The slow motion apocalypse

Prior to this past week I am not sure I have actually gasped at anything other than TV drama and action movies. Now I am gasping daily while watching the news, logging on to social media or reading things online. Gasping with horror, with shock, with dismay.

I’m also finding myself with my hand on my heart, feeling the most bittersweet emotions of seeing the very best of humanity too.

For every vitriol filled rant on social media there are several stories of people helping their fellow neighbours. For every selfish act witnessed there is a leaflet through the door advertising helplines to ring to ask for help collecting shopping, medical supplies or firewood.

People are scared, which almost always brings out the worst in us and there is not necessarily fast enough responses and answers from our usual trusted information sources and government, largely because the answers may not yet be know, so people are turning to less trustworthy sources, making up their own answers or grabbing what they can to feel safe and prepared against the worst.

Davies, Scarlett and I took to self-isolation as of last Tuesday when I was sent home from work as youth club and all the various sporting activities at the community centre where I work shut down. Ady and I cleaned a cottage on Wednesday but saw no one and the cottage had already been empty for over 48 hours. I have ceased my group swims and have been swimming alone, although I sometimes see someone (and indeed have passed folk) we have been tens of metres away from each other and outside so able to call a friendly but physically very distant greeting to each other. Davies and Scarlett are out every day for a walk but see nobody at all and touch nothing which another person will have touched.

Ady is obviously not able to do the same as his care at home work requires him to be at very close quarters with his clients. Updated guidance and information is coming through from the NHS all the time for him and he started four days off (he works a 4 on, 4 off shift pattern) today. I suspect by the time he returns to work again on Friday things may have moved on yet further. With him out and about anyway he is doing our essential shopping for food and fuel. After nearly a decade of island living and rural living we have become accustomed to buying in bulk and having a decent store of essentials anyway, with a decent stock of food in the freezer and healthy amounts of dried and tinned goods. Living 40 miles from the nearest supermarket and at the mercy of often extreme weather closing roads and stopping the ferry running means you have a certain amount of SHTF-preparedness as a matter of course.

Being at home for me has meant I am able to sign up for extra shifts on the mental health helpline as I am usually working 3 evenings a week. It’s also meant I have been able to volunteer for the local community council initiative of a phoneline for residents too and today I completed a skills audit of various other home-based things I can do with the local council, who my youth work / community centre employers have redeployed staff to aid with.

I already had my mini green house filled with seeds but have ordered a few additional packs of seeds and will turn over the sunny window sill of our spare room to ‘greenhouse’ space too. Sadly the friend expected later this week, our house sitters for our planned Ireland trip and my parents, visiting for 10 days will not be needing that spare bedroom, which had been looking like it would be very busy over the next 6 weeks. All of those plans have been cancelled.

A fingerpicking workshop of daily practise I had signed up for before this all kicked off has been an excellent daily motivator to pick up my ukuleles every day. And once in my hands after I’ve done the 15 minutes of finger picking I have been playing on for another 15 minutes or so. Today we joined in with around 15000 other people for the first of Gareth Malone’s choir practises.

Mothers Day yesterday was the embodiment of all that is good, bad, happy and sad about these strangest of times. A video call to my Mum, an email and text message exchange with my extra Mum Lynda, a facebook messenger chat with my extra daughter Megan all scatted across the UK and across the world. A day of being so very grateful to have Davies and Scarlett right here with me. As always I was completely blown away with their skills and creativity from their hand made cards and reduced to (happy) tears with the lovely things they said to me. And Megan managed to also make me cry with her message too.

We never really know what the future holds, but the world has been totally turned upside down for every single one of us.

I hope all of our readers stay safe, look after themselves first and as many others as they are able to help look after too. Be kind – as always it’s the single most important thing we can possibly aspire to.

One Year On

Last week it was the one year anniversary of our move back to the mainland. As it’s not that long since our bad, good, learned round up of 2019 I have not made the others sit down and do the exercise again about our first year away from our Rum life.

We have all been reflecting on it though and I spent a few hours with a friend who we met on Rum but actually lives near us here having lived on Rum for a few years himself last week, so Life After Rum was part of our many conversational meanderings.

Life has moved on hugely for our family a year on. It’s been a really busy year with all of us making the most of the opportunities being based on the mainland has offered.

We have all taken on new volunteering responsibilities – Ady has been involved in a hospital transport driving project, Scarlett and I are both in the throes of becoming involved in the local Cats Protection League, Davies and I volunteer weekly for a local mental health helpline and are ambassadors for a Women’s Aid initiative as local ambassadors, we’ve all been involved in a citizen science project and between us spend several hours a week collecting litter off the shore of the local loch.

We have all found new and very diverse employment ranging from holiday cottage cleaning, writing for the local paper, working in the local tea room, at the local community centre, as a youth worker, selling our art, crafts, baking.

We have made new friends and become part of new social circles.

We have taken up new hobbies and interests, learned new skills and had new experiences.

Our lovely house has meant we have been able to have many people to visit for shorter and longer stays, both to visit us and to house sit for us when we’re away.

We have managed to bring chickens with us over from Rum and they have settled in well and bred the first new generation of mainland chickens for us. We also bought over some strawberries from Rum and had a tiny little crop of fruit, hopefully a bigger crop will follow this coming summer. We have sown seeds here and have plans to turn over part of the garden to growing veg, we have a compost bin and have been experimenting with dyeing wool using the lichen from the woodlands around the house.

My friend asked me last week if I missed Rum. I replied yes, I did and then we talked a bit more about what it was I actually missed.

Eventually I concluded that what I most missed about Rum was who I was there. I missed the freedom to decide each day what I wanted to do and how much meaning every single thing had. There were no pointless tasks in that lifestyle. Everything was either about survival or future proofing. Life was very much in the here and now and there was something hugely satisfying about that. In this past year there have been days when I’ve felt frustrated or as though my time has been wasted doing things I would struggle to justify the point of (mostly done while earning money it has to be said and there is a circular argument forever about that, which I have had internally with myself and with others over the years. There is no definitive answer…). On Rum I almost never had that feeling.

This was definitely the right move for us, the right choice at the right time. I feel proud of the new life we have built in the last 12 months and all we have achieved. It has a transient, temporary feel to it which at times I find unsettling and I am not entirely convinced we have the balance of all the various components completely right but we’re edging closer to it and there is no doubt that when everything is weighed up we are definitely in the right place. For now.

Swimming into spring

‘But you haven’t done a winter’ is a phrase which has rather followed us around in our life choices since we started this blog.

The notion of managing a winter in our campervan volunteering was the first one. Actually, we didn’t manage that. We’d always planned to be back in Sussex again for Christmas with family and not even attempted to set up WWOOF hosts through the winter before we set off as that would have proved all but impossible a year in advance. We assumed we would either continue setting up hosts a few weeks in advance as we travelled, that we’d have had enough of the adventure and returned home, decided to move our travels to somewhere warmer and venture into mainland Europe next or have worked out what our next step was and be wanting to start on that.

In fact we had indeed decided to move to Scotland, visited Rum for the first time and submitted our application for the croft so were waiting on hearing about that.

Our next ‘you haven’t done a winter yet’ was living on Rum itself. That was footnoted by ‘and definitely not in a caravan’.

That was quite some winter. We certainly came out of the other side of it feeling as though we had achieved something. We’d survived the winter winds, the days and days of endless rain and the croft turning to mud before our very eyes. The hours and hours of daylight – sometimes 20 a day shrank to barely 5 or 6. We’d been out collecting firewood, out picking winkles. It was a challenging and eye opening season with countless lessons learned and battles fought, lost and won.

‘Doing a winter’ certainly seems to be something of a badge of honour.

My adventures in wild swimming, started back in the summer last year had a similar hesitancy to the approach of the winter. I began to don a second pair of neoprene socks, looked at thicker gloves, bought a balaclava style hood and began exposing less and less of myself to the water as the temperature dropped.

At the end of November though, just as winter was tapping on our shoulders a couple of friends and I stripped off our wetsuits at the end of a regular swim and got back in to the water in our swimsuits. It was the most amazing feeling – like thousands of tiny pins and needles all over our bodies as the nerve endings jangled. It was one of the most freeing, joy filled experiences I’ve ever had. Every bit of my body seemed to be flooded with the most amazing sense of being alive. It was like letting your hair down when it’s been tied up all day, taking off a pair of uncomfortable high heels, removing your bra, finally having that wee you’ve been busting for for the last half an hour.

It was like putting on a pair of glasses when you’ve gradually been losing your vision and suddenly seeing every leaf on the trees again, your ears popping after being blocked and realising how muffled everything was. It was that feeling on the last day of school before the summer holidays, the relief of an all clear result, the exhilaration of a roller coaster.

I’ve not put the balaclava hood on since. Well actually I have, one day I had a very cold head and said to Ady ‘remind me tomorrow that my hat is my friend’ so the next day I went in the water wearing it, but a halfway into my swim I pulled it off and stuffed it down the front of my wetsuit. It was muffling the sounds, lessening my feelings and a million times more annoying than having a cold head.

Swimming without a wetsuit is known as ‘swimming in skins’ even though you are not just in your skin, you do have a swimsuit on too (although I do hear of many folk who literally just swim in their skin even my remote corner of the world still has me encountering other folk once a week or so and I can be seen from the roadside by any cars driving by, so I’ll be sticking with the swimsuit for now!). We carried on these skins dips at the end of our regular Sunday swims through December and for our New Years Day ‘Loony Dook’. The water was getting colder but with the decreasing temperature came increasing pleasure from the experience.

I began to consider just swimming in skins all the time rather than stripping off at the end of a swim. In the same way as the hat felt constricting the wetsuit was starting to feel the same. It was a faff to wriggle in and out of every time and I often felt I spent more time getting in to, out of or rinsing my wetsuit than I did actually being in it in the water. Over Christmas and new year I heard myself telling at least three people about how I was ‘considering losing the wetsuit and starting to swim in skins all the time’. I had half a plan to maybe shed it in the summer and then try not to go back to it through next winter thinking I would acclimatise that way, but those weekly skins dips were working their magic.

Then one day in early January I had my wetsuit with me to change in to on the shore as I was planning my swim on the way home from being out. I already had my swimsuit on under my clothes. It was windy and raining and Ady said to me ‘you’re going to get just as cold and wet putting that wetsuit on as you would just getting into the loch without it.’ He voiced in a joke what I had been thinking in all seriousness. My own voice was echoing in my ears that the only way to go from ‘thinking about doing’ something to doing something was to do it.

So I did.

And since then I’ve been in the loch most days in just a swimsuit and gloves. I have a fairly unreliable thermometer – some open water swimmers are a bit sniffy about having a thermometer at all but I like to know the water temperature. I am curious, purely in an interested in what’s going on sort of way. It is useful, in getting to know my own body and my capabilities to understand what impact a degree either way has on me. Finally I quite like knowing so I can brag about how tough I am! Conservative estimates corroborated by friends with more accurate thermometers and splitting the difference averages put the loch as low as perhaps 1 or 2 degrees at it’s coldest this winter. It’s currently around 6 degrees.

I swim in the loch in skins about five times a week. Sometimes it’s a dip lasting less than 10 minutes, sometimes it is over 20 minutes and I manage a decent swim. This depends on all sorts of variables including the water temperature, the air temperature, the weather conditions, the tide being in or out, the level of the waves, what the wildlife around me is doing and how I am feeling on any given day. I have had times when I went in calling back to Ady (who always accompanies me on my solo swims and stands on the shore, sometimes taking photos, sometimes collecting rubbish from the beach if it is after a storm and there is rubbish washed up) ‘I won’t be long…’ and then emerging after a new record for distance of swim or time in the water. Sometimes wading in thinking today is the day for breaking a personal record only to be spooked by an eagle, suddenly aware of loss of feeling in my toes or a low flying plane putting me off and coming back out again.

Up until today I have been donning my wetsuit still for my regular Sunday group swim with friends, feeling that it allows me to stay in for longer. But the last few times I have worn it it has felt like such an effort to pull it on pre-swim and I have felt constricted and irritated by wearing it, as though it is hampering my swim rather than aiding it. So today I arrived for our group swim in skins. And it did not prevent me from swimming as I would have done had I been wearing it, infact I am confident it was not missed at all and that I found swimming without it easier. It was also quite fun to be the only one in a group of nine without a wetsuit. I am always happy to be different!

I have had some of my best, deepest and most interesting conversations with people I swim with. I have made connections, lost inhibitions and found links with folk I would likely have little else in common with. It has been my opening in our new mainland life to a new social world and to interesting and diverse people.

It has provided me with my much needed link to the natural world and the landscape around us. I physically crave that connection with nature, with the weather, the seasons, the wildlife. On Rum my life was much more outside based and through necessity our new mainland existence means I am driving more and walking less. I am back in artificially controlled environments for a greater period of time with lights and heating and no windows. My near daily dips re-centre me and keep me in tune with a clock and calendar far beyond that which hangs on my wall or sends me reminders on my phone.

My relationship with the loch is much like the one I enjoyed with the hill on Rum. It provides challenges and inspiration, motivation and opportunity. It gives me headspace of a meditative nature and allows a mindless meandering of my thoughts and a wide open space for what is really important to rush in and show itself to me. I have epiphanies, realisations, eureka moments and clarity.

I am reminded how small I am, how insignificant and finite. I am conversely given the gift of feeling mighty, powerful, in control and autonomous. I can choose how long to stay in, which direction to head in, which stroke to select, I am at the absolute mercy of the waves, the tide, the unknown depths below me. I am entirely along in my experience in the loch, I am submersing myself in water which has always been on this planet and has been tears, sweat, a raindrop, a glass of water, an ice cube, a snowflake, a cloud…in a never ending cycle older than I will ever be, before my first ancestor, likely after the last of my line has become extinct.

It is mid March. I swam in summer, in autumn and I will swim in spring. But once again, with the echoes of voices in my ears about ‘not doing a winter’ I am able to take a small sense of pride in knowing that once again I did. This time I swam though it. I swam through a winter.