Writing my way home
I bought a keyring a lifetime ago, from Roskilly Farm’s gift shop in Cornwall. It’s a round ball of smooth, turned walnut, fissured with black ravines and knots. It’s been mistaken for a pomegranate, though it’s no more than the size of a fig. Dark swirls run through its surface; swirls whose colour have deepened from years of being slung down on kitchen surfaces and desks, being buried at the bottom of pockets and bags. I often reach for it without thinking, feeling the light, solid weight of it in my hand, rubbing my thumb back and over its curved surface.
Recently I listened to an episode of a podcast called An Almanac for Anxiety – in search of a calmer mind. The series explores how interacting with natural elements can help improve our mental health and sense of wellbeing. Episode two talks about our relationship to wood, how we’ve evolved to dwell in forests and need a connection to trees to feel well. Touching wood, it tells us, the act of rubbing our hand along a wooden table or lamp base, is enough to soothe us, reconnecting us to our natural habitat and a feeling of safety.
In his book ‘Reconnection: Fixing our broken relationship with nature, Miles Richardson, Professor of Human Factors and Nature Connectdeness at the University Of Derby, cites research which shows that touching oak wood produces physiological changes in the body. The laboratory tests show a calming of the pre-frontal cortex, indicating calm and contentedness. “Are we meant to be around wood?” the presenter asks. “I think so,” the Professor replies.
Like many people I feel better for time spent outside. After another day taken up with too much peopling and complexity, I head out in the blustery July sun, calling Coop to follow. I walk the mile of lanes and fields to stand on Shaky bridge and watch the light bouncing off the water, the reflection of the beech canopy breaking up and reforming as the wind ripples the river’s surface. I walk on through fields of dusty yellow wheat and bright oxe eye daisies, listening to the ewes calling their lambs.
When I get home I fry the cold potatoes I find in the fridge, eat earthy red beetroot with my fingers while I wait for the potato edges to crisp. Afterwards I go up into the garden to call the hens. They come running over, following me out through the gate to rootle in the weeds and undergrowth. Sitting at the desk in my shed I begin to write the jumble out, my noticings staggering on to the page where they settle in a clump. I begin to feel better.
My son is visiting and as always brings me snippets of information and new ways of thinking. He tells me about a paper he’s editing which suggests that the act of being in nature and noticing it, and then recording it afterwards has a positive impact on our wellbeing. I smile as I realise that my instinctive approach has been leading me to the medicine I need.
I have been writing, or trying to write for an hour a day, usually after work when I am cross-eyed with tiredness and my head is empty of words. When it’s possible, I find that this act of writing regularly, of turning up for whatever wants to appear, is a game-changer. What tumbles out of my subconscious surprises me. The writing begins to take on a life of its own, ideas and thoughts chasing each other onto the page until I have a folder of scratchy first drafts. For a while I feel as though I’m making progress. That on this day I am a bit further on than I was yesterday, a bit further on than I would have been if I hadn’t written at all.
The advice, to try writing for an hour a day, came from Chrissie, a wise writing friend. She offered it up to me in a car park as we said our goodbyes and I choked on the feeling that, like needing to run in a dream and finding that your legs won’t move, ‘real life’ was shunting my writing and creative hopes into stasis.
I have slid from the every day, but I’m going to return to it, because it was working and I’m determined to honour that creative hope. In his essay, ‘Why I Write”, George Orwell says: “The great mass of human beings are not acutely selfish. After the age of about thirty they abandon individual ambition – in many cases, indeed, they almost abandon the sense of being individuals at all – and live chiefly for others, or are simply smothered under drudgery. But there is also the minority of gifted, willful people who are determined to live their own lives to the end, and writers belong in this class.”
I don’t know that I’m gifted, but I’m probably selfish and almost certainly wilful, so I’m going to keep going. And I’m sharing Chrissie’s advice with you because I’ve realised that it can apply to anything; a little bit every day is enough. Some days not even a tiny bit is possible, but, I tell myself on those days, there’s always tomorrow to try again.