COVID-19: Keep calm & carry on

At a time like this, I need some positives to keep things in perspective. As the old WW2 poster says “Keep calm and carry on.” I have decided to focus on my here and now. Here are my seven suggestions to remain calm and centred:

  1. Hold your gaze on the things that matter most. If you are a person of faith, then your faith will sustain you in times like these; I know that mine is invaluable. By recentering our lives, we allow the essential things we hold dear to have the best seat in our house.
  2. Watch enough news to be well informed but don’t keep watching every media update. While news outlets provide a valuable service to each of us, remember that the media thrive on bad news, problems, and catastrophe.
  3. Embrace technology. I have found that to stay in face-to-face contact with family and friends is essential. And, I suspect that if you are part of a community group you might well have discovered the joys of group video check-ins. Where I can, all phone calls are now video calls. Yesterday, I wished my mum a happy 91st birthday via a video call. I think she understood, though I’m not entirely sure.
  4. Rejoice in the new community that is springing up. I have noticed the kind attitudes those in my local video community. I’m not practising social distancing. I am embracing all the social support I can lay my hands on by enjoying the company of others on Zoom, Messenger, and What’s App and the like. What I am practising is physical distancing, and that is quite different from social distancing.
  5. My wife, Maggie and I sat down on Tuesday 24 March 2020 and devised a new routine. The abrupt change in our pattern of life hit us starkly as our Government instructions reordered our normal.  Suddenly there are no pegs in our lawn, and all we have left is the emptiness of where the familiar used to be. I need structure to function, and now we are finding new ways of doing things.
  6. We are all learning a new language. Our vocabulary is adjusting to words and phrases such as; Social distancing, lock-down, self-quarantine, self-isolation, super-spreader, contact tracing, community spread, herd immunity, and now physical distancing.
  7. And, finally, where will I be while you are reading my musings? Well, I will be in the greenhouse tending my seeds and plants. I all ready have the best lawn ever! In the garden, I talk to my plants; I even talk to myself to ensure that my self-talk is in good shape. If I am not in the garden, then I will be speaking with family and friends, or even a little writing. And, if I am not doing those things, then, I will be walking or lifting a few weights. Whatever your interests, now is a good time to invest in them.

If you are a writer, like me, I consider it an exciting privilege to write in my Commentarium my everyday observations. Each month I will typically write 12,000 words, and in the present emergency, I feel as if I am writing the first draft of history as seen through my eyes.

These are my musings in these unprecedented days. I would love to hear your thoughts and observations. Stay safe and take hold of our new reality. Now, whatever happened to Brexit?

My Dad: 1926-2020 – A tribute

Dad and mum, with grand daughter Hannah and three great grand children, 2016.

I recently lost my Dad, Derreck Parkes. At 93, he was worn out and faded away peacefully on 28 January this year. Since it was clear his life was drawing to a close towards the end of last year, I prepared for his loss, at least to some extent. Losing my Dad has caused me to reflect on his qualities as a human being, and his impact on my sister and me as a father.

What’s important here is not the year he was born, 1926, or that he died in January this year; these are mere markers of a life well-lived. No, what matters is what his life contained in that little dash between the two dates. If you are a bit nerdy, like me, you might be interested to know that he lived for 34,068 days.

As a devotee of the “Full English” breakfast, he got through a lot of bacon, quite a few sausages and eggs, and a few punnets of mushrooms, and a pallet or two of butter beans; sadly I can’t give you an exact number since there are no records, I would have liked to, but I’m sure you understand.

After breakfast, there was a life to live. That life started in Nottingham on the 20th October 1926. It was a cold, cloudy and dank day; October was unusually cold that year. The General Strike of 1926 had left the Nottinghamshire miners with a bitter taste in their mouths. Dad often spoke about the General Strike, but his earliest memory is of a trip to London with his aunt Mable to see his Uncle Billy. Dad thought this was 1930.

Later, during the war, Dad was in a reserved occupation. From 1941, he served his apprenticeship at Rolls-Royce, Derby in the Merlin experimental department as part of a team that was trying to squeeze more power out of the Rolls-Royce Merlin engine. Dad was proud of the fact that they achieved a power increase from 1,000 horsepower in 1941 to 2,200 horsepower towards the end of 1944. Later, in 1961 he became an author with Rolls-Royce writing the overhaul and repair manuals for jet engine servicing. He finished his career in 1989 writing for the RB211 the first commercially produced three spool by-pass jet engine. I remember feeling very proud of my Dad’s contribution to the RB211 engine on a demonstration fly-by of the Lockheed TriStar around Derby in 1972.

The greatest crime committed against my Dad, Derreck, was that he remains to this day the unacknowledged author of the Rolls-Royce publication The Jet Engine. In keeping with his character, he bore no bitterness.

He met my Mum, Dorothy, in Paris in 1948, an adventurous excursion at that time. She admired his suede shoes; he loved her hair. Mum said “ I’ll have him”, my Dad, ever the one with a handy chat up line  said, “Have you got a day off school?” They quickly discovered that they only lived about 3 miles from each other. One thing led to another, and they married in October 1952.

On the day that Dad went to buy the rings, with Mum, he diverted into an engineering workshop in Nottingham and bought piston rings for his dismantled motorbike. My Mum never quite forgave him, for putting piston rings on the same level as an engagement ring. But to Dad, they were both just as functional and to be useful both need to be kept well oiled. Despite early ring trouble, their marriage was to last 67 years. I was going to tell you that their marriage lasted 25,573 days, but I decided not to include it because I thought you wouldn’t be interested.

As a Dad, he took me to my first Forest match on 13 February 1965. At the City Ground, we went in the poplar stand and paid half a crown to watch Forest play Stoke. Sir Stanley Matthews was at the end of his career, aged 52, he turned a reasonable performance. Forest ran out 3-1 winners that day, but more importantly, I became bitten by the life-long disease of following the Tricky Trees. I am still thus afflicted, remaining ever hopeful of better days.

Football was always a regular talking point between us. Indeed, while in the hospital during dad’s final days, he had been unconscious for some days, or was he sleeping? I found it hard to tell, but he suddenly came to and asked me what it was with Forest losing 4-0 to Sheffield Wednesday at the City Ground. How he remembered this fact in a coma, I’ll never know, but the pain of defeat must have been foremost in his mind.

His mark on my life is indelible, and I shall be forever grateful for all the experiences we shared and the values he imparted to me. I shall miss him; no, I already miss him, but I am confident that his faith in Christ has reserved him a place in the realms of heaven.

Quietly, the unseen hand of God was at work, softening his crust and improving his understanding so that he could embrace the love of God. At what point he came to faith, I don’t know, but I can say that his faith was real and secure. As he lay dying in the hospital, I asked him if he felt the presence of God, and although mostly unconscious, he grunted an acknowledgement.

Only a few days before he died, I reassured him that everything was taken care of at home and that all was in place for Mum; I then said to him, “Dad, it is OK to let go of life if you want”. He finally let go at 10:00 am on Tuesday 28 January this year.

In the final analysis, we can say Dad matured and mellowed through life just like a good wine, and that he finished well. For this and so much more I will be eternally grateful, and in writing this tribute, I hope that it will speak to a future generation of the positive influence that a father can have on his family.

As I finish, I would like to propose that his epitaph should read:

“Derreck Parkes, a man of integrity who loved people and invested in them”.

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Journalling: Write for your life

When I was at a crisis point not many years ago, a wise Anglican minister friend of mine, suggested that I keep a journal. He said that it might help me to express myself in new ways, and thus help me to resolve some of my mental anguish. I ignored his advice. That is until yet another episode of soul-numbing depression struck. Then the idea of journaling popped right back into my mind.

I took hold of a notebook and started to scribble. I enjoyed writing about what I did and how I felt, but after a couple of months, the journaling began to get displaced by my recovery. My thoughts had turned to work, and it was not long before work had taken over again. And then the journaling stopped. I did not have the energy or steely commitment that I needed at that time to continue writing.

By 2016, I realised that I needed to stop working permanently and so resigned my role as a Baptist minister. I experienced no grief, found that I could let go of the emotional investment that I had made in the project over 30 years. In fact, it was a huge relief to hand the work over to a younger and competent successor. The cost of the work was too high for me, and I was defeated, overwhelmed, and had developed pneumonia. This time I knew deep down, my time was up; I had nothing left to give.

At first, I was bereft of purpose and direction. The vast hole that my role as a church minister had hollowed out of me left me in the desert. In this featureless desert, there was no map, no landmarks and no one else to guide me through the most testing time of my life.

After only a few weeks, I noticed that I was genuinely grateful for the privilege of not having to work. That was my first joy – and what a joy! No work. But, of course, it unmasked another issue; what was I to do with the blessing of not having to work?

Some six months after resigning, in December 2016, I started to write again. I had already realised that I wanted to explore other parts of me that had become subsumed by work. The more I wrote, the more I found that I had a renewed commitment to writing. Why not? After all, my father was an author for Rolls-Royce Aero, and he always encouraged me to write. Maybe it was in my genes, or was it his deposit in my life? Now was the time to find out.

At first, I did not know what to write. So, I started with what I did know; that is, what I did, and how I felt. While writing in this way sweeps away the surface issues, I soon began to find I tapped into something deeper within me.

As I wrote, I uncovered new desires that had been in the shadow of my professional busyness. These included regaining dominion over my mental and physical well-being. I was unfit, overweight, diabetic, and had high blood pressure. In my head, I was slim, fit and still batting at cricket for the county youth team. My perceived youthfulness is the nature of self-deception!

I knew my mental state was fragile, and I received some helpful mindfulness coaching from the community mental health team. Through 2017, my condition improved. Writing my journal, now renamed my Commentarium, led me to start some new activities.

Whether these are permanent fixtures in my life, I don’t know, but here are five guides that I have found helpful in my quest for healing and wholeness.

1 Use Your Natural Talents

My talent for research awakened again, and I found that I opened a new chapter in researching my family history. I joined my local family history group and a similar group from the village of my ancestors, Lowdham, Nottinghamshire.

2 Find Replenishing Projects

I threw myself into project management in rebuilding our home. A vast amount of work needed doing when we moved in, and I enjoyed negotiating the contracts and overseeing the work. The work is mostly complete, except that there are always walls to knock down and rebuild.

3 Rebuild Your Mental Health

My mental support mention earlier gave me the skills I needed to keep me mentally secure and increased my self-awareness. One of my main difficulties was that I paid insufficient attention to “self-soothing” during my working years. I continue to apply those skills to this day.

4 Regain Your Physical Fitness

If one is overweight, diabetic, with high blood pressure, then one is unfit. I was unfit. There are many ways to change the situation; many diets and exercise regimes help people like me. The critical thing is to find the right activities for you; walk, cycle, run, get a dog. But get moving. I walk three days a week. Use weights and do core strength exercises two days a week. I have two days a week rest. While I follow a particular diet, Each day I eat in an eight-hour window. My eating motto: Never before eleven; never after seven. It works for me.

5 Enjoy What You Have Now

Over the years, I have wasted a great deal of energy hankering after things I do not have. Energy expended in this way is draining, or at least I found it so. Accepting where I am right now, with what I have in my hand at the moment leads to a contented life. Sometimes we need to be grateful for what we have now, rather than to crave for  what we do not have.

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Creative imagination

Sometimes I encounter a situation that I do not know how to resolve. At the beginning of 2020, like every year for the last twenty years, I write my goals for the next twelve months. Since retirement, this discipline is even more important to me because I have entered a new chapter of life.

Each new year brings with it a challenge to review my financial situation, and I usually prune back some of my discretionary spending. I have already cut back a newspaper and a magazine subscription, and several small fry items from my budget.

One of my larger financial threats in 2020, is that I have a drop in income because of the expiry of an income protection insurance policy one year ahead of becoming eligible for my State Pension. How am I to bridge the income gap?

To help solve this problem and others, I have found using visualisation an essential ingredient in finding a solution. I begin by sitting quietly and listening to what my inner life is saying to me. Of course, as a Christ-follower, I believe that the Holy Spirit plays an important part in the revelation of what I see and hear. Although I do not want my blog to be a vehicle for an explicit expression of my faith, my faith is an indispensable part of who I am.

By sitting quietly, in a relaxed position and eyes closed, I can scan my life and permit the non-judgemental comment of my inner self to rise to the surface. When a self-comment or a new image emerges, I try to capture the dancing butterfly. Sometimes I will write down what I see or hear, other times, the strength of the impression is sufficiently robust for me to hold that thought.

The next phase of using my imagination is to ask ‘Is this feasible?’, ‘Is it sustainable?’ and ‘Is it wise?’ these foundational questions help me sort through the ideas to check if they have a valid connection with my real world.

As I have sought to develop my creative imagination, I have learned that I am bigger on the inside than I am on the outside. My inner world is my private Tardis, unappealing from the outside, vast and exciting on the inside; with places to go.

Recently, when listening to Anton Lesser reading Stephen Hawking’s book ‘Brief Answers to Big Questions’, I drew inspiration to consider the importance of creative imagination. In general, the book is a wonderful exposition of his ideas and a demonstration of Hawking’s creative imagination.

Developing our creative imagination aids us to free ourselves from the constraints of set thinking and to imagine a different future. Our static thinking so often limits our horizons and sets us on a course to narrow and predictable outcomes from which we cannot discover new possibilities.

When Einstein presented his theories during the first part of the 20th century, his mind lived his theories first, in his creative imagination. Take, for example, one of his first thought experiments. Einstein imagined what it would be like if he sat on the leading edge of a beam of light. In visualising the experience, he was able to see some of the strange properties of light, speed and time. This experiment caused him to think deeply about the nature of our world.

Einstein first visualised in his mind an experience that was not possible to see from within his knowledge of life so far. By doing so, his thought experiments took him outside of his limitations and into new possibilities. Then he worked on the mathematics to prove his theories or modify them, using the thought experiments to give a dramatised window on his spark of insight.

In thought experiments, we can first test whether what we see is capable of being a window on the here and now. Einstein’s thought experiments are not a device to dumb down explanations to less gifted mortals; rather, they are an essential central ingredient of his discoveries.

So, by developing our creative imagination, we can free ourselves from aspects of our life when we are stuck, bored or need to move forward. They may be used to overcome a problem or puzzle, as Schrodinger famously did with his cat, or to visit another world to see new possibilities, as Einstein and Hawking did.

We don’t have to be a famous scientist to use thought experiments. Our creative imagination will open new doors, and those new doors will lead us into new rooms. In new rooms, we will see previously unimagined possibilities, or solutions to our puzzles and unlock a way forward to a different outlook. Once we see fresh possibilities, we will also see our world differently, and the insights we gain will propel us to explore situations that we have not previously seen.

By using our creative imagination, we can live in a different reality in our minds, and this provides us with a means of experiencing something new for ourselves or others. Seeing a new future or new opportunities through a creative imagination energises us into becoming bigger people. And, becoming a bigger person starts on the inside.

7 Questions to help develop our creative imagination

  1. Do I think ahead?
  2. Can I visualise my life beyond its present reality?
  3. Do I use visualisation to shape my goals?
  4. Do I look for new and creative ways to solve problems?
  5. Am I able to appreciate the views of others?
  6. Can I still myself and listen to what my inner voice is saying?
  7. Can I catch the butterflies of thought that flutter across my mind?

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