I haven’t posted anything in a while, and now that I’m typing away, I don’t want to write about China (as I’d planned). I don’t even really want to write about travel at all.
I sat down this morning and thought about finishing off my post about Beijing. It’s sat there mostly finished. Really I should just finish it. But I don’t have any enthusiasm for it, and if I’m not writing with any enthusiasm, how can I expect you to read with any.
What I want to write about instead is home, and about trying to stay sane.
The last couple of weeks has been a welcome change of pace for us. We’ve been mostly hanging out with family, doing a bit of hiking, and these last few days swimming, camping, and going to the beach. Spring is turning into summer in Western Australia, and I’m looking forward to spending as much time as possible outdoors in the next few months.
This — and some sad news from back home — has got me thinking about aIl of the things we’re missing being on the road. Before you switch off, this isn’t (entirely) a moan fest. I am profoundly grateful for all the experiences we’ve had in the last year. I’m proud that we managed to carve out this time in our lives, and so very glad that we were in a position to make it happen. It was hard work saving up enough for this trip to be an option, and it was hard to let go of our life in the UK, but we are very lucky that it was possible at all.
But naturally, spending time with familiar people in a familiar kind of life is making the loss of hearth and home more prominent in my mind.
Oh, if I only had a hearth
I sometimes wonder if my latent desire for a home of our own is really about a fire of our own. Honestly, one of the main reasons I would consider getting a mortgage is that it’s hard to rent somewhere with a working fireplace. Irrational you say? True though.
“To think it will soon be June,” grumbled Bilbo, as he splashed along behind the others in a very muddy track. It was after tea-time; it was pouring with rain, and had been all day; his hood was dripping into his eyes, his cloak was full of water; the pony was tired and stumbled on stones; the others were too grumpy. “And I’m sure the rain has got into the dry clothes and into the food-bags,” thought Bilbo. “Bother burgling and everything to do with it! I wish I was at home in my nice hole by the fire, with the kettle just beginning to sing!” It was not the last time that he wished that!
The Hobbit, or There and Back Again
Which brings me to reading, to rambling (as in hiking… though I know I go on a bit) and also to routine. Three things that have been lacking for me lately, and which I’m only just now realising how much I’ve missed.
Reading has stopped being my refuge
I really hoped that at this stage of our trip I’d be able to find more time for writing on here, and I’d be wowing you all with tales of China on a regular basis. But that hasn’t happened. Instead of expanding my writing, I’ve been expanding my reading.
In the run up to this trip I imagined it would bring me endless hours of reading time, but that hasn’t been the case. Or rather I haven’t prioritised reading for pleasure. I’ve mostly read travel guides, travelogues, novels set in the places we’ve been or are going, local newspapers, or articles on the politics and history of the countries we’ve travelled through.
Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.
It’s just not true, is it? I love reading, and writing. But recently I’ve started taking my writing more seriously, and consequently the reading that goes with it has sort of become work. Not consciously at first. But I started taking notes. That’s kind of work. Which means it’s not relaxing. I realised recently that I’d lost reading as a source of calm, and that loss was wreaking all sorts of havoc in my brain.
These last few weeks I’ve been making up for it, rereading old favourites, catching up with blogs that are nothing to do with travel, or are about places I’ve no hope of visiting any time soon. This week I read a whole novel set in London. Nothing to do with travel. Well, not much anyway.
Before we arrived in Australia I was really looking forward to a return to more ordinary surrounds. In many ways Australia’s exotic, obviously. But culturally it’s very similar to home for us. I’d begun to get exhausted by language problems, culture clash, noodles. I wanted cheese. I wanted to slow down. I wanted normality back.
Now that I’ve settled down into this new reality, all of these things are great, and that’s partly what this post is about. What it’s also about though, is going a little bit mad, which was the short term result of our return to normality.
It took standing still to see the effect of all this moving
A couple of weeks ago I found myself experiencing some full on anxiety, and realised I was standing ankle deep in the murky ponds of an approaching depression.
A side note for those of you who know me mostly offline, and who might expect me to have spoken about this before. This is not something I talk about explicitly with a lot of people, though I do with some. I’m not sure why this is, perhaps partly because I don’t want to alarm anyone. Please don’t be alarmed! I’m more or less as well as I’ve ever been, which these days is generally very well. Also, I don’t want to make too much of it. My mental health travails are very much of the common or garden variety. It’s not something I want to be a big part of my life. But it is part of this story, so here it is.
It’s actually quite easy for me to avoid full blown melancholy on the road — there’s always some sort of distraction, and plenty of forced activity. This works well for me for keeping sane day to day. Always a bus to catch, a meal to find. Exercise just happens through walking everywhere, lugging bags, running up and down stairs. And these things must be done, so there’s no need to find the motivation.
Also, we’re often (though not always) having fun. Like, time of your life fun. Which, you know, helps.
So it’s hard for me to really feel sad when I’m moving. But it’s easy to feel exhausted, grumpy, irritable. And it’s also easy to use these fleeting discomforts as an excuse to ignore internal sources of mental strife. To write off the thought processes that lead me to depression as everyday tiredness, or as the disconnectedness of being physically far away from loved ones. To dismiss them as the travel blues.
And broadly speaking, ignoring bad thoughts by keeping busy is quite effective for me in the short term. But it’s not a long term solution. The problem comes, has come, when I stop. For me, stopping has always been difficult.
And walking is how I stand still
For my long term mental health, I do need to stop. I can’t rely on distractions, I need to work on more difficult but more enduring solutions. And to create a state of mind in which I find that possible, I need certain things in my life. Things which might be dismissed as trivial, but I’ve found that I sorely miss.
I expect everyone has these things. Scaffolding for the routine of your days and weeks — things that keep you on an even keel. Mine are reading before bed, cooking dinner, baking, sewing, sporadic yoga, a hot bath and a cold drink, spending days hiking in the hills, far away from electric lights and mobile signal.
That last one was all it really took to rein in my crazy. Last week we went for a three day hike on the Bibbulman track. We walked, we ate pasta and built a camp fire. We fell asleep in open fronted shelters, looking at the stars. We saw kangaroos, and a sleepy lizard. I got back from our walk a changed person, back to myself, instead of an anxious mess.
And at the weekend I made chocolate chip cookies. That tiny little thing did more for my well-being than makes any sense at all.
Some of those who wander get lost
Not all those who wander are lost. Another Tolkein gem.
All of our global wanderings have begun to make me feel a bit lost though. I hoped to find freedom in travel, and it has been freeing. Lately a little too much so. I’ve been freed from my routine, from the choices that defined the life we built in the UK. From baking.
And those things were anchors. Anchors I thought were dragging me down, and in some ways they were. But they were also holding me fast.
Hiking used to be part of my routine, and while I remembered how much I enjoyed it, I think I had forgotten how important it was for my brain. The morning after we finished our Bibbulman trail hike I read this beautifully written post on the power and value of time in nature. Sometimes you need to read somebody else saying what you’re feeling for the thoughts to really take form, and coalesce into sense.
It’s funny how when your thoughts are going a certain way, everything you read seems to relate to them. I expect the truth of it is that I’m drawn to read what I’m interested in right now, and the rest gets ignored. But it seems everything I’ve been reading this week is either to do with looking after your brain and yourself, or on home.
Yesterday I read Shelley of travel stained describe home as a construct that gathers within its warm confines. That is, a state of mind, a collection of solid reference points that make us feel ourselves. Not a place. And I’ve found this to be true — apart from all this recent travel, we’ve moved house about 15 times in the last eight years. But every time we start anew there are things I bring with me that make wherever we are home. Little routines, starting points for building days that make up some sort of continuous life.
And in a very real way, these things keep me sane. Home is knowing who you are.
So right now I’m luxuriating in things I know I like. Cups of black tea, no sugar, a little splash of milk. Waking up in a sleeping bag. Falafel.
I hope you can bear with me on this voyage of rediscovery of the mundane. I’ll be back with more of the great unknown soon. Promise.