I found this post unpublished in the archives. I don’t believe it’s ever been read so I thought I’d pop it out now for people’s entertainment. It was probably written some time in 2015…
When the Mother met the wise woman
Once upon a time, the Mother went to America to meet a very wise woman.
It was during the summer. There was no school, no rules and no food in the fridge. The Father was quite incapable of functioning without the Mother, not because he couldn’t look after himself – he can. But he didn’t seem to be able to do anything. He walked around the house, went to work, came home and walked around the house some more.
It didn’t matter. We bought some food, filled the fridge and cooked dinner for the Father. The Mother was busy doing something else, something very important.
She was listening to the wise woman, and learning about choice.
The Mother returned. The Father stopped pacing around the house.
And like the kitchen had taken on a different look, so had the Mother.
Because the wise woman had taught the Mother a tremendous skill. A skill so simple that it’s often over looked.
She taught my Mother to choose.
The difference between goals and choices
When you make a choice, you’re acknowledging the alternative.
If I chose to travel, I am letting go of a lot of security.
If I chose not to travel, what is the price I’m paying?
This is what I see as the big problem with goals. When we write up goals we’re articulating our dreams, not what we’re willing to lose, and it’s loss not gain that we feel more strongly. Inevitably, the loss is what makes achieving our goals so hard. It’s the time that has to be committed, the strain in our legs after a long run, and the bitter cold on our skin before. The loss of options, the loss of comfort.
How choice changed the Mother
The Mother has embedded in her children a sense of awe. However hard we try, we are simply not the sort of girls who can have two loads of washing on the line and dinner cooked before 7am. If either of us open our eyes before 7am, we’re ahead of schedule.*
The Mother is like a whirlwind. As children we would have to run to keep up as she walked down the street.
She’s like a humming bird, whilst I’m more like a tree. Or at least in my eyes. The Midget accuses me of doing to much. The father accuses me of allowing myself to burnout, again.
When the Mother returned from visiting the wise-woman, she brought back with her the simple fact that her exhaustion and inability to sleep was her choice. Just like my ulcers, stressed skin and headaches are my choice. When we keep pushing ourselves the cracks are going to appear.
When we set goals we have to acknowledge the cracks. When we keep pushing despite the clawing tension in our backs, the aches in our shoulders the strain in our fingers from hitting this keyboard time and time again, the cracks widen.
So when the Mother returned from the wise-woman, she slowed a little and started thinking a little more about the consequences of doing everything.
Which is why the wise-woman, who I’ve never met, is my hero.
*Actually, my sister seems to be more than capable of such ludicrous behaviour.
other week, I was lazing out on the terrace of the house of the
psychotherapists, with no other company than that of the cat, the occasional
stray dogs who came to drink from the swimming pool, and the horses in the
field beyond. I figured that it was good to rest and have a little solitude
before recommencing my teaching responsibilities at the university.
Plans are of little importance, but planning is essential.
– Winston Churchill
So many plans must have fallen through these last few weeks, worldwide, which has possibly left us all reeling in shock. My mother told me about the supermarket delivery man who is struggling because he’d just been about to head off to Greece for a month and re-plan his life. A dear friend had handed her notice in at work and to her landlord (land-person?) and was about to head off of a cycle ride around Europe. I know I am angry about my plans not going to plan. As are many other people. Dreams have been paused. We’re left with tremendous uncertainty.
I was about to learn how to do a headstand with my yoga teacher and then classes were cancelled. I shall have to wait for the opportunity to return. In the grand scheme of things, not yet learning to do a headstand seems a rather ridiculous thing to become annoyed at. There are people losing their livelihoods. And yet, for me, it is a big deal. It was something I had been diligently working towards. Small things matter to us as well as the big ones.
my mind was having a hard time of things, I would easily get overwhelmed. I
think this is true for any of us who had a fixed idea of what we do and what we
should be doing and suddenly find ourselves not entirely sure what the hell we
are doing. There are so many questions, so many options, so many decisions that
we have to make that we simply do not know which way to turn. We believe we
should make educated, rational choices about our lives, but we do not have
sufficient information and our minds are easily emotionally clouded.
reclaimed control with a set of hello kitty sticky notes. On each one I would
write three tiny tasks at random so that my notes would read something like:
Trim lemon tree
I would try to avoid any tasks that I was particularly anxious about from clustering together on a single note. Whenever I didn’t know what to do with myself, I would simply reach over to the pile of half-completed Hello Kitty faces and choose something. Then, when I had struck a line through all three tasks, I would crumple up the pink paper and toss it in a pint glass. Over time, the pint glasses began to fill and when a row of them sat on my windowsill, I started feeling like I was making progress. That I had some momentum.
I do feel quite like the whole of March has almost gone by and I have done nothing. This is perhaps the consequence of not being able to go anywhere. One day looks very much like the next. Exercise is keeping my mood reasonably balanced, but I am missing the highs I get from face-to-face social interaction. The truth is I feel much better after teaching a face-to-face class than I do after teaching an online class. Although thank the gods I can teach online as it means I have something useful to do with myself.
So I’ve decided to go back to my pint glasses of Hello Kitty faces approach. Just this time, I have a vase and each time I go for a run, I’m bringing home a single small rock to drop inside it. A visual record of the miles I’ve run.
If you or someone you know is interested in having online Spanish classes, let me know (firstname.lastname@example.org) and I’ll put you in contact with a teacher here whose plans, like so many people’s, have fallen through.
When the Midget and I did a three-week train adventure in Eastern Europe I booked our flights, the first two nights’ accommodation (in a hostel dorm) and the overnight train travel that would get us to Amsterdam on the right morning to meet the Dutch Kiwi – who kindly invited us to stay for a few days.
For some people, an attitude of planning as you go along must seem abhorrent
It certainly does have its downsides. After all, you spend a significant amount of your time staring at maps and trying to get good enough wifi to make a booking for the next night (or at least you did in the past when foreign data was so expensive). This is precious time that you’d prefer to spend staring at gargoyles or petals. If your holidaying time is limited, then there’s often a feel that you need to be looking outward not down at your phone. And perhaps, particularly in busy seasons, on tight budgets or in unusual locations then there’s not all that much choice to begin with.
Even less at the last minute.
Urgency however, has a value. It forces you to make a choice. When you’re running to a deadline it’s often easier to get things done. Being able to book accommodation without excessive hesitation is a skill that has come with practice and has now saved me hours.
Sometimes, having this flexibility pays off in a big way
I went to France for two weeks and stayed for two months. I went to Spain for seven weeks and stayed for three months. Imagine if I’d had a flight booked, or accommodation booked, and had therefore turned down the opportunities that developed around me? On both occasions I could have stayed longer, I was invited to stay even longer, but I had plans made elsewhere.
On some occasions though, a solid plan makes a trip
For me, this includes almost all travel done with anyone else. I’m used to my own stress and have coping strategies in place for being lost in train stations, unable to find the right bus and sat on the doorstep waiting for someone to let me in. What I find much more difficult is having someone else there beside me, tapping their foot, rustling the papers or bemoaning the situation. When you are with someone else, you are, in part, also responsible for them.
I’m also keen on having plans when I’m hiking. It’s tiring, physical work and the truth is, I don’t want to be walking and worrying about where I’m going to be sleeping. It can be difficult enough just with the blisters between your toes.
Last year The Grump and I walked a section of the Rota Vicentina on the coast of Portugal
It’s a stunning walk down to Cape St. Vincent, and for someone like me who prefers the walking to the map reading, it’s a gift because it’s so well marked. Since we were changing accommodation almost every night, and staying in small villages, it made sense to book everything in advance. I believe that the Grump would be happier if we also had the location of the nearest market, nearest bakery and reviews of all local restaurants all researched before either of us set foot in an airport, but where we’re sleeping and how we’re getting there tends to be enough for me. When you’ve got so many nights, each in a different place, having a spreadsheet becomes invaluable. Hiking is not meant to be a stressful endeavour.
My spreadsheet looks something like this:
Name of Host
Location is the name of the place as we remember it. Pronounced wrong. The address is what we’re going to google when we’re lost. The contact number is rung when we discover that the address on google has failed us. And the name of the host is another way of keeping nights separate in our brains.
If we’re splitting the cost, we can need columns for settling money – sometimes multiple currencies – and a statement of whether or not we’ve actually paid. Then there’s the weird notes, like that we can get the key from the grandmother who lives two doors down.
The kitchen column exists because quite often I prefer to book somewhere that I have access to a kitchen. Eating out every day is expensive, and sometimes you’re not seeking something fancy. All you want is a bowl of soup heated up in the microwave, somewhere that you can kick off your boots and curl up on the sofa.
However, a plan is just a plan
It’s a model of the situation you expect. But during travels you are, from time to time, going to happen upon the unexpected.
Breakfast, for example, is a word with a different meaning depending on where you are. If you book somewhere in England and it includes breakfast, you probably can skip lunch. If you book somewhere in Italy or Spain, you might fine what you actually have is a mug of coffee and a biscuit. You have to be at ease with some unknowns.
Even when you think you’ve got everything organised and multiple copies of the spreadsheet printed off, it cloud-stored and emailed back to yourself, you can still find yourself wandering around the wrong village (Arrifana) at nine o’clock at night. Plans don’t always play out as smoothly as a spreadsheet suggests. Sometimes you grit your teeth, try your hardest not to say anything unkind to your normally lovable companion, and call someone for help.
Asking for help is a much more important skill in travelling than making fancy spreadsheets
If you want to get better at travelling, get better at asking for help. You might find that someone’s willing to rescue you when you’re drowning in the Yorkshire Dales or that when you’re desperate for a cup of tea, the hotel receptionist will fill your mug with boiling water, even though it’s midnight and they normally charge for hot drinks. Having a tidy spreadsheet doesn’t keep you dry or your tummy full.
There was a miscommunication at the final moment of our Rota Vicentina walk
At the point I thought I’d finished my 150km walk and sat down with my ice cream to celebrate, there was still 5km left and it needed to be done asap as otherwise we’d miss the bus. The Grump set the pace, I trudged along behind. By then, my feet really hurt. And yet, the next morning, we found a bakery where the Grump had savoury crepes which came with a huge helping of chips and I tackled the pastries and coffee. Although it was raining outside and we were both tired, we laughed at it all and appreciated what we’d achieved.
Despite this, or maybe because of it, this year the Grump and I are switching Portugal for Italy and are walking a section of the Via Francigena. Although it’s a few months away, we’ve booked our accommodation, the Grump has booked his flights and I’ve made a beautiful spreadsheet. Now I don’t have to worry about it until just before I leave when I remember I need to pack.
Some people are meticulous when it comes to planning a holiday.
On taking a suitable map
The first real travelling I did was driving to Sweden with a friend. It wasn’t a long trip. We were gone all in all only three weeks and we took the ferry from Kent to Denmark, so we only had to drive through two countries.
I’d never driven on the ‘wrong’ side of the road. And this was a time before blind following of the satellite navigation propped up on the dashboard. Or a phone with worthwhile mobile internet. What we had was a road map – of the whole of Europe – and a guidebook which explained speed limits, keeping your lights on and the importance of having the right number of high visibility vests.
I drove out of the ferry terminal in Denmark, turned left across four lanes of traffic, window wipers screeching, lights on.
A surprising reality of ad hoc navigation
That first half hour of driving felt comparable to escaping Rome (which involved an emergency switching of drivers just before hitting the Rome ring road). We stopped at a McDonalds for coffee and to breathe.
A few days later, we reached Copenhagen. It felt an impressive feat, driving in, parking, going out for lunch, and then driving out, following the signs for Sweden. Copenhagen on our map was entirely contained in four inches squared. Squinting didn’t help. We drove into Malmo, circled around a bit, found the hostel we were staying at, and parked without nothing much more than an address.
And I’ve got no idea how. In hindsight, blind faith is not a navigational technique I’d advise, but it did somehow work for us.
More miraculously, on the way back, we also drove into Copenhagen, parked in exactly the same parking spot – this is without any idea of which side of the city we were on – and went out for lunch.
On itineraries and spreadsheets
Very soon, I’m going to Portugal with the Grump. I’m getting the impression that the Grump wouldn’t turn up in a foreign city without an adequate map. I’m imagining his luggage being 50% paper print outs of tickets and plans. For me, this is going to be an education.
I wrote an itinerary and made a spreadsheet. I’ve emailed booking confirmations and asked AirBnB hosts for their precise addresses more than 24 hours prior to arrival. This is all new for me. While I’m normally pretty good at booking longer trains and planes in advance, having all the information neatly arranged is somewhat foreign.
It takes some urgency to make me think, where am I going next.
I can be adaptable and accommodating though… I think…