A couple of weeks ago our neighbour moved. She’d lived in her house for forty-eight years and has at last gone to live in a bungalow close to her daughter. I hope that she’s very happy—we’ll miss her.
There’s a steadiness that comes from living in the same place for such a long time. I’ve lived in my current house for four and a half years now and am at last enjoying the novelty of some steadiness. During the time that my neighbour lived in her house I lived in sixteen different places, and most of them felt temporary as I would always have the next move in mind. For a while as the family grew it was about making incremental moves to get more space. Later when things went wrong, it was about moving to places that were affordable and more practical. Even in the house where I lived for nine years, I felt erratic—grateful for my family and friends but never quite sure what I wanted out of life. The children were young then and so nothing stayed the same for very long. There was inevitable flux with all the different demands of childhood concentrated into those few years. It was rewarding but far from steady. But now that I’m happily settled in my current house, I’ve stopped looking for the next move and I like that feeling. All things being equal—and they often aren’t—I’d like to stay here for a long time.
During those years of chaos one of the few steadying things I did was to get my migraines under better control. Twenty years ago I was struggling with bad nausea and pain three days a week and I was desperate to find a solution. I kept trying to work out what was triggering them and tried many different treatments. Diet was an obvious place to look but I got nowhere with cutting out likely culprits such as cheese, chocolate and coffee. It was only when I went to see a migraine specialist and he put me on an elimination diet that I made progress. For two weeks I ate only from the small range of foods that are unlikely to cause a reaction—beansprouts, salmon, turnips, courgette, pears, and lamb—which made for some odd breakfasts. After a few days of this regime I had an intense withdrawal migraine but once it was over I felt clear-headed and liberated. After a fortnight I was instructed to introduce one food at a time in a particular order, and all went well until I tried potato, and this was closely followed by a migraine. Previously I’d eaten potato most days but my reaction convinced me that it was a trigger. The same thing happened when I tried cow’s milk. Avoiding those foods has made a huge difference ever since and I learned from the experience—in situations where there’s a lot going on, it’s only by systematically reducing the background noise that you can tease out individual effects.
Something similar has happened during lockdown. With everyday life pared back to basics it’s been a chance to work out what’s really important. Like most people, I’ve missed my family and friends above all else but I’ve been surprised at how little I’ve mourned the loss of days out and holidays. Life was very pleasant before lockdown and I was grateful for it. But it wasn’t always in balance and at times it was so busy that I didn’t have space to think or develop that sense of wellbeing that positive psychology university departments are dedicated to defining.
In the year before lockdown, I’d started trying to walk more, and keen to make best use of my time, I’d use it as an opportunity to do an errand that would otherwise involve taking the car. So I’d walk to the library or the local shops, take the long way round to buy a newspaper, or walk into town and get the bus back. I managed to do it most days because I knew it was good to get the exercise and I quite enjoyed looking at the urban streets. But I can’t say I loved it—instead it was another chore that had to be done.
When everything shut for lockdown there were no errands to run and at first that was a relief. Then I realised that I still needed exercise so I’d have to look for an alternative. As it happens, we have woods behind our house and although I’d taken the well-trodden path to the pub many times when we had family and friends visiting, I’d never explored them properly. So I started taking a daily walk there and realised to my astonishment that they are extensive and beautiful. There are many potential routes but after a few weeks I settled into the same circuit and far from getting bored with it, I value its familiarity. There are no decisions to make. I wear the same boots, the same coat and the same gloves, and for an hour a day there is nothing that I have to think about, only the things I choose. Sometimes I listen to the birds. Other times I’m so deep in thought that I forget to listen though I usually notice the light shining through the trees. Quite often, if my head doesn’t feel too full I listen to audiobooks on my phone. I dip in and out as the fancy takes me. Favourites have included The Bee Keeper of Aleppo; Sandi Toksvig’s innovative autobiography Between the Stops: The View of My Life from the Top of the Number 12 Bus; Hallie Rubenhold’s meticulously researched The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper, and Professor Henry Marsh’s Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery. There was the unmissable Educated by Tara Westover—if you haven’t read it then order it straightaway. And Michelle Obama kept me company in the woods for hours as I listened to her reading Becoming immediately followed by her husband reading Dreams of My Father.
Day after day, month after month through the various lockdowns I’ve had my walk even when it’s been pouring and I’ve had to squelch through mud that has the consistency of chocolate mousse. I’ve never minded getting drenched as most people stay at home when it rains, and so for short periods I’ve felt like I own the world. But inevitably there came a day when I did something different. It was windy which brings with it the one variety of rain that I don’t like—the sort that blows in your face and makes me feel like a cat with its ears flattened and a miserable let me in the house expression. That day I kept thinking ‘I must go for my walk’ and immediately finding things to do that were warmer and drier. By five o’clock it was dark and too late to go out, so I quietly congratulated myself for having such good sense. But it turned out not to be such good sense after all as I spent the evening feeling completely out of sorts and irrationally grumpy. I didn’t like it at all. Nor did Mike. The next morning I had my walk. There was weak sunshine and a blue sky and by the time I got home I was in a much happier frame of mind. True, it was just one data point but I could feel a discernible difference between a day with a walk and a day without a walk.
I’ve kept up the walking ever since. Then on Friday, Mike and I went swimming at the university pool, delighted to be able to do this again after such a long gap. With about half an hour’s walk each way and then the swim, I figured this would count as my exercise for the day. The route is along some of the urban streets where I used to walk so much—they’re quite attractive and it was good to chat as we walked along. The swim was great but later in the afternoon I had that familiar feeling of being grumpy and at odds with the world. Something was missing and although there were things I’d wanted to get done, I felt in the end that I had no alternative—almost without conscious thought I put on my boots and stepped out on my usual walk. It was chilly but sunny, and half-way round I realised that I felt a lot better. Urban streets are stimulating with lots of things to look at but they don’t provide the relaxation that nature offers. Trees and plants appear in predictable patterns that are soothing and harmonious whereas buildings and people are interesting but unpredictable—the window flapping open, groceries being delivered, someone up a ladder—creating a constant state of alertness that jars the thoughts and calls for a reaction. That’s two data points now but I think I’m starting to understand.
Much has been said this year about the benefits of being in nature. There have been countless newspaper, radio and magazine articles about it and I think we’ve probably all got the message by now. So this post is not intended to extol the virtues of green spaces—you may have discovered something different that’s become important. Instead my point is that by removing the everyday noise, lockdown has provided near-experimental conditions in which to explore what we value. I hadn’t realised that a daily walk in nature was so important to me. Nor had I worked out a way to introduce it into my life with a rhythm and steadiness that has turned it into a habit—something you do so often that the desire for it becomes automatic. Philippa Lally and her colleagues at University College have studied how habits are formed and report that it takes on average sixty-six days for a behaviour to become a habit though for some habits and some people it can take as much as eight months. We’ve all had plenty of time this year in which to form habits both good and bad. With lockdown I’ve tasted that elusive steadiness and whatever happens next as we resume some kind of normality, I want to take this habit with me.
Maybe you’ve found out something about yourself? I’d love to hear so do post in the comments section below.