Lockdown Lethargy*

I typically need someone to disappoint if I’m going to get a job finished. If I have a real person relying on me to do something, and a real reason for doing it, I’ll do it to the best of my ability. I’ll stay up all night if necessary; I’ll torture myself learning how to do it perfectly; I’ll even pay for any equipment or services (Dropbox; Canva…) needed to get it done. Give me a good reason to do something, and rely on me, and I’ll generally exceed your expectations. Which would be great if I were a plumber, or a nurse, or, indeed, any kind of employee. It worked in my favour when I was doing my Master’s and when, last spring, I took on a contract to support a company to deliver a huge medical conference. But as someone who’s trying to make writing her occupation it’s slightly trickier: no one has asked me to do it, and there is no deadline. And now, with life on hold, it’s become just about impossible to convince myself to go near any of my old work, which needs editing, or attempt anything new. I am a middle-aged procrastinator and all my (metaphorical) whips have dissolved.

Until lockdown I just about managed to convince myself that my writing, if I get it right, could be important enough to work on. And to be on the safe side, and provide the possible Disappointee, I joined a group of other writers with manuscripts to hone: serious, hardworking writers all. I’d also forged links with a few local arts organisations who would contract me to run writing classes from time to time: to be able to run a good writing class, I reasoned, one has to know what it is to write in this moment. Compound these with my ongoing Literature Ambassador commission from the Wigtown Festival Company and I had a pretty solid triangle of support. The triangle still exists, of course (the writers in the group and the organisations, including the WFC) and I still don’t want to disappoint them, but lockdown (and the jolly good reasons for it) has me struggling to feel their presence. The outside world has become an abstract concept, a memory, fainter than the shadows on the wall of Plato’s Cave. The fire has gone out.

My problem as a procrastinator is I can’t work myself up to do something unless it either feels important for the greater good, and/or until it’s become really rather pressing. I clean the house only when it becomes urgent. Urgent, here, translates as: I’m expecting visitors (I think I may be part Japanese because I always want visitors to have a wonderful experience); an unpleasant smell that can’t be dealt with by burning incense and opening a window is becoming too much of a thing; or a task even less appealing, such as writing a lesson plan or doing my tax return, is beginning to assert itself. Then I spring into action and no surface is safe. At the moment the only things that feel both important and urgent are: a) the happiness of The Husband (who seems to actively prefer a grubby, shambolic house) and, b) not getting fat. So my time is divided into watching Netflix in bed with said husband, and walking like a loon round and round our local woodland hill, while listening to episodes of This American Life or, my latest favourite, Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History. I usually take my daily walk before The Husband wakes, but it’s raining this morning and I don’t think my wireless headphones will like the rain, so I’m doing this instead. Yep, walking in the rain with only myself for company is less appealing than writing a blog post about what a chump I am.

It was raining yesterday too, and I was resting a throbbing ankle, so as an alternative to physical walking I wandered round YouTube and found this:

I recognised myself instantly in Urban’s description of a procrastinator. I have a strong sense of the Rational Decision Maker (RDM) in my brain, who knows planning and slowly building a project will both get the best results, and keep me sane. But, gads, do I also have an Instant Gratification Monkey (IGM) in there! And my IGM is perfectly capable of convincing my RDM that reading about String Theory, or memorising America’s state capitals is really important for my Great Task.** That, in fact, I’m unlikely to ever be able to write the book I want to without it. When I’m doing something for someone else, or have someone who could be disappointed if I don’t complete something – my writing group and that chapter I promised I’d finish by our next meeting, for example – I have been rescued by a Panic Monster who wakes up just in time for me to get the job done well enough. Sometimes, like with the medical conference contract, my panic monster is awake from the second I agree to the task. Other times, like with my own writing, my panic monster wakes only when my RDM has become so anxious I can’t sleep. Now we’re in lockdown and I’ve become unmoored from a future that, at the best of times, has never been particularly distinct, my panic monster is in a coma. And that would probably be fine if my Rational Decision Maker was happy to just ride this out with the Instant Gratification Monkey at the helm: communing with nature and learning to distinguish the song of the blackcap from that of the garden warbler; going for long walks and delighting in the fact most of my clothes are feeling a little loose. But she’s not, she’s miserable. She wants to redraft the book on Cézanne. Actually she wants to rewrite it from the point of view of Hortense, his wife. But with the IGM firmly in control she’s withering away. And this is now affecting everything.

I’ve got to the stage where I can’t even bring myself to look at my emails. I haven’t written the blog posts I intimated I would for the community council. Hell, I can’t even be bothered to cook the rhubarb that grows in our allotment bed. I need to do something to break my lockdown lethargy and save my RDM before she commits seppuku. So I have the shadow of a plan.

I visited Urban’s website: Wait But Why to learn more about his ideas, and to see if he’s suggested any strategies to overcome the IGM. There I found a series of posts on procrastination which I think could help. I’ve taken lots of notes, drawn lots of diagrams and, with luck my RDM, who’s already perked up, can manipulate my Instant Gratification Monkey into thinking blogging about this is an easy and fun way to spend time.

Yes, I know blogging about procrastination is just another form of procrastination. That it’s not rewriting my novel, or editing any of the hundreds of short stories languishing on my hard-drive. But, at the moment it’s the only thing I’ve got. And blogging is writing, right?


Header image: Sydney Sims on Unsplash

*I owe this term to fellow community councillor, Keith. Thanks Keith!
**See Nietzsche’s autobiography, Ecco Homo.

D&G Poetry Lockdown Party – Number 19 – Eryl Gasper Dick

Hurrah, someone else asked me to answer a few questions for their own blog. Thus, I can share my own words here, without without having first tried to think of something to say. So, here are my answers to the questions: 1) What are your favourite three writers? 2) What’s your favourite place to visit in Dumfries and Galloway? and 3) Do you have any wise words about the current pandemic?

Header Image: MessyNessyChic

D&G Poetry

ERYL GASPER-DICK –

How does one choose only three writers, yikes?! I’ve spent an absurd amount of time sifting through all the writers I love and thinking about why. In the end I decided all I can do is give you the three who are exerting an influence over my own writing at the moment. They are:

Kafka, for the way he seems to manage to combine tragedy and comedy in just about every sentence. Read ‘The Burrow’ for example. To me it’s a brilliantly apt metaphor for the kind of terrified person who puts security cameras and high fences around his/her house to protect all the useless stuff s/he’s amassed. You worry for the creature even as you think it incredibly foolish. If Kafka were born fifty or so years later I reckon he’d be a stand-up.

Proust, for the way he enables you to experience all the small…

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Unlocking

It’s a month since the UK government announced lockdown. The Husband and I began our personal self isolation a week earlier on March 16, so, five weeks and counting, we’ve pretty much adapted to our new routine. The only thing missing for me is I’m not writing.

I don’t think I’m too disturbed by that; I tend to be the sort who only speaks when I have something to say, and at the moment what I thought I wanted to say has been somewhat overshadowed by events. My head is buzzing, but when I sit down in the morning with my pencil and notebook I can tease out nothing creative. All I write is what I remember of the previous day, which is often not much. But I’m keeping the faith and am sure my unconscious is still working away in the background, like an internet cookie.

When this has happened to me in the past I’ve fretted, but the writing has always returned in the end, usually once I’ve stopped worrying about it. Thus I’ve decided to chill and use this time to listen and, hopefully, learn something.

As I’ve said a zillion times before my main, perhaps only, interest is solving the problem of eudaimonia. Often translated as human flourishing, I prefer to think of eudaimonia as universal flourishing. I don’t believe humans can flourish if other things, dandelions included, don’t. We are part of the eco-system, after all. I’m still working this out, but I rather see eudaimonia as the art world’s equivalent of physics: Big Bang; String Theory; Quantum Mechanics, and all that. As teams of physicists work out the details of the how of the universe, eudaimonia needs teams of a more abstract nature. It’s a similarly long term quest, that has occupied philosophers and artist for centuries, and is far too big for one person. I think it needs all of us.

Volunteers planting trees at our local community woodland last year.

And I do mean all of us: past, present and, probably, future. That includes the guy in Michigan protesting lockdown because he just wants to be able to buy grass seed (‘I mean, come on!’), and his fellow protester who’s being driven to insanity by not being able to get her roots done. Not to mention the billionaires who are playing them. Everyone has a part in this, even if that part is just feeling that their fears and needs are understood and being taken into consideration. I think it’s got something to do with us all feeling our own equalness. I know I’m not going to be a key player here, and I’ll be long dead before the problem is close to being solved, but I hope I can add something, sometime, and am pretty sure that will be in the form of fiction: a novel, or a collection of short stories. As I don’t seem to be able to write at the moment I’m trying to absorb the creative outputs of those who have gone before me. Usually I’d do this by going to major art galleries, but as that’s not possible at the moment, I’ve found another way.**

As mentioned in the last post, I had a birthday recently, and for that birthday the Husband gave me a set of wireless headphones

Image: PC Mag **

I’d been wanting a pair since this time last year when I got a new phone that has no headphone jack. But I had no idea how much they would add to my life. They are, quite frankly, one of the best presents I’ve ever been given. They’re comfortable enough to wear for hours on end, I can roam the whole house without any interruptions to the sound or faffing with devices, and the noise cancelling means no outside interference. They are for listening what super-fast broadband is for working from home. But that’s not the best of it.

I’ve long gasped at stories of artists who are able to listen to music as they work, whatever that music is; I’ve always favoured silence. And I’m invariably amazed when some kid on University Challenge can identify a piece of classical music (and the conductor!) in point seven of a second. I assume that music has been part of their life since birth. I imagine them as toddlers padding down the stairs in the morning, entering a vast, book-lined sitting room, the sun streaming through open French windows, and Beethoven’s Pastoral emanating from pitch-perfect speakers. I didn’t have that kind of childhood, the music in our house tended to be jazz and blues (my dad) and big band (mum). My mother did lead in the church choir, and I remember marvelling at her Ave Maria on one very special occasion, but I don’t remember any classical music records in our small collection. And, I don’t know why but music, for me, has always been like maths: incredibly desirable, but way beyond my grasp. Just as I would love to understand Andrew Wiles’s equations, I would love to know Mozart. I’m extremely unlikely ever to comprehend how Wiles solved Fermat, but the headphones have provided just the ticket for getting to know Mozart, and as I type this I am listening to his Concerto No. 3 in G Major.

I don’t have a huge music collection at all, leave alone on my phone, so I decided to take advantage of Apple’s free three month music trial.*** There’s no way I’ll be able to afford the tenner a month they ask to subscribe after that, so I have three months to swim in these waters, and I’m hoping that in that time I’ll get to know as many of their currents as possible. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to name things like key changes, or even keys, but if I listen enough I reckon I’ll be able to feel them, understand them in a sensual way. And my hope is that that bodily apprehension will somehow feed my own creativity. So much of writing is, after all, about the sound of the words: the rhythms, the stresses, the timing and tone. These things convey meaning as much as simple denotation does.

I’m not writing at the moment, but because I’ve found a way to immerse myself in an art I’ve had little engagement with in the past, I’m doing the next best thing for my practice: learning.


Header image: https://pbs.twimg.com/media/Cvi_jy5XgAAMcK1.jpg

*Reading is a given.

**Note: mine are black and a slightly later version, which has Google Assistant built in. My grappling with that particular feature will need a whole other post!

***Not all good, I can only get it to play anything new on my phone. The albums appear on my computer screen (as normal), there is a ‘play’ button, but when I click on it nothing happens.

Lockdown Birthday

Last week we should have been on the Isle of Bute, celebrating my birthday with baklava*

Image from a new Syrian cafe in Dumfries: Levantine.

and views of the sea.

But, for obvious reasons, we had to cancel the trip and stay home. So, instead, I baked my own single serving cake (the Husband doesn’t eat cake, and I knew if I baked a big one I’d become a big one too):

Two chocolate brownies cut from a tray of them with a cookie cutter, sandwiched together with rose-water scented butter-cream, and topped with rose-water scented whipped cream. I gave (most of) the remaining brownies to a friend so I couldn’t eat them all.

and we went on a 9.5k hike.

The tangliest hawthorn I’ve ever seen!

Because it was a long walk we took a tub of hummus and some crisps with us, and it was great sitting in the sun dipping and crunching.

Having never seen the point of walking in the hills and woods that surround us here, it’s now become my salvation. Here are some random shots from the walks we’ve taken since my last post:

Cuckoo flower and the Husband (7 April)
Ghostly trees (10 April)
Tree with new but unoccupied crow’s nest (10 April, this was a super long walk!)
Flowering currant absolutely buzzing with bees (12 April)
Nothing to announce: a noticeboard in the middle of nowhere! (12 April).

Header image: a multiplicity of lichens on a young apple tree at the side of a single track road.

*Because Bute has been leaching residents for some time the local council housed several Syrian families who had fled the war. They have now set up cafes, take-aways, barbers, all sorts, and I can’t think of anything better than a Scottish island full of mediterranean food outlets.

The Daily Walk Continues

This is going to be mostly pictures because my right hand gets really sore when I type at the moment. Bloody rubbish for a writer.

Sunday’s Walk

On Sunday we broke with tradition and, instead of our usual tramp up Gallow Hill we went to the nature reserve. Actually it’s two nature reserves: one belongs to the Wildlife Club, and is very pretty and neat, the other is the Community Nature Reserve, and is somewhat wilder. But they are side by side, and the Wildlife Club has two of its members on the board of the other, so they’re almost the same thing. The lichen covered bench in the header image is just on the WC side of this:

At some point as we walked briskly along we saw a hare flash past. Later we heard a stock dove (the Husband saw it too, but I didn’t have my glasses on so it just looked like a fuzzy pigeon), apparently they’re quite rare in these parts.

On the way home we dropped into our local supermarket for supplies. We were almost out of milk, our fruit-bowl contained only two wizened oranges, and the Marmite jar was empty. How often is too often to go out to get food? I mean what is a good balance between hoarding and going out? At the moment we’re almost managing to last two weeks between shopping trips, but it’s my birthday next week and I’d quite like to be able to get something nice to cook. And maybe some cream to eat with the cake I plan to make. And maybe a bottle of something that sparkles. Would that be risking lives for my own selfish pleasure seeking?

Anyway, back to the walks!

On Monday we did go up the hill, but only to go over the top and out the back gate into a field, past some sheep, through another gate, and out onto a track. We could have gone left, into a forest (unnatural plantation, like a tree factory) but turned right and came to this rather nice spot.

On Tuesday we did the same thing, only at the track we turned left into the forest. We walked through that for a bit, then climbed over a fence (barbed wire and everything!) and out into a bog. It was a very bouncy walk. And then we came to this:

I do like a cleavage.

This was our longest walk yet, we normally do about four kilometres, but this was over six. By the time we got home I thought my hips were going to seize up so, rather than encourage that by sitting down, I made scones. It worked, after pottering about in the kitchen for half an hour they loosened up, and no stiffening occurred.

Wednesday we bypassed the hill, again, and took in Jenny’s view:

and a forest of larch trees with tiny, neon green buds dotting branches still garlanded with cones. We inadvertently disturbed a raven who started flying about madly and calling its warning. They are nesting at the moment, so we didn’t hang around too long.

The Husband was not amused at this tree’s having been newly cut down. That blob of twigs is a nest that will no longer be able to home the bird who built it.
The view of Moffat so beloved of Jenny.
Contender for door of the year.
Granddaughter, Charlotte (nearly 7!), was delighted to be ‘April Fooled’ by this photo I sent via WhatsApp.

Thursday was too windy for me so we didn’t go out for our daily exercise. Instead I tried to grind cacao nibs finely enough to flavour a cake. It didn’t work.

Today we are going to try something entirely different, walk-wise; if I can still function afterwards I’ll at least share some photos.


PS: Having been utterly unable to buy any paracetamol since this crisis took hold, I searched online and found a supply, it arrived the next day, in a plain card box. We now have enough for one person for five days, I’m hoping that will get us through.

Lockdown

As I said in my last post I seem to be having trouble concentrating on anything and am, thus, feeling a bit useless. My routine, which I prize amongst all things, isn’t serving its purpose. Or should I say, I’m not serving its purpose? I still get up at six, make coffee, and come straight to my work-room where I pick up my notebook and pencil, but the usual exciting spillage of ideas onto the pages isn’t happening. Instead I jot down something about the latest news and then sit and stare until my coffee goes cold.

I’m rather hoping that now we’re in lockdown in Scotland, with all non-essential movement prohibited, I’ll settle. Not because the prohibition of movement is something I’ve been longing for, but because knowing what I can and can’t do usually anchors me. I can make decisions when I know where I am, even if that’s a really bad place. I suspect that goes for most people: it’s not knowing; not knowing what you can and can’t do; not knowing what’s coming; not knowing what’s next and if it’s going to hurt or not, that drives us nuts and makes us act out of character. I think last week I was grieving for my normal, now I know it’s gone for the foreseeable future I actually feel better. I can make some plans, even if those plans are only what to have for supper.

Wild Garlic and Spaghetti image and recipe here.

As one walk (or cycle or run) for daily exercise is allowed Husband and I decided to add ‘daily walk’ to our routine*. Normally we exercise separately: he by donning waders and going fishing, me by jumping up and down on a trampoline for an hour. But, as it means being out of the house for most of the day, we assume fishing is off limits now. So walking together up Gallow Hill feels like a good compromise, and we’re hoping it will allow us to experience the arrival and development of spring to the full.

This is the bottom of the field beside the Rooty Path that leads up to the hill, I love that wood pile.

We had our first foray yesterday, it was freezing at the top, freezing and windy, but we saw buzzards displaying, and a pair of ravens flying overhead. We haven’t seen ravens over Gallow Hill before so are hoping they’re nesting nearby and we’ll see a whole family of them this summer.

We also saw a dunnock, a wren, and heard a coal tit singing. Today we saw jays and heard a chiffchaff (our first migrant of the season), and wandered down to Tank Wood on our way home to pick wild garlic. So we not only got a good bit of exercise, we also got dinner, and we only saw two other couples and a lone dog walker, all of whom were way more than the recommended two meters away. I think this is the way forward.


*Which also includes watching an episode of The Good Place every morning, in bed, with coffee, once Husband’s awake.

Header image: John Salvino on Unsplash

I Need a Haircut & Other Whinges

So, here we are then, all stuck inside waiting for the beast to sniff us out and come knocking on the door disguised as a friendly neighbour or lost delivery guy. We get a lot of lost delivery guys (both male and female) round here, hoping someone will know where the final package in the boot of their hatchback belongs. So it’s only a matter of time. Two people in this region have been bitten already, and now the predator is here I expect it’ll hang around until it’s done as much damage as possible. The thing is, what to do in the meantime?

Image: Bailey Torres on Unsplash

Since the start of the year I’ve been happily ensconced in my workroom working on the basics of my craft. To help me I have a stack of books: my old and much thumbed Oxford Thesaurus of English; an Oxford English Dictionary; a 2011 Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (much recommended!); Garner’s A Dictionary of Modern American Usage (ditto!); an Oxford Modern English Grammar; and the international edition (10th) of A Glossary of Literary Terms by MH Abrams and Geoffrey Galt Harpham. Every morning, in the light of one or several of these books, from six til ten, I examine sentence construction, both by looking at the sentences of favourite writers/books, and by making up my own. I’ve been having a ball.

Where I feel I am when I sit with a pile of books working on cleft constructions (image:  Clay Banks on Unsplash)

Last week I was in schools teaching imaginative writing to five-thirteen year olds for four days, but I still worked on those sentences before having to go out. I set my alarm for five in order to do so. By the time I got home each afternoon (fourish) I was so tired all I could do was stare at my feet till bed time. But I couldn’t imagine not doing a couple of hours of my own work every morning, it was more important than eating breakfast. This week, however, things have changed. This week, now it’s become eye-wateringly clear that the monster is here and it’s going to get us, and we’re all being advised to self-isolate to ‘flatten the curve,’ I can’t concentrate on determinatives or positive paucal indefinite pronouns.

Yesterday we went out and stocked up on frozen vegetables and tinned sardines, and it felt like the last time I’d be able to leave the house for some time. As I rarely leave the house you’d think this wouldn’t be a problem, but it seems it is, I don’t quite know why. I like my own company; I like sitting here all day trying to solve the problem of getting a minor character from one place to another; I like idly picking up a book and losing hours trying to decide which is the Head Phrase in a Kafka sentence. But I can’t seem to do any of those things right now.

Image: Jon Tyson on Unsplash

Right now I feel oddly compelled to stay informed – which means I’m losing hours trawling Twitter and Facebook leaving little hearts on community minded posts – and to bake. If I had all the ingredients, instead of doing this, I’d be making lemon polenta cake, or chocolate cream pie, or something with apricots and brandy and bitter almonds. Or plums:

Or up in Glasgow getting a haircut. ‘I badly need a haircut’ is something I say at most twice a year, and only then if I need to go somewhere where people are. The last time was early December when I had to go to London for my aunt’s funeral, and I realised just in time that I’d probably offend all my relatives if I turned up looking like that! Generally my personal appearance has ceased to be a priority.* But at the moment the length of my hair is driving me nuts, it feels not just too long, but too wide, it keeps getting in my face. I keep fantasising about a Claire Underwood crop.

Image: Pinterest

I think I may be reverting to stereotype…

But how are you? What are you doing to fill the time between now and the vaccine?


Header image:  engin akyurt on Unsplash

*as long as my weight stays where I like it, when that goes up I become freakish!

It’s Arrived!

It’s difficult to know quite how to greet 2020, on the one hand I had a great 2019 which makes me excited for the new decade, on the other the human race seems to be committing mass suicide, which makes me anxious. Australia is burning; it feels like fascism has gripped the world like a gigantic leach; the UK is self aborting. It almost feels selfish and self indulgent to keep on trying to write my ridiculous stories. But what else can I do?

Bugger, this was meant to be a cheery Happy New Year post, and I do wish happiness on all of us. Maybe self-indulging in creative activity is the best way to centre one’s self and, therefore, not fall apart. Maybe not falling apart is about as much as one can do at the moment. Maybe writing stories, which is really a form of problem solving, is the way I’ll get to be of some use in the future. Who knows? But as it’s the method by which I work things out it’s probably my best hope.

Do you have any plans for this new decade?


Header image:  yukari harada on Unsplash

Merry Christmas to You!

Dave and I have taken ourselves off to the Isle of Whithorn this year, it’s marvellously bleak, and we’re in a very cosy little chalet surrounded by the sea. We arrived yesterday, and today we went walking to St. Ninian’s cave. Here are a few photos:

Wishing you all the best possible festive season, many delightful gifts, and the ability to eat richly without feeling nauseous!

On Doubt

I have no idea what’s going on, England has just given a man who seems like evil incarnate a mandate to do whatever he wants. Figures seem to show that child poverty is rising; that more and more homeless people are dying; and that the Tory policy of austerity is demonising our most vulnerable. Yet, yesterday, the people of England and Wales voted overwhelmingly to give the Tories a mandate to keep at it. To keep selling off bits of the NHS; to keep marginalising the disabled; to keep hoarding resources for the very rich by stealing them from the very poor. To keep distancing us from our neighbours and friends in Europe. Have I missed some crucial piece of information? Or misunderstood some fundamental point? None of this makes sense to me, I mean, why is more horror what zillions of people want?

I can’t help wondering if I’m evil? Is my wanting a fully functioning welfare system a sign, not of compassion, but of cruel egotism? Is my ideology of an inclusive society of equals, no matter who you are or where you come from, not the way to achieve eudaimonia, but the way to destroy the human race? Have I spent the last fifty plus years living the wrong life?

Questions, questions. I probably sound absurdly melodramatic, but fuck me, I’m totally confused.


Header image: close-up of an interesting section of Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus – Homer’s Odyssey: Turner, taken by me at a recent visit to the National Gallery in London. You can see their image of it here.

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