This week’s MindLetter is about autumn, and stores of nourishment for hard times.
A Matter of Preservation
The American writer Tara Westover, whose bestselling memoir Educated chronicles her journey from home-schooled rural Idaho to a PhD at Cambridge, grew up in a family preparing for the End of Days. ‘My family always spent the warm months bottling fruit for storage, which Dad said we’d need in the Days of Abomination,’ she writes. Each summer they canned dozens of jars of peaches, and buried them in the ground. Their escape plan, when the End came, entailed disappearing into the mountains with the bayonets that her father had bought off the internet. But Tara wondered: how would they haul a thousand Mason jars of peaches up there?
Educated excels in capturing human fear about annihilation, and portraying the myriad ways – some more painful and destructive than others – that we try to control this fear. Tara’s depiction of her upbringing has played on my mind this autumn, with the unrelenting grimness of the news on the one hand, and the fruitfulness of apples, blackberries, rose hips, and crab apples, on the other. All around us, autumn is beautiful and bountiful. When the sun shines in Edinburgh, and the air is crisp, we know we live in a wonderful place. We know, too, that winter is coming; and when we remember, fear wells up, and we think about what is in the cupboards – those in the kitchen, and those of heart and mind. Do I have enough?
For the kitchen, we may not bury peaches in the ground – but our collective imagination turns quickly to preservation. Before lockdown in March, the acquisition of tinned food was second only to that of pasta and toilet roll. People pureed and froze vegetables. A friend went all-out for canned sardines. Now, with a second viral wave on its way, friends Whatsapp me the locations of overburdened apple trees in Morningside, and I give rose-gold apple jelly to my goddaughter. Students wander with Tupperwares in hand to strip and freeze the wild blackberries and raspberries on Blackford Hill. Our spring and summer of time outdoors have perhaps attuned us more vividly than usual this autumn to what is given, as much as to what has been taken away.
But seeing the fruitfulness of hedgerows and woodlands may only highlight, by contrast, the barrenness of the fields of heart and mind. The season inside is a few steps ahead of the turning leaves and crisp, bright mornings: we are in the hungry gap. We are exhausted, run down, frustrated, sleeping badly. Many of us are lonely and frightened. That little voice – I don’t have enough – is insidious, just out of sight, whispering into our ears.
It’s at times like these that we must look to the back of the cupboards, and see what we have stored up. ‘Mindfulness’ is a nineteenth-century translation of the ancient Pali word ‘sati’, which means remembering, or recollection. When we are exhausted and wrung out, time feels like a flat and endless present. Memory can become ‘over-general’: we remember things in the abstract, or with the grey smudge of low mood. We can feel as though good things that happened were another lifetime ago, or happened to someone else, and can never happen again. We may forget certain events entirely. Our preserves are dusty, and obscured by cobwebs.
If you feel like this, bringing your happy memories back into the present may be an important way of ‘remembering’ who you are, and where you have come from. They may help you remember that nourishment is still there, deep inside you, even when you feel like the last mildewed sprigs of yellowing kale under a thick grey sky.
Here are some ways to brush aside the dust, and pull out the goodness sitting quietly in the back of your cupboards.
1. A Meditation
Sit quietly, somewhere that you are warm and comfortable. Sense your feet on the ground, and your sit-bones in the chair. You may like to start with a three-step breathing space, to help you gauge your mood and mind-state in this moment, and settle and ground your attention.
Then, as you sit, drop a question into mind and allow it to resonate, as if dropping a pebble into a pond.
When was a time that I felt happy?
Notice what ripples up in response. Something in particular may pop into mind right away: a thought, or an image. See if you can allow yourself to stay close to it, to hold it in mind. Sense its reverberations in the body. It was real. It happened. You were there.
If the memory flickers away, or your mind wanders, just return to sensing your feet, and your seat. Then perhaps drop in the question again, and see what comes up this time. You might vary the wording a little, seeing what comes up when you tune in to a time you felt curious, or excited, or content.
Sometimes the ripples that come up feel painful, or frustrating. This is stupid, says the same little whispery grey-smudge voice that says I don’t have enough; or but I ruined it; or but it’ll never be good again. Acknowledge the little voice gently, with compassion. It is the same voice that would have you journey into the mountains with a thousand Mason jars on your aching back. Put down the jars, softly, and come back to your feet, and your seat.
Be gentle with yourself in these moments. Inclining the mind, little and often, towards memories that bring you nourishment, will slowly build you up. If it feels too hard to work with memory in this way, or you become overwhelmed, focus simply on grounding. The soles of the feet, and the sit-bones, are more preserves at the back of your cupboard. They are always available for your attention, to help settle and steady you.
2. A Snapshot
An image can be worth a thousand words, and as Facebook and Instagram knew, they can capture your attention from even the greatest distance. But we rarely sit down deliberately to look through old photos, to relish old times, and remember what was seen, felt, loved.
Set aside half an hour to head to your photo albums, if you have them, or sit at your laptop with a cup of tea. Put your photos on full-screen. Click through, slowly. The images of the happiest times – the ones that make your chest swell a little, and may even make you a little teary – download them. Email them to the people who were with you. Send them to a printer, and stick them on your wall, or above your bed. There were good times; they are part of you; and there will be again.
3. What Matters
The material and tangible can transport us to worlds afar and apart, as Proust and his soliloquy on the madeleine would attest. This is a time to pull out mementoes from forgotten drawers, to look around your room and remember. Think of the bookshop by the sea, the aunt who gave you that mug, the scarf for your birthday. Read a chapter of your book, and hear again the sound of the waves. Make a cup of tea in the mug, and remember the Christmas you received it. Write a postcard to the friend who sent you the scarf. Notice what is already here, quiet, forgotten, and how it might be brought to life. Allow whatever speaks to you to re-attune you to what matters: curiosity; discovery; loved ones.
The past is not lost. When we offer it care, wisdom, and attention, it lives again in ways that nourish and support us when life is hard. Sometimes nourishment feels like an uplift in the chest, and a resolution to go out into the autumn sunshine and pick the blackberries; sometimes it feels like acknowledging your grief, and having a quiet cry into a pillow, so that the tender parts of yourself that have been languishing at the back of the shelf can be held, gently, in the light of the present.
Either way, make yourself a cup of tea afterwards. Have something nice to eat. There are wild raspberries on Blackford Hill, and crab apples, shiny and glowing, by the community garden on the Meadows.