Coming Home

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Amy Liptrot on Orkney. Photograph: Rebecca Marr for the Observer

“In London, I was hiding from my life and family in Orkney, breaking up and trying to escape. By coming back, I faced it and now Orkney is trying to keep me.”

– Amy Liptrot, The Outrun

I fell in love with Amy Liptrot’s book, The Outrun this September. Maybe it’s because we’re close in age, or I too spent my childhood in a quiet, out of the way place, craving escape and the excitement of cities. Like Amy, I also grew up in the shadow of depression, coping with the fallout of my dad’s erratic moods.

The outrun that Liptrot describes, is an odd, in-between place, part wild, part cultivated, perched on the edge of the Orcadian sheep farm where she grew up. Islands are shaped on the cusp of fierce, wild nature, and strange things happen there: ships are grounded on the cliffs; residents hear weird booming noises and feel tremors shake the earth as the sea encroaches.

The Outrun is also very relatable because I’ve reached crisis point a number of times in my life. As a teenager, I railed against living in a tiny village in The New Forest, where nothing ever happened. Public transport was pretty much non-existent and I often felt cut off. I was uncomfortable in my own skin, using alcohol and relationships to avoid ever having to feel alone.

“I don’t want to have to admit that I’ve come back – that I’ve failed. I wonder if it’s possible to really come back once you’ve lived away for a while, or if it’s called coming ‘home’ when you never belonged.”

– Amy Liptrot, The Outrun

In 2012, disjointed, adrift, I graduated University. Sitting in my childhood bedroom, unemployed and depressed, I felt like a failure, like I’d taken a step back. I dreaded bumping into people I knew, having to explain why I hadn’t moved on.

Nature became a salve then, and still is. I have a deep connection to the forest, having grown up there, and I often find myself craving time away from people, preferring instead to hunker down amongst the trees.

The longer I spend living near the woods, the more I feel a part of nature and its cycles. Often, I find myself thinking about all of the life out there, about how much there is still, to explore. Walking outside, in all weathers, I notice the seasons change and follow animal tracks through secret copses and clearings. I know where to find the best blackberries in summer and, in autumn, I prize sweet chestnuts from their spiky shells. It feels like it’s in my blood it’s so familiar, but that’s the thing about nature, no matter how tamed and cosseted, it always has the capacity to astound.

Empty days

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I always forget how important the empty days are, how important it may be sometimes not to expect to produce anything, even a few lines in a journal. A day when one has not pushed oneself to the limit seems a damaged, damaging day, a sinful day. Not so! The most valuable thing one can do for the psyche, occasionally, is to let it rest, wander, live in the changing light of a room.

May Sarton

I’m getting better at accepting the empty days. The days when I don’t make anything, or if it happens, I let it happen naturally. Maybe I’m tired, run down or I just don’t have the energy to write or pick up a camera. Instead, I’ll read, walk or take a nap.

Empty days get overlooked but they’re so important. They’re days when the pressure to perform, lifts. Forced productivity all of the time is, ironically, not productive. It leads to burnout, ambivalence and exhaustion.  

So, take a day off, if you can. Make time for yourself. Live in the changing light of a room, like May Sarton, and feel the pressure lifting.

Good things are happening, soon to be revealed

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The best cure for a dry period to simply to keep at it. Good things are happening, soon to be revealed.

– Eleanor Blair

I’ve felt pretty useless the last few days and the worst part is I don’t even have a reason for feeling bad. I hate that. I can feel a bad mood coming like a tsunami wave and all I can do is ride it out. In the throes of a creative block, it becomes a self-fulfilling cycle. The more I beat myself up, ruminate and panic, the worse it gets. Looking for a quick fix, I turn to Google but the advice I find doesn’t work, it feels too impersonal, too cliché.

This morning, I decided to do things differently. Instead of turning on my laptop and checking email, I got out of bed and took a shower. Then I rode my bike to the beach.

Big whoop, that’s hardly a big deal! It might sound stupid but I fought against the urge to stay inside, curled up in a ball. I dug my heels in and stopped listening to the negative voices in my head. It felt good. Looking at my surroundings this morning, at the beautiful, still water, I felt calm and inspired for the first time in a while.

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Usually, when I’m feeling bad, two things help most. The first is going outside, whether it’s a short walk around the block, a bike ride, or a drive, it doesn’t matter. I just do whatever’s feasible at the time. The second is pushing through and getting to work. I do small things that keep me occupied, like hoovering, clearing out a drawer, a little dusting, washing up a cup or plate, it’s all good. If I’m feeling up to it, I’ll write.

Abraham Lincoln, William James, Georgia O’Keeffe, Winston Churchill, Mark Twain, Sigmund Freud, Franz Kafka, the Buddha, all of these people lived with depression but still managed to be productive. Lincoln used humour to feel better. O’Keeffe valued travel and solitude. Kafka cherished time spent with loved ones.

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Painting, drawing, writing, taking photos, reading, gaming, laughing, exercising, spending time with loved ones, resting, travelling, meditating, working, all of these things can help us get through the bad times. Our personal coping mechanisms and strategies are as individual as us all.

Don’t beat yourself up when you feel blocked, it’ll just make you feel worse. Take time to figure out what self-care methods work best for you.

Maybe then, the art will follow.