Playing peekaboo with a squirrel

What a first month to 2017. Particularly the last ten or eleven days. The news has brought one shock of disappointment after another, quickly evaporating any hope that Trump’s presidency might not be as bad as it looked. As a UK citizen, seeing the way May has handled herself has made me sick to my stomach. We appear spineless, naïve, collaborating – Chamberlain and Hitler all over again, if you want to take a very pessimistic view. The sneaking tendrils of the policies of both leaders are weaving themselves into my life and the life of those around me, in ways that make me frightened for my future. I am lucky that I am 28 before my government has made a noticeable negative impact on my life – unless you count the university tuition fees which tripled in time for me turning 18. But seeing what these fees have done since, I don’t feel I have much room to complain about the £25,000 odd debt I still have round my neck. These policies making people feel unwelcome outside their own country, pushing the poor deeper into poverty, and spreading hate and stupidity are affecting everybody now, even if we can’t see it straight away.

The news this month has been overwhelming in new ways, a bit like having your head held in a toilet by the school bully while they flush it over and over again. I started the year feeling good on some new anti-anxiety drugs – indeed I’m now wondering how anyone is getting through at the moment without them (joke). But the last ten days or so, I’ve started getting dragged down if I spend more than a few minutes a day on facebook, where I am bombarded with people’s statuses detailing the latest horror, or NYT article after article explaining why we’re going to hell in a handcart. Every now and then, we all need a break. But the worst thing is that when the news is this bad, it has some kind of centrifugal force that keeps us spinning round and round it, trying to pull away but kept in place by this weird effect of negative gravity. This week, I am trying to take a stand, and return to a few habits I had in the first weeks of the year which were keeping me feel centred and grounded. For me, it’s a combination of looking at the very big – and the very small.

The very small first. I spend a lot of my working week sitting down, so at lunchtime, I try to go for a half hour walk. Next to the office complex where I work, there’s a mosque. Sometimes in the summer, presumably when there are too many people to fit inside, men pray on the pavement outside. Other times I’ll come out for my walk at the end of a service, and there will be so many people filling the road that the occasional car struggles to get through. I watch the people at the mosque, with innocent human curiosity about a religion I don’t know enough about. I hope they take my glances as curiosity, and nothing more sinister. When I see them I wonder how much attention they get, how much courage it takes to walk outside wearing what they wear, marking themselves as “different”. On one of the lampposts by the mosque, there is a battered, rain-drenched flyer about inclusion, and welcoming refugees. I wonder if it was put there by someone at the mosque, or whether it was someone else trying to offer them some support and solidarity, to let them know that not everyone in England feels like they should “go home”.

After five minutes of entirely uninteresting pavements, my walk takes me to the canal, which is lined with houseboats. Next to the canal is a strip of greenery and trees, a wildlife garden set up around 15 years ago that’s gone slightly to seed. The small ponds are stagnant and covered in algae, some of the fences are in need of repair and there’s a general unkempt feel to many parts of it. A wooden walkway squishes slightly underfoot, as if (and I think it’s probably the case) the wood has rotted underneath. In one area, I often find three grey squirrels. Grey squirrels get a bad rap in this country: introduced by somebody sometime, they turned out to be rather more aggressive than the native red squirrels, which lost more and more territory to the grey squirrels, and now red squirrels are only rarely to be seen- mostly in Scotland, in pine forests. The grey squirrels also get a lot of grief for their habits of digging up plant bulbs, or stealing food in bird feeders. My dad will run out into the garden at odd intervals shrieking a battle cry or brandishing a cane, trying to get “the little bastards” away from the feed, and prompting my mum to say: “your father’s taken leave of his senses”.

Poor grey squirrels. It’s not their fault they’re greedy and extremely good at procreating. I have made friends with one of the squirrels in the wildlife garden, whom I have christened Chubs, for no real reason other than it’s a comforting sort of word, and he’s a comforting sort of squirrel. He stops and stares at me often when I walk past, interrupting his game of chasing the other squirrels round and round trees, either in an attempt at flirtation or to get them away from some buried treasure, I’m not sure which. One day, he was staring at me and I was staring at him as he held onto a tree trunk upside down. After a moment, he disappeared around the other side of the trunk. I waited, and a second later, he peeked his head round one side. I made a sudden, ha! I see you! action to that side, as you would with a small child. He disappeared. Then appeared on the other side of the trunk. I did the same thing. He disappeared… and reappeared again on the other side! I had to laugh at the sheer ludicrousness of what I was doing: playing peekaboo with a squirrel. He peeked round each side five or six times before he remembered the buried treasure, or the mating, whichever it was, and wandered off.

It’s the little things, the moments and pictures that make you feel grateful, even for only a little time. The benefits of interacting with nature are well-documented, and it’s nice to know it’s possible even in the middle of a large city. I’ve also watched coots diving in the canal, fascinated by their disappearing, reappearing act, and the smoothness of each of their dives. I’ve watched robins singing in trees – something that strikes me as actually quite rare, to be watching a bird sing. I watch birds, and I hear them sing, but not often do I see the bird that’s singing.

So if these small acts of nature watching on a lunchtime walk help make me feel centred in a whirlwind world, I’ve started turning to non-fiction to ground myself. Oddly, because I wasn’t keen on the subject at school, I am taking refuge in science. Specifically, physics. I read Carlo Rovelli’s Seven Brief Lessons on Physics at the start of the year, then followed it up with his examination of similar themes in Reality is Not What it Seems, which has a greater emphasis on quantum gravity. How much do I understand? 40-70%, depending on what he’s talking about, I think. I also lose the specifics very quickly, which is frustrating. But I enjoy reading about people discovering things we take for granted, or things that are too weird for us to have comprehended yet. The stories of failure and trying again are quite inspirational, especially in today’s culture of failure being something so monstrous nobody is allowed to fail – everyone gets a medal for participation – or nobody tries because they failure is too difficult to entertain. Science is a beautiful subject in that it is, in some ways, so ready to take criticism. If someone disproves something, then okay, we move on. Einstein proved Newton wrong on some things. Einstein was wrong about some aspects of quantum theory. We are all wrong, and it doesn’t make us bad or useless people. I am finding comfort in that.

I am also enjoying using my brain in different ways, and I’m intrigued to learn how relaxing it can be. Until now I thought to really RELAX I needed to be watching Friends, or reading a Mhairi MacFarlane novel (excellent intelligent “chick lit” which is actually genuinely funny, even if the plot is more or less identical in each book). But I’m finding I can relax with my brain engaged. I am rediscovering the joy of learning, which I think I lost a little after my Masters degree. Reading about quantum mechanics and the theory of relativity and the history of autism (Neurotribes, EXCELLENT book – a pamphlet summarising it should be required reading for everyone) has shown me that I can learn about things I thought I would never understand, and feel better for it. I’ve also read a couple of Jon Ronson books, on public shaming and psychopaths, which are certainly lighter and easier to read, but which I wouldn’t have considered standard ‘relaxation’ fare either. As I found during my degree, placing myself in a wider history or broader story is comforting. Even though looking back on mistakes and seeing them reflected in today’s world is sometimes discouraging, you can take heart from the changes that did eventually come. Paying attention to new facts and history makes it obvious how ignorant many people still are about things they really shouldn’t be ignorant about, but seeing how change eventually arrived in many areas is also heartening. I’m talking here about advances in science in many arenas, physics, but also psychology, as documented in Neurotribes and Ronson’s The Psychopath Test. Neurotribes really deserves its own post as its messages are so important, its approach to people who are “different” and how we respond to and interact with those people. I’d like to send a copy of that and The Psychopath Test to Trump (I’m fairly certain he’d come out as a psychopath) but I don’t suppose he’d be interested in learning anything new outside his own self-centred, self-interested, stupid view of life. I am grateful that I do not think like him. What a prison it must be.