Tag Archives: thinking

The Pros and Cons of Navel Gazing

I think I am suffering a recurrence of that interesting and absorbing medical condition known as “omphaloskepsis” (Greek) or “umbilicum spectans” (Latin) which results, as ever, in a crick in the neck and a perceived excess of belly button fluff. Alternatively known as “navel gazing”, this is a common problem for many people and can strike at any time although I myself am most often affected by it in the cold, dark days of January.  Everywhere I turn I am being urged to adopt a “New Year, New You!” lifestyle, or to resolve to become a fitter, healthier, happier, kinder, tougher, more adventurous, more successful person and this annual bombardment always makes me a little introspective and self-critical.

January is when I most often look at myself and notice the flaws that I try to gloss over most of the time. I pick over old scabs and rattle the skeletons in the closet. I ponder my weaknesses and lack of self discipline. I sigh over past failed resolutions and wonder whether this will be the year that I finally, finally shed that extra stone, break the sub 60 minute 10k run, pluck up the courage to read “The Road” (I have an aversion to “misery lit”), write a novel, spend noticeably more time with my family, catch up with friends that I have not seen for years, find a job that ICalvin & Hobbes love and that pays me enough to sustain my current lifestyle etc, etc. These are all ambitions that I have held or resolutions that I have made and broken over time. The only New Year’s Resolution that I have ever kept was the one resolving NOT to make any more. I know, in my heart of hearts, that I am too lazy and weak-willed to stick to anything else.

I have read untold articles and features about how to make resolutions that stick and how to achieve your dreams/how to succeed in life. I also have enough self awareness and knowledge of psychology (in fact I have an honours degree in the subject) to know that part of the reason why I refuse to make New Year Resolutions is because of my fear of failure. I expect to fail so why bother trying? Yes I know that sounds pathetic and before you suggest it, yes I have read “Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway”. Quite an interesting read but as with all self-help books I generally come to the conclusion that self-awareness is all well and good but inspecting your navel for too long can actually be a self-defeating activity. It’s too easy to become depressed at (insert your own personal demon here – mine is “lack of drive and resolve”) if you poke around in your belly button fluff for any length of time.

Usually by the second week in January I become bored of the crick in my neck and of sighing in self-disgust and my natural cheeriness and optimism kicks back in. I stop beating myself up for lack of resolve and reflect upon my past achievements and my potential instead. 2013 was a year of small, personal triumphs which are probably insignificant to most people but of which I’m proud nonetheless; I edited two novels (for my friend, the writer Michael J Holley), proactively sought out and acquired a new day job (as I’d been so bored in my previous one), kept off the extra stone in weight I’d lost the year before, ran sub 30 minute 5k on more than one occasion and… I didn’t give up writing.

Unlike many other activities I’ve started on a whim and then set aside over the years, writing is something I feel compelled to continue. For me,  it is often a response to navel gazing and a head full of noise, bursting with words that I must see zipping across the page to describe some inner contemplation, reflection or emotion. Expressing my thoughts and feelings in black and white helps lift my navel gazingline of sight up from my sagging, middle-aged tummy and clears my head. I am painfully aware that this sometimes leads to random, unstructured streams of consciousness for you, dear reader, but I make no apologies as the therapy is better than any self-help book I’ve ever read and much more creative than examining lint. Ooh perhaps my 2014 resolution should be to waffle less in my writing? Now there’s a thought…

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Thoughts from an autumnal garden

Looking up through the canopy of my glorious silver birch. Nov 2012

Late on a perfect October afternoon and the first leaf raking of the autumn. Residual heat from the gradually sinking sun filters through the semi-naked branches of the ash, birch and laburnum to warm my bones. The damp, earthy smell of the fallen leaves rising from the lawn with every thrrrupp, thrrrupp of the plastic rake. The whole sensory experience that comes with gardening is a pleasure and I soak it up. I know that many people loathe chores like this and see gardening as a tedious extension of housework. There are times when I agree with them; when I’m in a rush, distracted by other worries or overwhelmed by the long list of chores that need to be done, then I find it hard to enjoy. But not on a day like this. I am making the most of the shimmering, golden light, the smell of mouldering leaves and the persistent calls of the gold finches perched on the rose arch.

As I gather the foliage into piles on the lawn it occurs to me that there are parallel reasons why I enjoy both gardening and writing. The first of which is “me time”.  I am a social animal and thoroughly enjoy the company of my family and friends but I am also perfectly content with my own solitude. Gardening gives me space and time to think, to sort through my mental jumble and nurture ideas just as I nurture seeds in my potting shed. Writing too, gives me “head space” and it is this time to think, about the world, my relationships and about myself, that I treasure. Some might call it navel gazing and my head certainly fills up with scrupulously examined belly-button fluff  at regular intervals, but I do believe that self-awareness should be part of everyone’s mental good health regime.

In both writing and gardening there is an element of cultivation which appeals to my nurturing nature. Germinating the seeds of an idea is as delicate a procedure as persuading your half hardy annuals to sprout in the potting shed. In the same way that over or under watering will cause your precious seedlings to wilt and die, over or under thinking an idea will prevent it from achieving its full potential. Often with garden hoe in hand,  I will have an idea and then spend a lot of time pondering how to develop it into something substantial enough to be worth writing about. Only for it to wither and die under close scrutiny. Occasionally, though a little gem will take root. “Confessions of a Tea Snob” was conceived whilst weeding the herbaceous borders, or to be precise, whilst sipping a drop of the brown stuff on a break from weeding the herbaceous borders. (Admiring the effects of your hard work in the garden over a mug of steaming tea is a must).

The mug was a gift from my son – smart boy.

Stretching the analogy still further, editing is the literary equivalent of weeding. Removing the unwanted dandelions, bindweed and brambles, whilst keeping ivy and alchemilla mollis under control is akin to stripping out the superfluous sentence, pruning the repeated adjectives and separating your mixed metaphors 😉

Since I wrote the above autumn has moved forward into November and there is now barely a leaf left on the trees in my garden. It is not looking at its best. Mud and decay dominate at this time of year, but I’m planning to get out there still, if the rain holds off. I have 3 dozen white tulip bulbs to plant before the hard frosts begin and the prospect of how stunning they will look next spring is enough to make me brave the damp and cold. Our resident Robin will no doubt be hopping around close by, in the hope that my trowel will turn over something wriggling or scuttling, and, if I time it right, I’ll be able to listen to the blackbird as dusk settles. How can it be a chore when there is so much to enjoy? Go grab a hoe or a trowel and get outside in the dirt. Listen to the birds, feel the soil under your fingernails and smell…autumn. It will help clear your head and free your imagination. Who knows what bright ideas you may come up with…