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Surviving lockdown (again)

I think I have read about 20 articles with this title in the last week. Here’s one with a difference.

Don’t start baking banana bread. Don’t learn something new. Do NOT decide to start running marathons. Screw zoom family quizzes. That shit is bad for you.

Sitting around with too much time on your hands can lead you down the road of the big three: Fear, guilt and shame. The big three will lead to depression and anxiety. They will shred your self esteem and rob you of joy. They will wreck your sleep and disrupt your relationships. The big three are the single most destructive emotions and can very quickly overwhelm you. They are the overarching umbrella under which will dwell many hundreds more of other negative emotions which effect your general wellbeing.

So how do we quell fear, guilt and shame? Let me take you on a journey of discovery….. I love neuro science. I am entirely unqualified to talk about it but because of my mother’s brain tumour and my son’s autism, I spent countless hours reading about it.

Your brain is currently playing tricks on you. We are social creatures. We are meant to live in communities who help each other and work together and even the most introvert among us needs the company of others for our own wellbeing. But western culture has spent decades trying to slowly erode the social aspects of the fabric of our society. When we choose to go to a big supermarket, rather than go to the local shop, we don’t ask the checkout assistant how their kids are by name. When we work in an “open plan” office but don’t even know the name of the person who sits 1m away, something has gone wrong. Most of us do not know our neighbours. A huge proportion of society live hours away from their family. The concept of “community” or tribe has blown away in the wind over the last 30 years. And now we have been told to STAY AT HOME.

So let us understand how this affects our brains, the single most important organ in the body. The brain is the central processing unit of the whole body. It is an amazingly complex and incredible entity and if the brain is not healthy, everything else starts to be affected. The brain is in control of your hormones. Hormones are the signals for all the other organs to perform. Hormones are the conductor of the great orchestra of your body. The hormones govern your sleep, your appetite, your fertility, your mood, everything. When the brain is not 100% healthy, the hormones go out of sync and the music of your body goes out of rhythm. Your brain has three functioning states: Conscious, semi conscious and unconscious. It fluctuates between these realms and tries to communicate in a physical way, if something is not right. We are only just starting to understand the tip of the iceberg on how the brain functions.

But let me illustrate this in a practical way. For 5 years I have suffered with insomnia. I go to sleep fine, but I wake up at 3 am. I have tried literally everything anyone has suggested to try to remedy this, but nothing works. In the end I accepted that it was my age and my hormones. This was how it would be now. I have also had this strange eczema on my foot. It has been there for so long that it was just who I was. I had horrid feet and that was who I am. Thirdly, when I wash my hair, it comes out in massive handfuls. I had thought it was an afro hair thing because I remember my mother having the same thing. So imagine my surprise, when over the last 6 months, all three of these things vanished. Here is my hypothesis….

Dopamine is the brains reward chemical. You get these by eating food, completing a task and doing self care activities. I recently started eating breakfast. This is something I have not really done for 10 years. After making three breakfasts for the kids (EACH!!) I just could not face making myself some. It was with hindsight a form of self punishment. I think subconsciously, I did not feel I deserved any. Santa gave me a stocking this year. In it were lovely hand creams, hair products and lots of really nice quality chocolate. I have been having long baths and doing face masks and shit. I have been doing this without guilt.

Serotonin is the brain’s mood stabilizer. You get this bad boy by exercising, walking in nature and with sun exposure. This last year I have changed my world of work from being in an underground building to being outdoors all day. I now have a physically active job doing forest school and nature connection. I absolutely am living my dream life and my work makes me so happy. Lockdown has meant that our opportunities for being able to produce serotonin have been limited to 1 hour a day, and now it is winter, that is probably being diminished.

Endorphin is the pain killer. All of us most likely have some physical ailment which lurks like a shadow in our lives, coming to the fore in times of stress. For me I get back ache. When it is overwhelming, I take a pain killer, but for the most part, I know the triggers and have a range of other remedies I can use the manage it. Endorphin is produced when you laugh, during strenuous exercise and when you get pleasure from eating chocolate (smaller but still significant). Again, lockdown is going to have an impact on your brain’s ability to produce this important hormone.

And lastly, but most importantly: Oxytocin, aka the love hormone. This little nugget of hormonal joy is released by holding someone’s hand, giving your dad a hug, playing with a baby niece. Oxytocin is by far the most sensational of the hormones. I had found myself watching endless romcoms during the previous lockdown trying to remember what it felt like to be in love. After a while I thought “How much of this shite cinema is it going to take?” Then when I finally did feel love, it was like fireworks exploding in my brain. I felt 12 again. It was as though the wold had been sugar coated and everything was golden sunshine yellow. Hello stranger!!

But then Boris has made it illegal to hug your Nan! You have to feel guilty if you break a rule from time to time. You have to feel ashamed if your walk to get chocolate and wine because “Is it an essential journey?”. We are being made to fear everything and everyone by the media. The big three is currently crushing our souls.

So here’s my advice. Be hedonistic and forgive yourself. What goes on in lockdown, stays in lockdown. I went for a walk with a friend yesterday and she has been a bit down this week. At one point I stopped and asked her “What brings you joy?” and she found it very difficult to answer. Most of us spend so much time trying to make others happy, we don’t even know what makes us happy anymore. In the end she concluded it was dancing. “When was the last time you went out dancing?” I asked. About 1992 was the answer.

Lockdown is messing with your head. Drink the wine. Lie on the sofa and watch your best films. Play with your children. Let the house go to shit. Cook your favourite food. Talk to your neighbours. Walk through a forest. This is not the time to make big life decisions. Don’t try and make massive plans. We can’t bloody plan anything at the moment. You have to find the joy in now and not feel ashamed, guilty or fearful.

xxxxxx

Into the wild: Connection day

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I think one of the biggest challenges over the next few weeks is that we are not going to be able to see the people who are dear and special to us. I have had to explain to both my kids that the plans for their birthdays will have to change. The parties are cancelled. The birthday meal won’t happen at a restaurant. And there will not be sleep overs for the foreseeable. This has been painful for us all and so I tried to find a way of bringing us a little closer.

We all chose one person we were going to miss and we went to the post office to buy stamps. It felt like I had not done this for years! We then asked what the maximum weight was which we could post and at home put together a special package.

I got the boys to write a letter, something I realised they had never done before. I explained that you write your address in the top, right hand corner. They could not tell me their full address so even this was a learning process. We then put the date and started with Dear ……., . We talked about how to end letters. They said they did not know what to write about. “Just tell them what you did today, what you are looking forward to and that you love and miss them. “

We did some collage with some coloured tissue paper and we printed off some photos of fun times together. I explained about where you put the stamp. We weighed our parcels to make sure they were not bigger than 100g (sneaky maths).

Home learning is not about work sheets, or online tutorials. It is experiential and meaningful learning and I do find myself pondering the question: how much of what is taught in school is truly useful?

For some years now we have been in a child mental health crisis. four out of five training days last year were dedicated to the topic. I think it will be interesting to see if this period of “unschooling” will tip everyone over the edge, or come out the other side much happier? And will literacy levels go up or down? These kids are tested so frequently that it would be an easy thing to test come September. The education system will have to ask itself some big questions. Interesting times!

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SENsory Forest school: Rocks

What did we learn?

We learned to speak to each other. We learned to share and communicate, and value the opinion of others. We realised that there is not one tool per person . We worked a system around it. It was based on community and fairness and patience and tolerance. It was hard. It caused controlled explosions. We worked through it.

There were some big arguments this week. The adults could not always resole them. It was ok. There was some big arguments with the adults. It could not be resolved. It was good for the kids to see. I use a phrase with my son which will not work for some years to come: “That happens sometimes.” When he cannot cope because I had said that we would go to the park after school, but then storm ” sabotage” comes in and it’s cold and rainy and horrid. “That happens sometimes”. BUT YOU SAID WE WERE GOING TO THE PARK.

Someone very dear to me asked me recently if I would (honesty) rather live without autism in my life. But genuinely, it would be like living with the storm without the rainbow.

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Why schools are failing

In my day, everyone was not diagnosed with something. There is a label for everyone now. “

In my day, you were just stupid. We didn’t call it dyslexia.”

Me: In your day, school was a very different place because in your day, there was no OFSTED and no league tables. Kids were not tested every week. We did not get assigned reading levels. We were not told we were failing all the time. We did not have homework from the age of 4. There was no literacy hour nor numeracy hour. We learned through projects. We were left to our own devices a lot. We had unstructured play and a lot of time was spent outdoors. We were not pacified with screens and we mostly had our mum’s at home, to drop us in school and pick us up. Mum’s now have to work just to pay the obscene mortgages we have hanging round our necks. Kids are spending 10 hours a day at school.

In our day, we were not bombarded with adverts and pop ups and billboards selling us messages of a lifestyle we would never have. Adverts, by their very nature are designed to make you feel sad. If you liked yourself, you would not need the face cream, perfume, or holiday abroad. But by being told you are ugly, smelly and depressed, you spend money.

This generation are guinea pigs for how phones, tablets, laptops and 24/7 TV can change brain architecture. These are tools for which often kids have no respite. And we constantly wonder why young people are in an absolute mental health crisis.

This picture is of my son before he started school. He looks very different now. Today I went to see a prospective secondary school. They showed me the isolation room. They explained the detention system. DETENTION, a word we use for prisoners.

I went for a coffee with a lovely friend afterwards. “What changed a few years ago, Sy? Why are all these kids suddenly not coping?”

We started trying to solve a behaviour without asking what the reason was for the behaviour. In simple terms: we stopped listening.

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Nature therapy as a cure for mental burnout

It can be really hard to convince people that they should go outside in February. But this week I have been reminded that if you ever need to rediscover your Joie de Vivre, see the world either through a small child, or through someone on holiday.

I am very lucky in that I have always worked with young people. To them the world is full of wonder and magic and they are full of joy and optimism. Rachel from ‘Wild wood adventures’ who I work with every Thursday, really blows me away with the range and planning of activities for Bristol Stenier school. But every week I am struck with how much pleasure they derive, just from stroking some grass, or climbing a tree or lighting the fire. As adults we stop taking the time to experience the world in a sensory way and get sucked into “getting things done.”

Last Saturday I was booked to take three lovely Aussies on a trip of the Welsh waterfalls. I don’t mind saying that I was slightly worried. These guys were coming from the height of summer in Aus, to our bleak, cold, grey and wet February. The treeless valley has lost it’s sparkle. The river is probably about 3 degrees and the idea of sitting out to have a picnic, would be mad even by British standards.

But the 5 mile able along to the local pub was slow as they took in the wonder of being in an exotic location. My assistant Jem and I had a giggle when they were taking photos of moss. They had endless questions about the rocks and the lichens and the birds. I explained that we were walking through wild raspberries and hazelnut trees and if you came back in the summer, you could fill your pockets with treasures. We looked at the indicators of ancient woodlands such as the heart tongue fern, and they were intrigued about the remains of the very old railway from the quarrying days.

As we sat and ate the lobster and other local foods I had brought, they asked me what these little mounds of earth were around us. “Oh, they are mole hills.” I replied. “There will be a whole network of tunnels underneath our feet connecting them.” And I went on the explain what they ate, what they looked and felt like and answered questions about if they damaged the tress. “All of nature lives in a symbiotic relationship. I mused. And then we talked about the mycelium network with which the trees communicate with each other.”

To this family, it was the most exotic and beautiful Safari tree in a magical green fairy landscape. They loved the clean air and the refreshing swim in the waterfall lagoon (yes! They went in). And building a fire at the end as the sun set was a lovely bonding experience.

This experience was a reminder that the work I do now, is absolutely essential. Every Wednesday, I watch a group of women come home transformed for a few hours in nature. I am not a councillor, nor a trained therapist. Nature is the therapy. I am just here to point out some magical things you may not have noticed. I am here to answer questions. I am here to remind you of a truth that you already knew. You don’t always need £500 worth of therapy. Sometimes you just need to have space and calm and feel listened to.

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Into the wild – January Newsletter

My singular aim in the last year, has been working towards a goal of using the natural English countryside to educate, engage and inspire both children and adults. Previous to this I had been a Secondary school teacher, working in a variety of different settings in the South West. In January 2019, I enrolled to become a Forest School leader (Level 3) after realising that I was only truly happy outdoors, and by Easter I had decided to leave teaching to try a new way of working with people.

I started writing an adventure and nature blog in March (https://into-the-wild.org.uk/) which soon snowballed into a website and a small business. In September I began working at Tortworth Arboretum as a Forest school assistant on the Hawthorn project. This is a CIC set up to allow women recovering from addiction to heal, connect and feel they can be themselves in a nurturing and supportive environment.

In October I started a nature inspired educational session designed for children on the Autistic spectrum (https://www.facebook.com/intothewild.org.forestschool/). Each session has a theme based on one of the kid’s “Special interests” and myself and two lovely volunteers, have around 10 kids who regularly attend. We have 5 drop in places.

Also, during October I was accepted by Airbnb as an “Experience host” (www.airbnb.com/bristolwaterfalls). I organise and run trips to Welsh waterfalls for small groups of adults. I cook Lobster on a fire and provide a guided tour of the Geo park.

This January I hosted my first big event. On the 2nd of January, myself with two volunteers, ran a forest school session for 30 children and their parents at Ashton court, Bristol. I was commissioned through an organisation called BAP (Bristol Autism project) who put on free activities for Children with ASC and their siblings during the school holidays. (https://www.facebook.com/events/937756706600149/) I themed the session on the local tale of Goram the giant and we made clay sculptures, built dens and had s’mores over the fire pit.

A child’s depiction of Goram

Everyday I wake up excited, enthusiastic and filled with inspiration. But I have had to admit my own personality flaws: I am incredibly impatient, I talk when I should listen, I over share and it does not come naturally to be to be commercially minded. I get very emotionally connected to those that I work with and this is a double edged sword. I could not be as good at what I do if I did not get to know the families, but it is hard to put down that emotion and responsibility at the end of the working day.

Vegan meatball stew for Hawthron Project

Some of the seeds of projects I planted back in September have now just begun to come to fruition. And even though I was feeling at Christmas like I had failed at everything, I can see now that so much has been achieved in what is only really three months. So onwards and upwards! I have really seen the impact that working as an independent educator has had on the people involved, and I feel honoured to be part of this amazing journey. Thank you to all who have been on this incredible ride.

How to love Christmas

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This time of year is stressful, manic, sensory overload and emotionally charged. It usually results in too much being said after too much alcohol. And the high expectations can leave everyone feeling inept and remorseful at not being or having enough. And it is a time of reflection about people who are no longer here or about where we thought we would be now but have failed.

Forest school philosophy is about reconnecting with nature and people and building meaningful relationships. Christmas should also be about those things: Good food, trees, friends, family and laughter. Doing and being together. We all know this but I am sure most of us still get caught up with endless shopping (for stuff that will just go to landfill), spending money (and probably getting into debt) and drinking too much (to cope with the stress of the above). So how could be press the “reset” button?

Play with your children. Don’t give them things to play with. They think they want all the plastic rubbish, but let’s remember that their brains are the most susceptible to media and advertising. One of the things that blows me away when I am working at Forest school, is how quickly the children form bonds with us. I think it is sadly quite rare that kids get an adults undivided attention. We have such lovely chats, while collecting fire wood or cutting oranges, or flipping pancakes or playing ‘catch the flag’.

Choose the gift of spending time with people. We invite families round for Sunday lunch, or an evening meal fairly regularly, but “dinner parties” seem like an antique from the 70s. You will be amazed how happy it makes people feel. Let your kids choose a friend for a sleep over one night. You will be the biggest hero in history. You kid will be a celebrity.

Food bonds us. Cooking a meal from scratch is a rarity these days. Because people are strangled by mortgages, they are then shacked to long working hours. The knock on effect is that most families don’t have the energy to cook an elaborate meal. It’s not really about time. It is having the mental capacity and the emotional energy left to invest. If you bake someone a cake or slow cook a stew, one feels like they have really, really “given” something valuable. Sharing that food together takes away the guilt if you cannot reciprocate that gesture.

On two occasions, I have spent a Christmas eve preparing and cooking with a fellow woman. I can honestly say, it was one of my most treasured things to do, and it sounds crazy, as I am sure this was what people did everyday, historically. We laughed, chatted, listened to reggae and peeled a million spuds, baked a ham, cut crosses into sprouts. We seem to have become caught up in a kind of competition, akin to British bake off, rather than seeing it as a process we all invest in. It can lead to a lot of resentment.

This year, I will try to see Christmas not as some kind of act of endurance but as a time to build new memories. I will try to slow things down. Appreciate the small stuff. Go out and run along a beach rather then queue for an hour to get into a shopping mall. Walk through a forest, rather than clean the house to perfection. If I achieve these things, it will be a first. But as always, it is a work in progress.

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What is Forest school?

Just to address a few FAQs, I thought I would start with what Forest school is NOT.

1) It is not a bunch of women all getting naked in the woods together.

2) It is not just about toddlers playing with mud.

3) Some stuff you could do for free anytime, but someone is trying to screw money out of you for spending time in your local park.

I help run three very different forest schools. One is for women (adults) and takes place in 20 acres of arboretum. https://www.thehawthornproject.org/. On a Thursday, I assist with Wild wood adventures, who facilitate an excellent Forest school for the Steiner school kids at Wraxall piece. And on Friday, I have set up “Sensory Forest school”, designed for kids on the autistic spectrum, but open to all. My three days are very different but amazing, awe inspiring and life changing (for me, and for those taking part).

Some weeks I am busy devising interesting craft activities. Other weeks I am developing new recipes which will work on an open fire, and others I am learning new skills so rapidly, I barely have time to take stock. No two days are the same. It is a crazy, wonderful and mind blowing journey in which we are all passengers, and no one is actually steering the ship.

But don’t let me tell you how wonderful I am 😀 Or how brilliant Forest school really is. Let me show you…

“Can I say wow wow wow , I’m totally blown away. I am still trying to get my head around today….it’s really shown me how amazing a teaching setting can be when it is right.”

S Mum of 13 year old.

“I had to leave when I did as I was near to tears as it’s been at least 18months /2 years since I’ve seen this Oliver. I was totally blown away.”

S mum of child who has been out of school for 7 months

“I love being here because it is the only place I feel like people understand me and I feel accepted.”

Z Adult participant
Octopus dissection

Forest school is a holistic development of the participants through connection to nature. All activities are optional. The activities are ‘learner led’ and non competitive. It is about developing skills, taking risks, building self esteem, team building and collaboration. It is mostly set in an inspiring outdoor environment and fosters a sense of wonder and awe about the world. It is about making meaningful human connections. It is about laughing. Sometimes crying. Occasionally singing.

“I love the woods. I just feel calm and peaceful and get respite from my mind.”

G Adult participant.

“This is the only time I go out all week. This is the only time I talk to people. I am happy here. “

B Hawthorn Project

“How many octopuses do you get in the blooming woods!” I was asked last week by my biggest critic. That’s not the point. I tried to explain. There was one boy who had barely slept, for three nights he was so excited about Friday group. He had made his mum read loads of facts about Octopus from the internet. Three boys had spent 40 minutes, delicately taking the two beasts apart, step by step. We talked about food webs, and jet propulsion, and the fact that they have 3 hearts and 6 brains. We talked about organ functions and evolution and camouflage. And all this from three boys who cannot be kept at a desk for 2 minutes, in their school classroom.

With the adult group we make fire, and tea and talk. We talk about politics, and love, and philosophy and parenting. Sometimes, like today, we talk about farts and neighbours and art and tinsel. We arrive one person, and leave a different one. The second person is more at ease with itself. It is more resilient. More connected.

If I asked the participants a singular question of “what is Forest school?” I guess their succinct answer would be…

Forest school is my happy place

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Man down!

This week has been an emotional roller coaster and I think it is true to say that the world seems to be having a collective mental breakdown. I don’t know if it is the full moon, combined with Winter solstice or if the ridiculous political pantomime we have going on in the UK is just sending everyone over the edge. My children have cried approx. 500 times this week. Twice, the adults in my Forest school sessions have broke down in floods. I have a number of friends reaching out for help. I too felt utter helplessness last weekend. The world can feel overwhelming.

I think there is a reason, why throughout history, we have a big celebration right in middle of winter. We need it to get though the bleak season. We have evolved to over think everything, but animals can actually point us back in the direction of listening to our instincts. At this time of year, birds fly south. “Bugger this for a game of marbles!” they think. The flightless mammals build a den, get a load of food in and sleep it out till April. The deciduous trees drop everything and going into suspended animation. No more work till spring. Nice idea nature.

Snail and babies hiding under a log till it’s warm.

But most of us cannot do all those things. What we can do is slow down. We can appreciate the last bird song of the season. We can plan to meet friends and reconnect with some good nurturing autumnal food. This week I made smores with my Friday Forest school group. One of the parents said her daughter was looking forward to it all week. Next week I will plan a fire pit feast and a mindful walk in the local park and we can all hug it out around the flames.

When a beautiful lady cried at my adult session, I brought her a hot coffee and let her spill her heart. Then we went out as a group hunting fungus. We found a fairy den and inside were hundreds of coral fungi growing. I told a story about doing my scuba diving training at this time of year in Devon and being amazed by swimming through a kelp forest. Even under the sea, the plants go all the rainbow colours in Autumn. That spurred others to tell stories and we walked and talked and laughed.

And yes, dear friends, that is a picture of me with some cone fungi on my boobs. Because sometimes adventure is the answer to your problems, and sometimes having a laugh is. No one could resist laughing at my rendition of Madonna’s “Like a virgin.”

Last week I was selected as one of the top adventure blogs in the UK. https://blog.feedspot.com/uk_adventure_blogs/ Which is wonderful and fabulous and helps me in my mission to connect people with wild places.

But this week I was reminded that it is our connections to each other and not the places we go that make us happy.