When I’m too low to sweat out The Blues, it’s time to get up to the allotment
THOSE OF US who admit to problems with our mental health are encouraged to come up with so-called ‘coping strategies’ for when things don’t go well.
And because I’ve been struggling for years, I’ve developed quite a few, different, ways of caring for myself.
Eating and drinking the right things helps, of course, as does getting a decent amount of sleep.
I’ve also written recently about how laying off the booze – hard as it is to do – unquestionably helps to start the next morning happily.
On truly bad days, just putting on some shorts and big trainers and jogging up and down the hills that surround my house was my favourite form of mental alchemy – reliably turning panic into contentment and black thoughts towards silver linings.
Now, as I continue to nurse busted knee ligaments, I’ve found that I can achieve a similar effect to running by getting on a bike and pointing it up the nearest big hill, Lifting weights, meanwhile, brings a quiet calmness, a greater happiness with myself.
But most of those things are hard work and there are days when I really don’t have the strength for exercise that involves burning off hundreds of calories.
It’s then that I like to put on some old, sturdy, clothes, get on my bike and pedal gently up to Lotty – the name we have given to our vegetable allotment a mile or so away.
Yesterday, I felt a cold coming on but I wanted to get out. For some reason, I felt ‘fizzy’ and I knew that being outside would help. It was a beautiful day and The Missus wanted a bed dug over for some courgettes. Perfect conditions for The Lotty.
It’s not a very rock ‘n’ roll thing to admit, but I have really grown to love digging over the years.
It’s not what you’d call interesting work – planting a fork into the ground, levering the earth up, breaking up the clod with a quick twist of the wrist on the fork handle and then bending to pull out weeds and stones – but it is quite mindful.
The amount of exertion and attention it requires are just enough to work off excess energy and focus the conscious mind.
And if you spend more than a few minutes doing it, you can clearly see the progress you’ve made, which is not something all of us can say in our jobs, or even our hobbies.
Then there’s the atavistic connection to nature. Perhaps I was ‘fizzy’ this morning because my body didn’t want to sit still all day while a screen bathed me in artificial light?
Certainly, by the time I’d spent half an hour digging, I was breathing more naturally and felt calmer.
Moreover, I could feel my forearms, lower back and glutes getting a workout they would never have received from the computer screen.
It also felt good to be in the sunshine, my skin gradually shedding its unpleasant winter whiteness, and the earth – ‘rested’ under a plastic sheet for more than six months – friable and pleasant to work.
When my wife had put down the sheeting in October, the roots of the grass were thick and snarly, but today they all came out of the ground as easily as peeling off a wig off my head.
As I worked, it was reassuring to see scores of big, healthy bees clambering on our bean flowers and cabbage whites – actually an enemy, but a pretty one! – fluttering by.
Meanwhile, a Robin and a Magpie both hung out unusually close to me, hoping to make a lunch from the worms I’d unearthed.
It didn’t matter that, at this time of year, nothing was ready to eat yet.
As a wise fellow gardener once wrote, an allotment isn’t just a larder, but can also be a place to reconnect with nature, a gym and a chill-out zone.
It’s wonderful to have super-tasty fresh fruit and veg that – with careful freezing and preserving – will last you well into the next year, but growing your own on an allotment is time-consuming and expensive.
As I’ve learned, it’s about the effort, the process, the progress – and above all the sense it gives that you are living right.