Why Did It Take A Pandemic To Make Me Slow Down?

“Slow down, you move too fast,” the lyrics from Simon and Garfunkel’s Feelin’ Groovy, have struck a note with me lately. As a person who suffers from anxiety, I am conscious of my tendency to rush through life without taking a breath, shortchanging myself of the full benefits of life’s simple pleasures.

I’m semi-retired, but most days I still feel like I’m chasing my tail and there aren’t enough hours for everything I want to achieve

Girl lying down on the grass relaxing.
Photo by Eunice Stahl on Unsplash

Admittedly, my inability to say no is a big part of the problem – because I do waste hours of my week on unnecessary activities, and then get cross with myself for compromising what time I have left to do what I enjoy.

But even when I’m walking the dog, my mind is often elsewhere, thinking about that email I need to write, the call I need to make, or the machine load that needs to be emptied.

But the world won’t stop turning if I don’t empty the washing machine immediately

And on the rare occasions I allow myself to breathe, to throw the ball to the dog on the beach, or take in the natural beauty of where we live, my head clears, and I kick myself for not doing it more often.

Because, relaxing is easy, and doesn’t cost very much, and aside from my new hobby of swimming in the ocean, I’ve rediscovered many long-lost passions recently, like reading, walking, and listening to podcasts, not to mention my love of watching mindless tv series on the sofa.

I’m not saying I walk happily to the trolley bay when it’s on the other side of the supermarket car park or I don’t grit my teeth when the traffic lights ahead turn red, but I am making a conscious effort to try to walk rather than run.

Sometimes, it’s enough just to be. To be me. To be happy in my skin

I’m sure spiritualists have some fancy term for the art of “enjoying the moment” – something like unconscious mindfulness, I imagine. But each time I’ve tried to be intentionally mindful in the past, I’ve struggled to close down the tabs in my brain – this, despite my belief in the importance of living each day as if it is your last – an awareness of the unpredictability of life that was foisted on me by the loss of my mother in my teens – although, I don’t recommend it.

But if you don’t believe me and need any more convincing about the right order of your priorities in life, check out the biggest regrets of the dying, because one of the top five regrets is how much time they wasted on work rather than spending it with family and friends, or doing things that made them happy.

Unfortunately, a clink in the armour of the human brain is that many of us only realise what we have when it’s gone

Fortunately, COVID has rammed the importance of the philosophy home for me, and the physical effects of ageing are helping with the slow down. While I moan about the limitations of my body – and this year has been a real test – I am beginning to understand its language. When it lets me know I’ve pushed it too hard, I’m learning to listen to it, because those minor pains and aches quickly evolve into costly issues when they aren’t addressed.

Admittedly, it is easier to switch off or recalibrate physically than it is mentally. But another benefit COVID has gifted many of us is extra time at home. And although I’m certain my lockdown existence looks very different to the parents of young kids or essential workers, I don’t believe slowing down must necessitate being alone.

For example, when our kids were small, I used to dread the approach of the school holidays. And yet, it always surprised me how quickly the three of us adapted to the change of pace. Within a week, each of us started to slow down, to get up later, to take our time over meals and stretch out activities that we normally raced through. We communicated more, and because I didn’t have to manage that precarious balance between work, school, and extra-curricular activities, I was less irritable. Rather than the cabin fever I anticipated, we had more time and energy to try out new things, and the best days were those when we did absolutely nothing without feeling guilty about them – a foreign concept in our increasingly driven society.

It’s important to allow yourself days off, when you do absolutely nothing

Recently, a friend of mine took her two weeks of annual leave at home due to the current restrictions. At the time, she was feeling burnt out at work, and I know she was disappointed she couldn’t escape somewhere exotic for “a change of scene”. Nevertheless, she approached her two weeks with a positive mindset and a list of her priorities for her time off – relaxation foremost, with some walks, swims, catch-ups with friends, and some overdue organisational tasks if she found the time.

At the end of the two weeks, she was exuberant about her holiday at home, which had given her the opportunity to explore some previously undiscovered areas of our local landscape with friends and family, enjoy long breakfasts in the sun with her daughter, eat healthily, and replenish her sleep quota with daily naps. She returned to work re-energised, and when I caught up with her at the end of her first week back, she had rediscovered her old passion for her job.

Trips abroad, where we used to cram more into a day than we would at work, are not always what our body needs

I have fully embraced the return to simple living that COVID has necessitated, and I’m feeling quite nervous about my return to the hustle and bustle of normal life. I have to agree with Michaela Coel who mentioned in her acceptance speech at the Emmys the joys of embracing invisibility, rather than jumping straight back onto the demanding treadmill of our lives prior to COVID. I am loving this invisibility that has come with lockdown and middle-age. I have no desire to leap from our current restrictions straight back into my old life. Rather, I intend to set myself a realistic pace and be more mindful of how and when I really need to emerge from the shadows.

Practicing Simplicity In Middle Age

plant-1842299_1280There is a “family and lifestyle” blog called Practicing Simplicity, by Jodi Wilson. It offers its readers a stunning vista of photographs and tales of motherhood with affiliated yoga, cooking and lifestyle tips. I love the name: Practicing Simplicity. Scrolling through the site, there is an aura of calm that bounces off each photo captured of wild flowers, toddlers innocently at play and simple, wholesome living.

 

The idea of “practicing simplicity” is a discipline that I’ve tried to incorporate into my own lifestyle for a while now. This is not some innovative new trend I’ve discovered, you only need look around you at the wealth of organic food cafes, the current trend in home decor for clean Scandinavian lines and simplicity, or the yoga havens, but it does seem that the more I clean up my lifestyle, in terms of what I put in my mouth, how I plan my day, and most importantly, how I plan my relaxation time, the more I get out of my life. When I remember to approach everything with a calmer, more rational approach, rather than my scatty, “me first”, impulsive alter ego, everything turns out so much better.

 

I settled a client into her new home last week. With three young boys, she was telling me about how guilty she felt for not letting them do a certain sport at the weekend because it clashed with another, and was simply too hard to coordinate with her husband who is often away.

 

‘Anyway,’ she said, ‘I want them to make the most of the beach while we’re here.’

 

Like many of my generation of Xers, I imagine, I don’t remember doing any extra-curricular activities as a child, except for Brownies and Sunday School. Forgive me for showing my age by harking back to the simple pleasures of riding our bikes in the street, playing with the neighbours kids and learning through exploration, because I do wonder how much value our kids get today from being shunted through busy traffic from one activity to the next, after a full day of interaction at school. I’m not shaming, because I did the same with my own kids, and as I admitted to this mum, if I could turn the clock back I would do things differently now – especially with a kid with ADHD. Children need time to relax and reflect on the day, to be given the chance to talk, ask questions and cement close relationships.

 

I wish I’d been brave enough to hone down the list of activities we forced our kids to do to “keep up with the Jones’”. Such over-commitment left me running ragged; a headless chicken who was often bad-tempered and resentful when I collected them from school after my own hard day at work. I blame the old man’s hair loss on those weekends when NC had soccer one day and Kurt the next, after a 45hr week at work. I don’t think that those frantic, wasted hours on the weekend spent in search of that lost soccer boot or leotard, learning lines and cutting up orange segments, contributed much to our children’s education, unless they’ve since learned how to say ‘no.’

 

Sure, they made more friends, but I’m sure that their mates from school and the neighbours would have sufficed. How many times did I choose to ignore the ‘I’m tired’ whine from the back seat because I had over-committed, or because we’d paid the term’s fee or I was worried about letting the team down? How many evenings did I waste sitting in a dark car park, waiting for them to finish?

 

Kurt never did become that league soccer player and looks back on that whole team sport period with horror; NC recoils with similar distaste every time I remind her about “dance”.

 

I’m not under that pressure these days and I understand that it is a difficult one to protest against. My pressure is that blurred line between recognising when I have enough on my plate and over-commitment – although, self-imposed isolation is equally dangerous for over-thinkers such as myself, when your crazy brain errs on the side of feeling unwanted and useless.

 

If you didn’t know, finding the balance is key.

 

Life is busy enough with work, family, friends, hobbies and exercise, and these days I take far more pleasure from simple activities like reading a book, trying out a new recipe, taking a long walk or sitting people-watching on the beach, than I do from organised events where I have to reinvent myself again.

 

I’m getting older. 

 

Practicing simplicity for me is about forcing myself to relax. I’m never going to be stretched out on the floor for long periods of the day in the Downward Dog position, but forcing myself to do things on my own that have no stress attached, counter-balances the triggers of anxiety. After the last turbulent few years of life with teenagers, “me time” is about lowering my heart rate and not having to be somewhere at a given time to find my inner peace.

Happiness In Middle Age, Escapism and Searching For The Simple Life

Middle Age Happiness, Escapism And Searching For the Simple Life
Old Surfer Dude by Gary Wilson, found on Flickr.com

Kurt has been away on his sabbatical for five days now and we have magnanimously told him that if he does decide that the simple life away from the city suits him better, we won’t stand in his way if he decides to stay longer.

It crossed my mind when I accompanied him up to Byron that a short escape into anonymity would do me good, too. I’m sure we can all identify points in our lives where we’ve wanted to drop everything, escape and do some serious soul-searching. Not to Byron, necessarily – albeit a wonderful enclave to lose yourself to introspection and gain a better insight into what really matters in your life – just somewhere where I could re-invent myself for a short while.

I can see myself shacked up with some crusty, middle-aged surfer in a crumbling beach house, with peeling paint, shells for ornaments and a fine layer of sand coating its distressed floorboards. He would get up at dawn to be at one with the ocean, he’d have chickens in the backyard, a preference for shagging on his surfboard and earn a secondary living growing crops in the hinterland. I can see myself turning my hand to organic fart food, making dream catchers for a living to sell at market at the weekend and living off love alone.

And from a physical perspective, my body could really work a kaftan now.

Middle Age Happiness, Escapism And Searching For the Simple Life
Turquoise Blue Long Sleeved Kaftan Maxi Dress by Honeymcouture on flicker.com

Sometimes, when I allow myself to forget about the superficial, material stuff I depend on so much for my happiness these days, the simple life is truly appealing. A different way of living has become more appealing as the wisdom of middle-age has evolved and taught me the irony of my long-held belief that money holds all the answers; Now that I actually have money in my purse, I’ve realised that health, happiness and strong relationships are the key to happiness. But most of us now know the health benefits of putting time aside in our busy schedules for a healthier lifestyle, yet realistically, those changes don’t come easily, not without compromise and cutting our cloth accordingly.

So, perhaps the best way to start is by redefining what the ‘luxuries’ in our life have become now. Because mine have changed over time; and most of what I see as ‘luxuries’ these days don’t cost very much.

‘Stress’ has the most negative impact on my health and happiness, so my ‘luxuries’ are anything that combats that. Having the time for exercise, being able to buy healthy food, affording the time to lose myself in relaxation or spend time with friends and family top my list now.

The old man and I have cropped some of the luxuries from our lives over the past few years. We’ve worked out what our priorities for happiness are, and fortunately we agree (mostly) on what they are. So his golf club membership doesn’t really fit the idealism of our new simpler life, but frankly those precious few hours he’s on the course increase the levels of my happiness tanks enough to make it worth it; and I never said we were perfect. But we have moved from the big house and downsized to an apartment and the old man has cleared out the belongings that he felt were superfluous to our needs *sob* and watches even more closely what we spend *sigh*.

We’re don’t have the right to feel smug just yet – nothing makes me feel better than an impulsive therapy session at the mall when I’m feeling low – but we’re easing closer to the goal.

Embed from Getty Images

Obviously, I couldn’t possibly take the old man to Byron with me, though. As bald as a coot, he wouldn’t be able to grow dreadlocks for starters, has always looked very silly in beanies and his beard is an embarrassing shade of Antique White when he grows it out; so he tends to look more salty sailor than sexy surfer.

And he’s just not chill enough. He would moan about where the meat was in my bean stews, question what the fuck Chia was, would grieve for Foxtel, has always steadfastly refused to commit to yoga and certainly wouldn’t see the point in walking along the beach at twilight. Unfortunately, his idea of relaxation still encompasses watching back-to-back golf championships on television and getting pizza delivered by our local pizza restaurant, even though it is only 200m away.

But Rome wasn’t built in a day…