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



Friday, 20 June 2014

18 years

18 years ago

My eldest child is 18. It happened last Friday. It has given me cause to reflect. You know, the usual stuff, how can this have happened? Where have the last 18 years gone? Where is my little boy? What have I done with all that time?

Having a child turn 18 is a big landmark. Huge. For one thing he is no longer a child. I am now the parent of an adult. This is mad. First of all because I do not feel at all old enough, and second of all because he does not feel at all old enough, to me at least.

There are lots of positives. We made it. I was there for him, for all the important stuff and all the not so important stuff. I certainly can't beat myself up about missing his first word or his first step or his first day at school. I was there for the lot and it was all good.

He was a great little boy. A good little boy. A run around the park, pass me the Sellotape, where are the scissors, making and doing little boy. An earnest, stick his hand up at school and stand in assembly reading his poem about a lizard, little boy, who memorably didn't want to take discarded deer antlers he found in Richmond Park home with us because he thought it might be stealing, and who asked for a 'really nice stick' for his 5th birthday.

When he was a baby I took him to those swimming classes where you plunge them under the water and they swim back to you like tiny slippery dolphins (it was the fashion in those days). When he was a toddler I took him to playgroup sessions, lots of them, where we sat in a circle and I had tea and biscuits with the other mums, sitting behind him, and we both sang Wind The Bobbin Up with all the actions.

We watched Tellytubbies and Aunty Mabel and read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and went to productions at the Polkadot Theatre in Wimbledon. There was music and dance and then his wonderful nursery school where he painted two-handed at the easel and did scary woodwork with real nails in the garden. 

And then there was walking past the playground of the primary school he was to go to, when he peered through the gaps in the fence and said, "I really want to be in there playing with those children, Mummy!" And he did.

Later there was trampolining and fencing and guitar playing, lots of guitar playing, and Yu-Gi-Oh cards and Bay Blades and Manga and skateboarding, lots of skateboarding, and of course then there were two more baby boys and all the play and the fun they had together. 

And what of me?

To be honest I think 'me' got lost in all of that. The life I had before ended abruptly. It's long gone. Being a mother eclipsed everything. 18 years ago it was the start of a parallel imaginary life in my head: the life I would have had without children. Not that it is a life I wanted, having children was always my priority, but that 'other' has been a constant, haunting me. I think it's the same for many mothers.

So in this imaginary parallel life the career I had before continues. I climb up that ladder. I earn good money. I live a busy and exciting existence far beyond the confines of home. Perhaps I am a Series Producer now...

My real life is very different, of course, rooted as it is in home and family with bits and bobs of work thrown in.

During all of these past 18 years I have worked, starting with freelance writing, way back when he was a baby, for the children's section of the Sunday Times and for a children's book magazine and a local publication before moving on to the family sections of the national press, but it has always been work rather than career. I have earned money as a writer and started to travel further afield again as a video director, and I have found fulfilment in other ways too, doing voluntary work.

Is it possible to pick up that phantom career again after 18 long years? I doubt it, and I'm not sure I want it now anyway. Realising how quickly childhood goes by I want to be around as much as possible for the other two and maybe then, at last, when they are gone, when they are all grown, I will turn back to find a little piece of what I was before.

Luckily for me there is one thing I will always have, that will never leave me, that I can pick up at any time, and that is this, my writing...

Love E x



Wednesday, 11 June 2014

The pants behind the bathroom door.

There is a pair of pants behind the door in the bathroom right now. I know this without even getting up from my desk to look. How do I know? Because there always is, every morning. One of my three boys (I won't name names) drops them before he gets into the shower. And almost every day I say, "Please don't drop your pants behind the bathroom door". 

When I went away with some mum friends recently I came back to find three pairs of pants behind the door, one for each morning I was away. And when I stayed in a B&B with this particular child - who will remain nameless - he left his pants behind the bathroom door there too. I only saw them at the last minute as we were leaving.

The pants behind the door is just one of the petty frustrations of being a mum to three boys who are 17, 15 and 12. 

To be honest I sometimes don't mind. I trudge upstairs from my office to the top floor, where they each have a bedroom and share a bathroom, and pick them up, along with the wet towels, and open the window and wipe the toothpaste off the sink. Sometimes I even use the pants to wipe the sink. 

On a good day, when I'm not particularly busy and feeling calm and relaxed, it can give me quiet satisfaction to tidy up. On a bad day, when I have lots of things to do and not very much time, it makes me want to pull all my hair out. 

But this is not the only irritating thing about being a mum to three boys who are 17, 15 and 12. 

Here's more...

Empty glasses bowls and plates in bedrooms so that there are none left downstairs in kitchen. This is compounded by "Where are all the glasses?!" issued in an outraged manner by a boy who opens the empty cupboard. In your bloody room, is usually the answer. This is another thing I do almost every day after the pants/towels/toothpaste routine - a glasses sweep.

This leads me neatly on to "Where is my… ?" And you see where that ellipsis is? The three dots after "where is my?"? Well in that space feel free to add pretty much anything you like from the following list - P.E. kit, book bag, vest, trainers, phone, Oyster card, shirt, favourite jeans, important letter from school, I.D. card, money. To be honest it's endless.

Following hot of the heels on the old favourite "Where is my…" is "Where is the…" In this case please feel free to place any of these - nail scissors, kitchen scissors, glue, sellotape, bread, juice, biscuits, remote control, back door key, printer ink etc...

So this is the mother's dilemma. Does she tell them where this item is and/or go and look for it only to find it moments later in the EXACT place she said it would be? The advantage of this approach being that she can then feel quietly satisfied that she does know SOMETHING, which will give her empty life some sort of sad and twisted meaning. OR, should she jolly well keep her mouth shut and let them look for themselves because a.) they should and b.) no one ever helps her when she has lost something? So there.

"There is no food in this house". That old chestnut (and yes there are some of those in a tin in the cupboard). No matter how much food I haul back to the cave, and I haul bags and bags of the stuff over the course of a week, it is never enough and they are never satisfied. I am poor mummy bird endlessly flapping back to her open-mouthed brood. I will never get enough juicy worms for their liking. I know this. I should give up trying. Especially the quest to have enough biscuits. It ain't never gonna happen. 

Recently I have taken to hiding food stuffs so that I can produce more without having to go out to buy it. I did this with the tonic water this week. I hid two bottles behind the wine. When I went to have a glass of tonic last night it was all gone.

There is more, of course, clothes and shoes on the floor, mess everywhere, washing not put in the washing basket, or ever put away, holiday/school trip packing never done for themselves, unpacking never done for themselves, and I haven't even mentioned the noise yet, which is epic at times. I'll save all that for another time. 

Because I am aware, I do know, that in some strange way I love it really. Because it's them. They are MY boys, with all their mess and chaos and noise. Family life is challenging and busy, often exhausting and frustrating, but I love them to pieces with a passion, a fervor, that I cannot begin describe. They are ace, fab, super, brilliant, wonderful. We have enormous fun, laughing and rowing and cuddling and fighting and shouting and singing and guitar playing and having meals times and dashing in and out. I love that we all live together in this mad, crazy house. 

And God knows I'm going to miss those pants behind the bathroom door when they are gone.

After breakfast - the kitchen table mess they all leave behind for me. Thanks.

Love E x