The Power Of Nature To Heal

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Photo of the Sierra De Aracena by Charlie Chesterton, chef at Finca Buenvino. Follow him on Instagram @foodsunandfun

I’m writing this in a café in north London, down wind from the peppery scent of their Christmas tree. Outside, the sky is blue and the sun shines.

I want to go and play outside, Mum!

Every year it’s the same – every year I’m crawling the walls by December, desperate for sun and fresh air, and yet the answer is in my own hands. Not more extra spending on a possibly-effective SAD light, but getting my butt moving; wrap up, shape up and get out of doors. And not to Savers, Sainsbury’s or another ‘indoors’ but really OUT, OUT.

Whatever the weather.

As a child I found such happiness spending whole days outside –looking after the cows on a near-by dairy farm, searching for shells on the beach, roaming the fields on the family allotment, deep in the Hampshire countryside. All places where I could escape into my imagination, undisturbed by my parents or siblings and find peace and happiness Now, I want a life more in walking boots and waterproofs and less in make-up and outfits socially acceptable for city-living. I want mud. I want to feel my heart race as I climb a hill or mountain and my spirits soar as I reach the summit and gasp at the landscape before me.

The power of the natural world to heal and inspire  is something I need to remember in the dark, indoors days of winter in the Northern hemisphere. Plus now there’s digital help at our fingertips. I’ve joined a Whatsapp group called ‘Nature Therapy Counsel’ which encourages the sharing of photos of the natural landscape. There’s  the website Spirit Of The Trees which ‘provides poetry, folk tales, myths for tree lovers’ and as I type, on my laptop  I have my headphones plugged into a Youtube tape of 11 Hours of  Tranquil Birdsong.

Author Matt Haig was quoted in the Guardian Review recently, in relation to his experience of depression, saying, ‘…the day I realised I was going to be OK was the April after my breakdown, the sun came out and I almost felt a literal weight being lifted.’  And I’ll will be OK too, when the higher light levels return. In May, I’m back in wooded landscape of  the Sierra De Aracena National Park in Andalucia to run writing retreats and there we’ll spend almost all day outside -  meditation sessions, writing workshops, guided walks and eating lunch and dinner – but in the meantime I must  take more advantage of London’s myriad of parks and wild spaces for my mental health, whatever the weather. ‘Tis verily the season for bringing the greenery in but I need to get out as well.

This poem by the American author and poet Wendell Berry is my Christmas gift to you:

When despair for the world grows in me 

and I wake in the night at the least sound

in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be, 

I go and lie down where the wood drake

rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds. 

I come into the peace of wild things

who do not tax their lives with forethought

of grief. I come into the presence of still water.

And I feel above me the day-blind stars

waiting with their light. For a time

I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.’

© Wendell Berry.  From “The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry”

A Story In Everything

A Story In Everything

I’m never naked, I’m never alone, I always have my friends around me. In bed, in the bath, on the beach.  I always have my constant companions.

 It started with a wedding ring in the early 70s. A three-band Russian from Anschels in the Kings Road, I lost it in a Hot Yoga session in Brighton, slipped off my finger, never to be seen again. My husband had died five years earlier and it had already had migrated to my left hand. Its disappearance didn’t surprise me – its time was up and I was ready to let go.  Then, I lost an earring hung with Wright & Teague charms - all gifts from my husband - during a romantic encounter with a lover in a dark street in Hackney in 2015.  I was bereft for a day or two and then realised, ‘Time for them to leave me as well.’

 Lots of us have ‘lucky’ garments that empower us – pants, a flattering white shirt, a favourite pair of jeans. I miss Gareth Southgate and his iconic waistcoat, worn for every World Cup game. But I bet he took it off at bed time. Mine stay with me, like tattoos or piercings. Or the bright sunset orange varnish on my toenails in the winter that shouts, ‘Sandals! Summer! Spain!’ every time I step out of bed on these dark, dank November mornings.

 For years, I’ve adorned my body with talismans and totems that I sense are are imbued with special powers as strong as Harry Potter wands or the   stones with holes that are strung on rope in front of my bedroom window – hag stones that the Cornish say may protect me from witchcraft and witches.  

Each ring, bracelet or necklace on my body has an emotional history and reminds me of my ability to survive despite what life may throw at me – the twisted silver ring that my son dug up in a garden in Brighton or the thin gold one with a tiny red gem that I bought in Spain, in lieu of an engagement ring from my ex. On my wrist I have memories of Crete, Thessaloniki, Essaouira, Monpazier, Brighton, Hackney, Oxford Circus and Cadiz. Of past loves, present offspring and dear friends.

 In April this year, fearful of going alone to a wedding, all dressed up and knowing few others, I drew a tattoo on my wrist with a Sharpie – a triangle with two circles, an ancient symbol for “Widow  with Children’ that a friend-of-friend had posted on Instagram. It was hidden under   all those bracelets but its silent strength empowered me.  I knew it was there and I plan to make it permanent - when I pluck up the courage. I once had a rabbit’s foot that dangled from the zip of my Parka when I was a Mod. But I’ve never carried a twist of a dead relative’s hair in a locket – I know my limitations -  but the Hamsa, the hand of Fatima hangs in my hall and the Turkish nazar, the eye-shaped amulet believed to protect against the evil eye is nailed on my door.

 In these times of uncertainty, a few extra tools in our armoury against life’s arrows may come in useful and to the bastardise the words of Jenny Joseph, who died earlier this year, in her famous poem,  ‘Warning,’

‘When I am an old woman I shan’t wear purple but I will  believe in magic.’

This post  first featured on That’s Not My Age - the grown-up guide to great style — edited by Alyson Walsh


 

 

 

 

New Women's Writing Workshop in London

Women’s Wednesday, Weekly, Writing for Wellbeing Workshop [trying saying that after a couple of glasses of red!]

Elaine’s inspirational teaching touches many aspects of writing and uncovers many emotional layers - non-judgemental, sensitive, fun, very creative and caring.
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Every Wednesday morning, 10.30-12.00pm at The Last Crumb Cafe & Work Hub in Stoke Newington. No previous writing experience required, all writing is in a note book with a pen or pencil, no ‘wrong’ way to interpret any of the writing suggestions. This workshop is not about spelling, grammar, punctuation or publication but is an opportunity for all women to discover the therapeutic benefits of writing down their lives and sharing their stories in a small, supportive and un-judgemental environment. An opportunity to play with language and re-discover our creativity. The Last Crumb has great in-house baked pastries and cakes and of course, excellent coffee, tea and herbal drinks.

The space is very cosy and intimate and the pastries etc were fab. It felt as if we were being really well looked after.

To Book, please follow this link to Evenbrite: https://bit.ly/2zWHsd4


Autumn Celebration

A time to say thank you…

Sam Chesterton, owner of Finca Buenvino, arranging flowers for the drawing room

Sam Chesterton, owner of Finca Buenvino, arranging flowers for the drawing room

Elaine, you are an inspirational teacher and I wish you could have been the course leader on my MA! You’ve encouraged us all with such sensitivity, perception, creativity and fun that I’ll always want to go on writing! Thank you for interconnecting with us all on a deep level and sharing your life and talents with us.

We have had a wonderful year at Finca Buenvino in 2018 - filled with laughter, love, generosity and gratitude. We have met so many new writers and taken such great pleasure in sharing with them the superb hospitality and food of Sam, Jeannie and Charlie Chesterton - introducing them to the high hills of the Andalucian landscape, the joys of sharing mealtimes, guided walks, mindfulness meditation sessions and of course, the transformational power of writing down our lives in notebooks.

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The infinity, salt-water pool which overlooks the Sierra De Aracena Y Picos De Aroche National Park. Finca Buenvino sits in 150 wooded acres which we explore every day, always taking time to sit and write sensory observations and stories in our small notebooks which we carry everywhere.

I will leave it up to comments from my writers on our September week to explain the benefits of a Write It Down! holiday at BV. Thanks to all of them and to everyone who has joined me during the last four years. We will be back here in May, June and September 2019.

The teaching method’s were superb; constant gentle nudges that got you out of your comfort zone and made your heart and mind wake-up and produce writing that I didn’t know was there - non-judgemental, sensitive, fun, very creative and caring to us all. I would recommend this holiday to anyone interested in writing.’ Heather.
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Elaine’s teaching created a very good team spirit, pushed us a little so we could all get a lot from the course but did so with humour throughout that was always encouraging. This holiday has finally got me started on a long held resolve to start writing - it was a very enjoyable, relaxing and therapeutic experience. David.

The Orgasm Tree

Finca Buenvino amongst the sweet chestnuts. Photo by Jenni Bradbury.

Finca Buenvino amongst the sweet chestnuts. Photo by Jenni Bradbury.

Very often, we begin a conversation with a friend on one subject and progress rapidly to something completely different, discovering on the way the most illuminating information.

 This happened to me last week. I was describing the climate at Finca Buenvino in Andalucia, where we run our writing holidays. I explained that whatever the temperature in the summer months, we can always walk because of the shade of the cork oaks and sweet chestnut trees that cover the dehesa - the wooded landscape of the Sierra de Aracena National Park.

‘Oh!’ my friend exclaimed, ‘That’s why the atmosphere is so beneficial for writing and meditation up there! That’s why your writers find it so empowering to stay there. Sweet chestnut’s a well known Bach flower remedy for encouraging new beginnings, transformation into a new and much better life. It’s a treatment for the "dark night of the soul," the despair of those who feel they have reached the limit of their endurance, it’s for a time when old beliefs and patterns break apart and make room for new levels of consciousness. It is the perfect treatment for when you are ready to open up to the light at the end of the tunnel, the light before the new dawn.’ Buenvino certainly has a magical aire, everyone remarks upon this. When I told her that the flowers of the sweet chestnut purportedly smelt like semen, she laughed. ‘Ah yes, it’s known as the orgasm tree because it produces such a surge of transformative emotions!’

The trees blossom in June, we’re there from the 16 -23...do join us.

Why Spending Time and Money on Yourself is Essential

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Often,  the responses I get from writers on my workshops or retreats are, ‘This feels such a treat, such an indulgence, having time to myself, being given permission to write.’

In these frantic, challenging and guilt-inducing times when we can feel powerless to affect the bigger picture, nurturing our bodies and feeding our minds is even more important. And writing it down, bearing witness, leaving a written record on paper for future generations to read, handle, hold and treasure is a duty. Not an indulgence, far, far from it. It replenishes our self-belief and self-esteem, as much as it informs and encourages others. Remember John Aubrey, the 'father of lifewriting' and his insistence of 'writing down the minutiae of life'. All our lives matter, not just those of celebrities, politicians or cultural heroes.

This is a piece that I wrote recently  for Alyson Walsh’s blog That’s Not My Age, for older women with style. I hope to meet many of you on my writing retreats in Spain at Finca Buenvino this summer, writing down your lives and enjoying a whole week of indulgence! 

I’m at my favourite hairdresser’s, in charity-shop top and jeans, spending a ridiculous amount on a cut and colour. The guaranteed boost to my fragile self-confidence will be well worth it. Tomorrow I will pay to have my toe nails painted, even though my bathroom needs re-grouting and the tap has a terrible drip. My saloneyebrow maintenance ritual is a non-negotiable expense, I love the therapist’s gentle attention. Last night I booked a three-week runaway to Crete in August, after weeping buckets at the Charmed Life in Greece free exhibition at the British Museum about the friendships between writer Patrick Leigh Fermor and artists John Craxton and Niko Ghika. God knows how I’ll pay for the care home now. What I once believed were indulgences have become essential mental maintenance.

My kitchen blind is held up with drawing pins and I really must paint my bedroom walls but tell me to invest in a new kitchen bin and I glaze over and buy another novel. I’ve been to the cinema more times in the past month than in the past year and my addiction to Eventbrite is causing concern. My membership of the Tate costs a bomb but visits are intellectually invigorating. So many places to go, people to see, lessons to learn.

Is it my age that is causing me to fast-track through life, sucking up sensual experiences, ignoring practical concerns? Is it the global political uncertainties? Fear of impending climate melt-down? Or is it the realisation, at 68, that it is not selfish to nurture myself? That feeding my brain, my creativity and my self-esteem may pay dividends in the fight against dementia, helps me in my work and in my relationships? Yes, I must attend to the mundane, pay the direct debits and remember to eat more fruit and veg but worrying about the what-ifs in five, 10 or 15 years hence seems a pointless exercise if I don’t cherish myself today.

The Power of Writing

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Because I’m far too often attached to social media, because I sometimes have a rubbish diet, drink too much and exercise too little, because I live too much indoors on my own and not enough outdoors – especially at this time of year – my brain is often a muddled mess of incoherence with an inability to prioritise. But, writing it down is the only way I know how to sort it all out…

I don’t need a room of my own, the ‘right’ chair, desk, notebook, pen or  scented candle to achieve this.  I need room in my head; not in a house or flat or hotel. Years ago, I came to the blindingly obvious conclusion that I write best when I finally get ‘round to actually WRITING – on paper with a pen. Usually, I don’t evaluate my own writing, any attempt is good enough for me. I am like a hungry child chomping up white bread jam sandwiches, when I write down what’s inside my head.

The metaphor that sits most appropriately with me is, that when I write best I am like a wave surging over the horizon, crashing onto the shore, tossing forth pebbles, seaweed and dead fish. I am a wave that pulls you under but then, spits you out. I am the cold, angry seas of Cornwall that scare me rigid. I am the massive surf of Costa Rica that astounds, delights and entices. I am the clear waters of Greece that relax and revive. I see the birds that travel with me, dipping their wings in my dancing reflections. I see the birds that feed gratefully at my feet, the oystercatchers and curlews racing in my shallows. I am so much more powerful that I thought, so sure of who I am and why I’m here. When I have written it down.

But before I reach this place my stomach sinks, my eyes widen and my pen quickens, sliding and leaping across the page. It comes from my subconscious. From the feelings I had as a child on a beach in Hampshire, alone at the end of a day-trip, willing my parents to stay a little longer. All my life I have run away to the coast, maybe I should live there again – in Cadiz? In Palma? In Falmouth? In Hastings? Immediately I click on Skyscanner, on Rightmove. Is it possible? Can I do this in January? Can I do this alone?

Stop running, Elaine. It’s not the sea I need but more actual writing.  When I write I can conquer anyone, anything. I’m Boudicca, Cleopatra and Oprah rolled into one. I need to listen to my own advice, my own teaching that has empowered others on my workshops, holidays and retreats in Mallorca, Wales, Andalucia and London for more than six years…

Here’s some advice on how to start…

Brain dumping: The importance of free writing, the spill-out onto the page that relaxes you, frees your head, clears your brain. No worries about spelling, punctuation or grammar. As Anne Lamott describes in Bird By Bird, ‘The Shitty First Draft.’

Give yourself permission to write: In a notebook, any old notebook, on the bus, on the train, waiting for the Doc, the Dentist, kids to come out of school. Put that phone away and get out that pen. Even a one-liner is helpful.

The unpredictability of writing: Surprise yourself with what turns up on the page. Shock yourself now and then! You can always tear out that page and therapeutically burn it!

Personal writing is not being indulgent: We need creativity, imagination, flights of fancy, day dreaming in our lives and a rant on the page is far more constructive than a rant on Facebook.

 

Why Good Eating Makes Good Writing

Breakfast at Buenvino

Breakfast at Buenvino

Ever since my school home economics lessons when, to my utter amazement, I got an A for cookery in my senior school exams, I have felt strangely empowered in the kitchen. Now, in the hectic run up to Christmas, I indulge myself. I love the mechanics of baking; mince pies, spicy cakes and fruity puddings are hidden away in sealed containers, all over my apartment ready for the festive gatherings. The days have grown shorter, the nights colder and soup bubbles on the stove, lasagne tans in the oven and a wholemeal crust, spinach and goat’s cheese quiche sits cooling quietly on the work surface. All ready for the home coming of my family.

When I started my writing workshops and holidays for Write It Down! six years ago, I immediately decided that providing nourishment and delight for the ‘corpo umano’ – by treating my writers to the very best food and drink – would be as important as feeding their hearts, souls and brains with creative and therapeutic writing  exercises.

Cooking has always been my form of therapy – whether it is for myself or for others. As soon as I put on my striped blue and white cotton apron, with numerous stains and one string  ‘temporarily’ pinned on with a safety-pin, my blood pressure normalises, my shoulders relax and I am back in my childhood kitchen in Basingstoke. Despite a less than perfect relationship with my mother, I fondly remember her home cooked dinners [had at lunch time] of vegetables from our garden and meat from my grandfather’s shop. With gravy, always with gravy. Good food, cooked with care and attention and served with pride is a silent expression of love.

In London, I make cakes every week for my Mums, Babies and Bumps Creative WritingWorkshops. In Spain, at Finca Buenvino for my writing, meditation and walking holidays, Jeannie Chesterton and her son Charlie cook up a storm in their Andalucian farmhouse kitchen. They also run cookery coursesthere and have published a fantastic cookbook filled with their own recipes – beautifully illustrated with photographs by my friend Tim Clinch – so we are privileged indeed to share their table.  And share we do, all of our meals, eating outside in the spring and summer, under the wisteria in the kitchen courtyard watching nut hatches, tree creepers and geckos or in the candle-lit Moroccan courtyard where, as we eat, we hear owls calling, watch the small, black bats flying high between the cork oaks and see the sun dipping over the Sierra De Aracena, flooding the sky with an astounding pink and purple hue which I have never witnessed anywhere else in the world.

Sharing food, taking time to taste and relish what we’re eating, talk about what we’re eating, listening to each others life stories and not having to worry about the washing up when we leave the table is bliss and it bonds us closer together as writers, sharing our journey, planning fresh adventures, forging new friendships and discovering new strengths and directions in our work.

It has been so important to me to find somewhere to run my retreats that has the same ethos about eating and enjoying food and cooking that I have, and that I try to bring to my own home and family. When we write, we must use all of our senses. We note the scents, the sounds, the touch, the sights, the tastes – in a setting, in a dramatic episode imagined or in a memory retrieved from our past.

Holidays should be a time to embrace the good things in life – in summer and in winter. We give ourselves a hard time enough during the year, juggling so many aspects of our lives. Snacks and meals are snatched hurriedly between work and other fundamental obligations. We stand, we perch, we rush from A to B. We grab the Pepto Bismol and always mean to write, to meditate, to go for a walk in the countryside and learn how to breathe again.

My aim with Write It Down! workshops and holidays is to give you that space, to give you that time and to feed you well. Only then, can you relax and truly write down your life…

 

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Music & Dancing

Last night I went to Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in Soho with my 28-year-old daughter, 40 years after I was a Saturday-night regular with her father and got down to James Brown. Gone are the days of smoke filled rooms but the atmosphere was just as sultry and seductive. On Mother’s Day this weekend, my three kids are taking me to a hip local eatery where, ‘our Sunday resident DJ will be playing all the Motown/Soul/Disco classics that’ll get your mum on her feet’. Like I need encouragement.  I fell in love in the 60s to the growly vocals of John Lee Hooker and Robert Johnson and gave birth to my first child accompanied by a mix-tape of Al Green and Bill Withers. Four years later, it was Prince’s Purple Rain that greeted my second son and after another four years, my daughter arrived to The Gypsy Kings. From my early years in ballet classes, learning the mesmerising steps of the tarantella and mazurka, music and dancing have fortified my life - and every live gig  is a shot of adrenaline far more life enhancing than a vegan lifestyle or statins. My memory of dancing alone on a beach in Costa Rica, plugged into my iPod while my man of the moment tried to stand up on a surf board way out on the waves, is an moment for me that symbolises freedom, happiness and how to be truly alive.  Weddings, parties, friends ‘round for dinner - any excuse and I’m up on the floor.  Even my weekly meditation class has movement, a gentle two-step sway to accompany the preparatory chanting. I hate gyms and am never going to do a marathon but the 15 minutes of disco dancing that I do every morning in the privacy of my own apartment keeps me fit, fills me with utter joy and puts a smile on my face all day.  And this is why I’m taking my digital music library and my Bluetooth portable speaker on my writing retreats in Spain this year; so we can all have the opportunity if the music moves us, to dance with the sun on our faces and our hearts full of  celebration for simply being alive.

Last night I went to Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in Soho with my 28-year-old daughter, 40 years after I was a Saturday-night regular with her father and got down to James Brown. Gone are the days of smoke filled rooms but the atmosphere was just as sultry and seductive. On Mother’s Day this weekend, my three kids are taking me to a hip local eatery where, ‘our Sunday resident DJ will be playing all the Motown/Soul/Disco classics that’ll get your mum on her feet’. Like I need encouragement.

I fell in love in the 60s to the growly vocals of John Lee Hooker and Robert Johnson and gave birth to my first child accompanied by a mix-tape of Al Green and Bill Withers. Four years later, it was Prince’s Purple Rain that greeted my second son and after another four years, my daughter arrived to The Gypsy Kings. From my early years in ballet classes, learning the mesmerising steps of the tarantella and mazurka, music and dancing have fortified my life - and every live gig  is a shot of adrenaline far more life enhancing than a vegan lifestyle or statins. My memory of dancing alone on a beach in Costa Rica, plugged into my iPod while my man of the moment tried to stand up on a surf board way out on the waves, is an moment for me that symbolises freedom, happiness and how to be truly alive.  Weddings, parties, friends ‘round for dinner - any excuse and I’m up on the floor.  Even my weekly meditation class has movement, a gentle two-step sway to accompany the preparatory chanting. I hate gyms and am never going to do a marathon but the 15 minutes of disco dancing that I do every morning in the privacy of my own apartment keeps me fit, fills me with utter joy and puts a smile on my face all day.

And this is why I’m taking my digital music library and my Bluetooth portable speaker on my writing retreats in Spain this year; so we can all have the opportunity if the music moves us, to dance with the sun on our faces and our hearts full of  celebration for simply being alive.

What Mindfulness Means to Me, and Why it's So Important

What Mindfulness Means to Me, and Why it's So Important

Mindfulness is a core part not only of what I do, but of my life. Don’t be put off by every celeb from Goldie Hawn to Ruby Wax extolling the virtues, this particular form of awareness originated in the ancient traditions of Asia. The practices have been part of Buddhist culture for millennia and you don’t need to be  a hippie to realise the benefits. You don’t need a hacienda in Mexico or an ashram in India to learn. You can buy a book and teach yourself, and practice it every day.