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Well Becoming

a blog about being well, becoming well, staying well - and flourishing. Written by a professor and family doctor living between Liverpool, UK and Granada, Spain

Peanut Brittle
Sunday, September 9, 2018

This post is from my wife Sue




My mum and I loved peanut brittle . Expensive presents weren’t the order of the day growing up but once I started work one year I bought her a whole sweet jar full. And she still had all her own teeth!


Just recently I was quite sad as a good friend had been diagnosed with cancer  So one of my daughters sent me a present to cheer me up.  Included in it was a slice of peanut brittle.  Suddenly I was smiling, going back through the years to my childhood.  It wasn’t actually about the peanut brittle, that was just the catalyst.  So what was it about?  And what about those who don’t have ‘peanut brittle‘ memories to fall back on?


I was very lucky. There are so many little things that remind me how safe and valued I felt growing up, although we only realise these things retrospectively.  The things that made me feel OK as a person, first as a child and later on as an adult.


But actually we are all okay as people.  It’s just that if no-one helps us to realise that growing up we have to find ways of doing it for ourselves. 


A very common way is not to remember anything: “Oh that’s in the past, for me it’s a bit of a blank “ Bit of a shame really as you are blocking out all the clever ways you managed to survive growing up in a difficult environment, all the things you managed to work out for yourself.


Or you only remember the bad things you were told or believed about yourself.

“My mother says I was born an angry child”.  I don’t think so but it makes some sort of crazy sense if your life was not good.


And maybe the most complicated one to deal with as we get older, we pretend it was all OK!


So what can we do about all this?


Firstly, keep repeating to yourself my dad’s mantra: ”You’re as good as anyone and better than no one”. Never mind that you don’t quite believe it yet. Just keep saying it. It affects how you feel about yourself and other people.  And how you treat yourself and other people: as equals.


Then if you’re past wasn’t good enough make sure your future is better.  Work out the things that make you feel good.  That’s not what other people think, it’s what you think. I mean going swimming fills me with fear and dread. For someone else it’s a fantastic way to relax.


And it doesn’t matter what it is you like. Train spotting, watching Coronation Street, computer games, doing nothing. All valid if it’s your choice. Rebuild your world as you want it.  And yes, I know it’s not always that easy.  But remember the mantra – you’re as good as anyone and better than no one.


 Go on, you deserve it!


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Stage 6: Delight
Sunday, April 15, 2018

Today we complete our journey from despair to delight, with six of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ sonnets as our travel guide. To celebrate, we share his pleasure in his own favourite poem, The Windhover:

I caught this morning morning's minion, king-
      dom of daylight's dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
      Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
      As a skate's heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
      Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird, – the achieve of, the mastery of the thing. 

Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
      Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier! 

      No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
      Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.


This sonnet really does work best when you read it out loud.  It takes a few goes to get the rhythm of it, especially the first few lines. Do try it yourself -  you’ll soon find you are flying with the falcon, up and down, barely taking a breath until the first full stop arrives, half way though line seven.

Then you can have a rest and check out some of the words and images. In line 2,’ dauphin’ means ‘crown prince’. In line 6 the imagery is ice-skating – for us today it could as easily be skiing in the Alps, or surfing the waves of Cornwall. Lines 9-11 give the image of the prince on horseback fastening (buckling) together his armour. In lines 12-13, ‘plough down sillion shine’ refers to the way that soil, when turned over by a plough, becomes big and shiny.  In the final line, ‘gall’ means graze or scrape, and ‘gold-vermilion’ is the colour of fire, or fresh blood.

Hopkins used the word inscape to refer to the charged essence of a thing (a tree, a landscape, a sunset or – in this case – a falcon); the absolute individuality that gives each thing its being, its uniqueness, its sanctity, its purpose in the world.  He created a second word, instress, to refer to the energy that holds the thing together and – importantly – to the impulse which carries it whole into the mind of the person seeing it.  His heart stirs for the falcon, he is at one with it in its mastery of the air.

We can gain profound courage from this sonnet. The beauty and joy of the falcon, ecstatically riding the wind, infuses with his energy not only Hopkins the poet but also ourselves the readers. It prompts us to celebrate those moments in our own lives when we feel effortlessly magnificent and free.

He inspires us to believe in a glittering luminous core to our own being - a core not crushed by the ‘sheer plod’ of our daily activities, but brought by them to the surface, honed and sparkling in the sun.

And all this in full awareness that our existence is precious but precarious; that danger or death may be lurking around the corner. An awareness that only heightens the intensity of our joy for life in the present moment.

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Stage 5: Comfort of Others
Friday, April 13, 2018

We’ve now reached stage 5 of our travels with Gerard Manley Hopkins – and here we find his sonnet Felix Randal.
Felix Randal the farrier, O is he dead then? my duty all ended,
Who have watched his mould of man, big-boned and hardy-handsome
Pining, pining, till time when reason rambled in it, and some
Fatal four disorders, fleshed there, all contended?
Sickness broke him. Impatient, he cursed at first, but mended
Being anointed and all; though a heavenlier heart began some
Months earlier, since I had our sweet reprieve and ransom
Tendered to him. Ah well, God rest him all road ever he offended!
This seeing the sick endears them to us, us too it endears.
My tongue had taught thee comfort, touch had quenched thy tears,
Thy tears that touched my heart, child, Felix, poor Felix Randal;
How far from then forethought of, all thy more boisterous years,
When thou at the random grim forge, powerful amidst peers,
Didst fettle for the great grey drayhorse his bright and battering sandal.
This poem is about the life and the death of a Liverpool blacksmith, whose real name was Felix Spencer. He died of pulmonary tuberculosis at the age of 31 - the average life expectancy in Liverpool at that time. 
It may seems strange that I’m suggesting a poem about death and dying can help us on our journey from despair to delight, but I really think it can.
A few words and phrases may need explaining first. In line 4, ‘fatal four disorders’ probably refers to the Catholic notion that there are four elements of original sin. In line 13, ‘random’ means built of rough stone. In line 14 ‘fettle’ means ‘make ready’, and ‘sandal’ is a classical term for an early form of horseshoe.
I find a very strong affinity with Hopkins throughout this poem. He wrote it just a few minutes’ walk from my University office, where I am sitting right now. So it feels particularly real and tangible to me.
For me it resonates strongly with the real world relationships I enjoy as a family doctor today. His  vivid description of Felix crumbling in the face of disease. His application of the best evidence-based care (though for Hopkins his evidence comes from Catholic doctrine, not NICE Guidelines).   His bearing witness to Felix the man, ‘powerful amidst peers’ in his ‘more boisterous years’.
But above all, in the mutual benefits that derive from his care of Felix as his death approaches. I find the heart of this sonnet is in lines 8 to 10: ‘This seeing the sick endears them to us, us too it endears.  Sight, words, touch and tears - all shared, in a beautiful reciprocity. 
This is an opportunity for all of us. 
Connecting and giving are two of the Five Ways to Wellbeing. We can recognize – and accept as entirely reasonable and legitimate - that we ourselves receive comfort, a greater sense of wellbeing, as we provide comfort to others.  We feel, we become, appreciated - and loved.  

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Stage 4: Comfort of Self
Tuesday, April 10, 2018

We’re now at the fourth stage of our journey from despair to delight, and it’s beginning to get a little easier.  Here is today’s sonnet by Gerard Manley Hopkins:  
My own heart let me more have pity on; let
Me live to my sad self hereafter kind,
Charitable; not live this tormented mind
With this tormented mind tormenting yet.
I cast for comfort I can no more get
By groping round my comfortless, than blind
Eyes in their dark can day or thirst can find
Thirst's all-in-all in all a world of wet.
Soul, self; come, poor Jackself, I do advise
You, jaded, let be; call off thoughts awhile
Elsewhere; leave comfort root-room; let joy size
At God knows when to God knows what; whose smile
's not wrung, see you; unforeseen times rather — as skies
Betweenpie mountains — lights a lovely mile.
A couple of clarifications - Hopkins often uses adjectives to stand in for nouns, as in line 6, ‘comfortless (world)’.  And he likes to create new words, such as ‘betweenpie’ in the last line.
There is a sense of interior space in this poem, of having (at long last) a little room to rest, to breathe, to grow. And a great message, that we deserve kindness and love.
Hopkins is beginning to be gentler with his ‘sad self’, giving himself a break from his incessant internal critical chatter.  It’s time to ‘call off thoughts awhile elsewhere’.
We can do the same.  We can take time out from tormenting ourselves about why we feel so unhappy.  We can resist our negative thoughts. I can stop yelling “Just pull yourself together, stupid” inside my own head.  You can recognise your own worth. You can realise that it’s alright to feel the way you do. 
For Kristin Neff, self-compassion has three basic elements: self-kindness, in place of self-judgement; common humanity in place of isolation; and mindfulness, observing rather than identifying with our negative thoughts.
We can be compassionate to ourselves – have pity on our hearts - just as much as we are towards others. We can treat ourselves just as well as we treat our friends and the people we love.
I love Hopkins’ phrase ‘leave comfort root-room’. It’s about giving ourselves permission and space for a sense of ease and well-being to set down roots and begin to grow.
Maybe it’s time for a duvet-day - or two….
And then, who knows, joy may (increase in) size and catch us unawares.  Hopkins’ evocative image of God’s smile, distilled within his new word ‘betweenpie’, is of a brightly dappled sky seen between dark mountains.  For him that brings memories of the hills of north Wales. For me it conjures up childhood days of sunshine over Glendalough in Ireland.
 We can help our own smiles to grow. One way that works for me is the meditation technique of visualising a constant, infinite stream of warm, spacious, liquid sunshine; pouring in through my head; slowly and gradually filling my body, from my toes all the way upwards.

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Stage 3: Determination
Sunday, April 8, 2018

The third Hopkins’ poem I’ve chosen to guide us on our journey from despair to delight is called Carrion Comfort.
Not, I'll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee; 
Not untwist — slack they may be — these last strands of man 
In me ór, most weary, cry I can no more. I can; 
Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be. 
But ah, but O thou terrible, why wouldst thou rude on me 
Thy wring-world right foot rock? lay a lionlimb against me? scan 
With darksome devouring eyes my bruisèd bones? and fan, 
O in turns of tempest, me heaped there; me frantic to avoid thee and flee? 
   Why? That my chaff might fly; my grain lie, sheer and clear. 
Nay in all that toil, that coil, since (seems) I kissed the rod, 
Hand rather, my heart lo! lapped strength, stole joy, would laugh, chéer. 
Cheer whom though? the hero whose heaven-handling flung me, fóot tród 
Me? or me that fought him? O which one? is it each one? That night, that year 
Of now done darkness I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God.
Now there’s a fair bit of difficult stuff in this poem, which we’ll not worry about too much.  For example how Hopkins likes to use adjectives like ‘rude’ as verbs; or phrases like ‘I kissed the rod’ which means taking holy orders, becoming a priest.
Let’s focus on the first four lines, which are all about his thoughts of suicide. Hopkins is not just accepting his despair. Now has started to wrestle with it. He is not going to die. He is not going to let anyone or anything feast on his rotting remains. He is not giving up – even though he knows how hard it is to keep going - as we can see from his double negative ‘not choose not to be’.  He can. He can stay alive. He can hope.
Unlike Hamlet wondering whether ‘to be or not to be’, or Keats who was ‘half I love with easeful death’, Hopkins is determined to survive. Like the conatus – desire - of my favourite philosopher Spinoza, these lines are all about his dogged, bloody-minded resolve to keep going, come what may.  And we can draw immense strength from that. 
There’s a lot more wrestling in the rest of the poem, but it’s no longer with himself. Now it’s a conflict between Hopkins and his God.  We can take this more generally. Since we have decided we are going to stick around, we can decide there is no point in just meekly accepting our fate. We can decide to stand up and be counted. We can decide to do battle with the conditions that have been grinding us down.  
But what’s the point?
Maybe it’s to strip away the ‘chaff’, the rubbish that surrounds us, so that our ‘grain’, our inner being, lies ‘sheer and clear’. Maybe it’s to find out that we are strong, strong enough to grapple with the toughest of them all, and not be defeated.  
And we have a clue in the last line that the worst is over, as ‘of now done darkness’ shifts these experiences from present to past tense.

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Stage 2: Detachment
Friday, April 6, 2018

The second Hopkins poem on our journey from despair to delight is also deeply troubling, but it does offer us a glimmer of light along the way. 
A note before you start reading: in the first line, the word ‘fell’ means ‘deadly, ferocious evil’.
            I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day.
          What hours, O what black hoürs we have spent
          This night! what sights you, heart, saw; the ways you went!
          And more must, in yet longer light's delay.
             With witness I speak this! But where I say
          Hours I mean years, mean life. And my lament
          Is cries countless, cried like dead letters sent
          To dearest him that lives alas! away.
          I am gall, I am heartburn.  God's most deep decree
          Bitter would have me taste: my taste was me;
          Bones built in me, flesh filled, blood brimmed the curse.
              Selfyeast of spirit a dull dough sours. I see
          The lost are like this, and their scourge to be
          As I am mine, their sweating selves; but worse.
The main message Hopkins conveys to me in this poem is his dreadful sense of loss; endless separation from the one he loves; sourness and bitterness; visceral, heart-wrenching grief.
And yet. 
He finds an element of detachment.  Despite his obvious distress, Hopkins is able to write perfectly formed classic sonnet lines: ten syllables, with the stress on every second one: ‘I wake and feel thefell of dark not day’.  And then in the final six lines, he decides to vary the rhyming structure from the standard <cde cde> of the previous poem to <ccd ccd> (decree/me/curse; see/be/worse).
There is resonance again with mindfulness meditation - with the point at which we begin to create a space between ourselves and the pain and distress. Instead of being caught outside in the middle of a thunderstorm, we begin to watch the thunderstorm through a window. 

He has some inner company in this time of trouble. Within the first three lines, Hopkins’ switch from the first person ‘I’ to ‘we’ (I plus heart) to ‘you’ (heart). So he is not dealing with all this on his own. His heart is taking some of the burden for him.   

And maybe there is a purpose for him, behind all this suffering. With ‘I see’ at the end of line 14, Hopkins suggests that this experience is enabling him to understand the torment of lost souls. We do not have to share his views on the afterlife to gain value from this idea. If we have experienced grief and loss ourselves, we are so much better placed to offer empathy and compassion to people we know who going through it all now. 

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Stage 1: Despair
Wednesday, April 4, 2018

This is the first step on our journey from despair to delight, taken in the company of the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. We’re going to jump straight in with what, for me, is Hopkins’ most desolate sonnet.

Here it is: take a deep breath, and read:

            No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief,

          More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder ring.

          Comforter, where, where is your comforting?

          Mary, mother of us, where is your relief?

          My cries heave, herds-long; huddle in a main, a chief-

          Woe, wórld-sorrow; on an áge old anvil wince and sing -

          Then lull, then leave off.  Fury has shrieked 'No ling-

          ering! Let me be fell: force I must be brief'.


                    O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall

          Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap

          May who ne'er hung there. Nor does long our small

          Durance deal with that steep or deep.  Here! creep,

          Wretch, under a comfort serves in a whirlwind: all

          Life death does end and each day dies with sleep.


Yes, it’s a tough one, isn’t it?  It’s probably the most troubled and troubling poem I have ever read.  Grief upon grief. Fury after fury. An endless falling into nothingness. Nobody there to offer any comfort or relief. The only possibilities of escape are sleep or death. 

So how could this dread-full poem ever be helpful to someone in the depths of despair?

Well, I think it offer us comfort in three ways.

First, it makes a connection for us. I first read this poem when I was 18, soon after a big relationship break-up and living in a place and with people I didn’t know.  I felt totally alone, and utterly miserable. And I realised: this guy understands what I’m going through, he’s been there himself, he’s talking my language.  So there was a link for me with Hopkins, a sense of shared experience. And I didn’t feel quite so alone.   

Other people I know have felt the same.  ‘It’s like finding a friend,’ someone told me recently;’ I felt like he was sitting next to me, reading to me. It brings a closeness.’  

Second, reading a poem like this can help us accept that it’s OK, it’s legitimate to feel so distressed - something we may often doubt or feel guilty about.  ‘It’s allowed, you’re entitled to feel that depth.’

And third, there is something powerful and impressive about Hopkins’ absolute, raw honesty here - his ability to give deep expression to the reality of his experiences, however terrifying that reality may be.  There is no pretence, no denial, no hiding.    

You may know that mindfulness meditation is helpful for people who have recurring experiences of depression.  And this is precisely where mindfulness begins – resting in the present moment, however difficult that moment happens to be.  Staying with the reality of our situation. Without judgment or evaluation. Without avoiding the problems we face, or trying to solve them. Just being there.  

This is the first stage of the journey. If Hopkins has the courage to face his misery head on, then so can we.

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From Despair to Delight: a journey of six sonnets
Monday, April 2, 2018

I’ve been reading a lot of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poetry recently.  And I've realised  that his sonnets can offer relief and hope for people going through a period of deep distress. 

I’m going to show you what I mean in this series of posts.
Hopkins was one of the most original poets writing in English during the 19th century.  Throughout his life he experienced a range of intense emotions, from utter misery to great joy. And he has an astonishing ability to express his emotions in his poetry.
I’ve chosen six of Hopkins’ sonnets which, I suggest, can take us on a healing journey:  from despair, through detachment and determination, to comfort of self and comfort of others, and finally to delight.  The first four are taken from his so-called ‘Terrible Sonnets’, written in Dublin in 1885 during a period of profound sadness.  The fifth was written in Liverpool in 1880, while he was working as a local priest. The final one, his own personal favourite, was composed in north Wales in 1877.
I’ll present each poem in turn, and then make some comments on how they might help us. 
Four things before we start on the journey.

The first three of these sonnets are very bleak indeed, so do take care of yourself while reading them.  If they strike a deep chord, then make sure you have someone you can talk them over with.

Religion is very important to Hopkins, and permeates all his literary imagery. He became a Jesuit priest, having converted to Catholicism (a very radical move at the time) while a student at Oxford. But it is not at all necessary for us to share his beliefs to get immense value from his poetry.

Sonnet structure: Hopkins adopts the standard 14 lines for each sonnet, like Petrarch and Shakespeare before him. Like Petrarch (but unlike Shakespeare) he usually divides them into two parts: the first eight lines set out the main theme, and the last six lines offering a response.  Unlike both Petrarch and Shakespeare, Hopkins often moves away from the standard format of ten syllables a line, with stress on each second syllable; he enjoys experimenting with the length and rhythm of each line.    

Reading the poems: I recommend you read through each one a few times, to get the general style and rhythm in your mind.  Then, for maximum effect, read it out loud.  This way you really begin to hear how his words sound and interact with each other.

 OK, with all this in mind, we can begin.  I will introduce the first sonnet for this journey – ‘No worst there is none’ – in my next post, in a couple of days’ time.


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In praise of our electric blanket
Saturday, April 1, 2017

I’ve been worrying quite a bit recently – partly about family problems and work pressures, which I can do something about; and partly about the corrosive effects of Brexit and Trump, which I can’t do anything much about.  And then I’ve found myself worrying about worrying, which is more worrying still - and definitely not to be recommended.


So after discussing all this with my daughter Anna, I decided it’s time to look up my old wellbeing recipes, dust them off and see if they need any updating.

For those of you who don’t know, a wellbeing recipe is a list – a set of ingredients – of things which give you pleasure and help you feel better about yourself.  It’s not a fixed list. Wellbeing recipes vary from one person to the next, and for each person they can change over time.

My old recipe included some ingredients, like walking in the mountains and diving through waves in the ocean, which are great but not immediately practical for me at the moment. So I’ve worked out a new recipe, composed of ingredients I can use easily and often.

Here are some of the main ingredients:

·        A few minutes of mindfulness meditation every morning, using the Headspace app on my i-phone.  I’m following a set about anxiety at the moment, which is helping me to explore my sensations of stress without feeling I’m being swallowed up by them – imagining, instead of being caught outside in in a storm, that I’m safe inside a house watching the storm through a window.

·        The parkrun at Croxteth Hall on a Saturday morning gives me a great sense of wellbeing, especially now that I’ve managed to stop stressing about how fast I’m going and can enjoy the run for its own sake. There’s one section of the course, when sunlight glistens through woodland onto some ponds, which is magical. And running with my daughters is a huge bonus. 

  • My afternoon siesta, which I’ve built into my routine since my cycling accident, is a must-do these days. It stops me from wearing myself out, restores my energy, my memory and my creativity. Highly recommended!    

·        Watching detective programmes on TV with Sue has been in my wellbeing recipe for ages, and it still helps me unwind of an evening. Elementary and Inspector Lynley are our current favourites.

·        At the end of the day, I’ve started reminding myself of three things I’ve been grateful for - and one thing I’ve done well - during that day. They can be small or big things, it really doesn’t matter. This simple exercise, focusing on what’s gone well for me, does a great job of settling my mind down.

·        And finally, sliding under the duvet and into bed, with our double electric blanket turned on to full heat.  A wonderful, warm, comforting cocoon to snuggle into. Blissful, utterly blissful. Thank you, and good night.




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Love is not an apple pie
Friday, September 16, 2016


When I was a boy I used to worry that there wasn't enough love to go round.  I thought love was like an apple pie – good stuff, but there was only so much of it and then it was gone.


When I was born I sort of assumed (as much as babies can assume things) that I had all my parents’ love. Then my younger brother was born and I had to share their love with him. Only half a pie now.  And worse was to come. The next year another brother was born and my share of the pie went down to a third. Oh dear, what a disaster…..  


No wonder we used to fight so much. The arguments we had on Sundays over who had the most fizzy drink with our roast dinner were nobody’s business!


Luckily for me, I thought, no more brothers or sisters arrived to take even more pie away from me. A third of a pie was better than nothing.


But of course, I realise now that this is all nonsense. 


Love isn’t like that at all.  It’s not finite, it’s infinite. In fact, weirdly, the more love you have the more there is around to share.   


Another way of putting this – for those who like maths or game theory - is that love is not a zero sum.  My gain is not your loss.  My gain is also your gain.   Or, if you like chemistry, we can state that love (like gas) expands to fill the space available.


And we can build up our capacity for love through meditation, and practicing random acts of kindness.


Why am I thinking about this now? 


Well, it’s because I’ve just had a delightful cuddle this morning with Heath, my newest grandchild.


And a couple of weeks ago I was sitting in a (fortunately large) tent in the Peak District in the pouring rain with thirteen family members of various ages.  It was busy, noisy, chaotic, exhausting - and yet totally wonderful to be part of all those loving interconnections.


I’ve got so many grandchildren now it’s easy to lose count, but the brilliant thing for me is that it simple doesn’t matter. They are all equally loveable, and there is no sense at all in my old worry that I somehow have to cut that love into bits and share it around. 


Unlike the apple pie, there is plenty of love and always more to go round!

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