Staying sane isolated with family

When you’re living constantly in close quarters even the sound of someone buttering their toast can drive you insane. This Covid 19 isolation is a trial most of us have not ever faced before. If you are with family you’ve probably never spent this amount of time confined with them before. It reminds me of being on holiday as a child in a static caravan in the wilds of Devon on those rainy days when you were stuck inside. Three kids and two adults in a tiny caravan with no way to escape and nothing much to do, I don’t want to think how close we came to killing each other. I’m experiencing that feeling now with my own family but with slightly more space over a more prolonged period of time. Escape from each other is hard.

It’s no better if you live alone. Then the danger is it becomes like those evenings when you’re in on your own with no contact with anyone, alone with your own thoughts constantly.

Introvert or extrovert, we al need time alone and time with others in varying proportions and we are all being deprived of it at the moment. None of us, introvert or extrovert are getting what we need in terms of social interaction.

So what do we do? How do we get what we need to stay sane? Looking around there seems to be a boom in use of web meeting software like Zoom (other software is available), Facebook Live, Messenger and Whatsapp to enable people to stay in touch. I’m currently writing letters to people to share the story of how our family are coping and to ask after them. Digital and non-digital communication are now essential for staying in touch and maintaining a sense of community.

Rather wonderfully people seem to be connecting more in a lot of ways. My church has a Messenger group and a closed Facebook page and people are engaging more broadly then usual. We’re getting to know each other better. Southampton has a number of help groups that have sprung up offering to collect groceries or prescriptions for the house bound. There is a sense of wider communities pulling together. Waltham Chase Methodist Church have set up a Prayers for our community page which they’ve advertised through other local groups. People like to believe there’s a greater power out there looking out for them in times like this, even if they’re not sure what it is and the opportunity to ask someone who appears to have the answer to offer up prayers for them is something many may appreciate. Hopefully other churches are or will do something similar.

So there’s lots to connect with to keep us sane, all I’ve got to do is not throttle the kids.

Until next time

Blessings

Pete

Pen pals?

When was young the in thing was to have a pen pal. For those of you to young to remember the days before instant communication via text and email this may sound strange but pen pals were, usually, young people who wrote letters to each other and sent them through the Post Office. Depending how you came by your pen pal your letter could be winging it’s way to some far flung country like Belgium or Taiwan. The greatest excitement came when you received a letter back from your pen pal. It would have exotic stamps on it, probably a “Par Avion” sticker and inside would be a snippet of another world.

There is an intimacy to receiving a hand written letter that is usually lacking in an email or social media post. Generally far less thought goes into an email, it’s construction and the story shared in it because if you miss something you can just send another one so fast it won’t matter. with a letter, or even a postcard you have to think about what you write, the story you are telling, the information you are sharing because you can’t just send a quick amendment when you realise. I’m in the middle of a messaging conversation with family and someone’s auto-correct has changed last to lady. Once it was spotted we joked and moved on but that doesn’t happen in a letter. A good letter is like a good short story. it draws you in and engages you. It should be a snippet of a life that isn’t yours but should be a little interactive so the other person can write back.

Blessings

All this pre-amble is leading somewhere. Everyone reading this will know someone who isn’t tech savvy. Someone who can’t text or accidently deletes emails before sending or perhaps even doesn’t have or use the internet. Someone who is isolated and struggling with this long period of isolation we are all facing. I want to encourage you to take time to sit down and write that person a letter. Tell them about your day, about how you are coping at this time, perhaps ask some questions and encourage them to write back. Write to family or friends, here or abroad, write to your neighbour three doors down who has no family locally, write to someone you know from church or from work that you aren’t seeing face to face at the moment. If you can’t think of anyone to write to, write to me or pick someone at random from your Facebook friends. But write a letter and share a moment of closeness with another vulnerable human being.

ps. Talking about this on a phone call earlier it was pointed out to me that physical letters may offer the best insight into this time for future historians. At the rate of technological growth we are currently experiencing everything we put on the internet, blog posts, social media, emails, may no longer be possible to read or view in a hundred years time. So writing a letter could well be a great help to future historians.

A Strange Time

The streets are all but empty. In Bitterne Precinct near where I live there are four people waiting to be let in to Sainsbury’s and a security guard controlling the queue. I’ve seen three cars on the road and one hardened runner jogging red-faced along the path. It looks like a scene from one of those post apocalypse movies that turn up every now and then.

If you’re an extrovert this is probably going to be the toughest thing you’ve ever done. Self-isolating, even with family, has got to be a massive mental health issue for people who get their energy from social interaction. Introverts have a potential similar problem. If you are isolated in the house with your family you have very little personal quiet time. You could, literally, have people in your face 24/7. It’s tough all round as we wait to see what happens next.

So how are we keeping in touch with family and friends? Well phone calls are increasing as people check in with elderly friends and relatives. Social media is coming into it’s own too. The opportunity for Facebook parties and the like are filling a social need now. Web conferencing software like Zoom is also becoming a great way for people to keep in touch. My home church has been using it for prayer meetings and it’s fun seeing all those little faces on boxes on your screen, like a home version of Celebrity Squares, and guessing who isn’t used to being on line like this.

There are a lot of options for staying in touch but I’m thinking I might go old school. Once or twice a week I might get out a pen and handwrite a letter to someone I know somewhere. Just to mix things up a little.

Stay safe

The Black Dog. (Not the pub)

So, I’m just coming back after losing 3 months of my life to a black cloud of depression. It’s an illness but unlike having a broken leg or something similar it’s invisible. No one can see your depression and it doesn’t always have an obvious cause. It’s a chemical imbalance in the brain I think, which means your behaviour and responses are somewhat outside  your control by the time you realise you are in a depression.

It’s important to talk about mental health because only by hearing about it, hearing the stories of people with mental health problems, can we hope to understand it. 

So this is my story.. I fell off the planet into a ragged, black cloud at the end of November and I’m still looking to find my way out now. My brain shut down and fear and anxiety ruled all my decisions, even the most basic like brushing my teeth, so I did nothing except take that slow slide into stygian depths. I could see no way out. At this point things have improved to the point where I can see a pin prick of light in the far distance and I’m wading through molasses to get there. Much of the time I wear my fake happy face when I have no choice but to be face to face with any representative of humanity. One small problem though and I go crashing back. I can cope when everything is going as I think it should but when it isn’t, my thoughts are a pack of black hounds chasing me down and I cannot run fast enough to avoid or escape them. Forgive me if I get a bit wordy but it’s hard to describe depression and how it feels unless you’ve been there. 

Anyway, a major bout of depression and anxiety hit me. I’d say it came from nowhere but in hindsight all the warning signs were there. If you’ve ever done those tests they give you at the doctors for depression and anxiety, my scores fell the tiniest bit short of being defined as a nervous breakdown. I was shaking and sweating and unable to form a coherent sentence. Getting out of bed was a major achievement and answering the phone or the door, walking to the moon would have been easier. Karen, my wife, made a doctor’s appointment  for me as I lay hiding under the duvet.

I saw and spoke to the doctor and that was a major trauma. The shaking was chronic, in my left hand particularly, to the point where I had to ask the doctor to fold the prescription she gave me so I could put it in my pocket. When I got home my chest was pounding, I couldn’t speak and my shaking was so bad it was like I was having a fit. I sat in the dark in the living room and got lost in my head. I sat  there revisiting recent conversations and arguments and occurrences and rewrote them in my head over and over again. That night I barely slept, maybe three hours of broken dozing until my alarm went off for the school run and I couldn’t move. I couldn’t face leaving the house or talking to people so I managed to tell Karen and then lay and stared at the ceiling, my brain still running at 90mph. Every conversation I’d  had was rerun in a hundred different ways.

I managed to get out of bed the next day but again Karen had to do the school runs. I was useless and spaced out. I couldn’t stop shaking enough to draw, one of the things that usually makes me feel better. I couldn’t concentrate to read, another favourite pastime. I ended up sat in front of Netflix with some series rolling by episode after episode. I couldn’t tell you what it was or what happened, nothing stayed with me or went in. It was just lights dancing before my eyes. That was most of December and January. Just a blur. I know I was present for Christmas but there is little I could tell you about it.

The medication the doctor prescribed was increased in that time until I reached a dose that made a difference. One of the tablets had a side effect of helping me sleep so by the end of January I was managing up to 6 hours of solid sleep a night. Function slowly returned. I did school runs, usually sliding in at the last minute to avoid having to talk to anyone at the school gate. I started making family  meals and forced myself out to go shopping. It’s very easy to become a shut in and build up the depression and anxiety even more if you continually avoid basic functions. I used the self service in the supermarket to avoid conversations as much as possible. I ate too much, comfort eating I guess, and put on weight I really didn’t need. My sleep was still poor but I was constantly drowsy during the day and would often fall asleep if I sat down.Having to deal with people would still leave me shaky and sweating with butterflies in my stomach but I was at least able to do it. Through the doctor I signed up to a CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) group course. Being in a group is hard and uncomfortable, I don’t do well in that environment when I’m at my best, but it means I’m getting some useful help. 

By the end of February I was in a position to start thinking about a gradual return to work and that’s where I am now.

If you see me and ask how I am I’ll tell you “I’m good” and I’ll probably be lying because most people don’t want to hear the truth. Maybe it reminds them of their own frailties.

Well that’s my story. Depression and anxiety aren’t a cause for shame or embarrassment, although that is often how we react. It’s an illness that can be managed. Most of the time. It really is okay not to feel okay.

Be gentle with yourself

“First Autumn morning,

the mirror I stare into,

Shows my father’s face.”

Yosa Buson.

When I was young all time seemed to stretch on forever. Summer days lasted an eternity, the 4 months between my birthday and Christmas seemed a year in themselves and the idea of ever being as old as thirty was as likely as being one hundred and thirty and seemed further away. And then you get older and all those things you thought you could fit into the forever of your childhood face the possibility of growing into regrets because we can’t fit them in around our responsibilities as adults. There are books and TV shows and podcasts and radio programmes and Instagram influencers (apparently that’s an actual thing) galore telling us how to be happy. Eat this, buy this do this, get rid of this, have more, have less, find a tribe they say, often contradicting each other and leaving our brains befuddled as we try to make sense of it all.

At the core of these promises is, I believe, one central misunderstanding about what happiness is. If you read up on the psychology of happiness, psychologists are talking about what might be better defined as a steady state of contentment, where more is going right with life than is going wrong. You and I on the other hand think of happiness as that ecstatic moment when things are just perfect. Those are great moments but if you go through life expecting to achieve that as a permanent state you are going to be disappointed. It is important to look to do things that make you happy, in both senses of the word, but seeking contentment is achievable in the long term because it requires you to allow space for the things you cannot change and the things that make you unhappy. Chasing happiness as a moment of ecstasy that lasts constantly only leads to a feeling of failure and beating ourselves up for not achieving our goal.

My wife and I are very different people in some respects, I like to be surrounded by books and my art materials, she likes everything tidy and pretty with her books on her Kindle app. If we each pushed for the thing that makes us happy we would not have been together after two years, never mind the twentieth anniversary we’ve just passed. So we have tidy spaces and book spaces. I try to tidy up after myself and she tries not to beat me when I don’t. We’ve achieved a common ground, a compromise, where we are both content.

Time does seem to go faster as you get older and we worry subconsciously that time is running out for us. and we can get far too focussed on achieving that which makes us happy but we need to learn to be gentle with ourselves, to stop striving constantly for more, for better, and to relax into contentment at times.

It is important to pursue those moments of Joy and accept those moments of sadness as a one note life of contentment could be very boring. The pursuit of happiness is a good thing The art is in finding joy in the small moments rather than searching for it perpetually. One of the things I enjoy occasionally is writing poetry. Japanese Haiku like the one at the top of the page were a doorway into poetry for me. It’s a little thing but it relaxes me with no expectation of anything to come from it. And maybe that’s the thing to seek out, small pleasures.

The Bible says in Proverbs

“Even in laughter the heart may ache, and the end of joy may be grief.”

A reminder to us that life has ups and downs and, perhaps, to set our expectations accordingly.

So seek those things that bring you joy but don’t make those your main focus. Look to be content in your life and let those moments of happiness be seasoning. Salt and pepper, that bring flavour to your world.

The Uncivil War

I work with 5 churches totalling some 250 people who cover a very broad swathe of opinion on most issues and I need to understand all sides if I’m to be able to do my job. I have opinions on the same things as most people but I tend not to share them because I don’t want to be placed in a particular group. I would rather understand all sides.

The Reverend Barbara Glasson, President of the Methodist Conference, recently sent out a statement about the state of debate in politics at this time. It followed on from a great deal of emotional name calling on both sides of the Brexit debate in Parliament, particularly the words of Boris Johnson as he found himself stymied at every turn.

https://www.methodist.org.uk/about-us/news/latest-news/all-news/statement-on-political-situation/?fbclid=IwAR3ptDIBoQBRUXqXndJg7RyVDPFw7e2OqiRlbr4l1Q6BScV_02fYi-zHk6U

Reading it got me thinking. I’m not sure if the language and behaviour in parliament is a reflection of the country as a whole or if the country is a reflection of Parliament but in many ways we have lost the ability for civilised debate. Looking at Brexit, Remainers characterise Brexiteers as racists, xenophobes or morons. Brexiteers call remainers traitors and sulking babies. Both sides, in their belief that they are correct in their aims, view the other as stupid or evil.

For every Brexiteer that wants to bring back the British Empire or believes that Brussels is trying to build a super state based on misinformation, there are thousands who have genuine and reasonable concerns about the EU and honestly believe we will be better off, recognising it may not be so in the short term, leaving and forging our own path. For every remainer who wants to hand over sovereignty and be part of a European super state there are thousands who believe leaving will do serious economic harm to our country and harm our children’s future for decades to come. Name calling will not change minds, it will entrench people in their political fox holes.

There is a lot of talk appearing about the need to build, or rebuild, community to take the place of the growing tribalism. Tribes connect people based on their large number of similarities and their animosity to those who are different. Community is willing to encompass difference in the recognition of the value difference brings.

So how do we move forward. First, we need to acknowledge that some minds cannot be changed. Some people are so entrenched in their beliefs that they will deny actual, physical, incontrovertible proof. Second, accept the possibility you may be wrong. We are talking about the outcome of things that have yet to happen. Financial modelling and the like can do a great job of predicting the outcome of events but it is not infallible. Third, be prepared to listen. Genuine fears should not just be dismissed as stupid. If you don’t listen, you cannot understand. If you do not understand, you cannot have a proper conversation. Without conversation, debate, no progress is made.  Fourth, consider others first. You may be in the perfect position if your particular side of the argument wins but what about others? At the moment there are a lot of parents with disabled children who are concerned they won’t have access to the life-saving medicine their children need. That may or may not be the case but talk of sovereignty and empire is not going to engage them if they think their children’s lives are at risk. Calling them traitors for wanting to stay in the EU is not going to win them to your cause. Many in Northern towns and cities are in favour of Leave. They feel their jobs and homes are at risk because of immigration. Calling them racist will not change their opinion.

The remain argument has largely run on appealing to facts. You can argue their accuracy but they are presenting facts. The Leave side has run mainly on emotion. It’s told personal stories about disappearing neighbourhoods and muggings and crime and laid it, fairly or not, at the foot of immigrants. Both sides, if they want to change others minds and rebuild the community of this country, need to take a leaf out of the other’s book. Remain needs to offer stories that show the human cost it believes is at stake, Leave needs to offer more reliable facts, not hyperbole, about what Britain will look like after Brexit.

The only way fences get mended is if name calling stops and people start to understand each other’s position. If we can’t do that we can look forward to everything getting worse. We can change the world from the ground up and be an example to those in parliament and elsewhere.

Dealing with Death

It’s a side affect of longer lifespans that we become less familiar with the reality of death. It’s always there on TV in action movies and police series and more but death is more a part of our entertainment than part of our everyday life.

The average life expectancy has increased by 10 years since 1970. In 1870 it was approximately half what it is now at around 40 years of age. Death is becoming less of a part of life and many of us don’t know how to talk about it or deal with it. We don’t know how to talk about what we want to happen.

I’m not suggesting death should be our focus but it’s good to give some thoughts to what you want to happen when you die, particularly when there are so many options now. “I don’t care. I’ll be dead.” is an unhelpful response at best for those who are left behind. When burials were the only option and the church ran funerals it was okay to leave things. Now there’s more burial options than you can shake a stick at, there are tree burials and green funerals and traditional burials, you can be cremated and your remains can be scattered or made into pencils or pressed into jewellery, or made into a vinyl record, or made into fireworks and the list goes on. If you make some decisions before hand family have a much easier time and can focus on grieving rather than second guessing you.

With all this in mind Swanmore Methodist Church hosted a Dealing with Death training event aimed at running pop up cafes to look at this subject and help people to have those conversations without fear or worry. The workshop was headed by Kathy O’Loughlin from the Southern and Islands Region Learning Network who started the morning with a potted history of death which was an eye opener for many who attended.

The workshop then moved into a café session where attendees were introduced to the Grave Talk cards and spent an hour talking through the varied subjects that come up on them. This worked incredibly well and some groups could have talked into the evening judging by the animated conversations going on. Finally we came back together and talked about how we could take this forward to support our congregations and the local communities. Several of the 20 or more people there mentioned ideas about how they could use the cards and the ideas they’d heard and several more were working through ideas in their heads.

It was a great morning, and as one person said “strangely relaxing”.