… to mark publication of What I Wish People Knew About Dementia
Today is publication day! I hope you will join me in congratulating Wendy Mitchell on the official release of her second book, What I Wish People Knew About Dementia.
I am so, so proud of this book and how well it’s been doing. And so proud of Wendy, always.
Anyway, as a publication day treat, I wanted to give you an exclusive extract of one of my favourite sections: On The Seasons.
What can nature teach us about dealing with change? In times of struggle there are always lessons to be found in the world around us – even if that is only in our very own back garden. There is nothing that nature does not know about life and death, chaos and order, the light and the dark. I see it every morning and afternoon on the trundles I take around my village. I see that the waxing and waning of the seasons are necessary, that they stand as a reminder that there is nothing more natural than change, that it is not something to fear or avoid, to ask ‘why me’ when Mother Nature is so very undiscriminating to animals, plants and trees. Instead it is something to face head-on, to respect, to embrace. Sometimes, with this disease in tow, there are only the seasons that I have for company each day, reminding me that the small and incremental battles I win against dementia matter as much as a tiny acorn that falls from the tree and grows into an oak.
When I was diagnosed, it was July, but it may as well have been winter. I could only see the metaphorical leaves of my own tree stripped bare, that all awaited me was black nights and cold, still, monochrome days. I know some people stay there, in the darkness of their winter, resigned not to see the signs of spring after a diagnosis of a progressive illness. For animals, winter is a time for rest and recuperation, for hibernation, to conserve energy and recharge – perhaps that’s what those same devastated people are doing as they retreat into themselves – I know I did for a while. But even now, in a world so frantic and busy, there are times within any day that remind me to rest and slow down and make life less complicated to give my brain a chance to recover.
When snow blankets the ground, there is beauty to be found in the simplicity of the world; for those of us living with dementia, an uncomplicated black-and-white landscape is easier to navigate, much the same as it is for newborn babies. Trees stripped bare of leaves do not need to be seen as ugly if you take time to admire the beauty of their branches. Winter is a chance for me to spot the snowy owl swoop down at dusk from the paddock opposite my living-room window without the usual leaves that camouflage him. Just like the owl, the time limit imposed on those with a progressive illness means the necessity to find beauty in the most harsh of seasons, the most empty of places, in the now. Winter is a time to close the door, to snuggle in the warm, to rest and rejuvenate, something we all need to remember to do once in a while. Winter is a chance to turn the sound down on the world, just as the snow seems to do as it falls, to get back to the very basics.
In spring, I wait for new lambs to fill the fields that surround my village, or a nest of ducklings to take their few tentative paddles in the village pond. There is, of course, risk that comes with change – for those ducklings, it might be the heron watching from the rocks; for me, it might be a slippery pavement that my shoes fail to grip, a branch that springs back from the arms of a tree too soon and leaves me with a black eye. I could avoid these dangers altogether – I could stay inside with only this disease for company while I wait for sunnier days, but then I would be missing out on so much: the bluebells and crocuses, the daffodils that swarm the bank opposite my home. Spring is a reminder that there is always tomorrow, or next week, or next year. That a foggy day might be followed by a clearer one, that hope still flourishes after life changes, even if it looks a little different to the way it did before.
In spring, I fill boxes with seeds and plant them on my windowsills for the days when going outside might be impossible, when the fog comes down and blurs the world and the only respite from dementia is to curl up in my duvet and just watch the treetops sway outside my bedroom window. But even on those days there is hope in my seed tray, tiny green shoots sprouting, a reminder that nature will continue its course, that it will be waiting when I am ready to re-emerge. I think of these same seeds when I give my talks or write my books, hoping that the ideas I plant in people’s minds will germinate, and that they will pollinate when people share them with others.
Nature is a part of our everyday language. People often use weather to describe their moods: dark clouds, crying rain, feeling sunny. Days spent in the sun are preferable to those spent under a cloud. But summer is a reminder that even when facing the sunlight, we tend to create a shadow. Nature knows you cannot have good days without the bad, that life – and living – is a perfect mixture of both. Plants need light and shade and water too. Just like humans. In the summer when I walk beside fields burned by the heat of the sun, I know we all need rainy days to replenish, to recharge and rejuventate. Control over when they come and how frequent – as nature reminds us every day – is simply an illusion.
For me, summer it is a state of being and not doing, especially on the days when the disease wins. You must respect nature. I remind myself of days sitting on Blackpool beach, toes stretched out in the sun, and in the distance, the lifeboat crew responding to a call for help. The crew know that the sea’s waves are too strong for most; they’ve learned to respect them through bitter experience; they work with the tide and not against it. It’s the same for us when dealing with dementia. I choose to ride the wave because if I tried to fight it, I would only drown.
People fear the autumn, for what might follow, and yet it is filled with an abundance of colour and fruit. Autumn is about endings, yes. It is saying goodbye to a joyful summer, of late nights on the lawn, of the sun taking longer to sink behind our heads. Autumn is, by nature, a slow turning-out of the lights. Could there be a better seasonal representation of a disease like dementia? Yet to be fixed on what to come is, as I have said so many times before, a waste of all that nature offers us now – why focus on the winter when there is still an Indian summer to enjoy?
The burnt oranges and yellows of the last fading leaves on the trees; the miracle of plant life readying itself to survive a winter; animals and their instincts buried deep inside to plan for harsher times ahead. There is so much humans can learn from autumn about change and how to prepare for it, and when the leaves start falling from the trees, and I catch again that first glimpse of my snowy owl, I remember all that winter has to offer.
©️Wendy Mitchell and Anna Wharton 2022
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