My Thoughts: The Things That Helped Me in 2020
The Things That Helped Me Get Through 2020 (That May Help You in 2021)
Well, that was a bit full on, wasn't it?
Yes, I'm talking about the WHOLE ENTIRE YEAR that is now nearly, nearly over. 2020, you are one for the history books, and you are one that I am equal parts amazed and grateful to have survived.
I hope you, dear reader, are feeling something similar too. In fact, let's all take a moment to breathe together and appreciate that here we are, in whatever form we are in, and we have got this far.
Breathe in. Breathe out. You did it.
WELL BLOODY DONE!
Now, while I would love to say that I got this far thanks to my natural determination, a consistent positive mindset, and I managed to finish my two novels and get a body builder's physique too, that is all absolute... lies.
I got here by crying, by feeling scared, worried, uncertain, disappointed, and also incredibly alone at times. I got here by gaining weight, losing it, and then gaining it again. I got here by missing my family and friends so much that I'm pretty sure that sense of loss and absence got into my blood. And honestly, I got here by feeling things I never want to feel again.
But I also got here thanks to days and moments of joy, happiness and calm. I got here by showing myself new levels of kindness and patience. I got here by adjusting my mindset and my expectations, whenever I could. I got here by working hard on myself, on my relationships and on the home we live in. I got here by looking around me and trying to find love, comfort, and occasionally joy, wherever I could.
Sometimes it was in my friends and family, other times it was in a new unfurling leaf of one of my new houseplants. Sometimes it was in my baking cakes and delivering them to my neighbours. Gosh, when I actually stop and think about it, there really was so much love in 2020. Even if it was from inanimate objects or communicated over Zoom or Whatsapp, love is still love, and love helped me get through 2020.
So. That's the gushy ambiguous stuff all over and done with. Now let's be a bit more specific about what things did really genuinely help me on those hard days.
DISCLOSURE: This post contains affiliate links. This means I make a little money if you make a purchase via one of the links for a product or service that I highly recommend and love based on my own experience. It comes as no cost to you and I try my best to choose the most ethical and professional suppliers too.
21 Things That Helped Me Get Through 2020
So here we go with the people, things, hobbies, objects, activities and just STUFF that made my 2020 a little easier... sometimes a lot easier.. They are the things that helped give me focus and energy over the seemingly endless weeks that seemed like Groundhog Day on repeat. They are the things that brought me unexpected joy, purpose, hope, laughter, love, and reassurance.
And let's be super, super honest, while 2020 sucked SO MUCH, it's hard to deny that through these hard times, I made many important realisations about myself, and the world around me, and many of these feature in this list too. 2020 made me realise and act on a number of things that were long overdue, so yes, while survival - and not becoming unwell, or losing a loved one - is huge achievement enough, upon reflection now I can actually see that this year was significant and poignant for many other reasons, and I am grateful for that.
Read on to find out more...
1) My Kids
Gah, I both love and hate that these two humans are top of this list. It's so sweet and cheesy and predictable and ugh... it's just way too un-2020, surely?
But, I have to be honest, my kids gave me a reason to get up, get out of bed, and just keep going on my hardest days, even if part of me was actively wishing they could just disappear for a moment or two to give me a little more rest). They were also the ultimate time-sucking distraction when the days felt like they were endlessly dull and lonely, or endlessly full of sad or scary news. This was both as brilliant and helpful as it was draining and exhausting.
Then, when my kids had hard days, they turned to me for comfort and guidance, and despite my exhaustion and own worries and fears, I had to find a little energy or reassurance I could for them. Sometimes that really wasn't much, and sometimes I didn't have the right words, or any words, but I always tried to hold their hands, their bodies, or their hearts whenever I could. I would like to think that while I wasn't able to do many things for them this year, I always succeeded at that.
While having my kids at home every day for 12 weeks was hard and exhausting during our initial lockdown from March to early June, I now look back on having that time with them with fondness and pride. While we lost so much in terms of seeing other people we love, my kids enjoying their school and daycare, and some travel and other experiences we wanted to do, we also gained the one thing you usually look back on and want more of; time together.
2) Documenting Our Days (and Practising Gratitude)
So yep, I hate that this is number two too because again it's cheesy as the smelliest blue cheese! But ugh, it's true. By documenting some small wins each day, I found myself able to mindfully practice gratitude and this re-framed A LOT for me on my hardest days. Let me back up and explain a bit more...
Since the beginning of 2018 I have been writing (most days!) in a daily diary that stretches over 5 years (like this one) with a page for each day and five sections on each page for each year, and when the first lockdown happened in March I couldn't face writing in it. Not only was I lost for words in explaining the confusing, ever-evolving world situation, but I also felt uninspired to write about all the endless snack-making, toy-tidying, clothes-washing tasks that had filled my day. I also hated reading what we were doing a year or two ago - the normality and mundanity of it all - even if it was just catching a glimpse of it, and so I just didn't open that diary and I now have pages and pages of empty lines from March until some time in June this year when I finally felt ready to write in it again.
I also had the "problem" of an empty planner (I'm a big fan of Get The Work Book). In March this year, my mostly travel-focused blog income and business all but disappeared overnight and the planner I used to structure my working days or half-days was suddenly redundant. With both of my kids out of school and daycare too, and my partner needing to continue working full-time, it was down to me to stay home with them and push my work to one side completely. So I had an empty planner as well as empty diary pages.
After a few days I realised I wanted to document this strange time in some way, so I started to leave my planner open on the kitchen worktop and would just write down little things that the boys and I did together, or small achievements like making homemade pesto, doing a load or two of laundry, or tidying up a drawer (or entire room!) that I'd been putting off forever.
This may only work for those who like list-making (or more specifically crossing things off lists!), but it really worked well to give me a focus to get things done on those days when I really didn't want to but knew that Future Me would be grateful and proud (and she was/is!). It also worked equally well on days when I lowered expectations even more and made watching a movie or doing a puzzle together the only things I wrote down.
It gradually became more about acknowledging the moments we shared or the moments where I did something for myself. And quickly it became about any moment of gratitude, rather than those that required a lot of energy or effort. I did this for the first twelve weeks when our lockdown here in the Netherlands was the most strict, and when I look back on those weeks now, and the full lines, documenting the surprisingly simple but full days we had, the small wins and the big wins, again I feel proud and almost nostalgic for that time... almost!
3) Exercise (and DOING SCARY NEW THINGS WITH MY BODY!)
Can I say that I also hate how this one is up at the top of this list? It's such a cliche that exercise is one of the best things you can do for your mental health and general well-being! But it's also very, very true.
And I've known this for a long time, of course. I've been exercising regularly since my early 20s, possibly earlier, and I always notice a huge difference in my mood when I don't exercise in three or more days. During the first and second month of lockdown, I was running two or three times a week, and I was also trying to do the occasional home workout. But then mental fatigue set in, as did my realisation that my travel blog business wasn't going to recover anytime soon, and I felt low and lacking in energy. I found it hard to get motivated. This was arguably when I felt my worst during 2020.
To give my exercise efforts a bit of a boost, as the weather began warming up, I decided to try open water swimming. We live quite close to the River Amstel in Amsterdam, near an area where some people go open water swimming, so I decided to give it a go.
I have always loved swimming (just usually in the sea or a swimming pool) and the thrill of doing something new - and quite cold and a bit scary because yuk, the water ain't pretty! - was the perfect combination to give me a huge rush and buzz, and I began going open water swimming quite regularly after that. I even managed to continue it up until the first week of December, but then it definitely got too cold! That said, I am planning to have a dip on Christmas Day...
Open water swimming was fantastic for me in 2020 because it was physical, but not about a fitness goal. It was about feeling things, and pushing myself a bit out of my comfort zone, but not putting my body under long-term strain. I think I knew before 2020 that exercise for me is about improving my relationship with my body, not improving my body's appearance (in any way - and reading the first book on this list help confirm this!), but this year really brought this message home to me.
All year, I have set myself mini challenges with running, or with the rowing machine my partner ordered for us to have at home, and this has been a great way to keep my motivation going. But also, 2020 has taught me to not push myself too hard because I will be the one who pays the price for this in the end whether it's the next day or the next week (or honestly, later that day!). That's why I have to quickly add the next thing on this list...
4) Rest, Rest, Rest
I hope to one day write a blog post all about how pro-active self-care is worth twice as much as reactive self-care, but for now, I want to acknowledge how important rest was for me in 2020 both restrospectively and proactively, the latter being quite a new concept to me. Prioritising rest over being productive felt revolutionary in 2020, but I do believe it helped me not only recover from hard days, but it helped prevent further hard (or harder) days when I factored it in to my daily routine (as much as was possible).
The evenings I spent watching Netflix, the bubble baths I plunged my tired body into after a long, hard day with squabbling kids, the early nights I savoured watching PlantTube videos (yes, that's a thing!), the movies my partner and I started one evening... and then finished it three or four nights later! All of these things were essential to my well-being in 2020.
Some days I needed more rest than others, of course, but I tried wherever I could to honour that and just "let it be" rather than fight or even understand it. So there were also afternoons I took my eldest up to bed with me after my youngest was asleep for his nap, and I gave him an iPad while I would read a book, do some writing on my laptop, or just lie down and do nothing. We called this "quiet time" and my son now often asks for this at weekends when he's also feeling tired. I realised this way that while it's a definitely privilege we can have this rest time together, I am teaching him a valuable lesson about preserving energy and self-care.
I have written previously about how in 2020 houseplants became my favourite form of self-care and while it's quite a 2020-cliche now, it really was a wonderful new hobby to develop this year and I make no apologies for it!
You can read more about why I think caring for and collecting plants is such a brilliant way to practice self-care, and I share some of my tips for beginner houseplant collectors here, but in short, while we've had a few houseplants in our home for the last few years, this year was when it really took off. The reasons for this is because I found both escapism and hope in plants in 2020.
Being forced to stay home so much more, made me look around my home and think about what I wanted to be in it, and for some reason, I started to want more green in it. More growth, more hope. These are the things that houseplants really gave me in 2020, and I also really enjoyed the challenge of learning new information about all sorts of plants, and doing the caring of them which took me out of my head, and into my body and into the present moment. It was also something I could (sometimes!) do with the kids around me, or it could be a lovely way to wind down at the end of a busy day.
You can see more of my plants and my joy for them on this Instagram account.
6) My Friends
For the record, I am ALWAYS grateful for my friends, and my friends have got me through lots of hard times in my life, not just this year, but these last twelve months in particular, it was my friends that showed up for me again and again....most often from afar, and helped me feel less alone, and less afraid.
I honestly don't know where I'd be if I didn't have four or five of my closest friends who I can just turn to for a little pep talk, to just listen, to offer reassurance, to maybe give me a word or two of advice, and it will be no surprise that the need for all these things has never been greater than in the last year.
It's been a priority of mine this year to offer the same love and support to these friends, and many others, and I hope that I have been able to do that at least a little bit. Next year, I will hopefully be able to do it more.
7) Anti-Anxiety Drugs
Now we get really honest and really realistic! Yes, anti-anxiety drugs 100% helped me get through 2020. I honestly hate to think about where I would be without them, to be frank.
These are the same anti-anxiety drugs that I started taking when I was experiencing post-natal anxiety, and they were initially prescribed to help me sleep as my anxiety was showing up as insomnia (which was utterly maddening when I was so chronically tired from my son waking all the time at night). I would take them whenever I felt the need either following a run of bad nights or if I'd had a particularly bad day and I felt like sleep would be difficult. After about a year, I no longer felt the need to take them as my anxiety and sleep had improved drastically.
Last summer after 10 months of bad sleep (following my second son's birth) I had some anxiety again, and also some problems sleeping (when I could) so I went back to my doctor and asked for the same medication, and I took them on the same ad-hoc basis.
Earlier this year, my son was starting to sleep more at night (and so was I!) so I was planning on stopping taking them, but then the pandemic hit and I found whole new other symptoms of anxiety start to hang out in my life, including insomnia, yes, but also other daytime symptoms - FUN!
Long story short, my GP recommended I start to take the pills every night rather than ad-hoc to see if that improved my general symptoms - and it did! At the time of writing, I am planning on continuing taking them until the situation has improved considerably, i.e. I can see my friends and family again, can travel safely again, and life feels more "normal".
I share this in hope to normalise taking medication to help you manage mental health struggles, and to highlight that sometime no amount of mindfulness, exercise, self-care and even therapy can help alleviate the most inconvenient and unpleasant symptoms of anxiety.
8) Privilege... and Good Luck!
Still keeping it real, I want to acknowledge that I have huge amounts of privilege that has helped me greatly in multiple aspects of my life, and this really rang true in 2020. As an educated, able-bodied white woman in good health and with a steady financial situation, my loss of income hasn't been a disaster at all. Likewise, my health hasn't been put at additional risk.by having to work a job that exposes me (or my family).
It is also true that good luck and fortune has blessed me both in my life in general, but again especially in 2020. While my own income and career suffered, my partner's held steady, which has been a huge relief.
I am also incredibly lucky that to date only one person in my family (and my partner's) has had Covid-19. That was my 95-year-old grandmother just a few weeks ago and incredibly, she is coming through it.
I am very aware and grateful for both my privilege and my good fortune always but especially in 2020.
No surprises that writing is included in this list, but I think I need to acknowledge that it has been writing fiction that has really helped me the most, and I am ending the year having written more fiction than I have in maybe four or five years, which is truly incredible. Doing the first 50 days of #the100daychallenge back in April - June, and then doing NaNoWriMo in November helped me finish the first draft of one novel, and get over 35,000 words for another one. Yes, I love a creative writing challenge!
These are two projects that I have had on hold for a LONG time (thanks to child-carrying, bearing and rearing!), and it's quite special and significant that I not only picked these projects up but actually made some real progress with them.
It also really helped me to still work on my blog. Even though I didn't have the same traffic or income from it, there was something comforting in keeping up with writing regular(ish!) blog posts and also experimenting with other non-travel related content (like more affirmations and more travel at home blog posts).
Thirdly, I also kept writing poetry throughout this year, and some of the poems I wrote in the earlier half of the year ended up in Lover Mother Other, my first book of poetry, which I also published in 2020 (more on that below).
So writing in 2020 was fantastic for three reasons. Firstly, it gave me an escape from the ups and downs of real life and with my fiction, I got to have more control (and fun!) with made-up people and their lives. Secondly, writing fiction is what I really love and adore and to have an opportunity to make that more of a priority over my blog and freelance writing was really special. And finally, writing regularly was something of a connection to the "old normal" and the most important part of my identity.
10) Babysitters & Childcare
Let's not go any further without acknowledging how much easier life was in 2020, once we organised babysitters to come to our home and once our boys went back to daycare and school. It brought more balance and opportunity for me to try and work on my blog or fiction, to have time to myself to rest, or to just catch up on domestic chores! It also helped my partner and I to have more quality time together just us again, which was severely lacking the in the first few months of lockdown.
It also greatly benefited our boys; it's really true that young children thrive from social interactions and playing with other children, and we are lucky that our kids also enjoy spending time with babysitters. Again the fact we could organise and afford this is a huge privilege.
I would add to this that 2020 has helped me get over some hang-ups I have long held with regard to childcare; guilt, shame, sadness. 2020 has 100% confirmed that I am a better and happier parent, and (therefore!) my kids are happier kids, when we have childcare and school for at least a few days a week.
11) Living in Amsterdam
I'm sure many of you reading this will not be surprised or in disagreement when I say that just living in Amsterdam is a real joy and gives me so much and in 2020 this city I love really did deliver, and in a special way too.
From just cycling around the city to boost my mood and not having to deal with the same numbers of tourists or the same amount of traffic, to being able to visit museums (when safe to do so) without crowds or queues, I have found joy and comfort in living in this city this year.
Earlier on in the year, in May, when the situation was more under control, I got up early one Sunday morning (like before 6am!) and cycled around the centre of the city with my camera. I took hundreds of photos fully with the intention of sharing them on my blog, which I did. But I gained so much more from that little outing. I got to experience Amsterdam like never before - so quiet, so still, so beautifully empty - and I will never forget it.
It's no secret that Amsterdam has struggled with over-tourism for a number of years, and while the collapse of tourism and travel industry this year has been incredibly hard for me and many of my colleagues, I cannot deny that for Amsterdammers to get their city back for a while has been special.
PS If you're missing Amsterdam, you can still enjoy much of the city virtually with these great virtual tours of Amsterdam and Amsterdam's best attractions.
12) Publishing My Fifth(ish) Book
I wrote in this blog post announcing the publication of my first poetry collection, Lover Mother Other, this year that when this year's problems began back in March, I would never have imagined that it would also be the year I finally published a book I've had waiting to be published for nearly three years. But I did it - look here it is!
When it was personal struggles and childcare-related lack of time that had delayed the publication of Lover Mother Other, why would it be so that in 2020 when I had even less childcare and even more personal struggles, I would finally get the book out into the world? Honestly, I don't have answers to this question. In true 2020-style, it makes no sense!
I do, however, have a few theories why it happened. This year I realised that when it comes to my work and my career, I can't rely on anyone else but myself to make things happen. Yes, there were good reasons why Lover Mother Other wasn't published in 2018 or 2019 and there would have been even better reasons if it didn't materialise in 2020, but this whole year has left me chewing on how short life is and how ultimately it is up to me to do the things I want to do.
I was opportunistic too as it was only made possible because my kids went back to school and daycare for a few months in the summer and autumn, but I do believe the key difference was the new determination and focus to do the things I really want to do, which is something I felt with new clarity this year.
Read some interesting-ish facts about Lover Mother Other here, and find it available to buy as an ebook or signed paperback in my shop here. Also, I made some cool Lover Mother Other merchandise - check it out!
13) (Writing and Reading) Poetry
The reason I am not angry that it took so long for Lover Mother Other to be published is because that extra time gave me more opportunities to write more poems. In fairness, maybe only an extra 20 poems written this year were added to the collection but the book is all the better for their inclusion.
While the book doesn't touch on 2020's specific spectacularly disastrous world events at all, many of the mental health struggles and general difficult feelings I experienced this year were similar to those that I'd already written poems on for my 100 days of writing 100 poems challenge back in 2017, and so touching on these topics again and exploring them through my poetry was not only a healing process for me, but I already have something to show for it. A book, yes, but actually, I'm just as proud of the many drafts of poems that didn't make it into this book.
Reading poetry was also incredibly helpful for me this year and for the same reasons that I first fell in love with poetry, which I touch on in the Introduction to Lover Mother Other. Poetry is short to read and so a feeling or reaction can come quickly. It's easy to pick up and put down should you get interrupted (like maybe 20 times in 10 minutes - thanks, kids!). And it plays with language in ways that are often abstract, ambiguous and adventurous - in other words, it's fun!
Poets that really helped me with their healing, soothing poems in 2020 include Mary Oliver, Jericho Brown, Lucille Clifton, and Kate J. Baer. You can also find the five poetry collections I think you should read here, if you'd like an easy introduction to poetry.
14) Chickpea Brownies
From the sublime to the ridiculous! Who would have thought me messing around with chickpeas, a blender and chopped up chunks of chocolate (because for some reason the Dutch just don't do chocolate chips for baking!!??) would have proved such a rewarding and delicious distraction in 2020?
Well, it's true. I stumbled upon a Pinterest recipe for chickpea brownies and after getting it not quite right the first few times, I started playing around with it to perfect it. After about four or five goes I was really making progress and now I think I have it just right. And of course, each go wasn't a total disaster and created something yummy for us to enjoy!
While I know this is no Masterchef experience, this is the first time I have done anything like recipe development and it was both fun and rewarding. Because it's mostly all done in a blender too, it's very quick, and the brownies themselves are lower in sugar and higher in protein than normal brownies so it was a win-win scenario.
Again I think it was a combination of having a goal, a new but easy way to be creative, and also a quick reward that made this one work - something to remember for future hard times (or the current lockdown I am in with kids at home for four weeks!).
15) One-Pot Pasta Dishes
Last year I fell in love with one tray bakes (these two roasting tin cookbooks are THE BEST I turn to them at least once a week) and 2020 was the year I applied a similar logic - quick and easy one dish, one cooking method and you just throw everything in - to one-pot pasta dishes. But the reason these helped me in 2020 has nothing to do with recipe development or trying to make the perfect dish, it has a lot more to do with just getting food on the table and into my kids' mouths. I mean, if you didn't experience meal-making fatigue in 2020, you never will, and man, did I have it bad A LOT this year.
Essentially, one-pot pasta dishes are where you cook pasta in stock and other flavours/foods that make up the sauce you are going to eat with the pasta. I started off with a very basic garlic, parmesan and black pepper spaghetti dish (all cooked in chicken stock) and I have had easy wins with tomato sauces, cream cheese sauces, and some ragu-style sauces too.
The best part for me is that they typically take less than 30 minutes from start to finish, they can be as healthy or unhealthy as you wish, and there is minimal washing up. I cannot count the number of days (ahem, weeks) where I just didn't want to cook but also didn't want to resort to take-away, and almost every time knowing I could do a one-pot pasta dish saved the day.
As an important note, I do recommend you get a decent large dish for these dishes; ideally one that is big enough to lay spaghetti down flat and for the heat to be spread around a large surface area. My partner gifted me this beautiful Le Creuset dish for my birthday last year and it's perfect for these dishes; I know it's an expensive item, but honestly, I will hopefully have it for life and considering we use it at least twice a week for these pasta meals or other food, it's already been worth the price tag.
If I had written such a list as this for the first half of the year, I think podcasts would have found their way to the top of it. Podcasts, and in particular two or three podcasts, really were the way I escaped the hardest days during the first lockdown here in the Netherlands.
Like many people this year, I have found it hard to read at the same rate I usually do (I think I've read maybe half the number of books I normally do) and instead I found escapism, inspiration, reassurance and fantastic story-telling in podcasts.
Heavyweight was the podcast I binged during the earliest weeks of lockdown - on walks or bike rides when I had time away from the kids, and sometimes in the evening when I couldn't face reading or watching TV. If you've never listened to it before it basically tells personal stories and there is often an element of mystery or an unresolved issue that the host Jonathan Goldstein attempts to tackle and get to the bottom of. Most are surprising and hilarious, nearly all are life-affirming in one way or another, and many were very moving to listen to. Highly recommend.
The other podcast I listened to every week when a new episode was released was Brene Brown's Unlocking Us. How serendipitous that she launched this podcast at almost the exact time the pandemic became a global problem, because at the heart of this podcast is getting to know our inner emotional make-up, how we function, how we handle stress and other hard feelings, and how we connect with others, and ourselves. I found most episodes helpful and healing, but particularly this one and this one.
And two other podcasts that I have long loved and was delighted to listen to as their new episodes came out were Family Secrets and Terrible, Thanks for Asking. I also began listening to a number of podcasts to progress my knowledge and understanding of anti-racism work, and I found the second season of In the Dark, Resistance, White Lies, , and a couple of the episodes of Dolly Parton's America truly exceptional for this. I also want to recommend The Good Ancestor podcast and my own anti-racism trainer Nova Reid's podcast, Conversations with Nova Reid.
Speaking of which...
17) Anti-Racism Work
It is admittedly a little problematic for me that I list doing anti-racism training here because the very essence of anti-racism work is not to benefit the white person, but to improve the lives and well-being of Black people and POC. However, it would be a lie to say that doing two online anti-racism courses with Nova Reid, taking part in a Black Heritage Tour of Amsterdam, and going deeper into the work nearly every day through podcasts, reading, TED talks, and having important conversations with friends and family, hasn't only utterly transformed the way I see the world around me, but also how I see and understand myself and my own life and upbringing to this point in time.
There is a reason it is often called "unlearning" and while it's been an uncomfortable, confronting journey at times, the ripples of change it has started are already visible to me. Simply put, it has given me hope for the future, and I don't think we have needed that more than this year.
It is deeply important to me that I do this work in order to raise my sons to be actively anti-racist, and it has been very humbling for me to learn that doing this begins by me effectively dismantling my own it has influenced everything in our lives from how we talk about other people (ALL other people) through to what we read, what TV shows they watch, and the history they will learn.
It's worth highlighting that I am very much at the beginning of this journey, and I have made MANY mistakes as I progress with it (not to mention the many I have made in the past), and it really is lifelong work, so I hope it continues to be something that changes me (for the better) but embarking on it this year in the way I have - with a fabulous leader, and a real focus and purpose that is bigger than me - has been life-changing.
18) The Book The Body is Not an Apology by Sonya Renee Taylor
I read The Body is Not an Apology about three or four months after starting anti-racism training and it was the best possible time for me to do so, albeit totally serendipitous that it happened that way. Reading this book was truly a lightbulb moment for me. It provided a very simple framework for understanding not just racism but also the many other -isms that plague our world and our lives, from capitalism to ableism.
This sounds almost trite or vapid - that such deeply damaging but long-standing constructs and centuries of evil, violence and murder can be explained in a single book - but it really does give you a lens with which you can see all of these issues and understand not only how or why they evolved as they did, how and why they cause so much damage, but also how and why we ourselves uphold them - consciously or otherwise.
Of course, this book is not a fix-all and while there are many feel-good sentiments and take-aways, its truth is ultimately devastating, but in a year when so many awful, terrible things seemed to come to a necessary head (in the most hideous of heart-breaking ways) this book still gave me hope that by knowing what I now know I can work on myself and dismantle the ways I uphold the constructs and violence and other -isms in the world. While I am very much soothed by empathy and understanding (of which there are plenty in this book), I am also motivated and encouraged by radical thoughts and actions, and this book is full of them.
I can also encourage all of you to read this book, and do the same, and that my friends, is also significant.
You can read more about this book, and five other books that changed my life this year here.
19) Bright Colours (and Making Our Apartment a Home)
I have always loved interiors but more as a spectator than anything else. Beautifully curated homes and interior design were for other people - people with more money and style than me - and when my partner and I spent the best part of two years travelling, never staying in one place more than a few months, I sort of learned to become disinterested or detached from putting my own mark on any space. This continued when we began a life in Amsterdam as we were renting apartments and had (seemingly) strict rules about what we could and couldn't do.
Then, about three years ago, we became home owners for the first time with a two-bedroom third- and fourth-floor walk-up apartment in Amsterdam. It was small, old and some of the windows had holes in them, but it was our own and we loved it dearly. While it was always something of a stepping stone home - which was confirmed when I became pregnant with our second child - we still made many tweaks to improve the functionality of the small space. While this made us very economical with space and storage, it didn't really indulge our creativity; we left the walls white, we bought inoffensive furniture and added pops of colour with accessories and soft furnishings.
However, when we bought our current space we had a very blank canvas. A new build in a new area, we almost doubled our square metres and had many more canvases to play with and I cannot deny how excited I was to play around a bit. That said, it would seem that old habits die hard as we opted for not only spray-painting all the walls white (which was certainly a very quick and easy way to get our rooms ready to live in) but we also went with an off-white colour for our floors (best worst mistake of my life - I love it for the light it brings, but hate how quickly it gets dirty!).
But this year something stirred and switched inside me. After living here for the best part of a year, and seeing how the light moved around our home, I realised we needed a bit more colour and texture to bring some cosiness and character inside. And that is exactly what we started to do, by swapping our white kitchen cupboard fronts for wood and navy blue panels, by buying rugs with lots of colours and textures, and by painting some stairs the brightest shade of yellow they are like a literal ray of sunshine!
We still have A LOT more to do, and I do find it hard to stay motivated, especially when the kids are at home a lot and the messes and general day-to-day domestic chores pile up, but doing these little projects, looking for ideas and inspiration on Pinterest, and even going old school and buying a few interior design magazines have been a nice new focus and a prompt to truly appreciate and enjoy our home.
And if you are renting but still want to spend a little time and love on styling your place to make it a home for you, this book looks like exactly what I should have read to help me six or seven years ago.
20) Growing Vegetables and Herbs
Now, let me quickly say that I have not by any stretch of the imagination started growing anything more than a few plants and crops here and there, mostly in grow-bags and planters, scattered around our garden. But I have really enjoyed the very easy process of planting seeds and a few weeks or months later, having something I can actually eat come from this very small effort.
I grew up in a home with a large garden and vegetable patch that both my parents, but especially my mother, worked hard at keeping, so there has been something very nostalgic about doing this, often with my own kids by my side.
As I wrote in this post about how and why houseplants are the ultimate self-care act, from how just touching soil can have soothing benefits, and how encouraging and hopeful it is to just simply plant and watch things grow. And also time spent outside, is always good for the soul, and as the weather was so good during the first lockdown, it helped in many ways to be in our garden as much as possible.
I hope to be a bit more organised in 2021 and have some more things planted in spring so I can enjoy the growing season more (as I was a little late this year) and have a bit more to show for my efforts.
Part of me thinks that I should have put this first, because as with previous hard periods of my life, practicing positive affirmation has been a great source of comfort. While I've always maintained that affirmation alone is not a singular solution to any mental health struggle, this year has proved to me that some days it can make all the difference.
When life first changed for us all, which for me was back in March, I started repeating a positive affirmation five or more times in my head before I even opened my eyes. Usually it was something like "I can do difficult things" or "I am strong enough just as I am" or "I am resilient" and I would just repeat it until I felt something shift in my brain or body whether that was a new sense of calm, or even if it just made me feel better about getting up that morning. It didn't make me jump out of bed and jump for joy, but it did make me feel a bit better, and I think in 2020, that was enough. Heck, that was A LOT.
I would then continue to use affirmation through the day, and I also tried harder this year to say positive things to myself during easier times as well as the harder times. I really do believe this helped me maintain a more generally positive and focused conversation with myself, because I wasn't just checking in when I was feeling sad; I was showing myself that I am always here and I am always enough.
Want to get started with affirmation? Read this first to understand how and why affirmation can work. Then head over here where you can find a list of 100 daily positive affirmations, some affirmations for helping you manage depression. some affirmations for stress or anxiety, and here are some tips and affirmations for when you feel overwhelmed. And if you are a fellow writer, you definitely need to check out my side project, WriteNOW Cards.
AND REMEMBER - I GOT THROUGH THIS YEAR BY CRYING AND FEELING CRAPPY TOO!
Crying has always helped me - it's a release, it's a relief, it's an opportunity to re-set - but for some reason, I often forget how much it does help, and at the beginning of the pandemic and lockdown, I had a moment where I asked myself, "Why haven't I cried about this yet?" and even just acknowledging it was a comfort.
It was like, yes, this is a big deal, yes, this is crap, and it is okay to cry about big deals.
Heck, it's okay to cry about anything, anytime you want to. Let's flipping normalise crying, shall we?!
But of course, like so many things, this is so much easier said than done.
It's so telling that even though I know - both objectively and subjectively - that crying is good for me (and all of us!), I still find myself resisting the urge to cry. Yes, it's because it's not always a pleasant or fun experience at the time, but it really does nearly always make me feel better once the deed is done.
I do think 2020 has helped me address this a bit, as just this last week when the Netherlands announced a second hard lockdown which began immediately meaning my kids are now at home for five weeks, I was messaging friends about it and kept saying "I think I just need a big cry about it and then I'll feel better". And it was true.. I mean, I'll probably have to have a few more cries, many times a week (or day!?) but if that works for me (or you!) that is totally okay.
I hope to take all the above things into 2021 with me because I have no doubt it's not going to be an easy year despite our hopes and dreams for it to be so. There is still so much more work to do be done on so many fronts, and there is much room for improvement. One thing writing this list has also helped me see is that I am now going to stay more open-minded about the other things that I can try out to make life in 2021, and beyond, a little easier. A year ago would never have imagined I'd be ending the year in lockdown with my kids, having not seen my parents for a year, BUT also that in all this time I'd finally gotten my poetry collection published, developed a new habit and love for open water swimming AND had become utterly obsessed with houseplants... But that just goes to show life is full of surprises, even when it also feels hard and heavy.
Now, over to you? What things have helped you get through the last 12 months? Anything surprising? I'd love to know!
Frances M. Thompson
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