Keeping it slow and simple during COVID-19: where to start

Well, I’ve had a little break from blogging (and all social media, more on that later). I never thought when I last posted in December that in 3 or 4 months we would be in the middle of a pandemic, under a lockdown. And yet here we are…

Many of us have been forced into a slower, simpler way of life, whether we wanted it or not. Many thing we took for granted before, like being able to go out whenever we wanted, is now off-limits. But rather than focusing on what we cant’t do, it’s time to focus on what we can do. You don’t have to be “making COVID-19 count” by being super-productive (and I suggest you don’t!), but just lean into it. Lean into the boredom, the quiet, the extra time with family members. Lean into the the anxiety, the unknown. See what emerges.

We were home schoolers already, so we’re not experiencing the big changes some of you are out there, but we have health conditions in our household which make this a tricky situation. I actually have less free time than I did before due to another family member having to be “shielding”, and the rest of us social distancing in the house. I’m trying to focus on keeping things as regular as possible for the kids, so we’re still doing our usual home school stuff, as well as using Zoom to keep in touch with friends from various groups we were going to.

For myself, I’m trying to do some form of exercise each day, as well as meditating using the Insight Timer app. I actually really struggle with routine, so mixing things up some days is helping with the monotony – we have been in the house for 18 days now! Hopefully that will end soon and we can at least go for a walk. I’m trying to notice the changes of these strange times, for instance today I noticed it was much easier to hear the birdsong in the morning with far fewer cars around.

These times are challenging, it’s totally ok not to be coping with it, or not to be being productive with all of this so-called free time we’re all supposed to have. Just take it one day at a time (or if things get really bad, take it one hour at a time), work out what needs to be done, and what can be left, and do that. Be gentle with yourself.

Book Review: The Dharma of Fashion

This book discusses our attitudes to the clothes we wear and buy from a Buddhist perspective, including many interviews with Josh Korda of Dharma Punx, of whom I’m a fan. As a postgraduate student of Buddhism, I was expecting a lot more from this book, it seemed to be aimed at those who identify as shopping addicts rather than general consumers.

It discusses the dopamine hit we get from the search for new item (which decreases when we actually buy the item, which perpetuates the cycle of shopping), and about Buddhist views on attachment and craving. The author puts forward a theory that what drives our attitudes to shopping and fashion is an aversion to facing up to the fact that we will grow old, experience illness and eventually die.

The section on how clothing makes us feel, and how we use it to feel part of a tribe, but also how we compare ourselves with others was interesting, how we dress to become our desires. We need to bring more awareness to our desires and motivations, being curious about our “vedana”, our feeling-tone (are things experienced as pleasant, unpleasant or neutral). The way to overcome this, it is suggested, is to reflect on the fragility of human life, which will help to suppress our cravings for consumerism in the realm of fashion. Whilst the practice of contemplating the “foulness of the body” is known in Buddhism, this is usually a practice aimed at monks, rather than lay people, and certainly not one with which to start one’s Buddhist journey. The suggested practice of starting a “desire diary” seemed a better place to start for those in the grips of shopping addiction.

There were interesting points made in this book, but could have been better developed (the book is only 96 pages). The pages were littered with quirky drawings, many of which did not resonate with me and did not appear to connect with the text.
I was expecting much more on our attitudes to consumerism in general, and more on fast fashion and the ethics of this industry, from a Buddhist perspective.

I received a free advance copy of this book via NetGalley.

Round-up of 2019 (1): my best books

I love the end of the year, such a great time to reflect on how things have gone, and time to look forward and plan. It’s been quite a challenging year for me in lots of ways, I had major surgery halfway through the year, which had quite a long recovery period – a great opportunity to slow down and take stock (whether you like it or not!). One bonus of spending a lot of the summer on the sofa was I got to read some awesome books! These are not necessarily books that came out in 2019 (although some are), just ones that I discovered and enjoyed this year. Reading is a great ‘slow’ activity, I’d much rather spend a few weeks immersed in a novel than watch a film and have it all over in a couple of hours!

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

I discovered the awesome American Gothic of Shirley Jackson this year, so atmospheric. The characters really stay with you after the novel is finished (always the sign of a good book). Written in 1962, the story features two sisters (one of whom has not left the house in 6 years) who live in a large, isolated house, and their wheelchair-bound Uncle who lives with them. The rest of their family died tragically, and the novel unravels what happened to them, through the intense relationship between the two sisters. The writing is brilliant, and I’m definitely going to check out more of Jackson’s work.

Bridge of Clay by Markus Zuzak

I loved The Book Thief, but this is totally unlike it, but still brilliant. At almost 550 pages, it’s a bit of a doorstopper, and was quite slow to get going, but once it did, I genuinely couldn’t put it down. The story is about six brothers (the Dunbar boys), and their relationship with their father, but also with the land they live on. A beautiful, gentle, and slow book at times, but this wasn’t a negative for me. The ‘bridge’ is both a physical bridge and also a metaphorical one between the boys and each other, and the other characters. Beautiful.

In Praise of Slow by Carl Honore

I’ve already reviewed this book here, the bible of the slow movement. If you’re interested in the idea of slow living and how it can apply to many different areas, such as travel, cities, relationships, work, family, etc, then this is a must-read.

My Struggle (Book 2): A Man in Love by Karl Ove Knausgaard

Knausgaard is a bit like Marmite, you’ll either love it or hate it. I definitely fall into the first category. His 6 book epic fictionalised autobiography features the minutiae of his life, meandering from detail to detail. This volume focuses on his relationship with his wife and their children, and her postnatal depression. The writing is exquisite (if you like this sort of thing), and I can’t wait to read volume 3 in 2020.

Destination Simple by Brooke McAlary

I heard about Brooke through her awesome Slow Your Home podcast, so was keen to read one of her books. If you’re just starting out with slow and simple living, this is a great place to do it. She talks about daily rituals to help you to slow down and live a more intentional life, and also the great concept of ’tilting’ towards things in life that we need to give our attention to, such as family or work, for a while, and then tilting away from them when the busyness dies down. Tilting is a great idea, and helps you to maintain a sense of balance, and prevents overwhelm.

I’m looking forward to more awesome reads in 2020! What was the best book you read in 2019?

10 hacks for a slower, simpler festive season

The silly season is upon us. At this time of year, it is easy to get swept up in consumerism and too much ‘doing’. Here are some hacks to keep things simple and prevent overwhelm this holiday season.

1: Remember your core values

If you’re really clear about your core values in life, i.e. what’s important and what’s not important, it is much easier to keep on track with a slower paced simple lifestyle. For instance, if some kind of minimalism or low-waste lifestyle is important to you, it’s easier not to get caught up in buying too much Stuff. I’ll do a post in the new year about working out what your core values are.

2: Don’t be afraid to say no

If you’re feeling overwhelmed or stressed, it’s OK to say no to the work Christmas party, just because everyone else is going. JOMO not FOMO! Only say yes to things you really want to attend, to connect with friends and build deeper relationships. If an invitation doesn’t fulfil you or sound like fun, then it’s totally OK to say no.

3: Keep gift-giving simple

As aspiring minimalists, we are doing 4 gifts for Christmas this year for the kids:

You don’t have to stick to this rule if it doesn’t work for you, but it can help to keep to keep things simple and avoid the often mindless excesses of the festive season. Also, if you’re buying fewer gifts per child, you can afford to spend that little bit more on that something special that they really want and that will actually get used.

4: Say yes

Once you’ve said no to invitations you don’t want to attend, definitely say yes to other experiences and connections with friends. Rather than giving gifts to friends and accumulating more Stuff, suggest in-person meet ups or shared experiences.

5: Start early

You know Christmas is coming, and a certain amount of extra ‘doing’ can’t be avoided. Trying to start early to avoid last-minute stress. Planning is your friend, here. You can’t start too early, especially if you want to make your own cards or gifts which can be time-consuming. Allowing plenty of time will keep things low-stress.

6: Keep things simple on the big day

Rather than trying to keep up with the Joneses or going all-out for excess which can lead to feeling burnt-out and depleted, keep things as simple as possible. You don’t have to cook a seven course meal with different wine matched to each course to have a great Christmas. A nice yet simple meal done well will allow you less time in the kitchen and more time to connect with family and to relax.

7: Make time for family traditions and rituals

Apparently in Iceland, it is a tradition on Christmas Eve to give books to loved ones, and then to spend the rest of the night reading in bed eating chocolate! We like to have a walk on Christmas Day, after our lunch, and have had some memorable ones – one year we walked across Ditchling Beacon (the highest point in Sussex) in a howling gale whilst playing “What’s the Time, Mr. Wolf”. Perhaps you make the same Christmas muffins every year for breakfast, or play the same festive music while you make your own decorations. Create your own family traditions, creating memories and connection.

8: Try a little mindfulness

Times when we’re completely present become future memories, so however crazy things get, try to come back to the current moment, perhaps using the breath as an anchor. Feel your feet on the ground, and be truly present with whatever you’re doing, be it unwrapping a gift or cooking the Christmas lunch. Even just a few deep breaths will help to centre you, and will prevent overwhelm.

9: Come back to your ‘why’

If you’re feeling stressed or overwhelmed, come back to your ‘why’, the reason you’re doing it. If you’re in tune with your core values, and know what your intention is for the festive season (perhaps to rest, or connection with loved ones), then coming back to that can help to ground you and allow you to recognise when things are getting too much.

10: Get some perspective

Remember, Christmas is only one day of the year. Come back to what’s important, forget everything else and you’ll have a great time.

How do you keep things simple around the festive season?

Motherhood, and the gentle art of slowing down

I think my journey into slowing down began when I became a mother. 14 years ago, after the birth of my daughter, I can remember settling into this gentler pace of living, without the daily commute and 13 hour shifts. Yes, there were a lot of small tasks during the day, feeds and nappy changes and the like, but there was also this stillness, this slowing down to just do the things that mattered, and let everything else fall away.

I saw lots of other new mums around me scheduling many classes for them and their babies, going from one activity to another. While this may suit some people’s temperaments, and I did do a couple of groups, went swimming with a friend and her baby, but mostly I loved to walk. Those long walks with a new baby are the best, the silent yet powerful eye contact, exploring new parts of your neighbourhood, hidden parks. Nowhere to go except to just walk, no other agenda than this. Alone, and yet not quite alone. You and your new baby, just enjoying the walk.

And now we are home educating, and both children are at home a lot, we are in the privileged position of having all this time to spend together. I notice my son (almost 6) doing new things every week, just the little things like being able to say a more complicated sentence tell a new story. I notice my 14yr old daughter maturing into a beautiful young woman, becoming more politically and socially aware each day. And while it’s not always as idyllic as perhaps I’ve painted here, what we are lucky to have is the gift of slow. Our schedules have enough activities, but not too many. Enough time with friends but also time for nature walks in the woods, reading books, talking about ideas, time for the good things in life. We can go at our own pace. If we feel like having a week off, then we can. If one of us feels a bit under the weather, we can have a duvet day. We try to have as many meals around the table together as we can, chatting about our plans or what we’ve been reading about.

And yes, there is bickering, arguing, and days when it’s not going to plan. But on those days, I try to step back and see the bigger picture, to see the gift of this slower paced lifestyle that we are so lucky to have.