Slow down

Jim Reynolds, an old friend and brilliant songwriter, has a song about a hyperactive friend of his (not me) and it’s called “slow down”. I know exactly what he means. When I look at posts by my young friends on Facebook they all seem ceaselessly busy and I’m sometimes tempted to feel a bit superior; tempted that is, until I think about my own restless approach to life. Madame takes a different line. For her there is nothing more important in life than another Simenon novel. I wish I could do it too, but try as I will I can’t. If my bottom stays still for more than ten seconds an undetectable micro switch goes off in my brain and I have to look for something to do. Not just anything, though, but something important.

So, in a massively convoluted way, I’ve had to make slowing down important. I’ve had to turn it into a kind of practice like Tai Chi, in order to replace the mindlessness of restless and unfocused activity for the mindfulness of kneading dough, cooking, botanising, drawing or gardening. I’ve discovered along the way that, although I find silence uncomfortable, I really need it, at least a bit of it, every day. My longest ever period of silence was a full week at a Franciscan convent in Dorset. I nearly went crazy and eventually hiked across the fields to the nearest village to find a telephone box. But I profited enormously from the exercise – it was like a detox for a cluttered mind.

More recently my therapy sessions had significant periods of silence. Both in group and individual settings psychoanalytic psychotherapists, like mine, could remain silent for the whole session if no-one spoke. At first it was very uncomfortable but I found it became a warm and secure place, my safe place. I went to Robin- whom I’ve never adequately thanked – completely blocked, and over a period of several years he gave me a space in which to unravel the knots. Since my sessions ended I’ve written in excess of half a million words, about a half of which I’ve published here, in over 500 posts. That’s not a boast as much as a plea to anyone who feels they’re churning their life away in pointless time filling. Do something about it; get some professional help – it’s expensive but wasted lives are much more expensive. This is not an advert for psychotherapy – I haven’t been holding back about my undisclosed occupation or anything like that. But I have spent many years working with people who never seem to reach their full potential. Life’s a bit of a project, if you see what I mean, and every project risks failure.

For example, you might get quite eccentric. Last night, walking back from the allotment with my head full of the latest plant I/D book I found myself counting species of grass – five, if you’re at all interested – and now they’re in a little vase by my desk waiting for me to examine their ligules and auricles. I could go on with all sorts of examples of mindfulness, Brother Lawrence; door handle theology and so forth but I won’t because it might sound as if I’m trying to be an expert. For me, slowing down is all about paying minute attention to something; getting completely absorbed in some tiny particular of life. For the young Korean (I think) couple on the Green it’s about getting the flick of the fingers exactly right at the end of a fluid movement, for the two kick boxers we saw last night it seemed to be about making wonderful sweeping and interconnected movements like dancers, without colliding. I’m too old for that so it’s ligules and auricles for me.

But when we walk along the canal, for instance, the more plants I recognise and can name, the richer and the more outrageously beautiful the earth seems. Our grandson has spotted a puss moth and a garden tiger on their allotment in the last two days and we’re totally proud that he’s taking an interest already. It’s amazing what you can find out there if you just take your foot off the throttle.

Mindfulness makes better bread (and doctors)

IMG_5945

Mornings are my  time. I love pottering around in the kitchen and, of course, it’s the time for kneading the sourdough. Over the years I’ve learned a lot about making bread and one hard lesson, when I was new to the game, was to leave things alone.  I was always prodding, poking and fiddling about with the dough at the time when it most needed leaving alone. But paradoxically I wasn’t paying the kind of minute attention to it at the right time either.

Recipes are essential, but they’re only the start – because it seems every batch of flour can be subtly different from the last in the amount of water it will need to reach the right consistency. So my recipe suggests adding 300g flour to the batter before kneading. In reality it might need anywhere between 320g and 360g to be right for my ‘everyday’ loaf. How I arrive at the exact amount is by trial and error.  300g will give a basic but very sticky mix, and for the first couple of loaves from a new batch I just add flour as I knead.  As time goes on I’ve got a pretty good idea how much I’ll need – today it was 340g, which was spot-on. Clearly different brands of flour can make an even bigger difference.

Frustrating as it may seem, the only way is to gain more experience – it takes time and attention to do it. In my kitchen I judge the consistency of the dough by the way it sticks to the wooden table. If I’m constantly scraping the table it’s too slack. If it’s not sticking at all it’s too firm – you’ll know that anyway because it’s so hard to knead. It’s just right when I stretch the dough, pushing it forwards with the heel of my right hand, while the fingers of the left hand are resting on the back of the dough, ready to make a quarter turn before starting again. The combination of light fingers and just the right adhesion makes the job easy. Too sloppy a dough will stick to the banneton and turn out like a pancake – all crust and no crumb. Too stiff a dough will turn out cleanly but it will have a too dense a crumb. The right consistency will (just) turn out without sticking, and rise triumphantly, the bubbles not being held in by the dough. As a drystone waller I once knew would say to customers who complained about the price – “It’s a pound for the stone and ninety nine pounds for knowing what to do with it!”

Every stage of the baking process prospers when it’s accompanied by minute attention to detail. As any student of Tai Chi or Chinese painting would tell you, true spontaneity springs from constant practice. I love the story of Charlie Parker being blown off the stage by a bunch of far more experienced jazz players when he was sixteen and full of his own importance. They just kept of changing key until ran out  of steam.  His response was to go out and practice until – much later – he was able to go back on stage and blow them off.

Time, patience, practice and multi-sensory attentiveness are prerequisites for good baking and – come to think of it – good medicine as well. I’ve had a minor heart problem for years and I kept going back to the doctors who would do an ECG and tell me that nothing was wrong. They looked at their data – never at me – and told me that it said I wasn’t ill. Over a period of years I never spent more than 10 minutes in the surgery and rarely had any eye contact at all with a doctor.  When we moved here I was advised by a friend to sign up with a practice that trained GP’s because the trainees were often terrifyingly up to date (my friend was a trainer herself). They also get 20 minutes for their appointments rather than 10.  So when it happened again I made an appointment and was assigned to a trainee. 20 minutes later he’d listened to me, he’d arranged for some monitoring via the local hospital and reviewed all my meds. During the 24 hour monitoring period I had four episodes that could have resulted in a heart attack or stroke – and I’d been having them at that rate for years. The technician who looked at the data said that she was always seeing people like me because my problem doesn’t show up on a straightforward ECG. Now I’m taking medication the risk is greatly reduced – just because that inexperienced trainee took time, stepped away from the preconceptions and listened intently to me. Would I prefer a more naturally based regime? – of course, and I’ll do my best to move sensibly in that direction, but for now it’s the pills.

So here’s a thought.  While we agitate constantly for new, expensive technology based medicine, would there be any mileage in training so many more GP’s that they had time to spend half an hour getting to know the big picture of the patients’ lives? That extra ten minutes may have saved mine and given me the time to learn more about making bread. I love the NHS and I feel for the overloaded GP’s who know they’re not giving what they’re capable of because they need more funding. And they also need a new kind of training that develops those scary skills like attentiveness, empathy and appreciation for the whole person ….. oh and let’s have a bit less hostility to four millennia of good old human experience.