A post I never thought I’d write: when cancer arrives

I’ve been a healthy person all my life. I’ve only ever been hospitalised very briefly when I was able to give birth naturally to my two boys, and then last summer when I somehow contracted bacterial meningitis. I thought the latter was the defining health crisis of mid-life.

So you can imagine my surprise when, at the end of July, I was diagnosed with stage 3 bowel cancer.

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I took the diagnosis pretty well, I think. I was prepared for it. I knew cancer was a possibility for some of the symptoms I experienced – the urge to go to the bathroom and then difficulty doing so, followed weeks later with blood. I watched the colonscopy screen as the 3cm tumour loomed into view, partly blocking the tunnel that was my large intestine, like a mountain range rather than the smooth capsules of a polyp.

I have my moments though: the thought of not being here for my boys (now four and nine years old). The thought of not keeping my contract to them to help them grow up. The idea I might not be there for them as the person and place in the world that loves them for who they are unconditionally. The fear and guilt of being forced to abandon my post.

There is no way to soften the blow of these thoughts, except to say to myself we are not there yet, and research the statistics that give me hope.

I’ve also been surprised at the moments that pang out of the blue. Usually these are when I remember myself as a younger woman – distracting myself and passing the time before the latest scan result or waiting to start treatment, and realising I’m leaning on the same tactics I used while waiting for my babies to enter this world. I was so young then, looking forward to an event that would be painful, but for the best possible outcome that I desperately wanted and looked forward to.

Now I wait impotently and impatiently for more painful experiences (in my case, surgery and possibly chemotherapy), in search of comfort and healing that will restore me to the person I was and the life I desperately want to keep living.

Feel the feelings

I made the mistake of trying to power through, after I first learned that treatment will not be swift. The NHS guidelines for treatment times from the point of urgent referral (62 days, or two months) or the diagnosis (31 days) are both outside of my reality after delays at my local hospital, and there’s nothing I have been able to do about that. When the reality hit, I cried and then tried to pretend all was normal.

But actually, the best thing I could do was go to bed early and cry. I cried until my body shook. That was what I needed.

Sometimes, we have to allow ourselves the chance to feel what we’re feeling. Sometimes what we’re feeling seems ugly to us, or a bad reflection of who we are (anger, envy, resentment…we’re taught not to indulge these in particular). Not wallow, not swallow, but feel. Only then can we honestly process it and move forward.

As the Observer’s resident agony aunt, Philippa Perry wrote, “You cannot scold a child out of a tantrum, nor yourself from feeling grief.”

In my case, a couple of bad days gave me clarity and I’ve pursued a referral to a different hospital. I couldn’t be happier, and my treatment is on track.

Smiling beneath the mask as I start my care at University College London Hospital

More than that, I’ve given myself permission to feel what I feel. Feelings are not permanent, and they do not define who we are, but they are real and valid and we need to accept them rather than resist them.

Seek enjoyment and connection and let go of what’s out of your control

The day after my down-and-out crying, I enjoyed taking the kids to the library, where we all picked out some books. I got a feel-good easy read for myself. We walked and talked and came home to read together.

The next day, I had no energy. The stress and emotional strain of the previous two days and the cumulative loss of sleep from restless nights knocked me flat. I took a much-needed nap while the kids got extra screentime. I still had no energy, but I had booked myself a swimming lane for 2pm, so at 1:30 I was packing my bag and changing into my swimsuit, wondering if I should just cancel.

That swim was glorious. Feeling my body move through the blue water, the air moving in and out of my lungs, and the water lapping around me lifted my spirits and my energy levels. The physical exertion helped move the trauma of not being listened to and not being told the whole truth by the clinical team through my body. I think I left the worst of it in the chlorinated water.

I also rebelled against the same clinical team by going to the grocery store and picking out foods I wanted to eat. I’ve been instructed to go on a low fibre diet, so have not been able to eat any fresh fruit or vegetables in a month. I’ve been limited to maybe a juice or two a day, and a tinned fruit if I’m lucky. Me, who usually eats plenty of whole fruit and veg every day, has been surviving on pot noodle, white bread, and corn flakes.

Supposedly this low fibre diet is supposed to help avoid bulking up that could cause a blockage in my bowel where the tumour is, but the diet change my symptoms have been worse and I genuinely think it’s affecting my mood and energy.

I bought myself a juicer and stocked up on the celery, kale, apples, ginger, oranges, lemons, cucumber and beetroot I’m craving. I got a selection of soups packed with vegetables and spices, and even some yellow squash and cavolo nero to go with my sticky marmalade tofu and fried rice for dinner, and okra for adding to stews.

It might sound infintismally small, but having food I love, a book to engage my imagination, and time with my kids (when they weren’t fighting with each other…for once) was a lift to my spirits. The feeling of freedom whilst swimming was an antidote to the lack of choice I had in my healthcare.

That doesn’t make the lack of choice at the time okay, but it meant a break from misery with a feeling of joy and pleasure. It helped to know I was taking care of myself, even if I didn’t feel others were.

This has, I admit, been a hard one for me. The thing I want to control the most is my treatment and ultimate survival, and that’s where I had the least control.

There is still a lot I cannot control, and that still bothers me. But accepting what that is has helped me figure out new ways to move forward, new things that I can control.

I will try to keep posting my experience of cancer, alongside working, parenting, and living a happy, fulfilling life. I expect challenges, as I’ve already found, and hopefully can learn and grow myself in this process, and share anything I learn along the way.

A response to war

It’s hard to believe that two years ago we were preparing for a global pandemic, stockpiling loo roll and pasta.

A few months later, we would watch a Black man murdered in the street by the police as he called for his mother and said, “I can’t breathe.”

Thirteen months ago, I watched in horror with the rest of the world as a mob of right-wingers stormed the Capitol in my mother country.

Whilst still recovering from these, we now read stories of Ukranian parents trying to explain war to their children while they try to settle to sleep in underground Metro stations amid the moan of air raid sirens, as young men are called to arms and prevented from fleeing to safety.

To centre ourselves in the midst of all of this is quite rightly felt as a self-indulgent privilege and a disservice to the people who have the most to suffer in times like these. But to feel nothing as we witness these atrocities is inhuman.

So what do we do? What can we do? Or perhaps more precisely, what do we do when there seems little we can do?

Continue reading “A response to war”

Ripples

We’ve all heard of the butterfly effect, familiar with the way a single action can ripple through our lives and well beyond. I’ve treated this rather coldly and academically, like something that happens in theory to other people, not me. That comes from big actions, like election results or seismic shifts. But recent experience has me thinking again.

Here’s a long story short of this phenomenon:

  1. Afghanistan falls under Taliban control.
  2. There’s an influx of Afghan refugees to the UK.
  3. This leads to a groundswell of support from the British public, mostly in the form of clothing and goods donations.
  4. A charity I work with is inundated with donations and needs volunteers to help sort through them.
  5. I head to the tube station to pull a shift sorting donations on a random Friday afternoon.
  6. On my way, I spot what seems like a stray dog, and fall in love with her. I am ready to adopt her or at least foster her until I can find her owners, right before finding her owners’ neighbour. I hand her over.
  7. I can’t stop thinking about this dog, until I convince my family to adopt a dog.
  8. Lucy now sleeps in her bed next to me while I write this, happy in a family home after years of racing. She’s sensitive, nervous around other dogs, and very sweet with people. She loves being outside, even just sitting there listening to the birds.

My husband and I sometimes joke about our ‘fall of Afghanistan’ dog, because were it not for that, I wouldn’t have been walking to the tube at that time of day, would not have met that dog, would not have had the desire to add a dog to our family rekindled.

The thing is, it doesn’t take much.

Continue reading “Ripples”

Activism and parenting

Okay, I’ve gone quiet here.

It’s actually because I’ve been heavily involved in a lot of activism work outside of my coaching. Mutual Aid, refugee support, befriending, writing letters to pen pals in prison, writing letters to educators and lawmakers. That kind of thing.

Why am I talking about that here, on a blog about happiness and parenting?

Well, the two things do go hand in hand. Here’s a few ways how they do:

  1. We are human beings, not just parents.

One of the big happiness pits for a lot of parents is not having the space to be whole people. But we don’t check ourselves at the door when we are first endowed with that sacred name of mother or father in the precious mouths of our children.

And part of being human is having passions. It’s about being part of a community. It’s caring about the world. And it’s having a purpose. Our children are of course a huge purpose, and give a lot of purpose and meaning to our lives. But our children don’t have to be are only purpose.

2. Our children are human beings, too, not just our children.

Linked to the above, to be someone else’s sole purpose is a LOT of pressure. So if my purpose is entirely wrapped up in my kids, that sets a lot on their shoulders to buoy me and give me purpose.

3. We impart a LOT to our children by modelling.

A friend once told me how he could see his angry face reflected back to me in the face of his young daughter, and how weird/unsettling/funny it was. And wow, I get it now I have my own kids. I hear my EXACT expressions, tone of voice, and see my exact facial expressions in my kids, and sometimes it makes me uncomfortably self-aware.

But it can also be a great thing. So my children and I have often talked about current events, racism, compassion, and community, but I think they have learned so much more from watching me.

My activism is 100% part of my parenting. For every meeting of my anti-racism group, for every befriending phone call I make, for every financial contribution I make, and for every letter I write to someone in prison, I am showing my kids that everyone needs to keep learning and un-learning… that all humans deserve kindness and friendship… that money is not for hoarding and that we need to distribute it so everyone has enough… that we are all human and we all are in community with one another.

And alongside them knowing that they are seen, known, and loved, just as they are, these lessons are some of the most important things I can teach them.

Frankly, EVERYONE deserves to be seen, known, and loved, just as they are. Not just my kids. Not just your kids. And that’s what activism and mutual aid and reparations is all about.

If you’re interested in talking about some activism work, or getting involved, there’s an exciting project I’m supporting and I would love to invite you to get involved. It’s a Black-led project to buy and run a farm, healing centre, arts space, and school.

You can donate here: https://givebutter.com/40AcresAndASchool/alisonmccants

And for every £20 donated, I’m happy to offer a FREE 45-minute coaching call. Just let me know when you’ve donated and how best to reach you, and we can arrange a call to have 45 minutes of space JUST FOR YOU.

Somehow, someday, somewhere: a parent’s response to It’s A Sin

Like many people, I’ve been watching Channel 4’s new series, It’s a Sin. And…wow, does it pack a punch. And there’s an added layer of reflection for parents, I feel.

If you haven’t seen it or heard of it, it’s the new series from writer Russell T Davies following the lives of a group of friends in London from 1981 to 1991 as they navigate the torrential waters of the early HIV/AIDS epidemic.

So yeah, if you know anything about that era and the generation that bore the brunt of stigma, discrimination, and misinformation during a public health crisis, you know it will be an emotional viewing.

But watching it, I couldn’t help but see each character not just as myself, as a dear friend, as a brother, but also as a child of mine. And it was so. bloody. hard to see these young people going off into the world set up like lambs for the slaughter, when all they wanted was to be happy.

Continue reading “Somehow, someday, somewhere: a parent’s response to It’s A Sin”

This is going to be uncomfortable

This is not a post about being happier. If anything, it marks an uncomfortable journey I’m on as I examine my part to play in the wider world, and particularly as an ally to the Black Lives Matter movement.

What I’ve done: I’ve read up on some of the lesser known parts of US history, such as the Kirk-Holden war (which is really WTF territory – thank you to Michael Harriot of The Root for the heads up). I’ve donated to several bail funds and charities supporting the movement. I donated to the GoFundMe for Breonna Taylor’s family on what would have been her 27th birthday. I watched footage of protester after protester getting their first amendment rights trampled on: a grandmother shot between the eyes with a bean bag pellet (she may lose an eye). A 20-year-old student shot in the head when police shot the wrong person (he faces a long recovery and brain damage). A 75-year-old man’s skull cracking, heard from across the street, when police push him and walk past. A community organiser shot in the groin with rubber bullets when he tried to de-escalate a protest (he and his wife don’t know if they’ll be able to have children now). And many others, from journalists, to medics, to children being tear-gassed. You’ve probably seen them, too.

And I read.

I read about George Stinney, Jr, who was executed in 1944 when he was just 14 years old, for murders he may well have had nothing to do with. Don’t google his name unless you are ready to see the photos of him tearfully pleading his innocence as they strap him into the electric chair. He was the only black person in the courtroom when he was convicted. Even him mother couldn’t sit behind him or hug him after the guilty verdict.

I read about Kalief Browder, held at a detention centre at Riker’s for nearly three years (2010-2013) awaiting trial for a burglary he again may well have had nothing to do with. He was assaulted by officers and other inmates (there is footage of these assaults; I cannot watch). He attempted suicide while being held there and finally succeeded two years after his release. He was 22 years old when he died. His mother visited him every week, bringing him fresh clothes as the prisoners had to wash their own clothes in buckets that left rust marks on them.

I watched a video of a young man lying prone in his own front yard while police officers held him at gunpoint (May 2020). He had allegedly run a stop sign. His grandmother came to stand beside him to to deescalate a situation where her grandson might be shot. Women’s voices can be heard screaming for the police to lower their guns as the young man is clearly terrified. The fear in his own voice, and his family’s voices, is chilling.

And I am filled with shame that as a mother, I haven’t done more to help the Black Lives Matter movement. Because I can relate to each of these women, and the anguish they’ve gone through, not because I’ve ever been treated so detestably for the colour of my skin, but as a mother who knows what it is to love your children.

Sure, I have tried to eradicate racism in my own life. I had vaguely, notionally supported Black Lives Matter. But I had hesitated too much, too long, when I heard of a black person’s life taken by the police. I assumed another side to the story. I believed, even partially, in the police statements.

Sadly, it took watching the police issue statements that were shown to be bald-faced lies by video footage from other protesters to make me realise how readily I had trusted the establishment to tell the truth. It took seeing these atrocities happen in just about every state, in many different cities, to truly show me the ‘few bad apples’ defense was not nearly good enough, and that people would be suffering intolerably as we shrugged and held up our hands, as if to say, “What could we do?”

I was listening to a podcast just now, an interview between Krista Tippett and therapist and trauma specialist Resmaa Menakem as they discussed race (incidentally, in Minneapolis, just before lockdown). Among the many, many things he said that struck me, he said:

“…this idea of being able to land this race question in a way where white people are uncomfortable is a fallacy. It’s performance art.”

Resmaa Menakem
(in the On Being podcast here.)

So sharing my reflections, my reading from the past few days, and writing this raw post now, is part of moving into that zone that is distinctly uncomfortable. I need to ask why I haven’t done more. I need to reflect on that connection I feel to these mothers who have had to train their black sons to play the game so they don’t die in a stop-and-search. I need to go beyond book clubs and performative gestures that make me feel better about being a white woman in a white man’s world. I feel I owe it to those mothers, who could be me, and those boys, who could be my boys, but for the fact of our skin, and our histories.

Black Lives Matter.

A vector of peace

We hear the word vector now in the context of disease. A vector for the virus. Today, I found myself thinking of peace and progress, and questioning what I am choosing to spread.

The questions were sparked by a thought as I was out running. In the bright sunshine at my local park, I was trying hard to maintain adequate social distancing – a minimum of 2 metres, and aiming for more like 4 metres given I was running and breathing more heavily. Most people were very consciously distancing themselves, though a handful of people were walking in groups on the broad paths that usually can be shared whilst maintaining minimum distancing.

As I ran through thick un-mowed grass to avoid one of these groups, I mentally remarked that wearing a denim skirt and flip flops mean you probably weren’t really exercising.

But then I examined the thought. How judgemental it was. How it exposed the very sense of entitlement that has been frustrating me when noticed in others. What right did I have to decide what constitutes exercise? Or indeed, to swallow while the idea that physical exercise was legitimate and simply being in sunshine and nature somehow less so? I’m a huge proponent of mental health, and readily acknowledge my own physical exercise is primarily a mental health preserve as a physical one.

Of course, I had not acted yet upon this thought. I cast no dirty looks and posted no moans about “some people” on Facebook. But I had judged. And in doing so, I was at risk of becoming another vector, not of disease, but of judgement, ill will, and self-importance.

I say all of this not condemning myself. If you’ve had these feelings and thoughts, I do not condemn you, either, and would urge gentle acceptance and acknowledgement for both of us. We cannot control what thoughts occur in our brains, so the flicker of a thought is not in itself the issue. I feel frustrated and angry at a lot that is happening right now, from people endangering others by not following social distancing, to wider forces at play that are prioritising self-interested individualism over collective cooperation, and those are fair to feel. Judging myself harshly is yet another judgement.

No, instead I am now moving beyond that thought to ask myself, how can I be a vector of peace?

I feel outrage right now, which does not feel very peaceful. I do not feel peaceful when looking at white men armed to the teeth protesting against public health measures designed to protect the most vulnerable from a painful and lonely death. I do not feel peaceful watching world leaders gambling with people’s lives, purporting to protect notions like “economy” or “industry” with decisions that endanger people or take away their rights to protect themselves against the virus. I do not feel peaceful sniggering to myself as a see a meme about Karens. I do not feel peaceful as I mutter under my breath when the neighbours yet again have people not from their household visiting and laughing in the garden.

I also do not feel like a vector of peace when I see a black man killed in the street because, in the best case scenario, someone made a mistake and poor judgement and got carried away trying to be a vigilante. To be a vector of peace means to be promoting peace and goodness in the world, not shrugging at the injustices we see.

There is something radical in being a vector of peace. It is active, not passive. Forceful, but not coercive. Powerful but not overpowering. Peace, but not appeasement.

So I know what it isn’t, but what does being a vector of peace look like?

To help me work through this and bring more peace into my life, my actions, and the world, I’ve started using this acronym:

P Protect. Protect people who are in danger, who are vulnerable, at risk, dis-privileged, and/or otherwise unable to stand up for themselves.

E Empower. Work to provide a voice for the disenfranchised rather than speaking for them wherever possible. Take actions in the areas you can control.

A Act. Take simple, concrete steps to do something.  Sign a petition, write a letter to your MP, donate, volunteer, fundraise, vote.

C Calm / Care. Remain calm and take care of yourself. If you’re not calm, it’s easy to let anger or even hate influence action. Self care is important in peacemaking, so taking a moment to understand – without being driven by and without judging – emotions at play can help maintain peace as the goal.

Educate. Keep informed, check sources, look at the issues from all angles. Particularly understand the root causes behind the other side’s actions; understanding their unmet needs can help find sustainable solutions for the future. Note: understanding does not mean endorsing or accepting.

P E A C E

I’m learning to apply these principles in my own life with my family and friends, and on a wider scale in helping others and the world of politics. It is on a variety of scales that we can be vectors of peace.

What ways are you working for peace in this time of upheaval and stress?

Living on pause

Some advice from Bertrand Russell about overcoming the fear of death, that I struck me in the existential dilemma of facing a global pandemic:

“The best way to overcome [the fear of death] – so at least it seems to me – is to make your interests gradually wider and more impersonal, until bit by bit the walls of the ego recede, and your life becomes increasingly merged in the universal life. An individual human existence should be like a river—small at first, narrowly contained within its banks, and rushing passionately past boulders and over waterfalls. Gradually the river grows wider, the banks recede, the waters flow more quietly, and in the end, without any visible break, they become merged in the sea, and painlessly lose their individual being.”

Using Russell’s river analogy, many of us are in the rushing past boulders phase of life. And suddenly, our waters are still. Even momentarily, even if only for a few weeks or months, the rhythm of our lives has abruptly changed and we’ve had no real say in the matter.

Russell’s advice about how to grow old feels relevant because we are all facing our own mortality right now. We are facing our impotence to change the situation. And we are seeing the pace of our individual lives changed to something unrecognisable to that which we had chosen for ourselves. We are, in many ways, facing an accelerated glimpse into our own ageing and death. We are living out an existential experiment of sorts.

Wider interests that help the walls of the ego recede also help the physical walls we find enclosing us recede. I have found this in recent experiences of contemplation, reading poetry, and learning to play the guitar. The more time I spend beyond myself, the more time I enjoy free from the knowledge that I am not in control of what happens to me or anyone else.

This is easier said than done. I know I’ve experienced this isolation differently from one hour to the next, in a long string of countless hours.

Sometimes I am grounded in the practical requirements of work – send this email, work on this project, do this load of laundry…

Other times I am unable to focus on much more than listening to the birds singing and feeling sun on my face as I sit in the garden…

Still others I want nothing more than to scroll aimlessly through my phone, glimpsing through self-curated posts how other people are experiencing this… 

Sometimes I feel exceptionally connected to my family as we play a board game together, and other times I feel something akin to rage coursing through me as I try to get just five minutes to myself without someone asking something of me.

So I talk about this advice from Bertrand Russell with a massive caveat, which is there are times when we lack the bandwidth to take on anything beyond our immediate. But when we can, there is an easing of tensions. To be free from my own ego, and to connect to something larger than myself, I can glimpse the painless merging with the sea that awaits all of us some indeterminate time into the future.

What interests could help you escape the walls of your ego, and the four walls of your home right now?

Not another COVID-19 blog…

So if you’re like me, you are simultaneously sick and tired of talking about COVID-19 and disinterested in anything else. Here in a suburb of London, my life is unrecognisable because of it. So I thought I’d share some of the tricks I’m learning to make this weird time in my life more manageable.

Find a new routine

We know young kids benefit from routines, but bearing in mind they are just smaller people, it makes sense to apply the same logic to ourselves. Going to bed at the same time each day, waking up, eating meals at set times – it gives shape to the day and provides a welcome feeling of normality in an otherwise anything-but-normal time in our lives.

During the week, I’ve tried this and it’s been really helpful. I wake up at the same time as usual, make breakfasts for myself and the kids, have my breakfast and coffee while watching one cycle of BBC Breakfast (making sure to turn it off when the stories start repeating). I log in at the same time for work, then break to do my PE with Joe “the Body Coach” Wickes on YouTube, work some more and get my son started on his school work at the table next to me. I am trying to eat lunch at the same time as usual and finish work on time. Then it’s dinner, baths, bedtime stories, kids asleep (at their usual time), and an hour or so of TV and conversation with my husband – much like our pre-Covid-19 lives.

Have a purpose (or several)

I’ve written previously about what psychologist Paul Donan has termed the “Pleasure Purpose Principal”, which basically says everyone needs pleasure and purpose for well-being. Different people have a different ideal mix – my husband responds well to more pleasure where I really thrive on purpose – but we all need a mix of both.

I would hypothesise that at this time, most of us could probably benefit from dialling up the purpose element, as we are in a very disempowering position, held hostage by an invisible virus. Anything we can do to counterbalance the disempowerment by feeling impactful and empowered is a great antidote. For me, I have become involved in my local mutual aid group, which partially means moderating the Facebook group and partially linking up requests with an amazing group of local people who have volunteered. I’m checking in with my elderly neighbour who is shielding. And I’m volunteering to do pro bono coaching for people struggling with this as part of a coaching collective that has formed during this crisis.

I’m also crafting my day job so I am doing specific, concrete things to help people. I work for an HIV charity, so I’ve been focused on providing reassuring information and support to our supporters, many of whom are living with HIV themselves and feeling frightened or unsettled, even if they aren’t amongst the list of people who are particularly vulnerable. But I’ve also found a sense of purpose supporting my colleagues – which is relevant for just about anyone, regardless of what sector we work in or what our companies do.

What would give your days a sense of purpose and impact right now? Maybe it’s spending more time with your kids. Maybe it’s your day job, working remotely. Maybe it’s volunteer work. Maybe it’s a creative project – to start writing that novel, paint your masterpiece, or work on that side hustle you had in mind. Don’t worry about other people and don’t judge them or yourself – focus on what will give you purpose.

Connect, connect, connect

I don’t know about you but this is reminding me that I actually really like people. I normally have to be careful about carving out time to be alone, and that’s still the case to an extent as I’m now constantly surrounded by my family. But I am also finding it helpful to be deliberate and intentional about connecting with people.

During the work week, I’m in pretty regular Zoom meetings, and have been making sure to have some chit chat in these calls. We have a workplace (i.e. Facebook for the office) that I’ve been interacting with everyday, to help replace the chats in the office kitchen.

Outside of work I’ve been busy with a WhatsApp group of two of my friends, checking in with another friend via WhatsApp, active on Facebook (which I usually eschew to a large extent), and connecting daily with the other Mutual Aid volunteers. I still skype my parents once a week. This all adds up and means I feel part of a community and connected with others.

A key part of the strategy for me has been little and often. WhatsApp and Facebook are not the same as a video call, and a video call is not the same as being together in person. So I’m trying to set up more zoom drinks and house party sessions with friends and family, which combined with the mutual aid group zoom meetings and my local Quaker Meeting via Zoom of a Sunday morning and all the WhatsApp and Facebook conversations means I have a rich and varied socially distanced social life.

How can you connect with others? Which people or communities are best to connect at more depth, like using zoom, and which are fine to WhatsApp with or interact on Facebook? Enjoy the variety – it’s horses for courses.

Interact with nature

I’m fortunate to have a garden, so during the work week I’ve made a point of taking a half hour lunch break sitting with my salad in the garden. But even without a garden or when the weather turns from the brilliant sunshine we enjoyed last week, there are ways to have nature in our lives.

You can crack the windows to allow fresh air into your home (even if it’s grey and raining). Light a natural candle or diffuse some essential oils to bring some natural smells into your space (more on this below). Enjoy plants in the home (more in this below as well). Even substitutes like natural white noises or a picture of natural settings have been shown to help people recover faster in hospitals.

On house plants: I’ve invested in more houseplants with some of the money I’m saving with our nonexistent childcare (our nursery has been brilliant and isn’t charging us during their closure, as well as the afterschool and breakfast club at my other child’s school). I’ve also replanted some of my spider plant’s babies so we have plants dotted all around the house. This helps clean the air and is subtly soothing. I also “splurged” a whopping £5 on flowers at Lidl when I did my grocery shop, so we have some beautiful cases of flowers. It doesn’t have to be much to feel quite different.

On essential oils: if you have an oil diffuser, great, but if not, you can put a few drops of oil in a mug and add boiling water (note boiling not boiled). This diffuses surprisingly well. If you have a hot plate or a drip coffee maker with a warming plate where the carafe sits, you can place the mug in that for even longer lasting diffusion.

Get into your body

Our brains are on survival mode and dealing with a lot of bizarre shit right now. Getting into our bodies and switching off our brains can help immensely.

One way to do this is exercise, which is of course healthy to do anyway. Yoga with Adrienne or PE with Joe Wickes are both free on YouTube and require no special equipment. In the UK we’re allowed one exercise outdoors a day, so now’s a great time to get into running if you’re not already, or to cement a “run every day” routine.

But another way to get out of our heads and into our bodies is breath work and mindful meditation. I have completely fallen out of this practice, but recently trying a breathing mediation I realised I had been shallow breathing for days. The stress and uncertainty of this whole situation had meant I hadn’t been breathing as deeply and calmly into my lungs. Even a short session of mindful breathing left me feeling exponentially calmer.

A quick way to breathe mindfully: breathe in and out normally and naturally. Don’t force your breathing. Pay attention to the feeling and sensation of the in breath, where it switches from in breath to out breath, and the sensations of the out breath. When you notice you’ve been distracted by thoughts (more “when” than “if”), return to the sensations of the breath. That’s it. Do that for as long as you can.

Be kind to yourself

Lastly, be kind to yourself. This is stressful. We’re in unprecedented times. We’re balancing home schooling, parenting in challenging circumstances, and working our day jobs with kids (sometimes literally) underfoot. It’s a global situation – there is nowhere to go that isn’t affected, or won’t be soon. That’s a challenging situation to be in.

We may need to nap during the day, or take it easy when we get the chance. Despite best laid plans to do loads of online courses to better myself during this time, or read more books, or watch better television as opposed to rewatching episodes of Brooklyn Nine-Nine (or now, Tiger King – oh my lawd!), I am often spent at the end of the day. I just want to switch off and scroll mindlessly through Facebook. During my lunch breaks out in the garden, I’ve found myself unable to do more than look at the signs of spring and listen to the birds. I’m feeling tearful less frequently than week 1, but am still choked up about once a day.

This is okay. Do what feels good. Pay attention to what does not feel good. We’ll get through this.

Fullness, not busyness

Recently, I’ve been reflecting a lot on how I can do more: I want to help others and the planet. I want to be present for my kids. I want to work at and enjoy my marriage. I want to invest and find comfort in my friendships. I want my work to be meaningful and impactful. But how to do it all?

Some people choose a word or a motto as their theme for the year, a sound bite rallying cry instead of self-punishing resolution. Early in January, as I ran laps around my local park listening to a podcast on the subject, I tapped into this desire to do and live more, but found it tricky to find the right work to encapsulate it. “More” was a contender, except that it implied too much plate-spinning, cramming my days with even more. I also considered “nourishing,” but it suggested holing up in a spa, not getting out there and doing more.

I settled on the word “fuller” as a mantra. I wanted to live a fuller life. Fuller doesn’t necessarily mean more. Eating a healthy, appropriately sized meal can be more fulfilling than consuming a load of empty calories. “Fuller” brings with it the challenge of considering something before declining, pushing myself out of my comfort zone and being willing to dream bigger.

In practice, it has spurred me to sign up for a half marathon for the charity Terrence Higgins Trust, nearly eight years and two kids since I ran my first and only half marathon to date. It has led me to reading different books than I usually read, making more efforts to see my friends, and taking chances at work, throwing myself into the charity I work for with less caution around preserving work-life balance and more permission (from myself, to myself) to feel ambitious and passionate.

Which leads me to last week, sitting in silence at my local Quaker meeting as the question of how I can do more good in this world sat before me. And the phrase from Advices & Queries that came up again and again for me was, “Attend to what love requires of you – which may not be great busyness.”

I’ve loved this line since I first came across it. As a mother of young kids, I appreciated that it seemed to take into account the limited bandwidth at this season in my life, often interpreting that what love required of me was very often that I focus first on my kids’ needs and wants.

But more recently, as I reflected on it, I’ve thought again about the distinction between “busyness” and “fullness”. Busyness might be the empty calories of pointless meetings, scrolling through social media, and getting sucked into the tribalism and pageantry of politics. Fullness is making an impact at work, for the cause and those around me, whilst connecting with friends and family outside of work and getting involved in grassroots political actions and informing myself for upcoming vote.

In short, busyness is draining; fullness is empowering.

What would fullness look like for you?

How is fullness for you different from busyness?