Holidays In The Mind

A holiday is not always a whole day, or several days, or a week. For a short while every day, we all need to find time to be on holiday just for an hour, or even for a few minutes.

Everyone has their own favourite way of putting everything aside for a while and letting go. Sometimes I don’t find it difficult to do, when life isn’t throwing too much at me all at once, so relaxing is only just a short step away from how I’m feeling most of the time – but at other times it can seem almost impossible.

The thing is, your body and your mind have to do this together, and one won’t work without the other. Sometimes it’s the body that makes it difficult, when you’re in pain, or tense and stiff with anxiety or exhaustion – and sometimes it’s the mind, which just can’t be stopped or even slowed down but goes on madly whirring round and round engaging itself with thoughts and problems that really don’t need to be addressed right at that particular moment, but which seem to assume a gigantic urgency and will not be ignored.

All the advice I’ve ever heard about relaxing and all my experience has taught me that the body has to be dealt with first, so when I can, I usually go for a walk – I drop what I’m doing, leave the house and set off  in whatever direction feels right. I’m lucky to live near a park that has a fairly wild uncultivated wood in it and also a wildflower garden, so I’m blessed with places to go where I’m surrounded by nature – and when I get there, just standing still doing absolutely nothing at all except breathe, and listen, and look, helps me to let everything drop away. I can stand there without doing anything, and simply enjoy being. It almost always works.

If I can’t settle in to being where I am, I watch animals. I like to watch dogs exploring the park because every second is spent in being completely absorbed in the place – the smells! Things to chase! Things to pick up and carry, like sticks! (And preferably the bigger the stick the better – why is this I wonder?) The only things that matter are the sights and sounds and everything immediate that’s going on. No time for brooding. So much to experience. And dogs can show us how to do this more or less anywhere; although a wood or a park is more exciting, even the dullest street is full of interest if you look at it from a dog’s point of view.

The thing is though, I can’t always get out of the house and go for a walk. Not when I need to or want to, that is. Sometimes I’m not well enough to do it, sometimes the weather is just too extreme (though I try not to let this stop me), and sometimes I have things to do at home that just cannot be put aside, and I have to find another way to take time out and give my body and my mind a holiday. So I think about how it feels to go for a walk. Or to lie in the sunshine, sunbathing with the cat (who will instantly make a bee-line for me as soon as I lie down, and climb on my chest). I think about the precise physical sensations of the sun on my face, and the breeze; the colour of the sky, the sound of the wind in the trees. And sometimes I’ll think of being in a particular place, a place that I can visualise so clearly that I can easily imagine that I’m there.

This copper beech tree is the place I visit in my mind more often than anywhere else. Partly because it’s very familiar as it’s no more than two minutes walk away, but mostly because I never enter its space without a feeling of awe and quiet excitement. The canopy is enormous and spreads down on all sides with the tips of the branches almost touching the ground, and in summer the space it encloses is a cool, dark, dappled pavilion that fills me with a sense of wonder more than any church or cathedral has ever done. As the branches move in the wind they brush against you, and looking up you can see and feel the whole tree gently moving, swaying like a huge wooden ship in full sail being rocked by the swell of some vast ocean.

Sometimes as I stand closely to a tree like this one I marvel at the way we take such things for granted. Just for one moment, I like to imagine how it would be to see and feel and listen to a living structure like this for the first time – as if such a thing had never, ever been seen before by anyone. I have always been very short-sighted and got my first pair of glasses when I was only six years old. I will never forget when I put them on for the first time and saw the huge oak tree in our neighbour’s garden as it came into focus; to my amazement I could see not just the trunk and the main branches but every twig – I remember saying ‘look! I can see every leaf!’

When I’ve seen and felt and experienced things of wonder I’m conscious that I will return to them and that they will be there for me as a storehouse of memory when I need them, when I can’t experience them directly. I don’t go out looking for things to collect in this way – that would defeat the whole purpose as the experience would be entirely different. I’m not trying to grab at things and collect them into some kind of an album. I try to go out with an open mind and with open eyes and with as few thoughts in my head as possible, and wait to see what happens………

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