Saturday, 26 July 2014

In Praise of Doing Nothing

So here's that article what I wrote about doing nothing. Shame I look so stupid in the photo. In today's Telegraph...

Mindfulness: it's good to be busy doing nothing

Taking several timeouts each day, says Elizabeth McFarlane, helps to get the creative juices flowing and encourages her to be more aware of the moment

Elizabeth McFarlane
Easy does it: Elizabeth McFarlane  Photo: Jeff Gilbert
Are you too busy? Stressed? Not enough hours in the day? Not sleeping properly? Constantly rushing from one thing to the next? Then it’s time to sit down and do nothing.
Some people are brilliant at busy, it’s their thing. They pack the day from dawn until dusk with “stuff”. Not just the standard stuff either, like work and family, but extra stuff too, such as volunteering and exercising and cooking and manic socialising.
These people, and I know a lot of them because so many seem to be women, do not appear to stop.
Personally, I’m good at nothing, which is very different from not being good at anything. I am brilliant at sitting down and having a rest. I do it several times a day. I excel at staring out of windows, particularly at birds. I’m a prolific day-dreamer, thinker, plotter and planner. My pièce de résistance is napping.
You might say this makes me a lazy person, but I would disagree. I get a lot done. I work, writing and directing/producing marketing videos. I have three children. I run a home. I am a school governor. I exercise. I even go out in the evening occasionally. It is my contention that I would not be able to do half of these things if I didn’t do quite a lot of nothing in between. In particular, I think I’d struggle to come up with ideas.
I would not, for example, be able to come up with ideas for the videos, nor write my weekly blog, called, appropriately enough, I Don’t Know How She Doesn’t Do It (see what I did there?) Nor, on a more prosaic level, plan the annual family holiday. All these require thinking, and thinking is what I do when I’m doing nothing, mostly.
The philosopher Bertrand Russell famously said: “Most people would rather die than think; many do,” and a recent experiment appears to prove him right, at least up to a point.
Most might not actually prefer to die, but incredibly they would prefer to be in pain rather than have to sit quietly alone in a room with only their own thoughts for company, for only a few minutes.
That recent experiment, led by Professor Tim Wilson at the University of Virginia, in which participants were asked to sit alone for up to 15 minutes in an empty room at a laboratory, found that 12 men out of a group of 18 preferred to give themselves mild electric shocks than sit and do nothing.
The researchers concluded that the human brain has evolved to be active so that the majority of people struggle to switch off, even for a short period. “Simply being alone with their thoughts for 15 minutes was apparently so adverse that it drove many to self-administer an electric shock,” said Professor Wilson.
Jonathan Smallwood, a neuroscientist at the University of York, says: “We’re creating a world where daydreaming isn’t so important. Nowadays, even if you are doing a mundane job, you can be on the phone while you’re doing it.”
This sounds familiar. I multitask using social media as much as the next 21st-century person – tweeting about a programme on television while watching it springs to mind – but I can also do a lot of nothing. If you are one of those manic busy types you might wonder how I manage it, so let me take you on a whistlestop tour – or should that be a sleepy amble? – of my average working day at home.
At 8am, during term time, the boys leave for school. This is my first opportunity to do nothing after the chaos of getting them out the door. After clearing breakfast I sit down with the papers by the window to read. I look up and stare out of the window, usually at birds. This is how I come up with ideas, flights of fancy, lists of things to do, and plans. Often I make notes.
I then do a sweep of the house, tidying, picking up towels, making beds, putting washing in. Sometimes I nip out to meet a friend for a coffee, before finally settling at my desk at about 10am or 11am. This is when I “work”, which usually involves a lot more gazing out of the window while twiddling my hair. I am prone to switch off, at least I think I am switching off but I’m probably not, because, according to psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas, daydreaming provides the mental downtime necessary for us to be able to focus again. The mind is refreshing itself, rather like when we sleep.
But there’s more than one theory about the purpose of daydreaming. Sigmund Freud’s work Creative Writers and Daydreaming maintains that it is essential to the creative mind but also a form of unhappiness, while psychoanalyst Hanna Segal suggested that we are turning these unhappy thoughts into something creative.
I had a lot of unhappy thoughts about our horrible old kitchen and sat about daydreaming and planning what our new one, recently completed on a tight budget, would be like, so I think there’s something in Segal’s theory.
But back to my day. After lunch, more resting because I hate moving around after eating. Sometimes I even have a sneaky sleep, especially in winter. After napping I often wake with an idea and dash to my office to write it down, which perhaps lends weight to Bollas’s theory.
In the evening, after cooking and tidying and sorting and reading to children, I slump in front of the television. Sometimes I go out, of course, but I’m not averse to politely declining a social invitation if there are too many things in one week.
I think that all this staying at home and daydreaming helps me to deal with stress, which brings me to mindfulness, the cure-all philosophy du jour.
OK, so mindfulness is not the same as doing nothing. Mindfulness is paying attention to the present moment using techniques such as meditation, breathing and yoga. The idea is that this can give us an insight into emotions while boosting attention and concentration. In fact, the claims for what it can do are extensive – alleviating stress, chronic pain, anxiety, depression, physical problems, lowering hypertension, changing addictive behaviours and so on.
I only cottoned on to mindfulness recently but I think I may have been practising it unawares for years. Maybe not the breathing and yoga bit, but the being in the moment bit. Because doing nothing, just sitting and staring out of a window, makes you stop and take stock. It means you are not constantly “doing”, you are just having a moment “to be”.
That’s quite enough work for me for one day. I’m off for a nap.
Be brave and say no to invitations
Bring back Sundays. Try to ring-fence them from work and chores and socialising
Practise sitting and doing nothing, adding a little bit more of it each day
Go bumbling, which means “wandering around without purpose”
Allow yourself time to daydream.
Remember that Freud said this is creative
Choose the right role models – Keats wrote of “evenings steep’d in honied indolence” – see also John Lennon, Oscar Wilde and Walt Whitman

Friday, 25 July 2014

Mummy to the rescue.

I've just got back from the hairdressers, on the boiling hot Tube, to find a note on the floor of the hallway. 

"Dear Mummy," it reads, "I have just left the house to go to the wreck (sic), I think I'll find M's house because it is near. I would wait for you but I must hurry along. P.S. It's the summer holiday!"

Very cute and endearing. But as I say it's a hot day, very hot, and I can see that Youngest has just thrown down his school rucksack and his blazer and gone. No lunch (it was a half day at school). No water. No hat or suncream. And I'm pretty sure he doesn't know how to get to M's house from the rec. on foot. He's only ever been in the car and it's further than he thinks. 

So instead of getting a drink for myself and some lunch, I grab his cap and some water and jump in the car. I'm tired and hot but more than that I am worried. It's quite a long way back to the rec, it's thirty one degrees in London today, there's a warning not to be out in the sun between 12 and 3.00. And right now it's 12.30...

After only a few minutes driving, I spot him. He's that unmistakable little dejected figure on the pavement on the other side of the road, the one walking very slowly towards me, with a bright red face, hair plastered to his forehead, a sad little expression. I wind the window and call out for him to stop.

In the car with me he is near to tears. He couldn't find M's house. He got lost. He's hot and tired. Why wasn't I at home? I hand him the water and he drinks without pausing until the bottle is nearly empty. My heart goes out to him.

Don't you just remember those days? Those first forays out of the house by yourself? Going to call on a friend when not entirely sure where that friend lived in relation to your house? Somehow I do remember, or think I remember.

I certainly remember walking to school with my little brother in tow, when incredibly he must only have been  about six years-old and I was nine, and that nervous feeling when an adult was coming towards us from the opposite direction. What if the adult spoke to us? Or looked at us? Or worse? 

We used to walk down a 'snicket'. That's what they call them in Yorkshire: a narrow cut through, where no one could see you from the road. 

I try and sort Youngest out and it takes ages. I drive him to his friend and when we get there we need to try and track down another friend who has gone out looking for both of them. 

Eventually I track down that friend too, after much driving and phoning, and leave all three of them to play for a bit, with water to drink and hats to cover their heads, telling Youngest he can bring them all back to our house for bit when he's had enough of the rec. Then I drive home.

There is my bag on the hall floor where I dropped it, next to his. The house is cool and welcoming. I drink a big glass of water. I make myself something to eat. I sit down and I think: gosh, my summer cold has gone, I think, but I feel absolutely, completely exhausted, and I can't breathe very well…

Love E x



Friday, 18 July 2014


It is 2 o'clock in the morning. I give up and get out of bed. I have slept briefly but woken again. I'm worrying about him. He's out there somewhere, possibly tramping the dark south London streets by himself in a homeward direction, possibly still at the party/pub/mate's house laughing and drinking.

He was once the baby I allowed to sleep in my bed for so long, so I could wake and see him breathing quietly and peacefully next to me. To him that was many moons ago, to me it was hardly any time at all.

Now he is an 'adult', so I can't tell him when to come home. But how can you tell your child that it makes not one jot of difference to you what age it says on his passport/provisional driving licence? To be one day 17 and the next 18 does not mean your mother thinks any differently about you, that she thinks you are more safe, less likely to come to harm. 

No doubt this anxiety will fade. These sleepless nights will become a distant memory, just like those baby ones are. But right now they are no less powerful and disrupting for that.

I go downstairs and make some herbal tea. I sit and drink it in the morning half-light, the thin breaking dawn of high summer.

There is the sound of the key in the lock, the click of the door. A few words exchanged. A glance at the clock which tells us both it is 3.20 am.

I go back to bed. Now I can finally turn off my phone, which was glowing ready beside me, and the light on the landing.

Sleep comes quickly at last, knowing that all those I love most in the world are safely tucked up once more under the same roof. 

Love E x



Wednesday, 16 July 2014

A cold in a hot climate.

Kind reader,

Please wait for me. I have a very bad cold. My limbs are aching. I feel as if I have been hit by a bus. It is very hot outside. Eldest came in at 2.00 am last night and had forgotten his key so I had to get up and open the door. After that I couldn't get back to sleep. I am writing something for the Telegraph weekend section. I also wrote something for them last week called In Praise of Doing Nothing, which was ironic because last week was mental. My feet hardly touched the ground. I have a blog I am preparing for you (all about Eldest coming in at all hours of the night at the moment and how it is like having a baby again) but I don't have time to polish it up and publish it just at the mo. 

My head feels like there is a stack of cotton wool inside it. 


See you very soon.

Love E x



Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Home is… something far too many people don't have.

Haven't got the pictures on the walls yet tho...

"Yes," said a friend of mine, when I showed her the newly decorated back bedroom and said how happy I was sorting it out and putting everything back in it, "Staying at home and putting a child's room back in order is nice, but I'd rather go out for cocktails." And she did. 

I think I would rather stay in and sort out Middle One's bedroom, I thought. 


No really, I would. 

Wow. That is strange. 

Or is it?

(This is me talking to myself by the way).

I had been spending the late sunny afternoon indoors putting Middle One's room back together, after several weeks of building work in there, when she popped over to have a pre-cocktails drink in the garden. 

The drink was lovely. It was lovely to see her. It is always lovely to see friends, and to natter, and to go out. But I also love to stay in. Love it.

There has been damp in that top back bedroom, and a ceiling that looked in danger of caving in, and so we had the chimney stack taken off the roof and tiles mended up there, and the chimney breast removed inside, which makes an already good-sized room seem huge, and then a new window put in… and some new plastering... and while we were at it spot lights in the ceiling... and lights under the shelves for the desk … To be honest it all got a little out of hand but it's all finished now. Hooray.

So I was in heaven sorting it all out, emptying the boxes filled with his things and putting them back on the newly painted shelves. There is nothing I like more than arranging things on a shelf. Bliss. In fact all homemaking is a joy to me. I love it. Renovating, decorating, organising, styling, tidying, chucking things out, planning, painting, even putting flowers in a vase and unpacking the shopping onto the pantry shelves gives me immense satisfaction (but this is because I have a new pantry/kitchen, which I am in love with). Some people love their homes, love homemaking in all its shapes and sizes, and some people don't so much. 

And this got me thinking about what a home is, just bricks and mortar at the end of the day, of course, but also a construct: a place both physical and psychological within whose walls - that we imbue with colour, that we plaster with pictures and shelves and 'things' - we stamp our identity and make a little world of our own. 

I love creating that world, and I love being in it. Which then got me thinking about people who are less fortunate, who don't have homes to homemake in… 

Here are a few shocking statistics.

* 112,070 people declared themselves homeless in England last year - a 26% increase in four years

* Over the same period there has been a 75% increase in people sleeping rough in London taking the number to 6,437 for 2013- 14

* The estimate is that across England 2,414 people slept rough on any one night last year

* There are currently fewer than 40,000 hostel beds in England 

* The number of 16 to 24 year-olds sleeping rough in London has more than doubled in the last three years 

* 2,090 families with children are living in bed and breakfast accommodation (2013), an increase of 8% on 2012 figures 

* With more than a third of those living in B&Bs beyond the legal limit of 6 weeks

My heart goes out to those people, and to all people across the world who find themselves displaced or homeless through natural disaster, or war, or poverty. Because home is such a joy, truly where the heart is, as the cliche goes, and where family happens. And that is everything. At least to me.

And now I'm off out for cocktails. (Only kidding, I'm going to put a wash on actually).

Love E x

Ok, so he chose the colours...

Stats from Jon Henley, The Guardian, 25th June 2014