Cultivating gentleness

I ebb and flow – the tides, the Moon, hormones, the weather. Whether or not I’ve managed to sleep, whether Lily has been in a cooperative mood. Anxiety levels rise and fall, energy, motivation. Sunshine helps, the returning light after the dark of Winter. Two weeks ago I could barely function, this week has been all go; the kind of go where you’re up at 6am baking brownies for a friend’s fundraising coffee morning, dashing from the school run to the supermarket to buy Lily’s ingredients for cookery and delivering them back to school, driving back for the coffee morning, then home for the boiler guy – the latest home visit in the Help to Heat saga – back to school to pick up Ivy and drive her to therapy, quickly head to the shops to buy food for dinner, back to collect Ivy, then back to the shop to collect Lily from the bus, home to cook dinner, wash up, and then remember to pay bills and renew library books online.

I’ve made it through to what seems to be the final round of the Boiler Lottery, another phone call and another engineer sent to the house to photograph radiators and pipes. The first guy could maybe have taken the same photos himself, rather than Guy 2 being paid to do the same thing, which might mean that there’s less of an admin cost in running the scheme and therefore more money available to pay for actual boilers, but what would I know? It will have been over a month without heating or hot water before I get the verdict, at which point either my boiler will be replaced, or I’ll have to get a quote to replace it myself. The not-knowing doesn’t help my anxiety, you can meet all the criteria yet still not necessarily get the grant. A mystical points scheme is in place. My fingers are crossed, and my Mum’s knitting group appear to be holding a candle-lit prayer vigil for my boiler rather than actually knitting. If I had money, I could have replaced it weeks ago. If I have to take out credit, it will cost an extra £1000 to the total amount payable, an additional 50% of the original price. Mum recalled working as a cleaner for a woman who obviously had more money than us, and who couldn’t understand why poor people didn’t take advantage of the deals at the shops, buying in bulk or the 3 for 2 offers. “I couldn’t afford to pay the extra,” Mum explained to her. When you don’t have money, you always end up paying more. Life is a lot less gentle without that financial cushion.

Anyhow, there were two major factors to Boiler Guy’s visit. One; there was no way that I was going to re-live the mortifying experience of Boiler Guy 1, in which I had made an effort to tidy up the kitchen largely by shoving everything into other rooms, only to discover that he needed to go into every room. Every. Single. Room. All of which were a total mess. I wanted to cry. It’s hard enough having someone else in the house, but for a complete stranger to come in and go through every single cluttered, messy room, including my own bedroom, was beyond hideous. So this time round there was much panicked tidying. Sunday = emergency tidying of Lily’s room, including mending her bed which she’d broken and not told me about, and trying not to scream because yet again she had completely trashed her space. That added a considerable workload to the panic clean, but it’s made so much of a difference; what seemed entirely overwhelming last week has been tackled in a couple of days. The house is far from done, but it has at least reached a state where I wouldn’t cry if someone else saw it.

One day later though and there is a pile of clean pants on the kitchen table, a stack of Lily’s loose recipes that should have been glued into her cookery book, and a fresh round of paperwork for me to deal with. I have to accept that my home will never look perfect, but then most people’s houses don’t look like a copy of Ideal Homes either.

Two, if you’re still counting, it was a beautiful sunny day on the Tuesday and I was desperate to get outside and garden. There simply wasn’t enough time, but the longing to be gardening felt positive, a recognition that this is what I need right now, body and soul. Another round of acceptance; it’s counterproductive to set myself artificial rules or deadlines – I must get out and garden every single day – as my life just doesn’t look like that. All or nothing tends to result more often in nothing, giving up. The process of making my garden needs to be as enjoyable as the final result; cultivating gentleness as much as seeds.

Spring Healing

I did it! Finally, I gave myself permission to get outside and garden, despite the chores piling up in the house; thanks too to the comments I’ve been left encouraging me to go for it. The goal was to plant a couple of snowdrops; one I’d bought this year, and two stragglers that have survived a full year in their little pots, as well as a pretty snakeshead fritillary, Lily’s favourite flower. I managed to get out a couple of times last month to attempt to prune the apple trees at the bottom of the garden, at which point the one existing clump of snowdrops was in full bloom. This time around, the snowdrops were well and truly over, but signs of Spring were peeking out – the celandine beneath the trees, daffodils, primroses beginning to awaken. Somehow it was a surprise to see them, perhaps the snow threw off my sense of timing. Seeing the first of the primroses out brought an instant craving for primrose tea, my Springtime ritual; put 4 or 5 flowers in a mug and fill with boiling water. It’s a very subtle, slightly sweet taste that feels like drinking the Spring sunshine. I’m looking forward to my first cup, another thing to lift my spirits. If you’re going to try it, be mindful of where you get your primroses from, avoid anything that’s been sprayed, including any new plants as you’ve no idea what’s happened to them in the nursery, and don’t take too many flowers at once, leave some for the bees.

In the end, I managed about an hour and a half before grabbing a cuppa and setting off on the school run – I planted out a few things that had been sitting too long in their pots, replanted one of the tubs that sits outside the front door and gave myself permission to buy a few more little violas or similar in the next week to replant the second tub. The plum tree close to the house got a prune as the branches were getting very long and whippy. I’m not sure if I’ve done it any good or not, but it was getting too tall. I’m not even sure whether it’s actually a plum or not, maybe a damson – all I know is that the fruit wouldn’t ripen on the tree and fell to the ground still green. Maybe it’s a greengage? Maybe they’re supposed to be green? I’ll have to do more research this year.

What’s more important is that my instincts were correct; I felt so much better for having spent that time out in the sun, getting my hands dirty. Yes, I still forgot to do the other stuff I’m supposed to be doing; the important email I should have sent a month ago, the payments I should have made by now, the laundry… but hell, I would probably have forgotten to do them anyway, and at least this way I’ve got something to show for it.

Back in the House in the Sky when I didn’t have a clue where my life was heading after my marriage broke down, I vowed to follow my instincts, listen to my Soul. The first time I sat still and tried to listen to what my Soul was telling me, expecting it to involve meditation and inner peace, I was surprised to hear her clearly telling me to tidy up the back porch. We tended to use the back door as the main entryway, and the small porch/pantry/utility had become a dumping ground – things had landed there when we first moved in and just stayed put. It didn’t seem like the most inspiring thing that my Soul could say, but I went with it, clearing everything out, stripping down the ugly brown gloss woodwork, painting it all white, sorting through the stuff and reorganising the shelves. When it was done I realised the value of having followed my instincts in this way – now when we came home, we were met by a tidy, welcoming space rather than having to squeeze past the hoover, the step stool and the kids’ scooters. Previously the clutter had dragged me down whenever I came through the door, now I felt uplifted, with a kick of pride in my achievement.

Until now I’ve tried to do right. Be sensible, follow the rules, trust the System. It’s got me nowhere. Following those small whispers of Soul has proved to be the right direction every time. While I desperately want my house to be fixed up, decluttered and calm, my Soul is telling me I need to be outside. That healing is in the soil, the flowers, the wind and sky, not in sitting inside, anxious and overwhelmed, trying to summon the motivation to carry on. Healing needs to be my priority this year; healing first, organising later.

Overwhelm

How can I make a garden when there’s so much to do in the house? Time, energy, money, all are limited. The one thing I have in abundance is overwhelm. When it comes to fight or flight, I freeze. It’s taking all I have to stay on top of the regular chores, the endless cycle of cooking and washing up, laundry, the relentless school run, the demands of two teenagers, and even the barest attempt at cleaning. We’ve never properly moved in, the whole house feels cluttered and chaotic. The shower broke soon after Lily starting using it; this time I can’t really blame her as it’s probably around thirty years old. Ivy’s attic bedroom isn’t properly insulated, and I’m scared that this includes the entire loft, creating condensation, damp or rot, which accounts for the apocalyptic numbers of woodlice in her room. The boiler has stopped working on account of the snow, leaving us without central heating or hot water during the coldest week in living memory. The back porch has a leak, the back door is rotting and the front porch isn’t watertight either. There’s a list of phone calls to be made to builders, to advice lines, to doctors, school, therapists, solicitors. The car broke down – yet another bill to pay. Every time I manage to save a bit of money, whether for a financial cushion, or to put towards one of the jobs that needs doing, another bill springs up to snatch it away. Right now I want to shut the door and walk away from it all.

People get through trauma in different ways. Through the domestic abuse support group, I met women who lost their appetites due to stress. Instead, I’ve been comfort eating to the point where I’ve put on around 4 stone in as many years and most of my clothes no longer fit. I met women who combatted their anxiety by throwing themselves into the housework, cleaning late into the night. I find myself hiding from the dishes piled up in the sink, avoiding the clutter, sitting motionless on the sofa and wondering what happened to the day. Why can’t I have useful anxiety? I ask myself, berating myself for not having the “right” type of stress-response, one which would see me lose weight and gain a clean, tidy house. Occasionally I manage a burst of activity, complete one of the big projects – building wardrobes in mine and Lily’s rooms, putting up shelves in the tiny hallway. Since Lily moved in full-time last December, it’s gotten harder and harder to get anything done; the added pressure of living with her ADHD/Aspergers adds an extra level of stress and chaos. At times it’s like living with Taz, the Tasmanian Devil in the Warner Brothers cartoons, a whirlwind of mess and fury.

So how am I going to manage to create a garden when I can’t stay on top of the dishes? Without heat and hot water it’s even harder – I now have to schedule swimming each week so that we can get clean, while dish-washing means repeatedly boiling the kettle to get hot water. It’s almost impossible to dry clothes, so the amount of laundry I can get through each week is reduced to one or two loads, carefully planning the timing so as to make sure that school uniforms get priority while also hoping that no one runs out of clean pants. Ivy has developed gluten and dairy intolerances, making mealtimes more complicated. Life seems to be an endless round of school runs, shopping, cooking and washing up. When I’m in the house I feel overwhelmed by it all, not knowing where to start – especially given that the house is too small for us and that no matter how hard I work at it, the mess will take over faster than I can clean it up. The same tasks, over and over, the same nagging at the kids – can someone please put the dishes away so I can wash the next lot, you’re both supposed to cook at least one meal per week, can dishes be brought down from bedrooms, can dirty laundry be put in the basket, can people please reclaim their clean laundry and put it back in their rooms? Homework! Have you done your homework? Please don’t snack on the food I’ve bought to make dinner with. And for the love of God, can you both please set your alarms and get out of bed on time in the mornings, without me having to yell at you to get up for school every single day? I am a nag, I am a skivvy, I am a mind-numbingly boring housewife, a drudge and yet I can’t even get control of my drudgery.

There is nowhere to put the Hoover. Henry should probably live in the pantry cupboard under the stairs, but that’s where the step-stool currently resides, making it easier for everyone to reach the top shelves. So Henry sits glumly cluttering up whichever room he was last used in. He seems to symbolise so much of my struggle to get on top of things; an item we need and use but can’t find a place for in a too-small home which is chronically short of storage. With everything, the avalanche effect. In order to find Henry a home under the stairs, I’d have to clear out the entire pantry and reorganise it. In order to clear out the pantry, I’d have to clear up the kitchen to make space, and in order to do that I’d have to do a lot of sorting in the kids’ rooms, and so on. Each job is a chain reaction, and it’s hard to find the starting point. Along with the suspicion that I have undiagnosed Aspergers, I also fit the criteria for ADHD – something which feels more like a relief than a diagnosis, explaining why I find it so hard to get organised, why I can’t get started, why I never get finished. My current state of mind, the anxiety and trauma and depression, mean it’s even harder; I have no mental clarity, no focus and precious little motivation. Whichever room I’m in, I don’t know where to get started. Each item I look at either creates a fresh chain reaction of To Do’s or throws up more questions – do I need this, do I use it, where should I put it, or if I’m going to get rid of it, where should it go, should I donate it or try to sell it, how can I avoid it ending up in landfill? And all of this is only on a good day, a day when I have the energy and motivation to even try to get started. On a bad day – forget about it.

I need peace. I need order. Being out in the garden would almost certainly improve my state of mind and wellbeing, yet it’s hard to allow myself to get out there when so much needs doing inside the house – and so I end up achieving next to nothing, caught in a trap of indecision, guilty feelings and anxiety. There are days when my anxiety levels are so high that I struggle to leave the house – which includes even going out into my own garden. There are days when my sense of overwhelm is so high that it’s easier to run away, to stay out and not come home to face the laundry. At times I need to remind myself of how much I’ve achieved under difficult circumstances, that when we moved in just over a year ago, none of us had beds, or wardrobes, and every single room was piled high with boxes. I need to be kind to myself, talk to myself the way I’d talk to a friend, encouragement rather than blaming and shaming. The past few years have been so hard, without respite from the abuse and stress and anxiety. I’m gradually trying to build a new life for us, doing my best to help the kids through their own struggles while not getting any support for myself or for them. I need to accept that many of the negative voices playing out in my head were placed there by Simon, and that my home doesn’t need to be picture perfect.

Be kind. Be kind. Be kind.

For me, that might mean giving myself permission to begin my garden before my house is ready. To trust that by following my instincts, my gut feeling that creating the garden is part of my healing process, it’s more likely that I’ll find the peace and clarity that I need to get control over other areas of my life. That it’s not possible to be perfect – ever – never mind when you’re healing. That I need to follow the small breadcrumbs that my soul is trying to lay down in the forest, tiny morsels of comfort in the moonlight, before the birds of doubt swoop down and gobble them up with the drudgery of each passing day.

The Healing Garden

Good old NHS. Three times I’ve turned up begging for help as my apocalyptic divorce rained down fire, thunder and plagues of snakes on me and the children. Three times I’ve been offered counselling as a result, along with antidepressants and even a sedative to quell my panic attacks, palpitations and insomnia. The antidepressants caused eczema while fear of developing an addiction to tranquilisers made me too anxious to take the sedative on all but the very worst nights. Counselling was the only other non-itchy, non-addictive option.

God knows I could still do with more sessions but I’ve been warned that it’s ultimately not helpful for me to try to recover piecemeal in this way; 6 sessions with a counsellor, then nothing, then falling apart, then being put back on the waiting list for more help. Far better to seek out more consistent help, whether by paying for therapy or starting over with a new, pay-as-you-can afford service. Except I don’t want to start over with a new counsellor; I’d reached a point of understanding with the counsellor I was seeing, I could refer back to situations without having to replay them blow by blow. To have to start from scratch with a stranger and explain every detail over again feels counter-productive; I’ve no desire to relive it. Having had a small amount of art therapy in the past, I’d like that rather than a purely talking cure – but it costs. While I’m paying out for weekly therapy sessions for Ivy, it’s too much of a stretch to pay for myself as well – and meanwhile, I’m aware that Lily also needs help.

Healing isn’t automatic. Sure, we patch ourselves up and carry on, but for the most part it’s about survival. Sticking a Band-Aid over a gaping wound and getting on with it. Scars form, holding us together yet the tissue beneath is damaged and tender, possibly even gangrenous and festering… but we limp on. There’s a huge difference between Triage and Healing. In the middle of the battle, all we can do is staunch the bleeding the best we can while we fight on. It’s not until we’ve got ourselves off to a safe place that we can stop and lick our wounds. Good healing requires time, space, support and often the intervention of a therapist. Bad healing means we turn to whatever we can get just to keep ourselves going, leaning on shadow comforts such as food or alcohol, or that the wound always stays tender, easily triggered and torn.

“What do you want?” the counsellor asked me. There were so many questions tied into that one; where could I see myself in the future, what was I hoping for, what was I looking forward to, what was my next step, my next direction in life?

I had nothing.

No answers. No vision. For the first time in my life, I couldn’t imagine any kind of future. I’d got so used to fighting, to life being a constant battle with my ex, having to defend myself and the kids from each fresh attack that I couldn’t picture anything different. And trust me, I don’t normally lack in imagination. The truth was, there wasn’t anything to look forward to except the hope that the abuse would stop now that Simon had got his own way and sold the house. With the divorce finalised I was free to start my new life, but the abuse had kept on coming, a second court case followed the first and hope was nowhere to be found. No matter what you’re facing, the moment when you give up hope is the worst; the belief that this is it, it will never get better. That’s when you give up – or, when giving up isn’t an option – because you have kids – you die inside instead. The Walking Dead, limping along, enduring rather than living.

It’s no way to live. It’s not a life.

What do you want?

By that point, all you want is for it to stop. There is nothing else. But the counsellor persists. You have to have something, she insists. Something to look forward to. And the words slowly form on your tongue, from some deeply buried part of yourself, some last shred of surviving spirit.

“I’d like to make a garden.”

So there it is. Exhausted and depressed, but somehow a garden holds the key to healing. I’ve designed gardens before in previous homes and for my parents’ house, but then Simon was on hand to help with the actual construction. This time it’s down to me, on a budget of zero and with the energy of a squirrel that’s just been hit by a truck and is lying at the side of the road, dead. Sigh. Thankfully I’m a stubborn old mule, something which I’m beginning to realise is likely caused by undiagnosed Aspergers. As I write this it’s snowing again – in March, in the UK, which is unforgivable. I’m a wuss, and there’s so much to tackle around the house so it will be strictly armchair gardening for the time being. I’ll re-read my gardening books, particularly Cultivating Sacred Space by Elizabeth Murray – if I can find it, and if it wasn’t one of the books sadly sent off to a charity shop in order to make space. I’ll start a Pinterest board or two for inspiration, and look for gardening videos on YouTube. I’ve been enjoying Colette’s videos about her Goddess Permaculture garden in Ireland, Bealtaine Cottage – even more inspirational as she has single-handedly achieved an incredible transformation from boggy, unpromising land into a forest garden haven. Again, the bullish belief; if she can do it, so can I. Not anything like the scale of Bealtaine, but I will do my utmost to turn my narrow, empty, bedraggled plot into a garden that nourishes my soul.