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Jo Loring Fisher on cultivating a life of mindfulness by being present to nature and everyday life, and how this inspired her newest picture book poem Taking Time. Plus, check out her list of mindfulness activities you can do with your kids!
As a child, I would lie in the back garden of our 1970s new build in Sussex and watch the house martins swoop and dive and dance in spirals high above my head. My attention was totally focussed on them. This afternoon I did the same thing, but this time it was in a more considered way. There were no martins to be seen, it is too early for them make an appearance above Bath, but the sky was blue and the sun warm. I took time to be still and take in the sensations about me: the difference in the sounds made by the wind as it passed through the tree to my left, flapping the washing on the line on my right and then felt its vibrations on my ear, like a whisper, as the wind ruffled my hair. I noticed the clap-clap-clap-swoop of a pigeon, the blackbird in the distance and my elderly neighbour chatting to her dog. I returned to the blackbird’s love-song and focussed on the intricacies and subtle changes in it as he responded to a call a ways away. Multiple sounds were being created in different parts of his throat and released simultaneously. The sound was just exquisite. I am familiar with a blackbird’s call but hadn’t noticed the depth of its repertoire until now.
These moments of stillness seem so decadent somehow, I have plenty to be getting on with, and yet they are so important for mental and physical wellbeing and really do require little effort, because these moments can be easily found as we go about our day, we just need to focus on a task and lose ourselves in it.
We moved from South London to Sussex when I was two. Close by was Ashdown Forest which is where Winnie the Pooh was written. Walks on the forest were taken frequently with my family and I loved the scent and crack of heather under my feet and the panoramic views. Walks to school in all weathers resulted in a connection to the seasons and I relished the discovery of a nest full of chicks nestled into the side of a bank, an adder curled up by the roadside and even a dead fox. Then, as now, I felt deeply connected to the natural world.
Growing up in the seventies was considerably different from childhood now. For one we had more freedom and I would explore the fields, woods and waterways near my home on my bike and in solitude. I was aware of a certain vulnerability, but still I was able to roam. I would also spend long spells of time bored and would sit and look for four-leaf clovers, draw, read, cycle or repeatedly practise cartwheels.
The 1970s child could relax in a way that children today can’t. Without phones and computer games, or opportunity-building clubs, we had empty spaces to fill and our minds could be taken on creative journeys. In short, we were able to be mindful, even if we didn’t know it. We need to value and make time to be quiet and still in order to feel its inherent benefits.
In recent times this innate skill has been repackaged with labels such as ‘mindfulness’ and ‘Shinrin yoki’ (forest bathing), delivered as if they are new concepts with rules that have to be learned.
But I believe we just need to remember, or be given the opportunity to remember, to be still and notice the world around us.
Taking time to notice our planet
It was in 1970 that World Earth Day emerged, and on April 22nd we will celebrate its 50th year. The movement recognises the importance of caring for the amazing planet that we get to call home. Now, more than ever, we know this to be true. With the mission “To build the world’s largest environmental movement to drive transformative change for people and planet", the World Earth Day movement challenges us to take responsibility for our impact on the planet.
The current circumstance we find ourselves in with Covid-19 could be the opportunity to do just that. Let us use this time to be still and wonder at the world around us. Even if we can’t get involved in an event that celebrates World Earth Day’s 50th Birthday, we can all consider the impact we have on the planet as individuals and change our ways. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to think that amid the confusion, frustration, fear and grief, the time to be still and wonder could change the decisions we make and in doing so change the course of lives in amazing, wonderful, life-affirming ways?
I wrote Taking Time before Covid-19 was a thing. I wanted to highlight the similarities, rather than the differences, between us, as humans. After all, a child in the UK can appreciate a spider spinning its web in the same way a little girl in Nepal can. I wanted to share my love and interest in the natural world, but this has become all the more poignant recently.
At a time when we are collectively considering our impact on the planet, we are being asked to annexe ourselves from experiencing it. I hope that Taking Time can help families bridge the gap in some way.
I’d like to think that the spreads could act as a springboard for wider discussions about the natural world, different cultures and valuing each other and the beauty around us, revelling in the sense of calm this unique time can bring. There is no doubt that the natural world is benefitting from the reduction in activity as our attention is focussed on how the situation has spiralled out of control.
For me, quiet moments of solitude outside are essential and I have struggled with having to curtail my hikes in wide open spaces, for shared parks close to home. I walk daily with my spaniel at my side, and this is often the time I write, sometimes with a conscious purpose (as with Taking Time) and other times just to figure things out. I also like to collect interesting items on walks.
It was on this walk near my old home in Wiltshire, that I wrote Taking Time
Poetry as Mindfulness
On March 21 we celebrated World Poetry Day. I wouldn’t describe myself as a poet, but I have used poetry almost as a mindful or healing tool when I have been struggling to make sense of a situation. Finding the most beautiful words to describe my emotions in the form of a poem, have brought about clarity and peace in some measure, even though these have largely remained unwritten. Haiku – the Japanese poetry form using 5,7,5 syllables in three lines, requires precision and clarity. Having to search for the exact word to encapsulate feelings is a challenge that I find helpful in drilling down my thoughts. I will be calling on this in the days and weeks to come, I am sure.
I like to collect interesting items on walks. I sometimes come across skulls and feathers that I put on my shelves. I recently found these pods and pine cones in the botanical gardens in Bath’s Victoria Park. These objects can serve to connect me to the natural world while I can’t access it in the same way. Making little ‘vignettes’ or scenes on shelves, bringing the outside in, creates a peaceful atmosphere.
I have also experienced the benefit of the words of other writers when I have been unable to source my own to explain my emotions. I came across the poetic prose of Frank S. Smythe around five years ago, and his words immediately resonated with me. My mood had been low for some, partly through juggling a demanding masters degree with a busy family life, and partly in reaction to moving from the sweeping hills of a landscape that I loved, to flatlands, which made me feel disconnected from myself. I couldn’t make sense of the way I felt or find the words to describe it, but, from the past, Frank S. Smythe did in his book The Mountain Top (1947). Smythe’s words helped me to understand the power my surroundings have on me.
The natural world affects us profoundly. In the coming weeks, I hope we can all feel a degree of peace from it, even if it is only in a small patch of land or gaining pleasure from growing a packet of seeds on a windowsill.
Whatever your circumstances, here are some mindful activities for children and adults to help you:
Ideas for finding Mindful Moments
We are looking for ways to quieten a busy mind, so you may find these techniques helpful:
Sit quietly by an open window, or outside if this is possible, and close your eyes. Listen carefully and notice all the different sounds around you. You will find that they come to you almost in layers. Focus on these for five or so minutes.
Focus on one sound, like a bird’s song and notice the subtle changes in it. Birds to listen out for are the robin, blackbird and song thrush (who have over 100 variations in its repertoire).
Listen and focus on a job such as changing sheets and duvet cover. It seems strange, but just turning your attention to these sounds, or any other household task, can calm a fractious mind.
Imagine walking in your favourite place. Using all of your senses, can you describe your journey?
Think about creating your own fantasy walk and again, use all your senses as you imagine what that walk would be like.
Have an area in your house with plants or collections of objects from the natural world. Arranging them and drawing pleasure from them can also bring peace.
Draw a picture of the above or even write a poem. I’d love to see them, so please do tag me on social media if you’d like to share them. I can be found on Instagram: @joloringfisherillustrates, Facebook: Jo Loring-Fisher Illustration and Twitter @Jo Loring-Fisher
Taking time to listen. Taking time to feel. Taking time to cherish you, and also cherish me. This poem is inspired by principles of mindfulness and invites children around the world to gaze, wonder and marvel at this astonishing planet we call home.
Jo Loring-Fisher is a UK-based artist whose previously published title with Lantana, Maisie's Scrapbook, received a starred Kirkus review. She holds an MA in Children’s Book Illustration from the Cambridge School of Art.