The New Routine

They say routine is the easiest way to manage depression. If you get a routine down, it’s hard to shirk duties you owe yourself. Getting a routine down, especially when not in regular employ, is more than a bit of a challenge. I mean, I still don’t understand mornings.

But baby steps add up to bigger ones. Now if I want or need to get going in the mornings, I instruct Nick to leave me a mug of coffee before he goes off to work. It’s damned near impossible for me to convince myself to sleep some more after that much coffee, no matter how comfortable I am or how much the cat is snuggling up to me.

Ah, the cat. You have no idea how much Charlie has informed my routine.

The little princeling hates it when I’m in my office. Despises it. Will sit at the door, staring balefully, singing the sad songs of his people. Whining. Practically crying. So I can’t work. Or doss around on the internet, surfing pointlessly and wasting my time.

So he pretty much laid down a wordless ultimatum: work out of the house, or don’t work at all.

And now that’s what I do. If I’m not going to get my arse handed to me at the gym, I pack up my bag with my iPad, bluetooth keyboard, fountain pens, drawing pouch, sketchbook, notebook and something to read, and head out to… somewhere. Anywhere. As long as there’s wifi and coffee, I’m happy.

Here’s the weird thing, and why I think this whole ‘mobile office’ phenomenon works: I have games on my iPad. I have access to the internet on it. But I do tend to just sit and write. I do a bit of surfing to look stuff up, but that’s about it. Any social networking, like Twitter or Facebook, I check on my phone, which is usually in my jacket pocket, silent unless I feel like checking.

Maybe I just don’t want to think of how it looks if I’m taking up a space in a coffee place playing Ticket to Ride, or watching cute cat videos. I have some pride, you know.

If the coffee place is playing cool music, like Timberyard usually does, then I’m sorted. If not, Spotify is my best friend, as long as I have a wifi connection. If I’m in the library, I tend to put on a white noise generator app, or more often than not, a rain generator. It all works.

This new routine has meant that I’ve caught up with most of my gardening magazines and journals, written drafts of things for the blog, and drawn a few silly things when I have very little brain left. And none of it felt hard. It all felt comfortable and achievable. It felt very me, in my skin.

It’s a nice feeling. Who knows: if I keep this up, I might end up writing stories again. Or just have page after page of doodles that make no sense or might summon small gods.

It’s all better than being at home with a clingy cat, feeling sorry for myself, looking for the end of the internet.

(There are cats there. I’m sure of it. Cats and cute puppy butts.)

Kickstart My Heart

I have finally rebooted.

April had to come to what I knew would be a temporary standstill because of a simple event:

My 35th birthday.

If you look very carefully, you can see how Nana adds ‘in-law’ to her birthday card. Sometimes I think she may start a campaign for more inclusive greeting cards.

More accurately: my first birthday without a call from my father, my first birthday where a card from Nick’s grandparents did not have Grandpa as one of the senders. Where the birthday call from my mother mostly involved discussion of the recent death of her uncle – who, unsurprisingly, outlived my father, but not Nick’s grandfather – and of my father’s newly-completed gravesite, stone and marker all in place.

It’s hard to celebrate another year of life when it feels like you’re being haunted by dead men. Moreso when you’re prone to depression and anxiety.

To top it off, one of my closest friends finally moved overseas, but I had no idea that when I last saw her and hugged her in February, it would be the last time.

It’s difficult to feel present when all you feel is absence.

I had to switch off a lot of things this month: my life drawing class, two different RHS events, the second half of my garden design workshop, going to yoga. I’d say I stopped knitting except I haven’t knitted for what feels like months now.

I made a stoic effort of it all. I had a lovely brunch with Nick, his sister and her boyfriend. We went to our Friendly Local Gaming Store. We went home and played a couple of games.

I got addicted to Android: Netrunner.

And we headed out for dinner again, this time with a couple of our friends. I desperately wanted to be in the company of my living boys, instead of the memory of dead men, and we had a raucous time eating a rather ridiculous amount of cow. It helped.

I also had to reserve a lot of energy for the wedding of a couple of dear friends, which completely wiped me out for two days afterwards. But having said that, the wedding was the absolute antidote that I needed. It was a happy event, and an incredible amount of fun, and the Southampton Geeks were together again, even if it was just for a day. I was with the people who understood me the most, who were my oldest and closest friends, and being with them reminded me of who I was and needed to be.

I’d promised the friend who moved that I’d fill her absence with more writing, with finally getting my horticultural blog built, with running from the energy that engaging with other horticulturists has given me.

So far, so good.

In between the desperate lows I’ve managed to prep more blogposts than I’ve ever done writing them on the spot for publication. I’ve met with a web designer friend who’s going to help me get my blog started. I’ve started sketching out ideas, choosing fonts and colours, drawing icons and buttons.

Every time I miss her, I get to work. It’s a fair deal. It’s no good missing someone when they’re getting on with their lives, and so should you. And it’s easier to focus on those you miss who are alive and well, than dwell on the ones who are gone. I know eventually I’ll stop missing but continue working, knowing that all is well wherever they are.

There are still days – in fact, right now – where I feel that my personal brand of depression is nearly a disability, or what I like to refer to as an unability: unable to be creative, unable to move on, unable to get myself going. I actually don’t know if I’ll ever be able to work like normal people, to hold down a regular job no matter how much I want to, despite the fact that working in horticulture makes me deliriously happy.

But at least if I keep plugging away like this, if I keep writing, if I keep my horticultural studies up to scratch, I can still engage with people and make some kind of difference.

I’m sure some wise person said something about the journey being the thing and not the destination. Good thing I like walking.

A Hell of a March

It’s been one of those months, and April hasn’t been a pushover, either.

Let’s start with James Wong and the YoungHort conference at RHS Wisley.

I came to know of James by accident and by voice: we had the telly on in the background and when I heard his voice, I said: “That sounds like me.” A Malaysian expat will pick out another Malaysian like a polearm in a haystack. So, if you don’t know James, here’s what I can tell you.

He’s an ethnobotanist (already, this is very cool) who trained at Kew (extra horti-brownie points) and is a massive plant geek. And he’s happy to say so. He’s got this infectious enthusiasm that tends to leave you feeling like everything is pretty freaking awesome. Which is awesome. He has RHS medals to his name, including two Chelsea Golds, and has written best-selling books.

What has any of this got to do with me?

I met James a couple of times during his talks, the first at the Chelsea Physic Garden where I was painfully shy upon meeting my hero – look, he’s got his dream job, essentially, and he’s a smidge younger than me; what’s not to envy? – but we talked about what to grow on a south-facing window (chillies – been there, done that, still doing that) and his recent Chelsea design, where I reckoned not many people would have asked him questions about the type of wood used (oak stained to look like meranti) and how if he could, the marble would have come from Langkawi Island.

I met him again at another talk, this time at RHS Hyde Hall, where he more or less picked me out in the shop. He signed my book, writing that it’s the first book he’d signed for another Malaysian. By this time, I was halfway through my RHS Level 2 Diploma and felt more at ease around him.

The third time was at an event at Woodcote Green Garden Centre and Nursery. It was after my father’s death, and I figured even if it was going to be the same talk I’d heard before, I could at least say hi, and then explore the garden centre as it was new to me, and the whole day would help to cheer me up. I did get to say hi, we got to geek out a bit, and I went off exploring.

Malaysians bond over a few things: food, designs of home, and listening to each other’s well-practiced English accents teeter precariously over the edge and falling straight into home streetspeak. I guess James and I have the extra bonuses of plant geekery and a sincere desire to change the way people see gardening and horticulture and bring it firmly into the 21st century.

So we began bouncing back and forth on Twitter. I made other Twitter friends in the industry, both professionals and super-keen amateurs. I’ve been looking into new things, talking with new people, exploring new ideas. And it was through Twitter that I heard that James was going to give his latest talk on the possibilities within the industry at the YoungHort conference.

There were no tickets left, despite it being a free event. But very kindly, James said, “I can probably sneak you in.”

To which I said, “You sneak me in, and I’ll give you a lift to Wisley.”

I’ll tell you something: hanging out with one of your heroes in the car is a pretty good laugh. Especially when you’re getting lost and the satnav got as confused as we did.

The conference itself is a wonder: a bunch of under-21s decided to create their own forum in which to connect, share ideas and get things off the ground. They formed in December, and three months later held their first conference, with talks from various professionals – Michael Perry from Thompson & Morgan, Leigh Morris from the Institute from Horticulture and James himself, among others – as well as a brainstorming session and a tour of Wisley. It didn’t feel like YoungHort’s first ever conference; there was the odd microphone hiccup, but that was about it.

And the best thing about it is that the conversation dynamic was completely different to any other horticultural event I’ve been to. Easily 75% of the attendees were younger than me, and that gave the whole event a different, more excitable energy. Everyone wanted to learn. A lot of people, myself included, started off a little shy and unsure, and then warmed up and really got going.

(I also got to speak very briefly to the the curator of RHS Wisley, Colin Crosbie, who I worship deeply and apparently I made his day by telling him that whenever I saw him on telly, I told myself that someday, he’d be my boss. I could’ve died happy right where I stood.)

I could feel my industry start to change, right then. I think I felt more a part of it than I ever did before, because I was surrounded by people who wanted the same things I did, and who believed in the same possibilities as I did.

I was knackered by the end of that day. Social energy is not something I expend a lot of these days, and holy crap, I burned everything I had. I don’t actually know how I got back to Wisley the very next day to attend a garden design workshop, but I did.

I ran on the energy from that conference for the rest of the month. Thinking, reading, writing – again, at last – and wondering how to drive my life. I also got a bit braver: I saw a job on Twitter, I contacted them, I had a week’s trial. It didn’t work out in the end, but I don’t know if I’d been that assertive prior to the conference and it’s positivity.

In the same month I started a life drawing class, started sketching and doodling more often, and soon applying for a 6-week Drawing and Design course to get my skills up. I’ve started yoga again. I’m training hard again. Things feel good again.

So, thanks, James Wong and YoungHort. It’s good to know that horticulture really does kick ass and makes the world feel good.

A Year of Charlie

Typically, I don’t blog for a while, and when I do, it’s about the damned cat.

But this is different.

Today marks precisely a year since we brought Charlie Kittenface, aka Boo or Bundle, home from the Celia Hammond Animal Trust in Lewisham.

He is very regal when he isn’t moving. Largely because he’s still a little wonky. But that hasn’t bothered him much at all.

The day before this auspicious day, Charlie had unfortunately earned a terrifying yelling from Nick, because he’d knocked over my propagator with my chilli seeds in. He remained quite cowed long after the mess had been cleared up, and slept on me most of last night. I could look at it two ways: either he was still scared of Nick, because Nick never yells; or he was made to understand that knocking the propagator over had upset Nick so much because it had taken a lot from me to gather the enthusiasm to get started with the chillies this year, so he wanted to make it up to me.

That’s just the kind of cat he is.

The year hasn’t started well for me: nearly two weeks of stomach flu, a few bouts of bad depression, one panic attack and another bout of not being well. All of which involved being in bed a lot, and I’ve discovered that Charlie knows the difference between me being genuinely unwell, and me just being sorry for myself.

If I am genuinely unwell, he would be curled up close. I would wake up to find him snuggled right up against me, or on my feet, asleep or purring madly. This is him going, “It’s okay, Mummy. I’ll look after you.”

If I’m just being a pathetic lump of feeling sorry for myself, he would be at the end of the bed, on his sleeping spot, with a look of tired reproachfulness. This is him going, “Oh, do get over yourself, woman. Really.”

In the hierarchy of this household, I am Soft Mummy Who Gives Cuddles, and Nick is Giant Chew Toy Who Gives Food and Fixes the Fountain When It’s Broken. This may seem unfair, but I am jealous of how vocal he is with Nick. As soon as Nick wakes up or comes home, it’s all  meep? miap? miaaaa? meee? mrrr-mia? mowp? because Nick is the one who gives him food, and they have a conversation while the food is being sorted out.

If I put down food for him, it is meaningless. It is wrong. Treats: okay. Actual food: nothing doing. If I come home from being gone for hours, all I get is a oh. you’re home. cuddle?

But he loves us. Truly, utterly adores us. He was inconsolable when I disappeared for two weeks to see my ailing late father. He gets genuinely upset if we’ve told him off and would do anything to be loved again. Neither of us have ever had a cat who begged gently for attention, who could be taught to play without claws, who would snuzzle and lick and kiss us as if each would be his last.

It is a true thing: animals may not be able to talk, but when you rescue them and give them a good life, sometimes they know exactly how to let you know.

A year of Charlie. May there be many more.

Words in My Head

It’s a quiet Sunday evening. Nick is taking a nap due to a migraine, and Charlie is napping with him. I was knitting a sock when I realized that I could be writing something.

Anything. Anything at all.

It used to be that I would more or less refuse to write a blog post because I had no accompanying images, thinking that things would look more interesting and inviting if I had a photo or two. But that’s getting silly for two reasons.

One is that I feel that lately I always have something I want to write about, but hesitate because I have no images. That’s pretty dumb. That’s like not going out for a run because you can’t find your running jacket, which you usually end up taking off anyway.

And two is that I have a memory card in my camera that’s full of unprocessed photos from various garden visits that I could use. All I need is an afternoon and I’d have them ready to go.

There’s a third reason.

Lately, I’ve been awake a lot. And at the wrong times.

It’s now no longer weird to me that I am still awake at one in the morning, so I give up, head to the sofa and either knit or read. I finished my first book of the year in two days nights, and I’m currently 62% of the way through my second book of the year*. I used my Kindle for both, something I haven’t done in a long time, and I worked out why.

I had it in a cover. A beautiful cover. It made it feel like I’m holding a book.

It also took up the same space as a book. To choose between my writing notebook and diary, and the Kindle-in-it’s-beautiful-cover, I always leave the tech behind.

I took it out of the cover. Unprotected, it takes up less space, is lighter, and I’m picking it up and reading all the time. Pick up, click, read, put away. It rumbles and bounces a bit in my bag, but I know it’s fine.

Just like a real book. Pick up, open, read, put away. Ding, thud, bump. Still fine.

So I’m spending endless silent nights, sometimes until the sky begins to change colour, reading. Inhaling. Devouring. Filling my head with words. Wondering strange and normal things. Asking and answering questions.

I mean, it can’t go on like this, obviously. I need to be able to get a decent amount of sleep so I can get up at a decent hour and get decent work done. I’ll never get anywhere if I don’t, but…

I like the words that come and visit in the night. I like that I choose these words and these ideas, instead of the punishing thoughts that come unwarranted. I like that my head is brimming so full with stories that everything else gets drowned out. It’s like finding a little night-time garden I can sit in and enjoy in peace.

I mean, how much sleep does one need, really, if this feels so good?

* That first book was Wonder, by R.J Palacio, and the second is A Tale for the Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki.

Intent and Outcome

A lot of things didn’t get done last year. Hell, things I hoped to get done last month didn’t get done.

I am two reviews behind for The Great British Garden Revival. I have yet to write the launch post for my new gardening-based blog. I have yet to start my plan of writing out my plant idents as part of my quiet re-education while waiting for placements to happen and traineeships to come up for application.

But it’s only the first of January.

I finished very little last year. No chilli plants. The only knitting I finished happened up until April, and no more after. No new stories. I never started C25K  because when I intended to, my non-existent arches were badly hurt from the simple act of standing on a metal ladder for too long. I never got to go to as many yoga sessions as I’d hoped. I can now swim well enough, but never followed through with continuing. I never read as many books as I’d hoped, but it was an improvement over previous years.

But it’s only the first of January.

I can’t remember a worse year than 2013. And it’s not even all of it – the last four months or so quite capably negated any joy or ease that I had or could have had. Physically I am now the most unfit that I remember, mentally I am mere inches above what it was like before diagnosis, therapy, medication.

But it’s only the first of January.

So I come to the two words that I hope will take me through this year, help me get over the tragedies of the last, and get me back into a more positive state of things.

Breathe. Create.

Not quite as playful as Neil Gaiman‘s wonderful and true Make Good Art – which, if you haven’t read or listened to, you really should – but similar.

I need to give myself a break, give myself time and opportunity to be okay. I need to not be so hard on myself, to stop telling myself why I’m not done with this or that yet, why I’m not over that time or this thing. I need to be good to myself, and to those who have helped me be good to myself, so I can move, and exalt in the movement.

Therefore: I breathe.

I mourned amidst flood of tears last night to Nick that my hands felt empty without plants to look after, growing things to care for. But also because so little has been accomplished with these hands, so few moments and treasures created.

(Okay, I made a pincushion over Christmas. That’s about it. More on that another post.)

I figured the more time I give myself, the more chances I give myself, the more I’ll be able to create. It may be in words or wool, fabric or paint or light, but I will create something. I’m from a family of makers: I’m sure I’ll rise to the occasion.

So: I create.

I’m not asking much of 2014. I don’t want great things. Good things will do. Happy things. Happy things are really the best things.

I hope for happy things for you, too.

One Hundred

This appears to be my one hundredth post.

It’s taken three-and-a-half years to get here, and a lot has happened in that time. And a lot more is still to happen.

So while I know I owe a review of the second episode of The Great British Garden Revival, and by tomorrow I will owe two reviews, I’m taking this post as an opportunity to make an announcement.

Given my growing focus on plants, gardening and horticulture, I think I’ve finally hit that sweet spot where my life in plants has grown to equal my life in crafting, if not superseding it. And instead of making me worry, it’s made me want to do more: I want to write more about plants, about what I’m learning, how I’m getting my hands dirty, where I’m going.

So in the New Year, I’ll be launching a new, sister blog to this one: Full Sun, Deep Shade.

If you’ve been following me on this blog, I hope you’ll come along for the ride, and if you’re a hort geek like me, I hope you’ll enjoy it.

Stay tuned.