know that the woods are vibrating with magic.
The birds are still singing, but fewer of them now. The pale November sun is still shining. I’ve finished my delicious thermos of hot chocolate, made with oat milk, cocoa powder and maple syrup. My hands are less painful… Maybe this diet change is starting to work.
In this moment, there is nothing but pure, kind, ordinary comfort. It is astonishing.
I’m in no hurry to move on…