#WithinOneMile: A Lockdown Challenge

MikeachimThe EverydayLeave a Comment

It’s a late January day in 1754, and Horace Walpole, writer and 4th Earl of Orford, is scratching out a letter to his friend Horace Mann.

It’s one of those “things are tolerable, old boy, if tedious and rather wearying” letters that English people have excelled at for hundreds of years, so let’s skip to the interesting part:

———

“…this discovery, indeed, is almost of that kind which I call Serendipity, a very expressive word, which, as I have nothing better to tell you, I shall endeavor to explain to you: you will understand it better by the derivation than the definition.

I once read a silly fairy tale, called “The Three Princes of Serendip [a former name for Ceylon, now Sri Lanka]”: as their Highnesses travelled, they were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of: for instance, on the them discovered that a mule blinds of the right eye had travelled the same road lately, because the grass was eaten only on the left side, where it was worse than on the right – now do you understand Serendipity?

One of the most remarkable instances of this accidental sagacity, (for you must observe that no discovery of a thing you are looking for comes under this description) was of my Lord Shaftsbury, who, happening to dine at Lord Chancellor Clarendon’s, found out the marriage of the Duke of York and Mrs. Hyde, by the respect with which her mother treated her at table…”

———

Perhaps because of the sheer dullness of the example Walpole chooses to illustrate his theme, the term serendipity would take at least a century more to catch on (the first recorded use of serendipitous is from 1943).

But now? Now it’s firmly in the public domain – and good job too, because we’ve never needed it this badly.

As I said in my last post, serendipity and curiosity (with the former a happy consequence of the latter) aren’t just idle pastimes. If you’re incurious, you’re more prone to developing anxiety and other mental ailments. There’s even a medical term for this: anhedonia, the inability to feel interest and pleasure in your surroundings.

It’s a common symptom of clinical depression.

Considering what’s going on in the world right now, everyone should be on high alert for signs of early anhedonia. As I write this, the UK is heading back into lockdown – a word that wouldn’t have meant much outside military circles before the start of this year. It seems there are workable vaccines on the horizon – the second, part-funded by Dolly Parton (who is clearly far too good for this world), has just been announced by American biotech company Moderna.

After a nail-biting summer waiting for a vaccine, we could now be around six months away from a general rollout, and the beginning of the end of this pandemic.

But first, we have a winter of discontent to navigate. No way around it. We need to stay safe, stay smart and stay home.

But let’s rewind for a second. Cast your mind back half a human lifetime, to February of this year.

When was the last time you sat in a coffee-shop, within elbowing-distance of strangers, little knowing this would be the last time you did this until 2021? Can you remember anything about it?

On that day, serendipity struck you. It’s easy for it to strike in a coffee shop: all those strangers with their alien ways and unknown inner worlds, noisily jostling for somewhere to sit and gently hypercaffeinate themselves to deal with (or prepare for) a long day. All those overlapping universes of experience and knowledge! It’s easy to learn something new. You’re sipping your drink, and you overhear an unsolicited snippet of conversation…

“…so he says to me, ‘how do you like your tea: strong, weak or just right?’ I mean, how does anyone’s brain get like that?”

“Yeah but, you know why paper-cuts hurt so much, right? Right? Because it’s so fascinating, listen to this…”

“They’re leather though. It’s unethical. I can’t buy brand new leather boots. I mean, I have some already, but I want to keep them for best.”

“Ever seen that film, Contagion? Stupidest thing I ever saw, totally ridiculous.”

…and without meaning to, you listen in for a minute or so, and learn something about what it’s like to be another person.

Or maybe you are on the bus, and get chatting to someone sat nearby. Or you stop at a park bench to munch a sandwich, and a person having the same idea sits down next to you, and if you’re both feeling extremely brave, you stumble into pleasant but awkward small-talk. (This is for British people. Your mileage may vary.)

Or maybe you’re travelling – that thing that used to be so much fun before COVID-19, and hopefully will be again soon – and serendipity was inescapable because everything was just so foreign and new. Accidental discoveries are easy when everything you meet is a relentless parade of novelty.

However you get it, serendipity is good for you. It also feels nice. It makes you feel alive and connected, part of something bigger and more meaningful. It puts a spring in your step – and without it, life seems monotonous, drab and depressingly boring.

That’s what lockdowns are starting to feel like. None of the fun of strangers, none of the joy of finding new things, and yet again, the same old things to do. Marking off the days until we’re free again.

But – is that really all we can do?

A few months ago, I started asking myself these questions:

  • Can you get some of the serendipitous thrill of travel when you have to stay home?
  • Does a pandemic lockdown have to be so damn boring?
  • Why are paper-cuts so painful?

So when I arrived on the island of Westray in Orkney at the end of September, I decided to hunt for some answers.

Well, the paper-cut thing is easy. The answers are online, I won’t spoil it for you. This is one of those special cases where personal experimentation is pointlessly traumatic and won’t teach you anything. Just Google it, please.

But for the other questions, I set myself a lockdown challenge. Using an online mapping tool, I drew a circle a mile wide around the apartment where I was living, and began hunting for serendipity within it. I’d go for a walk, I’d pay close attention to everything i could see, and I’d try to “overhear” something new about the world around me – usually triggering a question that I could research online when I got back home.

Since early October I’ve been posting the results on my Instagram account, under the hashtag #WithinOneMile. So far, I’ve discovered the poetry of Orkney’s wind turbines, why dry-stone walls stay up, why a local landowner was murdered by the King of Sweden, and what seals and bananas have in common.

Although my time in Orkney is almost up, I’m going to keep doing at my next temporary home (a cabin at the edge of the Firth of Clyde) – and the one after that, wherever that will be. It’s a fun way to learn something new about the world on my changing doorstep, so I reckon I’ll just keep going for now.

If this idea sounds fun to you, or at least usefully distractingly daft, here’s how you can have a go yourself.

How To Explore #WithinOneMile

1. Draw Your Circle. 

The online tool I used is this one. You may find something better.

I also chose one mile for location-specific reasons: because Westray is small and I didn’t want to be forced to plunge into the Scottish Atlantic in early Winter (as I write this, a 60mph gale is blowing through) – and also because I didn’t want a circle that covered the whole island, which would feel like cheating, by giving me too many lazy options. A challenge should be, you know, a challenge.

If a mile is too small for you, go with two miles, or three, or five (stop there: more than five is silly in the wrong way) – or you could even use half a mile, if your neighbourhood’s thick with stuff. 

2. Get Specific

It’s hard to motivate yourself to do something with an unclear outcome. For this reason, don’t ‘go in search of serendipity’, because failing to find something will feel like a failed quest. Instead, set yourself a clearly-defined outdoorsy task, like “walk to the top of that hill and back” or “walk right around that wood”, or “sit at that place for twenty minutes, watching and listening the hell out of everything”.

Also, take a notebook and a pen – or if you prefer, use your phone to take audio notes (just make sure it’s not distracting you with the clamour of notifications from the outer world. Be here, not there.)

3. Share It

I like Instagram because it’s easy to update, because it’s been annoying me for a long time as I never knew what I wanted to do with it, and because there’s a hard word-count limit in the text box – meaning you can only woffle on so much.

If you use some other platform to collate your findings, set some sensible limits for yourself, so it doesn’t spiral out of control into a time-destroying mess that’s impossible to keep up with. If you prefer, go the other way: use Twitter’s 280-character limit (you can still build threads of tweets), or set some other micro-blogging limitation upon yourself. Whatever feels doable and keep-uppable.

And while you’re at it, either use the #WithinOneMile hashtag, or ignore it and make your own! This isn’t a branded campaign and I’m not measuring how influential I am. Steal anything at will, and do this your way, with my unreserved blessing.

More updates on my own findings soon – but frankly, I’d much rather read yours. Are you in? Leave a comment telling me what you’re doing and where, so I can edit this post to give you a public mention. Thanks!

Further reading

  • Author & adventurer Al Humphreys is currently exploring a single map, centred on where he lives. Follow his challenge here.
  • Back in June of this year, travel writer Tim Hannigan explored a 2km-wide circle on Ordnance Survey Ireland sheet 46, centred on his home – the furthest that lockdown would let him travel at the time.
  • If walking is your thing and you’re in the UK, go to the Slow Ways network map, zoom in and find a few local routes to explore.
  • If you insist on putting your feet up for the next few months, read this brilliant book which first got me thinking about the power of applied curiosity.

Images: Unsplash, Pixabay, Mike Sowden.

Want to be notified when I write something new? Join 1,000+ subscribers here:

Meditations For Hiking The British Outdoors

MikeachimThe EverydayLeave a Comment

Meditation is a fantastic way to calm your mind, so you’re more in touch with the Great Outdoors when you’re out in it.

However, outdoor meditation can be challenging – and usually requires a tailored approach.

Here are three meditations that I’ve found super-useful while hiking in the UK.

1. The Acceptance Meditation

Those clouds are really dark, aren’t they?

And look at how those hills are disappearing ahead, where that suddenly bone-cold wind is coming from. 

It’s OK, though. Take a deep breath – and – just – release it. Feel it travel out of your body, from your deepest place to your emptiest place. Feel the air passing, watch it go with your inner mind’s eye – until only you remain, calm and still and ready for anything.

It was Billy Graham who said, “Without dark clouds in our lives, we would never know the joy of sunshine.”

Well, good for him. And didn’t he live in North Carolina, where it’s generally pretty warm all year round – at least 20 full degrees warmer than here?

Yes he did. 

It’s raining hard now. Proper stair-rods.

But that’s OK too. Let it pass. Let it be. Allow it and accept it. You can always choose to do that. After all, discomfort always passes in time. Misery is just a matter of attitude. You can’t control what happens to you. You can only control your response to it. 

And maybe your response right now is, “I shouldn’t have got my waterproofs from that metal bin in Primark.”

You’ll know next time. 

But that’s next time, and right now, you’re completely and utterly…

Wait. Seriously? Is…? Is that…? 

Yes, it is. After less than five minutes, the rainwater has now reached your underpants.

You know you’ve got at least another six hours of walking ahead of you, and this rain isn’t going anywhere. And you can feel the skin of your inner thighs starting to squeak and chafe with every step. 

Where did you leave that little tub of Vaseline?

You left it at home, didn’t you?

Take another long, deep breath, in through the nose. 

The air smells so fresh, doesn’t it? Like those times in your life when you remember it rained for days and you wished you’d been born literally anywhere else in the world. 

But take the air in, take it deep, like something between a gift and a curse. Take a big gulp. 

The rain doesn’t have it in for you. The rain isn’t a pitiless arsemonger that is spitefully defying what the BBC Weather app told you this very morning, hence you deciding to keep walking after lunch. The rain isn’t that much of a bastard. The rain just is.

Keep telling yourself that. Yeah.

And as you do so, let that deliciously crisp, invigorating, cold, wet, vicious, hateful air into your lungs – and let yourself make a noise so someone standing next to you could hear it. “Fuuuuuuhh…

Now let it out hard. Make a “CK!” sound. The louder the better. 

Really scream it, if you like. Let the veins in your forehead and neck stand out proudly.

Keep doing that. Keep that virtuous cycle going. It won’t make you feel calmer, but it might warm you up a bit.

2. The Surprise Meditation

The world has a sound, a kind of music, and if you listen hard enough, if you still the waters of your mind and hold your breath, you can hear it.

Can you hear it?

Is it like a faint, high-pitched whine?

That’s actually tinnitus. Because you haven’t eaten for two days, and now you’re starting to suffer. Acid bile races up and down your gullet like the Severn Bore. 

Maybe if you’d been smart, and had any semblance of self-control, you could have made that family pack of Twixes last, and saved all those McVities breakfast bars for actual breakfasts. And how you went through those three multipacks of Chewits you’ll never know.

Maybe having six meals a day for two days in a row also wasn’t the smartest thing ever.

But it’s fine. You’re here now, in the outskirts of the absolute cutest little village, and the sun is beaming down, like a warm light of forgiveness thawing your frozen, agonised soul.

You’re only a few minutes away from the shops, according to the map. Almost there, Sisyphus. 

Didn’t Rebecca Solnit say, “We treat desire as a problem to be solved, address what desire is for and focus on that something and how to acquire it rather than on the nature and the sensation of desire”? 

And isn’t this gnawing hunger a desire? A raw human experience, the kind you came here for? Something to cherish, especially when you know it’s definitely on the way out?

Here’s the mini-supermarket! And…

Look at the door. 

Just – look. Empty your mind. Don’t…no. No.

Don’t think about it. It doesn’t say that. It doesn’t. Don’t let it. If you don’t think about it, then maybe…

Maybe it doesn’t say CLOSED. There’s something in your eye. Or you’re hallucinating. It’s not closed, obviously. Because that would be So, So Bad. So it doesn’t. Does it?

Yes. Because it’s Sunday. 

You forgot. Nowhere is open today. Literally nowhere. This is how the UK countryside works. On Sundays, you eat what you already have, or you die. That’s how it works. 

But take heart, weary traveller, for as Robert Frost once said…

Bugger Robert Frost. Bugger everything. You’re hungry and you want food. Could you knock on someone’s door? Or maybe break it down?

Suddenly the rain is lashing at you hard, and there’s absolutely nowhere you can take shelter, and this is when you remember there’s a Freusli bar right at the bottom of your rucksack. 

Are you really going to turf out all your stuff, in the middle of a rainstorm, just to get it? Are you really?

It’s going to taste so good.

3. The Surrender Meditation

Relax – and lean back. Scan down your body. Feel the contact between your sodden, tattered waterproofs and the car seat.

Feel the smooth fake leather of the seat against your fingertips. Soft, yet cheap.

Watch the Forest Fresh Magic Tree air freshener swing merrily back and forth under the rear-view mirror.

Be grateful. You did the right thing. Yes you did. Yes.

Take a long, deep breath. The air smells of stewed thermos coffee, Sour Cream & Chive Pringles and something that isn’t pine, but it’s okay. And you’re grateful.

Brian is telling you about how the Mark II Vauxhall Cavalier was made for weather like this – not the Mark III, which any fool knows was a shameless attempt to muscle into the Japanese market. The Japanese make good cars but they have no soul, he tells you. You nod.

Miriam is watching Michael Palin on her iPad. It’s very, very sunny where he is.

The car sways alarmingly as a fist of gale-force rain slams into the side of it, so Brian slows down, but probably not enough on a day like this, even for a road as straight as this. 

You watch a campsite go by. That’s the fourth one now. You remember it clearly: when the very first campsite appeared, you were going to ask them to stop. “No, no, it’s fine. Thank you SO much, but I’ll be good from here onwards. Not a problem. Thank you!” 

But that’s four now.

As Anne Morrow Lindbergh said: “If you surrender completely to the moments as they pass, you live more richly those moments.” Maybe that works for campsites too.

And that’s five. 

Be self-loving and congratulate yourself. Offer empathy, as if you were someone else, someone you actually respected. It’s okay. You did the right thing. A three-hour rainstorm would break anyone, and while it’s only day six and you had another four weeks of planned walking ahead of you, it’s basically done, more or less. You’ve proven your worth as an adventurer. You didn’t need to, but you proved it. Inner high-five! You’re a hero!

I am a hero. 

Say it.

No, be kinder.

Miriam’s got bored of Michael Palin and now she’s on Countryfile. Sleepy forest paths pierced by sunbeams fill her screen, and now John Craven is wearing a rucksack exactly like yours.

Don’t…take it personally. Don’t. He has a film crew and he’s probably loaded. He doesn’t look smug, but that could be his BBC training. He doesn’t know the lonely horror you’ve been through, the impossible choice you faced, the surrender that was thrust upon you. He never will.

You’re at the city limits now. In the last 45 minutes, the car has covered the distance you’d put aside for the rest of July.

They can drop you off at the train station, you tell Brian. They’ve done you such a favour, and you’re so grateful. You realise it’s the eighth time you’ve said that, but that’s okay. They understand. Nobody is judging you today. That’s for later.

The car is slowing. Don’t look in the rear-view mirror. Don’t meet your own eyes. Fumble in your rucksack, look like you’re preparing for the next leg, not searching for your wallet so you can check if your return ticket is valid this early.

It’s okay. Breathe all the way out – and once again.

Nobody ever needs to know.

Images: Annie Spratt and Ivy Barn on Unsplash; Szabolcs Molnar on Pixabay and Mike Sowden.

Infinite apologies to the completely brilliant Calm and Headspace.

Want to be notified when I write something new? Join 1,000+ subscribers here:

One daft Wild Night Out. Up for it?

MikeachimThe EverydayLeave a Comment

As you probably know by now, I’m a lover of the absurd but rather magnificent practice of occasionally pretending bedrooms don’t exist.

This involves finding somewhere else to sleep, like perched on the side of a hill, or suspended between two trees in a hammock – or, thankfully very rarely, in a corner of a field in Orkney with the rain hammering down on me.

All this sounds extremely foolish until you have a go – then it’s just mostly foolish, but also enormously life-affirming in a way it’s difficult to put your finger on. I’d recommend it to anyone.

It’s also, as I noted in my last post, a good way to battle insomnia and muddled sleep patterns – and, once you get past the nervy thrill of not having four walls around you for a change, it can relax your stressed-out brain and body an absolute shedload.

Fancy giving it a go? Because this Saturday, the night of the 11th July, there’s the perfect excuse.

Read More