by Eithne Cullen
Tuesday Thoughts turn to Keeping Your Head this week. It’s generally accepted that, after this state of lockdown, the fear and anxiety we suffer will be with us for some time. In a recently published poll, almost three-quarters of Britons say they will be ‘very nervous’ about leaving their homes when the coronavirus lockdown is lifted.
We need to look after our mental health and wellbeing. It’s ironic that some people, for example, those who might suffer from anxiety, have been told for years: “You need to get out more,” and are now being told to stay indoors. The news tells us of the domestic abuse statistics. Being locked in with troubled and violent family members can be exceedingly distressing.
In the pieces I’m sharing this week, we can see some glimpses of calm, taking time to be still and reflecting on the situation you find yourself in.
Idris Elba has been reading this lovely poem on TV while the film shows BBC news broadcasts, empty supermarket shelves, deserted streets and videos of NHS workers -reminding viewers that, despite all the hardship: “We must not quit,” and: “Together, we’ll get through.”
I found the poem, written in 1921, and I am sharing it here:
Don’t Quit by Edgar A. Guest (1881-1959)
When Things go wrong, as they sometimes will,
When the road you’re trudging seems all uphill,
When the funds are low and debts are high,
And you want to Smile but have to sigh.
When care is pressing you down a bit,
Rest, if you must, but don’t you quit.
Life is queer with its twists and turns,
As everyone of us sometimes learns,
And many a failure turns about,
When he might have won if he’d stuck it out,
Don’t give up though the pace seems slow,
You might succeed with another blow.
Often the struggler has given up,
When he might captured the victor’s cup.
And he learned too late, when the night slipped down,
How close he was to the golden crown,
Success is failure turned inside out,
The silver tint of clouds of doubt,
And you never can tell how close you are,
It may be near when it seems afar,
So stick to the fight when you’re hardest hit,
It’s when things seem worst that you mustn’t quit.
You can also find it here.
I was delighted when novelist and short story writer, Tony Ballantyne, sent this short story for us to share. It’s a piece of calm, reflective writing and fits in very well with our theme, encouraging us to take every chance we get to listen and enjoy the moment.
Excerpts From Another Life
by Tony Ballantyne
The little hall stood at the back of the church, a brick and wooden building that had stood for nearly a hundred years.
Jim unlocked the front door and went inside. The polished floor shone in the morning light.
He opened the doors at the back of the hall. The summer morning was coming alive, the flowers lifting their heads to the sun, the trees spreading their leaves to catch the warmth.
Jim filled the urn and turned it on. He opened the hatch to the little kitchen, then fetched fresh milk from the fridge. He laid out cups and saucers on the counter. He filled the sugar bowl, then another bowl with coffee and another with tea bags.
They’d asked for chairs, so he unstacked them and laid them out in rows, facing the little stage.
Eventually, everything was ready. Jim took a last look around the hall, and then went outside for a quick smoke.
Something was coming.
The coach seemed much too big for the little lane. Polished purple paintwork, it seemed to float down the line on its black shiny tyres. It came to a halt right by Jim. There was a pause and then a pop and a hiss like a can of coke being opened.
The door swung outwards to reveal a young man in a purple shirt.
“Mr Edwards?” he said.
“Yes,” said Jim.
“Neil Roberts. We spoke on the phone.” He jerked a thumb towards the hall. “Is this the place?”
“Through the doors.”
The man turned and climbed back up the stairs. The coach popped and hissed and, like a purple beetle spreading its wings, a row of doors opened up to reveal the luggage space beneath the coach. Young men and women in shorts and T-shirts or summer dresses disembarked. They pulled black cases from beneath the coach and passed them back through the crowd. Jim watched as two young women climbed right inside the storage space in search of the last of the cases, passing them to their friends to carry into the little hall.
Jim followed the stragglers inside the building, to find something like a military operation unfolding. The chairs were being rearranged to make three sides of a square, facing inward. Silver stands were unfolded and placed before each chair, a folder was placed on each of the stands. The big black cases were cracked open, each one revealing a polished musical instrument. Cornets and baritones and horns and euphoniums. Daylight ran in patterns along a slide as a woman assembled her trombone.
The young man in the purple shirt took up a position at the focus of the seats. Immediately, the talking ceased.
“Mecklenburg,” said the young man. Just that one word was enough to send the band moving. Folders were opened, sheet music selected. He raised his hand, waved it as he mouthed one two, two two.
Music was called into existence in the summer hall. Silver peels of descending scales, bright stabs of brass, sonorous chords ringing out into the summer morning. Music shook the little hall, sending Jim stepping backwards involuntarily. He realised what he was doing and he moved forward, drawn on by the bright notes. The tune was approaching a climax…
And then, abruptly, the conductor clasped his hand and the music ceased. A faint echo. Nothing.
“Good,” said the conductor. “Bar forty-two. One, two…”
The music resumed seamlessly, as if it had been playing all this time in another world and the band had just opened the door to let it in. Again, it approached a climax.
Again, the conductor brought it to a halt. “OK. Turn over. Laudete Domine. From J.”
Hands moving, sheet music turning. A piece of paper fluttered to the floor.
The conductor raised his hands once more and the band began to play. A disjointed commencement, halfway through the piece.
The conductor stopped them almost immediately. “Good,” he said. “Now jump to N.”
And so it went on. Snippet after snippet. Jim was given hints of something much bigger and grander, another world.
At last, the conductor left the band playing. He listened for a while, his head to one side. Then he walked away. Walked towards Jim. “What do you think?” he asked.
Jim was listening, open-mouthed. “Champion,” he whispered. “But why don’t they play the full piece?”
“They’re saving their lips for the finals in Manchester. We play at eleven.”
“What do you think?”
“They sound wonderful.”
The conductor smiled. “They’re not bad, are they?” He turned to the band. Raised a hand and clenched his fist once more. The music evaporated. “OK, let’s try the ending,” he called.
This time, the music was slow and mysterious. Discordant. Jim didn’t like it. And then, low in the band, a theme was uncurling. Jim heard it climb through the instruments, laying order upon chaos, the volume increasing all the time. Jim was holding his breath, willing the piece to its conclusion and then…
The music stopped.
“Save it for the performance,” said the conductor.
“But…” said Jim.
The conductor clapped his hands. “OK, people! Let’s go and win this thing.”
Suddenly, all the musicians were in motion once more.
They packed away just as quickly as they had set up, black cases swallowing shiny instruments, stands folded, music put away, seats replaced in rows. They boarded the coach. Jim watched as the doors hissed closed and hermetically sealed and then the coach gently glided away, back up the lane.
Jim returned to the hall. Saw the cups and the milk and the sugar, all untouched.
It was Mrs Duncan, here to get ready for the coffee morning.
“Did you hear that?” breathed Jim in wonder.
Gabriela Blandy is a writer and performer who has been awarded the Royal Society of Literature V S Pritchett award. Assistant Director at The John Osborne Arvon Centre for Writers, she is also a life coach who shares sound advice for us at this time.
Keeping Your Head
Have you ever looked in your closet, at all the clothes hanging there, and thought, ‘I have nothing to wear?’
Even though there are dozens of shirts and trousers and jumpers, dangling in front of our eyes, we believe it, right? We experience the feeling of not being inspired by the outfits we slide from left to right along the rail. We feel bored by what we see. There’s nothing that catches our eye and lights us up. All because we’re telling ourselves we have nothing to wear!
The mind is remarkably good at doing what it’s told – so much so, that it will cram anything that might refute our thoughts into our blind spot. Just as when we’re on the motorway and that car, speeding up alongside us, will slip into a small patch of invisibility, so can our happiness, our hopes, our dreams, depending on what we’re telling ourselves about life.
This is where our day-to-day experience can become challenging, especially in times of crisis. There are numerous things we’re telling ourselves without even realising, because the opinions we hold have become so habitual we no longer spot them. We have between 50,000 and 90,000 thoughts a day. How many of those do you notice?
Here we are, trying to keep our heads, without realising that at every single second of the day, our heads are receiving thousands of instructions on what to focus on, and what to leave out. The world becomes the equivalent of that crowded clothes rail: nothing looks inspiring, we feel weighed down by the volume of what we see, and there doesn’t appear to be a solution.
I understand how compelling this perspective is. ‘I have nothing to wear,’ becomes a truth that feels utterly aggravating when challenged. Ever had a partner try to refute you in this situation? We become adamant, sulky.
‘What about this?’ a friend might suggest, pulling a jumper off the rail and dangling it in front of us, and their suggestion is laughable, offensive even. Don’t they realise how awful that jumper is?
This is the level at which the mind is ‘programmed’ to defend its perspective, which is why we cling to a way of seeing, even if it brings us pain or misery and even if that pain or misery isn’t the whole truth.
This means that, in order to keep our heads in times of crisis, we have to be prepared to let our heads go; all those thoughts, which are defining our current experience. When we begin to tell ourselves something different, we free the plethora of hidden choices and solutions from our blind spot, and we learn to keep a different head: one that serves our happiness.
A simple place to start to reconfigure the mind, and where it’s focusing, is to replace as many of those 50-90,000 thoughts with phrases of hope and possibility. You will experience resistance. This is a good sign! Much like the pain you feel after a full workout at the gym is a sign that you have ripped your muscles and given them a chance to grow.
When we look at the world with background thoughts of: ‘I’m looking for the opportunity in this,’ or: ‘What can I be grateful for, right now?’ or: ‘There is always a solution,’ images of hope, beauty and promise will appear in the same way that the sun can slide free of a cloud, no matter how grey and thick it is.
Times of crisis and challenge are a wonderful opportunity for us to discover the ‘default’ settings in our minds and where our focus automatically settles. From there, we can decide whether this is really how we want to view life.
It’s interesting how many people are inspired, right now, to give their houses a spring clean. Shut up indoors, they’re beginning to see what they have been living with, and they’re feeling the need for order and space.
I invite you to do the same with your head.
Many of my long-term clients have been turning up to their life coaching sessions, feeling even more resolved about their dreams because we have laid such a strong foundation in their minds. They’re telling themselves it’s more important than ever to continue to take action on creating an inspiring life. They see the crisis as a powerful reminder of how precious life is. This is because we’ve already done a great deal of work to ‘declutter’ their heads. They’ve developed a daily practice of emptying out the thoughts that aren’t serving them and filling their minds with instructions to see solutions and opportunity.
This can be achieved by ten minutes of writing a day. Fill the page with all that fearful, anxious clutter for the first five minutes, and then focus your mind on all the thoughts you want to be having. These thoughts will define what you see and don’t see. They will become a new truth to live by. Just before lockdown, I headed out into the forest with my red typewriter to make a video on the therapeutic benefit of putting thoughts to paper for anyone feeling anxious about the future, which you can watch here:
If you are feeling fearful, this is an indication to clear out those fearful thoughts. Are you focusing on the shadow at your feet, or the warmth of the sun at your back?
Next week, we’ll be looking at the gaps between us: men and women, rich and poor, old and young and so on. Keep sending your writing in to Pen to Print.
It’s generally accepted that, after this state of lockdown, the fear and anxiety we suffer will be with us for some time.