From surrealism to Roman emperors in the bath

This may be a more relaxed post than usual because… Saturday night rioja and dreamy Max Berlin on the stereo. I feel good. The screen break is currently going very well indeed.

Here’s what happened in February:

  • Practical – admin is on the backburner at last mainly because of setting up a joint account (which the BBC seemed interested in). Vet visits were ongoing as Clem Bundango came down with "the snuffles" (any illness in rabbits is near-death serious).
  • Learning – now up to 300/2000 words of Indonesian vocab so it's slow-going but I have discovered that the University of Birmingham has an Indonesian Society so I will hopefully be meeting some Orang Indonesia for kopi dan percakapan (coffee and convo) in March. The big news is that my Explore Photomontage course started at last – and I'm really enjoying getting visually creative without needing drawing skills (see Anita Ekberg in NYC's skyscraper fountain as a work in progress that plays with surreality and scale).
  • Helping – a bit more babysitting, a bit more Stirchley supermarket protesting, a bit of visiting a friend who is temporarily staying in a rest home (strange/conflicted places that don't seem a good solution to elderly care – read Atul Gawande and Being Mortal for more on this difficult aspect of modern healthcare).
  • Writing – digitised various extracts of London life in the early 1990s into one document; next job is to edit edit edit. Put out a photo/video press release on a local protest that was picked up by the Birmingham Post & Mail. Applied for some writer development help for the next 12 months with Writing West Midlands (scrivener's fingers crossed). Took a Life Writing day course at the Mac, which mostly made me realise I need to stop doing creative writing exercises and get on and write the damn thing. The tutor's message of "You've got to enjoy it otherwise why do it?" was also a very good one for me.
  • Books – small books are my friends right now: The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide; Noam Chomsky's Media Control and Marcus Aurelius' Meditations. All bath books – is this a thing? TMI?
  • Health/exercise – Scottish country dance x2, tai chi in the park x1, Nordic Walk session up the Lickey Hills, Cotswold hill walk with big sis, swim/sauna x2, allotment digging x3, shot a few hoops with my new birthday basketball and made a new friend (see People).
  • Events – first haircut in five months due to budget restrictions, second Stirchley anti-Lidl protest, Art Show & Tell #2 at the P Cafe, Lobelia's album launch at the Tower of Song, exhibition at the Wellcome Centre on how we see animals (featuring a guy who lived with a fully-grown Bengal Tiger called Ming and an alligator called Ali in an apartment in Harlem), immersive video installation at the Barbican by Richard Mosse who filmed the refugee crisis with a thermal imaging camera, some interesting new pieces (including photomontage) at New Art West Midlands 2017 at the Mac. Oh yes and a birthday dine-drink family do at the British Oak.
  • People – finally met and chatted properly with Danni S, who went to the very top of my must-meet radar when she offered to dig the allotment: "I love digging!" It was refreshing to meet a confident and interesting lady who baulks at nothing (it seems), says what she wants and then does it. Fair play. Also I now have a basketball pal to play with – a five-foot-tall Iranian lady called Arafeh who used to play back at uni and still shoots a mean hoop decades later.
  • Something new – after four years, Professor Bunminster has finally succumbed to sitting on my lap and being petted. This is a major breakthrough in hoomin-rabbit relations. Also, being February, it was new songbook month at Moselele – we're now up to Songbook 8, which features such grand tunes as Pink Sunshine by Fuzzbox, Reward by The Teardrop Explodes and a past relationship song to be punctuated and nulled by the mighty uke, Nothing Else Matters by Metallica. Used my new photomontage skills to create my first wedding anniversary card in 21 years.
  • Somewhere new – Cheltenham, a flying visit on the way to a Cotswold spa hotel, as a guest of my sis. Walked up Cooper's Hill where the famous cheese-rolling takes place; it really is a breakneck gradient.
  • Holiday – two days in the Cotswolds; a trip to that London.

More sabbatical posts are here.

Sabbatical in full swing of lying in, coffee dates, protests and trip planning

Stirchley Lidl protest at the Council House. Pic: Neil Elkes?

I am finally relaxing into this screen break, sabbatical, time-out thing. Work decisions have been made (will be picking up freelance work again from April) and I'm not beating myself up about having lie-ins until lunchtime occasionally. Although there are a lot of things listed below, I've generally been living a bit more slowly and less stressfully after realising the main point of having a break is to actually have a break.

Ironically, planning a future holiday – a big overland train trip to Eastern Europe taking in eight countries – has seen me back on the computer for hours and days, trying to sort out the route options, pricing and accommodations. (I have shared some travel tips at the end of this post.) But I'm very excited to have finally sorted out the bulk of it and I'm looking forward to staring out of a train window for hours come spring. If anyone wants help  or advice with this kind of trip, I am now a semi-pro and free to be taken for coffee in February.

So here’s what happened in January:

  • Practical – starting to realise the admin never ends but my head is feeling calmer as the financial situation clears.
  • Learning – complete weeks 5-7 of OU Introduction to Cybersecurity course (cryptography basics, protecting your data on the network, what's the worst that can happen?); still plugging slowly away at Indonesian vocab (up to 280 words out of 2000).
  • Helping – helped a young couple understand mortgages (randomly); waved a banner at a protest outside the council house against Stirchley/Lidl planning application; lent an ear a few times (being there for friends and family is a lot easier now); babysat for six hours for my super-cute five-month-old great nephew (changed my first nappy, made my first milk bottle up, dealt with my first tantrum).
  • Writing – finished processing a big three-year diary book and started a beat-style extract around London life in the early 1990s.
  • Books – 'Love and Rockets X' graphic novel, and made a list of some classic ones I haven't yet read.
  • Health – weekly Scottish country dance class, weekly tai chi in the park, Millisons Wood to Meriden walk with big bro, yoga training from big sis, one gym session.
  • Events – Scottish Dance New Year Social, Stirchley Baths 1st Birthday, Roger Hiorns Ikon show, Justin Wiggins' BOM show, Exploring Photomontage 'Made at Mac' show, birthday lunch for niece at the Mailbox, another school reunion wineathon, Pete's talk on Cityscapes at the Kings Norton Photo Club.
  • People – many coffee shops have been visited this month. I finally booked in travel chats with Ruth, coffee with former work colleague Jo, catchups with the Kings Heath coffee crew, B30 brunch massive and London-Brummies curry meet-up.
  • Something new – mixed media textiles taster at the Mac made me realise it's not for me; conversely, I found Pete's new Art Show & Tell at the P-Cafe very inspiring and full of interesting artists/creatives talking about their work – and work barriers. Next one is on 16 Feb at 3pm (info here).
  • Somewhere new – Pitstop Cafe, Cotteridge (a gem, best mugs of tea); Gorilla Coffee Cafe, Kings Heath (nice enough).
  • Holiday – spent the best part of a week, researching and booking an overland train trip across Europe and trying to arrange a bodyboard holiday (postponed).

Some tips from my hours of travel research:

– You can get return flights to Bali in March/April for just £340 return on Qatar/Emirates. I've never seen them so cheap and on such good airlines. Check out latest prices on Skyscanner.

– Follow for overlanding by train; it really is a fantastic resource for telling you how to get there (cheap, express, scenic) and how exactly to book your tickets.

Bodyboard Holidays, run by UK bodyboard senior champ Rob Barber, offers bodyboard tuition in some very sexy winter sun places, from Morocco's southern beaches to Costa Rica/Nicaragua to Indonesia. (They also do Newquay, Wales and Ireland.) Bodyboarding is a low-impact fun sport although all-round fitness is required for swimming out I discovered last summer at their Cornwall Bodyboard Camp. Check out the calendar.

And, yes, I'm ignoring the whole despicable Donald Trump thing.

'Everything does change, something is happening'

Bollards at 4am.

After last month's anxiety about the myth of free time and not getting much done, I had a rethink and reduced my 'stuff I want to do' list. There may still have been a spreadsheet. I had a lot more chilling out time thanks to Pete rescuing me from evening-working and getting me hooked on Mozart In The Jungle.

Thanks also to Pete's mum who wrote a thoughtful family round-robin at Christmas about pausing and appreciating the stuff around you. In writing about her garden she said: "I take heart that everything does change and that, even when there is a feeling of achieving nothing or getting nowhere, something is happening." I'm sure this is a message for me. A former colleague of mine has used her sabbatical to travel across Europe to Japan overland and, while this is something I admire, envy and is the perfect 'here's what I did on sabbatical' pitch, I have to remind myself that my own wanderlust is not the thing I need to do with my break. Now is the time for review and change.

So here's what happened in December:

  • Practical – a LOT of admin – mostly sorting out my financial situation, work needs and data security stuff, thanks to…
  • Learning – three more weeks done of OU Introduction to Cybersecurity course, some Indonesian vocab learning (up to 256 words out of 2000).
  • Helping – helped a retiring police officer understand his new Macbook and how to create presentations using Photos and Keynote. Helped paint a bedroom at sister's house.
  • Writing – read a couple of books in diary project and sent a short extract in a Christmas card to a long-time friend.
  • Books – nearly finished two books: on yoga and Carrie Fisher's diaries + got a load of great reading to come from Christmas books.
  • Health – weekly Scottish country dance class, tai chi in the park, PiYo (pilates-yoga), a night photowalk in central Birmingham, Highbury Park walk, Christmas Day walk up the Lickeys, got my bike out for the first time in a year and cycled up the hill to Kings Heath (high-speed freewheeled back down in 9 mins flat).
  • Events – allotment bonfire, The Atlantic Players gig at the Prince of Wales, played in the annual Snowselele singalong, Stan's Cafe's 25th birthday party, got involved in a local anti-supermarket campaign, Stirchley in the Pub for Christmas Eve.
  • People – connected with several friends on coffee 'dates', lots of family meets with new baby, and met two new people: my mentee and a PhD student as part of…
  • Something new – took part in a PhD student's psychogeography walk around Moselely, hooked up to a GPS device, heart rate monitor and GoPro. Volunteered at Fat Fluffs Rabbit Rescue after Christmas to help out with general bun care.
  • Somewhere new – Christmas Markets and Birmingham canals at night on a Photo-School night walk.
  • Random – the shed now has electricity thanks to our talented friend John Rushton, which means our three buns now have a milder winter to enjoy and we can enjoy hanging out a bit at evening feeding times. Thanks John!

In other thoughts, the BBC did a series on 'How to stay young' and it can be summed up as become a dancing, dog-loving vegan – or in my world, a dancing, bunny-loving, occasional vegan who is generally cutting down on meat and fish for moral and environmental reasons.

The myth of free sabbatical time

Capturing time with a long exposure of moving light

I've promised myself I'll blog my sabbatical once a month and looking back at November I've surprised myself with how little I've achieved given that I'm only working 1-2 days a week and that Pete is away on a residency.

Time really is an illusion. I thought giving up work would give me endless free time, certainly enough to get bored. It hasn't. I haven't slowed down but it seems time is passing differently and this left me feeling a little discombobulated.

Firstly, those eight hours a day that I used to sit at a computer do not appear to translate into eight hours of productive sabbatical time. Perhaps because they aren't things with a specific end, such as rabbitcare, mining diaries, reading books, meeting people, and so on. There are no 'outputs' to mark time, which makes the day feel strangely insubstantial and intangible.

Secondly, there is less down time. I used to lie on the sofa in the evening with dinner, a drink and some telly – and a real sense of proper relaxing and de-stressing. Now everything I do is for a reason or because I really want to work on something so there is less flop time. Instead I turn off the telly and go work on my diary project, and suddenly it's 1am. I'm feeling mentally a bit fried.

Thirdly, weekends are blurring into weekdays. It feels as if I don't get a break now that each day is similar. Maybe I need to set some boundaries and timetable a few things, which is annoying as I was trying not to be too structured.

Finally, because I'm not tied to a routine, I'm getting sidetracked by spontaneity – going to things I wouldn't normally have time to go to, helping people out with their 'stuff' or just reacting to whatever lands on my plate. This has had a definite impact on my main aim for November, which was to focus on health and exercise. I've actually done less than usual on that front and had a bad back from diary work.

HOWEVER… a lot has been happening and I think it will be helpful to list those things each month to make sense of what I >am< doing. Here's what went on in November:

  • Helping – tech help for elderly friends with no internet on switching gas/elec suppliers (and a thank-you lunch follow-up)
  • Writing – edited three stories for friends from past diaries and creative writing (Amsterdam, Berlin, children's story); also sent to University for CPW course use. Created a new piece – a vertical slice of a single diary day (1 January) from aged 10 to 48.
  • Learning – week 1 of Introduction to Cybersecurity course done and signed up for a ton of RSS feeds (I can now hack into an iPhone).
  • Books – x3: The Dark Net by Jamie Bartlett, Exercises in Style by Raymond Queneau and In Their Arms by Thomas Moore.
  • Health – Scottish country dancing x2 sessions, park tai chi x1 session, yoga x1 gym session, funk 'n' flow x1 session, gave up alcohol for five weeks.
  • Events – Spookelele Singalong, Stirchley Community Market, rejoined local library, attended Stirchley Neighbourhood Forum on crime
  • New people met x3 (five, if you count new baby twins); arranged to meet one lady again in Jan for mutual exercise support/class.
  • New places visited x2: National Trust Back to Backs and London day trip (Photographer's Gallery show)
  • Random – lots of home stuff: the norovirus hit, a pet got ill, had a flat tyre, mini family crisis, cleared garden rubble, arranged builder, fencer, window and electrician quotes, client visit from France for two days, lots of rabbit care.

A lot going on and filling the days. Based on what happened this month, for December and beyond, this is my new loose-but-also-structured plan–

  • Each week
    • learn something new (cybersecurity course)
    • work on creative writing/diary project
    • Daily walk + 3x exercise/workout sessions
    • Daily meditation
    • Chip away at admin things to clear decks, eg, revamp website, make Twitter useful again, find a mentor, inbox unreads, review bookmarks and clear tabs
    • Indonesian vocab x2 reviews a week
  • Each two weeks
    • Meet a new person
  • Each month
    • Go somewhere new
    • Try something new
    • Read one book
    • Date night
    • Blog what happened
  • Each quarter
    • Seek out a collaboration
  • Each six months-year
    • Holiday!

We'll see. Might need to schedule some more down time in there, but scheduling relaxation is a bit weird. Will report back in December.

Hire/commission me: fiona [at]

Day 30: The end of the beginning

My 30 days of blogging about the transition into a sabbatical is theoretically ending today, which is kind of ironic as I feel I've barely started winding down let alone begun, and annoyingly there is no one to invoice for all the work and admin. Maybe it'll all make sense in retrospect in the way you hope your diary will be enlightening when you get older and look back.

The first month seems to have been all about getting away from the home office and routine and sitting at a desk. Now that the holiday/travel disruption is over, I hope the next month will be more about relaxing and exercising and doing some creative projects, both random and planned.

Blogging daily has been a good routine but also it's felt like an obligation that's a little too close to being a web ed for hire. I'm sure there will be more writing here when there are things to say, though not with so prescriptive a deadline. It's good to check in.

Day 29: Saturdays

Cleaning to music, coffee shop chats, charity shop mooch with sis, cruising to Big City Radio, a bargain buy (Les Liaisons Dangereuses, 99p), hanging with the bunsters, eating nice foods with Pete, watching funnies on the tellybox, writing to my starred music playlist, and finishing with a hot deep bubble bath.

Saturdays are great, aren't they? Hopefully more days of the week will be like Saturday very soon.

Bit weird to be sober tonight, though. The urge for a glass of wine as a Saturday night treat came – and fortunately went. Giving up is only hard when you are still thinking about it in terms of giving up.

[Coda: P says this reads like I drank a lot when in recent times it's been taking me three days to get through a bottle of wine. But it still feels like a habit and a big deal to stop. Probably this is because socially and culturally, drinking is pretty ingrained. But also because by 6pm I'm sick of tea and because soft drinks are similarly samey, especially as I gave up fizzy drinks about a year ago.) 

Day 28: Doing nothing and stopping drinking

The thing about transitioning from work to not-s0-much-work is that it starts with a frenzy of all those things that have been awaiting. Four weeks in and it's only today that I didn't set an alarm to get up and do something or be somewhere.

I checked my watch at 2.30ish thinking it was about 5pm. But in work-time, it was just after lunch with the whole afternoon stretching ahead. I'm looking forward to the weird bending of time if not the total collapse of my daily structure.

Of course, I still did things. Tea with visitors, long-overdue photo backups, bunny bonding, builder liaison, admin, Coop trip, cooked a bloody ace dinner and so on.

Him Outdoors challenged me to do nothing for a week. But what would that involve exactly? No TV, internet or books? No garden, allotment or bunnies? No writing, films or chats? Forced 'relaxation' just sounds boring and annoying. I have a nagging feeling that I should still try it, however. A bit of unstructured quiet thinking time every day might be nice. Can that still involve rabbits?

In other big realisations, I'm giving up the booze for a month – maybe longer. I've been dithering about this for a week as I love the taste of wine but the truth is that I mostly drink to relax after a hard day and if I don't have a hard day maybe all that is left is just an unhealthy habit or social drinking pressures. With health and fitness being my top priority in November, this can only help.

So yeah, I'm calling it – NO-vember.

Day 27: Bedlam

pocket asylum folded Q&A sheetI caught the Bedlam: the asylum and beyond exhibition at the Wellcome Building in Euston, all about mental health and how it was treated – in asylums featuring metal collars, chains, straitjackets, ECT, teeth removal (and other innards), pills, art, talking therapies and, well, pretty much anything, with the inmates occasionally providing a weekend entertainment freak show for visitors.

In sharp contrast at the end of the collection, the requests of those with mental health problems were listed through the five senses what they would like to experience and what their ideal day would be like. The answers were things like: snuggling an animal, going for a walk or swim, having nice food, doing some gardening, smelling flowers, listening to their favourite music, meeting friends, sleeping with pleasant (or no) dreams. Essentially, normal things. In fact, the kind of normal things you want when your work-life balance is out of sync and you are feeling a bit head-full. Which is obviously a topic of great current interest to me.

The show finished by asking questions such as: Is it possible to go mad in a positive way? How would you create a safe place in which to do so? If you designed your own asylum, what would it be like?

One of the responses came from artists from who provided a 'pocket asylum' with three questions for attendees to answer and take away:

  1. How could you change your environment to better support mental health?……..
  2. How would you support a friend/relative/co-worker if they were struggling with their mental health?……..
  3. What support might you need if you were struggling with your mental health?……….


Followed by an exhortation to "Read in the future as required".

I think my answers would be:

  1. More smells – Fairy Liquid and burning turf reminds me of my granny in Ireland, wallflowers reminds me of spring in my mum's garden, Pete's deodorant… reminds me of Pete, incense of Bali, jasmine of Thai garlands, and so on. The sense of smell is something I underestimate and don't think of when compared with putting on some music, for example.
  2. Be kind, listen, don't judge (yeah, hard).
  3. Get someone who cares to seek out someone who can do the above.

I don't know why I'm posting this particularly, apart from the Wellcome Trust always puts on a good exhibition that packs a tonne of information and things to think about (their 'Death' one from a couple of years ago was fantastic).

But also I suppose because this is something that has affected me and many people I know. Anyone can be affected by mental health issues and vulnerable at different times of their life – and my experience has ranged from drunken earworms that have driven me to madness in my sleep (Spanish Flea by Herb Alpert was the worst) to an extended depressive episode caused by complicated grief which meant I couldn't stop crying (mostly at really inappropriate work times) to having visual hallucinations for a few hours after experiencing something traumatic. And that's just me; for two years I was in a relationship with someone who was bi-polar and with multiple personality disorder (now known as dissociative identity disorder). The mind is a delicate and fascinating thing. So I guess that's why I'm posting this. It's been on my mind. I might have to write about this some more. Or not. We'll see.

Day 26: London leaving lunch

Visiting that London for a farewell lunch with work colleagues and a catch-up at the agency I freelance for (or rather freelanced for). It's been nearly four weeks but I feel I haven't actually started my sabbatical yet. Been too busy lancing my travel boil (sorry).

Pictures now up from Wales and Italy.

Now very ready to get on with other things. November will be all about creative writing and getting a bit fitter.